„We are descending” the pilots shrill voice rang out though the earpiece. Martin was startled, pulled back into reality from an exhausting dream. A brunet tall man in his early 30es, he had yet to lose some his youthful charisma.
Lifting up briskly from his metal seat, he began traversing the dark interior of the wooden military transport plane. Moving ever so slightly hunched, griping the walls to keep his balance as the plane shook violently. Having reached one of the few small windows on the far side of the hull and began anxiously to peer out into the darkness. We must be somewhere over the city by now, he thought, staring anxiously into the night sky.
Cloud cover hung heavy around the plane and chances of seeing the remains of the legendary tower had become slim. For brief moments Martin’s probing eyes could catch glimmers of light through the obstructions. If those are scant electric lights, reflections on the city’s ancient canals, or explosions from remaining resistance in and around the city was anybody’s guess.
On the neighboring bench old Alexus had awoken from a comfortable slumber as the pilot’s voice repeatedly ordered the passengers to strap in for landing. Well familiar with the stubborn nature of his young superior, Alexus stretched out his hand to grab Martin’s shoulder.
“If you want to keep you head from flying through the plane, you better sit down and buckle up” he screamed pulling the shoulder towards the empty seat next to him. Martin was startled and turned to his guard. The earpiece blocked out the screams but the seriousness in Alexus faded blue eyes gave no doubt, that his will should be obeyed.
Martin sat down and strapped in, just in time to experience the most intense shaking he had ever felt. As fear gripped him, a string of thoughts ran through his mind in quick succession.
“Why did I think it was a great idea to land at night in a war zone?! The airfield is probably horrendous and we will crash into a fire forsaken tree.”
A loud thud rang through the planes body, throwing some of its cargo loose throughout the interior. Alexus bend down his upper body to shift his head in a protected position, performing the same action to Martin’s head with his right arm. The planes tires had made contact with the ground and after three more hops, they began transitioning into a smooth drive over the grass runway.
“Let’s get the out of here” Alexus said with a sight of relieve as the plane began to come to a stop.
Martin cautiously raised his head, slowly looking around the plane. Bright white lights from outside illuminated some of the chaotic interior. Cargo was strewed about or impaled with force in some obstacle or another throughout the plane. Cracks in the hull permitted some light to penetrate and gave witness to the precarious nature of the landing. As the overwhelming effect of the landing wore of, Martin began patting himself for wounds as metal shrapnel must have surely been ejected throughout the space.
Some small cuts of the arms but nothing more, Martin summarized before feeling liquid flowing on his left chest.
“Oh no, not like this”, Martin panicked as he tore open his disheveled uniform. In the sharp lighting of the interior a growing stain became visible on his vest, right over Martin’s heart. “I’m not feeling pain from shock, but this is how I’m going to die,” his racing mind concluded. As his hand fearfully reached the center of the stain, Martin felt the contours of a pen.The stain was formed by ink as the pen broke from pressure when he assumed his protective position.
“Look!” Martin exclaimed to Alexus, whilst breaking into relieved laughter. It took Alexus a moment to piece together the situation, as the dark color was reminiscent of dark blood in the insufficient light, shining in from outside.
“Ha” Alexus jovially disclaimed, smacking his thigh against that of his boss, in a display of airborne comradery. “You should experience a landing under fire someday”, he added untangling himself from the seat,“but this is not a bad start”. Martin regained some of his calm and began preparing to exit this now hated death trap behind Alexus.
His confidence and blasé attitude about facing death has always been something Martin admired, since the day the soldier was assigned to guard this newly appointed ambassador of the emergency counsel. Martin’s opinion of Alexus had shifted greatly since they began their travels two weeks ago. From dismissing him as a run down, old dog of war to a confident, experienced professional of his trait, discerning on when and how to apply it. And whilst Alexus short hair had become grey and his eyes dim, his hand had remained as strong and steady as always. What was Alexus opinion on me?, Martin sometimes wondered. A superior almost 20 years his junior and never having been near the front must not have been awe inspiring for a man having lived such an exciting life, Martin assumed.
But as Alexus once so eloquently put it: “opinions are for my free time, and when I’m with you I’m on duty”.
