I am very happy to share the very first chapter from Book 3 of the Chronicles of the Great Migration. Upon Stilted Cities: The Battle for Langeles picks up right where The Winds of Change left off. There are some minor spoilers in here but nothing major. Still, I would recommend having read the first two books of the series before you dive in.
The Battle for Langeles is out October 17th!
Here it is! Minor Spoilers Ahead!
The Queen of Saud
Dust swirled with each impact. The impressions of twelve massive feet left lingering reminders of a migration, at least until a sandstorm refreshed the path. Microtremors webbed outward along the route. Long ago, cities left cracks and unstable earth in their wake. Many of the great caves below the surface had collapsed under the weight of the cities. But now, after twelve hundred years, most of the Earth’s soil was compressed. The hardpan spread deep into the Earth, a virus of time and pressure.
The giant hulking ark–more mountain than moving city–hesitated in its movement, and the shimmer of the angry sun reflected off the surface of the EnViro shield that protected it. The shield’s ripple of energy cast brief reflections of blinding light, like the surface of a lake in the summer sun.
The legs of the city of Saud slowed their pace. Often, stopping was a long process. From a distance, it was hypnotic. The precisely calculated trajectory of the legs moved in a kind of rhythmic orgy of twelve mingling lovers. Minutes passed. The legs slowed until they moved like molasses. A changing of tides. Then, it became difficult to tell if they were moving at all. They were. At last, the city groaned like a dying giant as the bedrock upon the legs froze with one stabilizing halt. The final foot struck the earth with one last puff of dust.
Two cities stood in opposition. A clear day marked the event. To the west, Manhatsten. To the east, Saud. Nestled between them lay the ruins of the once great Langeles, the victim of the Children of Gaia. Only thirty-four kilometers marked the space between the great moving mountains.
A holographic map projected from the center of the table. It displayed the two cities and outlines of the larger portions of fallen Langeles. Red dots marked the surface of the map, indicating known enemy positions. Around the edge of the table, many fingers clenched with knuckles white. All eyes were watchful now that Saud had halted migration.
“You are sure, Saud, that this is the best defensive position?” The Queen asked the city AI.
“Yes, Your Majesty. The city of Manhatsten must reposition 6 kilometers to the northeast before it has the most optimal conditions for an attack.”
Queen Sa’dah Karim nodded slowly. She reached up, pushing her hair behind her ears, and adjusted her silver hijab. Half-moon crescents shimmered on her head covering and reflected in her gray-green eyes. Her face was hard with sharp angles, and a thin scar ran from her left ear to her left cheek. She was short but wide, her width all muscle.
“Saud, how many Runners has Manhatsten deployed?” The queen’s voice was deep and commanding.
“Your Majesty, based on both long-range sensors and reports by your Rih, I estimate that the city has deployed 53 Runners. According to past patterns, it is likely that Manhatsten will deploy several dozen more in the next few hours.”
“So this map is up to date?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” replied the AI
Sa’dah turned her face up toward her council. “So, you see, it appears that as I had suggested yesterday morning, Manhatsten will attempt to claim Langeles for themselves.”
“Have you contacted their Senate?” asked Abdul Aziz.
Aziz was her most trusted advisor; he was one of the few amongst the city’s Uppers that supported her during the coup, once briefly Rih himself, he was a decent warrior. After a failed experiment with democracy, some of the elite in Saud had wanted a return to traditional Bedouin values, they had thought that the old conservative ways were necessary for stability, but Sa’dah had come to power, and with the support of the Rih, she was able to hold it. It was only because the queen had been first amongst the Rih, considered the greatest warrior, undefeated in all challenges.
“No Aziz, I have not yet contacted the leaders of Manhatsten, I prefer to watch my opponents for some time before I act. In patience comes wisdom.”
“And yet while you wait, Your Majesty, Manhatsten’s Runners are gathering intelligence and data that would allow them to have the upper hand,” said Councilman Rabah Nejem.
Other monarchs may not have appreciated Nejem’s tone or comment, but Sa’dah believed in advisors that were much more than just yes-men. She wanted men and women who would argue with all her actions, challenge her leadership and call her decisions into question. Nejem was one such council member. Nejem, like her, was well-known among the Rih. Both had proven excellent warriors, but it was Sa’dah who had turned out to be the better leader and thus became the leader of the Rih and the new monarch of Saud.
“There is a time to act, Nejem. You know as well as I do that we must wait for the conditions to be correct. We should not display the same arrogance of those in Manhatsten. The storms could turn and descend on this place at any moment.”
“But Sa’dah, why are you waiting so long to see if Manhatsten contacts us first? Nejem is right, the longer we wait, the more intelligence Manhatsten will have on the situation,” said Fatima.
