The Fallen General — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Tambwe-Ajdar Border — Ghede River

Despite the amount of bodies pressed to either side of the river, everyone could still hear the sloshing of the water as it rushed downstream. Everyone was silent. Breaths reached farther than bullets, and faster. Ghede was a slow conquest, and an even slower defense.

Eyes peered over boulders, around sandbags, over grass-covered outcroppings upon which they lay belly-down with scopes and binoculars, peering downhill or uphill over the stream. Shadows flitted around trees, behind bushes. The opposing fronts were separated by only the width of the Ghede. In some areas the lines were as close as a hundred meters. Had it not been for the water they could have charged bayonet-first.

Despite the water, charging bayonet-first was still the choice outcome.

In several places the Ghede was only a half-dozen meters deep, and the rhythm of the battle was predicated on this fact. Men could swim across, if given the opportunity.

Lacking the mobility to cross quickly, the dueling sides fell into a war of munitions.

On the Nochtish side, mortar tubes were gathered by the dozens. Anti-tank and artillery guns of small calibers were pushed to the line of bushes at the edge of the wood, fifty meters from the river and nearly three hundred from the nearest Ayvartan position – not much, but enough to go unnoticed. Snipers climbed to the bushy canopy and adjusted their scopes. Light M5 tanks hid behind the tree line, and adjusted their guns to the same shooting tables in use by the anti-tank guns. Across a river they were merely mobile guns. There would be not armored blitzkrieg over the water of the Ghede yet.

Lines of foxholes formed a divide eerily reminiscent of the battles of the Unification War period, where two trench lines separated by a thousand meter no-man’s-land stared at one another for months, some years, before new technology entered the picture and caused a shift. Whether the abominable but ultimately slight shift caused by chemical weapons – or the dramatic, tide-turning shift caused by the entry of Nochtish tanks.

No new technology would cause a shift here in the Ghede, and the soldiers only wished they had a professional-looking trench line. Scattered foxholes and sandbag walls were broken up by the dips and rises of the uneven riverbanks, and the intermittently rocky and sandy and grassy terrain. Riflemen scraped from various divisions, agglomerated into the new 13th Panzer Division, waited sleepily for the next offensive to be declared.

There had been a few previous build-ups and failed attacks, but the lull between them felt like years’ worth of peace. Munitions built up, and men awaited commands, but on the Nochtish side of the Ghede there was a lazy, almost contented mood, like that of a holiday. There were no Generals here, no shouting orders, just distant voices, the sporadic tossing of a few shells, and half-hearted attempts to wade into the foam.

Bullets wailed and blood splashed, but after the fact everything was easily forgotten.

Until the next build-up, the next command word, the next attack.

“Noble cause.”

When the command came the landser crouched beside the field radio box could scarcely identify it as such. He raised an eyebrow at the strange call and the handset shifted against his ear with the shaking of his hand. Turning his head, he signaled to his superiors nearby that he was on the line. He then cleared his throat, and called back.

“Say again?”

“Noble cause,” came Chief of Signals Fruehauf’s voice once more.

“Noble cause?”

Fruehauf did not reply and the line went suddenly dead.

For several moments the radio man stood staring off into the distance.

He shook his head and his wits returned to him. Noble cause was the command.

That meant this build-up was now complete, and all munitions were to be released.

“We’ve been activated.” He whispered to the nearest man. “Pass it on.”

Word spread quietly across the line. Ayvartans monitored the radio traffic, or so everyone had been told; and they could see and hear across the river fairly well during quiet periods like this one. Therefore the rallying cry could not be loud or electric. Hands and tongues passed along the command, across every gun in the 10.5 cm battery, through the hatches of every M5 Ranger, behind the shields of every 37mm doorknocker gun, to every three-man Norgler machine gun team, into every foxhole and sniper nest.

“Noble cause, we’ve been activated.”

Guns of all sizes were loaded. Discarded helmets set back on vacant heads. Bayonets lugged, for no clear purpose. Men scrambled up, looking out over the river once more. Their movements were mechanical, reflexive, their minds still catching up to the events.

Once the entire river-front had been alerted, a runner was sent back to the guns.

Infantry would fire after the mortars and cannons drew the first blood.

With his upper body bowed low the man took off running.

He made it scarcely a few meters before he heard death whistle overhead.

A column of gray smoke and dirt, seething with hot metal, blossomed behind the trenches, and the runner went flying into a nearby tree, splashing blood and flesh.

They were preempted, despite careful planning.

The Ayvartans had gotten wind of the impending attack.

No sooner had the landsers noticed their dead man that munitions started falling over their line by the dozen, exploding all along the river-front. Small mortar shells came quickest, hitting the earth hundreds a minute along every kilometer of enemy positions, casting thin plumes of smoke and dirt into the air. Fragments of metal went flying over every foxhole and trench, and men huddled to their knees to escape the airborne death.

Following the mortars came the ponderous fire of much larger guns, striking farther behind the front, smashing trees, vaporizing bushes, torching holes into the thick green canopy above. Chunks of wood like flying stakes joined the shell fragments in the air. Thousands of fragments and fast-flying debris struck shields and thick trunks and the metal armor of tanks, hitting cover with such frequency it resembled automatic fire.

Amid the thunderous pounding of the enemy artillery, Landsers scrambled to their combat positions, bracing machine guns over rocks, pulling up to the edge of the riverbank on their bellies or scarcely above their holes and raising their battle rifles. As they joined battle their green tracers flew over the water, snapping branches and biting into rocks and flying into bushes. Between the rhythmic pounding of enemy ordnance the infernal noise of the norgler machine guns filled the silence, and lit the air green.

Lines of green bullets stretched over the river, and lines of red flew back the other way.

Behind the infantry line the air stirred as the 10.5 cm batteries finally retaliated.

Within the opposing tree-line the Nochtish fighters saw bright flashes as their own shells went off on the enemy, raising their own pillars of turf and metal as they struck.

There were flashes brighter still as enemy guns lobbed shells directly over their heads.

At the center of the line, a boulder was smashed to pieces as a 122mm Ayvartan gun struck it with direct fire. Chunks of hot rock struck against helmets and sandbags.

Red machine gun tracers from the Ayvartan side bounced off rocks and kicked up lines of dirt and overflew the foxholes, chopping up bushes behind them. Men scrambled to keep under the slicing red lines, unable to hear the thock-thock-thock of the Ayvartan machine gun over the cacophony of explosives landing by the dozens all around them.

Snipers perched atop the trees briefly glanced at the fire flying under their feet before returning to their scopes. They peered across the river, trying to discern the shadows from the enemy troops. The Ayvartan’s side of the river had much less space between the water and the treeline, and the entire Ayvartan line was cloaked in the vegetation.

But the difference between a rustling branch and a shooter was obvious – one flashed red and the other did not. Aiming for the muzzle flashes, snipers shot into the dark, moving from flash to flash in the hopes of scoring a maiming hit. As positions shifted and munitions discharged, however, new flashes and new targets appeared, as if a hundred shining eyes belonging to a monster, and no real effect could be discerned.

Joining the rest of the artillery, the company of M5 Rangers assisting the river offensive dug into the forest and fired blindly into the sky and through the trees, following the coordinates on the shooting tables. Theirs was the most solipsistic work within the battle. Encased in metal, the gunner and commander could hardly see around them in the wood, and the work of shooting was purely mathematical. They were shielded entirely from retaliatory fire, and only when the tank shifted positions to protect itself did the crew seem to awaken from the mechanical slumber of shooting and loading.

In theory an enemy was being hit, but the tank crews would not know it. Even the landsers at the front line, withstanding the brunt of the enemy barrages, couldn’t tell a tank shell apart from any other artillery, much less guess at whether it was accurate. It was all explosions to them, dirt flying and metal slicing through the air and fire briefly rising and abating within seconds. Whether across the river or around them.

Fire and fragments, an atmosphere thick with smoke; everyone was awakening from their dream-like haze to the violence of the Ghede. The first injured were dragged away through the tree-line, and men rushed from behind the tanks to take up vacated holes. Guns and tanks and machine gunners took the lead from the riflemen who clumsily began the battle, and the munitions war played out over every foxhole and trench.

Across days of the mind this war raged, but in the physical realm it was only minutes.

Then the final shell crashed down on the Nochtish side. Nobody was hurt.

Slowly the fire subsided, the colored lines vanishing from the air. Silence followed. Only the crackling of dust, falling to earth, could be heard. Neither side launched an attack.

Within the hectic moment of this offensive, nobody had bothered to cross the water.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

There was still a war going on, though it would’ve been hard to tell in the Kalu.

The 13th Panzer Division tucked its new headquarters well behind any potential hostilities. Located in a warm, sunny clearing surrounded by thick woods that made excellent cover for resting tanks and empty supply depots, the 13th was spread out in a formless cluster, much of its manpower technically “rebuilding” but mostly directionless, linked only by a dirt road that wound through their stretch of woodland.

While some of the Division struggled for the river Ghede and the way into Tambwe, for the majority of the men and women of the 13th, there were no missions, little communication, and only paltry supplies to tide them over during this “rebuilding.”

On a walk around the camps, one could still see, among the people aimlessly coming and going, variety of insignias on chests and shoulders: 2nd Panzer Division, 3rd Panzer Division, 13th Panzergrenadier, 6th Grenadier, Azul, 8th Grenadier (a latecomer to the hostilities that saw no action except in firefighting, but high casualties nonetheless) and a few smaller, lesser known units with long strings of numbers and very low morale.

There was no insignia yet for the 13th Panzer Division that encompassed them all.

Regardless of insignia, everyone had dim prospects for the coming weeks.

Nobody expected they would cross the river, and they fought with defeat in mind.

While in the far eastern flank of Ayvarta the invaders of Shaila had made decent progress invading Dbagbo, the remnants of the Vorkampfer had lost all momentum, and their supply situation sans Bada Aso was in dire straits. Dori Dobo could not handle their supplies, and Cissea’s ports were so far away that the majority of the firepower in Adjar lay idle, waiting for the food and fuel needed to continue.

Still the 13th struggled on.

Up north, that hopeless and hazy war for the river played out sight unseen.

In the Kalu, similarly bizarre struggles transpired behind the doors of the camp tents.

One such tent, set down in the woods far apart from the rest of the camp, was black, unmarked, and unremarked about. It was a special tent, made for its purpose. Behind its inscrutable walls there was an oppressive gloom save for a dim light mildly illuminating the face of a bound Ayvartan woman in a chair.  Pungent, plastic smells inside made it hard to breathe calmly, and the outside world could neither be seen nor heard from within. Icy blue eyes watched the prisoner from dark places. Questions flew at the woman, and threats followed. Sharp implements were prominently displayed as if ready to be used. But the captive paid no attention to the captor, and patience wore thin.

Anton Von Sturm surged forward from the shadows and pounded his fists on a table.

“I’m asking you one last time. This is your final goddamn chance. Tell me everything you know about the new tank program, or you’ll regret holding your tongue!”

There was still no response from the prisoner — not even a turning of the eyes.

“Tell me about Ayvartan positions across the river! Tell me about the state of the government in Solstice! Let me into that head of yours or I swear on my life–”

Across the table the prisoner remained silent and inexpressive, yielding nothing.

“I’m going to set you on fucking fire!” Von Sturm shouted at her in a fit of rage.

Almost casually the prisoner turned her cheek, and her eyes wandered away.

Silence followed for several moments as Von Sturm stewed in this rejection.

Across the tent a man lifted his hand into the air as if to be called on in a classroom.

“Setting her on fire is against the Dahlia 12 agreement.” Von Drachen interjected.

Von Sturm swung around in a fury, waving his fists at Von Drachen instead.

Von Drachen completely turned his cheek, almost casually, mirroring the prisoner.

He shrugged, facing a wall. “And besides, this is not how it works. For example, you can’t tell her it’s her final chance, when you’ve only asked her the question once before.”

“Shut up! Shut up!” Von Sturm shouted. “I ask her once, and then I give her the final chance, that counts, ok! It wouldn’t make sense if the final chance was the only chance, but anything after that works! You goddamn whinging baboon! Shut the fuck up!”

“You have given her several final chances, but all in Nochtish. I don’t think she—”

“Shut up! I’m in command here still, and I order you! Shut up!”

He raised his voice to such a level that it cracked in his throat. None of it could be heard outside, but it reverberated strongly inside the tent and sounded quite unsettling.

At least, unsettling in theory. Neither Von Drachen nor the prisoner reacted strongly.

“This is all very wrong. You need a good cop here. Let me do this, Anton.”

Ignoring Von Sturm’s frantic commands, Von Drachen turned to the prisoner.

He nodded at her. Surprisingly, she nodded back.

“How many women are in the Ayvartan army?” He asked her.

His Ayvartan was fluent and his tone was ordinary and conversational. His body language was yielding rather than aggressive or guarded. He sat across the table from her, relaxed his shoulders, and gestured with his hands. They could have served tea between them, and it would not have been amiss. It was an eerily peaceable scene.

“More than men.” Replied the prisoner. Her voice sounded very dull and affectless.

“Truly?”

“Indeed.”

“I find that interesting. What would you say is the ratio?” Von Drachen asked.

“Sixty-forty.” Replied the captive.

“Incredible! An army more woman than man, and yet, they square off against us so beautifully. Tell me, is it a certain woman, Nakar, who is responsible for your success?”

“You speak our tongue well, imperialist pig.” Replied the captive, avoiding the question.

Von Drachen nodded gently. “I am a Cissean, and I was born during the Ayvartan Empire. So I picked up some here and there, though never formally. Common Cisseans were as a whole poorly literate. I self-taught; so I thank you for the compliment.”

“I see.”

“Aren’t you surprised by my ethnicity?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“Well. Hmm. What do you think of Cissea? It’s right across the border.”

“I think your country is a disgrace to this continent, lying in bed with the Northern Federation. You are betrayers to this land and we will have our vengeance on you.”

Throuhgout the captive spoke without passion. Her words had no more or less force than before, despite the aggression inherent in them. But she had spoken, at least a little. Now she seemed again inclined to silence, staring down at the table.

Nodding, Von Drachen turned to Von Sturm with a grin on his face.

“You must build up a rapport with the prisoner.” He said.

“What the hell did you two talk about?” Von Sturm asked.

“She wants to destroy my country, I think.” Von Drachen replied.

Furiously, Von Sturm pounded his foot on the ground.

He then pounced on the desk again. “I’ll goddamn kill you! Start talking tanks, now!”

Von Drachen sighed.

“You need to give her incentives to answer. Otherwise what is the point?”

Again Von Sturm pointed furiously at the woman across the table.

