As Sumat looked in the mirror, he was reminded once again of how difficult this was going to be. Meeting with Durand had taught him a great deal, and he was thankful for the advice on how to handle his position, but looking in the mirror he felt a profound sadness. His cheeks bore only the faintest of stubble. Under the camo wrap that covered his head, his hair was so short.
Sumat only felt shame over his reflection. But life was full of compromises. He would suffer this for now in the sake of unity.
He’d been fascinated by the Christian missionaries as a young child. The way they talked, their mannerisms, the similarities between their religions. His parents had worried that he would convert, but the thought had honestly not crossed his mind even once. His faith was absolute.
He had joined the military as soon as he could, and his obsession with the English language had served him well. He thought that he’d finally gotten a lucky break when he’d been attached to a diplomatic mission to America. He could finally see the world that the missionaries had so often talked about.
And then… Scion.
There had been so much chaos. So much insanity. So many brave people fighting and dying, with him stuck there. He could do nothing for India, trapped here. He could do nothing for anyone.
There had been those who did. Not the parahumans, but the Dragons Teeth. They fought while the parahumans licked their wounds. They knew that the battle was futile, but they bravely went anyway. So many of them died, but they had scored a blow, and forced the monster to use a new power to defeat them.
Even after it all, when he finally made it back home, even after learning his family was dead, even after witnessing the devastation, that image of those wounded men wearing molten metal stayed with him. A slow, creeping disillusionment with how the parahumans behaved, trying to cling to the old ways. Ways that somehow felt like they wouldn’t work any more.
And then, one day the Dragon’s Teeth came. The moment that he recognized that armor, he ran back to the home he had built with his own two hands, retrieved his tattered uniform, and approached them to join their ranks. And they made him an officer for it.
That was the bitter irony of it all. He never would have been respected this way in the old world, but now, he was someone important. Just because he had served in the military, and because someone had seen a spark in him, they decided that he was worthy.
He rose through the ranks quickly, serving under General Fischer. Sumat learned a lot from the man. Fischer spoke in great depth to the people there about the duty to humanity, to responsibility. He would rather oversee the day-to-day operations of the Dragon’s Teeth, but he understood that India was different than Germany. He let his people handle that, and instead focused on both dealing with the individual towns and villages, and with the global objectives of the Dragon’s Teeth.
Fischer had pushed Sumat’s promotion to Brigadier General. He still wasn’t sure if he was happy about that or not, or the circumstances behind it.
And now here he was in a strange, almost-familiar land, looking at an image of himself that made him want to cry. The world had changed so much.
There was a beeping at his desk. “Sir, your first appointment is here to see you.”
Right. He touched the wrap that barely felt like it counted as a turban, then took a moment to straighten his uniform. So drab compared to when he’d been in the Army. With a nod to himself, he moved to his desk. “Send them in.”
The door opened and two people entered. Immediately, he recognized both of them. Commander Elizabeth Schluter, East Coast US Recruitment. Dark hair with streaks of blonde in it, tied up in a bun. She was showing her age a bit, but that was understandable. Especially with a job as stressful as a Commander’s.
Conversely, Commander William Van Dorn was a dark-haired man whose beard and hair didn’t show any betrayal of his age. There were wrinkles there, but not enough to make you think that he was one of the original Dragon’s Teeth. There was the slightest of limps to his gait; Sumat wondered about that.
Sumat actually felt a pang of envy over Van Dorn’s beard, once again feeling a bit of shame over his own face. He couldn’t wait for the first two months to be over so that this display could be done.
“General Gill,” Schluter said, snapping a salute. Van Dorn was only half a heartbeat behind her.
Sumat returned the salute before gesturing vaguely to the chairs. “Please, sit.”
As soon as the three of them were settled again, Van Dorn was leaning forward. “Sir, I’d like to perform one of our more unofficial customs, if I may?”
“Only if you relax,” Sumat said with a smile. “I’m not so uptight as people might think.”
That earned a pair of smiles, as Van Dorn came up with leather-wrapped bundle. “It started with the Mid-American Resource Acquisition due to their dealings with Twain.”
“The Tinker city,” Sumat said. He’d crammed so much information into his head in the past few weeks, names might as well all be gibberish at this point.
