A Hundred Million Beating Hearts

Palace of the Republics, Maseru

“So. This is it.”

It was, honestly, a rather unimpressive looking display. Blank sheets of paper and open envelopes lay spread across the mahogany table which dominated the Secretary-General’s office.

“Per the conclusions of the Politburo session on April First, twenty-one hundred,” Commodore Sone began as the aide who had delivered the items stepped back, “These are the documents that, once completed, will be delivered to the individual commanders…”

The man’s monotone voice seemed to fade into the background as Ata looked intently at the letters. Credit where credit was due, Duarte’s typically bland demeanor had hardly shifted in face of the task before him.

Then why am I worried? The Deputy Secretary-General wondered to himself. He certainly had no role in this part of the process. But the little black card they’d been giving him each day seemed to have a weight all of its own, and of course, there was the new fellow in his security detail, holding that briefcase. The same for the Secretary-General too, but at least the fellow seemed to be taking better to the change.

And of course, there had been that last Politburo meeting. Nuclear policy, or rather, their previous lack thereof. Honestly, as far as Ata was concerned, anyone who wasn’t at least a bit worried about the whole thing probably had no business being involved in it… but it seemed as though such a line of thought might disqualify most of the upper echelons in Maseru. The children had found their hammer, so of course, everything was to be a nail now. The imperialists, the aliens, at this rate Ata was half expecting some General to suggest stopping some hurricanes with atomic weapons. And all the talk of pre-delegating launch authority to commanders upon the commencement of hostilities… The idea of some mid-level army officer with a brand new pet nuke was something to keep him up at night.

Naturally, this little gathering here was just a continuation of that line of thought. Making sure that if the men in this room were too dead to give the orders, someone else would still ensure that plenty more could join them.

“… now, at any given point during peacetime, a minimum of one-third of our submarine flotilla remains at sea. Naturally that includes our ballistic missile submarines, which have, as previously discussed been outfitted to deploy special weapons if need be,” Sone was saying, following a lurid description of nuclear contingencies and consequences, “Of course, these baselines would shift in the event of crisis or conflict, but needless to say our undersea deterrent is far more survivable than anything the other branches can operate, and, despite all measures and precautions, perhaps more survivable than the means by which we coordinate them.”

Well, the man certainly did take a great deal of satisfaction in that. Ata couldn’t really blame him, it was no great secret that the Navy was the red-headed stepchild of all the armed services, after all, there was little sense in attempting to keep pace with the fleets of the imperial powers. In the event of a real war one might even go so far as to say that their role was to die gloriously more than anything. But such was not a sentiment one would raise around the good Commodore.

Duarte nodded slowly, pushing one of the papers on his desk towards himself, “And so these letters…”

“Of last resort,” the Commodore completed, “Our bold little submarines may outlive us all, but they will have your words to guide them. I should emphasize, these missives will ideally be read by no one, they will be destroyed should they require update or when you depart office, and your successor shall be requested to provide a new set. But should our sea-based deterrent lose all communications with the chain of command as per our set criteria, their captains will, given the absence of any other instructions, determine whether to open the letters. Should such occur, the orders contained therein will be followed.”

“A last will and testament,” Ata remarked, a comment which, judging from the irritated reactions, was clearly unasked for.

“Naturally, given the principles of mutual assured destruction, it is expected that there should be some sort of launch under such circumstances, though beyond that we have some freedom to determine the specifics of their actions,” Sone concluded, “Or alternatively to leave it to the captains’ best judgement, though that feels a little unhelpful…”

Duarted sighed, and reached over for a pen, “Well… I should certainly hope they can read my handwriting,” the Secretary-General said lightly.

“Please write clearly, sir,” Sone said, before quickly getting up, “In order to maintain the appropriate level of secrecy, we shall withdraw. Do seal the envelopes when finished…”

Perhaps it was his imagination, but Ata could hear the pen begin to scratch even as the door shut behind them all. The Commodore leaned against the wall, glancing at his watch.

“So. You think they’ll ever be opened?” Ata finally asked after a few moments of awkward silence.

