Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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Leopold and the Emperor

by Sergei Servianov



The moon swam into view from behind the horizon; a rising pale blob obscured by sparse pine tree camouflage. Leopold felt menaced. Would the trench grunts flee in time? He squinted from the bunkhouse roof. The men in the heavy coats did not trigger.

There was a real possibility that the blob would reach them. What would he and Eugene do? He glanced to the left and saw Eugene unworried, his milk-coffee face focused on rolling another joint.

"Do you think that's a drunzhek?" Leopold said. "I didn't think they were so big."

"You're high, you animal," Eugene said, lighting up. "Drunzheks are small and beastly."

"You've never seen one."

"You only know me for a month. Maybe I did see a few and didn't mention it?"

"That's certainly possible."

"I've seen satellite photos on the wire. The Orbs publish a lot of them."

"I don't think that really counts."

The Catskill summer had turned cold in the past two weeks. Leopold kept his track jacket zipped to the very tip, yet the wind cut through his bones nonetheless. He lifted the blanket to his nose and sank into the mattress. He and Eugene had dragged the mattress to the roof from the one unoccupied room in the bunkhouse. Rats had chewed through most of the filling and the overseer of Bronze Farms wanted it thrown out, hoping to turn the room into a computer workstation. Fights were breaking out over computer use and the overseer didn't like coddling the support staff anymore than he had too. It was task enough dealing with the soldiers. Leopold and Eugene -- more farseeing than most -- knew the mattress was still good enough to serve them elsewhere. They had propped up one of its edges with a crooked metal chair and could now focus on the trench lines below in relative comfort.

"I'm going to sleep," Leopold said.

He stood up with a loud crack in his joints, looking at the soldiers in the parapet. "I have to put up with a lot from those bastards. But at least we don't spend nights there."

As if to underscore the point, the wind brought up the smell of human excrement from the trench outhouses thirty meters away.

"Have a good night," Eugene said.

"Do you need this?" Leopold swept his arm widely.

"Why would I need your rifle?"

"I meant the blanket."

"If you don't mind."

Leopold nodded and reached for his rifle. The boy in the machine gun nest above the roof entrance stubbed his cigarette in an ashtray edging on one of the sandbags. Leopold waved to him and was ignored.

Leopold inched down the stairs, trying to keep the wood from creaking too loudly. The main room was always dimly lit by a pair of fluorescent lights, despite the overseer's posted memo to keep the place working on candlelight during nightfall. It was perpetually dirty: with cigarette butts lying on the concrete floor, by the few ragged couches, by the small sink, and by the computer.

Leopold liked using the computer -- a scraggy beat-up laptop -- a few hours past midnight, even when he had to wake up for work at eight in the morning. It saved him from haggling with people at the sign-up sheet.

He spent the first ten minutes reading the news. The Tharsis Home Council had announced that the drunzheks were rolling back farther and farther. In North America -- for the moment, anyhow -- the orbital nuke hoses (as Leopold called the bombers) were finally paying off. He felt a bit of facile pride as he read the warm regards of the East America Federation Council in New Hampshire to the troops at the front.

Leopold spent ten minutes looking for pictures and videos of the bombers in action. Though he only found a series of obviously-posed atmosphere shots of Orbital interceptors with faded Martian Crests. Growing bored, he lit a cigarette and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes. Flies buzzed around but he tried to drown them out with his thoughts. It didn't work. He checked the news again, reading a few distant grumbles from the California Republic.

He turned the computer off and drank a glass of water before going to his room. His three roommates were already sleeping; he didn't bother getting undressed. He threw off his track jacket and sneakers and climbed slowly to the second bunk. Through the brittle-wood walls, he heard the head chef having sex in the adjacent room. How does he end up waking up earlier than I do? Leopold thought

####

"Don't you have work?" the voice of Leopold's roommate appeared in his dream.

"Yes," Leopold said, his eyes snapping open.

He rolled out of bed and shoved a pack of cigarettes into his work tunic. It was the same every day.

