Norport Miracle

- May 2023 Popular Vote Pick

The first, and for some time the only, sign that the apocalypse has occurred came in the form of sharp tremors and caused the city of Norport to shake for about ten seconds. Joel Melakiss was sitting at his table, going over his papers, but he dropped the latest reports from his factory with the first tremor, stood up, and opened the door.

“What’s happening?” he asked his personal guard, who was standing in a parade rest in the corridor.

“I don’t know, Councilor. I thought it was an explosion at first, but…“

“Go find out.“

It didn’t feel like an explosion unless it was a major industrial accident. That would probably be very bad, as Joel had shares in a lot of industries in Norport. It would undoubtedly be terrible for the town as a whole. And what was bad for the city was bad for Joel.

When the guard came back a few minutes later and reported that it was only a weak earthquake, Joel felt relieved.

“Was there an eruption?” he asked. The windows of his office faced the sea, not the giant volcano that loomed over the town.

“No, sir, although the Mountain is smoking a lot more than usual. We can expect a heavy ashfall later.“

“Alright, resume your post.“

There were only a few recorded major eruptions of the Mountain in the history of Norport and the city was always fortunate to escape almost unscathed, but it used to be much smaller in those times. A major eruption and earthquake could easily destroy everything that Joel managed to gain in the last few years of the so-called interesting times.

Other Councilors and old residents complained about how the War broke everything, the same as their fathers and grandfathers grumbled after a rich source of oil was found in the swamps east of the town and brought a modern industry to a small fishing town. For most of its history, Norport was small and unimportant, far from everything, special only in the clouds of black ash that gave it its original name, Puerto Noir. The old-timers cherished the calm and usually a lazy way of life in Norport. While other worlds grew and fought with others and got destroyed by their competitors, Norport managed to avoid all that because it was a small town surviving mostly on fishing, limited coal mining, and, for those few who preferred adventurous and short life, on hunting huge dinosaurs infesting the giant swamps that made up most of the continent.

But where others grumbled, Joel and his father and grandfather before him thrived on the change and growth it brought.

The other Councilors laughed when they were asked for permission by a wealthy outworlder industrialist to start an oil drill in the swamp. They laughed, took the money offered, and expected that the giant monsters of the swamps will sooner or later chase the stupid outworlder away.

Not Joel’s grandfather. He sensed an opportunity even before the outworlders demonstrated their weapons to him.

True, the giant beasts of swamps didn’t like the idea of industrialization much. Probably even less than city Councilors. Or, in the case of giant herbivores, were too stupid to understand what was happening. But even those were stopped by cannons and machine guns protecting the oil drill.

And it would have been a waste to just let all that meat and skins rot, wouldn’t it?

Joel’s grandfather struck a deal with the outworlders and got quite rich in the process. Rich enough to buy into the oil drilling oil processing business. He sealed the alliance by arranging a marriage between his eldest son and the outworlders’ daughter.

The old-timers grumbled. It took some time, but Melakiss’ family growing wealth forced even the most conservative of them to accept the change and adapt to the new times.

Norport was still small and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but it became a minor provider of oil to nearby worlds and slowly but constantly grew.

Until another sudden change occurred. The War.

A horror for those directly affected by it, an annoyance for the other Councilors and residents of the town, including families of former foreigners who were now citizens of Norport and had adopted much of its calm and lazy ways.

But for Joel, it was a great opportunity, although it required an insane amount of effort to stay on top of things. He finished the last report and realized that, for the first time in at least a month, he didn’t have anything time-critical to deal with. It felt weird.

But it made sense. The last week was surprisingly uneventful. A calm before the storm, maybe.

For a moment, Joel thought he might have a chance to spend some time working on his long-term goals. Or maybe even have a free evening with his wife and family.

There was a knock on his door, followed by a careful, “Sir? Do you have a moment?”

Joel turned to his secretary and masked his annoyance. “Yes. What is it?”

“Sir, some strange rumors are going around. The magic people say that something horrible happened.”

Joel frowned. He welcomed the change, but the magic people, as they were called by old residents, were only a huge annoyance.

“They tend to predict a catastrophe every time I talk with them. What is this time? They’re talking about the apocalypse again? Shattering of the worlds? Just because we had a minor earthquake?”

“Well… it’s not just them, sir. The rumors are running wild, but the commodore’s aide just called me and asked if we know something. Anything. He said that something weird has happened, but they’re not sure what.”

Joel wanted to sigh, but he was always careful to present himself as a leader with a positive outlook, even to his servants. The can-do attitude, as alliance officers called it.

