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Arrival (Kola Peninsula, Northern Russia)
Nikolai jostled in his seat for the hundredth time so hard the only thing kept him from falling out of it were a pair of hefty straps clasped over his shoulders. His glare rolled above a wan expression, challenging the soldier nearby to keep his quiet. Another ”apologies for the turbulence, Ascendancy” and he might obliterate the man, but only after vomiting on him first. Seizing the power now would be torture.

As obliteration of anyone was an unwise decision given his life was cradled in the hands of the Custody navy, he let his gaze roll to the rivets behind. The flight was unbearable. Two hours later, Nikolai would have thanked the deities, dead or alive, to touch solid ground again. Travel by navy transport was not a frequent activity for him, thankfully, used only for the most covert of needs. His personal jet was recognizable immediately. Today called for stealth.

In the cold war, the base in which he found himself was the most formidable of the Russian Northern fleet. Today, custody armament was far more sophisticated than the nearby, watery graveyards that sunken submarines suggested. Antiquity was one reason for his presence, but as the first prickle of icy air tingled his cheeks, he pulled the hood of his jacket high and eagerly crossed the tarmac to approach the second. Extensive construction surrounded them. Newly recommissioned bunkers, auxiliary buildings, and shipyard infrastructure stretched the horizon, but the majority of construction was not apparent. Most of the actual reinforcement was underground.

A high-ranking commander met him just inside the command center. Wearing a stately uniform, the man was a grizzly bear of formidable size with a handle-bar moustache as thick as his leaden accent.
“Welcome, Ascendancy,” Andrei Bulgarkov dipped his head. The others around the room saluted respectfully. Nik’s study slid unflinchingly along them all, falling finally to a figure all in black: Michael Vellas.

The infuriating man barely looked up.

A few minutes off the plane, and Nikolai was already wreathed within the masks of his own steely exterior. He ignored Vellas in favor of Commander Bulgarkov.

Most of what the naval officer described next were related to construction updates and decisions about logistical details that Nikolai neither cared to hear nor understood anyway. Work was progressing. Their goal approached. That was all that mattered. Money was guzzled, but Nik expected as much given the task. He clasped his hands behind his back and listened until posing a simple question.

“And the weapon?”
Commander Bulgarkov turned to Vellas. It was clear who was in charge of their tests.

“Failure.” He stated with brutal honesty.
Tight jaws and square shoulders were the only reaction. The Ascendancy nodded quietly: such was the reason for his presence today.
“Then let’s get to work.”

Blessed elevators carried them below ground. A much preferred sense of the solidness to the earth swallowed them up compared to the ethereal emptiness of the sky. At his side, Vellas was a grim reaper in black, though the temperature control allowed for the man to go gloveless and push his hood to his shoulders. Nikolai himself wore a suit with a black tie: a self-regimented uniform. The remaining naval officers comprised their group.

The elevator lurched to a stop, its metal doors grinding open on old gears. A cavernous structure opened before them like the titans of old scooped a palm through hollowed earth. Scaffolds reinforced enormous slabs of rock, but he was reassured that the soviet engineers of the previous century designed the structure well. Most of what was seen were upgrades now that the base of operations was expanding again.

“The storage lockers are that way,” Commander Bulgarkov gestured toward a tunnel lined with harsh LED lighting. Despite the security of the entire facility, an additional gate system barricaded any but those with highest clearance military or scientists from entering. Nikolai studied the entrance, half-horrified by what was encased beyond those steel bars and half-fascinated with the morbid technologies of the twenthieth century. He’d seen the videos of Tsar Bomba’s test, only a short flight to the east on an island carved like abandoned bedrock jutting from the Berents Sea. An empty crater 20 kilometers wide was the only remains of the worlds’ biggest thermonuclear bomb to ever exist: a crater now filled with a disturbingly blue lake amid an arid, scorched landscape. The bomb was so massive, all rocks were melted to ash on the island into one slick surface. Windows shattered as far away as Finland, and the resulting shockwave circled the earth three times. It was terrifying how close the world came to nuclear war during the 1960's.

To that end, as their group approached another tunnel, and Nikolai was more than willing to retreat from the former, a man with thin, grayed hair combed over a balding head approached greedily. He wore a white lab coat from which dangled numerous badges.
He extended a hand. Despite the respect Nik held for the genius encased within the skull of their lead physicist, a Norwegian antique dredged up from somewhere Nikolai didn’t care to guess, he was hesitant to clasp hands with the man. Regardless, the doctor was vetted by Commander Bulgarkov and Vellas. That should be fine enough for him.

The physicist smiled awkwardly, eyes dazzling like they beheld a celebrity when they turned upon Nikolai. He already disliked the man, sensing a slimey, slobbery recluse judging by the man’s surface appearance.

