Salva’s Taboo Exchanges III

Side story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden.

This chapter contains references to violence, sex, medical conditions.

 

* * *

[Clipping from the Newspaper Il Guardiano]

15 KILLED IN BOMBING OUTSIDE ESTATE

22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

PALLADI — Over a hundred young socialites gathering for a ball at the Previte estate were shocked out of their festive mood and hurried out the back and side gates of the villa as a series of explosions rocked the front gates late into the night of the 22nd.

Fifteen people were killed as a pair of trucks carrying explosives detonated in front of the main estate gate.

Among the dead are servants of the Previte family, and more tragically, the heirs of the Ciprean and Corsican noble families, who were just checking in at the gate, having been terribly delayed by engine troubles with their private car, when the attacks transpired.

Eyewitnesses claim to have seen the trucks speeding down an adjoining road in a collision course with the gate.

Authorities have not disclosed any possible suspects, but it is believed that this was not a suicide bombing and that the men responsible are at large. No remains were found in the vehicles, and it is possible that the trucks were rigged to crash and the drivers escaped safely beforehand.

The grizzly character of this attack, and its target, brings to mind the Ikrean massacre of the Dahlia’s Fall, where General Autricus, his family and his guests celebrating a birthday party for their adult son, were attacked with petrol bombs and explosive grenades, and tragically murdered.

The Ikrean attacks are widely believed to have been the work of a cell of Svechthan and Ayvartan terrorists.

 

* * *

 

TELEGRAM INTERCEPT RECORD, 17th BLACKSHIRT LEGION, 67mo Battaglione Di Segnales 

DATE: 22nd GLOOM 2030 0900H

TO: Carmela Sabbadin

FROM: Salvatrice Vittoria

TEXT: [WOULD LIKE TO ARRANGE PHONE CALL SOON. DOING WELL. LOOKING FORWARD TO INVESTING IN ANTIOCH. WOULD FEEL PROUD TO BE A SIGNIFICANT SHAREHOLDER.]

NO DANGEROUS MATERIAL DISCOVERED.

APPROVED BY LEGIONARIUS TARKUS MARCEL.

 

* * *

 

PHONE CALL INTERCEPT RECORD, 17th BLACKSHIRT LEGION, 67mo Battaglione Di Segnales 

DATE: 22nd GLOOM 2030 1600H

TO: Antioch Fuels, Line 5

FROM: Pallas Messianic Academy, Line 42

TRANSCRIPT:

SLV: Afternoon.

CML: Hello! Good to hear your voice.

SLV: Indeed. How is business?

CML: Oh, a fine mess, both fine and a mess.

SLV: Sad to hear. I had hoped to call under better circumstances.

CML: Oh, it is fine, it is fine.

SLV: So, about those um, those shares.

CML: [Sighing (?)] I received your accounting information and unless you offer a bit more then I’m afraid we’re about done here. The Market’s the Market I’m afraid.

SLV: Oh, I’m sorry to hear. [Crying? Laughing?]

CML: Maybe if you put up more money next time.

SLV: There are limits to what I want to spend.

CML: That’s too bad then. Would’ve liked to have you.

SLV: Perhaps some other time. [Hang.]

“SLV” REBUFFED FROM SHAREHOLDER POSITION. SLV KNOWS CML FROM SOCIAL FUNCTIONS, DEVELOPED INTEREST IN BUSINESS TRANSACTION WITH HER.

SLV SUFFERS FROM SOCIAL ANXIETY, MILD DEPRESSION, OTHER ISSUES. TONE, VOCABULARY ANALYSIS INDICATES NOTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY FOR HER.

NO FURTHER INVESTIGATION REQUIRED.

NOTES: THIS IS BELIEVED TO BE A CONVERSATION BETWEEN SALVATRICE VITTORIA AND CARMELA SABBADIN. SEAL CLASSIFICATO,  PRIORITA ROSSA. DEBRIEF ALL LEGIONARIUS INVOLVED WITH THIS RECORD IN PROTOCOLS FOR ROYAL COMMUNICATIONS.

–LEGIONARIUS TARKUS MARCEL

* * *

 

23rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Beloved Salva,

What an intolerable telegram, and what an intolerable phone conversation; I understand that we must maintain a low public profile, but Messiah defend that was so lifeless I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. I hope the Blackshirt listening in dies of a brain aneurysm.

At least it ended my worries about you. You sounded good on the line.

So, let’s talk about things taboo.

Sylvano left quite an impression on me! I know you have no interest in men, so I must say, as one who does — you’ve somehow managed to be both the man of my dreams and the woman of my dreams! I am not even being figurative. I had a dream, in the cold uneasy sweat while I waited for news about the bombing and about your health, where I was with you, both of you (yous?). It was incredible. I woke the next morning soaked, in toe-curling, lip-biting shame.

We neared that heat in life, that night. But of course, something had to conspire.

I’m not sure if you know, or can know, at the Academy — but I discovered, tapping a friend of mine whose brother is a legionnaire, that the bombing was carried out by the Svechthan and Ayvartan terrorists also responsible for the Ikrean massacre. Truly dreadful people. And it appears the Legion are no closer to stopping them than they have been before. It’s frightening, they are definitely targeting the moneyed folk among us. Hopefully we shall be able to experience each other more fully before they blow us to bits someday.

Anyway. Enough about that. We saw it, we were scared, we ran, we survived, it’s done. I’m done with it. I’d rather focus on us. Oh I feel so naughty just thinking these thoughts, Salva. I hope your skin shivers reading my little fantasies as much as mine has shivered writing them.

Next time though, I want to see you in a dress. Let’s damn them all and hold hands woman to woman! I’m feeling daring, aren’t you? If you want I shall be your Knight, as you were mine!

Waiting longingly for our next rendezvous;

Carmela Sabbadin

 

* * *

 

POSTAL INTERCEPT RECORD, 17th BLACKSHIRT LEGION, 67mo Battaglione Di Segnales 

DATE: 23rd GLOOM 2030 0500H

TO: Pallas Messianic Academy, Room R-13

FROM: Pallas Endocrinology Research Institute

TYPE: PACKAGE, NOTE

CONTENTS: Bottle of “Estrarin” pills. Treatment for “Hormonal Imbalances” in women.

A handwritten note, reads: [Ms. Vittoria, thank you again for your patience. We have introduced new methods to extract the needed hormone that have allowed us to create more concentrated dosages that I believe may help to combat your symptoms. This breakthrough in production should allow us easily to restore you to a balanced state consistent with a woman your age, something the previous concentrations of the medicine could not do. Please keep in touch and report any abnormalities immediately -- Dr. Alighieri.]

PACKAGE APPROVED AND ALLOWED TO ITS DESTINATION. TRANSACTION DETAILS NOW SEALED CLASSIFICATO Priorita Rossa AS PER ROYAL ORDER “SALVATRICE.”

THE INSTITUTE HAS ALREADY BEEN DEBRIEFED ON THE ROYAL ORDER.

–LEGIONARIUS TARKUS MARCEL

 

* * *

24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Beloved Carmela

We must endure such phone calls and telegrams for our own safety, I’m afraid.

I apologize for leaving you so abruptly at the party. Were I to be caught and interview by a Legionnaire it would have been possible for them to notice that I was Salvatrice Vittoria with my breasts bound, my hair dyed; even without those things I already am fairly similar to Sylvano. My greatest defense in costume has been that Salvatrice Vittoria is a taboo person in general. Royalty and Bourgeois alike have learned that my blood is worth nothing, and my name not worth knowing. Though they will treat me otherwise to my face, I am an invisible thing in the end, one that confers no advantage. I take advantage of this whenever I can, but it has its limits.

I’m feeling a little more energetic lately, I feel. I’ve received new medicine for my moods and flashes and lethargy. I must admit it has brought with it its fair share of candid dreams as well. I’m fond of your suggestion to be my knight — I wonder how you would look in a suit.

Though I think you’ve a much more womanly figure than I, so it might be difficult to pull off!

But I want to encourage your good mood, so make your plans. I have trust in you.

I hope the Previte sisters are doing well after this terrible affair. They seem like darling people.

I have something a bit more serious to ask you in addition.

My interest in the war has grown. I’ve been meaning to read about socialism and Ayvartan history. I have started, but it is difficult. I might join the reading society here in the Academy, and maybe the debate society, and see what I can glean from them. Some of this I feel I need to have explained to me — because from the admittedly cursory glances I have had with the material, I do not see why Socialism would lead the Ayvartans and Svechthans into conflict with us. I do not see why it would spur us to war with them and them to terrorize us. I want to understand; one day, it is possible I may be Queen, despite all the obstacles against me, despite my mother’s current silence, despite the ambiguity of my birth. When that day comes I need to know why we are all fighting.

So, my request: there are books banned from the Academy, that I think you as a private, moneyed citizen could find ways to acquire. Find a way, through your friends or agents, to purchase these books. There will be a list attached. Then leave them somewhere hidden for my agent — a bit more meticulously than you hide these letters for him, if at all possible. I felt so helpless after the bombings at the estate — and I feel that this knowledge is the first step out of that trap.

Joining the shooter’s club is my second step.

Forever both your prince and princess;

Salvatrice Vittoria

 

* * *

 

SEGNALE D’ALLARME ROSSA

POSTAL INTERCEPT RECORD, 17th BLACKSHIRT LEGION, 67mo Battaglione Di Segnales 

DATE: 26th GLOOM 2030 1000H

TO: Salvatrice Vittoria

FROM: Clarissa Vittoria

TEXT: [Dearest sister, though I have known you not since the ambiguity of your birth, I plead to you now as my only hope for restoration. Travel to Ikrea within the month and the means to save me from this humiliating prison of robes and rods, where I am treated like a child without control of my own body, will become clear to you. However, should you decide to remain a stranger to me, I would not blame you, for I know our mother has manipulated us, one to disdain the other, and that her neglect of you has been far the worse. There is no just God anymore to whom I can pray -- so I merely wish, then, that this arrives in your hands.]

CONTENT DEEMED INADMISSIBLE. STEPS TAKEN: LETTER PREVENTED FROM REACHING DESTINATION, REPORTED TO 17th LEGION COMMAND AND TO THE CONVENT OF SAINT ANASTASIA DISCIPLINARY COMMITTEE AS PER ROYAL ORDER “CLARISSA.”

THE 34th BLACKSHIRT LEGION IN IKREA WAS ALSO NOTIFIED AND ALERTED.

THE INTERCEPTED LETTER CARRIER, PAOLO CORSAIRO, KNOWN FELON, RESISTED ARREST. LETHAL FORCE WAS AUTHORIZED AND EMPLOYED AS PER LEGION ORDER 8B.

–LEGIONARIUS TARKUS MARCEL

Stormlit Memories — Generalplan Suden

 This chapter was made possible by the support of kind folks on my Patreon.

If you are familiar with the series, take the survey and leave a review on WebFictionGuide.

This chapter contains depictions of violence and death as well as psychological and emotional stress, depression and suicidal ideation.

* * *

Under incessant rain the revolver was cold, slippery and heavy in her little hands. They were hands not meant for weapons. No one designed weapons meant for those soft little hands. But those hands had been unknowingly destined for the wielding of weapons.

There was blood on her hands now to prove it.

She did not quite realize what had happened. Her mind filtered it differently.

Like any child who had completed a task, she had simply returned to the adult who issued.

“I made the bad guy go away. He won’t hurt you now.” 

It was almost like those words were not her own, but she had said it and she had done it.

There was silence between them. There was only the rain and the cold and the tension.

She offered the gun back to its owner. It had done what it was constructed to do.

“I don’t like it. It’s heavy. It hurt my wrist. And it only has five things in it.”

A meter away from her lay the woman, squirming against the wall of the alley, her own blood soaking down her clothes into a puddle over the uneven stones. At first the child had thought her beautiful, and she still did, she still saw the beauty and power in that face, that grave expression, though now she understood that it was tempered with pain. She was wrapped in a ragged cloak, but her face was visible, that beautiful face with its long nose, red lips and striking eyes, eyes drawing wide with the realization of what had been transacted between them. The child knew that she had a complicated, adult beauty. She was not an angel or spirit.

From this woman’s hands the child had procured the gun and heard the desperate plea.

“Don’t let him kill me.” It was a tormented voice she spoke with. “Please.”

This child knew about complicated, adult things. So she was drawn to do what she could.

Around the corner, out of their sight, was the corpse to prove the result.

For as long as she could remember, whether it be with sticks or stones, with paper airplanes or jars of glue, Madiha Nakar had never missed a shot if she had time to aim.

And she’d learned that people sometimes stopped being trouble if you hit them in the head.

Slowly the woman forced herself to stand, pushing her back against the wall, stretching her legs, clutching her wound. She wrapped her free hand around Madiha and pushed her close. Madiha felt the blood getting on her from the woman’s body.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” She mumbled. Madiha could not see her face. The revolver fell on the ground, slipping away from them with the trickling water. Madiha returned the embrace, wrapping her arms gently around the woman. To her there was nothing to be sorry for.

“Police men here are bad. I didn’t want them to hurt you too. Madiha replied. “I don’t want people to get hurt by bad men anymore. I wanted to get him back for being bad.”

The woman knelt in front of her, until they were eye to eye. She looked shocked. But Madiha was determined and she knew what she was saying, and she knew it was an adult thing in a child’s words and she didn’t care. She had never been afforded the peace needed to be an ordinary, innocent child. She was a child of strict discipline and distant bells and bolted doors and a terrible escape. She was a child of splintered wood, broken glass, shattered stones.

Madiha was a child who rarely saw beauty and wanted desperately to guard it.

Back then there had been no greater motivation than that. That was her forgotten origin.

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”

On the dawn of the 28th Madiha awoke again with a nightmare.

Her reaction to these ugly visions was no longer fearful.

She did not jerk out of her sleep and seek a hidden predator.

All of that preternatural terror was replaced by a deep weariness.

Madiha situated herself quickly, and pushed everything else deep down into a pit where it would not be seen. She focused on the material. She was in her office, the air was cool, the atmosphere was quiet. She heard rain. Remembering the day’s business, she stood from her desk, adjusted her tie and uniform, the fabric and buttons slipping from her shaking hands. Standing by the office window, Parinita watched the skies with obvious trepidation.

She had been watching the skies since the day before, when they first went out under the rain and exchanged a few forceful words. The Weather battalion was ambivalent about the growing intensity of the rain. Both of them knew this would not stop Madiha on this day, however.

Parinita turned briefly over her shoulder. Their eyes met and then avoided one another again.

“Good morning,” Madiha said. Her mouth felt strangely heavy. She had a tic in her jaw, and felt her cheek spasm when she closed her lips behind the words.

“Good morning, Madiha.” Parinita said. She saluted, clipboard pressed against her chest. She was not so cheerful anymore, none of them were. Her disheveled light red hair was gathered into a ponytail, and her skin looked clammy. Her lips curled into a forced smirk.

After their disagreement yesterday, they behaved awkwardly to each other.

Outside the skies gradually darkened, and the drizzling gradually escalated. A growing wind blew droplets against the window, blurring Madiha’s view of the street. Without breakfast or even a drink of water to assuage their dry throats, the Commander and her Secretary set out to their only planned business of the day. They gathered around the desk and spread open a map of the lower city and had their meeting, as fast as they could have it, before Madiha set out to carry out her “survey.” On the ground the situation had not changed much from the day before. Matumaini had been blasted out of relevance — it was almost literally a pit now.

Action would certainly focus on Penance Road and Umaiha, but thus far, nothing had happened for two days. Parinita briefed her on the state of the various units as quickly as she could, and outlined what the division commanders seemed to have in the works — a big load of nothing from the Territorial Army officers, the paltry few that they possessed. These were men and women who had trouble enough with transporting troops along big lines on a map.

They would not be launching offensives. They were barely able to organize reinforcements.

Penance Road was being held by a strip units in and around the old Cathedral. Umaiha had a mishmash of units straddling both sides of the river, hoping for the best. The 3rd KVW Motor Rifles was on standby, acting as a mobile reserve and defense. They could respond to any attack within the hour, if an attack had to be responded to at all.

“Your Motor Rifles Division has requested a bit of operational freedom today.”

“I approve. Leave them to their devices. I trust them to engineer a victory.” Madiha said.

“Yes ma’am.” Parinita said dutifully. “Lieutenant Batuzi has told me he is following a few leads we got on Nochtish activity from the Signals Intercept battalion today.”

“I trust he will perform admirably.” Madiha said. She felt frustrated to have this conversation. At this point there was nothing she could do. The Strategic turn of the battle was over. Both sides were in position and following through to their general objectives. They had their supply lines set, and their general formation could not rapidly change. It was all real time tactics from here, and no matter how much she wanted it, that was not the domain of the Army HQ.

Madiha shook her head. She could not command eight divisions by herself. It was not possible. She could not even command one by herself — she needed to stay behind the lines and insure that the strategic plan was fulfilled by the army as a whole. Even the little excursion she had planned for today jeopardized her ability to respond to a crisis.

But she was sure she would lose her mind if she stayed in this office any longer.

“Is something wrong, Madiha?” Parinita asked. She stared at her with a gentle expression.

“Nothing is wrong, Warrant Officer. I will go on survey with an Engineering company today, out to Umaiha. We must fuel the final act of the Hellfire plan. I won’t be long.”

Parinita raised an eyebrow. “Warrant Officer; what? Really?”

Madiha gave no reply, and made no eye contact. This was one time when the words did not escape her mouth without thinking. Parinita looked exasperated, clearly unsettled by the cold, distant reference. This was for her own good; for everyone’s own good. She had been too weak and let everyone come too close and it would take their toll on them in the end.

They were more valuable than her — Parinita was more valuable than her. She did not want her to come close and find the thorns in Madiha’s hide, punishing her embrace. She had already seen too much of the monster inside. She had already wasted too much time worrying and weeping over a purposeless thing. Everyone needed distance now; nobody could be allowed to see any more of Madiha before the end of this. It was for their own good.

Bless her heart, Parinita tried — she was not giving up on Madiha so easily.

“I don’t mean to pry, but have you taken your medicine lately?” She asked.

“Not since that day.” Madiha clutched the side of her head. It was starting to hurt.

Parinita sighed. “Madiha, you’re really a creature of extremes aren’t you? I wanted you to stop abusing your medication not to stop taking it at all. Please take it.”

Madiha felt a chill hearing her name from those gentle lips. It was like a heresy.

And yet despite all her convictions she couldn’t form the words to stop her or resist.

She sighed inside. Her mind was torn in a dozen directions at this point.

“Wherever your medication ended up, please take it.” Parinita said. “You need it.”

“I do not need it.” Madiha said. “It was only a source of greater strife. I am fine.”

“Are you sure? I think that you should take it, but if you insist, then I guess I can’t–”

“I am sure. Now, did you hear what I said before this? It is important.”

Madiha tried more forcefully to redirect the discussion to military matters.

“Yes, you’ve told me a few dozen times already about your ill conceived plan to survey the Umaiha tunnels, a mission that Sergeant Agni could command just fine by herself if you would delegate it to her.” Parinita pointedly replied. “I’ve already told you what I think.”

“I need to be there. I was the architect of this operation,  I should carry it out.”

“If you say so,” the secretary dismissively replied.

Madiha felt inexplicably annoyed. “You have taken a liking to that response.”

“I’ve already told you what I think. I can’t actually stop you.” Parinita said. She sounded hurt. “Especially since you are making it a habit now not to listen to my concerns.”

She was the Staff Secretary; she had limited influence. Her role was crucial — she had to gather information and pass it to Madiha. She had to listen to an army’s worth of concerns and discoveries and intercepts and she had to compile it with her staff day by day, and she had to sort out what Madiha needed to know and then figure out a way to deliver it to her. Without Parinita and her staff, everything would be impossible. There would be too much information to handle. No single person could listen and respond to so much information. So it was not just personal, in a way, it was also professional, that she would feel hurt and impeded.

But Madiha did not pick up that hurt, or she ignored it. She was not sure what her mind was doing anymore. “Have some faith in me.” She said. It came out more strongly than she wanted. It sounded like a demand more than a plea. It sounded like asking her to turn a blind eye.

It sounded like she was saying she would destroy herself and Parinita would watch.

And the secretary knew it. “You keep saying that and you’ve no idea how unfair it is.”

Neither of them said anything more. Madiha focused on the maps, though there was nothing new there for her to see. Parinita waited for a response, but finally admitted defeat, and picked up several papers from the desk, clipped them on her board, and went on her way. She paused at the door and put a hand on the frame, as though she needed to hold on to it to prevent being swept away by a current. Her fingers tightened around the grooves. She looked over her shoulder for a brief moment and whimpered a few words before departing.

