Chapter 5: Mind of Iron

            It was a bumpy ride on asphalt roads dotted with cobblestone that led the Auxiliaries to the brink of the Iron sector. The buildings, miniatures visible from the top of the hill where the comound sat comfortably, were all grown up by the time they had made their way to their base. The truck had entered in between two buildings with mirrored windows that seemed to stretch hundreds of thousands of feet to the inhabitants of the truck into the sky, piercing clouds and laws of physics. The rumbling quieted as the road underneath them faded into smooth tarmac, changing the roar of the beast to a purr. Buildings of all shapes and sizes ran down the street with the envoy, but none were less than ten stories stacked onto eachother, and none were made of wood. The sky was barely visible, but why look at the sky when steel and titanium went higher?

            Simin could barely remember the last time she had visited the city sectors of Kallipolis. Her vague recollection gave her only hazy recognition of the glory that surrounded her on all sides. She was so busy looking up, however, that it took minutes before she even noticed the people present on the grey sidewalks. The realization of their presence gave Simin another shock, for she had never seen such diversity of clothing before. Only a few citizens wore robes; the vast majority sported trousers and tunics cut off at the shoulders. Slippers were completely absent, replaced by what resembled Simin’s combat boots. These too were cut off prematurely, some simply soles with straps gripping onto the feet of their wearers. Colors dazzled Simin’s eyes; all shades of yellows, blues, reds, and more glinted in the reflection of light from the mirrored windows. The soldier couldn’t help but gape at passerby and out of the corner of her eye spotted even Xena exuding a similar astounded look.

            If the Irons were giving the Silvers odd looks back, no one on the truck bed noticed. They spent the short ride through the city taking in everything from knick knacks just visible from behind the non-mirrored windows to the bicycles that had been adapted to take their rider from place to place instead of remaining stationary in an athletics room. By the time the truck slowed and veered off into a driveway, Simin felt like she had taken in a whole new world, having feasted on its every vestibule and ligament. So lost she was in her daze that she barely noticed herself dropping from the floor of the truck bed to the smoothly-paved ground, and she was still staring at the building when the wide golden doors were opened for the four Silvers.

            The shock was that much greater when Simin found herself abruptly in an enclosure once again entirely foreign to her. The large chamber stretched tens of feet above her head, where a white ceiling was painted without a crack or disfigurement in sight. Her eyes traveled from the ceiling to the walls, where wooden planks lined up in decorative fashions against another perfect white wall. The floor was made of marble, and Simin could feel the cold shivering into her from it, easily piercing her common slippers.

            “I’ll take you to him. Follow me.” A woman with shiny jet-black hair stood behind a marble desk at the far side of the room. She stood up from her seat and Simin noticed she too was wearing the odd attire of the Iron class: a black jacket partially revealing a white shirt with a frilly neck that stretched almost to her chin, and what seemed to be half of the bottom of a robe. But instead of flowing around her knees, it stuck to her with tightened fabric as if it was made much too small. Simin had to constantly remind herself that these people were not, in fact, always ready for battle.

            The woman made her way to a wall and pushed open an oak door. Even the doors were extra ornate, with carved notches in some artistic pattern. The door opened to a small room, where a few plush seats stood in the corners.

            “Please, take a seat. This elevator will take you right to him.” The woman gestured to the seats with a closed hand, then disappeared through the wooden door. Simin, along with the other two junior soldier, warily walked to a cushiony chair and sat. Xena, her face stoic as ever, remained standing.

            A metal door slid in front of the wooden door on the inside of the small, plain room a few seconds after the slick-haired woman left. On instinct, Simin tensed and reached for the knives absent on her sides. Simin remembered, with a shudder, the hostage training she had undergone. Treatises signed between Kallipolis and surrounding city states promised livable conditions for prisoners of war—but livable for the Silver class was nowhere near survivable. Training was compulsory on the most basic sense, and the stillness Simin had experienced in her tiny cell was suffocating, even with the air circulating in the room.

            It seemed like everyone in the room was having similar thoughts, and Simin could tell from the side that Xena’s face had soured slightly. But just as Simin began to brainstorm escape plans, a slight upwards movement shoved the entire room upwards. Every soldier immediately stood, looking at each other with panicked faces, and the room only accelerated. It was a few seconds before the room stopped moving, and a few tension-filled seconds more before the sliding metal door released the hostages from the grips of the room.

            On the other side stood a boy—maybe a little older than Simin herself—who was wearing a grey-colored tunic and denim pants. His face was decorated with a bit of stubble—now that’s something Simin had forgotten men had—and a nervous smile.

