Stormlit Memories — Generalplan Suden

 This chapter was made possible by the support of kind folks on my Patreon.

If you are familiar with the series, take the survey and leave a review on WebFictionGuide.

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 unto 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 unto 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 unto 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 Erik 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 almost 200 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 unto her. She continued. “I have been working on a command truck that can perform the same function as the telecontrol tank but from 1.5 kilometers to 2 kilometers away. While perhaps a stretch in actual combat, it will be more than enough for our purposes. We will still be able to command the tank to move forward and shoot. In addition I am also working on installing a flamethrower on the teletanks we will use for the final phase.”

“When will this be ready?” Madiha asked. Sgt. Agni was a blessing — her news had renewed Madiha’s energy just a touch enough to keep her moving. Her mind started going over military possibilities rather than internal malaise — she wanted to accelerate to the final phase if possible, though at the moment Nocht was not yet in a practical position for it.

Sgt. Agni fidgeted with her long, wavy hair, arranging several longs over her ear meticulously. “I am trying to get it done within the week.” She said. Her voice sounded a little lower. “Once I have found a procedure that works I can rapidly convert more radios and trucks.”

Madiha felt unsteady on her feet. This was a bit of a sudden blow. But she had to take it. There was no other option at the moment. No option that was conscionable.

“Thank you, Sgt. Agni.” Madiha said. Her voice caught in her throat a little. She looked over the tanks; now it was her turn to avoid Agni’s eyes. “How many teletanks do we have now and how many do you think can we count on for the final phase, if all goes well?”

“We have ten units in total, counting this one. Should the assessments from the Chemical battalion prove correct, we will only need four detonations, at the most saturated points.”

“Well, I hope they are correct. I am basing the entire plan on them.”

Sgt. Agni looked her in the eyes. There was confidence in her again. “History has vindicated those who have heeded the dangers of Bada Aso’s underground in the past. I am a mechanical engineer, not a chemical one; but I trust that our Hell will burn brightly.”

Madiha wanted to smile or feel inspired but it was no longer in her.

“Good.” She said simply. “On that note, let us look at this tunnel.”

Sgt. Agni nodded. She signaled to a small squadron of engineers to accompany her. Together with the Major they entered the old, empty building, mostly abandoned save for a working telephone system that was still maintained. Wires ran into the walls, and there was still a desk in the lobby with a working phone that anyone could use. All the rest was empty rooms and halls, graffiti, and discarded toys from adventurous children. It was macabre and eerie. Little damage had been done to it during the bombing, and that only added to the strange atmosphere inside.

Once the building had been a police station. So much violence and horror occurred in these rooms and halls, so much infamy, and so many souls lost screaming to its brutality, that there was much pause as to whether they should demolish it or repurpose it. So it simply stood, a monument to a painful era, bypassed daily by locals and travelers who could peer through its windows and doors and enter its walls but ultimately wanted nothing to do with its ghosts.

Of interest to the engineers, inside the building was a particularly large tunnel entrance in the basement level. Though the tunnel system was far older than the Imperial Police that had once occupied the building, several renovations to specific tunnels had been carried out in secret with the express purpose of moving agents, officers and saboteurs to aid in the brutalization and liquidation of Bada Aso’s activists, criminals and communists (for many of them there were no such distinctions, both personally, and in the eyes of Imperial law). It was thought that if the criminals had made the streets their underground, then for them to be rooted out and exterminated the city had to create a Hell beneath their feet. In reality the tunnel expansion was borne of the hubris of men who desperately needed to appear as though they had a solution to a growing tide of resistance, and did nothing but expend resources.

These tunnels were ones that dug too deep — and they were perfect for Madiha’s purposes.

In the empty basement, they pointed electric torches at the gaping black maw.

Sgt. Agni and her engineers produced their measuring tapes and sized the beast. Four meters by four meters — just tall and wide enough to fit the teletank through.

“There are more tunnels like this in the central and upper city.” Sgt. Agni said. “Once it was rediscovered in the late Imperial period the tunnel system under Bada Aso was vastly expanded, not only to become the new sewer system, but also to accommodate routes such as this, in case of war in the city. Or more presciently, revolution.”

“Thanks to our megalomaniacal predecessors, I suppose.” Madiha said.

There was a bright flash from upstairs. Madiha shuddered — her cloak was dripping wet, and the weather was only getting worse and worse. She thought the Weather battalion must have vastly underestimated the intensity of the storm. Their tasks were done in this sector, and it was time to move further up the Umaiha. Sgt. Agni led the way upstairs.

A soldier with a backpack radio ran into the building and met them in the lobby.

“Commander, the 2nd Line Corps have been broken through. We have no confirmation from the actual 2nd Line Corps, but a scout saw Cissean troops moving upriver.”

“How far away are they?” Madiha asked the radio man. “And how many?”

“We’re not sure of much, our scout was not in a ready state. He was sending a panicked alert to every Ayvartan frequency he knew. It might have been hyperbole but nonetheless–“

For a fleeting moment before the collapse Madiha felt the pressure wave.

Then everything scattered, like a windblown stack of cards.

Thunder and a flash; the building shook and there was a sharp crack and a massive crash. There was an instant of pain and an eternity of numbness. Dust and heat blew in from the outside and the world shook and twisted, the ground warped and the walls closed in. Madiha was blinded and dazed and she knew that it was not thunder that had fallen from the sky. Her senses were obliterated and she could not feel her body.

She was suspended in the dark again.

But they were watching, millions of eyes, millions of hands.

From the hands the fingers fell; from the eyes the lashes shed and the lids bulged.

Then the forearms and the corneas and bit by bit everything fell like old meat.

There was nothing again. She was suspended in the dark.

There was only blood around her, an ocean of blood. She clutched her ears.

“You failed them again. You selfish thing. What was your worth in the end?” 

Water started coming down over her face, and her eyes opened and burnt as the cold drops dripped over her lids. Before her, framed in jagged concrete, there was only the dark sky, traced by deep violet thunder. She thought blearily to raise her hands and cover her eyes from the water and the flashing lights, but she could not move her arms.

She heard gunfire in the streets, and a loud blast farther up the road. Smoke and dust rose into the sky somewhere far, blown over her concrete trap and into her sight by the wind.

Concrete dust and tiny rocks sifted off her the sides of her prison. Rocks were pushed aside, and she felt as though her tomb was being dug through. She saw Sgt. Agni’s face.

“Commander, Commander, can you hear me?”

Agni reached down a gloved hand and took Madiha’s cheek, and pushed her head up.

It started to dawn on her all at once that her body was buried in concrete. She started to shake and to squirm and try to slide out of the rock but she could not, she could not budge her arms or her legs. She could feel them again and she could feel them moving — and they hurt. She had not lost them. But she could not free them. She was trapped in here.

“I can’t move!” She shouted. Her mind was racing. “Agni, I can’t move!”

“We are under attack from Cissean forces.” Sgt. Agni said. “That had to have been a salvo from a 15 cm battery. I have no idea how they moved everything up this quickly.”

Water came down over them in a deluge. Madiha couldn’t see anything well.

But clarity was returning. She felt a tightness in her chest and stomach, a thrill down her spine. Her mouth hung open, the cold rain dribbling down her lips. Her breathing quickened. There was a grim realization of what all of this meant. Her time had finally come.

“You have to go!” She shouted. “Take the Engineers and go! I need you to carry out the plan!”

Sgt. Agni averted her eyes.

“Only one of us is needed for the plan to work anymore! That’s you, Agni! You need to go!”

To Madiha all of this made a dire sense. She was resolved. She was finally making the rational decision. All of history had conspired to lead her here.

Her purpose fulfilled, she would be free and clean in death.

Everything made sense now — except the response to her desperate logic.

“Commander I cannot follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.

Madiha stared, and shook her head, whipping about her wet hair.

“What did you say? You’re being ridiculous! You have to go, Agni!”

“Let me rephrase that. I will not follow that order.” Sgt. Agni said.

Again the world was breaking apart around her. This order that had been carefully constructed in Madiha’s raging, struggling mind was a shambles again.

Agni pulled the handset from a backpack radio just out of Madiha’s field of vision.

“Resist the Cissean attack as strongly as possible. Pull back the tanks and vehicles from the shelling area. Deploy machine guns, demolitions charges and flamethrowers. Hide in the rubble. I am coming to organize the defense, but our priority is to free the Commander–“

“Cancel that order!” Madiha shouted at the top of her lungs. “Cancel that order! Sgt. Agni is disobeying a direct command! Cancel that order and retreat! Retreat!”

Sgt. Agni reached down a hand and clamped it around Madiha’s mouth, muffling her.

Madiha started to weep. This was so absurd! This was such an injustice! Why? Why?

“I repeat–” Agni said, and repeated her order more clearly. She then put down the handset.

She raised her hand from Madiha’s mouth, and struggled to stand. She looked around her surroundings and started moving between the sides of Madiha’s prison, pushing on rocks, chipping away at the edges, gauging the strength of the tomb. She was implacable as always, her face unaffected even by these horrifying events. That was the influence of the KVW, their training, their conditioning. But it didn’t make sense. She should have listened.

She should have left Madiha to die just as readily as she would have died for Madiha’s sake, if ordered to do so. If ordered to do so. But she was not. She was not leaving her!

“Why won’t you go?” Madiha said, choked up, desperate, tapping into all her remaining strength to keep screaming, “Why won’t you leave me? I’m ordering you to go! I’m ordering you! You need to go so something can be salvaged from this! I am not worth all of your lives!”

“It has never been a balance between your life and ours, commander. There is no authority tabulating the weight of our blood.” Sgt. Agni said coolly. She lifted a stone from near Madiha’s side and tossed it away. Under it was a larger, heavier one.

Delirious from the pain and the pressure on her body, Madiha’s senses started to swim and warp. She felt drained, her throat raw, her eyes burning, water creeping into her nose. She moaned and mumbled. “I don’t want any more of my people to sacrifice themselves! Please!”

Sgt. Agni stopped working and returned to Madiha’s side. She looked her in the eyes.

“We have been together for more than just this war’s ten days, Major.” Agni said. “I think of you as a comrade and so do they. So do our people. This is not about our sacrifice; nothing has been about sacrifice. I will protect you and bring you back safely, Madiha.”

Around Madiha the grey sky and the grey concrete melded together. Her senses were leaving her completely. She fell back to the dream, defeated. Even in death she was unable to prevent the sacrifice of her comrades. That was what she thought, trapped by rock and guilt.

That was what she was sure of. Nothing about her life made sense to her otherwise.

What was Madiha Nakar otherwise? What was her purpose, what did she mean?

* * *

NEXT chapter in Generalplan Suden is: A Pulse In The Ruins.

The Kalu Tank War — Generalplan Suden

This chapter was made possible by the support of kind folks on my Patreon.

Please take a short survey as well if you are familiar with the series thus far.

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death, as well as some minor psychological distress and drug use. Some descriptions may be considered briefly graphic.

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance — Kalu Hills Southeast

Visibility in a tank was tricky even in good weather. Before the driver was a thin slit and a large hatch — opening the hatch was inviting death and looking through the slit with strained eyes was almost no better than being buttoned down. On modern vehicles a periscope was furnished for the driver, one that allowed a limited field of view just off the side of the tank’s gun. Through a thin circle, surrounded by black, the driver peered on the world. This little periscope allowed the driver to see around the vehicle as much as the tank’s contours allowed.

Seated overhead from the driver, the commander had a periscope and a hatch as well, offering a second set of eyes, but anything the commander saw had to be relayed down to the driver, this often resulting in a game of donkey party inside a multi-ton vehicle.

Unique problems presented themselves under the storm over the Bada Aso and Kalu regions. Dark clouds overhead seethed with lightning, and buffeting storm winds and battering rains worsened conditions on the irregular terrain of the Kalu. Periscopes became wet and the view through their lenses distorted; opening the hatches and slits exposed the crew to the cold rain and the minute debris carried by the wind. Even with suitable vision equipment, no tank crew could see more than a couple dozen meters in front of them through the gloom and rain.

Recon informed them with confidence that nothing was there, but for the Panzer platoons heading the advance, they felt as though there were eyes everywhere, shadows and wraiths dancing at the edge of their vision, taking advantage of their blindness. They had heard that Ayvarta was a land of magic and myth, a place where goblins and curses and witches still hunted for unaware prey. No amount of recon would assuage those primal fears of this old world.

Who could say the storm was not the work of the Ayvartans, commanding their land to attack?

Regardless of worsening conditions, the 2nd Panzer Division promptly activated for attack on the 28th. At the head of the advance were scout cars and columns of light M5 tanks with their 37mm guns and horseshoe turrets, driving along the main roads through the Kalu, such as they were. Nuye road was the main path along the east Kalu, a wide dirt road winding through the most navigable portions of the Kalu’s hills, weaving through patches of wood, across flooding ravines, over rough escarpments where the layers of earth were visible wherever not ground down into surmountable slopes. Nuye started on the plains, rose along the foot of the Kalu in the south and bobbed up and down along the Kalu up to the Kucha in the northeast.

Three hours and nearly a hundred kilometers from their starting point, a platoon from the 2nd Panzer Division’s 12th Leichte Panzer Regiment found itself driving across a fairly flat area of the Kalu, like a platter balanced precariously a step above the chaotic earth, and thick with shrubbery and clusters of broad-trunk trees with dozens of haphazard arms covered in frizzy green. Vier platoon, as they were known to 12th Leichte, halted its march before the trees.

A hatch opened atop the lead tank. Covered in his dark-green rain cloak, the Platoon leader rose out of the hatch and stared into the shadows before him. Below him, the tank’s crew sat sulking from the sudden downpour falling on their shoulders and backs.

Before him wound the road, right through the wood. Walls of green at his flanks; he tried to peer through the gaps between trees, tried to see through that gloom. He saw shapes, but he saw shapes everywhere in the rain. He saw knife blows playing in the air wherever a branch shook in the wind, and he figures flitting in the shadows wherever a drip of water dropped from the bent arm of a tree. The Commander could not tell his fears from reality here.

In these wilds he saw a place of fog and confusion, where a man became a beast again.

The Commander shook his head. He told himself that he was letting the nonsense of his peers get to him. Mastering himself, hardening against these fancies, he descended into the tank, closed the hatch, and ordered the driver, and by extension his whole platoon, to move.

Within the trees the road tightened. Before, the tanks could move in a square formation, four tanks forward, and a single tank in the rear, his tank. Now the Commander ordered his tanks into a single file column. His tank, the lead tank, drove in the middle, the third tank in either direction of the five-tank line. They advanced at half speed, turrets turned every which way.

A small voice inside the tank. “Gefreiter, permission to consume Pervitin ration for nerves.”

The Commander looked down at the radio operator with disdain. “Denied.”

“Yes sir.” There was palpable contempt in her voice, but he ignored it.

For the crew inside the tank, the stamping of the rain outside against the armor was growing almost as loud as the clanking of the treads and the chugging of the engine.

This only increased the urgency with which the crew took to their periscopes and slits.

Someone shouted over the platoon radio — “I saw something!”

At once, the Commander pressed his foot against the back of his driver. He cut the engine, as did every other tank. Frantically the periscopes turned, the vision slits opened, and the hatches burst open. Turrets turned, explosive shells were gathered and readied for battle.

Shadows, and the green wall at either side. Overhead, the black sky, the pouring rain. Cold and clammy in their uniforms, the tank commanders and the Platoon commanders stared dumbly about themselves. Lightning struck from overhead, and color inverted in the flash. Old figures in the shadows turned into new figures, but they were just the same made of the fog of the mind and the smoke of unrestrained fears. There was nothing around them.

Hatches shut — the jumpy gunner who sounded the alert was disciplined with a swift kick.

In secret, the radio operator put her pervitin pill in her mouth and swallowed dry.

Platoon Vier advanced. The Platoon Commander called HQ. “Still leading Tiger group. No contacts, false alarm. Please advice immediately if other elements of Tiger group make contact. We will proceed to the rendezvous via the designated route.”

 

Kalu Northwest — 5th Mech. Division Rear Echelon

Unfamiliar voices in a strange language crackled through the radios.

Löwe-gruppen, anerkennen. Vorrücken–“

Inspector General Chinedu Kimani interrupted. “Translate it for everyone.”

Signals were adjusted, the equipment fine-tuned, the voices became clearer. At the radio the operator, a polyglot, began to speak in tandem with the captured audio, and he put into familiar words the alien tongue emanating from the box. Everyone in the radio car with him and Kimani could now understand the captured radio messages.

Atop a nearby ammunition box a young woman took quick, sparse notes about each message. She drew lines and circles on a map of the Kalu, pinned to the wall near them.

“Lion group heading north through the Turh roadway. No contacts so far.”

He put on a play by himself, taking on the roles of all the speakers. First was the man who’s audio they first captured, the main speaker. Then a woman’s voice appeared as well. She was farther away, and her audio split and cracked more, but they parsed it enough to understand, and the radio operator translated it just the same. They had all the conversation.

“General Anschel wishes for you to advance on a tight front, make sure those roads are clear.”

“Damn it, say something identifying.” Kimani grumbled. She was frustrated, and her demeanor began to show it. She was not like her crew. Her voice had a somewhat hollow ring, but her lips could curl with anger or viciousness. She had regained some of what she had once lost. All of them did, some more quickly or slowly than others. It was never the same as it once was, except for anger. Anger remained similar, though the frequency of it was altered.

“Please report any contacts. We do not expect much resistance.”

He did not switch voices to denote different speakers, nor did he gesticulate, or otherwise point it out. He translated everything he heard in a clear and unaffected stream.

“Acknowledged. We will report any contacts. However, under the present circumstances, it is unlikely we will spot the enemy at any great distance. We will likely have to recon in force. Should we engage enemy positions immediately or wait for backup?”

“Engage, but if you cannot overtake the position, hold ground until a Three or Five can relieve you. Maintain visual as long as possible. Right now discovery is paramount.”

Kimani nodded her head. “Thank you, you fools. Given the context, this cannot be an M4 platoon. So it must be an armored scout car platoon, probably Sd.Kfz. D, Rogues.”

She turned to the woman with the map. “Contact the groups around Turh. Let the cars pass.”

In response the woman nodded her head dutifully, and she turned from the map to a pack radio beside her. She picked it up and passed on the information through the handset.

“Relocate the car farther uphill while we still have some peace.” Kimani ordered. Ahead of them the driver raised her hands in acknowledgment, and then started the vehicle’s engine.

Inside a nondescript plot of woodland in the upper Kalu, the Adze scout car brimmed with life. Across the rotating machine gun mount atop its four-wheeled, long-nosed, fully enclosed, armored, sloping hull, the Adze mounted a large aerial that was constantly intercepting signals and feeding them to the unique, powerful radio equipment mounted inside. All this functionality bloated the Adze’s size, but there were plenty of places to hide in the Kalu.

Black clouds stretched all the way across the Kalu, teeming with angry violet bolts of lightning. Rain fell thick and fast over Kalu, rolling down hills and across flats, making its way over the series of small escarpments across the Kalu like miniature waterfalls.

The Kalu was a region of chaotic shapes, a place of scarps and dips that began in the gently rising territory near Bada Aso, and ended in the mountainous terrain of the Kucha to the northeast, the rocky crags skirting the upper half of Bada Aso to the northwest, and the flat terrain that composed most of the border to Tambwe directly north. It was dotted with patches of forest, each a few hundred meters in size, some a kilometer or two long, all woven through by man-made paths; by cuts along the earth through which little rivulets flowed from the Umaiha, bolstered by the unceasing rain; by the scarps, dips and short plains and open hilltops.

The Adze and its crew traveled from one little patch of wood up a hill to another, and past that to a short plain atop an escarpment. Its four wheel drive took well to the terrain. They settled on a rocky outgrowth, sprinkled with thick vegetation, that gave a commanding view of the Kalu. Normally this was dangerous, but nothing would be flying overhead in the storm, and nothing below would see them against the stone and within the trees.

Kimani could sit atop the rock, collecting radio messages from the Nochtish crews.

The KVW was not just a military force, but an intelligence and security organ. Long ago, during a time of tumult, they learned to incorporate all of these disciplines into a form of revolutionary warfare that preyed on the strength and confidence of the enemy. Always overlooked, underestimated; that was by design. They were a small and unassuming force to the enemy’s naked eye, but they had all the information, fought from prepared positions, in a place filled with traps to spring, and with much of their strength cleverly hidden.

Radio was only one intelligence tool in an arsenal of many, but it was an important tool, and dedicated intercept crews such as those aboard Adze cars were always at work.

Interception was normally a tense and tedious job, where the operators waited for hours on end, cycling through frequencies to find busy networks, watching the traffic, slowly accumulating many guarded scraps of information, full of codes and secrets to decipher. In Adjar this task was surprisingly expedient. Nochtish crews enjoyed their radios and spent much time talking over them, constantly reporting and acknowledging. Busy frequencies tended to remain busy, and were not often switched. Throughout the ensuing battles the Nochtish troops spoke almost conversationally, and what few code words they used they just as quickly forgot and skipped over like an unpleasant formality between friends.

Whenever something important was gleaned from this exercise it could be quickly passed along to the other information crews, and down to field officers commanding regular troops. Interceptors were not alone in this endeavor; there were radio triangulators and range-finders, along with additional interceptor crews in their own Adze vehicles across the Kalu, forming a picture of the enemy advance. From intercept vehicles, information that looked important and that was suspected to be composed of code words or red herrings could pass along to cipher crews, who were currently mostly unnecessary due to the simple plainness of the traffic; and then once fully deciphered, radio data was handed to direction-finders and triangulators, who would determine where the information was coming from. That much was also unnecessary. They had no way of launching an all-out counterattack, only small, limited, local engagements.

Unit compositions, headings and overall offensive plans were much more important to the current operation. Her troops had to know what was coming and when it was expected. This would help them decided whether to try to intercept the enemy at all.

“Let’s take some time to review the situation, and then contact ciphers and have them relay information to the KVW attaches in each unit via our codes. I don’t believe Nocht is monitoring our radio traffic, since their assets are still fluid in the theater, but it pays to be careful.” Kimani said. She nodded her head toward one of her crew. “Signals Officer Jaja.”

Beside the map, sitting on the ammunition box for the car’s machine gun, the young woman adjusted her glasses, and wiped some of her long bangs to the side of her head. “Yes ma’am,” she replied. She cleared her throat. “For past three days we have been capturing radio chatter from what we have identified as the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions south of Bada Aso. These divisions constitute Nocht’s primary armor power in the region, and are composed of veterans from the Nochtish operations in Cissea and Mamlakha. At its base, each division is composed of Panzer Platoons of 5 tanks. We do not have confirmation, but we are operating under the assumption that these Platoons are formed into Companies of 15 to 20 tanks, making up Battalions of 45-60 tanks. Each Panzer Division likely has around 300 tanks, so there are likely around 600 tanks in the Southern Kalu, compared to our strength of 400 tanks.”

“But this strength is deceptive, I’m sure.” Kimani said. “How much of it is light tanks?”

“That is one of the qualifiers I was about to address.” Officer Jaja replied, nodding her head. Like Madiha, she had served under Kimani for a few years now. She had tanned skin and bright, golden hair and green eyes, ringed by a slight red glow. She was much more Ayvartan than Lubonin, with no knowledge of tongues but their own, and without the sharp-shaped elfin ears. However, one could still visibly trace her diverse heritage. “From the frequency of broadcasts, and comparing various callsigns and orders, we’ve found that over 40% of Nochtish radio traffic has been directed toward Light tank platoons composed of previously identified types — the 10-year-old M2 Ranger, now known as the M5, likely composes a significant amount of their strength. I’m willing to say as much as 250 or even 300 of those 600 tanks could be M5s. The M4 Sentinel, and the M3 Hunter assault gun, comprise the rest, along with a smaller amount of recon scout cars and half-tracks of previously identified types.”

Kimani nodded. She started going through their own numbers in comparison.

“Of our 400 tanks, 50 are Hobgoblins from the 5th Mechanized. All of the tanks from Battlegroup Ox are Goblins, but at least they have the 45mm high-velocity gun, and many have extra armor. We have 300 of those. From the Svechthan heavy division we have 25 modified Goblins which they call the Yezh; and 25 Gori medium tanks, the capabilities of which I’m not entirely sure of. So the situation is not as bad as it seems.”

“I’ve been told the Gori has a 45mm gun, but is better armored and faster than our Orc.”

“Good then; it can group with and keep up with our Hobgoblins. Any chance the other, oh, 700 or so Goblins of the Battlegroup might be able to do anything for us?”

Officer Jaja shook her head. “Negative, Inspector General. Almost 500 of the Battlegroup’s Goblins are total mechanical losses. After demilitarization downsized the tank divisions, much of the stored equipment was wholly neglected, and much of it was improperly sheltered. Transporting it to where it can be fully repaired would be a waste of time for mere Goblins. Right now around 200 Goblins have been sent to Tambwe to undergo repairs, and will not be available for a long time. About 400 Goblins are fighting in Bada Aso, and word has it a quarter of those are already knocked out. Those 300 we have here are all we will get.”

Kimani crossed her arms. “To think, I’ve been dealt such a hand by destiny, that I would be grateful to have more obsolete light tanks at my disposal right now.”

She had spent almost a week out in the Kalu, organizing the mess of obsolete armor from Battlegroup Ox into a workable defense force in prepared areas around the Kalu, and reinforcing it here and there with more experienced troops from the 5th KVW Mechanized Division. Each of the Kalu’s defensive sectors she staffed with an ad-hoc “tank brigade” composed of 50 Goblins and 5 Hobgoblins — there were six such brigades in operation. All of the Svechthan armor, along with 15 Hobgoblins, she kept in reserve as a response force.

Every Hobgoblin was piloted by a KVW officer, and could carry out operations well — but she was overwhelmingly saddled with Goblins, all of whom had energetic but thoroughly inexperienced Ox troops instead.

Though the Ox tank crews were motivated, they simply lacked the experience to do anything. Mobile operations and any kind of offense were out of the question. For one there were no real tank officers, only individual platoon commanders. And many tankers were so out of practice they found it hard even to travel from one location to the next as complete units. There were tanks straying off target, forgetting to communicate in any way, and exposing their formations. Several tanks had their radios entirely stripped out, or never installed at all, so she ordered those Goblins to stick to the Hobgoblins like Chicks following a mother Hen.

It was maddening how ineffective her troops seemed in this time of dire need.

But she adapted, she had to. Kimani played to their simplest strengths, and she kept them in the woods and behind the rocks, acting essentially as stationary sentry guns, waiting, watching.

Somehow, she instilled discipline enough in them to believe in that plan and to follow it.

“Nocht still doesn’t know our full strength?”

“I believe not.” Officer Jaja replied. “We moved and conducted all our construction and preparations at night to prevent air recon from spotting us.”

Kimani nodded. Everything was established. Now it simply had to work.

This was all for Madiha — she had to protect Madiha, at all costs, and this was the only way that she thought she could. Right now the greatest danger to Madiha that Kimani could imagine were those Panzer divisions rushing up the Kalu to bite into her eastern flank. Such an attack would not only be decisive, it would trap the Major in the city with her troops.

Not the only danger, but the only one Kimani felt she could challenge.

She knew that Madiha needed her on other terms. In many ways Madiha had never grown from childhood, because much of it was taken from her before she could experience it. For a long time, Kimani had considered this state of things tragic — especially as Madiha began to lose other people in her life. She hid herself in the shadows of others, and she filled herself with them, and as time went on there were less shadows. Kimani allowed this because she did not know what else to do. Now she had inflicted upon Madiha a cruelty that Madiha herself had reluctantly accepted. Another shadow left her, exposing her to the harsh sun.

That was how Kimani understood things. It was difficult, and she didn’t know if it was right.

But for now all she could offer was 400 tanks across over 400 kilometers of frontage.

“How are we doing infantry-wise?” Kimani asked. It would not do to wallow in pity.

Officer Jaja didn’t even blink. She continued to speak, in a matter-of-fact kind of voice. “Major Nakar gave us two Rifle divisions to use but they’re not very well trained — therefore we’ve opted keep them back in reserve past the river to blunt a crossing or reinforce the city as necessary, and leave the infantry component in the Kalu itself to the 51st KVW Rifle Battalion in the forest. We have around a hundred infantry in position in each of the six tank brigade sectors. I’m given to understand Nocht has no idea these formations exist yet. They do not know the extent to which the KVW is operating in Adjar, and believe Ox to still be commanded by Gowon.”

Kimani nodded. She crossed her arms and looked over the map of the Kalu. “We can expect the Grenadier component of this attack to be small, since it must be packed into vehicles to keep up with the tanks, and those vehicles are at a premium since Nocht’s shipping capacity to Cissea and Mamlakha is limited. However, they are probably very well trained. This would probably be an issue in good weather, but under this kind of storm they’ll be packed tight under the tarps of their armored carriers. Their training means nothing until they dismount.”

“I don’t believe their training will prepare them for this ambush.” Jaja replied.

That was the plan in essence — for Nocht to be so blind and so dumb to the intentions of the Kalu forces that their carefully calculated attack became a mess, disrupted and terrorized at every turn. Everything was set. All they needed now was for Nocht to keep its schedule.

Kimani’s radio operator raised his right hand. Everyone turned to him.

“Receiving contact from KVW forces in Nuye. They have visual on the Tiger group.”

“Alright. Give them some noise for us, for as long as possible.” Kimani ordered.

 

Kalu Northeast — 2nd PzD Advance

According to the information from HQ, the Ayvartans had 10 Divisions in Adjar and would have no more, due to a static system of defense and a fully demobilized and partially demilitarized defense infrastructure. Of those 10 divisions, one was considered either scattered, lost or ineffective in general; at least 7 of those divisions had been fully or partially identified within the city of Bada Aso. Aerial recon on the Kalu region showed little signs of activity — and in the grainy photos, what looked to HQ like a rifle squadron could have easily been fleeing civilians, and what looked like defensive works could have been rocks.

Regardless, by elimination, there had to be two rifle divisions in the Kalu.

Leichte Panzer Platoon Vier had not seen a single solitary sign of life in the Kalu. They woke with the dawn, and started their engines with it. They had advanced for over seven hours crossing almost 200 kilometers of terrain. They had trudged through forest, climbed slopes, crossed ravines and forded rapidly swelling little streams. Through Nuye they headed north and east, and now prepared for the next part of the journey. Organizing along the edge of the Kucha mountains, where the terrain became too rocky and steep for the tanks to continue north, they would instead drive west to smash a way into Bada Aso.

They had several options to cross the Umaiha river, and Vier’s Commander felt, after witnessing the chilling absence of the enemy throughout the Kalu, that most of the defenses must have been prepared along the river. He felt foolish for his earlier fears, in fact. Had it been him in this position certainly he would have deployed all his strength around those river crossings. If the Panzer Divisions could not cross those rivers then Bada Aso would remain safe for the moment. So barricading the crossings along the most obvious routes made sense.

But the Luftlotte’s Jagdflug recon sorties had seen nothing built along the rivers.

Could the Ayvartans really stage a mobile defense of the rivers? Could they prevent crossings without barricades and gun positions, in order to keep their numbers hidden in the patches of woodland and in the shadows of the hills? Why was nobody resisting?

Could they really afford to be so relaxed in the face of two Panzer Divisions?

So far the enemy had gotten lucky while defending their positions inside the congested city streets of Bada Aso, but around those rivers it would be a different story. Or would it? Nochtish commanders received information on Ayvarta that sounded like dogma. They were demobilized and weak, low on ready troops and usable equipment, unwilling to fight for the tyranny of communism. Had they seen the real fangs of the southern continent yet?

Only ten days had passed in the war, after all.

Inside his tank, the Vier Commander pored over the possibilities. He waited, under the ceaseless rain, in what would be the shadow of the rocky Kucha, if the sun was out. He was past the woodland, but there would certainly be more of it in his drive toward the river. While his tank was buttoned, he could see nothing, but if he took a look outside he would have seen a gentle northwards slope at the rocky foot of the mountain. To the west were patches of woodland broken up by the rising and falling of hills that concealed the edges of the river. Along the southwest lay the edge of an escarpment overlooking the lower Kalu. Even in this weather these major features were discernible to the eye, though muddy and somewhat indistinct. He wondered how high above the sea level they were.

Where had those rifle divisions set up? Where did they hide 20,000 people? He looked at his maps, but he was no General, and the information he carried with him to battle was simply too incomplete to extrapolate from. There were limits to his planning abilities.

He ordered his radio operator to contact the HQ.

“I need to hear from the Jagdflug again, I want to confirm a few things.”

About a meter below him, in a niche on the side of the tank, a young woman donned a pair of headphones. She began to operate the tank’s radio, putting in the call to the correct frequency and awaiting a response. She repeated the call twice, and grew frustrated.

“No dice,” replied the operator. “We’re getting a lot of noise on our frequency to HQ.”

“Try the other units, see if they can’t get a hold of them.”

Minutes later, she put down her headphones. “All I’m getting is noise.”

“Do you think it’s the storm?” He asked.

“It might be. I mean, it’s not supposed to be, but I wasn’t really trained in–“

“Is there anything you can do about it?”

“I doubt it. I will keep trying. We might get through eventually.”

“I understand. Keep trying while we wait for Funf and Acht to join us.”

The Commander felt uneasy. His radio operation had never been interrupted by lightning and rain. Older radios, maybe; but these were M5 tanks, fully modernized from the M2. Storms should not have been a problem. Lightning and rain fading was natural, but complete signal loss was far harder to swallow, particularly with recon radio cars in the operational area.

And not just signal loss to HQ — but to other units, much closer and easier to reach.

It brought to his mind again the idea of the land itself rising them against them.

“We’ll wait for backup and then begin the advance. Is the short range radio working?”

“No, none of the radio is.” replied the radio officer. “It’s all noise.”

Commander Vier clenched his fists. “Good god. I guess I’ll signal with a damned flag.”

Hatches opened; every tank commander pulled himself out under the rain with only a sparse green hood for cover, and every crew felt the rain dripping into the tank from then on. Out of their tanks, the commanders could signal to each other in absence of radio. The Platoon Commander produced a red flag, while the subordinate tank commanders each had a blue flag to acknowledge orders given to them. It was archaic, but it worked.

While sorting out their communications Platoon Vier waited for Funf, a counterpart platoon deployed from the full-sized Panzer Regiment that accompanied the Leichte Regiment within the 2nd panzer Division; and Acht, a Platoon of mobile infantry, consisting of five Squire carriers loaded with a rifle squadron. This was just a small smattering of the 2nd Panzer Division’s expected full power in the Kalu region.

Once united these three platoons would form Kampfgruppe Tiger and test two particular Umaiha crossings, all planned out ahead of time. Vier led the way, scouting for the enemy. Funf followed, to deliver heavy firepower from its Sentinel medium tanks. In the rear, Acht’s infantry could dismount and rush forward when battle was joined.

They kept their eyes peeled for the other two Platoons. Five light tanks could not complete the day’s objectives on their own. Funf and Acht were absolutely necessary. They should have been following through Vier’s path at about five or six kilometers distance, but without radios it was impossible to tell when they were coming or what might delay them.

They would not have stopped to fix their radio problem — everything south of the rendezvous point was a bad place to be trying to fix a radio problem. So Vier was confident that the remaining two Platoons would arrive shortly. Tense minutes followed under the cold rain.

Whenever time a lightning bolt surged from overhead the tank commanders tried to use the sudden flash to try to see through the nearby shadows and the veil of the rains. All they could see were the blurry contours of the land, the indistinct masses of trees, the lines of the path, the fog of distance, the gloomy shadow of the lower Kalu below the escarpment.

Vier hardly noticed when the first M4 arrived. It had come out of the wood in the southwest, and approached them, struggling uphill toward the rendezvous point and Vier.

One of Vier’s tanks almost opened fire — Vier’s Commander had to wave him down with a flag. Everyone was on edge, but this was very clearly an M4. It had its lights off, so that it would not be seen from afar by the enemy, and it was buttoned down from the looks of it. But it had a periscope, so it could be waved to. The Platoon Commander signaled to his tanks to wait, and maneuvered his own vehicle ahead. He started to flag his approaching counterpart.

The Lead M4 closed in silently. A second M4 started out of the forest, right behind its tail. None of the hatches opened, nobody responded to signals. Then came a third tank following their trail. It was maddening. Why didn’t they respond? Were they trying their radios?

“Nothing on the waves still!” shouted the radio operator. It couldn’t be that.

Vier’s Commander continued to flag the lead tank ever more furiously — surely the driver or commander could see them now. He even blared the tank’s horn at them, again to no avail. Quiet and dutiful the tanks climbed the slope, making their orderly way to the rendezvous.

Then he saw something, a trail from the tank’s side, dancing in the rain.

He strained his eyes. It had been hard to see in the ceaseless downpour.

Smoke; from a shell impact on the side of the tank. The M4 was an abandoned husk!

“Fire! Open fire! It’s a trick! It’s a trick!” shouted the Commander.

It took far too long for his wet, cold, stressed crew to effect a response.

Off the side of the M4’s turret a muzzle flashed, and a shell perforated the command tank, exploding inside the hull. Inside the crew saw only a flash before their souls were dragged screaming from their bodies. The dead M4 ceased to move as soon as the lead M5 was dead, and from behind the tank its puppeteer revealed itself — an Ayvartan Hobgoblin medium tank had been pushing the vehicle, and hiding behind its silhouette by taking advantage of the slope.

Two other Hobgoblins revealed themselves and dashed uphill with their leader.

Soon the enemy platoon reached the crest of the Vier’s hill, and paused to take aim.

There was panic among the ranks of the light panzers. The M5s of Vier, having lost their command vehicle, and finding themselves engaged with an enemy tank type they had never seen before, started backing into the rocks while haphazardly opening fire. Volleys of 37mm shells bludgeoned the chassis and turrets of the three Hobgoblins to no avail, leaving ugly circular dents and rocking the crews inside, but scoring no penetrations. Once the M5s got moving in earnest, they hit rocky terrain and started to bob, and their shells started flying over the Hobgoblins, and failed to score even meager hits on their clustered enemy.

All semblance of communication was broken. No flags waved. Every tank commander descended into his hatch, and the vehicles started to veer in different directions, dashing madly backwards away from the enemy trio. Vier had been fully broken as a unit.

Within moments the Hobgoblins opened fire, and it seemed that all at once, every M5 tank retreating spontaneously exploded. Two tanks were perforated from the front and faced the same fate as their commander — two remaining tanks had their tracks blown off, as a shell miraculously overpenetrated a front plate at an angle such that it went through the left drive-train of one tank and smashed off the right drive-train on another.

Hatches popped open, and surviving crew members rushed to escape.

Hobgoblin machine guns coaxial to the turrets opened fire, picking off the runners.

Men and a handful of women fell around their tanks, injured or dead, vanishing into the mud.

Fifteen minutes was all it took for Vier to disappear from the order of battle.

From the perspective of the Hobgbolins, however, this was all foregone. Charging the enemy like this was reckless, but the pilots of this particular tank were Ayvartans of a sort who were prone to quiet, almost instinctive forms of recklessness. They lacked an understanding of fear necessary to temper such actions — so to them, this action was a natural one.

After all they possessed a superior weapon and surprised an isolated enemy.

There was a small chance they could have been hurt or killed, but it did not matter.

Inside the Hobgoblin, a KVW officer with the 5th Mechanized Division radioed HQ.

“Tiger Group has been eliminated. We are advancing toward our secondary positions.”

 

Bada Aso Outskirts — 1st Vorkampfer HQ

As the storm raged over Bada Aso, the roof started leaking in over a dozen places at the Vorkampfer HQ. It appeared the restaurant building they had picked as their headquarters was not so intact after all. Long rivulets from the ceiling formed puddles on the floor, but the General forbade the staff from becoming distracted. As long as the sensitive equipment was dry and operational, the floor and the tables and people’s heads could stand a little water.

In a corner of the room, atop a long wall-mounted table, six young women worked at the radios on a crucial task. One of them was getting drenched in the shoulder, and a towel had been given to her to cover it. She started to shiver, her hands shaking as she turned the frequency dial. Then a comforting presence, a pair of hands massaging her shoulders. Her supervisor, another pretty young lady, whispered warmly in her ear.

“It will be over soon, don’t worry.” She said. “Try your best until then, Erika.”

Erika nodded her head, and her grip on the dial steadied a touch. She pressed her headphones against her ears. Erika’s radio supervisor awaited a report, with a gentle, reassuring smile on her face. Her presence caused every girl at the table to perk up and work energetically.

“Any contacts?” She asked.

They scanned the unit frequencies. They sent messages. They tried everything they could feasibly do on their end — increasing power to their transmitters, going outside in cloaks to raise the antennae, swapping the antennae for fresh ones, even swapping one of the radio blocks for one in reserve. But none of this seemed to change the results.

After another round of standard contact calls, Erika still had no good news.

“Sorry Chief Fruehauf. Same thing as before.”

Her supervisor sighed, and ambled away, demoralized but unable to show it. Chief Signals Officer Helga Fruehauf had been having a very difficult time of things in Bada Aso. Her troubles would have been ever so slightly lessened had any of the Panzer companies in the Kalu picked up their radios, but if anyone was shouting across those hundreds of kilometers, their voice was drowned out by the radio noise. She hoped it was merely the thunder and rain.

But she knew that it wasn’t — she just could not say what she really thought it was.

“No response from the Kalu units sir.” She said. She hugged her clipboard to her chest.

General Von Sturm grumbled from a chair in the middle of the room.

“Keep trying. You’ve got the long range radios, we set up your antennae on the roof, we got you your generators, we’ve done everything! If the Panzer Divisions HQ can’t reach those units then you must be able to!” He said, gradually working himself up to shouting.

Fruehauf sighed internally, but outwardly, she smiled, nodded, and went on her way.

She prided herself on her spirit — she wanted to make this war a pleasant home for her girls, the radio operators of the 1st Vorkampfer, and for the men they served. She tried to be courteous, collected, exuberant. She tried to wear a smile. But General Von Sturm’s temper had taken a turn for the worse during the Matumaini actions, and though he had calmed somewhat, she saw his growing frustration again during the 28th, and she grew tremulous.

General Von Drachen wasn’t around to stick up for her this time, either. She was alone.

Several important actions would take place this day — on Penance road they were supervising attacks by Von Sturm’s own 13th Panzergrenadiers Division, as well as the unleashing of what was left of the 6th Grenadier’s Divisional Artillery in the Buxa Industrial Region. In the Umaiha Riverside, Von Drachen was resuming Azul’s attacks up the eastern parts of the city.

And in the Kalu, the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions Blitzed through, moving rapidly past enemy territory to hit their vulnerable rear areas. Once they entered the city from the east and linked up with Azul, encirclement and destruction of Bada Aso was inevitable.

Or at least, that was what Freuhauf had read. She was a signals officer. In the organization of the Vorkampfer this simply meant she stood in a tent or a room, supervising a half-dozen to a dozen people on radio equipment, while on occasion calling a ciphers battalion to come up with code words and frequency changes, though such things had become perfunctory annoyances. Oberkommando believed the Ayvartans incapable of advanced signals warfare, so her “ciphers battalion” was gradually converted into an additional ordinary signals battalion, just full of people who both worked radios and did ciphers in their spare time.

Everything still came in a ship, and there were priorities to consider, after all.

