Pebbles In The Path (33.5)


Benghu — Northern Rail Yard

A thin film of liquid spread between her eyelids as Naya came to, partially distorting the gray, gloomy world around her as it came into focus. She felt the sting of foreign fluid in her eyes, and jolted upright, rubbing her fists against them. Tears joined the sweat that trickled down her face. Her skin was cold and damp; she felt cold air as well.

When she could see again she found herself atop a mattress laid on the floor of a warehouse constructed out of tin plates on a wooden frame. There were a lot of junk parts around her in mounds. Rusted old train wheels in stacks, chunks of split track, buckets full of red-brown bolts, wasted old steam engine trunnions, even an old boiler.

Yellow light traveled into the room through a slit window behind her. She heard a whistle blowing outside, accompanied by loud rattling cylinders and thundering wheels.

After a second whistle there was a period of relative silence.

“Oh, you’re awake! I’m sorry, it’s my fault. I gave you too big a dosage.”

Naya was in the train yard; she had survived. Her final moments in combat with the purple-striped tank were a blur. She was in so much pain and everything happened so quickly. With time, she began to recall those final moments before sleep — the slide, the shot, all the soldiers moving in to defend the Konigin and allowing it to escape.

Then she had an attack; another tank rolled into the field. A sizable one, larger even than the Raktapata. Everyone was already running, but they ran faster upon its arrival. She was pulled out, first by Farwah, then others. She felt a pinprick — a syrette.

“Morphine.” Naya said to herself aloud. She shook her head, trying to dispel the mist.

“Right.” Lila Bennewitz replied. She was seated across the room, atop an old fuel drum. Her medical bag, decorated with a red cross, lay closed atop another drum nearby.

“How’d we get a train to come?” Naya asked. Out the slit window she saw figures moving and heard car doors sliding open. A train had just arrived. She knew the sounds well.

“A train was always coming, at least for Vijaya.” Lila said. “We’re too important. Where it pertains to our safety, radio calls for evacuation happen quickly. But by stopping the Nochtish attack, you bought invaluable time to include the school in the evacuation plans.”

She smiled. Naya smiled weakly back. Her head was clouded, no amount of shaking her head seemed to clear all the fog billowing in her brains. However she felt no pain from anywhere. She felt normal. That was the magic of morphine. One little syrette right in the belly–

Naya looked at Lila’s bag; she had suffered an attack. She had been treated with morphine. Now everyone knew, or suspected, that something was definitely wrong with her. Something pervasive, something they could not fix through time or tribulation.

Something bad enough that Ravan and Rajagopal might be forced to discharge her.

“Lila, I,” she paused. Naya had begun to speak but then she realized in a panic that if she said something like ‘don’t tell anyone’ she was already admitting to something terrible. There was still a chance Lila might not know or notice anything more than what she noticed the last time she had Naya under her care. Should Naya lie again now?

But then, Rajagopal and Ravan had already seen an outburst from her earlier in the day. They were probably on alert for any more strange behavior. Maybe Lila already told them? Then there would be no need for subterfuge. Perhaps she was just waiting now for the papers.

There was no going around it anymore. Naya paused, breathed in solemnly, and with a cold, sickening tension in her chest and stomach, she came right out and asked.

“Are you going to refer me for a medical discharge, Lila? Is that why you’re here?”

Lila averted her eyes. “I wish you’d stop seeing me as an enemy, or opponent.”

Naya rubbed her own shoulder, sighing. “I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to think.”

Their eyes did not meet anew for a time. A gloom settled over the medic’s face.

“I’m not Nochtish, by the way.” Lila said. “I’m a Lachy by nationality, and my family are Hudim by blood and tradition. What you know as Messianism incorporated much of our writing and some of our culture, but we are not the same. Even Messianites see us as opposition. Since the old lands split, sunk and sundered, they’ve never accepted us.”

She rocked her legs in front of the drum. “A thousand years ago they would force us to convert or to die. These days they supplant that by casting us as cheats and liars. So, why am I here? Because we all thought you got hurt and I wanted to take care of you.”

Naya turned her eyes to the floor. Her words came as a blow. Despite everything, Naya was still desperately clawing to protect her own self first and didn’t think of who she was hurting or how she was doing it. She had thought of Lila as an enemy, when all she was doing was trying to help, to understand, to keep her healthy and alive. To do her job.

“I’m sorry.” Naya said. She started to tear up. “I’m a fool; I didn’t know. I was scared. It felt like I was so close to losing everything I’ve grown proud of again, and I didn’t–”

Lila raised her hand. She smiled again. “I understand. At least, I understand some of what is happening, anyway. Naya, if you want to make it up to me — I’d like to know more, Naya. As a medic but also a comrade who cares. Tell me about these pains. I want to help.”

Naya sat up straighter on the bed. A bitter smile played across her face. She hugged herself. Tell her about the pains? Where to even begin? She sat for minutes in silence, wondering what to say. Lila waited, rocking her feet, careful not to hit the drum.

It would hurt, but there was only one thing Naya could say anymore: the truth.

Though her lips felt heavy and her tongue clumsy at first, words quickly built up.

“I remember having these pains since I was 17 or 18 years old. Back then I was obsessed with running. My family life was growing very strained at the time — everyone had found their own ambitions and sort of, drifted apart pursuing them. Mine was running. I would run every day, run faster and farther, push myself harder. Whether it was raining, or muddy, or burning under the summer sun, I would run. I ran to get out of the house.”

She remembered the house of her teenage years. It was a squat, square unit in the urban center in Benghu, four walls, two roomy bedrooms, and little else inside. It was its own house — it was not part of a hostel or barrack. Her parents got that house, and a few gold honors tickets, because they had helped pioneer Benghu’s new electrical system. They were engineers. Tackling problems like that was what they did. Day in and day out; Benghu was like their pet project for a few years, until the union started to urge them to think bigger. To think about Solstice or Chayat. They resisted at first; but only at first.

“I won every race I was ever in as a teen. I consistently beat people in the school leagues and I was nearly at the age where I could compete nation-wide in clubs matches and Commissariat of Health sponsored events. I didn’t really have anything going for me but running. So I just ran. I was obsessed with it; I loved every second I ran.”

She ran and ran and ran away from the prospect that her life would change. That her parents would separate, out of love with each other and the family life she once treasured; that they would be moving to Solstice or Chayat or somewhere, somewhere far from her friends, from her loves, where there were engineering feats in need of doing.

When she ran, there was nothing but the sensation of running. It was so reassuring.

Lila listened intently, her face void of emotion. She stopped rocking her feet.

“Maybe it was because when I was running, it took everything out of me. I didn’t have to acknowledge other things. But then, just, out of the blue; these pains took everything out of me. I don’t even remember how they started. I thought I ran myself ragged. I gave it a rest. But they recurred every so often. I figured out soon, that I couldn’t escape them.”

Her parents didn’t help because she didn’t tell them. Because she was afraid of what they would do. She was afraid of every outcome. Afraid that they might discard their ambitions for her; afraid that she would be worth less than their future, and that they would forget her. Afraid that they might force her to give up. So she endured. She played it down. She made excuses. They were distracted enough to accept everything.

“So you don’t know the origin of them. It might be a congenital condition that took some time to manifest. Maybe an old injury? I don’t know that I can identify this.” Lila said.

Naya shook her head. “I have no idea. It feels more like a curse than a condition.”

Lila nodded her head. “Go on, please. I’m willing to listen if you’re willing to share.”

Naya nodded her head. She sat up straighter, crossed her legs, and continued.

“I remember there was a big competition on national health day at the school; a friend of mine, Darshan, he was going to run with me. There were a lot of contenders, but he was the only one who rivaled me. It was his first real, important run; he’d been trialing now for a year or two and getting better and better and better. I wanted to beat him. But I had a pain event the day before the race. I was scared; scared that he’d take first place from me.”

“So you didn’t go.” Lila said gently. She sounded almost worried.

An evil little chuckle escaped Naya’s lips. It wasn’t funny; it hurt. She still laughed.

“It occurred to me that if I didn’t show up, everyone would just attribute his victory to my absence. They would all know that had I been there he would be second place. But that didn’t happen. Everyone was happy for him, for his first big victory. I tried to go along with it. Later, he would confide in me that everyone’s support gave him the courage to confess to his sweetheart and that she had said yes and held his hand and kissed him happily.”

“I see. I assume he wasn’t the only person that was sweet on her.” Lila said.

Naya did not answer. Instead she looked down at her feet. “I’ve always nursed a really nasty thought since then — I should’ve just gone to the race, and had a big pain event there and spoiled his victory for him.” She laughed bitterly at herself. “Focus it all back on me. Maybe then, I could have confessed instead of him. But I was a coward. I ran away from it. Just like I ran away from confessing before him. I ended up unable to beat him at anything. Don’t you think it’s pathetic? Nasty? I’ve regretted everything about that, ever since.”

“I’m sorry, Naya. For what it’s worth, no, I do not think you are pathetic or nasty. You were a teenager and you were hurt and scared. I’d have done the same.” Lila replied.

It became easier to speak frankly as she went along. It was easier now that all of it was out in the air. Somebody knew as much of the story as Naya’s brain could pull from the stream of history. She no longer had reason to hide it. Unburdened of her fears and unprotected by her lies, however, all that seemed to remain was bitterness, loneliness. There was no sensation to it; no pain. She was just void of anything palpable now.

“On some level, I think I deserve it all. It’s just my karma. It is the way I have done things, the way I do things, the way I will do things. Even today, I can’t break that.”

“You do not deserve that at all, Naya! You are a hero!” Lila said, raising her voice.

Naya almost laughed again, but before she could she heard feet striking cement.

Lila jumped off the drum and started toward her. Crossing the warehouse, she stopped before Naya, knelt down and gently stretched out her hand to help her stand up.

“All of us in the camp, we know that it was you who got Chief Ravan and the Captain to stay and fight for Chanda. We saw you run in there. We saw what happened after. And we all admire that and we all think that it was the right thing to do.” Lila said.

“They would have done it anyway.” Naya replied, almost murmuring. “Anyone could sit on the Rakpata’s turret and man that gun. I’m just an unstable rookie AT gunner.”

“No! You were the only one who could sit in that chair because you were the only one who would’ve given the Raktapata a chance. Its previous gunner was nearly killed by it; it had all kinds of problems. Everyone was ready to evacuate, not because we were bad or cowardly, but because we never would’ve given ourselves a chance.” Lila said.

She wiggled the fingers on her hand, and set it right above Naya’s own.

“I’m not here to push you down. I want to help you get back up. All of us do: Farwah does, the officers do, and everyone who saw you today does. Do you believe me?”

Naya hesitated at first, but she took her hand. She felt a sense of relief wash over her as she tightened her fingers around the medic’s warm skin. Lila pulled her back to her feet.

The medic smiled and patted her in the back. “We’ll start with a morphine prescription, and you should talk to the Chief about making your chair in the tank a bit more comfy.”

“I’d like that.” Naya said. She was out of breath. Her heart was beating so fast.

She squeezed Lila’s hand gently. It was the hand of a friend. Such a nostalgic feeling.


Benghu’s main train station straddled the northern end of the meadows. A single track coming in from the east cut across the grass and joined tracks coming in from the north and curling through Benghu and around its hills from the west. Servicing the adjacent textile and wood processing facilities, it was the industrial heart of Benghu, stationed only a few kilometers from the town, from Camp V, and from Chanda General School.

In total, the train station, the warehouses, some made of tin and some made of brick, and the nearby factory, all formed a property about as large as Chanda’s campus.

Much of the rail yard was devoted to housing raw material and finished product that would be packed for transport further north or south as orders came in. In the ensuing days of the battle for Shebelle much of the raw wood that had been collected was shipped away, and along with it much of the paneling, canvases, nets, parachutes, tents and other similar products made at the nearby factory. Once the products and materials were gone, machinery was stripped and taken. Empty buildings left behind now temporarily housed the refugees from Benghu and Chanda, including civilians and soldiers.

Most of the warehouses became impromptu playgrounds for children, or barracks for weary soldiers that had been wounded in Shebelle. Older tin warehouses closer to the center let the rain in and were cold and uncomfortable, but the brick buildings straddling the meadow were good enough for temporary shelter. Outside the buildings, hasty sandbag emplacements had been constructed alongside a guard pillbox, forming a defensive line. Anti-tank guns and machine guns watched the meadow and the eastern track for signs of the enemy. Everyone behind a gun prayed to be able to abandon it soon.

Once the train came in, loading it with equipment, weapons and other war materiel being rescued from Shebelle and from Camp Vijaya became a priority. People and personnel waited patiently to board. There had been promises made that everyone would be riding out of here tonight — this was the last train that would come to Benghu.

As the sun began its descent, and the day’s rainfall slowed to a meager drizzle tapping irregularly against their hoods, Chief Ravan spent her idle time on one of the train loading platforms working on the Rakpata. Farwah Kuchenkov stared in mute horror.

Their heroic tank was separated into two pieces, its turret hanging on a crane. A canvas roof had been erected over the hull to keep the vehicle dry during the work period. Chief Ravan knelt into the tank from the top of the hull, viciously attacking the turret ring with an eclectic variety of absolutely filthy, terribly worn-out looking metal tools. She had been cranking, smashing, tossing things over her shoulder, dumping all kinds of substances into the turret. It was filthy and strange. Farwah blinked and stared at it, dead in the face, but deep inside, feeling the tiniest bit of despair at the tank’s condition.

“Ah ha!” She shouted triumphantly. “Improper tension in the slip ring! I fixed it!”

Chief Ravan sat up and raised her arms triumphantly, her hair slick with lubricants.

Farwah blinked. He held up his hand. She looked his way and tossed her hair.

“Woo! That was stimulating.” She said, a touch embarrassed. “So, what is it?”

“Ma’am, there was an overheating problem I was having. I’d like you to look at it.”

He came to regret this question almost as soon as he asked it. Chief Ravan crawled up to the engine hatch, unscrewed it, and kicked the plate off. She nearly hit an engineer working nearby. Then she started yanking things out of the engine. Hoses and screws and plugs went flying and Farwah ran hither and yon, catching and collecting them and picking them up from the ground. It was chaos. Finally Chief Ravan got through to the thermostat, and she yanked it out, dropped down from the tank, and ambled toward a small half-tracked miniature tractor, towing a power generator and a metal basket with a canvas cover.

From this basket, Chief Ravan pulled a pistol-grip drill attached to the generator by a thick cable. She braced the thermostat against the basket using metal clamps, and drilled two holes into the object. Farwah blinked in confusion as she returned to the tank.

“Fuel efficiency will drop, but this should keep the Raktapata running a little colder until I can contrive a better solution.” Chief Ravan said. She smacked the piece back into place.

Farwah shivered as Chief Ravan snatched various pieces from his hands and returned them to place, and nearly jumped when she slammed the engine cover plate back on.

She wiped her face with a rag, cleaning off the grease and lubricants. She dropped the rag on Farwah’s shoulders and walked past with a long, easy stride and a smile.

Picking it up with the tips of his fingers, Farwah cast the rag off, turned around and followed behind her. The two of them did not go far. A dozen meters away behind them, the Mandeha self-propelled gun awaited dismantling and accommodation in a crate for the train ride. Its astoundingly tall turret was its most distinctive feature. It was disproportionate, almost charming in a strange way. Behind the engine, Isa toiled, tuning the tank up and staring in confusing at a damaged spark plug. Atop the hull, Karima sat, kicking her legs idly.

“Karima! Tell me, what was it like riding this abomination?” Chief Ravan said. Her tone was light-hearted. She seemed to be in high spirits, though Farwah had no idea why.

“I hate the shells, they’re too big.” Karima said, holding her head up with her hands. Rain trickled off her high, perfectly arching ponytail. It did not seem to bother her.

“Not my problem!” Chief Ravan said coyly. “How was the gun traverse?”

“Nonexistent. Do you mean the turret traverse?” Karima replied.

Chief Ravan crossed her arms. “Yes, yes, you know what I mean when I say that!”

Karima nodded her head. “Nonexistent.” She said again in a surly tone.

Giving up on Karima, who was known to be unfriendly, Chief Ravan skipped around the side of the tank and knelt beside Isa, staring into the Mandeha’s engine block with him. Farwah felt his heart bump and bump a little faster near Isa. He liked the way his comrade handled the wrench as he screwed the pieces he had removed back on. When he turned his head and smiled Farwah could feel his own face grow a little warmer from his attention.

“So what are you two busybodies up to?” Isa said jovially.

Chief Ravan rubbed her chin and put on a mock quizzical expression.

“I’m wondering what you’re doing other than preparing this tank for transport.”

Isa shrugged. “It had a bad spark plug! I had to replace that. Imagine some hapless engineer turns the thing back on for a test with a bad plug. I had to replace it.”

“Yes, but the Mandeha is, as you can see, extraordinarily large. It will take time to get it apart and well fitted into crates, and even more since you haven’t started.”

“We have all of the time in the world.” Isa protested, raising his hands.

At that moment a guard post exploded on the outer edge of the rail yard.

Everyone saw the rising pillar of fire over the low roofs of the surrounding buildings.

For a moment the Mandeha’s crew stood dumbfounded. Chief Ravan looked at the smoke as if there was something to analyze. Isa and Farwah looked at one another in confusion. Karima jumped down from atop the tank’s hull but made no other movements. It wasn’t until a second explosion followed the first, that everyone around began to scramble for weapons and cover and to look around at each other for orders.

“Change of plans!” Chief Ravan shouted, ducking behind her tool tractor. “Isa, get the Mandeha ready to deploy immediately! Farwah, we need to restore the Rakpata back to fighting condition post-haste! And where on Aer has Naya gone! Someone fetch her!”

Nodding heads; behind them, a small open-topped car arrived, and from the back, Captain Rajagopal leaped out and hurried to their side. She ducked beside Chief Ravan behind the tractor, and pointed a finger down south, to the direction of the warehouses.

“Large enemy tank. New type. Coming here.” She gestured with her hands.


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Pebbles In The Path (33.4)


Shebelle Outskirts — 8th PzD FOB

At 1700 hours the attack on Shebelle was as stagnant as ever, and many of the 8th Panzer Division’s assets that had been committed to that task were now returning to the fold, having passed the baton to freshly deployed infantry-based combat units. Reiniger’s M4 tank companies arrived under the roaring noise of continuous shellfire from M3 Hunters stationed just outside the camp, peppering Shebelle and Benghu from afar.

Noel stood at the side of his broken-down M5A2 when the medium tanks arrived, weaving through the woods in a single file line before arranging themselves again into platoons wherever they could find space to park. Noel counted maybe twenty tanks on the whole; so not all of them came back. Under his umbrella, he waved at the crews crawling out of their hatches. Most of them waved back; Reiniger himself was a notable exception.

He ran past the makeshift tent garage and headed for the HQ without so much as a glance toward Noel. He did not even gloat about having preserved his own tank.

So much the better; Noel turned his back on the arrivals and resumed fussing with his hamstrung vehicle. There was no getting around the fact that the Konnigin had been slain. A shell hole the size of his fist adorned the gun mantlet, and inside it his breech block was smashed to pieces; these pieces had then flown across the turret and embedded themselves in his ammunition racks. It was a miracle that the shells did not explode.

While Noel circled around the tank, surveying the damage from various angles, Ivan toiled in the rear. Soon as the engine cover came off smoke and steam billowed out in copious amounts. There was still a thin, dancing line of smoke wafting from the engine when Noel returned to the tank’s rear. He put a hand on Ivan’s back, as if they were staring with grief at a sick child; Ivan laid his hand over Noel’s, shaking his head and breathing out heavily.

“That last supercharge really screwed it up, Noel. There’s a warped cylinder in there. You can hear it. We destroyed the engine, basically. It’s a miracle it got us back.” Ivan said.

“Well it has been a real miraculous day.” Noel said, his voice thick with sarcasm.

Ivan withdrew a piece he had set aside. It was the tank’s thermostat, at one point; now the spring and the cap seemed to have fused together, and it became a chunk of slag.

“You tell me, Noel, how is this even possible?” Ivan said with evident despair.

“We’ll see if they let us borrow an M4 Sentinel to drive or something.” Noel said.

“I sincerely hope so, because our little queen needs half her parts replaced.” Ivan said. He threw away the thermostat. It rolled gently downhill into the surrounding forest.