            “You are the Silver envoy?” His voice was surprisingly high—and nervous—for his muscular stature.

            “Yes.” In response, Xena’s voice deepened.

            “Great! Follow me to my office.” The boy turned down the carpeted hall—Now why does one need carpet when one’s shoe’s are so thick?—and led the four soldiers to a door at the end. As he opened it, there was one thing Simin noticed: the window. A single, uninterrupted glass pane that stretched from corner to corner, and revealed the city that had grown before them, buildings with windows just as great. Even glimpses of the Bronze sector could be seen, smokestacks peeking out from the distance.

            In her awe, Simin did not notice when the boy sat down behind a large mahogany desk and gestured for the four Silvers to sit. Pardon the window, the room was bare, save for the desk, the many papers haphazardly sitting on it, and the four chairs, much like the ones in the elevator. Once the four had taken a seat, the boy began to talk.

            “I’m Stratio, an Iron metallurgist. I have heard you need to pick up some weapons—but I would like to give you more than that. I wanted to bring you up to my office to discuss it.” The four soldiers immediately gave each other sideways glances—this was not part of the trip, and they needed to get back as soon as possible—but the boy was oblivious. His nervous expression even grew into a dream-like smile: “I have designed a new type of metal that is hard and inflexible as rock but light as titanium. It will revolutionize how we build our buildings—and, I assume, how you fight! I mean—”

            Stratio’s smile and eyes had grown more excited with his every word, and Simin could tell he was looking at the four of them for some response. But none of the soldiers changed their expression in the slightest, and Simin needn’t look around to know it. Despite her unchanged face, her imagination had taken the idea and run wild with it. Not just weaponry—armor would be vastly improved with something like that!

            Stratio’s excitement faded slightly with the lack of response, but as he resumed, the dream-like smile and the dream-like eyes returned to his face. “I’ve taken some of the technology from the Galtuch metallurgists—you know the city that invented that metal that allows trains to travel at break-neck speeds?—and modified the recipe—with Guardian approval, of course. I added—well, you don’t want to know about that—but it works! It really works!”

            Simin, certainly, had heard none of this, especially the name of a city-state, but was intrigued nonetheless. Still, she kept her face from betraying her thoughts.

            “And, look, I know this wasn’t what you came for, and they won’t—”

            “Stop.” Stratio stopped.

             “If you want to address an issue different than that of the retrieval, you may ask to speak to my superiors.” Xena continued, her voice assured as ever. “Until then, I want the weapons we were promised.”

            His expression was immediately brought back to reality, the dream-trance abrubtly disrupted. “Yeah. Ok. I can lead you to the armor room—it’s in the basement.” Standing up, he was visibly saddened; his shoulders drooped as he walked to the door, opening it with slack arms. The four soldiers stood to attention, Xena leading the front out and Simin coming up at the back. Stratio had held the door open for the crew, and as they walked to the moving room, Simin could nearly feel his breath on her neck.

            Why? Simin’s body tensed at the unwelcome sensation, one she had not felt in years. Touching others—or even being within a foot of another person—was reserved for combat, and it was rare that soldiers were ever still enough to feel as something as arbitrary and sensitive as one’s breath.

            The five of them piled into the room, the very spacious enclosure having seemingly shrunk with the extra person. The room’s volume was reduced, too, by the haning tension that lined the walls and airs. No one sat down; the military lined up at ease, while the laborer tried hysterically to do just that.

            “Basement!” Stratio spoke, his voice slightly raised, to the sliding door behind him. He took a place next to Simin, and she internally shuddered at the thought of more sensation on her skin.

            As the room began to move downward, Simin’s fears were realized. Much to her disgust, Stratio was not only a neck-breather, but a mouth-breather, too. The sound was deafening to Simin’s ears, who stood with rigid leisure that betrayed no ounce of her aversion.

            The room finally stopped, and the door slid open to reveal a darker and certainly dirtier passageway. Stratio led the way, and the soldiers reversed their order. He turned left after a few feet, and entered into a tall and well-lit room with walls brown in color. Like the armory on the compound, knives were the prevalent theme. Unusually, however, each knife was made of a dark gray metal, and they all looked incredibly similar. Stratio took a case of daggers, and showed it to Xena. He stood there, watching as she inspected each blade for imperfections, before looking up to see the three other Silvers starting at him.

            “You guys could have said something.” Stratio exclaimed quietly, but it was enough for the stares to turn into glares and for Xena to stop her inspection to look at him. It took a second, but his eyes lit up in surprise at his words eventually, and he corrected himself: “I mean—please know I expect you to speak when you need something.”

