Zugzwang — Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”

As far as the eye could see clouds over Bada Aso had become a continuous grey sheet, so still and unbroken they perfectly supplanted the sky. In the morning even the drizzling rains had subsided. Through the office window Parinita saw the breakfast line forming across the street. It was a scene as if from a gentler time. People passing around metal platters down the line, singing songs while waiting for their lentils and flatbread, for their curry and fresh fruit juice.

Then a tank drove down the street and everyone in the line waved at the commander sticking out of its cupola, and he waved half-heartedly back as he headed out on armed patrol.

Work had commenced on sandbag redoubts to block out the road south of the FOB. Parinita saw a light staff car towing a 45mm gun into place behind a half-circle sandbag wall, and several volunteers in jackets and overalls, and even a few women in dresses, at work heaving bags and piling them up, pulling machine guns out of the buildings where they had been hidden and rolling them toward the sandbag, bringing ammunition from concealed stocks.

But for a moment, Parinita could just look at the breakfast line, and ignore the war. She could focus on cheerful volunteers until her eyes seemed to cross and her vision became blurry.

She pulled down the window shutters and returned to the desk, licking the tip of her finger before opening a folder of reconnaissance reports, including aerial photographs taken by a biplane early in the morning. Due to their relatively silent engines, the obsolete Anka still found a use in Bada Aso — they had performed some limited late night bombing and early morning photography, surprising the enemy and avoiding engagements.

They had to plan these flights ahead of time, because the airport at Bada Aso was unusable, and because the overwhelming majority of the Ox air force and air bases had been destroyed, abandoned or evacuated since the first days of the war. Battlegroup Tortoise in Tambwe had allowed them to use its border air fields, but was redeploying its own planes farther north.

Still, they did their best with what few planes and what little runway they could get.

In her hands she held photos of Umaiha’s streets, still waterlogged, the river itself choked with debris swept into the water from the streets, and from buildings overtaken by the growing ferocity of the stormy waters. They were still gauging the extent of the destruction there. By current counts, the 28th, in its various and deadly ways, had caused at least 8,000 casualties for the Ayvartans, the overwhelming majority incurred in Umaiha. Not only did they lose the defensive lines, they lost peripheral patrols, they lost mobile reserve groups, civilian volunteer laborers, logistics personnel, and later, rescue workers and crisis reconnaissance troops.

So wide-ranging, sudden, devastating had been the flooding, the rain, the lightning, the storm winds, that it seemed as though the entire southeast sector was smashed off the map.

Parinita put down the photos and read the early reports and turned over in her head what her own conclusive report on them would say. Her Commander would certainly desire a full account of the weather and its effects on the city, as well as losses across the actions of the 28th.

The 1st and 2nd Line Corps were no more. Anyone who could still fight joined the 3rd and 4th Line Corps in preparing for the coming assault on the central district. Luckily for them, Nocht had been caught up in the weather, and suffered losses of material in Penance that would surely give them some pause. She hoped they would have a day or two to reorganize before the next operation. That was the situation she saw looking over the documents in her hand.

She would have to wait for the Commander’s instructions before thinking over it anymore.

Thankfully, the Major was safe and sound and relatively unhurt for what she had suffered.

On the floor of the office, Madiha slept soundly on a mattress, dug out from the ruins of a nearby apartment building. She was covered in curtains and towels in lieu of blankets — they were running low on warm blankets, an item often unnecessary in the Adjar dominance. She had a medical patch on her forehead, under her black, uneven bags. She slept, eerily peaceful.

Parinita had thrown herself in her arms the moment she saw her last night. It became clear to her then she wanted to be closer to Madiha. She was special to her. She wanted to properly know her as more than just a comrade in arms. These desires had slowly built and it was time to recognize them. But still, she felt awkward about it. She couldn’t act on it. But it was fine.

For now it was enough to be in this office. It gave her purpose. She could wait for the rest.

There was a knocking on wood that brought her out of her contemplation. She looked over.

Behind her the door opened, and Bhishma, the head of her administrative staff, stepped through the door with a plate of food and a mug of tea. He had brought her a steel mug full of lentils, a stack of flatbreads, and sweet Halva made from semolina and tinged red with berries.

“Oh, what a pleasant surprise.” Parinita said, clapping her hands. “Thank you, Bhishma.”

He smiled. Bhishma was a dark-skinned young man with short, frizzy hair and an orderly appearance. They had worked together for years now; normally he was rather quiet and diligent, but he looked energetic today.  “It’s nothin’ ma’am. Thought of how hard you’ve been working lately. I figured you wouldn’t be going to join the line, so I got a little extra for you.”

“Nothing for the Commander, though? She has also been working quite hard also.”

Bhishma had no answer to this. His cheeks turned a little pink, and he scratched his hair.

Parinita smiled and waved her hand as though trying to fan away his concerns with the air. “It’s ok, don’t worry about it! I’ll simply share with her. We can have a proper meal at lunch.”

Bhishma bowed his head and retreated uneasily out the door. Parinita sighed a little.

As the door closed, she heard a yawn and a sleepy muttering. “What was that about?”

Madiha sat slowly up against the office wall and stretched her arms overhead.

“I might be wrong but I think Bhishma was trying to curry favor.” Parinita said amicably.

“Was he successful?” Madiha said through another yawn, having fully stretched.

“Nope.” Parinita smiled. “Are you feeling alright, Madiha? Our medics are worried.”

“My whole body feels like its been tied in a knot, and my forehead feels split open.” She paused, and then sneezed. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. “And I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Judging by your conversational tone, you don’t seem too concerned.” Parinita replied.

“I’m not concerned at all, to be honest.” Madiha said. “I’m just glad to be back at my house.”

“I am glad you are well.” Parinita said. She held back her emotions — she almost felt like crying she was so happy to see her again. Madiha would not have minded. She had already cried on her shoulder last night. But she wanted to give the Commander some peace and a chance to relax. She deserved warmth and ease. “We should take it slow today. You’re still recovering. I wouldn’t want you to become ill. We can go over the current events at our leisure.”

“I do want to rest a little, but I have a few orders to give as well.” Madiha said. She lay back against the wall with her arms behind her head. “First; Parinita, I wanted to thank you.”

“I don’t believe I’ve done anything worthy of much thanks.” Parinita demurely replied.

After all, she was just herself; what could she possibly do or add? Life itself assured her of that.

“No, you have; you’ve stayed by my side. I was acting very foolish lately. I lost sight of so much, both about myself, and about you and our comrades. I should have listened. Despite everything that has happened, and no indication that anything has changed, you are here again, as warmly as you have always treated me. I want to give that indication; my eyes are wide open now.”

Parinita felt blood rushing up to her face and ears. “I am very happy to hear that, Madiha.”

“I realize that I acted poorly toward you; and I took in vain the courage of our comrades who are fighting, in a petty way. From now on, I want to be the Commander you and them deserve.”

Madiha stood up from the ground and patted off the fibers from the curtains and towels that had collected on her jacket and pants. She had been given a fresh uniform when they brought her into the HQ last night, and thankfully she had not been wearing her pins and medals, or they would have gotten all wet too, or potentially lost. Parinita kept them in a case in their desk.

“You always were, Madiha; but I’m glad for you nonetheless. I hope to continue to serve.”

Parinita was cloaking it professionally, but she really wanted to bolt up and embrace her.

“I would not have it any other way, Parinita. I want us to face this together.” Madiha said.

Now that Madiha was wider awake, Parinita spotted a few small wisps of the old flame trailing from her eyes. She was surprised. The burning was not as bad as yesterday. Had she shed it? If so, her soul was safe for now. But her earthly condition was definitely deteriorated. She looked tense and exhausted, and she was definitely shaking a little. Hours out in the cold, and physical wounds left open and bleeding throughout. It was a wonder she was walking around at all.

“You should reconsider it if you’re keen on running around.” Parinita cautioned her.

Madiha nodded. She rubbed a hand along her back. “I feel a little stiff, but I’ll be fine.”

Seeing her like that, Parinita summoned up her courage. She knew she could do more.

“Then let me help you with your pain, please sit,” Parinita said, pointing to a chair across the desk. She raised her hands and curled the fingers. “I know a little trick that might help you stand up straight.” It was a little embarrassing to say, but she managed to retain her composure.

Without question, the slightly bleary-eyed Madiha pulled up the chair and sat down. She was compliant, and perhaps she knew what Parinita meant by the gestures she made.

“My grandmother and mother were healers, and they taught me a lot of things.”

Smiling and cheerful, Parinita stood up from behind the desk and walked over to her.

“Face away,” Parinita said, tapping with the tips of her fingers on Madiha’s shoulder.

Nodding, the Commander turned the seat around, turning her back to Parinita.

Parinita reached around Madiha’s chest, slowly unbuttoning her jacket. She felt Madiha tense up at first, but whispered in her ear to relax. She pulled the woman’s jacket off, and then the dress shirt and tie under it after that. Beneath the uniform the Major wore a banian, a tanktop style undershirt tight against the skin. Parinita looked her over. Madiha had great shoulders, fairly broad and lean with some definition. Her arms and back drew her attention too.

She almost felt guilty for ogling; that was part of what turned her off the practice at first.

And yet, though she had not performed the arts in years, Parinita felt surprisingly confident. Her grandmother had taught her, showing her drawings of the chakras, charts of muscle groups, demonstrating the pliability of skin and flesh on the clients who came in, hoping to see her mother but never finding her there. When she was a child and a teenager it felt like an indecent practice. Now she felt excited, she felt a brimming in her hands, as if discovering magic.  Her hands felt meant to soothe, to ease pain, to disperse those agonizing flames.

She patted across Madiha’s shoulder, touching the muscle, and felt girlish and giddy.

“Major, what is it about military planning that gets a girl shoulders like this, huh?” She said.

Madiha laughed. “All the hours I spent exercising. I was bored out of my skull while nothing was happening. I spent most of my Cissean tour doing pull-ups off the low roof of a clay hut out behind the FOB. I used to be a little bit bigger; I do not exercise as much anymore.”

“I guess in comparison I’m a bit sedentary,” Parinita chuckled, “but I do like to run. I used to run a lot. But that has made me nowhere near as gallant as you are, if I might venture to say.”

“I think you look perfectly proportional as you are.” Madiha said. Her breathing quickened as Parinita’s hands settled upon her, and began to prod and press across the bare flesh.

Parinita’s fingers rose up to Madiha’s slender neck, and she felt the Major’s pulse, quickening with the warm blood rushing through. Her hands glided up, lifting tufts of her hair. It was soft and straight and symmetrical; it framed her face well. She guided her fingers over the woman’s smooth forehead, covered by a thin medical patch to help her wound heal; she slid her palms across Madiha’s gentle cheeks and jaw, just feeling the warm brown skin; the smooth, gentle bridge and thin nose; the soft lips, breathing irregularly from the touch.

She closed her eyes, and she felt like Madiha’s warmth was entering through her hands, that their pulse was becoming one, echoing across flesh. It was emitting a blueprint for Madiha’s body. Textures and contours and sinews, carrying a picture, as if Parinita had her own form of radar. From what she touched, she felt like she knew everything about Madiha’s body.

She opened her eyes and briefly lifted her hands from Madiha to feel the empty air again.

All of the flame vanished. With the metaphysical pain gone, Parinita could focus on the rest.

“You’re really tense, Major.” Parinita said, giggling. “I should have done all this sooner.”

Madiha nodded. “I think I know what this is. It’s called Maalish, right? Healing hands.”

“I would view the healing part with suspicion.” Parinita said. “It’s a source of relief.

She pulled Madiha’s banian up from over her back and pressed her hands against the woman’s skin. Carefully and gently she glided the soft tips of her fingers down the Major’s smooth, baked brown shoulder-blades. She applied pressure to the tissues, finding areas that were hard and tense and working them, kneading them, pulling and prodding them like clay. She felt the flesh budge under her fingers. She received feedback from Madiha’s body.

Parinita gave herself up to sensation, intrigued by the subtle drumbeat punctuating the moment. Slowly the motion of her wrists, of the heel of her hand and the base of her thumb, the grasping of fingers, all of it quickened. Madiha started to rock a little in her seat in response.

Parinita started to work down, slipping her fingers underneath Madiha’s arms, gripping her upper flanks, and working her sides and scapula with her fingers and thumb. Her hands were moving to a rhythm set by Madiha’s breathing and the pulse beneath her skin. It was like a dance between them, and it brought Parinita a surge of reassuring, powerful emotion.

Smiling, she leaned her head on Madiha’s shoulder. “Is it working, do you think?” She squeezed on Madiha’s flesh a little more, and saw her jaw loosen, and her lips curl with a little gasp.

“It’s doing something.” Madiha said, her eyes closed, her mouth hanging a little open.

Parinita lifted her head, and raised her hands up over Madiha’s shoulders, kneading the woman’s trapezius with the base of her thumb. Madiha let out a little groan. To see someone’s body respond to touch, to feel their flesh relax, to hear them grow content; it was a primal communication so different than the bitter, clinical things Parinita had been taught.

“Spirits praise,” Madiha said, gasping, “this is far different than I ever imagined.”

Almost with a snap, Parinita put sudden, final pressure on Madiha with all of her fingers. Madiha arched her back. She was loose, relaxed; as if all of her had gone limp in Parinita’s hands.

Under her touch, Madiha lay back against the chair, breathing, contented.

She raised her head, staring up at Parinita. She smiled, breathing heavily.

Madiha caught her breath. “I never believed in this sort of thing, but I’m a convert now.”

She gripped her own shoulder and moved her arm. She stood from the chair and walked around the office. Her movements were a lot more fluid and energetic, more liberated.

“It’s not like it’s magic or anything,” Parinita said modestly, “just takes some dexterity.”

“I feel so much better; it’s amazing.” Madiha said. She was giggling like a girl.

Parinita blushed. “Now, now; you’re not just faking it to make me feel good, are you?”

“Of course not Parinita; you have a gift with those hands of yours.” Madiha said.

She took Parinita’s hands with almost childish enthusiasm. Parinita grew redder. Her face was almost the same flushed color of her hair, and her lips hung open without words to say.

Perhaps recognizing her sudden gregarious turn, Madiha awkwardly released her hands.

“Ah, sorry, that was a little untoward. But it’s been a long time since I felt so refreshed.”

“I’m glad.” Parinita said. “My mother used to say that Maalish also soothes the soul.”

“I know.” Madiha said. She smiled softly. “You have been doing a lot of that lately.”

Parinita’s eyes spread wide open. Did she know about the flames, about her eyes?

“I’m sorry.” Parinita said sheepishly. “Madiha, there’s something we need to discuss–“

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for. I have my own confessions to make. We’ll talk about that later, alright? For now, let us focus on the material, and worry not about the rest.”

Madiha’s eyes glinted with a hint of the fire, and a sharp red ring glowed around her iris.

Parinita saw it — and it was a different fire. Madiha was making sure she could see it.

Nonchalantly the Major dressed again in her shirt and jacket. She walked around, patting Parinita jovially in the back, and sat behind her own desk, adjusting the office chair for her height. She brought out her pins and medals and began to attach them to her uniform in their proper places. Finally, she collected a stack of papers, looked at them and dropped them.

“I don’t know what any of these are about, goodness; also, I’ll be needing a new pistol.”

Any tension in the room suddenly diffused. Back to work; Parinita grinned and nodded.

“I’ll get you a new pistol, but you need to promise to take good care of this one.”

Madiha raised her arm as if to swear an oath, and held her fist over her breast.

Parinita laughed girlishly at the gesture. Thank everything; Madiha was still alive.

“Say, do you want some halva, Major Madiha Nakar? They put berries in it today.”

Madiha looked at the plate on her desk. “I’d be delighted, C.W.O. Parinita Maharani.”

30th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

City of Bada Aso — Outskirts, 1st Vorkampfer Headquarters

Outside Bada Aso a Nochtish truck convoy halted off the road after almost a week’s worth of uninterrupted driving. One vehicle had broken down due to a lack of oiling. Horse wagons were dispatched from the Headquarters inside the city and the cargo was loaded on them instead. At around noon, the equipment was unloaded at the HQ and installed by engineers overseen by Fruehauf. They spent about an hour working with cables and vacuum tubes.

Finally, a telephone was installed in the Vorkampfer HQ. Line operation was overseen through the Ayvartan cables and headquartered in the occupied city of Dori Dobo near the border to Cissea. Fruehauf informed Von Sturm about the successful installation. She was excited about having a phone. It was a cute, homey kind of object. After all, she used to be a telephone girl before she joined the army. Von Sturm did not share her enthusiasm at all.

The 30th of the Aster’s Gloom saw the first international phone call between Ayvarta and the Nocht Federation. From occupied Bada Aso, the single telephone line out to Dori Dobo carried a call request that was manually forwarded through three boards in Cissea, until it reached the first trans-oceanic radio-telephone station in the northern coast of Cissea. Through the airwaves the call crossed the sea. Upon reaching The Federation of Northern States, it was forwarded again to its destination in the Nocht Citadel, where it was picked up.

One hour worth of routing, waiting, and growing, sinking dread in Von Sturm’s stomach.

Finally, the call was linked through. Von Sturm tremulously raised the handset to his ear.

“I love the telephone, don’t you, Anton?” President Lehner said. “Love the telephone. I’m a man of technology, Anton. I want no barriers between human hands and scientific achievement. Today, we’re making history! And oh, it couldn’t have come a better time. I’ve been waiting so long to express my disappointment to you personally. Thank the Messiah for these lines.”

“Yes sir.” Von Sturm replied. He seemed to struggle to keep his teeth from chattering.

“Let us talk, Anton. Let us talk, primarily, about my disappointment. Once you understand the depths of my disappointment, we can talk about what comes next. Did you know that Dreschner took Knyskna? Dreschner is on time, Anton. I like Dreschner; honestly, I am fond of all my personnel, Anton. I am fond of you. And that is why this hurts. Disappointment hurts.”

Fruehauf watched on innocently, smiling at the presence of a cute little dial telephone in the HQ’s second floor, while President Lehner coolly dismantled and berated Von Sturm.

Thirty minutes later the pair reconvened with the rest of the staff downstairs. Von Sturm’s eyes seemed permanently forced open, and he walked stiffly; Fruehauf whistled and skipped and wondered if she might be able to organize calls to home from Ayvarta on the radio-telephone.

Down in the restaurant dining area, Von Drachen waited on one of the tables. He had a thick bandage over his forehead, gauze over his nose, his arm in a sling and patches over his shoulder, easily seen under his dress shirt. He wore his jacket still, but with his arms out of the sleeves. Von Sturm sat across the table from him, holding his head up by his hands.

“Oh good, I’m glad you’re here.” Von Drachen said. “I’ve been rehearsing this speech I wanted to give to someone. My mind is simply bursting with ideas after the battles of the 28th.”

“Are you sure that’s not a result of having your forehead broken?” Fruehauf asked.

“It might be, but in that case, it is a good result.” Von Drachen said, shrugging.

“I was trying to joke with you but I’ll accept that response.” Fruehauf sighed.

“I’m listening.” Von Sturm said sullenly. He looked at Von Drachen over steepled fingers.

Von Drachen’s face lit up. Afforded the chance to speak, he stood and backed away from the table, and spread his good arm as if to gesture for the attention of a crowd. Fruehauf and a few of her radio crew, on their breaks, turned around to watch. Von Drachen cleared his throat, and he swept his hand slowly in front of himself, and began to speak in a serious voice.

“Prior to to this conflict all of our battles have been against forces in underdeveloped, broad, open areas. Cissean villages, Bakorean fields, and Ayvarta’s grasslands afforded us the ability to bring our superior firepower to bear on the enemy in full. Exposed enemies would be rushed and obliterated with impunity. Enemy strongholds were few and far between and we could seize them or bypass them at our leisure. If they moved against us, they were destroyed, and if they failed to move, they were also destroyed. We dictated the terms of any engagement.”

Von Sturm looked dejected throughout. Von Drachen continued without skipping a beat.

“Bada Aso is a large, fairly tight, conventional city. It restricts our movement, our lines of sight, and it prevents us from concentrating our forces — how many men and tanks can you feasibly cram into a street before you have a slow-moving soup kitchen line in uniform?” Von Drachen smiled in the middle of his explanation, as though he was overjoyed by the works of his enemy. “And the Ayvartans have used these conditions expertly. Their equipment and training is meager compared to ours, but they have been organized to take the fullest advantage of this uncertain environment around us. They have created a situation where we will bleed men fighting them, bleed men scouting them and bleed men bypassing them. It’s like fighting in hell, it’s like a medieval engagement! We cannot look at this using our ordinary strategies. It might even be best that we do not move for now. We must be more meticulous, Von Sturm, or else–“

“But we have to move!” Von Sturm shouted, interrupting him. “How the hell does it make sense that with worse equipment and poorer training they can successfully slow us down and hurt us this much! Just because they have holes to crawl into? Tunnels to squirm and crawl around?”

“Because they know what’s around every corner of this city and we don’t.” Von Drachen said. “They can see through the stones and we can’t. We think we have the initiative because we are the ones launching attacks, but they are the ones who dictate every engagement. They can retreat when they want, counter when they want, and lay whatever traps they want. It is they who have the initiative despite not attacking. It’s simply fascinating, don’t you think?”

“It makes no sense.” Von Sturm shook his head. “It is absolute madness to think that.”

“They have preyed on our superior position.” Von Drachen said. “Our entire army was built and trained to punch through defenses with overwhelming power, and then break into a marathon run. But we can’t run in Bada Aso: we keep slipping and hurting ourselves on the concrete.”

Von Sturm pushed back his chair and stormed from the table, rubbing his forehead in consternation. Fruehauf and Von Drachen looked on, until he had disappeared upstairs.

“Was it something I said?” Von Drachen asked. “It’s just my opinion on things, you know.”

 

Central District FOB, “Madiha’s House”

After days of tinkering, a silent breakthrough. In the basement of the school building an engineer finally found a compatible vacuum tube for the old long-range radio, and quietly he installed the tube in the correct slot and tested the device. No sparks. He left it at that.

In his maintenance report, “potentially” fixing the radio telephone was the last item, behind adjusting an office chair, checking the air circulator and central cooling, and fixing a light.

Hours later an alien sound echoed across the halls of the FOB — the radio telephone was ringing. On the first floor of the FOB the switchboard operator, stationed in front of the obsolescent radio-telephone monitoring equipment, awoke in a puddle of her own saliva. She scrambled to connect the call, having forgotten most of the controls. She had been almost sure she would never have to use the device. After a moment’s panic she managed to connect the incoming call through to to C.W.O Parinita Maharani, who was just as puzzled by the communique as anyone. With Madiha watching behind her, she picked up the handset.

Parinita stood and listened to the call carefully. At the other end, the KVW radio operator read several press-worthy statements — confirmation that Solstice had been brought around to Madiha’s plan for the city, on the condition that she evacuate by sea and head for Solstice, as well as offering assurances that the end was in sight for the political deadlock of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. Parinita was optimistic about the call and glad to receive it. She told Madiha the gist of everything. Knyskna had fallen, but there was good news too.

Madiha had been less optimistic. “Useless,” was one of her choice words about the call.

Regardless, they both agreed it was time to start putting into motion the end of Hellfire.

Then, another alien sound, same as before. It was the radio-telephone again. Once more the operator was in an anxious and manic state, and this time she forwarded the call directly to Major Nakar. For her part, the Major did not know whether to think this ominous or auspicious.

She picked up the handset and raised it to her head. “This is Major Nakar.” She said.

“Major, congratulations on your recent victories. You are a beacon in this darkness.”

Madiha felt a thrill down her spine. Her eyes widened. Parinita stared, and silently tried to ask what was wrong. She received no answer. Madiha recognized the voice — it was the Warden of the KVW and head of the Military Council, Daksha Kansal. She was once the voice and face of their revolution — though sidelined by the petty politics of the council she had been instrumental in fomenting the unrest, seeding the ideologies, and supplying the strategies to overthrow the Empire. She was in a sense Madiha’s boss, but they hadn’t spoken for many years.

“I,” Madiha hesitated for a moment, but caught up to her words quickly, more quickly than she would have before recent events, “I am grateful for the kind words, Warden. However I would be hesitant to refer to anything occurring in this city as a victory. As I communicated to the esteemed Admiral via our offices, this is not a battle that I plan to win in the strictest sense.”

“Yes, of course. I recall your plan and continue to support it, Major. But you humble yourself; with Gowon’s leadership this entire operation would have been impossible.” Kansal said. “Gowon would have been intimidated by Nocht’s strength. You confronted them.”

“Thank you for your confidence. To what do I owe this rare opportunity?” Madiha asked.

“Regrettably rare; but I hope to take a more active role in our operations from here on. Major, you may have already been informed that there are strides being made here in Solstice to support the war. I have committed to sending special trains from Tambwe to evacuate your wounded. Support from Tortoise will be available as well if you think it would be warranted.”

“I do not.” Madiha said. “Tortoise should remain put and fortify the border to Tambwe.”

“I expected you would say that.” Kansal replied. “I should leave you to conduct your strategy, Commander. I wanted to personally commend you, is all. I feel it is the least I can do.”

“If I have any special instructions, I will send them via encrypted telegrams.” Madiha said.

“I will keep someone on hand to handle communications from you, round-the-clock. Mark my words, the Military Council will retake the reins of this war, Major. We will overcome this.”

“Thank you again, Warden.” Madiha gripped the handset and worked through a sudden but brief shot of anxiety. “If I might make one request now: I would like to talk to you personally in Solstice. Not simply about things present, but also those past. I hope that can be arranged.”

There was a moment of silence on the line, but Kansal replied nonetheless. She sounded a little deflated. “Yes. I owe you that much, Madiha. It has been a long time, I admit, since I have thought of that fateful day where I put the gun into your little hands and told you to shoot. Perhaps that is an indictment on my character, that I was so willing to join you in forgetting.”

“I remember most of those days fairly well now, Shacha. On that day, I shot because I wanted to protect you. I was small; I didn’t understand. But I did it of my own volition. All of this was never something that I was coerced or tricked into doing.” Madiha said. “I’ve never understood your own feelings on the situation. I do not blame you. I just wish to speak to you about it.”

Parinita craned her head to one side, puzzled over the sudden turn in the conversation.

“We will speak, Madiha. As far as tricking and coercing — I would not be so quick to absolve me of my guilt for those days. We will speak, so that you may fully remember, and then decide.”

“Yes. Until then, we should be keeping this sort of communication sparse.” Madiha said.

“Indeed. Once again, thank you for your service, Madiha– Major.” Kansal hung up.

Madiha set down the handset. She rubbed her forehead, feeling a bit of a headache.

“What was that about?” Parinita asked. “Did something happen between you two?”

Madiha smiled. “She was one of the people who raised me into this sort of life.”

Parinita’s eyes drew wide. She wiped a few tufts of hair from the side of her face.

“Madiha, is Daksha Kansal your mother? Is this one of those secret child things?”

Madiha burst out laughing. “You’ve internalized one too many film plots, I see.”

 

Central District, East Sector, Kabuli Road

“Platoon 3, Panzerabteilung B of the 15th Panzer Regiment, reporting no contacts.”

On the radio, a feminine voice. “How far have you advanced from your starting position?”

“Five kilometers. We are moving at pace with our infantry.” replied the Sergeant.

“How is the terrain? Have the roads been damaged? Do you see any earthworks?”

“There are no defenses in sight yet and the roads are mostly navigable.”

There was silence as the voice on the radio conferred with her own superiors.

“Advance an additional kilometer but keep your eyes peeled for ambushes. There are networks of tunnels around the area and the Ayvartans will use anything as cover. Ruined buildings, the sewers, the roofs and second stories of intact buildings, street corners, rubble mounds.”

“Understood. Moving out. Will report back after any contact is made, or 1 km is gained.”

That was all the Feldwebel in command of 3-B could offer in response. Though he wanted to ask how he was supposed to move forward if those were the conditions, he knew it would be impertinent. Surrounded by roofs, by ruins; did this mean there was nowhere safe?

Panzerabteilung B had a storied combat history. Founded four years ago, they fought in Cissea through the entire conflict against the terrorist rebel forces in support of the newly declared democratic government, and participated in quelling risings in Bakor at the request of the legitimate government of the islands. Equipped at first with M2 Rangers, the untested panzerkadetts of the 15th Panzer Regiment proved themselves in battle again and again, crushing motor and armor forces, scattering entrenched infantry, overrunning fortifications. Platoon 3 had proudly participated in these engagements, showing no fear before the enemy.

Now their arsenal was upgraded — with their faster, stronger M4 Sentinels there was no force treading the ground on Aer that could stand up to them in a direct confrontation. Therein lay the problem, of course. This was not a field where two columns met in the open.

Organized as a platoon made up of five M4 tanks from the 13th Panzergrenadier regiment, and backed up by thirty Panzergrenadier support infantry on foot, they had been tasked with recon in force. On their maps this district was simply named “Kabuli” for “Kabuli road,” the main thoroughfare that connected to Penance in the south. But this mission was not a conquest, not quite yet. Command was not authorizing a full-scale attack despite the orders to move, and this was only a limited mission to probe the potential routes such an attack would take.

Though only a Platoon, the men on this mission counted themselves first and foremost as among the storied Panzer B battalion. They were proud and hardened. And yet, they felt pause.

Panzer A had only two days ago failed to penetrate Penance fast enough to stop an orderly enemy retreat. They had lost two platoons of Panzers and a company of men in the attempt.

That was Panzer A, and Panzer A’s Platoons. But they were just a Platoon too in the end.

They had a good sight line going for a stretch of 800 meters, but then the road curved around a hilly plaza and out of their immediate sight. To each side of the column there were a paltry few tight alleyways between squat, brown brick service and small shop buildings, through which no tank could penetrate at least. There was a perpendicular intersection 500 meters away.

Men and tanks advanced together. At full speed the M4 could cross over 500 meters in a minute. But they were moving at perhaps 5 km/hour. They needed their men to protect them against ambushes, and the men needed them to provide heavy firepower. It was the best arrangement these forces could muster against such a pervasively hostile environment.

The Feldwebel looked through the periscope on the commander’s seat, watching the road ahead. He peered around himself, at the 2 tanks behind him and the two tanks in front, but his eyes settled on the road ahead, and that was where he made his first contact. He quickly pushed up his hatch and stood on his seat to rise out of the cupola. He confirmed with his personal binoculars and sounded the alert. “Contact, 700 meters, communist tanks, dead-on!”

His lead tanks became alerted at about the same time, and their own commanders raised their hatches and stood out of their cupolas. Coming in from the curve in the road was a platoon of Ayvartan Goblin tanks speeding down the road. Despite their smaller size they had every kind of disadvantage — they were slower than M4s due to their weaker, obsolete engine, and their smaller guns could never penetrate an M4s frontal armor except at very close range.

This explained their tactic — charge the M4 column as fast as possible to engage in a melee.

“It’s a death charge, open fire and give the commies what they came here for!” shouted the Feldwebel. He moved his tank back and off to the side of the road, allowing his subordinate vehicles forward, forming a battle line with three tanks forward, one tank in reserve, and his own sheltered behind a mound of rubble. The Panzergrenadiers took up positions on both sides of the street and kept their eyes peeled, but their heads down.

As the Goblins neared 500 m from the column, his lead tanks opened fire with their guns, their first three shells smashing into a building and over the turret of the goblin.

Those were the probing shots. Across the line the gunners loaded new shells and the commanders ducked inside the turrets again and helped adjust the tank’s aim. At 300 m from the enemy, the more accurate second salvo hurled fresh shells across the road and eviscerated two of the tanks. One turret flew in pieces from a hull that turned, out of control, and crashed into a nearby building; another tank was penetrated right through its strongest armor in the forward plate, the glacis, and exploded in a brilliant fireball on the spot it met the AP shell.

This did not deter the remaining three tanks, speeding within the 100 m danger zone.

“They’re not shooting, they’re going to ram!” Shouted a subordinate tank commander.

Gunners in the lead tanks scrambled to reload, but there was no time to shoot. The Goblins collided their tracks and glacis plates with the M4 tanks and pulverized themselves on the armor, their tracks and drivetrains flying in pieces in every direction as they smashed against the larger tanks. The Goblins struggled and ground themselves against the enemy until their treads gave out completely. The M4 tanks were pushed back from their orderly battle line and left scarred with hollow cavities in the armor, collapsed front hatches and broken track guards.

The Feldwebel watched from afar and sighed inwardly with some relief. None of their foolish enemies discharged their weapons. At point-blank range the 45mm gun on the Goblins was dangerous to the M4 Sentinel. He thought that had been the point of the death charge.

“Inspect those tanks, very carefully.” The Feldwebel shouted, addressing the infantrymen.

The Panzers disentangled themselves and retreated from the wrecked Goblins. One tank had its track damaged enough that it had to move quite tenderly on this limp, and found it particularly difficult to extricate itself. It was rotated out to the back of the formation, and the reserve tank, untouched by the violence, took the lead. With about 30 meters of safe distance, the Feldwebel ushered the Panzergrenadiers forward. Carefully the men climbed the tanks and opened the top hatches, apprehensive, ready to be thrown back by a potential trap.

Nothing happened. They climbed inside. They saw no one. They cleared each tank.

“Feldwebel, the Goblin tanks are empty! They just had their drive levers jammed forward!”

“They’re trying to slow us down.” the Feldwebel said. “Lead tanks, push those out of the way.”

From their cupolas the commanders of the three lead tanks nodded to acknowledge. They dove back into their respective tanks, and moved forward again. The Feldwebel started to descend into his own tank when he suddenly heard shouting that pulled his attention front.

“Contact!” shouted a Panzergrenadier, “Armor on the intersection, 480 meters!”

The Feldwebel peered into his binoculars and saw two tanks emerging from the corners at the intersection, one from each side of the road, driving out of cover with their side plates facing the column and their turrets turned on them as well. These were not Goblin tanks. They were much larger, built on long green hulls with sloped side and front plates, widely spaced tracks, and a turret mounted very close to the glacis. They were roughly the size of an M4.

“Medium tanks! Take aim and fire on their exposed sides!” the Feldwebel called out.

His new enemy was moments quicker. Both the unidentified medium tanks opened fire. They were mounting powerful guns — the shells hurtled toward the column and cut the distance in a blink and exploded with force. An M4’s turret and track received the first beating. One shell pounded the ground near the track and exploded, launching the drive wheel into the air and scattering track links about. Nearly penetrating, the second shell smashed into the turret and left an enormous dent that deformed the mantlet and upset the gun’s position.

“Our gun is unseated!” shouted the commander of the stricken tank. “We can’t shoot it!”

The Feldwebel shouted for the tank to move off the line, but without its track this order was impossible to fulfill. Hatches opened and the tank crew evacuated and ran back from the fighting. His two remaining forward tanks retaliated, shooting over and between the goblin wrecks. Their shells crashed into the ground as the enemy tanks retreated in order around the street corners. The Feldwebel cursed. These tanks were faster than he had anticipated.

Now there was another wreck in his way that had to be moved — the damaged M4.

“We cannot engage them like this!” The Feldwebel shouted to his troops. “Retreat!”

His own tank was the first to reverse away from the Goblin wrecks, and the Panzergrenadiers ran up both sides of the road to get away. Because of its track damage, the slowed-down M4 that was cycled to the rear was abandoned as well, its interior purposely damaged by a bundle of grenades to prevent any useful capture. Its crew dashed off with the Panzergrenadiers.

Finally the two remaining line tanks started to reverse and pulled away, building up speed, firing their guns at the intersection. While the drivers pulled them back, the gunners feverishly loaded and launched shells targeting the street and road behind them to preempt pursuit. With the crews working themselves raw, the tanks sustained a rate of fire of 15 shells a minute — every eight or ten seconds a gun fired, and dust and gravel went up in the air along the intersection.

In the midst of this gunfire both the Ayvartan tanks peered across their corners again and shot their guns. Enemy shells traveled over the Panzergrenadiers and smashed the corner wall on a nearby building, and hurtled between the tanks to hit the road behind the column. The M4s kept running and kept shooting, hitting the corner buildings, knocking down a streetlight. One shell exploded directly in front of an enemy tank, kicking up pavement onto its green glacis.

Again the enemy tanks retreated around the intersection, this time without claiming a victim.

They did not peek out to shoot again; the continuous fire from the M4s kept them pinned.

Tense minutes later the Feldwebel peered out of his cupola. They were almost a kilometer from the intersection and the enemy had stopped firing. The Panzergrenadiers started to slow down, and the retreating tanks paused to reorient themselves, turning their tracks so that they could drive away from the intersection rather than retreating in reverse. For safety’s sake, one tank kept its turret pointing toward the intersection, but the other faced its gun forward.

Perhaps 10 to 15 shells remained in each tank. They had gone through much of their ammo.

With the heat of battle having passed, the Feldwebel picked up his radio and reported.

“This is Feldwebel Crom to 15th Regiment command. We made contact with an Ayvartan force. Events transpired too quickly for an in-combat report. We destroyed or disabled 5 Ayvartan Goblin tanks that were seemingly rigged to spring a trap on us, and then two medium tanks of an unidentified model attacked us, and disabled two of our tanks. We incurred no casualties — both crews evacuated safely. We have lost visual contact with the enemy and retreated 500 m. Requesting assistance and resupply — we are low on ammunition due to the fighting.”

There was a brief silence on the line, and then the radio operator answered. “Hold your position and await reinforcement. Platoon 2 of Panzerabteilung C is on its way.” She said.

“Acknowledged.” He said. “We will hold here. I do not believe the enemy will advance.”

“Once you have linked up with C, carefully pursue contact,” added the voice on the radio. She sounded tense, speaking quickly. “Command would like to capture one of these tanks.”

“Indeed. We will see if they have not vanished into the stones.” He hung up the radio again.

Feldwebel Crom climbed out of his tank and issued orders. He concealed his tank as best as he could behind a mostly collapsed wall in a nearby building. On each street he positioned his line tanks as close to the buildings as they could be, facing upstreet. He ordered the crews of the destroyed tanks to vacate, and a squad of Panzergrenadiers left with them. His two remaining squadrons of men divided themselves along both sides of the road, covering the tanks.

He felt confident in this position. Here the road was fairly narrow, and there were no alleyways around him through which a tank could fit. Most of the buildings around the column were either intact or so utterly ruined he could see through them to the building behind them and sometimes out to the next block or street over. Any attacks would be obvious to him.

Withdrawing a cigarette from a pouch under his jacket, Feldwebel Crom climbed out of the tank and jumped down onto the street. He lit his cigarette and leaned against one of the partially collapsed exterior walls of his ruin. Panzer C would take maybe twenty or thirty minutes to reach them. Curse those Ayvartan cowards — had they fought him in the Plaza or around that Cathedral he would have shown them how tanks really fight. Not by peeking around corners furtively firing their guns, but by charging at top speed, circling each other like bloodthirsty sharks, firing their guns on the run and taking burning bites from each other.

That was how Panzer B had fought in Cissea and in Bakor! Not this tiptoeing game of tag!

He went through his first cigarette viciously, tossed it on the ground, left it burning. He took another from his pocket it, lit it and smoked. He blew a cloud gray as the paint on his M4.

Raising his eyes across the street, he saw a hint of movement behind a window.

“Landsers!” He shouted to some of his men across the street. “Inspect that building–“

Glass shattered, concrete flew; the facade of the old building toppled over onto the road, and over the debris an enormous Ayvartan tank suddenly appeared, forcing its way through the building and onto the street. Machine gun fire from the ball-mount on its glacis raked the street and forced Feldwebel Crom behind a wall for cover. His Panzergrenadiers clung to cover; the heavy tank turned its turret on the M4s instead. With one shot it claimed its first prey, punching through the engine block and setting ablaze another of the battalion’s prized M4s.

Compared to the other tanks it was a monster — Feldwebel Crom had never seen a tank that big in any arsenal. It shared the same wide-spaced tracks and forward-mounted turret as the previous tanks but it was larger, thicker, taller. A behemoth; it stepped onto the street, the heavy machine guns on its glacis and turret cracking incessantly as it reloaded its gun.

Panzerwurfmines flew from the hands of panicking infantrymen, crashing ineffectually around the enemy tank. Most of the grenades had not had their canvas fins fully deployed; those that managed to strike left ugly dents in the turret and glacis of the Ayvartan tank but scored no penetrations. Turning around its turret around over its exposed engine block, the remaining M4 desperately attacked, unleashing an armor-piercing shell at close range. The Feldwebel’s tank joined in, firing its own gun from the ruin, both within 30 meters of the enemy.

Direct hits; two brutal explosions covered the enemy turret in a cloud of smoke.

Before the smoke settled they saw the furious orange flash of the gun in the cloud.

In the next instant a shell launched out of the cloud and punched a hole the size of a human head into the turret of the remaining line M4. Smoke erupted from the end of its gun barrel; its top hatches blew open from the pressure. Soon its engine began to smoke and burn.

Around the street the Panzergrenadiers began to retreat through the alleyways.

Feldwebel Crom scrambled into his tank, and screamed to his driver.

“Start it and run! Run!” He shouted, shutting his top hatch, his heart racing.

Buried somewhere in his mind, buried out of necessity, was the realization that he could not escape. Before his driver had even manipulated the levers, the enemy tank had already turned its gun on their vehicle, and the instant the Feldwebel’s tank backed out into the street, it was shot through. An armor piercing shell crashed through the engine block and punched into the driving compartment. Under the Feldwebel it exploded, wreaking havoc in the cramped quarters. Concussions, burns, shrapnel; all manner of trauma visited the tanker whose armor was defeated by a tank shell. Once invincible, the M4 now became a cast steel tomb.