She started rubbing her feet on one another, staring at the walls indifferently. She was a little scuffed up from her capture but mostly unharmed — she had been caught very recently, wandering half-starved in the Kalu region, over a week after Bada Aso. Dark skin, dark hair, fairly tall, rather slender; typically Ayyartan. Tiny red rings glowed around her eyes; Von Drachen knew not their origin or significance. They had only this one prisoner, and he did not pay particular attention to people’s eyes anyway.

To him, she was just another poor friendly Ayvartan caught up in this mess.

“Listen,” Von Sturm pointed at her even more sharply, touching her nose, “listen here you unfathomable moron. Her incentive, is that I’ll set her on fire if she doesn’t answer!”

“She’s already been set on fire before.” Von Drachen replied. “She lives in the Ayvartan south, my good man. She cannot be set any more on fire. And as I said, such actions against Dahlia 12 anyway, and I’ll have to inform the field marshal if you harm her.”

Von Sturm slapped the palm of his hand against his face. He lowered his voice to a clearly agitated whispering. “You moron, we’re threatening her so she’ll give us information. I’m not actually setting her on fire. I can’t believe you would do this–”

“She doesn’t understand you, my good–”

“–SHUT UP.”

Von Drachen shrugged.

“I am only trying to uphold propriety here, Anton. You start with setting a girl on fire. Then they set their prisoners on fire, if they have any. I don’t know. Next thing you know, we’re setting more of our prisoners on fire. Then they drop chemical weapons on us. Have you seen what phosgene does to a person? We must avoid that at all costs.”

Von Drachen felt that he was being perfectly reasonable, and there was a great disappointment in him for the future of the human race when Von Sturm merely stood and stared at him in confusion, as opposed to changing his ways and accepting this rationale. He saw the General’s hands rise threateningly, shaking, as if ready to–

There was then a stark instant of white sunlight piercing the gloom in the tent.

Entering the lit center of the interrogation area, a slender young woman, tall, soft-featured, with brown hair hanging at the level of her jaw, purple pom-poms dangling from her earrings. Dark circles around her half-closed, sleepy-looking eyes and an unpleasant facial expression attested to the state of her morale. Her dark red lips added the smell of cigarettes and liquor to the artificial scents of the interrogation tent.

“Fruehauf! Finally! A ray of hope in this gloom!” Von Sturm shouted, raising his hands.

“At your disposal, Brigadier.” She drawled; but still sharply punctuated the final word.

Von Sturm winced; likely he felt her pronunciation, a verbal dagger to his proud heart.

Once, Von Sturm had been a Major General. Now he was a lowly Brigadier again.

Despite her intentions, the General took a much gentler, coddling tone with her now.

“Fruehauf, I need you to talk to the prisoner, woman to woman.” Von Sturm said.

Fruehauf slowly raised an eyebrow. “I do not speak Ayvartan, Brigadier.”

“That doesn’t matter. You two have a deeper connection than language. Talk to her.”

“I don’t follow.” Fruehauf groaned. She rubbed her head as if stricken by a sudden pain.

Von Sturm started to talk with his mouth and hands at once. Von Drachen realized to his mute horror that his hands were making far more sense than his mouth at this point.

“Listen, Fruehauf, you, and her, you are linked by these incredibly deep, ancient, powerful and secret oaths of femininity. You are sisters in this world. You two have a history, thousands of years old, developed over hearths and berries and children and humours; no interrogator can unlock that bond! I know once you get in front of her, you’ll be able to plumb the depths of her like no one else can! It’s a woman’s touch!”

There was silence in the tent for several seconds as Von Drachen and Fruehauf struggled to catch up to the monumental proclamations frantically rushing out of Von Sturm’s mouth. His eyes were open too wide and his mouth hung too slack. It seemed every syllable built into an ever more inscrutable edifice, and the fullness of his incoherence was not readily apparent until well after the last word was said. Unraveling this abstract masterpiece of word, Fruehauf scoffed, comprehending enough to be offended.

“What are you talking about? What the hell has gotten into you today?” She said. She turned her head sharply toward Von Drachen. “What the hell has gotten into him?”

“I really cannot say.” Von Drachen replied, stroking his chin, wide-eyed, unsettled.

Von Sturm reached out his hands to her. “Fruehauf, you bring new paradigms here. You’re a communications expert, aren’t you? You need to decrypt this woman.”

Fruehauf crossed her arms and grit her teeth and glared at Von Sturm with deadly intent.

“I’m an electronic communications expert! Brigadier, are you drunker than I?”

She looked and sounded steadily more irritated with the Brigadier General. And since his recent demotion, she was no longer demure about her displeasure. She was raising her voice, and her expression made it clear she was both sober enough and drunk enough now to throttle him. She leaned forward on him, adjusting her height to his own.

Von Sturm squirmed beneath her stature. “Fruehauf, I’m running out of options.”

Fruehauf stared dully at him for a moment and shook her head.

Brigadier, I believe I have several empty frequencies to listen to. Guten tag.”

Turning sharply on her heels, Fruehauf stormed out of the tent.

Flash white; then the gloom settled once again.

“Wait, Fruehauf, please!”

Von Sturm ran after her in complete hysterics.

Again the room was silent and still, save for the rubbing of the prisoner’s feet against one another under the table as she waited. In the furor, she had been forgotten again.

For a while longer Von Drachen turned over Von Sturm’s words in his head. It seemed almost like the kind of thing that would come to Von Drachen’s mind unbidden, and he wondered how and why Von Sturm was siphoning his fancies now before he even had them. It was strangely endearing, and put a smile on his face as he thought of it.

“I feel that I rather like that lad. Is that wrong?” Von Drachen asked.

Behind the table, the prisoner shrugged.


Overhead the imperious, golden Ayvartan sun climbed until directly over the clearing, searing the circle of Headquarters tents clustered around the thin stretch of dirt road bifurcating the forest and extending beyond the Umaiha River and into the border to Tambwe. Muggy as it was inside of the interrogation tent, under the clearing’s open sky work was nearly unbearable at noon, and activity around the camp dwindled.

Everyone seemed to have taken their work inside the tents save for a few pairs of riflemen patrolling the surroundings. Many of them, sleepy and soaked in sweat, and quickly finding themselves without oversight, settled lazily under the woods and enjoyed the breeze being pushed between the trees. Following orders was simply not paying off.

One man, under the shade of an Ayvartan oak, even snuck out a little prize while no one was looking — a bottle of dark lager picked out of a buddy’s truck. It paid to know a guy!

Lying back, relaxed, taking in the breeze, the man nearly fell asleep from contentedness before he had even opened the bottle. When he resolved to at least taste it while he had his wits about him, he was stopped by the sound of lightly vibrating glass. A tinkling noise issued from the bottle. He found the ground shaking, and his Doppelbock with it.

Looking down the road just a few trees away, he spotted vehicles in the distance.

Recognizing their markings, the man hid his treasure and hurried back to the tents.

It was impossible to miss the main headquarters tent. One could run straight to it without even thinking, it stood out so much. While the radio tent, the medical tent and the barracks tents were all squat four-post tents, the command tent was like a house made of canvas, with an entryway, lined with sandbags for added protection, and a real door, as well as 20 poles spread out to hold up the 5 by 15 meter main body of the tent.

Though he was supposed to knock and wait, the landser threw open the door and charged into the tent’s gloomy beige interior. There he found General Von Sturm with his nose buried in a map, General Von Drachen seated atop a radio box, staring into space with his hands on his chin, and Chief of Signals Fruehauf in the middle of downing a 300 milliliter flask of some unseen, likely alcoholic fluid in one gulp.

In the background of this scene, several young women lay about, napping away noon.

All members of this odd crew seemed to ignore the intrusion until the landser spoke.

“Sir! Units of the 1st Panzer Army are approaching the base sir!” Hee shouted.

He saluted and held a stiff pose while the officers snapped their heads toward him.

Seconds later the tent stirred, its posts shaking, the lamps inside swaying gently as if coaxed by the breeze. The sounds of tracks and wheels could be heard distantly.

The headquarters crew charged past the landser, Von Sturm the first and most frantic.

Outside something had drawn various officers and staff out of their tents for what seemed like the first time in days. On the sides of the dirt road a crowd gathered to watch the road as a small convoy approached them. Everyone could tell right away this was not a supply train. In the lead was a vehicle unlike any the 13th Panzer Division had yet laid eyes on – an eight-wheeled armored car with what seemed like a miniature M4 Sentinel turret set atop the front, 50mm gun and all. Painted black, and marked with an oak leaf and a big red number one, it was a sight that commanded attention.

It was not alone. Behind this machine followed a pair of much more familiar Sd.Kfz. B Squires, both lightly populated; one explicably toting a water tank. The vehicles followed the road up to the command tent, where Von Sturm stood dumbfounded while Von Drachen continued to rub his own chin and Fruehauf stared vacantly at her own shoes.

Parked meters away from the HQ tent, the 8-rad armored car opened its rear hatches.

A pair of sleek black boots hit the ground, followed by the end of a long grey trenchcoat.

Von Sturm gulped. Von Drachen stared dispassionately. Fruehauf tipped over a step.

Before them, the celebrated northern hero, Field Marshal Dietrich Haus, exited his command vehicle and set foot in a Generalplan Suden combat area for the first time.

Everyone knew that the Field Marshal was heading south, but nobody expected to see him inspecting their ramshackle unit tomorrow or the next day, much less today.

Around the campsite the crowds stared breathlessly at the man who liberated Cissea. His appearance was a stupefying display, like a fairy tale knight riding into view.

Like his vehicle, the Field Marshal was an unmistakable sight. Stepping out from around the 8-rad, he was quite tall, statuesque. Even for a Field Marshal his uniform was luxuriant. A grand, dark-grey trenchcoat with gilded shoulders and lining covered his field coat and trousers. His black boots glinted with new shine. And it was not just the clothes that set him apart, but the features of a man of status. He was boyishly handsome, with aquiline features, short and wavy brown hair, and high cheekbones. Atop his head was a peaked cap with a large, golden badge of the Nochtish eagle upon it.

Haus wore a conceited grin as he approached Von Sturm, literally looking down on him. There was a stark difference in their size. Though he was nowhere near as burly as the 13th Panzer’s Divisions own familiar giant, Haus was almost Lt. Aschekind’s height.

“Anton Von Sturm, conqueror of Valle Rojo.” Haus said, his voice deep and operatic.

There was no reply; no one could formulate a reply toward this odd choice of greeting.

Saying no more, Haus stopped meters short of the smaller general and stretched a hand.

Von Sturm meekly offered his own for a shake. His lips remained sealed.

Haus’ arm then drifted away, as if something else had caught his attention.

He turned his head, scanning the ragged little encampment around him.

“How was this mortal blow struck against you? I’m still baffled by it.” He said.

“I don’t—“ Von Sturm said his first trembling words, and left them to hang.

Haus awaited a conclusion to this sentence for a few moments before continuing.

“I shall want to look at all of your maps and intelligence on the enemy, Anton. We must get this operation back on track.” He said, taking a condescending tone of voice.

“We—“

It seemed that this time Von Sturm would have spoken more; but Haus cut him off.

“Tambwe is our next target. Dreschner and his men are already slicing into Dbagbo with serious success. It is only here that our invasion withers on the Kalu vine.” He said.

He punctuated the word here quite sharply by poking Von Sturm on his lapel.

Around the encampment the crowds started to thin, people returning to their posts, heads hanging. Whatever it was they thought would come from the black 8-rad armored car, was ultimately not delivered, and their attention wavered. Or perhaps it became too painful to stay in the presence of the Field Marshal in the sorry state they were in.

Ordinary staff could easily leave, but three officers at least were to remain trapped in the Field Marshal’s orbit for the moment. Von Sturm joined Fruehauf in staring at the floor.

Von Drachen, to everyone’s mortification, raised his hand at Haus’ statement.

“I’m of the opinion that our esteemed Field Marshal is laying blame too hastily. I believe a certain ‘Nakar’ of the Ayvartans is to blame for our problems here.” Von Drachen said.

Fruehauf and Von Sturm seemed to awaken from their slumber and turn instantly pale.

“Our campaign will surely end in failure without her defeat.” Von Drachen continued.

Despite the foolishness of his words he seemed quite intent on continuing to speak.

Haus leered at Von Drachen. “Ah, if it isn’t the anarchist turncoat, Drachen is it?”

“Indeed, it is. In my defense, we all have our infancy.” Von Drachen amicably replied.

“So what was your name as an infant?” Haus quickly asked, crossing his arms.

“I’d rather not say.” Von Drachen replied.

“And you have intelligence on Ayvartan command, I assume? Have you filed it?”

“I have not. What I know now is trifling from an objective point of view; I cannot file my gut feelings to the military intelligence corps. But I make them known for your benefit.”

His earnestness and apparent casual honesty seemed to unsettle the Field Marshal.

“Oberkommando has enjoyed great success thanks to you, but I must admit your entire aura is most disconcerting to me, and I do not want to speak with you.” Haus said.

Von Drachen shrugged. “That is your opinion and I respect that.”

Haus turned away from him and back to Von Sturm with a skeptical gaze.

“How do you stand him?” He asked.

“I don’t.” Von Sturm replied, his voice trembling.

Behind them the hatches to the 8-rad swung open once more.

Dressed in a similar trenchcoat and uniform as the Field Marshal, gilded lining and all, a young woman stepped out of the armored car and joined Haus in standing before their subordinates. She was quite pretty, short, slender and very lady-like, standing perfectly straight, walking with a casually elegant gait, her skirt uniform in good order. Her skin was fair and unblemished, and her long, wavy blond hair shone with lively color.

“Greetings.” She said. She bowed her head lightly. “I am Cathrin Habich.”

She pushed up her glasses and extended a hand to Von Sturm.

Again, Von Sturm meekly extended his own hand. This time, a real shake resulted.

Ignoring Von Drachen, she then stretched her hand out to Fruehauf.

Fruehauf, struggling to keep her dark-ringed eyes open, stretched out a polite but shaking hand in return. She found the slender fingers of her counterpart slinking away.

“No, you misunderstand. I want you to turn over the week’s code table.” Cathrin said. She retracted her hand as though she had almost touched something filthy. “I am Chief of Signals under the Field Marshal and I must get caught up on events here soon.”

Grumbling inaudibly, Fruehauf slowly closed her hand into a fist.

Without changing expression she started to raise it as if to swing at Cathrin.

Von Sturm and Von Drachen stepped suddenly closer to prevent her from striking down the new Signals Officer – whether motivated by preserving Fruehauf’s honor and position or to keep her from thrashing Cathrin’s ravishing beauty, it was impossible to know. Von Sturm rummaged through Fruehauf’s coat, and found the code table in her jacket and passed it on. At this indignity, Fruehauf began to sob and hiccup all at once.

