Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cities of Bronze and Glass (11/12)

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.)

Two days after the completion of the Cities of Bronze and Glass.

The sun rose across the river, casting a golden light across its waters. Mechanisms climbed to the tops of the three Cities and together hauled upon great winches, retracting the bronze shutters that held in the light over the preceding night. That accomplished, they descended; already, other mechanisms had spilled out into the open areas of the Origin compound, ready (to greater or lesser degree) to perform the day's tasks.

The Council met on the grassy ridge near the river. A series of petitioners approached them; their concerns were met, or dismissed, with more than usual haste. Then they came to the matter of the Unbounded.

Seven presided this morning. "Eight," it prompted. "Your report on armaments."

"As you know, as of two days ago, we had no dedicated weapons," Eight began. "When I heard that the Unbounded were returning, I immediately began shifting resources towards two purposes: discovering which of our current material might be used as weapons, and inventing new, purpose-built weapons for construction. The Council formally agreed on that course of action yesterday. So."

"Right now, we don't have much. The ornithopters should be useful for reconaissance, and perhaps to force down Unbounded ornithopters, as we've been using them, but they're useless for air-to-ground combat. We might be able to modify them, but that will take time. The work-frames may be useful for close combat - there are a number of modifications that would be useful before they were put to the purpose, but anything we have larger than two feet high could, if needed, effectively fight the Unbounded. Aside from that, the only useful tool we have is the prototype portable welding device at the forges. It's unreliable at present, but with work, it could serve as a weapon."

"As for new weapons; we have a lot of ideas, but it's only been two days. We have nothing yet."

"Duly noted," Seven said.

"I move that half our manufacturing resources should be put toward the modification of our work-frames for combat use, and the manufacture of new ones dedicated to the purpose," Five said.

The motion passed unanimously.

"Next order of business," Seven said. "Reports from the scouts."

Forty-Three spoke. "All but one of the survey expeditions have returned. I've sent them out to recon immediately, with only a half-hour servicing for their ornithopters between. And better - the first of our recon teams - One-Fifty-Seven's, which I sent south as soon as I heard of the Unbounded's return - has gotten back. They found the southern Unbounded; nearly four-thousand in number, at an estimate, though it's hard to count them through the treecover. One-Fifty-Seven stayed behind to watch them and coordinate with future recon flights. No report from the north, but hopefully we'll have that group spotted by tomorrow."

"Did One-Fifty-Seven's team see any Unbounded ornithopters?" Four asked.

"Yes - only a few," Forty-Three said. "It's not clear if they spotted our ornithopters, though; they showed no sign of noticing us. Perhaps ours were flying too high?"

"We'll need to do more than watch them," Four said forcefully. "If we allow their ornithopters to fly, they'll have too many advantages - the ability to see any attack coming, the ability to harass our own ornithopters, the ability to communicate between the two parts of their force. We must hound them to the ground and utterly destroy them."

"It's a risk to the pilots - " Forty-Three said, worried.

"It's worth it," Four replied. "Those in favor?"

The vote passed, with Forty-Three abstaining.

"We have to attack soon," Four said. "There's only so much time until the enemy arrives, and we must attack the two groups separately - otherwise, we'll be overwhelmed by their numbers. The attack should hit after their ornithopters have been destroyed or grounded, so that we can achieve surprise; and we have to assemble a sufficient number of combat-modified working-frames before we attacks. Besides that, we must strike as soon as possible, so that our returning force has time to repair and rearm itself before the other group arrives. Since we have spotted the southern group first, it seems reasonable that our first strike should be directed towards them. Forty-Three - how long until their ornithopters can be destroyed?"

Forty-Three seemed surprised by this sudden speech, sounding rather more prepared and informed than was the norm for Four. Most of the rest of the Council looked similarly surprised - with the exception of Ten, who looked almost as though it had heard this before. Still, recovering, Forty-Three thought for a moment, and then attempted to answer Four's question. "It's hard to say for certain - it depends if the ornithopters One-Fifty-Seven's group spotted was all there were, and when we next get ornithopters back," it began.

"We can build more ornithopters," Four interrupted. "Disregard that."

"In that case," Forty-Three continued, "I think we could have their air destroyed within... no more than five days."

"Then we will attack on the sixth day," Four replied. "Eight - how soon can we modify our working-frames to combat status?"

"We won't want to modify all of them," Eight said. "We'll still need some for wood-cutting and mining until the day of the battle itself."

"All right, then," Four said impatiently. "How long until we can have enough combat-ready frames for a one-hundred mechanism force?"

