This chapter contains violence, death and a graphic depiction of disease.
46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu North, near the Ghede
Turning in from the road, Field Marshal Haus’ Sentinel Foot 8-wheeled armored car followed a series of blue flags across several kilometers of the wood. There were no men, and any tracks from patrolmen were carefully covered; but any traveler with a keen enough eye would have been wary of the rags hanging from various trees across the forest. Each flag was a different amount of meters from the next, but the path was still there for those who knew where to look and how to interpret the posted signs.
Standing out of the Sentinel-type 50mm gun turret that was the vehicle’s namesake, Haus directed his driver through the thick, hard terrain, crossing the forest toward the northern riverside. They did not come across a single other soul along the way. Haus knew the significance of the flags, and the lack of patrols did not disturb him.
It was all of his own design, after all. He had ordered the patrols ended.
He would need every last man he could spare in the center for this next effort.
Haus found himself painlessly navigating through the forest into the T-Battalion staging area, an eerie space devoid of trees save for one massive trunk with a hollow that embraced the entire clearing, and a deeply bowed crown of evergreen leaves. Hundreds of men lurked in the outskirts, and what seemed like a hundred loitered within the clearing itself, sitting on the beds of trucks, with their backs against crates, downcast.
Standing under the ancient, mournful giant, they seemed defeated already.
It was an atmosphere that was fit for mourning, punctuated by screams of agony that resounded across the clearing — there was a commotion in a nearby medical tent.
Haus stared quizzically from atop his turret.
“Cathrin, I think you should stay in the car for this one.” He said, wincing at the noise.
Below him, seated calmly beside a radio, Cathrin bowed her head in acknowledgment.
Haus pulled himself up from the turret hatch, and climbed down the side of the Sentinel Foot. He hit the floor in a quick stride and hurried to the medical tent. Sweeping aside the entrance flaps, Haus found several men gathered around a bed where another landser lay, struggling against belt bonds and screaming as loudly as his lungs would allow. Between fits and screams sounded recurring snapping noises, and few of the men backed away with each snap. As Haus closed in on the mob, he averted his eyes.
From a bleeding ulcer on the bound man’s leg a long, sharp worm struggled against a stick held from afar by a medic, who was driven to near hysterics by the terror of his task. As he turned his stick, he wound the worm around it, and pulled more of its length from the man’s wound. Haus thought the abomination must have been at least a meter long, and thick as a thumb. At the beast’s front end, dripping jaws snapped at the men.
“Messiah defend.” Haus intoned. “What the hell happened to this man?”
“Sir!” One of the men in the sidelines, a Sergeant judging by his pins, saluted the Field Marshal while the rest of the men watched in stunned horror or wincing sympathy. The Sergeant swallowed hard, glanced at the bloody sight, and explained, “He came in this morning saying his leg hurt. He couldn’t remove his boot, so we got the medic to cut his leg, and we found that thing. He must’ve drank unfiltered water somewhere, maybe a few weeks ago, and got infected; this thing must’ve grown in him and it wants out now!”
“Why the hell would you drink unfiltered water around here?”
Twist; the worm snapped, the man screamed, the medic gingerly turned the stick.
Blood spurted on the bed.
One of the tent guards grabbed hold of his mouth and ran outside, leaving his rifle.
His choking and heaving joined the cacophony of bodily noises in the tent.
The Sergeant cringed. He pinned his eyes on Haus, the least unsettling sight in the tent.
“It was part of our survival training sir! River water is supposed to be fresh!” He said.
“Fresh as in not salt water! It’s still unsafe!” Haus replied. He felt a touch irate that he was being made to witness such a grotesque sight that could’ve been prevented.
He almost wanted to take out his handgun and shoot the worm dead.
But then it might putrefy inside the man and that would definitely cripple him.
“You’re all dismissed from the operation; stay here, tend to this man, and please, for the love of God, enlighten your units about the price of carelessness in this bestial nation.”
Shaking his head at the men, Haus left the tent.
Fresh screaming followed him out.
“Where is Major Troppf?” He called out.
A gaggle of depressed-looking soldiers pointed him into the wood.
“Look lively!” Haus shouted at them. “We’re carrying out an operation today!”
There were nods in response but no change in demeanor.
Haus returned to the Sentinel Foot and tapped his knuckles on the armor. Out from the top popped Cathrin’s blond head, peeking over the hatch just enough for a pair of bespectacled blue eyes and some golden hair to come into view. She blinked, and Haus silently beckoned her to follow. She pulled herself over the hatch, and climbed delicately down the side, clip-board in hand, a radio backpack fastened by her waist-belt and around her shoulders, and its paired headset perched on her crown. She had traded her heels for combat boots, and wore thicker, sturdier black leggings with her skirt uniform.
“What was the commotion?” She asked. Was seemed out of place; the man in the tent had never quite stopped screaming. They had merely gotten used to the noise now, enough that it blended into the background of rustling leaves and billowing breezes and pattering boots.
“I’d rather not recall it.” Haus replied. “Come on.”
Ambling a short distance out from the clearing, Haus and Cathrin followed the landser’s vague directions and found a big tent with the symbol for a headquarters. It was surrounded by bushes and camouflaged with a net entwined with twigs and leaves and green branches. Inside, Major Troppf, an older man with a gaunt face, sat behind a skeletal folding table, spinning a pencil around. He looked sleepy and bored.
At the sight of the Field Marshal, he dropped his pencil and thrust up from his chair.
“Sir!” He raised his arms in salute.
Haus stared inexpressively at the man. “Are your troops ready?”
“Yes sir! We’ve mobilized the entire battalion to this general area.”
“Have they been appraised of the situation?”
“They’ve been taught what they need to do.”
Haus was not especially pleased with that answer.
One could teach a parrot words, but they would not know their context or meaning. A parrot could say your name, but it would never be able to call it out with any emotion or in a complete sentence. He would have hoped in the past few hours he could have told the troops the exact nature of Haus’ plan and the day’s strategy, but it was too late for that now. He would have to hope his parrots could sing their words well enough.
As Haus’ gaze fell more bluntly upon Troppf, the Major averted his own.
“I will be taking tactical command at the front.” Haus said. “Tell your units to keep contact with Ms. Habich here at all times, and to answer any command from myself immediately.”
Major Troppf looked taken aback. His eyes rose again to Haus’ face, and he raised his hands as if trying to calm down an irate child. “Sir, with all due respect, it is too dangerous for the Field Marshal to take to the front! We can command the battle from here; this headquarters might not seem like much, but our radio reception is reliable.”
Haus felt insulted; what commander didn’t pine for the war at the front?
“If I was not willing to get my hands dirty I would not have come this far.” He said.
Without further explanation, Haus turned his back on the Major and ambled nonchalantly out of the tent. Cathrin remained behind only long enough to hand the stunned Troppf a card with the frequencies she would be using. After that, she too turned on her heel and vacated the area. They returned to the Sentinel Foot, through the little gaggles of men lying depressingly about, and under the almost rhythmic cries of the worm-stricken man.
“What was your impression of him?” Haus asked aloud, as if to the air.
Cathrin answered. She pushed up her glasses; her face was coolly dispassionate.
“Another man who thought he could slide by; unwilling to take risks.”
“Unwilling, or incapable?”
“You’re a harsh but precise judge of character.”
