“Here gloom hath enchantment in beauty’s array,
And whispering voices are calling away —
Their wooings are soft as the vision more vain —
I would live in their empire, or die in their chain.”
The Valley Cemetery, Mary Baker Eddy
*** *** ***
Both Private Richard Machine and Master Sergeant Maxwell Locos glared at the offensive stack of playing cards sitting between them on the thin ply board table. Neither man made a move, though both contemplated various ways of destroying the double deck. They well knew the cards weren’t at fault—alcohol and those two women were to blame—even so, neither could look at the deck without grinding their teeth and recalling that night two weeks back. As it stood, that night was far less of a problem than the next morning when they’d woken up buckass naked, covered in lipstick messages, and holding each other’s johnsons. Without discussion, they’d agreed to never speak of the incident.
“We don’t play cards,” Machine said through clenched teeth.
Locos nodded in agreement while focusing his energy on making the cards spontaneously combust. When they did not erupt in flames, he sighed, thinking, one day that’ll work.
The lanky old traveler picked up his cards, slid them back into a suede pouch, and shook his head sorrowfully, “everyone plays cards until they meet The Girls.” Immediately, Machine and Locos straightened up in their chairs, briefly locking eyes on each other. “Yep, that’s what I thought. It’s okay, boys. I’d say your secret is safe, but the longer you’re down here the more people you’ll meet. And, everyone in the UG knows about The Girls’ predilection for toying with newbies.” After he returned the pouch to his knapsack, he walked over to the kitchenette and pulled a skillet out of the overhead cabinet. “If you won’t play cards, will you at least have supper with me?” The soldiers once again exchanged a look, Machine shrugged his assent and Locos nodded. With his back to them, the traveler did not see, but added, “I don’t mind if you don’t. I’d just as soon cook for me as for three.”
“We’ll be happy to sit with you, sir,” Locos said.
“Much obliged,” the old man said. “It’s been a couple weeks since I had company. Truth of the matter is, I get tired of hearing my own voice.”
“How long you been down here?” Machine asked.
“Long as I can remember,” he answered.
“So, you know most the people that come through?” Locos asked.
“Most…ha. No, son,” the old man shook his head causing his 10-inch long, white pony tail to wag across his back. As he chopped up an onion, he said, “I know everybody ‘cept the newbies. And, now we’ve met, I know you too.” He turned to face the middle of the bunker, half an onion in one hand and a butcher knife in the other, “say. That’s rude of me. They call me Bobbert. What do they call you boys?”
“I’m Dick,” Machine said, “and that’s Max.” Locos nodded as Machine asked, “you meet any other newbies, lately?”
“Not in months,” Bobbert replied, turning back to the business of chopping.
“Oh,” Machine sighed.
“Don’t sound so disappointed,” Bobbert began, “used to be newbies every week. But, with everything going on topside…ain’t been so many these days.” He dropped the onion into the skillet and turned toward the boys, “people used to come for adventure,” pointing at them with the butcher knife, he continued, “but, these days, they’re either running or hunting. Probably impolite to ask, but which are you?” Locos’ eyes narrowed in warning to Machine, which was all Bobbert needed, “uh huh, that’s what I thought.” Turning back to the skillet, he said, “it don’t seem like much, but you’ll have better luck finding whoever it is, if you looked less like coppers and more like robbers.”
“We’re not cops,” Machine said defensively.
“No?” Bobbert asked, “military men then.” He sighed, dropped his shoulders and shook his head, his pony tail slowly waved again, “I hope you’re not on govie business.”
Without regarding Locos, Machine kicked back his chair, stood up, and turned to the old traveler. With anger in his voice, he said, “mister, we ain’t here for the gov and we ain’t cops. We’re looking for the sumbitch what cut off my buddy’s head and left him to rot in the desert. I won’t rest ‘til that pothole’s head is on a spit.” Pacing the small bunker, Machine’s fists were balled and his jaw set. He wanted nothing more than to rip the entire underground apart, searching for Kent Wheelock, the piece of shit escapee that murdered Tommy West.
Sitting back in his chair, Locos dropped his head, closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose. Whatever the commander had seen in Machine, Locos couldn’t imagine. And, if this one was hot headed and borderline psycho, he couldn’t help but wonder how nutso the dead one must have been. At the same time, he recalled the surface anger that seethed through his pores after he’d lost two of his guys to an easily preventable engine failure three years earlier when then Lieutenant Commander Eulice O’Malley had ordered them to launch an unreliable drone. No sense in explaining the virtue of patience to someone in Machine’s state of mind. Fresh wounds and anger problems rarely mix well. “Take it easy, Dick,” Locos ordered, “I told you, we’ll find the bastard.” Three years, Locos thought, don’t worry Useless, your day’s coming. Commander’s seen to it. And, I’ll be there, holding the knife. Standing up, Locos crossed the room, grabbed Machine’s arm and said, “we’ll get him.”
Machine ripped his arm away from Locos, growling, “I know.”
Bobbert didn’t know how to respond, so he kept cooking. The suddenly cramped bunker was inundated with the aroma of sautéed onions, garlic, and peppers. When he couldn’t take the silence any longer, he said, “supper’s almost ready.”
“Smells great,” Locos replied as he sat back down.
In front of the full-sized mirror, Praeceptor Archeleus Imler stretched his neck, pulling his shoulders back and sucking his stomach in. He turned left and right, then relaxed, sighing, “why do I have to wear this dress?”
“It’s a toga praetexta. Besides, Colonel Dagon already told you,” Tokus Cassius said from her perch on the baseboard of the bed, “it’s tradition.”
