This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.
45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Ayvarta, Tambwe-Ajdar Border — Ghede River
Despite the amount of bodies pressed to either side of the river, everyone could still hear the sloshing of the water as it rushed downstream. Everyone was silent. Breaths reached farther than bullets, and faster. Ghede was a slow conquest, and an even slower defense.
Eyes peered over boulders, around sandbags, over grass-covered outcroppings upon which they lay belly-down with scopes and binoculars, peering downhill or uphill over the stream. Shadows flitted around trees, behind bushes. The opposing fronts were separated by only the width of the Ghede. In some areas the lines were as close as a hundred meters. Had it not been for the water they could have charged bayonet-first.
Despite the water, charging bayonet-first was still the choice outcome.
In several places the Ghede was only a half-dozen meters deep, and the rhythm of the battle was predicated on this fact. Men could swim across, if given the opportunity.
Lacking the mobility to cross quickly, the dueling sides fell into a war of munitions.
On the Nochtish side, mortar tubes were gathered by the dozens. Anti-tank and artillery guns of small calibers were pushed to the line of bushes at the edge of the wood, fifty meters from the river and nearly three hundred from the nearest Ayvartan position – not much, but enough to go unnoticed. Snipers climbed to the bushy canopy and adjusted their scopes. Light M5 tanks hid behind the tree line, and adjusted their guns to the same shooting tables in use by the anti-tank guns. Across a river they were merely mobile guns. There would be not armored blitzkrieg over the water of the Ghede yet.
Lines of foxholes formed a divide eerily reminiscent of the battles of the Unification War period, where two trench lines separated by a thousand meter no-man’s-land stared at one another for months, some years, before new technology entered the picture and caused a shift. Whether the abominable but ultimately slight shift caused by chemical weapons – or the dramatic, tide-turning shift caused by the entry of Nochtish tanks.
No new technology would cause a shift here in the Ghede, and the soldiers only wished they had a professional-looking trench line. Scattered foxholes and sandbag walls were broken up by the dips and rises of the uneven riverbanks, and the intermittently rocky and sandy and grassy terrain. Riflemen scraped from various divisions, agglomerated into the new 13th Panzer Division, waited sleepily for the next offensive to be declared.
There had been a few previous build-ups and failed attacks, but the lull between them felt like years’ worth of peace. Munitions built up, and men awaited commands, but on the Nochtish side of the Ghede there was a lazy, almost contented mood, like that of a holiday. There were no Generals here, no shouting orders, just distant voices, the sporadic tossing of a few shells, and half-hearted attempts to wade into the foam.
Bullets wailed and blood splashed, but after the fact everything was easily forgotten.
Until the next build-up, the next command word, the next attack.
When the command came the landser crouched beside the field radio box could scarcely identify it as such. He raised an eyebrow at the strange call and the handset shifted against his ear with the shaking of his hand. Turning his head, he signaled to his superiors nearby that he was on the line. He then cleared his throat, and called back.
“Noble cause,” came Chief of Signals Fruehauf’s voice once more.
Fruehauf did not reply and the line went suddenly dead.
For several moments the radio man stood staring off into the distance.
He shook his head and his wits returned to him. Noble cause was the command.
That meant this build-up was now complete, and all munitions were to be released.
“We’ve been activated.” He whispered to the nearest man. “Pass it on.”
Word spread quietly across the line. Ayvartans monitored the radio traffic, or so everyone had been told; and they could see and hear across the river fairly well during quiet periods like this one. Therefore the rallying cry could not be loud or electric. Hands and tongues passed along the command, across every gun in the 10.5 cm battery, through the hatches of every M5 Ranger, behind the shields of every 37mm doorknocker gun, to every three-man Norgler machine gun team, into every foxhole and sniper nest.
“Noble cause, we’ve been activated.”
Guns of all sizes were loaded. Discarded helmets set back on vacant heads. Bayonets lugged, for no clear purpose. Men scrambled up, looking out over the river once more. Their movements were mechanical, reflexive, their minds still catching up to the events.
Once the entire river-front had been alerted, a runner was sent back to the guns.
Infantry would fire after the mortars and cannons drew the first blood.
With his upper body bowed low the man took off running.
He made it scarcely a few meters before he heard death whistle overhead.
A column of gray smoke and dirt, seething with hot metal, blossomed behind the trenches, and the runner went flying into a nearby tree, splashing blood and flesh.
They were preempted, despite careful planning.
The Ayvartans had gotten wind of the impending attack.
No sooner had the landsers noticed their dead man that munitions started falling over their line by the dozen, exploding all along the river-front. Small mortar shells came quickest, hitting the earth hundreds a minute along every kilometer of enemy positions, casting thin plumes of smoke and dirt into the air. Fragments of metal went flying over every foxhole and trench, and men huddled to their knees to escape the airborne death.
