The Legions of Hell — Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains scenes of violence and death, as well as a mention of suicidal ideation.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE, Night

Solstice Dominance — Postill Square

A bonfire raged in the massive common square outside of the main barracks. Revolutionary Guard and KVW soldiers stood around it, staring into it, quiet, seemingly pensive. They threw badges, patches, identifications into the flames. Their old lives as part of the government were over. Men and women looked on at their comrades before taking their turns. There were similar expressions across every face, difficult to read, regardless of whether KVW or Revolutionary Guard. Both the black-uniformed and red-and-gold uniformed troops looked the same, and had similar training. They had similar opinions about the events in the city. Warden Kansal had given them orders, and they would follow them. It was impossible that a disloyal thought could cross their minds. Those who were used to the eccentricities of KVW-conditioned people, though, could see signs of anxiety. Pacing, lack of sleep and loss of appetite, reluctant eye contact. They were humans still, after all. They feared for the future.

Everyone resisting the Civil Council traveled to the far north of the city, assembling in barracks around the grand plaza dedicated to the first Revolutionary Guards who had fought so bravely to free Solstice from the Empire during the Ayvartan Civil War, the Revolution. Trucks were still arriving at the old ceremonial base, carrying police and Revolutionary Guards from across the vast capital city. An army growing to almost 200,000 troops built up, unit by unit, with the ten divisions of the Revolutionary Guards making up the bulk, along with several divisions of police rearmed as KVW soldiers, and the 3rd KVW Mechanized Division.

It was an army that could have conquered the city it had sworn to protect. Instead, under orders from Warden Kansal, they abdicated their positions, essentially going on strike. They would not abide the suspicious allegiances of the Civil Council — but they also did not mobilize to end it. They could not mobilize south to fight Nocht even if they wanted to — their rail capacity was at its limits, and any other mode of transportation would not be enough.

There was only one enemy in sight, and they chose to fight it in a different fashion.

The Warden knew that the city administration was reeling from this mass betrayal. The Civil Council had always loved the police and guards, so courteous and loyal, perfect in their demeanor and professional in their duties. The Civil Council loved obedience and order and they let their guard down around anyone after they obeyed enough orders and followed enough regulations. But who established them? Who trained them? These things could not be removed by simply changing jurisdictions and making new uniforms. The Revolutionary Guard and Police accepted severance from the KVW because Kansal allowed it to happen. She allowed them to become part of the Civil Council, she allowed herself to become separated from her followers this way, because they were still loyal to her throughout.

Warden Kansal’s trump card was always poorly hidden. It was disbelief that kept suspicion at bay. She counted on a lack of understanding, first and foremost. She was always blunt. She hid only because people opted not to see her. Always those eyes had overlooked her for one reason or another. Perhaps because she was a woman; perhaps because in the past she had been injured, altering the functioning of her body. Perhaps because she seemed foolish.

How could this one woman control hundreds of thousands of people? How could she, with the snap of a finger, organize them to turn their backs on everything they committed themselves to for years without an inkling of visible rebellion? Short of magic, it was simply not possible. Across the last five years everyone was certain that the Police was the Police and the Revolutionary Guard the Revolutionary Guard. The KVW had been broken and shrunk.

Short of magic, indeed. It was not magic, but much of it might as well have been. It had worked miraculously.

Now the Warden stared out at the consequences of her decision. From the second floor of the barracks, her temporary new home, she watched as the guardians of the city gathered in this strip of land, to live away from their police stations, from their depots, from everything still nominally owned by the Civil Council. An army, essentially, on strike; and a city visibly bereft of their stewardship. Crime was always low, and grew lower the more people discovered that socialism was apparently here to stay, and that it was largely taking care of them. Would people revert to barbarity without them? Certainly not. But they would see the movement. They would understand that things were changing, and perhaps for the worse. Perhaps, now freed from hunger, they would take notice of the politics around them.

There would be anxiety and tension; the violence of the world upon the human mind. Violence could bring change.

Daksha Kansal felt that violence in her own mind, and it made it hard to understand her own thoughts. Other people could see a continuity of their experiences, and they could analyze the torrent of information that led them to action. Daksha’s mind was hurt, and when she most needed to look into herself, she most felt the wound, and retreated from the pain. So she acted, and she spoke, brashly, without much forethought. She moved like the chaos she had caused. There was always change in her, something storming in her own mind, and she would move with it and storm in the world, bound up in passion, whether loving or hateful.

“Among all religions, the Messians, the Ancestor-Worshipers, the Spiritists, the Diyam; all of them believe that the world was forged in fire. I don’t believe, but I understand what they see in that first flame, the World Flame. I can see why they think we all rose from fire.”

She spoke. Individual words came quickly, and frantically they joined to create meaning.

Behind her, Admiral Kremina Qote looked up from a long table that had become her new desk. Despite how quickly Kremina spoke and how little she thought about what she would say, her words always had meaning for Kremina. She gave her a subdued smile, looking wistfully at the floor.

“Well. One way or another, the whole world is likely burning now.” Kremina said.

“Indeed. Was this trajectory inevitable? Or, had we been stronger, could we have built something more lasting?”

“Daksha, this is not over yet, we have not–”

Daksha raised her hand to stop her, all the while continuing to speak.

“As a child, I suffered grievously. I saw people build and rebuild only to face continuing destruction. I perpetuated it myself. I have always felt myself drawn to violence and scarred by violence. I have committed horrible, horrible acts. Could the world be changed by anything else?”

“Are you going to overthrow them?” Kremina asked suddenly. “I would support you.”

Daksha paused. She broke eye contact, staring at a candle on the table.

“I don’t want to. I wanted my Revolution to end the violence. But I can’t seem to escape it.”

Daksha’s mind was like a cipher but Kremina was closer to earth. Her feelings were tangible. Kremina felt ashamed of herself for a moment, but she also felt strongly that this violence was necessary. When she was younger she thought she saw virtue in compromise, but tension now cut through her restraint and made her optimism appear naive. She hated the ridiculous government that had needled its way to influence over Ayvarta. She hated the passivity she felt in interacting with them on their level. Were they not revolutionaries? Why not murder them all? Why not run right into council, and excise all of those irrelevant fools from the world. What was the worth of an election where people chose between hacks who had simply swapped into a new political aesthetic to remain relevant and imperious?

“We need to put a stop to this while we still have land to fight over, Daksha.” Kremina insisted.

“People need to be spared this cycle.” Daksha said. “People cannot grow like I have, feeling what I do. They need stability. When the world changes they need to see it that it is not just fire that does it. People aren’t phoenixes: they can’t keep rising healthily out of fire and ashes. They should not have to burn to a crisp to see the world grow better. This is why we are merely striking. I want to believe that a healthy body can molt bad skin without flaying itself.”

“I know your trepidation, Daksha, but in this case I am coming to believe that more radical action might be required. Our people will not be spared fire if the Civil Council does not commit to fighting this war fully and immediately. We need major changes. The Collaborators sympathize with Nocht: I can feel it. Their ambivalence is only that if Nocht takes over, they have no guarantee that it will be their Empire again. Kaiserin Trueday will not spare them the rod. They don’t care about their own people; all they want is to reposition themselves for privilege, morphing to take advantage of whatever environment they’re in, like chameleons.”

“That might be a little harsh.” Daksha said. She was treading lightly. It felt very fake and unlike her.

Kremina scoffed at this. “Can we be truly so sure? Don’t you also feel this from them?”

Daksha turned away again, her eyes fixed on the black, moonless sky overhead. Even the stars were bleak. Light from the bonfire stretched far across the square and shadows stretched with it. Passersby put on a play on the walls with their every movement across the great fire. Even now she was trying to protect Kremina. Between them there were many dynamics clashing; they were lovers, state partners, military minds, comrades, revolutionaries. They had been so many things together and occupied so many roles toward on another. Kremina thought Daksha’s distance misguided. But she said no word of obvious criticism.

“What would you have us do? What will it take then for us to take action?” Kremina demanded.

“I want the Council to collapse and make way.” Daksha said. “I don’t want to be the new tyrant. I want the upheavals to end.”

“You don’t have to be a tyrant to depose a broken government!” Kremina said.

She could tell Daksha was not listening to her in full. The Warden had a tired, dreaming look in her eyes.

“I am putting my hopes on Nakar. I’m not religious, yet I foolishly desire a sign from her. She showed us a sign before, didn’t she? As a child, we saw in her the power to destroy something that seemed eternal, and to erect something better in its place. The Empire was vast, and it claimed to be god-forged, eternal. Madiha Nakar came to us out of squalor and mud, and she brought that Empire to ruin. Can we not have that sign again in our time?”

“She forgot everything.” Kremina said. She spoke in an almost pleading voice. “Her powers might have died along with the Empire. You are elevating her to a position that we are not sure she can take; or that she even wants. We are an army, Daksha, we are more than one person!”

“I know. I know it is irrational. But I will give her time. Upon her I want to pin my humanity. It is unfair to use her again like this, after all we have done. But I want to believe that there can be something for us other than a second civil war with an even greater foe waiting to pounce upon us.”

Kremina gazed upon her lover with pain. Both of them buckled under the weight of this crisis.

“I understand that. But if you won’t do what is necessary, if it becomes necessary, then I will have to.”

Daksha smiled. Kremina stood resolute. “I don’t wish that blood on anyone’s hands.” Daksha said.

“When the time comes it will be my decision. We tried our best for all these years to work with them, and to try to rationally reconcile all of our positions for the good of people. We have housed them and fed them, but have we truly freed them? Or are they simply waiting in the interim between one set of tyrants and another burgeoning set? That is my fear, Daksha, when I speak to these councilors and when I engage their politics in good faith. I can’t anymore.”

“Let us wait for a while. Worse comes to worse, I promise I will be history’s monster. Not you.”

Her attitude changed easily when others swore themselves to extremes. Daksha was still protecting her, still trying to be the first to die, still making herself the monster, the face of the evil the world saw in them. Kremina saw her then as she had seen her over 25 years ago, when they made their secret pact. She was a low-ranked naval officer, slim and untouched by the world. Daksha was tall and strong, only lightly weathered by old age, her skin a warm brown like baked leather, her hair short and black as the night. One of her arms had been broken horribly and now it moved with difficulty. One of her legs was stiff from injuries. She was awkward in pure motion, but with her own grace, taken in aggregate. Strong, passionate; that was the Daksha she knew. But she saw herself always as the monster.

“Can we wait? Kremina?”

She reached out her hand. Kremina took it. Their fingers entwined. Irrationally, they would wait.

As these two souls tried desperately to see through the fog suddenly surrounding each other, suddenly clouding the world they thought they knew, ambivalence reigned around the capital. Everyone wanted to see a future ahead of them. As the patches of the police and revolutionary guards burnt in the bonfire outside, everyone waited, almost religiously, for a sign that might justify a course of action, for better or worse. Their eyes fell on Bada Aso.

Perhaps there was another monster there in whom they could all count.

24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Nocht Federation Republic of Rhinea — Citadel Nocht

Citadel Nocht was alive with the ringing of phones and the crackling of noisy radios. Under a constant barrage of snow the massive spiraling black building that was the nerve center of the Federation housed thousands of workers, hundreds of guards; its offices fielded millions of questions and gave billions of answers through kilometers upon kilometers of telephone and telegraph wire. These were the neurons that carried impulse for the movements of Nocht’s 48 state organs and its untold amounts of limbs, the most important of which, at the present included the Schwarzkopf secret police, the Brown Shirt police, the Vereinigte Heer, the Luftlotte and Bundesmarine. At the crown of this man-made encephalon was the office of the Federation President, elected by the voters of each state. Largely, this organ existed to digest a world’s worth of information and within the day both inform this singular man, and transform his reactions into a world’s worth of policies, answers, and, lately, retributions.

This was the machine of the Libertaire technocrats, the temple of their industry, the proving ground of their science.

Atop this machine, the exceptional man seethed; President Lehner had received a world’s worth of news.

A wave of terrorist attacks in Lubon had slowed the tottering nation of elven faeries even further than expected; in Yu-Kitan resistance from the Jade Throne and the communist guerillas in the jungles of the interior had forced the Hanwan Shogun to commit more troops and reduce his own commitment to the larger war. While attacks on the major ports of northern Ayvarta were still planned, supporting landings in other areas would be cancelled. In Nocht itself, Lehner’s foolish and misguided voters broke out in riots over a tightening on banks and groceries to prevent malcontents from hoarding resources the nation required. His brown shirts and black heads had gone swiftly to work, but the minor episodes across the Republics of the Federation left a sour taste in his mouth. He thought his people better educated than this; he would have to take new and special efforts to instill upon them proper and patriotic values. He needed his population capable of supporting a war.

War was the current bright spot; a week’s worth of fighting was going beautifully.

But Lehner did not pride himself on complacency. He found problem areas, and he seethed at them too.

To his office he summoned General Aldrecht Braun, chief of the Oberkommando Des Heeres. He was the kind of man that Lehner hated. Facing him was like peering at a museum piece. He was thin as a stick and straight as one, his skin graying, pitted, covered in cracks. He had an old world flair to him, a chiseled countenance with a dominating mustache that seemed to link to his sideburns, and a dozen medals on his black coat none of which Lehner had given him. Through the double doors he strode proudly into the office, chin up, maintaining eye contact; he trod casually upon the blue bars, red block and white stars of the Nochtish flag, over the eagle carrying the 48 arrows of the Federation. All of the Presidents peered down at him from their portraits. He did not sit before Lehner’s desk.

Always, he stood, and always, he stared, keeping Lehner’s eyes. Miserable old codger; Lehner could’ve spat at him.

But it would not do to give anyone that satisfaction. It would have looked bad in the papers.

“Mr. President, it is always an honor to be in your presence. I assume you have received current information.”

“I have,” Lehner replied, smiling, “Actually, wanted to talk to you about that, big fella. I’ve spoken with some ladies and gentlemen about a few planes; well, actually not a few, quite a lot. A disturbing amount of planes, none of which are flying, would you happen to know anything about that?”

President Lehner always spoke in a rapid-fire tone, as though his thoughts would run away from him if he did not hurry.

“I heard that Air Admiral Kulbert has grounded the Luftlotte due to losses.”

“Yeah, I know! Funny that! I told him to ground it after he gave me this ridiculous number of planes he lost to try to help your boys break into a city that, by the way, they still don’t seem to have broken into at all. Two hundred sorties two days ago, a hundred yesterday, none today? What?”

“First incursions into Bada Aso begin tomorrow, Mr. President. All has its due time.”

“So,” President Lehner started to laugh, a nervous, haughty laugh, an effort to conceal his rising fury, “so Braun, tell me about those planes, huh? Don’t try to divert me from those planes, right, my man? I love planes, I have a plane right here in my desk because I love fucking planes. So let’s be honest. Tell me about how we lost almost five hundred planes in two days, and then if you’d be so kind, tell me why I haven’t sacked you yet. I’m eager to listen! Always eager to listen to my personnel. Love my peeps, y’know? I don’t love losing five hundred fucking planes but whoo,” He exhaled thoroughly, “I can give you the benefit of the doubt.”

General Braun was direct. “We have not lost 500 planes. We lost 388, with 42 critically damaged, 70 lightly damaged–”

President Lehner interrupted him. “Word of advice? This angle is not saving your job right now.” He picked up a model airplane from his desk, and raised his hand up with it. “This is your job right now. And this is where it’s going.” He dropped the model; it smashed on  the desktop.

General Braun winced as the pieces flew from the desk. Several fell in front of his shoes.

“My apologies, Mr. President. I do not have the full details, but from what I understand the air defense network in Bada Aso seemed to have become much more efficient than we anticipated. Our highest losses occurred on the very first day, and were minimal the day after.”

“Well, yeah, because you flew less sorties. Otherwise you’d have pissed away even more of my planes.”

“With all due respect sir, I do not command the air troops: Kulbert might be able to tell you more.”

President Lehner smiled. “You’re right Braun. You’re right. Let’s just press on, shall we? We’ll talk about those planes more in the future, because they won’t ever fly again over the Adjar dominance without my explicit authorization. So, we have all the time in the world, don’t we.”

General Braun did not flinch. He remained standing. President Lehner’s own frenetic pace worked against him, and he felt an almost physical pain at the thought of remaining on the subject of the damaged planes. Quickly they turned to discussing the ground forces. Braun displayed an intimate knowledge of the city of Bada Aso, the final bastion of the communist resistance in Adjar. The city had not yet been seriously challenged from the ground, and the forces retreating pell-mell from the rest of the region had gathered there to make their stand; or, Lehner assumed, they had been merely told not to run any further on the pain of death, and thus the pathetic flight of the communist forces by coincidence had happened to end there. It’s what he would have done. Braun boasted about his advantages.

“We know the city and surrounding regions like the backs of our hands now; we have resources from the communist side.”

Lehner blinked with surprise. “I love having people inside places; I don’t understand how we did it though. I thought these people were fanatical.” He replied. “Can you trust anything they say? Who did you manage to rope in anyway? Are you picking through the peasants for wiseguys or something?”

“A few officers from the Adjar command, and a few captured soldiers. Apparently the invasion caused them to reconsider their allegiances. It’s not surprising to me. Adjar was one of the most rebellious Dominances of the old Ayvartan Empire. When the Empire fell, Adjar moved quickly to secede into its own country, same with Cissea and Mamlakha. But Adjar didn’t get away with it: the communists tightened the screws on them. They would win eventually, but Adjar resisted enough that they settled things with a truce instead and formed a collaborative government, making certain concessions to the rebellious territories. There have been seeds of anti-communist rebellion in Adjar ever since, though the Ayvartan KVW has swiftly rooted out and crushed many. But the sentiment never really left, I feel.”

“Love a good history lesson, but cut to the chase here. What have ‘our people’ done for us yet, huh?”

“For one, we have some decent basic maps of Bada Aso, as well as a thorough understanding of the forces inside. Their intelligence has been valuable in guiding our pace, Mr. President. And that is why Bada Aso is not yet under attack. We’ve made preparations. Tomorrow, the hammer will fall upon it.”

“Battlegroup Ox are our opponents, right? Led by that ore smuggler, Gowon. A pretty farcical enemy if you ask me.”

“Indeed. Gowon has proven very predictable so far. He saw us, turned tail and ran. But we’ve got him cornered now. He has about eight good divisions and two resoundingly pathetic tank divisions at his disposal. All of them are holed up inside the city. We will advance from the south and force a sizable foothold within the city, and once we have tied up their forces, we will sweep in from the east across the Kalu. Von Sturm is the primary architect of this assault. Meist, Anschel and Von Drachen stand in support. Lead elements are the Blue Corps, 6th Grenadier and 13th Panzergrenadier; in the Kalu we will use the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions.”

“I’m not fond of that Drachen guy,” President Lehner said, “I read his file. Actually, my secretary read his file, and then she told me I wouldn’t be fond of him. Guess what? I wasn’t. She’s a sharp lady; anyway, I don’t like him. He’s weird. Did you know that’s not even his name? Tell me about a man who chooses to name himself Von Drachen and won’t tell you his real name. How pretentious; I’m not fond of him at all, Braun, not at all. I don’t like him or his fake name.”

“He was commissioned by your predecessor sir. He practically delivered Cissea to us in a few weeks.”

“Well, y’know, sometimes you have to recognize geniuses even if they’re assholes. The man’s got a gift for killing people. But I wouldn’t give him a front-line position in a really critical urban operation. There’s a difference, it’s like friends you drink with and friends you show your parents.”

Braun nodded deferringly. “Then do you wish for me to impress upon Von Sturm this difference?”

“Oh, no, that’d set us back right now. Just. Ugh. Ignore I said anything. This was a stupid angle.”

“If you say so, Mr. President.”

President Lehner was fickle, and he knew it, but he let his moods carry him away. In speech he let his wild flourishes of the tongue go where they went, and when there came a time to confront an issue his massive staff could not quantify and break down, he let his instincts dictate the course. His mood had not yet failed him; he had rode it over opposition that deemed him too young and brash for the office, and now he rode it over a people in his eyes too old and worn to capably fight back against. It was nature, science, progress; it was manifest that the new men would defeat and replace the old. He was the New Man.

Behind the big desk, President Lehner felt compelled to extend discourse to his lessers. What was meant to be a quick chewing out and terrorizing of a hated officer, turned into an hours-long discussion on war and strategy in which General Braun almost impressed the President. Not in his ability to talk or conduct war, which Lehner largely thought overrated: but rather, in his ability to stand, unblinking, and speak for extended periods. What a hilarious old buffoon.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Adjar Dominance — Outskirts of Bada Aso, South-Center District

While gray clouds still loomed overhead, the Kalu region and Bada Aso received none of the expected rain.

Under the muggy gloom, a new army advanced across the wet grassland and over the muddy old roads.

From the southern approach the city was eerily quiet. The Landsers could hear every mechanical struggle and hiccup and neigh of their long convoy of vehicles and horses. An entire Battalion rode to battle that day, comprised of over 800 men in vehicles and mounts, but nobody met them through their long drive. Even the wind was quiet, picking up little except foul smells of day-old smothered fires. Gradually they left the countryside behind and pushed into the urbanization of Bada Aso. Dirt roads turned black with sturdy pavement; clusters of buildings grew thicker around them, though few stood taller than burnt out foundation. The 6th Grenadier Division’s 2nd Battalion crept through the ruins of the outer neighborhoods of Bada Aso, finding several kilometers worth of ghost town. It seemed like three out of every four buildings had been smashed by bombs, and the debris spilled across the streets. Near the city limits the mounds and stretches of debris that dotted the landscape were largely surmountable, either short enough to cross or near a clean road by which they could be circumvented. With every block bypassed the ruins raised new challenges. In the thicker urbanization there were larger buildings and tighter crossings. The 6th Grenadiers found themselves considerably slowed down by their mounts and vehicles.

Soon the Landsers stopped entirely. They found themselves faced with a wall of rubble from a massive, five-story tenement collapse.

Captain Aschekind gave the dismount order. At the head of the convoy, a single Squire half-track unloaded its compliment of ten men, who quickly surveyed the wall. Aschekind was among them. Other Rifle squads mounted on horses and a few on trucks dismounted and assembled in turn. In all there were over 40 of these squads, accounting for more than half the men in the battalion. Making up the rest were support groups of Norgler machine gunners, a small cadre of snipers, and far behind them at the rear of the march, communications officers and the logistics train. Food, ammunition, medical; over a kilometer behind for safety. They would start putting down wires for field telephone, and coordinate the arrival of reinforcements and the deployment of higher-level assets: 2nd Battalion lacked any kind of personal anti-tank guns or heavy artillery support, all of it waiting to be released piecemeal by the Divisional command that largely still lagged outside of the city. Horse-drawn carts would have to pull many of these weapons into the city, and would also be responsible for towing them between reserve zones and combat areas.

In the midst of all this, Private Kern Beckert was overwhelmed with uncertainty.

Nocht was moving. Boots hit the ground in Bada Aso. To the east and west, the Cissean Azul corps protected their flanks. They had arrived first, and they were likely fighting even as the Nochtish men dismounted. For the 6th Grenadier Division’s 2nd Battalion the most crucial objective had been saved. They would drive down the center and secure the major thoroughfare of Bada Aso, winning operational freedom for Nocht’s motor and horse pool, and armored forces.

Or at least that had been the theory; given the poor terrain conditions it seemed much more complicated than that.

As his fellow Landsers dismounted, checked their weapons and awaited orders to march, Kern faced the rubble in front of him and the debris-choked expanse of the city around him, and even in the midst of hundreds of his fellow men, he felt remarkably small. He knew none of the other men. He hardly spoke to them. He felt his burning in his gut when he thought of speaking to anybody. What would he tell them? Riveting stories from the corn farms of Oberon?

He put up a tough front, because everyone else seemed to do the same. There was idle chatter from men who had fought alongside one another before and had some familiarity. This was Kern’s first combat action. He had been assigned to 2nd Battalion just a few days ago from the reserve.

What was he doing in Ayvarta? He had thought the world smaller than it was. It was too big for a farmer’s boy.

He shouldn’t have run from home.

Before he knew it, Captain Aschekind called for a forward Company, over 200 men; and Kern found himself moving, mimicking the eager men around him. They joined their Captain at the edge of the rubble, and began to climb the high mound. Aschekind was a monument of a man, broad-shouldered, thick-armed, imposing in his officer’s coat. His fists seemed more frightful than his pistol. An angry red scar crossed his left cheekbone. His expression was grim and focused, betraying little of what he might have thought of the men around him. Kern felt helpless around him, and instinctually feared him even more than the prospect of the enemy. The Captain hardly seemed to climb; instead he took determined steps up the slippery rubble, crunching with his feet on the dusty cement, brick, wood and jagged rebar debris.

Kern was just an ordinary man; a boy, some would even say, barely twenty years. Blonde and blue-eyed and clean-faced, athletic, or so he once thought. Perhaps the sort of man that a man like Aschekind once was, before war turned them into moving stone. He climbed with his hands and his feet, as though crawling up the mound. Dust and small rocks fell in the wake of faster climbers and momentarily dazed him. He felt the sharp rock and bits of metal scrape him through his gray uniform. His kit felt heavier than ever. He had a grenade, he had his rifle, he had various accouterments. He had extra ammunition for his squad’s light machine gun. He was exhausted a dozen hand-holds up the rubble, perhaps nine or ten meters from the floor. Kern struggled to catch his breath. Groaning men wedged up past him.

He cast eyes around himself at his fellow climbers. He could hardly tell who was even in his own squad.

Atop the mound of rubble they had a commanding view of the surrounding area. It was hotter and drier up there than on the road. There was a breath-taking view from over the rubble, but he wouldn’t get to cherish it for long. Aschekind tersely ordered the men to drop to their stomachs and crawl so they would not be spotted atop the mound. Forward observers moved front, surveying with binoculars the streets ahead. From their position they relayed that they could see the first Ayvartan defensive line, compromising rings and pits and low walls of sandbag barriers around heavy machine guns and a couple of light mortars. Observers reported that the communists had based their defense in two echelons of forty or fifty troops, including, regrettably, both men and women, and these cadres stood each across from the other on a tight, three-road intersection like a side-ways T. Overturned buildings, mounds of rubble and shattered streets that would block the full brunt of the enemy’s attack covered half of the way to the enemy’s defenses at the intersection. Then just as starkly the ruins stopped for hundreds of meters.

For significant length of the way to the intersection the assault would have to be carried out over pristine terrain.

Kern listened with growing trepidation. Captain Aschekind, however, was unmoved by this obstacle.

“Establish the 8 cm mortars here. Rifle squads will advance. We may yet surprise them.” Aschekind said.

Kern and his fellow Landsers crawled along the top of the mound and slid carefully down the other end to the ground. Immediately they took cover in whatever rubble they could find. Aschekind was right: the Ayvartans had not yet spotted them. Methodically the rifle squads advanced toward the line. Squad leaders moved ahead with their designated scout partners, followed by the Gewehrsgruppe, consisting of the Company’s Norgler machine gunners. Everyone moved from cover to cover. And at first there was a king’s ransom of potential cover: a collapsed piece of the road, drenched in water from broken pipes; the overturned facade of a building, creating a mound behind which a man was invisible; husks of blown-out vehicles; and open ruins and the spaces between and around buildings.

Squad by squad the Landsers moved forward, each treading the expert paths of the men before them.

Kern found himself pressed into the middle of the column near the Gewehrsgruppe, the machine gun group responsible for volume fire to cover the Company’s advance. All of them had heavy packs, and walked in twos. Up ahead the “headquarters” consisting of various leading officers made the first moves to new cover, and directed everyone; when to run, when to duck, when individual squads should tighten or loosen formation. Behind his place in the line followed riflemen with no special designation. It was a textbook march, and they carried it out with professional character. Over two-hundred men, moving almost in secret. It was perfect.

Despite himself, he felt a strangely renewed sense of confidence when he saw everyone moving as the pamphlets showed. Perhaps by rote he could survive the battle ahead. Perhaps he had learned to be a soldier. No longer was he the farm boy running from responsibility; he was a Nochtish Grenadier.