“Good luck on your mission, Commander.” She said, unsmiling, eyes wetting.

Madiha was left alone in the room, her cruel mind quickly filling in the silence. Parinita’s voice bounced off the walls of her cranium, and she felt the agonizing palpitations. Her thoughts were a whirlpool of Parinita’s words blending together. Things she had said in their meetings, across the ten days they had been together, came to Madiha unbidden, booming like howitzer shells. Her smiling lips, her concerned eyes, her warm hand on Madiha’s shoulder–

She crouched behind her desk, opened a drawer, and withdrew a little container.

She produced a little white pill and she swallowed it dry.

She laid with her back against the desk and kicked closed the door to the office.

“There. I listened to you. I’m listening.” Madiha whimpered. She felt sick and weak.

They had to be distant — it was for everyone’s good. It was for everyone’s good. Even when the tears came to her eyes, when the pounding in her head grew unbearable, when the shaking in her hands would not stop, when everything broke down — she was alone and this was for everyone’s good. For the good of every soldier out there fighting and dying while she read her maps and felt her deep shame and hid her face and averted her eyes. Until she joined them in the earth she did not deserve their lips speaking her damnable name. They had to see nothing of her but her cold confidence, so that they would meet the bullets feeling bold.

To the shaking, the agony, the tears, only the stone could be a witness.

It was for everyone’s good. Even hers, she thought– she was sure.

“You won’t have to watch, Parinita. You won’t have to watch.” She mumbled.

* * *

Sergeant Agni was on her way out of the building when Madiha composed herself enough to leave her office and travel downstairs. Her timing could not have been better. Barbiturates pumping through her blood, the facade reconstructed, she confidently intercepted Agni on the steps outside. The Engineer had a bit of oil on her brown cheek, and her long, black hair was gathered in a haphazard bun behind her head. She had left the lobby quite briskly and with a purpose, her tool box dangling from the fingers on her left hand.

Hujambo, Commander.” She said. “I was going to eat breakfast before we left.”

“Working hard?” Madiha asked. Her voice sounded close to lifeless as Agni’s.

“I spent the morning preparing the equipment for today’s trial.” Sgt. Agni said.

“Far more work than I did, I’m sure.” Madiha said. She meant it as a bit of friendly self-deprecating humor, but some of that shame was poisoning her words.

“Perhaps, but I managed it on a full night’s sleep, and I know that you did not.” Sgt. Agni said. Quickly she added. “Would you like to join me, Commander? I suspect we will be out in the field for several hours. Best to leave the base with a full stomach.”

Madiha nodded. “Sound advice. I wouldn’t want to get in your way.”

Sgt. Agni blinked and stared for a moment before leading the Commander away.

Outside the headquarters, in an old drug store across the street from the school that still had power and structure, civilians ran a makeshift field kitchen for the soldiers.

From behind the old drug store counters they ladled stews and sauces unto serving trays, handed out bread and drinks, unpacked dried vegetables and stock powders from trucks and mixed them with oil and water, and perhaps most importantly, they offered encouragement and camaraderie to the passing soldiers on this rainy, miserable day.

Many of these rear echelon laborers, the ones unloading, preparing and serving the food, were volunteers, who had chosen to stay behind and become involved in the defense. When not serving food they also set down sandbags, loaded trucks, manufactured ammunition, manned the phones, and performed light repairs; among a myriad other tasks.

There were a few thousand city residents who remained behind and remained busy.

Without them, Madiha’s difficult effort would have become close to impossible.

Among the civilians there was a sizeable contingent of reservists – soldiers who had been stripped from the Territorial Army by Demilitarization downsizing policies. They thought of themselves as warriors still, unable to abandon the front now that there was finally war. They knew more than the average person about what needed to be done in a theater of battle, so they mobilized more quickly and took on more responsibility without complaint.

These were the most energetic and useful folk. Perhaps they needed to be.

Though they did not have uniforms to spare for them, Madiha thought it right to bolster their confidence by issuing them small arms. But there were no pistols brandished in the field kitchen. Instead the reservists heaved big pots of dal and curry, baskets of flatbread, large pitchers of fruit juices and flavored milk. They served soldier and civilian alike, engineers, laborers, signals staff, frontline soldiers, resting tank and truck crews, and they smiled equally at every face before them. Sometimes they broke into a few verses of marching song while the line organized and moved. Many were marching songs from their days in basic training.

Sgt. Agni and Madiha picked trays from a stack near the door, and stood in line with men and women in traditional long robes and cloaks, in dust-covered overalls, in one piece jumpsuits with masks dangling off their necks, in military uniforms with weapons hung over their backs. There was little chatter among them, but everyone seemed to be in good humor, rocking their heads and tapping their feet to the marching songs of the food service.

Some of the people in the line even joined in the songs. They were simple songs, often repeating uncomplicated rhymes about equipment and landmarks. One popular song in Madiha’s House was about a soldier going down to the train station to drink palm wine while watching Goblin tanks loading unto cars. One whole verse was about the tank’s specs.

In their current circumstances that particular verse took a somewhat macabre character, but nobody but Madiha seemed to think of it that way. Everyone was enjoying it.

Normally Madiha ate whatever Parinita or other staff brought to her office.

But she had to admit, this was an invigorating atmosphere. She was among her people.

Though the line seemed long from the outside, there were multiple servers and people were moving unto the tables next door very quickly. Briskly the Commander and Sergeant made their way to the counter. Sgt. Agni held out her tray, and received a crisp green salad with citrus slices, a large spoonful of lentil dal, a pair of flatbreads and a tomato curry over rice. Sgt. Agni opted for water. At the same time, Madiha was about to receive the same service from another server, but the young man looked captivated with her and paused.

“You’re Commander Nakar aren’t you? Everyone, the Commander is here!”

Around the room there was a singular voice, delivering a warm Hujambo! to Madiha.

“I’m sorry if it’s awkward, but we’ve been waiting to see you here! We thought you’d be too busy and that we would never be able to see you in the flesh.”

Madiha hardly knew what to say. She was surprised by their reaction. “I have been busy.”

“I’m sorry for taking up your time — but we all owe so much to you, Commander,” said the Server, “we’ve all been wanting to make it up to you. A week ago we thought everything was hopeless, that there was no resisting Nocht. We felt like it was all coming to an end for us. They defeated the Cisseans and the Mamlakhans so easily a few years ago, in mere weeks. Major Gowon never instilled much confidence in us. We heard rumors that the Council was going to give up on the city, that Solstice was ready to desert us, but we are still holding on to our city because of you. In the time Nocht took over Cissea, they’ve crossed a few streets here!”

Madiha felt herself wither under his gaze. She could feel the eyes of the room on her too.

“Your courage has saved so many of us. Were it not for you my brother would have never made it back from the border. He’s just a kid, and yet Gowon kept him in the army, and kicked me down to the reserve. If we lost him like that, spirits defend, my family would have been heartbroken — he’s such a good boy, and so loyal to country and comrades. I’m sorry Commander but I’m just,” he looked very emotional, shedding tears.

Everyone in the room seemed uplifted by the man’s speech. He saluted the Major.

“I’m so glad for you, Commander. So glad we all have someone like you now.”

One by one everyone in the line, soldier and civilian, raised a hand to their forehead.

All of the room was saluting. Even Sergeant Agni felt compelled to raise her hand.

Madiha was stunned, and a thousand evil thoughts raced to her mind all at once, and she almost teared up in front of the serving line. She wanted to shout at them, to ask them pointedly why they thought of her in such a way. What did they see in her? What made them think she deserved their admiration; what made them think she was worthy of praise; what conditions had she fulfilled to become their heroine all of a sudden? How could they put these hopes in her and in no others? How did they even see a person before them, and not a toad, a coward, a monster? Through what eyes did these delusions turn so rose-colored?

Her command? She had drafted a map and given orders that killed thousands!

At the border? She spoke through a radio and gave artillery coordinates!

Why did they see her this way? Why did they burden her with their hope?

But she said none of these things. She said nothing at all.

Instead she raised her hand in salute. Around the room, salutes turned to claps.

Triumphantly the Server who spoke filled her plate. She received her yellow vegetable stew and red curry and her lentils, an extra flatbread, as much drink as she wanted — which was no more than anyone else. Plate fully loaded, she followed the line out a side door to an adjacent building, where the laborers had erected as many tables as they could. This was a half-ruined space that still had enough of a roof to block the elements, and many of the tables were uneven, but nobody complained. Madiha and Sergeant Agni sat at the same table as a few quiet privates, who took bashful peeks at Madiha over their food. Sgt. Agni opened a pack of plastic utensils and basic condiments, likely drawn from a ration crate, and distributed them.

Madiha nibbled her food and tried to clear her head, to remain solid, upright. There were eyes everywhere that needed to see something powerful, however false. They could not see her faltering. Not now — they had made it clear that they depended strongly on her. Everyone saw her as The Hero of the Border and those among them old enough to remember the Civil War might even know she was a Hero of the Socialist Dominances, an award given to her while catatonic in a hospital. She felt like a liar, a manipulator, but she needed to be.

Despite this necessity it still haunted her, for these people to see her in such a way, to depend in her, to take strength from her. She was always the goblet, the thing to be filled, with the will of others, with the loyalty toward others, with the strength of others. She sought people to complete her, to give her a purpose, to fill her with themselves where she had nothing. When did she become those others, who filled people’s hearts with their grace? She did not want this. She felt like she had deceived these people. If they saw inside her, they’d recoil from it.

They would lose their will; like her they would become shaken with despair.

She was not a hero, not a worthy commander; they wished too hard to see this in her.

Other people were suffering in her cowardly name right now. Maybe even that man’s brother. She had not saved him, she had acted like any military officer, with the calculating coldness to see that he died correctly on another date. She could not possibly be a hero.

Heroes defied death; they prevented it. They found a way to obviate sacrifice.

Whenever Madiha pinned a unit on a map she demanded sacrifices she could not stop.

 

1st Vorkampfer Corps Headquarters

“We have an important day ahead of us!” General Erik Von Sturm shouted, atop a table in the middle of the room. “I do not want to see any more mistakes! We are going to comb through the objectives until each one of you knows them better than your names! Let us start!”

Before the dawn on the 28th of the Aster’s Gloom, the restaurant serving as the 1st Vorkampfer’s home was full of activity. Helga Fruehauf and her radio girls checked their equipment; General Anschel, a small, wide man with a heavy beard departed to rejoin the headquarters for his departing 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions; Generals Von Drachen and Meist assembled along with a gaggle of staff officers around General Von Sturm, the chief architect of their current course of action. Outside the sky was still dark, the atmosphere cold. The drizzling rain maintained little puddles that had built on the streets over the course of the past few days. There was a stiff breeze that seemed to pick up intensity over time.

They would move with sun, so they had to plan in the gloom.

Together they went through the current situation; as if teaching a kindergarten class, Von Sturm slowly worked his way up to recent history. Ayvarta was controlled by totalitarian communists, he said, who spat upon constitutions like Nocht’s, funded terrorism in the free northern countries and smuggled arms and harmful drugs to criminals. To this end, Nocht launched an invasion supported by the Government-In-Exile of one empress Mary Trueday, with the hopes of raising her to power once again and having a compliant Ayvartan ally. To achieve this ultimate goal, Generalplan Suden was carefully laid out — Von Sturm puffed himself up and proudly proclaimed his own hand in supplying consultation for Suden. Like the Bada Aso siege, it was in part his brainchild. And for Suden to remain on time they had to be out of Bada Aso and at the Tambwean border before the 35th. Thus, this day had to be decisive.

Von Sturm emphasized decisive and he eyed the generals maliciously as he did.

Matumaini was once the preferred path forward, but due to recent events it was too problematic. Due to the destruction leveled at the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd block, a bridgelayer would have to be used to cross in any reasonable timeframe, and it was too vulnerable to the Ayvartans controlling the other side of the gap. Thus it was forgotten, and for the past 2 days, their forces reorganized along the two remaining lanes north. On Penance Road to the west, a Cathedral had become a redoubt for Ayvartan forces, and Von Sturm’s own 13th Panzergrenadiers was making ready to challenge it. On the eastern side of the city, the Riverside District would be challenged by Von Drachen’s Azul Corps. Meanwhile, 6th Grenadier under Meist had covertly deployed its artillery in Buxa, moving pieces at night and slipping in through thin corridors between the Ayvartan’s overstretched defenses between Penance and Matumaini. This artillery would support 13th PzG in their attack on the Cathedral.

At this point Von Drachen raised his hands. He had a nagging curiosity.

Von Sturm stared at him with distaste. “What is it, Von Drachen?”

“Why don’t the Panzer Grenadiers simply drive through Buxa and past Penance, ignoring the static position on the Cathedral entirely?” Von Drachen asked.

“We have received intelligence that the Ayvartans have tunnels under the city they can use to get an upper hand if we try to outflank them.” Von Sturm said. “We cannot leave any of their redoubts behind or we stand the chance of a regiment tunneling out in our wake.”

“How much reinforcement can they expect to perform through underground tunnels? Maybe a platoon at a time, certainly nothing heavy.” Von Drachen pressed gently. “You can play to your strengths by speeding past their defenses, creating a corridor forward, through which rear line units can move to surround the Cathedral, and force either a decisive action from the Ayvartans, or the starvation and defeat of the redoubt without direct engagement.”

“Your suggestion would just create disorder in our lines Von Drachen! It is an unneeded diversion! We are pushing forward methodically, clearing out each sector, and that is final! We will not give the Ayvartans more opportunities to booby trap every inch of ground along Penance road! I want a direct way forward, and I will carve out! Is that clear?”

Von Sturm was shouting at the top of his lungs. Von Drachen smiled.

“I understand. Please continue the briefing.” He said, unaffected.

Everyone in the room sighed, while Von Sturm’s hands closed into fists and shook at his sides.

Thus the briefing resumed. The 13th Panzergrenadiers would attack with a regiment forward, trickling in units to probe every way through Penance and Buxa until they had hurled the Ayvartan line right out of the southern district. They would depend on their rapid deployment and reinforcement as well as their superior firepower, and make it a slugging match with that Cathedral — their superior combat power would allow them to bleed the place dead with minimal losses, and leave no Ayvartans behind the Nochtish line to cause trouble.

Along the eastern edge of Bada Aso, the Umaiha river straddled much of the exterior of the city, and in the Umaiha Riverside district it veered west, right into the city, curled once toward the south for several kilometers, and was then funneled west again, under the city and out to the ocean. Right now the Ayvartans controlled everything west of the curl and north of the veer — a crossing on each side would have to be effected by Azul, using all the firepower available to them. Von Drachen had nothing to say to this — he knew his plan already.

One final dimension to the day’s events was the Kalu, a massive stretch of chaotic wooded hillside that made up the space between Bada Aso and the Shaila dominance in the east, the Kucha mountains in the northeast, and Tambwe in the north. Intelligence indicated that some military formation had to be hiding in the Kalu, and it would be drawn to battle against the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions. Their objectives were to push almost 200 kilometers through the Kucha, and then veer westward, crossing the zig-zagging Umaiha at several points, and finally turning diagonally back toward the city and flanking the city defenders behind their lines. They would penetrate through northern areas of the city’s eastern limits, areas that were not protected by the Umaiha, and rush through with their superior firepower.

In the confusion, Azul would push fiercely and link with elements of the Panzer Divisions, completing and securing a major breach. That would be the end of Bada Aso.

One decisive day ahead of them. How soon would the 28th be a triumph behind them?

“Any questions?” Von Sturm asked.

Nobody responded because nobody was supposed to. This was Von Sturm’s indication that he was done, and that any mistakes would henceforth fall on the individual, and he washed his hands of them. Fruehauf and her cadre returned to their radios. Meist left the room unceremoniously. Staff dispersed every which way. Gradually the restaurant emptied again. Von Sturm sat on his table with his hands on his chin. He breathed out in exasperation.

“What do you want this time Von Drachen?” He asked.

From the edge of the room Von Drachen smiled and approached the table.

He took a seat across from Von Sturm, and raised his own hands to his chin.

“My good man, can I borrow your sword for the day?” Von Drachen asked.

Von Sturm’s voice went suddenly flat, void of inflection.

“What?”

He stared at Von Drachen, his left eye twitching. “What sword?”

“You have an officer’s ceremonial sword. I was never given one.”

“What do you want it for?” Von Sturm was so taken aback he was responding earnestly.

“I want your blessing — I should say, I need your blessing. I want a symbol of you.”

Von Sturm’s eyes drew wide. “I don’t understand a word you are saying.”

Von Drachen nodded. “I have been hassled by your Security division a few times already trying to move between the front lines and the rear echelon, and I want something to show them so that they will shut up quickly. A symbol of your authority.” He replied.

“That’s not supposed to be happening. I can just have Fruehauf call them.”

“While you do that, I’d like to head to my front lines as quickly as possible, and the first check point is a kilometer away. Can I borrow your sword? It would be quicker.”

Von Sturm seemed to be grappling with the logic behind Von Drachen’s request. He covered his mouth with one hand, rubbing his lips. He stared at Von Drachen’s eyes, and his expression was empty of the rancor or mischief that characterized him. He looked dazed. On his part, Von Drachen was very serious. He thought, if he had the sword, a Nochtish officer’s sword, then those idiots from Security would not talk to him. They would not look at him, they would not appear near him. He thought, if he confronted another Security officer, he would wring the man’s neck, and hurl his carcass at another man nearby. There would be violence.

So, a sword — he could show it, nobody would speak, and he would move.

Failing that, he could open a man’s ribcage with it. But he wanted to avoid that.

He hoped that his honesty, earnestness and good intention would get through to General Von Sturm. Across the table from him, the General was catatonic for several minutes.

Finally Von Sturm seemed to have caught up to everything. He grit his teeth.

“It’s upstairs with my formal uniform. Just take it and go and don’t say anything again.”

Von Drachen nodded, stood, returned his seat to the table, and went on his way.

He stepped outside, under the rain, and waited. He looked over his shoulder at the door every few minutes. Finally a man older than him, in a beige uniform, dark tanned and thickly bearded, appeared holding a golden scabbard and hilt. He presented the weapon to Von Drachen with some trepidation, his meaty, wrinkled hands shaking around the purloined weapon in his grasp.

“Is this alright General?” He asked.

“Yes, I have permission. Thank you for fetching it, Gutierrez.”

Von Drachen took the sword and affixed it to the outside of his black trench-coat, where it could easily be seen. He adjusted his peaked cap over his head. His facial features, sharp and stiff, contorted slowly into an amused smile. He was still getting wet. He did not quite care.

“Is my personal battalion ready, Colonel? Unfortunately this will be an efffortful day.”

At his side the older Colonel smiled fondly. “We are ready, sir.”

 

Umaiha Riverside, 31st Engineers Survey

Around noon the first lightning bolts fell over Bada Aso, but the rain was barely above a light shower and the sky was a pale gray. Though the river stirred, it was not yet a threat nor projected to be one. Unaware of how quickly the weather could escalate, Madiha joined the survey company without any sense of urgency. The day’s mission took the 31st KVW Engineering Battalion’s “A” Company down the side of the river in the southeast district.

These riverside paths were several meters above the water, and out the back of their trucks and the sides of their tractors the engineers could see the water rushing through the stone channel, the defining feature of the district. It was the ability to command these waters that transformed the district into a place of lovers, of trendy shops and fine restaurants, and, after the Empire, a burgeoning industry now annihilated by evacuation and bombing.

All Madiha remembered was moonlit walks and sweet kisses, however much she tried not to.

Riverside Street, one of those kissing places, was the main thoroughfare in the southeast district, the Matumaini and Penance of the city’s eastern limits. From the Kucha mountains in the northeast the Umaiha rushed diagonally toward Bada Aso, taking the path of least resistance through the Kalu region. It straddled over half of Bada Aso’s eastern boundary before veering sharply west inside the limits themselves, and then curling again south, three quarters of the way into the easterly district. Along this southern curl Riverside’s two lanes of traffic were split, joined only through intermittent bridges over gap a few dozen meters wide.

Finally the river shifted westward again to find the sea, and Riverside street veered too and took a new name. Several decades ago at the peak of the Empire, the river had been forced underground. Matumaini, Penance, Buxa; such places had been paved over the tamed river. A show of force of humans over nature, largely to profit everyone but the people living over the old river. Madiha could not drive far enough south to see the river vanish again — that was the front line. Instead the column halted its advance a few kilometers behind the front line.

They veered up a cobblestone street toward the interior. They parked along a block of buildings, many lightly damaged by bombs. Most of the old buildings had been spared a direct assault, and some, build of rock rather than brick, had even survived a rocket or light bomb.

