The Benghu Tank War III (31.1)


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Southeast of Shebelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges VI


29-AG-30

Princess,

Inspecting your suite I discovered an article of men’s clothing, the origin of which I feel entitled to know as your protector and the person in charge of your security detail.

Your servant refused to go into any detail as to the clothing except telling me that she would kill me by pouring hot frying oil over my head if I told anyone about them.

I must advise that liaisons with men at this point are very dangerous. Any man who is attempting to court you immediately becomes a suspect in my eyes. And should anything more than attempts to court you occur, very terrible things will result indeed.

I am open to other explanations for this. Do you craft these as a hobby perhaps?

I would have liked to ask these questions in person but you continuously avoid me, so to be discrete I forced this note under your door. I do not wish to die so soon.

– Centurion Geta


30-AG-30

Centurion,

DO NOT come and go into my quarters whenever you please!

You are not my guest and you do not live with me!

I forbid you from entering the suite unless I am present!

Your rank means nothing to me!

I have nothing to explain to you! Be a good guard dog and heel!

– Princess Vittoria


29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Precious Salva,

Salva! It was such an in credible relief this morning to discover your name absent from any account of the horrors that befell the Academy. To think a Lady would be so gruesomely murdered in public! What is our society coming to? I have begun to make arrangements to procure a miniature revolver. I know now that I need to be ready!

When you write back, please lead with your current status. I need to know your health!

On to other matters — you might have noticed this envelope a little, fat, perhaps?

Enclosed you’ll find the pieces that I was able to collect. Though many of these books are forbidden to be printed nowadays, existing copies were never sought nor destroyed. Book collectors jealously guard their volumes. In your hands, hopefully you now hold the elvish translation of Lena Ulyanova’s collected writings on Mordechism-Lenanism, or as you better know it, Communism. Unfortunately, I was unable to find books about recent Ayvartan history. It is perhaps too recent and close to be History. But cheer up my darling, for I did find an account by Artanis of the history of the Ayvartan Empire.

I very lightly inspected and read the books, bits and pieces that caught my eye. I can assure you that they are in good condition and that you should find them readable.

You have queer tastes in books my sweet! Much sleuthing had to be done for this.

As for myself? I have kept quite busy with my designs. I’ve been planning our next little meeting. My father has of late been distracted with the oil fields of Borelia and even beyond. He has this ludicrous idea that his men can design and build a platform to draw oil from waters 30 meters deep. I don’t know how viable this is, but it sounds too dangerous for my tastes. Regardless, it keeps him busy. He is currently out at sea in fact. I’ve never felt freer. I believe the time has come for us to meet on my own lands.

We could have an entire indulgent weekend to ourselves. Two passionate nights, three comfortable mornings. You need this, my darling! I want so badly to take you away from your confinement in that place. I know you have never been so long away from your studies, and I know eyes are on you. Know that all of my resources are at your disposal to overcome any obstacle. I want you, Salvatrice. I will do anything to have you.

Next time you sneak out however, wear a dress. I want us to tussle fashionably.

Desperately seeking you; your beloved,

Carmela Sabbadin


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

Beloved Carmela,

Fear not, precious Carmela! Physically I have never felt as well as I do now. Youth and womanhood surge through my veins. It is not physical health that I lack at the moment.

I am thrilled from tongue-tip to toe-tip that you continue to thirst after me, my caramel. It is with great regret however that I must quench the ambitious fire in your soul.

There is nothing in the world I want more than to sink against your breast, but my circumstances are still too difficult for a weekend retreat. I cannot promise, but I can at least attest to the possibility, of a single, very indulgent night, but not one in which I awaken beside you to bask in the afterglow. Anything more is simply too dangerous.

You will not be thrilled to hear this, but I was involved in the incident at the Academy. I saw it first hand and could’ve been in the path of the murderer had it not been for the Centurion involved in stopping the attack. My involvement in it was covered up, by my own hand. But I fear there is a violence surging under the skin of our society, my dear.

Though I received your letter on its intended date, it is only now that I write because I have pored over my words many times. I have decided that as your lover I do not wish to hide anything from you. I have told you more intimate things. So I will confide in you my worries though I know they will bring you pain and worry. I’d rather you know.

It has been made known to me that there are plots hatched against my life. In the process I have gained an asset in my struggles for self-determination, but it is a volatile one. I know not whether these plots are true. They may be attempts by my mother to curtail what little independence from her I possess at the Academy. Talk of plots allows her to hide me from enemies. All she needs is the talk. No plots are necessary.

However, judging by what I have seen and experienced, I feel that these whispers may be true. That there is a power out there seeking the demise of Lubon’s nobility, and that it seeks to strike me down with them, regardless of my innocence in the dealings of this wretched nation and its wretched partners. I am half the Queen’s blood, so I must die.

Two times now I have come too close to death. I can write these off as coincidences. But should I do that, and then a third time come directed at me, I would be unprepared.

Carrying a pistol now is wise, my beloved. I have begun to carry one as well.

I do not say this to alarm you but to comfort you. I have resolved not to lie to you, and I have resolved not to be so helpless that I must do such a thing. I am strong for you.

For now, we cannot talk of lusty meetings. But I do wish to see you more casually.

How does a picnic around the academy sound, in a few days? I’ll have a disguise.

Living and breathing your name, my treasure,

Salvatrice Vittoria


33-AG-30

Princess,

When you find this note please turn around from your door, head back down a floor, and return my side-arm to me. I cannot run around the school brandishing a rifle.

While you’re there, perhaps talk to me about the man’s shirt. Is it your size, perhaps?

– Centurion Geta


33-AG-30

Impudent gnat,

You absentmindedly left your weapon in my room and I have appropriated it.

As all things in the suite it now belongs to me.

This is what happens when you do not heed my commands.

Find a new side-arm and care for it better.

Stay out of my quarters and stay out of my personal life, legionnaire.

— Your superior


34th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Radiant Salva,

Above everything in the world Salva, I treasure you, and I treasure the confidence that you have in me. When we first met, you casually confided in me your rank. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe I could be friends with a princess; nor that a princess could be so easy to be friends with. So easy to seek comfort in. So easy to fall in love with.

At first I didn’t believe that the only friend you had in the world was that girl Beatrice.

I didn’t believe how other people treated you. How they disdained and abused you in that way unique to polite society, where honeyed words must always sing over those most deep and lashing gestures of hatred. Back then what I wanted more than anything was to take you protect you from all of this, but I could not. I still cannot. All I can do is try to comfort you, and it hurts. I hope only that if you must hurt that I can hurt with you.

You have confided in me many things. All of them I do more than accept: I treasure. I treasure everything I know about those truly unique depths of your heart and soul.

In turn I have confided in you so much and I know you feel the same. Just as I love your secrets you love my own. It is our secrets that have defined our love so much.

You are right that this news distresses me. Of course it would. But I want to be distressed. It cannot compare with what you must be feeling. Today as I drink my tea, read my stories, chat idly with guests and girls, take walks, and have so many options available to me — I know that you are rigidly caged, and now I know that you are hunted too. I want to do so much for you but I know that I cannot. For all we have are these letters and the secrets, our feelings secret, our true selves secret. It does hurt.

I wish that we could have been born in a world that allowed us to love without secrets.

Absent that, I can only say, that my thoughts are always with you, and that should you think of anything I can do to support you, I will do it. Even if it would kill me, I would.

Please protect yourself Salvatrice. Use everything at your disposal and mine.

I cannot think of losing you. I would be well and truly alone with my secrets then.

