Rumbling Hearts — Unternehmen Solstice


47th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison HQ

As the sun rose to keep its noon-time appointments, the door to the temporary Regimental Headquarters slammed suddenly open. Logia Minardo wandered nonchalantly inside, singing a little tune to herself. Despite her visible pregnancy, she was as sprightly as a teenage girl, swinging her hips, tossing her shoulder-length hair, taking little dancing steps into the building. From her fingers swung a cloth bag that she used as a prop in her act.

Her feet thudded on the floor as she neared her desk, adding percussion to her voice.

Coming out of a quick spin, she set down her bag and snapped her fingers with a flourish.

Behind the main desk, Colonel Madiha Nakar and her pet dragon glared the Staff Sergeant’s way, both taking the same guarded posture and wearing exactly the same sour expression toward her. Neither of them seemed amused with Minardo’s antics. Kali was even growling. Fully uniformed, even wearing her officer’s cap, Madiha looked likewise unapproachable.

Minardo smiled and waved her hand at the pair. She spoke in a flighty tone of voice.

“Oh my, I don’t know if it’s pet influencing owner or owner influencing pet anymore.”

Madiha’s sour expression grew concertedly sour. Kali then mimicked her.

In the Colonel’s mind, a reservoir of good will toward Minardo was rapidly emptying.

“I am wondering why you failed to pick me up this morning, and why you are here so late in the day with that nonchalant expression on your face. Furthermore, I’m curious to see if you know the answers to those questions with regards to my assistant.” Madiha said.

Across the room, the staff sergeant quizzically panned her head around. Her gaze settled on each desk and table in the room, and it dawned on her what Madiha had known for hours now. Parinita had failed to show up for work; she hadn’t even taken a minute to tell Madiha where she was going, despite them living in the same building. It was the shock of a lonely morning and a lonely walk from her lodgings to the base, that had Madiha quite on edge.

That, and her building disdain for Minardo’s roguish sense of humor.

“Oh no! Perhaps she was kidnapped.” Minardo said, putting on a face of mock fright.

“Don’t joke about that.” Madiha said brusquely.

Minardo raised her hands defensively. “I’m sorry. I don’t think anything bad could have happened to her. She might have gone to the shops to get an outfit to wear to the festival.”

“She didn’t have any money. None of us do.” Madiha said.

“There are more ways to acquire goods than through money.” Minardo said.

She blew a little kiss at Madiha, who discovered then that what she hated more than Minardo’s roguish sense of humor was her coquettish sense of humor.

“Don’t joke about that, either!” Madiha snapped loudly, pushing herself to an irate stand, and Kali joined in with tinny growls, stretching up on the desk as if ready to pounce.

Minardo shrugged. “My, my, this is a tough crowd.” She then sighed heavily. “Anyway, I lent her some money, okay? I’m sure she is only out on the town. It is fine, Colonel.”

“And where did you get this money you lent her from? Are you suddenly a bank?”

“I just had it tucked away, and I decided to be kind. What do you want from me?”

Madiha grumbled. She irrationally bitter that Parinita had turned to Minardo for funds.

Even though she knew that she wouldn’t have been able to help at all in that arena.

“Fine. I’ll accept that. Go busy yourself for now.” Madiha ordered.

Minardo nodded her head and turned around to her desk.

Aside from Madiha and now Minardo, the room was empty. The Colonel dismissed Bhishma early; without Parinita around she had no idea what work she could even have Bhishma do. Padmaja had come fluttering in early in the morning, and took a few radio calls, and organized every desk. Then, having run out of things to do, Madiha had her go on errands.

For a few hours after, the Colonel was alone in the office.

Despite this, Minardo’s presence was not exactly welcomed.

Ever since they met, Madiha felt like her image of the Staff Sergeant was deteriorating.

She knew that she was on edge, and that her condition was heightening her low-key disdain for Minardo’s flighty but harmless antics. The Staff Sergeant was useful and could be more useful in the future; but in the present, Madiha wanted to be angry at her, and indulged that anger more openly than she had in the past. Her emotions bubbled beneath her skin.

If the Staff Sergeant sensed any danger, she hid that intuition well.

Minardo sat behind her desk, and for a moment she pretended to do some work. At a glance she seemed to busy herself, picking up papers, tapping them against the desktop, setting them down, and going over them. However, all of those papers were taken from a stack of blank requisition sheets, so there was nothing to read. And Minardo was constantly glancing over at Madiha’s desk. Despite meeting the Colonel’s disapproving gaze several times this way, Minardo did not cease her little facade until the Colonel called her out.

“What do you want, Minardo?” Madiha asked, exasperated.

“I am wondering if you have any hobbies, Colonel.”

Madiha frowned back, irritated and glum.

“I–”

Suddenly Minardo interrupted. “No military stuff!”

She felt like replying with ‘go to hell’ but restrained herself.

Madiha gave a throaway answer. “Kali.” She said.

At her side, the dragon’s eyes drew wide open and it kneaded its legs happily.

“I happen to have an affinity for puzzles.” Minardo replied.

“What’s your point? Do you want to show me a puzzle?”

Minardo smiled and stood up from her desk. “Since we have nothing better to do.”

She withdrew a box from her bag, and set it down on Madiha’s desk.

“I was thinking,” she continued, “we could take up a little challenge.”

It was a chess board from Solstice Toys & Games, updated to match the sensibilities of the time. Pawns were laborers, Knights were revolutionaries, bishops Commissars, and so on. At the very top of the hierarchy of pieces was the Premier, or Central Committee Head; in this edition the piece was a small, ivory Lena Ulyanova. It was a rather cute board all told.

“Chess?” Madiha asked. Her demeanor softened just a little.

“I prefer crossword puzzles to keep my mind sharp, but this works for two.”

Kali drew close to the chess set, sniffed the box, and recoiled, snarling.

“Does it smell like me?” Minardo asked, leaning close to the dragon.

Kali blew a puff of white smoke into Minardo’s face.

Drawing back again from the desk, Minardo sighed audibly.

“Anyway, would you like to have a match, Colonel?” Minardo asked.

Madiha knew that the excuse of ‘I have work to do’ had all dried up. She had hardly the capacity to work in this office, and other than yelling at various suppliers to hurry up with her orders, she had little administrative work to do. And what little she could do, she needed Parinita to record and organize. Doing anything without her secretary would have led to confusion later, as both wondered what parts of the work were done or not.

So in those circumstances, the idea of besting Minardo sounded palatable.

“I wanted to go over the table of organization, but fine. We can play one game.”

Nodding her head contentedly, Minardo pulled up the top of the game box, and set up the board atop Madiha’s empty desk, putting all the pieces in their places. “Black or white?”

“Black.” Madiha replied.

Minardo flipped the board, and put her hand on a pawn.

“That means I go first.” She said, winking.

Madiha acknolwedged, and watched as Minardo made a simple opening move.

Out of the front ranks, a white pawn moved.

Figuring there was no better move at the time, Madiha mirrored her opponent.

She thought she could already see a game unfolding here.

Pawns drew out, and then knights started moving. Madiha thought it would become a pitched battle, and her mind was racing to plot out the moves that she would make. She viewed the knights as tanks, able to move around obstacles. Pawns were small but vicious infantry who could hold key positions. And then there was the Queen, most powerful of all.

She viewed it as the war of mobility that had been swirling in her mind for days now.

Her imagination got the better of her.

Despite this exertion of brainpower, Minardo was soon laughing in Madiha’s face.

Though in her head many moves had been made, in reality, only pawns had set out.

Two moves worth of pawns from both sides. White, black, white, black–

Win.

A white Queen came creeping out of her phalanx for a surprise victory.

“I can’t believe this! You fell for the fool’s mate! Are you eight years old?”

Minardo continued to laugh while Madiha surveyed the board in confusion.

She could imagine all she wanted, but she had never actually played chess.

As such, her play was apparently incredibly weak.

“I feel so cruel to have won this way! But I couldn’t resist trying it.” Minardo boasted.

Madiha rubbed her chin, quietly staring at the board.

Her sour expression returned.

Kali swiped its tail at the board, scattering the pieces on the desktop.

“Hey!” Minardo said, frowning childishly. “Don’t break my set!”

Feeling rather sour, Madiha did notthing to restrain her rampant companion.

She turned her head away instead.

“You need to be a better sport than this, Colonel!” Minardo said, picking up her pieces.

Madiha grumbled.

“Were it not for the restrictions of this game I would’ve beaten you.” She said.

Minardo blinked. Now it was her turn to put on a sour face.

“It is quite ugly of you to act so petulantly!” She said. “Chess is a simulation of war, Colonel!”

Perhaps her actions had offended the Staff Sergeant, but Madiha found it hard to care at the time. She crossed her arms and averted her eyes, but continued to talk in a haughty tone, feeling somewhat empowered by her sudden ability to needle Minardo on this topic. In fact she resolved to push the issue further and see where her Staff Sergeant would snap again.

“You can gloat about your skills in a game all you want. Chess is nowhere near the reality of war. Combat does not move on grids or follow turns. Had we both been on a real battlefield I would have had you in ropes in a captive’s tent easily, Staff Sergeant.” Madiha said.

Again this attitude seemed to put her opponent quite off-balance.

“Those are loser’s words indeed!” Minardo said, raising her voice.

It was poor sport; Madiha was still disassatisfied with the game and with Minardo.

Even prodding her was not cathartic enough for the Colonel’s frustrations.

She would not dismiss or discipline Minardo. She felt that would hurt her too much.

Instead she resolved just to try to ignore her.

“Well, whatever; you’ve had your fun, now leave me be.” Madiha said.

Unfortunately her Staff Sergant never seemed to relent on any issue.

“Not so soon! I have a game you could try then, if you’re so high and mighty!”

Minardo stood up in a hurry, and withdrew a file folder from her bag.

She slapped it down onto the table.

It was a red folder with the insignia of the Solstice Officer’s School.

Madiha’s eyes darted down to the folder. It immediately captured her attention.

“Well, Colonel, if chess is too simple for you, how about a wargame? You’ve taken part in these exercises before, correct? Then, you should have no complaints in this arena.”

“What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Madiha asked.

Minardo smirked. That mischevious glint returned to her eyes.

“I am merely curious about the legend of this so-called ‘hero of the border’.”

Madiha bristled. She did not particularly like that epithet and the burden it carried when spoken. However, she also felt a building anger at how easily Minardo took the name in vain, at how conceited she was behaving. Though Madiha tried to present a friendly and approachable face, she was the Colonel, and Minardo was showing her too little respect.

Had she done such a thing to Kimani, she would have been slapped across the face.

Madiha stood up as quickly as Minardo had, a determined look on her face.

“Fine! You shall see that legend first-hand.” She said.

They sealed the challenge with a hand-shake, and cleared the desk.

Thankfully this was the compact version of the wargame, playable even in a barracks.

Atop the Colonel’s desktop they unfurled a long map, and began to deploy chits that represented various army units. It was a map of Vassaile, an area between the Frank Kingdom and the Nocht Federation, and the game was set in during the Unification War. It was a scenario that Madiha knew well; she knew every battle of these modern wars quite well, but this scenario was rather common in officer training across the world.

Played according to the rules of the Nochtish Kriegsspiel games, adapted for Ayvartan use, the scenario pitted the Frank 66th Army (Bluefor) against the Nochtish 11th Army (Redfor). In the battle of Vassaile, the 66th Army had crossed the border to Nocht in force, launching an offensive against Federation forces. Historically, the Nocht Federation retreated from Vassaile in disarray. It was the job of Bluefor to assail Nocht, and to achieve a victory better than history — the complete destruction of the 11th army. Meanwhile, Redfor had to attempt to keep the Nochtish lines straight while escaping from destruction. It was a scenario that helped prove the leadership qualities of the commanders on both sides.

Classically, it was a scenario that, when played well, had no victory for either side.

Redfor classically held on at the edges of Vassaile and prevented the Frank forces from entering too deep into Nocht; Bluefor classically took all of its objectives, but without destroying Redfor or managing to invade the Nochtish heartland past Vassaile.

“I’m calling Bluefor.” Minardo said, stamping her hand on a chit representing the 1st Chasseurs Division, light cavalry. Around her hand were dozens more Frank units. The Franks were noted for having the larger starting army, though Nocht had more reinforcements and reserves. Thus it was known Franz had an offensive advantage.

“Then I’m Redfor.” Madiha calmly replied.

It unsettled her slightly. In officer school she had played Bluefor and won the ahistorical victory, destroying the 11th Army completely through encirclement around Vassaile. She had not opted then to penetrate too deep into Nocht. Destroying the 11th Army was enough.

Likely, if Minardo brought this game here and called Bluefor, she intended to do the same.

“We’ve both played this game before, so let us settle things honorably.” Minardo said.

Madiha thought it certainly fit her roguish character to say such a thing.

She definitely intended to play Madiha’s game. That result was no secret among wargamers.

“I won’t kick up a storm; but you had best umpire it properly.” Madiha replied.

There was no use fighting it. Using good results from previous players was common.

Kali leaned over the map, flicking her tongue at the chits.

“No, settle down.” Madiha said. She wanted to see this game through.

Kali looked at her, and then curled in a corner of the table.

“This set is not my property, so let’s not ruin it.” Minardo said.

“Kali will behave.”

Madiha and Minardo shook hands over the table.

Thus the game began.

It was the 17th of the Lilac’s Bloom, and the Franks made the first move.

Minardo rattled off her orders.

“1st Division Chasseurs à cheval will move along the curve of Paix and Moltke on the Nochtish border, initiating hostilities against the 5th Grenadier Division. 5th Division Vernon Royal Hussars will ascend the Crux and Cateblanche line and attack the 10th Grenadier Division alongside the 1st Independent Scout Car battalion–”

Madiha acknowledged each move. These were standard openers. Madiha had performed all of them herself during her ahistorical winning game. 5th Grenadier and 10th Grenadier had historically arrived quite late, but early enough to be counted as standing units in the game. Unlike much of the Nochtish army at the time they lacked even minimal entrenchment along the border, and thus made prime targets for Franz’ few mobile units of the period.

As was standard, Nocht retreated both divisions, as they would be unable to stand and face the Chassuers and the Hussars in their early game condition. Even weak old horse cavalry was enough to burst these rushed Grenadier divisions. This created holes in the line that the standard Divisione D’Infanterie could then move through to attack Nocht entrenchments behind their lines. Madiha was forced into the standard early game retreat.

Beginning officers unused to the game would often muck about the border for several game periods, making for the impressive military fisticuffs that characterized the battle as it actually played out. But those with experience in the game always played it ahistorically, preserving their forces to try to game the system where they could do so later on.

Madiha began her retreat. Using a pointer, she pushed back her chits from the bulging Paix-Moltke curve at the Frank border, abandoning the Nochtish entrenchments and losing their defensive bonuses, but escaping what would have otherwise been an easy Frank trap and a sweeping early victory. This was all still standard; nobody had innovated at all yet.

She presumed that Minardo would not innovate; she waited for tell-tale signs of her own play, and soon found the first indication that Minardo was playing her old game to the letter. The 17th Royal Durst Pikers challenged the retreating Nochtish 19th Grenadier Division, an otherwise unassuming division that happened to hold Nocht’s only heavy mortars in the sector. Its destruction would greatly hamper defensive play for Redfor in the coming turns.

It was a move Madiha could not prevent, and she picked up the chit and discarded it.

All the while, Minardo laughed haughtily and grinned to herself.

“It’s interesting isn’t it?” She said, in a mock sweet voice.

Madiha could not disagree. She felt it was rather exhilirating to see this board again.

This was a bloodless battlefield where she had total control. Units could live or die only as necessary to achieve a victory. There was no complications, only pure strategy.

Madiha felt something close to elation, to entertainment, to purpose.

Her heart raced, and her skin brimmed with energy.

She felt the time had come for her first innovation.

“I will bypass the free entrenchment opportunity at the Lehner line. 11th Army will continue to retreat west. Let the umpire know I surrender the objective at Erfring.”

“Oh ho ho. So– You give up some points to me just like that?”

“Yes. You can have it.”

Minardo gleefully pushed her chits forward, and Madiha, though she kept a stony outward face was smiling inside. Someone who only read a list of Madiha’s winning moves or a summary of the scenario she played at the academy, would see this as a winning situation. In reality, it meant the entire nature of the scenario that Madiha played back then was fundamentally changed. Minardo’s memorized moves would no longer apply to the game.

Giving up the Lehner line forced Nocht dangerously close to a technical defeat.

After all, being kicked out of the battlefield almost entirely was a loss, in every sense.

Historically, Nocht had held on at the edge of Vassaile.

For Nocht to move too far past this line meant a total defeat regardless of objectives.

However, the way Madiha intended to play, this would not matter.

The 11th Army continued to retreat and finally took up its new positions in a strained, u-shaped curve straddling a forest and a large rural boom town called Schmelzdorf.

It lay behind the half-way point of a tactical map that began far on the right, near Franz.

Retreat beyond the forest would mean a loss for the 11th Army, opening Nocht to invasion.

It was the kind of bait no reckless player would let go.

Pressing her offensive advantage, Minardo launched several attacks with her 66th army.

She continued to move closer and closer on the map, bloodthirsty with victory after tactical victory. Madiha removed various chits, and shored up the line with reinforcements that had begun moving at the start of the game and only now reached the line, in time to plug it. Now Minardo was dubiously innovating. She was attacking much more than Madiha had been.

Perhaps she realized the game had changed; and this was her own original play now.

Regardless, Madiha had achieved her result, and now launched her coup.

“I’m calling for a rail movement.” She declared.

She indicated the length of the movement and the rail lines she would use.

Minardo nodded, and looked over the proposal.

Her eyes drew wide.

“You realize your rail point is behind my lines.”

Now it was Madiha’s turn to put on a fake sweet smile and a mock sweet voice.

“Did you cut the line? I did not seen any engineers moving.”

Minardo grumbled. “You’ll have to roll to move through enemy lines.”

So far, dice had not come into play, because most of the moves were easily agreeable.

Madiha picked up a pair of red arbitration dice, and cast them without looking.

Whatever the outcome did not matter to her.

She began to push chits through the rail line and behind Minardo’s group.

Then she repeated the movement, rolling the dice again.

And she repeated it again.

Finally, it dawned upon Minardo the shape that the battlefield was taking.

It was a cauldron.

Drawn into the sunken curve of the 11th Army’s long, tormented line, the 66th army fit inside the belly of the u-shape line as if it was always meant to go there. And now, 6 Divisions of Madiha’s Nochtish forces, having suffered some attrition from trying to rail through enemy lines but ultimately successful in doing so, were beginning to form a lid.

For the first time in the match, Madiha began to call her own attacks.

Attacks that hit by surprise from behind the battered, overstretched 66th Army, that had moved so quickly, so aggressively, against a constantly retreating army, that they were completely tired out. Madiha had baited them in, and now owned their strategic depth. Her “mobile” forces were cut off from supply behind the Frank lines, and their days were ultimately numbered in such a situation, but she did not care, because she was now winning.

Her play would end the game before the units engaged in deep battle ran out of supply.

Ignoring any strong units lagging behind Minardo’s advance, she struck her weak rear.

Seeing the events, Minardo started to stare at the board in the same way that Madiha had stared at the chess board before. Incredulous, rubbing her chin, twisting some of her hair around her index finger, she scanned every chit for some possibility. It was not only Madiha’s play that had stumped her. She had made some blunders too. For example, her cavalry and rudimentary early Unification War era cars were stuck in the center of the 66th Army, unable to move freely. Her front line was all Infantry, and her rear mostly artillery.