Noel chuckled. “I’ll see what I can do, sweet-heart. Just relax for the moment.”

He turned and made to head toward the war room tent, meaning to speak with Dreschner; but he was distracted when he heard metal clanking in the distance. He saw birds flying into the air from the crowns of the surrounding trees, and found something large navigating the woodland. From between the trees arrived a pair of tank transporters, heavy trucks with thick, large wheels towing canvas-topped steel crates on tracked beds. Chains holding the road train together rattled incessantly as the vehicles cleared the treeline.

Each crate bore simple markings in large print, easily read once the road train had parked itself amid Reiniger’s tanks: WP6, alongside an eight-digit serial number.

Noel stood in the periphery, alongside several other curious onlookers in their coats and hoods. There was a knocking sound; the backs of the crates opened and hit the mud, forming ramps. Small parties of engineers ran outside, assessed the situation, and gestured into the interior with their hands. Engineers gesticulated wildly and angrily at nearby tank drivers taking their breaks; there was not enough clearance around the ramps. Several tankers were compelled to return to their tanks and move them away from Wa Prüf 6’s cargo.

Lights shone from inside the crates, and white smoke exhaust escaped the canvas.

Two tanks drove carefully down the ramps and over the muddy ground.

One tank reminded Noel strongly of the M4. Though the turret was a touch flattened and less round, it had the same 50mm KwK gun; the hull was a bit taller, but retained the same curved silhouette, with its glacis sloped inward, and the hull and side armor sloping gently down from the front. However, the glacis seemed thicker, its frontal bulge much more prominent, its track guards like sharp cups laid over the caterpillars. In addition, the side-plates did not conform as much to the otherwise uniform curve of the hull. They had a sharp, tapering, definitive edge to them. He wondered how thick the armor was.

When the second vehicle rolled out of its crate a collective whispering began around it.

The lower half of the second vehicle was reminiscent of the first, but that was the only similarity. Certainly this was built on the new M4, on its tracks, on its hull; set atop the rear hull, a rigid, open-topped superstructure housing an absolutely massive gun replaced the traditional turret. Its armament outclassed the gun on that new Ayvartan type tank — it looked more like the old schwere kanone artillery guns in the rear echelon than it did a tank gun. Its barrel must have been ten centimeters bore, and at least three meters long. A pair of removable metal struts supported the long barrel against the front hull.

Both of the new tanks drove into the center of the camp, parting the crowd of gawkers and coming to a stop near the war room tent. Behind them, a blond-haired woman in a sharp office suit ambled in the mud, protected by galoshes and an umbrella. Sleek and professional, with her hair gathered into a wrapped bun, she had a mature look to her, with a hint of crow’s feet behind her spectacles, and some gray hair mixed in with the gold. Still she left an impression as she strutted confidently beside the tanks. Noel could no longer discern whether the crowd was goggling the armor, or eyeing the secretary.

General Dreschner and Signals Chief Schicksal stepped out of their tent, surprised by the arrival of the tanks, and shook hands vigorously with the General Auto official.

Noel circled around the crowd, and surreptitiously approached the party.

He arrived in time to hear the lady’s concise introduction. “Tanja Von Bletzen, chief computer for diagnostic and testing support.” she said, pushing up her glasses.

“Brigadier General Einschel Dreschner. And this is my signals chief, as well as chief of various unofficial duties, Karla Schicksal. Pleasure to meet you.” Dreschner said.

“I’m Captain Noel Skoeniczny!” Noel suddenly said, springing up beside them all. “How many marks a month does it cost to insure those monstrosities for the road, huh?”

Schicksal and Dreschner glared sidelong at him for intrusion and comment.

Tanja turned and politely shook Noel’s hand.

“Pleasure to meet you. I’ve been informed of your exploits, Captain. Colonel General Ferdinand holds you in high regard. I’m glad you’re here to see our new product.”

Dreschner and Schicksal looked on in mute surprise.

“I only wish I could have arrived sooner.” Tanja continued. “It would have made a great debut for these vehicles if a Panzer Ace used them to defeat his enemies and seal the Shebelle pocket. Hopefully there is still some action for them to participate in.”

“Oh, so you’re dying to see me wearing one of those, huh?” Noel said cheekily.

“It is fated to be, I just know it.” Tanja returned her own mischievous grin.

Dreschner and Schicksal both palmed their foreheads with eerie synchronization.

“Glad you’re both enthused. So; what are their capabilities?” Dreschner asked.

Tanja stretched her arm behind herself, gesturing toward the turreted tank. Dreschner and Schicksal’s heads turned with the computer’s arm, silently examining the vehicle.

“While I regrettably only have one example on hand today, this tank represents the next evolution in the M4 Sentinel line. Designation M4A2, WP6 calls it the Gran Sentinel.”

“Same gun as an M4; but it’s up-armored, isn’t it?” Noel said.

“Correct.” Tanja smiled. “The M4A2 features a much improved armor profile compared to the original M4: 75 mm glacis, 90 mm gun mantlet, 55 mm side, 30 mm rear. Hull top and turret top are still 20 mm, but those plates are rarely vulnerable to the enemy.”

“That is impressive.” Dreschner said. “But what is the cost in movement?”

“None.” Tanja said.

“None?”

“None.” She repeated. She clapped her hands once.

Tanja’s face lit up; she seemed to be enjoying herself.

“The M4A2 is actually faster than the original M4, thanks to its new engine. It can achieve speeds of 50 km/h. Using the old engine, the speed is a respectable 40 km/h. And this particular model has a built-in motor supercharger solution we are testing.”

“I must admit I’m not terribly fond of those superchargers.” Dreschner said.

“Ivan likes it well enough, but it burnt a few things in sustained use.” Noel said.

Tanja tipped her head in a gracious little bow. “Feedback noted.”

Schicksal jabbed her finger in the air. “So, the drake in the room; what is that?”

“10.5 cm Dicker Max.” Tanja turned her head, glancing toward the open-topped tank.

“Is it supposed to be a new assault gun? A replacement for the M3?” Dreschner asked.

A conceited smile played across the computer’s face.

“The Dicker Max is a complete re-imagining of the armored assault gun concept, using an M4 hull.” Tanja said, a soft opener before she shifted fully into sales pitch mode. She next barraged them with facts, and Noel wondered whether she had rehearsed it all.

“An enclosed structure or rotating turret is limited in the types of weapons its hull can reasonably support. Tweaking the armor profile, and redesigning the gun housing, we have achieved dramatic results. As you can see, the Dicker Max is fielding a 10.5 cm schwere kanone. This would be impossible for an ordinary M3 or M4 tank. Fully armored in the front and side, the Dicker Max can withstand long range direct fire and destroy any bunker, anti-tank emplacement, or enemy tank, from over 1000 meters away.”

“Until someone chucks a grenade through the open roof.” Noel said.

Tanja drew back, offended.

When she next spoke her voice had gone from enthusiastic to downright cold.

“Use of appropriate tactics is, of course, a prerequisite for effective deployment.”

“How many rounds does it hold in there?” Dreschner asked.

“Twenty-six. More than enough.” Tanja said dismissively.

“Sounds stingy.” Noel added, crossing his arms and grinning.

Calmly, Dreschner pressed on. “Is there a secondary armament?”

Tanja was starting to visibly bristle. “No.”

Noel shrugged comically, wiggling his hips a little.

Tanja pushed up her glasses, though they could not go any higher over her nose.

“Extensive tests have shown that in its appropriate role the Dicker Max can break a position in under twenty shells. You underestimate the schwere kanone.” She said.

“Extensive testing didn’t seem to identify the fact that you can chuck grenades through that open roof, so I’m not completely convinced, to be honest.” Noel said.

She turned her cheek on him.

“There’s an optional canvas roof for rainy day deployment.”

“Do you have it with you?” Dreschner gently asked.

“No.” Tanja said.

Schicksal crossed her arms and stared at her shoes. General Dreschner rubbed his chin. Both of them seemed at a loss for words to voice their trepidation. Noel wasn’t.

“Hey, no offense Tanja, you’re nice and all, but.”

Noel pointed at the Dicker Max with his free hand while twirling his umbrella.

“That thing just doesn’t match my aesthetic.” He dramatically said.

Everyone around him let his theatrical words hang awkwardly in the air for a moment.

But someone else had been listening in and lying in wait.

“Sounds fuckin’ good to me!”

Behind them the war room tent flapped open; Reiniger suddenly pushed Noel aside and stomped toward Tanja, and took her hand brusquely in his for an uncalled for shaking. He turned his head over his shoulder to glare at Noel while shaking up the computer.

“Lieutenant Jorg Reiniger. Ma’am, if the fairy doesn’t want this tank, that’s his problem. You got your ace tanker right here. I’ll drive your Dicker Max right fuckin’ now, ma’am.”

Tanja looked at him with tentative disdain, drawing her hand away from him.

“Reiniger, control yourself.” Dreschner snapped.

“General, c’mon, you can’t still be pinning your hopes on this Lachy fool who spends more time with his hair than his gun.” Reiniger said. He pointed sharply in Noel’s face — his finger was only a few centimeters from Noel’s nose. “He’s already fucked up one op, and if he can’t see how good this fuckin’ thing is, he’s rarin’ to fuck up the next one. I can take this tank, some of my boys, drive top speed to that rail yard, and end this now.”

Noel slapped aside Reiniger’s hand and contemptuously averted his eyes. He was eager to tussle with words, but when a brute started throwing around his hands, it rendered the situation utterly beneath him. Reiniger was no longer fun anymore.

Reiniger raised his hand again, and this time gave Noel a half-hearted shove, pushing the slender Captain back a step, and then taking his own to confront him. Noel sighed.

Dreschner laid a hand over his own face. He closed his other hand into a fist. Noel thought that he would step forward and pound Reiniger again, but the General held his ground. He underwent a gargantuan effort to show restraint. There was a pallor to his face, a nervous twitch around his eyes and jaw, a palpable tension thrumming just beneath his skin. He crossed his arms, perhaps so as to drown away the eagerness of his fist to punch.

“Mrs. Von Bletzen, I apologize for the conduct of my over-eager lieutenant.” He said.

“It is nothing, General.” Tanja said. She was stone-faced and disinterested.

Reiniger grunted with frustration. “Just answer me this lady: do you think the Dicker Max could defeat an Ayvartan tank with over 80mm of armor layered on the front?”

“It can break 100 mm of armor at over 1000 meters.” Tanja curtly replied.

“Then we have nothing to fear.” Reiniger said.

“There’s plenty to fear, Reiniger! You can’t just–” Schicksal said.

Reiniger side-stepped Noel and instead planted his feet in front of Dreschner.

Schicksal blinked, and was taken aback by the action. He was just a breath away.

“General, I must insist that we deploy immediately. Right now the only thing we have to fear is inaction. We have them, General. We can win!” Reiniger said. “You know that we don’t have much time left before sundown. We can be there in an hour if we deploy light. They’re already exhausted, they’re weak, and even if that new tank shows up, we can–”

Dreschner raised his hand to quiet him. “I know perfectly well our situation, Lieutenant.”

Noel almost winced when the General’s hand moved, expecting the fist to come flying.

“Then let us deploy! My men are eager to close this fucking pocket.”

Calmly, Dreschner turned his head to look over Reiniger. He faced Noel.

Noel shrugged. It was not his place to demand anything here.

Meanwhile Reiniger awaited a response right in the General’s personal space.

Dreschner replied coolly.

“Reiniger, deploy the Dicker Max. Noel will be joining you in the M4A2. Take three other tanks, two of the M3 assault guns for long range support, and three half-track carriers full of Spoor’s Panzergrenadiers for close support. Everyone else will catch up when they can.”

“Sir!” Reiniger saluted. His saluting hand was almost touching Dreschner’s face.

He had on a terribly wicked grin. Noel almost felt a bit of hatred in that instant.

Noel had been wrong. In his voice Noel heard so many voices whose textures and tones made him feel sick; voices that signaled craven hearts, thrashing hands, cold tongues, oozing with hurtful power. Before, he had put Reiniger mentally in with the kind of men who could be played with and sculpted, men who were nothing one way or another, the kind who turned up at the cabaret and cracked jokes and couldn’t take the girls taunting him.

But that was wrong. Reiniger was rancorous, the worst sort of man, the kind that would take a girl out back just to slap her. He would do it and he would revel in it. Noel just knew.

He grit his teeth, hiding behind his pretty lips, locking up the memories.

Now that a deployment was authorized, Tanja seemed to regain her enthusiasm.

“I shall have our engineers perform a quick final check on the vehicles.” She said, polite and energetic. It was as if the confrontation before had been an entirely different world.

Reiniger nodded. “Sure thing. I’ll go get my crew and climb aboard.”

When the Lieutenant turned around, he shoved brusquely past Noel again.

“Stay close, shut up, and follow orders.” Reiniger said as he walked away.

“At your command, instructor.” Noel called out. His tone was thick with sarcasm.


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Pebbles In The Path (33.3)

This story segment contains blood, infliction of mild pain and descriptions of medical procedures and injuries. If you enjoy the story, please click here to vote.


Benghu — Chanda General School

Dr. Agrawal produced a handkerchief from her pocket and presented it to her pupil.

“Bite down on this and try to keep steady, Elena.”

Elena looked at the rag and at her with wide-open, fearful eyes; Dr. Agrawal couldn’t blame her for it. They were completely short on drugs and did not even have as much as a drink of brandy available to soothe Elena. Her upper arm had absorbed a pistol shot from the side, and the Doctor had to extract the remains of the bullet. Both of them had performed this procedure several times on others; but never on Elena herself of course.

“I understand it hurts, but you know we can’t leave it there.”

“Yes. I know. It’s silly isn’t it? I ran out into the field, got shot; and I’m more anxious about a little visit to the doctor for this bullet, than I was about all of that.” Elena said.

“That’s adrenaline for you.” Dr. Agrawal smiled. It wasn’t silly; it was human.

With her good hand, Elena took the handkerchief, and stuffed it into her mouth.

“I’ll try to be ginger and quick.” Dr. Agrawal said.

She sat beside Elena, atop a teacher’s desk in one of the auxiliary building’s lower classrooms. There was a massive hole behind them, punched into the wall through relentless shelling — a quality desirable and convenient at the moment. It allowed the Doctor to turn her head and see out to the field where her troops were evacuating.

From her coat, the doctor withdrew a pair of scissors and cut Elena’s sleeve.

She saw the bullet wound, biting into the deltoid. Blood still trickled from it.

“I’m going to clean it.” Dr. Agrawal said. She raised a canteen of collected rainwater in front of Elena’s face so that the girl could see it. She touched the canteen on her nose so that Elena could feel the temperature, and sloshed it so she knew the volume more or less.

Elena met her eyes and nodded her head in acknowledgment.

“It’s cold. Is that ok, Elena?” Dr. Agrawal warned.

Elena nodded again, closing her eyes and biting down on the rag.

Dr. Agrawal tipped the contents over the wound. Elena almost jumped forward.

“I’m going to cut a little. Please try to stay still. It will hurt less than if I try to get the tweezers into the wound without an incision.” Dr. Agrawal said in a gentle voice.

Elena nodded her head, her jaw quivering.

The Doctor set aside her scissors and canteen. As quickly and carefully as possible, she laid a scalpel on the wound and made a precise incision to reveal the affected area as a whole. Elena bowed her head, squeezing on her leg with her good hand to cope with the pain.

“Are you ok? I’m extracting it now.” Setting down the bloody scalpel, Dr. Agrawal withdrew her forceps, spread the wound a bit, and then pulled the bullet from Elena’s arm using a blunt-ended, long pair of tweezers. She dropped the bullet on the floor.

“It’s out. You will be ok.” Dr. Agrawal said. She had this kind of tone with all of her patients, regardless of their knowledge of the procedure. Even though Elena knew everything that would happen and in the order it would happen, the lack of anesthetic, the bloody nature of the procedure, it would all throw her emotions into chaos. An affirming, gentle word, warnings at every step; making her feel included, acknowledged, and safe.

This did not just work with children. Adults liked to be treated this way as well.

Breathing heavily, eyes tearing up, Elena endured as the wound was sealed, cleaned again, and finally dressed. Doctor Agrawal procured a medical sling to keep Elena’s arm set in place. She urged Elena to stand up from the desk; her patient and pupil withdrew the rag from her mouth, set it on the table, and stood up. She bowed her head to her.

“Thanks.” She said. Her voice was still trembling a little from the pain and anxiety.

“I should thank you, for being so brave.” Dr. Agrawal replied.

Elena chest rose and fell with heavy, calming breaths. She sighed audibly.

“During the Knyskna defense, there was one point where we assaulted a camp in the woods. That was when I met Leander, and Bonde. We got stuck fighting some fierce Nochtish soldiers and even a vehicle. Leander was visibly in anarchy; Bonde was in control the whole time. I was afraid, and I didn’t know what to do, but I tried to at least get a grip.”

She turned her head to stare out into the field, perhaps hoping to see them. Leander, Bonde and Sharna had volunteered for body duty. Though Leander had taken some brutal hits to the head, he insisted on being allowed to leave and would not have it any other way. He always claimed to be okay, to be able to go on; he always seemed energetic enough that everyone trusted him. They let him go on, even as they worried about him.

“Leander did a crazy thing later. He took an entrenching tool and rushed out and killed a few men with it. He didn’t know it, but that saved us. It’s been in my head for a while. I wondered whether Leander could do that because he was Leander, or whether he plotted it, whether he was wicked. When it came down to it, could I do it too? But I didn’t think about that today, when I did something similar. I didn’t think about anything. I just saw an opportunity, and I threw my body into it like it was disposable. I killed a few men; and maybe I saved more.”

Dr. Agrawal raised her hand to stop the story. “You’re quitting medical, aren’t you?”

Elena smiled, and bowed her head. She glanced off the side again.

“Back then I thought it was the only thing I could do.” She said wistfully.

Dr. Agrawal nodded. She took a few steps toward Elena, laid her hands gently on her shoulders, and looked into her eyes, forehead to forehead, with a smile. It was the kind of smile she never thought she’d have for someone again, and the kind of words she did not think she would be able to say. But today, had changed a lot of paradigms for her.

“Listen: you can fight this war and make a perfectly fine doctor someday.”

In Elena’s eyes, she thought she saw that little girl from so many years ago, conflicted about killing, and war, and wondering what she could offer to the world to end the strife. In those eyes she also saw the person standing across from that child: she saw herself.

“Everyone in this army kills men, has killed men, and will kill men. But we don’t do it just to do it. We are trying to build something to replace this mess. It might seem a twisted moral, but we’re not gods or spirits. This is all we can do with our situation, Elena.”

In the past, she would have felt foolish saying that. She would have felt like a hypocrite — a self-proclaimed doctor who had killed and maimed and poisoned and done terrible things in her past, saying that there was a future for someone with bloodied hands. Saying that those hands were not rusty knives; thinking that they could be gentle. Her hands–

And Elena’s good hand, suddenly circling around her back and embracing her kindly.

She would have felt foolish, because she was being foolish. She had been foolish about herself this whole time. These wayward children of this war helped her to see that.

Leander, and Elena, and the patients in this hospital, could see gentleness and worth in her. So she had no reason to be reluctant; and they had no reason to be reluctant either.

“Thank you, Dr. Agrawal. Perhaps someday, then, I will be a proper student.” Elena said.

Dr. Agrawal nodded her head. “You’ve been an incomparable student.”


One convoy departed, and now there was only the tense wait for it to return.

Walking with a crutch, her head swimming a little from the morphine, she approached the the Auxiliary building. Her hip didn’t hurt anymore, thanks to the good doctor. She crossed through the threshold and walked over bits of rubble without much trouble.

Aarya waited outside a little room for a few moments, thinking of what to say, before she finally stepped through the open doorway. She decided she would just speak to them from the heart and hope that they understood. There was a hole in the back, and several people inside she did not immediately recognize; a younger man, with light brown skin and dark, messy hair, and a bandage around his head; a tall, plump, long-haired woman with rich brown skin, both standing at ease with their long rifles resting on the wall.

She then easily found the two soldiers she recognized; the red-headed, skinny young woman, her arm in a sling, and the black-skinned man with the shaved head.

