Absolute Pin — Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains scenes of violence, including graphic violence, and death.

33rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, 3rd Line Corps Defensive Line “Home”

Sector Home

A dozen rifle rounds struck the gun shield and the sandbags. They could have come from no more than 200 meters away. The gun commander crouched around the edge of the semi-circular sandbag defenses and peered out to the street with his binoculars. He saw a squadron of men, huddling around the edge of an alley on the left-hand side of the street; he called the distance and location and he pointed his gunner to them. They were getting too close.

She responded quickly, turning the heavy carriage of the Khroda water-cooled machine gun to face toward the building. Her loader, crouched beside her, picked up the ammunition belt and ducked his head. She pulled the trigger, counted two seconds, depressed, and hit again.

Short bursts of 10-20 rounds flew across the road and street. She knew her gun well, and she knew that she was hitting the alley at an angle, biting into the wall and the street feeding into the alley. Targeted by the heavy machine gun, the Grenadiers ceased firing on her shield and held back from the street. Every burst chipped pieces of concrete all around them. Any stray appendage out of cover would have been torn apart; any head or shoulder the same.

Suppression was the objective, more than killing. They had to keep the enemy away.

Noise and volume, more than accuracy, kept those men pinned down in that alleyway.

The Gun Commander patted the Gunner and Loader on the shoulders and nodded his head toward the rear of the defensive line, twenty meters back, on the street running perpendicular to theirs; in the middle of this street was Madiha’s House, and along the front of it, and around its street corners, their mortar posts. His troops understood; the Gunner nodded her head back and continued to fire on the alley. The Gun Commander left them and rushed, half-crouched, to the nearest mortar team. He told them of the suppressed Grenadiers, and they adjusted fire.

Within moments, a volley of 120mm and 82mm mortar shells started to drop in front of the alley and along the street in front of it, holding up any potential movements from that area.

When the Gun Commander returned, he raised his binoculars again and found his crew new targets. They could not wait and see if those other men had been killed — they had stopped moving and stopped shooting, but there were dozens of groups of 8-10 men scrambling their way up sector Home, and whenever they picked one to attack they ignored many others.

Directly across the defensive line from this particular gun team, a second identical model Khroda gun fired down the right-hand street to cover its own approach; the third machine gun in the middle of the defensive line laid its fire directly ahead instead, ten rounds a second streaking over the middle of the road. This crucial lane of fire was relentlessly guarded. Unlike his counterparts on the flanks, the central gunner kept his trigger down through each belt.

Steam issued from the central gun’s barrel, and grew copious as the shooting went on — the loader gingerly replaced the water-cooling jacket when next he reloaded the gun.

During this delicate operation five men from a broken squadron crossed the road, bounding from one street to the next and linking up with another group for safety. They were elusive!

For minutes at a time the battle was completely gridlocked. Gunfire and artillery rolled over the invader’s path like the swiping hand of a giant, hurling back in pieces anyone exposed to its iron claws. Whenever the brunt of a volley passed them by, small groups of Nochtish men would dare to leap closer to the defensive line, gaining their side as a whole a handful of meters, sometimes a dozen, before the weight of Ayvartan fire shifted and pinned them anew.

Little by little the grenadiers climbed their way to within 150 meters of the Ayvartan line.

Then the concerted effort began; from the end of the main street toward “Home”, driving up the road as a wedge, a platoon of M3 assault guns trundled toward the defensive line. They rolled in from the street corners, assembled, and then took their first shots northward. Seconds apart, over a dozen 75mm shells crashed in front of and behind the Ayvartan lines. A shell soared over an anti-tank gun and exploded inside of a supply tent; one detonated in front of a machine gun and stunned the crew; another burst through the window of the Major’s office.

Thankfully the Major had just decided to go, and was not there to burn in the explosion.

After the first volley the defenders were shaken up and the assault guns started on their way again, facing their armor forward and rushing toward the defensive line from 800 meters.

Though the mortars and machine guns had temporarily quieted the 122mm divisional artillery was over two kilometers away and continued to sound. Explosive detonations crept across the road from the defensive line, falling in front of and around the advancing tanks. Shells dropped from above like plunging meteors, smashing the ground and bursting into columns of fire and uprooted concrete and gravel three or four meters high, like geysers rising around the tanks.

Fragments ricocheted off armor, dust and smoke blew against slits and periscopes. Falling shells punched holes in the pavement and the tank tracks navigated them expertly, the unflinching vehicles encroaching with purpose. A glancing blow just off the side of the formation smashed the track off an M3 Hunter, and its crew abandoned it; the remaining four tanks pressed on through the swelling rains of hot debris. At 400 meters a second volley struck along the length of the street; behind the platoon the abandoned tank was hit and exploded.

Anti-tank guns from the 3rd Line Corps recovered from the shock of the 75mm shelling, and from two positions in front of Home they joined the artillery barrage. From their guns quick volleys of 45mm shells plunged down the road. Many of the shots flew high or wide and were corrected constantly against the advance of the tanks. 300 meters! Shots started to pound into the front armor. Armor-piercing projectiles plunged right into the tank’s strong, flat glacis plates and their sharp noses flattened out, detonating uselessly without any penetration.

Though more accurate by virtue of firing directly, the 45mm guns had too short barrels and too small projectiles to inflict much damage on the tanks. 200 meters; but the fire did not let up. Inside the tanks the crews felt the metal rattling around them and the hull growing hot. Slits and side hatches opened up temporarily to allow the crew some measure of fresher air.

As the tanks neared, an Ayvartan anti-tank commander spotted an opportunity through her binoculars and called in last-minute adjustments on a shot. Her gunner fired, and the 45mm shell went off; seconds later the M3 in the center of the formation stopped dead in its tracks, a smoking hole less than half a meter in diameter through its front viewing slit. It was likely that the driver had been killed and other crew injured; the Ayvartan gun commander turned her gunner toward different targets while she monitored the wreck for a second just to be sure.

Nothing, dead; but the remaining three tanks had rushed to within a hundred meters of the line. There they stopped in their tracks and turned their guns on the defenders. Artillery fire from the divisional guns now fell behind the tanks, crashing in the street dozens of meters away. The M3 assault guns had conquered the Ayvartan’s pre-planned firing area.

Within seconds of coming to a complete stop the M3 Hunters opened fire on the line. A Khroda machine gun exploded and blew back its own crew, struck dead-center by a 75mm shell and folding under the pressure wave. An explosive projectile punched into the lobby of the HQ building and smashed a hole into the staircase along the back of the room. One M3 shell went wide and exploded beside an anti-tank gun, its crew ducked behind their sandbags and suddenly showered in gravel; luckily the anti-personnel fragments largely missed them.

Having tasted blood, the assault guns adjusted their aim and prepared for their next shots.

Then from both ends of the road running behind the defensive line came reinforcements.

A pair of Hobgoblins appeared from around the street corners. They had been holding back in reserve and awaited just such a moment to strike — aiming their guns at the enemy farthest diagonally from them, they secured sharp angles on the vehicle’s exposed sides. Their 76mm guns roared at once, and with one shell each they ripped into the enemy tanks. Hatches blew open, smoke and fire belched from the cupolas, scrap metal flew into the air. Two M3 Hunter assault guns were immediately destroyed in this attack, leaving a single one behind.

Judging its mission failed, the final M3 retreated at full speed from the defensive line and slid its bulk backwards into a partially ruined storefront for cover, conceding over 200 meters. 45mm and 76mm shells crashed around it every step of the way. A Hobgoblin crawled out from behind the street corner and positioned itself where the Khroda HMG had been destroyed, filling out the gap in the line. Its coaxial and frontal machine guns flashed in place of the gun.

Nochtish men fell back and fell into place, growing timid at the appearance of enemy tanks.

And yet again Operation Surge was gridlocked under 200 meters from the defensive line.

Both sides used the lull as best as they could. The 3rd Line Corps cycled out its fatigued, wounded and dead and hastily shifted their reserves to the reeling defenders. Orders went around to slow down the gunfire, to make the belts and shells last. New firing lanes were discussed with the Svechthan artillery gunners stationed several kilometers behind the line, to account for the closer position of the enemy. But there would still have to be be a minimum range — 50 meters from the line, to avoid potential friendly fire. Trucks delivered ammunition and cooling jackets for the precious machine guns. These stayed around the corner where it was relatively safe; gun commanders rushed out to fetch crates to bring back to their posts.

Across from them, a new platoon of Grenadiers used the smoking wrecks for cover and waded up the street a handful of meters at a time, harassed by persistent artillery, tank fire, machine guns. Existing squadrons held their positions, exhausted, shaking from the noise and their own nerves. They dug themselves wherever there was concrete to cover them, and waited for help. From their vantage, those closest to the lines reported what they could on the Ayvartan disposition. They called in for armor, for artillery, for anything that could help them move. But further armor reinforcements were held up, until the Ayvartan fire abated — if it ever abated.

Then, inside the second floor of an office 200 meters from the line, a beleaguered Nochtish radio man, lying alone against a wall and putting pressure on a bullet wound in his arm, heard his radio come to life. It had been set to receive all missives, as the man hoped for rescue.

He heard a voice, crackling with static and noise. “Sturmvogel wing, 10 km from target, copy?”

 

South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

Two hours into the operation Fruehauf and her girls received the first concrete reports from the front. Thirty minutes before that, they heard a man die on the radio; he had accidentally flipped his backpack set on, screaming in the midst of gunfire and artillery. There was a sound like a tin can rolling down a street, followed by a horrific wet choking and coughing on the air.

Shrieking, the girls ripped their headsets from over their ears and chucked them away. Reflexively they shut off their radios with a flick of a switch to kill that haunting noise.

Across the room General Von Sturm snapped his head up from the maps on his table.

“What the hell is their problem now? Fruehauf, control your banshees!” He shouted.

Marie and Erica were shaken up from the noise, weeping, sobbing aloud; Fruehauf assured them as best as she could. There, there, she cooed, like a mother whose children had scraped knees or burned elbows from play. She was four years older than the oldest girl; she had to be strong. She laid her hands gently on the girls’ shoulders; she told them they would not hear such things often and that, in time, they would become calls just like any other they took.

Hands shaking, choking back their sobs, the girls returned to their seats and slipped their headsets over their ears again. They turned down the volume and set the radios to receive.

She was not supposed to give in to conjecture. She had to wait for reports from officers and from reliable unit contacts who made it their purpose to give her their most accurate info. But from the noise and the corps-wide calls for support being traded about between the different officers, from the calls of infantrymen for artillery support, from artillery men for more rounds, for armor requesting patrols, and everyone requesting air support; she could piece together that things were not going so smoothly. Then again, they hardly ever did at first.

Avoid conjecture; she waited out those thirty biting minutes since they heard the man die.

At first they received a call to establish official contact. Erica alerted Fruehauf to this after picking it up. Fruehauf approached, overrode Erica’s radio through her headset and switched the radio set to enable it to call back. She sent out a message and gave the officer a special frequency to call. She switched the radio to receive again, tuning it to that frequency. She listened to the whole of his report, taking down pertinent notes on a pad on her clipboard.

Now she was not operating on conjecture, but the best facts available at the moment as to the disposition of the 6th Grenadier Division. Next the 13th Panzergrenadier called HQ. Finally, what remained of the Azul Corps called in, graciously speaking in Nochtish for her sake.

“Sir, I have with me a preliminary report on the capture of the first wave of Surge objectives.”

Every report opened with timestamps and short summaries of what was accomplished. On Koba, the way to the port was secured; in the east, paths leading north center. Matumaini was bypassed and forces had assembled and launched their first attacks on the main street in the Central District’s innermost sector, particularly on a long stretch connecting two u-shaped street intersections and dominated by a large school building. This sector was strongly defended — likely an enemy Forward Operating Base or FOB. It had priority for now.

That was the good news, brief as it was. Then came the preliminary casualty estimates.

Von Sturm did not care much for the infantry casualty reports; he had told her once in a mostly private setting that if fifteen landsers died fighting to cover a tank, he still had the tank. That was his philosophy, and in part it was also Nocht’s philosophy. Landsers as a whole applied pressure to an area. Machine gunners and mortar squads “got the job done,” they killed and disabled enemy infantry; tanks and planes “won wars” by attacking the enemy’s rear echelon and delivering heavy firepower. Ordinary riflemen merely put pressure on the enemy — they took ground and formed fighting positions to secure Nocht’s expanding influence in the area.

Nonetheless, Von Sturm could be made to take pity on them if too many died at once. Those numbers were on him, and many thousand deaths were simply inexcusable, doctrine or no.

“In the West, along Koba, casualties so far have mounted quickly to three platoons put out of action, though with relatively few dead compared to wounded. In the East, a Company was put out of action. In the Center, heavy fighting has cost two platoons. Arrival of air support and naval support should lessen the amount of casualties going forward, however.” Fruehauf said.

“A little higher than I expected for the first wave, but we have reserves for that.” Von Sturm said. “How about armor and vehicles? They better be making good on those assault guns.”

“Reports so far indicate at least 18 vehicles out of action of various types.” Fruehauf replied.

“Various types? What do you mean? Give me some specifics here.” Von Sturm demanded.

“10 M3 Hunter SPGs, 3 M4 Sentinel tanks, 4 or 5 Squire B half-tracks.” Fruehauf said.

Von Sturm grit his teeth. That was where the losses truly stung. The 2nd and 3rd Panzer Division had lost a significant number of vehicles in the Kalu. For the rest of the Vorkampfer the Matumaini, Penance and Umaiha offensives had also proven costly. Their armored fleet was down to almost half its strength. Nevertheless, Von Sturm seemed to fight his initial instinct to sequester his armor from the operation. Instead, he smiled and nodded.

“Within acceptable losses. Good. That’s what I like to hear. Reaffirm to Aschekind and his lot that I want that port, and I want them to camp beside the sea come hell or high water. I want constant pressure on the center, and I want the flanks secured. I’m not afraid about the east, but we need that port captured and those western streets shut the hell down.” He said.

Fruehauf nodded. She bowed her head in deference. “I will pass your directives to him.”

Behind them the door to the restaurant swung open; Von Drachen swung into the room, his arm in a sling, his forehead heavily bandaged. Despite all this he still wore his cap and his full uniform. Fruehauf didn’t recall a time she had ever seen him less than fully dressed. He ambled his way to the planning table, and pulled up a chair just centimeters from Von Sturm.

Von Sturm sidled his chair away from Von Drachen and glared at the arriving Cissean.

“You’re on reserve, you don’t need to be here. You should go rest.” Von Sturm said.

Von Drachen grinned. “My good man, are you worried about my health?” He said.

Von Sturm turned his head away. “You babble enough when healthy, I can’t imagine how annoying you would become when delirious. Take your medicine and go to bed.”

“I shall be just fine. Listen, you need to press your strength into the center. I’m sure she is there and you need to kill her, or this war will be hell for you in the long run.” Von Drachen said.

“See? Look at him Fruehauf, he’s practically speaking in tongues.” Von Sturm sighed. “Look you pus-addled fool, just because a woman can best you doesn’t mean she’s leading the enemy’s operations, ok? We’ve discussed this, Ayvartans press their women into military service, that doesn’t make her special. This is just a woman who defeated you and nothing more!”

“As far as our information is concerned, Elijah Gowon is still leading Ox.” Fruehauf said.

“Oh dear, not you too? I thought you were on my side.” Von Drachen chuckled.

Fruehauf frowned. “I’m on the side of information; that is part of my job, I’m afraid.”

“Thank you!” Von Sturm said, spreading his arms toward her as if to hold her up. “Finally someone here is speaking sense. Don’t worry though, we will have the central district in our grasp shortly. Then we will take the fight to the wider-open north district, where these Ayvartan rat-hole tactics that have caused us so much grief cannot be employed.”

“I have a feeling it will be more difficult than that. But you’re right. We’ll see.”

Von Drachen sat back contentedly in his chair. Von Sturm stared at him in confusion.

Fruehauf nonchalantly left the side of the table, and returned unmolested to her fiefdom of wires and waves. She gave Erica and Marie a friendly squeeze on the shoulder, and hoped their nerves would not become a casualty of the day; that was one kind of casualty that crept up all too often and was never mentioned in the reports. So far, everything seemed to be on track. She had to tell herself that. At the time, with the information available — they were winning.

 

Central-West Sector, Upper Boroughs

KobaSeaside

Koba block was shrouded in a cloud of dust and smoke. Windblown debris and dirt flowed through the air, visible like the velvet ripples on a curtain. In the sky a muted white disc hung directly above the combatants, its light dim against the brown and grey billowing mass.

Somehow the battle was carrying itself out, like a force of nature, inscrutable and inevitable; it was a blur to Kern, and he rushed through it like an animal running from lightning in a storm.

Humble rifles no longer sounded across the streets, drowned out in booming shell-fall caused by Ayvartan 122mm howitzers from the north, and by the shocking reports of 75mm M3 Hunter guns from the south and within Koba itself. Ceilings collapsed under the blasts, the road trembled, gravel blossomed into the air to join the shrapnel from the fragmentation rounds. Building-to-building, the soldiers crawled and jumped and sprinted, into doorways, through windows, into black holes bored into the structures by explosives and shells. They got out onto the streets and charged to the nearest opening to leave them, heads down and hands over their helmets whenever a pillar of fire and fragments rose somewhere nearby.

75mm rounds went through walls and buildings fell on their sides like towers of blocks, stifling even the dying screams from inside; 122mm shells punched into structures at an angle and burst into a cone of shrapnel that eviscerated the soldiers inside; where men fought one another it was at close range, jabbing bayonets in a desperate panic, aware that any wall covering them for more than a minute was a wall liable to cover them for eternity.

Intermittently a grenade flashed within the gloom, thrown haphazardly through a window or a door. Those men that threw it rushed to assumed safety in its wake. Those who saw it from afar charged out into the street for a chance to meet and gather in strength. Often the grenade hit nothing; a few times, it caused harm, but not harm enough, and the men charged in on a group of wounded, furious enemies that welcomed them with pistols, shotguns and bayonets.

Ahead a platoon was lost, half dead or dying, half pinned to whatever rock they had to their backs when their bravery finally gave out; behind them more men jumped into the fray. One company gone; but each Battalion had three. And the Regiment had nine altogether. Kern watched the men from afar and saw them give up, as if choosing right there to die. But more men came behind them. Mortar rounds fell on their enemies. Machine guns blared. Then, as if pushed by an incoming tide, the fatigued, disheartened men ahead began to move once more.

Nocht had a doctrine, they had tactics. Establish a base of fire, and advance under its cover. Mortars and machine guns were the lifeline of the unit; riflemen were pressure, a wall that expanded under the unceasing fire of a Norgler. But all of this was lost on those tight, bloody streets and ruins, so alien to the men invading them. In those tight streets against soldiers entrenched in buildings the Norgler machine gunners were just more panicking bodies. There was scarcely machine gun fire from either side, and all of it hit walls and shadows.

Those common bolt-action rifles arming 80% of Nocht’s grenadiers were even more useless, save for the bayonet lug. Grenades were not issued in large quantity. Melee dominated. Men moved, slowed, stopped, some dead, some not; some moved again when more men appeared.

Were they fighting in 2030 D.C.E? Did they not have science and analysis on their side? And yet house to house in Koba block they were reduced to the savagery of long-gone forebears.

House-to-house the line worked its way in this fashion, screaming and clawing up Koba.

Then the triumphal cry: “We got the spotter! Keep your heads down until it blows over!”

Those who heard the call and knew its implications ducked and closed their eyes and prayed to God as those final shells came down upon the block, that His wrath be stayed; those that did not hear a word in the continuing cacophony kept the battle alive, scampering up windows, shoulder through doors, shooting empty rooms. Shadows taunted them every which way.

There was no gradual silence; it came all at once, as deafening as the cacophony preceding.

Ayvartan artillery quieted, and the world was mute around the men of the 6th Grenadier.

Lone bursts of machine guns from shaken men sounded into the silence. Then they realized that the enemy had been conquered. They shouldered their guns. There was no celebration.

Slowly the cloud settled. Shaken landsers wound their way up the ruins to the end of Koba.

Kern had survived again; he shambled out of a house and tried to find the sun again through the gloom and the silence. Everyone around him had their backs to rock, catching their breaths.

He walked blindly through the clouded street. Then he parted the curtain; he stepped out of Koba into the light. Overhead the sun was shining unimpeded. Concrete cage walls no longer surrounded him. He turned his head and he saw a rocky cliff leading down onto a white beach, a gentle tide rolling in and out. He was on the shoulder of the continent, the dirt road curving along the western edge of Bada Aso. There was grass, green grass flanking the road. It was very open, as though he had found a broad clearing in the concrete forest of Koba block.

Koba’s suffocating, haphazard urbanization burst open. There was a view, there was the sky, there was the sea at his side. Kern breathed in the salty, free air. He coughed from it.

He thought he could see half the city from here; he could not, but he got the impression.

Ahead there was a loose formation of buildings sloping gradually downhill. They were old clay brick houses, five or six of them in a little block several meters apart. A wide, dusty road ran through the middle of them, separated from each street by drainage ditches dug along its sides. To the west was the water, and the land they stood on was maybe 10 or 20 meters above the ocean blue; a kilometer out the other direction Kern could see again the edges of the grey and brown thicket of buildings and houses in the inner city, delineated by a steel fence.

Then there was the port of Bada Aso to the north, at the bottom of the shallow decline, straddling the Core Ocean. Closely shaped to the contours of the shore, a wide concrete wharf with several berths had been laid over two kilometers of coastline. It was broken up into two main platforms, forming a reverse arrow-head shape where they met along the sharp curve of the coast. Nearest to the advancing troops, less than a kilometer away, was a smaller wharf for local fishing and small merchant and transport craft; much farther away was the larger platform, with cranes and warehouses and a long, stable berths to host much larger vessels.

Both of these platforms seemed thoroughly empty from the advancing troops’ vantage.

Kern looked over his shoulder, into the settling dusts of Koba. There were men scrounging through the ruins, cleaning up; and there were a smaller number readying to move forward. They would be advancing soon. With the ocean to the west, and visible objectives directly ahead, it was again time to heave his rifle and do battle. At least he got a quick breather.

Schloss reappeared beside him, peering ahead through his binoculars. He picked the handset from Kern’s radio and started talking nonchalantly, as though Kern was just a prop.

“We broke through out of Koba, we’re at the seaside now. Just one loose block of buildings to go and we’ll be at the port– Yes I can see the defense turrets from here. Yes, we’ll try.”

Turrets? Kern scanned across the curve of the seaside again — then he saw them, over a kilometer away, looking out to sea. Three domes of concrete perhaps ten meters tall, sprouting from a hillock just off of the tiny block of buildings. Each turret had two long, wicked gun barrels. These were 100mm all-purpose guns adapted from old ship artillery pieces.

“They’re not shooting yet but that doesn’t preclude them doing so. Yes, we’ll head out now.”

Kern wondered if those turrets had been used to shoot them before, when they were struggling up Koba; but they were facing the ocean with their guns at a low elevation, so he guessed that they were dormant. He also figured that the Ayvartan artillery, which had a confirmed range of at least 10 kilometers, would not be residing a mere 3 kilometers from its attack target.

Schloss returned the handset into its slot on the box. He pointed toward the little block of houses, telling his men, “move out, we’re on combat patrol. We’ll go from those houses, up to the hillock with the guns and then down to the lower wharf. We can expect air and sea support shortly.” He turned specifically to Kern. “Your callsign is Prospector; Eagle is our air support. Do you recall how to call them in? If you don’t, I can handle that. Just stick close to us.”

Kern nodded his head solemnly. Schloss and his squadron started on the first house, and he followed behind them. Though down several of their original men the squadron had picked up enough stray landsers from the charge through Koba to boast a strength of twenty-one rifles — Schloss had led a successful flanking attack despite the artillery barrage, and he broke Ayvartan suppressing fire. Since then every remnant of the thrashed 2nd Platoon stuck behind him.

Walking briskly they crossed the grassy roadside, the terrain gently rising and falling under their feet as land should. They walked with a building covering their approach, and covered the distance quickly. At the first of the little buildings they put their backs to the side wall. Schloss peered around the corner. He pointed at the house across from theirs on the other side of the dirt road. Ten men peeled from the squadron and broke into a run across the street. They assembled against the wall without problem. There Schloss signaled again, and the squadron split once more; five men across the street moved around the back of their house, and then five of the men near Kern followed their own wall and slipped behind the little building.

“Follow me, kid,” Schloss said. Rifle out and up against his shoulder he peered around the corner again, and then led his own group of five men, Kern included. He followed the older soldier into the dirt road. They walked along the shallow ditch, with maybe a meter of cover along each side. They paused, checked every direction again and got onto the street near the house’s doorway. Schloss and Kern stayed outside while three men charged in, bayonets first.

Across the street Kern saw the other team mirroring them and clearing their own house.

“No one here Schloss! House is clear!” a man called out. Schloss nodded for Kern to follow.

Inside the cramped little two-story house, Schloss promptly started stomping on the floor.

“Hollow.” He said. He started speaking in an alarmed tone of voice. “Pull apart the boards.”

Two of his men drew their combat knives and wedged them in between wooden floorboards, bending them up enough to get a grip with their hands. Together they ripped apart a large section of the floor and found what seemed less like a room below them, and more like a concrete pit trap. Kern cast light from an electric torch across the damp, rocky little space. On one end of it he found what he thought was a path leading right under the street and road.

“A tunnel. We don’t have anything to destroy it, but take note.” Schloss said aloud.

“God. They are like rats, these Ayvartans. When did they dig all of this up?” asked a man.

“I honestly do not know. Why would they dig all over the city like this? It can’t have been a defensive measure. These tunnels are all different and too haphazard. Maybe they were digging for gold at one point? Oil? Who knows. Just remember, and be vigilant.” Schloss said.

Kern suddenly caught a whiff of something nasty while they were standing around.

“Do you smell anything off?” He asked, looking around the men for support.

“Yes, it’s those holes,” Schloss said, “they give off a smell sometimes. Don’t let it get to you.”

“Probably dead shit down there,” said a squad member. “Maybe that’s where all the animals in the city have gone off to. Haven’t seen a single cat or a dog in this godforsaken hole.”

Schloss turned to look across the street. His men had just cleared the other house.

“We’re moving, this house is clear. Keep your eyes peeled just in case.” He said.

Between each house was a little slope just a bit deeper than the ditches, offering a small measure of cover. Instead of following the ditch to the next house, they walked between them. As they moved, Kern saw the team they had sent behind the house had already beaten them across the stretch of open grass to the next set of little buildings. They kept watch behind the back of the house and urged Schloss’ group forward when they saw them coming. Just off their position was a steeper slope down to the last little stretch of sandy beach, just a few meters from where the topography was swallowed up by the water between beach and wharf.

Schloss and his men broke into a run, and Kern followed behind them. Everyone stacked against the side wall of the next building. He tried to look through the windows into the little kitchen, but Schloss pushed his head down. Across the street both other teams made it to their next building, and started to probe the entrances. Kern followed his own team around the front and inside the house again, confirming his glimpse through the window — it was empty.

Despite this they still searched the home thoroughly. Schloss stomped on the floorboards again, but this time they felt solid. He still had the men break them up. Kern wandered out into the street, watching the men across the road do the same. It seemed these houses were all empty. He looked across the lands they had yet to cover, and it all looked empty to him as well.

Down a shallow slope from the buildings the dirt road curled away from the hillock with the turrets and met a concrete road that split, one path perpendicular and stretching farther north, another west to the wharf. Though sprawling, the wharfs had little in the way of buildings save for a few warehouses and the port authority office. The north road led out across a space of grass and sandy trail before connecting to the next urbanization a few kilometers away.

Kern nursed a faint hope that perhaps the Ayvartans had seen sense and abandoned the port. He could see no enemies, save for the ominous turrets atop the hillock. Around the hillock there was only dirt and grass and what seemed like empty lots where houses might have once stood. Everything just off the port was more open and far less developed than inside Koba.

He would have seen the enemy, if there was an enemy out there. Kern turned back into the house. Under the floorboards Schloss had only found solid concrete. There was no tunnel.

“Fancy that. I guess it was just the last row that had a tunnel.” He said. “Pays to know this.”

Schloss made a circle in the air with his finger. Kern nodded and turned around. Again the man plucked the radio from the box like if Kern was but a post carrying the device, but the young landser did not much mind the treatment. After everything that had happened so far he did not see himself as much of a soldier. Carrying the radio and running behind everyone was his lot.

“Sir, we’ve got nothing in the houses just off Koba. Way seems to clear down to turret hill and the first Wharf. Requesting permission to hold position until the company just out of Koba can regroup.” Schloss waited. Kern could almost imagine Aschekind’s unaffected, bellowing voice. He even thought he heard it coming from the handset pressed tight to Schloss’ ear.

Schloss bowed his head a little. “Yes sir. Understood.” He laid down the handset again. His men braced for the bad news already. “Combat patrol out to turret hill. Captain doesn’t care that we’ve got nothing that can put a dent in those turrets. He just wants us around them. They haven’t fired on us yet, so maybe they have been abandoned. Cross your fingers.”

A collective sigh followed. Canteens were collected again, stoppered, put away; rifles were picked up from the wall. Helmets set again on heads. Everyone marched out of the house.

Out on the street, Schloss waved everyone over. There were more men just starting to trickle into the dirt road from Koba. Across the street there were men still checking in the house — but they were in the kitchen. Kern could see them through a window on the facade.

“That a tunnel?” Schloss shouted, forming a cone around his mouth with his hands.

“Yessir!” A man shouted back. They were ripping up floorboards just like before. “It was in the kitchen rather than the foyer room — there’s a big ol’ fuckin’ hole down here too.”

“Shit.” Schloss said. He nodded to two of his men. “Get back in there and check.”

They nodded and took off past Kern and into the house that the squadron had just left behind. Everyone else stood outside on the street, milling around under the sun. Kern could almost feel his helmet cooking his brain after a while. Without the buildings on every side there was a lot more heat coming down on him. He became more aware of his ragged breath. He was tired.

Kern bent over, touched his fingers to his boots. He held on to his knees. He twisted his head, staring at the sideways Turret Hill. He saw the figures moving but he could not place them.

A deep noise shook him; the north-facing wall of the building directly across the street exploded and the building partially collapsed, the roof tilting and folding over its side.

Through the window he saw the men disappear in a blinding flash before the collapse.

Kern fell on his side in shock — something had cut his arm, he was bleeding. A shell fragment had flown out the window perhaps; Schloss knelt down, having suffered a similar wound.

“Scheiße!” Schloss yelled out. “Ayvartan tanks, 400 meters down, the unidentified types!”

He snapped to the north again and got a glimpse of the tanks and men now approaching from around the Hillock, where perhaps they had been waiting all this time, hidden by its face.

From the foot of the shallow sloping road before them the tank guns bellowed once more.

Schloss shouted something to the men more before the shell hit, but it was drowned out. Within arms reach of the squadron the projectile dove into the hard dirt and detonated.

High-Explosive was a misnomer; these shells never merely exploded. When the shell detonated it splintered its casing into hundreds of tiny shards of steel that scattered about the impact area based on the shell trajectory. Frags traveled at incredible velocity across an area dozens of times the diameter of the shell, within less than a second from impact. Kern hit the dirt and felt the heat wave wash over him, and he felt the fragments flying, like a cloud of razor-tipped flies brushing past his body. He was grazed before he even touched ground, caught in mid-flight like a duck brushed by a hunter’s buckshot. He screamed from the sudden stinging and burning.

Along his back, and around his arms, he felt the metal inside his flesh. He screamed and screamed and thrashed in the dirt. He felt hands, tugging him, and he felt the metal stick deeper in him as his back dragged across the dirt. Sweat and blood trickled down his eyes. It stung him even to look at his surroundings. He felt like a writhing knot of flaring pain.

Machine guns sounded, too close; he opened his eyes and briefly saw the trail of dust across the road as the bullets scratched across the dirt. Gunfire streaked just past him. He heard a cry. He was shaking. He could not keep his eyes open, they stung too much from the tears and sweat.

“Kid, come on!” Someone shouted, right in his ear, and he felt like his shoulder would be torn off. Kern’s felt his feet flatten out, his body rise. Someone was lifting him up He planted his feet and twisted around and ran blindly with whoever was tugging him on, tearing him viciously toward an unknown direction. Shells crashed again, and between the billowing of the smoke, the fuming of flames and the thunder of gun reports he heard feet stomping on the dirt.

He felt like he ran a mile headlong, his legs unsteady, his whole body screaming for release. But when finally he stopped and gazed through rivulets of sweat, dizzy from the pain and exertion, he was behind the first of the little houses again. Two of the houses ahead had been crushed. He did not believe anyone in them could have survived. There were bodies, a trio fifty or sixty meters away, gnarled, shapeless. A dozen meters a man twisted on the ground, gushing blood.

A long burst of machine gun fire sliced across the road and finally laid the man down.

Moisture and foul air made his eyes feel cold and they stung again. He wiped them down, flaring up the pain in his arm. His legs were shaking. Kern looked around himself. There were two men with him, staring at him, their own faces red either from exertion and bleeding.

“You ok?” One of the men asked. They helped him to remove the radio from his back.

“I’m injured,” Kern said. He felt stupid. He was hurting so much and yet he could walk, he could talk, he was alive. But he also felt as though he had been mortally eviscerated.

“You’ll live. Check the radio. Is it broken or anything? We need to report contact–“

“Where’s Schloss?” Kern asked. He looked out behind himself. He looked again to the road.

“He’s gone.” The man’s voice trembled and cracked. Kern felt as if the words had gone through his head clean out each way and he did not even comprehend them. He had no reaction. Nobody had any reaction. Both men in front of him were breathing heavy and clearly shaken up but nobody seemed to realize that squad leader Schloss had been killed. He wouldn’t be back!

One of the men shook Kern. “I’m Private Kennelmann. You’re 1st class; you need to call in.”

Yes, Kern recognized this; he was a Private 1st Class. He was promoted. That was correct.

“Then you’re supposed to listen to me.” Kern said. It came out sounding almost pleading.

Kennelman nodded his head deeply. Beside him the other man stared quietly at them.

“We’re listening.” They said. It sounded like a cry; there were tears accompanying it too.

Kern looked up the street. Few of their number remained. There were five men shooting from behind the ruins of one of the houses, but there were Ayvartans in black uniforms advancing systematically upon them from downhill, breaking up into groups, hooking around the house, climbing atop the debris. Scattered little teams that had come up from Koba were pinned behind the standing houses. On the road Ayvartans with submachine guns and light machine guns kept everyone pinned down. Meanwhile the tanks advanced very slowly up the slope of the road. All the fighting was less than 100 meters away and expanding without impediment.

“We’ve got to find better cover than this or we’re done, but we can’t go out in the street–“

Another foreign noise shook him. Kern half-expected another shell. This was different though; the swooping noise, the buzzing propellers. He looked overhead — there was a t-shaped shadow cutting across the clouds with a short blunt head. There was no mistaking what this was.

Kern suddenly crouched beside the radio. There was a tiny hole through it where a fragment had gone through. He felt his stomach sink, he felt a hole growing in him. His fingers shook as he tuned the frequency — the dial went all over the place, it felt loose. There was a weak hum of life inside the machine. It was working on some capacity. He raised the handset to his ear.

He practically begged: “Eagle this is Prospector! We are pinned down! We need help! Eagle!”

 

* * *

For the first time since the 23rd of the Gloom, a combat wing of the Luftlotte took command of the skies over Ayvarta, its fifty aircraft cruising toward the bloody ruins of Bada Aso.

This time no heavy bombers accompanied them — it was all Warlocks and Archers in flight.

Wings in the Nochtish Air Fleet or “Luftlotte”  consisted of three squadrons, and for the day’s tasks each flying squadron of 15-20 aircraft had been assigned to support an important sector of the city as part of Operation Surge. Sturmvogel had the most pressing mission over the Central District of Bada Aso; Eagle and Hawk squadrons took the west and east respectively.

Eagle squadron soared over a thousand meters over open plains stretching between the captured airfield at Azaria and Bada Aso and its pilots watched the territory sliding past them at over 500 kilometers per hour. The Archer was primarily a fighter plane, but with its sturdy-looking cylindrical body, tough wings, and powerful engine, it was a very versatile machine.

Within Eagle, three Flights of five combat aircraft further divided up the workload — one was to fly over the ocean to support a detachment of the Bundesmarine, another was to support the ground attack through Koba and the seaside, and the third would maintain air control.

Though before the mission he thought of himself as Liam Kurz, in flight he was Eagle-3, Flight Leader of the 44th group. Back at the base the ground crew thought of Ayvarta as a hole, a place of patchy grass and shrubs and dirt and crooked-looking trees in the distance. From above, Eagle-3 thought it looked beautiful. He could see herds of horned beasts and even the odd slithering orange drake, larger than a horse, among the expansive yellow and green plains. Trees were solitary and sparse but tall and majestic. A trail of bright green followed the Umaiha’s little tributaries along the middle of the plain. As he neared the doomed city he saw the earth grow gradually green, thick with patchy vegetation along the Kalu hills and Umaiha.

When the city came into view it was almost a dismaying sight. It was a skeleton of concrete, its tiny tar-black and cobblestone arteries pockmarked with shells or pasted over with the ruins of its thousands of collapsed organs. Bada Aso’s lower half was choked with rubble, block after block of blown out buildings blown out again from street fighting. Further north where the city’s congested layout opened up, and the streets were wide and the buildings sparse, there was less damage overall, and splashes of green from the grass and trees made it seem alive.

But the fighting would get there eventually. That he could see it was proof enough of this.

He put his fingers to his lips and then pressed them against a photograph on his instrument panel — a blonde, blue-eyed beauty in a sundress and hat, standing at the pier in Mascius.