In several strokes, Madiha’s weak but cunning penetration units inflicted heavy damage. Minardo’s artillery blew up in her face. Her engineers division was slaughtered. Supply points were captured. To add insult to injury, a battered Grenadier Division parked itself on the Erfring objective, technically taking it back from the Franks. It was absolute mayhem.

Minardo picked up the folder and flipped through the rules.

“Oh good, you’ve got the manual out. If you have a second, Staff Sergeant: I don’t know the rules for capturing a Headquarters behind its own line. Please find them.” Madiha said.

Smiling as coyly as Minardo once did, Madiha brimmed with energy.

Minardo put down the folder, and sighing heavily she also put down her pointer stick.

She cast it atop the center of the map.

This was a sign of surrender.

“Alright, fine! Fine. It looks like I was wrong, Colonel. I apologize.”

Madiha stared at her, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“I’m being genuine!” Minardo whined. “I am sorry. I got carried away.”

Madiha stretched out a hand, still smiling, high on the adrenaline of her dream war.

They shook. Minardo’s lips curled up a little.

“My, my, Colonel; you have such a beautiful smile. I’d love to see it more often.”

“I would smile more if you didn’t mortify me so much.”

“I said I was sorry! I was just trying to be friendly.”

“Trying to be friendly by bullying me?” Madiha said.

“My professional curiosity got the best of me. I told you I’m an awful gossip.”

“I’d advise you to stop gathering information on me.” Madiha replied.

“Will do!” Minardo said. “What say we let bygones be bygones?”

She withdrew her hand and saluted Madiha.

“Staff Sergeant Logia Minardo, at your service, ma’am! Pleased to serve under you!”

“You even manage to make that tick me off a bit.” Madiha said, grinning a little.

“Oh no, is your opinion of me irrevocably damaged?”

“It will need time to recover.”

Minardo’s whole body seemed to wilt, comically glum.

Ignoring her, Madiha poked the end of the map, and it rolled a little bit closed.

“Did you really memorize all of my play in this game?” She idly asked.

Minardo rubbed her index fingers together, putting on a bashful face.

“Ah, well. Once upon a time, I was shooting for an officer’s commission, and this game came up as a way. I had it in mind to impress someone; but they saw through the ruse.”

“Did you think it would work now?” Madiha asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Truth be told, I was hoping to be humiliated again.” Minardo said.

Sensing the game was over, Kali reared up to claw at the map, and knock it off.

“No!” Madiha said, raising her index finger. “Bad.”

Kali stared bitterly at Minardo and curled into a ball at the far edge of the desk.

Shaking her head, Madiha turned back to her Staff Sergeant. “Anything else?”

Minardo crossed her arms. “Just remember, we’ve only hit a draw right now. Someday soon, Colonel, I’ll make it 2-1! I’d advise you to polish up your Mancala skills!”

As quickly as it went, her wry, foxy little smile reappeared.

Madiha heaved a long sigh.


Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison, Training Field

“A bullet will not kill your enemy by itself! It is the mastery of the shooter that kills!”

Inspector General Kimani stood before a hundred riflemen and women of the Regiment’s 1st Motor Rifle Battalion: Matumaini, and delivered a clear and precise speech on rifle discipline and marksmanship. Her audience was destined to be fireteam leaders, snipers and squad leaders under the proposed new organization of the Ayvartan army.

And though these proposals had not yet been approved, the Regiment still proceeded to line everyone up in a corner of the training field, in front of several wooden targets.

Such was the value of these young minds that the Inspector General would personally oversee their training, which, so far, had meant shouting their way for fifteen minutes.

“You cannot fall into the trap of thinking your bullets expert killers by themselves.” Kimani said. “Bullets are impressive; the way they fly invisibly through the air the instant after a trigger pull, causing great trauma and death to a human body, is extraordinary. But not every bullet is a killing bullet. A shot to the leg will cripple an enemy, but that enemy can still shoot and move. A shot to the arm may put an enemy out of the fight momentarily, but they can return with a pistol, or throw a grenade, or run to their allies to relay information.”

The Inspector General drew an example of the typical Ayvartan Bundu rifle out of a nearby crate, and in one precise movement she loaded a round into the weapon and pulled the trigger almost without aiming. A procession of men and women of the Regiment winced reflexively as Kimani scored a precise hit on a wooden target set up some 500 meters away.

Gulab Kajari failed to detect the bullet impact, as she did not know where to direct her attention at the time. When she looked at the target after the fact, she saw what seemed like a pinprick on the red center of a painted circle, one of three on the wooden board.

“It is vital that you aim for the center of mass! On a human body the torso is the largest target containing the most vital organs. Leave the heads and limbs to snipers! You, the simple rifle soldier, are most efficient when aiming at the core of the enemy’s body!”

Kimani pulled the bolt on her rifle, loading in a new round, and fired with nary a moment’s hesitation between the two actions. Again her shot scratched the wood on the thick center of the target. Overlapping circles were yellow, to represent the zone of the upper and lower body, and green, the largest circle, least likely to represent a fatal shot on the enemy.

Looking at the red circle, Gulab thought it must’ve been around a meter across at most.

“For today’s drill, you will split up into teams of spotter and shooter. You will each put 100 rounds through the rifle. Count your teammates’ hits judiciously using the provided chart.”

Though Inspector Kimani’s powerful voice made the exercise sound quite important, the barren stretch of training field between the firing line and the targets suggested other motives for the exercise. It was clearly something that could be done with limited ammunition and construction supplies. Gulab was not keen on shooting. She would have preferred to learn some new skills. She thought she was as good as shot as she’d ever be.

Nevertheless, Inspector Kimani was quite scary, and Gulab easily complied.

Everyone seemed to easily split up into teams, dividing themselves among the many targetss provided for the day’s exercises, and Gulab naturally joined forces with Charvi Chadgura as per the usual, and they paired up behind a low sandbag wall. They had one rifle between them and exactly two hundred rounds of ammunition in a bag at their feet.

“I hope we each get our own rifle in combat!” Gulab said jokingly.

She nudged Charvi in the chest with her elbow, but her friend looked quite inanimate.

“Something wrong?” She asked. She put down the rifle and looked into Charvi’s eyes.

Though her face was expressionless as usual, but something about her posture and movement suggested a limpness and vulnerability that was not the norm for her. Her face and voice could not be read, but Gulab knew well enough how to tell her friend was troubled. At her best, Charvi was reliably balanced, not a pitch too high or too low, neither too stiff nor too lose. She was a measuring stick. Should her neutral pose lean any one specific way, it meant that something was off. Gulab prodded her to see what was wrong.

At first she only made subdued little breathing noises.

“What was that?” Gulab asked.

Chadgura sighed. It was eerie. All she did was open her mouth and let out some air.

With her face, it did not look like a real sigh, but it felt like one.

“I foolishly allowed myself to hope.” Chadgura replied.

Gulab blinked. “It’s gonna be hard to follow that up, but please try.”

“Yesterday,” Chadgura continued, as if uninterrupted, “upon hearing tell of a ‘postal truck’ that comes to the base, I gathered up my very limited amount of pocket money, and I waited outside for this truck for several hours. Upon its arrival, I found that it carried no stamps.”

“Wait, what, when did you do this, I was with you all day.” Gulab said.

“Perhaps yesterday is inaccurate. It was today, but very early.”

Gulab shook her head, loudly groaning. “You’ve gotta control yourself.”

She picked up the rifle from the sandbag wall and thrust it toward Charvi.

Charvi took the gun, loaded it, aimed, and fired, missing the target entirely.

“Hah, you weren’t even close!” Gulab said. “Stamp stuff got you that down?”

Firing another weak shot, Charvi gave no immediate reply. Gulab patted her back.

“Come on, don’t let it get to you! Tomorrow we’ll have time enough for stamps.”

“No.” Charvi said. She paused for a moment. “It is something else on my mind.”

After those mysterious words she raised the iron sights to her eyes again and put another bullet through the gun. This time she chipped away at the edge of the target, on the green.

“Let me have a go, you count mine.” Gulab said.

Taking the rifle from her friend’s hands, Gulab kneeled behind the sandbag wall, bracing herself on the sturdy surface. Holding her breath, she took aim at the center of the target and pulled the trigger. There was a bit of kick, but she was grounded enough to control it, and her muscle memory for the rifle had gotten quite good. It felt natural to shoot now.

Charvi kneeled beside her, and they were cheek to cheek, looking down the range.

“Gulab, if I asked you to come with me to the festival, would you do it?”

“I already told you I would go.”

“No, I don’t mean in that way. I mean go together.”

“We are going together.”

“I don’t mean together. I mean, together, together.”

Gulab turned her head and faced her friend. She had a quizzical expression on her face, and a dense fog around her brain. She did not understand what exactly Charvi was trying to say. After all, just repeating words did not lend them any better context. In her mind, they were both saying the same thing repeatedly without agreement. What was she missing?

“Back up a little here; what is the difference?”

Both were still kneeling behind the sandbag wall, only centimeters apart.

When Charvi spoke, Gulab could feel the breaths leaving her.

“I will try to illustrate. Two people can go to the festival, as individuals in the same place. Instead, I desire to go with you to the festival as a unit. Does this make sense?”

“No. You are actually making less sense.”

Charvi clapped her hands. “I have trouble with words, you know.”

“I know. I’ll give you time.”

“Thank you. Here’s my idea. We could hold hands, and share a sweet yogurt.”

“Units don’t really do that, I think you mean more like, a couple?” Gulab said.

Charvi awkwardly evaded her eyes.

“Perhaps, or perhaps not.”

Her friend’s evasiveness came like a kick that jumpstarted Gulab’s brain.

It dawned upon her then what word she had used, without thinking. Couple; it had come unbidden to her mind and she had blurted it out mindlessly. Not a unit, but a couple, two people, holding hands, sharing a yogurt, having a grand night out, making love–

Her own mental image quite ran away from her and she shivered.

“SO, UM,” Gulab tugged on her own shirt collar. “Couple, huh?”

Suddenly, Charvi clapped her hands several times.

It was as if she was trying to hide the sound of her own voice.

But nonetheless Gulab heard her muttering.

“Couple sounds nice.”

Gulab said nothing, watching the claps.

After over a minute it seemed, her friend was finally all clapped out.

Slowly, her hands ceased to smack together.

“I am able to accept it if you do not desire to go with me.” Charvi said suddenly.

Her eyes drooped toward the ground as if in defeat.

Gulab thrust out her hands and grabbed hold of her friend’s shoulders.

“No, no! I want to go with you!” She said. “Let’s go as a couple if you want!”

Charvi stared into her eyes, initiating another long silence.

This one she also broke through non-stop clapping.

Gulab felt like an idiot; words were streaming out of her mouth faster than thoughts could form in her head. She was nervous, she felt the brimming of anxious skin beneath her clothes, all over her body, like a swarm of ants consuming her. In her head she recalled everything everyone was saying about the festival, about how romantic it was, about how beautiful and serene and fun it was, about sweethearts and soulmates and first loves.

She should have connected the dots sooner! She felt so dense and foolish.

Even more so because she had accepted, without really thinking it through.

But looking at Charvi, as bashful as she could be, right in her hands, it felt less odd.

In fact, it felt like it could be enjoyable.

“I, uh, I don’t really have anything to wear though.” Gulab said.

“That is fine. Neither do I.” Charvi replied.

Kneeling behind the sandbags, they both averted their eyes, faces blushed a fierce red.

At their side, their rifle lay discarded.

“Will we still get stamps?” Charvi asked, glancing sidelong.

“Of course! We’ll get anything you want.” Gulab said nervously.

Charvi clapped her hands once. “Anything?”

Gulab swallowed hard, beginning to sweat.

“Well, now, let’s not get too hasty.” She said, half through a laugh, half through a hiccup.


Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison HQ

Past noon the door to the headquarters creaked gently open. Madiha did not hear the whistling of the old hinges, not over the song coming in from outside. It was sung in a language that Madiha did not know, but in her mind, she heard both the Kitanese words that she did not know, but also singing in Ayvartan, “Oh little yellow cabbage, left by your mother at two or three, Oh mother, dear mother!–” all sang by the same beautiful voice.

At first it was slightly surprising, but soon only the Ayvartan passed through Madiha’s head, perfectly translated. It was another part of the strange affinity that had returned to her.

Through the open threshold, Padmaja entered with a stack of boxes in her hands.

She walked a few steps, obscured by the stack, and laid it on Minardo’s desk.

“There’s mail for the Colonel, and a big box for you, ma’am. I also brought food. Today’s spread is a little anemic compared to yesterday, but there’s still a salad and breads.”

“Many thanks,” Minardo said, “Colonel, come get your mail before I open it!”

Madiha stood from her desk, and joined Padmaja and Minardo. She picked up the box; it was not very heavy, but it was still fairly solid, and clearly packed with something. She shook the box, and confirmed that whatever was in it was not rattling and shaking. Minardo and Padmaja stared hard at the box, as if tracking its every movement in Madiha’s hands.

They started to surreptitiously lean forward and around, hoping to catch sight of it.

Annoyed with them, Madiha laid the box down on the table and drove her combat knife through the top, slicing it open. Minardo and Padmaja instinctively backed away from the Colonel’s savage knife slash, shaken up by the attack; inside the box, the first thing Madiha saw was an old black fedora. There was a brown envelope and some clothes there too.

Picking up the fedora piqued an old memory.

“I recognize this.” Madiha incredulously said.

Padmaja and Minardo quickly recovered, and leaned back in toward the box.

“That’s a real lady-killer hat!” Minardo said.

Madiha set the hat down on the desk and lifted the clothing folded into the box. There was a grey vest, a white dress-shirt, a dark-red silk tie, a sharp black suit jacket and a pair of astoundingly soft and sturdy black pants. There was not a stain or a string out of place on any of the articles, but they smelled woody, like they had been dug from a very old closet.

“I think I know who these all belong to.” Madiha said, aloud but mostly to herself.

“Who is it?” Padmaja asked.

In lieu of a response, Madiha picked up the envelope and ripped open the side.

Out slid an old black and white photograph, landing on the desk.

There were several people standing together for a group shot.

Most prominent in the center were a tall, serious-looking woman with short, messy hair, dressed in that same suit and fedora now in Madiha’s posession; beside her was a woman with dark hair in a wavy ponytail, leaning lovingly on the tall woman in the center. There was a plump, sweet-looking woman in an apron and dress holding the couple by the shoulders. A rather small woman in an ornate dress seemed to stand in all their shadows, and several men posed with shotguns and old rifles and pistols behind all of the women.

There was a hammer and sickle flag on display as well.

And in the middle of the shot, was a girl a meter and a half tall in a little newsboy cap, wearing a little vest and shirt and short pants. Her dark hair was cut to the level of the neck, and her eyes looked fiery even in the colorless photograph. She had a basket with her, full of newspapers, and there was a little bulge in her vest where she clumsily hid a small revolver.

Madiha felt tears drawing from her eyes as she beheld the picture and remembered.

“That was me, and the original Zaidi crew in Bada Aso.” She said.

She wiped the tears from her eyes. Padmaja and Minardo looked on, stunned.

From hand to hand the photograph passed between them.

“Wow. That really does look like you. And is that Warden Kansal?” Minardo said.

“Yes.” Madiha said. She felt a little choked up. “She’s there in the center.”

“So these clothes are hers. Put on the fedora for a moment!”

Minardo picked up the hat and handed it over. Madiha laid it on her head.

“Hmm. Your hair is a little straighter than hers, and your face is just a tiny bit smoother around the edges and the nose, but you honestly quite resemble Daksha Kansal, you know! Could she be your mother, Colonel, hmm? Is that your dramatic birth secret?”

She chuckled and smiled. Madiha felt a tiny bit of the humor.

“She kind of was, when you think about it.” Madiha replied.

“Ah, but I mean, your mother-mother!” Minardo said, rubbing her own belly.

“She was definitely not the type who would carry a pregnancy.”

“Hmm, I see your point!” Minardo replied, clapping her hands.

“Colonel, there’s definitely more in the envelope.” Padmaja said.

She picked it up and shook it.

Inside, Madiha found a letter, and many bills of paper money in high denominations.

She unfolded the letter and read it quietly.


Esteemed Madiha,

Your victory at Bada Aso will change the course of this nation and this war. I only wish I had been able to better prepare you for the trials you have suffered and will continue to suffer in your life. Those days we spent in Bada Aso ill suited a child; and they ill suited a leader of open warfare. But you have nonetheless boldly risen to the occassion. I am quite proud.

Enclosed you will find some items of nostalgia that I wish to bequeathe to you. I’ve learned that you are big enough now for my hand-me-downs. My lady-chasing days are long over; in fact, I hope that a wedding invitation will soon make its way to you. In my place, I hope you have plenty of warm evenings with beautiful women in my best cut. Remember to wear the hat — it is the key to everything. I also got a copy of a photo you might enjoy. We seldom got everyone together for a group shot. It is unfortunate you were being bratty that day. I would have liked to have a picture of my little soldier smiling and happy. But it is what it is.

Also enclosed are my royalties for the overseas sales of my books and Lena’s books. I caught wind of the fact that you had not been properly paid. Spend the money as you wish.

I will try to push through your salaries and your supplies as best as I can.

I hope we can speak in person about these things and more soon.

Your watchful benefactor,

–DAKSHA KANSAL


Madiha put down the letter, and went over the bills.

“How much money is it?” Minardo asked.

“Too much.” Madiha sighed.

It would have quite helped to have had this fund yesterday.

She couldn’t complain, however; she rather liked the look of Daksha’s old suit.


Rangda City, Streets

As the sun was setting on this last day before the festival, Madiha felt a mix of disappointment and shame and trepidation. Minardo had declined to drive her, and remained around the Headquarters for some reason, so she was again walking the relatively short distance from the base to her apartment. It was not a physical burden, but it felt tedious after the lively drive down she had gotten used to.

Kali hung behind her like a big purple back pack, but the dragon had gotten so comfortable that Madiha heard and felt nothing from it but snoring and the expansion and contraction of its belly and chest against her back. It was asleep, contented.

It was not an entirely lonely event, but she did not feel well accompanied either.

There was one overwhelming thing on her mind.

She had not seen Parinita all day, so the question of the festival had been ripped from her hands. She was not especially worried about her secretary. Minardo cleared everything up. Crime in Ayvarta was low, too; and if anyone would have been kidnapped or harmed in order to get to her, it would have better happened much earlier than now.

She realized there was a bit of possessiveness in her longings that was wrong to feel, but she had strongly wanted Parinita to tell her where she was going and what she was doing. She had wanted Parinita to confide in her, and seek her help, and desire her.

And yet, she also wanted to have the strength to keep her at arm’s length too.

Under her arm, Madiha carried the box Daksha had sent.

She was 40,000 shells richer off Daksha’s overseas royalties, collected over some undisclosed period of time. It was a lot of money in Ayvarta, and Madiha was not sure she liked that fact at all. It was a strange load in her pocket; a sign that buying and selling had not been eradicated, that vestiges of sin remained in her beautiful socialist land. As someone who quoted Lena from memory, it just felt wrong to carry this.

There was nobody on the street. It was evening enough that orange had become the predominant color of the sky and it tinged the surroundings. She walked alone down Rangda’s streets, without even the comfort of familiarity. It was not Bada Aso or Solstice, places whose streets she had well worn down both in her far-away past and her quite-near past and present. Now she was isolated in this place with nothing but her newly-regained memories of those older streets. At least she had that much with her now.

Thinking of all the people in that old photo who could not be here made her feel petty.