But Van Dorn nodded sagely. “Mostly. They do a lot of production of non-Tinker things, supplying us with things like ballpoint pens. But the city is horribly corrupt, and you need a bribe of some sort just to get a meeting. For those officers who have dealings there, it becomes so pervaliant to give ‘gifts’ that they began to do it with officers.”
Sumat frowned, but Van Dorn smiled warmly. “Relax. It got cracked down on rather quickly. But for our department, it became tradition to give a gift when someone was promoted to a superior position. When Commander Schluter found out that you were a Sikh, I knew exactly what to give.”
Sumat cautiously took the package and carefully unwrapped it… only to find a knife and a small bottle of liquid inside. Interesting — had Van Dorn or Schluter done their research?
“Drizzle some oil across the blade,” Schluter said helpfully.
He hated surprises like this, but he supposed that it didn’t matter. After unsheathing the knife, he opened the bottle and carefully let a small, thin stream spread across the blade. Almost instantly, a hexagonal pattern emerged on the metal. He brought it closer for inspection, only to find that there were smaller hexagons inside. The more intently he stared, the deeper the hexagons seemed to go.
“Interesting,” Sumat said, nodding slowly. “Is this Tinker made?”
“Good eye,” Schluter said with a smile. “William has a resource that makes them for us. They’re extra durable, and you never have to worry about sharpening it. Just be careful with it — there isn’t much that it won’t cut through.”
Sumat nodded before wiping the blade off and sheathing it again. “Thank you very much, but please don’t think this will change our working relationship.”
Van Dorn chuckled softly. “It won’t, I know. I’d be angry if it did. But we usually don’t get foreign Brigadier Generals, and I thought that since you’re so far from home, a gift would be nice.”
He was, admittedly, far from home. But… this was a good chance to lead into what he needed to say.
“No doubt, people are curious. I’ll go ahead and tell the two of you. Brigadier General Marks had a minor heart attack shortly after the, ah, Agamemnon Incident, was it?”
“You got that right,” Schluter said.
Good. Good. He could be more confident about it in the future, then. “It wasn’t a bad heart attack, and surgery isn’t necessary, but it was enough to remind him of his own mortality. It took a while, but he decided to retire.”
“Understandable,” Schluter mused. “His grandson just started to walk, so I’m not surprised.”
Sumat smiled, though it wasn’t a pleased smile at all. “Meanwhile, the Dragon’s Teeth have been gaining a very strong influence in India. Many of the parahumans there still wish to behave in the same ways as before Gold Morning, but there is a growing intolerance for that. People would rather have something akin the Wardens, though with certain changes. Since people are either paranoid or dismissive of their antics, they have been increasingly turning to us.
“There are a growing number of villages where the Dragon’s Teeth are now the effective government.”
Van Dorn straightened himself suddenly, his eyes going wide. Schluter didn’t batt an eye. How much did she know about the situation in India? Curious.
He needed to keep on this, though. “With how much support the Dragon’s Teeth are getting in India, they’ve been wanting to have a larger global presence.”
“Which is where you come in,” Van Dorn said. But he wasn’t looking at Sumat; his eyes were vaguely unfocused, calculating.
“Yes.” Sumat sighed softly. “I speak English fluently, I had spent time here, and I was a natural choice. Post someone in America, at the heart of power for the Dragon’s Teeth. It makes people back home happy, even if I might not be right for the job.”
Schluter inhaled, but he held up his hand to stop her.
“It is my opinion that we should have waited until I was higher ranked before posting me to an English-speaking region. To not disturb the current trends.” When someone reached the rank of General, they were posted to another country outside of their own. Often, this would mean that they had to be fluent in that region’s native language, making a promotion from Lieutenant General to General a rarity.
It was funny, in a way. Many governments had collapsed after Gold Morning, but people still defined themselves as a nationality, even if they rejected what remained of the governments. It got even more complicated when you factored in alternate Earths.
“You’d rather not have your promotion be a political convenience,” Schluter said thoughtfully. “That’s respectable.”
“Thank you,” he said with a bow of his head. “But the decision was made for me. We all serve, even if we do not like what we are assigned.”
“Here here,” Van Dorn said, squaring his jaw. An interesting reaction, but Sumat had been warned that the man was old-world military like himself.