“Ask around then if you can track any reasonable rumors. Call the science people, they might know something. And please call the commodore’s aide back and ask him if he has any additional information.” Joel thought for a moment and then added: „Tell him to send the commodore my regards and ask him if he would be free for a drink later. I can send my car to the port for him."

“Yes, sir.”

The magic. Joel didn’t believe much in it. For Norport inhabitants, it was mostly only weird stories from old, mythical times. Simple tricks with limited practical use, despite the claims of outworlders. There were a lot of people among the refugees who took magic for granted. Some even claimed to have some talents, but they looked more like frauds and charlatans to Joel. He asked them several times to show him some real magic and all he got were simple and useless tricks or excuses.

If magic were real and powerful, Joel would embrace it, the same as he embraced technology that brought him money. And money brought him power. The power was what mattered.

“The metaphysical reality of this world is exceptionally strong and stable,” an elderly scientist from one of the first groups of refugees tried to explain to Joel. “And the ash clouds and shade from that geologically improbable volcano range tend to block a lot of moonlight, further reducing the magical aura of this town. It’s very hard to do anything unnatural around here. The local reality doesn’t like it.”

“So you’re saying that magic is useless here? Impossible? That’s why we have no magicians and magic?” asked Joel.

“I didn’t say that. It’s just so much harder to do anything. Various minor talents are actually quite common, but anyone who’s used to everyday magic will hate it here and move away. I have been personally to dozens of worlds, Councilor. This is the world with the lowest magic level I’ve ever seen. Even heard of. I like it here,” smiled the old scientist, who soon became the lead engineer in one of Joel’s new factories.

The War brought so many opportunities, and Joel did his best to use as many as he could. Technically, each of the twelve Councilors was equal, but some were more equal than others. Joel knew that some people were talking about him as the first Councilor. He always made a scene when someone said that in his presence. He insisted that this was not how the town should work, but it felt great.

He allowed himself a brief moment of daydreaming. Norport used to be small and unimportant, but thanks to the War, it grew rapidly. One day it might become the biggest city-state all around. All it needed was just a few more opportunities. And a leader who wasn’t afraid to take a little risk.


Three Allied naval officers arrived about an hour later. Joel greeted them in his office and poured them heavily spiced rum made by his small distillery. He personally detested the stuff but knew that the sailors cherished it.

They all wore uniforms of their old navies. The alliance never had the time or resources to unify those, and most of the members expected to go about their own business as soon as the War ended. It was still strange to see them as allies, even after two years since the founding of the Alliance of the Worlds. The commodore, the senior officer stationed in Norport, was from the Kenheran Navy. His aide was from Caelon, a small archipelago nation that was Kenheran’s enemy at first, then ally. And Captain Vungsborn still proudly wore his Reich uniform, although the Reich, the arch-enemy of most of the factions at the start of the War, no longer existed.

In some ways, it was much easier to work with them when they were all enemies, when the War was just a large-scale clash of several worlds and empires that ended up in a three-sided war, with some of the smaller players moving between larger factions almost at will. The early stages of the War were waged almost entirely at sea, and diesel fuel became a scarce resource, quickly raising Norport’s importance to levels that no one in town, except Joel, expected.

Norport declared strict neutrality as a port open for all as soon as the War started. The city resisted any attempts to become part of one of the factions, selling oil, diesel, and food to any ship that entered the harbor. It was a time of many great opportunities for Joel. For one, he managed to force the city Council to agree on a huge expansion of the small town guard. It was needed, he explained, to keep safety in port with all those foreign soldiers who constantly fought among themselves. Most of the guard officers saw Joel as their boss, the only one who cared and paid a lot of money out of his pocket for their maintenance while other Councilors chaffed, argued, moaned, and hoped that the War and all those stupid outworlders would just leave them alone.

When the first refugees from war-torn worlds started to arrive, attracted by the neutrality and relative safety of Norport, it was Joel who did his best to help them, providing them with at least simple shelters and work in his quickly growing factories and other enterprises. He was careful enough to convince a few other families to follow in his footsteps by appealing to their greed. He didn’t want to gain too much power too quickly, as he was already playing a very complicated political game.

"They're pathetically grateful and willing to work for peanuts. You're stupid if you don't use this opportunity. We either use them as a workforce, or they'll become a burden on our necks," he explained.