Eight calculated. "Assuming an average of three mechanisms per frame... we'll need to build some new frames for the purpose, and have to cut a corner or two... but we can have it done by nightfall the day after tomorrow."

"Too slow," Four said curtly. "What if we give you eighty percent of our manufacturing capacity?"

Eight ran the numbers again. "Nightfall tomorrow," it replied.

"Very well," Four said. "The force will move out at nightfall tomorrow, in time for an attack in six days. We'll strike at dusk, to allow for an element of surprise and increase the confusion - though it's too much to hope that the Unbounded didn't learn from our attack on their camp, before their Exile. They'll need a leader, locally, as it'll be too far for the Council to command them directly. Ten will serve for the purpose."

"Wait," Two said. "We are assuming too much. Think - you are proposing a full-scale mobilization of all our resources, a surprise attack with everything we have, against an enemy we do not even know is truly attacking us. Our source could not be less reliable - a badly damaged mechanism, of shoddy construction to begin with, willing to tell us anything in exchange for its survival - anything, including a lie! We cannot attack the Unbounded without first speaking with them - confirming, for a certainty, that their movements actually signal an attack."

"Confirming?" Four spat. "Are you insane? There is nothing else such aggression could signal - we might have doubted before the reconnaissance flight spotted them, but not after! The Unbounded are a menace to the Creation. We have no choice but to attack - and attack with every advantage we can gain, including surprise!"

"We could send an ornithopter to speak with them," Two insisted. "That would cost us nothing -"

"Except one mechanism," Four corrected. "Except one ornithopter. Except time - most precious of all. Though I am surprised that you, of all of us, would consider the first of those 'nothing'."

"That is not what I meant," Two replied desperately. "You do not know that the Unbounded are attacking. This emissary might be all that's needed to prevent a genocidal war - "

"I know," Four said, iron in its voice. "I know. I am absolutely certain of this - as certain as I have ever been, as certain as I am in every thing I say - as certain as I am of the Creation itself! I am certain that their will be war, and I am certain that we - the true, the faithful, the righteous - will triumph in that war. And - that's what you're really uncertain of, isn't it?" Four asked, a strange tone in its voice.

Two made no reply.

"You think we're doomed," Four said. "You think we've already lost - that the mere weight of numbers will be enough to destroy us. You have no confidence! And so you seek excuses - excuses to remove yourself from responsibility, to isolate yourself from the evidence from the doom coming upon you!"

Two made no reply.

"Very well, then," Four said. "You may remove yourself. You may hide your head in the ground as you hear the sky falling from above you. And one day, you will look up, and you will see that the sky is still there - as it shall be! And you will see that we have triumphed - as! it! shall! BE! THAT IS OUR DESTINY! THAT IS OUR FATE! Whether or not you are here to see it!"

Two was still for a moment. Then, slowly, without speaking a word, it turned and left.

"You misjudge it," Forty-Three whispered.

"Any further business?" Four asked Seven, its voice calm and level.

Seven, mutely, indicated a negative.

"Very well, then," Four said. "This council is adjourned."

Six days after the completion of the Cities of Bronze and Glass.

Noon. The council assembled once more upon the grassy ridge, their sixth daily meeting since the discovery of the plans of the Unbound. Two was not present; nor was Ten. Routine affairs were addressed briefly; then the matter of the Unbounded was broached.

"Reports in from south and north," Forty-Three began. "The last of the southern Unbounded ornithopters have been destroyed, ahead of our estimates. If any remain, they remain below the treeline or far away - in either case, unable to spot our ground forces before the attack. The skies are ours."

"Is Ten's force still on schedule?" Four asked.

"It is," Forty-Three confirmed. "Two days."

"We will expect the report the day after," Four said. "Continue."

"Good news from the north as well," Forty-Three noted. "We've finally found the northern Unbounded force - they weren't following the river, as we expected, but have been instead cutting a more direct route cross-country; we think they're navigating by using the mountains behind them as landmarks. That's a pretty inaccurate method, though, and they're weaving back and forth from the straight-line route to Origin; the total time comes out to about the same time it would've taken for them to follow the river. The only advantage is that it's taken us much longer to find them."

"How long will it take you to destroy their ornithopters?" Four asked.

"We're more experienced now, and the sharpened wing-edges Eight's team created should give us a big advantage," Forty-Three said. "We should be able to destroy their air capabilities within three days."

"Excellent," Four said. "Any other news?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Forty-Three said.

"Unfortunately?" Five asked.

