Goldie’s Revenge, the last standing tavern in Avalona, had officially seen more people come through its swinging doors in the last two hours than in the six years since opening. Goldie, the owner—a middle-aged divorcee who had used monies received in the divorce settlement to open the bar her ex-husband had always dreamed of—stood at the main bar chatting with a Regular Militia captain that arrived with a retinue carrying the General of the Plains Region. Goldie watched General Willard Isaac Tomlyn as he directed soldiers with the calm certainty of one accustomed to giving orders. On occasion he would indicate action using only his head, pointing his dimpled chin in one direction or the other, and observing with detachment as soldiers about-faced and strode off intent on fulfilling his commands.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” the captain said. Goldie shook her head, her long silver hair danced in the dim light. She knew better than to speak if she wanted to learn more. Using a dingy towel, she wiped at the same area of the main bar that she’d been cleaning since the captain first walked up. His blue and black officer’s cover was laid upside down and held a set of keys. As she neared it with the rag, he absently lifted up the hat, and said, “why now? And, for Mercury’s sake, why here? I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but there’s not shit here.” He glanced over his shoulder, checking on the general who was presiding over a table in the front corner of the open dining area, “I mean, seriously. What made Avalona a target? Do you guys have anything of value?”
She shrugged, “we had a town.”
He grimaced, “oh. Uh. Sorry.”
Goldie closed her eyes and exhaled through her nose. It was all she could do to keep from breaking down. No sense making him feel worse, guilt could be an effective way to get a man to talk, but this one obviously wasn’t in the loop. Goldie shrugged again, “can I get you a drink?”
“I’m on duty.”
“Yep. So is everyone else.”
The captain took a minute to look around the tavern and saw that every officer had a drink nearby or in hand, though none were actively drinking. He suddenly took in the decorum, pictures and paintings of Avalona from first settlement to more recent aerial shots as well as groups, individuals, and families. Her town was in ruins. The people in the pictures would never walk through her doors again. In fact, once the emergency crews and the soldiers left she’d have to close down and go…go where? Taking his eyes off the walls, but without meeting her gaze, he said, “a double of your most expensive brandy.”
While Goldie poured the captain’s drink, the general’s voice raised, “that is the largest cock-and-bull story I’ve ever heard. Totally unacceptable. I haven’t got time for games. Do you hear me?”
The young soldier stood her ground. Although she was visibly shaken, she raised her voice declaring, “sir, I’m not lying.” After taking a deep breath, she added, “please, sir. You’ve got to listen. I heard it.”
Without turning his head, General Tomlyn shouted, “Captain Prescott!”
Grabbing his hat, keys, and double shot, the captain dropped an argenti on the bar, and weaved through the handful of empty tables. “Sir?”
“Deal with this,” Tomlyn said as he absently waved a hand towards the soldier and never took his eyes off the papers spread out on the table.
“Yes, sir!” Without another word, the captain motioned the soldier to follow, and led her out of the tavern. Standing under the oppressive smoke-filled sky, the captain thought of the portraits and the people who would never enter Goldie’s for another drink. He slammed back his double shot, barely tasting the hint of sweet that burned its way down his throat. To the radio operator he asked, “what did you hear?”
Since handing the emergency crews over to General Tomlyn, Colonel Gawain Dagon was at a loss. He had no desire to stay in the tavern twiddling his thumbs while waiting for the justices, who were already an hour late. Furthermore, he knew that he didn’t have the capacity to hold them without good reason. Though, ‘because the Kaiser said so,’ should have been sufficient, it wouldn’t be. Not for Chief Justice Fraunx Adonis, who was bound to arrive with an attitude. The colonel had decided to survey the damage by walking a spiral from the tavern on the west side of town, through the outskirts, and into Avalona proper where the main attack had centered. Inside his jacket he had an exact sealed copy of the letter that Ensign Balin had been sent with to fetch the justices from Ambrosia City. The letter commanded the justices to Avalona, where they were to inspect the testimony from the witnesses, hear the recommendation of the regional general, and to wait for the Kaiser’s decision. If Dagon knew the Kaiser well enough, when he returned to Avalona he would take counsel with the justices and the general before deciding the next course of action. Which, Dagon supposed, meant war. How could it not? The long walk hadn’t enabled him to masterfully create a story to tell the justices. Where the hell is the bard when you need him? Dagon wondered as he kicked a rock down the street. He was lost in his thoughts and almost to the front doors of Goldie’s Revenge when the transport finally pulled in.
“…that’s when the beeps started.”
“And, you don’t think it was just static?” the captain asked as he saluted Colonel Dagon.
“No, sir!” she answered while also saluting. “Static don’t come with timed delays or in rapid succession.”
“Afternoon, Colonel,” Captain Prescott said.
“Afternoon,” Dagon responded and quickly saluted. Before entering Goldie’s, he asked, “will you two be here for a few minutes?”
Prescott answered quizzically, “yes, sir?”
“Good. Send the justices to me. They’re unloading,” he nodded his head toward the white transport sitting in the middle of the parking lot full of emergency and military vehicles.
“I’ll be in the back, You know that little alcove on the left?”
“I do, sir,” Prescott said.
“Good. That’s where I’ll be,” Dagon didn’t wait for a response, instead he pushed open the double doors and walked directly to the table where General Tomlyn was issuing orders over a map, papers strewn about. “General?”
“A moment,” Dagon motioned away from the table.
The general was visibly perturbed at the interruption, but also knew that the head of Mercury’s Elite Guard wasn’t an idle man. He stepped away from his duty to follow Dagon into the alcove.
