A Bolshevik I work with at DayJob – so long as we stay off politics we get along fine – is cruising along through “Crosses & Doublecrosses,” calling it “a page-turner.” We had a few minutes before the IV batch ran and I sat down and told him that from my, author’s standpoint, C&DC was harder to write than my romance/horror, “Cursed Hearts.” As I put it, sure: a psychic vampire sucking the life out of some guy until there’s nothing left but flakes of skin and bone powder is awful. But the worse depravities humans accomplish are done in meeting rooms. As said commie, he got that.
In that vein, we have Empress Faustina calming telling two young members of her family about her plan for the next twelve hours. A plan with a six-figure death toll at the end of it.
“You just used a charged word, Aunt Faustina,” Aurelia said, deliberately emphasizing family and not rank. “Conventional.”
“What we know is that the three St. Louis armies are approximately sixty to eighty-thousand men each. Yes, their weapons and training are awful, but that is still a lot of people. In the core between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are perhaps half a million civilians, assume ten to twenty percent could hold a rifle and lean out a window to shoot it,” Faustina ignored her niece.
“Core, Aunt?” Aurelia again.
“Combatants in my army are twenty-five thousand. The best fighters in this hemisphere and possibly the world right now. The Texans, to their credit, brought their best: say ten thousand with almost all of their armor, one hundred and twenty-one main battle tanks. However, tanks are of little use in an urban environment without close-in infantry support.” Ignoring Aurie once more.
“I’ve been up against religious fanatics before, my Prince and Princess,” the Empress walked around the fountain to stare at her guests. “They do not care about winning or losing; they care about killing and dying.”
Another long look to them both. The Empress’ eyes lingered on her firstborn son.
“I shall not take my legions into a house-to-house fight,” Faustina said very carefully. “The objective of this war is the removal of the threat which the Black Muslim Brotherhood of greater St. Louis presents to the Texans and my imperium. I shall provide a complete solution to end that threat forever.”
“What are you up to, Mother?” Laszlo could just barely ask, suspecting where this was going.
“Here,” she turned to the map. There were three red dots another twenty or thirty miles southeast from where she proposed to withdraw the army. “Here are three of my mobile short-range ballistic missile launchers. One of them carries a W-78 fusion warhead with a yield of three hundred and fifty kilotons. I shall order its use in eleven hours and end the war.”
The map zoomed in to show the likely effect of the airburst: the fireball, moderate blast damage, thermal radiation of third-degree burns, and light blast damage. The circles filled the “core” between the rivers she had mentioned. In the lower-left were two numbers.
“Dear God, Mother!” her son cried.
Estimated immediate fatalities: 30,000.
Estimated injuries, fatal/near-fatal: 100,000.
“You can’t do this!” he cried again.
“Not only can I, my son, I must.” He was horrified that she smiled at him. “I shall save my army and protect the imperium.”
Laszlo looked about for help.
“Aurie! Please! You have to talk sense to Mother!” he begged.
His fear turned to horror as he regarded first the golden flare of her eyes then the slow shake of her head.
“She’s right, Les,” Aurelia said carefully, understanding what she was agreeing to. “The worst outcome of the current campaign is the army broken and tens of thousands of marauders streaming southwest and southeast into the only pockets of Western Civilization in former America. Even committing the remaining legions, we would likely lose one town after another. It will be Atlanta all over again, but times ten.”
“I am a legionary and will fight and die for the Empress,” he tried again, turning back to his mother, “but I will fight soldiers! I will not murder women and children!”
“No one is asking you to, my beloved first-born son.” Another smile he hated to see. “I shall provide the target coordinates. I shall, with my lines, launch the missile. If there is any guilt – and I think not as this is war – then it is mine alone.”
“Then you will have lost your soul. Like great-grandfather,” Laszlo concluded in a quiet voice.
She looked sharply at him but where he expected anger he only saw pity.
“You know nothing about Clive Barrett, my child. Someday you will be older and recall this moment. I hope it makes you older still.”
The Empress straightened her back and power seemed to coalesce about her.
“Both of you are dismissed. Prepare for immediate withdrawal of the army,” she commanded.
Aurelia saluted. Laszlo did not. They both pushed out of the command tent into the compacted earth forming the main road in the middle of the legionary fort.
“Aurie!” he began, holding in tears, “please! Over a hundred thousand! Mother… my mom can’t do this, Aurie!”
“She must and she will,” the older girl responded with a wave. “Look about you, Les. Would you see all these men dead? Their wives without husbands? Their children without fathers? Is that what you want?”
He finally fell silent and looked at the ground between their feet. Saying nothing. He felt her hand on his shoulder.
“War is Hell. There is no refining it. I have to go back in. The Empress is a bit wrong about the aim point for the warhead. My slight precog will come in handy here.” Her hand was gone and she stepped around him.
So you will be a part of this too, he accused.
If you really think you are not, I suggest you come with me and kill your mother. No? Then I shall see you later, Cousin Cadet.
The canvas flapped again.
Les was not exactly sure how far he walked or even where, as the fort was torn down around him and the legions set into motion toward the south. A gibbous moon had just come over the treeline when he stopped himself.
“As God is my witness, I will never trust any woman ever again!”