The Fallen General (40.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Tambwe-Ajdar Border — Ghede River

Despite the amount of bodies pressed to either side of the river, everyone could still hear the sloshing of the water as it rushed downstream. Everyone was silent. Breaths reached farther than bullets, and faster. Ghede was a slow conquest, and an even slower defense.

Eyes peered over boulders, around sandbags, over grass-covered outcroppings upon which they lay belly-down with scopes and binoculars, peering downhill or uphill over the stream. Shadows flitted around trees, behind bushes. The opposing fronts were separated by only the width of the Ghede. In some areas the lines were as close as a hundred meters. Had it not been for the water they could have charged bayonet-first.

Despite the water, charging bayonet-first was still the choice outcome.

In several places the Ghede was only a half-dozen meters deep, and the rhythm of the battle was predicated on this fact. Men could swim across, if given the opportunity.

Lacking the mobility to cross quickly, the dueling sides fell into a war of munitions.

On the Nochtish side, mortar tubes were gathered by the dozens. Anti-tank and artillery guns of small calibers were pushed to the line of bushes at the edge of the wood, fifty meters from the river and nearly three hundred from the nearest Ayvartan position – not much, but enough to go unnoticed. Snipers climbed to the bushy canopy and adjusted their scopes. Light M5 tanks hid behind the tree line, and adjusted their guns to the same shooting tables in use by the anti-tank guns. Across a river they were merely mobile guns. There would be not armored blitzkrieg over the water of the Ghede yet.

Lines of foxholes formed a divide eerily reminiscent of the battles of the Unification War period, where two trench lines separated by a thousand meter no-man’s-land stared at one another for months, some years, before new technology entered the picture and caused a shift. Whether the abominable but ultimately slight shift caused by chemical weapons – or the dramatic, tide-turning shift caused by the entry of Nochtish tanks.

No new technology would cause a shift here in the Ghede, and the soldiers only wished they had a professional-looking trench line. Scattered foxholes and sandbag walls were broken up by the dips and rises of the uneven riverbanks, and the intermittently rocky and sandy and grassy terrain. Riflemen scraped from various divisions, agglomerated into the new 13th Panzer Division, waited sleepily for the next offensive to be declared.

There had been a few previous build-ups and failed attacks, but the lull between them felt like years’ worth of peace. Munitions built up, and men awaited commands, but on the Nochtish side of the Ghede there was a lazy, almost contented mood, like that of a holiday. There were no Generals here, no shouting orders, just distant voices, the sporadic tossing of a few shells, and half-hearted attempts to wade into the foam.

Bullets wailed and blood splashed, but after the fact everything was easily forgotten.

Until the next build-up, the next command word, the next attack.

“Noble cause.”

When the command came the landser crouched beside the field radio box could scarcely identify it as such. He raised an eyebrow at the strange call and the handset shifted against his ear with the shaking of his hand. Turning his head, he signaled to his superiors nearby that he was on the line. He then cleared his throat, and called back.

“Say again?”

“Noble cause,” came Chief of Signals Fruehauf’s voice once more.

“Noble cause?”

Fruehauf did not reply and the line went suddenly dead.

For several moments the radio man stood staring off into the distance.

He shook his head and his wits returned to him. Noble cause was the command.

That meant this build-up was now complete, and all munitions were to be released.

“We’ve been activated.” He whispered to the nearest man. “Pass it on.”

Word spread quietly across the line. Ayvartans monitored the radio traffic, or so everyone had been told; and they could see and hear across the river fairly well during quiet periods like this one. Therefore the rallying cry could not be loud or electric. Hands and tongues passed along the command, across every gun in the 10.5 cm battery, through the hatches of every M5 Ranger, behind the shields of every 37mm doorknocker gun, to every three-man Norgler machine gun team, into every foxhole and sniper nest.

“Noble cause, we’ve been activated.”

Guns of all sizes were loaded. Discarded helmets set back on vacant heads. Bayonets lugged, for no clear purpose. Men scrambled up, looking out over the river once more. Their movements were mechanical, reflexive, their minds still catching up to the events.

Once the entire river-front had been alerted, a runner was sent back to the guns.

Infantry would fire after the mortars and cannons drew the first blood.

With his upper body bowed low the man took off running.

He made it scarcely a few meters before he heard death whistle overhead.

A column of gray smoke and dirt, seething with hot metal, blossomed behind the trenches, and the runner went flying into a nearby tree, splashing blood and flesh.

They were preempted, despite careful planning.

The Ayvartans had gotten wind of the impending attack.

No sooner had the landsers noticed their dead man that munitions started falling over their line by the dozen, exploding all along the river-front. Small mortar shells came quickest, hitting the earth hundreds a minute along every kilometer of enemy positions, casting thin plumes of smoke and dirt into the air. Fragments of metal went flying over every foxhole and trench, and men huddled to their knees to escape the airborne death.

Following the mortars came the ponderous fire of much larger guns, striking farther behind the front, smashing trees, vaporizing bushes, torching holes into the thick green canopy above. Chunks of wood like flying stakes joined the shell fragments in the air. Thousands of fragments and fast-flying debris struck shields and thick trunks and the metal armor of tanks, hitting cover with such frequency it resembled automatic fire.

Amid the thunderous pounding of the enemy artillery, Landsers scrambled to their combat positions, bracing machine guns over rocks, pulling up to the edge of the riverbank on their bellies or scarcely above their holes and raising their battle rifles. As they joined battle their green tracers flew over the water, snapping branches and biting into rocks and flying into bushes. Between the rhythmic pounding of enemy ordnance the infernal noise of the norgler machine guns filled the silence, and lit the air green.

Lines of green bullets stretched over the river, and lines of red flew back the other way.

Behind the infantry line the air stirred as the 10.5 cm batteries finally retaliated.

Within the opposing tree-line the Nochtish fighters saw bright flashes as their own shells went off on the enemy, raising their own pillars of turf and metal as they struck.

There were flashes brighter still as enemy guns lobbed shells directly over their heads.

At the center of the line, a boulder was smashed to pieces as a 122mm Ayvartan gun struck it with direct fire. Chunks of hot rock struck against helmets and sandbags.

Red machine gun tracers from the Ayvartan side bounced off rocks and kicked up lines of dirt and overflew the foxholes, chopping up bushes behind them. Men scrambled to keep under the slicing red lines, unable to hear the thock-thock-thock of the Ayvartan machine gun over the cacophony of explosives landing by the dozens all around them.

