Lehner’s Greed (23.2)

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37th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2008 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, City of Junzien

22 years before the Solstice War.

Achim Lehner stood by his father’s side and waited for the number thirteen train from Junzien to Citadel Nocht, the seat of the presidency and his current home. It had been his home for the past four years and he had waited for that train and its special silver car many times before. He was familiar with the raised platform of the train station, with the man in the ticket booth and his curly mustache, with the posters on the walls exalting the iron eagle and the tricolor flag.

On this familiar picture intruded the rifle-armed soldiers patrolling the station, and the crews of the anti-balloon pom pom heavy machine guns stationed on purposefully unused tracks. As Achim and his father arrived they saw men replacing the old water jackets around the 30mm gun barrels with new ones. One man kept a long scope pointed to the sky at all times.

Having no escort, and having spent much of the week isolated from the war, the Lehners had become a touch disconnected as to the latest events in Junzien. Achim figured that whatever had happened to necessitate this had happened in quite a snap; these preparations weren’t here a few days ago. Achim did not feel unsettled by them; he had a young boy’s fervent confidence in the actions of his Fatherland, and in this particular case, in those of his own father.

After all he traveled with Nocht’s own president — Nore Lehner glanced calmly over the men and the equipment. He tapped Achim on the shoulder, and together they approached a stray landser patrolling the platform. President Lehner spoked up. “Soldier; are we expecting an attack? I’m afraid I have not been appraised of such news quite yet, which worries me.”

Astonished by the appearance of the commander-in-chief, the soldier saluted stiffly, and he replied as though speaking to a drill sergeant. “Sir no sir! Just precautions sir! There were recent rumors of Frank attack balloons in the east sir! We want to be ready if true, sir!”

President Lehner smiled and patted the boy’s shoulder. For an older man, the President had sharp features, youthful for his age, and he looked strong and assertive. But his touch was gentle and his words slow and soothing. “At ease my boy. You needn’t be so tense.”

“Sorry,” replied the soldier, putting down his hand from over his forehead.

“No need to apologize, you have carried yourself wonderfully. What is your name?”

“Private Anschel sir. Rudolf Anschel,” replied the soldier. He was bright-eyed, clean-shaven, round-jawed, like the soldiers in the posters. Achim was impressed by his effects: grey uniform, ammo pouches, his pickelhaube helm with a stubby spike, and his full-length combat rifle.

“Private Anschel, I have the utmost confidence that if the Franks try anything sneaky you will send them crying back to the kingdom.” President Lehner said, looking him in the eye.

There was a spark in the Landser’s eyes. “Yes sir! We sure will! We’ll keep everyone safe.”

Nore Lehner patted the soldier on the shoulder once more as he and Achim walked past and stood again at the end of the platform. He watched them leave with fresh admiration.

In the distance they heard their train coming. Its gleaming silver cars pulled up to the station, dragged along by a big black and gray locomotive. In front of them the doors opened. The interior of the car was like a small dining room, with a booth table surrounded by a plush couch in a square frame, and a kitchenette where a young woman tended to some coffee.

An austere, bespectacled, gray-haired man sat on the booth, awaiting the President.

He nodded to the side of the table opposite him. Nore and Achim sat down with him.

Nobody talked until the train whistled got going again. The young lady set down coffee and soft bread for everyone, and sat in the kitchenette area away from them. Their cups vibrated gently on the table. Achim did not like coffee; nonetheless he took respectful sips of it every so often, swallowing the bitter draught. His father and the old man did not touch their cups at all.

“Something has happened for you to be here, Senator. I want to know.” said the President.

Senator Sultzer sat back on the table and sighed. He set his hands on the table and interlinked the fingers. He flicked his wrists, his square face implacable throughout the process.

“Nore, the congress is preparing a motion to midterm you. I believe that it will pass.”

Achim contained a gasp with a mouthful of hot, disgusting coffee in his cheeks.

President Lehner nodded his head to the Senator. “I understand Sultzer. Proceed.”

“Yes. I knew you would respond this way. In a way, I am grateful, though it also pains me.” Senator Sultzer cleared his throat, and began to speak in a higher, more official voice. Perhaps the woman in the kitchenette was meant to be a witness. “As a Senator of the 58th Congress of the Federation of Northern States, I am tasked with delivering to you, President Nore Lehner, both written and verbal notice of the motion to challenge your second term, and your rights with regard to this motion as the highest executive in the land and commander-in-chief.”

President Lehner nodded his head. Achim stared at him. His expression was stony.

“You will have 120 days to campaign against your opponent, August Kieselman. You are required to engage in at least one formal debate to be held three weeks before the election, and may hold other witnessed and recorded debates, as established by mutual agreement between you. You will continue to uphold the duties of the Presidency; if you are defeated in the contest you will remain in Office until the 50th of the Aster’s Gloom, where a transition period will begin that will end by the 30th of the Hazel’s Frost, when the new President shall be sworn in.”

“I understand and acknowledge. Thank you, Senator Sultzer.” replied the President.

Thank you? Achim was speechless. Here he was, under attack, and yet– thank you?

Senator Sultzer spread open his coat and drew a letter from the pocket. He handed it to the President. Tipping his hat solemnly, he and the young woman took their leave of the first family, and departed to the next car in the train. When the door shut, Achim felt rudely awakened by the sound. Everything that had transpired felt unreal, as though it had been performed by puppets and not men with fire in their souls and blood in their veins.

Achim tugged on his father’s sleeve, drawing his attention away from the empty table.

“Father, why didn’t you say anything? These men have declared war on you!” He said.

“No, they haven’t.” Nore said sternly. “They are performing their civic duty, Achim.”

“Their civic duty to make stuff up against you while you were out of town? Out of town talking to the people, making them comfortable! How dare they do this, Father?”

“You are overreacting.” Nore said. “What just transpired is the people voicing their discontent, as they should rightly be able to. We live in a democracy, these are legitimate procedures.”

Achim couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was purely absurd to him. “That man isn’t the people! People, real people, touched your hand, and told you they loved you and believed in you! You told them you would keep them safe from the Franks and the Lachy and they applauded you! This happened just hours ago! You need to fight this, Father!”

Nore shook his head. He sighed. He turned around on the table and took Achim gently by his shoulders and looked directly into his eyes. “Achim, you are still young, and someday you will understand, but I implore you to listen. You have no right to be angry about this. This is our country working the way it should. I cannot fight it; I do not want to fight it. Because it is our country that I would be fighting. This is law, it is sacred; all of us will abide by the decision the people take on the Aster’s Gloom. Should they want me, I will know, and I will stay.”

Achim averted his eyes. He did not want to hear these words, he found them cowardly.

“Do you understand, Achim? In elected office we put the country above our own needs. We must preserve the values that make us Nocht, no matter what. This is a part of that.”

Though he nodded his head in acknowledgment, the boy secretly resented the idea.

“We must restrain ourselves. We must make sacrifices. That is what this office means. Should you ever aspire to any elected office, as I hope you will, you need to understand this.”

“Yes father.” Achim said. Truly, he didn’t understand it. His father had power and influence. He had money. Why was he letting these wicked men push him around? It just made no sense.

* * *

The Presidential Estate was a beautiful white villa a few kilometers from Citadel Nocht, set into the wintry forests to Rhinea’s north. It boasted a cylindrical main building three stories high and two long, rectangular two-story wings, fully encircled by four meter high perimeter fences. In the gloomy forest paths, the lights coming from the villa could be seen from quite a distance.

From the train station the first family took a private car north, first toward and then past the black, rocky hill upon which the eponymous Nocht Citadel was built, and through the wooded paths on the edge of the massive icy peaks of the Jotun mountain range. They drove leisurely through the woods, until Achim could see the dancing lights in the distance. They crossed thick, dark lines of trees, and a guard at the gates personally opened the way through the fence.

It was dark out; almost pitch black. In Rhinea the gloom was additive. Days were gray, and nights turned pitch black. Most of the estate lights were out, but the Foyer shone brightly.

The car rounded the unadorned front green of the estate and stopped at the steps leading into the foyer. Achim and Nore dismounted and quickly climbed the steps. Cold wind blew against them, snaking its way through any unprotected surface and chilling the flesh beneath.

At the top of the stairway the President opened their own door and he locked it behind them without assistance. Inside the broad and open foyer two older women waited for them with their heads bowed a dozen meters from the door; and an unfamiliar face waited with them. Beside their servants was a woman Achim did not know. She stood with the maids in the middle of the atrium, one hand behind her back, another extended before her.

Without hesitation his father approached the group. Achim followed, brow furrowed.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” President Lehner asked. He smiled fondly at the woman. He took her hand and kissed it. She smiled back, and bowed her head to him with respect.

Achim blinked. She was dressed in modest but fine clothes, a shawl made of fur, a long dress with plenty of embroidery. She had visible wrinkles, and thick streaks of white hair amid luxuriantly curled black locks; but what was most curious about her in his eyes was the dark color of her skin. She looked almost a glistening dark blue under the chandelier light.

“I’m afraid it is tragedy that brings about our meeting, Mr. President.” She replied. She spoke perfect Nochtish, same as anyone Achim had ever heard — there was not a hint of an accent.

Nore bowed his own head. He still held the woman’s hand. He raised his other hand in order to hold her with both at once. “My sincerest condolences; what is the status of the Empire?”

She sighed with grief, and she replied heavily, her words clipped halfway and almost blurted out through her teeth from then on. “The Imperial Authority has fallen, Mr. President.”

Achim looked to his father, and found the man’s eyes drawn farther than ever before. He saw the surprise and fear, the fallibility, of his father in a way that he could not remember ever having seen before. It made him afraid too, though he little understood the issues here.

“Makemba,” he drew closer to her and raised his hand to her shoulder to comfort her, “what do you mean by this? What has become of the family? What has happened to the state?”

Though tears did not escape Makemba’s eyes, Achim thought she was all but crying nonetheless. She was crying while dry of tears; her breathing quickened, she blinked her eyes rapidly, she wiped them, though they were dry. Soft sobbing interrupted her speech.

“The Imperial Family was slaughtered in their palace, Mr. President, and the state has collapsed. There is open rebellion in the Dominances, with a clear north against south divide. The Zaidi hold the greatest strength, including Solstice — and they committed the greatest atrocities to achieve that position. They murdered everyone but little Sarahastra.”

Makemba turned and gestured toward a side room. There was a door, cracked slightly ajar. It fully opened — from it strode a small, beautiful girl in long golden gown with a purple sash across her shoulders. She approached them with a neutral expression on her face. Achim’s eyes fixed on her and followed her every step from the door toward the middle of the atrium.

For a moment there was no sound in the room but the steps of her gilded, cloth shoes.

When she reached her servant’s side she raised her head. Her bright green eyes looked too keenly aware of the surroundings, as though she were examining everyone and everything. Her face stared straight ahead, but her eyes turned from corner to corner, from face to face. Everyone was staring at her suddenly but she seemed to have no reaction to this.

Next to the tall and stately Makemba, Sarahastra looked delicate enough to break with the wind. Her skin was a lighter shade of brown, and her features soft, her face round, her lips and nose thinner. Her black hair was tied into a circular, braided bun behind the back of her head, decorated with a golden chain studded with gems. She had a gem-studded choker and bracelets clipped around the sleeves of her dress, right over the wrists. Achim would have placed her in her early teens, his own age. Maybe 12 or 13; maybe younger, but he couldn’t tell with folks like her, he had never seen her kind much before. He could’ve told if she was Nochtish.

Nore descended to his knees, and he looked Sarahastra in her innocent eyes. He comforted her as well, rubbing her shoulders gently. At first he seemed to be in disbelief as to whether he was even touching her, whether she was really there. He stared at his own hands briefly as if caressing a phantom. When he finally spoke Achim was sure he heard a slight stutter at first.

“You are a strong girl, Sarahastra.” The President said. “I’m so sorry for what you have had to go through. No child should have to suffer that; and especially no child of your standing. I will do everything in my power to have justice for you, Sarahastra. But that is for the grown-ups to worry about. Me and Makemba have a lot to discuss; you should go with my son, Achim.”

The President looked over his shoulder, and bid Achim to come closer. The boy stepped forward without thinking, and he felt a little jolt when his father took Sarahastra’s hand and entrusted her to him, entwining their little fingers together. “Achim, play with her for a bit, show her around. This will be her home for a time; until some decisions are made.”

He gingerly pushed the children in their own direction, and urged them to depart for the east wing. Meanwhile he took Makemba’s hand, comforted her one last time and led her arm-in-arm to the opposite wing with the maids in tow. When the doors slammed shut behind them, they left a sudden silence, as if all of the air in the room had stormed out with them.

Achim and Sarahastra were left holding hands in the middle of the atrium, and for a moment Achim stood still, feeling the warmth in her hand, and fearing to look directly at her. She was a princess wasn’t she? He felt that same jolt down his spine whenever the word recurred in his mind, and whenever he recognized again that warmth from her hand — a princess.

“Gosh, I really hope Dietrich is here, and awake.” Achim said nervously, aloud, to himself.

He quickly noticed that the words coming out of him could be heard. In an unthinking snap he turned his gaze on Sarahastra, and met her bright, blinking eyes. He resisted the urge to evade again; he tried to smile. But there was just something disconcerting about being left alone holding the hand of an imperial princess. What was the proper etiquette here? He was stunned. This sort of thing did not happen in real life, this was all storybook material. Achim thought, who even had princesses anymore? He supposed the Franks did, but they were all awful!

“Um, hey, let’s go to the reading room. Ok?” He said. He grew tired of his own thoughts.

Sarahastra did not offer a peep to him in return and instead looking him up and down.

Achim felt stupid; she was from another country. She might not know Nochtish at all, even though her attendant could speak it. What did they speak in her country? What even was her country? He searched his head for it. Judging by her looks, maybe Occiden? No, it wasn’t–

Bestätigend,” the girl suddenly said. Achim nearly jumped, but he held on to her.

So she could speak Nochtish! “Oh, well, ok then. That’s a weird word choice, you could have just said ‘ok’ or something, y’know? Do you understand me, um, Sarahastra?”

“I do. I speak your tongue.” She said. Her voice sounded rather sweet, but her pronunciation was just a little slow. “I am sorry I did not reply sooner. I was taken by your suit.”

“Um, thank you. It’s my Seventhday suit. It’s sharp.” Achim said. “Can you walk with me?”

Sarahastra nodded. Achim led her by the hand out the big doors to the eastern wing of the estate. Across dark hallways, flanked by snow-battered windows, through long lines of doors, and up a flight of stairs, the children traveled the eastern wing. Achim finally stopped in front of a door in the middle of the foremost hall in the wing’s second floor. He knocked on it.

“Dietrich, are you in there? Dietrich you must be! Open up, it’s Achim! I have company!”

In a minute the doors cracked, and a boy with bright hazel eyes and short brown hair peeked his head around it. When he opened the door all the way Dietrich stood perplexed at the threshold, holding a gigantic book under his right arm. He was a tall boy, just like his father, the estate guardsman. Normally he looked a little askew compared to Achim, but today it was like he had dressed for church, all cleaned up with a vest, long pants and a blazer.

Suddenly feeling the heat from the reading room chimney, Achim removed his coat and he tied the arms around his waist. He took Sarahastra’s hand and led her past Dietrich.

“I like her bracelets. Who is she?” Dietrich asked, following them.

“You’ve been here all day and you didn’t see her come in?” Achim asked.

Dietrich rolled his eyes. “Yes, because I’ve been here all day.”

“You didn’t notice how you got all those nice clothes? There was probably a reason.”

“I bet there was but I just didn’t really care. She looks sick though.”

Sarahastra briefly spoke up. “I am not sick, but thank you for your concern.”

“Do you need to lie down though? You’re lookin’ kind of gloomy.” Dietrich asked.

“Don’t be rude to her Dietrich!” Achim whispered in a fit of emotion.

“I am fine.” Sarahastra dispassionately interjected again.

Dietrich shrugged comically. “She says she is fine Achim.”

“You know who needs to sit down though? I do.” Achim said, sighing.

Though it was called a reading room, the room’s broad floor space, wide walls and tall ceiling contained only one sizable bookshelf. Since the Lehners moved in it was mostly a play-room for the kids. A large and open area had been set aside that was full of toys. There were tops to spin, airplanes that could be thrown and would fly a small distance, simple balls and sticks, pedal cars to run around in, little logs to build with, a chest of board games.

There were a few tables that played host to model trains and even to terrain that one could use to play toy soldiers — one of these tables could not be touched under any circumstances, as Dietrich had spent a long time setting up a big cavalry battle there and did not want anyone to mess it up. Achim led Sarahastra past this little monument, and pulled up a few large chairs with big fluffy cushions. Everyone sat down in a little circle. Achim let out a long breath.

“Dietrich, she’s a princess, her name is Sarahastra. Her country’s in trouble.”

“You’re the worst fibber, Achim, just look at you.” Dietrich replied.

“I’m not fibbing! It’s true! I could hardly believe it myself but it’s true!”

Dietrich looked at Sarahastra as if silently demanding an explanation.

“I think I am the Empress now. Everyone else has passed on.” Sarahastra said sadly.

Dietrich’s mouth hung. He shivered suddenly. “Messiah defend! Princess, I, I, uh–“

“Oh god,” Achim reached out and took Sarahastra’s hands. “I’m, I’m so sorry–“

She shook her head. “It is fine. I did not know my Father well. I was the daughter of his third wife. Mother died a long time ago. She did not have to see any of the deaths like I did.”

Dietrich and Achim froze up. Neither of them could think of anything to say that might possibly soothe the girl or even so much as enliven her. They simply took her hands and tried to silently comfort her, and to look concerned with her troubles. They squeezed her fingers in their own.

She smiled at them and squeezed their hands back. Neither of them knew how to take it. For a long and awkward stretch of time they were silent, staring at each other. She did not stop smiling. Something about it felt contrived to Achim, but at least she didn’t look so miserable.

“Um, well, I am Dietrich Haus. I, um, I like soldiers and maps and things.” Dietrich said.

“I am Achim Lehner. I’m the son of the President. I like planes a lot.” Achim added.

The Empress nodded her head. “I am Sarahastra Ayvarta II. I like to read stories.”

“What kind of stories?” Achim said. “We have all kinds of books here if you want to read.”

“I like stories about princesses and princes and knights; perhaps that’s inappropriate now.”