“Wish me luck honey,” he said. Within moments he passed over the ruins of the southern districts. He contacted his fighters, and they broke off from the Wing; over Penance Road, where the Cathedral stood solemn, half-collapsed from the artillery battering it received, the Flights divided to carry out their tasks. 40th group headed for the sea, 42nd climbed; 44th headed straight forward. Within minutes they overflew Koba block and passed over the little houses, the clear terrain just off the wharfs, the hillock with the turrets, the larger wharf.

They surveyed the area, lowered their altitude, and went in for another pass to check targets.

Then he received the radio call — he thought the voice could not have come from anything other than a boy, no older than maybe 16 or 17. He answered quickly. “Prospector, this is Eagle leader, Eagle-3. We’ve got you covered, don’t worry about that. Keep your heads down.”

Eagle-3 instructed two men, -4 and -5, to take his wings, and these three craft banked and turned, while -1 and -2 broke off in different directions. He looked below and to his left; a small blue trail from a smoke bomb signaled where Prospector was located, in the farthest of the houses away from the coast; a thinner red trail from a signal flare pointed Eagle-3 to the road.

He took stock quickly. There was at least a company of Ayvartans from his vantage, a platoon already moving up the road and two others following from the hill with the turrets. They were KVW, he could tell from the black uniforms. Behind them were three tanks of the unidentified medium type, advancing in an arrowhead formation. Prospector was trapped. Shells and machine gun bullets flew around his position with vehemence. Incoming support was minimal. As he turned again, Eagle-3 could see a few men moving in thin columns from Koba.

“This is Eagle leader; -1 and -2 strafe the infantry column along the dirt road in perpendicular lanes. Slow them down, quickly. -4 and -5, follow me and use your 20mm. Attack the tanks.”

Eagles 3, 4, and 5 swung around the shore just off of koba block, following the black fence. They started to pick up more speed, but their turning was still calm, wide and easy. In the distance they could see the marine group plodding its way, the two small torpedo boats and the larger destroyer. Eagle-3 and his men dropped altitude further and completed their turn around toward the red smoke. The three Archers launched into a shallow dive together. One and two swept across in front, cutting trails into the dirt with their machine guns. Ayvartan infantry dispersed under the fire and the swooping of the planes. In the middle of the road the tanks were exposed. Eagle-3 held down his cannon trigger, and heard the 20mm crack under him.

His wingmen joined him and opened fire in long automatic bursts, and a hail of high velocity cannon rounds fell over the tanks at sharp angles. He knew he was scoring hits; when he pulled back up at around 600 meters altitude his group had probably unloaded sixty or seventy rounds together and he had seen a few holes on those tanks. He climbed and twisted around, feeling a mounting pressure. Everything around him felt tighter until he leveled out.

Machine gun fire flew ineffectually from below as the Ayvartans tried in vain to scare Eagle off; Eagle-3 and his men flew out toward the city again to gently pick up distance and altitude for another run. Where the green seaside blocks gave away again to the grey urban landscape, they turned around back to sea. He could not see the tanks from his vantage quite yet. Eagle-3 instead called Prospector for ground confirmation: “How was that for an opener, Prospector?”

He heard an explosion on the radio. Prospector gasped. “Eagle, tanks are still rolling in!”

Eagle-3 swung back around, completing his turn. He tipped his nose to get a look at the enemy again and he briefly saw the muzzle flashes on two of the tank guns. They were still alive.

Then the third; a blast in one of the houses belched smoke and fire through the windows.

These were no Goblin tanks. He almost felt bad for the Panzer men fighting these things.

“Ready rockets, we’re going to dump everything on that arrowhead.” Eagle-3 said. Through the radio 4 and 5 acknowledged. Each Archer in his Flight had 2 heavy rockets and a 250 kg bomb.

He would need the bomb for those turrets — so he had to make his rockets count right now.

Eagle-3 and his group started to descend in earnest and picked up speed. Below them Eagles 1 and 2 swept across the roads again, carving an x-shaped wound across the dirt. Eagle-3 and his men corrected their course and swept toward the tanks yet again. They adjusted for the distance the vehicles had covered. Descending to almost under 1000 meters altitude, they released their payloads. Six rockets hurtled toward the column of tanks and exploded, leaving thick black smoke in their wake from the heavy explosive payloads. Eagle-3 pulled sharply up, and he felt like his belts would choke him for a moment. It became hard for him to breathe.

Once he leveled and the world’s forces lessened their grip, Eagle-3 called down again. He turned his plane gently to get a better look at the road while he tried to confirm the kill.

“Prospector, we hit your tanks hard as we could, confirm effect on target?” He said.

As he twisted his Archer fighter around for a better look all Eagle-3 could see was fire and smoke. He thought he had to have taken out those tanks. “Prospector, confirm effect–“

He saw something burst out of the cloud and an explosion several meters up the road.

“One left! There’s one left!” Prospector shouted. Eagle-3 looked down again. Still smoke.

“Can you confirm effect, Prospector? I just unloaded a shitton of rockets on that arrow–“

“I can’t confirm but I know I’m still being shot by a tank gun!” Prospector shouted back.

“Shit.” Eagle-3 muttered. “Men, swing around, we’ve got one still rolling up on ‘em.”

Below the situation seemed almost unchanged. Landsers along the ditches and behind the farthest two houses were still pinned down. They took cracks at the Ayvartans from the corners and windows, and the Ayvartans huddled near the ruins of the other buildings and shot back. Despite the strafing from one and two there were even Ayvartans blithely running across the road with their guns up. Eagle 1 and 2 had killed over a dozen men, but suppressed none.

From the smoke and fire Eagle-3 watched the remaining tank emerge, scarred by cannon fire and with what seemed from afar like a limping track, but undeterred. Thirty meters from Prospector’s position, it turned its cannon around and fired just across the street from him at the other building, at its corner — where at least one whole platoon of men was stacked up.

There was a vicious blast when the shell hit the wall. Eagle-3 grit his teeth as he watched. Several men were butchered completely by the high-explosive, several more retreated in pain. All of the corner they were hiding behind had been blasted open, hot chunks of brick likely contributing to the fragments flying every which way and forcing the grenadiers back.

Men huddled on their bellies for cover, and a few ran screaming toward the sea.

“We’re going down and we’re diving long this time; we’re not pulling up until that motherfucker’s burning, copy?” Eagle-3 radioed. Four and Five responded affirmatively.

Eagle-3 climbed, banked hard, and swung around into a deep dive. As he picked up speed he stiffened up from his neck down to his legs. He had 200 rounds for his cannon and he had probably discharged twenty or thirty. Soon as he hit cannon range at 1000 meters he held down his trigger — it was time to stop caring about how many rounds he discharged. A relentless stream of cannon fire bore down on the tank’s position like a metal hailstorm. He thought he could see the sparks coming off the green beast as hundreds of rounds crashed across its hull.

His men pulled up; he didn’t. At 500 meters Eagle-3 continued to shoot relentlessly.

All of his body tightened, and he felt like he’d burst. His engines and cannons sounded tinny and he felt the world darken. His finger was growing slack on the trigger. Realizing he was unable to take more he pulled sharply up from the dive at under 200 meters this time, cutting it dangerously close. Even as he rose his body was under intense pressure. Breathless, he soared into the sky again, slowly leveling out when he reached a safer height. Even as he started to level the craft, he felt like moving any of his body too much would cause it to pop like a balloon.

“Eagle, I can confirm the kill on that last tank. Thank God you were here.” Prospector called in.

Eagle-3 couldn’t respond. His heart was beating so quick, he needed a moment to rest.

 

* * *

Kern’s mind was racing and he couldn’t think right. He felt a thrumming just under the skin of his head, and a shaking along his back and his limbs. He couldn’t concentrate and he couldn’t spare the time to think. Instead he kept himself behind the rearmost house on the block and tried his best to breathe and to focus on mechanical movements. Speaking happened in his throat, not his head; peeking out from cover and back into it was all his legs, not his mind.

At least Eagle-3 had taken care of their most pressing problem. Those tanks had been like a guillotine blade racing toward them. Absent their guns the whole street felt eerily quiet.

A team of three men gingerly climbed aboard the smoking wreck of the last enemy tank and flipped the hatches. One man peered in– red streaks exploded from his back as a burst of submachine gun fire tore through him at close range. His body collapsed into the wreck and the men behind him fell back from the hull. They stacked against the intact left track and lobbed their grenades through a gap in the chassis. Light and fire flashed momentarily through the multitude of thumb-sized holes across the hulk. Smoke blew from the engine block and hatch.

That had been Kennelmann — they had shot Kennelmann. Nobody checked if he was alive, though he almost certainly wasn’t. They left him hanging inside the tank’s cupola. Kern left him too. His mind was off Kennelmann and onto the next flash of sensory input in mere seconds.

“Clear!” shouted the men. Kern watched from a mere dozen meters away from the wreck. Then he crouched beside his radio again, and he informed Eagle-3 of the successful kills. He tried to ignore how the gun on the turret was turning toward him the whole time Eagle showered it in lead. Even a fraction less gunfire might have allowed it to shoot and vaporize him utterly.

His relief did not last very long. Automatic fire cut across the road from up the street. Joining the sounds of small arms were the buzzing engines of the archer planes, and the cry of the wind and the screeching of their guns as they swooped down from the sky and attacked. Bursts of cannon fire hit the dirt just off the tank wreck and kicked up dust almost as bad as a shellfall.

Crouched down, Kern sidled into cover behind the house and pulled his radio along with him.

A series metallic thuds alerted him; there were enemies stacking up. He snuck a glance.

There were black uniforms, dark faces, black hair, machine guns in hand. They were half-visible behind the thin smoke of the dying engine and the sloped metal body of the tank.

Kern retreated back behind the wall of the house. He heard the first gunshots traded between the Ayvartans and his own men, and then the diving of the planes. Long bursts of automatic airborne fire swept across the top of the tank and over the house, perforating the roof.

Chunks of brick and wood and tile rained down on him; Kern covered his head. “Eagle, hold your fire on the enemy infantry!” He shouted into the radio. “They’re too close to us now!”

A diving plane overhead came close to the house and the tank and tore abruptly skyward without shooting. Eagle’s formation broke apart and they started to bank away and circle.

Kern sighed with relief. His lungs were raw and his throat dry. All the water in his body seemed to have gone out through his skin. He felt clammy and cold under his uniform, and yet also a burning sensation across the fragment wounds, and also under his helmet, cooking in the sun–

There was a shadow at the edge of his vision, and he almost thought a monster was bearing down on him; Kern turned over his shoulder and found Captain Aschekind dashing toward the house. When this colossus of a man put his back to the wall Kern thought he felt it shake. He put the radio handset down and stood, saluting the Captain. Aschekind nodded to the road.

“Third company is right behind me.” The Captain intoned. “Third battalion is on its way.”

“Then the entire Regiment will be pushing down this block.” Kern muttered weakly to him.

“That is Operation Surge.” Aschekind replied. “Eyes ahead and on your men, soldier.”

Kern nodded his head. Worrying about 3000 men was the Regiment’s job after all; he could scarcely comprehend the movement of the fifty men all around him and the few hundred coming in behind him. Let alone the thousands that composed the entirety of the Regiment.

He felt a sudden sense of relief. He was not in command now. He did not have to make any decisions. All of this was not on him anymore. It was too enormous. He was glad to be rid of it.

“On my signal, we move ahead.” Aschekind shouted. There were maybe a dozen men who could have heard him. He turned to Kern. “Forget your rifle right now. Draw your pistol.”

“Yes sir.” Kern said. He felt the grip of fear, seizing upon his neck, his stomach, into his calves, as though a pump forcing ice water down his vein. He set his rifle behind his back with its strap, and drew out his semi-automatic Zwitscherer pistol, with its long, thin barrel and its characteristic broom handle and magazine forward of the trigger. He made sure it was loaded.

Periodic bursts of fire over the dirt road reminded them of the presence of their enemy.

And yet the more he thought about it, the more relieved Kern became. Even if he hadn’t had a chance to rest, for once he felt like fighting. He did not want to look like a child in front of the Captain. Running and shooting was something he could do if Captain Aschekind was ahead of him. He was more like a tank than he was a man — Kern wondered if bullets even harmed him.

“Move quickly; try to use the smoke on the road to your advantage.” Aschekind said to him.

Aschekind produced a grenade round from under his coat and pushed it into place in his gun. The Sturmpistole split almost in half when loading, and snapped back into shape when the round was properly set. It was a 27mm gun, essentially a short cannon in the Captain’s hands.

“There are four behind the tank; three in the middle of the street; twelve around the ruins on the left; eight around the ruins on the right; ten more incoming.” Aschekind said. He raised his gun with one hand, cocked it; with the other hand he withdrew a fragmentation grenade.

Kern raised his pistol, holding it in both his hands. He steeled himself for Aschekind’s signal.

“Out!” Aschekind shouted, and in the next instant the Captain hurtled out of cover and shot his oversized pistol down the road, laying the grenade round in front of a group of submachine gunners and disorienting them. Bursts of blind gunfire passed him by as he rushed up the road. He threw the frag behind the tank, catching the Ayvartans in hiding behind the wreck. With these immediate threats suppressed, the dozen men across the street ran out to join them.

Kern, Aschekind and the landsers ran forward as a loose group. Smoke blew across the road from the rockets and the collapsed houses and from shellfalls in the dirt. Bullets cut through the cloud in short bursts and thin streaks from haphazard locations. As they ran the men traded rifle fire. Aschekind reloaded his pistol on the run and fired, launching the grenade over the ruins. Kern held his pistol out and shot, rapping the trigger every few steps he took.

From within the haze he put two bullets into the chest of a woman carrying a machine gun, and several into the legs of a pair of men on the road, dazed by Aschekind’s first grenade. Three more shots went wide into the ruin and his pistol clicked empty. He pushed a stripper clip into the integral magazine. As a whole the squadron charged to thirty meters from the enemy.

Kern paused and raised his sights to his eyes. A man exposed himself to shoot from around the corner of one of the ruined houses, and Kern hit him twice in the collarbones.

He almost celebrated the kill, but soon as the body fell a woman appeared in his place, crouched behind the rubble. Kern kept shooting, hitting the debris, forcing her down.

He saw the characteristic conical barrel extension of a Danava LMG rise over the bricks.

Kern froze up as a burst of blind gunfire enfiladed the group. He felt a round graze his leg and stepped clumsily away. Behind him three men dropped to the ground, hit several times each.

Kern retreated, shooting his pistol blindly at the debris as he stepped toward the ditch.

But the woman was not the only one shooting. A squadron of enemy riflemen cleared the slope and set their sights directly on the advancing landsers from a mere twenty meters away. Like a firing line from a war a hundred years ago the Ayvartans crouched, aimed and opened fire.

“Off the road now!” Aschekind shouted, “get onto the roadside ditch and get down!”

As a trail of rifle rounds raced by them, Aschekind and Kern dove into the ditch. On their bellies, the ditch provided much better cover than it did while they were standing. Bullets flew over them, and crashed into the dirt atop both sides of the ditch. Kern saw the little pillars of dust and dirt wherever the rounds hit, like shell impacts in miniature. Just one through his head was all it would take — and they were already falling a dozen at a time, too damn close.

They started to crawl forward, loading their weapons against the ground. Aschekind raised his heavy pistol and fired over the ditch. There was a blast, but Kern couldn’t see the effect. He raised his own hand out of cover but retracted it when he felt dirt whipping against his fingers. One good shot from those enormous Ayvartan rifles would take his whole hand!

Ayvartan fire sounded like firecrackers now, all in a row, crack-crack-crack-crack. Dozens of bullets lodged into the sides of the ditches. Dozens more flew south to cover the dirt road.

“Keep shooting!” Captain Aschekind said. “Drop your rifles and use your pistols!”

Kern swallowed hard, gathering his courage. He raised his shaking hand up and over again and rapped the trigger on his pistol. Behind him a few more broomhandles sounded as the rest of the men dropped their rifles and pulled their Zwitscherers out to fire blind over the road.

Along the ditch the smell of gunpowder grew almost intolerable. Kern felt sick. Would he die here? He hadn’t moved a centimeter in what seemed like a minute now. There was dust all around him and smoke blowing over the street. Raising his hand to shoot felt like a monumental effort. He had never felt so heavy. He held down the trigger — nothing.

He scrambled to pull a clip out from under himself and fumbled to load it into his gun.

He heard an unfamiliar sound. Tinkling metal, like the drop of a coin on the ground.

Several of Kern’s allies screamed and struggled behind him, “Throw it back! Throw it back!”

A deafening blast followed. Kern, who had been so keen on the sounds around him, his only means of detecting the enemy, now heard only a loud whistling. Dirt and grass fell over him in chunks, thrown up by the blast; along with a splash of something brown and grotesque. For several seconds he felt his body numb, and he thought he was hit. His eyes watered over.

Ahead of him, Captain Aschekind rolled on his side, and produced his own Zwitscherer pistol.

Three shadows appeared over the ditch with bayonets, knives and pistols in hand. Their mouths moved and Kern could not hear them. He could only hear that whistling, tunneling through his ears into his brain, and the movements of his jaw, and the swallowing of saliva.

Aschekind blasted through two of them, shooting them several times in the chest and knocking them onto their backs, while the third man pounced upon him with a knife in his hand.

Kern did not stop to think, even if it was too close, even if it could lead to friendly fire; he discharged his pistol into the unfolding struggle several times, trying to shoot high.

He heard nothing, he couldn’t hear his gun going off, couldn’t hear the Captain struggling. He unloaded all ten in his clip, and he couldn’t hear his gun clicking. He just felt the empty recoil.

For a second everything stopped moving. Then Aschekind kicked the dead body off of him, and reloaded his heavy pistol once again. Undeterred, he would continue fighting. Again the rifles from across the street struck all along the ditch. Nothing was over yet. Kern hadn’t won a thing.

How many had he killed so far? He was fighting, he was fighting, and yet, it didn’t end. He dropped his pistol at his side, and curled up in the ditch. He shook. He wept and shook.

It didn’t end; no one act of heroics he dared undertake would ever end this horrible war.

On his side in that bloody ditch, dirt falling over him from the rounds tearing up the turf, desperate to bite into him instead, Kern lay immobile. He couldn’t even hear himself sob.

Slowly the ringing in his ears faded. Then he was startled by the sound of gnashing metal.

And the screaming of a gun! He saw a flash from across the road and felt the heat. A heavy shell soared into the brick ruins and threw back the Ayvartans huddling behind the debris. Was he saved? He felt a burst of energy and raised his head. He watched as a pair of assault guns moved forward together, commanding the middle of the road and sheltering a squadron of men behind each. While the machines charged past the ditch, several men peeled away from the tank and lifted Captain Aschekind, and Kern, and several wounded, dragging everyone behind the machines. More and more men came running up the street behind the tanks.

This must have been the third battalion, a fresh injection of men into the western Surge attack. Overhead the Archer planes hurtled northbound to support the suddenly mobile column. The Ayvartans fell back, he could see figures cutting away from the ruins and back downhill.

Kern felt a little more lucid but his body was still spent. He could barely move even with the help of two men. Everyone manhandled him like he was a dummy, like he was an object, pulling him around like he had no force of his own. When the tank came to a full stop, the men laid him against the machine’s warm rear plate, and they left him for a medic to tend to.

Behind the M3 Hunter a combat medic stuck him and the Captain with a morphine syrette, slipped a honey and mint drop into Kern’s mouth, gave the two a quick examination. Aschekind seemed almost contemptuous of the procedure. He waved away the medic after receiving the injection and allowing him to look briefly under his shirt. Kern caught a glimpse of scars all across his thick, rippling chest — and a fresh bloody wound along his burly shoulder

“I shot you.” Kern said weakly. His hand shook. He thought he still had his gun there.

“You shot the enemy more.” Captain Aschekind replied. “I would’ve done the same.”

“Sir, I’m sorry. I can’t. I can’t keep going.” Kern said. His jaw started to slack. He was forgetting to close his mouth. He was breathing through it. His nose was running heavily, like his eyes.

Captain Aschekind turned his head from him suddenly. He looked around the tank.

His eyes drew wide, he seized Kern by the arm. “Revisit those feelings later, Private!”

Aschekind took the immobile Kern over his back like a bag, and he broke into a sprint; and behind him the earth shook. Kern felt the shaking through Aschekind’s body, through his burly arms holding the boy’s limp body in place. Kern looked behind him, and saw the brightest flash and the biggest blasts yet. Behind them the tanks were consumed in flame; Aschekind leaped into the ditch again. A wave of heat and pressure and metal fragments swept over them.

On “turret hill” a few hundred meters from them the turrets had finally come alive.

 

* * *

“Eagle-3, this is Patriarch.” A calm female voice hailed the Archers over the radio. Patriarch meant the Vorkampfer HQ. This was probably Ms. Fruehauf speaking on behalf of General Von Sturm. “Our destroyer-leader Kummetz is moving on the port. It is vital that the coastal defense guns are destroyed so that it can occupy the wharf: 250 kg bombs are authorized.”

Along the ground it might have been difficult for the men to notice, but from the air, Eagle-3 got a good glimpse of the Kummetz, a long, sleek destroyer, unleashing its guns from afar on the roads leading to the harbor, cutting off the expanding Ayvartan column. Eagle-3 saw a noticeable decrease in the flow of Ayvartan troops coming to challenge Prospector’s position, and a surge of men from the south pushing up to relieve him and the Captain. So far so good.

Then the coastal guns began to turn southward. They opened fire with a resounding clamor, heard even from far overhead. Four guns targeted the M3s freshly arrived and smashed them like a mallet hitting a can; the last turret turned to the sea and opened fire on the approaching vessels. One of the torpedo boats moving along the flank of theKummetz dashed right into a shell and was crippled as it detonated. Water and foam blew into the air as the second shell exploded just off the destroyer’s bow. The Kummetz slowed and turned away from the shore; meanwhile the Nochtish infantry attack sputtered out immediately under heavy fire.

“You heard the lady,” Eagle-3 said to his men. “Get your bomb sights ready and make it count!”

He could no longer pay attention to the tussle between the infantry. There were three turrets, and he might just need all five bombs to take them out. Eagle-3 would not be performing the first attack; as the senior flyer, he would circle the strike area and watch his men first.

“Eagle-1 and Eagle-2, you’re up first. Try to drop your 250s in between the turrets. If we can get all of them like that we might be able to drop some to help out the boys.” Eagle-3 said.

Eagle-3 watched his men break off and coordinated them via radio. They flew east, turned around, and achieved the proper altitude and angle. Everything was textbook. They lined up, gathered speed, dove down, and got themselves ready to snap up and drop the bomb.

Just as they readied to attack, the aircraft met a sudden hail of anti-aircraft fire. They dropped their heavy payloads at the foot of the hillock, blasting apart dirt and concrete but little else.

Hundreds of small caliber autocannon fragmentation rounds exploded around the planes, and they banked away with smoking wings and torn fuselages. Eagle-1 went up in flames right before Eagle-3’s eyes. Eagle-2 was losing altitude, its propellers starting to spin down.

“Eagle-2, pull away south! South! Try to land behind our lines!” Eagle-3 screamed.

But the limping plane could not handle this task. Burning up, Eagle-2 crashed through a building several kilometers away nearer to the city center. Eagle-3 cursed aloud. That was Heidemann — he liked Heidemann! He’d drunk with Heidemann before. God damn it.

His mind was in a furious rage. He felt a haze. Was it the G-forces? He shook his head.

Again the seaward turret opened fire, splashing the Kummetz along its bow.

No direct hits — the ship kept moving parallel to shore. But those two shells were too close.

Mourning would have to wait. Heidemman wouldn’t have wanted them to fuck up a mission in his name. He would have wanted victory — yes, that was it. That would suffice for now.

Eagle-3 hailed the rest of the flight groups, “Eagle-8, Eagle-12; we’ve got AA around the big guns. Requesting concentration, we need the whole Flight to take these turrets out now!”

Soon as he was done speaking, he found the turrets reorganizing themselves below him — one toward the sea, one covering the road, and the middle turret pointed skyward. Two 100mm fragmentation shells burst from below and exploded in the sky. Eagle-3 banked away from the explosions and put some distance between himself and Turret Hill until the Flight could gather.

He received a pair of acknowledgments from the other leaders. Every Archer plane belonging to Eagle Flight flew away from their objectives, and then they assembled like vultures peering down at Turret Hill. Organized into their groups, they prepared to attack. Light anti-aircraft fire from impromptu positions around the hill burst around them, little clouds forming in the air wherever a shell went off. Heavy machine gun tracer fire lit up the airspace a dizzying array of colors. Eagle-3 spotted trucks, hiding behind the hillock, playing host to the AA guns.

Shells from the central turret exploded dangerously close to his plane, and again Eagle-3 banked away in a rush. The Kummetz fired its main guns from the sea, but they came up short, crashing into the road just off the hillock. Meanwhile the coastal guns continued to batter the ocean around the destroyer and lay down fire on the advancing Grenadiers.

“Everyone in position?” Eagle-8 asked over the radio.

“Ready whenever.” Eagle-3 replied. “Make this count. I lost men, I want this done.”

“Cool off, Eagle-3. We all know what’s at stake here.” Eagle-8 said.

Eagle-3 honestly appreciated being told to shut up. He needed it now.

“We’re all ready here. Droppin’ 250s right? Who goes where?” Eagle-12 asked.

“How’s about you and Eight make the wings and I form the beak? We can hit ‘em from everywhere. Killing the turrets is paramount, but some dead AA is fine too.” Eagle-3 said.

“Affirmative. We’ll do our best for the guys you lost, Eagle-3.” Eagle-12 replied.

Eagle-3 formed up alongside his men in a tight three-plane arrowhead; Eagle-8 and Eagle-12 instead spread out, the ten remaining craft fanning along the east and west to swoop down from the flanks. Eagle-3 and his men would be attacking up the middle. All of the planes built up altitude and distance; one by one planes started peeling away from the circle just far enough apart to avoid each other but close enough that they would divide the air defenses or if lucky, bypass them completely. Half a dozen planes hurtled toward turret hill, snapped up, and dropped their bombs; the next half-dozen quickly followed, each attack mere seconds apart.

Heavy bombs dropped around the hillock, blowing anti-aircraft guns into the sky, blasting apart trucks, punching deep holes into the road. Wind and direction and altitude all contributed to the trajectory of the bomb. Not for lack of trying, many of the bombs landed far apart and off-target. There was heavy damage across the hill; but the air defense was tenacious and scored its own kills. One plane crashed down almost alongside its own bomb, another two were hit directly, speared through the cockpit by heavy machine gun fire and brought down. Two planes flew through the curtain of fire and came out with heavily pockmarked wings.

Eagle-3 and his group soared blindly through the curtain, snapped up, and prayed.

He wasn’t hit; Eagle-3 pulled away from the tracers and the autocannon rounds, alive.

A massive pressure wave just below him sent a spray of metal far up into the air.

He saw flaming shards rush past his plane and rolled away in fear. Was it a frag round?

“Got visual! We hit the turrets! Blew those suckers up sky high!” Eagle-8 cheered.

“Sky-high is right.” Eagle-3 said. “Holy shit. We sent the whole hill into the air.”

Turret hill had practically become a hole in the ground. A few of the bombs must have smashed through the entry hatches and the explosions must have set off the magazine for the turrets; every 100mm shell packed into the bunkers must have gone off for an effect like that. There was only a bonfire, thick pillars of black smoke over a row of steel wrecks sitting atop several impact craters. Not a single round more of anti-aircraft fire flew their way.

“Eagle, I– I lost everyone here. All four of my guys. I, um–” Eagle-12 said. “I can’t–“

“I lost a man too. We’ve only got eight planes left then, god damn.” Eagle-8 said.

“Then we all know what it feels to lose an ally today.” Eagle-3 said. He sighed into the radio, taking a hand off his instruments and nursing a knot of pain in his temple. “Twelve, you should retreat from the air space. We’ve got this covered. You can’t keep going on your own.”

“I agree. Go back to base. We’ll buy you a drink when we get back. You did good. Don’t blame yourself for what happened. We all take a risk when we lift off.” Eagle-8 added.

Verstanden.” Eagle-12 stammered. He hung on the Ver, he was clearly very shaken.

His plane flew turned away from the rest and headed south, quickly disappearing. This left seven planes in the air space — two under Eagle-3 and three with Eagle-8.

“Three, you and your men got any ordnance left?” Eagle-8 asked.

“Nothing. Just cannon ammo. Definitely nothing that’d hurt a ship.”

“Shit. We were the air superiority squad. Eagle-12 and his men had all the remaining anti-armor rockets. I’ve got nothing but machine guns now.” Eagle-8 said.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take water duty; you keep watching the skies.” Eagle-3 said.

Free to move, the Kummetz increased its speed and headed for the upper wharf. Eagle-3 and his wingmen soared over the lower wharf and out to sea to meet them. They were maybe a kilometer off the coast. On Eagle-3’s instructions the formation broke off to cover the rear and flanks of the vessel. Eagle-3 headed out west, just a little deeper into the ocean.

He did not have to go too far to find an unforeseen problem. He could hardly believe his eyes in fact, and he called Patriarch to confirm something. “Can the Kummetz detect ships?”

Patriarch was slow to answer. After about a minute she returned. “No, currently only a few of our battleships are fitted with detection gear. A destroyer has no such equipment.”

“Ok, well, I think you better call them and tell them there’s something headed this way.”

“Something? Please confirm the number of enemies and the types.” Patriarch asked.

“Several really big ships that I can do literally nothing to stop!” Eagle-3 shouted. “Over!”

 

* * *

“Follow the tanks to victory! Forward! Forward, men! Our objective is within reach!”

Aschekind bellowed out at the top of his lungs, holding his pistol in the air. Everything was smoke and fire, Kern could barely follow along, he felt sick, he was practically hobbling. A pair of M4 tanks ahead provided cover as the third battalion and the remnants of the first and second — the entire regiment — hurried past the smoking, charred remains of Turret Hill.

A few squadrons of men divided from the column and rushed out to the lower wharf, bayoneting tarps on empty fishing boats and storming the little guard house there.

Most of the column scrambled to the north. The M4’s guns boomed, targeting wherever a muzzle flash was seen. Shells smashed into the warehouses ahead, punched right through abandoned containers and crashed into the port authority office. There was little cover between the wharf and the dirt road, so the Ayvartans fought from ditches by the sides of the road.

Third battalion had not expended its strongest men and best equipment yet. Because they did not have to struggle up Koba, they had many Norgler machine guns chopping across the ditches, tearing apart exposed Ayvartans who stood resolutely before them. They had mortars set up along the ruined houses where Kern had lost Schloss and his group, shooting ahead of the tanks and keeping the Ayvartans off the streets and the road, forcing their heads down.

All the Ayvartans had left at their disposal were platoons of inexpressive KVW troops with their various small arms. Someone should have told them of their position. Despite being outgunned their stubborn resistance forced the third battalion to pay with a corpse every few meters.

Those black uniformed soldiers scared Kern. They didn’t care when you shot them. They just stood there in the face of everything. Crouched in the ditches their light machine gunners put a steady stream of fire down the road until the tank’s machine guns or a lucky shot from a grenadier put them down. Several crouched as though dead only to throw grenades out onto the road when a squadron of landsers passed them by. Kern had seen them run out into the sight of a Norgler, discharging their rifles against the gunner with no concern for their own life. It paid off more than once — several Norgler LMGs were now crewed only by their loaders.

Several others lay discarded, waiting to be picked up by the next wave of grenadiers.

Meter by meter they cleared the way, and finally the M4 tanks cruised ahead onto the massive concrete structure of the upper wharf. They cleared a long and gently sloping ramp leading from the dirt onto the level concrete floor of the wharf, a few meters higher than the road.

Bursts of machine gun fire leveled several wooden crates arranged ahead of the ramp, and killed a handful of desperate troops using them for cover. Their turrets then turned to a nearby warehouse and cast shells deep into the structure, blasting through shutter doors.

Aschekind stood at the foot of the ramp and he ushered men up into the wharf. Kern set down his radio and put his back to the concrete. At once the entire column seemed to hurtle forward.

Men ran up the ramp and charged out onto the berths, into the warehouses, and up to the cranes. Sporadic fire from the warehouses gave them little pause. The 6th Grenadier was overrunning the port, each man running on the momentum of a dozen around him. This was it! Their final Surge objective for the day and they had claimed it before the sun went down!

“Get up. We will take a commanding position in the port authority office.” Aschekind said.

Kern nodded weakly. He had barely a thought left in his head. Looking haggard and pale, he picked up his radio by its handle and carried it up the ramp alongside Aschekind.

As they cleared the ramp, the entire left wall of the port authority office collapsed to reveal a little garage, probably for rescue or liaison vehicles. It had a closed shutter door, for a moment.

Until something walked through the shutters as though they were barely even there.

A muzzle flashed from inside the building, and a shell pierced the exposed side of an M4.

Aschekind and Kern tumbled back as the stricken tank exploded violently. They crouched, the sides of the ramp offering some protection as they watched the unidentified Ayvartan heavy tank trundle out of the remains of the port authority building. It was like an old lion, scarred by hundreds of battles to maintain its territory. One of its track guards had been blown clean off. One track looked to be on its last few spins, riddled with bullet marks. All across its front from the gun mantlet to the glacis, over a dozen cavities had been burnt into its face by weak shell impacts. On the turret basket was a small hole, maybe from a point blank panzerbuchse shot.

And yet, it challenged them again, the tank that had killed so many. Like the black-uniformed Ayvartans it seemed to have no sense of self-preservation. As long as it could make them bleed it would fight. Kern’s whole body started to shake as it turned its turret to face the remaining tank. The M4 Sentinel opened fire directly into its glacis plate at under a hundred meters.

Finally there was concrete damage — the shell smashed the front hatch off the Ayvartan tank, exposing the concussed driver behind the sticks, bleeding profusely from her head. But this was not the end for the tank. In retaliation the monster, the entire rest of its crew still willing to fight, unleashed its own, larger, stronger gun, and blew open the M4’s turret from front to back. So brutal was the impact that the gun barrel went flying, the mantlet burst open, and the explosion ripped apart the back of the turret, exposing the dead gunner and commander.

The M4’s side hatch slid open and the remaining crew ran out, nursing bloody wounds.

Nobody evacuated from the Ayvartan tank. Another woman pulled the driver away and took her place. Within seconds the giant tank backed into the building, turned, and exited out onto the berths. It opened fire again, its cannon and machine guns blaring as it enfiladed the troops charging ahead. Behind Kern and Aschekind, frightened landsers started to pile up to watch the scene. Watching their comrades speared through the back, they stared helplessly.

Captain Aschekind turned to Kern. “Do you know how to throw one of these?”

Panzerwurfmines — the canvas-finned anti-tank grenade given to every few landsers as a last resort against tanks. Aschekind had one in hand, and Kern had one in his pouch. Kern’s had belonged to a man he had barely known who had died on the 25th. Kern didn’t remember his name. Kern didn’t remember very many names at the moment. He remembered little at all.

But he had seen film of men throwing the things, and he had seen men throw it in the flesh.

He found himself nodding to the Captain, and saying “Yes sir!” He felt suddenly as though watching his own body from afar. He was at once both scared witless and moving forward.

“I don’t trust anyone else to do this.” Captain Aschekind said. “Run right behind me, and throw with me at the engine block. I know that you can do this, Private Kern Beckert.”

Kern nodded again. He withdrew the Panzerwurfmine and held it by its stick handle.

Captain Aschekind leaped up the solid sides of the ramp and onto the concrete again. Kern pulled himself up, lacking the man’s monstrous athleticism. They stacked up behind the wreck of the M4, and moved around its side. A mere thirty meters away the Ayvartan tank had stopped, leisurely blasting apart every concentration of men it found in the open.

Both its machine guns and its tank guns were facing away. Its rear armor was exposed.

Without warning Aschekind ran out; but Kern ran right behind him. Ayvartan rifle fire buzzed over from the warehouses to the left. Officer and Private both stopped within fifteen meters, pulled the covers off the bottom of their grenades, reared back, and threw. In the air the canvas spins opened, and as the bombs descended they started to spin, stabilizing their trajectories.

Aschekind’s bomb landed on the beast’s track and burst right through it, sending road wheels flying and splitting the brutalized track clean in half. A small chunk of the sideplate ripped.

Kern’s panzerwurfmine blew right through the engine block and set the beast ablaze.

He would have celebrated — but then a rifle bullet hit the concrete beside him. He and the Captain ran out to the burning tank and crouched with it between them and the enemy.

“I hit it sir!” Kern said. He started to weep. Finally he had destroyed the goddamned thing!

“Yes. You did.” Aschekind replied. “I knew you would. In my time, I did it as well.”

Kern blinked, not quite recognizing what this meant. He smiled weakly, and breathed deep.

Emboldened by the destruction of the tank, the men grouping around the foot of the ramp finally ran up and charged the warehouses on the left, taking the fight to the Ayvartans and getting some heat off of Kern and the Captain. They walked out from behind the tank. Nobody inside was coming out. Kern dared not check the front hatch. He remembered Kennelman.

Captain Aschekind threw a fragmentation grenade inside and walked away. Kern did not see the blast. He was not paying attention to it. He just stood off to the side, waiting.

“You left your radio behind?” Captain Aschekind asked him.

“Yes sir. Sorry. I thought I would run faster without it.” Kern said.

“Go back and signal to the Kummetz that the port of Bada Aso is ours.”

Kern nodded. He felt a thrill through his whole body. They had won. It didn’t bring back Schloss or Kennelman or all the men whose names Kern had forgotten or never bothered to even learn but they had won. It was not for nothing. 6th Grenadier completed its objective.

He ran back out to the ramp, picked up his radio, and tried to remember the naval contact frequency. There might not even have been one — maybe he had to go through Patriarch. He wracked his brain for it. Out across the wharf he saw the Destroyer approaching.