Snipers perched atop the trees briefly glanced at the fire flying under their feet before returning to their scopes. They peered across the river, trying to discern the shadows from the enemy troops. The Ayvartan’s side of the river had much less space between the water and the treeline, and the entire Ayvartan line was cloaked in the vegetation.

But the difference between a rustling branch and a shooter was obvious – one flashed red and the other did not. Aiming for the muzzle flashes, snipers shot into the dark, moving from flash to flash in the hopes of scoring a maiming hit. As positions shifted and munitions discharged, however, new flashes and new targets appeared, as if a hundred shining eyes belonging to a monster, and no real effect could be discerned.

Joining the rest of the artillery, the company of M5 Rangers assisting the river offensive dug into the forest and fired blindly into the sky and through the trees, following the coordinates on the shooting tables. Theirs was the most solipsistic work within the battle. Encased in metal, the gunner and commander could hardly see around them in the wood, and the work of shooting was purely mathematical. They were shielded entirely from retaliatory fire, and only when the tank shifted positions to protect itself did the crew seem to awaken from the mechanical slumber of shooting and loading.

In theory an enemy was being hit, but the tank crews would not know it. Even the landsers at the front line, withstanding the brunt of the enemy barrages, couldn’t tell a tank shell apart from any other artillery, much less guess at whether it was accurate. It was all explosions to them, dirt flying and metal slicing through the air and fire briefly rising and abating within seconds. Whether across the river or around them.

Fire and fragments, an atmosphere thick with smoke; everyone was awakening from their dream-like haze to the violence of the Ghede. The first injured were dragged away through the tree-line, and men rushed from behind the tanks to take up vacated holes. Guns and tanks and machine gunners took the lead from the riflemen who clumsily began the battle, and the munitions war played out over every foxhole and trench.

Across days of the mind this war raged, but in the physical realm it was only minutes.

Then the final shell crashed down on the Nochtish side. Nobody was hurt.

Slowly the fire subsided, the colored lines vanishing from the air. Silence followed. Only the crackling of dust, falling to earth, could be heard. Neither side launched an attack.

Within the hectic moment of this offensive, nobody had bothered to cross the water.


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The Fallen Front (39.1)

This scene contains descriptions of burning and violence.


35th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Dominance — Bada Aso, Matumaini Street

Far in the distance, the spiraling pillar of fire and smoke reached out to the heavens, piercing the skies like a javelin hurled from hell. At the epicenter everything burned in moments, and then the fire crept through everything flammable, bursting through every gas line, every petrol tank, through cracks in the streets and roads, over roofs.

It was the most visible thing to the fleeing grenadier. There was nothing but that hellish edifice at his back, and the whistling fires that swarmed over every available surface.

In the heat the flames took the shape of demon’s hands, hungry and greedy.

He ran with all of his might as the red fingers snatched at him from all sides.

Whenever they closed he felt the burning, the agonizing, all-encompassing heat.

There was no part of his body that did not go white-hot, that did not hurt as if bubbling and warping within his skin. He felt that he would melt, even in the open street. He felt the agonizing pressure of the fires everywhere, building over his skin and inside his guts.

His helmet became hot a a frying pan and he threw it away before it cooked his brains.

His vision swam and he could only barely tell he was running by his own clumsy footfalls.

Everything around him raged and thrashed, everything tore and shook and warped.

Angry red tongues slithered from windows in a burst of glass and concrete.

Creeping orange-blue claws reached from the cracking earth to seize him.

Where there was not red fire there was black smoke that made him choke and cry.

Mid-run he searched desperately in every pouch, every pocket. He threw away everything but his gas mask, casting aside his smoking coat and his belts, and donned the object. It was hot, and it hurt, but it cleared his head, allowing him to breathe. Behind him his ammunition cooked off in its pouches. His coat slowly disintegrated in the oven.

Everything hurt. His heart pounded, his teeth chattered, and he screamed.

He screamed for release, for some measure of relief. But he found no respite.

No street numbers, no landmarks; everything wavered within the inferno.

Every second that passed, he felt, as if time was slowed around him. He felt every minute instant of pain, every touch of hurt over his flesh, a horrifying depth of pain.

Layers and layers of agony washed over him but he would not allow himself to stop.

He ran with all of his might, knowing he would be consumed if he did not take each step.

With every step he found the fires staying farther and farther behind. Sweet release!

Gathering the last of his strength, he hurled himself past the fire and into smoke.

He found his body slowly freed from the burning grip of the demons.

In front of him, wavering in the haze, was the hole in the center of Matumaini.

That hole that had been blown in by the artillery; it was the only form of cover.

He dashed for the hole, hearing laughter in his head coming from all sides.

Bada Aso’s burning demons hungered for him, hungered for everything. 

“Help! Help me!”

That voice was not the demons and was not his own. It was his mother tongue, almost forgotten in the scramble. He stopped at the edge of the aperture, and a greater human instinct overtook him. His stressed body, outside the flame, found some equilibrium, enough to pause, to take stock, to gather breath, and to scan the surroundings.

He turned his head over his shoulder and gazed into the creeping wall of fire.

How had he escaped such a thing? He did not know.

“Help me!”

Over the strange crackling sound of the flames, he heard the voice again.

Dashing away from the hole, the grenadier hurried to a nearby ruin, and pushed through the half-collapsed doorway into the rubble. The building had become a skeleton of rebar and concrete that held inside it a mound of gently smoking wood and stone from its ceilings.

There was another scream, and it was much closer. Quickly pushing away rubble, the grenadier found a comrade, trapped under a chunk of board and filler that had fallen.

“I’m here to help you! Try to slide out when I pull it up!” He shouted.

Below him, the trapped person, his face also covered by a gas mask, nodded his head. His screams subsided into gasping, quavering cries between sharp, panicked breaths.

The grenadier seized the slab of debris and lifted it with all of his strength.

From beneath the rubble the trapped soldier slipped out and dashed to the door without another word. The grenadier dropped the slab, and was about to go after him, but the trapped soldier stopped at the door. He was framed suddenly in a bright light.

In front of them, a column of fire and smoke blew skyward from the Matumaini crater.

Black smoke belched from the street and into their building, sucking out the air.