“Won’t be around to worry about it if they are,” Sone responded, crossing his arms as he did.

“Say something should go wrong. If some accident should cause our submarines to mistakenly believe that the Union has been destroyed, and they launch. Or they launch at the wrong targets…”

“Our procedures are very thorough, and our commanders have been well briefed on the factors they should consider before opening the letters,” the Commodore said vaguely, “In wartime circumstances, it is likely that they would have already received more specific overriding instructions prior to any loss of communications. ‘Last resort’ ought to be taken quite literally here.”

“But all the same,” Ata pressed, “We don’t even know what those letters contain, and you have already suggested that there will be some kind of launch. If something should go wrong-”

“Then we won’t be around long enough to worry about it either,” Sone said with a humorless smile.

The People’s Antarctic Council, eKapa

The People’s Antarctic Council’s headquarters in eKapa were, on the whole, quite uninteresting. Of course, a fair few would assume that what happened inside these buildings was also quite uninteresting. Almost tranquil, really, surrounded by the bright flashing lights, maddening commotion, and twisting urban mass that had taken over the Cape Peninsula, the PAC building was just an incredibly boring-looking place. A blocky, gray building reflective of the neo-brutalist movement which had enjoyed brief popularity in the Union during the 2040s, the only thing that was notable about it was how utterly unassuming it looked.

Inside these unassuming-looking buildings was an equally unassuming set of offices, dedicated to the Office of Polar Programs. A rather obscure little section, as far as the general public cared, though that apparently didn’t stop their mailbox from being filled with rather lewd messages regarding poles…

Obscure or not, the OPP played a role, and a rather important one at that. It was, after all, the arm of the Union’s government charged with the nation’s day-to-day operations on the vast continent that lay across the southern seas. The extensive presence in Antarctica was centered around the Prince Edward Islands and four permanent research bases but had countless temporary and seasonal sites beyond that. Someone had to handle all the logistics and operations for the constellation of outposts spread across the icy wastes. But the purview of the OPP meant a great many things beyond throwing funding at scientists and sending findings to party officials who were increasingly enamored with any part of the solar system that wasn’t the planet Earth. There were, after all, a great many people involved in these cold regions. Military, contractors, other agencies, all things which needed juggling, something which Director Njabulo Kambule had grown very good at indeed.

It was, as usual, early in the morning when the Director came in. The large, bearded man had found that he much preferred the early trains, at least one could find someplace to sit. And it certainly helped that today, Kambule could take a great deal of satisfaction in seeing that something had been accomplished. Something long in progress, at that.

“Hey… Winnie, is this what I think it is?” the Director asked, stepping into the break room and holding up a paper that had caught his eye.

“Uh… dunno, what do you think it is?” a rather sleepy-looking woman responded.

“Icebreakers, Winnie, icebreakers! Navy just put their latest one into operation.”

“Ah, yeah, that they did. That’ll be good, for the program and all,” Winnie said sleepily.

“That it will,” the Director agreed, slowly nodding his head. Winnie was far too new around here to remember the bad old days, of course. It went without saying that operations in the polar regions meant dealing with a great deal of ice. Kambule and his friends in the Navy had spent damn well over a decade pushing for expansions to the fleet, but of course, all anyone really cared about was the fancy warships. And gods knew, nobody could be bothered to really fund the Navy anyways, not like the imperialist powers did, anyways. Nowadays, the terrestrial fleet had to compete with spaceships as well as all the other branches, and when you were dealing with some Party official who wanted some pet project to show off, well, between some little missile boat or a warship in space was not much of a competition.

Hell, even the OPP was beginning to feel it. Ever since the Tesla drive entered production, their office had been emptier than the continent they were studying.

But they’d had a head start, at least. The last decade had seen the production of a fair number of the new vessels, even a line of nuclear-powered ones, after what had been half a lifetime of relentless lobbying. This latest one merely marked another success. Probably the last one for a long time too, the way the next budget was beginning to shape up. But those were all problems for another day, and Antarctica wasn’t going anywhere. At least the place wasn’t completely turning into some military or commercial playground the way space was. And that was fine, if the Southern Continent was left to be his sandbox, all the better.