He used the same careful manipulation on outworlder officers and envoys. "Norport is neutral," he said. "Our people are not willing to join anyone. They would revolt if one of us Councilors just suggested that. Your offer of building a huge refinery is generous, but that would require us to join you, and we would become targets for the Reich's submarine raids. How about we just build the refinery ourselves, with your entrepreneurs as investors?"

What helped him most in the long term was his honesty. "I'm doing it for my home," he said. "Like my colleagues, I would prefer you all to go away, but I realize that it's not going to happen, so I'm doing my best to keep Norport safe. And so far, that requires that we stay neutral. A safe haven for all."

He gained a reputation for being a skillful and surprisingly honest diplomat. Neutral Norport gained importance as a place where talks between envoys of warring factions could occur in relative safety. Some of the wealthy people who didn't want to be involved in the War started to see Norport as a place for investment or even relocation of their businesses.

When Joel got the first reports of a sudden ceasefire among all remaining factions, he felt sad. It seemed that the age of great opportunities was coming to an end. Then he was discreetly told by one of the Reich's captains the reason for the sudden end of hostilities.

There was a new enemy, horrible, inhuman, and clearly bent on destroying everything. It was attacking on all sides and growing in numbers with each town or city conquered, and the factions couldn’t afford to fight each other. They were even discussing a common alliance. Joel saw an opportunity and instantly suggested Norport as a place where the negotiations could take place.

It almost backfired on him.

"Well, gentlemen, so far I’ve heard only some strange rumors and I was hoping that you might tell me more," he said after the first drink to a group of former enemies, now fellow officers of the Alliance of the Worlds stationed in Norport, a city that managed, barely, to remain neutral so far.

"We don’t know anything concrete," grumbled the commodore. "But there must have been some serious event. The grand admiral is dead. He died a few minutes after we had that earthquake. And not just him. Several other important people died too."

"How can you know that, commodore? Magic?" frowned Joel. If the Alliance had a way to use radio signals across different worlds, it was a secret held from him.

"Essentially," said the commodore. "A coin of favor. I had a silver one from the grand admiral. It disappeared, and that means he must be dead. There have been a few more of them going around, from other top alliance people. Some of the others died too."

"So… That huge offensive you told me about. There must have been a battle?" asked Joel carefully. He didn’t know much about those coins, only that the really powerful beings were capable of creating them and gifting them to their minions. He was shown one once, but it looked like a simple trick. Just a silver coin, appearing and disappearing at will in the hand of a drunken officer.

"Possibly," hissed Captain Vungsborn. "We have a healer in the hospital. She used to be a priestess of Entropy before the war. She rejected her god, but she got a strong seizure the moment the earthquake started. When she woke up, she claimed that she felt her god… destroyed."

"And some of our navigators and other talented claim that there was a huge shift in the reality. Nobody knows what it means, Councilor. Could I get another shot, please?" asked the commodore.

"Of course." Joel poured another round and then he said truthfully: "I don’t know much about such things, gentlemen. This is probably a stupid question, but is there anything I can do to help?"

"Well… we’ve come here to warn you that we’re going to send two ships away, to find out what happened. This will reduce the protection of the town below the agreed limit, so some of the Councilors might grumble."

"Ah, I see. Do you really think it’s time for such a swift reaction? Sooner or later, another ship with refugees or a tanker will surely come with news."

"I’m afraid we have to do this, Councilor. Something bad happened. I can feel it in my bones," said the commodore.


Joel was sure that the officers were overreacting. He fully expected to see another ship in a day or two, with new propaganda stories about glorious victories and yet another legendary monster or hero joining the Alliance in a fight against the common enemy. Not another god, though, as he was told that the only two Elder Gods still in existence were already supporting the fight. He generally disbelieved all such stories. And some of the officers told him about the true state of the war. The Alliance was barely holding the invasion in check, and any genuine victories or reclamations of the occupied territory were exceptionally rare.

It was a situation that suited him so far because the importance of Norport slowly grew together with his personal power and reputation. And if the mysterious enemy somehow got to Norport, he had several contingency plans prepared. He would hate to use them, but he believed in being prepared.

But no ship came the next day. Or the day after. In old Norport, before the War, that would be normal. It was rare for more than one or two transworld ships to enter the harbor in a week. It was odd in new Norport, a town that could now claim to be a city as its population more than tripled in just a few years.

Joel was busy moving around, squashing rumors, and being positive all around. Most of the refugees saw him as their Counselor, the one who fought for their rights and attempted to persuade the rest of the Council to grant them citizenship. Normally, citizenship was granted after a year of residence, but the Council vote blocked that during the time of war. That was a hard one to arrange for Joel, and it was becoming harder and harder to keep.