“W-Well, if you like those,” Achim stammered a little, “you’ll find a lot on the shelves.”

Sarahastra stared at them closely. She seemed amused by something. She held a finger to her lips and her eyes went up and down Dietrich and up and down Achim once again.

“Dietrich, I must say, you do look like a knight; and Achim looks like a prince.”

Achim was left speechless again. This time he did not quite recover from it.

* * *

Eventually the maids reappeared and broke up the children’s little circle. Dietrich, Achim and Sarahastra went their separate ways. Achim laid awake in his pajamas all night, staring at the ceiling and at the snow falling out the window. Before he had never heard another child say any word related to death, except perhaps in an emphatic, playful way — hunters killing drakes, wolves killing pigs, that sort of thing. When Dietrich killed him he just caught him and knocked him down in the snow when they played hunters and drakes. That was all it was.

He knew what it was like to lose people. He had lost his mother. But that was a long time ago and it was peaceful. He was a really little kid back then. He still believed, in that way one thoroughly believed anything one was told when young enough, that she was in heaven. That it was angels that had taken her, softly and gently, from the pain and illness of this world.

Sarahastra had seen someone die; her own family. And she just talked about it. It was scary. It was the intrusion of something too real into his world of make-believe, into his unending days playing with the guardsman’s boy and going out into town when his father wanted to.

To her it was like any other thing, she said it as easily as she complimented his good suit.

She even smiled! What kind of smile was that? It looked genuine enough. Was she really ok?

And she called him a prince. Was she just nervous? Was her mouth just spitting out words?

He rolled in bed, thinking about her; she was so strange, and yet, he felt like she had to be incredibly strong, incredibly smart, incredibly tough; he was mystified with her. She was not like any child he had met. She was incredible, in every sense of the word. She was important. He felt like a fairy had come and touched him and shown him magic in his mundane world.

Before he knew it, the sun was out again in the clearing. It was still gloomy — it was always gloomy at the estate. Over the forest the sky was always gray. But the bright white piles of snow everywhere made up for it. He could see that icy wonderland from his window even while lying on his bed. He had not slept at all that he could remember, but he did not feel tired.

In fact, he felt like playing, and he quite felt like playing with someone specifically.

He pulled a coat over his pajamas and put on a pair of boots without socks. Wrapped up, he ran out of his room. He had an idea of where they could be keeping Sarahastra. In a few minutes he was downstairs and running past a few of the guest rooms. He crouched and looked under each one, and found one door where the floor mat had been disturbed. He allowed himself in.

Like his own bedroom the guest room was sizable and Sarahastra looked very small in the middle of the adult bed there. She was sitting up against the backboard, wrapped up in blankets. Her hair was down — it was long and a little wavy. She smiled again at him. Her expression was nicer this time. She did not look so tired. Unlike him she appeared to have slept the night, and perhaps she had gained some more distance from her own terrors now.

“Hey, let’s go out and play.” Achim said. He climbed on the bed with her, and pulled the blankets off her head, like taking down the hood of a cloak. He tried to smile at her.

Sarahastra looked sternly at him. “I am supposed to stay here Mr. Lehner.” She said.

“Mr. Lehner? Ew. That’s my dad; call me Achim.” He pronounced it slowly. “Ah-kim.”

Sarahastra nodded. “Ah-kim.” She said. “I would like to go see the snow, Achim, but I do not know if I am allowed to do so. I think the adults would rather I stay indoors today.”

“Aw, to heck with ‘em.” Achim said. “What are they gonna do? You’re their boss now.”

“I am their boss? Really?” Sarahastra crossed her arms and tipped her head to one side.

“You are! You said it yourself, you’re the Empress. That’s even more important than my dad, he’s just the President. People can just vote him out; heck they’re already doing that.”

“They are? That is dreadful; he seems like a very nice man.” Sarahastra said.

Achim felt a little aggravated with the idea. “Sometimes not enough, sometimes too much.”

He took Sarahastra’s hands again. “Come on, lets go play. We just need a coat.”

“Well, if you say so; I am trusting you with this, Achim, because you seem reliable.”

“I don’t think you’re a good judge of that, to be totally honest.”

“Oh, but I am. I meant everything that I said about you. I can just feel it.”

She followed him off the bed. Once all the blankets were off her he found she was dressed in a set of pajamas much like his own, with long sleeves and long pants. Good. All she needed was a coat, and they found an ill-fitting one in the guest room closet. Bundled tight, the princess followed the president’s son down the halls and out through a side a door. A trio of big stone steps led into an ocean of snow. Sarahastra was hesitant at first, but plunged in after Achim.

“It is cold out here!” She said, shivering, but with a smile. Achim laughed with delight.

“That’s what’s great about it though!” He said. “It really wakes you up!”

They trudged through the snow and around the back of the estate, Achim promising Sarahastra that she would get used to the cold and that it would be fun once they found Dietrich. He knew where he would be on a sunny, snow-covered day. Like the front of the Estate, the back was mostly featureless aside from a statue of Gunther Von Nocht and a few trees that were allowed inside the fenced perimeter on its edges. Near one of those few trees they found a large pile of snow with a slit carved through it, and a pair of eyes peering out at them from inside.

“I made a pillbox.” Dietrich shouted. He was always up earlier than anyone else. He got up when his dad started his shift, and his dad was up with the sun since he was the guardsman.

Achim crouched, gathered up snow into a ball, and tossed it at Dietrich’s little fortress.

“Not gonna do anything with that, you’re gonna need a 5 cm gun or bigger.” Dietrich said.

Sarahastra crouched, gathered up her own snowball and threw it at the fort as well. Dietrich’s slit collapsed from the strike, forcing him to stand up and break through the roof of his little mound. He laughed and threw his own snowball, falling short of Sarahastra’s shoes.

“You’re gonna need to brush up on that aim soldier!” Achim replied, laughing also.

Conspiratorial grins adorned every face; the children crouched, gathered up snow and started an impromptu snowball war. Sarahastra was pelted in her hair, Achim took two balls at once to the chest, and within moments Dietrich was almost buried again in the remains of his fort. Running and jumping and ducking projectiles, taking cover wherever they could, the children laughed and protested jokingly whenever hit and pretended to keel over when tired. They their arms in the snow, making shapes. They dug into the powder like snakes or worms.

Soon everyone was covered in snow, it was on their coats and shoes and in their hair.

They laid on the ground together, holding hands, breathing heavy between bouts of laughter, and Achim felt a great comfort in seeing Sarahastra smiling and laughing. He thought to himself that whatever happened next, maybe there was a way he could come out smiling.

“Strange. I no longer feel so cold!” Sarahastra said, beaming cheerfully at the boys.

She picked up a big clump of snow and tossed it overhead and it rained down on them.

“I told you!” Achim said. “After a while you just get used to it. It becomes natural.”

She smiled at him, and she raised her hands to his shoulders, and sidled closer. She touched her forehead to his own. Achim was stunned; his cheeks and ears turned a bright red.

“Thank you for your kindness to me Achim. I thought I would never see another happy child again. I felt like there could not have been a place without misery left in the world.”

She remained there, embracing him, and he embraced her back while Dietrich stared.

“N-No problem. I am glad you feel happy. H-Hey um, um, want to climb the big tree?”

Sarahastra backed a few centimeters away from him, their eyes meeting, still close.

“I would love to.” She said. She got up before him, and helped him to stand.

The three of them approached the big tree closer to the fence. There were planks nailed to its trunk, and a few nailed between its branches, just under its thick canopy of snow-covered marcescent leaves, where the kids could sit. Dietrich climbed up first, showing everyone where to step. Achim went second, and he urged Sarahastra to stick close to him so he might reach down if she fell; but she had no trouble. She deftly took the handholds, and pulled herself up to the plank with the boys. She whistled; they had a great view of the lawns from 5 meters up.

“Never seen a girl climb that well. You’re not scared at all?” Dietrich asked, swinging his legs in mid-air. Achim started to reprimand him but the princess interjected too quickly.

“No. I could have told beforehand if I was going to be hurt.” Sarahastra replied.

She swung her legs happily on the tree while Dietrich and Achim stared in bewilderment.

“What is that object up there?” She asked, pointing up into the canopy.

Achim looked up. He saw a thin wooden toy stuck in the branches.

“Oh, that’s one of my gliders. I threw it from the roof and it just coasted down there.”

“You should get it back.” Sarahastra said.

“No way, it’s hard enough getting up here.” Dietrich said.

“He will not be hurt, I promise you.” Sarahastra said.

Achim peered overhead. There were a few good branches to step on, but they had never laid any handholds that far up, so he would have to grab and pull himself up by the tree.

“You really think I can get it?” He asked.

“I know you will get it.” Sarahastra said.

The boy craned his head toward the canopy once more, and carefully he stood up on the plank. Dietrich shook his head and waved his arms as if to signal him back to the ground, but Achim lifted his leg onto a branch and reached overhead. He started to climb but froze up; he had one leg on a branch, two hands holding higher branches, and one dangling in mid-air.

“Do not stop! You will reach the top and you will not be hurt, trust me!”

Sarahastra’s voice compelled him forward. He saw his plane just a few meters up.

Achim pulled himself up, standing on the higher branch he reached.

He saw no other branches near him that he could use — so he jumped.

His chest hit a branch and he curled his arms around it.

Pulling himself up, he stood on that one, and seized another set just above him.

Finally he was on the level of the plane. He reached out to the leafy little branches holding it, and he took the object in one hand and pulled it close. Then he sat back against the tree, in awe. He had his plane back, and he was high enough up that he could see on the roof of the estate’s central structure, and he could look out over the fence spears and into the gloomy forest.

Triumphantly, he threw his plane and he watched it fly on the cold winds, down from the tree, in a circle around the back yard, and coming to land right in front of the statue.

Dietrich stared up from the planks in awe. Sarahastra waved. Had she really known so certainly? Achim was so high up that he felt like he was flying. He stretched out his arms and he laughed. To think that this seemed so daunting and impossible just a few minutes ago.

Then he saw a maid in the window; she pointed; she shouted.

* * *

“What were you thinking, Achim? I thought I taught you sense, boy!”

“Sorry father.”

There was a massive portrait in the room of Lenore Von Fiegelmann, dearly departed wife and mother. She looked like she was watching the family drama disapprovingly. Only Achim looked her in the eyes. Nore paced and paced as if he wanted to distract himself from her sight.

“You could have been hurt! Sarahastra could have been hurt!”

“Sorry father.”

Nore’s office was massive; there used to be a lot of portraits there, but now there was only one hung. She had left the world when Achim was very small. All he had left of her were pictures, and vast sums of money that she had declared to be exclusively his. Innocent that he was he never thought about why his mother might have denied his father any of her wealth.

Innocent that he was, he listened whenever his father told him about restraint, about covetousness, about keeping those vaults sealed up and living judiciously, on his own means. He didn’t think that perhaps it was a way his father tried to take back control. Instead, like now, he bowed his head, and he watched his father pace the room, stern, but with a gentle voice that made him appear amicable. He took his father’s advice to heart, on most days.

“I understand your desire to include her in your activities, but she is a special child, Achim. Your generosity cannot reach her. You are only troubling her. You may visit her briefly and wish her well but I insist that you give her distance. Are we clear about this?”

“Yes father.”

But he felt angry in that instant. Behind his back, he closed his fists. Achim didn’t know why his father was denying him this. He just could not understand. Everything else made sense, but was playing with another kid so wrong? He liked Sarahastra. He wanted to be with her more. She had a way with words; she was interesting! She made him feel really good.

“You are a good child, Achim. Please behave; please think about your actions. Moderation is important. It is paramount. Hold your indulgences back, or they will overcome you.”

“Yes father.”

He started to hate it when his father became like this. There was a nascent anger, building and building. Little statements that tasted like vinegar flooded his mind. He denies me everything; he’s always like this; he’s such a spoil-sport; he doesn’t understand anything.

Nore patted him on the shoulder and stroked his hair. He sent the boy on his way.

Achim hardly listened to his praises. Head down, he kept tasting the vinegar.

Whether or not Nore wanted him to, Achim was going to see Sarahastra again. He owed her that, he thought. She was so nice, and it was not fair to keep her holed up after all she went through. Whatever Father said; whatever her Guardian said; he wanted to play with her again.

* * *

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Lehner’s Greed (23.1)

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This story segment contains strong language.

44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — City of Junzien, Hotel Reich

“I barely ever get to see you anymore. I don’t even have a copy of your current schedule!”

Agatha was shouting into the phone. It was hard not to. She felt as though shouting would make her more real to him — that it would remind him that she was a flesh and blood human being, his wife, that she was not just another voice on the phone that Cecilia patched through to him. She was not just a signal crawling through wires from the Presidential Suite of the luxurious Reich hotel. She was the real woman laying on the double bed, her light pink flesh and fluffy white bath robes a sharp contrast on the red sheets, like a lone polkadot in a vast expanse. There was space enough for two of him in that bed, but she was alone.

He provided little comfort. “Honey, honey, it’s been hard, okay? This is hard too. I want to be with you. I was planning to be with you, but things are just turning out complicated, I’m having to be involved a lot. This has taken me by complete surprise, and I’m trying to–“

“Only because you’re a control freak who can’t delegate anything! You need to leave these matters to the people you hired and appointed! You’re not as perfect as you think you are Achim. For all you know, you could be making things worse for Cecilia and the others.”

“I’m trying to make time, okay? You know how I am, but I am making time for you.”

“On my end you don’t look to be making an effort at all to be brutally honest!”

She felt frustrated with his voice. He was doing that “pitching voice” of his — he would talk fast, he would add an affect like a salesman trying to sound more excited about a new children’s toy so that the bored parents on the line might perk up and buy it. She was not one of his customers. She was his goddamned wife. She reminded him by becoming ever more irate — the stronger her voice, the more threatening her own affect, the less he could keep pretending to be happy and perky. He would look ridiculous; he was ridiculous. Neglecting her, Agatha Lubitsch, who just today had a spot on the paper as the prettiest face in cinema!

“There’s some mountains even I can’t move!” He replied, trying to placate her with a sweet voice. “To win in Ayvarta we’re all gonna have to make some sacrifices.”

“Why did you even start this war? I can’t understand what we gain from this!”

She knew his reasons but she didn’t want to admit them. She felt that they could not be.

His tone of voice changed very slightly. He was becoming aggravated.

“Hey, how’s this sound; I want to win so your hotel doesn’t get fucking bombed by communists. So we don’t live in fear. You remember that day in the limo when the bombs went off? That was good times wasn’t it? I don’t know about you but I don’t want to experience that again!”

“Stop being so fucking sarcastic!” She shouted back at him. “I didn’t want to remember that.”

There was a heavy sigh on the line. “I’m sorry, doll, okay, I’m sorry. I’m really stressed out. I think I might have been given some real bad advice throughout all this and I promise you a few heads will roll, and then we can be together more, ok? Dietrich is already heading out there.”

She had to admit, that made her feel a little calmer. He was always serious when he sent Dietrich somewhere — it meant he was going to personally keep away from it and entrust everything to him. She felt both relieved and foolish. He had promised so many things. He was always promising. And yet she kept listening. Sometimes his promises came through, and it was almost like magic. These past four years with him certainly had more highs than lows. She’d remember all the beautiful things, and it seemed like his mistakes were mostly clustered in the recent past and could still be changed. They weren’t set into stone.

“Alright.” She replied. “Alright Achim. I believe you. I’ve got to hang up. I miss you.”

“You’ll see me on TV and the radio tomorrow, if you tune in. Wish me luck.”

“Goodbye, Achim.” She hung up. He didn’t even say ‘i miss you too.”

It didn’t even cross his mind.

She threw away the telephone receiver and lay back on the bed, stretching her arms.

Agatha Lehner pulled away her bright gold hair band and her wavy locks of blond hair fell over her face. Her whole body was still weary, her feet hurt from the pumps she wore, her eyes were cloudy without the spectacles she never wore while filming. When she closed her eyes she could see dancing lights from the cameras and the studio lighting, and hear the whining of the audio equipment, a tinnitus. She started turning Achim over in her head again, trying to probe him like a distant phantom, trying to find the driving force behind him. She still didn’t get it.

From the time she met him to the time she married him to the present; what was the end of his ambitions? What was it that kept him from just being by her side? What made a lawyer from Junzien college who had picked her up and bedded her on the first date after a bad pickup line and a completely sober evening become the president of the country? What made him lock himself in that office and dream of planes bombing another country into pieces?

And then, what drew her to him? Why did she want him so much back then; why did she still want him so badly? Where they just married on a whim? Did he just see her as a trophy?

She rolled over on her side and reached for a small, open bottle of wine, 2007 vintage, that was set on the dresser next to her bed. She thought of his betrayals and her own betrayals. She thought about need and want; about drive. Was there a point where everything went awry?

She raised the bottle of her red lips and drank right out of it. After a long pull of her lips on the end of the bottle, so much that it burned her throat, she fell on her back again.

Staring helplessly at the roof she turned over the question, turned it over and over and over. Agatha was bright, but the real answers to her questions were too raw to contemplate.

 

* * *

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Hell Awakens — Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains scenes of mild body horror, mild misogyny, light injury to a child, graphic violence, burning, choking, mental distress, and death.

 

29th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2007 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — Central District

She held on to her hat and bag for dear life as she dashed through the Msanii, the traditional marketplace, evading the kiosks and leaping over goods on carpets, her steps barely sounding above the murmur of the crowd. She cast breathless glances over her shoulder.

Was he gone? There people everywhere around her, in robes and shawls and headscarves and long flowing garbs, a few in shirts and overalls — there was only one man in a uniform. Around her the street was thick with people. Dozens of men and women crowded the street.

Today was a festival day; in front of a kiosk a crowd of at least twenty people stood around waiting to purchase a miniature wooden chariot for the Ratha-Yatra festival.

She pushed past them without slowing and ran along the gutter, ducking around the people coming and going on the street, running under carried packages, between the held hands of couples, and through the gaggles of cared-for children visiting with their parents.

Her little heart pounded in her chest. Did she lose him in the market? Though there was only a single package in her satchel it felt incredibly heavy. She had run her thin legs raw.

At the other end of the market street she stopped to catch her breath, thinking that she must have lost the guard in that mess. She looked past and into the throng, gasping. Her chest heaved up and down under her boyish vest and dress shirt. She pressed her hat against her head, tufts of short, straight hair falling over her cheek and ears and the back of her neck.