Her little problems seemed childish. She needed to become more decisive, and soon.

But alone on those streets, she still felt too wavering to put up a strong front.

Madiha turned the last corner to the red banner apartments, approached the steps, and walked through the front door. Crossing the threshold was undramatic, and again she found herself alone in an empty place. She almost expected Parinita, dramatically waiting at the top of the steps, perhaps for Madiha to rush to and embrace. It was a cutting absence, as if she was the last woman on Aer. Bowing her head, she pushed on.

Carelessly she slammed into someing while turning blindly into the ground floor hallway.

Both women fell back in their opposite directions, shocked.

Kali snarled and cried out, flying out from under Madiha before the Colonel hit cement.

It flew out the hallway, and perhaps out the building.

“I’m terribly sorry.” Madiha said. She turned around from watching her dragon.

Parinita had fallen on her buttocks and now rubbed her belly, where Madiha struck.

“No, it was me! I’m so sorry! I should’ve watched– oh! Madiha! Hujambo!

She went from pained apologies to peppy greetings in an instant.

This moment of absurdity forced a quiet laugh out of Madiha.

“Good evening, Parinita.” She said, coughing a little.

Parinita’s elbow had hit her right under her breasts.

Despite the abrupt nature of the meeting, Madiha felt overwhelming relief in her assistant’s presence. Her anxieties vanished; the fire in her mind was snuffed out.

Parinita looked perfectly healthy, and indeed, better put together even than the Colonel herself. She dressed in her skirt uniform, and like Madiha, wore the cap and all of the accouterments. They had agreed to do so together the day before, to try to inspire greater professionalism in the forces; it was nice to see that her companion had adhered to the little pact. Her wavy strawberry hair was well combed and looked silky and bouncy. She had a touch of pigments on her lips and around her eyes, and shiny heels.

Together they stood from the carpeted floor, holding each other’s hands for support.

They did not let go very easily after that.

“Madiha, I’m sorry I didn’t show up today. I wanted to fetch something.”

“Please file a request for time off next time.” Madiha said.

Parinita yanked her hand back, crossed her arms and turned her cheek.

“Hmph, if this wasn’t also a treat to myself, I would postpone it just to be spiteful.”

Madiha raised her hands plaintively. “Sorry!”

Parinita glanced sidelong at Madiha. “Close your eyes and open your hands.”

“Alright.” Madiha replied, a second’s worth of stutter in her voice.

On command, she shut her eyes and spread open her hands, smiling, excited.

She heard the jingling of a key and then her room door clicking open behind her.

“Half-turn! To your right!” Parinita ordered, in the tone of a drill sergeant.

Madiha shifted slightly on her feet. She was turned in toward her open door.

She heard a few clacking footsteps, and then felt fingers curling around her own.

“Open your eyes.” Parinita said, her voice now soft and fond again.

When Madiha opened her eyes, she found Parinita in front of her, holding her hands tightly; behind her, inside the room, there were plastic, transparent bags hanging on the clothes racks, marked with the brand of a local outfitters shop. There was a dress, and a suit, protected inside the bags. Madiha felt something between her fingers and Parinita’s preventing them from fully intertwining. When she looked down from her companion’s beaming, exhilirated face and down to her hands, she found slips of paper — tickets.

“Madiha, would you go out with me on the night of the festival?” Parinita asked.

Though she registered the words and turned them over in her mind, Madiha was incapable of responding at first. It was as if her brain had split into warring sides over how to interpret what Parinita said. She wanted so badly to believe it, but also to ignore it. Her heart pounded, and she felt her face turning hot. Words stumbled up her windpipe and fell drunkenly on her tongue, never quite making it out through her open lips.

Parinita smiled at her while Madiha rubbed the tips of her fingers against her soft skin, overwhelmed by the pressure, and the joy, and the sheer emotion of the moment.

Such a mixture of sensations poured over her head, hot and cold all at once.

Several times she opened her lips, enough for the red flesh and pale teeth to become briefly visible, but still she could not speak. She recalled Bhishma, and what he had said and done, and in a paranoid instant she thought Parinita would break away from her any second, that her hesitation and weakness would cause her to dissipate. But Parinita was patient as the sky awaiting earthbound souls. In her face Madiha saw such gentle understanding, and not any hint of malice or insistence, and she began to calm.

For many minutes they stood, silent, framed by the door threshold, half-in and half-out, fingers wrapped tightly around, eyes ever locked together despite the difference in height. Madiha’s breathing quickened then slowed, and she spread her lips again.

Parinita suddenly preempted her. “Maybe something like this will help you decide.”

After finally speaking, Parinita leaned forward and up, standing on her toes.

Madiha felt drawn into her gaze, obscuring the world around them.

Smiling, Parinita shut her eyes and turned her head slightly.

Her lips brushed Madiha’s own and then closed around them.

Madiha tasted a hint of strawberry.

Fingers tightened around held hands.

They remained locked in a gentle kiss until Parinita’s feet were shaking.

Madiha leaned down instead, inching forward to spare Parinita any discomfort; there was a clumsy shift in their faces as Madiha took the lead then, their mouths meeting and sliding, trading close, hot breaths. Unaided their lips then closed together anew.

This kiss they held until they were out of breath. Lips and sly tongues parted.

Panting, beginning to sweat from their shared heat, they stared into each other’s eyes.

Breathing with a heavy, tantalizing desperation, Madiha smiled rapturously.

“What do you say?” Parinita gently asked, her own breathing just as ragged.

“I have my own suit. I want to wear it.” Madiha said. “It has a matching hat.”

Parinita smiled back, raising a hand to Madiha’s cheek. “I look forward to seeing it.”

She had made her decision then. Perhaps impulsively; but she would live with it.

Nobody in that old photo would have told her to deny herself this happiness.


Rumbling Hearts (42.3)


Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison HQ

Past noon the door to the headquarters creaked gently open. Madiha did not hear the whistling of the old hinges, not over the song coming in from outside. It was sung in a language that Madiha did not know, but in her mind, she heard both the Kitanese words that she did not know, but also singing in Ayvartan, “Oh little yellow cabbage, left by your mother at two or three, Oh mother, dear mother!–” all sang by the same beautiful voice.

At first it was slightly surprising, but soon only the Ayvartan passed through Madiha’s head, perfectly translated. It was another part of the strange affinity that had returned to her.

Through the open threshold, Padmaja entered with a stack of boxes in her hands.

She walked a few steps, obscured by the stack, and laid it on Minardo’s desk.

“There’s mail for the Colonel, and a big box for you, ma’am. I also brought food. Today’s spread is a little anemic compared to yesterday, but there’s still a salad and breads.”

“Many thanks,” Minardo said, “Colonel, come get your mail before I open it!”

Madiha stood from her desk, and joined Padmaja and Minardo. She picked up the box; it was not very heavy, but it was still fairly solid, and clearly packed with something. She shook the box, and confirmed that whatever was in it was not rattling and shaking. Minardo and Padmaja stared hard at the box, as if tracking its every movement in Madiha’s hands.

They started to surreptitiously lean forward and around, hoping to catch sight of it.

Annoyed with them, Madiha laid the box down on the table and drove her combat knife through the top, slicing it open. Minardo and Padmaja instinctively backed away from the Colonel’s savage knife slash, shaken up by the attack; inside the box, the first thing Madiha saw was an old black fedora. There was a brown envelope and some clothes there too.

Picking up the fedora piqued an old memory.

“I recognize this.” Madiha incredulously said.

Padmaja and Minardo quickly recovered, and leaned back in toward the box.

“That’s a real lady-killer hat!” Minardo said.

Madiha set the hat down on the desk and lifted the clothing folded into the box. There was a grey vest, a white dress-shirt, a dark-red silk tie, a sharp black suit jacket and a pair of astoundingly soft and sturdy black pants. There was not a stain or a string out of place on any of the articles, but they smelled woody, like they had been dug from a very old closet.

“I think I know who these all belong to.” Madiha said, aloud but mostly to herself.

“Who is it?” Padmaja asked.

In lieu of a response, Madiha picked up the envelope and ripped open the side.

Out slid an old black and white photograph, landing on the desk.

There were several people standing together for a group shot.

Most prominent in the center were a tall, serious-looking woman with short, messy hair, dressed in that same suit and fedora now in Madiha’s posession; beside her was a woman with dark hair in a wavy ponytail, leaning lovingly on the tall woman in the center. There was a plump, sweet-looking woman in an apron and dress holding the couple by the shoulders. A rather small woman in an ornate dress seemed to stand in all their shadows, and several men posed with shotguns and old rifles and pistols behind all of the women.

There was a hammer and sickle flag on display as well.

And in the middle of the shot, was a girl a meter and a half tall in a little newsboy cap, wearing a little vest and shirt and short pants. Her dark hair was cut to the level of the neck, and her eyes looked fiery even in the colorless photograph. She had a basket with her, full of newspapers, and there was a little bulge in her vest where she clumsily hid a small revolver.

Madiha felt tears drawing from her eyes as she beheld the picture and remembered.

“That was me, and the original Zaidi crew in Bada Aso.” She said.

She wiped the tears from her eyes. Padmaja and Minardo looked on, stunned.

From hand to hand the photograph passed between them.

“Wow. That really does look like you. And is that Warden Kansal?” Minardo said.

“Yes.” Madiha said. She felt a little choked up. “She’s there in the center.”

“So these clothes are hers. Put on the fedora for a moment!”

Minardo picked up the hat and handed it over. Madiha laid it on her head.

“Hmm. Your hair is a little straighter than hers, and your face is just a tiny bit smoother around the edges and the nose, but you honestly quite resemble Daksha Kansal, you know! Could she be your mother, Colonel, hmm? Is that your dramatic birth secret?”

She chuckled and smiled. Madiha felt a tiny bit of the humor.

“She kind of was, when you think about it.” Madiha replied.

“Ah, but I mean, your mother-mother!” Minardo said, rubbing her own belly.

“She was definitely not the type who would carry a pregnancy.”

“Hmm, I see your point!” Minardo replied, clapping her hands.

“Colonel, there’s definitely more in the envelope.” Padmaja said.

She picked it up and shook it.

Inside, Madiha found a letter, and many bills of paper money in high denominations.

She unfolded the letter and read it quietly.


Esteemed Madiha,

Your victory at Bada Aso will change the course of this nation and this war. I only wish I had been able to better prepare you for the trials you have suffered and will continue to suffer in your life. Those days we spent in Bada Aso ill suited a child; and they ill suited a leader of open warfare. But you have nonetheless boldly risen to the occassion. I am quite proud.

Enclosed you will find some items of nostalgia that I wish to bequeathe to you. I’ve learned that you are big enough now for my hand-me-downs. My lady-chasing days are long over; in fact, I hope that a wedding invitation will soon make its way to you. In my place, I hope you have plenty of warm evenings with beautiful women in my best cut. Remember to wear the hat — it is the key to everything. I also got a copy of a photo you might enjoy. We seldom got everyone together for a group shot. It is unfortunate you were being bratty that day. I would have liked to have a picture of my little soldier smiling and happy. But it is what it is.

Also enclosed are my royalties for the overseas sales of my books and Lena’s books. I caught wind of the fact that you had not been properly paid. Spend the money as you wish.

I will try to push through your salaries and your supplies as best as I can.

I hope we can speak in person about these things and more soon.

Your watchful benefactor,

–DAKSHA KANSAL


Madiha put down the letter, and went over the bills.

“How much money is it?” Minardo asked.

“Too much.” Madiha sighed.

It would have quite helped to have had this fund yesterday.

She couldn’t complain, however; she rather liked the look of Daksha’s old suit.


Rangda City, Streets

As the sun was setting on this last day before the festival, Madiha felt a mix of disappointment and shame and trepidation. Minardo had declined to drive her, and remained around the Headquarters for some reason, so she was again walking the relatively short distance from the base to her apartment. It was not a physical burden, but it felt tedious after the lively drive down she had gotten used to.

Kali hung behind her like a big purple back pack, but the dragon had gotten so comfortable that Madiha heard and felt nothing from it but snoring and the expansion and contraction of its belly and chest against her back. It was asleep, contented.

It was not an entirely lonely event, but she did not feel well accompanied either.

There was one overwhelming thing on her mind.

She had not seen Parinita all day, so the question of the festival had been ripped from her hands. She was not especially worried about her secretary. Minardo cleared everything up. Crime in Ayvarta was low, too; and if anyone would have been kidnapped or harmed in order to get to her, it would have better happened much earlier than now.

She realized there was a bit of possessiveness in her longings that was wrong to feel, but she had strongly wanted Parinita to tell her where she was going and what she was doing. She had wanted Parinita to confide in her, and seek her help, and desire her.

And yet, she also wanted to have the strength to keep her at arm’s length too.

Under her arm, Madiha carried the box Daksha had sent.

She was 40,000 shells richer off Daksha’s overseas royalties, collected over some undisclosed period of time. It was a lot of money in Ayvarta, and Madiha was not sure she liked that fact at all. It was a strange load in her pocket; a sign that buying and selling had not been eradicated, that vestiges of sin remained in her beautiful socialist land. As someone who quoted Lena from memory, it just felt wrong to carry this.

There was nobody on the street. It was evening enough that orange had become the predominant color of the sky and it tinged the surroundings. She walked alone down Rangda’s streets, without even the comfort of familiarity. It was not Bada Aso or Solstice, places whose streets she had well worn down both in her far-away past and her quite-near past and present. Now she was isolated in this place with nothing but her newly-regained memories of those older streets. At least she had that much with her now.

Thinking of all the people in that old photo who could not be here made her feel petty.

Her little problems seemed childish. She needed to become more decisive, and soon.

But alone on those streets, she still felt too wavering to put up a strong front.

Madiha turned the last corner to the red banner apartments, approached the steps, and walked through the front door. Crossing the threshold was undramatic, and again she found herself alone in an empty place. She almost expected Parinita, dramatically waiting at the top of the steps, perhaps for Madiha to rush to and embrace. It was a cutting absence, as if she was the last woman on Aer. Bowing her head, she pushed on.

Carelessly she slammed into someing while turning blindly into the ground floor hallway.

Both women fell back in their opposite directions, shocked.

Kali snarled and cried out, flying out from under Madiha before the Colonel hit cement.

It flew out the hallway, and perhaps out the building.

“I’m terribly sorry.” Madiha said. She turned around from watching her dragon.

Parinita had fallen on her buttocks and now rubbed her belly, where Madiha struck.

“No, it was me! I’m so sorry! I should’ve watched– oh! Madiha! Hujambo!

She went from pained apologies to peppy greetings in an instant.

This moment of absurdity forced a quiet laugh out of Madiha.

“Good evening, Parinita.” She said, coughing a little.

Parinita’s elbow had hit her right under her breasts.

Despite the abrupt nature of the meeting, Madiha felt overwhelming relief in her assistant’s presence. Her anxieties vanished; the fire in her mind was snuffed out.

Parinita looked perfectly healthy, and indeed, better put together even than the Colonel herself. She dressed in her skirt uniform, and like Madiha, wore the cap and all of the accouterments. They had agreed to do so together the day before, to try to inspire greater professionalism in the forces; it was nice to see that her companion had adhered to the little pact. Her wavy strawberry hair was well combed and looked silky and bouncy. She had a touch of pigments on her lips and around her eyes, and shiny heels.

Together they stood from the carpeted floor, holding each other’s hands for support.

They did not let go very easily after that.

“Madiha, I’m sorry I didn’t show up today. I wanted to fetch something.”

“Please file a request for time off next time.” Madiha said.

Parinita yanked her hand back, crossed her arms and turned her cheek.

“Hmph, if this wasn’t also a treat to myself, I would postpone it just to be spiteful.”

Madiha raised her hands plaintively. “Sorry!”

Parinita glanced sidelong at Madiha. “Close your eyes and open your hands.”

“Alright.” Madiha replied, a second’s worth of stutter in her voice.

On command, she shut her eyes and spread open her hands, smiling, excited.

She heard the jingling of a key and then her room door clicking open behind her.

“Half-turn! To your right!” Parinita ordered, in the tone of a drill sergeant.

Madiha shifted slightly on her feet. She was turned in toward her open door.

She heard a few clacking footsteps, and then felt fingers curling around her own.

“Open your eyes.” Parinita said, her voice now soft and fond again.

When Madiha opened her eyes, she found Parinita in front of her, holding her hands tightly; behind her, inside the room, there were plastic, transparent bags hanging on the clothes racks, marked with the brand of a local outfitters shop. There was a dress, and a suit, protected inside the bags. Madiha felt something between her fingers and Parinita’s preventing them from fully intertwining. When she looked down from her companion’s beaming, exhilirated face and down to her hands, she found slips of paper — tickets.

“Madiha, would you go out with me on the night of the festival?” Parinita asked.

Though she registered the words and turned them over in her mind, Madiha was incapable of responding at first. It was as if her brain had split into warring sides over how to interpret what Parinita said. She wanted so badly to believe it, but also to ignore it. Her heart pounded, and she felt her face turning hot. Words stumbled up her windpipe and fell drunkenly on her tongue, never quite making it out through her open lips.

Parinita smiled at her while Madiha rubbed the tips of her fingers against her soft skin, overwhelmed by the pressure, and the joy, and the sheer emotion of the moment.

Such a mixture of sensations poured over her head, hot and cold all at once.

Several times she opened her lips, enough for the red flesh and pale teeth to become briefly visible, but still she could not speak. She recalled Bhishma, and what he had said and done, and in a paranoid instant she thought Parinita would break away from her any second, that her hesitation and weakness would cause her to dissipate. But Parinita was patient as the sky awaiting earthbound souls. In her face Madiha saw such gentle understanding, and not any hint of malice or insistence, and she began to calm.

For many minutes they stood, silent, framed by the door threshold, half-in and half-out, fingers wrapped tightly around, eyes ever locked together despite the difference in height. Madiha’s breathing quickened then slowed, and she spread her lips again.

Parinita suddenly preempted her. “Maybe something like this will help you decide.”

After finally speaking, Parinita leaned forward and up, standing on her toes.

Madiha felt drawn into her gaze, obscuring the world around them.

Smiling, Parinita shut her eyes and turned her head slightly.

Her lips brushed Madiha’s own and then closed around them.

Madiha tasted a hint of strawberry.

Fingers tightened around held hands.

They remained locked in a gentle kiss until Parinita’s feet were shaking.

Madiha leaned down instead, inching forward to spare Parinita any discomfort; there was a clumsy shift in their faces as Madiha took the lead then, their mouths meeting and sliding, trading close, hot breaths. Unaided their lips then closed together anew.

This kiss they held until they were out of breath. Lips and sly tongues parted.

Panting, beginning to sweat from their shared heat, they stared into each other’s eyes.

Breathing with a heavy, tantalizing desperation, Madiha smiled rapturously.

“What do you say?” Parinita gently asked, her own breathing just as ragged.

“I have my own suit. I want to wear it.” Madiha said. “It has a matching hat.”

Parinita smiled back, raising a hand to Madiha’s cheek. “I look forward to seeing it.”

She had made her decision then. Perhaps impulsively; but she would live with it.

Nobody in that old photo would have told her to deny herself this happiness.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Chapter

Rumbling Hearts (42.2)


Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison, Training Field

“A bullet will not kill your enemy by itself! It is the mastery of the shooter that kills!”

Inspector General Kimani stood before a hundred riflemen and women of the Regiment’s 1st Motor Rifle Battalion: Matumaini, and delivered a clear and precise speech on rifle discipline and marksmanship. Her audience was destined to be fireteam leaders, snipers and squad leaders under the proposed new organization of the Ayvartan army.