Your desperate, eternal soulmate,

Carmela Sabbadin


34-AG-30

Princess,

Please arrange a time where we can meet that does not disturb your affairs.

I am done making initial preparations. We need to discuss where to go from here.

Life cannot simply go back to peace while you are endangered.

It is my hope that we can be proactive in rooting out this threat to you.

Then perhaps we can forget it ever happened and return to our lives.

– Centurion Geta


35-AG-30

Centurion,

I can hear your footsteps stomping up my stairs when you deliver these puerile missives to my door. Are you a child suddenly? You need only knock like a normal person.

Next time you compose one of your stupid notes, and decide to bring it to my door, I advice this: swallow the damnable thing and knock. Then you can speak to me.

Should your words please me enough I might deign to discuss some sensitive issues with you. I am willing to give you a chance here. Waste it and you will suffer.

 Princess Vittoria


POSTAL INTERCEPT RECORD, 17TH BLACKSHIRT LEGION

35-AG-30

[report text is slashed across by several lines from an ink pen]

At the Praetor’s request, Rossa interception is to be put on hold. Centurion Geta will take care of any offending material at the point of contact. This is effective immediately and will last until the royal order is reinstated, if it is. Divert all units. — Legatus Marcel


35-AG-30

Salvatrice,

I require your presence. Make your preparations immediately.

Her Highness The Queen Regnant, Empress Of Elvenkind, Guiding Light Of The First Born, Defender Of The Messianic Faithful, Keeper Of The Father-Tree, The Emerald Lady,

Passionale Vittoria II


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

The Benghu Tank War II (30.1)


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School

Aarya returned from the cafeteria carrying a stack of boxed lunches.

They were meant for the children in her charge, waiting for her in one of the second floor classrooms of Chanda’s auxiliary school building. She hurried to return to them.

Though she did not like leaving them alone, she had told them to be good while she braved the rains and winds to get them all something to fill their stomachs.

Whistling a song as she climbed the steps she wondered what mischief they must have caused while she was away. They were well-behaved, but still rambunctious.

When she arrived at her classroom she was surprised to find them all in a corner.

They hid away from the windows, their heads down and their arms over their hair.

After seeing the soldiers running hither and thither downstairs she feared the worst.

She felt her chest tighten and her knees shake. Were the imperialists this close?

She dropped the boxes on top of her desk and furtively approached the windows.

Outside she saw only the meadow’s undisturbed fields of red and yellow cosmos flowers, gently swaying and brilliantly glistening from the rain and flashes of lightning.

An exhausted sigh escaped her lips. “Children, don’t worry! I’m here now. Come here.”

Gently, with a warm smile, she urged the children to approach the windows.

Not all of them did — only a few were brave enough. Mostly the older kids. Many of the smaller children stayed in the corner, seated with their backs to the wall and their arms around their knees, looking down at the floor as if to make themselves smaller. Other kids walked a few steps but kept their heads firmly below the aperture of the windows.

“We saw a star flying across the sky Ms. Balarayu!” one girl explained.

“We thought it would fall on the town so we went to hide!” added one of the boys.

Aarya looked out the window again, this time craning her head to the rainy sky.

It might have been artillery fire from Benghu. She had been told that there was a battery stationed there. She didn’t know how many guns that was, and she didn’t know what they were capable of. She supposed if they fired skyward it would be visible on a dark day.

Aarya was not a soldier. She was a teacher. To these children, maybe even a mother.

“Follow me, back to the corner. We’ll turn it from a sad little corner to a happy one.”

She took a little girl and a little boy in hand and the rest followed her. She sat down among those children still pensive on the floor, gently wedging herself in, and extending her arms as far as she could like the wings of a mother bird. All of the children accommodated themselves near her. When everyone was settled, she cleared her throat, and sang a little la la la as if to test her voice, to excite the children. They looked at her suddenly with wide and aware eyes, and clapped their hands in anticipation. She then started to sing actual verse.

Whenever the children seemed bored or anxious, Aarya sang old songs to them.

Almost all traditionally Ayvartan songs had a religious origin. When Aarya sang she often sang the Spirit Stories, because as an Arjun it was what she knew. She sang of the beautiful Kanpa whose dancing gathered the wind and clouds and brought rain. She sang of the great calmness and patience of the hero Bakti who sat through the flame of the demon Karna and with his devotion and will survived the onslaught and turned away the beast.

Today she sang the song of Bakti again so they would endure this fire patiently.

Until she became a teacher, Aarya only sang these songs a few times a year in festivals in Benghu, where the temple chorus would open and close the festivities with song.

She never sang alone. There had always been Darshan; and her. She had been by her side too. Today when she sang, she thought she heard her voice in accompaniment.

Current events had brought that remembrance screaming back into her mind.

Of late she had been singing to the children, all by herself, every day.

For many reasons she fretted about doing so.

Innocently the children gathered around her skirt and watched with wide-drawn eyes.

She felt those little eyes and little smiles hanging on every second of her voice.

They loved the stories, and they loved her voice. They started clapping as soon as she stopped. After every song they asked questions. She answered as best as she could to maintain the innocent fancy she saw in their eyes. She answered as if there was a Bakti who withstood a demon or a Kanpa who danced for a king, in this day and age.

Aarya fretted because her singing gave them hope in completely immaterial things.

In real life they could not rely on spirits or magic to turn away Nochtish guns.

It also brought back bittersweet memories. Memories of things undone, incomplete.

But it was all she could do to make the children happy and to keep them healthy.

So she sang. She sang like a genuine prayer. She sang as if to the Spirits themselves.

Aarya had become a teacher because she loved children and loved working with them. Even as a student herself, at this very school, she always helped out with the smaller kids. It was a blessing to be able to protect and nurture them. But it also unsettled her at times.

For the past few weeks Aarya had been a surrogate mother more than a teacher to her small gaggle of kids. There were a dozen kids with different stories. Little Lakshmi had parents but they were helping evacuate industry from Shebelle. Because Shebelle was a combat zone the children were sent further north, to Benghu, to Chanda; there was the oldest boy, ten years, named Zaheer. His father was a soldier, his only parent after his mother passed a year ago. She had not heard from him recently, but she assured Zaheer he was fine.

Several of the children were orphaned, and they essentially lived in school — they slept in a tiny hostel in Benghu and spent most of their day in Chanda. Lately the hostel was requisitioned for use as a barracks for Battlegroup Rhino, and the children spent the nights with Aarya in a classroom with a view of the meadow. For fun she had everyone pitch in and put up big tents indoors. They “camped out” in the classroom with the windows open.

Two of those big tents currently took up the opposite side of the classroom.

They spent their days this way in the classrooms of the school’s auxiliary building; in the lunch room once or twice a day, and if not, then eating boxed lunches together; and in the field whenever possible, reading under the cloudy sky. Whenever the children asked about the school’s main building she gently turned away the question. Whenever they asked about the soldiers, she told them they were friends — “comrades!” — and working to help everyone.

Aarya had to be strong and gentle and almost god-like to the children. She had to be perfect for them because she was the only thing in the world that could be perfect for them.

So she sang and played and fed them, cleaned them, clothed them, taught them arithmetic and reading and as much of the curriculum as she could teach by herself — her specialty was arithmetic. There were a few other teachers with their own specialties, but nobody could handle hosting a real semester under these circumstances. Everyone was just taking care of the children as best as they could under the duress of this historical moment.

She sang for them. That was all that she could do. She was a teacher, not a soldier.

She was not their real parent either, but perhaps that was the least concern right now.

Whenever she sang, Aarya put a lot of passion into her voice. She wanted to drown out the mental voice with the physical voice. Her thoughts wavered toward those close to her.