Following the mortars came the ponderous fire of much larger guns, striking farther behind the front, smashing trees, vaporizing bushes, torching holes into the thick green canopy above. Chunks of wood like flying stakes joined the shell fragments in the air. Thousands of fragments and fast-flying debris struck shields and thick trunks and the metal armor of tanks, hitting cover with such frequency it resembled automatic fire.
Amid the thunderous pounding of the enemy artillery, Landsers scrambled to their combat positions, bracing machine guns over rocks, pulling up to the edge of the riverbank on their bellies or scarcely above their holes and raising their battle rifles. As they joined battle their green tracers flew over the water, snapping branches and biting into rocks and flying into bushes. Between the rhythmic pounding of enemy ordnance the infernal noise of the norgler machine guns filled the silence, and lit the air green.
Lines of green bullets stretched over the river, and lines of red flew back the other way.
Behind the infantry line the air stirred as the 10.5 cm batteries finally retaliated.
Within the opposing tree-line the Nochtish fighters saw bright flashes as their own shells went off on the enemy, raising their own pillars of turf and metal as they struck.
There were flashes brighter still as enemy guns lobbed shells directly over their heads.
At the center of the line, a boulder was smashed to pieces as a 122mm Ayvartan gun struck it with direct fire. Chunks of hot rock struck against helmets and sandbags.
Red machine gun tracers from the Ayvartan side bounced off rocks and kicked up lines of dirt and overflew the foxholes, chopping up bushes behind them. Men scrambled to keep under the slicing red lines, unable to hear the thock-thock-thock of the Ayvartan machine gun over the cacophony of explosives landing by the dozens all around them.
Snipers perched atop the trees briefly glanced at the fire flying under their feet before returning to their scopes. They peered across the river, trying to discern the shadows from the enemy troops. The Ayvartan’s side of the river had much less space between the water and the treeline, and the entire Ayvartan line was cloaked in the vegetation.
But the difference between a rustling branch and a shooter was obvious – one flashed red and the other did not. Aiming for the muzzle flashes, snipers shot into the dark, moving from flash to flash in the hopes of scoring a maiming hit. As positions shifted and munitions discharged, however, new flashes and new targets appeared, as if a hundred shining eyes belonging to a monster, and no real effect could be discerned.
Joining the rest of the artillery, the company of M5 Rangers assisting the river offensive dug into the forest and fired blindly into the sky and through the trees, following the coordinates on the shooting tables. Theirs was the most solipsistic work within the battle. Encased in metal, the gunner and commander could hardly see around them in the wood, and the work of shooting was purely mathematical. They were shielded entirely from retaliatory fire, and only when the tank shifted positions to protect itself did the crew seem to awaken from the mechanical slumber of shooting and loading.
In theory an enemy was being hit, but the tank crews would not know it. Even the landsers at the front line, withstanding the brunt of the enemy barrages, couldn’t tell a tank shell apart from any other artillery, much less guess at whether it was accurate. It was all explosions to them, dirt flying and metal slicing through the air and fire briefly rising and abating within seconds. Whether across the river or around them.
Fire and fragments, an atmosphere thick with smoke; everyone was awakening from their dream-like haze to the violence of the Ghede. The first injured were dragged away through the tree-line, and men rushed from behind the tanks to take up vacated holes. Guns and tanks and machine gunners took the lead from the riflemen who clumsily began the battle, and the munitions war played out over every foxhole and trench.
Across days of the mind this war raged, but in the physical realm it was only minutes.
Then the final shell crashed down on the Nochtish side. Nobody was hurt.
Slowly the fire subsided, the colored lines vanishing from the air. Silence followed. Only the crackling of dust, falling to earth, could be heard. Neither side launched an attack.
Within the hectic moment of this offensive, nobody had bothered to cross the water.
45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North
There was still a war going on, though it would’ve been hard to tell in the Kalu.
The 13th Panzer Division tucked its new headquarters well behind any potential hostilities. Located in a warm, sunny clearing surrounded by thick woods that made excellent cover for resting tanks and empty supply depots, the 13th was spread out in a formless cluster, much of its manpower technically “rebuilding” but mostly directionless, linked only by a dirt road that wound through their stretch of woodland.
While some of the Division struggled for the river Ghede and the way into Tambwe, for the majority of the men and women of the 13th, there were no missions, little communication, and only paltry supplies to tide them over during this “rebuilding.”
On a walk around the camps, one could still see, among the people aimlessly coming and going, variety of insignias on chests and shoulders: 2nd Panzer Division, 3rd Panzer Division, 13th Panzergrenadier, 6th Grenadier, Azul, 8th Grenadier (a latecomer to the hostilities that saw no action except in firefighting, but high casualties nonetheless) and a few smaller, lesser known units with long strings of numbers and very low morale.