Once more the heat began to permeate their environment.

Their remaining clothes smoked.

While the trapped man stood transfixed at the door, the grenadier slowly and gently settled behind the mound of rubble, nestled into the bowels of the ruin with his arms around his knees and his legs against his chest. All of his energy had left him.

Outside the fires crept and crept, until they overtook them, and everything.


36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, Bada Aso Outskirts

Bada Aso, jewel of the Adjar Dominance, became a ruin choked in smoke and bursting with flames. Although the fires had long since reached their peak, having risen so far that people swore to have seen them from the sea or beyond the mountains, in their place they left a pillar of smoke, a black tower that descended slowly overnight until it covered the area in a choking gloom. Inside the cloud seething red bursts flashed every other hour, whenever something new erupted, snapping like lightning contained in an earthbound sky.

There were still things to burn, and so the unseen demons unleashed from beneath Bada Aso’s earth continued to feed. Some untouched gas line, some discarded petrol container, some hidden pocket of the monstrous gas still dormant below the red-hot earth; whatever the red claws of this monster grasped, instantly and violently exploded and burned.

Von Sturm stood dumbfounded atop a hill in the outskirts of the city. His blonde, slightly wavy hair was disheveled, sticking up; he had not had the presence of mind to gel it back into the smart style he usually wore. He was a short, soft-faced man who looked as if too boyish, too unripe for war, and facing the devastated city, his youth seemed all the more pernicious. It made him seem smaller, helpless, easier to break where he stood.

Through his tear-swollen, reddened eyes and through the foggy lenses of his binoculars, the General watched silently as the fire and smoke carried on its implacable course.

One night’s fitful sleep was not enough to make sense of the scale of the carnage. Yesterday he was leading a triumphant assault; today he was thoroughly beaten, his forces, his battlefield, everything blasted to pieces too dramatically for even the wildest imgination. For once, he had a sense of fear so strong that it stifled his passion and a sense of confusion and helplessness that overwhelmed his pride. He had no idea what to do.

It was as if his mind had burnt away with the city, and there was only the holy awe left.

He was staring into the billowing black face of a god as it ate his city, the city out of which he was destined to lead a glorious campaign that would cement his name in history. Matumaini, the Umaiha Riverside, Penance, the central districts, the open, grassy north of the city upon which he had intended to blitz through with his tanks, all of it was buried under that black cloud and the red bursts that periodically raged enough to be seen through it.

Just after the explosion, much of the city could still be seen, in the midst of its destruction. As the survivors retreated from it, and the smoke slowly descended, everything was obscured. At the edges of the city he could see fires spreading as if fed by invisible magma.

Any farther and the cloud became too thick to really see through. He could see outlines, sometimes, when something exploded violently enough. Outlines of ruined buildings that jutted at alien angles and seemed like architecture from hell. Faces, he saw them too; groaning, hurting faces in the cloud; cheerful, mad-driven grimaces in the fires–

That might have been his own head. He was afraid to confirm these sights with others.

Nobody came to fetch him, but the movement of the sun overhead indicated to Von Sturm that a long time had passed. He had been transfixed with the flames and smoke, drawn as if out of his own body to watch the devastation unfold in a dull, quiet panic.

Slowly he pried himself from the grip of Bada Aso. He scanned the surroundings with his binoculars. He watched the road. A line of water-tank equipped Sd.Kfz B Squire half-tracks wound their way toward the city, carrying a platoon of fire-fighters armed with everything they could muster to fight the fires and look for survivors in the black poison. Water guns, shovels, asbestos suits with oxygen masks; they were diving into hell now.

In a time that felt like another world away, Bada Aso and its port were critical to the supply line running through Adjar and aiding in the push to Tambwe. Putting out the burning city was necessary, but seeing it from the hill, Von Sturm found it a hopeless task.

He felt a strange desire to reach out with his hands and stop them. To tell them to stop. To tell them that it was futile, that it couldn’t be fought, that nobody would be in there. That there was nothing here for them, on this continent, that they should’ve never–

But he stopped. Stopping them, stopping this, meant the final death of him.

What else could one call rendering irrelevant nearly a decade of one’s life?

Von Sturm felt the fear of a God much closer to him; the peril of his own existence.

There was too much inertia here to stop. Too much inertia in the wheels of those armored carriers, in the solemn hearts of those men, and in the angry, desperate need of the man with the violent, noble surname who could not now stop. There was a weight of history behind them that would– no, must, carry them all forward. In a fraction of a second, the doubt was dispelled from him, and buried, and forgotten. Because it had to be.

Von Sturm left the holy awe behind and turned his back on Bada Aso as he turned his back on all other useless things. For his simple ambitions, no introspection was necessary. His heart hardened again, encased so that it could neither breathe nor bleed in this war.

But It wouldn’t be the same as before. His hands were still shaking. His eyes were still red.

There was a chain-link in him that had been inexorably severed, just as the 1st Vorkampfer had been inexorably destroyed and Bada Aso inexorably burnt to the ground.

He returned to his command post to await his demotion, and to seize back control of his weary staff from the panic of the moment. Yelling at others would at least distract him.

Far in the background, another explosion raged within the cloud. Its sound shook him.

It was like laughter.


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The 1st Regimental Headquarters (37.1)

This story segment contains violence and some frightening imagery.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Red Banner Apartments

Madiha woke in the middle of the night in a bleary, dream-like haze where every angle became soft and everything except the edges of her vision was a rolling blur. Her shirt clung to her back and breast, cold and wet with a midnight sweat, and she felt a terrible headache and stomachache, borne of stress and lack of restful sleep. When she moved her fingers, hands, feet, they felt too heavy and too limp, alternating at a moment’s notice.

She heard something heavy hit the windowsill and it reverberated in her skull.

Alarmed, Madiha stumbled upright, and nearly hit her set of drawers as she made toward the open window. Her vision warped, tilted, came in and out, until it settled.

Framed in the moonlight, Kali stood guard at the windowsill, growling softly.

Half-closing her eyes, squinting to see, Madiha approached. Holding herself up by the curtains, she leaned half out of the window and scanned the street and the road.

Her eyes were aimless at first, but were then drawn in by the mask.

Across the street, the standing thing was shorter than an adult human.

It wore a fully white mask, featureless save for an inset gold face the size of a nose.