Haus offered Cathrin a hand, and helped lift her onto the step at the back of the Sentinel Foot. It was help she did not need, but that he always offered, and that she always took. She opened the hatch, and climbed inside. Haus followed. They settled in their places. A box of ammo for him; the little corner where the radios had been bolted to the armored wall, for her. At the front, their driver waved a greeting. They would not be leaving yet.
“Is Von Sturm’s presence required at the front?” Cathrin asked, sliding her headset gently onto her head and over her ears. She adjusted the microphone on her collar. If necessary, she could ring him up, and he could arrive within the hour. He had more than enough time.
“No, let him come if he wants to.” Haus said.
Cathrin nodded. “Do you desire for him to appear?”
“It would improve my respect for him.” Haus replied.
He looked over his shoulder at the Sentinel turret near the vehicle’s front, set atop the highest point of the Sentinel Foot’s backward-sloping armor. Steps on the wall allowed one to climb into the turret basket, which projected down into the chassis, and from there onto the gunner’s seat. Though the Foot was only lightly armored, its 50mm Sentinel gun packed a better punch than the M5 Light Tanks that constituted most of the 13th’s armor power.
It encapsulated Haus’ view of war. High risk, high reward.
Unlike many of his Generals, he could climb on that turret and fight.
He wanted to.
“How much is your respect worth?” Cathrin asked.
Haus chuckled. He could tell what she was implying.
“In the end, whether he appears or not, Von Sturm will retain a position, because men other than me who gave him a position who do not desire to be proven wrong about their judgment. His name, his legacy, and what he represents, make him too big to fail too utterly. Propriety dictates that he will be part of this army, will have missions, and may even share in the glory at the end of the hostilities. He cannot fail anyone but himself.”
Cathrin nodded her head, and turned her back on Haus, returning to her radios.
“Then I don’t think your respect is worth enough for him to come.” She said.
Haus smiled. “You really are a cruel girl.”
Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North
Selene Lucci slept well considering the circumstances.
It helped that prisoners were held in a tent that was exceedingly dark.
She could hardly see the features of her hands or the thick seam stitches on the sleeves of her dress. It was fairly cool when she laid close to the ground, and the earth was soft and comforting. Her captivity was relatively more livable than she had imagined.
Cages had come to mind, but instead she was only chained.
Her legs were chained to a block which had been buried beneath the tent, thus preventing her from even attempting to drag it around. Her arms were chained, but there was a lot of slack, and they were not tied behind her back as they were when she was kidnapped from the village. And she had been left well enough alone since yesterday, so she did not have to contend with any blathering Nochtish interrogators or guards.
God had truly blessed her.
Having carried her through that first night, she hoped He might deign to give her a way out of this test which He had put before her. Comfortable captivity was still captivity.
In the morning, Selene woke, and sat on a chair which had been left for her.
She could not see outside the tent. Her only source of light was a thin slit beneath the door, which was otherwise fastened tight from the outside with a zipper, and made of a fabric that allowed no light to filter through the cloth. Still, she frequently turned her eyes to the slit, and the very dim light filtering into her confinement. Should someone come to the door of the tent even that precious sliver of light would become obvious shadow.
Soon the slit was shadowed, as she expected.
Outside, the zipper came undone, and the tent flap parted.
Selene expected the sudden entry of sunlight to blind her. But the effect was far less dramatic than she envisioned. When the tent flaps opened, she caught a glimpse of green and brown from the tent’s surroundings, but the light in the tent was still dim, as was the world outside of it. Carrying a little lamp and a tray of food, Kern Beckert entered the tent. He had on the same dismal expression as he did yesterday.
She felt nothing at his appearance. She turned her head from the door.
“I brought food.” He said. He sounded drained.
“Comforting to know I won’t starve.” Selene dryly replied. He cringed a little. Causing him discomfort had become almost empowering to her. He was visibly torn up about what he was doing, but if he did not stop nor change, then he was the same as the rest. His regrets were useless to her; his squirming in her presence was at least mildly amusing.
Kern ambled toward the chair and set the tray on her lap. He put a spoon in her hand.
“It’s oatmeal, with milk. There’s a sugar packet on the tray too.”
Selene considered playing the hard prisoner, and refusing her food, maybe even tossing the tray at Kern and soiling his smart grey uniform. Would that have caused him to recoil? Would he have gotten angry, or felt the words of his uncouth companion with the gun vindicated by her actions? Would he think her a savage in a savage land?
She stared down at the oatmeal, dimly lit by the tiny orange flicker from the lamp.
She dipped her spoon in it, and ate. It was bland, but it was food.
She was hungry, and playing tough would get her nowhere.
Catharthic as it was, she might have to lighten up on the northern boy.
“Are you going to be my guard?” She asked.
“No,” he replied. He sttuttered his next words. “I’m going to the front soon. There’ll be another guard posted. I just thought– I don’t know. I wanted to come see you.”
Selene raised her eyes off her tray and glared at him.
“I’m far from comfortable being in your thoughts.” She said.
“I expected that.” Kern said. He rubbed his hand down his face. “I’m going to go. Please stay put and don’t rile up the guards, Sister. Nobody wants you to come to harm. I think once we’re past this river, they’ll let you go. Everyone thinks you might give up our position if you are released now, but that won’t matter when we move forward.”
Selene scoffed. “This is ridiculous. How could I give up your position now? To whom? I can’t escape north, through your lines, only south. And you’ve conquered the South.”
“I don’t know.” Kern said. He sighed. “I don’t know. I’m truly sorry.”
He turned around, hands in his pockets, head drooping, and left the tent.
Outside, he zipped the tent again.
She vaguely heard his first few steps away from the tent.
Then, like everything else in the outside world, the sound of him was blocked off.
On her lap, she still had the tray.
Oatmeal, sugar, a milk bag, a rounded spoon.
And a hard, metal tray.
Sensing the opportunity, Selene ate voraciously, spooning oatmeal into her mouth with zeal, drinking her milk in one gulp, and tossing aside the sugar. She picked up the tray and hid it behind her back on the chair. She tossed her spoon away as well.
Then she waited.
Time passed, indistinct to her. She finally saw the zipper pulling down.
Again the tent opened. A slim, brown-haired boy entered the room.
Unlike Kern, he did not have a lamp. Like Kern, he left the tent flap open.
“Afternoon ma’am. I’m Private Cohls. I’ll be sitting just outside the tent. Pull on the flap if you need to use the latrine, I’ll unlock ya. Food and drink comes three times a day.”
As he spoke, he closed in to within a few meters.
Selene had tested the length of her leg shackle the previous night.
Young, and smiling, cheerful, the Private entered her little circle.
Perhaps he was happy to have a cute girl for company, or under his power.
“Just gimme a shout if you want something. I’ll try to accomodate. My boss might be wanting to talk to you soon. I’ll give you a heads-up about that. Anyway. Nice to meet–”
He came close enough to stretch out a hand to shake.
Selene bolted up from her chair and hurled herself forward.
Swinging the tray, she struck the man on the jaw.
Blood and teeth sprayed into the air.
Private Cohls hit the ground. Selene heard a keyring jingling as he collapsed.
She knelt beside him and picked his body.
Her shackles soon fell to the floor beside him.
Through the open tent flap, Selene charged into the forest.