Surveying the carnage, pitted with the scars of several failed penetrations, the Ayvartan Ogre Tank brushed aside the wrecked hulls and drove up the street, to meet the Hobgoblins further ahead and thank them for their collaboration in another successful day’s hunting.

Central District — En Route To “Agni’s House”

In preparation for battle in Bada Aso many supplies had been moved underground, and various locations around the city had been earmarked as dumps where periodically supplies from the tunnels would be moved up. This was all part of a pre-war defensive plan that Madiha heavily modified to her own purposes. From the dumps, supplies could be circulated to units. After the bombings and the fighting, there was a massive disarray and many supply locations had become unusable. Every action plan drafted before the war was meaningless. For most Ox officers and units, their limited training leaned heavily on rehearsal and execution of these plans.

From the 22nd forward, nobody’s logistic maps made any kind of complete sense anymore.

There was a fight to conduct and not enough good staff to bring order back to the system. They needed to focus on the fighting primarily, so intelligence and command arms took priority, and logistics in turn received precious little radio operation and organizational support.

This state of affairs did not deter the laborers from their necessary tasks. At night and in the early morning the drivers dutifully took their orders, mounted their trucks and set off this way and that, exploring the city as if it was a new domain with each passing day of the war.

Drivers systematically visited each of the potential caches on their maps, and found themselves often confronted with empty lots or utter ruins, with caches moved at the last minute for fear of an enemy penetration, with tunnels that had been sealed off. When the delivery and the storage elements finally met, they had to sort out conflicting orders. At the end of the journey, the front line tended to receive mismatched quantities of ammunition, replacement guns, and food and sundries. One unit would receive more rifles than clips, another a preponderance of shells for tanks or guns they had few of on the lines, a third misappropriated engineer tech.

It was a barely working mess and communication was pitiful. Still, everyone tried their damnedest and made do with what they could get their hands on, and they fought on. Thanks to the Major’s planning and Nocht’s carelessness, sketchy logistics proved less of an issue. They lost any kind of offensive initiative in this state, but offensive initiative was never in the books. Even with haphazard supplies they could still sit behind sandbag walls and plot ambushes.

But perhaps it was good that their original plans had gone up in smoke. After all, the rehearsed plan called for a bloody counterattack to retake the city after exhausting the enemy.

That was one part of the plan that Madiha Nakar had struck out of the books immediately.

On the 30th, the situation stabilized somewhat. With the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Line Corps came the obsolescence of their part of the ragged supply network. Drivers wiped almost half of Bada Aso from their maps. The 3rd and 4th Line Corps were well rested and over the course of the battle’s 9 days, had managed to save up a good hoard of equipment. This lessened the need for logistical back and forth. Calm settled over the supply network.

Despite this, nobody could get a hold of anybody else in the cache sites on the radio. So the Commander and her Secretary had to quickly learn the tactics of supply drivers on the 30th.

Major Madiha Nakar and Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani drove their staff car north from the FOB, having been told vaguely that Sergeant Agni and some of her crew had left for one of the northern dumps — but characteristic of Bada Aso logistics, nobody quite knew which one she had ended up at. Madiha drove from one dump to the next, passing by a junkyard, a Msanii building, and the unfinished underground railroad station. Parinita marked them off the map.

“Next is the Adjar Sporting Society’s football field. We can keep going and drive right by.”

Feeling a little agitated, Madiha turned the wheel sharply and followed her secretary’s directions to the north and east, bypassing a little commercial strip with some cooperative shops and the sports club’s equipment workshop. They drove by the field and saw nothing and nobody on it, save the twisted remains of a pair of 37mm anti-air guns in the middle of the pitch.

No dice — Agni would have had a crew working on a tank or two. This was obviously not it.

“I knew it was bad, but seeing it myself, it’s a wonder how we get any supplies to the front at all.” Madiha said. She drove aimlessly around the field while Parinita plotted their next stop. “How has this been happening to us? Why can’t we keep better track of active caches?”

“I’m not sure. I thought I had people working on this, but it’s just not been a priority. It seems like we’ve been going from crisis to crisis.” Parinita said, eyes scanning over the map.

“I guess there’s no point in making it a priority this late in the fight.” Madiha lamented. It was in technical areas like this that their lack of coordination seemed most pressing and dire.

“Hey, there’s a cache in a movie theater east of here. We should go there.” Parinita said.

Madiha looked critically at Parinita. “Are we going there because you think Agni will have set up shop in this building; or because you want to go see a movie theater?” She asked.

“There’s a lot of space you can fit a tank into.” Parinita said. She smirked and shrugged.

The Major peered over the map. It was close by, the car had plenty of fuel and there were not very many choices other choices, so Madiha ultimately complied. She broke off from the block they had been circling around and headed north and east, driving at a leisurely pace down a small strip of commercial buildings. At the end of the street, they found the theater.

A humble rectangular brick building, it had partially collapsed, its right side showing some damage likely caused by small bomb. Several holes along the facade suggested small rockets had stricken the building. In front of it the street was covered in glass and concrete shards, and further up the street a trio of anti-air guns had been turned to slag. A few movie posters had survived the attack and were still prominently displayed along the building’s front.

“Agni’s obviously not here.” Madiha said dryly, parking the car in front of the theater.

Parinita clumsily dismounted the car and ran up to the theater with stars in her eyes, her boots cracking the shards of glass pooled across the street. In a fervor she withdrew her sidearm and blasted open each of the display cases. She picked the posters off their display racks, rolled them up, and brought a big pile of them back to the car, dumping them in the back seat.

Madiha stared quizzically, craning her neck to follow her as she circled the car.

When she got back on the passenger’s seat, Madiha was still staring at her.

“They’re collectible! You know what happens when the movie is out of circulation? They won’t print anymore! This is a piece of history I’ve got in the back!” Parinita emphatically said.

Madiha fished one of the posters off the pile and unrolled it. Much of the poster was taken up by a lake that looked thick and gooey, with a hand sticking out; at the corner of the poster, near the written credits, an Ayvartan man and woman screamed and cowered in fear of The Living Mud. She threw it back and picked up a different one. There was a salacious image of two oily men in athletic trunks and nothing else standing eye to eye in the middle of a field, one with a ball in his hands and the other reaching out to him, and the film was titled Hard In The Pitch.

“Look, it’s not a matter of what the film is about. It’s about owning the poster.” Parinita said.

“Are you ever going to hang this one somewhere?” Madiha asked about the sports film poster.

“No! But I’ll keep it in a sleeve, and I’ll preserve it, and I’ll know I have it!” Parinita said.

“Pity. I think it could go well with certain aesthetics.” Madiha said. She gently returned it.

After this detour they took up the map and headed west. Madiha reasoned that Agni would probably elect to go to a factory, and they narrowed it down to only the factories nearby. On their map no factory was actually marked for what it produced — after driving by a small rubber processing plant and cobbler’s co-op inexplicably labeled a “factory” they finally came upon ‘Agni’s House’. From a distance Madiha saw activity in a small automobile factory and mechanical garage, once part of the local union of automobile workers. Most promising was the sight of two KVW half-tracks parked outside, and a few guards watching the road.

Just off a side road, the garage occupied a concrete lot between two old tenements. One of the tenements had received a heavy bomb through it, and had collapsed. Rubble seemed to form a ring around the space. While the main factory had been gutted of good equipment prior to the bombing, and subsequently lost its roof and one wall, a side-garage with a tin roof and a sliding door stood intact. Equipped with a heavy vehicle lift and a crane, it made a perfect spot for Agni’s work. Madiha and Parinita found her sitting atop the heavy lift upon which the body of a Goblin teletank was set. Its turret hung from the chain hoist crane nearby.

“Hujambo!” Madiha and Parinita said at once. They stood off to the side of the tank.

“Hujambo.” Agni replied. She shifted herself around to greet them. She was her usual self, inexpressive, her long hair collected into a sloppy tail, various grease stains on her person. Her jacket and shirt lay on the floor, and she had on a dirty tanktop while working. On her lap was a metal toolbox. Some of its contents seemed to have ended up on the ground over time. There were wire cutters, a wrench, a crowbar, and various nuts and bolts on the floor.

“You’re keeping busy.” Madiha smiled. “Hopefully you’re not pushing yourself too hard.”

“It was only a flesh wound; and these are not bags under my eyes. It’s just my eyes.”

Agni pulled on the skin around her eyes as if to demonstrate. Madiha thought they still looked like bags, and she knew Agni barely seemed to sleep. She did not belabor the point.

“It wasn’t a flesh wound at all, you suffered muscle damage.” Parinita said. She didn’t really know Agni, but that did not seem to dull her concern. “You should not be up there at all.”

“I am keeping off my legs, as you can see.” Agni slightly raised her dangling legs, over the edge of the tank. There were bandages around her leg with a thick, spongy patch over the knife wound in her lower thigh. “It will be fine. I’m the only one who can perform these upgrades.”

“You could delegate to your subordinates. They’re just standing around.” Parinita said.

“I must do this myself to insure quality. It is vitally important. You’re distracting me.”

Parinita crossed her arms and sighed. “Well, fine then, I guess. Keep at it until you break.”

Madiha cleared her throat loudly. “So, Agni, what are you working on there?”

Agni pointed down at the tank, and spoke quickly, seeming almost excited to be working. “I found a solution to our teletank range problems. These tank radios,” she thrust her finger sharply toward the interior of the Goblin, “are an older model than those found in Hobgoblins. We can use the better parts on the Hobgoblins to save us some time modifying the teletanks.”

“That makes sense. I honestly don’t know what goes into building a Hobgoblin — Inspector General Kimani just brought them in without much explanation.” Madiha replied.

“I don’t have a technical sheet on them, but from what I’ve heard from logistics and admin, they have a completely different engine, the gun is 76mm but not the same as our field guns, and the power plant is different. We’ve had trouble repairing them due to this.” Parinita said.

“This is true; they use non-standard parts. High quality, but not in our stocks.” Agni replied. “However, that is working in our favor now. I had my cadre this morning gut the radios from some of the Line Corps Hobgoblins that were going unused, and modified the power plant and radio control receiver on the teletank with the parts. In addition, if I can gut the radio control equipment from the Control tank and install it on a Hobgoblin command-type tank, it will not only triple the operational range of the teletanks, it will offer greater protection.”

Madiha felt a sense of relief. Agni had a solution — they were still on track. Now all they had to do is buy time. “Anything you don’t use, have it blown up in the northern district.” She told Agni. “We don’t want too many Hobgoblin parts falling into enemy hands this early on.”

“Yes ma’am.” Agni said. “I believe we will ready to proceed by the 35th of the Gloom.”

“That’s good. We just have to keep Nocht at bay for another week.” Madiha said. There was no sarcasm or bitterness in her voice. In fact the 30th had brought good news all around.

“We reestablished contact with Solstice today,” Parinita said, tapping on her clipboard, “and they’re willing to send a few trains, some coming today, but the next ones on the 34th can carry anything you need to complete the job if difficulties arise. So if you have a list of needed–“

“I’m committed to doing this job with what I have on-hand at the moment.” Agni replied.

Parinita hugged her clipboard closer and looking a little annoyed to be cut off by her.

“May I continue my work, Commander?” Agni asked, holding up her toolbox.

Madiha bowed her head in acknowledgment. “You may continue. Thank you for your efforts, Agni. I will insure you and your crew are adequately rewarded for your dedication.”

“Unnecessary.” Agni said. With that parting word, she pushed her toolbox into the goblin, and then leaned down into the hull. Her legs dangled outside at first, and she almost seemed to be swimming in the vehicle. She shifted forward, swinging her hips, and her legs started to rise over her upper body. Parts and tools rattled inside the hull — Agni fell carelessly over inside.

Parinita sighed audibly. Madiha shook her head. They saw a wrench rise from the turret hole.

“I’m fine.” Agni said. “It only hurts a little bit and I’m sure I can get out eventually.”

“She gets a bit tetchy when she’s absorbed in her work.” Madiha whispered to Parinita.

Before leaving the garage, Madiha called over a few of Agni’s subordinates and gave them a few key instructions that might not have constituted common sense to them: keep Agni fed, keep the radio on and someone monitoring it, and finally, extricate Agni from the hull every so often. While Madiha rounded up and organized the engineers, Parinita checked the supply crates stacked inside the remains of the main building, but none of them were labeled nor opened, so she gave up on categorizing them or marking this dump in any particular way.

They returned to the car, and Parinita threw away her clipboard. She crossed her arms and had a long, frustrated sigh. “No markings of any sort, and I didn’t feel like cracking open a dozen crates to see if we’ve really got two tons of food and six tons of ammo in here or what.”

“Don’t obsess over it too much. Soon it won’t really matter.” Madiha said. She figured they were now part of a long and storied line of staff continuously ignoring this problem. “Let’s get back, we need to oversee the evacuations tonight, and get ready in case the enemy attacks.”

“Yes ma’am.” Parinita replied. Since it was no longer necessary for her to navigate, she took the time to inspect her treasures. She reached behind her back and unfurled a poster. There was a picture of a sheaf of wheat, with a suitcase and a hat, leaving behind a farm. It looked like the poster for an educational film about collective agriculture. Parinita threw it over her shoulder.

“If you’re not going to hang up that one, I might be interested.” Madiha said, chuckling.

Northeast District — Train Station, Night

Despite advances in technology, war had not yet defeated darkness. Conflict waned as the forces lost daylight. Both sides transported supplies primarily in the dark hours, when opposing planes and artillery would find it difficult to strike and enemy infantry would be reluctant to move. Aside from a few disparate night bombings by anka biplanes flying in from the lower Tambwe, neither side had launched a significant night attack.

Madiha counted on this, but still felt a little tension in the dark.

Standing astride the tracks at the northern railyard, Parinita loyally at her side, the Commander waited for the arrival of an armored train. On the road outside the rail station grounds, hundreds of trucks and cars and even a few tanks came and went, ferrying thousands of wounded, sick and exhausted soldiers and a few civilians, all of whom would be leaving that night for Solstice. On one train or on another, all of them had to go.

There would be three armored trains coming and going a few hours apart. Even with their capacity, however, it might not be enough. She had almost 12,000 whom she wanted to transport and she had hoped to be able to evacuate a few tons of supplies as well. But she needed only to look over her shoulder and out onto the street and road, and see all the men and women under the faint light of electric torches and Hobgoblin tank headlights, to disabuse herself of that notion. There would be no room here except for these people and the bare minimum of goods to keep them alive on their journey away from the conflict.

Crates of spare ammo were not priority. It was time that these souls left Hell.

“When we get back, put together a team to oversee the destruction of extraneous ammunition. Hellfire might solve that for us but we can’t take any chances.” Madiha said.

“Understood.” Parinita replied. “I’ll pull some people from our intelligence team.”

“Good idea. Intel will be less necessary now that we’re drawing down from the battle.”

“Not to mention our intelligence, aside from radio capture, has been limited anyway.”

Madiha felt tired. She made an effort to stand, and she felt herself nod off once or twice in the gloom and silence. It seemed like ages since she had a full night’s sleep. Her eyes lingered on the empty tracks, on the odd shadows of cranes, on the distant, empty warehouses. Cold winds blew through station and yard. Parinita moved a little closer after a strong gust.

“Uncharacteristically cold night for Adjar.” Parinita said, nearly arm to arm with Madiha.

In the distance, Madiha thought she saw a glint of light. She brushed it off as a trick of her eyes in the dark — but she was not the only one who saw it. One of her guards rushed forward and pointed a BKV anti-tank rifle out toward the warehouses. She peered through her scope.

“Commander, something’s approaching! I see a headlight through the scope!” She said.

Madiha and Parinita stepped back, giving Corporal Kajari some room. She was a recent addition to the 3rd Motor Rifles, but had already proven herself well, and had been handpicked by Lt. Batuzi to serve as part of the rail guard for the night. Her superior, Sergeant Chadgura, stepped onto the platform to support her and stared down her own BKV scope. She nodded her head at Madiha, silently corroborating the Corporal’s discovery. Both kept their guns trained forward.

“Ma’am, you two should take cover behind the platform just in case.” Chadgura said.

“It doesn’t look like a tank to me,” Kajari said, “I think it’s got wheels. We may be able to–“

“Hold your fire unless I say so.” Madiha said. She stepped off the platform, taking Parinita with her by the hand. They crouched behind the brick, and heard footsteps as Chadgura and Kajari, and other guards around them, took positions behind what cover they could find.

Madiha breathed deep and concentrated. Her eyes felt hot, but they did not hurt. She felt a sharp feeling in her skull and her vision swam, rising as though her eyes were sliding up. Vision left her body; her vantage, what her eyes saw, soared far over the rail platform, as though she peered down at the world from a surveillance plane. Gently the scope glided over the rails, out to the warehouses, and found the approaching vehicle — an enclosed, 8-wheeled scout car.

She shook her head, and her perception was again grounded firmly within her eyesockets. There was a residual chill, a shuddering and disassociation, a lack of control over her body, but she regained enough presence to try to climb the platform again. Parinita reached out to her.

“Madiha, wait,” she said, grabbing her by the shoulder. She drew a handkerchief from her jacket and wiped around Madiha’s ear, and then showed her the discharge. It was blood.

“That’s inconvenient.” Madiha said, sighing. She thought she had mastered this by now.

Parinita approached and pressed her hands on Madiha’s cheeks, locking eyes with her. Madiha felt the slight burning in her eyes cool off, completely, instantly. Parinita let her go, and nodded toward the platform. “Just be more careful from now on, alright? Don’t push yourself.”

Madiha nodded, and climbed again on the platform. She looked through a pair of binoculars in the dark at the approaching vehicle and waved her hand at her guards. “It’s one of ours! Everybody stand down!” She shouted quickly, the little binoculars serving as justification for her knowledge, despite having as poor a range and capability in the dark as the scopes on the BKVs.

Without question, Corporal Kajari and Sergeant Chadgura put down their BKVs, and waved down the machine gunners and riflemen and women that had gathered around the platform. They stood down, and Madiha ordered them back to their positions near the road once again.

Slowly the vehicle approached. Once it came close enough they could see it was an Adze scout car with a circular aerial — the command type vehicle. It drove toward the platform and parked just off the track with its side-door facing the platofrm. From the vehicle a tall woman stepped out, with short, curly hair slicked back, a gold-and-red uniform, and a striking dark countenance. She approached the platform, climb it in one jump, and took Madiha in her arms.

“Thank the Ancestors you’re safe,” said Inspector General Chinedu Kimani. “Madiha.”

Being in those arms took her back to her childhood. She knew that feeling now — she could be fond of it. She could feel nostalgic over it. Kimani’s arms, embracing her, protecting her, picking her up when she was small, all of this she remembered. She had been there so much for her.

“Chinedu,” Madiha said simply. She smiled. “I’m glad to see you. Are you alright?”

“I am fine.” Her voice sounded more emphatic than before. She pulled herself away from Madiha, and saluted her respectfully. “I will be evacuating via the sea with you, Major, so I had to leave the Kalu behind me. Things are going about as well as they could be in that area.”

“I’ll make sure you can keep in contact with them.” Madiha said. “Thank you, Chinedu.”

“Do not thank me; I would not have given the enemy any pause without our comrades.”

“No, I mean,” Madiha made her eyes glow again, “thank you for everything, Chinedu.”

Kimani smiled a little in response. This was an incredibly rare sight. For a moment the two of them were framed in light as they came to a silent understanding — the searchlights on the approaching trains shone on them, and the noise drowned out any more of their words. Bristling with anti-tank guns and anti-tair guns and pulling a heavy 203 mm artillery gun car in the back, the first of the massive armored trains stopped just behind them, and opened its doors.

“I think I have to supervise this, Inspector General.” Madiha said. She smiled.

“I leave the situation in your capable hands, Commander.” Kimani said. “If you require my advice or aid, I will be here by your side. I hope to be more available from now on.”

“I appreciate your expertise.” Madiha said. She saluted her. Kimani saluted back.

Parinita stepped onto the platform, and ushered forward the first group of evacuees. From the trains, KVW police stepped out helped accommodate the wounded and sick in the cars. Accommodations were not luxurious, but slowly, under the stars and the light of electric torches many of the survivors of the first battles of Bada Aso boarded the train, ready to be ferried out of Hell and into the future, where, hopefully, they could heal and grow.

Madiha saw the glow of life in all of them, and she felt it strongly in herself. She did not regret the past. Her experiences had not broken her — had Chinedu not fought for her, had she not saved her life, there would not just be one less staff member in this city. She thanked Chinedu for that; and she thanked herself. They had all yet to settle comfortably into their roles; but they had lived through injury, through terror, they had lived and could keep living to do so.

These people had not been sacrifices; their inability to fight now did not make them cowards or burdens. They were not spent. Each of them was a potential, realized again and again.

She knew that now, too. None of it had been about sacrifice. Not her; not them.

31st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Bada Aso — South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

Von Sturm convened the Vorkampfer staff for a meeting early next morning. Fruehauf’s brown hair was a little messy that day — she had hardly slept and had little time to groom herself. Her little bob tended to get out of control when she was overworked. She had stayed by the side of the radio all night, putting through Von Sturm’s calls whenever he needed to run his ideas by one of his units in the field. He planned to stay up all night working; so that the other girls could have some rest, she had personally volunteered to act as his contact. He flung surprisingly little invective her way throughout, so absorbed was he in his maps and tables of organization.

So as everyone gathered, Fruehauf yawned loudly, and felt a little light in the head.

When he stepped through the door into the dining area, Von Sturm beamed brightly, several documents and a map under his arm, and he marched with sophomoric confidence. He was the most energetic person in the room. Everyone else looked as if dragged along the ground. At a fevered pace he constructed his presentation, putting up maps and photos for them.

“I decided to go with my instincts on this one.” He said, gesturing to everyone assembled.

Before the assembled staff he laid out a new map, covered in scribbles of his own handwriting. Labeled “Operation Surge” it seemed to Fruehauf as though Von Sturm had simply distributed most of his current forces along every imaginable road in Bada Aso and then wrote arrows pointing north, some of which collided at certain points, others veering around to create numerous vague pockets of suspected force concentrations and enemy strongholds. She was not a military planner, but she hardly saw any difference from what they were already doing.

“I want the overwhelming majority of our assembled forces to assemble at these starting points; I want that done before the 33rd, when the first Surge attacks will begin. Until Surge begins, forward attacks will be made to probe Ayvartan territory, clear mines, and spring any of their ambushes prematurely. These feints will be followed by massive attacks along the entire city. I am giving permission to deploy all of our technical reserves — tanks, mobile artillery, assault guns, every available infantry-carrier truck and half-track, several heavy guns, several planes. I have already secured air forces authorization from the Oberkommando.”

He paused for a moment. There were no questions — there were never really any.

“The Kriegsmarine has also agreed to push ahead a Destroyer vessel and a pair of motor torpedo boats to help support a flanking attack the central harbor by a small company of marine infantry and luftlotte paratroopers. Our objective is to give the enemy no time or room to hide. We will charge with lightning speed and root them from every one of their holes!”

Hatschu!”

Fruehauf sneezed. Her little pompom earrings swung every which way. Von Sturm stared at her in consternation and she felt like crawling into a hole, but he thankfully said nothing.

From the back of the room Von Drachen tried to raise his injured arm, and then he flinched, and thought better of it. He raised his good arm instead, and waved it around in the air.

“This sounds promising, but I think the timetable looks unreasonable.” Von Drachen said. “We should attempt to fight them house to house. Running upstreet has already proven costly.”

Von Sturm smiled at him. “Your input is appreciated, Von Drachen.”

Von Drachen furrowed his brow and seemed confused by the reaction.

At any rate, Fruehauf knew the score. Once that map was pinned up on the wall, Operation Surge was the new gospel of the 1st Vorkampfer. She hated to do this, but she would have to get the girls to cover anything important so she could get some sleep. She would be needing the rest for the scramble required to keep contact with so many units marching at once. Never before had she seen Von Sturm pin so many chits on a map. Everyone would be busy.

* * *

Next chapter in Generalplan Suden — Bad Bishop (Coming 8/31/2014)

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges IV

Like the story? You can support it on patreon, or rate and review on Web Fiction Guide.

Side story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden.

This chapter contains scenes of violence, social stress, and references to medical conditions.

 

54th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2018 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Vicaria — Monastery of Saint Orrea’s Hope

Vicaria was a country of orchards and farms. Vast stretches of low-lying black soil, supporting trees and fields and rustic houses, half encircled by mountains that impeded the cold northern air. It had a unique climate for Lubon, and was spoken of in reverent tongues, as if a paradise, like heaven, to retire to when one had peace. Settled on the side of Mount Hadex, the Monastery of Saint Orrea had a commanding view of the province. From the peak, a careful eye could trace the blue rivers and yellow fields and massive green orchards as though viewing a pastel painting, running one’s fingers across the air over this awe-inspiring abstraction.

Pairs of columns along the mountain led the half-track up the monastery path. In the distant past each of these would have been a barred gate, held by legionnaires who fought off barbarians and protected the holy mountain of flames out of which the Messiah would resurrect. But those traditions were visibly eroded with the stone of the columns and with the shattered remnants of the gate bars. Saint Orrea’s Judgment had become Saint Orrea’s Hope, an ecclesiastical campus half orphanage and half hermetic retreat for devoted students.

It was said that perhaps in this place, miracles and magic could be made alive again.

No such thing had been accomplished, and the Legionnaires now riding their gas-powered steed to the place had no interest in proving the works of the Lord or restoring to the world the healing hands of the old clerics. Saint Orrea was forgotten and that was good for the girl. It was out of the way, overlooked; there would be no discoveries made there.

Past the final gate the Legion half-track climbed over the shelf that bore the monastery buildings, ringed by trees and backed into the shoulder of the mountain, a collection of irregular towers and building storeys that looked as though made by a child with blocks. Built and rebuilt over generations it had a mishmash of architectural touches. A brutal facade in soft orange tones with smooth domes existed alongside wings with gentle mansard roofs. The structure extended arms of weathered old stone and flat, low ramparts around the edges of the mountain, as though to embrace those who crossed the gates.

At the foot of the steps leading up to the main building the Legionnaires were greeted by an old bearded priest and a nun so covered that little could be discerned of her. The Half-Track, engine still running, opened its doors. Exiting the vehicle, a tall, swarthy man in a black uniform, accented with a pair of golden eagles, opened the back door. His blunt, grim face momentarily softened for the child, gently coaxing the little one out of the vehicle by the hand.

The Legionnaire’s quarry was a skinny child, short-haired, round-faced, somewhat androgynous, finely dressed in what was certainly pure white silk. A long white dress with silver buttons and cuffs made the child shine under the afternoon sun directly over the mountain.

Both the priest and the nun clasped their hands before their faces and bowed humbly.

“My son, thank you for gracing us at this humble place,” began the Priest, “I am Magus Aldus Sextus, of the church’s Thaumaturgical Observation Group. I received news that the Legion would be visiting, but not the details of your mission. Let me assure you that Pallas has all of the resources of Saint Orrea at its disposal.” He reached and shook hands with the legionnaire.

“My name is Centurion Tarkus Marcel, I’m with the 17th Blackshirt Legion,” said the legionnaire, his grim expression returning, “This girl is of noble birth and she will be a guest and student here for the next year. Her stay here is a guarded secret. You do not need to know her name.” Tarkus knelt down next to the child, swept her hair gently from her face, and looked into her eyes. He smiled, paternally. “They don’t need to know your name; understand, bambina?”

“Yes sir,” the girl replied in a low voice, her pitch irregular. She nodded rapidly to show that she understood, her hands clasped innocently behind her back, her feet shifting nervously.

Tarkus stood again and addressed the priest and nun once more. “You do not touch her; she knows how to bathe herself and change her own clothes. None of you is to have any physical contact with her. You are to give her the utmost privacy. Funds will be provided for her accommodation — and whatever is left over you can use for what you please.”

Neither the priest nor the nun made known any protest toward this arrangement.

“Money is no object, my son.” Aldus replied. “However, and I do not mean to sound as if I extract tribute, but; am I to take it that the entrusting of this errand to myself, demonstrates an acknowledgement of my loyalty and competence, and perhaps, suitability for Primacy?”

“Perhaps.” Tarkus replied. He looked upon the old priest with suspicion.

Aldus smiled amicably and bowed his head again. “My son, please relay to the Queen that I would spare nothing, not even my own blood, to insure that her own blood remain secure.”

Tarkus closed his fist with muted agitation. The girl looked at the adults with worry.

“I will relay your kind wishes, Aldus, and put in a realistic assessment of the situation to my superiors at the end of the child’s term here.” Tarkus said in a dangerous tone of voice.

Magus Aldus bowed his head, smiling, triumphant. For the first time he looked over the little girl, and he knelt down near her. “Like one of the Lord’s little angels. Do you know the word of God my daughter? Have you been read the scriptures, and glimpsed with Awe at his Grace?”

Tarkus rolled his eyes. Beside him the little girl held his hand and shook her head.

“Do not worry, you have a lifetime ahead of you to devote yourself to Him.” Magus Aldus said. He reached out his hand and the little girl looked at it with trepidation. “I will call you Grazia while you are here, little one, and this place will be elevated by your presence.”

“Go with him, it will be fine. I promise.” Tarkus said. He let the girl’s hand go.

She stared at Aldus’ hand again, and before she could come to a decision, the party heard a high-pitched noise and sudden trampling on the steps. Someone came down from the monastery. Both the priest and nun turned around and found another child prostrated before them on the landing, down on her knees. She was dressed in a nun’s robe that was faded and dusty, and she was very small, with her hair collected into a little ponytail. She looked up from the ground with tears in her eyes. She was missing a tooth, and her face was very dirty.

“Father Aldus I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” She shouted. “I know you told me not to go further up the mountain, and I did it, and I lost my crucifix in the ashes, and I’m so sorry–“

“Geta, calm down. This is not the time.” Aldus said, picking the girl up from the floor and standing her up and dusting off her robes. “We have guests here. Please calm down.”

For a moment “Grazia” thought to turn back and run into the half-track. But while Tarkus was sometimes comforting he was always imposing, and he had told her to stay. So she had to stay. She knew this was something Tarkus had decided to do and there was no undoing it.

“I will be leaving now.” Tarkus said. “Remember well what I told you, Magus.”

A Legionnaire stepped out from the car and unloaded a suitcase with clothes and things that had been prepared for “Grazia” and left them by the side of the steps. With a last, firm nod to the girl, Tarkus vanished into the vehicle, and it drove away the way it came, leaving her behind.

Grazia watched the vehicle until she could no more. She felt dispirited, but not sad enough to outright cry. After all, Tarkus was an ambivalent figure, devoid of love but also hate; her mother was an ambivalent figure, devoid of presence but not quite neglectful. “Grazia” was sure that this monastery would not be a place of happiness, but it would be devoid of misery.

Behind her, the other little girl looked up expectantly at Magus Aldus awaiting her fate.

The Magus rubbed behind his back with his hand while staring at the suitcase intently.

“Geta, I am ready to forgive your mistakes, because you have confessed to them in the eyes of God, but I will more readily forgive them if you pick up that luggage for me.” Aldus said.

Not another tear shed from the child’s eyes. Geta instantly perked up, and rushed past “Grazia” and took the suitcase. She failed to lift it by its handle, but by picking it up with both arms, hugging it against her chest like a newborn, she could clumsily heave it around.

Grazia followed the Magus, the nun and Geta up the long set of steps to the monastery. At the top they crossed another pair of pillars and walked through a walled garden filled with flowers. Moss grew over the rocks, and the irrigation system drew from a little man-made river cutting through the stones. Inside the monastery the walls felt tight and the ceiling low, and there were portraits of saints and priests on the walls that seemed to look down judgmentally.

“Geta, show her to the tower room. She will live there from now on. Nobody will be able to bother her there. Show her the way.” Aldus put a key atop the suitcase, and took his leave. With the quiet nun in tow, the Magus departed through an adjoining hall. He gave no more thought to the little royal girl — either he trusted Geta a lot, or he simply did not care. It would not be the first time an adult wanted to be rid of her when their purposes were fully served.

“Alright, father!” Geta said. A rather delayed reaction — Aldus was nowhere near anymore. She shifted uneasily on her feet, turning the suitcase around to face Grazia. Her arms were shaking, but she held on to the luggage for dear life. “If I drop the key please pick it up!”

“Ok.” Grazia replied. “Can you really carry that? It looks very heavy.”

“I can carry it! I’m a tough girl! Just keep an eye on that key, ok?” Geta said.

Grazia nodded. Geta looked like she was a little bit older than her, but perhaps not much.

Together they followed the hallway out to the west wing and climbed a tall stone staircase. It seemed like a thousand steps to the little girls. Several times, Geta dropped the key, and Grazia picked it up and put it back atop the suitcase where it could, and would, fall again. After what seemed like an eternity of steps, Geta dropped the luggage in front of a wooden door, and she sat next to it and breathed harshly. “Messiah defend! Lazy old man!” She cried out.

Grazia took the key, and she stood on her tiptoes and shoved it into the hole. She opened the wooden door behind Geta. The room on the other side was old and dusty, but it had a very long and wide bed, and several drawers. She had a faucet, connected to a pipe coming in from outside the tower. There was a bookshelf full of books, and a few stools and chairs knocked down in various places. Grazia righted one and sat on it. She sat facing Geta and watched her.

“Are you bringing in the luggage soon servant? I need my luggage.” Grazia said.

“Servant? Hey, I’m only supposed to serve the Lord!” Geta said.

“Ok, I understand. But I need my suitcase. All my things are in there.”

Geta stood up from the floor, dusted off her robe, and slid the suitcase inside.

“There you go, it’s inside.” Geta said, smiling mischievously.

“It’s maybe a meter inside! That’s not inside! Slide it over to my bed.”

Grazia protested. Geta made a show of sighing, and shoved the suitcase in fits and starts until it fell beside the king-size bed at the end of the room. She then sat on it, catching her breath. Grazia turned her stool around and faced Geta, staring at her. It was the first time she had really interacted with another child. She thought Geta might be a new servant, like the maids at the old duke’s house. She thought she would need new servants now that the duke was dead.

“What is your name? Is it just Geta? Or are you, a Sister, or a Magoo?” Grazia said.

“It’s Magus. And I’m just Geta. That’s my last name. My first name is Byanca.”

“That’s a pretty name.” Grazia replied. She was finding it easier to talk to Geta than she thought. Talking to Tarkus or to other adults was frightening. They never really listened — it was like they knew what she was going to say before she said it. Then they chose to do whatever they wanted or to reply to her like she had not said anything at all. With Geta it felt like she was talking to someone like herself, who listened to words and responded jovially.

It made Grazia want to talk to her; to tell her all the things she would normally just tell to the walls or to a mirror or to cats or to dolls. Geta could carry a conversation better.

“What’s your name anyway? Who are you? Are you rich? Can I have some money?” Geta said. She held out her hand as though begging, and stretched it out insistently a few times.

“I think I’m rich but I don’t think I have money to be quite honest.” Grazia said.

“Nobody ever has money in this place.” Geta said, crossing her arms, disappointed.

“Ok, listen, I’m gonna tell you my name but you have to promise not to tell anyone. Its really important and a secret and you have to pinky swear you won’t tell anyone.”

Geta held out her pinky, and intertwined her fingers with the little royal girl.

“I’m Princess Salvatrice Vittoria,” whispered the girl. “I think I’ll be Queen someday.”

Geta blinked. “Wow.” She said. She sounded quite genuinely surprised to hear this.

“I don’t have any money. I kind of just go from place to place a lot. But listen, if you keep that a secret and you’re nice to me I will get you a white pony someday. My mommy has a lot.”

“I don’t want a pony. I want cold hard cash.” Geta said. She stretched out her hand again.

Salvatrice stood up from her bench and sat down on her bed. It was big and fluffy and bouncy, and it looked a lot less dusty than the walls and the bookshelf. Perhaps it had been prepared beforehand, though nothing else in the room had been. She bounced around a little on it.

“I’ll make you a knight. You’ll get a gun, I think. And a horse.” Salvatrice said.

Geta retracted her hand. “Ok, I’ll take it. Your secret is safe with me, princess.”

“No don’t call me that. Call me Grazia unless you’re sure we’re alone.” Salvatrice said.

“Why do you have to keep it a secret? If I was a Princess I’d want everyone to know.”

“I have to stay here for my mommy’s sake, and I have to do what she says. And she doesn’t want anyone to know so it’s really important that I obey her. That’s what a good girl would do.”

Geta stroked her chin as though this was a philosophical concept that was quite far out of her league. “My mommy’s not here and neither is my daddy so I don’t really know about that.”

Salvatrice was too innocent to contemplate the implications of that. Where Geta’s parents had done or what it meant for them to be gone did not register in her mind. She tried to explain why she had come here as best as she could — in reality she did not even really know herself.

“My mommy is the Queen, but I just make trouble for her, and I make it hard for her to do her job of telling everyone in the kingdom what they have to do; so Tarkus took me away. I’ve gone to a lot of places but I’ve kept causing trouble so he takes me farther and farther away.”

“Tarkus; that big guy? Huh. I don’t get it. What kind of trouble do you cause anyway?”

“I don’t know. I never get to see my mommy and I live in different places all the time. So I think it’s because I cause trouble. But I don’t know what I’m doing wrong or how to stop.”

“That’s strange. I cause trouble but all the time but I always just get away with it.”

Salvatrice sighed and laid down. “Maybe I’m getting away with it and I just don’t know.”

Geta looked at her, and scratched her hair nervously. She sighed too.

“Now I’m really confused. Anyway, do you want to go look for my crucifix in the ashes?”

Salvatrice sat up and crossed her arms. “My dress will get all sooty and dirty if I do that.”

“Aww, come on, that’s what’s fun about the ash cauldron. Let’s go up the mountain!”

“What about the bearded man? Won’t he see us? Won’t he be angry at us?”

“Not at all, Father Aldus is always distracted, plus I’m real good at sneaking out. Let’s go!”

Geta took Salvatrice’s hand, and gently pulled her off the bed and led her back down the stairs. They hurried down the stairs, Geta laughing and cheering, Salvatrice struggling to keep up. The Princess felt a sense of trepidation but also a strange thrill. It was the first time she ever really played with a child near to her own age — and one of the few times she might even go outside. Playing under the sun and in the wind; perhaps her stay would be happy after all.

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Pallas Messianic Academy

At 8 AM the bells on Salvatrice’s alarm clock rang harshly beside her bed.

Bleary-eyed, she saw the figure of her maid moving about, opening the curtains and windows, letting in a breeze; shutting off the alarm; arranging clothes and cosmetics and tools.

“Morning,” Salvatrice said, yawning and stretching her arms.

“Good day, milady. Your car is ready whenever; let us get you fixed up.”

“Ah yes, I did say I was going out today?” She said, in the tone of a question.

“Milady did indeed express her desire to visit the grand library today.”

“Yes. Of course. Thank you for making the arrangements.”

“No problem, milady. I hope you will have a pleasant time. I’m glad to see you out and about in the daylight. It’s not healthy for a young woman to be locked up.”

Locked up was quite a choice of words. Salvatrice had been a guest of the Pallas Messianic Academy for several years. At her mother’s urging she had sought higher education after coming of age. Atop a little hill overlooking much of the school facilities, the Aquinas building served the Academy’s board of directors, containing the offices and records libraries out of which accounting and administration were performed. Her suite was at the very top of the building, and included several rooms, its own bathroom and even a little kitchen and dining area. Her bedroom window overlooked an orchard and the nearby forest.

Originally, the suite housed special guests of the Academy, bankrollers or lecturers.

When the royal arrangements were made, it became Salvatrice’s new hideaway.

Her mother had visited exactly once to ask her whether the accommodation was suitable.

Salvatrice felt that everything was quite ordinary and pleasing and replied in the affirmative.

She invited her mother on a little tour, and held her breath throughout the proceedings.

Her mother had tea with her in their little living room. From there they walked out to the little balcony, where she could see out to the grand plaza and all the school buildings. Salva showed the Queen her humble 30 square meters bedroom, and the adjacent room which had become a large closet for Salva’s many clothes — her costumes had been hidden that day.

The Queen replied to the tour only by saying, “Fair enough,” and emphasizing the importance of diligent studying and acquiring a broader, more worldly wisdom through academics.

After that, Salvatrice did not even get another glimpse of her mother for two years.

Before the current mess in the world, her maid had been closest to a mother in her life.

Cannelle was her only servant, and one of her few friends. She was older than Salva, but only by a decade. And she was a student too. Taking care of Salva paid for her lectures.

Morning, noon, evening and night, it was always just Cannelle and her in the suite.

In her homely apron and dress, with her brown hair pulled back into a bun, and her long, sharp ears raised up, long enough they seemed almost like a rabbit’s, Cannelle helped Salvatrice out of bed and out of her night clothes. She averted her eyes while Salvatrice changed into new underwear, and then helped her with her dress. For the morning of the 25th, the maid had picked out a practical mahogany brown dress with a high neck, long sleeves, and a form-fitting, conservatively-designed bodice and skirt. There were no frills, no ribbons, no lace.

It might not have been exactly academic, but it straddled that line and away from lavish.

Salvatrice did not like lavish things — they felt unreasonably exposing and hubristic.