She seemed to attempt speech, but could not muster any coherent verbiage.

Field Marshal Haus blinked and stepped back. “Is this a bad time?” He asked.

There were weary expressions all around but no response but Fruehauf’s crying.


Inside the command tent, Haus looked over Von Sturm’s war room table with disdain.

“You took too long to mobilize from Bada Aso to the river, now it is fortified against you and you lack the combat power to take it. Or so you seem to think.” Haus said.

Fruehauf struggled to stand upright. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy. Her head was pounding, and she felt strangely emotional. She had not slept at all for a few days and had taken to the bottle and to smokesticks for succor. For several months she had been perfectly sober, and now she was drinking from every canister in her line of sight.

She knew it was not good for her, but the stress made her wanton.

She did not want to be here anymore, she thought.

She hated everybody and everything. Perhaps it was a product of her beer-stricken brains, but she felt such a disdain for it all that she wanted to cry again now.

Her whole body brimmed, restless. She did not know how to satisfy her body’s need to be away, to expend its excess energy. Drinking stifled those unknowable urges.

She felt an unseen pressure, a terrible burden.

In her head there was that city on fire, and all the screams, and the burning bodies.

And the idea that she could be the next to go. It was cowardly, perhaps, but it was her.

She no longer believed in anyone’s ability to protect her or anyone else. She couldn’t protect anyone, and nobody could protect her. Von Sturm had failed them all. His abrasiveness was not just a cover for genius. His head was as empty sober as hers was when full of drink. His timidity and confusion the past few days had only cemented to her that he had failed, they had failed, and they did not know what to do now.

Lacking leadership and directly insulted by the higher command, Fruehauf’s morale plummeted so low that she cried, just out of stress and fear and total lack of any hope.

Even now, ostensibly calm, there was a tear escaping her eyes every once in a while.

On the table, Field Marshal Haus, with Cathrin by his side, pushed chits around to show Von Sturm his apparent error. From what Fruehauf blearily understood, much of Von Sturm’s combat power had been focused on two areas along the river Ghede that represented potential flanks in the Ayvartan defenses. They had intended to cross the river and perform a classic pincer envelopment, Von Sturm’s favorite and perhaps only military trick. However, the Ayvartans had caught wind of this and reinforced both sides, and stretched out their line to cover those approaches. Unable to immediately take the river, Von Sturm did nothing but periodically call for build-ups and attacks.

His latest effort, codename “noble cause,” had been such a failure that nobody at the front line even thought to use it as an opportunity to cross the river. It was another classic, building up artillery power to breach the enemy line, but it was such a simplistic maneuver with absolutely no follow-up plans that it could not accomplish anything.

Haus seemed to notice all of this just by looking at the chits on the table.

“You will never launch an envelopment across a river with your forces. Especially deploying them in this idiotic manner. Have you considered that you have no center? You created two perfect pockets for the Ayvartans to split if they decided to. You are lucky they are more foolish than you are. What happened to your guile, Anton?”

Von Sturm merely hung his head and took the reprimand quietly, staring at the map.

“Your meekness has been turned against you by the enemy, but your deployment can still be salvaged. Recommit troops to the enemy’s stretched center, and launch your attack there. After so many days of predictable, weak flank attacks, they will be put off-balance by a strong center push. They will not expect it. We may be able to cross then.”

At this insistence, the Brigadier General finally found words for the Field Marshal.

“But the river there is a dozen meters deep. Tanks can’t cross that. And even if they could, the woods beyond are too thick for vehicles. We’ll have nothing on that side.”

Von Sturm sounded reluctant in defending himself. Haus bit back with fervor.

“That is why you use the tanks to continue your flank attacks, but focus all of your infantry on crossing that river, Anton! Pin the flanks, push the center, and you may be able to fold the whole line! You cannot look with disdain at only one part of the situation like this. I will bring up troops of my 1st Panzer Division to help in the coming days but I am sure we can accomplish this with the 13th, if you gather all its strength and act now!”

“Yes sir.” Von Sturm said, his voice a drained monotone.

“Valle Rojo was such a dynamic operation, fast, full of wit and cunning. Can you not draw upon that experience again?” Haus asked, laying a hand on Von Sturm’s shoulder.

Von Sturm trembled. “That situation was very different from this one.” He mumbled.

Haus slapped his hand down on Von Sturm’s shoulder and nearly knocked him down.

Fruehauf sighed. This sight was simply too pathetic for her. She turned away.

Von Drachen raised his hand into the air again. Fruehauf turned from him, too.

Haus said nothing in response to the Cissean; Von Sturm, perhaps reflexively, called on him like a schoolteacher would call on a boy, pointing his finger vacantly at the man.

“I might have an idea for crossing, but I will need a shipping container.” He said.

At once, everyone seemed to regret allowing him to speak. Heads turned, eyes rolled.

“I am returning to my HQ.” Haus declared. “It is the Sd.Kfz. J Sentinel Foot parked outside. Should it perhaps aid in restoring your confidence, I might request another early production model be shipped for your use, Anton. I shall take the opportunity gather your units scattered around the area, and with them, we will bring a full divisional attack force to the Ghede. You stay here and prepare your HQ for it.”

With those words, Haus turned on his heel and left the tent. Cathrin followed behind him, dutifully quiet throughout. She looked back at Fruehauf a final time, largely without expression, though Fruehauf wished to interpret animosity. In turn Fruehauf stuck her tongue out at her, and the woman followed her superior out the door.

Von Sturm stared at the door, as if still seeing the Field Marshal there even after he left.

“I didn’t win Valle Rojo.” He said. He sounded helpless, as if a phantom were interrogating him where he stood. Staring into space, his jaw quivering as he droned.

Fruehauf didn’t want to hear this, but she had no real choice in the matter.

“Then who did?” She shouted, in part curiosity, in part demand.

Von Sturm threw up his hands. He looked about to weep too.

“I got inside information on the anarchist’s positions. That’s how I could do what I did. I don’t know what the Ayvartans are doing! How am I supposed to fight them that way?”

“We’ve built up pretty respectable intelligence on the enemy so far.” Von Drachen chimed in. Von Sturm glared at him over his shoulder, but it was more a look of anguish than one of violence. Like everyone, he seemed to have reached the end of his rope.

“Respectable, but not perfect!” Von Sturm shouted. “I had perfect information on the enemy, where they were moving, exactly how many there were. I could send a man a kilometer downhill in a bicycle and he could avoid every goddamn anarchist, that’s how good our information was. But here? Everything keeps changing. I can’t just keep sending men to their deaths, look what happened in Bada Aso! We know nothing!”

Von Sturm’s face sank into his hands, and he looked about to cry.

Fruehauf scoffed loudly and openly. This was a worthless attitude for a General to take.

Everything here was worthless. Her included; they were truly good for nothing.


“So, Cathrin, what is your assessment?” Haus asked. He sounded amused.

“The 13th Panzer Division ought to have been called something like the 13th Mixed Brigade or the 13th Panzer Leichte. It is undermanned, weak, and poorly structured.”

“Harsh, but there’s a nugget of truth. Do you think it is possible to turn Ghede around?”

“We might as well try to reroute the river under fire, than cross it with these forces.”

“Then I shall reroute the river.” Haus said.

Cathrin Habich followed the Field Marshal into the cramped confines of the Sentinel Foot armored car. She laid next to a radio box set into the side wall, collecting her skirt and settling in a princessly fashion. She pulled a headset free from behind the device and laid it gently over her ears. Meanwhile, Haus dropped atop a crate of 50mm ammo.

He knocked his fist on the armor a few times.

At once, the Sentinel Foot’s eight wheels began to turn, and it accelerated out of the camp. Following the road, the vehicle could reach 80 kilometers per hour, and at this great speed, it would sweep through the 13th’s encampments within a day. Inside the vehicle, Cathrin barely tossed or stirred. She was used to the movements.

“Ah, I hope Achim appreciates what I’m doing for him.” Haus said.

“I’m sure the President is over the moon about your involvement.” Cathrin replied.

“He better be. I’m doin’ this all for him.”

The Field Marshal pulled down his cap over his eyes and laid back.

“Weather looks nice.” Haus said. “How does tomorrow sound for an offensive?”

Cathrin nodded her head dutifully.


The Fallen General (40.3)

This scene contains references to drug use.


Overhead the imperious, golden Ayvartan sun climbed until directly over the clearing, searing the circle of Headquarters tents clustered around the thin stretch of dirt road bifurcating the forest and extending beyond the Umaiha River and into the border to Tambwe. Muggy as it was inside of the interrogation tent, under the clearing’s open sky work was nearly unbearable at noon, and activity around the camp dwindled.

Everyone seemed to have taken their work inside the tents save for a few pairs of riflemen patrolling the surroundings. Many of them, sleepy and soaked in sweat, and quickly finding themselves without oversight, settled lazily under the woods and enjoyed the breeze being pushed between the trees. Following orders was simply not paying off.

One man, under the shade of an Ayvartan oak, even snuck out a little prize while no one was looking — a bottle of dark lager picked out of a buddy’s truck. It paid to know a guy!

Lying back, relaxed, taking in the breeze, the man nearly fell asleep from contentedness before he had even opened the bottle. When he resolved to at least taste it while he had his wits about him, he was stopped by the sound of lightly vibrating glass. A tinkling noise issued from the bottle. He found the ground shaking, and his Doppelbock with it.

Looking down the road just a few trees away, he spotted vehicles in the distance.

Recognizing their markings, the man hid his treasure and hurried back to the tents.

It was impossible to miss the main headquarters tent. One could run straight to it without even thinking, it stood out so much. While the radio tent, the medical tent and the barracks tents were all squat four-post tents, the command tent was like a house made of canvas, with an entryway, lined with sandbags for added protection, and a real door, as well as 20 poles spread out to hold up the 5 by 15 meter main body of the tent.

Though he was supposed to knock and wait, the landser threw open the door and charged into the tent’s gloomy beige interior. There he found General Von Sturm with his nose buried in a map, General Von Drachen seated atop a radio box, staring into space with his hands on his chin, and Chief of Signals Fruehauf in the middle of downing a 300 milliliter flask of some unseen, likely alcoholic fluid in one gulp.

In the background of this scene, several young women lay about, napping away noon.

All members of this odd crew seemed to ignore the intrusion until the landser spoke.

“Sir! Units of the 1st Panzer Army are approaching the base sir!” Hee shouted.

He saluted and held a stiff pose while the officers snapped their heads toward him.

Seconds later the tent stirred, its posts shaking, the lamps inside swaying gently as if coaxed by the breeze. The sounds of tracks and wheels could be heard distantly.

The headquarters crew charged past the landser, Von Sturm the first and most frantic.

Outside something had drawn various officers and staff out of their tents for what seemed like the first time in days. On the sides of the dirt road a crowd gathered to watch the road as a small convoy approached them. Everyone could tell right away this was not a supply train. In the lead was a vehicle unlike any the 13th Panzer Division had yet laid eyes on – an eight-wheeled armored car with what seemed like a miniature M4 Sentinel turret set atop the front, 50mm gun and all. Painted black, and marked with an oak leaf and a big red number one, it was a sight that commanded attention.

It was not alone. Behind this machine followed a pair of much more familiar Sd.Kfz. B Squires, both lightly populated; one explicably toting a water tank. The vehicles followed the road up to the command tent, where Von Sturm stood dumbfounded while Von Drachen continued to rub his own chin and Fruehauf stared vacantly at her own shoes.

Parked meters away from the HQ tent, the 8-rad armored car opened its rear hatches.

A pair of sleek black boots hit the ground, followed by the end of a long grey trenchcoat.

Von Sturm gulped. Von Drachen stared dispassionately. Fruehauf tipped over a step.

Before them, the celebrated northern hero, Field Marshal Dietrich Haus, exited his command vehicle and set foot in a Generalplan Suden combat area for the first time.

Everyone knew that the Field Marshal was heading south, but nobody expected to see him inspecting their ramshackle unit tomorrow or the next day, much less today.

Around the campsite the crowds stared breathlessly at the man who liberated Cissea. His appearance was a stupefying display, like a fairy tale knight riding into view.

Like his vehicle, the Field Marshal was an unmistakable sight. Stepping out from around the 8-rad, he was quite tall, statuesque. Even for a Field Marshal his uniform was luxuriant. A grand, dark-grey trenchcoat with gilded shoulders and lining covered his field coat and trousers. His black boots glinted with new shine. And it was not just the clothes that set him apart, but the features of a man of status. He was boyishly handsome, with aquiline features, short and wavy brown hair, and high cheekbones. Atop his head was a peaked cap with a large, golden badge of the Nochtish eagle upon it.

Haus wore a conceited grin as he approached Von Sturm, literally looking down on him. There was a stark difference in their size. Though he was nowhere near as burly as the 13th Panzer’s Divisions own familiar giant, Haus was almost Lt. Aschekind’s height.

“Anton Von Sturm, conqueror of Valle Rojo.” Haus said, his voice deep and operatic.

There was no reply; no one could formulate a reply toward this odd choice of greeting.

Saying no more, Haus stopped meters short of the smaller general and stretched a hand.

Von Sturm meekly offered his own for a shake. His lips remained sealed.

Haus’ arm then drifted away, as if something else had caught his attention.

He turned his head, scanning the ragged little encampment around him.

“How was this mortal blow struck against you? I’m still baffled by it.” He said.

“I don’t—“ Von Sturm said his first trembling words, and left them to hang.

Haus awaited a conclusion to this sentence for a few moments before continuing.

“I shall want to look at all of your maps and intelligence on the enemy, Anton. We must get this operation back on track.” He said, taking a condescending tone of voice.

“We—“

It seemed that this time Von Sturm would have spoken more; but Haus cut him off.

“Tambwe is our next target. Dreschner and his men are already slicing into Dbagbo with serious success. It is only here that our invasion withers on the Kalu vine.” He said.

He punctuated the word here quite sharply by poking Von Sturm on his lapel.

Around the encampment the crowds started to thin, people returning to their posts, heads hanging. Whatever it was they thought would come from the black 8-rad armored car, was ultimately not delivered, and their attention wavered. Or perhaps it became too painful to stay in the presence of the Field Marshal in the sorry state they were in.

Ordinary staff could easily leave, but three officers at least were to remain trapped in the Field Marshal’s orbit for the moment. Von Sturm joined Fruehauf in staring at the floor.

Von Drachen, to everyone’s mortification, raised his hand at Haus’ statement.

“I’m of the opinion that our esteemed Field Marshal is laying blame too hastily. I believe a certain ‘Nakar’ of the Ayvartans is to blame for our problems here.” Von Drachen said.