All of them looked her way curiously. Aarya felt a touch intimidated by their presence.

She walked in front of the Umma soldier and bowed her head to him. She recognized him as the one who had been left in charge of the defense of the supply depot.

“Sir, thank you, and your troops, for protecting the children, and my fiance.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, please, no need to thank us.” He raised his hands a bit defensively.

Aarya turned her head, acknowledging the other soldiers. Everyone briefly introduced themselves to her: Bonde, Elena, Sharna and Leander. Each name brought a smile to her face. They all looked so young, maybe even younger than her; save the big woman. Yet they had stood and fought against these terrible odds, and performed so heroically.

“Without all of you, these children would have had no future.” Aarya said. “And neither would I. I’m sorry that I could not do more to help; and that I actively caused trouble for you at one point. Darshan got hurt because of me. And I could’ve caused one of you–”

“It’s perfectly fine. You didn’t just run for yourself.” Bonde interrupted. “Darshan told us that there was a child missing. In the moment, we might have been irritated, but after everything is said and done you had all the reason in the world to run out like that.”

Aarya had expected a reprimand. She felt almost giddy with joy at their replies; perhaps it was the morphine. But there was a dawning of powerful realization. These soldiers were not harsh or cynical people. They were kind and they empathized, they were nothing like she had imagined. She had gotten a skewed image of them, she thought. All of her life she had thought the soldiers of the SDS to be creatures far apart from her.

Elena, Bonde, Sharna, Leander; if there were soldiers that were this considerate and understanding, then certainly, Naya could still be her good old self among their number.

“All of the children send their thanks. They were evacuated quickly; I stayed behind to thank you, and to see after Darshan. He is resting. We will be traveling away soon, hopefully to meet back with the children and keep them from making any more trouble.”

“Best wishes for his health.” Elena said. “He looked shaken up in the fight.”

“He will be alright. He is fatigued, perhaps a bit ill. He was caring for sick children all this time and then spent a lot of time out in the rain, and then hurt and exhausted himself.”

“A quick way to get oneself bedridden.” Sharna said, grinning a little.

Aarya flushed slightly. All of them had been fighting and soaking in the rain, taking bullets; she and her fiance had hardly experienced anything of the war they had so fiercely fought all of this time. Her problems felt so small beside theirs. But they still held their heads up high. She knew that they did not judge her. They treated her as an equal.

She bowed her head again. “Thank you all so much. I truly mean it.”

Everyone in the room grew timid under the continuing praise.

“Really, those tankers deserve the praise. They saved us all too.” Elena said.

Sharna crossed her arms. “Showed up out of nowhere and won it all.”

“They really made us infantry look bad.” Leander said, chuckling at himself.

Tankers. Aarya remembered what she saw. Naya in that armored vehicle.

“I would like to do that.” She said. “Thank them. By any chance have you seen them?”

Bonde shook his head. “They’re from Camp Vijaya, farther out in the wood. They’re doing most of the legwork for the evacuation because they control most of the vehicles, and so they took their people and things quickly with the first convoy.”

“The Doctor gave first aid to the crew of the squat green tank.” Elena said. “But they were in and out fast. If it means anything, the gunner and driver were stable enough.”

“It means a lot.” Aarya replied. Naya was fine. She had survived everything.

Aarya supposed there would be another day to be able to meet her again.


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Pebbles In The Path (33.2)


Shebelle Outskirts — 8th PzD FOB

Schicksal burst suddenly into the medical tent, long rivulets of water dripping from her hood and rubber galoshes. There were several beds inside the tent, hidden behind a screen that divided the room into two areas and kept crates of medicines and tools apart from sick patients. Schicksal saw movement and a few overlapping shadows behind the curtains. She stomped up to the dividing line and struck the curtain with her fist.

“Heinrich! What is the condition of the Captain and Colonel?” Schicksal shouted.

Medic Evangeline Heinrich unceremoniously parted the curtains and stepped out in front of Schicksal. She rolled her eyes and extended her arm toward the back of the room, pointing the roll of gauze bandage in her hand towards the beds and their occupants.

“Calm down. Stop making so much noise, it’s annoying. They’re both alive and stable as you can see. Captain Skoniec’s only got flesh wounds; Spoor’s just lost a bit of blood.”

Spoor seemed to be asleep in his bed, and there were two other men occupying the remaining beds; Noel Skonieczny was awake and shirtless. Cuts on his shoulder and one on the side of his chest had been dressed, and a little red could be seen on the bandages. A bruise on the side of his head had been rubbed with a gel, probably arnica. There was an odd gap in the middle of his chest, a place where his sternum and a few ribs seemed to sink. It must have been congenital, rather than a battle wound.

He had a gloomy look on his face. Schicksal thought he looked almost nymph-like in this state of undress — slim, insubstantial, with soft round shoulders and a unique chest, his girlish and pretty face appeared a perfect match for his stature and silhouette.

Behind him, his driver sat in a chair between the Captain’s bed and the Colonel’s, his eyes shifting between Noel and the floor, and he drummed his fingers against his own chest.

Everyone seemed to have survived the ordeal. Schicksal sighed audibly with relief. There wouldn’t be another Kunze just yet. She doubled over, feeling dazed.

Evangeline crossed her arms and glared at her. “Are you still drunk, Schicksal?”

“Hey! Shut up!” Schicksal said. She arranged several locks of wet hair behind her ears, panting with her head bowed almost to the level of her hips. She spoke slowly. “I’m perfectly cognizant, you uppity brat. I had to run across the whole camp to get here because of you. I get word these two had gotten back, but fifteen minutes and nobody can tell what their condition is, what do you think I would’ve imagined? After Kunze?”

“It’s not my job to report every arrival to the HQ.” Evangeline said dismissively.

Schicksal glared back at her. “These guys are a little too important for that excuse!”

“You’re welcome for the seltzer by the way!” Evangeline said, raising her voice.

“You’re looking more lively, Schicksal!” Noel nervously interjected, raising his hand between the two of them. He flashed a little smile and a v-sign with his fingers.

Both the Medic and the Radio girl blew off some steam and tentatively disengaged.

“I’ve had to be to stay on top of things.” Schicksal said, turning a small smile to him. “So, Captain: we’re going to need a report on everything that happened. How are you doing?”

“I’m beat. In more ways than one.” Noel replied. “Not a good feeling.”

“How are your men doing?” Schicksal asked.

Noel pointed over his shoulder almost dismissively. “Ivan’s untouched. Dolph lost some blood, he will be fine. Bartosz took a few bruises on the way here, entirely his fault for clinging on to the back of the tank all wrong. Everyone else is fine. We got through it.”

Schicksal nodded. She half-turned and gave Evangeline a conspiratorial look.

“Is he fine?” She whispered, while Noel stared distractedly at the front of the tent.

“Physically he is. Bruise in the side of the eyebrow socket, bruise in the upper back, a few cuts on the torso. No fragments; he’s clear to go already.” Evangeline said.

“I don’t mean to intrude, but did you check his chest?” Schicksal said.

Evangeline raised her hands aggressively. “Of course I did!”

“What are you two chirping about?” Noel said in a mock whisper.

Schicksal turned around innocently, her hands behind her back, rocking a bit on her feet. She smiled, and tried to, as gingerly as possible, point to his chest without admitting that she was actually meaning to ask about it. He looked at her quizzically for a moment, and Evangeline looked at her the same; Noel then seemed to divine the problem.

“Oh, this? My chest has been like this since puberty. I don’t know what caused it, but to be honest, I think it’s a good feature.” Noel said. “Look at this; when I hug my chest like a model in one of those bawdy nouveau pictures it gives an impression of small breasts.”

He went on to do the pose as he described it, hugging his bare arms tightly around his chest, and turning bedroom eyes toward the wall. He puckered his lips and batted his eyelashes, and turned on his hips. Schicksal and Evangeline stared in awkward confusion.

At that moment, the tent flaps parted again and General Dreschner walked inside.

“Captain Skoniec, good to see you up, I require a full report–”

He paused. Noel continued to hug his chest demurely as if actually covering breasts.

General Dreschner turned to Schicksal instead. “How is the Colonel holding up?”

Evangeline spoke up. “He lost some blood to a fragment injury, but he will be fine.”

Noel stopped fooling around, and slipped his dress shirt back on, buttoning it up.

“Old man got lucky; there were at least three instances he nearly died.” He said.

“You are your usual energetic self I see.” Dreschner said. “What happened in Benghu?”

Noel averted his eyes. “Our intelligence guys missed some elephants in those woods.”

Once he got the last button, Noel threw his black jacket over his shoulders. He did not put his arms through the sleeves just yet. He wore it more like a blanket or cape instead. Staring at the floor, rocking back and forth gently, he expounded on his cryptic response. Though his tone of voice was obviously tired and dejected, he was serious, clear and concise and speaking no nonsense. Schicksal was impressed — and worried. Clearly the events in Benghu had rattled his vibrant, giddy confidence. He had a dire picture to paint.

“We destroyed about thirteen Ayvartan AFVs, captured a couple dozen soldiers; it was going very well at first. We chopped up a blocking position, made it to the town, cut around east and tried to capture the rail yard and a school that was likely a supply depot. We almost had the school. Things went awry quite suddenly. We divided our forces; then one Ayvartan tank appeared out of nowhere and wiped us all out. We lost every last AFV and many men.”

“Except the Strike Ranger.” Dreschner said. “I saw it parked here. You returned in it.”

“Technically, but the gun’s dead, the hull’s compromised. We limped away; we lost.”

A shadow seemed to settle over Dreschner’s face. Schicksal recalled the reports from Bada Aso, where singular Ayvartan tanks, unidentified, were blamed for devastating tactical reverses. One tank, taking out five or six by itself. Dreschner dismissed these accounts as myth conjured by panicked, demoralized men under too much pressure to perform. Schicksal herself had never seen conclusive photos or analysis. Now however, they were forced to confront the situation themselves. Noel did not look like a myth-maker here.

“And you say only one tank did this?” Dreschner asked, a hand over his chin.

“I only fought one. A second unidentified tank appeared later, but I didn’t see it.”

Dreschner grunted. “Then describe the tank that you fought to me, Captain.”

Schicksal wondered how anyone was supposed to glean enough information to reply to that question; it’s not as if Noel had taken a look at the blueprints! To her surprise however Noel had apparently been compiling a datasheet in his head the entire time.

“Gun was definitely around 75 mm bore; front armor was bouncing off 37 mm rounds even at point blank range so I think we’re looking at 80 mm armor up front, and maybe even 50 mm in back. Judging by its speed relative to us, it was probably doing 50 km/h. It was a bit more compact than an M4 Sentinel but definitely much better armored.”

Dreschner rubbed his gloved hand over his mouth. Schicksal heard his gloves scraping on the stubble that had grown around his mouth and over his chin the past few days.

“What you’re describing to me is not a 4th Generation tank.” Dreschner finally said.

“Nope.” Noel laughed a little nervously. “I’m thinking we need new nomenclature.”

“You understand, Captain Skoniec, that I find it very difficult to believe that Ayvarta has produced a 5th Generation tank that can run and isn’t just a lazy wooden mockup built by a bored old man in a nationalized factory somewhere in the desert.” Dreschner said.

Noel looked up. He had that shark-like grin of his from cheek to cheek. “Well then; why don’t you go see it for yourself General? I guarantee it will be easier to believe then.”

Dreschner turned his cheek, arms crossed. His gaze fell to the floor. “Point taken.”

Schicksal felt the room growing tense, and friction developing. This was Captain Skoniec, not any ordinary grunt, but he was still saying fanciful things that nobody wanted to believe were true. Could this have just been a big Goblin? Nobody wanted to believe that the Ayvartans could have leapfrogged them in technology like this.

Silence started to settle, but Dreschner’s gaze did not. Schicksal watched him crane his neck and stare over Noel’s shoulder, finding his driver, Ivan, seated behind him and spending his time fidgeting. There was a glint in his eyes. He took an interest in the young man and pointed him out, taking a few steps around Noel’s bed to meet him.

“Sergeant, you bore witness to all of this. Do you support the Captain’s assertions?”

Barely a second had passed since Dreschner asked his question when Ivan nodded his head. From his chair, he saluted the General, his other hand forming a fist over his heart.

“Sir! General sir!” His saluting hand was shaking a little. Despite his rapid response he was obviously nervous. Noel looked over his shoulder at him from the bed — it was this gesture that seemed to finally draw some words from the Sergeant. “Sir, General; I had a close view of the events, and corroborate everything Captain Skoniec has just said.”

Raising his voice, responding with greater alacrity, Dreschner launched into a barrage of questions that surprised the Sergeant and everyone in the room with their vehemence.

“What do you make of the Captain, Sergeant Tyszka? How does he treat you? How did you synchronize during the battle? You’re the only person in that tank with him; do you feel privy to his thoughts and actions? Does Captain Skoniec’s gaze right now intimidate you? Is it familiar or alien to you? Tell me; what emotion does his gaze invoke in you?”

Noel rolled his eyes and averted his gaze from Ivan to deny Dreschner that fodder. The General must have thought that they had rehearsed their words. Schicksal found that a slightly cruel implication to make, but it seemed to annoy Noel more than it offended him.

Schicksal thought to say something, but she kept quiet. This was a charged discussion.

Dreschner was prying; the Sergeant was putting on a brave face but Schicksal found it plain to see that he was withering under the General’s gaze. His face void of emotion, his hands clapped behind his back, Dreschner stood tall in front of the bed and waited. Sergeant Tyszka opened and his closed his mouth several times, going over his words.

What did Dreschner want from him? Did he really think Noel was lying about all this?

“Tell him the truth, Ivan.” Noel said suddenly, crossing his arms and acting aloof.

Dreschner stared at him sidelong, but quickly turned his gaze back on Sergeant Tyszka.

Meanwhile the Sergeant nodded, and raised his head to the General. Locking eyes with Dreschner looked like it was a monumental feat. Schicksal saw his chest rise and fall.

“Sir,” Sergeant Tyszka smiled bashfully and finally said, “it empowers me, sir. His gaze, that is. It is affirming to work with Captain Skoniec. He is without equal in tank combat, and he is compassionate and a very good leader. I feel safe and strong at his side.”

There was a warm pink glow over Noel’s cheeks and ears as his driver spoke of him.

“Well! Fair enough, Sergeant,” replied the General, an amused smile on his face.

All of the tension in the room seemed to dissipate as Dreschner let the topic go.

Was that just a test then? She supposed it called back to the time he let her collect information around the base that he must have surely already known. Dreschner seemed to believe he would get more honest feedback through trickery than by asking honestly. It irritated her a little to think that was the reason; but perhaps it came with the rank. And perhaps it was a response to everyone’s meekness toward him — including her own.

Nevertheless, with the interrogation ended the mood considerably lightened in the tent.

General Dreschner turned from Ivan back to Noel. “I’m willing to put stock in your assessment of the threat, Captain Skoniec. But you must tell me some good news; the attack on Shebelle is flagging at the second defensive line. Ten and Fifteen are in position in Gollaprollou, but cannot move until we have Benghu. How do we proceed?”

Leaning back against the bedrest, Noel grinned again, narrowing his eyes.

He shrugged comically as if none of that was his problem.

“The crew of that tank are amateurs, if that comforts you any.” He said.


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Pebbles In The Path — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains violence and death, blood, descriptions of medical procedures and mild infliction of pain. If you enjoy the story, click here to vote.


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance, Town of Benghu — Chanda General School

Shells crashed, cannons roared, rifles cracked, men shouted; meanwhile Aarya sang.

Soon as her hands linked behind Zaheer’s little back, and his head settled against her chest, and she felt his vulnerable little breaths, she began to sing. She paused only to gather the briefest of breaths. She had offered him a song, and she mustered all of her strength to make it a song that could outlast the hostilities. Her singing was continuous.

At first she sang the traditional songs that she remembered, hitting the notes and overturning the lyrics with her tongue as she had been taught, but as the noises grew louder, closer, and more determined she found herself unable to compete. While she held Zaheer against her chest her songs became indistinct syllables riding simple melodies.

She found herself straining to crescendo in the wake of several close blasts, and falling almost to a whimper when there was peace around her. LA LA LA LA LA; la la la la la. She felt the ground rumble from the impacts of artillery, from the striking of stray tank shells. These forces crawled through her wounded hip every time, finding their way through the ground and into her flesh, sending sharp pangs of pain across her body.

Through every sudden stab of agony Aarya strained to continue singing.

In this little island rocking amid the storm she had lost all track of time.

Aarya did not know whether there were winners or losers yet in this conflict.

But the noises came from seemingly everywhere now; it was not one-sided anymore.

One way or another she felt that her fate would be decided very soon.

She looked down, feeling her stomach turn over with a sudden anxiety.

No, she thought; it was not just her fate alone, not anymore.

Zaheer was quiet and still against her chest. When she looked at him his eyes were eerily blank. He was overwhelmed by everything. He had a condition — she did not know what it was, but she knew that he dealt with things differently than other children. Whenever the world became too loud or too bright or too fast for him, he would withdraw. He had never fled the way he did; but everything about today was unique.

She still cursed herself for not paying him better attention. They could have both been safe in the supply depot with the rest of the children and the adults; with Darshan. With the soldiers to protect them. But it was not to be; at least now she could comfort him.

Though she wanted to tell him that she would take care of him, keep him safe, that she would never forget him again, she instead continued to sing. Outside the noise intensified.

“Are they gonna stop soon Ms. Balarayu?” Zaheer said, shutting his eyes.

She did not answer; she continued to sing. She pulled him closer, laying her head over his shoulder and rocking him in her arms a little. He squeezed her harder in response.

Aarya heard a clanging of metal on metal directly behind her.

She turned her head to face the shutters.

There was a ladder, a metal, extendable ladder, outside the window. It had hit the open shutters when going up. Aarya became paralyzed in her little corner, holding Zaheer, her head turned over her shoulder. She felt a quivering in the center of her chest. She stopped singing. He noticed, looked up at her. He tugged on her shirt a little.

“Ms. Balarayu? Are you ok?”

Clanging footsteps on the metal; one, two, one, two.

“Ms. Balarayu? Say something, please!”

“Zaheer, show me how you hid under the desks like you did before.”

She looked down at him with a false smile on her face, as if it was a game.

Zaheer knew it wasn’t; his expression was deadly serious. But he nodded his head, crawled off her lap, and slipped under the stack of desks in the corner of the room.

Aarya stood and made for the broom closet.

She ripped open the closet and withdrew the classroom broom.

Clang, clang, one, two, one two. Footsteps on metal. Handholds.

Aarya snuck up on the window.

She saw the hands first, seizing the handholds just over the window.

On one gloved, grey-sleeved hand, she saw a pistol and nearly shrieked; and on the other hand a pair of cutters big enough to snap the individual shutters in two big bites.

She saw the peak of the helmet, and she waited briefly for the face.

It was not an Ayvartan face; it was not the face of a rescuer. A young face, a blue-eyed, blond face, a pale-pink face; perhaps in another circumstance, a lovely face. But in this circumstance it was a grim face, covered in dirt and smelling of death, and when the lips parted the man shouted words she did not understand, like fearful eldritch curses.

Aarya drew in a breath and threw herself blindly forward.

Holding the broom by the handle with both hands close to the bristled bottom end, she shoved the handle out between the shutters, pulling back and thrusting in furious stabbing motions, slashing across the shutter with fearful sweeps, striking her everywhere she could. She smashed the man in the eye, then his his teeth, his nose. There was blood that burst from him over the open shutters, splashing them brown.

Her hip felt like it had torn open but she swiped and thrust and smashed through the pain without thinking, swallowing every sound she thought she would make.

Groaning unintelligibly, the man dropped his tools then fell backward off the ladder.

He landed at an angle, his head rocking violently as he hit the floor. Stiff and unresponsive he rolled down the muddy slide that Chanda’s hill had become. Ferried there by the mud, he came to lie at the foot of the hill, curled up like a newborn.

Aarya’s stomach churned. She clamped her hands over her mouth, feeling bile rise.

He was dead, a soldier was dead. She killed one of the imperialists; killed a person.

Aarya stared at where the body had fallen. More people ran into her field of view. They had guns and they were crowding at the bottom of the staircase, looking incredulously skyward. She thought she felt their eyes lock with hers, and she stepped back.