Fatima was the only female member of her council. She was a tall, thin woman who controlled the majority of commerce in the city. Most of the Uppers had lost their power in the coup. Fatima had survived because she had provided financial support to Sa’dah and the Rih during their rebellion. She dressed in a full burka, as the Upper women of the city sometimes did. Only her brown eyes were visible.
“Saud.” Sa’dah called the city’s AI, “Please display the satellite image taken at noon of April 3rd.” The AI pulled an image, and Sa’dah continued. “We were lucky enough to have one of our three remaining satellites over that region during the fall of Langeles.”
The fuzzy image showed Langeles, still intact, but stationary. The billowing cloud of smoke issuing from its underbelly suggested that it had deployed its drill. On several sides of the city were small, barely recognizable dots. Sa’dah zoomed in closer on the dots for the rest of her council members to see.
“Are those Duggers outside of Langeles?” asked Walif Saab.
Sa’dah didn’t respond, “Saud, display the image from 12:20 p.m. of that same day.”
The dots had moved closer to Langeles in this image; it was clear now they were surrounding the city in a semi-circle. There was one large, gaping hole in the semi-circle, and as Sa’dah zoomed in on the empty region, something specific, something that looked like combat filled the empty space. It looked like Runners engaged in hand-to-hand combat, but even zoomed in, the images were tiny and indistinct.
“Saud, skip ahead to 2:30 p.m.”
The image was of Langeles, now lying broken on the earth. Part of the city was tipped up towards the sky, like a Frisbee lying awkwardly against a sand castle on a beach. Smoke billowed towards the satellite, obscuring some of the view. Several of the dots that Walif had thought were Duggers were moving further away from the city, some lay stationary with the tiniest hint of a wisp of smoke.
“Saud, will you please tell the council how far Manhatsten is from Langeles at this particular time?”
“Your Majesty, Council members, at the moment that this image was taken, Manhatsten was approximately 200 kilometers away from Langeles.”
“So, what are you suggesting, Sa’dah? That Manhatsten destroyed Langeles?” asked Nejem.
“Saud. Tell the council what you had told me when I asked this question.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. Council members, please consider the following image taken during the attack.”
The satellite image revealed a massive sandstorm between Manhatsten and Langeles. The dark blot between the cities was confirmation for the council that it would have been nearly impossible for Manhatsten to launch a coordinated attack from that distance with the massive amounts of interference in communications.
“So what caused Langeles to fall, then?” asked Aziz.
“The AI and I have consulted a great deal on this matter. I am concerned that we may be dealing with the Children of Gaia.”
“Impossible,” Nejem scoffed. “The Children of Gaia are not capable of such a large-scale attack. The city’s defense alone would have been more than a match for a handful of those wretched heathens. I think the important question is why Manhatsten was so close to Langeles? How often are cities in that close of a proximity?”
Sa’dah said, “Based on the position of the storm, our AI doesn’t think Manhatsten even knew Langeles was there. But, there is more, Nejem. There is a radioactive signature that suggests that several atomic weapons were detonated.”
“But no one has seen or used nukes in a thousand years,” said Walif.
“And that, that is why we have not yet made contact. Though it seems much more likely that it was, in fact, the Children of Gaia, if there is even the slightest chance that Manhatsten has nuclear weapons, we must be patient. I have dispatched a dozen Rih. They will bring back as much intelligence and information as possible, without arousing Manhatsten’s suspicions. ‘Akif and his team were already briefed on this intelligence and are prepared to fight the Children of Gaia, if necessary.”
“When, then, should we make contact?” asked Fatima.
“I am waiting on one final report from ‘Akif. Then we will make our move. Do any of you have any additional input or insights into this information?”
The four council members looked at one another. The fall of a city was such a rare event that there was no simple formula for proper conduct. When Mex had fallen, Saud had been in the middle of the Haj, across the Atlantic, and had only heard of its fate through a rare trade deal with Lundon.
“It is clear that your rule is one of wisdom, Your Majesty. I apologize for my earlier comments,” said Nejem.
“Nejem, my brother, your comments are always welcome here, whether I like them or not. If I had not wanted your strong will on this council, I would not have appointed you to this seat. You always served me faithfully when I led the Rih, as you do now.”
“Your Majesty,” said Aziz. “Have you considered the possibility that Langeles is a trap? That perhaps the Children of Gaia are out there waiting with a plan to destroy both Manhatsten and Saud? That they have nukes and are more than capable of crippling both of us?”
Sa’dah was silent. She reached up and traced the edge of her scar. A gift from one of the Children of Gaia in their attempt to destroy Saud decades earlier.
In truth, she had not considered that. It was true that in the past, the Children of Gaia had displayed a great deal of treachery, they were notorious for using cowardly techniques to attack and ambush their enemies, and there was nothing less honorable and more cowardly than using nuclear weapons. Even during the third world war, nukes had been avoided for fear of total environmental collapse.