Only one building nearby was reduced to rubble, and that was the Goloka restaurant.

This was another place full of unwanted memories that now bubbled up from Madiha’s injured mind. Around her the engineers dismounted their vehicles and equipped themselves with their tools. Cutters were used to snap open locks on sunken little doors set into the alleys between old buildings. These doors lead into cellars and those cellars into tunnels.

Gas masks were distributed for the exploration — there were nasty fumes lying dormant beneath the ground, if one followed the right (or wrong) tunnels. While the chemical troops inspected their share of the underground, other squadrons inspected the damage and remaining durability of nearby buildings and the street, assessing their capability to resist future punishment. They measured craters on the street, checked the ages and material composition of the damaged homes, searched for pieces of bombs or rocket shells, and tried to assemble a postmortem assessment of the block, and whether it was even safe for continued use.

If it was not, then they would have to level or booby trap everything to repulse the Cisseans.

Meanwhile, Madiha stared distantly at the restaurant. Inside the inviting facade the roof had collapsed, spilling out from the doorway like a tongue, a tongue from a ruined mouth beneath a brow battered open. She could not help but humanize the structure, to see it as a murdered thing, as a living being gored before her eyes. She still tasted Chakrani on that terrible night. She felt the hurt freshly, and felt additional hurt, because the location that bore witness to that last tender moment was gone. It was another casualty that she could not prevent.

Soon nothing of Bada Aso would remain. She would never be able to expiate for her sins.

“We will meet up with the special squad soon.” Sgt. Agni tonelessly said. She looked on the Goloka with her dull eyes. “Do you recognize this building?”

“My girlfriend and I visited once. We had a falling out near the river over there.”

Sergeant Agni was a comforting presence. Madiha had served with her in the motor rifles before, in Mamlakha. She could not say she really knew her; to what extent did she really know anyone? But she was a familiar face, and a familiar voice, and they were used to each other.

She did not want to be tempted to vulnerability near her — but she could vent a little, right?

“It is a morbid feeling to stand here and see a place where we shared a kiss, perhaps our most passionate kiss, broken under a bomb. There was so much I could not stop.”

Sgt. Agni nodded. “With respect, you are young and handsome and likely to bounce back.”

Madiha almost laughed, but she knew she would have sounded bitter rather than amused.

“Have you ever been in love, Sergeant Agni?” She was getting carried away now.

“I do not know. I have found people sexually attractive, but it was nothing profound.”

“I was in love.” Now she truly sounded bitter, and she could not stop. She didn’t want to. “But my ambivalence tore it all apart. I felt a drive away from peace and warmth, but I wanted so desperately to keep it in addition. I thought I could fill myself up everything she wanted to give me, and that regardless of what I chose to do afterwards, I could always come back and nothing would change. I never gave anything back — I never had anything to give back. I took, and I didn’t even know that was what I was doing. I was filling the absence of something, and leaving behind when I was fed. Maybe if I had settled, things would be different.”

Sgt. Agni said nothing. What could she say? She knew nothing of any of the people involved.

It was foolish for Madiha to continue. She had wanted to wave her hand and dissipate all of these vulnerabilities but water (perhaps blood) kept seeping through the cracks, winding its way and eroding deeper and greater fissures in her facade. This time, it was all the same as before.  She was pulled too many ways at once, and she just ended up broken in the same manner over and over again. She wanted both the grave strength and the genuine warmth, so she had none.

She had wanted the world of light and love and peace to fill all the dark cracks in the monument of her life, all those moments lost to violence and chaos and never to return. And yet, the scything blade of history called to her again and again. Always she and Chakrani wrestled with this ambivalence, this desire to chase after the forgotten child hero of the old war. For a time they made love, they played house, each desiring the other above all else. But ultimately, war called to her, for the final fateful act. Overnight, Chakrani’s Madiha was gone.

Instead she became Kimani’s “Right Hand of Death,” hunting spies for years.

Now she became “The Hero of the Border,” a phantom created to repel Nocht.

Always something filled her, because she had nothing of her own but to chase after War.

War – “the scything blade of history” — could not be escaped. Was she born to it?

What was its promise? What was it that lured her away from comfort in the light?

Her mind flailed behind her cold facade, and it settled on a tragic conclusion.

Yes, it all made sense, when one played with thoughts of inhumanity.

Over twenty years ago during the Ayvartan Civil War there was a child named Madiha Nakar who would become entangled in events beyond her reckoning, and become a hero to people who would slowly forget as the need to remember was lost; as she herself would forget. Perhaps, in truth, this child, whose mind was lost to those events, was born without a purpose, without an origin. Perhaps there was never a Madiha Nakar who was lost, who never completed her childhood, who never lived in the world as others did, who never became a human to anyone’s reckoning, because there was no Madiha Nakar at all. Perhaps there was not now a Madiha Nakar and perhaps there was not then a Madiha Nakar. Perhaps she was a fleeting will that had been born to die. More blood for the scything blade. So much was absent – it made sense.

War offered her only the promise of death. That was the purpose.

Her mind was void of anything else. What would drive Madiha to do anything?

It wasn’t even a question because there was no concrete Madiha in her mind.

“Commander, are you alright? You are shaking.” Sgt. Agni asked.

Reflexively, as though the only thing left of her still thinking rationally were her hands, Madiha withdrew her barbiturates, and drank a pill. She felt it go roughly down her throat.

“I might need to see a doctor about my dosage.” Madiha said, her voice falsely amicable.

Sgt. Agni nodded. Without further comment she left and rejoined the survey company’s efforts.

Madiha took one last look at the remains of the Goloka. Staggered by storming memories she peeled herself away from the ruin, taking heavy steps away with Sgt. Agni. She thought if she looked at it any more she would have wanted to be buried with the rubble.

While the voices quieted, Madiha still felt obliterated, as though truly turned to nothing.

 

Central District Headquarters, “Madiha’s House”

“We haven’t even gotten to talk about a movie for a while.”

Parinita watched the column depart from the office window. At first she sighed, but the sighs turned to tears. She tried to squelch the first drops with the back of her hand, but her mouth started to make sobs, and her body turned cold and shook. She closed the door, and lay behind Madiha’s desk, slamming her back in frustration against the hard wood and the metal frame.

For what seemed like hours she remained behind that desk, her legs stretched against the door to keep it closed shut, shedding copious tears, and berating herself. She beat her head against the desk, and bawled out loud. Never before had she felt so helpless and useless.

She felt like such a fool. Madiha’s fire was growing brighter and stranger before her eyes, and her actions had become erratic and dangerous. She could be consumed at any moment and still Parinita had failed to explain to her anything of what she knew!

But there was a shuddering in her chest whenever she imagined that conversation.

She felt a terrible anxiety toward it and it always gave her pause. Damnable weakness!

Deep in her heart she feared that Madiha would not understand. What if all of this was solely in Parinita’s head? What if it was just another lingering scar of her grandmother’s eccentricity and her mother’s negligence? Perhaps there was no Fire eating Madiha and no Power in her. Perhaps Madiha was just Madiha and nothing more. Perhaps she had it all wrong.

After all could anyone truly confirm whether the legend of the Warlord was true? At first she had thought that if she sat down with Madiha, the Major would have a related epiphany, and at once the two of them would have connected and resolved everything between them.

But slowly, like an icy build-up over her skin, it dawned upon the Secretary that she could potentially approach Madiha and explain everything she knew or thought she knew about her and her unique existence, entangled in bizarre myth and half-remembered history — and that in turn Madiha could recoil in fear, tragically, disastrously, having no frame of reference for such a thing, having no experiences that could confirm it. And after this final wound between them, Madiha would depart, and burn out all alone, ignorant of her own magnificence.

Parinita’s trepidation hit its peak, and she could not bear the thought of this. She felt like a thief, who stole away with a piece of Madiha, something she needed to know to understand herself and would never uncover on her own. But how could they share in something so strange and distant? How did human beings even communicate across these horrifying gulfs between them? Parinita felt so isolated and confused, so anxious, so totally lost.

She stalled and stalled, and Madiha grew further and further away. Now it seemed the most impossible thing, to confess to her what Parinita knew — that she was not a twisted thing, that she was not a monster, that Madiha was gifted and exceptional and necessary.

And valuable, beautiful, powerful, inspirational; Parinita shook her head.

Madiha did not need this right now. That much she had made perfectly clear.

Parinita had work, and her work was not this. This could wait a little bit. It had to, she supposed.

The Chief Warrant Officer wiped away her tears, stood up from the desk, fixed her tie and patted down her skirt, and departed the office, clipboard in hand. Madiha wanted her to work, and the army needed her to work, so she would work. She would find something to organize in this chaotic day. She would weather the distance, for Madiha’s sake, for what Madiha wanted.

Her tears had hardly dried completely before she was stopped outside her office.

“C.W.O Maharani, the Weather battalion’s received new information.”

A young, out of breath staff member stopped before her, grasping a bundle of papers in his shaking fingers. He bent nearly double, coughing, having run all the way from the other side of the building. Parinita patted him in the back gently while taking the documents from him and reading them quickly. She understood immediately the source of his concern. Based on these new projections the clouds overhead were not intent on simply drizzling over them; and the isolated thundering was only a harbinger for worse to come. An alert had to be sounded.

“We need to contact all units quickly! Has anyone reached the Commander?”

The staff member looked up at her, hands on his knees.

She recoiled from the dire look in his eyes.

“I’m sorry Chief, we haven’t been able to reach her.” He said grimly.

Parinita dropped the documents and ran past him, rushing to the staff office. She tried not to feel overwhelmed or overcome by helplessness. She had to do something! They had to put out an Army level contact and quickly — if Madiha stayed out there for any longer spirits only know what would become of her! All of the river district was in danger!

 

Umaiha Riverside — 2nd Line Corps Area

UmaihaRiverside

Carried by the surging winds, rain battered against the defensive lines on the southeast district, falling over gun shields and down the necks of cloaks. Machine guns and anti-tank guns on a bridge and its two adjacent streets watched the roads and a pair of buildings, one on each side, served as forward bases overseeing the defense. Men and women stood around the guns, taking cover in their sandbag redoubts and behind the bridge’s balustrade. They huddled on the riverside streets, flanked by the blocks of buildings and the cobblestone roads into the trendy historic areas. Between the redoubts and below anyone’s notice the river swelled.

2nd Line Corps’ defenders in the southeast kept their eyes peeled for the enemy, but the growing rain reduced visibility, and introduced an even greater danger, and one that often went entirely unconfronted — a languid feeling in bellies and heads. Tranquility and contentedness. Along the Umaiha the soldiers had not seen fighting for two days now, and under the growing rain it seemed impossible to muster the energy to fight. Yawning, they let the watch slack.

It didn’t matter. Under the driving deluge and growing thunder the first shells flew silently.

But they did not land – all at once a half-dozen heavy shells exploded in the air just over the heads of the defenders. Fragments rained down on them just as fast as they normally flew up from stricken ground. Over gun shields, through tarps, around sandbags the fragments flew, cutting a swathe across the defensive line. Few died, but everyone was reeling. In the forward bases it took minutes for the officers to realize their troops were injured or staggering.

Direct fire followed. Shells smashed against sandbags and tore the gun shields right off machine guns. They smashed holes into the balustrade and pounded against the corners of the forward bases, finally waking the officers inside to the threat. Light mortar rounds crashed around the line, causing little damage but much confusion. Men and women shifted fighting positions in the wake of the shelling and found lead flying around them. Fire from light machine guns streaked against the lines suddenly. In the distance, men in beige uniforms, uncloaked, fully soaking in the rain, charged against the line with rifles and bayonets, with grenades in hand, under the cover of two tanks and multiple machine gunners mounted on light cars.

Within several hundred meters the enemy had come to the Umaiha’s south-bound stretch.

Batallón de Asalto “Drachen” of the Primera de Infanteria was on the move.

Von Drachen followed right behind his men, on the right bank of the Umaiha. He had the same amount of troops on either side, without having taken any of the bridges — but he preferred the right, because there was more territory to cover on his right. His left was up against the city limits in a sense, and made him feel trapped. Walking briskly toward the defenses along with his column, he could see everything transpiring; if so inclined he could have shouted orders.

That wouldn’t be necessary. This attack had been well prepared for and well rehearsed.

His handpicked forces had effected a stealthy crossing much further south, before there was even an Umaiha to cross at all, tramping through the rubble the Ayvartans believed would deter passage. While Nocht sat and wondered why their brute strength and dizzying speed continued to fail them, Von Drachen had stopped launching hopeless attacks along the Vorkampfer’s foolishly planned routes and began forging of his own perfect path.

Now he had a column moving against the defenses on both sides of the river, rather than on one. He had artillery and armor against an enemy that thought him devoid of both. At the head, his two Escudero tanks put their quick-firing 40mm cannons to good use. They had been adapted from Helvetian anti-air artillery, but exploded just fine against sandbags, rock and human flesh. Within moments they sent dozens of explosive shells crashing against the Ayvartan lines, taking out chunks of sandbag and leaving vicious bite marks on rock and concrete. Behind them, mounted on light all-terrain cars received from Nocht, Von Drachen had his machine gunners stand on the passenger seat and deploy their guns on improvised mounts, shooting relentlessly over his assault troops to cover their advance up the stone streets. Finally, a kilometer behind the advancing columns, he had deployed his artillery: six powerful 15 cm guns, and twelve 6 cm mortars now shelling the enemy haphazardly and causing little harm.

He raised a hand radio to his mouth. “Silencio por dos minutos.” Silence for two minutes.

At once the shelling of the mortars and the guns stopped completely, and movement hastened. Von Drachen’s tanks sped forward and his men broke into a dash.

As the charge grew earnest, resistance stiffened. Fire was returned. Both Escuderos withstood a light shell against their front plates. They were medium-sized tanks and their armor profile was decent enough to stop the weak Ayvartan short-barreled 45mm gun even as the distance closed. Ayvartan machine guns opened fire, and Ayvartan riflemen and women started to dig their heels and peek out of cover. Lead started to fly into his column and Von Drachen started to see his men falling, but this did not concern him too much. Within two minutes the distance was methodically closed to within the hundred meters.

Tiempo al blanco.” He said over his radio. Time on target. His favorite artillery order.

All at once the Ayvartan defensive line exploded again with the fire from all his guns and mortars. All six guns and twelve mortars that had gone silent coordinated a single devastating hit, timed perfectly to hit every part of the Ayvartan line simultaneously. All the forward-facing balustrade on the bridge ahead exploded into chunks, and corpses fell from the bridge into the growing river along with mangled bits of their machine guns and anti-tank weapons; a shell exploded in an airburst over each of the two thick sandbag redoubts blocking traffic on the riverside streets, the fragments descending like a shower of needles in the company of rain; several mortar rounds exploded among scattered Ayvartan fighters and over the roofs and before the doors of their little forward bases. In the face of the attack their fire quieted.

Those last hundred meters were nothing to Von Drachen’s men. They now charged ahead uncontested. Both Escuderos smashed right through the sandbag walls, and his scout cars hit their brakes, dismounting machine gunners charging into the fray. Hundreds of men poured into the streets, meeting the hundreds of exposed men and women on the opposite side, shooting and stabbing and trampling in a savage melee. Both the tanks turned their guns up from the street fighting, and put several shells through the windows into the forward bases, exploding among Ayvartan officers and radios and supplies and their sheltered wounded.

Blood flowed into the river, and smoke and fire joined the rising wind and falling rain.

Three days or so of planning, and within the space of twenty minutes or so, Von Drachen had broken his first line. He walked past the ruined bridge, crossed a street corner, and laid under a convenient awning, taking shelter from the rain while his men charged through the door. Knives and bayonets flashed through the windows, and the occasional rifle bullet went through one of the thin walls. There were screams and roars and struggle. Upstairs a grenade went off.

Von Drachen lit a cigarette, and tried to ignore the clammy feeling from his wet uniform.

One of his light cars dashed past the building and braked at the edge of the broken-down sandbag wall of the defender’s old redoubt. A machine gunner opened fire relentlessly into the breach in the enemy lines. Running gun battles erupted further up the street as the Ayvartans retreated from their positions while being chased by advancing Cissean riflemen. From his vantage Von Drachen could see none of it, but he heard the continuous stamping of feet, the intermittent cracks of rifles, as the converging masses took their battle dozens of meters away.

From the car, Colonel Gutierrez dismounted, and approached Von Drachen. He saluted.

“We’ve got them on the run sir. Next line is a kilometer up. Artillery is readjusting.”

“Good. Tell the men to keep running, and not to stop. Same for the tanks and cars.”

Colonel Gutierrez nodded. He saluted again, and then the old man turned and marched out.

Overhead a deafening burst of lightning and thunder masked the sudden swelling of the river. A massive wave surged up over the borders of the street and crashed past the bridge and overtook the Colonel’s car, shoving the machine gunner off his mount and smashing him against the stones. Gutierrez nearly leaped back in fear, and rushed away from the edges without looking until he had shoved carelessly back into Von Drachen.

The General’s cigarette fell off his lips and into a puddle just outside the cover of the awning.

Von Drachen stared dejectedly at the moist stick, and felt something close to mourning.

Que carajo te paso?” Von Drachen said, in a gentler voice than was probably warranted.

“Oh, excuse me, General; the river, sir! Santa Maria I’ve never seen such a thing.”

“You’ve never seen a river? I’m not so sure anymore of your qualifications here then.”

“No! No, General, I mean I’ve never seen one swell up like that! This is dangerous!”

Dangerous? Von Drachen took a casual glance at the river. Another wave suddenly rose and crashed over the shattered balustrade of the bridge, sweeping away the corpses and the metal husks of the ruined Ayvartan emplacements and swallowing them whole.

“Maybe. But; I believe this presents a unique opportunity for us as well!” Von Drachen said.

 

Umaiha Riverside — 31st Engineers Survey

Clouds thickened and darkened, and the wind worked itself to a frenzy. Over Bada Aso the growing storm blocked out the sun and reduced its radiance to a bleak gloom.

Thick sheets of rain cascaded over the city, and seemed to turn the world monochrome and mute. Rainfall was the predominant sound, clanging against steel, pattering against rock and brick, tapping over the rubber tarps on the half-tracks. Water pooled over any depression in the ground, turning the city’s roads into a series of puddles within a latticework of rock. Waves rose and water splashed as the convoy headed north up the Umaiha. Carefully the vehicles slowed and turned on the slick ground, crossing from the right bank to the left. They gathered around a wide two-story building near the bridge, parking in the alleyways around it.

A metal shutter opened on the right side of the building’s face, and two tanks emerged to join the dismounting engineers. Both of them were Goblin type tanks, with their drum shaped turrets, conspicuously long turret baskets, thin, long guns and steep, almost flat long plates and angular tracks. One of the tanks had a pair of long antennae reminiscent of an insect’s atop the turret, while the second boasted a long aerial atop its turret like an angel’s halo. A hatch opened on this particular tank, and a KVW officer appeared and waved his hand stiffly.

Sgt. Agni and Madiha waved back at him, dressed in their cloaks under the rain.

“Give her a demonstration!” Sgt. Agni called out. Atop the tank, the officer acknowledged.

Madiha heard a distinct mechanical wirring and a buzzing noise inside the lead tank. Sgt. Agni approached the machine and lifted every single hatch — it was hard to see inside, for it was very dark in its cramped confines and very gloomy out of them. But Madiha thought she could not see anyone inside the tank. Everyone on the street gave the machine a bit of clearance, and it started moving. Its turret turned all 360 degrees; it looped around the building once. It fired its gun across the river and smashed a 2 meter hole into the side of a building.

Sgt. Agni clapped her hands. Madiha did not quite understand the point yet.

Finally the so-called teletank and the officer’s tank both parked in front of the vehicle depot.

Everyone approached again for a closer look. The Engineers looked curious for once.

“This is one of our teletanks.” Sgt. Agni said. She patted one of the Goblins on its track guard.

“It appears like any other Goblin to me. What makes them special to us?” Madiha asked.

“Radio control.” Sgt. Agni said. “Inside that tank,” she pointed to the officer’s vehicle, “there is radio control equipment that sends signals to the unmanned tanks,” she patted the track on the Goblin nearest to her again. “Drone tanks follow these commands electronically.”

“So there’s nobody inside that tank?” Madiha asked, tapping her knuckles on the same tank Agni petted, as though she would hear a hollow sound from it to confirm her curiosity. She peeked her head into the front hatch, and inside she found a box full of lights and vacuum tubes and dials, and electrical wiring across every surface. No humans anywhere. There were still seats but it didn’t seem like more than one person could possibly fit inside with any comfort.