And though these proposals had not yet been approved, the Regiment still proceeded to line everyone up in a corner of the training field, in front of several wooden targets.

Such was the value of these young minds that the Inspector General would personally oversee their training, which, so far, had meant shouting their way for fifteen minutes.

“You cannot fall into the trap of thinking your bullets expert killers by themselves.” Kimani said. “Bullets are impressive; the way they fly invisibly through the air the instant after a trigger pull, causing great trauma and death to a human body, is extraordinary. But not every bullet is a killing bullet. A shot to the leg will cripple an enemy, but that enemy can still shoot and move. A shot to the arm may put an enemy out of the fight momentarily, but they can return with a pistol, or throw a grenade, or run to their allies to relay information.”

The Inspector General drew an example of the typical Ayvartan Bundu rifle out of a nearby crate, and in one precise movement she loaded a round into the weapon and pulled the trigger almost without aiming. A procession of men and women of the Regiment winced reflexively as Kimani scored a precise hit on a wooden target set up some 500 meters away.

Gulab Kajari failed to detect the bullet impact, as she did not know where to direct her attention at the time. When she looked at the target after the fact, she saw what seemed like a pinprick on the red center of a painted circle, one of three on the wooden board.

“It is vital that you aim for the center of mass! On a human body the torso is the largest target containing the most vital organs. Leave the heads and limbs to snipers! You, the simple rifle soldier, are most efficient when aiming at the core of the enemy’s body!”

Kimani pulled the bolt on her rifle, loading in a new round, and fired with nary a moment’s hesitation between the two actions. Again her shot scratched the wood on the thick center of the target. Overlapping circles were yellow, to represent the zone of the upper and lower body, and green, the largest circle, least likely to represent a fatal shot on the enemy.

Looking at the red circle, Gulab thought it must’ve been around a meter across at most.

“For today’s drill, you will split up into teams of spotter and shooter. You will each put 100 rounds through the rifle. Count your teammates’ hits judiciously using the provided chart.”

Though Inspector Kimani’s powerful voice made the exercise sound quite important, the barren stretch of training field between the firing line and the targets suggested other motives for the exercise. It was clearly something that could be done with limited ammunition and construction supplies. Gulab was not keen on shooting. She would have preferred to learn some new skills. She thought she was as good as shot as she’d ever be.

Nevertheless, Inspector Kimani was quite scary, and Gulab easily complied.

Everyone seemed to easily split up into teams, dividing themselves among the many targetss provided for the day’s exercises, and Gulab naturally joined forces with Charvi Chadgura as per the usual, and they paired up behind a low sandbag wall. They had one rifle between them and exactly two hundred rounds of ammunition in a bag at their feet.

“I hope we each get our own rifle in combat!” Gulab said jokingly.

She nudged Charvi in the chest with her elbow, but her friend looked quite inanimate.

“Something wrong?” She asked. She put down the rifle and looked into Charvi’s eyes.

Though her face was expressionless as usual, but something about her posture and movement suggested a limpness and vulnerability that was not the norm for her. Her face and voice could not be read, but Gulab knew well enough how to tell her friend was troubled. At her best, Charvi was reliably balanced, not a pitch too high or too low, neither too stiff nor too lose. She was a measuring stick. Should her neutral pose lean any one specific way, it meant that something was off. Gulab prodded her to see what was wrong.

At first she only made subdued little breathing noises.

“What was that?” Gulab asked.

Chadgura sighed. It was eerie. All she did was open her mouth and let out some air.

With her face, it did not look like a real sigh, but it felt like one.

“I foolishly allowed myself to hope.” Chadgura replied.

Gulab blinked. “It’s gonna be hard to follow that up, but please try.”

“Yesterday,” Chadgura continued, as if uninterrupted, “upon hearing tell of a ‘postal truck’ that comes to the base, I gathered up my very limited amount of pocket money, and I waited outside for this truck for several hours. Upon its arrival, I found that it carried no stamps.”

“Wait, what, when did you do this, I was with you all day.” Gulab said.

“Perhaps yesterday is inaccurate. It was today, but very early.”

Gulab shook her head, loudly groaning. “You’ve gotta control yourself.”

She picked up the rifle from the sandbag wall and thrust it toward Charvi.

Charvi took the gun, loaded it, aimed, and fired, missing the target entirely.

“Hah, you weren’t even close!” Gulab said. “Stamp stuff got you that down?”

Firing another weak shot, Charvi gave no immediate reply. Gulab patted her back.

“Come on, don’t let it get to you! Tomorrow we’ll have time enough for stamps.”

“No.” Charvi said. She paused for a moment. “It is something else on my mind.”

After those mysterious words she raised the iron sights to her eyes again and put another bullet through the gun. This time she chipped away at the edge of the target, on the green.

“Let me have a go, you count mine.” Gulab said.

Taking the rifle from her friend’s hands, Gulab kneeled behind the sandbag wall, bracing herself on the sturdy surface. Holding her breath, she took aim at the center of the target and pulled the trigger. There was a bit of kick, but she was grounded enough to control it, and her muscle memory for the rifle had gotten quite good. It felt natural to shoot now.

Charvi kneeled beside her, and they were cheek to cheek, looking down the range.

“Gulab, if I asked you to come with me to the festival, would you do it?”

“I already told you I would go.”

“No, I don’t mean in that way. I mean go together.”

“We are going together.”

“I don’t mean together. I mean, together, together.”

Gulab turned her head and faced her friend. She had a quizzical expression on her face, and a dense fog around her brain. She did not understand what exactly Charvi was trying to say. After all, just repeating words did not lend them any better context. In her mind, they were both saying the same thing repeatedly without agreement. What was she missing?

“Back up a little here; what is the difference?”

Both were still kneeling behind the sandbag wall, only centimeters apart.

When Charvi spoke, Gulab could feel the breaths leaving her.

“I will try to illustrate. Two people can go to the festival, as individuals in the same place. Instead, I desire to go with you to the festival as a unit. Does this make sense?”

“No. You are actually making less sense.”

Charvi clapped her hands. “I have trouble with words, you know.”

“I know. I’ll give you time.”

“Thank you. Here’s my idea. We could hold hands, and share a sweet yogurt.”

“Units don’t really do that, I think you mean more like, a couple?” Gulab said.

Charvi awkwardly evaded her eyes.

“Perhaps, or perhaps not.”

Her friend’s evasiveness came like a kick that jumpstarted Gulab’s brain.

It dawned upon her then what word she had used, without thinking. Couple; it had come unbidden to her mind and she had blurted it out mindlessly. Not a unit, but a couple, two people, holding hands, sharing a yogurt, having a grand night out, making love–

Her own mental image quite ran away from her and she shivered.

“SO, UM,” Gulab tugged on her own shirt collar. “Couple, huh?”

Suddenly, Charvi clapped her hands several times.

It was as if she was trying to hide the sound of her own voice.

But nonetheless Gulab heard her muttering.

“Couple sounds nice.”

Gulab said nothing, watching the claps.

After over a minute it seemed, her friend was finally all clapped out.

Slowly, her hands ceased to smack together.

“I am able to accept it if you do not desire to go with me.” Charvi said suddenly.

Her eyes drooped toward the ground as if in defeat.

Gulab thrust out her hands and grabbed hold of her friend’s shoulders.

“No, no! I want to go with you!” She said. “Let’s go as a couple if you want!”

Charvi stared into her eyes, initiating another long silence.

This one she also broke through non-stop clapping.

Gulab felt like an idiot; words were streaming out of her mouth faster than thoughts could form in her head. She was nervous, she felt the brimming of anxious skin beneath her clothes, all over her body, like a swarm of ants consuming her. In her head she recalled everything everyone was saying about the festival, about how romantic it was, about how beautiful and serene and fun it was, about sweethearts and soulmates and first loves.

She should have connected the dots sooner! She felt so dense and foolish.

Even more so because she had accepted, without really thinking it through.

But looking at Charvi, as bashful as she could be, right in her hands, it felt less odd.

In fact, it felt like it could be enjoyable.

“I, uh, I don’t really have anything to wear though.” Gulab said.

“That is fine. Neither do I.” Charvi replied.

Kneeling behind the sandbags, they both averted their eyes, faces blushed a fierce red.

At their side, their rifle lay discarded.

“Will we still get stamps?” Charvi asked, glancing sidelong.

“Of course! We’ll get anything you want.” Gulab said nervously.

Charvi clapped her hands once. “Anything?”

Gulab swallowed hard, beginning to sweat.

“Well, now, let’s not get too hasty.” She said, half through a laugh, half through a hiccup.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Ghede River Warfare — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains violence, death and a graphic depiction of disease.


46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu North, near the Ghede

Turning in from the road, Field Marshal Haus’ Sentinel Foot 8-wheeled armored car followed a series of blue flags across several kilometers of the wood. There were no men, and any tracks from patrolmen were carefully covered; but any traveler with a keen enough eye would have been wary of the rags hanging from various trees across the forest. Each flag was a different amount of meters from the next, but the path was still there for those who knew where to look and how to interpret the posted signs.

Standing out of the Sentinel-type 50mm gun turret that was the vehicle’s namesake, Haus directed his driver through the thick, hard terrain, crossing the forest toward the northern riverside. They did not come across a single other soul along the way. Haus knew the significance of the flags, and the lack of patrols did not disturb him.

It was all of his own design, after all. He had ordered the patrols ended.

He would need every last man he could spare in the center for this next effort.

Haus found himself painlessly navigating through the forest into the T-Battalion staging area, an eerie space devoid of trees save for one massive trunk with a hollow that embraced the entire clearing, and a deeply bowed crown of evergreen leaves. Hundreds of men lurked in the outskirts, and what seemed like a hundred loitered within the clearing itself, sitting on the beds of trucks, with their backs against crates, downcast.

Standing under the ancient, mournful giant, they seemed defeated already.

It was an atmosphere that was fit for mourning, punctuated by screams of agony that resounded across the clearing — there was a commotion in a nearby medical tent.

Haus stared quizzically from atop his turret.

“Cathrin, I think you should stay in the car for this one.” He said, wincing at the noise.

Below him, seated calmly beside a radio, Cathrin bowed her head in acknowledgment.

Haus pulled himself up from the turret hatch, and climbed down the side of the Sentinel Foot. He hit the floor in a quick stride and hurried to the medical tent. Sweeping aside the entrance flaps, Haus found several men gathered around a bed where another landser lay, struggling against belt bonds and screaming as loudly as his lungs would allow. Between fits and screams sounded recurring snapping noises, and few of the men backed away with each snap. As Haus closed in on the mob, he averted his eyes.

From a bleeding ulcer on the bound man’s leg a long, sharp worm struggled against a stick held from afar by a medic, who was driven to near hysterics by the terror of his task. As he turned his stick, he wound the worm around it, and pulled more of its length from the man’s wound. Haus thought the abomination must have been at least a meter long, and thick as a thumb. At the beast’s front end, dripping jaws snapped at the men.

“Messiah defend.” Haus intoned. “What the hell happened to this man?”

“Sir!” One of the men in the sidelines, a Sergeant judging by his pins, saluted the Field Marshal while the rest of the men watched in stunned horror or wincing sympathy. The Sergeant swallowed hard, glanced at the bloody sight, and explained, “He came in this morning saying his leg hurt. He couldn’t remove his boot, so we got the medic to cut his leg, and we found that thing. He must’ve drank unfiltered water somewhere, maybe a few weeks ago, and got infected; this thing must’ve grown in him and it wants out now!”

“Why the hell would you drink unfiltered water around here?”

Twist; the worm snapped, the man screamed, the medic gingerly turned the stick.

Blood spurted on the bed.

One of the tent guards grabbed hold of his mouth and ran outside, leaving his rifle.

His choking and heaving joined the cacophony of bodily noises in the tent.

The Sergeant cringed. He pinned his eyes on Haus, the least unsettling sight in the tent.

“It was part of our survival training sir! River water is supposed to be fresh!” He said.

“Fresh as in not salt water! It’s still unsafe!” Haus replied. He felt a touch irate that he was being made to witness such a grotesque sight that could’ve been prevented.

He almost wanted to take out his handgun and shoot the worm dead.

But then it might putrefy inside the man and that would definitely cripple him.

“You’re all dismissed from the operation; stay here, tend to this man, and please, for the love of God, enlighten your units about the price of carelessness in this bestial nation.”

Shaking his head at the men, Haus left the tent.

Fresh screaming followed him out.

“Where is Major Troppf?” He called out.

A gaggle of depressed-looking soldiers pointed him into the wood.

“Look lively!” Haus shouted at them. “We’re carrying out an operation today!”

There were nods in response but no change in demeanor.

Haus returned to the Sentinel Foot and tapped his knuckles on the armor. Out from the top popped Cathrin’s blond head, peeking over the hatch just enough for a pair of bespectacled blue eyes and some golden hair to come into view. She blinked, and Haus silently beckoned her to follow. She pulled herself over the hatch, and climbed delicately down the side, clip-board in hand, a radio backpack fastened by her waist-belt and around her shoulders, and its paired headset perched on her crown. She had traded her heels for combat boots, and wore thicker, sturdier black leggings with her skirt uniform.

“What was the commotion?” She asked. Was seemed out of place; the man in the tent had never quite stopped screaming. They had merely gotten used to the noise now, enough that it blended into the background of rustling leaves and billowing breezes and pattering boots.

“I’d rather not recall it.” Haus replied. “Come on.”

Ambling a short distance out from the clearing, Haus and Cathrin followed the landser’s vague directions and found a big tent with the symbol for a headquarters. It was surrounded by bushes and camouflaged with a net entwined with twigs and leaves and green branches. Inside, Major Troppf, an older man with a gaunt face, sat behind a skeletal folding table, spinning a pencil around. He looked sleepy and bored.

At the sight of the Field Marshal, he dropped his pencil and thrust up from his chair.

“Sir!” He raised his arms in salute.

Haus stared inexpressively at the man. “Are your troops ready?”

“Yes sir! We’ve mobilized the entire battalion to this general area.”

“Have they been appraised of the situation?”

“They’ve been taught what they need to do.”

Haus was not especially pleased with that answer.

One could teach a parrot words, but they would not know their context or meaning. A parrot could say your name, but it would never be able to call it out with any emotion or in a complete sentence. He would have hoped in the past few hours he could have told the troops the exact nature of Haus’ plan and the day’s strategy, but it was too late for that now. He would have to hope his parrots could sing their words well enough.

As Haus’ gaze fell more bluntly upon Troppf, the Major averted his own.

“I will be taking tactical command at the front.” Haus said. “Tell your units to keep contact with Ms. Habich here at all times, and to answer any command from myself immediately.”

Major Troppf looked taken aback. His eyes rose again to Haus’ face, and he raised his hands as if trying to calm down an irate child. “Sir, with all due respect, it is too dangerous for the Field Marshal to take to the front! We can command the battle from here; this headquarters might not seem like much, but our radio reception is reliable.”

Haus felt insulted; what commander didn’t pine for the war at the front?

“If I was not willing to get my hands dirty I would not have come this far.” He said.

Without further explanation, Haus turned his back on the Major and ambled nonchalantly out of the tent. Cathrin remained behind only long enough to hand the stunned Troppf a card with the frequencies she would be using. After that, she too turned on her heel and vacated the area. They returned to the Sentinel Foot, through the little gaggles of men lying depressingly about, and under the almost rhythmic cries of the worm-stricken man.

“What was your impression of him?” Haus asked aloud, as if to the air.

Cathrin answered. She pushed up her glasses; her face was coolly dispassionate.

“Another man who thought he could slide by; unwilling to take risks.”

“Unwilling, or incapable?”

“Unwilling.”

“You’re a harsh but precise judge of character.”

Haus offered Cathrin a hand, and helped lift her onto the step at the back of the Sentinel Foot. It was help she did not need, but that he always offered, and that she always took. She opened the hatch, and climbed inside. Haus followed. They settled in their places. A box of ammo for him; the little corner where the radios had been bolted to the armored wall, for her. At the front, their driver waved a greeting. They would not be leaving yet.

“Is Von Sturm’s presence required at the front?” Cathrin asked, sliding her headset gently onto her head and over her ears. She adjusted the microphone on her collar. If necessary, she could ring him up, and he could arrive within the hour. He had more than enough time.

“No, let him come if he wants to.” Haus said.

Cathrin nodded. “Do you desire for him to appear?”

“It would improve my respect for him.” Haus replied.

He looked over his shoulder at the Sentinel turret near the vehicle’s front, set atop the highest point of the Sentinel Foot’s backward-sloping armor. Steps on the wall allowed one to climb into the turret basket, which projected down into the chassis, and from there onto the gunner’s seat. Though the Foot was only lightly armored, its 50mm Sentinel gun packed a better punch than the M5 Light Tanks that constituted most of the 13th’s armor power.

It encapsulated Haus’ view of war. High risk, high reward.

Unlike many of his Generals, he could climb on that turret and fight.

He wanted to.

“How much is your respect worth?” Cathrin asked.

Haus chuckled. He could tell what she was implying.

“In the end, whether he appears or not, Von Sturm will retain a position, because men other than me who gave him a position who do not desire to be proven wrong about their judgment. His name, his legacy, and what he represents, make him too big to fail too utterly. Propriety dictates that he will be part of this army, will have missions, and may even share in the glory at the end of the hostilities. He cannot fail anyone but himself.”

“I see.”

Cathrin nodded her head, and turned her back on Haus, returning to her radios.

“Then I don’t think your respect is worth enough for him to come.” She said.

Haus smiled. “You really are a cruel girl.”


Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

Selene Lucci slept well considering the circumstances.

It helped that prisoners were held in a tent that was exceedingly dark.

She could hardly see the features of her hands or the thick seam stitches on the sleeves of her dress. It was fairly cool when she laid close to the ground, and the earth was soft and comforting. Her captivity was relatively more livable than she had imagined.

Cages had come to mind, but instead she was only chained.

Her legs were chained to a block which had been buried beneath the tent, thus preventing her from even attempting to drag it around. Her arms were chained, but there was a lot of slack, and they were not tied behind her back as they were when she was kidnapped from the village. And she had been left well enough alone since yesterday, so she did not have to contend with any blathering Nochtish interrogators or guards.

God had truly blessed her.

Having carried her through that first night, she hoped He might deign to give her a way out of this test which He had put before her. Comfortable captivity was still captivity.

In the morning, Selene woke, and sat on a chair which had been left for her.

She could not see outside the tent. Her only source of light was a thin slit beneath the door, which was otherwise fastened tight from the outside with a zipper, and made of a fabric that allowed no light to filter through the cloth. Still, she frequently turned her eyes to the slit, and the very dim light filtering into her confinement. Should someone come to the door of the tent even that precious sliver of light would become obvious shadow.

Soon the slit was shadowed, as she expected.

Outside, the zipper came undone, and the tent flap parted.

Selene expected the sudden entry of sunlight to blind her. But the effect was far less dramatic than she envisioned. When the tent flaps opened, she caught a glimpse of green and brown from the tent’s surroundings, but the light in the tent was still dim, as was the world outside of it. Carrying a little lamp and a tray of food, Kern Beckert entered the tent. He had on the same dismal expression as he did yesterday.

She felt nothing at his appearance. She turned her head from the door.

“I brought food.” He said. He sounded drained.

“Comforting to know I won’t starve.” Selene dryly replied. He cringed a little. Causing him discomfort had become almost empowering to her. He was visibly torn up about what he was doing, but if he did not stop nor change, then he was the same as the rest. His regrets were useless to her; his squirming in her presence was at least mildly amusing.