Her fiance, Darshan; he was a teacher too and was certainly not a soldier either.

Her students, now like her children; they barely knew that there was a war. They didn’t know the scope of it. Soldiers kept information from her and when she found out things that perhaps she should not know she kept them all from the children. Perhaps in the future they might have to become soldiers. To Aarya that was the worst tragedy of them.

But Naya– Naya was apparently a soldier now. Perhaps she had been for a while.

She didn’t know how to square that with everything that was happening right now.

What should one think of a beloved friend who flitted, ghost-like, out of one’s reach?

When she heard of her again she felt a mixture of relief, hope, trepidation, bitterness–

Aarya sang, silently praying that the voice would carry away all of this evil in the world.

In the midst of singing however a soldier, weapon in hand, charged into the room.

The soldier’s eyes darted around the room then settled on the windows. She shouted.

“Please close the windows Ms. Balarayu! They’ll offer some protection from enemy fire!”

Aarya grit her teeth and gave the soldier a nasty look and hugged some of the smaller children close — everyone had been startled when she barged in. How tactless of her!

She was about to respond when Darshan followed in behind the soldier. Despite having almost a head’s worth of height over the soldier he looked demure in her presence.

“You’re scaring them.” He said softly, his hand hovering over the soldier’s shoulder.

“Apologies, but that’s not really my priority right now. Close the windows.”

At once the soldier turned around and ran out the room. They heard the door open to the adjacent classroom, and the one after that. She was checking for vulnerabilities.

Darshan looked at Aarya and gave her a helpless little shrug. Aarya smiled at him.

“Children, me and Mr. Puri have to discuss something. Why don’t you try singing the song among yourselves? You all know the words.” Aarya said. Most of the children nodded. Many of them kept their eyes on Aarya and Darshan as they left the classroom together, smiling mischievously. She had told them before that he was special to her.

They started gossiping about “Ms. Balarayu liking Mr. Puri” as soon as she left.

Out in the hall Aarya kissed Darshan briefly on the lips. He held her by the waist and then pulled her into an embrace, head over shoulder. He was so strong — she felt like she could lose herself in his arms. He had gotten big since they first met. Even dressed in his unassuming button-down shirt and tie she thought he looked big and burly.

“How are things in your class?” Darshan asked, almost whispering.

“They’re scared. They know something’s wrong, Darshan.” Aarya said.

“My kids are all still sick. They’re getting better but the weather’s not helping. I’ve done everything I could for them short of getting sick with them.” He said, his expression wan.

Due to the sudden change in the country’s fortunes and in the nature of their work, Aarya only saw Darshan a few times a day. Sometimes they contrived to have their classes together, but Darshan’s children were ill and as such their interactions even more limited. They met in the mornings and they shared their nights when they could, very rarely.

“You’re doing the best you can. It’s all anyone could ask of you.” She assured him.

“I left them napping in the room. That soldier nearly woke them up. I followed her back out here hoping I could stop her from scaring every kid in the building.” Darshan said.

“What is happening with the soldiers today? Do you know anything?” She asked.

Darshan broke off their embrace. He could never quite look her in the eyes — he tried to look like he was doing so but he would always gaze just off them as if anxious to meet them. He was big and he looked tough outwardly, but Darshan was a sensitive sort.

“I asked Sharna about it; I wanted to talk with her and see how she knows Naya, but she ended up telling me not to bother with that and that we may have to evacuate soon.”

Aarya nearly winced at the mention of their old friend. It was a too-recurring subject.

“So the Nochtish soldiers are definitely coming this way.” Aarya said heavily.

“Given how all of our soldiers are acting, I think they’re around the corner.”

There was a clanging from a door behind them; the soldier from before ran out of a room and past them, charging down the hall. Holding hands, they walked down the hall and opened the door — the soldier had closed all of the metal shutters on the windows. They were intended for child safety but she supposed they could perhaps take a bullet.

“I keep thinking about her. She could be out there fighting right now.” Darshan said.

Aarya sighed a little. “I pray that she is well. But I have no hopes of meeting her.”

Darshan looked at her with surprise. “She was such a good friend to me, Aarya. I feel I’d be half the man I am without her. Ever since she left I’ve wanted her back. I felt like we could have a chance now!” He looked at the shuttered windows. “If only this wasn’t happening!”

Aarya did not like this conversation, because it was another issue that made her feel helpless and hopeless, ill equipped. She too had thought of Naya as a valuable friend and she thought Naya felt the same. But years back — spirits know how many, it was so many years, she felt — everything seemed to fall apart for Naya all at once. Aarya only pieced it together little by little from the ashes. She didn’t know the whole story. Aarya only knew that a lot of hurt had befallen Naya and it forced her away — and there had been nothing she or Darshan could do to stop it or to help her. As if dust blown by the air, she was swept away from their grasp.

Ever since Darshan got his hopes up a day ago he was obsessed with the subject.

Like her, he probably wanted to smother Naya to make up for perhaps abandoning her.

“I feel the same way Darshan. But this is happening — and we can’t affect it at all.”

“I know. It has really ruined everything, hasn’t it? All of our well laid plans.” He said.

Aarya smiled weakly in response, now averting her own eyes from him. “Someday if everything works out, I know Naya might attend our wedding and hold our crowns.”

“Spirits bless; that would be such a lovely outcome.” Darshan said. “I will pray for it.”

There was a part of Aarya that didn’t want to pray for it — that feared the distance of these intervening years. That feared how everyone had changed from her good memories.

Aarya had thought of work and marriage as the crossroads where the childish tumult of her life would be left behind, and she would finally grasp firmly at meaning, at strength, at the invisible power and certainty that supposedly defined adulthood. Now everything was in a greater disarray than it had ever been. All of the constants were thrown into chaos.

She was not a soldier or a politician or anything; all she could do was sing and pray.

That was what she told herself, because she simply didn’t know what to do anymore.

“Yes. I have to feed the children, Darshan. It was good seeing you.” Aarya said.

She leaned up and pecked him on the lips. She patted him on the chest, and walked around him and back into the classroom. He stood, diffident, back in the hallway, staring out at the shutters that closed their view of the meadow and perhaps Naya’s direction.

Naya had been so special to both of them. Nowadays the absence felt punctuated again. But Aarya feared that the two of them had broken in ways that could not mend, and that meeting again would only tear open wounds that had no chance to heal now.


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The Benghu Tank War I (29.1)


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Plain

Though the sun had risen over Dbagbo, early in the morning the sky was so thick with clouds that a twilight gloom remained settled over the land. At dawn the glow of the sun diffused through the clouds allowed one to see through the rain, but one could not call it day.

Nine aircraft soared high over the plains of Shebelle, carefully divided into three tight, mutually supporting groups of three planes each. Clouds raged around them as though aware of their intrusion. They saw colored lightning crackling in the distance, and a buffeting wind brought the deluge right to their cockpit wind shields. One by one the aircraft banked down and to the right, slowly descending several hundred meters only to find themselves with much more grey beneath them and the unabating rain still around them.

It seemed that much like the sun overhead, the ground below was being denied to them.

“I didn’t expect the alto clouds to be this thick. What the hell is this storm?”

“Whatever it is, we can’t see shit Captain! We’re gonna have to go lower!”

“We’re not going below 4000 meters without a target, whatever the cloud cover.”

“It’s your call Captain, but I think we’re hopeless unless we shed some altitude.”