“Not a soul.” Sgt. Agni replied. “It is controlled by radio. Electronic equipment inside the drone tanks receives signals via radio, and depending on the input it receives, it will follow certain preset commands. We can power the tracks, turn the tank, turn the electric turret, and fire the guns. There is a complicated auto-loading system inside that contains 20 shells, and will cycle the breech automatically — the concept of the drone tanks evolved from a desire to use the auto-loader, but the impossibility of cramming a crew inside the turret with it. We’ve largely failed to scale down the system, unfortunately, but it has found a home in these drones.” She spoke a little quicker and clearer when detailing the mechanical functions — it was her clearly her preferred subject, and she had a command of it. One could almost call her tone emphatic, inaccurate as that would have been. However it was certainly affected, in a subtle way.

Madiha extricated herself and whistled. “Incredible. I had no idea we had this technology.”

“Neither does the Civil Council and the Territorial Army, to be honest. We received all of this equipment alongside the big tanks when the 5th Mechanized Division joined us. They brought their experimental telemechanized company with them and subordinated it to our use. Inspector General Kimani thought that it was an adequate addition to our operational plan. At first I was skeptical, having only heard of this technology in theory. I did not want to waste your time; but I felt confident presenting them to you after I had a good look at them. Certainly they are more palatable for the plan than the alternative.”

“Yes.” Madiha said. She felt a trembling inside her stomach. She had planned to carry out the most dangerous part of Operation Hellfire using live humans. Any KVW soldier would have unquestioningly put down their life to complete the plan, but she already felt like enough of her ideas had ended up becoming suicide missions, without also directing an explicit suicide mission to top it all off. Sgt. Agni was quite right that the tanks presented something of a relief.

“What is the command range?” She asked. “You said it’s using a radio.”

Sgt. Agni averted her eyes for a moment, glancing side-long at one of the tanks. Her expression was blank and her mannerisms void of emotion but this was a major tell that something was wrong. She had held Madiha’s eyes perfectly throughout the conversation.

“Right now, around 300 meters.” Sgt. Agni said. She continued avoiding Madiha’s eyes.

“That is unacceptable.” Madiha said. Her own voice was picking up a note of frustration. For her plan 300 meters was nothing. Whoever she sent down would still be in the epicenter!

“I understand.” Sgt. Agni said. Madiha thought there was a gentler tone to her voice but she might have been projecting that unto her. She continued. “I have been working on a command truck that can perform the same function as the telecontrol tank but from 1.5 kilometers to 2 kilometers away. While perhaps a stretch in actual combat, it will be more than enough for our purposes. We will still be able to command the tank to move forward and shoot. In addition I am also working on installing a flamethrower on the teletanks we will use for the final phase.”

“When will this be ready?” Madiha asked. Sgt. Agni was a blessing — her news had renewed Madiha’s energy just a touch enough to keep her moving. Her mind started going over military possibilities rather than internal malaise — she wanted to accelerate to the final phase if possible, though at the moment Nocht was not yet in a practical position for it.

Sgt. Agni fidgeted with her long, wavy hair, arranging several longs over her ear meticulously. “I am trying to get it done within the week.” She said. Her voice sounded a little lower. “Once I have found a procedure that works I can rapidly convert more radios and trucks.”

Madiha felt unsteady on her feet. This was a bit of a sudden blow. But she had to take it. There was no other option at the moment. No option that was conscionable.

“Thank you, Sgt. Agni.” Madiha said. Her voice caught in her throat a little. She looked over the tanks; now it was her turn to avoid Agni’s eyes. “How many teletanks do we have now and how many do you think can we count on for the final phase, if all goes well?”

“We have ten units in total, counting this one. Should the assessments from the Chemical battalion prove correct, we will only need four detonations, at the most saturated points.”

“Well, I hope they are correct. I am basing the entire plan on them.”

Sgt. Agni looked her in the eyes. There was confidence in her again. “History has vindicated those who have heeded the dangers of Bada Aso’s underground in the past. I am a mechanical engineer, not a chemical one; but I trust that our Hell will burn brightly.”

Madiha wanted to smile or feel inspired but it was no longer in her.

“Good.” She said simply. “On that note, let us look at this tunnel.”

Sgt. Agni nodded. She signaled to a small squadron of engineers to accompany her. Together with the Major they entered the old, empty building, mostly abandoned save for a working telephone system that was still maintained. Wires ran into the walls, and there was still a desk in the lobby with a working phone that anyone could use. All the rest was empty rooms and halls, graffiti, and discarded toys from adventurous children. It was macabre and eerie. Little damage had been done to it during the bombing, and that only added to the strange atmosphere inside.

Once the building had been a police station. So much violence and horror occurred in these rooms and halls, so much infamy, and so many souls lost screaming to its brutality, that there was much pause as to whether they should demolish it or repurpose it. So it simply stood, a monument to a painful era, bypassed daily by locals and travelers who could peer through its windows and doors and enter its walls but ultimately wanted nothing to do with its ghosts.

Of interest to the engineers, inside the building was a particularly large tunnel entrance in the basement level. Though the tunnel system was far older than the Imperial Police that had once occupied the building, several renovations to specific tunnels had been carried out in secret with the express purpose of moving agents, officers and saboteurs to aid in the brutalization and liquidation of Bada Aso’s activists, criminals and communists (for many of them there were no such distinctions, both personally, and in the eyes of Imperial law). It was thought that if the criminals had made the streets their underground, then for them to be rooted out and exterminated the city had to create a Hell beneath their feet. In reality the tunnel expansion was borne of the hubris of men who desperately needed to appear as though they had a solution to a growing tide of resistance, and did nothing but expend resources.

These tunnels were ones that dug too deep — and they were perfect for Madiha’s purposes.

In the empty basement, they pointed electric torches at the gaping black maw.

Sgt. Agni and her engineers produced their measuring tapes and sized the beast. Four meters by four meters — just tall and wide enough to fit the teletank through.

“There are more tunnels like this in the central and upper city.” Sgt. Agni said. “Once it was rediscovered in the late Imperial period the tunnel system under Bada Aso was vastly expanded, not only to become the new sewer system, but also to accommodate routes such as this, in case of war in the city. Or more presciently, revolution.”

“Thanks to our megalomaniacal predecessors, I suppose.” Madiha said.

There was a bright flash from upstairs. Madiha shuddered — her cloak was dripping wet, and the weather was only getting worse and worse. She thought the Weather battalion must have vastly underestimated the intensity of the storm. Their tasks were done in this sector, and it was time to move further up the Umaiha. Sgt. Agni led the way upstairs.

A soldier with a backpack radio ran into the building and met them in the lobby.

“Commander, the 2nd Line Corps have been broken through. We have no confirmation from the actual 2nd Line Corps, but a scout saw Cissean troops moving upriver.”

“How far away are they?” Madiha asked the radio man. “And how many?”

“We’re not sure of much, our scout was not in a ready state. He was sending a panicked alert to every Ayvartan frequency he knew. It might have been hyperbole but nonetheless–”

For a fleeting moment before the collapse Madiha felt the pressure wave.

Then everything scattered, like a windblown stack of cards.

Thunder and a flash; the building shook and there was a sharp crack and a massive crash. There was an instant of pain and an eternity of numbness. Dust and heat blew in from the outside and the world shook and twisted, the ground warped and the walls closed in. Madiha was blinded and dazed and she knew that it was not thunder that had fallen from the sky. Her senses were obliterated and she could not feel her body.

She was suspended in the dark again.

But they were watching, millions of eyes, millions of hands.

From the hands the fingers fell; from the eyes the lashes shed and the lids bulged.

Then the forearms and the corneas and bit by bit everything fell like old meat.

There was nothing again. She was suspended in the dark.

There was only blood around her, an ocean of blood. She clutched her ears.

“You failed them again. You selfish thing. What was your worth in the end?” 

Water started coming down over her face, and her eyes opened and burnt as the cold drops dripped over her lids. Before her, framed in jagged concrete, there was only the dark sky, traced by deep violet thunder. She thought blearily to raise her hands and cover her eyes from the water and the flashing lights, but she could not move her arms.

She heard gunfire in the streets, and a loud blast farther up the road. Smoke and dust rose into the sky somewhere far, blown over her concrete trap and into her sight by the wind.

Concrete dust and tiny rocks sifted off her the sides of her prison. Rocks were pushed aside, and she felt as though her tomb was being dug through. She saw Sgt. Agni’s face.

“Commander, Commander, can you hear me?”

Agni reached down a gloved hand and took Madiha’s cheek, and pushed her head up.

It started to dawn on her all at once that her body was buried in concrete. She started to shake and to squirm and try to slide out of the rock but she could not, she could not budge her arms or her legs. She could feel them again and she could feel them moving — and they hurt. She had not lost them. But she could not free them. She was trapped in here.

“I can’t move!” She shouted. Her mind was racing. “Agni, I can’t move!”

“We are under attack from Cissean forces.” Sgt. Agni said. “That had to have been a salvo from a 15 cm battery. I have no idea how they moved everything up this quickly.”

Water came down over them in a deluge. Madiha couldn’t see anything well.

But clarity was returning. She felt a tightness in her chest and stomach, a thrill down her spine. Her mouth hung open, the cold rain dribbling down her lips. Her breathing quickened. There was a grim realization of what all of this meant. Her time had finally come.

“You have to go!” She shouted. “Take the Engineers and go! I need you to carry out the plan!”

Sgt. Agni averted her eyes.

“Only one of us is needed for the plan to work anymore! That’s you, Agni! You need to go!”

To Madiha all of this made a dire sense. She was resolved. She was finally making the rational decision. All of history had conspired to lead her here.

Her purpose fulfilled, she would be free and clean in death.

Everything made sense now — except the response to her desperate logic.

“Commander I cannot follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.

Madiha stared, and shook her head, whipping about her wet hair.

“What did you say? You’re being ridiculous! You have to go, Agni!”

“Let me rephrase that. I will not follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.

Again the world was breaking apart around her. This order that had been carefully constructed in Madiha’s raging, struggling mind was a shambles again.

Agni pulled the handset from a backpack radio just out of Madiha’s field of vision.

“Resist the Cissean attack as strongly as possible. Pull back the tanks and vehicles from the shelling area. Deploy machine guns, demolitions charges and flamethrowers. Hide in the rubble. I am coming to organize the defense, but our priority is to free the Commander–”

“Cancel that order!” Madiha shouted at the top of her lungs. “Cancel that order! Sgt. Agni is disobeying a direct command! Cancel that order and retreat! Retreat!”

Sgt. Agni reached down a hand and clamped it around Madiha’s mouth, muffling her.

Madiha started to weep. This was so absurd! This was such an injustice! Why? Why?

“I repeat–” Agni said, and repeated her order more clearly. She then put down the handset.

She raised her hand from Madiha’s mouth, and struggled to stand. She looked around her surroundings and started moving between the sides of Madiha’s prison, pushing on rocks, chipping away at the edges, gauging the strength of the tomb. She was implacable as always, her face unaffected even by these horrifying events. That was the influence of the KVW, their training, their conditioning. But it didn’t make sense. She should have listened.

She should have left Madiha to die just as readily as she would have died for Madiha’s sake, if ordered to do so. If ordered to do so. But she was not. She was not leaving her!

“Why won’t you go?” Madiha said, choked up, desperate, tapping into all her remaining strength to keep screaming, “Why won’t you leave me? I’m ordering you to go! I’m ordering you! You need to go so something can be salvaged from this! I am not worth all of your lives!”

“It has never been a balance between your life and ours, commander. There is no authority tabulating the weight of our blood.” Sgt. Agni said coolly. She lifted a stone from near Madiha’s side and tossed it away. Under it was a larger, heavier one.

Delirious from the pain and the pressure on her body, Madiha’s senses started to swim and warp. She felt drained, her throat raw, her eyes burning, water creeping into her nose. She moaned and mumbled. “I don’t want any more of my people to sacrifice themselves! Please!”

Sgt. Agni stopped working and returned to Madiha’s side. She looked her in the eyes.

“We have been together for more than just this war’s ten days, Major.” Agni said. “I think of you as a comrade and so do they. So do our people. This is not about our sacrifice; nothing has been about sacrifice. I will protect you and bring you back safely, Madiha.”

Around Madiha the grey sky and the grey concrete melded together. Her senses were leaving her completely. She fell back to the dream, defeated. Even in death she was unable to prevent the sacrifice of her comrades. That was what she thought, trapped by rock and guilt.

That was what she was sure of. Nothing about her life made sense to her otherwise.

What was Madiha Nakar otherwise? What was her purpose, what did she mean?

* * *

NEXT chapter in Generalplan Suden is: A Pulse In The Ruins.

From The Solstice Archive I

Side-Story Occurring Prior To Generalplan Suden

(From the state archives of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice)

Original Title: Concerning The Idyllic Fields Of Dori Dobo

Original Publication Date: 44th of the Yarrow’s Sun 2003

Author: Daksha Kansal, publishing for The Union Banner

A much beloved strategy from the exploiter toward the exploited is to speak in aberrant terms that redefine the world around them. They drown out the world in the noise of these aberrant discussions until silence and peace cannot be found. They circulate so much analysis and discussion of their terms toward conclusions convenient to them, that it becomes the common tongue, and any other manner of speaking is seen as the aberrant current in the air.

I’m not merely talking about the way Umma and Arjun pronounce words differently, or the unification of the scripts, or grammar subjects. I’m talking about our discussions as people.

I’ve outlined before that we have two classes of people in Ayvarta, whom we can easily refer to without using any terms foreign to us as the “exploiters” and “the exploited.” It is crude but it works for this paper. Exploiters seek to extract value from us for their gain.

They have their own language that they have forced upon our society to expedite the collection of our value, and in many cases, to guide us into offering it willingly without our knowledge. Underpinning this language is a simple idea I will outline below.

To the exploiter, things do not exist to serve their functions. They exist to create value and provide convenience for the exploiter. That is the underpinning of their dialect.

We have seen recent discussion about the production of food in the Dori Dobo region, and it has been dominated by this aberrant dialect, where a farm is an instrument that produces value for its owner through a secondary action of turning out food. We hear about rising prices of food, about the crop selection, about the conditions of the farms as “capital” in someone’s hands. We hear about strikes, and those strikes being crushed, and farm hands being in short supply and wages being low. Nobody seems to put into plain speech the fact that a farm makes food for our nourishment. They are not doing so right now because farms are owned by exploiters who demand the farm produce money for them. Anything else is secondary.

To the exploiter, the most important concept of a farm is that it be quiet, productive, make a lot of money, and require little of the exploiter’s own money to work. Thus the farm is run by laborers, for the exploiter’s convenience, and these laborers are paid poorly and treated poorly, for the exploiter’s profit. Should they tire of this state of affairs, they will certainly come to harm for doing so. As I write there is serious talk of forcing people to work in farms like prisoners, because the farm produces wealth and its production of wealth cannot be interrupted by such a mere thing as workers demanding wages and the chance to live.

To me, and to most normal people, we see a farm and think “this makes food for us.”

But it does not stop there at all! Everything can be viewed this way. For the farm owner to view the farm as an engine that produces money, he must also view food as an engine that produces money, and he does. He prices food such that it makes him the most money for his troubles. Thus, food itself gains the purpose “make money,” of greater importance than “provide nourishment.” For some time and through sheer luck, this methodology has resulted in food prices that large amounts of people can afford, and has therefore widely distributed food, and widely enriched the exploiters. However, the exploiter is ravenous, and if one sees everything as extraction of value, one must keep asking how more value can be extracted. Food can become even cheaper and more available, thus producing more money! It is limited by a few things — land, for example, which is plentiful. And labor — every shell you pay a farm hand is a shell you must make back in some way, if your goal is to “produce money.”

This creates the situation where the farm hands must be paid little, and must be worked more harshly, and must be held to greater scrutiny and generally treated like slaves, to produce the most value and convenience for the exploiter. Cheap labor on a forced march results in more vegetables being delivered, and sold at a cheaper price, thus they are bought in greater bulk, and the exploiter reaps a greater reward. At least, for a certain amount of time.

In the end the result is our situation now. Farm workers are barely able to eat and live under these circumstances, as such they are discontented, and cease to produce. They are removed or destroyed and replaced with new farm workers who do the job more poorly under the same poor conditions due to being unprepared and unmoviated and must then also be destroyed or replaced eventually. Because food “produces money” and does not “provide nourishment.”

And if we are talking about a farm, it is not solely in its relationship to producing food that value is the greatest virtue, but whether food is produced at all! Let us fly back up, and look again at a farm instead of at food specifically. Can you take action such that your farm produces even more value overall? For example, right now, plants for smoking are more valuable than plants for eating, so many farms that could be making food instead produce leisure items, because leisure items are more profitable. This is a minor feature of our local situation in Bada Aso, but it illustrates that there are various ways the exploiter’s mindset causes harm.

Everything works the same way. Medicine does not heal us, it profits the chemical company. Shelter does not house us, it profits the land owners who rent it or sell it. Our society is driven by this exploitation, and our discussion is dragged screaming to the topic of how to keep producing wealth for our exploiters. We cannot discuss the purpose of things — analysis will veer violently back to avenues of discussion that revolve around wealth production.

I posit a radical alternative, for which common language does not exist, such that I had to borrow words and concepts from a foreign land: let us produce food primarily to feed us. This is one of the main facets of what is called Socialism: a nation guided around bread, health and shelter, rather than profit. We produce what we can to care for each other.

From the land owners in Bada Aso, Solstice, and elsewhere the retorts are endless and inevitable. Two basic ones: “Who is going to pay for this?” “How do you expect things to be made if I cannot produce money from them?” This is all part of aberrant discourse. I will ask in its place a sensible question, one that is so simple and obvious and unproblematic that it no longer exists in our political discourse. This question is seen as the province of children: What is the purpose of food? I say the purpose of food is to nourish us. But it is an important question!

We need to eat food to live! In our society, however, seeing food as nourishment is a secret sin. Instead, we are trained to view it as a commodity, a means of exchange. Food loses its basic purpose and gains the purpose to produce money, to make wealth for someone.

Right now there are people starving on the streets of Bada Aso and Dori Dobo.

A significant amount of them used to grow and pick the food they now cannot have!

And why do we not have more food and more affordable food? Why are people starving on the street? We’ve seen this scene before only during natural disasters, during horrendous wars. Certainly no army is looting our crops. There is no storm sweeping all the grain in the Dori region or the Kalu region or the Kucha region, and even if there was, there would be stocks in Bada Aso, and stocks up north in the Tambwe dominance, and massive fields in Jomta.

Simply, the reason is that food is not given to us without providing an adequate value for the exploiter. There are people who take very seriously the job of making sure the exploiters get the exact best value from the food at all times, or else no food is given. Many people: economists, police, food policy administrators, and so on. An entire corps is in place to insure we cannot buy food. It is not that we can’t afford to pay it, and that anybody needs to pay it, but that the exploiter must extract value from it.

We have plenty of food to distribute, but only one permissible method to distribute it — we receive our food so that the farm owner receives a profit, of which, the actual growers of the food see none of.

To these people it makes perfect sense that you and I cannot eat fairly.

Until we reward the exploiters properly, we’re not supposed to eat!

Everything in the world, discussed through their goblin tongues, adds up perfectly today.

Should you or I start suddenly eating well without the exploiters being paid, now that would be a nightmare for the police, and the food policy men, and the economists and the farm owners and so on. That is a nightmare that I want to inflict upon them. Don’t you?

That nightmare is Socialism, under which the engines of society are seen thus: we are not individuals, but a people, and we will make sure the people can eat. We will not stand for individuals prevented from eating such that someone else among the People can profit from their starvation. We will produce food so that everyone can eat enough to live, because the purpose of food is to nourish us. We will make medicine to heal people, not to profit chemical companies. We will raise shelter such that the people are all protected from the elements, not to extract rent or sell villas to the people who have profited from starvation.

A nightmare for the farm owners, but for us, the only sensible way to live.

Let us create the means to content the real farmers who feed us, rather than bayonet them.

–Shacha (Archivist’s note: Daksha Kansal, under a nom de plume.)

The Solstice War, now on Web Fiction Guide!

Web Fiction Guide is a huge listing of web fiction serials and web novels, much like the Solstice War, and I’d been looking forward to being listed there. Hopefully this will attract new readers to the story, as well as give existing reader’s feedback a home away from home. You can leave reviews, rate it with stars, and all that sort of stuff, and check out other similar stories using the tags. I tried to tag it as sensibly as possible for readers who might be looking for similar things. I encourage you to take a look at the listing and if you’ve the time and inclination, leave your thoughts! It’d help regular users of that site, and it would help me out too!