This small face on the mask had its own dull impression of a nose and tiny slitted eyes that moved haphazardly around like spinning billiard balls when stricken by the cue.

When they stopped moving they focused on her briefly. She felt their weight even from this far. Then they would roll again like a slot machine, moving inside and out of their sockets.

Everything of the creature’s face was obscured by the mask saved for a red chin and mouth, lips broken, a faint impression of white teeth. Around the edges of the mask was the black line formed by a thick hood that covered the being’s entire body save for its five long, dangling limbs that would occasionally thrash and dance like flailing noodles.

Nothing of the creature was congruous — every limb a different size, one shoulder lower than the other, one leg taller, and its visible mouth slanted to one side.

“Majini.” Madiha whispered to herself.

Her drawing of breath alerted the creature. Under its hood its thick legs stirred. It turned from the street to the window, and the little gold face on its white mask sniffed the air.

Jagged teeth burst through from between the creature’s lips in every direction.

Madiha’s recently recovered life flashed in her mind.

She felt those arms closing around her neck, a little neck, a child’s neck.

She felt the kicking and screaming, and the crunching of the mask as a brick struck the face in the middle and drew copious, filthy-smelling blood and shrieking screams.

“I killed you all.” Madiha’s jaw quivered. “I thought–”

A click-clacking, gurgling scream interrupted her.

Red spittle flew from the creature’s gnashing jaws. Hands flailing as if pulling on the air, the monsters twitched from one place to the next, hurtling toward the window. It moved like a cheetah on a full sprint, but it accelerated to a charge from a standing position in a second flat, and in an instant it tumbled from the street over the flower beds flanking the steps to the apartment building’s stairs, and slammed a pair of fists into the brick.

Its neck cracked as it craned its head to stare at the window.

Around the edges of its lips the teeth turned as if spinning on a wheel.

Madiha reached into her undershirt instinctively, but it was not her tunic, it did not have her holster. All of that was back at the foot of her bed, discarded. She drew back.

Raising a hand to her temple, she drew on the fire, the primordial fire.

Her eyes burnt, and the edges of her sight went red.

Every second the red was expanding, and smoke covered her vision.

All other Majini had perished in the heat of this ancient flame.

This one would join them.

“Kali, run!” Madiha cried out, her legs buckling as she struggled to kindle the flame.

Kali did not retreat as instructed.

It reared back on the window and drew air into its mouth.

In front of the window the creature appeared for a split second in mid-leap.

Kali breathed out the window, launching a blurring cone of barely-visible force.

Madiha could not hear the sound, but she felt it inside her head and in her gut.

Outside the window the Majini fell to the ground with a thud and let out its own cry.

At once Madiha’s concentration broke, and the flame she nursed was snuffed out.

Night’s colors returned to her surroundings, and all of the red was gone.

In its place there was only a sting and a nosebleed.

Madiha hurried to the window and found the creature’s mask shattered into bloody pieces. Its limbs were snapped and twisted by the strength of Kali’s breath, and its hood caved in at the center. Soon it began to die the Majini’s death — it disappeared slowly. As the body and cloak melted away like wax and sank through the earth itself, Madiha saw the impression of a sewn-up face flash briefly from behind the shards of white porcelain.

It was gone as if it had never existed.

Madiha gingerly reached a finger to her blood-soaked upper lip.

The pain of her own brains burning felt very real, but nothing else did.


A thin shaft of light expanded across Madiha’s window to encompass much of her room as the apartment bore the full brunt of Rangda’s dawn. At pace with the light a small, dragon-shape shadow extended across the room, the bed, and over Madiha’s face.

Madiha opened her eyes, facing the ceiling. She turned her head to face the window.

Last night felt like a dream. Some parts she could confirm, but others were ephemeral.

She touched her thin nose, and removed a pair of bloody tissue papers from it.

No more blood drew from her nostrils. And the psychic sting in her brain had passed.

She sighed. As a child she could throw several flares before feeling anything.

It seemed she would not have to start over from scratch.

As she sat up by the side of her bed, eyeing her uniform and hazily piecing back together her plans for the day, someone knocked on the door twice quickly.

The door then opened a crack, and Parinita peeked her head in cheerfully.

“I come bearing gifts!” She shouted, holding a paper bag in her hand.

Seeing Madiha sweaty and in her underwear, a little gasp escaped her glossy pink lips.

“Sorry! I shouldn’t have barged in. Should I go?”

Madiha shook her head, gently waving about her black hair, nearer to shoulder length after almost a month of new growth, and messy from her tumultuous sleep. She stood up off the bed, leaned back, raised her arms, pushed her chest forward and let out a yawn. Glistening sweat delineated the lines of lean muscle on her bare limbs, and trickled down the brown skin of her slim, toned body. She felt no hint of awkwardness.

“It’s perfectly fine.” She said, through a long exhalation. “So long as it’s just you.”

Parinita laughed, delicately covering her mouth with her hand while ogling.

“I suppose it’s alright anyway since we’re both girls–”

At the window, Kali groaned audibly and slammed its tail on the wall.

“Eep! It still doesn’t like me.” Parinita moaned, retreating further behind the door.

Madiha shot Kali a frowning look.

“It’ll have to warm up to you eventually.” She said, in the tone of a command.

Kali blew a little air from the nostrils at the edge of its beak.

Madiha shook her head at it. “Come in Parinita, don’t stay by the doorway.”

Parinita nodded. She entered, her hair pulled into a ponytail, wearing a fresh skirt and dress uniform. A light dusting of cosmetics gave her lightly bronzed skin a bit of a blush, and the reading spectacles perched on her nose made her look more a secretary than ever. She wore a skirt uniform and a pair of classy flat shoes in green to match. Though fairly fit, Parinita was slightly rounder and softer than Madiha in form, and at least ten centimeters shorter.

Examining her, Madiha felt a little thrill in her chest. She was always a lovely sight.

Closing the door behind herself, Parinita tottered up to Madiha, and put her hands on the woman’s head. Madiha felt a cooling touch seep in through her cheeks and smiled as a wonderful, relaxing feeling spread through her, touching her strained body and her too-hot heart and head. She locked eyes with her secretary as the eldritch fires invisibly dispersed.

“You are far too hot this morning, Colonel.” Parinita said, smiling faintly.

Her hands were still on Madiha’s face. Madiha reached her own hand up to touch hers.