Reluctantly, the squadron leader ordered all aircraft down to 4000 meters over Shebelle. One by one the aircraft gently descended, again down and to the right. The Warlock dive-bomber was not an agile craft, it was monstrously slow compared to the Archer fighter plane and one could feel its weight when it tilted and banked. One propeller on the nose lifted the craft’s robust frame, with its distinctive gulled, inverted wings. Large, unarmored landing gear stretched helplessly below the craft and made a nuisance of itself in flight, but it allowed them to lift off and touch down from improvised airfields — the only reason they were flying at all today. Each plane’s payload of 500 kg worth of bombs was kept in a bomb bay in the belly on the craft. A tail gunner scanned the rear for contacts.

Warlocks were easy prey for fighters in the open air, everyone knew that much.

But nobody in this squadron had ever met the Ayvartan air force in open combat. In the first few days of the war they had bombed plenty of air fields in Shaila and never saw a fighter around. Some of them were starting to believe there wasn’t an Ayvartan air force.

Instead the fear of sinking below the 4000 meter threshold, a line that should not be passed without a target firmly in sight, stemmed from their position over a city. Everyone knew of the 500 air men who lost their lives to the withering gunfire over Bada Aso. It was a story that had passed around, exaggerated, over the past two weeks, but these men believed it strongly. They didn’t get to read the reports that equivocated damages and injuries and crafts “to-be-repaired.” They got to hear 500 casualties, over and over.

The Nochtish Air Force in its modern incarnation had never seriously been challenged.

Something about the sky around them took on a mythical character, and as they descended, the ground below them slowly revealed its nature as a vast, menacing foe. Through magnified bomb sights and rain-slick windows they surveyed the terrain.

“Messiah defend, look at the size of that. Do we have surveillance pictures of this?”

Shebelle was a humble city, home to scarcely twelve thousand inhabitants in peace time, with a low lying skyline, nothing like the massive spires of Rhinea’s cities or the vast urban sprawl of Tauta. A cluttered city center two or three kilometers long and wide was surrounded on its three southern-facing sides by staggered lines of small hamlets, like a shield set before the advancing front, and wide open plains to the north.

There were scattered habitations, lone cabins and small farmland and tiny three-house “villages,” all situated haphazardly two or three kilometers from the outer hamlets and the city. Though mostly flat and wide open the terrain around Shebelle also gently rose and fell, forming sweeping dips and scattered mounds with meadows between. Vegetation was intermittent and mostly diminutive, and hard landforms simple and sparse.

From the air, the sizable preparations of the city defenders were evident. Large and broad arrowhead trenches had been cut into the earth along the city’s outskirts. There were three main defensive lines, on the south, east and west of the city, each quite long and deep and composed of several trenches and positions. Large fortifications made of wooden logs and sandbags formed the joints between the trench networks, but pillboxes and cannon lines, sniper dugouts, gun nests were scattered all along the lines. There were men and guns, barbed wire, sandbags, and likely mines, in the outlying hamlets and the center.

“What do we even hit first? We’ll need a dozen sorties to make a dent in that.”

“Then we’ll sortie a dozen times. Right now orders say to soften up south Shebelle.”

“Lotta things in the south, Captain. Gotta pick one, do we hit those forts or–”

“Captain! I see a group of tanks and vehicles going out the main road.”

There was an exasperated sigh over the radio. “Problem solved, I guess.”

“I’ll deal with that column. Split up into flights. Take the two southern forts.”

Across the squadron every man responded in turn with an ‘Aye, Aye, Sir!’

The Captain smirked. “Hustle up. Infantry’s only an hour out from this mess.”

Flying in groups of three aircraft the Warlocks broke formation and descended on the southern trench grouping. Of particular interest was the column of vehicles moving south along the one main road running through Shebelle that bisected the city. The Captain claimed this as his target and led his flight toward the road. Even in the rain the enemy was easy to make out. There were fifty small tanks, likely Goblins, heading south to intercept the infantry; or perhaps to be dug-in as last-minute emplacements.

From an altitude of 4000 meters the Captain and his two wing-men lined up with the road and began their dive. Though the Warlock was clunky compared to speedy fighter planes it was a born and bred bomber with enviable features for the task. As soon as the pilot pulled back the dive lever, various assisting mechanisms came to life in the cockpit.

Red tabs protruded from the wings, signalling that the auto-pilot was properly engaged. Coolant flaps closed; soon as the pilot adjusted the throttle and threw on the brakes, the gyros kicked in and the aircraft practically dove itself, swooping down at a near-vertical angle, its speed maintained at a steady 500 kilometers per hour. From the 4000 meter starting point of the Warlock’s dive, the Captain and his men would hurtle to the 500 meter bombing point within 25 seconds. His cockpit accurately gauged everything for him.

The Captain took a deep breath, armed his weapons and stared between the cockpit front and the altimeter. When a light on the instrument blinked at the 500 meter dive point from the target, he released his bombs and instantly hit the automatic pull-out switch.

Below him one of his two bombs crashed onto the road and detonated violently among the enemy. Each 250 kg bomb was the size of a bulky man, and each blast would be a hellstorm of fire followed by a massive shockwave, strong enough to knock a tank on its side. Following in his wake, the Captain’s wingmen launched their own bombs, each capable of landing within 25 meters of the other thanks to the Warlock’s consistent diving.

As he pulled up the Captain was seeing stars from the effect of the g-forces, strong during his dive but most deadly during his renewed ascent. His Warlock plane automatically pulled up from 400 meters at a preset angle and climbed from the dive. For five or six seconds he blacked out completely from the forces exerted on his body — his aircraft climbed over 500 meters in this span of time thanks to its speed. When he regained the fullness of his senses, he was nearly 2000 meters up. He then leveled his craft and regained his breath.

“What do you see out there right now?” The Captain asked his tail gunner.

“We got them sir,” the tail gunner replied. “I can see kills. Bombs on target.”

He banked a few degrees and looked over his shoulder past the wing of his craft. Along a hundred meter stretch of the road, thick columns of black smoke rose against the rain. As he flew over the impact area he quickly appraised that perhaps twenty or thirty vehicles were wrecked by the bombs. He witnessed first-hand surviving Ayvartan troops abandoning several remaining vehicles, like ants fluttering about underfoot. Moments later, the storm gusts started to clear away the smoke and there was evidence of the chaos. Broken wrecks, smashed turrets sent flying into trees, fires and meter-deep craters on the road.

Looking up and out farther afield, he saw columns of smoke, warped by the water pattering against the cockpit glass, rising from two familiar locations along the southern lines.

Two of the large fortifications and their surroundings were burning after the attacks performed by the other Flights. Reduced to piles of shattered logs and scattered sandbags, the forts would not longer be able to hold the gaps between the trenches.

“Good kills, good kills,” said the Captain. “Looks like all bombs on target.”

He leveled his craft again and searched for his men. He found them a ways from their burning targets, their aircraft climbing and sweeping — maneuvering evasively.

Outside his cockpit he heard a snapping sound like a giant balloon bursting.

Metal shards struck his windshield, sounding like grains scattering on the floor.

“Anti-air fire from below, they’ve got us in their sights!” a wingman called out.

Bright red tracer shots ripped through the air like burning arrows, filling the sky with light and fire and smoke. Around Shebelle the ground was coming alive with the skyward fire of the anti-air guns. From as far away as eight to ten kilometers the shells came flying. Snappy automatic shots burst all around them like firecrackers, sending hot fragments bouncing off the hull and scratching the wings and leaving puffs of smoke in mid-air. Heavier and larger shells exploded just off the edge of the Captain’s vision, and he thought he felt the force of them going off, the noise generated by the distant blast, the sound of grain-like fragments scattering impossibly fast and punching tiny holes in his wings and tail on contact.