The Kalu Tank War — Generalplan Suden

This chapter was made possible by the support of kind folks on my Patreon.

Please take a short survey as well if you are familiar with the series thus far.

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death, as well as some minor psychological distress and drug use. Some descriptions may be considered briefly graphic.

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance — Kalu Hills Southeast

Visibility in a tank was tricky even in good weather. Before the driver was a thin slit and a large hatch — opening the hatch was inviting death and looking through the slit with strained eyes was almost no better than being buttoned down. On modern vehicles a periscope was furnished for the driver, one that allowed a limited field of view just off the side of the tank’s gun. Through a thin circle, surrounded by black, the driver peered on the world. This little periscope allowed the driver to see around the vehicle as much as the tank’s contours allowed.

Seated overhead from the driver, the commander had a periscope and a hatch as well, offering a second set of eyes, but anything the commander saw had to be relayed down to the driver, this often resulting in a game of donkey party inside a multi-ton vehicle.

Unique problems presented themselves under the storm over the Bada Aso and Kalu regions. Dark clouds overhead seethed with lightning, and buffeting storm winds and battering rains worsened conditions on the irregular terrain of the Kalu. Periscopes became wet and the view through their lenses distorted; opening the hatches and slits exposed the crew to the cold rain and the minute debris carried by the wind. Even with suitable vision equipment, no tank crew could see more than a couple dozen meters in front of them through the gloom and rain.

Recon informed them with confidence that nothing was there, but for the Panzer platoons heading the advance, they felt as though there were eyes everywhere, shadows and wraiths dancing at the edge of their vision, taking advantage of their blindness. They had heard that Ayvarta was a land of magic and myth, a place where goblins and curses and witches still hunted for unaware prey. No amount of recon would assuage those primal fears of this old world.

Who could say the storm was not the work of the Ayvartans, commanding their land to attack?

Regardless of worsening conditions, the 2nd Panzer Division promptly activated for attack on the 28th. At the head of the advance were scout cars and columns of light M5 tanks with their 37mm guns and horseshoe turrets, driving along the main roads through the Kalu, such as they were. Nuye road was the main path along the east Kalu, a wide dirt road winding through the most navigable portions of the Kalu’s hills, weaving through patches of wood, across flooding ravines, over rough escarpments where the layers of earth were visible wherever not ground down into surmountable slopes. Nuye started on the plains, rose along the foot of the Kalu in the south and bobbed up and down along the Kalu up to the Kucha in the northeast.

Three hours and nearly a hundred kilometers from their starting point, a platoon from the 2nd Panzer Division’s 12th Leichte Panzer Regiment found itself driving across a fairly flat area of the Kalu, like a platter balanced precariously a step above the chaotic earth, and thick with shrubbery and clusters of broad-trunk trees with dozens of haphazard arms covered in frizzy green. Vier platoon, as they were known to 12th Leichte, halted its march before the trees.

A hatch opened atop the lead tank. Covered in his dark-green rain cloak, the Platoon leader rose out of the hatch and stared into the shadows before him. Below him, the tank’s crew sat sulking from the sudden downpour falling on their shoulders and backs.

Before him wound the road, right through the wood. Walls of green at his flanks; he tried to peer through the gaps between trees, tried to see through that gloom. He saw shapes, but he saw shapes everywhere in the rain. He saw knife blows playing in the air wherever a branch shook in the wind, and he figures flitting in the shadows wherever a drip of water dropped from the bent arm of a tree. The Commander could not tell his fears from reality here.

In these wilds he saw a place of fog and confusion, where a man became a beast again.

The Commander shook his head. He told himself that he was letting the nonsense of his peers get to him. Mastering himself, hardening against these fancies, he descended into the tank, closed the hatch, and ordered the driver, and by extension his whole platoon, to move.

Within the trees the road tightened. Before, the tanks could move in a square formation, four tanks forward, and a single tank in the rear, his tank. Now the Commander ordered his tanks into a single file column. His tank, the lead tank, drove in the middle, the third tank in either direction of the five-tank line. They advanced at half speed, turrets turned every which way.

A small voice inside the tank. “Gefreiter, permission to consume Pervitin ration for nerves.”

The Commander looked down at the radio operator with disdain. “Denied.”

“Yes sir.” There was palpable contempt in her voice, but he ignored it.

For the crew inside the tank, the stamping of the rain outside against the armor was growing almost as loud as the clanking of the treads and the chugging of the engine.

This only increased the urgency with which the crew took to their periscopes and slits.

Someone shouted over the platoon radio — “I saw something!”

At once, the Commander pressed his foot against the back of his driver. He cut the engine, as did every other tank. Frantically the periscopes turned, the vision slits opened, and the hatches burst open. Turrets turned, explosive shells were gathered and readied for battle.

Shadows, and the green wall at either side. Overhead, the black sky, the pouring rain. Cold and clammy in their uniforms, the tank commanders and the Platoon commanders stared dumbly about themselves. Lightning struck from overhead, and color inverted in the flash. Old figures in the shadows turned into new figures, but they were just the same made of the fog of the mind and the smoke of unrestrained fears. There was nothing around them.

Hatches shut — the jumpy gunner who sounded the alert was disciplined with a swift kick.

In secret, the radio operator put her pervitin pill in her mouth and swallowed dry.

Platoon Vier advanced. The Platoon Commander called HQ. “Still leading Tiger group. No contacts, false alarm. Please advice immediately if other elements of Tiger group make contact. We will proceed to the rendezvous via the designated route.”

 

Kalu Northwest — 5th Mech. Division Rear Echelon

Unfamiliar voices in a strange language crackled through the radios.

Löwe-gruppen, anerkennen. Vorrücken–”

Inspector General Chinedu Kimani interrupted. “Translate it for everyone.”

Signals were adjusted, the equipment fine-tuned, the voices became clearer. At the radio the operator, a polyglot, began to speak in tandem with the captured audio, and he put into familiar words the alien tongue emanating from the box. Everyone in the radio car with him and Kimani could now understand the captured radio messages.

Atop a nearby ammunition box a young woman took quick, sparse notes about each message. She drew lines and circles on a map of the Kalu, pinned to the wall near them.

“Lion group heading north through the Turh roadway. No contacts so far.”

He put on a play by himself, taking on the roles of all the speakers. First was the man who’s audio they first captured, the main speaker. Then a woman’s voice appeared as well. She was farther away, and her audio split and cracked more, but they parsed it enough to understand, and the radio operator translated it just the same. They had all the conversation.

“General Anschel wishes for you to advance on a tight front, make sure those roads are clear.”

“Damn it, say something identifying.” Kimani grumbled. She was frustrated, and her demeanor began to show it. She was not like her crew. Her voice had a somewhat hollow ring, but her lips could curl with anger or viciousness. She had regained some of what she had once lost. All of them did, some more quickly or slowly than others. It was never the same as it once was, except for anger. Anger remained similar, though the frequency of it was altered.

“Please report any contacts. We do not expect much resistance.”

He did not switch voices to denote different speakers, nor did he gesticulate, or otherwise point it out. He translated everything he heard in a clear and unaffected stream.

“Acknowledged. We will report any contacts. However, under the present circumstances, it is unlikely we will spot the enemy at any great distance. We will likely have to recon in force. Should we engage enemy positions immediately or wait for backup?”

“Engage, but if you cannot overtake the position, hold ground until a Three or Five can relieve you. Maintain visual as long as possible. Right now discovery is paramount.”

Kimani nodded her head. “Thank you, you fools. Given the context, this cannot be an M4 platoon. So it must be an armored scout car platoon, probably Sd.Kfz. D, Rogues.”

She turned to the woman with the map. “Contact the groups around Turh. Let the cars pass.”

In response the woman nodded her head dutifully, and she turned from the map to a pack radio beside her. She picked it up and passed on the information through the handset.

“Relocate the car farther uphill while we still have some peace.” Kimani ordered. Ahead of them the driver raised her hands in acknowledgment, and then started the vehicle’s engine.

Inside a nondescript plot of woodland in the upper Kalu, the Adze scout car brimmed with life. Across the rotating machine gun mount atop its four-wheeled, long-nosed, fully enclosed, armored, sloping hull, the Adze mounted a large aerial that was constantly intercepting signals and feeding them to the unique, powerful radio equipment mounted inside. All this functionality bloated the Adze’s size, but there were plenty of places to hide in the Kalu.

Black clouds stretched all the way across the Kalu, teeming with angry violet bolts of lightning. Rain fell thick and fast over Kalu, rolling down hills and across flats, making its way over the series of small escarpments across the Kalu like miniature waterfalls.

The Kalu was a region of chaotic shapes, a place of scarps and dips that began in the gently rising territory near Bada Aso, and ended in the mountainous terrain of the Kucha to the northeast, the rocky crags skirting the upper half of Bada Aso to the northwest, and the flat terrain that composed most of the border to Tambwe directly north. It was dotted with patches of forest, each a few hundred meters in size, some a kilometer or two long, all woven through by man-made paths; by cuts along the earth through which little rivulets flowed from the Umaiha, bolstered by the unceasing rain; by the scarps, dips and short plains and open hilltops.

The Adze and its crew traveled from one little patch of wood up a hill to another, and past that to a short plain atop an escarpment. Its four wheel drive took well to the terrain. They settled on a rocky outgrowth, sprinkled with thick vegetation, that gave a commanding view of the Kalu. Normally this was dangerous, but nothing would be flying overhead in the storm, and nothing below would see them against the stone and within the trees.

Kimani could sit atop the rock, collecting radio messages from the Nochtish crews.

The KVW was not just a military force, but an intelligence and security organ. Long ago, during a time of tumult, they learned to incorporate all of these disciplines into a form of revolutionary warfare that preyed on the strength and confidence of the enemy. Always overlooked, underestimated; that was by design. They were a small and unassuming force to the enemy’s naked eye, but they had all the information, fought from prepared positions, in a place filled with traps to spring, and with much of their strength cleverly hidden.

Radio was only one intelligence tool in an arsenal of many, but it was an important tool, and dedicated intercept crews such as those aboard Adze cars were always at work.

Interception was normally a tense and tedious job, where the operators waited for hours on end, cycling through frequencies to find busy networks, watching the traffic, slowly accumulating many guarded scraps of information, full of codes and secrets to decipher. In Adjar this task was surprisingly expedient. Nochtish crews enjoyed their radios and spent much time talking over them, constantly reporting and acknowledging. Busy frequencies tended to remain busy, and were not often switched. Throughout the ensuing battles the Nochtish troops spoke almost conversationally, and what few code words they used they just as quickly forgot and skipped over like an unpleasant formality between friends.

Whenever something important was gleaned from this exercise it could be quickly passed along to the other information crews, and down to field officers commanding regular troops. Interceptors were not alone in this endeavor; there were radio triangulators and range-finders, along with additional interceptor crews in their own Adze vehicles across the Kalu, forming a picture of the enemy advance. From intercept vehicles, information that looked important and that was suspected to be composed of code words or red herrings could pass along to cipher crews, who were currently mostly unnecessary due to the simple plainness of the traffic; and then once fully deciphered, radio data was handed to direction-finders and triangulators, who would determine where the information was coming from. That much was also unnecessary. They had no way of launching an all-out counterattack, only small, limited, local engagements.

Unit compositions, headings and overall offensive plans were much more important to the current operation. Her troops had to know what was coming and when it was expected. This would help them decided whether to try to intercept the enemy at all.

“Let’s take some time to review the situation, and then contact ciphers and have them relay information to the KVW attaches in each unit via our codes. I don’t believe Nocht is monitoring our radio traffic, since their assets are still fluid in the theater, but it pays to be careful.” Kimani said. She nodded her head toward one of her crew. “Signals Officer Jaja.”

Beside the map, sitting on the ammunition box for the car’s machine gun, the young woman adjusted her glasses, and wiped some of her long bangs to the side of her head. “Yes ma’am,” she replied. She cleared her throat. “For past three days we have been capturing radio chatter from what we have identified as the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions south of Bada Aso. These divisions constitute Nocht’s primary armor power in the region, and are composed of veterans from the Nochtish operations in Cissea and Mamlakha. At its base, each division is composed of Panzer Platoons of 5 tanks. We do not have confirmation, but we are operating under the assumption that these Platoons are formed into Companies of 15 to 20 tanks, making up Battalions of 45-60 tanks. Each Panzer Division likely has around 300 tanks, so there are likely around 600 tanks in the Southern Kalu, compared to our strength of 400 tanks.”

“But this strength is deceptive, I’m sure.” Kimani said. “How much of it is light tanks?”

“That is one of the qualifiers I was about to address.” Officer Jaja replied, nodding her head. Like Madiha, she had served under Kimani for a few years now. She had tanned skin and bright, golden hair and green eyes, ringed by a slight red glow. She was much more Ayvartan than Lubonin, with no knowledge of tongues but their own, and without the sharp-shaped elfin ears. However, one could still visibly trace her diverse heritage. “From the frequency of broadcasts, and comparing various callsigns and orders, we’ve found that over 40% of Nochtish radio traffic has been directed toward Light tank platoons composed of previously identified types — the 10-year-old M2 Ranger, now known as the M5, likely composes a significant amount of their strength. I’m willing to say as much as 250 or even 300 of those 600 tanks could be M5s. The M4 Sentinel, and the M3 Hunter assault gun, comprise the rest, along with a smaller amount of recon scout cars and half-tracks of previously identified types.”

Kimani nodded. She started going through their own numbers in comparison.

“Of our 400 tanks, 50 are Hobgoblins from the 5th Mechanized. All of the tanks from Battlegroup Ox are Goblins, but at least they have the 45mm high-velocity gun, and many have extra armor. We have 300 of those. From the Svechthan heavy division we have 25 modified Goblins which they call the Yezh; and 25 Gori medium tanks, the capabilities of which I’m not entirely sure of. So the situation is not as bad as it seems.”

“I’ve been told the Gori has a 45mm gun, but is better armored and faster than our Orc.”

“Good then; it can group with and keep up with our Hobgoblins. Any chance the other, oh, 700 or so Goblins of the Battlegroup might be able to do anything for us?”

Officer Jaja shook her head. “Negative, Inspector General. Almost 500 of the Battlegroup’s Goblins are total mechanical losses. After demilitarization downsized the tank divisions, much of the stored equipment was wholly neglected, and much of it was improperly sheltered. Transporting it to where it can be fully repaired would be a waste of time for mere Goblins. Right now around 200 Goblins have been sent to Tambwe to undergo repairs, and will not be available for a long time. About 400 Goblins are fighting in Bada Aso, and word has it a quarter of those are already knocked out. Those 300 we have here are all we will get.”

Kimani crossed her arms. “To think, I’ve been dealt such a hand by destiny, that I would be grateful to have more obsolete light tanks at my disposal right now.”

She had spent almost a week out in the Kalu, organizing the mess of obsolete armor from Battlegroup Ox into a workable defense force in prepared areas around the Kalu, and reinforcing it here and there with more experienced troops from the 5th KVW Mechanized Division. Each of the Kalu’s defensive sectors she staffed with an ad-hoc “tank brigade” composed of 50 Goblins and 5 Hobgoblins — there were six such brigades in operation. All of the Svechthan armor, along with 15 Hobgoblins, she kept in reserve as a response force.

Every Hobgoblin was piloted by a KVW officer, and could carry out operations well — but she was overwhelmingly saddled with Goblins, all of whom had energetic but thoroughly inexperienced Ox troops instead.

Though the Ox tank crews were motivated, they simply lacked the experience to do anything. Mobile operations and any kind of offense were out of the question. For one there were no real tank officers, only individual platoon commanders. And many tankers were so out of practice they found it hard even to travel from one location to the next as complete units. There were tanks straying off target, forgetting to communicate in any way, and exposing their formations. Several tanks had their radios entirely stripped out, or never installed at all, so she ordered those Goblins to stick to the Hobgoblins like Chicks following a mother Hen.

It was maddening how ineffective her troops seemed in this time of dire need.

But she adapted, she had to. Kimani played to their simplest strengths, and she kept them in the woods and behind the rocks, acting essentially as stationary sentry guns, waiting, watching.

Somehow, she instilled discipline enough in them to believe in that plan and to follow it.

“Nocht still doesn’t know our full strength?”

“I believe not.” Officer Jaja replied. “We moved and conducted all our construction and preparations at night to prevent air recon from spotting us.”

Kimani nodded. Everything was established. Now it simply had to work.

This was all for Madiha — she had to protect Madiha, at all costs, and this was the only way that she thought she could. Right now the greatest danger to Madiha that Kimani could imagine were those Panzer divisions rushing up the Kalu to bite into her eastern flank. Such an attack would not only be decisive, it would trap the Major in the city with her troops.

Not the only danger, but the only one Kimani felt she could challenge.

She knew that Madiha needed her on other terms. In many ways Madiha had never grown from childhood, because much of it was taken from her before she could experience it. For a long time, Kimani had considered this state of things tragic — especially as Madiha began to lose other people in her life. She hid herself in the shadows of others, and she filled herself with them, and as time went on there were less shadows. Kimani allowed this because she did not know what else to do. Now she had inflicted upon Madiha a cruelty that Madiha herself had reluctantly accepted. Another shadow left her, exposing her to the harsh sun.

That was how Kimani understood things. It was difficult, and she didn’t know if it was right.

But for now all she could offer was 400 tanks across over 400 kilometers of frontage.

“How are we doing infantry-wise?” Kimani asked. It would not do to wallow in pity.

Officer Jaja didn’t even blink. She continued to speak, in a matter-of-fact kind of voice. “Major Nakar gave us two Rifle divisions to use but they’re not very well trained — therefore we’ve opted keep them back in reserve past the river to blunt a crossing or reinforce the city as necessary, and leave the infantry component in the Kalu itself to the 51st KVW Rifle Battalion in the forest. We have around a hundred infantry in position in each of the six tank brigade sectors. I’m given to understand Nocht has no idea these formations exist yet. They do not know the extent to which the KVW is operating in Adjar, and believe Ox to still be commanded by Gowon.”

Kimani nodded. She crossed her arms and looked over the map of the Kalu. “We can expect the Grenadier component of this attack to be small, since it must be packed into vehicles to keep up with the tanks, and those vehicles are at a premium since Nocht’s shipping capacity to Cissea and Mamlakha is limited. However, they are probably very well trained. This would probably be an issue in good weather, but under this kind of storm they’ll be packed tight under the tarps of their armored carriers. Their training means nothing until they dismount.”

“I don’t believe their training will prepare them for this ambush.” Jaja replied.

That was the plan in essence — for Nocht to be so blind and so dumb to the intentions of the Kalu forces that their carefully calculated attack became a mess, disrupted and terrorized at every turn. Everything was set. All they needed now was for Nocht to keep its schedule.

Kimani’s radio operator raised his right hand. Everyone turned to him.

“Receiving contact from KVW forces in Nuye. They have visual on the Tiger group.”

“Alright. Give them some noise for us, for as long as possible.” Kimani ordered.

 

Kalu Northeast — 2nd PzD Advance

According to the information from HQ, the Ayvartans had 10 Divisions in Adjar and would have no more, due to a static system of defense and a fully demobilized and partially demilitarized defense infrastructure. Of those 10 divisions, one was considered either scattered, lost or ineffective in general; at least 7 of those divisions had been fully or partially identified within the city of Bada Aso. Aerial recon on the Kalu region showed little signs of activity — and in the grainy photos, what looked to HQ like a rifle squadron could have easily been fleeing civilians, and what looked like defensive works could have been rocks.

Regardless, by elimination, there had to be two rifle divisions in the Kalu.

Leichte Panzer Platoon Vier had not seen a single solitary sign of life in the Kalu. They woke with the dawn, and started their engines with it. They had advanced for over seven hours crossing almost 200 kilometers of terrain. They had trudged through forest, climbed slopes, crossed ravines and forded rapidly swelling little streams. Through Nuye they headed north and east, and now prepared for the next part of the journey. Organizing along the edge of the Kucha mountains, where the terrain became too rocky and steep for the tanks to continue north, they would instead drive west to smash a way into Bada Aso.

They had several options to cross the Umaiha river, and Vier’s Commander felt, after witnessing the chilling absence of the enemy throughout the Kalu, that most of the defenses must have been prepared along the river. He felt foolish for his earlier fears, in fact. Had it been him in this position certainly he would have deployed all his strength around those river crossings. If the Panzer Divisions could not cross those rivers then Bada Aso would remain safe for the moment. So barricading the crossings along the most obvious routes made sense.

But the Luftlotte’s Jagdflug recon sorties had seen nothing built along the rivers.