“Before the ceremony yesterday, I spent a month with Marks. He wished to prepare me as best he could for my position here. Briefing me on how he has run things, the basics of the political situations, projects, and also personnel. Which is where the two of you come in.”
The two of them braced themselves. Good.
“Out of all of the personnel directly beneath me, he suggested that the two of you would have the most unique and complimentary insights. You argue and bicker, but use that without becoming antagonistic or competitive. That I could ask the two of you a question, and though you might have vastly different opinions, you would not hold it against each other. And neither of you would suck up to me or try to use me to your advantage.”
“I’ll use you,” Van Dorn said quickly. Both Sumat and Schluter looked at him in surprise. “I’ll openly admit it. But the difference is, I won’t use you for myself. The Dragon’s Teeth are my life, as much as my children are. I’ll gladly use you for whatever I feel will have the best results for us.”
“He’s also an asshole,” Schluter said pleasantly.
“So I see.” Sumat was pleased that they both grinned. Humor wasn’t a universal in the world, and he was struggling to relearn the American style. “Good. Then I’ll ask you first and foremost, what do you believe our current biggest concerns are?”
“We’re naturally going to say our individual branches,” Van Dorn observed.
Schluter nodded. “We’re always short on personnel and resources. That’s always going to be the case. But beyond that, I’m actually going to say the railroads that Van Dorn has been so eagerly working with the Engineer Corps on.
“We don’t have the organic growth of companies like when railroads first became a real thing in America. Because of that, getting the people to design and build them, the proper surveys of the chasms, the rail made and transported… It’s been insanely difficult. However, if we can get those up and running in both Earth Bet and Gimmel between major population centers, it will make life easier for everyone.
“If we can get them up and running, then we can also ease a bit of our reliance on charging communities for our support.”
Van Dorn nodded. “She’s right, that is vital. However, I see other pressing concerns. We need better public relations as well. Everyone in North America sees the Dragon’s Teeth as soldiers or police first, and rarely see us as a method to help rebuild. We’re going to need to change that if we’re going to move into the future. We also need to look into establishing more…”
He let his words trail off, shaking his head slowly. “I guess communities would be the best word. We need to stake some claims somewhere. Right now, over 70 percent of our food comes from contracts. Most of what remains from that comes from purchases. Only five percent of our food comes from what we produce ourselves.
“It’s a huge drain for us. But in order to do that, again, we need better PR campaigns in order to get the people willing to farm for us. If we can push ourselves to even fifteen percent, it’ll free up huge amounts of resources.
“Beyond that, we’re also going to need more research done. I may occasionally mock the Department of Research and Development, but the Practical Applications division is of the utmost importance to us.
“Lastly, I think we may need to take an official stance on the political powers here on the East Coast. Boston considers itself the capital of the United States of America, and may have the most legitimate claim to it. They’re drawing a lot of Bet communities into it. However, there are other places that make the same claim. It’s problematic, and eventually we’re going to be forced to make a decision. Eventually, they’ll clash. We need to be prepared.”
Van Dorn paused a moment before shrugging. “But that’s probably beyond the pay grade of everyone in this room.”
“Quite,” Sumat said, nodding slowly. “But it’s something for me to look into. It’s good to keep these things in mind.” He paused for a moment to make a few notes. “What’s our situation with…” Name. Name. “The place that the friends of Khepri made?”
“That Lisa Wilbourn is in charge of,” Schluter corrected. “New Brockton. They have an official government, but the whole body of government is under her thumb.”
“New Brockton accepts us with open arms,” Van Dorn said quickly. “As much as they do with the Wardens. Their contract with the Dragon’s Teeth is generous, but it could always be better. We aren’t charged for our headquarters there, and so long as we help to uphold the local laws, we’re given free reign to do as we please.”
Sumat nodded again, making more notes. “Is there anything that I should be concerned about?”
Van Dorn shook his head. “She sees the necessity of the Dragon’s Teeth, and allows us to operate the prisons as we see fit. I may not like her, but we’d probably be in a much worse position if not for her support.”
“She rubs people the wrong way,” Schluter explained. “The Commander in charge of our facilities there says that she’s a good person once you get to know her, but it’s very easy to clash with her initially. If you plan on meeting her, remember that while she might be arrogant and flaunt her knowledge, she does have humanity’s best interests at heart.”
Sumat made a few more notes, but that fit in with what Marks had told him. “Thank you. Now, how is recruitment?”
