The One Who Will Die (35.1)

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Outskirts, 8th Panzer Division FOB

Schicksal grit her teeth and held her tongue long enough to watch the tanks leave the camp. She kept her eyes on one tank in particular, staring with a deathly glare. Once the unit had gone, she turned sharply around, brimming with adrenaline, and stomped from the edge of the camp into Dreschner’s tent. Staff ducked away like she was an incoming shell.

“General, how could you let him treat you like that in front of everyone!”

She went in shouting, but Schicksal quickly found that the General was not alone. At his side on the strategic table she found a man wearing a black bowler hat with his grey infantry uniform. There was a blue and white armband around his arm. He looked up from a document he was filling out briefly, and returned to it almost immediately.

“Settle down, Signals Officer.” Dreschner said, his tone apathetic.

Schicksal blinked. That man at the table was a Schwarzkopf policeman. They were part of the special investigative units in the fatherland. He was a gendarme, judging by his armband and uniform, but the black bowler hat set him quite apart. What was he doing?

“Is everything alright, miss?” He asked, still writing on the page.

“She’s fine. We’re all high-strung here.” Dreschner interceded.

“I understand.” the Schwarzkopf said, delicately writing a ß.

In the Gendarme’s presence, the last thing she wanted to do was cause a furor. Schicksal took a seat by the radios and waited for their business to conclude. Dreschner and the man spoke briefly among themselves, traded photographs and file folders, and once all the papers were filled, the gendarme gathered the materials into a file folder wrapped with a plastic tie. He tipped his hat to Schicksal, and vanished behind the tent flaps.

“General, who was that man after?” Schicksal asked. “Did someone–”

She stopped herself, recalling her own reason for coming here.

Of course; that gendarme must have been here for Reiniger.

Dreschner looked up from the table, over his own steepled fingers.

“You came to ask why I allowed Reiniger to go?” He said. He did not shift from his position, leaning into the table. “Well. Would you rather I beat him into the floor again in front of Captain Skoniec, and in front of Ms. Von Bletzen? Teach him with a fist?”

“No, but.” Schicksal paused and averted her eyes. “I don’t know.”

There was an oppressive, expanding gloom inside the war room tent. A lamp hanging overhead provided the only reliable light source, but its own shields dispersed the color of its flame, such that dire shadows covered half of everyone’s face and half of every surface. Outside the grey sky was darkening and the rhythm of the gently drizzling rain slowed down. Schicksal felt exhausted now that the flame of her anger was snuffed.

She had always felt trepidation around Reiniger. She tolerated him for the value that she thought other people saw in him. She looked at the tables of organization and knew that one less experienced lieutenant meant something to the mathematics that kept all of them alive in this war. So she filtered every thought of him through that. He had to stick around, and he had to get better. But now she was just left with the disgust of him.

Schicksal hated that she was in his presence and felt intimidated by him.

She started to wish that she could have delivered that fist to his nose and drawn blood.

She stood up from her seat and approached the table.

“Honestly,” Schicksal spoke up suddenly, “yes, punch him. Break his teeth. Throw him on the ground and step on him until he vomits his own tongue. I’m sick to death of him.”

“That’s no good.” Dreschner said. “Don’t let that gendarme hear about it.”

“Sorry.” Schicksal said. She felt embarrassed, as suddenly as she had felt angry.

“As long as it doesn’t become a habit. I’d hate to lose your level-headed personality.”

Schicksal felt a mix of shame and frustration, a cocktail that seemed to bubble hot in her chest. This must have been how Dreschner felt on the night of Kunze’s funeral. She wondered, had she been in this mood, in this position, back then, would she have beaten Reiniger? Would that have accomplished anything? What had level-headedness gotten her so far? Finally the cocktail seemed to reach her tongue, and she spoke virulently.

“He was a jackal. He thought he was stronger than all of us and he acted like we only existed because he allowed us to. I don’t want to have to put up with people like that.”

“We’re not putting up with it; that’s what the gentleman was for.” Dreschner said calmly.

Schicksal balled up her hands into fists. “That’s not enough! He needs it seared into his bones! You said it yourself, he doesn’t listen. He’s even come close to hitting me too!”

“It is already seared into his bones. That is the source of the problem.”

“I can’t believe you’re taking this tack now!”

“I agree. But one of us has to.” Dreschner replied.

Schicksal raised her hands to her reddening face.

Dreschner gently continued.

“But I also agreed with you, back then. When you said you thought I had what it takes to fix anything. This is part of that. At the end of the day if I punch Reiniger and accept him among my ranks I am condoning his behavior. That must stop.” Dreschner said.

Red mist started to lift from the world, and Schicksal took a deep breath.

“I got carried away.” She said.

“I can’t judge you for that.” replied the General.

“I feel so powerless.” Schicksal sighed. “Before Knyskna I only barely interacted with these people. You gave me more responsibilities and recognized me, General, and I felt like I had to live up to that, but I failed. And now I feel like I should have done more of, something– I don’t know! I don’t know. I should have done something to stop him.”

It reminded her too much of home.

Both her mother and her father, and her brothers, everything.

She always thought, if she had just taken one bottle away from one hand.

Then everything would have been settled. Everyone would have straightened out.

That was never how it worked out there.

But she thought that was the power Dreschner was giving her.

“I’m sorry sir. This is stupid.” She said.

Dreschner looked at her in the eyes.

“No matter your rank you will never have the power to correct anyone’s history. Neither your words nor your fists, or my fists, can change what a person is dead set on doing. I’m telling you this not because I’m a saint but because I’ve learned this the hard way. You can try, and you will try; you’ll try your damnedest. But you can’t let it consume you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m the only one here to blame, for all of this. And I’m sorry enough.”

Her head was swimming a little. She wondered if it was still the alcohol or just exhaustion. She felt all the more ashamed for having drank the night before. It felt like such a weak thing to do, such a stupid thing to give into. Just like the rest of the Schicksals.

She grunted weakly. “So whether he succeeds or not, it’s a courts martial, huh.”

Dreschner straightened out in his seat. He gazed wearily at the flapping tent entrance.

He grunted too. “Solitary confinement or the lash. That’s what this hero has earned.”

Their words hung in the air for a moment.

“I don’t think he would have made it.” Schicksal said. Her brain was scattershot.

“Made what?” Dreschner asked.

She shook her head, tossing her hair around. She clutched her forehead.

“Kunze’s shot. That 2000 meter shot. When it counted. Reiniger wouldn’t have made it.”

Dreschner shook his head. He sighed deeply. “Kunze made that shot to save another tanker. Reiniger has never acknowledged this because he would never take a shot like that. Kunze had run his unit out into the open. He’d made a mistake. He was afraid he would lose his men and fail his mission. He fell back. Everyone retreated, but one crew stuck it out fighting out in front of the unit. He was bound to get killed until Kunze made that miracle shot.”

Schicksal blinked. That was a side of the story she didn’t know. “Who was in that tank?”

“Corporal Jorg Reiniger.” Dreschner said.

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This scene contains violence and death.

47th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari River Crossing

“Shit! Shit! Is that an eighty-five? Messiah defend; they’re pulling up an eighty-five!”

The arriving Ayvartan gun attacked them much sooner than anyone thought.

Several hundred meters ahead a pillar of fire rose from the back of an M4 tank, its engine compartment bursting open. Fire belched out of its open hatches, and the closed top hatch slammed up and flew into the air. Rainfall turned the flames into a cloud of grey smoke that obscured the wreck. Everyone inside was still surely cooked dead.

All of its platoon mates scattered at the sight, M4 and M5 tanks veering behind trees and rocks and into bushes. The 8th Panzer Division’s breakout was instantly blunted.

“We’ve got an eighty-five! Eighty-five, it’s almost two klicks ahead, Messiah defend!”

Ayvartan Goblin tanks could hardly scratch an M4 tank except at close ranges; but the Ayvartans were far from defenseless against tanks. Their Anti-Aircraft 85mm gun could destroy an M4 tank from the front at practically any range — and much to the misfortune of Kampfgruppe R, the Ayvartans pushing against the Sandari had brought just such a weapon to bear upon their defensive lines. Soon as it was deployed, it scored a kill.

Reiniger scowled, his own tank camouflaged inside a bush just off of the river’s edge.

“Repeat distance! Accurately this time!” Reiniger shouted into his microphone.

A second 85mm shell flew in between two positions, past the camp, and struck a thick old tree ten meters behind Reiniger’s tank. Reiniger heard the dispersion of debris against the back of his turret armor when the explosives in the AP-HE shell went off.

“Gun’s 1.7 kilometers away exactly!” one of Reiniger’s observers replied on the radio.

Reiniger grit his teeth and squeezed his hands against the hand-holds on his cupola.

The 8th Panzer Division’s beachhead across the western Sandari was barely reinforced, largely because there was nothing to reinforce it with. He had the manpower but he did not have the sandbags. He had no construction materials, in fact, and he hadn’t been able to get so much as a measly anti-tank gun across the river. His defensive line was a hundred men in groups of five or ten huddling in disordered foxhole trenches. All the artillery they had to count on were tanks hiding in bushes and behind rocks and trees.

Third shell; it went right through a bush, hit and exploded, lighting the vegetation on fire.

Moments later a tank frantically backed out of the bush, a sizable dent in its glacis plate. Judging by the fact that it was backing away, it must not have been severely damaged. A hit by an 85mm gun either killed an M4 or it didn’t, there was rarely anything between.

On the radio the commander of the miracle tank hyperventilated violently.

“Holy shit. Holy shit, Lieutenant; premature detonation; it– holy shit–”

Reiniger pressed on his microphone in a rage. “Shut up and get back you moron!”