Tactical movement carried the Company far into the rubble, but cover grew sparser as they went. About a hundred meters from the collapsed tenement, they had only waist-high cover to count on, and just a few meters from that they would have nothing. Captain Aschekind moved to the center of the men. Beneath the notice of the Ayvartans they huddled in the edge of the rubble, scouting out the defensive line. Aschekind ordered for word to be passed around the Company that squad leaders and rifle groups (but not the machine gun groups) would cross the open terrain as fast as possible. They could not count on any cover until they reached the sandbags: closing to assaulting distance was their only chance of success. Gun groups would remain behind in support. Through whispers passed around their hiding places, man to man, the entire forward company was soon appraised of the situation. Captain Aschekind ordered the assault to begin with a mortar attack on the defensive line.

Kern closed his eyes. He was soaked in sweat. It traveled down his nose and lips.

Captain Aschekind raised his portable radio to his mouth.

“Ordnance, fire at will. Smoke across the line of advance, and high explosive on the enemy.”

Seconds after Aschekind’s command, Kern heard the chunk of mortar rounds dispelling the eerie silence in the city, flying from their tubes atop the tenement rubble. Moments later they crashed back to earth, throwing up smoke to cover the advance of the Landsers and crashing across the Ayvartan’s defensive line. 2nd Battalion’s first few shells on the enemy did little more than scatter sandbags and awaken the communists. Ayvartan machine gunners took their places and opened fire on the rubble and across the long, smooth street that led to their intersection. Bereft of cover, it was like a killing field. Only the smoke prevented a massacre.

“Forward company, charge!” Aschekind shouted. “Throw down their walls and plant your boots on their faces!”

From behind cover the Landsers rose and threw themselves headfirst into the fight. As one body the Company charged ahead from their hiding places and crossed immediately into the thickening smoke over the connecting road, tackling the open stretch as fast as possible to assault their objective. No longer was theirs the movement of a methodical force, advancing efficiently in a column expertly hidden from the enemy. It was a blunt stampede. Behind them, standing a few meters off the ground atop rubble, several squads worth of machine gunners fired continuously over and around the running Landsers, directing their fire across the smoke and trying to silence the flashing muzzles of the Ayvartan defenders. Each burst of allied gunfire bought precious seconds for the desperate riflemen to run. It was all they could do.

Vorwarts!” Roared the Captain, running with his men into the death and dark.

Into the smoke advanced this march of close to two hundred men. Kern seemed caged in the center of the charge, anxious from the thunderous noise of so many footsteps. Whistling mortar ordnance crashed intermittently in their ranks, pulverizing men. Sparse but deadly fire seemed to pick off soldiers like a finger from the heavens, indecisively falling, tapping a man in the shoulder, the legs, or the head, and taking off whatever was touched. Every few seconds a choppy stream of fire from an Ayvartan machine gun took two or three men in a line. Then the enemy paused momentarily, to reload their machine guns or hide from retaliatory fire from the Norgler gunners, but soon their bullets soared across the road once again, sweeping blindly through the smokescreen for men to kill.

Landsers in the charge fired their weapons in a desperate bid to open ground for the charge. Most riflemen stood little chance of hitting a target, but the Light Machine Gunners in each Squad, ducking near the edges of the road, could match the Ayvartan’s rate of fire for the briefest moments before having to take off running again to avoid a killing spray. Ahead of the march a few men blindly threw grenades far out in front of them as they could, but the explosions did little good. Mortar shells fell intermittently and inaccurately on the communists, proving at best a momentary inconvenience to one of the positions fiercely defending the road.

Everything they threw at the line was only a minimal distraction that bought the Landsers small chunks of time between deaths and deafening blasts. Every few seconds of Ayvartan stillness took the company closer to the objective ahead, but every few seconds of Ayvartan activity claimed lives.

Kern raised his rifle and threw himself forward. He coughed in the smoke and held his breath when he could. His head was spinning, and he took clumsy steps. He felt as though constantly falling, hurling headlong down the road. Around him men fell to their knees and unto their hands, cognizant of their deaths for mere seconds before uttering their final cries. Kern cowered from streams of machine gun fire and narrowly avoided mortar blasts. Fortune smiled upon him somehow; he pushed toward the edge of the cloud, and found a shadow behind the Ayvartan line that he could attack. Closing in on the enemy, he engaged. He raised his carbine and fired a shot while running, hitting nothing, working the bolt; he saw his target, the shadow, flinch in the distance, and he fired again to no avail.

Crying out, Kern pushed himself to the brink of physical pain and finally overtook the sandbag wall, leaping over and shoving a man from behind the tripod of an empty machine gun. Over a dozen landsers overcame the defenses and bore down on the enemy with him, throwing themselves over their mortars and rushing their machine guns. Kern thrust his rifle out in front of him, coming to blows with one of the defending communists. He swung the barrel of his rifle like a club in a frenzied melee, and around him it seemed every man was suddenly fighting with fists and elbows and knives rather than guns.

But there was no bayonet on the end of his rifle, and his opponent was stronger than he. Bare forearms blocked the feeble, clubbing blows of the landser, and quick hands grasped the weapon, punishing the boy’s repeated, pathetic flailing. With a titanic pull, the communist tore the firearm from Kern’s hands, and used it to push the landser back, throwing him against the sandbag wall as though he was weightless. He then turned the carbine around.

More men vaulted the low sandbag wall, and Captain Aschekind was one. He leaped over Kern and charged in with his bare hands. He threw himself against Kern’s opponent like a charging bull, quickly pulling down the stolen rifle with one mighty hand to avoid a fatal shot, and with another taking the man by the throat, choking and lifting him off the ground. Kern’s stolen carbine shot into the earth and spared his life. Aschekind squeezed the man’s windpipe and with a mighty heave he threw the man three whole meters away. Like stone the unconscious communist struck another man to the floor, and the two of them were stabbed dead by rushing landsers using their bayonets and knives. Kern stared helplessly at the bloody brawl. It seemed then that the human wave finally tore past the sandbag wall. With the communist’s machine guns and mortars tied up, the landsers rushed confidently ahead to threaten the intersection, stepping over the bodies of fallen friends and foes.

Aschekind did not immediately join them. He half-turned to the sandbag wall and he threw Kern’s carbine against the boy.

“Bayonets before bravery, Landser.” He said, his voice deep and grim. “Affix the point before your next charge.”

Hands shaking, Kern picked through his pockets for his bayonet, and snapped it into the lug before running ahead. He took cover inside one of the mortar rings. Enemy fire resumed around him from the second echelon of Ayvartan defenders at the intersection. Forces poised on each edge, the battle for the middle of the intersection was underway. Smoke cleared, and Kern could see several enemy squads with their men and women hidden behind post boxes and street lights, inside ruined buildings and even ducking behind fire hydrants. There were probably fifty or sixty riflemen and women opposite the attacking landsers.

One ominous building stood almost intact across the intersection, and Kern saw communists run in.

From the second floor automatic fire soon rained down on the assault group. Kern saw charging Nochtmen cut easily down. Mid-run, several of the leading men turned tail, threw themselves down or grabbed what defenses they could. Few got lucky; butchered bodies littered the ground ahead.

“Hunker down! Fight from positions!” Aschekind shouted, leaping into the mortar pit with Kern. The Ayvartan machine gun across the intersection had a poor angle on them, and the sandbags stopped the enemy’s rounds, providing an adequate defense for the Captain and Kern. But it swept across the captured portions of the defensive line from commanding ground, pinning several riflemen behind scraps of sandbag wall and overturned machine gun shields.

At this range, their own gun groups could not support them well, and their mortars were far too inaccurate. It was the worst situation imaginable for Kern. Riflemen in a static fight without a base of automatic fire, against entrenched enemies. His fellow Landsers hid as well as they could and fired back, directed by Aschekind’s shouting. Several men took shots at the machine gun, but its metal shield protected the gunner perfectly within the relatively narrow window. On the ground rifle shots deflected off cover on both sides. Kern loaded his own rifle and rose quickly from cover, taking a barely-aimed shot at the building. He hit the windowsill and hid again, working the bolt on his rifle. Whenever the Ayvartan machine gun fired it issued a continuous tapping noise that sent a chill down his spine.

Fire grew sporadic and ineffective. Ayvartans had freedom of movement under the protection of their second-floor machine gun. They attacked with confidence, having the leisure to aim for targets, and they struck many more men than they lost. The Landsers were stuck. Communists began to encroach, inching closer whenever their machine gun suppressed the opposition. Nocht’s riflemen could hardly shoot back for fear of that second floor window.

Kern himself hardly knew where to shoot. Whenever he peeked out of the pit he saw dozens of the enemy, all of them either moving under the cover of automatic fire, or entrenched in unassailable positions. Rifle bullets bounced off the sandbags whenever he even thought of shooting. And even if he ranged a good target, he would have to hide again to work the bolt on his carbine, losing whatever chance he had of making a second or third shot on the same man.

His Captain seemed to have taken notice of his reticence in the face of the enemy, and scowled at him.

“Give me that.”

Aschekind yanked the rifle roughly from Kern’s grip. He attached an old, worn-out metal adapter from his satchel to the end of Kern’s rifle, and to it, he attached an old-model grenade — Kern had seen them in pictures, but not in the field. He did not believe it was a standard procurement.

“Stay down,” the Captain warned. Kern ducked even lower in cover. Captain Aschekind waited for a momentary lull in the Ayvartan’s machine gun fire, and he rose half out of cover, looking through the metal sight now sticking out from the front of the gun. He pressed the trigger but it was not a rifle bullet that fired from the muzzle, but the old grenade. It soared in an arc and crashed through the second floor window of the building across the intersection. A fiery explosion ruptured the wooden floor, and the machine gunner and the machine gun came crashing down to the ground level. In an instant the communists had lost their fire support.

Without the machine gun the volume of Ayvartan fire slowed to little more than a few cracks from bolt-action battle rifles every couple of seconds, striking harmlessly against the dirt and into the sandbags. All around him Kern saw the Nochtish troops taking notice of the stark change in the level of ambient noise. The Grenadiers grew bolder. Those men huddling in cover rose out of it and fired for the first time in minutes; and those who had been fighting most fiercely before now redoubled their efforts, shooting and working their bolts with greater speed, and moving across to new cover. Squads developed a good rhythm of shooting men, covering for reloading landsers who would then return the favor. Men stepped from cover entirely and charged forward with their rifles out. They reached the center of the intersection, and threw grenades across. Many of them fell, wounded by close-range Ayvartan fire; but their throws blasted many communists out of hiding.

Kern heard the ghastly chopping of the Norglers behind him. Streams of automatic fire crossed the intersection.

All of the Gewehrsgruppe was moving up to support them. Now the situation was fully reversed in their favor.

Pushed back and with their heavy weapons depleted, the Ayvartans became disorderly, and as their numbers began to fall, many retreated further and further out of the intersection, until they had abandoned it entirely. Grenadiers crossed the street unopposed, taking to their knees and firing at the fleeing enemy until none could be seen. Both echelons of defense at the intersection had been ejected, and the 6th Grenadier’s 2nd Battalion claimed its first objective.

Once again the eerie silence fell over the city. Without the machine guns and mortars there seemed to be nothing.

Captain Aschekind removed his grenade adapter and threw Kern’s rifle back into his hands as though he were discarding trash. He did not consider the boy any more than that and hardly looked at him while returning the arm. The Captain left the sandbag pit to survey the battleground.

“Sir!” Kern pulled himself half-up the mortar pit. “Sir, what was that weapon?”

“An obsolete piece from an old war. We should have been able to do better.”

Captain Aschekind did not turn or look at him to address him, and he kept walking coldly away.

Kern sighed. He was indeed still a farm boy; his presence had done nothing to sway the engagement.

He left the mortar pit, and looked around the intersection. He had not attacked with his squadron; he didn’t even really know what squadron he was a part of. There were dead men behind him, and littered across the approach to the intersection, dead men over the sandbag walls and in the middle of the intersection. Platoon Commanders left their hiding places. He saw them counting. Kern himself counted, and he tallied at least seventy dead men.

There were a few lightly wounded men who had been grazed or clipped in the limbs and shoulders when moving out of cover to shoot; but in this assault it seemed that the dead would naturally far, far outnumber the wounded. Soon he caught the stench of blood.

Squads regrouped, but Kern saw quite a few people like himself, in disarray, standing apart from the carnage. A few men sat on the sides of the road and Kern didn’t know whether they had been wounded, or if they were just in shock. He figured that too was a kind of wound. Nobody counted them.

There were more people coming in. From the road that had cost them so much blood to claim, a column of new men marched calmly to the intersection. Some began to haul the bodies of the dead away, while others rushed to the wounded. A horse-drawn cart appeared from one of the connecting roads to the intersection, carrying ammunition, grenades, and towing a small anti-tank gun behind itself. The rest of 2nd Battalion moved up. They were a legion walking into Hell, unknowing of the horrors herein. Nobody seemed to cover their mouths in disgust, or flinch away from bodies.

They hadn’t seen the fighting yet. They didn’t know.

Of course, Kern had seen it. And his own horror was imperceptible, mute and stunted. He heard a whistling inside his ear, becoming more pronounced from the transition from cacophony to silence. There was noise inside his head too, and he could not sort out his own thoughts quite yet.

Idly he crossed the intersection to stare at Captain Aschekind’s handiwork inside the old building.

Kern looked down at the machine gunner, lying beneath the fallen weapon and bleeding from a dozen shrapnel wounds. He thought that it was the body of a woman. He had heard tell that the Ayvartans pressed their own women to their cause, but he never believed he would see a woman die among soldiers as though she was a natural ally to the fighting men. He looked at her with silent fear. What kind of people were they? What kind of person had she been?

Back again unto the intersection, he left behind the building and the corpse. Nobody was counting the communist corpses.

Just off the intersection inside the husk of a concrete building a command post was being hastily assembled. From the horse-drawn cart three men carried out a heavy radio and set it under a hastily pitched tent. Laborers began to raise sandbags around it, while Aschekind ducked inside. Kern stood nearby.

He could hear the radio crackling. Captain Aschekind reported their victory in low, terse, grunted words.

A superior officer replied; Kern realized he had heard the man’s voice before.

“Good. Aschekind, a Panzer Platoon will meet you at the intersection, and from there you will assault Matumaini. Von Drachen is already on the move and will guard your flank. Control of Matumaini street is essential. It will give us a central jumping-off point to attack the rest of the city’s districts. Matumaini is the first step in crushing the communist resistance. Press forward, and do not stop! The Cisseans will assure your momentum and then link up with you.”

Captain Aschekind appeared for a moment frustrated with the radio. He expressed no disdain verbally. Kern saw only a flicker of anger in his eyes, and found him stressing the radio handset’s plastic shell with his powerful grip. “Acknowledged, General Von Sturm.” He said.

“Very good, Aschekind.” Von Sturm said. “I knew I could count on you, the Butcher of Villalba.”

Kern thought he saw another brief convulsion on the Captain’s face, but perhaps he only imagined it.

Major General Von Sturm cut contact, and Captain Aschekind looked down the road ahead of them, past the intersection.

He thrust a radio into Kern’s hands. Kern was surprised; he did not think the Captain even knew he was there.

“Follow me. Keep that on-hand, and keep close. We will press the attack soon.”

Kern nodded his head. Captain Aschekind departed down the road, and Kern followed. Men followed them; it seemed without further orders that the entire company was marching ahead again. Matumaini street was the next target. Kern’s hands were still shaking.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Adjar Dominance – Battlegroup Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”

Ruined blocks of old buildings flanked the broad thoroughfare up to Madiha’s House. In some respects this proved advantageous, as it improved the field of view from the higher floors. It was even harder to hide from the kilometers-long sight-line of the FOB, and it made the headquarters an even worthier prize. But Madiha had established herself in one of the forward offices, and she had the window unblocked. She wanted to see out the window, to be reminded of what happened. She wanted this penance, this torture, to gnaw at her until it destroyed her. To her, the stretch of burnt-out buildings, the damaged streets, was a symbol of her failure. She was a failed commander. At times, in her vulnerable state, she even thought of visiting the necessary retribution upon herself for her failure.

It was a frightful idea, and even more frightful how hollow she felt, that it could have taken root in her.

Parinita had perhaps noticed, as she had “misplaced” Madiha’s service revolver and always had something better to do than to replace it. It was just as well, since Madiha was not fighting. She was stuck behind the 3rd Defensive Line corps, an impromptu formation that, alongside the 1st, 2nd and 4th Defensive Line Corps, represented the men and women struggling to hold Bada Aso for as long as possible. These defensive lines differed in depth and combat ability. Half the Corps had relatively simple instructions, and the other half had a more complex purpose. But they were corps in name only, as none of them had headquarters.

They could not spare the staff for it.

They could not spare a lot of things.

Madiha could only sit and wait for the grim news as Parinita answered the phone.

“We’ve got trouble along the first defensive lines.” Parinita said, pulling the handset slightly off her head and covering the receiver with her hand.

“I expected as such, but complete the phone call first, and then relay the information.” Madiha replied.

Parinita shrugged comically and pressed the handset against her head again. When she was done she put it down.

“We’ve got trouble along the first defensive lines.” She said again in a mock sing-song.

Madiha sighed and rubbed her eyes down. “This is not a reasonable time for that.”

“I’m just dealing with things in a healthy way. I find it is better to laugh than to cry.”

“I have resolved to do neither.” Madiha said tersely. “So, without charm, what is the situation?”

Parinita shrugged comically again, but sorted herself out fast enough to preempt another complaint. “At around nine the first Nochtish forces breached the city limits. We had nothing out there to intercept them but observers, who called it in and then hauled away as you ordered. Shortly thereafter we received the first reports of fire being exchanged in the Southern district. The enemy forces appear to be approaching along Matumaini in the center, Penance road in the southwest, and the old bridge road in the Umaiha riverside in the southeast. In each place the first defensive line held out as much as it could then folded. The 2nd Defensive Line Corps are in place on Upper Matumaini, Nile street, and at the old Cathedral Of Penance along Penance road. They’re not engaged yet.”

“It is too early to confirm losses, but do our commanders on the ground have any estimates?”

“Not a clue. The 1st Defensive Line corps was deliberately undermanned so it’s not like we had a lot to lose.”

“Yes.” Madiha felt a terrible stab of guilt. It was all going according to her bloody plans so far.

“Nocht appears to have committed three separate divisions, each of which has a regiment forward.”

“I expected a little more, but no matter. We will soon spring the trap. Everyone is aware of this?”

Parinita nodded, but she had a bleaker expression on her face than before. “I reiterated the plan from yesterday’s briefing to them as best as I could this morning. But you know our officer quality is not what it should be; and the quantity is even less so. We are largely depending on a big game of telephone here to relay the plan to common troops. There were already a few episodes of panic along the front from troops who didn’t get the memo straight.”

Madiha knew too well. She was staring down the elite of Nocht’s troops, and her own army was entirely crippled.

Demilitarization was at first lauded by the Civil Council as a way of empowering the public and pushing socialism to its next stages. But the ‘arming of the citizenry’ was limited to the keeping of ammunition and weapon dumps and stocks in cities that were carefully guarded, to be distributed “during emergencies.” This was not happening now, largely because Madiha could not find the Spirits-damned depots and she was becoming sure they did not exist.

What Demilitarization entailed in practice was the curtailing of the size, prestige and ultimately, efficacy of the army. Many Generals in the Ayvartan army were dismissed; while most deserved a retirement due to their age and inability to adapt to rapid changes in technologies, very few were promoted to take their place. Those that remained were kept away from their troops, as advisers to the bureaucracy. Ranks above Captain thinned out horribly, and so lower officers were thrust with greater responsibilities, limited contact with superiors, and few opportunities for promotion. Standards were relaxed or forcibly lowered; organization was up to each individual Battlegroup. Formation sizes were wildly variable as long as the end result was an army 100,000 troops in each territory. Hundreds of thousands of reserve troops were dismissed and hundreds of thousands of capable troops were added to reserve. Overnight, the fabled “Ten Million Men” of the Ayvartan Empire evaporated.

To speak against Demilitarization was an awkward place, and few did it. Judging the role of a traditional military in a communist nation was a strange exercise. After all, was not the Imperial army largely reactionary and cruel? Madiha herself did not know, at the time, how to feel about it.

Now she felt anger and helplessness, because she was part of the body that had been sickened and weakened.

Demilitarization had accomplished its goal: both the vestiges of the imperial army and the ghost of the revolutionary army ceased to exist. In its place, was an unthreatening force that the Civil Council could entirely ignore. They created a new responsibility for themselves, and just as quickly relieved themselves of that burden and several greater burdens. The Armies could now never threaten the Civil Council, never bargain with them, and never beg of them.

While the KVW raised their own standards, and the Revolutionary Guard that protected Solstice was untouched, it mattered little.

It came from a time and place where they could not see an enemy attacking them; or perhaps, from a time when they did not want to see it.

Madiha was staring down an organized, professional army with a disastrous organization of her own. Many of her Captains were unaccounted for, heaping even more responsibilities on her Lieutenants. Parinita had told her that most of the Captains had sour relationships with Gowon and carried themselves fairly independently, conducting training on their own and traveling with their personal cadres where they pleased. Madiha figured the chaos of the invasion, their disdain for the territorial authority, combined with their lingering fear of the KVW’s inspections, must have caused them to lose their nerve and finally vanish from the ranks.

She had over ten divisions, and not a single Colonel or General among them. She was the highest rank.

In the room with her yesterday there had been two Captains and a gaggle of Lieutenants.

She gave the briefing as best as she could. She conveyed the plan for the defensive operation, Hellfire.

From there, those few officers had the task of effectively controlling the entire army to carry out this plan.

Though Parinita and her staff had done their best to return order to the organization, there was only so much that could be done at this point to combat the idiosyncrasies of Battlegroup Ox’s deployment.  Now the strategy was done; real-time tactics would have to carry the day from here on. Madiha stood from her desk, took up the phone and dialed a number. She waited through the tones and relayed the necessary orders. “Once the 1st Defensive Line fully dissolves, and the 2nd Defensive Line comes under threat, you are to wait until the enemy is fully committed against the line before launching the counterattack. Ogre tanks are authorized to join then.”

Madiha put down the phone, and sat behind her desk again. She felt helpless. Everything felt out of her hands now. Whether the counterattack on Matumaini succeeded or failed; whether the city survived; whether her own life proved to be of any worth. None of it was within her power to affect.

“Spirits guide us all.” Parinita said, looking out the window of the office. They could see none of the fighting. Only ruins.

The Exiles I

(Supplemental story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden)

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16th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Tauta — Thurin City

It had seemed alien and ridiculous, that scene on the night of the 15th of the Aster’s Gloom when the plan to end communism had fallen into his lap. Papers documenting extensively Nocht’s preparations to invade the continent of Ayvarta, and within eight months, to utterly consume it. They would attack in secret from their new client states, Mamlakha and Cissea, former Ayvartan Imperial territories. Under the shock of the surprise attack they would advance, with a focus on capturing territories, town by town, and ultimately either forcing heavy Ayvartan concessions, or utterly destroying the communists militarily.

Bercik and Kirsten had laughed. They were trapped in a stunningly bizarre situation. Along with the documents was a letter from a faceless contact, with whom Bercik had naively planned to save Nocht from the greed of the Libertaire party via a series of scathing articles.

In this letter it was made clear that Bercik should leave immediately, and within the instant he planned it almost like a vacation. Go to the seaside, take the barges to Ayvarta, deliver the documents. Become a hero; save Nocht. So easy! Almost fun. He promised Kirsten an exotic instrument from the southern continent to satisfy his love of music and crafts, and roped him in as well. After all, he had read the fatal letter aloud! They were both implicated.

Their laughter grew nervous, their cheer disingenuous; it started to dawn on them what was happening.

“You should prepare to leave immediately,” the letter had said.

This was not an invitation to a holiday. They were targets know; someone might know to go after them.

Kirsten and Bercik parted ways for the night, but Bercik could not sleep through the night of the 15th; he kept an eye on his door and his small window, wondering if a bullet could have gone through if someone knew what he had under his bed. He heard footsteps and felt himself shake There was tension in his chest and stomach, a sickening sense of vulnerability. He kept his eyes and ears peeled for anything that might target Kirsten — more than once he awoke in the middle of the night, thinking he had heard someone step in front of his neighbor’s door. Anyone in the building could have told Bercik’s terrible, invisible enemy that Kirsten was a good friend and that they frequented each other’s rooms. He laid in stark awareness of every sound, every shadow seeping under the crack of his door, and yet he could not move. He laid with a tension across his entire body, muscles tight and sweat travelling down his body, awaiting a fatal shot, or a choked scream; the silence afterward was even worse.

Each time, after several minutes, Bercik would convince himself that Kirsten was alive and safe, and he would sleep.

Morning broke this awful cycle. He knocked on the adjacent wall, and he heard knocking back, and a Guten Morgen! in Kirsten’s cheerful, high-pitched voice. Bercik sighed with relief and sat up in his bed. What little sleep he got was poor consolation for all the horrid moments he experienced awake.

He felt pathetic. Would someone stronger, more courageous, have rushed out unto the hall, ready to confront the shadows?

But then, what use was an individual’s strength against the forces arrayed against him? He had slept with the dreaded thing in his pillow. Generalplan Suden. A folder chock full of details on Ayvarta and Nocht, and the dance of death that Citadel Nocht was about to pull the communists into. Bercik did not consider himself a military guy, but he had read enough books and talked to enough war buffs to be able to summarize the documents. There was a lot of metal coming the communist’s way, and a lot of plans laid out to their disadvantage. He held this thing in his hands, and he wondered what his course of action should even be. Would someone stronger and more courageous challenge the world with this information, sacrifice themselves for what was right? He had thought, months ago, that his writing could make a difference.

Could he throw this away and go back to covering the bullshit beats? Digging up dirt and writing for the thug papers? Or worse, could he go crawling back to what was left of his family, to that dark old part of the city where there was even less in life, and beg them for whatever awful work they needed done?

What was worse was all that he did not know about his situation; for all his efforts, the choice might have already been made for him. The Schwartzkopf — Nocht’s secret police, so called for their distinctive black hats – could appear outside his door at any time, and pull him in for terrorist activities. They might even kill him on the spot and say he was dangerous and had to be neutralized. They could say he stole government secrets, and that he was a communist who would sell them out to Nocht’s enemies. Who would know or care why he had the documents? Who would question them? Planting them on him with the money and that sympathetic note might have even been part of some plot, that he was unwittingly falling for already. Perhaps his contact was trying to frame him to the Schwartzkopf. He couldn’t know!

Bercik pulled his chest from under his bed, checking through all of his possessions. Whatever happened, he could not stay here; it was too predictable. He had to go further south, whether to get closer to Ayvarta or farther from the big cities. Higwe would probably be good: there were options there, whatever he decided to do. He put on a fresh shirt and pants, his one good jacket, and over all of it his one long trench-coat. He donned his hat — his uncle had given it to him. He hated the hat, with its tall creased crown and wide curled brim; but it was the only hat that he owned. Then he sorted through his things for what to take and what to leave.  He wrapped the Generalplan Suden folder in some clothes and packed it into his waterproof briefcase. Near the bottom of his chest was his pistol, an old Zwitscherer ’12 with a handle like the stub at the end of a broom, a long thin barrel and an integral magazine in front of the trigger fed through stripper clips. He looked it over.

Certainly he would need this. He loaded ten rounds from the top, and stowed the gun in his trench-coat.

His typewriter would have to stay. Bercik could not carry it. If he wrote it would have to be in his notepad.

For the last time he left his room, locked it behind himself and took a few steps to his right. Kirsten opened the door before he could knock on it, smiling brightly. He was dressed in his own long coat, and his long, curly blonde hair was as combed as Bercik had ever seen in it, and wrapped up in a fairly proper ponytail with an actual ribbon. Bercik asked if he could come in and Kirsten stepped aside and allowed him. There was little different in his room than in Bercik’s. A small window, a bed, a little drawer, and barely any room. They each seemed to occupy a half of the room, Kirsten seated on his bed and Bercik standing up.

“We’re going somewhere, right? I’ve got a bag ready with my things.” Kirsten said.

“I don’t know.” Bercik replied. “I’m dressed up to go but I don’t really know where to begin.”

“Right. We didn’t exactly make a lot of plans yesterday except ‘let’s get out of here’.”