It was like flying through a mine field as all the mines went off at once. Dozens of shells flew at them from seemingly every direction. The Captain felt the engine lurch for a fragment of a second whenever the propellers munched on a burst of small fragments, and he banked hard to avoid the worst of the explosions, but the volume was building. The Warlock’s fixed landing gear and bulky frame created too much drag for any kind of skillful evasion. Every shot was chipping away at the craft; he gambled with every second of flight.

“One more pass, squad! Drop the rest of your bomb load and lets get the fuck out of here!” shouted the Captain, turning his sights again on the main road to Shebelle.

A Warlock could appear momentarily quicker while diving at a locked speed of 500 kilometers per hour. But that was with the force of gravity at its back. Cruising at the 4000 meters altitude that was necessary to start an optimal dive, the Warlock was limited to 300 kilometers per hour, less than half the speed of an Archer fighter plane. Battered by the rain and struggling against the wind the craft was forced to move even slower and it was almost agonizing to the pilots how sluggishly the Warlock cleared the skies around it.

The Captain’s Flight made its way over Shebelle’s center, high above the humble university campus and the central plaza where they saw scores of guns rallying over the yellow and orange brick roads and parks. All three craft endured intense automatic fire from all around the city, almost completely exposed in spite of the rain and their altitude.

Lightning flashed overhead, a bolt crashing down onto a tree outside the city. Once grey skies were turning pitch black. Around them the rains thickened. Gunfire did not abate. As the planes swept over their enemy they seemed even more exposed under each flash of lightning as if the sky was launching its own tracers down to point the way.

Sweeping around the empty northern edge of the city, still dodging tracers from the east and west, the Captain instructed his Flight to commence a soft turn. Under worsening winds and blinding rain their maneuverability had only grown worse. Tight turns were too risky, especially for partially damaged air frames — the Flight took a very wide and sluggish turn, leaving the road and doubling back around in the city’s north-eastern boroughs, tracing a quarter circle around the edge of the city before coming out of the turn facing south.

Far ahead of them the Captain spotted the other flights in time to see two planes shot out of the sky and spinning down in flames toward the trench lines across the city from him. It was almost a casual sight — he looked up, briefly confirmed the location of his other crews, and then the red tracer shot up, like a dart lancing onto a board and burning it. He could hardly believe it at first, though it captivated his mind this way for only a few seconds before he saw the tracers directed at him and reestablished control of his craft.

Suddenly the radio filled with expletives and cries and shouting back in a tone almost as incoherently as his own men was all the Captain could do to try to restore order.

“Drop your last bombs and return to base. Calm your panic. We’re almost through.”

Everyone went silent. It was as though he had killed all the men with his words.

Visibility was growing ever poorer. Through the shower he had been able to spy on the Ayvartans below, looking like ants, and their vehicles and guns like big fat beetles crawling beneath him. Now he could discern scarcely anything of his surroundings. Rain washed down his windshield with such strength that it warped the world below utterly out of recognition. Only his bomb sight gave him a clear picture, but one limited in scope.

He could still see the bright flashes of ordnance exploding in the air around him.

As the Warlocks soared out of Shebelle due south, the Captain found the vehicle column again, roaring down the road to try to get away from the battle. There was no cover from an air attack available to the tanks and trucks — there were trees, but too sparse to hide in, and the terrain was too open otherwise. Their best bet was running on the road where their speed was relatively unhindered. But he was still several times faster.

“Prepare to dive! We’re dropping the bombs in a line along the road!”

He pulled the dive brake and flipped a switch to arm his second 250 kg bomb.

As he initiated the dive he saw a flashing red from a tracer soaring up beside him.

Overhead the monstrous shell detonated and cast hundreds of fragments down.

A chunk of metal the size of his hand burst through the top of the cockpit and embedded itself in his instrument panel. Water and glass fell over him, and he felt the force of the wind battering his face as his craft pulled down into its dive. In an instant the rest of his canopy broke off, and only his leather belts kept him anchored. He heard a tiny sound near his face and found it difficult to breathe — glass or metal had pierced his oxygen mask.

Shaking his head, he suddenly realized that he smelled smoke. At his side one of his men had a chugging propeller and was losing control. He spiraled away from the dive area and disappeared. The Captain locked his hands around his control stick.

“Stay on target!” He shouted. Sparks flew from his damaged instruments.

His altimeter failed to alert him and missed the bombing window — but he had been counting the seconds in his head. A perfect dive was always from 4000 meters down to 500 meters. A perfect dive was always at 500 kilometers per hour. He focused, through the cold and the wind intruding in his cockpit, through the dangerous sparking of his instruments, through the wild swinging of his damaged gauges. He opened the bomb bay.

Despite the instrument damage, the Warlock started the automatic pull-up on cue.

Behind him the Captain heard the bombs.

First his own, and then his first wing-mate seconds later.

There was no third bomb.

He heard a discordant, distant noise as he climbed.

“We lost Adalwein!” groaned the tail gunner as if in pain.

The Captain barely heard it, and in fact the gunner barely said it. They were climbing and the strength of the g-forces increased exponentially, and the loss of the canopy took away their only slim protection against the outside pressures. The Captain’s vision went black and he felt as if his brain was being squeezed, pressed like a grape between God’s fingers.

With his oxygen mask breached he was utterly unable to breathe.

Split-second images filtered through the black.

Over Shebelle all matter of colors raged in the clouds. It was beautiful.

He thought that words escaped his lips. He thought they were poignant and fitting.

Losing all consciousness, he suffered no more as his plane rose ever skyward, the fuselage tearing, the propeller failing, and then fell back as though cast down from the heavens.


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The Sun That Shone Through Smoke (28.4)

This story segment contains mild sexual content.


52-AG-30. Dbagbo Dominance — Silb, 8th PzD HQ

Noel ambled confidently into the war room, running his hands gently through his hair. A few heads turned at his arrival, most unfriendly; nevertheless he took his place around the central table, upon which the map of Dbagbo was stretched, its surface cluttered by an array of formation chits and pins with all the last known positions of ally and enemy alike.

He was fashionably late for the strategy meeting, having had to wash and powder his face, brush his hair and freshen it with various care products and don a fresh uniform.

All of the grungy men around the room looked varying levels of upset with this.

Noel certainly could have fixed himself faster — he had applied more makeup, done his hair up fancier and dressed in ornate clothing under worse conditions than this. He took his time because he wanted to enjoy himself. For him, prettying up was a pleasure.

Besides which none of them received a hygiene ration up to the level of a female chief of signals or medicine or a corps adjutant, like he did. What the heck did they know?

“Listen, it takes a little time to get all of this,” he touched his fingers to his cheek, pressing them on the soft skin with a cute smile, and then lifting them suddenly to flip his hair in a flamboyant gesture, “up to a standard befitting a photogenic young lad like myself.”

Eyes blinked incessantly across the room. Signals Officer Schicksal cleared her throat to disperse the silence. She was looking a bit more comely than usual herself, with her hair pinned up in a professional-looking bun and a dab of glossy red lipstick on her lips.

“Anyway,” she said, “we’re all here now, so let us go over the plan definitively.”

Dreschner raised his head from the table and his eyes from the map, and he scanned the room as if for the first time noticing the crowd building around him. Noel spotted Reiniger pouting in a corner and Spoor meditatively in another, but the HQ building was crammed with lower level officers as well. A few battalion commanders were present. There were Captains and Majors of key units looking over the map and awaiting orders.

“Yes,” Dreschner said, perhaps slowly returning from the world of strategy and prying from somewhere in himself a translation of its contents for human consumption.