As fast as the reverse gear allowed, the M4 sought another hiding spot. Backing away from the burning bush, veering to avoid the gun tracking, it slid sideways behind a nearby boulder. Only the top of the turret cupola was visible over the rock. In that position the M4 could not shoot back, only hide from fire. Reiniger grit his teeth.

“Not there! God damn it! Find a position you can fight from!” He shouted.

His own tank shook suddenly; fire flashed through the glass slits on his cupola.

Debris fell over Reiniger’s M4 as a shell hit a few meters in front of the bush.

Reiniger heard dozens of tiny clanks against the front of his turret.

“Mortars! We’ve got one-twenties deploying from the trucks!”

“Enemy riflemen moving up! Looks like a whole company, sir!”

All of Reiniger’s observers seemed to have bad news to report.

Reiniger dropped from his cupola, a small niche at the top of the turret where he could sit and look out of vision slits, as well as have quick access to the hatch. He took the gunner’s position, pushed the loader out of the way and looked down the gun sight. Unlike his vision slits, the gun sight had magnification. He spied the enemy position.

Kampfgruppe R’s portion of the Sandari battle meant holding on to a small strip of riverside land directly adjacent to a hidden pontoon bridge in a portion of the river about 3 meters deep and ten meters wide. Except for the edges of the river, delineated on both sides by meter-tall bumps of terrain, much of the ground was flat sandry brown intermittently covered in grass, sparse on vegetation, and dotted with boulders.

Several hundred meters ahead, Ayvartan trucks had arrived on one of the dirt roads from Shebelle. One of the trucks was a novel conversion — an anti-aircraft truck carrying an 85mm gun on its bed, mounted on a rotating plate. All of the other dozen trucks were loaded with men and women. Mortars deployed, the Ayvartans charged with rifles and bayonets, grouped in thick ranks as the shells began to fall over the Nochtish camp.

Norgler machine guns retaliated against the charging Ayvartans at first, claiming several victims at the start of the charge. Behind the infantry attack, rose the first mortar shells.

A dozen blasts pounded the foxholes, while 85mm shells ripped over them.

The Panzergrenadiers bowed their heads into their holes and the Ayvartans ran free.

Reiniger put the 85mm firmly in his cross-hairs. He held a breath; it felt like eternity.

Kunze had made this shot before. That rat bastard; he’d hit it from a world away.

That was what had made him. Other than that shot he had nothing going for him.

Reiniger could make this shot. He could make it right. Kunze had nothing but luck.

From behind him his nervous loader slid a shell into position.

“Firing HE!” Reiniger shouted, striking the gun’s footpad trigger.

His 50mm shell sailed out of the end of the cannon, hurtled toward the truck, and sailed on. Overflying the right side of the truck bed, it vanished from sight. Almost immediately the 85mm gun turned on its base. Smoke danced from the thick bushes around him; and the bright flash of his gun had given him away completely to the enemy.

At once Reiniger ordered his driver to pull back.

With a roar of the engine the M4 retreated sideways from the bush.

Turning a lever, Reiniger rotated the turret to match the tank’s movements.

He could make this shot; Kunze had made it, god damn it. He could make it too!

“Reload HE!”

Beside him the loader stuck a fresh round into the breech.

There was a flash far across the way.

Reiniger smashed his face on the gun sight as the tank violently rattled.

A piece of metal from the side armor snapped; like a swarm of flying razors, screws and bits of flaked metal blew inward and up from the lower left. Reiniger heard a scream and a gurgling noise, and he felt something bite into his leg. Disoriented from hitting his head on the scope, Reiniger sat, doubled over, feeling nauseous and short of breath.

He turned his head and found his loader lying dead behind him. He had fallen from his seat and came to lie face down in front of the ammo rack. The M4 Sentinel’s turret was cramped enough, and the turret floor still intact enough, that his body had nowhere to fall. It was as if someone had just shoved him off his seat on the turret’s left side.

Most of the spall that had come flying had become embedded in him.

There were holes in the turret floor, and a deformity on the side of the turret ring.

His armor had been partially cratered from an angled 85mm impact.

The enemy shell didn’t explode as it should have — it was a dud.

Reiniger tried the turret lever. He pulled on it, heard a click and a cry.

It was stuck.

He shook his head and called out on his radio as if nothing had transpired.

“I want shells on that fucking eighty-five! Everyone shoot it now! I don’t care where–”

His engine cut.

He stopped breathing. He heard it sputter and turn quiet; felt the seat shake when the tank came to a sudden stop, its injured side still fully exposed to the enemy, stranded in the middle of the camp. Looking through his sight, his gun had been frozen just a few degrees off of a possible shot at the enemy. Meanwhile the enemy gun turned, slowly, cruelly. It was going to pick him off. None of his men seemed to heed his orders.

Reiniger crouched; through the screen on the lower turret ring he saw his driver slumped over the brake lever, a bright red splotch across the small of his back.

Breathing heavily again, he rose back to his gun and spied through the sights.

The 85mm gun settled, elevated slightly. He saw movement around it.

“All guns on the eighty-five! Right fucking now!” He shouted.

Nobody took a shot.

Reiniger’s heart seemed to stop. There was no sound in his tank.

From the sky came a loud buzzing.

Something dropped onto the Ayvartan truck and engulfed it in a column of flames.

Automatic fire flew from all sides as his tanks emerged, coaxial guns blazing.

Charging Ayvartans started dropping mid-run. Mortar fire abated completely.

Reiniger stood on the turret floor, climbed onto the flip-down seat for the Commander and stood up and out of his top hatch. Overhead a dozen Archer planes cut through sky, soaring past his sector. They were dropping bombs on targets of opportunity and swooping down with their machine guns at unseen lines of infantry several kilometers away from him. He saw smoke rising in the far-away distance, and the figures of the planes turning slowly into indistinct dots against the grey, pouring heavens overhead.

It finally happened: he got to see a plane take out the enemy. Front row seats too.

He lowered his gaze from the heavens, and found a hundred corpses stretched across the suddenly quiet kilometer stretch before him. Most were Ayvartans, killed in their charge. But many were his own men, blow up in their foxholes by vicious mortar fire.

On the road, a cloud of thick smoke covered the ruined Ayvartan truck and its artillery.

To think that everything could turn so dramatically in that one fiery instant.

It was too abrupt; it felt unreal, like a jerky old movie that was missing reels.

All Reiniger felt, watching this mess unfold, was frustration.

He picked his helmet off his head and threw it on the turret floor below him.

Climbing out his turret, he spotted the closest tank, charged at it, climbed again.

He threw open the hatch and seized the commander by his jacket.

“Why the fuck did you defy my orders soldier? Why was nobody shooting!”

His face was covered in sweat and rain, contorted with his rage, his eyes twitching.

Cowering, the tank commander replied, “We received no orders sir!”

Reiniger let him go — the man dropped clumsily off his seat and onto the turret floor.

That last 85mm impact must have damaged the radio system too.

He felt momentarily foolish.

“At ease.” He said half-heartedly. He dropped down from the tank and walked away.

Everything always had to be so difficult. Nothing could go as planned for him.

Nothing could be simple and correct, no matter how hard he tried.

Everything always spiraled out of his control. No matter how much he shouted, how much he thrashed and clawed and bit and fought; it always ended up going sideways. Cissea went sideways, Knyskna went sideways. Everything he tried ended in failure where others somehow found success. What was missing from him; what did they have?

Reiniger ambled around the Sandari camp as if in a stupor. He made it to one of the blasted foxholes and sat down quietly at the edge, staring down the flat horizon.

Schicksal would be mad at him for not reporting soon. Not that it mattered.

There was nothing important to report, because he had not made the shot.

Back then, back in Cissea, Kunze had made that shot. Everyone knew he had.

When you made a shot like that, you reported immediately. That was how you got ahead. There was no reason to report a kill you didn’t make. Let the airmen report that.

Kunze reported a shot, and his loader reported with him, and his tank commander backed him up. That was how he got ahead. He had something to report. Something went right.

Not because he was good; not because he had an advantage. He just somehow did it.

And it made no sense. It had never made sense. Reiniger wanted to scream for it.

Why was it Kunze, that time? Both times? Why had he been praised, given the spotlight, and elevated to lieutenant so quickly, so easily, as if by the hand of god himself; and then why had he been smashed to pieces by that very hand so shortly thereafter? Now they buried Kunze, now they remembered him. They couldn’t praise nor berate him anymore.

Reiniger had struggled, had thrashed his way from a car-driving private, a nobody, to tank loader, to tank gunner, to tank commander. To Lieutenant — to one of General Dreschner’s right-hand men. And before that: from the streets of Mutz, the cold, cracked concrete of the youth hostel, to the hard-top of the training camp as soon as he was of age, to the warm dirt, bright grass and the open sky of a Cissea at war with itself.

From the child so unwanted that he was outright abandoned at the steps; to the hated, hopeless teenager who fought with everyone on the street, because fuck them that’s why; to the boot camp fuckup, shouted at in the ears by the sergeant over and over.

Every step of the way he fought. Every step of the way he fell. His face tasted the mud and pavement, sometimes so intimately that they tasted of his blood. That was his life.

Reiniger made himself in the mud and the gore. He couldn’t ever seem to escape it.

Kunze had leaped clean over the whole process with one good shot.

He wasn’t even a reliable shot like Noel! He had never replicated the feat!

He had no fundamentals. Just one measly lucky shot, a few photo opportunities.

Why did the world pick that man over him?

How? How did that skittish slab of butter manage to rise so high?

And how did he fall so hard? How did he break upon the stone without standing again?

It confounded him; it vexed him. Because even after he vanished from the face of Aer, Reiniger still could not beat him. He would never exorcise the phantom of what Kunze was, what he represented. He still couldn’t overcome the clawing, the struggle, the bestial melee of his life. Nothing ever went right. He was not Dreschner or Noel; or Kunze.