Gunfire sounded from below. Aarya dropped the broom and fell to the ground, hitting her hip again. She curled on her side, hugging herself and gritting her teeth with pain.

Helplessly she stared up from the floor; but she saw nothing hit the shutters. No bullets flew past, nothing ricocheted against the panes. They were not shooting at her.

She crawled to the window and helped herself up. She saw the carnage outside.

Several tanks lay smoking. One tank, painted a dark coat of green, moved into the field opposing the enemy, and it swung its turret wildly and cast long bursts of machine gun bullets across the slope and the buildings. Men fled from it, leaving behind the ladder and rushing downhill into the grass. More enemy tanks moved to fight off the green tank with the hexagonal turret. She watched, transfixed, as the machines hurtled toward each other, as they wove around, as they clashed. Aarya winced at the cannon blasts, as if she felt the muzzle flashes and the howls of each shot as if beside her own head.

In rapt attention she watched as the green tank outfought all of the grey ones.

Zaheer appeared at her side. She felt his hand take hers, but she couldn’t look away.

Nocht fled; trucks hitched away their evil guns; cars rushed out of sight as fast as their wheels could take them; men careened across the field and jumped into the backs of moving vehicles seconds before they set off. Only one tank had survived the green tank and it fled with a perforated turret and a dozen men huddling for cover atop its hull.

Atop the green tank, standing wounded but triumphant in the middle of the meadow, a hatch opened. People arrived and helped pull someone up from inside the tank, and they produced an object from a medical bag and stuck her with it. She seized up, and writhed, and she heard the woman shout. Her posture soon softened, however, and people started to carry her toward the school. They carried her around the slope.

Soon as they brought her around the Auxiliary building, Aarya saw her face.

She brought her hands up to her mouth and she started to weep uncontrollably.

She recognized her; with her sporty cheek-length black hair, her locks messy, blunt ended, longer on the sides and shorter on the back; her deep brown skin and slightly round face, her lips, the upper thinner than the lower, the long bridge of her nose–

That was her; Naya Oueddai had come here. She had come and saved them all.


Nocht’s retreat from the meadow left a palpable silence in Chanda, but most of its defenders heard an irregular tinnitus in their ears even in the absence of gunfire. It took a bit of time for the base even to realize that it had been relieved at all. At first the defenders in the campus proper believed the slackening of the enemy attack signaled only a calm before the storm — the enemy would reorganize, and push back harder.

Everyone clung to their positions, never once believing that the fight could end quickly or decisively. Lone submachine guns puttered here and there as jumpy shuja believed they had seen a sign of the enemy. Captain Agrawal continued to transmit orders to hold. Eyes peeled on their doors, windows and corners, the defenders maintained a shaky discipline. Fear of the enemy was the bond that kept them fixed in place and fighting.

Then they heard from the tanker in the field: a new ally had suddenly entered the fight.

Almost as soon as this was transmitted the fight was over. Impromptu scouts probed the campus and reported no sign of active enemy combatants. Defenders emerged from their buildings and ambled to the field in a daze. There were corpses everywhere, men burnt to a crisp, perforated by fragments, crushed under overturned vehicles or lying in the smashed wrecks of others. Shell craters a meter or more wide dotted the landscape, forming pools of mud and water and blood. Several wrecked enemy tanks lay near one another close to the center of the meadow, surrounding the hunters they fell prey to.

Men and women raised their faces skyward, washing blood and filth from their faces and rubbing the rain on their eyes. But when they turned to the field again the apparitions had not gone — there were two tanks there that nobody on campus could identify. Their crews exited the vehicles and tended to one another in their own little world. One tank was quickly verified to belong to the comrade responsible for most of the carnage, while the much larger one had arrived later and mostly spooked the already fleeing enemy.

In the administration building, Dr. Agrawal’s radio came alive again with a new voice.

“This is unit Vijaya. Hang tight, Chanda. We’re coming to help with your evacuation.”

Dr. Agrawal had not ordered an evacuation, but it was an idea with immediate appeal.

From the back of the school the recon troops’ cars and the ambulance truck wheeled out, and they were soon joined by the half-tracks of Camp Vijaya. Commanders from both sides exchanged handshakes and thanks; Dr. Agrawal thought that without the aid of this Captain Rajagopal and her troops she would have certainly died this day.

After a brief conversation in sign language, they set about coordinating the work.

Wounded from Chanda were looked after, woken up or carried out, and then gingerly loaded onto the vehicles. Vijaya and Chanda’s tractors, half-track trucks and cars formed a convoy that could bear about 50 people back to the Benghu train station at a time. More or less people could be loaded depending on how well they (or their injuries) responded to riding in a cramped space with ten to twenty other people.

Injured personnel were taken first in order of severity; after them, it would be the turn of children and noncombatants, and then finally the rest. Moving at the speed of its slowest components, and having forewarned all involved parties of the action through the radio, the convoy managed to travel to the train station, unload, and return to Chanda within thirty to forty minutes. Two trips and then a final one-way trip were scheduled.

While the first group of evacuees traveled out, Chanda’s freshly injured defenders lined up to receive first aid for their battle wounds and then await their turn on the convoy.

Meanwhile, anyone healthy enough for labor was gathered and organized to form cleanup details. These small groups varied in how sanitary their work would be. Under the rain they ran through the halls and combed through the courtyard and field.

Nochtish corpses were piled up, with their dog tags visible on them so they could be identified. It was clear to everyone that this place would be given up to Nocht. They could find their dead there and do with them what they wished after that.

Ayvartan corpses were bagged up; if the convoy had the time and the space, they would be evacuated last. It was miserable work, but there was no shortage of volunteers willing to do it. Nobody wanted to leave their comrades behind — even in death.

Lists were printed and copied quickly while there was still power to the campus, and everyone who left was marked off, until they were completely certain nobody had been left behind. A bonfire was started in every office, and all documents that were not necessary or crucial were burnt. Everything else was boxed and taken out.

Soldiers threw grenades into the supply room and cooked off any remaining ammunition that could not be taken. Grenades were also employed to great effect against facilities and items that the enemy could use, such as medical equipment, the diesel-guzzling power generator in the back of the school, and any radios too heavy to take.

Chanda was stripped as bare as it could be. About all that was left behind were the desks upon which children wrote and drew and spread open their books, and the detritus of the battle. Spent shell casings, chipped wood and cement, grime and blood and glass. As the evening neared there was not a soul wandering the gloomy halls.

Amid the retreat, however, a few wavering souls managed to find support.


Shebelle Outskirts — 8th PzD FOB

Schicksal burst suddenly into the medical tent, long rivulets of water dripping from her hood and rubber galoshes. There were several beds inside the tent, hidden behind a screen that divided the room into two areas and kept crates of medicines and tools apart from sick patients. Schicksal saw movement and a few overlapping shadows behind the curtains. She stomped up to the dividing line and struck the curtain with her fist.

“Heinrich! What is the condition of the Captain and Colonel?” Schicksal shouted.

Medic Evangeline Heinrich unceremoniously parted the curtains and stepped out in front of Schicksal. She rolled her eyes and extended her arm toward the back of the room, pointing the roll of gauze bandage in her hand towards the beds and their occupants.

“Calm down. Stop making so much noise, it’s annoying. They’re both alive and stable as you can see. Captain Skoniec’s only got flesh wounds; Spoor’s just lost a bit of blood.”

Spoor seemed to be asleep in his bed, and there were two other men occupying the remaining beds; Noel Skonieczny was awake and shirtless. Cuts on his shoulder and one on the side of his chest had been dressed, and a little red could be seen on the bandages. A bruise on the side of his head had been rubbed with a gel, probably arnica. There was an odd gap in the middle of his chest, a place where his sternum and a few ribs seemed to sink. It must have been congenital, rather than a battle wound.

He had a gloomy look on his face. Schicksal thought he looked almost nymph-like in this state of undress — slim, insubstantial, with soft round shoulders and a unique chest, his girlish and pretty face appeared a perfect match for his stature and silhouette.

Behind him, his driver sat in a chair between the Captain’s bed and the Colonel’s, his eyes shifting between Noel and the floor, and he drummed his fingers against his own chest.

Everyone seemed to have survived the ordeal. Schicksal sighed audibly with relief. There wouldn’t be another Kunze just yet. She doubled over, feeling dazed.

Evangeline crossed her arms and glared at her. “Are you still drunk, Schicksal?”

“Hey! Shut up!” Schicksal said. She arranged several locks of wet hair behind her ears, panting with her head bowed almost to the level of her hips. She spoke slowly. “I’m perfectly cognizant, you uppity brat. I had to run across the whole camp to get here because of you. I get word these two had gotten back, but fifteen minutes and nobody can tell what their condition is, what do you think I would’ve imagined? After Kunze?”

“It’s not my job to report every arrival to the HQ.” Evangeline said dismissively.

Schicksal glared back at her. “These guys are a little too important for that excuse!”

“You’re welcome for the seltzer by the way!” Evangeline said, raising her voice.

“You’re looking more lively, Schicksal!” Noel nervously interjected, raising his hand between the two of them. He flashed a little smile and a v-sign with his fingers.

Both the Medic and the Radio girl blew off some steam and tentatively disengaged.

“I’ve had to be to stay on top of things.” Schicksal said, turning a small smile to him. “So, Captain: we’re going to need a report on everything that happened. How are you doing?”

“I’m beat. In more ways than one.” Noel replied. “Not a good feeling.”

“How are your men doing?” Schicksal asked.

Noel pointed over his shoulder almost dismissively. “Ivan’s untouched. Dolph lost some blood, he will be fine. Bartosz took a few bruises on the way here, entirely his fault for clinging on to the back of the tank all wrong. Everyone else is fine. We got through it.”

Schicksal nodded. She half-turned and gave Evangeline a conspiratorial look.

“Is he fine?” She whispered, while Noel stared distractedly at the front of the tent.

“Physically he is. Bruise in the side of the eyebrow socket, bruise in the upper back, a few cuts on the torso. No fragments; he’s clear to go already.” Evangeline said.

“I don’t mean to intrude, but did you check his chest?” Schicksal said.

Evangeline raised her hands aggressively. “Of course I did!”

“What are you two chirping about?” Noel said in a mock whisper.

Schicksal turned around innocently, her hands behind her back, rocking a bit on her feet. She smiled, and tried to, as gingerly as possible, point to his chest without admitting that she was actually meaning to ask about it. He looked at her quizzically for a moment, and Evangeline looked at her the same; Noel then seemed to divine the problem.

“Oh, this? My chest has been like this since puberty. I don’t know what caused it, but to be honest, I think it’s a good feature.” Noel said. “Look at this; when I hug my chest like a model in one of those bawdy nouveau pictures it gives an impression of small breasts.”

He went on to do the pose as he described it, hugging his bare arms tightly around his chest, and turning bedroom eyes toward the wall. He puckered his lips and batted his eyelashes, and turned on his hips. Schicksal and Evangeline stared in awkward confusion.

At that moment, the tent flaps parted again and General Dreschner walked inside.

“Captain Skoniec, good to see you up, I require a full report–”

He paused. Noel continued to hug his chest demurely as if actually covering breasts.

General Dreschner turned to Schicksal instead. “How is the Colonel holding up?”

Evangeline spoke up. “He lost some blood to a fragment injury, but he will be fine.”

Noel stopped fooling around, and slipped his dress shirt back on, buttoning it up.

“Old man got lucky; there were at least three instances he nearly died.” He said.

“You are your usual energetic self I see.” Dreschner said. “What happened in Benghu?”

Noel averted his eyes. “Our intelligence guys missed some elephants in those woods.”

Once he got the last button, Noel threw his black jacket over his shoulders. He did not put his arms through the sleeves just yet. He wore it more like a blanket or cape instead. Staring at the floor, rocking back and forth gently, he expounded on his cryptic response. Though his tone of voice was obviously tired and dejected, he was serious, clear and concise and speaking no nonsense. Schicksal was impressed — and worried. Clearly the events in Benghu had rattled his vibrant, giddy confidence. He had a dire picture to paint.

“We destroyed about thirteen Ayvartan AFVs, captured a couple dozen soldiers; it was going very well at first. We chopped up a blocking position, made it to the town, cut around east and tried to capture the rail yard and a school that was likely a supply depot. We almost had the school. Things went awry quite suddenly. We divided our forces; then one Ayvartan tank appeared out of nowhere and wiped us all out. We lost every last AFV and many men.”

“Except the Strike Ranger.” Dreschner said. “I saw it parked here. You returned in it.”

“Technically, but the gun’s dead, the hull’s compromised. We limped away; we lost.”

A shadow seemed to settle over Dreschner’s face. Schicksal recalled the reports from Bada Aso, where singular Ayvartan tanks, unidentified, were blamed for devastating tactical reverses. One tank, taking out five or six by itself. Dreschner dismissed these accounts as myth conjured by panicked, demoralized men under too much pressure to perform. Schicksal herself had never seen conclusive photos or analysis. Now however, they were forced to confront the situation themselves. Noel did not look like a myth-maker here.

“And you say only one tank did this?” Dreschner asked, a hand over his chin.

“I only fought one. A second unidentified tank appeared later, but I didn’t see it.”

Dreschner grunted. “Then describe the tank that you fought to me, Captain.”

Schicksal wondered how anyone was supposed to glean enough information to reply to that question; it’s not as if Noel had taken a look at the blueprints! To her surprise however Noel had apparently been compiling a datasheet in his head the entire time.

“Gun was definitely around 75 mm bore; front armor was bouncing off 37 mm rounds even at point blank range so I think we’re looking at 80 mm armor up front, and maybe even 50 mm in back. Judging by its speed relative to us, it was probably doing 50 km/h. It was a bit more compact than an M4 Sentinel but definitely much better armored.”

Dreschner rubbed his gloved hand over his mouth. Schicksal heard his gloves scraping on the stubble that had grown around his mouth and over his chin the past few days.

“What you’re describing to me is not a 4th Generation tank.” Dreschner finally said.

“Nope.” Noel laughed a little nervously. “I’m thinking we need new nomenclature.”

“You understand, Captain Skoniec, that I find it very difficult to believe that Ayvarta has produced a 5th Generation tank that can run and isn’t just a lazy wooden mockup built by a bored old man in a nationalized factory somewhere in the desert.” Dreschner said.

Noel looked up. He had that shark-like grin of his from cheek to cheek. “Well then; why don’t you go see it for yourself General? I guarantee it will be easier to believe then.”

Dreschner turned his cheek, arms crossed. His gaze fell to the floor. “Point taken.”

Schicksal felt the room growing tense, and friction developing. This was Captain Skoniec, not any ordinary grunt, but he was still saying fanciful things that nobody wanted to believe were true. Could this have just been a big Goblin? Nobody wanted to believe that the Ayvartans could have leapfrogged them in technology like this.

Silence started to settle, but Dreschner’s gaze did not. Schicksal watched him crane his neck and stare over Noel’s shoulder, finding his driver, Ivan, seated behind him and spending his time fidgeting. There was a glint in his eyes. He took an interest in the young man and pointed him out, taking a few steps around Noel’s bed to meet him.

“Sergeant, you bore witness to all of this. Do you support the Captain’s assertions?”

Barely a second had passed since Dreschner asked his question when Ivan nodded his head. From his chair, he saluted the General, his other hand forming a fist over his heart.

“Sir! General sir!” His saluting hand was shaking a little. Despite his rapid response he was obviously nervous. Noel looked over his shoulder at him from the bed — it was this gesture that seemed to finally draw some words from the Sergeant. “Sir, General; I had a close view of the events, and corroborate everything Captain Skoniec has just said.”

Raising his voice, responding with greater alacrity, Dreschner launched into a barrage of questions that surprised the Sergeant and everyone in the room with their vehemence.

“What do you make of the Captain, Sergeant Tyszka? How does he treat you? How did you synchronize during the battle? You’re the only person in that tank with him; do you feel privy to his thoughts and actions? Does Captain Skoniec’s gaze right now intimidate you? Is it familiar or alien to you? Tell me; what emotion does his gaze invoke in you?”

Noel rolled his eyes and averted his gaze from Ivan to deny Dreschner that fodder. The General must have thought that they had rehearsed their words. Schicksal found that a slightly cruel implication to make, but it seemed to annoy Noel more than it offended him.

Schicksal thought to say something, but she kept quiet. This was a charged discussion.

Dreschner was prying; the Sergeant was putting on a brave face but Schicksal found it plain to see that he was withering under the General’s gaze. His face void of emotion, his hands clapped behind his back, Dreschner stood tall in front of the bed and waited. Sergeant Tyszka opened and his closed his mouth several times, going over his words.

What did Dreschner want from him? Did he really think Noel was lying about all this?

“Tell him the truth, Ivan.” Noel said suddenly, crossing his arms and acting aloof.

Dreschner stared at him sidelong, but quickly turned his gaze back on Sergeant Tyszka.

Meanwhile the Sergeant nodded, and raised his head to the General. Locking eyes with Dreschner looked like it was a monumental feat. Schicksal saw his chest rise and fall.

“Sir,” Sergeant Tyszka smiled bashfully and finally said, “it empowers me, sir. His gaze, that is. It is affirming to work with Captain Skoniec. He is without equal in tank combat, and he is compassionate and a very good leader. I feel safe and strong at his side.”

There was a warm pink glow over Noel’s cheeks and ears as his driver spoke of him.

“Well! Fair enough, Sergeant,” replied the General, an amused smile on his face.

All of the tension in the room seemed to dissipate as Dreschner let the topic go.

Was that just a test then? She supposed it called back to the time he let her collect information around the base that he must have surely already known. Dreschner seemed to believe he would get more honest feedback through trickery than by asking honestly. It irritated her a little to think that was the reason; but perhaps it came with the rank. And perhaps it was a response to everyone’s meekness toward him — including her own.

Nevertheless, with the interrogation ended the mood considerably lightened in the tent.

General Dreschner turned from Ivan back to Noel. “I’m willing to put stock in your assessment of the threat, Captain Skoniec. But you must tell me some good news; the attack on Shebelle is flagging at the second defensive line. Ten and Fifteen are in position in Gollaprollou, but cannot move until we have Benghu. How do we proceed?”

Leaning back against the bedrest, Noel grinned again, narrowing his eyes.

He shrugged comically as if none of that was his problem.

“The crew of that tank are amateurs, if that comforts you any.” He said.


Benghu — Chanda General School

Dr. Agrawal produced a handkerchief from her pocket and presented it to her pupil.

“Bite down on this and try to keep steady, Elena.”

Elena looked at the rag and at her with wide-open, fearful eyes; Dr. Agrawal couldn’t blame her for it. They were completely short on drugs and did not even have as much as a drink of brandy available to soothe Elena. Her upper arm had absorbed a pistol shot from the side, and the Doctor had to extract the remains of the bullet. Both of them had performed this procedure several times on others; but never on Elena herself of course.

“I understand it hurts, but you know we can’t leave it there.”

“Yes. I know. It’s silly isn’t it? I ran out into the field, got shot; and I’m more anxious about a little visit to the doctor for this bullet, than I was about all of that.” Elena said.

“That’s adrenaline for you.” Dr. Agrawal smiled. It wasn’t silly; it was human.

With her good hand, Elena took the handkerchief, and stuffed it into her mouth.

“I’ll try to be ginger and quick.” Dr. Agrawal said.

She sat beside Elena, atop a teacher’s desk in one of the auxiliary building’s lower classrooms. There was a massive hole behind them, punched into the wall through relentless shelling — a quality desirable and convenient at the moment. It allowed the Doctor to turn her head and see out to the field where her troops were evacuating.

From her coat, the doctor withdrew a pair of scissors and cut Elena’s sleeve.

She saw the bullet wound, biting into the deltoid. Blood still trickled from it.

“I’m going to clean it.” Dr. Agrawal said. She raised a canteen of collected rainwater in front of Elena’s face so that the girl could see it. She touched the canteen on her nose so that Elena could feel the temperature, and sloshed it so she knew the volume more or less.

Elena met her eyes and nodded her head in acknowledgment.

“It’s cold. Is that ok, Elena?” Dr. Agrawal warned.

Elena nodded again, closing her eyes and biting down on the rag.

Dr. Agrawal tipped the contents over the wound. Elena almost jumped forward.