Could the Ayvartans really stage a mobile defense of the rivers? Could they prevent crossings without barricades and gun positions, in order to keep their numbers hidden in the patches of woodland and in the shadows of the hills? Why was nobody resisting?

Could they really afford to be so relaxed in the face of two Panzer Divisions?

So far the enemy had gotten lucky while defending their positions inside the congested city streets of Bada Aso, but around those rivers it would be a different story. Or would it? Nochtish commanders received information on Ayvarta that sounded like dogma. They were demobilized and weak, low on ready troops and usable equipment, unwilling to fight for the tyranny of communism. Had they seen the real fangs of the southern continent yet?

Only ten days had passed in the war, after all.

Inside his tank, the Vier Commander pored over the possibilities. He waited, under the ceaseless rain, in what would be the shadow of the rocky Kucha, if the sun was out. He was past the woodland, but there would certainly be more of it in his drive toward the river. While his tank was buttoned, he could see nothing, but if he took a look outside he would have seen a gentle northwards slope at the rocky foot of the mountain. To the west were patches of woodland broken up by the rising and falling of hills that concealed the edges of the river. Along the southwest lay the edge of an escarpment overlooking the lower Kalu. Even in this weather these major features were discernible to the eye, though muddy and somewhat indistinct. He wondered how high above the sea level they were.

Where had those rifle divisions set up? Where did they hide 20,000 people? He looked at his maps, but he was no General, and the information he carried with him to battle was simply too incomplete to extrapolate from. There were limits to his planning abilities.

He ordered his radio operator to contact the HQ.

“I need to hear from the Jagdflug again, I want to confirm a few things.”

About a meter below him, in a niche on the side of the tank, a young woman donned a pair of headphones. She began to operate the tank’s radio, putting in the call to the correct frequency and awaiting a response. She repeated the call twice, and grew frustrated.

“No dice,” replied the operator. “We’re getting a lot of noise on our frequency to HQ.”

“Try the other units, see if they can’t get a hold of them.”

Minutes later, she put down her headphones. “All I’m getting is noise.”

“Do you think it’s the storm?” He asked.

“It might be. I mean, it’s not supposed to be, but I wasn’t really trained in–”

“Is there anything you can do about it?”

“I doubt it. I will keep trying. We might get through eventually.”

“I understand. Keep trying while we wait for Funf and Acht to join us.”

The Commander felt uneasy. His radio operation had never been interrupted by lightning and rain. Older radios, maybe; but these were M5 tanks, fully modernized from the M2. Storms should not have been a problem. Lightning and rain fading was natural, but complete signal loss was far harder to swallow, particularly with recon radio cars in the operational area.

And not just signal loss to HQ — but to other units, much closer and easier to reach.

It brought to his mind again the idea of the land itself rising them against them.

“We’ll wait for backup and then begin the advance. Is the short range radio working?”

“No, none of the radio is.” replied the radio officer. “It’s all noise.”

Commander Vier clenched his fists. “Good god. I guess I’ll signal with a damned flag.”

Hatches opened; every tank commander pulled himself out under the rain with only a sparse green hood for cover, and every crew felt the rain dripping into the tank from then on. Out of their tanks, the commanders could signal to each other in absence of radio. The Platoon Commander produced a red flag, while the subordinate tank commanders each had a blue flag to acknowledge orders given to them. It was archaic, but it worked.

While sorting out their communications Platoon Vier waited for Funf, a counterpart platoon deployed from the full-sized Panzer Regiment that accompanied the Leichte Regiment within the 2nd panzer Division; and Acht, a Platoon of mobile infantry, consisting of five Squire carriers loaded with a rifle squadron. This was just a small smattering of the 2nd Panzer Division’s expected full power in the Kalu region.

Once united these three platoons would form Kampfgruppe Tiger and test two particular Umaiha crossings, all planned out ahead of time. Vier led the way, scouting for the enemy. Funf followed, to deliver heavy firepower from its Sentinel medium tanks. In the rear, Acht’s infantry could dismount and rush forward when battle was joined.

They kept their eyes peeled for the other two Platoons. Five light tanks could not complete the day’s objectives on their own. Funf and Acht were absolutely necessary. They should have been following through Vier’s path at about five or six kilometers distance, but without radios it was impossible to tell when they were coming or what might delay them.

They would not have stopped to fix their radio problem — everything south of the rendezvous point was a bad place to be trying to fix a radio problem. So Vier was confident that the remaining two Platoons would arrive shortly. Tense minutes followed under the cold rain.

Whenever time a lightning bolt surged from overhead the tank commanders tried to use the sudden flash to try to see through the nearby shadows and the veil of the rains. All they could see were the blurry contours of the land, the indistinct masses of trees, the lines of the path, the fog of distance, the gloomy shadow of the lower Kalu below the escarpment.

Vier hardly noticed when the first M4 arrived. It had come out of the wood in the southwest, and approached them, struggling uphill toward the rendezvous point and Vier.

One of Vier’s tanks almost opened fire — Vier’s Commander had to wave him down with a flag. Everyone was on edge, but this was very clearly an M4. It had its lights off, so that it would not be seen from afar by the enemy, and it was buttoned down from the looks of it. But it had a periscope, so it could be waved to. The Platoon Commander signaled to his tanks to wait, and maneuvered his own vehicle ahead. He started to flag his approaching counterpart.

The Lead M4 closed in silently. A second M4 started out of the forest, right behind its tail. None of the hatches opened, nobody responded to signals. Then came a third tank following their trail. It was maddening. Why didn’t they respond? Were they trying their radios?

“Nothing on the waves still!” shouted the radio operator. It couldn’t be that.

Vier’s Commander continued to flag the lead tank ever more furiously — surely the driver or commander could see them now. He even blared the tank’s horn at them, again to no avail. Quiet and dutiful the tanks climbed the slope, making their orderly way to the rendezvous.

Then he saw something, a trail from the tank’s side, dancing in the rain.

He strained his eyes. It had been hard to see in the ceaseless downpour.

Smoke; from a shell impact on the side of the tank. The M4 was an abandoned husk!

“Fire! Open fire! It’s a trick! It’s a trick!” shouted the Commander.

It took far too long for his wet, cold, stressed crew to effect a response.

Off the side of the M4′s turret a muzzle flashed, and a shell perforated the command tank, exploding inside the hull. Inside the crew saw only a flash before their souls were dragged screaming from their bodies. The dead M4 ceased to move as soon as the lead M5 was dead, and from behind the tank its puppeteer revealed itself — an Ayvartan Hobgoblin medium tank had been pushing the vehicle, and hiding behind its silhouette by taking advantage of the slope.

Two other Hobgoblins revealed themselves and dashed uphill with their leader.

Soon the enemy platoon reached the crest of the Vier’s hill, and paused to take aim.

There was panic among the ranks of the light panzers. The M5s of Vier, having lost their command vehicle, and finding themselves engaged with an enemy tank type they had never seen before, started backing into the rocks while haphazardly opening fire. Volleys of 37mm shells bludgeoned the chassis and turrets of the three Hobgoblins to no avail, leaving ugly circular dents and rocking the crews inside, but scoring no penetrations. Once the M5s got moving in earnest, they hit rocky terrain and started to bob, and their shells started flying over the Hobgoblins, and failed to score even meager hits on their clustered enemy.

All semblance of communication was broken. No flags waved. Every tank commander descended into his hatch, and the vehicles started to veer in different directions, dashing madly backwards away from the enemy trio. Vier had been fully broken as a unit.

Within moments the Hobgoblins opened fire, and it seemed that all at once, every M5 tank retreating spontaneously exploded. Two tanks were perforated from the front and faced the same fate as their commander — two remaining tanks had their tracks blown off, as a shell miraculously overpenetrated a front plate at an angle such that it went through the left drive-train of one tank and smashed off the right drive-train on another.

Hatches popped open, and surviving crew members rushed to escape.

Hobgoblin machine guns coaxial to the turrets opened fire, picking off the runners.

Men and a handful of women fell around their tanks, injured or dead, vanishing into the mud.

Fifteen minutes was all it took for Vier to disappear from the order of battle.

From the perspective of the Hobgbolins, however, this was all foregone. Charging the enemy like this was reckless, but the pilots of this particular tank were Ayvartans of a sort who were prone to quiet, almost instinctive forms of recklessness. They lacked an understanding of fear necessary to temper such actions — so to them, this action was a natural one.

After all they possessed a superior weapon and surprised an isolated enemy.

There was a small chance they could have been hurt or killed, but it did not matter.

Inside the Hobgoblin, a KVW officer with the 5th Mechanized Division radioed HQ.

“Tiger Group has been eliminated. We are advancing toward our secondary positions.”

 

Bada Aso Outskirts — 1st Vorkampfer HQ

As the storm raged over Bada Aso, the roof started leaking in over a dozen places at the Vorkampfer HQ. It appeared the restaurant building they had picked as their headquarters was not so intact after all. Long rivulets from the ceiling formed puddles on the floor, but the General forbade the staff from becoming distracted. As long as the sensitive equipment was dry and operational, the floor and the tables and people’s heads could stand a little water.

In a corner of the room, atop a long wall-mounted table, six young women worked at the radios on a crucial task. One of them was getting drenched in the shoulder, and a towel had been given to her to cover it. She started to shiver, her hands shaking as she turned the frequency dial. Then a comforting presence, a pair of hands massaging her shoulders. Her supervisor, another pretty young lady, whispered warmly in her ear.

“It will be over soon, don’t worry.” She said. “Try your best until then, Erika.”

Erika nodded her head, and her grip on the dial steadied a touch. She pressed her headphones against her ears. Erika’s radio supervisor awaited a report, with a gentle, reassuring smile on her face. Her presence caused every girl at the table to perk up and work energetically.

“Any contacts?” She asked.

They scanned the unit frequencies. They sent messages. They tried everything they could feasibly do on their end — increasing power to their transmitters, going outside in cloaks to raise the antennae, swapping the antennae for fresh ones, even swapping one of the radio blocks for one in reserve. But none of this seemed to change the results.

After another round of standard contact calls, Erika still had no good news.

“Sorry Chief Fruehauf. Same thing as before.”

Her supervisor sighed, and ambled away, demoralized but unable to show it. Chief Signals Officer Helga Fruehauf had been having a very difficult time of things in Bada Aso. Her troubles would have been ever so slightly lessened had any of the Panzer companies in the Kalu picked up their radios, but if anyone was shouting across those hundreds of kilometers, their voice was drowned out by the radio noise. She hoped it was merely the thunder and rain.

But she knew that it wasn’t — she just could not say what she really thought it was.

“No response from the Kalu units sir.” She said. She hugged her clipboard to her chest.

General Von Sturm grumbled from a chair in the middle of the room.

“Keep trying. You’ve got the long range radios, we set up your antennae on the roof, we got you your generators, we’ve done everything! If the Panzer Divisions HQ can’t reach those units then you must be able to!” He said, gradually working himself up to shouting.

Fruehauf sighed internally, but outwardly, she smiled, nodded, and went on her way.

She prided herself on her spirit — she wanted to make this war a pleasant home for her girls, the radio operators of the 1st Vorkampfer, and for the men they served. She tried to be courteous, collected, exuberant. She tried to wear a smile. But General Von Sturm’s temper had taken a turn for the worse during the Matumaini actions, and though he had calmed somewhat, she saw his growing frustration again during the 28th, and she grew tremulous.

General Von Drachen wasn’t around to stick up for her this time, either. She was alone.

Several important actions would take place this day — on Penance road they were supervising attacks by Von Sturm’s own 13th Panzergrenadiers Division, as well as the unleashing of what was left of the 6th Grenadier’s Divisional Artillery in the Buxa Industrial Region. In the Umaiha Riverside, Von Drachen was resuming Azul’s attacks up the eastern parts of the city.

And in the Kalu, the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions Blitzed through, moving rapidly past enemy territory to hit their vulnerable rear areas. Once they entered the city from the east and linked up with Azul, encirclement and destruction of Bada Aso was inevitable.

Or at least, that was what Freuhauf had read. She was a signals officer. In the organization of the Vorkampfer this simply meant she stood in a tent or a room, supervising a half-dozen to a dozen people on radio equipment, while on occasion calling a ciphers battalion to come up with code words and frequency changes, though such things had become perfunctory annoyances. Oberkommando believed the Ayvartans incapable of advanced signals warfare, so her “ciphers battalion” was gradually converted into an additional ordinary signals battalion, just full of people who both worked radios and did ciphers in their spare time.

Everything still came in a ship, and there were priorities to consider, after all.

Penance seemed to be doing ok; Von Sturm didn’t particularly care about Azul.

What was baffling everyone on that ugly afternoon was the absence of contact with the Kalu.

“Call General Anschel again and tell him to tell his staff to stop jerking around and get those tanks on the line, I don’t care what it takes.” General Von Sturm said. He was reclining on a chair in one of the old restaurant tables in the HQ, with his hands on the nape of his neck.

“Yes sir.” Fruehauf replied. She hovered close to one of her radio girls, lifted one of the headphone receivers from her ear and whispered the orders. She nodded, and dutifully contacted the 2nd Panzer Division. Minutes later, Fruehauf gave a menial report.

“All they get is noise sir. They think it might be rain fade or lightning interference–”

“Not possible. You know that! You know more about radio than I do! You know it’s not rain fade, Fruehauf!” General Von Sturm said, raising his hands into the air in outrage. In the process he nearly fell back to the floor along with his chair, but somehow he managed to salvage it, and righted himself in time.

“Yes sir,” Fruehauf began, “but they have no other means of communication with the troops right now. We could try to change all our frequencies and hope our tanks are looking through every channel for contact; but that would probably mean halting the attack for a few hours until we get everyone organized again, and I know that’s not going to happen.”

General Von Sturm steepled his fingers and rested his chin on them.

“What do you think the problem is? You went to school for this crap, you tell me.”

Fruehauf averted her eyes. She could not smile or be peppy, not about this, because she was about to do something fairly heretical in her response to the General.

“Radio jamming, sir.” She replied. “This is clearly random noise across the unit frequencies in the Kalu, and that is why we can still communicate with Bada Aso units, and why we can communicate between HQ units. They’re jamming the Kalu panzer unit frequencies so we can’t contact them for command and control. This noise we keep hearing doesn’t sound like I know our radios sound when they are having audio issues. It’s been introduced by Ayvartans.”

“So the Ayvartans introduced nondescript static noise to our unit frequencies?”

“Yes sir.”

“That’s impossible. They would have to know the frequencies for all our units. When the hell would they have collected this information, and how the hell?” Von Sturm replied. He looked more amused, as though this was a theory as far-fetched as an invasion of space men.

Fruehauf herself thought it was difficult to believe for another reason.

In order for them to do this, they would have needed high power radio equipment to be deployed in the Kalu itself. She supposed they could have fed such equipment via truck-mounted portable gasoline generators, but it seemed like a difficult endeavor for the Ayvartan army they had fought so far. They would have to hide these stations throughout the rough terrain of the Kalu, from both air reconnaissance and the sight of the advancing Panzers.

Then they would have had to spend time capturing frequencies, jam them, and take advantage of the silence for whatever amount of time it took before the HQs got fed up, blasted halt orders through random frequencies until someone heard, and ordered the institution of frequency changes across the board. It was a very delicate operation that could either pay off strongly for a limited amount of time, or waste days worth of work.

Nocht’s radio discipline was not the best, but this was all a longshot nonetheless. It required tireless effort, enormous coordination, and an understanding of the enemy’s timetable and psychology.

She had read the reports. It made little sense. Could the Battlegroup Ox depicted in their intel data do this? Could their commander, Gowon, have had this foresight and shrewdness? Could the Ayvartan army they know about support such a tactic? What were they missing?

Regardless it was the only thing that made sense to her. Advanced forms of signals warfare.

“Fruehauf, you have a big imagination. Get back to your radios.” Von Sturm said dismissively. He waved her over to the corner where the radios were posted, and she smiled, nodded, and dutifully took her place beside them. It was best not to question it when the General let you off without incident. She returned to Erika’s side, stood by her, and promised to change the towel on her shoulder and to get her some time off if she came down with a chill.

It was all she could do at the moment. Make this bleak place a comforting home.

 

Central Kalu, Southwest of Tigergruppen

Turh was one of the few developed westerly paths through the Kalu. At no point was it a paved road, but in many places it was solid enough for anything to pass without undue trouble. Like all roads to the Kalu, however, it became wild with the territory, weaving over hills and between trees. In the rain it became muddy, but no intolerably so. For the tanks that dared not navigate straight through the treacherous wood, an open, unguarded road was their best and fastest bet, and so Nocht’s Panzer Divisions took to those few roads through the Kalu, and charged as fast as they could into what they thought was the depths of the enemy.

And indeed there were Ayvartan eyes stationed along much of the road.

But they were not very distressed by the enemy’s penetration.

Under camouflaged nets, in dug-outs and foxholes hidden by slices of turf, atop trees, and in thick bushes. All of it had been constructed at night or under camouflage, and not a single plane had been able to identify the enormity of their preparations. All six tank brigades and their infantry components waited silently by their radios, enduring the cold and rain, unblinking under the flashes of lightning. Ahead of them they saw the convoys of Nochtish vehicles moving. Many of these ambush groups let recon troops pass by unharmed to maintain stealth.

They were waiting for a different prize. Especially along the Turh.

When the first M4 Sentinel was spotted on Turh, an ambush group called in.

“Those red nuts are dangerous raw; please toast them before eating, Miss Jaja.”

Minutes later, eyes still peeled on the moving column, HQ responded.

“I can’t make a fire without something to burn.”

A rising thunderclap concealed the awakening of men and women from their fox holes and dugouts, the dropping of camouflage nets and earth panel covers, the hard steps of people jumping down from trees, and the starting of tank engines. Grenade bundles were retrieved from backpacks and kept in hand. In small groups the troops followed the moving tanks through the cover of the trees and plants, awaiting an opportunity.

Groups along the Tuhr prepared for their imminent battles. This particular tank brigade was divided into four groups, each tasked with a stretch of a few kilometers alongside the road, each with their own unit they would rise up against and destroy.

In front of one particular group were five M4 Sentinels of Lion Group. These were medium tanks with tough front armor, a machine gun set into the front plate, and a deadly 50mm anti-tank gun on the turret. They had tightly spaced tracks that afforded speed in exchange for terrain performance, and a curved form factor with a pot-shaped turret.

Across the column every hatch was open and every tank commander exposed. Instead of looking at the trees they were more concerned with each other. They were holding flags, and focused intensely on these flags and the gestures made with them. They were utterly unaware.

A KVW field officer in charge of the ambush gave a radio command. “Trap them.”

Within moments, one by one the tanks ground to a clumsy stop.

Ahead of the lead M4 massive green thing blocked their way, as though a chunk of the earth itself had risen to stop them. It was covered in leaves and had a bright, angry yellow eye.

Lion group’s commanders visibly panicked and started waving their flags.

But it was not a wraith or elemental, but a Hobgoblin tank in a camouflage net.

It opened fire at point blank range, instantly setting the lead tank ablaze and stalling the column. A burst of flames and smoke from inside the tank nearly threw the commander from his cupola. His corpse slumped over the remains instead.

Dozens of grenade bundles flew out from the trees and exploded around the tanks. One bundle hooked unto a shovel strapped to the back of the last M4 tank in the convoy, and detonated the engine. Several others smashed ineffectively against turrets and sides, but they rocked the tanks and the crews and forced the commanders back into their hatches.

The three remaining M4s dashed in different directions — two barreled forward into the ambush line, while another backed away blindly into the trees. The 50mm guns roared, and shells flew over the men and women in the forest. Trees splintered and fell, suddenly crushing several infantry, and high explosive fragments nicked and cut and pierced and knocked out soldiers, exploding in their dugouts or against the soft, vulnerable cover of the bushes. Panicked drivers squeezed the machine guns set into the glacis plates of the Nochtish tanks, cutting a swathe across the forest in front of them, causing grave injury.

As the woodland came suddenly alive with fire and smoke, the KVW fighters stood their ground without a note of altered emotion. Death evoked little fear in them.

The M4s that charged into the wood caused several soldiers to dive out of the way, but they advanced no further than the trees before meeting a line of Goblin light tanks. Piloted by scared men and women from the Territorial Army, they could not carry out the kinds of tricks the Hobgoblins were performing, and at a distance their guns would have done no good against the armored faces of the M4 Sentinels. But in a stationary firing position, and within 20 meters of the enemy, the 45mm guns on the Goblins put several perfect holes into the M4′s faces, and stalled them completely. Tracks stopped dead and guns quieted suddenly. Inside, the crews made good use of their undulled emotions and started to cheer with relief.

