Raymund Bastion strode down the hall on the 29th floor of the Iwajim capitol building. He paused briefly to glance into each of the offices lining the long hall then moved to the next. In one small office, a young blond woman sat at a desk facing the door. He was about to move on until she looked up from her computer terminal.
“Raymund, hello. You looking for someone?” Her red lips spread into a broad smile.
Raymund hesitated, looking down the hallway then back to the young woman. His eyes searched the office nervously and never quite made contact with her. She folded her hands on the desk, the smile never leaving her face. She was young and pretty, her hair pulled into a neat bun on the top of her head.
“Caressa,” he said. Pausing, he looked down at his shoes. “I’m looking for Secretary Pallo.”
“Are you telling me you lost your own boss?” She giggled and leaned forward on her elbows, her low-cut dress revealing flawless cleavage. “He stopped by about an hour ago.” She poked a neatly manicured, red thumb-nail to one side. “Said he was heading to the conference room near the elevator.”
“Really?” Raymund looked up, made eye contact, and jerked his head to one side, aiming his gaze down the hall. “What’s that all about?”
“I saw Admiral Salles down there,” Clarissa said. She lowered her voice and held her hand next to her mouth. “Must be a hush-hush strategy meeting, you know?”
“He didn’t tell me about a meeting,” Raymond said still looking down the hall.
“Is he keeping you in the dark again, Raymund?” When he didn’t respond right away, she tapped her knuckles on the top of her desk. “Raymund.”
He looked at her, blinking rapidly.
“You don’t have to avoid me,” she said, her smile fading. “We still work together.”
Raymund swallowed, his blue eyes searching her face.
“Maybe…” He let the word draw out. “Maybe the Admiral will be at the ceremony. Thanks.” He turned and started down the hall.
She sighed, rolled her eyes and looked down at the top of her desk.
“Good luck with that,” she said to herself.
Raymund continued along the hall at a brisk pace, ignoring the remaining offices. The hallway widened out and a large door to his right opened. Pallo stepped out followed by Salles and Gascon.
“Secretary Pallo,” Raymund said as he stepped up. Pallo looked up, startled. Raymund was about to speak, but Pallo held up a hand and looked at Salles.
“Excuse us a moment, Admiral,” Pallo said.
Salles nodded and stepped down the hall followed by the Captain. Pallo turned back to Raymund.
“I wasn’t aware you had a meeting this morning, sir,” Raymund said. “I didn’t see it on your schedule.”
“It was a classified, Raymund,” Pallo said, clearing his throat. “I don’t like advertising that on my schedule.”
“I understand, sir,” Raymund said. “It’s just that I wasn’t aware of it. I do have the appropriate clearances.”
“There is also need to know, and you didn’t need to know,” Pallo said. “Besides, you’ve been working on the Anniversary celebrations, and I didn’t want to bother you with wartime affairs.” He gazed up at Raymund through the thick lenses of his glasses. “How’s that going?”
“Very well, sir,” Raymund said. “I was on my way down to the lobby to kick off the event.” He glanced at the Admiral waiting by the elevator. “Will you and Admiral Salles be attending, sir?”
“No,” Pallo said. “I know you’ll do a great job with it, Raymund. I trust you. The Admiral and I are going to lunch. Do you have anything you need to discuss with me before I go?”
“Well, sir, it’s personal, but I took the next two weeks off for the holiday,” Raymund said. “My family’s downstairs, and we plan to stay with Pulette’s sister out on the heights. I was hoping to get an early start to beat the traffic out of the city.”
“That’s a fine idea, Raymund. You’ve been working hard. As long as you have my schedule done for the next week, you can take the rest of the day.”
“Your schedule is ready and available, sir,” Raymund said.
“Alright then, you can leave early.” Pallo smiled and patted Raymund’s shoulder. “Please give Minister Camille my best. Good luck with the ceremony, and I will try to catch it on the television later.”