“Thief! That boy’s a thief! Stop him! Stop that boy! Someone grab his fuckin’ hand, now!”

She saw a headscarf go flying, a box of pastries fall along with a dazed man; the guard was not done with her. She saw him shoving his way through the crowd toward her like a tusk-fiend, and Madiha took off running again, her chest tight, her throat raw, her eyes tearing up. She no longer even knew where she was going now — she hardly ever detoured through the lower central district. The Zaidi, the socialists she worked for, avoided the shadow that the imperial administration cast here. There were more alert guards and one could not bribe them. Any coin in her pockets was useless for this zealous man. He was not bought. He would beat her!

Perhaps she could have run to the house of a Social Democrat here — if the Zaidi weren’t feuding with them at the moment. Instead, all she could do was run into unfamiliar alleys.

She heard his tramping behind her, growing ever closer. She was gasping for every breath. Her legs felt like giving out. She dashed past a dingy little street made up of old stones.

In her satchel she carried a revolver, and she knew if she aimed for his head she could kill him, but it was not dark out, and she knew no place she could lead him to where she could kill him and be completely safe from discovery. She felt it clanking inside her bag, useless.

Over her shoulder she saw him take the corner and reacquire her with his bloodshot eyes.

She bowed her head and swerved into a tight corner — and found a dead end punctuated by a large green metal garbage bin. Unbelieving, she stared at it for a moment. She was trapped.

Madiha rushed to the garbage bin and started to climb it. Then a bullet pierced the lid.

“Stop you fucking rat!” Shouted the guard, in a voice so loud it seemed to resonate within Madiha’s flesh. Though she was seven or eight years old (she knew not with accuracy which one was the case) she was tall for her age, and the guard had only a head on her, but he was burly and rough-looking, with a yellow and red burn scar along his thick neck. In his hands was a concealable revolver that the Imperial police used. They could draw it within a second.

He picked her up as if she weighed nothing, and slammed her against the garbage bin.

She cried out and dropped her bag. Her hat went to the floor. She crumpled against the garbage bin, trying to choke back tears and all kinds of miserable sounds. She thought she felt a rip in her vest, along her back; she thought she felt a rip in her spine, it hurt so much.

The Guard hovered over her, staring at her quizzically for a moment. He looked around the alley, and he looked behind himself. There was nobody around. There were tiny windows on the left-hand building enclosing the alley, and he looked into them and seemed satisfied nobody was watching. He produced his truncheon and prodded Madiha, lifting up her chin, pressing against her stomach, tapping her on the peak of the head a little too roughly.

“Shit, you’re a girl? Spirits defend.” The Guard spat on the floor of the alley. “Woulda hit you less hard. Fuck you dressing up like that for? What’s the world coming to these days?”

Madiha breathed roughly and silently. She hadn’t worn a dress or a shari and parkar in over a year. To her none of this meant “dressing like a boy” — but the city as a whole cared little.

The Guard picked up her bag and withdrew the package. He was quick about it. He knew all along that she must have been ferrying something important. Kids carried all kinds of things in bags in Bada Aso. Gangs used kids to steal things or to transport money. Madiha’s satchel was a special brand of bag that was big and light and popular with working homeless kids. Most gangs made you steal your own bag, but Madiha had gotten hers from the Zaidis.

“Should’ve stopped when I told you. If your mother ain’t gonna learn you, I will.”

Madiha laid against the garbage bin, her spine screaming with agony. She felt like bending double and rolling up into a ball, but she was in too much pain to move. Nobody had ever hit her so hard in her life — and she had been hit a few times before. This was different. She thought this must have been what it was like to be hit by someone trying to kill you.

A shadow obscured her, and the Guard knelt down. He pressed the letter against her face, and waved the paper cruelly and mockingly against her nose, flicking the tip with the envelope.

“What’re you carrying here? Tell me who gave you this. You tell me here and you can go, but if you don’t I’m gonna have to take you down to the guard house.” He said.

She struggled to make any kind of acknowledgement. She stared at him; she glared.

“Giving me the evil eye? Ain’t nobody gonna care about one less little vagrant on the street. You tell me something right now or you’ll be leaving without teeth, and trust me, there hasn’t been a single happily married girl in this city lately who’s been missing her pearly whites.”

Madiha said nothing back to him. She stared right into his eyes as if through him. She struggled to breathe. Her head was turning hot; a red haze that obscured the edges of her vision.

He took his truncheon again and he raised it up into the air to beat her over the head.

“Don’t touch me!” Madiha shouted. She waved her arm as if slapping him away.

At once, the Guard’s legs swept out from under him, and a force drove into his gut in mid-air and sent him crashing back hard onto the stones. He squirmed on the ground.

Madiha struggled to stand, and hobbled toward the man. He stretched along the floor in pain, disoriented, twitching. He swept his leg impotently at her and nearly tripped her up. She fell on her knees over him, and she pushed her hands against his head as if she were trying to pump something into his skin. At once, his eyes went glassy. He babbled for a second.

She felt the power in her fingers, coursing through him, forming a connection. Flashes of vague thoughts and emotions seeped from his mind to her own. She saw in him a desperate, chained-up monstrous thing, and she set it ablaze, and it howled and screamed until it died.

Then he remained quiet, placid, staring at the sky as if he had found a new dimension to the color blue. Madiha had wiped out all of his aggression — and maybe other things with it.

Her own mind recovered from the eldritch process with astonishing quickness.

She caught her breath and stood slowly up, gently helping herself upright by the wall. Her back was in terrible pain still, but she could walk and given a bit of effort she could even run. She picked up her satchel, and took the letter from the floor and put it back. She would have to explain what happened, but at least today’s delivery was to Chinedu Kimani. Anyone else and she might have felt anxious explaining, but Kimani would understand what happened.

Madiha Nakar, the favored courier of the Zaidi socialists of Bada Aso, took off running again. Her routine consisted of running, and fighting was not unknown to her. Though she was little and still feeling shocks of what had transpired, she would not let it stop her. It was not only her height and precocious intellect that drew the Zaidi to her. It was not even the strange abilities she exhibited. Above all else what they prized was her conviction.

Unlike the other children conscripted around Bada Aso, Madiha Nakar was a volunteer.

 

* * *

A nascent Bada Aso, little more than stones at the edge of the sea, labored to renew a cycle.

Skies unfathomably ancient watched as the young race below meddled with forces quite beyond their understanding. Chanting overwhelmed the natural song of the night. Figures danced under the dark. Naked men and women traced dizzying patterns with their sweating, gyrating bodies. Shadows played about the stones. The People screamed and struggled for the primordial lifegiver to accept their offerings, and to keep the world moving, sweating, burning.

Clad in pelts and tusks, the Seer left the dance near the apex of its sound. Dusts were cast into the bonfire and it raged ever higher; the dancers, the chanters and drummers stamped and screamed and beat louder, working their bodies raw from a pleasurable fatigue to an exquisite pain. The Seer approached the edge of the Umaiha and followed the riverside below the earth. In the seaside caverns and tunnels beneath the sacred site rich, thick fumes from the soil’s underbelly overcame the senses and brought visions to the religious mind. Arms and legs shaking, the seer fell to the floor, knees quaking against the stone, hands thrust skyward, taking deep, greedy breaths. Sickly sour gas burnt the nostrils and eyes and spun shapes in the air.

Hours passed. Gradually the dance worked itself down from its climax. Leaning on a stick, feet unstable, stomach churning, the Seer returned to the circle of stones. Before the fire, the fumes escaped from the Seer’s throat and nostrils. Suddenly the fire rose, higher than ever, and threatened to consume the Seer. Flames spun across the circle like ribbons in the wind.

In the middle of the bonfire appeared the Warlord, the executioner that fanned the flames.

Madiha Nakar stood in the midst of shadowed figures vaguely in the shape of Ayvartan men and women. She was not naked like them; her ahistorical military uniform had traveled to the world of the visions with her. It was the anchor of her sanity within this false antiquity.

The Seer’s featureless face suddenly split down the middle, and Madiha saw a flash of teeth.

“Cunning, Command, Fearlessness, Ferocity.” It said. This mockery of her people’s shape could no longer replicate their voices to her. She knew it for what it was — a figment meant to control her. A familiar of some millennia-removed shaman, dragged from the shadows into her head. Its voice was a series of harsh, seemingly unrelated noises that produced words in her mind.

“I know what you are, and to a certain measure, I know what I am.” Madiha said decisively.

On the Seer’s split mockery of a face the teeth ground. “To a certain measure? You don’t really know anything. Your kind can’t know anymore. You’re in a world long past able to know.”

Madiha had no answer to that. Magic was dead in their world. He was correct about that.

He seemed to take her silence as a personal triumph, and he started to speak without pause.

“Madiha Nakar, there is only one reason we speak.” So fervently did the mouth now speak that the upper half of its face quivered and shook and thrashed about like the top of a hood. Madiha felt a certain disgust. It was almost painful to stare at this fiend. “Madiha Nakar, you are again chosen. Once before, we met; but you are a different person now, a different candidate, for a different event. Each Warlord is appointed to carry the primordial fury of Ayvarta to a stage of history. You will continue a cycle that has sustained life for millennia. In this age of ignorance you will give nourishment to the flame, as your predecessors have done. You will be hated, and ultimately, destroyed. You will be the monster of your era. You are the martyr of a blind race.”

“Ayvartans, or humans as a whole?” Madiha asked, eyes still averted from the monster.

Vertical rows of teeth clicked and clacked but offered no audible explanation to her.

“You have been the source of much confusion and suffering for me. I demand an answer.”

A bloated black tongue escaped the teeth and seemed to mock her. Wild laughter ensued.

“I am here to see the ancient will carried out and nothing more. I have done only what was necessary to see the flame set alight for this generation. That is my destiny, and your own.”

Madiha felt the burning in her. She felt the heat trace every sinew in her brain, she felt the power like a pressure against her eyesockets. When she opened and closed her fingers she felt the potential, thrumming inside of her, the latent ability to invoke something alien, strong. This was with her now, every second of the day, fading into the background. It was like the sensation of wearing clothes. She knew how it felt to be bare, but clothes still felt like a second skin.

She remembered what she did as a child, what she had practiced, and she held out her left hand toward the monster. Something swept out toward the beast, but only in her recollection of the moment; in reality the power was noiseless, and had no tell. Madiha moved her arms and in an instant the creature roiled, as though being boiled in mid-air, its black shape bubbling.

“You can’t do this.” There was no pain or distress in its false voice despite the thrashing and shaking of its oozing, shadowy body. Its teeth clattered and snapped but made no sound.

“I am doing it.” It took no effort on her part to double the pressure. Its body collapsed, becoming ever more shapeless and inky, spilling on the floor like a puddle of blood.

“It is your destiny. It is imprinted on you. It is in our flesh. It is in our soul. We cannot escape the blood. Your destiny; our destiny; the people’s destiny; has been an unbroken line traced from antiquity to modernity. Cycle after cycle, we have witnessed it. We are slaves to it.”

“We? So you want to be a part of this now? But you can’t disguise yourself as me anymore.”

“So long as you desire to inflict the burning you must acknowledge yourself, myself, and us.”

Madiha grinned. “I acknowledge that I possess a monstrous ability and I even acknowledge that it may have the history you claim it does; but I refuse the extent of your predestination. I am nobody’s slave; and you are unnecessary to my functioning. I am going to excise you.”

A soundless scream escaped its gnashing mouth. “You will feed the flame. Your era of ignorance still needs the flame. Your kind will never outgrow the flame. There must always be fuel that burns for humankind to see in the shadow. It is in your nature. It is necessary.”

“You are not human and you can never know. You are a tool created by a people that has seen midnight. Your world may never change but mine visibly has.” Madiha replied.

Sound returned. Now she heard the sloshing of its thrashing body, the gnashing of its teeth. Its voice finally took on an affect. It was furious. “I will return; when you lie broken in the soil, stomped to pieces by every foot in the world, a hated thing, an unloved thing, a thing, nothing but broken and befouled meat; Ayvarta will select another of your kind to carry its wrath.”

“You are not Ayvarta.” Madiha said. “Ayvarta has changed. It has transformed beyond you.”

He said that too; and you destroyed everything he built. Human works are temporary. Each of you has tried to defy your fate and your fate has always overcome you. I am the part of you that is eternal. I am the only part of you that will ever matter to the natural order of the world.”

“Humans are not immutable. They are self-constructed in many ways. You admit you are part of me. Then you are a human work too. And you are right, human works are temporary.”

She made a visible effort, and the force inflicted upon the being was finally too much for it.

Under the creature’s black, inky flesh a red core flashed brightly and then collapsed. As if draining through a hole in the world the creature tore away from existence altogether. Everything started to quiver and to shake itself apart. Overhead the sky fell, and around her the stones ground to powder. Finally, brick by brick the Bada Aso she knew came into sharp relief.

Madiha was no longer in the vision of an ancient, wild Ayvarta where a fractious people fought their separate wars to escape depredation; she was in a new Ayvarta that needed protecting.

Things would be different this time. She had to believe that. Though she knew that when she woke her resolve would wane against the harsh material world, she tasted the surety of the vision world for as long as she could, and for once, she drew strength from it instead of fear.

 

35th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

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

“Damn it all! This fucking rock! There’s always another problem here isn’t there?”

Von Sturm ripped the marked-up map from the table and threw it into the air in disgust. Around him his planning staff looked demoralized. A few meekly recovered the map but did not dare to present it to the General again. Fruehauf watched from the corner, waiting to relay orders back to the field. She was anxious enough she nearly forgot to breathe.

“Patriarch?” A call came in. Fruehauf responded affirmatively, and the man commenced with his report. “We have begun clearing the minefields. They were very sloppily placed, but the concentrations are huge. I’ve already lost one man to them. We are looking for alternative passages but there’s no other roads north that can support a broad front approach.”

“I understand. Have the Ayvartan forces made any show of force? Aircraft or shelling?”

“Nothing whatsoever. It’s like they’ve vanished into thin air. But they made damn sure to booby trap every good road before they did. We’re still taking precautions just in case.”

“Indeed. A single shot from that heavy cruiser in the port could be deadly to your operations. Be ready to evacuate in case anything happens. But try to clear out at least one road north. Concentrate your efforts. The General considers this task valuable and pressing.”

“Yes ma’am. Tell him if he wants it to go any faster he should send us more bangalores.”

He took his leave and returned to his work. Fruehauf thought the man’s tone a little inappropriate, but she kept it to herself. Throughout the front the troops were losing faith and respect in General Von Sturm. She, who worked closely with him, had a dimmer view from the outset, but most of his troops had been loyal to him, and they had been ready to defer to his commands earnestly. Now even his 13th Panzergrenadiers were embittered.

She turned from the radio and approached the table, her clipboard pressed over her chest.

“Sir, we’ve received word that the minefields are being cleared as quickly as possible.”

Von Sturm raised his eyes from the table to Fruehauf’s face. He gestured to the table.

“You’re always standing up. Sit down, you’re making me nervous.” He said softly.

Fruehauf nodded, and took a chair. Her heart raced. Beside Von Sturm the rest of the chairs on the table were vacant. Von Drachen had not returned to the HQ since yesterday.

“How are we doing on moving materiel to the central district?” He asked.

“We’re going slower than expected. With the port captured and threatening the eastern section, and our horses having to move around that gaping hole in Matumaini, and the flood damage in Umaiha, we have very few paths we can move supplies through.” Fruehauf said.

“I’m willing to put off a large-scale attack another day.” Von Sturm said.

Fruehauf nodded. This was not in the plan they discussed yesterday, but at this point it would come as a welcome relief to everyone. “What about the combat patrols moving north?”

“I was getting to that.” Von Sturm said, raising his voice, but not to the level of aggravation he exhibited in days past. “Continue the minefield clearing. That must be our top priority. When it becomes possible, I want a mechanized platoon moving up through Karkala and Main.”

“Same mission as outlined yesterday?” Fruehauf asked, holding her pen to her clipboard.

“Expand the timetable, but yes. I want them to search for the enemy. I don’t want them to engage unless they feel they have found a weakness, because heavy reinforcement will not be ready to support them. But we need to find the Ayvartans. We need to find them.”

“I understand sir. I will convey your orders to the troops.” Fruehauf said.

“Right.” Von Sturm steepled his fingers. “Hey. Listen, Fruehauf. You– you’re doing good work. You clearly know– you know how a radio works.” He was hesitating a little as he spoke.

“Yes sir.” Fruehauf said, puzzled. This was coming too little and too late for her.

“Out of everyone here, I, well, I can’t blame you. You’ve been doing your job.” He added.

“Thank you sir.” She replied. She wasn’t exactly smiling. This all was hard to respond to.

He looked to his side at nothing in particular, perhaps just to avoid looking at her anymore.

Fruehauf took this as her cue to return to her radios. She wanted to sigh and maybe shake her head, but if the General was in a pensive mood, then at least he wasn’t in a raging one.

 

Southwest District, Penance Road

Kern remembered the man’s name, thank god. It was Voss. He didn’t recall the first name. He would avoid using it. He just needed to call him Voss and that would satisfy everything.

Technically, Kern should have been going to a hospital as well, but after having fragments extracted and a roll of bandages around his chest and back, he requested and received special permission to walk it off because he was part of a headquarters company. Before anything else happened he needed to see Voss — particularly because his name was starting to mix in Kern’s mind with Schloss, when he remembered the names at all. Voss had been transferred from the old field hospital to a more sturdy and intact building just off of Penance road.

As he walked along the road west from the South district, he saw a tank with an anti-air gun hitched crudely to its back plate, dragging it along the road up to the defensive line that had been hastily assembled the day before. There would be no movement forward in the West, not with that Ayvartan naval group holding the port. Penance was very tense. Kern could see the Cathedral from afar as he neared. He remembered the division fighting hard to secure it.

Kern checked his map. He found himself soon in front of the new field hospital, set inside a tenement with twenty little apartments. It was a red brick building, tall and wide, and a white cross had been painted on it so that it could be quickly identified. Past the door, a young woman asked for his credentials and whom he wanted to see. Kern showed her the letter that Captain– Lieutenant Aschekind had signed for him. She nodded, and led him up one floor.

Each apartment contained a little reading room with a table, a couch and bookshelves, a little bedroom off of a side door, and a bathroom and shower off another door. For space concerns, the reading room had been cleared out and two beds installed there. A man in a full body cast occupied one bed. On the other was Voss, sleeping; his dark blond hair had been cropped, and his patchy facial hair had been shaved completely, but he looked familiar enough nevertheless. His arm was still in a sling but he looked otherwise unharmed and seemed healthy.