Penance seemed to be doing ok; Von Sturm didn’t particularly care about Azul.

What was baffling everyone on that ugly afternoon was the absence of contact with the Kalu.

“Call General Anschel again and tell him to tell his staff to stop jerking around and get those tanks on the line, I don’t care what it takes.” General Von Sturm said. He was reclining on a chair in one of the old restaurant tables in the HQ, with his hands on the nape of his neck.

“Yes sir.” Fruehauf replied. She hovered close to one of her radio girls, lifted one of the headphone receivers from her ear and whispered the orders. She nodded, and dutifully contacted the 2nd Panzer Division. Minutes later, Fruehauf gave a menial report.

“All they get is noise sir. They think it might be rain fade or lightning interference–“

“Not possible. You know that! You know more about radio than I do! You know it’s not rain fade, Fruehauf!” General Von Sturm said, raising his hands into the air in outrage. In the process he nearly fell back to the floor along with his chair, but somehow he managed to salvage it, and righted himself in time.

“Yes sir,” Fruehauf began, “but they have no other means of communication with the troops right now. We could try to change all our frequencies and hope our tanks are looking through every channel for contact; but that would probably mean halting the attack for a few hours until we get everyone organized again, and I know that’s not going to happen.”

General Von Sturm steepled his fingers and rested his chin on them.

“What do you think the problem is? You went to school for this crap, you tell me.”

Fruehauf averted her eyes. She could not smile or be peppy, not about this, because she was about to do something fairly heretical in her response to the General.

“Radio jamming, sir.” She replied. “This is clearly random noise across the unit frequencies in the Kalu, and that is why we can still communicate with Bada Aso units, and why we can communicate between HQ units. They’re jamming the Kalu panzer unit frequencies so we can’t contact them for command and control. This noise we keep hearing doesn’t sound like I know our radios sound when they are having audio issues. It’s been introduced by Ayvartans.”

“So the Ayvartans introduced nondescript static noise to our unit frequencies?”

“Yes sir.”

“That’s impossible. They would have to know the frequencies for all our units. When the hell would they have collected this information, and how the hell?” Von Sturm replied. He looked more amused, as though this was a theory as far-fetched as an invasion of space men.

Fruehauf herself thought it was difficult to believe for another reason.

In order for them to do this, they would have needed high power radio equipment to be deployed in the Kalu itself. She supposed they could have fed such equipment via truck-mounted portable gasoline generators, but it seemed like a difficult endeavor for the Ayvartan army they had fought so far. They would have to hide these stations throughout the rough terrain of the Kalu, from both air reconnaissance and the sight of the advancing Panzers.

Then they would have had to spend time capturing frequencies, jam them, and take advantage of the silence for whatever amount of time it took before the HQs got fed up, blasted halt orders through random frequencies until someone heard, and ordered the institution of frequency changes across the board. It was a very delicate operation that could either pay off strongly for a limited amount of time, or waste days worth of work.

Nocht’s radio discipline was not the best, but this was all a longshot nonetheless. It required tireless effort, enormous coordination, and an understanding of the enemy’s timetable and psychology.

She had read the reports. It made little sense. Could the Battlegroup Ox depicted in their intel data do this? Could their commander, Gowon, have had this foresight and shrewdness? Could the Ayvartan army they know about support such a tactic? What were they missing?

Regardless it was the only thing that made sense to her. Advanced forms of signals warfare.

“Fruehauf, you have a big imagination. Get back to your radios.” Von Sturm said dismissively. He waved her over to the corner where the radios were posted, and she smiled, nodded, and dutifully took her place beside them. It was best not to question it when the General let you off without incident. She returned to Erika’s side, stood by her, and promised to change the towel on her shoulder and to get her some time off if she came down with a chill.

It was all she could do at the moment. Make this bleak place a comforting home.

 

Central Kalu, Southwest of Tigergruppen

Turh was one of the few developed westerly paths through the Kalu. At no point was it a paved road, but in many places it was solid enough for anything to pass without undue trouble. Like all roads to the Kalu, however, it became wild with the territory, weaving over hills and between trees. In the rain it became muddy, but no intolerably so. For the tanks that dared not navigate straight through the treacherous wood, an open, unguarded road was their best and fastest bet, and so Nocht’s Panzer Divisions took to those few roads through the Kalu, and charged as fast as they could into what they thought was the depths of the enemy.

And indeed there were Ayvartan eyes stationed along much of the road.

But they were not very distressed by the enemy’s penetration.

Under camouflaged nets, in dug-outs and foxholes hidden by slices of turf, atop trees, and in thick bushes. All of it had been constructed at night or under camouflage, and not a single plane had been able to identify the enormity of their preparations. All six tank brigades and their infantry components waited silently by their radios, enduring the cold and rain, unblinking under the flashes of lightning. Ahead of them they saw the convoys of Nochtish vehicles moving. Many of these ambush groups let recon troops pass by unharmed to maintain stealth.

They were waiting for a different prize. Especially along the Turh.

When the first M4 Sentinel was spotted on Turh, an ambush group called in.

“Those red nuts are dangerous raw; please toast them before eating, Miss Jaja.”

Minutes later, eyes still peeled on the moving column, HQ responded.

“I can’t make a fire without something to burn.”

A rising thunderclap concealed the awakening of men and women from their fox holes and dugouts, the dropping of camouflage nets and earth panel covers, the hard steps of people jumping down from trees, and the starting of tank engines. Grenade bundles were retrieved from backpacks and kept in hand. In small groups the troops followed the moving tanks through the cover of the trees and plants, awaiting an opportunity.

Groups along the Tuhr prepared for their imminent battles. This particular tank brigade was divided into four groups, each tasked with a stretch of a few kilometers alongside the road, each with their own unit they would rise up against and destroy.

In front of one particular group were five M4 Sentinels of Lion Group. These were medium tanks with tough front armor, a machine gun set into the front plate, and a deadly 50mm anti-tank gun on the turret. They had tightly spaced tracks that afforded speed in exchange for terrain performance, and a curved form factor with a pot-shaped turret.

Across the column every hatch was open and every tank commander exposed. Instead of looking at the trees they were more concerned with each other. They were holding flags, and focused intensely on these flags and the gestures made with them. They were utterly unaware.

A KVW field officer in charge of the ambush gave a radio command. “Trap them.”

Within moments, one by one the tanks ground to a clumsy stop.

Ahead of the lead M4 massive green thing blocked their way, as though a chunk of the earth itself had risen to stop them. It was covered in leaves and had a bright, angry yellow eye.

Lion group’s commanders visibly panicked and started waving their flags.

But it was not a wraith or elemental, but a Hobgoblin tank in a camouflage net.

It opened fire at point blank range, instantly setting the lead tank ablaze and stalling the column. A burst of flames and smoke from inside the tank nearly threw the commander from his cupola. His corpse slumped over the remains instead.

Dozens of grenade bundles flew out from the trees and exploded around the tanks. One bundle hooked unto a shovel strapped to the back of the last M4 tank in the convoy, and detonated the engine. Several others smashed ineffectively against turrets and sides, but they rocked the tanks and the crews and forced the commanders back into their hatches.

The three remaining M4s dashed in different directions — two barreled forward into the ambush line, while another backed away blindly into the trees. The 50mm guns roared, and shells flew over the men and women in the forest. Trees splintered and fell, suddenly crushing several infantry, and high explosive fragments nicked and cut and pierced and knocked out soldiers, exploding in their dugouts or against the soft, vulnerable cover of the bushes. Panicked drivers squeezed the machine guns set into the glacis plates of the Nochtish tanks, cutting a swathe across the forest in front of them, causing grave injury.

As the woodland came suddenly alive with fire and smoke, the KVW fighters stood their ground without a note of altered emotion. Death evoked little fear in them.

The M4s that charged into the wood caused several soldiers to dive out of the way, but they advanced no further than the trees before meeting a line of Goblin light tanks. Piloted by scared men and women from the Territorial Army, they could not carry out the kinds of tricks the Hobgoblins were performing, and at a distance their guns would have done no good against the armored faces of the M4 Sentinels. But in a stationary firing position, and within 20 meters of the enemy, the 45mm guns on the Goblins put several perfect holes into the M4’s faces, and stalled them completely. Tracks stopped dead and guns quieted suddenly. Inside, the crews made good use of their undulled emotions and started to cheer with relief.

Dashing backwards with reckless abandon, the remaining M4 found itself pursued by the camouflaged Hobgoblin, its spotlight shining across the wood as it chased the retreating enemy. They rolled over logs and smashed down thinner trees. 50mm shells kicked up mud around the Hobgoblin, and blew in half trees behind it. The Hobgoblin fired its own 76mm gun just as recklessly, and smashed the scenery just as much in its charge.

Across a hundred meters the chase stretched, the tanks face to face and the Hobgoblin closing in. The M4’s reverse speed was half the Hobgoblin’s forward speed, and despite its head start the M4 could never outrun it without turning its soft rear to the enemy’s guns.

As it closed the distance the Hobgoblin took fewer shots and landed more. It blew off the left track guard, and smashed an awful dent into the glacis plate that warped the machine gun mount to uselessness. One hit on the front of the turret warped and paralyzed the turret ring.

Then the M4 Sentinel’s front lifted from the ground. It drove itself into a narrow ravine.

Concluding the chase, the Hobgoblin loosed one final shell that penetrated the Sentinel’s underbelly and left the tank burning in the middle of the wood. Rainfall and thunder were once again the dominant sounds. The Tank Commander flipped on her radio headset.

“We have toasted some of those red nuts for you, Miss Jaja.” She said.

She heard back, “Lion group has been eliminated.”

She nodded. “Acknowledged. Advancing to secondary positions.”

 

Central Kalu, Northwest of Lowëgruppen

While the 2nd Panzer Division was tasked with the eastern stretch of Kalu, the 3rd Panzer Division cut across the west, closer to Bada Aso. Due to the Umaiha river going through the eastern half of the city, the 3rd Panzer Division had almost exactly the same mission as the 2nd — drive northward through the Kalu, cross the Umaiha where it straddles the northern Kalu, and force a way into the city via dry land to bypass the Ayvartan front line.

To this end they mustered 125 vehicles of various classes as their first wave, traveling in a line of small convoys across the wilds. Across the western Kalu the woodland was much more sparse, but the tanks had to contend more readily with the hills. Kope road was the most direct route, winding around the rocky crags, like horns erupting from the earth, that broke up the land in the Kalu, and offering the most readily navigable slopes through the softer hills.

Twenty of those vehicles gathered at the edge of a sliver of woods 150 km into the Kalu. They paused before a broad, open stretch of slope dotted with boulders and overlooked along its eastern side by a flat-topped crag jutting out of the hillside, 20 meters higher than the foot of the slope, and 30 meters long. It made a perfect position for a potential ambush, and with no radio contact to HQ or other units, they had to be precise and careful.

Puma gruppe had organized without incident, and it was time for its infantry component to be put to good use. From one of the M4 Sentinels, a Tank Commander pulled himself out of the cupola and rushed to the back of a Squire half-track. He lifted the tarp, and explained the situation to the men inside. He rushed from it to a second of their five carrier vehicles, and their tarps rolled back, and two squadrons of men departed from the edge of the wood.

At first they crouched low to the ground like thieves, rain sliding off their cloaks and glistening when lightning fell, but gradually the urgency of their situation dawned on them, as there was little cover on the long slope ahead. They worked themselves up to a dash, and charged past the boulders, feet slipping on the muddy earth, until they made it to the rock face. They stood with their backs pressed to the crag’s side for several minutes. Once it was clear no one was challenging them quite yet, they threw up their hooks, and started to climb.

For an experienced climber, it was not every high up, and though water trailed down the rock, their hooks found good holds to sink into. At the top of the Crag, the men found nothing but more boulders and sparse green growth like moss. Everything was clear.

One of the squadrons stood sentinel along the edge of the crag, while another ran to the tip of the rock, and waved their flags to signal the convoy to keep moving. From the woods the tank commanders could see them through binoculars. Orders were communicated and again the convoy was on its way out, light tanks and armored cars first, half-tracks second, and medium tanks at the back, in order to prevent any element from being slowed down.

The Gebirgsjager mountain squadrons waited patiently, rifles out, scanning the slope for contacts. They watched the tanks moving up without incident, and felt relief.

Behind them, two barrels emerged from inside a boulder. Muzzles began flashing.

Under the sound of thunder, light machine guns opened fire against the infantry squadrons, lancing through the unaware men in vicious, sustained bursts that seemed to fill the air. Men fell from the edges of the Crag and battered against the rock, their legs or shoulders clipped, their ropes cut, and for some, simply from the shock and surprise. Few men dropped atop the crag — for most it was a fall and a crushing landing. Tarps and camouflage net were thrown off the inconspicuous boulders, revealing a semi-circular framework in which a squadron of Ayvartan men and women had hidden. They crawled around the wooden bars, and set up where the Nochtish men had died, BKV anti-tank rifles and Danava light machine guns in hand.

With the high land won again, the KVW squadron signaled their ambush.

Across the hill, several boulders flashed suddenly. Shells flew from the gray objects.

Fire and steel fragments consumed the bed of a half-track and the men inside it. Two M4 tanks felt their sides scraped by the barrels of hobgoblin tanks, and were shot through at point blank range. An M5 Ranger’s track slid right off its wheels from several BKV shots coming down from atop the crag. Every vehicle in the convoy switched gears and started to turn front plates and turrets toward the enemy, but found that the enemy was all among them. A dozen of what they had believed to be boulders started to move, all along the flanks of the convoy, between different vehicles, ahead, behind; there was no facing that protected them from the enemy.

All around them Goblins and Hobgoblins awoke and attacked all at once.

In response the Nochtish convoy opened fire just as spontaneously.

Shells hurtled wildly across the slope in every direction, machine guns blared, and fire and smoke raged across the hill. It was a frenzied, directionless confrontation, a tank group’s equivalent to a blind, flailing melee over the mud. An M4’s 50mm gun speared a boulder containing an Ayvartan Goblin and smashed the little tank to pieces.

In turn a Hobgoblin pierced the M4 from behind, punching through the engine and setting the crew horrifyingly alight. In a stroke of sheer brutal luck several M5s focused on the nearest false boulder and battered the hidden Hobgoblin tank to pieces at nearly point blank range. From behind them however, two Goblins scored decisive, subsequent hits on the engines of three tanks, as though lined up in a shooting gallery.

In the midst of these warring titans the infantry dismounted their half-tracks, and reached for their grenades, but almost none could throw before either hiding or retreating from the mortal world. Machine gun fire from friendly and enemy tanks alike shredded the wheels and noses of their carriers, stranding them, and the men stepped out into a killing field. Within the smoke and the rain and the flashing thunder and the brilliant blasts, they could not make out friend from foe. Many huddled around husks as best as they could for cover; several dozen ran out to try to fight and had their arms and legs blasted off by snipers, their torsos filled with bullets from the light machine gunners atop the crag or the deadly dance of the tanks.

Minutes into the fight there was a paucity of fire and death.

Enough of each side had been bled out that a battle line had formed. Further uphill a pair of hobgoblins had survived the savagery, shed their disguises, and faced the enemy, while two Goblin tanks limped away with smoking engines and weeping pilots but working turrets and tracks, enough for the territorial army survivors to get away. Fifty meters below them, two M4s and an M5 had survived with some damage. Their strong glacis plates faced forward, and their guns trained on the enemy. The M4s fired the first pair of shots opening the duel.

Both shells crashed against the front plate of one of the Hobgoblins and exploded right inside, tearing open the top of the turret and sending a tongue of flames out the 76mm gun.

Standing alone the remaining Hobgoblin retaliated, and its AP shell smashed open the turret of one of the M4s and turned the interior hull into an inferno.

Quickly reloading, the M4 Sentinel fired the decisive shell at its counterpart.

The 50mm AP shell hit the Hobgoblin’s glacis — and bounced off from its poor angling.

The Hobgoblin’s response shot collapsed the M4’s battered glacis plate, and ended the match.

Behind them, the retreating M5 Ranger was savagely riddled with BKV bullets, and halted. Rather than set fire to it, KVW infantry emerged and captured the crew — they were close enough to their own lines to be able to take these people away for interrogation.

KVW forces surrounded the tank and arrived in time to subdue the tank commander, who had threatened to shoot his crew. A woman radio operator, and an injured driver were also pulled away. Unfortunately, the tank gunner had been killed by several BKV shots.

Thus, Puma group’s thrust had been blunted. Another area of the Kalu was retained, for now.

This time it was a trembling Goblin commander who called in the report, on a portable radio hastily installed inside the tank. “Umm, this is,” He gasped for breath for a second, “This is Corporal Turasi, and I think Puma group has been eliminated. I’m sorry, but we sustained terrible losses in the attempt. Spirits and Ancestors guard our comrades, may they have peace. And um, also, we’ve got prisoners, we’ll take them to the secondary positions with us, I suppose.”

 

Kalu Northwest — 5th Mech Division Rear Echelon

Reports came in from all over the Kalu, and Inspector General Kimani listened in with growing triumph. So far every Panzer thrust in the first wave had been brutally rebuffed by the ambush positions, and the few groups that had been let past the ambush areas would now have to contend with partial encirclement, and attacks by the mobile response force. She counted those panzers as good as dead. In any event, the operation was a complete success.

While she had reports of escaped enemies, and some painful losses in her tank brigades, her forces counted almost 150 vehicles destroyed within the span of a few hours. If her intelligence was correct, the force moving into the Kalu could have been no bigger than 200 vehicles. Therefore significant forces from the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions had been crushed. In addition her main objective had been to selectively destroy large amounts of M4 medium tanks, and this had been resoundingly accomplished. Though Nocht’s armored forces still outnumbered the Ayvartans, the quality gap was much shorter now.

She breathed a little easier, and lay back against the wall of the Adze car.

“Send my congratulations to our tank brigades. No need for codes.”

Her radio operator reached out to her, and handed her the headset.

“You need to listen to this ma’am.” He said. He did not make eye contact.

Kimani took the handset and listened. It was an all-unit message from Bada Aso.

‘This is Army HQ. As of 1400 hours we have lost all contact with the Commander. If any units had contact with the Commander please respond. We do not know the status of the Commander. The Commander was last known to be in the Umaiha area–“

Clang.

Kimani’s eyes drew wide, and the red circles in them wavered. Her fingers slipped, shaking violently, and the radio handset fell on the floor of the Adze.

Tears started to stream down the side of her face. Her lips quivered.

She raised her hands to her mouth.

“Madiha.” She whimpered.

 * * *

NEXT Chapter in Generalplan Suden is: Stormlit Memories

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges II

Side-Story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden.

This chapter contains some mild sexual content.

 

22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon — Palladi Province, Previti Estate

On the outskirts of the royal province of Palladi, a great many hectares of beautiful rural countryside were fenced off by brick wall into the individual estates of a few nobles and nouveau rich. The Previti Estate had grown into the most developed of these clusters. Its walls were like ramparts, and the main gate was an archway leading to a roofed landing. On the night of the 22nd, the gates were open, and through them, past the lobby, one could see into the gardens, where a sensuous torch-lit path led up to the manor house. Guards blocked the approach, and a young woman in a modest black dress and apron ushered young, fashionable couples past the archway after checking them from a list. She was all smiles for every guest that checked in with her, but soon become particularly taken with one new arrival.

A tall, slim, and beautiful stranger, dark-skinned by Lubonin standards but green-eyed, smooth-featured, graceful, brown hair pinned up, stood before the guards at the entrance to the Estate. He dressed in a fine tuxedo suit, with golden cuffs, a visible pocket-watch chain, a black tie, understated but glossy shoes. Like the other guests he had come covered, a peacock-feathered mask covering his delicate nose and the upper half of his face.

He had been dropped off by a taxi around a corner road from the estate, and walked to the gate. No one at the archway could quite tell whether it was a fancy cab or a cheap one.

“Good evening.” He said. He had a pleasant voice. “Sylvano D’Amore.”

Gently and gracefully he lifted the maid’s hand, his fingers travelling along the underside of her arm in the lightest brushing touch until they lifted it by the palm. His lips graced her between knuckle and wrist. Her face flushed — none of the other guests had paid her these attentions.

“Ah, of course. You’re expected.” She said. Her voice developed a light tremble.

She allowed him past the guards, though in reality his name was known to no one. She watched him leave with a delirious expression, almost forgetting the next guests arriving.

Carrying himself with an easy confidence, Sylvano passed through the roofed archway landing, and from there to the ivory-tiled pathway through the gardens. Flanked by shaped hedges and gilded fountains and beds of roses, the young man walked discreetly alongside the throngs of fashionable men and women headed for the estate. Where eyes lingered on him, he received pleasantries, which he softly returned. But he received no greater volume of attention than any other beautiful stranger making a social debut that night. He was not a name that one knew to seek out — no one knew a Sylvano D’Amore. Nobody even knew to ask for it.

He had no friends to whom he owed honors, so he passed people by with a smile and a gentle bow of the head, and he did not pause along the fountains or smell the roses with other idle lords and ladies. At his own pace, he made his way directly to the main villa. His destination, the same as everyone, was the ballroom hall atop the manor house. From the gardens one could see the vast ballroom balcony, a gentle curve along the mansion house facade, framed in silver curtains and shining windows. There was a young lady waiting for his hand inside.

Everywhere he turned he saw masks; animal masks, humanoid masks, plain masks, masks over whole faces, some covering halves, masks with fur, with feathers, with scales.

Perhaps had the right eyes lingered on him, they might have seen through the peacock-feathered mask, and peered right into Sylvano’s regal green eyes. They might have noticed in his gentle lips and features, in the tone of his skin, and in the blunt half-elfin ears, a similarity to a certain Salvatrice Vittoria, one of the Princesses of Lubon. But few of the important nobles and the high bourgeois had ever interacted in any depth with her, or knew much about her status save her age and parentage. She was as outside their thoughts as he was on that night.

As such every vestige of the dual person walking among them was well guarded.

Sylvano was a disguise Salva had dreamed up for some time now; but now, she was him.

And she felt both excitement and trepidation at the prospect.

She had a thought in her mind constantly, as she ambled down the path, past the singles and couples bedecked in finery, taking in the view, that this youth was supposed to be a man. Behind the black pants and coat, the formal shirt and the black tie, the golden cuff links and buttons; behind all the accouterments of the finer class, Sylvano was not Salvatrice.

She could not afford to be seen through him after all this effort.

With the help of her personal maid, who even now was covering for her in the Academy as best she could, she had become Sylvano. She had bound her breasts flat, not much of an endeavor, and over time she had practiced a slightly deeper, more ambiguous voice. Her figure came largely flattened already, so the suit fit her slender frame well. She had even worn men’s underwear, and dyed her hair brown for the occasion. Appearance was not a problem.

It was all about attitude; but what was the right attitude expected out of a gentleman?

She put it out of her mind, pushing it deep down. She had a lady to meet for a dance.

Walking through the Previti estate was exhausting. Salvatrice, and in turn Sylvano, were not so delicate, but one of them had to expend a lot of energy to be the other. She had to costume herself, escape the Academy, and make it to the estate. Now she had to cross the gardens. Her constitution had never been too stout, and the preparations and acting took a lot out of her. But she had to be graceful — she could not simply stop and stand wherever.

Thankfully the Previti sisters stationed rabbit-masked maids in white dresses all along the fountains and gazebos with aperitifs and drinks in small glasses atop shimmering platters.

Near a hedge that was cut to the shape of a cavalry knight, one of the pretty rabbits offered her a drink, and Sylvano paused. He approached the woman and accepted the wine glass with an unreserved smile. Standing in the shadow of the green knight, against the red torch-light, gave Salvatrice a chance to rest and catch her breath while chatting up the maid.

“A lovely drink, thank you.” Sylvano said, after one careful sip. “Very full-bodied.”

“Thanks milord. It is a product of our own vineyards. While it is a comparatively young wine, it boasts taste beyond its years, like our fair ladies,” the maid replied. She was well spoken, and had either practiced her lines well, or developed a skillful way with words.

“Will both ladies Previti grace us with their wit and charm this night?” Sylvano asked.

“Yes milord. In fact it is they who planned everything from attendance to the masks to the decorations, and attire,” chirped the maid. “All is a product of their impeccable taste. Certainly they will attend the party — I believe they will even play for us all on the piano.”

Sylvano finished the remainder of the wine in a few delicate sips. He smiled to the lovely maid.

“I would not want to miss it; so I will make my way. I must say it has been a pleasure.”

She bowed to him, while perfectly balancing the food and drink on the platter in her hand.

Sylvano resumed his walk to the estate. The Previti Manor soon loomed over him, a monumental edifice to anyone staring it face to face. Red and gold carpet stretched down close to a hundred steps of staircase that led to the ornate double doors of the manor. Golden light filtered out of the doors and even through the closed curtains on the ground floor windows. Men and women, some alone, some in groups of friends, others coupled hand in hand, climbed the stairs with a casual admiration of the surroundings.

Salvatrice felt her strength waning again every dozen steps. Halfway up, she saw something that invigorated her, and Sylvano conquered the remaining steps in strength.

At the top of the staircase waited Carmela Sabbadin, heiress to the Antioch Fuels fortune.

Sylvano approached and took her hands, and she looked up with sudden recognition.

“I hope you did not wait long.” He said. Carmela saw Salvatrice right away.

“I’ve waited weeks. I can endure a few hours.” She said. She laughed delicately.

“I apologize for all of it.” Sylvano said. They squeezed each other’s hands for a moment.

Carmela was beautiful, always, Salvatrice knew no one in the world whose every aspect she loved as much as she loved Carmela. Her long, golden hair, and the way it curled a little at the ends; her honey-orange eyes and the way she blinked like a cat with a little grin on her face when she was satisfied; the way that she stood just a few centimeters shorter than Salvatrice, and tipped her head just a little to lock eyes; her ears, not as long or as sharp as some, but enough for the tips to peer charmingly out from under her hair; her soft lips with a little dab of red, and the laugh from them that was delicate and a little haughty; the perfect olive tone of her skin, her slender form evenly caressed by the sun. Salvatrice could have basked in her presence all night.

To the ball she wore her hair simply, and made up for it with the regal indigo dress she wore, with a long, ornate skirt but a bold bodice cut just above the breast, strapless and sleeveless, bound tight at her back. She wore a pair of matching indigo gloves, with black ribbon, and her mask was an indigo raven, covering half her face as Sylvano’s mask did. Around her neck she wore a gold chain with a purple amethyst that Salvatrice had given to her long ago.

People moved around them, but this was their moment. They didn’t exist anymore.

“My, my, mister,” Carmela sidled up to Sylvano almost nose to nose, “Filling your eyes before your hands,” she started to whisper, “or perhaps your mouth? Will I receive any satisfaction for the feast I’m offering your senses?” She traced a slim index finger down Sylvano’s chest.

“I am not Sylvano D’Amore for nothing.” Salvatrice replied, lips curled in an awkward smile.

Carmela backed a step from her, opening a little paper fan in front of her mouth.

“I hope Sylvano knows the ballroom responsibility of the one in the suit and pants.”

She flapped the paper fan across Salvatrice’s face teasingly, and extended her hand to her. Sylvano choked down the kind of giggle that such a gesture would have drawn from Salvatrice, and instead entwined her fingers through Carmela’s, and escorted her into the mansion.

Every hall of the Previti Estate was brightly lit by faux torches, the flame electric and surrounded in glass. Red and gold were common colors on carpets, banners, curtains. Scented candles added mystique and a decadent feeling to the environment. Hand in hand, Carmela and Sylvano climbed a spiral staircase to the second floor, and made their way to the ballroom the next wing over. Along the halls they found portraits of beast-headed men in suits, bird-headed women in dresses. There were stone busts of beast-headed people with savage expressions, in place of the statues of great artists that would normally decorate such a fine house. All these works of dubious art seemed to stare hungrily at them as they passed.

Male servants in the mansion wore wolf’s masks, while the female servants were all rabbits. They ushered the passing guests toward the massive ballroom. Alongside Carmela and Sylvano strode dozens other people in suits and ornate dresses. Everyone had a mask, but certain peer groups identified themselves quickly and reformed, and soon they moved together in their inseparable cliques and entourages. Sylvano could hear the women giggling at the decor, and a few more delicate among them expressing disgust or discomfort with it.

Enough about the Previti Estate had been rendered exotic and mysterious to satisfy the occasion, and yet enough remained familiar for an upper class youth to feel refined and unchallenged. Perhaps dimming the lights, perhaps earthier colors, perhaps a few aphrodisiacs on the platters, perhaps less sharp dress on the servants, less artifice in the decorations; such things might have added a more lusty and savage touch to this purported masquerade ball. But perhaps the purpose of the masks was never to titillate, to add danger — perhaps like in Salvatrice’s case, they were meant to keep everyone safer than they would be.

The Previti’s ballroom was enormous, containing a small stage offset a dance floor larger than the gymnasium at Salvatrice’s academy, a high roof with a chandelier that was decorated to seem a ghastly floating crown of thorns, bearing several faux torches. There was a gorgeous view of the property through the balcony, and several couples were already taking advantage of it. There were no tables for drinks or food. Servants carried everything. They flawlessly weaved through the guests to present their complimentary morsels. There was not yet any dancing — musicians on violin, flute and piano and were setting up and warming up.

“Come, Sylvano,” Carmela spoke the name teasingly, letting it roll slowly off her tongue, “I must dutifully report to the ladies of the house. I’m sure they’ll love to meet you.”

“Yes, I remember you saying they’re good friends of yours.” Sylvano said.

“I’ve only known them all my life.” Carmela said, giggling. “You could say they are.”

Carmela led Salvatrice now, and she beseeched a wolf-headed man to give them audience with the ladies Previti. Acknowledging Carmela, the man took a very formal tone with her, and treated her as if she too were a lady of the house, whose commands were to be followed. Dutifully he led Carmela and Sylvano through a side room, and into a tea room with several plush couches, a record player, a large radio, and even a television set, surrounding tables where cakes and cookies and tea had been set and sat seemingly untouched.

Sitting placidly in the middle were the Previti Twins, two women identical save for the way they styled their hair. Both had ivory-white skin, blue eyes and flowing black hair, sharp lubonin ears that curled very slightly at the ends. Both of them wore very similar red and gold dresses, modestly covering and yet quite ornate, bedecked with frills, with only a flash of the upper torso through a circular window in the bodice, lined with glittering little gems. One sister had her hair up with a bright red ribbon; the second wore long, tight ringlet curls.

The twins greeted them all at once, and their voices sounded exactly the same.

“Good evening, Lady Caramel!”

Carmela approached each sister, and embraced them a little from her standing position, exchanging kisses on the cheek. Then she returned to the side of her date, taking his arm and waving. Sylvano smiled, a little nervously, and dipped her head in a bow. Salvatrice thought she was the only one who called Carmela that nickname, but she guessed it must have been a common thing among her and familiar girls. The Previti Twins knew her longer than Salva.

“You look divine! You always wore the royal purple better than royalty!”

“And the way your hair curls into little twists at the end, oh, I’m so jealous.”

“It takes us an hour with a maid to get that effect. You’re a golden goddess!”

“Indeed! Indeed! It’s no wonder you were able to charm our good man here.”

“We were wondering when we would meet your handsome stranger!”

“And also whether he would make a good God for this goddess! Indeed!”

They giggled at once, and again there was no distinction between them.

“Oh, he’s perfectly ordinary.” Carmela said, giggling herself. “This is Sylvano D’Amore. He is the son of an architect; though he is more devoted to the study of people than structures.”

Salvatrice played along. She had no plans for a backstory, but of course, one was necessary. “I’m a sociology student. I hope to go into politics someday.” There was a pause between the two clauses, perhaps a clumsy one, but she committed in the end. This was a half-truth, more than an outright lie. The Previti Sisters looked over him with fond, amused expressions.

“You have a captivating voice, Mr. D’amore.” Said the ribbons sister.

“It is wasted on speeches!” laughed the ringlets sister. “You should take to the stage!”

“You can call me Sylvano. Mr. D’amore is so labored out of such pretty lips.” Sylvano said.

Again the twins giggled, covering their mouths delicately with the backs of their hands.

Carmela clung to Salva’s waist. “Aren’t you spreading admiration a little too far, Sylvano?”

“No, no! Don’t let this forceful evil girl quiet you!” Ringlets Previti said.

“Compliment us more please. Don’t leave us begging!” Ribbon Previti said.

“I’m sure Carmela would agree you are both stunning ladies.” Sylvano said.

Salvatrice wondered if Carmela was really jealous, but she was laughing along with them.

She gave Sylvano a look and a smile that said it was all fine. Salvatrice was not the best at picking up social cues, but she was at least capable enough not to panic from them. With that matter silently resolved they sat a table of sweets and tea across from the sisters, who took the time to introduce themselves. They stood momentarily and curtsied.

The young lady with the ringlets went first. “I’m Capricia Previti, younger by a few minutes.”

“And I’m Agostina Previti, older by a few minutes,” added the young lady with the ribbon.

They sat, and donned their masks in front of the couple — half-face masks covered in red and gold dyed feathers with little gold beak noses, like phoenixes.

“Full credit to this idea should really go to our lady Caramel. She cheered us on to do this.”

“Her own parents are so stuffy, otherwise I’m sure she would have done it, right Caramel?”

“Indeed.” Carmela said. “But I don’t think I would have managed such a colorful atmosphere.”

“It really is, isn’t it?” Capricia said. “It really gets the blood flowing. I especially like the masks I chose for the servants. Wolves and rabbits, it gives a sinister kind of atmosphere together, doesn’t it? Makes you think, ‘oh what strange things must go on the Previti house,’ no?”

“I didn’t quite want to imply depredation within our own house in such a way.” Agostina said. “But I allowed my little sister’s fancies to take flight, perturbed as I am by their content.”

Capricia gave Agostina a look, and the latter opened up a paper fan over her face.

“Agostina was in charge of boring things, like invitations and drinks, that take care of themselves.” Capricia said, her tone taking a hint of viciousness.

“One of your dear rabbits allowed me in despite the list.” Sylvano said. “I hope that will not be a black mark upon her character. I understand that you crafted a guest list and my attendance was a little last minute.” He looked at Carmela, who also covered her face with her paper fan.

“Oh you’re so considerate Sylvano.” Agostina said. “I knew when I created a guest list that it would be a little troublesome for our servants to keep it. So many fashionable people yearn for a chance to attend truly high class parties, it is the same way whenever any of us hosts anything. But we also know our servants are cautious enough to keep any riff-raff out. If someone charms one of our rabbits, surely they will charm us as well. You have proven it.”

Sylvano tried not to flush in the face. That might have been seen as a little too delicate for him.

“Hands off.” Carmela said. All the girls shared another synchronized bout of laughter.

“She’s very forceful Sylvano! You see this? We don’t blame you if you allow her reign over you!”

It was becoming increasingly difficult not to flush or wither under this sort of attention.

Thankfully the subject changed. Carmela and the twins started catching up on things, and Sylvano sort of faded into the background, an accessory to the conversation, offering nods and smiles, blowing the steam from Carmela’s tea for her, and listening to the women.

The Previti Twins were heiresses of a monumental shipping and trading dynasty founded on the ashes of old national industries, once belonging to coastal lords who fell from grace during the ascension of Queen Vittoria. It was a time of tumult, and many lords were destroyed for their opposition or opportunism — their positions were occupied by nouveau rich and petites-bourgeois, whose own opportunism was rewarded, forming a new class of nobility that was born not out of blue blood, but out of gold and silver bullion, and the favor of the Queen.

But the Previti family was dissatisfied with current events. Who wouldn’t be? There was a war on the horizon. Four days after the fact, the papers acknowledged the invasion of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice by the Nocht Federation. Swift victories were reported, and the strength of Nocht touted to all, but only the journalists took the news energetically. For most, it just added to their troubles. Almost the first thing touched upon after the sisters explained their positions to Sylvano, was a slight change in their fortunes.

“It’s been a little hard on father lately. A month ago we stopped being able to trade with the Ayvartans, and now with the Royal Navy refitting, there is low priority on helping us expand our shipping capacity and our fleet’s ability to sail farther out to Helvetia or northern Nocht.” Agostina explained. “And that is the most significant limit on our fortunes at the moment. More ships, bigger facilities; at the present we’re maxed out on profit-making if we can’t access the commerce on Ayvarta. It’s closer by, and they had a lot of product we wanted.”

“They were also communists, so this was bound to happen.” Capricia said, shrugging.

“Communists with abundant, cheap food and ore and fuel.” Agostina said sternly.

“Well, it is out of our hands, really.” Sylvano said. Salvatrice really did not know much about the communists, or even what they stood for. It was a problem she hoped to correct soon. As a student it drove her mad to feel such a hole in her pool of knowledge — particularly now that her country and its allies went to war with them. Ignorance was inexcusable.

So, in the absence of knowledge, she played Sylvano as a noncommittal party.

“I suppose it is. How has your papa been affected by the news, Caramel?” Agostina asked.

“So far, nothing’s really different. Far as I know, demand for fuel is growing but our fuel plants in Ricca have been more than able to meet it. Papa and I don’t talk much.” She replied.

“I’m sure the war will drive demand up. At least someone’s getting something out of it!” Capricia said, accompanied by a delicate laugh. Agostina seemed to cringe, and Carmela did not reply. Salvatrice found the statement rather sinister. Capricia did not seem to notice.

“On a lighter note, now that we’ve all got going; Carmela, dear, I don’t mean to impose, but I’ve been dying to know how you two met.” Agostina said. “In the most respectful of ways, this came as a surprise to me! I did not expect you to have a paramour so suddenly.”

“Paramour? Oh Agi, you’re romanticizing things too much.” Carmela said gently.

Sylvano looked between Carmela and Agostina with a somewhat helpless expression.

“Perhaps, but forgive me, I assume your father doesn’t approve.” Agostina said.

“He never approves of anyone!” Capricia replied. “He doesn’t even want us around.”

“Oh, come now Capri, he’s never said that at all.” Carmela replied.

“He doesn’t have to say it to mean it.” Capricia replied, wielding her own paper fan now.

Carmela sighed. “We just met at a little party one day, didn’t we Sylvano?”

“Indeed.” Sylvano replied. Salvatrice’s mind raced to flesh out the details in a way the twins would readily accept. She figured out quickly to play to their sense of dramatic grandeur. “I was there accompanying my father, who had done some work for Antioch Fuels. It was a small celebration in honor of a new facility. We saw each other from across the floor of the plant. I remember it like it was yesterday — we locked eyes, drinks in hand, distracted from the adult’s conversations. We kept each other company while our the company men and women entertained one another, and there was just something special. We both knew it then.”

Both sisters clapped their hands together and beamed. “Simply marvelous!”

“He remembers it far better than I. I just remember a boring company party.” Carmela said, clinging again to Sylvano’s side. She looked at him with curious amusement.

“I figured that it must have been related to your company in some way.” Agostina said.

“To think you’d meet someone under forty years like that. Or did you just age well, Sylvano?”

Sylvano smiled. “I’m afraid the men of my family don’t age gracefully. Enjoy while you can.”

The Previti sisters burst out laughing, and had to raise their hands to their mouths.

Carmela quirked an eyebrow and gazed quizzically at her suitor. She shook her head.

“After that we decided to keep in touch, and then to deepen that touch.” Carmela said.

“Of course.” Capri smiled back. “I assume a lot of furtive letter-writing followed.”

“You’re so well acquainted with courtship. Hiding anything from me?” Carmela said.

She looked at them like a viper, as though she’d found a flash of neck to bite.

“Oh dear, have I spoken out of turn?” Capri said, wearing an expression of contrived shock.

“Nothing so dramatic I’m afraid. She is simply very well read in romance.” Agostina replied.

“No, do not cover for me sister. I have a suitor to whom I send letters.” Capricia said, her voice taking a haughty tone. “It is true! Carmela read me, I’m afraid. I have been unveiled to all.”

There was a moment of awkward silence as Capricia puffed herself up before them.

“You might think him a suitor, but his own self-concept is up for debate.” Agostina said.

Both sisters eyed one another with evil intentions, then turned the other cheek at once.

Sylvano stayed quiet and tried to purge himself of expression. More than a conversation it almost seemed like a competition between everyone, humorous as it appeared. Salvatrice did not know whether it was lighthearted or not. She supposed this was the kind of thing long-time girl friends got up to. With the few friends she had made at the academy the topics were always books, and the conversation always slow and quiet. This was all quite new.

Thankfully she had a good sense with words to improvise her way through it.

After a half hour more of talking, they exhausted topics both soft and heavy. Then the Previti Sisters stood from the tea room couches and announced it was time they made their appearance. Carmela offered each of them a hug and a kiss on the cheek again, while Sylvano bowed to the two of them. Thus the couple left the room first, and rejoined the guests in the ballroom, before the Previti sisters entered from the stage door, behind the musicians. There was a round of applause in the room for the two hostesses, to which they bowed.

“Thank you! We hope you have been enjoying the refreshments.” Agostina said.

“But of course, you did not come here to drink, but to dance!” Capri added. “Gather up your courage, men, and seek the hand of a lady for the ball! Come on, you did not dress up to drink in a corner! Couple with another mysterious stranger. You’ve nothing to lose!”

“Our hands will of course be available as well.” Agostina said, winking coquettishly.

They walked down from the stage, and the musicians started to play. Around the room what looked to Salvatrice like hundreds of guests began to form couples for the dance. Salvatrice took Carmela’s hand, and with one arm around her waist, led her to the dance floor. Music played; the piano reigned over the other instruments, and the player was very skilled. He started slowly, and his violin and flute followed him loyally, but the tempo gradually rose as if with the emotion of the couples on the floor. But Salvatrice did not try anything daring. She was not even thinking much of her feet, and the movement on the ballroom was perfunctory.

It was not a dance to them. It was not technical. It was a chance to be together — to share in each other’s space, to be physical, to touch, to move in orbit. It was a standing bed. Fingers bit down on flesh like the teeth that longed to; eyes locked together like the lips that could not. A hand squeezed a hip or outer thigh, and the owner felt tempted to grip elsewhere.

Dancing only made Salvatrice feel suspended in the air. She felt as though in a freefall with her beloved, the gentle turns, the steps, all the traversal was a backdrop to the timeless space they shared. She made only one contrived dance move. When she sensed the artists were about to close one melody and transition, Salvatrice twirled Carmela and pulled her suddenly close, holding her tight. They held the pose, sharing in each other’s warm, agitated breath. There were no accolades for the twist, no spotlight on the lovers. They were still alone in their microcosm, in the middle of a hundred others perhaps thinking with the same restrained lust.

“I was about to beg you for something like that.” Carmela whispered.

Salvatrice smiled. Normally it was Carmela who took the lead. But, appearances, and all.

One performance melded into the next, until the music became an accompaniment to the gasping of their breath. Chandelier light played across flesh glistening with sweat. Salvatrice and Carmela held fast to one another. Gradually their lips brushed, their hands crept to where desired, and piecemeal their desires played out, across three dances, four, through centimeters of cloth, across exposed neck, over glossy lipstick, moistening hair, and glittering masks.

Carmela stopped first — she squeezed Salvatrice suddenly close, so she felt a bump against her bound breasts. She whispered, “Allow me a moment and a drink to recover.”

“Of course.” Sylvano said. Salvatrice restored his composure immediately.