Cannelle pulled the dress over Salvatrice’s skin, helping her arms into the sleeves, buttoning up the back, flattening any folds. They sat down together. Cannelle applied a dusting of cosmetic powder over Salvatrice’s delicate features, and she then turned hear round and brushed her hair, leaving it more symmetrical than she found it, hanging above shoulder, framing her face. She took her time, brushing gently, lifting Salvatrice’s smooth chin to keep her head still.

She had quite a magic touch. Salvatrice felt awkward. This was something that her culture insisted she must do, as someone of her station. But in all other ways her station was meaningless. And yet, in ways she kept guarded, she appreciated someone who looked at her body every day and did not judge her. To Cannelle, Salvatrice’s skin was not too dark, her hair was not too red, her figure was not too flat. She would never think of her as out of place.

In front of a mirror, Salvatrice smiled, and Cannelle ushered her to turn around twice.

“You look beautiful, Milady.” She said, smiling and clapping her hands.

Salvatrice could look in that mirror and think that she was. She was beautiful, all of her was. It was a blessing that despite everything else, she got to start the morning this way.

“Thank you, Cannelle. You may take the day off, if you please. I fancy picking up a meal outside to take to the library with me today. You need not spend any undue efforts.”

“Milady, no effort for you is undue! Please allow me to serve you light breakfast, at least.”

Outside her bedroom was a small connecting room with bookshelves on either side, empty save for a carpet across the floor. Up a small set of steps they climbed to the a raised tea area, fenced off by an ornate balustrade, a few meters higher than the rest of the floor. It was like dining on a stage. Salvatrice sat on a stool chair, while Cannelle walked ahead to the kitchen.

Minutes later the maid returned, a pitcher of lemonade in one hand and a perfectly balanced plate of snacks on the other. There were tomatoes and cheese drizzled with a thin vinaigrette and sprinkled with herbs; crackers topped with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper; the lemonade had a touch of honey. Salvatrice ate delicately, raising little bites to her mouth with a fork. Cannelle watched more than she ate. This was usually the case with their breakfasts.

“Everything to your satisfaction?” Cannelle asked.

“It always is.” Salvatrice replied.

She could not fault the service at all. Cannelle was the only servant she needed.

After breakfast, Cannelle dropped a little pink pill onto the empty plates.

“Your treatment for the day, milady. May it bring you much health.”

Salvatrice took the hormone pill and drank it with a little lemonade. It went down quite easily.

“How do you feel?” Cannelle asked. She looked a little worried. A few days back Salvatrice had confided in her that she felt the beginnings of another awful spell, and may grow sick.

“I feel fine.” Salvatrice said. She smiled quite genuinely. “Exuberant, even. I don’t think any fatigue and flashes will plague me for the time being, so do not worry about me.”

“I’m so glad. Seeing milady suffering while having to go about her tasks as if nothing was happening — it has felt like such an injustice. I hope this medicine will end that for good.”

“Everything is fine, Cannelle. I should be off; don’t want to leave the driver waiting.”

Salvatrice felt energy coursing to her feet, and while Canelle cleaned up the table she made to take her leave and go out in the sun, bursting with the desire to appear before the world.

Then, in the midst of this, they heard a knock on the door, and another.

Both Princess and maid paused abruptly and stared with confusion at the door.

“Are we supposed to have guests?” Salvatrice asked.

Knock knock. Silence again. Someone was still out there.

“No.” Cannelle said. Keeping her eyes to the door, she backed up to a nearby bookshelf and pulled a fake book from it. She spread it open — there was a pistol inside.

She loaded a magazine into the pistol and took it with her.

Knock knock knock. It was growing more forceful now.

Salvatrice’s eyes drew wide. Cannelle was just a maid, not a bodyguard. Her hands trembled on the weapon. She kept it behind her back as she slowly approached the door. She turned her head over her shoulder and mouthed to Salvatrice, who read her lips, “stay back.”

The Princess knelt near the steps to the little raised tea area, using the balustrade around it for cover. “Coming!” Cannelle called out with faux innocence. She took the door handle.

Slowly the maid opened the door. Her gun remained firmly behind her back.

She breathed out with relief, and immediately confronted the new arrival at the door.

“You’re supposed to tell us if you’re coming! You nearly scared us half to death!”

Cannelle shouted, visibly furious. She pointed sharply at the person’s breast with her free hand.

“It was a very last minute assignment, I had just got back from Reserve. I’m sorry.”

A reply; Salvatrice heard a somewhat rough but feminine-sounding voice outside that door.

Cannelle opened the door all the way and allowed in a young woman in a blackshirt legionnaire uniform, but with a strange black garrison cap, adorned with black feathers pinned by a metal emblem. She was just a little taller than Salvatrice and Cannelle, slim, broad-shouldered. Her skin was a pale olive, with blue eyes, and dirty blond hair in a ponytail coming down from behind her cap. Her elfin ears were short, like Salvatrice’s, but sharp and clearly Lubonin in nature.

Pinned to her breast was a metallic “XVII” — the identifier of the 17th Blackshirt Legion.

Salvatrice came out of hiding, and strode as tall and composed as she could muster out to the entryway. Seeing her, the legionnaire bent down to one knee to receive her. She bowed her head. The Princess struggled with all her might to resist kicking the woman in the neck. Instead she took a duster that was nearby and touched the legionnaire in the shoulder, indicating, as per the ridiculous royal traditions, that it was fine for her to look at the princess.

The Legionnaire looked up at her. Perhaps in any other uniform Salvatrice would have thought her features handsome, but legionnaires filled her with nothing but rage and disgust.

“What does the 17th Blackshirt Legion want with me?” Salvatrice asked.

Again the woman bowed her head. She took a deep breath. She was nervous.

“I am Centurion Byanca Geta. Henceforth I am to be your bodyguard.” She said.

Salvatrice suddenly lifted her foot and kicked her square in the belly, knocking her back.

On the floor Byanca clutched her stomach in pain and looked up with shock, gasping.

“I don’t need a bodyguard, and especially not you. You can go away now.” Salvatrice said.

“I cannot go,” Byanca said. Her voice sounded choked. Salva had knocked the wind from her.

“Did my mother send you? I’ve never had to deal with such a thing before but I am putting my foot down — in whatever part of you it catches when I kick, if necessary. Go away!”

“Milady,” Byanca said, pausing to cough a little, “I understand this is sudden, but you are in danger from the killers that have been targeting nobles in Palladi and Ikrea.”

“I don’t believe you. Why would they target me?” Salvatrice said.

“We have credible evidence; and I am here to protect you if the need arises.”

Salvatrice felt a growing knot of anxiety in her stomach, but she was adamant.

“I will endure this danger with my own wits. Leave my sight now, legionnaire.”

Byanca rose to her knees again and got back up on her feet. No one offered help. She stood straight, and saluted. “I wish I could acquiesce, Princess, but you need protection and I am the only person qualified to offer it. It would be indecent for a man to do so, and I am the only woman who has qualified for the Bersaglieri in the 17th Legion, under whose jurisdiction–“

Salvatrice felt a rising, sharp burst of fresh wrath. Jurisdiction? They treated her like a thing!

“I don’t care how many push-ups you can do! You are intruding into my home and defying a blooded member of the royal family of Lubon. Get out before I have my maid shoot you!”

Cannelle nearly jumped; but for Salvatrice’s sake, she kept the gun behind her back.

Salvatrice’s expression was hard as stone. She wanted this legionnaire gone right away.

But Byanca did not push any more. She offered no undue resistance other than her continued presence — a presence that made no demands. She looked almost dejected, hurt even.

“You do not remember me at all, do you Salvatrice?” She said. Her saluting hand shook.

These words scarcely registered in Salvatrice’s mind. It was almost as if she heard someone speaking gibberish rather than the Lubonin tongue. This was completely nonsensical.

“Who are you that I should remember, Legionnaire?” Salvatrice said. It was perhaps the most vicious thing she had ever said to someone. She put all the contempt that she felt into those words. In her soft voice the title sounded like the most derogatory slur possible. She wanted Byanca to be thrown back by those words, to crush whatever delusions she was under.

Byanca closed her eyes. She looked a little shaken indeed, but she was not moving.

“Then you must have Cannelle shoot me, Salvatrice, because I am not leaving.”

“I am not shooting anyone!” Cannelle finally said. “Salvatrice, please, be reasonable. This is most unlike you! Should it be true that someone is plotting against you, I cannot protect you!”

Something snapped; this was the final straw for Salvatrice. She stomped her feet.

“Nobody is plotting against me!” Salvatrice shouted. “The Blackshirt Legion sent this lackey here to spy on me against my will and that is the only and entire plot and I will not have it!”

Salvatrice pushed past Byanca and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

She charged downstairs before anyone could stop her and took the elevator to the lobby. Outside the main doors, her private car, an elegant little blue vehicle, was parked close. Her driver opened the back door, and she quickly took her seat and urged him to drive. As they rounded out of the parking spots, she saw Byanca cross the threshold of the Aquinas building. She waved and shouted as the car sped away from her and downhill to the main campus.

Too late she realized she had forgotten to check for a letter from Carmella in the usual spot, but that was too dangerous at the moment anyway. She sighed. She knew someday her mother would become more forceful. Perhaps this was it; the end of what little freedom she had.

* * *

Pallas Messianic Academy was like its own city in the heart of Lubon just off of the city of Pallas, the capital of the kingdom. At the center of the campus was the Grand Plaza, a broad field paved over with cobblestone paths connecting beautiful gardens and gazebos, fountains, and pavilion structures with restaurants and entertainment and arts showcases and other temptations for students. The growing popularity of cars led to the clearing of a tight road lane through the Plaza. Whenever she had a lecture, Salvatrice drove through the campus.

At several points the Grand Plaza branched, serving as the main access into the grounds of various colleges, each boasting a complex with classrooms and warehouses or depots for their needed supplies. Prominent among them were the colleges of engineering and medicine, each of which had vast, modern grounds at opposite ends of the Grand Plaza. Philosophy was contained in the oldest building, its chalky white bricks still standing. Sociology was not as old nor as small, and the building, a boxy red brick face with a thick balcony brow and a long glass entryway mouth, stood just off the rail station in the northern side of the campus.

As such, usually Salvatrice had to listen to lecturers compete with the arriving trains.

Today her driver veered off to the west, to the palatial Grand Library with its complicated facade full of expansive arches and its many marble domes. Once it had been a palace, serving a Lord who endeavored to bring many men of culture to settle and study and enrich his lands with their skills. Over time, power centralized, and that Lord was Lord no longer. His lands became the Academy, and his Palace, known for its Library, became only a Library.

At the foot of the vast steps leading to the cavernous archway entrance, Salva’s car parked, and her driver, Erardo, stepped out, opened her door, and helped her out by the hand. He was an older gentleman, with a thick mustache in a quite extravagant style, and little hair under his white driver’s cap. On the passenger seat he had some bread, a coffee thermos, and a paper.

“You needn’t wait here, my friend,” Salvatrice said, “I intend to while away the hours.”

“In that case, I shall find a more scenic place to park, but I do not intend to go far. I shall return before the sunset nonetheless. I would not want milady to step out with no company.”

Salvatrice nodded. “Thank you. That will be fine. Enjoy your coffee, Erardo.”

Erardo tipped his cap, and drove back out to the plaza and out of Salvatrice’s sight.

She was quite blessed to have servants who had known her for so long and were amicable.

Sunset would be fine; she expected there would be a lot of exploring ahead. In truth she had hardly ever visited the Grand Library. She gave her reading lists to Erardo or Cannelle or to some other helpful agent and had them deliver the goods to her door. But now there were things outside the reading lists she had to know, and the Sociology department’s library had too little access to international works that she desired. Basic readers on Ayvartan society were useless. She needed to search through works written by Ayvartans or travelers to Ayvarta, deep in the library. Salvatrice set her shoulders, took a deep breath, and composed herself.

She turned around to climb the steps; and she found Byanca sitting despondently atop.

There were a few people coming and going from the library, walking down and up the steps, taking the path across the front courtyard, driving past the building altogether; they made quite a crowd and Salva did not want to cause a scene by objecting to Byanca’s presence before all their eyes. Walking around by herself, few people would think she was anyone out of the ordinary. Fighting with a blackshirt legionnaire would draw more unwanted attention.

That was the last thing Salva needed. She walked past Byanca as though the Centurion was not sitting there — the woman noticed, and stood and picked up after her as though she had been implicitly invited on a walk. The Princess did not protest. Not in any obvious way. But she pushed through the door and let it smash against Byanca; and she walked at her own pace with no consideration for her. Neither of these things seemed to dissuade the legionnaire.

Past the lobby, Salvatrice climbed a grand set of curling stairs to the second floor. She took the steps calmly and gracefully. Byanca quickly caught up and climbed by her side.

“Princess, I apologize for following you, but I swear I am only doing so out of concern for you. This is not about the Legion, I swear, if I could help you in any other way I would.”

Salvatrice gave her no reply, not even a change of facial expression. She was but empty air.

“This is a lot to bear with, and I wish a warning had been given to you, but it is sudden for me as well. I just got back from my colonial tour in Borelia and I found out about this mission. I know the Blackshirt Legion has acted intrusively toward you, and I cannot abide by that, but my own actions have always been for the good of the royal family, so I accepted this task for you.”

“Why do you speak to me with such familiarity?” Salvatrice said. She did not turn to deliver the question. This legionnaire was not worth turning to. She simply said as if to the air.

“We played together a lot at Saint Orea’s, when we were small. Don’t you remember?”

“I don’t remember any such thing.” Salvatrice said. She vaguely remembered staying at a monastery for some time, to be kept away from squabbling nobles, but she stayed in a lot of different places as a child and they were all vague blurs to her, as were the people in them. The Queen had her sheltered wherever convenient for years. How could she remember one girl?

“I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have presumed that you would. It was a long time ago.”

No response at all. Byanca was growing more emphatic but Salva gave her nothing back.

They walked up to the landing and down a hallway that opened up into a room that seemed thirty meters tall and perhaps a hundred wide, filled with row after row of massively tall shelves. Byanca quieted her pleas but continued to tail Salvatrice closely every step of the way.

Salvatrice pulled a wheeled staircase over to a shelf and began to climb. Byanca dutifully grabbed the staircase and kept it steady. As much as possible Salvatrice wanted to ignore her. She did not want to confront the fact that this woman was following her everywhere and was probably taking notes for Legatus Marcel and his other cronies. This was just a visit to the library — she could return home after it and there would be nothing changed in her life.

From a staircase in front of her she pulled a book, and checked the table of contents. It was an old book, about a hundred years old, and it suited her purposes perfectly. Writing on the Ayvartans from before communism would likely give a much less biased account of their culture and history. Something would be missing of course, but she believed an independent study about the nature of communism, coupled together with a better idea of Ayvarta’s history, would serve her better than modern, propagandist accounts of the state from all sides.

At the bottom of the stairs Byanca reached out her hand, offering to hold Salva’s books — the princess slapped her hand away and walked past her. This did not dissuade the legionnaire.

“What kinds of books are those?” Byanca said. She sounded nervous again, but making an effort to seem friendly and gregarious. “I read that you were studying sociology, but–“

“Read?” Salvatrice asked. Again she did not look at her; it was as if talking to nobody.

“On the way here I was given a dossier to get acquainted with the current events–“

Salvatrice walked faster suddenly, taking Byanca by surprise. She took long and angry strides at a hurried pace, gritting her teeth, pushing past bewildered library staffers.

Byanca hurried after her, perhaps dimly aware of all the missteps she was making.

“I’m sorry! Nothing sensitive was in there, just basic stuff, age, studies, allergies–“

Her pleas went unheard. From the west wing of the library, Salvatrice shoved past a little group in a connecting hallway and crowded into an elevator. Before Byanca could reach her the doors closed. Finally she was rid of her again. She rode the elevator down to the basement level, where they kept the bulky microfilm punchcard archives of old newspapers and public documents. Two floors down, the elevator opened and Salva hurried out alone.

With the legionnaire out of the way she stepped off the elevator and into the gloomy basement halls. She wanted to read about the things said 23 years ago in the papers. This was a time of great upheaval throughout the world. Her mother was nearly assassinated, just three years before she was born, and nearly fought a civil war to consolidate power. In Nocht, the Frank and Lachy nations that shared a continent with the Federation went to war with it (or it with them) — what Nocht has since referred to as the Unification War, based on its outcome.

And in Ayvarta, the communists’ coup annihilated the imperial family. That was all she knew.

Back then, what were these people’s ideas of each other? Of the conflicts?

How had that changed over time? She was curious if it reflected on reporting done now.

She found a few punchcards of newspaper and magazine editions from the appropriate dates, and slid them into place on the magnifying devices, each of which was large as a desk. Pages were projected onto the machine’s screen, and could be zoomed on for easier reading. Salvatrice’s grasp of Nochtish was just enough to read the first paper she got, Der Betrachter.

Of course, the headline was a battle in the Unification War, with the Frank royalists driving back Federation forces in Le Amelie; but there was a small bit of writing acknowledging internal turmoil in Ayvarta. She supposed news of the Empire would have been difficult to report to Nocht in those days. Didn’t they have the radio-telephone back then though?

Salvatrice was absorbed in her reading. She took a punch card from an errant hand and loaded it, thanking the person for helping her; and found Byanca looking over her shoulder.

“Listen, I know that I started off really wrong, and I’m an idiot, and I’m just going to–“

Salvatrice turned around and buried her head in the monitor, reading the words closely.

Byanca quieted and stood off to the side, staring down at her own hobnailed jackboots.

While she stewed nearby, Salvatrice tried to continue working but she had already suffered so many disruptions she could not concentrate. This image continued to intrude into her mind; there was a legionnaire there, closer than ever before, standing, watching. She knew too much, already, too much; and the way she couched all of her speech in platitudes to sound like a fool was eerie and suspicious and unsettling. Who was this person; did Salvatrice really ever know her? Or was it a trick to manipulate her? Legatus Tarkus surely had better men for the task, Bersaglieri or no. The name echoed hauntingly in her mind. Byanca Geta. Who was she?

Again Salvatrice felt helpless. There was knowledge that she was not privy to. There were plots, alive out in the world, conspirators chuckling behind everyone’s backs with their secret information, and there was nothing Salvatrice could do. She was too isolated, too marginalized.

Byanca raised her hands to gesture, and she smiled and tried to offer another icebreaker.

“If I may say so, Princess, I think you have turned out quite stunning, as beautiful as your mother. I was a bit boyish too as a kid and I thought you might’ve turned out –“

“Shut up!”

Salvatrice turned around shoved her box of punchcards against Byanca’s chest. She hoped that it hurt, in an angry and petty way, even though the woman caught the box easily in her arms.

“Have the decency to stop mortifying me! Follow quietly as a spy should!” Salva shouted.

She stormed out of the microfilm-reader room but this time Byanca was hot on her heels, and they climbed the steps at less than a meter’s worth of distance, but Salvatrice put distance when they got back into the crowds in the hallways connecting to the lobby. Salvatrice was done — she would go outside and walk back home if she needed to, or find some way to call Erardo, anything to be away. She could endure no more of having Byanca at her heels.

Blinded with rage she scarcely paid attention to her surroundings. In her haste to leave the lobby she shoved past a lady in a bright dress with a lot of ringlet curls and nearly knocked her to the floor. She pushed past and started out the door when she heard her cry out in anger.

“Watch where you’re going. Ugh!” She shouted, raising her fist at Salvatrice.

Salvatrice paid her no mind. She was probably just another spoiled noble brat.

She paid even less attention to a man in a hat and sunglasses crossing the door behind her just as she passed through the threshold and out the building. Such a combination of exhausting and frustration and misery — she was laid low. Feeling the weight of everything too acutely now to continue, she gathered up her skirt and sat at the edge of the steps. There were a handful of people on the steps and door. Thinking of their gazes on her made her feel foolish.

To hell with them. She started to weep. Oh, dearest Carmela; why was nothing easy?

Then in the midst of working down the urge to shout, she heard a loud crack behind her.

It was a gunshot. Someone was shooting in the lobby just a few meters away from her.

Unbidden, Byanca came to mind — she was back there; was she in the middle of this?

Suddenly the doors opened, and she saw the same man running past. His hat flew off his head and his shades fell in the hurry, as he shoved his way past a pair of bystanders. He was young, blond-haired, blue-eyed, sharp-eared. He had a long beige jacket and pants. He was Lubonin, he was ordinary. Nobody would have thought he was anything more than another student coming in for a book. But he had a gun in those hands. And judging by the screams, he had killed.

As he exited the building and found people around him he swung his gun wildly about.

“Nobody move! Don’t move god damn it! Just stay out of my way!” He shouted.

Everyone around the steps dropped to the ground and held up their hands. He was clearly distressed, and he had no control. He was looking every which way like a wild animal.

Salvatrice started to shake and sidle away helplessly. At any moment he could turn to her–

He twisted around and raised his hand, shooting into the glass pane on the lobby doors.

“Stay away or I’ll kill you!” He shouted. He shot wildly again, taking no time to aim.

A familiar voice replied, “I just want to talk to you, ok? You don’t have to do this.”

Byanca walked over the shattered glass, slowly going through the door, hands raised.

“Fuck you! Stop right there if you want to live, Blackshirt. If you weren’t a woman–“

Byanca stepped forward once more, smiling. “Hey now, come on, calm down here.”

Provoked, he stretched out his gun arm to her and she seized it, drawing the gun away from herself. In the next instant Byanca punched him in the face with such force that his head bobbed back and forth. His nose burst with blood, and his upper lip was blaring red.

Lightning quick, Byanca followed by snatching the gun from his limp hand. She pointed it back at him. He reeled away from her in intense pain, and knowing he was helpless, he fell to the ground writhing, like a fish ripped from water. He cried and he screamed and cursed.

One of the mildest things out of his rapidly swelling mouth was “royalist piece of shit.”

From the door a pair of guards appeared, bewildered, clubs shaking in their hands. They cast eyes around the scene. Byanca handed them the gun, and they grabbed hold of the injured gunman, shoving him face-first against a wall as they handcuffed him. Through the broken glass on the door Salvatrice saw the woman with the curls on the floor in a pool of her own blood.

Had she been targeted? Was she just the first person in sight of this man?

Byanca left the doorway and knelt beside Salvatrice, holding her shoulders, wide in the eyes.

“Are you hurt?” Byanca asked. She was breathing heavy, and suddenly red in the face.

“I don’t think so.” Salvatrice said, still sitting on the steps, unable to move or turn away.

“We should go, Salva,” Byanca urged. Without thinking, Salvatrice stood and followed her away from the library and downhill to the Grand Plaza. She felt like her mind had been left behind inside the lobby. Her mind was shocked blank, but her body was shaking and anxious.

* * *

They waited a few hours, and Erardo finally drove by and spotted them off the side of the road in the Grand Plaza. He apologized profusely, but Salvatrice held no ill will toward him. She amicably accepted his apologies and told him that they had a guest, who would sit in the back with her. She also told him to raise the soundproof pane between hers and driver’s side compartment. Such a thing was installed in all of the royal cars for privacy.

Erardo understood and promptly raised the thick black glass between himself and the princess’ plush red and gold seating in the back. Byanca got in the car, and Salvatrice followed.

Driving back to the Aquinas building, Salvatrice collected her thoughts and confronted Byanca.

“Was that supposed to happen?” She said sharply. “Did you know about that?”

“No! I had no idea. All the information I saw added up to the potential of an attack on the school and an attack on you; there’s been suspicious activity and sightings of subversive persons and strange radio traffic, but I couldn’t imagine that anyone would move this quickly.”

“Do you think that man is connected to the killings of nobles that have been happening?”

“I don’t know. He could have been disturbed, or specifically targeting that woman.”

“Well, I did pretty clearly hear him say ‘royalist piece of shit’ to you.” Salvatrice said.

Byanca averted her eyes. “Don’t tell anyone that. You’d be pulled into it as a witness.”

Salvatrice looked at her critically. She had not expected that response out of a legionnaire.

“I do not know what to think right now, Centurion Geta, about you or any of this.”

Byanca turned around and abruptly took Salvatrice’s hands into her own and locked eyes.

“Princess, I know that at large the Blackshirt Legion has earned your ire. I know that Legatus Tarkus is tasked with spying on you. But this isn’t about him. I want to earn your trust.”

“You’ve gone about it in an awful roundabout way.” Salvatrice said sarcastically. She pulled away her hands as though she touched something filthy. Some vicious part of her still wanted to cut Byanca, perhaps with good reason. “For starters, joining the Blackshirt Legion.”

“I tried out for the Knights and failed.” Byanca admitted, hands clasped together, staring down at her shoes again. She looked ashamed, as if she couldn’t face Salvatrice while saying that.

Salvatrice exhaled in a deep, weary sigh. Was she starting to feel sympathetic toward her?

“Listen, I know you think you and I have some connection, but we do not. I do not remember anything about you. I’m sorry if you thought this was your chance to show off to a Princess–“

Byanca raised her head and interrupted her. “I know I sound foolish; but I am not here to spy on you, I want to protect you. You are in danger and I do not want you to be hurt, or worse!”

She stared deep into Salvatrice’s eyes and her expression was pathetic, pleading. She raised her hand to her forehead in a salute, her eyes turning moist. A crying Blackshirt? Messiah defend. The Princess rubbed her temples and grit her teeth. The Blackshirt Legion were her mother’s loyal guard, her enforcers, an army more her own than the Knights or the Regulars. Whenever Salva thought herself free these were the people who reminded her she was not. They read her mail, they taped her phone calls, they sent people to track her if she was not seen in school, to fetch her if her mother needed to appear in person to pretend that she cared.

She was sure they would do worse if they found out anything more than they knew.

And yet, Salvatrice was afraid and frustrated. There were things happening in her country that she had no knowledge of and no way of influencing. She could have been killed once already. Had the terrorists known the princess of Lubon was in attendance at the Previte’s party, more than just the front gate would have been blasted open and there would have been nothing she could have done about it. She was not ready then — but she could be ready in the future.

Centurion Geta could protect her, perhaps. But more importantly she could be the gateway to something. Salvatrice slowly convinced herself. Perhaps if she could use Byanca–

“Give me your word right now,” Salvatrice said, before she was even done thinking over the situation, “that you will swear yourself to my service. I am Princess Salvatrice Vittoria, first in line to the throne. You knew that, didn’t you, Blackshirt? You know about Clarissa.”

Byanca put down her saluting hand and paid attention. “I discovered it all recently. Before today I did not even really know your location or status. But I’ve read a lot about Clarissa.”

Salvatrice paid no attention to those words or their implications, just to the confirmation.

“Then you know next to my mother I have the highest authority in this land. Someday I will be your Queen. Even if I am trapped in this school, stuck here right now; my birthright cannot be denied to me. So you will swear right now that you will work primarily for me. You report what I want you to, and you do as I say.” She felt furious just having to say those words.

Byanca was unmoved. She had the same brought-low, brokenhearted sort of strange expression that she had on before. “If it is the only way to gain your trust then I will swear it.”

“I don’t want to hear those equivocations!” Salvatrice said. “Have you no honor?”

Byanca looked foolish again. “I swear upon my honor to serve you alone, Princess.”

“What is it with you and these weak oaths? Who do you think you are you cretin? You have confirmed you have no honor, you slime, you lackey, you filth! Swear upon something valuable to you!” Salvatrice shouted. “Swear upon more than your life, right now!”

“I swear upon you, Princess Salvatrice Vittoria. To serve you alone.” Byanca said.

There was silence in the back of the car. Sealing their strange covenant both parties averted their eyes to their respective windows. Salvatrice wracked her brain. Byanca Geta. She still couldn’t figure out who this was. So many homes, so many faces; her life had been such chaos. It still was chaos right now in its own bizarre way. How could anyone remember any of it?

A Pulse In The Ruins — Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains scenes of violence, death, fleeting graphic violence, mild body horror, psychological and existential distress, and suicidal ideation.

* * *

Across Ayvarta rushed the grey tide. From the bordering nations of Mamlakha and Cissea, once a part of the same land, the grey tide charged Shaila and Adjar. It turned along the curve of the Kucha, capturing Tambwe and Dbagbo on its sides, headed east, northeast, to the red sands, to Solstice. The Grey Tide snuffed out the fires lighting the beacon of socialism.

Aster, Hazel, Postill, Lilac, Yarrow, gone. It was done. The Grey men won.

Ayvarta turned grey, and the grey men marched in their uniforms. From then on it was all pickaxe and plow for the red people. Coldly they were watched as they toiled until they died. Iron for the factories, grain for the tables, gold for the coffers, oil for the burners, thousands of miles away in the land of frozen hearts. Disunited the world watched them.

But wealth was not eternal. Over a hundred years the plow would hit rock and the pick would find no more rock to hit. Coffers dried of yellow gold and the black gold no drew from the coffers. Again the grey men would march. At first it would be with honeyed words. Requests, exchanges, fair trades, free markets, supplies and demands; backed by a diplomacy of unquenchable thirst on one side and helpless desperation on the other.

There was no longer one red people. Everything looked red to the grey.

Every nation had something they wanted. Lubon, Hanwa, Kitan, Svechtha, Helvetia, Higwe, Manarah, Bakor, Borelia, Occiden — after Ayvarta, the eyes would turn to them.

At first with honeyed words. “You have things we desire. Give them to us.”

But what was desired could never be given fairly or peacefully. 

Grey uniforms, marching, marching, told the world needs more picks and plows.

On would the grey tide go. Bombs fell before them that exploded like earthbound suns, mobile fortresses like battleships on land crushed whole cities, planes that covered the globe in the blink of an eye subjugated all resistance, tanks impregnable to weaponry rolled over the new plowers, the new pickers. From one land to the next until they were all grey.

Such was the way. Wealth clamored for wealth. Power needed power.

And then what? Once the wealth was drawn and the power had gone?

She could see no more of it. She did not want to. It could not happen.

 

13th of the Postill’s Dew, 2008 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice, Sarahastra District Hospital

Several days since the Ayvartan Revolutionary Declaration

Outside the room door the nurse pleaded for her patient to be left alone. She informed the unannounced visitors that the patient was not doing well, that the fighting in the streets had her skittish, and that she was vulnerable and needed rest because of her chronic condition. The Hospital was unaffiliated, she said, and they wouldn’t allow access to patients to either side of the conflict. In her eyes they were all the same, she went on to say, thugs, murderers–

Kimani grabbed the nurse and brandished a pistol, pressing the barrel to her temple.

“I’m not asking for your political opinion; I am demanding you move aside now.”

Weeping and choking with sobs, the nurse nodded slowly and unlocked the door.

Kimani nodded toward the hallway, where someone else had been watching the scuffle. Her companion approached, a tall and slim child in worker’s overalls, a boy’s long button-down shirt and a red beret too large for her head. Kimani was about 1.9 meters tall, a head taller than the nurse; for an 8 year-old Madiha was tall at 1.5 meters. She was almost the nurse’s size.

Madiha passed the two of them, turned the door knob, and peeked inside.

Silently she looked over her shoulder and nodded her head affirmatively to Kimani.

“Go in.” Kimani said. She released the nurse, who hurtled down the hall in fear.

They had reached their objective, but their time was running out. They hurried inside.

From the bed, a shriek. “Messiah defend me; a demon assails me in this dark hour!”

Madiha averted her eyes from the bed, rubbing her upper arm in discomfort. She was silent. Kimani rubbed her left temple in frustration. She walked past the bed and looked out the windows. Madiha could hear the rifles up the block, pow pow pow.  Just by craning her head a little she could see the streaks of smoke across the sky. All around the city there was smoke and death and gunfire. She had caused some of it — a crucial sum, in fact.

On the bed the woman thrashed away from the visitors, covering herself with her sheets. She had lost all of her hair, and her eyes looked sunken. Her complexion was paler than ever, and her Ayvartan was more difficult to understand through her accent and through the slurring of her voice, probably a result of painkilling drugs. She seemed to be wasting away.

“I’m not a demon, Sister Benedicta. I’m Madiha, Madiha Nakar. I want to ask you–“

Sister Benedicta lashed out. “You are! You are a demon! From the moment I saw you I knew! I knew you had been wrought by the devil herself! From your skin to your eyes!”

Kimani returned from the windows, hands over her eyes with exasperation.

“We don’t have time for this, but she won’t talk if I thrash her anyway.” Kimani said.

“Yes, please do not thrash her. Or anybody else if you can help it.” Madiha said. She had become very eloquent for a child over the past year. Reading tough newspapers and books, to understand socialism, had done a lot for her speech. But she was still a child — she still looked at sister Benedicta with helplessness. This was a person who had always wielded immense power over Madiha, and still did. She still held something precious, too precious to strike her down for her sins, but so precious she would always withhold it for its power.

“Does she even know?” Kimani said. “Maybe she has no idea, Madiha.”

“I know she knows.” Madiha said. She sighed. She had gladly gone to chase after this ghost, but now she understood. “But she’s not going to say it, because she knows it hurts me.”

From the bed sister Benedicta smiled, an evil, cruel smile. “For all anyone knows or cares it was the devil that made you child! It’s the devil that controls you! You brought the devil to a place of worship and you brought it to this city, and you cast God out of this city, and you ended God’s enlightenment and blessing here, and that is why your people kill each other on the streets! The Good Lord who gave His flesh so we would be free of sin, and you spat in His face!”

Kimani grit her teeth and nearly raised her pistol to the nun, but Madiha held on to her arm, so that she would not shoot her. She grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the bed and toward the corner, and though Kimani was much stronger than her, she allowed herself to taken. Madiha was certain that she would have shot otherwise. She had already shot a lot of people today — and yesterday, and the day before. It was becoming easy and routine. It was more frequent than Madiha ever thought it could be. All of the adults around her were whipped into a mute fury, and in Madiha this manifested only as a skittish fickleness.

Certainly she had wanted to come here. She had convinced Kimani to take her from the safety of the compound, into the fighting streets, and out to this hospital, when they learned that a sister from Madiha’s old orphanage was here, one that might know. But seeing her in this state, and seeing the city in this state, and Kimani in this state; Madiha’s problems and questions looked so small. She just wanted to get back to her comrades in the compound now.

“Madiha, I don’t want to let this demagogue hurt you any longer.” Kimani said.

“She’s a sad old woman who is all alone and it doesn’t matter.” Madiha said.

“It matters! You have a right to know. I thought you wanted to.” Kimani said.

“I thought I wanted to know too.” Madiha said, avoiding Kimani’s eyes.

“Couldn’t you peer into her mind? Couldn’t you pry her head for your answers?”

Holding her hand tight the child shook her head despondently. “I could potentially search her mind for it, but to do so I would have to endure all the hatred she feels too.”

Kimani rubbed her free hand down her face again. Madiha slowly let go of the other.

“Shacha and Qote are going to be quite annoyed with me for this. I put you in danger.”

“I’ll talk to them. Sorry I roped you into this. It was silly. I’m being really stupid.”

Sister Benedicta watched the two of them with trepidation while they spoke. Finally she let out a hollow, croaking laugh. “Oh the fire of God is coming child! You and your barbaric horde will be brought low by the flame! You turned from his light, and now taste the inferno!”

Madiha looked at the laughing, screaming nun in terror, and she saw past her, through the window; a pillar of smoke and fire rose up toward the heavens in the distance.

“Chinedu! Is that–“

“The Prajna!” Kimani shouted in disbelief. “They fired the Prajna! How, at what–“

This was all the time that God or whoever gave them on the surface of Aer. In the next instant the earth shook, the building rumbled. The 800mm shell of the Imperial Prajna supergun had soared through the sky with a trail of fire, and crashed through the roof of the Sarahastra hospital. Had the structure been any smaller, certainly everyone inside would have been annihilated instantly. But the district hospital was a mammoth of concrete, and the massive shell only split the building in half. Prajna’s shell impact was like an earthquake and the burst shattered every window, cracked every floor and threw everyone off their feet.

When the shell hit Madiha felt the shaking, and her vision blurred, and she lost all control of her body. Walls cracked, the roof collapsed, Sister Benedicta was crushed screaming in her bed, the floor crumbled, and then Madiha fell, soaring through the massive, ruined gap, through the smoke, as the hospital’s twin halves settled away from one another like a poor carve cut out of a large cake. She felt nothing, and saw nothing. She was suspended in a void.

She would not see anything again for years, not as herself. But in that instant she had fleeting vision — she saw through the eyes and the mind of Chinedu Kimani.

Kimani had fallen against the door during the quake and the burst. Much of the room had gone — a wedge shape across half of it had sunk into the slope of debris that became the cleavage between the building’s halves. She was in terrible pain, as though her body had been put in a bag and viciously crushed. Not one bit of her seemed to have gone unscathed, but she was not bleeding, and nothing felt broken. Blearily she moved her legs, her arms. She was not dead.

She grabbed the door knob and pulled herself up to a stand. The Hospital had sunk toward its side, and the once flat floors were laid at an angle. Sister Benedicta’s bed was gone with the wall and much of the floor, all open to the air. Kimani saw the street, pockmarked with mortar craters and a handful of bodies; the sky, streaked with smoke. Across the gap where the building split, she saw its other half, the rooms laid open, survivors crawling and scampering away, and the dead lying and dangling. She inched her way to the room’s new edge.

Atop a steep hill of debris below she saw Madiha, thrown over the remains of the nun’s bed.

There was blood on her, over her peaceful face, over her little chest, on her still hands.

“Madiha.” Kimani said, but she did not voice the words. Her lips moved but there was nothing above the sound of fire and the wind and the sifting of dirt and the shifting of debris. Her heart quickened, and her breath left her. Her mind was battered by hundreds of images of this girl, barely eight or nine years old (she did not know exactly). Madiha screwing her eyes up while reading difficult papers; Madiha taking time out of her deliveries to ask if hot and cold formed a dialectic; Madiha, eyes white hot with rage, the world stirring around her presence.

She had gone through so much, too much, much more than any child should have — and every step of the way she affirmed that this was what she wanted. Everyone ahead of herself — everyone the equal, but put higher than herself. She was no demon. Just an odd child.

A crash; the door to the room finally collapsed. Kimani turned over her shoulder.

At the door, a man in a brown uniform and a cap approached. Both his shaking hands held a submachine gun — an automatic weapon the Imperials had purchased in small quantities from Lubon, like a small rifle that loaded many rounds from a vertical magazine atop the bolt group. Judging by that weapon he was one of the Imperial Guard, but he was young, probably a cadet in an ill fitted uniform. He stood at the doorway, standing slanted toward the right.

“Don’t move, communist!” He shouted. “Come closer with your hands up!”

“Don’t move, or come closer?” Kimani said, her eyes wide, her lips quivering.

He grit his teeth and approached, his weapon up to his face, rattling in his iron grip.

“Don’t move!” He shouted. “I’m going to disarm you! You are under arrest!”

He took tentative steps forward, eyes scanning the room through the iron sights, obscuring by the magazine. Kimani raised her hands; and hurtled toward him, shoving his gun against his face and away from her. She seized his belt and drove his own knife through his head.

She stared down at his body, breathing quickened, livid. Her hands shook with rage.

Kimani took the guard’s weapon and his ammunition and charged out of the room. She had to get lower — out in the adjacent hallway a pair of men in imperial uniforms stopped suddenly upon seeing her thrust out of the room, and coldly she raised her carbine, slid to a knee, and opened fire, holding down the trigger while the bolt on her gun flailed, and the bullets sprayed from the barrel. Both men hardly recognized her appearance before automatic fire punched through their chests and bellies, and they clutched their wounds and dropped to the floor, flopping like dying fish. Kimani picked the explosive grenades from their belts and ran past.

These were not mere policemen — imperial grenades were blocks of explosive in a can and would have set ablaze any suspects and any kind of evidence. This was a purge.

Two floors worth of stairs had been crushed together like layers on a flattened cake, and a hole leading to a steep slope of piled up staircase rubble was the only way down. Downstairs she heard a commotion and though she could not see anything in the dark hole below, she knew more men were coming. She pulled the pins and threw the grenades down the slide, taking cover behind what was left of a balustrade. She counted and closed her eyes.

Twin explosions, gouts of flame rose up the hole; a series of screams confirmed her suspicions. Kimani leaped down the hole, and her feet hit the rubble and slipped out from under her, and she rolled roughly down onto a bed of men concussed and burned by the grenades. Her whole body ached, but she picked up her gun from the floor, attached a new magazine atop the bolt group from the belt of a dying officer, and pushed on. They didn’t matter; she didn’t matter.

Kimani didn’t know how many floors down she was, but she found out soon enough — running from the slope’s landing, she shoved through a broken door, into a room full of dazed patients. Like Benedicta’s room, their wall was open to the air. She rushed to the edge.

She saw Madiha again, still unmoving, at peace, her little mountain a dozen meters below.

She saw a dozen men further below her, combing through the rubble, climbing the mound, standing at the foot of the slope where it had overtaken the street and road. All were men in imperial uniforms. Several more rushed through the street and into the building, pistols and automatic guns and shotguns in hand, yelling orders and shoving around any unlucky survivors they encountered. There was probably a whole platoon of officers involved.

Silently, Kimani took a knee near a piece of wall, large enough to shield most of her from any fire coming from below. From her pack she withdrew a flare gun and aimed for the sky above the street below. She fired, discarded the weapon, and as the bright green flare burst into a flash under the cloudy sky, she peered from cover and opened fire on the men below.

Firing in controlled bursts, Kimani raked the men climbing around the rubble with bullets, moving from target to target. At first they stared in rapt confusion at the flare, but when the bullets opened on them they each went their own way, hitting the dirt, leaping from the slope, rushing to the remnants of the walls opposite her perch; but none of them fast enough.