Both of them avoided mentioning where to go. Neither of them had any idea of how to get to Ayvarta. Bercik supposed they could hitch a ride on a fishing boat out to the Higwe, and he supposed from there they had to have ships going out to Ayvarta. The Higwe was neutral territory, even if it did favor Nocht. But across the night, the fervor of leaving their dull lives was overtaken by the enormity of that endeavor, and the terror and uncertainty of it settled inside them. Bercik didn’t tell Kirsten anything about the Schwartzkopf. Everyone who had lived on the streets knew of their existence, from word of mouth, or friends lost in the red scares. Even organized crime was starting to fear the growing presence of the Schwartzkopf. They didn’t just target agitating workers anymore. He was sure his companion had the same basis in both the reality and fiction of the arms of the law in Nocht, and the same percolating fears surrounding the letter and the documents they had.

“I know someone we can talk to about this.” Bercik said. “But I need to know if you’re really in.”

Though serious, the question quickly felt ridiculous. Here he was asking a 20-year-old paper boy who liked to sing and play instruments whether he wanted to uproot his life and probably betray his country, and for what? For nothing. All they knew was that they could either keep this secret and hope nobody else knew; or they could flee and use what they had somehow. They could try their luck, gambling with a meager living and hoping nobody knew to come after them, despite the letter telling them to leave; or they could heed its advice and go. Bercik both knew it was terrible of him to have involved Kirsten in any of this, and to continue to involve him would be worse. All Kirsten did was live next to him, express curiosity in his activities, and see something he shouldn’t have. He was innocent of it all.

But Bercik was also terribly alone, and he wanted dearly someone to accompany him in the dark.

He felt weak and vulnerable, and for the longest time he had stood in those shadows on his own.

Kirsten was smiling however. He was usually smiling, even when bad things happened around the tenements.

“I thought it over,” Kirsten said, shouldering his bag, “and I realized I don’t really have a lot here in Thurin anyway. I’m not cut out for the heavy jobs at the factories, and I’ll never get anywhere delivering papers. My family are all scattered on the streets. I’ve not heard of them in years.”

“Think it over again.” Bercik said. “This is serious. You saw those papers. Whatever we do, it’s not going to be ok with a lot of people. It’s not gonna be sight-seeing. When we pursue this story, we won’t have anywhere safe to go, and no real allies to count on.” He couldn’t believe he said pursue this story, as though he were still acting as a journalist. What would he write about, and from where? But it was an angle that he understood implicitly. Bercik knew about following leads, he knew about chasing sources, he knew about collecting facts and checking records. He knew his own kind of treason, a treason he carried out in letters. In a sense, this was all still the story, the story of a country led astray that he needed to help straighten out. So that angle, so hastily proposed, stuck with him. It made him feel in control.

He, Bercik Scheldt, reporter for a paper to be determined; he was working on the story of Nocht’s secret war. Communist spies, the evil Schwartzkopf, state of the art weapons, the fate of the world in the balance, intrigue and mystery. It was a narrative; his life felt like it had a purpose as a narrative.

“I’ve been wanting to ask you for a long time to make me your assistant or something.” Kirsten replied. “I said before I thought you were with the mob. I see mob guys every so often and they’ve all been pretty swell guys. I thought, ‘I’d definitely be able to get a car and a house if I worked for them!’”

Bercik sighed. “I’m not a mobster, I already told you. We’re not getting cars and houses out of this. Messiah’s sake.”

“I’m not stupid, I know; the point is, I wanted to do something more important than deliver the drat paper.”

“Good. Fine. I’ll take it. I know a guy we can talk to about maybe getting out of town.” Bercik spoke in the terms he knew, skipping town. In reality he had to skip the whole damn continent, but he figured the same guy might be able to help him with that. After all, he got stuff into the continent.

“You know a guy, huh? That sounds shady, Bercik.” Kirsten asked, giggling a little.

“Shady? How is it shady?”

Kirsten could hardly contain his laughter. “Would this guy happen to be with the mob?”

Bercik ran his hands over his face. “Stop laughing about it. These are not people you should happy to be around.”

“Then if they’re so bad, how come you know them, and how come you dress like them?”

“What? Dress like them? I’m not dressed like them, jeez; what is wrong with you?” Bercik adjusted his awful hat and his old trenchcoat. He pointed his finger accusingly. “And I know them because I got to know them. They got good info that I need. You need to quit it with this fascination you have.”

Kirsten pointed and laughed at him again. Perhaps he didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation after all.

With his bag in tow, Kirsten locked his own door, and Bercik led the way down the stairs and out of the tenement building. He did not think he would be coming back, but crossing the threshold felt strangely easy and casual. Perhaps it was due to how familiar the atmosphere felt. Outside the streets had hardly changed. People went about their business under the drizzling rain. Thurin played a common, dreary song, its instruments the sound of drops striking the earth, the susurrus of the sparse crowds on either street, shoes tapping the asphalt or splashing in puddles, and the chugging of the few cars traveling the roads. They made their way down to the plaza. Bercik avoided the statues in the little park this time. It was early, so only a few of the shops and restaurants were open.

He knew one place that was open where he could drop in. But he hadn’t been there in a while.

As they walked Bercik kept a sharp eye out. He told himself that he had developed an instinct for being followed and for throwing people off, but in reality it was unlikely he had ever been seriously followed. Even while covering the military leaks for The National, the consequences tended to end at a few brown shirt police officers appearing at the office and making a mess of a few rooms. So far he was a gnat, beneath the notice of a giant. So he walked with confidence, and he started to forget to check the faces in the crowd, or the men around street corners, or to watch those who followed in his wake across intersections and past alleyways.

Thurin was so unmoved, the world so still. It was comforting and it lowered Bercik’s guard. It was like a time capsule of a world on the verge of upheaval, but far enough that nobody knew quite how close it was. Would tomorrow, or the day after, bring worse? No street could confide him this knowledge.

Past the plaza and across the center of the city, for two mostly quiet hours intermittently on foot and hanging on the sides of trams and the backs of trucks, Bercik and Kirsten traveled out to the seafront. Thurin was a busy port despite its unremarkable appearance, being a common connection to the Higwe, and its concrete harbor was full of large cargo ships. The pair veered away from the warehouses and container yards at the shipyard, walked past the fish markets near the old docks, and hitched out to the dismal, rocky beaches on the northern edge of the coast. Riding the back of a truck headed out of town, they dropped off in the center of a small neighborhood, little more than a beachside restaurant and sparse houses overlooking the sea. Waves crashed behind them against the jagged black shore.

From this small neighborhood and its quaint seaside restaurant the Krawiec family quietly subverted the port authority.

Past the glass doors the restaurant was a simple wooden abode with a few tables dressed in square-patterned linens, fanned from the ceiling by leisurely spinning wooden blades. Dark reddish-brown walls and a flat ceiling made one feel enclosed in a box. A woman behind the counter stared at them while shining a plate. Beside her was a display case of cured meats. Despite the restaurant’s proximity to the sea it did not appear that any seafood was sold there.

Bercik and Kirsten sat down on one of the tables and cracked open the laminated menus. There were a lot of sandwiches, and a lot of meat and soup.

“Oh, what a nice place, I’m feeling pretty excited. I’ve never eaten at a nice place.”

“Nice? This place is a hole. You need some perspective.” Bercik replied, more aggressively than warranted.

“Oh, well, that’s sad,” Kirsten lamented, looking at the menu closely, “no fish or shrimp or anything.”

“No, this isn’t that kind of place.” Bercik replied. He lifted his hands, shaking the menu in the air.

It took a minute for the lady behind the counter to notice them in between taking long drags of a cigarette. She spent a few seconds giving them surly looks from across the restaurant, and squinting her eyes as though the two of them would disappear like a mirage in the desert. Soon the woman reluctantly left her post and strolled toward their table, her apron stained red across the front, and her red hair long and loose, without a cap or a net. She didn’t have a pen and pad to take down their order. She simply looked at them, crossed her arms, and with an indifferent tone asked, “What will you have? I recommend the meatballs.”

“Eggs.” Bercik said simply. “I want eggs and he wants some eggs too.” He pronounced the Nochtish word for eggs, Eier, with a strong emphasis.

In response the lady blew smoke in Bercik’s face. “We don’t do eggs anymore. You and your friend get lost.”

“No, I seriously came all this way for some Eggs.” Bercik pressed, slowly and awkwardly pronouncing the word.

Exasperated with them, the woman rolled her eyes and put out her cigarette on the floor.

“That ain’t the fuckin’ code anymore you putz. Wait a second.” She replied. She turned her head over her shoulder and shouted toward the back, “Greis,we’ve got a dunce here that I just barely recognize, spewing the old password. Do you want to talk to him or do I kick him out?”

Behind the counter a door slammed open. An tall, balding, heavyset man stepped through, squinting his eyes. He gripped a wooden cane, using it to balance the steps of his wobbling left leg. He leaned over the edge of the counter, staring hard over at the table like he couldn’t see.

“I ain’t expecting anyone. Y’tell him we don’t do the eggs anymore?” He shouted.

“I told him already Greis.” She shouted back. “He keeps insisting on the fuckin’ eggs.”

Bercik stood up from his seat. “God damn it uncle, it’s me, stop shouting already.”

Kirsten stood up as well, and then sat back down in confusion. He stared in shock at the menu.

Uncle Kraweic squinted his eyes even more. “I shout all I fuckin’ want in my house. I shout all I fuckin’ want!”

He perched a pair of spectacles on his nose for a moment.

He smiled, and peeled them off his face, throwing them atop the meat display.

“Bercik! Bercik! I can’t believe it, Julitta that’s fuckin’ Bercik! Can you believe it?”

“I don’t know who that is.” Julitta replied. She looked over Bercik with indifference.

“Come in, come in! Come talk to Uncle Kraweic, Bercik. Messiah defend, it’s been a long time.”

Kirsten leaped out of his own seat once again. Bercik took him by the hand and led him behind the counter, where Uncle Krawiec beckoned them both into his office, a cramped and dark little backroom to the restaurant where the meat was dried and crates of potatoes for the soup lay around. There were long chains of sausage links across the walls, and jerky drying by the dozens on hooks across the ceiling. Bercik and Kirsten sat on a stack of potato crates, while Uncle Krawiec took his place behind a grandiose writing desk and a grand mahogany chair. Betraying the grandeur of these objects was a huge drying pig hanging from a hook suspended on a rail over the desk. Uncle Krawiec knocked the pig away from himself, sat in his chair, and steepled his fingers, shining Bercik a smile missing a few teeth.

“You look just like your mother I swear to the Messiah. God bless her soul. Have you been eating well?”

“Been eating just fine.” Bercik said tersely. He was growing agitated by this place.

“Who’s that?” Uncle Kraweic asked, pointing to Kirsten.

“Just a guy. We are not here for pleasantries, okay? We need something from you.”

“Anything for you Bercik. Anything for my nephew. You name it.”

Bercik averted his gaze. Kirsten looked around the room, and paid special, quizzical attention to the pork hanging near Uncle Krawiec. While the two youths fidgeted on their crates, the old man rubbed his hands together and waited patiently for a reply, smiling and looking between the two expectantly. When nobody spoke for a long moment, he took it upon himself to infer the reason for their visit, and started checking his drawers feverishly for things to give them.

“I know what you need. You need guns? I can get you a gun. Is that kid your right hand? Can he shoot? Can you shoot?”

Kirsten raised his hands defensively at the machine gun barrage of words. “I can shoot but I don’t really want a gun!”

Uncle Kraweic shook his head. “Lookin’ like you do? You look too soft. You need a gun. I’ll get you a gun.”

He opened a large drawer, reached his hand down into it. There was a series of strange mechanical clicks.

“Here you go. Zwitscherer ’96. They don’t make them like this anymore. The 90s, oh god, what a decade.”

Uncle Krawiec reached out to Kirsten’s hands and deposited a pistol much like Bercik’s own in his hand.

Bercik rubbed his forehead. He hated Uncle Kraweic. He hated the fucking mob. When he was young all his family had been supported by this nonsense, taking place first in the factories and then in the docks, and any of those who fretted Uncle Kraweic’s rise to power were completely shunned and left behind. That is, until they died in the street; and then the Kraweics remembered the Scheldt’s, and went to the funeral dressed up, and cried their hearts out. And then Bercik was back in with the thugs and the shit-tongues, spewing their nonsense and slapping the crap out of each other every night over dinner, screaming and cursing and acting like savages as the money and the corpses piled up behind them. It was like living in some kind of northman tribe from the pulp books. Bercik could not stand them.

From his childhood Bercik told himself he was not like these people. He and his mother wanted better.

But whenever he was in need he always found himself coming back to rooms like this, feeling like an idiot.

“I read your stories in the paper Bercik. Don’t think I don’t read your stories. I always kept up.” Uncle Kraweic said. “I’m so proud of you boy. Papers are real important, and paper writers too. It’s a real institution of democracy, why it’s the only one we have left anymore I think. Can’t believe the crooks we’ve been voting into power, can’t believe it. That’s why I don’t vote no more, see? Guy tells you he’s gonna free up the money laws, and that he’s gonna lower the taxes, and that he’s gonna fix poverty and all that shit, and then look at him in the big chair, sending our boys to die in the woods in countries no one cares about.”

Bercik rubbed his forehead. “I’m glad you enjoyed ‘em. Anyway, Uncle, I need your help. I’m in trouble.”

Uncle Kraweic looked serious all of a sudden. He pounded his fist on his desk in anger.

“Tell me who it is Bercik, swear to God, I’ll have him off the docks in pieces by tomorrow night, swear to God.”

Kirsten nearly jumped. Bercik held up his hands pleadingly. “Uncle–”

“Nobody messes with us, we own this fuckin’ town! No respect anymore, I tell you. I’ll castrate ‘em–”

“Uncle, the Schwartzkopf are after me. I need to skip town. I need to get to the Higwe.”

Silence; it took some time for Uncle Kraweic to respond after hearing that dreaded set of words. He stood stock still, slowly quirking one of his eyebrows as though this was all a joke he was just too old to get. When Bercik remained perfectly serious and still, only then did Uncle Kraweic reply.

“Oh. Well. Shit. That’s no good. What bonehead thing you do to get the Schwartzkopf on you?”

“Papers I wasn’t supposed to touch. It’ll blow over.” Bercik said. It wouldn’t; but Kraweic didn’t need to know that.

Now Kirsten looked well and truly helpless, holding his new pistol on his lap and shaking openly.

“You goddamn better hope it blows over. You weren’t followed here or nothin’? Blazej and Izaak don’t get back for a few hours and I’m not as good a shot as I used to be so you better hope nobody followed you here for a scrap.” Uncle Kraweic said. He looked over to the door with suspicion. “Julitta, get the Rashas out of the back.” He shouted. They had a few Ayvartan submachine guns around the place. Communist weapons were popular with the gangsters.

“Nobody followed me.” Bercik said. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought nobody had. “Calm down.”

Uncle Kraweic sat back on his chair and steepled his fingers again. He was getting serious now. That wasn’t good. In his jokey moods he would have given Bercik anything, even killing a man like he promised; but now he was definitely rolling over in his head whether the son of his beloved little sister, whom he had essentially neglected to death due to his own greed, was now worth perhaps dying over himself. The Schwartzkopf were not playing softball with the mob anymore. Uncle Kraweic was a blowhard, but he was not stupid. He was the most careful when it came to his money, and he knew how to take gambles that paid. This was not one. He knew that and Bercik knew that. But blood ran thicker than water, and it weighed more than gold. That was something even a money-grubber like Kraweic held dearly.

“I know you get your funny dust in from the Higwe, so you can smuggle me out can’t you?” Bercik said. He was becoming more demure. When Kraweic got serious everyone else had to. Or else he might start to get violent. “I’ll be out of your hair quick Uncle, I promise.”

Kraweic rubbed his own chin. “Not from here. I’ll get you down to Konig. It’s too obvious in Thurin. Too close to the Higwe.”

“Suits me fine as long as I get to go. Kirsten’s coming with me. I need a second pair of hands out there.”

Kirsten shrank in his chair, turning a little red around the cheeks and ears. Uncle Kraweic stared at him.

“Always a good idea to have a second shooter.” Uncle Kraweic said. “Though your boy there is questionable.”

“But I can trust him, and there aren’t a lot of people I can trust right now.” Bercik said.

Kraweic swiped his hand in the air dismissively. “Go wait outside for Blazej. I’ve got some calls to make.”

So Kirsten and Bercik walked stiffly out of the office, past the surly Julitta  staring out the window with her submachine gun in hand, and out to the back of the restaurant. There was a small lot reserved for the big trucks that were the favorites of the ethnic Lachy mobsters in Thurin and the greater Tauta in general. This was Bercik’s family — and perhaps one of the reasons he was still alive as a journalist, and not under a dock after some of his old stories.

He hated them, but he needed them. For all his life, it seemed, he lacked his own power to do anything.

Together he and Kirsten stood there under the continuously drizzling rain, so light that it was only barely perceptible as it built over their coats. They were waiting for Kraweic’s main thugs, Blazej and Izaak, two big burly Lachy, taller and tougher even than Bercik himself. Bercik had grown up with both of them, and he was not particularly happy to see them again. But he was not particularly happy about a lot of things at the moment. At least his passage out of the country seemed secure. He felt a newfound paranoia, instilled in him by his uncle’s questioning, and he looked around for signs of people hiding or watching him everywhere.

There was no one around but Kirsten, the one person he could have any faith in now.

“So, did that go well or badly? I can’t tell.” Kirsten said, still holding unto the pistol.

“As well as it could– Put that away. Put it in your coat pocket.” Bercik said.

Kirsten stowed the Zwitscherer. “I keep my hand in the coat like this so I can draw, right?”

“Do you have any reason right now to need to draw?”

“No, but tell me if I’m doing it right.”

“I don’t know! I guess that’s how I’ve seen it in the pulps. I don’t know.”

But soon he too had his hand in his trenchcoat pocket, ready to draw his own gun if necessary.

The Maw of Hell — Generalplan Suden

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Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Late into the morning the signals technicians crowding the ARG-2 radar trucks in the southern districts found their CRT displays crowded by green blips. They witnessed for the first time an immediate shift from a clear sky on the radar to one choked with objects each occupying their own tiny portion of the indicators, their own eerie wavelengths. Were the ARG-2 more sophisticated they might have thought it a malfunction, but it was clear to them that this was far from error. They quickly contacted Parambrahma, who in turn alerted everyone in the Battlegroup Command. An ARG-2 couldn’t tell how many planes approached: it could only tell that enough were coming that they drove the instruments into a frenzy. They had never seen anything like it. It could only have been a real attack.

Madiha had arrived from the rail yard well before the alert. She took a prescribed barbiturate to control the near panic attack that she had when she arrived, and hid in one of the school rooms on the lowest level for about an hour before returning to the general population of the base.

Then she sat down in the cafeteria, feeling hollow and weak.

She was about halfway through a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of milk that Parinita had all but forced her to eat when the KVW guards and the staff brought her the reports. Exhausted, with her brains pounding inside her skull and her stomach gurgling as though ready to expel everything she had just eaten, Madiha forced herself to stand straight and look certain, to speak with a commanding voice. She covered up her shaking hands as best as she could, and she authorized a general alert immediately. She made the calls to the divisions over the army-level long range radio herself. Her eight divisions in Bada Aso began to take their air raid positions. Much of their materiel was already hidden as best as it could be from the Luftlotte, and their anti-air batteries were at their positions within minutes.

Amid the chaos Madiha had additional orders for the Battlegroup as a whole.

First she ordered the deployment of an aerial counterattack from the northern Adjar regions. All Anka and the few more modern Garuda in the arsenal would be prepared immediately; pilots were to be briefed thoroughly, and then lift off to their aid as soon as possible. Where possible Garuda should be grouped together into homogenous squadrons to maximize the concentration of strength. Anka would have to do most of the work however. Having little experience with air power she hoped that the air officers on the other end could take care of the deployment, but nobody sounded confident in a speedy reinforcement.

Next she turned her eyes back to the city. Thankfully she was not making her stand out in the open: a preponderance of radio and telephone equipment allowed her will to easily reach all of her troops, an invaluable advantage that would have been lost anywhere but inside the developed confines of the city. Through the lines more orders came, reaching each division and many of the lower rung officers directly. She ordered the 100mm coastal turrets to elevate their barrels and turn around to defend the city. Though primarily meant for naval defense, the 100mm was an All-Purpose Gun with the range and ammunition to defend the air. Several of the guns had been set into huge stationary pillboxes, but at least six new guns had been built on turrets that could be rotated manually with some effort.

Troops garrisoned in the city were a major consideration. Too many losses from carelessness now could sway the outcome of the future battle starkly against them. Madiha ordered any troops stationed near entrances to the Bada Aso underground to hide in the tunnels and sewer system, unless they were specifically in support positions to Anti-Air batteries, in which case they were to remain in the open with their batteries. Those hidden underground would be safer there, and their preservation was necessary. Several divisions were ordered to take shelter with the civilians near their defensive positions. However a strong presence was still needed in the streets.. She ordered the platoon of mobile-anti-air trucks to ready themselves to respond quickly to concentrations of air power in the area, and for a few foot-mobile machine gun battalions to support them and the air batteries. This was a particularly painful deployment, given the inadequacy of the Khroda HMGs against air power.

Finally she had one very necessary order which countermanded previous briefings.

“Inform our forces in the Kalu that they are to ignore their air raid posture and remain hidden in their positions unless they are specifically attacked by the Luftlotte.” Madiha ordered. “If Nocht overflies the Kalu and their air power reports almost nothing there to resist them, we will have a key advantage in the upcoming battle. It is vitally important that the Kalu forces maintain as much stealth as possible. Fight back only if necessary to preserve yourselves.”

Over the long range radio these orders went out to the Kalu, where soldiers had been establishing themselves in the rolling hills and the grassy plateaus, behind the tors and in wooded gorges near the streams and tributaries of the Umaiha. They used the varied terrains of the hilltops to their advantage. Using camouflaged netting they hid tanks and trucks and guns across the uneven span. Operations staff in the base appeared to question the wisdom of this advice, but relayed the orders; out in the wilderness the men and women, including the 5th KVW Mechanized Division, simply hid, in prepared positions or as best as they could improvise, and hoped for the best. Five divisions counting the 5th Mechanized, were praying to the spirits of nature that everything would go their way. With this order given, the die was cast.

Putting down the phone and radio sets, Madiha knew she could not shuffle around any of the forces that she had ordered from their positions. Everything she did was now set into stone. Should her judgments turn out to be wrong, there was no undoing them quickly in the heat of battle.

Parinita took charge of the civilian alert. At first she sounded the sirens for a minute to get everyone’s attention. They were then silenced and radio broadcasts took their place. Across the city the speaker system instructed the remaining civilian population of around ten thousand to take shelter. Those who were close or those who could make the trek rushed to designated air raid shelters. For those who could not leave or could not leave behind, a basement offered the most protection, and everyone in the staff hoped that the civilians remembered their drills. Air raid shelters had been stocked with supplies in the event of an air attack, which would surely prevent citizens from reaching civil canteens or shopping at msanii markets. Emergency rations had been handed out yesterday to civilians in their homes as well, in case they could not make it out in time and needed to sustain themselves for a day or two while sheltered. Parinita’s voice calmly but firmly repeated the needed instructions, and people moved.

It was an ordered chaos. Everyone was scared, and everyone was rushed, but all proceeded according to plan.

The ARG-2 had done their jobs waking the Ayvartan community in the face of danger. Now the equipment was temporarily powered down and the precious radar trucks quickly sequestered to secure positions to give them a better chance to survive the coming storm.

First blood would soon be shed on the Battle for Bada Aso. Everything was set into motion.

City of Bada Aso, North-East Sector

Once the Staff Secretary’s voice had gone silent, the air raid sirens blared one final time to insure everyone was fully aware, and then ceased to sound as well. In Adesh’s corner of the world there was an eerie state. There was little sound and it seemed like silence, but to someone inclined to notice there was enough noise to bother one’s sensibilities. Those noises that remained seemed to beat just off from the rhythm of his heart and made him anxious. Footsteps, tools, the locking of loaded gun breeches. Metal sounds that had no music to them. In poems and stories about war everything seemed to have a poetic rhythm. Here, nothing did.

Soon this anxiety seemed to pass from him to his colleagues.

“Nnenia, you’re doing that wrong.”

“What wrong?”

“You’re working the elevation handle wrong.”

“I’m elevating it just fine.”

“You’re holding it oddly, you’ll tire yourself out.”

“Stop micromanaging what I’m doing and focus on your loading.”

Four days ago Adesh had stood, confused and afraid, behind a 76mm anti-tank gun. He had been told that his crew (somehow Nnenia and Eshe had become his crew) had scored three vehicle kills. He remembered shooting, but he certainly didn’t feel victorious. Now he had a similar task. He was part of Lt. Bogana’s battery in the northeast district, stationed in the middle of an urban park. Outside the grounds of the park were empty streets and closed buildings every which way. Since the sirens first went off the few people remaining went into hiding. Only gun crews remained outside, awaiting the aircraft soon to approach.

“So, do you have any amazing observation instructions to share, professor?” Nnenia asked. She had on her face a common look for her: a strange mix of apathy and grimness where she was between cheer and genuine morbidity toward their situation. Eshe seemed annoyed by her.

“No. If you somehow manage to see a plane in the sky, Adesh shoots at it.” He replied tersely.

Adesh sighed a little, seated on a rough metal platform with a sight and a firing mechanism before him. His friends and crew were a little nervous. They had every right to be. They had survived the border but now found themselves in a similar situation. But their bickering was not just nervous.

“I just thought there was some other amazing gunnery trick you learned from one of your pamphlets.” Nnenia sarcastically said.

Eshe crossed his arms. “Here’s one you fool: don’t get distracted by the pretty planes and the wonderful colors of shells.”

“At least I’ll be looking at the sky if that happened and not at the regulations booklets, you pinhead.”

It seemed almost as though they wanted to commiserate, but this nonsense was all that escaped their mouths.

“Could you two be quiet?” Adesh sighed. “You’re going at it even more than you usually do now.”

Eshe and Nnenia looked at each other and at Adesh and momentarily seemed to feel shame.

As before their little trio was behind an artillery piece, and this time with a much greater responsibility than they once had. It was no longer an anti-tank gun but an air defense gun. The 37mm was a small bore on a large weapon, with a long barrel and preponderance of mechanisms, mounted on a swiveling base that could be rotated all the way around and locked to position as well. It was an automatic gun, which took some getting used to. Fed with 5-shell clips and boasting a simple firing mechanism it could sustain a high rate of fire, though the barrel risked overheating if the rate of fire was used to its fullest advantage.

Four other people stood with him. His bosom friends Nnenia and Eshe remained in his crew, having miraculously lived through their earlier tribulations. He was now their gunner however, not their leader. In his place as gun commander was a pretty corporal from another unit, Cpl. Rahani. He was a young Arjun of pleasant features, brown-skinned, with a gentle face and flowing hair down to the shoulders, decorated by a lovely rose above his left temple. He had quite a lot in common with Adesh and his friends, and he was probably just little older than their own ages. Prior to the sirens sounding, he had tried to get everyone to wear their own flowers for good luck. Nnenia, Adesh and Eshe accepted, a little awkwardly, and received a bundle of purple lilies which they wore over their ears.

Alongside Rahani served another private, the mysterious, grim Kufu. He had eyes like a fox, a thick beard, and strong features. When he spoke he had a smooth voice, but seemed to think ill of saying anything with it. He looked like he could have fathered the other members of the crew, even Corporal Rahani, and was not a lively fellow at all. He had refused to wear any flowers. He was a traditional man, he explained to them tersely.

“Well if you say so!” Cpl. Rahani said in an amused, good-natured voice. “But in that case, I have a good idea, if you do not mind! We will put your flowers on the gun itself. There. Now we will catch the attention of the spirits and they will protect us. It was a tradition in my village.”

Kufu scoffed, and sat by the side of the gun, looking away. He was assigned to traverse the mount across the ground. Eshe loaded, Adesh was the gunner, and Nnenia and Rahani were in charge of elevation and sighting, as well as communication and other odd gunnery jobs.

“I apologize if I offended you; are you by any chance an ancestor worshiper?” Cpl. Rahani asked.

“No. I don’t worship nothin’. No spirits, no ancestors, no messiah, not the light; nothing. Thought this country’s supposed to be secular now.” Kufu replied.

Cpl. Rahani looked slightly distressed. “Oh, well, double sorry.” He said softly.

“Well, it is secular, but individuals can still worship. Even the Messianic church is around.” Eshe interjected in a know-it-all tone.

“Too bad.” Kufu replied. He still was not facing them. Everyone sighed a little.