“I’m going to cut a little. Please try to stay still. It will hurt less than if I try to get the tweezers into the wound without an incision.” Dr. Agrawal said in a gentle voice.

Elena nodded her head, her jaw quivering.

The Doctor set aside her scissors and canteen. As quickly and carefully as possible, she laid a scalpel on the wound and made a precise incision to reveal the affected area as a whole. Elena bowed her head, squeezing on her leg with her good hand to cope with the pain.

“Are you ok? I’m extracting it now.” Setting down the bloody scalpel, Dr. Agrawal withdrew her forceps, spread the wound a bit, and then pulled the bullet from Elena’s arm using a blunt-ended, long pair of tweezers. She dropped the bullet on the floor.

“It’s out. You will be ok.” Dr. Agrawal said. She had this kind of tone with all of her patients, regardless of their knowledge of the procedure. Even though Elena knew everything that would happen and in the order it would happen, the lack of anesthetic, the bloody nature of the procedure, it would all throw her emotions into chaos. An affirming, gentle word, warnings at every step; making her feel included, acknowledged, and safe.

This did not just work with children. Adults liked to be treated this way as well.

Breathing heavily, eyes tearing up, Elena endured as the wound was sealed, cleaned again, and finally dressed. Doctor Agrawal procured a medical sling to keep Elena’s arm set in place. She urged Elena to stand up from the desk; her patient and pupil withdrew the rag from her mouth, set it on the table, and stood up. She bowed her head to her.

“Thanks.” She said. Her voice was still trembling a little from the pain and anxiety.

“I should thank you, for being so brave.” Dr. Agrawal replied.

Elena chest rose and fell with heavy, calming breaths. She sighed audibly.

“During the Knyskna defense, there was one point where we assaulted a camp in the woods. That was when I met Leander, and Bonde. We got stuck fighting some fierce Nochtish soldiers and even a vehicle. Leander was visibly in anarchy; Bonde was in control the whole time. I was afraid, and I didn’t know what to do, but I tried to at least get a grip.”

She turned her head to stare out into the field, perhaps hoping to see them. Leander, Bonde and Sharna had volunteered for body duty. Though Leander had taken some brutal hits to the head, he insisted on being allowed to leave and would not have it any other way. He always claimed to be okay, to be able to go on; he always seemed energetic enough that everyone trusted him. They let him go on, even as they worried about him.

“Leander did a crazy thing later. He took an entrenching tool and rushed out and killed a few men with it. He didn’t know it, but that saved us. It’s been in my head for a while. I wondered whether Leander could do that because he was Leander, or whether he plotted it, whether he was wicked. When it came down to it, could I do it too? But I didn’t think about that today, when I did something similar. I didn’t think about anything. I just saw an opportunity, and I threw my body into it like it was disposable. I killed a few men; and maybe I saved more.”

Dr. Agrawal raised her hand to stop the story. “You’re quitting medical, aren’t you?”

Elena smiled, and bowed her head. She glanced off the side again.

“Back then I thought it was the only thing I could do.” She said wistfully.

Dr. Agrawal nodded. She took a few steps toward Elena, laid her hands gently on her shoulders, and looked into her eyes, forehead to forehead, with a smile. It was the kind of smile she never thought she’d have for someone again, and the kind of words she did not think she would be able to say. But today, had changed a lot of paradigms for her.

“Listen: you can fight this war and make a perfectly fine doctor someday.”

In Elena’s eyes, she thought she saw that little girl from so many years ago, conflicted about killing, and war, and wondering what she could offer to the world to end the strife. In those eyes she also saw the person standing across from that child: she saw herself.

“Everyone in this army kills men, has killed men, and will kill men. But we don’t do it just to do it. We are trying to build something to replace this mess. It might seem a twisted moral, but we’re not gods or spirits. This is all we can do with our situation, Elena.”

In the past, she would have felt foolish saying that. She would have felt like a hypocrite — a self-proclaimed doctor who had killed and maimed and poisoned and done terrible things in her past, saying that there was a future for someone with bloodied hands. Saying that those hands were not rusty knives; thinking that they could be gentle. Her hands–

And Elena’s good hand, suddenly circling around her back and embracing her kindly.

She would have felt foolish, because she was being foolish. She had been foolish about herself this whole time. These wayward children of this war helped her to see that.

Leander, and Elena, and the patients in this hospital, could see gentleness and worth in her. So she had no reason to be reluctant; and they had no reason to be reluctant either.

“Thank you, Dr. Agrawal. Perhaps someday, then, I will be a proper student.” Elena said.

Dr. Agrawal nodded her head. “You’ve been an incomparable student.”


One convoy departed, and now there was only the tense wait for it to return.

Walking with a crutch, her head swimming a little from the morphine, she approached the the Auxiliary building. Her hip didn’t hurt anymore, thanks to the good doctor. She crossed through the threshold and walked over bits of rubble without much trouble.

Aarya waited outside a little room for a few moments, thinking of what to say, before she finally stepped through the open doorway. She decided she would just speak to them from the heart and hope that they understood. There was a hole in the back, and several people inside she did not immediately recognize; a younger man, with light brown skin and dark, messy hair, and a bandage around his head; a tall, plump, long-haired woman with rich brown skin, both standing at ease with their long rifles resting on the wall.

She then easily found the two soldiers she recognized; the red-headed, skinny young woman, her arm in a sling, and the black-skinned man with the shaved head.

All of them looked her way curiously. Aarya felt a touch intimidated by their presence.

She walked in front of the Umma soldier and bowed her head to him. She recognized him as the one who had been left in charge of the defense of the supply depot.

“Sir, thank you, and your troops, for protecting the children, and my fiance.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, please, no need to thank us.” He raised his hands a bit defensively.

Aarya turned her head, acknowledging the other soldiers. Everyone briefly introduced themselves to her: Bonde, Elena, Sharna and Leander. Each name brought a smile to her face. They all looked so young, maybe even younger than her; save the big woman. Yet they had stood and fought against these terrible odds, and performed so heroically.

“Without all of you, these children would have had no future.” Aarya said. “And neither would I. I’m sorry that I could not do more to help; and that I actively caused trouble for you at one point. Darshan got hurt because of me. And I could’ve caused one of you–”

“It’s perfectly fine. You didn’t just run for yourself.” Bonde interrupted. “Darshan told us that there was a child missing. In the moment, we might have been irritated, but after everything is said and done you had all the reason in the world to run out like that.”

Aarya had expected a reprimand. She felt almost giddy with joy at their replies; perhaps it was the morphine. But there was a dawning of powerful realization. These soldiers were not harsh or cynical people. They were kind and they empathized, they were nothing like she had imagined. She had gotten a skewed image of them, she thought. All of her life she had thought the soldiers of the SDS to be creatures far apart from her.

Elena, Bonde, Sharna, Leander; if there were soldiers that were this considerate and understanding, then certainly, Naya could still be her good old self among their number.

“All of the children send their thanks. They were evacuated quickly; I stayed behind to thank you, and to see after Darshan. He is resting. We will be traveling away soon, hopefully to meet back with the children and keep them from making any more trouble.”

“Best wishes for his health.” Elena said. “He looked shaken up in the fight.”

“He will be alright. He is fatigued, perhaps a bit ill. He was caring for sick children all this time and then spent a lot of time out in the rain, and then hurt and exhausted himself.”

“A quick way to get oneself bedridden.” Sharna said, grinning a little.

Aarya flushed slightly. All of them had been fighting and soaking in the rain, taking bullets; she and her fiance had hardly experienced anything of the war they had so fiercely fought all of this time. Her problems felt so small beside theirs. But they still held their heads up high. She knew that they did not judge her. They treated her as an equal.

She bowed her head again. “Thank you all so much. I truly mean it.”

Everyone in the room grew timid under the continuing praise.

“Really, those tankers deserve the praise. They saved us all too.” Elena said.

Sharna crossed her arms. “Showed up out of nowhere and won it all.”

“They really made us infantry look bad.” Leander said, chuckling at himself.

Tankers. Aarya remembered what she saw. Naya in that armored vehicle.

“I would like to do that.” She said. “Thank them. By any chance have you seen them?”

Bonde shook his head. “They’re from Camp Vijaya, farther out in the wood. They’re doing most of the legwork for the evacuation because they control most of the vehicles, and so they took their people and things quickly with the first convoy.”

“The Doctor gave first aid to the crew of the squat green tank.” Elena said. “But they were in and out fast. If it means anything, the gunner and driver were stable enough.”

“It means a lot.” Aarya replied. Naya was fine. She had survived everything.

Aarya supposed there would be another day to be able to meet her again.


Shebelle Outskirts — 8th PzD FOB

At 1700 hours the attack on Shebelle was as stagnant as ever, and many of the 8th Panzer Division’s assets that had been committed to that task were now returning to the fold, having passed the baton to freshly deployed infantry-based combat units. Reiniger’s M4 tank companies arrived under the roaring noise of continuous shellfire from M3 Hunters stationed just outside the camp, peppering Shebelle and Benghu from afar.

Noel stood at the side of his broken-down M5A2 when the medium tanks arrived, weaving through the woods in a single file line before arranging themselves again into platoons wherever they could find space to park. Noel counted maybe twenty tanks on the whole; so not all of them came back. Under his umbrella, he waved at the crews crawling out of their hatches. Most of them waved back; Reiniger himself was a notable exception.

He ran past the makeshift tent garage and headed for the HQ without so much as a glance toward Noel. He did not even gloat about having preserved his own tank.

So much the better; Noel turned his back on the arrivals and resumed fussing with his hamstrung vehicle. There was no getting around the fact that the Konnigin had been slain. A shell hole the size of his fist adorned the gun mantlet, and inside it his breech block was smashed to pieces; these pieces had then flown across the turret and embedded themselves in his ammunition racks. It was a miracle that the shells did not explode.

While Noel circled around the tank, surveying the damage from various angles, Ivan toiled in the rear. Soon as the engine cover came off smoke and steam billowed out in copious amounts. There was still a thin, dancing line of smoke wafting from the engine when Noel returned to the tank’s rear. He put a hand on Ivan’s back, as if they were staring with grief at a sick child; Ivan laid his hand over Noel’s, shaking his head and breathing out heavily.

“That last supercharge really screwed it up, Noel. There’s a warped cylinder in there. You can hear it. We destroyed the engine, basically. It’s a miracle it got us back.” Ivan said.

“Well it has been a real miraculous day.” Noel said, his voice thick with sarcasm.

Ivan withdrew a piece he had set aside. It was the tank’s thermostat, at one point; now the spring and the cap seemed to have fused together, and it became a chunk of slag.

“You tell me, Noel, how is this even possible?” Ivan said with evident despair.

“We’ll see if they let us borrow an M4 Sentinel to drive or something.” Noel said.

“I sincerely hope so, because our little queen needs half her parts replaced.” Ivan said. He threw away the thermostat. It rolled gently downhill into the surrounding forest.

Noel chuckled. “I’ll see what I can do, sweet-heart. Just relax for the moment.”

He turned and made to head toward the war room tent, meaning to speak with Dreschner; but he was distracted when he heard metal clanking in the distance. He saw birds flying into the air from the crowns of the surrounding trees, and found something large navigating the woodland. From between the trees arrived a pair of tank transporters, heavy trucks with thick, large wheels towing canvas-topped steel crates on tracked beds. Chains holding the road train together rattled incessantly as the vehicles cleared the treeline.

Each crate bore simple markings in large print, easily read once the road train had parked itself amid Reiniger’s tanks: WP6, alongside an eight-digit serial number.

Noel stood in the periphery, alongside several other curious onlookers in their coats and hoods. There was a knocking sound; the backs of the crates opened and hit the mud, forming ramps. Small parties of engineers ran outside, assessed the situation, and gestured into the interior with their hands. Engineers gesticulated wildly and angrily at nearby tank drivers taking their breaks; there was not enough clearance around the ramps. Several tankers were compelled to return to their tanks and move them away from Wa Prüf 6’s cargo.

Lights shone from inside the crates, and white smoke exhaust escaped the canvas.

Two tanks drove carefully down the ramps and over the muddy ground.

One tank reminded Noel strongly of the M4. Though the turret was a touch flattened and less round, it had the same 50mm KwK gun; the hull was a bit taller, but retained the same curved silhouette, with its glacis sloped inward, and the hull and side armor sloping gently down from the front. However, the glacis seemed thicker, its frontal bulge much more prominent, its track guards like sharp cups laid over the caterpillars. In addition, the side-plates did not conform as much to the otherwise uniform curve of the hull. They had a sharp, tapering, definitive edge to them. He wondered how thick the armor was.

When the second vehicle rolled out of its crate a collective whispering began around it.

The lower half of the second vehicle was reminiscent of the first, but that was the only similarity. Certainly this was built on the new M4, on its tracks, on its hull; set atop the rear hull, a rigid, open-topped superstructure housing an absolutely massive gun replaced the traditional turret. Its armament outclassed the gun on that new Ayvartan type tank — it looked more like the old schwere kanone artillery guns in the rear echelon than it did a tank gun. Its barrel must have been ten centimeters bore, and at least three meters long. A pair of removable metal struts supported the long barrel against the front hull.

Both of the new tanks drove into the center of the camp, parting the crowd of gawkers and coming to a stop near the war room tent. Behind them, a blond-haired woman in a sharp office suit ambled in the mud, protected by galoshes and an umbrella. Sleek and professional, with her hair gathered into a wrapped bun, she had a mature look to her, with a hint of crow’s feet behind her spectacles, and some gray hair mixed in with the gold. Still she left an impression as she strutted confidently beside the tanks. Noel could no longer discern whether the crowd was goggling the armor, or eyeing the secretary.

General Dreschner and Signals Chief Schicksal stepped out of their tent, surprised by the arrival of the tanks, and shook hands vigorously with the General Auto official.

Noel circled around the crowd, and surreptitiously approached the party.

He arrived in time to hear the lady’s concise introduction. “Tanja Von Bletzen, chief computer for diagnostic and testing support.” she said, pushing up her glasses.

“Brigadier General Einschel Dreschner. And this is my signals chief, as well as chief of various unofficial duties, Karla Schicksal. Pleasure to meet you.” Dreschner said.

“I’m Captain Noel Skoeniczny!” Noel suddenly said, springing up beside them all. “How many marks a month does it cost to insure those monstrosities for the road, huh?”

Schicksal and Dreschner glared sidelong at him for intrusion and comment.

Tanja turned and politely shook Noel’s hand.

“Pleasure to meet you. I’ve been informed of your exploits, Captain. Colonel General Ferdinand holds you in high regard. I’m glad you’re here to see our new product.”

Dreschner and Schicksal looked on in mute surprise.

“I only wish I could have arrived sooner.” Tanja continued. “It would have made a great debut for these vehicles if a Panzer Ace used them to defeat his enemies and seal the Shebelle pocket. Hopefully there is still some action for them to participate in.”

“Oh, so you’re dying to see me wearing one of those, huh?” Noel said cheekily.

“It is fated to be, I just know it.” Tanja returned her own mischievous grin.

Dreschner and Schicksal both palmed their foreheads with eerie synchronization.

“Glad you’re both enthused. So; what are their capabilities?” Dreschner asked.

Tanja stretched her arm behind herself, gesturing toward the turreted tank. Dreschner and Schicksal’s heads turned with the computer’s arm, silently examining the vehicle.

“While I regrettably only have one example on hand today, this tank represents the next evolution in the M4 Sentinel line. Designation M4A2, WP6 calls it the Gran Sentinel.”

“Same gun as an M4; but it’s up-armored, isn’t it?” Noel said.

“Correct.” Tanja smiled. “The M4A2 features a much improved armor profile compared to the original M4: 75 mm glacis, 90 mm gun mantlet, 55 mm side, 30 mm rear. Hull top and turret top are still 20 mm, but those plates are rarely vulnerable to the enemy.”

“That is impressive.” Dreschner said. “But what is the cost in movement?”

“None.” Tanja said.

“None?”

“None.” She repeated. She clapped her hands once.

Tanja’s face lit up; she seemed to be enjoying herself.

“The M4A2 is actually faster than the original M4, thanks to its new engine. It can achieve speeds of 50 km/h. Using the old engine, the speed is a respectable 40 km/h. And this particular model has a built-in motor supercharger solution we are testing.”

“I must admit I’m not terribly fond of those superchargers.” Dreschner said.

“Ivan likes it well enough, but it burnt a few things in sustained use.” Noel said.

Tanja tipped her head in a gracious little bow. “Feedback noted.”

Schicksal jabbed her finger in the air. “So, the drake in the room; what is that?”

“10.5 cm Dicker Max.” Tanja turned her head, glancing toward the open-topped tank.

“Is it supposed to be a new assault gun? A replacement for the M3?” Dreschner asked.

A conceited smile played across the computer’s face.

“The Dicker Max is a complete re-imagining of the armored assault gun concept, using an M4 hull.” Tanja said, a soft opener before she shifted fully into sales pitch mode. She next barraged them with facts, and Noel wondered whether she had rehearsed it all.

“An enclosed structure or rotating turret is limited in the types of weapons its hull can reasonably support. Tweaking the armor profile, and redesigning the gun housing, we have achieved dramatic results. As you can see, the Dicker Max is fielding a 10.5 cm schwere kanone. This would be impossible for an ordinary M3 or M4 tank. Fully armored in the front and side, the Dicker Max can withstand long range direct fire and destroy any bunker, anti-tank emplacement, or enemy tank, from over 1000 meters away.”

“Until someone chucks a grenade through the open roof.” Noel said.

Tanja drew back, offended.

When she next spoke her voice had gone from enthusiastic to downright cold.

“Use of appropriate tactics is, of course, a prerequisite for effective deployment.”

“How many rounds does it hold in there?” Dreschner asked.

“Twenty-six. More than enough.” Tanja said dismissively.

“Sounds stingy.” Noel added, crossing his arms and grinning.

Calmly, Dreschner pressed on. “Is there a secondary armament?”

Tanja was starting to visibly bristle. “No.”

Noel shrugged comically, wiggling his hips a little.

Tanja pushed up her glasses, though they could not go any higher over her nose.

“Extensive tests have shown that in its appropriate role the Dicker Max can break a position in under twenty shells. You underestimate the schwere kanone.” She said.

“Extensive testing didn’t seem to identify the fact that you can chuck grenades through that open roof, so I’m not completely convinced, to be honest.” Noel said.

She turned her cheek on him.

“There’s an optional canvas roof for rainy day deployment.”

“Do you have it with you?” Dreschner gently asked.

“No.” Tanja said.

Schicksal crossed her arms and stared at her shoes. General Dreschner rubbed his chin. Both of them seemed at a loss for words to voice their trepidation. Noel wasn’t.

“Hey, no offense Tanja, you’re nice and all, but.”

Noel pointed at the Dicker Max with his free hand while twirling his umbrella.

“That thing just doesn’t match my aesthetic.” He dramatically said.

Everyone around him let his theatrical words hang awkwardly in the air for a moment.

But someone else had been listening in and lying in wait.

“Sounds fuckin’ good to me!”

Behind them the war room tent flapped open; Reiniger suddenly pushed Noel aside and stomped toward Tanja, and took her hand brusquely in his for an uncalled for shaking. He turned his head over his shoulder to glare at Noel while shaking up the computer.

“Lieutenant Jorg Reiniger. Ma’am, if the fairy doesn’t want this tank, that’s his problem. You got your ace tanker right here. I’ll drive your Dicker Max right fuckin’ now, ma’am.”

Tanja looked at him with tentative disdain, drawing her hand away from him.

“Reiniger, control yourself.” Dreschner snapped.

“General, c’mon, you can’t still be pinning your hopes on this Lachy fool who spends more time with his hair than his gun.” Reiniger said. He pointed sharply in Noel’s face — his finger was only a few centimeters from Noel’s nose. “He’s already fucked up one op, and if he can’t see how good this fuckin’ thing is, he’s rarin’ to fuck up the next one. I can take this tank, some of my boys, drive top speed to that rail yard, and end this now.”

Noel slapped aside Reiniger’s hand and contemptuously averted his eyes. He was eager to tussle with words, but when a brute started throwing around his hands, it rendered the situation utterly beneath him. Reiniger was no longer fun anymore.