****
The girl brushed a strand of dark hair out of her eyes as she gazed up at the mural. It was a depiction of a battle, she had been told, that occurred a hundred years ago on the spot where she stood — on Montmar Hill. Of course, the capitol building had not been there at the time, built after the fact as a monument to that battle as well as serving as a place of government. The ground floor was two stories, providing ample room for the mural wall, fountains, green plants, and tall trees. Today, it was packed with visitors seeking shelter from the heat of the day and waiting for the ceremony to begin on the front steps of the building. She stood in front of a splashing fountain, her shiny black shoes on beige, marble floors. Adults and children moved past her, a mother snapped at small boy warning him not to run. The child lost his footing and fell face first onto the floor, sliding to a stop next to the girl. She glanced down at the surprised, but otherwise unhurt boy as his mother pulled him to his feet, admonishing him for not listening.
Rolling her eyes, she turned her attention back to the painting, gazing at it from under the brim of her floppy hat. Human figures, dressed in mottled brown, armor suits, crouched behind barricades atop a tall hill, aiming and firing their weapons at larger figures charging up the side. The larger attackers were dressed in gray armor and carried massive, multi-barreled weapons. Their armored suits had pointed spikes on their knees and elbows with a row of black spikes curving up their backs. Elongated helmets fully covered their heads which appeared too massive for their bodies. They were animated and seemed to run in an animal-like lope, using their free hand as a third leg. Several lay dead, blown apart and torn up, at the base of the hill and along it’s sides. Where their armor was torn away, she could see brown, scaly skin. A decapitated head lay on the hillside, a jagged hole exposed a lizard-like face, a long, black tongue lolling from between sharp, hooked teeth, and a round, lidless eye. Among the human defenders, there were no dead bodies, though some of them appeared to have wounds and tattered armor. Below their helmets, their faces bore grim determination as they rained fire and destruction down onto the alien attackers.
Above all this, so far up the wall she had to tilt her head back and lift the brim of her hat to see, warships orbited the planet. The largest of them fired on the other warships and down into the swarm of attacking aliens.
An old man dressed in a brown uniform with a badge and a holstered pistol strolled past her, his hands clasped behind his back. He took notice of the young girl, stopped behind her and looked up at the mural.
“They’re pretty scary, don’t you think?” he said.
She frowned, not taking her eyes off the mural.
“I don’t know, it’s just a picture,” she said. “I’ve never seen one for real.”
“True,” he said. “I guess you have to see them in person to appreciate how scary they were.”
She looked at the guard over her shoulder.
“Did you ever see one for real?”
“I saw some dead ones,” he said. “And a few live ones, but from a distance.” He smiled at her. “Anybody that got too close isn’t around to talk about it.”
“You fought the Seretchka?”
“Many years ago when I was a very young man. Right here on Montmar Hill.”
She looked back at the mural. “Which one of those guys is you?”
“Well, now, let’s see.” He pretended to study the painting, then pointed. “I’ve been told that I’m the short one there, standing behind that big gun and shooting at those Lizards charging up the back side of the hill.”
Marguerite gazed up at the indicated figure. It looked like a boy wearing an over-sized set of armor. The helmet was huge on him and obscured his features, almost covering his eyes. The figure held onto the handles of a tripod-mounted gun so tightly, his knuckles appeared to be bursting from the backs of his hands. His lips were drawn back, his jaw muscles knotting and his teeth clenched in a solid line. She looked back at the security guard and wrinkled her nose.
“Are you sure? You don’t look much like him.”
“That was a hundred years ago,” he said, laughing. “I was a young man; really just a boy. Honestly, I don’t recognize myself anymore.”
She looked back up at the mural. “I suppose it could be you. I’m glad they didn’t get you. I’m glad you were able to win so we could live here on Iwajim.” She turned to face the guard. “Are you going to fight the Republic if they come here?”
His smile faded.
“What’s your name, young lady? Are you here with someone?”
“Marguerite Bastion,” she said. “My mother’s over by the elevator, and my father works here.”
He squinted through the crowd. “Your father must be Raymund Bastion?”
“Yes he is, do you know him?”