He was visiting newly built resident houses close to the old port. It was shabby and quick work from the cheapest possible materials, but a lot better than the improvised huts where most of the refugees still lived. He praised the workers for their effort and received loud thanks, for it was he who paid for the materials and provided tools. A small investment with a potentially huge return.

When he was about to leave, he noticed a city guard officer running towards him. “Sir! Sir! You need to go to the island right now.”

The big island in the bay was leased to the Alliance as a base for their warships. Joel had to scream at some of the Councilors and pay huge bribes to others to get it passed. Even his allies in the Council resisted. Those idiots couldn’t understand that the Alliance needed Norport badly enough to be willing to take it over if they wouldn’t cooperate.

If he was needed on the island, it meant that something bad must have happened. A crisis. An opportunity.

“What’s going on?” he asked calmly.

“Dunno, sir. There’s a ship returning. We were told to find you as soon as possible and send you to the island. Those alliance people want you there.”

Joel ordered his driver to take him to the port. He was one of the few in the city who had a personal car. It was a good reminder of his status to everyone around, but Joel liked to say that it was to save time moving around the growing city… and sheepishly admit to some that this was one luxury he decided to burn some money on because he loves modern technology. “Maybe in time, everyone will be wealthy enough to own a car,” he said to others. Sometimes he drove himself, often faster than it was safe, and he always had a huge grin plastered on his face. It worked. Common people cheered him when he drove around, while other Councilors who imported their own cars were often sneered at.

A waiting powerboat took him directly to the alliance office on the island.

“Well, gentlemen? I was told you needed me.”

“It was the apocalypse,” said the commodore. He looked twenty years older than yesterday.

“I’m sorry?”

“That tremor. It was a sign of the apocalypse.”

“I don’t understand, commodore. What happened?”

“The submarine U57 is on the way back to the port, Councilor. It was one of the ships we sent to get information.”


The way between worlds usually took a few days, even for a very talented navigator. The ship had to first get far enough from shore to the ocean and then locate a correct current in the fabric of reality that would allow it to cross over to another world.

“She failed to find a way out, Councilor. They lost contact with the frigate Augustus on the first attempt. Their navigator says that the currents are absolutely unstable.”

“And he is a really good one,” said Vungsborn. “He’s a sensitive. He can navigate by feel alone, even without tables and instruments. He’s one of those who can find new ways. Now he says that… there are none.”

“How… how is that possible?”

“The apocalypse,” repeated the commodore. “That is what happened before. When the angels fought against demons. And before, when the Elder Gods destroyed themselves. Possibly before. When the apocalypse occurs, the connections between worlds are shaken. Sometimes destroyed completely.”

Joel was troubled by this because, for him, such things were just old outworlder legends and myths. But he vaguely remembered stories of how, in the distant past, suddenly no ships came for several years. No one paid any attention to it, as Norport was only a large fishing village in those times. But the first ship that came brought news of destruction and doom that nobody believed or cared about.

“All right, gentlemen. What is the worst-case scenario for us here in Norport?”

“We’re isolated from the rest of the world. Maybe for just a short time. We’ll send U57 to give it another try in a few days to see if the currents are stabilizing. But it might be for a long time. Maybe...forever. There are stories of worlds that got cut off completely for hundreds or even thousands of years.”

That sounded like great news to Joel.

“Alright. In that case, the only real big problem right now I see is food. We were dependent on imports even before the city grew so much. There’s still enough in granaries to go for a few months, but if the shipping stops... well, gentlemen, in that case, we can all look forward to meals that would consist mostly of dinosaur steaks and rum.”

One of the lower-ranking officers snickered. “That’s what we’re mostly fed on seas nowadays, anyway. Your cans that taste like chicken and a small rum ration.”

“And the vitamin supplements and biscuits. We have only a limited supply of these,” said the commodore. “But... you are right, councilor. The food will be our biggest problem in the long run if we stay isolated.”

“I frankly... can’t think of anything else that I would call critical. Except, of course, people isolated from their loved ones,” said Joel. “And there’s nothing we can do about that. But... even in the worst-case scenario, we’ll survive. Or am I missing something?”

“The spare parts, special equipment. Ammo. Gunpowder. You can’t hunt those giant lizards without some serious firepower.”

“We can make most of this, I think,” said Joel, furiously thinking and sorting out the best opportunities life just threw at him. “I’ll go inform the council, commodore, and I’ll set some of my people on looking at ways how we can get some bigger food production going on. We never really bothered because it’s just too hard to grow anything in the damn swamps, and we could always buy grain, but I’m sure we’ll find some ways to deal with it.”