“God preserve me, for what I’ve done cannot be taken back.” She prayed.
Adjar Occupation Zone — Ghede Riverside
Along the central curve of the Ghede the Nochtish forces rallied on their side of the water.
Even the most inattentive private could tell this push was going to the biggest yet. Every trench, every foxhole, was crammed to capacity with men side by side, back to back. Bandoliers of ammunition were passed around the lines, and every third man had a submachine gun, or an automatic, heavy gun like a Quengler or Norgler, instead of every eighth. Most telling was the wood behind them, thick with firepower. Howitzers, anti-tank, and mortars as much as could be mustered without thinning out the flanks. They had moved at night, and gone silent in the morning, waiting for their chance.
On Haus’ orders, the line had been pushed as close to the river as it could be. Men were dug-in a scant few meters from the cliffs and sand ramps that overlooked the water. Their artillery had never been closer behind them than today. At night, false bushes and green, moss-covered nets had been planted in several spots to create an even “treeline” that was only 10 meters behind the infantry line. Here rested their guns and mortars.
During Von Sturm’s attacks, the artillery was 500 meters behind the line.
Never had the 13th Panzer Division been this close to the inscrutable face of the central Ghede. This combat area had been abandoned quickly, due to the thick, tall trees on the opposite side of the river, a veritable wall that had kept the Ayvartans well defended.
Even now nobody could see the Ayvartans in the forest opposite their own.
While they searched silently for the enemy, the radio call came through.
It was not Fruehauf’s voice that hailed the men, but another woman.
“Take your lunch; our guests will be late.” said Cathrin Habich.
Along the line, the word passed.
Holding on to their rifles and machine guns, the men hunkered down and waited.
As Haus instructed, the battle would not begin in the center.
On the flanks, the message Cathrin delivered was different.
“Embark soon, the host is already eating.”
The Center would wait, but the Flanks would launch their attack.
Tanks roared to life and opened fire on the Ayvartan line in the eastern and western Ghede. Machine guns spat long bursts of tracers over the river. Men with shotguns and submachine guns and bayonets charged down the sand ramps and waded into the river to begin the bloody assault against the other side of the Ghede, dozens of meters away.
Again the crossfire that characterized the Ghede battles whipped up a frenzied light show. Red and green tracers crossed like swarms of glowing hornets over the river. Tank rounds exploded between the trees. Mortar rounds sailed over the forest’s peak.
For fifteen minutes the Center remained quiet.
Then the artillery sounded on the flanks.
Eastern batteries shot west, and western batteries shot east.
Every tube plotted its fire against the center.
Before the men dug into the center line, the treeline across the river exploded into fire and light. They quickly realized that there were far more than their own guns attacking the forest in front of them. Every tube along the Ghede was shooting to support them. Hundreds of shells crashed between the trees, raising hot orange pillars and choking black smoke. Branches went flying, fragments sliced through the foliage. Fires started.
From a trench, Lieutenant Aschekind rose, pistol in hand.
“Attack!” He called out, his voice booming across the battlefield.
As one the infantry rose up, a line of bodies several hundred meters long.
Norgler teams dropped on the edges of cliffs and emptied their belts across the river. Submachine gunners and bayonet-chargers rushed down the sand ramps and began to wade toward the other side of the central Ghede. Bleary-eyed, full of adrenaline, the men hurried across the 75 meters of relatively shallow river that separated them from the enemy bank. They focused on the smoke and the blasts. They held their breaths.
Atop the opposing embankment, machine gun barrels emerged from the brush, their operators hiding behind metal shielding and waiting to line up a good kill-zone.
As the flanks were pinned down, the Center began to war in earnest.
One foot forward, then the other.
Kern’s insides worked themselves raw, pumping and thrashing as he waded through the almost chest-deep water. Nothing he had done in this war made him feel more powerless and helpless than moving in water. Against the onrushing blue it took all of his strength to merely stand straight, and every step was a monumental effort.
Never had he struggled so bitterly to move so slowly.
Part of him did not want to move, knowing that beyond this river there were only more people that he would be called on to brutalize. Selene’s voice echoed in his head, and made his footsteps heavier. It was as if her hand was on his shoulder, pulling him back.
He shook his head, and he struggled, and he tried to muffle that sweet voice.
One foot forward, then the other.
His water-proof bandolier weighed heavily on him, and he held his rifle over his own head as he struggled forward, meter by terrible meter, so as not to drop his rifle into the water and render it useless as a shooting weapon. One foot forward, then the other. There was a clip loaded, but he knew he would not be able to shoot until he reached dry land. He felt he would be knocked down into the water if he tried to shoot it like this.
He needed to concentrate on moving forward.
As the battle intensified his window of opportunity grew narrower.
He knew that the artillery distraction was over and the enemy was rallying.
In less than an hour, the enemy could reinforce the center to drive them back.
Over his shoulder he glanced at the lines of norgler fire tearing into the wood from the ten meter high cliffs overlooking the sand ramp, and staring at the sky he saw the tell-tale lines of smoke from falling shells. Fire from batteries in the east and west crossed just over the central Ghede before falling over the Ayvartans in the wood. Gunfire and explosions flashed from seemingly every direction, lighting up the foamy waters.
Chunks of wood and stone flew overhead and into the river, debris from the blasts.
But the covering fire was beginning to slacken. And he could not respond except by putting a foot forward, and then the other, on the soft, slippery, sandy footholds below.
At his sides were almost fifty other men. Some had gotten ahead, taking heavy, long steps and deep, ragged breaths faster than any of their peers. Many had fallen behind, gasping, dragging their boots over the sand, some clinging to other men for support.
Seventy-five meters in total, and yet even thirty of them felt like a continental journey.
In some places, the cliffs were only 20 or 30 meters apart.
But nobody could make such a jump. So they crossed 75 meters of water instead.
Kern focused on the opposing side of the river. There was another steep, sandy incline, where the rocky river-side cliffs had eroded into a ramp that would lift them to the rest of the Ayvartan continent. He focused on the riverbank, on the bushes, on the trees.
He heard her voice. “You can stop.” But he couldn’t, he just couldn’t.
But he did stop, for a long second, peering over the water, over the sand.
He saw the glinting of the metal barrel in the bushes before its muzzle flashed.
In his mind he heard the invisible fingers pulling the trigger before the shot.
His instincts responded in time with the rhythmic cracking of the gun.
“MACHINE GUN!” Kern shouted as the Ayvartan Khroda opened fire.
A line of bullets cut past him across the river.
Flying lead bit into the river foam, like skipping stones across the surface, and the ripples turned red. Automatic gunfire sliced through three men huddling together for support just meters behind Kern, and they sank into the water screaming, and were dragged away. Helpless, the remaining men trudged faster. Kern grit his teeth and tried to force his stride, to hurry forward, but his legs felt raw the instant he exerted them.
Several rifles rose at his sides, and traded gunfire with the machine gun.
Rifle cartridges soared into the bushes and clanked off something hard.
Ponderously the barrel turned on its carriage.
Gunfire swept across the river wherever the gun faced.
Deliberately, like a fiery eye peering upon the damned, the machine gun turned, faced a man, killed him, and faced another. One man, two men, a group, the gun picked them all off, pushed them into the water, never again to be seen. Men huddled lower to the water, trying to continue to wade, but every gray shirt above the water was turning red.