Four bullets on a man, pause, scan, four bullets on another; just moments apart, grazed and perforated and pricked, none able to escape. Six men went down in a vicious succession, knees and shoulders and arms bleeding, hit wherever Kimani could first hit them. Her element of the surprise now spent, she ducked behind the rubble, heat wafting up from her barrel.

Bullets from below struck the concrete at her back, and men started screaming for backup.

Kimani dumped her magazine and set it aside with few bullets left. She attached a new one. Six men down, six left on the street. Below her, the slope of rubble spread out over the street and onto the road, and here the men had been stationed in the middle of the street at the foot of the rubble-strewn mound. All of these men were now likely shooting and screaming at her.

She saw bullets going past her into the room, and compacted herself as much as possible. She felt chips of concrete flying over her and saw dust kicked up. Every officer on the street had zeroed on her perch and were emptying their guns on it in fully automatic mode. She could scarcely count the rounds, and the lull between shooters was not enough to retaliate before a reload.

She grit her teeth and tried to count the bullets. She had to focus on this to survive.

Each of them had the same gun she stole — a Mitra 07. Thirty round magazines, she repeated to herself, and tried to feel all of the impacts, ignoring the jabs against her head and shoulders and limbs as the sprays of bullets sent fragments of rubble flying every which way. Mitra were inaccurate guns and the pistol caliber rounds lacked the punch to go through the concrete.

But she was focusing on another problem with the gun’s design. She counted and counted.

Sharp cracks started to issue from below, and the hail of gunfire abruptly slowed and stopped.

Kimani stood fully upright over her chunk of the wall and boldly resumed her attack on the men, pressing the trigger down and planting her feet, her upper half exposed. As though wielding a hot sword she slashed through the six men on the street with a furious wave of gunfire, perforating each man in turn by simply turning her waist and arms. Barrels smoking, magazines near empty and bolts jammed hard, the men fell aback with their useless guns clutched in dying grips.

Mitras clogged up easily. After fifty or sixty rounds you could expect the bolt to get stuck.

She cycled the bolt manually, ejecting a round through it. Wouldn’t do have it catch too.

Replacing her magazine, Kimani rushed along the ruined edges where the rest of the wall once stood, threw her gun down onto the hill, and she dropped, and skillfully dangled from the jagged cliff with both hands. She released herself as her momentum carried her against her half of the building, and landed on the remains of another floor below. She was at least 5 meters closer.

She could see Madiha quite well now. She was injured, unmoving, probably concussed, maybe even dead. Tears welled up in Kimani’s eyes. What would it have taken for Madiha to have a better end than this? Had she killed more people, planted more bombs, would it have made a difference? All she wanted to know was who her parents were — that was why she left the compound, why she went to face a woman who had tormented her through her whole life.

Madiha had seen and done many things but she had only been a girl. Ancestors damn it all.

There was no time for this. Kimani took a breath, and immediately she took off running. She leaped off the edge toward Madiha, arched her body, bent her knees; she hit the ground with her feet first and with gargantuan effort pushed herself to roll, diffusing the fall. But her roll smashed  her into a heap of rubble and she came to lie on her back, breathing heavily.

Her back felt split open, and she couldn’t stand. Kimani reached out her hand. Madiha was only centimeters out of her grasp. She struggled and struggled, feeling her shoulder burn. Her hand came to lie atop Madiha’s little fingers and she curled them. I’m sorry, she thought.

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t be what you needed. We couldn’t be.” Kimani whimpered.

She heard boots, and soon saw shadows stretching over her. She felt something press on her side, and then kick her over on her side. They forced her hand from Madiha.

“Take her to the garrison, she’ll know where their base is–“

As one the shadows turned, and there were shouts. There was a scramble, movement, gunfire.

When the shadows returned they were gentler.

“Lieutenant Kimani, ma’am, we came as fast as we could!”

It was her comrades, come fresh from the fighting upstreet.

“Spirits defend, Madiha’s very hurt! We need to take her back now!”

Kimani was too injured and exhausted to reply or to explain, and would not be able to supervise the actions of her subordinates. She gasped for breath and her consciousness wavered. Her vision went dark and in turn so did the last window that little Madiha, with her powers, had left into the world.

Madiha fell and fell and fell with no destination. She was gone from reality.

This connection severed, Madiha would go on to lie in a coma bed for two years and awaken in a new world. Ayvarta was won, socialism was slowly implemented. She would live, but despite the triumph of her allies it would be a long road for her. In the care of the state, a pubescent Madiha, her muscles wasted, speech gone, her precocious intellect eroded away, would go through several years of a new, painful childhood, out of which she would only return to her old healthy state at the tail end of her teenage years. She caught up in her education, found love, and moved on.

All of these things, and what happened before them, she would go on to forget. The Madiha known as Death’s Right Hand and The Hero of the Border would know only through hearsay and from the tellings of comrades that she performed heroically in the Civil War, that she spent years unmoving, and then years unable to speak coherently, years rebuilding her bodily health.

But to her these would be only legends and distant history, as if performed by a distant sibling. Thus there remained a strange, alien emptiness in her that she would struggle to fill.

What was a person, what truly was a person, other than a vessel for experiences?

What was a human while empty of history?

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, Southeast, Riverside

Batallon De Asalto “Drachen” advanced, overrunning the first and second lines in Umaiha. In the midst of the rain, under the rain of shells and rolling explosions, and against the ruthless advance of the Cisseans the Ayvartan lines broke down. While the Ayvartans hid behind defenses the Cisseans moved swiftly, squadrons advancing under effective covering fire, bounding across what cover could be gotten, swiftly and fearlessly charging through killing fields with smoke shells and suppressing artillery protecting them. Losses were inevitable, but the battalion exceeded Von Drachen’s expectations. They killed and scattered hundreds.

Von Drachen even had to call in Von Sturm’s security division and leave captives for them!

Cissean troops soon ran unopposed through the Umaiha riverside. A handful kilometers more and they would be in the next district, in time for the next phase of the battle. On each leg of the march, a preparatory bombardment from 3 guns pounded each block three times, just in case. But no more Ayvartan defenses seemed to move to challenge them.

His men were spoiling for a fight, growing confident. After the second defensive line folded, the Von Drachen Battalion advanced as a continuous charge more than an orderly march. It became difficult to call in preparatory bombardments when the line moved so fast.

“Don’t get too far ahead!” Von Drachen shouted into his radio.

Riding in the back of Colonel Gutierrez’s car, soaked in the rain, he raised a pair of binoculars and squinted his eyes, but no concerted effort could really show him what was transpiring across the river from him. He saw his troops charging ahead and started losing track of them. The Umaiha’s eastern side in the city was more thickly populated with big buildings that served as offices and factories, barracks and company shops, in its previous life as a corporate district for imperial heavy industry. There was a lot more infrastructure to stare at and weave through than in the western bank of the river. Even so the units there kept too much a lead on the units on Von Drachen’s side of the river, as though eager to win a race to the city center.

“They’re getting spirited!” Colonel Gutierrez said. He sat in the passenger’s side while his restless driver ferried them along the surging river. Von Drachen did not mind the waves, though the previous occupant of the car’s pintle mount had been killed by one.

“Spirit is good, but order would be better.” Von Drachen said ruefully.

“Ah, Raul, let them have their victory!” Colonel Gutierrez replied.

“Very well, but don’t call me that.” Von Drachen replied.

Von Drachen looked through his binoculars again. His bombardments raised thick plumes of smoke and dust in the blocks ahead of the march, blowing across the sky from the storm winds. They were difficult to see, and so were the men headed for them. Thick rain and the cover of light posts and balustrades and decorative plants turned the formations of his men into an indistinct charging mass that had a clear beginning nearest his slowly advancing car but no visible end. He craned his neck to stare at the slowly passing second and third stories. Many bore fresh scars from shells and mortars. Smashed windows, broken doors; chunks of roof and wall, or whole floors, collapsed under the punishment of a stray 15 cm shell.

Estamos cerca de el proximo puente, General,” said the driver. They were close to the bridge, one of the last in the southeast district. A few kilometers further the Umaiha would curve away out of the city interior and up along its side, and they would have a shot at the center.

“Keep moving at pace, stop only for contacts.” Von Drachen said. He put away his binoculars and procured his radio once again. “How are we doing on howitzer ammunition?”

He was cut off; the Umaiha stirred, and a wave crashed along the side of the car. Von Drachen held on to the gun mount, and his radio and binoculars were both thrown from his grip. It was like a wave of cement had struck him, and not water, it felt solid as a stone punch. Pulling off of the side of the river and toward the opposite street, the car stopped near a desolate little flower shop. Von Drachen leaped off the back, nonchalantly wiped himself down under the awning, and hailed a passing radio man. He took his backpack radio and sent him off.

Kneeling beside the pack, Von Drachen adjusted the frequency and power settings, and picked up the handset. On the other end his bewildered artillery crew asked if he was alright.

“I am fine, thank you for your concern. I was struck by unruly water.” He replied.

On the other end the crews expressed their hopes for his continued health and safety.

“Indeed, I am grateful. Now, what I wanted to ask: howitzer ammunition, how are we–“

A violent explosion in the east cut him off; and cut several dozen men worse.

Von Drachen’s vanguard on the eastern end of the river, two dozen men riding atop and alongside one of the Escudero tanks, marched along the street passing by an innocuous two-story state pharmacy straddling the riverside, shuttered and empty and presenting no immediate threat until its first floor violently exploded in a surge of glass, metal and concrete.

Fire and smoke burst through every orifice in the structure, consuming the men and the tank in heat and debris. Chunks of rubble flew across the street and over the river. For the men crossing astride the building death was certain; anyone within five meters was flung and burnt and battered with rocks, while out to ten and twenty meters the concrete and glass shrapnel, where not stopped by another building, cut and grazed and injured unprotected men. Dozens of men were killed, dozens more injured, and hundreds were given pause.

Its foundations annihilated, the top floor slid off in pieces and buried whatever was left of the lead men and their tank. Only the cupola on the smashed tank turret peeked above the mound of debris. At once the columns on both sides of the river lost all of their previous spirit.

Von Drachen sighed audibly and slammed down the radio handset.

“That was a demolition charge.” He said. “Gutierrez, car!”

At once Von Drachen lifted the backpack radio into the staff car and they drove ahead, the column making way for them. They stopped across the river from the blast site. There were dead even on their end of the river — Von Drachen saw a corpse lying nearby, a towel dropped over his head, thick with blood. Bloody chunks of rubble were strewn around him. Von Drachen seized a pair of binoculars and a hand radio from a nearby sergeant. Only the width of the river separated the bulk of his troops and he now saw them well enough despite the rain.

He peered around the area. They were close to the next bridge, leading to the old police station on their maps. Shells had smashed a lot of the locality — the police station had a hole blown open through its facade and roof. Two blocks down from the police station, the Cissean line stopped at the row of buildings ending in the smashed pharmacy, the remains of which blocked the riverside street. On the radio he ordered his men to climb over the mound in groups of six, engineers in the lead, in a bounding advance. Hauling a minesweeping rod, six engineers climbed the mound, and held at the top, waiting for six more men. They descended under the cover of the new arrivals; another group of six climbed, took position, and waited for the previous six to descend. Hastily his men formed up and started tackling the mound.

“Treat the locality as hostile.” Von Drachen warned them. “Someone had to be nearby to detonate those charges. Someone is watching you. They know that we are coming and they are out there. Watch the rooftops, windows, doorways and the higher stories.”

Across the river the men raised their hands to signal their acknowledgment. They moved cautiously, with the minesweeper at the fore, and a rifle pointed in every direction. One man kept his eyes forward; the minesweeper on the ground; two men covered the path upstreet once they crossed into the intersecting road; two more men watched the windows and roofs for movement. Ten meters behind them the next group of six men moved much the same.

Von Drachen turned to the men at his side. “From this bank, we shall organize a crossing of the bridge toward the police station. Have a dozen men move in first — if they cross and it is not a trap we move the tank next, and then more men a dozen at a time. Have everyone else stand at the balustrades and watch the other side of the river, providing covering fire.”

There was chatter on the radio. “General, nos encontramos con una mina!”

“Take care of it, carefully.” Von Drachen called. They had found a mine. Nochtish troops were equipped with bangalores that could clear minefields, but they had neglected to issue such things to their Cissean allies. “Ayvartans use old style pressure mines. You can pick it up and defuse it as long as you don’t trigger the plate atop. Wedge it out carefully.”

Peering across the river, Von Drachen watched as his men approached the mine and marked the area around it. One of his engineers used pair of thin metal tools to slowly and gently lift the mine from its position, probably made to appear as though a tile or a stone on the floor. They raised the object and eyed it suspiciously. They looked stupefied — Von Drachen saw them touching something attached to the mine and felt a growing sense of alarm.

Que hacen?” Von Drachen asked, raising his voice desperately. What are you doing?

One man raised his radio to his mouth. “General, la mina tiene un hilo–

Von Drachen’s engineers vanished behind a sudden flash — the mine detonated into a massive fireball and a cloud of smoke. Under the rain the fire turned quickly to gas. A crater was left behind, and the men had been blown to pieces. Boots and shards of equipment and flesh lay scattered around the hole. It was pure explosive; no fragments whatsoever, no finesse, just a block of explosives. That was no mine, they had picked up another demolition charge.

Urgently he called the rest of his men. “Hurry ahead, we can’t be certain when more charges will be detonated! There is no way to be safe but to close in right away!”

His men forgot the careful bounding, and each group of six took off running the moment they hit the ground on the other side of the mound. Some of them rushed up the connecting street to check the nearby buildings for demolitions personnel; most charged down the side of the river with abandon. Nothing exploded, nothing engaged. They crossed the street and huddled at next building across, a ration place just south of the bridge.

Farther ahead, on the bridge, the first group of twelve Cissean men crossed without a hitch. They signaled the tank, and it started crossing, testing first the bridge’s reaction to its weight before committing. Tracks ponderously turning, it inched across the flat brick bridge, the water rushing under it — and sometimes surging over it, causing the tank to pause momentarily.

Von Drachen took this opportunity and called his howitzer crews once more. “Remain in place. I may soon be calling for your support. What is our ammo situation like at the moment?”

Se nos estan acabando las cargas,his artillery officer responded. We’re running out of shells.

Von Drachen rubbed his own forehead. “Well that’s a pity, but how many, exactly, are left?”

On the bridge the tank was nearly across when the men shouted for it to stop. Several meters away a manhole cover budged open, and the men were quick to point their rifles.

At once the tank stopped. It pointed its cannon at the manhole and waited for orders.

Suddenly a pair of leather bags flew out from the manhole and landed at the soldier’s feet.

Von Drachen saw the events unfolding and switched channels immediately.

“Step away from them! Throw grenades down that hole!”

His men scrambled back toward the bridge, and cast their grenades into the manhole once safely away from the bags. Several bright flashes and loud bangs followed and smoke trailed up from the underground. There were several minutes of stand-off but the bags did not go off and nothing more was seen or heard of from the open manhole.

“Those bags are certainly a trap.” Von Drachen said. “Affix bayonets, hold your rifle as far out as you can manage, pick them up by the shoulder straps, and cast them into the river. Do not jostle them too much. Timed satchel charges would have gone off already so that can’t be it — the bags are probably rigged with grenades that will prime if you open the flap.”

Swallowing hard, a pair of infantrymen did as instructed, picking up the bags gingerly by the very tips of their bayonets, holding their rifles by the stock. They could hear things moving inside the bag — this they called back and Von Drachen felt he was right in his suspicions.

“Pitch the things away, and once they’re blown, I want men in that hole.”

Despite the raindrops across the lenses of his binoculars he saw the same odd glinting that his men did when they lifted the bags high enough. A wire, dripping with the rain.

In an instant both bags detonated, again in a bright, hot flash of fire. Demolition charges.

But the two explosions across the river were not isolated. Blasts rolled across the streets, buildings going off like a domino effect. Blasts erupted from buildings all along the column on the eastern side of the river, as far back as the two lines of buildings where the first tank had been lost. Rubble flew everywhere as seemingly the entire street across the river from Von Drachen was burnt and flung and smashed to pieces. Behind his men the ration store exploded; beside them the buildings nearest the ration shop went up into the air as well, and fell with the rain; and before them, the center of the bridge collapsed under the tank in a prodigious fireball. What remained of the vehicle slid backwards into the river and washed away downstream.

When the fires settled, there stood less than half the initial strength of the Cissean force, many swaying on their feet, ambling without direction along the ruined riverside street, some even falling off through the shattered balustrades and into the river. Of the survivors, half of them, perhaps a quarter of the four hundred men he had deployed, seemed to have their wits about them, and began to cross the streets and check for other survivors — and aggressors.

Von Drachen, covering his face with his hands, grumbled. “I hope that tank doesn’t clog anything up. Messiah defend, do these people not have access to mines or grenades?”

* * *

Engineer Ambushes

“Street blown, bridge blown, bags blown, buildings blown. Both their tanks are out. We have unfortunately gone through most of our heavy explosives in the process.”

Every flash of lightning seemed to scramble the audio, but they heard the voice on the other end clear enough. Sgt. Agni gave the order. “Engage the enemy from your positions.”

Submachine guns, pistols and shotguns in hand, the engineers gradually emerged, from the sewer tunnels, from the police station, and from within the rubble left behind the destroyed buildings. Huddling in the underground, they had set off charges, and maneuvered themselves into good positions where they could rise up and engage from behind newly strewn debris.

Gunfire commenced with a slug from a breaching shotgun, shot from inside the remains of the ration shop, and blowing apart the cheek and jaw of a man 40 meters away at the bridge.

Retaliation came immediately — a Cissean man threw a grenade through the slanted, ruined remains of the ration shop window. It soared over the engineer’s cover, and it clinked down onto the floor behind him. In a split second reaction the engineer hit the dirt, and the grenade went off, scattering fragments across the interior of the ruin.

No more was heard from him. But there were still dozens ready to fight in his place.

Across the river rifles started to crack against the empty ration shop. Everyone took the sudden death of the rifleman as evidence of a sniper, and became distracted. While the Cisseans unloaded on the ration shop, engineers appeared further upstreet from sewers and ruin tunnels, and hurried to fighting positions closer to the enemy. They hid inside building ruins and behind the piles of debris. Within moments of the ration shop being cleared, they attacked.

Bullets suddenly rained on the Cisseans in the eastern side of the river, pummeling the balustrades from within a hundred meters. Engineers fired long, careless bursts, taking little time to aim. It was all fire for effect, and their aim was to draw the enemy away from the police station. Ayvartan forces concentrated on both sides of the line of buildings that sat across the street from the station. Around the demolished ration shop and its adjacent structures, submachine gunners sprayed the Cisseans by the river and near the bridge ruins.

There were men everywhere disoriented from the blasts, and they were easily picked off by the lashing trails of bullets. Men with sense left in them rushed away from the open street, and the remnants of the column thus split into two — everyone farther north huddled near the bridge and in the shadow of the police station, while the remaining Cisseans were pinned near the corpse of their first lost tank. Their ability to fight back on the eastern of the river was limited. Previous demolitions insured that their cars would find no opportunity to flank the Ayvartans, and to deploy their other heavy weapons they would need to expose themselves. Trickles of men bounded through the ruins of the Pharmacy, looking to flank, but found themselves trapped by the length of the Ayvartan column, and easily rebuffed.

Heavy fire started to pick up from the more populated western side of the river. Machine guns and mortars fired desperately across the river but to little avail. Ayvartan engineers kept themselves well-concealed in the rubble. They fired from around mounds of debris or between gaps in still-standing walls, and easily avoided retaliation by ducking or backing away. Mortar shells failed to shatter the engineers’ cover, and many exploded uselessly in the open street.

Automatic gunfire could not penetrate the rubble or accurately target the gaps, and in the rain the Cissean rifle troops were visibly poor marksmen. All the men close enough to throw explosives had been forced into hiding. Both sides settled into a stalemate, exchanging fire and expending ammunition but hitting nothing. The Von Drachen Battalion’s options to terminate the impromptu strongholds in the eastern side of the river were growing limited.

Limited, but not entirely nonexistent, proven when the 15 cm shells began to fall.

It had been the hope that pushing close to the enemy column would increase their reluctance to unleash their heavy artillery, but it had been a fleeting hope. Heavy shells started to crash around the eastern riverside in short intervals, pummeling the street, flattening the ruins and casting into the air the mounds of debris. The engineers hunkered down and waited out the bombardment. It was not the explosions that killed, but the shifting rubble. Several men and women were concussed and buried and crushed as the shells blasted rocks around.

But they accomplished their goal — none of the shells threatened the police station.

While the engineers dug in as best as they could in the rubble, across the bridge the Cisseans moved pair of mortars closer to the bridge and loaded an odd pair of shells into it. Suppressed by artillery the engineers barely spotted the mortars and could not figure out their unique significance until the shells crashed on the other side of the river — and stretched a series of steel cables across. Minutes later, under waning gunfire from suppressed engineers and safely away from their own bombardments, Cisseans started crossing the fallen bridge.

* * *

Sergeant Agni walked in circles around the unmoving body of Major Madiha Nakar, rubbing her own lips and chin, thinking through the events. A simple engineering survey had become a sudden crisis. As she and the Major drove around the Umaiha earlier in the day, unbeknownst to them a lightning-fast and incredibly well-coordinated Cissean attack smashed past their defenses one after the other, making a distressing amount of progress. Artillery and heavy weapons were systematically deployed to suppress and overrun every Ayvartan position.

It was unlike any attack the Ayvartans had faced so far, and unlike every attack they believed the Cissean forces capable of launching. This felt like what Nocht’s attacks should have been. There was carnage across the line, communications between the line corps was utterly foregone in the scramble. Laggard forces awoke far too late to effectively defend themselves, and were smashed past, and either killed, sent running, or forced to surrender in a panic.

Before anyone knew what was happening, the Engineers were stuck guarding the old police station along the Umaiha Riverside. Unluckily for them, the Cissean’s 15 cm sporadic rolling barrage had, of all the things it could have hit, smashed the ceiling right over Madiha. Though Agni had managed to free much of Madiha’s upper body, her lower body was not pinned by debris, but by a solid piece of concrete roof. She was not crushed — smaller rubble wedged under the slab kept much of the pressure and weight off Madiha, but her legs were still pinned hard under it. Sergeant Agni ran through the options in her head, her pulse quickening.

To make matters worse none of the radios available to her seemed able to reach Army HQ.

She had told Madiha that she would bring her back safely and she would fulfill that objective. It was not merely a matter of loyalty or strategic convenience. It was something she wanted to do. As personal as it could be for her, this was a personal errand. She had to succeed.

Sergeant Agni was a KVW Engineer. She had the crisis training. Fear was not a powerful thing to her. She felt it — everyone always felt it. It didn’t go away. But it didn’t stop her, it didn’t hurt her like it did before. Other people allowed it to paralyze them; Agni was never overwhelmed by fear. Conditioning, special drugs, sensory deprivation, hypnotic suggestion, noise exposure: a battery of tests and therapies removed from her those feelings. She had been told, during a lecture, that shaking was a response by the body — the mind wanted the body to go fetal, to curl up and feel safe, and the shaking signified your struggle against those urges. Agni never shook; her body categorically refused to go fetal. She lacked those urges.

But her heart beat faster. Her fingers rubbed quickly against her chin and lips, satisfying an impulse to fidget. Excess energy; it was going somewhere. She was told this was natural. Was it as natural as wanting to go fetal? More? She supposed the conditioning wasn’t perfect.

Rejecting impulse, gaining clarity, emptying the mind of terrors; those were some of her reasons to join the KVW, to take the crisis training, to lose feeling. Everyone had reasons. Nobody was brainwashed. People thought it was magic. Maybe it was.

At first it felt like it. It felt like magic to be able to focus. To be able to think clearly.

Now, however, it felt like a curse. She kept walking, kept thinking. But to no avail.

Try as she might Agni could not escape the logic that her mind was settling on. She had no compulsion to reject the most straightforward, achievable solution to her problem. Had there been no urgency she might have tried a substandard but appeasing solution. Under pressure, however, she could think of only one solution, recurring horribly in her mind.

She would have to risk blowing off Madiha’s legs to save her.

“I’m going to need a satchel charge.” She called out. “Without getting a tank or a tractor in here, the only way to remove this thing is to smash it into smaller chunks.”

Outside what was left of the lobby, an engineer standing guard brought a bag and handed it to the Sergeant. His eyes wandered across the room where the Major was trapped.

“How is the situation outside?” Sergeant Agni asked.

“Cisseans have effected a crossing. Their artillery has subsided and they have begun to push forward in numbers. Our column between the blocks is making it painful.”

“How many casualties have we incurred so far?”

“Less than them.”

“Keep the teletanks in reserve. We will need them to have a chance to escape.”

“Yes ma’am.” He eyed the satchel. “Are you sure you want to use that?”

“Yes.” Sergeant Agni answered simply.

“It may hurt the Major.”

“I know that better than anyone.” Agni said. Thanks to the lack of feeling in her voice, this statement sounded almost polite, though she meant it to sound definitive.

She opened the satchel. Inside was a block of explosive material. Carefully she cut a smaller piece off the larger explosive block, and picked the detonating mechanisms out of the satchel, affixing them to the small piece. She laid this mechanism atop the slab trapping the major.

“I’m not a believer, so if you are, you should pray.” Sgt. Agni said to the guard.

She did not really know the Major and did not think she could be a friend. How did one cross that threshold between mere person and friend? Agni did not know, but she felt Madiha was a valued comrade, and knew that she wanted to ease that pain and vulnerability that Madiha had clumsily shared with her before and that she had clumsily responded to. All of the logic of her mind pointed to the fact that she could not possibly have left her behind to die.

Feeling had been lessened, but not totally lost to her. Faith, she hadn’t ever had before. Filled both with feeling and a longing for faith, Agni primed the charge and took cover.

 

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

This was a place outside the contention of human senses. To the sight it was simply a void, but it felt populated by much more than could be seen or felt. Speech took on a different form here, where something said could carry content far outside the literal. Thought was difficult; she felt as though every word she said in her mind to conceptualize a feeling was contested by a dozen others, as though a shouting match. It was difficult to convey simple concepts, and nothing seemed straightforward. Certainly this felt like her innermost reaches should feel — she felt cold but safe, in a familiar space that was forbidding and smothering all at once.

All at once, however, she coalesced — and something left her.

There appeared in this void two forms. One was her own body, or the thing she could most closely conceive of as a body. It had little definition to it. She did not possess the tall, lean, strong form that she remembered having. There were insinuations of it, such as the outline of her dark, symmetrical and straight neck-length hair style, her thin nose and lips; her strong shoulders, the outline of her breasts, her trunk, hips; but much of it was as though vaguely sketched, hollow, as though a gel that could be seen through. She was ephemeral, vulnerable. A strong wind could scatter her form and reduce her to a cloud of gas.

Across from her, was a smaller but infinitely stronger presence, fully materialized.

It was Madiha as an eight year old child, at the time of the Prajna attack in 2008.

“We should not be here. It should have been over. Please cease this struggle.”

Child Madiha was speaking. Her voice was so strong she felt she would be blown apart.

But the other Madiha could not speak. Her mouth could not move. She could not reply and tell her that it was not her who was struggling, not her who had to be spoken to. She was more than ready to vanish. Her entire existence hung on by the tiniest thread.

“You are nothing but a fabrication to extend a farce. I’m what is real; the true self that was hidden. I’m your power, your strength, your blood, your flesh — in short, your purpose. We had a purpose, once, and we do not anymore. It is time to be gone.”

She wanted to scream at the Child and tell her to finish it already but she couldn’t.

“We were supposed to die, back then, because our influence on the world had been felt. Violence can be transformative, but the perpetrator is a tainted thing, a broken instrument.”

She taunted her, spoke right in her ear, and there was no defense against it. She was helpless toward this child with burning eyes and a cutting tongue. Not a word could be said back to her.

“Let us make good on history. Let us be gone and be free. That is our purpose. It’s in the blood. Blood in our veins, and in our hands. Tainting us. There’s no escaping it without ending it.”

Madiha felt completely helpless. She could not respond, she could not escape.

Silently she cried out for someone, for anyone, to please quiet this all.

Something else left her — she felt a piece, a tiny piece, cut from her.

Across from both her and the speaking Child Madiha something formed.

It was another Madiha. She was in uniform. Child Madiha was tall for her age; at 8 years old she was already 150 centimeters. When the uniformed Madiha stood up to the child she was over 30 centimeters taller, and seemed almost to tower over her. There was a look in her face filled with defiance and anger. She scared the ephemeral Madiha, the formless, helpless onlooker. Who was this? This was not who she wanted. She felt trapped between two horrible beings now. None of them could just give her the escape that she desired. None of them could finish this mess.

“I am not broken.” Uniformed Madiha said. She had a powerful voice. It resonated across the space.

Child Madiha was not impressed with her. She kept speaking, almost as if still into the ears of the ephemeral Madiha. “Our time has passed. We should have died then. We have no future now.”

“You’re the only one without a future. We continued to make something of ourselves.”

“You stole from others to construct a facsimile. You were never anything. Without a past you don’t have a present or a future. You have only what you took. It is time to pay for that.”

“We were not born into the world to collect images and sounds. None of that matters in the end.” Uniformed Madiha snapped back. “We are people and people are born for more than that!”

The Child Madiha spread her lips in a smile, baring sharp, shining teeth.

“We were born to kill, conquer, and die. We counter the stagnation that occurs at the end of an era and prevent the world from freezing to a halt. We did our part. We fought our war, the war we were destined for, just like the stories. We won and we were meant to be gone. Our existence after that is a burden. The Revolutionary must die so the innocents can have a world at peace, for a time. Can you imagine a world after a war, where all the soldiers still live, still thrash and struggle with the fight in their hearts? That is why you must lie now, never to awaken.”

“I reject that. I’ve already told you that we are more than all of that.” The Uniformed Madiha replied. From the sidelines the Ephemeral Madiha started to choke up and to weep. She felt like she was melting. This intensity was a lot to bear. “We are more than soldiers and killers.”

“We are not people. People build, monsters destroy. Which one have we been?”

“What do you think we’ve been doing? What have you been seeing all this time?”

“What have you ever built that can make up for all that you’ve destroyed? You are not needed to build; nobody asks your kind what kind of a world you wish to have. There is nothing to you but the fight, the clawing and the bleeding. You were born out of violence and it roots into you. You thirst for it. That is why you can’t stay out of the fire and dust. Why you must die!”

“Now you are just talking past me. Who even are you?” Uniformed Madiha shouted. “You are not one of us at all! Why are you in here? Who allowed you to speak on our behalf?”

Child Madiha ignored the outburst. “It is in our blood to kill and to destroy. We are marred by it. Why do you think we have this power? We used it before. We killed and ruined. We said it was for a cause, but did we ever have a real choice? We acted like animals following instinct.”

Between the circling combatants, the other Madiha curled up and closed her ears. But she could not drown out the fighting. Everything they said was wired directly through to her brain.

“This is not in my blood. I was not born to this. It will not pass from me to another Nakar. It is not a name, and it is not a bloodline. It is not about heredity. I deny all of that — it is a role, a responsibility. This is from my people and for my people; it exists to protect our community. That is why what we have been doing, to the best of our ability, can only be called building.”

Uniformed Madiha started to look clearer to the Observer Madiha, and she herself started to become less Ephemeral; but that Child Madiha was turning dusty, like a poor TV picture.

The Child Madiha spoke ever more viciously, her fangs sharper. “You do not control this; history is against you. History has set your path, and you will follow. You cannot defy the terms.”

“We will make it different then. We will defy that mandate of history.” Madiha said.

“It does not work that way! Words have meaning! It is in your biology! You are different! You are a monster! You have no power here to make the rules! This is a place of blood and flesh. You will kill, conquer and die, because it is your inheritance. It is what your betters passed to you!”

“That consensus is an imposition upon us and I do defy it. I defy you.” Madiha replied. “You are not us, not even a part, and certainly not the whole. You are some antiquated thing. This is a new era, and that is why we can shape it. We can shape the terms. You are an intrusion.”

“I am the greater part of you! What do you have other than me? You are alone!”

Now, it was the Uniformed Madiha’s turn to smile and reveal her fangs. “We have her. We have the real you — we found her again. You cannot haunt me anymore. We know everything.”

Uniformed Madiha made a pulling motion toward the formless Madiha, toward the onlooker.

Though the onlooker struggled to get away, thinking that the touch would be the most agonizing experience, she felt the gloved hand seize her by the arm. There was no pain. Her grip was not malicious. It was the gentlest touch she had ever felt — it was not a seizing of her arm. That had only been her fear, her projection. The Uniformed Madiha stroked her shoulders, and knelt down to look her in the eye, and embraced her, firmly and affirmingly.

She was not ephemeral and she was not formless, not anymore. She was Madiha at age 7, a tall, precocious, strange child with no place to be and seemingly nothing to live for, but who took steps to the world of the adults, and who fought, in every way that she could, in ways that defied all reason, that defied the bleak future that had been ordained for her. She wept with the realization that she had never died and she had never gone. She had always been the one in control. She had always been herself. She was not lost. She was not something other.

Always, she had been Madiha Nakar, and that had always meant something.

She was not born for an endpoint. She was born to be; and she was. She always was. And she was not merely things she took from others. Because they “took” too. They all shared, through joy and through sorrow. All of it had made her unique onto her own.

None of it was blood; none of it was clay. It was a chorus, pulsing through the ruins.

Madiha Nakar. Even if the memory was lost, and even if the future blurred.

Across from her the other child lost her face. She became an outline carved into the void.

Her voice was completely lost, because Madiha had regained all of her own.

“It has never mattered what we were back then, and we never lost anything there that could not be regained.” Uniformed Madiha said. She was in tears; Child Madiha was in tears as well. “We were not born solely to die or solely to kill. Nobody is; we had the agency to do what we did and to choose what we want. It is not blood. Back then what we wanted was to lash out against the brutality and injustice that we saw. That was important to us. But we are more than that moment in time. We are more than the mere scope of time. We are everything we build.”

The Observer Madiha, Child Madiha, who had been taken and co-opted, regained her voice.

“Thank you. I understand. And right now, we want to survive.” Child Madiha replied.

Uniformed Madiha smiled and looked upon her with tearful gratitude.

“Yes. Thank you.” She said. She stood, and took the child’s hand. “Let us go.”

Hand in hand with herself, Madiha left the void of her anxieties more complete than she had entered it. She knew now everything that had happened. Now she could move forward with the world. Melding, the hands of her selves became one. She was just Madiha Nakar.

There was a warm flash, a shiver of premonition and the sound of the rain.

She was back in the flesh, where the world could be changed.

 

South District — 1st Vorkampfer HQ

Von Sturm had been reduced to pacing the headquarters, kicking at the puddles of water forming along the ground. Without word from the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions, and with (unwanted) bad news from Penance road, he became lost in thought. Fruehauf was at first glad to leave him to his devices, but soon radio traffic was coming in that he had to listen to.

She plugged a handset into Erika’s radio unit, flipped a switch to override her headphones, and took responsibility for the call herself. She raised her hand to wave Von Sturm over.

“Sir, your security division is requesting transport for prisoners.”

“What?” At once Von Sturm stopped his pacing and turned to face Fruehauf and the row of radios and operators. “What prisoners? They’re supposed to be guarding the rear!”

“They apparently captured many Ayvartans near the Umaiha.”

“When did this happen and on whose authority?”

Fruehauf picked up the radio handset and spoke into it. She then put her hand over the receiver and turned over her shoulder to stare at the general while responding.

“Under your authority sir, according to them. I know you have not spoken to them at all but that seems to be what they believe. They claim it was your orders that they go out to the Umaiha riverside to help secure Von Drachen’s prisoners.”

Von Sturm paused, eyelids drawn wide. There was a look of dawning revelation on his face.

“Von Drachen! That bastard took my sword so he could trick my security division!”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Nevermind!” He crossed his arms in a huff. “Fine, if he took prisoners then he’s making progress. Tell them I’ll send a few Sd.Kfz. B from the reserve. How many prisoners?”

Fruehauf raised the handset to her ears again. She spoke, listened, nodded.

“Seventy-two.” She replied.

“Good God.” Von Sturm started grinning and chuckling and his mood took a dramatic turn. “Finally something’s coming up for us! I will have to congratulate that ridiculous man once he returns. He seems to be the only one of my subordinates who can follow my plans and not screw everything up. I might not even court martial him for subverting my command.”

Fruehauf smiled outwardly and sighed internally. “If you say so sir.”

At the end of the room, Marie, one of the radio operators, a plump girl with short blonde hair, raised her hand and urged Fruehauf over. She had been tasked with external communications duty — keeping track of the units that followed behind the Vorkampfer’s front line — and had spent much of the day monitoring the lines to HQ and Supply and to the divisions outside of Bada Aso, who had little to say for themselves with regard to the current offensive.

Fruehauf unplugged her handset from Erika’s radio and plugged it into Marie’s.

Many of the external divisions whiled away the opening days of the occupation by doing manual labor, pitching tents, repairing buildings that could be used as headquarters, rounding up Ayvartan prisoners behind the lines, dealing with unruly villagers who clung on to the hope of rescue, and confiscating valuables the army could use. They were in short playing the role of cleanup crews lagging behind the blitzkrieg. Most of the officers in the Vorkampfer had a low opinion of those units that stayed behind, but not every military asset could move fast enough to join the Bada Aso offensive. Particularly the more esoteric intelligence personnel.

Such as, in this particular instance, the weather battalion.

Freuhauf listened with growing alarm, and then called out to the General.

“Sir, the storm is growing worse, we have to evacuate the Umaiha district ASAP!”

 

Umaiha Riverside — Old Police Station

Gunfire in the immediate area rattled Madiha awake and forced her to feign sleep.

From the corner of a half-open eye she saw a figure in a black coat and hat, surrounded by four figures in beige uniforms, move in from across the room with rifles drawn. Sgt. Agni dropped her pistol and raised her hands in surrender. In the distance she heard gunfire, both automatic bursts and the snaps of rifles, so resistance had not been entirely annihilated.

Madiha surreptitiously tested her arms and legs — and found she could move.

“My name is Gaul Von Drachen. Surrender your unit immediately,” said the man in the coat.

Sgt. Agni offered no reply. Her eyes wandered, looking toward the ground. Madiha could not see them, but one of their comrades had probably been shot dead near her as the men entered the room. Since the police station was near the bridge, it was a natural hiding spot for any gun battle in the adjacent street — and a natural staging area. Certainly these men had broken from the larger fight outside, hoping to end it quickly, but that meant it was not yet over.

“I see no value in doing that at the moment.” Sgt. Agni nonchalantly replied.

The Cissean officer, Von Drachen, shot his pistol at the floor several times, each time hitting Agni’s pistol and launching it further and further from her. He reloaded, and then, speaking Ayvartan eloquently and fluently, he pressed Agni for a surrender once again.

“Hail your units on the radio and tell them to drop their weapons. We can end this bloodshed immediately or I can annihilate you with my artillery as I have been doing for the past several hours. It was easy to see that your objective was to prevent me from entering the station, and that mission has miserably failed. I am here — hail them and tell them to stop.”

At the officer’s side, one of the men finally examined the room and found Madiha.

General, hay otra mujer recostada en las piedras–

Blood drew from the man’s neck as a revolver bullet ripped through his throat.

Von Drachen and his subordinates had scarcely turned their guns to acknowledge the pile of rubble in the center of the room, and Madiha sat up, sidearm drawn, both hands on the handle. In blinding quick succession she continued to shoot. As the man fell, clutching his neck, Madiha put a bullet between a pair of eyeballs, and into a gaping open mouth, and through the bridge of a thick nose. Her final bullet blasted Von Drachen’s pistol out of his hand. It hit the floor with the rest of his instruments — his team collapsed in two heaps around him.

Stunned, he raised his hands as Madiha rose to her knees and stood. She felt a little weight as she tried to stand, but the lag was over in seconds. Adrenaline kept her going strong.

She was out of rounds but she kept the Cissean officer in her sights nonetheless.

“That certainly was some impossible shooting.” He said.

“I don’t miss.” Madiha replied. Her words came to her precisely. Her mind was clear.

“By any chance are you the actual officer in charge? ” Von Drachen asked.

“I’m just Sergeant Nakar.” Madiha said. He did not need to know her real rank, and she did not make a habit of wearing her pins and insignia. “How about you surrender now?”

“Oh, I don’t see any value in doing that.”

He reached into his long, flapping coat and with a flourish Von Drachen brazenly hurled himself toward Madiha. She dropped her gun, drew her combat knife and intercepted Drachen’s draw — she had expected a knife or a bayonet to come out from under his coat and was shocked to see a an actual sword clash against her knife instead. It had a brilliant blade and fine etchings.

The officer’s sword had enough handle that he could push against her with the strength of both his hands. Madiha reacted by supporting her knife hand with her free hand, but she was buckling against Von Drachen’s sword, and the edge was pressing against her gloves. She could feel the pressure of the metal against the side of her hand as they struggled.

“I absolutely hate this sort of thing, it will end badly for both of us; what say you we just pick up our guns and fight like civilized human beings do?” Von Drachen asked.

Madiha grinned at him. “I’m perfectly fine with this. I don’t miss with a knife either.”

She pushed back against the sword with both of her hands, and momentarily lifted the blade and broke the clash, creating enough room to step back. Von Drachen recovered fast and swung wide against her; she leaped further back from him, raised her hand back over her shoulder and then threw her knife in a quick whipping motion. She put the blade solidly through Drachen’s coat, stabbing the knife through his shoulder. He grit his teeth and cried out.