Dashing backwards with reckless abandon, the remaining M4 found itself pursued by the camouflaged Hobgoblin, its spotlight shining across the wood as it chased the retreating enemy. They rolled over logs and smashed down thinner trees. 50mm shells kicked up mud around the Hobgoblin, and blew in half trees behind it. The Hobgoblin fired its own 76mm gun just as recklessly, and smashed the scenery just as much in its charge.

Across a hundred meters the chase stretched, the tanks face to face and the Hobgoblin closing in. The M4′s reverse speed was half the Hobgoblin’s forward speed, and despite its head start the M4 could never outrun it without turning its soft rear to the enemy’s guns.

As it closed the distance the Hobgoblin took fewer shots and landed more. It blew off the left track guard, and smashed an awful dent into the glacis plate that warped the machine gun mount to uselessness. One hit on the front of the turret warped and paralyzed the turret ring.

Then the M4 Sentinel’s front lifted from the ground. It drove itself into a narrow ravine.

Concluding the chase, the Hobgoblin loosed one final shell that penetrated the Sentinel’s underbelly and left the tank burning in the middle of the wood. Rainfall and thunder were once again the dominant sounds. The Tank Commander flipped on her radio headset.

“We have toasted some of those red nuts for you, Miss Jaja.” She said.

She heard back, “Lion group has been eliminated.”

She nodded. “Acknowledged. Advancing to secondary positions.”

 

Central Kalu, Northwest of Lowëgruppen

While the 2nd Panzer Division was tasked with the eastern stretch of Kalu, the 3rd Panzer Division cut across the west, closer to Bada Aso. Due to the Umaiha river going through the eastern half of the city, the 3rd Panzer Division had almost exactly the same mission as the 2nd — drive northward through the Kalu, cross the Umaiha where it straddles the northern Kalu, and force a way into the city via dry land to bypass the Ayvartan front line.

To this end they mustered 125 vehicles of various classes as their first wave, traveling in a line of small convoys across the wilds. Across the western Kalu the woodland was much more sparse, but the tanks had to contend more readily with the hills. Kope road was the most direct route, winding around the rocky crags, like horns erupting from the earth, that broke up the land in the Kalu, and offering the most readily navigable slopes through the softer hills.

Twenty of those vehicles gathered at the edge of a sliver of woods 150 km into the Kalu. They paused before a broad, open stretch of slope dotted with boulders and overlooked along its eastern side by a flat-topped crag jutting out of the hillside, 20 meters higher than the foot of the slope, and 30 meters long. It made a perfect position for a potential ambush, and with no radio contact to HQ or other units, they had to be precise and careful.

Puma gruppe had organized without incident, and it was time for its infantry component to be put to good use. From one of the M4 Sentinels, a Tank Commander pulled himself out of the cupola and rushed to the back of a Squire half-track. He lifted the tarp, and explained the situation to the men inside. He rushed from it to a second of their five carrier vehicles, and their tarps rolled back, and two squadrons of men departed from the edge of the wood.

At first they crouched low to the ground like thieves, rain sliding off their cloaks and glistening when lightning fell, but gradually the urgency of their situation dawned on them, as there was little cover on the long slope ahead. They worked themselves up to a dash, and charged past the boulders, feet slipping on the muddy earth, until they made it to the rock face. They stood with their backs pressed to the crag’s side for several minutes. Once it was clear no one was challenging them quite yet, they threw up their hooks, and started to climb.

For an experienced climber, it was not every high up, and though water trailed down the rock, their hooks found good holds to sink into. At the top of the Crag, the men found nothing but more boulders and sparse green growth like moss. Everything was clear.

One of the squadrons stood sentinel along the edge of the crag, while another ran to the tip of the rock, and waved their flags to signal the convoy to keep moving. From the woods the tank commanders could see them through binoculars. Orders were communicated and again the convoy was on its way out, light tanks and armored cars first, half-tracks second, and medium tanks at the back, in order to prevent any element from being slowed down.

The Gebirgsjager mountain squadrons waited patiently, rifles out, scanning the slope for contacts. They watched the tanks moving up without incident, and felt relief.

Behind them, two barrels emerged from inside a boulder. Muzzles began flashing.

Under the sound of thunder, light machine guns opened fire against the infantry squadrons, lancing through the unaware men in vicious, sustained bursts that seemed to fill the air. Men fell from the edges of the Crag and battered against the rock, their legs or shoulders clipped, their ropes cut, and for some, simply from the shock and surprise. Few men dropped atop the crag — for most it was a fall and a crushing landing. Tarps and camouflage net were thrown off the inconspicuous boulders, revealing a semi-circular framework in which a squadron of Ayvartan men and women had hidden. They crawled around the wooden bars, and set up where the Nochtish men had died, BKV anti-tank rifles and Danava light machine guns in hand.

With the high land won again, the KVW squadron signaled their ambush.

Across the hill, several boulders flashed suddenly. Shells flew from the gray objects.

Fire and steel fragments consumed the bed of a half-track and the men inside it. Two M4 tanks felt their sides scraped by the barrels of hobgoblin tanks, and were shot through at point blank range. An M5 Ranger’s track slid right off its wheels from several BKV shots coming down from atop the crag. Every vehicle in the convoy switched gears and started to turn front plates and turrets toward the enemy, but found that the enemy was all among them. A dozen of what they had believed to be boulders started to move, all along the flanks of the convoy, between different vehicles, ahead, behind; there was no facing that protected them from the enemy.

All around them Goblins and Hobgoblins awoke and attacked all at once.

In response the Nochtish convoy opened fire just as spontaneously.

Shells hurtled wildly across the slope in every direction, machine guns blared, and fire and smoke raged across the hill. It was a frenzied, directionless confrontation, a tank group’s equivalent to a blind, flailing melee over the mud. An M4′s 50mm gun speared a boulder containing an Ayvartan Goblin and smashed the little tank to pieces.

In turn a Hobgoblin pierced the M4 from behind, punching through the engine and setting the crew horrifyingly alight. In a stroke of sheer brutal luck several M5s focused on the nearest false boulder and battered the hidden Hobgoblin tank to pieces at nearly point blank range. From behind them however, two Goblins scored decisive, subsequent hits on the engines of three tanks, as though lined up in a shooting gallery.

In the midst of these warring titans the infantry dismounted their half-tracks, and reached for their grenades, but almost none could throw before either hiding or retreating from the mortal world. Machine gun fire from friendly and enemy tanks alike shredded the wheels and noses of their carriers, stranding them, and the men stepped out into a killing field. Within the smoke and the rain and the flashing thunder and the brilliant blasts, they could not make out friend from foe. Many huddled around husks as best as they could for cover; several dozen ran out to try to fight and had their arms and legs blasted off by snipers, their torsos filled with bullets from the light machine gunners atop the crag or the deadly dance of the tanks.

Minutes into the fight there was a paucity of fire and death.

Enough of each side had been bled out that a battle line had formed. Further uphill a pair of hobgoblins had survived the savagery, shed their disguises, and faced the enemy, while two Goblin tanks limped away with smoking engines and weeping pilots but working turrets and tracks, enough for the territorial army survivors to get away. Fifty meters below them, two M4s and an M5 had survived with some damage. Their strong glacis plates faced forward, and their guns trained on the enemy. The M4s fired the first pair of shots opening the duel.

Both shells crashed against the front plate of one of the Hobgoblins and exploded right inside, tearing open the top of the turret and sending a tongue of flames out the 76mm gun.

Standing alone the remaining Hobgoblin retaliated, and its AP shell smashed open the turret of one of the M4s and turned the interior hull into an inferno.

Quickly reloading, the M4 Sentinel fired the decisive shell at its counterpart.

The 50mm AP shell hit the Hobgoblin’s glacis — and bounced off from its poor angling.

The Hobgoblin’s response shot collapsed the M4′s battered glacis plate, and ended the match.

Behind them, the retreating M5 Ranger was savagely riddled with BKV bullets, and halted. Rather than set fire to it, KVW infantry emerged and captured the crew — they were close enough to their own lines to be able to take these people away for interrogation.

KVW forces surrounded the tank and arrived in time to subdue the tank commander, who had threatened to shoot his crew. A woman radio operator, and an injured driver were also pulled away. Unfortunately, the tank gunner had been killed by several BKV shots.

Thus, Puma group’s thrust had been blunted. Another area of the Kalu was retained, for now.

This time it was a trembling Goblin commander who called in the report, on a portable radio hastily installed inside the tank. “Umm, this is,” He gasped for breath for a second, “This is Corporal Turasi, and I think Puma group has been eliminated. I’m sorry, but we sustained terrible losses in the attempt. Spirits and Ancestors guard our comrades, may they have peace. And um, also, we’ve got prisoners, we’ll take them to the secondary positions with us, I suppose.”

 

Kalu Northwest — 5th Mech Division Rear Echelon

Reports came in from all over the Kalu, and Inspector General Kimani listened in with growing triumph. So far every Panzer thrust in the first wave had been brutally rebuffed by the ambush positions, and the few groups that had been let past the ambush areas would now have to contend with partial encirclement, and attacks by the mobile response force. She counted those panzers as good as dead. In any event, the operation was a complete success.

While she had reports of escaped enemies, and some painful losses in her tank brigades, her forces counted almost 150 vehicles destroyed within the span of a few hours. If her intelligence was correct, the force moving into the Kalu could have been no bigger than 200 vehicles. Therefore significant forces from the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions had been crushed. In addition her main objective had been to selectively destroy large amounts of M4 medium tanks, and this had been resoundingly accomplished. Though Nocht’s armored forces still outnumbered the Ayvartans, the quality gap was much shorter now.

She breathed a little easier, and lay back against the wall of the Adze car.

“Send my congratulations to our tank brigades. No need for codes.”

Her radio operator reached out to her, and handed her the headset.

“You need to listen to this ma’am.” He said. He did not make eye contact.

Kimani took the handset and listened. It was an all-unit message from Bada Aso.

‘This is Army HQ. As of 1400 hours we have lost all contact with the Commander. If any units had contact with the Commander please respond. We do not know the status of the Commander. The Commander was last known to be in the Umaiha area–”

Clang.

Kimani’s eyes drew wide, and the red circles in them wavered. Her fingers slipped, shaking violently, and the radio handset fell on the floor of the Adze.

Tears started to stream down the side of her face. Her lips quivered.

She raised her hands to her mouth.

“Madiha.” She whimpered.

 * * *

NEXT Chapter in Generalplan Suden is: Stormlit Memories

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges II

Side-Story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden.

This chapter contains some mild sexual content.

 

22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon — Palladi Province, Previti Estate

On the outskirts of the royal province of Palladi, a great many hectares of beautiful rural countryside were fenced off by brick wall into the individual estates of a few nobles and nouveau rich. The Previti Estate had grown into the most developed of these clusters. Its walls were like ramparts, and the main gate was an archway leading to a roofed landing. On the night of the 22nd, the gates were open, and through them, past the lobby, one could see into the gardens, where a sensuous torch-lit path led up to the manor house. Guards blocked the approach, and a young woman in a modest black dress and apron ushered young, fashionable couples past the archway after checking them from a list. She was all smiles for every guest that checked in with her, but soon become particularly taken with one new arrival.

A tall, slim, and beautiful stranger, dark-skinned by Lubonin standards but green-eyed, smooth-featured, graceful, brown hair pinned up, stood before the guards at the entrance to the Estate. He dressed in a fine tuxedo suit, with golden cuffs, a visible pocket-watch chain, a black tie, understated but glossy shoes. Like the other guests he had come covered, a peacock-feathered mask covering his delicate nose and the upper half of his face.

He had been dropped off by a taxi around a corner road from the estate, and walked to the gate. No one at the archway could quite tell whether it was a fancy cab or a cheap one.

“Good evening.” He said. He had a pleasant voice. “Sylvano D’Amore.”

Gently and gracefully he lifted the maid’s hand, his fingers travelling along the underside of her arm in the lightest brushing touch until they lifted it by the palm. His lips graced her between knuckle and wrist. Her face flushed — none of the other guests had paid her these attentions.

“Ah, of course. You’re expected.” She said. Her voice developed a light tremble.

She allowed him past the guards, though in reality his name was known to no one. She watched him leave with a delirious expression, almost forgetting the next guests arriving.

Carrying himself with an easy confidence, Sylvano passed through the roofed archway landing, and from there to the ivory-tiled pathway through the gardens. Flanked by shaped hedges and gilded fountains and beds of roses, the young man walked discreetly alongside the throngs of fashionable men and women headed for the estate. Where eyes lingered on him, he received pleasantries, which he softly returned. But he received no greater volume of attention than any other beautiful stranger making a social debut that night. He was not a name that one knew to seek out – no one knew a Sylvano D’Amore. Nobody even knew to ask for it.

He had no friends to whom he owed honors, so he passed people by with a smile and a gentle bow of the head, and he did not pause along the fountains or smell the roses with other idle lords and ladies. At his own pace, he made his way directly to the main villa. His destination, the same as everyone, was the ballroom hall atop the manor house. From the gardens one could see the vast ballroom balcony, a gentle curve along the mansion house facade, framed in silver curtains and shining windows. There was a young lady waiting for his hand inside.

Everywhere he turned he saw masks; animal masks, humanoid masks, plain masks, masks over whole faces, some covering halves, masks with fur, with feathers, with scales.

Perhaps had the right eyes lingered on him, they might have seen through the peacock-feathered mask, and peered right into Sylvano’s regal green eyes. They might have noticed in his gentle lips and features, in the tone of his skin, and in the blunt half-elfin ears, a similarity to a certain Salvatrice Vittoria, one of the Princesses of Lubon. But few of the important nobles and the high bourgeois had ever interacted in any depth with her, or knew much about her status save her age and parentage. She was as outside their thoughts as he was on that night.

As such every vestige of the dual person walking among them was well guarded.

Sylvano was a disguise Salva had dreamed up for some time now; but now, she was him.

And she felt both excitement and trepidation at the prospect.

She had a thought in her mind constantly, as she ambled down the path, past the singles and couples bedecked in finery, taking in the view, that this youth was supposed to be a man. Behind the black pants and coat, the formal shirt and the black tie, the golden cuff links and buttons; behind all the accouterments of the finer class, Sylvano was not Salvatrice.

She could not afford to be seen through him after all this effort.

With the help of her personal maid, who even now was covering for her in the Academy as best she could, she had become Sylvano. She had bound her breasts flat, not much of an endeavor, and over time she had practiced a slightly deeper, more ambiguous voice. Her figure came largely flattened already, so the suit fit her slender frame well. She had even worn men’s underwear, and dyed her hair brown for the occasion. Appearance was not a problem.

It was all about attitude; but what was the right attitude expected out of a gentleman?

She put it out of her mind, pushing it deep down. She had a lady to meet for a dance.

Walking through the Previti estate was exhausting. Salvatrice, and in turn Sylvano, were not so delicate, but one of them had to expend a lot of energy to be the other. She had to costume herself, escape the Academy, and make it to the estate. Now she had to cross the gardens. Her constitution had never been too stout, and the preparations and acting took a lot out of her. But she had to be graceful — she could not simply stop and stand wherever.

Thankfully the Previti sisters stationed rabbit-masked maids in white dresses all along the fountains and gazebos with aperitifs and drinks in small glasses atop shimmering platters.

Near a hedge that was cut to the shape of a cavalry knight, one of the pretty rabbits offered her a drink, and Sylvano paused. He approached the woman and accepted the wine glass with an unreserved smile. Standing in the shadow of the green knight, against the red torch-light, gave Salvatrice a chance to rest and catch her breath while chatting up the maid.

“A lovely drink, thank you.” Sylvano said, after one careful sip. “Very full-bodied.”

“Thanks milord. It is a product of our own vineyards. While it is a comparatively young wine, it boasts taste beyond its years, like our fair ladies,” the maid replied. She was well spoken, and had either practiced her lines well, or developed a skillful way with words.

“Will both ladies Previti grace us with their wit and charm this night?” Sylvano asked.

“Yes milord. In fact it is they who planned everything from attendance to the masks to the decorations, and attire,” chirped the maid. “All is a product of their impeccable taste. Certainly they will attend the party – I believe they will even play for us all on the piano.”

Sylvano finished the remainder of the wine in a few delicate sips. He smiled to the lovely maid.

“I would not want to miss it; so I will make my way. I must say it has been a pleasure.”

She bowed to him, while perfectly balancing the food and drink on the platter in her hand.

Sylvano resumed his walk to the estate. The Previti Manor soon loomed over him, a monumental edifice to anyone staring it face to face. Red and gold carpet stretched down close to a hundred steps of staircase that led to the ornate double doors of the manor. Golden light filtered out of the doors and even through the closed curtains on the ground floor windows. Men and women, some alone, some in groups of friends, others coupled hand in hand, climbed the stairs with a casual admiration of the surroundings.

Salvatrice felt her strength waning again every dozen steps. Halfway up, she saw something that invigorated her, and Sylvano conquered the remaining steps in strength.

At the top of the staircase waited Carmela Sabbadin, heiress to the Antioch Fuels fortune.

Sylvano approached and took her hands, and she looked up with sudden recognition.

“I hope you did not wait long.” He said. Carmela saw Salvatrice right away.

“I’ve waited weeks. I can endure a few hours.” She said. She laughed delicately.

“I apologize for all of it.” Sylvano said. They squeezed each other’s hands for a moment.

Carmela was beautiful, always, Salvatrice knew no one in the world whose every aspect she loved as much as she loved Carmela. Her long, golden hair, and the way it curled a little at the ends; her honey-orange eyes and the way she blinked like a cat with a little grin on her face when she was satisfied; the way that she stood just a few centimeters shorter than Salvatrice, and tipped her head just a little to lock eyes; her ears, not as long or as sharp as some, but enough for the tips to peer charmingly out from under her hair; her soft lips with a little dab of red, and the laugh from them that was delicate and a little haughty; the perfect olive tone of her skin, her slender form evenly caressed by the sun. Salvatrice could have basked in her presence all night.

To the ball she wore her hair simply, and made up for it with the regal indigo dress she wore, with a long, ornate skirt but a bold bodice cut just above the breast, strapless and sleeveless, bound tight at her back. She wore a pair of matching indigo gloves, with black ribbon, and her mask was an indigo raven, covering half her face as Sylvano’s mask did. Around her neck she wore a gold chain with a purple amethyst that Salvatrice had given to her long ago.

People moved around them, but this was their moment. They didn’t exist anymore.

“My, my, mister,” Carmela sidled up to Sylvano almost nose to nose, “Filling your eyes before your hands,” she started to whisper, “or perhaps your mouth? Will I receive any satisfaction for the feast I’m offering your senses?” She traced a slim index finger down Sylvano’s chest.

“I am not Sylvano D’Amore for nothing.” Salvatrice replied, lips curled in an awkward smile.

Carmela backed a step from her, opening a little paper fan in front of her mouth.

“I hope Sylvano knows the ballroom responsibility of the one in the suit and pants.”

She flapped the paper fan across Salvatrice’s face teasingly, and extended her hand to her. Sylvano choked down the kind of giggle that such a gesture would have drawn from Salvatrice, and instead entwined her fingers through Carmela’s, and escorted her into the mansion.

Every hall of the Previti Estate was brightly lit by faux torches, the flame electric and surrounded in glass. Red and gold were common colors on carpets, banners, curtains. Scented candles added mystique and a decadent feeling to the environment. Hand in hand, Carmela and Sylvano climbed a spiral staircase to the second floor, and made their way to the ballroom the next wing over. Along the halls they found portraits of beast-headed men in suits, bird-headed women in dresses. There were stone busts of beast-headed people with savage expressions, in place of the statues of great artists that would normally decorate such a fine house. All these works of dubious art seemed to stare hungrily at them as they passed.

Male servants in the mansion wore wolf’s masks, while the female servants were all rabbits. They ushered the passing guests toward the massive ballroom. Alongside Carmela and Sylvano strode dozens other people in suits and ornate dresses. Everyone had a mask, but certain peer groups identified themselves quickly and reformed, and soon they moved together in their inseparable cliques and entourages. Sylvano could hear the women giggling at the decor, and a few more delicate among them expressing disgust or discomfort with it.

Enough about the Previti Estate had been rendered exotic and mysterious to satisfy the occasion, and yet enough remained familiar for an upper class youth to feel refined and unchallenged. Perhaps dimming the lights, perhaps earthier colors, perhaps a few aphrodisiacs on the platters, perhaps less sharp dress on the servants, less artifice in the decorations; such things might have added a more lusty and savage touch to this purported masquerade ball. But perhaps the purpose of the masks was never to titillate, to add danger — perhaps like in Salvatrice’s case, they were meant to keep everyone safer than they would be.