Leopold spit into his trash bucket, threw his shoes on and made a dash for the door.

He was on Berber Road, running towards the Citadel, a messy structure of wood and iron half a mile away.

Leopold lost his footing and crashed his knee into a pointy rock. He was sure that this alone was cause enough to write the day off.

The head chef didn't say anything, though he gave Leopold a roll of the eyes when Leopold asked him where his apron was.

"I had to give it to Lucas, since the laundry isn't done yet. Waiters don't have the luxury of sleeping in."

"It's ten minutes, George."

"Commander Loney yells at me when one of you..."

"I got it, George. I have to work now."

"I know that! Here."

Leopold grabbed the greasy log from his hand. His fry cooker was already hot. First order: onion fried steak. He was cooking the officer's breakfast today. Though he could smell the frying rat meat at the other end of the kitchen.

Leopold enjoyed the work. He felt his own culinary skills mediocre, which is why he relished the great sense of accomplishment whenever he heard a waiter say that a grunt wanted seconds.

Sometimes he thought he would be better off on the road again. He'd left Lansing like everyone else, following the rumors that drunzheks were going to be there soon. He didn't believe them all that much. The Midwest Mushroom Ring wasn't famous for its toadstools; the orbital bombers worked round the clock, dropping what seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of nukes on the enemy.

At two o'clock, Leopold hung up his apron and waited for Eugene on a bench next to the main house, smoking.

Eugene tapped him on the back.

"When do you get off?" Leopold said.

"I don't know, but I hope to leave by six. Light me up." Eugene leaned in. "I went online this morning and the satellite said that there's an amusement park within seven miles of here, right off Berber Road no less."

"Let's follow Dalton Road to the remains of the next town, it's better. We still haven't looked everywhere there."

"You're being stubborn."

Eugene's radio crackled. "Eugene, I need you to check the rat farm. The incubator's broken, they say."

"I'm coming."

Eugene nodded expectedly and left.

Leopold didn't know what to make of Eugene. He had first seen him in the main room of the bunkhouse, passing a joint around with a dozen or so other service staff members.

They'd showed up at Bronze Farms at about the same time. Eugene had a weird set of tattoos on his arms. They rarely talked about how they got there.

They often used the excuse of volunteer scouting to search the houses in the towns down the mountain. Sometimes they found dusty cans of food in the cellars; sometimes they found toys. The Bronze Farms Legion took their perimeter very seriously, though the Catskills saw drunzhek attacks only at the beginning of the Hell and not many at that. That didn't stop anyone with any sense and connections from getting out: to space if you were Important, to the islands if you were less so.

They once came across an unlocked concrete bunker. They found stack after stack of brittle porn magazines, Spam cans, and ammunition boxes. It took about twenty minutes of awkward glances before Leopold and Eugene turned their backs to each other and began masturbating. They never spoke about that afternoon again.

Leopold was getting ready to go back to the kitchen when a sergeant with severe burn marks on his face grabbed him by the arm.

"We got a problem. Three of my men are sick with stomach flue. I can't let their sector go unattended."

"Which sector?"

"The one in front of the bunkhouse. You know it?"

"Yeah, but what's this got to do with me?"

"I need you to cover for one of them."

"What?"

"Everyone else's busy. I talked with the head chef. He said he can spare you for the night."

Leopold felt his heart drop. There was no point in arguing. Though it was a lousy way to get revenge, he thought.

####

The trench was even more unpleasant than he'd imagined. There was that horrid smell of human excrement and swamp, times one million. Leopold kept his gas mask on, though the stink seemed to penetrate anyway. The sky was gray and rainy and Leopold tried to brighten himself up by saying it wasn't a very good day for exploring.

Even in high boots, with two sweaters and a gray pea jacket, Leopold was cold. He had dressed in his room and a sympathetic corporal had helped him with the webbing. Leopold was thinking about going into the dugout to warm up for a few minutes when he saw the sergeant approaching. Not another round of pleasantries!