“I’ve known your father for many years, Marguerite,” he said. He leaned over and lowered his voice. “My name is Ethan Argus, and if the Republic ever dares to set foot on Iwajim, I will fight them to my last breath. You can be sure of that.”
****
The scene around Montmar hill was quite different from what it had been one hundred years ago when that battle occurred. Today, it was topped by 30 stories of glass and steel, and surrounded by the city of Seulfort. As it had been every year, and more so today, Montmar became the center of attention for thousands of it’s citizens. Dressed in their finest clothing, Iwaj families joined hands and hiked from their air conditioned homes to the peak of Montmar to celebrate the anniversary of that battle. The women wore long, colorful dresses, floppy hats, and carried white parasols to shade them from the brutal day-time sun. The men wore light-colored suits and broad-brimmed hats. Energized by the excitement of the event, the children ran amongst them, playing tag and greeting school-mates and friends as if they had not seen them just that morning.
Inside the cool lobby of the capitol building, Raymund stepped next to his wife, Pulette, and took her hand. She glanced at him, fleetingly, her eyes turning to the crowd. She spotted Marguerite and waved for her to come over. He squeezed her hand and she gave him a tight lipped smile, squared up her chin, and looked straight ahead. Marguerite came up beside him and slipped her hand into his. Gazing up at her father, she grinned with excitement.
“Ready for this, sweetheart?” Raymund asked.
“I’m ready,” she said, confidently.
Raymund pumped her hand and looked back at the lined face of Ethan Argus. Ethan pursed his lips, glanced about uncomfortably, and poked a finger behind his collar.
“Are you ready, Ethan?” Raymund asked.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said, dropping his hands to his sides.
With Marguerite and Pulette in hand and Ethan following, Raymund led the way through the crowded lobby to the front doors. As they passed, the crowd parted respectfully and people wished them luck. Ethan avoided their reaching hands as they attempted to pat his shoulders and back with encouragement. Pulette nodded and smiled politely. Through the broad expanse of the glass doors, they had a darkened view of the crowd outside. Once they reached the doors, which were flung open by two security guards, the intense light of the noon sun blinded them, and the cheering of the crowd outside deafened them. The afternoon heat blasted them as they stepped forward and to a raised stage constructed to one side of the main doors. Marguerite shaded her eyes with her free hand. Ethan, looking like a frightened animal, hesitated at the door and seemed ready to turn back. Raymund smiled broadly and raised both arms holding the hands of his daughter and wife in the air. The roar increased in intensity for a moment as the crowd acknowledged them.
Raymond dropped his arms, and Marguerite and Pulette were ushered to one side by a security officer. Raymund grabbed the stair railing leading up to the stage, topped with a glass podium and microphone. Ethan started to follow Pulette, but was redirected to the stage. As they mounted the steps, the noise from the crowd rose in volume. Raymund stepped confidently to the microphone, but Ethan stepped to the rear to take cover. Raymund backtracked, and with a firm hand on Ethan’s shoulder, guided him forward.
Taking Ethan’s hand in his, he raised it high in the air. Behind them, the capitol building gleaming in magnificent glory. Hung on either side of the door, gold and white banners, Iwajim’s colors, proclaimed 100 years of independence. Suspended above the glass doors, almost seeming to hang in space, was a rectangular, white marble plaque with the words, “We Stand Alone – We Stand Strong” carved in black lettering.
On the broad, white marble steps leading up to the stage, the press corps was tightly packed, jostling one another, snapping pictures, cameras, equipment, and cables arranged chaotically. At the base of the steps, separated by a barricade and guards in brown uniforms, the broad walkway was jammed with the cheering and clapping citizens of Iwajim. The sidewalk was bordered by dark green grass and tall, looming trees surrounded by clusters of people seeking shade. Behind that was more stairs and a sidewalk that serpentined down the side of Montmar Hill and into Seulfort below. From his vantage point atop Montmar, Raymund could see the vast, sprawling metropolis of over three million inhabitants. The floor of the valley was covered in buildings, crisscrossed with streets and lush green belts of trees and grassy parks. The broad Tarne river wound from the distant, snow covered mountains directly towards Montmar Hill, cutting to the right before spilling onto the muddy delta behind them.