There was no insignia yet for the 13th Panzer Division that encompassed them all.
Regardless of insignia, everyone had dim prospects for the coming weeks.
Nobody expected they would cross the river, and they fought with defeat in mind.
While in the far eastern flank of Ayvarta the invaders of Shaila had made decent progress invading Dbagbo, the remnants of the Vorkampfer had lost all momentum, and their supply situation sans Bada Aso was in dire straits. Dori Dobo could not handle their supplies, and Cissea’s ports were so far away that the majority of the firepower in Adjar lay idle, waiting for the food and fuel needed to continue.
Still the 13th struggled on.
Up north, that hopeless and hazy war for the river played out sight unseen.
In the Kalu, similarly bizarre struggles transpired behind the doors of the camp tents.
One such tent, set down in the woods far apart from the rest of the camp, was black, unmarked, and unremarked about. It was a special tent, made for its purpose. Behind its inscrutable walls there was an oppressive gloom save for a dim light mildly illuminating the face of a bound Ayvartan woman in a chair. Pungent, plastic smells inside made it hard to breathe calmly, and the outside world could neither be seen nor heard from within. Icy blue eyes watched the prisoner from dark places. Questions flew at the woman, and threats followed. Sharp implements were prominently displayed as if ready to be used. But the captive paid no attention to the captor, and patience wore thin.
Anton Von Sturm surged forward from the shadows and pounded his fists on a table.
“I’m asking you one last time. This is your final goddamn chance. Tell me everything you know about the new tank program, or you’ll regret holding your tongue!”
There was still no response from the prisoner — not even a turning of the eyes.
“Tell me about Ayvartan positions across the river! Tell me about the state of the government in Solstice! Let me into that head of yours or I swear on my life–”
Across the table the prisoner remained silent and inexpressive, yielding nothing.
“I’m going to set you on fucking fire!” Von Sturm shouted at her in a fit of rage.
Almost casually the prisoner turned her cheek, and her eyes wandered away.
Silence followed for several moments as Von Sturm stewed in this rejection.
Across the tent a man lifted his hand into the air as if to be called on in a classroom.
“Setting her on fire is against the Dahlia 12 agreement.” Von Drachen interjected.
Von Sturm swung around in a fury, waving his fists at Von Drachen instead.
Von Drachen completely turned his cheek, almost casually, mirroring the prisoner.
He shrugged, facing a wall. “And besides, this is not how it works. For example, you can’t tell her it’s her final chance, when you’ve only asked her the question once before.”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Von Sturm shouted. “I ask her once, and then I give her the final chance, that counts, ok! It wouldn’t make sense if the final chance was the only chance, but anything after that works! You goddamn whinging baboon! Shut the fuck up!”
“You have given her several final chances, but all in Nochtish. I don’t think she—”
“Shut up! I’m in command here still, and I order you! Shut up!”
He raised his voice to such a level that it cracked in his throat. None of it could be heard outside, but it reverberated strongly inside the tent and sounded quite unsettling.
At least, unsettling in theory. Neither Von Drachen nor the prisoner reacted strongly.
“This is all very wrong. You need a good cop here. Let me do this, Anton.”
Ignoring Von Sturm’s frantic commands, Von Drachen turned to the prisoner.
He nodded at her. Surprisingly, she nodded back.
“How many women are in the Ayvartan army?” He asked her.
His Ayvartan was fluent and his tone was ordinary and conversational. His body language was yielding rather than aggressive or guarded. He sat across the table from her, relaxed his shoulders, and gestured with his hands. They could have served tea between them, and it would not have been amiss. It was an eerily peaceable scene.
“More than men.” Replied the prisoner. Her voice sounded very dull and affectless.
“I find that interesting. What would you say is the ratio?” Von Drachen asked.
“Sixty-forty.” Replied the captive.
“Incredible! An army more woman than man, and yet, they square off against us so beautifully. Tell me, is it a certain woman, Nakar, who is responsible for your success?”
“You speak our tongue well, imperialist pig.” Replied the captive, avoiding the question.
Von Drachen nodded gently. “I am a Cissean, and I was born during the Ayvartan Empire. So I picked up some here and there, though never formally. Common Cisseans were as a whole poorly literate. I self-taught; so I thank you for the compliment.”
“Aren’t you surprised by my ethnicity?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“Well. Hmm. What do you think of Cissea? It’s right across the border.”
“I think your country is a disgrace to this continent, lying in bed with the Northern Federation. You are betrayers to this land and we will have our vengeance on you.”
Throuhgout the captive spoke without passion. Her words had no more or less force than before, despite the aggression inherent in them. But she had spoken, at least a little. Now she seemed again inclined to silence, staring down at the table.
Nodding, Von Drachen turned to Von Sturm with a grin on his face.