With this thought in mind, he saw the sergeant explode into a geyser of entrails and coat rags.

Leopold was dumbfounded. He looked down to the parapet and saw row after row of dog-sized creatures bunny-hopping between the trenches. Their armor changed color to match the landscape with every movement.

Leopold squeezed the handle of his rocket launcher and glanced around. Here and there a few rifles had gone off. All over the line and from beyond the bunkhouse, the speed-needle throwers had begun whirling with the same dull roar as the Citadel's basement generators.

Big yellow blocks fell from the sky and filled the trench with yellow explosions. Leopold saw a cloud of gas wafting in his direction. Did they have gas now? He didn't remember reading this. He steadied his feet and pulled the trigger of his rocket launcher. A harsh weight lifted itself from his shoulder as the rocket screamed into the yellow fog like a light speed phoenix.

He reached back and tried to pull out another round. The fog was everywhere. And the fog brought fear with it. Leopold remembered to be scared now. He tossed the rocket launcher and ran down the trench (he wouldn't dare leave it with the needles working over every inch above ground).

He couldn't tell where he was going. He ran until he slipped and found himself sunk into the entrails of a corporal. It took a full twenty seconds of stillness before Leopold began smearing himself with bits of skull and brain matter. He sat down, leaned against the soft earth, and closed his eyes. He thought about whether he looked dead enough. I need more guts; don't overdo it. How much guts did dead people have? He heard fire and explosions, though he couldn't tell where they were coming from.

Time had stopped. Leopold tried to focus on something beautiful, transcendental; he was pretty much dead, he figured. One's last thoughts should be about beautiful stuff. The image of loud, dirty ducks filled his mind.

He was still for what seemed like an hour. The gas seemed to dissipate. Vile sounds -- cries of pain and shrieking animal noises -- hovered around him. Around the two hour mark, he opened his eyes. That's it, Leopold decided, I'd rather die by a bullet.

Or a grenade! He remembered the grenades on his belt now. No, no. He didn't know how or what the drunzheks ate, but dying by a bullet had more class, whatever happened after the fact.

Leopold stood up.

And saw tanks. He saw the flash of a muzzle, turned around and saw the screaming metal fist tear through the bunkhouse wall as if it were a cluster of ice cream sticks.

What the hell were they doing here? They weren't surplus from peacetime nor were they Martian designs. They were lumbering, badly-welded structures with short barrels and treads that looked like shovels. Tanks were supposed to be quick.

Leopold's hands shot up. He didn't move at all, watching the tanks roll into view from behind the sunset with the speed of a caterpillar. He could see men sitting on some of them. They wore armor, yet these weren't the sleek vests that the Orbs dropped to the frontliners. The armor looked as heavy and clunky as a pile of iron pots. And the men's clothes were even grimier than his own. Their rifles were made with wood of all things! All wore ABC masks and bad shoes. No one seemed to pay any attention to him. He began feeling self-conscious about standing with his hands up. At close range, the tanks appeared multi-colored and corroded.

They went on, crunching barbed wire, human corpses and many thousands of bleeding drunzhek carapaces. Leopold noticed stenciled red dragons on the tanks' tread skirts. After the first wave passed, a pair of tractors appeared, lugging huge artillery pieces; a few trucks followed not too far behind.

Leopold focused on the big tank between the artillery pieces, flying a green flag with a crimson dragon. A man in a tattered olive cap and high boots yelled something into a loudspeaker, his hand clinging onto the turret railing. Though Leopold's attention was fixed upon the man in the center, half of whose body stuck out of the porthole. He had slicked gray hair and fierce, sunburned skin. He didn't seem old. A white shirt, a black tie, and a pinstriped vest were visible under a trailing black cloak moving with the gentle wind.

As the tank crawled passed him, Leopold could make out a voice.

"Do not resist! Cease resistance! The Great American Empire is determined to rid you of the Orbital scourge!"