Fruehauf and Von Sturm seemed to awaken from their slumber and turn instantly pale.

“Our campaign will surely end in failure without her defeat.” Von Drachen continued.

Despite the foolishness of his words he seemed quite intent on continuing to speak.

Haus leered at Von Drachen. “Ah, if it isn’t the anarchist turncoat, Drachen is it?”

“Indeed, it is. In my defense, we all have our infancy.” Von Drachen amicably replied.

“So what was your name as an infant?” Haus quickly asked, crossing his arms.

“I’d rather not say.” Von Drachen replied.

“And you have intelligence on Ayvartan command, I assume? Have you filed it?”

“I have not. What I know now is trifling from an objective point of view; I cannot file my gut feelings to the military intelligence corps. But I make them known for your benefit.”

His earnestness and apparent casual honesty seemed to unsettle the Field Marshal.

“Oberkommando has enjoyed great success thanks to you, but I must admit your entire aura is most disconcerting to me, and I do not want to speak with you.” Haus said.

Von Drachen shrugged. “That is your opinion and I respect that.”

Haus turned away from him and back to Von Sturm with a skeptical gaze.

“How do you stand him?” He asked.

“I don’t.” Von Sturm replied, his voice trembling.

Behind them the hatches to the 8-rad swung open once more.

Dressed in a similar trenchcoat and uniform as the Field Marshal, gilded lining and all, a young woman stepped out of the armored car and joined Haus in standing before their subordinates. She was quite pretty, short, slender and very lady-like, standing perfectly straight, walking with a casually elegant gait, her skirt uniform in good order. Her skin was fair and unblemished, and her long, wavy blond hair shone with lively color.

“Greetings.” She said. She bowed her head lightly. “I am Cathrin Habich.”

She pushed up her glasses and extended a hand to Von Sturm.

Again, Von Sturm meekly extended his own hand. This time, a real shake resulted.

Ignoring Von Drachen, she then stretched her hand out to Fruehauf.

Fruehauf, struggling to keep her dark-ringed eyes open, stretched out a polite but shaking hand in return. She found the slender fingers of her counterpart slinking away.

“No, you misunderstand. I want you to turn over the week’s code table.” Cathrin said. She retracted her hand as though she had almost touched something filthy. “I am Chief of Signals under the Field Marshal and I must get caught up on events here soon.”

Grumbling inaudibly, Fruehauf slowly closed her hand into a fist.

Without changing expression she started to raise it as if to swing at Cathrin.

Von Sturm and Von Drachen stepped suddenly closer to prevent her from striking down the new Signals Officer – whether motivated by preserving Fruehauf’s honor and position or to keep her from thrashing Cathrin’s ravishing beauty, it was impossible to know. Von Sturm rummaged through Fruehauf’s coat, and found the code table in her jacket and passed it on. At this indignity, Fruehauf began to sob and hiccup all at once.

She seemed to attempt speech, but could not muster any coherent verbiage.

Field Marshal Haus blinked and stepped back. “Is this a bad time?” He asked.

There were weary expressions all around but no response but Fruehauf’s crying.


Inside the command tent, Haus looked over Von Sturm’s war room table with disdain.

“You took too long to mobilize from Bada Aso to the river, now it is fortified against you and you lack the combat power to take it. Or so you seem to think.” Haus said.

Fruehauf struggled to stand upright. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy. Her head was pounding, and she felt strangely emotional. She had not slept at all for a few days and had taken to the bottle and to smokesticks for succor. For several months she had been perfectly sober, and now she was drinking from every canister in her line of sight.

She knew it was not good for her, but the stress made her wanton.

She did not want to be here anymore, she thought.

She hated everybody and everything. Perhaps it was a product of her beer-stricken brains, but she felt such a disdain for it all that she wanted to cry again now.

Her whole body brimmed, restless. She did not know how to satisfy her body’s need to be away, to expend its excess energy. Drinking stifled those unknowable urges.

She felt an unseen pressure, a terrible burden.

In her head there was that city on fire, and all the screams, and the burning bodies.

And the idea that she could be the next to go. It was cowardly, perhaps, but it was her.

She no longer believed in anyone’s ability to protect her or anyone else. She couldn’t protect anyone, and nobody could protect her. Von Sturm had failed them all. His abrasiveness was not just a cover for genius. His head was as empty sober as hers was when full of drink. His timidity and confusion the past few days had only cemented to her that he had failed, they had failed, and they did not know what to do now.

Lacking leadership and directly insulted by the higher command, Fruehauf’s morale plummeted so low that she cried, just out of stress and fear and total lack of any hope.

Even now, ostensibly calm, there was a tear escaping her eyes every once in a while.

On the table, Field Marshal Haus, with Cathrin by his side, pushed chits around to show Von Sturm his apparent error. From what Fruehauf blearily understood, much of Von Sturm’s combat power had been focused on two areas along the river Ghede that represented potential flanks in the Ayvartan defenses. They had intended to cross the river and perform a classic pincer envelopment, Von Sturm’s favorite and perhaps only military trick. However, the Ayvartans had caught wind of this and reinforced both sides, and stretched out their line to cover those approaches. Unable to immediately take the river, Von Sturm did nothing but periodically call for build-ups and attacks.

His latest effort, codename “noble cause,” had been such a failure that nobody at the front line even thought to use it as an opportunity to cross the river. It was another classic, building up artillery power to breach the enemy line, but it was such a simplistic maneuver with absolutely no follow-up plans that it could not accomplish anything.

Haus seemed to notice all of this just by looking at the chits on the table.

“You will never launch an envelopment across a river with your forces. Especially deploying them in this idiotic manner. Have you considered that you have no center? You created two perfect pockets for the Ayvartans to split if they decided to. You are lucky they are more foolish than you are. What happened to your guile, Anton?”

Von Sturm merely hung his head and took the reprimand quietly, staring at the map.

“Your meekness has been turned against you by the enemy, but your deployment can still be salvaged. Recommit troops to the enemy’s stretched center, and launch your attack there. After so many days of predictable, weak flank attacks, they will be put off-balance by a strong center push. They will not expect it. We may be able to cross then.”

At this insistence, the Brigadier General finally found words for the Field Marshal.

“But the river there is a dozen meters deep. Tanks can’t cross that. And even if they could, the woods beyond are too thick for vehicles. We’ll have nothing on that side.”

Von Sturm sounded reluctant in defending himself. Haus bit back with fervor.

“That is why you use the tanks to continue your flank attacks, but focus all of your infantry on crossing that river, Anton! Pin the flanks, push the center, and you may be able to fold the whole line! You cannot look with disdain at only one part of the situation like this. I will bring up troops of my 1st Panzer Division to help in the coming days but I am sure we can accomplish this with the 13th, if you gather all its strength and act now!”

“Yes sir.” Von Sturm said, his voice a drained monotone.

“Valle Rojo was such a dynamic operation, fast, full of wit and cunning. Can you not draw upon that experience again?” Haus asked, laying a hand on Von Sturm’s shoulder.

Von Sturm trembled. “That situation was very different from this one.” He mumbled.

Haus slapped his hand down on Von Sturm’s shoulder and nearly knocked him down.

Fruehauf sighed. This sight was simply too pathetic for her. She turned away.

Von Drachen raised his hand into the air again. Fruehauf turned from him, too.

Haus said nothing in response to the Cissean; Von Sturm, perhaps reflexively, called on him like a schoolteacher would call on a boy, pointing his finger vacantly at the man.

“I might have an idea for crossing, but I will need a shipping container.” He said.

At once, everyone seemed to regret allowing him to speak. Heads turned, eyes rolled.

“I am returning to my HQ.” Haus declared. “It is the Sd.Kfz. J Sentinel Foot parked outside. Should it perhaps aid in restoring your confidence, I might request another early production model be shipped for your use, Anton. I shall take the opportunity gather your units scattered around the area, and with them, we will bring a full divisional attack force to the Ghede. You stay here and prepare your HQ for it.”

With those words, Haus turned on his heel and left the tent. Cathrin followed behind him, dutifully quiet throughout. She looked back at Fruehauf a final time, largely without expression, though Fruehauf wished to interpret animosity. In turn Fruehauf stuck her tongue out at her, and the woman followed her superior out the door.

Von Sturm stared at the door, as if still seeing the Field Marshal there even after he left.

“I didn’t win Valle Rojo.” He said. He sounded helpless, as if a phantom were interrogating him where he stood. Staring into space, his jaw quivering as he droned.

Fruehauf didn’t want to hear this, but she had no real choice in the matter.

“Then who did?” She shouted, in part curiosity, in part demand.

Von Sturm threw up his hands. He looked about to weep too.

“I got inside information on the anarchist’s positions. That’s how I could do what I did. I don’t know what the Ayvartans are doing! How am I supposed to fight them that way?”

“We’ve built up pretty respectable intelligence on the enemy so far.” Von Drachen chimed in. Von Sturm glared at him over his shoulder, but it was more a look of anguish than one of violence. Like everyone, he seemed to have reached the end of his rope.

“Respectable, but not perfect!” Von Sturm shouted. “I had perfect information on the enemy, where they were moving, exactly how many there were. I could send a man a kilometer downhill in a bicycle and he could avoid every goddamn anarchist, that’s how good our information was. But here? Everything keeps changing. I can’t just keep sending men to their deaths, look what happened in Bada Aso! We know nothing!”

Von Sturm’s face sank into his hands, and he looked about to cry.

Fruehauf scoffed loudly and openly. This was a worthless attitude for a General to take.

Everything here was worthless. Her included; they were truly good for nothing.


“So, Cathrin, what is your assessment?” Haus asked. He sounded amused.

“The 13th Panzer Division ought to have been called something like the 13th Mixed Brigade or the 13th Panzer Leichte. It is undermanned, weak, and poorly structured.”

“Harsh, but there’s a nugget of truth. Do you think it is possible to turn Ghede around?”

“We might as well try to reroute the river under fire, than cross it with these forces.”

“Then I shall reroute the river.” Haus said.

Cathrin Habich followed the Field Marshal into the cramped confines of the Sentinel Foot armored car. She laid next to a radio box set into the side wall, collecting her skirt and settling in a princessly fashion. She pulled a headset free from behind the device and laid it gently over her ears. Meanwhile, Haus dropped atop a crate of 50mm ammo.

He knocked his fist on the armor a few times.

At once, the Sentinel Foot’s eight wheels began to turn, and it accelerated out of the camp. Following the road, the vehicle could reach 80 kilometers per hour, and at this great speed, it would sweep through the 13th’s encampments within a day. Inside the vehicle, Cathrin barely tossed or stirred. She was used to the movements.

“Ah, I hope Achim appreciates what I’m doing for him.” Haus said.

“I’m sure the President is over the moon about your involvement.” Cathrin replied.

“He better be. I’m doin’ this all for him.”

The Field Marshal pulled down his cap over his eyes and laid back.

“Weather looks nice.” Haus said. “How does tomorrow sound for an offensive?”

Cathrin nodded her head dutifully.


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The Fallen General (40.2)


45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

There was still a war going on, though it would’ve been hard to tell in the Kalu.

The 13th Panzer Division tucked its new headquarters well behind any potential hostilities. Located in a warm, sunny clearing surrounded by thick woods that made excellent cover for resting tanks and empty supply depots, the 13th was spread out in a formless cluster, much of its manpower technically “rebuilding” but mostly directionless, linked only by a dirt road that wound through their stretch of woodland.

While some of the Division struggled for the river Ghede and the way into Tambwe, for the majority of the men and women of the 13th, there were no missions, little communication, and only paltry supplies to tide them over during this “rebuilding.”

On a walk around the camps, one could still see, among the people aimlessly coming and going, variety of insignias on chests and shoulders: 2nd Panzer Division, 3rd Panzer Division, 13th Panzergrenadier, 6th Grenadier, Azul, 8th Grenadier (a latecomer to the hostilities that saw no action except in firefighting, but high casualties nonetheless) and a few smaller, lesser known units with long strings of numbers and very low morale.

There was no insignia yet for the 13th Panzer Division that encompassed them all.

Regardless of insignia, everyone had dim prospects for the coming weeks.

Nobody expected they would cross the river, and they fought with defeat in mind.

While in the far eastern flank of Ayvarta the invaders of Shaila had made decent progress invading Dbagbo, the remnants of the Vorkampfer had lost all momentum, and their supply situation sans Bada Aso was in dire straits. Dori Dobo could not handle their supplies, and Cissea’s ports were so far away that the majority of the firepower in Adjar lay idle, waiting for the food and fuel needed to continue.

Still the 13th struggled on.

Up north, that hopeless and hazy war for the river played out sight unseen.

In the Kalu, similarly bizarre struggles transpired behind the doors of the camp tents.

One such tent, set down in the woods far apart from the rest of the camp, was black, unmarked, and unremarked about. It was a special tent, made for its purpose. Behind its inscrutable walls there was an oppressive gloom save for a dim light mildly illuminating the face of a bound Ayvartan woman in a chair.  Pungent, plastic smells inside made it hard to breathe calmly, and the outside world could neither be seen nor heard from within. Icy blue eyes watched the prisoner from dark places. Questions flew at the woman, and threats followed. Sharp implements were prominently displayed as if ready to be used. But the captive paid no attention to the captor, and patience wore thin.

Anton Von Sturm surged forward from the shadows and pounded his fists on a table.

“I’m asking you one last time. This is your final goddamn chance. Tell me everything you know about the new tank program, or you’ll regret holding your tongue!”

There was still no response from the prisoner — not even a turning of the eyes.

“Tell me about Ayvartan positions across the river! Tell me about the state of the government in Solstice! Let me into that head of yours or I swear on my life–”

Across the table the prisoner remained silent and inexpressive, yielding nothing.

“I’m going to set you on fucking fire!” Von Sturm shouted at her in a fit of rage.

Almost casually the prisoner turned her cheek, and her eyes wandered away.

Silence followed for several moments as Von Sturm stewed in this rejection.

Across the tent a man lifted his hand into the air as if to be called on in a classroom.

“Setting her on fire is against the Dahlia 12 agreement.” Von Drachen interjected.

Von Sturm swung around in a fury, waving his fists at Von Drachen instead.

Von Drachen completely turned his cheek, almost casually, mirroring the prisoner.

He shrugged, facing a wall. “And besides, this is not how it works. For example, you can’t tell her it’s her final chance, when you’ve only asked her the question once before.”

“Shut up! Shut up!” Von Sturm shouted. “I ask her once, and then I give her the final chance, that counts, ok! It wouldn’t make sense if the final chance was the only chance, but anything after that works! You goddamn whinging baboon! Shut the fuck up!”

“You have given her several final chances, but all in Nochtish. I don’t think she—”

“Shut up! I’m in command here still, and I order you! Shut up!”