Schluter sighed softly. “Not as good as it could be, but that’s normal. Typically, we see a surge of recruits during the winter, but they’re usually not the best. Often, we have to spend extra time teaching them. During the spring we do see a few, but it typically gets weak as seasonal work picks up.
“The issue is that when we first started, so few people had the practical skills that we needed. Too many computer programmers and fast food employees survived Armageddon, and not enough civil engineers or architects. We’re still playing a desperate catch up game.
“Fortunately, we’ve finally reached the point where our retention is over 90 percent. Once in, few people are mustering out. Unfortunately, we’re running out of places for troopers who are injured in the line of duty and can’t return to a combat role.”
“Then I’ll talk to everyone to see if we can begin seeding startup communities with them.” Sumat looked between the two of them. “The Dragon’s Teeth that I’m used to is different than the one here in America, but there are core values that are the same. We look after our own.
“What do the two of you think about me trying to set up an interior campaign to put those who are no longer capable of doing their jobs into a community so that they can still be full members while contributing to the organization as a whole?”
“It’s an idea,” Schluter said, her face folding into a deep frown. “I’m not sure how it would be received by the rank and file, though. A lot of them are hopeful of joining the Endless.”
Van Dorn spoke up in a thoughtful voice. “Perhaps if we move some of our physical therapy facilities to these locations? Not all of them, mind you, but a few. Treat it as a method of working themselves back up to duty as a trooper or an Endless if possible.”
“I’m not willing to sign off on it yet,” Sumat said quickly. “Until I get more settled in my role, I’ll be running everything past at least Major General Fisher. However, I personally find Americans to be prideful people.” And lazy, but he didn’t want to say anything — he was finding that it was changing anyway.
“I believe that if we make it a matter of pride that we provide for ourselves, and use it as at least a belief that it’s a position that those who do it can be proud of… Perhaps we can encourage people through that.”
Van Dorn shook his head a little. “Just be warned, I can see a million ways that it might not work.”
“Then write them up and give them to me. Before I make a decision, I want to know all the ways that it could go wrong.” Sumat paused a moment. “In a respectful manner, of course. I don’t want the relationship that the two of you have.”
“Of course,” Schluter said happily.
“Commander Van Dorn, how are we on our acquisitions?”
“We’re still in need of iron,” he confessed. “We’re recycling damaged suits as often as we can, but there’s always a need for more. Especially with the railroads.
“We recently improved our contract with Iiga–” Sumat jotted that name down, but he was pretty sure he spelled it wrong. “–to increase how much coal we’re getting. That should help make sure that we can keep our outposts fully charged.”
“How many troopers do we have in…?”
“Iiga? None. It’s only protected by Wardens and local police forces. They don’t think that they need us, so we’re purely paying for it.”
Sumat frowned a little. “And there’s not other place where we can get coal?”
“Yes and no.” He took a breath. “Other places? Yes, and we can probably arrange outposts there. Unfortunately, we aren’t growing fast enough to justify those outposts, and we also would only get a trickle of the output of Iiga. It’s a very industrious village, and on the list of places to set up a train to. If we can get other people who are buying the coal to use the trains, we could conceivably get it to pay for itself.”
Sumat nodded, and Van Dorn took at as a chance to continue.
“The blade that I gave you is technically Tinker technology, but one that requires no maintenance. The Tinker in question has also been selling us water purifiers for quite some time, and in a year’s time, he may be willing to sell us a way to turn biological waste into oil.”
Sumat knew that this was leading up to something, but he remained quiet.
“Recently, however, he’s contacted me about the possibility of selling more to us. Some sort of magnet that produces electricity at an amazing rate when installed in a turbine, a version of an invisibility suit, medical gel, and armor. All of it needs tested, but we have high hopes for at least small-scale implementation.”
He sat back in his chair, folding his arms. “I was under the impression that our armor was mass produced.”
“This wouldn’t be the same sort of armor. It’s a cloth-type; not as powerful, but more versatile and requiring far less maintenance. People who aren’t triggered can perform the maintenance. It could be a game changer, and one that I’ve been hoping to get access to for a long time.”
Hoping? “So something’s been preventing us until now?”
“The Tinker is a perfectionist, and has been developing the armor for years. He hasn’t wanted to share because he wanted it to be just right. Recently, he’s had a change of heart.”