He almost wondered if he could contact it directly, it seemed so close to them. Perhaps that was only because of its size. It was a very large ship — Kern thought he had never seen its like before, and he had traveled to Cissea in a pretty large ship. Bristling with guns, over a hundred meters long, once the ship parked in one of the berths, the port was as good as theirs. From the ground the Ayvartans would never be able to overcome the firepower of the Kummetz.

Crouched beside the radio, Kern found it had an even bigger hole in it than he remembered.

One of the vacuum tubes was shot — he could see right through it. Whenever he turned the dial it caused a little spark in the box. He felt a sting and drew his hand away from the radio.

Sighing, he stood up and called out at the approaching men. “Anyone got a working radio?”

Nobody acknowledged him — as soon as he spoke a horrifying bellow sounded at sea.

Kern crouched and covered his head instinctively when he heard the explosions. Crawling up the ramp on his belly, he looked out onto the water and his mouth hung open.

Shelling commenced from farther out at sea; heavy bombardment turned the bridge of the Kummetz into a smoldering column of fire belching smoke into the sky. Its forward turrets turned westward and replied in kind, but Kern could not see clearly what the destroyer was attacking at first. A salvo from the destroyer’s two heavy guns flew over the water.

He produced his binoculars and struggled to keep them steady. He looked over the water.

Closing in on the wharf was a massive Ayvartan ship, larger than the Kummetz. Two smaller ships behind it were screening for what seemed like a troop transport. Two dozen aircraft in groups of four overtook the vessels and soared over the wharf, tangling with the outnumbered Nochtish aircraft. These were not the old biplanes he saw in photos and diagrams. They were sturdy-looking monoplane designs flying in tight formations. They must have come from a carrier not far from the berth-breaking group headed for the port.

Kern watched as a pair of Archer planes out at sea were overtaken by the incoming aircraft and quickly devoured by machine gun fire. Noses and wings lit up across the Ayvartan formations — each craft had multiple machine guns. Ambushed and bitten apart the Archers smoked, spun out, and crashed into the water without putting up any kind of a fight. Completely wiped out.

Shadows then swept across the terrain. Men started to retreat out of the wharf area.

On the lead Ayvartan ship a pair of enormous main guns sounded, and within seconds the deck of the Kummetz was rocked by a series of explosions. Turrets burst into clouds of shredded steel, and the bow of the destroyer started to take on water. Men leaped overboard and swam away. Across the water the rising flames and smoke rippled in nightmarish reflections.

The remaining Motor Torpedo Boat accompanying the Kummetz did not even attempt to launch its ordnance. Its crew dropped anchor close to shore and abandoned ship, the crew rushing for the beaches and up the rocky incline to Koba and the Nochtish lines.

At the edge of the pier a short concrete berth for support craft exploded violently and dropped a dozen men to sea. Across from the Port Authority building machine gun fire speared across a the front of a block of warehouses and dashed several men securing the area. Ayvartan aircraft were diving with impunity, coming down like birds of prey, their talons slashing across the open concrete. Without any kind of allotted anti-aircraft weapons and the destroyer in flames, they were helpless. At least ten Ayvartan aircraft buzzed over the port of Bada Aso, reigning over the sky. Several more aircraft overflew the port and penetrated to the central district.

Soon as the Kummetz started to visibly sink, a naval volley thundered across the wharf.

Kern looked around for Captain Aschekind, and couldn’t find him until he peered over his binoculars. The Captain and a few men retreated from the warehouses and ducked along the ramp beside Kern. There was nobody fighting anymore. They were all just targets now.

“Private Beckert, report to HQ, we are retreating!” Captain Aschekind said.

Kern started to shake. He couldn’t speak anymore. He felt like someone had plunged a knife right into his brain. All around him, as easily as they had triumphed, the 6th Grenadier had failed. Everything had swung against them in what seemed like seconds. After all that struggle, all of that death. It took less than half an hour to completely dismantle them.

All that escaped from his mouth was a stammering, “vacuum tube’s shot. Can’t speak.”

 

South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

Fruehauf’s hands trembled as she listened to the report from the seaside.

“The Regiment is done.” Aschekind said. “Between the three battalions we have maybe 500 men left holding scattered positions. We were too exposed out on the port and the road.”

“That’s still almost a battalion-sized force.” Fruehauf said. “You can maintain your positions until the rest of the Division can be forwarded to support you. Think of it as a bridgehead.”

“It cannot hold. Those guns out at sea are too much. The 6th Grenadier is not equipped to dislodge air and naval power of that magnitude. I am requesting permission to withdraw to Koba until more air support or naval support can be brought to bear.” Aschekind replied.

Fruehauf developed a slight stutter. She tried to conceal it, but she was under too much stress. Earlier she had listened to the final transmission from the Kummetz as it burned. Her captain had gone down with the ship — mostly because he was trapped in a burning bridge.

Now she simply did not know what to say or do. This was a defeat of a greater magnitude than the mere setbacks faced in Matumaini, Penance and Umaiha. More Ayvartan troops had come. There might even be an incoming Ayvartan offensive if the port was wrested from them. Nobody could have foreseen that the Ayvartans had been stalling for this kind of support.

In fact as far as her information went the Ayvartan Navy should have been almost inactive.

Freuhauf opened her mouth. Her girls were watching. No words came from her lips.

Von Sturm then seized the radio from Fruehauf’s hands and started to scream into it.

“You will not move from your position Aschekind! I don’t care if the sky is falling in pieces over you! I need you to cover the central district! My 13th Panzergrenadiers have almost taken the center for good! As far as I am concerned you are pinned to that piece of my strategic map until the 13th has secured the area! Understood?” He shouted, almost becoming hoarse.

“You are issuing a death sentence!” Aschekind shouted back. His voice was so loud that Fruehauf could hear it from the handset. “We have nothing that can hold against this force! They have a cruiser, two frigates, a troopship big enough to carry a division, and there’s an aircraft carrier out at sea! We must give space for time or the 6th Division is finished!”

“You are finished! You! Not the 6th Division! If you move a meter back from that port, I am shredding your rank! You’ll be an expendable sergeant in a reserve rifle platoon!”

“With all due respect sir; it appears I am just as expendable a Captain as a Sergeant.”

Aschekind’s voice cut out. He had stopped transmitting altogether.

Von Sturm stared dumbly at the radio, as if he could not believe it worked that way.

“He’s finished! Make a note of it!” He shouted at his staff nearby. “Fruehauf!”

“Yes sir!” Fruehauf stiffened up. She had to set an example here. She had to.

“How are we doing in the northeast? Can any of them divert center?” Von Sturm asked.

“Not any more than we have already sent.” Fruehauf said. She found her words again quite quickly. When Von Sturm gave her a stare smoldering with rage she could not remain quiet. “We haven’t been able to break that Hill the Ayvartans reinforced; Nyota. They have almost a hundred guns in place there, of various calibers. Even with air and armor support, I’m afraid the attack there is at a standstill.” She averted her gaze from Von Sturm after speaking.

“What happened to our artillery? Why isn’t it shooting without pause?” Von Sturm said.

“They have not been able to fall into the rhythm of the operation, sir.” Fruehauf said gingerly. “Our self-propelled artillery like the M3 Hunters has managed to keep up for the most part. Grounded artillery has had difficulty firing into combat to support mobile forces. We have had a few friendly fire incidents; and many other guns fell behind the advance altogether.”

“And where is Meist? Call Meist and tell him to control that dog Aschekind!” Von Sturm said.

Fruehauf nodded. She looked over her shoulder at Marie and silently assigned her that task.

Von Sturm brushed his fingers through his golden hair. He looked suddenly like a teenager in an ill-fitting suit, small and afraid, growing pale, his eyes wide and staring into space.

Fruehauf tried to coax him out of his foul mood. She smiled and turned up the charm, fixing her hair a bit, hugging her clipboard against her chest and leaning in a little to make the General feel less small, the pom poms on her earrings dancing as she tipped her head.

“But sir, we can’t simply focus on the difficulties all the time; thanks to your leadership there are several hopeful sides to this. For example the attack in the center has almost broken–“

Von Sturm snapped and stomped his feet twice on the floor, silencing Fruehauf.

“This is all your fault!” He swept his arms across the room. “All of you, from day 1 you have utterly failed to carry out even my simplest commands! You disgraceful incompetents! I lay every failure here at your feet; and yet in the end it will be I who has to suffer for them all!”

His voice was cracking and he spat when he spoke. There were tears in his eyes. He cast eyes about the room as though he was waiting for the staff to fall on him like wolves. Fruehauf stepped away. He almost looked like he wanted to lunge whenever he turned someone’s way.

Von Drachen suddenly stood up from the table, and made as if to depart from the room.

“And where are you going?” Von Sturm shouted. “Nothing smart to say now, Von Drachen?”

Von Drachen looked over his shoulder. Fruehauf would have characterized his expression as simply frowning, but it seemed eerily like much more than that. Von Drachen looked hurt somehow. His eyes looked sunken and moist, and his hooked nose had a slight drip.

“I would rather remember you as the amusing, witty and collected sort of boy I knew before.”

Von Sturm stood in the middle of the room staring at him with confusion as he left. Everyone else was just as speechless. Fruehauf did not quite understand what had just transpired.

In the middle of this, Erika pulled down her headset and tugged on Fruehauf’s sleeve and said, “Ma’am, I don’t know how to process a request for retreat, please come take this call.”

Vorkampfer HQ became silent. Von Sturm sat at his table and covered his face with his hands.

 

Central Sector, Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”

Soon as she exited the tunnel Gulab had been fighting desperately once again. Her squadron came out of the civil canteen near the home base to find a labyrinth of burning hulks just off of the defensive line and dozens of men huddling behind them. Two of the Svechthans were picked off by a Norgler almost immediately and nobody had time to mourn — everyone ran off the street and rushed as fast as they could to take cover behind the nearest surface. Nikka and the remaining Svechthans made for the street corner, but Gulab, Chadgura, Dabo and Jande ran forward and jumped behind a half-circle of sandbags protecting a 76mm gun off the left side of the line. Since they began running the gun had not put a single shell downrange.

For a second they caught their breaths behind cover, having barely made it to safety.

“Why isn’t this 76mm shooting?” Gulab cried out in anger, trying to yell over the gunfire.

To her surprise, she found huddled behind the sandbags all the kids she had met days earlier. Adesh, Nnenia, and Eshe, all with their heads down. They looked up and pointed at her in amazement when she appeared. Their commander, a soft-faced and pretty Arjun with a peach slice clipped to his hair, banged on the side of a radio and shouted into the handset.

Behind the gun was a scruffy looking man leaning drowsily against the shield. He waved.

“No ammo, ma’am.” He shouted with a shrug. “I dare say we’re kinda doomed here.”

“Shut up, Kufu!” Eshe shouted. “Nobody asked you for your pessimistic opinion!”

Corporal Rahani put down the handset and sighed. “Now’s not the time for this.”

“I agree.” Sergeant Chadgura said suddenly. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

“You can’t go out there!” Adesh interrupted. “Those Nochtish men are just waiting for that!”

Nnenia slid a small portable periscope over to Gulab. She picked it up and looked over the sandbags and across the fighting. Their little gun redoubt was positioned diagonally and just off the western side of the defensive line, across the street from the civil canteen, on the road running in front of Madiha’s House. Twenty meters away the wreck of a Nocht troop carrier and an assault gun shielded a what seemed to Gulab like several squadrons of men, who fought from in and around the remains of those vehicles. They had practically split the line in two just by losing their vehicles in that spot. A Hobgoblin wreck was the nearest piece of cover.

Overhead, Gulab spotted a group of aircraft. Orange spears from somewhere in the horizon shot at them and dispersed them every few minutes, but they remained solidly in control of the air space. Gulab figured that was long-range AA fire from Nyota Hill to the northeast of Home. Judging by the wrecks of Hobgoblins all along the defensive lines, it had been ineffective.

She handed the periscope to Chadgura and urged her to look as well. “How are those planes?”

“We think the planes are out of bombs now. A few of them even went down.” Nnenia said.

“Good. Those planes are all that worried me.” Gulab said. “Just let us handle the rest!”

“Ms. Kajari– err, I mean, Corporal Kajari,” Adesh said, rubbing his hands together nervously. “It’s too dangerous to go out now. We’re glad you came along but– you just can’t!”

Gulab felt a surge of warm fondness for the boy. She smiled, and lifted her chin up, and pressed her fist flat to her chest. “You do not know me very well, Private. I don’t know the meaning of can’t! I can run out, get some shells and run right back here. Just tell me where to go.”

“Please be careful, Corporal Kajari.” Adesh said, frowning. He looked utterly deflated.

She sympathized with him. But Gulab did not let herself get bogged down with fear. Certainly all the physical symptoms were present. She felt a thrill along the surface of her skin, as though bugs were crawling on her. She felt a slight shaking in her feet and across her hands. There was a slight ache in her head. It must have been adrenaline and nerves, but it didn’t stop her.

Whenever she was overcome by fear, someone had died or been hurt. Even Chadgura had been hurt before. Her grandfather had paid dearly for it. She couldn’t allow that anymore. That was her bad star’s luck to bear and nobody else should have to suffer for depending on her.

“I will go, on my honor!” She turned to Corporal Rahani, who looked terribly perplexed.

“I suppose they must have some ammunition left inside the HQ proper.” He said softly. “They were hit by a shell at the start of the enemy attack, but since then they have recovered.”

Gulab turned to Chadgura for permission. The Sergeant clapped her hands.

“I agree with the urgency of the situation and I also agree, regrettably, that there are not many solutions beside your proposition. But please, do be careful. I do not believe that I would recover easily from the loss of you at this juncture.” Chadgura said. Her voice sounded awkward for once. Deadpan as it was, Gulab could see a lot of feeling behind this.

She patted Chadgura on the shoulder. “I like you too, comrade. So, I will be back.”

“We’ll be cheering for you.” Nnenia said. Eshe and Adesh nodded, looking subdued.

Gulab took her rifle, crawled to the back of the redoubt, and looked to the street corner.

Nikka!” She yelled at the top of her lungs. “I’m going to run out, keep them off me!

From the corner a small head peeked out. “Are you mad, Gulachka?” She shouted back.

Maybe!” Gulab shouted back.

She thought she saw the Svechthan flash a grin.

I like your spirit Tovarisch! Udači!”

Several submachine guns and Nikka’s rifle suddenly appeared from around the corner.

Beside the overturned troop carrier, a Norgler gunner using the damaged track for cover caught a bullet between his eyes and slumped against his weapon, momentarily silencing a third of the gunfire on the redoubt. Behind him his loader crawled up to the discarded gun. Submachine gun rounds then started plinking off the vehicle’s armor and across the dusty, torn-up concrete between the hulks. Heads started going down, men started stepping back.

Gulab took off running, discharging her rifle toward her right flank on automatic.

Chadgura suddenly took off behind her, twisting around her side to shoot as she ran. She held down the trigger and sprayed the husk of an assault gun until her magazine emptied. Dabo and Jande were left speechless behind, and got up over the sandbags momentarily to cover her.

Combined, the threat of automatic fire from the street corner, Nikka’s sniping, and Gulab and Chadgura’s haphazard running and gunning bought enough time for the sprint. Not one rifle snapped at them as they crossed the no-man’s-land. Both officers reached the Hobgoblin’s battered metal corpse and crouched behind it, catching their breath for a moment.

“Why did you run after me like that? You could’ve been killed!” Gulab shouted.

Chadgura looked at her with that deadpan expression of hers, blinking her eyes. She started talking abruptly, as though she had rehearsed and was waiting for an opportunity. “You see, it is a feature of my psychological condition that I sometimes become too restless to remain in one place. At those times, I sometimes jump in place, or run in a circle; now I was compelled–“

“You’re making excuses!” Gulab said. She grinned at Chadgura, more amused than angry.

“It is for the best that I am present for this tactical deployment.” Chadgura said. She reloaded her rifle, and Gulab did the same. Whatever he reasons, she was glad for the Sgt.’s company.

“Well, you are present, boss. Now what?” Gulab looked to the side of the Hobgoblin. There was a stretch of ten meters or so to get to the stairway, and then the steps up to the lobby, and finding safe cover in said lobby, added perhaps ten more meters to the journey. On the other side of the street, Nochtish riflemen behind the remains of abandoned sandbag redoubts and burnt out frames of tanks exchanged fire with the troops garrisoning the school lobby.

She waited patiently for Chadgura to survey the area as well and give her a response.

The Sergeant pulled four grenades out of her pouches. They looked like sealed bean cans.

“We throw all of these and run as quickly as we can.” Chadgura said calmly.

Gulab blinked. She searched her own equipment and found a single can in her bag.

Chadgura nodded her head. They pulled the pins and threw the first two cans over the top of the tank wreck. Chadgura pulled the pins on her remaining three grenades simultaneously and threw them after. Soon as they heard the first bomb went off they took off running.

To their right several enemy positions had been temporarily suppressed as a grenade went off near them. Gulab had hear the cries of GRANATE from the line, and caught glimpses of men crouched behind sandbags and metal debris from damaged vehicles. They covered the few meters to the steps in mere seconds, and took the first steps without slowing.

Then the enemy came alive again. Preceded by a chewing noise like that of an automatic saw, bursts of Norgler machine gun fire flew beside them and hit the walls around the lobby entrance. Bolt action rifle fire bit at their heels and flew past their heads. They bowed their heads and raised their guns behind them as if that would provide any protection.

A pair of Nochtish stick grenades landed a few steps behind their feet and rolled down.

At the top of the stairs, Gulab and Chadgura themselves through the door and onto the ground.

Fire and smoke and fragments blew in from behind them. Medics scrambled to pull them from the doorway and help them out of sight, behind the thick concrete walls. Though dizzy at first Gulab recovered, feeling an urgency to check her own body — and then a different urgency.

“Everything there?” Gulab asked, breaking away from a medic and grabbing Chadgura. She looked over the Sergeant, searching behind her back, under arms, across her legs, for wounds.

“I’m unharmed, I believe.” Chadgura said, standing very stiff and still while Gulab obsessed.

“Thank everything.” Gulab said, heaving a sigh of relief. She collapsed against the wall.

In the lobby, two large groups of soldiers huddled behind the concrete walls to the sides of the door. Because all of the glass on the windows had been broken, and the ornate door frame had been shattered by the fighting as well, there was only a strip about two meters wide on either side of the broad, open doorway that was safe to stand on. They had provisions stacked up against the corners, mostly boxes of various shell and ammunition calibers. There was one broken mortar piece of maybe 81mm caliber, and a smaller piece intact and unused. Behind the front desk a big radio box was constantly monitored. There were maybe 25 people around.

Periodically, fire from a Norgler or rifle would soar through the middle and hit the back wall. So often had gunfire penetrated the lobby that the back wall sported a crater a meter wide and several centimeters deep, formed from hundreds, maybe thousands of bullet impacts on it. After each burst of Norgler fire a man with a Danava light machine gun peered through the window and fired a long burst into the sandbags ten or twenty meters away.

One of the medics who dragged them off the door knelt beside them and offered them a nondescript bagged drink with a cardboard straw. “You both ok?” He said. “Drink this.”

Gulab tasted it first — the drink was salty and bitter and thick. “Yuck! It’s horrible.”

“It tastes bad but it will energize you. What’s your errand, Corporal?” asked the Medic.

“We require 76mm gun ammunition.” Chadgura said. She tasted the drink, and her left eye twitched ever so slightly as she swallowed the slurry. “I assume you have some.”

“We probably do. Check the crates. Don’t know how you expect to get out though.”

“Huh? You guys are stuck here?” Gulab asked, making a face at the medic.

“I’d think so. Biggest bulge in the Nochtish lines is right in front of us. They’re maybe fifteen meters away from us. They almost penetrated into the lobby once before.” said the Medic. “Had their tanks not been destroyed they would still be trying to charge us. They must be waiting for the next wave of reinforcements. Meanwhile we’re here waiting for some good news.”

In the distance, several howitzer shells hit the ground deep into the Nochtish lines, a hundred meters away. Gulab hunched her shoulders, startled; she wondered what they even hit.

“We don’t hand your orders though,” the Medic smiled, “if you try and succeed, try to get word out that we’d really like to leave this school before a tank sends a shell through the door.”

He stood up, and rushed across the room after the next Norgler burst, rejoining a pair of medics on the other side of the lobby. They sat together and shared the rest of the drink.

“We could go to the second floor, follow the hallway to the west, and drop from a window.” Chadgura said. She seemed to be musing to herself aloud, staring out the doorway.

Gulab stood up and sidled across the right wall. She picked through the mound of supply crates and found a box of 76mm shells, buried under crates of unused 60mm smoke rounds. She found a canvas bag and stuffed five shells into the thing, and then awkwardly rigged it to her belt and pouches like a backpack. It was heavy and awkward, but manageable enough for her.

Errand completed, she returned to Chadgura’s side, sat down, and sighed deeply. She put her fists to her cheeks and waited a moment. Another five-second spray of Norgler fire flew in.

Bits of lead dislodged from the wall and clinked as they struck the ground. At the window the Danava was passed to a young woman, and she took her turn shooting at the grey uniforms.

“We’ve got a message on the radio!” Shouted a young man behind the front desk.

Gulab and Chadgura looked over; so did everyone else in the room. He set the radio atop the desk and turned up the volume. It was connected to a speaker loud enough for the room.

“–Repeat, this is Ox HQ! Naval group ‘Qote’ has arrived in Bada Aso. The Revenant, Selkie, Selkie II, Charybdis and the Admiral Qote have arrived to support us. Naval and air support will help to relieve the siege across the Central districts. Now is the time to awaken, comrades! Seize your arms and fight! Push back against the imperialists!”

“That sounded like C.W.O Maharani,” the Medic said, looking around, “so help is coming?”

“You heard her, comrades!” shouted the woman at the window. “It’s time to fight back!”

Everyone in the room seemed truly to awaken at that point. The Medic and his friends recovered their weapons from the corner and huddled at the window. The Danava gunner looked down her sight with renewed zeal and did not hide away from the window, firing burst after burst of automatic fire on the Nochtish line. Her comrades opened fire from the sides of the doorway. This burst of energy seemed to take the grey uniforms by surprise.

Gulab looked over the supplies. She got an idea. She stood up and took the 60mm mortar in hand. She gathered some of the people hiding behind the desk, and got them together near the center of the room and told them to hold the mortar just so — suspended over their shoulders, at an angle more suitable to a direct-fire cannon than a mortar. Confused by her intentions the hapless non-commissioned signals staff served as her stand without making a peep.

“What the hell are you doing?” shouted the Medic, watching Gulab as she schemed.

“Just watch! It’s a brilliant idea. Besides, we’re only using a smoke round.”

The Medic stared between Gulab and the confused signals men holding the mortar.

What?” He asked again, gesturing impotently at the contraption.

Gulab had no time to explain any further. “Chadgura, get ready!”

She nonchalantly shoved mortar shell down the tube. It shook, and the shell soared out the door. Both signals staff members holding the mortar fell back, and the backplate on the piece snapped, but the shell crashed into the street outside and kicked up the smokescreen.

 

“Ho ho ho! It worked! It worked!” Gulab shouted. She took Chadgura by the arm.

In seconds the smoke had risen high enough, and the two of them ran out of the lobby, stomping down the steps, sporadic fire from startled enemies crashing around them. They leaped off the bottom steps and ran for the tank. When the Norgler started shooting again, they were well away, and the lobby had engaged the enemy again and given them their next chance.

Soon they cleared the tank, and managed to return to the sandbags with the shells in tow.

Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe stared, mouths agape, when Gulab and Chadgura reappeared. They had all kinds of cuts on their uniforms — those bullets had come a lot closer than they thought in the middle of things. Didn’t matter. Gulab unloaded her bag and offered Corporal Rahani a 76mm shell like it was a piece of candy, with a big, self-congratulatory grin on her face.

“Anyway, we’re all saved. Naval and air’s on its way to clean up here.” She said.

“Air and naval?” Eshe asked, crawling to the gun. “From where?”

Gulab shrugged. “I don’t know. Somewhere in the ocean. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“My, my, you are quite reliable, Corporal.” Rahani said softly. “Thank you for your help. Adesh, please get behind the gun again. We only have five shots; but I have faith in you.”

“Yes sir!” Adesh said. He glanced over Gulab with awe before taking his place behind the gun. Eshe pulled the crate behind the gun shield, and Nnenia and Kufu lifted the gun by the bracing legs and adjusted it. Rahani called their first target — the overturned APC in front of them.

“Adjust elevation to account for proximity, and then fire when ready, my precious crew!”

Gulab peeked out with the periscope while Adesh punched the shell into place and fired.

With a target less than thirty meters away it was not a question of hitting or missing, but the effect achieved. In this case, the 76mm HE shell easily punched through the thin armor of the overturned half-track troop carrier, even without a penetrating nose, due to the proximity and the muzzle velocity of the gun. Rahani was likely counting on this. Behind the carrier Gulab saw the burst of fire and smoke from the shell. Then she saw men running and crawling away.

Many were bleeding or mauled. Behind her, Nnenia helped traverse the gun further to the left. Eshe pushed away some of the sandbags from the wall to give space for the gun to be moved.

“Hit the assault gun wreck next, and then shoot the sandbags!” Corporal Rahani called out.

Adesh easily obliged. He put a shell right through a large hole that had been bored through the dead tank by whatever killed it first, and penetrated the flimsy, decayed armor on the other side. Again he hit the men hiding behind the gun. Gulab saw the concrete and dust flying behind the obstacle. This time no one sprinted away, though a few did crawl desperately.

All across the line the defenders started to awaken. Over the lazy, sporadic din of the Norglers she heard again the belabored thock thock thock of Danava and Khroda guns, and the sharp whiplash of rifles, the chachachachak of submachine guns from the Svechthans on the street corner. She saw men and women charge out of the lobby and take the steps again.

Rahani’s crew launched another shell and sent flying a wall of their own sandbags, tossing away a half-dozen Nochtish men who must have thought the arrangement convenient until now.

“One more down the road! Let us turn the fiends back, my beautiful crew!” Rahani said.

“I’m startin’ to feel like objecting to these!” Kufu groaned as he helped traverse the gun.

Gulab sat back and laughed. She just could hear the triumphant marching drums and trumpets in her head already, the battle hymn of the socialists; she felt energized. She knew that she had not been abandoned, that help was on its way. They all knew it now, they knew it from each other, even if they had not heard the radio address from the Headquarters. Perhaps each of them had seen one comrade who had started to fight, and it renewed the strength of them all.

At their side, the Svechthans reappeared from the street corner. They pushed out all of the sandbags, and started shooting from over them. Nikka seemed to be having a great time.

“Like shooting ducks frozen into the lake!” She said. She looked through her scope and easily picked off a man lying on the ground behind the stock of a Norgler. Gulab had barely seen him before she got him. Svechthan submachine gunners laid down a curtain of fire against the enemy. Not a single rifle seemed to retaliate now. The volume of fire was too much.

Then came the sound of tracks, and Gulab could pick it out even amid all the shooting.

“To the south! Adesh, you can see them, can’t you?” Rahani asked. He pointed south.

“Their reinforcements have arrived; we can’t let this break our counterstroke!” Nikka warned.

From the bottom of the main street Gulab saw a group of tanks approaching. Everyone scrambled to turn the gun back to the right, but they had only two shells left! Nnenia and Kufu set down the gun, and laid back on the floor, exhausted. Adesh pulled the firing pin; his shell struck the track guard of an M4 Sentinel and blew it off. One shell left; it was no good–

Over the advancing tank platoon a massive shell descended, casting a very brief shadow.

When it crashed, all five tanks disappeared into a grand fireball. A hole was smashed into the road six meters in diameter and four deep, and the tanks collapsed, broken into burning pieces.

Adesh looked over his gun shield as though wondering if he could have potentially done that.

When the rest of the heavy shells started to drop, it was clear that it was not him. Nonetheless, he smiled, and laughed. Nnenia and Eshe took him into their arms. Rahani burst out laughing as well. It was not exactly funny by itself to see the Nochtish men being blasted to pieces. But Gulab thought that everyone was so glad to be alive that there was no other natural response.

“We held!” Shouted the younger gun crew members together. “We held! We held! We held!”

Rahani clapped his hands softly along with them, as though providing percussion. Nikka and the Svechthans seemed to fall over on their backs all at once, like dolls pushed by the wind. They had the same grumpy faces as usual, but they seemed eerily contented nonetheless.

Gulab pulled down the periscope and surveyed herself the carnage unfolding along the line.

All across the road Nochtish men left their arms and hurried away as the naval artillery rolled over their path. Hurtling shells from 300mm and 200mm guns stomped massive holes into the tar and concrete and cast vast clouds of fast-moving debris and fragments. Previous artillery volleys seemed like a child throwing rocks in comparison to the overwhelming power on display. Choking smoke and the stench of gunpowder spread rapidly across the Nochtish lines. Even men safely ensconced in buildings retreated from the disaster unfolding. Troop carriers freshly arrived abruptly reversed from the combat area and turned away from Sector Home.

A Nochtish Archer plane crashed near the line, its wings and cockpit riddled with bullet holes. Gulab heard the familiar, lazy sound of the propellers on a modern Garuda fighter plane, and then saw the long green shapes cutting through the sky and chasing after Nochtish planes. There were far less Garuda in the Air Force than the old but compact and tenacious Anka biplane fighters — but in the Navy, the Anka had been completely replaced by Garuda. Now Nocht got a taste of their own medicine in the air, as a fighter as capable as their own now outnumbered them. Archer planes banked and rolled and struggled with all of their might and skill shake off the Garudas, but there were three green planes to every gray plane.

Within thirty minutes it became clear that the attack was completely broken. The Nochtish troops had given up all of the several hundreds of meters they had gained on Sector Home. Twenty meters from the door, and they had been turned away. Above, the Nochtish Air Force either flew away wounded or crashed down to earth The 3rd Line Corps had held.

“We held!” Gulab joined in, seated against the sadbags, wrapping her arms around Chadgura and kicking her legs. “We held! We held! Eat shit you imperialist scum! Rotten mudpigs!”

Chadgura did not clap or cheer or protest. Instead she simply sat, seeming almost relaxed.

 

34th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

“All of the reports say the same, sir. In the Central District, and in the East–“

“That can’t be right. It can’t be right. They must be in the wrong place.”

“No sir, they retraced the Panzergrenadier’s attack path from yesterday.”

“They must have fucked up on some street or another! At this point I would not put that past all of you numbskulls! I’m telling you it is impossible. Give me that radio, I want to hear this.”

Von Sturm seized the radio handset from Fruehauf and leaned in on the radio. Fruehauf leaned in beside the general so she could listen. He did not seem to mind, and even included her. Perhaps he thought she would hear something that might vindicate his point of view.

“Lieutenant, repeat for us again. Have you made contact with the enemy?” He asked.

One of the Jäger armed patrols sent to the central district responded quickly and calmly.

“Negative sir. We think there might be a minefield further up the streets, but the central district is a ghost town. Our combat patrol has met absolutely no resistance. Twenty men, and we just walked right past the shell craters, right past the husks of all our lost tanks, and right up to their supposed headquarters. Nothing here, sir. They must have fully retreated at night.”

“Repeat that again, Lieutenant, because you are not making sense. You returned to the combat area from yesterday, to the central sector with the big school. You found nothing there?

Even the Jäger sounded exasperated with General Von Sturm’s attitude at the moment.

“No enemies, sir. Their entire line was uprooted. I don’t know what more I can say. I have taken photographs so you can see for yourself. You could send a Squire to come fetch us and get them back even faster. I dare say, sir, the Squire won’t meet any resistance at all.”

Von Sturm seemed to want to ask him to repeat one more time, but he did not. He returned the radio handset to Fruehauf, who stared at him as he shambled back to the stable and sat down. He steepled his fingers, fidgeting by touching the tips of each linked pair of fingers in sequence, as if he were playing some kind of instrument. He had a glassy kind of look in his eyes.

Fruehauf felt the same way, but perhaps because it was not her planning that was thrown into confusion, it did not hit her as hard. Still, she had to wonder, and it gave her a feeling of dread, clawing in her stomach, when she considered how little everyone seemed to know.

Yesterday was a setback, but they had made some gains and they still had large amount of troops and equipment that was ready to throw in. They had been planning to probe the Ayvartan central positions, and to prepare their own defenses. Requests to the Bundesmarine and Luftlotte were still being sorted, so operations on the seaside had been put off. Though at a standstill, the situation was not completely untenable for the city invaders. Had the Ayvartans decided to attack and exploit their momentum from the day before, the Panzergrenadiers and Azul could have easily counterattacked and punished them. Everything was still salvageable.

So on the morning of the 34th Von Sturm sent his patrols and awaited crucial intelligence.

Once they received the initial scouting reports, however, the information haunted them.

On everyone’s minds the question was: why did the Ayvartans completely retreat from every sector that they had won the day before? Why was there no pitched fighting against Surge? Why was there no counterattack? On the 33rd they had rebuffed all of the Nochtish strength, and yet now their ships were silent, their planes were grounded, and there was not a communist man on the streets of Bada Aso who was looking to fight with a capitalist one.

Everyone in the Vorkampfer was unsettled. It simply made no sense. It was unprecedented.

“We will use the time to regroup. Push everything up as far as the Ayvartan are willing to let us move, and then launch rapid attacks again against the North. If they’re giving us this then we’re taking it.” Von Sturm declared. “They must be fools, complete fools, just like we thought. Fruehauf, call in the combat engineers, I want every significant structure and every street examined for mines and traps. Relocate the wounded south, and forward all reserves north.”

Fruehauf nodded. She felt helpless in the face of all this. “Yes sir. Right away sir.”

Von Sturm looked at the table and rubbed his hands. “They must be fools, just like we thought. All of their little victories so far have been nothing but flukes. We’ll end it tomorrow.”

* * *

Next Chapter in Generalplan Suden — Hell Awakens

Bad Bishop — Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains scenes of violence, including fleeting graphic violence, and death, as well as mild sexual content and implications of familial neglect.

32nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice, People’s Peak

Proportional representation amendments had caused the National Civil Council to bloat to over 300 members. Many of them were redundant, created as a successful political stunt to chip away the political power of the more committed socialists in the north to the softer centrists and the ambivalent uncommitted of the south who had larger populations to leverage. They were nominated and then voted for by people from their community participating in a cargo cult democracy, and thrust with responsibilities they were not trained to handle, and thus they were pushed into cliques taking convenient stances for particular factions. Adjar and Shaila had the majority of these malleable placeholders, over small territories like Jomba.

This was a relatively recent atrocity of the political process, but a damaging one.

The Council had taken many forms over the years. Ever since the agreement that created the Socialist Dominances of Solstice it had warped and changed. It was at the time of its inception an ill defined body — a malformed continuation of the Ayvartan Empire’s administrative districts within a democratic framework and with a socialist mission. It had to work, because at the time the alternative looked too ugly. Bread, shelter, clothing, for all; Kremina once believed that any society that oriented around these principles could not be corrupt, no matter what. She thought she could see the end of the “class struggle” that Daksha had waged.

It was this naivety that led to the slow degradation of their power in the government’s affairs. All of the veteran revolutionaries were slowly burgled out of their voices and their votes.

In her case, she foolishly agreed to it. She walked into it. She was the biggest fool.

It hurt because Daksha had relied on her. She had failed them both. But Daksha never held her accountable for it. While criticizing others she always ignored Kremina’s foolish role in that legal coup.

Kremina Qote swallowed down all of that regret. She had to move forward now. They had a chance to regain those co-opted structures. She would hate herself if she didn’t at least try.

Four days since the fall of Knyskna, four since the Kalu battle, the Council convened.

Due to the size and varying political competence of the councilors, they did not fully convene all of the time — for most of their business they sent representatives of their various factions and positions and these people negotiated for the body. After preliminary negotiations the representatives returned to their council cliques, gathered up votes, and then met again with their counterparts and delivered them. Long form votes were rare, and so was the use of the room at the very peak of the People’s Peak, an auditorium room that could fit every councilor.

On the 32nd the room was full, save for a single councilor from Adjar, Arthur Mansa.

“Why isn’t he here?” Daksha asked. Councilman Yuba shook his head.

“He said he has personal business in Tambwe that he had to oversee.” He said.

“It’s good for us that he’s gone, but it’s still strange.” Kremina said.

“His aides will vote for him. It won’t make a difference.” Yuba said. “Even his leadership cannot salvage this now. I wager that is exactly why he has personal business now. He is weak and can’t afford to lose face publically right now — he has to preserve his political strength.”

“I hate these games.” Daksha said. “What kind of socialists are we that we allowed this?”

“Socialists who tried hard to put democracy ahead of tyranny.” Yuba said sternly.

“I feel it’s about time we put our survival ahead of the ability to vote.” Daksha replied.

They were convened in the hall outside the auditorium. Daksha was dressed gallantly that night. Kremina had helped her into a new dress uniform, with a peaked cap, the KVW’s red and gold and black jacket and pants, a pair of tall boots. She personally helped tie her long dark hair into an orderly round bun, several white tufts falling around her forehead. Her dark face had been oiled clean and powdered smooth, her lips painted a subtle red. Kremina loved the few little wrinkles around her mouth and eyes, still visible; she loved her lean, tall, broad-shouldered frame, accented by the pants suit and jacket. She could have kissed her; and she had, before they went out in public. The Warden had never looked so dashing and immaculate.

She satisfied herself with adjusting the Warden’s dress tie and holding her hand before they walked through the curtains into the auditorium. Daksha went ahead to the podium.

Surrounded on all sides by the high seats, occupied by men and women of all ages from all the Dominances, Warden Kansal walked to the circular space in the center of the auditorium. In the middle of it all was a lonely podium, upon which Daksha laid down her papers. She raised a pair of spectacles to her eyes, and opened the folder holding her charts and cheat sheets. There was no applause — the chamber was quite subdued. Many of them had come into office having never heard Kansal speak, and knew her only as the head of the extremist KVW.