Kern ambled toward the chair and set the tray on her lap. He put a spoon in her hand.

“It’s oatmeal, with milk. There’s a sugar packet on the tray too.”

Selene considered playing the hard prisoner, and refusing her food, maybe even tossing the tray at Kern and soiling his smart grey uniform. Would that have caused him to recoil? Would he have gotten angry, or felt the words of his uncouth companion with the gun vindicated by her actions? Would he think her a savage in a savage land?

She stared down at the oatmeal, dimly lit by the tiny orange flicker from the lamp.

She dipped her spoon in it, and ate. It was bland, but it was food.

She was hungry, and playing tough would get her nowhere.

Catharthic as it was, she might have to lighten up on the northern boy.

“Are you going to be my guard?” She asked.

“No,” he replied. He sttuttered his next words. “I’m going to the front soon. There’ll be another guard posted. I just thought– I don’t know. I wanted to come see you.”

Selene raised her eyes off her tray and glared at him.

“I’m far from comfortable being in your thoughts.” She said.

“I expected that.” Kern said. He rubbed his hand down his face. “I’m going to go. Please stay put and don’t rile up the guards, Sister. Nobody wants you to come to harm. I think once we’re past this river, they’ll let you go. Everyone thinks you might give up our position if you are released now, but that won’t matter when we move forward.”

Selene scoffed. “This is ridiculous. How could I give up your position now? To whom? I can’t escape north, through your lines, only south. And you’ve conquered the South.”

“I don’t know.” Kern said. He sighed. “I don’t know. I’m truly sorry.”

He turned around, hands in his pockets, head drooping, and left the tent.

Outside, he zipped the tent again.

She vaguely heard his first few steps away from the tent.

Then, like everything else in the outside world, the sound of him was blocked off.

On her lap, she still had the tray.

Oatmeal, sugar, a milk bag, a rounded spoon.

And a hard, metal tray.

Sensing the opportunity, Selene ate voraciously, spooning oatmeal into her mouth with zeal, drinking her milk in one gulp, and tossing aside the sugar. She picked up the tray and hid it behind her back on the chair. She tossed her spoon away as well.

Then she waited.

Time passed, indistinct to her. She finally saw the zipper pulling down.

Again the tent opened. A slim, brown-haired boy entered the room.

Unlike Kern, he did not have a lamp. Like Kern, he left the tent flap open.

“Afternoon ma’am. I’m Private Cohls. I’ll be sitting just outside the tent. Pull on the flap if you need to use the latrine, I’ll unlock ya. Food and drink comes three times a day.”

As he spoke, he closed in to within a few meters.

Selene had tested the length of her leg shackle the previous night.

Young, and smiling, cheerful, the Private entered her little circle.

Perhaps he was happy to have a cute girl for company, or under his power.

“Just gimme a shout if you want something. I’ll try to accomodate. My boss might be wanting to talk to you soon. I’ll give you a heads-up about that. Anyway. Nice to meet–”

He came close enough to stretch out a hand to shake.

Selene bolted up from her chair and hurled herself forward.

Swinging the tray, she struck the man on the jaw.

Blood and teeth sprayed into the air.

Private Cohls hit the ground. Selene heard a keyring jingling as he collapsed.

She knelt beside him and picked his body.

Her shackles soon fell to the floor beside him.

Through the open tent flap, Selene charged into the forest.

“God preserve me, for what I’ve done cannot be taken back.” She prayed.


Adjar Occupation Zone — Ghede Riverside

Along the central curve of the Ghede the Nochtish forces rallied on their side of the water.

Even the most inattentive private could tell this push was going to the biggest yet. Every trench, every foxhole, was crammed to capacity with men side by side, back to back. Bandoliers of ammunition were passed around the lines, and every third man had a submachine gun, or an automatic, heavy gun like a Quengler or Norgler, instead of every eighth. Most telling was the wood behind them, thick with firepower. Howitzers, anti-tank, and mortars as much as could be mustered without thinning out the flanks. They had moved at night, and gone silent in the morning, waiting for their chance.

On Haus’ orders, the line had been pushed as close to the river as it could be. Men were dug-in a scant few meters from the cliffs and sand ramps that overlooked the water. Their artillery had never been closer behind them than today. At night, false bushes and green, moss-covered nets had been planted in several spots to create an even “treeline” that was only 10 meters behind the infantry line. Here rested their guns and mortars.

During Von Sturm’s attacks, the artillery was 500 meters behind the line.

Never had the 13th Panzer Division been this close to the inscrutable face of the central Ghede. This combat area had been abandoned quickly, due to the thick, tall trees on the opposite side of the river, a veritable wall that had kept the Ayvartans well defended.

Even now nobody could see the Ayvartans in the forest opposite their own.

While they searched silently for the enemy, the radio call came through.

It was not Fruehauf’s voice that hailed the men, but another woman.

“Take your lunch; our guests will be late.” said Cathrin Habich.

Along the line, the word passed.

Holding on to their rifles and machine guns, the men hunkered down and waited.

As Haus instructed, the battle would not begin in the center.

On the flanks, the message Cathrin delivered was different.

“Embark soon, the host is already eating.”

The Center would wait, but the Flanks would launch their attack.

Tanks roared to life and opened fire on the Ayvartan line in the eastern and western Ghede. Machine guns spat long bursts of tracers over the river. Men with shotguns and submachine guns and bayonets charged down the sand ramps and waded into the river to begin the bloody assault against the other side of the Ghede, dozens of meters away.

Again the crossfire that characterized the Ghede battles whipped up a frenzied light show. Red and green tracers crossed like swarms of glowing hornets over the river. Tank rounds exploded between the trees. Mortar rounds sailed over the forest’s peak.

For fifteen minutes the Center remained quiet.

Then the artillery sounded on the flanks.

Eastern batteries shot west, and western batteries shot east.

Every tube plotted its fire against the center.

Before the men dug into the center line, the treeline across the river exploded into fire and light. They quickly realized that there were far more than their own guns attacking the forest in front of them. Every tube along the Ghede was shooting to support them. Hundreds of shells crashed between the trees, raising hot orange pillars and choking black smoke. Branches went flying, fragments sliced through the foliage. Fires started.

From a trench, Lieutenant Aschekind rose, pistol in hand.

“Attack!” He called out, his voice booming across the battlefield.

As one the infantry rose up, a line of bodies several hundred meters long.

Norgler teams dropped on the edges of cliffs and emptied their belts across the river. Submachine gunners and bayonet-chargers rushed down the sand ramps and began to wade toward the other side of the central Ghede. Bleary-eyed, full of adrenaline, the men hurried across the 75 meters of relatively shallow river that separated them from the enemy bank. They focused on the smoke and the blasts. They held their breaths.

Atop the opposing embankment, machine gun barrels emerged from the brush, their operators hiding behind metal shielding and waiting to line up a good kill-zone.

As the flanks were pinned down, the Center began to war in earnest.


One foot forward, then the other.

Kern’s insides worked themselves raw, pumping and thrashing as he waded through the almost chest-deep water. Nothing he had done in this war made him feel more powerless and helpless than moving in water. Against the onrushing blue it took all of his strength to merely stand straight, and every step was a monumental effort.

Never had he struggled so bitterly to move so slowly.

Part of him did not want to move, knowing that beyond this river there were only more people that he would be called on to brutalize. Selene’s voice echoed in his head, and made his footsteps heavier. It was as if her hand was on his shoulder, pulling him back.

He shook his head, and he struggled, and he tried to muffle that sweet voice.

One foot forward, then the other.

His water-proof bandolier weighed heavily on him, and he held his rifle over his own head as he struggled forward, meter by terrible meter, so as not to drop his rifle into the water and render it useless as a shooting weapon. One foot forward, then the other. There was a clip loaded, but he knew he would not be able to shoot until he reached dry land. He felt he would be knocked down into the water if he tried to shoot it like this.

He needed to concentrate on moving forward.

As the battle intensified his window of opportunity grew narrower.

He knew that the artillery distraction was over and the enemy was rallying.

In less than an hour, the enemy could reinforce the center to drive them back.

Over his shoulder he glanced at the lines of norgler fire tearing into the wood from the ten meter high cliffs overlooking the sand ramp, and staring at the sky he saw the tell-tale lines of smoke from falling shells. Fire from batteries in the east and west crossed just over the central Ghede before falling over the Ayvartans in the wood. Gunfire and explosions flashed from seemingly every direction, lighting up the foamy waters.

Chunks of wood and stone flew overhead and into the river, debris from the blasts.

But the covering fire was beginning to slacken. And he could not respond except by putting a foot forward, and then the other, on the soft, slippery, sandy footholds below.

At his sides were almost fifty other men. Some had gotten ahead, taking heavy, long steps and deep, ragged breaths faster than any of their peers. Many had fallen behind, gasping, dragging their boots over the sand, some clinging to other men for support.

Seventy-five meters in total, and yet even thirty of them felt like a continental journey.

In some places, the cliffs were only 20 or 30 meters apart.

But nobody could make such a jump. So they crossed 75 meters of water instead.

Kern focused on the opposing side of the river. There was another steep, sandy incline, where the rocky river-side cliffs had eroded into a ramp that would lift them to the rest of the Ayvartan continent. He focused on the riverbank, on the bushes, on the trees.

He heard her voice. “You can stop.” But he couldn’t, he just couldn’t.

But he did stop, for a long second, peering over the water, over the sand.

He saw the glinting of the metal barrel in the bushes before its muzzle flashed.

In his mind he heard the invisible fingers pulling the trigger before the shot.

His instincts responded in time with the rhythmic cracking of the gun.

“MACHINE GUN!” Kern shouted as the Ayvartan Khroda opened fire.

A line of bullets cut past him across the river.

Flying lead bit into the river foam, like skipping stones across the surface, and the ripples turned red. Automatic gunfire sliced through three men huddling together for support just meters behind Kern, and they sank into the water screaming, and were dragged away. Helpless, the remaining men trudged faster. Kern grit his teeth and tried to force his stride, to hurry forward, but his legs felt raw the instant he exerted them.

Several rifles rose at his sides, and traded gunfire with the machine gun.

Rifle cartridges soared into the bushes and clanked off something hard.

Ponderously the barrel turned on its carriage.

Gunfire swept across the river wherever the gun faced.

Deliberately, like a fiery eye peering upon the damned, the machine gun turned, faced a man, killed him, and faced another. One man, two men, a group, the gun picked them all off, pushed them into the water, never again to be seen. Men huddled lower to the water, trying to continue to wade, but every gray shirt above the water was turning red.

Kern stopped when he saw the water around him rippling with bullets.

Instinctively he dropped beneath the surface.

His feet left the earth, and he floated.

Before he started to drift, he saw the bullets breaking the surface, like droplets of steel coming down from the sky. They would crash through the river and slow down enough to be briefly seen, in their dozens, in their hundreds, trailing bubbles as they dove through flesh as easily as water. He saw blood burst slowly from limbs and torsos without heads, dyeing the water crimson, and ghost-pale men then falling through the foam and drifting past him in mute agony or thrashing death. He could not count all of the fallen.

Twenty meters, just twenty meters from the opposing shore.

All around him men were dying just for those paltry twenty meters.

Kern’s helpless tears dissolved into the water around him.

Through the falling lead he swam forward with all his strength. One arm before the other, legs kicking, thrashing, inelegant. It was the same as the wading, but beneath the foam.

Down the river, his rifle floated away.

He could hardly see underwater. His eyes stung, his vision warped. He tried to count the steps in his mind, as if still walking, tying each swimming step to a meter. One, two, three; intermittently he saw more bullets, more simultaneous fire, definitely more machine guns. Were the Ayvartans fortifying the ramp? Was he swimming to death?

Five, six, seven, eight; he pushed aside the corpse of a man whose bandolier had hooked onto a log caught on rocks at the bottom of the river, and he disappeared downstream as Kern rushed past. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve; it was so close now!

As if tearing open a door Kern thrust with his arms and his legs, surging forward with all of his strength. He hit the sand roughly, and he felt the jagged rocks embedded in the soil striking every bit of him as he beached at the foot of the sand ramp. Gasping for air, face covered in sand and mud and eyes afire with tears and dirty water, he ripped open his bandolier, withdrew the pistol hidden with his rifle ammunition, and shot up the ramp.

His pistol rounds bounced uselessly off the gun shield hidden in the bush.

Enemy riflemen peered out of the bush and took hasty aim at him.

Kern wanted to shout; he had made it across! He was the first!

He rapped the trigger of his pistol, and heard the futile click, click, click.

Two shots from the rifles. Sand kicked up in his face.

Both men worked their bolts, gritting their teeth, shouting at the trees.

He had been missed then, but would not be missed again.

Crying, gritting his teeth, Kern hit the trigger on his pistol, over and over.

Click, click, click– boom.

The blaring retort of a tank gun silenced the machine gun and the rifles.

At the top of the ramp an explosion consumed the defending Ayvartans.

In an instant Kern’s enemy went silent behind the rapidly burning bushes.

Speechless, he turned his head over his shoulder.

Back on the Nochtish side of the river, atop the sand ramp, the Sentinel Foot’s smoking gun presided over the crossing of fifty new men. At the head of this new group was Lieutenant Aschekind, charging through the river like a boar, undeterred by the slippery ground and the current. In seemingly fewer strides than anyone he made it clean across, and took a knee beside Kern, looking up at the ramp with his pistol in hand.

“Can you stand?” He asked.

Kern wanted to shout at him that he couldn’t; that he shouldn’t. That they all needed to stop, to turn back, to cease this madness. That it was hurting them, killing them; hurting and killing this continent and its people. It was senseless, it would fix nothing, it would change nothing in the world for the good. Selene’s voice cursed and spat at him.

She told him that he could stop, that he could turn back, that he could change it.

That he could save himself, save others, save their souls, save this land.

Her voice shouted with all its force, bound up in his guilt and anxiety and pain.

But he couldn’t listen to it. Not while the bullets were still flying.

Lieutenant Aschekind offered his hand. Kern took it, and he did stand.

He was the first Nochtish man across the Ghede river.

Despite the tears in his eyes and the gaping wound in his heart, he could not stop.

He could turn not back across that bloody-red river anymore.

Kern reloaded his pistol, and followed Aschekind up the ramp. They took cover behind the remains of the Ayvartan gun in the smoking bush, and waited for backup.

There were forces far greater and stronger than he hurling him into this hell.

He wanted to think he was as helpless in the face of them as Selene before God.


Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

Through the endless forest she ran from her implied enemy, but her body was giving up. Her legs felt tremendously heavy beneath her, and her stride grew slack. Her lungs were raw from the labor, and her throat tight, dry, in stinging pain. She slowed to a stop, her eyes scanning every corner of the wood for the hunters she knew to be after her.

There was nobody in sight; there was nothing in sight at all. Just green and brown.

Selene bowed her head against the trunk of a slender tree, and tugged on the neck of her dress. She felt warm air escape from her chest, and the cold touch of sweaty fabric struggling to cling as she pulled on it. Her parched tongue lolled out of her mouth.

She thought she heard footsteps, and raised her head in a panic.

But there was nothing behind her. Nothing in any direction but trees and endless green canopy overhead, penetrated by thin beams of light. Picturesque as the northern Kalu was, the forest was also heating up as the noon passed, and Selene was thoroughly exhausted. Hungry, thirsty, sweat-soaked, her muscles raw. She had never traversed the Northern Kalu. She knew no landmarks that could lead her back to her village.

And she was not much of an adventurer. She was a teacher, and a nurse — a nun.

A nun that could swing a mean breakfast tray; but a nun nonetheless.

Helplessly her eyes continued to glance over every centimeter of her surroundings.

She could have sworn she was heading south after leaving the tent, but she lost all sense of direction in the wood. And she had made a foolish mistake, too. She had found several rags tied to trees, markers for the enemy. Believing herself pursued, she undid them all and stomped them into the dirt and brush. Now she could not even find her way back to the Nochtish camp. They were the only conspicuous sight.

She was now drowning in the green.

Had God chosen this for her? To slowly wither away here, alone and afraid?

She pushed herself off the tree and ambled in an unknown direction.

At her side the forest scrolled slowly past, like the moving scenery of a clockwork stage.

Wherever the canopy broke, the Ayvartan sun blinded her to the sky.

She could not even use its position to determine her own — she could not even stare at it, it was so hot and close. Even the Heavens had been denied to her. She felt the sweat breaking out of her skin whenever she was exposed to the sun’s heat directly. Clearings became just another location to avoid as she continued her aimless trek forward.

She saw no animals, not even birds.

Perhaps they had all been driven off by the noise and smoke.

Noise.

She thought to crane her head and try to listen for man-made sounds. To put her ears to the ground and try to feel the mechanical vibrations. Tanks and trucks could be heard and felt from quite afar in a peaceful forest. But she heard nothing. Everything was so silent and still that she felt a force boring through her ears, and a ringing in her head.

Selene kept moving.

Her vision swam. She lost track of time.

One foot in front of the other. Her strength slowly wavered.

She clasped her hands in prayer. They shook with tension and exhaustion.

“Merciful God, deliver me from this. I want only to serve these people of the south and to lead an untroubled life at their side. Powerful God in Heaven, give me the strength to turn my back on the tricolor gates, for I have life left to live upon the world of flesh–”

She tripped on a tree root and fell face-first into a pile of leaves.

Her body hit the floor with an audible thud.

For a moment she lay there, her mind empty of thought.

Instinctively she moved to stand again, and felt this drain her remaining strength.

When she stood, she was unsteady. She did not think she could take another step.

Beneath her, the floor shook unnaturally, sweeping forward and back in a nauseating fashion. She raised her eyes from the ground, hoping her gaze could then keep steady.

In front of her, framed in the light of a clearing, she saw a woman come running in.

Young, brown-haired, tall, pretty.

Grey-uniformed.

Weeping.

Waving a bottle in her hand.

“Fuck it all! Fuck everything!” She shouted at the top of her lungs.

Her voice echoed across the forest. She flung her bottle.

Selene felt some of the glass spray close to her as the bottle burst on a nearby tree.

She cringed reflexively and the woman laid eyes on her.

Each silently assessed the other.

Then the woman, eyes puffy with tears and drink, slowly approached, some drunken realization dawning on her face. She staggered forward, weeping, a devastated expression building on her face as if she had seen a family member die before her.

Tears began to cascade from her eyes, and to join fluid dribbling from her nose.

She held out her hand gently, reaching out to the nun.

Selene backed off a step, but not enough of them; the drunk woman threw herself on the nun and wept and screamed and thrashed into her breast and made a scene.

“Oh sister! Holy sister! I am filthy! I am a fallen woman! I’ve fallen to sin!”

She shouted and shouted the same repetitive cries before moving to new ones.

“I’ve taken to the bottle! I’ve turned away from the Lord! I hate this place, sister! This continent is unholy! It is tearing apart my soul, sister! Save me! Please!”

Some tender instinct engraved in her soul caused Selene to brush Fruehauf’s hair with her fingers to try to console her, but it made no difference. Fruehauf was distraught to a terrible extreme. She tugged on Selene’s dress and nearly brought her to the floor. She wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist, crying and screaming, struggling like a child throwing a tantrum. Selene had to grab her to prevent her from sliding to the dirt.

“Forgive me, blessed, pure woman of God! Forgive me! Save me!”

Her head bobbed against the nun’s waist.

Selene stood still, stunned to silence, her head completely blank. She could not process this scene, it had shocked her numb after all of her sufferings. It was a veritable ambush.