He raised his voice to such a level that it cracked in his throat. None of it could be heard outside, but it reverberated strongly inside the tent and sounded quite unsettling.

At least, unsettling in theory. Neither Von Drachen nor the prisoner reacted strongly.

“This is all very wrong. You need a good cop here. Let me do this, Anton.”

Ignoring Von Sturm’s frantic commands, Von Drachen turned to the prisoner.

He nodded at her. Surprisingly, she nodded back.

“How many women are in the Ayvartan army?” He asked her.

His Ayvartan was fluent and his tone was ordinary and conversational. His body language was yielding rather than aggressive or guarded. He sat across the table from her, relaxed his shoulders, and gestured with his hands. They could have served tea between them, and it would not have been amiss. It was an eerily peaceable scene.

“More than men.” Replied the prisoner. Her voice sounded very dull and affectless.

“Truly?”

“Indeed.”

“I find that interesting. What would you say is the ratio?” Von Drachen asked.

“Sixty-forty.” Replied the captive.

“Incredible! An army more woman than man, and yet, they square off against us so beautifully. Tell me, is it a certain woman, Nakar, who is responsible for your success?”

“You speak our tongue well, imperialist pig.” Replied the captive, avoiding the question.

Von Drachen nodded gently. “I am a Cissean, and I was born during the Ayvartan Empire. So I picked up some here and there, though never formally. Common Cisseans were as a whole poorly literate. I self-taught; so I thank you for the compliment.”

“I see.”

“Aren’t you surprised by my ethnicity?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“Well. Hmm. What do you think of Cissea? It’s right across the border.”

“I think your country is a disgrace to this continent, lying in bed with the Northern Federation. You are betrayers to this land and we will have our vengeance on you.”

Throuhgout the captive spoke without passion. Her words had no more or less force than before, despite the aggression inherent in them. But she had spoken, at least a little. Now she seemed again inclined to silence, staring down at the table.

Nodding, Von Drachen turned to Von Sturm with a grin on his face.

“You must build up a rapport with the prisoner.” He said.

“What the hell did you two talk about?” Von Sturm asked.

“She wants to destroy my country, I think.” Von Drachen replied.

Furiously, Von Sturm pounded his foot on the ground.

He then pounced on the desk again. “I’ll goddamn kill you! Start talking tanks, now!”

Von Drachen sighed.

“You need to give her incentives to answer. Otherwise what is the point?”

Again Von Sturm pointed furiously at the woman across the table.

She started rubbing her feet on one another, staring at the walls indifferently. She was a little scuffed up from her capture but mostly unharmed — she had been caught very recently, wandering half-starved in the Kalu region, over a week after Bada Aso. Dark skin, dark hair, fairly tall, rather slender; typically Ayyartan. Tiny red rings glowed around her eyes; Von Drachen knew not their origin or significance. They had only this one prisoner, and he did not pay particular attention to people’s eyes anyway.

To him, she was just another poor friendly Ayvartan caught up in this mess.

“Listen,” Von Sturm pointed at her even more sharply, touching her nose, “listen here you unfathomable moron. Her incentive, is that I’ll set her on fire if she doesn’t answer!”

“She’s already been set on fire before.” Von Drachen replied. “She lives in the Ayvartan south, my good man. She cannot be set any more on fire. And as I said, such actions against Dahlia 12 anyway, and I’ll have to inform the field marshal if you harm her.”

Von Sturm slapped the palm of his hand against his face. He lowered his voice to a clearly agitated whispering. “You moron, we’re threatening her so she’ll give us information. I’m not actually setting her on fire. I can’t believe you would do this–”

“She doesn’t understand you, my good–”

“–SHUT UP.”

Von Drachen shrugged.

“I am only trying to uphold propriety here, Anton. You start with setting a girl on fire. Then they set their prisoners on fire, if they have any. I don’t know. Next thing you know, we’re setting more of our prisoners on fire. Then they drop chemical weapons on us. Have you seen what phosgene does to a person? We must avoid that at all costs.”

Von Drachen felt that he was being perfectly reasonable, and there was a great disappointment in him for the future of the human race when Von Sturm merely stood and stared at him in confusion, as opposed to changing his ways and accepting this rationale. He saw the General’s hands rise threateningly, shaking, as if ready to–

There was then a stark instant of white sunlight piercing the gloom in the tent.

Entering the lit center of the interrogation area, a slender young woman, tall, soft-featured, with brown hair hanging at the level of her jaw, purple pom-poms dangling from her earrings. Dark circles around her half-closed, sleepy-looking eyes and an unpleasant facial expression attested to the state of her morale. Her dark red lips added the smell of cigarettes and liquor to the artificial scents of the interrogation tent.

“Fruehauf! Finally! A ray of hope in this gloom!” Von Sturm shouted, raising his hands.

“At your disposal, Brigadier.” She drawled; but still sharply punctuated the final word.

Von Sturm winced; likely he felt her pronunciation, a verbal dagger to his proud heart.

Once, Von Sturm had been a Major General. Now he was a lowly Brigadier again.

Despite her intentions, the General took a much gentler, coddling tone with her now.

“Fruehauf, I need you to talk to the prisoner, woman to woman.” Von Sturm said.

Fruehauf slowly raised an eyebrow. “I do not speak Ayvartan, Brigadier.”

“That doesn’t matter. You two have a deeper connection than language. Talk to her.”

“I don’t follow.” Fruehauf groaned. She rubbed her head as if stricken by a sudden pain.

Von Sturm started to talk with his mouth and hands at once. Von Drachen realized to his mute horror that his hands were making far more sense than his mouth at this point.

“Listen, Fruehauf, you, and her, you are linked by these incredibly deep, ancient, powerful and secret oaths of femininity. You are sisters in this world. You two have a history, thousands of years old, developed over hearths and berries and children and humours; no interrogator can unlock that bond! I know once you get in front of her, you’ll be able to plumb the depths of her like no one else can! It’s a woman’s touch!”

There was silence in the tent for several seconds as Von Drachen and Fruehauf struggled to catch up to the monumental proclamations frantically rushing out of Von Sturm’s mouth. His eyes were open too wide and his mouth hung too slack. It seemed every syllable built into an ever more inscrutable edifice, and the fullness of his incoherence was not readily apparent until well after the last word was said. Unraveling this abstract masterpiece of word, Fruehauf scoffed, comprehending enough to be offended.

“What are you talking about? What the hell has gotten into you today?” She said. She turned her head sharply toward Von Drachen. “What the hell has gotten into him?”

“I really cannot say.” Von Drachen replied, stroking his chin, wide-eyed, unsettled.

Von Sturm reached out his hands to her. “Fruehauf, you bring new paradigms here. You’re a communications expert, aren’t you? You need to decrypt this woman.”

Fruehauf crossed her arms and grit her teeth and glared at Von Sturm with deadly intent.

“I’m an electronic communications expert! Brigadier, are you drunker than I?”

She looked and sounded steadily more irritated with the Brigadier General. And since his recent demotion, she was no longer demure about her displeasure. She was raising her voice, and her expression made it clear she was both sober enough and drunk enough now to throttle him. She leaned forward on him, adjusting her height to his own.

Von Sturm squirmed beneath her stature. “Fruehauf, I’m running out of options.”

Fruehauf stared dully at him for a moment and shook her head.

Brigadier, I believe I have several empty frequencies to listen to. Guten tag.”

Turning sharply on her heels, Fruehauf stormed out of the tent.

Flash white; then the gloom settled once again.

“Wait, Fruehauf, please!”

Von Sturm ran after her in complete hysterics.

Again the room was silent and still, save for the rubbing of the prisoner’s feet against one another under the table as she waited. In the furor, she had been forgotten again.

For a while longer Von Drachen turned over Von Sturm’s words in his head. It seemed almost like the kind of thing that would come to Von Drachen’s mind unbidden, and he wondered how and why Von Sturm was siphoning his fancies now before he even had them. It was strangely endearing, and put a smile on his face as he thought of it.

“I feel that I rather like that lad. Is that wrong?” Von Drachen asked.

Behind the table, the prisoner shrugged.


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The Fallen General (40.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Tambwe-Ajdar Border — Ghede River

Despite the amount of bodies pressed to either side of the river, everyone could still hear the sloshing of the water as it rushed downstream. Everyone was silent. Breaths reached farther than bullets, and faster. Ghede was a slow conquest, and an even slower defense.

Eyes peered over boulders, around sandbags, over grass-covered outcroppings upon which they lay belly-down with scopes and binoculars, peering downhill or uphill over the stream. Shadows flitted around trees, behind bushes. The opposing fronts were separated by only the width of the Ghede. In some areas the lines were as close as a hundred meters. Had it not been for the water they could have charged bayonet-first.

Despite the water, charging bayonet-first was still the choice outcome.

In several places the Ghede was only a half-dozen meters deep, and the rhythm of the battle was predicated on this fact. Men could swim across, if given the opportunity.

Lacking the mobility to cross quickly, the dueling sides fell into a war of munitions.

On the Nochtish side, mortar tubes were gathered by the dozens. Anti-tank and artillery guns of small calibers were pushed to the line of bushes at the edge of the wood, fifty meters from the river and nearly three hundred from the nearest Ayvartan position – not much, but enough to go unnoticed. Snipers climbed to the bushy canopy and adjusted their scopes. Light M5 tanks hid behind the tree line, and adjusted their guns to the same shooting tables in use by the anti-tank guns. Across a river they were merely mobile guns. There would be not armored blitzkrieg over the water of the Ghede yet.

Lines of foxholes formed a divide eerily reminiscent of the battles of the Unification War period, where two trench lines separated by a thousand meter no-man’s-land stared at one another for months, some years, before new technology entered the picture and caused a shift. Whether the abominable but ultimately slight shift caused by chemical weapons – or the dramatic, tide-turning shift caused by the entry of Nochtish tanks.

No new technology would cause a shift here in the Ghede, and the soldiers only wished they had a professional-looking trench line. Scattered foxholes and sandbag walls were broken up by the dips and rises of the uneven riverbanks, and the intermittently rocky and sandy and grassy terrain. Riflemen scraped from various divisions, agglomerated into the new 13th Panzer Division, waited sleepily for the next offensive to be declared.

There had been a few previous build-ups and failed attacks, but the lull between them felt like years’ worth of peace. Munitions built up, and men awaited commands, but on the Nochtish side of the Ghede there was a lazy, almost contented mood, like that of a holiday. There were no Generals here, no shouting orders, just distant voices, the sporadic tossing of a few shells, and half-hearted attempts to wade into the foam.

Bullets wailed and blood splashed, but after the fact everything was easily forgotten.

Until the next build-up, the next command word, the next attack.

“Noble cause.”

When the command came the landser crouched beside the field radio box could scarcely identify it as such. He raised an eyebrow at the strange call and the handset shifted against his ear with the shaking of his hand. Turning his head, he signaled to his superiors nearby that he was on the line. He then cleared his throat, and called back.

“Say again?”

“Noble cause,” came Chief of Signals Fruehauf’s voice once more.

“Noble cause?”

Fruehauf did not reply and the line went suddenly dead.

For several moments the radio man stood staring off into the distance.

He shook his head and his wits returned to him. Noble cause was the command.

That meant this build-up was now complete, and all munitions were to be released.

“We’ve been activated.” He whispered to the nearest man. “Pass it on.”

Word spread quietly across the line. Ayvartans monitored the radio traffic, or so everyone had been told; and they could see and hear across the river fairly well during quiet periods like this one. Therefore the rallying cry could not be loud or electric. Hands and tongues passed along the command, across every gun in the 10.5 cm battery, through the hatches of every M5 Ranger, behind the shields of every 37mm doorknocker gun, to every three-man Norgler machine gun team, into every foxhole and sniper nest.

“Noble cause, we’ve been activated.”

Guns of all sizes were loaded. Discarded helmets set back on vacant heads. Bayonets lugged, for no clear purpose. Men scrambled up, looking out over the river once more. Their movements were mechanical, reflexive, their minds still catching up to the events.

Once the entire river-front had been alerted, a runner was sent back to the guns.

Infantry would fire after the mortars and cannons drew the first blood.

With his upper body bowed low the man took off running.

He made it scarcely a few meters before he heard death whistle overhead.

A column of gray smoke and dirt, seething with hot metal, blossomed behind the trenches, and the runner went flying into a nearby tree, splashing blood and flesh.

They were preempted, despite careful planning.

The Ayvartans had gotten wind of the impending attack.

No sooner had the landsers noticed their dead man that munitions started falling over their line by the dozen, exploding all along the river-front. Small mortar shells came quickest, hitting the earth hundreds a minute along every kilometer of enemy positions, casting thin plumes of smoke and dirt into the air. Fragments of metal went flying over every foxhole and trench, and men huddled to their knees to escape the airborne death.

Following the mortars came the ponderous fire of much larger guns, striking farther behind the front, smashing trees, vaporizing bushes, torching holes into the thick green canopy above. Chunks of wood like flying stakes joined the shell fragments in the air. Thousands of fragments and fast-flying debris struck shields and thick trunks and the metal armor of tanks, hitting cover with such frequency it resembled automatic fire.

Amid the thunderous pounding of the enemy artillery, Landsers scrambled to their combat positions, bracing machine guns over rocks, pulling up to the edge of the riverbank on their bellies or scarcely above their holes and raising their battle rifles. As they joined battle their green tracers flew over the water, snapping branches and biting into rocks and flying into bushes. Between the rhythmic pounding of enemy ordnance the infernal noise of the norgler machine guns filled the silence, and lit the air green.

Lines of green bullets stretched over the river, and lines of red flew back the other way.

Behind the infantry line the air stirred as the 10.5 cm batteries finally retaliated.

Within the opposing tree-line the Nochtish fighters saw bright flashes as their own shells went off on the enemy, raising their own pillars of turf and metal as they struck.

There were flashes brighter still as enemy guns lobbed shells directly over their heads.

At the center of the line, a boulder was smashed to pieces as a 122mm Ayvartan gun struck it with direct fire. Chunks of hot rock struck against helmets and sandbags.

Red machine gun tracers from the Ayvartan side bounced off rocks and kicked up lines of dirt and overflew the foxholes, chopping up bushes behind them. Men scrambled to keep under the slicing red lines, unable to hear the thock-thock-thock of the Ayvartan machine gun over the cacophony of explosives landing by the dozens all around them.

Snipers perched atop the trees briefly glanced at the fire flying under their feet before returning to their scopes. They peered across the river, trying to discern the shadows from the enemy troops. The Ayvartan’s side of the river had much less space between the water and the treeline, and the entire Ayvartan line was cloaked in the vegetation.