“I’m still unsure exactly how it happened.” Madiha said. It played into the little entendre Parinita might have been setting up, but it was also true. Her memory of the past night was a fading blur. She recognized something happened, but it felt too unreal to be true.

“Just be careful with it.” Parinita said. “I might not always be around catch sight of it.”

“Someday I’m going to have to interrogate you about that.” Madiha said, smiling.

“I owe you the conversation.” Parinita replied. “But we’d need more time than we have.”

Madiha nodded. Like her, Parinita had her own illogical secrets, and she probably yearned to share them. Madiha was perhaps the only soul who could relate to the alien things Parinita must have known. But life always pulled them harshly in certain directions, and they hadn’t yet found enough peace to fully confess to one another. Each of them held pieces of the other’s puzzle; everything was strewn on the floor without interlocking.

And yet it felt like both of them could still see a lot of the picture nevertheless.

Their day would come sooner or later, but Madiha felt that they had an unspoken understanding on this matter regardless. Each was drawn to the other, sharing a kinship in and out of battle since the day they were thrust, violently, into each other’s orbit.

It was rushed, and strange, and perhaps dysfunctional. And yet it felt natural.

Had not Aer and its Moon been bound together by a cosmic disaster? That was the last science Madiha read on the subject. The two were inseparable now. It felt quite right.

Contented, Madiha replied, “I’m not worried. We’ll discuss everything when it’s right.”

Parinita nodded her head, tufts of strawberry hair bouncing just over her forehead.

In a way, Madiha felt like she already knew everything. Such was their bond now.

After lingering for several moments, their eyes, so tightly locked before, finally parted, and they set about preparing for the day. Madiha entered the adjacent bathroom to wash her face and teeth, and Parinita returned to the door, and took from a hanger outside the apartment a fresh uniform and a bundle of needed sundries that had been left for the Colonel, and set it down on the bed for her. When Madiha returned, she sat at the edge of the bed and set apart all the layers of her uniform to begin dressing up.

“What’s on the agenda today?” Madiha asked while picking out her socks. She quickly found that she had been given were women’s long stockings, which she never wore.

Sighing, she pulled them up along her long legs.

Parinita giggled at the sight. “Hopefully we can get the headquarters ready by today, I’m thinking that will take the bulk of the afternoon to do. We also need to go over our table of organization and draft some simple training programs our troops can start on soon.”

As she listened, Madiha mechanically donned a white shirt, hastily buttoned the collar, and started doing her long red tie in a simple knot; seeing this, Parinita reached suddenly down, pushed her hands aside, and finished tying it herself. Madiha was surprised.

“I know how to tie it.” She said, as her secretary’s skillful hands completed the knot.

“Think so? Give it a quick look.” Parinita cheekily said.

Madiha pulled her tie up and stared at the knot. Somehow the red and gold lines of the tie formed a complicated pattern. Parinita had managed to divide the knot into neat little quadrants. It was a much more eyecatching knot than anything Madiha knew how to do.

“Oh ho ho! You see? It’s called a lover’s knot, because it’s hard to tie it for yourself.”

Parinita stuck out her chest, satisfied with herself, while Madiha turned a little red.

Once the Colonel was fully in uniform once more, Parinita combed her hair as best as she could, and the two of them left the building side by side to get a start on the day. Parinita handed her some candied fruit and a bread roll from the bag she had brought into the room, and they ate as they went. A fuller breakfast could wait. Madiha expected to relocate to the base quickly. She started thinking about hailing a cab to take them.

Directly outside, a sleek black soft-top car with its canopy pulled back awaited them.

Behind the wheel of the car, reading a newspaper, Logia Minardo leaned back on the chair. Her uniform looked as crisp as ever, and her cheeks and lips were delicately touched with pigments, but her hair wasn’t collected into a bun. It hung down to her shoulders, a little messy, looking recently wet. Perched on her nose were a pair of shaded glasses.

The Staff Sergeant had a pen and paper in hand and was plotting out the daily crossword puzzle on the driver’s seat. When the door to the apartments opened and shut, Minardo turned her head, spotted her superiors, and waved her pen to greet them.

She pointed at the newspaper.

“Do either of you know an eight-letter word for ‘used to make instrument strings?'”

Madiha blinked hard at her, still bewildered by the vehicle, while Parinita smiled.

“Drakegut!” Parinita cheerfully replied, after less than a second’s hesitation.

At the open window to Madiha’s room, Kali shuddered violently and bowed its head.

Minardo looked down at the paper, counted the spaces, and wrote it down.

“Perfect! As a token of my gratitude, you get a free ride.” She said, winking.

Madiha tipped her head with confusion. She still could not place the car. Her companion was much more energized by the prospect. Cheering, Parinita took Madiha by the hand and led her to the vehicle, pushing her into the back seat and making a big show of sitting near her.

“We have our own chauffeur Madiha!” She chirped. “Now we’re VIPs!”

Instead of metal seats like the scout cars, this civilian model car had plush wool-stuffed seats. The back seat was especially bouncy and comfortable, with a tall, rounded backrest. A roomy interior accommodated the two passengers well, with sizable legroom. Even the floor was snazzy, softly carpeted in a gray color that complimented the shiny black exterior.

All of this was posh, but the most stunning piece on the car was the dashboard radio.

It was set into the middle of the car’s front, extending the instruments panel.

Separating the driver’s and the front passengers’ legroom was the radio’s thick box, with a printed meter and needle in a white plate on the front. A piece of paper taped to the dashboard contained a list of civilian frequencies, scribbled in Minardo’s compact and neat writing. Aware of everyone’s attention on this item, Minardo turned it up. Immediately a steady drum beat, energetic shakers and quick strings played from the large speakers.

“Wonderful, isn’t it? Very dancey!” Minardo shouted over the radio.

Parinita’s face lit up, and she clapped her hands and nodded along to the music.

“Minardo, where did you get this? How did you get this?” Madiha snapped.

Unconcerned, Minardo turned down the volume on the radio, until the drums became background noise, “It’s a M.A.W. Bijali 2030! It’s brand new, fresh out of the depots.”

She sounded quite excited, but this information only made everything more puzzling.

“That does not answer my question at all!” Madiha replied.

On the rear-view mirror, Minardo winked again. “To some people, I’m a VIP, Colonel.”

“Neither does that! What do you even mean?” Madiha demanded.