“You can wait until he wakes. He’s in good condition, so don’t worry.” said the nurse.

When the nurse left, Voss opened one of his eyes and watched her depart the room.

“Didn’t want another round of annoying questions.” He said. He cocked a grin. “Kern, you look grown-up, and it’s only been ten days. I don’t think I can call you ‘my boy’ or anything now.”

He laughed. Kern smiled. He did not feel any bigger. He had been a fairly average guy, average height, average build; he had never forced himself. He had been told he had a handsome face, a boyish youthful face, a few times. In the mirror set down near the beds for examinations, he thought he looked as soft and young as always. His cropped blonde hair hadn’t grown out much since Matumaini, and there were only a few intermittent flecks of gold along his lips, chin and cheek. Nothing that a shave wouldn’t fix and return to how it was. Voss was exaggerating.

“You can look in the mirror all you want, but I remember, Kern. It’s on your face, but it’s a part you can’t see for yourself in a mirror. It’s a part you show to others without knowing. Seeing you I feel like you must have been through some shit this past week. I wish I could have been there to help. They’ve been pulling metal out of me for a while now.” Voss replied.

“Nurse said you were doing better. I think you’ll be able to leave soon.” Kern said.

“I don’t think so. My arm is still a complete mess. That’ll take more than ten days. Good god; ten days though. Can you believe that? Take a hit, and you’re out the whole battle. How do we sustain this?” Voss said. He looked over at the fully-bandaged man beside him.

“That’s what the rest of the Division is for, I think.” Kern said, smiling at him again.

“You got jokes now! See, you’re starting to learn how to deal with it.” Voss replied.

Kern pulled up a little chair that was set near the wall, and sat in front of Voss’ bed.

“Thanks for the visit, by the way. It’s nice to see a different face around here.” Voss said.

“Voss, I,” Kern hesitated for a moment, feeling the words caught in his throat. It felt at once both stupid to worry about but also terrible to admit. “I forgot your name for a while, Voss. And I completely forgot the names of the two men who died with us. I’ve forgotten the names of the guys who died with me yesterday. I don’t know what is happening. I feel like I’m going nuts.”

Kern thought he must have been annoying the poor man; lying injured in a bed, finally receiving a visit, and discovering it’s just a kid looking for comfort. He felt terrible, but Voss did not chastise him. He did not even sigh or shake his head. His tone of voice was unchanged.

“You’re not going nuts, Kern. Everyone is just trying to survive. It’s not training camp and it’s not a social experience. We are not bonding out here. You can’t blame yourself. Wanna know their names? Hart and Alfons. You know what? I don’t even know if those were first or last.”

“They fought alongside us!” Kern said. “They died alongside us! Least we could do is–“

“You can’t turn yourself into a walking gravestone for everyone, Kern.” Voss said. “Had you come here without knowing my name, I’d have just told you my name. You’re the only guy in this entire army who has deigned to visit me except for staff officers who needed to input me into their fucking charts. We met one day for a few hours. I don’t expect you to know my life’s story, and if I die, I don’t expect you to carry my ashes with you. In fact, I forbid that.”

Kern closed his fists against his legs, feeling helpless and weak. He thought Voss would know something that could help him assuage all of the guilt he felt for all those thousands of men he had seen die across the ten miserable days of this ground battle. Kern could not have saved them, and could only vaguely remember them in death. He felt that it was certainly irrational, but he still felt quite broken up over them. Why, out of all of them, had he survived?

He thought that Lieutenant Aschekind saw something in him too. Through all of this, Lieutenant Aschekind knew that Kern would survive. He saw something in Kern that made him reliable, but what could that even be? Kern was a subpar soldier. He was fearful, unskilled.

“So hey, I heard a kid from the 6th Division finally killed that beast of a tank the Ayvartans had been hounding us with.” Voss said. “Hit it with a Panzerwurfmine. Was that you, Kern?”

Kern looked up from his own feet. He turned bashful. “I didn’t really do anything.”

“You kidding? You know how many tanks we lost trying to take out that monster?”

“It was all Captain– Lieutenant Aschekind’s doing, really. I just got lucky in the end.”

“Whatever you say; but if that were me I’d be asking for a promotion.” Voss replied.

“I actually got demoted, same as all of Aschekind’s HQ platoon. I was Private 1st Class for a few days, and now I’m a Private again because it is impossible to demote me to Kadet.”

Voss burst out laughing. “That’s the brass for you. Nobody’s ever on their good side.”

“I met General Von Sturm once. He came off like someone short on patience..” Kern said.

“Don’t let anyone catch you saying that.” Voss said, still light-hearted and jovial. “Least of all the good General, because you’re quite right about his demeanor. And he doesn’t take kindly to people being right, let me tell you! Though, this is all hearsay on my part. Who knows?”

“It sounds right.” Kern said. “I think hearsay on this General is easy to believe so far.”

“I have heard that the battle is not going exactly as planned. We might need reinforcements.”

“Well, we have them somewhere, so I suppose we can keep going.” Kern said. He looked out the window. He thought he saw a bird, and he had not seen any for a while. But it was nothing.

“It’s not about the reinforcements though. The General’s original plan has completely fallen through now. He will lose prestige. Right now, everything coming in from the Fatherland has to arrive by ship to Cissea or Mamlakha. The General has cost the army a lot of equipment they have to ship in from overseas. I wager he knows that any replacements the army gets are gonna be attached to a new General to replace him; so has to try his hardest with what he’s got here to win before any help arrives. That’s the politics of this army, I’m afraid.” Voss replied.

“I did not consider that at all.” Kern said. He felt foolish. It truly had not crossed his mind that just as Von Sturm demoted Aschekind and him, someone could do the same to Von Sturm. In his mind that did not absolve the General; he still felt quite ill at ease with the man’s demeanor, what little of it he had been exposed to. But he better understood the man’s zeal and rage now.

“Folks getting shot at tend not to. Politics are the luxury of the officers.” Voss said.

“I wonder if it’s the same for them.” Kern said. He nodded out the window — he meant the communists, their enemy. He wondered suddenly whether there was an Ayvartan out there talking to his buddy in the hospital about their own Generals, about their own politicians, about whether they had to be fighting this war right now. How different was life for the Ayvartans compared to his own? “Do you think they are angry right now about how their commanders have used them? Both sides have taken casualties in the tens of thousands by now, if we count the wounded and ill and dead together. They must be feeling disillusioned like us.”

“I don’t doubt the politics are similar, but they are probably glad to fight because it’s their home they’re fighting for.” Voss said. “It’s always hardest on the invader, whatever the intelligence officers tell you. They told us we had all the advantages, but look how that ended up. Home field advantage is a hell of a thing. I bet you the Ayvartans are quite motivated to fight.”

Always hardest for the invader? Kern found that difficult to believe. Had this battle played out in Kern’s home, in Oberon, he would have felt much more hopeless than he did. Right now he felt awful for having re-learned the names of men who died beside him. Now that they had faces again in his mind he felt like he had done them a disservice, and he felt helpless in the face of the suffering they must have gone through. Had those people been dear to him, he would surely have been devastated. He wouldn’t have been able to go on after the first.

Could the Ayvartans really stand like stone as their family and friends were endangered in this fight? That did not sound right. All other things being similar, certainly this was a fight harder on the Ayvartans. This was their city that had been bombed and invaded. These had been their homes and places of work. Kern did not know much about their culture, but they couldn’t have felt that differently from him. They must have felt that this was a useless sacrifice that got nobody nowhere, just like he felt. He wondered dimly who all of them blamed for all of this–

But he stopped thinking about that quickly; it made him feel sick to ponder it all.

“I think I should go, Voss. Don’t want to overstay my welcome, and you look a little sleepy.”

“Hey, don’t worry about overstaying, it’s not like I’ve got people lining up at the door to talk to me. But if you must, then go with God, my man; and thank you for coming.” Voss said.

Kern nodded. He reached out a hand and shook Voss’ good arm. He stood slowly up from the chair and set it back along the wall where he found it before letting himself out of the room.

“Kern!”

At the doorway Kern turned around, puzzled. Voss sat up on the bed and waved at him.

“My name is Johannes Voss. I come from Rhinea. My father was a banker, and I hate his guts. He left my mother behind, and she is a typist at a law firm. That’s about it.” Voss said.

“I’m Kern Beckert; and I’m just a farmer’s boy from Oberon, Corporal.” Kern said.

Voss laughed. “Nah, I think you’ll be more than that someday. I can guarantee it.”

 

Bada Aso Tunnels, Various

Everything was being decided underground, and by then everyone understood what was transpiring. All that was left was to execute, and then to stand witness the aftermath.

Bada Aso’s tunnels had always had a reputation but few understood their true significance.

Word had always traveled about what those tunnels could have contained. For outsiders it was grizzly ritual and savage anarchy; those who knew the history knew the labyrinth was linked to community and to culture. As always, the outside looking in failed to see right in Ayvarta.

Bada Aso had always possessed a complicated underbelly beneath its rocky skin. Many of its earliest tunnels were natural, thought to have been made by water struggling to make its way to sea. These paths had been charted and traveled across Ayvarta’s antiquity, trod on first by the religious and later by the curious, by the adventurous, and by those without option.

When the water was redirected and the earth sculpted to suit the needs of the Emperor, the same hands that dried the tunnels out began to reinforce and expand them. Some were dug to hunt for precious stone and ore; a few became the sewers; others were defensive in nature.

Through the ages the scent had been characterized differently. Ancient sages thought it invoked religious visions. Early imperials thought it was the breath of the old earth and ignored it entirely. Late imperials, influenced by the ideas and religion of the northern empires, feared the illnesses and curses that the old fumes could carry and took precautionary measures.

Every administration had some plan or other to make use of the tunnels but only Madiha Nakar would come to unleash the strength building beneath that cage of clay and stone.

With every meter, the machines drove farther away from modernity and closer to antiquity. Trundling through the widest, deepest tunnels, the radio-controlled Goblins had no noses with which to smell the fumes, but faced unique challenges in navigating the old underground.

Below the city the radio signal that controlled the teletanks proved unreliable even despite the upgrades, and so the tanks started and stopped in the dark, hitching forward little by little. When the rock was porous or the earth separating it from the surface thin, they hit a stride.

But it was difficult for the controllers to calculate how far they had been able to go.

There were three key points in the city that had to be hit all at once for the plan to work. And it was not a matter of being positioned in the right places. The Goblins had to plumb the tunnels deep enough under the earth, where the most thick and volatile pockets were concentrated.

It simply had to work. They hunkered down, kept pushing forward, and some of them prayed.

Communication to the goblins was spotty, but communication out to sea was perfect. Each control Hobgoblin would receive the signal from the command staff aboard the Revenant. They would set off the Goblin’s weapons and then they would flee inside their vehicles as best as they could. For the two in the eastern sector, fleeing into the Kalu to join Kimani’s retreating troops was an option. For the control Hobgoblin in the north, escape into Tambwe was a possibility.

Though their mission no longer required suicide, safety was not at all guaranteed to them.

However, the KVW officers in each control tank knew that, in putting themselves in danger, and even in dying, they gave tens of millions of their comrades a chance against Nocht. They had proven that they could defend from Nocht, that they could blunt their assaults, that they could fight their technology in the right circumstances and avoid defeat, if not win.

It was not about sacrifice; sacrifice implied a surrender, kneeling before a cruel fate.

They could not win the Battle of Bada Aso. In their hearts everyone knew this whether or not they knew the exact details of the Hellfire Plan. They could not drive Nocht from the city.

But it had long since become about something more than the city. This city or any city.

Over the radio the unencrypted message transmitted suddenly and proudly on all channels.

Draw blood from the stone,” the message said, first in Ayvartan, then in Nochtish.

One by one, the control tank crews deployed the flamethrowers on their remote Goblins.

Madiha Nakar understood, under the driving rains of the autumn storms, that people did not come to Bada Aso to die, and that it was not sacrifice that her troops imagined when they fought for her. Even though Bada Aso would have to die for the resistance to continue, she was not sacrificing the city. It was time for the city itself to fight, using the means that it had.

City of Bada Aso, Various

Awakened by the flames, the ancient fury of Bada Aso rushed through every crack in the earth.

It was not immediate; it began with a sucking, a booming, and then the scent of death. Roads began to tear imperceptibly, like hairline fractures on black glass; buildings trembled slightly, enough to shake dust from them, and there was a general quaking, the stirring of a great beast.

Every Landser or Panzergrenadier who heard the gentle murmur of oncoming doom thought that it must have been a distant shell, perhaps from the enemy cruiser. They raised their heads at the sound, and looked in the distant as if they would see the blast. Very few sought cover.

Over the radio, confused murmuring was exchanged by the few attentive radio personnel.

Those distant-sounding blasts did not unfold where any eye could see them. Underground the stampeding death hit pockets of volatile gas like a herd through rock walls, hungrily tracing air and fuel alike as if following a light out of the tunnels, punching its way through the earth, past the brick and rock and clay. Penetrating ever skyward, desperate, manic, unstoppable, gasping and gasping. It burst through to the sewer, and took a massive breath of surface air.

Across the ancient city the grand conflagration forced its way as if back toward the sun.

Manhole covers expulsed from their holes flew like the thrown chakrams of long-gone gods; great belching torrents of flame ripped from the floors of buildings and expanded out the doors and windows. Pillars of fire rose from every exposed tunnel entrance. Cellar doors exploded and great waves of hot pressure blew through alleys and into the road. Streaks and ribbons of flame swept across the streets. Weaker buildings flew everywhere in pieces, leaving behind fleeting geysers; larger buildings spewed fire for a second like the burners atop a stove.

The Panzergrenadiers across the Central Sector found themselves caught in an infernal monsoon. Dozens of men standing in the wrong place on “Home” were thrown bodily as if slapped off the earth by a giant hand. Their vehicles flew from the earth with them or burst into pieces around them. Those standing nearest to the conflagration burst into flames almost immediately, while those meters away found wisps of fire crawling up their pants and sleeves like whining imps. Men lost their composure and screamed that Ayvarta’s demons had finally seized on them, and they rolled and thrashed and ran as the world collapsed around them.

After the initial explosions fickle flames leaped intermittently out from under buildings. Fire spread from the tunnels and the doors into the street, casting terrifying waves of flame that made shapes in the air like the cackling grins of wraiths. In the smoke and the fire they saw gaping maws that opened to swallow bodies whole, slashing claws that picked men and launched them against the concrete, mad eyes that scanned the surroundings for victims.

Under strain the battered streets of “Home” split, the cracks expanding a few centimeters, enough to be noticed, and enough to vent the earth’s fury. Foul smelling gases leaked into the street and where they met stray tongues of flame they exploded over the road like hellish bubbles, blasting apart armor and gun shields and turrets and tearing to pieces any men unprotected from their wrath. Those men not burnt started to cough and choke and they ran as far as they could from the deadly fireworks spontaneously setting off a show at their backs.

In the first minute thousands of fires erupted from the Central District to kill thousands of men, and quickly spread. In the North District buildings began to explode unseen by the Nochtish troops lagging behind nor by the Ayvartan troops already long-gone. Near the Umaiha district fuel leaking from wrecks and ruins lit the river and its surroundings ablaze. Ancillary buildings in the Southern Districts spontaneously caught fire, the inferno’s potential hampered there by the number of tunnel closings the Ayvartans had to perform in self-defense.

Across Bada Aso old factories exploded the most violently, going off like gigantic fragmentation rounds and scattering volleys of metal tools and equipment left behind into the surroundings, large and fast enough to reduce every building around them to rubble and any men to meat.

Two minutes in and clouds of smoke blinded any survivors. Standing in the street was like walking in front of an oven. Those who were issued such tools and remembered to use them strapped masks over their faces and shambled in the inferno, disoriented, deafened, some temporarily, some not. For many the surroundings were consumed in smoke with flashes of red and orange within them. Those unlucky enough found themselves instead in the middle of great vermilion labyrinths, wildfires spreading across buildings as easily as they did on trees.

Those alive and able to breathe saw, within that incoherent instant, a world consumed in fire, pockmarked by the dead, where wrecked vehicles stood as if they had self-destructed in place, where the sky was red and black, where every building was a burning pillar. As they inched forward, trembling, buildings began to collapse, their foundations too battered to stand. Those aware enough and gripped enough by desperate panic started to run. Many stood before the flames and rubble and died in spirit before the avalanche of a falling building claimed them.

Within the rage there were pockets of peace, as if gates to another world. A lack of tunnel connections, blocked tunnels, or the utter absence of gas, or the absence of anything to burn, rendered these areas safe. After three minutes, the worst of the explosions had passed, and there remained only the slow and spreading burn. Those survivors who found safety could turn around and stare helplessly at the slowly enveloping fires. Many fell on their knees and prayed.

Through its tens of thousands of years Bada Aso had stored enough rage for three minutes, and in that time frame it inflicted more casualties than the Line Corps who had evacuated the city.

Bada Aso was left an inferno that would burn and burn unchecked across the days to come.

 

Southwest District, Penance Road

Massive pillars of smoke streaked from the city like the effluvia of a volcanic eruption.

Kern woke on his back in the middle of the street. He coughed, but he could still breathe. He saw the smoke rising in the distance, but near him he only smelled something foul. There was a fire burning somewhere — he felt the far-away heat. His vision swam. He had hit his head, he thought. What had happened? Blood started to trickle down the bridge of his nose.

He tried to take in his surroundings and he realized there was not just one fire. Across both streets all the houses seemed to be smoking, and several had caught fire. A few had already collapsed under their own weight, but this did not smother the flames. Kern tried to walk before his mind had fully caught up to him, and he tripped on a gash in the middle of the road. It was as if the skin of the earth was tearing and bleeding something foul.

As he stood from the floor he saw the tenement in the distance surrounded by smoke. Several windows belched more smoke into the sky and he saw orange flashing inside.

Kern took off running for the tenement, shouting, “Voss! Voss!” as if the man could hear.

Several figures with gas masks hauled bodies out the front door; whether alive or dead Kern did not know. Outside the nurses checked on each person quickly, affixing oxygen masks and lung pumps. A woman screamed for Kern to return but he was not listening to her or anyone. He was not even listening to his own mind that screamed and screamed for him to turn away.