Normally the loudest voices in the Council were the elected from Adjar and Shaila. Today they were quiet, shattered — Shaila was completely lost, and barely 1/4 of Adjar remained under the tenuous control of the Socialist government. It too would soon be given up.

Adjar and Shaila had the largest concentration of collaborationist-leaning councilors, owing to their large and largely politically disengaged populations. But without the leadership of their clique many of those councilors were lost. And Mansa had been keeping quiet on them.

Yuba had been right. They were vulnerable now. In the chaos of the invasion their petty ambitions could not be countenanced even by the most politically illiterate, and in the face of the violence that had been witnessed in Bada Aso and Knyskna, diplomacy was treason. Those among them ambivalent about real socialist policy could not dare to speak a counterposition.

Kremina stayed by the curtain, framed by doorway leading into the room. She watched from afar. She had written much of the speech with her, but now Daksha had to deliver it.

Fearlessly Daksha craned her head to the seats. There was fire in her voice but a blank expression on her lips and eyes, devoid of the anger and contempt Kremina knew she felt.

“Tonight you will be asked to consider a typical slate of policies, much the same as you have pored over the past few months. Production, development, awareness projects, outreach campaigns. Many of these things sound insignificant, but you will consider them carefully nonetheless. In our socialist democracy, the democracy of the people, even these simple things are considered and carefully analyzed. There are a few decisions on the agenda tonight.”

She paused for a moment, as if to create a hole in the air, to then fill it with her sound.

“You will debate on the best course of action to prevent insect-borne epidemics in Tambwe, that were particularly virulent the past few years; you will debate on the presence of gender markers in our state identification papers; you will debate on whether to modify the amount and kinds of food in the citizen’s free canteen meals each day. You have gathered data on each of these subjects. You might have papers written to support a small reduction in the meals, such as the removal of an extra piece of flatbread, and explain how there is some benefit or another to this action. There will be citizens speaking to you, providing evidence to help educate you. There are a few witnesses waiting outside, to be allowed into this room to speak.”

It was hot in the room, under the spotlights shining from the corners of the auditorium. But Daksha did not sweat. She spoke, loud and strong, her words perfectly pronounced.

“Unlike them, I’m not here to support a position. I do not believe my ideas are up for debate; there is no contra against me other than standing by and inviting the death of our nation. To demand I qualify myself with data, to demand that I substantiate myself with strong rhetoric, to tie me to your discourse — is to do nothing short of submitting our people to slavery and our land to the hegemony of the Nocht Federation. In Rhinea, far in the north, there is a democratically-elected parliament of intelligent, educated men who strongly debated whether to withhold aggression or to send their citizens here to kill our citizens. We cannot mimic their procedure — to debate as to whether our citizens should defend themselves is a sick task.”

Not a word was spoken against her. Not a word could be; the entire council was subdued.

“To that end I am here not to support any position, but to outline a series of actions that must be taken effective immediately to preserve the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. If you wish to become something like The Southern Federated State of Solstice under the auspice of the Lehner administration in Rhinea — then you may continue on your warped course. Should you realize the urgency and pressure upon us, and resolve to survive to see a tomorrow–“

Daksha picked up her speech papers and threw them over her shoulder. They landed on the floor, the soft sound of the sliding papers resonating across the dead silence of the room.

From her abrupt pause, she segued into the line items Kremina had prepared for her. She spoke clearly, at a brisk pace, pausing for a subtle breath between each item as she recited them.

“Rescind the current civil administration of the military and unify all military resources under a Supreme High Command responsible for drafting strategic military actions, and responsible for administration, logistics and intelligence. This command must be free to wield all of the nation’s military resources without impediment to answer the immediate threat to the people.”

“Merge all current separate military formations and organize them into Armies, Corps and Divisions under the Supreme High Command in whatever way is found most efficient.”

“Redeploy all reservists and recruit more troops, either through patriotic awareness or material incentive campaigns or through conscription as a last resort; restock our current divisions, and create new divisions, using this expanded pool of soldiers; promote people with military experience to rebuild our officer corps, reintroducing ranks above Major to the armies.”

“Reduce Divisions from Square to more efficient Triangle formations. We can use the disbanded 4th Regiments to assemble new Divisions. To these more efficient formations, reintroduce shelved heavy weapons, including heavy artillery. Organize heavy weapons so that each infantry unit has organic heavy weaponry, including machine guns, while also retaining specialized heavy weaponry units designed to support explicit offensive actions.”

“Reintroduce high training standards and promote professionalism and decorum in the armed forces. Instill in our armed forces a respect for their people, a respect for their own role for the people, and an understanding of accountability to their people. In service to this task, invite civil elements to participate alongside our military such as journalists and union liaisons, to open dialog. Work earnestly to restore our people’s trust and investment in our army.”

“In service to this task, rebuild our war industry and promote practical innovation of new weapons. Provide our unions the tools to help our war effort and their own communities in the process. Cease production of obsolete weapons and increase production of new designs. Open a dialog with our unions to increase workplace efficiency, safety, security, and bring them into the process of military development at all levels to give them a stake in the fight.”

“Rethink our system of distribution — Honors distribution, and the items controlled under the Honors system, must either be expanded or removed. War will surely disrupt it otherwise. Treating it like an alternate currency has never quite worked. My personal recommendation is a voucher incentive system for a wider range of purposes than just scarce consumer goods.”

After each bullet point, many councilors in the room cringed and avoided her eyes. In short, the Warden could simply had said “we must reverse much of your policy now and completely.” Never before had so many radical propositions been made at once to the Council.

There was no conclusion. Daksha unceremoniously left the podium without even a bit of applause. There was whispering around the room as she stepped away, but mostly silence. Kremina sighed with relief. She had almost expected her to act out at the end of the speech, but Daksha had managed to quell her anger for a moment and keep an appearance of calm throughout. When she passed the curtain, her hand was closed into a shaking fist.

“A room full of fools!” She said emphatically. “All devolving into blank stares as if I were not speaking the standard dialect to them! Children could have paid better attention!”

Kremina held her hands and tried to calm her. Together they waited through the several speeches and witnesses of the night. They sat in a bench, with their backs to the room wall, drinking water and taking complimentary caramels from hospitality bowls. They paced the hallway, up and down. Several hours passed. Then the council began their deliberations.

There was one topic they did not seem to openly debate — the Nochtish invasion. They would hold a vote on it, Yuba assured them as he ran back and forth from his seat and the hallway, checking up on them between each speaker and each vote, reassuring them. There would be a vote. They did not debate it because they were scattered, and because of Daksha’s speech and presence. But there would a vote. And there was a vote, held, collected, counted. Yuba returned one last time to deliver to them the final results of the night’s deliberations.

He smiled awkwardly, crossing his arms against his chest. “Inconclusive, I’m afraid.”

Daksha bolted up from the bench. “What the hell do you mean, inconclusive? Inconclusive?”

“Inconclusive. There were votes on several of the positions that you outlined and none of those line items received either enough support to pass or enough opposition to be shelved.”

Kremina put a hand on Daksha’s shoulder, passively attempting to calm and hold her back.

“Yuba, you don’t seem too concerned. You promised us results. Please explain.” She said.

“What was important tonight is showing to all those sleeping councilors that there is leadership outside of their factions, and that leadership is stronger than their own.” Yuba said. “There will be another vote in a few days. I will start building a coalition to chip away power from Mansa’s, and I can use tonight’s indecision as a starting point. Warden, you will notice, for example–“

He withdrew a piece of paper, a voting results report, hastily scribbled up. He pointed to it.

“My factions voted in unison for all of your policies. We were only stopped by the mishmash of indecisive votes and the few opposition votes, all from Adjar, Shaila, Tambwe and Dbagbo.”

Daksha exhaled loudly. She crossed her arms, turned her back, and paced around in frustration.

“Victory takes time, Warden!” Yuba said amicably. “You do not encircle an enemy in one day. It is a series of actions; you maneuver around them, isolate them, and you capture them.”

“Or you can just destroy them.” Daksha said, her back still turned on the old man.

“Doubtless, you could, if you wanted to.” Yuba said, shrugging with his hands. “But I believe destruction always carries a human cost, both right away, and in the times that come after.”

There was silence in the hall. Behind them there was the sound of a gavel to end the meeting.

“When is the next vote? I suppose I should be present for it.” Daksha said. She sighed a little, as if to let off steam from a burning engine. Kremina rubbed her shoulders affectionately.

 

Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, Citadel Nocht

Nochtish President Achim Lehner kept a mirror on the left-hand wall of his office because he thought whenever someone passed by it, he could see through them in the reflection.

He waited at his desk for the day to be officially over, so he could get started on a few of his off-the-clock hobbies. He contemplated looking in the mirror, maybe straightening out his tie, combing his hair again, making sure he looked sharp; but then felt foolish for entertaining the thought. Cecilia didn’t need him looking perfect; she just needed him looking undressed.

That mirror had a power, though; he loved that mirror, in a strange, almost religious way.

Throughout the day he met with a dozen different people. A Helvetian diplomat met briefly to discuss open sea lanes for neutral countries during the war — he saw one of her cheeks in the mirror, contorted, crooked, as though the scowl of a demon hidden in her everyday smile. Two automotive company executives expressed interest putting their factories to work in the production of trucks. On his mirror Lehner saw a twitch in one’s eye and the other fidgeting behind his back with his fingers. General Braun appeared too. He looked ghoulish every time.

Lehner did not use this mirror for himself. He hated looking at himself in a mirror because he always focused too much on the little things. One slightly off-white hair in his slick, well-combed locks; what seemed like, perhaps, in the right light, a wrinkle in his boyishly handsome profile and smile; a blemish somewhere on his high cheekbones or aquiline nose. A weird bump in the perfect slant of his lean shoulders that he compulsively patted down. He didn’t need that. Mirrors tried to grind you into their own image. They were made only to show imperfection.

Good tools to keep where others could see them; pernicious to peer into yourself.

Lately he spent a lot of time in the office. That would have to change soon, but right now there was simply too much to leave up to chance. He needed to be on-hand to make sure everyone was giving a hundred percent. That was the only problem with his beloved egg-heads — they could take care of business, they certainly had the smarts for it, but they often lacked initiative and bravura. So he stayed in the Citadel, toured it every day, dropping in on the offices, issuing encouragement, holding meetings, making charts, suggesting slogans, promoting synergy.

Busy days, busy days all around; he made sure everyone was doing something for him.

Hopefully he would have the time to take a few field trips soon; meet up with folks, tour facilities, get more contributions and donations going. Maybe take Cecilia out to dinner. Unless Mary returned from Ayvarta first; Cecilia knew perfectly that Mary took precedence.

A beeping sound; he picked up the phone. “I’m ready if you are, doll,” he told his secretary.

“I’m afraid Agatha’s waiting on the line, should I put her through?” She replied.

“I’m never too busy to talk to my wife,” Lehner said, perhaps a little sharply.

Cecilia had no protests — the rules of their game had been established well ahead of time.

There was a click on the line and the dulcet voice of Agatha Lehner filled the wires.

Lehner squeezed the receiver. Agatha was always soft, at first, but she was clearly not calling to small talk. Lehner quickly found himself on the defensive as she began to probe him.

“No, dear, I don’t think I’ll be back for Givingsday, I’m sorry. I’d have loved to be there, you know I’d have loved to be there, I wanna see you, doll. You know I want to see you and I would see you and hell, I’d do more to you than just see you, if you follow me — but I can’t sweetie. I’d love to but I’m just too busy, and these Generals are turning out to be like children to me, I’ve got to keep wrangling them all the time. Believe me, I’d love to ruffle up that king-size with you. But we’ve gotta be patient, ok? I’ve got too much on my plate. We’re not kids anymore.”

He listened to the response, sighing internally. Agatha sounded upset on the phone.

“I thought you had a picture going? I thought you were filming. Had I known you’d be out on Givingsday I might have planned things different, but I thought you had a film running.”

Agatha turned from audibly upset to compliantly exasperated — she sighed into the phone.

“Oh don’t be so dramatic; no, no, we won’t be doing the military parade together remember I’m doing that one with Mary, showing support for the Ayvartan Empire and all that. After the parade, ok? We’ll have a date for just us before the end of the Hazel’s Frost, I promise.”

Agatha acknowledged and hung up; President Lehner dropped the phone on his desk.

“Had to marry the actress,” He said to himself, “legitimately didn’t see this coming.”

His agenda for the day was mostly complete. He leaned back, stretched, yawned, meditated. To hell with Agatha and her attitude — it’s not like she could spoil anything for him anyway. Everything but her was going great, and he wouldn’t focus on one miss in a salvo of hits.

President Lehner had few political worries. Thanks to a Congress in his father’s pocket twenty years prior, he was guaranteed an 8-year term in office, with nothing but a perfunctory mid-term review to threaten him. He had already served two. At the ripe age of 34, Lehner had ridden into office on exactly his youth, his vibrancy, his seemingly precocious attitude.

Achim Lehner, the man of the future! That had been one of his slogans. He positioned himself as a sharper, more flexible man than his opponents. He talked science, he talked statistics; he talked about the transformative power of knowledge, about the electric age reforms he could bring to the government. He would make government smarter, efficient — people liked that.

Lehner positioned himself as a smart kid innocent of vice who simply strode into the dance bar and reinvented the Lindenburgh right in front of all the drunk gents. People liked that!

They liked it enough to give him a crushing victory with 85% of the vote and a clear mandate.

Whether he fulfilled that mandate was for journalists and radio jockeys to argue over. It was not his concern. His government was smarter, was more efficient. He had reformed stagnant state enterprises by selling them off; he had reformed “big money” by empowering it; he had improved security by ruthlessly crushing overseas opposition in the wars he had inherited.

He had promised to stop those wars, and he did. He never promised not to have his own.

So there he sat. All he had to worry was giving his all too friendly secretary a good time.

Citadel Nocht was always gloomy, except when it was outright dark. Lehner’s office extended artfully out of the citadel structure, and through the dome roof he had a good look at the sky. There was not much to look at now — it was pitch black. He could not even see the stars.

Outside, he heard the lobby clock strike. He smiled, and waited a few moments.

Ahead of him the doors to the office opened. A woman entered, closing the door behind her, and smiling with her back to it. She had her long, blonde hair done up, with some volume on the sides framing her face and a green hairband. On her nose perched a pair of block glasses, and her lips were painted a glossy pink. She had a grey suit jacket and a grey knee-length skirt.

Lehner did not look at her reflection in the mirror. He already knew the real Cecilia Foss.

Madame Foss,” Lehner said, in a sultry voice. She was his wonderful Frankish secretary.

Bon nuit, President,” She said mischievously. She approached the desk, leaned forward.

Their lips briefly met, before gracefully parting. She sat across from him, legs up on the desk. He laughed. She grinned. It was always a game between them, nothing more. She played him.

“How’s Haus doing? Is Haus on a boat yet? I want that man on a goddamn boat.” Lehner said.

Cecilia rolled her eyes a little. “You seem to always want to talk about men in boats lately.”

Lehner laughed. “Unfortunately I can’t fly them down to the god-forsaken rock that I need taken care of. Everything I need sent to Ayvarta goes through Cissea and Mamlakha’s one good port; it is fucking dreadful. And with the way Von Sturm has been going at this all backwards I fear we’re not going to snatch Bada Aso’s port in any decent condition. So; Haus, boat?”

Oui.” Cecilia replied, crossing her arms. “Field Marshal Haus is on his way to Ayvarta.”

“Thank God. I should’ve sent him in first instead of the fucking kindergarten I’ve got.”

Teasingly Lehner pulled off the secretary’s high-heeled shoes and took her feet, kissing the toes over her seamed black tights. She grinned and giggled, running her digits slowly against his mouth. Their eyes locked as he kissed and squeezed and cracked her toes.

“Sad to see little Sturm choking up.” Cecilia said. She had an intoxicating Frank accent that made her every word sound like a sultry temptation. Lehner could listen to her all day. “For his age everyone thought him a genius. Our youngest commanding general. Too bad for him.”

Lehner raised his head from her feet, having tasted them well. He had a sly look on his face.

“I’m so disappointed, to be honest.” He squeezed Cecilia’s foot, massaging under the arch, digging in with his thumbs. She flinched a little, biting her lip, enthralled. Lehner continued. “I can understand Meist and Anschel being useless. Put together they don’t even constitute one vertebra. But Von Sturm had that fire in him, you know? I guess I misjudged him in the end.”

“Hmm,” Cecilia made only a contented noise in response. She loved it when he got her feet.

“Haus will straighten all that out though; he’ll do it. When he gets there in a week or so.”

Unceremoniously he dropped her feet, climbed on his desk and pulled Cecilia up to him by the collar and tie of her shirt, seizing her lips into his own. She threw her arms around his shoulders and pulled back on him, the two of them nearly dropping into a heap from chair and desk. They hung in a balance, knees on the edge of their support, bodies half in the air.

Breathless, clothes askew, lipstick smeared, they pulled briefly back from each other.

“How many hours we got on the itinerary?” Lehner said, grinning, breathing heavy.

“I made sure to accommodate myself well.” Cecilia replied. She pulled him back in again.

 

33rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, Central District, Quadrant “Home”

12th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

Suds and water splashed across the wooden floor and mixed with the dust seeping through a seam in the roof. Soaked through, the old floorboards turned a sickly grayish green. At one point it had been a fitting room in an old dress shop. All the lights shattered when a small bomb hit the roof and smashed the upper floor. There were still bits of bulb in the corners.

On a chair that was turning a little green as well, in the middle of this gloomy old room, a young woman rubbed a bar of soap across her arms and legs and dunked them in a big metal bucket. Orange candlelight danced over her bronzed back, her lean limbs, the slim valley of her torso. The air was still, but the wicks burned wildly, as if moved by her ragged breath. She conducted herself almost religiously, rubbing in the soap and soaking it off her skin. Her mirror was a long piece of broken glass, but that was fine. She knew well how she looked.

She washed carefully around her neck, the nape, the apple, the collarbones. She scrubbed fiercely. Days without care in the warzone had allowed a layer of grime to form like a shackle around her neck, and over her wrists. It repulsed her. Seeing people coming in and out of the damaged old shop, she had worked up the courage to ask an officer, and graciously she was afforded a makeshift washroom. She had no intention of looking or feeling like a prisoner. Not in this city, not in this country, not up in those mountains and not in her own body.

Pulling on her hair she gently dismantled the long braid that she had repeatedly tied it up into in the past few days. Once it was loose, she applied the oil, tracing it with her fingers until her mane was slick and honeyed over, and then she leaned down and submerged her head in the water. She closed her eyes and held her breath. She pulled out; she rubbed her hands on the soap and pressed them against her cheeks, against her sharp nose, against her soft lips. She thought she could taste the fat in it. Up in the mountains they used fat and plant ash for it.

Had circumstances been different, perhaps she would have still remained in the Kucha, making soap with the women of the village. She dunked her head in the water again.

Outside she heard the distinct report of a howitzer, and resolved to hurry on back out.

Corporal Gulab Kajari pulled her head out of the wash bucket and wrung out her long hair over it. Water dribbled down her brassiere and undershorts, tinged by streaks of bronze-colored oil and soap. She had put a bit of a hair-care solution through her braid and head and it was washing off. Another soldier had found the hair care bottle in a ruin, and graciously left it in here for others to use. Gulab had left some for the next person too. It was only right.

She had about 4 minutes to spare reserved just for her, before the old lady outside would come knocking, but the last thing she wanted was to be caught half-naked during an attack.

On a nearby chair there was a fresh combat uniform. There was even a new brassiere with it. She dressed eagerly, a contented sigh escaping her lips as she felt the crisp texture of her new, clean uniform, as smooth as her own clean skin under it. It was a great relief.

She did not notice anymore that her uniforms were not the muted green of the territorial army, but the black with red trim of the KVW’s elite assault forces from the 3rd Motorized Division. She buttoned up the jacket, straightened out the sleeves, and tied her hair in a braid again.

Outside, she bowed respectfully to the older woman in charge of the washroom, who smiled and waved off the need for any thanks, and she went out into the street. As she set foot on the pavement, across the road from her in a cleared-out ruin between two short buildings, a pair of howitzers fired into the distance. She looked down the road, toward the southern bend, and saw no enemies coming, but there was a truck and a tank driving down from the north, and a dozen people bringing out crates of ammunition and small arms of various sorts.

“Enemy attack! Southeast, southwest! Reinforcements needed! 3rd Line Corps form up!”

Within moments there were crowds of green uniforms on both sides of the street, gathering weapons and ammunition and dispersing behind sandbag emplacements and into various houses. Snipers started getting into position, the tank hid around a corner, and the truck unloaded a heavy howitzer that was pulled to a position a few houses farther north.

Gulab looked around, but there was no KVW around that she could ask for her specific orders. She stood in the middle of the street looking around, waiting as everyone got ready.

She felt awkward in her uniform and collar tags, all suggesting that she was an officer, idling in the middle of a fight without instructions. But everyone seemed too busy to berate her.

From around the corner of the dress shop, she saw a black and red uniform approach and felt relief. Again Sergeant Charvi Chadgura had come inadvertently to the rescue. Her somewhat curly pale hair was slightly wet, and her dark-brown skin looked clean and healthy. She too had a clean uniform — she had probably come fresh out of a different improvised shower room.

“You look clean.” Sergeant Chadgura said softly. Gulab quirked an eyebrow at her.

“Huh? I look clean? I guess I must. I mean; I just took a bath.” Gulab said, arms crossed.

Sergeant Chadgura clapped her hands a few times. “Sorry. I was trying to compliment you.”

Gulab nodded. “Alright, sorry about that. Let’s start over. Hujambo, Sgt. Chadgura.”

Sijambo.” Chadgura replied. It was the rather rare original counterpart to Hujambo; ‘how are you’ was normally answered ‘I am fine’ but in Ayvarta, over time, the response had simply been replaced by a second Hujambo. ‘How are you,’ responded to with ‘How are you?’

“I’ll take it.” Gulab said, smiling warmly. “Have we got any orders yet? Everyone’s mobilizing.”

“There is an attack but we’re not yet meeting it; we’re the mobile reserve. There’s a Half-Track around the corner here that we should group up on, in case we’re ordered to mobilize.”

Gulab nodded her head. She felt a surging in her limbs, a need to move. There was an attack! She would ride out to meet it head-on! Corporal Gulab Kajari of the elite 3rd KVW Motorized Division, would save the day like the old cavalry in the story books. Who among the close-minded old yaks in her village could have foreseen the gallantry to which she had ascended?

“Is something wrong?” Chadgura asked. She had her hands up as though about to clap.

“Nothing. Let us go ride that half-track.” Gulab said sweetly, woken from her daydream.

Around the corner a Sharabha half-track truck, armed with a heavy gun turret, rested under a tree in a grassy lot nestled across the road from the dress shop. Grey metal plates had been bolted over the thick nose and brow of the truck, around the windshield, and also along the sides to raise the armor coverage of the cargo bed. There was a refreshing breeze blowing under the shade of the tree as they approached. Gulab climbed onto the back, under the green tarp.

Inside, Gulab was surprised to find ten Svechthans in the truck alongside the plump boyish Pvt. Dabo and the stern-looking Pvt. Jande. Gulab had not seen very many of their allies from the far north. Among the small, pale, blue-haired Svechthans was a familiar face, however — Sergeant Illynichna or “Nikka,” her hair tied in an ice-blue ponytail. She was actually perhaps a few centimeters smaller than the rest of her kin aboard the half-track. Her new subordinates all had beige uniforms with blue plants, and the tallest among them was perhaps 150 centimeters tall. They had for the most part round faces, straight hair and slim builds.

Zdrastvooyte,” Sgt. Nikka said. “This time I brought along some comrades of mine.”

“All of your help is appreciated.” Chadgura said. She bowed her head politely to the newcomers. Gulab knew off-hand that the Svechthans from the Joint-Training corps had been spread around the city as artillery officers and had helped coordinate the construction of the defensive lines, but most of their offensive strength had been kept far in reserve in the north district. They were probably itching for a fight! She would have been, under the same circumstances.

Gulab looked across the faces of the Svechthan men and women. For the life of her, she could not tell their expressions apart from those on the KVW soldiers. Nikka had a fairly emphatic demeanor however, and she grinned and held up her fist over her head while speaking.

“We will do anything to defend the Bread Mother, won’t we comrades?” Nikka shouted.

Her troops nodded their heads calmly. A few smiled while doing so. This little gesture was more than enough to separate them as merely reserved folk, rather than altered like the KVW.

“Ah, we do give you guys a lot of food don’t we?” Gulab said. “I guess that’s fitting then.”

“Our languages are somewhat difficult to translate to each other. So on both sides we accepted a few unique terms. So your country’s name is the Bread Mother to me.” Nikka said.

“And what does Svechtha mean?” Gulab said. She found it hard to pronounce in Ayvartan.

“Nothing at all, in any tongue. It is a completely invented word. Our continent did not have one word but many different ones for the regions we inhabited; those were lost to colonization. In the end, as a community we created a new word to describe us, one which had no meanings that the oppressors could twist against us. One that is, in fact, hard to pronounce in Lubonin.”

“I see.” Gulab said. She did not quite understand, but she didn’t know their history well.

“If you have difficulty pronouncing that, you can also call us Narot – ‘people’.” Nikka said.

“No, I think I will try to pronounce things better from now on.” Gulab said, smiling awkwardly.

“But yes,” Sgt. Nikka turned her eyes back to Sgt. Chadgura, “we had been waiting somewhat restlessly to take a few bites out of Nocht. But I can understand you would be loath to send your allies to fight like this. We have been manning a lot of artillery and doing a lot of organizing.”

“Both are things you currently have much more experience in than the bulk of our troops.” Chadgura said. “But what the Narot truly specialize in is the forward assault, isn’t it?”

“Indeed!” Sgt. Nikka said. “We have no fear of rushing against the tall folk. Especially not the northern capitalist bastards like Nocht. We are eager to show you Ayvartans how it’s done!”

Gulab nodded her head. She sat down on the bench. Chadgura looked at the bench opposite hers and took a seat as well. Periodically they heard the sound of an artillery gun being fired in the distance — the pounding noise of the 122mm howitzer shooting, and sometimes the clink of a shell casing hitting the earth. Such sounds were just natural background noise by now.

Inside the Half-Track they had a backpack radio that had been left in a corner, and a few spare arms in a crate. Once they were settled, Pvt. Jande handed Chadgura and Gulab a pair of Nandi automatic carbines and their special 15-round magazines. These were the same short automatic rifle weapons they last used in Matumaini. Gulab noticed however that the Svechthans either carried submachine guns or bolt-action rifles in their hands. Nikka had a Laska silenced carbine. Private Jane and Dabo had old Bundu bolt-action rifles, standard-issue.

Gulab supposed she got the automatic because she was an officer and trusted with the rarer weapon, while everyone else was equipped either at random or for the sake of balance.

She unloaded her weapon completely. She looked down the sight, and pressed the trigger.

“Be careful with the automatic fire on that,” Nikka warned, “they tend to jam every so often.”

“I’ll be careful.” Gulab said. “I don’t really like the automatic fire; the magazine is too small.”

“It can be handy in a pinch. Just soften your trigger pulls so it doesn’t go off.” Nikka said.

Across the floor of the half-track bed, Sergeant Chadgura looked almost restless herself. She rubbed her hands together and kicked her legs every so often. Her eyes were half-closed and made her look drowsy. She scanned around with her eyes, but avoided moving her head.

To Gulab it looked as though there was something stewing inside the Sergeant’s head.

“Corporal Kajari,” Chadgura finally said. She clapped her hands very softly while saying it.

“Something wrong?” Gulab asked. She looked at the Sergeant — who then averted her eyes.

“I would like to discuss the conditions of my defeat in our last chess game.” She said meekly. “I thought that I played better than the first time, because you did not become aggravated.”

Or about as meekly as she could say it; perhaps Gulab was imagining her tone entirely.

Gulab raised her hands to her chin and recalled the board at the end. Ever since the battle at Penance they played at least once a day when together. She had played sloppily to try to give Chadgura a chance. Though she did not fall into a fool’s mate again like before, Chadgura played weakly and cluttered the board very fast. Against an opponent who wanted to take her out, it would have been a smorgasbord of bad trades in their favor. So it was a game that was generally difficult to remember. It was any game Gulab played against a beginner. There was, however, one detail that came to mind most strongly, near the end of the match.

“You pushed too fast and you had a bad bishop at the end of the game. You blocked it from moving anywhere when you really could have pressured me if you used it right.” Gulab said.

Chadgura snuck a peek into Gulab’s eyes and averted her gaze again. “I see.” She said.

“You lost your aggressive knights and rooks very quickly, and put yourself in a bad position in the endgame where your only aggressive pieces left were your bishops.” She started to think almost faster than she could speak — she pointed her finger strongly at Chadgura. She recalled some of the things she had been told about her own game when she was little. “You have to watch the board and think of what trades you are making. A lot of beginners underrate the bishop and leave it stuck on the board while parading their knights and rooks around.”

“Yes, I can see what you mean.” Chadgura replied. “Thank you.” She clapped her hands softly again. “I do want to be an opponent worthy of entertaining you someday, Corporal.”

Gulab blinked hard. Her thoughts ground to a halt from their previous breakneck speed.

“Yes, well, I think so,” Gulab awkardly said, “I’m a great teacher after all.” She laughed. She crossed her arms, her face frozen in a clumsy grin. “You’ll do great, kiddo, I’m sure.”

Chadgura nodded dutifully after every repetitive affirmation out of Gulab’s mouth.

Gulab was certainly not ready for someone else to become invested in Chess with her.

On the radio set a little needle in a gauge started to move, giving everyone in the vehicle something to stare at other than their awkward commanders. Sgt. Chadgura stood up, knelt down beside the radio and put the headset against her ear. For a minute or two she took the message and then set down the handset. Calmly she returned to the bench and sat again.

She cleared her throat and addressed everyone in her usual, inexpressive tone of voice.

“We have our orders: travel down to Mulga and hunt down an artillery position that is covering for the advance in the Central sector, then return to Home.” Chadgura said.

Everyone nodded their heads, and began to load their weapons and make themselves ready.

Chadgura stared at them for a moment. She raised her fist. “Let us make haste, comrades!”

Her forced emphatic voice sounded tinny and choked. Everyone stared at her momentarily.

For close to a minute their Half-Track idled under the shade without any effort to move.

“Oh.” Chadgura said aloud suddenly. “I forgot.”  She stood stiffly off the bench. Nonchalantly she stepped out of the half-track. Gulab heard her footsteps going around the side, and the twisting of the driver’s side window lever. Chadgura quickly informed him of the orders.

When she returned, she clapped her hands quickly and loudly in front of her face.

“There is a slit for talking with the driver, you know.” Nikka said. She pointed at it.

Chadgura turned her head slowly and spotted the opening on the front of the vehicle’s bed.

“I see.” She said. Dejectedly she returned to her seat and began to stare at her shoes.

Gulab leaned forward, reached out across the bed and patted the Sergeant on the shoulder.

Their bodies stirred as the Half-Track’s engine churned. The tree became gradually distant.

“I think Kajari should go up on the heavy gun.” Nikka said. “She can handle it, right?”

“It’s the same as shooting an anti-tank gun right? I got some training in that.” Gulab said. This time it was not an exaggeration or misconception — she had shot about a hundred dummy rounds on a 45mm gun for training. Every Shuja in the Kalu had to take river-defense courses where they shot light artillery across the banks. This could not have been that different!

“I have confidence in Corporal Kajari.” Sergeant Chadgura said, rubbing her hands together.

Feeling energized, Gulab stood up on the moving half-track and carefully made her way to the steps bolted to the front of the truck bed, climbing them into a squat, drum-like turret structure with 45mm gun, like the one a Goblin tank. She sat herself on a canvas and strapped herself to the turret, and looked around the interior. There was a niche carrying the gun’s high-explosive shells, each close to the size of her arm. There was a manual handle to traverse the gun turret, and a wheel for gun elevation. There was a scoped sight. It reminded her of the inside of the tank that she had stolen in Buxa the other day. Sliding plates on either side gave her some ability to look at the streets, but a periscope and gun sight were her foremost visual aids.

“Are you comfortable with your position, Corporal Kajari?” Chadgura asked from below.

“I’m fine!” Gulab said. She picked up a 45mm shell and turned around in her hands. Once they got going in earnest, she looked out the gun’s telescopic sight at their surroundings as the half-truck drove south at a brisk 60 km per hour on a slight downhill journey from “Home” block.

Mulga was a small, tight urban block to the southeast of Madiha’s House, quickly accessible through the road network leading to the school. There was a large, square U-shaped tenement building, five stories tall and surrounded by a broad street and a grassy lawn, dotted with trees and shrubbery; this building and its surroundings made up most of Mulga block. Much of the tenement had been damaged, but split down the middle by bombs it still dominated the skyline of the Central District. She could see it over the rest of the buildings as they drove downhill.

Gulab adjusted her sights, and opened the gun breech, to have it ready to fire just in case.

“Hey, don’t play around in there!” Nikka shouted. “Bozhe moi! Shoot only if ordered!”

“Yes ma’am.” Gulab replied sourly. She closed the breech again and put the round back.

“Eyes ahead, Corporal. We must assume the enemy has penetrated Mulga.” Chadgura said.

They would have their answer to that soon enough; Gulab had it in her sights already.

As their half-track rounded a bend in the road toward the large tenement Gulab saw some of the territorial army soldiers rushing forward. They drew up their rifles and opened fire across the green. Passing the buildings she took in the full view of an all-out firefight. On the margins of the tenement’s grounds, squadrons territorial army troops scrambled for cover in bushes and behind trees, behind playground objects and benches and fire hydrants. Positions across the street from the tenement opened machine gun fire on the building and the interior green.

Opposite these maneuvers, Nochtish soldiers ran out of the wide pass-through hallway through the front of the tenement building, pausing to take shots on the landing before hurtling forward off the steps and behind the low concrete walls of a square fountain basin just off the facade. From blown-out windows and half-collapsed fire-escape walkways machine gunners and riflemen took shots at advancing Ayvartan troops, the Norglers’ loud chopping noise dominating the atmosphere as its gunfire slashed across the green and the concrete.

The Half-Track stopped just around the corner, taking partial cover near the dilapidated flank of a nearby civil canteen building. A soldier from the territorial army ran past and boarded the half-track. Gulab could hear him speaking with Chadgura about their plight in the area.

“…we thought the 3rd Line Corps could contain them in the east, but there too many men and they are starting to probe every ancillary street they can. That’s how they ended up in Mulga of all places. Most of our strength is deployed on the main streets, so I don’t have much here–“

Chadgura interrupted the man. “Do not fear, we will help you. Corporal,” she shouted up to the turret, “the Nochtish attack may possess a greater scope than we feared. We will provide fire support for the 4th Division’s local counterattack in Mulga. Fire at your discretion.”

“I’m ready if you all are.” Gulab replied. She opened her little windows and pulled out the same shell she was playing with, opened the breech, punched the shell into place and locked the breech. This action made distinctive noises — everyone below could tell what she was doing.

The squadron dismounted, and at Nikka’s insistence the Svechthan soldiers took the lead. The Half-Track cruised forward out of cover and onto the street, and the Svechthans crept down the side of the half-track, opening fire on the Nochtish soldiers visible across the green. As the Half-Track drove onto the street and past the benches and bushes, machine gun rounds pelted the engine block and the vehicle halted. The Svechthans ducked beside the half-track.

Devushka!” She heard Nikka shout outside. “There’s a Norgler, second floor, to the left!”

Gulab twisted the turret clumsily around. She heard gunshots from her side and checked her window briefly — Nikka and her troops had taken a pair of men apart for trying to approach and throw one of those ridiculous anti-tank canvas-winged mines the Nochtish loved so much.

Around her the territorial army troops held in position. Fire flew from all sides. Rifle troops took snap shots out of cover and threw themselves on the ground to buy time to aim. It was sheer volume that killed here. Men and women ran through individual bullets, each hitting the floor or a taking a chunk out of a piece of cover; but in the dozens, lucky shots were sooner scored. Even as she traversed there were casualties. She could not pay heed to every fallen comrade or enemy; her vision tunneled, and she could only focus on the objectives given to her.

Gulab raised the elevation of the gun. On the second floor window she saw the Norgler shooter, his fire trailing toward the Half-Track and then across the street to ruined shop, where a woman with an LMG had been dueling with him. Gulab sighted him, waited for the flash to confirm, and then pulled the firing mechanism. She felt the breech slide, and a slight force feeding back across the turret. Her shell flew through the window and exploded in the room.

There were no more flashes through the smoke. She had either gotten him or suppressed him.

The Half-Track started to move again, asserting its armored bulk closer into the green, all bulletproof glass and 10mm steel. Around them the territorial army soldiers were emboldened by the support. Two squadrons of twenty or so men and women moved forward from the playground and from the bushes, advancing across the open terrain into the firing line.

There was an immediate casualty — a woman was hit in the stomach as she left the cover of a bench and exposed herself. Fire from her comrades forced the attackers to duck again behind the fountain. The Nochtish men huddled in front of the building facade and in the pass-through — a long, tall hallway leading through the building and out the other end of the block.

Gulab scarcely noticed this. Her turret was still turned skyward when she fired again.

She put a shell into a fire escape, shattering the floor out from under a few grenadiers jumping out of a window. Those that did not die from the pressure or the fragments fell from the third floor to their deaths. She put another round into the window itself; a man with a Norgler had appeared there just in time to see his allies fall. She did not see what happened to him.

But she heard no more immediate machine gun fire coming from the Nochtish corner.

Molodets!” Nikka shouted. “Now put a few into that pass-through in front of the building!”

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab shouted out the sliding window. She set the turret back to neutral position.