For the first time since they met that night the couple broke. Carmela met with the Previti sisters again, who, from the impeccable state of their clothing and hair, seemed to have had lesser fortunes than Carmela on this night. Sylvano picked up a pair of wine glasses from a wolf across the room, and brought them back, weaving through the crowd in the middle of a song’s climax. When the two reunited minutes later, they proposed a toast, drank peacefully, and made small talk with the twins on the variety of dresses among the ladies — most of the men looked rather homogeneous and went uncommented on.

“Well, it’s about time we took the stage again.” Agostina said.

“You needn’t remain, Carmela — why not lead dear Sylvano on a little tour. You’re probably bored of our playing already, you’ve heard it so much.” Capricia winked at her.

The Previti Sisters took their leave, and in that instant Carmela took Salvatrice by the hand and led her out of the ballroom. She did not object or ask, she simply followed, through the hall straddling the ballroom, to a corner room. Carmela opened a door, and ushered her into a little gallery. Couches encircled a series of display stands, holding models of the Previti company’s famous vessels. Salvatrice barely got a glimpse at them, when Carmela pushed her against the wall, and kissed her. She pulled away, and Salvatrice felt her leg, the knee coming between Salvatrice’s thighs. Her heart was racing, and her breath choppy.

“What if we became just a little lost here, in the backrooms of the Previti Estate, just for a bit? Perhaps we drank too much. Perhaps in exactly 58 minutes, the sisters and their servants might pay heed and come look for us, and find us in an ordinary state here?”

Carmela pulled Salvatrice close to her, faces a millimeter away, brushing lips, exchanging sweet breaths. She wrapped her hands around Salva’s shoulders and nape.

“What do you say, Sylvano D’Amore?” She had a hungry-looking grin on her face.

Salvatrice inched forward, seizing Carmela’s lips into her own.

It was an arduous kiss, sucking, tasting. Salva’s hands traveled down Carmela’s breasts, pressing firmly, and slid down to her waist to her skirt. Carmela seized Salva’s groin.

Their heads withdrew for just a second, tongues tip to tip, basking in each other’s glow.

The walls brightened, and they became framed by light; there was an entirely different glow.

There were screams and a massive roaring of flame.

Over their shoulders the lovers watched the fireball erupting from afar.

Salvatrice and Carmela stood transfixed by the light.

A massive bomb, it had to be; and it had to have gone off right in the archway entrance.

“Messiah defend us.” Carmela whispered. Salvatrice seized her arm, and pulled her out the door. They hurried down the hallway and saw people rushing out of the ballroom.

There were guards coming up the stairs, pushing their way through the panicking crowd, but they looked utterly bewildered and helpless, pistols out but nothing and no one to shoot, and no direction in the screaming horde. Ladies tripped over their skirts trying to run, and men minutes ago dancing with them now left them behind in their rush to save themselves. Maids and servants were pushed out of the way and huddled in corners and locked themselves in rooms, in fear of both the crowd and the destruction visited upon the estate.

Salvatrice clung close to Carmela, and the two of them shoving and waded through the crowd against all instinct. They didn’t see the hostesses among the escaping masses.

They finally forced their way through to the double doors into the ballroom. Inside they found the place littered with broken glass and discarded food stuffs, smears of cake, platters flung against the nearest surface in the rush. They could see the fires from the balcony windows, but not the archway gate — it was gone.  A massive hole had been blown in the wall. Carmela found the Previti sisters hiding behind the piano and she and Sylvano joined them. Agostina and Capricia were on the verge of tears, and shaking as though in a freezing shower. Sylvano wrapped his coat over the two of them as best as he could arrange.

Guards entered the ballroom, gasping for breath, bent down and supporting themselves by their knees. Pistols in hand, they scanned the room though nothing relevant could be there.

“What is happening?” Sylvano asked. “We heard an explosion.”

“There was an explosion! It was at the gate! It was enormous!” Agostina said.

“Messiah protect us, could it be an attack? Like the massacre in Ikrea?” Capricia said.

“Shut up!” Agostina shouted, pushing Capricia against the wall. “Don’t say that!”

Sylvano and Carmela broke them apart. They looked about to swing at one another.

They huddled behind the piano while the guards rushed out to the balcony’s balustrade and hid behind it for cover. Brandishing their pistols they peered frequently over the edge.

Frightful minutes passed without another sign; no explosions, no gunfire.

There would be no massacre that night. It would not turn out like Ikrea. This bomb was not followed by a masked throng armed to the teeth and out for blood. It was only followed by enough silence for everyone to shrink back in fear of themselves and others.

But Sylvano knew that the Blackshirts would appear soon nonetheless.

“Carmela, I can’t stay any longer.” Sylvano whispered. “Blackshirts.”

Carmela looked him in the eyes. She was momentarily stunned, and a few tears drew from her eyes. But she wiped them off with her glove. She understood. This was not a night out with Sylvano D’Amore, an ordinary gentleman who could come and go as he pleased, talk to whoever he wanted, talk however he wanted, and stay by her side. Salvatrice Vittoria could do none of those things, not freely, not without consequence. She had to run from prying eyes to do anything. They shared on quick, final kiss, for anything more involved would’ve forced Salvatrice to stay; and Sylvano stood, and leaving his coat behind he started to leave.

“Where is he going?” Capricia asked.

“He needs to see things for himself. He wants us to stay here, where it’s safe.” Carmela said.

“How gallant.” Agostina said. Salvatrice could not tell whether it was sincere or sarcasm.

Outside the fire was brilliant, and the force of the bomb had put out many of the garden torches. Salvatrice joined the throng of people the servants were escorting out through the side gates unto the adjacent properties. The Blackshirts were not yet on the scene, but Salvatrice hurried nonetheless to escape whatever cordon they might set. Her mother could not know. The Queen would not harm her — but she would make life impossible to live. More impossible than it already was. She had already done so to one Princess and surely in that pragmatic regal mind there was space to punish the other for an indiscretion such as this.

 

* * *

Next Chapter In Salva’s Taboo Exchanges — Part Three

Under A Seething Sky — Generalplan Suden

This chapter was made possible by the support of kind folks on my Patreon.

Please take a short survey as well if you are familiar with the series thus far.

This chapter contains descriptions of wounds as well as scenes of violence and death. Some descriptions may be considered briefly graphic.

 

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

City of Bada Aso — East of Penance

7th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

Storm rains flowed freely over the streets, washing across alleys and into drainage ditches and swelling into miniature rivers. Rain fell thick over the ruins and debris, forming muddy puddles wherever captured, and where the water found stable paths, it washed away many mounds of sand and dust. It washed through the skeletal remains of buildings, removing the ash, and the grit, and leaving behind clean husks like the discarded shells of cicada.

Overhead the flashing of lightning bolts grew intense and concurrent enough to light the interiors of ruined buildings for several seconds at a time. They seethed inside of roiling dark-blue clouds, streaks of intense light tracing the sky like the veins of the storm.

Bada Aso’s promised storm had come, but it did not slow the fighting. Whistling gusts, the cracking thunder and crashing sheets of water overwhelmed the sound of rifles and guns in the city’s southern districts. Despite the drowning out of the battle cries, war continued unabated.

Combat forces found each other anew across the city. But some were still searching.

Under the buffeting air and the deluge, an unarmored passenger car drove northbound at 75 kph. It navigated the roads straddling the industrial park, searching the way to Penance and the Cathedral’s vulnerable northern flank. There were four men atop. A driver, wiping water off his face; a radio man, cloak wrapped around his pack radio; an officer, still wearing his peaked cap in the rain; and a man with a Norgler machine gun, scanning the dark buildings around him. Each flash from above made these men eager about the empty buildings around them.

They parked near the corner connecting their road to the Cathedral park intersection, hiding the car on the street between two ghastly buildings hollowed out by bombs. The Commander gave orders to the radio man, who quickly began to transmit, and dismounted along with the gunner. They crept around the corner and peered down the road with a pair of binoculars, but this proved folly. Dripping wet, the commander wiped down his binoculars twice with his cloak and then with his shirt, and peered again to no avail. He waved the gunner back around the corner.

They returned and found the driver now slumped over the wheel, and gore splashed across the windshield, while the radio man hugged his sparking, burnt-out box to death.

A woman’s voice cried out under a clap of thunder, “Halt!”

Behind them, Sergeant Chadgura and Illynichna approached from the building door, their silenced carbines loaded and raised to the men. From around the back of the car, Gulab and Jandi rose from cover with pistols in hand and carbines at their back. The Commander raised his hands over his head, while the Gunner dropped his Norgler gently on the ground.

“Auf den Boden!” Illynichna cried. She was speaking Nochtish to them so they understood. Gulab did not know what she was saying specifically but she had some idea, particularly when the men began to kneel in place with their hands raised into the air. On their knees they were right on the Sergeant’s eye level, and she approached the prisoners and walked around them.

Illynichna drew her pistol and shot the gunner through one ear and out the other. He fell to the ground in front of the Commander. From his wound free-flowing blood mixed with rain traveling down into the drainage ditch. Her voice turned vicious, and she bared her teeth.

“Wo sind die Haubitzen?” She said, smacking the Commander across the back of the head with her pistol, and knocking off his cap. It rolled into the drain. There was no answer from him.

She held the pistol behind the back of his head, pressing the barrel against his scalp.

“Check him for plans.” Chadgura said, nodding toward Gulab.

Gulab skirted the side of the car, pressed up against the alley, and knelt in front of the Nochtish Commander. It was the closest she had ever been to one of them. He was pale, very pale, and his eyes were a sharp blue. Even Zungu folk had more color to their skin than him. Beneath his cap he had dark yellow hair, like the color of mustard, and he had a hooked nose and a shaven, pockmarked face. His breath smelled like cigarettes. There was a strange look in his eyes and mouth, as though this was a tedious inconvenience. He was unafraid of them, unshaken.

“Half of you start laying down the explosive mines along the road.” Illynichna said. “He probably radioed for a convoy to advance earlier and he thinks he’ll be saved.”

The rest of the squadron walked out of the building carrying satchel bags with explosive mines. They started laying them along the road, in bumps and depressions and breaks, arranging them in lines of three to cover as much road as they could. Meanwhile Gulab spread open the man’s cloak, took his gun and tossed it aside, and searched his pockets and his side satchel bag for maps and documents she could use. There were a few folders and clippings and she tried to get a quick look at them, using his cloak for cover, before stowing them in her own bag to protect them from the pouring rain. It was difficult and sloppy work and required her to breathe in far too much of his smoke breath, and to hear his grumbling and be near him.

She found a photo of a woman in his cigar pocket; she discarded it in front of him. She did not want to look at something like that for too long. She didn’t want to think about it, about him.

Gulab found him staring at her after the fact, but he still said nothing and she never acknowledged him in return. He was an enemy. But it was a very hateful glare.

“I think he’s got operational maps.” Gulab finally shouted.

“You think?” Illynichna asked. She looked like a little reaper in her poncho.

“I know he does! I know I found some! Is that better?” Gulab replied.

“It is better.” Illynichna replied. “Let us make haste then and see what we got.”

Once Gulab was clear from the man, Illynichna shot him. He fell forward over the picture of who Gulab assumed must have been his wife or girlfriend or lover; something like that.

“Hide the bodies in the back of the alley, behind the building.” Chadgura ordered. She pointed out Private Dabo, and said, “Drive the enemy car around the corner and hide it between two buildings.”

Dabo climbed into the car, took the key from the dead driver and started it. Chadgura and Illynichna heaved the bodies of the radio man and the driver, while Gulab took the officer, and Private Jandi the gunner, and they pulled them away. Every corpse left a trail of blood behind it, but the downpour washed all the red away down the drainage ditches. Gulab watched the blood flow downhill while pulling the dead Officer. Aided by the furious sky they left behind a street more pristine than they found. For these men their final resting place would be in a neat row behind the building, sat up against the wall with their legs outstretched and their hands crossed over their laps. Illynichna  carefully shut the eyes of each man in turn.

“A corpse with its eyes open serves as a lens for demons.” Illynichna explained.

“I suppose it’s good to tread lightly. But we should hurry.” Chadgura said.

Gulab had picked the Officer of anything useful before, and she thought to search the other dead the same — but none of her comrades had the same idea. Chadgura and Illynichna turned and rushed out of the back alley, and Gulab hesitated at first. Those men might have had more items in their bags that could be worth taking with her. She gave one long look at the dead officer and his men, but then left them behind. She thought it best to side with Illynichna on this one. Corpses might invite unsavory things, and it was best not to linger near them.

Rain started falling at a sharp angle as the winds picked up even more, whipping their cloaks about. Once Private Dabo returned from around the corner, the squadron rushed further up the road and reconvened. They gathered in one of the the second floor bedrooms of a little communal apartment building. Chadgura said that it had once housed three small families, probably, so there was a lot of room, and it was recently built and sturdy. It kept out the rain, certainly, and it had received little damage from the bombing and fighting. Windows on the second floor gave a good line of sight to the road stretching in front of them.

“Corporal Kajari, let us look over those maps now that we have shelter.” Chadgura said.

Gulab nodded. She reached under her cloak and started to dig through her bag.

“Do you hear that?” Illynichna said suddenly. “Keep quiet for a moment.”

In the calm between rising thunderclap they heard the sound approaching vehicles, their clicking tracks and their engines, their rattling beds as they bobbed along the damaged road.

Gulab moved forward and stood near the window, and she peered out hastily, uneasily. She saw a tank approaching with two half-tracks behind. It was the convoy, as Illynichna had predicted. They approached along the northbound road, driving toward the corner into the westbound road to Penance — just like the car they stopped a while back.

“Light tank and two carriers, 30 men or so.” Gulab said. “Approaching at full speed.”

She did not know the exact models, save for the tank, of which she had seen drawings and a few old photos during training — it was an M5 Ranger. Though she had not seen the carriers before their function was fairly obvious, given the load of soaking wet men riding in the beds.

“200 meters out or so.” Gulab added. She was getting better with distances.

“Likely a flanking force.” Chadgura replied. “Looking to stretch out the line at the cathedral. They will approach via the road our Half-Track took getting here. It appears their mechanized forces are carrying out the inverse of our current plans.”

“Good. Let them keep driving.” Illynichna said. She pointed at Gulab and gestured for her to crouch near the window. “Keep an eye out but don’t let them see you.”

Gulab nodded her head and did as instructed. Her head was barely above the windowsill.

She gestured with her fingers and hands to the rest of the squad. “100 meters out.”

She could see the vehicles. Her heart sped up as the tank came closer. One blast of its gun through the window could be enough to put out the entire squad. Each half-track had a Norgler that would shred anyone trying to escape via the door or a window, and there was no back door. Should they be spotted they would be completely trapped inside. Though the enemy was not checking all the buildings, Gulab thought that was only because most of them were in ruins. Few buildings remained that stood proud, and theirs was one of them. Her mind raced. Perhaps the convenience was not worth it. Was it too conspicuous? But then again they needed a place to read the maps! Gulab’s head raced with morbid thoughts.

“50 meters.” She gestured. Her hands started to shake. They were close.

Hurtling down from the sky a lightning bolt hit an outdoor television antennae across the street. There was a tremendous flash that startled the breath out of Gulab.

The M5 Ranger at the head of the convoy stopped 30 meters from their house.

It raised its gun to the second floor level, and began to swing its turret around.

Gulab choked up and hid behind the wall. She forgot to make the gesture for the current distance, but it did not matter. Everyone knew what was happening now.

All around her Gulab saw the stony faces of her comrades, and the determined, defiant look in Illynichna’s face. Lightning briefly illuminated the room and their faces stood out, stark white like masks. She started to mutter a prayer to the disparate gods of her people, to the light and the spirits and the ancestors, to the goblins that became the rocks along the mountain and to the sky and its stars. To all things of power she cried silently, desperately seeking their boons.

She waited, with a tension in her chest. Illynichna pointed out the window.

Gulab peered again. Ahead of the stalled convoy the M5 faced its turret across the street from her, toward the ruined building with the charred antenna. Men in the bed of the half-tracks talked among themselves, amused by the bolts from out the dark blue.

The M5 Ranger returned its gun to the neutral position. Smoke contrails blew from its sides, and its tracks clicked again as it trundled forward, picking up speed. The APC Half-Tracks followed, and the convoy bypassed Gulab’s position entirely. She sighed with relief.

They headed instead for the mines. Everyone waited quietly for the explosions.

Silence. Gulab peered carefully around the edge of the window.

Past their building the tank drove through the mined area without detonating a thing; behind it the half-tracks pushed obliviously on, wheels driving over the bumps and across the cracks. They had misjudged the width of the tank as well, and it drove between many of the mines that had been planted closer to the street than to the center of the road.

“They’re not triggering any of the mines!” Gulab said.

Zaktnis! Keep watching!” Illynichna said, in a hushed but angry tone.

Gulab looked out the window again, as carefully as before.

She saw the tank almost to the corner where they stored the bodies. Behind it the half-tracks were coming up on a part of the road split in half by a crack perpendicular to the length.

On the leading half-track the front wheels sank briefly into the gap and then rose again propelled by a massive flame. Under it a mine detonated, and the explosion launched the front wheels into the air and turned the engine block into scrap metal. Whether the driver was charred or perforated by burning debris Gulab could not tell. The bed turned over and ejected all of the men inside, casting a few unto other mines and triggered a series of blasts.

Behind them the second half-track stopped dead, but its track crossed a pair of mines and detonated, casting pieces of the track and bed into the air and nearly flipping the vehicle back over front. All the men inside were caught in the blast, and the driver was speared by shrapnel from the leading vehicle and his own. There was a spectacular explosion as the mines started going off, each triggered by the heavy debris thrown from another’s reaction. Smoke and fire and steel spread across the road.

Ahead of the procession the tank stopped. A hunk of flaming metal crashed next to its track.

Without warning an explosion blew away its left track. The M5 tried to move, but without a working track it started to sway, and drove carelessly over a mine. This one detonated more or less under the track. Smoke and fire erupted from the gun and blew open the hatch.

Gulab pulled away from the window. She gestured with her hand along her neck.

After a moment of silence, Sgt. Chadgura started to clap. She clapped her hands hard and loud for almost a whole minute, her expressionless eyes fixated on her own crashing palms. She clapped so vigorously that she nearly overcame the sound of thunder and her hands shook from the effort when she stopped. She looked at them, her eyes glazed over.

“Enjoying the show, tovarisch?’ Sgt. Illynichna gently asked.

Sgt. Chadgura raised her head and stared at Illynichna, her eyes dull save for the little red rings, the evidence of her training. There was a glint of recognition.

“Apologies. It helps me cope with stress.” She tonelessly replied.

“I did not know, sorry. There are a lot of myths about your kind.” Sgt. Illynichna said.

“Like many myths, they are partly false and partly true. Which part is which will probably shift depending on the individual. Rest assured that the fashion in which I experience stress will not impede my mission, and I shall make unearthly effort not to stim in a compromising position.”

“Right, tovarisch komandir.” Sgt. Illynichna replied. “Good to know.”

Safe from enemy vehicles for the moment, the squadron stood in a circle around the center of the room. Gulab emptied out her satchel and they sorted the contents. There were aerial photographs of Bada Aso, likely taken during the air battle on the 22nd. A photograph of the southern district’s western sector, around Penance, was marked up with pen around the edges of the Buxa Industrial Park. There was a map, with several places in Buxa marked up in pen.

“Good, he was a Leutnant,” Illynichna said. “We will have to split up and check these areas.”

“We have only two portable radios, so we can only divide into two teams.” Chadgura said.

“I need someone whose Ayvartan is clearer than mine with me.” Illynichna said.

Chadgura turned to Gulab and patted her on the shoulder. “Go with the Sergeant.”

Gulab’s shoulders hunched and her back straightened like she’d felt a jolt of electricity.

“Are you sure?” She asked. She stared at Sgt. Illynichna with obvious apprehension.

“You hunted game, didn’t you? And you’re a good shot. Your voice is also much more emphatic than mine or the rest of the squadron. You’d be a better fit.” Chadgura replied.

Sgt. Illynichna stared at Gulab with a sudden interest. “Oh, so she was a hunter?”

Gulab rubbed the back of her head. “Well, yes, but I was only a humble village hunter, seeking out the horrible Rock Bears of the Kucha.” She smiled, and laughed a little, and her tone took on a character both humble and conceited at once. She felt her head filling up with fantasies, and her mouth started to carry her away. Various adjectives, most a touch unwarranted, came unbidden to the tip of her tongue. “I’m a skilled shot, I dare say, and indeed a master of navigating a forested environment, but of course, we are in a city, and I humbly suggest, my skills might diminish in such an environment, considerable though they are!”

“She talks too much but I will take her.” Sgt. Illynichna said. Chadgura nodded in agreement.

Gulab grumbled, saying a few well I never‘s and some fine be that way‘s under her breath. She crossed her arms and her face flushed in partial recognition of her foolishness.

Each Sergeant formed a little group and called a combat area. Buxa Industrial Park lay beyond the block of buildings across the street from them. From the second floor they could see the top of the factory chimneys in the various manufacturing buildings. Chadgura took the largest group, six people, around half a conventional squad, and she would hook around the back of the park where enemy presence was smaller and there was much more cover. Sgt. Illynichna, a self-proclaimed stealth expert, demanded a much smaller group — only Private Jandi and Corporal Kajari would accompany the Svechthan Sergeant. She seemed confident with these arrangements.

Both teams went over their assignments together then split up to opposite corners of the room to plan for themselves. Everyone was armed with a laska silenced carbine, chambered in a smaller round than they were used to, 5.56. They had enough ammunition for several assassinations, but not enough for a sustained firefight. Several squad members carried satchel charges or grenades. There were still a few anti-tank explosive mines left over, in various’ members’ possession. There were silenced pistols in every holster. They had dark plastic waterproof ponchos for the rainfall, and these offered little tactical advantage but keeping them from sickness. Outside they would have to move intelligently to keep hidden.

“We will go along the roads and make our way up the front of the park. It is imperative that we not be seen or heard, but both these senses are critically impaired in the storm. Nonetheless we will move in the ruins and use the thunder to mask us where possible. Got it okhotnik?”

Another word she didn’t understand. “Yes ma’am Sergeant uh. Eel, uh, nick–?”

Sgt. Illynichna sighed. “If you’ve that much trouble just call me Nikka.”

With that conundrum solved, everyone gathered again, and quickly shared their plans.

They then made ready to depart into the raging weather once more.

“Good luck, Charvi.” Gulab said. She patted the Sergeant in her shoulder.

Chadgura stared at her blankly for a moment before nodding her head.

“Thank you, Corporal.” She said. “Please return safely.”

She supposed that was the most emphatic valediction she would receive.

Mission start; the handful of KVW troops deployed to the Buxa sub-region ignored the carnage that had raged and now simmered in the street and pressed on. There were no obvious survivors around the minefield, and anyone who made it out alive would be horribly wounded. Across the street the squadron separated into their two groups and moved further east between the buildings. Sgt. Nikka’s group would be moving directly east to meet the western face of Buxa, its “front,” while Sgt. Chadgura’s group would walk a greater distance, rounding the north of the complex and making their way to its farthest corners. Everyone took the most direct route they could, cutting right through the alleys, into the building blocks.

Gulab’s footsteps splashed water over the streets. Were it not for the drains the city would probably flood. To get to Buxa Gulab, Jandi and Nikka crossed a series of buildings. They passed beside the building with the burnt-out antennae, and Gulab wondered if lightning could strike them. Past the buildings along the street, through an alleyway, they found themselves faced with a collapse. There was a burnt-out hulk of a Nochtish fighter plane, two adjacent buildings collapsed around the wreck. There was only rubble, pieces of the plane sticking out, and the merest suggestion of the former buildings, half a wall here, an intact corner there. Debris formed an obstacle almost taller than the buildings that preceded it.

Shouldering their carbines by the leather straps, the trio climbed hand over hand over the steep, unstable mound. Rain washed over the debris and made it slippery, but it somehow held together. Gulab felt the rocks give a little when she put all her weight on them — she kept herself supported by her arms and legs in equal measure to avoid backsliding.

Sgt. Nikka on the other hand climbed with great skill, maneuvering her small body through the footholds and handholds without missing a grab or dislodging a stone. She made her way to the top before anyone, and took a knee, scanning the surroundings.

Overhead a bolt of lightning shot down from the sky and seemed to stop short of them. From Gulab’s vantage, Sgt. Nikka’s small body looked like another rock atop the mound. Gulab closed her eyes, and climbed with her breath — she inhaled deep, reached up, let go the air, and raised her leg, and repeated, mechanically, until she was at the top.

“Look ahead, Corporal, Private.” Sgt. Nikka said, pointing the way forward.

Gulab knelt atop the mound, and peered out into the sheets of rain. Beyond their mound it was just a short walk to the next car road, and across from it, a strip of street straddling a long fence. This fence separated the warehouses, the stacks of crates, the heavy machinery, and the various factory yards of the Buxa complex. This collection of disparate buildings and open spaces was home to workers who turned raw materials delivered to Buxa into finished product, and the staff who sorted them out and sent them on their way to various places in Adjar that lacked the infrastructure to produce them. From her vantage, Gulab saw the facade mostly a long blocky concrete factory building past the fence, with two wings off its sides, probably connected by enclosed exterior halls to a central manufacturing area, where the chimneys rose out of. It was a very functional-looking building, and quite large.

“There’s our red circle. We’re going. Keep tight.” Sgt. Nikka said.

Together the squadron climbed down the other side of the mound. Gulab found it easier than climbing. She could almost slide down. They stood at the edge of the street, hiding in a building that was little more than an empty frame, its debris flushed out into the street by the rainfall. Between their side of the street and the fence were perhaps 8 or 10 meters, and from there twenty meters to the factory, once the fence was crossed. There were a few empty crates, tossed about by the storm, but it was mostly open space from the fence to the factory. There were a few figures in black rain capes, staggering along their routes in the middle of the storm.

“Chyort voz’mi.” Nikka cursed in a low voice.

“Not much cover out there.” Gulab said. “Do we kill them before moving?”

“At this distance we may not be able to get to the bodies of the dead guards in time to collect them and hide them. We don’t know how tight their patrols are.” Sgt. Nikka said.

Lightning flashed, and the soldiers patrolling the factory appeared in stark relief to their surroundings. Many of them stopped to look at the sky above them. A few of them took cover near the building, perhaps afraid of a bolt crashing down on them. Gulab identified perhaps six or seven of them within supporting distance of each other, largely concentrated around the southern edge of the factory, but with a fairly uncomplicated line of sight to the eastern edge.

“What about that?” Gulab asked, and pointed out the manhole cover on the road.

“Do you think there’s a tunnel out to the complex?” Sgt. Nikka asked. “It is my understanding most sewer systems are just small pipes connected to the larger runoff under the streets. Would there be anywhere the two of us can actually fit down there?”

“I don’t know, but Bada Aso’s sewer is very old.” Gulab said. “I don’t know how it relates to the tunnel system that our troops have been using, but it’s worth a shot, I think.”

Private Jandi spoke up. “Even if we don’t find a tunnel into the factory, we could find a street approach that is less crowded. Worth trying, over jumping the fence.”

“Then it is decided. Stack up by the side of the street.” Sgt. Nikka said.

One by one the squadron members jumped out of a window on the side of the ruined building and hid in the alleyway. They waited for the sky to thicken again with lightning bolts, the noise and raging color once again unsettling the guards. Under this show the trio moved quickly into the road. Gulab and Jandi lifted the manhole cover by a pair of catches, and set it aside. Sgt. Nikka shone a battery light into the hole briefly, then jumped down and splashed into the water — Gulab and Jandi looked at one another, one puzzled, the other inexpressive, and silently agreed to descend via the staircase. They quickly replaced the manhole cover once inside, leaving hopefully no trace of their passing. Electric torches went on immediately.

Down in the combined sewer, storm waters rushed downhill along the tunnel, and rose almost to Gulab’s knees. They could stand in it, but only just barely. And for Sgt. Nikka, the water was over her knees, and she had to exert more considerable effort to remain upright. There were iron handholds on the walls, and they grabbed on to them for support. But they could not see the footholds under the rushing water — from the staircase, there was a platform, which they stood on, and between it and the platform on the other side of the sewer tunnel there was a channel for the normal level of water. One wrong step and they could be swept downstream.

“I’ve got a hook in my pack, pick it up, attach a rope, and give it to me.” Sgt. Nikka said.

Gulab nodded. She briefly let go of the handholds, and while struggling against the current, picked out the hook from Nikka’s pack, and attached it to rope from her own. She handed the implement back to the Sergeant. She inspected the knot, and found it satisfactory.

“Now shine your light on the other side of the room, over the handholds.” She said.

Responding, Gulab aimed the beam of her electric torch to the handholds across the channel. Sgt. Nikka allowed the hook to hang a little slack, holding it by the rope. She swung it, flicking her wrist, five times, letting loose more rope, before throwing. She cast the hook up against the wall, and it slid down the rock and caught on to the handhold. The Sergeant pulled the rope, testing that it had a good strong grip, and tied it to her handhold.

“We can make our way across now.” She said. “Keep hold of the rope and watch your step.”

Sgt. Nikka went first. She held the rope, a thick sturdy hemp rope, and walked slowly, step by step, testing the ground with the tip of her foot before setting it down. When she came to the channel, she dipped her foot, and then the other, hanging off the rope, and she pulled herself little by little to the other side. She lifted her foot, set it on the other side, and walked up to the handholds. Gulab followed her movements. She now had a better idea of where the channel was, and knew the exact distance it covered, so her own steps were more confident. She hung by the rope, and made her way gingerly, finding a solid foothold on the other side.

Once situated, she waved her arm and signaled for Private Jandi to cross.

“Don’t worry comrade, I will catch you if anything goes wrong.” Gulab said amicably.

Private Jandi nodded. She backed up, and took a sudden running leap across the channel.

She landed without incident right beside Sgt. Nikka. There was barely a splash of water in her wake, and she hardly needed the rope to remain on her feet. Gulab blinked with astonishment.

“Don’t just do things your own way next time, Private.” Sgt. Nikka said, sounding annoyed.

“I thought she wanted me to jump. She said she would catch me.” Private Jandi said.

“She didn’t say anything like that.” Sgt. Nikka replied. “I don’t understand you people at all.”

They followed the handholds through the water rushing against their feet, and waded toward a branch in the old sewer. From their starting position this was the way closer toward the factory. Barren black stone rose all around them, and it would have been nearly pitch black without their electric torches. Built hundreds of years ago and renovated piecemeal, the Bada Aso combined sewer contained many passages. The tunnel was large enough that they could stand fully erect in any spot. Gulab suspected there were probably many large passages meant for maintenance. There were pipes running all across the walls and ceiling.

Ahead the tunnel forked left, and taking this tunnel west, they saw slivers of light in the distance. They found a steep stone slide across the sewer channel. It was tinged a strange color, and smelled very sharply. Water descended into the sewer channel from a grating at the top of the slide, four or five meters high. Gulab strained her eyes, but could not really make out anything outside the grating. Certainly it led somewhere in Buxa that needed to drain water.

“Don’t smell too much. I think this was an old chemical disposal.” Nikka said. “It probably spent decades becoming encrusted with filth day in and out. It still smells toxic to me.”

“What? Chemicals? Right into the runoff?” Gulab asked.

Sgt. Nikka did not answer. She stepped forward, and found a foothold where the channel should be — there was a plate there to bridge platforms. She led the squadron to the slide, and procured a new hook. Jandi offered her rope. The Sergeant swung skillfully at the grate, and caught the hook between the gaps. She offered the rope to Gulab, who climbed behind her, with Nikka in the rear. They sidled up to the grating. Nikka turned around, putting her back to the slide, and looked up and out through the grate.

“I don’t see a guard. We’re in some kind of empty vat that water’s coming down on. We can probably climb out of it.” She said. Gulab climbed up to her, and together they managed to push the heavy grate up and out, while keeping the hook pinned between it and the floor for support. They climbed out of the sewer, collected the hook, and assembled anew. They were indeed inside some kind of massive vat, under a porous tin roof, through which much of the rain came down unhindered. Nikka threw the hook again, and they climbed up and out of the vat, and jumped down. Gulab landed hard on her side, while Nikka and Jandi rolled harmlessly against the floor.

Gulab winced. The fall had knocked the breath from her, and she was slow to stand. She looked around in a haze for a few moments, taking stock. They were in the warehouse, where products and tools from the factory were stored. There were stacks of steel containers, and dormant tractors and forklifts, and several vats like the one they climbed, affixed to the ground and connected to rusting pipe. Perhaps this warehouse had once been a chemical facility indeed. While most of the heavy machinery of the nearby factory had been evacuated, there was still product in this warehouse that had been left behind. There were small parts scattered about, metal plates in stacks, and industrial vehicles that had nowhere to go.

Sergeant Nikka gave Gulab her breather, then ordered everyone to move out.

“Carbines up. We’ll get to the second story of the factory and look around from that vantage. We should be able to see those howitzers from there. Hold your fire unless I say otherwise.”

She drew her Laska carbine and looked over its iron sights as she crept slowly forwards, moving in decisive, careful steps. Gulab and Jandi followed her, as quietly and gracefully as they could. Rain was still coming down on them almost as strongly as it had outside the warehouse. This was, for once, something to be thankful for. Much like it washed away the blood from the streets, the rain was chipping away the grime and the smell from them.

Gulab hoped nothing in that last grating was truly toxic, and if it was, that its effects had dulled away with time. She would rather be shot than to die in a sick bed from rummaging in a sewer.

 

Penance Road — Cathedral of Penance

Equipment quality varied wildly in the Territorial Army. Adesh had looked through the cloudy aiming scopes of enough direct-fire guns to know that this was a part with low priority, and yet the traverse equipment was always smooth and easy to use. He had been told once that many of their anti-tank shells had a weak powder load, because the best powder charges were kept reserved for the anti-aircraft and long-range artillery branches, and he could believe that, having hefted around both the sleek, shiny, powerful AA ammo, and the simple and off-puttingly light shells for his current gun. He also knew that many of their bullets were made in small workshops rather than the big glamorous factories that were shown in the pamphlets. None of it was perfect. Priorities shifted, and resources allocated shifted with them.

However, the rations were always good quality food in his opinion. Red Paneer was Adesh’s favorite, and it never disappointed. It was spiced well, and if one followed the instructions it would never end up too watery, and the cheese was never gummy, nor were the vegetables too mushy. Food was seen as crucial, and given the same care as those big artillery shells.

Circumstances, however, could render the dish difficult to savor. Around Adesh the walls and ceiling of the Cathedral rumbled from the artillery pummeling the surrounding area. Enemy howitzers had been shelling the area extensively, smashing dozens of holes into the land between Penance Road and the Cathedral. Shells occasionally hit the steps, or the roof, or fell just short of a trench. Mostly they fell into open earth, hitting nobody while denying the territory to everybody. This shelling brought the battle to a standstill and prevented either side from engaging the other. It kept the Ayvartans quite awake, however. Between the thunder, the stamping of the rain and the shellfalls there was no peace to be had.

The Cathedral nave was very crowded too. Wounded men and women (and a couple perhaps not grown enough to be referred to as such) were set down wherever there was space.

They cried through grit teeth as the medics extracted bullets and shrapnel from their flesh, most in cold blood. Morphine was reserved for the amputees. For those with particularly bad flesh wounds, their only mercy was to be rendered very drunk by rice wine while the medics sewed up gashes the length of forearm. They lay dazed, their faces expressing a kind of almost spiritual delusion as they bled unto their green sheets. It made Adesh shudder. He saw a drunken woman laughing weakly as pieces of metal were picked out of her back; and a man with his cheek lacerated, delirious with pain and fever as the medics closed his exposed jaw.

He sat in a corner, his hexamine burner extinguished but still smoking and stinking, spooning red broth and hunks of cheese into his mouth, and chewing, slowly and deliberately, his stomach roiling from nerves and the mixed smell of chemicals and blood. He had nothing to watch but his food, the thrashing of the wounded, and the closed door, so he kept his eyes down.

Soon he started to feel dizzy from the stress, the dire atmosphere, from the nasty smells and the pitiable sounds. His eyes teared up and his lids turned heavy. His vision swam and he started to nod involuntarily. Before he let himself go black, a familiar voice jolted him awake.

“Adesh, it’s almost our turn again. Rahani wants us to eat and make ready.”

Nnenia appeared; her right sleeve was cut open, exposing a white, bloody bandage around her upper arm. She sat next to Adesh, undid the black plastic tie holding back her shoulder-length hair, nonchalantly unbuttoned her jacket down the whole length, and quickly ripped open her own ration. She ignored the entree in the box — instead she spooned bullion paste over hardtack biscuits, and bit into that.  She washed each biscuit down with water from her canteen. Adesh had never seen anyone do that. He thought the paste was there for soup. But Nnenia seemed indifferent to its taste. She chewed calmly and swallowed quickly.

“How is that?” Adesh asked. He felt a little guilty about his pot full of broth.

“It’s fine.” Nnenia said through a big mouthful of bouillon paste. This was followed by a long silence. Nnenia was always a little terse and quiet and had an apathetic demeanor.

“You look like you’re doing well despite the circumstances.” Adesh said. He tried to smile and make a little conversation. He was close to going mad from the tension. “What’s your secret? Even back then you were so calm.” He hesitated to expound upon what he meant by ‘back then’. He still felt a lingering discomfort about his behavior during the event.

Though the question did not seem to rattle her, she put off answering it. She swallowed her food, put down the rest of the ration package beside her, and started pulling up her hair again. Her hair was wavy and stuck out in places, particularly her bangs. She pulled it back into a bun.

“I,” Nnenia hesitated for a moment. “Well, I really don’t think that I,” she paused again. She glanced around the room at the wounded and the medics, and she looked at the closed iron doors, and took a sullen expression. She mumbled, “Maybe I’ve seen worse.”

Adesh had barely heard what she said, and did not trust his own reckoning of it.

“Oh, sorry, I think I was dozing off again Nnenia, I didn’t hear–“

Eshe dropped in beside them then, surprising them both. He sat down beside Nnenia and struggled to open a ration pack. He tried to smile, but he was breathing heavily and sweating. “Hujambo. Sorry if I’m late to a muster, I was trying to help out around the sickbeds. It was bad there though. Medics told me to leave, said I was looking disturbed.”

He fumbled with the lid on the package, trying to hold the box between his sling and chest.

“Let me get that for you,” Nnenia said, and she ripped open the packaging for him. She split open the bag of biscuits for him, and pulled his canteen from its holster inside his jacket.

“I’m sorry.” Eshe said. He lifted a biscuit to his mouth with his good hand. His other arm was still in a sling from all the abuse it took during their miraculous escape from the dive-bombers on the 22nd of the Gloom. He had carried Adesh around the park, saving him from a fire — and Adesh had rewarded him by deliriously thrashing in his arms and freshly banging up his wounds even more than they were. Everything that followed was equally ignominious.

If anything, Adesh felt it should have been him still apologizing to them.

“You don’t have to apologize, it’s fine.” Nnenia replied. “It’s no trouble.”

Eshe laughed. It was a choppy laugh, almost a cough, a very sour and sick kind of sound. He had tears in his eyes. “I’m always being kind of a nuisance to you, aren’t I?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about at all.” Nnenia replied sharply. “Did you have any of that rice wine from the medics? You do look disturbed. Settle down.”

“No, it’s the smells. It smells like molten plastic and blood. It’s really sickening.” Eshe said.

“Then keep your head down.” Nnenia gently said. “You don’t have to fight anymore.”

“I’d feel like a load if I didn’t do something.” Eshe said, shaking his wounded arm.

“Listen to her.” Adesh said. “You won’t return to form unless you rest a little. And besides, isn’t there some army regulation on injured people on the front lines?”

“Spirits defend, that’s the kind of person I’ve become, isn’t it? Everyone thinks they can only talk to me by the books.” Eshe said. He was both laughing and weeping a little.

“We love you that way.” Adesh added, in a voice like one would use on a baby.

“But it is true, that is what you’ve become.” Nnenia bluntly replied.

“I just think we ought to do things right, to help us do the best we can.” Eshe replied.

“Then lay down before you hurt yourself!” Nnenia shouted.

As soon as Nnenia spoke up the floor rumbled, and everyone gave a jump. For a ridiculous second Adesh thought it had finally happened, and Eshe had brought the wrathful God from inside Nnenia out of hiding, but it could not have been her. There was a deep, reverberating noise muffled by the rock, but clearly coming from the basement. It was like a bomb had gone off under them. Adesh knew it was entirely unrelated to the shelling.

“Stay here!” Adesh said. Nnenia and Eshe nodded their heads in confusion.

He swallowed the rest of his broth in a long gulp and hurried downstairs to investigate. He broke into a run to the other side of the nave and took the door on the right wall, and there was an outer hallway with stained glass windows, and stairs leading up and down in opposite sides of the room. He made for the basement, but found the way crowded by men and women pulling up pieces of green-painted metal — there was a group of two women with a very long tube, and a man with a wheel in one hand and a muzzle brake in the other, and two men with a heavy machine block.

Hujambo, you here to give us a hand?” Asked a man at the very bottom of the steps.

Too surprised to reply coherently, Adesh nodded rapidly, he grabbed hold of the long tube and helped the women to maneuver it into the hall, and then out into the nave near the doors. They set the tube down, and Adesh stood and watched the rest of the pieces being brought out and piled up. Then an engineer, trailing behind them, started to direct everyone as they assembled the machine. She told them all that it was a gun, a 122mm howitzer. They had brought it in pieces through the tunnels. That must have been the blast Eshe warned them about, Adesh thought. They had collapsed the tunnel into the Cathedral behind them.

That tube was the gun barrel, and the machine block the breech and firing controls. It had a wheel connected to parts that handled the elevation, but traverse was still entirely a matter of lifting weapon and pushing it left or right. First the engineering squad set the parts together on the floor, and then they painstakingly raised the gun unto its wheeled carriage once that piece had been pulled free of the basements stairs and out outer hallway.

Finally the last of the new arrivals left the basement. Lt. Purana walked in from the outer hall and offered a solemn “Hujambo,” to the troops around. He was a tall man with skin like polished bronze and very curly hair, and a boyish youthful face. His brow was furrowed with worry. As a Jr. Lieutenant he had commanded forces under Major Nakar at the border. Because Lt. Bogana was badly wounded in the hospital, the independent artillery batteries once under his command were shuffled into Purana’s 6th Ox Rifles instead. Adesh had had little contact with the man, but he was inclined to think of him as a good commander. After all, here he was, in the thick of it with the battered forward company of his division.

He waited until an assessment was done on the condition of the gun. Engineers inspected their own handiwork, lightly greased the parts, inspected the breach and barrel, and gave their reports on every part of the process. Everyone and everything was very quiet during this time. Adesh heard no more shelling or shooting outside, and even their wounded comrades seemed to find a momentary piece. It was an eerie, tense calm.

The Lieutenant turned to address the people at the back of the nave, around the sickbeds, and gathering around the howitzer. He raised his hand and waved everyone to attention. “We need to start evacuating everyone who is badly wounded but stable enough to travel. There are two half-tracks out back, and one more Goblin tank intact enough to escort them. Nocht still hasn’t encircled us, but we can’t take any chances. Let’s get our comrades out.”

He clapped his hands hard, and the medics began to assess the wounded and set up stretchers.