####

Leopold was in the basement of the Citadel with two dozen other men in rags. The officers had all surrendered and Leopold found himself one of only four grunts. He recognized few of them and Eugene was nowhere to be found.

Commander Loney paced around the room, trying not to look at anyone. Leopold wanted to stab him, but the Empire's troops had taken his pocket knife. Anyway, it was useless. They were probably going to eat them or something.

Loney turned around and walked up to Leopold. His face was grinning nervously, with a small twitching of the eye.

"Leo was it?"

He nodded.

"Listen, Leo. We're all dead." Loney sighed. "We can't win."

There was some grumbling from the officers huddled on the ground.

"That's right you heard me! We're dead."

He turned back to Leopold.

"But our deaths don't have to be in vain," he inched his way closer to Leopold's ear. "Your hand's bandaged. They searched you and you're not an officer. They won't suspect you. I don't know what they're planning, but I'm guessing they'll come to request intelligence about the area, maybe they'll want to talk terms. They aren't keeping us alive for fun. They need something, I'm sure of it. When they come, make a fuss about wanting to defect, say you hate us. I don't care, but get to speak to someone important. And when you get there..."

Loney detached his middle-finger and handed it to Leopold.

"Pretty funny, right," Loney laughed. "This, I kept for something like this, a special from Mars. Gangs use it for assassinations. Put it into you bandaged hand and when you speak with the guy in charge, squeeze this as hard as you can. Don't worry, it's strong enough."

"I--"

"Be quiet Leo!" Loney shoved the finger into the folds of the rag on Leopold's left hand.

"Comman--"

"I said be quiet. Someone's coming. Don't think that they'll spare you! I'll kill you myself."

The door to the basement creaked open. Light ran over Leopold's eyes. The Commander slapped him on the shoulder.

"The Republic won't abandon us and we can't abandon it. Earth can live on."

A voice called from the hallway.

"His august majesty, Emperor MacDonald, wishes to speak to a representative."

####

Leopold appeared in Loney's office, a compact little hole in the citadel's roof. The Emperor leaned back at a small desk with a computer. He ignored Leopold, pouring a drink out of a shiny cylinder, which had apparently come out of the open safe next to the bookcase. The tall windows were folded open, revealing the ruins of the barn and an imposing ashen moon. This, along with the computer screen, was the only source of light.

The green flag from before had replaced the East America banner. And the black cloak was now draped over a chair in the corner, with a rapier in a baroque scabbard leaning against it.

Leopold walked up to the desk and sat.

"I've been sent here to kill you." He placed the finger upright on the table. "The officers handed me that and said it was going to explode. Everyone I liked here is dead. I don't like you, but I'm not going to make the last thing I do a favor to those bastards. I merely ask that you don't eat me, or at least eat me after you kill me by firing squad."

The Emperor let out a laugh that went on for what seemed to be a minute. Leopold thought he was being serious.

"Do you know why I called you here?" The Emperor said in an accent that Leopold couldn't place.

"I don't know. The officers have chips in their brains that prevent them from speaking and it'll be awhile before you remove them. You need information quickly."

"What exactly do you think we are?"

"I saw drunzheks bouncing around and tanks that looked hundreds of years old. Whatever you tell me, I'll believe it."

The Emperor smiled, revealing a half-rotten mouth. "Where are you from, boy? What's your name?"

"Leopold from Lansing."

"I haven't heard that name in a long time."

"I don't think I have a name. I don't know my parents. I saw it once in a magazine when I was very young and liked it."

"Lansing... I'm from Colorado myself."

Leopold knew of Colorado, a place mentioned in the old guidebooks he flipped through in the Citadel library.

The emperor smirked, "They wrote that place off long ago... What's the force number of the area?"

"A number of bases around the mountains. I don't know how many. I'd say a dozen."

"You were well supplied."

"We get drops from orbit now and then. Not as much as the frontline."

"Do you have armor? What kind of armor do you have?"