She reached out her arms and scooped several rounds, dropping them on her lap. Taking a deep breath, she punched the first shell in and fired; the spent casing crashed down the stairs as it was discarded, and Gulab quickly loaded the next round. She fired as fast as she could. Her first shot hit the corner and exploded, sending fragments down on the men hiding behind the fountain. Many were cut and wounded, she could see them shake and thrash around in fear and pain. Then she put the second and third rounds right into the hall. Landers ran out under a spray of steel, ducking their heads and hurtling headfirst into the green, diving away in desperation. There was not a man without red slashes across his shoulders or back or along his arms or cheeks. Her fourth and fifth rounds hit the same places, flushing out a dozen men.

Nikka’s Strelky were more than happy to welcome them. The Svechthans rushed fearlessly ahead, even as intermittent Nochtish gunfire flew their way. Submachine gunners led the attack, rapping their fingers on the triggers and unleashing careful bursts of fire on the men as they escaped the hall. Many imperialists were stricken dead in mid-dive, falling on their faces behind cover never to get up. Nikka herself put a round through the head of a man in mid-run down the stairs, and quickly shifted her attention’s to the stomach of a second man within seconds. With disciplined, agile bounds they pushed right into the enemy’s line.

Gulab traversed the cannon again as fast as she could. Her next shell fell right on the laps of several men huddling behind the stairway up into the tenement’s ground floor. Its concrete steps had defended them from the Svechthans; the 45mm shell exploded behind it in a grizzly column of smoke and steel that carried with it blood and flesh. There was little left behind.

Ayvartan Shuja and Svechthan Strelky reached the hallway and Gulab held her fire. Those with submachine guns led the way, and Gulab saw vicious flashes of gunfire through the windows along the building’s facade. Sergeant Nikka ran up the steps and ducked around the corner of the hallway, peering in to take careful, practiced shots. Gulab saw a man’s head burst like a pale pustule through one of the windows. She saw various darker heads take his place indoors.

Patrolling soldiers moved on to the second floor. Gulab waited anxiously. She saw Nikka through a gaping hole in the building’s facade, walking carefully forward with her rifle up. She shouted something and ducked — from behind her several shots traced the length of the room. Nikka rose again and signaled an all-clear. Territorial army soldiers moved in her place.

There was no more gunfire. A Svechthan soldier ran back to the Half-Track from the building’s front, and climbed aboard. From the opposite direction Gulab saw a platoon of territorial army soldiers running in from side streets, running around the sides of the parked Half-Track and stepping through the pass-through hallway, penetrating deeper into the tenement structure.

Maybe fifty Nochtish corpses and a few dozen Avyartan ones were visible from her vantage.

Below her, Sergeant Chadgura appeared under the turret hole so Gulab could see her.

“Corporal Kajari, it appears the building’s been reclaimed for now.” Chadgura said. “Good job. Sergeant Nikka believes we should leave this to the comrades of 4th Division.”

Gulab sighed with relief. It looked like the situation was over for the moment. They had won, and she thought she could feel each individual ligament in her arms throbbing and twisting. Nobody could maintain a steady rate of fire for very long, even on a light gun like the 45mm.

“Yes ma’am. I pray to the Ancestors they will be able to hold the fort there.”

“Oh, I had thought that you prayed to the Spirits.” Sergeant Chadgura asked curiously.

“Ah, my village has a strange syncretic religion. The Ancestors were seen as more war-worthy; the Diyam’s light was for healing and fertility; the Spirits took care of a lot of things. Over the ages a lot of different people have ended up seeking refuge in the Kucha, you know?”

Chadgura nodded quietly, a dull expression in her eyes. Perhaps she did not understand it.

Sergeant Nikka returned shortly. She slapped her hand on the front armor of the half-track’s bed, as if to get Gulab’s attention in the turret. Gulab looked down the turret hole.

“Well met, Gulachka! You cooked those imperialist bastards to a fine state of doneness!”

“Do you mean dead?” Gulab asked, not quite getting the joke entangled in those words.

Nikka simply grinned, and took her seat again out of Gulab’s sight. Gulab did notice that her nickname had changed again all of a sudden with Nikka’s newfound good humor.

Ey, Sgt. Chadgura; one of your good territorial army men who was pushed up to Mulga from Katura just a block down, thinks we might find that artillery there.” Sgt. Nikka said. “He says the Nochtish pigs overtook him there and he retreated because he only had a squadron.”

“We only have a squadron too.” Sergeant Chadgura said. “How many did he think are there?”

“Two platoons. We can take them!” Nikka replied. “Gulachka should have ammo left.”

“About twenty rounds or so I think.” Gulab shouted down at them from the turret.

“You think?” Sergeant Nikka shouted.

“I know! Jeez! I can count them for you!” Gulab shouted back.

Chadgura clapped her hands loud. Everyone else quieted.

“I’m not convinced that we can fight that many.” She said.

“We won’t fight them all! We have a vehicle, tovarisch. We will rush right to the artillery, take it all out and then run away again. This is a scouting vehicle isn’t it? It has the speed.”

Sergeant Chadgura quieted for a moment. Gulab could imagine her fidgeting in some way.

“Very well. But I’ll quite readily abort if we are overwhelmed.” Chadgura finally said.

The Half-Track got going again, and Gulab saw more territorial army folks trickling in around the tenement in their twos and threes, remnants of squadrons that had once occupied all the periphery of the home sector and now had to plug a breach. The KVW continued their hunt by taking a tight eastward bend away from the tenement. At first they drove at a mere 30 km/h. Gulab’s eyes sought for contacts — during the first few minutes of the drive at least.

She pulled on her shirt collar. It was sweltering hot inside the turret, and very little breeze got through the windows. She looked around at the tiny wisps of heat playing over the demolished structures at their flanks, and at the clear, sunny skies. She almost preferred the storm. Her uniform felt very stifling. Around her the walls were turning hot. Even the eyepiece of her sight and the gun controls were growing hot enough to make their operation uncomfortable.

Sighing she continued to peer out the windows. The sight was giving her a headache anyway.

Something caught her attention then. She stuck her head out the turret and shielded her eyes.

Black objects hurtling through the sky, several of them. She had a good guess about their identity from their trajectories. Low velocity shells from howitzers, lumbering across the air at high angles before coming down on some unlucky soul and completing their journey.

There were dozens of them flying out toward “Home” sector. Maybe even to Madiha’s House.

“Ma’am, I think the enemy’s artillery is definitely south of here.” Gulab shouted.

“We’ve got a map open.” Chadgura said from below. “There’s an open-air Msanii lot not far from here. We can try to break through to it — it is the best spot for artillery in Katura.”

“Acknowledged!” Gulab said. She then heard noises below. “Uh, what’s happening?”

Suddenly the tarp flew off the top of the half-track bed and soared away with the breeze.

She turned around and opened the turret’s rear sliding window in confusion. All of the tarp clasps had been undone and canvas had been peeled off the sides of the vehicle bed. She found Nikka and three Strelky standing up the gun crate laid on the bench, and on the radio box. They were leaning over the sides of the bed’s armored walls to shoot at the street, and without these aids they would have been able to do so as easily. Meanwhile Chadgura, Dabo and Jande stood near the open back of the half-track’s bed and watched the rear with their weapons up.

Gulachkaface forward, we have got company!” Nikka shouted, raising a fist at the window.

Gulab spun around back to her sight. The Half-Track accelerated. On the winding street ahead she saw grey-uniformed men with rifles bounding from between buildings and through the rubble collecting on the sides of the street. The Half-Track rushed past an enemy squadron and took a corner; an anti-tank shell soared miraculously past the vehicle as it slid to a halt.

At a hastily assembled checkpoint dead ahead from the corner, a PAK 26 37mm anti-tank gun zeroed in. Three men hid behind its gun shield and hastily loaded another round.

“I’m not giving you the chance!” Gulab shouted, arms growing sore as she loaded and shot.

Her turret lobbed the 45mm high-explosive shell directly against the anti-tank gun. Smoke and fire and fragments blew over the gun shield and the men fell back; those that were not left faceless were left headless. Behind her she heard rifles and submachine gun fire. The Nochtish squadron they bypassed must have been running back. She started to turn the turret around–

“Eyes forward Gulachka! We’ll handle the streets! Focus on breaking through!” Nikka shouted.

The Half-Track broke off abruptly, tearing down the road. Gulab turned the hard turret crank again and returned the gun to the neutral position. Their driver rushed forward, and instead of taking the next corner he squeezed into a side street between a pair of buildings, smashed through a fence, and broke out into the next block. When their wheels hit tar again they had overtaken a Nochtish squadron — a dozen men with a machine gun, five others setting down a pair of mortars, right in the middle of the street. They looked over their shoulders in disbelief.

At Gulab’s command the turret gun bellowed, launching an explosive round into their midst.

She barely saw the resulting carnage. The half-track’s wheels screeched against the pavement.

Bursts of gunfire struck the turret and the armored bed. Shots were fired from buildings and alleys and from behind rubble as they tore past scattered positions. Building speed the Half-Track took one last corner to the Katura Msanii, sliding almost entirely off the road and into the street as the tracked half of the vehicle struggled to complete the turn. Little speed was lost and the vehicle hurtled forward and downhill. The Msanii was in sight — a fenced-off area of green lot with a pair of trees and some benches, where kiosks of hand-made goods could be bartered, traded or sold as was Ayvartan tradition even before the era of the Empire.

Six 10.5 cm LeFH howitzers in the middle of the Msanii lobbed shells relentlessly over Katura and Mulga as if trying to shoot down the sky. A half-dozen shells soared upward and arced down onto Home sector; smoke drifted skyward from afar, thickening further with each volley. Nochtish defenders spotted the Half-Track careening toward them, but there was nowhere to take cover. Artillery crews ducked behind their guns, while a dozen riflemen stood stalwart in the way and shot desperately into the armored engine block and bulletproof windshield.

Gulab pulled the firing pin and put a shell several meters behind the defenders. She did not hit, the explosion caught nobody and the fragments fell short — but the men threw themselves down on the ground. She tried adjusting her gun, but the second round overflew the lot.

She could not keep up anymore with the vehicle’s speed. It hit the foot of the shallow hill down onto the msanii’s lot and bolted toward off the road heedless of the obstacles before it.

The Half-Track tore through the fence and crushed three men under its wheels and tracks.

It smashed into one of the howitzers; She heard a flare-up of decidedly one-sided gunfire as the vehicle’s engine cut off. Gulab undid the buckles holding her to the turret and slid down the ladder. Outside, the Strelky coolly approached and held up the Nochtish artillery crews.

During the rush, Gulab had hardly been able to pay attention to it, but now she saw the Half-Track had taken quite a beating. Repeated bursts of machine gun fire had pitted and banged up the engine compartment. There were tongues of black smoke playing about the vehicle’s nose, not a good sign. Their driver sat dejectedly behind glass cracked so badly that it was a wonder he could see where he was going at all. There were holes in the side plates of the bed.

“We cannot risk going back the way we came.” Chadgura said aloud as if to herself. She addressed Gulab when she saw her outside the vehicle. “We will go through the tunnels.”

There were almost 20 men on the site, quickly collected into a big bunch along the green.

Brechen!” Nikka shouted at them. She gestured toward the decrewed howitzers.

“Don’t shoot.” One man said, in incredibly poor Ayvartan. “Don’t shoot ours; please.”

Halt die klappe! Zerstören die haubitzen!” Nikka shouted at them again.

There was abrupt movement at the back of the group; someone tried to reach for a pistol to shoot Nikka. He shoved aside another man and quickly received several more pistol bullets than he would have released, and fell onto a rapidly growing pool of his own blood at the feet of his men. Judging by his lapel, he was their artillery officer, fed up with his men’s capitulation.

All the other captured men raised their hands higher in response. Nikka approached them.

Zerteilen!” She shouted at the men, and once again, she pointed them to the howitzers. They seemed to understand her, whatever it was she said. From their satchels the men produced small explosives, and sealed them into the breeches of each gun. After a moment they detonated inside the chambers and ruined them. Smoke and flame blew from each barrel.

Nikka shouted more Nochtish at them; while the Strelky menaced the artillerymen with their submachine guns, the captives emptied all of their pockets and quickly stripped their uniforms and pouches. Under threat of violence the naked men ran as fast as they could out of the msanii and down the street — a token burst of inaccurate gunfire gave them sound to fear as they fled.

“If this Half-Track still worked we could have taken a few of them prisoner.” Nikka lamented.

“I was expecting you would kill them all.” Gulab said, shrugging her shoulders.

“We need to conserve ammunition.” Nikka said, waving her hand dismissively.

“Well, if you say so. However, we should go. Please follow me.” Sergeant Chadgura said.

All the Nochtish troops they had rushed past before could not have been far; the assault squadron detonated emergency satchels under the half-track and in the turret, ruining the vehicle and its arms so that the enemy could not capture it. They handed the driver a pistol, and he followed them without a hint of mourning for his vehicle. Then they left the scene, running across the Msanii, darting over the fence. Chadgura had a map open as they ran.

“This house further south has a cellar that should have a connection to the tunnels.” She shouted. “If it’s been built over recently we can use a satchel to blow open a hole.”

They found the house, an old baked brick building. Its door had been thrown open, but there was nobody inside. They hurried inside, guns pointing in every direction. A recessed stairway led down into the cellar. No sooner had they begun their descent, that they heard tracks and saw the shadows of vehicles along the interior wall. They hurried down into the dark.

When men set foot into the house minutes later, they shouted “Clear!” and left it behind.

Underground, Chadgura and Gulab traded their guns for electric torches. Damp and humid and just a little too short for her to comfortably stand in, Gulab hated every step of this tunnel. Her father had said no son of his would be anything but a hunter; despite all the firefights Gulab felt more like a beleaguered sewer crawler with every step she took, head crouched, torch forward. For once she envied the Svechthan’s height — they walked comfortably in this place.

Everyone was silent at first, but the tunnels were so featureless that they could practically feel the silence around them like a maddening toxic fume. Nikka was the first to grow restless and speak up. Gulab thought she could hear the momentary desperation in her first few syllables.

“Gulachka, I must say, I underestimated you. You have a real killer instinct.” She said. “I dare say you are a natural with weapons. You may have messed around with that tank, but you got it moving and got us out; and you handled that turret very skillfully. Maybe your place is a gunner and not a driver ey? Ha ha! Do you have a secret technique you could teach us mortals?”

Gulab laughed. She took all of that as a joke and thought that Nikka could not possibly be serious, but it also tickled her ego and she quite easily played along with the flattery.

“I’ve been shooting all my life.” Gulab said. “Slingshots, hunting rifles, etc; it was not anything natural, I trained hard and I transformed myself through struggle into the person that I am today! Ouch!” She hit her head a loose brick in the ceiling, just a little lower than rest.

“Be careful.” Chadgura said in a low voice. She rubbed Gulab’s head briefly.

“What brought you into the military? Was it this transformative struggle?” Nikka asked.

“I suppose; it was my father trying to stomp me into a perfect son.” Gulab said irritably. She gently took Chadgura’s hand and put it back down from her head. “It is hard to get out of a dumpy village in the middle of the mountains, until a military recruiter comes around.”

“Familial troubles? I understand. I’m the 11th of 13 children.” Nikka said. “We tend to treat boys and girls the same too in Svechtha. But my father was very old and not too strict. He worked in a collective farm, one of the few in our nation. But farm work was repetitive and made me restless, so I joined the army. Then I got sent here to melt in the hot sun, ha ha.”

“I am an only child. I joined the army foolishly.” Chadgura interjected. “And I am frankly confused as to how any human being can have thirteen children. It seems overambitious.”

“Mother was powerful. How were your parents, Chadgura?” Nikka asked. “How would they feel about you crawling in these sewers to escape the pursuit of several hundred armed men?”

“They would probably tell me my hand clapping is annoying them.” Chadgura replied. “They might also ask me if I intended to marry any of those men someday and become decent.”

Gulab patted Chadgura in the back again. Everyone quieted for the rest of the journey. The tunnel was cramped enough as it was without their awkwardness floating in their limited air. Gulab thought that if anything this exchange just made Nikka even more restless.

West-Central Sector, Koba and 1st Block

After Matumaini Kern had waited and he had sought prophecy in people’s faces, in radio messages, in the storm rains and in the cries of men driven to panic by traumatic wounds. When he heard about Operation Surge he got his sign — the end of him was quite near.

Now in the middle of the rallying area he could only wait anxiously for marching orders.

For two days the machinery of Nocht shifted its great bulk, cramming as much of its firepower as could be made available in Bada Aso into three starting attack points that would eventually branch into a dozen advancing lanes as Operation Surge got underway. Every truck and horse that could be found was enlisted to carry men and pull weapons and supplies to the western, central and eastern rallying areas. Each rallying area spanned a few blocks in its third of the city with easy access to various streets and alleys leading north into the city’s depths.

A common “block” in Bada Aso was one to three kilometers long, and as one neared the city center, the number, size and purpose of the buildings along a block became less definitive. As one got further inward, the city became older, and one saw far less of the carefully planned outer blocks, with their large central tenements serviced by an outer ring of canteens, coop and state goods shops, post offices, administrative buildings, workplaces such as factories and civil services such as hospitals and ferry stations. Along the edge of Koba block, an ancestral two-story house stood next to a drug dispensary for the state healthcare authority, itself next to a cooperative cobbler’s workshop, next to a spirit shrine in a grassy plot, and several houses. A gloomy alleyway wide enough for a small car separated a pair of houses.

Across the street there were several houses, a civil canteen, and a playground for children.

This was all perhaps half a kilometer worth of roadside. But it went on in that exact way upstreet as far as the eye could see. Buildings small and large without any symmetry.

Between the two streets was a road perhaps 10 meters across, if that. It was fairly tight.

To the landsers of the 6th Grenadier division, Koba and 1st Block was “Koba Sector” and there were no blocks. On their maps the Central-West was just a 15 kilometer area they needed to cut through. These buildings were potential strongholds. Whether something was once a shop or a place or worship or a house made no difference. It had walls and windows. It was just dangerous. Kern certainly didn’t think of their purpose — to him, they were just ‘buildings’.

Was this what they called the Fog of War? Would he slowly lose all recognition of his surroundings until there were only shapes? Rectangles sprouting from the ground, nondescript? What would his fellow soldiers become? What would the enemy?

A strong breeze blew through the streets, but it did little to ease the hot, humid weather. He almost felt steam coming off of his pale body, his short, straight golden hair. He shouldn’t be here, he thought. He was the farthest thing apart from the people born to live in this place. Oberon was temperate, and a gentle coolness always ran through it, even in the summer. That was the proper place for scrawny, shiftless men, milking cows, picking veggies, tilling fields.

Kern ran his hands across his face anxiously. He was a good looking boy. He could have found a nice girl and gotten some of his father’s land. What a fool he had been to leave the farms!

When the breeze passed, he could hear again the sounds of struggling engines and clanking tracks. With every vehicle that came and went he knew that the hour drew nearer and nearer.

Kern was stationed alongside a company of a few hundred men. They were all huddled in a cluster of buildings closer to the front than the rest of the regiment in the rallying area. They would be going in first. Kern saw a dozens of groups of men idling around nearby.

Far behind him he had watched transports come and go, moving the regiment forward. A truck or a horse wagon would bring in a squadron of men and an artillery gun, maybe a few crates, and pull up in front of a big church one street down that was selected as a storage point for Koba. Men would unhitch the gun and pull it away, and the soldiers would be pointed to their battalion or company. They would form up and wait for commands. Some of them had been waiting for a day now, idling between orders to crack open rations or to lie for a few hours.

There were men smoking, playing cards, cleaning their rifles. He wondered what was going through their heads. Kern couldn’t busy himself much. He was part of the Combat Command HQ Platoon for the battalion. He stood in attention, with his back to a half-broken electric post, hands in his pockets, counting the trucks. Captain Aschekind leaned against a wall with his head bowed low, his thick arms crossed over his chest, a portable radio on hand.

“Do you drink or smoke, Private 1st Class Beckert?” Captain Aschekind asked.

Kern nearly jumped from being so suddenly addressed. He had nearly forgotten he had received the meaningless appellation “1st Class” four days ago. It was meant to bolster his morale, but it only made him feel even more inadequate in the face of titans like Aschekind.

“No sir.” Kern said. He felt a tremble in his lips that felt all too noticeable.

Aschekind did not comment on it, if he heard it at all. “There is no shame in it.”

Kern wondered what he would have said instead if he had replied in the affirmative.

“Yes sir. My father was a mean drunk and a mean smoker. I don’t want to be either.”

Aschekind nodded his head solemnly. “Do you fear for today, private?”

“No sir.” Kern replied without thinking. If he was honest with himself, he was anxious.

“Alcohol or a cigar keeps you upright and moving; but so can the force of your will.”

It’s not like Kern would know — he had never tried either thing in his life. “Yes sir.”

“Choices that we make without even thinking about them. You might drink to stay awake just like you run to stay alive. There are many alternatives; but you don’t always live after.”

“Have you ever made a wrong choice, sir?” Kern asked. He nearly interrupted the Captain.

Captain Aschekind raised his head and stared at Kern with a strikingly neutral expression. All of his intensity seemed momentarily gone — there was only an eerie hollowness left there.

“I have experience in making choices that took from me more than they gave.” He said.

He adjusted his peaked hat and left the wall, walking past Kern, raising his radio to his head.

Captain Aschekind turned to face down the street at the assembled men. A few turned or raised their heads to stare, but most barely acknowledged him at all until he addressed them.

“We’re moving!” He bellowed. “Company, start walking. Keep your eyes open. Our combat patrol did not return. We will reconnoiter by ourselves, in force. Stay alert and march! “

At first only a few men responded; they shouldered their packs, affixed bayonets and started marching north up the street and road in a loose formation. They were leaves falling from a tree. Few at first glance — but slowly the wind of war peeled more and more of them, taking them from their cards, their food, their cigars, their game boards, their jovial conversation. Recognition dawned upon them one by one, and the entire company marched off to war.

Aschekind did not drive them forward. He only stood and he stared as they passed him. When he started walking, so did Kern, joining the rest of the headquarters platoon in the rear.

On a marching stride, a kilometer went by in forty minutes or so. Certainly trained athletes could clear a kilometer very quickly. An athlete did not have to walk over rubble, did not have to check every window and door an alley around them for contacts, stop and start whenever they thought they saw a person dressed differently than them. They did not have to account for the slowest among their number, walking at a pace and formation that protected their precious machine gunners and AT snipers. They did not travel with 25 kg of equipment.

As part of the Headquarters platoon, Kern carried a backpack radio that added 10 kg.

For thirty minutes there was nothing worth breaking up the march. Then from the front of the march, one of the forward squadrons called for a halt of the column. Their platoon then sent these men to the rear to speak to the command platoon. Through their binoculars they had seen movement ahead of them on the road. Aschekind sent them back out to the front.

Within moments the column broke up — two platoons formed up side-by-side, 50-75 men on the left and right streets along the road. Squadrons of 8-10 men advanced north, each separated from another by a few meters for protection. A hundred meters from the leading elements the third platoon followed, and then the headquarters, ten meters behind them.

Kern felt out of place in this movement of men. He felt sluggish and unprepared for this.

“Run forward, stay behind the front line. Keep in contact.” Aschekind said. Around him, a pair of standard mortars were being positioned on the road by the rest of the HQ platoon.

Kern thought he was talking to the air at first, but he reflexively saluted, while his mind turned over the words like a poisoned caramel in an unwary tongue. Once he understood what the Captain meant, and to whom it was addressed, Kern dropped the extra mortar ammo he had been carrying for the HQ platoon, and ran past the rear platoon, a terrible sensation in his stomach. He took to the right side of the street, and approached the assault force there.

Ahead of him the men broke into a run. He heard the first cracks of enemy gunfire.

Several hundred meters ahead were two houses built across the street from each other, with third stories that caused them to dominate the low-lying urban landscape of the lower Koba sector. From those windows came the first shots. Streaks of machine gun fire and bolt-action rifle fire flew over and around the platoons as they charged. Each house attacked the street diagonal to it, and the enfilade fire took its first casualties almost immediately. Kern saw a few stragglers at the back of the columns hit by fire that had soared over the advance troops.

From his vantage on the side of the street he could not see the enemy, just their handiwork.

But there was no panic, except in Kern’s rushing, flailing mind. Meticulously the men of the two forward platoons dispersed into and around several houses even as the bullets fell around them in vicious bursts and streaks. Kern swallowed hard and ran in with the closest group into an alleyway about 100 meters from the houses. The Ayvartans did not let up — enemy fire bit into the corner of their building and streaked across the street just outside their alley.

“Call it in!” A man shouted at Kern over the continuous gunfire from the houses.

Call it in? Words came and went through his ears, barely registering at first.

Realization; he was talking about the mortars. Kern picked up the radio handset, but then he froze. As the observer and point of contact he was supposed to feed a set of map and landmark coordinates back to the company’s mortar team, but he forgot entirely what he was supposed to say. Lips quivering, he stared helplessly at the nearby squad leader, denoted as such by the pins on his uniform. Shaking his head the squad leader, a tall, lightly bearded older man, physically turned him around and picked up the radio handset from his backpack to speak.

“This is Schloss, calling in a fire mission. Yes chief he’s right here. I don’t know.” Schloss paused and then quickly recited a string of numbers and letters. He put back the handset.

Within moments they heard a series of blasts in quick succession farther up the street.

“Listen kid,” Schloss turned him around again. “I’m not mad at you yet, but it’s getting close. If running’s all you’re good for then run close to me so I can use that radio when I need it. Ok?”

Kern almost felt like weeping. He nodded affirmatively. He pulled the shoulder strap of his rifle over his head and readied the weapon in his hands. Seconds later they heard another round of blasts. At once the bullets stopped falling on the street outside their alley, and the squadron broke into a run, dashing out into the street. Ahead of them mortar fire crashed over the two tall houses, pounding on the roof. A cloud of smoke and dust descended over the high windows.

As they ran, figures in the shadows of the ground floor doors and windows launched sporadic bursts of rifle fire their way, hitting the street and flying past their helmets with a whining sound. Kern struggled against his instinct to duck somewhere — there was not a lot of fire with the machine guns suppressed, and yet he was terrified. He recalled the volume of fire in Matumaini, and this was nothing like it, but it only took one bullet. Just one to kill him.

He could run 50 meters in less than ten seconds; bullets traveled that in less than a second.

Schloss’ squadron bolted ahead, and with titanic effort Kern bolted with them. They closed to within a dozen meters of the enemy before their mortar fire lapsed, and the machine gun fire from the upper floors resumed. Schloss pointed everyone to the ruins of a nearby building. One remaining north-facing wall and corner provided enough protection from the second and third story gunners in the strongholds ahead. Inside the ruin there was only a mound of rubble. Men started climbing it. Standing at its peak they could peer over the remains of the wall.

Across the road Kern saw men carrying a Norgler machine gun and settling atop the remains of a collapsed wall. No sooner had the shooter braced the gun that a bullet speared him through the neck, and he fell forward over the rubble and into the street, thrashing to his death.

“Five men up there, three men on what remains of the door!” Schloss shouted. He climbed up the mound, and beckoned Kern to go up as well. Kern peeled himself away from the doorway and the corpse; he climbed over the rocks, some of which still had rusty metal rebar going through them. They crouched along the corner, where the rubble formed something of a platform. One man put his helmet on his rifle and raised it over the wall. Nothing.

“They’re not looking this way. We’re not a machine gun squad.” said the grenadier.

“On my mark everyone rise, shoot into the window, and hide again.” Schloss said.

“Which window?” Kern asked. He had not gotten a good enough look at the houses.

“Corner window, closest to the street, facing us. Second floor.” Schloss shouted. Ayvartan machine gun fire grew vicious again and he had to raise his voice to be heard clearly.

Kern nodded. He tightened his grip on his rifle and steadied his feet, waiting for the signal.

Schloss nodded his head, and all at once the fireteam rose over the wall. Kern saw the window, and he thought he saw a shadow in the faint smoke and scarcely thinking he opened fire.

All at once the high windows on both houses exploded. Smoke and dust and a brief burst of fire blew from inside the windows, and the walls crumbled, launching debris onto the streets.

Kern stared at his rifle in disbelief as the house was wiped from the world before him.

Plumes of smoke and dust rose from the structure. Kern heard a noise as something flew in overhead. Explosive shells; hurtling in from farther south they battered the buildings into chunks. Guns and mortars pounded the roof and walls until they sank, crushing the Ayvartans in the rockfall; ceilings and floors collapsed and walls folded out onto the street. Debris flew into nearby buildings and the grenadiers closest to the building hunkered in cover.

“Too close! Too close!” the men shouted at nobody who could hear as the debris fell.

Men abandoned their forward positions and ran back down the street to escape the concrete shrapnel, but the violence had already peaked. Rubble settled on the street and the guns and mortars concluded their fire missions. There was only sifting dust and billowing clouds.

Schloss stood up over the wall and peered out at the carnage. Schloss waved his men down, and the soldiers atop the mound slid off the rubble and regrouped, vacating the ruin together.

On the street, the wind blew away the murky air. Kern heard the chugging of engines in the distance and the whining of tracks; he looked over his shoulder through parting clouds.

At the rear of the company, third platoon left the road and stood on the street, sidelined by a platoon of M3 Hunter assault guns advancing to the front. Each of these vehicles was a self-propelled 7.5 cm howitzer, and the ruins ahead proved the strength of their massed fire. Because of the tight road, they advanced in a box formation, two rows of two tanks followed by the command vehicle. Even this arrangement occupied most of the road. Company foot soldiers stuck close to the buildings, giving the machines space as they moved through the block.

Once the machines had gotten clear of the men, third platoon moved up to where the fighting had taken place, and Aschekind reappeared. Smoke and dust blew in from the ruins ahead, travelling on the strong afternoon breeze. Aschekind did not even blink as he walked.

“We will be following behind the tanks.” Aschekind said aloud. “I want third platoon directly behind them, and second platoon following within fifty meters. First platoon, take the rear.”

Only after listening to the Captain’s orders did Kern realize how quiet everything had become.

Kern could have sworn that hundreds of landsers must have died from the fire and carnage, but with the benefit of silence, he found that only a dozen men had fallen, and a few survived. He looked at his surroundings  as though the block had been taken from him and replaced.

Idle thoughts dropped heavily onto his consciousness from someplace unknown, and all at once he felt the fatigue that his anxiety and adrenaline had suppressed. He shivered without cold.

All of the shooting and killing and he had not even gotten a good look at the Ayvartans.

Fighting at these ranges that made him question if he was engaging human beings at all.

They barely needed to see him in order to kill him; he barely saw them before they died.

“Move ahead with these men,” Aschekind instructed Kern, “and stay behind the tanks.”

The Captain’s hand fell heavily on his shoulder. Kern felt almost as if being shoved forward.

“Yes sir.” Kern replied. He saluted, and beside him, Schloss saluted as well, acknowledging.

Joining the rest of the mostly-intact second platoon, Kern advanced about sixty or seventy meters behind the assault guns. They moved between the rubble of the stronghold houses and continued up Koba street. Most of the buildings were low-lying, and every taller building seemed like the ominous pillars of a great gate in the distance. The M3 Hunters raised their guns whenever they neared a building that possessed a second story, ready to flatten it.

The M3 Hunters crossed the shadows of several buildings without incident. Whenever Kern walked past however he felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. He had heard the Ayvartans had tunnels, and that they would often reappear suddenly in buildings thought cleared.

There was a reason their recon squadron had never returned to report to them. Would they find those six men dead somewhere ahead, their sacrifice forewarning the Company of danger?

Or did they just disappear into the haphazard blocks of buildings, never to be found?

Another kilometer behind them, no contacts. Everyone peered ahead expectantly. Atop the tank there was a man with binoculars, one of the vehicle commanders. He played with the lenses, magnifying. Every so often he waved his hand, and everyone continued to march.

They had a sight-line about 800 meters forward — Koba, like a lot of Bado Aso’s streets and blocks, was tight, flat, and fairly straight. In Bada Aso the chief limitations faced by soldiers with otherwise good eyesight were rubble and ruins obstructing the way, and the haze of dust, heat and humidity. Even with binoculars it was difficult to acquire a reliable picture any further ahead of the column than 800 meters to a kilometer, no matter how straight the road was. And some roads were not so straight — on the Western side, Bada Aso softly curved, following the shape of the coast. Koba and other western streets curved as well and limited their sight.

Everyone marched briskly, some with their guns out, many with their guns shouldered.

Then the tank commander raised his fist instead and the column stopped in its tracks.

Men ran back and forth from him, and several then crept around the front of the tanks.

Word went across the column quickly — another Ayvartan position, several hundred away.

Kern and Schloss took cover around a street corner and peered ahead around the tanks.

Two M3s trundled ahead, paused, and then put shells downrange. Columns of dust and uprooted gravel rose across the Ayvartan line. A shell hit the sandbag wall dead center. Kern saw figures disperse from behind the bags in a panic. Grenadiers from the third platoon, gathered around the assault guns, saw the opportunity and charged the enemy line.

Rifles and machine guns soon cracked and flashed from the ground floor windows of a store and a coop restaurant a few dozen meters behind the sandbag emplacement. Kern counted the flashing muzzles and thought there had to be at least a dozen Ayvartans in each building.

It was the same as before; two buildings across from each other, barring the way forward.

Bullets filled the air like orange arrows, flying past and crashing around the men as they approached. Landsers cut the distance by taking cover until the gunfire shifted its weight to a different position and then bounding toward a new piece of cover. Working in this fashion they managed to confound the poor fire discipline of their enemies and make rapid gains.

Assault guns carefully shifted their bulk and repositioned their guns and resumed firing on the Ayvartan line, kicking up debris in front of the windows and doors and striking the walls and corners. Third platoon kept mobile, and soon occupied several positions 30 to 80 meters from the two structures, including a squadron of men huddling right behind the Ayvartan sandbags.

These were the eight closest men to the enemy, and with the best view. Armed with bolt-action rifles they took turns firing over the smashed remains of the sandbags and ducking for safety. Hits on the thick concrete walls issued thin and fleeting wisps of dust and chipped cement; most of the exchange on both sides hit cover, tracing sharp lines across the thirty meters between the sandbags and cooperative restaurant or the thirty five to the shop.

Farther down the street groups of stray landsers, their squadrons sometimes split across the street or in adjacent alleyways and buildings, took cover in doorways and windows and behind staircases. When the gunfire swept past them they hid, and a few then moved; but most remained in place behind cover and picked at the windows and doors as best as they could.

Shells pounded the side of the restaurant and the store. Kern marveled at the sustained rate of fire on their assault guns. But both the strongholds were single story buildings, small and stout, much more stable than the tall houses. 7.5 cm shells blasted shallow, meter-wide holes into the walls but the buildings did not crumble under their own weight, and the Ayvartans continued to shoot. No shell had yet managed to soar through the small windows and into the interiors.

A third M3 peeled from the assault gun platoon and crammed beside the first two, opening on the strongholds with its own gun. Though it added some volume to the artillery volley, it was ill-positioned and could only hit the store from its vantage, and not the restaurant. Both the other M3s subtly shifted on their tracks, trying their damnedest to put a shell into a window.

“We can’t just stand here, lets go,” Schloss declared. He started leading his men off the street and deeper west into the alleys. Kern watched them go and wondered whether to follow. West of Koba block was a long, five meters tall wall that separated the block from the coast. Skirting around the houses adjacent Koba street, Schloss could probably flank the enemy ahead.

A muffled roar far too close for comfort interrupted Kern’s thoughts; livid orange flashes off the corner of his eye startled him. Smoke started to blow in across the street from a sudden blast.

Was that one of theirs? Kern pulled up his binoculars. He peered along the road.

In the middle of the street a shell crashed and consumed the squadron at the sandbags in a fireball. A pillar of thick black smoke rose from a 3-meter wide crater smashed into the place.

Gunfire halted on both sides, a second’s worth of silence followed by dozens more shells.

Kern ducked back behind the corner. Shells crashed all along the column, punching through roofs and smashing grenadiers hiding in buildings, bursting into showers of fragments outside of alleyways and spraying unlucky landsers with piercing shards of metal. Men caught in the middle of the street when the heat fell threw themselves face down as the road pitch was thrown up into the air around them, and fire and smoke rose up around them like geysers.

In the face of this fire the three assault guns clumsily reversed from their cramped positions, inhibited by the space. They turned a few centimeters this way and that trying to stay off one another and off the walls of nearby buildings while inching back out of the combat area.

Their sluggishness proved fatal; a pair of projectiles overtook the vehicles at a sharp angle.

Fire and fragments chewed brutally through the assault guns. One tank burst almost as if from the inside out, its hull left like a shredded can. Chunks of track and ripped pieces of armor flew every which way, and the short barrel of a 7.5 cm gun was launched through the air by the blasts. Explosive pressure so heavily and directly on the armor left behind wrecked, charred hulls in the middle of the street, hollowed out wherever the blast waves hit them.

Kern’s ears rang even as the blasts subsided. He pressed himself against the corner of the same building and dared not move. Breathing heavily, he produced the radio handset from his pack, and he called out to Captain Aschekind. “The Ayvartans have heavy artillery support.”

“I heard. First Platoon is rejoining. Second company is also on its way.” Aschekind replied.

In response Kern raised his binoculars and looked south, the way the column came. Through the thin dust he saw the first platoon rushing back up; father behind them he saw a brand new unbroken column moving in. Two hundred more men moving in to fight with them.

Behind him an isolated shell descended into the middle of the street. He saw only the orange flash in the corner of his vision, and he heard the booming explosive and falling debris.

Something compelled him, and the distress in his voice surprised even him. “Sir, you have to tell them to hold off, there’s a chokepoint up ahead, we can’t keep trying to move men up–“

“Air support will take care of that. Focus on advancing.” Aschekind replied. “We have nothing left but to advance. That is Operation Surge, Private. Join Second Company and advance.”

Kern heard the shuttering sound of the Captain’s radio disconnecting from his own.

He replaced the headset in its spot on the backpack. With his back still to the wall and his eyes to the south, Kern hyperventilated as he waited for the second company to move in, all the while the Ayvartan artillery fire resumed behind him, shells falling by the dozens.