He was the mud and the gore and the screaming and the fury. It was all he had.

There would never be a hand that would pick him up. He always had to fight for it.

It became so common now that Reiniger didn’t wait to fight. He just fought always.

He wasn’t irreverent. He was at war, with everyone, with himself. For everything.

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Pebbles In The Path (33.1)

This story segment contains violence and death. If you enjoy the story, click here to vote.

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance, Town of Benghu — Chanda General School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned her head to face the shutters.

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

“Ms. Balarayu? Are you ok?”

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

“Ms. Balarayu? Say something, please!”

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

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

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

Aarya stood and made for the broom closet.

She ripped open the closet and withdrew the classroom broom.

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

Aarya snuck up on the window.

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

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

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

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

Aarya drew in a breath and threw herself blindly forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges VII

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

36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Pallas Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She paused and pushed the remainder of the roll into her mouth.

“I have no idea.” She said through a mouthful of half-chewed food.

She swallowed, and sucked the slick sugary glaze left on each of her fingers. Once cleaned she extended her hand and plucked the letterhead from Salvatrice’s fingers. After a quick glance she slid the letter down the table toward the princess, and pushed her teacup up against her face, tipping down the rest of the tea in one big gulp.

Canelle and Salvatrice watched her as one would a misbehaving child. Salvatrice almost expected ructus and flatulence to follow after the rest of this slovenly show.

Thankfully Byanca merely set down her cup outside her saucer and sat back.

“I came to inform you that all Rossa surveillance measures have been revoked. Phone wiretapping, mail interception, transaction controls; it’s all done henceforth. From now on your security, and any accountability for your movements, begins and ends with me.”

Salvatrice was taken aback. At the mention of all of this spying she felt anger rising in her chest. She had suspected that she was being watched, in the discrete ways that the Legion could watch her. Hearing the extent of it spoken so casually stoked the embers already lit by her present circumstances. There was no relief in knowing that these violations had been curtailed. She was sure now that the future held much worse.

Meanwhile Canelle beamed, ecstatic, and clapped her hands together several times.

“You hear that, Princess? I told you that your mother had your interests in mind!”

“This is all part of a scheme.” Salvatrice said. She sighed. “She’s plotting something.”

“I agree. Her Royal Highness would not tear down the collar she’s got around your neck just to be a good mother. She has something planned for you.” Byanca replied.

Canelle glared at Byanca with sudden disdain. Her mouth hung slightly open.

“Do not fill the Princess’ head with evil ideas, Centurion!” She shouted.

Salvatrice crossed her arms and grinned cheekily. “Finally someone in this land of the blind sees things my way; and ironically of all people it is the Blackshirt Centurion.”

“I told you before, but I am on your side, Princess. No one else’s.” Byanca said.

“Yes, so you say. I don’t know why a Blackshirt would say it, but you do.”

“In any case,” the centurion began, at a lower, deflated tone of voice, “you should prepare to leave for the palace soon. I’ll be accompanying you on the journey.”

Salvatrice leaned forward toward Byanca, holding her head on her hands.

There were so many faces over the years. Salvatrice had stayed in a Messianic monastery, she certainly remembered that. It was dedicated to trying to revive divine magic. But she had stayed in the duke’s vineyard until the duke mysteriously passed, and she had stayed in a girl’s school for a time, and she had stayed with a General of the army Regolare until his own passing; and in each of those places there had been children, whom she played with and grew up around for certain short periods of her life. Save for one, for whom she reserved all of her feeling, she had forgotten all of these acquaintances. In her mind they were so transitory they were not worth recalling.

In front of her this Centurion insisted that she and Salvatrice had a connection.

And her presence was starting to insist remembrance from Salvatrice’s mind.

Was she worth remembering? Was that memory valuable enough to become trust?

“Why did you become a Blackshirt?” Salvatrice asked. “Did you really do such a thing to try to be ‘on my side’? You must understand how implausible that sounds to me.”

Byanca breathed out a sigh. She rubbed her hands down her face, and clapped them together as they slid off her chin. She stared at the ceiling, flicking her wrists.

This was a question that hurt to answer. This was a hurt person in front of her; that was the impression Salvatrice got. It made her uncomfortable to think she was causing her such hardship, but several little voices continued to assure her that she was justified.

Canelle looked between the two of them, discomforted by the sudden silence.

“I wanted to become a Knight.” Byanca finally said. She continued to speak, pausing from time to time, staring at her hands to avoid eye contact. “Knights who ascend to the rank of Maggiore can present themselves before a Lady of noble blood to ask for a wish from her, anything desired. This was a rule that passed down from the time of Magic, where miracles were real. He needed only swear his loyalty in the eyes of God, and she would indulge him in order to strengthen her family’s position. Ever since the rule of Passionale Vittoria began, women have been able to become Knights too. So a woman Knight can still ask a wish from a Lady. I wanted to make use of this ancient law.”

Her face sank again into her hands after she was done speaking. She didn’t look up for a time. Salvatrice did not know what to make of the shame with which she admitted this. This was something she desired so much; why would she speak of it with such trepidation? She looked almost disgusted with herself. Salva didn’t understand it at all. She didn’t understand why Byanca would seek after wishes in a time where Magic was now dead; and she did not understand why this dream tore her up so much now.

“What was your wish?” Salvatrice asked. “And whom would you present it to?”

Byanca raised her head. She had on a bitter, cynical grin, quite different in tone from the cheeky expression she bore when flipping the keyring in her fingers minutes ago. A little laughter escaped her as she spoke; to whom it was directed, Salvatrice didn’t know.

“I staked everything on it, Princess, but I failed to become a Knight. I became a Blackshirt to avoid the depths of my failure. That is the undramatic truth of the matter, whether you believe it or not. I was sent to Borelia, where I trudged through miserable wilderness to kill men who threw grenades from bushes and laid mines along the roads. What was my wish? I don’t know anymore. It doesn’t matter. I’m not that girl anymore.”

Now it was Salvatrice’s turn to avert her eyes. She did not want to lock with that sudden, mournful gaze cast toward her by the Centurion. She was afraid and felt guilty.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried into this. I’m just being nosy, and it’s unbecoming.”

“You deserve to know. I wanted to sit down and explain all of this sooner anyway.”

Salvatrice plotted something eloquent to say, but her lips moved before her mind.

“Byanca, I have no power to grant any wish to anyone.” Salvatrice said to her.

“Blackshirts do not get wishes. We’re unworthy of them.” Byanca replied quickly.

“Then what do you want? Why did you accept this mission? Why are you on my side?”

The Princess and the Centurion locked gazes again. Byanca smiled softly.

“You deserve to have someone on your side. That answers all those questions.”

Salvatrice stood up from the couch and turned her back. She walked out toward the bookshelves surrounding the door to her room, pacing them with her hands behind her back. She looked wistfully around, seeking anything to grab her attention and break the tension that she felt around the room. But her mind was so scrambled that she saw the letters on the books shifting and warping before her eyes. Everything was twisted now. She ran an idle hand through her hair and sucked her lips in, tasting the red pigment.

Without turning back to the couches, stifling a groan, Salvatrice gave her answer.

“Centurion Geta, the one thing the 1st Princess of Lubon can grant you is trust, so she will grant you trust. Treasure it, for nothing will replace that gift should you squander it.”

Salvatrice pulled a book from the shelf, taking an object she had hidden behind it.

Her head held high, she returned to the couch and held out Byanca’s Picea pistol.

Their hands briefly brushed as the Centurion took back her weapon.

“God save our gracious Queen. Long live our noble Queen.” Byanca sang softly.

She returned the weapon to its holster with a demure little smile on her face.

Salvatrice shook her head, exasperated. “To hell with the Queen.”

37th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Before, when the Queen summoned Salvatrice, a private car appeared out of the blue in front of the Aquinas building. Canelle urged her to dress nicely and slide into the back seat without question. A driver behind bulletproof tinted glass, likely sworn to have no interaction with her, drove her wordlessly to wherever the Queen wished to meet her. That was the expected procedure, the control that the Queen had over her life before.

But there was no private car, even two days after Salvatrice received the letter. In fact it was the first time that a royal summons had been delivered to her like this. She knew that she could not tempt fate for much longer. One or two days could be chalked up to the whims of the postal system. Any more might draw the Queen’s ire. So on the morning of the 37th, Salvatrice made preparations to leave for the royal capital.

Canelle was practically jumping off the walls with enthusiasm. She picked out a regal green dress, that had been designed to match one the Queen had worn several months prior at an important function. It was form-fitting, though Salvatrice felt she had precious little form for the dress to fit, as she was a fairly slight lady; the tight, long skirt evoked petals curling around with her body as the flower’s core, and the high neck and long sleeves gave it a sleek modesty. There was a green gemstone shining on her chest.

“You are the image of your mother; I wish others would see that!” Canelle said.

Salvatrice posed in front of the mirror as Canelle fussed with her hair. Aside from a green and red ribbon, her straight, shoulder-length, evenly-distributed red-yellow hair remained the same. A touch of red lipstick accentuated her thin lips, and a dab of purple shadow lent a bit of complexity to her face and complimented her green eyes. Powders and blush gave her slightly brown skin a somewhat lighter look than it normally had.

Two pieces of wing-like jewelry extended the size of her ears by a few millimeters.

Canelle turned her around before the mirror, admiring her handiwork. “You look beautiful, Salvatrice! Of course, you always do, but you look your best when your clothes shine as bright as the rest of you, I think! Artifice accentuates nature.”

“In my case I think the medicine is more to thank than nature.” Salvatrice said.