Exiting the battered aircraft, over a shaky stairway both men stepped into the artificially illuminated airfield. The field was buzzing with activity, as the installation could not been more than one day old. Trees where being cut all around, and goods transported. Rickety, half wooden planes where standing about without much cohesion as the site plan was seemingly not implemented yet.
Fatigued aircraft, both bombers and fighters displaying the ferocity of yesterday action on their bodies, as ground crews toiled through the night. Before Martin could ask where his liaison was, a group of young men came into view. As they hurried closer, the uniforms of the national emergency council armed forces became distinguishable.
“Officer Wallen at your service” the leading man reported with a boyish smile, attempting to mask his tiredness. “I can drive you into town” he proposed with a cheerful voice setting an example to his subordinates. Petered by silence he jokingly added “I know I’m only 22 and look like I’m skipping school, but I’m a good driver”. Forcing himself to live up to his title, Martin spoke up as confident as he could.“Thank you Officer Wallen, on behave of the glorious all continental national emergency council . I am here in its place to congratulate you and your men for your heroic and victorious service to the continent”.
“For the continent!“, all men replied in unaccent.” My next objective is to speak to the front command and inspect the east town”, Martin continued. “The traitors have surely wreaked havoc on it, as they tend to do. But perhaps, we can salvage something from the rubble. After I complete my task, I shall return to the capital valley and inform the counsi...” Martin stammered. “The glorious all continental national emergency council”, he corrected himself.
“I’ll gladly help” Officer Wallen replied, gesturing towards the car park. “I will take the representative myself” Wallen exclaimed, as he asked his guests to follow him. “The way to the swamp is short and pretty well secured, so it’s for the best if the three of us move as a small group”, Wallen explained.
Martin was unsure if this was the right decision but dismissed the risk, feeling himself to be somewhat indestructible after his stunning landing. The choice of words was intriguing though.
“The swamp?“, Martin inquired as they made their way from the bright light into the dark.
“A local term of sorts” Officer Wallen chuckled. “All these canals around the city have broken down and flooded everything around them. When we were fighting towards the city from the west and north there was nothing but swamp, so the name stuck with the troops”.
"Fire bless you boys”, Alexus added with approval.
“Speaking of the flame, I think you will be pleasantly surprised”, Wallen replied to Martin, as he turned back to pass Alexus a soldier’s nod of solidarity.
The company of three entered a parked wood powered communications car. Officer Wallen took the wheel, placing Martin in the passenger seat. As they had left ear shot Martin spoke up carefully.
“Officer Wallen, I’m loyal to my homeland and so are you. So is Alexus. We trust the council and crave a united continent”
“For the continent!” Wallen replied with some hesitation.
“When it’s the three of us Wallen, I need the unfettered truth. We all know how thing are: we can’t always say the things we want, when we want to say them. We can’t always show how we feel out of fear of the resulting consequences. This is not a test and I don’t want to get you into trouble. For me to do my job right, I need to hear what should ordinarily not be spoken, see the things we are supported not to see and think the thoughts we are supposed not to have. Do you understand Wallen?”
The young redhead sat in silence. The boyish charm he had cultivated around himself, had deflated and in its place sat a tired young man in badly fitting uniform.
“I don’t know what to say”, he quietly spoke, lowering his gaze. Martin could see the fear creeping up into this brave soldier, as he had seen many times during his political education.The fear of losing the little you have in your life, being dragged off to the penal colonies. The fear of exposing everyone you ever cared about to the same fate, can break down the most steadfast of people. Martin now chose to apply some of what he had learned during his study of governance and populous control.
“Relax Wallen, you have no choice anyway but too trust me. I have been in your shoes and understand your predicament, more than any other representative you could have meet. You most likely know your fate during the next offensive into the mother valley . Or you will be eaten in the deserts of the south west. All our fortunes are decided anyway by the flame and if you take my offer you have the chance to speak to me like a man.When we are alone you can be honest, tell me your options and fear no repercussions. Death is a certainty, but in exchange for your information and cooperation you can have at least a taste of freedom. Even I can’t have that.”