Kern stopped when he saw the water around him rippling with bullets.
Instinctively he dropped beneath the surface.
His feet left the earth, and he floated.
Before he started to drift, he saw the bullets breaking the surface, like droplets of steel coming down from the sky. They would crash through the river and slow down enough to be briefly seen, in their dozens, in their hundreds, trailing bubbles as they dove through flesh as easily as water. He saw blood burst slowly from limbs and torsos without heads, dyeing the water crimson, and ghost-pale men then falling through the foam and drifting past him in mute agony or thrashing death. He could not count all of the fallen.
Twenty meters, just twenty meters from the opposing shore.
All around him men were dying just for those paltry twenty meters.
Kern’s helpless tears dissolved into the water around him.
Through the falling lead he swam forward with all his strength. One arm before the other, legs kicking, thrashing, inelegant. It was the same as the wading, but beneath the foam.
Down the river, his rifle floated away.
He could hardly see underwater. His eyes stung, his vision warped. He tried to count the steps in his mind, as if still walking, tying each swimming step to a meter. One, two, three; intermittently he saw more bullets, more simultaneous fire, definitely more machine guns. Were the Ayvartans fortifying the ramp? Was he swimming to death?
Five, six, seven, eight; he pushed aside the corpse of a man whose bandolier had hooked onto a log caught on rocks at the bottom of the river, and he disappeared downstream as Kern rushed past. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve; it was so close now!
As if tearing open a door Kern thrust with his arms and his legs, surging forward with all of his strength. He hit the sand roughly, and he felt the jagged rocks embedded in the soil striking every bit of him as he beached at the foot of the sand ramp. Gasping for air, face covered in sand and mud and eyes afire with tears and dirty water, he ripped open his bandolier, withdrew the pistol hidden with his rifle ammunition, and shot up the ramp.
His pistol rounds bounced uselessly off the gun shield hidden in the bush.
Enemy riflemen peered out of the bush and took hasty aim at him.
Kern wanted to shout; he had made it across! He was the first!
He rapped the trigger of his pistol, and heard the futile click, click, click.
Two shots from the rifles. Sand kicked up in his face.
Both men worked their bolts, gritting their teeth, shouting at the trees.
He had been missed then, but would not be missed again.
Crying, gritting his teeth, Kern hit the trigger on his pistol, over and over.
Click, click, click– boom.
The blaring retort of a tank gun silenced the machine gun and the rifles.
At the top of the ramp an explosion consumed the defending Ayvartans.
In an instant Kern’s enemy went silent behind the rapidly burning bushes.
Speechless, he turned his head over his shoulder.
Back on the Nochtish side of the river, atop the sand ramp, the Sentinel Foot’s smoking gun presided over the crossing of fifty new men. At the head of this new group was Lieutenant Aschekind, charging through the river like a boar, undeterred by the slippery ground and the current. In seemingly fewer strides than anyone he made it clean across, and took a knee beside Kern, looking up at the ramp with his pistol in hand.
“Can you stand?” He asked.
Kern wanted to shout at him that he couldn’t; that he shouldn’t. That they all needed to stop, to turn back, to cease this madness. That it was hurting them, killing them; hurting and killing this continent and its people. It was senseless, it would fix nothing, it would change nothing in the world for the good. Selene’s voice cursed and spat at him.
She told him that he could stop, that he could turn back, that he could change it.
That he could save himself, save others, save their souls, save this land.
Her voice shouted with all its force, bound up in his guilt and anxiety and pain.
But he couldn’t listen to it. Not while the bullets were still flying.
Lieutenant Aschekind offered his hand. Kern took it, and he did stand.
He was the first Nochtish man across the Ghede river.
Despite the tears in his eyes and the gaping wound in his heart, he could not stop.
He could turn not back across that bloody-red river anymore.
Kern reloaded his pistol, and followed Aschekind up the ramp. They took cover behind the remains of the Ayvartan gun in the smoking bush, and waited for backup.
There were forces far greater and stronger than he hurling him into this hell.
He wanted to think he was as helpless in the face of them as Selene before God.
Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North
Through the endless forest she ran from her implied enemy, but her body was giving up. Her legs felt tremendously heavy beneath her, and her stride grew slack. Her lungs were raw from the labor, and her throat tight, dry, in stinging pain. She slowed to a stop, her eyes scanning every corner of the wood for the hunters she knew to be after her.
There was nobody in sight; there was nothing in sight at all. Just green and brown.
Selene bowed her head against the trunk of a slender tree, and tugged on the neck of her dress. She felt warm air escape from her chest, and the cold touch of sweaty fabric struggling to cling as she pulled on it. Her parched tongue lolled out of her mouth.
She thought she heard footsteps, and raised her head in a panic.
But there was nothing behind her. Nothing in any direction but trees and endless green canopy overhead, penetrated by thin beams of light. Picturesque as the northern Kalu was, the forest was also heating up as the noon passed, and Selene was thoroughly exhausted. Hungry, thirsty, sweat-soaked, her muscles raw. She had never traversed the Northern Kalu. She knew no landmarks that could lead her back to her village.
And she was not much of an adventurer. She was a teacher, and a nurse — a nun.
A nun that could swing a mean breakfast tray; but a nun nonetheless.
Helplessly her eyes continued to glance over every centimeter of her surroundings.
She could have sworn she was heading south after leaving the tent, but she lost all sense of direction in the wood. And she had made a foolish mistake, too. She had found several rags tied to trees, markers for the enemy. Believing herself pursued, she undid them all and stomped them into the dirt and brush. Now she could not even find her way back to the Nochtish camp. They were the only conspicuous sight.
She was now drowning in the green.
Had God chosen this for her? To slowly wither away here, alone and afraid?
She pushed herself off the tree and ambled in an unknown direction.
At her side the forest scrolled slowly past, like the moving scenery of a clockwork stage.
Wherever the canopy broke, the Ayvartan sun blinded her to the sky.
She could not even use its position to determine her own — she could not even stare at it, it was so hot and close. Even the Heavens had been denied to her. She felt the sweat breaking out of her skin whenever she was exposed to the sun’s heat directly. Clearings became just another location to avoid as she continued her aimless trek forward.
She saw no animals, not even birds.
Perhaps they had all been driven off by the noise and smoke.
She thought to crane her head and try to listen for man-made sounds. To put her ears to the ground and try to feel the mechanical vibrations. Tanks and trucks could be heard and felt from quite afar in a peaceful forest. But she heard nothing. Everything was so silent and still that she felt a force boring through her ears, and a ringing in her head.
Selene kept moving.
Her vision swam. She lost track of time.
One foot in front of the other. Her strength slowly wavered.
She clasped her hands in prayer. They shook with tension and exhaustion.
“Merciful God, deliver me from this. I want only to serve these people of the south and to lead an untroubled life at their side. Powerful God in Heaven, give me the strength to turn my back on the tricolor gates, for I have life left to live upon the world of flesh–”
She tripped on a tree root and fell face-first into a pile of leaves.
Her body hit the floor with an audible thud.
For a moment she lay there, her mind empty of thought.
Instinctively she moved to stand again, and felt this drain her remaining strength.
When she stood, she was unsteady. She did not think she could take another step.