But the difference between a rustling branch and a shooter was obvious – one flashed red and the other did not. Aiming for the muzzle flashes, snipers shot into the dark, moving from flash to flash in the hopes of scoring a maiming hit. As positions shifted and munitions discharged, however, new flashes and new targets appeared, as if a hundred shining eyes belonging to a monster, and no real effect could be discerned.

Joining the rest of the artillery, the company of M5 Rangers assisting the river offensive dug into the forest and fired blindly into the sky and through the trees, following the coordinates on the shooting tables. Theirs was the most solipsistic work within the battle. Encased in metal, the gunner and commander could hardly see around them in the wood, and the work of shooting was purely mathematical. They were shielded entirely from retaliatory fire, and only when the tank shifted positions to protect itself did the crew seem to awaken from the mechanical slumber of shooting and loading.

In theory an enemy was being hit, but the tank crews would not know it. Even the landsers at the front line, withstanding the brunt of the enemy barrages, couldn’t tell a tank shell apart from any other artillery, much less guess at whether it was accurate. It was all explosions to them, dirt flying and metal slicing through the air and fire briefly rising and abating within seconds. Whether across the river or around them.

Fire and fragments, an atmosphere thick with smoke; everyone was awakening from their dream-like haze to the violence of the Ghede. The first injured were dragged away through the tree-line, and men rushed from behind the tanks to take up vacated holes. Guns and tanks and machine gunners took the lead from the riflemen who clumsily began the battle, and the munitions war played out over every foxhole and trench.

Across days of the mind this war raged, but in the physical realm it was only minutes.

Then the final shell crashed down on the Nochtish side. Nobody was hurt.

Slowly the fire subsided, the colored lines vanishing from the air. Silence followed. Only the crackling of dust, falling to earth, could be heard. Neither side launched an attack.

Within the hectic moment of this offensive, nobody had bothered to cross the water.


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The Fallen Front (39.3)

This scene contains violence.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

Supply drops had long ceased to be happy events. Their infrequency and the disappointment felt division-wide at the contents of each delivery, led the landsers to feel only bitterness at the sight of the thick Stud trucks making the rounds up and down from Dori Dobo.

Nobody crowded the trucks anymore. Only Kern and Aschekind awaited them; the driver, long since tired of arguments and blame, remained stubbornly inside the cab.

Corporal Kern Beckert was far too familiar with the waiting and disappointment.

It was too early, he thought, to be awake for this business. He was only as awake as he was because the Lieutenant had woken him. Aschekind was a massive man, heads taller than Kern, much broader, a slab of muscle buried beneath a trenchcoat and cap. For someone so rough-looking, the Lieutenant had so far been mostly accommodating. Kern had never turned down a request from him, however, for fear of his attitude changing.

Aschekind had not woken him with words. His mere presence, letting in light into the tent, was enough to shake anyone. Kern followed him out, and there they stood, waiting.

In the distance, the old Stud model 3-ton truck from General Auto approached along an ancient dirt road, through an avenue of tall grass encircled by the tree line. The Stud drove until adjacent to them, and paused momentarily. Lieutenant Aschekind turned around, and like a loyal dog the truck followed him. Kern followed in the truck’s smoking wake.

Though he had served in the once-illustrous 1st Vorkampfer as they triumphantly marched on Bada Aso, Kern was more a jittery boy than a seasoned veteran. He felt ever more childish whenever he had to accompany the Lieutenant on these routine tasks. Too intimidated to lead any maneuver, Kern confined himself to staring at the Lieutenant’s back.

It did not help that his unit was in as pathetic a shape as he felt himself to be in.

After being explosively expelled from Bada Aso, the Vorkampfer remnants had been scattered across the Kalu, a stretch of rolling green hills, rocky escarpments and a patchwork of dense forest that marked the transition from Bada Aso and Adjar to the verdure of Tambwe farther north. It took almost a week to gather everyone farther north of the burning city and inform them of their preliminary new assignments.

That assignment would be reorganizing into the new 13th Panzer Division.

Currently the nascent Division was series of small clusters of tents spread across a peaceful wooded stretch of the Kalu near the Umaiha river in northern Ajdar. Each encampment housed a company-sized formation still clinging to its own as if distrustful of higher command. Lieutanant Aschekind was in charge of this one, known as Camp Ash.

They were short on everything, and had not spoken to a rank above Captain in days.

Trucks like this old Stud should have been a shining light, but they hardly helped. Camp Ash needed a train cart full of supplies to equip its 300 men. But there were no trains, no boats, no planes. Only the wood, and only a truck of food and water every other day.

Their supply area was downright paltry. As it approached, the truck seemed big enough to have taken all of the tents and all of the food and ammunition they had left with it.

Once acknowledged and pointed to where he had to go, the driver backed up the truck. He stopped close to one of the supply tents erected under the shade of a cluster of trees, and killed the engine. This was the signal for unloading to begin without him.

Lieutenant Aschekind pulled down the ramp at the back of the truck. A foul smell suddenly wafted out from inside the canopy tarp and from between the crates inside the truck bed.

When the smell hit Kern’s nose he recoiled physically.

It was disgusting, a salty smell, cloying and dense.

The Lieutenant climbed the ramp; it was implicit that Kern must climb with him.

He reluctantly stepped up onto the bed and soon tearfully regretted his decision.

Inside the back of the truck they found a complete mess. Crates had overturned in transit. Many had been broken, and the rations inside had been contaminated and stank. Several water cans had fallen on their caps, which broke and spilled water that collected on ration boxes. Those cans which had managed to remain upright, had lost their contents mysteriously. Perhaps to evaporation in the arid central plains of Adjar.

Kern covered his mouth and nose with his hands and turned away from the sight.

Lieutenant Aschekind, livid, stomped out of the truck and snatched the driver from the cab.

He threw the man into the bed, slamming him into one of the broken crates.

Kern winced as the man quivered on the bed of the truck, disoriented.

“I demand an explanation.” Aschekind said, in a low, deliberate, dangerous voice.

Shaking, the driver glanced over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the mess.

“I– I don’t know! I had nothing to do with this! I just pack the boxes in and hurry out!”

Aschekind scoffed, staring the man down. “That is exactly the problem.”

“I was just told to drive here as fast as possible!” shouted the driver.

“Then you had better drive back as fast as possible.” Aschekind said.

“I’ll get another truckload! I’ll– I’ll be more careful with it! I promise!”

“Get moving.” Aschekind shouted. His voice was like the grunt of a rhinocerous.

He waved for Kern to leave the truck, and the young landser stepped off the ramp.

Left alone, the driver scrambled back into the cab and without so much as another glance at the soldiers he whirled the truck back around and rushed out of the trees.

Kern watched the truck go, his stomach growling miserably, still upset by the stench. Once it had vanished down the little hill at the edge of the camp, disappearing behind the grasses, Kern gave their little supply tents a depressed once-over. They would be even smaller and more depleted soon enough. It had taken days for that truck to come.

Unlike the young landser, the Lieutenant committed none of his time to sulking.

“We will need water.” Aschekind said. He turned to Kern. “Food we can acquire.”

Kern nodded his head. During basic training he had been told that a man could survive the average Ayvartan climate for a week without food, but only a day without water. He had also been instructed as to where he could acquire water in a survival situation, and while there were no cactus plants nearby, there was one obvious location that came to mind.

“What about the Umaiha? We can collect water from there.” Kern said.

Aschekind wasted no time shutting him down.

“Not for drinking. Unless you desire to catch an exotic southern disease.”

Kern averted his eyes. So much for basic training. He turned back toward the road.

“Where then?” He asked.

Aschekind sounded solemn. “There was an Ayvartan village on the way here.”

“What? But we can’t trust them! They’re the enemy aren’t they?” Kern said.

He wasn’t even sure why the words left his mouth. He thought he had given things better thought than this. All throughout Bada Aso his mind had wandered and turned over his purpose for being here, and the idea of what the Ayvartans were. He had seen so many, fought so many, killed so many of them. He had spared a few too.

Now they were again “the enemy,” just that, nothing more. He was afraid of them.

It was an ugly reflex that he hated, but it was what overcame him in that instant.

Captain Aschekind did not reveal any emotion to him. He didn’t even blink.

“They are not the enemy, Beckert. They are civilians. I will send someone else.”

The landser gulped, trying to swallow down his childish trepidation toward the task.

“No, I’ll go.” Kern said suddenly. “I-I’ve got nothing to do. I want to be useful.”

There was no pause to punctuate the moment. It was as if the Lieutenant expected this.

“I pray you do not make a mess of things.” Aschekind said. “Listen well. Find one man to accompany you. Take the Sd.Kfz B that we hid in the bushes, and load it with the water tank. Remove the Norglers from it. Put this on the radio antenna.” From his coat, Aschekind withdrew a white towel and deposited it firmly on Kern’s open palms. “Drive south and east along the dirt road. You can’t miss the village, it will be at your side. Fill the tank with water at the village well. Use your Ayvartan phrasebook. Remember: you come in peace.”

Kern nodded his head. He pulled his rifle off his shoulder, and dropped it near the supply tents along with its bayonet, all of his stripper clips of 7.92 ammunition, all of his flares and his stick grenades. “Coming in peace” meant no long weapons and no explosives of any designation. Only his sidearm, which he was clear to take with him anywhere.

Saluting his commanding officer, Kern marched back toward the dirt road, crossed it, and beyond the grasses on its other side he entered a cluster of woods under which the barracks had been established. It was not much of an accommodation. Their company was living out of a tent village, five men to a small tarp, and ten men to a larger one.

Kern passed his own tent, slid down a little slope in the dirt, and found a small tent braced around a thick, arching tree root. He pulled open the flap and knocked on a man’s head.

“Voss, wake up. We’re going somewhere.” Kern said authoritatively.

Voss groggily raised his head from a sack he was using as a pillow. “Where?”

“A village. We need to get water. Lieutenant’s orders.” Kern said.

“Can I drive?” Voss asked, smiling blearily.

Kern nodded, chuckling to himself.

Voss was perhaps the closest thing he had to a friend in the armed forces. They had met in Bada Aso, lost their entire unit together, and nearly burned alive. He was older than him, perhaps by a decade even, but Kern never dared to ask by exactly how much.

Together, the two of them crossed the dirt road once more, this time farther across from the supply area and into a dense part of the forest that had yet to be cleared of low lying bushes. There were no tents here, but behind some of the greenery, Kern found the Sd.Kfz B, with its broad nose and open bed, fully armored. He climbed on the back, unhinged the Norgler machine guns from their posts, and threw them back into the bush. He attached the white towel to the radio antenna. Hopefully it was a visible enough sign of good intention.

Once the water tank was set up on the back of the half-track, Voss took the wheel.

“You ok with fast, Kern? Because I only learned to drive one speed.” He said.

“We do need to hurry, but please take care–”

Voss started the engine and hit the igniter repeatedly to make noise.

“I can’t hear you over this baby purring like that! I assume you’re ok!”

Before any further protest could be made, Voss rammed his foot on the pedal.

Thankfully for both of them, the top speed on a Squire was 52 km/h, which, although speedy, was not as life-threateningly fast as a Wilford car would have been in Voss’ hands. At Voss’ insistence, the Half-Track sped through the bush at top speed, turned onto the road and drove downhill and then eastward in the direction of the Kucha, following the dirt road.

It was quite cramped inside the compartment of the Squire. There was barely enough room for the driver and the passenger. They did not even have doors, only a window on each side and two small windows in front. Behind them, the infantry bed looked quite inviting, much more spacious and open. One could only exit the vehicle by jumping over the side of the bed.

“Go on out! We’ll take turns driving and standing, to keep comfy.”

“I’m not sure I can drive it!” Kern said.

“It’s easy! You just go forward. I’ll teach you. Go get some air.”

Voss pushed Kern, and the landser stepped out of the driving compartment and stood up on the bed, clinging onto the roof of the cab. There was a much clearer field of view. Instead of metal, the predominant smell was the pungent odor of thick, moist grass.

At their side the treeline sped past, and the grasses swayed with the wind. On the road there was open blue sky overhead, as the canopy did not extend enough to cover it.

Kern pulled off his garrison cap and stuffed it in his jacket as it threatened to fly away. His blond hair was still short but had grown enough to whip a little in the wind. He didn’t mind it. Soon they left the trees behind and the wind blew faster and freer. Past the trees they saw the mountain range in the distance, stretching on a scale too grand to fathom, curling around the eastern edge of the Kalu. The Kucha mountain range was enormous enough to cleave the lower half of the Ayvartan continent into two fairly distinct regions.

Perhaps half-way through the journey, they switched places. Kern sat on the driver’s seat, pressed the pedal down gently, and kept the wheel steady. Slowly they began to lose the speed Voss had accrued, but they were going steady. It was easier than Kern had thought.

Voss stepped outside, and stuck his head up into the wind, smiling brightly.

“It’s almost like a greeting card landscape!” He said. “Except for us two!”

He had a grin on like a fox. Kern had to silently disagree with him. He thought Voss looked rather picturesque. When they met, Kern thought he looked scruffy, with a patchy beard and messy hair. In the hospital, they had cleaned him up completely. Now he looked younger, a bit stubbly, but with fine facial features. He was almost a pretty-boy.

Meanwhile, Kern was only average-looking boy from the farmlands of the northern federation, he thought. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, athletic enough, fine-featured. His clean face was starting to grow a little stubble. He didn’t want a beard, but he hated shaving.

He was in all things unimpressive, unlike Voss, unlike Aschekind.

Voss was not outside for long however. He quickly asked to switch places.

“I prefer to be behind the wheel.” He said, tapping Kern on the shoulder.

Once he took control again, he instantly hit the limits of the Squire’s speed again.

Kern found that Lieutenant Aschekind had been right about the village — he definitely could not have missed it. Following the road down another hillside, they found the village stretching out below them, a stretch of brick houses divided by a little brook, a thin vein linking the village to the Umaiha river. It was a rustic place of unpainted buildings each with a neighboring tree, criss-crossing dirt paths, and personal garden plots. As they drove closer, Kern saw men and women working on collecting herbs and tomatoes and squash.

As one the villagers peered over their gardens and through their windows as they heard the sound of the engine. They stood, transfixed, as the Sd.Kfz. drove closer and parked on the road just meters away from a communal granary on the outskirts of the village. Kern saw a few curious people coming closer to the road, but most of the villagers kept their distance.

“What should we do?” Kern said. He searched his coat for his phrasebook.

“Go talk to them. Say you come in peace.” Voss said.

“You’ll be staying here then?” Kern asked.

“I’ll watch your back. Anything bad happens, shout. I’ll drive in.”

Kern was skeptical that he would even hear any shouting over the noisy engine.