Ah, that was something that they might be able to use. “Do we have any idea what caused this change of heart?” Sumat asked.
Van Dorn and Schluter shared a glance. “Yes,” the woman said hesitantly.
“A visit from Dragon and Defiant.” Van Dorn took a breath. “Apparently, they visited the Tinker’s house, and when Defiant then made his way across town to the Tinker’s workshop, he was on the warpath. What was said is up for debate.”
Ah. Those two. Sumat nodded slowly. “I’d like to remind you that Dragon and Defiant, while invaluable to the Dragon’s Teeth, aren’t actually members. They might be how we were born, and responsible for a good portion of our gear, but they are outside of our chain of command. However, what is the most common theory as to what they might have said to cause the Tinker to have a change of heart? How did they change his mind?”
The two Commanders glanced at each other. That wasn’t a good sign. “Defiant was on the warpath,” Van Dorn said hesitantly. “He–”
“Christopher Abrams,” Sumat interrupted as realization dawned on him.
It wasn’t fear that flashed across both their faces, but it was close. Both of them recovered almost instantly. “Yes sir,” Schluter said confidently.
“I’ve been briefed on the Jordan situation.” Sumat paused, debating with himself. He needed the Commanders beneath him to trust him, to have faith in his leadership. And they did have clearance for most top-level things. It would technically be a violation, but…
“Alright, what I’m about to say, to show you, is eyes only. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir,” they chorused. They were really pulling out the formalities now. That wasn’t a good sign at all.
“The Wardens are treating Jordan as a criminal. Intelligence indicates that they leaked some information to select reporters that they knew would present the situation in a bad light, and violated their own rules and regulations in order to attempt to bring him in.
“And while recent developments would suggest his involvement in certain… activities, we have evidence that he is innocent.” Sumat turned to his computer, calling up the necessary files. After a moment, he gestured to the monitor on the wall.
The video started, taken from security cameras. A huge orb of light, and a solitary figure walking towards it, eventually entering the globe.
“This was taken in a city across the ocean. Initially, we didn’t make a connection between the man in this footage and Jordan. They have their own issues to concentrate on, and connecting a man from America to a random traveler who appeared in a Norwegian city was a low priority.”
The light suddenly flared in intensity, and the figure was thrown. The video paused, and the image was enhanced to show the man. Sumat always thought that he looked sad as he flew through the air.
The two Commanders glanced at each other, then back to him. Good, he could continue.
“The generals discussed it in private, and we haven’t shared our decision on what to do for political reasons. I’m going to change this, as I will undoubtedly need your help when the time comes.
“During the winter, Jordan was assisting with Operation Skywatcher, one of Dragon’s pet projects to create global satellite arrays. After he left the program, Defiant and Dragon quickly mobilized, though I’m unsure as to the reason why; this information has yet to be revealed to us. We have our suspicions, but I’d rather only give you facts.
“The two now seem to be actively investigating Jordan, his history, and the New Fairfax incident. We would gladly join them in this investigation, except that the Wardens have cut us out of the loop. They may be actively treating him as a criminal, but they have yet to announce it. They have also repeatedly refused our assistance in the investigation.
“Given the lack of information, the extreme unlikeliness that he could have been responsible for the New Fairfax incident, and the value of his brother’s gear and equipment, it is the opinion of the generals that we do not pursue him, nor do we do anything to hamper is activities until such time that we have solid evidence of wrongdoing.
“Should he request assistance or amnesty, the Dragon’s Teeth will provide it.”
He expected Van Dorn to be the one to respond, but it was Schluter who spoke up, her voice trembling a little. “That’s a political quagmire. If we provide amnesty, and the Wardens… They’ve already advertised that he’s defeated a response team that they sent to collect him. We’d be in direct opposition of them.”
What was a quagmire exactly? He wasn’t sure, but he could guess the meaning. “Yes. We’ve had tensions with them in the past, but our shared goal has always meant that we’ve never been in direct opposition. We don’t know how this will play out, and that worries us greatly.
“They’re up to something, though, and refuse to explain themselves at this time. Intelligence is working on it, but it’s frustratingly difficult. However, their refusal to share any evidence over New Fairfax or openly state any crimes that he may have commited beyond resisting arrest means that we cannot assume that their pursuit of him is legal.