Beneath her, the floor shook unnaturally, sweeping forward and back in a nauseating fashion. She raised her eyes from the ground, hoping her gaze could then keep steady.
In front of her, framed in the light of a clearing, she saw a woman come running in.
Young, brown-haired, tall, pretty.
Waving a bottle in her hand.
“Fuck it all! Fuck everything!” She shouted at the top of her lungs.
Her voice echoed across the forest. She flung her bottle.
Selene felt some of the glass spray close to her as the bottle burst on a nearby tree.
She cringed reflexively and the woman laid eyes on her.
Each silently assessed the other.
Then the woman, eyes puffy with tears and drink, slowly approached, some drunken realization dawning on her face. She staggered forward, weeping, a devastated expression building on her face as if she had seen a family member die before her.
Tears began to cascade from her eyes, and to join fluid dribbling from her nose.
She held out her hand gently, reaching out to the nun.
Selene backed off a step, but not enough of them; the drunk woman threw herself on the nun and wept and screamed and thrashed into her breast and made a scene.
“Oh sister! Holy sister! I am filthy! I am a fallen woman! I’ve fallen to sin!”
She shouted and shouted the same repetitive cries before moving to new ones.
“I’ve taken to the bottle! I’ve turned away from the Lord! I hate this place, sister! This continent is unholy! It is tearing apart my soul, sister! Save me! Please!”
Some tender instinct engraved in her soul caused Selene to brush Fruehauf’s hair with her fingers to try to console her, but it made no difference. Fruehauf was distraught to a terrible extreme. She tugged on Selene’s dress and nearly brought her to the floor. She wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist, crying and screaming, struggling like a child throwing a tantrum. Selene had to grab her to prevent her from sliding to the dirt.
“Forgive me, blessed, pure woman of God! Forgive me! Save me!”
Her head bobbed against the nun’s waist.
Selene stood still, stunned to silence, her head completely blank. She could not process this scene, it had shocked her numb after all of her sufferings. It was a veritable ambush.
“Sister, please, sister–”
Over Fruehauf’s recurring cries an even louder voice sounded from the distance. It cut off the distraught woman’s shouting and reverberated across the wood like a deific call.
Selene and Fruehauf both turned their heads back toward the clearing.
General Anton Von Sturm approached between trees, staring skeptically.
“Who is this? What are you doing? We’ve been searching for hours! You could’ve been killed by some wild animal here! If you’re going to get drunk, get drunk at the base!”
Mid-shout, the General paused and took stock of the scene before him.
Nun and radio operator, in a compromising position in the middle of the wood.
Von Sturm rubbed his chin, staring at Selene much more intently.
He pointed a finger at her and she bristled in response, her eyes drawing wide.
“Are you the chaplain?” He asked. “Wait, no. Chaplains aren’t female.”
He rubbed his chin again.
Staring dumbly, Selene felt as though she had been given a revelation from God.
To surrender; running any more was futile.
Sighing, Selene raised her arms through Fruehauf’s own.
“I give up.” She moaned.
Von Sturm raised an eyebrow.
“Um. You what?” He asked, staring between Fruehauf and Selene.
Helplessly, the nun shrugged. Fruehauf broke into a fresh round of crying.
One had to suppose this was all God’s will, but Selene found it terribly frustrating.
Adjar Occupation Zone — Ghede Riverside
Elevation levers slammed down across the Nochtish artillery line, and every gun tube fell to its neutral position. Red-hot 10.5 cm barrels smoked; shells flew in straight lines over the cliffs and across the Ghede, smashing apart thick tree trunks, setting alight bushes, and scattering hidden sandbag emplacements and machine gun shields and mortar pits. Direct fire burnt and crushed the Ayvartan cover and slowly unveiled the defending line.
From the felled trees and shredded bushes, the Ayvartans stood undaunted. They pushed out their machine guns and their own cannons, inching forward and joining the duel in earnest. Both sides came in full view of another, and traded fire as if across an open field rather than a river. Had there been a connection they could have been met with bayonets; the standstill became a pitched battle over the cliffs and ramps.
Endless streams of gunfire crossed the riverside.
As the violence played out several meters overhead, riflemen trickled across the river, huddling at the various sand ramps and treelines. Descending into the river, they braved the water as the guns battled. Machine gun fire flew thick on all sides, slowing the beachheads down. Up the ramps, small groups of men crawled, making it to bushes before falling, either dead or suppressed. Snipers in the trees and machine gunners in the remaining brush took their pick of them. There were flashpoints and fires all along the central Ghede in short order. On the cliffs, between the ramps, it was pure chaos.
Field Marshal Haus resolved to put out all the fires in the line as best as he could.
The Sentinel Foot stood briefly above the sand ramp occupied by Alpha unit, named for its commander, Aschekind. Impressed with the man’s stature and commanding presence, Haus had given his unit the most dangerous approach. He witnessed his failure in judgment first-hand. No unit was wholly akin to its commander, and only one man had made it across on the first wave. Now Haus loaded rounds into his turret, and lobbed high explosive across the river to personally cover Aschekind’s second wave.
He struck one machine gun dead-on, and blasted away a curtain of bushes, killing several snipers in the process and saving the first man across the river. Morale seemed to hold for now. Haus had opened the way, and the second platoon wading into the Ghede was making good process. He felt confident he could leave the area in a minute.
There were many more fires to fight, and not enough hoses to fight them all.
“Alpha unit has crossed the river and are engaging. Delta and Theta are stuck, and suffering loses. All units are on their second wave. None of the first waves were successful.” Cathrin reported, crouched beside the radio and shouting into the turret.
“Wouldn’t be a military plan if it didn’t initially fuck up.” The Field Marshal replied.
He pulled open the 50mm gun breech, shoved a rotund shell inside, and locked it.
Through his gun sight, he focused on the treeline just over Alpha’s sand ramp.
Haus pressed his electric trigger, and his shell soared over his own men and detonated.
A curtain of smoke fell over them, blocking the enemy’s view of the ramp.
“That will have to do. Driver, east, one kilometer, full speed!”
Eight wheels propelled the Sentinel Foot, four on each side, and the sleek machine turned around its body and charged along the river-side, leaving behind Alpha’s ramp.
At almost 80 kilometers per hour the machine sped past the trenches and the artillery guns, strafing to present a harder target for the mortars and artillery. His own guns held their fire as he passed, before joining battle again. Fragments bounced off the thirty millimeters of armor, and it rolled through the plumes of mortar blasts and through the hail of machine gun fire unharmed. Haus turned his turret perpendicular to the chassis to face the enemy defenses, and found an almost unbroken line of rifles and guns flashing relentlessly. He lifted his hand from the cannon and seized his coaxial Norgler machine gun, holding the down the trigger and spraying the opposing side of the river.
“Sir, we’re almost to the flashpoint!” Cathrin called out.
Haus pushed open the top hatch and peered out, careful not to expose too much.
The Sentinel Foot slowed, and ahead he spotted the place where the ground descended from the rocky river-side cliffs, forming another sand ramp into the water. He saw his men rushing down the ramp, charging into the water, and immediately slowing to crawl, wading, taking long, tall strides as if they wanted to extricate their feet entirely from the chest-high water with each step. Machine gun fire met them from the riverbank.
“Men! Press on!” Haus shouted, lifting up a fist. “You can take this river!”