He cleared his own throat, withdrew an extendable stick, fidgeted with it for a moment, and then tapped the stick on the map between two spots: Shebelle and the Sandari.

“This is the situation. Though the surprise Ayvartan Sandari offensive slowed us down temporarily, the bulk of our forces are now clear of the river, and we have by stroke of luck three full infantry divisions ready to lunge against the main Ayvartan defenses. Shebelle is a humble city, but,” he tapped on the map marker for the city once again, “it is a fortified zone. To even enter we must breach a horseshoe line of pillboxes, trenches, and tunnels built on rough or roughened terrain. Who knows what lurks past it? But the pillboxes are not our immediate responsibility. Instead, our infantry will attack the defenses outside Shebelle with limited Panzer support to draw the enemy’s attention and keep them pinned down.”

Dreschner’s stick seized and slid up the 10th Panzergrenadier Regiment and the 8th Panzer Regiment. “Our mission is to serve as the eastern pincer of an encircling maneuver against Shebelle. The 8th Regiment and the 10th Regiment will attack along the eastern flank of the Shebelle defensive line, but this movement will be largely a feint, maneuvering up the defenses like a stepladder. Once the defenders hunker down in their positions to engage us, we will suddenly break away from Shebelle and sweep north to Benghu and capture the town there. Then we will speed westward to link with the other half of the pincer formed by the 10th Panzer Division, whose mission to take Gollaproulu mirrors our own.”

On the map, the General arranged the forces at play, such that the Panzer Divisions formed a pair of long arms around the back of Shebelle. “In so doing, we will cut off Shebelle from supply and encircle several Ayvartan divisions. Initially our position will be tenuous. The 10th and 15th Division will be working together — they have suffered more damage than us and need each other’s support. We will be depending on the arrival of the Kaiserin Trueday Division formed of Nochtish Ayvartans and defectors. I can’t vouch for their reliability, but they’ll at least reduce the frontage we’ll need to defend ourselves.”

“Until then, we will rely on a few combat multipliers, supplied by our Panzer aces like Captain Skoniec, as well as the new machines that our engineers are preparing. We expect the capitulation of Shebelle, and thus the defeat of Dbagbo, by the 1st of the Frost.”

Dreschner gestured toward Noel and Noel smiled prettily around the room as if hoping to solicit applause. He received none, but he continued to smile just to spite them all.

“Any questions?” Dreschner said. There was a slight hint of weariness to his voice, as though he did not actually want to answer any questions, but it was not the kind of menace that commanders in the old Weiss battalion had shown Noel in similar settings.

Noel raised his hands up in the air, hopping up and down in place.

Dreschner sighed heavily and pointed him out. “Yes, Captain Skoniec?”

“All due respect given, sir, but why not avoid the Shebelle defenses entirely? Instead of leapfrogging across the sights of a bunch of pillboxes, where we’ll lose a lot of tanks–”

Dreschner cut him off quickly. “Flank protection, Captain. Should the entire division rush to Benghu and past the enemy, what stops the enemy from pursuing us and threatening our salient? Furthermore I believe our losses maneuvering around the outskirts of the Ayvartan defense will be minimal. We will not launch a full scale attack against them. We will have a battalion or two attack from range to scare them while everyone else advances.”

Noel was not satisfied with this, but he continued to smile. So far the Ayvartans had not been a threat to them in maneuver warfare, but they had been punishing opponents when properly dug-in. His old Weiss battalion had felt the sting of a proper Ayvartan defense many times. They were masters of making hell-maws out of shellholes.

Though risky, perhaps reckless, forcing them to run out and then sweeping back to destroy them denied them prepared ground for a fight. But this was clearly not negotiable.

“Yes sir! Thank you sir!” Noel said in a bubbly voice. He saluted in resignation.

It was Dreschner’s call and he’d deal with the caskets in the end.

* * *

Following a strict information control and anti-surveillance policy, the 8th PzD Headquarters at Silb shut off all lights and cut all high level communications at 2000 hours. Nobody would call the Divisional HQ after that. In case of a tactical emergency, Regiment HQs closer to the front would be contacted first, and expected to handle the situation themselves.

Schicksal should have long ago joined the camp’s sleeping ranks by 2300 hours. Instead she stood in the middle of the little house given to her for personal use and waited in the dark. A string of very long days fueled by very poor meals the past week had left her so little time for herself that she was too stressed to simply lay down and pass away the hours.

Some days she just paced indoors, but she was starting to get into the habit of going out at night and into the woods until around 0200. Then after catching five hours of sleep or so she would jolt herself awake with caffeine and a stimulant pill. Yesterday she had escaped the curfew and smoked a few cigarettes under a tree, shielded from a light evening drizzle.

Tonight was surprisingly dry, and as such gave her a unique opportunity. She withdrew an electric torch and prepared bag, then snuck out of the house and into the forest.

There was one particular tree she had found about 500 meters from the camp that possessed a sizable knothole into which she could curl up for cover. Two thick roots stretched down the sides of the hole like arms open to an embrace. Protected in this little place, she set down her bag, opened it and produced from it a one liter, brown glass bottle of white wine from the Officer Special Ration; and a roll of pulp fiction magazines.

After removing the stopper and passing a cloth over the bottle’s mouth to clean off dust and bag lint, she raised it to her lips and tasted the contents right out of the bottle.

It tasted quite sweet but with a bit of a sharp sting hidden beneath. Sort of like her.

Bottle in one hand, she spread open a book on her lap; torch in the other, she started to read in the dark about Johannes Jager’s epic battle against a communist airship.

Alcohol seemed to make the letters blur on the page. Somehow she found them more pleasing that way. Her mind was more pliable, and she could imagine the situations in the story more easily. She felt herself get swept up as Jager shot a hook at the back of the airship hull and stowed away; she felt each bonecrushing hit as Jager took on The World’s Tallest Svechthan, struggling via fisticuffs for control of the communist vessel–

She felt a murmur building up around her, a bit of laughing, the rustling of leaves.

“Slow down! I’m tired. I spent all day on maintenance.”

“Well, well; that’s what this trip is about! You need maintenance yourself.”

Was it the liquor tricking her senses? Was she this drunk already?

Schicksal set down the bottle and book, and stood up from her little nook. She crept around the side of the tree, staring off into the dark, and saw two figures in the distance. One had a lighter, flicking it on and off to create an intermittent bursting of light. Both were well-dressed in uniform. She recognized the bouncy blond hair on one — it was Noel. And the boy with him looked like his driver. Ivan, was it? Her head hurt.

She watched them frolic for a bit and sit down together near a tree. They produced a little candle lamp, lit the wick, and left it to flicker near them on the ground. Noel rested his head on Ivan’s chest, and Ivan stroked his hair gently, lifting up the long tufts.

“We sortie tomorrow right? What do you think of the General’s plan?” Ivan said.

“Eh. It’s ok. I don’t really care to attack infantry. It feels like bullying.” Noel said.

Ivan laughed. “Well, you are kind of a bully sometimes to be brutally honest, Noel.”

“Aww, c’mon, that’s not fair. I do it gently, gently.” He rubbed his head against Ivan’s chest, laughing haughtily in response. Ivan wrapped his arms around Noel’s shoulders.

“I wish we could just go back to Nocht sometimes.” Ivan said. “You and me.”

Noel sighed loudly. “I thrive in chaos. I’ve found it makes people overlook things.”

“I’ve got nothing back there either. I just wish I did; or that I could, with you.”

“I literally came off the street, you know. I’d only go back to that if I returned.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I would get you a place, Noel. I’d do anything for it.”

Noel looked up from Ivan’s lap and pulled him into a deep kiss.