The Previti’s ballroom was enormous, containing a small stage offset a dance floor larger than the gymnasium at Salvatrice’s academy, a high roof with a chandelier that was decorated to seem a ghastly floating crown of thorns, bearing several faux torches. There was a gorgeous view of the property through the balcony, and several couples were already taking advantage of it. There were no tables for drinks or food. Servants carried everything. They flawlessly weaved through the guests to present their complimentary morsels. There was not yet any dancing — musicians on violin, flute and piano and were setting up and warming up.

“Come, Sylvano,” Carmela spoke the name teasingly, letting it roll slowly off her tongue, “I must dutifully report to the ladies of the house. I’m sure they’ll love to meet you.”

“Yes, I remember you saying they’re good friends of yours.” Sylvano said.

“I’ve only known them all my life.” Carmela said, giggling. “You could say they are.”

Carmela led Salvatrice now, and she beseeched a wolf-headed man to give them audience with the ladies Previti. Acknowledging Carmela, the man took a very formal tone with her, and treated her as if she too were a lady of the house, whose commands were to be followed. Dutifully he led Carmela and Sylvano through a side room, and into a tea room with several plush couches, a record player, a large radio, and even a television set, surrounding tables where cakes and cookies and tea had been set and sat seemingly untouched.

Sitting placidly in the middle were the Previti Twins, two women identical save for the way they styled their hair. Both had ivory-white skin, blue eyes and flowing black hair, sharp lubonin ears that curled very slightly at the ends. Both of them wore very similar red and gold dresses, modestly covering and yet quite ornate, bedecked with frills, with only a flash of the upper torso through a circular window in the bodice, lined with glittering little gems. One sister had her hair up with a bright red ribbon; the second wore long, tight ringlet curls.

The twins greeted them all at once, and their voices sounded exactly the same.

“Good evening, Lady Caramel!”

Carmela approached each sister, and embraced them a little from her standing position, exchanging kisses on the cheek. Then she returned to the side of her date, taking his arm and waving. Sylvano smiled, a little nervously, and dipped her head in a bow. Salvatrice thought she was the only one who called Carmela that nickname, but she guessed it must have been a common thing among her and familiar girls. The Previti Twins knew her longer than Salva.

“You look divine! You always wore the royal purple better than royalty!”

“And the way your hair curls into little twists at the end, oh, I’m so jealous.”

“It takes us an hour with a maid to get that effect. You’re a golden goddess!”

“Indeed! Indeed! It’s no wonder you were able to charm our good man here.”

“We were wondering when we would meet your handsome stranger!”

“And also whether he would make a good God for this goddess! Indeed!”

They giggled at once, and again there was no distinction between them.

“Oh, he’s perfectly ordinary.” Carmela said, giggling herself. “This is Sylvano D’Amore. He is the son of an architect; though he is more devoted to the study of people than structures.”

Salvatrice played along. She had no plans for a backstory, but of course, one was necessary. “I’m a sociology student. I hope to go into politics someday.” There was a pause between the two clauses, perhaps a clumsy one, but she committed in the end. This was a half-truth, more than an outright lie. The Previti Sisters looked over him with fond, amused expressions.

“You have a captivating voice, Mr. D’amore.” Said the ribbons sister.

“It is wasted on speeches!” laughed the ringlets sister. “You should take to the stage!”

“You can call me Sylvano. Mr. D’amore is so labored out of such pretty lips.” Sylvano said.

Again the twins giggled, covering their mouths delicately with the backs of their hands.

Carmela clung to Salva’s waist. “Aren’t you spreading admiration a little too far, Sylvano?”

“No, no! Don’t let this forceful evil girl quiet you!” Ringlets Previti said.

“Compliment us more please. Don’t leave us begging!” Ribbon Previti said.

“I’m sure Carmela would agree you are both stunning ladies.” Sylvano said.

Salvatrice wondered if Carmela was really jealous, but she was laughing along with them.

She gave Sylvano a look and a smile that said it was all fine. Salvatrice was not the best at picking up social cues, but she was at least capable enough not to panic from them. With that matter silently resolved they sat a table of sweets and tea across from the sisters, who took the time to introduce themselves. They stood momentarily and curtsied.

The young lady with the ringlets went first. “I’m Capricia Previti, younger by a few minutes.”

“And I’m Agostina Previti, older by a few minutes,” added the young lady with the ribbon.

They sat, and donned their masks in front of the couple — half-face masks covered in red and gold dyed feathers with little gold beak noses, like phoenixes.

“Full credit to this idea should really go to our lady Caramel. She cheered us on to do this.”

“Her own parents are so stuffy, otherwise I’m sure she would have done it, right Caramel?”

“Indeed.” Carmela said. “But I don’t think I would have managed such a colorful atmosphere.”

“It really is, isn’t it?” Capricia said. “It really gets the blood flowing. I especially like the masks I chose for the servants. Wolves and rabbits, it gives a sinister kind of atmosphere together, doesn’t it? Makes you think, ‘oh what strange things must go on the Previti house,’ no?”

“I didn’t quite want to imply depredation within our own house in such a way.” Agostina said. “But I allowed my little sister’s fancies to take flight, perturbed as I am by their content.”

Capricia gave Agostina a look, and the latter opened up a paper fan over her face.

“Agostina was in charge of boring things, like invitations and drinks, that take care of themselves.” Capricia said, her tone taking a hint of viciousness.

“One of your dear rabbits allowed me in despite the list.” Sylvano said. “I hope that will not be a black mark upon her character. I understand that you crafted a guest list and my attendance was a little last minute.” He looked at Carmela, who also covered her face with her paper fan.

“Oh you’re so considerate Sylvano.” Agostina said. “I knew when I created a guest list that it would be a little troublesome for our servants to keep it. So many fashionable people yearn for a chance to attend truly high class parties, it is the same way whenever any of us hosts anything. But we also know our servants are cautious enough to keep any riff-raff out. If someone charms one of our rabbits, surely they will charm us as well. You have proven it.”

Sylvano tried not to flush in the face. That might have been seen as a little too delicate for him.

“Hands off.” Carmela said. All the girls shared another synchronized bout of laughter.

“She’s very forceful Sylvano! You see this? We don’t blame you if you allow her reign over you!”

It was becoming increasingly difficult not to flush or wither under this sort of attention.

Thankfully the subject changed. Carmela and the twins started catching up on things, and Sylvano sort of faded into the background, an accessory to the conversation, offering nods and smiles, blowing the steam from Carmela’s tea for her, and listening to the women.

The Previti Twins were heiresses of a monumental shipping and trading dynasty founded on the ashes of old national industries, once belonging to coastal lords who fell from grace during the ascension of Queen Vittoria. It was a time of tumult, and many lords were destroyed for their opposition or opportunism — their positions were occupied by nouveau rich and petites-bourgeois, whose own opportunism was rewarded, forming a new class of nobility that was born not out of blue blood, but out of gold and silver bullion, and the favor of the Queen.

But the Previti family was dissatisfied with current events. Who wouldn’t be? There was a war on the horizon. Four days after the fact, the papers acknowledged the invasion of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice by the Nocht Federation. Swift victories were reported, and the strength of Nocht touted to all, but only the journalists took the news energetically. For most, it just added to their troubles. Almost the first thing touched upon after the sisters explained their positions to Sylvano, was a slight change in their fortunes.

“It’s been a little hard on father lately. A month ago we stopped being able to trade with the Ayvartans, and now with the Royal Navy refitting, there is low priority on helping us expand our shipping capacity and our fleet’s ability to sail farther out to Helvetia or northern Nocht.” Agostina explained. “And that is the most significant limit on our fortunes at the moment. More ships, bigger facilities; at the present we’re maxed out on profit-making if we can’t access the commerce on Ayvarta. It’s closer by, and they had a lot of product we wanted.”

“They were also communists, so this was bound to happen.” Capricia said, shrugging.

“Communists with abundant, cheap food and ore and fuel.” Agostina said sternly.

“Well, it is out of our hands, really.” Sylvano said. Salvatrice really did not know much about the communists, or even what they stood for. It was a problem she hoped to correct soon. As a student it drove her mad to feel such a hole in her pool of knowledge — particularly now that her country and its allies went to war with them. Ignorance was inexcusable.

So, in the absence of knowledge, she played Sylvano as a noncommittal party.

“I suppose it is. How has your papa been affected by the news, Caramel?” Agostina asked.

“So far, nothing’s really different. Far as I know, demand for fuel is growing but our fuel plants in Ricca have been more than able to meet it. Papa and I don’t talk much.” She replied.

“I’m sure the war will drive demand up. At least someone’s getting something out of it!” Capricia said, accompanied by a delicate laugh. Agostina seemed to cringe, and Carmela did not reply. Salvatrice found the statement rather sinister. Capricia did not seem to notice.

“On a lighter note, now that we’ve all got going; Carmela, dear, I don’t mean to impose, but I’ve been dying to know how you two met.” Agostina said. “In the most respectful of ways, this came as a surprise to me! I did not expect you to have a paramour so suddenly.”

“Paramour? Oh Agi, you’re romanticizing things too much.” Carmela said gently.

Sylvano looked between Carmela and Agostina with a somewhat helpless expression.

“Perhaps, but forgive me, I assume your father doesn’t approve.” Agostina said.

“He never approves of anyone!” Capricia replied. “He doesn’t even want us around.”

“Oh, come now Capri, he’s never said that at all.” Carmela replied.

“He doesn’t have to say it to mean it.” Capricia replied, wielding her own paper fan now.

Carmela sighed. “We just met at a little party one day, didn’t we Sylvano?”

“Indeed.” Sylvano replied. Salvatrice’s mind raced to flesh out the details in a way the twins would readily accept. She figured out quickly to play to their sense of dramatic grandeur. “I was there accompanying my father, who had done some work for Antioch Fuels. It was a small celebration in honor of a new facility. We saw each other from across the floor of the plant. I remember it like it was yesterday — we locked eyes, drinks in hand, distracted from the adult’s conversations. We kept each other company while our the company men and women entertained one another, and there was just something special. We both knew it then.”

Both sisters clapped their hands together and beamed. “Simply marvelous!”

“He remembers it far better than I. I just remember a boring company party.” Carmela said, clinging again to Sylvano’s side. She looked at him with curious amusement.

“I figured that it must have been related to your company in some way.” Agostina said.

“To think you’d meet someone under forty years like that. Or did you just age well, Sylvano?”

Sylvano smiled. “I’m afraid the men of my family don’t age gracefully. Enjoy while you can.”

The Previti sisters burst out laughing, and had to raise their hands to their mouths.

Carmela quirked an eyebrow and gazed quizzically at her suitor. She shook her head.

“After that we decided to keep in touch, and then to deepen that touch.” Carmela said.

“Of course.” Capri smiled back. “I assume a lot of furtive letter-writing followed.”

“You’re so well acquainted with courtship. Hiding anything from me?” Carmela said.

She looked at them like a viper, as though she’d found a flash of neck to bite.

“Oh dear, have I spoken out of turn?” Capri said, wearing an expression of contrived shock.

“Nothing so dramatic I’m afraid. She is simply very well read in romance.” Agostina replied.

“No, do not cover for me sister. I have a suitor to whom I send letters.” Capricia said, her voice taking a haughty tone. “It is true! Carmela read me, I’m afraid. I have been unveiled to all.”

There was a moment of awkward silence as Capricia puffed herself up before them.

“You might think him a suitor, but his own self-concept is up for debate.” Agostina said.

Both sisters eyed one another with evil intentions, then turned the other cheek at once.

Sylvano stayed quiet and tried to purge himself of expression. More than a conversation it almost seemed like a competition between everyone, humorous as it appeared. Salvatrice did not know whether it was lighthearted or not. She supposed this was the kind of thing long-time girl friends got up to. With the few friends she had made at the academy the topics were always books, and the conversation always slow and quiet. This was all quite new.

Thankfully she had a good sense with words to improvise her way through it.

After a half hour more of talking, they exhausted topics both soft and heavy. Then the Previti Sisters stood from the tea room couches and announced it was time they made their appearance. Carmela offered each of them a hug and a kiss on the cheek again, while Sylvano bowed to the two of them. Thus the couple left the room first, and rejoined the guests in the ballroom, before the Previti sisters entered from the stage door, behind the musicians. There was a round of applause in the room for the two hostesses, to which they bowed.

“Thank you! We hope you have been enjoying the refreshments.” Agostina said.

“But of course, you did not come here to drink, but to dance!” Capri added. “Gather up your courage, men, and seek the hand of a lady for the ball! Come on, you did not dress up to drink in a corner! Couple with another mysterious stranger. You’ve nothing to lose!”

“Our hands will of course be available as well.” Agostina said, winking coquettishly.

They walked down from the stage, and the musicians started to play. Around the room what looked to Salvatrice like hundreds of guests began to form couples for the dance. Salvatrice took Carmela’s hand, and with one arm around her waist, led her to the dance floor. Music played; the piano reigned over the other instruments, and the player was very skilled. He started slowly, and his violin and flute followed him loyally, but the tempo gradually rose as if with the emotion of the couples on the floor. But Salvatrice did not try anything daring. She was not even thinking much of her feet, and the movement on the ballroom was perfunctory.

It was not a dance to them. It was not technical. It was a chance to be together — to share in each other’s space, to be physical, to touch, to move in orbit. It was a standing bed. Fingers bit down on flesh like the teeth that longed to; eyes locked together like the lips that could not. A hand squeezed a hip or outer thigh, and the owner felt tempted to grip elsewhere.

Dancing only made Salvatrice feel suspended in the air. She felt as though in a freefall with her beloved, the gentle turns, the steps, all the traversal was a backdrop to the timeless space they shared. She made only one contrived dance move. When she sensed the artists were about to close one melody and transition, Salvatrice twirled Carmela and pulled her suddenly close, holding her tight. They held the pose, sharing in each other’s warm, agitated breath. There were no accolades for the twist, no spotlight on the lovers. They were still alone in their microcosm, in the middle of a hundred others perhaps thinking with the same restrained lust.

“I was about to beg you for something like that.” Carmela whispered.

Salvatrice smiled. Normally it was Carmela who took the lead. But, appearances, and all.

One performance melded into the next, until the music became an accompaniment to the gasping of their breath. Chandelier light played across flesh glistening with sweat. Salvatrice and Carmela held fast to one another. Gradually their lips brushed, their hands crept to where desired, and piecemeal their desires played out, across three dances, four, through centimeters of cloth, across exposed neck, over glossy lipstick, moistening hair, and glittering masks.

Carmela stopped first — she squeezed Salvatrice suddenly close, so she felt a bump against her bound breasts. She whispered, “Allow me a moment and a drink to recover.”

“Of course.” Sylvano said. Salvatrice restored his composure immediately.

For the first time since they met that night the couple broke. Carmela met with the Previti sisters again, who, from the impeccable state of their clothing and hair, seemed to have had lesser fortunes than Carmela on this night. Sylvano picked up a pair of wine glasses from a wolf across the room, and brought them back, weaving through the crowd in the middle of a song’s climax. When the two reunited minutes later, they proposed a toast, drank peacefully, and made small talk with the twins on the variety of dresses among the ladies — most of the men looked rather homogeneous and went uncommented on.

“Well, it’s about time we took the stage again.” Agostina said.

“You needn’t remain, Carmela — why not lead dear Sylvano on a little tour. You’re probably bored of our playing already, you’ve heard it so much.” Capricia winked at her.

The Previti Sisters took their leave, and in that instant Carmela took Salvatrice by the hand and led her out of the ballroom. She did not object or ask, she simply followed, through the hall straddling the ballroom, to a corner room. Carmela opened a door, and ushered her into a little gallery. Couches encircled a series of display stands, holding models of the Previti company’s famous vessels. Salvatrice barely got a glimpse at them, when Carmela pushed her against the wall, and kissed her. She pulled away, and Salvatrice felt her leg, the knee coming between Salvatrice’s thighs. Her heart was racing, and her breath choppy.

“What if we became just a little lost here, in the backrooms of the Previti Estate, just for a bit? Perhaps we drank too much. Perhaps in exactly 58 minutes, the sisters and their servants might pay heed and come look for us, and find us in an ordinary state here?”

Carmela pulled Salvatrice close to her, faces a millimeter away, brushing lips, exchanging sweet breaths. She wrapped her hands around Salva’s shoulders and nape.

“What do you say, Sylvano D’Amore?” She had a hungry-looking grin on her face.

Salvatrice inched forward, seizing Carmela’s lips into her own.

It was an arduous kiss, sucking, tasting. Salva’s hands traveled down Carmela’s breasts, pressing firmly, and slid down to her waist to her skirt. Carmela seized Salva’s groin.

Their heads withdrew for just a second, tongues tip to tip, basking in each other’s glow.

The walls brightened, and they became framed by light; there was an entirely different glow.

There were screams and a massive roaring of flame.

Over their shoulders the lovers watched the fireball erupting from afar.

Salvatrice and Carmela stood transfixed by the light.

A massive bomb, it had to be; and it had to have gone off right in the archway entrance.

“Messiah defend us.” Carmela whispered. Salvatrice seized her arm, and pulled her out the door. They hurried down the hallway and saw people rushing out of the ballroom.

There were guards coming up the stairs, pushing their way through the panicking crowd, but they looked utterly bewildered and helpless, pistols out but nothing and no one to shoot, and no direction in the screaming horde. Ladies tripped over their skirts trying to run, and men minutes ago dancing with them now left them behind in their rush to save themselves. Maids and servants were pushed out of the way and huddled in corners and locked themselves in rooms, in fear of both the crowd and the destruction visited upon the estate.

Salvatrice clung close to Carmela, and the two of them shoving and waded through the crowd against all instinct. They didn’t see the hostesses among the escaping masses.

They finally forced their way through to the double doors into the ballroom. Inside they found the place littered with broken glass and discarded food stuffs, smears of cake, platters flung against the nearest surface in the rush. They could see the fires from the balcony windows, but not the archway gate — it was gone.  A massive hole had been blown in the wall. Carmela found the Previti sisters hiding behind the piano and she and Sylvano joined them. Agostina and Capricia were on the verge of tears, and shaking as though in a freezing shower. Sylvano wrapped his coat over the two of them as best as he could arrange.

Guards entered the ballroom, gasping for breath, bent down and supporting themselves by their knees. Pistols in hand, they scanned the room though nothing relevant could be there.

“What is happening?” Sylvano asked. “We heard an explosion.”

“There was an explosion! It was at the gate! It was enormous!” Agostina said.

“Messiah protect us, could it be an attack? Like the massacre in Ikrea?” Capricia said.

“Shut up!” Agostina shouted, pushing Capricia against the wall. “Don’t say that!”

Sylvano and Carmela broke them apart. They looked about to swing at one another.

They huddled behind the piano while the guards rushed out to the balcony’s balustrade and hid behind it for cover. Brandishing their pistols they peered frequently over the edge.

Frightful minutes passed without another sign; no explosions, no gunfire.

There would be no massacre that night. It would not turn out like Ikrea. This bomb was not followed by a masked throng armed to the teeth and out for blood. It was only followed by enough silence for everyone to shrink back in fear of themselves and others.

But Sylvano knew that the Blackshirts would appear soon nonetheless.

“Carmela, I can’t stay any longer.” Sylvano whispered. “Blackshirts.”

Carmela looked him in the eyes. She was momentarily stunned, and a few tears drew from her eyes. But she wiped them off with her glove. She understood. This was not a night out with Sylvano D’Amore, an ordinary gentleman who could come and go as he pleased, talk to whoever he wanted, talk however he wanted, and stay by her side. Salvatrice Vittoria could do none of those things, not freely, not without consequence. She had to run from prying eyes to do anything. They shared on quick, final kiss, for anything more involved would’ve forced Salvatrice to stay; and Sylvano stood, and leaving his coat behind he started to leave.

“Where is he going?” Capricia asked.

“He needs to see things for himself. He wants us to stay here, where it’s safe.” Carmela said.

“How gallant.” Agostina said. Salvatrice could not tell whether it was sincere or sarcasm.

Outside the fire was brilliant, and the force of the bomb had put out many of the garden torches. Salvatrice joined the throng of people the servants were escorting out through the side gates unto the adjacent properties. The Blackshirts were not yet on the scene, but Salvatrice hurried nonetheless to escape whatever cordon they might set. Her mother could not know. The Queen would not harm her — but she would make life impossible to live. More impossible than it already was. She had already done so to one Princess and surely in that pragmatic regal mind there was space to punish the other for an indiscretion such as this.