“However,” he added, looking around the faces standing before him, “I’m going to have to ask the lightly wounded to remain behind. If you can stand and you’ve got a good arm then I need you. We have to stay here and hold the line for our comrades, and then secure our own way.”

There were no protests. Adesh saw a few grumbling faces, but if there was discontent, it was not spoken. In his own mind there was not a thought given to retreat. He was scared, certainly, but he felt he had already proven too craven in other circumstances.

Unbidden, an image of the dive-bomber flashed across his mind. He had seen it coming down from far above and he choked. It cost lives and it still hurt; it still haunted him. Even if he died he had to stay here. The Lieutenant was staying — so was he. He could not abandon his comrades.

He figured there were similar thoughts occurring to all those mysterious minds around him.

“As you were,” the Lieutenant said, “I’ll give assignments shortly. Thank you, comrades.”

Nodding heads; the crowd dispersed back to the corners of the nave. The Lieutenant returned to his engineers at the side of the 122mm howitzer, being pushed near to the doors. Eshe and Nnenia joined Adesh in standing at the periphery of these events.

“What’s going on Adesh?” Eshe asked. “What is that thing they brought?”

“It’s a big gun. They brought it in from the tunnels.” Adesh said.

“Alright, let’s get ready to fire on the road.” Lt. Purana declared suddenly. “Our line artillery in the west is under silence until the KVW complete their mission in the east, but this gun can be used as a direct-fire weapon from here, and it won’t compromise the battery’s position.”

Engineers approached the heavy metal doors to the Cathedral to open them again. They had been shut after the first trench line fell, to protect the troops gathering inside. No sooner had they approached it however that the doors shook from a deafening blast that erupted from right outside them. Its force and noise was barely contained by the thick concrete and stone walls. Adesh fell on his rump, and the engineers near the gun scrambled away in a panic. Everyone by the door fell back from it with surprise, but the front of the Cathedral resisted the blasts, and nobody inside was hurt save from clumsy accidents.

Lt. Purana was shaken but stood his ground unsteadily. He took a portable radio and called out.

“What happened out there?” He asked. “Did the artillery hit the gun line?”

They had spotters on the spires along with the snipers, and one of these men radioed back to the Lieutenant. Adesh heard his voice screaming through the radio. “Wasn’t artillery, it was an assault gun driving up! It got all our guns and lit up the ammo in a single shot!”

“Fire on its tracks and try to slow it down.” Lt. Purana said. He put down the radio and bit his thumb, staring around the room and pacing a few steps to the left and right.

Nnenia and Eshe helped Adesh to stand. They watched in a daze, as the smoke seeped in under the crack of the Cathedral doors. Adesh felt his head fill with a mix of guilt and worry and sickness. He thought he would throw up. That could have been them! Had they switched any earlier, they could have all been pulverized, and nobody inside the Cathedral would even bear witness to their last moments! But no, it was not simply those crews at that moment who could have died. All along, anyone who stood outside those walls could be killed by anything. A stray bullet, a creeping artillery barrage, or the cruel gun of a tank — it was a miracle Adesh was even alive right now. He felt an irrational vulnerability that brought tears to his eyes.

Once again he lived where others had died, and again by no will of his own.

He was not the only one shaken up. Everyone save the drunk and the delirious was quiet.

“Orders sir?” One of the engineers asked. The 122mm was fully assembled behind them.

Lt. Purana acknowledged him. He turned to the doors and pointed the engineers toward them. “Open the way for a moment but be ready to shut the doors again quick.”

Purana’s engineering team nodded their heads and stacked up by the doors, three at each side. They left their tools and heavy equipment, including a flamethrower, welding tools, a grease gun, and other volatiles, hidden around the corners of the nave, away from the fuss. At his command they opened the doors, pushing with their shoulders and sides all at once to throw them open, then grabbing hold of the rings to pull it back. For a brief moment Adesh, his mind clouded with sick thoughts of his own frailty, stared out into a field illuminated by raging thunderbolts and coated in blood and mud. Soon as this vision struck him the doors shut again, and shut hard, and everyone inside put their hands to their mouths or averted their eyes, or muttered desperate prayers.

Atop the stairs leading to the Cathedral their old gun lay in pieces, and the 45mm and the partner 76mm were heavily damaged by shrapnel and flame and utterly unusable.

Scattered human debris lay in stark contrast to the charred black metal.

Nnenia closed her eyes, while Eshe started turning yellow. Adesh kept staring at the doors.

Images lingered in Adesh’s mind even after the doors shut. Outside the field that was once green was battered into a muddy honeycomb of shell craters. Rain filled the trenches. Men and women in the second line fought valiantly, nearly chest-deep in water, their surroundings torn apart by shell-falls. They fired their submachine guns and light machine guns and their long rifles continuously downrage at the panzergrenadier troops, positioned in the remains of the first trenches and around the remains of their first wave of vehicles. There were bodies and their parts, from both sides, indistinct, floating atop the crater ponds or in the mud. The M3 Assault Gun, newly arrived, started to make its way past the first trench and directly toward the Cathedral. The enemy solidified its grip on the roads, and assembled for a new push.

Lt. Purana turned his back on the doors and addressed the room. “We need a new gun crew!”

Behind the crowd forming near the sickbeds, Corporal Rahani raised his hand overhead and jumped up and down. He walked out to the front of the nave, pulling Kufu along. The Corporal’s signature flower had been shaken right off his hair — he had replaced it with a paper flower. His face was a bit dirty with soot from their turn at the gun. He stood in front of Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe, nodding his head lightly to them. He visibly strained to smile.

“Corporal Rahani, reporting for duty sir. My crew is ready.” He said. He saluted the Lieutenant.

Lt. Purana nodded to him. “Take your positions on the gun.”

From the door one of the engineers protested. “Lieutenant, whether we have a crew or not, we can’t fire effectively from in here. And if we open the doors too long we then we open everyone in here to one of those blasts, in a confined space. We should rethink this plan.”

“You assembled the gun, Engineer Sergeant. Now leave the rest to me.” Lt. Purana said. “We will open the doors long enough to fire, and shut them again behind each shell.”

There were whispered protests from the door, but the engineers resigned themselves to this plan. They had gotten the dirtiest and most dangerous job of all. At close range that assault gun would bang open those doors with one shot, and crush everyone behind them.

Corporal Rahani hesitated a moment, then spoke. “Sir, I’m afraid it is correct that we will have difficulty ranging the gun effectively if we must fire during this limited window.”

“I can fire it effectively.”

Adesh found himself speaking up. He barely acknowledged having done it. He thought all the words were in his mind, that they had never left his tongue. Then everyone’s eyes in the room seemed fixed on him, and this time it was not because they thought he looked ‘cute, like a secretary.’ Everyone seemed to await an explanation and Adesh was still sick and scared, shaking, tearing up in the eyes. Still despite himself he kept managing to speak.

“I can remember the field, I can tell the distances. I can range the gun after every shot. I just need to be able to see out the door briefly as I fire, and to see some of the effect.” Adesh said. Everything was still imprinted on his mind, the mud, the road, the treeline, the corpses, the chunks of flesh– he choked up a little. Corporal Rahani stared at him quizzically.

Lt. Purana glanced over Adesh, and turned sharply toward Rahani. “Well, I don’t have a lot of options, but this sounds like a reach. Do you stand by this gunner, Corporal?”

Corporal Rahani gave him a worried look. Adesh stood unsteadily, he was crying, his nose probably dripped, and he felt utterly irrational, without a sense of what any of his parts were doing in relation to any other. He felt a brimming sensation under the skin of his shoulders and along his spine, behind his neck. He was nervous, his knees were weak. Corporal Rahani was the nicest officer he had ever served under — perhaps he would find it nicer to leave Adesh out of this, in the sorry state that he was, than to subject him to another battle.

This kindness would be gravely misplaced. Adesh tried to look him in the eyes with determination, tried to say something that could convey his need.

But he did not have to do it himself. Suddenly he felt a soft pressure over his shoulder and back. Nnenia and Eshe were at his sides, helping him stand taller.

“He can do it, commander.” Nnenia said. “Adesh is a skilled gunner.”

“He shot a plane out of the sky on the 22nd.” Eshe added. “Shot two, even.”

Had Adesh really done anything of the sort? He did not attribute those kills to himself. All he did was hit switches at the correct moment. His ranging was very minimal. But he lived inside himself — maybe he just never saw his own strength.

Friends at his side, Adesh found a few shaky words. “I am ready to for mission orders.”

Corporal Rahani smiled; and this time it was an uncomplicated smile.

He addressed the superior officer with newfound confidence. “I vouch for him in the strongest terms, Lieutenant. Allow him to range the gun and fire. I will limit my involvement to loading.”

Lt. Purana nodded and stepped aside without further protest.

Though the gun was bigger, the crew took much the same positions as they had on their old 76mm. Kufu stood on the right, ready to lift the right leg of the gun, while Nnenia took the left leg, in case they needed to turn it together. Adesh stood behind the firing mechanism and the elevation wheel, while Corporal Rahani knelt near the breech with a crate of shells. Eshe stood off to the side. His injured arm prevented him from helping. But he tried to smile, and he raised his good arm to Adesh in a little cheering gesture. Adesh nodded back.

He still felt like he would lose his dinner, but he had gotten his chance.

Beside him, Corporal Rahani looked up from the corner of his eyes. His expression was soft and gentle, maternal even. When Adesh made eye contact, he winked surreptitiously at him.

“We’re all scared, Adesh. Don’t let it stop you. We can work it out as a unit.”

Corporal Rahani said this under his breath, but in a gentle and affirming tone, almost soothing enough by itself. Then he made the first call, “Loading!” He raised the shell to the breech and punched it into position. Then he locked the breech manually with a lever and wheel, readying the gun to fire. This was an old weapon, devoid of amenities, but powerful.

“Open the doors!” Adesh called out. He stammered through the words.

The engineers put their shoulders into the door and as one they forced open the doors. Adesh pulled the firing pin the instant there was enough clearance for the shell. He felt the air stir and the earth shake, the powerful recoil travelling through the gun and passing a deep rumbling right down his arms and into his ribcage. A deafening noise escaped the weapon, and a gas shout out like the shape of a cross from the muzzle brake. Downrange the shell hurtled over the ground and crashed into the upper side of the advancing assault gun.

Ahead the doors shut, but Adesh had not lost his view of the field. It was all in his memory, stored in a snap second. He saw the fuzzy outline of the assault gun in his mind, reduced to a heap of scrap metal, its tracks fallen aside, its roof collapsed, its gun sent flying in pieces across different directions, its engine covered in a dancing wisp of flame. He saw the muddy, uprooted terrain that was once the green field, and the gray uniforms beginning to charge from across it, leaving the hulks of cover of various dead vehicles all at once.

“Vehicle down!” Adesh said. “You can confirm it during the next shot!”

Lt. Purana looked at him with confusion, but said nothing. Corporal Rahani reset the breach, discarding the spent shell and loading the next explosive shell into the cannon. Adesh ordered the cannon moved a specific amount of degrees left once it was properly loaded, and Nnenia and Kufu repositioned the gun as quickly as they could under the circumstances. He then called for the doors, and the doors were opened anew; at his command a second shell soared from inside the cathedral, crossing the mud, overflying Penance road and crashing into the opposing street.

Again the doors slammed shut.

“Kill confirmed on the assault gun.” One engineer said.

While Lt. Purana and the engineers stood in awe, the 122mm shell exploded between several vehicles parked across the street giving succor to the mechanized troops. It blasted the side of a tank that had been lazily firing its 37mm gun across the field at the Cathedral. Piercing shrapnel flew from the wreck and split the engine block on a nearby car. Fragments shredded to bits a half-track’s troop bed and the men inside. While the fire and force was contained to the street, a burst of hot metal from the shell and vehicles flew dozens of meters at incredible speeds. It flew far enough to hit men along the rear of the enemy charge, and many fell forward, legs clipped by shrapnel; men just arriving at Penance Road suddenly met a shower of metal and fell aback, injured and confused.

Adesh might not have seen all of this, but there was enough of a picture in his memory to infer it. He saw glimpses of everything, and they constructed his view of what happened behind the doors.

“You can add some dozen odd men across the street to that.” Adesh replied.

“You’ve a much more gifted eye than I ever imagined.” Corporal Rahani whispered to him.

Adesh scratched his hair nervously. It was difficult to imagine that this could be a gift — he thought the slow sharpening of his senses toward danger was a curse, that it was a burden for him to notice all these things and then freeze in fear and weep with anxiety. Now it had suddenly become his advantage.

Radios started to buzz, from across the room and in Lt. Purana’s satchel.

The Lieutenant withdrew his radio and answered the call.

“Has the artillery had noticeable effect?” He asked. He awaited the response, and nodded to himself, looking at Adesh while speaking. “Keep firing, we’ll break that charge.”

“Orders sir?” Adesh asked. His voice was trembling a little again.

“Our comrades in the trench believe this is our best opportunity to evacuate their wounded and rotate in fresh troops.” Lt. Purana said. He turned around briefly, and called for two squadrons of troops to ready themselves to rush out to the trenches. He then addressed Adesh again. “We’re leaving the doors open this time, so stay behind that gun shield.”

“Yes sir!” Adesh saluted. Corporal Rahani saluted as well.

Around the nave men and women in varying states of injury and health gathered their rifles and packs, and assembled themselves hastily. A squadron of ten assembled on both sides of the door along with the engineers. Outside the trench troops got ready to leave with their wounded. Corporal Rahani had the gun pushed farther backward, and Adesh altered the elevation with Nnenia’s help, descending the gun as low as it would go. It was not a weapon explicitly meant for direct fire, but it would have to overcome that shortcoming.

When the trench troops gave their signal, the doors slammed open, not soon to close; the two squadrons charged out in opposing directions and the engineers let go of the iron rings on the doors and joined them, brandishing their submachine guns, taking to the wrecks of the 76mm and 45mm guns for a scrap of cover and spraying down the field to help cover them. From the trenches men and women rose with wounded and unconscious comrades in hand, and under fire they they stepped from cover and ferried the bodies toward the cathedral.

Opposing them was a field of gray uniforms. Panzergrenadiers ran out of their own hiding places in droves, their thick light blue and dark gray attire sopping wet. They had made it halfway through the field, brandishing rifles and light machine guns. Vicious men took to their knees and aimed for the trenches when the doors swung open, challenging the evacuating troops with merciless gunfire. Able comrades began to join the wounded themselves, as they were caught escaping the trench with friends in their arms and fell tragically into the mud along with their wards. Under mounting fire many comrades stopped mid-dash and pulled along the freshly wounded, risking their lives to protect twice as many as they had first meant to.

Snipers split open the necks and faces of many aggressors, and the engineers fired relentlessly on the tide, but they could not keep up with the volume of men threatening the trenches.

“Shell loaded!” Corporal Rahani shouted.

“Firing!” Adesh called out. He activated the firing pin.

The shell cruised just over the wrecks atop the Cathedral staircase, and the engineers hidden behind them; it overflew the dashing men and crashed in the middle of the field, spraying fragments in every direction and leaving behind a meter-deep crater that filled with mud and water. Dozens of men close to the explosion were hurled to the mud, while men as far as fifteen meters in every direction were shredded by the fragments, and fell back with their chests and faces and backs coated in red, twitching in the brackish pools. After that distance the fragments lost power, but the explosion threw the entire charge into disarray. Many Panzergrenadiers dropped to their bellies reflexively, and dove into the flooded shell craters recently left by their own howitzers. Only the men farthest ahead kept running, bayonets ready.

At the Cathedral doors the first of the evacuating trench troops arrived. Some of them had a comrade over both shoulders and over their backs, carrying as many people as physically possible, and these monumental figures collapsed from the stress and effort the moment they made it past Adesh’s howitzer. Both the wounded and the shocked were pulled away to the nave for treatment and potential evacuation from the battle altogether.

With them the enemy was almost at the steps of the Cathedral, rushing through the fire with grim determination.  Fifty or sixty men lined up to rush the doors.

They bolted in between the trenches, losing many of their own with every passing moment. Men set foot on the steps and died, perforated by the engineers’ submachine guns or by the trench troops’ rifles, but other men appeared and trampled them and furiously ascended.

Grenades flew from below and landed among the engineers. In a panic the engineers broke from the stairway landing, jumping back into the cathedral or over the sides of the raised steps, falling a few meters below. Fire and smoke and fragments obscured the way.

Bayonets flashed within the clouds and people fell back from the doors.

“Adesh, take cover now!”

Nnenia pushed Adesh down, forcing his shoulders with her elbow. She fired at the doorway with her pistol, and Adesh saw a figure in shadow stumbling and falling. Kufu rose to shoot as well, but he quickly thought better of it and remained in cover. Nochtish men entered the Cathedral now in force, and many threw themselves at the first human figure they saw, thrusting with their bayonets and shoving their carbines into the arms of fallen folk as though to choke them against the ground. At the door the engineers and some of the returning troops engaged in a savage melee with the nochtmen. Soldiers fell over each other with unrestrained fury, choking and clawing and stabbing. There was utter chaos right in front of them, over a dozen soldiers on each side tearing each other apart.

Nnenia held her fire — she couldn’t tell anymore who she’d hit!

Gunshots from outside struck the gun shield; more men materialized across the threshold, seeking entry. Adesh and Nnenia ducked behind the breech for cover, but Corporal Rahani and Lt. Purana were not so quick to relent. They drew their pistols and fired at the doorway from behind the Howitzer’s gun shield, baptizing the enemy red under the Messiah’s cross. Men fell back over the stairs, and stumbled forward unto the corpses piling on the carpet, but more rushed in no matter how much the officers shot, gathering at the doorway and trying to form a base of fire for the others. Had they gotten a foothold so easily?

Adesh cursed under his breath — he could not fire the howitzer at this range or he would potentially kill scores of his own allies. He was useless now in this fight.

“Where’s Eshe?” Adesh shouted, covering his ears from the shots.

“I don’t know!” Nnenia said. “He was just on the sidelines!”

“Saw him running out across nave.” Kufu said. He was hiding by the side of the gun shield, taking hasty shots with his revolver. “Dunno where he could’ve gone.”

Adesh felt clammy and sick with terror. He started to babble, crushed by the thought that Eshe could be in danger now or worse, while they hid like cowards behind the gun. “Spirits, oh Spirits. Spirits defend him. Oh gods, he’s out there– We have to do something, he’s–“

A gushing noise; screams from the door shouted Adesh down. He and Nnenia peered around the gun at the unearthly wailing, and saw streams of fire going out the doorway, catching on enemy troops like a liquified inferno and coating them head to toe in the flames. They fell in immeasurable agony, or ran out of the Cathedral in desperation, unable to put themselves out. Men inside the Cathedral panicked, disengaging from the melee or from the concentration at the door, and ran away as fast as their feet could carry them. Of these men the most unlucky retreated right into a cruel burst of flame and danced madly under the rain and over the mud.

Approaching from the aisles flanking the door, it was Eshe who cast this relentless stream of fire from a BM-28 engineering flamethrower. He dragged the tank across the floor, and held the projector in one hand, barely able to control the stream. Corporal Rahani rushed out from behind the gun, using the columns along the center of the nave for cover, and hurried to Eshe’s side. As the last the Nochtish troops dispersed, dying in flame or fearing such a fate, Rahani took the flame projector from Eshe’s arm and shut it off. He embraced the shaken young man, whose fingers kept flicking in the air as though he still had the BM-28 between them.

“Eshe, spirits defend you,” Rahani said, smothering him in his arms. “You’re safe now.”

Lt. Purana rose from behind the gun and took a few parting shots on the retreating Panzergrenadiers. Survivors of the melee around the door rose unsteadily, bloodied, stabbed, noses broken, ears and cheeks sliced; but alive. They hobbled toward the door, and struggled to close it again. Adesh and Nnenia ran out from cover, and Kufu reluctantly followed them. They took the rings, kicked at the enemy corpses in the way.

They pulled, and it was like trying to drag solid slabs of steel. Straining their arms until it seemed they would lose them in the struggle, the artillery crew along with the wounded engineers finally shut the cathedral doors. As soon as they slammed close it seemed like the cacophony of war was shut out along with the enemy. There was such a void-like silence that Adesh’s mind tricked him, and he still heard whistling in his ears. He fell back against the door, exhausted, and Kufu and Nnenia fell back with him, having little breath left, and no more energy to spare after the rush of the moment.

“All of you fought courageously, comrades.” Lt. Purana said aloud. “You’ve earned a rest.”

The Lieutenant addressed the room as a whole. A few fists went weakly into the air in response, and then the Lieutenant hurried to the radio in the back. Though the Panzergrenadiers had taken bloodying hits and retreated, they still had the street and would soon return. He would have to coordinate the next defense and see what reinforcements could be given to the Cathedral on short notice. They were gravely depleted.

Around the room the newly injured staggered toward the medical tents in the back of the nave, where the remaining medics rushed out to attend to them.

Corporal Rahani, himself weeping, brought Eshe over to Nnenia and Adesh by the door, and helped him to sit down with them. Adesh hooked his arm around Eshe, who was sobbing quietly, staring down at his knees. Nnenia extended her arm over Adesh and both him and Eshe and pulled them close, so they were all cheek to cheek. Corporal Rahani stood over them.

He bowed deep to them, almost to his knees, and the paper flower on his hair fell to the floor.

“I’m so sorry you three. I’ve done nothing so far but to fail you as an officer and as an adult. You who are so young and in need of protection and guidance, and have been brought into this–“

As one, the three youths reached out to their officer and pulled him into their embrace. Adesh felt the Corporal’s tears fall on his uniform. He returned the embrace, and wept more than they did. Adesh did not need to forgive him. Corporal Rahani had never done him wrong.

 

Buxa Industrial Park — West Approach

To call Gulab a hunter might have been charitable. Though her one expedition had ended in a kill for her, it had been hard-earned — too hard-earned for anyone’s taste, including her own. She wanted to believe her own bragging, and often came close to doing so. But she had to be realistic. She was not a hunter, not in an urban landscape and not in a rural landscape. Not in the mountains nor in the debris of Bada Aso. From the moment the squadron stacked up at the edge of the warehouse, watching the patrols of men in dark capes, rifles gripped hard in their hands, she felt trepidation at the prospect of sneaking past them.

Sergeant Nikka stared in consternation out at the open space between them at the factory.

“Throw a grenade up at that light post over there. Hit the transformer. Then we run.” She said.

Gulab left the squadron, hiding behind a shipping crate at the edge of the warehouse, and made her way to the other side of the structure. Warehouse was perhaps giving it too much credit — it was a wooden frame bolted to the earth and shouldering a tin roof. Beyond the crates and parked vehicles and the shelves of small parts, Gulab saw the concrete post stretching overhead along the side of the warehouse, cables stretching from it. She waited for a flash, and threw a grenade up at the transformer. She heaved it just over the drum.

Beneath the seething sky the light and flame had little effect, but the sound and effect of the explosion were very distinct. Atop the metal drum of the transformer the explosion split the unit from the post, and it slammed unto the ground in a shower of sparks. Smoke rose from the post. Several men left their positions, rushing to inspect the area around the side of the warehouse. Gulab broke into a run, and Sgt. Nikka and Private Jandi followed her. While the guards were distracted they dashed from the warehouse to the factory, smashed open a window, and climbed into a hallway, quickly hiding behind the concrete wall.

It was strange being out of the rain after this entire ordeal. Gulab felt rather cold. She tried not to shake. Inside the building was bleak and dark, a lot of old unpainted concrete on the walls and blank tiles on the floor. They were in a long hall connecting two rooms. Rain battered against the windows, and the sound of thunder and flashing was no more muted than what they experienced outside. Gulab took a few steps, and found the weather still masked the sound of her pretty well. She doubted any men a room over would hear her.

“Move up.”

Nikka did not miss a beat, and she was up and aiming her carbine around within the instant. She looked more focused and moved more confidently within the building — perhaps the confined space held more of an advantage for her. Were concrete shadows her real element?

They followed the hallway to an unlocked metal door, and Sgt. Nikka pointed Gulab at the glass window into the room. She couldn’t reach it herself. Gulab looked through the glass, and saw behind the door a room full of shelves, perhaps once filled with raw material ready to be made into tools or small parts. Now the shelves were empty, and she could see right through them to three of the room’s corners. Directly opposite them stood exposed a man, nodding off against a wall with his submachine gun hugged against his chest, and a cigarette clenched between his teeth. Gulab took this all in and relayed the information to Nikka.

The Sergeant nodded. “Open the door a crack as quietly as you can, and back away from it.”

Gulab turned the knob slowly and held it in place, and she pushed the door until the latch was entirely clear of the door frame, before letting the knob go, and the door with it. She did not expect the door to keep slowly sliding away from her — of its own will the door crept toward the wall. Nikka slipped her carbine into the widening crack formed by the door and took a shot, the discharge from the barrel muffled to a slight tapping noise. Her bullet blasted the man’s adam’s apple; the officer then urged Gulab and Jandi into the room, and they charged in, swinging their guns around to cover the approaches. There was nobody else in the room, only the slumped, choking man, his mouth and nose overflowing with blood.

Private Jandi took a quick shot at the man’s head, eliminating him for good.

“Room is clear.” She said. They spoke to each other now in a hushed tone of voice — there was still the rain and thunder, but it paid to be cautious.

Sgt. Nikka nodded. “Corporal, pick him up and stow him away. Then we move on.”

As she was ordered, Gulab dragged the body, and dragged it to the alcove near the door. She opened a door just across the one they entered from. There were no tools left in the closet — Gulab threw the body inside and closed the door. There was a trail of blood left behind. Nikka and Jandi wiped it as much as they could with their dripping wet cloaks.

There were two ways forward — one door led to another hall like the one they just left, and the other into a large work room. Black outlines around pale spots in the floor acted as ghosts for the heavy machines that once occupied the floor space. Once, this factory might have turned out tractors or light tanks, but all the important machinery had been evacuated. Long rows of workstations for the manufacture of small parts remained around the periphery of the room, but they were little more now than over-large tables with shelves across their faces, the cutting and welding and pressing equipment stripped from them.

Around the room right side of the room a trio of men stood around smoking.

“Three men,” Gulab said, “They would probably notice the door opening.”

“Damn. Then we will have to take them out quickly.” Sgt. Nikka said.

Gulab looked out the glass again. All three men were crowded around the side of the room, and perhaps one could have opened the door and quickly hid near one of the workstations, but they would certainly be tipped off to something at any rate. Gulab looked around the roof and walls, wondering if there was something they could use. She saw a vent shaft, going a few meters over their heads. Her eyes followed it until it disappeared from her vantage.

She checked the nearby wall in their current room, and found a small white sliding door on the side — it had an air filter, which she ripped out and threw away. Past that there was an open vent, running out and up into the next room, as well as around the adjoining hall.

“Sergeant, do you think you could fit in here?” Gulab asked.

“What?”

Sgt. Nikka approached the shaft, and stuck her head in. She fit perfectly.

“I see. Not the most dignified pursuit, but it should give us an advantage.”

She withdrew her pistol and climbed in. Private Jandi and Gulab stacked up by the door.

They watched the men, laughing among themselves. Gulab could not understand what they were saying, but the conversation sounded slow, like the slurring of a drunk.

One of the men stopped laughing, and looked around the room with a drowsy expression. He shoved one of the men in the shoulder, and pointed his finger overhead. His companions were not quick to pay him much attention. Then a vent cover fell from overhead and hit one of them.

Another fell, bleeding from his cheek and jaw, split by a gunshot. Two men picked up their guns from a nearby bench, but they had very clumsy grips on them, and did not seem able to aim straight. They had trouble staring up at the ceiling — they looked about to fall.

Jandi and Gulab opened the door, and while the men turned their submachine guns overhead, they took their shots. Gulab hardly aligned the sights before firing, but her bullet managed to land in a man’s stomach and knock him off his feet. She could not see where he fell, there was a workstation in the way that hid the floor from her. Private Jandi took a snap shot the same as Gulab, but she hit the other man right in the neck, just above the collarbone.

He clutched his neck in pain, but remained on his feet, and with his free hand he struggled to point his weapon their way and have his vengeance before death.

There was a metal rustling sound, and another vent cover dislodged from above.

Sgt. Nikka fell from the vent, and crashed over the man, falling out of sight with him.

Alarmed, Gulab and Jandi rushed further into the room and around the workstation tables, ready to shoot. But all of the men had a fatal stab wound somewhere, and Sgt. Nikka lay over them, catching her breath, covered in blood. She had her knife in hand.

Along the ground beside the men were several unmarked glass bottles, probably alcohol.

“This was not a good plan, Corporal.” Sgt. Nikka said, thrashing on the floor.

Gulab shrugged. “I’m trying my best here, you know.”

“Go out and check into the next room. Don’t be seen!” Sgt. Nikka ordered.

Sighing, Gulab crept along the wall, out of sight of the door, and peered into the glass. The room beyond was a much larger work area, probably where the heavy parts were worked on. There was scaffolding installed along the walls and over the work area, with hooks and chains that could lift up the body of a vehicle or tank so its underside could be welded, and so it could have its tracks set in. With the conveyor belts stripped out the room was just a broad empty space overlooked by empty hooks and chains — save for a sudden gathering of men and a single half-track coming in from the rain. Shutters closed behind them.

Gulab locked the door and hurried back to the Sergeant.

“Nope, can’t go that way!” She said, smiling nervously and waving her hands.

Sgt. Nikka grumbled. “Then we will have to backtrack and hope–“

“Second story.” Private Jandi said suddenly. She pointed out a ladder along the wall of the room, leading up to a high, slanted window overlooking the work area. It would lead them outside, into the storm again, but they would have a higher vantage.

“Good! We can use that. Store the dead in the workbenches.” Sgt. Nikka said.

They opened the larger cabinets they could find, and squeezed the corpses in before they became too rigid. They shut and bolted them, and hoped for the best. Then everyone climbed the ladder. Sgt. Nikka slid open the glass pane, and they stepped out of the building and again into the storm. They climbed carefully over the frame of the window, and made their way unto the roof of the second story. There was a higher vantage yet — the central factory area bulged an additional five to six meters higher, like a boxy spine in between the wings of the factory, and the attached chimneys, which climbed ten meters higher even than that. But they would not have to climb that — they had already a good view of their share of Buxa, the smaller warehouses and factory buildings, and the larger buildings looming farther away.

“Duck!” Sgt. Nikka suddenly shouted.

Everyone crouched. Across the street, they heard and then saw a tank moving into the Buxa grounds. They could see it crossing the warehouse, cutting quickly past the path they had dashed on their feet to make it to the side of the factory building and sneak in. It was an M5 tank like the one they had destroyed with their mines. It started making rounds around the warehouses and factory buildings for reasons unknown to them. Had they been discovered, there would be a larger alarm, and not merely a single tank. Though it would complicate their escape, it was at the moment not a threat. They resumed walking after a breather.

Sgt. Nikka led them across the ceiling, keeping close to the spine and the chimneys so they would not be easily spotted from the ground. Around the back of the factory Sgt. Nikka took a knee and pointed straight ahead. There was a row of tin-roofed warehouses. Crates and shelves stacked high formed their walls. A small factory building stood beyond them, with shutters for doors and a big, vaulted glass roof. At first blush these failed to impress much urgency in Gulab, but she noticed that one warehouse, three buildings away from them, had an enormous hole in its roof. Unlike the porous roofs on the other warehouses, this particular roof evinced a wholesale removal of plates, and not mere wear and tear.

She also thought she saw the rain going right through the glass roof of the nearby factory.

Then she saw an enemy half-track drive into the warehouse; men came and went from the factory. There was a lot of activity, and it increased with each passing moment. Crates were heaved, and patrols cycled. The squadron stepped back from the edge of their roof.

“I suspect we have found our batteries.” Sgt. Nikka said.

They waited for several more minutes, watching the men buzzing around these focal points. Then there was sharp rumbling noise, and shells started coming out of the warehouses and the little factory building with the glass roof. Red streaks flew from buildings farther away that were harder to see. From afar they saw the trails of smoke playing about the air in the wake of more shells, dispersing with the wind and rain. Numerous shells overflew them, likely headed for Penance Road’s Cathedral. These warehouses and the nearby factory probably housed all of the howitzers for this sector. They had to be fairly close to coordinate fire easily within the storm, Gulab supposed, and they needed shelter for their ammo and an open line to the sky.

Gulab wondered if Chadgura had found her share as well, and how she had managed it.

Sgt. Nikka withdrew her radio and made the call. “We are in position.”

“Likewise.” Chadgura’s voice quickly answered.

Khorosho. We will be calling in a barrage from sixty-three guns, tovarich.” Sgt. Nikka said. “Get out of there in whatever direction you can after calling in. There will be a hundred heavy rounds a minute falling on each position for over fifteen minutes. There are bound to be shells that stray, and one of those could be the last thing you see.”

“We are on the periphery. It should be simple.” Chadgura replied.

“Not so for us. But we’ll manage.” Sgt. Nikka grimly said.

“Wait, what do you mean by that?” Gulab asked, but she was ignored.

Sgt. Nikka switched frequencies, and put Gulab on the line. “Tell them what I tell you.”

Gulab held the handset to her ears, and Sgt. Nikka gave her numbers and letters — coordinates from the map — and a series of what seemed like code word commands, like victor target. She parroted them without fail. Once Gulab had issued all the commands, she was given to understand by the young man on the other land that she would be seeing effect soon.

This she felt was a lie; almost immediately a shell crashed through the warehouse roof and detonated inside. Within the next few moments the chaos exacerbated. A shell smashed the open ground between the warehouses and kicked up a column of dust and debris; explosions crept across several warehouses, throwing up tin and fire. From within several of the targeted buildings came additional blasts as ammunition for the hidden guns went up in flames.

The earth shook with the crashing of shells. Dozens of plumes of smoke and dust flowered out of the earth all around them, only seconds apart. Fire and smoke spread across the warehouses, and their frames shattered, collapsing the roofs over the screaming nochtish men that had been surreptitiously supplying and guarding the artillery at Buxa.

In the distance, through the rain, Gulab thought she could see more fire and more smoke, all across Buxa, as far as she could see. This was probably Chadgura’s doing. She prayed to everything that she was alright — the devastation spreading before her seemed indiscriminate.

“No need to watch the fireworks any longer. Mission accomplished–“

Sgt. Nikka opened her mouth, but something drowned out her words. Gulab felt the wind kick up behind then too — but what she felt was a pressure wave. A shell crashed into the spine of the factory, off-target by dozens of meters, and smashed a hole into the roof. They turned around and looked at the shell hole, and then saw another, falling into a chimney and exploding halfway inside, casting bricks into the air. Everyone ducked for cover as the debris fell around them, and a third shell flew past behind them, and exploded near the side wall, shaking the roof. In an instant it seemed that for every ten shells on target one was over them instead!

“We have to go! Back into the building!” Sgt. Nikka shouted.

Gulab stood, and a shell fell a dozen meters away and took a chunk out of the corner of the building. She crawled to the edge of the roof and looked over the panicking soldiers.

She saw the tank around the corner, scurrying to avoid the falling fire.

“Let’s ride that out!” Gulab cried.

Sgt. Nikka scoffed. “Have you lost your senses Corporal? We could never–“

But Gulab was already running. She was moving in a sudden rush, without quite processing all of what she was doing. She got ideas and within seconds she just did whatever had burst into mind. She ran to the blasted corner of the roof, hung off the edge, and swung herself off. Under her, the tank drove in a panic, and she landed atop the turret. It was the same side upon which she had landed on previously, in the warehouse when she climbed the vat — and it hurt so bad that she cried, and grit her teeth. She kicked her legs atop the tank.

Beside her, the tank hatch opened, and a man peered out.

Gulab swung around and blasted his face with her pistol.

She held the hatch open, and without looking she swung her pistol arm into it, and opened fire without looking until the chamber clicked empty. She rolled around and peered inside, and there was no movement. She pulled out the corpse of the tank commander.

On time, Sgt. Nikka and Private Jandi dropped unto the tank. Both had rough landings.

“Corporal, I can’t believe you! This is absolute madness!” Sgt. Nikka shouted.

“I know! But bear with me!” Gulab said. “I can drive a truck!”

“Tanks aren’t trucks!” Sgt. Nikka said. “They don’t have a steering wheel!”

“Oh.”

Gulab crept inside the tank and found, instead of a wheel, two sticks, between the corpse of the driver. She could not tell what they were supposed to be at all.

“Well, then tell me what they do! It’s our best chance of getting out of here!”

“Each stick controls a track!” Sgt. Nikka shouted. “Can you do something with that?”

Gulab shoved the dead driver aside, and took the sticks. Sgt. Nikka took the tank commander’s seat, and Private Jandi sat atop the dead radio operator. Thankfully the tank was already on and it seemed primed to move forward. Gulab pushed both sticks forward at once, and the tank hurtled out from under the long overhanging eaves of the factory roof.

She could not see where she was going, and had little steering control.  Her tank crashed through a stack of crates on the edge of the warehouse they had crept into from the sewer. Men were running all around them, and the shellfalls had yet to abate.

“Oh, here we go.” Gulab found a little door in front of her and opened it. It was a vision slit.

“Ugh I can’t believe I’m going along with this!” Sgt. Nikka cried.

Suddenly a bullet rebounded off the side of the vision slit. Gulab saw men approaching.

“Sergeant, shoot the gun! Quickly!”

Nikka growled, and she shoved a shell into the tank’s gun and locked the breech. She struck a little pin, and the 37mm gun vaporized a pair of aggravated men who had perhaps noticed their tank not quite behaving as it should. Fragments from the shell bounced off the glacis plate.

It was all noise and chaos and Gulab could hardly think.

Private Jandi sat around, swaying her legs, as though this was a time to relax.

“I think I understand now!” Gulab said.

She put the tank into a different gear, and pulled the sticks all the way back.

Unbeknownst to her, this different gear was actually reversing the tracks.

Again the tank hurtled out of the warehouse, but this time it dashed backwards into the wall of the factory and drove right into the hallway they had snuck into before. They were now doing little more than retracing their previous steps inside several tons of metal.

“Almost there!” Gulab shouted, looking at the switches in her instrument panel.

Ten meters away a shell crashed in front of them. Fragments flew irrepressibly fast through the thin glacis plate of the M5 tank, and Gulab felt cuts along her cheek and shoulder, and saw dozens of tiny holes opened up in front of her. Men ran into her field of view, fleeing the blasts. Gulab clutched her new wounds and wept. Why did nothing ever go right?

“Corporal! You’re going to get us killed! Drive out into the street! Any direction!”

Sgt Nikka was shouting at the top of the lungs. She loaded in a new shell, and she pulled the firing pin — this time the blast took out a scurrying group of men gathering near the warehouse. Between the tank and the artillery barrage the Nochtish men didn’t know at all what to do. They were throwing down their rifles and running for their lives.

Biting her lip and enduring the sharp, burning cuts caused by the metal fragments, Gulab switched the gear again, swallowed a lump, and smashed the sticks forward again.

Everything inside the tank was rattling and shaking and the engine was puttering and making noise. Beside them the tracks ground noisily, and the tank plunged forward, and ran over the fence, and into the flooding street. It dashed over manhole cover and embedded itself into the side of a ruin. Gulab pushed the sticks, but the tank was stuck, and refused to advance.

“Out! Out!” Sgt. Nikka shouted. She threw open the hatch and scrambled up. Gulab and Jandi followed, throwing grenades into the aperture and fleeing the scene down the mounds of debris and back into the alleys, away from the burning and blasting in Buxa.

“I’m very sorry Sergeant!” Gulab shouted as they ran, cupping her hands in a pleading gesture and crying. She felt absolutely horrible. “I put us in danger back there and–“

“Sorry to be alive, Corporal? I’m not!” Sgt. Nikka shouted back. She was grinning.

Gulab had almost wanted to be admonished more strongly, but as she ran down the ruined alleys and clambered up the mounds of concrete, seeing the fire and fury behind growing even under the incessant rain, she merely wept, and felt the heat of the moment turn again into the clammy cold of her soaked uniform. Again, somehow, she had earned her kill the hard way.

 

Penance Road — Cathedral of Penance

Earth and sky alike quaked in Penance. Walls swayed and the ceiling rumbled and budged. Dust and splinters of rock fell from the ceiling with each tremor, and the gaps between the bricks in the wall seemed to distort from the violence, becoming more prominent, more ominous. Penance’s young stones bore witness to the mud and water that had become of the once green field. Silently they watched the corpses, and the men and tanks assembling across the road, waiting out the effect of their barrage on the Cathedral and its troops. Would this be the last act? Certainly the Cathedral was never going to outlive the city.

“Everyone inside! We’ll weather the final push and then evacuate!” Lt. Purana called, both to the few soldiers still assembled inside the Cathedral, and over his radio to the troops in the remains of their two last trench lines. Everyone numbered less than a Platoon in total.

Adesh, Nnenia, Kufu and Rahani helped open the Cathedral door, and the last remaining trench troops retreated into the Cathedral, many supporting one another by their shoulders, limping, barely holding on to their weapons, faces streaked with mud and blood, uniforms soaked through and dripping long rivulets of water unto the carpet. There were black spots all over their faces and hands where fresh cuts had started to coagulate. They shambled toward the back of the Cathedral nave, and sat down, while medics buzzed around them, drying them, pressing them in heated blankets, and disinfecting and bandaging their wounds.

Reflexively, Adesh walked around the 122mm, still standing a few meters off the doorway, and took his place beside it, sitting beside the breech. Corporal Rahani shook his head.

“At this point opening those doors again is more dangerous than not.” Corporal Rahani said.

Lt. Purana had the door locked shut, an iron bar locked across it, and then ordered everyone back from the doorway and the front of the Cathedral. They set mines near the door and explosive charges in the walls and around the 122mm gun. From the spire stairways, the snipers and the mortar crews came down, heaving their BKV rifles and 82mm launchers with them — they had no ammunition left. Everyone had heavy eyes and walked inanimately.

They were all exhausted. Adesh and Nnenia sat beside Eshe below the altar at the back of the nave. He barely raised his head to acknowledge their appearance.

“How are you doing?” Nnenia asked. She bent her head low to look at him.

“Very tired. I’m trying not to nod off, but it’s hard.” Eshe said.

“We’ll be out soon.” Adesh said. He rocked his legs off the altar stage.

“I didn’t think that flamethrower would be so heavy.” He said.

“I’m surprised you got it going. You saved us, you know?”

Eshe did not respond immediately. He looked down the nave, at the door.

“Do you think we won this fight, or lost it?” He finally asked.

“It’s more complicated than that.” Nnenia said, patting him in the shoulder.

Eshe sighed heavily, and rubbed his face with his good hand.

“Sorry. We shouldn’t make Corporal Rahani worry more. He was crying.” He said.

“All of us were crying together that time.” Nnenia said.

Adesh wondered if it was really complicated. He did not fancy himself much of a soldier. He had joined the army purposelessly — he never joined it to fight. It was the one place he knew he would never meet another of his kin, so he chose it as his escape. He knew that they had received orders and that they carried them out as best as they could. Could that always be counted as a victory? They were going to be pushed from the Cathedral — they might be pushed entirely out of Bada Aso soon. Could that count as a defeat? He looked around the room, at all these people, and the people who had been there before. What drove all of them, what did any of them use as a metric for their value, their purpose, their accomplishment?

No big picture appeared to him on the horizon. After some unspecified amount of these “victories” and “defeats” would there still be an Ayvarta to fight for?