“Oh come now, don’t say that, your beauty is inherent,” Canelle said awkwardly.

Salvatrice felt a little thrill running through her body as she looked in the mirror. She was dressed up now, in costume. There was a strange, elated, perhaps even somewhat arousing sensation to it. In the same way that she felt she became a man, Sylvano D’Amore, with the proper preparations, now she had become a woman to the world. It was comforting, like a mask, it covered up the bare, naked Salvatrice within it.

Whatever that was; at times Salvatrice felt there was nothing underneath one costume or the other. She didn’t even know which one was the more natural form for her. She loved both; she loved being both. But she felt there was something apart from them too.

With her “costume” done up, and a little luggage prepared, Salvatrice took a light, careful breakfast, pumped a little estrogen into her system, and made ready to depart.

Outside the apartment door she found Byanca waiting in her dress uniform.

She looked at Salvatrice and appeared momentarily shocked. Salvatrice was a little taken aback in turn, but she had much more practice with holding her composure.

“What, Centurion; do I not ordinarily look like this to your eyes?” Salvatrice said.

“N-No, Princess, just, you look,” Byanca tripped over her words, “gorgeous.”

Salvatrice grinned. “And then I ask again, am I not gorgeous all of the time?”

“Well this is a different kind of gorgeous! There are gradients!” Byanca replied.

Byanca was looking rather more polished than normal. She had no makeup, for the service allowed her none, but her pure black uniform was rather dashing, her jacket decorated with all of her medals and patches, including the centurion’s armband, and a thin blue sash across her chest and waist. She wore her hair collected in a bun, very professional, and donned her feathered bersaglieri cap, black with a silver emblem. Her uniform accentuated the trained, toned slimness of her. She looked martial and strong. Knightly, one could even say. Though the Princess restrained her compliments.

“You look exceptionally fit to guard me, Geta.” Salvatrice said in a haughty tone.

The Centurion took those words as Salvatrice meant them and blushed immediately.

“Don’t stand there looking bashful, Geta! Lead the way for your charge. Escort me.”

“Y-Yes, Princess.” Byanca nodded her head, took the Princess’ luggage in her hands, and then started down the stairs. Salvatrice delicately followed the Blackshirt down. Canelle trailed behind them with an ecstatic look, bouncing as she went along.

Outside the Aquinas building, Byanca hailed a fancy black town car with a long sloping nose and a leather-covered interior with two sets of windows on either side. She opened the door for Salvatrice, who gave her a quizzical look before accepting the invitation. Tinted glass separated the cab from the passenger’s roomy black leather seating. Everything smelled strangely fresh inside as if the car was new from the factory.

The Centurion loaded her luggage in the back, tapped on the front glass and alerted the driver, and got inside, seated beside the Salvatrice — with a healthy bit of room between them. Together they bid Canelle farewell while she stood off the side of the road in amazement. Once the car was started and pulling away, Salvatrice turned to Byanca.

“What is this supposed to be? Where is my ordinary driver?” She asked.

“He’s fine; we’re just using this today. It is Legatus Tarkus’ staff car.” Byanca said.

“Staff car? He drives this? For work purposes?” Salvatrice whispered in surprise.

“No, it has practically never left the garage. But it’s bulletproof and safe. There’s a machine gun under the seat and everything. He vigorously approved of its use.”

Salvatrice grunted. “Who is the driver? Someone you know? Can you truly trust him?”

Byanca cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted. “He can’t hear you!”

“Alright, fine, he can’t, answer the question.” Salvatrice said aloud. She looked at the tinted glass and could make out an outline of a fairly tall man in a newsboy hat.

“You can trust him about as far as you can throw him. I can throw him a meter I think.” Byanca grinned. She laid back. “There is no way that he will interfere with anything.”

Salvatrice crossed her arms. She looked out the window at the scrolling landscape.

“Fine then. I trust you. How long will it take until we reach the Royal Territory?”

Byanca looked suddenly peppy. “A few hours; hey, let us sing a road song!”

“Don’t push your luck.” Salvatrice replied imperiously, keeping her gaze from Geta.

Once the car got going in earnest, the driver first circled around the Aquinas building and took a circuitous route out of the Academy, moving through neighboring vineyards and greenhouses. Clear of the campus, he rounded the rural roads, where there was nary another motor vehicle in their way. He skipped the nearby town of Juth; Salvatrice watched it pass them by, a kilometer out at their side as they advanced into the country. Over and around several green hills the car traveled with ease, the ride smooth and relatively noiseless. Palladi, a central Province of Lubon, was ringed by mountainous terrain. Complex, hilly turf was common to it, woodland thick and sparse dotted the landscape.

North of Palladi the hills opened into an expanse of broad, flat descending terrain sliced through by the vacillating Radice river and its branches. As the car glided down the hills Salvatrice could see the white palace in the distance, its walls extending around a dense, red-roofed town like protecting arms. She could almost see the crown of the Father Tree behind the gleaming towers of the castle. Vittoria’s Palazzo, the ancient town of Pallas, and the surrounding farmland was the nation-within-a-nation known as the Royal Territory of Pallas. Fifteen miles across and ten long, Pallas, farmlands and all, was the size of a city and much less densely populated than Torto or Cartha or other modern elven holdings. But the town itself was only a fraction of the territory’s total size.

Over a series of bridges, the car crossed the many arms of the Radice river that traced through the land at irregular intervals like the roots of the First Tree dug into the soil. Everything between the hills and the palace was farmland and homesteads that served the White Palace. They passed by orchards and vineyards, fields of purple Cyrn that gave bountiful cereals in the spring. Peasant families shepherded the farmlands and plucked nature’s fruits both for themselves and to present to the Queen each season.

“Ten green bottles of wine on the wall, ten green bottles hanging on the wall–”

Byanca sang and sang various drinking songs, mostly to herself, but loud enough to hear. She had already counted bottles several times, and sang Bevilo Tutto. It seemed all the songs she knew or at least the ones she felt like singing were drinking songs.

Salvatrice was quiet as the Queen’s lands scrolled past her eyes. She had frozen into a casual pose, with a hand on her cheek and another on her lap, staring out the closed window.

At first they were content to sit beside each other with a healthy gap between them, but after a few minutes inside the Royal Territory, Byanca started glancing Salvatrice’s way.

“Something wrong, Princess?” She asked. Her enthusiasm was mildly off-putting.

“Do soldiers only sing drinking songs?” Salvatrice said, glancing sidelong at Byanca.

“I used to be in choir, but you’d just get laughed at singing religious songs in a tank.”

“I suppose so.” Salvatrice looked out the window again, counting the electric poles.

“Let’s get this open, Princess! Take a whiff of the country air. It’ll cheer you up.”

From her side, Byanca leaned clumsily over, laying hands on the window lever. Salvatrice raised her hands in surprise. Byanca turned the lever and rolled down the window, then retreated with her own hands raised to mirror Salvatrice’s pose.

A gentle breeze blew into the passenger compartment, blowing Salvatrice’s hair.

She took in a deep breath; there was a sweet smell that she could not place.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And it smells great. I feel so at ease here.” Byanca said. Her ponytail swayed gently and she looked so girlishly delighted with everything.

Salvatrice smiled a little. She did not want to be the one to ruin the mood for now.

Byanca was happy because she saw nothing but the surface of the elven holy land.

For the First Princess, who would take up the mantle of Queen Vittoria, Pallas represented a birth-right, its people and lands owned absolutely by the Queen, to the point that the statutes of the Parliament did not matter within its limits. But Salvatrice had not grown in Pallas, groomed to succeed the throne. Clarissa had been the face of the Vittoria lineage up until recently. The streets of Pallas, the walls of the Palazzo, all of it was her childhood home. Clarissa was the one known and loved in the Royal Territory.

Salvatrice was like an invader; a foreign presence made to force her way inside.

This was the position that her mother had thrust her into. Salvatrice would have been content with obscurity. She had never wanted to rule. She had no aspirations to power or influence. Seclusion had nurtured modest goals. Peaceful tea-times, an education, a semblance of a social life, love; as ordinary a life as a royal-born girl could dream of.

She was not welcome here. Her trajectory in life was not meant to intersect with this.

Past several kilometers of farmland the car stopped before the green gates in the middle of the forward wall. Blackshirt guards wordlessly checked Byanca’s credentials. They offered no words for Salvatrice; they barely even glanced her way. It was as if she did not exist. In her situation, Salvatrice couldn’t tell if this was out of duty or disdain.

As quietly as they approached and as silently as they deliberated the guards returned Byanca’s papers and the vehicle’s registration, and ushered them through the gate.

Inside the green gates they found themselves on the perfectly flat, spotless grey roads of Pallas town, flanked on either side by rows of buildings with quaint-looking gabled red roofs. They traveled the main thoroughfare, under curling green street-lights like drooping flowers, their car trailing behind trolleys and work buses. Throngs of people in suits and uniforms crowded both sides of the street, coming and going from their work. Pallas was old but under Vittoria it was never antiquated. Fashionable clothing hung on trendy storefronts; modern restaurants catered to the middle class workers that now inhabited the town. Telephone lines and electric cabling hung high over every street.

At the end of the thoroughfare the middle wall divided the town of Pallas and the Mound of the Father-Tree — a beautiful, gently rising green hill walled in on all sides with polished white rock, and bearing at its peak the palace of Passionale Vittoria. A richly decorated structure, its corners were four equidistant towers surrounding a thick, central spire. Its walls projected backward beyond the living space and enclosed the plot of land that bore the Father-Tree. One could not see it through the height of Vittoria’s central tower. It had been built hundreds of years ago precisely to obscure the Father-Tree from commoners.

