June 3rd, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Southern Border, Glitterford
Fair Lord and Intelligence Advisor Regus Baton stood at the border in the dry, dusted haze of the southern barrens. Grasses and cacti dotted the landscape around him. The watery shimmer of a mirage veiled the horizon at the far end of the pale summer sky. Night would be falling soon. Baton frowned to think that they weren’t waiting until then. The trouble in Westfall’s neighboring country of Teno had been escalating at an alarming rate, but one would think they’d be all the more careful because of it.
He lowered his binoculars.
“About twenty,” he stated.
Spade was beside him. Baton did not like Spade, but if he had learned anything their enemies hadn’t, it was that you worked with people you needed, whether you liked them or not. Private time hobbies and personal values only mattered if they affected the end of the game.
“My soldiers are ready,” Spade informed him.
Baton turned the head of his cane under his right hand. When this whole game had started, Baton had chosen to look like the older man of the two. His hair was dark gray and more neatly set. He wore his pale suit with all the right creases in his jacket and slacks, and even a vest, despite the dry heat. He had the look of a man used to wearing suits (younger men tended to look like their suits were wearing them), and a bit pitiable for his cane. He drew a deep breath, and shook his head.
“Have my messengers returned?” he asked.
Spade’s mouth twisted impatiently. “One.”
He nodded to a man approaching from their right. It was an older man, nut-brown and gray-haired. His light clothes were dusty but neat. He bowed as he arrived, but only to Baton, his employer. He cast a wary glance at Arthur Spade.
<They say they have no leader, sir,> he reported. He spoke slowly and Baton listened carefully. <There’s been an air raid. The Eastasia fleet is to the southeast, sending out bombardments at least once a week. People are fleeing north. The air raids are following.>
Baton translated for Spade’s sake.
“Ask him why they’re endangering us then,” Spade insisted. His fingers twitched a little, though he rarely carried his own weapon in public. He had about a hundred vicarious bits of weaponry behind him instead.
“Where are the other messengers?” Baton’s Tenoan wasn’t the best, so he relied on his messengers being clever enough to understand his language as he understood them. He had picked all of them off a border like this. They were tools. As the Slight Twice King did not bother Spade about his private pastimes, the King didn’t troubled Baton most days about his methods.
The wrinkles around his messenger’s already creased face deepened. <We just escaped a most recent raid. You can see the smoke in the haze. Some thousand souls are dead.>
Baton peered again. What he had taken as a bit of dark cloud could be smoke, he concluded. He had no reason not to trust his own men. He treated them well and they never questioned the air of authority about him.
<The others have died,> the messenger went on, more sorrowfully, <or I would have waited for them.>
Spade impatiently asked for an interpretation. Baton gave him the abridged version.
“The air raids of Eastasia came on them during the peace process. These are fellow refugees.”
“Who’s to say they haven’t already surrendered to those short little bastards?” Spade asked, but the harsh words came out coolly. It was his way when he already had an end in mind. It was what made him the Slight Twice King’s favorite.
“Eastasia has its strategies,” Baton said.
“I didn’t expect there to be a real war,” Spade admitted, but sounded hopeful.
“It does change the game when others try to play,” Baton let himself sound a little worried. There were other courts than those of the west.
The messenger looked nervous, but Baton shook his head.
“Go back behind the lines,” he told the man.
The messenger looked past the two officials, past Spade in his dark suit and Baton in his desert-dusted tans. The line of military might—men in armor and a half a dozen tanks painted for the desert sands of nations past—was imposing enough that he didn’t need a second order.
Spade sighed, raised a hand, and beckoned forward an officer.
“We should fire a warning shot of course,” he said, and the man dropped to one knee and took aim at the clouds. Somewhat displeased, Spade pushed the barrel of his gun down to a more level direction before the shot cracked. Within the next instant, a man foremost in the be-tattered refugees fell.
“They hardly noticed,” he told his soldier, as many bodies stumbled to a stop. Someone ran towards the fallen. “Try the one just behind him.”
“The…” For a moment, the soldier’s resolve failed. “Behind the child, sir?”
“It could be someone vertically challenged,” said Spade. “It could be someone carrying illegal drugs, or hidden armory, or any number of peace-breaking materials towards our borders without an ounce of hesitation. Do you think someone who would approach a line of tanks is a civilian?”
The man hesitated again.
Spade sighed and beckoned another soldier. This one came more readily, and, with a nod from Spade, there was another shot that made room for him to kneel where the first had been.
Next, the dangerous, reckless criminal fell. Screams went up. The wind shifted and Spade smiled at the pitch of a woman’s frantic voice among them.
“They’re running from us now,” he said. “Do you think anyone who would run from a line of tanks is anything but a criminal?”
Baton’s jaw clenched. He peered at the smoke and thought of his messengers.
“Well, you do what you do best,” he said, and turned on his heel. He stabbed his cane into the dirt before him. “Bring me survivors.”
“I don’t intend to leave any.” Spade made another gesture. There was a hollow metal percussion as tanks closed up all along his line, a bearlike roar as their motors drove them forward.
“I need new messengers,” said Baton. “Those who speak or at least understand our language—see they find me.”
Spade stretched and popped a crick from his neck. “Perhaps you should find some who speak Eastron,” he suggested. “They might be the new residents in a few days.”
“It’s who might be behind the Eastasians that we have to worry about,” said Baton sternly. “Make an effort.”
Spade listened to the peck and scrape of the cane as his fellow walked away, slipping through the militant ranks easily, since his mere presence tended to afford him respectable space.
“A shame,” Spade muttered to himself, “I tried so hard, but they were so determined to die.”
It sounded like a good line. He smiled his own smile and made a mental note to read it back to Baton later, when he apologized.