But his grip on the sword did not loosen and his stance was not even shaken.

Now it was his turn to grin. “You don’t miss, but you really don’t want to kill me, do you? Gambling on a prisoner when you could have had a kill seems unwise to me.”

Von Drachen drew the knife from his flesh, turned and threw it in one fluid motion. Across the room Sergeant Agni cried out, falling to the ground several meters away from her pistol as the knife struck her leg. Madiha was shocked, she had completely forgotten Sgt. Agni in the midst of the fight. She broke from the fight to help her and Drachen threw forward, heaved his blade and swung again. His cutting edge soared over Madiha as she ducked and rolled off the rubble. She broke into a run for the other side of the room with Von Drachen in pursuit.

“Agni, don’t move!” She cried out, but the Sergeant signaled for her to halt.

“Forget the pistol Madiha, use this instead!” Agni shouted.

Sgt. Agni cast something, sliding it along the ground — a machete from her tools.

Madiha stopped the weapon with the tip of her boot and swiftly kicked it up to her hand. She caught it in time to intercept another one of Von Drachen’s blows; edge met edge. Madiha started turning back his attacks with one hand, the butchering edge of her machete bashing back the refined blade of the officer’s sword. Von Drachen started to tighten his swings and he stepped back with every exchange, likely in fear of Madiha trapping his blade. She could easily take off a few fingers in a clash if he closed with her too recklessly.

Edge continued to meet edge, metal at the tip of metal, glinting in the gloom and rain.

Step by step they made it back almost to the center of the room. Von Drachen stepped back to the place Madiha had been trapped in, and she let him create distance. Catching their breath after their vicious clashes, all too aware now of the danger they posed to one another, the combatants circled and waited. Madiha gripped hard her machete. She could feel it in her hand, its weight, the way it interacted with the air, the subtle pull of the earth as it moved.

They exchanged spots, the circling putting Madiha in the ring of rubble and Von Drachen off it, each holding up a blade and keeping a free hand. For several minutes it seemed they only stared. Neither could count quite count on any more backup — and both could tell as much from the actions of the other. This pile of rubble might just be a tomb for one of them.

Von Drachen smiled. “Nocht is a cesspit of arrogance and ignorance, so it’s hard for me to convince you to surrender to them and guarantee it will be a step up in any way. However, I would like to impress upon you, that if you surrendered, it would be very helpful to me.”

Madiha did not look at his face. She looked over his arms, his legs, his weapon.

In her mind all of the mathematics played out perfectly. Every centimeter of muscle on her body, every nerve fiber, readied itself to move in whatever way suited the long knife.

She could fight with the machete even though she never once practiced it.

This did not feel alien or frightening anymore. It just felt like something she did.

To her it was just like a gun. Any weapon worked for her ability. She might not be able to shoot Von Drachen unfailingly but she knew how to skillfully counteract him. He would try to stab or cut her arms if he wanted to capture her, which she was almost certain he would want to now — and she would try to do the same, as she definitely wanted to throw him in a cell.

Physically they were nearly evenly matched. Madiha was as tall as he, and they were both lean and fairly muscular for their frames. Madiha appeared a little smaller, but Von Drachen was probably similar once his big coat came off him. She felt confident, and made the first move, tentatively swiping at the edge of his blade. Von Drachen stepped back, avoiding the glinting metal swipe in the gloom of their arena. At first he raised his sword to guard, but as they backed off out of each other’s reach again he lowered the weapon to his side.

“When I took this sword I thought it would make things easier for me, but suddenly it has made them all the harder. This such a regrettable situation.” Von Drachen said.

“Believe me, there’s other things I’d rather be doing.” Madiha replied.

Movement; her eyes darted to Von Drachen’s feet and back up, and she held her machete out for a block as he threw himself forward again; she met his blade, the metal scraped, but there was no strength from Von Drachen’s end. Rather than clash he allowed himself to be brushed aside and used the impetus to step away, past her, onto the remains of the roof slab.

He had drawn a radio from his coat. “Artilleria pesada a las coordenadas–

Madiha turned and approached. For each step she took Von Drachen backed away, speaking Cissean into the radio. It was a short conversation — barely a few seconds later he stopped speaking abruptly, sighed and threw his radio over his shoulder, smashing it on the wall.

“Just my luck; out of HE shells.” He said, a childish, exaggerated frown on his face.

Von Drachen charged down from the slab, raised his sword and brought it down over Madiha as if to batter her down; with one hand she caught the blade and with the other hacked it apart. Her machete went through Von Drachen’s sword, taking half in her hand, leaving half in his.

And the blade barely managed to scuff her glove in the act. It had no real edge.

“Hit me with a sword enough times and I can tell if it’s a toy or not.” Madiha said. She dropped the chunk of the sword that she had caught to the floor, and stepped on it.

Von Drachen backed away from her, holding the remaining bit of his blade.

He shifted his feet, bent his shoulders, and held out the broken blade like a fencer.

“You cannot be serious.” Madiha said. She was becoming exasperated with him.

En guarde, Sergeant!” Von Drachen said, twisting his wrist and blade with a flourish.

Now it was Madiha’s turn to rush. Von Drachen jabbed the air with his jagged dagger as Madiha charged him. She twisted away from his thrust, and put the resulting momentum into an attack on his flank. With her fist and the handle of her machete she struck the side of his head. He staggered back — Madiha flicked her wrist and held the machete by its blunt blade end, wielding it like a club. Sensing an opportunity to end the struggle she advanced on him.

He recovered in time to strike first, and swiftly kicked her feet out from under her.

Madiha fell back, and Von Drachen reversed his own dagger and loomed over her.

He raised his hand, blade to the floor, ready to drive through her flesh.

But as he closed in to stab her Madiha gathered all her strength and in a sudden motion propelled herself from the ground and on her feet. She timed it just right; her head and Von Drachen’s met halfway, and he staggered back and away from the collision, his nose broken open. She was not unharmed either. Blood rushed from her forehead, and her vision momentarily swam. She struggled to remain standing and her machete shook in her hand.

Von Drachen stumbled and stepped as though drunk. But he was laughing all the while.

“Sergeant, you rascal. I’m starting to think you’re more than you claim.” He said, clutching his face. He was bleeding profusely from his nostrils, and his temple was badly bruised.

Despite these injuries he did not seem to slow down. He straightened out again and stowed the remains of the sword into its scabbard. He then held up his fists like a boxer.

He took a few weak jabs into the air, and locked his eyes to Madiha.

Madiha raised her eyebrows, and with them, her machete, ready for another round. She was growing tired — she would have to kill Von Drachen if this did not subdue him.

Abruptly, Von Drachen straightened out again, loosening his guard and lowering his fists.

“It appears I successfully stalled for time. Anyway, I’m going to extricate myself from this before any more of me is cut up. Sorry, Sergeant, or should I say, Major.” He said jovially.

Behind him a shell penetrated the hole in the roof and crashed where Madiha had once lain. She reflexively shielded her eyes, but the shell explosion cast little heat and no light.

A curtain of smoke blew from the center of the room. Shots rang out as Agni recovered her pistol, and Madiha saw the silhouette of Von Drachen fleeing the scene in the cloud.

Something else entirely had her attention, however. Her feet were getting wet. In fact, for the past minute or so, her footsteps had been splashing and she did not notice it until the water was up to her shins. The Umaiha was flooding over from the storm.

“Stop, Agni! Let him go! We have to retreat before the river floods any higher!”

“Yes ma’am. Requesting transportation — I cannot quite move at the moment.”

Madiha ran to Agni’s side, following her voice through the smoke, and found the engineer sergeant on the ground, coughing. She had flipped on her back, sat up as best she could and braced herself against rubble to be able to shoot. Without hesitation Madiha stripped Agni of her tool belts and ammunition and other burdens, and picked her up and lifted her from the floor. Even with just her uniform she was still a little heavy, but 60 kg was manageable.

“I envisioned being the one to carry you out, Commander, but I don’t think I could have lifted you. So I am somewhat relieved I did not have to make the attempt.” Sergeant Agni said.

“It’s my height! I’m only 75 kg!” Madiha said, chuckling lightly.

Sergeant Agni didn’t laugh — she couldn’t really laugh much anymore — but she did relax against Madiha’s arms and chest, and heaved a little sigh. She was clearly relieved.

Outside the station they found the fighting largely diffused. The Umaiha had grown high enough that the water consumed the outline of the riverside street and the bridges. Periodic waves struck the edges of the street, battering anyone in the open, and the Cisseans on the other side of the river cabled themselves to structures, and held on to their ropes and hook bridges, trying desperately to keep the line stable as the remnants of their forces retreated.

More than just the water impeded them. Standing at the parking spaces in front of the police station, the surviving Goblin tank harassed the Cisseans with inaccurate gunfire, the 45mm armor-piercing shells doing little but soaring around the men and giving them noise and stress. Around it, the wrecks of the teletanks smoked, both having been smashed to pieces by 15 cm artillery shells. At least the technology in them thoroughly burnt with the rest.

For their part the Engineers busied themselves loading their wounded into half-tracks. A few men and women guarded the vehicles, and took snap shots at the Cisseans, as if it to direct their interests firmly toward retreating. By and large the column had extricated itself from the ruined buildings it once occupied, now that the Cisseans had largely left the street.

Aside from the tanks, and a few stray riflemen on each side of the river, the weather had brought the forces the closest they could be to a ceasefire. Madiha carried Sergeant Agni out to the nearest half-track, where a pair of engineers helped both of them up into the bed. She laid herself against the steel beams holding the canvas tarp in place, and caught her breath. She was shivering from her wet clothes, until an engineer placed a towel and blanket over her. Another soldier began to disinfect and cover up the bleeding from her injured forehead.

“Retreat farther east as soon as possible.” Madiha ordered. “We need to be away from the river. We’ll wait for the worst to pass before attempting to head up north.”

Around her the engineers nodded their heads, and hastened their labors.

She hoped some of the bridges survived. But for now, she was alive — and whole.

 

29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

South District — 1st Vorkampfer HQ, 0400 Hours

Once vicious rainfall declined to a light drizzle in the night hours, and the machine of Nocht sent its pseudopods over the receding flood waters, across the ruined streets, and out toward its front lines in the inhospitable wilds, in the thick and forbidding concrete jungles. Chief among its goals at the moment was assessment. The Vorkampfer needed to know the status of the machine, and in the dead of night thousands of people worked without sleep.

Von Sturm’s plans had gone awry. It was accepted now that in the Kalu, there was essentially no front line. Hundreds of tanks had fallen prey to ambushes, and there were pockets of Nochtish and Ayvartan resistance everywhere, forming a mess that neither could extricate themselves completely from. The 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions hesitated to attack and hesitated to retreat, while the Ayvartans laid fresh traps everywhere around them.

Bada Aso would not be flanked today, tomorrow, or the day after, if ever at all.

Along Penance road the Ayvartans had retreated from the Cathedral, but only after inflicting heavy casualties on the Panzergrenadiers, halting their advance completely. Von Sturm’s attack was a failure there — despite clearing the Cathedral in the end, his spearhead had been utterly blunted, and the Ayvartans retreated in order despite their own casualties. Somehow they had even managed to penetrate his lines and destroy the artillery in Buxa.

So the way was open north, but the enemy was organized and expecting them.

And along the Umaiha, Von Drachen’s brilliant attack, that was making so much headway, was disrupted and nearly completely destroyed by sudden flooding. Von Drachen himself had not even reported back. Von Sturm fancied him dead. Everyone had lost a lot of blood in that disaster, Ayvartan and Nochtish both, but the initial successes made the ultimate failure sting all the more. Following these revelations, the mood at every divisional HQ was somber.

As part of the informational endeavor currently underway, Fruehauf could not let herself become too distracted, but the enormity of the day’s events haunted her as she worked through the night. The Ayvartans had lost almost half the city, but had they won in the end?

In the gloom between the very early morning and very late night, the first milestone was completed. On the radio, the various units traded figures, and compiled a big picture.

“Just read it,” Von Sturm said, his face laid against the table and hidden by his arms.

Fruehauf sighed audibly. She cleared her throat, raised the clipboard in front of her face almost as if in self-defense, and began to read from it. “Preliminary report from the logistics battalion and intelligence battalion task force on the actions of the past day: 6132 infantry casualties–“

“Fuck.” Von Sturm shouted, drawing out the vowel while pounding his fist on the table.

“–276 vehicle casualties, 3 scout aircraft MIA, 38 heavy artillery lost, 23 mortars lost, several tons of ammunition lost. A significant amount was due to the effects of the storm, however.”

“Well, that’s great, I just lost half a classical myriad of people because the weather was bad, I’m glad that changes my situation. We’re still standing in Von Sturm Funeral City you twit!”

Fruehauf tried to smile. “Well, we list wounded in the casualties, not just deceased.”

Von Sturm raised his head. “Then how many did we actually lose, stop fucking around!”

Fruehauf flinched. “Death toll thus far is 2371 killed across the entire operation.”

“Fuck.” Von Sturm shouted, drawing out the vowel while pounding his fist again.

“I’m sorry sir.” Fruehauf said. She tried to sound as earnest as possible.

Both were soon distracted from their woes by an unexpected visitor.

There was a knock on the restaurant door, and then a loud creaking of the old hinges as one of the guards opened it. Fruehauf and Von Sturm gasped with shock as a sopping wet, limping Von Drachen passed through the threshold, stopped at the coat rack, and hung up his hat and trenchcoat. His hooked nose was broken, caked with blood. He had an awful, swollen bruise on his head. His gray Nochtish uniform was soaked with blood from his shoulder. He limped over to the table, everyone too busy staring to offer him help. When he sat, they heard a wet squish.

“I’m afraid I took on some water getting here.” He said, pressing against the sides of his pants, straining out some of the water that had collected in the pockets and fabric.

Behind him, Colonel Gutierrez, wearing nothing but his undershirt and uniform pants, entered the room, nodded his head, and made to take his leave, until he was hailed by Von Drachen.

“Thank you for fishing me out of the river, Gutierrez.” Von Drachen said. He looked around the room and raised his hands and addressed everyone with a jovial tone of voice. “Let it be known that this old, perhaps addled man leaped into a flooded river to pull me out. What a world.”

“You would have done the same mijo,” Colonel Gutierrez replied. He smiled and was turning a little red under his big beard. No one in the room spoke a word yet save Von Drachen.

“I can’t swim, actually. That is why I was drowning, just so you know!”

He turned toward Von Sturm, and handed him what was left of his sword.

“I clung on to this for dear life, my good man!” Von Drachen said. “That might have troubled my already terrible swimming, but I brought it back to you, because it was the right thing to do. I don’t believe in platitudes, but I had this feeling about it. Also; I know who it is in charge of the Ayvartans now, and she is a very frightening and quite fetching young lady.”

Von Sturm dropped his head against the table again and covered it with his arms.

Fruehauf covered her mouth and tried desperately to resist laughing at this absurdity.

 

Central District — Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”

All the lightning that once raged so brilliantly in the sky, was gone. Without it the night was pitch black. Under a light drizzle, Parinita waited and waited. She sat on the steps just outside the headquarters, protected by the concrete roof that stretched out over the stairway. She sat, a backpack radio at her side, watching the road. Behind her, the building lights were shut off and the few personnel still at work did so under candle light, to present less a target in case of night raids. It was deathly quiet outside. She felt that she could hear each raindrop fall.

She picked up the handset, adjusted the frequency. “This is Army HQ to all available units. If any unit has had contact with the Commander, please report to Army HQ immediately.”

Parinita kept the handset braced against her ear by her shoulder, while she fidgeted with her hands, and played with the power dial, with the tuner. But it was not the radio at fault.

For what seemed like the hundredth time, Parinita put down the handset again.

She stared into the forbidding darkness around her. They had made some gains today — in the Kalu, Kimani had prevented the Panzer divisions from flanking the city, buying precious time. Across the south, they had managed to retreat in an orderly fashion from the Penance cathedral — and left a few booby traps in their wake. The Umaiha riverside was a disaster area. They had lost the very last organized vestiges of the 1st and 2nd Line Corps to the Cissean attack, and the flooding likely swept away whoever was left, friend and enemy.

Including, perhaps, Major Madiha Nakar, that somber, sweet, strange woman.

At first, Parinita wept in the privacy of the Major’s office. She had run herself dry of tears. For much of the evening and night, she remained outside the headquarters, waiting. Madiha’s convoy had vehicles. Maybe they could get back, with news, or a body, anything at all.

She waited and waited, wondering if she would wait forever and never receive an answer.

Another hour passed. She shivered; the storm had brought with it a chill uncharacteristic of the Adjar dominance at any time of the year. But still she sat beside her radio, waiting.

Losing Madiha, perhaps, made no difference to the war as a whole. There would be other officers, there would be other plans, up until the bitter end. To Parinita, however, losing Madiha was a wound that would not heal. It was words that could have been said, blasted into oblivion. It was moments that could have been shared, vaporized, cast into the air. Perhaps she was being foolish, or pathetic. For how long had she known Madiha? But the mourning hit as though she had known her a lifetime. Ten days, just ten days! But she couldn’t help it.

Now the tears started to flow again. She felt so small, foolish, childish, frivolous.

Lips quivering, her long strawberry hair disheveled, Parinita picked up the handset.

“This is,” she sobbed, “Army HQ, to all units. Please report any contact with the Commander. The Commander has been missing since 1400 hours. Report any contact immediately.”

She made to put down the handset when she heard a unit responding.

“This is Hobgoblin B-5 of the 1st Separate Bada Aso Tank Brigade, previously on silent patrol. I am escorting a convoy of vehicles toward the headquarters. Please stand by.”

Parinita clutched the handset. “Y-Yes. This is C.W.O Maharani. I will await your arrival.”

She stood up. She waited with bated breath. Minutes later, she saw the Hobgoblin’s light from afar. Approaching the HQ, the tank turned on the intersection, and behind it followed several Half-Tracks. They parked haphazardly, and began unloading wounded in stretchers. Lights started to turn on behind them all, in the HQ building. People rushed past Parinita to help the arrivals. She stood, transfixed, her eyes scanning slowly around the scene.

Across the street, Major Madiha Nakar dismounted, holding a towel to her head.

Slowly she left the half-track’s side and ambled toward the stairway. At the foot, she looked up and locked eyes with Parinita. The secretary dropped the handset and fought back tears.

“I am sorry for making you worry.” Madiha said. “You were probably right about this.”

Without a word Parinita rushed down the steps and threw her arms around Madiha.

“Stop being sorry for things when nothing’s actually your fault!” She wailed.

Madiha stroked her hair. “I know that now. I was being wrongheaded about things. You could say I had sort of a revelation today. I can’t tell you that everything’s fixed upstairs; but I’ve never felt it easier to talk or think. Reminds me of the film Flashing Before My Eyes.”

Parinita cried softly into her chest. Madiha went silent, and held her in embrace.

“That film was so stupid.” Parinita finally whimpered. “Nobody has dreams like that.”

 

30th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice, Postill Square KVW camp

Councilman Yuba finished recounting the events of the 28th of the Gloom as he saw them, from the information that the Council had managed to acquire. It had been a pivotal day across the entire warring front, as Warden Kansal and Admiral Qote knew all too well. Now it seemed that the Council was waking up to that fact as well, and to the pressing need for action.

No Councilman acted alone. They always had their little cliques. That Yuba could come here to the KVW camp and meet with the striking soldiers, showed more than just his own convictions. It meant there was a faction in the Council that propelled the old man to move forward.

After going over his long story, the Councilman gestured toward the Warden.

“So you see, Warden Kansal, the events of the 28th, now that they have trickled over to the Council, have put you in a better position. Knyskna fell, but Bada Aso stands. Nocht’s powerful Panzer Divisions took over one city but failed to take the other. We know the reason.”

“You know it, but I’m not so sure your fellows are so open to it.” Kansal said.

Councilman Yuba stretched out his hand, and Kansal took it, holding it firmly.

“Warden, I think if we play our cards right we can promote the idea that it was your leadership and the KVW’s expertise that was the decisive factor in the battles of the 28th. Under Council guidance Knyskna fell miserably to the enemy, but under your leadership Bada Aso stood. Yes, my fellows will wish to extract compromise. But they will relent on the key points. It is a way forward for all of us. Step by step, we may yet be able to win back the Council.”

“You better be sure of it.” Admiral Qote interjected. “We’re done playing political games.”

“I cannot promise you anything except that we have an opportunity on our hands, and I am willing to stick by your side until it can be fully exploited.” Councilman Yuba said. “I have been sitting on my hands trying to make a peace that won’t come. It’s time I picked a side.”

“What about our contrarian friends, like Mansa? What do they think?” Kansal said.

Councilman Yuba smiled. “I believe they may be more vulnerable than we thought.”

* * *

Next chapter in Generalplan Suden — Zugzwang

 

 

Stormlit Memories — Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains depictions of violence and death as well as psychological and emotional stress, depression and suicidal ideation.

* * *

Under incessant rain the revolver was cold, slippery and heavy in her little hands. They were hands not meant for weapons. No one designed weapons meant for those soft little hands. But those hands had been unknowingly destined for the wielding of weapons.

There was blood on her hands now to prove it.

She did not quite realize what had happened. Her mind filtered it differently.

Like any child who had completed a task, she had simply returned to the adult who issued.

“I made the bad guy go away. He won’t hurt you now.” 

It was almost like those words were not her own, but she had said it and she had done it.

There was silence between them. There was only the rain and the cold and the tension.

She offered the gun back to its owner. It had done what it was constructed to do.

“I don’t like it. It’s heavy. It hurt my wrist. And it only has five things in it.”

A meter away from her lay the woman, squirming against the wall of the alley, her own blood soaking down her clothes into a puddle over the uneven stones. At first the child had thought her beautiful, and she still did, she still saw the beauty and power in that face, that grave expression, though now she understood that it was tempered with pain. She was wrapped in a ragged cloak, but her face was visible, that beautiful face with its long nose, red lips and striking eyes, eyes drawing wide with the realization of what had been transacted between them. The child knew that she had a complicated, adult beauty. She was not an angel or spirit.

From this woman’s hands the child had procured the gun and heard the desperate plea.

“Don’t let him kill me.” It was a tormented voice she spoke with. “Please.”

This child knew about complicated, adult things. So she was drawn to do what she could.

Around the corner, out of their sight, was the corpse to prove the result.

For as long as she could remember, whether it be with sticks or stones, with paper airplanes or jars of glue, Madiha Nakar had never missed a shot if she had time to aim.

And she’d learned that people sometimes stopped being trouble if you hit them in the head.

Slowly the woman forced herself to stand, pushing her back against the wall, stretching her legs, clutching her wound. She wrapped her free hand around Madiha and pushed her close. Madiha felt the blood getting on her from the woman’s body.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” She mumbled. Madiha could not see her face. The revolver fell on the ground, slipping away from them with the trickling water. Madiha returned the embrace, wrapping her arms gently around the woman. To her there was nothing to be sorry for.

“Police men here are bad. I didn’t want them to hurt you too. Madiha replied. “I don’t want people to get hurt by bad men anymore. I wanted to get him back for being bad.”

The woman knelt in front of her, until they were eye to eye. She looked shocked. But Madiha was determined and she knew what she was saying, and she knew it was an adult thing in a child’s words and she didn’t care. She had never been afforded the peace needed to be an ordinary, innocent child. She was a child of strict discipline and distant bells and bolted doors and a terrible escape. She was a child of splintered wood, broken glass, shattered stones.

Madiha was a child who rarely saw beauty and wanted desperately to guard it.

Back then there had been no greater motivation than that. That was her forgotten origin.

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”

On the dawn of the 28th Madiha awoke again with a nightmare.

Her reaction to these ugly visions was no longer fearful.

She did not jerk out of her sleep and seek a hidden predator.

All of that preternatural terror was replaced by a deep weariness.

Madiha situated herself quickly, and pushed everything else deep down into a pit where it would not be seen. She focused on the material. She was in her office, the air was cool, the atmosphere was quiet. She heard rain. Remembering the day’s business, she stood from her desk, adjusted her tie and uniform, the fabric and buttons slipping from her shaking hands. Standing by the office window, Parinita watched the skies with obvious trepidation.

She had been watching the skies since the day before, when they first went out under the rain and exchanged a few forceful words. The Weather battalion was ambivalent about the growing intensity of the rain. Both of them knew this would not stop Madiha on this day, however.

Parinita turned briefly over her shoulder. Their eyes met and then avoided one another again.

“Good morning,” Madiha said. Her mouth felt strangely heavy. She had a tic in her jaw, and felt her cheek spasm when she closed her lips behind the words.

“Good morning, Madiha.” Parinita said. She saluted, clipboard pressed against her chest. She was not so cheerful anymore, none of them were. Her disheveled light red hair was gathered into a ponytail, and her skin looked clammy. Her lips curled into a forced smirk.

After their disagreement yesterday, they behaved awkwardly to each other.

Outside the skies gradually darkened, and the drizzling gradually escalated. A growing wind blew droplets against the window, blurring Madiha’s view of the street. Without breakfast or even a drink of water to assuage their dry throats, the Commander and her Secretary set out to their only planned business of the day. They gathered around the desk and spread open a map of the lower city and had their meeting, as fast as they could have it, before Madiha set out to carry out her “survey.” On the ground the situation had not changed much from the day before. Matumaini had been blasted out of relevance — it was almost literally a pit now.

Action would certainly focus on Penance Road and Umaiha, but thus far, nothing had happened for two days. Parinita briefed her on the state of the various units as quickly as she could, and outlined what the division commanders seemed to have in the works — a big load of nothing from the Territorial Army officers, the paltry few that they possessed. These were men and women who had trouble enough with transporting troops along big lines on a map.

They would not be launching offensives. They were barely able to organize reinforcements.

Penance Road was being held by a strip units in and around the old Cathedral. Umaiha had a mishmash of units straddling both sides of the river, hoping for the best. The 3rd KVW Motor Rifles was on standby, acting as a mobile reserve and defense. They could respond to any attack within the hour, if an attack had to be responded to at all.

“Your Motor Rifles Division has requested a bit of operational freedom today.”

“I approve. Leave them to their devices. I trust them to engineer a victory.” Madiha said.

“Yes ma’am.” Parinita said dutifully. “Lieutenant Batuzi has told me he is following a few leads we got on Nochtish activity from the Signals Intercept battalion today.”

“I trust he will perform admirably.” Madiha said. She felt frustrated to have this conversation. At this point there was nothing she could do. The Strategic turn of the battle was over. Both sides were in position and following through to their general objectives. They had their supply lines set, and their general formation could not rapidly change. It was all real time tactics from here, and no matter how much she wanted it, that was not the domain of the Army HQ.

Madiha shook her head. She could not command eight divisions by herself. It was not possible. She could not even command one by herself — she needed to stay behind the lines and insure that the strategic plan was fulfilled by the army as a whole. Even the little excursion she had planned for today jeopardized her ability to respond to a crisis.

But she was sure she would lose her mind if she stayed in this office any longer.

“Is something wrong, Madiha?” Parinita asked. She stared at her with a gentle expression.

“Nothing is wrong, Warrant Officer. I will go on survey with an Engineering company today, out to Umaiha. We must fuel the final act of the Hellfire plan. I won’t be long.”

Parinita raised an eyebrow. “Warrant Officer; what? Really?”

Madiha gave no reply, and made no eye contact. This was one time when the words did not escape her mouth without thinking. Parinita looked exasperated, clearly unsettled by the cold, distant reference. This was for her own good; for everyone’s own good. She had been too weak and let everyone come too close and it would take their toll on them in the end.

They were more valuable than her — Parinita was more valuable than her. She did not want her to come close and find the thorns in Madiha’s hide, punishing her embrace. She had already seen too much of the monster inside. She had already wasted too much time worrying and weeping over a purposeless thing. Everyone needed distance now; nobody could be allowed to see any more of Madiha before the end of this. It was for their own good.

Bless her heart, Parinita tried — she was not giving up on Madiha so easily.

“I don’t mean to pry, but have you taken your medicine lately?” She asked.

“Not since that day.” Madiha clutched the side of her head. It was starting to hurt.

Parinita sighed. “Madiha, you’re really a creature of extremes aren’t you? I wanted you to stop abusing your medication not to stop taking it at all. Please take it.”

Madiha felt a chill hearing her name from those gentle lips. It was like a heresy.

And yet despite all her convictions she couldn’t form the words to stop her or resist.

She sighed inside. Her mind was torn in a dozen directions at this point.

“Wherever your medication ended up, please take it.” Parinita said. “You need it.”

“I do not need it.” Madiha said. “It was only a source of greater strife. I am fine.”

“Are you sure? I think that you should take it, but if you insist, then I guess I can’t–“

“I am sure. Now, did you hear what I said before this? It is important.”

Madiha tried more forcefully to redirect the discussion to military matters.

“Yes, you’ve told me a few dozen times already about your ill conceived plan to survey the Umaiha tunnels, a mission that Sergeant Agni could command just fine by herself if you would delegate it to her.” Parinita pointedly replied. “I’ve already told you what I think.”

“I need to be there. I was the architect of this operation,  I should carry it out.”

“If you say so,” the secretary dismissively replied.

Madiha felt inexplicably annoyed. “You have taken a liking to that response.”

“I’ve already told you what I think. I can’t actually stop you.” Parinita said. She sounded hurt. “Especially since you are making it a habit now not to listen to my concerns.”

She was the Staff Secretary; she had limited influence. Her role was crucial — she had to gather information and pass it to Madiha. She had to listen to an army’s worth of concerns and discoveries and intercepts and she had to compile it with her staff day by day, and she had to sort out what Madiha needed to know and then figure out a way to deliver it to her. Without Parinita and her staff, everything would be impossible. There would be too much information to handle. No single person could listen and respond to so much information. So it was not just personal, in a way, it was also professional, that she would feel hurt and impeded.

But Madiha did not pick up that hurt, or she ignored it. She was not sure what her mind was doing anymore. “Have some faith in me.” She said. It came out more strongly than she wanted. It sounded like a demand more than a plea. It sounded like asking her to turn a blind eye.

It sounded like she was saying she would destroy herself and Parinita would watch.

And the secretary knew it. “You keep saying that and you’ve no idea how unfair it is.”

Neither of them said anything more. Madiha focused on the maps, though there was nothing new there for her to see. Parinita waited for a response, but finally admitted defeat, and picked up several papers from the desk, clipped them on her board, and went on her way. She paused at the door and put a hand on the frame, as though she needed to hold on to it to prevent being swept away by a current. Her fingers tightened around the grooves. She looked over her shoulder for a brief moment and whimpered a few words before departing.

“Good luck on your mission, Commander.” She said, unsmiling, eyes wetting.

Madiha was left alone in the room, her cruel mind quickly filling in the silence. Parinita’s voice bounced off the walls of her cranium, and she felt the agonizing palpitations. Her thoughts were a whirlpool of Parinita’s words blending together. Things she had said in their meetings, across the ten days they had been together, came to Madiha unbidden, booming like howitzer shells. Her smiling lips, her concerned eyes, her warm hand on Madiha’s shoulder–

She crouched behind her desk, opened a drawer, and withdrew a little container.

She produced a little white pill and she swallowed it dry.

She laid with her back against the desk and kicked closed the door to the office.

“There. I listened to you. I’m listening.” Madiha whimpered. She felt sick and weak.

They had to be distant — it was for everyone’s good. It was for everyone’s good. Even when the tears came to her eyes, when the pounding in her head grew unbearable, when the shaking in her hands would not stop, when everything broke down — she was alone and this was for everyone’s good. For the good of every soldier out there fighting and dying while she read her maps and felt her deep shame and hid her face and averted her eyes. Until she joined them in the earth she did not deserve their lips speaking her damnable name. They had to see nothing of her but her cold confidence, so that they would meet the bullets feeling bold.

To the shaking, the agony, the tears, only the stone could be a witness.

It was for everyone’s good. Even hers, she thought– she was sure.

“You won’t have to watch, Parinita. You won’t have to watch.” She mumbled.

* * *

Sergeant Agni was on her way out of the building when Madiha composed herself enough to leave her office and travel downstairs. Her timing could not have been better. Barbiturates pumping through her blood, the facade reconstructed, she confidently intercepted Agni on the steps outside. The Engineer had a bit of oil on her brown cheek, and her long, black hair was gathered in a haphazard bun behind her head. She had left the lobby quite briskly and with a purpose, her tool box dangling from the fingers on her left hand.

Hujambo, Commander.” She said. “I was going to eat breakfast before we left.”

“Working hard?” Madiha asked. Her voice sounded close to lifeless as Agni’s.

“I spent the morning preparing the equipment for today’s trial.” Sgt. Agni said.

“Far more work than I did, I’m sure.” Madiha said. She meant it as a bit of friendly self-deprecating humor, but some of that shame was poisoning her words.

“Perhaps, but I managed it on a full night’s sleep, and I know that you did not.” Sgt. Agni said. Quickly she added. “Would you like to join me, Commander? I suspect we will be out in the field for several hours. Best to leave the base with a full stomach.”

Madiha nodded. “Sound advice. I wouldn’t want to get in your way.”

Sgt. Agni blinked and stared for a moment before leading the Commander away.

Outside the headquarters, in an old drug store across the street from the school that still had power and structure, civilians ran a makeshift field kitchen for the soldiers.

From behind the old drug store counters they ladled stews and sauces onto serving trays, handed out bread and drinks, unpacked dried vegetables and stock powders from trucks and mixed them with oil and water, and perhaps most importantly, they offered encouragement and camaraderie to the passing soldiers on this rainy, miserable day.

Many of these rear echelon laborers, the ones unloading, preparing and serving the food, were volunteers, who had chosen to stay behind and become involved in the defense. When not serving food they also set down sandbags, loaded trucks, manufactured ammunition, manned the phones, and performed light repairs; among a myriad other tasks.

There were a few thousand city residents who remained behind and remained busy.

Without them, Madiha’s difficult effort would have become close to impossible.

Among the civilians there was a sizeable contingent of reservists — soldiers who had been stripped from the Territorial Army by Demilitarization downsizing policies. They thought of themselves as warriors still, unable to abandon the front now that there was finally war. They knew more than the average person about what needed to be done in a theater of battle, so they mobilized more quickly and took on more responsibility without complaint.

These were the most energetic and useful folk. Perhaps they needed to be.

Though they did not have uniforms to spare for them, Madiha thought it right to bolster their confidence by issuing them small arms. But there were no pistols brandished in the field kitchen. Instead the reservists heaved big pots of dal and curry, baskets of flatbread, large pitchers of fruit juices and flavored milk. They served soldier and civilian alike, engineers, laborers, signals staff, frontline soldiers, resting tank and truck crews, and they smiled equally at every face before them. Sometimes they broke into a few verses of marching song while the line organized and moved. Many were marching songs from their days in basic training.

Sgt. Agni and Madiha picked trays from a stack near the door, and stood in line with men and women in traditional long robes and cloaks, in dust-covered overalls, in one piece jumpsuits with masks dangling off their necks, in military uniforms with weapons hung over their backs. There was little chatter among them, but everyone seemed to be in good humor, rocking their heads and tapping their feet to the marching songs of the food service.

Some of the people in the line even joined in the songs. They were simple songs, often repeating uncomplicated rhymes about equipment and landmarks. One popular song in Madiha’s House was about a soldier going down to the train station to drink palm wine while watching Goblin tanks loading into cars. One whole verse was about the tank’s specs.

In their current circumstances that particular verse took a somewhat macabre character, but nobody but Madiha seemed to think of it that way. Everyone was enjoying it.

Normally Madiha ate whatever Parinita or other staff brought to her office.

But she had to admit, this was an invigorating atmosphere. She was among her people.

Though the line seemed long from the outside, there were multiple servers and people were moving to the tables next door very quickly. Briskly the Commander and Sergeant made their way to the counter. Sgt. Agni held out her tray, and received a crisp green salad with citrus slices, a large spoonful of lentil dal, a pair of flatbreads and a tomato curry over rice. Sgt. Agni opted for water. At the same time, Madiha was about to receive the same service from another server, but the young man looked captivated with her and paused.

“You’re Commander Nakar aren’t you? Everyone, the Commander is here!”

Around the room there was a singular voice, delivering a warm Hujambo! to Madiha.

“I’m sorry if it’s awkward, but we’ve been waiting to see you here! We thought you’d be too busy and that we would never be able to see you in the flesh.”

Madiha hardly knew what to say. She was surprised by their reaction. “I have been busy.”

“I’m sorry for taking up your time — but we all owe so much to you, Commander,” said the Server, “we’ve all been wanting to make it up to you. A week ago we thought everything was hopeless, that there was no resisting Nocht. We felt like it was all coming to an end for us. They defeated the Cisseans and the Mamlakhans so easily a few years ago, in mere weeks. Major Gowon never instilled much confidence in us. We heard rumors that the Council was going to give up on the city, that Solstice was ready to desert us, but we are still holding on to our city because of you. In the time Nocht took over Cissea, they’ve crossed a few streets here!”

Madiha felt herself wither under his gaze. She could feel the eyes of the room on her too.

“Your courage has saved so many of us. Were it not for you my brother would have never made it back from the border. He’s just a kid, and yet Gowon kept him in the army, and kicked me down to the reserve. If we lost him like that, spirits defend, my family would have been heartbroken — he’s such a good boy, and so loyal to country and comrades. I’m sorry Commander but I’m just,” he looked very emotional, shedding tears.

Everyone in the room seemed uplifted by the man’s speech. He saluted the Major.

“I’m so glad for you, Commander. So glad we all have someone like you now.”

One by one everyone in the line, soldier and civilian, raised a hand to their forehead.

All of the room was saluting. Even Sergeant Agni felt compelled to raise her hand.

Madiha was stunned, and a thousand evil thoughts raced to her mind all at once, and she almost teared up in front of the serving line. She wanted to shout at them, to ask them pointedly why they thought of her in such a way. What did they see in her? What made them think she deserved their admiration; what made them think she was worthy of praise; what conditions had she fulfilled to become their heroine all of a sudden? How could they put these hopes in her and in no others? How did they even see a person before them, and not a toad, a coward, a monster? Through what eyes did these delusions turn so rose-colored?

Her command? She had drafted a map and given orders that killed thousands!

At the border? She spoke through a radio and gave artillery coordinates!

Why did they see her this way? Why did they burden her with their hope?

But she said none of these things. She said nothing at all.

Instead she raised her hand in salute. Around the room, salutes turned to claps.

Triumphantly the Server who spoke filled her plate. She received her yellow vegetable stew and red curry and her lentils, an extra flatbread, as much drink as she wanted — which was no more than anyone else. Plate fully loaded, she followed the line out a side door to an adjacent building, where the laborers had erected as many tables as they could. This was a half-ruined space that still had enough of a roof to block the elements, and many of the tables were uneven, but nobody complained. Madiha and Sergeant Agni sat at the same table as a few quiet privates, who took bashful peeks at Madiha over their food. Sgt. Agni opened a pack of plastic utensils and basic condiments, likely drawn from a ration crate, and distributed them.

Madiha nibbled her food and tried to clear her head, to remain solid, upright. There were eyes everywhere that needed to see something powerful, however false. They could not see her faltering. Not now — they had made it clear that they depended strongly on her. Everyone saw her as The Hero of the Border and those among them old enough to remember the Civil War might even know she was a Hero of the Socialist Dominances, an award given to her while catatonic in a hospital. She felt like a liar, a manipulator, but she needed to be.

Despite this necessity it still haunted her, for these people to see her in such a way, to depend in her, to take strength from her. She was always the goblet, the thing to be filled, with the will of others, with the loyalty toward others, with the strength of others. She sought people to complete her, to give her a purpose, to fill her with themselves where she had nothing. When did she become those others, who filled people’s hearts with their grace? She did not want this. She felt like she had deceived these people. If they saw inside her, they’d recoil from it.

They would lose their will; like her they would become shaken with despair.

She was not a hero, not a worthy commander; they wished too hard to see this in her.

Other people were suffering in her cowardly name right now. Maybe even that man’s brother. She had not saved him, she had acted like any military officer, with the calculating coldness to see that he died correctly on another date. She could not possibly be a hero.

Heroes defied death; they prevented it. They found a way to obviate sacrifice.

Whenever Madiha pinned a unit on a map she demanded sacrifices she could not stop.

 

1st Vorkampfer Corps Headquarters

“We have an important day ahead of us!” General Anton Von Sturm shouted, atop a table in the middle of the room. “I do not want to see any more mistakes! We are going to comb through the objectives until each one of you knows them better than your names! Let us start!”

Before the dawn on the 28th of the Aster’s Gloom, the restaurant serving as the 1st Vorkampfer’s home was full of activity. Helga Fruehauf and her radio girls checked their equipment; General Anschel, a small, wide man with a heavy beard departed to rejoin the headquarters for his departing 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions; Generals Von Drachen and Meist assembled along with a gaggle of staff officers around General Von Sturm, the chief architect of their current course of action. Outside the sky was still dark, the atmosphere cold. The drizzling rain maintained little puddles that had built on the streets over the course of the past few days. There was a stiff breeze that seemed to pick up intensity over time.

They would move with sun, so they had to plan in the gloom.