A foul mood fell upon the crew while they waited, looking tentatively at the sky and between each other. Cpl. Rahani’s cheerful smiling faded too. But not everything was so bleak. Some things had changed since the battle at the border, even as some things had remained quite the same. Adesh was part of an A.A. unit, and the guns, while larger and heavier, were state of the art and had more sophisticated mechanisms that allowed for a faster firing rate and easier handling than their cheaper, six-year-old 76mm anti-tank guns. Everyone was impressed with the quality of the equipment when they first saw it.

Lt. Bogana also made sure they were better organized. Every position was over five meters apart and none of them arranged in straight lines. This made strafing them difficult. The five 37mm guns in the battery were positioned in an outer ring that could cover the two 85mm guns and the three 57mm guns from close-air attack. It was the job of Adesh’s crew to cover against lower altitude attacks from faster planes. Two teams of machine gunners with Khroda 7.62mm guns on hastily-assembled anti-aircraft mounts hid in bushes and under trees nearby, covering the 37mm gunners in case even they failed to stop a strafing aircraft or a dive bomber. Adesh had a measure of confidence in their phalanx at first. Everyone acted with discipline and carried out concrete orders under the auspice of a commander. It was like being part of a real army with a strong direction. They had even received a visit from Major Nakar, who had personally taught them to shoot.

Things had changed substantively now. Nocht was not ambushing them this time. The People awaited them.

Adesh found his hands still shaking and his heart quivering, however. That certainly had not changed.

Corporal Rahani watched the skies with a pair of binoculars. Adesh thought that there would be some stark transition between readiness and annihilation; the sky would turn suddenly red, great meteoric tears of flame would fall from the heavens and engulf them all, in the blink of an eye. Instead, their first glimpse of the enemy came from Lt. Bogana, who left the side of a signals officer calling for all crews to proceed to combat alert; the southern district batteries had already made eye contact with the enemy aircraft through their sighting equipment. As he said this Corporal Rahani passed around the binoculars, pointing his crew toward the sky. Adesh saw tiny pinpricks of smoke and fire blooming in the dark, distant skies when Nnenia passed him the lenses. Thus with little fanfare the battle was joined as the southern district batteries opened fire on objects the northeast district could not yet clearly see. Adesh felt an uncomfortable thrill across his entire body.

Helplessly he watched as hundreds of objects came closer and closer. They flew like a flock of birds, and to Adesh’s eyes they were just as small at first, but the closer the came the deadlier they appeared. Flashes of gunfire became visible, closer than before. Ayvartan batteries awoke all around the city. Like red glowing darts thrown by errant hands hundreds of rounds of anti-air ammunition began to light the sky from the southern defensive sectors, then the central sectors. Seconds later Adesh heard the first thousand-kilogram bomb drop on the city, and he felt a shudder, rumbling waves straining through the earth into his body, and he saw the smoke rising in the distance. He had just blinked and missed the flash and the short-lived geyser of fire in the bomb’s wake.

Strategic bombers were now directly over the city.

Dozens of isolated explosions swept across the south and center. Adesh looked up at the sky and it was as if he were watching the heavens shatter, lines of ordnance coming down like metal teardrops from the bays of barely visible bomber planes, pounding the earth like the footfalls of a giant.

Quivering in his hands grew into a terrible shaking across most of his body that he struggled to control.

Aircraft squadrons began to take distinct shapes and their groupings became terrifyingly apparent as they neared the northeast district. Adesh saw a dozen squadrons splitting off from the massive fleet and sweeping through the sky in every possible direction. Five fighter planes in a tight group banked and lunged straight for the park, flying through the fire from the adjacent batteries across the nearby blocks as though not one gun were actually shooting them. Adesh and his battery comrades opened fire on them, but the the planes maneuvered through the curtain with ease. In a moment Adesh found his gun unloaded once again.

“Battery, the enemy has entered our zone! Allow no aircraft to cross our sky unimpeded!” Lt. Bogana shouted.

Adesh released his iron grip on the large trigger-handle for the 37mm gun, while Eshe pushed a five-round clip of its shells into place atop the gun and stamped it down to properly feed the weapon. Nnenia and Kufu traversed the weapon on its swiveling mount and constantly adjusted and readjusted the elevation in order to follow their fast-moving enemies. Nneia elevated the barrel over 65 degrees, then 70 degrees, then descended it down to 50; while Cpl. Rahani instructed Adesh on the positions of the targets. Adesh watched the enemy through the large metric sights. His breath began to outrun him as the aircraft neared; a tight group of five sleek monoplanes, with long wedge-shaped wings bristling with armament. From afar Adesh thought he could see off-color paint across the hulls of the planes.

They were gaping maws; bright red mouths bristling with teeth, painted on each plane. These were Nochtish Archer fighter planes.

In an instant the planes cut cruel lines across their formation, and the Ayvartans struggled to answer them.

Withering fire from nose-mounted Norgler machine guns swept the park as the planes overflew them in a shallow dive, coming down from the sky like bolts of lightning and storming away into the distance again. Dozens of rounds ricocheted off gun shields and clipped the grass and the trees; nobody was killed. Kufu and Nnenia and Rahani worked frantically to turn around the 37mm, while around them the 85mm guns opened fire at an almost 90 degree angle into sky, and the 57mm guns joined them. targeting the Wizard level-bombers dropping heavy payloads on the city. Adesh was temporarily deafened whenever their unseen assailants dropped their heaviest payloads, crushing buildings in an instant under thousand-kilogram explosions. Debris flew so far it almost hit the park from a whole block away; window frames, chunks of concrete, gnarled street lights, all soared from the flames and crashed where the harried troops of Bogana’s battery could see them.

None of the heavy bombs actually hit the battery, or near them. Thank the spirits. One would be all it took to kill them all.

Armed with a 37mm they stood no chance against a level-bomber: Adesh swallowed hard and focused on the fighters.

The Archer squadron split from its wedge-like formation to pick off the battery crews. Constituent planes flew from one another’s sides, two of them sweeping around the edges of the park like vultures, drawing fire from the support machine guns; and three running lanes across the battery’s position. Adesh squeezed the handles on his gun and watched his five rounds fly away in a few seconds, hitting nothing. His shells joined the dozens other ineffectual missiles streaking across the air, scarcely hitting anywhere near the enemy. They reloaded, they spun the gun until they went nearly dizzy with motion, and again the shells would fly into the air with seemingly no avail. Adesh and his comrades’ gunfire reminded him of a sky full of fireworks, and yet the enemy aircraft soared through the red and gray curtain as though the fragments and smoke and fire was utterly harmless to them. Their fragmentation rounds had timed fuses and scattered splinters into the air to threaten enemy aircraft, but the timing had an element of precision nonetheless. Effectively unopposed despite the intense fire coming from the ground, the Archers sped through several runs on the battery, firing volleys of 80mm rockets from under each of their wings that exploded across the park. Adesh and crew hunkered down, crawling meekly behind or against the gun shield as best as they could while loading and traversing the weapon to match the movements of the enemy as best as they could.

A rocket hissed overhead and blasted apart a tree meters behind them. Smoking craters littered the periphery.

Somehow the battery survived. No rockets had managed to strike a comrade dead.

The Archers soared out of the park and turned easily back around over the streets, taking a new formation for their next run. Two outlying craft moved in to substitute two of the planes that had unloaded all of their ordnance, and then those two planes began to circle the park.

Eshe heaved one of the shell clips and punched it into the vertical wedge to load the gun.

“Overhead!” Nnenia said suddenly.

Adesh looked up, and found the sky alight. Fire and smoke spread within the dark clouds and burning pieces of metal rained down on the city. A pair of Wizard bombers fell down from the sky like meteors, wreathed in flames and splitting into a scattering of debris as they descended. Remains of the planes, more fire than steel, smashed into the roof of a civil canteen building on one of the park’s adjoining streets and spilled out unto the pavement and road.

“Don’t get distracted!” Eshe shouted, pushing on Adesh’s shoulder. “We’ve got our own problems here!”

“Finally the kid says something I can agree with!” Kufu shouted, frantically turning the wheel to loosen the mount, and pushing his shoulder into the gun and turning it. Grumbling, Nnenia joined him in working on the gun and descended the barrel. Adesh watched the incoming fighters through the sights.

“Adesh, fire!” Cpl. Rahani ordered. But the corporal was not looking through the sights.

Adesh was; nothing aligned, and no matter how fast the team moved he felt helpless against the planes.

He pressed the handle-triggers and watched his gun shoot, rock back a little with recoil, and shoot again. Popping noises, the creaking of sliding metal from the recoil buffers, the gentle thud of the shell dropping on the ground, all was drowned by a single bomb falling on the street behind them. Fences around the park fell over from the force of the blast. Adesh felt the heat behind his back, and felt his body pump with the consecutive force of his own gun.

Five rounds of his flak cut across the sky and exploded in gray bursts of smoke and fragments between three of the fighter planes as they approached; they veered violently away from the shots, and found themselves trapped in a massive net as the remaining 37mm guns and 7.62 machine guns saturated the skies. Instantly the guns on the Nochtish aircraft were silenced, their propellers slowed and stopped, their engines caught fire, their cockpit windshields burst to pieces. One by one the aircraft passed them overhead, spun out of control, and vanished into the inferno raging behind the battery, landing in bomb craters and smashed buildings.

Two remaining planes circling the park suddenly veered off their careful course and fled the district. Ayvartan fire trailed them every meter they flew, and triumphantly the entire 37mm compliment of the battery lowered their barrels and shot after the planes until they disappeared from sight.

Lt. Bogana leaped out from behind the gun shield of his 85mm, raised his fist into the air and roared with triumph.

Cpl. Rahani raised his own fist and joined with his own sweeter-sounding cheer. Spirits rose momentarily across the park. The sound of bombs and the chopping of norgler machine guns grew distant again and it seemed that their sector was clear for the moment, however long that would be.

Over Bada Aso the skies still raged. Bright flak cut across the dark clouds, long lines of fire streaking overhead from thousands of guns stationed across the city. Trickles of Nochtish planes began to fall. Bombers careened toward the ground like the fallen angels of the Messianic religion, set ablaze and cast from the paradise above the clouds; thousands of rounds of ammunition from 37mm guns and heavy machine guns around the sector began to add up, and Adesh saw a fighter group fall suddenly from over a nearby sector, blown to pieces in mid-air. Like the ashfall from a volcano fire and smoke and metal seemed to rain down over the city. It was like the end of the world; Adesh could think of no other way to describe it. While Adesh’s battery had a moment of calm they rushed to a nearby groundskeeper’s cellar and hastily pushed out crates of hidden ammunition. Fighting those five planes had consumed hundreds of rounds of the battery’s 37mm ammo. They reloaded their guns, sliding fresh shells and clips into the breeches, and accommodated reserve ammo nearby. Lt. Bogana knelt beside a radio unit and called the adjacent sectors.

“Southern batteries have taken the brunt of the attack,” Lt. Bogana shouted for the benefit of the crews, “but we have not yet dealt any kind of decisive damage to the enemy, comrades! Those planes are moving closer, so stay alert and be ready to fire at a moment’s notice!”

It was disheartening to hear; but it sounded far too true. Even if Adesh counted all the planes he had seen fall so far, it was really only around 15-20 out of spirits know how many in the fleet. Their battery after all this fighting had only personally accounted for 3 fighters and a pair of bombers!

Eshe sighed. “Once, I read that the average stock needed to knock out a plane is 598 shells.”

“Thanks for the heartening tip, professor.” Nnenia said, slumping against the side of the gun.

Adesh sat silently behind the 37mm gun and Corporal Rahani scanned the skies for targets using his binoculars. Kufu grumbled something inaudible while he and Nnenia readjusted the gun to face south and the barrel elevation to an angle between 60 and 70 degrees. Around them every other 37mm gun crew searched for targets as well. The crews of 85mm and 57mm guns adjusted the elevation of their guns to hit bombers overflying other sectors now that bombs had ceased to fall directly around their own sector. Soon they began to fire again, casting their shells forward toward the skyline and out of the northeast district.

Above them the skies were silent, and their battery shifted its attitude toward support more than direct engagement.

“No distractions next time, alright? I want to live through this.” Eshe said bitterly.

Nnenia raised her head from over the gun to launch a smoldering stare at Eshe on the other side.

“Now now, no harm was done.” Cpl. Rahani said, trying to smooth things out.

“Don’t be using this to start a stupid argument now, kid.” Kufu grumbled.

“I thought you agreed with me!” Eshe said, throwing his hands up in the air.

Kufu grunted. “I did when meters away from rockets, but not now when it doesn’t matter.”

Adesh sighed. Nnenia and Eshe’s bickering seemed to worsen when introduced to more people.

“Everyone focus, please,” Cpl. Rahani softly said, waving his hands gently.

Minutes passed; from the sky fell a light drizzle. Smoke billowed away from the burning craters and ruins, blown around the park as the wind picked up. Adesh felt his himself shake and his legs were weak. There was something about this scene that he could not square away in his mind as he watched the sky, a thick, choking knot building inside his throat and tears spilling from his eyes. His teeth chattered. He was as unprotected from the cold droplets as he was from the enemy planes but he was alive yet. He saw figures fighting in the distance, and he heard the guns of his comrades, the rockets and bombs and cannons of the enemy, and yet, they were intermittent sounds. Like a war of shadow puppets the chaos was intermittent, sound and violence and horror flitting in and out of his reality. He cast eyes around the park and across the air, his fingers stretching and closing on the trigger-handle, his jaw twitching, mute, violent panic building and building in his belly.

“Adesh, are you alright?” Cpl. Rahani whispered, shaking him gently. “It is fine to be scared, but–”

His eyes had gone hollow, staring over his gun sight and directly skyward, directly overhead.

“Dive bomber.” He shouted at the top of his lungs.

For a few seconds he felt that he had gone mad, that the unreal reality of everything had consumed him.

But the bombs fell and the planes swept past from out of nowhere and there was fire, and there was rage again.

City of Bada Aso, North-Central Sector

Madiha had gotten her rain; she had the water; she had the iron; the fire and fury. Across Bada Aso guns fired relentlessly, and the drizzling rain picked up as smoke and fire fed into the clouds. Soon there was a rolling shower over the city that smothered the bomb-fires in the streets.

Bombardment had grown quiet, so Madiha assumed the enemy must have been between major waves.

The Cafeteria had become her makeshift office. It lay close to the center of the building on the bottom floor, and had no windows. It was drearily lit, and whenever a bomb went off somewhere all the lights would fluctuate and dust would fall from the ceiling. But the noise and the rumbling was minimal and Madiha could try to focus and to keep her calm. More than once she had hyperventilated when she heard the sound of a nearby gun or a swooping aircraft in the outer offices. Worst of all was the lobby. A massive pane of clear glass had been raised over the archway doors into the school building lobby. She felt as though it was a scope forcing her to gaze up at the sky. Was this black and red billowing inferno what she wanted? Could she have done anything more to try to prevent this war in the heavens?

Her eyes twitched and she felt her arms seize up at the sight, so she had returned to the cafeteria for shelter. There she waited, impotent, as the clockworks she had set into motion now worked themselves out. She was haunted by her inability to respond within this mechanical performance.

“Major, we’ve received some of the first combat reports.” Parinita said, laying a hand on Madiha’s shoulder.

Her secretary gently laid a small folder in front of her. Madiha donned a pair of reading glasses and turned the pages. She had begun wearing them that very morning. They not only helped to hide the deepening dark bags under her eyes, but they allowed her to read the small print crammed on some of the hastily typed reports coming in. She was surprised at the difference they made. She had always thought her eyesight just fine. Thankfully there were a few pairs of generic readers in the school clinic and after trying a few she found some that suited her fine. Parinita had helped her pick them out after a few whispered complaints.

“43 guns lost? Already? It’s been two hours; only a few waves of bombardment.” Madiha said. Her voice lost strength and turned to whispers. “According to this our batteries have only been able to account for 38 to 45 of the enemy aircraft. Should this continue we will helpless against them.”

“I know. And the air army hasn’t come to our rescue quite yet. We don’t know what’s keeping them.”

“Inexperience and unpreparedness.” Madiha said. “None of those pilots have even flown a combat mission.”

Parinita nodded. “Good news is that our stocks of ammo and vehicles have avoided disaster.”

“For how long, I wonder.” Madiha said. She felt her hands seizing up again, and her breath quicken.

Madiha stood from behind the lunch table serving as her desk, and she walked out behind the long serving counter to disguise her nervous tics and building anxiety. She reached into her coat pocket and withdrew a little plastic bottle, out of which she drew a small, white pill. She popped it into her mouth and swallowed it with a glass of water from a nearby sink. Behind her Parinita graciously attended to a pair of soldiers in thick rubber hoods, soaked from head to toe and leaving a wet trail wherever they moved. They were aircraft observers, carrying heavy tripod-mounted telescopes strapped on belts around their backs. Madiha had asked them to stand hide among the roofs of buildings to keep watch, protected, at best, by machine guns and barrage balloons; but mostly, by nothing.

They were having a conversation already when Madiha stepped out from behind the lunch counter.

“Anything to report?” She asked.

“Cpl. Somner here says that a larger wave of planes is coming, with, he believes, more low-flying bombers.”

Parinita’s words barely sank in when Madiha felt like someone had ticked a box inside her, turned on some strange machinery.

“This could be our chance then.” Madiha said. She felt a thrill down her spine, and the words she wanted to say stuck fast to her throat and silenced her. Her body felt heavy and the drugs in her system could barely stifle the sheer terror she was experiencing. She moved slowly back to her cafeteria table and withdrew her maps. Along the main thoroughfares leading to the headquarters there were a few assembled batteries. One of them was positioned centrally enough, and built on a natural slope above the level of the district, that it likely had enough of coverage of the sky to make it the central threat to this incoming assault.

“Parinita, have my scout car brought out and made ready to leave. I have to rally the sector battery near the old observatory on Nyota hill.”

Parinita looked stunned and confused, and stood for a moment fidgeting with a file folder.

“I wouldn’t advise that Major.” Cpl. Somner said. Parinita made a gesture and put on a nervous face.

“I can’t stand to lounge here a second longer! I am leaving. Prepare my car.” Madiha shouted.

No one argued further. Twenty minutes later she stepped through the lobby, and descended the steps outside into the rain. Her little green scout car had been driven to the front of the building, flanked by two trucks equipped with anti-aircraft quad machine guns. Her four-wheeled, two-passenger unarmored car stood no chance if shot by an airplane, but it could potentially outmaneuver strafing runs on the street if she ran it as hard as it could go. Or at least, that is what Madiha told herself. Unlike guns she could not be entirely sure of the car’s performance, it was all a gut feeling, and one felt in desperation, perhaps. She ordered the KVW driver to dismount, and he did so immediately. Raising her hands to signal the drivers of the anti-air trucks, Madiha stepped behind the wheel of the scout car–

“Wait, Major! Please wait! Don’t drive off yet!”

A series of pleas from the steps to the school; Madiha turned her head over in frustration and tried to shoo away Parinita, who ignored her completely as she charged out of the lobby and down the steps, carrying a Khroda heavy machine gun and its mounting kit. She had roped a KVW agent into helping her heave the damned thing up to the scout car: Sergeant Agni, the brown-skinned young woman with long, wavy hair that had was once covered in ash from setting off the explosive traps at the border. She was part of the engineer battalion, and was now more covered in oil than ash, washing off her face and hands in the rain.

“What are you doing?” Madiha shouted. “Go back inside the base, Parinita!”

“We’re helping you! I’m not staying behind. I can drive the car and you can use this machine gun.” Parinita shouted back. “You never miss when you fire a gun, right? Inspector Kimani always said that. So you can use this to shoot at any planes. You’ll be safer.”

“You can hardly steer over dry ground on a peaceful day, think of what you’re saying. And how can I use that machine gun? It is too heavy for me to heave it around from the passenger seat. Please, Parinita, trust me and return to the base. This is something I must take part in!”

“I can fix the part about the gun, commander.” Sgt. Agni interjected. She pulled the beige cloth tarp off the trunk of the scout car, and raised the machine gun, with Parinita’s help, unto the small open bed there. She laid a plate under it, produced a few tools, and set to work bolting the mount to the plate and the plate to the bed of the scout car. Madiha thought better of ordering Sgt. Agni to stop and with the confident and quick way that the engineer worked on the gun Madiha thought she might not even stop if ordered to do so.  She felt a terrible wracking guilt watching all of these people rushing to her side; she felt that she was contributing so little to what all the people in this army were giving in return. Parinita’s own words still stung, somewhere in the back of her mind. What was she worth?

“I don’t want you to be involved in this and endangered!” Madiha said. “Both of you, just go–”

“I’ve made my decision commander,” Parinita said, and suddenly began talking quickly and loudly over the rest of Madiha’s objections, developing a pronounced stutter as she went along, citing several seemingly disconnected military regulations involving her role in Madiha’s staff, her role in case of emergencies, the proper procedure for procuring and organizing convoys, “and furthermore it is written in the military code of conduct and basic organization concerning command convoys, that the commander’s car when travelling in dangerous territory must always have a defensive retinue involving at least one heavy weapon!”

Madiha could hardly get a word in edgewise during this filibuster. Sgt. Agni finished mounting the Khroda.

“I can also drive the car.” Sgt. Agni said, raising her dull voice. She then saluted stiffly.

“You can’t argue with this, Major. It is only proper we accompany you.” Parinita said sternly.

“I cannot believe your stubbornness right now! And especially you, Agni!” Madiha sighed, raising her hands to her face.

“Where conflicts arise my loyalty is to the KVW.” Sgt. Agni replied with little discernible affect.

Madiha supposed that meant keeping her alive over indulging her guilt and trepidation.

She stepped out of the car, ceding the driver’s seat to Sgt. Agni, and climbed unto the bed. She stood behind the Khroda and locked her feet into catches built into the vehicle mounting plate, and tested the swivel. It was smooth and quick to turn, and the gun elevated easily, even with the ballistic shield weighing it down. Along with the gun Parinita had brought several boxes of ammunition belts, and Madiha loaded the machine gun and worked the bolt.

Again she raised her hands overhead, and signaled the crews of the gun trucks to follow her.

“To Nyota hill, Sgt. Agni, and I hope you are a better driver than the Chief Warrant Officer!” Madiha called out.

Parinita crossed her arms and sat with a grumbling expression on the passenger seat.

In the distance Madiha spotted planes still flying lanes across the sector. She would have to challenge them.

City of Bada Aso, North-East Sector

Adesh woke without sense, without a window to the world. He was overwhelmed by the smell of smoke and fire but at first he could not move, and he could not see through the dark clouds around him, and he could hear nothing but a vicious whistling and buzzing in his ears. His mind swam. A dull pain traced the center of his narrow chest and across the small of his back. It flared, turning hot and sharp as his sinews throbbed beneath the ruined flesh. His body jerked up from the ground, but not of his own volition; his limbs lolling in the air, his neck hanging, the smoke whipping across his face with the strong winds.

Distant voices, warping in the hot air, called out his name. Touch returned with the sound.

He was under the light drizzling rain, and he felt something, solid and budging beneath him.

Pain returned to him and urged him blindly to move and struggle. He was stricken with panic toward the condition of his body. He gasped, and coughed violently, and he shook his arms and his legs, twisted his waist and torso. He screamed as he felt himself beaten back.

“Calm down Adesh! Calm down! You’re hurting me! Stop thrashing already!”

Adesh fell, and it seemed an eternity before he hit the hard ground on his wounds — what he now recognized as his wounds. He cried out and jolted awake from his stupor, embracing himself on the floor of a nondescript building with a view of the park through its open door. A vast plume of smoke seemed to consume the park and the road between them and whatever could possibly remain of the anti-aircraft battery, if anything remained.

Guns did not sound and bombs did not drop. There was only the sound of burning and collapse.

Near him Eshe had also fallen, and he too became fetal in his agony, clutching his shoulder and closing his eyes and biting his lips. For a moment both of the boys nursed their pains, unable to address or acknowledge the other. Adesh’s eyes were foggy and overflowing with tears. He felt burns across his chest and back. Anxious he touched his body with blood-spattered hands, spreading the blood across his face, his legs, his belly; and all of him was still there. Burnt, bleeding from open blisters and bad cuts; but nothing near the irreversible maiming he had feared. When he took notice of Eshe, he saw no burns on him, but ash and blood and grime.

“Eshe, spirits defend, I’m so sorry.” Adesh said through sobbing and tears. “I didn’t know!”

“You’ve got to focus.” Eshe said, his voice sounding strained and exhausted. “Stop being so distracted.”

Adesh smiled, feebly, tasting his own tears. “I should try to follow the rules more, maybe.”

Eshe breathed quickly, and his body shook violently as he forced himself off his side and unto his back. He sat up, and got unto his knees. From there he could barely stand again, and when he did it was only to step closer to Adesh and sit near him. He pulled open the remains of Adesh’s coat and shirt, and breathed a sigh of relief. He laid his head on Adesh’s shoulder, their bodies nearly collapsed together, and he wept. “Second degree, just a little blistering and bleeding for you. Thank the spirits. You might scar but you’ll live. When she gets back we should be able to patch you up good, my friend. Thank the spirits.”

Weakly Adesh lifted his hand and stroked Eshe’s hair. Eshe laid his hand over Adesh’s own.

Behind them a shadow cast into the building from the doorway. There was a gasp and a series of rapid footsteps. Nnenia dropped to her knees and threw her arms around both boys, kissing their heads, on their noses and cheeks and lips and everything she could reach in a sudden frenzy, accompanied by a muted weeping and sobbing. Adesh could hardly return the embrace or affection, he felt so weak and physically incapable; Eshe raised his injured arm around her in his place. Together they cried and wept, their salty tears stinging Adesh’s burns, but he was too lost in the moment to communicate the mild discomfort this caused.

“Thank the spirits you’re both alive! Eshe, I said I would look for him! It was stupid of you to leave again!” Nnenia cried.

“And I looked too and then I found him, so there’s that. It’s done.” Eshe shouted.

“You probably hurt yourself worse you fool! At the very least you’re safe now.”

Unlike Eshe, Nnenia seemed to have been spared any obvious injury. But her normally unaffected expression was touched now with such emotion, such pain and fear, that Adesh almost felt like weeping again just from the sight of her. Her eyes were red and swelling from these outbursts. She always fairly quiet and a little guarded, and it was very moving for him to see her cry and worry. Though she made little noise her face looked like she’d screamed her lungs out.

Flashing from the doorway–

An explosion outside rocked the building. Adesh cringed back, a sudden animal reflex forcing him to try to move.

Nnenia and Eshe held him and tried to calm him, and he wept and bit his lip as he struggled to control himself again.

“Please, Adesh, you’re hurt, be still! We’re safer in here than out there. We’re as safe as we can be.” Eshe said.

“Where are Kufu and Corporal Rahani?” Adesh said, breathing heavily but trying to calm down. “Are they alive?”

There was a thump in the darkness; Adesh looked around. He was in an enclosed hall a few meters from the door in what seemed like a large building. There were a half-dozen doors along the hall, and at the end of it on either side he saw staircases leading up to a second floor, perhaps a third. Everything was brick and concrete. It seemed a sturdy place. He heard the thump again, and squinted his eyes. A pair of legs were dangling from one of the staircases.

“Right ‘ere kids,” Kufu said from the end of the hall. “We’re all accounted for. If I was a believing man, I’d say that was one of your gods doing something, maybe whatever flowery god the Corporal’s got a liking to. But I ain’t; those dive bombers just got muddy goddamn sights.”

“He’s been back there all this time,” Eshe whispered to Adesh, “Not keen on being included, that one.”

“Not keen on going outside either, the coward,” Nnenia said, “Corporal Rahani is looking for survivors.”

Adesh shook his head and tried to remember. At the park he had looked up at the sky, and he was captivated by the stillness he saw, until he thought he saw a silhouette, and heard a whistling noise, the sound of an enemy cutting through the air to dive upon them. He alerted everyone too late. Coming down from a high altitude, directly overlooking the battery, the dive-bombers had been impossible to spot. A group of three bombers, each of them unloaded a small bomb from the underside of their hulls at a steep angle with deadly accuracy. Adesh was thrown away by the force of the blasts, and lost consciousness. Eshe told him that he had found him lying under a rent blast shield with some burning material around him; perhaps the source of his burns. Together everyone theorized that perhaps the bombs had been intended to destroy the 85mm guns, and thus the attack was concentrated away from their own guns. Those crews closest to the two 85mm guns would have felt the worst of it.