There were no paved roads outside of the town, and no telephone or electric poles projecting out from the earth. Their car was stopped beyond the gate by blackshirt guards and they were directed to park in a garage at the foot of the Mound alongside a dozen other liaison cars. Once the car parked, Byanca rushed out of her own door, swung around the back and opened the right-side passenger door for Salvatrice.

She ushered the Princess out onto the gravel with a gentlemanly bow of the head.

“Don’t push your luck.” Salvatrice said again. Byanca chuckled a little to herself.

“Shall I take your luggage?” the Centurion asked.

“No. He can do it.” Salvatrice pointed at the driver, who looked her way in confusion.

Nearly swallowing his cigarette, the man rushed to his work while the women left.

The Mound was gentle enough a climb for most people, and the climb was required for anyone who wanted to visit the Palazzo. No vehicles or horses were allowed to climb the Mound — only the feet of human beings. Salvatrice and Byanca followed a makeshift path up the slope, delineated by perfectly-trimmed bushes with gilded sashes around them. It was a ten minute walk under the noon sun, and Salvatrice felt herself sweat a little.

Before the palace doors they were again stopped, and again it was only Byanca whom the guards seemed concerned with. For the third time she displayed her rank before them; once again she was allowed forward, while Salvatrice received no word from anyone. Through the double doors of reinforced glass they entered a vast lobby with four large fountains, an indoor garden filled with lilies of all manner of colors, like a rainbow grown from the soil, and couches beside tables full of brochures for visitors.

Salvatrice was ready to be insulted that her mother would leave her at the reception.

Then a set of doors opened at the end of the lobby and a woman approached, flanked by a pair of guards. She wore an afternoon uniform, a conservative black dress worn under a white apron, with long black sleeves and hands covered in white gloves. Her half-white, half-blond hair was pulled up into a bun, and she wore an elaborate cap.

Salvatrice took note of her because she had seen her before, though they had not formally met, not that Salvatrice remembered. But this must have been her mother’s maid — Canelle’s counterpart in the castle. Unlike Canelle, this maid had a foxy, canny sort of expression, a slight grin with piercing blue eyes behind a pair of thin spectacles. Hers was not a gentle expression. Salvatrice would’ve even called it a violent one.

“Princess, it is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. My name is Lillith Mariel.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Mariel.” Salvatrice said. She forced a softer, girlish sounding tone of voice and a graceful smile. Her cheeks already tingled from the effort.

Lillith bowed her head, and she reached out her hands, palms up. Salvatrice touched her with both of her own, palm against palm, and the servant had room again to speak. And speak she did; in a dulcet tone of voice she indulged in a lengthy introduction.

“You would not remember me, but long have I been keeper of your mother’s skin and silk. I have been with your mother since before you were born — in fact, I helped her through labor with you. I was the first to hold you aloft, and to wipe your mother’s blood from your body. I was, even, the first to breast-feed you; I had to take a drug for it.”

“Well; it appears I came to meet one mother and found a second.” Salvatrice said.

Lillith giggled girlishly; at her side the guards looked visibly uncomfortable with this.

Through her affable facade Salvatrice felt a sudden surge of hatred for Mrs. Mariel.

There was no reason for her to say anything; like the guards, she could have just led her where she needed to go without undue words. She could not have been sentimentally attached to the Princess — this was a reason Salvatrice always threw out immediately where it concerned her mother’s people. She knew that none of them cared. By process of elimination Salvatrice realized that this was Lillith either taunting her or flaunting her freedom of speech. Unlike the other servants she had a measure of status in Pallas.

“History aside; your true mother awaits, Princess. Follow the guards up to the peak of the central spire. I shall take your dashing companion on a tour of the Palace, and your driver will be given instructions on what to do with your lullage. Worry not.” Lillith said.

After one additional bow, Lillith whipped around and marched down the hall, perhaps expecting that Byanca would immediately follow. Likewise, the guards turned around and started away from Salvatrice, and stood in front of an elevator door waiting for it.

“Princess, be careful.” Byanca said. Out of sight of the guards, she took Salva’s hand and squeezed it. It was definitely an overreach on her part — but it didn’t feel awful.

Salvatrice cocked a little grin at her and let her go. “Like I said, don’t push your luck.”

Royal Territory of Pallas — Palazzo Di Vittoria

At the top of the tower the guards opened the door to the spire’s main chamber and ushered Salvatrice in. They then turned around, shut the doors behind her and left the spire without setting foot inside. Salvatrice heard their footsteps, growing distant.

Inside the chamber there was nothing material on display, no obvious purpose. It was empty of furnishings, enclosed by unadorned walls, and there were no treasures on display. On the floor, a spiral green and brown pattern resembled vines or roots crawling along the tile. Overhead, the rising pyramidal shape of the roof, and its visible supports, untouched. At her side there was a wide open balcony with a commanding view of the green-glowing foliage of the Father-Free. A cool breeze blew into the chamber from several arch-shaped windows in the corners — they were standing high above Pallas.

In the center of the room, looking out to the balcony, stood Queen Regnant Passionale Vittoria. Her stoic beauty still struck the Princess; every time she saw her, those imperious green eyes, her fair skin, perfectly flowing locks of blond hair and features untouched by time, her figure, ample but also sleek, wrapped exquisitely in a sleeveless, ornate silk dress with a large green emerald set between her breasts. Salvatrice had scarcely seen her mother in the flesh, and every time she seemed more like a figure crafted, as though given life through the artifice of a legend like a Galathea statue.

She turned her head to her daughter, framed by the door several meters away.

She smiled; very slightly, a mere tipping of the lips, but her mother smiled at her.

“You look ravishing, Salvatrice. You have a beauty hitherto unknown to this land.”

“Thank you, Mother. You are as stunning as the Goddesses of our myths.”

Salvatrice replied graciously, and curtsied before her mother. Her compliments grated on the princess, however. Salvatrice was not “a beauty akin” to her mother, or even simply a “beauty.” She was a foreign, alien beauty; reddish hair, light brown skin, blunt ears. All of her features that were different from the norm seemed drawn into stark relief.

They each stood in their places. Vittoria turned fully to greet her, skirts trailing on the floor. Salvatrice remained at the edge of the room, standing with her hands clapped before her and set against her skirt. Neither made a move to draw near, to link hands or hug or even, in their places, to show any undue affections. Just smiles and distance.

“Did I ever tell you the story of how I became Queen, Salvatrice?” Vittoria said.


What a ridiculous question; of course you didn’t, Salvatrice’s mind screamed. You were never there! When on Aer would you have had time to tell me a story? It took all her moderation to continue smiling neutrally when her mind and soul seethed so strongly.

To Vittoria there was no contradiction in this, no acknowledgment of the absurdity of it. In all earnestness, she stretched her arms, gesturing to the breadth of the chamber around them. She looked up, at the roof, and around herself. She turned around.

“This room is quite nostalgic. It is here where my journey as a Queen truly began.”

Salvatrice looked around. This was alarming; there was significance in the air here. If this room meant anything to Vittoria then it was ominous that Salvatrice now stood in it.

“Was it empty at that time, Mother? Were you made to view the Father-Tree?”

Vittoria paced; Salvatrice heard the tapping of her heels under her voluminous skirt.

“I was a mere twenty years of age. This room was very different. It was surrounded by mirrors. You could not escape the sight of yourself in this room. It was known as the Chamber of Selection. All truths were laid bare before the Chamber of Selection.”

At her mother’s words the princess found her gaze wandering, scrolling across the walls, lingering on the floors. She saw the bolt-holes, where the mirrors would have once been screwed into place. A room full of mirrors, where one could not evade oneself — Salvatrice could imagine it. In her mind it was a macabre place. The way her Mother stared at the walls almost seemed to mirror this. Salvatrice could have sworn she saw a hint of disgust or trepidation in her mother’s countenance as she recalled the surroundings.

Again the Queen began to speak, and this time her tale was longer, and Salvatrice listened without interruption, swallowing all emotion but the facade of a smiling face.

“Once upon a time, my daughter, there was a young King, whose father passed, having spent his life unsuccessfully clinging to an Empire in decline. This young King wanted little responsibility, and longed only for domesticity; he was a shy king, fond of quiet.”

“Upon the eve of his coronation, his older, proper female relatives took it upon themselves, as is the ancient custom of this land, to seek a woman who could inspire his passion and improve upon his bloodline, which was much intermixed within the close-knit circles of the high aristocrats. They settled on three candidates, but two were problematic, for one crossed the King’s bloodline several times, and the other was thought too low-born to be appropriate. Nevertheless, all were brought here, to this room, one by one.”

“Surrounded on all sides by mirrors, the women were stripped of their clothes, and thoroughly examined. Width of the hips, size of the skull, physiognomy, length of limbs, body fat, and of course, virginity. The King’s grandmothers and aunts and older sisters, this assortment of the most proper ladies; they found, after their inspection, that there was only one woman who had the character and health to support the kingdom.”

Vittoria turned her head over her shoulder, staring sidelong at Salvatrice.

“I hated what they did to me, how they saw me that day; it disgusts me to this day.”

There was vitriol in her voice. Salvatrice felt a thump in her chest as she listened.

“Our traditions, by and large, disgust and repel me. Years later I would take my bloody revenge on the King’s nonni for that slight. With these two hands, Salvatrice, I closed the circle those crones began on the eve when they selected me as wife to their King.”

She turned fully around, and wore a suddenly darkened expression. Her eyes downturned, her lips curled in a stoic displeasure, her hands held behind her back.

“When you were born, doctors took you from me and deliberated about you as if you were an anomaly or a myth. They said explicitly they did not know whether I had chosen a correct name for you. It disturbed me. It reminded of that time in the elector council. People being treated like lumps of meat.”