In lieu of an answer, Minardo hit the clutch, pulled the stick back, and started to gently slide out from the side of the street and onto the road. She crept little by little onto the asphalt and then corrected the nose of the car, and with the gentlest little step on the acceleration pedal, she started them forward at about fifteen kilometers per hour.

There were no other vehicles in the immediate vicinity, and few people on the streets.

Structures and pedestrians scrolled leisurely by as the car inched forward.

“Just relax, Colonel! You’re looking too high strung this morning!” Minardo said.

Madiha let go of a deep breath and dropped against the seat, defeated.

There was a bump behind them. Kali dropped onto the back of the car and laid on the rolled back canvas frame of the vehicle’s soft canopy. It yawned and purred at them.

“It better not scratch the paint!” Minardo cried out.

Kali growled lightly and made a show of retracting its claws.

Madiha said nothing.

After several minutes, Minardo finally shifted to second gear, and accelerated to a relaxing thirty kilometers per hour. They did not go the direct route to the base. Instead, Minardo seemed to delight in taking them for a very leisurely little stroll around the corner from the apartment and farther north into the urban heart of Rangda.

It felt more like riding a horse-drawn carriage than a brand new car.

“Don’t just stare ahead!” She instructed. “Give your necks some exercise! Rangda has a lot of scenery. Our ratty old base won’t go anywhere. Try to enjoy the town for a bit!”

Madiha grumbled inaudibly, annoyed at the distraction. She turned her head away.

On the adjacent street, a teenage girl, perhaps training for a dash, bolted past their car.

“Minardo, you could stand to go a little faster.” Parinita said, her enthusiasm deflated.

Up front, their driver adjusted her rearview mirror so she could see them and scowl.

“Why, I never! I’m with child! If I have an accident, what would become of my baby?”

Parinita looked puzzled, but she kept quiet, perhaps seeing as how she had already stepped on her own tongue around Minardo once before on this very subject.  She sighed.

“Well, there are better services for orphans now than ever in Ayvarta’s history.”

Madiha spoke up nonchalantly, holding her head up with a fist against her cheek and an elbow on the car door, staring at the street. She thought she sounded perfectly logical, but from the startled way that Parinita turned to stare at her, she surmised she had done wrong.

Minardo practically growled. “There wouldn’t be an orphan born at all if I was hurt badly!”

“Oh.” Madiha said. Somehow those dots had not connected fully for her before.

From her tunic, Parinita withdrew an army code booklet and tapped Madiha in the head with the book’s spine. Madiha took her scolding with as much dignity as she could muster.


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Gloom On The Shining Port (36.1)

This story segment contains brief violence.


42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Core Ocean — West Ayvartan Waters

At noon, amid the deep blue of the ocean, the Heavy Cruiser Revenant launched a floatplane patrol. Near the bow of the ship, the Revenant’s two catapults were turned northward and Remora float planes hurled to begin their journey. Each would cover hundreds of kilometers of sea and return within hours, reporting via radio any contacts with enemy ships.

From the operations deck, at the fore of the massive, armored citadel of the ship’s forward superstructure, Captain-At-Sea Monashir stood with her hands behind her back, staring seriously at their operational map of the West Ayvartan Naval Sector, as they knew it in their strategic planning. Her chief concern now was the Bundesmarine of Nocht.

At her flanks, the Selkie class frigates and the Aircraft Carrier Admiral Qote were getting ready to depart and rejoin the East Ayvartan Fleet as a potential defense against Hanwa, whose role in the conflict everyone suspected, but no one knew for certain. In any conflict with Hanwa, their first strike would definitely be an assault on the nation’s Navy, and likely a first-strike against their naval command. Chayat was sure to become a target.

Admiral Qote would certainly be needed in such a situation. Not so much the Revenant.

As such it would be up to the Revenant to escort the Charybdis back to Rangda in Tambwe, while the Admiral Qote was relocated, and the Selkies covered it in transit.

Captain Monashir was used to acting alone or on limited resources. Nevertheless it paid to be cautious and use everything at her disposal. Before her support ships departed, Captain Monashir had requested enough time for a full reconnaissance patrol. The Admiral Qote had gracefully acquiesced to her request and delayed its departure a few hours.

She waited with her breath held in her chest, surrounded by radio and navigation equipment, viewing the ocean through slit windows at the front of the compartment.

Though she loved the view of the sea, it was no longer important to the crew.

In this new age of warfare, what she saw with her senses hardly mattered to the fight. A battle might be decided far before she even knew a battle was imminent. Seaplane recon was the best Monashir could hope for at the moment. The Revenant had an underwater sound detection system, and while the navy was intrigued by the ARG-2’s capabilities in Bada Aso, there was no time currently to install such a thing on the Revenant.

She watched her float monoplanes launched, and could not quite see them fly away.

Radio reports came in every fifteen minutes from both planes.

No contacts; clear seas; etc, for the first few hours.

Then a report came in: “Remora-3 has sighted a heavy cruiser. Looks like a Lubon Gloucester judging by all the big guns strapped to it ma’am. I don’t see any supporting ships, and it seems westbound. It’s far from home. I can’t imagine what it’s up to.”

That’s what it took; in this age of aircraft and signals, those words were worth more than the sharpest eyes on the deck of any ship. She had her contacts, hundreds of kilometers away.

Quickly the crew began to work on triangulation, while their aircraft shadowed the enemy. Soon they worked out a possible course for the Gloucester, as well as a potential combat area. Such an action begged the question: would they engage the Gloucester?

They couldn’t reach it on the surface. But passing this information to the Admiral Qote would allow them to deploy some of the 62 aircraft on-board. Though the Qote would have flushed at the request — 14 of its aircraft had been lost in Bada Aso, 10 to landing accidents, rendering the crew gun-shy — they might have ultimately agreed to do it.

Garuda and Roc aircraft could have attacked the Gloucester within the hour.

This would be an easy fight for them, and would eliminate a royal navy heavy-hitter. No resources would have to be diverted other than the planes and a few travel delays.

However, they were only two days out from Rangda, and the stray ship did not seem to be headed for their land. Though it had no business in these waters in war-time, and though Lubon was certainly Nocht’s crony in this war, Ayvarta and Lubon had not yet engaged in shooting. This attack would mean the Ayvartans shed first blood on the Elves.

It was all well to destroy this one ship. Captain Monashir, however, saw further risks.

