She tapped her fingers on the scarred desk, closing tired eyes before she asked the question.
"Was it read?"
"No, ma'am." She let out a sigh of relief at Sergeant Watanabe’s shaky answer. "The document wasn't unsealed, though it was torn up when the roof fell in."
She nodded. "Good. Contact the families of the two guards and offer them my deepest condolences."
Watanabe shifted uneasily. "Um... I'm sorry to have to correct you on this ma'am, but it wasn't two guards who perished. Johnson's ID bracelet was discovered in a—a pile of ashes in the incinerator this morning."
"Damn it!" She slammed a fist on the desk, making Watanabe jump. "You know whose work this is? It's Gau Shesharrim. He came here for me.” But she hadn’t paid the price: that had fallen on her men, as it had every day of this pointless war. She barely heard Sergeant Watanabe's next words.
"What do you us to do, General Shanazkowitz?" The general allowed herself a minute to slow her breathing before she answered.
"Change nothing in the plan. Go ahead as scheduled. One more thing: activate the ShadowStalker protocol.”
Watanabe hesitated. “Ma’am, do you really think this is the appropriate time? We’ve never successfully---”
“I know that. But Fate’s Shears is about to change everything. We may never get a better shot at this. Do it.”
A chime rang off the office’s spacious, white-paneled walls. Tor Berkyavik, Special Envoy to the Universal Church, Aival Branch, turned from the spun diamond window. He gave it a dimming command with a wave of one hand: the huge panel darkened, shutting out his panoramic view of the planet below and the band of midnight blue sky above it.
“Come in.” A curve of ivory wall slithered out of sight, disgorging a man Berkyavik recognized from their brief hyperwave conversation the week before. “Please have a seat, Mr. Gomambwe.” Berkyavik gestured him over to a padded chair.
The arrival was tall, with brown skin and a bald head smooth as marble. The long robe around his shoulders was golden.
“Thank you.” He settled his lanky frame in the chair as Berkyavik took the facing seat, adjusting his own white and gold robe of office over his suit. He rested his elbows on the enormous oblong desk between them. Berkyavik had had the mahogany monstrosity imported all the way from Sol System after he accepted this interim ministry from the Aival branch. (Over the Aival ministers’ constant whining, though in the end they’d caved. They’d had to: it was one of his conditions for taking the job.)
“So, Mr. Gomambwe, what can I do for you? You were rather enigmatic over the ‘wave. I was a bit surprised you could get out here for an in-person meeting, actually. Things must be very busy for you in our newest parish.”
“Please, call me Enkidu.” The young minister leaned forward, placing hands on the very edge of the huge desk. “It’s my parish I wanted to talk to you about. Or rather, it’s about Nheris in general. There’s a… change in the air, sir.”
“Sounds like something you should bring up with the city’s meteorologists, Enkidu, not me.” Berkyavik smiled pleasantly.
The younger man’s expression went blank before he caught up with the joke; then he offered an uncertain smile. Though his bland façade didn’t change, Berkyavik made his first estimation of Gomambwe in that moment: too serious, and too invested in the gravity of his position to realize when his host was kidding him. If Gomambwe was lucky it was only the seriousness of youth, something he would grow out of with time. It would do well for him to lighten up. Humor could be a great stress reliever in times like these. It could lighten the burden that came with their faith, if only for a short while.
“Yes, well... this concerns Nheris’ liaison with the Core Worlds Government back in Sol System,” said Gomambwe. “I heard CoG’s been routing a lot of war traffic through Aival space.”
“We're a hub out here near the Front. Heavy traffic is our cross to bear, I suppose.” Berkyavik tried out a wink this time, and was gratified by a surer grin from the other minister.
“So I guess you know something big just went through the dedicated stream to Olios 3. CoG was trying to keep it under wraps, but as a Special Envoy you must have heard something.”
Berkyavik nodded. “I’ve developed a sense for the moods of the officials I’ve been blessed to work with, especially about anything that pertains to the… altercation with our serpentine friends.” His voice deepened with irony on those last words. “So in short, yes: I’ve heard rumors. Did you make this appointment because you’ve heard something more concrete than rumor?”