Vittoria stretched one of her hands back out from behind herself, and though there was nothing in it, she did it with such quickness that Salvatrice nearly jumped back with fright. She always thought Vittoria would smack her from across the room somehow.

“I purged every doctor who had anything to do with that unneeded panic at your birth, and I sought out doctors on the cutting edge of science, young and with open minds. I did not want doctors with knives who viewed you as a creature. Nobody deserves that.”

Lies, lies, lies. Salvatrice fought back the urge to shout. You killed those doctors because they hurt your ego, not because they wanted to hurt your child; though the result was the same Salvatrice knew that the origin was different. This was not love.

“Whenever we met during your childhood, I saw you growing and growing into a fine princess. And I saw your enthusiasm to be a princess. I sought every resource available to make you the best princess that you could possibly be, the healthiest, best educated, least poisoned by bureaucratic indulgence. I only wish I could have been there more for you during that time.”

Salvatrice closed her hands into fists at her side. This was all embellishment. As a child Salvatrice only called herself what other people called her; what her mother called her. She didn’t know anything back then. She didn’t really know much now. Though she was happy enough with the result of all these years, all these doctors and medicines and treatments, these examinations, all the things taboo to medicine that she was and was made to be; that chaos and confusion was not a calculated, loving decision by her mother. It was the result of neglect and receiving only what Vittoria wanted to give. She could have been Sylvano or Salvatrice. She had accepted both, in a sense. That was not Vittoria’s doing!

“But Salvatrice, I already knew it when I held you as a child. What I saw then was unambiguous. I knew who my daughter was and I knew what she truly wanted and what it was her birthright to become in the end. From the moment you were born, I knew that it was you who needed the utmost protection, who needed to be sheltered from the melee that was unfolding in these walls. Not Clarissa; you. Always you, Salvatrice.”

Her words nearly drew tears from Salvatrice’s eyes. She wished she had a broader skirt so that her knees could quiver openly. Salvatrice felt as though there was a skin under her own and a creature ready to lunge from it for the Queen’s throat. She was furious.

Vittoria was painting her own picture of Salva’s life, and all of the paint came from her own ego, her own untouchable ego. She had never done anything wrong, never abandoned her — in her own mind she was always the winner. And she said those horrible words, those erasing words, those words that spat on Salvatrice’s entire life as she had lived it; Queen Vittoria said them with such stoic ease and perfect delivery that it hammered at Salva’s mind.

She had not abandoned Salvatrice because of her dangerous illegitimacy, fathered by a foreign diplomat, and born ambiguous and unplaceable in a binary world; in Vittoria’s mind she had protected her and groomed her in a unique way! Oh how convenient for the Queen!

“One princess, grown among her people; the other, raised amid the repulsive ideological debauch of this Pallas and its squabbling, incompetent nobles and knights.” Queen Vittoria raised one hand, and then other, one palm-up, one palm-down. Salvatrice didn’t know which hand was supposed to represent her. They went up both at once.

Teeth clenched, hidden behind her lips, Salvatrice stilled her ragged breath as best as she could to deliver a short, crucial line. “Mother, how am I meant to serve on this day?”

She needed to cut her off this subject. She needed to do anything to reassert herself, to reassert that her version of the events was the real one. Salvatrice needed to be anything but this unique, uniquely loved, uniquely trained model daughter; she needed again to be the abandoned and reclaimed tool of a callous, monstrous despot. Otherwise her mother’s words would truly dig into her brain as if the unvarnished truth, erasing her own life.

“Salvatrice, I must confess to you, that I have lied, though I have done it to protect you, and I believe the lie a white one for the most part.” Vittoria said. She turned her back on Salvatrice again and paced to the end of the room, where she picked something up from a window.

“In what sense, Mother?” Salvatrice asked, her voice a little choked.

Vittoria flicked something her way — Salvatrice caught it against her chest.

It was a cardboard envelope, and inside there were photographs of a man, hair gelled back, a fine beard across his soft features, a boyishly handsome sort of person. There were also photographs of this man and a woman, a delicate little blond– Clarissa.

“It was never about Clarissa being indiscreet, for I do not care how many men she claims her own as long as she does so cautiously and uses them properly. Her indiscretion was the man she chose and what she chose to do with that man.”

Vittoria glided across the floor, and stood face to face with Salvatrice.

“That man is the leader of an anarchist cell known as New Humanity. His nom de guerre is Cesare Regal. He is connected to the attacks that have been transpiring across the country, but he is not a foreigner: he is an elf, born of this land, educated here, wealthy, and ambitious. He tapped into the ego that this environment cultivated in your sister. She plotted against me; now he plots against you in revenge for her.”

Salvatrice felt her mother’s fingers tip her chin up. They locked eyes.

Seeing deep into those callous green eyes Salvatrice could hold her tongue no longer.

“You used me as bait! All this time! To draw this man out!” Salvatrice shouted. She shouted each set of words as the revelation reverberated inside of her mind. That was why the surveillance was ended; going farther back, that was why Salvatrice was allowed to return to her studies after the trip to Nocht. Clarissa was removed, to provoke this man.

Salvatrice was promoted, and she was made vulnerable, to provoke him!

Vittoria grinned; she shook her head at her daughter, both amused and disappointed.

“No.” Vittoria said. She savored every word. “You are not bait, Salvatrice. You are the future Queen of Lubon. And you will show me the Power of a Queen by destroying this man and everything of his. You will do it because your past, present and future depend on it.”

She set her hands on Salvatrice’s shoulders and the Princess felt a sudden weight.

It was almost enough to make her collapse, and she did not know whose strength she borrowed to remain standing throughout that exchange, and to keep her eyes open. She felt like the hands of her mother were here to finally sink her into the earth where she belonged.

The Queen’s striking green eyes were no longer stoic and indifferent; they had been set ablaze by a malignant fire that illuminated a purpose reserved only for Salvatrice.

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

The Benghu Tank War IV (32.1)

This story segment contains violence and death.

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School, Field

For several breathless seconds Aarya counted and counted the children in the supply depot. She had counted and counted them every morning and every night, counted them leisurely, counted them in peace. Never had she missed one of her children.

When the soldiers led them out of the classrooms by the hands she was sure that all of her children had followed. She counted again. She knelt into their little huddle and parted them, gently nudging them apart from one another as if they might be hiding one more child among their number. But try as she might she always came up short.

Aarya had led them all from the classrooms to the supply depot. There was food and water and a little sandbag fort where all the children could be kept. A soldier told her that metal fragments wouldn’t hurt them there — all within earshot of the children. Aarya gave him an intense stare and she felt like it was necessary and that doing it put her on the side of the children; who were bewildered and scared, many already weeping silently and trying their best to stay strong. But whenever she counted she was one short.

Always short one child. One precious child that was alone in the path of the war.

A teacher short one child; one child she should have been guarding with her own life.

Because of her; because she didn’t count them as she did every morning and night that day. She had wanted so badly to shield them, to insulate them from the terror in the air.

Taken out by the hand by the soldiers, she called out, she assumed they would come, she assumed they would follow her sweet singing voice, that they’d be comforted–

She raised her hands to her mouth and she felt nauseous. Her eyes ran with tears.

“Aarya? What’s wrong? Are you feeling ill?” Darshan said. Aarya didn’t respond at first.

In her mind, in that instant, she counted them children again. One short. Impossible.

Several of the children, those who were not staring despondently at the ground or seated with their faces to the wall, trying to ignore the environment; they looked at her.

She tried to smile for them and then turned to Darshan, leading him away from them.

“Zaheer.” Aarya said, struggling for breath. “Zaheer. He is back in the classrooms.”

“Zaheer?” Darshan said in a sudden and strong whisper, as if stifling a shout.

“Yes! He’s not here!” She whispered, her voice cracking with emotion.

“What do we do?” Darshan asked. “We can’t go out there and–”

He had asked a question, but she provided no answer. In place of a response and mostly without thinking, Aarya tore away from Darshan and rushed out of the door; she rushed past the soldiers, past the tank they had parked in the field to defend the supply depot. Her feet splashed in the puddles and mud, heavy, long steps, kicking sludge up to the skirt of her dress and over her yellow sari. Cold rain poured over her head.

It was like a jug of water emptying over her head at all times; but she didn’t look back.

There was shouting, and she heard someone fall and splash in the mud behind her.

But she was thinking about nothing but Zaheer, the little brown hairless boy whose father was almost certainly gone in the savagery now unfolding across  Dbagbo.

She knew where he was and she hated herself for not thinking about him, for not realizing what he would need, how she should have prioritized him to prevent this.

He looked to her; he had nobody else to look to! She couldn’t believe she left him.

Aarya thought she would feel the tug of Darshan’s arm, stopping her and taking her back to protect her over the life of one child but she felt no such thing. She had outran him; she had outran the marathon runner who was second only to Naya in her prime. In her heavy, wet dress and with her ungainly, reckless gait, pushing one leg after the other completely without grace, she had outran him. She crossed from field to school.

Her eyes sought after anyone who could help, but there were no soldiers outside. Everything was eerily quiet to her. She ran along the face of the Auxiliary building, making for the only open door and the thick-walled stairwell that was just off the landing. She set foot inside and ran up the stairs without so much as glancing down the halls.

She fought against the impulse to shout Zaheer’s name — it would frighten him worse.

Halfway to the second floor the world shivered and shrugged Aarya off the ground.

A massive explosion nearby deafened her with its roar. She felt the force of it surging along the ground, crawling up the walls and into the stairwell steps. For an instant it felt enough like everything was shaking that her feet slipped and she hit the cement. She felt heat near the left-most wall and crawled away from it, stretching her hand to the highest step she could reach and slowly laboring to her knees. She hugged herself, her stomach, her ribs, her breasts; it was like she had been stomped on. She labored for air.