He charged up the stairs, and found the second floor hall ablaze. Dancing fires shrieked and howled from various rooms, gradually spreading to the floor and the walls, eating away at the building. Smoke blew every which way. His whole body stung, his skin felt dry and hot, his clothes felt like hot blankets smothering him. As he stepped into the hall a pair of men shouted at him and ran past with a body in tow. Was everyone dead? They couldn’t be, they just–

Disoriented and too impulsive to keep thinking, Kern hurtled forward, covering his face with his hands. He slammed through the door of a room and founds a small fire and no occupants. He kicked down the door opposite and found a massive hole that he nearly fell into. Below him there was a red-hot pyre from several rooms worth of piled burning rubble that had fallen in.

He grabbed his head, bit his lips, his head pounding and his eyes hot and unbearable.

Then he remembered where Voss’ door had been. He doubled back down the hall and smashed through a weak door into a half-collapsed room. He felt like he had opened a door to an oven, hot smoke blew against his face, and he felt pinpricks of agonizing heat like knife-tips scratching his skin. Inside the room he found one bed overturned and another burning under rubble fallen from the roof. There was a body turned to charcoal beneath the mess.

He let out a scream and stamped his feet, gritting his teeth, struggling even to weep. As if all at once he saw that massive beastly tank, he saw those planes, he saw the entrenched machine guns, all flying in the smoke and the fire, fighting and fighting, there again to kill him–

Not again, he couldn’t take another death of a man he knew, not today, not now–

Side-rooms! Kern charged past the overturned bed and pounded his shoulder against the locked door. Under this stress the door hinges snapped entirely, and he fell with the door into the bathroom. Huddling beside the toilet, he found Voss in his robes. Voss coughed and looked at him as if seeing a ghost. “Kern?” He said, his voice sounding hollow and forlorn.

Kern did not respond, and instead picked up the man as best as he could and struggled out of the room. He gathered enough momentum to run, and got out into the hall. Ahead of him the fires had spread from every conceivable angle. Taking a deep, hot breath of what little air was left, Kern reared back and then ran past the wall of flames. His pants and shoes caught fire, and he kicked out his legs violently as he ran to try to put them down. He charged down the steps.

Under his feet several of the steps collapsed, and he went tumbling down with Voss in tow.

Everything was spinning, and the pain in his legs started tracing up to his back. He did not know whether he was on the floor or still falling. He could not feel anything at all. He could not see Voss. Had another man died on his watch? Had he failed again to make any difference?

Then something icy cold shook him. He felt the ground sliding from under him. He was wet.

Out of the burning building the masked men pulled him and Voss and set them against a solid wall across the street. Behind them, a Squire B half-track towing a fire hose and water tank arrived, and men from the rescue unit in special suits rushed in to fight the flames.

Kern’s vision stabilized. His thoughts started to catch up to him again. He moved his feet and legs. It hurt, but they worked. He moved his hands. He craned his neck to see beside him.

Voss was there, and he was staring at him, gasping for breath. Kern breathed a sigh of relief.

“Are you alright?” Kern said. Now out of the fire, a torrent of tears escaped his eyes.

Voss wept much the same. “I’m alive. Everything’s here, I think. Messiah defend us.”

They stared at the tenement burning, and it seemed to obscure every other thing in the surroundings that was also burning. It hadn’t hit them yet what they had survived.

“I think I’m going to have to join you in the hospital now.” Kern said through loud sobs.

“I’m quickly getting the feeling we’ll have no end of company.” Voss replied.

 

Core Ocean, 1 km off Bada Aso

Parinita whistled. Personnel gathered on the deck of the ship and gazed at the inferno in awe.

It felt like from the deck of the Revenant they could see every single explosion as it went off.

Now the city was ablaze, a massive smoke-belching pyre becoming ever brighter and distant.

There was a general murmur of prayers and chants, for Ayvarta and even for the enemy.

Then, all across the ship, an unusual sound after the moment of silence — there was cheering. There were fists raised in defiance. Everyone had fought the world’s self-described strongest nation, and its people, and they had resisted the advance. On this ship everyone had survived. They had braved the cauldron and escaped unburnt. Nocht’s eyes, those eyes looking from outside into Ayvarta, saw them as sacrifices. But they saw each other as heroes today.

Madiha Nakar and her secretary watched from the starboard side of the ship’s stern, just off the side of a 100mm turret. Parinita joined in the cheering, but Madiha merely clapped.

She estimated that the casualties from the initial explosions would already reach the tens of thousands, given the places that she had contrived for the fires to be funneled toward.

Smoke and burning rubble would claim even more, especially if they tried to fight the fires and rescue anyone trapped in the blaze. In the coming hours Nocht would almost certainly have to vacate the city entirely, and let it burn out by itself in front of them. This would deny them Bada Aso’s railroad, if they even had any cars that could navigate Ayvarta’s rail gauge.

Scores of materiel set down in safe places by the enemy would be lost, destroyed either immediately by the fury or left behind as a casualty of the priorities required for a vast and desperate evacuation. Any vehicle in the city’s main roads would become a death-trap.

In the meantime, the Kalu defenders could strip everything from their line while enemy Panzer divisions stood still in the confusion as their Corps headquarters retreated from the city.

Time and again Madiha had asked herself whether this was the correct course of action. Did even an enemy as despicable as these men deserve the atrocity that she had unleashed on them? And yet, this was not solely about them. Without Hellfire, the city was both impossible to “defend” and impossible to escape from. Nocht had always had the mobility advantage. They could have chased down any retreat — except this one. Everything pointed to Hellfire.

At times, she had cursed her mind as it returned to the maps and the plans. Her mind would not allow her to make a different choice. She knew too well that this was the only plan that would work without opening themselves to be encircled in the city to die at the enemy’s hands.

Without the capability to blow the city to pieces under Nocht’s feet she would not have been able to evacuate so many of her own troops, to strip her lines just bare enough to hold Nocht for a few days and then escape on the Admiral Qote’s naval detachment. It was only with the knowledge that she did not need the troops to destroy Nocht that she could do what she did. It was the only way to save as many people as possible without condemning the saviors entirely.

In the end, Bada Aso was always going to erupt into these purging flames. It was inevitable.

* * *

Escort Naval Squadron “Admiral Qote” was a small fleet dispatched from Tambwe after the arrival of the Revenant, bringing news from Bada Aso. It consisted of the Revenant itself as the lead ship, along with the Admiral Qote, the newest and largest of Ayvarta’s few aircraft carriers; and the Selkie I and Selkie II, frigates; and the Charybdis, a troopship converted from a cruise liner over a year ago. Tourism to Ayvarta would not reignite any time soon.

Instead of holiday-makers, the Charybdis carried the remains of Madiha’s 3rd and 4th Line Corps, now dissolved pending reassignment. Madiha’s Divisional HQ for the 3rd Motor Rifles had been assigned with the annexation of as many of the best soldiers from the Ox defenders as could be found during the evacuation, and these people sailed on the Revenant with her. She was pleased with the combat records of people like Gulab Kajari and Adesh Gurunath. They would be needed in the time to come, and if possible, she desired to lead them.

She had wanted to gather everyone, congratulate them, and offer them Honors as a reward for service, but it seemed incredibly petty to reward them with a voucher that could potentially become a music player or fancy clothing or a personal motorcycle after all of these events.

Instead, Madiha stood on the starboard-aft side of the Revenant, beholding her handiwork.

“Hujambo, Major! Look what I got! It’s all fresh and warm too and not from a box!”

From behind her, Parinita appeared with a big, eager smile on her face, holding out a tray. She carried on it a big bowl of steaming yellow dal and several fresh-baked flatbreads. She had let her hair down, and it fluttered with the strong, salty ocean winds. Madiha smiled back.

“Ah, thank you.” She said. “Food has been the last thing on my mind today. I was very tense.”

“I noticed!” Parinita said. “But you’ll only feel worse if you stay hungry. Let’s sit down.”

Parinita gingerly set the tray down, and together she and Madiha sat against the stern-side turret. Before them was the sea and the city, growing ever distant. Behind them were the cranes to unload the cruiser’s speedboats, and then there was the conning tower where their navigation and sighting took place. Between the conning tower and the massive foremast was an aircraft catapult with a single Anka biplane converted for sea usage. Smaller quarters were strewn about and under these basic structures. The Revenant was quite a large vessel.

Madiha folded a piece of flatbread and scooped some of the lentil soup. She took a bite. Everything was nice and hot, the bread was soft, and she could taste the spices.

“I’m not averse to ration boxes, but a fresh meal always wins out.” Parinita said.

“Indeed.” Madiha said. She laid back, watching the smoke rise toward the clouds.

“How do you feel?” Parinita said. “We completed the plan. We were successful.”

Chewing her flatbread, feeling the mild residual heat from a hint of pepper in the soup, Madiha did not know how she felt. She thought dimly that she might feel triumphant watching the city explode, but something was missing. Though she had funneled them into a trap, she did not feel that it was by her maneuvering or force of arms that the enemy was defeated. She felt as if she had lured a hyena off a cliff, when she had been given a spear with which to hunt it.

Had she been anywhere but Bada Aso she would have failed. It was not her that defeated Nocht, she thought, but the history that she had in this place. The City itself devoured them.

Madiha realized that she wanted to fight Nocht. She wanted to defeat them in a contest.

Perhaps it was a matter of hazy emotions, but the Battle of Bada Aso did not satisfy that.

“Not particularly accomplished,” was what she finally settled on. It sounded right enough.

Parinita laughed. “‘Not particularly accomplished’ is a legitimate feeling. Trust me, I’m an expert in it. This one time, however, I’m allowing myself a little respite from self-doubt.”

“I suppose I could stand to treat myself less roughly.” Madiha replied, feeling a bit dispirited.

“You should.” Parinita laid a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t think anyone begrudges the choices that you have made. I signed off on the plan too, back in that long truck ride up to the city. I knew what was at stake and I had an idea of what would happen. But I trusted you. I think you are the chief reason any of us are still alive today. You give us all hope, Madiha.”

Madiha’s cursed dark eyes meet Parinita’s bright, friendly eyes. She looked at them fondly. It dawned on her, just how much everything could have been different. Had Parinita been anybody but herself; things would have turned out very differently. Seventeen days ago they had met for the first time, complete strangers suddenly thrust into each other’s orbits.

Now she could not fathom what her life would be like without Parinita, how those intervening 17 days of hardship could have played out without her jovial, sympathetic secretary. Without her friend; without a partner sharing in the burdens and the tension of the stressed HQ unit. Her recollections of how she treated Parinita made her feel more than a little inadequate.

“Thank you.” Madiha said. “It means a lot to me — we did not exactly meet under amicable circumstances but you were always there to support me. There were a lot of things you should not have seen and should not have had to do for me. I am ashamed of a lot of my conduct toward you. I was near to a breaking point and like a child I drew attention to myself and I put my hurting above everyone else in our circle. You should not have had to bear the burden of that on any level. You should not have had to pick up my pieces, Parinita. I’m sorry.”

Parinita heaved an amicable sigh and put her hands on her hips. “I can’t believe you! You start with a thank you and end with an apology. Have you even considered my feelings on this?”

Madiha was a little taken aback. “I’m not sure what you mean by that. I’m sorry.”

“I wish you’d stop apologizing.” Parinita said, looking at her pointedly. “For me it was not picking up your pieces. I might just be a Chief Warrant Officer, that might be everything that it says in my pins. But I’ve seen in you a person who is intelligent and kind and who has done so much. You put others ahead of yourself; maybe too much! And you have a great strength, and focus, and drive! I just– I, I admire you! I’m not just here to do a job, you know.”

Madiha blinked. Parinita averted her eyes a little and looked awkward for a moment.

After a moment’s silence, the secretary scooped up the last flatbread, soaked it deep into the dal, and pushed it into her mouth. She swallowed, drank a bit of fruit juice, and then thrust the lentils Madiha’s way. “Eat the rest of it, Madiha. You don’t have to respond. It’s just something I wanted you to know. I don’t feel offended; I just wanted us to be clear on that. If it’s you, I’d be more than happy to pick up those pieces, because I really want to see you whole.”

Unfamiliar pangs in her heart kept Madiha quiet. She dutifully took in spoonfuls of lentils and ate, until the bowl was empty. By then, Parinita looked to have dozed off beside her.

* * *

Night fell over the ocean, and Madiha could still see the smoke, having risen into the sky and mingled with the clouds. She could not sleep. Her mind wanted to be kept busy. So she stared out at the indistinct waves. She could not even see her face in them. It was just blue murk. Far behind her she saw the other ships, including the impressive Admiral Qote, on their tail. Collections of lights attached to a formless dark chassis, rolling over the gentle sea.

Having spent most of the day doing little of substance, she felt restless. Aboard the ship there was nothing of military importance for her to do yet. This was Captain Monashir’s domain. She had walked the deck, taken the tour; she had talked to Corporal Kajari and other KVW soldiers and gotten a positive response about the operation. Everyone seemed to relax and wind down. Madiha could not. Some part of her still felt like it was fighting. She could not sleep.

Instead she tried to catch her reflection in the water and she failed to see a face every time.

Gradually over the course of the day she had come to grips with several obvious facts.

Bada Aso was over. She had staked so much in this plan. It was completed. It was done. She did not know whether there would be new plans. Who knows whether the Council might seek to bring her to justice for the magnitude of the destruction? Certainly after Bada Aso Nocht would not be diplomatic with them anymore, if it was ever in the mood to be diplomatic before.

With this explosion, she had sounded the loudest gun alarming everyone to the fact that they were irrevocably at war. She had made the war real in a way no one had before her.

A city was destroyed, tens of thousands had been killed. Hell had awakened. It was War.

She heard the creaking of one of the metal doors behind her, and a long, loud yawning.

“You should be asleep!” Parinita said, stretching her arms over her head as she approached.

“I should, but I’m afraid I can’t sleep. I’ve turned into a bit of an insomniac.” Madiha said.

“Is it the nightmares again?” Parinita asked. “Like the ones you had before?”

“No. I had what I think will be last my vision a while back. I’ve broken the mean spirit that had a sway over me. Or at least, I think that I’ve done so. It may yet linger in me.”

“Something is lingering in you alright. You’re becoming strangely moody again.”

Parinita stood beside her and looked out to sea as well. Her hair was blowing again.

“Those tunnels in Bada Aso were older than antiquity.” Parinita said. “Old folks thought they gave visions. I would not have connected this legend to gasses, but it made sense when we talked it over during the planning stages. I never expected it to go off like this, though.”

“I don’t know exactly what that gas was, chemically. It might not even have been anything we know. There was work on its lethality done before me. I trusted it well enough.”

“Who did that work? I had access to a lot of information about the Adjar Dominance, including Bada Aso, and yet before you told me I had no idea Bada Aso could potentially blow up.”

“It was originally Kansal’s plan.” Madiha said. “In 2004 when the sewer was being renovated and expanded, a lot of old tunnel that had been built over was exposed. Workers became sick. Chemical workers thought it was an airborne illness. Kansal thought it had to be chemical gas. She thought we could set off a huge fire if we exploded a bomb in the right place underground. She even descended into the tunnels herself to see what could be done about it.”

These were things that she had forgotten until recently. They seemed eerily clear to her now.

“But she didn’t go through with it. Something convinced her that doing such a thing would kill tens of thousands of innocents. It was not possible to target only the Imperial administration. I don’t know where she got her information, but it always stuck with me. I forgot plenty of things, but the idea that Bada Aso could go up in smoke never quite left me. Had Kansal not shown restraint, who knows what direction the Revolution might have taken.”

“Given that I’m alive now, I like to think she made a good choice at the time. Maybe it was just intuition on her part. Or maybe she received a vision of her own in the stomach of the Earth.” Parinita said. She giggled a little. “Perhaps I’m being overly superstitious, however.”

Madiha averted her gaze, but the smoke was inescapable. It expanded across the sky like a scar left on the world. She had done that. No vision had prevented her from doing so. Her heart felt hurt. Bada Aso had been the closest thing she ever had to a home. Its streets were the only nurturing she received. In its schools she received her only formal education. She had first fallen love in Bada Aso; she had so many memories there that she had turned coldly from and obliterated, in much the same way that her convictions had led her to lose Chakrani.

She felt like the evidence of her humanity was now burning in the middle of those ruins.

“It feels monstrous to watch this unfold.” She said. “It makes me feel inhuman. So much happened at the border; it felt like a part of me that had been gone for decades had been thrust back into my body. I was seeing massive battle again for the first time since my childhood, and the very first thing I considered was to lead Nocht to Bada Aso and blow up that gas.”

“Madiha–” Parinita tried to interrupt her but Madiha continued to talk. She stared out over the fence at the edge of the deck, and her eyes sought for a face in the water. She found none.

“I had no idea what the magnitude of the explosion would be. At the time, I had no idea we would have those remote-control tanks available. Anyone whom I condemned to the final mission would have certainly gone to their deaths. No fuse, no wire, could have spared them from the aftermath. My first plan, the only plan, was essentially a suicide bombing.”

Those dreadful words reappeared in her mind.

Cunning; Command; Fearlessness; Ferocity.

“I would have done it. No matter what.” Madiha said. “Even if I had to go myself to set off the bombs. This, Parinita; this is all that my head is good for. I look at a beautiful city like Bada Aso, full of people, full of life and love and community. And I consider its destruction from afar. Destroying Bada Aso meant nothing to me; it accomplished the objective that I desired. In my mind it was just arrows on map, divisions in a grid on paper. It is a sick thing, isn’t it?”

Suddenly Parinita seized her by the shoulders and turned her around, locking eyes.

“I do not think you are sick at all Madiha. And I think, captivated by the fire, you’ve forgotten all the human things that led you here. You did not just spend your time calculating coldly. The Madiha that I saw throughout all of this was a person full of empathy and who saw everything through human eyes. I refuse to believe that your mind is only capable of unfeeling destruction. The fact we are having this conversation tells me you are honestly quite terrible at unfeeling destruction. And the tears starting in your eyes tell me you are very much human.”

There were tears. Madiha was weeping openly. She felt a surge of emotion that had long been repressed. Many years worth of a childhood were she could not feel for fear of being weak; a young adulthood where she did not feel for lack of things to feel; and an adulthood where in the face of loss and violence she thought she needed to be stronger than mere feeling. Now she wept, and she choked back sobs. Her heart pounded. Her head felt terribly hot now.