“Well... you took it better than I thought, Councilor, but you always had that positive outlook on life,” said the commodore. “What will others think, though? The other Councilors, the city people.”

“I’m sorry to say this, commodore, but... I’m not sure about refugees, except those who already went native, as you’re calling it. But most of the old-timers... will be happy. I always told you that most of the city doesn’t want to deal with foreigners. They might see it as a fulfillment of their wish. They’ll probably celebrate. Until the grain runs out.”


As Joel predicted, most of the town took it as good news. Joel himself was almost ecstatic, though he looked somber and patiently explained to others that hard times would be coming.

It took several weeks before U57 returned from yet another expedition, and her navigator reported that the currents were stabilizing enough that he might, maybe, with a lot of luck, try crossing over and even back. The commodore didn’t want to risk it just yet.

After the next expedition over the ocean, U57’s navigator reported that the currents were calm now, although changed, some slightly, some completely. New charts would be needed.

Joel shared the enthusiasm of the allied officers, at least publicly. Personally, he felt annoyed.

Then a radio signal reported that another allied submarine emerged on the ocean currents and tried calling the port. It brought news, good and bad.

The War was won, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Although the forces of the mysterious enemy were annihilated, the resulting destruction was incredible. Some worlds and many allied forces were completely destroyed.

The official word from the remains of the Alliance was that the Elder God Lord Entropy sacrificed himself and used all his power to destroy the invasion, as he saw no other way to stop them. He summoned storms of oblivion that devoured the invaders, but also what remained of the occupied worlds. In many places, storms crossed over the worlds and caused additional destruction, leaving terrible entropic beasts prowling the resulting apocalyptic wasteland.

Joel took the first opportunity he could find to ask Captain Vungsborn what it actually meant. He was cultivating Reich’s officers, as he had some plans for them for a long time. Vungsborn and a few others stationed in Norport already considered Joel their personal friend.

“Well, Joel... I think it’s way more complicated than they’re telling us.”

“In all the stories I’ve heard, Entropy was always the villain. He was supposed to cause some previous apocalypse, am I right? This redemption for his past deeds, as the Alliance calls it... seems weird. But I’m a provincial bumpkin who doesn’t know much about other worlds and their history. That’s why I’m asking you, Ernest.”

“Joel, I think they are lying, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone agrees that he’s kaput, and good riddance to him. But those storms, that’s bad business. It’s going to take years to clear out areas where it occurred... if someone bothers at all.”

Vungsborn had another drink and continued, “The other news I have, from the channels we Reich’s officers still keep, are, well... bad. For us, mostly. The Alliance has already splintered. The majority of the factions still have homes they can return to. They’re resolved to clear their worlds, rebuild the new civilization from the ashes of the old. But there are few, like us, who have nowhere to go. Reich was the villain that started the War, after all. Nobody wants us.”

“But I thought that you were those who revolted against Reich’s leadership, Ernest.”

Vungsborn grimaced and held out his glass for another drink. Joel poured him a generous shot of black rum. Vungsborn downed it in one gulp and shook his head.

“It doesn’t matter to most of them. Now, when they no longer need our submarines and our troops… all they see are former enemies. And you know that more than half of us are wehrwolves. Monsters.”

“Only by reputation,” objected Joel. “At least, that’s what you told me.”

Joel was very interested in wehrwolves from the start. There were a few true werewolves among outworlders working in the swamps, generally hairy and wild fellows who were supposed to be able to change their forms around the full moon, but their main strength came from the ability to heal any wounds quickly, even those that would have been fatal for a normal human. That was very useful in swamps filled with many ugly beasts. It was one of the few things called magical Joel ever saw that was at least a bit useful. He had several of the swamp wolves on his payroll, as hunters and for occasional special work.

But Reich’s wehrwolves were humans that survived the process developed by Reich’s scientists. It was supposed to turn them into super-soldiers… but the most noticeable change was that it made them ugly. Stronger and more resilient than humans, as town guard officers always confirmed after occasional bar fights, but mostly ugly.

“Sure, almost all of them are forced conscripts, not the original Wehrwolf Kommando, but…” Vungsborn shrugged. “We don’t know what to do. Maybe the admiral has some plans he hasn’t shared with captains just yet, but… There’s not enough of us to start our colony or try to reclaim one of the Reich’s original worlds. And we have almost no women. But there are too many of us to find a new home, not if we keep our promises and stick together. Most of us just expected to fight to the bitter end, anyway.”