“And despite this I was flung away like a doll. I don’t know how I survived at all.” Eshe said.

Nnenia stood in the middle of the conversation and closed the door to the building. She sat again with them.

“I don’t know how I came out as well as I did.” Nnenia said. “My head is just bleeding a little, that’s all.”

She bowed her head. There was blood; and Adesh would not have characterized it as a small amount.

“Nnenia that actually looks very serious to me. You should patch yourself up.” Eshe said.

“Adesh is more important right now.” She replied. Blood trickled down her ears.

“These blisters are nowhere near as bloody as the cuts on your head.” Adesh said.

From inside Nnenia’s pouch they took a roll of bandages and a bottle of antiseptic. Adesh demanded again that she be patched up first, and begrudgingly Nnenia bowed her head and allowed Eshe to sop up blood from her cuts, using some of the bandages as cloth. He applied antiseptic from the bottle, clumsily and with a heavy hand, and then bandaged around her head as best as he could. It was a sloppy job, but at least her wounds were clean and shut from the air. Nnenia touched her bandaged head and winced a little. Dark red color spread across them. She laid against the wall beside Adesh, sighing audibly.

“Now Eshe, your shoulder is wounded too isn’t it? I see red on your coat. Fix that.” Adesh said.

“You can’t be serious with this, Adesh, you’ve been sitting there for so long now–”

“It’s against some regulation somewhere to have a bleeding wound I’m sure.” Adesh said, a weak smile on his lips.

Eshe shook his head. “You don’t care about regulations! What a time it is for you say this!”

“But I know that you care, Eshe, so, get patched up first.” Adesh said. He tried to say it with good humor.

Eshe stroked his own mouth with growing agitation and handed Nnenia the bandages to clothe the wound on his shoulder. Nnenia pulled back his jacket and shirt and found a bloody, ugly gash and a few offending pieces of metal, which she pulled out. She then practically poured the antiseptic bottle over his shoulder, and Eshe flinched and balled his fists and grit his teeth with pain, but it was a large wound and a lot of cleaning was necessary. They wiped it, again with some of the bandages for lack of any clean paper or towels, before wrapping it up around the shoulder and arm as best as they could. None of them were medics.

Then Eshe joined them against the wall of the long hall. Outside the rain had picked up, but the bombs were very distant.

“Hopefully the Corporal will return soon, and we might be able to move about and seek aid.” Nnenia said.

Adesh nodded. He sat up straighter and turned his head. “Kufu, have you any wounds in need of–”

Adesh had hardly finished speaking his name when Kufu stretched his arm out dismissively from the staircase.

“Suit yourself then!” Eshe shouted. He took a softer tone after. “So, that means it’s your turn Adesh, quit putting it off.”

Behind them the door gently opened, and someone took a tentative step in. They turned, with welcoming faces, ready to say a hujambo; but there was a haunted figure at the doorway, clutching his arm and scarcely able to stand on one of his legs. Chalk-white of skin, with hair almost as pale, like seeing a ghost; and mauled along the limb he guarded. But it was his uniform that gave him away, gray, and on his breast a medal like a black cross, specked with blood. Around his neck hung a pair of goggles and a respirator. His eyes filled with tears. Much faster than he had stepped in, the man limped away down the steps, making choked, pathetic noises and sobbing in some incomprehensible tongue, nicht, nicht, hier nicht. He could hardly get off the short steps with his bad foot, and nearly tripped in fear.

Breathless, paralyzed, the trio watched him, as though they had truly seen a ghost.

This moment, this silent terror, passed Adesh by like a flash of lightning, shining before him. His stomach churned, and his eyes felt cold and dry and keenly focused. Fear washed from him quicker than it ever had. He was assaulted with images, the firing of guns, the booming of bombs.

Him; it was all his fault. Everything was his fault.

Forgetting his pain, Adesh bolted up unto his feet in a fury, brandishing his snub-nosed revolver.

“Come back here! You coward! I’ll kill all of you beasts!”

It was like a demon had consumed him. Adesh fired off a shot into the air, whizzing past the man’s head. Almost limping himself he charged outside into the rain, dodging Nnenia and Eshe’s hands as they tried to hold him back. Cold water washed over his head and shoulders and stung at the burns on his exposed chest. Step by tumultuous step he gave chase to the fiend without regard for his own body. His adversary cried louder and louder, swinging his good arm to remain upright, his injured limb hanging useless at his side. His alien tongue worked itself raw with screaming. Adesh closed the distance, raising a shaking hand to shoot. His bullets flew past the man’s feet, between his legs, under his dangling fingers. Adesh rapped the trigger until only clicks sounded from the gun, screaming after him.

“I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you you fucking animal! You did this, you did all of this, all of it!”

Around him the world spun, but at the edge of his vision Adesh spotted the wreckage of a Nochtish plane, a dive bomber, like before. His hatred for the pilot was all consuming and spurred him to move. He dropped his revolver, tore his knife from its sheathe and pushed forward, gaining step by step under the driving rain. Not once did the man look back, he continued hopping, dragging his leg, clawing with his good arm as though there was a lifeline to grab.

Adesh would lose him, he was near the edge of the smoke. Adesh screamed and cursed and swung his knife in the air.

Then a shot rang out.

The Nochtish man fell forward, his skull blasted open. The gore was barely visible inside the curtain of smoke. He had fallen half in the smoke and half-out. Adesh felt as though the shot had woken him from a nightmare. He felt a thrumming in his head, and tightness around his eyes.

“Adesh, please go back inside the building.” Corporal Rahani said. “And watch your language.”

Adesh was so surprised he nearly fell himself. Rahani was behind him, holding his own revolver out. Blood and water trailed down his face, giving him a grimmer look, and the flower in his hair had lost several petals, and the remainder had been clearly stressed and had their own little wounds. But he was upright, and around his shoulder he carried an injured man. It was Lt. Bogana, his eyes closed, blood and dirt caked around his face, and one of his hands little more than a knob of glistening red flesh. Adesh turned around, and walked slowly back into the building with him. Both of them stowed their sidearms. Inside, Rahani laid the lieutenant near the wall and tended to him gently, wrapping bandages around his mauled hand and cleaning his face with water collected on a helmet from the rain outside. He made several trips to collect water, and he cleaned and dressed the lieutenant, with a strained expression on his face like he was concealing his own pain.

All the while Adesh stood beneath the doorframe, his knife slipping from his fingers, standing frozen, staring at the ground.

Nnenia and Eshe stood impotently with him, themselves paralyzed, trapped in some stupor. At the back of the hall Kufu leaned out in shock.

Without aid or input Rahani bandaged up the lieutenant and let him rest, and stood, and ambled to the door frame.

He smiled, a gentle, pretty smile, and he took Adesh into his embrace, laying a hand on his head and stroking his hair.

“There, there. It’s fine, Adesh. It is alright to be scared, and alright to be angry and sad.” Rahani said.

Adesh slumped in the corporal’s warm embrace, and he wept. It struck him then that he had lost his own flower.

City of Bada Aso, North-Central Sector

For the first few blocks it appeared they might have a peaceful drive to Nyota Hill. Would the heavy rain remain the only obstacle to their journey? Unfortunately this was a notion they were quickly disabused of. Driving the scout car, Sergeant Agni led the small convoy of anti-aircraft vehicles south on the main thoroughfare for a few kilometers, while Parinita watched the sky with an aircraft observer’s scope that she had to wipe down every few moments. Profiting from her dedication she alerted them to the presence of enemy craft. Standing behind the Khroda machine gun, Madiha followed Parinita’s directions and spotted the Archer fighter planes, repurposed as ground attack strafing aircraft and circling the sector in search of new prey. Madiha elevated the gun and began to follow them.

“Unless aircraft rocket technology has grown by leaps and bounds in a year, we should be able to avoid their ordnance. It is those machine guns that we must be wary of. Sergeant Agni, they will fire in long, tight, straight lanes, and you will have to strafe around them to survive.”

“Understood.”

Sgt. Agni sped up and switched gears, and expertly took the next corner, losing almost no speed from it; her driving certainly eclipsed Parinita’s, and she was likely a better driver than Madiha herself. Her eyes were locked on the road and nothing seemed to distract her. At times it was as though the car drove itself perfectly without her input. Confident in Agni’s ability, Madiha shifted her attention skyward again. On a stationary position, the Khroda heavy machine gun, a relic in use by the Ayvartan army since 2000 D.C.E was rated at a maximum range of 4 kilometers and an effective range of 2.2 kilometers. On a moving vehicle, spirits only knew how accurate it was; of course, these were considerations for different eyes than Madiha’s. Kimani always told her: she could hit anything if she aimed.

“We’re coming up on them! They’re banking this way!” Parinita shouted.

Madiha caught a glimpse of the five planes speeding suddenly above the convoy, perpendicular to the direction of the road. One city block away the squadron split and the separate aircraft turned sharply in the sky, doubling back to run their lanes along the convoy’s path. They moved so freely that even Madiha found it difficult to keep up with them. Their cars were constrained to ungainly movements left or right on old roads, but the Archer planes could almost double over their own paths, banking and turning, diving and climbing, with few obstacles in the way of their movement. There was only one consideration for them: because of the disparity between their altitudes, all of the plane’s attacks would have to be shallow dives, and thus they could not concentrate a continuous assault. Like any attack on the ground it would happen across a series of dives and climbs, and against moving targets in an urban arena the lanes they could run were even more limited.

“Open fire!” Madiha shouted, raising her hand and opening her palm for everyone to see.

From behind the scout car the anti-aircraft trucks began shooting, saturating the sky with machine gun bullets.

Little came from it; the Archers maintained altitude, perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters in the air, and the cutting streams of fire seemed to almost intentionally miss the craft, so naturally did they fly away from danger. Sheer volume seemed to do almost nothing against them.

Avoiding their fire the planes circled around the convoy, three lining up behind them, parallel to the road, and two flying in eccentric patterns.

“Ahead, Agni, one of them is going to cut us off!” Madiha shouted.

Sgt. Agni veered sharply and cut their speed; one of the circling Archers flew across and blasted the road ahead with its cannons, leaving behind a line of small holes before flying away. They would have been within its lane had they not slowed when they did. Free to move again Agni sped back to full speed as quickly as she could and drove over the lacerations on the road with ease. The three planes behind them accelerated into their own shallow dives, quickly overtaking them, and opened fire with their Norglersthe equivalent of the Ayvartan Khroda. A stream of bullets chased the convoy and perforated the ground around them.

Madiha heard a loud, wet cry and found the windshield of the one of the trucks behind her splashed with blood. The truck veered violently, toppled over on the leftmost street and was no more, riddled with bullet holes and leaking oil, its crew butchered where they stood by the chopping fire of the Norgler machine guns.

Rockets launched from under the wings of the craft, crashing around the scout car and kicking up dust and smoke, but Agni veered away from the volley and managed to avoid every potential hit. All of the ordnance was 30 kg rockets, too small to rely on indirect hits. While the car rumbled from the explosions they hardly lost speed or control, Agni was far too tight in her driving to be thrown off by the blasts. Madiha hid behind her gun shield and waited.

The Archers leveled out of their dive less than fifty meters overhead and started to climb again.

She finally had a bead on them. Madiha raised her Khroda as far as it would go and opened fire.

Archers had thin armor; they were protected mainly by speed and maneuverability. Throughout the day they had proved this, but against Madiha it was a different story. Her machine gun fire traced a line under the hull of the leading craft, drawing smoke and fire from its undercarriage and even striking one of its remaining rockets. Seizing up and starting to burn the craft banked away from the formation and crashed, out of sight over the rooftops. In the midst of firing Madiha turned the stream of bullets to the next craft and clipped numerous wounds into one of its wings, causing the planes to split up and peel away from the convoy.

“Almost there!” Parinita shouted, huddling low in her seat.

While the pursuing planes scattered, the circling planes tore suddenly from their paths and haphazardly opened fire on the road. Agni turned violently from the road and unto a connecting cobblestone path, avoiding desperate sweeping shots from the two circling planes.

Larger explosions sounded overhead, targeting the circling planes and forcing them back with smoke and fragments.

Ahead of the convoy, Nyota Hill had violently woken, seeking to reclaim the sky with hundreds of shells.

Nyota Hill was an urban park built around a conical hillock that rose several meters over the buildings surrounding the park across the adjoining streets. Small for a hill, compared to the larger formations present in the Kalu, Nyota was nonetheless one of the highest places in Bada Aso, with a commanding view. A small observatory had been raised over its peak to study the constellations, but only a pair of walls and a thick plume of black smoke remained of this landmark. A bomb had leveled it; much of the rest of the hill showed signs of violence. Bomb craters and trails of Norgler fire pockmarked the once perfectly green hill, and the wreckage of a dive bomber rested at the foot. Nyota Hill bore the brunt of the enemy attack on the city north, but Nocht’s fury had not yet broken the important positions across its surface. The trenches that had been dug across the slopes of the hillock to accommodate dozens of artillery and anti-aircraft guns still stood, and mostly intact.

From the cobblestone path Sgt. Agni drove over the fallen fence and unto the green, while the guns cast their shells over the the roofs of the district at the fighter planes still marauding. Thanks to the altitude, the surroundings, the slope of the hill, and a varied placement of firing positions, Nyota Hill made a very difficult target for enemy aircraft. Within the range of those guns, no planes dared continue their pursuit. Everyone was safe in the shadow of Nyota, for the moment.

Sgt. Agni swerved to a stop, and Madiha dismounted. She ran to the hill and dove into one of the artillery trenches cut into it, calling for the commanding officer. Parinita and Agni took their own places in the nearby trenches, cramped with sopping wet men and women manning the guns.

The Ox CO at Nyota Hill was a middle-aged woman, comrade Lieutenant Munira, her light skin and dark brown hair dusty from the smoke and powder around the hill. She arrived promptly, dropping into the same shallow trench as the Major and directing the gun commander of the nearby 85mm to depart and run up to the Lieutenant’s old position. Lt. Munira clapped her hands together and bowed her head as a greeting. “Salam, Major; we received your radio message an hour ago and have been fighting fiercely since. This was a dangerous journey you undertook. I thank the Light that you were guided safely to us.”

Madiha nodded. “Thank you for your blessing, Lieutenant; I believe we will soon be faced with renewed enemy attack.”

“Indeed; our observers have already spotted an incoming air fleet minutes ago. We are making ready for them.”

“Allow me to join you.” Madiha said. “I hope that my presence might reinvigorate the troops.”

“I defer to you.” Lt. Munira graciously replied.

“No, I wish for you to retain command.” Madiha said. “Please address your troops as you see fit.”

Lt. Munira nodded her head. She stepped outside the trench momentarily, and delivered a speech to her batteries in a loud, fierce and very slightly accented voice. “Comrades, Major Nakar has joined us in the face of the enemy’s bombardment, having braved rockets and gunfire to bear witness to our victory today! As she did in the border, the Major is here to help us brave the odds, and together we shall become a legend of the city of Bada Aso! Fix yourselves toward the southwest, from whence the imperialist’s aircraft approach, and turn them back with all your fury! With Comrade Major Nakar at our side we will eject them across the seas once more!”

Madiha hadn’t heard of Lt. Munira much, aside from the fact that she was one of the rare Diyam, worshipers of “the Light,” in the Ayvartan army. Perhaps she had been at the border battle, perhaps she was a convert to this odd legend going around. When the Lieutenant called her out from her trench, and held her hand in the air to show everyone that she was present, Madiha could not say much. Munira’s oratory was intense and the reaction from the troops was boisterous and determined like she had never seen. It was uncomfortable to hear such powerful and flattering words, and worse to feel flattered by them, and feel flattered by the synchronized cheers from the battery crews assembled around the hill. But Madiha had little time to feel uncomfortable. She cleared her throat and said few words of her own.

“Comrades, I do not merely plan to watch you fight; I would be honored to join you in battle.”

She offered to take the position of gunner for Lt. Munira’s 85mm gun, and the Lieutenant and the previous gunner were equally pleased to cede the seat and gun shield to her. They returned to the trench, where Madiha took her new position. While everyone was setting up she asked for the names of soldiers in adjacent batteries, surreptitiously trying to collect and remember as many names as possible. For her plan to work, she could not simply have one gun at her disposal. She needed as many of the heavy guns as possible, firing the strongest fragmentation ordnance available. During the hustle and bustle, she identified most of the crews of the big guns.

“I admire your learning their names,” Munira said, “Should I die, you can honor the fallen in my place.”

Madiha nodded as though that was exactly what she had been thinking. One could not have gone further from the truth.

Then across Nyota Hill the call sounded: “Enemy aircraft, from the southwest!”

Almost in tandem every crew adjusted their gun elevation. Sounds of twisting and sliding metal issued from every trench as gun elevation was adjusted, and clunking and thumping noises as shells and shell-clips went into breeches. Gun commanders pulled up their binoculars and issued coordinates to their crews. On the horizon Madiha spotted the enemy air group, or fleet, approaching them in force. Fighters made up the bulk once again, and in groups of five; dive bombers and level bombers flew higher in the dark, rainy sky. Madiha’s own gun was not automatic, and could only fire one shell at a time. Thanks to its breech mechanisms it was a simple affair: dropping in a shell, locking the breech and pulling the firing pin to shoot the gun, then removing the shell remnants from the breech and repeating the process for the next shell. The 85mm could manage 10 to 15 rounds a minute with a good crew. Sadly, unlike the anti-tank guns, it lacked automatic shell ejection.

In minutes the two sides collided. Nyota Hill opened fire with everything it had, and the Nochtish squadrons dispersed in the sky and whirled around the landmark like currents in a storm of metal. Fighter planes strafed the trenches with their machine guns and 12mm cannons, tearing up the green, kicking up dust, slamming gun shields and disorienting crews, but unable to put rounds on flesh. Dive-Bombers descended at steep angles, launching small bombs from their undersides and rising sharply away under constant fire. It was a trick that could not be repeated overmuch, and the hill was like a rock in the face of the bombardment. Four bombers stricken by flak seemed to disintegrate mid-dive, while several smashed portions of the trench and threw back men and women but did no serious damage; two planes flew into heavy fire, lost their nerves and broke away with light damage; a single plane sped into the green, sliding uselessly downhill from the lip of a trench.

Lt. Munira raised a danava LMG over the top of the trench and riddled the cockpit of the fallen plane with bullets.

Nam jeyid.” She said under her breath. The wreckage joined the other plane at the foot of the hill.

There were soon dozens of planes circling the hill, but Madiha focused skyward.

Shell into the breech; she turned the handle and locked it. Lt. Munira and crew raised the barrel almost directly overhead.

Being behind an artillery gun was different than shooting a firearm. As a child Madiha had fired a revolver. It was the first time she shot at anything. She hit a man in the foot; there was one bullet left and she hit him inside his mouth. Both shots had been perfect, as though she had been born handling a gun. A firearm had a sort of texture, a grip, a series of motions. To her eyes there was something visible, guiding lines, a blue-print in the air that would guide her shots. Artillery pieces were impersonal. Even if you could see the target, the piece was stationary, and your body had no control over it. There was distortion in the lines. She was removed from the blueprint. She likened it to moving her limbs with her eyes closed. There was a unique feeling to one’s body moving without input from the eyes.

Time to aim was an abstraction. Madiha hardly aimed. She always simply moved. An artillery piece didn’t allow her to.

Nonetheless, whatever monstrous thing twisted away her humanity, it was powerful. She felt that eerie, demonic strength course through her mind as her hand touched the firing pin and unleashed the fragmentation shell into the sky. Her consciousness traveled with the ordnance for what was to her a split second, but encompassed the whole of its flight; the shell flew straight into the air at a steep angle, crossing thousands of meters in tens of seconds. There was no contact with metal, no grand rending to pieces of the enemy. The shell reached fuse altitude and flew past an unsuspecting level-bomber. It did not miss; the shell exploded just over the wings. One by one the engines on the bomber’s wing began to fail. Rapidly losing altitude, the machine fell from the clouds, its propellers fanning flames spreading across its wings and hull. Minutes later every man and woman in the trenches watched the massive bomber crash to earth, another wreck at the foot of Nyota Hill.

There were more targets. Now it was Madiha’s chance. While everyone was distracted, she touched that power again.

Her head grew hot, hot enough to draw sweat. Her eyes burnt, and her vision wavered.

Bomb bay doors opened far in the sky, and lines of ordnance dropped on the surrounding streets. A massive bomb struck the top of the hill and pulverized the remains of the observatory. Norglers blazing, under-wing rockets bursting across the hillock, artillery flak answering each blow; Madiha felt the power erupt from her body, hyperaware of the tumultuous environment. Fire and smoke and a ceaseless cacophony, and the burning, the infernal burning; her tendrils reached across the hillock, touching every gun she could identify. Soon as shells left muzzles Nochtish planes began to fall. Quick-firing 37mm guns rent apart fighter squadrons and dive bombers; 85mm and 57mm guns fired directly skyward and ripped apart level bombers and their escorts. She sustained perhaps thirty seconds of fire, enough for a few shells, before she slumped on her gun, weeping, blinded, immobilized. She saw the wraith again, forcing its way back inside of her, bleeding back into some unseen wound in her very humanity.

“Major? Major!” Lt. Munira pulled her back from the gun and laid her back on the trench. “Major, are you alright?”

“Yes, yes,” Madiha gasped, already starting to recover, “Yes, I am fine. It’s the smoke, the powder.”

She looked out from the trench and through her wavering, blurry vision she saw a sky still filled with enemy planes. Two squadrons of fighters took turns strafing the trenches. An instant later a dive-bomber plunged from the sky and dropped a bomb right into a trench several meters above Madiha’s own, casting dirt and rocks and metal down on her and Lt. Munira’s crew. It was like fighting a swarm of bees. How many had she managed to kill with her power? Twenty or thirty? Nyota Hill was throwing thousands of rounds of ammunition into the sky and seemed to make no gain. Madiha started to hyperventilate again.

Could she reach for a barbiturate in front of her troops? Could she sit here, the legend they counted on, and fail them?

“Major, are you sure you’re not injured? You look disoriented.” Lt. Munira said.

Dirt and rocks slid down from above, covering Madiha’s head in a tiny stream of debris before she could reply. Something larger dropped from above; Parinita slid clumsily down, almost crushing the loader under herself. In her hands she gripped one of the few hand-held radios distributed to the battery. Moments later Sgt. Agni appeared overhead as well, firing uselessly into the sky with a Danava LMG, before casting it aside and dropping down unto the unoccupied gunner’s seat of the 85mm gun. Lt. Munira looked puzzled by their appearance. The emplacement trench was getting cramped now with their presence.

“Major! You’re looking pale!” Parinita said. “I have some good news–”

An explosion drowned out Parinita’s voice, but she continued to speak.

Madiha made out a phrase from her voiceless lips: Ox Air Army.

Two fighter planes circling the hillock burst to pieces as if spontaneously. Four smaller green biplanes took their place, collectively casting a hail of bullets over the Nochtish planes. Across the park and over the district Nochtish fighters found themselves torn from their strafing attacks and forced into sudden dogfights with the arrival of dozens upon dozens of Anka biplanes from over the city. As the rain abated, the Ayvartan air force joined the battle.

Lt. Munira leaped out of the trench and shouted across the hillock for the batteries to watch their fire, because they might hit friendlies.

Madiha joined her, not to give orders, but to watch the sky temporarily clearing, both of the dark clouds, and of the beleaguered enemy fleets, swarmed by hundreds of Ayvarta’s weak but numerous planes, blasted from below by hundreds of guns, and again unable to break Nyota Hill and conquer the skies over the city.

Bada Aso burnt, with fury, with agony, with courage, with defiance.

24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

At “Madiha’s House” not a soul seemed to welcome the relative silence of the new day. Stillness gave everyone nothing but a painful moment to contemplate, to fall prey to discomfiting thoughts. As if to fill in the sounds of bombs and guns, everyone seemed to speak louder and step harder on the ground. Everyone worked hard to fill in the silence in their hearts and minds, the cruel silence of a world that had been blasted emptier and stiller than it had ever been.

“The Luftlotte has run no sorties today, so I think we can officially declare the air battle for Bada Aso over.”

Madiha sat behind a cafeteria table, turning her oatmeal over with a spoon. Parinita tried to smile. After two days of bombing and strafing, they had somehow run out the Luftlotte from the city. Massive damage had been dealt to the city infrastructure. Only a portable generator provided electricity to the headquarters now, and the lights flickered even without bomb blasts and shockwaves to disturb them. Half the city was without water service or lights.

“Do you want to take a look for yourself, or do you just want the highlights?” Parinita said.

Across from her, the secretary pushed a file folder with a fresh strategic report against her plate.

“I will confess a touch of fear at the prospect of reading that.” Madiha said.

“Well the news is about as rosey as it can be.” Parinita shrugged. “On the bright side, judging wreckage, and from reports from the flak batteries and from pilots, over the past two days we downed 368 Nochtish aircraft, including large amounts of the fighter craft they repurposed as strafing planes. So future dogfights will be a little easier on what’s left of our Anka planes. Which brings me to the downside, which is that we’ve maybe got 100 planes left, if that.”

Madiha raised her hands to her face. That first day of air battles was a large boost in morale for the troops, but then the reality set in. There was massive attrition of planes on both sides. The Ox air army was decimated in two days. She had no idea how much Nocht had left, but the Luftlotte had gotten the message. From 200 sorties the first day, to 100 sorties the second, and now not a single enemy plane over their skies. She could only hope that both their air forces had been broken by the brutality of the air fighting, and not just hers. Swallowing hard, she cracked open the report. It was more or less what she expected to see, and she wanted to weep and scream and stomp her feet from the sight of it. Casualties were massive. After just two days they had to bury 10,000 bodies. There were thousands injured. Civilians had taken the cruel brunt, maimed and killed in collapses of shelters that had proven inadequate, but the stationary troops, gun battery crews and observers were hit hard as well. Materiel loses were minimal, and she still had the overwhelming majority of her eight divisions in Bada Aso. One ARG-2 had been destroyed.

One miraculous bright spot: the forces in the Kalu had been almost entirely unmolested.

But the more she thought about it the more she felt personally responsible for this failure, for the debacle of this air defense, for how poorly ready the city was for the attack. What had she known about air defense, about air battle; what did she even know now? She knew that if she personally fired an artillery gun, she could hit a bomber. She was worse than useless as a commander. She was no genius, no hero of the border or any of that nonsense her troops desperately clung to in order to view themselves as anything more than pawns in an abstract political game between their bickering government and the bloodthirsty imperialists from overseas who saw them as a threat to the peace of the world. With a shaking hand she reached into her jacket and withdrew a barbiturate pill to calm her nerves.

Parinita reached out her hands, holding Madiha’s with both of hers.

“Please, don’t.” She said. “I saw you drink one just thirty minutes ago Madiha.”

Madiha didn’t struggle. She dropped the pill, and collapsed over the cafeteria table, burying her face in her arms.

She was a monster more useless than the human she had once thought she was.

A monster that could not even wield her monstrous power against anybody.

All she had left was the pain and the plan. Parinita was right. Taking the pills was just useless.

“Schedule a briefing with the captains from each division. We need to go over the defense plan and deploy. Nocht’s land forces will not be far.” Madiha said. She was speaking without affect, like someone from the KVW. Not because of conditioning, which she had never received, but exhaustion. She was just too beleaguered to feel anymore. What use were the tears of a monster in commemorating the dead? The pity of a monster for the people she herself had condemned? There was no point in living in this shell of humanity any longer. She was Major Nakar, a freakish thing in human form given pitiless command over an army.

Parinita nodded obediently and stepped away from the table. She rounded it, pulled up a chair beside Madiha.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you–”

“Not now, please.” Madiha mumbled.

Again, Parinita nodded obediently. She laid her head on her arms as well.

For a moment, they just sat there together. It felt nicer than Madiha wanted to admit.

In The Spirit of Things

About a year ago I told myself I would do something with all my milsim nerdery and historical trivia. In the absence of any other talents, all I could really do was to write a story that incorporated them. My main obstacle was that I don’t like historicals; if I wanted to read something where the history is predictable because it actually happened here I’d read some nonfiction. I know that for most historical fiction the appeal is seeing new characters in familiar settings, but something about those stories always put me off, like they were very selective readings of history.