Wallen remained silent and Alexus gave of an indistinct grunt from the back seat. Martin hated every word that came out of his mouth, but he was not lying about the chains of power that bound him. As much as he disliked to resort to such methods, time was short and the work needed to be done.
"Not much of a choice then” Wallen broke the silence as he put the car into motion. I think I really hate the emergency council; you know ?” he continued as his hidden thoughts broke through the surface.
„They have all the power, lead endless wars and give us nothing in return. Who gives a fuck about uniting the continent?! All I wanted was to live at home in peace. So many died for some ruins in a swamp that even I got an officer’s commission and I can hardly read. At this point I almost hope the order rebels win, but even that won’t make a difference. I hate you representatives and was very amused as your predecessors died. You can have me killed for almost nothing, but it’s a relieve to know that you will soon follow me into the Ashland“.
Shifting his wild eyes from the dimly lit road to Martin, Wallen was waiting to see if the ice beneath his feet had broken.
“I can understand your feelings very well”, Martin replied as calm as he could. The thin ice held. Both men knew that the events that had just transpired on this lonely road where unforgivable and bound them to each other through a secret bond.
“What about him?” Wallen asked, whilst shifting his eyes between the dirt road, Martin and finally Alexus, only to discover that Alexus was resting his eyes. To sleep under such circumstances was either extraordinarily stupid, or stunningly smart and both conspirators where content at leaving this question unanswered. Silence dissented on the car for now as both men took the time to breath in the moment.
Dawn began to break on the western horizon as pink gave way to orange. The darkness that bore witness to the events of the night still hung heavily in the east over the fringes of the dividing mountains .
The car left the wooded dirt road of the airbase, turning on to a busy paved road. Columns of soldiers, trucks and civilians intermingled along the damaged path. Some moving to the sound of the guns in the east, some fleeing away from it. Groups of vehicles littered the road in various stages of degradation as civilians and soldiers rested and traded their belongings.
For these souls, the day had bleed into the night and the rising sun spelled no end to their toil. Passing this multitude of humanity, the three men drove tirelessly on the old military roads that had once converged on the capital of a great empire.
“Look!” Wallen exclaimed, “that’s the surprise I was telling you about”. Alexus started opening his eyes and scanning the horizon. A distant flame had appeared on the horizon seemingly hovering in thin air. ”
Is that what I think it is?” Alexus explained in disbelieve.The sun had pierced the horizon and the first rays illuminated the outline of a great tower.
"The mother flame “, Martin confirmed. “I did not think I would ever see it in person”.
250 meters tall its stone shape stood confidently over the dense city. Rectangular levels of stone staked ever thinner into the sky, topped by a great chalice. Here on top, the fire burned bright and was visible for many kilometres.
“Its even more impressive from up close. I tried to get in but there is no chance, even if you are an officer. They even managed to keep the flame burning throughout the entire battle”, Wallen recounted.
“It’s the first flame, the mother flame " Martin lectured, seeing the books of his childhood come to life in front of his eyes. “When the continent was ruled from here, every city was crowned by a flame tower to connect us all. From the desserts in the south, to the mother valley in the east, the great forests in the west, the tear mountains in the north we illuminated the world. It kept us all together and reminded us, that we are one people.The holly flame gave us sustenance, life and safety though the night. There are so few towers left and the power of the flame is weak. That’s why the world is in such a bad shape.“, Martin recounted the words of the text, as if his own. “Rubbish!“, Wallen retorted, with a dismissive hand gesture.
“I never believed in the magic power of the flame. It’s just fire I use for cooking”. “So, you don’t even believe in the Ashland’s then?“Martin asked in confusion.
“I don’t know. We got to go somewhere after this world, I guess” Wallen replied, seemingly not wanting to engage further in the topic. This obvious heresy was of little interest to Martin right now, knowing fully well common thoughts that most dared not to speak.
Leaning back into the stiff seat of the car and reflecting upon the night, Martin focused his eyes on the approaching gray tower on the horizon. As the fire on its top gained in strength and increasingly coalesced with the burning red sky, Martin couldn’t help but wondering if the world had changed this night.