Reiniger raised his hand again, and this time gave Noel a half-hearted shove, pushing the slender Captain back a step, and then taking his own to confront him. Noel sighed.

Dreschner laid a hand over his own face. He closed his other hand into a fist. Noel thought that he would step forward and pound Reiniger again, but the General held his ground. He underwent a gargantuan effort to show restraint. There was a pallor to his face, a nervous twitch around his eyes and jaw, a palpable tension thrumming just beneath his skin. He crossed his arms, perhaps so as to drown away the eagerness of his fist to punch.

“Mrs. Von Bletzen, I apologize for the conduct of my over-eager lieutenant.” He said.

“It is nothing, General.” Tanja said. She was stone-faced and disinterested.

Reiniger grunted with frustration. “Just answer me this lady: do you think the Dicker Max could defeat an Ayvartan tank with over 80mm of armor layered on the front?”

“It can break 100 mm of armor at over 1000 meters.” Tanja curtly replied.

“Then we have nothing to fear.” Reiniger said.

“There’s plenty to fear, Reiniger! You can’t just–” Schicksal said.

Reiniger side-stepped Noel and instead planted his feet in front of Dreschner.

Schicksal blinked, and was taken aback by the action. He was just a breath away.

“General, I must insist that we deploy immediately. Right now the only thing we have to fear is inaction. We have them, General. We can win!” Reiniger said. “You know that we don’t have much time left before sundown. We can be there in an hour if we deploy light. They’re already exhausted, they’re weak, and even if that new tank shows up, we can–”

Dreschner raised his hand to quiet him. “I know perfectly well our situation, Lieutenant.”

Noel almost winced when the General’s hand moved, expecting the fist to come flying.

“Then let us deploy! My men are eager to close this fucking pocket.”

Calmly, Dreschner turned his head to look over Reiniger. He faced Noel.

Noel shrugged. It was not his place to demand anything here.

Meanwhile Reiniger awaited a response right in the General’s personal space.

Dreschner replied coolly.

“Reiniger, deploy the Dicker Max. Noel will be joining you in the M4A2. Take three other tanks, two of the M3 assault guns for long range support, and three half-track carriers full of Spoor’s Panzergrenadiers for close support. Everyone else will catch up when they can.”

“Sir!” Reiniger saluted. His saluting hand was almost touching Dreschner’s face.

He had on a terribly wicked grin. Noel almost felt a bit of hatred in that instant.

Noel had been wrong. In his voice Noel heard so many voices whose textures and tones made him feel sick; voices that signaled craven hearts, thrashing hands, cold tongues, oozing with hurtful power. Before, he had put Reiniger mentally in with the kind of men who could be played with and sculpted, men who were nothing one way or another, the kind who turned up at the cabaret and cracked jokes and couldn’t take the girls taunting him.

But that was wrong. Reiniger was rancorous, the worst sort of man, the kind that would take a girl out back just to slap her. He would do it and he would revel in it. Noel just knew.

He grit his teeth, hiding behind his pretty lips, locking up the memories.

Now that a deployment was authorized, Tanja seemed to regain her enthusiasm.

“I shall have our engineers perform a quick final check on the vehicles.” She said, polite and energetic. It was as if the confrontation before had been an entirely different world.

Reiniger nodded. “Sure thing. I’ll go get my crew and climb aboard.”

When the Lieutenant turned around, he shoved brusquely past Noel again.

“Stay close, shut up, and follow orders.” Reiniger said as he walked away.

“At your command, instructor.” Noel called out. His tone was thick with sarcasm.


Benghu — Northern Rail Yard

A thin film of liquid spread between her eyelids as Naya came to, partially distorting the gray, gloomy world around her as it came into focus. She felt the sting of foreign fluid in her eyes, and jolted upright, rubbing her fists against them. Tears joined the sweat that trickled down her face. Her skin was cold and damp; she felt cold air as well.

When she could see again she found herself atop a mattress laid on the floor of a warehouse constructed out of tin plates on a wooden frame. There were a lot of junk parts around her in mounds. Rusted old train wheels in stacks, chunks of split track, buckets full of red-brown bolts, wasted old steam engine trunnions, even an old boiler.

Yellow light traveled into the room through a slit window behind her. She heard a whistle blowing outside, accompanied by loud rattling cylinders and thundering wheels.

After a second whistle there was a period of relative silence.

“Oh, you’re awake! I’m sorry, it’s my fault. I gave you too big a dosage.”

Naya was in the train yard; she had survived. Her final moments in combat with the purple-striped tank were a blur. She was in so much pain and everything happened so quickly. With time, she began to recall those final moments before sleep — the slide, the shot, all the soldiers moving in to defend the Konigin and allowing it to escape.

Then she had an attack; another tank rolled into the field. A sizable one, larger even than the Raktapata. Everyone was already running, but they ran faster upon its arrival. She was pulled out, first by Farwah, then others. She felt a pinprick — a syrette.

“Morphine.” Naya said to herself aloud. She shook her head, trying to dispel the mist.

“Right.” Lila Bennewitz replied. She was seated across the room, atop an old fuel drum. Her medical bag, decorated with a red cross, lay closed atop another drum nearby.

“How’d we get a train to come?” Naya asked. Out the slit window she saw figures moving and heard car doors sliding open. A train had just arrived. She knew the sounds well.

“A train was always coming, at least for Vijaya.” Lila said. “We’re too important. Where it pertains to our safety, radio calls for evacuation happen quickly. But by stopping the Nochtish attack, you bought invaluable time to include the school in the evacuation plans.”

She smiled. Naya smiled weakly back. Her head was clouded, no amount of shaking her head seemed to clear all the fog billowing in her brains. However she felt no pain from anywhere. She felt normal. That was the magic of morphine. One little syrette right in the belly–

Naya looked at Lila’s bag; she had suffered an attack. She had been treated with morphine. Now everyone knew, or suspected, that something was definitely wrong with her. Something pervasive, something they could not fix through time or tribulation.

Something bad enough that Ravan and Rajagopal might be forced to discharge her.

“Lila, I,” she paused. Naya had begun to speak but then she realized in a panic that if she said something like ‘don’t tell anyone’ she was already admitting to something terrible. There was still a chance Lila might not know or notice anything more than what she noticed the last time she had Naya under her care. Should Naya lie again now?

But then, Rajagopal and Ravan had already seen an outburst from her earlier in the day. They were probably on alert for any more strange behavior. Maybe Lila already told them? Then there would be no need for subterfuge. Perhaps she was just waiting now for the papers.

There was no going around it anymore. Naya paused, breathed in solemnly, and with a cold, sickening tension in her chest and stomach, she came right out and asked.

“Are you going to refer me for a medical discharge, Lila? Is that why you’re here?”

Lila averted her eyes. “I wish you’d stop seeing me as an enemy, or opponent.”

Naya rubbed her own shoulder, sighing. “I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to think.”

Their eyes did not meet anew for a time. A gloom settled over the medic’s face.

“I’m not Nochtish, by the way.” Lila said. “I’m a Lachy by nationality, and my family are Hudim by blood and tradition. What you know as Messianism incorporated much of our writing and some of our culture, but we are not the same. Even Messianites see us as opposition. Since the old lands split, sunk and sundered, they’ve never accepted us.”

She rocked her legs in front of the drum. “A thousand years ago they would force us to convert or to die. These days they supplant that by casting us as cheats and liars. So, why am I here? Because we all thought you got hurt and I wanted to take care of you.”

Naya turned her eyes to the floor. Her words came as a blow. Despite everything, Naya was still desperately clawing to protect her own self first and didn’t think of who she was hurting or how she was doing it. She had thought of Lila as an enemy, when all she was doing was trying to help, to understand, to keep her healthy and alive. To do her job.

“I’m sorry.” Naya said. She started to tear up. “I’m a fool; I didn’t know. I was scared. It felt like I was so close to losing everything I’ve grown proud of again, and I didn’t–”

Lila raised her hand. She smiled again. “I understand. At least, I understand some of what is happening, anyway. Naya, if you want to make it up to me — I’d like to know more, Naya. As a medic but also a comrade who cares. Tell me about these pains. I want to help.”

Naya sat up straighter on the bed. A bitter smile played across her face. She hugged herself. Tell her about the pains? Where to even begin? She sat for minutes in silence, wondering what to say. Lila waited, rocking her feet, careful not to hit the drum.

It would hurt, but there was only one thing Naya could say anymore: the truth.

Though her lips felt heavy and her tongue clumsy at first, words quickly built up.

“I remember having these pains since I was 17 or 18 years old. Back then I was obsessed with running. My family life was growing very strained at the time — everyone had found their own ambitions and sort of, drifted apart pursuing them. Mine was running. I would run every day, run faster and farther, push myself harder. Whether it was raining, or muddy, or burning under the summer sun, I would run. I ran to get out of the house.”

She remembered the house of her teenage years. It was a squat, square unit in the urban center in Benghu, four walls, two roomy bedrooms, and little else inside. It was its own house — it was not part of a hostel or barrack. Her parents got that house, and a few gold honors tickets, because they had helped pioneer Benghu’s new electrical system. They were engineers. Tackling problems like that was what they did. Day in and day out; Benghu was like their pet project for a few years, until the union started to urge them to think bigger. To think about Solstice or Chayat. They resisted at first; but only at first.

“I won every race I was ever in as a teen. I consistently beat people in the school leagues and I was nearly at the age where I could compete nation-wide in clubs matches and Commissariat of Health sponsored events. I didn’t really have anything going for me but running. So I just ran. I was obsessed with it; I loved every second I ran.”

She ran and ran and ran away from the prospect that her life would change. That her parents would separate, out of love with each other and the family life she once treasured; that they would be moving to Solstice or Chayat or somewhere, somewhere far from her friends, from her loves, where there were engineering feats in need of doing.

When she ran, there was nothing but the sensation of running. It was so reassuring.

Lila listened intently, her face void of emotion. She stopped rocking her feet.

“Maybe it was because when I was running, it took everything out of me. I didn’t have to acknowledge other things. But then, just, out of the blue; these pains took everything out of me. I don’t even remember how they started. I thought I ran myself ragged. I gave it a rest. But they recurred every so often. I figured out soon, that I couldn’t escape them.”

Her parents didn’t help because she didn’t tell them. Because she was afraid of what they would do. She was afraid of every outcome. Afraid that they might discard their ambitions for her; afraid that she would be worth less than their future, and that they would forget her. Afraid that they might force her to give up. So she endured. She played it down. She made excuses. They were distracted enough to accept everything.

“So you don’t know the origin of them. It might be a congenital condition that took some time to manifest. Maybe an old injury? I don’t know that I can identify this.” Lila said.

Naya shook her head. “I have no idea. It feels more like a curse than a condition.”

Lila nodded her head. “Go on, please. I’m willing to listen if you’re willing to share.”

Naya nodded her head. She sat up straighter, crossed her legs, and continued.

“I remember there was a big competition on national health day at the school; a friend of mine, Darshan, he was going to run with me. There were a lot of contenders, but he was the only one who rivaled me. It was his first real, important run; he’d been trialing now for a year or two and getting better and better and better. I wanted to beat him. But I had a pain event the day before the race. I was scared; scared that he’d take first place from me.”

“So you didn’t go.” Lila said gently. She sounded almost worried.

An evil little chuckle escaped Naya’s lips. It wasn’t funny; it hurt. She still laughed.

“It occurred to me that if I didn’t show up, everyone would just attribute his victory to my absence. They would all know that had I been there he would be second place. But that didn’t happen. Everyone was happy for him, for his first big victory. I tried to go along with it. Later, he would confide in me that everyone’s support gave him the courage to confess to his sweetheart and that she had said yes and held his hand and kissed him happily.”

“I see. I assume he wasn’t the only person that was sweet on her.” Lila said.

Naya did not answer. Instead she looked down at her feet. “I’ve always nursed a really nasty thought since then — I should’ve just gone to the race, and had a big pain event there and spoiled his victory for him.” She laughed bitterly at herself. “Focus it all back on me. Maybe then, I could have confessed instead of him. But I was a coward. I ran away from it. Just like I ran away from confessing before him. I ended up unable to beat him at anything. Don’t you think it’s pathetic? Nasty? I’ve regretted everything about that, ever since.”

“I’m sorry, Naya. For what it’s worth, no, I do not think you are pathetic or nasty. You were a teenager and you were hurt and scared. I’d have done the same.” Lila replied.

It became easier to speak frankly as she went along. It was easier now that all of it was out in the air. Somebody knew as much of the story as Naya’s brain could pull from the stream of history. She no longer had reason to hide it. Unburdened of her fears and unprotected by her lies, however, all that seemed to remain was bitterness, loneliness. There was no sensation to it; no pain. She was just void of anything palpable now.

“On some level, I think I deserve it all. It’s just my karma. It is the way I have done things, the way I do things, the way I will do things. Even today, I can’t break that.”

“You do not deserve that at all, Naya! You are a hero!” Lila said, raising her voice.

Naya almost laughed again, but before she could she heard feet striking cement.

Lila jumped off the drum and started toward her. Crossing the warehouse, she stopped before Naya, knelt down and gently stretched out her hand to help her stand up.

“All of us in the camp, we know that it was you who got Chief Ravan and the Captain to stay and fight for Chanda. We saw you run in there. We saw what happened after. And we all admire that and we all think that it was the right thing to do.” Lila said.

“They would have done it anyway.” Naya replied, almost murmuring. “Anyone could sit on the Rakpata’s turret and man that gun. I’m just an unstable rookie AT gunner.”

“No! You were the only one who could sit in that chair because you were the only one who would’ve given the Raktapata a chance. Its previous gunner was nearly killed by it; it had all kinds of problems. Everyone was ready to evacuate, not because we were bad or cowardly, but because we never would’ve given ourselves a chance.” Lila said.

She wiggled the fingers on her hand, and set it right above Naya’s own.

“I’m not here to push you down. I want to help you get back up. All of us do: Farwah does, the officers do, and everyone who saw you today does. Do you believe me?”

Naya hesitated at first, but she took her hand. She felt a sense of relief wash over her as she tightened her fingers around the medic’s warm skin. Lila pulled her back to her feet.

The medic smiled and patted her in the back. “We’ll start with a morphine prescription, and you should talk to the Chief about making your chair in the tank a bit more comfy.”

“I’d like that.” Naya said. She was out of breath. Her heart was beating so fast.

She squeezed Lila’s hand gently. It was the hand of a friend. Such a nostalgic feeling.


Benghu’s main train station straddled the northern end of the meadows. A single track coming in from the east cut across the grass and joined tracks coming in from the north and curling through Benghu and around its hills from the west. Servicing the adjacent textile and wood processing facilities, it was the industrial heart of Benghu, stationed only a few kilometers from the town, from Camp V, and from Chanda General School.

In total, the train station, the warehouses, some made of tin and some made of brick, and the nearby factory, all formed a property about as large as Chanda’s campus.

Much of the rail yard was devoted to housing raw material and finished product that would be packed for transport further north or south as orders came in. In the ensuing days of the battle for Shebelle much of the raw wood that had been collected was shipped away, and along with it much of the paneling, canvases, nets, parachutes, tents and other similar products made at the nearby factory. Once the products and materials were gone, machinery was stripped and taken. Empty buildings left behind now temporarily housed the refugees from Benghu and Chanda, including civilians and soldiers.

Most of the warehouses became impromptu playgrounds for children, or barracks for weary soldiers that had been wounded in Shebelle. Older tin warehouses closer to the center let the rain in and were cold and uncomfortable, but the brick buildings straddling the meadow were good enough for temporary shelter. Outside the buildings, hasty sandbag emplacements had been constructed alongside a guard pillbox, forming a defensive line. Anti-tank guns and machine guns watched the meadow and the eastern track for signs of the enemy. Everyone behind a gun prayed to be able to abandon it soon.

Once the train came in, loading it with equipment, weapons and other war materiel being rescued from Shebelle and from Camp Vijaya became a priority. People and personnel waited patiently to board. There had been promises made that everyone would be riding out of here tonight — this was the last train that would come to Benghu.

As the sun began its descent, and the day’s rainfall slowed to a meager drizzle tapping irregularly against their hoods, Chief Ravan spent her idle time on one of the train loading platforms working on the Rakpata. Farwah Kuchenkov stared in mute horror.

Their heroic tank was separated into two pieces, its turret hanging on a crane. A canvas roof had been erected over the hull to keep the vehicle dry during the work period. Chief Ravan knelt into the tank from the top of the hull, viciously attacking the turret ring with an eclectic variety of absolutely filthy, terribly worn-out looking metal tools. She had been cranking, smashing, tossing things over her shoulder, dumping all kinds of substances into the turret. It was filthy and strange. Farwah blinked and stared at it, dead in the face, but deep inside, feeling the tiniest bit of despair at the tank’s condition.

“Ah ha!” She shouted triumphantly. “Improper tension in the slip ring! I fixed it!”

Chief Ravan sat up and raised her arms triumphantly, her hair slick with lubricants.

Farwah blinked. He held up his hand. She looked his way and tossed her hair.

“Woo! That was stimulating.” She said, a touch embarrassed. “So, what is it?”

“Ma’am, there was an overheating problem I was having. I’d like you to look at it.”

He came to regret this question almost as soon as he asked it. Chief Ravan crawled up to the engine hatch, unscrewed it, and kicked the plate off. She nearly hit an engineer working nearby. Then she started yanking things out of the engine. Hoses and screws and plugs went flying and Farwah ran hither and yon, catching and collecting them and picking them up from the ground. It was chaos. Finally Chief Ravan got through to the thermostat, and she yanked it out, dropped down from the tank, and ambled toward a small half-tracked miniature tractor, towing a power generator and a metal basket with a canvas cover.

From this basket, Chief Ravan pulled a pistol-grip drill attached to the generator by a thick cable. She braced the thermostat against the basket using metal clamps, and drilled two holes into the object. Farwah blinked in confusion as she returned to the tank.

“Fuel efficiency will drop, but this should keep the Raktapata running a little colder until I can contrive a better solution.” Chief Ravan said. She smacked the piece back into place.

Farwah shivered as Chief Ravan snatched various pieces from his hands and returned them to place, and nearly jumped when she slammed the engine cover plate back on.

She wiped her face with a rag, cleaning off the grease and lubricants. She dropped the rag on Farwah’s shoulders and walked past with a long, easy stride and a smile.

Picking it up with the tips of his fingers, Farwah cast the rag off, turned around and followed behind her. The two of them did not go far. A dozen meters away behind them, the Mandeha self-propelled gun awaited dismantling and accommodation in a crate for the train ride. Its astoundingly tall turret was its most distinctive feature. It was disproportionate, almost charming in a strange way. Behind the engine, Isa toiled, tuning the tank up and staring in confusing at a damaged spark plug. Atop the hull, Karima sat, kicking her legs idly.

“Karima! Tell me, what was it like riding this abomination?” Chief Ravan said. Her tone was light-hearted. She seemed to be in high spirits, though Farwah had no idea why.

“I hate the shells, they’re too big.” Karima said, holding her head up with her hands. Rain trickled off her high, perfectly arching ponytail. It did not seem to bother her.

“Not my problem!” Chief Ravan said coyly. “How was the gun traverse?”

“Nonexistent. Do you mean the turret traverse?” Karima replied.

Chief Ravan crossed her arms. “Yes, yes, you know what I mean when I say that!”

Karima nodded her head. “Nonexistent.” She said again in a surly tone.

Giving up on Karima, who was known to be unfriendly, Chief Ravan skipped around the side of the tank and knelt beside Isa, staring into the Mandeha’s engine block with him. Farwah felt his heart bump and bump a little faster near Isa. He liked the way his comrade handled the wrench as he screwed the pieces he had removed back on. When he turned his head and smiled Farwah could feel his own face grow a little warmer from his attention.

“So what are you two busybodies up to?” Isa said jovially.

Chief Ravan rubbed her chin and put on a mock quizzical expression.

“I’m wondering what you’re doing other than preparing this tank for transport.”

Isa shrugged. “It had a bad spark plug! I had to replace that. Imagine some hapless engineer turns the thing back on for a test with a bad plug. I had to replace it.”

“Yes, but the Mandeha is, as you can see, extraordinarily large. It will take time to get it apart and well fitted into crates, and even more since you haven’t started.”