“Let the Gloucester go. All Seaplanes return to base. We speed to Rangda.”

Captain Monashir knew she had lost her nerve. She had been confronted with a situation and turned her head from it. Bitterly she recalled her first impression of Madiha Nakar before her own battle — a battle the Captain had seen as reckless and unnecessary. Nakar had achieved an incredible result. But the thought of going out of her way now to destroy this Elven ship, while tempting, still felt reckless and unnecessary.

Monashir was not Nakar, and the sea was not Bada Aso.

Operations in the western Ayvartan waters were thus concluded. Admiral Qote broke off, and met new escorts. Captain Monashir sailed for Rangda. She was sure of her choice.


44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Core Ocean, Ayvartan Waters — Heavy Cruiser Revenant, around Tambwe.

Easterly winds carried cold from the Kucha over the little dominance of Tambwe across the lower northwest coast. Under the hot noon sun blaring over the ocean, the cold turned into a fresh breeze. But much of the deck was vacant, and there were few around to savor the air. On their final approach to the city of Rangda, only several hundred kilometers from harbor, the cruiser Revenant and its crew took a deserved break for lunch belowdecks.

Floating on the opportune breeze, a certain creature found the empty deck suitable.

And weary of the ship’s confines, a certain Warrant Officer found the creature in turn.

Hidden behind one of the lifeboats on the ship starboard, Parinita Maharani peered out onto the raised prow, near the forward gun turret housing the massive 300mm double cannons, where she found this beast bathing in the sun. Her eyes drew wide open and she pushed a hand against her own lips to stifle all the little noises her mouth spontaneously generated.

This was a Drake, one of the many large, reptilian animals in Ayvarta. In the continent’s vast wilds, the Drake in its various forms was a fairly common form of solitary predator.

However, this was a most uncommon form of drake.

Slender and the size of a big cat, it was much smaller than its siblings. Instead of a snout, like other drakes, it possessed a hard, beak-like mouth with a jagged interior. Instead of scales, the creature was covered in fuzzy down, like a baby bird. Though it lacked true wings, and had quite developed front and back limbs with stubby claws and strong muscles, there were fleshy, earth-tone membranes extending between its front legs and flanks, that amassed into folds while it lay in repose. What drew Parinita’s gaze the most was the gaudy purple-and-teal coloration of the creature’s fuzz, that shifted with one’s eyes and the position of the sun’s light as though the creature were encrusted with a gradient of gems.

“A Kite Dragon!” She squealed to herself, staring at the creature from afar.

Though still a Drake, its ability to “fly” on the wind lent this creature its name.

And a legendary reputation. Parinita’s head filled with little girlish fantasies.

The Kite Dragon raised its head and stared lazily around itself, awoken. Parinita feared that it might take off, but it did not. It raised one of its front legs over its head, and with this motion it stretched taut the flap of beautifully colored skin that made up its “wing.” Bending its head it nibbled on its own skin, likely to relieve an itch, and then laid again under the sun, unconcerned with the surrounding machinery of this giant modern warship.

Such a shocking sight; the futuristic grey meeting the regal purple of the past.

Watching this living treasure, Parinita could hardly contain her excitement. She hesitated to approach it. She was awed, seeing the history of the world that she had been taught, the mythical history, a part of it at least, confirmed before her eyes. Though on the one hand she had hated her grandmother, those stories she told had become quite a part of her the past month. Those ideas that she kept alive, those things only she knew.

To see them in flesh, to interact with them, made her proud. It made her special.

In her mind, she did not even question where this being came from. It was fated to come.

But what pure maiden did it seek? Perhaps; could it be? Herself? Parinita was giddy.

“Chief Warrant Officer, I have safely removed the rat from your bed quarters–”

Parinita turned around and sharply shushed the person coming in behind her, snapping instantly out of her pleasurable reverie. It was Sergeant Agni, whom she had tasked with removing a pest from her room. It had been a hasty compact. Parinita had run screaming out of her room and found Agni outside the door by sheer coincidence. Seeing a familiar face, she hid behind Agni for several minutes and then shoved her into the room, shut the door and ran way. Informal, unspoken; as one does with these sorts of things.

Standing out in the open, Agni turned her head from Parinita and toward the deck and finally seemed to notice the Drake. There was no change in her disinterested expression upon spotting the majestic being laying on their ship. She blinked, and stared, dead-eyed. Agni never emoted, and the sight of the Kite Dragon had no visible effect on her.

“What is that?” She asked simply.

“It’s a Kite Dragon.” Parinita triumphantly said.

“What is it?” Agni reiterated with no change in tone.

“Haven’t you heard the stories?”

“No.” Agni dryly replied.

Of course she hadn’t. Barely anybody did anymore.

As a child, whenever her grandmother deigned to pay her attention, Parinita received a thorough instruction on Ayvartan mythology. Her family, she had been told, where once faith healers and spirit priests, highly valued by their people in supernatural matters. They were also keepers of the histories of tribes and ancestral, nascent nations. She knew all about Kite Dragons, and as she spoke, she carried herself quite proudly for this.

“Kite Dragons are the highest order among dragonkind that is left in the world. Drakes cannot fly, but Kite Dragons have achieved such a status, that they needn’t fly. They merely trick the wind into ferrying them, like a kite. It is said that the regal Kite Dragon moves under its own power only in the presence of pure maidens, such as princesses and saints and songstresses, whom it takes very kindly to. It is said that an ancient King once followed a Kite Dragon for days to find a beautiful bride in Dbagbo, suited for queenship.”

Parinita finished with a flourish of her hands, awaiting a response from her audience.

“What a lazy little Drake; it sounds quite ridiculous.” Agni said, touched not by the tale.

“What? Ridiculous? It’s amazing. This is an extremely rare, majestic being!”

“Can it breathe fire?”

Parinita threw her hands up. “No!”

Agni shrugged. “I’m not interested then. I’m not a pure maiden anyway.”

“You’re damn right you aren’t! Not with this attitude!” Parinita said.

Agni opened her pouch, and pulled up a black, furry thing from it.

“Here’s your rat, by the way.”

Parinita drew back.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA–”

Agni shuddered. The Kite Dragon crooked an eyebrow at the sudden screech.