“The justices have arrived,” Dagon spoke softly, “the Kaiser wants them to follow protocol. They’re to read the witness statements, get your recommendations, and I’m to show them the extent of the destruction.”
“If they’re here, we’ve already broken protocol,” Tomlyn retorted.
Dagon matched the glare of the disturbingly fit general, “as you know, the Kaiser determines protocol,” he pulled the letter out of his jacket, “read.”
The general took the letter and verified the wax seal, “why didn’t you give me this at passdown?”
“It wasn’t relevant until now,” Dagon motioned toward the door, “if the Kaiser had arrived before the justices, you wouldn’t need it at all. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way.”
General Tomlyn broke the wax seal and read the order. When he finished, he read it a second time, before saying, “this is highly irregular.”
“It is at that,” Dagon agreed.
“Of course, I’ll make everything available to them,” Tomlyn said as he held up the letter, “and, I’ll keep this.”
“As well you should,” Dagon ran a hand through his cropped black hair. “I’ll give them the tour, and then bring them back here for the briefing.”
“Take a couple of my guys with you as a precaution,” Tomlyn shook his head, and added, “this is unreal. Who sends justices to a war zone?”
Colonel Dagon understood precisely what General Tomlyn was feeling, unfortunately, he was not at liberty to explain anything the Kaiser had told him about the Chief Justice. Besides, he lacked the very thing the Kaiser sought: evidence. To accuse the Chief Justice of the Antigone Courts of a conspiracy one has to have solid, irrefutable evidence. Suspicion and dislike are not enough. While Dagon did not suspect Tomlyn of conspiring with Adonis, he couldn’t rule out the possibility either. No. Until the Kaiser returned, he was obligated to keep his own counsel. “Sir, I believe the Kaiser wants them to have firsthand knowledge of what a war zone looks like. That way, when he makes a decision, and awaits their verdict, he’ll know that they deliberated with as many facts as he could give them. Merely my own speculation,” Dagon added.
“It’s of no matter,” Tomlyn tucked the letter into his back pocket, “he’s the fire, we’re the kindling.”
At that moment, the tavern doors were shoved open and Chief Justice Adonis barreled through. In an unreasonably loud voice, Adonis asked no one in particular, “well, enough dicking around. Where is he?”
“Justices, if you’ll follow me,” Captain Prescott stepped around Adonis and motioned toward Dagon and Tomlyn.
“All you, Colonel,” Tomlyn said without animosity. He passed by the justices with a nod, “Justices.”
“Justices,” Colonel Dagon began, “there’s much to do. The Kaiser left explicit instructions for me to show you the extent of th—”
“We saw plenty as we drove in,” Adonis interrupted. “We were summoned by the Kaiser. Now, where is he?”
“Chief Justice,” Dagon said, “Kaiser Imler ordered me to sh—”
“Colonel Dagon, I am not accustomed to repeating myself.”
“Nor am I,” Dagon retorted. “Now, if you’ll follow me.” With relish, Dagon pushed past Adonis and marched to the doors. There was no way on Mercury’s sweet earth that he was going to get into a measuring contest with most pompous justice Poterit Don had ever had the misfortune of promoting to Chief. As far as Dagon was concerned the only thing he needed to do was to follow orders. At any point in time the Kaiser would arrive, if Adonis wanted to play who’s the leader he could do it then. “As you can see, some of the fires are still burning. We’ve had crews digging through the rubble. Aside from three survivors found yesterday, we haven’t had any luck in the recovery process. General Tomlyn has their statements, which he’ll give to you when we return.” In his haste, Dagon had not arranged for any of the Regulars to accompany them. Fortunately, Tomlyn handled it by delegating the responsibility to Captain Prescott who had grabbed a couple soldiers that were idly standing around. The Regulars followed behind the justices, out of earshot. Dagon felt less like the head of Mercury’s Elite Guard and more like a tour guide from Ambrosia’s Museum of Antiquities. And over here we have a giant crater left when one of Poterit Dan’s bombs hit. Why, yes. Yes, that used to be a grocery store, Dagon exhaled sharply, and said, “as we approach the center of Avalona, you’ll understand the true extent of the devastation. Justices, it may be possible, at some future date to rebuild. But, I doubt anyone will ever want to live here again. So few survived. I don’t know who would do the rebuilding.”
“So, now you’re a city planner?” Adonis mocked.
Dagon ignored the comment. He was thankful that the other justices were tight-lipped and wide-eyed. Each had already given years to the judicial system and in the resultant time had seen firsthand the sick depravities of which people are capable. Not one, not even Adonis, had ever been exposed to such blatant slaughter. The people of Avalona never had a chance to defend themselves. Not against destruction that fell from the skies. At the civic center, Dagon noticed tears in a couple of the justices’ eyes. And, the smug look had finally vanished from Adonis’ face. “The focal point of the attack was here,” he held both hands, palms up, “where the majority of the citizens were housed.” All around them emergency crews darted back and forth, covered in soot, dirt, and unthinkable grime. Two men pulled the partially charred remains of an elderly man out from under what may have been a door or perhaps just wood siding. Across the destroyed street a woman wearing paramedic coveralls sat in front of a collapsed apartment building, rocking with the limp body of a small child in her arms. Closer to the old market square, a dead young man was draped over the remnants of the local court’s steel support structure.
“I’ve seen quite enough,” Justice Jo Casta announced. Her already pale skin was completely drained of color. “Colonel,” she managed to say without sobbing, though her cheeks were streaked, “take us back.”