What I wanted to do primarily was to write a story that was informed by our history but did not slavishly adhere to it, and that presented readings of history that were both highly alternative but also strongly rooted in reality. The Solstice War is speculative fiction and I like to say it is fantasy, but it is full of parallels that satisfy my ideas as to what war stories and their characters should be like. Essentially the elevator pitch was “Fantasy Soviet Union 1941, almost everyone’s colored and there’s tons of queer folks of all kinds, Barbarossa happens but it’s done by essentially, western liberal-technocrat imperialists with a few fundamentalist religious people in the mix. Things develop from there.” I kept this in mind as I began to plan and research and so on.

Of course, the elevator pitch always changes after more thinking and more planning. I definitively wanted to keep the Nazis out. I hate the Nazis, I hate all of their depictions, I hate any attempt to humanize them, I hate being in their heads. I just want them dead; and though they certainly would be killed in any story I wrote, I did not want them in it. I would have hated writing them, and I would have hated introducing what that they represent into the story. For my purposes I needed an evil that was less intense, both for my own sanity and for the entertainment of the readers. I also wanted an evil more difficult to identify and more challenging ideologically. Everyone who is not broken as a human being can get behind the destruction of the nazis. I wanted instead a more insidious and contemporary foe.

In addition, of course, the “fantasy soviet union” would not end up quite as such. For one I didn’t want to perfectly reproduce Stalin’s reign in a story. I believe Socialism has always risen from the context of its surroundings, and so the Soviet Union will never be reproduced, and to simply reproduce it in fiction would have been, to me, a very facile thing to commit to. Instead I developed an “Ayvartan” socialism out of its own context and out of the wills of its own people. It has certain tenets of communist anarchism and of Soviet Union style socialism and it is very much its own thing. This is important because it makes it more believable: direct 1-to-1 comparison to the historical object, in my opinion, would have made it more difficult to suspend disbelief in the events of the story. Especially if you know the history of it, and especially if you know primarily a westernized history of it. This is why it is important to invoke a spirit of the period, but not the artifact in full.

Starting point is essentially 1941, or in Ayvarta, 2030 D.C.E.; but we’ve already gone back, within the story. The Solstice War is a story that moves through time in strange ways for dramatic necessity. To pace it right, I can’t simply start at the beginning and go in a line from there.

When I write The Solstice War, I have a few objectives that might appear very strange to most people. Certainly it would be easier to have one main character and tell one traditional story of war, starting with the background of the war and moving into the fore, but that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. Certainly it would have been more straightforward to write a historical, but then the war couldn’t have gone the way I wanted exactly. Bagration would’ve had to happen in 1944 and so on. I couldn’t even really make up my own silly operation names! So, I’m not writing a historical. I’m writing a fantasy war in the spirit of the period of World War 2, and I’m writing about military conflict in the spirit of a war narrative rather than through a lavish adherence to media or history surrounding it.

There are little interesting things that you pick up while reading about a period that stick in your mind when you are writing a story set in that period. I never want to linger on these details or explain them too thoroughly. But for example, the fact that the majority of cars did not have seat belts. It contributes to things like the scene where Parinita is trying to drive and gets pummeled by the steering wheel when she hits a bad bump. Later on the characters are talking about films and they mention slapstick films. In the absence of speech, slapstick was a great way to convey comedy in film. It was funny seeing a dude smacked up and falling into manholes, more funny perhaps than reading his awful jokes in a dialog card cut into the film. And Parinita shows a little a sympathy for the protagonists of such films which was fun for me to write given that she was in essence the protagonist of a slapstick scene a few sections back. All of these details are not contemporaneous to us, they are our history, but they are also the current lives of these fictitious characters. This is what I understand as writing in the spirit of things. I don’t want to get too deep into these details, I don’t really want to be pushed to show my work so to speak, but my writing is definitely informed by them and I want these details to create interesting scenes. Overall though, I’m not writing a historical; this is a story in its own fake world that happens to have technology and culture parallels to our world’s 1940s.

Similarly, I didn’t want to write about war in the way war tends to normally be written about. War in fiction is usually very strange. It is a very individualistic and centered rendition of an apparatus that has an incredible multiplicity of perspectives within it. I did not want to write a story primarily about A Hero or even A Group Of Heroes. Because I am writing primarily about a socialist military I wanted to look at it as an apparatus that does not create the focused single or groups of “heroes” like popular narratives do, but a community. I did not want to write a story where single persons “win the war” but one that showcases groups of people fighting together for a common cause, each with their own important roles. This is why there are a lot of perspectives. Some will inevitably be lavished more attention. I am a writer, biased in that I want to write about some things more than others. As the character roster builds, however, I would like to write a tapestry of interconnected characters where the individual development of a character can be secondary to what their perspective, however limited, says about the war as a whole, his or her or their people as a whole, the story as a whole. I’m not exactly in the business of writing intensely dynamic individual heroes around whom the story revolves, but a community of characters who, together, create a good story. This, I feel, separates the kind of war story I want to write from traditional war stories revolving around individual icons of war.

Of course some characters will grow and change, but this is not my primary focus. Individual character arcs are less important to me than showing a lot of viewpoints and people in different roles. It’s a matter of degrees. I’m not looking to write a specific “hero’s journey” of the Solstice War, but one might happen somewhere. There are a lot of characters, and like I said, I plan to touch upon a few more than I will touch upon others. My emphasis and goals are just different, and in the end, that will hopefully create a story that is different than most you may have read. I don’t see The Solstice War as having a real protagonist. And I don’t particularly see having somewhat static characters to be a detriment to it, ultimately. Though certainly people have disagreed (and sometimes violently) on this score.

This is why, for example, there’s a scene with Parinita sitting around working on documents. This is something that happens all the time in real war. For all that rugged manly war fiction likes to decry bureaucracy, the army would fall apart and become worse than useless without staff. War is not solely won by powerful humans deploying weaponry, it must also be won by the cooks, by the clerks and by the truck drivers: by a community of people. Certainly the Solstice War won’t be won just by soldiers. I wanted to show different aspects and to give prominence to different people. This complicates writing, and it introduces scenes where I questioned whether they would be boring or unimportant, but ultimately I included them because they are in the spirit of what I want to do. Primarily the Solstice War is written as I want to like it and experience it. Overall, it is an eccentric story, I think, and with eccentric aims. But it is in the end the story I want to write.

The Gates of Hell — Generalplan Suden

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21st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E., Early Morning

Adjar Dominance — Village of Mapele, 2da Infanteria zone.

Charging across the border, many sure to die, the Cissean Cuerpo Azul or “blue corps” was the first Nocht Federation force to engage the Ayvartan enemy in combat, absorbing the shrapnel from their mines and the shells spat by their cannons. Thousands of these so-called Nochtish “client volunteers” died ingloriously to open the way into the enemy nation, falling steps ahead of the march to end Communism. Supported by secondary waves of Nochtish armor and Panzergrenadiers they painstakingly managed to crack and then completely dissolve the border defenses; Azul breached the defenses, and was then relegated to silence. Both divisions in the corps, the Primera and Segunda Infanteria, had been downgraded to mobile reserve status, and were essentially given busywork and chores to do now tens of kilometers behind the advance.

The 1st Vorkämpfer, an elite Nochtish force of mobile Panzergrenadiers and Panzer elements, took the lead of Generalplan Suden in Adjar, claiming key cities such as Dori Dobo that the Ayvartans strangely refused to defend. Their air cover raced again and harried the Ayvartan evacuations where they could, though it was soon apparent the enemy military had largely escaped. Ayvartan rail was far more developed than anyone had known, and their forces counted on a large, previously unknown workforce motor pool to support them. As the Nochtish line incrementally advanced, the Cisseans combed through the little villages, the backwater towns. They checked for mines, they confiscated weapons caches, inspected their new civilian subjects and claimed whatever food, tools and vehicles the fleeing Ayvartan army had left behind.

Brigadier-General Gaul Von Drachen had no opinion of these maneuvers. His soldiers found them degrading. Their morale had become quite low. They winced under the despondent, confused, wrathful gazes of the villagers and townspeople. They confessed that they felt like thieves and bandits, like lowlives; they, and Von Drachen in turn, had been relegated to the job of a security division in the rear echelon. A picture had been painted for them of this conflict but with every brush stroke they made they failed to reproduce it. Von Drachen responded to every subordinate officer the same: “You’ve come under a delusion about your role in this conflict that regrettably only you can solve.”

He did not say this with an air of malice, but a smooth, unaffected tone of voice. He did not believe he was necessarily right. Nobody was necessarily right.

Regardless of their feelings, they had orders to carry out, and they did.

Under an autumn shower, Von Drachen’s personal convoy followed a muddy road through a small village, consisting of a town hall and a few small tenements and granaries. But these were merely a backdrop for the large fields of grain, lentils and vegetables that led into the village. Everyone here worked on the farm, or supported the work of others there. Von Drachen took in the scenery as he rode on the side-car of a motorcycle, followed by two other motor bikes mounting Norgler machine guns, and a Sd.Kfz B. “Squire” personnel half-track bringing up the rear, carrying over a dozen security troops and staff in its armored confines. This last vehicle was a prestige token: the only one of its kind among the Azul corps.

This small motorized force rolled through the rural landscape, headed for the center of the town. Lined up on each side of the road were the villagers, silently watching the vehicles pass them by, while a few soldiers silently watched over them with submachine guns in hand. Von Drachen thought he would see the Ayvartans in rags, but their coats and robes, their shirts and trousers, their dresses, looked as good as anything worn in his home province of Gracia. They stood there, picturesque, soaking up rain, over a hundred sets of eyes in captivity.

Von Drachen dismounted in the middle of the village. Dozens of his men were hard at work searching the tenements, the town hall, the granaries. Out to their trucks they carried boxes of documents for the Corps Headquarters to translate; men with detection equipment tiptoed further uptown to check the dirt road for mines; lightly armed gendarmes gathered any native stragglers, checked them for weapons, and sent them out to line up along the road where they could be easily watched; privates searched for anything that could be useful to the Corps right away, such as food for the mess company, and medicine for the hospital company. And though the fields had not been cleaned of all their veggies quite yet, the granaries were empty, the town hall ransacked before Azul could claim it. Garbage bins sat full to bursting with the ashes of sensitive papers.

Von Drachen walked among the men, tipping the peak of his hat to greet them.

General!” they responded in chorus. Those with their hands empty saluted physically.

Que han descubierto?” He asked them. What have you found?

An officer stepped forward. “Nada pertinente al objetivo, General.” Nothing.

Las ordenes no han cambiado. Continúen.” Your orders haven’t changed. Continue.

Von Drachen sat on the steps to the town hall. Azul‘s busywork continued under his wandering eyes.

For a time the rain abated, but the sky was still dark and nasty.

Over the continuing labor Von Drachen soon heard the sound of an unfamiliar convoy, a mixture of trundling noisy tracks and the thumping engines of motor bikes and cars. He looked out to the road, and first he saw dust and exhaust smoke kicked up by the advancing column. Ahead of the vehicles was a light tank, the M5 Ranger, with a short 37mm gun that seemed like it had been wedged into the horseshoe-like turret shape, and a steep glacis. This small, quick, dull gray vehicle escorted three more Squire half-tracks, a number of motor bikes interspersed between vehicles and a long truck, followed by a more robust M4 Sentinel medium tank far in the back. Past the villagers the convoy rolled. Inside the village proper the half-tracks and motor bikes found places to settle, while the long truck pulled up in front of the steps. Its crew wanted to greet Von Drachen.

They were Panzergrenadiers from the 1st Vorkämpfer‘s elite 13th Panzergrenadier Division.

A procession of men in thick greatcoats and black helmets left their transports and approached Von Drachen on the steps of the town hall. He made no move to meet them. He barely acknowledged them at all. At the head of the Panzergrenadiers was a blond man with a round chin and slick, shiny hair. He stretched out a hand, a large grin on his high, sharp-boned cheeks. Von Drachen casually shook with him at arm’s length, and then retracted his hand and laid it on his lap in a stiff, slow motion. The officer laughed openly at his mannerisms.

“Whatever goes on in that head of yours, Von Drachen?” He asked.

“I can’t quite explain it myself.” Von Drachen easily replied.

“Aye, I’m sure you can’t. What are you doing in this grain pit, my boy?”

Von Drachen was probably ten years older than the young officer, but this hardly mattered to either of them. Von Drachen’s sharp, rigid facial features slowly contorted into a small smile, and he stood up from the steps and dusted himself off.

“We have been assigned to security and cleanup. We are picking through this village now.”

Von Drachen stood at least a head over the panzergrenadier officer when face to face, but if anything the young man seemed to find this detail amusing as well. He craned his head to stare at Von Drachen with a defiant, perpetually amused affect.

“I saw the folks you had lined up outside the limits. Mighty colorful, aren’t they?” He said.

“Pigmentation naturally shades this far south.” Von Drachen replied.

Again the officer burst into laughter. He looked at Von Drachen as though he could not believe what he was hearing, with the kind of surprise reserved for a shocking comedian. He seemed to find the entire existence of Von Drachen quite hilarious.

“So, you found anything yet? They hiding some actual weapons in this dump?”

Lieutenant-General Anton Von Sturm cast looks around the village, raising his hand over his brows as if to shield them from a nonexisting sun. He made a series of noises, ooh’s and aah’s like he found himself impressed with the Azul corps at work all around him. Von Drachen’s unyielding seriousness seemed to prompt him to act out even more. The Cissean men looked back at him quizzically, but his own men stood in attention, humorless. Whether Von Sturm’s mockery was cruel or friendly, Von Drachen could not tell. It did not altogether matter what the intention was. It was immature and emphatic and perhaps unbecoming. But it was what it was and Von Drachen would not interfere with it.

Finally Von Sturm laughed, a deep, loud belly laugh. “Lots of effort for a bit of hide ‘n seek eh?”

“We don’t expect to find anything dramatic, but we have our orders.” Von Drachen said.

“Aye, ‘course, still valuable work you’re doing, very commendable.”

“Quite. I believe I have another village due after this one, close by.” Von Drachen dryly replied.

Von Sturm covered his mouth to stifle another burst of laughter.

“A credit to the war effort. But regrettably, I’m here to pull you off this crucial task.”

From his great-coat, Von Sturm produced an official assignment from the Oberkommando. When they had the time or impetus to print this over the past three days, Von Drachen did not know. He read the brief assignment quite diligently. Azul was to be part of the infantry component of a two-pronged assault on the Ayvartan city (classified in their documents as a Festung or fortress) of Bada Aso. Attached to the orders was a small preliminary map and a summary of the operation’s primary positions. After two days of attack by the Luftlotte, the 1st Vorkämpfer and the 2nd Panzercorps along with the Azul corps and the 6th Grenadier Division would target the city primarily from the south while also attacking from the southeast toward the flank of the city via the Kalu hilltops. It was a simple plan, made simpler by their superiority in arms over the Ayvartans.

Azul would be inside the city, upgraded from reserve to first line troops.

“You’re welcome, by the way. I recommended Azul for this mission.” Von Sturm said.

“I do welcome a return to active combat.” Von Drachen said.

“I’m part of the strategic committee for this operation.” Von Sturm declared. He raised a hand to Von Drachen’s shoulder. “You deserve a shot to prove your commitment to the fatherland, Von Drachen. You Cisseans should stand proudly among the forces bringing democracy and progress to this place. But remember: nobody else gave you that chance but me. In return, I hope I will have your support.”

Von Drachen smiled again. This time almost as wide as Von Sturm. His eyes narrowed, and his cheeks spread as far as they would go. From his lips, came a sonorous, morbid laugh like a demon’s howling. Democracy and pride! Politics in the middle of war!  Oh, the boy had jokes!  Von Drachen laughed until he was hoarse, and the panzergrenadiers watched him as if he were about to leap at them.

“I admit it,” Von Drachen said through his fit of laughing, “you’ve got some good material!”

Von Sturm was no longer amused. He turned quickly around with a parting, “Just get moving.” He and his entourage returned to their characteristic half-tracks and disappeared down the road. Overhead, under the treacherously darkening sky, Von Drachen saw the planes of the Luftlotte on maneuvers. He gave it perhaps a day or two until the city was reduced to rubble, over which they could leisurely drive. Not because of democracy or honor or anything of the sort but simply mathematics, as Von Drachen knew them then. He was careful though not to be too certain nor too invested in these actions. He had a different set of goals than most of the Nochtish commanders, so he should not succumb to certainty.

21st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E., Morning

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

Over the past few days Bada Aso had seen exemplary weather, but on the 21st the clouds began to pack together across the sky and created an intermittent darkness. The Military Weather Service predicted a strong chance of rain on the 23rd and up. Parinita had heard Madiha wishing for rain to fall sooner, since any such disturbance would affect Nocht’s mobility and the Luftlotte’s readiness.

But despite Madiha’s wishes, rain had yet to visit its ruin upon them. Past the dawn the rays of the sun came and went at the whims of a gray sky, but there was still light coming into the office, and no pitter-patter yet on the glass. Parinita looked out the window to her new office, and released a long, deep, contented yawn. One shaking hand kept her pen hovering off her desk to prevent her writing an unwanted line in a moment of weakness. Her office overlooked an empty children’s playground, squeezed between two other buildings.

No children tumbled down the slides or climbed the bars. They were either evacuated or with their families.

Parinita shook her head, trying to clear a cold fog that was settling over her mind, and she tried to regain her bearings. Table of Organization, right; she recalled that she was finishing a summary for the Major. She snatched the topmost folder from a stack next to her. It was labeled Battlegroup Aviation, and contained documentation about each of the air fields in the Adjar dominance, the planes kept there, state of readiness, and the number of trained crews and crews undergoing training; among dozens of other important facts. She flipped through the pages, yawning every once in a while, until she found where she had left off. She transcribed a number of things from the folder to series of templates on her desk.

This was her job, for the most part; putting the final touches on Information Product for the Major.

Though she had another job, one self-imposed, it was much harder to explain rationally.

She returned the folder to the stack, and found another that was in need of transcribing. This one was a mess of gathered data on the Disposition of Armored and Motorized ForcesHer head began to ache as she looked through the data. Several facts did not add up across her sources. There was some mathematical game playing out before her eyes, where vehicles had been assigned overlapping categories like “cosmetic damage,” “extensive repair” and “needs replacement” all at once, resulting in confusion over the real disposition of many units. Though it was the duty of her staff to find ways to reconcile these kinds of problems, they had been rushed and stressed over the past few days. It was inevitable.

Sighing with frustration, Parinita reached out over the stacks of documents and folders populating her desk, and took the rotary dial phone there and pulled it up over all the mess. She rolled the numbers on the dial and pressed the handset to her face.

A young man picked up. There was a bit of commotion behind him. “Yes ma’am?”

“Bhishma, come up here and help me reconcile the auto-workers union archives with the data we collected from the engineers in Tiffils. One or the other is either wrong or trying to embellish the numbers. Put aside whatever you’re doing right now.”

There was acknowledgement over the line, and Parinita hung up, and waited.

As Staff Secretary, Parinita oversaw many professionals at work. Her Company counted on a Signals crew who could be consulted on communication equipment and methods; Operations staff who helped to plan maneuvers (in this case the defense of the city); Administrative staff who gathered information from after-action reports and informed the staff at large of readiness and efficacy, as well as overseeing training and equipping of troops; Logistics officers of utmost importance, who tracked the flow of supply and the sustainability of operations; Intelligence specialists who compiled reports on the movements of the enemy, relying on data from scouts, and on various forms of surveillance; even a Meteorologist who was in contact with the Weather Service and ready to advice the Army on the natural elements for or against their operations.

Bhishma worked in Administration, gathering much of the troubled data on vehicle disposition.

A few minutes after the call, Bhishma and his three aides joined her, pulling up children’s desks around Parinita’s grand wooden desk and looking over the data one more time. He was nervous at first, and shied away from eye contact; but Parinita was gregarious and easy-going and managed to diffuse the tension and get everyone working calmly. She made sure that nobody was stuck thinking that it was their fault and dispelled any notion that punishment might ensue. Together they broke down their data back to its sources, isolated errors and made several more phone calls inside and outside the city to confirm and update their data. There was shouting over the lines, back and forth, especially with the divisional maintenance crews that had been in charge of the materiel under Gowon, and were clearly unhappy with this level of scrutiny being brought upon them.

Thankfully, the staff was used to working over the lines. Over the past two days they had been forced to gather data like this, talking with logistics and maintenance crews, with administration officials, with union managers, all of it over the radio, in the middle of evacuations, working out of the back of Madiha’s trucks. To do the same but in a comfortable office was child’s play in comparison.

Finally they were able to work out a much more accurate account of what Battlegroup Ox actually had to work with. Parinita wrote “793/217/490″ next to Goblin tanks, for operational / undergoing repair / mechanical losses on her Table of Equipment and Organization. Similar but much smaller numbers arose for the Orc tanks. Spare parts availability for the Bogin half-tracked truck was squared out. Fuel consumption and fuel availability for the diesel-engine tanks was determined. In about an hour and spare change they had mostly fixed the data. Parinita thanked Bhishma and his aides, and humbly they bowed their heads before they hurried out of the office and back to their original posts.

Much of the morning was spent the same way. She looked over the work of her colleagues, cross-referencing sources and summarizing the information to produce Madiha’s Table of Organization and Equipment. Parinita was one woman, head of a staff, and a lot of the work on the document had been delegated. Much the same as she supported Madiha, who was just one woman and could never research and consume all of this data alone, her own staff gathered information to support her. Her logistics personnel, her administration personnel, her operational personnel; their disparate handwriting traded places across all these documents. They worked relentlessly. She was supposed to have a staff of 70 people in war-time, including personal aides; there was no time to recruit more hands, so she made do with 30 people, and put in a lot of work herself.

After two days the table neared completion. After going through a stack of papers and figuring out a glaring discrepancy in the terms being used to refer to the formations documented therein, she put down three radar “units” each consisting, sadly, of only a single truck, into the ToOE. This detail completed the regional structure for the forces defending Bada Aso. Parinita had finished the product on time.

Parinita pulled up the papers and stared at them, half in a daze, numbers and figures still dancing in her head.

This was her contribution to the war. While her comrades prepared to die, she counted, and she wrote.

Sometimes it felt pathetic; but it was also all she could do. And she wanted, desperately, to help.

She picked up the phone again and dialed the communications staff. “We’ve got a Table ready to disseminate.”

“Yes ma’am, I will send someone to collect it. We’re still working on getting the printer in place.”

“No problem. Give my congratulations and thanks to everybody. I’ll be sure to secure Honors for us all.”

She hung up the phone, and some childish part of her wanted to toss all of the documents, to throw them into the air like confetti, to kick down all the stacks and roll around in them like fallen leaves. But she couldn’t; this all had to go to Archives.

Instead she settled for knocking the phone over the edge of the desk with a mischievous giggle.

Promptly there was a knock on the door. An expressionless KVW guard entered the room and saluted her. Parinita stood up from behind the desk, feeling a cracking sensation in her back and knees as she moved. Cheerful and with a mind still bouncy and high with a sense of accomplishment, she approached him and exchanged pleasantries — a strange event when it came to dealing with the deadpan KVW.

Hujambo Gange, what’s new since I last left the comms office?” She said jokingly.

Hujambo. I am here to collect some documents.” Gange said. His tone of voice was terse and dry though not in a rude way. KVW people had a knack for sounding both apathetic and courteous. Parinita handed him the documents, which he carried in his open arms as though he were a human library rack. “I was also asked to inform you that a shower-head was installed in the second floor bathroom.”

Parinita smiled. “Ah, thanks Gange! Now I can freshen up a bit before meeting the Major!”

She clapped her hands happily. Gange bowed his head deferentially, turned on his feet, and left.

Parinita was not far behind him. She picked up the phone, tidied the desk a bit, and went on her own way.

The newly-formed Battlegroup Ox Headquarters Company had chosen to establish themselves in a four-story rectangular school building looming over a fork in the road toward the north-center of the city. The building’s forward-facing windows gave the occupiers a sight-line several kilometers to the south, east and north. It was perfect not just for an HQ, but to defend the main street. All of the front offices bristled with machine guns and even a few 45mm anti-tank guns painstakingly pushed up the stairs. Soldiers worked in the forward-facing rooms, piling sandbags around window frames and walls to provide additional protection against machine gun and rifle fire in case of attack. An 82mm mortar had been set up on the roof.

Lovingly, many referred to the place as “Madiha’s House” though the commander had not yet caught on to the nickname. Parinita had given the order to “decorate Madiha’s house to the best of their ability” last night, and it had stuck since then.

Since the front offices were occupied by defensive emplacements, and provided obvious targets to any assaulting enemy forces, the headquarters staff established themselves in the classrooms around the back of the building. Overnight, dozens of people gave up sleep in order to prepare the space for the interminable hours of work that would surely follow. Staff members and troops relocated piles of office supplies, heavy old file cabinets, typewriters and radios to the classrooms. They combed the building for anything useful and dragged it from the building’s face to where it would be safe from shelling or sniping. Being a little challenged in upper body strength, Parinita mostly carried sundries and cheered on those with stronger constitutions. Ultimately she had gotten about three hours of sleep in a stretcher she had pilfered from the school’s clinic, while her writing desk was painstakingly pushed upstairs from the Headmaster’s office in the bottom floor so that she could complete her work on it.

All of it was paying off, thankfully, and Parinita had done enough work to not feel completely worthless.

Having, in her mind, earned a good shower and a little more rest, Parinita took a flight of stairs down from the third to the second floor, where she heard a bit of a racket. She found a few members of her staff struggled to push a printing press the size of a large office desk into one of the classrooms. Once used to reproduce educational materials, they could now put it to work printing military literature. They had found it in one of the front offices, and had spent the better part of the night and morning relocating it to a safe place. Parinita congratulated them on their progress so far and left them to their devices, squeezing past them, around the corner and into the adjoining hall where the bathroom was located.

Outside of it she found a rather moist-looking Madiha sitting on the floor, fully dressed but only half-awake.

Hujambo, Madiha!” She said. There was no one around, so she thought she could be familiar.

Hujambo,” Madiha half-heartedly replied, “I apologize for my current state.”

“Things finally caught up to you, huh?” Parinita said. “You should’ve slept.”

Madiha breathed in deep. “I went under the hot water and now I feel terribly sleepy.”

“Tut tut. You’ve got a busy day today, Major, you can’t just sleep in.” Parinita said, gently and cheerfully ribbing Madiha. “We have to meet Kimani at the rail yard, and inspect the anti-air defenses and the port. I can’t do that alone you know!”

“As of late I have come to regret many of my decisions.” Madiha said, half through a long yawn.

Parinita beamed and patted her on the shoulder. “Take a little nap, I won’t tell anyone.”

There was a sense of relief, seeing Madiha this way. Her eyes were in good condition. Parinita could not see the flames behind her eyes. They came and they went from the Major, working in ways only the Spirits knew for sure. Thankfully they were dull now and Parinita did not need to worry. She could leave the commander there and know that she would not soon burn in her own flame as those old legends said.

Such thoughts were alien at first, but now they flowed naturally with her new, strange task.

Past her commander, Parinita entered the bathroom and found the installation of the shower had been as barbaric as she had imagined. They had battered the sink off the wall and left it in a corner, and attached an extension to the water pipe that led up to an ordinary faucet. To “shower” she would have to stand on a chair graciously left beside the pipe, open the warm water, and then stand under the faucet as it gushed water over her head. Parinita closed the door behind herself, undressed, and stood under the rushing water for a few minutes, scrubbing herself with hard bar of soap. She understood how Madiha felt after a while. Hot water pounding her head and back, steam rising all around; it was soporific.

When next she opened the door, she too was half asleep and barely through dressing herself.

Gently she laid next to her commander, and they nodded off together for about an hour.

21st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E., Noon

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

When Parinita first joined the army she was barely an adult, yet she could hardly read or write. To the callous Empire the education of the lower class was an afterthought; to the bold revolutionary in the civil war, the education of the lower class was an abstract thing that should first and foremost serve them in their war against the Empire; when the socialists picked things up afterwards, they had a lot of ground to cover. Parinita was seven years old when she first spoke, and ten years old when she learned to read. Her early childhood had been chaotic.

Never had she been a prodigy, or outstanding in any way. To her, the military’s slogans appealed: “First and foremost a comrade; first and foremost in service of socialism.” It was noble and dignified in a way her life had never been until she joined.

It’s not like she had anything else to turn to for a future.