But there was something in there, in the background of his mind, percolating. Maybe he could make no grand pronouncement, maybe he had no philosophy to back him. Maybe he really was just a kid. But he started imagining what everyone else might think, what they might answer. What would Corporal Rahani say? What would Lt. Purana say? What would Major Nakar say? Adesh did not really know them much. Perhaps he did not even know his friends all that much. Yet, he felt a strong connection to all of them, exacerbated in this eerily peaceful moment under the eye of this storm. Lightning and rain fell upon them all the same.

No matter what he could not believe that those people saw themselves as defeated.

“As long as we fight for each other it’s a victory.” He said aloud.

Nocht expected them to crumble, because Nocht saw individual riflemen and women with lacking training, old equipment, scattered leadership. They invaded their country, they advanced rapidly, they hit them with defeat after defeat it seemed. They took each of them piecemeal, and compared them to their shiny new half-tracks, their intimidating metal-gray tinted uniforms, the howitzers with which they battered at the old Cathedral. Taking that as the mental calculus, they decided the Ayvartans were weak. You could fight an individual Ayvartan and beat them. You could beat enough to take over the whole country from them, and do what you wanted with it. Adesh was almost sure that Nocht as a whole probably thought this way.

But Adesh was not alone, he was not a single Ayvartan fighting. He had Corporal Rahani and his experience and his little flower rituals; he had Nnenia, and her terseness and sudden kindness and her blunt strength; he had Eshe, and his stiff humor and surprising reliability; he had Kufu too, he supposed. Lt. Purana; Lt. Bogana, recovering in the hospital, probably yearning to get back into the fight. Somewhere out there he had the Major, Madiha Nakar, a decorated Hero. Corporal Kajari, a fighter with the intimidating KVW, and who did not know them at all, but smiled at them, and gave them food and told them they had potential.

She was out there somewhere, fighting too. To protect them, probably. Like a rock bear mama.

Adesh didn’t know whether he was being naive or foolish. But he felt a fire lighting in him.

He smiled a bit, and he threw his arms around both Eshe and Nnenia, pulling their faces close to his own. He kissed both of them in the cheek, and they flushed very red.

“They’re not fighting any of us alone, right? There’s always someone beside you, and when there isn’t, there’s still someone out there, like Ms. Corporal Kajari. We’re all fighting and working for each other. We are part of something bigger. Until all that falls through we can’t say that we have lost. We’ll weather everything together.”

It wasn’t the positions on the map. It wasn’t the lines. It was Ayvarta, and everyone in it.

In the end, that is what Nocht declared war on and what they would have to fight against.

Nocht did not win until it had crushed all of that, and Adesh was sure that they couldn’t.

Corporal Rahani left Lt. Purana’s side and went to join the trio. He had replaced his paper flower with a bundle of grass. When he saw them hugged close together he beamed at them.

“Gather up your things comrades, we’ll be evacuating next.” He said.

There was not much to gather. They had eaten their rations, drank their water, and they carried no rifles ever since the battles for the border. Their only heavy piece of equipment was their gun, which they could not take with them. Within moments they joined Kufu and Rahani behind the Cathedral, running out into the rain, and they hopped into the back of the half-tracked truck waiting for them. Adesh thought he would seen the falling shells when he stepped outside, but the barrage had abated. The Cathedral’s spires had almost collapsed from the abuse. The dome crowning the main building, holding the bell, had sunk half into the roof.

“I encourage you all to relax for now,” Corporal Rahani said, “our part is over.”

The Half-Track started moving. They drove west off the green and unto the road, and followed it along the back of the Park, and from there surreptitiously made their way to the north road. Coming in opposite them, one of their tanks appeared from the north road to cover them. It drove to the tree line and hid at the periphery of the Park, firing its gun across the front of the Cathedral into the Panzergrenadier’s positions. It was one of the new tanks, a Hobgoblin, with a 76mm gun that reminded Adesh of their old piece, and a larger, sturdier, sloped frame compared to the Goblins they had seen until now. As they passed it, Adesh waved at the tank.

Again the earth shook from the pounding of shells, and the air was cut through by noise. Adesh turned to the Cathedral. He saw nothing strike it; he saw smoke. It rose from further away.

“Hah! Our artillery is active!” Corporal Rahani said. “That’ll show them!”

Trails of smoke and fire came down from their side of the sky, and struck the earth around the Panzergrenadier positions. Plumes of fire and smoke rose at the edge of Adesh’s field of vision. The Half-Track turned into the northern road, and the carnage was well out of Adesh’s sight. But there were still those faint trails across the dark skies, skirmish lines left by falling shells, and the rising smoke, dispersed suddenly by the storm. Retribution was at hand.

He was sure then that help had arrived in earnest, and the Cathedral had held out.

 

29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Midnight

Bada Aso Central District, 3rd KVW Rear Echelon

Midnight passed. Once again the KVW Motor Rifles regrouped well behind the front lines. This time they took shelter from the rain in an empty msani, an indoor market where individual craftsmen were allowed to trade goods under certain circumstances. Ayvarta had a very strong tradition of various crafts, and the Socialist Dominances of Solstice did not want to impede that trade, despite the necessity of regulating goods such that everyone had an equitable share.

Gulab did not quite know the specifics of that, but she knew the Msani had a roof and walls, a lot of space to sit around, and that it was warm and toasty when Sgt. Chadgura lit a big fire inside of a metal drum. Gulab sat wrapped around in a blanket, having discarded her wet jacket, and dressed in a pair of borrowed pants and a spare undershirt and jacket.

Thankfully she had gotten the privacy of a Msani changing room when shedding her old wet clothes. While she did not think anyone would gawk at her or question her gender, she was always glad not to have to bring that topic out in the flesh. She thought she looked woman enough and everyone so far seemed to think so, and that was enough for her.

“Gulab, I am content to see you healthy.” Chadgura said. She was seated next to her, by the fire. She had a cut along her cheek where a fragment from a shell had grazed her.

“I’m uh, I’m glad to see you healthy too, I suppose, Charvi.” Gulab replied.

Charvi raised her hands in front of her face and clapped a few times.

“Sorry I made you clap.” Gulab said. She only did that out of stress.

“It’s fine. Many things make me clap.” Charvi replied. She stared blankly at the fire.

“Did, um, did Sergeant Eeluhmakhno–“

“Eel-uh-nick-nah.” Charvi interrupted, pronouncing the name correctly.

“Did Sgt. Nikka have anything to say about me? Did she tell you what I did?”

“Yes. She said you talked too much, but had potential.” Charvi replied.

“Oh.” Gulab felt a little embarrassed. She thought the Sergeant might have a stronger and perhaps more negative opinion of her, after all that happened today. In a way, this sort of low-key reference made more sense. Sergeant Nikka had probably worked with dozens of people. She probably wasn’t judging all of them by the end. As long as the mission got done, anything else was just Gulab’s being self-centered. She sighed deeply into her hands.

Charvi shook her head. “I do not agree with her on that evaluation.”

“You don’t?” Gulab nearly jumped. She thought she was on good terms with Charvi! It was a sudden blow to her heart to think the Sergeant might dislike her after all this!

“I don’t.” Charvi replied simply, her voice a perfectly boring pitch.

A long silence followed with both women staring. Charvi clapped her hands twice.

“In what way, exactly, don’t you agree?” Gulab asked, her voice trembling.

“I have no opinion on the amount that you talk. It seems immaterial to me.”

Gulab sank her face into her hands. Of course it would be something like that.

“Well, thanks. So do you think I have potential then?” Gulab asked.

Charvi stared at the fire for a moment and crossed her arms.

“I guess so. I would be more inclined to say you are realizing your potential, but that is also immaterial. Who can say what one’s potential is and when it is realized? There’s no single event, in my view, where a person becomes immutably better than before. If inclined to evaluate you, I would say instead that you are reliable, and uncomplicated to work with, and energetic. I would add that I have been content to work with you.” Charvi replied.

Gulab smiled. “Those sound like things I’d care about more too.”

Charvi nodded. “But don’t try to drive a tank again. It looks fun, but it is not our job.”

Gulab nodded her head. She looked out of the Msani’s windows, into the unabating rain. Perhaps together there was hope for all of them yet. It would have certainly been easier to kill that Rock Bear with the kind of people she had supporting her now.

She leaned back, laying down on the hard floor and staring at the roof.

“Maybe Chess won’t build a monument of me, grandpa, but something else will. I’ve got good in me, you saw it, and I think I see it too.” She whispered to herself. The Spirits, the Ancestors, the Light, whatever, whoever; she hoped they would carry those wishes out to that lonely, snowy mountain, where she dared not set foot again. Gulab Kajari was not the black sheep.

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

Solstice Dominance — Postill Square

Warden Kansal and Admiral Qote practically lived out of the signals room they had improved in Postill Square’s old barracks building. A wall of radios, a stack of ration packs in a table, and a pair of bedrolls in a corner, was all the amenities they needed. At nights, it felt like a strange sleepover, with the admiral and warden sleeping side by side, while KVW soldiers left the room to give them privacy. But stress prevented them from exerting their libido in any way.

Days had passed since the Military Council strike had begun, and the police and Revolutionary Guard left their posts. They had not sought out the solidarity of any other Unions — those men and women were necessary for civilians to be fed and for the Socialist Dominances to function, and Kansal did not want to outright sabotage the war effort entirely. From what little news she received out of Bada Aso and Knyskna, they needed all the help they could get.

From the second story, they looked out unto the square. A crowd formed around an advancing staff car. It was not one of their own. Warden Kansal gave the order for the car to be allowed in, but everyone was on edge as to what it could represent.

Shortly thereafter, flanked by KVW troops on all sides, Councilman Yuba entered the signals room. He was all dressed up in his suit, and he stood proud and determined.

Hujambo, Warden, Admiral.” He said, bowing his head to the two of them.

“To what do we owe the visit?” Warden Kansal asked.

Councilman Yuba looked at his hands nervously. “Ah, well. I’ve come to discuss the events ongoing in the Kalu region in the Adjar Dominance. I believe that would be a good start.”

* * *

NEXT CHAPTER IN Generalplan Suden — The Kalu Tank War

 

 

View From The Cathedral — Generalplan Suden

This chapter was made possible by the support of kind folks on my Patreon.

Please take a short survey as well if you are familiar with the series thus far.

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

 

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

The World was always burning. Whenever steel cut the air and ripped souls from their bodies, the Flame surged in the heart of the World. There was a time when everybody could see the fire. There were Things That Ruled this world, and they thought they knew best the fickle appetites of the flame. But there were also the People, and in a time forgotten they made war on the Things That Ruled and fed them all to the Flame.

In that instant, brighter than it ever meant to be. Never again would it grow so bright.

That was the divine time, a long forgotten minute in the lifespan of the universe.

The divine time is long past. Steel flies, souls scatter, but the Flame dwindles.

In the heart of the old continent however, the People traded scraps of that lost history, and they thought, like the Things That Ruled once did, that they knew the Flame best.

“There is a way yet, to gather the flame. Our divinity is not all gone.”

They erected a throne, and there they sat the one who would lead them.

Madiha sat in the throne. She stared down at her subjects with a grim and stately face. Monoliths rose around her, blocking out the sun. They were each as tall as mountains. She was hot, and sweating, and she felt the banging of drums right in the center of her breast, and it was thrilling. There were fire dancers in heated rhythm at the edge of her vision. For a time she was alone in the center of things. Then her subjects finally appeared in flesh, wearing nothing but masks, and they approached her, and they knelt, and they made offerings to her, as though she were a God. She grinned viciously toward them.

“Remember your virtues, old Warlord,” said a person with a fish mask. They presided here.

“Cunning,” said a person in a bird mask. They offered her hawk’s eyes on golden earring loops.

“Command,intoned a person in a cat mask. They offered a shawl made from lion’s skin.

“Fearlessness,” lulled a person wearing a hyena’s snout. They offered a necklace of fangs.

Then entered a creature with a man’s mask, in iron, a pitiless face banged into shape over coals. Madiha could not understand its body — was it a Thing That Ruled?

It offered her only a rusty, bloody spear and it hissed: “Ferocity.

Madiha saw the flames in their eyes vanish, and all of them sink into her own, and the fires trailed from her face forming her own half-mask, and she screamed, in a horrible, all-consuming pain, down the center of her skull, across her spine, to where the tail once was, and down the arms and legs that ended in claws. They were always the Things That Ruled? 

* * *

It was close to midnight when Madiha awoke with a start, scattering a stack of maps and documents that had accumulated on her desk over the course of the day’s fighting. All lights had gone out as a passive defense against potential retaliatory bombing; even her oil lamp had been snuffed, so she was largely in the dark. Slivers of silver moonlight struggled to penetrate the dark drizzling clouds outside. There was a figure softly sleeping on a nearby table whom she assumed to be Parinita, hugging a pack radio they had set up on a chair — this box was the comrade most in touch with what was happening south of the HQ.

“Parinita?” Madiha called out, her lips trembling. She struggled to move, frozen, as though there was something that would reach out and seize her at any moment if she was not careful. Her lungs worked themselves raw, her breathing choppy. Her eyes stung with tears and cold, dripping sweat. It was a struggle to keep herself from falling fetal on the ground.

Her secretary woke slowly, peeking her head up from over the radio. She flicked a switch on its side by accident — a series of tiny globes on the pack lit up and cast Parinita’s face in an eerie green. She stretched out her arms, yawned and rubbed the waking tears from her eyes.

“Good morning Madiha.” She said drowsily. “Are you alright?”

“It’s not morning.” Madiha replied. Her voice was choked and desperate.

“Something wrong?” Parinita asked. “Did you have a nightmare?”

Parinita’s kind words came like a slap to the back of the head. Madiha felt childish now — yes, she had experienced a nightmare. She was awake enough now to understand it was not real. But it had seemed so urgent, so horrible, just a few seconds ago. It had made her tongue feel stuck against the floor of her mouth. It had driven the power to move from her. She had felt terror of a sort that nothing yet had caused her. She did not understand the images — figures approached and spoke but she did not remember their contours or the content of their words. These distorted things invoked a primal horror in her that still took her breath.

Communicating all of that felt foolish now. She turned away her gaze.

“I’m fine. It’s fine.” She said.

“If you say so.” Parinita replied, a little sadly.

“I’ll go back to sleep. Sorry for waking you.”

“It is fine.” Parinita said. “I pray that the Spirits might help still your thoughts.”

Madiha rested her head against her desk, and curled her arms around her face. Her eyes remained wide open for the rest of the night. She tried to recall those terrible images, but they faded more with each passing moment. That toxic thing inside her was growing closer and stronger, and yet her strange power grew no more accessible than before. Perhaps they were not linked at all. Perhaps one was the gift and the other just the curse, never intertwined.

27th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, South District

6th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

Matumaini was a ghost street, and the southern district was starkly quiet.

Fighting that had been terribly fierce the past days had all but burnt itself out. No snapping of distant rifles, no rumbling of artillery, no belabored scratching of tracks and treads. Where once columns a thousand rifles in strength challenged one another, now only the corpses, upturned rubble, spent casings, and the lingering dust and smoke remained. It was a calm in the eye of the storm, and there was little shelter left to endure the weather. Much of the southern district had been ruined, by artillery, by the tank attacks; and by the engineers battalion of the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles, diligently at work since the end of the 22nd’s air raids. Many of the ruins had been planned by them. Those that weren’t were carefully considered and made part of the rest of the plan. They had funneled Nocht right where they wanted them to go, and many of their comrades paid dearly as the unknowingly caged dogs charged into prepared defenses.

Then, things became complex. By necessity, their plans became fluid.

A small column of vehicles moved under the cover of rain and stormclouds. Two half-tracks and one of the Hobgoblin medium tanks departed Madiha’s house and made it quickly down Sese street and into Matumaini street. They passed vacant positions, destroyed guns, the hulks of vehicles friendly and enemy alike. The Hobgoblin pushed them quickly aside, opening a path for the wheeled vehicles. They drove past bodies and they drove past ruins. Some ruins were marked on the tactical maps. Some were fresh, and would have to be inspected if time allowed. One half-track carried two squadrons of KVW soldiers, and another a squadron of soldiers along with Madiha and a command cadre — Parinita, Agni, and a few staff and engineers.

They stopped on the edge of Matumaini and 3rd. Madiha climbed the ladder up unto the shooting platform of the half-track. Parinita stood hip to hip with her on the platform, holding up a parasol to cover her commander from the rain. The Major produced a pair of binoculars and inspected the intersection from afar. She traded with her secretary, holding the umbrella for a moment so she could see. Parinita whistled, impressed by the damage.

“I think the enemy will be content enough to leave this place alone.”

Parinita seemed calm and certain, and it was easy for her to be. Despite being in the middle of a war, right now it felt eerily like the aftermath, like the last bullet had flown.

But Hellfire had not yet even started. They were still setting up. Madiha was still burdened with disquiet. Her mind still spoke out of turn, demanding things from her. Her hands shook. Large bags had formed under her eyes. And the sound of the bombs still rang in her ears.

Outside it was quiet, yes, but the war still maintained its rhythm in a vulnerable heart.

“Do you think any of the pipeline has been compromised?” She asked Parinita.

Parinita adjusted her reading glasses and grinned. “I think we’d be well aware if it was!”

Madiha looked down her binoculars again atop the half-track. From her vantage she had a good look at the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd block. Constant artillery barrages had caused the road to collapse into the sewer, a massive sinkhole forming between the roads and rendering them largely unusable without further construction. To hold each individual link in the intersection would be pointless — this was an area the enemy would certainly ignore now. That had not been the plan. Madiha had wanted Nocht to commit strength and then have a path north. She wanted them to keep bodies moving into the grinder. Now she would have balance yielding to Nocht while also maintaining her troop’s ability to defend and retreat in good order. Nocht had to bleed more; they had to be forced to staunch the wound.

“Hellfire will have to recline into a small hiatus it seems. It appears to me that our counterattack scared Nocht too much. I was too disproportionate and ruthless.”

Beside her, Parinita shrugged amicably. “Kinda hard to pull punches on these fellows.”

“I want the engineers organized as soon as possible to begin carrying out the inspection.”

Parinita nodded. “I still feel that you should not need to be on-hand for that.”

“I want to be involved. I’m done sitting around.” Madiha replied.

Parinita averted her gaze and sighed a little to herself. They had talked about this before. It had been a tension and a subtext of all their conversations since the first drops of blood were spilled. But Madiha could not help but feel that this was an injustice — that a thousand men and women could die in a single day because she put their formations on a map, and while they suffered she was dozens of kilometers away in relative safety. A gnawing poisonous voice in her mind had convinced her that this was not her place, that she should be out there, she should be suffering with them. She was a coward not to dive toward death like them.

“You’re not a fireteam leader Madiha.” Parinita said sharply. “I wish you’d understand that.”

“It will be fine, Parinita. It’s just a surveying mission with the engineers. We will be planning routes, diving into old empty tunnels and demolishing buildings. I’m not leading an assault on Nocht’s HQ. I just want to do something other than sit in my office.”

Madiha smiled. It was difficult — more difficult than anything she had done that day.

But her keen secretary could always see through her. She was unimpressed, but she did not protest any further. Resigned, Parinita simply replied, “If you say so.”

* * *

PenanceCathedralPark

City of Bada Aso — Southwest District, Penance Road

While the predicted storm had yet to materialize, a continuous drizzling pattered against windows, over the tops of tents and across the tarps over vehicle beds. Clouds gathered thick over the broad green park, turning the grass wet and muddy underfoot. A light wind rustled the line of trees around the edge of the park, standing sentinel around the expansive monument within. The Cathedral Of Our Lady Of Penance, for which the main road had been named, looked all the more grim under a dark sky. Grim gray stone steps between two massive spires led up to an open maw of a doorway shut off by double steel doors. Inside, the nave was particularly spacious, almost 4o meters wide inside, and easily two stories tall by itself. Its scale attested to the hopes and dreams of its engineers, and the crowds they expected to gather there during the abortive conversion of the Empire to Messianism.

Such a project, it was believed, would inspire a new golden age for the church.

A new world, full of minds to turn to the service of the Messiah.

Certainly the building, towering over the smashed ruins outside of the park’s limits, seemed an imperious presence. In the middle of the park the Cathedral seemed as old and storied as the earth. To the observer it almost appeared that the soil around the Cathedral’s flat, gray stone base actually rose to embrace that foundation, and fell ever so slightly away from it. As though the ground had elevated the building a meter or two up, into its own little hill.

In truth the Cathedral was just an irreverent child when compared to the ruins around it.

Bada Aso was an ocean of stone resting half on a hill, but conspicuously flatter and taller than its surroundings, an attempt by civilization to conquer a chaotic earth millennia old. With the times it had warped and it had grown, it had fed and gorged and it jut out in every direction. It had been built first by the indigenous Umma of the region, as a place of monoliths, a shelter straddling the sea, for the gathering of fish, and the game from the vast, hilly Kalu. Then it became a throne of stone and brick set into place by the Ayvartan Empire, a symbol of the strength of Solstice, the invincible city in the heart of the red sands. Many of the people who would eventually bring down the throne in Solstice grew up in its surrogate of Bada Aso, thriving in the place meant to control them. Tradition, Empire and Revolution lived and died in it. To this drama, the Messianic church, its teachings and its monuments, were entirely fresh faces. Indeed, communism was now longer lived than the Golden Age of Messianism in Ayvarta.

Once the Revolution overturned the Ayvartan Empire, Bada Aso quite briefly became a place of anti-communist fervor — and then, remarkably, a symbol of civilized socialism, of the working order and kindness offered by the concrete and steel bosom of SDS-controlled cities. There was guaranteed housing and food, clinics and state shops and canteens in seeemingly every block, large tenements to keep everyone from the autumn rains, wage stipends for those unwilling or unable to work, and work aplenty for those that wanted it.

Bada Aso had been built and built over and built over, according to different time periods, ideologies, and functions. There were streets that led nowhere, byways blocked off by stark brick cul de sacs to keep their traffic from spilling out to more than one main road, buildings of different construction, size and style all organized into long uneven blocks that made up the many districts. It was an organic city, a thing that had grown in the same inexplicable way the humans within it grew. It was too tight in places and too open in others. With time, it might have grown even more gangly, more haphazard, its streets the expanding veins of a massive history.

Now the city was on its final journey. Again the forces of reaction teemed within it. A fifth of the city had practically been given to the 1st Vorkampfer, an army from abroad coming to reintroduce empire to Bada Aso. Bombing had ruined much of the city. Controlled demolition had rendered many places inaccessible. Four-fifths of the population had been evacuated. Those who remained did so to continue their socialist labor far behind the battle lines — serving food, sewing uniforms, dressing wounds, offering condolences.

Penance Cathedral served as well. It was an eerie fortress, its true purpose mostly forgotten. Along its corners trenches had been dug into the park soil, lined with sandbags, filled with men and women and their guns. There were snipers on the spires, and mortars perched precariously atop the dome. Atop the steps, a pair of 76mm divisional field guns had been angled to fire easily against the road approaches. Inside the nave there were crates of ammunition, food, medicine, all watching a sermon led by a reserve anti-tank gun pointed out the doors. Benches had been pushed aside and there were beds and crates and a radio station set in their place. A Company from the 6th Ox Rifles Division was all that kept these sacred stones from turning hands now. Penance had not seen battle like Matumaini — just a series of actions that sputtered and choked off under the shadow of that Cathedral.

To Ox command, this meant that a larger attack would certainly be forthcoming.

Under the rain, a truck entered the Cathedral district from the northwest, careful to circle around the outer edge of the park, driving with the trees between it and the main thoroughfare. It turned and approached the Cathedral from behind, and the structure itself provided all the cover it needed from there. Facing its lightly armored front to the back of the building, it parked; a passenger dismounted, and knocked on the back door of the cathedral. A woman peered out from the roof, watching their approach; she called in for them, and the door opened. It was safe — everyone had confirmed everyone else was a comrade. The truck swung around to make its contents accessible. In the bed there were crates of medicine, food, canvas; a large section of sandbags and poles and tarps in the back; and atop the sandbags a group of 8 soldiers in black and red uniforms, their officer laying unsteadily on her side.

Recently promoted Sergeant Charvi Chadgura had a hand on her stomach and another over her mouth. Her garrison cap lay discarded. She curled her legs. “I’m car sick.” She droned.

Beside her a secondary officer, newly-minted Corporal Gulab Kajari, stared at her quizzically, fanning the Sergeant with her cap. “How did you ride the tank and then get car sick?”

“It keeps rocking.” Sgt. Chadgura said. Her toneless voice was muffled by her gloves.

“Sergeant, we have a special mission! You need to be healthy when we receive our orders!”

“I will be fine in a few minutes. Or an hour.” The Sergeant started to turn a little pale.

Gulab tried rubbing Chadgura’s stomach and fanning her faster with her cap to keep her cool. She had no idea what to do about motion sickness — back in the Kucha they would have just told her to endure it or to get sick in some place nobody had to see.

Once the truck stopped, everyone decided to give Chadgura a moment of stillness. While she lay down, Gulab and the others picked up crates from the end of the bed and carried them into the Cathedral. Each crate was over a meter wide and tall, and stuffed full of individual ration boxes, or ammunition in belts, clips and magazines. Unloading trucks was a chore nobody was happy to perform, but the KVW troops took to it silently and diligently. They settled quickly into a teamwork system– quickly passing crates to one another in a line to get them out the truck bed and into the nave easily. As the officer on-hand, Gulab stood at the end of the line, and boisterously laid the crates down in the back room of the nave. She was unperturbed by the weight, and dropped and stacked the boxes with theatrical flourish.

“Woo hoo! We can carry another crate, can’t we comrades? Certainly one more crate! Ha ha!” Gulab said as more and more crates visibly neared along the line of hands.

This enthusiasm did not go unnoticed. Gulab did such a fantastic job, and she was so happy to do it, that once Chadgura recovered and went to contact the commanding officer at the Cathedral, Gulab and the KVW squadron were volunteered to unload several other trucks.

Towed 122mm howitzers were brought one by one, and she and her troops unhitched them and arranged them at the tree-line north of the Cathedral for the crews soon to be arriving; three Goblin tanks and a truck full of spare parts and portable machine tools arrived, and the Corporal saw to it that these supplies were set apart, and that the fuel was well stored to keep dry and safe; a half-track with large antennae across its roof arrived at the Cathedral, dropped off a long-range radio set, picked up fuel and food from the stacks, and drove off again, to hide on the edges of the district; but overall most of it was trucks with common supplies. Crate after dark brown crate was unloaded and stacked. Most of it was ammo and sandbags.

Slowly, over the course of the day, the Cathedral troops built up various disparate types of materiel and personnel to prepare for upcoming battles. Within a dozen hours they had a small but serviceable local artillery arm, a tiny armored squadron, and, under the odd direction of Corporal Kajari and Sergeant Chadgura, a minuscule but experienced assault tactics formation for special maneuvers and consulting. Under the irreverent young stones of the Cathedral they would fight to give the old stones of Bada Aso a few more days before Hellfire.

* * *

Private Adesh Gurunath rocked back and forth in a dreamless sleep atop one of the benches pushed to the left wall of the nave in Penance Cathedral. He had arrived a few hours earlier on a truck similar to Corporal Kajari’s, carrying supplies and disparate reinforcement personnel. From the moment he appeared, the officers on site had been sympathetic and told him to rest. But he felt fine; as good as he could feel after the tragedy that befell him.

However, since there were only two 76mm guns, and he was part of a gunnery crew, he had nothing to do except relieve a current crew, taking turns. So he waited, and he slept. Atop the cold wood he twisted and turned for hours, until he heard a sudden sharp whistling.

Adesh got up too fast; he felt a slight jolt of pain up his shoulder and along his breast. Eshe loomed over him so close that they almost banged foreheads.

“Oh, I’m sorry Adesh!” Eshe said, rubbing Adesh’s shoulder. “I didn’t think, I was such a brute-“

“It’s fine,” Adesh said, a little exasperated, “It’s fine, Eshe. Are we moving?”

“Yes, it’s almost our turn at the gun. Corporal wanted us to get some fresh shells for the gun.”

Adesh nodded. He understood that Corporal wanted him and Nnenia to carry the shells.

Eshe’s arm had been hurt, and it was still in a sling; though no bones had been broken, shrapnel had injured his muscles, and movement would be limited for a time. Despite this, he did not slack in his commitments at all. His uniform was crisp and neat as always, his hair combed and waxed, his shoes shined, and he wore his cap at all times. Professional, collected, a model soldier boy like in the posters. Still at the front even though injured; still devoted.

Just not exactly able to lift heavy crates at the moment. In that regard, Adesh was fairly lucky. A few days rest in a clinic had done him a lot of good. Surviving the dive bombing attack on the the 22nd of the Gloom left him with burns along his chest, over his shoulder and down his back, and a long, ugly burn across his neck that made it feel a bit stiff, nothing too bad.

His burns were healing well and did not impede him overmuch, so he had volunteered to return to the front when he could. He looked overall less in disarray than before, despite the bandages up to his neck under his jacket and shirt. His long, messy ponytail had been cut at the hospital — once he had the presence of mind to do so, he asked that his hair be styled, and it was cut on the sides and back to a neck-length bob. His bangs had been trimmed neatly. After an examination a pair of glasses had been issued to him. They had a noticeable weight on his nose. After he was released, both Nnenia and Eshe, teaming up for practically the first time, made faces at him and told him he looked cute, like a secretary. He didn’t know whether to take it as a joke , or if they were being serious about his appearance.

“Where is Nnenia? Is she asleep too?” Eshe asked. He cast quick glances about the nave.

“A few benches down; don’t whistle at her.” Adesh warned. Nnenia was liable to punch him.

With a hand from Eshe, Adesh stood from the bench and jumped over the backrest. They approached a bench a little ways down the wall, and this time Eshe shook the occupant. Nnenia growled and shook and moaned for a few minutes more; minutes were given, and then Eshe shook her again. She nearly bit his good arm, then woke like a grumpy housecat, staring his way with eyes half-closed and her teeth grit. She sat up, legs up against her chest.

“Good morning.” She mumbled, tying her hair into a short tail.

“It’s nearly evening by now.” Eshe said gently. “And our turn at the gun.”

Nnenia sharply corrected herself. “Good morning, Adesh.”

Eshe exhaled sadly; Adesh raised his hand in awkward greeting. Nnenia stood up and climbed over the bench by herself, and stood behind Eshe as though awaiting a chance to bite him in the shoulder. Together they crossed the nave into the backroom, where fresh supplies were coming in via truck. Adesh was surprised to find black-uniformed personnel carrying the crates. These were troops of the KVW — the uniform of the elite Uvuli was a black jacket and pants with red trim and gold buttons, and a patch with the nine-headed hydra, superimposed red on a black circle. It was eerie to see them, for the first time, simply carrying supply crates around like regular Shuuja. They looked so common, so everyday.

Prior to joining the military he had scarcely heard of the KVW, and knew nothing concrete. Since arriving in Bada Aso Adesh had been quickly brought to speed by everyone around him on all the rumors and stories surrounding the KVW. How they hunted traitors in the night during the scandals years ago, choking them with wire in their own homes after finding secret radio sets transmitting to enemies; how they stared down the barrels of guns fearlessly, ignoring injury and battering down shooters in a bloody melee; how they were given special drugs and therapies so they could see in the dark, and never miss a shot, and kill without compunction.

These people did not resemble those people.

“Welcome, comrades! Need anything?”

There was an energetic, smiling young woman with a corporal’s patches seemingly supervising the squadron as they went about their work. She had the crates stacked up in a haphazard step pyramid.

Hujambo,” Eshe said, easily taking the lead for his squad. “Are you in charge of supplies?”

“Ah, not really, I don’t think so! I just unload ‘em! Help yourselves to whatever.” She replied.

Eshe tipped his head. “I’m Eshe Chittur. If I might be allowed to learn your own name?”

Nnenia and Adesh introduced themselves more quietly and awkwardly. The lady beamed.

“Of course, comrade! I am Corporal Kajari, an officer in Major Nakar’s own elite 3rd KVW Motor Rifles!” Kajari stuck out her chest, and tapped her fist once against the flat of her breast, wearing a big proud grin. “Don’t be so stiff, if you kids need anything, just know full and well that you can come to this mountain girl for support. I take care of my comrades like a Rock Bear mama! Take anything you need from the stack. I insist that you do!”

Her tone of voice became more grandiose the more she spoke, as though she were inspiring herself to speak mid-sentence. She looked fairly short, a little shorter than Eshe, and she was slender and somewhat unassuming, but the long simple braid of chestnut-brown hair, the bright orange eyes that were slightly narrowed in appearance, and the honey-colored skin, did remind one of the hardy folk of the Kucha. But Adesh knew little specific about them.

“Thank you, but we require only 76mm shells.” Eshe said curtly. He looked put off by her tone. “You seem a bit boisterous for an Uvuli, if I do say, ma’am. Are you the squad leader?”

Corporal Kajari grinned at him, and turned around and pointed at a KVW soldier.

“Private! Am I or am I not your officer?” She asked.

“You are, ma’am,” replied the soldier, saluting stiffly, his face a perpetual near-frown.

“How come you act nothing like them?” Eshe pressed her. He sounded a bit offended.

For a moment the Corporal looked at him blankly, and then she put her hands on her hips and smirked. “It’s a specific sort of training that makes you like that. Not all of us are like this,” Cpl. Kajari half-closed her eyes and frowned, putting on a sort of sleepy expression, making fun of the stoicism emblematic of a KVW officer, “but you see, High Command thought such training would only dull my powerful abilities! I have acquitted myself so well, that it has been found thoroughly unnecessary, in fact even detrimental, to train me further! It is feared it might dull my considerable skill in killing people and destroying positions and such.”

Nnenia whistled. Adesh smiled. Much to Eshe’s chagrin, they took well immediately to the officer. All of Adesh’s trepidation toward the KVW vanished, and he was taken in by the friendly officer. She held them up for a moment and started telling them a few quick stories, while the rest of her troop unloaded without her. Eshe stood off to one side, sighing at the scene.

Kajari gathered them and told them about how she had shot a man out of a window from two-hundred meters away during the fight for Matumaini — a battle Adesh and his friends had largely sat out in a ward behind the lines, recovering from the wounds they suffered on the 22nd of the Gloom. She told them about riding on a tank, and saving her CO from a Nochtish assault gun. This act had her promoted to Corporal from a lowly private. It gave Adesh hope for the future. She told them how she survived a brutal artillery strike that caved-in the entire street around them, and how she ran and ran, with the ground collapsing at her wake, and then she jumped at the last moment, and her Corporal, now a Sergeant, grabbed her hand and pulled her up, and told her she was a real socialist hero, and that now they were even.

“I see a lot of myself in you kids,” she said, hooking her arms around Adesh and Nnenia’s shoulders and pulling them close to her, “y’got potential, I can tell! Give your all against the imperialist scum! I’m sure you’ll make them bleed white!”

“Thank you, Corporal Kajari!” Nnenia and Adesh said at once, cheeks and ears flushed beet read, laughing jovially. They hugged against her chest.

The Corporal looked positively in love with them! And Adesh felt amazingly comfortable with her. Eshe started tapping his feet, and regrettably they had to step away from their spontaneous Rock Bear Mama and her radiating charisma. To each of the doting young ones she gave a parting gift, a ration from a crate lying at her feet — when Eshe protested that this was against regulation she ordered him, as a superior officer, to shut up and lighten up.

“At least two of you are going places!” She said again, nodding her head sagely.

Eshe stared at his shoes, making little noises inside his mouth.

Outside the building another truck arrived, this one towing what looked like an anti-aircraft gun. The KVW troops started to gather around it. Blowing kisses and walking out as though on a cloud, Corporal Kajari finally left the room, like a beloved theater star.

Eshe grumbled the instant she was out of earshot. “I can’t believe that unrelenting fibber.”

“Oh, of course you’d know more about the KVW than her.” Nnenia rolled her eyes.

“As a matter of fact, I think I do.” Eshe said. “More than you, and more than her!”

“Oh, I got the red paneer!” Adesh shouted, holding up the ration box triumphantly. In his heart he thanked Comrade Kajari for keeping him well fed. This ration was his favorite!

Nnenia and Eshe watched him as he stared reverently at the package, and laughed. They stored the rations in their packs. Eshe took great pains to stuff his under possessions, in case of an inspection that he was sure would come. He was quite alone in that sentiment.

They found the shells in a corner of the back room. Each box had 6 shells, each shell weighing about seven kilograms. They had handles on either side that made them easier to carry, but the weight still proved challenging to the young privates less than a half hour after waking. Carrying the crates pulled their shoulders down, and they were reduced to almost to waddling in order to bear with it. Eshe in the lead, opening the doors for them, the group carried the ordnance across the nave, out the big doors, and out to the top of the steps leading to the cathedral, where the two guns had been set up between the spires. They carried the crates toward the right-most of the guns under a tarp pitched up on four poles with plastic bases.

Under the tarp Corporal Rahani and Kufu greeted them. Corporal Rahani had been largely uninjured in the blast during the air battles of the 22nd, same for Kufu. They had minor scratches, and luckily, Rahani’s pretty face had seen none of those. Rahani looked vibrant and soft as always. Having time to prepare, this time the lucky flower in his hair was not one picked off the ground, but a big bright hibiscus. He had gotten it from the stocks of a state-run goods shop. Kufu meanwhile looked, if anything, more disheveled and bored than usual, reclining against the front of the gun shield with his hands behind his head. Half his buttons were undone.

Kufu waved half-heartedly at them, and nobody waved back — Nnenia and Adesh had their hands full and Eshe was not in a friendly mood. Adesh nodded his head instead.

“We brought two crates, one HE, one AP,” Eshe said, and saluted Rahani.

“Thanks for the gifts,” Cpl. Rahani said, giggling, “you can put them down right here.”

He pointed out a small stack of crates near the tarp. A few had gotten wet in the constant drizzling, but they were all closed shut. Nnenia and Adesh deposited their boxes atop the others. There was a crowbar nearby in case they needed to crack them open. Then they sat atop the crates, gently laboring to calm their breathing and loosen up their shoulders. Rahani was all smiles as everyone was gathered around the field gun — this was the same kind of 76mm long-barreled piece had Adesh had haphazardly commanded back at the border battle on the 18th, though his memory of what he even did during that time was very fuzzy.

“Now it’s our turn proper at the gun.” Cpl. Rahani said. “Hopefully it will be a quiet one!”

From the steps, Adesh could see out to the main Penance road about 200 to 300 meters away. A line of trees across the edge of the park interrupted the view in places, but certainly if an enemy tried driving up Penance they would be spotted. A few intact buildings stood on the street opposing the park, across Penance road from the Cathedral, but it was mostly ruins all around elsewhere and of little tactical use. To cover the most direct approaches to the cathedral, six trenches and sandbag walls had been set in line with three corners of the cathedral, organized in ranks of two, one at the slightly higher ground near the cathedral and another on the lower ground closer to the edge of the park.

In each trench there were light machine gunners and riflemen. In each of the Cathedral’s spires they had snipers with BKV-28 heavy rifles, and atop the dome on the roof there was a mortar team in a somewhat precarious position but with a commanding view, along a pair of anti-aircraft machine guns, bolted to the stone. Everything but the northwest approach, the Cathedral’s supply line, could be directly enfiladed. Nocht had no access to a road that directly threatened the northwest supply line, unless they broke through to Penance and passed the Cathedral itself to get to it. And by that point, there would not be much hope left.

Certainly this holy place had become quite a fortress over time. Adesh marveled at it all.

“What’s the situation so far? I’ve only heard bits and pieces.” Eshe asked.

Corporal Rahani smiled. “Nice to know your wounds haven’t slowed you down!”

“Ah, well, I’m just always looking to know something about my surroundings.”

“Is anyone else curious?” Corporal Rahani asked. Adesh didn’t quite know what for. He always thought of Eshe was something of a busybody, but in this case his curiosity made sense, and was perhaps a healthy interest to have. For Eshe’s sake, he awkwardly raised his hand, and Nnenia followed, though both were a little less eager to talk strategy.

“I’m glad I have a crew who is eager for more than just orders.” Rahani said cheerfully.

Kufu made no gesture of any kind. He might have fallen asleep up against the gun shield.

Corporal Rahani gathered the privates around a scratchy pencil map of the surroundings — the Cathedral, the park, the roads framing the park. Penance, the largest road running south to north along the eastern edge of the park, was marked as the most obvious incursion point. “On the 25th there was a ground battle in the South District with its main axes around Matumaini, Penance and Umaiha Riverside. Matumaini saw the fiercest fighting, but there was a lot of death here on Penance too. Cissean troops overwhelmed the first line, and the second was ordered to retreat up here to reinforce the Cathedral. It proved too strong a point for the Cisseans — they don’t have the kind of equipment the Nochtish troops do.”

“And I take it it’s been quiet since.” Eshe said. “Otherwise the place would feel more alarmed.”

“Right. It seems they enemy is not eager to press after what happened on the 25th.” Cpl. Rahani said. “They thought sheer momentum would carry them, and were proved wrong.”

“But an attack’s got to come sooner or later, and it will hit us harder now.” Eshe added. “Because Matumaini’s in bad condition for road travel. Penance is a way north.”

“Quite correct. And furthermore that attack will probably hit sooner rather than later,” Corporal Rahani said. “As you’ve seen, division’s been building us up here.”

“Too slowly if you ask me.” Eshe said. He crossed his arms over his chest and spoke with a very assertive tone, as though scolding someone. “Just smatterings of infantry and some other bits and pieces of equipment. What if Nocht throws everything they’ve got at this place?”

Nnenia rolled her eyes. Adesh groaned a little internally. Eshe was overstepping.

“I wouldn’t blame them too much.” Corporal Rahani replied. He pressed a finger on Eshe’s shirt with a little grin on his face. “We’re still waiting to see what the enemy’s tanks do in the Kalu. From there they could open a second front into the city out of the east. Committing everything to the front line in the southern district, especially heavy weapons, would render our strategic depth vulnerable to an eastern blow. Did you consider that eventuality, Private?”

“Um, no, I did not think about the Kalu.” Eshe admitted. He sounded embarrassed.

Corporal Rahani smiled cryptically, and put away the map. He patted Eshe on the shoulder.

“I like your enthusiasm! I hope we can all continue to grow together.”

Due to the injuries among the crew, some roles had changed. Adesh was the gunner still, and Kufu and Nnenia adjusted the gun’s elevation and traversed it along their vantage. Corporal Rahani was now the loader, and the commander as well. He took his place at the side of the gun, and handed Eshe his hand-held radio so that he would be their signals crew. Eshe looked a little bashful, one of the few times Adesh had seen him avert his gaze from people. He stood behind the gun, sitting on the closed crates while they waited for an enemy to engage.

Adesh felt a little bad for him. He was hard-headed, and perhaps needed to be put in his place every once in a while, but nonetheless Adesh found Eshe’s confidence mostly endearing. It was sad to see him squirming and circumspect. He was perhaps the only person Adesh was close to who seemed to have figured himself out. Though, it could be he merely acted the part well.

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

City of Bada Aso — South District, Penance Cathedral

7th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

“I want you to think really hard before you move that pawn.”

“I’ve thought about it.”

“Look at the board again.”

“I have. I’m moving the pawn.”