“You must build up a rapport with the prisoner.” He said.
“What the hell did you two talk about?” Von Sturm asked.
“She wants to destroy my country, I think.” Von Drachen replied.
Furiously, Von Sturm pounded his foot on the ground.
He then pounced on the desk again. “I’ll goddamn kill you! Start talking tanks, now!”
Von Drachen sighed.
“You need to give her incentives to answer. Otherwise what is the point?”
Again Von Sturm pointed furiously at the woman across the table.
She started rubbing her feet on one another, staring at the walls indifferently. She was a little scuffed up from her capture but mostly unharmed — she had been caught very recently, wandering half-starved in the Kalu region, over a week after Bada Aso. Dark skin, dark hair, fairly tall, rather slender; typically Ayyartan. Tiny red rings glowed around her eyes; Von Drachen knew not their origin or significance. They had only this one prisoner, and he did not pay particular attention to people’s eyes anyway.
To him, she was just another poor friendly Ayvartan caught up in this mess.
“Listen,” Von Sturm pointed at her even more sharply, touching her nose, “listen here you unfathomable moron. Her incentive, is that I’ll set her on fire if she doesn’t answer!”
“She’s already been set on fire before.” Von Drachen replied. “She lives in the Ayvartan south, my good man. She cannot be set any more on fire. And as I said, such actions against Dahlia 12 anyway, and I’ll have to inform the field marshal if you harm her.”
Von Sturm slapped the palm of his hand against his face. He lowered his voice to a clearly agitated whispering. “You moron, we’re threatening her so she’ll give us information. I’m not actually setting her on fire. I can’t believe you would do this–”
“She doesn’t understand you, my good–”
Von Drachen shrugged.
“I am only trying to uphold propriety here, Anton. You start with setting a girl on fire. Then they set their prisoners on fire, if they have any. I don’t know. Next thing you know, we’re setting more of our prisoners on fire. Then they drop chemical weapons on us. Have you seen what phosgene does to a person? We must avoid that at all costs.”
Von Drachen felt that he was being perfectly reasonable, and there was a great disappointment in him for the future of the human race when Von Sturm merely stood and stared at him in confusion, as opposed to changing his ways and accepting this rationale. He saw the General’s hands rise threateningly, shaking, as if ready to–
There was then a stark instant of white sunlight piercing the gloom in the tent.
Entering the lit center of the interrogation area, a slender young woman, tall, soft-featured, with brown hair hanging at the level of her jaw, purple pom-poms dangling from her earrings. Dark circles around her half-closed, sleepy-looking eyes and an unpleasant facial expression attested to the state of her morale. Her dark red lips added the smell of cigarettes and liquor to the artificial scents of the interrogation tent.
“Fruehauf! Finally! A ray of hope in this gloom!” Von Sturm shouted, raising his hands.
“At your disposal, Brigadier.” She drawled; but still sharply punctuated the final word.
Von Sturm winced; likely he felt her pronunciation, a verbal dagger to his proud heart.
Once, Von Sturm had been a Major General. Now he was a lowly Brigadier again.
Despite her intentions, the General took a much gentler, coddling tone with her now.
“Fruehauf, I need you to talk to the prisoner, woman to woman.” Von Sturm said.
Fruehauf slowly raised an eyebrow. “I do not speak Ayvartan, Brigadier.”
“That doesn’t matter. You two have a deeper connection than language. Talk to her.”
“I don’t follow.” Fruehauf groaned. She rubbed her head as if stricken by a sudden pain.
Von Sturm started to talk with his mouth and hands at once. Von Drachen realized to his mute horror that his hands were making far more sense than his mouth at this point.
“Listen, Fruehauf, you, and her, you are linked by these incredibly deep, ancient, powerful and secret oaths of femininity. You are sisters in this world. You two have a history, thousands of years old, developed over hearths and berries and children and humours; no interrogator can unlock that bond! I know once you get in front of her, you’ll be able to plumb the depths of her like no one else can! It’s a woman’s touch!”
There was silence in the tent for several seconds as Von Drachen and Fruehauf struggled to catch up to the monumental proclamations frantically rushing out of Von Sturm’s mouth. His eyes were open too wide and his mouth hung too slack. It seemed every syllable built into an ever more inscrutable edifice, and the fullness of his incoherence was not readily apparent until well after the last word was said. Unraveling this abstract masterpiece of word, Fruehauf scoffed, comprehending enough to be offended.
“What are you talking about? What the hell has gotten into you today?” She said. She turned her head sharply toward Von Drachen. “What the hell has gotten into him?”
“I really cannot say.” Von Drachen replied, stroking his chin, wide-eyed, unsettled.
Von Sturm reached out his hands to her. “Fruehauf, you bring new paradigms here. You’re a communications expert, aren’t you? You need to decrypt this woman.”