Phrasebook in hand, flipping to the page for greetings, he jumped off the side of the bed and walked down the road. Past the granary was the first little grouping of shelters. Square brick buildings with flat tin and wood roofs, standing up from the ground on squat columns of rock. They looked weathered and old. Tall, dark-haired, deep bronzed women dressed in what Kern could only describe as colorful drapes and robes, some carrying children or holding them by the hand, stood guarded on porches and doorways, staring at him.

“Hujambo!” Kern shouted, waving his hand.

Nobody replied. They continued to stare at him. A few moments later, men had joined the women in the houses. They were all dressed similarly, though some men bared their chests. They stood with the women — perhaps wives, fathers, brothers, he didn’t know. Kern stood in place, keeping a dozen meters from the nearest house, still standing at the edge of the road. He feared encroaching on the families. He flipped through his book.

“Um, Paani, chahiye, mujhe?” He said; he was trying to ask them for water.

Again there was no response. Merely staring; there was a variety of expressions on their faces, but in his anxiety Kern could not tell whether they were angry or fearful or what.

When the units that would come to be known as the 13th Panzer Division first rolled through here, they had each left the village well alone and traveled quickly past. So much so that Kern barely remembered coming through here. Perhaps he had been asleep at the time. At any rate it would be the job of the transitional authority and the security divisions to “assist in the smooth transfer of governmental power,” whatever that meant — it was far from Kern’s task or any landser’s task to take over these villages. As a line unit, they fought Ayvartan line units. They did not act as police or diplomats or governors.

Kern wondered what could be going through the villager’s minds, seeing him standing there, his armored vehicle in the background, shouting at them broken words of their language. He had not been trained to talk to them, to negotiate with them. In the back of his mind, he told himself that he had only been trained to kill them. He felt disgusted –disgusted with this. Disgusted with himself for having the gall to appear before them and ask for favors.

He tried again, reading the pronunciation keys for the words, slowly enunciating them.

Someone shouted something back. A woman waved her hand at him. It was a throwing gesture, but nothing was thrown. Perhaps she was telling him to go away. He sighed.

“Paani–”

“Please be quiet. Your voice only offends us.”

He heard words of perfect Nochtish and his head snapped to the source of the sounds.

Coming in from around the houses was a woman, a familiar sort of woman, pretty, slender, short compared to several of the Ayvartans but average height for him. She had long, flowing golden hair and blue eyes. Her skin was a light olive color, fair, and her lips thin and painted red; she wore a modest black dress, with a white shawl, and a small black cap.

Around her slender neck hung a necklace with a golden cross.

There was one incongruity — a pair of noticeably sharp ears. She was of elvish descent.

And she was unhappy with him, clearly. He read nothing but hatred on her face.

Kern bowed his head in respect. She was a sister of the Messianic church.

“Do not bow to me, but to the God you shun. Why are you here?” She asked.

She approached to within a few steps of him. For some of the way there were a few Ayvartan women with her, but they stayed behind as she stepped within Kern’s presence.

“I’m sorry sister, I’m Corporal Kern Beckert of the 13th Panzer Division of the Federation of the Northern States Task Force Stonewall, Oberkommando Suden.” He said quickly.

“We walk under God, Corporal.” She said, a common phrase of introduction or greeting among certain sects of the church. “My name is Selene Lucci. I’m no longer an official nun for Ayvarta’s tenuous connection to the church was cut by the See five years ago. You need not call me sister. I do not want your honorifics. What is your business here? You ought to leave us all alone. You’ve done damage enough already.” She said.

Kern averted his eyes from her, cowed by the swift barrage of words. He could not muster a reply immediately. He knew she was right and it made him stop to simmer a few seconds.

“My unit is in desperate need of water supplies.” He said, staring at her shoes.

“Drink from the river Umaiha.” She said. Her tone of voice was painfully unconcerned.

“We might catch diseases from the river.” Kern pathetically replied.

“Welcome to the struggle for life, Corporal.” Selene said sarcastically.

“Please, we just want to fill our water tank from the well.” Kern begged.

“And you will leave after?” Selene asked.

Kern nodded. He felt lower than a gnat picking at one of her ears.

Her disapproving expression softened slightly.

She turned around, shouting something at the villagers, and turned back.

“Tell your man to follow us, but to keep his truck the length of your pump hose behind us. I will lead you slowly to the water well. You will draw, and then you will leave. Talk only to me — do not address anyone else. Do not go near anyone else. Just me.”

Without a word more she started ambling casually toward the village.

Kern ran clumsily back toward the Sd.Kfz. B. He raised his head through Voss’ window.

“Who’s the broad? She’s a real diamond in this dung-pile.” Voss said, grinning.

Kern shook his head at him. “Follow us, and keep a wide berth.”

“Aww. I kinda wanted to get her name.”

“Shut up and go.”

Kern slapped his hand twice on the side of the Squire and then ran forward.

Voss started slowly behind him.

When Kern caught back up to Selene she was winding around past the houses again. They cut through the center of the village. There was a wooden building still flying the Hydra flag — Kern felt intimidated by its presence, but there seemed to be nobody there. He saw another construction he recognized as one of those Civil Canteens, also empty. Much of the town square, such as it was, consisted of these abandoned official buildings.

“You needn’t become alarmed. Locals work out of these buildings. There are no communist agents here unless you consider every citizen one.” Selene said.

Kern nodded his head silently. Following the elf across the main dirt path through the village, and over a little bridge across the brook, he tried not to stare intently at anything or anyone. There were villagers, all frozen in place wherever they happened to have been upon his arrival, staring, guarded. There were maybe a few hundred people.

Every so often Selene would say something in Ayvartan, or respond to a shouted question by one of the villagers. She sounded quite skilled in that language too.

“Are there any soldiers here?” Kern asked.

Selene bristled. “Do you realize what you are doing here, Corporal?”

She turned her head over her shoulders, glaring at him.

“You are a stone’s throw away from our farmlands — collective farmlands. You have come here to destroy everything we need to live. Don’t think we do not know it.”

She said nothing more to him. Kern felt initially shocked, and didn’t understand. What did a collective farm have to do with him? Her words had stunned him. Of course, a moment’s worth of evaluation led him to the quick truth. Collective farms were a thing done by the government in Solstice. Nocht did not come here to uphold such concepts.

For all he knew the villagers might think he was here to steal their land.

Thinking about it further, that was exactly what he was doing.

He wanted desperately to leave. He didn’t want to stay here another second.

Behind them the Sd.Kfz half-track dutifully followed. The villagers gave it a very wide berth, and it in turn gave them plenty of space as well. Eventually, Selene nodded her head mysteriously at Kern, and Kern, seeing the village’s water well ahead, signaled for the half-track to stop. Voss immediately hit the brake, but he did not kill the engine.

Kern walked back to him.

“So what’s her name?” Voss asked amicably.

“Selene. It doesn’t matter.”

“Says you! So what’s the plan?”

“We’ll get the water and go.”

“Sounds good. These folks are creepy as hell. I hate that I can’t understand what they say. They could be plotting something and we wouldn’t know what.” Voss replied.

Kern sounded exasperated. “They’re not plotting anything. Just calm down.”

He walked past Voss’ window and climbed on the back of the bed, where they had tied the water tank to the end of the half-track using steel climbing wire. Kern removed a very heavy red cloth pack fastened to the back of the water tank and set it down on the bed. He unpacked, fueled up and assembled the “portable” water pump, which had its own little engine, and attached one hose to the tank. He dragged the other length of water hose back out toward the well, where Selene stood sentinel beneath the trees.

They were far enough from the village now that there was not an Ayvartan for several hundred meters. The well was in a little thicket of trees straddling the eastern-most side of the village, well past the brook, well past the last houses. Kern thought perhaps this was not the well the villagers normally used — but looking down into it, there was plenty of water within the stone cylinder cut into the earth. It suited his purposes just fine.

He dropped the hose into it, ran back, started the pump, and returned to the well.

Water started to suck into the house. Now it was just a matter of time.

He looked up from the well at Selene, who crossed her arms and watched him.

“Thank you.” He said.

She did not reply. She merely stared at him.

Kern felt a stirring of shame in his stomach. He wanted to talk to her — he found it so confusing that she would be here, that she would be accepted among these people.

His voice shook as he overcame his anxiety. “Can I ask you a question?” He said.

“I’ve not much choice but to endure it.” Selene quickly replied.

“Why are you here?” He asked. It was not eloquent, but it go to the point.

Selene sighed lightly. “I was sent here on a mission years ago.”

“I did not know the Messianic church sent missions to Ayvarta.”

“They used to, but only when they needed to be rid of scandalous nuns.”

Her voice was so cutting and direct, it made Kern feel more childish and petty.

“Are you a communist? Is that why you remain here?” Kern asked.

“I am whatever one is when one tries to live peacefully here.” Selene sharply said.

Kern thought her expression was proud and haughty and it upset him a little.

“Are you an atheist now too then?” He asked, a little more directly than he wanted.

“I have found God in this land to be quite flexible.” She replied.

Kern almost felt annoyed with her answer, but he tried to keep calm.

“Solstice killed millions to make the country to go communist. Is God flexible enough now to condone that? Does He turn his head from that history now?” Kern said.

He didn’t even know why he was arguing, much less why he was saying the things in the leaflets he got when he was shipped here to fight. He had a reflex to explain himself, to defend himself, but the words in his head and the words in his mouth came out muddled and he knew he was not succeeding. He knew he was not convincing her.

“History? Will you blame Ayvarta for everyone you’ve needlessly killed here too?”

She crossed her arms and stared critically at him. Kern closed his fists.

“We’re here to free these lands from Solstice so there can be peace.” He declared.

“I don’t find death very liberating or peaceful, but I guess that’s my aberration.”

“We are not just here to kill people.” Kern said. Even he was unable to truly believe that. But it was all he could say, because he childishly needed to fight her judgments on him.

“No, you’re right — you’re chiefly here to rob them, not kill them. Killing is just a tool you’ll use for burglary. When the communists killed Imperials they gave the Imperial lands back to the villagers. You’ll kill the villagers to give the village land back to the Imperials.”

Selene’s expression did not change. She was not becoming any more agitated with him. She was still upright and strong where he was unsure and weak. She was winning.

Kern turned his head and looked down the well again. The hose had stopped pumping.

He picked it up in a huff and made to get away from her.

Suddenly Selene grabbed hold of the hose.

She locked gazes with him, contesting his grip on the hose with one hand and grabbing him directly with the other. They were so close he could see himself reflected in her eyes.

“You are a naive kid here playing soldier. Your mind is not your own right now. I advise you to stop. You can stop. All of you can stop. For the love of God — just leave.”

She let go of the hose and Kern took it back. Shaking his head, he made for the Squire.

Standing outside the vehicle he found Voss approaching the well.

Voss had his pistol out.

“Voss, what are you doing?” Kern asked.

It was not pointed at him, of course. So it had to be pointed at someone else.

Voss was aiming at Selene.

“They’re at the fucking bridge. There’s a crowd.”

“So?” Kern asked. “We’ll get out.”

“That goddamn phrasebook isn’t gonna get us out. We need a guarantee.”

Kern blinked, uncomprehending. “Voss, what? What is with you right now?”

Selene stared at them both defiantly, not moving from her place.

“Lady, get over here, you’re coming with us.” Voss demanded. He ignored Kern.

Kern was speechless. He didn’t understand at all what was happening.

“Voss, we don’t need to do this. We got the water. They’ll let us out.” Kern said.

He said it as though the facts could reason with Voss, not yet realizing that neither Voss, nor any of this, was about facts, or about reason. That pistol did not move a millimeter.

“You’re too naive, Kern.” Voss said. He extended his firearm toward the elfin girl.

Shaking her head, Selene raised her hands and walked out to the half-track.

Kern stared helplessly as Voss lifted her onto the half-track bed, climbed after her and handcuffed her to the water tank. Kern climbed after, his entire body shaking. Voss thrust his pistol into Kern’s hands. “You watch her, I’ll drive. Villagers try anything, pretend you’re gonna shoot. We’ll take her to camp. They’ll have to let us out.”

Kern wanted to shout that they did not need to do this, that the villagers would just let them out, that they did not have to kidnap this woman for any reason, that what they were doing was abusive and violent and disproportionate and wrong– none of that came out of him. He watched, as if a bystander to his own movements, as everything unfolded. Wordlessly he climbed onto the bed. He didn’t turn the gun on Selene. He still had that much of himself. But he did not release her. He could have; he could have done a lot.

There was no sign on her face of fear or distress. She looked closer to disappointed.

Voss drove the Half-Track back toward the bridge over the brook. He was right, there was a small crowd there, watching them. People started to block the bridge as they approached. Perhaps they had seen the events unfolding. As the Sd.Kfz. approached within meters of the bridge, the crowd started to grow agitated. Voices were raised.

Kern, standing on the bed, could not understand what was being said. He tried to catch the sounds and match them to things in the phrasebook, but it was quite hopeless.

A rock flew past him from across the bridge. It hit the water tank.

“Get out of the way or I’ll crush you!” Voss shouted. He revved the engine.

Before the situation escalated further, Selene stood as well as she could with her hands tied behind her back to the water tank, and leaned partially over the side of the bed.

She spoke some sentences in Ayvartan.

Reluctantly, the crowd began to part. Weary expressions adorned each face.

Voss hit the gas rushed out of the village.

Children and young men and women gave chase to the half-track, throwing stones in anger at the rear armor and the water tank and the wheels until Voss had cleared the buildings and hit the dirt road again. Then he picked up enough speed to leave everyone well behind. Selene settled back down against the tank, sighing deeply.

Kern stared helplessly, the gun feeling affixed to his hand. “I’m sorry.” He said.

“Perhaps God will forgive you before you die. I never will.” Selene said.

Her words hit Kern like a cold lance, and he was quiet the entire trip. No longer did the mountains and the grasses have any effect on him. He could not enjoy them as an invader, as an abuser, who had broken a border, ravaged a city, terrorized a village and taken prisoners. He felt his mind unraveling with the prospect of what he was doing and yet he could not stop. He could not conceive of how to extricate himself from this.

Deep in his agonizing ruminations, Kern failed to notice the base coming in closer.

Lieutenant Aschekind stood along the road, waiting for them.

When the half-track stopped at his side, he peered at the contents.

His eyes drew wide at the sight of the girl cuffed to the water tank.

Voss jumped the side of the half-track, stood before Aschekind and saluted.

“Sir, faced with hostilities in the village, we took a hostage to escape safely with the water tank. I take full responsibility. But the prisoner may be useful. She speaks both fluent Nochtish and Ayvartan. I think she can help us make use of the surrounding–”

Lieutenant Aschekind did not allow Voss to continue speaking.