It was a somewhat farcical scene, but at least it kept their minds engaged. Their much vaunted special orders had yet to come, so with nothing important to do the KVW assault squadron at the Cathedral had spent their days performing chores and passing the time. Gulab had carried boxes; helped serve the troops a hot supper (largely by ripping open a bunch of ration boxes and heating the contents); she had gotten carried away a few times told tall tales to doting privates, each with enough truth that even Gulab began to believe that was exactly how they went in reality; and she had run out in the rain at night to guide trucks around the park.

So came and went the 27th; on the 28th of the Gloom, their orders had still not been fully sorted out, and so in the large and ornate bedroom once belonging to the bishop, Gulab and Chadgura traded pieces on the abstract battlefield of a Latrones board they found in the basement. While the pieces were different than Chatarunga the rules were much the same. Surrounded by the rest of the squadron, they set up the pieces and took a few turns.

Now there was a strange tension between the two officers, mostly from Gulab.

“Just so you’re aware, you’re doing all the wrong things right now if you want to try to win this game,” Cpl. Gulab said. She was growing quite impatient. She could not believe what was transpiring on the board, and it was almost insulting to see it happening before her.

“I’ve only just moved a few pawns.” Sgt. Chadgura said quickly.

“Yes, yes, and they were terrible moves. Awful moves.”

Chadgura looked at the board. It was impossible to discern whether her expression conveyed disinterest or contemplation. She picked up the pawn she had just moved, looked back up at Gulab and overturned the piece on its square. “I’m not changing them. Your turn.”

Gulab picked up her Queen and moved it diagonally, stamping it down on the board as though she wanted the piece to go through the wood and drill into the floor.

“CHECKMATE.” She shouted. She tapped the queen on the square over and over.

“Oh. I did not notice that.” Chadgura nonchalantly replied.

Gulab sighed. “You can’t just move pieces at random without looking at what the opponent can do. You know how far pieces can move! I mean, I’m just,” Gulab shook her head and held her hand up to her forehead, pushing up her bangs, “What did I even set this board up for?”

“I assumed to have fun playing a game. Now I don’t know either.” Chadgura said.

Everyone in the room seemed to avert their gazes from the bed all at once, and they left its side and stood apart as though nothing awkward had happened. Gulab felt like a firecracker had gone off right beside her ear, and choked a little. All this time Chadgura had amicably played along with an innocent and forward attitude while Gulab nitpicked and yelled at her. She felt as though her eyes had been pulled into the sky to witness her own self from another angle. Her behavior was so stark and frightening. That was how she got when she played Chess with people these days; it was horrible, and she never seemed to become aware that she was doing it fast enough to stop herself. All the worst parts of her seemed to rise up in this one specific arena, whether she was watching games of Chess or playing them.

“Let’s just put the board away for now.” Gulab said, feeling uncomfortable with herself.

“I wanted to try to play. But I understand and am not unhappy with your decision.”

Gulab frowned. She did not feel particularly absolved by the clumsy phrase “not unhappy.” She did not like thinking she was so aggressive, but there was just something about Chess. There had been so much bound in it for her, and there still seemed to be so much bound in Chess. It represented something to her that it did to nobody else. There was an incongruity in her life whenever she played Chess — a question of ability, of intellect, and its meaning in her real world. It seemed always that her opponents got worse, and her life got no better. Chess was the arena where she once thought she could prove her value and define who she was.

Even thinking about it in those terms sickened her. Gulab turned from the board in shame.

Chadgura folded the set closed, and they put the pieces into niches carved on the side. It was a wooden briefcase-like set-top board, portable and fully self-contained. They found it in the basement of the cathedral while searching for things they could use. This time around they would need all the resources they could carry. They were only a single squadron. She had received a black uniform and a promotion, and was now billed as an elite KVW assault soldier for her performance in Matumaini. She supposed Chadgura had something to do with that. Around the room her squadron was arrayed before her, six other men and women under her command. They were dressed now in the muted green uniform of the territorial army as opposed to the black and red uniforms of elite KVW assault troops, or the red and gold of high KVW officers. She was in some ways excited to lead, but in others, quite confused.

Fighting with less than 10 souls at her side seemed like suicide. But Command had a mission for them to support Penance, and its mysterious parameters required this small group.

Aside from that they hadn’t told her anything about it, and Chadgura knew just as little.

Nobody seemed to have any questions or concerns. Everyone whiled away their time quietly. Gulab found the room around her now largely filled with blank faces, staring quietly into infinity. Despite the time she had spent with Chadgura, it was still difficult to understand their behavior. She understood Chadgura, to an extent. She knew the rumors that KVW troops had no emotion and knew no fear were not exactly true. They felt; they were still human.

However, she still found their stone-like composure a touch disquieting.

“Is something wrong with them?” Gulab whispered to the Sergeant.

“I don’t know. I can ask.” Chadgura said.

Before Gulab could intimate that she actually did not want Chadgura to ask anybody anything, and that perhaps this entire line of thought was very ill considered and ill timed, the Sergeant turned her head over her shoulder and singled out a man who looked a few years older than both of them, perhaps in his early 30s. He stood with his back to the wall and his hands in his pockets, and his sharp features and short brow made him appear somewhat disgruntled in comparison to Chadgura. He had cropped frizzy hair and skin the color of baked leather.

“Is something wrong, Private Akabe?” Chadgura asked. Gulab cringed and averted her gaze.

Private Akabe raised his eyes to the bed. “No, I do not believe anything is.” He spoke in a deep, drawling voice with little inflection to his words.

Chadgura looked over at Gulab again as if to say ‘See?’, in her own odd way.

Gulab shrugged. “I just don’t understand how they endure what is happening. They just stand there staring at the walls. I would feel a little offput by all this waiting around for orders.”

“I see.” Chadgura said. She turned her head over her shoulder again, and Gulab gesticulated wildly for a brief moment in protest, but again could not stop her from passing her innocent inquiries to the KVW soldiers in the room. “How do you normally endure circumstances such as this, Private Jandi? I like to think about stamps. What do you do?”

This time she addressed a young woman on the other side of the room. Private Jandi had her hair shaved close to her head, and her skin was dark enough to seem blue in the light from the window. Her striking lips and cheekbones gave her a somewhat glamorous appearance in Gulab’s eyes, a sort of mystique that was compounded by the disinterested expression that seemed fixed upon the features of her face. She spoke in a high-pitched but still dull tone.

“I read a lot of books. I sometimes play cards. Right now I’m merely focused on the mission. We could deploy at any time.” She said. “So I feel it is irresponsible to become distracted and use the time for leisure. However, ma’am, I trust my officers to carry themselves as they wish.”

Gulab cringed again, turning beet-red. She couldn’t believe she was a higher rank than this dead-serious lady. Of course, the KVW soldiers had their own little quirks despite their legendary implacability, but to Gulab there was still something eerie about the calm with which they took in their bloody business. Already she wished for something else to occupy her mind than the grim silence of the room and the view of the ruins out the easterly window.

But despite her Corporal’s mortified expression, Chadgura quickly brought another soldier into the unwanted Q&A, Private Dabo. He was a plump young man, with a round face and slightly widened body, and lots of curly hair. His face looked sagely and contemplative in a way, as though he always saw some truth written in the air. He reminded her of Chadgura in that he had soft features, so he felt more positive to Gulab than some of the other KVW soldiers. He had his submachine gun hugged to his chest. To him, Chadgura repeated the question — how did he endure the moments ticking away? He responded in a low voice.

“I just think about music. I used to sit around the tenement record player all day.”  He said.

“Ah. Is the music in your mind accurate to the music from the record?” Chadgura asked.

“I like to think so. I can keep the timing, and I can hum some of the tunes.” Dabo replied.

“I see; how wonderful. Sometimes I will also sit around, wondering what to do, and I ‘play back’ music I have heard before, in my mind; and I wonder if it is accurate to the sound the record player makes, or if my imagination might embellish the music.” Chadgura said.

There were a few knowing nods from people around the room. People started whispering and gesticulating to each other, as if carrying on the conversation by themselves. Meanwhile Gulab felt utterly dumbfounded, having had hardly any access to a record player in her life. She did, however, feel less embarrassed and less awkward. She marveled for a moment at how lively the room felt now that there seemed to be a subject, however strange, for all of the soldiers to share in. There was something about this show of humanity that put Gulab back into her good spirits. Growing calm now, and wanting to make up for her behavior from before, she flipped the chess case, split it open again, and invited Chadgura to take her pieces once more.

“Despite Private Jandi’s sage advice, I will accept.” Chadgura said, and laid down her king.

“I’m not gonna go easy on you,” Gulab grinned, “But I’ll try to restrain my killer instinct.”

* * *

Around noon Corporal Rahani’s crew took another turn in the defensive line. Across from then the southeast trenches were fully manned, and the rest only partially. Rain fell over the park, but only a bit heavier than before. Promises of a terrible storm had yet to prove true. Aside from recurring sounds of traffic and the sound of precipitation, the front was peaceful. Nearly asleep behind the shield of his gun, Adesh heard distant noisy wheels, tracks and engines, and wondered what was being delivered to the Cathedral this time. Another anti-aircraft gun? Additional tanks? An engineering detail? They had enough food and ammo, at least.

“What do you think that one is?” He asked. Nobody heard him — they were busy around a wooden board filled with holes, six holes in two rows, each of the holes filled with seeds. Nnenia and Kufu were playing a mancala game, where stones were taken from pits and sewn along the rows of holes. Adesh had tried watching the game but he had never liked mancala. Every region seemed to have its own rules and the particulars were difficult and confusing. Even now he didn’t know why they picked up seeds or how they captured pits. Nnenia and Kufu themselves didn’t really seem to know, at least to Adesh’s eyes, it all looked very random.

Eshe was busy giving everyone instructions and Rahani watched, amused by the crew.

Adesh turned from the board and looked over the gun and out over the park green and the road. Unable to make sense of the game he simply watched the empty landscape, taking in the rustling of trees, the vast green, and the long, empty road– He adjusted his glasses, and something caught his attention. Around the corner into the Cathedral square there was something large moving into the main road, and it was not moving alone.

At first he thought his mind was tricking him. Then he realized it had become his curse to receive responsibility in the midst of tragedy, the responsibility of those precious seconds before the bullets started to rain, where he could still shout and people might still live. He remembered that dive bomber coming down upon him, and he seized up in fear for a moment, but only the merest moment. Sure enough he soon found his voice to scream.

“Contact!” Adesh shouted. “Vehicles to the east, they’re protecting riflemen!”

Nnenia and Kufu overturned the mancala board standing up so fast. Seeds scattered across the floor from the pits. Corporal Rahani pulled his binoculars to his eyes and bit his lip; he confirmed a movement of men and a vehicle to the southeast, coming out to the two-way intersection on Penance at the park corner. From the corner trench, rifles and machine guns opened fire on the advancing men, but their targets quickly ducked behind the cover of their escort vehicle, a large, armored half-track. Unlike Ayvartan half-tracks the vehicle’s bed had high, well-armored walls and the hull had a long, sloped engine compartment and a well-armored driver’s compartment with small slits, making the driver a difficult target for the rifle troops. Machine gun and rifle fire simply bounced off the Nochtish Squire infantry carrier.

Once out unto the intersection, the half-track turned from the road and charged into the green from between the trees. It drove toward the cathedral at an angle to shield the men running along its left side. Atop the enemy half-track, a Norgler gunner opened fire on the trench. With each furious burst Adesh saw the dust kick up all around his comrades, and their heads ducking down. Good horizontal cover from the half-track protected the gunner too well from the fire he drew back. Within moments the machine would overrun the first trench.

“Everyone at their stations! Traverse, and load HE!” Corporal Rahani ordered.

Kufu and Nnenia turned the gun eastward, and lowered the barrel elevation. Corporal Rahani loaded the shell and punched it into the breech — it snapped shut so close to his hand Adesh thought it might take off skin. As they prepared to fire there sounded a loud bang from their right; their adjacent gun launched its first shell downrange and its crew prepared to fire a second. This first HE shell soared over the engine block and smashed the treeline, exploding a dozen meters away. Shrapnel and wooden debris burst out in all directions, but the machine did not even shake from the distant blast, and it left no corpses behind as it advanced.

Binoculars up, Corporal Rahani shouted, “Gun ready! First round downrange!”

Adesh pulled the firing pin, and the gun rocked, sliding back to disperse the recoil. Tongues of fire and smoke blew from the muzzle break. Adesh’s shell crossed the distance and impacted the turf several meters shy off the half-track’s right front wheel, punching a meter-wide hole into the green. Though not a direct shot, it was nonetheless deadly. Shrapnel from the explosion blew through the wheel and pockmarked the side of the Squire, and the pressure wave rocked the vehicle. The Norgler gunner fell right off the side of the half-track, and around him the fire from the trench resumed, and he was perforated by a half-dozen shots before he even hit the ground. While the rear track labored to keep the vehicle moving, the mangled front wheel spun uselessly — but the vehicle plodded on.

A man in the trench saw an opportunity and stood to throw a grenade at the half-track, but one of the men riding inside the half-track stood and took up the gun. He turned the fatal instrument and loosed a dozen shots into the trench. As the grenade left his fingers the man was punched through the chest by several shots and fell back. His throw went terribly wide, exploding harmlessly away from the trench and the vehicle. Adesh grit his teeth.

A second blast from their partner gun exploded directly behind the half-track, and shook it again, but did nothing to the track and merely rattled the new gunner for a few seconds. Shots from the snipers punched small holes into the driver’s compartment, but the machine trundled ahead regardless. Soon it would be nearly atop the trench, and its men would be able to clear it with grenades from near total safety, and then together advance on the second.

“Adjust angle and load AP! We’ll get them this time!” Corporal Rahani shouted, and pushed the AP shell into the breech. Nnenia and Kufu adjusted the gun based on Rahani’s instructions. Behind them, Eshe contributed by using his good hand to work more shell crates open with the crowbar. Adesh muttered a prayer to the spirits and pulled the firing pin.

There was a roar and a powerful kick from the gun. In an instant the AP shell crossed the park and punched through the engine block of the half-track, exploding close to the driver’s compartment. Within seconds the advancing half-track was a husk, its engine block a black smear on the turf, its driver vaporized, and the compartment fully open from the front. Machine gun fire through the gaping hole in the front cut through the survivors in the vehicle’s bed like fish in a barrel. Though the men running alongside the vehicle were mostly untouched by the blast, they had lost their moving cover, and hunkered down behind the bed.

From the trench several comrades rose up, and threw grenades at the husk aiming to hit the men behind. They had pistols and bayonets, and it seemed the skirmish was nearly decided.

“Good hit!” Corporal Rahani said. He looked through his binoculars, examining the remains of the husk, and then looked out unto the road. “Load HE, and let us put the fear–“

A small plume of fire and smoke rose suddenly in front of the outer trench, tossing dirt and grass into the air. Comrades in mid-charge were flung back and many were wounded by shrapnel. There was a sudden screaming of alert across the other trenches, and the gun crews atop the Cathedral steps hesitated from shock. Out into the two-way intersection crossed a pair of light tanks, their turrets fully turned toward the Cathedral — they had opened fire from around buildings before marching into the open. Behind them Adesh soon saw the noses of more Squire half-tracks slowly inching forward alongside more gray figures.

This was a full mechanized assault column heading toward them, not a probing attack.

The Corporal dropped his binoculars and shouted, “down, down against the gun shield!”

Not a second passed since Rahani spoke that two shells flew against the steps, recognizing the greater threat posed by the tank guns. One overflew them and smashed into the stone face of the cathedral, throwing down chipped rock atop the tarp erected over the gun. Another crashed at the foot of the steps and set shrapnel flying. Adesh heard the clinking of metal fragments against the gun shield, and he was shaken at first and found it hard to respond. But he collected himself — he could not afford this paralysis, not again. He huddled close to the gun, and Eshe and Nnenia crouched beside him as close as they could get for protection.

“Don’t fear it,” he said, out of breath, sweat dripping across his nose and lips.

Nnenia and Eshe nodded, staring grimly out over the park. Nnenia passed Rahani a shell.

Behind them the doors to the Cathedral swung open, and a stream of men and women with various weapons rushed out to the trenches, to re-man the line on the northeastern corner of the cathedral and reinforce the southeastern trenches upon which the vehicles were now advancing. A small crew pushed out the 45mm anti-tank gun that had been stuck on the pulpit and set it between the two 76mm guns. Corporal Rahani grimly welcomed the newcomers, and ordered his own crew to load and fire, aiming primarily for the enemy’s light tanks.

“Load AP,” Corporal Rahani shouted. He punched the shell into place in the breech.

Adesh pulled the firing pin; across the park, one of the tanks approaching the tree line went up in flames as the shell penetrated its thin frontal armor and exploded inside, sending its hatch flying through the air. A second tank charged quickly up to take its place, and a dozen men huddled behind the newly burning husk for cover. Sporadic mortar and sniper fire from atop the Cathedral crashed around the advancing Panzergrenadiers, but the armored figures of their moving vehicles and the smoking husks of their dead vehicles provided ample cover, and they were easily closing in on the first trench. Corporal Rahani loaded another AP shell handed to him by Nnenia, and while Kufu slightly adjusted the gun’s facing, the officer took his radio back from Eshe. He put in a call to their divisional command for support.

“This is Corporal Rahani on the Cathedral stronghold on Penance road reporting attack from enemy motor, armor, and infantry! I repeat, Penance road, Cathedral, under heavy attack! Requesting artillery support against the intersection on Penance road at the southeast corner of the Cathedral park! I repeat, artillery support against the southeast corner of Penance Cathedral Park!” Corporal Rahani shouted. He breathed heavily, waiting for a response.

In his hands the radio crackled. Rahani huddled with the crew, and Adesh listened in.

“Negative Penance, artillery is under tactical silence in order to support a spoiling mission underway. A relief mission for you will begin shortly. Hold out until then. Repeat: Artillery is under tactical silence. Hold out for reinforcement and relief. Spirits be with you.”

Two Squires on the intersection pushed forward along the road, and soon became four, and men began to hop the walls of their beds and deploy to the street, taking up positions, and organizing to charge; the one remaining tank crossing into the park green was also joined by two others. All of the tanks were lightweight and drove at the same pace as the half-tracks, boasting horseshoe-like shaped turrets of riveted armor and carrying small guns. Their turrets were set centrally atop flat-fronted boxy hulls. These were modernized M5 Rangers.

Soon as they were spotted, the enemy tanks were engaged by the gun line. Corporal Rahani ordered a shot downrange, and Adesh obliged. The AP shell crashed right in front of the lead tank. Almost simultaneously their partner gun fired, and a near-miss from its 76mm shell managed to blow out the front wheel on the lead tank, marooning it in the middle of the green. This did nothing to its gun. It traded for their 76mm shell with one of its 37mm shots.

At the sight, Adesh flinched and hid behind the shield. Again the shell crashed nearby, hitting the middle of the stone steps and forming a crater the size of a man’s torso. No shrapnel reached them, but the force caused their tarp to fall over and off the side of the steps, exposing them to rain. Smoke rose up before them. They were unhurt, but clearly soon to be outmatched.

Adesh felt a churning in his stomach — he girded himself again for the start of a real battle, praying to the Spirits for himself, for Nnenia, for Eshe, and for all their comrades.

 * * *

“Should we go out there?” Gulab asked.

“Not until we have orders from higher up.” Chadgura dispassionately replied. “Remember, we were sent here on a special mission. We will await special orders.”

Gulab heard boots along the ground as people in adjacent rooms awoke to the commotion and rushed down to do their part. She heard numerous people storming through the adjacent halls and down the stairs. Minutes later she heard artillery — there was a slight shaking loose of dust from the ceiling, and a pounding of shells on the ground and against the stones. Were they trading artillery blows out in the lawn? This must have been a full-fledged attack.

And yet her unit waited in place for several minutes, until specifically roused.

There was a knock on their door, and one of the Privates answered. She stepped aside, and from the hall a small woman approached the bed, and shook hands emphatically with Chadgura. She was a Svechthan, with short teal-blue hair and a dour expression that looked a touch unfriendly. Her uniform was dark blue, nearly black, part of the Svechthan Union forces training in Ayvarta. Gulab tried not to stare — the lady was over a head shorter than everyone and her rifle, a standard Ayvartan bundu, looked comically oversized for her. Svechthans were proportioned well for their adult size, but to Gulab they were still an unusual sight.

Tovarisch!” She declared, “I am Sergeant Illynichna. Orders have arrived for you.”

Gulab noticed somewhat of an accent in her voice when she started speaking Ayvartan. Nonetheless she had rather good pronunciation, and made good word choices.

“Thank you, Sergeant.” Chadgura said. “Please go ahead. We are listening.”

Sgt. Illynichna cleared her throat. “Since the 25th, the KVW has been using radio interception equipment mounted in half-tracks to gather intelligence on enemy positions within the city. We have gathered enough unencrypted short-range communications between various units to paint a clearer picture of their offensive preparations. Our mission will be to scout and disrupt those preparations to buy time. Any Questions before we continue?”

“You’re coming too?” Gulab asked. She was the only one with any questions.

“Of course I am. I’m from the Joint-Training Corps OSNAZ — special tactics.”

Gulab had no idea what that meant at all. She shrugged and looked unimpressed.

“Quit wasting my time duura!” Sgt. Illynichna said, calling her some insult she didn’t understand. The Svechthan girl produced a map of the southern district and laid it down over the bed. As a whole the squadron gathered around the bed to look at it, but Gulab found the symbols hard to discern. “Between Penance and Matumaini there were several industrial facilities that were fully evacuated. We believe Nocht will try to station their artillery in these areas, as well as use the relatively open terrain as a staging area for tank attacks. Their attacks along Penance and Umaiha will intensify in an attempt to pin us down away from the build-up areas. We must carefully scout Nochtish positions, then relay our findings so our artillery can bury them in fire. Hopefully a surprise saturation barrage will do the trick.”

“A sound plan. I am however remiss about using only a single squadron.” Chadgura said.

“It is necessary tovarisch!” Illynichna said. “We must take them by surprise. We will use a few tanks to hold back this assault on the Cathedral, and open up this road to the east, toward Matumaini,” she pointed out their route on the map, “but from there we must make our way quietly, like the arctic weasel. Strong head-on attacks on each position are not feasible.”

Gulab supposed that it was easier for a Svechthan to talk about stealth since they were in general so small, but she held her thoughts on that, for fear of further upsetting Illynichna.

Chadgura nodded, and together she and Illynichna led the squadron out. Down in the nave, Gulab saw people rushing out the door, and she saw the guns outside firing against the tree line and the edge of the green turf. The 76mm guns boomed incessantly, their crews in a fever. Enemy vehicles trundled forward from the road, covering for squadrons of men in thick dark gray jackets and gloves, the panzergrenadiers. A rising tempo of anti-tank, sniper, and mortar fire slowed the enemy mechanized forces. Rifle squadrons stationed in the Cathedral rushed out to the trenches in turns, and gathered around the spires and the steps.

Nocht improved their foothold on the intersection and the eastern side of Penance road, and their men assembled in the ruins and in the intact buildings. They began to open fire from across the road. This presence increased with each Half-Track allowed to park across the green. Norgler fire and mortars of their own had been deployed, and this sporadic fire punished the recrewing of the trenches. On both sides troops fell mid-run atop the asphalt and the green, to mortars and bullets, to explosive shells. It was a slowly-building mayhem.

“It will get worse if we don’t find that artillery. Let us move.” Chadgura said.

Gulab snapped out of her reverie and nodded grimly. She followed the two Sergeants out the back behind the Cathedral, where their half-track waited along with three Goblin light tanks. Before mounting the truck the squadron traded their rifles into a crate, and picked up short carbines with long, strangely thick barrel extensions provided by the Svechthan Sergeant. It was fed using magazines, of which they gathered many, throwing their own stripper clips into the crate with their old rifles.

“These are silent rifles, Laska carbines, made in my home country.” Sergeant Illynichna explained. “Smaller cartridge than a regular rifle, but useful for sneaking.”

Sgt. Chadgura lifted and toyed the small rifle, getting a feel for its weight and size.

“It is an invention of the Helvetians that we Svechthans tested to great results. They’re hard to manufacture, but worthwhile for special times like these. Its ammo is hard to manufacture too, so we cannot waste it.” Sergeant Illynichna added. “Hopefully it serves us well.”

“I believe it will. It is very easy to wield and aim.” Chadgura said.

Gulab looked down the sights. They felt a little small. Still, it was a pleasant weapon to hold.

Once everyone was armed, they hopped into the back of the half-track and waited for the tanks to form up in front of them. The trio of Goblins started across the left side of the Cathedral, facing their strongest armor to the southeast, and charging toward the corner trenches. The Half-Track did not follow them. Instead it drove directly north, crossing the green out unto the road and circling around the park to the east. They drove with the tree line and the fences on the northern edge for cover and moved carefully to eastern-bound roads.

Above them the sky grew slowly furious. Rainfall grew harsher, the drops larger and more frequent, the patter and tinkling of the rain working itself up to a drumming beat. Forks of light burned constantly within the heart of the blackening clouds, and distant, erratic thundering drowned out the trading of shells. Sergeant Illynichna grinned at the worsening weather.

“Going out in that is good, tovarisch. Harder to be seen and heard in the driving rain.”

Around the park the battle intensified to match that black, rumbling sky.

PenanceTankSkirmish

From the back of the half-track Gulab saw the tanks engaging. Across from the Cathedral, three Nochtish tanks had overtaken the first trench on the southeast and easily crossed it with their tracks, and the occupants were fleeing to the second trench line under fire from the tank’s hull-mounted machine guns. One tank was at the head of the enemy advance, a third was farther behind it, and a second was practically hugging its right track. Their machine guns saturated the green in front of them, and their 37mm guns fired incessantly on the Cathedral, smashing into the spires, hitting the dome, sending shells crashing around the gun line at the steps the Cathedral. Their advance was haphazard but swift and vicious.

But their sides were fully exposed. The Goblins were not seen until they had cleared the left wall of the Cathedral. They charged on the enemy in a staggered rank, each tank ten meters from the side of the next. The instant they left cover the three tanks braked and opened fire. Immediately they scored two hits – the engine compartment in the back of the lead enemy tank burst into a fireball, and its turret exploded from a second shot. These explosions sent chunks flying into a second tank to the right of the target, the shrapnel slashing deep into its turret and damaging the gun mantlet. Too wounded to continue, and perhaps having lost its gunner and commander, the second M5 backpedaled toward the trees and bushes for cover.

The Panzergrenadiers halted their advance in the face of this reversal, hiding behind the smoking ruins starting to pile at the edge of the green. Ayvartan forces pressed their advantage. Small contingents climbed out of their holes to engage the enemy. One Goblin remained in place and provided cover for rising trench troops; the other two broke from it, one headed directly for the road, its coaxial machine gun and cannon trained on the mechanized infantry, and the second hooking around the center of the green to chase the remaining tanks.

The KVW Half-Track stopped across the street from its connection out of Penance. They had the trees between them and the fighting. Only when the tanks had fully engaged the Panzergrenadiers and their vehicles on the road, and blocked their way farther upstreet, would it be safe for the Half-Track to cross. A Goblin tank crossed the green and drove unto the road, turning to face the enemy’s half-tracks and charging them. It opened fire while moving, perforating one of the half-tracks front to back with an armor-piercing shell. It exploded at the end of the bed, and its fuel tanks lit on fire from the violence. Panzergrenadiers on the streets hurried away, putting whatever metal they could between the Goblin’s machine guns.

Without warning a black plume erupted near the Goblin tank on the road, and the blast smashed the front wheels on its right track, paralyzing it in the middle of the road. Subsequent blasts rolled along the road, some so close to the Nochtish line that even the Panzergrenadiers started to run, and the half-tracks to back away. Shells fell by the dozen every minute. One of the Goblins was abandoned, its crew leaping from the hatch as a fireball engulfed the machine. The one stationary Goblin had its turret crushed by a shell, split open like a tin can, and its engine caught fire. Its slow movement back toward the Cathedral suggested people inside, still laboring in the flame. Men and women ran right back out of the newly-reclaimed southeast trench, leaving it to be smashed by the creeping artillery. All of a sudden the Ayvartan battle line was contracting into a circle formed by the closest trenches to the Cathedral.

Chort vozmi!” Illynichna cursed. “They’ve got their guns set up! Tell your driver to go! We must hurry and spot for our own tubes so we can counter-fire!”

Chadgura stuck her hand out the side of the bed through a hole in the tarp and signaled desperately. Up front the driver floored the pedal, and the Half-Track screamed across Penance and out to the connecting eastern road, putting several buildings between itself and the Panzergrenadiers and their vehicles. Gulab could not tell whether the rumbling and noise related to thunder or artillery. Both the fighting and the storm grew in intensity all at once.

* * *

Within the Cathedral a large radio set beeped and crackled, coming to life unbidden — the operator had become distracted with the battle raging outside the doors to the nave.

“All units report, urgent; Army HQ has lost contact with Battlegroup Commander. We cannot confirm whether it may be related to the storm. Have any units managed to make contact with the Commander within the last hour? Repeat, Army has lost contact with Battlegroup Commander. Commander’s unit was last reported to be part of a surveying mission near Umaiha and Angba. Relay any contact with the Commander back to Army signals. Repeat–“

* * *

NEXT Chapter In Generalplan Suden Is — Under A Seething Sky

The Battle of Matumaini II — Generalplan Suden

This chapter was made possible by the support of kind folks on my Patreon.

Please take a short survey as well if you are familiar with the series thus far.

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

In the midst of war, her mind was subconsciously pulled back to Home.

And she thought briefly of the mountains again.

But there was so much more to say about the Kucha.

Among the villagers of the Kucha mountain range in the Adjar and Dbagbo dominances, the penetration of socialism was always fairly minimal. Whereas the outside world praised the virtues of comrades who showed bravery, loyalty and wit in the Revolution, in the mountains the food delivery truck came every week and went every week, the hunters and loggers were not exactly unionized, and the villagers continued to talk of their own comrade, a folk hero whose adventures are taught to every child — Big Bearded Baaku.

It was said that his beard was so long he braided it like a woman’s braid, and he always dressed in a hermit’s robes. He lived outside of the villages, but he always shared his hunts, and he always planted a seed for every tree he logged for his cottage. He foiled many spirits and he commiserated with goblins and werehyenas, back in their own time. Every child knew of his tales of valor and strength, and at least for a time, every child wanted to follow in his footsteps. He was the heroic comrade of their own revolution, one recurring each year, the revolution of living in a place far removed, where nobody thought life could flourish.

Because of his big beard, the smallest child of the Kajari family was always convinced that the Kajari’s paternal grandfather was Big Bearded Baaku. He had returned to the village after many years of absence, tentatively welcomed by those he left behind. The Kajari child was struck by the appearance of this outsider, and always called him Baaku. Maybe he got lonely living outside and he finally settled with them! Maybe he had finally bested all his enemies and made good on all his bets and debts to the strange creatures! The Child was convinced, and told everyone in the village. Other family members grew a little exasperated with the child — oh what a flighty load, what a boisterous headache, what a strange and foolish child! A Child that loved to make up stories more than to run and fight other kids; that played chess with the elders rather than throw rocks with the boys; that covered up and wore shawls even in the Yarrow’s Sun.

The one appropriate thing the Child wanted to do was join the village’s hunts, and it was the one thing the Child could certainly not be allowed to.

For his part, the grandfather never dispelled this notion, however. He knew this Child was special. Each year, around the time of the hunt, despite his prowess in the field, despite his stature and his storied career in traveling, soldiering; he stayed behind with the small child as the men departed, and personally took charge of the child. He told stories, played games and made guarantees — “when you’re bigger and stronger, you will go hunt too. I will go with you! For now little one, focus on being good, like your friend Baaku!”

The Child sulked. “I want to go hunt — I’ll show everyone! I’ll catch the biggest Rock Bear!”

The Grandfather was patient. “You need to get bigger before you can fight a Rock Bear! You’re too small, the Bear will walk right past you and not even know you want to fight!”

The Child shouted. “I want to be as big as Baaku and show up everyone in the village!”

The Grandfather laughed. “Someday you’ll have a beard as big as mine, big enough to braid, you will see. But don’t hurry to grow up just yet. Even your brothers had to wait.”

The Child would sulk, but the Grandfather would take the child’s long hair and braid it, in a thick, long, scrunchy braid, and the novelty of this would be enough to still the child for a time, until the next story, and the next sulk. In this way they carried on for many years. 

This all came back to her, in the back of her mind, in a black and white mix of fear, fantasy, shame, and a little burning flame of determination she had yet to rediscover.

Z-Companie Advance, Matumaini Northwest

First Sergeant Zimmer was in a fugue state after the rout of the defenders at the Matumaini and 3rd intersection, his expression more alive than any of his men had ever seen it, with his eyes glinting, his teeth bared in a manic smile. Most of his platoons had survived, and his company still contained over a good hundred fighting men. He personally volunteered himself and his men to Captain Aschekind, whose silence he took as an implicit acknowledgment. Pistol in hand, Zimmer immediately gathered Z-Companie sans a few stragglers and pushed through up the diagonal road in force, a single M3 Hunter assault gun following in his wake.

At first the company pursued an under-strength platoon of Ayvartan runners, twenty or thirty people running for their lives. They hardly shot back, and when they did it was a quick pistol shot, more an excuse to look over their own shoulders than an attempt to fight. Ducking under and around rubble the communists tried to escape pursuit in the ruins, but slowly the territory cleared, and the treacherous, jagged roads and heaps of rubble gave away to clear pavement, largely untouched buildings and, broad alleys and long streets in proper order. Flight turned to desperate fighting retreat. Now these men and women ran over open terrain, and they had to duck into cover and shoot back more in earnest. Despite renewed effort it was a one-sided fight. Grenadiers took their pick of them, clipping heads and puncturing bellies from a hundred meters away at their leisure. Any chance the communists took to run was a chance they took to die, and when they took cover the Grenadiers gained on them.

This one-sided carnage inspired many of the Nochtish men. Zimmer seemed utterly absorbed in it. The 1st-Sgt. shouted and shouted, firing his pistol ahead, calling for targets with grizzly zeal, ushering his men into a frenzied run. Machine gunners held their fire, and the assault gun was utterly quiet as the riflemen and their commander charged. They chased the retreating enemy until they unknowingly straddled the next of the communist’s defensive lines on Matumaini. They received only seconds worth of transition after crossing this invisible threshold.

Three kilometers up from the intersection, a lone bullet whizzed by Zimmer from a nearby rooftop, and struck a man to his right, perforating his neck. He dropped to the floor, clutching his wound in disbelief, pressing against the gushing blood with his eyes drawn wide; similarly stunned but much more alive Zimmer quickly hid behind a thick steel bin. Scrambling for an exit, he aimed for a restaurant door a few meters away and smashed off the knob with desperate automatic fire. Ahead of him the street awoke with gunfire, and bullets started to fly the company’s way from just across the alley. Light machine guns and submachine guns were deployed inside the building directly before them, overlooking their approach. Windows flashed an angry orange-red, and automatic fire covered both sides of the street.

Z-Companie had run gleefully into the next bastion of the enemy, but now lead flowed in opposition to them, and they were not so eager to charge. Zimmer’s men scattered to both sides of the street, huddling behind trash cans, hydrants and mailboxes, squeezing against doorways and in alleys. From behind his own cover, Zimmer called for backup. He waved his hand to signal his men into the building, and more than a dozen complied, rushing from cover and throwing open the remains of the bullet-ridden doors. Zimmer threw himself from behind his metal box and crossed the threshold with rifle bullets falling at his coattails.

Inside the restaurant most of the seating was fixed around the edges of the building, so many of his men had to squat behind or lay atop long bench seats bolted along the walls and their long windows. Men huddled against every surface that hid them from the communist’s impromptu stronghold. Zimmer had only centimeters of wall obscuring him. He shouted at his men to fight, and they shattered glass with the butts of their rifles and targeted the windows and roofs, but the communists had perfect angles on the restaurant. While nochtish fire hit brick instead of window and bounced off the carved overhangs blocking the roof, the restaurant gained terrible priority with the enemy, and was immediately saturated with gunfire. Every sliver of flesh that was not fully covered, elbows and shoulders and legs ill considered by cowering grenadier, were scraped and pierced and grazed by the storm. Flashing bullets ricocheting in the interior made the place look candle-lit. Not a soul dared shoot back.

Hiding in a corner, against a sliver of concrete between two windows and only barely out of the storm that was consuming the rest of the building and street, Zimmer produced his radio and called the M3 assault gun bringing up the rear. He peered fitfully out the window whenever the gunfire slowed, sneaking glances at the enemy’s positions and finding them almost exclusively settled on the upper floors. The enemy building and his position in the restaurant were separated only by an over-broad alleyway that allowed cars and delivery trucks to park beside the restaurant and unload goods and passengers – perhaps twenty meters at most.

“Six-V, high explosive on the building just ahead of the restaurant!” He shouted. “Concentrate on the upper floor, the two right-most windows from your vantage!”

These orders jolted their armor awake. At once the M3 Hunter drove in from the side of the restaurant and veered slightly to the west to face its ill-positioned gun. Zimmer, pressed against the wall, felt a light rumbling of the gun, and peeked from cover to watch the destruction. A well-placed HE shell burst through one of the offending windows on the uppermost floor and shattered the room, collapsing the ceiling from under a pair of machine gunners on the roof, and the floor they were meant to land on after, burying them two floors down in rubble. A fire did not start, but smoke obscured all of the upper floors. Following the blast the building and with it the entire street had gone silent, and Zimmer shoved a small group of his men out the broken windows of the restaurant. They crossed the alley and climbed into the building, under the watchful presence of the assault gun, and minutes later radioed in an all-clear.

Zimmer was not keen to leave his restaurant, and he ordered the rest of the men out and ahead. From the doorway, he raised his binoculars and watched his advance slow to a crawl. His men crossed the street in front of the suppressed stronghold, and stepped across the adjacent alleyway. They were anxious and they walked slow as crawling terrapins, as though slowly inching across open street and road would grant them stealth against the eyes of their enemies. It did not — sniper fire killed two men in the middle of the road, and again the rest scattered to a sudden roaring of rifles and submachine guns from the windows and roof of the next nearest building. Grenades flew out from the high windows and blew up in the street, raining cutting fragments on the startled men. Zimmer’s Grenadiers still in the previous stronghold rushed to the side of the building, to fire from the windows across the alley to the new communist position, trading rifle fire across 20 meters of space.

“Maneuver around the building!” He shouted from a window, urging the laggards across the road from him and from the fighting to move forward and engage. Startled and anxious the men stole along the street to the two alleyways across the street from the new stronghold. Around the building the din of gunfire started to intensify as the bulk of his men joined.

The 1st-Sgt. could hardly see the fighting now, and he rushed from the window of the restaurant, begrudgingly crossing the alleyway and into the building ahead, still hot and suffused with the stench of smoke. He ran through the interior halls, and found the place had once been some kind of office, and hid around the corner from the same men he had shared the restaurant with — sans a few, depleted in the interim. He found the situation better here. Sturdy walls and spaced-out windows gave clear lanes of fire and complete protection that allowed the men to exchange fire calmly. Through an adjoining hall, Zimmer could see out to the street stretching in front of the building, and his men pinned down across the road. He hailed the M3 gun on the radio, urging it forward again to help break the deadlock.

“Fire on the uppermost floor, third window from right, Six-V.” Zimmer ordered.

He observed the assault gun driving past his vantage to the street, and once out of his sight, he heard its tracks turning and awaited the rumbling of the gun. He peered from his corner and watched for the enemy’s destruction. He felt shaking across the ground and through the walls and with glee he heard the tell-tale noise of a nearby cannon shot. Zimmer shouted under the roar of the gun for his men to open fire on the windows. Riflemen exposed themselves at once and shot fiercely back at their aggressors, waiting for the blast to throw them from on high. But there was no explosion, no shell flying at those damnable windows. From the opposing building the communists retaliated in force, opening fire on him unabated, forcing his men back into cover again when he expected they would be able to take advantage.

Zimmer turned from the side hall of the building, and looked down the adjoining hall to the street. He saw smoke trailing in, its source just out of his field of vision.

“Assault Gun Six-V do you copy? Six-V?”

There was no response on the radio.

“Hold down here!” Zimmer shouted to his men in the midst of the gunfire, and he sidled along the wall into the adjoining hall, and snuck out toward the front of the building.

Peering out to the street, he found the M3 Hunter smoking and burning from the gun mantlet and from an open hatch atop the hull. He could not see the machine’s wounds from his vantage, and its hull and the smoke drawing from it blocked his view of the alleyway ahead, so he could not see where his maneuver platoons had gone. Then above the gunfire he heard tracks moving forward — he held a fleeting hope for the M3 reviving.

From an alleyway ahead, across the street, a shell flew and exploded on the side of the office building. Zimmer nearly fell, the walls and ground shaking around him. He saw a flash and a brief wave of pressure blowing at the opposite end of the hall. Smoke started to stream out of the building. He turned and ran toward the men he had left, and suddenly he found himself exposed, a massive hole blown into the structure. Around the dire corner there were men at his feet, burnt, concussed, crushed under the collapse. Zimmer paid them less attention than he did to the street outside. Like a revelation from God, the hole punched so abruptly into the building offered him a view of his maneuver platoons splayed across the streets and alleys — and a roving green hulk driving from a nearby alley. Never had he seen such a large tank, three and a half meters wide, three meters tall, and perhaps seven meters long. This behemoth had ambushed and crushed the exposed Z-Companie from between the buildings. There was a machine gun in front of the hull, still firing relentlessly upon the wounded remnants of his men, and one coaxial to the main gun on the turret, turning and turning.

When the thick chevron turret fully sighted him, Zimmer stood framed by the rubble, weak-kneed, defeated, staring at the communists on the high windows of the building before him. Feebly he drew his pistol, and the roar of the tank’s gun was the last thing he ever heard.

* * *

Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — 1st Vorkampfer Rear Echelon

Luftlotte bombing had taken a disastrously heavy toll on the buildings of Bada Aso’s south district, but Von Sturm’s staff found a fairly feasible place for a headquarters, quite far from the front line on the southeastern edge of the city, close enough to the green fields on the edge of the hilly Kalu to smell the wind-blown scent of lillies. Thankfully the stench of powder and burning had been blown out by that same wind long before the Grenadiers got there.

An old restaurant building stood, untouched, in the midst of a block of buildings completely squashed by explosives, smashed down to their foundations and left as bleach-gray holes in the ground. Corps staff let their imagination run wild and thought the restaurant was a lucky spot, an omen. There were five ruined buildings ringing the restaurant, and across the street from it three more ruins completed the formation. The main road parallel to the restaurant was splintered and cracked and trucks driving over it teetered and shook as their wheels rose and fell with the terrain. The horses, of which there many more than trucks, tottered over the ruins with a step more confident, but the wheels on their wagons received an awful violence atop the ragged earth. More than one shattered box, its precious contents spilled, lay forgotten on the sides of the road, fallen from the backs of weary trucks and rocking wagons.

But they were driving, and they were cantering, and the war machine was slowly shifting into position. Towing anti-tank guns and artillery guns, food wagons, the few cargo trucks and the many horse-drawn wagons of the Grenadiers and the Cissean infantry were making progress on linking their forward units to much-needed supplies. By nightfall, Nochtish generals predicted they would have three major artillery positions, five established forward bases, numerous roads open to their panzers and personnel vehicles, all of them ready along the edges of the central district, waiting to pounce on the heart of the communist defense in the valuable city center. They expected that by the 30th Nocht would have full control.