"I don't know about tanks, but I heard that one of the bases is an old aviation museum. They might have planes. I've heard propellers in the sky now and then, though I've never seen anything."

"How did you get here?"

"I left Lansing after hearing that the drunzheks were approaching. I joined a caravan going to the East by acting like a retard. I was surprised they let me stay. Three months or so ago, they left me alone. I don't blame them, there was never enough food to begin with. I met up with a scouting party from this base while rummaging through an abandoned town not far from here."

The Emperor took a drink from his glass and stood up. He lit a long cigarette and tossed one to Leopold. The Emperor slid a bullet-shaped lighter over to him.

"Tell me, why does anyone still cling to the scraps that the Orbitals drop?" The Emperor said. "For them, the dream of Earth has long been dead. Why do you serve them?"

"If you're referring to this base, then it serves the East America Republic. The Orbs..."

"Don't give me that crap," the Emperor's face flushed. "You know as well as I do that everybody's clinging to the absurd hope that the Orbitals will come and cleanse the Earth from the Hell. Everybody in the enclaves' cheers whenever they get a new message about how the parliament in Tharsis has approved the use of another stockpile of nukes against... and you notice how every stockpile's always the "last one" they brought from Earth?"

"Sure, but..."

"No nothing." The Emperor sat back into his chair and glanced at the Moon. "I'm not going to say that you had it easy, boy. Life isn't easy for anyone on Earth anymore, but you don't know what it was like in the Mountain Region. You can't imagine it."

Oh, yes, the Midwest Mushroom Ring was a favorite topic of wire editorialists.

"All those bastards always go on and on in the wire -- safe in their Tharsis apartments -- about how the design of the drunzheks seemed perfect... anyway, boy, you don't know what it was like in the Mountain Region. That's where the evolved surfaced. Those that were lucky hid in the old bunkers. We had no idea what was happening. We lost all communication. We could go outside now and then, but even that was lost when the mushroom clouds started sprouting. Can you imagine living that way? Living that way for twenty years? With nukes and drunzheks breeding all over the place?"

The Emperor didn't expect an answer and Leopold wisely did not supply him with one. He stubbed his cigarette on the floor and thought about whether he could have another. Though the last remark troubled him. Was this his idea of a pre-firing squad speech?

"But we didn't give up! You think that men with real ambition would let something like that deter them! Genius can't exist in a vacuum," The Emperor said. "It reaches out and slips into history's bible whatever the circumstances. And we had it in spades. Engineers expanded our tunnels. We had whole cities underground. We learned how to explore. We had poets! Great poets down there! And the greatest poets of all were the scientists. Not at all like those pampered asses on Tharsis. Those fools never bothered figuring anything out about the drunzheks. Since they couldn't effectively communicate with the evolved, they writ the whole race off as being an experiment gone wrong. An insect weapon that got too smart."

The emperor drank from his brandy glass.

"Even ants have wars between themselves though. It's a testament to the skill of our scientists that they figured out their weird social codes. I'm baffled by it myself, but it worked.

"And what did we discover. They have factions and fighting between themselves as well, but, as a whole, they don't have a grudge on anyone, even us. A year ago we finally found the main force leadership. And agreed to cooperate from now on. Where do you think the sudden quiet came from? It's not from the attacks by the Orbitals. They're as puzzled by it as you are, but a politician never misses a chance to look good. It's been years, in fact, since I even saw a nuke drop.

"Don't you see? You've been had? We've all been had. The Martians have played us all for suckers."

Leopold had listened to his speech without attention, though he felt a bit of admiration for such a passionate mind. At the same time, he didn't know where to proceed from here.

"How old are you?" The Emperor said.

"Sixteen."

"I like that you didn't do what they told you. You're a realist and realism is what it means to be alive now. My assistant died on the road three days ago. I could use someone like you to carry my things.