Raymund stepped up to the podium and raised his hands in the air, palms out. The noise from the crowd gradually lessened until it was quiet enough for him to speak. He adjusted the microphone to his lips.
“Citizens of Seulfort, Iwajim, and members of our great Confederacy.” His voice boomed through the speakers. “Welcome one and all to this, the 100th anniversary of our victory over the Seretchka Empire.”
Cheers again rose up from the crowd, and Raymund stood back, smiling, his eyes searching the faces of the crowd. He allowed about a minute of cheering and clapping before again raising his arms to quiet the crowd.
“The battle fought here upon this very ground, the Battle of Montmar Hill, marks an historic moment in our history. This was our last and final battle with the Seretchka. What was achieved here, one hundred years ago, by just a handful of men, marked a new beginning. That event symbolizes humankind’s final release from 324 years of horror and tyranny.”
Thunderous cheering rose up from the crowd, again lasting several minutes. Marguerite, grinning broadly, covered her ears. Raymund gazed with pride over the crowd. Ethan pulled at his collar, looking around as if trying to find a place to hide. When the crowd finally quieted, Raymund continued.
“When the smoke cleared from that final battle, out of 8,134 settlers and 885 warriors, only 218 citizens and 11 warriors were left standing.” He paused, his eyes scanning the crowd, allowing them to appreciate the magnitude of the loss. Not a single person spoke, the quiet broken only by the sound of the breeze flowing by and the cry of an infant.
“Today, one hundred years later, one warrior remains to tell the story. Although just a young man at the time of the battle, he was instrumental in achieving victory. In fact,” Raymund said, turning to look at Ethan. “If it were not for his actions that day, it is unlikely we would be standing here today.” He turned back to the crowd, holding his hand out. “Struggled to repel the final Seretchka assault from this very spot, the last ten warriors were unaware that five Seretchka had circled to the rear of the hill, intent on attacking and slaughtering the helpless women and children they were defending. On observing the Seretchka charging up the hill from the rear, this young man took control of a heavy weapon, killed the five attackers, and turned the tide of the battle. Because of his selfless, courageous act, he was awarded our highest honor, the Medal of Valor.” Turning to Ethan, Raymund gripped his shoulder and drew him closer to the microphone. “Citizens of Iwajim, I give you our own, Ethan Argus, the last living survivor of the Battle for Montmar Hill.”
Cheers and applause erupted from the crowd to such a level they rattled the windows of the building behind them. Raymund stepped back from the podium leaving Ethan alone. Ethan looked about, bewildered, tugging on his collar and blinking with moist eyes. The cheers and clapping continued, with Ethan looking more and more uncomfortable as the time elapsed. Finally, Raymund raised an arm and the crowd quieted.
Ethan stepped to the microphone, cleared his throat, and looked down at his feet. He opened his mouth to speak, then glanced back at Raymund who smiled and nodded.
“Um, thanks,” he said, clearing his throat. “Thank you so much.”
“Thank you, Ethan,” someone yelled from the crowd. This was met with a chorus of applause and people yelling, “Thank you, thank you, Ethan.”
He nodded his head, his jaw clenched, his cheeks bulging.
“Well, I’m still here, but I was only… seventeen at the time. Everyone else was… older.” He paused and looked out at the sea of sun hats unbrellas, and faces hidden in shadow. “I miss them so much; a lot more now that they are passed. Delmon Rubin, Chandler Bex, Julien Hait, Michel Brassel, Viollet Lang, Diandre Saline, Ettie Cosse, Lander Simon, Corby Duprey, and Burke DeGuy.” He read the names off slowly. “Ettie passed eleven years ago now. She was an anomaly. We called her Amazon Woman.” The crowd laughed in recognition. “She was just a tiny girl, but had a heart the size of a star. Why she agreed to marry… me. I will never… never know. But I miss her the most.” His voice broke and he covered his mouth with his hand, turning away from the podium.