Schicksal blinked blearily. She felt her head throb. She was clearly drunk.

Once their lips separated, Noel pulled Ivan down to the floor and loomed over him.

“Forget about that, Sergeant. It’s time I gave you a bit of maintenance.”

“Engine’s ready for inspection, Captain.” Ivan mischievously replied.

Schicksal heard the tinkling of a belt buckle.

She saw Noel’s head dip in against Ivan’s waist and rise up again in a slow, gentle rhythm.

Ivan laid back, mouth hanging.

Their shadows entwined against the light from the lamp.

Sharp intakes of breath punctuated their embrace.

Schicksal raised her hands to her head, rubbing her temples in confusion.

She was very clearly drunk. She sank back behind her tree, picked up the magazine, and tried to ignore the array of noises that her head was fabricating to distract her.


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Naya volunteered for the radio tent chores and successfully wormed her way to the top of the list by virtue of false enthusiasm and an utter lack of competition. As such she got to while away the hours listening in to idle chatter, staring at the encryption machine, reading a booklet on code procedures, and being alone. After the past few days, it was an improvement. Her head seemed, for the moment, all out of nasty words for her.

Around noon, the teleprinting message machine started to act up. At first, Naya thought it was broken, because it made a sound like a Needlemaw’s thousand gnashing teeth crushing the entire skeleton of a small forest mammal. But then after several minutes of crunching, it didn’t spit out all of its internal machinery, and instead put out a paper.

Naya stared at it for a moment before producing her code booklet and going to work.

Minutes later, feeling considerably worse for the effort, Naya ran out of the tent.

Benghu was under attack and everyone at Chanda was suddenly in danger.

Aarya was suddenly in danger.


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The Sun That Shone Through Smoke (28.3)


52-AG-30. Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Though the sky was characteristically bleak in color, the rain had momentarily abated.

Camp Vijaya was lively as could be and took full advantage of the respite. People left their tarps and tents and worked under the sky (technically under the camouflage net). Radio operators brought the receivers out on handcarts and laid back beside them on towels as if sunbathing. Engineers worked on small parts out in the fresh air, soldering and sanding and treating on tables in the grass. There was a soon a pungent scent of chemicals and paint swirling through the camp; but everyone was happy to be free of the rain.

Around noon there was a small disturbance. People cleared out of the area near the workshop at the sound of Karima’s bugle and at the insistence of Captain Rajagopal. Small crowds gathered in a circle around the edges of the camp. Once the way was clear, Chief Ravan had the workshop opened, and stood by with a megaphone in hand.

“Everyone ready? Time to begin the Raktapata tactical mobility test!”

Farwah popped up from the front hatch.

“We’re just driving in circles around the camp.”

Chief Ravan turned the megaphone to his head.

“We will commence the Raktapata tactical mobility test with an additional and valuable scientific stipulation — it is forbidden for Farwah to speak during the test!”

Naya laughed a little, standing at the edge of the wood while Chief Ravan shouted at Farwah. Roaring to life, the Raktapata started its first lap around the workshop, its engine powering an uncommon torsion bar suspension. Power was transferred to the drive wheel in the back of the track, and from there the other wheels. It navigated the terrain at a brisk pace and took corners very easily. She watched it speed up, more gracefully than she would have thought a vehicle of that size capable of. Somehow she had expected the vehicle to move much more stiffly, but it turned and zig-zagged quite smoothly for a tank.

Sadly the spectacle would be short for Naya. She had somewhere to go today.

Nevertheless she continued to steal glances as she made her way. Walking along the outskirts of the camp to stay out of the tank’s path, Naya followed Isa to the back, where he climbed into the Sharabha half-track and cheerfully waved her to the passenger seat. She climbed on beside him and settled on the stiff cushion atop the rigid metal seat.

“Where are we going exactly?” Naya asked. She had been given very little in the way of instructions for the day. Previously she thought she would have no chores on the 52nd.

“Chanda. We’re going to pick up sundries for the camp from the supply dump.” Isa said.

“Hmm? Sundries? What kind of goods are talking about here?”

Isa smiled. “Towels, soap, herb shampoo, kitchen and bath paper, razors, brushes, deodorants, anti-fungals and other hygiene products like that; we can’t run on food alone, you know! A whole camp full of gearheads goes through these things very quickly!”

Naya nodded. “I noticed. Hard to scrub your face three times a day just with water.”

“Too true. We’ll be bringing back a lot hopefully, so help me carry the crates, ok?”

Isa hit the starter, and the Sharabha whined awake. Avoiding the Raktapata as it lapped around the camp, the half-track slipped out of the camp and through the jungle, down a path that Naya had not trod on for over a week now. She suspected that the real reason for this trip was that Chief Ravan and Captain Rajagopal had noticed her flagging condition and decided to get her out of the camp for a breather. Other people came and went to Chanda on errands just to get a breather. Naya was not enthusiastic about returning to Chanda for any length of time. She liked the camp well enough. But orders were orders.

The Sharabha was much faster than the Tokolosh, quickly reaching a speedy 60 km/h even on the meadow. After leaving the forest Naya raised her eyes reflexively to the sky, and she looked out for airplanes. She had two too many encounters with Nocht’s damnable Luftlotte in her life and she did not need another. However the skies were clear of planes and though partly cloudy the weather was agreeable. Chanda was soon in sight and without incident. Isa drove the Sharabha up a steep grassy slope north of the school and followed it into the sports field, reducing his speed. They were among civilians and had to be careful.

Naya saw children out on the field near them, playing, gathering around teachers–

She sat up against the back of the seat, avoiding the window at her side.

“Something wrong?” Isa asked, turning the wheel to steer the Half-Track to the depot.

“Nothing. Just don’t want to seem like I’m goggling anyone.” Naya replied.

Isa looked skeptical, shook his head, and parked the half-track beside a big tin warehouse that had been set up near the track and field in order to house army supplies.

“You know, you’re a real weird gal sometimes, Naya.” He said. He was smiling.

Naya smiled back, in a cutesy, deflecting sort of way.

She had seen Aarya out on the field, and an awkward instinct overcame her.

Inside the tin warehouse, a tall, plump young woman was hard at work unpacking many syringes from small wooden boxes packed with foam rubber sheets and sand. She had her black hair bunched up behind her head, pinned with a wooden hair clamp. When she turned to meet them her round, dark brown face was dusty from the packing sand, and she wiped herself with a towel before reaching out a hand and vigorously shaking with Naya and Isa.

“Hujambo! I’m Sharna. You’re the folks from the forest, right?” She said happily.

“Sounds like us!” Isa replied. “Can you help us find the sundries we requested?”

“I’ll do ya one better!” Sharna pointed over her shoulder at a corner of the room. There was a stack of seven or eight crates of varying sizes there, labeled “FOR CAMP V.”

“Mighty kind of you!” Isa said. “Naya, please get started on those crates.”

Naya looked at him critically. Had he just brought her here so he could be lazy?

Isa seemed to catch on to her silent accusation. “I have to fill out some records!”

“Yeah you’d better have to, you sloth!” Naya grumbled. Sharna snickered.

“Here, I’ll help you. Better than unpacking individual spirits-damned syringes!”

Sharna stacked two large crates together and hefted them easily. Naya watched in awe as she casually left the warehouse with them. She struggled to pick a crate up and follow. When she lifted her own box she felt like a penguin waddling under the weight.