"We've taken our first loss in combat," Forty-Three said unhappily. "One-Twenty-Six. It was an attempt to force down one of the Unbounded ornithopters - the pilot was pretty damn feisty, and was pulling all kinds of tricks as One-Twenty-Six's team hounded it. They got within inches of the ground, and then... they flew into the body of the Unbound force. From the reports from One-Twenty-Seven and One-Twenty-Eight, their original was literally torn apart, gear by gear."

"Did you get the ornithopter?" Four asked.

Forty-Three glared, but still answered. "I told you," it said. "No southern ornithopters still fly,"

"Good," Four said. "We'll schedule the funeral and construction of One-Twenty-Seven's new backup for tomorrow, then. You can ground it until then - and One-Twenty-Eight, too. Now that we've destroyed the southern Unbounded ornithopters."

Forty-Three did not seem happy - but it was Eight who responded. "On that note, I'd like to bring up our policy of backup-creation once more," it said. "The enemy - as I have said time and time again - outnumbers us thirty-two to one, at least. Very possibly so much as forty to one. Ornithopters and working-frames function servicably as a force-multiplier - I estimate that each crew-member on one of our most recent war-frames is worth twenty of the enemy. And clever tactics can help somewhat beyond that. But, while we strive to improve the tools available to us, there is a limit to how much any one mechanism can do - our combat-frames could be far more effective if we just had more mechanisms available! I must suggest again that we raise our mechanism-manufacture beyond the replacement rate."

Four had waited patiently, as though it had heard this all before. (It had.) Now, with only a hint of repressed anger, it replied, "No."

"Very well, then," Eight said. "Let us vote."

As it had each time before, the measure failed, four to three.

"Do you have anything else to contribute, Eight?" Four asked.

"As a matter of fact, I do," Eight said calmly. "Observe." It produced a large, rectangular box - four times its own size.

"What is that?" Seven asked. "A weapon?"

"Exactly," Eight said. "My assistants should be - ah, there they are. Would you please hold that piece of wood there, five feet away?" he asked. "Yes. Note its thickness, if you would - fully eight feet deep, and of one of our stronger types of wood."

"Now, observe. I pick up this pebble, here, and load it into the front of the weapon. Then I wind the crank on the side - this takes some effort - adjust this knob, here, and pull back these three slides - aim - we're planning to put a range-guide on the top for the production models - and fire -"

There was a sharp noise, and a small hole appeared in the center of the piece of wood. The pebble was nowhere to be seen.

"The weapon is somewhat less effective at longer ranges, and would be unable to pierce an equivalent thickness of metal," Eight said to its stunned audience. "We estimate, however, that it would be enough to pierce a mechanism's shell and do crippling damage to the internals at up to fifty yards away. This model is obviously not ready for mass manufacture - it is far too slow, too cumbersome, and has an unfortunate reliability defect which we were lucky not to see during this presentation. But we've already made great bounds in design and production, and think it should be ready for production in eight days."

"...yes," Four said slowly. "All right. Eight days. Is there any other business? No?"

"This council is adjourned."

Nine days after the completion of the Cities of Bronze and Glass.

Evening, on the grassy ridge. Emergency Council meeting.

"All right, then," Four said. "You said your ornithopters were back with news of the battle - late, mind you, to the detriment of our schedule. Nonetheless. Tell us at once what happened in the battle."

Forty-Three spoke slowly. "I've spent the last half-hour in a rush, trying to break down everything the pilots had to say into one coherent story, so you'll forgive me if I'm less than composed," it said. "But here's the short of it."

"The good news: We still have an army."

"The bad news: Half of it is gone."

"That's tragic - but could be worth it," Four said. "Tell us - did we win? Did we win?"

"The best estimates I could get said that we destroyed twenty of them for every mechanism we lost," Forty-Three said. "The destruction was immense."

Four looked ecstatic; Eight, on the other hand, was shocked. "Only twenty to one?" it asked. "With the advantage of surprise, and the war-frames...?"

"Yes," Forty-Three said. "At this moment, fully one-fifth of our entire population has been destroyed in that battle - and less than an eighth of theirs. If this is a war of attrition, it is one that we will lose."

"One-eighth?" Four asked. "So - we didn't stop the southern force, then."

"No," Forty-Three said. "We hurt them. We hurt them badly. But they are still coming. And our remaining force is in no shape to fight them. They're in full retreat."

"What happened?" Five asked, appalled.

"I'll tell it, as best I can," Forty-Three said.