After graduating and earning her rank, Parinita had always worked diligently and put in the required effort to complete her tasks. There was a sense of tedium sometimes, but it came with casual purpose that motivated her to continue. On some level she enjoyed the work she did. But there was a new sensation, now both terrifying and powerful, that she felt while walking astride Major Nakar across Bada Aso, a doomed city standing ominously still before a rising tide of flames. She brimmed with a strange, new purpose that made her old reality feel unreal.

She remembered the cackling words of her grandmother: you will see those eyes burning her alive, and like me you will be a witness to history. Was it on some level just inevitable that time would pass and slowly Madiha would die in front of her  eyes?

Thankfully her days were providing enough stimulation that she rarely traveled down those dark paths of the mind.

Outside a car had been prepared for them. After their impromptu nap, a refreshed Major Nakar (she preferred Madiha, but sometimes propriety demanded otherwise) bid farewell to the headquarters and ushered Parinita outside with her to conduct the long business ahead of them. First they drove out toward the airport in the northeastern district of the city. For once, traffic was a little stiff; KVW Police from the city had been posted at key roads to direct the several hundreds of trucks, tanks, tractors, bikes, horses and other vehicles on the asphalt. Everyone was in a hurry, and everyone’s tasks were important. Madiha waited patiently behind the convoys that, by her words, had been organized and put to work.

While they waited they went over the day’s business. Kimani and the evacuation; the Revenanta large vessel in the port that Admiral Qote had given them command over; Anti-Air defenses organizing across the city; and the radar units in the airport.

“Each of these ‘radar units’ is actually a truck, according to this report?” Madiha asked.

Parinita nodded. “Well, the truck’s not alone. There are eight folks working inside.”

“So that’s why it was labeled a ‘unit’ I suppose. I had hoped we had more equipment.”

“Radar is a very new technology, I’m afraid.” Parinita said. “Those three trucks are it.”

“At least we have some means of detection. Better than staring skyward for days.”

Parinita stared at the sky. Any second now she could have heard the swooping of a plane.

“They’ll be hitting us soon, won’t they?” She said, in an idle, ponderous tone.

“We will interrogate that once we have the equipment available to do so.”

“Yeah. That’s right. We’ll be ready for them, I’m sure of it.” Parinita said.

She said this as much for herself as for Madiha. She needed to hear it. She only wished it had not been herself who said it. Coming from her it was less encouraging by an order of magnitude. There was no power in her that could sway these events.

They endured the traffic and worked their way further north. Soon the roads widened enough that they were free from the two-lane clog and could drive more leisurely. Bada Aso Air Base was outside the thickly urbanized areas in the center, northeast and south of the city. Nearer to the coast, the terrain became comparatively open. Once a place of old capitalist villas with wide acreage, green fields and a commanding view of the ocean, it had been enclosed just a bit when the opulent villas were demolished and the housing, factories, and social infrastructure went up to support a population of equal comrades. But the blocks were much less dense, and there was still grass and loose, natural dirt straddling the road and street. One could still get that commanding view of the ocean, but only by climbing a rooftop, or driving past the district and into the bay proper.

“Parinita,” Madiha began, while keeping her eyes on the road. She let the statement hang.

“Yes?” Parinita said, smiling and friendly.

“I wanted to thank you for the work you’ve done. All the reorganization I desired demanded a lot from you and your staff. I did not ask you to undergo these tribulations lightly, and I could not provide you any aid. Your efforts have been splendid.”

Parinita was surprised to receive thanks.  She smiled and she held back a fit of giggling from Madiha’s long, discursive way of speaking. She couldn’t have just said a ‘thank you’ or a ‘congratulations’! Though the Major had claimed her words sounded unnatural and inhuman, Parinita did not think she had ever heard someone in the military speak in a more genuine fashion than Madiha. It was a quirk, a bit of her nature that war had done nothing to change. It was like a window to her heart. She had to revise just how much different Madiha was than other officers.

“Thank you! I am happy to help my comrades in the ways that I can.” Parinita replied.

“To each according to his ability.” Madiha said. She was smiling, too. How rare! “I am glad to have you. Doubtful that I will find the time to properly address each member, so I must also ask you to please relay to the general staff my congratulations as well.”

“I will! They will be quite happy to hear it. Most of the raw data came from their work.” Parinita said.

Madiha nodded. “There will be Honors awarded as well, if after the ashes fall we are yet healthy enough.”

They rolled right over this grim reminder in their conversation, their spirits temporarily too high for it to affect them. This spectre of death was too weak to spear their hearts at that moment. After this they would all survive and they would all definitely buy themselves something nice from the restricted goods store with their Honors, war be damned! Both of them even shared a little laugh about it as they drove. Parinita was already planning what to do with her prize. Surely there was a good camera she could buy, whether it be a film or photo camera, whatever was available.

“I have not an inkling of what I would want to buy.” Madiha said.

“How about nice clothes? Are you a fluffy dress or a fancy suit sort of woman?”

“I believe I am a military uniform kind of woman.” Madiha awkwardly replied.

Parinita rubbed shoulders with her. “That just means you have an excuse to try them both on!”

Both of them were soon laughing like small girls. It had become a rather pleasant drive somehow.

Bada Aso Air Base was itself a monumental site compared to the confines of much of the city. The base was surrounded by high fences and barbed wire and its runways spanned almost a kilometer in length. There were four wide parallel runways, and several buildings, including the main control office for the base. A high capacity runway and several hangars and warehouses would have made it a perfect host for 10,000-plus kilogram transport and passenger aircraft, but there were no large guests in sight during Madiha and Parinita’s visit. Solstice was still much more used to conducting its heavy transport using its large rail network, and its fleet of 300 or so cargo planes was contributing little to the operation.

In fact there were few planes on-hand in general. Madiha had ordered most of the small craft to evacuate further north and quickly reestablish themselves in bases further north, away from potential Luftlotte assault, but close enough to respond in time to a threat on the city. As they drove to the back of the airport they saw a skeleton screw on the runways, performing maintenance on a squadron of Anka biplanes that had been left in the base. These planes were going on seven years old now. They boasted a gulled wooden upper wing and a flat lower wing, with a body of mixed steel and duralumin. A skilled pilot could make them sing, but Parinita knew they were relics compared to Nochtish planes.

Crew on the runway stopped to wave at their car. Madiha and Parinita waved back.

There was a smaller hangar straddling the back wall where a group of people had been waiting for them. Madiha parked the car just outside the location and stepped out, and they were greeted by a handsome young man with dark brown skin who was dressed quite sharply in a suit and a tie, and had gelled his dark hair back sleek and shiny. He addressed them from his wheelchair, and there was another young man following behind him, a colleague gently pushing the chair wherever needed. Behind the two of them a group of aides opened the hangar and drove out to the runway a long truck with a sizeable aerial projecting from the roof over its bed. The aerial was several meters tall.

“Thank you for visiting us, Major,” said the young man, shaking Madiha’s hand, “I am Chief Technology Officer Parambrahma. This is my colleague Narayam. And behind us is the ARG-2 or Argala. We are ready to demonstrate its operation.”

Madiha bowed her head, a little lower than normal due to the difference in height.

“Thank you for having me Officer Parambrahma, Narayam.” Madiha replied. Perhaps a little too humbly for the commander of an army, but that was not a bad thing, Parinita thought. “Is this vehicle our radar unit? Could you describe its function?”

“Certainly.”

Narayam pushed Officer Parambrahma closer to the truck, and Madiha and Parinita followed them. An aide opened the back of the truck, which was built like a chamber moreso than a standard cargo bed, enclosed with walls and ceiling and a door. From inside the truck a ramp was pushed out, so that the vehicle became accessible to the C.T.O’s wheelchair, and together the posse climbed into the back of the vehicle. It was dim inside, and would be very dark indeed had the back door been shut and the ramp closed. Visibility was provided almost exclusively by the lights on various consoles, and especially by an array of cathode ray tube screens that projected green color that, upon closer inspection, seemed to form a long scale, with lines superimposed on the screen that gave it a scale. Parinita examined the screens, and found the scale was in kilometers.

“Here is where the science of radar becomes something coherent to human eyes.” Parambrahma said. “Essentially, this truck will send out a wave, and then wait for that wave to bounce back to it, and here we can draw some crucial information,” Narayam happily pushed the C.T.O closer to the CRT screens, and Parambrahma tapped on one to demonstrate, “the presence of an object will be indicated by a blip on the screen, and we can determine its distance from us using the scale. Thus we can be alerted to the presence of incoming aircraft.”

“Interesting,” Madiha said, “So from how far away can we detect incoming aircraft?”

“A hundred kilometers. Continuous detection and true distance is a little unreliable right now, unfortunately. So while it cannot act as a guide for gunnery quite yet, I believe it can provide an invaluable service to the city nonetheless.”

Madiha nodded. It was not perfect, but it was better than she expected nonetheless.

“One hundred kilometers should be more than enough to give us an effective early warning.” She said. “We can scramble aircraft in response with that lead. You have three units of ARG-2s, correct? Do you have the crew to operate them all at once?”

Narayam spoke up then. “We have enough crew, but there’s only one C.T.O.” He said sadly.

“That’s fine.” Madiha replied. “I require two of the units in the southern districts, and one near Ganesha Arithmetic And Reading College. C.T.O Parambrahma can supervise them via radio from the Battlegroup HQ in the school.”

“I can try.” Parambrahma said. “However, if something goes awry, I won’t be there to read the screens.”

“We shall live with that.” Madiha said. She tipped her head toward Parinita. “Ask Chief Warrant Officer Maharani here for a copy of our operational plans, and organize your units to provide as much range along the south, around the coast, and over the Kalu.”

“Will do.” Parambrahma said. “You sure get to business quickly, Major. It took months of my time simply to convince your predecessor that Radar even worked as I purported it did. You on the other hand seem to accept this immediately. I was wondering if you would have liked a demonstration of the system; we have an Anka ready around here somewhere. But we’ve moved along very quickly.”

Parinita thought a test seemed sensible enough, but Madiha shook her head in response.

“You seem like a bright young man, C.T.O. I will put my faith in you. I have little time to do otherwise.”

“I can understand. I hope, if the system succeeds, we shall have your backing for future resources?”

Parambrahma had a big grin on his face, and Narayam seemed cheerful as well.

“For whatever my opinion is worth, if your system contributes to our survival, I shall support you.” Madiha replied. Parinita wondered how people interpreted the current political situation; Madiha’s word might not be worth anything in the near future. In fact it might soon be worth a negative amount should the Civil Council decide to act out against her for the takeover of the city. Whether or not this was running through anyone’s minds in the room but her own, Parinita did not know. Madiha quickly returned them to the business at hand. “Right now though, I must ask you to set aside future ambition and focus on giving me as much coverage of the Dominance map as you can.” She said.

“Of course. I work within the military structure exclusively. I’ve developed many theories for the deployment of the ARG-2. I can assure you that Nocht will not enter our skies without our knowledge once the ARG-2s are operational.”

Madiha nodded. Parinita could only hope Nocht was not flying overhead right then. If a bomb fell, she thought perhaps she would leap atop Madiha, and try to protect her from the blast. That was all she thought she could do. Perhaps Madiha would even live.

21st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E., Afternoon

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

Once their business at the airport concluded, the next stop for the Commander and her secretary was the main rail yard in the northeast district. Kimani should be waiting for them there. Yesterday Madiha had selected her to oversee the deployment of Ox in Lt. Purana’s place, and in tandem, to oversee the evacuation. After the councilors were shipped off, Kimani had been absorbed in this work.

Madiha knew Kimani wanted no part in the battlegroup command. At first she thought the reasons had been political, despite her saying otherwise. It was difficult to believe that she could consider Madiha more qualified for this task. Clearly it would have been outrageous for the inspector to take over herself, so she left a reliable old friend, Madiha, to take the reins symbolically. That emphatic support must have been meant to help Madiha cope with the political realities of the situation. However it was more and more borne out that Kimani truly believed what she said at the border and that Madiha had misread her intentions. Politics or not, Kimani was leaving full command of Ox to her, without strings.

Though she did not understand the decision, Madiha had no real choice in it.

Rails stretching from the east, north and south converged on Yhana station’s multiple platforms, feeding Bada Aso goods bound for shops and for the port, and taking from the city large amounts of fish and industrial goods from its factories. Most of those factories were shipping out in pieces when Madiha arrived. Vast and entirely open to the air, the station was incredibly busy. Hundreds of workers loaded trains with tools and machines stripped from evacuated factories, and unloaded materiel that had been evacuated to the city from across the Dominance. Soon as Madiha parked the car she saw a train depart loaded with half-built trucks from the auto factory; and another train arriving full of tanks.

“Madiha, what are those? I’ve never seen that tank pattern before.” Parinita asked.

“It’s a Hobgoblin, they’re a new type commissioned by the KVW.” Madiha replied, staring at the train. She was puzzled. Who brought them here? “The 3rd KVW Motor Rifles had a small battalion of them as support, but I was not expecting to see any more.”

“Inspector Kimani is meeting us here, so I assume she must have gotten them for us.”

They approached the military cargo train, and took a closer look at the cars. It was quite a long train, and loaded with over forty of the tanks. They were far more impressive that the boxy Orcs or the small and outdated Goblins. Colored a dull, fresh-out-of-the-factory green, the Hobgoblins had thicker armor in the front than either of the two common tank patterns, boasting a sloped glacis and a new turret, mounted closer to the front of the tank and composed of slanted armor plates with a tough, bulging gun mantlet. This tank could withstand much more punishment than the barely-armored Goblins. Armed with a long-barreled 76mm gun, it boasted firepower unlike any other piece of Ayvartan armor. It boasted two Krodha machine guns as well, one on the front of the vehicle and one coaxial to the 76mm gun, to round out its impressive armament. Like the Orc, this was a medium tank, but it was much more effective in the role, being faster, better armored, and state of the art. There was not a tank like it.

Parinita whistled, admiring the new tanks. “To think we have a weapon like this.”

“Without the Civil Council behind it, production has been very limited.” Madiha explained.

“Why don’t they support it? It seems far better than the Goblins.”

“I don’t know. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say because it was largely a KVW project.”

Madiha crossed the length of the platform, and found an additional three cars at the back of the train, carrying five tanks that she did not recognize at all. These were significantly larger than the Hobgoblins, with boxier turrets that ended in a blunt chevron-shaped turret basket. While the weaponry was similar, the tracks were longer, with eight, larger road wheels rather than the seven smaller ones on a Hobgoblin. While a Hobgoblin could be considered a medium tank, certainly this model was a Heavy tank. Madiha guessed it must have weighed several more tonnes than a Hobgoblin, and a Hobgoblin already weighed 26 tonnes! Parinita knocked on the armor with her knuckles, in awe of its size.

“I take it you know as much about this one as I do.” Parinita said.

“I have never seen anything of its kind.” Madiha said.

They stepped off the platform and approached some of the laborers. From the glowing rings around their eyes Madiha recognized them as KVW agents. They quickly pointed out the next platform, where the automobile factory equipment was being loaded unto a train. There Madiha found Kimani, signing off on the transport manifest and watching the work of both trains carry on. Tanks started to be crewed and unloaded little by little using ramps and heavy platform cranes. Kimani thought nothing of Madiha’s presence until she exhausted other things to pay attention, and then she greeted her apathetically. “Afternoon, Major. How stand things? Have you visited the air defenses or the port yet?”

“What are those tanks, Kimani? Those larger ones?” Madiha demanded.

Changing the topic did not appear to faze Kimani. She responded to the questions as though the conversation had flowed naturally from her greeting. “A pick-me-up from Solstice. They’re a new Heavy tank pattern, Ogre. Fresh off factories in Jaati.”

Growing irritated, Madiha pressed her. “Why do we have them here?”

“I assume they will be firing at other tanks.” Kimani casually said.

“That’s not what I mean.” Madiha said. “And you know it. I don’t appreciate you being coy.”

“I apologize if this upsets you, Major.” Kimani said. “I hesitate to mention that the 5th KVW Mechanized is joining us soon as well. I desire to command them in the defense of the Kalu to protect your flank. I hope that is not a problem. The KVW is simply gathering allies and materiel to support your plans. Nobody means for this to undermine you. It seemed a logical extension of our goals.”

Parinita raised her hands in sudden distress. “Now my table of organization has to be redone!”

She sounded like she was about to cry. Kimani and Madiha both stared at her, and she sobbed.

Kimani was trying to protect her still. Madiha could see that. And on some level, she wanted protection, but not in the way Kimani wanted to provide it. She wanted her here, in the city. Close enough to advise Madiha should she lose her way. Not in the hills running a delaying action within a delaying action, losing materiel so Madiha would have more time to lose her own share of materiel. A kettle boiled over inside Madiha, a mix of emotions confused and strong that burned at her heart and brain. Her stress seemed to multiply. She didn’t feel ready for this responsibility. She could carry out all the tasks that came with it, but whenever she tried to lift the entire edifice her spine shuddered from the weight.

Her brain was running away with her again. Madiha felt a burning sensation in her skull.

She tried to stomach it all and continue, as she seemed to be doing with terrible frequency these days. If Kimani could roll over from one topic to another without affect then so could Madiha. Feeling anxious shivers just under her skin, she pushed forward with her original agenda, mustering as firm and emotionless a voice as she felt she had. She had visited the rail yard to quickly assess the evacuation.

“I put you in charge of overseeing the evacuation here, so I hope you would complete that work before leaving. So, with that in mind, tell me: how proceeds the evacuation?” Madiha said. “Are we moving at a good pace? Could we do any better?”

“We are making as much progress as we are able to.” Kimani said. “Militarily speaking there are a few stragglers, maybe two or three Companies worth, that simply haven’t made it back. I believe air patrols might have gotten them. Where materiel and civilian evacuations are concerned, we have about 80% of our vehicles accounted for, and our supplies have been distributed along the city and are hidden underground or in caches to hopefully survive bombing. It also appears that our rail capacity is at its limits. Already the councilors that we evacuated yesterday are marooned in the Tambwe Dominance with thousands of other refugees for the next week or so, because we need the lines clear for industrial evacuation toward and beyond Solstice. Tambwe is the major chokepoint for traffic right now. No matter what we do here, Ayvarta as a whole cannot do better than right now.”

Madiha felt a pang of guilt for Chakrani. “I assume the councilors will be well provided for.”

“Obviously they won’t starve; whether they’ll have nice offices to sit around in is another story.”

“So it is out of our hands to move the evacuation any faster?” Madiha asked.

“Committing any more resources is untenable. Let our union comrades handle it from here.”

Delegating sounded good. It was a bit less weight on Madiha’s shoulders.

“Speaking of, is the Port Worker’s Union willing to become city authority in my place?” She said.

“I’m afraid the union has voted to evacuate. You are still the city authority.” Kimani said.

Madiha sighed. “Then find me another union. I don’t desire to retain the city authority any longer.”

Kimani’s expression turned to the closest thing to a smile that Madiha had ever seen on her. Kimani stared at her, directly into her eyes, and laid hands on her shoulders as though preparing to pull her into an embrace that she knew would not be returned. Madiha did not understand the expression. Was this some kind of a joke to her? Was she condescending to Madiha? It didn’t make sense.

“You’ll deal with the responsibility well. I’m sure of it, Major. May I return to work?”

Stunned, incapable of reading the situation any longer, Madiha simply nodded her head, knowing that she would make no headway talking to the Inspector any more. Kimani, with that unfamiliar expression, turned on her heels and crossed the tracks to supervise the unloading of the tanks. Her stride and stature was unshaken by the conversation. She walked tall and confident as ever.

Madiha wanted to scream. Do you or do you not want to protect me? Do you or you do not care about me? But she had that common sensation that the words coming from her mouth would be different and worse. So she let it all go. There was no point.

Behind her, Parinita openly sulked about having to produce a new Table of Organization and Equipment.

“You do not have to incorporate them.” Madiha said. “I know enough about the 5th Mechanized.”

Parinita perked up at once hearing those words. “Oh, spirits bless, what a relief it is to hear that.”

Putting her mind off the disastrous spiral of thoughts that threatened to consume it, Madiha returned to the car and drove herself and Parinita around the designated air defense zones. She had been meaning to make an appearance. Though their coordination was out of her hands, she had given overall guidelines and felt it would help the troops to see her actively involved. It was a simple plan, largely because air defense with their equipment would not have benefited from a genius sleight. Barrage balloons had begun going up over precious areas of the city, dragging steel cables that would make the air around them a hazardous terrain for craft, but there were not enough of them to make a world of difference. Madiha ordered the balloons they had to be raised over important monuments and buildings. Guns still made up the bulk of the air defense.

In parks, on rooftops, along large intersections and broad thoroughfares, they had established searchlights and anti-aircraft posts. Powerful 85mm guns would put in the bulk of the work, with their delayed-action explosives and higher combat ceiling. To cover for their slower rate of fire, each team of three 85mm guns partnered with two 57mm guns. Though these suffered from a lower range, they had a higher rate of fire and more ammunition had been allotted to each of them. The larger share of their guns were 37mm guns that Madiha found technically unimpressive, and she did not prioritize their use. Every battery had a few of these smaller guns to fight back against diving and low-altitude targets.

All of these guns were relatively new and technically sound, but unproven. Ayvarta’s cities had never needed to fend off a sustained aerial attack, and like their Infantry and Armored formations, their Anti-Aircraft Batteries had seen no real combat.

In addition to these problems, was the fact that all of their positions were completely fixed in the grand scheme of things. Their only mobile anti-aircraft defense was a platoon of trucks armed with quad-mount machine guns on their open beds. Operated by two soldiers, these were nothing more than four Krodha heavy machine guns firing 7.62x54mm rounds, stuck together on a mount and mechanically tethered so they would all fire at once. It was unwieldy and the round had poor impact and range compared to real AA guns. While there had been some suggestions with regards to mounting a real AA gun on a tank turret, nothing had been done about it. At best she could hitch her heavy guns to trucks and drag them between positions, but this took so long that changes to the defensive plan could not be feasibly made in the middle of an air battle.

Her plan simply called for the guns to be dispersed to cover as much of the air as possible.

Inevitably, as some sectors faced stronger air presence than others, these would be forced to engage disproportionately larger amounts of aircraft. Perhaps her strange powers could support those forced to carry that burden, when the time came.

In the northern district, a large urban park had been quickly taken over by an anti-air battery. Here Lt. Bogana oversaw deployment of a battery of three 85mm guns, five 57mm and three 37mm guns, each with a crew of four to six people to load, traverse, fire and an additional, relatively more experienced gun commander who would handle communication and complex sighting. Bogana had survived the battle along the border with Cissea several days ago, where Madiha had relied on him to command guns holding a hilltop along the border against an armored assault. He had met her expectations, and she had elevated him to the role of battlegroup artillery commander and gun crew trainer. He was pleased with her visit. When he saw her car driving up the multi-purpose path along the center of the park, Bogana had everyone stand in attention.

“Greetings, Major!” He said. “The 6th Ox Anti-Air Battery is at your disposal!”

Behind him the men and women (some closer to boys and girls) saluted at once.

“Thank you!” Madiha replied. “I am pleased with your dedication and discipline, comrades. While I speak with your commanding officer, please ready your guns for a fire exercise. I hope to impart some of my own knowledge to you this day.”

Parinita had a clipboard in her hand and seemed to be pretending that she was busy.

“You hear that comrades? Bring out the dummy air targets and the launcher!” Bogana called out.

Everyone seemed excited, especially the younger soldiers. They looked as though they had been biting their nails waiting for a chance to get behind their guns. They quickly scrambled to their positions and prepared themselves, while Bogana’s aides crewed a small aircraft catapult from the back of a nearby Bogin half-track. This launcher would deploy small wooden planes, launching them one at a time straight into the air to serve as the “fast moving” targets for practice. Kites were gathered as well to represent “slow moving” targets. From afar it probably looked like a hobbyist gathering in the middle of the park: flying kites, tossing gliders, having fun. Though perhaps the cannons ruined the imagery.

There was a lot of energy in the air, and Madiha was glad for it. It was a good change of pace.

Even Parinita found something to do! She produced a stopwatch and had begun “gathering data.”

Frankly, Madiha knew precious little in detail about crewing an anti-air gun, but the moment she laid hands on one of the guns she knew that she would not fail to employ it correctly. Ever since she was a child, that was one thing that never flitted out of her memory, one thing she could hold on to and know for certain. She would pick up a weapon and never fail to employ it. In visiting the battery, she hoped to test those out of body experiences of hers with multiple people and more complex gunnery, as well as play the good commander.

Instruction was a good cover: she figured if she used her ability in the future, soldiers would not be so keen to suspect the rapid improvement in their aim if they had previously received training. They would believe they had improved organically.

While the gun crews prepared, Lt. Bogana beckoned Madiha aside.

“Great to see you here Major. Lt. Purana and I have been spreading the word about you, and how you took command in the border, and I think it will do our comrades good to see their commander walking among them in these uncertain times.”

“Your support is invaluable, lieutenant.” Madiha said. “How are the troops holding up?”

“Most of them know up from down, at least, and they’re keeping busy enough. I’ve heard a couple words of discontent, but I sorted them out. I think most people just don’t know what makes a good commander. We barely ever got see or hear a word from Gowon, but when we most needed it, you were right there. Folks around here might silently doubt you, but the people at the border, we know.”

Madiha wondered what exactly she did that was so revolutionary. At the border she gave simple instructions that basically any commander should have known. Lt. Purana had gathered much of the gun line on his own. When she took command she barked orders that should have been instinctual. Fire at the enemy, hold the line, hit the sides of tanks, organize artillery and fight back; what part of this made her a good commander? She was not about to give herself undue credit. Of course she could not doubt herself in front of the troops, so she graciously accepted every compliment Lt. Bogana wanted to throw her way. However she could not help but wonder if it was her strange power that influenced them. Perhaps her only genius was being born some kind of monster, and not anything learned or practiced. Perhaps it was nothing that she could be proud of.

She knew so little about what was happening to her. Never had she been so uncertain about everything.

“Thank you.” She said. “Keep the troops focused, but please do not be harsh to those who disagree with me, however. I can understand their point of view. I have already taken actions that I know I will regret, and be made to regret further.”

“Well, it’s not as if I am swatting their heads. But it’s important they respect you.” Lt. Bogana pressed.

“Avoid pushing the subject too far. I hope to win them over in time.” Madiha said.

“I understand, Major.” Lt. Bogana said. “I’m sure it will happen once the cheese starts frying.”

Madiha feigned a little laughter at his metaphor. Parinita, meanwhile, laughed raucously.

Soon the demonstration was ready. First the crews fired at large kites and balloons, hitched on tough cables and thrown into the strong wind around Bada Aso. They were raised to different altitudes, some several kilometers high. Crates of practice ammunition with low amounts of explosive were cracked open and the rounds distributed among the crews. They would explode, but less violently than real ammunition. When enough targets had gone up, and enough ammo around, Madiha blew a whistle to order the crews to begin firing. At once the battery lit up the sky — for a very restrained definition of ‘lit up.’ It was not a terribly impressive showing. Crew performance was extremely homogenous against the relatively stationary kites and balloons: the inexperienced crews encountered similar problems when loading and firing the smaller 37mm as they did loading the larger 57mm and 85mm. As such none of the guns covered each other; furthermore Madiha found them all aiming at the same targets and altitudes.

“Comrades, do not aim directly at the targets!” Madiha shouted in a firm but well-meaning voice during the exercise. She had noticed all of the crews traversing their guns and trying to aim directly for the stationary targets. It was a very bad habit to pick up, as it would lead them to waste time trying to score direct hits as though they were shooting at a tank with armor-penetrating rounds. “In a real combat situation you would be firing high explosives! It is fine to ‘miss’ because the explosion will harm the target on a close ‘miss’. Shoot near your target, lead into it. Furthermore, 37mm guns should aim at the lowest altitude targets, while the 85mm guns should focus on the highest altitude targets. Let me show you!”

Madiha rushed toward one of the guns and placed herself among the crews. When she closed in on a 37mm gun, the second her fingers brushed the metal she was already adept with it. She picked up a shell, loaded it, traversed the gun with the help of the crew, and she opened fire. She “missed” one of the low-flying kites, but the small explosion from the gun set it ablaze. From the 37mm she hopped to an 85mm and repeated the process. Within moments everyone in the park was clamoring for the commander to help them with their own gunnery.