            “And know we expect you to do it.” Xena growled the truthful words as she returned to the daggers in the corner of the room.

            Stratio first led the pale girl to a set of longswords, which she immediately took off the wall. He showed the other—a boy of about twenty-five with large, genial brown eyes—to another case of daggers on the wall opposite the door. Finally, he took Simin to a corner, where three sets of double knives sat on a wooden worker’s table.

            “These look like mine!” Simin couldn’t help but exclaim as she looked at the three sets. Like hers, they each contained one thin and pointy blade and one flat one. They were each slightly different, and none of them had the words that were inscribed in Simin’s, but the thematic elements were largely the same.

            Stratio, relieved at finding a friendly face, broke form and smiled again, letting loose words that sounded like the ones he had used when he first greeted them. “You have a set? These are my most favorite to design. It’s always difficult to get consistent weights on both side—and I don’t want to make a handle too heavy, either so—”

            “So you usually make the pointy one thicker at the base and center.” Simin ran her fingers along the knives, feeling the divots of the thin ones. The first set was the most similar to hers, the only difference being in their slightly lighter weight. The second set was longer, obviously meant for a taller man, and therefore much heavier. The third, however, had the greatest number of differences. Not only were both blades lighter, but as Simin sliced them trhough the air in parley moves, she felt both of the blades dislodge and spin around tiny axes.

            “It’s to combat any strongmen grabbing them—even with the metal gloves Beren designed. They lock into place the moment the movement isn’t coming from the hilt. There’s a pressurized system—I wouldn’t do that—”

            Before he could get the words out, Simin had run four of her fingers down the pointed blade. It was a few seconds before the blood appeared at her fingertips—the blade was really that fine—but much to the contrary of reveling in the short burst of pain that shot from her hand to her brain, Simin simply stared in awe at the ingenuity of the design. Stratio said nothing else as she gathered the six knives, cradling them in her arms but taking care to keep the third set from touching her.

            “These will help defend your city. You have done well, Iron.”

            Stratio, pleased at a Silver’s praise, once again grinned, leading his praiser and the three other soldiers back through to the elevator. Xena’s first instinct, upon hearing Simin’s words from across the room, was to scorn her; but the daggers she was inspecting were of superior quality, and she couldn’t’ help but agree. The other two soldiers had similar instincts but came to the same conclusion.

            Much to her relief, Stratio stood on the other side of the moving room from Simin. Though he had earned her respect for his formidable design skills, no genius was excused from mouth-breathing.

            But as the group left the room, having slid to a halt in the large entrance from which they had first been introduced to the building and its people, Stratio grabbed onto the exiting Simin’s shoulders. This was unprecedented.

            “Stop!” She hissed, unable to control the involuntary startle at being touched so overtly. This gained the attention of the others, who turned around to see the boy’s hand on the soldier’s shoulder. The two gave mild glares, but Xena’s eyes zeroed in on the boy inj question almost overtly threatening to throw the entire contents of her case at him.

            “I—I just wanted to say that I really need to talk to someone who uses my weapons, and since you seem to be one of those Auxiliaries, I was wondering if…” Stratio’s words grew less and less confident with every second, even as he ripped his hand away from Simin’s shoulder. Xena approached him, hips forward and threatening, as Simin shook off the feeling of touch and joined the other junior soldiers.

            “Iron, you don’t know much about the Silver class. You may be a genius in your realm, but know that we operate on very different assumptions than you do. If you have any request at all, you do not ask a trainer soldier, much less a junior soldier. You are free to contact my superiors: any General, or an Emeritus in the theory school.”

            With those declarative words, Xena turned and led the rest of the soldiers out to the truck. They walked in unison, feet stomping through the marble into the very depths of my soul.

            The day was light, for only an hour had passed since their arrival, but Simin couldn’t help but notice the gloom in faces that peered down from the windows of the building they had just exited to the soldiers who were wrapping the uncased knives and swords into the tarps. Even as they shot away, Simin felt the stares of Iron metallurgists of all ranks on the truck’s bed.

            They were certainly not alone; Simin had been too enraptured in staring at the buildings and people when they first arrived to notice the stares of the very people she had found so fascinating. Eyes emerging from full heads of hair and strange colored shirts followed the soldiers and their Silver-emblazoned truck all the way until the city streets spat them back onto the gravel roads of the outer city. The rumble of truck returned in full force, and it was all the soldiers could do to make sure the weapons did not go tumbling out of the bouncing bed with their heads, which they had left rotting on the side of a road eons ago.