Fruehauf crossed her arms and grit her teeth and glared at Von Sturm with deadly intent.
“I’m an electronic communications expert! Brigadier, are you drunker than I?”
She looked and sounded steadily more irritated with the Brigadier General. And since his recent demotion, she was no longer demure about her displeasure. She was raising her voice, and her expression made it clear she was both sober enough and drunk enough now to throttle him. She leaned forward on him, adjusting her height to his own.
Von Sturm squirmed beneath her stature. “Fruehauf, I’m running out of options.”
Fruehauf stared dully at him for a moment and shook her head.
“Brigadier, I believe I have several empty frequencies to listen to. Guten tag.”
Turning sharply on her heels, Fruehauf stormed out of the tent.
Flash white; then the gloom settled once again.
“Wait, Fruehauf, please!”
Von Sturm ran after her in complete hysterics.
Again the room was silent and still, save for the rubbing of the prisoner’s feet against one another under the table as she waited. In the furor, she had been forgotten again.
For a while longer Von Drachen turned over Von Sturm’s words in his head. It seemed almost like the kind of thing that would come to Von Drachen’s mind unbidden, and he wondered how and why Von Sturm was siphoning his fancies now before he even had them. It was strangely endearing, and put a smile on his face as he thought of it.
“I feel that I rather like that lad. Is that wrong?” Von Drachen asked.
Behind the table, the prisoner shrugged.
Overhead the imperious, golden Ayvartan sun climbed until directly over the clearing, searing the circle of Headquarters tents clustered around the thin stretch of dirt road bifurcating the forest and extending beyond the Umaiha River and into the border to Tambwe. Muggy as it was inside of the interrogation tent, under the clearing’s open sky work was nearly unbearable at noon, and activity around the camp dwindled.
Everyone seemed to have taken their work inside the tents save for a few pairs of riflemen patrolling the surroundings. Many of them, sleepy and soaked in sweat, and quickly finding themselves without oversight, settled lazily under the woods and enjoyed the breeze being pushed between the trees. Following orders was simply not paying off.
One man, under the shade of an Ayvartan oak, even snuck out a little prize while no one was looking — a bottle of dark lager picked out of a buddy’s truck. It paid to know a guy!
Lying back, relaxed, taking in the breeze, the man nearly fell asleep from contentedness before he had even opened the bottle. When he resolved to at least taste it while he had his wits about him, he was stopped by the sound of lightly vibrating glass. A tinkling noise issued from the bottle. He found the ground shaking, and his Doppelbock with it.
Looking down the road just a few trees away, he spotted vehicles in the distance.
Recognizing their markings, the man hid his treasure and hurried back to the tents.
It was impossible to miss the main headquarters tent. One could run straight to it without even thinking, it stood out so much. While the radio tent, the medical tent and the barracks tents were all squat four-post tents, the command tent was like a house made of canvas, with an entryway, lined with sandbags for added protection, and a real door, as well as 20 poles spread out to hold up the 5 by 15 meter main body of the tent.
Though he was supposed to knock and wait, the landser threw open the door and charged into the tent’s gloomy beige interior. There he found General Von Sturm with his nose buried in a map, General Von Drachen seated atop a radio box, staring into space with his hands on his chin, and Chief of Signals Fruehauf in the middle of downing a 300 milliliter flask of some unseen, likely alcoholic fluid in one gulp.
In the background of this scene, several young women lay about, napping away noon.
All members of this odd crew seemed to ignore the intrusion until the landser spoke.
“Sir! Units of the 1st Panzer Army are approaching the base sir!” Hee shouted.
He saluted and held a stiff pose while the officers snapped their heads toward him.
Seconds later the tent stirred, its posts shaking, the lamps inside swaying gently as if coaxed by the breeze. The sounds of tracks and wheels could be heard distantly.
The headquarters crew charged past the landser, Von Sturm the first and most frantic.
Outside something had drawn various officers and staff out of their tents for what seemed like the first time in days. On the sides of the dirt road a crowd gathered to watch the road as a small convoy approached them. Everyone could tell right away this was not a supply train. In the lead was a vehicle unlike any the 13th Panzer Division had yet laid eyes on – an eight-wheeled armored car with what seemed like a miniature M4 Sentinel turret set atop the front, 50mm gun and all. Painted black, and marked with an oak leaf and a big red number one, it was a sight that commanded attention.
It was not alone. Behind this machine followed a pair of much more familiar Sd.Kfz. B Squires, both lightly populated; one explicably toting a water tank. The vehicles followed the road up to the command tent, where Von Sturm stood dumbfounded while Von Drachen continued to rub his own chin and Fruehauf stared vacantly at her own shoes.
Parked meters away from the HQ tent, the 8-rad armored car opened its rear hatches.