“What about Norport?” asked Joel carefully.

Vungsborn narrowed his eyes at him.

“There’s no way we could support all the submarines you still have. Not now, not for some time. Some would have to be mothballed. Some of the bigger ones, those already converted for transporting, could easily pay for themselves as freighters, but I would love to have at least a few of the combat ones stationed here…”

“What for?” interrupted Vungsborn.

“You know me, Ernest. Always hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. We have one small modern destroyer and two old steam-powered frigates. Norport managed to stay independent because we were far away and unimportant, but that had changed. My colleagues might think that everything will go back to normal now, but that’s impossible. Sooner or later, someone might decide to come and take over. We would have problems keeping away a group of determined pirates.”

Vungsborn snorted. “Yeah, you’re essentially defenseless. When I was sent here for the first time in the early stages of the War, my report to the high command was that it would be extremely easy to take over the town… but it would be very costly to keep it. Not worth it. That’s one of the reasons I recommended silently supporting your neutrality for now.”

Joel smiled at him.

“Good old times,” he said. “But now... the situation has changed. I’ve been racking my brain ever since we had that first radio report, looking for some long-term solution.”

“And have you talked about that with your colleagues, the Councillors?” asked Vungsborn sourly.

“Only with a few of them. And I’ve mostly been trying to get their support on building at least one new warship of our own,” admitted Joel.

“With all due respect, Joel... to you personally, I mean... that is your biggest long-term problem. The Council. A bunch of conservative dinosaurs, every one of them claiming to be descended from the original twelve fisherman families who ended up here more than a thousand years ago. They see anyone who’s not here for at least a few generations as an annoying insect. I’ve heard how they’re talking about you, just because you have an outworlder mother, Joel. I’ve seen how the refugees are treated outside the town. A place where we would be pariahs from the start is not a place we would want to call home, even if we could trust the leadership to be capable of doing what needs to be done.”

“And that’s something that has to change,” said Joel. “I hadn’t dared to force the issue before, but I’m already pushing for a repeal of new laws against immigration. Some of the refugees will leave, but a lot of them will want to stay...”

“That’s not enough, Joel,” interrupted Vungsborn again. “I’m sure you’ll get them citizenship eventually, but that doesn’t mean that much in the end. They’ll be third-class citizens at best, anyway. You’re lucky, no... they, the other Councilors, are lucky that there hasn’t been some sort of uprising already. There would be, but a lot of the refugees and previous newcomers are looking up to you. They believe in your promises. If those who see you as their Councilor decide that you’ve failed them...”

“The city is a powder keg waiting to blow,” admitted Joel. “The council doesn’t see it that way. They just don’t understand that the majority of the city is now against them. They think their personal guards and the city guard would be more than enough to put down any attempts at insurrection, but they’re wrong. It would be a bloodbath, but...”

Joel sighed and drank his own rum. “I’m dancing on a thin wire over the abyss, Ernest. If I push the Council too much, they’ll see it as an attempt to usurp power. My own clan isn’t exactly happy with me. They stay behind me in public, they have to, but in private... they’re blaming me for using too many resources for the city and refugees. Resources that should have been used for the good of the clan. But if I don’t do enough for refugees... the worst-case scenario is they just start an insurrection... and proclaim me their leader. I’ve been carefully offered just that from several groups, you know.”

“Why don’t you take it, Joel? Why not become a king?”

“I don’t want to. I’d prefer a political solution without any bloodbath and destruction. It could easily break the city.”

“And you think adding us to the mix would help?”

“Regarding the possible external threats? Definitely. With the internal situation... If you would offer your services to the city, in exchange for, say, a Council seat of your own, it would open the way for additional later reforms. And with you in the harbor, any possible violent scenarios might be avoided, or at least limited.”

“Where would those reforms lead to? You surely have a plan or two. I know you well enough, Joel.”

“I’d like to get to a republic of sorts. A representative council, maybe bicameral, but the actual executive power would be in the hands of one elected person, a mayor, I guess.”

Vungsborn nodded. “That can be a good system if you set it up well. My homeland used to be a republic for a long time, and it worked until we got unlucky with our elected president.”

“Really? I hadn’t known that,” lied Joel.

They talked and drank for some time before Vungsborn excused himself. He promised Joel to pass the message to his admiral.


Weeks passed quickly, and Joel didn't get much chance to sleep or spend time with his family. He couldn't afford to, as the situation was very fluid, and some opportunities surfaced only for a moment before disappearing forever.

