Vindhook Central Station
Seven days before activation
“Please, sir,” the ticketing clerk said to Herman Spar, “The train station named Kubai Nix does not exist. You must understand that we cannot issue a ticket to a non-existent endpoint.”
Spar knew, with the certainty that comes from calculation, that he, the clerk, and everyone else in Vindhook Central Station would be dead in a matter of weeks. In moments of weakness, when Spar indulged in optimism, he might agree that nearly everyone would be dead soon, allowing for the possibility that some of Vindhook’s citizenry might survive. He might even concede the possibility that death was months away instead of weeks. But death was coming. Kubai Nix, whatever that was – wherever that was – had doomed them all.
The clerk’s death, Spar imagined, would come by one of the usual violent ends that the war delivered: he would be torn apart from a nearby detonation, crushed under a collapsed building, poisoned from gas, or incinerated in a firestorm. Spar, due to his high rank, enjoyed the possibility of additional methods of death: if the Western Bloc forces captured him and discovered who he was, he would be hanged, or executed by a firing squad, or bayonetted to death.
A heap of schedule books lay flopped open on the ticket counter between Herman Spar and the clerk. The complete railway schedules for the Southern Sphere and the Adjoined Territories – four thousand five hundred twenty passenger destinations served by the civilian rail. A tower of worn binders holding the ever-changing military train schedules for the five theatres overlooked the mess of schedule books. Spar couldn’t argue with the clerk’s logic. Trains only go where track has been laid, and no track had been laid to a place named Kubai Nix.
“Sir,” the clerk continued, “I respectfully suggest you refine your travel plans and return when you have identified a destination that … exists.”
The clerk’s uniform bore the obscure and mostly meaningless baubles and patches that accumulate over a long career in the railway service. But it was the three black stars on the man’s chest that tempered Spar’s response. Two plain black stars represented two children returned dead from the war. The third star had a yellow border. It represented a third dead child, whose body remained on the battlefield. The reasons for leaving a body behind were countless. The clerk’s child for whom he wore a yellow-bordered star could have been vaporized by a direct hit from a large munition. His corpse could have been rendered too toxic from poison gas exposure to be returned home. Or he could simply have been lost in the mud.
Herman Spar also wore a uniform – the black suit of a ministerial official. The red and silver ribbons on his shoulders signified the Armaments Ministry. A small, stainless-steel dagger pinned to his lapel indicated his rank: Deputy Minister. Spar was likely the highest-ranking official who would pass through the massive Vindhook Central Station this week.
“Please check the freight schedules.” Spar’s please served only to highlight the difference in position between the two men. Unnecessary politeness from a man such as Spar was not a sign of respect, but a reminder of what the man of higher rank is capable of doing to the lesser man. The clerk retreated from the counter and rummaged through a shelf of documents that Spar assumed were the freight schedules.
Twenty more minutes passed.
“Sir, there is a dead-end siding named Kubai Nix on an industrial spur of the Sua line. I cannot issue a passenger ticket to an industrial siding, but I can book you to the closest station, Sua Manash. From there, you may be able to negotiate with the freight manager to ride to that siding.”
“Well done. I shall write a letter of commendation to the station manager applauding your effort today,” Spar said, despite having no intention of writing anything to anyone about this journey. “I will take one first class ticket to Sua Manash.” The clerk retreated again to type the travel documents.
A soft crackle and hum sounded from the public address system. Someone in the station offices had switched the system’s audio input. Spar, the clerk, and the crowd in the departures hall froze and turned to look at the nearest speaker horn.
One klaxon blast. One blast meant a fire alarm. The crowd waited for a second blast, praying it would not come.
It came. A second blast from the speakers: immediate curfew. More prayers the klaxon would stop.
A third blast. Air raid. Spar looked at the crowd and saw fear, but not panic. A bomb shelter was always nearby in the city. The shelters would protect from all but a direct hit.
The collective eyes of the crowd stayed on the speakers. A fourth blast meant poison gas. A fourth blast meant chaos – dropping your belongings and fighting to the death over anything that could be used as a gas mask. Committing murder just to access an interior space, and more murder to keep anyone else from opening the door behind you.
The fourth blast never came. Instead, a dissonant siren followed the third blast from the klaxon. Just an air raid. The crowd flowed smoothly out of the hall, down into the shelters.
Spar remained at the ticket counter. “My ticket, please.” His raised voice stopped the clerk before he could file into the line of shelter seekers. The clerk looked at the speaker spitting its siren whine, then to the dagger on Spar’s lapel. Sometimes only minutes of warning were given before the bombs hit.
“Vindhook will not be targeted today. You do not need to worry that preparing my ticket will be your last living act.”
Spar understood the Western Bloc’s strategy. Today their bombers would target factories in the southern industrial zone. They would bomb plants that made rubber, or ball bearings, or industrial gasses, and entire downstream industries would grind to a halt for lack of inputs. Soon, the last anti-aircraft round would be delivered to the air defense battalions. The last gas mask would be sent to the front. Then the bombs would fall on Vindhook. And they would not stop until the capital was reduced to toxic rubble, dust, and ash. In the game of total, industrialized war, no amount of courage, sacrifice, or even luck could make up for a mismatch of industrial capacity. The Western Bloc’s victory over them was assured.
Unless whatever was being built at Kubai Nix could deliver a miracle.
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