Mid-sentence he seized the man by the neck and lifted him with one hand.

Voss squirmed, his arms and legs flailing in mid-air.

Gritting his teeth, Aschekind slammed Voss down into the dirt road.

Cracks formed in the packed, dry earth where Voss crashed down.

Voss ceased to thrash. He curled on his side, shaking, drooling.

Stretching his arm over the half-track, Aschekind seized Kern by the collar of his shirt.

Kern froze — he could feel the man’s monstrous strength through that loose grip.

“I will give you the privilege of explaining your atrocity, before you join him in the floor.”

Lieutenant Aschekind lifted him from the bed of the half-track.

Selene averted her eyes.

One final swerve saved Kern from this well deserved beating.

A bugle call sounded in the distance.

Lieutenant Aschekind turned to the road and let Kern drop from his hands.

There was a black vehicle approaching — it resembled a Sd.Kfz. Squire like the one Kern had previously occupied, but its nose was broader, its hull closer to the ground, and it had eight wheels, instead of two and a pair of tracks. Most strikingly, the vehicle was fully enclosed, and atop the driver’s compartment there was a Sentinel turret.

On the front of the machine there was a white oakleaf and a big red number 1.

It was the insignia of the 1st Panzer Army of Field Marshal Dietrich Haus.


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The Fallen Front (39.2)


42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — Citadel Nocht, Soundproof Room

[START OF RECORDING]

BERGER: It is the 42nd of the Aster’s Gloom.

FOSS: God it sounds like a workshop rubberwheel. Is it on?

LEHNER: You better hope so, because I’m not takin’ any notes.

BERGER: It is recording, mein herr.

FOSS: How long can it go for?

BERGER: We have an hour’s worth of spool in the machine.

FOSS: Like that bundle there on the table? Is that a spare?

BERGER: I brought two spools just in case. We have two hours total.

LEHNER: We probably won’t even need one.

WEDDEL: So it’ll pick up our voices, and we can play it back?

FOSS: That’s the idea, yes. We can take notes without taking notes.

LEHNER: Berger is a damn sight better than Mrs. Fress dying in slow motion on a chair.

BERGER: Thank you, mein herr.

FOSS: Don’t encourage him.

WEDDEL: To think a piece of wire can potentially carry my voice forever.

LEHNER: Don’t say anything you don’t want to commit to history, Weddel!

WEDDEL: I’ll try to be responsible with my words.

FOSS: You’d be the only one here.

BERGER: We should introduce ourselves in the recording, otherwise it may be difficult for future listeners to tell apart the differences in our voices and identify us.

FOSS: Fine. I’m Cecilia Foss, presidential computer, secretary, speechwriter, etcetera.

LEHNER: Achim Lehner, President of the Federation of Northern States.

WEDDEL: Field Marshal Walter Weddel, Oberkommando Norden and Des Heeres.

BERGER: And I am Emilia Berger, a communications engineer.

FOSS: The purpose of this meeting is to discuss past and current events in the continent of Ayvarta and to consolidate our information about the southern matter.

LEHNER: Yikes, you’re making it sound like a goddamn thesis.

FOSS: I’m making it sound professional! As it should be!

LEHNER: For my part, I just want to know what the fuck is going on down there.

FOSS: You’re such a brute! First we should establish context.

LEHNER: Yeah, well, sure, okay, whatever. Context away.

FOSS: Ahem. On the 18th of the Gloom, we put into action Generalplan Suden, a strategic campaign to dismantle the political, economic, military and social structures of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice and begin a new paradigm under the former Empress Mary Trueday–

LEHNER: Uh, the term we use is Empress-In-Exile, Cecilia. She’s not former anything.

FOSS: Right. Empress-In-Exile. Anyway. Our objective for this campaign is to end the rogue state of the SDS, thereby bringing needed stability to the region and to the balance of global power as a whole. Not only will the destruction of the SDS open Ayvartan markets and goods to Nocht, and the world at large, as well as eradicate a sweeping social malaise in the world’s south, but the fall of communism will leave scores of saboteurs, anarchists, guerillas and terrorists worldwide without an ally and supplier.

LEHNER: Love it. God I’ll sleep so easy once the Worker’s International collapses. After I’ve put my big grey metal boot on Solstice’s goddamn neck and snapped it they’ll be left crying alone for mommy. They tried to start a fucking factory riot a few days ago!

WEDDEL: Well, I’m not so sure this war alone will take care of that, mister President. Worker’s International is a legal political organization, even if dubious and at odds with–

LEHNER: Weddel don’t ruin my dreams like this, man. Be gentle with me here.

FOSS: Let the man have his fantasies while we return to context. What was the makeup of forces for Suden, Weddel? What did we activate on the 18th of the Gloom?

WEDDEL: Well. I was only involved in planning at an advisory capacity, but if I recall correctly, the Task Forces were codename Stonewall, starting in Cissea with 20 Divisions and codename Lee in Mamlakha with 30 Divisions, for an opening wave of about 550,000 men and several thousand machines. In 15 days, an additional 10 Divisions should have been added to Stonewall. Give or take reinforcements, the plan was for 100 Divisions in the final operation, for a total of 1.2 million men to be deployed by next year.

FOSS: And the strategic objectives for Suden, as originally envisioned?

WEDDEL: Two simultaneous thrusts from Cissea and Mamlakha. Stonewall’s Cissean thrust would have begun in the Adjar dominance, and moved north and east along the upper curve of Ayvarta and into North Solstice. Lee’s Mamlakhan thrust would go through Shaila and Dbagbo, along the lower curve of Ayvarta, mirroring Stonewall. Both thrusts are to meet at Solstice in the middle of the desert, take the city at any cost, and end the war that way.

LEHNER: We also wanted the elves and the orientals to help by attacking from the northwest and northeast, but those plans have been delayed until next month it seems.

FOSS: They said they required thirty days to reorganize themselves for battle, and then however long it takes them to launch the actual attacks according to our plans.

LEHNER: I’d be happy if they just did SOMETHING within the next week or so.

WEDDEL: That seems unlikely at the moment. But they still have plenty of time.

FOSS: Right. On paper, the campaign was to last 180 days at the most, starting in Aster’s Gloom of 2030 and ending definitively by the Lilac’s Bloom of 2031 after seizing Solstice.

LEHNER: Are we even sure taking Solstice would end the war?

WEDDEL: While the Ayvartans possess another powerful industrial fortress in Chayat, Solstice is the rooted center of their communications, command and control, and all of their political and logistical apparatus. Chayat can’t run a centrally-planned economy.

LEHNER: That’s kind of reassuring, but play along here: what the hell happened after? Those first few days were so triumphant, but it’s been doom and gloom the past week.

WEDDEL: Well, that is where it gets tricky, isn’t it? We’ve suffered several setbacks. I’m not in charge of the theater, but I’ve been poring over documents and reports, I’ve gotten a picture of it. Operation Monsoon, the initial border battle and subsequent push into Adjar and Shaila, was successful. We routed scores of Ayvartan forces, including almost a whole Army pocketed in Shaila. We destroyed hundreds of Ayvartan planes on the ground within hours of the invasion, and thousands of Ayvartan tanks were destroyed in ensuing battles within the first two weeks. We thought that would be enough. That was our problem.

FOSS: I still see it as more a failure of intelligence than anything else.

LEHNER: I thought we had plenty of information. We planned this very thoroughly! I checked in at the offices every day, there were always maps and tables strung up!

WEDDEL: Our planning was thorough, but misdirected. Let me give you an example. Operation Monsoon was supposed to destroy the bulk of Ayvartan manpower in Adjar and Shaila within days by forcing a decisive battle near the border and sweeping through every escape route in a rapid, encircling advance. However, Ayvarta’s distributed system of manpower meant that the concentrations at the border were much smaller than anticipated. We knew Ayvarta’s armies were small and geographically unable to support one another. But we didn’t account for how distributed the armies were within their own territories.

LEHNER: There’s a lot going on there. Okay. Let me get this straight. So it wasn’t just that 100,000 troops were stationed far apart in Adjar and Shaila, which is what we put on a map. We didn’t account for where inside Adjar and Shaila those small amounts could be?

WEDDEL: Exactly, Mr. President. In Adjar, the overwhelming bulk of armed opposition was stationed far north of the border, and could not be encircled in the first few days as planned. We wasted precious time driving through every village and town searching for Ayvartan manpower, weapons and supplies long since gone. We cast a net into a dry river.

LEHNER: We assumed they would defend their border with everything they had at their disposal. Or the bulk, at least. I mean, that shit only makes sense, you know? Why the heck would they have Battlegroup Ox manpower in central Adjar, or near Tambwe?

WEDDEL: Their border in Adjar being lightly defended was a blunder on their part, but it ended up defusing our plans entirely. When we gave chase to Ox, it was too late. We had wasted too much time combing through lower Adjar, and they had reconvened north. We ended up overstretched, with only the motor and tank troops able to reach Bada Aso and engage Battlegroup Ox before they got the chance to fully fortify the city.

LEHNER: That’s why the air force got hurled at Bada Aso in such a sloppy fashion?

WEDDEL: Yes, Von Sturm and Kulbert believed that the only way to “catch up” to Bada Aso and make up the manpower differential was a quick bombing campaign.

FOSS: And then Bada Aso happened as it happened.

LEHNER: What exactly happened at Bada Aso? Explain it to me like I’m dumb. We lost twenty thousand men on that last day alone, on the 35th. How does that happen?

WEDDEL: It’s still being investigated. We don’t know. It might have been a secret Ayvartan weapon. If it is, they have not used it since then. Some investigators claim it might have been a natural disaster. But Bada Aso still isn’t very safe to explore. We may never know exactly what happened, unless we secure Ayvartan confessions post-war.

LEHNER: That’s real unsatisfying. I can’t live with that in the back of my head.

WEDDEL: Those are our alternatives.

FOSS: Von Sturm’s incompetence lit a fire under his arse that eradicated our men.

LEHNER: Now there’s something I’m willing to believe.

WEDDEL: Well. We criticize Von Sturm and Kulbert for the conduct of that battle, but I must say, they made the correct call strategically. Look at the damage the Ayvartans did with a few days time to dig in. Imagine if we gave them weeks instead? Rushing to Bada Aso made the most sense. It was the best option out of a slate of very bad options. We had to disrupt the Ayvartans as much as possible to have any chance to seize Bada Aso’s port.

FOSS: I’ve conducted a few interviews that suggest the tactical conduct of that battle was a comedy of errors. I wouldn’t be so quick to praise little Sturm for anything.

WEDDEL: I don’t know anything about that. It could very well have been that way. But talking pure strategy, he made the right call. How is the 1st Vorkampfer reacting now?

FOSS: Morale in what was once the 1st Vorkampfer is at a catastrophic low these days. Thousands of seasoned veterans from Cissea are dead — no amount of reinforcements can replace that. Survivors have no confidence in the unit after the brain drain that’s resulted. And the survivors are not confident in their prospects, and much less in their leadership.

LEHNER: I thought we broke up the Vorkampfer, didn’t we? What’s happened there?

FOSS: We slapped together all the remains into a “13th Panzer Division.”

LEHNER: Jeez. It’s hard to keep all these guys’ numbers straight in my head.

FOSS: Don’t fret; with this wave of reinforcements to Ayvarta we’re deploying the corps headquarters and army commands, so the organization will become simpler after that.

LEHNER: Not simple enough for these migraines.

FOSS: Poor dear. Want a kiss to make it better?

LEHNER: Right now I just want an updated map of this nonsense.

FOSS: Who’s to say you can’t have both? Tee hee.

WEDDEL: Ahem. There is good news in Shaila and Dbagbo, however.

LEHNER: Does it reverse the bad news?

WEDDEL: Not exactly.

LEHNER: Then I don’t care, Weddel! I want to know what’s going wrong so I know who I should start firing to fix it. I brought you here for kindling, not cotton candy.

FOSS: He’s no better at kindling than Braun!

WEDDEL: I’m a strict disciplinarian, but I can’t chastise an army a world away.

LEHNER: Volunteering?

WEDDEL: Goodness, no. No! I much prefer Oberkommando Norden.

FOSS: Really? Sunny beaches, moist air, exotic wildlife, beautiful women–

WEDDEL: Sunburn, disease, monstrosities, and armed communist insurgents.

LEHNER: God. We should’ve just brought Braun in to make us depressed.

WEDDEL: To steer ourselves back: Shaila is fully under our boot, and Dbagbo is next to fall. Our supply lines are stretched, but we are making incredible progress for 26 days of fighting. Supplies and manpower are building up rapidly. Even Von Sturm’s unit has reconstituted enough to complete its movement to the Tambwean border, where Field Marshal Haus will meet it and try to stabilize the situation and continue the attack.

LEHNER: Dietrich is finally off the boat? That’s the one bit of good news I wanted!

FOSS: You’re so excited! Let the records show, the President is excited.

LEHNER: Dietrich is a mean sonofabitch. I’ve seen him snap men over his knees.

WEDDEL: If there’s one man who I believe could do such a thing to an army, it’s him.

LEHNER: So what happens next Weddel? Share some more of this optimism.

WEDDEL: Ha, I thought you wanted bad news?

LEHNER: News of Dietrich taking care of things always turns me around.

WEDDEL: Very well. I believe limited offensives will be carried out next to maintain pressure while the Task Forces consolidate, and the Army commands are set up.

FOSS: Judging by the AG-40 maps, it’s looking like quite a daunting job!

WEDDEL: Right now there are clusters of units separated by a hundred kilometers or twice that in some sectors. They definitely need time and an opportunity to catch up. Supply lines have to be stretched out from the ports up into newly conquered areas and further to the front. Reinforcements have to be moved. It will take time, and whatever is at the front will have to make do until everything can be set in order.

FOSS: I’m sure Dietrich will whip them into shape. It’s practically his hobby.

LEHNER: God I’m gonna sleep so good tonight. Dietrich is gonna fix ALL the problems.

FOSS: Aww, you’re so fond of him, it’s kind of cute– hmm, what’s that noise?

BERGER: Excuse me. It seems like the machine is taking issue.

FOSS: Do these recorders always sound like they’re munching glass?

BERGER: We may have to recalibrate the recorder, it is using wire too fast.

LEHNER: Fine, we’ll reconvene later. What happens to this recording now?

BERGER: We create copies for editing, archival, dissemination if necessary.

LEHNER: Cut out the parts where Cecilia is talking nonsense.

FOSS: Edit it so I’m the president. It would be an improvement on reality.

LEHNER: Hey! Listen here you. I try my best and I work hard.

BERGER: I’ll take requests once the spool is changed.

LEHNER: Atta girl!

[END RECORDING]


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