The ship traffic was still light, and the currents of the ocean had stabilized but changed, for better or worse, depending on one's point of view. Before the apocalypse, there were only a few solid and safe routes leading to Norport. Now, at least according to a few expeditions that U57 did before being sent away, there were dozens of worlds easily accessible from Norport.

It was a great opportunity, but also a security nightmare.

A few refugees had already left, but more arrived with wild stories of horror and destruction. Some of the new refugees were silent and passive, with dead eyes. Joel was told that these were victims of entropic fields that partially wiped their minds and memories. They seemed dumb and required special care, some of them even had to be ordered to eat, but mostly worked hard without any complaints. Joel was hoping to get more of them.

There were several additional official reports from the Alliance and some unofficial ones that didn't sound good. Vungsborn's claim that the Alliance was splintering was confirmed even by the official news. The harbor was mostly empty, and only a few low-ranking allied officers were keeping duty on the island, possibly just to hold the claim for later...or maybe they were forgotten by their superiors. All they had left were a few motorboats.

The political situation in the city still resembled a powder keg, with the fuse burning quickly.

Even Joel was starting to feel rather nervous and moved more and more resources to contingency plans.

Then the day came when the fire reached the keg, sooner than expected.

Joel was in a clandestine meeting in a small room in the cellar of the town hall with his biggest public enemies.

"Joel, my boy, we can't wait any longer," grumbled old George Karahorn, the eldest and the most conservative Councilman of them all. He was almost ninety, his face a mask of wrinkles and old scars, but he still ruled his big clan of fishermen and whalers with an iron fist and loud voice that he often used to shout at the rest of the council, especially at Joel, while shaking his iron fist. It was literally iron, courtesy of a too-close encounter with a kraken when George was still just a captain on one of the many boats of his family.

"He's right," added Bert Rossfield. He was called The Capitalist by refugees, and even old-timers agreed that this moniker fits him. He was known for pinching pennies until they squealed and begged for mercy. He usually kept silent on Council meetings, unless Joel tried to ask for more money for any of the projects that the city needed.

"I understand that you still hope for a result that won't cause violence and damage to property and lives. I agree with you, Joel, but I think we're past that. Not even if those mercenaries you said you might get shown up. I guess you still have no news from them?"

Joel shook his head. "Sadly, none. And no serious response from any other group I’ve managed to contact."

That was the truth. His last contact with Vungsborn was three weeks ago when the rest of Reich's sailors were recalled. Vungsborn called him on the island on the pretense of saying goodbye. There was a gray-haired woman who claimed to be an assistant to Admiral Doenigsburg, leader of the submarine fleet. Joel spent about an hour discussing various possibilities with her, but in the end, he was told that any decision had to take place in a conference that the admiral planned, and that he would be informed in two weeks at most.

"This is getting too dangerous for you personally, my boy. You're cutting it too close. I was already asked if I would support a vote against you, possibly for treason. They might even get enough votes. Hell, I would vote against you if I wasn't in this with you from the beginning," grumbled Karahorn.

"We've discussed that scenario," said Joel, although he wasn't exactly thrilled about it. That one was a bit too risky.

"No. That would be a needless complication. Face it, we would need a miracle to solve this without any violence. So we declare a state of emergency and the triumvirate. We crack down hard on all those radicals and potential troublemakers you've identified, Joel. We have our personal guards, the city guard, my fishermen, and your swampies. It should be more than enough."

"Barely," objected Rossfield. "Even with those mercenaries I've got on my payroll... if we're wrong about some of the families and they decide to fight, it will get bloody. But we need to act now. Any more delays will mean that we'll have to break even more eggs. And I would prefer starting with Arjenis and Boonogs. Leave refugees for the second strike."

"This is the part I really hate," complained Karahorn. "Little Ricky Arjeni... I used to take him on the sea when he was a wee boy. But there's no helping there. That man is as stubborn and dumb as a brick wall. At least in Arjenis’ case, we won't have to kill them all. Is your man in place, Joel?"

Joel nodded. He had a lot of reliable men and women, including two beings that weren’t exactly human, in various places. He was hoping for a miracle, but he was prepared for the worst-case scenario.

"Why the hell do they have to be so stupid and blind?" complained Karahon again.

The phone on the table started to ring. It had to be something really important; otherwise, Joel's secretary wouldn't dare to interrupt this meeting. He picked it up and listened for a moment.

"What's happening?!" demanded Karahon when he saw Joel's face. Joel raised his hand and made a hush gesture. He listened a bit more.