Her insights were limited, she thought, and this was all basic stuff. But everyone was impressed.

“Let us pass on the kites,” Madiha called out to Lieutenant Bogana, “Launch the moving targets, and load some real ammunition this time. They need to see the effect their real rounds will have. I think that will do far better to prepare them.”

Lt. Bogana grinned. “You’re in for a treat, troops.” He called out.

The Bogin half-track drove out of the park and out into the street, towing a cart full of extra planes. An aide pushed a wheeled table with several radio consoles out into the field. Bogana took one of the consoles, and from it he could control the little planes sent out from the catapult, via radio-remote-control, a relatively new technology that had found little military use save for target practice. From what Parinita told her about the little targets, Madiha understood why live fire exercises on moving targets such as these were not often performed under Gowon’s leadership. Certainly it seemed wasteful to destroy these clever little machines using live ammunition. But the experience would be invaluable.

Honking the truck’s horn, the aides signaled to the crews their intention to launch. They raised the catapult ramp and launched the first plane into the sky. Lt. Bogana twisted knobs and pulled on sticks on the console, causing the plane to zip around in the air. It was small compared to real piloted plane; about the size of a human being, and also slower than a real plane. Madiha joined a 57mm crew and waited for the plane to fly up 2 or 3 kilometers. Still visible against the gray sky, but a challenging target due to its size, at the limits of her vision. Bogana banked and dove the craft the way a real plane would attempt, and the crews were mesmerized by the speed of their new target compared to the ones before.

Again with the help of the crew Madiha aimed just ahead of where she thought the target would be.

The 57mm made a loud snapping sound when it fired. Overhead there was a large explosion and a cloud of smoke.

Pieces of the little plane fell over the field a few kilometers away, shredded by fragments.

Soldiers began to clap and cheer for her. She felt quite uncomfortable with the accolades.

Soon more planes started to go up, and more consoles brought out to control them, more staff to coordinate the exercise, and Madiha stepped aside. She had given the crews enough instruction. Standing back from the guns, she and Parinita watched the crews open fire. Dozens of shells went up in the air, many overflying their target and exploding uselessly, many more undershooting, and several exploding meters away from effective range. Madiha tried to recall the people she had briefly met while going from gun to gun, names like Pvt. Adebe and Jr. Sgt. Rutva. Names and ranks, letter by letter, she concentrated her mind on them. It became easier to lose herself in each name now that she knew the trick to it, and her ghostly exported self flitted from person to person with new alacrity: but the impossible task now was seeing through their eyes.

She felt as though lying down near the ocean, her body pushed and pulled with the invisible rhythm of the tides. But it was not the moist, cold embrace of water but fire that swept over her, somehow exerting strength and heat over her mind and body.

Her consciousness projected outside again. She had “switched on” her strange power.

At the border she knew she had seen through the eyes of Pvt. Adesh Gurunath, she had been directly inside of his mind. Now however she was like a ghost, haunting bodies but unable to emphatically connect with them. Her point of view floated over and around people but could not tap into their essence, could not fully immerse herself in their own perspective. Over the shoulder of a certain Pvt. Panchala she looked up at the plane, and the tendrils sweeping forth from her pushed his hands, guiding him gently so that he traversed the gun just enough, so that he helped just enough to load a round faster, so that the crew could fire — and hit. Everybody celebrated, congratulating the crew that scored the hit. Madiha felt the explosion rattle her brains. Her phantom body both became incredibly heavy and immobile, while also turning fluid and incoherent.

Her vision swam, and she got the sudden, sick sensation of seeing her body from outside it. Yet her body was also seeing, and it saw the projection, like a wraith of smoke, like the outline of a body cast by the only light in a dark room.

It was her and it wasn’t. It looked at her, and she looked at herself.

This was the monster inside her; was it becoming easier to control it, or was the pain worsening?

Forced back into her flesh, Madiha staggered back, covering her nose and mouth with her hands. She thought she would bleed or vomit. She felt her eyes and head burning and her stomach and chest retching and shuddering as if sucking something down.

Parinita caught her. She had nearly fallen over from the pain and disorientation.

“Whoa! Major, what’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“I’m feeling a touch dizzy.” Madiha lied. “It might be smoke from the shells.”

Parinita withdrew a handkerchief from her jacket and handed it to Madiha.

“We might want to get going then.” Parinita said. “We have to go to the port also, remember? And you should talk to a medic too, I think, if you’re still feeling unwell later. All the stress and lack of sleep might be catching up to you, Major.”

“A few minutes more. I will be fine.” Madiha said.

She stood again, and she heard Bogana’s voice warp and waver as he shouted to continue the exercise. Madiha felt nauseous and weak as she tried to lose herself again, to separate that avatar of her power from her flesh. When her perspective ripped from her body and took flight again it was weak and blurry, its eyesight terribly diminished. She reached out to the nearest familiar gun crew, and she tried to touch all of them at once with her tendrils, but to no avail. Helplessly Madiha watched her mental appendages dissipate in front of her, and she found herself propelled again into her body. As though struck by a cannonball she fell back into Parinita once more, who gasped loudly as she caught her weak, limp-limbed commander for the second time. Lt. Bogana noticed the commander’s collapse, as did many of the soldiers, and he shouted for the gun crews to keep focused on the sky. Handing his remote control console to a staff member he rushed to the Major’s side and snapped his fingers near her.

“Commander, can you hear me? We have a clinic not far from here, are you unwell?”

Madiha’s mind was swimming. She could hardly see in front of her face, and could barely hear voices. Vaguely conscious of her surroundings, she mustered the presence to shake her head and say, “I have been working too hard, that is all.”

She would not leave abruptly. She stood again, on legs that keen observers saw lightly shaking under the weight of her upright body. Unsupervised, the troops had managed to knock down the test planes on their own after going through many explosive rounds. Lt. Bogana called them to attention again, and Madiha congratulated them, and reassured them that they were prepared to face the enemy. She told them to pass on what they had learned to all of their comrades and to become good officers themselves in the future. Parinita stood close as the Major spoke, in case her hands were needed. Soldiers clapped for the Major, though on many faces there was clear concern for their leader.

21st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E., Evening

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, Coastline

“Madiha, are you sure you want to do this? I think we should go back and rest.” Parinita said. Her stuttering had grown pronounced, and she was practically shouting every word as though it would be her last. She was driving now, was constantly correcting and overcorrecting on the steering wheel, shifting the scout car to the wrong gears, and she could only turn corners by braking to a snail’s pace and accelerating into them little by little. Madiha would not have been surprised if this was her very first time driving a vehicle outside of basic instruction. Nonetheless she had insisted in driving, and insisted that Madiha keep her head tipped back against the seat, with a wet, warm cloth over her forehead. They ate peanuts, strips of flatbread and dry, roasted chickpeas out of a ration box, and it seemed to Madiha that more of the food flew from the box than was actually eaten.

“Madiha, I asked if you were sure–”

“I’m becoming gradually certain that I do not want you to drive.” Madiha replied.

Parinita blinked hard and took her eyes off the road. “Oh, wow; I can’t believe I’d hear a sarcastic joke from you of all people! I meant if you wanted to go the port or not! Now it’s my turn to tell to you not to be coy and to consider my words.”

“I was not being sarcastic! Please, Parinita, park the car and turn the wheel over to me.”

“No! You need to lay back, and rest. If we’re going to the port, you need to be fresh and relaxed.”

No sooner had Parinita completed the sentence that both of them jumped from their seats as the scout car took a sudden bump in the road very roughly. Parinita hit the steering wheel with her chest, and Madiha’s head snapped against the seat. Had the road defect been any worse they might have been completely ejected from the car! It had no canopy and the windshield was not of great quality.

Still, Parinita refused to cede the wheel to Madiha. She drove them out to the waterfront, stopping and starting and swerving side to side, going over every bang and bump. She had navigated using a map of the city and taken the wrong paths. They were further south than they were meant to, atop the stone ramparts overlooking the low, sandy beaches of the Ayvarta’s western coast. Embarrassed but determined, Parinita switched gears needlessly and drove them up the coastline for forty-five minutes. Gradually the beach receded, and the water rose. From quite afar they spied the port along the large artificial harbor, a projection composed of thousands of tons of concrete growing from the old stone ramparts.

Building it had been quite a project, and the Empire did not fully complete it before falling. The Socialist Dominance of Solstice, however, had quickly finished the job after the Revolution, and for a time had very busy trade with the outside world.

Almost no commercial vessels occupied the harbor now. Many had fled.

In their place there was one very visible heavy cruiser, the Revenant. Almost 200 meters across, the Revenant wore a long thick hull, ungainly some might say, but reliable and armed to the teeth. A main turret containing two 300mm guns was supported by six 37mm guns organized in three pairs that acted as an anti-air defense, and six 100mm dual-purpose guns organized in pairs for both air and surface combat, as well as several machine guns. Bristling with weapons, packed with sailors ready to fight, it was one of the proudest ships of the Ayvartan navy, more effective perhaps than even its capital ships. Parinita whistled again, the same as she did seeing the tanks. But Madiha was not planning on keeping this gift.

“Are you feeling hot, Madiha?” Parinita asked out of the blue.

“No, I am not.” Madiha replied. “I am room temperature, I suppose.”

“Alright, good. I think your condition is bettering then.”

“I already told you it was. I’m driving on the way back.”

They parked along the water and Parinita offered to help Madiha walk to the ship, but the help was not necessary. Madiha had recovered fully from her bitter failure to reengage her powers. Though overwhelming at first, the pain and confusion was shorter-lived than she imagined. As soon as they pulled away from Lt. Bogana’s air defense zone Madiha recovered her senses. She hesitated to say that she was becoming more used to employing her eerie, nameless gift, but she nursed that secret hope. Parts of her hated and feared this power and what it meant; but her pragmatic side believed that if she could channel it and use it sparingly and without discovery, she might inflict brutal damage on Nocht.

But that was not the plan, not right now. It could not be. It was simply too uncertain.

Madiha led the way up the steps to the bow of the ship, where five marines, the captain, and her executive officer. Captain-At-Sea Monashir was a younger woman than Madiha would have thought would be in command of such a vessel. She was dressed sharply in her full uniform, with her hair in a bun and a pair of glasses perched on her nose. Madiha and Parinita looked disheveled in front of her.

“Good evening, Major.”

Evening it was. Madiha had scarcely taken notice of the growing darkness. She was running out of time and simply could not muster much eloquence anymore. She was exhausted and had a heavy heart and mind. She made her case quickly.

“Evening, Captain. I’m afraid I haven’t much time. But I must insist that you depart.”

“We’ve just barely arrived, Major.” Captain Monashir explained.

“Then it will be that much easier for you to depart anew.” Madiha continued. “Our air defenses cannot protect as large a target as the Revenant from a sustained bombing by the Luftlotte. I must request that you leave for the ports in Tambwe, and return in 10 to 15 days time with any naval resources that the Admiral wishes to bequeath to the fight. Right now it is too dangerous for you remain.”

Captain Monashir shook her head. “Do you know if you will control the port by then?”

“You can smash it back into our grasp if necessary.” Madiha said.

Parinita handed the Captain a copy of the operational plan as well as the now slightly inaccurate Table of Organization. Captain Monashir glanced at them before handing them to her XO and crossing her arms. She sighed a little bit.

“Admiral Qote ordered me to follow your orders, and I shall. I will attempt to remain in radio contact with your office as much as I can, but I cannot promise anything at sea. I hope you understand what you are doing, Major.” The Captain said. She had reason to be wary. She was not with the army, and not at the border; she was not one of those few people with a glowing view of Madiha. She had every right to be skeptical and she exercised those rights. Clearly this was what people outside the situation thought. Madiha was unprepared and foolish.

“Godspeed, Captain.” Madiha said. She and Parinita departed the heavy cruiser.

21st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E., Late Evening

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, Coastline

The Major was burning again. Whenever they were together, the burning was less terrible to behold, but the fire behind her eyes was so bad now that blood was seeping from the sockets. Could nobody see this but Parinita? Could nobody help? While Madiha spoke with the Captain, Parinita had tried her best to do what she learned from her grandmother’s superstitions. Surreptitiously she blew on the flame, she swiped away the flame. Why was this something only she could do? In a panic all those questions seemed to flood her again. She could not let Madiha know about the burning; it was too crazy, too horrible. But it all bore out; the burning was really getting worse all this time. Madiha might go up in flames.

Her labors seemed to bear results. By the time Captain Monashir had accepted her orders, Madiha’s eyes had return to their dull, sorrowful old facet. Parinita breathed a sigh of relief, and tried to ask if she felt hot. There was no response.

Scarcely fifteen minutes had passed since they arrived at the port before they were off the ship again. Standing over the edge of the pier they watched the Revenant prepare again to sail into the darkness. An hour passed, and the ship was off with the last hints of the sun. Slowly becoming a sliver of lights playing about the moonlit surface of the sea, it was a strange background to end the day with.

Madiha looked exhausted. They climbed into the scout car and then started the drive back, but Madiha soon stopped again and parked along the ramparts overlooking the sea. She stepped out of the car and leaned on the edge barriers.

Parinita joined her. She did not ask when they were going to return to the headquarters. She knew that Madiha needed a little break, and that it had been a heavy day, and given no combat had occurred, heavier days yet awaited them. After a long quiet period she decided to speak up. Perhaps it was time again for a film night! Anything to try to distract the both of them from their situation.

“Is it fine if I call you Madiha?” Parinita said. “While we’re away from work, anyway.”

Madiha blinked hard. “Yes, I don’t mind that you do. You’ve been doing so all this time.”

“True. But I wanted to hear you say it.” Parinita replied. “So, what was the first film you saw?”

Madiha stared at her for a moment, but then she smiled and complied.

“I cannot remember the name. I was about five or six years old at the time. One day the nuns at the orphanage took us to see it as a treat for some holiday. It was a very tedious religious film, even worse because it was silent, so I nodded off a lot.”

“Ah, yes, talkies didn’t exist back then. We’ve only had talkies for ten years or so now.”

“As a teen and adult I watched films mostly on dates or out with friends.” Madiha said.

Parinita nodded. She took a deep breath and she laughed a little telling the long story of her first film. It was something she had rehearsed a little in her own mind. “When I was a kid I went to the theater multiple times a week. I practically lived out of the theater. My grandmother took care of me while my mother was out, and she thought I was tedious to look after, so she would send me to the theater with money to ‘get looked after.’ And nobody at the theater really cared who watched what films. So I always watched the grown-up pictures and not the kiddie shows. My first was a silent slapstick movie from Nocht, Well-Mannered Mr. Krauss. Mr. Krauss was clumsy and he hurt himself a lot. He fell down pits and got hit by doors and he tripped and smashed into a cart full of cabbages. At the time I laughed. I feel a little bad about it now that I’m a clumsy adult myself.”

Madiha looked surprised and elated with her. She seemed on the verge of laughter, but just controlled enough to merely appear fond of the anecdote. “You have an incredible memory.” She said, holding her hand up to her mouth for a second.

“For remembering slapstick movies, maybe.” Parinita laughed.

“I would probably laugh at slapstick. I don’t like deep comedies much; especially social comedies.”

“Ah, so something like The Wedding of Dr. Franz would not please you?”

Madiha smiled. “I have actually watched that, and no, it did not please me.”

“I knew you had to have seen it. It has been extremely popular these past few years. Even aired dubbed on the television in Solstice and Bada Aso and a few other cities that have television service. It’s seen extremely wide distribution for such a fool’s film.”

“I must say I despise those kinds of films. I hate humiliation and social comedy.”

“Yeah, I agree! Slapstick is still cruel, but you can write slapstick so other people aren’t to blame.”

“Perhaps that’s what it is. I lack an explanation for my preference. I simply feel discomforted by humiliating situations.”

“On the other hand though, slapstick has more violence. You can draw blood in slapstick. So when you watch a slapstick flick, if it gets too intense, like when they try to incorporate guns going off, it can make you a little sad too. So I don’t know if it’s better.”

Madiha laughed nervously. “Talking with you makes me feel that I am the type of person who pushes aside introspection too much.”

“Oh, well, don’t worry about it. I think we all do that a lot. Especially in times like this, we need to push through the bad brains and focus on the job at hand don’t we? But when it comes to films, I’m always thinking on what I got out of watching.”

In truth Parinita simply channeled her own runaway mind into a hobby, so that the spectacle of film would drown out her innermost insecurities when work could not be called upon to do so. She supposed Madiha did the same but she either channeled them into work, or when work was not available, she allowed them to devour her. At least now Parinita could occupy her with silly things about film and waste both of their time.

And it gave her an opportunity to try to dull the flames otherwise gnawing at Madiha from within.

She could see it behind her eyes, like in her grandmother’s stories.

When she first saw those eyes she felt a sense of urgency. To her grandmother these stories had been so important; more important than Parinita herself. But now, what could Parinita even do? How could she save Madiha? She hadn’t even known Madiha at all when she first saw those burning, sorrowful eyes. Did she even know her at all right now? One thing she knew was that her presence seemed to dull the flames. Grandmother had been incredibly cryptic and cruel, and her stories full of poison, but Parinita was too kind. She could not write off Madiha’s fate as some superstition, and the more she partnered with the Major the more that felt driven to do something about her condition, to support her however she could.

The burning was not as intense now, but a tiny flame was nursed again in Madiha.

Parinita reached out while Madiha was fixated on the moon shining in the water. She grabbed some of the flame. She smothered it in her hands. Parinita could do this too. At all costs she could not allow Madiha to burn up like that. It was too horrible a fate.

If only she had paid more attention to those wicked old stories; she would know more of what to do.

Quickly, she changed the subject to something easy and gossipy that Madiha could contribute to.

“I was wondering, how do you know Inspector Kimani? You seem to have more than a working relationship, to me.”

“She was the first person I ever really knew.” Madiha said. “I spent my childhood in an orphanage, and then on the streets. Such a situation precludes truly knowing anyone; other people are enigmas one must beware. Kimani was the closest thing I had to an acquaintance or friend.”

“I suspected it was something like that based on how you talked to each other. In Gowon’s office everyone had to be really stiff to each other. You cultivate a lot of familiarity around yourself. Not that I mind. I like being able to talk to my boss.”

Madiha stared at her for a moment as though unsure of how she should feel about this.

“Well, if you are comfortable with it, then that this fine with me. I don’t really try to do anything untoward or casual with my command. It is merely that I have no opinion of how I am addressed.” She said. “My rank has never really meant anything, as I was always subordinate to Kimani. I was staff to her in the way you are staff to me. I still have that kind of relationship to most soldiers I suppose.”

“You don’t have to explain it! It’s nice, that’s all. So how did you meet Kimani?”

Now it was Madiha’s turn to sigh and to attempt to construct a narrative.

“We were working together during the revolution. I was a courier, when I was seven years old or so. She was one of the people to whom I brought letters. One of the revolutionaries. We had our own code; certain people wrote letters in it that contained organizational plans, sabotage, intrigues, and so on. I delivered letters to many people. Each of them had their own predilections that I would come to discover. But it was Kimani who was much more concerned for my well-being than the others. We would sit and talk, and she would teach me about what we fought for. She would give me changes of clothes and food. Other people just took my letters and looked the other way as I struggled out in the world.”

“Ah, I see. I’m glad you had someone like that. So she was kind of like an older sister to you?”

“I can’t really say. I never had siblings or parents. Kimani was just Kimani to me.”

“Well, if it means anything, she sounds like a better parent than mine! My mom would have looked the other way. She might have even thought I was a nuisance to take care of. Heck, sometimes she even pretended I wasn’t her child.”

All those words had come out so easily. They were bitter and didn’t hurt anymore. Parinita had gotten too used to the taste of that vinegar. Others would have been shocked, but Madiha, whose life had been so irregular, did not seem to understand their magnitude. Her eyes were still cast on the water off the coast. Sorrowful and unchanging, hiding that fearsome, eroding fire. She was a strange woman. Her grandmother had never made it clear what kind of person the Warlord could even be. Parinita thought it would have been a man, like a knight.

Instead it was Madiha, gazing sorrowfully at the sky and water as though trying to find something buried in the dark, something that fire in her eyes could not illuminate. Slowly burning, dying, with no knowledge of what was really happening.

“I like to think that I have progressed past the life of that child,” Madiha said, presumably referring to herself. “But I don’t really know a lot about her life so in turn I can’t really know if I’ve changed. I was told I was very precocious during the revolution.”

“People don’t change a whole lot, I don’t think. You probably weren’t that different!”

“Perhaps they don’t and perhaps I wasn’t. It simply gnaws at me not to know.”

“Well, maybe life just doesn’t work that way for anyone. Maybe time is just nonsense outside of a film story.” Parinita said, guiding them haphazardly back into Film Night, and away from that minefield of personal anguish. “In films everything is all neat and tidy and happens in a line. People get stronger, they learn new things, they become renewed; it’s really dramatic, isn’t it? People in real life don’t experience things like that, and that’s okay I think! Unlike in the films we have more than the sixty or ninety minutes of run-time to make up for problems along the way.”

“Perhaps.” Madiha said. Her eyes smoldered again. Sorrowful, burning; slowly dying.

“We’re limited.” Parinita said sadly. “But we can still change the course of things, right?”

“I suppose so.”

“Your plan, for example. I’m confident we will give Nocht a good whacking!”

From the look on the Major’s face it was clear this was not a topic she was happy to cover. She had seen Madiha concoct the plan in the back of their half-track, bitterly and tentatively, agonizing over it. In the end it appeared that she had accepted the plan, and everyone in the staff agreed. To them it was just words on paper, positions on a map, an order of battle, a route of supply. These were things pinned to a board that they had to make reality, they were abstract. You could put your faith in abstractions, like you could with the plots of fantastic films.

To Madiha though, the defense of the city was probably a lot more real. It had come out of her mind.

Parinita realized her insensitivity then and her gregarious, cheerful nature was muted for a moment.

“I would not be so quick to throw your hopes behind Operation Hellfire.” Madiha finally said, in a dull, detached voice. “It is brutal and bloody, heinous, wasteful. I never thought the first operation I would command would be a defense in depth. There are times where I wish I could die in place of all the people who will be thrown against Nocht; and not just in this operation but in the coming months. I feel weak.”

“Don’t say that Madiha! You are very important, crucially important. As important as any rifleman!”

“Forgive me, but they sacrifice blood and flesh, while I hide behind. I am unimportant.”

“Then what about me?” She asked clumsily. “How important is someone like me?”

Parinita shocked herself with the response, and how easily she had said it, and Madiha was shocked even more. Her eyes drew wide and her expression bore a note of horror. It was a Madiha unlike any she had ever seen looking back at her. She was turning pale. Those simple words had invoked something terrible in her mind, Parinita could tell it was painful, and she felt horribly guilty for it.

“I am so sorry.” Madiha said. “I am sorry. Forgive me. I was a fool. In no way did I mean–”

“Nah, it’s okay!” Parinita hastily said and patted her shoulder. “It’s okay!”

Her eyes did not burn any harder despite the clear anguish building in her face. So it was not hardship that made them burn. Thank the Spirits for that. Had it been, Parinita thought to herself that she might have killed the Major on this night.

Both of them pretended to move forward from that, but Parinita knew that neither of them would think of anything but that painful exchange until morning. They returned to headquarters after hours of staring at the water and sky, finishing their trail ration along the way. Departing the scout car they exchanged awkward goodnight wishes and went their separate ways. Parinita felt very stupid lying on her stretcher in the office, covered in a medical blanket, feeling cold and weeping lightly about everything. She knew she had cost Madiha a night’s worth of sleep and she felt grotesque for it. She had said something haunting. It was something that had haunted her for very long and now she had set it on Madiha atop all of her other problems. She bit the flesh on the side of her thumb in frustration, and managed very little sleep herself.

22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E., Morning

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, Rail Yard

Rail traffic showed no signs of slowing down the following morning. Several new trains passed through Bada Aso, including a very long train carrying numerous tanks and half-tracks for the 5th KVW Mechanized Division. This train was immediately ordered to ship out to the middle of the Kalu and deploy its cargo there. Thirty minutes later a passenger train carrying the infantry component of the 5th Mechanized arrived as well, and Kimani was about to set foot through its door when a car pulled up hastily and loudly behind the platform.

Madiha Nakar quickly exited the vehicle and climbed the platform, breathing heavily. Dark bags had developed under her eyes, but they were hard to see due to her brown skin. She had at least taken the time to comb her hair. But clearly she was upset.

“Chinedu, at least have the heart to wait a moment for me to properly see you off!”

Kimani turned and met her. Her face was inexpressive. “Apologies. I didn’t expect this.”

“I suppose I should have other priorities; but you cannot blame me for this.” Madiha said.

“I would not think to do so.” Kimani said. “But it is very pernicious for you to prioritize me.”

Madiha nodded. “I understand you’ve lost feelings for me; but I haven’t for you. I can’t.”

“I have not lost all feeling. Only a certain depth of it. Everyone in the KVW still has feeling.”

Madiha balled up her hands into fists and avoided eye contact. She felt like a child.

“I understand why you are leaving.” Madiha said. “I am not small. I cannot hide behind you.”

“In part, that is why I wish to step aside. But you are wrong: I am not leaving you, Madiha.”

Madiha shook her head. Her voice started to crack. “You know what I mean when I say that.”

“No. I am not, in any way that you imagine, leaving you. I will never leave you.”

Madiha scarcely allowed her to finish speaking. She threw herself at Kimani, wrapping her arms tight behind the woman’s back and throwing her head into her chest. She was weeping, and she did not want Kimani to see it, even if the heard the sobs, even if she felt the quivering. She did not want Kimani to see the tears. Kimani in turn wrapped her own arms around Madiha, and brushed her hair like a mother would to her child. She felt Kimani’s chin and nose against her head and she wondered whether the Inspector was weeping too. She never confirmed it.

“I only wish I could have been a real protector to you. Perhaps I will yet make that up.” Kimani said. “All I have done is wrong you. Perhaps I will make amends for everything that has happened. Please understand, Madiha, that this has to be part of that.”

They stood on that platform for close to fifteen minutes. It was hard to let go. It was near impossible to watch the train depart. She never even saw Kimani’s face as the train separated them. Madiha was not sure that she left the station any better or worse than she entered it. She was hollowed out, and she was not done crying. She knew there would be many more tears to come. She knew none of this was definitive. None of this was a forging experience. But she left it, and she breathed, and her heart thrashed. Time passed. She still stood upon the earth.

There was a burning inside her, and a monster yawning to life. She was not ready, but not yet gone.

22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adler 1, reporting in.”

Adler 2, reporting in.”

Reports came in. All Adlers reported. 3, 4, 5, 6, 10. Frequencies toggled.

Falke 8, let’s show them the Blitz part of the Blitzkrieg huh fellas?”

Falke 9, just shut up and fly Falke 8 for Messiah’s sake. “

“Falke 10 just quietly following the luftgruppe.

“Affirmative luftgruppe, all of Falkegruppe is ready. Milans, report.”

Milan 3, going steady, ready to dive on target on mark.”

One by one the calls came in and were logged by flight command.

All Call-Signs reported in. Dozens of planes in groups making up hundreds of planes. Quick Archer monoplanes speeding forward with their cannons ready to shed blood. Thicker, slower, more heavily armed Warlock dive-bombers and ground-attack craft followed, waiting to take their precise bites out of buildings and armor. Wizard bombers lumbered somewhere far overhead, bearing their apocalyptic payloads of hundreds of heavy bombs that would not spare the innocent from the guilty. The Luftlotte was bringing its force to bear. Flight command cheered that they had the planes to darken a clear sky, and they had a dark sky already. Soon the Battle for Bada Aso would begin in earnest. 

“We are approaching a hundred kilometers. City is in sight, over.”

“Roger. Give them commies some hell for us, boys.”

Solstice War Survey #1

I’ve written a little survey you can answer regarding The Solstice War. Because this is the very first one, and because none of the topics concern story direction, this one will be public. Future surveys will be given out to the $10+ level patrons of the Patreon I am running, who will be asked questions that will directly influence the story in certain ways.

All of the questions are 5-point rating scale questions. Please answer all of the choices and to the best of your ability! They would be a major help. Here is the link to the surveymonkey. There are 6 questions in all. All questions must be answered to submit it.

I’ve had a little emotional trouble the past few weeks but I am working on the next chapter which I want to have out by the 15th or so. It may be closer to 8000k words than 15k words, but we’ll see about that! Thanks for following along!