When the gunfire began it sounded like nothing she had ever heard. She had imagined something much more ominous, organic, divine, like the hard steps of a tusker or the cry from a dragon of myth. But it was such a tinny, petty noise! Every report sounded eerily like a child slamming palms on a hard tabletop, and in quick succession from multiple men the gunfire seemed more an eerie, chaotic percussion than the sound of death.

This was warfare. It was not some grandiose dance performed by the gods. It was small and pathetic and close and human. It was snapping and cracking and invisible flying lead and awful smells. There was no great flashing of color, no awe-inspiring magics.

She had been exposed to it for a little over a minute and she felt her mind unraveling.

It frightened her; she felt the rattling of the guns in her chest as if the rifles were discharging right beside her. She felt a gross, primal fear that shook her more than the cold of her wet clothes. Despite her pain she bolted up to her feet and started running up the stairwell again, gasping and moaning to relieve the pressure in her chest.

At the top of the stairs she turned a corner and found the familiar hall down all of her classrooms. Every door was closed; the soldiers had shut them all when they left.

Despite all the noise, the incessant back-and-forth of the rifles, the chopping noise of the bigger, faster automatic guns; Aarya shuffled quietly to the first door and gently nudged it open. Throwing open the door, screaming, making a greater panic, would only cause Zaheer even greater distress. He was a gentle boy, who was easily overwhelmed.

Aarya stifled a curse as she let the door swing gently open, stepped inside and found a classroom in disarray, and no sign of Zaheer. All of the desks had been stacked near one of the walls and away from prominent windows. Out of the corners of her eyes she saw something creep — her head turned to the open shutters and she spotted great vehicles moving along the meadow. She ducked reflexively, as if they had eyes as big as their guns that might have seen her, and she crawled out of the room.

“They can’t see me. They’re thick tractors, nothing more.” She whimpered. In the hall she stood, feeling again that she was safe and unseen, and walked to the next door.

The door slid slowly open, its hinges creaking loud. A pistol thrust toward Aarya.

She raised her hands; in control of the gun was the woman soldier from before.

“Lady, what are you doing here? It’s dangerous! You have to go!” She shouted.

She had an instrument, standing on a tripod in front of a half-open window shutter. It looked like a camera with a gauge and a ruler and a radio box all bolted together. Aarya had no idea what this was, what role it played. She was not a soldier. Soldier’s things looked ever more alien and strange to her. She stood dumbfounded in the door.

“You can’t be here!” Continued the soldier. “This area is coming under fire!”

Aarya’s lips quivered, and she muttered a few hasty little things in her defense.

At once the soldier waved her away with the pistol, irate and refusing to listen.

“I don’t care! You need to go! You will just get in the way here! Go back to–”

A distant gun howled and deafened Aarya to the woman’s final words.

Through the shutters blossomed a cloud of orange flames and black smoke.

At once the soldier was thrown forward and crushed under a mound of rubble.

A sudden push threw Aarya back meters away and slammed the door shut.

She hit the ground and slid on the floor. In front of her she saw dozens of holes on the door, and its upper hinge snapped. It hung just slightly off-frame, enough that she could see the dancing lights from the fire inside the classroom playing across the hallway wall.

Breathing hurt; the rising and falling of her chest hurt. But it didn’t hurt in her chest.

There was a slicing pain in her upper leg and hip. She slipped a finger over the wound.

Aarya bit her lip. Stinging pain shot through all the sinews in her hip. She writhed.

There was blood on her hand. She was bleeding. Something hit her, like a bullet.

She felt it embedded in her flesh. Biting her lips, she touched it, pulled it out.

A piece of jagged black metal, covered in her blood, the size of an arrowhead.

Was this the real effect of a cannon attack? Jagged metal that speared through flesh?

Her head swam. She shifted onto her back, staring at the ceiling. It looked like liquid, a puddle, rippling with a fluidity that started and ended in her eyes alone. It was unreal.

There was no sound, only a tinnitus, a muffled, continuous whistling. That too was all in her head but it was so powerfully present that she could not make out any other sound.

In a few minutes she had felt what must surely have been a lifetime’s worth of agony.

She had never felt anything like it before. A cold fear gripped her heart. It felt so easy to give up, to stop moving, to lay on the ground in the hall and just become an object.

The metal fragment slipped out of her fingers. She didn’t hear it falling on the floor.

Moving was so hard; breathing so hard. It could all stop and it would be so peaceful.

She was battered by thoughts of surrender, like hands pulling her through the floor.

Aarya was falling and falling. But there were chains keeping her from the pit. She considered them, considered all of the little innocuous things that made up her life. Over all of this time, what had she built? What kept her moving forward with her head high?

She thought of Benghu, of Chanda, and the school. All of the children. Darshan. When he confessed his love to her she didn’t know what to think. She left him in the air for days. But over time, she started painting a picture in her head. And she liked it.

Now like the blood coming out of her, she felt color draining from that picture.

Why ever did she come here? What brought her to this place? But then, she had never gone anywhere. All of her life had revolved around this little town and she liked that because it was stable, peaceful. She had dreamed of making a beautiful life here. A life full of color that would make her feel remarkable and loved and needed. She always thought — was always plagued by the thought — that she was never strong like her friends. She was never ambitious or skilled. She just wanted simple little things that felt within reach.

One boy told her once that she was precious and powerful and she loved that.

At the time her head started to swim with colorful things that she desired so much.

A little house; children; things at least some silly little girls still had in their heads.

Naya hadn’t; but that was Naya. What would Naya think? Seeing her like this?

Would she cry? Would she remember her at all? Would she act the soldier that Aarya had in her mind and think she was weak for taking a hit and falling and lying there? Had Naya gotten so strong now, in some far away exotic place, with her guns, the guns that the men outside shot; had she gotten so strong she would overlook her? Forget her?

No; Naya would definitely lend her a hand. That was Naya. War couldn’t change that.

Naya, who had her own pains and losses, would never judge one for failing or hurting.

But Naya, who set records with her feet, who trained every day, who pushed herself just to see where she could go, how far her feet would take her; Naya would stand back up.

Aarya shook her head, and she felt as if each movement of her neck was made through a puddle of mud. She turned on her side. Gritting her teeth, she struggled to rise.

Zaheer; she had to find him. He was in here, listening to this monstrous cacophony, and he was all alone. Huddling in a corner in a dark room somewhere because everything was happening too fast and nobody had reassured him. She hadn’t reassured him.

All it took was one mistake, one mistake from her. She was not a monument. She was just human. But she couldn’t afford to make mistakes. She was the only thing in the world that was still right and good for these children, that was still consistent.

Her own stability, the stability of her life, of the life around them, didn’t matter.

As long as she was there they could be okay. She had to go on for that reason.

Aarya forced herself forward, step by step, one hand on her injured hip.

She pushed open several doors, and found nothing inside. Then she saw it; the door that the soldier had shut before and that she and Darshan had opened again. It was shut. She must have returned and found it open, the only open door, and shut it again.

Aarya pushed it open. She walked inside, shuffling in carefully, making no noise.

In a corner, under a little mountain of stacked school desks, there was a little boy with his head to the floor, shaking in his tunic and pants, his cloth shoes cast aside.

“Zaheer, it’s Ms. Balarayu.” She said gently. She sang a few notes. “La la la la la.”

Slowly the boy stopped shaking. Slowly he turned his head to stare into the center of the classroom, as if he had to convince himself that there would be something there worth expending the effort to see. Aarya kept a hand over her bloody hip and the red splotch on her clothes around it. She knelt down slowly and gingerly and smiled at Zaheer.

“Everything will be fine, Zaheer. Is it alright if I give you a hug?” She asked.

She stretched out her arms. Zaheer threw himself into her chest, weeping.

“I was so scared Ms. Balaryu, there were so many people and so many people with guns and everyone was talking at the same time.” He started speaking faster. “I stopped listening to the soldiers and to you Ms. Balarayu, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I sneaked away, I wanted–”

“Shh. It’s not your fault.” She said. She stroked his hair and kissed his head. “Let’s settle down here and wait for all of this to pass, alright Zaheer? I’ll sing you a song.”

Perhaps she wasn’t strong, but maybe she had her strengths. Maybe living through this could be one of them. Looking at Zaheer’s bright eyes, thrilled for a song, perhaps uncomprehending of the magnitude of the carnage unfolding around them, she knew that surviving this had to be her strength. She couldn’t accept a world where it was not.

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The Benghu Tank War III (31.1)

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Southeast of Shebelle

As the compartment rocked around her Schicksal covered her mouth and held her stomach, as if applying pressure might soothe what ailed it. She felt something hot and terrible rise in her throat, and a sharp throbbing in her head suddenly coincided with it. Everything in the tank seemed to slant, the crew held at an angle as the Befehlspanzer’s right track hit and subsequently climbed over something in the pond. She bent forward, her forehead coming to rest against the cold steel of the radio box before her.

“Open your hatch and be more careful!” Dreschner grunted over the radio.

Ahead of her the driver opened the front hatch, letting in a little more light into the gloomy confines. She was seated just a few centimeters higher elevated than the driver and she could see right into the driving compartment from the radio operator’s seat. Were it not for her hazy vision she would have been able to see outside through the front hatch.

Instead she saw the silhouette of the driver, his hands expertly working the sticks, maneuvering the M4 Befehlspanzer off the rocks (presumably) and back into the water (she supposed) as they advanced through what was on her map a low-lying meadow surrounded by little wooded hills. This route was chosen on the assumption it could provide some measure of cover from the hostilities in Shebelle while they made their way to the 8th Panzer Division’s new Forward Operating Base southeast of the besieged city.