A pair of sleek black boots hit the ground, followed by the end of a long grey trenchcoat.
Von Sturm gulped. Von Drachen stared dispassionately. Fruehauf tipped over a step.
Before them, the celebrated northern hero, Field Marshal Dietrich Haus, exited his command vehicle and set foot in a Generalplan Suden combat area for the first time.
Everyone knew that the Field Marshal was heading south, but nobody expected to see him inspecting their ramshackle unit tomorrow or the next day, much less today.
Around the campsite the crowds stared breathlessly at the man who liberated Cissea. His appearance was a stupefying display, like a fairy tale knight riding into view.
Like his vehicle, the Field Marshal was an unmistakable sight. Stepping out from around the 8-rad, he was quite tall, statuesque. Even for a Field Marshal his uniform was luxuriant. A grand, dark-grey trenchcoat with gilded shoulders and lining covered his field coat and trousers. His black boots glinted with new shine. And it was not just the clothes that set him apart, but the features of a man of status. He was boyishly handsome, with aquiline features, short and wavy brown hair, and high cheekbones. Atop his head was a peaked cap with a large, golden badge of the Nochtish eagle upon it.
Haus wore a conceited grin as he approached Von Sturm, literally looking down on him. There was a stark difference in their size. Though he was nowhere near as burly as the 13th Panzer’s Divisions own familiar giant, Haus was almost Lt. Aschekind’s height.
“Anton Von Sturm, conqueror of Valle Rojo.” Haus said, his voice deep and operatic.
There was no reply; no one could formulate a reply toward this odd choice of greeting.
Saying no more, Haus stopped meters short of the smaller general and stretched a hand.
Von Sturm meekly offered his own for a shake. His lips remained sealed.
Haus’ arm then drifted away, as if something else had caught his attention.
He turned his head, scanning the ragged little encampment around him.
“How was this mortal blow struck against you? I’m still baffled by it.” He said.
“I don’t—“ Von Sturm said his first trembling words, and left them to hang.
Haus awaited a conclusion to this sentence for a few moments before continuing.
“I shall want to look at all of your maps and intelligence on the enemy, Anton. We must get this operation back on track.” He said, taking a condescending tone of voice.
It seemed that this time Von Sturm would have spoken more; but Haus cut him off.
“Tambwe is our next target. Dreschner and his men are already slicing into Dbagbo with serious success. It is only here that our invasion withers on the Kalu vine.” He said.
He punctuated the word here quite sharply by poking Von Sturm on his lapel.
Around the encampment the crowds started to thin, people returning to their posts, heads hanging. Whatever it was they thought would come from the black 8-rad armored car, was ultimately not delivered, and their attention wavered. Or perhaps it became too painful to stay in the presence of the Field Marshal in the sorry state they were in.
Ordinary staff could easily leave, but three officers at least were to remain trapped in the Field Marshal’s orbit for the moment. Von Sturm joined Fruehauf in staring at the floor.
Von Drachen, to everyone’s mortification, raised his hand at Haus’ statement.
“I’m of the opinion that our esteemed Field Marshal is laying blame too hastily. I believe a certain ‘Nakar’ of the Ayvartans is to blame for our problems here.” Von Drachen said.
Fruehauf and Von Sturm seemed to awaken from their slumber and turn instantly pale.
“Our campaign will surely end in failure without her defeat.” Von Drachen continued.
Despite the foolishness of his words he seemed quite intent on continuing to speak.
Haus leered at Von Drachen. “Ah, if it isn’t the anarchist turncoat, Drachen is it?”
“Indeed, it is. In my defense, we all have our infancy.” Von Drachen amicably replied.
“So what was your name as an infant?” Haus quickly asked, crossing his arms.
“I’d rather not say.” Von Drachen replied.
“And you have intelligence on Ayvartan command, I assume? Have you filed it?”
“I have not. What I know now is trifling from an objective point of view; I cannot file my gut feelings to the military intelligence corps. But I make them known for your benefit.”
His earnestness and apparent casual honesty seemed to unsettle the Field Marshal.
“Oberkommando has enjoyed great success thanks to you, but I must admit your entire aura is most disconcerting to me, and I do not want to speak with you.” Haus said.
Von Drachen shrugged. “That is your opinion and I respect that.”
Haus turned away from him and back to Von Sturm with a skeptical gaze.
“How do you stand him?” He asked.
“I don’t.” Von Sturm replied, his voice trembling.
Behind them the hatches to the 8-rad swung open once more.
Dressed in a similar trenchcoat and uniform as the Field Marshal, gilded lining and all, a young woman stepped out of the armored car and joined Haus in standing before their subordinates. She was quite pretty, short, slender and very lady-like, standing perfectly straight, walking with a casually elegant gait, her skirt uniform in good order. Her skin was fair and unblemished, and her long, wavy blond hair shone with lively color.