He extended a gangly arm that required Nikolai’s sheer force of will to extend his own in return. They shook hands, “Ascendancy, wow, what an honor. I can’t believe I’m meeting you. It’s just I can’t believe all of this. It’s very exciting around here, as you can imagine. Of course you imagine, you made it happen. I mean, not you,” his beady eyes flicked to Michael and Nikolai cut him off before he made a bigger fool of himself. The gesture seemed to calm the tumultuous word vomit, and he cleared his throat.

The Commander came to his rescue, “Ascendancy, allow me to introduce Dr. Skare.” When they clasped hands, Nikolai had the distinct impression of fungus spreading its spores, latching onto anything that grows. Skare: a fitting name.

“There’s two matters at hand, Ascendancy,” the doctor initiated something of a tour. “As you know, this particular facility is one of three that remain from the Soviet underground nuclear test program that ceased operation in 1990.” At his side, Vellas watched blandly. He cared nothing for the historical context of their surroundings, only the task at hand. Nik empathized as he was drawn into a completed technology suite.

Thankfully, damn the man, but thankfully, Vellas took over from the spastic Dr. Skare. “The first matter is the weapon itself. I can design a barrier to contain the staging reactions, but the shields are proving unstable. We need to test it. This facility, and the others of old Soviet use, cannot contain the blast.”

Dr. Skare summoned engineering images, “It’s called mountain erosion. The entire area is pockmarked with collapsed craters.”

Nikolai understood. They couldn’t detonate test bombs above the surface. The entire world would know it within seconds; furthermore, the inherent dangers posed upon the nearby area were too risky. It would take years to dig new underground test sites or retrofit current ones such as the present base of operations.

He remembered the first time the earth hummed its vibrant song to him. He was sitting outside the Datsan, legs crossed on a rock, its surface smoothed to a bowl by hundreds of years of monks resting in the same place. The wind was still that day, the clouds thin and airy. He’d entered the trance dozens of times before, but something was different, a new vibration that he’d never considered previously. His monk taught oneness with light, wind, warmth and beast; but none considered the very rock on which he rested. Initially, the vibrations were subtly different, but like nuances of flavor, Nikolai came to appreciate their distinctions. Soon, the earth seemed to rest in the palm of his hand as far as the horizon. He was sure that if he stretched enough, the core of the planet was his to mold; though he would die to attempt it.

The task they needed the Ascendancy to accomplish would work the kind of power that he hadn’t wielded since Lenin’s tomb was formed to the arch (purposefully excluding the memory of the ijiraq’s usurpation of power), but Vellas was present should one be drawn to the beacon of power soon to erupt. Hopefully, being underground would shield them as surely as it shielded radioactive fallout from reaching the surface.

Eighty surface laboratories circle the globe tasked with monitoring seismic activity induced by explosion and earthquake alike. Specific signatures differentiate the two and alert the appropriate monitoring nations of the activity. Fortunately, the CCD controlled half of those laboratories, and if all went according to plan, not a single one would be aware of the tests to come.

“I’ll need to be undisturbed,” he announced as his gaze circled back to that secured tunnel. The deeper in the earth he plunged, the better, though the idea of channeling in a bunker housing fifty-year-old thermonuclear weapons of megaton scale turned his stomach worse than the flight here.

500 miles away,
Forests of (Former) Norway

With warm bellies and lazy ears flopped the pack upon freshly trod beds. Growl as a Bear loped the perimeter one last time before settling into a spot alongside his mate. Pups rolled at her belly in a way that made Growl as a Bear yip contentedly as he finally laid his snout on one paw. Sleep roamed. He yawned.

Then a wrongness snagged the wind, and Growl as a Bear sprang to his paws. A growl rumbled his throat. His brothers came to his flanks. The earth groaned underpaw, and Growl as a Bear tensed to leap into the wrongness.

A great wind arose that flattened his fur, yet on he stood, growls warning against approach. The trees waved and cracked, a branch strained and crashed. The pups cried, huddling beneath their mamas belly. Then the wrongness trickled away like leaves in a river. The wind ceased and warmth returned.

The shadow of a two-leg emerged from the trees, but the scent that followed was of grass after a heavy rain, not of the two-legs they avoided so carefully. The two-he was large as a tree, with vines for hair and eyes the color of treenuts. The two-leg knelt at the broken tree limb without looking at the wolves. A song lifted. The two-leg laid a paw on the cragged wood. Moments later, from the crevices spun fresh stems that curled upward with new flowers. A soft green moss soon covered the rest of the log, and Growl as a Bear sniffed and shook his head.

The strange two-leg looked up just then, and spoke in a strange tongue, that Growl as a Bear understood.
“Little brothers. It is good you are here. I did not know if you remained,” the he-legs bowed in greetings, then he clutched a strange stone at his side, and the trunks of his legs carried him away.

Growl as a Bear was astonished. The scent that rose and left touched a memory he did not recall existing before.

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