Together they went through the current situation; as if teaching a kindergarten class, Von Sturm slowly worked his way up to recent history. Ayvarta was controlled by totalitarian communists, he said, who spat upon constitutions like Nocht’s, funded terrorism in the free northern countries and smuggled arms and harmful drugs to criminals. To this end, Nocht launched an invasion supported by the Government-In-Exile of one empress Mary Trueday, with the hopes of raising her to power once again and having a compliant Ayvartan ally. To achieve this ultimate goal, Generalplan Suden was carefully laid out — Von Sturm puffed himself up and proudly proclaimed his own hand in supplying consultation for Suden. Like the Bada Aso siege, it was in part his brainchild. And for Suden to remain on time they had to be out of Bada Aso and at the Tambwean border before the 35th. Thus, this day had to be decisive.

Von Sturm emphasized decisive and he eyed the generals maliciously as he did.

Matumaini was once the preferred path forward, but due to recent events it was too problematic. Due to the destruction leveled at the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd block, a bridgelayer would have to be used to cross in any reasonable timeframe, and it was too vulnerable to the Ayvartans controlling the other side of the gap. Thus it was forgotten, and for the past 2 days, their forces reorganized along the two remaining lanes north. On Penance Road to the west, a Cathedral had become a redoubt for Ayvartan forces, and Von Sturm’s own 13th Panzergrenadiers was making ready to challenge it. On the eastern side of the city, the Riverside District would be challenged by Von Drachen’s Azul Corps. Meanwhile, 6th Grenadier under Meist had covertly deployed its artillery in Buxa, moving pieces at night and slipping in through thin corridors between the Ayvartan’s overstretched defenses between Penance and Matumaini. This artillery would support 13th PzG in their attack on the Cathedral.

At this point Von Drachen raised his hands. He had a nagging curiosity.

Von Sturm stared at him with distaste. “What is it, Von Drachen?”

“Why don’t the Panzer Grenadiers simply drive through Buxa and past Penance, ignoring the static position on the Cathedral entirely?” Von Drachen asked.

“We have received intelligence that the Ayvartans have tunnels under the city they can use to get an upper hand if we try to outflank them.” Von Sturm said. “We cannot leave any of their redoubts behind or we stand the chance of a regiment tunneling out in our wake.”

“How much reinforcement can they expect to perform through underground tunnels? Maybe a platoon at a time, certainly nothing heavy.” Von Drachen pressed gently. “You can play to your strengths by speeding past their defenses, creating a corridor forward, through which rear line units can move to surround the Cathedral, and force either a decisive action from the Ayvartans, or the starvation and defeat of the redoubt without direct engagement.”

“Your suggestion would just create disorder in our lines Von Drachen! It is an unneeded diversion! We are pushing forward methodically, clearing out each sector, and that is final! We will not give the Ayvartans more opportunities to booby trap every inch of ground along Penance road! I want a direct way forward, and I will carve out! Is that clear?”

Von Sturm was shouting at the top of his lungs. Von Drachen smiled.

“I understand. Please continue the briefing.” He said, unaffected.

Everyone in the room sighed, while Von Sturm’s hands closed into fists and shook at his sides.

Thus the briefing resumed. The 13th Panzergrenadiers would attack with a regiment forward, trickling in units to probe every way through Penance and Buxa until they had hurled the Ayvartan line right out of the southern district. They would depend on their rapid deployment and reinforcement as well as their superior firepower, and make it a slugging match with that Cathedral — their superior combat power would allow them to bleed the place dead with minimal losses, and leave no Ayvartans behind the Nochtish line to cause trouble.

Along the eastern edge of Bada Aso, the Umaiha river straddled much of the exterior of the city, and in the Umaiha Riverside district it veered west, right into the city, curled once toward the south for several kilometers, and was then funneled west again, under the city and out to the ocean. Right now the Ayvartans controlled everything west of the curl and north of the veer — a crossing on each side would have to be effected by Azul, using all the firepower available to them. Von Drachen had nothing to say to this — he knew his plan already.

One final dimension to the day’s events was the Kalu, a massive stretch of chaotic wooded hillside that made up the space between Bada Aso and the Shaila dominance in the east, the Kucha mountains in the northeast, and Tambwe in the north. Intelligence indicated that some military formation had to be hiding in the Kalu, and it would be drawn to battle against the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions. Their objectives were to push over 50 kilometers through the Kucha, and then veer westward, crossing the zig-zagging Umaiha at several points, and finally turning diagonally back toward the city and flanking the city defenders behind their lines. They would penetrate through northern areas of the city’s eastern limits, areas that were not protected by the Umaiha, and rush through with their superior firepower.

In the confusion, Azul would push fiercely and link with elements of the Panzer Divisions, completing and securing a major breach. That would be the end of Bada Aso.

One decisive day ahead of them. How soon would the 28th be a triumph behind them?

“Any questions?” Von Sturm asked.

Nobody responded because nobody was supposed to. This was Von Sturm’s indication that he was done, and that any mistakes would henceforth fall on the individual, and he washed his hands of them. Fruehauf and her cadre returned to their radios. Meist left the room unceremoniously. Staff dispersed every which way. Gradually the restaurant emptied again. Von Sturm sat on his table with his hands on his chin. He breathed out in exasperation.

“What do you want this time Von Drachen?” He asked.

From the edge of the room Von Drachen smiled and approached the table.

He took a seat across from Von Sturm, and raised his own hands to his chin.

“My good man, can I borrow your sword for the day?” Von Drachen asked.

Von Sturm’s voice went suddenly flat, void of inflection.

“What?”

He stared at Von Drachen, his left eye twitching. “What sword?”

“You have an officer’s ceremonial sword. I was never given one.”

“What do you want it for?” Von Sturm was so taken aback he was responding earnestly.

“I want your blessing — I should say, I need your blessing. I want a symbol of you.”

Von Sturm’s eyes drew wide. “I don’t understand a word you are saying.”

Von Drachen nodded. “I have been hassled by your Security division a few times already trying to move between the front lines and the rear echelon, and I want something to show them so that they will shut up quickly. A symbol of your authority.” He replied.

“That’s not supposed to be happening. I can just have Fruehauf call them.”

“While you do that, I’d like to head to my front lines as quickly as possible, and the first check point is a kilometer away. Can I borrow your sword? It would be quicker.”

Von Sturm seemed to be grappling with the logic behind Von Drachen’s request. He covered his mouth with one hand, rubbing his lips. He stared at Von Drachen’s eyes, and his expression was empty of the rancor or mischief that characterized him. He looked dazed. On his part, Von Drachen was very serious. He thought, if he had the sword, a Nochtish officer’s sword, then those idiots from Security would not talk to him. They would not look at him, they would not appear near him. He thought, if he confronted another Security officer, he would wring the man’s neck, and hurl his carcass at another man nearby. There would be violence.

So, a sword — he could show it, nobody would speak, and he would move.

Failing that, he could open a man’s ribcage with it. But he wanted to avoid that.

He hoped that his honesty, earnestness and good intention would get through to General Von Sturm. Across the table from him, the General was catatonic for several minutes.

Finally Von Sturm seemed to have caught up to everything. He grit his teeth.

“It’s upstairs with my formal uniform. Just take it and go and don’t say anything again.”

Von Drachen nodded, stood, returned his seat to the table, and went on his way.

He stepped outside, under the rain, and waited. He looked over his shoulder at the door every few minutes. Finally a man older than him, in a beige uniform, dark tanned and thickly bearded, appeared holding a golden scabbard and hilt. He presented the weapon to Von Drachen with some trepidation, his meaty, wrinkled hands shaking around the purloined weapon in his grasp.

“Is this alright General?” He asked.

“Yes, I have permission. Thank you for fetching it, Gutierrez.”

Von Drachen took the sword and affixed it to the outside of his black trench-coat, where it could easily be seen. He adjusted his peaked cap over his head. His facial features, sharp and stiff, contorted slowly into an amused smile. He was still getting wet. He did not quite care.

“Is my personal battalion ready, Colonel? Unfortunately this will be an efffortful day.”

At his side the older Colonel smiled fondly. “We are ready, sir.”

 

Umaiha Riverside, 31st Engineers Survey

Around noon the first lightning bolts fell over Bada Aso, but the rain was barely above a light shower and the sky was a pale gray. Though the river stirred, it was not yet a threat nor projected to be one. Unaware of how quickly the weather could escalate, Madiha joined the survey company without any sense of urgency. The day’s mission took the 31st KVW Engineering Battalion’s “A” Company down the side of the river in the southeast district.

These riverside paths were several meters above the water, and out the back of their trucks and the sides of their tractors the engineers could see the water rushing through the stone channel, the defining feature of the district. It was the ability to command these waters that transformed the district into a place of lovers, of trendy shops and fine restaurants, and, after the Empire, a burgeoning industry now annihilated by evacuation and bombing.

All Madiha remembered was moonlit walks and sweet kisses, however much she tried not to.

Riverside Street, one of those kissing places, was the main thoroughfare in the southeast district, the Matumaini and Penance of the city’s eastern limits. From the Kucha mountains in the northeast the Umaiha rushed diagonally toward Bada Aso, taking the path of least resistance through the Kalu region. It straddled over half of Bada Aso’s eastern boundary before veering sharply west inside the limits themselves, and then curling again south, three quarters of the way into the easterly district. Along this southern curl Riverside’s two lanes of traffic were split, joined only through intermittent bridges over gap a few dozen meters wide.

Finally the river shifted westward again to find the sea, and Riverside street veered too and took a new name. Several decades ago at the peak of the Empire, the river had been forced underground. Matumaini, Penance, Buxa; such places had been paved over the tamed river. A show of force of humans over nature, largely to profit everyone but the people living over the old river. Madiha could not drive far enough south to see the river vanish again — that was the front line. Instead the column halted its advance a few kilometers behind the front line.

They veered up a cobblestone street toward the interior. They parked along a block of buildings, many lightly damaged by bombs. Most of the old buildings had been spared a direct assault, and some, build of rock rather than brick, had even survived a rocket or light bomb.

Only one building nearby was reduced to rubble, and that was the Goloka restaurant.

This was another place full of unwanted memories that now bubbled up from Madiha’s injured mind. Around her the engineers dismounted their vehicles and equipped themselves with their tools. Cutters were used to snap open locks on sunken little doors set into the alleys between old buildings. These doors lead into cellars and those cellars into tunnels.

Gas masks were distributed for the exploration — there were nasty fumes lying dormant beneath the ground, if one followed the right (or wrong) tunnels. While the chemical troops inspected their share of the underground, other squadrons inspected the damage and remaining durability of nearby buildings and the street, assessing their capability to resist future punishment. They measured craters on the street, checked the ages and material composition of the damaged homes, searched for pieces of bombs or rocket shells, and tried to assemble a postmortem assessment of the block, and whether it was even safe for continued use.

If it was not, then they would have to level or booby trap everything to repulse the Cisseans.

Meanwhile, Madiha stared distantly at the restaurant. Inside the inviting facade the roof had collapsed, spilling out from the doorway like a tongue, a tongue from a ruined mouth beneath a brow battered open. She could not help but humanize the structure, to see it as a murdered thing, as a living being gored before her eyes. She still tasted Chakrani on that terrible night. She felt the hurt freshly, and felt additional hurt, because the location that bore witness to that last tender moment was gone. It was another casualty that she could not prevent.

Soon nothing of Bada Aso would remain. She would never be able to expiate for her sins.

“We will meet up with the special squad soon.” Sgt. Agni tonelessly said. She looked on the Goloka with her dull eyes. “Do you recognize this building?”

“My girlfriend and I visited once. We had a falling out near the river over there.”

Sergeant Agni was a comforting presence. Madiha had served with her in the motor rifles before, in Mamlakha. She could not say she really knew her; to what extent did she really know anyone? But she was a familiar face, and a familiar voice, and they were used to each other.

She did not want to be tempted to vulnerability near her — but she could vent a little, right?

“It is a morbid feeling to stand here and see a place where we shared a kiss, perhaps our most passionate kiss, broken under a bomb. There was so much I could not stop.”

Sgt. Agni nodded. “With respect, you are young and handsome and likely to bounce back.”

Madiha almost laughed, but she knew she would have sounded bitter rather than amused.

“Have you ever been in love, Sergeant Agni?” She was getting carried away now.

“I do not know. I have found people sexually attractive, but it was nothing profound.”

“I was in love.” Now she truly sounded bitter, and she could not stop. She didn’t want to. “But my ambivalence tore it all apart. I felt a drive away from peace and warmth, but I wanted so desperately to keep it in addition. I thought I could fill myself up everything she wanted to give me, and that regardless of what I chose to do afterwards, I could always come back and nothing would change. I never gave anything back — I never had anything to give back. I took, and I didn’t even know that was what I was doing. I was filling the absence of something, and leaving behind when I was fed. Maybe if I had settled, things would be different.”

Sgt. Agni said nothing. What could she say? She knew nothing of any of the people involved.

It was foolish for Madiha to continue. She had wanted to wave her hand and dissipate all of these vulnerabilities but water (perhaps blood) kept seeping through the cracks, winding its way and eroding deeper and greater fissures in her facade. This time, it was all the same as before.  She was pulled too many ways at once, and she just ended up broken in the same manner over and over again. She wanted both the grave strength and the genuine warmth, so she had none.

She had wanted the world of light and love and peace to fill all the dark cracks in the monument of her life, all those moments lost to violence and chaos and never to return. And yet, the scything blade of history called to her again and again. Always she and Chakrani wrestled with this ambivalence, this desire to chase after the forgotten child hero of the old war. For a time they made love, they played house, each desiring the other above all else. But ultimately, war called to her, for the final fateful act. Overnight, Chakrani’s Madiha was gone.

Instead she became Kimani’s “Right Hand of Death,” hunting spies for years.

Now she became “The Hero of the Border,” a phantom created to repel Nocht.

Always something filled her, because she had nothing of her own but to chase after War.

War — “the scything blade of history” — could not be escaped. Was she born to it?

What was its promise? What was it that lured her away from comfort in the light?

Her mind flailed behind her cold facade, and it settled on a tragic conclusion.

Yes, it all made sense, when one played with thoughts of inhumanity.

Over twenty years ago during the Ayvartan Civil War there was a child named Madiha Nakar who would become entangled in events beyond her reckoning, and become a hero to people who would slowly forget as the need to remember was lost; as she herself would forget. Perhaps, in truth, this child, whose mind was lost to those events, was born without a purpose, without an origin. Perhaps there was never a Madiha Nakar who was lost, who never completed her childhood, who never lived in the world as others did, who never became a human to anyone’s reckoning, because there was no Madiha Nakar at all. Perhaps there was not now a Madiha Nakar and perhaps there was not then a Madiha Nakar. Perhaps she was a fleeting will that had been born to die. More blood for the scything blade. So much was absent — it made sense.

War offered her only the promise of death. That was the purpose.

Her mind was void of anything else. What would drive Madiha to do anything?

It wasn’t even a question because there was no concrete Madiha in her mind.

“Commander, are you alright? You are shaking.” Sgt. Agni asked.

Reflexively, as though the only thing left of her still thinking rationally were her hands, Madiha withdrew her barbiturates, and drank a pill. She felt it go roughly down her throat.

“I might need to see a doctor about my dosage.” Madiha said, her voice falsely amicable.

Sgt. Agni nodded. Without further comment she left and rejoined the survey company’s efforts.

Madiha took one last look at the remains of the Goloka. Staggered by storming memories she peeled herself away from the ruin, taking heavy steps away with Sgt. Agni. She thought if she looked at it any more she would have wanted to be buried with the rubble.

While the voices quieted, Madiha still felt obliterated, as though truly turned to nothing.

 

Central District Headquarters, “Madiha’s House”

“We haven’t even gotten to talk about a movie for a while.”

Parinita watched the column depart from the office window. At first she sighed, but the sighs turned to tears. She tried to squelch the first drops with the back of her hand, but her mouth started to make sobs, and her body turned cold and shook. She closed the door, and lay behind Madiha’s desk, slamming her back in frustration against the hard wood and the metal frame.

For what seemed like hours she remained behind that desk, her legs stretched against the door to keep it closed shut, shedding copious tears, and berating herself. She beat her head against the desk, and bawled out loud. Never before had she felt so helpless and useless.

She felt like such a fool. Madiha’s fire was growing brighter and stranger before her eyes, and her actions had become erratic and dangerous. She could be consumed at any moment and still Parinita had failed to explain to her anything of what she knew!

But there was a shuddering in her chest whenever she imagined that conversation.

She felt a terrible anxiety toward it and it always gave her pause. Damnable weakness!

Deep in her heart she feared that Madiha would not understand. What if all of this was solely in Parinita’s head? What if it was just another lingering scar of her grandmother’s eccentricity and her mother’s negligence? Perhaps there was no Fire eating Madiha and no Power in her. Perhaps Madiha was just Madiha and nothing more. Perhaps she had it all wrong.

After all could anyone truly confirm whether the legend of the Warlord was true? At first she had thought that if she sat down with Madiha, the Major would have a related epiphany, and at once the two of them would have connected and resolved everything between them.

But slowly, like an icy build-up over her skin, it dawned upon the Secretary that she could potentially approach Madiha and explain everything she knew or thought she knew about her and her unique existence, entangled in bizarre myth and half-remembered history — and that in turn Madiha could recoil in fear, tragically, disastrously, having no frame of reference for such a thing, having no experiences that could confirm it. And after this final wound between them, Madiha would depart, and burn out all alone, ignorant of her own magnificence.

Parinita’s trepidation hit its peak, and she could not bear the thought of this. She felt like a thief, who stole away with a piece of Madiha, something she needed to know to understand herself and would never uncover on her own. But how could they share in something so strange and distant? How did human beings even communicate across these horrifying gulfs between them? Parinita felt so isolated and confused, so anxious, so totally lost.

She stalled and stalled, and Madiha grew further and further away. Now it seemed the most impossible thing, to confess to her what Parinita knew — that she was not a twisted thing, that she was not a monster, that Madiha was gifted and exceptional and necessary.

And valuable, beautiful, powerful, inspirational; Parinita shook her head.

Madiha did not need this right now. That much she had made perfectly clear.

Parinita had work, and her work was not this. This could wait a little bit. It had to, she supposed.

The Chief Warrant Officer wiped away her tears, stood up from the desk, fixed her tie and patted down her skirt, and departed the office, clipboard in hand. Madiha wanted her to work, and the army needed her to work, so she would work. She would find something to organize in this chaotic day. She would weather the distance, for Madiha’s sake, for what Madiha wanted.

Her tears had hardly dried completely before she was stopped outside her office.

“C.W.O Maharani, the Weather battalion’s received new information.”

A young, out of breath staff member stopped before her, grasping a bundle of papers in his shaking fingers. He bent nearly double, coughing, having run all the way from the other side of the building. Parinita patted him in the back gently while taking the documents from him and reading them quickly. She understood immediately the source of his concern. Based on these new projections the clouds overhead were not intent on simply drizzling over them; and the isolated thundering was only a harbinger for worse to come. An alert had to be sounded.

“We need to contact all units quickly! Has anyone reached the Commander?”

The staff member looked up at her, hands on his knees.

She recoiled from the dire look in his eyes.

“I’m sorry Chief, we haven’t been able to reach her.” He said grimly.

Parinita dropped the documents and ran past him, rushing to the staff office. She tried not to feel overwhelmed or overcome by helplessness. She had to do something! They had to put out an Army level contact and quickly — if Madiha stayed out there for any longer spirits only know what would become of her! All of the river district was in danger!

 

Umaiha Riverside — 2nd Line Corps Area

UmaihaRiverside

Carried by the surging winds, rain battered against the defensive lines on the southeast district, falling over gun shields and down the necks of cloaks. Machine guns and anti-tank guns on a bridge and its two adjacent streets watched the roads and a pair of buildings, one on each side, served as forward bases overseeing the defense. Men and women stood around the guns, taking cover in their sandbag redoubts and behind the bridge’s balustrade. They huddled on the riverside streets, flanked by the blocks of buildings and the cobblestone roads into the trendy historic areas. Between the redoubts and below anyone’s notice the river swelled.

2nd Line Corps’ defenders in the southeast kept their eyes peeled for the enemy, but the growing rain reduced visibility, and introduced an even greater danger, and one that often went entirely unconfronted — a languid feeling in bellies and heads. Tranquility and contentedness. Along the Umaiha the soldiers had not seen fighting for two days now, and under the growing rain it seemed impossible to muster the energy to fight. Yawning, they let the watch slack.

It didn’t matter. Under the driving deluge and growing thunder the first shells flew silently.

But they did not land — all at once a half-dozen heavy shells exploded in the air just over the heads of the defenders. Fragments rained down on them just as fast as they normally flew up from stricken ground. Over gun shields, through tarps, around sandbags the fragments flew, cutting a swathe across the defensive line. Few died, but everyone was reeling. In the forward bases it took minutes for the officers to realize their troops were injured or staggering.

Direct fire followed. Shells smashed against sandbags and tore the gun shields right off machine guns. They smashed holes into the balustrade and pounded against the corners of the forward bases, finally waking the officers inside to the threat. Light mortar rounds crashed around the line, causing little damage but much confusion. Men and women shifted fighting positions in the wake of the shelling and found lead flying around them. Fire from light machine guns streaked against the lines suddenly. In the distance, men in beige uniforms, uncloaked, fully soaking in the rain, charged against the line with rifles and bayonets, with grenades in hand, under the cover of two tanks and multiple machine gunners mounted on light cars.

Within several hundred meters the enemy had come to the Umaiha’s south-bound stretch.

Batallón de Asalto “Drachen” of the Primera de Infanteria was on the move.

Von Drachen followed right behind his men, on the right bank of the Umaiha. He had the same amount of troops on either side, without having taken any of the bridges — but he preferred the right, because there was more territory to cover on his right. His left was up against the city limits in a sense, and made him feel trapped. Walking briskly toward the defenses along with his column, he could see everything transpiring; if so inclined he could have shouted orders.

That wouldn’t be necessary. This attack had been well prepared for and well rehearsed.

His handpicked forces had effected a stealthy crossing much further south, before there was even an Umaiha to cross at all, tramping through the rubble the Ayvartans believed would deter passage. While Nocht sat and wondered why their brute strength and dizzying speed continued to fail them, Von Drachen had stopped launching hopeless attacks along the Vorkampfer’s foolishly planned routes and began forging of his own perfect path.

Now he had a column moving against the defenses on both sides of the river, rather than on one. He had artillery and armor against an enemy that thought him devoid of both. At the head, his two Escudero tanks put their quick-firing 40mm cannons to good use. They had been adapted from Helvetian anti-air artillery, but exploded just fine against sandbags, rock and human flesh. Within moments they sent dozens of explosive shells crashing against the Ayvartan lines, taking out chunks of sandbag and leaving vicious bite marks on rock and concrete. Behind them, mounted on light all-terrain cars received from Nocht, Von Drachen had his machine gunners stand on the passenger seat and deploy their guns on improvised mounts, shooting relentlessly over his assault troops to cover their advance up the stone streets. Finally, a kilometer behind the advancing columns, he had deployed his artillery: six powerful 15 cm guns, and twelve 6 cm mortars now shelling the enemy haphazardly and causing little harm.

He raised a hand radio to his mouth. “Silencio por dos minutos.” Silence for two minutes.

At once the shelling of the mortars and the guns stopped completely, and movement hastened. Von Drachen’s tanks sped forward and his men broke into a dash.

As the charge grew earnest, resistance stiffened. Fire was returned. Both Escuderos withstood a light shell against their front plates. They were medium-sized tanks and their armor profile was decent enough to stop the weak Ayvartan short-barreled 45mm gun even as the distance closed. Ayvartan machine guns opened fire, and Ayvartan riflemen and women started to dig their heels and peek out of cover. Lead started to fly into his column and Von Drachen started to see his men falling, but this did not concern him too much. Within two minutes the distance was methodically closed to within the hundred meters.

Tiempo al blanco.” He said over his radio. Time on target. His favorite artillery order.

All at once the Ayvartan defensive line exploded again with the fire from all his guns and mortars. All six guns and twelve mortars that had gone silent coordinated a single devastating hit, timed perfectly to hit every part of the Ayvartan line simultaneously. All the forward-facing balustrade on the bridge ahead exploded into chunks, and corpses fell from the bridge into the growing river along with mangled bits of their machine guns and anti-tank weapons; a shell exploded in an airburst over each of the two thick sandbag redoubts blocking traffic on the riverside streets, the fragments descending like a shower of needles in the company of rain; several mortar rounds exploded among scattered Ayvartan fighters and over the roofs and before the doors of their little forward bases. In the face of the attack their fire quieted.

Those last hundred meters were nothing to Von Drachen’s men. They now charged ahead uncontested. Both Escuderos smashed right through the sandbag walls, and his scout cars hit their brakes, dismounting machine gunners charging into the fray. Hundreds of men poured into the streets, meeting the hundreds of exposed men and women on the opposite side, shooting and stabbing and trampling in a savage melee. Both the tanks turned their guns up from the street fighting, and put several shells through the windows into the forward bases, exploding among Ayvartan officers and radios and supplies and their sheltered wounded.

Blood flowed into the river, and smoke and fire joined the rising wind and falling rain.

Three days or so of planning, and within the space of twenty minutes or so, Von Drachen had broken his first line. He walked past the ruined bridge, crossed a street corner, and laid under a convenient awning, taking shelter from the rain while his men charged through the door. Knives and bayonets flashed through the windows, and the occasional rifle bullet went through one of the thin walls. There were screams and roars and struggle. Upstairs a grenade went off.

Von Drachen lit a cigarette, and tried to ignore the clammy feeling from his wet uniform.

One of his light cars dashed past the building and braked at the edge of the broken-down sandbag wall of the defender’s old redoubt. A machine gunner opened fire relentlessly into the breach in the enemy lines. Running gun battles erupted further up the street as the Ayvartans retreated from their positions while being chased by advancing Cissean riflemen. From his vantage Von Drachen could see none of it, but he heard the continuous stamping of feet, the intermittent cracks of rifles, as the converging masses took their battle dozens of meters away.

From the car, Colonel Gutierrez dismounted, and approached Von Drachen. He saluted.

“We’ve got them on the run sir. Next line is a kilometer up. Artillery is readjusting.”

“Good. Tell the men to keep running, and not to stop. Same for the tanks and cars.”

Colonel Gutierrez nodded. He saluted again, and then the old man turned and marched out.

Overhead a deafening burst of lightning and thunder masked the sudden swelling of the river. A massive wave surged up over the borders of the street and crashed past the bridge and overtook the Colonel’s car, shoving the machine gunner off his mount and smashing him against the stones. Gutierrez nearly leaped back in fear, and rushed away from the edges without looking until he had shoved carelessly back into Von Drachen.

The General’s cigarette fell off his lips and into a puddle just outside the cover of the awning.

Von Drachen stared dejectedly at the moist stick, and felt something close to mourning.

Que carajo te paso?” Von Drachen said, in a gentler voice than was probably warranted.

“Oh, excuse me, General; the river, sir! Santa Maria I’ve never seen such a thing.”

“You’ve never seen a river? I’m not so sure anymore of your qualifications here then.”

“No! No, General, I mean I’ve never seen one swell up like that! This is dangerous!”

Dangerous? Von Drachen took a casual glance at the river. Another wave suddenly rose and crashed over the shattered balustrade of the bridge, sweeping away the corpses and the metal husks of the ruined Ayvartan emplacements and swallowing them whole.

“Maybe. But; I believe this presents a unique opportunity for us as well!” Von Drachen said.

 

Umaiha Riverside — 31st Engineers Survey

Clouds thickened and darkened, and the wind worked itself to a frenzy. Over Bada Aso the growing storm blocked out the sun and reduced its radiance to a bleak gloom.

Thick sheets of rain cascaded over the city, and seemed to turn the world monochrome and mute. Rainfall was the predominant sound, clanging against steel, pattering against rock and brick, tapping over the rubber tarps on the half-tracks. Water pooled over any depression in the ground, turning the city’s roads into a series of puddles within a latticework of rock. Waves rose and water splashed as the convoy headed north up the Umaiha. Carefully the vehicles slowed and turned on the slick ground, crossing from the right bank to the left. They gathered around a wide two-story building near the bridge, parking in the alleyways around it.

A metal shutter opened on the right side of the building’s face, and two tanks emerged to join the dismounting engineers. Both of them were Goblin type tanks, with their drum shaped turrets, conspicuously long turret baskets, thin, long guns and steep, almost flat long plates and angular tracks. One of the tanks had a pair of long antennae reminiscent of an insect’s atop the turret, while the second boasted a long aerial atop its turret like an angel’s halo. A hatch opened on this particular tank, and a KVW officer appeared and waved his hand stiffly.

Sgt. Agni and Madiha waved back at him, dressed in their cloaks under the rain.

“Give her a demonstration!” Sgt. Agni called out. Atop the tank, the officer acknowledged.

Madiha heard a distinct mechanical wirring and a buzzing noise inside the lead tank. Sgt. Agni approached the machine and lifted every single hatch — it was hard to see inside, for it was very dark in its cramped confines and very gloomy out of them. But Madiha thought she could not see anyone inside the tank. Everyone on the street gave the machine a bit of clearance, and it started moving. Its turret turned all 360 degrees; it looped around the building once. It fired its gun across the river and smashed a 2 meter hole into the side of a building.

Sgt. Agni clapped her hands. Madiha did not quite understand the point yet.

Finally the so-called teletank and the officer’s tank both parked in front of the vehicle depot.

Everyone approached again for a closer look. The Engineers looked curious for once.

“This is one of our teletanks.” Sgt. Agni said. She patted one of the Goblins on its track guard.

“It appears like any other Goblin to me. What makes them special to us?” Madiha asked.

“Radio control.” Sgt. Agni said. “Inside that tank,” she pointed to the officer’s vehicle, “there is radio control equipment that sends signals to the unmanned tanks,” she patted the track on the Goblin nearest to her again. “Drone tanks follow these commands electronically.”

“So there’s nobody inside that tank?” Madiha asked, tapping her knuckles on the same tank Agni petted, as though she would hear a hollow sound from it to confirm her curiosity. She peeked her head into the front hatch, and inside she found a box full of lights and vacuum tubes and dials, and electrical wiring across every surface. No humans anywhere. There were still seats but it didn’t seem like more than one person could possibly fit inside with any comfort.

“Not a soul.” Sgt. Agni replied. “It is controlled by radio. Electronic equipment inside the drone tanks receives signals via radio, and depending on the input it receives, it will follow certain preset commands. We can power the tracks, turn the tank, turn the electric turret, and fire the guns. There is a complicated auto-loading system inside that contains 20 shells, and will cycle the breech automatically — the concept of the drone tanks evolved from a desire to use the auto-loader, but the impossibility of cramming a crew inside the turret with it. We’ve largely failed to scale down the system, unfortunately, but it has found a home in these drones.” She spoke a little quicker and clearer when detailing the mechanical functions — it was her clearly her preferred subject, and she had a command of it. One could almost call her tone emphatic, inaccurate as that would have been. However it was certainly affected, in a subtle way.

Madiha extricated herself and whistled. “Incredible. I had no idea we had this technology.”

“Neither does the Civil Council and the Territorial Army, to be honest. We received all of this equipment alongside the big tanks when the 5th Mechanized Division joined us. They brought their experimental telemechanized company with them and subordinated it to our use. Inspector General Kimani thought that it was an adequate addition to our operational plan. At first I was skeptical, having only heard of this technology in theory. I did not want to waste your time; but I felt confident presenting them to you after I had a good look at them. Certainly they are more palatable for the plan than the alternative.”

“Yes.” Madiha said. She felt a trembling inside her stomach. She had planned to carry out the most dangerous part of Operation Hellfire using live humans. Any KVW soldier would have unquestioningly put down their life to complete the plan, but she already felt like enough of her ideas had ended up becoming suicide missions, without also directing an explicit suicide mission to top it all off. Sgt. Agni was quite right that the tanks presented something of a relief.

“What is the command range?” She asked. “You said it’s using a radio.”

Sgt. Agni averted her eyes for a moment, glancing side-long at one of the tanks. Her expression was blank and her mannerisms void of emotion but this was a major tell that something was wrong. She had held Madiha’s eyes perfectly throughout the conversation.

“Right now, around 300 meters.” Sgt. Agni said. She continued avoiding Madiha’s eyes.

“That is unacceptable.” Madiha said. Her own voice was picking up a note of frustration. For her plan 300 meters was nothing. Whoever she sent down would still be in the epicenter!

“I understand.” Sgt. Agni said. Madiha thought there was a gentler tone to her voice but she might have been projecting that onto her. She continued. “I have been working on a command truck that can perform the same function as the telecontrol tank but from 1.5 kilometers to 2 kilometers away. While perhaps a stretch in actual combat, it will be more than enough for our purposes. We will still be able to command the tank to move forward and shoot. In addition I am also working on installing a flamethrower on the teletanks we will use for the final phase.”

“When will this be ready?” Madiha asked. Sgt. Agni was a blessing — her news had renewed Madiha’s energy just a touch enough to keep her moving. Her mind started going over military possibilities rather than internal malaise — she wanted to accelerate to the final phase if possible, though at the moment Nocht was not yet in a practical position for it.

Sgt. Agni fidgeted with her long, wavy hair, arranging several longs over her ear meticulously. “I am trying to get it done within the week.” She said. Her voice sounded a little lower. “Once I have found a procedure that works I can rapidly convert more radios and trucks.”

Madiha felt unsteady on her feet. This was a bit of a sudden blow. But she had to take it. There was no other option at the moment. No option that was conscionable.

“Thank you, Sgt. Agni.” Madiha said. Her voice caught in her throat a little. She looked over the tanks; now it was her turn to avoid Agni’s eyes. “How many teletanks do we have now and how many do you think can we count on for the final phase, if all goes well?”

“We have ten units in total, counting this one. Should the assessments from the Chemical battalion prove correct, we will only need four detonations, at the most saturated points.”

“Well, I hope they are correct. I am basing the entire plan on them.”

Sgt. Agni looked her in the eyes. There was confidence in her again. “History has vindicated those who have heeded the dangers of Bada Aso’s underground in the past. I am a mechanical engineer, not a chemical one; but I trust that our Hell will burn brightly.”

Madiha wanted to smile or feel inspired but it was no longer in her.

“Good.” She said simply. “On that note, let us look at this tunnel.”

Sgt. Agni nodded. She signaled to a small squadron of engineers to accompany her. Together with the Major they entered the old, empty building, mostly abandoned save for a working telephone system that was still maintained. Wires ran into the walls, and there was still a desk in the lobby with a working phone that anyone could use. All the rest was empty rooms and halls, graffiti, and discarded toys from adventurous children. It was macabre and eerie. Little damage had been done to it during the bombing, and that only added to the strange atmosphere inside.

Once the building had been a police station. So much violence and horror occurred in these rooms and halls, so much infamy, and so many souls lost screaming to its brutality, that there was much pause as to whether they should demolish it or repurpose it. So it simply stood, a monument to a painful era, bypassed daily by locals and travelers who could peer through its windows and doors and enter its walls but ultimately wanted nothing to do with its ghosts.

Of interest to the engineers, inside the building was a particularly large tunnel entrance in the basement level. Though the tunnel system was far older than the Imperial Police that had once occupied the building, several renovations to specific tunnels had been carried out in secret with the express purpose of moving agents, officers and saboteurs to aid in the brutalization and liquidation of Bada Aso’s activists, criminals and communists (for many of them there were no such distinctions, both personally, and in the eyes of Imperial law). It was thought that if the criminals had made the streets their underground, then for them to be rooted out and exterminated the city had to create a Hell beneath their feet. In reality the tunnel expansion was borne of the hubris of men who desperately needed to appear as though they had a solution to a growing tide of resistance, and did nothing but expend resources.

These tunnels were ones that dug too deep — and they were perfect for Madiha’s purposes.

In the empty basement, they pointed electric torches at the gaping black maw.

Sgt. Agni and her engineers produced their measuring tapes and sized the beast. Four meters by four meters — just tall and wide enough to fit the teletank through.

“There are more tunnels like this in the central and upper city.” Sgt. Agni said. “Once it was rediscovered in the late Imperial period the tunnel system under Bada Aso was vastly expanded, not only to become the new sewer system, but also to accommodate routes such as this, in case of war in the city. Or more presciently, revolution.”

“Thanks to our megalomaniacal predecessors, I suppose.” Madiha said.

There was a bright flash from upstairs. Madiha shuddered — her cloak was dripping wet, and the weather was only getting worse and worse. She thought the Weather battalion must have vastly underestimated the intensity of the storm. Their tasks were done in this sector, and it was time to move further up the Umaiha. Sgt. Agni led the way upstairs.

A soldier with a backpack radio ran into the building and met them in the lobby.

“Commander, the 2nd Line Corps have been broken through. We have no confirmation from the actual 2nd Line Corps, but a scout saw Cissean troops moving upriver.”

“How far away are they?” Madiha asked the radio man. “And how many?”

“We’re not sure of much, our scout was not in a ready state. He was sending a panicked alert to every Ayvartan frequency he knew. It might have been hyperbole but nonetheless–“

For a fleeting moment before the collapse Madiha felt the pressure wave.

Then everything scattered, like a windblown stack of cards.

Thunder and a flash; the building shook and there was a sharp crack and a massive crash. There was an instant of pain and an eternity of numbness. Dust and heat blew in from the outside and the world shook and twisted, the ground warped and the walls closed in. Madiha was blinded and dazed and she knew that it was not thunder that had fallen from the sky. Her senses were obliterated and she could not feel her body.

She was suspended in the dark again.

But they were watching, millions of eyes, millions of hands.

From the hands the fingers fell; from the eyes the lashes shed and the lids bulged.

Then the forearms and the corneas and bit by bit everything fell like old meat.

There was nothing again. She was suspended in the dark.

There was only blood around her, an ocean of blood. She clutched her ears.

“You failed them again. You selfish thing. What was your worth in the end?” 

Water started coming down over her face, and her eyes opened and burnt as the cold drops dripped over her lids. Before her, framed in jagged concrete, there was only the dark sky, traced by deep violet thunder. She thought blearily to raise her hands and cover her eyes from the water and the flashing lights, but she could not move her arms.

She heard gunfire in the streets, and a loud blast farther up the road. Smoke and dust rose into the sky somewhere far, blown over her concrete trap and into her sight by the wind.

Concrete dust and tiny rocks sifted off her the sides of her prison. Rocks were pushed aside, and she felt as though her tomb was being dug through. She saw Sgt. Agni’s face.

“Commander, Commander, can you hear me?”

Agni reached down a gloved hand and took Madiha’s cheek, and pushed her head up.

It started to dawn on her all at once that her body was buried in concrete. She started to shake and to squirm and try to slide out of the rock but she could not, she could not budge her arms or her legs. She could feel them again and she could feel them moving — and they hurt. She had not lost them. But she could not free them. She was trapped in here.

“I can’t move!” She shouted. Her mind was racing. “Agni, I can’t move!”

“We are under attack from Cissean forces.” Sgt. Agni said. “That had to have been a salvo from a 15 cm battery. I have no idea how they moved everything up this quickly.”

Water came down over them in a deluge. Madiha couldn’t see anything well.

But clarity was returning. She felt a tightness in her chest and stomach, a thrill down her spine. Her mouth hung open, the cold rain dribbling down her lips. Her breathing quickened. There was a grim realization of what all of this meant. Her time had finally come.

“You have to go!” She shouted. “Take the Engineers and go! I need you to carry out the plan!”

Sgt. Agni averted her eyes.

“Only one of us is needed for the plan to work anymore! That’s you, Agni! You need to go!”

To Madiha all of this made a dire sense. She was resolved. She was finally making the rational decision. All of history had conspired to lead her here.

Her purpose fulfilled, she would be free and clean in death.

Everything made sense now — except the response to her desperate logic.

“Commander I cannot follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.

Madiha stared, and shook her head, whipping about her wet hair.

“What did you say? You’re being ridiculous! You have to go, Agni!”

“Let me rephrase that. I will not follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.

Again the world was breaking apart around her. This order that had been carefully constructed in Madiha’s raging, struggling mind was a shambles again.

Agni pulled the handset from a backpack radio just out of Madiha’s field of vision.

“Resist the Cissean attack as strongly as possible. Pull back the tanks and vehicles from the shelling area. Deploy machine guns, demolitions charges and flamethrowers. Hide in the rubble. I am coming to organize the defense, but our priority is to free the Commander–“

“Cancel that order!” Madiha shouted at the top of her lungs. “Cancel that order! Sgt. Agni is disobeying a direct command! Cancel that order and retreat! Retreat!”

Sgt. Agni reached down a hand and clamped it around Madiha’s mouth, muffling her.

Madiha started to weep. This was so absurd! This was such an injustice! Why? Why?

“I repeat–” Agni said, and repeated her order more clearly. She then put down the handset.

She raised her hand from Madiha’s mouth, and struggled to stand. She looked around her surroundings and started moving between the sides of Madiha’s prison, pushing on rocks, chipping away at the edges, gauging the strength of the tomb. She was implacable as always, her face unaffected even by these horrifying events. That was the influence of the KVW, their training, their conditioning. But it didn’t make sense. She should have listened.

She should have left Madiha to die just as readily as she would have died for Madiha’s sake, if ordered to do so. If ordered to do so. But she was not. She was not leaving her!

“Why won’t you go?” Madiha said, choked up, desperate, tapping into all her remaining strength to keep screaming, “Why won’t you leave me? I’m ordering you to go! I’m ordering you! You need to go so something can be salvaged from this! I am not worth all of your lives!”