Parinita bolted up the nearby lifeboat hoist, finding a strength hitherto unknown to her. In two lightning-fast hand-holds she made it onto the life raft and threw herself under its covering tarp, crying aloud. Agni must have lost her mind! That rat was at least 100 cm!

“Agni, kill it! Shoot it! Throw it in the ocean! It’s a rat! A rat!” Parinita cried.

She peered out from under the tarp and found Agni staring at her with those same blank eyes, mindlessly petting the rat’s head as its plump body dangled from her fingers. She felt a skin-tingling disgust with the little beast, it’s pink fleshy little limbs, its stringy tail. She could see it in her mind creeping around, teeny-tiny, festering in people’s garbage!

“It’s harmless.” Agni said, holding up the little fiend and shaking him dismissively.

“Rats bite you and scratch you and carry diseases!”

From under the tarp Parinita flailed her arms helplessly.

On the deck, the engineer seemed to finally realize her officer’s disgust, and nodded her head solemnly. She averted her gaze, looking almost remorseful of her current conduct.

“I’m sorry; I did not understand just how much they affected you. I shall rectify this.”

Agni withdrew her pistol from her hip and put it to the rat’s pathetic round head.

She locked eyes with the rat as Agni prepared to finish it.

Parinita groaned sharply as if deflating. “No! No! Ok! Don’t do that!”

“Should I just let it go then? There’s really nowhere else for it–”

“Fine! Fine! Let it go! You barbarian! Let it go!”

Instead of shooting, Agni nodded, put down the rat and released her hands.

Parinita watched in horror as the furry devil scurried away.

Freed, the beast flounced up the deck, crawled over a fire extinguisher box, leaped to the prow, and was then snatched in mid-air by a sudden lunge from the Kite Dragon.

Clacking its beak, the creature tossed the rat into the air and swallowed it whole. A gross bulge formed on the creature’s throat as its meal went down. Uncharismatic noises issued from its beak and nostrils; once its meal had fallen far enough, the dragon relaxed, laid back and stretched out on the deck, its belly glinting royal purple in the sunlight.

“It ate the rat.” Agni said, sounding very lightly puzzled.

“It ate the rat.” Parinita mimed in a much more anguished tone.

She climbed back down from the life rafts and set foot on the deck once more.

Seizing Agni by the shoulders, she shook up the engineer, gritting her teeth in frustration.

“I blame you! I blame you!” Parinita shouted as Agni’s head bobbed.

“Did something happen up here?”

One of the side doors from the conning tower opened, and Colonel Madiha Nakar emerged.

Tall and fit, and quite well-dressed in her black, red and gold KVW uniform, the Colonel managed quite a presence. There was a look of consternation on the normally soft features of the Colonel’s brown face, her dark eyes locked onto Parinita’s hands as the guilty secretary manhandled Sergeant Agni. Parinita withdrew her hands and fidgeted, looping some of her strawberry hair around her finger and laughing perhaps a little too girlishly.

For her part, Agni seemed unaffected by the gentle thrashing.

“That happened,” She said, pointing out onto the prow.

Madiha turned her head to look and stared at the creature, narrowing her eyes.

She raised a hand atop the gentle bridge of her nose to shield her eyes from the sun.

Her lips curled into a serious expression.

“That thing is in the way and needs to get off the deck promptly.” Madiha said.

She started toward the prow before Parinita could relate to her the myths she told Agni.

Parinita watched as the Colonel approached the Kite Dragon and started shooing it.

She was in distress, waiting for the creature to lunge angrily at the impure Colonel.

The Drake opened its double-lidded green eyes, and raised its head in consternation.

Madiha tapped her feet hard near it, and nudged it brusquely with her shoes.

Spotting her, the creature narrowed its eyes and sniffed. Parinita was ready to cry out.

Suddenly it sprang up onto Madiha’s chest and curled its tail around her in embrace.

“Parinita!” Madiha cried. “Why is this strange bird attacking me!”

Parinita’s jaw dropped in response. She wasn’t being attacked; the Kite Dragon had just acknowledged her as a pure maiden. Perhaps the purest it had ever seen judging by how it nudged its head lovingly over Madiha’s breast, and curled its tail around her waist. It seemed almost positively in love with her, hooting and clacking its beak, its down standing on end.

“I think it likes you.” Agni said dully.

“It does!” Parinita said. She made a little squeeing noise. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sight! She almost wanted to rush belowdecks and get the cameras. “It really likes you!”

Madiha stood still and stared in dismay at the gently stirring creature.

“Gross.” Madiha moaned.

Nonchalantly Madiha pushed on the Kite Dragon. It unfurled and fell back on the deck.

Like a strange cat, it bounced back against Madiha’s legs, rubbing its flank on her.

Madiha sighed. “I don’t want this.”

Parinita gasped. She was in disbelief at everyone’s sheer lack of curiosity. Even if they knew nothing, this made no sense! “Madiha, look at it! It’s beautiful! It’s such a rare, majestic–”

“It eats rats.” Agni interjected.

At once Madiha looked down again at the creature and seemed to have new eyes for it. She knelt, picked it up by its front legs, and raised it to her face. She gently spread its gliding flaps, and blinked at the colorful display of its bejeweled fuzz once exposed to sunlight. Eyes closed, contented, the creature lifted its long gradient colored tail and slipped it beneath Madiha’s neck-length hair, lifting several tufts of her messy bob.

Nonchalantly, she deposited the creature back onto the deck and walked away.

“I will reassess its utility, I suppose.” She said without affect.

Parinita raised her hands to her face, shaking her head and muttering to herself.


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The One Who Will Die (35.1)


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Outskirts, 8th Panzer Division FOB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stood up from her seat and approached the table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schicksal raised her hands to her reddening face.

Dreschner gently continued.

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

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

“I got carried away.” She said.

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

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

It reminded her too much of home.

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

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

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

That was never how it worked out there.

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

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

Dreschner looked at her in the eyes.

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

Their words hung in the air for a moment.

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

“Made what?” Dreschner asked.

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

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

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

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

“Corporal Jorg Reiniger.” Dreschner said.


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DICKER MAX (34.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


47th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari River Crossing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At once Reiniger ordered his driver to pull back.

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

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

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

“Reload HE!”

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

There was a flash far across the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was stuck.

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

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

His engine cut.

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody took a shot.

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

From the sky came a loud buzzing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He felt momentarily foolish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did the world pick that man over him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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