“Sister, please, sister–”

Over Fruehauf’s recurring cries an even louder voice sounded from the distance. It cut off the distraught woman’s shouting and reverberated across the wood like a deific call.

“FRUEHAUF!”

Selene and Fruehauf both turned their heads back toward the clearing.

General Anton Von Sturm approached between trees, staring skeptically.

“Who is this? What are you doing? We’ve been searching for hours! You could’ve been killed by some wild animal here! If you’re going to get drunk, get drunk at the base!”

Mid-shout, the General paused and took stock of the scene before him.

Nun and radio operator, in a compromising position in the middle of the wood.

Von Sturm rubbed his chin, staring at Selene much more intently.

He pointed a finger at her and she bristled in response, her eyes drawing wide.

“Are you the chaplain?” He asked. “Wait, no. Chaplains aren’t female.”

He rubbed his chin again.

Staring dumbly, Selene felt as though she had been given a revelation from God.

To surrender; running any more was futile.

Sighing, Selene raised her arms through Fruehauf’s own.

“I give up.” She moaned.

Von Sturm raised an eyebrow.

“Um. You what?” He asked, staring between Fruehauf and Selene.

Helplessly, the nun shrugged. Fruehauf broke into a fresh round of crying.

One had to suppose this was all God’s will, but Selene found it terribly frustrating.


Adjar Occupation Zone — Ghede Riverside

Elevation levers slammed down across the Nochtish artillery line, and every gun tube fell to its neutral position. Red-hot 10.5 cm barrels smoked; shells flew in straight lines over the cliffs and across the Ghede, smashing apart thick tree trunks, setting alight bushes, and scattering hidden sandbag emplacements and machine gun shields and mortar pits. Direct fire burnt and crushed the Ayvartan cover and slowly unveiled the defending line.

From the felled trees and shredded bushes, the Ayvartans stood undaunted. They pushed out their machine guns and their own cannons, inching forward and joining the duel in earnest. Both sides came in full view of another, and traded fire as if across an open field rather than a river. Had there been a connection they could have been met with bayonets; the standstill became a pitched battle over the cliffs and ramps.

Endless streams of gunfire crossed the riverside.

As the violence played out several meters overhead, riflemen trickled across the river, huddling at the various sand ramps and treelines. Descending into the river, they braved the water as the guns battled. Machine gun fire flew thick on all sides, slowing the beachheads down. Up the ramps, small groups of men crawled, making it to bushes before falling, either dead or suppressed. Snipers in the trees and machine gunners in the remaining brush took their pick of them. There were flashpoints and fires all along the central Ghede in short order. On the cliffs, between the ramps, it was pure chaos.

Field Marshal Haus resolved to put out all the fires in the line as best as he could.

The Sentinel Foot stood briefly above the sand ramp occupied by Alpha unit, named for its commander, Aschekind. Impressed with the man’s stature and commanding presence, Haus had given his unit the most dangerous approach. He witnessed his failure in judgment first-hand. No unit was wholly akin to its commander, and only one man had made it across on the first wave. Now Haus loaded rounds into his turret, and lobbed high explosive across the river to personally cover Aschekind’s second wave.

He struck one machine gun dead-on, and blasted away a curtain of bushes, killing several snipers in the process and saving the first man across the river. Morale seemed to hold for now. Haus had opened the way, and the second platoon wading into the Ghede was making good process. He felt confident he could leave the area in a minute.

There were many more fires to fight, and not enough hoses to fight them all.

“Alpha unit has crossed the river and are engaging. Delta and Theta are stuck, and suffering loses. All units are on their second wave. None of the first waves were successful.” Cathrin reported, crouched beside the radio and shouting into the turret.

“Wouldn’t be a military plan if it didn’t initially fuck up.” The Field Marshal replied.

He pulled open the 50mm gun breech, shoved a rotund shell inside, and locked it.

Through his gun sight, he focused on the treeline just over Alpha’s sand ramp.

Haus pressed his electric trigger, and his shell soared over his own men and detonated.

A curtain of smoke fell over them, blocking the enemy’s view of the ramp.

“That will have to do. Driver, east, one kilometer, full speed!”

Eight wheels propelled the Sentinel Foot, four on each side, and the sleek machine turned around its body and charged along the river-side, leaving behind Alpha’s ramp.

At almost 80 kilometers per hour the machine sped past the trenches and the artillery guns, strafing to present a harder target for the mortars and artillery. His own guns held their fire as he passed, before joining battle again. Fragments bounced off the thirty millimeters of armor, and it rolled through the plumes of mortar blasts and through the hail of machine gun fire unharmed. Haus turned his turret perpendicular to the chassis to face the enemy defenses, and found an almost unbroken line of rifles and guns flashing relentlessly. He lifted his hand from the cannon and seized his coaxial Norgler machine gun, holding the down the trigger and spraying the opposing side of the river.

“Sir, we’re almost to the flashpoint!” Cathrin called out.

Haus pushed open the top hatch and peered out, careful not to expose too much.

The Sentinel Foot slowed, and ahead he spotted the place where the ground descended from the rocky river-side cliffs, forming another sand ramp into the water. He saw his men rushing down the ramp, charging into the water, and immediately slowing to crawl, wading, taking long, tall strides as if they wanted to extricate their feet entirely from the chest-high water with each step. Machine gun fire met them from the riverbank.

“Men! Press on!” Haus shouted, lifting up a fist. “You can take this river!”

In the next instant a mortar shell fell into the water and exploded amid the lead platoon elements before they could be heartened by Haus’ appearance. The remainder of the platoon turned frantic, and began to overexert themselves, hurrying to cross.

Gritting his teeth, Haus descended into his turret again. He hit the electric drive, and the gun swung toward the enemy emplacements, again hidden behind thick bushes atop the ramp on their side of the river. In a few seconds he acquired a target, watching the muzzle flash inside of the vegetation. He loaded a shell, took aim and quickly fired.

There was a burst, and a cloud of smoke and flying plant debris obscured the top of the ramp. Once the dust settled the machine gun lay unveiled, a hole through its shield.

He drew in a breath and scanned around for contacts.

At the edge of his vision a much brighter muzzle flashed.

He heard a blast, too quickly and too close by, and the Sentinel Foot shook up, as if it suddenly desired to tip over on its side. Dirt and rocks scattered skyward from the blast then fell over the vehicle’s armor, rapping the metal with a sound like ricocheting bullets.

“Anti-tank gun! Seventy-six millimeters, 6 o’ clock from your vantage!” Cathrin shouted.

“Deploy counter-measures!” Haus shouted back.

Cathrin bolted up from the radio’s side and ran to the corners of the vehicle. Clicking noises issued from each side as she hit the triggers on the smoke launchers.

Grenades jumped up over the vehicle’s sides and erupted with a snap.

Clouds of gray smoke spread over the surrounding area and obscured the machine.

“Forward, quickly!”

Haus swung the gun around, again perpendicular to the chassis.

He peered through the sights.

As the driver hit the acceleration, he waited for a muzzle flash from outside the smoke.

He saw the machine guns’ bullets, blaring red in every direction. Within the curtain of smoke it was an eerie sight, the red lines tracing swift patterns in the thick air.

An average crew could reload a 76mm gun fairly quickly.

Haus counted the seconds.

A shot; something flew past the Sentinel Foot, and the Field Marshal had his target.

From a shell rack at his side, Haus seized an HE shell and put it through the tube.

His own report was much tinnier than that of the broader 76mm gun.

But he had a much longer barrel and thus greater velocity.

Through the smoke, he saw the effect immediately.

A muted orange glow in the distance.

When the Sentinel Foot escaped its own smoke cloud, Haus found the Ayvartan gun burning, its ammunition likely triggered by the HE detonation. He had killed it.

With his own hide safe and secure, Haus turned his attention to the battle again.

He jerked the elevation wheel to lower his gun, and spied his men through the sight.

Across the river, a dozen men huddled behind the rock walls at the sides of the opposing ramp, hiding from the gunfire in the cliff overhead. Meanwhile the Ghede ran red with the blood of the other forty men who had attempted to cross, cut down by incessant fire while the AT gun tied up the Sentinel Foot. Haus grit his teeth at the sight.

He might have misjudged the amount of firepower the Ayvartans had committed to this center. And there would be more to come if they could not seize this opportunity.

Taking a bullhorn from a hook nearby, Haus rose from the top of his turret.

Amid the gunfire, to the men across the river, he shouted, “Men, take heart! Field Marshal Dietrich Haus personally supports your advance! Press the assault with me!”

Haus dove back into the turret, and hailed his driver on the intercom.

“Into the river.”

Without a word of dissent, the driver took the Sentinel Foot down the ramp and into the water at a gentle speed. Immediately the machine slowed further to a crawl, the wheels sloshing water and dragging sand. And yet, they moved at a better clip than any of the men could against the onrushing river, and with much greater endurance for the current.

The Ayvartans did not merely sit and gawk at the vehicle. At the top of the ramp and along the tree lines, the machine guns concentrated their red tracers on the armored car and ignored the men in the cliffs. Thousands of bullets hurled toward the Sentinel Foot.

“Hatches down, slits closed!” Haus called out.

Cathrin shut the slit at her side, and up front the driver did the same.

Buttoned down, the Sentinel Foot was impervious to the bullets.

Haus sat through the cacophonous noise of thousands of hits ringing against his armor, confident he would not be injured. The Sentinel Foot slogged on, meter by grueling meter. His men on the other side stared over their shoulders in disbelief as the Sentinel Foot approached, and they rallied; picking their submachine guns, grenades and rifles back up, searching their waterproof bandoliers for ammunition, they readied to attack.

Then there was a voice on the radio, broadcasting to all frequencies.

“Please make way in sector Delta, precious cargo coming!”

Haus raised an eyebrow.

Cathrin peered her head beneath the turret, looking up at Haus with confusion.

“Sir, it’s Von Drachen!” She said.

In response Haus slammed the electric drive switch.

Swinging the turret to his sides and up, Haus peered through the sight just in time.

From atop the cliff, a Stud cargo truck launched across the river at the closest point between two cliffs. It almost cleared the jump, using the cliff like a ramp, but there was no miracle. It slammed into the rocks and was crushed and splattered in pieces.

But this was not the end of this bizarre event.

Trailing behind the truck were several cargo containers, stuck stiffly together somehow.

Down they fell; but they were longer than the cliffs were apart.

Haus could not believe what he was watching unfold.


Von Drachen had never quite gotten driving down to a science, so at his side, Colonel Gutierrez handled the wheel, the gear shifts, and other technical details. Von Drachen insisted, however, on pressing down the acceleration pedal of the Stud truck with his own boot, so that he could be sure it was jammed all the way down to the floor.

Mijo! We need to slow down!” shouted the old Colonel.

“That defeats the purpose of everything.” Von Drachen gently replied.

The Stud had no room to dodge any foliage, and instead plowed right through bushes and over slender young trees. Behind it, the truck towed several thick metal cargo containers on tank-transport beds. Von Drachen and Gutierrez had personally welded the containers together, and made it so the truck could not possibly maneuver in any direction. This was all engineered for a purpose, Von Drachen assured everyone.

All it would take was one too-thick tree to end that purpose.

Truly the Messiah defended them, for there were no thick trees in their way yet that would have simply killed them as they failed to plow through. Instead of fatal, the ride was simply bumpy and uncomfortable. Wildly shaking in the cabin, Guttierrez barely had to move the wheel. Their truck was so heavy with its cargo and so stiff in the back that it could not possibly maneuver. It hurtled at such terrible speed it was like a train.

At the truck’s sides, a pair of scout cars followed, weaving through the forest in close support. Von Drachen looked out at the men in the cars and hailed them on the radio.

“Cuan cerca?” He asked. How close?

There were two tiers of answers Von Drachen received, one of which was most prevalent and multifaceted: cries of panic, desperate shrugs, and entreaties to please stop the madness. He ignored all of these. He intended to continue the madness as far as it would go. He reminded them that he had engineered this for a purpose.

Then there was the hysterical screaming that told Von Drachen his objective was close.

That particular answer, he would respond to.

Von Drachen picked up the truck radio, and broadcast as far and wide as possible.

“Please make way in sector Delta, precious cargo coming!”

Nonchalantly, he then set the handset down.

“We should jump.” He said, as if looking for consensus.

Gutierrez hastily let go of the wheel, threw open the door and hurled himself out.

Von Drachen glanced ahead, nodded to himself with satisfaction, and leaped too.

He hit the ground on his shoulder, then his hip, and collapsed groggily on his side.

Slowly he turned to face the river and laughed raucously through fits of agony.

Careening out of control, the truck burst out of the treeline, knocked over some sandbags, perhaps ran over a trench harmlessly, and then flew over the river as it was intended to. It had picked up enough speed, and the cliff was elevated enough, to launch. Von Drachen watched it sail impossibly into the air with child-like glee.

While the truck portion was crushed against the opposing cliff and fell to pieces in the water, the containers did their job as planned. They became wedged at a steep angle between the two sides of the river, forming a makeshift bridge across the water, and better still, quite a good ways up to the opposing cliffside. Though it was not perfect, with a bit of rope and ingenuity, or maybe just upper body strength, it was now possible to scale the cliffs. Von Drachen smiled and laughed. This obviated the bloody business with the ramps. He reached for his radio, and found it crushed against his bloodied hip.

Though he had wanted to call for a general assault, he figured it was now implied.

Behind him, the men from the scout cars stopped and helped him to stand.

No, no! Vayan al puente!” cried Von Drachen, urging them to fight.

The men stared at each other, and at Von Drachen, who repeated himself more harshly.

Al rio, idiotas! Dejenme ir!”

At once, both men dropped Von Drachen, who hit the ground badly again, and charged toward the cliff without question, jumping down onto the bridge, and breaking into a run across, submachine guns and pistols blaring against the opposing cliff face.

Von Drachen watched them go with a great sense of satisfaction.

Even after he lost all track of them in the chaos of the battle, he felt elated.

From the bushes, a bruised Colonel Gutierrez reappeared, hobbling toward him.

“Gutierrez!” Von Drachen shouted. “I’m afraid I threw something out and am finding it difficult to stand. You seem healthier. Please go command the battle in my stead.”

Gutierrez scoffed loudly at him. “You crazy mijo? I’m not setting foot on that goddamn contraption. I’m almost sixty years old, I’m not up to this nonsense anymore! It’s bad enough you made me weld all of that together on such short notice. I’m done.”

Defiantly, Gutierrez sat down beside the fallen Von Drachen, crossing his legs.

From his back pocket, he withdrew a little book and began to read scripture.

“Well, if that’s the way you feel about it.” Von Drachen replied, shrugging.

Despite his Colonel’s recalcitrance, the Cissean contingent began to carry the battle. More of Von Drachen’s men came charging in from the bush, and arriving to battle in cars and tractors and old, weathered motorcycles. Without word the Cisseans rushed past their fallen commander and leaped down onto the bridge, and followed it up the nearby cliff. A line of men, jumping down their cliff and running up to the opponent’s.

Soon his entire battalion was rolling across his bridge and into the fight.

Though the Nochtish men had crossed first, it was the Cissean who broke the line.

Within the hour, the Ghede would see a rout, and Von Drachen, laying at the riverside, would personally see it as well. Or as much of it as he could see from the dirt.


Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

Anton Von Sturm waited behind a desk in the headquarters tent, horrified.

He tapped his fingers on the hard wood, staring blankly at the walls.

Across the room, a sleeping Fruehauf snored gently under Von Drachen’s coat.

He wished he was as drunk as she was.

It had been a rough day for him, and it was only about to get worse.

Reinforced by hundreds of Cisseans urged to fight by Von Drachen’s madness, Haus and the 13th Panzer Division crossed the Ghede and poured through the center of the Ayvartan line. Slicing apart the defenses across the river, the 13th soon put Von Drachen’s bridge out of commission as it became safe for Alpha unit and Delta unit to bring their engineers and build much safer pontoon bridges across the Ghede. Tanks and artillery began to cross, and by nightfall, much of the enemy resistance had faltered.

Mass surrenders ensued, and Nocht had its foothold in Tambwe.

Word spread immediately back to the 13th’s HQ.

Haus had won and he had not been there.

Von Sturm raised his head to the tent door, waiting for retribution to come.

Haus would probably crush him in his palm.

To think of all people, Von Drachen had gone to fight, and he hadn’t?

He told himself that it was not his fault.

Fruehauf had gone stupidly missing and needed to be accounted for and made safe; some nun went on a rampage and nearly killed an idiot private who had let his guard down, smitten with her. Where had she even come from? He had to take time to investigate that. And there were administrative matters too! There were supplies coming in from the south, that had to be vetted and coordinated and signed off on. Haus’ Panzer Army was coming north, and Engineering had to make sure there was space for them.

It was hard, being a General! He was not just sitting around!

But the optics were harrowing. Von Sturm’s subordinates had fought where he had failed to. The Field Marshal had led the fight to victory from the front lines while the Brigadier responsible for every unit along that river sat behind a desk and trudged through the forest and peeked into the backs of trucks and argued with laborers about sandbags.

He should’ve been at least a dozen kilometers behind the fighting in a radio tank.

Instead he was many several dozen away, and it was all out of his sight and mind.

He heard the tent door being tampered with, and snapped his head up.

Retribution had come. Von Sturm stood from his desk, and readied to grovel.

Ambling past the tent flaps was a well-bandaged Von Drachen, walking on a cane.

“Anton, I have returned from the river, where I could have died, but did not.”

Von Sturm promptly turned his back on him and returned to his desk, burying his head against it. This was the last thing he wanted to deal with today. He had no idea what to do about Von Drachen. He was useful; much more reliable than Meist or the Colonels. But he was so bizarre that Von Sturm could not even muster the wit to become properly mad at him. It was as if a piece was glaringly missing from their every interaction.

For his part, Drachen either never understood Von Sturm’s reactions or ignored them.

“I see you have all had a busy day.” Von Drachen said.

Von Sturm raised his head in time to see Von Drachen staring quizzically at Fruehauf.

“Is that my coat?” He asked.

“Yes. She’s had a rough day. I wanted to give her my coat, like a gentleman, but I must’ve lost it in Bada Aso.” Von Sturm replied. He sighed audibly. “You left yours so I put it over her instead. I think she’s sleeping off all that she’s drank the past few days.”

“Ah, I see. Very gentlemanly, indeed! How did she respond to your kindness?”

“She cried. Copiously.” Von Sturm said.

Von Drachen nodded sagely. “Moved to tears by your chivalry.”

His self-serious expression frustrated Von Sturm.

“I highly doubt it. What do you want, Von Drachen?”

“Oh, sorry. I wanted to warn you that Haus is outside.”

Much to Von Sturm’s dismay, behind Von Drachen the tent flap waved again.

“Haus is inside now, actually.”

The Field Marshal nonchalantly arrived, his blond radio girl at his side.

Both of them had the same deadly serious facet. Only Haus spoke.

“Has news of our victory reached your ears yet? Or were you too far afield?”

“I–”

Before Von Sturm could reply, Haus immediately interrupted him.

“Curious that all of the artillery did not wake you from your little nap. Perhaps, Anton, you thought the thundering of the heavens, as we clashed viciously with the enemy and snatched glory from the hands of defeat, was but mere quaking, an inconvenience?”

“Field Marshal–”

Again Haus spoke again too fast for Von Sturm to get a word in.

“Anton, I cannot express my disappointment in words. So I will use actions.”

Haus marched up to Von Sturm’s desk and lashed out with his hand.

He ripped Von Sturm’s pins from his lapel, and peeled off his shoulder insignia.

Both these things he threw on the floor, and stepped on with his boot.