In the next instant a mortar shell fell into the water and exploded amid the lead platoon elements before they could be heartened by Haus’ appearance. The remainder of the platoon turned frantic, and began to overexert themselves, hurrying to cross.
Gritting his teeth, Haus descended into his turret again. He hit the electric drive, and the gun swung toward the enemy emplacements, again hidden behind thick bushes atop the ramp on their side of the river. In a few seconds he acquired a target, watching the muzzle flash inside of the vegetation. He loaded a shell, took aim and quickly fired.
There was a burst, and a cloud of smoke and flying plant debris obscured the top of the ramp. Once the dust settled the machine gun lay unveiled, a hole through its shield.
He drew in a breath and scanned around for contacts.
At the edge of his vision a much brighter muzzle flashed.
He heard a blast, too quickly and too close by, and the Sentinel Foot shook up, as if it suddenly desired to tip over on its side. Dirt and rocks scattered skyward from the blast then fell over the vehicle’s armor, rapping the metal with a sound like ricocheting bullets.
“Anti-tank gun! Seventy-six millimeters, 6 o’ clock from your vantage!” Cathrin shouted.
“Deploy counter-measures!” Haus shouted back.
Cathrin bolted up from the radio’s side and ran to the corners of the vehicle. Clicking noises issued from each side as she hit the triggers on the smoke launchers.
Grenades jumped up over the vehicle’s sides and erupted with a snap.
Clouds of gray smoke spread over the surrounding area and obscured the machine.
Haus swung the gun around, again perpendicular to the chassis.
He peered through the sights.
As the driver hit the acceleration, he waited for a muzzle flash from outside the smoke.
He saw the machine guns’ bullets, blaring red in every direction. Within the curtain of smoke it was an eerie sight, the red lines tracing swift patterns in the thick air.
An average crew could reload a 76mm gun fairly quickly.
Haus counted the seconds.
A shot; something flew past the Sentinel Foot, and the Field Marshal had his target.
From a shell rack at his side, Haus seized an HE shell and put it through the tube.
His own report was much tinnier than that of the broader 76mm gun.
But he had a much longer barrel and thus greater velocity.
Through the smoke, he saw the effect immediately.
A muted orange glow in the distance.
When the Sentinel Foot escaped its own smoke cloud, Haus found the Ayvartan gun burning, its ammunition likely triggered by the HE detonation. He had killed it.
With his own hide safe and secure, Haus turned his attention to the battle again.
He jerked the elevation wheel to lower his gun, and spied his men through the sight.
Across the river, a dozen men huddled behind the rock walls at the sides of the opposing ramp, hiding from the gunfire in the cliff overhead. Meanwhile the Ghede ran red with the blood of the other forty men who had attempted to cross, cut down by incessant fire while the AT gun tied up the Sentinel Foot. Haus grit his teeth at the sight.
He might have misjudged the amount of firepower the Ayvartans had committed to this center. And there would be more to come if they could not seize this opportunity.
Taking a bullhorn from a hook nearby, Haus rose from the top of his turret.
Amid the gunfire, to the men across the river, he shouted, “Men, take heart! Field Marshal Dietrich Haus personally supports your advance! Press the assault with me!”
Haus dove back into the turret, and hailed his driver on the intercom.
“Into the river.”
Without a word of dissent, the driver took the Sentinel Foot down the ramp and into the water at a gentle speed. Immediately the machine slowed further to a crawl, the wheels sloshing water and dragging sand. And yet, they moved at a better clip than any of the men could against the onrushing river, and with much greater endurance for the current.
The Ayvartans did not merely sit and gawk at the vehicle. At the top of the ramp and along the tree lines, the machine guns concentrated their red tracers on the armored car and ignored the men in the cliffs. Thousands of bullets hurled toward the Sentinel Foot.
“Hatches down, slits closed!” Haus called out.
Cathrin shut the slit at her side, and up front the driver did the same.
Buttoned down, the Sentinel Foot was impervious to the bullets.
Haus sat through the cacophonous noise of thousands of hits ringing against his armor, confident he would not be injured. The Sentinel Foot slogged on, meter by grueling meter. His men on the other side stared over their shoulders in disbelief as the Sentinel Foot approached, and they rallied; picking their submachine guns, grenades and rifles back up, searching their waterproof bandoliers for ammunition, they readied to attack.
Then there was a voice on the radio, broadcasting to all frequencies.
“Please make way in sector Delta, precious cargo coming!”
Haus raised an eyebrow.
Cathrin peered her head beneath the turret, looking up at Haus with confusion.
“Sir, it’s Von Drachen!” She said.
In response Haus slammed the electric drive switch.
Swinging the turret to his sides and up, Haus peered through the sight just in time.
From atop the cliff, a Stud cargo truck launched across the river at the closest point between two cliffs. It almost cleared the jump, using the cliff like a ramp, but there was no miracle. It slammed into the rocks and was crushed and splattered in pieces.
But this was not the end of this bizarre event.
Trailing behind the truck were several cargo containers, stuck stiffly together somehow.
Down they fell; but they were longer than the cliffs were apart.
Haus could not believe what he was watching unfold.
Von Drachen had never quite gotten driving down to a science, so at his side, Colonel Gutierrez handled the wheel, the gear shifts, and other technical details. Von Drachen insisted, however, on pressing down the acceleration pedal of the Stud truck with his own boot, so that he could be sure it was jammed all the way down to the floor.
“Mijo! We need to slow down!” shouted the old Colonel.
“That defeats the purpose of everything.” Von Drachen gently replied.
The Stud had no room to dodge any foliage, and instead plowed right through bushes and over slender young trees. Behind it, the truck towed several thick metal cargo containers on tank-transport beds. Von Drachen and Gutierrez had personally welded the containers together, and made it so the truck could not possibly maneuver in any direction. This was all engineered for a purpose, Von Drachen assured everyone.
All it would take was one too-thick tree to end that purpose.
Truly the Messiah defended them, for there were no thick trees in their way yet that would have simply killed them as they failed to plow through. Instead of fatal, the ride was simply bumpy and uncomfortable. Wildly shaking in the cabin, Guttierrez barely had to move the wheel. Their truck was so heavy with its cargo and so stiff in the back that it could not possibly maneuver. It hurtled at such terrible speed it was like a train.
At the truck’s sides, a pair of scout cars followed, weaving through the forest in close support. Von Drachen looked out at the men in the cars and hailed them on the radio.
“Cuan cerca?” He asked. How close?
There were two tiers of answers Von Drachen received, one of which was most prevalent and multifaceted: cries of panic, desperate shrugs, and entreaties to please stop the madness. He ignored all of these. He intended to continue the madness as far as it would go. He reminded them that he had engineered this for a purpose.
Then there was the hysterical screaming that told Von Drachen his objective was close.
That particular answer, he would respond to.
Von Drachen picked up the truck radio, and broadcast as far and wide as possible.
“Please make way in sector Delta, precious cargo coming!”
Nonchalantly, he then set the handset down.
“We should jump.” He said, as if looking for consensus.
Gutierrez hastily let go of the wheel, threw open the door and hurled himself out.
Von Drachen glanced ahead, nodded to himself with satisfaction, and leaped too.
He hit the ground on his shoulder, then his hip, and collapsed groggily on his side.