Out behind the Sharabha, Sharna pulled down the ramp and pushed her crates into the back, securing them with the ropes on the benches. She stretched out her hands to Naya and generously took her crate in too, setting it down on the benches with the rest. Naya bent down, holding on to her knees, breathing heavily, sweat dripping from her forehead. When did she get this weak? She used to be able to carry things like this so easily. Now her lower back and her hips protested from walking thirty meters with a box.

“Listen, I can carry the rest.” Sharna said. She had a big smile on her face. “Just leave it to me alright? I don’t want to see a comrade put herself out of sorts for a crate of soap.”

Naya felt a bit annoyed, like she didn’t want the sympathy. But she suppressed the bad thoughts and smiled back. “Is it because it’s better than unwrapping individual syringes?”

Sharna’s eyes glanced off to one side and she whistled a little. “Maybe it is.”

She walked down the ramp. Naya started back to the warehouse, but stopped when she saw Sharna staring out into the field suddenly, and heard a voice calling out to her.

“Hujambo, Sharna! I see you’re busy, but can you spare a few towels from–”

Naya froze up at the sound of the voice. It traveled down her spine like a surge of electricity. She tried to slouch, hands in her pockets, shoulders raised over her neck, head down; she tried to make herself smaller, less noticeable. She kept her back turned to the two of them, and moved millimeter by millimeter, trying to inch away from the field.

“Eh? What do you need them for? How have you run out this quickly?” Sharna said.

His voice sounded deeper, stronger, more confident than she remembered it. She hated everything about it and hated how it had changed more. “We’ve got some sick kids, just little colds, but they’re contagious. It’s not fair other kids get to play in the field and they don’t so I want to get them cleaned up, give them some towels and take them–”

Naya felt the pause, palpably. It was in the air. She felt it like a dart hitting her shoulder.

In that interminable second she prayed a thousand times not to hear the word–

“Naya? Naya Oueddai? Is that you over there?”

She grit her teeth.

From her slouching, sneaking stance, she turned her head a little over her shoulder, trying to appear disinterested. But then the sight of him drew too genuine a shock from her.

She remembered Darshan as a lanky teenage boy, too-tall in his ill fitting track shirt and shorts, long-legged, tough in a wiry way, sort of like she had been at his age. He had grown into himself. His chest was broader, his shoulders too. Even in a dress shirt and tie, in plain brown pants, she could see thickness to him she didn’t before. He had cut his hair closer and neater, his face smooth and clean cut without his thin mustache and beard. As a kid he had been cute perhaps, but he was infuriatingly handsome now.

“You know each other?” Sharna said, clearing the dead air. She remained unacknowledged.

Darshan approached a few steps, and his face brightened up. He raised his hands to his head and laughed a little, and he spread his arms as if he wanted to embrace her.

“Naya, spirits bless you, it’s been so long! It’s been years! Gods alive.”

Naya turned fully around. There was no helping it anymore.

“Six years or so?” Naya said, grinning a little, keeping her distance.

“I’ve lost count; I never counted! You just vanished one day. Does Aarya know you’re around? Gods she’ll be so happy to see you! Listen, she was right around here a minute ago–”

Naya raised her hands defensively. “No, no, no. I’m busy right now, sorry Darshan.”

Her eyes kept honing in on the ring around his finger. She found it hard to stand in place. Some part of her wanted to run away and hide somewhere; another just wanted to tackle him down and crush his goddamned face. He didn’t deserve that, she knew it, but it would have felt so good to have finally broken these awful ties once and for all–

“Yeah, she’s kind of got a job to do. You two can catch up some other time, this is urgent.” Sharna interrupted. Thank the Spirits for her. Naya nodded her head vigorously.

Darshan smiled kindly, a bit bashfully. It was a sudden, burning flash of the boy Naya had known once, scratching his hair as though something had hit him in the head, laughing self-effacingly and responding in a subdued tone of voice. It was the same voice that he had used when he confided in Naya that he was very fond of Aarya Balarayu.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Naya! You know I’m just so happy to see you. It’s great that you’re working hard for the army. We civilians owe you a lot these days.” Darshan said.

“Yeah.” Naya said, simply, awkwardly. She had to force it out of her tongue. Just one syllable, but it felt like such a burden to say. It had been years! What did two people in this situation tell each other? Particularly when one wanted again to be gone?

But Darshan simply didn’t know malice. He smiled again like a little kid.

“Me and Aarya are both working as teachers here. I’ll tell her you’re around, maybe we can meet up tomorrow, circumstances permitting. Spirits bless you.” He clapped his hands together in front of his face and bowed his head to her in reverence.

Naya waved her hand stiffly and nervously at him in response.

Still smiling, Darshan departed to the field. As he left, Isa exited the warehouse with a crate, upon which rested a carbon copy of the supply corps documentation he was filling out.

“Never in a million years would I have thought a crate of towels could be this heavy!” Isa protested, waddling up to the ramp with the crate in hand. Sharna plucked it from his grip and set it easily down on the benches with the rest while Naya stood around.

Sharna tactfully said nothing while they loaded the rest of the crates. When everything was loaded and it was time to leave, she gave Naya a wan little smile and wiggled her fingers while waving at her. Naya waved back and then rubbed her shoulders while she waited in her seat, trying to pat down the aching tendons. Isa took his seat on the other side of the half-track, Sharna secured the ramp, and the Sharabha started up anew.

Under the engine whine, Isa turned to Naya with a cheerful expression.

“Do you want to stick around longer, maybe get a breath of meadow air?” He asked.

Naya shook her head. Isa looked briefly downcast and turned back to the wheel.

He sighed. “I’m sorry Naya, I thought a little exercise outside the camp would make you feel better and I asked the Chief to send you along. It was presumptuous of me.”

“It’s fine. Thanks for caring.” Naya replied. She stared down at her own shoes.

“I really want to make things right. I know I messed up the other day–”

“It’s not your fault, I told you. My back’s been that bad for years.”

“Has it?” Isa looked at her with surprise. She shouldn’t have said that.

“It’s on and off. It’ll be ok. It happens to the best of us.” Naya said.

For once he seemed to divine her feelings from her tone and said nothing more.

On the drive back, she felt quite stupid about everything. She felt terrible, avoiding her old friends like that. Aarya and Darshan had been so good to her. They deserved better than this behavior. After her parents separated she left to join Battlegroup Rhino and disappeared for years without word to them. Now she was suddenly back, and she saw explicitly in Darshan’s face how awestruck, how happy, how relieved he was to see her. To break that up so she could load crates was nonsense. He must have known it was nonsense. He must know now that she was trying to avoid confronting them. He must have some inkling of her feelings.

Any confrontation with them meant a confrontation with herself that she didn’t want.

She felt sick of herself; framing it as “confrontation” made her feel even more foolish.

“Isa, what would civilians know of the current situation on the front, huh?” She asked.

Driving down the meadow toward the forest, Isa turned his head to her briefly.

“Well, they wouldn’t really know much. We tell them to evacuate, they evacuate, otherwise they don’t have to know what the army is doing explicitly.” He replied. “It would only cause undue panic for them to hear that the offensive is going badly and at the moment we’re still processing how to get as many people away safely as we can.”

Naya started to tear up. So they definitely thought that they might get to speak with her soon, that it was just any other day for them and they could spend it peacefully with a friend.

Isa was still staring. “Naya, what happened? I know something happened.”

“Nothing. It’s fine.” Naya replied. Her face was rigid, contorted into a fake smile while the tears streamed down her cheeks. She still thought she could run away from everything.

Isa shook his head. “There’s only so many times I can respond with ‘if you say so.'”

“Find synonyms then.” She said bitterly. Isa looked on at the meadow without reply.

The rest of the ride was quiet; the rest of her day in camp, equally, painfully so.


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