“Perhaps if that map is meant to depict a fantasy land!” Von Drachen laughed.

He regarded all of the planning maps on the table as some kind of elaborate joke. People accused him of having strange humor, but he thought no humor could be stranger than the thought of taking this city in a week. Everyone stared at them and him, deadly serious. Staff crowded the planning table, coddling General Von Sturm as he explained his ambitions for the attack on the city. Behind them, seven women in gray skirt suits had established a communications station, spanning the length of a wall, and handled all contact with the Vorkampfer and the 6th Grenadier, along with what little radio traffic Von Drachen’s Blue Corps generated. During the silence at the table that followed Von Drachen’s remarks, the room was filled with chatter, flicking of switches, the whining and scratching as signals were adjusted.

“Von Drachen, have you anything actually productive to say?” Von Sturm asked. “You’ve sent your entire staff god knows where and instead of talking to them I’m subjected to more of you, so I ask then, have you put any modicum of thought into how to proceed with this operation? Around this table we’re trying to plan a major offensive across the week. Can you contribute?”

Von Drachen smiled. “As a matter of fact, I have a suggestion to make! You see, I don’t believe in leaving things up to raw data. It would be prudent to ask the men themselves what they believe they most need at this pressing moment to carry out their objectives.”

He turned and tipped his hat toward a young woman standing near the signals equipment. She was almost as tall as he was, quite tall for a lady, and she had a saccharine demeanor, always a smile, very energetic. She had a small nose and big green eyes and short brown hair. Fluffy purple pom poms dangled from her earrings, which were surely not to regulation. Her name, if Von Drachen remembered it correctly, was Helga, Chief Signals Officer Helga Fruehauf. She smiled graciously, and flipped a few pages on a clipboard when prompted to speak. Her voice was bubbly but her pronunciations and pacing when speaking were very precise.

Von Sturm grunted. “Fruehauf, any trend in the reports you’ve collected?”

Fruehauf stuck out her chest proudly. “Over the course of the 300 radio comms that have thus far been processed, we’ve heard an overwhelming amount of calls for artillery and air support against targets along Matumaini and 3rd, the Umaiha riverside, and Penance Road. Direct fire support from Assault Guns has been committed in only limited amounts, and indirect fire support of any amount seems to be of pressing concern to our field commanders.”

Von Sturm rolled his eyes, elbows against the table, his fingers steepled under his chin.

“Oh great, indeed, I shall heed the sage voices of our men as they quail and holler about bombing targets they’ve already captured and killing again men they’ve beaten. This would have been useful information to know hours ago, I guess!” He sarcastically replied.

Fruehauf bowed her head a little and looked like a scolded child.

Von Drachen cleared his throat. “Well, you did tell them not to bother you, hours ago.”

Von Sturm sighed. “That’s not my point you blathering beak-nosed idiot!”

Von Drachen quirked his eyebrow and raised his hand to his nose.

“Planning over those maps appears, in my experience, to be solipsistic.” He replied. “It is my opinion our men would move faster and more confidently if they knew a good gun or a plane could be counted on. This is information that we know from having spoken to men who are actively viewing the battlefield — a great boon of the modern age, if you ask me. I’m not promising that such things would have a marked or visible impact, as it is not in my nature to promise things; but clearly, it would be doing something in the here and now, and that seems more prescient to me than the divination ritual you’ve got going with these cartographers.”

Around the table several of Von Sturm’s staff officers sneered at this characterization.

“They’ve got the assault guns! And we lost our organic air support.” Von Sturm said, rubbing his own face. “So good luck getting them a plane. I’ll release an extra platoon of assault guns, and I promise you, Von Drachen, those of us who are actually working, and actually thinking about this operation,” he eyed Fruehauf and Von Drachen pointedly for emphasis, “those of us, we are focusing on how best to deploy our artillery for its maximum effect. That is what the data you so derisively refer to has been deployed toward, and that is one of the reasons for the maps you have taken great pleasure in joking about.”

“Ah, I think it is my turn now to quibble over your missing my point!” Von Drachen said amicably. “You see, this is only an example, and I believe there is a wider lesson you failed to–“

Von Sturm covered his face with both of his hands. “Messiah’s sake, shut up Von Drachen!”

While the bickering ricocheted from one side of the table to another, a young woman conspicuously stood from the radio table, and crept shyly across the room toward Fruehauf, whispering something into her ear. The Signals officer, in turn, crept toward Von Sturm’s side of the table, and waited uneasily for him to stop shouting and acknowledge her. With a heavy sigh, and after about a minute of berating the room, he finally did call to her.

“What is it now, Fruehauf? I thought I said not to bother me with minor reports.”

“Sir, I’m sorry, but we are receiving erratic reports from units along the south-central sector.”

Von Drachen perked up from the stony, anhedonic face he made through Von Sturm’s shouting. A strange grin stretched ear to ear across his face. “Erratic how, my dear?”

Fruehauf continued to address Von Sturm as though Von Drachen was not there. “Since a few minutes ago, we’ve been receiving non-contact confirmations from various front-line regiments, who have lost their forward platoons and companies across the byways of Matumaini, trying to link up the various arteries expanding from the intersection on 3rd. They attribute these to stiffening enemy resistance. Some are reporting tank units attacking.”

“You could’ve just said the last line. No need to be so dramatic.” Von Sturm replied. “Release the anti-tank gun platoons from the regiments as quickly as possible and have them directly engage. Ayvartan tanks are no match for an AT gun of any size.”

Fruehauf nodded. “I shall have my teams pass along those orders.”

The Chief Signals Officer sat on the table by her other girls, and communications were feverishly reestablished and passed along. Von Drachen watched as for the first time, Von Sturm seemed to put away his maps and develop an interest in news from the front.

Matumaini 4th, 42nd Rifles Rear Echelon

Fighting along Matumaini had become brutal across the late afternoon. In a few hours the sky would be dark. As the enemy pushed into the 3rd Battalion area, Corporal Chadgura, Gulab and the remainder of the 3rd Platoon were sent farther back, almost out to Sese street at the edge of the central district. Nominally they were there to “refit” but it seemed that reinforcement was not forthcoming. This “refitting” took place in the middle of a main road and in two surrounding alleyways, were the leaderless remnants of the 42nd Rifles’ 2nd Battalion waited. Gulab stood with her back to a supply truck on the edge of the road, and Chadgura stood out in the middle of the car road and exchanged brief words with people going to the front. Everything around Gulab was quiet, and she was shaken by the stillness.

In that moment of stark silence that followed the chaos before, Gulab’s head felt like it housed a beating heart. Everything hurt, from her flesh, to her thoughts.

She cast glum eyes at the Corporal, who herself cast a wan, empty look up the street.

Corporal Chadgura had saved her life; were it not for her Gulab would be lying in the intersection with so many of her comrades. And yet, the fact that Chadgura had nothing to say about that, nothing on her face, no the tiniest glint of pity in her eyes when Gulab peered into them — it unsettled her deeply. She wanted to know what would be made of her for her failure. She needed a reprimand or a dismissal, to allow her to carry on.

It seemed from Corporal Chadgura nothing was forthcoming. There was painful silence.

Then there was a low rumbling and a labored metal clipping noise.

Gulab snapped her head up, startled by the sound of the tracks. Her head filled with images of the Nochtish assault guns that had devastated the carefully-laid defenses on the intersection, and she heard the cannons and smelled the smoke and iron. Her body shook.

Corporal Chadgura raised her hand and waved to the north. Gulab exhaled ruefully.

A column of vehicles approached them. There were eight heavy infantry-carrier half-tracks with the KVW symbol — the Hydra — from the Motorized Rifle Division. Between them they carried a whole Company, 200 soldiers, 25 and a commander in each vehicle, two vehicles to a platoon. It was handy, though the vehicles themselves were lightly armored and barely armed with a light machine gun at the top, shooting over the driver’s compartment. None of the vehicles had their tarps on, so Gulab could see all the people inside, all wearing the same dour expression as Corporal Chadgura. Behind them followed a tank, though Gulab had never seen its like before, it was so large. The Half-Tracks drove a little ahead of the refitting area, and carefully parked in alleyways and around intersection corners.

Black and red uniformed soldiers dropped out of the half-tracks in organized ranks, carrying rifles of a different pattern than Gulab was used to. They were not bundu rifles, because they had a box magazine under them, and the wood had a black tint, and they were thicker, shorter. The KVW troops deployed with precision, striding confidently down Matumaini and toward the fighting still ongoing. Two platoons forward, side-to-side in a rank that covered both streets, with one platoon following — a triangle formation. One platoon was in reserve, and these men and women stood silently along with the survivors of the 42nd Rifles’ 1st Battalion.

Meanwhile the Tank drove to the middle of the refit area and waited, cutting its engine.

A man clad in red and gold approached Cpl. Chadgura, and he saluted her, and she saluted back. His sharp and prominent facial features, a strong nose, thick lips, a heavy brow, and narrowed eyes, conveyed a grimmer expression than seen on the other KVW soldiers, but Gulab surmised this was not his own doing. Chadgura’s own dull expression in comparison was a product of her softer features. When the man spoke tonelessly she knew him to be the same as the Corporal.

“Corporal Chadgura, Command has called for the counterattack to begin.” He said.

“Yes sir. What role has been assigned to me? I wish to participate in the battle.”

The KVW Lieutenant craned his head to give the refitting area a brief look.

”I’d say you have about a platoon’s worth of good soldiers. Leave behind any who are even slightly wounded. They needn’t expose themselves to further harm. I am putting the Ogre tank at your disposal; lead it around the alleys and buildings in a surprise attack against Matumaini 3rd.” He pressed a portable short-range radio into Corporal Chadgura’s hands. “This will allow you to communicate with the tank. The crew is fresh and will need your support.”

Corporal Chadgura saluted again. “Yes Lieutenant. I have experience with this.”

“The Motherland counts on you comrade, may you be guided to victory.”

Chadgura left the man’s side, and ambled toward the 3rd Platoon in the alley. Gulab thought she was heading straight for her. She had overheard all of the conversation and had it clear as day — she was coming over to tell Gulab to round up the wounded and leave. She herself had been hurt in the fighting, and Chadgura knew this. From the moment the Corporal stepped into the alleyway however Gulab was determined to fight. Her heart was racing, but she would not accept being either dead weight or an afterthought left in the refitting area.

“Permission to speak, ma’am!” She shouted immediately at the Corporal.

Corporal Chadgura blinked. “You don’t need permission to talk to me.”

“Ma’am!” Gulab saluted stiffly and raised her voice. “With all due respect, I understand that I have not acquitted myself to the standards of excellence that are expected of a socialist comrade in this most esteemed Territorial Army! I have been mildly injured and I have become distracted! But I have found within myself a terrible fury toward the imperialists, and I understand now the stakes we face! I wish only to ask you for a second chance! I wish to impress upon you in the strongest terms that I am a capable warrior who will prove invaluable to you on this dire day! In the mountains of the Kucha I hunted deadly Rock Bears with the men of my tribe, and though at first I did not fully understand nor respect my prey I came to learn its strength and defeated it, and proved myself to my ancestors! I wish for you to give me the same second chance that my Grandfather did, so I may amend my earlier mistakes! Thank you for listening and considering me, Corporal! I hope my words speak true to you Corporal!”

Her tone had risen almost to a shriek and tears welled up in her eyes.

She delivered her speech, and saluted again after a few seconds of utter silence.

Corporal Chadgura blinked again, twice. She rubbed her eyes a little. Everyone left in the 3rd Platoon was staring silently at Gulab. Gulab began to shake a little, but held her stiff and awkward salute. She avoided the Corporal’s blank gaze. Her story was a touch embellished.

“It was not my intention to dismiss you. I apologize for upsetting you, Private Kajari. I should have been more open with you; but I have a latent anxiety toward communication.”

Corporal Chadgura saluted back. She raised her voice, and it sounded oddly hollow and forced, a poor attempt to be emphatic. “I think of you as a valuable comrade, Private Kajari.”

Everyone else in the Platoon looked confused. Now Gulab just felt like a bully.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Gulab muttered, bowing her head low.

Corporal Chadgura clapped her hands once as though she wanted to hear the sound of it.

“I have not forgotten that you are part of my command cadre, Private Kajari. I’d like you to help me quickly form an ad-hoc platoon, and to send the wounded on their way.” She said.

Gulab felt a pang of guilt. Of course; that was why Chadgura was approaching her all along. Feeling ashamed of her insecurities and embarrassed by the show she had put on in front of the Platoon, but putting it all temporarily aside to perform her work, Gulab helped the Corporal gather volunteers for the ad-hoc platoon. She rushed from person to person on one side of the street, explaining briefly that they were following the tank to perform a flanking attack, and would not suffer the brunt of enemy fire. This characterization of the mission appealed to several people, but many were still too shaken or wounded to participate. Fifteen minutes later Gulab and Chadgura had gathered about 35 people in three squadrons around the tank.

“Congratulations, you are the 3rd Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon.” Chadgura said in a dreary voice.

She clapped her hands twice this time in front of her face.

A KVW staff aide in a skirt uniform helped pull a crate over to the new platoon. They deposited their bolt-action Bundu rifles, trading them for submachine guns with drum magazines. For the squad leaders, the Corporal, and Gulab, new rifles were procured, fitting the KVW’s odd new pattern. Much to Gulab’s surprise, this new rifle was automatic. Corporal Chadgura explained the action briefly — a switch on the side for automatic or trigger-pull fire, and an option to press the trigger along the lowest edge to trigger the automatic fire immediately. She fired off an entire 15-round magazine into an empty window nearby to demonstrate its capability.

“This is a Nandi carbine. Be careful not to waste ammunition. Fire in short bursts.”

Chadgura briefed the squad leaders on more than just the new rifles — with a map of the Southern district they quickly drew up the best way to sweep around the buildings. Gulab stood with the Corporal as the squad leaders took amicable command of their troops. Once everyone was ready to move the Ogre started its engine, and with Corporal Chadgura at the head the assault platoon got on its way. Gulab marched alongside the Corporal, out of the refit area and down the street, a kilometer behind the KVW’s advance back into the embattled Matumaini. They marched with two squadrons forward, the Tank and the Command Cadre in the center, and a squadron trailing behind. The KVW seemed to have a fondness for Triangles.

“Up ahead we will making our first detour.” Cpl. Chadgura said. She raised her radio to her ear and called the same command into it for the benefit of the tank crew.

First detour point was a long alleyway between two small tenement buildings that would lead them west. Chadgura ordered the tank ahead to start clearing the path. Slowly and brutally the Ogre forced its way through, smashing a long wound on both walls at its sides with its armored track guards and breaking through a separator at the end with its sheer weight and strength. It hardly needed to push against the brick wall to topple it. Having smashed into a broad courtyard, the tank stopped, waiting for the rifle squadrons to catch up. Awed by the size and power of this strange tank, the platoon hurried, all the while stealing glances at the machine’s handiwork as they crossed the alley. From the courtyard, they would smash into a long alley and push their way south. They were a few hundred meters from the road.

Before they got going, the Corporal extended a hand to Gulab, gently slipping her fingers between Gulab’s own and guiding her toward the Ogre. She gestured toward it.

“We must climb aboard the tank to help direct it, Private Kajari. This is called riding desant.”

Gulab nodded nervously. Corporal Chadgura helped boost her unto the track, and then she climbed unto the back and knelt behind the turret. The Corporal followed, easily climbing the tank, first pulling herself up the tracks, then behind it, over the engine block. She stood confidently, with one hand bracing herself on the turret and another on her radio. Gulab loaded her rifle, and got herself ready to protect the Corporal should it become necessary. She felt a rumbling from the bottom of her shoes and up her legs, a constant vibration from the tank’s booming engine behind them and wide, thick tracks beneath them. The Ogre pushed ahead of the platoon again, tearing down another separator wall and exposing the long alley between the tenement buildings along Matumaini’s western street.

Gulab felt the vibrations of metal transferring to her body. Warm streams of smoke periodically rose from exhaust points on the back of the tank, and Gulab tried not to breathe it in. The smoke was grayish-white and a little smelly but easy enough to avoid by sticking to the center of the tank and hugging the turret. In the relative safety of the alleyways the platoon and the tank frequently traded places in the lead, and Chadgura stood more often than she probably would in battle. Gulab stayed on her knees, peeking around the side of the tank frequently, practicing by aiming her new rifle at things. She felt anxious and tense.

Every building they passed was quiet and desolate. Gulab had never been in a big city before. To her, the alleyways were like a maze and even the broad intersection they had fought to defend was akin to a cage. In her village houses were separated by dozens of meters of green rising and falling around the dirt roads. She lived on a low peak and yet she could see the whole mountain range from her house. Comparatively Bada Aso felt flat and tight, though it seemed to curve subtly, so the visible horizon was nearer than she thought it should be. It did not need to fog to cloud her vision, for there always seemed to be something in the way. And yet it felt even less alive than the open mountain. Most of the people had gone. If there was an innocent soul remaining in these tight, gloomy buildings and streets, it had her pity.

That place of her youth was not this place. Then again, she too, was not the same.

Still it made her wonder about the impetus that brought her here.

And the impetus which continued to drive her to fight.

Other people might have noticed something in Gulab’s eyes, but Corporal Chadgura did not. She was absorbed with her map, and with her radio. She called in commands, pointed out walls which could be pulverized, buildings which could be driven through. The Ogre smashed through a tenement wall, ran over an entertainment room for the tenants that had been stripped of its television but not the chairs; they smashed through a small desolate infirmary where only educational posters about the stomach and lungs remained to denote it as such; as though walking through sheets of paper the tank smashed through wall after wall, with the infantry following in its wake, looking around themselves tensely as if in an alien land. When it finally came out the other end, it waited, until the infantry overtook it and led the way through a side-street, and into another alleyway. Distantly they heard guns and rifles going off, the booming of mortar shells, and the thundering of hundreds of stamping feet. Their objective neared.

“Everybody keep your eyes peeled!” Chadgura shouted, insofar as she even could. “We will soon turn and thrust into the belly of the enemy force. I will be calling in targets for the tank. Space your formation, and selectively target enemies threatening the tank.”

Riding atop the monster of a tank, Gulab wondered what even could threaten it.

She felt utterly superfluous, and yet, still endangered. What was her small strength, to the thundering blows of two gigantic armies? She had seen it in the intersection, and she felt it now, in these desolate concrete halls overseen by the gray, darkening sky. She felt she had caught a glimpse of war’s true magnitude, and it unsettled her convictions deeply.

Matumaini 3rd, 6th Grenadiers Advance

Machine guns roared from a clinic building at the end of a small byway half a kilometer from Matumaini. On a prominent balcony the gun, set on an anti-aircraft swivel, easily cast lead across the streets, a steady stream covering the approaches to the building. Soon as the shooting began the landsers of the platoon dispersed into nearby buildings, beating down doors for access and setting themselves up on windows, trying to pick off the shooter from safety. But the advantage of high ground against the flat buildings surrounding it, and the thick concrete balustrade of the balcony, made this little gun position a virtual stronghold at the end of the cul de sac. Now the men in buildings could not leave — they would be picked off at the doorways!

“We’ll sneak up on it.” Voss whispered to his men. “We’ll go through the back, cross the street, and break into the clinic from the alley. We’ll disable it from inside.”

“You don’t think they’ll have someone posted there?” Kern asked.

“I’ll take my chances with a few riflemen on a window. Better than big guns on a balcony.”

Kern had no rebuttal to that. He followed Voss and his two original companions from the struggle on Matumaini, Hart and Alfons, out the back of the building. They smashed one of the windows rounded out the back to a tight space between the building and a brick fence, running along the buildings and intended to cut the byway off from other blocks. Kern and his new squadron crept along the back of the building, and positioned themselves at the furthest end still covered by the building, standing out of sight in a line at the edge of the street. They were aligned with the clinic’s own little alley, and needed only to run out to it.

There were about twenty or twenty-five meters of separation between their alley and the clinic across, and the gun could easily angle on them while they ran.

“I’ll go first. If the machine gun gets me, don’t try it. Just back off and call for help.” Voss said.

Hart and Alfons nodded their heads. Kern kept quiet. The landsers parted as much as they could between the walls and allowed Voss to the front. He knelt, and looked out unto the street and over to the balcony. Bursts of machine gun fire erupted against targets out of sight. Kern saw Voss counting with his fingers. Moments later he found whatever cue he had been waiting for, and without further hesitation Voss launched out of cover, running as fast as his legs could carry him and his gear. He crossed the distance in under fifteen seconds it seemed, and unnoticed he dashed into the alley and waved emphatically for the rest of the squad to follow. Without organization the three men waiting behind the building ran out across the street as well. Kern got a good look at the balcony as he ran  — and the gunner’s fierce focus on the opposite street, raining bullets down on the byway and chewing up the walls of nearby buildings. The squad squeezed behind the clinic without incident.

Everyone laid up against the walls, catching their breaths. There were no windows on this side of the ground floor. There was no door either — it would’ve opened up to brick. It wouldn’t even have been able to open up all the way! “Where to now?” Kern asked.

Voss, breathing heavily, pointed his index finger directly overhead.

“Climb on the brick fence, then to the second floor.” He said, inhaling and exhaling.

“We’re not Gebirgs Voss, messiah’s sake.” Alfons blurted out. Hart said nothing.

“You’ve got arms don’t you? Give me a boost. I’ll get you up.” Voss replied calmly.

Hart and Alfons knelt and pushed Voss up by the soles of his shoes, lifting him until he could grab the top of the brick wall fencing off the byway. He pulled himself atop the smooth brown brick. Voss looked over the wall in every direction briefly, and then gave an all-clear — it was safe to stand on it without being spied on. Carefully he raised himself to his full height on both legs, and he leaped from the brick wall and grabbed hold of a window frame that overlooked the fence, standing on centimeters worth of concrete step that stretched between the conspicuous columns on the clinic’s wall. Hart and Alfons nodded to Kern, and boosted him up next. He climbed the fence, and with Voss’ help he too made it to the window.

While Hart and Alfons helped each other up the brick wall, Voss pointed his thumb into the window; Kern drew his pistol and climbed inside. His rifle would be too long and unwieldy to fight in the building interior. It was gloomy inside, but enough light came in from the gray sky that he could see the layout of the room well. He was in a clinic office. There were posters hung up on the wall, of children’s anatomy, their teeth, their hair; a basket of food in another poster perhaps suggested a healthy diet. Didn’t the Ayvartans ration? Kern was struck a little by how peaceful and ordinary this scene was. Places the enemy called home; and yet communism or not, couldn’t this have been a scene in the fatherland? Though everything was written in the Ayvartans’ script, illegible to him, he felt familiar to this vacated place. There was a small set of weighing scales, old wrapped hard candies overturned from a basket, and a colorful height chart, adorned with a cartoon giraffe, topping out at 140 centimeters. This was a small neighborly clinic for young children. The young landser felt tears almost rising to his eyes.

Why did this place have to be a battlefield? What was he even doing here?

He heard a whispering from behind, and saw Voss’s head peeking over the window.

“Is it clear?” He mouthed silently.

Kern nodded.

Voss climbed over, pistol out. Hart and Alfons followed him.

“What took you so long? You didn’t have to check under the desk or anything.”

“Seems like a prime spot to hide in ambush then.” Kern said nonchalantly.

Voss smiled and shook his head. Kern hid his distress well so far.

They organized themselves by the door to the office, with Kern and Voss on the left side, and Hart and Alfons a few steps back front of the door. They opened the door — Kern and Voss raised their pistols to cover the right and Hart and Alfons looked to the left. But there was only a hallway leading from the door, ending dead on their left and with a door opposite theirs. Voss stacked up on this door, and Hart and Alfons opened it, but there was no one inside — just another empty clinic office with a window. They pushed on. Kern followed the squadron as they crept right across the featureless hallway, following it past a long staircase leading to the bottom floor, and to the door at the other end. There were no other doors along the hall on either side. They heard the blaring of the machine gun from the other side of the door and readied themselves to breach while the enemy was still unaware of them.

Voss counted to three with his fingers, then they kicked open the door.

Inside was a larger room than the office they climbed into. There was no immediate resistance, and in their rush the men saw nobody along the desk or near the walls, nobody standing, and all eyes turned to the balcony. Voss, Hart and Alfons rushed the curtains and opened fire, emptying their ten-round magazines on automatic mode through the cloth and riddling the silhouettes of the gunner and loader before they could launch a bullet more down on their platoon. Kern caught up and threw the curtains open — they found a man, slumped dead over a box of ammunition belts, and a woman collapsed over the gun itself.

Everyone stood still, breathing heavily, their pistols raised on stiff arms.

Slowly they put down their weapons. “No support at all.” Voss said.

Kern looked over the room again. Here the cartoon giraffe was replaced by a taller caricature, a dragon along the wall, and the scales were larger. It seemed a more professional office, a bit less homey and innocent. Perhaps for older children and teenagers, and young adults. Then Kern found a trail of blood along the floor, as though of a body dragged. He raised his hand to alert the others, and slowly walked around the side of the large wooden desk, pistol in hand.

He found life, faint as it was. Two people had been laid behind the desk. One was a girl, looking very little past her teens, a thick cloth patched over her uniform on her shoulder, sticky and black with spilled blood. Her brown skin was turning a sickly pale, and she was tossing in sleep or unconsciousness. Another was an older man, with thick, long hair on his head and heavy wrinkling around his eyes, but perfectly shaven cheeks and chin, not a mustache or beard on him. He was awake — and he looked at Kern with eyes pleading for mercy. His leg and stomach had heavy, wet cloths set on them, and he breathed heavily, but did not speak.

Kern lowered his pistol, but he was immediately anxious. He stared, not knowing what to say or to do. Voss hurried to his side, and then stood in place as well, transfixed by the wounded communists, laying so vulnerable behind the desk. They had no weapons on them, and no capability to fight anyway. Kern didn’t even know if they could survive their wounds.

“Let’s just leave them.” Voss said, patting Kern strongly on the shoulder. He started trying to pull the stricken boy away. “Let’s leave them here to whatever their fate, alright? We disabled the gun, someone else can take care of this more properly than we can.”

Hart and Alfons nodded from across the room. They did not seem eager to draw near the desk.

“Go out and signal the men that the building’s clear.” Voss ordered. “And Kern, let’s go.”

He shook Kern more roughly, and the young landser drew slowly back from the wounded communists, until they were hidden from him again by the desk. How old could that girl have been? And how old was he, was he old enough to be in the midst of this? As he pulled away Hart and Alfons walked out to the balcony, shouting loudly in Nochtish, and when they found it safe to do so they also waved and jumped and tried to catch the attention of the men huddling in the buildings and alleys across from the clinic. Klar, klar! they shouted, and men shouted back.

Voss tried to guide him back to hallway, but Kern was fixated on the desk.

“Come on, come on Kern, don’t get jelly-brained on me now, boy.”

It was shaking — Kern saw strewn objects atop the desk, a pen, a little candy pot, shaking.

He pried himself loose from Voss’ grip and pushed him back. “Hart, Alfons, get back!”

Beside the clinic there was a rumbling and a series of thudding noises as bricks well. Something had gone through the wall. Rifles cracked from both sides of the street. Then a noise — a deep, gaseous sound for a split second followed by a long rolling thoom. Alfons and Hart fell back from the balcony, and Kern dropped to the ground. Voss rushed to the edge of the balcony, kneeling and with his back to the wall. Through the balustrade on the balcony the squadron watched as the building across the street, diagonal from the clinic, burst violently open — a high-explosive shell flew through a window and exploded in the interior, casting a wave of debris and smoke from the windows, blowing the door from the inside out, tearing through the wall like paper and toppling men standing on the street nearby. Following the blast a torrent of bullets perforated the walls and showered the streets. Half the building collapsed, the roof crushing the porous wall, and burying whoever remained inside.

A massive tank cleared the clinic’s alleyway and became visible from the balcony.

Following in its wake was a platoon full of muted green uniforms.

“Scheiße!” Voss cursed in a horrified whisper. Kern was mute from the sight.

“Hart, you’ve a panzerwurfmine, right?” Alfons asked, tugging on Hart’s satchel.

Speechless, Hart opened his pack, and withdrew the bomb, his hands shaking violently. The grenade had a round head affixed to a thin body with folding canvas fins. Kern had no idea how such a thing could even be operated, or what it would do to a tank of that magnitude.

“No, put that thing back!” Voss shouted. “No heroics. We’re leaving now.”

“Leaving where?” Alfons shouted back. “We’re surrounded! We have to fight!”

“We’ll go through the window in the office, jump the brick fence, land on the other side, and hoof it back to the divisional area. It’s not use staying here! They’ll storm the building soon!”

Kern glanced over to the desk. Would the communists find their own wounded there?

“Let’s go.” Voss ordered. He stood first and quickly led the way out. Kern followed unsteadily, his steps swaying as though he were in the middle of an earthquake, feeling his blood thrashing through his veins, his heart and lungs ragged from the effort to keep him standing. Hart and Alfons, pistols in and clutching their rifles as though for support, followed, roughly pushing and patting and shoving Kern forward all the way to the office. Voss waved for a man to step out. He practically shoved them out the window and threw them over the brick wall. It was a 5 or 6 meter drop, not exactly pleasant. Kern leaped, and cleared the wall, and he hit his knees and elbows on the other side, rolling down a slight concrete decline behind an old house.

Voss dropped in last, and urged everyone to move, waving his hands down the alleyway.

Behind the wall they heard the tank gun blaring, and the crushing of concrete and wood.

“Wait!” Kern shouted. He couldn’t get the wounded communists out of his mind. Back on the clinic balcony those machine gunners were taking care of their downed comrades as best as they could, he thought. And in turn, running away from the byway like this did not feel right. He was abandoning his own companions. They would be left there, forgotten, if nobody tried to fight for them. “We need to call this in. I’ve got a radio.”He withdrew it and showed it to Voss. This was the least he could do for the men dying back there.

Hart, Alfons and Voss stared at him a moment before conceding. They huddled underneath the awning of a little house nearby, and away from windows. Everyone was anxious, but they kept quiet as they set up for the call. Kern pulled up the antennae on his radio and adjusted the frequency according to Voss’s officer booklet with the operation’s active channels. He flicked the switch, and with a trembling in his voice, he declared, “This is private Kern Beckert, 6th Grenadier 2nd Battalion. A massive tank is wiping out our platoon.” He gulped, and tried to work down the shaking in his jaw. “Repeat, we are being overwhelmed by an Ayvartan tank. It is huge! It is nothing like those in the drawings. We need help. I repeat, 6th Division 2nd Battalion, we’re in a byway deep in Matumaini and a tank is driving us back!”

Matumaini 3rd, Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon

From across the wall the platoon had heard the fighting, and they had readied to burst the wall and come to the rescue. But they had been too late — only moments before the Ogre tank smashed into the byway, the machine gun had gone silent, never to fire again. The Ogre’s fury more than made up for the loss, and quickly a squadron of Nochtish troops was cooked inside a small house and the machine gunners avenged. Armed with two machine guns, one coaxial to the main gun and another fixed on the front, the Ogre unleashed a stream of inaccurate fire as it trundled forward that nonetheless sent the imperialists running and ducking.

Gulab marveled at the sheer brutal power of the machine. There was no comparing this to a Goblin tank. It seemed that nothing on Aer could stop the beast from its indefatigable march. Soon as the tank was in the byway proper, the platoon rushed forward, submachine guns screaming for the enemy’s blood. She readied her new Nandi carbine, turning the switch to select fire, and girded her loins to meet the fighting head-on. She had to contribute this time.

“Concentrate your fire on guarding us and the tank.” Chadgura told her.

There was no shortage of targets. There was a large platoon, perhaps two, of the enemy’s soldiers in the byway, caught unawares. At the sight of the tank a few men lost their nerve and ran, but on the road they ran through more gunfire than open air, the trails of bullets flying past them a hundred a second it seemed, and they were shredded moments into their escape. Seeing their counterparts fall most of the men stuck to cover and tried to fight back, but the volume of fire was too heavy, and they spent the engagement with their shoulders to whatever rock could hide them from bullets. Ayvartan Raksha submachine guns showered the enemy’s positions with frequent bursts of fire, and the twin machine guns on the Ogre seemed bottomless, stopping only briefly to allow barrels to cool. To avoid friendly fire the platoon kept to the sides of the tank, and in this way the torrent of lead methodically expanded from the breach beside the clinic, conserving the tank’s heavy shells.

“Platoon, clear the alleyways!” Chadgura shouted from atop the tank. Her voice, raised so loud, sounded strangely powerful to Gulab. “They may try to ambush the tank if we pass too quickly!”

Clinking noises followed in rapid succession; bullets struck the top corner of the Ogre’s turret to match the end of Chadgura’s sentence, harmlessly bouncing off the steel a few centimeters from the Corporal. Had the Spirits, or the Ancestors, or the Light, whichever, not been guarding her she would have been perforated through the shoulder and neck.

Breathlessly Gulab raised herself to her knees, braced her gun atop the tank’s turret and quickly zeroed in on a second floor window fifty meters or so away and to their upper right, where she saw a man with a long rifle, feeding in a clip and working the bolt. He had a good diagonal angle on them, enough to hit the back of the tank over its turret. Eyes strained and unblinking, Gulab rapped the trigger with her finger, feeling the kick of the Nandi on her shoulder as five consecutive bullets cut the distance and smeared the man’s face and neck into the air and the window frame. His body slumped, and his rifle slid from his fingers down the roof.

“Good shot, Private Kajari. Thank you.” Corporal Chadgura replied.

She put down her radio, and clapped her hands three times in front of her face.

Gulab nodded her head, and inhaled for what seemed like the first time in minutes.

Corporal Chadgura seemed to require no earthly resource to continue — despite a brush with death and having forced her voice throughout the attack, the woman tirelessly continued to issue orders without slowing down. She called again for the platoon to charge, and through her radio she ordered the tank to give them the opportunity. The Ogre’s machine guns quieted, and it hung back, creeping forward at a snail’s pace while the infantry took the lead.

“Squads split into two, chargers to rush enemy positions and shooters to stay back and keep them pinned. Fire on the enemy’s cover and punish any centimeter of flesh they expose! Rush at the enemy from the sides and drag them to melee!” Chadgura shouted. Had her voice held any sort of character to it, Gulab would have thought these instructions bloodthirsty. But from the Corporal they likely came from proper training and cold rationale.

Her words had an immediate effect — the squadrons rearranged themselves mid-battle and grew more efficient. Whereas before it was a wall of fire flying from hips and shoulders without regard, now men and women reloaded with a purpose, and marched in a deadly formation.

With a battle cry the platoon fearlessly charged the enemy’s positions. They had the offensive initiative, and their enemy was demoralized and trapped, helpless before the onslaught. There was almost no retaliatory fire, and what little was presented the platoon seemed to run past, as though the bullets would fly harmlessly through them. With their submachine guns, short-barreled and compact, easy to wield in tight quarters and able to fire numerous rounds in a quick, controlled fashion, the Ayvartans had the edge in this street fight. Leading elements of each squadron overran enemy cover while shooters trailing behind fired short, well-aimed bursts. Sheer frequency and volume of fire kept the Nochtmen pinned down and unable to move or retaliate, rendering them vulnerable to being flanked. Comrades hooked easily around trees and trash cans and porch staircases being used for cover, and with impunity they entered buildings through side windows or even front doors, and they jumped into alleyways, guns blazing, catching the enemy with their backs to cover and unable to respond. Soon there seemed to be a dead man sitting behind every hard surface, his rifle hugged stiffly to his chest.

Inside a few buildings Gulab saw bayonets flashing, but her comrades exited triumphant nonetheless. One after another the alleyways were cleared, the buildings emptied out, and the Ogre advanced further out of the byway toward the main street, having fired only a single shell the whole way. Light wounds were all the Ayvartans incurred through the byway. It was astonishing. Gulab had received training in firing her weapon and very basic tactics — cover, throwing grenades, calling for help on the radio, jumping over and around obstacles. Chadgura however had led them to victory against an enemy. Had her words been simple, and they just inadequate soldiers? Or had her orders been prescient, and elevated them in this fight? Gulab couldn’t tell whether to admire her comrades, or pity herself and her allies.

Behind the Ogre tank, Gulab heard someone knocking on the metal. She shook the Corporal’s shoulder, and they turned around together — following along the tank, a young man had been trying to get their attention. “Yes, Private? Have your comrades found something?”

The Private saluted. “Ma’am! We found two comrades wounded in that clinic back there.”

“How badly?” Corporal Chadgura asked. She clapped her hands together.

“They have been bleeding for some time it seems. Very pale.” He replied.

Gulab covered her mouth with anxiety, but Chadgura did not hesitate for a moment.

“I’m not sure how swiftly we can bring medical attention to them. Ordering common troops to haul them around roughly could be the death of them — leave a radio operator with them and call for medical. Have them follow our trail through the alleys to the clinic.”

The Private nodded his head and ran back o the clinic along with a radio operator.

Gulab uttered a little prayer for the wounded on her side, lying in their own cold blood.

At least comrades came to find them now, whether still alive or in the endless sleep.

The 3rd Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon pushed forward, having dispatched resistance on the byway. Their prize was ahead. The Corporal invited Gulab to look through her binoculars, and she spotted columns of soldiers moving down the main street. Regrettably they would not have the element of surprise on the thoroughfare — there were no more walls to burst, and in the distance Gulab saw the Nochtish soldiers pointing down the byway, and running for the cover found on either side of the road. They had a fight on their hands. Gulab handed the binoculars back, and loaded a fresh magazine. She was amazed at how simple it was, to simply push a box under her carbine and pull the bolt. She had hurt her thumb before trying to load a Bundu!

“Platoon, stack behind the tank! Use it as moving cover!” Chadgura shouted.

A hundred meters ahead at the end of the byway Nochtish soldiers barred their passage, hurriedly pushing two metal carriages into position on each street corner — small, tow-able anti-tank guns, aiming for the Ogre. Each had six men to it, huddling behind the gun shields and in nearby cover.

Chadgura called the tank crew. “Shift turret thirty degrees right and fire!”

Gulab covered her ears and the Ogre retaliated. While its machine guns renewed their relentless tide of iron, battering the metal shields in front of the AT guns, the Ogre’s main 76mm gun was reloaded and brought to bear after its long quiet within the byway. There was marvelous power behind it. Gulab felt all of the shot through her body — simultaneously the gun slid back into the turret as a recoil mechanism, while a puff of smoke and the vibrating of metal foretold the shot. A high velocity explosive shell hurtled toward the enemy. In an instant the shell completely overflew the enemy gun crew and exploded over a dozen meters behind them in the middle of the street, throwing back a smattering of infantry.

“Reload with High-Explosive, adjust aim and fire again.” Chadgura ordered.

Gulab hid herself as best as she could and braced for the enemy’s attack.

Given an opportunity, the enemy anti-tank guns unleashed their own firepower on the Platoon, each launching their 37mm armor-piercing shells through their long, thin barrels. Launched at an angle against the sides, they stood a better chance of penetrating ordinary armor in a weak spot, and entering the tank before detonating inside and injuring or killing the crew.

Where the Ogre roared the enemy guns whined. Both 37mm shells plunged directly into the thick sides of the tank’s front hull and ricocheted, spinning back into the air unexploded. Then the shells came to lie uselessly by the side of the road. It was an incredible sight. Gulab did not even know that shells could respond in such a way. They had failed to even dent the Ogre!

Whether the Nochtish troops fought in disbelief of the failure of their shots, or whether they were even paying attention as they hurried to defend against the tank, Gulab did not know. But the AT guns continued to open fire as fast as their crew could reload. Shell after shell pounded the front of the Ogre. Fighting back, the lumbering giant traded a few of its own shells, one exploding a few meters behind the battle line formed between the two guns and rattling the enemy crews, and a second moments later blowing up almost directly in front of the rightmost gun, and blinding it with dust and smoke. Staunchly opposing the Ayvartan advance a dozen shells in a row flew across the byway and blew up against the Ogre’s face without avail, striking the front tread guards, detonating prematurely on the glacis, or bouncing entirely off the slight slope on the front and sides, and flying in random directions.

A lucky shell struck the turret off its side and exploded, and Gulab felt the residual heat and pressure and a puff of hot gas along her side, but then the Ogre’s gun fired back, as if to say it was nothing but a flesh wound. Gulab heard metal shred and saw the rightmost enemy gun consumed by smoke and fire. Brutally the Ogre’s shell burst through the gun’s shield and exploded right on the crew, setting ablaze their ammunition and shredding the men.

Broken by the sight, the remaining crew fled north, leaving behind their useless anti-tank gun.

Speeding up, the Ogre overcame the battle line, running over the discarded AT gun. Gulab clung on to the turret as the tank’s left track rose momentarily, rolling against the enemy gun’s ballistic shield, and then crunching the gun under it into a flattened wreck.

“Private Kajari, keep your head down.” Chadgura said.

The Platoon had broken through to the middle of Matumaini and 3rd. To the south they could see the intersection again, from where they had fled hours earlier. Up north the Nochtish troops charged into pitched battle with the KVW Company dispatched to reclaim the intersection. Gulab saw the black and red uniforms in the distance, and from her vantage they seemed to stand in a line straddling the dark gray border made up of the Nochtish men. There were columns in either direction now, and the Ogre was holding them both up — the assaulting troops could not retreat into the Ogre and give space to the KVW push, and the reinforcements from the intersection would have to challenge the Ogre to move through.

That challenge was immediate. From the south twelve men pushed two more anti-tank guns, their crews ignorant to the fate of the previous pair, and set them down 200 meters away down the southern end of the street, in a street corner partially obscured by rubble. Protecting them were three more men with a Norgler machine gun, who opened fire the moment the guns were set down. From the north, an assault gun firing into the KVW line began to pull back, turning into a street corner so it could double back to face the incoming tank. It approached from over 300 meters away and adjusted its gun, readying to stop and open fire at any moment.

“Platoon, take up positions on the right side of the road and pin down those anti-tank guns!” Chadgura shouted out. Then she raised her radio to her mouth and gave simple orders to the crew. “Load AP shells, and turn the gun north. Keep the tank perpendicular to the road.”

They were going to engage the assault gun, and keep their sides to the enemy.

“Corporal, Ma’am, are you sure about this?” Gulab asked.

Chadgura nodded. “Yes, I am sure of my decision. The sides will hold. Follow me.”

They leaped down off the back of the tank, and hid behind the hull rather than atop it.

Nocht afforded them no time to establish themselves any better. It seemed as soon as their feet touched ground again that an onslaught of fire consumed both sides of the tank. Shots from the anti-tank guns pounded the right side of the Ogre, while a blast from the assault gun slammed the left side of the turret as it turned around. Gulab and Chadgura ducked behind the tank, nearly thrown to the ground — the assault gun’s 75mm gun kicked up a lot of dust and heat and pressure. The Ogre rocked on its left, partially covered in a smoke cloud. One of its own shells thrust out from the smoke cover and smashed into the front of the enemy assault gun. It jumped half a meter from the impact, but was not penetrated and continued to advance.