Sa’dah said, “Aziz, what would I do without you? This thought had not occurred to me. It is vital that the city remain alert.”
“Your Majesty, I suggest we put the entirety of the Rih on standby,” said Nejem.
“I agree, Nejem, please see to that. Oh, and the moment that ‘Akif has returned, please have him report in. I wish to speak with him about what he saw out there. Not a word of any of this to anyone outside this council chamber. We have found spies of the Children of Gaia in Saud before, and we should remain cautious in case this is a trap.”
“Your Majesty,” Aziz began, “I feel strongly that we should contact Manhatsten immediately, that we should share with them our satellite images and other information. We do not know what kind of information Manhatsten has on the Children of Gaia; perhaps they uncovered something we’ve missed.”
“And if it is Manhatsten’s treachery that destroyed Langeles?” asked Fatima.
“The satellite evidence and Manhatsten’s behavior seems to indicate that they are just as cautious as we are,” replied Aziz.
“They are deploying their Runners in large numbers; doesn’t that suggest preparation for battle?” asked Nejem.
The queen traced her scar for a moment. She felt its sharp ridges, and the memory of the smell of the air seeping in through her cracked helmet where the blade had entered awoke in her nostrils. She remembered the taste of blood and the rage that kept her alive that day.
All watched her.
“While it is true that Manhatsten could be in preparation for battle, I am sure that our Rih and our defenses could easily handle a straightforward attack. It is this trap that Aziz speaks of that concerns me. If Manhatsten falls and we survive, other cities may see us as a threat. You are all aware that several other city-nations would still like to see Saud wiped off the face of the Earth. While it would be possible for the Rih and Saud to hold off against any one city, if several cities decided that we were a threat it is unlikely that we would survive. We must consider the long-term implications of these events, and not just what problem sits before us.”
“Your Majesty, I know the resource cost is high, but might I suggest deploying several Duggers at key points surrounding Langeles? We can use them as communication beacons and track any movement within the city as well as monitor Manhatsten,” said Nejem.
“An excellent suggestion, Nejem. Walif, will you see it done?”
“Of course, Your Majesty, I live to serve.”
“Council members. I agree with Aziz. After I speak with ‘Akif, I will contact Manhatsten. If all goes well, I may consider sending a small delegation to their city to discuss the situation at hand. It is my hope that we can negotiate over the salvage and that we can prepare ourselves in the event of an attack from the Children of Gaia. Do I have any volunteers for such a delegation?”
Abdul Aziz was the first to stand and volunteer. Soon after, Raba Nejem and Fatima Norba stood.
“Excellent. Our meeting is adjourned.”
The council members rose from their seats and left the room. Their long robes dragged against the floor in hissing echoes, fluttering through the room as if a thousand butterflies were flapping their wings at once.
Sa’dah turned and glanced out the window across the landscape. There looming in the distance was Manhatsten, a mountain on legs looming over Langeles. She wondered if her Rih could stand against them. After all, Manhatsten was home to the fabled Runner 17, who, it was rumored, had single-handedly entered Mex and somehow managed to deactivate their EnViro shield. ‘Akif had orders if he encountered that man. She would sleep better at night knowing he was out of the picture. Perhaps, if she weren’t queen, she would seek him out herself.
She frowned. Was 17 the problem, though? Or did Manhatsten have a weapon for deactivating shields? Perhaps Nejem was correct; perhaps it was Manhatsten that destroyed Langeles. They would have to be careful, but it was Sa’dah’s experience that sometimes reaching out to someone you perceive as a rival can yield great benefits. It has been so with Fatima; without her, the Senate would not have fallen.
“AI, would you please gather all the records on Saud’s previous communications with Manhatsten. And if possible, construct a profile of any members of their Senate that we can confirm are still in power?”
“Of course, Your Majesty, I will assemble that information for your vidscreen immediately.”
Sa’dah would spend the remainder of the time studying her opponents, trying to understand their wants and desires but ultimately trying to find a way to compromise over the salvage. There was no reason that the two cities could not share. Perhaps a show of goodwill in a compromise would change the relationship that Saud had with other cities. Her predecessors would have never agreed to any concessions. They had spent a thousand years damaging trade relations and negotiation with other cities. She would not repeat their mistakes. They were, as Fatima would put it, under new management.
It occurred to her that a mutual agreement on the salvage was unlikely, but perhaps with the threat of the Children of Gaia, they could at least prevent all-out war. Sa’dah was a warrior at heart. If it were a choice between the City of Saud and the City of Manhatsten, she would do everything in her power to assure that it was Saud that was still standing at the end of the conflict. In the end, it was her city that must survive, at all costs.