Kambule said his goodbyes to Winnie, and headed into his office.

“Yes… yes, I just heard,” he spoke into the phone, “Ahead of schedule too! My, we ought to grab a drink and celebrate…”

eKapa, eKapa People’s Republic

If there was one thing that defined eKapa, it was the noise. The sounds of over thirty million people filled the air with an endless cacophony of car horns and blaring engines. For Kambule, it was maddening, and even in the small streetside diner, he felt as though he could scarcely hear the man across the table.

“… But of course, you got lucky. You don’t see any pieces of Antarctica falling out of the sky!” Kanosi Rotlhe exclaimed. The Chairman of the People’s Space Council was indeed looking more harassed each passing day since the asteroid had struck Athens. Kambule couldn’t blame him, media in the Union was naturally more restrained than in certain other countries, but odds were the PSC was getting absolutely torn apart by the Secretary-General these days. Completely missing an impact like that, well, if it hadn’t landed in Europe there might have been an actual purge, like the bad old days which even Kambule couldn’t remember. Of course, he couldn’t really blame Rotlhe, or the rest of the PSC. It wasn’t as though anyone else had seen this coming, and plenty of rumors suggested that such might have been intentional… but that was getting close to a rather dangerous line of thinking. Someone of his position couldn’t afford to be seen buying into conspiracy theories.

“Aye, well, that’s why they give you the big budgets,” the OPP Director responded with a laugh, before lowering his voice, “But tell me, really, how bad is it right now?”

“Pretty bloody bad. We don’t have a damned clue how nobody saw this coming. Half of social media’s talking about Nazi superweapons, and the military-”

The Chairman broke off as a waiter placed a platter of red tandoori chicken on the table. South Asian food had grown to be quite popular in the Union, not least because of the large Indian minority in the city. Honestly, it was terribly spicy for him, but Kambule quite liked this place. All of the big chain restaurants were completely automated nowadays, and really just depressing places.

“Anyways, have you seen the news out of Athens?” Rotlhe continued, “About the makeup of the object?”

Kambule nodded, “I read the same articles, but this is hardly my field of expertise. And I am reluctant to jump to conclusions…”

“And I’m beginning to feel like there’s really only one conclusion left,” Rotlhe muttered, “It’s starting to look like everyone else agrees to. Lots of Party Officials are suddenly finding excuses to get out of the major cities, great time to visit a few communes, take a picture while holding a pig the wrong way.”

“Now that just feels a bit hasty, surely,” Kambule said carefully. This was a public setting after all, though the Chairman seemed to be beyond caring at this point, “I am no military strategist, but tossing a rock at some random point in Bulgaria is hardly a logical action for any nation.”

“Not all the world is logical, and some logic in this universe remains beyond us,” Rotlhe said cryptically, “What’s the old saying. There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Kambule grimaced at that, “Well, I’m sure we’ll find out, one way or another,” he finally said, “You lads must be getting worked to the bone.”

“That we are, for all the results we can get. We’re trying to collate enough data to make some guesses about the object’s trajectory and origin. And by that I really do mean guesses. But it won’t be my problem for much longer anyways.”

Now that did come as a shock.

“You are being removed?” Kambule asked, wiping his hands and sitting up straight.

“Asked to resign,” the Chairman corrected, “Not over this nonsense, of course. Just about every space-related agency in the country was being restructured regardless. To step away from our, ah, purely research-oriented roots and become a proper governing body in space. Now that there’s quite a lot of us up there. Corporations need taxing, people need ruling, all that stuff.”

Kambule furrowed his brow, “That… I am sorry to hear it.”

“Don’t be,” Rotlhe said humorlessly, “I’m sure the Antarctic divisions will be next, the way things are going. The times, how they change.”

The Chairman suddenly got to his feet, his food still practically untouched, “Speaking of the time, I believe I have another inane report to prepare. If you’ll excuse me…”

Rotlhe hurriedly walked off, leaving Kambule alone at the table. His world, surrounded by glass and steel as it was, suddenly felt ever so fragile.