 

Central Sector, Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”

Panic on the radio. “Ma’am, there’s too many of them out here, they’re coming in from the side-streets, from the main streets, I think they’ve broken through Katura and Koba. Whole platoons, dozens of them! They’ve got tanks and artillery moving in. We can’t hold any longer!”

“Slowly work your way back to the Home line with the 3rd Corps, but no further than that.”

“Yes ma’am.” He hung up, energized by the idea of a limited retreat. Major Madiha Nakar sighed and put down the radio. She watched the battle unfolding down the road through a telescope from her office. The enemy had indeed broken through to Home in number.

A kilometer away down the main street, an enemy column had colonized the street corners leading in from Matumaini — she supposed they had filtered through the east and west and moved into the main street from those directions to avoid the collapses in the center.

Moving in bounds — stopping in one spot, covering a team until they overtook you, then moving when that team in turn stopped in one spot — the Nochtish men made rapid gains along the end of the main street, surging forward almost 300 meters closer to the FOB. There was a platoon of men along each side of the street, a hundred souls; behind them there were two more platoons starting to move. A company at time, charging in to take her head.

Her defensive line in the center was not a meticulous defense in depth. There was one line of sandbags with three machine guns and three anti-tank guns. Two Hobgoblins waited around the street corners sitting astride the school building everyone affectionately called “Madiha’s House.” There was a battalion of soldiers, each company stationed in tall buildings along the end of the main street. And there was a hell of a lot of a gunfire flying down at the enemy.

All along the front of the school building, muzzle flashes went off like orange sparklers, guns firing continuously, changing crews every couple minutes to sustain the rate of fire. Machine gun fire streaked from the defensive line and the nearby buildings. Rifles cracked slow and steady in their rhythm. Mortars and 122mm guns, largely manned by the Svechthans, cast shots over the school building and smashed the end of the main street a dozen shells at a time.

Along the main street smoking pillars rose skyward by the dozen every minute as projectiles impacted the ground, accompanied by a noise like a giant taking a deep breath. Machine gun and rifle bullets fell upon the road in consistent bursts, issuing continuous cracking noise.

Gunfire was ultimately quite fickle. An advancing man could survive a mortar shell hitting near him; maybe the angle was off and the fragments flew upward and missed him. Maybe he was hit but not badly enough to stop him. Maybe it just wasn’t his time. Human beings could charge through gunfire, they could be missed by millimeters or centimeters or whole meters by bullets traveling at unfathomable speeds and fired by skilled shooters; gunfire was deceptively impenetrable. Those orange streaks were small and fast and inaccurate. Trajectories varied with elements. An urban environment had thousands of surfaces for a bullet to lodge into.

From her vantage Madiha saw men running as though through fire, walk as though on coals. Bullets lodged into the ground around them, ricocheted off objects near them, seemingly flew by their faces, a curtain of fire tracing the air across the main street for every orange muzzle flash. As if suddenly embraced by spirits men would fall before the fire, over the coals; they would spread their arms and fall aback or fold over on their bellies. They would lose their footing as though they had only slipped on a paper, or fall on their knees as though praying.

But the column did not stop. A dozen men died and three dozen ducked into cover where they could, and then ran again when they felt the artillery and shots were lightest before them.

Scattered Nochtish troops got to within 500 meters of the line, leaving behind dozens dead.

“Madiha! We got a call from the ARG-2 stationed in the north; we’ve got air incoming!”

Madiha pulled herself from the telescope. Behind her, Parinita, short of breath and sweating, stood in the middle of the door frame with her clipboard in her hand, squeezing the object.

“Are we almost done destroying evidence?” Madiha asked. Parinita nodded her head.

“Yes, we’ve torn up everything that didn’t have archive priority. We’ve got the rest on a half-track heading north under Kimani’s watch. We don’t have another FOB picked out yet–“

“We don’t need one.” Madiha said. “We can coordinate everything else from the truck.”

“Our planes are taking off as well. But they will not reach before Nocht’s aircraft.”

Madiha nodded. She returned to the telescope. Their second company was joining in–

Parinita took her by the shoulder and she pulled her a step back from the window.

“We have to go too. This building is too exposed now. We don’t even have barrage balloons over it anymore.” She said. She looked at Madiha with concern. Her hand was shaking.

Madiha smiled. Parinita; always looking out for her. “I agree. No protest here, Parinita.”

She did not invent an excuse to stay. She did not need to. Though the attack was larger than she imagined it would be, and proceeding all along the front in a scale greater than she imagined, none of what she saw through the telescope gave her any reason to change the course.

“Just one thing. How soon until our guardian angel arrives?” Madiha asked.

“Seas are fairly calm, so she should be here within a few hours.” Parinita replied.

Madiha shouldered the backpack radio they had been using to communicate periodically with their units, strapping it on. Parinita pulled out the little hand-drawn calendar she had made of the battles, and clipped it to her clipboard. These final effects collected, they rushed downstairs, shutting the door for the last time on their shared office in “Madiha’s House,” Bada Aso.

* * *

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — Absolute Pin

Zugzwang — Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Bada Aso — Outskirts, 1st Vorkampfer Headquarters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Central District FOB, “Madiha’s House”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Central District, East Sector, Kabuli Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northeast District — Train Station, Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Bada Aso — South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hatschu!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges IV

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

Side story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden.

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

 

54th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2018 D.C.E

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Pallas Messianic Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything to your satisfaction?” Cannelle asked.

“It always is.” Salvatrice replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knock knock knock. It was growing more forceful now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pulse In The Ruins — Generalplan Suden

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

13th of the Postill’s Dew, 2008 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice, Sarahastra District Hospital

Several days since the Ayvartan Revolutionary Declaration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chinedu! Is that–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the shadows returned they were gentler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was a human while empty of history?

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, Southeast, Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Von Drachen sighed audibly and slammed down the radio handset.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Von Drachen saw the events unfolding and switched channels immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Engineer Ambushes

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

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

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

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

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

No more was heard from him. But there were still dozens ready to fight in his place.

Across the river rifles started to crack against the empty ration shop. Everyone took the sudden death of the rifleman as evidence of a sniper, and became distracted. While the Cisseans unloaded on the ration shop, engineers appeared further upstreet from sewers and ruin tunnels, and hurried to fighting positions closer to the enemy. They hid inside building ruins and behind the piles of debris. Within moments of the ration shop being cleared, they attacked.

Bullets suddenly rained on the Cisseans in the eastern side of the river, pummeling the balustrades from within a hundred meters. Engineers fired long, careless bursts, taking little time to aim. It was all fire for effect, and their aim was to draw the enemy away from the police station. Ayvartan forces concentrated on both sides of the line of buildings that sat across the street from the station. Around the demolished ration shop and its adjacent structures, submachine gunners sprayed the Cisseans by the river and near the bridge ruins.

There were men everywhere disoriented from the blasts, and they were easily picked off by the lashing trails of bullets. Men with sense left in them rushed away from the open street, and the remnants of the column thus split into two — everyone farther north huddled near the bridge and in the shadow of the police station, while the remaining Cisseans were pinned near the corpse of their first lost tank. Their ability to fight back on the eastern of the river was limited. Previous demolitions insured that their cars would find no opportunity to flank the Ayvartans, and to deploy their other heavy weapons they would need to expose themselves. Trickles of men bounded through the ruins of the Pharmacy, looking to flank, but found themselves trapped by the length of the Ayvartan column, and easily rebuffed.

Heavy fire started to pick up from the more populated western side of the river. Machine guns and mortars fired desperately across the river but to little avail. Ayvartan engineers kept themselves well-concealed in the rubble. They fired from around mounds of debris or between gaps in still-standing walls, and easily avoided retaliation by ducking or backing away. Mortar shells failed to shatter the engineers’ cover, and many exploded uselessly in the open street.

Automatic gunfire could not penetrate the rubble or accurately target the gaps, and in the rain the Cissean rifle troops were visibly poor marksmen. All the men close enough to throw explosives had been forced into hiding. Both sides settled into a stalemate, exchanging fire and expending ammunition but hitting nothing. The Von Drachen Battalion’s options to terminate the impromptu strongholds in the eastern side of the river were growing limited.

Limited, but not entirely nonexistent, proven when the 15 cm shells began to fall.

It had been the hope that pushing close to the enemy column would increase their reluctance to unleash their heavy artillery, but it had been a fleeting hope. Heavy shells started to crash around the eastern riverside in short intervals, pummeling the street, flattening the ruins and casting into the air the mounds of debris. The engineers hunkered down and waited out the bombardment. It was not the explosions that killed, but the shifting rubble. Several men and women were concussed and buried and crushed as the shells blasted rocks around.

But they accomplished their goal — none of the shells threatened the police station.

While the engineers dug in as best as they could in the rubble, across the bridge the Cisseans moved pair of mortars closer to the bridge and loaded an odd pair of shells into it. Suppressed by artillery the engineers barely spotted the mortars and could not figure out their unique significance until the shells crashed on the other side of the river — and stretched a series of steel cables across. Minutes later, under waning gunfire from suppressed engineers and safely away from their own bombardments, Cisseans started crossing the fallen bridge.

* * *

Sergeant Agni walked in circles around the unmoving body of Major Madiha Nakar, rubbing her own lips and chin, thinking through the events. A simple engineering survey had become a sudden crisis. As she and the Major drove around the Umaiha earlier in the day, unbeknownst to them a lightning-fast and incredibly well-coordinated Cissean attack smashed past their defenses one after the other, making a distressing amount of progress. Artillery and heavy weapons were systematically deployed to suppress and overrun every Ayvartan position.

It was unlike any attack the Ayvartans had faced so far, and unlike every attack they believed the Cissean forces capable of launching. This felt like what Nocht’s attacks should have been. There was carnage across the line, communications between the line corps was utterly foregone in the scramble. Laggard forces awoke far too late to effectively defend themselves, and were smashed past, and either killed, sent running, or forced to surrender in a panic.

Before anyone knew what was happening, the Engineers were stuck guarding the old police station along the Umaiha Riverside. Unluckily for them, the Cissean’s 15 cm sporadic rolling barrage had, of all the things it could have hit, smashed the ceiling right over Madiha. Though Agni had managed to free much of Madiha’s upper body, her lower body was not pinned by debris, but by a solid piece of concrete roof. She was not crushed — smaller rubble wedged under the slab kept much of the pressure and weight off Madiha, but her legs were still pinned hard under it. Sergeant Agni ran through the options in her head, her pulse quickening.

To make matters worse none of the radios available to her seemed able to reach Army HQ.

She had told Madiha that she would bring her back safely and she would fulfill that objective. It was not merely a matter of loyalty or strategic convenience. It was something she wanted to do. As personal as it could be for her, this was a personal errand. She had to succeed.

Sergeant Agni was a KVW Engineer. She had the crisis training. Fear was not a powerful thing to her. She felt it — everyone always felt it. It didn’t go away. But it didn’t stop her, it didn’t hurt her like it did before. Other people allowed it to paralyze them; Agni was never overwhelmed by fear. Conditioning, special drugs, sensory deprivation, hypnotic suggestion, noise exposure: a battery of tests and therapies removed from her those feelings. She had been told, during a lecture, that shaking was a response by the body — the mind wanted the body to go fetal, to curl up and feel safe, and the shaking signified your struggle against those urges. Agni never shook; her body categorically refused to go fetal. She lacked those urges.

But her heart beat faster. Her fingers rubbed quickly against her chin and lips, satisfying an impulse to fidget. Excess energy; it was going somewhere. She was told this was natural. Was it as natural as wanting to go fetal? More? She supposed the conditioning wasn’t perfect.

Rejecting impulse, gaining clarity, emptying the mind of terrors; those were some of her reasons to join the KVW, to take the crisis training, to lose feeling. Everyone had reasons. Nobody was brainwashed. People thought it was magic. Maybe it was.

At first it felt like it. It felt like magic to be able to focus. To be able to think clearly.

Now, however, it felt like a curse. She kept walking, kept thinking. But to no avail.

Try as she might Agni could not escape the logic that her mind was settling on. She had no compulsion to reject the most straightforward, achievable solution to her problem. Had there been no urgency she might have tried a substandard but appeasing solution. Under pressure, however, she could think of only one solution, recurring horribly in her mind.

She would have to risk blowing off Madiha’s legs to save her.

“I’m going to need a satchel charge.” She called out. “Without getting a tank or a tractor in here, the only way to remove this thing is to smash it into smaller chunks.”

Outside what was left of the lobby, an engineer standing guard brought a bag and handed it to the Sergeant. His eyes wandered across the room where the Major was trapped.

“How is the situation outside?” Sergeant Agni asked.

“Cisseans have effected a crossing. Their artillery has subsided and they have begun to push forward in numbers. Our column between the blocks is making it painful.”

“How many casualties have we incurred so far?”

“Less than them.”

“Keep the teletanks in reserve. We will need them to have a chance to escape.”

“Yes ma’am.” He eyed the satchel. “Are you sure you want to use that?”

“Yes.” Sergeant Agni answered simply.

“It may hurt the Major.”

“I know that better than anyone.” Agni said. Thanks to the lack of feeling in her voice, this statement sounded almost polite, though she meant it to sound definitive.

She opened the satchel. Inside was a block of explosive material. Carefully she cut a smaller piece off the larger explosive block, and picked the detonating mechanisms out of the satchel, affixing them to the small piece. She laid this mechanism atop the slab trapping the major.

“I’m not a believer, so if you are, you should pray.” Sgt. Agni said to the guard.

She did not really know the Major and did not think she could be a friend. How did one cross that threshold between mere person and friend? Agni did not know, but she felt Madiha was a valued comrade, and knew that she wanted to ease that pain and vulnerability that Madiha had clumsily shared with her before and that she had clumsily responded to. All of the logic of her mind pointed to the fact that she could not possibly have left her behind to die.

Feeling had been lessened, but not totally lost to her. Faith, she hadn’t ever had before. Filled both with feeling and a longing for faith, Agni primed the charge and took cover.

 

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

This was a place outside the contention of human senses. To the sight it was simply a void, but it felt populated by much more than could be seen or felt. Speech took on a different form here, where something said could carry content far outside the literal. Thought was difficult; she felt as though every word she said in her mind to conceptualize a feeling was contested by a dozen others, as though a shouting match. It was difficult to convey simple concepts, and nothing seemed straightforward. Certainly this felt like her innermost reaches should feel — she felt cold but safe, in a familiar space that was forbidding and smothering all at once.

All at once, however, she coalesced — and something left her.

There appeared in this void two forms. One was her own body, or the thing she could most closely conceive of as a body. It had little definition to it. She did not possess the tall, lean, strong form that she remembered having. There were insinuations of it, such as the outline of her dark, symmetrical and straight neck-length hair style, her thin nose and lips; her strong shoulders, the outline of her breasts, her trunk, hips; but much of it was as though vaguely sketched, hollow, as though a gel that could be seen through. She was ephemeral, vulnerable. A strong wind could scatter her form and reduce her to a cloud of gas.

Across from her, was a smaller but infinitely stronger presence, fully materialized.

It was Madiha as an eight year old child, at the time of the Prajna attack in 2008.

“We should not be here. It should have been over. Please cease this struggle.”

Child Madiha was speaking. Her voice was so strong she felt she would be blown apart.

But the other Madiha could not speak. Her mouth could not move. She could not reply and tell her that it was not her who was struggling, not her who had to be spoken to. She was more than ready to vanish. Her entire existence hung on by the tiniest thread.

“You are nothing but a fabrication to extend a farce. I’m what is real; the true self that was hidden. I’m your power, your strength, your blood, your flesh — in short, your purpose. We had a purpose, once, and we do not anymore. It is time to be gone.”

She wanted to scream at the Child and tell her to finish it already but she couldn’t.

“We were supposed to die, back then, because our influence on the world had been felt. Violence can be transformative, but the perpetrator is a tainted thing, a broken instrument.”

She taunted her, spoke right in her ear, and there was no defense against it. She was helpless toward this child with burning eyes and a cutting tongue. Not a word could be said back to her.

“Let us make good on history. Let us be gone and be free. That is our purpose. It’s in the blood. Blood in our veins, and in our hands. Tainting us. There’s no escaping it without ending it.”

Madiha felt completely helpless. She could not respond, she could not escape.

Silently she cried out for someone, for anyone, to please quiet this all.

Something else left her — she felt a piece, a tiny piece, cut from her.

Across from both her and the speaking Child Madiha something formed.

It was another Madiha. She was in uniform. Child Madiha was tall for her age; at 8 years old she was already 150 centimeters. When the uniformed Madiha stood up to the child she was over 30 centimeters taller, and seemed almost to tower over her. There was a look in her face filled with defiance and anger. She scared the ephemeral Madiha, the formless, helpless onlooker. Who was this? This was not who she wanted. She felt trapped between two horrible beings now. None of them could just give her the escape that she desired. None of them could finish this mess.

“I am not broken.” Uniformed Madiha said. She had a powerful voice. It resonated across the space.

Child Madiha was not impressed with her. She kept speaking, almost as if still into the ears of the ephemeral Madiha. “Our time has passed. We should have died then. We have no future now.”

“You’re the only one without a future. We continued to make something of ourselves.”

“You stole from others to construct a facsimile. You were never anything. Without a past you don’t have a present or a future. You have only what you took. It is time to pay for that.”

“We were not born into the world to collect images and sounds. None of that matters in the end.” Uniformed Madiha snapped back. “We are people and people are born for more than that!”

The Child Madiha spread her lips in a smile, baring sharp, shining teeth.

“We were born to kill, conquer, and die. We counter the stagnation that occurs at the end of an era and prevent the world from freezing to a halt. We did our part. We fought our war, the war we were destined for, just like the stories. We won and we were meant to be gone. Our existence after that is a burden. The Revolutionary must die so the innocents can have a world at peace, for a time. Can you imagine a world after a war, where all the soldiers still live, still thrash and struggle with the fight in their hearts? That is why you must lie now, never to awaken.”

“I reject that. I’ve already told you that we are more than all of that.” The Uniformed Madiha replied. From the sidelines the Ephemeral Madiha started to choke up and to weep. She felt like she was melting. This intensity was a lot to bear. “We are more than soldiers and killers.”

“We are not people. People build, monsters destroy. Which one have we been?”

“What do you think we’ve been doing? What have you been seeing all this time?”

“What have you ever built that can make up for all that you’ve destroyed? You are not needed to build; nobody asks your kind what kind of a world you wish to have. There is nothing to you but the fight, the clawing and the bleeding. You were born out of violence and it roots into you. You thirst for it. That is why you can’t stay out of the fire and dust. Why you must die!”

“Now you are just talking past me. Who even are you?” Uniformed Madiha shouted. “You are not one of us at all! Why are you in here? Who allowed you to speak on our behalf?”

Child Madiha ignored the outburst. “It is in our blood to kill and to destroy. We are marred by it. Why do you think we have this power? We used it before. We killed and ruined. We said it was for a cause, but did we ever have a real choice? We acted like animals following instinct.”

Between the circling combatants, the other Madiha curled up and closed her ears. But she could not drown out the fighting. Everything they said was wired directly through to her brain.

“This is not in my blood. I was not born to this. It will not pass from me to another Nakar. It is not a name, and it is not a bloodline. It is not about heredity. I deny all of that — it is a role, a responsibility. This is from my people and for my people; it exists to protect our community. That is why what we have been doing, to the best of our ability, can only be called building.”

Uniformed Madiha started to look clearer to the Observer Madiha, and she herself started to become less Ephemeral; but that Child Madiha was turning dusty, like a poor TV picture.

The Child Madiha spoke ever more viciously, her fangs sharper. “You do not control this; history is against you. History has set your path, and you will follow. You cannot defy the terms.”

“We will make it different then. We will defy that mandate of history.” Madiha said.

“It does not work that way! Words have meaning! It is in your biology! You are different! You are a monster! You have no power here to make the rules! This is a place of blood and flesh. You will kill, conquer and die, because it is your inheritance. It is what your betters passed to you!”

“That consensus is an imposition upon us and I do defy it. I defy you.” Madiha replied. “You are not us, not even a part, and certainly not the whole. You are some antiquated thing. This is a new era, and that is why we can shape it. We can shape the terms. You are an intrusion.”

“I am the greater part of you! What do you have other than me? You are alone!”

Now, it was the Uniformed Madiha’s turn to smile and reveal her fangs. “We have her. We have the real you — we found her again. You cannot haunt me anymore. We know everything.”

Uniformed Madiha made a pulling motion toward the formless Madiha, toward the onlooker.

Though the onlooker struggled to get away, thinking that the touch would be the most agonizing experience, she felt the gloved hand seize her by the arm. There was no pain. Her grip was not malicious. It was the gentlest touch she had ever felt — it was not a seizing of her arm. That had only been her fear, her projection. The Uniformed Madiha stroked her shoulders, and knelt down to look her in the eye, and embraced her, firmly and affirmingly.

She was not ephemeral and she was not formless, not anymore. She was Madiha at age 7, a tall, precocious, strange child with no place to be and seemingly nothing to live for, but who took steps to the world of the adults, and who fought, in every way that she could, in ways that defied all reason, that defied the bleak future that had been ordained for her. She wept with the realization that she had never died and she had never gone. She had always been the one in control. She had always been herself. She was not lost. She was not something other.

Always, she had been Madiha Nakar, and that had always meant something.

She was not born for an endpoint. She was born to be; and she was. She always was. And she was not merely things she took from others. Because they “took” too. They all shared, through joy and through sorrow. All of it had made her unique onto her own.

None of it was blood; none of it was clay. It was a chorus, pulsing through the ruins.

Madiha Nakar. Even if the memory was lost, and even if the future blurred.

Across from her the other child lost her face. She became an outline carved into the void.

Her voice was completely lost, because Madiha had regained all of her own.

“It has never mattered what we were back then, and we never lost anything there that could not be regained.” Uniformed Madiha said. She was in tears; Child Madiha was in tears as well. “We were not born solely to die or solely to kill. Nobody is; we had the agency to do what we did and to choose what we want. It is not blood. Back then what we wanted was to lash out against the brutality and injustice that we saw. That was important to us. But we are more than that moment in time. We are more than the mere scope of time. We are everything we build.”

The Observer Madiha, Child Madiha, who had been taken and co-opted, regained her voice.

“Thank you. I understand. And right now, we want to survive.” Child Madiha replied.

Uniformed Madiha smiled and looked upon her with tearful gratitude.

“Yes. Thank you.” She said. She stood, and took the child’s hand. “Let us go.”

Hand in hand with herself, Madiha left the void of her anxieties more complete than she had entered it. She knew now everything that had happened. Now she could move forward with the world. Melding, the hands of her selves became one. She was just Madiha Nakar.

There was a warm flash, a shiver of premonition and the sound of the rain.

She was back in the flesh, where the world could be changed.

 

South District — 1st Vorkampfer HQ

Von Sturm had been reduced to pacing the headquarters, kicking at the puddles of water forming along the ground. Without word from the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions, and with (unwanted) bad news from Penance road, he became lost in thought. Fruehauf was at first glad to leave him to his devices, but soon radio traffic was coming in that he had to listen to.

She plugged a handset into Erika’s radio unit, flipped a switch to override her headphones, and took responsibility for the call herself. She raised her hand to wave Von Sturm over.

“Sir, your security division is requesting transport for prisoners.”

“What?” At once Von Sturm stopped his pacing and turned to face Fruehauf and the row of radios and operators. “What prisoners? They’re supposed to be guarding the rear!”

“They apparently captured many Ayvartans near the Umaiha.”

“When did this happen and on whose authority?”

Fruehauf picked up the radio handset and spoke into it. She then put her hand over the receiver and turned over her shoulder to stare at the general while responding.

“Under your authority sir, according to them. I know you have not spoken to them at all but that seems to be what they believe. They claim it was your orders that they go out to the Umaiha riverside to help secure Von Drachen’s prisoners.”

Von Sturm paused, eyelids drawn wide. There was a look of dawning revelation on his face.

“Von Drachen! That bastard took my sword so he could trick my security division!”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Nevermind!” He crossed his arms in a huff. “Fine, if he took prisoners then he’s making progress. Tell them I’ll send a few Sd.Kfz. B from the reserve. How many prisoners?”

Fruehauf raised the handset to her ears again. She spoke, listened, nodded.

“Seventy-two.” She replied.

“Good God.” Von Sturm started grinning and chuckling and his mood took a dramatic turn. “Finally something’s coming up for us! I will have to congratulate that ridiculous man once he returns. He seems to be the only one of my subordinates who can follow my plans and not screw everything up. I might not even court martial him for subverting my command.”

Fruehauf smiled outwardly and sighed internally. “If you say so sir.”

At the end of the room, Marie, one of the radio operators, a plump girl with short blonde hair, raised her hand and urged Fruehauf over. She had been tasked with external communications duty — keeping track of the units that followed behind the Vorkampfer’s front line — and had spent much of the day monitoring the lines to HQ and Supply and to the divisions outside of Bada Aso, who had little to say for themselves with regard to the current offensive.

Fruehauf unplugged her handset from Erika’s radio and plugged it into Marie’s.

Many of the external divisions whiled away the opening days of the occupation by doing manual labor, pitching tents, repairing buildings that could be used as headquarters, rounding up Ayvartan prisoners behind the lines, dealing with unruly villagers who clung on to the hope of rescue, and confiscating valuables the army could use. They were in short playing the role of cleanup crews lagging behind the blitzkrieg. Most of the officers in the Vorkampfer had a low opinion of those units that stayed behind, but not every military asset could move fast enough to join the Bada Aso offensive. Particularly the more esoteric intelligence personnel.

Such as, in this particular instance, the weather battalion.

Freuhauf listened with growing alarm, and then called out to the General.

“Sir, the storm is growing worse, we have to evacuate the Umaiha district ASAP!”

 

Umaiha Riverside — Old Police Station

Gunfire in the immediate area rattled Madiha awake and forced her to feign sleep.

From the corner of a half-open eye she saw a figure in a black coat and hat, surrounded by four figures in beige uniforms, move in from across the room with rifles drawn. Sgt. Agni dropped her pistol and raised her hands in surrender. In the distance she heard gunfire, both automatic bursts and the snaps of rifles, so resistance had not been entirely annihilated.

Madiha surreptitiously tested her arms and legs — and found she could move.

“My name is Gaul Von Drachen. Surrender your unit immediately,” said the man in the coat.

Sgt. Agni offered no reply. Her eyes wandered, looking toward the ground. Madiha could not see them, but one of their comrades had probably been shot dead near her as the men entered the room. Since the police station was near the bridge, it was a natural hiding spot for any gun battle in the adjacent street — and a natural staging area. Certainly these men had broken from the larger fight outside, hoping to end it quickly, but that meant it was not yet over.

“I see no value in doing that at the moment.” Sgt. Agni nonchalantly replied.

The Cissean officer, Von Drachen, shot his pistol at the floor several times, each time hitting Agni’s pistol and launching it further and further from her. He reloaded, and then, speaking Ayvartan eloquently and fluently, he pressed Agni for a surrender once again.

“Hail your units on the radio and tell them to drop their weapons. We can end this bloodshed immediately or I can annihilate you with my artillery as I have been doing for the past several hours. It was easy to see that your objective was to prevent me from entering the station, and that mission has miserably failed. I am here — hail them and tell them to stop.”

At the officer’s side, one of the men finally examined the room and found Madiha.

General, hay otra mujer recostada en las piedras–

Blood drew from the man’s neck as a revolver bullet ripped through his throat.

Von Drachen and his subordinates had scarcely turned their guns to acknowledge the pile of rubble in the center of the room, and Madiha sat up, sidearm drawn, both hands on the handle. In blinding quick succession she continued to shoot. As the man fell, clutching his neck, Madiha put a bullet between a pair of eyeballs, and into a gaping open mouth, and through the bridge of a thick nose. Her final bullet blasted Von Drachen’s pistol out of his hand. It hit the floor with the rest of his instruments — his team collapsed in two heaps around him.

Stunned, he raised his hands as Madiha rose to her knees and stood. She felt a little weight as she tried to stand, but the lag was over in seconds. Adrenaline kept her going strong.

She was out of rounds but she kept the Cissean officer in her sights nonetheless.

“That certainly was some impossible shooting.” He said.

“I don’t miss.” Madiha replied. Her words came to her precisely. Her mind was clear.

“By any chance are you the actual officer in charge? ” Von Drachen asked.

“I’m just Sergeant Nakar.” Madiha said. He did not need to know her real rank, and she did not make a habit of wearing her pins and insignia. “How about you surrender now?”

“Oh, I don’t see any value in doing that.”

He reached into his long, flapping coat and with a flourish Von Drachen brazenly hurled himself toward Madiha. She dropped her gun, drew her combat knife and intercepted Drachen’s draw — she had expected a knife or a bayonet to come out from under his coat and was shocked to see a an actual sword clash against her knife instead. It had a brilliant blade and fine etchings.

The officer’s sword had enough handle that he could push against her with the strength of both his hands. Madiha reacted by supporting her knife hand with her free hand, but she was buckling against Von Drachen’s sword, and the edge was pressing against her gloves. She could feel the pressure of the metal against the side of her hand as they struggled.

“I absolutely hate this sort of thing, it will end badly for both of us; what say you we just pick up our guns and fight like civilized human beings do?” Von Drachen asked.

Madiha grinned at him. “I’m perfectly fine with this. I don’t miss with a knife either.”

She pushed back against the sword with both of her hands, and momentarily lifted the blade and broke the clash, creating enough room to step back. Von Drachen recovered fast and swung wide against her; she leaped further back from him, raised her hand back over her shoulder and then threw her knife in a quick whipping motion. She put the blade solidly through Drachen’s coat, stabbing the knife through his shoulder. He grit his teeth and cried out.

But his grip on the sword did not loosen and his stance was not even shaken.

Now it was his turn to grin. “You don’t miss, but you really don’t want to kill me, do you? Gambling on a prisoner when you could have had a kill seems unwise to me.”

Von Drachen drew the knife from his flesh, turned and threw it in one fluid motion. Across the room Sergeant Agni cried out, falling to the ground several meters away from her pistol as the knife struck her leg. Madiha was shocked, she had completely forgotten Sgt. Agni in the midst of the fight. She broke from the fight to help her and Drachen threw forward, heaved his blade and swung again. His cutting edge soared over Madiha as she ducked and rolled off the rubble. She broke into a run for the other side of the room with Von Drachen in pursuit.

“Agni, don’t move!” She cried out, but the Sergeant signaled for her to halt.

“Forget the pistol Madiha, use this instead!” Agni shouted.

Sgt. Agni cast something, sliding it along the ground — a machete from her tools.

Madiha stopped the weapon with the tip of her boot and swiftly kicked it up to her hand. She caught it in time to intercept another one of Von Drachen’s blows; edge met edge. Madiha started turning back his attacks with one hand, the butchering edge of her machete bashing back the refined blade of the officer’s sword. Von Drachen started to tighten his swings and he stepped back with every exchange, likely in fear of Madiha trapping his blade. She could easily take off a few fingers in a clash if he closed with her too recklessly.

Edge continued to meet edge, metal at the tip of metal, glinting in the gloom and rain.

Step by step they made it back almost to the center of the room. Von Drachen stepped back to the place Madiha had been trapped in, and she let him create distance. Catching their breath after their vicious clashes, all too aware now of the danger they posed to one another, the combatants circled and waited. Madiha gripped hard her machete. She could feel it in her hand, its weight, the way it interacted with the air, the subtle pull of the earth as it moved.

They exchanged spots, the circling putting Madiha in the ring of rubble and Von Drachen off it, each holding up a blade and keeping a free hand. For several minutes it seemed they only stared. Neither could count quite count on any more backup — and both could tell as much from the actions of the other. This pile of rubble might just be a tomb for one of them.

Von Drachen smiled. “Nocht is a cesspit of arrogance and ignorance, so it’s hard for me to convince you to surrender to them and guarantee it will be a step up in any way. However, I would like to impress upon you, that if you surrendered, it would be very helpful to me.”

Madiha did not look at his face. She looked over his arms, his legs, his weapon.

In her mind all of the mathematics played out perfectly. Every centimeter of muscle on her body, every nerve fiber, readied itself to move in whatever way suited the long knife.

She could fight with the machete even though she never once practiced it.

This did not feel alien or frightening anymore. It just felt like something she did.

To her it was just like a gun. Any weapon worked for her ability. She might not be able to shoot Von Drachen unfailingly but she knew how to skillfully counteract him. He would try to stab or cut her arms if he wanted to capture her, which she was almost certain he would want to now — and she would try to do the same, as she definitely wanted to throw him in a cell.

Physically they were nearly evenly matched. Madiha was as tall as he, and they were both lean and fairly muscular for their frames. Madiha appeared a little smaller, but Von Drachen was probably similar once his big coat came off him. She felt confident, and made the first move, tentatively swiping at the edge of his blade. Von Drachen stepped back, avoiding the glinting metal swipe in the gloom of their arena. At first he raised his sword to guard, but as they backed off out of each other’s reach again he lowered the weapon to his side.

“When I took this sword I thought it would make things easier for me, but suddenly it has made them all the harder. This such a regrettable situation.” Von Drachen said.

“Believe me, there’s other things I’d rather be doing.” Madiha replied.

Movement; her eyes darted to Von Drachen’s feet and back up, and she held her machete out for a block as he threw himself forward again; she met his blade, the metal scraped, but there was no strength from Von Drachen’s end. Rather than clash he allowed himself to be brushed aside and used the impetus to step away, past her, onto the remains of the roof slab.

He had drawn a radio from his coat. “Artilleria pesada a las coordenadas–

Madiha turned and approached. For each step she took Von Drachen backed away, speaking Cissean into the radio. It was a short conversation — barely a few seconds later he stopped speaking abruptly, sighed and threw his radio over his shoulder, smashing it on the wall.

“Just my luck; out of HE shells.” He said, a childish, exaggerated frown on his face.

Von Drachen charged down from the slab, raised his sword and brought it down over Madiha as if to batter her down; with one hand she caught the blade and with the other hacked it apart. Her machete went through Von Drachen’s sword, taking half in her hand, leaving half in his.

And the blade barely managed to scuff her glove in the act. It had no real edge.

“Hit me with a sword enough times and I can tell if it’s a toy or not.” Madiha said. She dropped the chunk of the sword that she had caught to the floor, and stepped on it.

Von Drachen backed away from her, holding the remaining bit of his blade.

He shifted his feet, bent his shoulders, and held out the broken blade like a fencer.

“You cannot be serious.” Madiha said. She was becoming exasperated with him.

En guarde, Sergeant!” Von Drachen said, twisting his wrist and blade with a flourish.

Now it was Madiha’s turn to rush. Von Drachen jabbed the air with his jagged dagger as Madiha charged him. She twisted away from his thrust, and put the resulting momentum into an attack on his flank. With her fist and the handle of her machete she struck the side of his head. He staggered back — Madiha flicked her wrist and held the machete by its blunt blade end, wielding it like a club. Sensing an opportunity to end the struggle she advanced on him.

He recovered in time to strike first, and swiftly kicked her feet out from under her.

Madiha fell back, and Von Drachen reversed his own dagger and loomed over her.

He raised his hand, blade to the floor, ready to drive through her flesh.

But as he closed in to stab her Madiha gathered all her strength and in a sudden motion propelled herself from the ground and on her feet. She timed it just right; her head and Von Drachen’s met halfway, and he staggered back and away from the collision, his nose broken open. She was not unharmed either. Blood rushed from her forehead, and her vision momentarily swam. She struggled to remain standing and her machete shook in her hand.

Von Drachen stumbled and stepped as though drunk. But he was laughing all the while.

“Sergeant, you rascal. I’m starting to think you’re more than you claim.” He said, clutching his face. He was bleeding profusely from his nostrils, and his temple was badly bruised.

Despite these injuries he did not seem to slow down. He straightened out again and stowed the remains of the sword into its scabbard. He then held up his fists like a boxer.

He took a few weak jabs into the air, and locked his eyes to Madiha.

Madiha raised her eyebrows, and with them, her machete, ready for another round. She was growing tired — she would have to kill Von Drachen if this did not subdue him.

Abruptly, Von Drachen straightened out again, loosening his guard and lowering his fists.

“It appears I successfully stalled for time. Anyway, I’m going to extricate myself from this before any more of me is cut up. Sorry, Sergeant, or should I say, Major.” He said jovially.

Behind him a shell penetrated the hole in the roof and crashed where Madiha had once lain. She reflexively shielded her eyes, but the shell explosion cast little heat and no light.

A curtain of smoke blew from the center of the room. Shots rang out as Agni recovered her pistol, and Madiha saw the silhouette of Von Drachen fleeing the scene in the cloud.

Something else entirely had her attention, however. Her feet were getting wet. In fact, for the past minute or so, her footsteps had been splashing and she did not notice it until the water was up to her shins. The Umaiha was flooding over from the storm.

“Stop, Agni! Let him go! We have to retreat before the river floods any higher!”

“Yes ma’am. Requesting transportation — I cannot quite move at the moment.”

Madiha ran to Agni’s side, following her voice through the smoke, and found the engineer sergeant on the ground, coughing. She had flipped on her back, sat up as best she could and braced herself against rubble to be able to shoot. Without hesitation Madiha stripped Agni of her tool belts and ammunition and other burdens, and picked her up and lifted her from the floor. Even with just her uniform she was still a little heavy, but 60 kg was manageable.

“I envisioned being the one to carry you out, Commander, but I don’t think I could have lifted you. So I am somewhat relieved I did not have to make the attempt.” Sergeant Agni said.

“It’s my height! I’m only 75 kg!” Madiha said, chuckling lightly.

Sergeant Agni didn’t laugh — she couldn’t really laugh much anymore — but she did relax against Madiha’s arms and chest, and heaved a little sigh. She was clearly relieved.