“It has never been a balance between your life and ours, commander. There is no authority tabulating the weight of our blood.” Sgt. Agni said coolly. She lifted a stone from near Madiha’s side and tossed it away. Under it was a larger, heavier one.

Delirious from the pain and the pressure on her body, Madiha’s senses started to swim and warp. She felt drained, her throat raw, her eyes burning, water creeping into her nose. She moaned and mumbled. “I don’t want any more of my people to sacrifice themselves! Please!”

Sgt. Agni stopped working and returned to Madiha’s side. She looked her in the eyes.

“We have been together for more than just this war’s ten days, Major.” Agni said. “I think of you as a comrade and so do they. So do our people. This is not about our sacrifice; nothing has been about sacrifice. I will protect you and bring you back safely, Madiha.”

Around Madiha the grey sky and the grey concrete melded together. Her senses were leaving her completely. She fell back to the dream, defeated. Even in death she was unable to prevent the sacrifice of her comrades. That was what she thought, trapped by rock and guilt.

That was what she was sure of. Nothing about her life made sense to her otherwise.

What was Madiha Nakar otherwise? What was her purpose, what did she mean?

* * *

NEXT chapter in Generalplan Suden is: A Pulse In The Ruins.

The Kalu Tank War — Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains scenes of violence and death, as well as minor psychological distress and drug use. Some descriptions may be considered briefly graphic.

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance — Kalu Hills Southeast

Visibility in a tank was tricky even in good weather. Before the driver was a thin slit and a large hatch — opening the hatch was inviting death and looking through the slit with strained eyes was almost no better than being buttoned down. On modern vehicles a periscope was furnished for the driver, one that allowed a limited field of view just off the side of the tank’s gun. Through a thin circle, surrounded by black, the driver peered on the world. This little periscope allowed the driver to see around the vehicle as much as the tank’s contours allowed.

Seated overhead from the driver, the commander had a periscope and a hatch as well, offering a second set of eyes, but anything the commander saw had to be relayed down to the driver, this often resulting in a game of donkey party inside a multi-ton vehicle.

Unique problems presented themselves under the storm over the Bada Aso and Kalu regions. Dark clouds overhead seethed with lightning, and buffeting storm winds and battering rains worsened conditions on the irregular terrain of the Kalu. Periscopes became wet and the view through their lenses distorted; opening the hatches and slits exposed the crew to the cold rain and the minute debris carried by the wind. Even with suitable vision equipment, no tank crew could see more than a couple dozen meters in front of them through the gloom and rain.

Recon informed them with confidence that nothing was there, but for the Panzer platoons heading the advance, they felt as though there were eyes everywhere, shadows and wraiths dancing at the edge of their vision, taking advantage of their blindness. They had heard that Ayvarta was a land of magic and myth, a place where goblins and curses and witches still hunted for unaware prey. No amount of recon would assuage those primal fears of this old world.

Who could say the storm was not the work of the Ayvartans, commanding their land to attack?

Regardless of worsening conditions, the 2nd Panzer Division promptly activated for attack on the 28th. At the head of the advance were scout cars and columns of light M5 tanks with their 37mm guns and horseshoe turrets, driving along the main roads through the Kalu, such as they were. Nuye road was the main path along the east Kalu, a wide dirt road winding through the most navigable portions of the Kalu’s hills, weaving through patches of wood, across flooding ravines, over rough escarpments where the layers of earth were visible wherever not ground down into surmountable slopes. Nuye started on the plains, rose along the foot of the Kalu in the south and bobbed up and down along the Kalu up to the Kucha in the northeast.

Three hours and nearly 30 kilometers from their starting point, a platoon from the 2nd Panzer Division’s 12th Leichte Panzer Regiment found itself driving across a fairly flat area of the Kalu, like a platter balanced precariously a step above the chaotic earth, and thick with shrubbery and clusters of broad-trunk trees with dozens of haphazard arms covered in frizzy green. Vier platoon, as they were known to 12th Leichte, halted its march before the trees.

A hatch opened atop the lead tank. Covered in his dark-green rain cloak, the Platoon leader rose out of the hatch and stared into the shadows before him. Below him, the tank’s crew sat sulking from the sudden downpour falling on their shoulders and backs.

Before him wound the road, right through the wood. Walls of green at his flanks; he tried to peer through the gaps between trees, tried to see through that gloom. He saw shapes, but he saw shapes everywhere in the rain. He saw knife blows playing in the air wherever a branch shook in the wind, and he figures flitting in the shadows wherever a drip of water dropped from the bent arm of a tree. The Commander could not tell his fears from reality here.

In these wilds he saw a place of fog and confusion, where a man became a beast again.

The Commander shook his head. He told himself that he was letting the nonsense of his peers get to him. Mastering himself, hardening against these fancies, he descended into the tank, closed the hatch, and ordered the driver, and by extension his whole platoon, to move.

Within the trees the road tightened. Before, the tanks could move in a square formation, four tanks forward, and a single tank in the rear, his tank. Now the Commander ordered his tanks into a single file column. His tank, the lead tank, drove in the middle, the third tank in either direction of the five-tank line. They advanced at half speed, turrets turned every which way.

A small voice inside the tank. “Gefreiter, permission to consume Pervitin ration for nerves.”

The Commander looked down at the radio operator with disdain. “Denied.”

“Yes sir.” There was palpable contempt in her voice, but he ignored it.

For the crew inside the tank, the stamping of the rain outside against the armor was growing almost as loud as the clanking of the treads and the chugging of the engine.

This only increased the urgency with which the crew took to their periscopes and slits.

Someone shouted over the platoon radio — “I saw something!”

At once, the Commander pressed his foot against the back of his driver. He cut the engine, as did every other tank. Frantically the periscopes turned, the vision slits opened, and the hatches burst open. Turrets turned, explosive shells were gathered and readied for battle.

Shadows, and the green wall at either side. Overhead, the black sky, the pouring rain. Cold and clammy in their uniforms, the tank commanders and the Platoon commanders stared dumbly about themselves. Lightning struck from overhead, and color inverted in the flash. Old figures in the shadows turned into new figures, but they were just the same made of the fog of the mind and the smoke of unrestrained fears. There was nothing around them.

Hatches shut — the jumpy gunner who sounded the alert was disciplined with a swift kick.

In secret, the radio operator put her pervitin pill in her mouth and swallowed dry.

Platoon Vier advanced. The Platoon Commander called HQ. “Still leading Tiger group. No contacts, false alarm. Please advice immediately if other elements of Tiger group make contact. We will proceed to the rendezvous via the designated route.”

 

Kalu Northwest — 5th Mech. Division Rear Echelon

Unfamiliar voices in a strange language crackled through the radios.

Löwe-gruppen, anerkennen. Vorrücken–“

Inspector General Chinedu Kimani interrupted. “Translate it for everyone.”

Signals were adjusted, the equipment fine-tuned, the voices became clearer. At the radio the operator, a polyglot, began to speak in tandem with the captured audio, and he put into familiar words the alien tongue emanating from the box. Everyone in the radio car with him and Kimani could now understand the captured radio messages.

Atop a nearby ammunition box a young woman took quick, sparse notes about each message. She drew lines and circles on a map of the Kalu, pinned to the wall near them.

“Lion group heading north through the Turh roadway. No contacts so far.”

He put on a play by himself, taking on the roles of all the speakers. First was the man who’s audio they first captured, the main speaker. Then a woman’s voice appeared as well. She was farther away, and her audio split and cracked more, but they parsed it enough to understand, and the radio operator translated it just the same. They had all the conversation.

“General Anschel wishes for you to advance on a tight front, make sure those roads are clear.”

“Damn it, say something identifying.” Kimani grumbled. She was frustrated, and her demeanor began to show it. She was not like her crew. Her voice had a somewhat hollow ring, but her lips could curl with anger or viciousness. She had regained some of what she had once lost. All of them did, some more quickly or slowly than others. It was never the same as it once was, except for anger. Anger remained similar, though the frequency of it was altered.

“Please report any contacts. We do not expect much resistance.”

He did not switch voices to denote different speakers, nor did he gesticulate, or otherwise point it out. He translated everything he heard in a clear and unaffected stream.

“Acknowledged. We will report any contacts. However, under the present circumstances, it is unlikely we will spot the enemy at any great distance. We will likely have to recon in force. Should we engage enemy positions immediately or wait for backup?”

“Engage, but if you cannot overtake the position, hold ground until a Three or Five can relieve you. Maintain visual as long as possible. Right now discovery is paramount.”

Kimani nodded her head. “Thank you, you fools. Given the context, this cannot be an M4 platoon. So it must be an armored scout car platoon, probably Sd.Kfz. D, Rogues.”

She turned to the woman with the map. “Contact the groups around Turh. Let the cars pass.”

In response the woman nodded her head dutifully, and she turned from the map to a pack radio beside her. She picked it up and passed on the information through the handset.

“Relocate the car farther uphill while we still have some peace.” Kimani ordered. Ahead of them the driver raised her hands in acknowledgment, and then started the vehicle’s engine.

Inside a nondescript plot of woodland in the upper Kalu, the Adze scout car brimmed with life. Across the rotating machine gun mount atop its four-wheeled, long-nosed, fully enclosed, armored, sloping hull, the Adze mounted a large aerial that was constantly intercepting signals and feeding them to the unique, powerful radio equipment mounted inside. All this functionality bloated the Adze’s size, but there were plenty of places to hide in the Kalu.

Black clouds stretched all the way across the Kalu, teeming with angry violet bolts of lightning. Rain fell thick and fast over Kalu, rolling down hills and across flats, making its way over the series of small escarpments across the Kalu like miniature waterfalls.

The Kalu was a region of chaotic shapes, a place of scarps and dips that began in the gently rising territory near Bada Aso, and ended in the mountainous terrain of the Kucha to the northeast, the rocky crags skirting the upper half of Bada Aso to the northwest, and the flat terrain that composed most of the border to Tambwe directly north. It was dotted with patches of forest, each a few hundred meters in size, some a kilometer or two long, all woven through by man-made paths; by cuts along the earth through which little rivulets flowed from the Umaiha, bolstered by the unceasing rain; by the scarps, dips and short plains and open hilltops.

The Adze and its crew traveled from one little patch of wood up a hill to another, and past that to a short plain atop an escarpment. Its four wheel drive took well to the terrain. They settled on a rocky outgrowth, sprinkled with thick vegetation, that gave a commanding view of the Kalu. Normally this was dangerous, but nothing would be flying overhead in the storm, and nothing below would see them against the stone and within the trees.

Kimani could sit atop the rock, collecting radio messages from the Nochtish crews.

The KVW was not just a military force, but an intelligence and security organ. Long ago, during a time of tumult, they learned to incorporate all of these disciplines into a form of revolutionary warfare that preyed on the strength and confidence of the enemy. Always overlooked, underestimated; that was by design. They were a small and unassuming force to the enemy’s naked eye, but they had all the information, fought from prepared positions, in a place filled with traps to spring, and with much of their strength cleverly hidden.

Radio was only one intelligence tool in an arsenal of many, but it was an important tool, and dedicated intercept crews such as those aboard Adze cars were always at work.

Interception was normally a tense and tedious job, where the operators waited for hours on end, cycling through frequencies to find busy networks, watching the traffic, slowly accumulating many guarded scraps of information, full of codes and secrets to decipher. In Adjar this task was surprisingly expedient. Nochtish crews enjoyed their radios and spent much time talking over them, constantly reporting and acknowledging. Busy frequencies tended to remain busy, and were not often switched. Throughout the ensuing battles the Nochtish troops spoke almost conversationally, and what few code words they used they just as quickly forgot and skipped over like an unpleasant formality between friends.

Whenever something important was gleaned from this exercise it could be quickly passed along to the other information crews, and down to field officers commanding regular troops. Interceptors were not alone in this endeavor; there were radio triangulators and range-finders, along with additional interceptor crews in their own Adze vehicles across the Kalu, forming a picture of the enemy advance. From intercept vehicles, information that looked important and that was suspected to be composed of code words or red herrings could pass along to cipher crews, who were currently mostly unnecessary due to the simple plainness of the traffic; and then once fully deciphered, radio data was handed to direction-finders and triangulators, who would determine where the information was coming from. That much was also unnecessary. They had no way of launching an all-out counterattack, only small, limited, local engagements.

Unit compositions, headings and overall offensive plans were much more important to the current operation. Her troops had to know what was coming and when it was expected. This would help them decided whether to try to intercept the enemy at all.

“Let’s take some time to review the situation, and then contact ciphers and have them relay information to the KVW attaches in each unit via our codes. I don’t believe Nocht is monitoring our radio traffic, since their assets are still fluid in the theater, but it pays to be careful.” Kimani said. She nodded her head toward one of her crew. “Signals Officer Jaja.”

Beside the map, sitting on the ammunition box for the car’s machine gun, the young woman adjusted her glasses, and wiped some of her long bangs to the side of her head. “Yes ma’am,” she replied. She cleared her throat. “For past three days we have been capturing radio chatter from what we have identified as the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions south of Bada Aso. These divisions constitute Nocht’s primary armor power in the region, and are composed of veterans from the Nochtish operations in Cissea and Mamlakha. At its base, each division is composed of Panzer Platoons of 5 tanks. We do not have confirmation, but we are operating under the assumption that these Platoons are formed into Companies of 15 to 20 tanks, making up Battalions of 45-60 tanks. Each Panzer Division likely has around 300 tanks, so there are likely around 600 tanks in the Southern Kalu, compared to our strength of 400 tanks.”

“But this strength is deceptive, I’m sure.” Kimani said. “How much of it is light tanks?”

“That is one of the qualifiers I was about to address.” Officer Jaja replied, nodding her head. Like Madiha, she had served under Kimani for a few years now. She had tanned skin and bright, golden hair and green eyes, ringed by a slight red glow. She was much more Ayvartan than Lubonin, with no knowledge of tongues but their own, and without the sharp-shaped elfin ears. However, one could still visibly trace her diverse heritage. “From the frequency of broadcasts, and comparing various callsigns and orders, we’ve found that over 40% of Nochtish radio traffic has been directed toward Light tank platoons composed of previously identified types — the 10-year-old M2 Ranger, now known as the M5, likely composes a significant amount of their strength. I’m willing to say as much as 250 or even 300 of those 600 tanks could be M5s. The M4 Sentinel, and the M3 Hunter assault gun, comprise the rest, along with a smaller amount of recon scout cars and half-tracks of previously identified types.”

Kimani nodded. She started going through their own numbers in comparison.

“Of our 400 tanks, 50 are Hobgoblins from the 5th Mechanized. All of the tanks from Battlegroup Ox are Goblins, but at least they have the 45mm high-velocity gun, and many have extra armor. We have 300 of those. From the Svechthan heavy division we have 25 modified Goblins which they call the Yezh; and 25 Gori medium tanks, the capabilities of which I’m not entirely sure of. So the situation is not as bad as it seems.”

“I’ve been told the Gori has a 45mm gun, but is better armored and faster than our Orc.”

“Good then; it can group with and keep up with our Hobgoblins. Any chance the other, oh, 700 or so Goblins of the Battlegroup might be able to do anything for us?”

Officer Jaja shook her head. “Negative, Inspector General. Almost 500 of the Battlegroup’s Goblins are total mechanical losses. After demilitarization downsized the tank divisions, much of the stored equipment was wholly neglected, and much of it was improperly sheltered. Transporting it to where it can be fully repaired would be a waste of time for mere Goblins. Right now around 200 Goblins have been sent to Tambwe to undergo repairs, and will not be available for a long time. About 400 Goblins are fighting in Bada Aso, and word has it a quarter of those are already knocked out. Those 300 we have here are all we will get.”

Kimani crossed her arms. “To think, I’ve been dealt such a hand by destiny, that I would be grateful to have more obsolete light tanks at my disposal right now.”

She had spent almost a week out in the Kalu, organizing the mess of obsolete armor from Battlegroup Ox into a workable defense force in prepared areas around the Kalu, and reinforcing it here and there with more experienced troops from the 5th KVW Mechanized Division. Each of the Kalu’s defensive sectors she staffed with an ad-hoc “tank brigade” composed of 50 Goblins and 5 Hobgoblins — there were six such brigades in operation. All of the Svechthan armor, along with 15 Hobgoblins, she kept in reserve as a response force.

Every Hobgoblin was piloted by a KVW officer, and could carry out operations well — but she was overwhelmingly saddled with Goblins, all of whom had energetic but thoroughly inexperienced Ox troops instead.

Though the Ox tank crews were motivated, they simply lacked the experience to do anything. Mobile operations and any kind of offense were out of the question. For one there were no real tank officers, only individual platoon commanders. And many tankers were so out of practice they found it hard even to travel from one location to the next as complete units. There were tanks straying off target, forgetting to communicate in any way, and exposing their formations. Several tanks had their radios entirely stripped out, or never installed at all, so she ordered those Goblins to stick to the Hobgoblins like Chicks following a mother Hen.

It was maddening how ineffective her troops seemed in this time of dire need.

But she adapted, she had to. Kimani played to their simplest strengths, and she kept them in the woods and behind the rocks, acting essentially as stationary sentry guns, waiting, watching.

Somehow, she instilled discipline enough in them to believe in that plan and to follow it.

“Nocht still doesn’t know our full strength?”

“I believe not.” Officer Jaja replied. “We moved and conducted all our construction and preparations at night to prevent air recon from spotting us.”

Kimani nodded. Everything was established. Now it simply had to work.

This was all for Madiha — she had to protect Madiha, at all costs, and this was the only way that she thought she could. Right now the greatest danger to Madiha that Kimani could imagine were those Panzer divisions rushing up the Kalu to bite into her eastern flank. Such an attack would not only be decisive, it would trap the Major in the city with her troops.

Not the only danger, but the only one Kimani felt she could challenge.

She knew that Madiha needed her on other terms. In many ways Madiha had never grown from childhood, because much of it was taken from her before she could experience it. For a long time, Kimani had considered this state of things tragic — especially as Madiha began to lose other people in her life. She hid herself in the shadows of others, and she filled herself with them, and as time went on there were less shadows. Kimani allowed this because she did not know what else to do. Now she had inflicted upon Madiha a cruelty that Madiha herself had reluctantly accepted. Another shadow left her, exposing her to the harsh sun.

That was how Kimani understood things. It was difficult, and she didn’t know if it was right.

But for now all she could offer was 400 tanks across a wide swathe of frontage.

“How are we doing infantry-wise?” Kimani asked. It would not do to wallow in pity.

Officer Jaja didn’t even blink. She continued to speak, in a matter-of-fact kind of voice. “Major Nakar gave us two Rifle divisions to use but they’re not very well trained — therefore we’ve opted keep them back in reserve past the river to blunt a crossing or reinforce the city as necessary, and leave the infantry component in the Kalu itself to the 51st KVW Rifle Battalion in the forest. We have around a hundred infantry in position in each of the six tank brigade sectors. I’m given to understand Nocht has no idea these formations exist yet. They do not know the extent to which the KVW is operating in Adjar, and believe Ox to still be commanded by Gowon.”

Kimani nodded. She crossed her arms and looked over the map of the Kalu. “We can expect the Grenadier component of this attack to be small, since it must be packed into vehicles to keep up with the tanks, and those vehicles are at a premium since Nocht’s shipping capacity to Cissea and Mamlakha is limited. However, they are probably very well trained. This would probably be an issue in good weather, but under this kind of storm they’ll be packed tight under the tarps of their armored carriers. Their training means nothing until they dismount.”

“I don’t believe their training will prepare them for this ambush.” Jaja replied.

That was the plan in essence — for Nocht to be so blind and so dumb to the intentions of the Kalu forces that their carefully calculated attack became a mess, disrupted and terrorized at every turn. Everything was set. All they needed now was for Nocht to keep its schedule.

Kimani’s radio operator raised his right hand. Everyone turned to him.

“Receiving contact from KVW forces in Nuye. They have visual on the Tiger group.”

“Alright. Give them some noise for us, for as long as possible.” Kimani ordered.

 

Kalu Northeast — 2nd PzD Advance

According to the information from HQ, the Ayvartans had 10 Divisions in Adjar and would have no more, due to a static system of defense and a fully demobilized and partially demilitarized defense infrastructure. Of those 10 divisions, one was considered either scattered, lost or ineffective in general; at least 7 of those divisions had been fully or partially identified within the city of Bada Aso. Aerial recon on the Kalu region showed little signs of activity — and in the grainy photos, what looked to HQ like a rifle squadron could have easily been fleeing civilians, and what looked like defensive works could have been rocks.

Regardless, by elimination, there had to be two rifle divisions in the Kalu.

Leichte Panzer Platoon Vier had not seen a single solitary sign of life in the Kalu. They woke with the dawn, and started their engines with it. They had advanced for over seven hours crossing almost 60 kilometers of terrain. They had trudged through forest, climbed slopes, crossed ravines and forded rapidly swelling little streams. Through Nuye they headed north and east, and now prepared for the next part of the journey. Organizing along the edge of the Kucha mountains, where the terrain became too rocky and steep for the tanks to continue north, they would instead drive west to smash a way into Bada Aso.

They had several options to cross the Umaiha river, and Vier’s Commander felt, after witnessing the chilling absence of the enemy throughout the Kalu, that most of the defenses must have been prepared along the river. He felt foolish for his earlier fears, in fact. Had it been him in this position certainly he would have deployed all his strength around those river crossings. If the Panzer Divisions could not cross those rivers then Bada Aso would remain safe for the moment. So barricading the crossings along the most obvious routes made sense.

But the Luftlotte’s Jagdflug recon sorties had seen nothing built along the rivers.

Could the Ayvartans really stage a mobile defense of the rivers? Could they prevent crossings without barricades and gun positions, in order to keep their numbers hidden in the patches of woodland and in the shadows of the hills? Why was nobody resisting?

Could they really afford to be so relaxed in the face of two Panzer Divisions?

So far the enemy had gotten lucky while defending their positions inside the congested city streets of Bada Aso, but around those rivers it would be a different story. Or would it? Nochtish commanders received information on Ayvarta that sounded like dogma. They were demobilized and weak, low on ready troops and usable equipment, unwilling to fight for the tyranny of communism. Had they seen the real fangs of the southern continent yet?

Only ten days had passed in the war, after all.

Inside his tank, the Vier Commander pored over the possibilities. He waited, under the ceaseless rain, in what would be the shadow of the rocky Kucha, if the sun was out. He was past the woodland, but there would certainly be more of it in his drive toward the river. While his tank was buttoned, he could see nothing, but if he took a look outside he would have seen a gentle northwards slope at the rocky foot of the mountain. To the west were patches of woodland broken up by the rising and falling of hills that concealed the edges of the river. Along the southwest lay the edge of an escarpment overlooking the lower Kalu. Even in this weather these major features were discernible to the eye, though muddy and somewhat indistinct. He wondered how high above the sea level they were.

Where had those rifle divisions set up? Where did they hide 20,000 people? He looked at his maps, but he was no General, and the information he carried with him to battle was simply too incomplete to extrapolate from. There were limits to his planning abilities.

He ordered his radio operator to contact the HQ.

“I need to hear from the Jagdflug again, I want to confirm a few things.”

About a meter below him, in a niche on the side of the tank, a young woman donned a pair of headphones. She began to operate the tank’s radio, putting in the call to the correct frequency and awaiting a response. She repeated the call twice, and grew frustrated.

“No dice,” replied the operator. “We’re getting a lot of noise on our frequency to HQ.”

“Try the other units, see if they can’t get a hold of them.”

Minutes later, she put down her headphones. “All I’m getting is noise.”

“Do you think it’s the storm?” He asked.

“It might be. I mean, it’s not supposed to be, but I wasn’t really trained in–“

“Is there anything you can do about it?”

“I doubt it. I will keep trying. We might get through eventually.”

“I understand. Keep trying while we wait for Funf and Acht to join us.”

The Commander felt uneasy. His radio operation had never been interrupted by lightning and rain. Older radios, maybe; but these were M5 tanks, fully modernized from the M2. Storms should not have been a problem. Lightning and rain fading was natural, but complete signal loss was far harder to swallow, particularly with recon radio cars in the operational area.

And not just signal loss to HQ — but to other units, much closer and easier to reach.

It brought to his mind again the idea of the land itself rising them against them.

“We’ll wait for backup and then begin the advance. Is the short range radio working?”

“No, none of the radio is.” replied the radio officer. “It’s all noise.”

Commander Vier clenched his fists. “Good god. I guess I’ll signal with a damned flag.”

Hatches opened; every tank commander pulled himself out under the rain with only a sparse green hood for cover, and every crew felt the rain dripping into the tank from then on. Out of their tanks, the commanders could signal to each other in absence of radio. The Platoon Commander produced a red flag, while the subordinate tank commanders each had a blue flag to acknowledge orders given to them. It was archaic, but it worked.

While sorting out their communications Platoon Vier waited for Funf, a counterpart platoon deployed from the full-sized Panzer Regiment that accompanied the Leichte Regiment within the 2nd panzer Division; and Acht, a Platoon of mobile infantry, consisting of five Squire carriers loaded with a rifle squadron. This was just a small smattering of the 2nd Panzer Division’s expected full power in the Kalu region.

Once united these three platoons would form Kampfgruppe Tiger and test two particular Umaiha crossings, all planned out ahead of time. Vier led the way, scouting for the enemy. Funf followed, to deliver heavy firepower from its Sentinel medium tanks. In the rear, Acht’s infantry could dismount and rush forward when battle was joined.

They kept their eyes peeled for the other two Platoons. Five light tanks could not complete the day’s objectives on their own. Funf and Acht were absolutely necessary. They should have been following through Vier’s path at about two or three kilometers distance, but without radios it was impossible to tell when they were coming or what might delay them.

They would not have stopped to fix their radio problem — everything south of the rendezvous point was a bad place to be trying to fix a radio problem. So Vier was confident that the remaining two Platoons would arrive shortly. Tense minutes followed under the cold rain.

Whenever time a lightning bolt surged from overhead the tank commanders tried to use the sudden flash to try to see through the nearby shadows and the veil of the rains. All they could see were the blurry contours of the land, the indistinct masses of trees, the lines of the path, the fog of distance, the gloomy shadow of the lower Kalu below the escarpment.

Vier hardly noticed when the first M4 arrived. It had come out of the wood in the southwest, and approached them, struggling uphill toward the rendezvous point and Vier.

One of Vier’s tanks almost opened fire — Vier’s Commander had to wave him down with a flag. Everyone was on edge, but this was very clearly an M4. It had its lights off, so that it would not be seen from afar by the enemy, and it was buttoned down from the looks of it. But it had a periscope, so it could be waved to. The Platoon Commander signaled to his tanks to wait, and maneuvered his own vehicle ahead. He started to flag his approaching counterpart.

The Lead M4 closed in silently. A second M4 started out of the forest, right behind its tail. None of the hatches opened, nobody responded to signals. Then came a third tank following their trail. It was maddening. Why didn’t they respond? Were they trying their radios?

“Nothing on the waves still!” shouted the radio operator. It couldn’t be that.

Vier’s Commander continued to flag the lead tank ever more furiously — surely the driver or commander could see them now. He even blared the tank’s horn at them, again to no avail. Quiet and dutiful the tanks climbed the slope, making their orderly way to the rendezvous.

Then he saw something, a trail from the tank’s side, dancing in the rain.

He strained his eyes. It had been hard to see in the ceaseless downpour.

Smoke; from a shell impact on the side of the tank. The M4 was an abandoned husk!

“Fire! Open fire! It’s a trick! It’s a trick!” shouted the Commander.

It took far too long for his wet, cold, stressed crew to effect a response.

Off the side of the M4’s turret a muzzle flashed, and a shell perforated the command tank, exploding inside the hull. Inside the crew saw only a flash before their souls were dragged screaming from their bodies. The dead M4 ceased to move as soon as the lead M5 was dead, and from behind the tank its puppeteer revealed itself — an Ayvartan Hobgoblin medium tank had been pushing the vehicle, and hiding behind its silhouette by taking advantage of the slope.

Two other Hobgoblins revealed themselves and dashed uphill with their leader.

Soon the enemy platoon reached the crest of the Vier’s hill, and paused to take aim.

There was panic among the ranks of the light panzers. The M5s of Vier, having lost their command vehicle, and finding themselves engaged with an enemy tank type they had never seen before, started backing into the rocks while haphazardly opening fire. Volleys of 37mm shells bludgeoned the chassis and turrets of the three Hobgoblins to no avail, leaving ugly circular dents and rocking the crews inside, but scoring no penetrations. Once the M5s got moving in earnest, they hit rocky terrain and started to bob, and their shells started flying over the Hobgoblins, and failed to score even meager hits on their clustered enemy.

All semblance of communication was broken. No flags waved. Every tank commander descended into his hatch, and the vehicles started to veer in different directions, dashing madly backwards away from the enemy trio. Vier had been fully broken as a unit.

Within moments the Hobgoblins opened fire, and it seemed that all at once, every M5 tank retreating spontaneously exploded. Two tanks were perforated from the front and faced the same fate as their commander — two remaining tanks had their tracks blown off, as a shell miraculously overpenetrated a front plate at an angle such that it went through the left drive-train of one tank and smashed off the right drive-train on another.

Hatches popped open, and surviving crew members rushed to escape.

Hobgoblin machine guns coaxial to the turrets opened fire, picking off the runners.

Men and a handful of women fell around their tanks, injured or dead, vanishing into the mud.

Fifteen minutes was all it took for Vier to disappear from the order of battle.

From the perspective of the Hobgbolins, however, this was all foregone. Charging the enemy like this was reckless, but the pilots of this particular tank were Ayvartans of a sort who were prone to quiet, almost instinctive forms of recklessness. They lacked an understanding of fear necessary to temper such actions — so to them, this action was a natural one.

After all they possessed a superior weapon and surprised an isolated enemy.

There was a small chance they could have been hurt or killed, but it did not matter.

Inside the Hobgoblin, a KVW officer with the 5th Mechanized Division radioed HQ.

“Tiger Group has been eliminated. We are advancing toward our secondary positions.”

 

Bada Aso Outskirts — 1st Vorkampfer HQ

As the storm raged over Bada Aso, the roof started leaking in over a dozen places at the Vorkampfer HQ. It appeared the restaurant building they had picked as their headquarters was not so intact after all. Long rivulets from the ceiling formed puddles on the floor, but the General forbade the staff from becoming distracted. As long as the sensitive equipment was dry and operational, the floor and the tables and people’s heads could stand a little water.

In a corner of the room, atop a long wall-mounted table, six young women worked at the radios on a crucial task. One of them was getting drenched in the shoulder, and a towel had been given to her to cover it. She started to shiver, her hands shaking as she turned the frequency dial. Then a comforting presence, a pair of hands massaging her shoulders. Her supervisor, another pretty young lady, whispered warmly in her ear.

“It will be over soon, don’t worry.” She said. “Try your best until then, Erika.”

Erika nodded her head, and her grip on the dial steadied a touch. She pressed her headphones against her ears. Erika’s radio supervisor awaited a report, with a gentle, reassuring smile on her face. Her presence caused every girl at the table to perk up and work energetically.

“Any contacts?” She asked.

They scanned the unit frequencies. They sent messages. They tried everything they could feasibly do on their end — increasing power to their transmitters, going outside in cloaks to raise the antennae, swapping the antennae for fresh ones, even swapping one of the radio blocks for one in reserve. But none of this seemed to change the results.

After another round of standard contact calls, Erika still had no good news.

“Sorry Chief Fruehauf. Same thing as before.”

Her supervisor sighed, and ambled away, demoralized but unable to show it. Chief Signals Officer Helga Fruehauf had been having a very difficult time of things in Bada Aso. Her troubles would have been ever so slightly lessened had any of the Panzer companies in the Kalu picked up their radios, but if anyone was shouting across those dozens of kilometers, their voice was drowned out by the radio noise. She hoped it was merely the thunder and rain.

But she knew that it wasn’t — she just could not say what she really thought it was.

“No response from the Kalu units sir.” She said. She hugged her clipboard to her chest.

General Von Sturm grumbled from a chair in the middle of the room.

“Keep trying. You’ve got the long range radios, we set up your antennae on the roof, we got you your generators, we’ve done everything! If the Panzer Divisions HQ can’t reach those units then you must be able to!” He said, gradually working himself up to shouting.

Fruehauf sighed internally, but outwardly, she smiled, nodded, and went on her way.

She prided herself on her spirit — she wanted to make this war a pleasant home for her girls, the radio operators of the 1st Vorkampfer, and for the men they served. She tried to be courteous, collected, exuberant. She tried to wear a smile. But General Von Sturm’s temper had taken a turn for the worse during the Matumaini actions, and though he had calmed somewhat, she saw his growing frustration again during the 28th, and she grew tremulous.

General Von Drachen wasn’t around to stick up for her this time, either. She was alone.

Several important actions would take place this day — on Penance road they were supervising attacks by Von Sturm’s own 13th Panzergrenadiers Division, as well as the unleashing of what was left of the 6th Grenadier’s Divisional Artillery in the Buxa Industrial Region. In the Umaiha Riverside, Von Drachen was resuming Azul’s attacks up the eastern parts of the city.

And in the Kalu, the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions Blitzed through, moving rapidly past enemy territory to hit their vulnerable rear areas. Once they entered the city from the east and linked up with Azul, encirclement and destruction of Bada Aso was inevitable.

Or at least, that was what Freuhauf had read. She was a signals officer. In the organization of the Vorkampfer this simply meant she stood in a tent or a room, supervising a half-dozen to a dozen people on radio equipment, while on occasion calling a ciphers battalion to come up with code words and frequency changes, though such things had become perfunctory annoyances. Oberkommando believed the Ayvartans incapable of advanced signals warfare, so her “ciphers battalion” was gradually converted into an additional ordinary signals battalion, just full of people who both worked radios and did ciphers in their spare time.

Everything still came in a ship, and there were priorities to consider, after all.

Penance seemed to be doing ok; Von Sturm didn’t particularly care about Azul.

What was baffling everyone on that ugly afternoon was the absence of contact with the Kalu.

“Call General Anschel again and tell him to tell his staff to stop jerking around and get those tanks on the line, I don’t care what it takes.” General Von Sturm said. He was reclining on a chair in one of the old restaurant tables in the HQ, with his hands on the nape of his neck.

“Yes sir.” Fruehauf replied. She hovered close to one of her radio girls, lifted one of the headphone receivers from her ear and whispered the orders. She nodded, and dutifully contacted the 2nd Panzer Division. Minutes later, Fruehauf gave a menial report.

“All they get is noise sir. They think it might be rain fade or lightning interference–“

“Not possible. You know that! You know more about radio than I do! You know it’s not rain fade, Fruehauf!” General Von Sturm said, raising his hands into the air in outrage. In the process he nearly fell back to the floor along with his chair, but somehow he managed to salvage it, and righted himself in time.

“Yes sir,” Fruehauf began, “but they have no other means of communication with the troops right now. We could try to change all our frequencies and hope our tanks are looking through every channel for contact; but that would probably mean halting the attack for a few hours until we get everyone organized again, and I know that’s not going to happen.”

General Von Sturm steepled his fingers and rested his chin on them.

“What do you think the problem is? You went to school for this crap, you tell me.”

Fruehauf averted her eyes. She could not smile or be peppy, not about this, because she was about to do something fairly heretical in her response to the General.

“Radio jamming, sir.” She replied. “This is clearly random noise across the unit frequencies in the Kalu, and that is why we can still communicate with Bada Aso units, and why we can communicate between HQ units. They’re jamming the Kalu panzer unit frequencies so we can’t contact them for command and control. This noise we keep hearing doesn’t sound like I know our radios sound when they are having audio issues. It’s been introduced by Ayvartans.”

“So the Ayvartans introduced nondescript static noise to our unit frequencies?”

“Yes sir.”

“That’s impossible. They would have to know the frequencies for all our units. When the hell would they have collected this information, and how the hell?” Von Sturm replied. He looked more amused, as though this was a theory as far-fetched as an invasion of space men.

Fruehauf herself thought it was difficult to believe for another reason.

In order for them to do this, they would have needed high power radio equipment to be deployed in the Kalu itself. She supposed they could have fed such equipment via truck-mounted portable gasoline generators, but it seemed like a difficult endeavor for the Ayvartan army they had fought so far. They would have to hide these stations throughout the rough terrain of the Kalu, from both air reconnaissance and the sight of the advancing Panzers.

Then they would have had to spend time capturing frequencies, jam them, and take advantage of the silence for whatever amount of time it took before the HQs got fed up, blasted halt orders through random frequencies until someone heard, and ordered the institution of frequency changes across the board. It was a very delicate operation that could either pay off strongly for a limited amount of time, or waste days worth of work.

Nocht’s radio discipline was not the best, but this was all a longshot nonetheless. It required tireless effort, enormous coordination, and an understanding of the enemy’s timetable and psychology.

She had read the reports. It made little sense. Could the Battlegroup Ox depicted in their intel data do this? Could their commander, Gowon, have had this foresight and shrewdness? Could the Ayvartan army they know about support such a tactic? What were they missing?

Regardless it was the only thing that made sense to her. Advanced forms of signals warfare.

“Fruehauf, you have a big imagination. Get back to your radios.” Von Sturm said dismissively. He waved her over to the corner where the radios were posted, and she smiled, nodded, and dutifully took her place beside them. It was best not to question it when the General let you off without incident. She returned to Erika’s side, stood by her, and promised to change the towel on her shoulder and to get her some time off if she came down with a chill.

It was all she could do at the moment. Make this bleak place a comforting home.

 

Central Kalu, Southwest of Tigergruppen

Turh was one of the few developed westerly paths through the Kalu. At no point was it a paved road, but in many places it was solid enough for anything to pass without undue trouble. Like all roads to the Kalu, however, it became wild with the territory, weaving over hills and between trees. In the rain it became muddy, but no intolerably so. For the tanks that dared not navigate straight through the treacherous wood, an open, unguarded road was their best and fastest bet, and so Nocht’s Panzer Divisions took to those few roads through the Kalu, and charged as fast as they could into what they thought was the depths of the enemy.

And indeed there were Ayvartan eyes stationed along much of the road.

But they were not very distressed by the enemy’s penetration.

Under camouflaged nets, in dug-outs and foxholes hidden by slices of turf, atop trees, and in thick bushes. All of it had been constructed at night or under camouflage, and not a single plane had been able to identify the enormity of their preparations. All six tank brigades and their infantry components waited silently by their radios, enduring the cold and rain, unblinking under the flashes of lightning. Ahead of them they saw the convoys of Nochtish vehicles moving. Many of these ambush groups let recon troops pass by unharmed to maintain stealth.

They were waiting for a different prize. Especially along the Turh.

When the first M4 Sentinel was spotted on Turh, an ambush group called in.

“Those red nuts are dangerous raw; please toast them before eating, Miss Jaja.”

Minutes later, eyes still peeled on the moving column, HQ responded.

“I can’t make a fire without something to burn.”

A rising thunderclap concealed the awakening of men and women from their fox holes and dugouts, the dropping of camouflage nets and earth panel covers, the hard steps of people jumping down from trees, and the starting of tank engines. Grenade bundles were retrieved from backpacks and kept in hand. In small groups the troops followed the moving tanks through the cover of the trees and plants, awaiting an opportunity.

Groups along the Tuhr prepared for their imminent battles. This particular tank brigade was divided into four groups, each tasked with a stretch of a few kilometers alongside the road, each with their own unit they would rise up against and destroy.

In front of one particular group were five M4 Sentinels of Lion Group. These were medium tanks with tough front armor, a machine gun set into the front plate, and a deadly 50mm anti-tank gun on the turret. They had tightly spaced tracks that afforded speed in exchange for terrain performance, and a curved form factor with a pot-shaped turret.

Across the column every hatch was open and every tank commander exposed. Instead of looking at the trees they were more concerned with each other. They were holding flags, and focused intensely on these flags and the gestures made with them. They were utterly unaware.

A KVW field officer in charge of the ambush gave a radio command. “Trap them.”

Within moments, one by one the tanks ground to a clumsy stop.

Ahead of the lead M4 massive green thing blocked their way, as though a chunk of the earth itself had risen to stop them. It was covered in leaves and had a bright, angry yellow eye.

Lion group’s commanders visibly panicked and started waving their flags.

But it was not a wraith or elemental, but a Hobgoblin tank in a camouflage net.

It opened fire at point blank range, instantly setting the lead tank ablaze and stalling the column. A burst of flames and smoke from inside the tank nearly threw the commander from his cupola. His corpse slumped over the remains instead.

Dozens of grenade bundles flew out from the trees and exploded around the tanks. One bundle hooked onto a shovel strapped to the back of the last M4 tank in the convoy, and detonated the engine. Several others smashed ineffectively against turrets and sides, but they rocked the tanks and the crews and forced the commanders back into their hatches.

The three remaining M4s dashed in different directions — two barreled forward into the ambush line, while another backed away blindly into the trees. The 50mm guns roared, and shells flew over the men and women in the forest. Trees splintered and fell, suddenly crushing several infantry, and high explosive fragments nicked and cut and pierced and knocked out soldiers, exploding in their dugouts or against the soft, vulnerable cover of the bushes. Panicked drivers squeezed the machine guns set into the glacis plates of the Nochtish tanks, cutting a swathe across the forest in front of them, causing grave injury.

As the woodland came suddenly alive with fire and smoke, the KVW fighters stood their ground without a note of altered emotion. Death evoked little fear in them.