On the street the platoon’s three squadrons took to the standing buildings, and to the rubble of recent battles, and exchanged fire with the Norgler and its wards still over 150 meters away from them. From this distance they could not threaten the anti-tank guns with their submachine guns — streams of automatic fire from the Ayvartan side of the street slammed harmlessly on the gun shields, and flew inaccurately around the Norgler machine gunner, who retaliated with greater precision, his accurate bursts of automatic fire pinning comrades behind rocks and fire hydrants and inside blown-out doorways and ruined windows.

Though there was only one Norgler and eight bolt action rifles to over twenty submachine guns, the chopping sound of the gun intimidated the Ayvartans still, and its range, accuracy and position in cover made it more than a match for them. All the while the infantry dueled, the AT guns continued to fire on the Ogre’s exposed flank as though nothing were targeting them, but always to little avail. From the clouds of smoke rolling over the heavy tank,  several small shells flew out constantly, deflected by the heavy armor.

Cutting the distance, the assault gun moved forward at full speed, stopped, adjusted, and opened fire again, slamming the track guard. Fire and smoke blew again, and Gulab coughed, and buried her face against her knees. She felt as though in the middle of an earthquake. The Ogre punched back, planting a shell right into the face of the assault gun, and again causing the enemy vehicle to rock and jump. No penetration was achieved. Armor was thickest in front.

In the midst of this fury Gulab felt terrified for her life. She covered her head and she nearly cried. “Corporal!” She shouted. “This is not working, we need to pull back! We can fight from the cover of the byway! We’re too exposed, you’re being reckless!”

“I apologize for not considering your feelings. But I will not consider your feelings.” Chadgura replied. She radioed the tank crew. “Keep firing AP on the glacis plate.”

Again the immobile Ogre spat a shell north-bound, hitting the assault gun and giving it pause. Southbound came the retaliatory shell, smashing into the top of the rearmost track-guard. In a split second Gulab threw herself on Corporal Chadgura and pressed her flat to the ground. Waves of pressure and heat washed over the top of the Ogre tank, and Gulab felt the fury of the explosive shell for several seconds. It was as though she were trapped in the middle of a burning building, surrounded in a cage of fire, unable to breathe, unable to escape that building sensation over her skin. Heat and smoke and pressure would have crushed their heads had they stood a meter higher than they were. Smoke rolled over the tank, and the heat dispersed. On the ground Gulab felt Chadgura’s heart beating. Somehow they were alive.

Gulab stared into Chadgura’s eyes. They were not blank — the depth of color was different than a normal person’s, so that they looked dull, but there was a tiny, glowing ring around the iris that was intense and beautiful. Her Corporal was flustered. She was emotional. Gulab felt her officer’s heart pounding, her lungs working raw. She was agitated. Perhaps not afraid, not like Gulab, but alive. It was strange, to see another person’s humanity so bared before her — and to see, specifically, the humanity of her professional, toneless, bleak-voiced officer.

“Thank you. I am not unhappy to be in this position, Private Kajari.” Cpl. Chadgura replied, her voice unshaken and dull as ever. “But we should perhaps move away.”

Gulab breathed in. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” She shouted.

She heard the sound of a second set of tracks growing closer to them.

The Nochtish assault gun stopped within 75 meters to shoot again.

Gulab had no time to brace herself for another shell, but she was spared — the assault gun was interdicted. Behind them the earth rumbled again as the Ogre launched another shell at its adversary, scoring a solid hit on the front plate. There was an explosion, and the shell dug a few centimeters into the armor and warped the hull around it, scoring a deep a dent into the armor just under the driver’s viewing slit. It looked as though a massive fist had punched the front of the vehicle out of shape. This wound stopped the assault gun in its tracks. It remained in place, 75 meters away, stirring gently with the labor of its engine.

“What happened?” Gulab asked, helping herself to stand via the Ogre’s tracks. She had thought despite the damage the tank was not penetrated and would try to shoot again, but it never did. It was like a corpse whose heart still somehow beat — a stirring engine that lay deathly still.

“Spalling.” Chadgura said. “Enough continuous damage done to the armor will warp the metal and cause screws and rivets and other small parts to burst under pressure. Inside the enclosure of a tank, they ricochet like bullets. The crew is probably terribly wounded or dead.”

That answered why Chadgura had ordered the tank to continue shooting.

“There’s more than one way to kill a tank then.” Gulab mused, a bit in awe.

“Inside that hull there are people, and people are always vulnerable.”

Chadgura knocked her fist against the tank, and called on the radio. “Apologies for the momentary silence. Our lives were in temporary danger. Please turn the turret south.”

To the south fire was still being sporadically exchanged between the Platoon infantry and the Nochtish defenders, without much movement on either end, but that was about to quickly change. With Chadgura’s direction the Ogre fired on the enemy’s Norgler team, and the shell punched through the rubble and exploded directly in the midst of the enemy troops. At once the Norgler and the four men around it seemed to become gaseous, and the anti-tank crews desperately pulled back their guns, trying to move them back along the street and into tighter cover. They could not outrun the Ogre’s turret and shells carrying their equipment — one shell landed easily behind the men of one of the guns and sent them falling, battered from the explosion. The Ogre reloaded, the turret ponderously lined up with the second gun. Finding themselves so directly targeted the men abandoned their gun entirely. Hands up, screaming, they ran from the scene. The Ogre held its shell, and instead sprayed in their direction with its coaxial machine gun. One by one the six men in the crew toppled over in the distance.

Within these brutal, seemingly endless minutes the way south to the intersection was reopened. Throwing up their fists and crying with elation, the 3rd Ad-Hoc Platoon left their hiding places and reorganized around the tank, cheering and petting it like a good dog.

“You all did wonderfully.” Chadgura called out. She glanced briefly at Gulab.

Gulab averted her eyes nervously. She glanced over the fighting on road to the north, and spotted a curtain of smoke stretching suddenly across the streets. Gunfire erupted from high windows and rooftops against the road; mortar rounds hit the street and thickened the cloud, the smoke rising up and obscuring the shooters on the high ground. Gulab alerted Chadgura to these events; moments later, Gulab spotted two dozen red and black uniforms creeping out of the smoke. Two squadrons of KVW infantry escaped the fighting in the upper street and rushed to their side, catching their breaths in the shadow of the Ogre tank.

Chadgura saluted them, and they bowed their heads back to her deferentially. It appeared there were not any higher-ranking officers among them.

“I hope more of you won’t risk their lives to reinforce me this way.” Chadgura said.

A young woman with a blank expression stepped forward out of the group and spoke.

“It is no problem, Corporal. We crept easily through our smoke. Nochtish resistance along the northern block has been confined to a few tenement buildings, and those will soon fall. We’ve been ordered to support you in an attack on the intersection at the edge of Matumaini and 3rd. An additional heavy tank and supporting infantry will attack from the diagonal connecting road in the west, and a third heavy tank will attack from Goa street in the east.”

Chadgura nodded and clapped her hands. “Understood. Pvt. Kajari, back on the tank.”

Gulab nodded, and eyeing the KVW troops quizzically, she climbed back on top of the tank. Everyone assembled, and began to march South, to retake the intersection they had all run from just hours ago. But this time, she felt it would be quite different.

1st Vorkampfer Rear Echelon

Von Sturm was furious. Fruehauf and her girls struggled to keep up with the volume of radio traffic. From every direction there were attacks. On Penance road the Cissean Infanteria had met serious resistance, and even outright counterattacks, and been pushed back; on the Umaiha riverside a company of enemy infantry with unknown vehicle support had pushed past them and scattered their lines, forming an odd bulge in the lines; and Matumaini was turning into an unmitigated disaster. The Regiment that the 6th Grenadiers had forward was being crushed to bits piecemeal. Recon trips into small byways had become suicide missions as platoons and companies were crushed by tanks driving in from nowhere.

There was little hard intelligence on what was transpiring past the intersection on Matumaini. At first Von Sturm had given reasonable, by-the-book orders. But nothing seemed to stick, in-combat communication was erratic, and after-action reports were scarce. Every gun battle his troops seemed to get into was an annihilating event that nobody seemed able to speak of. Worst of all, countermeasures were growing ineffective. Attempts by anti-tank platoons to stifle the enemy had been brutally repulsed. Air support was not forthcoming. Their armor was supposed to be preparing to assault the Kalu, but the mustering was broken up now because Panzer elements had to be reorganized and rushed into the city. Already Von Sturm had lost an assault gun platoon and a dozen anti-tank guns. It was sheer, maddening chaos.

Fruehauf bounced back and forth between her radios and the horrified staff along the planning table. At first she had tried to smile but that facade wore quickly thin. Now each trip seemed to unhinge Von Sturm further. Soon he devolved into outright rabid shouting at her.

“SHELLS. DO NOT. BOUNCE OFF!” Von Sturm shouted at Fruehauf accentuating each bit of sentence he barked out, wringing his hands in the air as though he meant to strangle her.

“I know it’s strange General!” Fruehauf said, shielding herself with her clipboard. She looked on the verge of tears from all the tension and the shouting and the anxiety in the room. She continued, nearly pleading, visibly shaking in front of the General. “But those are the reports we’re receiving! Our anti-tank guns are incapable of penetrating these tanks!”

“That is impossible!” Von Sturm shouted, approaching her dangerously. “Impossible! They have nothing that can withstand an anti-tank gun. Their tanks even get shredded by fucking Panzerbuchse rifles! You get on that radio right now and–“

Before he could seize Fruehauf as he seemed to be preparing to do, Von Drachen stepped nonchalantly between them, and looked down at the shorter Von Sturm.

“It’s important we retain the vestige of civilization that we claim to represent here.” He said.

Von Sturm grit his teeth and wrung his hands in an even more violent fashion.

Von Drachen looked over his shoulder at Fruehauf. “We should probably alert the supply convoy towing the leFH guns that their position may become compromised.”

“You don’t give those orders! I do!” Von Sturm shouted. He prodded Von Drachen in the chest, and stared around him at Fruehauf like he was a pillar of rock in his way. “Fruehauf, order the howitzers to rush to their deployment points, set up, and vaporize the communists!”

Fruehauf nodded fervently, and rushed back to the radios, taking any chance to retreat from the planning table. Von Drachen said nothing — he did not even look back at Von Sturm to challenge his gaze. He merely marveled silently at how quickly the sarcasm and aloofness of his superior general broke down into childish violence when the burden of leadership presented itself. Von Drachen was nowhere near as worried as Von Sturm about his own Blue Corps. Perhaps because he had altogether different goals for this operation than Von Sturm.

“Aren’t the howitzers being deployed to the intersection?” Von Drachen asked.

“Look at the map, why don’t you?” Von Sturm sarcastically replied.

“That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, my good man.” Von Drachen added.

Von Sturm threw his hands in the air, and walked back to his table. “I’m coming to regret bringing you here, Von Drachen! Perhaps you really ought to have stayed in your dust speck of a country if you are going to question every order your superior is giving!”

“Oh, but I don’t really question your orders.” Von Drachen said, crossing his arms and looking puzzled. “You see, from my perspective, and functionally speaking, I always end up following your orders. It just takes a little effort to get me to fully agree with them.”

Von Sturm slapped his hands over his face, and buried his head in his arms against the table.

V-Squad Retreat, Matumaini 3rd

Nocht’s assault on Bada Aso had been conducted in three concentrated lanes from east to west each advancing from south to north, led by the 1era Infanteria, 6th Grenadiers and 2da Infanteria. Originally the idea was that these three concentrations of forces could cover each other via artillery and fast-moving units, and would have room to spread out from their lanes at their leisure, because by virtue of advancing as unified fists, their independent units could always fall back on organized strong points if an expansion mission went awry, in a way that broadly spread-out forces could not do. From Penance, Matumaini and Umaiha Riverside they would secure territory from which to advance confidently into the narrows of the city.

However the state of infrastructure after the luftlotte’s bombing had not been accounted for, and battle damage, suspected sabotage and controlled demolition on the communist’s part, and many other factors imperiled the original plan. Now there were whole streets and blocks entirely shut off to motor and armor units by heavy collapses, and connections between the three lanes were more limited than originally envisioned. There was trouble getting heavy weapons and armor into position at all, let alone on time for the scheduled offenses, and retreats and reinforcements could only be carried out over specific street routes. Nocht’s carefully charted vision of the conflict was warped out of shape, and without it the front lines were left to their devices, carrying out improvised attacks and rushed defenses. In the absence of carefully thought orders from their commanders, the troops fell back to a mix of instinct and doctrine.

Kern had not been privy to a lot of the plan. None of them were. That was the natural position of the officers. Officers attended meetings and then passed down their knowledge as orders given on the field. It was a hierarchy that was meticulously organized and carried out. A landser needed only to train to fight and kill the enemy. Kern knew tactics. He knew cover, he knew maneuvers, he knew tactical movement, he knew how to use his knife, he knew ranges, he knew his equipment, he knew equipment that he would be using in the future, like how to drive a car, or fire an anti-tank gun. Extensive training and instruction had insured this.

But he didn’t know how war worked, not really. It was a fearful new world to tread upon.

Everything had grown abstract. His training was supposed to be a tool that he applied to a situation in order to solve it, like a formula for a mathematical problem. But reality had grown much more complicated. Now Kern found himself creeping through alleys and inside ruined buildings. Desolation surrounded him on all sides. There was no enemy to fight with and no allies to link up with. Hart and Alfons were quiet. Voss was in the lead. He did not have a map of Bada Aso. Sergeants and above cared about maps, and they had maps. Corporals led fireteams — they didn’t need maps. Their maps could fall into enemy hands if they died fighting.

His surroundings felt so isolated he wondered if anyone had even lived in them before. From the byway wall they jumped across, the squad followed the alleyways behind several buildings headed south. Many times they came across a collapse and had to squeeze in through concrete frames filled with debris of their own roofs and floors like giant standing buckets of rock and dust. They detoured through standing structures, clearing them room by room before jumping out a window or from a second floor into a new alleyway or into an otherwise inaccessible building nearby. Most buildings they saw, stripped of anything valuable in them (or having had anything valuable in them crushed by bombs), suggested little about what their original purpose was. There were many long walls and empty rooms. Kern believed most of them had to be living spaces. He had heard that Ayvartans lived crammed into 3 by 3 meter rooms, their “guaranteed housing.” From what he had seen, the architecture did not support such a claim, but they would still need a lot of living space to support their population.

Twelve houses down from the byway the squadron exited a small building through a back door, and found themselves in a tragic scene. A much taller tenement building, several floors high and wide, a complex, one could call it,  had completely collapsed and now barred their way. Kern was reminded of the edge of Matumaini, where collapses like these had forced the battalion to detour. This was not like an urban snow, not a smooth mound of soft dust. What was blocking them was all rock struggling to retain shape enough to defy them. It was all misplaced window frames serving as makeshift doors to halls crammed full of rubble, rebar sticking out like thorns from vines of warped concrete columns, chunks of rock the size of one’s fist all in a rumbling stack ready to spill if provoked. Kern swore it must have been contrived.

On all sides its remains barred the way. Voss covered his hands in washcloth and knelt.

“We’ll crawl in.” He said. He squeezed under a window frame half-buried into the ground.

Speechless, Hart, Alfons and Kern crawled inside as well. Kern snaked under the frame and cut himself on a piece of glass, a few centimeters along his right calf. He grit his teeth and pushed blindly ahead. Even the ruins in this place wanted him to suffer. They crawled deeper into the tight rubble, beneath hard stone at odd angles, around jagged pieces stabbing into the ground. It was tight and dark and it smelled eerily, of smoke or some kind of chemical. Kern pulled himself forward by his forearms and elbows. Ahead of him he saw Voss stand up, and Hart and Alfons followed. He crawled into an open room. It was tilted on its side, and there was a window above offering dim illumination and a framed view of darkening, cloudy sky.

“Now we go up. We’ll check to see which direction to go in from there.” Voss said.

He and Hart lifted Alfons up, who in turn helped Kern. Outside the building sloped irregularly, jutting out in places and sinking in others, but there was a high peak in a particular rubble hill a short ways from the window, formed by the tenement piling atop another building. While his companions helped each other out, Kern started to walk up, eager to see what his vantage would be like from higher up. He carefully walked up the red brick, and broke into a run once he felt sure enough in his steps. He was fifteen or twenty meters up, and he saw the Intersection that they had captured hours earlier, off to south and east.

“I’ve found the way!” He called back to Voss.

Hands out like they were walking on a tight-rope, the squadron descended the ruins, and climbed down unto a comparatively intact alleyway. This time Kern led them through, trying his best to square the picture he had in his mind with the direction of the intersection and the layout of the alleys. Soon they heard traffic — feet, wheels, and treads all — and followed the sounds. Around a corner, and past several ruined buildings, they squeezed through to the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd. Kern thought the mortar holes still seemed fresh, and certainly they were familiar. There was no time to rest, however. Kern found his situation starkly reintroduced to him after the brief lull in the eerie world within the ruins.

Across the intersection the 6th Grenadier mustered its forces. Men rushed north, carrying sandbags and grenades, pushing anti-tank guns, holding mortars over their shoulders. Every minute, it seemed, a truck would arrive and its crew would hastily unhinge a towed howitzer, a 105mm leFH (leichte fieldhaubitze), and more men would pull these back into corners, organizing them in groups of three, and crews would begin preparing them.

Three more assault guns then entered the intersection in a line.

And at the very end, they saw the Ayvartans starting to rush.

Scheiße,” Hart said wearily, “We’re back in the frying pan again.”

“At least we’re accompanied.” Voss said, patting him on the back.

Kern left their side. He looked around the crowds for Captain Aschekind. An artillery crewman pointed him to one of the first buildings just out of the intersection, on the connecting road to Matumaini 2nd. Kern had remembered seeing people hiding in it during the late stages of the charge, because the inside was hollowed out. Mortar rounds might land in it, but it was otherwise one of the safest places from which to fight. He found Captain Aschekind and some of his staff in there, seated in folding chairs and with a table ready. The Captain glanced briefly at the door when Kern entered but then returned to his task — he was tuning into a radio, and barking terse orders into it. Aschekind’s staff, three men and an older woman that Kern was very surprised to see, ushered the young landser in and asked him if there was any news he had brought. They seemed to have been expecting someone. Kern shook his head.

“No, I just,” Kern hesitated. He hardly knew what he even wanted out of this exchange. He just felt ashamed and weak, and perhaps he wanted someone to see it, someone to punish him for it. “I just wanted to return this radio. I’ve no real use for it.”

He withdrew the radio Aschekind gave him from his satchel, and placed it on the table.

An explosion outside seemed to punctuate this action. Kern started to shake.

“You have more to say than that.” Aschekind said. He did not look up from the radio set on the table. Kern could not see his eyes — his peaked cap was in the way. “Be honest with yourself.”

Kern’s teeth chattered slightly. His heart pounded. “Sir, I have spent this entire battle running away.” His lips trembled. He tried not to show tears. “I never even grouped with my correct squadron when we came into the city. I’ve been handed off to different platoons and companies like an idiot, because I came here wandering like a vagrant, with no understanding of what I am doing or where I am going. Gradually I have remembered my place, but too late. I joined the army to be anywhere but home. I sat through my training and it went in one ear and out the other. I should not be here. I am simply wasted space and resources among these men.”

“It has never been a question of whether you are meant to be here or should be here. It is always a question of whether you want to be here. Your role, Private, is to occupy space. That is the fundamental role of a Grenadier. Do you want to fight, Private Beckert?” Aschekind asked. “Do you want to occupy space? It all begins in that simple role. There is more than enough space to be occupied. At this juncture that is all that I require of you.”

“I do not feel I have properly acquitted myself, sir.” Kern said, mouth still trembling.

Captain Aschekind stared at him quizzically. It was the most emotion he’d seen in the man’s face that wasn’t anger or grim resignation. He pushed the radio back in Kern’s direction with his hand. “Your last report alerted us to the communist’s attack. What defense we have managed here, we owe partly to you. If you having your hands on that radio is merely occupying space, then again, Private, I ask, do you want to occupy that space? Something as insignificant as that radio in your hands can change the course of a battle. Do you want to occupy that space?”

Kern could not say anything to that. He hesitated even to take the radio back.

Captain Aschekind put down his own radio handset, and seemed about to say something further. But a sharp noise from the intersection overcame his words. Everyone in the room looked out the window. Kern saw a shell fly across the intersection from the west and explode in the middle of an artillery position, shredding through two leFH and their crews. Gunfire parted the intersection in two. Men took cover away from the diagonal west-bound round, from which Ayvartan troops and a huge tank rushed down, right into the heart of their defense.

Kern drew his rifle and stood up, with the intention to find Voss and the others. Captain Aschekind reached out across the table — he was so tall and his limbs so long he easily seized Kern by his shoulder and stopped him. His grip was casually, brutally strong. It hurt.

“Run down the southern road and alert all incoming artillery towing tractors and trucks to stop at the end of Matumaini and 2nd. I will be joining you shortly. This is a mission more valuable than dying in that intersection. Are we clear, Private Beckert?”

A truck nearby exploded — screaming men flew back from it. One landed outside the door.

Stunned, Kern nodded to the Captain, and without thinking, he left the building and ran down the street, careful to avoid the fallen men. He was stuck in the war again.

Ayvartan Counterattack, Matumaini 3rd

“Charge the intersection at travel speed, and do not pause to shoot.”

The Ogre hardly needed to be given the order. Like a charging rhinoceros it punched its way through a hastily-erected sandbag wall, overturning the structure and crushing an anti-tank gun under its tracks. Behind it the infantry of the 3rd Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon, bolstered by KVW reinforcements, advanced at a brisk pace, submachine guns at their hips, firing across the intersection. Accuracy was secondary to shock and speed — this was a breach, a brutal charge, and it did not matter if the horns met flesh yet. Grenadiers fled the edge of the intersection, abandoning anti-tank guns and norgler machine guns in the tank’s way.

Gulab ducked her head, and pushed down Chadgura’s.

Assault guns in the center of the intersection opened fire on the Ogre.

Unlike the 37mm guns, the 75mm gun on these vehicles was dangerous, if not particularly to the tank then to the riders. They exploded in the Ogre’s face, and rattled the entire tank. Gulab felt heat and force and the shaking of the tank transferred right to her gut with every hit. But the short-barreled guns could not manage to penetrate the armor even at 100 meters. The caliber was potent, but the guns fired at low velocities.

The Ogre withstood punishment. Small pits appeared in the front glacis, one of the track guards warped from the blasts, but still the Ogre advanced. Ahead of them the trio of assault guns opened fire, one after the other, pummeling the Ogre. It was undaunted. Chadgura radioed her orders, and the heavy tank turned its gun on the leftmost of the assault guns, and put a round through the side of its gun mantlet, only a dozen centimeters off from the vehicle’s face. It was a tight angle, but at short distance it was easy to score. Black smoke and a lick of flames billowed from the hole, and the assault gun stopped dead.

“Corporal, look!” Gulab called out.

Priorities changed quickly; at the back of the intersection several men gathered around a trio of howitzers, likely laid down there as a fixed position battery by heavy trucks. They lowered the elevation of the guns and adjusted their angle — all the barrels started to point directly at the Ogre. These were 105mm artillery guns. Perhaps they would not penetrate the glacis, but would they need to? Their high explosive might knock out the crew! Chadgura got the message quickly. Ignoring the remaining assault guns, which had begun to back off and make space, she ordered the Ogre to target the howitzers quickly with high explosive.

Painfully slow the heavy turret turned, inching its way to face the battery.

Crates were cracked open, and shells loaded into the field guns. Almost there!

A shell fell in between the men. Their guns, ammo, all went up in flames. But Gulab had not felt the booming and rumbling of her tank’s gun. Her Ogre never managed to fire at them.

She looked to the eastern and western roads for her answer.

Her comrades were charging in. From the perpendicular ends of the intersection, the promised second and third tanks unleashed their ire. Tank shells came quickly. One of the assault guns was easily penetrated from its exposed flank, and set ablaze. A second battery of howitzers went up in smoke. An anti-tank shell pulverized the engine block of a heavy truck backing away to the south. The piercing round penetrated the front of the truck and exploded in the back — men launched from the bed like thrown stones. The husk of the truck marked the only path out of the intersection. Any nochtman still in the middle of the intersection was pinched from three directions. Many began to pull back, but those stuck in the defensive positions could afford only to hold down and fight back against fire from all sides.

Nocht had tried to built their own defense over the ashes of the Ayvartan’s 2nd Defensive Line, but the intersection was nowhere near as secure as it had been hours ago. There was hardly a line, but rather a dozen haphazard positions without a coherent defilade. Partial trenches were dug at haphazard angles, as if the first place hit by a thrown shovel qualified for a foxhole. Artillery guns had been set up in plain view without surrounding trenches or sandbags. The Grenadiers’ light artillery had taken up her comrades’ mortar pits. But the sandbag walls and canvas canopies had only been partially rebuilt, and the pits were largely exposed to fire.

Chadgura waved her arm to the troops behind her. She jumped off the tank, radio against her ear, and Gulab followed her to the floor.

The moment her feet touched the ground, Gulab trained her iron sights on her old anti-tank gun pit front of her. She remembered being thrown to the ground here by Chadgura. But that dirt where her life had been saved was now taken up by a norgler machine gun, emptying its belts on the front of the Ogre to no avail. Gulab leaned and opened fire. Two quick bursts of gunfire silenced the shooters. Her body hardly needed to process the action — raise arms, step around tank, look down sight, find gray uniform, shoot gray uniform. She adjusted her aim and searched for more targets. Unlike her comrades with their submachine guns, she could fight at range, and intended to do so. Chadgura clung behind her, both hugging the Ogre’s left track along the front track guard. Return fire was sporadic.

Gulab’s infantry comrades overtook her. Submachine gun squadrons advanced past the tank in long rows, every man and woman firing his or her submachine gun in front in short but continuous bursts, so that the enemy was endangered any time they left cover to shoot back. The KVW squadrons were particularly fearless in comparison. They ran out in front of the tank after Gulab disabled the machine gun, and they quickly overtook the mortar pits in a bloody melee, stabbing the mortar men with their bayonets and tossing aside their tubes. From the safety of the pits they opened fire across the intersection, turning their carbines to fully-automatic mode. Their rate of fire was tremendous — it was almost like each of them was carrying a small Khroda. Against this wave of fire the enemy’s bolt action rifles could do nothing. Though inaccurate, the Ayvartan’s bullets saturated the air.

Chadgura had organized this: a moving curtain of suppressing fire, perfect for a street fight.

All the while the three Ogres fired from their positions, launching their high explosive shells into trenches and buildings, crushing rubble walls and mounds. Every artillery gun left in the intersection was a smoking wreck. Masses of men retreated back down to Matumaini and 2nd in a charge that rivaled their advance on this very intersection earlier in the day. Together the three assault platoons and their tanks wiped out the defenses in the intersection. It was hardly a fight — it was like demolitions work. Gulab fired with discipline, but soon found herself without further targets. She stopped to marvel at the scene. At once all the gunfire ceased. Men were dead by the dozens across each road to Matumaini and 3rd, and by the hundreds in the intersection and its connections, perhaps by the thousands along the Southern District as a whole. Soon the stench of blood was more common than smoke along the battlefield.

They had won, Gulab thought. They had defeated the enemy. Had they?

All three assault platoons linked up. Gulab found that each of them was a mix of KVW troops and Territorial Army survivors. It was a pretty colorful bunch all around. Many were walking wounded, hit in the early stages of the counterattack, and hung back from their fellows during the fighting. Others were wounded already from the defenses earlier in the day, but charged into the counterattack nonetheless. Each assault platoon was not a full compliment — casualties had been sustained. The counterattack had not been bloodless for them. However it seemed to Gulab that they had hit as hard as they had been hit, if not more. She stuck around Chadgura while she briefly discussed whether to push further with her counterparts from the other platoons. This discussion ended abruptly with the falling of a shell.

It was incongruous — a cloud of dust and a shower of debris right in front of them.

While they took notice of it, a second shell fell closer. Comrades fell back from the blast. A third and fourth, creeping upon them, throwing up fragments of steel from discarded weapons shredded in the blasts, casting smoke and dirt into the air. A shell hit right in front of the 3rd Platoon’s Ogre and sent the track guard flying; the tanks backed away from the intersection, and under increasing artillery fire the troops turned and ran as well.

From the far end of Matumaini and 2nd a vicious barrage from several guns fell over the intersection, smashing the pitted earth to pieces, vaporizing Nocht’s wounded and dead, setting new fires to the hulks of their broken vehicles, and scattering the Ayvartan troops back north.

Bitterly, Gulab ran with Chadgura and the others, watching over her shoulder as the shells fell with resounding strength. For a moment she thought she had tasted victory, but alas! Alas. She had seen War’s magnitude. She should have known it was far from over.

6th Grenadier Support Line, Matumaini 2nd

“Brought you something.”

“Is it pills? I could use some stimulants. Or a drink.”

“It’s not either of those.”

Scheiße. Well. Thank you anyway.”

Voss was worse for wear. He had tight bandages and a cloth soaking up blood on the left side of his stomach. Shell fragments from a tank gun attack had pierced both his arms, and torn a ligament. He could hardly move his right arm. It seemed only his head and face and lower body had been spared some kind of injury. When Kern stepped into the medical tent he had heard Voss joking to one of the medics that at least he still had all he needed to impress the ladies.

What a spirited soul, even in these circumstances; Kern brought him a cigar. It was still wrapped in a brown paper with a wax seal, labeled uninformatively “officer’s cigar.” He had traded one of the good rations (Breakfast #2, bratwurst, beans, eggs) for it with another soldier after lucking out with his rations from the back of the supply truck. Anyone would trade anything they’d chanced upon for the brat and beans. They’d made the trade right next to the truck!

“Well, I’m not gonna be smoking that for a while.” Voss chuckled. “But thanks kid.”

Kern nodded. He was glad to see Voss alive, in any event.

“Hart and Alfons didn’t make it. I paid my respects at their beds.” Kern said. “I didn’t know them at all, but I tried to say good things about them. I will try to remember them.”

Voss smiled. “I didn’t really know those two either. I heard someone say once you don’t really know people in the army until someone dies and you make up the eulogy.”

“That’s morbid.” Kern said, averting his eyes a little.

“S’how things work. We’re soldiers; our boots turn the country morbid.”

“I guess I don’t know you that well either.”

“No, you don’t. You couldn’t.” Voss grinned. “Name’s Johannes Voss.”

“Kern Beckert.” He extended his hand and Voss shook it gently.

“Well Kern. I don’t know where you’ll be ending up now. You kinda just followed me like a puppy dog, ha ha. Not that I mind. But I’ll be down for a while, and I’m guessing the Battalion’s gonna need some restructuring. I’ll put in a good word if you ever need it.”

“Thank you. You don’t mind if I try to find you again if I’m still alive in a few days?”

“Given the state of our battalion, I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting a lot of other visitors. So sure, I would enjoy the company. Bring some crazy stories though. You saw how we moved out there. I want you jumping windows and shooting commies too.”

Kern nodded, though he had his fingers crossed in spirit. He couldn’t really promise that.

Voss laid back in his bed and drifted off to sleep. Kern left him to it. He wouldn’t go so far as to say Voss deserved sleep — he wasn’t sure what any of them deserved — but he did not want to disturb him. Outside it was dark, night having fully fallen. It was pitch black, starless. Kern had heard warnings of stormier skies coming, which would likely delay operations. Periodically the area was lit up by a quick flash from the howitzers, like lightning from the earth. Of the battalion’s six batteries, each of which boasted 3 guns, only three batteries remained. While better positions for them were plotted, they remained in a group on Matumaini and 2nd, firing tirelessly against the intersection. Single-handedly the barrages had prevented an Ayvartan penetration into their rear echelon, or so Divisional command had boasted in a radio address. They now fired periodically round the clock, with crews taking shifts to keep them manned.

It was a panic move to buy time for reorganization and new battle plans.

Until that time, the battle for Bada Aso was temporarily postponed, it seemed.

Kern crossed a door threshold across the street, passing under rock to enter canvas. A tent had been pitched inside, where the older woman he had seen before in Aschekind’s staff, Signals Officer Hildr, looked after one of the division’s advanced radios. It had the longest range, so it was used to communicate with the Vorkampfer’s command. Of all the people in the battalion staff Kern preferred Hildr. She was a tall and somewhat stocky lady, with wavy blonde hair, a soft face with a strong nose and bright blue eyes. She was fairly pleasant to be around compared to Aschekind — terse like him in speech, but lacking the kind of restrained fury that characterized the Captain. For lack of things to do he had been told to be around to help her.

“Visit your friend, Private Beckert?” She asked off-handedly.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Captain Aschekind will be holding a meeting in a moment.”

“Should I go?”

“Might as well stay.”

Minutes later, Hildr stood in salute, and Kern clumsily mimicked her. Through the door Captain Aschekind arrived, trailed by a shorter man with slicked blond hair and a sizeably larger amount of honors on his lapel. He was boyishly handsome, and had a contented little grin on his soft-featured face — however, a tinge of red around the edges of his eyes, a little twitch in his jaw, was noticeable even in the lamp-light, and perhaps suggested some ongoing stress. Trailing him was a man almost as large and imposing as Aschekind himself, but with a sunburnt look to him, and a thick mustache that seemed linked to his sideburns and precise red beard. Both these men were Generals — Kern knew the red-bearded man as his highest direct superior, Brigadier-General Meist, commander of the 6th Grenadier Division. From what he had gleaned during the lead-up to the attack on Bada Aso, the other man must have been the general in charge of the forces city-wide, Von Sturm. He was head of the elite 13th Panzergrenadier division.

The Generals seated, while Aschekind, Hildr and Kern remained standing.

Von Sturm grinned a little. “Big fella aren’t you Aschekind? Drank a lot of milk growing up?”

“It helps build strong bones.” Aschekind said. Kern wondered if it was a joke.

Von Sturm laughed. “Good, good. What’s you two’s names?”

“Signals Officer Gudrun Hildr.”

“Jeez, what a name. Your parents must’ve picked that one prematurely.”

“Private Kern Beckert.”

“Private? Really? Are you bringing drinks to her or something?”

Kern felt a thrill down his spine when the general addressed him. It was as if a monster were calling his name before gobbling him up. “Yes sir!” He replied mindlessly.

Von Sturm looked at Hildr for a moment. “Nothing alcoholic I hope?”

“No sir.” Hildr replied. She eyed Kern critically. He cowered a little.

“Good.” Von Sturm replied. His gaze finally turned away from the lower ranks in the room.

He steepled his fingers. “Ok. So, what is the damage?”

“Still being tallied.” Aschekind replied.

“I wish you all would do math a little faster.” Von Sturm replied.

“Not a matter of math, sir. We have little access to the combat areas were we incurred most of our loses. We were pushed back kilometers. Therefore the data is still forthcoming.”

“Speaking of kilometers, how far are we from our Day 1 goals?”

“Fourteen kilometers.” Aschekind replied.

“Good God.” Von Sturm crossed his arms. His grin had completely vanished. “Explain to me, exactly, why we’re not having this meeting in the central district right now?”

Aschekind explained in his own quick and dour way.

“Dug-in positions; countless ambushes; death charges executed by fast-moving communist troops using unorthodox gear, such as wielding submachine guns primarily instead of stronger rifles; and more modern armor than anticipated. All of these factored heavily.”

“Do you have any real solutions to this based on your observations?”

“A stopgap would be to issue more automatic and heavy weapons to our own troops.”

“What, you want police maschinepistoles in soldier’s hands? We don’t have enough. And we’re having enough trouble as it is trucking guns out here. Support will continue to be committed by regulation for the foreseeable future. I don’t have time to replan the whole army.”

Aschekind gave a grim nod. “I understand, sir.”

At this point, General Meist finally intervened. He spoke gruffly through his beard and mustache. “Anton, Captain Aschekind is one of my best. We kept in contact throughout the offensive. From what I gleaned and observed, the Ayvartans have much more tenacious and fluid tactics than we anticipated. The issuing of submachine guns en masse to troops, and the use of the ruined terrain in the city to their advantage, suggest a strategic and tactical mind previously unknown to us. I request that we allow our own troops a greater freedom to counter their tactics — I wager our field commanders would more adequately challenge their counterparts on the communist side if we allocated more resources to Battalions and Companies than that which we relegate to the Divisional support level–“

“Request denied, for now.” Von Sturm interrupted him. “You’d create mass anarchy among the ranks. We have training and doctrine for a reason. It’s proven; it works.”

Kern thought he noticed Aschekind covertly scoffing at the notion.

“For tomorrow, I want us to make up for today. You will capture those 14 kilometers.”

Hildr and Aschekind saluted, perhaps begrudgingly, Kern observed. He saluted too.

Von Sturm stood up, and tapped his chair back into place at the table with his foot.

“Anyway, we’ve met now, so that should satisfy that lout Von Drachen, at any rate–“

A bright orange flash illuminated the room and street, and Von Sturm was drowned out by a nearby blast; Kern smelled and heard fire and debris. He heard a swooping noise, a laboring propeller. Von Sturm dropped under the table; Aschekind, Hildr and Meist rushed out to the street. Kern followed, and he saw the smoke, and the dancing lights and shadows along the road and street, in rhythm with the fires. Bombs had dropped among the artillery, quieting them once and for all. Norglers pointed skyward and began to fire; men rushed to tear the tarps off truck-mounted spotlights, switched them on and scanned the skies for planes. Their assailant was long gone, having made off with the lives of 20 or 30 crewmen and nine guns in the blink of an eye. There were cries all around, Flak! Vorbereiten der Flak! but even so nobody could readily find an anti-aircraft gun to prepare, for they were all part of the Divisional reserve.

“Messiah protect us,” Kern whispered, half in a daze from fear. Von Sturm appeared from behind them, livid. His own staff car had caught several pieces of shrapnel.

“Am I the only one around here paying attention to the war?” He shouted in a rage.

42nd Rifles Rear Echelon, Matumaini 4th

Night had fallen and it would soon rain. Remnants of the 42nd Rifles were gathered in a small school building off Matumaini and 4th. Division had sent down supply trucks to feed them, and staff had come to supervise a reorganization. With 42nd Rifles Regiment nearly totally destroyed in the fighting, it was being removed from the 4th OX Rifle Division and reorganized as the 1st Assault Support Battalion under the Major’s 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division. They didn’t even have enough for a real Battalion, however — there was perhaps a single company of the 42nd remaining, even if one counted the lightly wounded as part of the standing force. This was an ad-hoc move meant to salvage them to some useful purpose. Perhaps it would even work.

It also meant that for the foreseeable future, Gulab would work under Chadgura.

The Corporal returned from the supply trucks with perhaps the most apathetic face she had made yet — although it could all be Gulab’s imagination, since she swore Chadgura’s cheeks and brow barely ever seemed to move. She brought two steaming bowls of lentil curry in one big tray, along with flatbreads and fruit juice. Gulab bowed her head to her in thanks, and started to eat. Chadgura held off for a moment, praying and offering her food to the Spirits. When she was done praying she clapped her hands and ate briskly, in a disciplined fashion.

“Thanks for the curry.” Gulab said.

“No problem.”

“And, um, thanks for today, too.”

“No problem. Thank you too.”

Gulab scratched her head. It was more than a little strange talking to the Corporal. Especially thanking her so nonchalantly about saving her life from certain, painful death. Perhaps it was time to give up normality in general.

“So, you like stamps, you said?”

“I love them.”

“Any particular reason why?”

Chadgura raised her head, and rubbed her chin.

“Hmm. I like the smell of the glue and the special paper they use. I like the colors. I like the art; it reminds me of places I have been to, but they’re not photographs, so they do not prompt me to question my imagining of a place. I feel happy sticking them. They make a unique sound when peeled from the postage booklets. They have a postage value, so you can sort them by postage value as well as color and region. It is very neat. They fit well together when you stick several across a page. Very standardized and coherent. They have limited editions for special days.”

Gulab giggled. “Okay! Wow! You really do like stamps a lot.”

Chadgura nodded her head. She dipped a piece of her flatbread into the curry sauce and ate it. For a moment, Gulab thought she had seen a glint in the Corporal’s eyes as she discussed her love of stamps. Her voice had almost begun to sound emphatic. It might have all been in Gulab’s mind, however. She blew the steam off the hot curry and began to eat herself.

“Why do you like Chess?” Chadgura asked.

“It’s something I’m a little good at, I guess.” Gulab replied.

There was another long silence.

“Why did you end up joining the army?” Gulab said. “To get stamps?”

“My reasons for joining are unacceptable. I’d rather not discuss them.” Chadgura replied.

How cryptic, but then again, this was her Corporal; Gulab felt a sense of unease with herself.

“I joined the army because I wanted to go on an adventure.” Gulab said. She smiled. It was a bitter smile, full of a cruel, self-flagellating mockery. “I wanted to have an adventure like my grandfather. To leave everything and change myself. To come back as someone that the Kucha folk can’t place as simply the foolish son of my father. Someone truer to me.”

Chadgura extended her hand to Gulab’s shoulder. “I don’t really know, but I’d like to say that I think your grandfather would be proud of you. He should be proud of you.”

She clapped her hands three times, rapidly. It almost sounded like agitation.

“I think.” She added. Gulab could see her stirring a little. She was nervous.

The KVW could take away her fear of battle; but she was still shy and anxious.

“Maybe he shouldn’t.” Gulab said. “And maybe it shouldn’t matter.”

“Perhaps. Self-validation is important, I think.” Chadgura said.

They were quiet a moment; the conversation had gotten away from both.

Chadgura clapped her hands again and then started to speak once more.

“It rings hollow, I understand, since we have only worked a day together. But I have you to thank for this.” Chadgura opened her sidepack, and showed Gulab a little book. Inside were pages upon pages of meticulously glued postage stamps, sorted by Dominance and Region and by major colors. It was a stamp collection album. “I will hold you in the highest esteem for allowing me to return safe and sound to my stamps. Please, do me the honor.” She withdrew a second book, this one a common stamp book out of the Bada Aso post office. She spread open a page, and held it out to Gulab. “Pick a stamp and stick it next to the others.”

This was an incredibly corny honor to be given; Gulab felt almost as much flattered as embarrassed by it. But in a way the sincere words of the Corporal, delivered in her characteristically deadpan way, served to wring her away from her problems. She graciously picked a stamp depicting the Kucha mountains, which she felt was very appropriate at the moment, and gingerly stuck it beside the others on one of the album pages.

She returned the album and Chadgura stared at it seriously.

“I did not think this through.” Chadgura said, leafing through the pages again. “I apologize for my confusion, but you,” she paused for a moment, and uncharacteristically repeated the word, “you, you glued it on the wrong page, Private Kajari. That stamp should have been on the other side of the page, on the purple page for Bada Aso, with the other purple stamps.”

Despite her hollow voice, she sounded distressed. Graciously, Gulab took the album, peeled the stamp as gently as possible, and stuck it again on the correct page. She returned the album.

Corporal Chadgura snapped it from her and hugged it to her chest. “Thank you, Private.”

“You’re welcome, Corporal.” Gulab said. She smiled, this time sincerely.

What a bizarre thing, war was; near to a thousand of her comrades had died this day, but Gulab was most grateful than she and one other woman had not. Perhaps the only mourning that would do, was simply to keep fighting, to lead the life for herself that was taken from her comrades. At the time, she could only think of curry and stamps, and the time Grandfather braided her hair and told her it was her beard.

 * * *

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — View From The Cathedral