Outside the station they found the fighting largely diffused. The Umaiha had grown high enough that the water consumed the outline of the riverside street and the bridges. Periodic waves struck the edges of the street, battering anyone in the open, and the Cisseans on the other side of the river cabled themselves to structures, and held on to their ropes and hook bridges, trying desperately to keep the line stable as the remnants of their forces retreated.

More than just the water impeded them. Standing at the parking spaces in front of the police station, the surviving Goblin tank harassed the Cisseans with inaccurate gunfire, the 45mm armor-piercing shells doing little but soaring around the men and giving them noise and stress. Around it, the wrecks of the teletanks smoked, both having been smashed to pieces by 15 cm artillery shells. At least the technology in them thoroughly burnt with the rest.

For their part the Engineers busied themselves loading their wounded into half-tracks. A few men and women guarded the vehicles, and took snap shots at the Cisseans, as if it to direct their interests firmly toward retreating. By and large the column had extricated itself from the ruined buildings it once occupied, now that the Cisseans had largely left the street.

Aside from the tanks, and a few stray riflemen on each side of the river, the weather had brought the forces the closest they could be to a ceasefire. Madiha carried Sergeant Agni out to the nearest half-track, where a pair of engineers helped both of them up into the bed. She laid herself against the steel beams holding the canvas tarp in place, and caught her breath. She was shivering from her wet clothes, until an engineer placed a towel and blanket over her. Another soldier began to disinfect and cover up the bleeding from her injured forehead.

“Retreat farther east as soon as possible.” Madiha ordered. “We need to be away from the river. We’ll wait for the worst to pass before attempting to head up north.”

Around her the engineers nodded their heads, and hastened their labors.

She hoped some of the bridges survived. But for now, she was alive — and whole.

 

29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

South District — 1st Vorkampfer HQ, 0400 Hours

Once vicious rainfall declined to a light drizzle in the night hours, and the machine of Nocht sent its pseudopods over the receding flood waters, across the ruined streets, and out toward its front lines in the inhospitable wilds, in the thick and forbidding concrete jungles. Chief among its goals at the moment was assessment. The Vorkampfer needed to know the status of the machine, and in the dead of night thousands of people worked without sleep.

Von Sturm’s plans had gone awry. It was accepted now that in the Kalu, there was essentially no front line. Hundreds of tanks had fallen prey to ambushes, and there were pockets of Nochtish and Ayvartan resistance everywhere, forming a mess that neither could extricate themselves completely from. The 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions hesitated to attack and hesitated to retreat, while the Ayvartans laid fresh traps everywhere around them.

Bada Aso would not be flanked today, tomorrow, or the day after, if ever at all.

Along Penance road the Ayvartans had retreated from the Cathedral, but only after inflicting heavy casualties on the Panzergrenadiers, halting their advance completely. Von Sturm’s attack was a failure there — despite clearing the Cathedral in the end, his spearhead had been utterly blunted, and the Ayvartans retreated in order despite their own casualties. Somehow they had even managed to penetrate his lines and destroy the artillery in Buxa.

So the way was open north, but the enemy was organized and expecting them.

And along the Umaiha, Von Drachen’s brilliant attack, that was making so much headway, was disrupted and nearly completely destroyed by sudden flooding. Von Drachen himself had not even reported back. Von Sturm fancied him dead. Everyone had lost a lot of blood in that disaster, Ayvartan and Nochtish both, but the initial successes made the ultimate failure sting all the more. Following these revelations, the mood at every divisional HQ was somber.

As part of the informational endeavor currently underway, Fruehauf could not let herself become too distracted, but the enormity of the day’s events haunted her as she worked through the night. The Ayvartans had lost almost half the city, but had they won in the end?

In the gloom between the very early morning and very late night, the first milestone was completed. On the radio, the various units traded figures, and compiled a big picture.

“Just read it,” Von Sturm said, his face laid against the table and hidden by his arms.

Fruehauf sighed audibly. She cleared her throat, raised the clipboard in front of her face almost as if in self-defense, and began to read from it. “Preliminary report from the logistics battalion and intelligence battalion task force on the actions of the past day: 6132 infantry casualties–“

“Fuck.” Von Sturm shouted, drawing out the vowel while pounding his fist on the table.

“–276 vehicle casualties, 3 scout aircraft MIA, 38 heavy artillery lost, 23 mortars lost, several tons of ammunition lost. A significant amount was due to the effects of the storm, however.”

“Well, that’s great, I just lost half a classical myriad of people because the weather was bad, I’m glad that changes my situation. We’re still standing in Von Sturm Funeral City you twit!”

Fruehauf tried to smile. “Well, we list wounded in the casualties, not just deceased.”

Von Sturm raised his head. “Then how many did we actually lose, stop fucking around!”

Fruehauf flinched. “Death toll thus far is 2371 killed across the entire operation.”

“Fuck.” Von Sturm shouted, drawing out the vowel while pounding his fist again.

“I’m sorry sir.” Fruehauf said. She tried to sound as earnest as possible.

Both were soon distracted from their woes by an unexpected visitor.

There was a knock on the restaurant door, and then a loud creaking of the old hinges as one of the guards opened it. Fruehauf and Von Sturm gasped with shock as a sopping wet, limping Von Drachen passed through the threshold, stopped at the coat rack, and hung up his hat and trenchcoat. His hooked nose was broken, caked with blood. He had an awful, swollen bruise on his head. His gray Nochtish uniform was soaked with blood from his shoulder. He limped over to the table, everyone too busy staring to offer him help. When he sat, they heard a wet squish.

“I’m afraid I took on some water getting here.” He said, pressing against the sides of his pants, straining out some of the water that had collected in the pockets and fabric.

Behind him, Colonel Gutierrez, wearing nothing but his undershirt and uniform pants, entered the room, nodded his head, and made to take his leave, until he was hailed by Von Drachen.

“Thank you for fishing me out of the river, Gutierrez.” Von Drachen said. He looked around the room and raised his hands and addressed everyone with a jovial tone of voice. “Let it be known that this old, perhaps addled man leaped into a flooded river to pull me out. What a world.”

“You would have done the same mijo,” Colonel Gutierrez replied. He smiled and was turning a little red under his big beard. No one in the room spoke a word yet save Von Drachen.

“I can’t swim, actually. That is why I was drowning, just so you know!”

He turned toward Von Sturm, and handed him what was left of his sword.

“I clung on to this for dear life, my good man!” Von Drachen said. “That might have troubled my already terrible swimming, but I brought it back to you, because it was the right thing to do. I don’t believe in platitudes, but I had this feeling about it. Also; I know who it is in charge of the Ayvartans now, and she is a very frightening and quite fetching young lady.”

Von Sturm dropped his head against the table again and covered it with his arms.

Fruehauf covered her mouth and tried desperately to resist laughing at this absurdity.

 

Central District — Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”

All the lightning that once raged so brilliantly in the sky, was gone. Without it the night was pitch black. Under a light drizzle, Parinita waited and waited. She sat on the steps just outside the headquarters, protected by the concrete roof that stretched out over the stairway. She sat, a backpack radio at her side, watching the road. Behind her, the building lights were shut off and the few personnel still at work did so under candle light, to present less a target in case of night raids. It was deathly quiet outside. She felt that she could hear each raindrop fall.

She picked up the handset, adjusted the frequency. “This is Army HQ to all available units. If any unit has had contact with the Commander, please report to Army HQ immediately.”

Parinita kept the handset braced against her ear by her shoulder, while she fidgeted with her hands, and played with the power dial, with the tuner. But it was not the radio at fault.

For what seemed like the hundredth time, Parinita put down the handset again.

She stared into the forbidding darkness around her. They had made some gains today — in the Kalu, Kimani had prevented the Panzer divisions from flanking the city, buying precious time. Across the south, they had managed to retreat in an orderly fashion from the Penance cathedral — and left a few booby traps in their wake. The Umaiha riverside was a disaster area. They had lost the very last organized vestiges of the 1st and 2nd Line Corps to the Cissean attack, and the flooding likely swept away whoever was left, friend and enemy.

Including, perhaps, Major Madiha Nakar, that somber, sweet, strange woman.

At first, Parinita wept in the privacy of the Major’s office. She had run herself dry of tears. For much of the evening and night, she remained outside the headquarters, waiting. Madiha’s convoy had vehicles. Maybe they could get back, with news, or a body, anything at all.

She waited and waited, wondering if she would wait forever and never receive an answer.

Another hour passed. She shivered; the storm had brought with it a chill uncharacteristic of the Adjar dominance at any time of the year. But still she sat beside her radio, waiting.

Losing Madiha, perhaps, made no difference to the war as a whole. There would be other officers, there would be other plans, up until the bitter end. To Parinita, however, losing Madiha was a wound that would not heal. It was words that could have been said, blasted into oblivion. It was moments that could have been shared, vaporized, cast into the air. Perhaps she was being foolish, or pathetic. For how long had she known Madiha? But the mourning hit as though she had known her a lifetime. Ten days, just ten days! But she couldn’t help it.

Now the tears started to flow again. She felt so small, foolish, childish, frivolous.

Lips quivering, her long strawberry hair disheveled, Parinita picked up the handset.

“This is,” she sobbed, “Army HQ, to all units. Please report any contact with the Commander. The Commander has been missing since 1400 hours. Report any contact immediately.”

She made to put down the handset when she heard a unit responding.

“This is Hobgoblin B-5 of the 1st Separate Bada Aso Tank Brigade, previously on silent patrol. I am escorting a convoy of vehicles toward the headquarters. Please stand by.”

Parinita clutched the handset. “Y-Yes. This is C.W.O Maharani. I will await your arrival.”

She stood up. She waited with bated breath. Minutes later, she saw the Hobgoblin’s light from afar. Approaching the HQ, the tank turned on the intersection, and behind it followed several Half-Tracks. They parked haphazardly, and began unloading wounded in stretchers. Lights started to turn on behind them all, in the HQ building. People rushed past Parinita to help the arrivals. She stood, transfixed, her eyes scanning slowly around the scene.

Across the street, Major Madiha Nakar dismounted, holding a towel to her head.

Slowly she left the half-track’s side and ambled toward the stairway. At the foot, she looked up and locked eyes with Parinita. The secretary dropped the handset and fought back tears.

“I am sorry for making you worry.” Madiha said. “You were probably right about this.”

Without a word Parinita rushed down the steps and threw her arms around Madiha.

“Stop being sorry for things when nothing’s actually your fault!” She wailed.

Madiha stroked her hair. “I know that now. I was being wrongheaded about things. You could say I had sort of a revelation today. I can’t tell you that everything’s fixed upstairs; but I’ve never felt it easier to talk or think. Reminds me of the film Flashing Before My Eyes.”

Parinita cried softly into her chest. Madiha went silent, and held her in embrace.

“That film was so stupid.” Parinita finally whimpered. “Nobody has dreams like that.”

 

30th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice, Postill Square KVW camp

Councilman Yuba finished recounting the events of the 28th of the Gloom as he saw them, from the information that the Council had managed to acquire. It had been a pivotal day across the entire warring front, as Warden Kansal and Admiral Qote knew all too well. Now it seemed that the Council was waking up to that fact as well, and to the pressing need for action.

No Councilman acted alone. They always had their little cliques. That Yuba could come here to the KVW camp and meet with the striking soldiers, showed more than just his own convictions. It meant there was a faction in the Council that propelled the old man to move forward.

After going over his long story, the Councilman gestured toward the Warden.

“So you see, Warden Kansal, the events of the 28th, now that they have trickled over to the Council, have put you in a better position. Knyskna fell, but Bada Aso stands. Nocht’s powerful Panzer Divisions took over one city but failed to take the other. We know the reason.”

“You know it, but I’m not so sure your fellows are so open to it.” Kansal said.

Councilman Yuba stretched out his hand, and Kansal took it, holding it firmly.

“Warden, I think if we play our cards right we can promote the idea that it was your leadership and the KVW’s expertise that was the decisive factor in the battles of the 28th. Under Council guidance Knyskna fell miserably to the enemy, but under your leadership Bada Aso stood. Yes, my fellows will wish to extract compromise. But they will relent on the key points. It is a way forward for all of us. Step by step, we may yet be able to win back the Council.”

“You better be sure of it.” Admiral Qote interjected. “We’re done playing political games.”

“I cannot promise you anything except that we have an opportunity on our hands, and I am willing to stick by your side until it can be fully exploited.” Councilman Yuba said. “I have been sitting on my hands trying to make a peace that won’t come. It’s time I picked a side.”

“What about our contrarian friends, like Mansa? What do they think?” Kansal said.

Councilman Yuba smiled. “I believe they may be more vulnerable than we thought.”

* * *

Next chapter in Generalplan Suden — Zugzwang

 

 

Stormlit Memories — Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains depictions of violence and death as well as psychological and emotional stress, depression and suicidal ideation.

* * *

Under incessant rain the revolver was cold, slippery and heavy in her little hands. They were hands not meant for weapons. No one designed weapons meant for those soft little hands. But those hands had been unknowingly destined for the wielding of weapons.

There was blood on her hands now to prove it.

She did not quite realize what had happened. Her mind filtered it differently.

Like any child who had completed a task, she had simply returned to the adult who issued.

“I made the bad guy go away. He won’t hurt you now.” 

It was almost like those words were not her own, but she had said it and she had done it.

There was silence between them. There was only the rain and the cold and the tension.

She offered the gun back to its owner. It had done what it was constructed to do.

“I don’t like it. It’s heavy. It hurt my wrist. And it only has five things in it.”

A meter away from her lay the woman, squirming against the wall of the alley, her own blood soaking down her clothes into a puddle over the uneven stones. At first the child had thought her beautiful, and she still did, she still saw the beauty and power in that face, that grave expression, though now she understood that it was tempered with pain. She was wrapped in a ragged cloak, but her face was visible, that beautiful face with its long nose, red lips and striking eyes, eyes drawing wide with the realization of what had been transacted between them. The child knew that she had a complicated, adult beauty. She was not an angel or spirit.

From this woman’s hands the child had procured the gun and heard the desperate plea.

“Don’t let him kill me.” It was a tormented voice she spoke with. “Please.”

This child knew about complicated, adult things. So she was drawn to do what she could.

Around the corner, out of their sight, was the corpse to prove the result.

For as long as she could remember, whether it be with sticks or stones, with paper airplanes or jars of glue, Madiha Nakar had never missed a shot if she had time to aim.

And she’d learned that people sometimes stopped being trouble if you hit them in the head.

Slowly the woman forced herself to stand, pushing her back against the wall, stretching her legs, clutching her wound. She wrapped her free hand around Madiha and pushed her close. Madiha felt the blood getting on her from the woman’s body.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” She mumbled. Madiha could not see her face. The revolver fell on the ground, slipping away from them with the trickling water. Madiha returned the embrace, wrapping her arms gently around the woman. To her there was nothing to be sorry for.

“Police men here are bad. I didn’t want them to hurt you too. Madiha replied. “I don’t want people to get hurt by bad men anymore. I wanted to get him back for being bad.”

The woman knelt in front of her, until they were eye to eye. She looked shocked. But Madiha was determined and she knew what she was saying, and she knew it was an adult thing in a child’s words and she didn’t care. She had never been afforded the peace needed to be an ordinary, innocent child. She was a child of strict discipline and distant bells and bolted doors and a terrible escape. She was a child of splintered wood, broken glass, shattered stones.

Madiha was a child who rarely saw beauty and wanted desperately to guard it.

Back then there had been no greater motivation than that. That was her forgotten origin.

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”

On the dawn of the 28th Madiha awoke again with a nightmare.

Her reaction to these ugly visions was no longer fearful.

She did not jerk out of her sleep and seek a hidden predator.

All of that preternatural terror was replaced by a deep weariness.

Madiha situated herself quickly, and pushed everything else deep down into a pit where it would not be seen. She focused on the material. She was in her office, the air was cool, the atmosphere was quiet. She heard rain. Remembering the day’s business, she stood from her desk, adjusted her tie and uniform, the fabric and buttons slipping from her shaking hands. Standing by the office window, Parinita watched the skies with obvious trepidation.

She had been watching the skies since the day before, when they first went out under the rain and exchanged a few forceful words. The Weather battalion was ambivalent about the growing intensity of the rain. Both of them knew this would not stop Madiha on this day, however.

Parinita turned briefly over her shoulder. Their eyes met and then avoided one another again.

“Good morning,” Madiha said. Her mouth felt strangely heavy. She had a tic in her jaw, and felt her cheek spasm when she closed her lips behind the words.

“Good morning, Madiha.” Parinita said. She saluted, clipboard pressed against her chest. She was not so cheerful anymore, none of them were. Her disheveled light red hair was gathered into a ponytail, and her skin looked clammy. Her lips curled into a forced smirk.

After their disagreement yesterday, they behaved awkwardly to each other.

Outside the skies gradually darkened, and the drizzling gradually escalated. A growing wind blew droplets against the window, blurring Madiha’s view of the street. Without breakfast or even a drink of water to assuage their dry throats, the Commander and her Secretary set out to their only planned business of the day. They gathered around the desk and spread open a map of the lower city and had their meeting, as fast as they could have it, before Madiha set out to carry out her “survey.” On the ground the situation had not changed much from the day before. Matumaini had been blasted out of relevance — it was almost literally a pit now.

Action would certainly focus on Penance Road and Umaiha, but thus far, nothing had happened for two days. Parinita briefed her on the state of the various units as quickly as she could, and outlined what the division commanders seemed to have in the works — a big load of nothing from the Territorial Army officers, the paltry few that they possessed. These were men and women who had trouble enough with transporting troops along big lines on a map.

They would not be launching offensives. They were barely able to organize reinforcements.

Penance Road was being held by a strip units in and around the old Cathedral. Umaiha had a mishmash of units straddling both sides of the river, hoping for the best. The 3rd KVW Motor Rifles was on standby, acting as a mobile reserve and defense. They could respond to any attack within the hour, if an attack had to be responded to at all.

“Your Motor Rifles Division has requested a bit of operational freedom today.”

“I approve. Leave them to their devices. I trust them to engineer a victory.” Madiha said.

“Yes ma’am.” Parinita said dutifully. “Lieutenant Batuzi has told me he is following a few leads we got on Nochtish activity from the Signals Intercept battalion today.”

“I trust he will perform admirably.” Madiha said. She felt frustrated to have this conversation. At this point there was nothing she could do. The Strategic turn of the battle was over. Both sides were in position and following through to their general objectives. They had their supply lines set, and their general formation could not rapidly change. It was all real time tactics from here, and no matter how much she wanted it, that was not the domain of the Army HQ.

Madiha shook her head. She could not command eight divisions by herself. It was not possible. She could not even command one by herself — she needed to stay behind the lines and insure that the strategic plan was fulfilled by the army as a whole. Even the little excursion she had planned for today jeopardized her ability to respond to a crisis.

But she was sure she would lose her mind if she stayed in this office any longer.

“Is something wrong, Madiha?” Parinita asked. She stared at her with a gentle expression.

“Nothing is wrong, Warrant Officer. I will go on survey with an Engineering company today, out to Umaiha. We must fuel the final act of the Hellfire plan. I won’t be long.”

Parinita raised an eyebrow. “Warrant Officer; what? Really?”

Madiha gave no reply, and made no eye contact. This was one time when the words did not escape her mouth without thinking. Parinita looked exasperated, clearly unsettled by the cold, distant reference. This was for her own good; for everyone’s own good. She had been too weak and let everyone come too close and it would take their toll on them in the end.

They were more valuable than her — Parinita was more valuable than her. She did not want her to come close and find the thorns in Madiha’s hide, punishing her embrace. She had already seen too much of the monster inside. She had already wasted too much time worrying and weeping over a purposeless thing. Everyone needed distance now; nobody could be allowed to see any more of Madiha before the end of this. It was for their own good.

Bless her heart, Parinita tried — she was not giving up on Madiha so easily.

“I don’t mean to pry, but have you taken your medicine lately?” She asked.

“Not since that day.” Madiha clutched the side of her head. It was starting to hurt.

Parinita sighed. “Madiha, you’re really a creature of extremes aren’t you? I wanted you to stop abusing your medication not to stop taking it at all. Please take it.”

Madiha felt a chill hearing her name from those gentle lips. It was like a heresy.

And yet despite all her convictions she couldn’t form the words to stop her or resist.

She sighed inside. Her mind was torn in a dozen directions at this point.

“Wherever your medication ended up, please take it.” Parinita said. “You need it.”

“I do not need it.” Madiha said. “It was only a source of greater strife. I am fine.”

“Are you sure? I think that you should take it, but if you insist, then I guess I can’t–“

“I am sure. Now, did you hear what I said before this? It is important.”

Madiha tried more forcefully to redirect the discussion to military matters.

“Yes, you’ve told me a few dozen times already about your ill conceived plan to survey the Umaiha tunnels, a mission that Sergeant Agni could command just fine by herself if you would delegate it to her.” Parinita pointedly replied. “I’ve already told you what I think.”

“I need to be there. I was the architect of this operation,  I should carry it out.”

“If you say so,” the secretary dismissively replied.

Madiha felt inexplicably annoyed. “You have taken a liking to that response.”

“I’ve already told you what I think. I can’t actually stop you.” Parinita said. She sounded hurt. “Especially since you are making it a habit now not to listen to my concerns.”

She was the Staff Secretary; she had limited influence. Her role was crucial — she had to gather information and pass it to Madiha. She had to listen to an army’s worth of concerns and discoveries and intercepts and she had to compile it with her staff day by day, and she had to sort out what Madiha needed to know and then figure out a way to deliver it to her. Without Parinita and her staff, everything would be impossible. There would be too much information to handle. No single person could listen and respond to so much information. So it was not just personal, in a way, it was also professional, that she would feel hurt and impeded.

But Madiha did not pick up that hurt, or she ignored it. She was not sure what her mind was doing anymore. “Have some faith in me.” She said. It came out more strongly than she wanted. It sounded like a demand more than a plea. It sounded like asking her to turn a blind eye.

It sounded like she was saying she would destroy herself and Parinita would watch.

And the secretary knew it. “You keep saying that and you’ve no idea how unfair it is.”

Neither of them said anything more. Madiha focused on the maps, though there was nothing new there for her to see. Parinita waited for a response, but finally admitted defeat, and picked up several papers from the desk, clipped them on her board, and went on her way. She paused at the door and put a hand on the frame, as though she needed to hold on to it to prevent being swept away by a current. Her fingers tightened around the grooves. She looked over her shoulder for a brief moment and whimpered a few words before departing.

“Good luck on your mission, Commander.” She said, unsmiling, eyes wetting.

Madiha was left alone in the room, her cruel mind quickly filling in the silence. Parinita’s voice bounced off the walls of her cranium, and she felt the agonizing palpitations. Her thoughts were a whirlpool of Parinita’s words blending together. Things she had said in their meetings, across the ten days they had been together, came to Madiha unbidden, booming like howitzer shells. Her smiling lips, her concerned eyes, her warm hand on Madiha’s shoulder–

She crouched behind her desk, opened a drawer, and withdrew a little container.

She produced a little white pill and she swallowed it dry.

She laid with her back against the desk and kicked closed the door to the office.

“There. I listened to you. I’m listening.” Madiha whimpered. She felt sick and weak.

They had to be distant — it was for everyone’s good. It was for everyone’s good. Even when the tears came to her eyes, when the pounding in her head grew unbearable, when the shaking in her hands would not stop, when everything broke down — she was alone and this was for everyone’s good. For the good of every soldier out there fighting and dying while she read her maps and felt her deep shame and hid her face and averted her eyes. Until she joined them in the earth she did not deserve their lips speaking her damnable name. They had to see nothing of her but her cold confidence, so that they would meet the bullets feeling bold.

To the shaking, the agony, the tears, only the stone could be a witness.

It was for everyone’s good. Even hers, she thought– she was sure.

“You won’t have to watch, Parinita. You won’t have to watch.” She mumbled.

* * *

Sergeant Agni was on her way out of the building when Madiha composed herself enough to leave her office and travel downstairs. Her timing could not have been better. Barbiturates pumping through her blood, the facade reconstructed, she confidently intercepted Agni on the steps outside. The Engineer had a bit of oil on her brown cheek, and her long, black hair was gathered in a haphazard bun behind her head. She had left the lobby quite briskly and with a purpose, her tool box dangling from the fingers on her left hand.

Hujambo, Commander.” She said. “I was going to eat breakfast before we left.”

“Working hard?” Madiha asked. Her voice sounded close to lifeless as Agni’s.

“I spent the morning preparing the equipment for today’s trial.” Sgt. Agni said.

“Far more work than I did, I’m sure.” Madiha said. She meant it as a bit of friendly self-deprecating humor, but some of that shame was poisoning her words.

“Perhaps, but I managed it on a full night’s sleep, and I know that you did not.” Sgt. Agni said. Quickly she added. “Would you like to join me, Commander? I suspect we will be out in the field for several hours. Best to leave the base with a full stomach.”

Madiha nodded. “Sound advice. I wouldn’t want to get in your way.”

Sgt. Agni blinked and stared for a moment before leading the Commander away.

Outside the headquarters, in an old drug store across the street from the school that still had power and structure, civilians ran a makeshift field kitchen for the soldiers.

From behind the old drug store counters they ladled stews and sauces onto serving trays, handed out bread and drinks, unpacked dried vegetables and stock powders from trucks and mixed them with oil and water, and perhaps most importantly, they offered encouragement and camaraderie to the passing soldiers on this rainy, miserable day.

Many of these rear echelon laborers, the ones unloading, preparing and serving the food, were volunteers, who had chosen to stay behind and become involved in the defense. When not serving food they also set down sandbags, loaded trucks, manufactured ammunition, manned the phones, and performed light repairs; among a myriad other tasks.

There were a few thousand city residents who remained behind and remained busy.

Without them, Madiha’s difficult effort would have become close to impossible.

Among the civilians there was a sizeable contingent of reservists — soldiers who had been stripped from the Territorial Army by Demilitarization downsizing policies. They thought of themselves as warriors still, unable to abandon the front now that there was finally war. They knew more than the average person about what needed to be done in a theater of battle, so they mobilized more quickly and took on more responsibility without complaint.

These were the most energetic and useful folk. Perhaps they needed to be.

Though they did not have uniforms to spare for them, Madiha thought it right to bolster their confidence by issuing them small arms. But there were no pistols brandished in the field kitchen. Instead the reservists heaved big pots of dal and curry, baskets of flatbread, large pitchers of fruit juices and flavored milk. They served soldier and civilian alike, engineers, laborers, signals staff, frontline soldiers, resting tank and truck crews, and they smiled equally at every face before them. Sometimes they broke into a few verses of marching song while the line organized and moved. Many were marching songs from their days in basic training.

Sgt. Agni and Madiha picked trays from a stack near the door, and stood in line with men and women in traditional long robes and cloaks, in dust-covered overalls, in one piece jumpsuits with masks dangling off their necks, in military uniforms with weapons hung over their backs. There was little chatter among them, but everyone seemed to be in good humor, rocking their heads and tapping their feet to the marching songs of the food service.

Some of the people in the line even joined in the songs. They were simple songs, often repeating uncomplicated rhymes about equipment and landmarks. One popular song in Madiha’s House was about a soldier going down to the train station to drink palm wine while watching Goblin tanks loading into cars. One whole verse was about the tank’s specs.

In their current circumstances that particular verse took a somewhat macabre character, but nobody but Madiha seemed to think of it that way. Everyone was enjoying it.

Normally Madiha ate whatever Parinita or other staff brought to her office.

But she had to admit, this was an invigorating atmosphere. She was among her people.

Though the line seemed long from the outside, there were multiple servers and people were moving to the tables next door very quickly. Briskly the Commander and Sergeant made their way to the counter. Sgt. Agni held out her tray, and received a crisp green salad with citrus slices, a large spoonful of lentil dal, a pair of flatbreads and a tomato curry over rice. Sgt. Agni opted for water. At the same time, Madiha was about to receive the same service from another server, but the young man looked captivated with her and paused.

“You’re Commander Nakar aren’t you? Everyone, the Commander is here!”

Around the room there was a singular voice, delivering a warm Hujambo! to Madiha.

“I’m sorry if it’s awkward, but we’ve been waiting to see you here! We thought you’d be too busy and that we would never be able to see you in the flesh.”

Madiha hardly knew what to say. She was surprised by their reaction. “I have been busy.”

“I’m sorry for taking up your time — but we all owe so much to you, Commander,” said the Server, “we’ve all been wanting to make it up to you. A week ago we thought everything was hopeless, that there was no resisting Nocht. We felt like it was all coming to an end for us. They defeated the Cisseans and the Mamlakhans so easily a few years ago, in mere weeks. Major Gowon never instilled much confidence in us. We heard rumors that the Council was going to give up on the city, that Solstice was ready to desert us, but we are still holding on to our city because of you. In the time Nocht took over Cissea, they’ve crossed a few streets here!”

Madiha felt herself wither under his gaze. She could feel the eyes of the room on her too.

“Your courage has saved so many of us. Were it not for you my brother would have never made it back from the border. He’s just a kid, and yet Gowon kept him in the army, and kicked me down to the reserve. If we lost him like that, spirits defend, my family would have been heartbroken — he’s such a good boy, and so loyal to country and comrades. I’m sorry Commander but I’m just,” he looked very emotional, shedding tears.

Everyone in the room seemed uplifted by the man’s speech. He saluted the Major.

“I’m so glad for you, Commander. So glad we all have someone like you now.”

One by one everyone in the line, soldier and civilian, raised a hand to their forehead.

All of the room was saluting. Even Sergeant Agni felt compelled to raise her hand.

Madiha was stunned, and a thousand evil thoughts raced to her mind all at once, and she almost teared up in front of the serving line. She wanted to shout at them, to ask them pointedly why they thought of her in such a way. What did they see in her? What made them think she deserved their admiration; what made them think she was worthy of praise; what conditions had she fulfilled to become their heroine all of a sudden? How could they put these hopes in her and in no others? How did they even see a person before them, and not a toad, a coward, a monster? Through what eyes did these delusions turn so rose-colored?

Her command? She had drafted a map and given orders that killed thousands!

At the border? She spoke through a radio and gave artillery coordinates!

Why did they see her this way? Why did they burden her with their hope?

But she said none of these things. She said nothing at all.

Instead she raised her hand in salute. Around the room, salutes turned to claps.

Triumphantly the Server who spoke filled her plate. She received her yellow vegetable stew and red curry and her lentils, an extra flatbread, as much drink as she wanted — which was no more than anyone else. Plate fully loaded, she followed the line out a side door to an adjacent building, where the laborers had erected as many tables as they could. This was a half-ruined space that still had enough of a roof to block the elements, and many of the tables were uneven, but nobody complained. Madiha and Sergeant Agni sat at the same table as a few quiet privates, who took bashful peeks at Madiha over their food. Sgt. Agni opened a pack of plastic utensils and basic condiments, likely drawn from a ration crate, and distributed them.

Madiha nibbled her food and tried to clear her head, to remain solid, upright. There were eyes everywhere that needed to see something powerful, however false. They could not see her faltering. Not now — they had made it clear that they depended strongly on her. Everyone saw her as The Hero of the Border and those among them old enough to remember the Civil War might even know she was a Hero of the Socialist Dominances, an award given to her while catatonic in a hospital. She felt like a liar, a manipulator, but she needed to be.

Despite this necessity it still haunted her, for these people to see her in such a way, to depend in her, to take strength from her. She was always the goblet, the thing to be filled, with the will of others, with the loyalty toward others, with the strength of others. She sought people to complete her, to give her a purpose, to fill her with themselves where she had nothing. When did she become those others, who filled people’s hearts with their grace? She did not want this. She felt like she had deceived these people. If they saw inside her, they’d recoil from it.

They would lose their will; like her they would become shaken with despair.

She was not a hero, not a worthy commander; they wished too hard to see this in her.

Other people were suffering in her cowardly name right now. Maybe even that man’s brother. She had not saved him, she had acted like any military officer, with the calculating coldness to see that he died correctly on another date. She could not possibly be a hero.

Heroes defied death; they prevented it. They found a way to obviate sacrifice.

Whenever Madiha pinned a unit on a map she demanded sacrifices she could not stop.

 

1st Vorkampfer Corps Headquarters

“We have an important day ahead of us!” General Anton Von Sturm shouted, atop a table in the middle of the room. “I do not want to see any more mistakes! We are going to comb through the objectives until each one of you knows them better than your names! Let us start!”

Before the dawn on the 28th of the Aster’s Gloom, the restaurant serving as the 1st Vorkampfer’s home was full of activity. Helga Fruehauf and her radio girls checked their equipment; General Anschel, a small, wide man with a heavy beard departed to rejoin the headquarters for his departing 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions; Generals Von Drachen and Meist assembled along with a gaggle of staff officers around General Von Sturm, the chief architect of their current course of action. Outside the sky was still dark, the atmosphere cold. The drizzling rain maintained little puddles that had built on the streets over the course of the past few days. There was a stiff breeze that seemed to pick up intensity over time.

They would move with sun, so they had to plan in the gloom.

Together they went through the current situation; as if teaching a kindergarten class, Von Sturm slowly worked his way up to recent history. Ayvarta was controlled by totalitarian communists, he said, who spat upon constitutions like Nocht’s, funded terrorism in the free northern countries and smuggled arms and harmful drugs to criminals. To this end, Nocht launched an invasion supported by the Government-In-Exile of one empress Mary Trueday, with the hopes of raising her to power once again and having a compliant Ayvartan ally. To achieve this ultimate goal, Generalplan Suden was carefully laid out — Von Sturm puffed himself up and proudly proclaimed his own hand in supplying consultation for Suden. Like the Bada Aso siege, it was in part his brainchild. And for Suden to remain on time they had to be out of Bada Aso and at the Tambwean border before the 35th. Thus, this day had to be decisive.

Von Sturm emphasized decisive and he eyed the generals maliciously as he did.

Matumaini was once the preferred path forward, but due to recent events it was too problematic. Due to the destruction leveled at the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd block, a bridgelayer would have to be used to cross in any reasonable timeframe, and it was too vulnerable to the Ayvartans controlling the other side of the gap. Thus it was forgotten, and for the past 2 days, their forces reorganized along the two remaining lanes north. On Penance Road to the west, a Cathedral had become a redoubt for Ayvartan forces, and Von Sturm’s own 13th Panzergrenadiers was making ready to challenge it. On the eastern side of the city, the Riverside District would be challenged by Von Drachen’s Azul Corps. Meanwhile, 6th Grenadier under Meist had covertly deployed its artillery in Buxa, moving pieces at night and slipping in through thin corridors between the Ayvartan’s overstretched defenses between Penance and Matumaini. This artillery would support 13th PzG in their attack on the Cathedral.

At this point Von Drachen raised his hands. He had a nagging curiosity.

Von Sturm stared at him with distaste. “What is it, Von Drachen?”

“Why don’t the Panzer Grenadiers simply drive through Buxa and past Penance, ignoring the static position on the Cathedral entirely?” Von Drachen asked.

“We have received intelligence that the Ayvartans have tunnels under the city they can use to get an upper hand if we try to outflank them.” Von Sturm said. “We cannot leave any of their redoubts behind or we stand the chance of a regiment tunneling out in our wake.”

“How much reinforcement can they expect to perform through underground tunnels? Maybe a platoon at a time, certainly nothing heavy.” Von Drachen pressed gently. “You can play to your strengths by speeding past their defenses, creating a corridor forward, through which rear line units can move to surround the Cathedral, and force either a decisive action from the Ayvartans, or the starvation and defeat of the redoubt without direct engagement.”

“Your suggestion would just create disorder in our lines Von Drachen! It is an unneeded diversion! We are pushing forward methodically, clearing out each sector, and that is final! We will not give the Ayvartans more opportunities to booby trap every inch of ground along Penance road! I want a direct way forward, and I will carve out! Is that clear?”

Von Sturm was shouting at the top of his lungs. Von Drachen smiled.

“I understand. Please continue the briefing.” He said, unaffected.

Everyone in the room sighed, while Von Sturm’s hands closed into fists and shook at his sides.

Thus the briefing resumed. The 13th Panzergrenadiers would attack with a regiment forward, trickling in units to probe every way through Penance and Buxa until they had hurled the Ayvartan line right out of the southern district. They would depend on their rapid deployment and reinforcement as well as their superior firepower, and make it a slugging match with that Cathedral — their superior combat power would allow them to bleed the place dead with minimal losses, and leave no Ayvartans behind the Nochtish line to cause trouble.

Along the eastern edge of Bada Aso, the Umaiha river straddled much of the exterior of the city, and in the Umaiha Riverside district it veered west, right into the city, curled once toward the south for several kilometers, and was then funneled west again, under the city and out to the ocean. Right now the Ayvartans controlled everything west of the curl and north of the veer — a crossing on each side would have to be effected by Azul, using all the firepower available to them. Von Drachen had nothing to say to this — he knew his plan already.

One final dimension to the day’s events was the Kalu, a massive stretch of chaotic wooded hillside that made up the space between Bada Aso and the Shaila dominance in the east, the Kucha mountains in the northeast, and Tambwe in the north. Intelligence indicated that some military formation had to be hiding in the Kalu, and it would be drawn to battle against the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions. Their objectives were to push over 50 kilometers through the Kucha, and then veer westward, crossing the zig-zagging Umaiha at several points, and finally turning diagonally back toward the city and flanking the city defenders behind their lines. They would penetrate through northern areas of the city’s eastern limits, areas that were not protected by the Umaiha, and rush through with their superior firepower.

In the confusion, Azul would push fiercely and link with elements of the Panzer Divisions, completing and securing a major breach. That would be the end of Bada Aso.

One decisive day ahead of them. How soon would the 28th be a triumph behind them?

“Any questions?” Von Sturm asked.

Nobody responded because nobody was supposed to. This was Von Sturm’s indication that he was done, and that any mistakes would henceforth fall on the individual, and he washed his hands of them. Fruehauf and her cadre returned to their radios. Meist left the room unceremoniously. Staff dispersed every which way. Gradually the restaurant emptied again. Von Sturm sat on his table with his hands on his chin. He breathed out in exasperation.