“We are unsure if we must follow Directive 12 on this or not. If this is an illegal, or unethical, manhunt, we are to offer him amnesty until such a time that they deem us worthy of being informed. We are to neither interfere or support his actions until then.”
“And Defiant?” Van Dorn asked hesitantly.
“Is his own man. Again, we’ll forever be in their debt, but they are outside of our chain of command. Yes, it appears that he is hunting Jordan, but they have yet to give us their reasons as well. Nor should we expect them to have to; so long as they do not violate any laws, they are free to do as they please.
“This may mean a slowdown in the acquisition of new types of gear, however.” He let the implications of that hang in the air for a long moment. They’d have to seek out new sources, and with how Abrams could mass produce gear, he was the obvious choice. Which only made the situation more politically inconvenient.
“Alright,” Van Dorn said hesitantly. “I’ll have to step up my game.”
Sumat nodded. “Do so. I know that this is a lot to digest, but nothing that I’ve said can leave this room.”
The threat of Directive 12 was a heavy one. The Wardens remained the largest organization of paras in the world, and Directive 12 dictated that if a group of paras were operating in an illegal and unethical manner, then the Dragon’s Teeth had to step in. And while he agreed that their recent actions on this matter might be unethical, it wasn’t enough to make General Nozedar want to pull that trigger yet.
Not that anyone could blame him. Even if he did decide, his superiors might shoot him down. It was a bit of a tricky situation.
It was best to wrap this up. “Before you are dismissed, however, I do want to let you know my current goals.
“First, I agree that we need to decrease our reliance on contracts. Be it through communities founded by ourselves or whatever manner we can, we need to be more self-reliant. I expect a list of suggestions by the end of the month.
“Second, we need to focus more on education. Doctors, engineers, scientists. We need to focus on recruiting them or training them ourselves, and then establishing a better training program within the Dragon’s Teeth. Even if people only sign on temporarily for a quick and dirty education, being an affordable and accessible resource for higher education will serve everyone better.
“Third, I agree that we need to have better transport between communities. Establishing the rail network would be an excellent start. However, I believe that we are looking too narrow. I’m going to be meeting with others to see if creating phone and power lines that run concurrent with the rail lines would be something that we can be doing.
“Fourth, I believe that it is a matter of honor that we begin building our forces for an assault on Fyrtorn by the end of the decade. Now that I understand that situation, Krigarguden will be an opponent that will require a massive undertaking of personnel and materials. The sooner that we begin preparations, the better.
“And lastly, which ties into the above, I want to decrease our reliance on Tinker tech. We cannot assume that the Tinker who mass produces our gear will be alive forever, so we need to begin to plan accordingly. It may not be a directive for the Dragon’s Teeth as a whole, but I would rather have the east coast prepared for such an eventuality.”
Sumat paused to look between them. “Questions?”
“All of them,” Schluter said, running her hand over her face. “But right now, I can manage with just one. Can we meet like this again? I have ideas forming, but I need time to form them. And to check on things, I suppose.”
“Of course,” Sumat said with a smile as he rose to his feet. “Marks urged me to lean on the two of you, and with your permission, I’d like to make the best use of you that I can by having these meetings once a week.”
“High praise,” Van Dorn said as he rose to his feet. “But we do seem to be in agreement on certain things. We’ll help you as best we can.”
As if they had a choice. “Excellent. Then dismissed. We all have a lot of work to do today.”
They didn’t bother to salute, which was fine by him. Their minds were spinning with implication, new directives, and new job requirements. He wasn’t sure, but he thought that they would rather enjoy the challenge.
Tomorrow Sumat had meetings with the rest of his commanders, and he wanted to get some face-to-screen time with Dragon. After that he was going to make official orders for full reports on all active projects on the east coast.
He’d have to work with Van Dorn in advance — as soon as those reports were completed, he wanted to have a bit of a celebration for all the staff under him, both enlisted and officers. Making so many people scramble with a short-deadline temporary additional duty should earn them a reward.
Sumat might have been put here out of political convenience, he might have been forced to humiliate himself by shaving and cutting his hair to help show the people that he was willing to fall in with local regulations temporarily, but that didn’t matter. He was going to prove to the world that even behind a desk, a Sikh warrior was a force to be reckoned with.