“We have all of the time in the world.” Isa protested, raising his hands.

At that moment a guard post exploded on the outer edge of the rail yard.

Everyone saw the rising pillar of fire over the low roofs of the surrounding buildings.

For a moment the Mandeha’s crew stood dumbfounded. Chief Ravan looked at the smoke as if there was something to analyze. Isa and Farwah looked at one another in confusion. Karima jumped down from atop the tank’s hull but made no other movements. It wasn’t until a second explosion followed the first, that everyone around began to scramble for weapons and cover and to look around at each other for orders.

“Change of plans!” Chief Ravan shouted, ducking behind her tool tractor. “Isa, get the Mandeha ready to deploy immediately! Farwah, we need to restore the Rakpata back to fighting condition post-haste! And where on Aer has Naya gone! Someone fetch her!”

Nodding heads; behind them, a small open-topped car arrived, and from the back, Captain Rajagopal leaped out and hurried to their side. She ducked beside Chief Ravan behind the tractor, and pointed a finger down south, to the direction of the warehouses.

“Large enemy tank. New type. Coming here.” She gestured with her hands.


Next chapter in Unternehmen Solstice — DICKER MAX (3/31/2015)

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges VII

This chapter contains themes of abandonment, emotional and social distress, and manipulation.


36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Pallas Academy

A timer rang in the kitchen. Sweet smells drifted into the apartment’s main space. Cinnamon and mint tingled Salvatrice’s nose but did not draw her attention away from the paper in her hands. Canelle returned; when she set down the sweet rolls and mint tea on the table in front of Salvatrice’s couch, the princess began to read the short letter for the umpteenth time as if there was some hidden meaning she could divine from it.

Her servant sat in the couch across from her and took a delighted sip of tea.

“Yum! Certainly the best cup I’ve ever made. You should give it a taste, Princess.”

She extended the cup as if to bewitch the princess with the smell of it.

Salvatrice lifted her own cup, blew on it and then set it slowly back down.

A perfunctory, distracted action from a woman with more on her mind.

She had the letter in her hands still. Turning over the words, the green ink.

Rubbing her chin, scratching her hair; nothing, she could not make sense of it. Why her; why now? Salvatrice threw down the letter in frustration. She covered her face with her hands, rubbing her fingers against her forehead, burying her thumbs into her temples. Canelle reached out a hand and laid it down on her shoulder, squeezing gently.

“Were this a truly dire circumstance I’m sure Her Highness would have spared more than eight words for you, Princess. Please calm down and eat. Take your medicine. Relax yourself. I’m sure you’ll go to Palladi and back without consequence.”

“My mother never spares words. She just gives commands.” Salvatrice replied. She gave Canelle a sharp glance that forced the latter to cower and withdraw her gaze. “My mother considers me such a lowly creature she needn’t explain what she requires of me, she calls me to her like a dog or a horse and knows I must blindly obey the whistle!”

Staring at the couch cushions at her side, Canelle replied in a conciliatory, almost frightened tone of voice, “I’m sure Her Highness has her reasons. A mother would not–”

Furiously, Salvatrice interrupted. “She has already jailed one of her daughters! My mother is mother last, Canelle, and above that she is a tyrant, a gaoler, a murderer!”

“No, Princess, stop, that is wrong, please.” Canelle pleaded in distressed whispers, her voice choppy. “Do not say these wrong things, Princess. You do not under–”

Salvatrice crossed her arms and breathed harshly. “I’m sorry. You’re not to blame nor to suffer for any of this. But please see it from my perspective, Canelle. For years I’ve had such limited contact with mother. She extends her arms to me to tell me she has jailed my sister and given me her position. Then she abandons me again; now this! Tell me, were you in my position could you see this as anything but another incoming betrayal?”

“Your circumstances are of an extraordinary nature Princess.” Canelle said gently.

“So you cannot speak of it? You cannot relate to it at all?” Salvatrice said.

“I am an un-extraordinary person.” Canelle replied, casting glances at the floor.

Salvatrice turned her cheek at this answer. It was frustrating, but wherever the Queen was concerned Canelle would become uselessly demure in an instant. Whether she feared or respected her or a twisted combination of the two, Salvatrice did not know.

Canelle kept all of her secrets, and took care of her, and Salvatrice wanted to think her loyalty resulted from warm feelings, from friendship and empathy and a relationship.

But whenever discussion shifted to the Queen, it brought to Salvatrice’s mind the ugly thought that perhaps Canelle just did it out of an antiquated sense of a peasant’s obligation to royalty. She kept her secrets because a peasant girl did not betray a noble-born woman; she helped Salvatrice because a peasant girl did not refuse aid to a noble-born woman. And she treated the Queen’s name as if that of a God because peasants did not take the liege’s name in vain. Perhaps it was not love at all, just awe of her.

It made Salvatrice feel lonely and isolated. She turned her head and wiped Canelle from her sight. In so doing all she had was walls; just a room bereft of anyone’s sentiment.

As she scanned around the room Salvatrice saw the door open abruptly as if by itself.

Centurion Byanca Geta casually let herself into the room, dangling a keyring in her index finger and whistling a little song as she went. She closed and locked the door behind herself, and ambled toward the couches, coming to a stop near the princess.

“Where did you get that?” Salvatrice said. Her voice rose to an aggressive tone.

“Good morning to you too, Your Majesty.” Byanca had on an apathetic expression.

“I categorically refuse to allow you to let yourself in here. Give me those keys.”

Salvatrice extended her hand at almost the same time as Byanca withdrew her own.

“They’re the old custodian set. I was allowed to have them for security reasons.”

She was being cheeky lately; much more than Salvatrice was comfortable with. The Princess tried not to lose herself in front of the Centurion, but she could not help it. When she next spoke her demeanor had devolved from imperious to rancorous.

“Give me your copy of my key then! Keep the rest if you need them so badly!”

Salvatrice thrust her hands out again and swiped at Byanca in passing.

The Centurion stepped away from her reach, walking around the table.

“They are a security asset now and I cannot release them to a civilian. Apologies.”

Byanca gave a little mocking bow. Salvatrice gripped the skirt of her dress in anger.

Canelle raised her tea cup. “Joining us for tea and cinnamon rolls, Centurion?”

Salvatrice cried out in a suddenly petulant voice. “Canelle! Don’t offer her tea!”

Almost at the same time Byanca bowed her head. “I would love to be your guest.”

“Geta! Don’t accept her tea!” Salvatrice whined. Nobody listened to a word of it.

Canelle smiled and sidled toward the couch armrest to make room at her side.

Byanca dropped brusquely on the couch beside Canelle and snatched a roll from the table. She took a bite out of it, and took a sip of the tea shortly after. Cup in one hand, roll in the other; not much in the way of tea table manners at all. Something about that sloppy display resonated with Salvatrice. She felt an odd sense of nostalgia from it.

In the face of her current frustration she found no comfort in those pangs of feeling.

Grunting a little, Salvatrice thrust the letter over the table to hand it to her Centurion.

“I take it since you’re here, you know what this is about. So explain yourself.”

Byanca cast a few deliberate glances between the letter and Salvatrice’s eyes.

She paused and pushed the remainder of the roll into her mouth.

“I have no idea.” She said through a mouthful of half-chewed food.

She swallowed, and sucked the slick sugary glaze left on each of her fingers. Once cleaned she extended her hand and plucked the letterhead from Salvatrice’s fingers. After a quick glance she slid the letter down the table toward the princess, and pushed her teacup up against her face, tipping down the rest of the tea in one big gulp.

Canelle and Salvatrice watched her as one would a misbehaving child. Salvatrice almost expected ructus and flatulence to follow after the rest of this slovenly show.

Thankfully Byanca merely set down her cup outside her saucer and sat back.

“I came to inform you that all Rossa surveillance measures have been revoked. Phone wiretapping, mail interception, transaction controls; it’s all done henceforth. From now on your security, and any accountability for your movements, begins and ends with me.”

Salvatrice was taken aback. At the mention of all of this spying she felt anger rising in her chest. She had suspected that she was being watched, in the discrete ways that the Legion could watch her. Hearing the extent of it spoken so casually stoked the embers already lit by her present circumstances. There was no relief in knowing that these violations had been curtailed. She was sure now that the future held much worse.

Meanwhile Canelle beamed, ecstatic, and clapped her hands together several times.

“You hear that, Princess? I told you that your mother had your interests in mind!”

“This is all part of a scheme.” Salvatrice said. She sighed. “She’s plotting something.”

“I agree. Her Royal Highness would not tear down the collar she’s got around your neck just to be a good mother. She has something planned for you.” Byanca replied.

Canelle glared at Byanca with sudden disdain. Her mouth hung slightly open.

“Do not fill the Princess’ head with evil ideas, Centurion!” She shouted.

Salvatrice crossed her arms and grinned cheekily. “Finally someone in this land of the blind sees things my way; and ironically of all people it is the Blackshirt Centurion.”

“I told you before, but I am on your side, Princess. No one else’s.” Byanca said.

“Yes, so you say. I don’t know why a Blackshirt would say it, but you do.”

“In any case,” the centurion began, at a lower, deflated tone of voice, “you should prepare to leave for the palace soon. I’ll be accompanying you on the journey.”

Salvatrice leaned forward toward Byanca, holding her head on her hands.

There were so many faces over the years. Salvatrice had stayed in a Messianic monastery, she certainly remembered that. It was dedicated to trying to revive divine magic. But she had stayed in the duke’s vineyard until the duke mysteriously passed, and she had stayed in a girl’s school for a time, and she had stayed with a General of the army Regolare until his own passing; and in each of those places there had been children, whom she played with and grew up around for certain short periods of her life. Save for one, for whom she reserved all of her feeling, she had forgotten all of these acquaintances. In her mind they were so transitory they were not worth recalling.

In front of her this Centurion insisted that she and Salvatrice had a connection.

And her presence was starting to insist remembrance from Salvatrice’s mind.

Was she worth remembering? Was that memory valuable enough to become trust?

“Why did you become a Blackshirt?” Salvatrice asked. “Did you really do such a thing to try to be ‘on my side’? You must understand how implausible that sounds to me.”

Byanca breathed out a sigh. She rubbed her hands down her face, and clapped them together as they slid off her chin. She stared at the ceiling, flicking her wrists.

This was a question that hurt to answer. This was a hurt person in front of her; that was the impression Salvatrice got. It made her uncomfortable to think she was causing her such hardship, but several little voices continued to assure her that she was justified.

Canelle looked between the two of them, discomforted by the sudden silence.

“I wanted to become a Knight.” Byanca finally said. She continued to speak, pausing from time to time, staring at her hands to avoid eye contact. “Knights who ascend to the rank of Maggiore can present themselves before a Lady of noble blood to ask for a wish from her, anything desired. This was a rule that passed down from the time of Magic, where miracles were real. He needed only swear his loyalty in the eyes of God, and she would indulge him in order to strengthen her family’s position. Ever since the rule of Passionale Vittoria began, women have been able to become Knights too. So a woman Knight can still ask a wish from a Lady. I wanted to make use of this ancient law.”

Her face sank again into her hands after she was done speaking. She didn’t look up for a time. Salvatrice did not know what to make of the shame with which she admitted this. This was something she desired so much; why would she speak of it with such trepidation? She looked almost disgusted with herself. Salva didn’t understand it at all. She didn’t understand why Byanca would seek after wishes in a time where Magic was now dead; and she did not understand why this dream tore her up so much now.

“What was your wish?” Salvatrice asked. “And whom would you present it to?”

Byanca raised her head. She had on a bitter, cynical grin, quite different in tone from the cheeky expression she bore when flipping the keyring in her fingers minutes ago. A little laughter escaped her as she spoke; to whom it was directed, Salvatrice didn’t know.

“I staked everything on it, Princess, but I failed to become a Knight. I became a Blackshirt to avoid the depths of my failure. That is the undramatic truth of the matter, whether you believe it or not. I was sent to Borelia, where I trudged through miserable wilderness to kill men who threw grenades from bushes and laid mines along the roads. What was my wish? I don’t know anymore. It doesn’t matter. I’m not that girl anymore.”

Now it was Salvatrice’s turn to avert her eyes. She did not want to lock with that sudden, mournful gaze cast toward her by the Centurion. She was afraid and felt guilty.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried into this. I’m just being nosy, and it’s unbecoming.”

“You deserve to know. I wanted to sit down and explain all of this sooner anyway.”

Salvatrice plotted something eloquent to say, but her lips moved before her mind.

“Byanca, I have no power to grant any wish to anyone.” Salvatrice said to her.

“Blackshirts do not get wishes. We’re unworthy of them.” Byanca replied quickly.

“Then what do you want? Why did you accept this mission? Why are you on my side?”

The Princess and the Centurion locked gazes again. Byanca smiled softly.

“You deserve to have someone on your side. That answers all those questions.”

Salvatrice stood up from the couch and turned her back. She walked out toward the bookshelves surrounding the door to her room, pacing them with her hands behind her back. She looked wistfully around, seeking anything to grab her attention and break the tension that she felt around the room. But her mind was so scrambled that she saw the letters on the books shifting and warping before her eyes. Everything was twisted now. She ran an idle hand through her hair and sucked her lips in, tasting the red pigment.

Without turning back to the couches, stifling a groan, Salvatrice gave her answer.

“Centurion Geta, the one thing the 1st Princess of Lubon can grant you is trust, so she will grant you trust. Treasure it, for nothing will replace that gift should you squander it.”

Salvatrice pulled a book from the shelf, taking an object she had hidden behind it.

Her head held high, she returned to the couch and held out Byanca’s Picea pistol.

Their hands briefly brushed as the Centurion took back her weapon.

“God save our gracious Queen. Long live our noble Queen.” Byanca sang softly.

She returned the weapon to its holster with a demure little smile on her face.

Salvatrice shook her head, exasperated. “To hell with the Queen.”


37th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Before, when the Queen summoned Salvatrice, a private car appeared out of the blue in front of the Aquinas building. Canelle urged her to dress nicely and slide into the back seat without question. A driver behind bulletproof tinted glass, likely sworn to have no interaction with her, drove her wordlessly to wherever the Queen wished to meet her. That was the expected procedure, the control that the Queen had over her life before.

But there was no private car, even two days after Salvatrice received the letter. In fact it was the first time that a royal summons had been delivered to her like this. She knew that she could not tempt fate for much longer. One or two days could be chalked up to the whims of the postal system. Any more might draw the Queen’s ire. So on the morning of the 37th, Salvatrice made preparations to leave for the royal capital.

Canelle was practically jumping off the walls with enthusiasm. She picked out a regal green dress, that had been designed to match one the Queen had worn several months prior at an important function. It was form-fitting, though Salvatrice felt she had precious little form for the dress to fit, as she was a fairly slight lady; the tight, long skirt evoked petals curling around with her body as the flower’s core, and the high neck and long sleeves gave it a sleek modesty. There was a green gemstone shining on her chest.

“You are the image of your mother; I wish others would see that!” Canelle said.

Salvatrice posed in front of the mirror as Canelle fussed with her hair. Aside from a green and red ribbon, her straight, shoulder-length, evenly-distributed red-yellow hair remained the same. A touch of red lipstick accentuated her thin lips, and a dab of purple shadow lent a bit of complexity to her face and complimented her green eyes. Powders and blush gave her slightly brown skin a somewhat lighter look than it normally had.

Two pieces of wing-like jewelry extended the size of her ears by a few millimeters.

Canelle turned her around before the mirror, admiring her handiwork. “You look beautiful, Salvatrice! Of course, you always do, but you look your best when your clothes shine as bright as the rest of you, I think! Artifice accentuates nature.”

“In my case I think the medicine is more to thank than nature.” Salvatrice said.

“Oh come now, don’t say that, your beauty is inherent,” Canelle said awkwardly.

Salvatrice felt a little thrill running through her body as she looked in the mirror. She was dressed up now, in costume. There was a strange, elated, perhaps even somewhat arousing sensation to it. In the same way that she felt she became a man, Sylvano D’Amore, with the proper preparations, now she had become a woman to the world. It was comforting, like a mask, it covered up the bare, naked Salvatrice within it.

Whatever that was; at times Salvatrice felt there was nothing underneath one costume or the other. She didn’t even know which one was the more natural form for her. She loved both; she loved being both. But she felt there was something apart from them too.

With her “costume” done up, and a little luggage prepared, Salvatrice took a light, careful breakfast, pumped a little estrogen into her system, and made ready to depart.

Outside the apartment door she found Byanca waiting in her dress uniform.

She looked at Salvatrice and appeared momentarily shocked. Salvatrice was a little taken aback in turn, but she had much more practice with holding her composure.

“What, Centurion; do I not ordinarily look like this to your eyes?” Salvatrice said.

“N-No, Princess, just, you look,” Byanca tripped over her words, “gorgeous.”

Salvatrice grinned. “And then I ask again, am I not gorgeous all of the time?”

“Well this is a different kind of gorgeous! There are gradients!” Byanca replied.

Byanca was looking rather more polished than normal. She had no makeup, for the service allowed her none, but her pure black uniform was rather dashing, her jacket decorated with all of her medals and patches, including the centurion’s armband, and a thin blue sash across her chest and waist. She wore her hair collected in a bun, very professional, and donned her feathered bersaglieri cap, black with a silver emblem. Her uniform accentuated the trained, toned slimness of her. She looked martial and strong. Knightly, one could even say. Though the Princess restrained her compliments.

“You look exceptionally fit to guard me, Geta.” Salvatrice said in a haughty tone.

The Centurion took those words as Salvatrice meant them and blushed immediately.

“Don’t stand there looking bashful, Geta! Lead the way for your charge. Escort me.”

“Y-Yes, Princess.” Byanca nodded her head, took the Princess’ luggage in her hands, and then started down the stairs. Salvatrice delicately followed the Blackshirt down. Canelle trailed behind them with an ecstatic look, bouncing as she went along.

Outside the Aquinas building, Byanca hailed a fancy black town car with a long sloping nose and a leather-covered interior with two sets of windows on either side. She opened the door for Salvatrice, who gave her a quizzical look before accepting the invitation. Tinted glass separated the cab from the passenger’s roomy black leather seating. Everything smelled strangely fresh inside as if the car was new from the factory.

The Centurion loaded her luggage in the back, tapped on the front glass and alerted the driver, and got inside, seated beside the Salvatrice — with a healthy bit of room between them. Together they bid Canelle farewell while she stood off the side of the road in amazement. Once the car was started and pulling away, Salvatrice turned to Byanca.

“What is this supposed to be? Where is my ordinary driver?” She asked.

“He’s fine; we’re just using this today. It is Legatus Tarkus’ staff car.” Byanca said.

“Staff car? He drives this? For work purposes?” Salvatrice whispered in surprise.

“No, it has practically never left the garage. But it’s bulletproof and safe. There’s a machine gun under the seat and everything. He vigorously approved of its use.”

Salvatrice grunted. “Who is the driver? Someone you know? Can you truly trust him?”

Byanca cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted. “He can’t hear you!”

“Alright, fine, he can’t, answer the question.” Salvatrice said aloud. She looked at the tinted glass and could make out an outline of a fairly tall man in a newsboy hat.

“You can trust him about as far as you can throw him. I can throw him a meter I think.” Byanca grinned. She laid back. “There is no way that he will interfere with anything.”

Salvatrice crossed her arms. She looked out the window at the scrolling landscape.

“Fine then. I trust you. How long will it take until we reach the Royal Territory?”

Byanca looked suddenly peppy. “A few hours; hey, let us sing a road song!”

“Don’t push your luck.” Salvatrice replied imperiously, keeping her gaze from Geta.

Once the car got going in earnest, the driver first circled around the Aquinas building and took a circuitous route out of the Academy, moving through neighboring vineyards and greenhouses. Clear of the campus, he rounded the rural roads, where there was nary another motor vehicle in their way. He skipped the nearby town of Juth; Salvatrice watched it pass them by, a kilometer out at their side as they advanced into the country. Over and around several green hills the car traveled with ease, the ride smooth and relatively noiseless. Palladi, a central Province of Lubon, was ringed by mountainous terrain. Complex, hilly turf was common to it, woodland thick and sparse dotted the landscape.