Behind him, Cathrin adjusted her glasses, and approached the desk.

She handed Von Sturm a file folder. Reassignment papers.

“You are unfit to lead a strategic unit. Effective immediately, you are demoted to Colonel, in command of the 13th Panzer Battalion. We shall call it S-Battalion, for now. You will serve under the 13th Panzer Brigade, led by Gaul Von Drachen.” Haus declared.

Von Sturm was so taken aback that his one reaction was to snap his head toward Von Drachen, who seemed to have no reaction of his own to offer for his sudden promotion.

“Ah,” was all Von Drachen said about this matter. A small smile played across his lips.

Haus did not even address him. He continued to speak brusquely in Von Sturm’s direction, poking him roughly with the tip of his gloved index finger. “You will take part in tactical operations with your unit. I want you at the front, under my auspice. As part of the elite 1st Panzer Army, you will learn our operational art in the fire, like every other unit commander, or die trying. I will forge you into the genius you were supposed to be.”

Each jab of that finger felt like a gunshot right into Von Sturm’s heart.

He could say nothing in his defense, nor reply. He did nothing but stand, taking each strike from that gloved finger, staring at the floor. Forces far greater than him were swinging him wherever they wanted him to go, and he could do nothing to hang on.

In his mind, there was only Bada Aso, burning and burning.

It was where everything of his had gone to burn.

Colonel Anton Von Sturm, dark circles around his eyes, a blank expression on his too-pallid face, and no more will to fight the inevitable, silently saluted the Field Marshal.


After the successes along the river, an area for prisoners was established in the 13th Panzer Division’s temporary rear area in the Kalu woodlands. One area had tents where officers and specialists could be kept and interrogated. A second area was established that had larger and simpler accommodations — open-air pens under the woodland canopy, fenced off, guarded by military police with submachine guns and bayonet-armed rifles. By the dozens, Ayvartan troops were led to their pens and closed off behind gates.

In one particular pen, the Ayvartans seemed surprised to find someone already there.

Hog-tied, gagged, shackled, and restrained in every possible way, then encased in a metal cage fit more for a big dog than a human, Selene Lucci laid on her side, moaning.

Though she preferred it to agonizing, lonely starvation, this was still quite a curious path that God had sent her on, and she did not feel quite so elated to be alive at the moment.

At the very least her new confinement was in the open air and shade, rather than stuffed in a tent. That would have been a much crueler touch to an already stressful captivity.

She could see the day waning outside, and feel the cool, fresh evening breeze.

It would have been great, had it not been for her arms and legs, tied behind her back with rough ropes, and her whole body criss-crossed by chains and belts to bind her in every possible way, emphasizing the murderous threat she posed to Nocht’s soldiery.

Though she had not even managed to kill the guard she had stricken in her attempted escape, the narrative had become that she was quite deadly, a complete monster. It was for her that a manhunt was established mid-afternoon, distracting the entire command cadre and military police detachment from the Ghede battle. Not at all to find a drunken, lost radio girl; no, it was all meant for the Devil’s Own Nun, communist spy Selene Lucci.

“You’re lucky you’re a messianic nun. They wanted to shoot you for all this.”

Kern Beckert lay pensively on the other side of fence surrounding the pen. Her cage had been laid in a corner, so he was as close at her side as he could be in these conditions, ostensibly guarding her. He had his back to the chain-links of the fence, resting against the metal poles keeping Selene locked in. He sighed, groaned, and quietly suffered.

Through the belt gag stuffing her mouth, Selene made a sarcastic-sounding noise.

Ever since he had gotten back from the river on a truck full of wounded, he had left his unit behind and planted himself beside her cage and stared at his shoes. His brutish commander seemed to allow him this, despite his choice of company. Kern looked much worse for wear. His eyes looked distant and hollow. His uniform was filthy, and he smelled of all kinds of substances. He spoke in a beaten-down, hollow tone of voice.

“I think I’m going to volunteer to be a medic, or military police, or something. I know if I stay at the front, I will keep fighting. As long as I’m there I won’t stop.” Kern said.

Selene made a sarcastic noise and wondered if they were registering to him as such.

Kern reached into the cage and pulled out the rubber bit stuck into her mouth.

She coughed, and spat.

“I can undo some of the belts and ropes, but not the chains.” He said.

“Is that an offer or statement of fact?” Selene croaked, her voice warped by a dry throat.

Kern withdrew a knife from his leg, and started to wear away at the knots on her arms.

“Stop.” Selene said. “You’ll be caught. Look.”

Immediately Kern hid his knife and stood up, pretending to guard the cage.

Across the camp, an officer of some description arrived. Perhaps a Captain or Major, someone from Battalion, come to inspect the prisoners. He walked past the tents of the imprisoned Ayvartan officers, and stood at the gate to the infantry pen with a conceited smile on his face. Hands behind his back, he scanned around the faces in the pen.

“Is there any one of you who has something useful to say?”

There were a few responses, all in Ayvartan. Curses, brief expressions of woe, a few threats. Most of the captive Ayvartans turned their backs on the walls of the pen, defiant. However, there was a small group that huddled, as if plotting something, and then sent a representative to the pen gate. He started to speak to the officer, but there was an immediate problem — he was speaking Ayvartan, and the officer did not understand.

The Officer raised his eyebrow skeptically. “What do you want? Speak words!”

Again the Ayvartan entreated in his own language.

Whatever he was saying was riling up other prisoners, but none of the Nochtish men could understand. They only saw a ruckus starting, and they pressed their guns into the pen threateningly and made the situation tense. The Officer was becoming exhausted. Perhaps he thought it was his own presence offending the enemy. Selene could not hear what was being said exactly, but she knew it was splinter group of cooperative prisoners that was angering the rest. She wondered what they could be offering.

“Ugh. Does anyone here know Ayvartan?” the Officer called out.

Nobody responded at first.

Then Kern’s eyes drew wide with dawning realization.

Selene shook her head rapidly at him, but he was up before she could stop him.

“Sir! This woman in the cage knows Ayvartan and Nochtish!” He shouted.

Selene grit her teeth.

Intrigued, the Officer walked around the pen to Kern’s side, and the cooperative Ayvartans followed, perhaps understanding the situation by body language.

Everyone huddled around Selene’s cage.

The Officer looked perturbed by her, and kept some distance from the cage.

“Are you sure, Private? I’m told this nun is quite rabid.” He said.

“I’m positive, sir.” Kern said.

Selene sighed. She gave him a dirty look, but he was not paying her attention.

So quick to try to help, and so unable to actually do so.

The Officer appeared reasonably pleased.

“Very well then. Nun, please translate what this man and his colleagues are trying to tell me, and you may then take your meals without ropes and chains.” He said.

Though she thought of resisting, the proposition was too good.

The Officer pointed at the Ayvartans and then at the nun.

“He wants me to translate for you.” Selene said to the group.

She was immediately understood. Her Ayvartan was very well practiced.

Several prisoners crouched beside her cage, and gave her the details.

Her heart skipped several beats as they told her their story.

Selene regretted having agreed to this, but she had no better choices now.

Turning her head to the Officer and to Kern, she passed on the crux of the message.

“They say they are part of the 8th Rifle Division,” she said, “and that they have contacts and intelligence in Tambwe and desire to propose an operation to your leaders.”


Ghede River Warfare (41.4)


Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

Anton Von Sturm waited behind a desk in the headquarters tent, horrified.

He tapped his fingers on the hard wood, staring blankly at the walls.

Across the room, a sleeping Fruehauf snored gently under Von Drachen’s coat.

He wished he was as drunk as she was.

It had been a rough day for him, and it was only about to get worse.

Reinforced by hundreds of Cisseans urged to fight by Von Drachen’s madness, Haus and the 13th Panzer Division crossed the Ghede and poured through the center of the Ayvartan line. Slicing apart the defenses across the river, the 13th soon put Von Drachen’s bridge out of commission as it became safe for Alpha unit and Delta unit to bring their engineers and build much safer pontoon bridges across the Ghede. Tanks and artillery began to cross, and by nightfall, much of the enemy resistance had faltered.

Mass surrenders ensued, and Nocht had its foothold in Tambwe.

Word spread immediately back to the 13th’s HQ.

Haus had won and he had not been there.

Von Sturm raised his head to the tent door, waiting for retribution to come.

Haus would probably crush him in his palm.

To think of all people, Von Drachen had gone to fight, and he hadn’t?

He told himself that it was not his fault.

Fruehauf had gone stupidly missing and needed to be accounted for and made safe; some nun went on a rampage and nearly killed an idiot private who had let his guard down, smitten with her. Where had she even come from? He had to take time to investigate that. And there were administrative matters too! There were supplies coming in from the south, that had to be vetted and coordinated and signed off on. Haus’ Panzer Army was coming north, and Engineering had to make sure there was space for them.

It was hard, being a General! He was not just sitting around!

But the optics were harrowing. Von Sturm’s subordinates had fought where he had failed to. The Field Marshal had led the fight to victory from the front lines while the Brigadier responsible for every unit along that river sat behind a desk and trudged through the forest and peeked into the backs of trucks and argued with laborers about sandbags.

He should’ve been at least a dozen kilometers behind the fighting in a radio tank.

Instead he was many several dozen away, and it was all out of his sight and mind.

He heard the tent door being tampered with, and snapped his head up.

Retribution had come. Von Sturm stood from his desk, and readied to grovel.

Ambling past the tent flaps was a well-bandaged Von Drachen, walking on a cane.

“Anton, I have returned from the river, where I could have died, but did not.”

Von Sturm promptly turned his back on him and returned to his desk, burying his head against it. This was the last thing he wanted to deal with today. He had no idea what to do about Von Drachen. He was useful; much more reliable than Meist or the Colonels. But he was so bizarre that Von Sturm could not even muster the wit to become properly mad at him. It was as if a piece was glaringly missing from their every interaction.

For his part, Drachen either never understood Von Sturm’s reactions or ignored them.

“I see you have all had a busy day.” Von Drachen said.

Von Sturm raised his head in time to see Von Drachen staring quizzically at Fruehauf.

“Is that my coat?” He asked.

“Yes. She’s had a rough day. I wanted to give her my coat, like a gentleman, but I must’ve lost it in Bada Aso.” Von Sturm replied. He sighed audibly. “You left yours so I put it over her instead. I think she’s sleeping off all that she’s drank the past few days.”

“Ah, I see. Very gentlemanly, indeed! How did she respond to your kindness?”

“She cried. Copiously.” Von Sturm said.

Von Drachen nodded sagely. “Moved to tears by your chivalry.”

His self-serious expression frustrated Von Sturm.

“I highly doubt it. What do you want, Von Drachen?”

“Oh, sorry. I wanted to warn you that Haus is outside.”

Much to Von Sturm’s dismay, behind Von Drachen the tent flap waved again.

“Haus is inside now, actually.”

The Field Marshal nonchalantly arrived, his blond radio girl at his side.

Both of them had the same deadly serious facet. Only Haus spoke.

“Has news of our victory reached your ears yet? Or were you too far afield?”

“I–”

Before Von Sturm could reply, Haus immediately interrupted him.

“Curious that all of the artillery did not wake you from your little nap. Perhaps, Anton, you thought the thundering of the heavens, as we clashed viciously with the enemy and snatched glory from the hands of defeat, was but mere quaking, an inconvenience?”

“Field Marshal–”

Again Haus spoke again too fast for Von Sturm to get a word in.

“Anton, I cannot express my disappointment in words. So I will use actions.”

Haus marched up to Von Sturm’s desk and lashed out with his hand.

He ripped Von Sturm’s pins from his lapel, and peeled off his shoulder insignia.

Both these things he threw on the floor, and stepped on with his boot.

Behind him, Cathrin adjusted her glasses, and approached the desk.

She handed Von Sturm a file folder. Reassignment papers.

“You are unfit to lead a strategic unit. Effective immediately, you are demoted to Colonel, in command of the 13th Panzer Battalion. We shall call it S-Battalion, for now. You will serve under the 13th Panzer Brigade, led by Gaul Von Drachen.” Haus declared.

Von Sturm was so taken aback that his one reaction was to snap his head toward Von Drachen, who seemed to have no reaction of his own to offer for his sudden promotion.

“Ah,” was all Von Drachen said about this matter. A small smile played across his lips.

Haus did not even address him. He continued to speak brusquely in Von Sturm’s direction, poking him roughly with the tip of his gloved index finger. “You will take part in tactical operations with your unit. I want you at the front, under my auspice. As part of the elite 1st Panzer Army, you will learn our operational art in the fire, like every other unit commander, or die trying. I will forge you into the genius you were supposed to be.”

Each jab of that finger felt like a gunshot right into Von Sturm’s heart.

He could say nothing in his defense, nor reply. He did nothing but stand, taking each strike from that gloved finger, staring at the floor. Forces far greater than him were swinging him wherever they wanted him to go, and he could do nothing to hang on.

In his mind, there was only Bada Aso, burning and burning.

It was where everything of his had gone to burn.

Colonel Anton Von Sturm, dark circles around his eyes, a blank expression on his too-pallid face, and no more will to fight the inevitable, silently saluted the Field Marshal.


After the successes along the river, an area for prisoners was established in the 13th Panzer Division’s temporary rear area in the Kalu woodlands. One area had tents where officers and specialists could be kept and interrogated. A second area was established that had larger and simpler accommodations — open-air pens under the woodland canopy, fenced off, guarded by military police with submachine guns and bayonet-armed rifles. By the dozens, Ayvartan troops were led to their pens and closed off behind gates.

In one particular pen, the Ayvartans seemed surprised to find someone already there.

Hog-tied, gagged, shackled, and restrained in every possible way, then encased in a metal cage fit more for a big dog than a human, Selene Lucci laid on her side, moaning.

Though she preferred it to agonizing, lonely starvation, this was still quite a curious path that God had sent her on, and she did not feel quite so elated to be alive at the moment.

At the very least her new confinement was in the open air and shade, rather than stuffed in a tent. That would have been a much crueler touch to an already stressful captivity.

She could see the day waning outside, and feel the cool, fresh evening breeze.

It would have been great, had it not been for her arms and legs, tied behind her back with rough ropes, and her whole body criss-crossed by chains and belts to bind her in every possible way, emphasizing the murderous threat she posed to Nocht’s soldiery.

Though she had not even managed to kill the guard she had stricken in her attempted escape, the narrative had become that she was quite deadly, a complete monster. It was for her that a manhunt was established mid-afternoon, distracting the entire command cadre and military police detachment from the Ghede battle. Not at all to find a drunken, lost radio girl; no, it was all meant for the Devil’s Own Nun, communist spy Selene Lucci.

“You’re lucky you’re a messianic nun. They wanted to shoot you for all this.”

Kern Beckert lay pensively on the other side of fence surrounding the pen. Her cage had been laid in a corner, so he was as close at her side as he could be in these conditions, ostensibly guarding her. He had his back to the chain-links of the fence, resting against the metal poles keeping Selene locked in. He sighed, groaned, and quietly suffered.

Through the belt gag stuffing her mouth, Selene made a sarcastic-sounding noise.

Ever since he had gotten back from the river on a truck full of wounded, he had left his unit behind and planted himself beside her cage and stared at his shoes. His brutish commander seemed to allow him this, despite his choice of company. Kern looked much worse for wear. His eyes looked distant and hollow. His uniform was filthy, and he smelled of all kinds of substances. He spoke in a beaten-down, hollow tone of voice.

“I think I’m going to volunteer to be a medic, or military police, or something. I know if I stay at the front, I will keep fighting. As long as I’m there I won’t stop.” Kern said.

Selene made a sarcastic noise and wondered if they were registering to him as such.

Kern reached into the cage and pulled out the rubber bit stuck into her mouth.

She coughed, and spat.

“I can undo some of the belts and ropes, but not the chains.” He said.

“Is that an offer or statement of fact?” Selene croaked, her voice warped by a dry throat.

Kern withdrew a knife from his leg, and started to wear away at the knots on her arms.

“Stop.” Selene said. “You’ll be caught. Look.”

Immediately Kern hid his knife and stood up, pretending to guard the cage.

Across the camp, an officer of some description arrived. Perhaps a Captain or Major, someone from Battalion, come to inspect the prisoners. He walked past the tents of the imprisoned Ayvartan officers, and stood at the gate to the infantry pen with a conceited smile on his face. Hands behind his back, he scanned around the faces in the pen.

“Is there any one of you who has something useful to say?”

There were a few responses, all in Ayvartan. Curses, brief expressions of woe, a few threats. Most of the captive Ayvartans turned their backs on the walls of the pen, defiant. However, there was a small group that huddled, as if plotting something, and then sent a representative to the pen gate. He started to speak to the officer, but there was an immediate problem — he was speaking Ayvartan, and the officer did not understand.

The Officer raised his eyebrow skeptically. “What do you want? Speak words!”

Again the Ayvartan entreated in his own language.

Whatever he was saying was riling up other prisoners, but none of the Nochtish men could understand. They only saw a ruckus starting, and they pressed their guns into the pen threateningly and made the situation tense. The Officer was becoming exhausted. Perhaps he thought it was his own presence offending the enemy. Selene could not hear what was being said exactly, but she knew it was splinter group of cooperative prisoners that was angering the rest. She wondered what they could be offering.

“Ugh. Does anyone here know Ayvartan?” the Officer called out.

Nobody responded at first.

Then Kern’s eyes drew wide with dawning realization.

Selene shook her head rapidly at him, but he was up before she could stop him.

“Sir! This woman in the cage knows Ayvartan and Nochtish!” He shouted.

Selene grit her teeth.

Intrigued, the Officer walked around the pen to Kern’s side, and the cooperative Ayvartans followed, perhaps understanding the situation by body language.

Everyone huddled around Selene’s cage.

The Officer looked perturbed by her, and kept some distance from the cage.

“Are you sure, Private? I’m told this nun is quite rabid.” He said.

“I’m positive, sir.” Kern said.

Selene sighed. She gave him a dirty look, but he was not paying her attention.

So quick to try to help, and so unable to actually do so.

The Officer appeared reasonably pleased.

“Very well then. Nun, please translate what this man and his colleagues are trying to tell me, and you may then take your meals without ropes and chains.” He said.

Though she thought of resisting, the proposition was too good.

The Officer pointed at the Ayvartans and then at the nun.

“He wants me to translate for you.” Selene said to the group.

She was immediately understood. Her Ayvartan was very well practiced.

Several prisoners crouched beside her cage, and gave her the details.

Her heart skipped several beats as they told her their story.

Selene regretted having agreed to this, but she had no better choices now.

Turning her head to the Officer and to Kern, she passed on the crux of the message.

“They say they are part of the 8th Rifle Division,” she said, “and that they have contacts and intelligence in Tambwe and desire to propose an operation to your leaders.”


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Chapter

Ghede River Warfare (41.3)

This scene contains violence and death.


Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

Through the endless forest she ran from her implied enemy, but her body was giving up. Her legs felt tremendously heavy beneath her, and her stride grew slack. Her lungs were raw from the labor, and her throat tight, dry, in stinging pain. She slowed to a stop, her eyes scanning every corner of the wood for the hunters she knew to be after her.

There was nobody in sight; there was nothing in sight at all. Just green and brown.

Selene bowed her head against the trunk of a slender tree, and tugged on the neck of her dress. She felt warm air escape from her chest, and the cold touch of sweaty fabric struggling to cling as she pulled on it. Her parched tongue lolled out of her mouth.

She thought she heard footsteps, and raised her head in a panic.