Parinita raised her hands to Madiha’s cheeks and smiled. “Treat yourself better, Madiha.”

Gentle thumbs ran across her cheeks, lifting her hair. Madiha felt the fire going away.

She raised a fist to her face and wiped away her tears. She nodded silently. “I will try to.”

“I will help.” Parinita said. She stroked Madiha’s cheek again. “I want to help.”

Madiha nodded her head, and took Parinita into her arms, and embraced her tightly.

“This reminds me of when I first proposed it, so; how about you indulge my hobby?” Parinita said, pushing Madiha by pressing with the tip of her finger between the latter’s breasts.

Madiha laughed; they were not exactly on the Revenant that time. But it was close enough. They looked out over the sea again, side by side with the ocean air and the gentle waves.

“I suppose one thing comes to mind. Do you know how they did the stormy ship effects in Battleship Krasnin? I have always wondered about that. Did they film it on a real ship?”

“Some of it was, but other things were cinemagic effects. Here, I’ll explain it in detail–“

Overhead the clouds of parted, and moonlight shone over the naval group. Sailing away from the city that had sealed their fates, the architects of this great destruction began then to forge something entirely different between each other on the deck of that fearsome ship.

 

36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030

Adjar Dominance, Ruins of Bada Aso — 1st Vorkampfer HQ

Casualties were still coming in. Fruehauf couldn’t believe the numbers. She was emotionally numb but her head was pounding and she found it hard to work. She was sweating and had nothing to drink. Just up the street, the Squire half-track firefighting vehicle struggled to contain the massive fire working its way down from the central district. For their own safety the entire staff had evacuated the restaurant and set up shop in a truck a kilometer down.

After the quaking from the explosions, it had nearly shaken itself apart anyway.

Everyone around her was sniffling. They could smell the smoke and burning even here.

There was nothing in the city ahead but a wall of fire moving closer, shining all the brighter at midnight, and thick smoke billowing that covered the moon and stars overhead.

All of their radio equipment had been transferred to the truck. A gas-powered generator towed behind them powered everything. She and her girls continued to work the airwaves. It was all that they could do, though even their sweetest voices granted no comfort in this disaster.

Calls were frantic. Medical supplies to Umaiha, more firefighting equipment requested to Penance, a tank requested to Matumaini to try to demolish a burning structure and prevent it collapsing on another and spreading the fire, ambulances requested everywhere. Everyone screamed at her that they needed help and every time she told them that their resources were stretched. The 10th and 11th Grenadier divisions were being moved from rear echelon duties to assist as fast as possible; and the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions had nothing useful to give.

Whenever men demanded to speak to Von Sturm she would tell them he was ill or hurt.

Every scream for help and desperate realization that none could be spared wore Fruehauf down. She could no longer pretend that everything was fine and that she and the girls were living in a place apart from the war, like children looking out at a garden through a glass. They weren’t just gainfully employed helping out the boys; they were in the war. It was upon them.

With a shaking hand, she reached into her pocket, withdrew a cigarette, and smoked. She had told herself she wouldn’t — and she had spent over a week without one. But she could not handle it anymore. Leaving the radio command to Erika for the moment, she stepped out of the truck, and sucked on the end of the smoke stick, feeling the menthol cooling her throat.

She walked around the front of the truck. Wrapped in blankets, head lightly bandaged, Von Sturm slept in the front seat, tossing and turning. During the three minutes of loud and continuous explosions, and when the restaurant began to shake, he fell from his chair and hurt himself, because he was balancing with his feet on the table. It had been his golden excuse to spend the rest of the day leaving the coordinating of rescue efforts to lower officers like the recently-demoted Lieutenant Aschekind. There was no one above Captain dealing with fire.

Atop the driver’s compartment sat Von Drachen, with his feet on the hood. He smiled at her at first, but then he took on a sudden, judgmental turn when he saw the stick glowing in her lips.

“I did not take you for a smoker, Fruehauf. Those things can kill you, you know? I have seen it happen myself. I will admit that the stick makes you look more mature, though.”

“Watching over the good General?” Fruehauf asked, her tone a lot less sweet than usual.

“I must say I may be nursing an unfortunate attraction to the irascible little man.” He said.

“I would keep that to myself.” Fruehauf replied. She took a long drag of the cigarette.

Von Drachen stared over his shoulder at the fire. She saw him work up an impish grin.

“They’re going to make us pay dearly throughout this entire war. She, especially, will be trouble. And I’m going to think, all throughout, that I could have stopped her.”

He held out his hand to Fruehauf. “I think I’m going to need to take up smoking, to cope.”

Fruehauf turned her cheek and denied him. “I’m not going to be responsible for that.”

She sat on the hood of the truck. Her nerves were calming. She blew a little cloud.

Von Drachen fell back atop the truck, spreading his arms. He started laughing.

“Sergeant Nakar; you rascal. You have no respect for us. But why should you, when your mind is stronger than our weapons? Must the burden truly fall on me to try to be your equal?”

Fruehauf withdrew her cigarette from her lips and stepped on it on the floor. She crossed her arms and watched the fires play in the distance. She wondered what would become of their corps, and whether Ayvarta had any more of these terrifying sights in store for her.

Maybe she had picked a spectacularly bad time to try to be free of nicotine.

 

% % %

Declared end of the Battle of Bada Aso on the 36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Operational Failure; city destroyed, unacceptable casualties, advance delayed, rail network compromised. Ayvartan Strategic Failure; city captured, Adjar lost.

Near total destruction of the 6th Grenadier Division, 13th Panzergrenadier Division, and Cissean “Azul” Corps. Heavy losses to the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions.

Disbanding of Battlegroup Ox due to loss of its mandated territory.

Continued strategic success of Generalplan Suden. Ayvartan forces withdraw from the Adjar Dominance and are defeated in the Shaila Dominance. Nocht control of Southern Ayvarta solidified. War proceeds to its next stage. Operations in Dbagbo and Tambwe greenlit.

Confirmed deployment of 1st Panzerarmee and Field Marshal Haus to Ayvarta.

Confirmed promotion of Madiha Nakar to Colonel; Ayvarta’s first in many years.

Casualties as declared by belligerents~68,000 Ayvartan || ~43,000 Nocht.

Please advise.

–Striving For World Peace

~Helvetian Foreign Intelligence Bureau “ULTRA”

 

* * *

Next chapter in Generalplan Suden — Intermission, Lehner’s Greed.

THE JUSTICE OF JOHANNES JAGER (I)

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This side-story contains scenes of violence.

* * *

(side-story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden)

Deep in the seedy back alleys of Rhinea, under a snowfall darker than the devil’s abode, all manner of Bastardry And Terror unfolded unseen, and only one man had the moral conviction to bring justice back to the bad quarter. With his wits about him, his trusty silver Zwitscherer pistol at his side Johannes Jager hurtled down the the dreaded Mort street like a runaway train. For every ordinary man’s step he took three — because He Had To.

He prayed to God almighty that she was still safe, that there was still time.

Mort was a mean, run-down part of the city in the old quarter, where thieves hauled their loot, dames would kiss ya for a buck, and every hand had a gun or a knife. You wouldn’t find a man like Jager, an Upstanding Man, caught dead in this place. Not under normal circumstances. It was not place for a man with a conscience. He looked every which way and saw nothing but obscured hands and grinning faces, looking at him all calculating-like.

In his all-white trenchcoat and fedora and his silver mask he stood out among the Villains, as he intended to. He wanted them to know that he was an invader, an interloper.

He was not one of them — he was a Man With A Mission and they couldn’t stop him.

He wouldn’t let them take her. Not again. He had a Debt to Pay.

In front of the rough-looking Höllemund bar, two gents two meters tall each stood before the doors. Johannes Jager had no time for such Crooked Company.

He circled around the alleyway, climbed atop a garbage can, and reached into his coat for the gas-powered hookgun he had prepared before leaving the precinct. Such things were becoming more common and compact in 2040, especially for police departments. Thank God for his Real Identity as the unassuming beat cop Frederich Freiden — Jager needed only to aim for the roof, and he put a hook right around the television aerial.

He walked up the wall to a second floor window, punched the glass with his Silver Knuckles, and entered a dark room that smelled of hemp! He felt the packages in the dark.

“Disgusting,” Jager thought to himself, “Guess nobody told them…dope’s no joke!”

Johannes Jager withdrew an electric torch and scanned the packages, packed full of grass that would fry your brain the instant you lit up the weed-cigar. All kinds of terrible drugs like these got into Nocht, and ruined innocent young men and women who could have stood a chance otherwise. What monster dealt in these Mind-Altering Monstrosities?

No sooner did he consider this that he found the red seal of the many-headed Hydra on all of the bags. Of course, it could have been no other group of fiends!

(The Hydra was the mark of Elite Communist Terrorists — his old nemesis!)

Pistol in hand, he forced open the door and pounced on the lone guard in front of it, quickly disabling the stout man with a precise strike on the neck from the hard metal of his Zwitscherer. Thundering loud music from below masked their quick scuffle.

It wasn’t his kind of song — but this was His Kind Of Dance.

He picked through the downed man. He took his gun, unloaded all the bullets, and gave it back. This was a Lachy man, he could just tell from his Profiling Training. Lachy gangs were notorious for their cooperation with terrorists. They probably pushed guns and dope for the communists. Feeling a righteous fury in his chest, Jager rushed up the empty hallway toward the staircase to the third floor, where the Leader likely awaited.

He couldn’t let these folks have Sylvie! They would ruin her completely!

Johannes Jager stepped to the third floor and found a long hallway to a door decorated in purple feathers. He threw himself into a roll as a pair of men guarding the door drew their pieces on him! Fully automatic pistols blared across the hall, Illegally Modified.

Bullets boomed and banged and pitted the floor and made holes in his coat! A Storm Of Metal sliced the hemp-smelling air in the hall. Any ordinary man would have been intimidated, but Jager was too quick for them. As he came out of his roll his Zwitscherer screamed with justice, and the knees of his foes exploded, and they fell back in great agony!

He charged past them, kicked the weapons from their hands, and broke through the door to the lair of the villain! On a plush red couch in the center of a luxurious room, a mountain of a man, bald and white as a sheet, laid back on the seat, his arm around Sylvie’s shoulder. She gasped at the sudden Noise And Blood, and she looked like she wanted to bolt. Her blonde hair was perfectly straight, her green eyes staring with burning hatred at the burly neck and head of her captor. Her white dress was pristine and fashionable, and she looked thankfully unharmed. It was plain to see she didn’t belong in this lair of thugs.

“I’m here for the girl and the hemp, Krieg.” Jager said, scowling with rage at the kingpin.

Krieg’s barrel-like head twisted as he smiled. He laughed hoarsely.

“Johannes Jager. We finally meet. I don’t know if you’re a cop or just an idiot, but I got use for both. Join me, Jager! I’ve got work for a man with your skills! I’ll make you rich!”

“Listen pal,” Jager shot him a glance sharp as a steel knife, “I got no time…for crime.”

“You think I care for the girl, Jager? I don’t care about girls. I care about money! I got this girl because I know you’ve been protecting her! I know you’ve been talking to the Lieutenant! Stop what you’re doing for those clowns at the precinct, and be my right-hand man, Jager! I have eyes and ears everywhere. You can’t run from me. If I have you in my gang, I’ll be invincible! Give up this foolishness. Together we can even take out the communists!”

“You’re small time, Krieg. The Reds are playing you like a trumpet!”

To punctuate his foul words Kingpin Krieg pushed Sylvie off the couch and laughed.

“Shut up! I’m playing them, boy! I got it all figured out!” Krieg shouted. Then he drew a pistol!

Johannes nearly shook, more with rage than fear. He remembered all too well the fate of his precious Gerda.

“Join me, Johannes Jager! Put down your gun or I will kill the girl!” Krieg shouted.

“Don’t do it Johannes! I would rather die than see you working for the men you hate most!” Sylvie shouted defiantly, and she spat on Krieg’s boot. She wouldn’t have known him in his Secret Identity, but she knew of him all the same. What a feisty lass, just like her dad; he owed it to the Lieutenant to get her back safe. He couldn’t endanger her.

But a man like Jager would never Compromise His Beliefs and work with a thug like Krieg!

Jager raised his pistol, but when he shot he fired his bullet aside at the wall!

“What was that, Johannes? A shot of surrender? You gonna work for me?”

Krieg let his guard down — he hadn’t even watched the bullet!

In an instant, the ricochet burst through his foul head, deflating it like a balloon!

Sylvie screamed as Krieg fell aside like a rock! Johannes rushed out, and picked her up, carrying her in his arms. She smiled at him and laughed girlishly at their position.

“To think I would be dragged in here in a bag, and come out in the hands of Johannes Jager! Those men kidnapped me from my father’s own home, Jager! They said if I tried to escape they would kill him, so I waited patiently here. They did all of this to lure you out. I’m glad you are safe!”

She reached up to his cheek with her lips, and pressed a red mark just below his mask.

Jager laughed. “Sorry gal, but you’re too innocent for a rough man like me. You need to find a quieter man to dote on, and stay away from these hemp-smoking types, okay? Promise me that.”

Confident in his final victory over his nemesis, Jager started out of the bloody room; but then he heard an explosion, and the wall bursting behind him! Jager ducked out into the hall, and found several figures abseiling down from the roof into the room — several men and, shockingly, women too, their skin brown as a puddle of oil, their hair long and dark, in a stark contrast with their bright red and gold uniforms! It was the communist KVW!

Brandishing submachine guns, the men and women, had come down from a gyrocopter hovering outside! The Communists had even penetrated Rhinea’s air defenses! But how? How had the Communists achieved this level of power and technology in their tyrannical society? Jager felt equal parts fear and fury seeing his True Foes before him! He could have run, run somewhere with Sylvie and been safe, but he knew that they had gotten this far, then they had everything plotted out. Sometimes, Good Men had to Stop Running.

They were really using Krieg all this time — to get to him. And now they Had Him.

“Sylvie, you better run.” Jager said heroically. “I got a score to settle with these spooks.”

Jager set Sylvie down, and despite her protestations, he walked calmly back into the room. Dead-eyed, the thoroughly brainwashed communist troopers stared him down. Then from the roof abseiled their commander — a woman over 2 meters tall, a fierce grin on her face. Was this the Blood-Red Commissar of the dreaded land of Ayvarta herself?

“Oo know tew much, I’m afoo-raid. Eet is tie-em for oo to die, meestur yay-gur.” She said, her Nochtish thickly accented. Did they know of the Red Spy in the Citadel that had Turned?

Whatever they knew or didn’t know didn’t matter. Destiny Called for them all.

Sylvie screamed out his name, and huddled out of sight at the doorway.

Jager showed no fear as the submachine guns wildly sprayed before him.

 

* * *

“Huh? You can’t just cut it off there! That was barely worth a chapter, the type was so big! I’ve been falsely advertised to!” Karla Schicksal shouted, turning the pages rapidly and desperately to find that the story truly ended there, on a cliff-hanger, for the month. She couldn’t believe this! All that build up and the conflict with Krieg was resolved so quickly!

She searched the pages for some kind of an answer. After the last page of story text there was a form one could fill out to get a real Johannes Jager mask in the mail; then a full-page cigarette advertisement seemingly aimed at the younger readers; and the next story in the Astonishing Tales! paperback was not related to Johannes Jager at all, but was instead a new installment of Secret-Man, back from its short hiatus.

Schicksal wistfully returned to the cover, which had advertised the longest and most suspenseful Johannes Jager story yet — and had accomplished this by increasing the size of the typeface and doing nothing more. There was probably even less story than last issue.

She growled a little in anger. Writers and their low word count and awful cliffhangers!

From the cupola of the Befehlspanzer, General Dreschner looked down at his radio officer with disdain. They were waiting in the command tank for orders to advance.

“What on Aer is wrong with you?” He said. “Are you reading those books again?”

Schicksal froze up. She nodded her head stiffly. “Sir! Yes sir! They uh, they help my morale!”

Dreschner grunted, shook his head, and raised himself out of the tank once again.

Once he was well away, Schicksal sighed and flipped the pages. She didn’t like Secret-Man as much. He was not complicated like Johannes Jager. Dreschner was just too much of an old fogey to understand the appeal of a riveting tale of adventure and beautiful dames. She returned to the Johannes Jager chapter, and started filling out the form for her own Jager mask. Maybe someday she would save the day and get a hero’s reward.

Absolute Pin — Generalplan Suden

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

33rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

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

Sector Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Central-West Sector, Upper Boroughs

KobaSeaside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Central Sector, Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe!” Gulab shouted back.

She thought she saw the Svechthan flash a grin.

I like your spirit Tovarisch! Udači!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

34th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Next Chapter in Generalplan Suden — Hell Awakens

Bad Bishop — Generalplan Suden

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

32nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice, People’s Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nocht Federation — Republic of Rhinea, Citadel Nocht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

12th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below her, Sergeant Chadgura appeared under the turret hole so Gulab could see her.

“Corporal Kajari, it appears the building’s been reclaimed for now.” Chadgura said. “Good job. Sergeant Nikka believes we should leave this to the comrades of 4th Division.”

Gulab sighed with relief. It looked like the situation was over for the moment. They had won, and she thought she could feel each individual ligament in her arms throbbing and twisting. Nobody could maintain a steady rate of fire for very long, even on a light gun like the 45mm.

“Yes ma’am. I pray to the Ancestors they will be able to hold the fort there.”

“Oh, I had thought that you prayed to the Spirits.” Sergeant Chadgura asked curiously.

“Ah, my village has a strange syncretic religion. The Ancestors were seen as more war-worthy; the Diyam’s light was for healing and fertility; the Spirits took care of a lot of things. Over the ages a lot of different people have ended up seeking refuge in the Kucha, you know?”

Chadgura nodded quietly, a dull expression in her eyes. Perhaps she did not understand it.

Sergeant Nikka returned shortly. She slapped her hand on the front armor of the half-track’s bed, as if to get Gulab’s attention in the turret. Gulab looked down the turret hole.

“Well met, Gulachka! You cooked those imperialist bastards to a fine state of doneness!”

“Do you mean dead?” Gulab asked, not quite getting the joke entangled in those words.

Nikka simply grinned, and took her seat again out of Gulab’s sight. Gulab did notice that her nickname had changed again all of a sudden with Nikka’s newfound good humor.