However due to the storm it had become a series of broad pools each over a meter deep, hiding rocky and jagged terrain. Schicksal could not have anticipated just what the grasses and flowers of Dbagbo had grown to cover over time, and what the water now covered.

She rubbed her forehead while the tank rattled, creeping forward, treading water. Everything shook when the tank climbed over a rock or rose and fell with the terrain below the surface. With every bump she felt gas and fluid dancing violently in her body.

“General, permission to take another seltzer.” Schicksal whimpered into the radio.

Dreschner sighed into the radio. “Do whatever you need before we reach the FOB.”

Immediately, Schicksal reached into her bag and seized a small carton of water. She peeled open the hole atop the waterproof cardboard, and from her breast pocket, produced a white pill, which she forced into the container. She covered the hole with her hand, shook the carton, and desperately tipped the contents into her mouth. It was hot and nasty; the bubbles and fizz made her throat feel raw. But as it went down it offered something of a relief for her nausea. One bad sensation seemed to overpower the other.

“Siren, this is Donkey-2, we just busted a leg back here, please advice, over.”

Schicksal pressed her headphones to her ears and adjusted the microphone. Donkey was one of the trucks bringing in equipment to the FOB from Silb, following about a kilometer back from the Befelhspanzer and its own distant escort tanks. Trying not to sound too tired, she responded, “Donkey-2, this is Siren, what are you carrying, over?”

“Twenty-five heads, over.” Donkey-2’s radio operator responded quickly. “We’ve got hands on, but the weather’s not nice for this kind of work. Might take a while, over.”

Donkey-2 had blown something serious in a wheel and would need to repair their truck, which was carrying twenty-five infantrymen to help guard the FOB. This personnel was not essential. Schicksal told them to take their time and do what they could, and she did not trouble Dreschner with the details. They would catch up when they could. As long as the fuel and ammo trucks were making progress then everything was on schedule.

She breathed in deep. Her head hurt, but she was at least on the ball with her work.

“Head for that slope ahead, and get us out of this mire.” Dreschner demanded.

Acknowledging, the driver pushed his left stick forward and his right back, turning the Befehlspanzer away from the rest of the pond and toward a nearby slope onto one of the surrounding hills. Once out of the muck, the ride went surprisingly smooth. Schicksal almost nodded off as they climbed the hilltops, up and down every few minutes. But she had to coordinate their maneuvers with those of their escorts, so she kept busy relaying to the tanks at their flanks, 500 meters or so apart, where they had to be going now.

Past the hills and the ponds the Befelhspanzer and its escorts hit an old wheelbarrow path that had been subsumed by the surrounding woodland over time. Here they rejoined a convoy of ten supply trucks, and together this column advanced to the gathering of half-tracks a few kilometers ahead. Covered in or acting as support pillars to camouflage nets and tents, these vehicles represented the 8th Panzer Divison’s FOB.

“How soon will the entire division have relocated along this path?” Dreschner asked.

“We should be packed between here and Benghu before sundown.” Schicksal said.

“Good. Keep tabs on the infantry divisions in Shebelle. I’m going out.” He replied.

Overhead Dreschner pushed up and out of his commander’s cupola, briefly allowing the torrent into the vehicle. She felt him stepping over the turret and then the body of the tank as he climbed down. When the driver cut the engine, everything went eerily silent and still. One really felt the absence of the tank’s vibrations and the rattling motor.

“Need anything, Miss Schicksal?” asked the driver, pushing open his hatch.

“I’m quite alright Bose.” Schicksal wearily replied. She did not even try to smile.

“Alright. I’m steppin’ out for a smoke.” Bose said. He tipped his hat and climbed out.

Schicksal bristled a little at the mention of a smoke. She sure could use a cigarette; but not only had she smoked her whole ration already, she did not want another source of suggestive sensations when she was already drunk and feeling intermittently very sick. Mustering commendable willpower, she withdrew a pack of dry biscuit, set them on the radio mount and crunched on them bit by bit while monitoring the infantry signals.

When Dreschner returned, he banged on the cupola of the tank, which meant that Schicksal had to climb out. Leaving behind her biscuit crumbs, she climbed onto the fake gunner’s seat, over onto Dreschner’s and then up and out of the tank. To her surprise, Dreschner was shielding the aperture by holding a raincoat over it to keep her from the rain.

“We’ve got the war room tent ready. Let us relocate there.” Dreschner said.

He draped the raincoat over her, and together they dropped down from the tank and rushed across the muddy woodland to a large green tent set between two trees.

Inside a map had been laid over a plain folding table. There was a radio set along the wall, and a stack of ration boxes in a basket in the middle of the room. Drum cans of fuel oil and boxes of spare parts rounded out the disheveled, impromptu look of the gloomy tent, which was lit only by a hanging electric lamp powered by a thick lead acid battery.

There were a few orderlies, some logistics personnel, and an engineer present in the tent, though the engineer was only searching through the spare parts at the moment.

“Alright Schicksal,” Dreschner handed her a marker pen, “what is the situation?”

He looked down at the map. Schicksal slowly approached the table. She shut her eyes hard as if it would clear the colors floating around the lamp-light and the soft blur at the edges of her vision. It didn’t. She stretched out her hand and slashed around the edge of Shebelle, three sloppy lines, not quite the right size nor quite as apart as they should be. But she wasn’t an artist. She then drew a circle around the town of Benghu.

“Alright, umm, so, as of 1300 hours,” Schicksal said. She stopped and caught a breath. “Let’s see here, ok. The 17th Grenadier Division and the 12th Jager Division, with the 16th Grenadier Division behind them, have been fiercely fighting through the defenses around Shebelle. They have penetrated the visible defensive lines stretching from the jumping-off point of the attack up to the outlying habitations of Shebelle. Their closest units at the moment can be considered to be engaged inside the city proper.”

“Considered to?” Dreschner asked, looking down at the map. An orderly gave her a few aerial photographs of Shebelle, and Schicksal pulled one closer and over the map. Her movements were very sluggish and deliberate but her words came to her quick enough.

“It’s a little complicated. Let me explain.” Schicksal paused, showing him the photo.

She collected her thoughts, and with Dreschner pulling closer, began to explain.

“Shebelle is built in three echelons of habitation. Its outskirts are small hamlets with very low population density, wide roads without streets, buildings spread apart; these hamlets lead to the concrete streets and gravel roads we would associate with a city further in, but the density is still relatively controlled; and from there Shebelle expands to a much denser urban core. Shebelle University forms much of this center. Its campus housing, school buildings, and other facilities, are arrayed around a small central plaza.”

Dreschner picked up the photographs and examined them, rubbing his chin.

“I take it the infantry is still fighting over the sheep houses at the edge of the city.”

“Worse. Apparently the Ayvartans threaded an entire additional defensive line of slit trenches and camouflaged guns all through the hamlets. Those men who have made it into a sheep house and cleared it are the lucky ones.” Schicksal said. She put down a photograph and raised her hand to her temple to nurse a deep throbbing at the site.

“How are the infantry doing on casualties? And the guns that we lent them?”

“The 17th Grenadier’s 25th Grenadier Regiment is basically gone, apart from the men who have made it past and are dug in around various points of the Ayvartan defense.”

“How many of our M3s did they take with them? Do you know?” Dreschner pressed.

“Several have been abandoned that could potentially be recovered and repaired after the fighting dies down; but right now there’s about 5 M3s operational in the battle.”

Dreschner shook his head. “That’s a far worse loss than I anticipated. We will have to beat some more discipline into the heads of these crews.” He crossed his arms, looking disgusted. “Abandoned vehicles! Take a little anti-tank fire and suddenly the world’s ending.”

Schicksal nodded wearily. Her eyes were starting to shut periodically. She felt the food and drink sitting like stones in her stomach. It made her heavy to herself, bloated and tired. She fidgeted with things, photographs, the markers, her own hair, for something to do to keep active and awake. She was surprised that she even remembered all the information that she had collected over the radio — and that she hadn’t fallen asleep back then. Before speaking she had to spend some time collecting her words, going over what to say.

“To complicate matters, our breakthroughs are not definitive. All of the parts of the Ayvartan line we have not broken through specifically are still shooting. It’s difficult for me to illustrate, but if I had to draw our penetration of the Ayvartan lines I would probably be drawing something like a radio frequency, more than a coherent front line. Some men are in the first line, some in the second, some in Shebelle. It’s gotten exceedingly messy.”

“Are any Ayvartan divisions breaking off from the city assault?” Dreschner asked.

Schicksal shook her head, more to clear it than to gesture. “Not that we’ve seen.”

Dreschner smiled and clapped his hands together once, threading his fingers together.

“Good! Then the infantry is doing its job. They have eight other Regiments to throw at the city, losing one isn’t a setback right now. Is Reiniger almost ready to break off?”

“Noel is requesting his presence in Benghu, but he has met unexpected defensive belts in seemingly random places between Shebelle and Benghu, and is being held up.”

“Impress upon him the need for haste.” Dreschner said. “He needs to break off from Shebelle and press the attack on Benghu before night, or we’ll lose initiative.”

“I will let him know sir.” Schicksal said. She was sure he knew well enough already.

“Now that Shebelle is engaged, the Ayvartans will hunker down in there to contain potential breakthroughs. They do not have the capability to handle multiple thrusts and form mobile defenses.” Dreschner said. He sounded almost triumphant now.

Schicksal would have told him not to speculate that much on any “capabilities” the Ayvartans might or might not have, but she was too tired to argue. She nodded.

“How are Noel and Spoor? Have they broken through to the train station yet?”

Dreschner seemed to jump from one thought to another very quickly. His mind must have been racing, performing whatever arcane mathematics Generals did in their heads.

Schicksal sighed audibly and rubbed her head again. “That part is complicated.”


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