“What do you want this time Von Drachen?” He asked.

From the edge of the room Von Drachen smiled and approached the table.

He took a seat across from Von Sturm, and raised his own hands to his chin.

“My good man, can I borrow your sword for the day?” Von Drachen asked.

Von Sturm’s voice went suddenly flat, void of inflection.

“What?”

He stared at Von Drachen, his left eye twitching. “What sword?”

“You have an officer’s ceremonial sword. I was never given one.”

“What do you want it for?” Von Sturm was so taken aback he was responding earnestly.

“I want your blessing — I should say, I need your blessing. I want a symbol of you.”

Von Sturm’s eyes drew wide. “I don’t understand a word you are saying.”

Von Drachen nodded. “I have been hassled by your Security division a few times already trying to move between the front lines and the rear echelon, and I want something to show them so that they will shut up quickly. A symbol of your authority.” He replied.

“That’s not supposed to be happening. I can just have Fruehauf call them.”

“While you do that, I’d like to head to my front lines as quickly as possible, and the first check point is a kilometer away. Can I borrow your sword? It would be quicker.”

Von Sturm seemed to be grappling with the logic behind Von Drachen’s request. He covered his mouth with one hand, rubbing his lips. He stared at Von Drachen’s eyes, and his expression was empty of the rancor or mischief that characterized him. He looked dazed. On his part, Von Drachen was very serious. He thought, if he had the sword, a Nochtish officer’s sword, then those idiots from Security would not talk to him. They would not look at him, they would not appear near him. He thought, if he confronted another Security officer, he would wring the man’s neck, and hurl his carcass at another man nearby. There would be violence.

So, a sword — he could show it, nobody would speak, and he would move.

Failing that, he could open a man’s ribcage with it. But he wanted to avoid that.

He hoped that his honesty, earnestness and good intention would get through to General Von Sturm. Across the table from him, the General was catatonic for several minutes.

Finally Von Sturm seemed to have caught up to everything. He grit his teeth.

“It’s upstairs with my formal uniform. Just take it and go and don’t say anything again.”

Von Drachen nodded, stood, returned his seat to the table, and went on his way.

He stepped outside, under the rain, and waited. He looked over his shoulder at the door every few minutes. Finally a man older than him, in a beige uniform, dark tanned and thickly bearded, appeared holding a golden scabbard and hilt. He presented the weapon to Von Drachen with some trepidation, his meaty, wrinkled hands shaking around the purloined weapon in his grasp.

“Is this alright General?” He asked.

“Yes, I have permission. Thank you for fetching it, Gutierrez.”

Von Drachen took the sword and affixed it to the outside of his black trench-coat, where it could easily be seen. He adjusted his peaked cap over his head. His facial features, sharp and stiff, contorted slowly into an amused smile. He was still getting wet. He did not quite care.

“Is my personal battalion ready, Colonel? Unfortunately this will be an efffortful day.”

At his side the older Colonel smiled fondly. “We are ready, sir.”

 

Umaiha Riverside, 31st Engineers Survey

Around noon the first lightning bolts fell over Bada Aso, but the rain was barely above a light shower and the sky was a pale gray. Though the river stirred, it was not yet a threat nor projected to be one. Unaware of how quickly the weather could escalate, Madiha joined the survey company without any sense of urgency. The day’s mission took the 31st KVW Engineering Battalion’s “A” Company down the side of the river in the southeast district.

These riverside paths were several meters above the water, and out the back of their trucks and the sides of their tractors the engineers could see the water rushing through the stone channel, the defining feature of the district. It was the ability to command these waters that transformed the district into a place of lovers, of trendy shops and fine restaurants, and, after the Empire, a burgeoning industry now annihilated by evacuation and bombing.

All Madiha remembered was moonlit walks and sweet kisses, however much she tried not to.

Riverside Street, one of those kissing places, was the main thoroughfare in the southeast district, the Matumaini and Penance of the city’s eastern limits. From the Kucha mountains in the northeast the Umaiha rushed diagonally toward Bada Aso, taking the path of least resistance through the Kalu region. It straddled over half of Bada Aso’s eastern boundary before veering sharply west inside the limits themselves, and then curling again south, three quarters of the way into the easterly district. Along this southern curl Riverside’s two lanes of traffic were split, joined only through intermittent bridges over gap a few dozen meters wide.

Finally the river shifted westward again to find the sea, and Riverside street veered too and took a new name. Several decades ago at the peak of the Empire, the river had been forced underground. Matumaini, Penance, Buxa; such places had been paved over the tamed river. A show of force of humans over nature, largely to profit everyone but the people living over the old river. Madiha could not drive far enough south to see the river vanish again — that was the front line. Instead the column halted its advance a few kilometers behind the front line.

They veered up a cobblestone street toward the interior. They parked along a block of buildings, many lightly damaged by bombs. Most of the old buildings had been spared a direct assault, and some, build of rock rather than brick, had even survived a rocket or light bomb.

Only one building nearby was reduced to rubble, and that was the Goloka restaurant.

This was another place full of unwanted memories that now bubbled up from Madiha’s injured mind. Around her the engineers dismounted their vehicles and equipped themselves with their tools. Cutters were used to snap open locks on sunken little doors set into the alleys between old buildings. These doors lead into cellars and those cellars into tunnels.

Gas masks were distributed for the exploration — there were nasty fumes lying dormant beneath the ground, if one followed the right (or wrong) tunnels. While the chemical troops inspected their share of the underground, other squadrons inspected the damage and remaining durability of nearby buildings and the street, assessing their capability to resist future punishment. They measured craters on the street, checked the ages and material composition of the damaged homes, searched for pieces of bombs or rocket shells, and tried to assemble a postmortem assessment of the block, and whether it was even safe for continued use.

If it was not, then they would have to level or booby trap everything to repulse the Cisseans.

Meanwhile, Madiha stared distantly at the restaurant. Inside the inviting facade the roof had collapsed, spilling out from the doorway like a tongue, a tongue from a ruined mouth beneath a brow battered open. She could not help but humanize the structure, to see it as a murdered thing, as a living being gored before her eyes. She still tasted Chakrani on that terrible night. She felt the hurt freshly, and felt additional hurt, because the location that bore witness to that last tender moment was gone. It was another casualty that she could not prevent.

Soon nothing of Bada Aso would remain. She would never be able to expiate for her sins.

“We will meet up with the special squad soon.” Sgt. Agni tonelessly said. She looked on the Goloka with her dull eyes. “Do you recognize this building?”

“My girlfriend and I visited once. We had a falling out near the river over there.”

Sergeant Agni was a comforting presence. Madiha had served with her in the motor rifles before, in Mamlakha. She could not say she really knew her; to what extent did she really know anyone? But she was a familiar face, and a familiar voice, and they were used to each other.

She did not want to be tempted to vulnerability near her — but she could vent a little, right?

“It is a morbid feeling to stand here and see a place where we shared a kiss, perhaps our most passionate kiss, broken under a bomb. There was so much I could not stop.”

Sgt. Agni nodded. “With respect, you are young and handsome and likely to bounce back.”

Madiha almost laughed, but she knew she would have sounded bitter rather than amused.

“Have you ever been in love, Sergeant Agni?” She was getting carried away now.

“I do not know. I have found people sexually attractive, but it was nothing profound.”

“I was in love.” Now she truly sounded bitter, and she could not stop. She didn’t want to. “But my ambivalence tore it all apart. I felt a drive away from peace and warmth, but I wanted so desperately to keep it in addition. I thought I could fill myself up everything she wanted to give me, and that regardless of what I chose to do afterwards, I could always come back and nothing would change. I never gave anything back — I never had anything to give back. I took, and I didn’t even know that was what I was doing. I was filling the absence of something, and leaving behind when I was fed. Maybe if I had settled, things would be different.”

Sgt. Agni said nothing. What could she say? She knew nothing of any of the people involved.

It was foolish for Madiha to continue. She had wanted to wave her hand and dissipate all of these vulnerabilities but water (perhaps blood) kept seeping through the cracks, winding its way and eroding deeper and greater fissures in her facade. This time, it was all the same as before.  She was pulled too many ways at once, and she just ended up broken in the same manner over and over again. She wanted both the grave strength and the genuine warmth, so she had none.

She had wanted the world of light and love and peace to fill all the dark cracks in the monument of her life, all those moments lost to violence and chaos and never to return. And yet, the scything blade of history called to her again and again. Always she and Chakrani wrestled with this ambivalence, this desire to chase after the forgotten child hero of the old war. For a time they made love, they played house, each desiring the other above all else. But ultimately, war called to her, for the final fateful act. Overnight, Chakrani’s Madiha was gone.

Instead she became Kimani’s “Right Hand of Death,” hunting spies for years.

Now she became “The Hero of the Border,” a phantom created to repel Nocht.

Always something filled her, because she had nothing of her own but to chase after War.

War — “the scything blade of history” — could not be escaped. Was she born to it?

What was its promise? What was it that lured her away from comfort in the light?

Her mind flailed behind her cold facade, and it settled on a tragic conclusion.

Yes, it all made sense, when one played with thoughts of inhumanity.

Over twenty years ago during the Ayvartan Civil War there was a child named Madiha Nakar who would become entangled in events beyond her reckoning, and become a hero to people who would slowly forget as the need to remember was lost; as she herself would forget. Perhaps, in truth, this child, whose mind was lost to those events, was born without a purpose, without an origin. Perhaps there was never a Madiha Nakar who was lost, who never completed her childhood, who never lived in the world as others did, who never became a human to anyone’s reckoning, because there was no Madiha Nakar at all. Perhaps there was not now a Madiha Nakar and perhaps there was not then a Madiha Nakar. Perhaps she was a fleeting will that had been born to die. More blood for the scything blade. So much was absent — it made sense.

War offered her only the promise of death. That was the purpose.

Her mind was void of anything else. What would drive Madiha to do anything?

It wasn’t even a question because there was no concrete Madiha in her mind.

“Commander, are you alright? You are shaking.” Sgt. Agni asked.

Reflexively, as though the only thing left of her still thinking rationally were her hands, Madiha withdrew her barbiturates, and drank a pill. She felt it go roughly down her throat.

“I might need to see a doctor about my dosage.” Madiha said, her voice falsely amicable.

Sgt. Agni nodded. Without further comment she left and rejoined the survey company’s efforts.

Madiha took one last look at the remains of the Goloka. Staggered by storming memories she peeled herself away from the ruin, taking heavy steps away with Sgt. Agni. She thought if she looked at it any more she would have wanted to be buried with the rubble.

While the voices quieted, Madiha still felt obliterated, as though truly turned to nothing.

 

Central District Headquarters, “Madiha’s House”

“We haven’t even gotten to talk about a movie for a while.”

Parinita watched the column depart from the office window. At first she sighed, but the sighs turned to tears. She tried to squelch the first drops with the back of her hand, but her mouth started to make sobs, and her body turned cold and shook. She closed the door, and lay behind Madiha’s desk, slamming her back in frustration against the hard wood and the metal frame.

For what seemed like hours she remained behind that desk, her legs stretched against the door to keep it closed shut, shedding copious tears, and berating herself. She beat her head against the desk, and bawled out loud. Never before had she felt so helpless and useless.

She felt like such a fool. Madiha’s fire was growing brighter and stranger before her eyes, and her actions had become erratic and dangerous. She could be consumed at any moment and still Parinita had failed to explain to her anything of what she knew!

But there was a shuddering in her chest whenever she imagined that conversation.

She felt a terrible anxiety toward it and it always gave her pause. Damnable weakness!

Deep in her heart she feared that Madiha would not understand. What if all of this was solely in Parinita’s head? What if it was just another lingering scar of her grandmother’s eccentricity and her mother’s negligence? Perhaps there was no Fire eating Madiha and no Power in her. Perhaps Madiha was just Madiha and nothing more. Perhaps she had it all wrong.

After all could anyone truly confirm whether the legend of the Warlord was true? At first she had thought that if she sat down with Madiha, the Major would have a related epiphany, and at once the two of them would have connected and resolved everything between them.

But slowly, like an icy build-up over her skin, it dawned upon the Secretary that she could potentially approach Madiha and explain everything she knew or thought she knew about her and her unique existence, entangled in bizarre myth and half-remembered history — and that in turn Madiha could recoil in fear, tragically, disastrously, having no frame of reference for such a thing, having no experiences that could confirm it. And after this final wound between them, Madiha would depart, and burn out all alone, ignorant of her own magnificence.

Parinita’s trepidation hit its peak, and she could not bear the thought of this. She felt like a thief, who stole away with a piece of Madiha, something she needed to know to understand herself and would never uncover on her own. But how could they share in something so strange and distant? How did human beings even communicate across these horrifying gulfs between them? Parinita felt so isolated and confused, so anxious, so totally lost.

She stalled and stalled, and Madiha grew further and further away. Now it seemed the most impossible thing, to confess to her what Parinita knew — that she was not a twisted thing, that she was not a monster, that Madiha was gifted and exceptional and necessary.

And valuable, beautiful, powerful, inspirational; Parinita shook her head.

Madiha did not need this right now. That much she had made perfectly clear.

Parinita had work, and her work was not this. This could wait a little bit. It had to, she supposed.

The Chief Warrant Officer wiped away her tears, stood up from the desk, fixed her tie and patted down her skirt, and departed the office, clipboard in hand. Madiha wanted her to work, and the army needed her to work, so she would work. She would find something to organize in this chaotic day. She would weather the distance, for Madiha’s sake, for what Madiha wanted.

Her tears had hardly dried completely before she was stopped outside her office.

“C.W.O Maharani, the Weather battalion’s received new information.”

A young, out of breath staff member stopped before her, grasping a bundle of papers in his shaking fingers. He bent nearly double, coughing, having run all the way from the other side of the building. Parinita patted him in the back gently while taking the documents from him and reading them quickly. She understood immediately the source of his concern. Based on these new projections the clouds overhead were not intent on simply drizzling over them; and the isolated thundering was only a harbinger for worse to come. An alert had to be sounded.

“We need to contact all units quickly! Has anyone reached the Commander?”

The staff member looked up at her, hands on his knees.

She recoiled from the dire look in his eyes.

“I’m sorry Chief, we haven’t been able to reach her.” He said grimly.

Parinita dropped the documents and ran past him, rushing to the staff office. She tried not to feel overwhelmed or overcome by helplessness. She had to do something! They had to put out an Army level contact and quickly — if Madiha stayed out there for any longer spirits only know what would become of her! All of the river district was in danger!

 

Umaiha Riverside — 2nd Line Corps Area

UmaihaRiverside

Carried by the surging winds, rain battered against the defensive lines on the southeast district, falling over gun shields and down the necks of cloaks. Machine guns and anti-tank guns on a bridge and its two adjacent streets watched the roads and a pair of buildings, one on each side, served as forward bases overseeing the defense. Men and women stood around the guns, taking cover in their sandbag redoubts and behind the bridge’s balustrade. They huddled on the riverside streets, flanked by the blocks of buildings and the cobblestone roads into the trendy historic areas. Between the redoubts and below anyone’s notice the river swelled.

2nd Line Corps’ defenders in the southeast kept their eyes peeled for the enemy, but the growing rain reduced visibility, and introduced an even greater danger, and one that often went entirely unconfronted — a languid feeling in bellies and heads. Tranquility and contentedness. Along the Umaiha the soldiers had not seen fighting for two days now, and under the growing rain it seemed impossible to muster the energy to fight. Yawning, they let the watch slack.

It didn’t matter. Under the driving deluge and growing thunder the first shells flew silently.

But they did not land — all at once a half-dozen heavy shells exploded in the air just over the heads of the defenders. Fragments rained down on them just as fast as they normally flew up from stricken ground. Over gun shields, through tarps, around sandbags the fragments flew, cutting a swathe across the defensive line. Few died, but everyone was reeling. In the forward bases it took minutes for the officers to realize their troops were injured or staggering.

Direct fire followed. Shells smashed against sandbags and tore the gun shields right off machine guns. They smashed holes into the balustrade and pounded against the corners of the forward bases, finally waking the officers inside to the threat. Light mortar rounds crashed around the line, causing little damage but much confusion. Men and women shifted fighting positions in the wake of the shelling and found lead flying around them. Fire from light machine guns streaked against the lines suddenly. In the distance, men in beige uniforms, uncloaked, fully soaking in the rain, charged against the line with rifles and bayonets, with grenades in hand, under the cover of two tanks and multiple machine gunners mounted on light cars.

Within several hundred meters the enemy had come to the Umaiha’s south-bound stretch.

Batallón de Asalto “Drachen” of the Primera de Infanteria was on the move.

Von Drachen followed right behind his men, on the right bank of the Umaiha. He had the same amount of troops on either side, without having taken any of the bridges — but he preferred the right, because there was more territory to cover on his right. His left was up against the city limits in a sense, and made him feel trapped. Walking briskly toward the defenses along with his column, he could see everything transpiring; if so inclined he could have shouted orders.

That wouldn’t be necessary. This attack had been well prepared for and well rehearsed.

His handpicked forces had effected a stealthy crossing much further south, before there was even an Umaiha to cross at all, tramping through the rubble the Ayvartans believed would deter passage. While Nocht sat and wondered why their brute strength and dizzying speed continued to fail them, Von Drachen had stopped launching hopeless attacks along the Vorkampfer’s foolishly planned routes and began forging of his own perfect path.

Now he had a column moving against the defenses on both sides of the river, rather than on one. He had artillery and armor against an enemy that thought him devoid of both. At the head, his two Escudero tanks put their quick-firing 40mm cannons to good use. They had been adapted from Helvetian anti-air artillery, but exploded just fine against sandbags, rock and human flesh. Within moments they sent dozens of explosive shells crashing against the Ayvartan lines, taking out chunks of sandbag and leaving vicious bite marks on rock and concrete. Behind them, mounted on light all-terrain cars received from Nocht, Von Drachen had his machine gunners stand on the passenger seat and deploy their guns on improvised mounts, shooting relentlessly over his assault troops to cover their advance up the stone streets. Finally, a kilometer behind the advancing columns, he had deployed his artillery: six powerful 15 cm guns, and twelve 6 cm mortars now shelling the enemy haphazardly and causing little harm.

He raised a hand radio to his mouth. “Silencio por dos minutos.” Silence for two minutes.

At once the shelling of the mortars and the guns stopped completely, and movement hastened. Von Drachen’s tanks sped forward and his men broke into a dash.

As the charge grew earnest, resistance stiffened. Fire was returned. Both Escuderos withstood a light shell against their front plates. They were medium-sized tanks and their armor profile was decent enough to stop the weak Ayvartan short-barreled 45mm gun even as the distance closed. Ayvartan machine guns opened fire, and Ayvartan riflemen and women started to dig their heels and peek out of cover. Lead started to fly into his column and Von Drachen started to see his men falling, but this did not concern him too much. Within two minutes the distance was methodically closed to within the hundred meters.

Tiempo al blanco.” He said over his radio. Time on target. His favorite artillery order.

All at once the Ayvartan defensive line exploded again with the fire from all his guns and mortars. All six guns and twelve mortars that had gone silent coordinated a single devastating hit, timed perfectly to hit every part of the Ayvartan line simultaneously. All the forward-facing balustrade on the bridge ahead exploded into chunks, and corpses fell from the bridge into the growing river along with mangled bits of their machine guns and anti-tank weapons; a shell exploded in an airburst over each of the two thick sandbag redoubts blocking traffic on the riverside streets, the fragments descending like a shower of needles in the company of rain; several mortar rounds exploded among scattered Ayvartan fighters and over the roofs and before the doors of their little forward bases. In the face of the attack their fire quieted.

Those last hundred meters were nothing to Von Drachen’s men. They now charged ahead uncontested. Both Escuderos smashed right through the sandbag walls, and his scout cars hit their brakes, dismounting machine gunners charging into the fray. Hundreds of men poured into the streets, meeting the hundreds of exposed men and women on the opposite side, shooting and stabbing and trampling in a savage melee. Both the tanks turned their guns up from the street fighting, and put several shells through the windows into the forward bases, exploding among Ayvartan officers and radios and supplies and their sheltered wounded.

Blood flowed into the river, and smoke and fire joined the rising wind and falling rain.

Three days or so of planning, and within the space of twenty minutes or so, Von Drachen had broken his first line. He walked past the ruined bridge, crossed a street corner, and laid under a convenient awning, taking shelter from the rain while his men charged through the door. Knives and bayonets flashed through the windows, and the occasional rifle bullet went through one of the thin walls. There were screams and roars and struggle. Upstairs a grenade went off.

Von Drachen lit a cigarette, and tried to ignore the clammy feeling from his wet uniform.

One of his light cars dashed past the building and braked at the edge of the broken-down sandbag wall of the defender’s old redoubt. A machine gunner opened fire relentlessly into the breach in the enemy lines. Running gun battles erupted further up the street as the Ayvartans retreated from their positions while being chased by advancing Cissean riflemen. From his vantage Von Drachen could see none of it, but he heard the continuous stamping of feet, the intermittent cracks of rifles, as the converging masses took their battle dozens of meters away.

From the car, Colonel Gutierrez dismounted, and approached Von Drachen. He saluted.

“We’ve got them on the run sir. Next line is a kilometer up. Artillery is readjusting.”

“Good. Tell the men to keep running, and not to stop. Same for the tanks and cars.”

Colonel Gutierrez nodded. He saluted again, and then the old man turned and marched out.

Overhead a deafening burst of lightning and thunder masked the sudden swelling of the river. A massive wave surged up over the borders of the street and crashed past the bridge and overtook the Colonel’s car, shoving the machine gunner off his mount and smashing him against the stones. Gutierrez nearly leaped back in fear, and rushed away from the edges without looking until he had shoved carelessly back into Von Drachen.

The General’s cigarette fell off his lips and into a puddle just outside the cover of the awning.

Von Drachen stared dejectedly at the moist stick, and felt something close to mourning.

Que carajo te paso?” Von Drachen said, in a gentler voice than was probably warranted.

“Oh, excuse me, General; the river, sir! Santa Maria I’ve never seen such a thing.”

“You’ve never seen a river? I’m not so sure anymore of your qualifications here then.”

“No! No, General, I mean I’ve never seen one swell up like that! This is dangerous!”

Dangerous? Von Drachen took a casual glance at the river. Another wave suddenly rose and crashed over the shattered balustrade of the bridge, sweeping away the corpses and the metal husks of the ruined Ayvartan emplacements and swallowing them whole.

“Maybe. But; I believe this presents a unique opportunity for us as well!” Von Drachen said.

 

Umaiha Riverside — 31st Engineers Survey

Clouds thickened and darkened, and the wind worked itself to a frenzy. Over Bada Aso the growing storm blocked out the sun and reduced its radiance to a bleak gloom.

Thick sheets of rain cascaded over the city, and seemed to turn the world monochrome and mute. Rainfall was the predominant sound, clanging against steel, pattering against rock and brick, tapping over the rubber tarps on the half-tracks. Water pooled over any depression in the ground, turning the city’s roads into a series of puddles within a latticework of rock. Waves rose and water splashed as the convoy headed north up the Umaiha. Carefully the vehicles slowed and turned on the slick ground, crossing from the right bank to the left. They gathered around a wide two-story building near the bridge, parking in the alleyways around it.

A metal shutter opened on the right side of the building’s face, and two tanks emerged to join the dismounting engineers. Both of them were Goblin type tanks, with their drum shaped turrets, conspicuously long turret baskets, thin, long guns and steep, almost flat long plates and angular tracks. One of the tanks had a pair of long antennae reminiscent of an insect’s atop the turret, while the second boasted a long aerial atop its turret like an angel’s halo. A hatch opened on this particular tank, and a KVW officer appeared and waved his hand stiffly.

Sgt. Agni and Madiha waved back at him, dressed in their cloaks under the rain.

“Give her a demonstration!” Sgt. Agni called out. Atop the tank, the officer acknowledged.

Madiha heard a distinct mechanical wirring and a buzzing noise inside the lead tank. Sgt. Agni approached the machine and lifted every single hatch — it was hard to see inside, for it was very dark in its cramped confines and very gloomy out of them. But Madiha thought she could not see anyone inside the tank. Everyone on the street gave the machine a bit of clearance, and it started moving. Its turret turned all 360 degrees; it looped around the building once. It fired its gun across the river and smashed a 2 meter hole into the side of a building.

Sgt. Agni clapped her hands. Madiha did not quite understand the point yet.

Finally the so-called teletank and the officer’s tank both parked in front of the vehicle depot.

Everyone approached again for a closer look. The Engineers looked curious for once.

“This is one of our teletanks.” Sgt. Agni said. She patted one of the Goblins on its track guard.

“It appears like any other Goblin to me. What makes them special to us?” Madiha asked.

“Radio control.” Sgt. Agni said. “Inside that tank,” she pointed to the officer’s vehicle, “there is radio control equipment that sends signals to the unmanned tanks,” she patted the track on the Goblin nearest to her again. “Drone tanks follow these commands electronically.”

“So there’s nobody inside that tank?” Madiha asked, tapping her knuckles on the same tank Agni petted, as though she would hear a hollow sound from it to confirm her curiosity. She peeked her head into the front hatch, and inside she found a box full of lights and vacuum tubes and dials, and electrical wiring across every surface. No humans anywhere. There were still seats but it didn’t seem like more than one person could possibly fit inside with any comfort.

“Not a soul.” Sgt. Agni replied. “It is controlled by radio. Electronic equipment inside the drone tanks receives signals via radio, and depending on the input it receives, it will follow certain preset commands. We can power the tracks, turn the tank, turn the electric turret, and fire the guns. There is a complicated auto-loading system inside that contains 20 shells, and will cycle the breech automatically — the concept of the drone tanks evolved from a desire to use the auto-loader, but the impossibility of cramming a crew inside the turret with it. We’ve largely failed to scale down the system, unfortunately, but it has found a home in these drones.” She spoke a little quicker and clearer when detailing the mechanical functions — it was her clearly her preferred subject, and she had a command of it. One could almost call her tone emphatic, inaccurate as that would have been. However it was certainly affected, in a subtle way.

Madiha extricated herself and whistled. “Incredible. I had no idea we had this technology.”

“Neither does the Civil Council and the Territorial Army, to be honest. We received all of this equipment alongside the big tanks when the 5th Mechanized Division joined us. They brought their experimental telemechanized company with them and subordinated it to our use. Inspector General Kimani thought that it was an adequate addition to our operational plan. At first I was skeptical, having only heard of this technology in theory. I did not want to waste your time; but I felt confident presenting them to you after I had a good look at them. Certainly they are more palatable for the plan than the alternative.”

“Yes.” Madiha said. She felt a trembling inside her stomach. She had planned to carry out the most dangerous part of Operation Hellfire using live humans. Any KVW soldier would have unquestioningly put down their life to complete the plan, but she already felt like enough of her ideas had ended up becoming suicide missions, without also directing an explicit suicide mission to top it all off. Sgt. Agni was quite right that the tanks presented something of a relief.

“What is the command range?” She asked. “You said it’s using a radio.”

Sgt. Agni averted her eyes for a moment, glancing side-long at one of the tanks. Her expression was blank and her mannerisms void of emotion but this was a major tell that something was wrong. She had held Madiha’s eyes perfectly throughout the conversation.

“Right now, around 300 meters.” Sgt. Agni said. She continued avoiding Madiha’s eyes.

“That is unacceptable.” Madiha said. Her own voice was picking up a note of frustration. For her plan 300 meters was nothing. Whoever she sent down would still be in the epicenter!

“I understand.” Sgt. Agni said. Madiha thought there was a gentler tone to her voice but she might have been projecting that onto her. She continued. “I have been working on a command truck that can perform the same function as the telecontrol tank but from 1.5 kilometers to 2 kilometers away. While perhaps a stretch in actual combat, it will be more than enough for our purposes. We will still be able to command the tank to move forward and shoot. In addition I am also working on installing a flamethrower on the teletanks we will use for the final phase.”

“When will this be ready?” Madiha asked. Sgt. Agni was a blessing — her news had renewed Madiha’s energy just a touch enough to keep her moving. Her mind started going over military possibilities rather than internal malaise — she wanted to accelerate to the final phase if possible, though at the moment Nocht was not yet in a practical position for it.

Sgt. Agni fidgeted with her long, wavy hair, arranging several longs over her ear meticulously. “I am trying to get it done within the week.” She said. Her voice sounded a little lower. “Once I have found a procedure that works I can rapidly convert more radios and trucks.”

Madiha felt unsteady on her feet. This was a bit of a sudden blow. But she had to take it. There was no other option at the moment. No option that was conscionable.

“Thank you, Sgt. Agni.” Madiha said. Her voice caught in her throat a little. She looked over the tanks; now it was her turn to avoid Agni’s eyes. “How many teletanks do we have now and how many do you think can we count on for the final phase, if all goes well?”

“We have ten units in total, counting this one. Should the assessments from the Chemical battalion prove correct, we will only need four detonations, at the most saturated points.”

“Well, I hope they are correct. I am basing the entire plan on them.”

Sgt. Agni looked her in the eyes. There was confidence in her again. “History has vindicated those who have heeded the dangers of Bada Aso’s underground in the past. I am a mechanical engineer, not a chemical one; but I trust that our Hell will burn brightly.”

Madiha wanted to smile or feel inspired but it was no longer in her.

“Good.” She said simply. “On that note, let us look at this tunnel.”

Sgt. Agni nodded. She signaled to a small squadron of engineers to accompany her. Together with the Major they entered the old, empty building, mostly abandoned save for a working telephone system that was still maintained. Wires ran into the walls, and there was still a desk in the lobby with a working phone that anyone could use. All the rest was empty rooms and halls, graffiti, and discarded toys from adventurous children. It was macabre and eerie. Little damage had been done to it during the bombing, and that only added to the strange atmosphere inside.

Once the building had been a police station. So much violence and horror occurred in these rooms and halls, so much infamy, and so many souls lost screaming to its brutality, that there was much pause as to whether they should demolish it or repurpose it. So it simply stood, a monument to a painful era, bypassed daily by locals and travelers who could peer through its windows and doors and enter its walls but ultimately wanted nothing to do with its ghosts.

Of interest to the engineers, inside the building was a particularly large tunnel entrance in the basement level. Though the tunnel system was far older than the Imperial Police that had once occupied the building, several renovations to specific tunnels had been carried out in secret with the express purpose of moving agents, officers and saboteurs to aid in the brutalization and liquidation of Bada Aso’s activists, criminals and communists (for many of them there were no such distinctions, both personally, and in the eyes of Imperial law). It was thought that if the criminals had made the streets their underground, then for them to be rooted out and exterminated the city had to create a Hell beneath their feet. In reality the tunnel expansion was borne of the hubris of men who desperately needed to appear as though they had a solution to a growing tide of resistance, and did nothing but expend resources.

These tunnels were ones that dug too deep — and they were perfect for Madiha’s purposes.

In the empty basement, they pointed electric torches at the gaping black maw.

Sgt. Agni and her engineers produced their measuring tapes and sized the beast. Four meters by four meters — just tall and wide enough to fit the teletank through.

“There are more tunnels like this in the central and upper city.” Sgt. Agni said. “Once it was rediscovered in the late Imperial period the tunnel system under Bada Aso was vastly expanded, not only to become the new sewer system, but also to accommodate routes such as this, in case of war in the city. Or more presciently, revolution.”

“Thanks to our megalomaniacal predecessors, I suppose.” Madiha said.

There was a bright flash from upstairs. Madiha shuddered — her cloak was dripping wet, and the weather was only getting worse and worse. She thought the Weather battalion must have vastly underestimated the intensity of the storm. Their tasks were done in this sector, and it was time to move further up the Umaiha. Sgt. Agni led the way upstairs.

A soldier with a backpack radio ran into the building and met them in the lobby.

“Commander, the 2nd Line Corps have been broken through. We have no confirmation from the actual 2nd Line Corps, but a scout saw Cissean troops moving upriver.”

“How far away are they?” Madiha asked the radio man. “And how many?”

“We’re not sure of much, our scout was not in a ready state. He was sending a panicked alert to every Ayvartan frequency he knew. It might have been hyperbole but nonetheless–“

For a fleeting moment before the collapse Madiha felt the pressure wave.

Then everything scattered, like a windblown stack of cards.

Thunder and a flash; the building shook and there was a sharp crack and a massive crash. There was an instant of pain and an eternity of numbness. Dust and heat blew in from the outside and the world shook and twisted, the ground warped and the walls closed in. Madiha was blinded and dazed and she knew that it was not thunder that had fallen from the sky. Her senses were obliterated and she could not feel her body.

She was suspended in the dark again.

But they were watching, millions of eyes, millions of hands.

From the hands the fingers fell; from the eyes the lashes shed and the lids bulged.

Then the forearms and the corneas and bit by bit everything fell like old meat.

There was nothing again. She was suspended in the dark.

There was only blood around her, an ocean of blood. She clutched her ears.

“You failed them again. You selfish thing. What was your worth in the end?” 

Water started coming down over her face, and her eyes opened and burnt as the cold drops dripped over her lids. Before her, framed in jagged concrete, there was only the dark sky, traced by deep violet thunder. She thought blearily to raise her hands and cover her eyes from the water and the flashing lights, but she could not move her arms.

She heard gunfire in the streets, and a loud blast farther up the road. Smoke and dust rose into the sky somewhere far, blown over her concrete trap and into her sight by the wind.

Concrete dust and tiny rocks sifted off her the sides of her prison. Rocks were pushed aside, and she felt as though her tomb was being dug through. She saw Sgt. Agni’s face.

“Commander, Commander, can you hear me?”

Agni reached down a gloved hand and took Madiha’s cheek, and pushed her head up.

It started to dawn on her all at once that her body was buried in concrete. She started to shake and to squirm and try to slide out of the rock but she could not, she could not budge her arms or her legs. She could feel them again and she could feel them moving — and they hurt. She had not lost them. But she could not free them. She was trapped in here.

“I can’t move!” She shouted. Her mind was racing. “Agni, I can’t move!”

“We are under attack from Cissean forces.” Sgt. Agni said. “That had to have been a salvo from a 15 cm battery. I have no idea how they moved everything up this quickly.”

Water came down over them in a deluge. Madiha couldn’t see anything well.

But clarity was returning. She felt a tightness in her chest and stomach, a thrill down her spine. Her mouth hung open, the cold rain dribbling down her lips. Her breathing quickened. There was a grim realization of what all of this meant. Her time had finally come.

“You have to go!” She shouted. “Take the Engineers and go! I need you to carry out the plan!”

Sgt. Agni averted her eyes.

“Only one of us is needed for the plan to work anymore! That’s you, Agni! You need to go!”

To Madiha all of this made a dire sense. She was resolved. She was finally making the rational decision. All of history had conspired to lead her here.

Her purpose fulfilled, she would be free and clean in death.

Everything made sense now — except the response to her desperate logic.

“Commander I cannot follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.

Madiha stared, and shook her head, whipping about her wet hair.

“What did you say? You’re being ridiculous! You have to go, Agni!”

“Let me rephrase that. I will not follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.

Again the world was breaking apart around her. This order that had been carefully constructed in Madiha’s raging, struggling mind was a shambles again.

Agni pulled the handset from a backpack radio just out of Madiha’s field of vision.

“Resist the Cissean attack as strongly as possible. Pull back the tanks and vehicles from the shelling area. Deploy machine guns, demolitions charges and flamethrowers. Hide in the rubble. I am coming to organize the defense, but our priority is to free the Commander–“

“Cancel that order!” Madiha shouted at the top of her lungs. “Cancel that order! Sgt. Agni is disobeying a direct command! Cancel that order and retreat! Retreat!”

Sgt. Agni reached down a hand and clamped it around Madiha’s mouth, muffling her.

Madiha started to weep. This was so absurd! This was such an injustice! Why? Why?

“I repeat–” Agni said, and repeated her order more clearly. She then put down the handset.

She raised her hand from Madiha’s mouth, and struggled to stand. She looked around her surroundings and started moving between the sides of Madiha’s prison, pushing on rocks, chipping away at the edges, gauging the strength of the tomb. She was implacable as always, her face unaffected even by these horrifying events. That was the influence of the KVW, their training, their conditioning. But it didn’t make sense. She should have listened.

She should have left Madiha to die just as readily as she would have died for Madiha’s sake, if ordered to do so. If ordered to do so. But she was not. She was not leaving her!

“Why won’t you go?” Madiha said, choked up, desperate, tapping into all her remaining strength to keep screaming, “Why won’t you leave me? I’m ordering you to go! I’m ordering you! You need to go so something can be salvaged from this! I am not worth all of your lives!”

“It has never been a balance between your life and ours, commander. There is no authority tabulating the weight of our blood.” Sgt. Agni said coolly. She lifted a stone from near Madiha’s side and tossed it away. Under it was a larger, heavier one.

Delirious from the pain and the pressure on her body, Madiha’s senses started to swim and warp. She felt drained, her throat raw, her eyes burning, water creeping into her nose. She moaned and mumbled. “I don’t want any more of my people to sacrifice themselves! Please!”

Sgt. Agni stopped working and returned to Madiha’s side. She looked her in the eyes.

“We have been together for more than just this war’s ten days, Major.” Agni said. “I think of you as a comrade and so do they. So do our people. This is not about our sacrifice; nothing has been about sacrifice. I will protect you and bring you back safely, Madiha.”

Around Madiha the grey sky and the grey concrete melded together. Her senses were leaving her completely. She fell back to the dream, defeated. Even in death she was unable to prevent the sacrifice of her comrades. That was what she thought, trapped by rock and guilt.

That was what she was sure of. Nothing about her life made sense to her otherwise.

What was Madiha Nakar otherwise? What was her purpose, what did she mean?

* * *

NEXT chapter in Generalplan Suden is: A Pulse In The Ruins.