“What I’ve heard is an opportunity,” Gomambwe replied.
He removed a silver data sliver from his robe and set it on the mahogany desk. A watery holo of Olios 3 coalesced in the air between them: seen from the distance of its single large moon, one half of the world was a swatch of brilliant blue ocean. The New Pacific Sea was the epicenter of the planet’s ecosystem; the scruffy littoral margins of the continent supported a hard-bitten handful of life forms by comparison, which survived mostly by their proximity to the sea.
Gomambwe stopped the holo’s rotation as Olios 3’s single continent came into view. The locations of outposts were marked with pinpoints of light along the coasts, blue for the human side, orange for the enemy. Two much larger colored dots picked out the colonies of Nheris and Za, hunkering on opposite sides of the landmass. Only a few miles beyond the outskirts of each city, a fierce ecotone slashed across the landscape like the cut of a knife: thin grasslands and stunted forests subsumed by a plain of igneous rock, the remains of a catastrophic lava flow. Some cartographer with a sense of humor had named this wasteland the New Great Plains; if the Osk had a name for it, they did not advertise the fact.
“Nheris’ government is looking for contractors,” said Gomambwe. “Independent parties with the resources and will to come to Olios 3 and set up operations in the New Great Plains. They’re going to make a grab for the no-man’s land.”
Berkyavik sat up a little straighter in his palatial chair. He let curiosity trickle into his voice. “What for?”
“All I can get out of them is that it’s to secure Nheris’ perimeter. There are still a few research bases, floral and faunal collecting stations, out in the Plains from when Olios 3 was first being explored.” He highlighted a scattering of blue dots on the edges of the New Great Plains. Berkyavik recalled there had been hopes of terraforming the wasteland in those early days… before the human side had found out who they were sharing the planet with.
“I know about the bases,” he said shortly. The research stations had been abandoned since the war began in earnest.
“Nheris Central wants to turn them into secure military outposts. And CoG has already earmarked funds for the project.”
“Have Nheris Central and CoG also found a way to hide the heat signature of these bases? Because otherwise I see a problem with this scheme: the serpents’ Fleet will blast those bases to rubble from orbit the second they get the scent of them.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Gomambwe replied. His flippancy made Berkyavik suspicious. He swore there was a mischievous twinkle in the youngster’s eye—hope for him yet, Berkyavik thought.
“As I said, CoG has set aside funds already… but their resources aren’t infinite. I contacted you, sir, because I thought it only fair the Church receive a consultation on the matter. We have the money, and much more local influence than CoG here on the Front. Much more mobility for a project like this.”
“You're thinking the White Arrows would helm this effort? Not the Church proper?”
Gomambwe nodded. “Weren’t you with missionary branch, before you came here as Envoy?” He plucked at his own golden robe to illustrate the difference in their rank.
Berkyavik held a hand palm up, gently chastising. “My dear Enkidu, I am still with the White Arrows, along with holding my current ministry. One does not cease being an Arrow, no more than one ceases to understand the truth of the universe. They’re connected, after all.”
Gomambwe dropped his affected ignorance. “You think they’d be interested, then?”
“In expanding the sphere of the Church to another world? Oh, yes.” Especially that world. Berkyavik turned his gaze to the shaded window, brightened the diamond pane with another gesture. Again it displayed its impressive view of Diego Two, the city kilometers below the vast spire that housed his office. He let his expression become hazy as he considered the possibilities. “There may indeed be an opportunity there.”
Berkyavik swiveled back to Gomambwe. “But there’s still the problem of the Osk.”
Gomambwe smiled; it was not a nice smile. “From what I’ve heard, sir, Za and the Fleet won’t be a problem. It sounds like the Osk won’t be a problem ever again.”
There was a hush in the office, the kind that forms between two men who understand each other without words. After a minute or so, Gomambwe’s gaze wandered to the window over Diego Two.
“Look at that.”
Beyond the diamond panel, a tumult of iron-gray clouds encroached on the ultramarine sky, heavy with the promise of rain. The office darkened around them, and they watched in silence as the first droplets began to patter on the pane.