"I don't let anyone join us. We're a small bunch, maybe five thousand in all. But we can rebuild the world. And we need people with ambition to change things. Remember, boy, only knowledge and ambition can turn this life's unbearable truth into a weapon and a hope."

####

Leopold awoke to a series of loud crashes outside his window. He was deeply disappointed. It was the first time he'd been sleeping in one of the Citadel's beds: soft mattresses and thick blankets. He went back to sleep when another, much louder crash startled him awake.

He ran to the window and saw black smoke engulfing the tanks parked in the empty fields by the farm. Propeller planes were flying over the base. Leopold dressed and ran downstairs.

The Emperor was in the lobby with a dozen men circling around him. His hair was a bohemian mess. A man emerged from second floor clutching the Emperor's cloak and rapier.

Leopold followed the Emperor outside and watched the group scramble into a half-corroded truck with a buzzing motor and a fidgeting driver at the wheel. Huge fires raged all around and Leopold's eyes scanned the surprised faces of the men running in every direction. He couldn't move past the doorway.

The truck backed up and ran over the split corpse of a drunzhek.

"Majesty, wait!" Leopold waved his arms.

The Emperor spat, tapped the truck's roof from the bed and yelled something at the driver. The car swerved and ran past the entrance, slowing just enough for Leopold to jump into the back.

"Majesty! Berber Road! Get on it at the next turn. Go right!"

The Emperor scurried to the cabin and relayed the directions to the driver.

"I know a bunker where we can hide!" Leopold didn't know if they heard him.

The car bounced around and Leopold had trouble maintaining his balance. As the car jumped onto Berber Road, Leopold lost his footing and landed at the Emperor's feet. The other men looked at him with disgust.

The propeller planes were still coming in waves. Someone had tipped off the main base, he thought. I guess they didn't bother to check for survivors.

Leopold hummed a pop tune, trying to draw out the sounds of the bombs dropping. He turned back and stared at the Citadel receding into the distance.

A few black dots slammed through the main building. By the time it collapsed, the truck was already far along on Berber Road. He prayed that this was just an air attack, that the ground forces weren't waiting for them at the West Gate. Another thought occurred: what if the orbital bombers came?

The Emperor looked puzzled, yet his proud gaze had not completely disappeared.

"Don't worry!" The Emperor said. "This is just the east group. They haven't found our reserves. If they got anything, it was just our vanguard."

The men nodded, though with little enthusiasm.

A huge, swelling explosion ripped up the approaching tumulus. The truck stopped with a loud jerk, heaving two men out the bed.

"Cut through here!" Leopold yelled at the driver, pointing at a clearing in a nettle field a few yards ahead. "It links with the road."

A plane going slow and low appeared from behind the forest, a gigantic bomber that didn't look like anything Leopold had ever seen before. It had four propellers and resembled a pair of dump trucks crushed together by the hands of a giant, with heavy machine guns bristling out like toothpicks. As it passed them, Leapold noticed a steady stream of paper falling from the bomb bays.

The truck wasn't starting and while the Emperor shouted obscenities at the driver, Leopold's eyes were fixed on the bomber, which was slowly gaining altitude, seeking to join a long line of airplanes traveling in a long chain up north. They looked organic. Leopold pointed them out to the Emperor. It was like seeing a living, undulating Aurora Borealis.

"What the hell are those?" The Emperor said. "Drunzheks can't fly! Are those mutants? Some weird stuff coming from Mars?"

A few of the leaflets fell into the bed of the truck.

Rejoice citizens of a Free America!
The North American Prosperity Sphere
has entered an agreement
with progressive elements
within the Drunzhek leadership...

Leopold leaned back and let out a long, pleasant laugh.

"You were right, Majesty, genius doesn't exist in a vacuum." Leopold said. "It needs to be polished with the blood of history to truly shine!"

THE END


© 2012 Sergei Servianov

Bio: Sergei Servianov "moves around a lot". He currently resides in Kyoto, Japan. His story The Sky Above Pandemonium appeared in the March, 2011 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Sergei Servianov

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