“We love you Ethan,” a woman’s voice rang out, followed by others in confirmation.
Raymund stepped forward, patting Ethan on the back. After a moment Ethan stepped back to the microphone.
“It’s a privilege to live here, with all of you, on Iwajim. We inhabit a shining gem in the galaxy. There’s not a better place to be. I’m so proud of what we did that day…” He lowered his head and bit his lip.
“Tha… that’s all I can say.” He turned from the podium and stepped to the back of the stage. Raymund met him half way and hugged him warmly. The spell broken, the crowd applauded and cheered. Raymund gripped Ethan’s shoulders and smiled at him.
“Are you OK Ethan?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Ethan nodded. He passed a hand over his glistening face. “It’s the heat; I need to go inside.”
“Of course.” Raymund released him and Ethan stepped down from the stage and reentered the building without looking back. Raymund stepped back to the microphone.
“Thank you, Ethan Argus, for all that you did for us and for all you continue to do for Iwajim. And now, ladies and gentlemen, may I have the privilege of introducing the President of Iwajim, the Chancellor of the Confederated Systems, the honorable Sevrin Cerna.”
He turned his back to the crowd and tilted his head to look up at the tall expanse of glass. Starting at just above the white, marble plaque and extending up the side of the building to over half way up its 30 stories, the glass shimmered and darkened. In a moment, it was replaced with the image of a smiling, white-haired patriarch with thick, dark framed glasses, long white goatee, and white suit coat. The image was framed to show him from the chest up, a 150 foot demigod. He gazed out over the green Tarne Valley with amused, gleeful eyes.
“Thank you, thank you, citizens of Iwajim.” His deep voice rolled from the speakers mounted along the front of the building and rumbled across the valley. “Today marks the anniversary of our victory over the Seretchka Empire and the beginning of the freedom and independence of the human race. On this day, it is imperative that we acknowledge the role the people of Iwajim played in ending our slavery. We were, in fact, instrumental in the final destruction of the Seretchka war machine. No one can deny what history has shown.
“Unfortunately, while in the throes of our battle against the Seretchka invaders, the President of the Republic, Nathaniel Kane, ordered the fleet out of orbit and denied our ground troops the supporting fire they needed to defend against the Seretchka. He did this out of fear of a possible attack on the Republic capitol, Raveen. An attack that never came. It was a cowardly act, which resulted in the deaths of 8,790 Iwajim settlers and soldiers. 8,790 of our country-men. 8,790 loyal citizens of the Republic.”
He paused, his eyes seeming to touch the face of each person in the silent crowd.
“Were it not for the courageous Admiral Mattie Seulfort, who chose to ignore her orders and remain in orbit with a single battle cruiser, and the fortitude and endurance of our warriors on the ground, Iwajim would have been lost. The fight against the Seretchka would have continued for many years while the coward, President Kane, hid behind the fleet at Raveen.
“Today, we face similar trials in our efforts to throw off the yoke of oppression imposed upon us by the administration of Kane’s son. An illegal administration resulting from an fraudulent election and controlled by a corrupt and brutal government that still calls itself a republic. In truth, Christian Kane is a worthless dictator, and his Republic is, in truth, an empire held together by fear and military force. Our rebellion against the Republic is a fight to build a society of justice and freedom. A shining example for the rest of humanity.
“Citizens of Iwajim, celebrate this day as a reminder of the work we have done, and the work we have yet to accomplish. This battle will not be won quickly, but in the end, it will be won. We are traveling through a long and dark tunnel.” Cerna raised his eyes, and they became glassy, distant. “But I see ahead… a light… a light at the end of that tunnel. Every sacrifice brings us closer to true freedom and liberty. One day soon, we will emerge, and when we do, we will be bathed in the light of a free and peaceful Confederacy.”
He turned his eyes back to the crowd.
“We are Iwajim.”
“We stand alone,” the crowd chanted in unison. “We stand strong.”
Severan Cerna’s image faded and the crowd cheered and applauded.