“Greetings.” She said. She bowed her head lightly. “I am Cathrin Habich.”
She pushed up her glasses and extended a hand to Von Sturm.
Again, Von Sturm meekly extended his own hand. This time, a real shake resulted.
Ignoring Von Drachen, she then stretched her hand out to Fruehauf.
Fruehauf, struggling to keep her dark-ringed eyes open, stretched out a polite but shaking hand in return. She found the slender fingers of her counterpart slinking away.
“No, you misunderstand. I want you to turn over the week’s code table.” Cathrin said. She retracted her hand as though she had almost touched something filthy. “I am Chief of Signals under the Field Marshal and I must get caught up on events here soon.”
Grumbling inaudibly, Fruehauf slowly closed her hand into a fist.
Without changing expression she started to raise it as if to swing at Cathrin.
Von Sturm and Von Drachen stepped suddenly closer to prevent her from striking down the new Signals Officer – whether motivated by preserving Fruehauf’s honor and position or to keep her from thrashing Cathrin’s ravishing beauty, it was impossible to know. Von Sturm rummaged through Fruehauf’s coat, and found the code table in her jacket and passed it on. At this indignity, Fruehauf began to sob and hiccup all at once.
She seemed to attempt speech, but could not muster any coherent verbiage.
Field Marshal Haus blinked and stepped back. “Is this a bad time?” He asked.
There were weary expressions all around but no response but Fruehauf’s crying.
Inside the command tent, Haus looked over Von Sturm’s war room table with disdain.
“You took too long to mobilize from Bada Aso to the river, now it is fortified against you and you lack the combat power to take it. Or so you seem to think.” Haus said.
Fruehauf struggled to stand upright. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy. Her head was pounding, and she felt strangely emotional. She had not slept at all for a few days and had taken to the bottle and to smokesticks for succor. For several months she had been perfectly sober, and now she was drinking from every canister in her line of sight.
She knew it was not good for her, but the stress made her wanton.
She did not want to be here anymore, she thought.
She hated everybody and everything. Perhaps it was a product of her beer-stricken brains, but she felt such a disdain for it all that she wanted to cry again now.
Her whole body brimmed, restless. She did not know how to satisfy her body’s need to be away, to expend its excess energy. Drinking stifled those unknowable urges.
She felt an unseen pressure, a terrible burden.
In her head there was that city on fire, and all the screams, and the burning bodies.
And the idea that she could be the next to go. It was cowardly, perhaps, but it was her.
She no longer believed in anyone’s ability to protect her or anyone else. She couldn’t protect anyone, and nobody could protect her. Von Sturm had failed them all. His abrasiveness was not just a cover for genius. His head was as empty sober as hers was when full of drink. His timidity and confusion the past few days had only cemented to her that he had failed, they had failed, and they did not know what to do now.
Lacking leadership and directly insulted by the higher command, Fruehauf’s morale plummeted so low that she cried, just out of stress and fear and total lack of any hope.
Even now, ostensibly calm, there was a tear escaping her eyes every once in a while.
On the table, Field Marshal Haus, with Cathrin by his side, pushed chits around to show Von Sturm his apparent error. From what Fruehauf blearily understood, much of Von Sturm’s combat power had been focused on two areas along the river Ghede that represented potential flanks in the Ayvartan defenses. They had intended to cross the river and perform a classic pincer envelopment, Von Sturm’s favorite and perhaps only military trick. However, the Ayvartans had caught wind of this and reinforced both sides, and stretched out their line to cover those approaches. Unable to immediately take the river, Von Sturm did nothing but periodically call for build-ups and attacks.
His latest effort, codename “noble cause,” had been such a failure that nobody at the front line even thought to use it as an opportunity to cross the river. It was another classic, building up artillery power to breach the enemy line, but it was such a simplistic maneuver with absolutely no follow-up plans that it could not accomplish anything.
Haus seemed to notice all of this just by looking at the chits on the table.
“You will never launch an envelopment across a river with your forces. Especially deploying them in this idiotic manner. Have you considered that you have no center? You created two perfect pockets for the Ayvartans to split if they decided to. You are lucky they are more foolish than you are. What happened to your guile, Anton?”
Von Sturm merely hung his head and took the reprimand quietly, staring at the map.
“Your meekness has been turned against you by the enemy, but your deployment can still be salvaged. Recommit troops to the enemy’s stretched center, and launch your attack there. After so many days of predictable, weak flank attacks, they will be put off-balance by a strong center push. They will not expect it. We may be able to cross then.”
At this insistence, the Brigadier General finally found words for the Field Marshal.
“But the river there is a dozen meters deep. Tanks can’t cross that. And even if they could, the woods beyond are too thick for vehicles. We’ll have nothing on that side.”