But there was nothing behind her. Nothing in any direction but trees and endless green canopy overhead, penetrated by thin beams of light. Picturesque as the northern Kalu was, the forest was also heating up as the noon passed, and Selene was thoroughly exhausted. Hungry, thirsty, sweat-soaked, her muscles raw. She had never traversed the Northern Kalu. She knew no landmarks that could lead her back to her village.

And she was not much of an adventurer. She was a teacher, and a nurse — a nun.

A nun that could swing a mean breakfast tray; but a nun nonetheless.

Helplessly her eyes continued to glance over every centimeter of her surroundings.

She could have sworn she was heading south after leaving the tent, but she lost all sense of direction in the wood. And she had made a foolish mistake, too. She had found several rags tied to trees, markers for the enemy. Believing herself pursued, she undid them all and stomped them into the dirt and brush. Now she could not even find her way back to the Nochtish camp. They were the only conspicuous sight.

She was now drowning in the green.

Had God chosen this for her? To slowly wither away here, alone and afraid?

She pushed herself off the tree and ambled in an unknown direction.

At her side the forest scrolled slowly past, like the moving scenery of a clockwork stage.

Wherever the canopy broke, the Ayvartan sun blinded her to the sky.

She could not even use its position to determine her own — she could not even stare at it, it was so hot and close. Even the Heavens had been denied to her. She felt the sweat breaking out of her skin whenever she was exposed to the sun’s heat directly. Clearings became just another location to avoid as she continued her aimless trek forward.

She saw no animals, not even birds.

Perhaps they had all been driven off by the noise and smoke.

Noise.

She thought to crane her head and try to listen for man-made sounds. To put her ears to the ground and try to feel the mechanical vibrations. Tanks and trucks could be heard and felt from quite afar in a peaceful forest. But she heard nothing. Everything was so silent and still that she felt a force boring through her ears, and a ringing in her head.

Selene kept moving.

Her vision swam. She lost track of time.

One foot in front of the other. Her strength slowly wavered.

She clasped her hands in prayer. They shook with tension and exhaustion.

“Merciful God, deliver me from this. I want only to serve these people of the south and to lead an untroubled life at their side. Powerful God in Heaven, give me the strength to turn my back on the tricolor gates, for I have life left to live upon the world of flesh–”

She tripped on a tree root and fell face-first into a pile of leaves.

Her body hit the floor with an audible thud.

For a moment she lay there, her mind empty of thought.

Instinctively she moved to stand again, and felt this drain her remaining strength.

When she stood, she was unsteady. She did not think she could take another step.

Beneath her, the floor shook unnaturally, sweeping forward and back in a nauseating fashion. She raised her eyes from the ground, hoping her gaze could then keep steady.

In front of her, framed in the light of a clearing, she saw a woman come running in.

Young, brown-haired, tall, pretty.

Grey-uniformed.

Weeping.

Waving a bottle in her hand.

“Fuck it all! Fuck everything!” She shouted at the top of her lungs.

Her voice echoed across the forest. She flung her bottle.

Selene felt some of the glass spray close to her as the bottle burst on a nearby tree.

She cringed reflexively and the woman laid eyes on her.

Each silently assessed the other.

Then the woman, eyes puffy with tears and drink, slowly approached, some drunken realization dawning on her face. She staggered forward, weeping, a devastated expression building on her face as if she had seen a family member die before her.

Tears began to cascade from her eyes, and to join fluid dribbling from her nose.

She held out her hand gently, reaching out to the nun.

Selene backed off a step, but not enough of them; the drunk woman threw herself on the nun and wept and screamed and thrashed into her breast and made a scene.

“Oh sister! Holy sister! I am filthy! I am a fallen woman! I’ve fallen to sin!”

She shouted and shouted the same repetitive cries before moving to new ones.

“I’ve taken to the bottle! I’ve turned away from the Lord! I hate this place, sister! This continent is unholy! It is tearing apart my soul, sister! Save me! Please!”

Some tender instinct engraved in her soul caused Selene to brush Fruehauf’s hair with her fingers to try to console her, but it made no difference. Fruehauf was distraught to a terrible extreme. She tugged on Selene’s dress and nearly brought her to the floor. She wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist, crying and screaming, struggling like a child throwing a tantrum. Selene had to grab her to prevent her from sliding to the dirt.

“Forgive me, blessed, pure woman of God! Forgive me! Save me!”

Her head bobbed against the nun’s waist.

Selene stood still, stunned to silence, her head completely blank. She could not process this scene, it had shocked her numb after all of her sufferings. It was a veritable ambush.

“Sister, please, sister–”

Over Fruehauf’s recurring cries an even louder voice sounded from the distance. It cut off the distraught woman’s shouting and reverberated across the wood like a deific call.

“FRUEHAUF!”

Selene and Fruehauf both turned their heads back toward the clearing.

General Anton Von Sturm approached between trees, staring skeptically.

“Who is this? What are you doing? We’ve been searching for hours! You could’ve been killed by some wild animal here! If you’re going to get drunk, get drunk at the base!”

Mid-shout, the General paused and took stock of the scene before him.

Nun and radio operator, in a compromising position in the middle of the wood.

Von Sturm rubbed his chin, staring at Selene much more intently.

He pointed a finger at her and she bristled in response, her eyes drawing wide.

“Are you the chaplain?” He asked. “Wait, no. Chaplains aren’t female.”

He rubbed his chin again.

Staring dumbly, Selene felt as though she had been given a revelation from God.

To surrender; running any more was futile.

Sighing, Selene raised her arms through Fruehauf’s own.

“I give up.” She moaned.

Von Sturm raised an eyebrow.

“Um. You what?” He asked, staring between Fruehauf and Selene.

Helplessly, the nun shrugged. Fruehauf broke into a fresh round of crying.

One had to suppose this was all God’s will, but Selene found it terribly frustrating.


Adjar Occupation Zone — Ghede Riverside

Elevation levers slammed down across the Nochtish artillery line, and every gun tube fell to its neutral position. Red-hot 10.5 cm barrels smoked; shells flew in straight lines over the cliffs and across the Ghede, smashing apart thick tree trunks, setting alight bushes, and scattering hidden sandbag emplacements and machine gun shields and mortar pits. Direct fire burnt and crushed the Ayvartan cover and slowly unveiled the defending line.

From the felled trees and shredded bushes, the Ayvartans stood undaunted. They pushed out their machine guns and their own cannons, inching forward and joining the duel in earnest. Both sides came in full view of another, and traded fire as if across an open field rather than a river. Had there been a connection they could have been met with bayonets; the standstill became a pitched battle over the cliffs and ramps.

Endless streams of gunfire crossed the riverside.

As the violence played out several meters overhead, riflemen trickled across the river, huddling at the various sand ramps and treelines. Descending into the river, they braved the water as the guns battled. Machine gun fire flew thick on all sides, slowing the beachheads down. Up the ramps, small groups of men crawled, making it to bushes before falling, either dead or suppressed. Snipers in the trees and machine gunners in the remaining brush took their pick of them. There were flashpoints and fires all along the central Ghede in short order. On the cliffs, between the ramps, it was pure chaos.

Field Marshal Haus resolved to put out all the fires in the line as best as he could.

The Sentinel Foot stood briefly above the sand ramp occupied by Alpha unit, named for its commander, Aschekind. Impressed with the man’s stature and commanding presence, Haus had given his unit the most dangerous approach. He witnessed his failure in judgment first-hand. No unit was wholly akin to its commander, and only one man had made it across on the first wave. Now Haus loaded rounds into his turret, and lobbed high explosive across the river to personally cover Aschekind’s second wave.

He struck one machine gun dead-on, and blasted away a curtain of bushes, killing several snipers in the process and saving the first man across the river. Morale seemed to hold for now. Haus had opened the way, and the second platoon wading into the Ghede was making good process. He felt confident he could leave the area in a minute.

There were many more fires to fight, and not enough hoses to fight them all.

“Alpha unit has crossed the river and are engaging. Delta and Theta are stuck, and suffering loses. All units are on their second wave. None of the first waves were successful.” Cathrin reported, crouched beside the radio and shouting into the turret.

“Wouldn’t be a military plan if it didn’t initially fuck up.” The Field Marshal replied.

He pulled open the 50mm gun breech, shoved a rotund shell inside, and locked it.

Through his gun sight, he focused on the treeline just over Alpha’s sand ramp.

Haus pressed his electric trigger, and his shell soared over his own men and detonated.

A curtain of smoke fell over them, blocking the enemy’s view of the ramp.

“That will have to do. Driver, east, one kilometer, full speed!”

Eight wheels propelled the Sentinel Foot, four on each side, and the sleek machine turned around its body and charged along the river-side, leaving behind Alpha’s ramp.

At almost 80 kilometers per hour the machine sped past the trenches and the artillery guns, strafing to present a harder target for the mortars and artillery. His own guns held their fire as he passed, before joining battle again. Fragments bounced off the thirty millimeters of armor, and it rolled through the plumes of mortar blasts and through the hail of machine gun fire unharmed. Haus turned his turret perpendicular to the chassis to face the enemy defenses, and found an almost unbroken line of rifles and guns flashing relentlessly. He lifted his hand from the cannon and seized his coaxial Norgler machine gun, holding the down the trigger and spraying the opposing side of the river.

“Sir, we’re almost to the flashpoint!” Cathrin called out.

Haus pushed open the top hatch and peered out, careful not to expose too much.

The Sentinel Foot slowed, and ahead he spotted the place where the ground descended from the rocky river-side cliffs, forming another sand ramp into the water. He saw his men rushing down the ramp, charging into the water, and immediately slowing to crawl, wading, taking long, tall strides as if they wanted to extricate their feet entirely from the chest-high water with each step. Machine gun fire met them from the riverbank.

“Men! Press on!” Haus shouted, lifting up a fist. “You can take this river!”

In the next instant a mortar shell fell into the water and exploded amid the lead platoon elements before they could be heartened by Haus’ appearance. The remainder of the platoon turned frantic, and began to overexert themselves, hurrying to cross.

Gritting his teeth, Haus descended into his turret again. He hit the electric drive, and the gun swung toward the enemy emplacements, again hidden behind thick bushes atop the ramp on their side of the river. In a few seconds he acquired a target, watching the muzzle flash inside of the vegetation. He loaded a shell, took aim and quickly fired.

There was a burst, and a cloud of smoke and flying plant debris obscured the top of the ramp. Once the dust settled the machine gun lay unveiled, a hole through its shield.

He drew in a breath and scanned around for contacts.

At the edge of his vision a much brighter muzzle flashed.

He heard a blast, too quickly and too close by, and the Sentinel Foot shook up, as if it suddenly desired to tip over on its side. Dirt and rocks scattered skyward from the blast then fell over the vehicle’s armor, rapping the metal with a sound like ricocheting bullets.

“Anti-tank gun! Seventy-six millimeters, 6 o’ clock from your vantage!” Cathrin shouted.

“Deploy counter-measures!” Haus shouted back.

Cathrin bolted up from the radio’s side and ran to the corners of the vehicle. Clicking noises issued from each side as she hit the triggers on the smoke launchers.

Grenades jumped up over the vehicle’s sides and erupted with a snap.

Clouds of gray smoke spread over the surrounding area and obscured the machine.

“Forward, quickly!”

Haus swung the gun around, again perpendicular to the chassis.

He peered through the sights.

As the driver hit the acceleration, he waited for a muzzle flash from outside the smoke.

He saw the machine guns’ bullets, blaring red in every direction. Within the curtain of smoke it was an eerie sight, the red lines tracing swift patterns in the thick air.

An average crew could reload a 76mm gun fairly quickly.

Haus counted the seconds.

A shot; something flew past the Sentinel Foot, and the Field Marshal had his target.

From a shell rack at his side, Haus seized an HE shell and put it through the tube.

His own report was much tinnier than that of the broader 76mm gun.

But he had a much longer barrel and thus greater velocity.

Through the smoke, he saw the effect immediately.

A muted orange glow in the distance.

When the Sentinel Foot escaped its own smoke cloud, Haus found the Ayvartan gun burning, its ammunition likely triggered by the HE detonation. He had killed it.

With his own hide safe and secure, Haus turned his attention to the battle again.

He jerked the elevation wheel to lower his gun, and spied his men through the sight.

Across the river, a dozen men huddled behind the rock walls at the sides of the opposing ramp, hiding from the gunfire in the cliff overhead. Meanwhile the Ghede ran red with the blood of the other forty men who had attempted to cross, cut down by incessant fire while the AT gun tied up the Sentinel Foot. Haus grit his teeth at the sight.

He might have misjudged the amount of firepower the Ayvartans had committed to this center. And there would be more to come if they could not seize this opportunity.

Taking a bullhorn from a hook nearby, Haus rose from the top of his turret.

Amid the gunfire, to the men across the river, he shouted, “Men, take heart! Field Marshal Dietrich Haus personally supports your advance! Press the assault with me!”

Haus dove back into the turret, and hailed his driver on the intercom.

“Into the river.”

Without a word of dissent, the driver took the Sentinel Foot down the ramp and into the water at a gentle speed. Immediately the machine slowed further to a crawl, the wheels sloshing water and dragging sand. And yet, they moved at a better clip than any of the men could against the onrushing river, and with much greater endurance for the current.

The Ayvartans did not merely sit and gawk at the vehicle. At the top of the ramp and along the tree lines, the machine guns concentrated their red tracers on the armored car and ignored the men in the cliffs. Thousands of bullets hurled toward the Sentinel Foot.

“Hatches down, slits closed!” Haus called out.

Cathrin shut the slit at her side, and up front the driver did the same.

Buttoned down, the Sentinel Foot was impervious to the bullets.

Haus sat through the cacophonous noise of thousands of hits ringing against his armor, confident he would not be injured. The Sentinel Foot slogged on, meter by grueling meter. His men on the other side stared over their shoulders in disbelief as the Sentinel Foot approached, and they rallied; picking their submachine guns, grenades and rifles back up, searching their waterproof bandoliers for ammunition, they readied to attack.

Then there was a voice on the radio, broadcasting to all frequencies.

“Please make way in sector Delta, precious cargo coming!”

Haus raised an eyebrow.

Cathrin peered her head beneath the turret, looking up at Haus with confusion.

“Sir, it’s Von Drachen!” She said.

In response Haus slammed the electric drive switch.

Swinging the turret to his sides and up, Haus peered through the sight just in time.

From atop the cliff, a Stud cargo truck launched across the river at the closest point between two cliffs. It almost cleared the jump, using the cliff like a ramp, but there was no miracle. It slammed into the rocks and was crushed and splattered in pieces.

But this was not the end of this bizarre event.

Trailing behind the truck were several cargo containers, stuck stiffly together somehow.

Down they fell; but they were longer than the cliffs were apart.

Haus could not believe what he was watching unfold.


Von Drachen had never quite gotten driving down to a science, so at his side, Colonel Gutierrez handled the wheel, the gear shifts, and other technical details. Von Drachen insisted, however, on pressing down the acceleration pedal of the Stud truck with his own boot, so that he could be sure it was jammed all the way down to the floor.

Mijo! We need to slow down!” shouted the old Colonel.

“That defeats the purpose of everything.” Von Drachen gently replied.

The Stud had no room to dodge any foliage, and instead plowed right through bushes and over slender young trees. Behind it, the truck towed several thick metal cargo containers on tank-transport beds. Von Drachen and Gutierrez had personally welded the containers together, and made it so the truck could not possibly maneuver in any direction. This was all engineered for a purpose, Von Drachen assured everyone.

All it would take was one too-thick tree to end that purpose.

Truly the Messiah defended them, for there were no thick trees in their way yet that would have simply killed them as they failed to plow through. Instead of fatal, the ride was simply bumpy and uncomfortable. Wildly shaking in the cabin, Guttierrez barely had to move the wheel. Their truck was so heavy with its cargo and so stiff in the back that it could not possibly maneuver. It hurtled at such terrible speed it was like a train.

At the truck’s sides, a pair of scout cars followed, weaving through the forest in close support. Von Drachen looked out at the men in the cars and hailed them on the radio.

“Cuan cerca?” He asked. How close?

There were two tiers of answers Von Drachen received, one of which was most prevalent and multifaceted: cries of panic, desperate shrugs, and entreaties to please stop the madness. He ignored all of these. He intended to continue the madness as far as it would go. He reminded them that he had engineered this for a purpose.

Then there was the hysterical screaming that told Von Drachen his objective was close.

That particular answer, he would respond to.

Von Drachen picked up the truck radio, and broadcast as far and wide as possible.

“Please make way in sector Delta, precious cargo coming!”

Nonchalantly, he then set the handset down.

“We should jump.” He said, as if looking for consensus.

Gutierrez hastily let go of the wheel, threw open the door and hurled himself out.

Von Drachen glanced ahead, nodded to himself with satisfaction, and leaped too.

He hit the ground on his shoulder, then his hip, and collapsed groggily on his side.

Slowly he turned to face the river and laughed raucously through fits of agony.

Careening out of control, the truck burst out of the treeline, knocked over some sandbags, perhaps ran over a trench harmlessly, and then flew over the river as it was intended to. It had picked up enough speed, and the cliff was elevated enough, to launch. Von Drachen watched it sail impossibly into the air with child-like glee.

While the truck portion was crushed against the opposing cliff and fell to pieces in the water, the containers did their job as planned. They became wedged at a steep angle between the two sides of the river, forming a makeshift bridge across the water, and better still, quite a good ways up to the opposing cliffside. Though it was not perfect, with a bit of rope and ingenuity, or maybe just upper body strength, it was now possible to scale the cliffs. Von Drachen smiled and laughed. This obviated the bloody business with the ramps. He reached for his radio, and found it crushed against his bloodied hip.

Though he had wanted to call for a general assault, he figured it was now implied.

Behind him, the men from the scout cars stopped and helped him to stand.

No, no! Vayan al puente!” cried Von Drachen, urging them to fight.

The men stared at each other, and at Von Drachen, who repeated himself more harshly.

Al rio, idiotas! Dejenme ir!”

At once, both men dropped Von Drachen, who hit the ground badly again, and charged toward the cliff without question, jumping down onto the bridge, and breaking into a run across, submachine guns and pistols blaring against the opposing cliff face.

Von Drachen watched them go with a great sense of satisfaction.

Even after he lost all track of them in the chaos of the battle, he felt elated.

From the bushes, a bruised Colonel Gutierrez reappeared, hobbling toward him.

“Gutierrez!” Von Drachen shouted. “I’m afraid I threw something out and am finding it difficult to stand. You seem healthier. Please go command the battle in my stead.”

Gutierrez scoffed loudly at him. “You crazy mijo? I’m not setting foot on that goddamn contraption. I’m almost sixty years old, I’m not up to this nonsense anymore! It’s bad enough you made me weld all of that together on such short notice. I’m done.”

Defiantly, Gutierrez sat down beside the fallen Von Drachen, crossing his legs.

From his back pocket, he withdrew a little book and began to read scripture.

“Well, if that’s the way you feel about it.” Von Drachen replied, shrugging.

Despite his Colonel’s recalcitrance, the Cissean contingent began to carry the battle. More of Von Drachen’s men came charging in from the bush, and arriving to battle in cars and tractors and old, weathered motorcycles. Without word the Cisseans rushed past their fallen commander and leaped down onto the bridge, and followed it up the nearby cliff. A line of men, jumping down their cliff and running up to the opponent’s.

Soon his entire battalion was rolling across his bridge and into the fight.

Though the Nochtish men had crossed first, it was the Cissean who broke the line.

Within the hour, the Ghede would see a rout, and Von Drachen, laying at the riverside, would personally see it as well. Or as much of it as he could see from the dirt.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part