"Set the guards on alert. Contingency plan beta, don’t fight without orders. Same for the ships. I'll be there in a moment," he said, then he hung up the phone and stared at the other two councilors.

"Spit it out! What's going on?"

"A report from the watchtower on the Mountain," Joel said without any emotion. "There's a fleet of airships, at least two dozen, approaching the city. And smoke on the horizon, a lot of smoke, coming from surface ships. No answer on the radio."

"An invasion?" yelled Karahon. "Who?!"

"The airships have markings of the Alliance."


The Councilors didn’t get far. A group of masked men in fatigues, recognizable by their size and small submachine guns as members of wehrwolf commando units, emerged out of nowhere and quickly took over the town hall, herding the councilors to a meeting chamber.

They were greeted by a grey-haired, elderly-looking woman who explained what was happening.

It was the remains of the Alliance, those who no longer had homes they could return to. Military and political leaders, as well as legendary beings and sorcerers that Joel had always discounted as propaganda pieces.

They called themselves the Founders. The Founders of a new enlightened age of civilization and progress. And they chose Noport as their new home.

The annexation was quick, with only a few cases of restricted violence. Even the Boonogs limited themselves to quiet protests.

Joel got his bloodless miracle, but no matter how hard he looked, he just couldn’t find any really good-looking opportunities he could use.

The Councilors would keep their seats, for now, in a much-enlarged representative city Council, but any real power ended up in the Founders' hands. The resistance seemed futile, but Joel schemed and thought throughout the long proclamation of the new mayor, the grey-haired Megan. He was sure he would be able to find a good angle. A lot of what Megan was spouting sounded like nonsense to Joel. She proclaimed Norport a place where magic would be strictly controlled, essentially forbidden, and as a pledge that the Founders would uphold this law, they promised to use their own remaining power to help the city grow. The city had to grow quickly because, with the arrival of the Founders, it doubled in population overnight.

Joel felt that this might be a weakness he could use.

He felt less sure after he had a short audience with his new ruler.

"I'm sorry, Mister Melakiss, that there was no time to present you with our counter-offer. You said that your dream is for Norport to become a beacon of civilization, a big and wealthy city. We're here to do just that. It's up to you if you'll be part of it or not."

And before Joel could say anything, a human-like figure made from the whirling darkness presented him with a file. "You might be interested in finding out just how much we know about you, Mister Melakiss," said the bogeyman in a strange voice devoid of any emotion.

Joel looked over the first few pages. It looked like all of his misdeeds, both done and planned, were in the file. He didn't bother denying anything.

"If it's any consolation, Mr. Melakiss, we were considering Norport as a site for our possible base for some time. It wasn't your attempt to get wehrwolves as your enforcers that drew us here. Grand Inquisitor has been stationed here for over a year already," said Megan.

Joel waved the file and asked, "How?"

"Mostly magic, Mr. Melakiss," answered the darkness. "Not that showy stuff that one of our colleagues will be using tomorrow to awe the city, but magic nonetheless. Your one weakness is that you disbelieve it. The rest was standard intelligence work. It helped that most of the specialists you've recruited lately were my agents."

"I repeat, it's up to you what happens now, Mr. Melakiss," said the mayor. "For a self-proclaimed provincial bumpkin, you're excellent at what you do. I would prefer you in a Council seat. Feel free to use your considerable skills against other Councilors and for your personal gain. But if you try any of that shit on us Founders, you'll regret it. Is that understood?"

Joel managed to nod.


His mind was still numbed the next day when he was escorted, with the rest of the Councillors, to witness the start of a new age. He still expected some stupid trick designed to confuse the crowd.

The Alliance propaganda contained several stories about an ancient sorcerer, simply known as "The Mason," who had helped the allied forces in several battles by drawing gigantic stone fortifications from the ground with pure magic. However, Joel still couldn’t bring himself to believe in something like that.

They were standing close to an empty plaza on the edge of the old town that was used for occasional festivals. When the ground started to shake, Joel was sure it must be the Mountain. But instead, it was a burly man in an immaculate suit and wearing a cylinder hat who slowly raised his hands, and the earth responded.

Everyone, not just the Norport old-timers, stared, often slack-jawed, at a giant stone building that was slowly rising from the ground and reaching for the skies.

They were later informed that it was a new city hall to house the Founders and the new government. It was only a crude stone building, just walls, floors, stairs, and ceilings. Everything else would have to be done by normal labor, but it was a miracle.

It made Joel believe in magic.