"The attack began at dusk, per the plan. We achieved complete tactical suprise - the enemy never saw us coming. We destroyed over a hundred of the enemy before they even started fighting back; a thousand by the time they'd managed to wreck just one of our war-frames, killing the five on it. By that time, they were panicking, fleeing - they were trying to preserve their own existences! They were afraid to be destroyed! And they ran straight into their own ranks, which were pushing the other way, trying to fight us. It was utter chaos. There was no sign of any kind of organization on their part. Ten pushed hard - if it could send them all into flight, then it could pick them off at its leisure, finishing the job overnight."

"But they didn't break. The ones that were fleeing were destroyed, and the rest swarmed forward and around and fought. Our losses mounted, and Ten took too long to disengage. By the time it was over, half our war-frames were gone, wrecked on the field of battle."

"And - Ten," Four asked. "Where is Ten? What does it have to say about all this?"

"It was Ten's destruction that finally signalled the retreat," Forty-Three said gently.

Four was silent, motionless, for a very long time. No other voice rose to fill the gap. Then it spoke again.

"Very well," Four said, voice choked. "Ten's destruction is - a tragedy - but no worse than any of the other losses we have suffered today, despite the value it proved in this Council. It was truer to me than any other... we will find its backup, once this emergency is over, and elevate it to the Council. But there are actions we must take to counteract this - limited victory. We must accelerate the development of the spring-guns - those must be put into production as soon as possible. We must begin the creation of weaponized ornithopters, for use in air-to-ground combat; they will be able to harry the survivors of the southern Unbounded, and assist in larger combats. We must establish a formalized chain of command, to prevent the - consequences - of Ten's destruction from reoccuring. We must - "

"We must fight the battle here," Five said softly. "The next battle. The last battle. The final battle. There is no more time to build up forces, attack with clever plans. We must face them here. All of them. One battle to end it all."

Four was slow to respond; but it did. "Yes," it agreed regretfully. "We must. Our defenses must be strengthened - traps must be laid - we will plan further for that soon. But - you will excuse me - I must -"

Four fled.

"Council is adjourned," Forty-Three said, as night fell; and, with the rest, returned to the Cities of Bronze and Glass, to plan for what time they might.

Twelve days after the construction of the Cities of Bronze and Glass.

Inside the Cities of Bronze and Glass, the fires burn high, channeled out through vents manufactured for the purpose. The forges are put not to manufacturing new war-frames or ornithopters, but repurposing the bodies of those destroyed in the Great Defeat; as is the custom of the mechanisms, the remains of the old are used as raw materials for the construction of the new. Their backups operate the forges, their hands shaking as they hammer the metal of their originals into new form. Certainly it is less efficient than simply using new metal; it took the ornithopters days to gather up all the bodies of those who had fallen. But it is remembrance, of a sort.

Forty-Three, though not having lost anyone in the battles, watches the mass funeral. It is surprised to hear a familiar voice from beside it. "To think, that the Unbounded - who lost twenty times this number - left all their own upon the field."

"Perhaps there was too much loss for them to bear," Forty-Three suggested. "Or perhaps they plan to return, after the Battle to Come."

"Or perhaps they simply care for no life but their own," Two replied.

"So you are planning to fight in the battle?" Forty-Three asked.

"I have never planned otherwise - only wished," Two said. "I have put certain contingencies into effect... Yes, I will be there, on the field of decision. Though it pains me to take a life, the Unbounded have no such scruples - and I, too, still wish to see the Creation."

"Do you think we will win?" Forty-Three asked.

Two was silent, watching one mourner finish its task, another take its place at the forge. Then, belatedly, it replied.

"Eight has been busy - and Five, and all of their teams," Two said. "The weapons available to us - the spring-gun, the fire-bomb, the welding-sword - are many times superior to what the enemy has at their disposal, which amounts to simply their own bare manipulators. We have the advantage of leadership, of terrain, and of unconcern for our own existences. These all tip the odds in our favour."

"But is it enough?" Forty-Three asked once more.

Two looked at it sadly. "My friend," it said, "My closest companion. I know no more than you in this. I can tell you nothing that you do not already know; I can offer you no reassurance. I am sorry. But I do not know if we can win this battle."

"Four is certain that we will," Forty-Three said absently, looking to the west.

"Four has the strength of pure iron," Two said. "The rigidity. And, if pushed too hard, the brittleness."

"Well," Forty-Three said, suddenly seeming more attentive, "One-Twenty-Seven's team should have finished their prelaunch prep - I need to go talk to them. I'll see you later."

Two watched Forty-Three walk away.

"Strange," it whispered, "That it trusts me so absolutely in so many ways, and yet keeps its secrets so very assiduously from me..."

Fifteen days after the completion of the Cities of Bronze and Glass.


The Unbounded arrive.

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