“But, it’s stupid,” Archel insisted as he spun from the mirror, his purple striped toga swirling around his knees. “My legs are cold, Cassie. Can’t I just wear my clothes?”
“Nope,” Cassie laughed, “you’re the king now. You can’t run around in a servant’s rags.”
“If I’m the king then I can wear whatever I want,” Archel huffed.
“I hate to say it, but it doesn’t work that way,” Cassie said.
“What’s the point of being king if I can’t?”
“You’re joking, right?”
He stuck his bottom lip out, kicked his foot, and exclaimed, “this sucks.”
“That it does, little brother,” she giggled.
“Why ya laughin’?” he asked.
“I have a little brother. And, he’s a king,” she smiled at Archel. “I always knew I was regal, but you…you’re like…king.”
“I don’t think you’re funny,” he moaned.
“No, I guess you don’t,” she giggled again. “Hurry up. We’ll be late.”
“So,” he pouted as he crossed the room to the bed and climbed up. “They don’t need me. It’s not like they care what I think.”
Ignoring his protestations, she said, “you have responsibilities.” Sliding off the baseboard, Cassie grabbed his foot and pulled, “you can’t lay down.” Whining, “Archel, come on,” she braced one foot against the bed and tugged with all her might.
The boy king grabbed the opposite side of his mattress and hung on for dear life. Using his other foot, he pushed at Cassie’s steel grip, “lemme go.”
While tussling on the edge of the bed, they missed the thrice knock of the Mercury’s Elite Guard. The ginger ensign filled the doorway, half prepared to charge, and half amused at the sight. For the first time in weeks, the young king was actually smiling, and the ensign instantly regretted doing his duty. He cleared his throat apologetically and said, “my liege, it’s time.”
“Uh, uh,” Archel stuttered as he and Cassie froze in place.
In the language of the birds, Cassie whispered, “we got busted,” she let him go and stumbled back a few steps.
Stifling a grin, Ensign Osbourne muttered, “makes me miss my brothers.”
“You have brothers?” Archel asked. He slid off the bed, pushed down his toga, and grabbed his amiculum from the chair near the door. He glared at Cassie, while asking Osborne, “they ever make you wear dresses?”
“What?” Ensign Osbourne asked, before realizing what Archel was talking about. The Merc bent down, he whispered, “no my liege, that was my sister.” Bending closer, he added, “the girls all dig formal wear.”
“What? Ew!” Archel’s eyes scrunched and he turned his head.
“Don’t look at me,” Cassie said. “I’m not one of them.”
“You say ‘Ew’ now, my liege,” Osborne nodded knowingly. He stood upright, waved a hand toward the door, “shall we?”
“I guess,” Archel said as he passed through the doorway, nodding at the Merc standing just outside his door.
It took them five minutes to navigate from the Kaiser’s chambers to the conference room where the War Cabinet had met daily for the last two weeks. As they approached, Archel grew queasy. The butterflies had become a regular occurrence fluttering in his belly ever since that first day when his Advisor’s had unanimously voted for war.
“Praeceptor Archeleus,” Ensign Osborne announced from the conference doorway.
The Advisors took their seats, quieting down as the young king entered. When he was also seated, Cassie took what had become her standard position behind his right shoulder. She leaned over and whispered, “maybe we’ll get somewhere today.”
He muttered back, “yeah right.”
General Willard Tomlyn said, “I call this War Cabinet to order. Do I have a second?”
Standing up, General Nelson Whistler said, “seconded and so-called.” He tossed a stack of papers onto the middle of the conference table, “the Force assessment is complete.” Taking a moment to meet each Advisor’s gaze, Whistler continued, “we have the capacity to mete out an in-kind assault on one of their border towns. The question that sits before us: which town offers an equivalent loss?”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” General Sherry Cranston slapped the table. “Just because we have the ability to murder their civilians, doesn’t mean that we should do so.” She reached out and tapped the report, “it also says that even if all the regions enact a draft, we don’t have the troops to defend against an invasion. Nor can we support an all out attack. They out number us four to one.” She pulled her hand back, “we have to be smarter. What can we do that proves we will not stand idly by, and yet, doesn’t leave us vulnerable to further attacks?”
“We attack one of their towns,” General Whistler stated. “We’ve been over this, the law calls for a proportional response, and even though that doesn’t necessarily mean we should emulate them, it does require us to act.”
“That’s right,” Jerry deBoca concurred. “They hit us, we hit back harder.”
“And, how do you suppose we do that? We just going to walk over the mountain?” General Tomlyn spat.
“Why make it any more complex?” General Whistler asked.
“Are you forgetting the Montisi?” Louisa Prescott asked. “Don’t get me wrong. We need to retaliate. But, the Montisi stand between us. We’ve had enough problems with them trying to keep trade lines open. Do you really think they’ll let us pass through?”
“We could ask,” Archel said timidly.
“We have a treaty with them. In the event of a defense war, they’re required to support us in battle,” Whistler said.
“Wasn’t there a treaty with the Danians?” deBoca asked.
“Of course, but they’ve never been trustworthy,” Whistler stated. “We’ve spent the last two weeks debating a course of action. The time for decision making is upon us. We can’t let another day go by without some kind of plan in place.”
“Why don’t we tell the Montisi what happened?” Archel asked.
“Don’t pretend like we haven’t been weighing our options,” Cranston spoke over Archel. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we’ve got to be smarter. We’re outnumbered and outgunned.”
Archel sat back in his chair with a huff.
Cassie placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered, “this is the time to watch and learn.”
Peering up at her, he snorted once, and then turned his attention back to his bickering Advisors. He couldn’t help but wonder if all government meetings went like this, how did anything ever get done?