Slowly he turned to face the river and laughed raucously through fits of agony.
Careening out of control, the truck burst out of the treeline, knocked over some sandbags, perhaps ran over a trench harmlessly, and then flew over the river as it was intended to. It had picked up enough speed, and the cliff was elevated enough, to launch. Von Drachen watched it sail impossibly into the air with child-like glee.
While the truck portion was crushed against the opposing cliff and fell to pieces in the water, the containers did their job as planned. They became wedged at a steep angle between the two sides of the river, forming a makeshift bridge across the water, and better still, quite a good ways up to the opposing cliffside. Though it was not perfect, with a bit of rope and ingenuity, or maybe just upper body strength, it was now possible to scale the cliffs. Von Drachen smiled and laughed. This obviated the bloody business with the ramps. He reached for his radio, and found it crushed against his bloodied hip.
Though he had wanted to call for a general assault, he figured it was now implied.
Behind him, the men from the scout cars stopped and helped him to stand.
“No, no! Vayan al puente!” cried Von Drachen, urging them to fight.
The men stared at each other, and at Von Drachen, who repeated himself more harshly.
“Al rio, idiotas! Dejenme ir!”
At once, both men dropped Von Drachen, who hit the ground badly again, and charged toward the cliff without question, jumping down onto the bridge, and breaking into a run across, submachine guns and pistols blaring against the opposing cliff face.
Von Drachen watched them go with a great sense of satisfaction.
Even after he lost all track of them in the chaos of the battle, he felt elated.
From the bushes, a bruised Colonel Gutierrez reappeared, hobbling toward him.
“Gutierrez!” Von Drachen shouted. “I’m afraid I threw something out and am finding it difficult to stand. You seem healthier. Please go command the battle in my stead.”
Gutierrez scoffed loudly at him. “You crazy mijo? I’m not setting foot on that goddamn contraption. I’m almost sixty years old, I’m not up to this nonsense anymore! It’s bad enough you made me weld all of that together on such short notice. I’m done.”
Defiantly, Gutierrez sat down beside the fallen Von Drachen, crossing his legs.
From his back pocket, he withdrew a little book and began to read scripture.
“Well, if that’s the way you feel about it.” Von Drachen replied, shrugging.
Despite his Colonel’s recalcitrance, the Cissean contingent began to carry the battle. More of Von Drachen’s men came charging in from the bush, and arriving to battle in cars and tractors and old, weathered motorcycles. Without word the Cisseans rushed past their fallen commander and leaped down onto the bridge, and followed it up the nearby cliff. A line of men, jumping down their cliff and running up to the opponent’s.
Soon his entire battalion was rolling across his bridge and into the fight.
Though the Nochtish men had crossed first, it was the Cissean who broke the line.
Within the hour, the Ghede would see a rout, and Von Drachen, laying at the riverside, would personally see it as well. Or as much of it as he could see from the dirt.
Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North
Anton Von Sturm waited behind a desk in the headquarters tent, horrified.
He tapped his fingers on the hard wood, staring blankly at the walls.
Across the room, a sleeping Fruehauf snored gently under Von Drachen’s coat.
He wished he was as drunk as she was.
It had been a rough day for him, and it was only about to get worse.
Reinforced by hundreds of Cisseans urged to fight by Von Drachen’s madness, Haus and the 13th Panzer Division crossed the Ghede and poured through the center of the Ayvartan line. Slicing apart the defenses across the river, the 13th soon put Von Drachen’s bridge out of commission as it became safe for Alpha unit and Delta unit to bring their engineers and build much safer pontoon bridges across the Ghede. Tanks and artillery began to cross, and by nightfall, much of the enemy resistance had faltered.
Mass surrenders ensued, and Nocht had its foothold in Tambwe.
Word spread immediately back to the 13th’s HQ.
Haus had won and he had not been there.
Von Sturm raised his head to the tent door, waiting for retribution to come.
Haus would probably crush him in his palm.
To think of all people, Von Drachen had gone to fight, and he hadn’t?
He told himself that it was not his fault.
Fruehauf had gone stupidly missing and needed to be accounted for and made safe; some nun went on a rampage and nearly killed an idiot private who had let his guard down, smitten with her. Where had she even come from? He had to take time to investigate that. And there were administrative matters too! There were supplies coming in from the south, that had to be vetted and coordinated and signed off on. Haus’ Panzer Army was coming north, and Engineering had to make sure there was space for them.
It was hard, being a General! He was not just sitting around!
But the optics were harrowing. Von Sturm’s subordinates had fought where he had failed to. The Field Marshal had led the fight to victory from the front lines while the Brigadier responsible for every unit along that river sat behind a desk and trudged through the forest and peeked into the backs of trucks and argued with laborers about sandbags.
He should’ve been at least a dozen kilometers behind the fighting in a radio tank.
Instead he was many several dozen away, and it was all out of his sight and mind.
He heard the tent door being tampered with, and snapped his head up.
Retribution had come. Von Sturm stood from his desk, and readied to grovel.
Ambling past the tent flaps was a well-bandaged Von Drachen, walking on a cane.
“Anton, I have returned from the river, where I could have died, but did not.”
Von Sturm promptly turned his back on him and returned to his desk, burying his head against it. This was the last thing he wanted to deal with today. He had no idea what to do about Von Drachen. He was useful; much more reliable than Meist or the Colonels. But he was so bizarre that Von Sturm could not even muster the wit to become properly mad at him. It was as if a piece was glaringly missing from their every interaction.
For his part, Drachen either never understood Von Sturm’s reactions or ignored them.
“I see you have all had a busy day.” Von Drachen said.
Von Sturm raised his head in time to see Von Drachen staring quizzically at Fruehauf.
“Is that my coat?” He asked.
“Yes. She’s had a rough day. I wanted to give her my coat, like a gentleman, but I must’ve lost it in Bada Aso.” Von Sturm replied. He sighed audibly. “You left yours so I put it over her instead. I think she’s sleeping off all that she’s drank the past few days.”
“Ah, I see. Very gentlemanly, indeed! How did she respond to your kindness?”
“She cried. Copiously.” Von Sturm said.
Von Drachen nodded sagely. “Moved to tears by your chivalry.”
His self-serious expression frustrated Von Sturm.
“I highly doubt it. What do you want, Von Drachen?”
“Oh, sorry. I wanted to warn you that Haus is outside.”
Much to Von Sturm’s dismay, behind Von Drachen the tent flap waved again.
“Haus is inside now, actually.”
The Field Marshal nonchalantly arrived, his blond radio girl at his side.
Both of them had the same deadly serious facet. Only Haus spoke.
“Has news of our victory reached your ears yet? Or were you too far afield?”
Before Von Sturm could reply, Haus immediately interrupted him.
“Curious that all of the artillery did not wake you from your little nap. Perhaps, Anton, you thought the thundering of the heavens, as we clashed viciously with the enemy and snatched glory from the hands of defeat, was but mere quaking, an inconvenience?”
Again Haus spoke again too fast for Von Sturm to get a word in.
“Anton, I cannot express my disappointment in words. So I will use actions.”
Haus marched up to Von Sturm’s desk and lashed out with his hand.
He ripped Von Sturm’s pins from his lapel, and peeled off his shoulder insignia.
Both these things he threw on the floor, and stepped on with his boot.