Ey, Sgt. Chadgura; one of your good territorial army men who was pushed up to Mulga from Katura just a block down, thinks we might find that artillery there.” Sgt. Nikka said. “He says the Nochtish pigs overtook him there and he retreated because he only had a squadron.”

“We only have a squadron too.” Sergeant Chadgura said. “How many did he think are there?”

“Two platoons. We can take them!” Nikka replied. “Gulachka should have ammo left.”

“About twenty rounds or so I think.” Gulab shouted down at them from the turret.

“You think?” Sergeant Nikka shouted.

“I know! Jeez! I can count them for you!” Gulab shouted back.

Chadgura clapped her hands loud. Everyone else quieted.

“I’m not convinced that we can fight that many.” She said.

“We won’t fight them all! We have a vehicle, tovarisch. We will rush right to the artillery, take it all out and then run away again. This is a scouting vehicle isn’t it? It has the speed.”

Sergeant Chadgura quieted for a moment. Gulab could imagine her fidgeting in some way.

“Very well. But I’ll quite readily abort if we are overwhelmed.” Chadgura finally said.

The Half-Track got going again, and Gulab saw more territorial army folks trickling in around the tenement in their twos and threes, remnants of squadrons that had once occupied all the periphery of the home sector and now had to plug a breach. The KVW continued their hunt by taking a tight eastward bend away from the tenement. At first they drove at a mere 30 km/h. Gulab’s eyes sought for contacts — during the first few minutes of the drive at least.

She pulled on her shirt collar. It was sweltering hot inside the turret, and very little breeze got through the windows. She looked around at the tiny wisps of heat playing over the demolished structures at their flanks, and at the clear, sunny skies. She almost preferred the storm. Her uniform felt very stifling. Around her the walls were turning hot. Even the eyepiece of her sight and the gun controls were growing hot enough to make their operation uncomfortable.

Sighing she continued to peer out the windows. The sight was giving her a headache anyway.

Something caught her attention then. She stuck her head out the turret and shielded her eyes.

Black objects hurtling through the sky, several of them. She had a good guess about their identity from their trajectories. Low velocity shells from howitzers, lumbering across the air at high angles before coming down on some unlucky soul and completing their journey.

There were dozens of them flying out toward “Home” sector. Maybe even to Madiha’s House.

“Ma’am, I think the enemy’s artillery is definitely south of here.” Gulab shouted.

“We’ve got a map open.” Chadgura said from below. “There’s an open-air Msanii lot not far from here. We can try to break through to it — it is the best spot for artillery in Katura.”

“Acknowledged!” Gulab said. She then heard noises below. “Uh, what’s happening?”

Suddenly the tarp flew off the top of the half-track bed and soared away with the breeze.

She turned around and opened the turret’s rear sliding window in confusion. All of the tarp clasps had been undone and canvas had been peeled off the sides of the vehicle bed. She found Nikka and three Strelky standing up the gun crate laid on the bench, and on the radio box. They were leaning over the sides of the bed’s armored walls to shoot at the street, and without these aids they would have been able to do so as easily. Meanwhile Chadgura, Dabo and Jande stood near the open back of the half-track’s bed and watched the rear with their weapons up.

Gulachkaface forward, we have got company!” Nikka shouted, raising a fist at the window.

Gulab spun around back to her sight. The Half-Track accelerated. On the winding street ahead she saw grey-uniformed men with rifles bounding from between buildings and through the rubble collecting on the sides of the street. The Half-Track rushed past an enemy squadron and took a corner; an anti-tank shell soared miraculously past the vehicle as it slid to a halt.

At a hastily assembled checkpoint dead ahead from the corner, a PAK 26 37mm anti-tank gun zeroed in. Three men hid behind its gun shield and hastily loaded another round.

“I’m not giving you the chance!” Gulab shouted, arms growing sore as she loaded and shot.

Her turret lobbed the 45mm high-explosive shell directly against the anti-tank gun. Smoke and fire and fragments blew over the gun shield and the men fell back; those that were not left faceless were left headless. Behind her she heard rifles and submachine gun fire. The Nochtish squadron they bypassed must have been running back. She started to turn the turret around–

“Eyes forward Gulachka! We’ll handle the streets! Focus on breaking through!” Nikka shouted.

The Half-Track broke off abruptly, tearing down the road. Gulab turned the hard turret crank again and returned the gun to the neutral position. Their driver rushed forward, and instead of taking the next corner he squeezed into a side street between a pair of buildings, smashed through a fence, and broke out into the next block. When their wheels hit tar again they had overtaken a Nochtish squadron — a dozen men with a machine gun, five others setting down a pair of mortars, right in the middle of the street. They looked over their shoulders in disbelief.

At Gulab’s command the turret gun bellowed, launching an explosive round into their midst.

She barely saw the resulting carnage. The half-track’s wheels screeched against the pavement.

Bursts of gunfire struck the turret and the armored bed. Shots were fired from buildings and alleys and from behind rubble as they tore past scattered positions. Building speed the Half-Track took one last corner to the Katura Msanii, sliding almost entirely off the road and into the street as the tracked half of the vehicle struggled to complete the turn. Little speed was lost and the vehicle hurtled forward and downhill. The Msanii was in sight — a fenced-off area of green lot with a pair of trees and some benches, where kiosks of hand-made goods could be bartered, traded or sold as was Ayvartan tradition even before the era of the Empire.

Six 10.5 cm LeFH howitzers in the middle of the Msanii lobbed shells relentlessly over Katura and Mulga as if trying to shoot down the sky. A half-dozen shells soared upward and arced down onto Home sector; smoke drifted skyward from afar, thickening further with each volley. Nochtish defenders spotted the Half-Track careening toward them, but there was nowhere to take cover. Artillery crews ducked behind their guns, while a dozen riflemen stood stalwart in the way and shot desperately into the armored engine block and bulletproof windshield.

Gulab pulled the firing pin and put a shell several meters behind the defenders. She did not hit, the explosion caught nobody and the fragments fell short — but the men threw themselves down on the ground. She tried adjusting her gun, but the second round overflew the lot.

She could not keep up anymore with the vehicle’s speed. It hit the foot of the shallow hill down onto the msanii’s lot and bolted toward off the road heedless of the obstacles before it.

The Half-Track tore through the fence and crushed three men under its wheels and tracks.

It smashed into one of the howitzers; She heard a flare-up of decidedly one-sided gunfire as the vehicle’s engine cut off. Gulab undid the buckles holding her to the turret and slid down the ladder. Outside, the Strelky coolly approached and held up the Nochtish artillery crews.

During the rush, Gulab had hardly been able to pay attention to it, but now she saw the Half-Track had taken quite a beating. Repeated bursts of machine gun fire had pitted and banged up the engine compartment. There were tongues of black smoke playing about the vehicle’s nose, not a good sign. Their driver sat dejectedly behind glass cracked so badly that it was a wonder he could see where he was going at all. There were holes in the side plates of the bed.

“We cannot risk going back the way we came.” Chadgura said aloud as if to herself. She addressed Gulab when she saw her outside the vehicle. “We will go through the tunnels.”

There were almost 20 men on the site, quickly collected into a big bunch along the green.

Brechen!” Nikka shouted at them. She gestured toward the decrewed howitzers.

“Don’t shoot.” One man said, in incredibly poor Ayvartan. “Don’t shoot ours; please.”

Halt die klappe! Zerstören die haubitzen!” Nikka shouted at them again.

There was abrupt movement at the back of the group; someone tried to reach for a pistol to shoot Nikka. He shoved aside another man and quickly received several more pistol bullets than he would have released, and fell onto a rapidly growing pool of his own blood at the feet of his men. Judging by his lapel, he was their artillery officer, fed up with his men’s capitulation.

All the other captured men raised their hands higher in response. Nikka approached them.

Zerteilen!” She shouted at the men, and once again, she pointed them to the howitzers. They seemed to understand her, whatever it was she said. From their satchels the men produced small explosives, and sealed them into the breeches of each gun. After a moment they detonated inside the chambers and ruined them. Smoke and flame blew from each barrel.

Nikka shouted more Nochtish at them; while the Strelky menaced the artillerymen with their submachine guns, the captives emptied all of their pockets and quickly stripped their uniforms and pouches. Under threat of violence the naked men ran as fast as they could out of the msanii and down the street — a token burst of inaccurate gunfire gave them sound to fear as they fled.

“If this Half-Track still worked we could have taken a few of them prisoner.” Nikka lamented.

“I was expecting you would kill them all.” Gulab said, shrugging her shoulders.

“We need to conserve ammunition.” Nikka said, waving her hand dismissively.

“Well, if you say so. However, we should go. Please follow me.” Sergeant Chadgura said.

All the Nochtish troops they had rushed past before could not have been far; the assault squadron detonated emergency satchels under the half-track and in the turret, ruining the vehicle and its arms so that the enemy could not capture it. They handed the driver a pistol, and he followed them without a hint of mourning for his vehicle. Then they left the scene, running across the Msanii, darting over the fence. Chadgura had a map open as they ran.

“This house further south has a cellar that should have a connection to the tunnels.” She shouted. “If it’s been built over recently we can use a satchel to blow open a hole.”

They found the house, an old baked brick building. Its door had been thrown open, but there was nobody inside. They hurried inside, guns pointing in every direction. A recessed stairway led down into the cellar. No sooner had they begun their descent, that they heard tracks and saw the shadows of vehicles along the interior wall. They hurried down into the dark.

When men set foot into the house minutes later, they shouted “Clear!” and left it behind.

Underground, Chadgura and Gulab traded their guns for electric torches. Damp and humid and just a little too short for her to comfortably stand in, Gulab hated every step of this tunnel. Her father had said no son of his would be anything but a hunter; despite all the firefights Gulab felt more like a beleaguered sewer crawler with every step she took, head crouched, torch forward. For once she envied the Svechthan’s height — they walked comfortably in this place.

Everyone was silent at first, but the tunnels were so featureless that they could practically feel the silence around them like a maddening toxic fume. Nikka was the first to grow restless and speak up. Gulab thought she could hear the momentary desperation in her first few syllables.

“Gulachka, I must say, I underestimated you. You have a real killer instinct.” She said. “I dare say you are a natural with weapons. You may have messed around with that tank, but you got it moving and got us out; and you handled that turret very skillfully. Maybe your place is a gunner and not a driver ey? Ha ha! Do you have a secret technique you could teach us mortals?”

Gulab laughed. She took all of that as a joke and thought that Nikka could not possibly be serious, but it also tickled her ego and she quite easily played along with the flattery.

“I’ve been shooting all my life.” Gulab said. “Slingshots, hunting rifles, etc; it was not anything natural, I trained hard and I transformed myself through struggle into the person that I am today! Ouch!” She hit her head a loose brick in the ceiling, just a little lower than rest.

“Be careful.” Chadgura said in a low voice. She rubbed Gulab’s head briefly.

“What brought you into the military? Was it this transformative struggle?” Nikka asked.

“I suppose; it was my father trying to stomp me into a perfect son.” Gulab said irritably. She gently took Chadgura’s hand and put it back down from her head. “It is hard to get out of a dumpy village in the middle of the mountains, until a military recruiter comes around.”

“Familial troubles? I understand. I’m the 11th of 13 children.” Nikka said. “We tend to treat boys and girls the same too in Svechtha. But my father was very old and not too strict. He worked in a collective farm, one of the few in our nation. But farm work was repetitive and made me restless, so I joined the army. Then I got sent here to melt in the hot sun, ha ha.”

“I am an only child. I joined the army foolishly.” Chadgura interjected. “And I am frankly confused as to how any human being can have thirteen children. It seems overambitious.”

“Mother was powerful. How were your parents, Chadgura?” Nikka asked. “How would they feel about you crawling in these sewers to escape the pursuit of several hundred armed men?”

“They would probably tell me my hand clapping is annoying them.” Chadgura replied. “They might also ask me if I intended to marry any of those men someday and become decent.”

Gulab patted Chadgura in the back again. Everyone quieted for the rest of the journey. The tunnel was cramped enough as it was without their awkwardness floating in their limited air. Gulab thought that if anything this exchange just made Nikka even more restless.

West-Central Sector, Koba and 1st Block

After Matumaini Kern had waited and he had sought prophecy in people’s faces, in radio messages, in the storm rains and in the cries of men driven to panic by traumatic wounds. When he heard about Operation Surge he got his sign — the end of him was quite near.

Now in the middle of the rallying area he could only wait anxiously for marching orders.

For two days the machinery of Nocht shifted its great bulk, cramming as much of its firepower as could be made available in Bada Aso into three starting attack points that would eventually branch into a dozen advancing lanes as Operation Surge got underway. Every truck and horse that could be found was enlisted to carry men and pull weapons and supplies to the western, central and eastern rallying areas. Each rallying area spanned a few blocks in its third of the city with easy access to various streets and alleys leading north into the city’s depths.

A common “block” in Bada Aso was one to three kilometers long, and as one neared the city center, the number, size and purpose of the buildings along a block became less definitive. As one got further inward, the city became older, and one saw far less of the carefully planned outer blocks, with their large central tenements serviced by an outer ring of canteens, coop and state goods shops, post offices, administrative buildings, workplaces such as factories and civil services such as hospitals and ferry stations. Along the edge of Koba block, an ancestral two-story house stood next to a drug dispensary for the state healthcare authority, itself next to a cooperative cobbler’s workshop, next to a spirit shrine in a grassy plot, and several houses. A gloomy alleyway wide enough for a small car separated a pair of houses.

Across the street there were several houses, a civil canteen, and a playground for children.

This was all perhaps half a kilometer worth of roadside. But it went on in that exact way upstreet as far as the eye could see. Buildings small and large without any symmetry.

Between the two streets was a road perhaps 10 meters across, if that. It was fairly tight.

To the landsers of the 6th Grenadier division, Koba and 1st Block was “Koba Sector” and there were no blocks. On their maps the Central-West was just a 15 kilometer area they needed to cut through. These buildings were potential strongholds. Whether something was once a shop or a place or worship or a house made no difference. It had walls and windows. It was just dangerous. Kern certainly didn’t think of their purpose — to him, they were just ‘buildings’.

Was this what they called the Fog of War? Would he slowly lose all recognition of his surroundings until there were only shapes? Rectangles sprouting from the ground, nondescript? What would his fellow soldiers become? What would the enemy?

A strong breeze blew through the streets, but it did little to ease the hot, humid weather. He almost felt steam coming off of his pale body, his short, straight golden hair. He shouldn’t be here, he thought. He was the farthest thing apart from the people born to live in this place. Oberon was temperate, and a gentle coolness always ran through it, even in the summer. That was the proper place for scrawny, shiftless men, milking cows, picking veggies, tilling fields.

Kern ran his hands across his face anxiously. He was a good looking boy. He could have found a nice girl and gotten some of his father’s land. What a fool he had been to leave the farms!

When the breeze passed, he could hear again the sounds of struggling engines and clanking tracks. With every vehicle that came and went he knew that the hour drew nearer and nearer.

Kern was stationed alongside a company of a few hundred men. They were all huddled in a cluster of buildings closer to the front than the rest of the regiment in the rallying area. They would be going in first. Kern saw a dozens of groups of men idling around nearby.

Far behind him he had watched transports come and go, moving the regiment forward. A truck or a horse wagon would bring in a squadron of men and an artillery gun, maybe a few crates, and pull up in front of a big church one street down that was selected as a storage point for Koba. Men would unhitch the gun and pull it away, and the soldiers would be pointed to their battalion or company. They would form up and wait for commands. Some of them had been waiting for a day now, idling between orders to crack open rations or to lie for a few hours.

There were men smoking, playing cards, cleaning their rifles. He wondered what was going through their heads. Kern couldn’t busy himself much. He was part of the Combat Command HQ Platoon for the battalion. He stood in attention, with his back to a half-broken electric post, hands in his pockets, counting the trucks. Captain Aschekind leaned against a wall with his head bowed low, his thick arms crossed over his chest, a portable radio on hand.

“Do you drink or smoke, Private 1st Class Beckert?” Captain Aschekind asked.

Kern nearly jumped from being so suddenly addressed. He had nearly forgotten he had received the meaningless appellation “1st Class” four days ago. It was meant to bolster his morale, but it only made him feel even more inadequate in the face of titans like Aschekind.

“No sir.” Kern said. He felt a tremble in his lips that felt all too noticeable.

Aschekind did not comment on it, if he heard it at all. “There is no shame in it.”

Kern wondered what he would have said instead if he had replied in the affirmative.

“Yes sir. My father was a mean drunk and a mean smoker. I don’t want to be either.”

Aschekind nodded his head solemnly. “Do you fear for today, private?”

“No sir.” Kern replied without thinking. If he was honest with himself, he was anxious.

“Alcohol or a cigar keeps you upright and moving; but so can the force of your will.”

It’s not like Kern would know — he had never tried either thing in his life. “Yes sir.”

“Choices that we make without even thinking about them. You might drink to stay awake just like you run to stay alive. There are many alternatives; but you don’t always live after.”

“Have you ever made a wrong choice, sir?” Kern asked. He nearly interrupted the Captain.

Captain Aschekind raised his head and stared at Kern with a strikingly neutral expression. All of his intensity seemed momentarily gone — there was only an eerie hollowness left there.

“I have experience in making choices that took from me more than they gave.” He said.

He adjusted his peaked hat and left the wall, walking past Kern, raising his radio to his head.

Captain Aschekind turned to face down the street at the assembled men. A few turned or raised their heads to stare, but most barely acknowledged him at all until he addressed them.

“We’re moving!” He bellowed. “Company, start walking. Keep your eyes open. Our combat patrol did not return. We will reconnoiter by ourselves, in force. Stay alert and march! “

At first only a few men responded; they shouldered their packs, affixed bayonets and started marching north up the street and road in a loose formation. They were leaves falling from a tree. Few at first glance — but slowly the wind of war peeled more and more of them, taking them from their cards, their food, their cigars, their game boards, their jovial conversation. Recognition dawned upon them one by one, and the entire company marched off to war.

Aschekind did not drive them forward. He only stood and he stared as they passed him. When he started walking, so did Kern, joining the rest of the headquarters platoon in the rear.

On a marching stride, a kilometer went by in forty minutes or so. Certainly trained athletes could clear a kilometer very quickly. An athlete did not have to walk over rubble, did not have to check every window and door an alley around them for contacts, stop and start whenever they thought they saw a person dressed differently than them. They did not have to account for the slowest among their number, walking at a pace and formation that protected their precious machine gunners and AT snipers. They did not travel with 25 kg of equipment.