North of Palladi the hills opened into an expanse of broad, flat descending terrain sliced through by the vacillating Radice river and its branches. As the car glided down the hills Salvatrice could see the white palace in the distance, its walls extending around a dense, red-roofed town like protecting arms. She could almost see the crown of the Father Tree behind the gleaming towers of the castle. Vittoria’s Palazzo, the ancient town of Pallas, and the surrounding farmland was the nation-within-a-nation known as the Royal Territory of Pallas. Fifteen miles across and ten long, Pallas, farmlands and all, was the size of a city and much less densely populated than Torto or Cartha or other modern elven holdings. But the town itself was only a fraction of the territory’s total size.

Over a series of bridges, the car crossed the many arms of the Radice river that traced through the land at irregular intervals like the roots of the First Tree dug into the soil. Everything between the hills and the palace was farmland and homesteads that served the White Palace. They passed by orchards and vineyards, fields of purple Cyrn that gave bountiful cereals in the spring. Peasant families shepherded the farmlands and plucked nature’s fruits both for themselves and to present to the Queen each season.

“Ten green bottles of wine on the wall, ten green bottles hanging on the wall–”

Byanca sang and sang various drinking songs, mostly to herself, but loud enough to hear. She had already counted bottles several times, and sang Bevilo Tutto. It seemed all the songs she knew or at least the ones she felt like singing were drinking songs.

Salvatrice was quiet as the Queen’s lands scrolled past her eyes. She had frozen into a casual pose, with a hand on her cheek and another on her lap, staring out the closed window.

At first they were content to sit beside each other with a healthy gap between them, but after a few minutes inside the Royal Territory, Byanca started glancing Salvatrice’s way.

“Something wrong, Princess?” She asked. Her enthusiasm was mildly off-putting.

“Do soldiers only sing drinking songs?” Salvatrice said, glancing sidelong at Byanca.

“I used to be in choir, but you’d just get laughed at singing religious songs in a tank.”

“I suppose so.” Salvatrice looked out the window again, counting the electric poles.

“Let’s get this open, Princess! Take a whiff of the country air. It’ll cheer you up.”

From her side, Byanca leaned clumsily over, laying hands on the window lever. Salvatrice raised her hands in surprise. Byanca turned the lever and rolled down the window, then retreated with her own hands raised to mirror Salvatrice’s pose.

A gentle breeze blew into the passenger compartment, blowing Salvatrice’s hair.

She took in a deep breath; there was a sweet smell that she could not place.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And it smells great. I feel so at ease here.” Byanca said. Her ponytail swayed gently and she looked so girlishly delighted with everything.

Salvatrice smiled a little. She did not want to be the one to ruin the mood for now.

Byanca was happy because she saw nothing but the surface of the elven holy land.

For the First Princess, who would take up the mantle of Queen Vittoria, Pallas represented a birth-right, its people and lands owned absolutely by the Queen, to the point that the statutes of the Parliament did not matter within its limits. But Salvatrice had not grown in Pallas, groomed to succeed the throne. Clarissa had been the face of the Vittoria lineage up until recently. The streets of Pallas, the walls of the Palazzo, all of it was her childhood home. Clarissa was the one known and loved in the Royal Territory.

Salvatrice was like an invader; a foreign presence made to force her way inside.

This was the position that her mother had thrust her into. Salvatrice would have been content with obscurity. She had never wanted to rule. She had no aspirations to power or influence. Seclusion had nurtured modest goals. Peaceful tea-times, an education, a semblance of a social life, love; as ordinary a life as a royal-born girl could dream of.

She was not welcome here. Her trajectory in life was not meant to intersect with this.

Past several kilometers of farmland the car stopped before the green gates in the middle of the forward wall. Blackshirt guards wordlessly checked Byanca’s credentials. They offered no words for Salvatrice; they barely even glanced her way. It was as if she did not exist. In her situation, Salvatrice couldn’t tell if this was out of duty or disdain.

As quietly as they approached and as silently as they deliberated the guards returned Byanca’s papers and the vehicle’s registration, and ushered them through the gate.

Inside the green gates they found themselves on the perfectly flat, spotless grey roads of Pallas town, flanked on either side by rows of buildings with quaint-looking gabled red roofs. They traveled the main thoroughfare, under curling green street-lights like drooping flowers, their car trailing behind trolleys and work buses. Throngs of people in suits and uniforms crowded both sides of the street, coming and going from their work. Pallas was old but under Vittoria it was never antiquated. Fashionable clothing hung on trendy storefronts; modern restaurants catered to the middle class workers that now inhabited the town. Telephone lines and electric cabling hung high over every street.

At the end of the thoroughfare the middle wall divided the town of Pallas and the Mound of the Father-Tree — a beautiful, gently rising green hill walled in on all sides with polished white rock, and bearing at its peak the palace of Passionale Vittoria. A richly decorated structure, its corners were four equidistant towers surrounding a thick, central spire. Its walls projected backward beyond the living space and enclosed the plot of land that bore the Father-Tree. One could not see it through the height of Vittoria’s central tower. It had been built hundreds of years ago precisely to obscure the Father-Tree from commoners.

There were no paved roads outside of the town, and no telephone or electric poles projecting out from the earth. Their car was stopped beyond the gate by blackshirt guards and they were directed to park in a garage at the foot of the Mound alongside a dozen other liaison cars. Once the car parked, Byanca rushed out of her own door, swung around the back and opened the right-side passenger door for Salvatrice.

She ushered the Princess out onto the gravel with a gentlemanly bow of the head.

“Don’t push your luck.” Salvatrice said again. Byanca chuckled a little to herself.

“Shall I take your luggage?” the Centurion asked.

“No. He can do it.” Salvatrice pointed at the driver, who looked her way in confusion.

Nearly swallowing his cigarette, the man rushed to his work while the women left.

The Mound was gentle enough a climb for most people, and the climb was required for anyone who wanted to visit the Palazzo. No vehicles or horses were allowed to climb the Mound — only the feet of human beings. Salvatrice and Byanca followed a makeshift path up the slope, delineated by perfectly-trimmed bushes with gilded sashes around them. It was a ten minute walk under the noon sun, and Salvatrice felt herself sweat a little.

Before the palace doors they were again stopped, and again it was only Byanca whom the guards seemed concerned with. For the third time she displayed her rank before them; once again she was allowed forward, while Salvatrice received no word from anyone. Through the double doors of reinforced glass they entered a vast lobby with four large fountains, an indoor garden filled with lilies of all manner of colors, like a rainbow grown from the soil, and couches beside tables full of brochures for visitors.

Salvatrice was ready to be insulted that her mother would leave her at the reception.

Then a set of doors opened at the end of the lobby and a woman approached, flanked by a pair of guards. She wore an afternoon uniform, a conservative black dress worn under a white apron, with long black sleeves and hands covered in white gloves. Her half-white, half-blond hair was pulled up into a bun, and she wore an elaborate cap.

Salvatrice took note of her because she had seen her before, though they had not formally met, not that Salvatrice remembered. But this must have been her mother’s maid — Canelle’s counterpart in the castle. Unlike Canelle, this maid had a foxy, canny sort of expression, a slight grin with piercing blue eyes behind a pair of thin spectacles. Hers was not a gentle expression. Salvatrice would’ve even called it a violent one.

“Princess, it is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. My name is Lillith Mariel.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Mariel.” Salvatrice said. She forced a softer, girlish sounding tone of voice and a graceful smile. Her cheeks already tingled from the effort.

Lillith bowed her head, and she reached out her hands, palms up. Salvatrice touched her with both of her own, palm against palm, and the servant had room again to speak. And speak she did; in a dulcet tone of voice she indulged in a lengthy introduction.

“You would not remember me, but long have I been keeper of your mother’s skin and silk. I have been with your mother since before you were born — in fact, I helped her through labor with you. I was the first to hold you aloft, and to wipe your mother’s blood from your body. I was, even, the first to breast-feed you; I had to take a drug for it.”

“Well; it appears I came to meet one mother and found a second.” Salvatrice said.

Lillith giggled girlishly; at her side the guards looked visibly uncomfortable with this.

Through her affable facade Salvatrice felt a sudden surge of hatred for Mrs. Mariel.

There was no reason for her to say anything; like the guards, she could have just led her where she needed to go without undue words. She could not have been sentimentally attached to the Princess — this was a reason Salvatrice always threw out immediately where it concerned her mother’s people. She knew that none of them cared. By process of elimination Salvatrice realized that this was Lillith either taunting her or flaunting her freedom of speech. Unlike the other servants she had a measure of status in Pallas.

“History aside; your true mother awaits, Princess. Follow the guards up to the peak of the central spire. I shall take your dashing companion on a tour of the Palace, and your driver will be given instructions on what to do with your lullage. Worry not.” Lillith said.

After one additional bow, Lillith whipped around and marched down the hall, perhaps expecting that Byanca would immediately follow. Likewise, the guards turned around and started away from Salvatrice, and stood in front of an elevator door waiting for it.

“Princess, be careful.” Byanca said. Out of sight of the guards, she took Salva’s hand and squeezed it. It was definitely an overreach on her part — but it didn’t feel awful.

Salvatrice cocked a little grin at her and let her go. “Like I said, don’t push your luck.”


Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria

At the top of the tower the guards opened the door to the spire’s main chamber and ushered Salvatrice in. They then turned around, shut the doors behind her and left the spire without setting foot inside. Salvatrice heard their footsteps, growing distant.

Inside the chamber there was nothing material on display, no obvious purpose. It was empty of furnishings, enclosed by unadorned walls, and there were no treasures on display. On the floor, a spiral green and brown pattern resembled vines or roots crawling along the tile. Overhead, the rising pyramidal shape of the roof, and its visible supports, untouched. At her side there was a wide open balcony with a commanding view of the green-glowing foliage of the Father-Free. A cool breeze blew into the chamber from several arch-shaped windows in the corners — they were standing high above Pallas.

In the center of the room, looking out to the balcony, stood Queen Regnant Passionale Vittoria. Her stoic beauty still struck the Princess; every time she saw her, those imperious green eyes, her fair skin, perfectly flowing locks of blond hair and features untouched by time, her figure, ample but also sleek, wrapped exquisitely in a sleeveless, ornate silk dress with a large green emerald set between her breasts. Salvatrice had scarcely seen her mother in the flesh, and every time she seemed more like a figure crafted, as though given life through the artifice of a legend like a Galathea statue.

She turned her head to her daughter, framed by the door several meters away.

She smiled; very slightly, a mere tipping of the lips, but her mother smiled at her.

“You look ravishing, Salvatrice. You have a beauty hitherto unknown to this land.”

“Thank you, Mother. You are as stunning as the Goddesses of our myths.”

Salvatrice replied graciously, and curtsied before her mother. Her compliments grated on the princess, however. Salvatrice was not “a beauty akin” to her mother, or even simply a “beauty.” She was a foreign, alien beauty; reddish hair, light brown skin, blunt ears. All of her features that were different from the norm seemed drawn into stark relief.

They each stood in their places. Vittoria turned fully to greet her, skirts trailing on the floor. Salvatrice remained at the edge of the room, standing with her hands clapped before her and set against her skirt. Neither made a move to draw near, to link hands or hug or even, in their places, to show any undue affections. Just smiles and distance.

“Did I ever tell you the story of how I became Queen, Salvatrice?” Vittoria said.

“No.”

What a ridiculous question; of course you didn’t, Salvatrice’s mind screamed. You were never there! When on Aer would you have had time to tell me a story? It took all her moderation to continue smiling neutrally when her mind and soul seethed so strongly.

To Vittoria there was no contradiction in this, no acknowledgment of the absurdity of it. In all earnestness, she stretched her arms, gesturing to the breadth of the chamber around them. She looked up, at the roof, and around herself. She turned around.

“This room is quite nostalgic. It is here where my journey as a Queen truly began.”

Salvatrice looked around. This was alarming; there was significance in the air here. If this room meant anything to Vittoria then it was ominous that Salvatrice now stood in it.

“Was it empty at that time, Mother? Were you made to view the Father-Tree?”

Vittoria paced; Salvatrice heard the tapping of her heels under her voluminous skirt.

“I was a mere twenty years of age. This room was very different. It was surrounded by mirrors. You could not escape the sight of yourself in this room. It was known as the Chamber of Selection. All truths were laid bare before the Chamber of Selection.”

At her mother’s words the princess found her gaze wandering, scrolling across the walls, lingering on the floors. She saw the bolt-holes, where the mirrors would have once been screwed into place. A room full of mirrors, where one could not evade oneself — Salvatrice could imagine it. In her mind it was a macabre place. The way her Mother stared at the walls almost seemed to mirror this. Salvatrice could have sworn she saw a hint of disgust or trepidation in her mother’s countenance as she recalled the surroundings.

Again the Queen began to speak, and this time her tale was longer, and Salvatrice listened without interruption, swallowing all emotion but the facade of a smiling face.

“Once upon a time, my daughter, there was a young King, whose father passed, having spent his life unsuccessfully clinging to an Empire in decline. This young King wanted little responsibility, and longed only for domesticity; he was a shy king, fond of quiet.”

“Upon the eve of his coronation, his older, proper female relatives took it upon themselves, as is the ancient custom of this land, to seek a woman who could inspire his passion and improve upon his bloodline, which was much intermixed within the close-knit circles of the high aristocrats. They settled on three candidates, but two were problematic, for one crossed the King’s bloodline several times, and the other was thought too low-born to be appropriate. Nevertheless, all were brought here, to this room, one by one.”

“Surrounded on all sides by mirrors, the women were stripped of their clothes, and thoroughly examined. Width of the hips, size of the skull, physiognomy, length of limbs, body fat, and of course, virginity. The King’s grandmothers and aunts and older sisters, this assortment of the most proper ladies; they found, after their inspection, that there was only one woman who had the character and health to support the kingdom.”

Vittoria turned her head over her shoulder, staring sidelong at Salvatrice.

“I hated what they did to me, how they saw me that day; it disgusts me to this day.”

There was vitriol in her voice. Salvatrice felt a thump in her chest as she listened.

“Our traditions, by and large, disgust and repel me. Years later I would take my bloody revenge on the King’s nonni for that slight. With these two hands, Salvatrice, I closed the circle those crones began on the eve when they selected me as wife to their King.”

She turned fully around, and wore a suddenly darkened expression. Her eyes downturned, her lips curled in a stoic displeasure, her hands held behind her back.

“When you were born, doctors took you from me and deliberated about you as if you were an anomaly or a myth. They said explicitly they did not know whether I had chosen a correct name for you. It disturbed me. It reminded of that time in the elector council. People being treated like lumps of meat.”

Vittoria stretched one of her hands back out from behind herself, and though there was nothing in it, she did it with such quickness that Salvatrice nearly jumped back with fright. She always thought Vittoria would smack her from across the room somehow.

“I purged every doctor who had anything to do with that unneeded panic at your birth, and I sought out doctors on the cutting edge of science, young and with open minds. I did not want doctors with knives who viewed you as a creature. Nobody deserves that.”

Lies, lies, lies. Salvatrice fought back the urge to shout. You killed those doctors because they hurt your ego, not because they wanted to hurt your child; though the result was the same Salvatrice knew that the origin was different. This was not love.

“Whenever we met during your childhood, I saw you growing and growing into a fine princess. And I saw your enthusiasm to be a princess. I sought every resource available to make you the best princess that you could possibly be, the healthiest, best educated, least poisoned by bureaucratic indulgence. I only wish I could have been there more for you during that time.”

Salvatrice closed her hands into fists at her side. This was all embellishment. As a child Salvatrice only called herself what other people called her; what her mother called her. She didn’t know anything back then. She didn’t really know much now. Though she was happy enough with the result of all these years, all these doctors and medicines and treatments, these examinations, all the things taboo to medicine that she was and was made to be; that chaos and confusion was not a calculated, loving decision by her mother. It was the result of neglect and receiving only what Vittoria wanted to give. She could have been Sylvano or Salvatrice. She had accepted both, in a sense. That was not Vittoria’s doing!

“But Salvatrice, I already knew it when I held you as a child. What I saw then was unambiguous. I knew who my daughter was and I knew what she truly wanted and what it was her birthright to become in the end. From the moment you were born, I knew that it was you who needed the utmost protection, who needed to be sheltered from the melee that was unfolding in these walls. Not Clarissa; you. Always you, Salvatrice.”

Her words nearly drew tears from Salvatrice’s eyes. She wished she had a broader skirt so that her knees could quiver openly. Salvatrice felt as though there was a skin under her own and a creature ready to lunge from it for the Queen’s throat. She was furious.

Vittoria was painting her own picture of Salva’s life, and all of the paint came from her own ego, her own untouchable ego. She had never done anything wrong, never abandoned her — in her own mind she was always the winner. And she said those horrible words, those erasing words, those words that spat on Salvatrice’s entire life as she had lived it; Queen Vittoria said them with such stoic ease and perfect delivery that it hammered at Salva’s mind.

She had not abandoned Salvatrice because of her dangerous illegitimacy, fathered by a foreign diplomat, and born ambiguous and unplaceable in a binary world; in Vittoria’s mind she had protected her and groomed her in a unique way! Oh how convenient for the Queen!

“One princess, grown among her people; the other, raised amid the repulsive ideological debauch of this Pallas and its squabbling, incompetent nobles and knights.” Queen Vittoria raised one hand, and then other, one palm-up, one palm-down. Salvatrice didn’t know which hand was supposed to represent her. They went up both at once.

Teeth clenched, hidden behind her lips, Salvatrice stilled her ragged breath as best as she could to deliver a short, crucial line. “Mother, how am I meant to serve on this day?”

She needed to cut her off this subject. She needed to do anything to reassert herself, to reassert that her version of the events was the real one. Salvatrice needed to be anything but this unique, uniquely loved, uniquely trained model daughter; she needed again to be the abandoned and reclaimed tool of a callous, monstrous despot. Otherwise her mother’s words would truly dig into her brain as if the unvarnished truth, erasing her own life.

“Salvatrice, I must confess to you, that I have lied, though I have done it to protect you, and I believe the lie a white one for the most part.” Vittoria said. She turned her back on Salvatrice again and paced to the end of the room, where she picked something up from a window.

“In what sense, Mother?” Salvatrice asked, her voice a little choked.

Vittoria flicked something her way — Salvatrice caught it against her chest.

It was a cardboard envelope, and inside there were photographs of a man, hair gelled back, a fine beard across his soft features, a boyishly handsome sort of person. There were also photographs of this man and a woman, a delicate little blond– Clarissa.

“It was never about Clarissa being indiscreet, for I do not care how many men she claims her own as long as she does so cautiously and uses them properly. Her indiscretion was the man she chose and what she chose to do with that man.”

Vittoria glided across the floor, and stood face to face with Salvatrice.

“That man is the leader of an anarchist cell known as New Humanity. His nom de guerre is Cesare Regal. He is connected to the attacks that have been transpiring across the country, but he is not a foreigner: he is an elf, born of this land, educated here, wealthy, and ambitious. He tapped into the ego that this environment cultivated in your sister. She plotted against me; now he plots against you in revenge for her.”

Salvatrice felt her mother’s fingers tip her chin up. They locked eyes.

Seeing deep into those callous green eyes Salvatrice could hold her tongue no longer.

“You used me as bait! All this time! To draw this man out!” Salvatrice shouted. She shouted each set of words as the revelation reverberated inside of her mind. That was why the surveillance was ended; going farther back, that was why Salvatrice was allowed to return to her studies after the trip to Nocht. Clarissa was removed, to provoke this man.

Salvatrice was promoted, and she was made vulnerable, to provoke him!

Vittoria grinned; she shook her head at her daughter, both amused and disappointed.

“No.” Vittoria said. She savored every word. “You are not bait, Salvatrice. You are the future Queen of Lubon. And you will show me the Power of a Queen by destroying this man and everything of his. You will do it because your past, present and future depend on it.”

She set her hands on Salvatrice’s shoulders and the Princess felt a sudden weight.

It was almost enough to make her collapse, and she did not know whose strength she borrowed to remain standing throughout that exchange, and to keep her eyes open. She felt like the hands of her mother were here to finally sink her into the earth where she belonged.

The Queen’s striking green eyes were no longer stoic and indifferent; they had been set ablaze by a malignant fire that illuminated a purpose reserved only for Salvatrice.


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