Behind him, Cathrin adjusted her glasses, and approached the desk.
She handed Von Sturm a file folder. Reassignment papers.
“You are unfit to lead a strategic unit. Effective immediately, you are demoted to Colonel, in command of the 13th Panzer Battalion. We shall call it S-Battalion, for now. You will serve under the 13th Panzer Brigade, led by Gaul Von Drachen.” Haus declared.
Von Sturm was so taken aback that his one reaction was to snap his head toward Von Drachen, who seemed to have no reaction of his own to offer for his sudden promotion.
“Ah,” was all Von Drachen said about this matter. A small smile played across his lips.
Haus did not even address him. He continued to speak brusquely in Von Sturm’s direction, poking him roughly with the tip of his gloved index finger. “You will take part in tactical operations with your unit. I want you at the front, under my auspice. As part of the elite 1st Panzer Army, you will learn our operational art in the fire, like every other unit commander, or die trying. I will forge you into the genius you were supposed to be.”
Each jab of that finger felt like a gunshot right into Von Sturm’s heart.
He could say nothing in his defense, nor reply. He did nothing but stand, taking each strike from that gloved finger, staring at the floor. Forces far greater than him were swinging him wherever they wanted him to go, and he could do nothing to hang on.
In his mind, there was only Bada Aso, burning and burning.
It was where everything of his had gone to burn.
Colonel Anton Von Sturm, dark circles around his eyes, a blank expression on his too-pallid face, and no more will to fight the inevitable, silently saluted the Field Marshal.
After the successes along the river, an area for prisoners was established in the 13th Panzer Division’s temporary rear area in the Kalu woodlands. One area had tents where officers and specialists could be kept and interrogated. A second area was established that had larger and simpler accommodations — open-air pens under the woodland canopy, fenced off, guarded by military police with submachine guns and bayonet-armed rifles. By the dozens, Ayvartan troops were led to their pens and closed off behind gates.
In one particular pen, the Ayvartans seemed surprised to find someone already there.
Hog-tied, gagged, shackled, and restrained in every possible way, then encased in a metal cage fit more for a big dog than a human, Selene Lucci laid on her side, moaning.
Though she preferred it to agonizing, lonely starvation, this was still quite a curious path that God had sent her on, and she did not feel quite so elated to be alive at the moment.
At the very least her new confinement was in the open air and shade, rather than stuffed in a tent. That would have been a much crueler touch to an already stressful captivity.
She could see the day waning outside, and feel the cool, fresh evening breeze.
It would have been great, had it not been for her arms and legs, tied behind her back with rough ropes, and her whole body criss-crossed by chains and belts to bind her in every possible way, emphasizing the murderous threat she posed to Nocht’s soldiery.
Though she had not even managed to kill the guard she had stricken in her attempted escape, the narrative had become that she was quite deadly, a complete monster. It was for her that a manhunt was established mid-afternoon, distracting the entire command cadre and military police detachment from the Ghede battle. Not at all to find a drunken, lost radio girl; no, it was all meant for the Devil’s Own Nun, communist spy Selene Lucci.
“You’re lucky you’re a messianic nun. They wanted to shoot you for all this.”
Kern Beckert lay pensively on the other side of fence surrounding the pen. Her cage had been laid in a corner, so he was as close at her side as he could be in these conditions, ostensibly guarding her. He had his back to the chain-links of the fence, resting against the metal poles keeping Selene locked in. He sighed, groaned, and quietly suffered.
Through the belt gag stuffing her mouth, Selene made a sarcastic-sounding noise.
Ever since he had gotten back from the river on a truck full of wounded, he had left his unit behind and planted himself beside her cage and stared at his shoes. His brutish commander seemed to allow him this, despite his choice of company. Kern looked much worse for wear. His eyes looked distant and hollow. His uniform was filthy, and he smelled of all kinds of substances. He spoke in a beaten-down, hollow tone of voice.
“I think I’m going to volunteer to be a medic, or military police, or something. I know if I stay at the front, I will keep fighting. As long as I’m there I won’t stop.” Kern said.
Selene made a sarcastic noise and wondered if they were registering to him as such.
Kern reached into the cage and pulled out the rubber bit stuck into her mouth.
She coughed, and spat.
“I can undo some of the belts and ropes, but not the chains.” He said.
“Is that an offer or statement of fact?” Selene croaked, her voice warped by a dry throat.
Kern withdrew a knife from his leg, and started to wear away at the knots on her arms.
“Stop.” Selene said. “You’ll be caught. Look.”
Immediately Kern hid his knife and stood up, pretending to guard the cage.
Across the camp, an officer of some description arrived. Perhaps a Captain or Major, someone from Battalion, come to inspect the prisoners. He walked past the tents of the imprisoned Ayvartan officers, and stood at the gate to the infantry pen with a conceited smile on his face. Hands behind his back, he scanned around the faces in the pen.
“Is there any one of you who has something useful to say?”
There were a few responses, all in Ayvartan. Curses, brief expressions of woe, a few threats. Most of the captive Ayvartans turned their backs on the walls of the pen, defiant. However, there was a small group that huddled, as if plotting something, and then sent a representative to the pen gate. He started to speak to the officer, but there was an immediate problem — he was speaking Ayvartan, and the officer did not understand.
The Officer raised his eyebrow skeptically. “What do you want? Speak words!”
Again the Ayvartan entreated in his own language.
Whatever he was saying was riling up other prisoners, but none of the Nochtish men could understand. They only saw a ruckus starting, and they pressed their guns into the pen threateningly and made the situation tense. The Officer was becoming exhausted. Perhaps he thought it was his own presence offending the enemy. Selene could not hear what was being said exactly, but she knew it was splinter group of cooperative prisoners that was angering the rest. She wondered what they could be offering.
“Ugh. Does anyone here know Ayvartan?” the Officer called out.
Nobody responded at first.
Then Kern’s eyes drew wide with dawning realization.
Selene shook her head rapidly at him, but he was up before she could stop him.
“Sir! This woman in the cage knows Ayvartan and Nochtish!” He shouted.
Selene grit her teeth.
Intrigued, the Officer walked around the pen to Kern’s side, and the cooperative Ayvartans followed, perhaps understanding the situation by body language.
Everyone huddled around Selene’s cage.
The Officer looked perturbed by her, and kept some distance from the cage.
“Are you sure, Private? I’m told this nun is quite rabid.” He said.
“I’m positive, sir.” Kern said.
Selene sighed. She gave him a dirty look, but he was not paying her attention.
So quick to try to help, and so unable to actually do so.
The Officer appeared reasonably pleased.
“Very well then. Nun, please translate what this man and his colleagues are trying to tell me, and you may then take your meals without ropes and chains.” He said.
Though she thought of resisting, the proposition was too good.
The Officer pointed at the Ayvartans and then at the nun.
“He wants me to translate for you.” Selene said to the group.
She was immediately understood. Her Ayvartan was very well practiced.
Several prisoners crouched beside her cage, and gave her the details.
Her heart skipped several beats as they told her their story.
Selene regretted having agreed to this, but she had no better choices now.
Turning her head to the Officer and to Kern, she passed on the crux of the message.
“They say they are part of the 8th Rifle Division,” she said, “and that they have contacts and intelligence in Tambwe and desire to propose an operation to your leaders.”