The M4s that charged into the wood caused several soldiers to dive out of the way, but they advanced no further than the trees before meeting a line of Goblin light tanks. Piloted by scared men and women from the Territorial Army, they could not carry out the kinds of tricks the Hobgoblins were performing, and at a distance their guns would have done no good against the armored faces of the M4 Sentinels. But in a stationary firing position, and within 20 meters of the enemy, the 45mm guns on the Goblins put several perfect holes into the M4’s faces, and stalled them completely. Tracks stopped dead and guns quieted suddenly. Inside, the crews made good use of their undulled emotions and started to cheer with relief.

Dashing backwards with reckless abandon, the remaining M4 found itself pursued by the camouflaged Hobgoblin, its spotlight shining across the wood as it chased the retreating enemy. They rolled over logs and smashed down thinner trees. 50mm shells kicked up mud around the Hobgoblin, and blew in half trees behind it. The Hobgoblin fired its own 76mm gun just as recklessly, and smashed the scenery just as much in its charge.

Across a hundred meters the chase stretched, the tanks face to face and the Hobgoblin closing in. The M4’s reverse speed was half the Hobgoblin’s forward speed, and despite its head start the M4 could never outrun it without turning its soft rear to the enemy’s guns.

As it closed the distance the Hobgoblin took fewer shots and landed more. It blew off the left track guard, and smashed an awful dent into the glacis plate that warped the machine gun mount to uselessness. One hit on the front of the turret warped and paralyzed the turret ring.

Then the M4 Sentinel’s front lifted from the ground. It drove itself into a narrow ravine.

Concluding the chase, the Hobgoblin loosed one final shell that penetrated the Sentinel’s underbelly and left the tank burning in the middle of the wood. Rainfall and thunder were once again the dominant sounds. The Tank Commander flipped on her radio headset.

“We have toasted some of those red nuts for you, Miss Jaja.” She said.

She heard back, “Lion group has been eliminated.”

She nodded. “Acknowledged. Advancing to secondary positions.”

 

Central Kalu, Northwest of Lowëgruppen

While the 2nd Panzer Division was tasked with the eastern stretch of Kalu, the 3rd Panzer Division cut across the west, closer to Bada Aso. Due to the Umaiha river going through the eastern half of the city, the 3rd Panzer Division had almost exactly the same mission as the 2nd — drive northward through the Kalu, cross the Umaiha where it straddles the northern Kalu, and force a way into the city via dry land to bypass the Ayvartan front line.

To this end they mustered 125 vehicles of various classes as their first wave, traveling in a line of small convoys across the wilds. Across the western Kalu the woodland was much more sparse, but the tanks had to contend more readily with the hills. Kope road was the most direct route, winding around the rocky crags, like horns erupting from the earth, that broke up the land in the Kalu, and offering the most readily navigable slopes through the softer hills.

Twenty of those vehicles gathered at the edge of a sliver of woods 50 km into the Kalu. They paused before a broad, open stretch of slope dotted with boulders and overlooked along its eastern side by a flat-topped crag jutting out of the hillside, 20 meters higher than the foot of the slope, and 30 meters long. It made a perfect position for a potential ambush, and with no radio contact to HQ or other units, they had to be precise and careful.

Puma gruppe had organized without incident, and it was time for its infantry component to be put to good use. From one of the M4 Sentinels, a Tank Commander pulled himself out of the cupola and rushed to the back of a Squire half-track. He lifted the tarp, and explained the situation to the men inside. He rushed from it to a second of their five carrier vehicles, and their tarps rolled back, and two squadrons of men departed from the edge of the wood.

At first they crouched low to the ground like thieves, rain sliding off their cloaks and glistening when lightning fell, but gradually the urgency of their situation dawned on them, as there was little cover on the long slope ahead. They worked themselves up to a dash, and charged past the boulders, feet slipping on the muddy earth, until they made it to the rock face. They stood with their backs pressed to the crag’s side for several minutes. Once it was clear no one was challenging them quite yet, they threw up their hooks, and started to climb.

For an experienced climber, it was not every high up, and though water trailed down the rock, their hooks found good holds to sink into. At the top of the Crag, the men found nothing but more boulders and sparse green growth like moss. Everything was clear.

One of the squadrons stood sentinel along the edge of the crag, while another ran to the tip of the rock, and waved their flags to signal the convoy to keep moving. From the woods the tank commanders could see them through binoculars. Orders were communicated and again the convoy was on its way out, light tanks and armored cars first, half-tracks second, and medium tanks at the back, in order to prevent any element from being slowed down.

The Gebirgsjager mountain squadrons waited patiently, rifles out, scanning the slope for contacts. They watched the tanks moving up without incident, and felt relief.

Behind them, two barrels emerged from inside a boulder. Muzzles began flashing.

Under the sound of thunder, light machine guns opened fire against the infantry squadrons, lancing through the unaware men in vicious, sustained bursts that seemed to fill the air. Men fell from the edges of the Crag and battered against the rock, their legs or shoulders clipped, their ropes cut, and for some, simply from the shock and surprise. Few men dropped atop the crag — for most it was a fall and a crushing landing. Tarps and camouflage net were thrown off the inconspicuous boulders, revealing a semi-circular framework in which a squadron of Ayvartan men and women had hidden. They crawled around the wooden bars, and set up where the Nochtish men had died, BKV anti-tank rifles and Danava light machine guns in hand.

With the high land won again, the KVW squadron signaled their ambush.

Across the hill, several boulders flashed suddenly. Shells flew from the gray objects.

Fire and steel fragments consumed the bed of a half-track and the men inside it. Two M4 tanks felt their sides scraped by the barrels of hobgoblin tanks, and were shot through at point blank range. An M5 Ranger’s track slid right off its wheels from several BKV shots coming down from atop the crag. Every vehicle in the convoy switched gears and started to turn front plates and turrets toward the enemy, but found that the enemy was all among them. A dozen of what they had believed to be boulders started to move, all along the flanks of the convoy, between different vehicles, ahead, behind; there was no facing that protected them from the enemy.

All around them Goblins and Hobgoblins awoke and attacked all at once.

In response the Nochtish convoy opened fire just as spontaneously.

Shells hurtled wildly across the slope in every direction, machine guns blared, and fire and smoke raged across the hill. It was a frenzied, directionless confrontation, a tank group’s equivalent to a blind, flailing melee over the mud. An M4’s 50mm gun speared a boulder containing an Ayvartan Goblin and smashed the little tank to pieces.

In turn a Hobgoblin pierced the M4 from behind, punching through the engine and setting the crew horrifyingly alight. In a stroke of sheer brutal luck several M5s focused on the nearest false boulder and battered the hidden Hobgoblin tank to pieces at nearly point blank range. From behind them however, two Goblins scored decisive, subsequent hits on the engines of three tanks, as though lined up in a shooting gallery.

In the midst of these warring titans the infantry dismounted their half-tracks, and reached for their grenades, but almost none could throw before either hiding or retreating from the mortal world. Machine gun fire from friendly and enemy tanks alike shredded the wheels and noses of their carriers, stranding them, and the men stepped out into a killing field. Within the smoke and the rain and the flashing thunder and the brilliant blasts, they could not make out friend from foe. Many huddled around husks as best as they could for cover; several dozen ran out to try to fight and had their arms and legs blasted off by snipers, their torsos filled with bullets from the light machine gunners atop the crag or the deadly dance of the tanks.

Minutes into the fight there was a paucity of fire and death.

Enough of each side had been bled out that a battle line had formed. Further uphill a pair of hobgoblins had survived the savagery, shed their disguises, and faced the enemy, while two Goblin tanks limped away with smoking engines and weeping pilots but working turrets and tracks, enough for the territorial army survivors to get away. Fifty meters below them, two M4s and an M5 had survived with some damage. Their strong glacis plates faced forward, and their guns trained on the enemy. The M4s fired the first pair of shots opening the duel.

Both shells crashed against the front plate of one of the Hobgoblins and exploded right inside, tearing open the top of the turret and sending a tongue of flames out the 76mm gun.

Standing alone the remaining Hobgoblin retaliated, and its AP shell smashed open the turret of one of the M4s and turned the interior hull into an inferno.

Quickly reloading, the M4 Sentinel fired the decisive shell at its counterpart.

The 50mm AP shell hit the Hobgoblin’s glacis — and bounced off from its poor angling.

The Hobgoblin’s response shot collapsed the M4’s battered glacis plate, and ended the match.

Behind them, the retreating M5 Ranger was savagely riddled with BKV bullets, and halted. Rather than set fire to it, KVW infantry emerged and captured the crew — they were close enough to their own lines to be able to take these people away for interrogation.

KVW forces surrounded the tank and arrived in time to subdue the tank commander, who had threatened to shoot his crew. A woman radio operator, and an injured driver were also pulled away. Unfortunately, the tank gunner had been killed by several BKV shots.

Thus, Puma group’s thrust had been blunted. Another area of the Kalu was retained, for now.

This time it was a trembling Goblin commander who called in the report, on a portable radio hastily installed inside the tank. “Umm, this is,” He gasped for breath for a second, “This is Corporal Turasi, and I think Puma group has been eliminated. I’m sorry, but we sustained terrible losses in the attempt. Spirits and Ancestors guard our comrades, may they have peace. And um, also, we’ve got prisoners, we’ll take them to the secondary positions with us, I suppose.”

 

Kalu Northwest — 5th Mech Division Rear Echelon

Reports came in from all over the Kalu, and Inspector General Kimani listened in with growing triumph. So far every Panzer thrust in the first wave had been brutally rebuffed by the ambush positions, and the few groups that had been let past the ambush areas would now have to contend with partial encirclement, and attacks by the mobile response force. She counted those panzers as good as dead. In any event, the operation was a complete success.

While she had reports of escaped enemies, and some painful losses in her tank brigades, her forces counted almost 150 vehicles destroyed within the span of a few hours. If her intelligence was correct, the force moving into the Kalu could have been no bigger than 200 vehicles. Therefore significant forces from the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions had been crushed. In addition her main objective had been to selectively destroy large amounts of M4 medium tanks, and this had been resoundingly accomplished. Though Nocht’s armored forces still outnumbered the Ayvartans, the quality gap was much shorter now.

She breathed a little easier, and lay back against the wall of the Adze car.

“Send my congratulations to our tank brigades. No need for codes.”

Her radio operator reached out to her, and handed her the headset.

“You need to listen to this ma’am.” He said. He did not make eye contact.

Kimani took the handset and listened. It was an all-unit message from Bada Aso.

‘This is Army HQ. As of 1400 hours we have lost all contact with the Commander. If any units had contact with the Commander please respond. We do not know the status of the Commander. The Commander was last known to be in the Umaiha area–“

Clang.

Kimani’s eyes drew wide, and the red circles in them wavered. Her fingers slipped, shaking violently, and the radio handset fell on the floor of the Adze.

Tears started to stream down the side of her face. Her lips quivered.

She raised her hands to her mouth.

“Madiha.” She whimpered.

 * * *

NEXT Chapter in Generalplan Suden is: Stormlit Memories

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges II

Side-Story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden.

This chapter contains some mild sexual content.

 

22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon — Palladi Province, Previti Estate

On the outskirts of the royal province of Palladi, a great many hectares of beautiful rural countryside were fenced off by brick wall into the individual estates of a few nobles and nouveau rich. The Previti Estate had grown into the most developed of these clusters. Its walls were like ramparts, and the main gate was an archway leading to a roofed landing. On the night of the 22nd, the gates were open, and through them, past the lobby, one could see into the gardens, where a sensuous torch-lit path led up to the manor house. Guards blocked the approach, and a young woman in a modest black dress and apron ushered young, fashionable couples past the archway after checking them from a list. She was all smiles for every guest that checked in with her, but soon become particularly taken with one new arrival.

A tall, slim, and beautiful stranger, dark-skinned by Lubonin standards but green-eyed, smooth-featured, graceful, brown hair pinned up, stood before the guards at the entrance to the Estate. He dressed in a fine tuxedo suit, with golden cuffs, a visible pocket-watch chain, a black tie, understated but glossy shoes. Like the other guests he had come covered, a peacock-feathered mask covering his delicate nose and the upper half of his face.

He had been dropped off by a taxi around a corner road from the estate, and walked to the gate. No one at the archway could quite tell whether it was a fancy cab or a cheap one.

“Good evening.” He said. He had a pleasant voice. “Sylvano D’Amore.”

Gently and gracefully he lifted the maid’s hand, his fingers travelling along the underside of her arm in the lightest brushing touch until they lifted it by the palm. His lips graced her between knuckle and wrist. Her face flushed — none of the other guests had paid her these attentions.

“Ah, of course. You’re expected.” She said. Her voice developed a light tremble.

She allowed him past the guards, though in reality his name was known to no one. She watched him leave with a delirious expression, almost forgetting the next guests arriving.

Carrying himself with an easy confidence, Sylvano passed through the roofed archway landing, and from there to the ivory-tiled pathway through the gardens. Flanked by shaped hedges and gilded fountains and beds of roses, the young man walked discreetly alongside the throngs of fashionable men and women headed for the estate. Where eyes lingered on him, he received pleasantries, which he softly returned. But he received no greater volume of attention than any other beautiful stranger making a social debut that night. He was not a name that one knew to seek out — no one knew a Sylvano D’Amore. Nobody even knew to ask for it.

He had no friends to whom he owed honors, so he passed people by with a smile and a gentle bow of the head, and he did not pause along the fountains or smell the roses with other idle lords and ladies. At his own pace, he made his way directly to the main villa. His destination, the same as everyone, was the ballroom hall atop the manor house. From the gardens one could see the vast ballroom balcony, a gentle curve along the mansion house facade, framed in silver curtains and shining windows. There was a young lady waiting for his hand inside.

Everywhere he turned he saw masks; animal masks, humanoid masks, plain masks, masks over whole faces, some covering halves, masks with fur, with feathers, with scales.

Perhaps had the right eyes lingered on him, they might have seen through the peacock-feathered mask, and peered right into Sylvano’s regal green eyes. They might have noticed in his gentle lips and features, in the tone of his skin, and in the blunt half-elfin ears, a similarity to a certain Salvatrice Vittoria, one of the Princesses of Lubon. But few of the important nobles and the high bourgeois had ever interacted in any depth with her, or knew much about her status save her age and parentage. She was as outside their thoughts as he was on that night.

As such every vestige of the dual person walking among them was well guarded.

Sylvano was a disguise Salva had dreamed up for some time now; but now, she was him.

And she felt both excitement and trepidation at the prospect.

She had a thought in her mind constantly, as she ambled down the path, past the singles and couples bedecked in finery, taking in the view, that this youth was supposed to be a man. Behind the black pants and coat, the formal shirt and the black tie, the golden cuff links and buttons; behind all the accouterments of the finer class, Sylvano was not Salvatrice.

She could not afford to be seen through him after all this effort.

With the help of her personal maid, who even now was covering for her in the Academy as best she could, she had become Sylvano. She had bound her breasts flat, not much of an endeavor, and over time she had practiced a slightly deeper, more ambiguous voice. Her figure came largely flattened already, so the suit fit her slender frame well. She had even worn men’s underwear, and dyed her hair brown for the occasion. Appearance was not a problem.

It was all about attitude; but what was the right attitude expected out of a gentleman?

She put it out of her mind, pushing it deep down. She had a lady to meet for a dance.

Walking through the Previti estate was exhausting. Salvatrice, and in turn Sylvano, were not so delicate, but one of them had to expend a lot of energy to be the other. She had to costume herself, escape the Academy, and make it to the estate. Now she had to cross the gardens. Her constitution had never been too stout, and the preparations and acting took a lot out of her. But she had to be graceful — she could not simply stop and stand wherever.

Thankfully the Previti sisters stationed rabbit-masked maids in white dresses all along the fountains and gazebos with aperitifs and drinks in small glasses atop shimmering platters.

Near a hedge that was cut to the shape of a cavalry knight, one of the pretty rabbits offered her a drink, and Sylvano paused. He approached the woman and accepted the wine glass with an unreserved smile. Standing in the shadow of the green knight, against the red torch-light, gave Salvatrice a chance to rest and catch her breath while chatting up the maid.

“A lovely drink, thank you.” Sylvano said, after one careful sip. “Very full-bodied.”

“Thanks milord. It is a product of our own vineyards. While it is a comparatively young wine, it boasts taste beyond its years, like our fair ladies,” the maid replied. She was well spoken, and had either practiced her lines well, or developed a skillful way with words.

“Will both ladies Previti grace us with their wit and charm this night?” Sylvano asked.

“Yes milord. In fact it is they who planned everything from attendance to the masks to the decorations, and attire,” chirped the maid. “All is a product of their impeccable taste. Certainly they will attend the party — I believe they will even play for us all on the piano.”

Sylvano finished the remainder of the wine in a few delicate sips. He smiled to the lovely maid.

“I would not want to miss it; so I will make my way. I must say it has been a pleasure.”

She bowed to him, while perfectly balancing the food and drink on the platter in her hand.

Sylvano resumed his walk to the estate. The Previti Manor soon loomed over him, a monumental edifice to anyone staring it face to face. Red and gold carpet stretched down close to a hundred steps of staircase that led to the ornate double doors of the manor. Golden light filtered out of the doors and even through the closed curtains on the ground floor windows. Men and women, some alone, some in groups of friends, others coupled hand in hand, climbed the stairs with a casual admiration of the surroundings.

Salvatrice felt her strength waning again every dozen steps. Halfway up, she saw something that invigorated her, and Sylvano conquered the remaining steps in strength.

At the top of the staircase waited Carmela Sabbadin, heiress to the Antioch Fuels fortune.

Sylvano approached and took her hands, and she looked up with sudden recognition.

“I hope you did not wait long.” He said. Carmela saw Salvatrice right away.

“I’ve waited weeks. I can endure a few hours.” She said. She laughed delicately.

“I apologize for all of it.” Sylvano said. They squeezed each other’s hands for a moment.

Carmela was beautiful, always, Salvatrice knew no one in the world whose every aspect she loved as much as she loved Carmela. Her long, golden hair, and the way it curled a little at the ends; her honey-orange eyes and the way she blinked like a cat with a little grin on her face when she was satisfied; the way that she stood just a few centimeters shorter than Salvatrice, and tipped her head just a little to lock eyes; her ears, not as long or as sharp as some, but enough for the tips to peer charmingly out from under her hair; her soft lips with a little dab of red, and the laugh from them that was delicate and a little haughty; the perfect olive tone of her skin, her slender form evenly caressed by the sun. Salvatrice could have basked in her presence all night.

To the ball she wore her hair simply, and made up for it with the regal indigo dress she wore, with a long, ornate skirt but a bold bodice cut just above the breast, strapless and sleeveless, bound tight at her back. She wore a pair of matching indigo gloves, with black ribbon, and her mask was an indigo raven, covering half her face as Sylvano’s mask did. Around her neck she wore a gold chain with a purple amethyst that Salvatrice had given to her long ago.

People moved around them, but this was their moment. They didn’t exist anymore.

“My, my, mister,” Carmela sidled up to Sylvano almost nose to nose, “Filling your eyes before your hands,” she started to whisper, “or perhaps your mouth? Will I receive any satisfaction for the feast I’m offering your senses?” She traced a slim index finger down Sylvano’s chest.

“I am not Sylvano D’Amore for nothing.” Salvatrice replied, lips curled in an awkward smile.

Carmela backed a step from her, opening a little paper fan in front of her mouth.

“I hope Sylvano knows the ballroom responsibility of the one in the suit and pants.”

She flapped the paper fan across Salvatrice’s face teasingly, and extended her hand to her. Sylvano choked down the kind of giggle that such a gesture would have drawn from Salvatrice, and instead entwined her fingers through Carmela’s, and escorted her into the mansion.

Every hall of the Previti Estate was brightly lit by faux torches, the flame electric and surrounded in glass. Red and gold were common colors on carpets, banners, curtains. Scented candles added mystique and a decadent feeling to the environment. Hand in hand, Carmela and Sylvano climbed a spiral staircase to the second floor, and made their way to the ballroom the next wing over. Along the halls they found portraits of beast-headed men in suits, bird-headed women in dresses. There were stone busts of beast-headed people with savage expressions, in place of the statues of great artists that would normally decorate such a fine house. All these works of dubious art seemed to stare hungrily at them as they passed.

Male servants in the mansion wore wolf’s masks, while the female servants were all rabbits. They ushered the passing guests toward the massive ballroom. Alongside Carmela and Sylvano strode dozens other people in suits and ornate dresses. Everyone had a mask, but certain peer groups identified themselves quickly and reformed, and soon they moved together in their inseparable cliques and entourages. Sylvano could hear the women giggling at the decor, and a few more delicate among them expressing disgust or discomfort with it.

Enough about the Previti Estate had been rendered exotic and mysterious to satisfy the occasion, and yet enough remained familiar for an upper class youth to feel refined and unchallenged. Perhaps dimming the lights, perhaps earthier colors, perhaps a few aphrodisiacs on the platters, perhaps less sharp dress on the servants, less artifice in the decorations; such things might have added a more lusty and savage touch to this purported masquerade ball. But perhaps the purpose of the masks was never to titillate, to add danger — perhaps like in Salvatrice’s case, they were meant to keep everyone safer than they would be.

The Previti’s ballroom was enormous, containing a small stage offset a dance floor larger than the gymnasium at Salvatrice’s academy, a high roof with a chandelier that was decorated to seem a ghastly floating crown of thorns, bearing several faux torches. There was a gorgeous view of the property through the balcony, and several couples were already taking advantage of it. There were no tables for drinks or food. Servants carried everything. They flawlessly weaved through the guests to present their complimentary morsels. There was not yet any dancing — musicians on violin, flute and piano and were setting up and warming up.

“Come, Sylvano,” Carmela spoke the name teasingly, letting it roll slowly off her tongue, “I must dutifully report to the ladies of the house. I’m sure they’ll love to meet you.”

“Yes, I remember you saying they’re good friends of yours.” Sylvano said.

“I’ve only known them all my life.” Carmela said, giggling. “You could say they are.”

Carmela led Salvatrice now, and she beseeched a wolf-headed man to give them audience with the ladies Previti. Acknowledging Carmela, the man took a very formal tone with her, and treated her as if she too were a lady of the house, whose commands were to be followed. Dutifully he led Carmela and Sylvano through a side room, and into a tea room with several plush couches, a record player, a large radio, and even a television set, surrounding tables where cakes and cookies and tea had been set and sat seemingly untouched.

Sitting placidly in the middle were the Previti Twins, two women identical save for the way they styled their hair. Both had ivory-white skin, blue eyes and flowing black hair, sharp lubonin ears that curled very slightly at the ends. Both of them wore very similar red and gold dresses, modestly covering and yet quite ornate, bedecked with frills, with only a flash of the upper torso through a circular window in the bodice, lined with glittering little gems. One sister had her hair up with a bright red ribbon; the second wore long, tight ringlet curls.

The twins greeted them all at once, and their voices sounded exactly the same.

“Good evening, Lady Caramel!”

Carmela approached each sister, and embraced them a little from her standing position, exchanging kisses on the cheek. Then she returned to the side of her date, taking his arm and waving. Sylvano smiled, a little nervously, and dipped her head in a bow. Salvatrice thought she was the only one who called Carmela that nickname, but she guessed it must have been a common thing among her and familiar girls. The Previti Twins knew her longer than Salva.

“You look divine! You always wore the royal purple better than royalty!”

“And the way your hair curls into little twists at the end, oh, I’m so jealous.”

“It takes us an hour with a maid to get that effect. You’re a golden goddess!”

“Indeed! Indeed! It’s no wonder you were able to charm our good man here.”

“We were wondering when we would meet your handsome stranger!”

“And also whether he would make a good God for this goddess! Indeed!”

They giggled at once, and again there was no distinction between them.

“Oh, he’s perfectly ordinary.” Carmela said, giggling herself. “This is Sylvano D’Amore. He is the son of an architect; though he is more devoted to the study of people than structures.”

Salvatrice played along. She had no plans for a backstory, but of course, one was necessary. “I’m a sociology student. I hope to go into politics someday.” There was a pause between the two clauses, perhaps a clumsy one, but she committed in the end. This was a half-truth, more than an outright lie. The Previti Sisters looked over him with fond, amused expressions.

“You have a captivating voice, Mr. D’amore.” Said the ribbons sister.

“It is wasted on speeches!” laughed the ringlets sister. “You should take to the stage!”

“You can call me Sylvano. Mr. D’amore is so labored out of such pretty lips.” Sylvano said.

Again the twins giggled, covering their mouths delicately with the backs of their hands.

Carmela clung to Salva’s waist. “Aren’t you spreading admiration a little too far, Sylvano?”

“No, no! Don’t let this forceful evil girl quiet you!” Ringlets Previti said.

“Compliment us more please. Don’t leave us begging!” Ribbon Previti said.

“I’m sure Carmela would agree you are both stunning ladies.” Sylvano said.

Salvatrice wondered if Carmela was really jealous, but she was laughing along with them.

She gave Sylvano a look and a smile that said it was all fine. Salvatrice was not the best at picking up social cues, but she was at least capable enough not to panic from them. With that matter silently resolved they sat a table of sweets and tea across from the sisters, who took the time to introduce themselves. They stood momentarily and curtsied.

The young lady with the ringlets went first. “I’m Capricia Previti, younger by a few minutes.”

“And I’m Agostina Previti, older by a few minutes,” added the young lady with the ribbon.

They sat, and donned their masks in front of the couple — half-face masks covered in red and gold dyed feathers with little gold beak noses, like phoenixes.

“Full credit to this idea should really go to our lady Caramel. She cheered us on to do this.”

“Her own parents are so stuffy, otherwise I’m sure she would have done it, right Caramel?”

“Indeed.” Carmela said. “But I don’t think I would have managed such a colorful atmosphere.”

“It really is, isn’t it?” Capricia said. “It really gets the blood flowing. I especially like the masks I chose for the servants. Wolves and rabbits, it gives a sinister kind of atmosphere together, doesn’t it? Makes you think, ‘oh what strange things must go on the Previti house,’ no?”

“I didn’t quite want to imply depredation within our own house in such a way.” Agostina said. “But I allowed my little sister’s fancies to take flight, perturbed as I am by their content.”

Capricia gave Agostina a look, and the latter opened up a paper fan over her face.

“Agostina was in charge of boring things, like invitations and drinks, that take care of themselves.” Capricia said, her tone taking a hint of viciousness.

“One of your dear rabbits allowed me in despite the list.” Sylvano said. “I hope that will not be a black mark upon her character. I understand that you crafted a guest list and my attendance was a little last minute.” He looked at Carmela, who also covered her face with her paper fan.

“Oh you’re so considerate Sylvano.” Agostina said. “I knew when I created a guest list that it would be a little troublesome for our servants to keep it. So many fashionable people yearn for a chance to attend truly high class parties, it is the same way whenever any of us hosts anything. But we also know our servants are cautious enough to keep any riff-raff out. If someone charms one of our rabbits, surely they will charm us as well. You have proven it.”

Sylvano tried not to flush in the face. That might have been seen as a little too delicate for him.

“Hands off.” Carmela said. All the girls shared another synchronized bout of laughter.

“She’s very forceful Sylvano! You see this? We don’t blame you if you allow her reign over you!”

It was becoming increasingly difficult not to flush or wither under this sort of attention.

Thankfully the subject changed. Carmela and the twins started catching up on things, and Sylvano sort of faded into the background, an accessory to the conversation, offering nods and smiles, blowing the steam from Carmela’s tea for her, and listening to the women.

The Previti Twins were heiresses of a monumental shipping and trading dynasty founded on the ashes of old national industries, once belonging to coastal lords who fell from grace during the ascension of Queen Vittoria. It was a time of tumult, and many lords were destroyed for their opposition or opportunism — their positions were occupied by nouveau rich and petites-bourgeois, whose own opportunism was rewarded, forming a new class of nobility that was born not out of blue blood, but out of gold and silver bullion, and the favor of the Queen.

But the Previti family was dissatisfied with current events. Who wouldn’t be? There was a war on the horizon. Four days after the fact, the papers acknowledged the invasion of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice by the Nocht Federation. Swift victories were reported, and the strength of Nocht touted to all, but only the journalists took the news energetically. For most, it just added to their troubles. Almost the first thing touched upon after the sisters explained their positions to Sylvano, was a slight change in their fortunes.

“It’s been a little hard on father lately. A month ago we stopped being able to trade with the Ayvartans, and now with the Royal Navy refitting, there is low priority on helping us expand our shipping capacity and our fleet’s ability to sail farther out to Helvetia or northern Nocht.” Agostina explained. “And that is the most significant limit on our fortunes at the moment. More ships, bigger facilities; at the present we’re maxed out on profit-making if we can’t access the commerce on Ayvarta. It’s closer by, and they had a lot of product we wanted.”

“They were also communists, so this was bound to happen.” Capricia said, shrugging.

“Communists with abundant, cheap food and ore and fuel.” Agostina said sternly.

“Well, it is out of our hands, really.” Sylvano said. Salvatrice really did not know much about the communists, or even what they stood for. It was a problem she hoped to correct soon. As a student it drove her mad to feel such a hole in her pool of knowledge — particularly now that her country and its allies went to war with them. Ignorance was inexcusable.

So, in the absence of knowledge, she played Sylvano as a noncommittal party.

“I suppose it is. How has your papa been affected by the news, Caramel?” Agostina asked.

“So far, nothing’s really different. Far as I know, demand for fuel is growing but our fuel plants in Ricca have been more than able to meet it. Papa and I don’t talk much.” She replied.

“I’m sure the war will drive demand up. At least someone’s getting something out of it!” Capricia said, accompanied by a delicate laugh. Agostina seemed to cringe, and Carmela did not reply. Salvatrice found the statement rather sinister. Capricia did not seem to notice.

“On a lighter note, now that we’ve all got going; Carmela, dear, I don’t mean to impose, but I’ve been dying to know how you two met.” Agostina said. “In the most respectful of ways, this came as a surprise to me! I did not expect you to have a paramour so suddenly.”

“Paramour? Oh Agi, you’re romanticizing things too much.” Carmela said gently.

Sylvano looked between Carmela and Agostina with a somewhat helpless expression.

“Perhaps, but forgive me, I assume your father doesn’t approve.” Agostina said.

“He never approves of anyone!” Capricia replied. “He doesn’t even want us around.”

“Oh, come now Capri, he’s never said that at all.” Carmela replied.

“He doesn’t have to say it to mean it.” Capricia replied, wielding her own paper fan now.

Carmela sighed. “We just met at a little party one day, didn’t we Sylvano?”

“Indeed.” Sylvano replied. Salvatrice’s mind raced to flesh out the details in a way the twins would readily accept. She figured out quickly to play to their sense of dramatic grandeur. “I was there accompanying my father, who had done some work for Antioch Fuels. It was a small celebration in honor of a new facility. We saw each other from across the floor of the plant. I remember it like it was yesterday — we locked eyes, drinks in hand, distracted from the adult’s conversations. We kept each other company while our the company men and women entertained one another, and there was just something special. We both knew it then.”

Both sisters clapped their hands together and beamed. “Simply marvelous!”

“He remembers it far better than I. I just remember a boring company party.” Carmela said, clinging again to Sylvano’s side. She looked at him with curious amusement.

“I figured that it must have been related to your company in some way.” Agostina said.

“To think you’d meet someone under forty years like that. Or did you just age well, Sylvano?”

Sylvano smiled. “I’m afraid the men of my family don’t age gracefully. Enjoy while you can.”

The Previti sisters burst out laughing, and had to raise their hands to their mouths.

Carmela quirked an eyebrow and gazed quizzically at her suitor. She shook her head.

“After that we decided to keep in touch, and then to deepen that touch.” Carmela said.

“Of course.” Capri smiled back. “I assume a lot of furtive letter-writing followed.”

“You’re so well acquainted with courtship. Hiding anything from me?” Carmela said.

She looked at them like a viper, as though she’d found a flash of neck to bite.

“Oh dear, have I spoken out of turn?” Capri said, wearing an expression of contrived shock.

“Nothing so dramatic I’m afraid. She is simply very well read in romance.” Agostina replied.

“No, do not cover for me sister. I have a suitor to whom I send letters.” Capricia said, her voice taking a haughty tone. “It is true! Carmela read me, I’m afraid. I have been unveiled to all.”

There was a moment of awkward silence as Capricia puffed herself up before them.

“You might think him a suitor, but his own self-concept is up for debate.” Agostina said.

Both sisters eyed one another with evil intentions, then turned the other cheek at once.

Sylvano stayed quiet and tried to purge himself of expression. More than a conversation it almost seemed like a competition between everyone, humorous as it appeared. Salvatrice did not know whether it was lighthearted or not. She supposed this was the kind of thing long-time girl friends got up to. With the few friends she had made at the academy the topics were always books, and the conversation always slow and quiet. This was all quite new.

Thankfully she had a good sense with words to improvise her way through it.

After a half hour more of talking, they exhausted topics both soft and heavy. Then the Previti Sisters stood from the tea room couches and announced it was time they made their appearance. Carmela offered each of them a hug and a kiss on the cheek again, while Sylvano bowed to the two of them. Thus the couple left the room first, and rejoined the guests in the ballroom, before the Previti sisters entered from the stage door, behind the musicians. There was a round of applause in the room for the two hostesses, to which they bowed.

“Thank you! We hope you have been enjoying the refreshments.” Agostina said.

“But of course, you did not come here to drink, but to dance!” Capri added. “Gather up your courage, men, and seek the hand of a lady for the ball! Come on, you did not dress up to drink in a corner! Couple with another mysterious stranger. You’ve nothing to lose!”

“Our hands will of course be available as well.” Agostina said, winking coquettishly.

They walked down from the stage, and the musicians started to play. Around the room what looked to Salvatrice like hundreds of guests began to form couples for the dance. Salvatrice took Carmela’s hand, and with one arm around her waist, led her to the dance floor. Music played; the piano reigned over the other instruments, and the player was very skilled. He started slowly, and his violin and flute followed him loyally, but the tempo gradually rose as if with the emotion of the couples on the floor. But Salvatrice did not try anything daring. She was not even thinking much of her feet, and the movement on the ballroom was perfunctory.

It was not a dance to them. It was not technical. It was a chance to be together — to share in each other’s space, to be physical, to touch, to move in orbit. It was a standing bed. Fingers bit down on flesh like the teeth that longed to; eyes locked together like the lips that could not. A hand squeezed a hip or outer thigh, and the owner felt tempted to grip elsewhere.

Dancing only made Salvatrice feel suspended in the air. She felt as though in a freefall with her beloved, the gentle turns, the steps, all the traversal was a backdrop to the timeless space they shared. She made only one contrived dance move. When she sensed the artists were about to close one melody and transition, Salvatrice twirled Carmela and pulled her suddenly close, holding her tight. They held the pose, sharing in each other’s warm, agitated breath. There were no accolades for the twist, no spotlight on the lovers. They were still alone in their microcosm, in the middle of a hundred others perhaps thinking with the same restrained lust.

“I was about to beg you for something like that.” Carmela whispered.

Salvatrice smiled. Normally it was Carmela who took the lead. But, appearances, and all.

One performance melded into the next, until the music became an accompaniment to the gasping of their breath. Chandelier light played across flesh glistening with sweat. Salvatrice and Carmela held fast to one another. Gradually their lips brushed, their hands crept to where desired, and piecemeal their desires played out, across three dances, four, through centimeters of cloth, across exposed neck, over glossy lipstick, moistening hair, and glittering masks.

Carmela stopped first — she squeezed Salvatrice suddenly close, so she felt a bump against her bound breasts. She whispered, “Allow me a moment and a drink to recover.”

“Of course.” Sylvano said. Salvatrice restored his composure immediately.

For the first time since they met that night the couple broke. Carmela met with the Previti sisters again, who, from the impeccable state of their clothing and hair, seemed to have had lesser fortunes than Carmela on this night. Sylvano picked up a pair of wine glasses from a wolf across the room, and brought them back, weaving through the crowd in the middle of a song’s climax. When the two reunited minutes later, they proposed a toast, drank peacefully, and made small talk with the twins on the variety of dresses among the ladies — most of the men looked rather homogeneous and went uncommented on.

“Well, it’s about time we took the stage again.” Agostina said.

“You needn’t remain, Carmela — why not lead dear Sylvano on a little tour. You’re probably bored of our playing already, you’ve heard it so much.” Capricia winked at her.

The Previti Sisters took their leave, and in that instant Carmela took Salvatrice by the hand and led her out of the ballroom. She did not object or ask, she simply followed, through the hall straddling the ballroom, to a corner room. Carmela opened a door, and ushered her into a little gallery. Couches encircled a series of display stands, holding models of the Previti company’s famous vessels. Salvatrice barely got a glimpse at them, when Carmela pushed her against the wall, and kissed her. She pulled away, and Salvatrice felt her leg, the knee coming between Salvatrice’s thighs. Her heart was racing, and her breath choppy.

“What if we became just a little lost here, in the backrooms of the Previti Estate, just for a bit? Perhaps we drank too much. Perhaps in exactly 58 minutes, the sisters and their servants might pay heed and come look for us, and find us in an ordinary state here?”

Carmela pulled Salvatrice close to her, faces a millimeter away, brushing lips, exchanging sweet breaths. She wrapped her hands around Salva’s shoulders and nape.

“What do you say, Sylvano D’Amore?” She had a hungry-looking grin on her face.

Salvatrice inched forward, seizing Carmela’s lips into her own.

It was an arduous kiss, sucking, tasting. Salva’s hands traveled down Carmela’s breasts, pressing firmly, and slid down to her waist to her skirt. Carmela seized Salva’s groin.

Their heads withdrew for just a second, tongues tip to tip, basking in each other’s glow.

The walls brightened, and they became framed by light; there was an entirely different glow.

There were screams and a massive roaring of flame.

Over their shoulders the lovers watched the fireball erupting from afar.

Salvatrice and Carmela stood transfixed by the light.

A massive bomb, it had to be; and it had to have gone off right in the archway entrance.

“Messiah defend us.” Carmela whispered. Salvatrice seized her arm, and pulled her out the door. They hurried down the hallway and saw people rushing out of the ballroom.

There were guards coming up the stairs, pushing their way through the panicking crowd, but they looked utterly bewildered and helpless, pistols out but nothing and no one to shoot, and no direction in the screaming horde. Ladies tripped over their skirts trying to run, and men minutes ago dancing with them now left them behind in their rush to save themselves. Maids and servants were pushed out of the way and huddled in corners and locked themselves in rooms, in fear of both the crowd and the destruction visited upon the estate.

Salvatrice clung close to Carmela, and the two of them shoving and waded through the crowd against all instinct. They didn’t see the hostesses among the escaping masses.

They finally forced their way through to the double doors into the ballroom. Inside they found the place littered with broken glass and discarded food stuffs, smears of cake, platters flung against the nearest surface in the rush. They could see the fires from the balcony windows, but not the archway gate — it was gone.  A massive hole had been blown in the wall. Carmela found the Previti sisters hiding behind the piano and she and Sylvano joined them. Agostina and Capricia were on the verge of tears, and shaking as though in a freezing shower. Sylvano wrapped his coat over the two of them as best as he could arrange.

Guards entered the ballroom, gasping for breath, bent down and supporting themselves by their knees. Pistols in hand, they scanned the room though nothing relevant could be there.

“What is happening?” Sylvano asked. “We heard an explosion.”

“There was an explosion! It was at the gate! It was enormous!” Agostina said.

“Messiah protect us, could it be an attack? Like the massacre in Ikrea?” Capricia said.

“Shut up!” Agostina shouted, pushing Capricia against the wall. “Don’t say that!”

Sylvano and Carmela broke them apart. They looked about to swing at one another.

They huddled behind the piano while the guards rushed out to the balcony’s balustrade and hid behind it for cover. Brandishing their pistols they peered frequently over the edge.

Frightful minutes passed without another sign; no explosions, no gunfire.

There would be no massacre that night. It would not turn out like Ikrea. This bomb was not followed by a masked throng armed to the teeth and out for blood. It was only followed by enough silence for everyone to shrink back in fear of themselves and others.

But Sylvano knew that the Blackshirts would appear soon nonetheless.

“Carmela, I can’t stay any longer.” Sylvano whispered. “Blackshirts.”

Carmela looked him in the eyes. She was momentarily stunned, and a few tears drew from her eyes. But she wiped them off with her glove. She understood. This was not a night out with Sylvano D’Amore, an ordinary gentleman who could come and go as he pleased, talk to whoever he wanted, talk however he wanted, and stay by her side. Salvatrice Vittoria could do none of those things, not freely, not without consequence. She had to run from prying eyes to do anything. They shared on quick, final kiss, for anything more involved would’ve forced Salvatrice to stay; and Sylvano stood, and leaving his coat behind he started to leave.

“Where is he going?” Capricia asked.

“He needs to see things for himself. He wants us to stay here, where it’s safe.” Carmela said.

“How gallant.” Agostina said. Salvatrice could not tell whether it was sincere or sarcasm.

Outside the fire was brilliant, and the force of the bomb had put out many of the garden torches. Salvatrice joined the throng of people the servants were escorting out through the side gates onto the adjacent properties. The Blackshirts were not yet on the scene, but Salvatrice hurried nonetheless to escape whatever cordon they might set. Her mother could not know. The Queen would not harm her — but she would make life impossible to live. More impossible than it already was. She had already done so to one Princess and surely in that pragmatic regal mind there was space to punish the other for an indiscretion such as this.

 

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Next Chapter In Salva’s Taboo Exchanges — Part Three