Von Sturm sounded reluctant in defending himself. Haus bit back with fervor.
“That is why you use the tanks to continue your flank attacks, but focus all of your infantry on crossing that river, Anton! Pin the flanks, push the center, and you may be able to fold the whole line! You cannot look with disdain at only one part of the situation like this. I will bring up troops of my 1st Panzer Division to help in the coming days but I am sure we can accomplish this with the 13th, if you gather all its strength and act now!”
“Yes sir.” Von Sturm said, his voice a drained monotone.
“Valle Rojo was such a dynamic operation, fast, full of wit and cunning. Can you not draw upon that experience again?” Haus asked, laying a hand on Von Sturm’s shoulder.
Von Sturm trembled. “That situation was very different from this one.” He mumbled.
Haus slapped his hand down on Von Sturm’s shoulder and nearly knocked him down.
Fruehauf sighed. This sight was simply too pathetic for her. She turned away.
Von Drachen raised his hand into the air again. Fruehauf turned from him, too.
Haus said nothing in response to the Cissean; Von Sturm, perhaps reflexively, called on him like a schoolteacher would call on a boy, pointing his finger vacantly at the man.
“I might have an idea for crossing, but I will need a shipping container.” He said.
At once, everyone seemed to regret allowing him to speak. Heads turned, eyes rolled.
“I am returning to my HQ.” Haus declared. “It is the Sd.Kfz. J Sentinel Foot parked outside. Should it perhaps aid in restoring your confidence, I might request another early production model be shipped for your use, Anton. I shall take the opportunity gather your units scattered around the area, and with them, we will bring a full divisional attack force to the Ghede. You stay here and prepare your HQ for it.”
With those words, Haus turned on his heel and left the tent. Cathrin followed behind him, dutifully quiet throughout. She looked back at Fruehauf a final time, largely without expression, though Fruehauf wished to interpret animosity. In turn Fruehauf stuck her tongue out at her, and the woman followed her superior out the door.
Von Sturm stared at the door, as if still seeing the Field Marshal there even after he left.
“I didn’t win Valle Rojo.” He said. He sounded helpless, as if a phantom were interrogating him where he stood. Staring into space, his jaw quivering as he droned.
Fruehauf didn’t want to hear this, but she had no real choice in the matter.
“Then who did?” She shouted, in part curiosity, in part demand.
Von Sturm threw up his hands. He looked about to weep too.
“I got inside information on the anarchist’s positions. That’s how I could do what I did. I don’t know what the Ayvartans are doing! How am I supposed to fight them that way?”
“We’ve built up pretty respectable intelligence on the enemy so far.” Von Drachen chimed in. Von Sturm glared at him over his shoulder, but it was more a look of anguish than one of violence. Like everyone, he seemed to have reached the end of his rope.
“Respectable, but not perfect!” Von Sturm shouted. “I had perfect information on the enemy, where they were moving, exactly how many there were. I could send a man a kilometer downhill in a bicycle and he could avoid every goddamn anarchist, that’s how good our information was. But here? Everything keeps changing. I can’t just keep sending men to their deaths, look what happened in Bada Aso! We know nothing!”
Von Sturm’s face sank into his hands, and he looked about to cry.
Fruehauf scoffed loudly and openly. This was a worthless attitude for a General to take.
Everything here was worthless. Her included; they were truly good for nothing.
“So, Cathrin, what is your assessment?” Haus asked. He sounded amused.
“The 13th Panzer Division ought to have been called something like the 13th Mixed Brigade or the 13th Panzer Leichte. It is undermanned, weak, and poorly structured.”
“Harsh, but there’s a nugget of truth. Do you think it is possible to turn Ghede around?”
“We might as well try to reroute the river under fire, than cross it with these forces.”
“Then I shall reroute the river.” Haus said.
Cathrin Habich followed the Field Marshal into the cramped confines of the Sentinel Foot armored car. She laid next to a radio box set into the side wall, collecting her skirt and settling in a princessly fashion. She pulled a headset free from behind the device and laid it gently over her ears. Meanwhile, Haus dropped atop a crate of 50mm ammo.
He knocked his fist on the armor a few times.
At once, the Sentinel Foot’s eight wheels began to turn, and it accelerated out of the camp. Following the road, the vehicle could reach 80 kilometers per hour, and at this great speed, it would sweep through the 13th’s encampments within a day. Inside the vehicle, Cathrin barely tossed or stirred. She was used to the movements.
“Ah, I hope Achim appreciates what I’m doing for him.” Haus said.
“I’m sure the President is over the moon about your involvement.” Cathrin replied.
“He better be. I’m doin’ this all for him.”
The Field Marshal pulled down his cap over his eyes and laid back.
“Weather looks nice.” Haus said. “How does tomorrow sound for an offensive?”
Cathrin nodded her head dutifully.