As part of the Headquarters platoon, Kern carried a backpack radio that added 10 kg.

For thirty minutes there was nothing worth breaking up the march. Then from the front of the march, one of the forward squadrons called for a halt of the column. Their platoon then sent these men to the rear to speak to the command platoon. Through their binoculars they had seen movement ahead of them on the road. Aschekind sent them back out to the front.

Within moments the column broke up — two platoons formed up side-by-side, 50-75 men on the left and right streets along the road. Squadrons of 8-10 men advanced north, each separated from another by a few meters for protection. A hundred meters from the leading elements the third platoon followed, and then the headquarters, ten meters behind them.

Kern felt out of place in this movement of men. He felt sluggish and unprepared for this.

“Run forward, stay behind the front line. Keep in contact.” Aschekind said. Around him, a pair of standard mortars were being positioned on the road by the rest of the HQ platoon.

Kern thought he was talking to the air at first, but he reflexively saluted, while his mind turned over the words like a poisoned caramel in an unwary tongue. Once he understood what the Captain meant, and to whom it was addressed, Kern dropped the extra mortar ammo he had been carrying for the HQ platoon, and ran past the rear platoon, a terrible sensation in his stomach. He took to the right side of the street, and approached the assault force there.

Ahead of him the men broke into a run. He heard the first cracks of enemy gunfire.

Several hundred meters ahead were two houses built across the street from each other, with third stories that caused them to dominate the low-lying urban landscape of the lower Koba sector. From those windows came the first shots. Streaks of machine gun fire and bolt-action rifle fire flew over and around the platoons as they charged. Each house attacked the street diagonal to it, and the enfilade fire took its first casualties almost immediately. Kern saw a few stragglers at the back of the columns hit by fire that had soared over the advance troops.

From his vantage on the side of the street he could not see the enemy, just their handiwork.

But there was no panic, except in Kern’s rushing, flailing mind. Meticulously the men of the two forward platoons dispersed into and around several houses even as the bullets fell around them in vicious bursts and streaks. Kern swallowed hard and ran in with the closest group into an alleyway about 100 meters from the houses. The Ayvartans did not let up — enemy fire bit into the corner of their building and streaked across the street just outside their alley.

“Call it in!” A man shouted at Kern over the continuous gunfire from the houses.

Call it in? Words came and went through his ears, barely registering at first.

Realization; he was talking about the mortars. Kern picked up the radio handset, but then he froze. As the observer and point of contact he was supposed to feed a set of map and landmark coordinates back to the company’s mortar team, but he forgot entirely what he was supposed to say. Lips quivering, he stared helplessly at the nearby squad leader, denoted as such by the pins on his uniform. Shaking his head the squad leader, a tall, lightly bearded older man, physically turned him around and picked up the radio handset from his backpack to speak.

“This is Schloss, calling in a fire mission. Yes chief he’s right here. I don’t know.” Schloss paused and then quickly recited a string of numbers and letters. He put back the handset.

Within moments they heard a series of blasts in quick succession farther up the street.

“Listen kid,” Schloss turned him around again. “I’m not mad at you yet, but it’s getting close. If running’s all you’re good for then run close to me so I can use that radio when I need it. Ok?”

Kern almost felt like weeping. He nodded affirmatively. He pulled the shoulder strap of his rifle over his head and readied the weapon in his hands. Seconds later they heard another round of blasts. At once the bullets stopped falling on the street outside their alley, and the squadron broke into a run, dashing out into the street. Ahead of them mortar fire crashed over the two tall houses, pounding on the roof. A cloud of smoke and dust descended over the high windows.

As they ran, figures in the shadows of the ground floor doors and windows launched sporadic bursts of rifle fire their way, hitting the street and flying past their helmets with a whining sound. Kern struggled against his instinct to duck somewhere — there was not a lot of fire with the machine guns suppressed, and yet he was terrified. He recalled the volume of fire in Matumaini, and this was nothing like it, but it only took one bullet. Just one to kill him.

He could run 50 meters in less than ten seconds; bullets traveled that in less than a second.

Schloss’ squadron bolted ahead, and with titanic effort Kern bolted with them. They closed to within a dozen meters of the enemy before their mortar fire lapsed, and the machine gun fire from the upper floors resumed. Schloss pointed everyone to the ruins of a nearby building. One remaining north-facing wall and corner provided enough protection from the second and third story gunners in the strongholds ahead. Inside the ruin there was only a mound of rubble. Men started climbing it. Standing at its peak they could peer over the remains of the wall.

Across the road Kern saw men carrying a Norgler machine gun and settling atop the remains of a collapsed wall. No sooner had the shooter braced the gun that a bullet speared him through the neck, and he fell forward over the rubble and into the street, thrashing to his death.

“Five men up there, three men on what remains of the door!” Schloss shouted. He climbed up the mound, and beckoned Kern to go up as well. Kern peeled himself away from the doorway and the corpse; he climbed over the rocks, some of which still had rusty metal rebar going through them. They crouched along the corner, where the rubble formed something of a platform. One man put his helmet on his rifle and raised it over the wall. Nothing.

“They’re not looking this way. We’re not a machine gun squad.” said the grenadier.

“On my mark everyone rise, shoot into the window, and hide again.” Schloss said.

“Which window?” Kern asked. He had not gotten a good enough look at the houses.

“Corner window, closest to the street, facing us. Second floor.” Schloss shouted. Ayvartan machine gun fire grew vicious again and he had to raise his voice to be heard clearly.

Kern nodded. He tightened his grip on his rifle and steadied his feet, waiting for the signal.

Schloss nodded his head, and all at once the fireteam rose over the wall. Kern saw the window, and he thought he saw a shadow in the faint smoke and scarcely thinking he opened fire.

All at once the high windows on both houses exploded. Smoke and dust and a brief burst of fire blew from inside the windows, and the walls crumbled, launching debris onto the streets.

Kern stared at his rifle in disbelief as the house was wiped from the world before him.

Plumes of smoke and dust rose from the structure. Kern heard a noise as something flew in overhead. Explosive shells; hurtling in from farther south they battered the buildings into chunks. Guns and mortars pounded the roof and walls until they sank, crushing the Ayvartans in the rockfall; ceilings and floors collapsed and walls folded out onto the street. Debris flew into nearby buildings and the grenadiers closest to the building hunkered in cover.

“Too close! Too close!” the men shouted at nobody who could hear as the debris fell.

Men abandoned their forward positions and ran back down the street to escape the concrete shrapnel, but the violence had already peaked. Rubble settled on the street and the guns and mortars concluded their fire missions. There was only sifting dust and billowing clouds.

Schloss stood up over the wall and peered out at the carnage. Schloss waved his men down, and the soldiers atop the mound slid off the rubble and regrouped, vacating the ruin together.

On the street, the wind blew away the murky air. Kern heard the chugging of engines in the distance and the whining of tracks; he looked over his shoulder through parting clouds.

At the rear of the company, third platoon left the road and stood on the street, sidelined by a platoon of M3 Hunter assault guns advancing to the front. Each of these vehicles was a self-propelled 7.5 cm howitzer, and the ruins ahead proved the strength of their massed fire. Because of the tight road, they advanced in a box formation, two rows of two tanks followed by the command vehicle. Even this arrangement occupied most of the road. Company foot soldiers stuck close to the buildings, giving the machines space as they moved through the block.

Once the machines had gotten clear of the men, third platoon moved up to where the fighting had taken place, and Aschekind reappeared. Smoke and dust blew in from the ruins ahead, travelling on the strong afternoon breeze. Aschekind did not even blink as he walked.

“We will be following behind the tanks.” Aschekind said aloud. “I want third platoon directly behind them, and second platoon following within fifty meters. First platoon, take the rear.”

Only after listening to the Captain’s orders did Kern realize how quiet everything had become.

Kern could have sworn that hundreds of landsers must have died from the fire and carnage, but with the benefit of silence, he found that only a dozen men had fallen, and a few survived. He looked at his surroundings  as though the block had been taken from him and replaced.

Idle thoughts dropped heavily onto his consciousness from someplace unknown, and all at once he felt the fatigue that his anxiety and adrenaline had suppressed. He shivered without cold.

All of the shooting and killing and he had not even gotten a good look at the Ayvartans.

Fighting at these ranges that made him question if he was engaging human beings at all.

They barely needed to see him in order to kill him; he barely saw them before they died.

“Move ahead with these men,” Aschekind instructed Kern, “and stay behind the tanks.”

The Captain’s hand fell heavily on his shoulder. Kern felt almost as if being shoved forward.

“Yes sir.” Kern replied. He saluted, and beside him, Schloss saluted as well, acknowledging.

Joining the rest of the mostly-intact second platoon, Kern advanced about sixty or seventy meters behind the assault guns. They moved between the rubble of the stronghold houses and continued up Koba street. Most of the buildings were low-lying, and every taller building seemed like the ominous pillars of a great gate in the distance. The M3 Hunters raised their guns whenever they neared a building that possessed a second story, ready to flatten it.

The M3 Hunters crossed the shadows of several buildings without incident. Whenever Kern walked past however he felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. He had heard the Ayvartans had tunnels, and that they would often reappear suddenly in buildings thought cleared.

There was a reason their recon squadron had never returned to report to them. Would they find those six men dead somewhere ahead, their sacrifice forewarning the Company of danger?

Or did they just disappear into the haphazard blocks of buildings, never to be found?

Another kilometer behind them, no contacts. Everyone peered ahead expectantly. Atop the tank there was a man with binoculars, one of the vehicle commanders. He played with the lenses, magnifying. Every so often he waved his hand, and everyone continued to march.

They had a sight-line about 800 meters forward — Koba, like a lot of Bado Aso’s streets and blocks, was tight, flat, and fairly straight. In Bada Aso the chief limitations faced by soldiers with otherwise good eyesight were rubble and ruins obstructing the way, and the haze of dust, heat and humidity. Even with binoculars it was difficult to acquire a reliable picture any further ahead of the column than 800 meters to a kilometer, no matter how straight the road was. And some roads were not so straight — on the Western side, Bada Aso softly curved, following the shape of the coast. Koba and other western streets curved as well and limited their sight.

Everyone marched briskly, some with their guns out, many with their guns shouldered.

Then the tank commander raised his fist instead and the column stopped in its tracks.

Men ran back and forth from him, and several then crept around the front of the tanks.

Word went across the column quickly — another Ayvartan position, several hundred away.

Kern and Schloss took cover around a street corner and peered ahead around the tanks.

Two M3s trundled ahead, paused, and then put shells downrange. Columns of dust and uprooted gravel rose across the Ayvartan line. A shell hit the sandbag wall dead center. Kern saw figures disperse from behind the bags in a panic. Grenadiers from the third platoon, gathered around the assault guns, saw the opportunity and charged the enemy line.

Rifles and machine guns soon cracked and flashed from the ground floor windows of a store and a coop restaurant a few dozen meters behind the sandbag emplacement. Kern counted the flashing muzzles and thought there had to be at least a dozen Ayvartans in each building.

It was the same as before; two buildings across from each other, barring the way forward.

Bullets filled the air like orange arrows, flying past and crashing around the men as they approached. Landsers cut the distance by taking cover until the gunfire shifted its weight to a different position and then bounding toward a new piece of cover. Working in this fashion they managed to confound the poor fire discipline of their enemies and make rapid gains.

Assault guns carefully shifted their bulk and repositioned their guns and resumed firing on the Ayvartan line, kicking up debris in front of the windows and doors and striking the walls and corners. Third platoon kept mobile, and soon occupied several positions 30 to 80 meters from the two structures, including a squadron of men huddling right behind the Ayvartan sandbags.

These were the eight closest men to the enemy, and with the best view. Armed with bolt-action rifles they took turns firing over the smashed remains of the sandbags and ducking for safety. Hits on the thick concrete walls issued thin and fleeting wisps of dust and chipped cement; most of the exchange on both sides hit cover, tracing sharp lines across the thirty meters between the sandbags and cooperative restaurant or the thirty five to the shop.

Farther down the street groups of stray landsers, their squadrons sometimes split across the street or in adjacent alleyways and buildings, took cover in doorways and windows and behind staircases. When the gunfire swept past them they hid, and a few then moved; but most remained in place behind cover and picked at the windows and doors as best as they could.

Shells pounded the side of the restaurant and the store. Kern marveled at the sustained rate of fire on their assault guns. But both the strongholds were single story buildings, small and stout, much more stable than the tall houses. 7.5 cm shells blasted shallow, meter-wide holes into the walls but the buildings did not crumble under their own weight, and the Ayvartans continued to shoot. No shell had yet managed to soar through the small windows and into the interiors.

A third M3 peeled from the assault gun platoon and crammed beside the first two, opening on the strongholds with its own gun. Though it added some volume to the artillery volley, it was ill-positioned and could only hit the store from its vantage, and not the restaurant. Both the other M3s subtly shifted on their tracks, trying their damnedest to put a shell into a window.

“We can’t just stand here, lets go,” Schloss declared. He started leading his men off the street and deeper west into the alleys. Kern watched them go and wondered whether to follow. West of Koba block was a long, five meters tall wall that separated the block from the coast. Skirting around the houses adjacent Koba street, Schloss could probably flank the enemy ahead.

A muffled roar far too close for comfort interrupted Kern’s thoughts; livid orange flashes off the corner of his eye startled him. Smoke started to blow in across the street from a sudden blast.

Was that one of theirs? Kern pulled up his binoculars. He peered along the road.

In the middle of the street a shell crashed and consumed the squadron at the sandbags in a fireball. A pillar of thick black smoke rose from a 3-meter wide crater smashed into the place.

Gunfire halted on both sides, a second’s worth of silence followed by dozens more shells.

Kern ducked back behind the corner. Shells crashed all along the column, punching through roofs and smashing grenadiers hiding in buildings, bursting into showers of fragments outside of alleyways and spraying unlucky landsers with piercing shards of metal. Men caught in the middle of the street when the heat fell threw themselves face down as the road pitch was thrown up into the air around them, and fire and smoke rose up around them like geysers.

In the face of this fire the three assault guns clumsily reversed from their cramped positions, inhibited by the space. They turned a few centimeters this way and that trying to stay off one another and off the walls of nearby buildings while inching back out of the combat area.

Their sluggishness proved fatal; a pair of projectiles overtook the vehicles at a sharp angle.

Fire and fragments chewed brutally through the assault guns. One tank burst almost as if from the inside out, its hull left like a shredded can. Chunks of track and ripped pieces of armor flew every which way, and the short barrel of a 7.5 cm gun was launched through the air by the blasts. Explosive pressure so heavily and directly on the armor left behind wrecked, charred hulls in the middle of the street, hollowed out wherever the blast waves hit them.

Kern’s ears rang even as the blasts subsided. He pressed himself against the corner of the same building and dared not move. Breathing heavily, he produced the radio handset from his pack, and he called out to Captain Aschekind. “The Ayvartans have heavy artillery support.”

“I heard. First Platoon is rejoining. Second company is also on its way.” Aschekind replied.

In response Kern raised his binoculars and looked south, the way the column came. Through the thin dust he saw the first platoon rushing back up; father behind them he saw a brand new unbroken column moving in. Two hundred more men moving in to fight with them.

Behind him an isolated shell descended into the middle of the street. He saw only the orange flash in the corner of his vision, and he heard the booming explosive and falling debris.

Something compelled him, and the distress in his voice surprised even him. “Sir, you have to tell them to hold off, there’s a chokepoint up ahead, we can’t keep trying to move men up–“

“Air support will take care of that. Focus on advancing.” Aschekind replied. “We have nothing left but to advance. That is Operation Surge, Private. Join Second Company and advance.”

Kern heard the shuttering sound of the Captain’s radio disconnecting from his own.

He replaced the headset in its spot on the backpack. With his back still to the wall and his eyes to the south, Kern hyperventilated as he waited for the second company to move in, all the while the Ayvartan artillery fire resumed behind him, shells falling by the dozens.

 

Central Sector, Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”

Panic on the radio. “Ma’am, there’s too many of them out here, they’re coming in from the side-streets, from the main streets, I think they’ve broken through Katura and Koba. Whole platoons, dozens of them! They’ve got tanks and artillery moving in. We can’t hold any longer!”

“Slowly work your way back to the Home line with the 3rd Corps, but no further than that.”

“Yes ma’am.” He hung up, energized by the idea of a limited retreat. Major Madiha Nakar sighed and put down the radio. She watched the battle unfolding down the road through a telescope from her office. The enemy had indeed broken through to Home in number.

A kilometer away down the main street, an enemy column had colonized the street corners leading in from Matumaini — she supposed they had filtered through the east and west and moved into the main street from those directions to avoid the collapses in the center.

Moving in bounds — stopping in one spot, covering a team until they overtook you, then moving when that team in turn stopped in one spot — the Nochtish men made rapid gains along the end of the main street, surging forward almost 300 meters closer to the FOB. There was a platoon of men along each side of the street, a hundred souls; behind them there were two more platoons starting to move. A company at time, charging in to take her head.

Her defensive line in the center was not a meticulous defense in depth. There was one line of sandbags with three machine guns and three anti-tank guns. Two Hobgoblins waited around the street corners sitting astride the school building everyone affectionately called “Madiha’s House.” There was a battalion of soldiers, each company stationed in tall buildings along the end of the main street. And there was a hell of a lot of a gunfire flying down at the enemy.

All along the front of the school building, muzzle flashes went off like orange sparklers, guns firing continuously, changing crews every couple minutes to sustain the rate of fire. Machine gun fire streaked from the defensive line and the nearby buildings. Rifles cracked slow and steady in their rhythm. Mortars and 122mm guns, largely manned by the Svechthans, cast shots over the school building and smashed the end of the main street a dozen shells at a time.

Along the main street smoking pillars rose skyward by the dozen every minute as projectiles impacted the ground, accompanied by a noise like a giant taking a deep breath. Machine gun and rifle bullets fell upon the road in consistent bursts, issuing continuous cracking noise.

Gunfire was ultimately quite fickle. An advancing man could survive a mortar shell hitting near him; maybe the angle was off and the fragments flew upward and missed him. Maybe he was hit but not badly enough to stop him. Maybe it just wasn’t his time. Human beings could charge through gunfire, they could be missed by millimeters or centimeters or whole meters by bullets traveling at unfathomable speeds and fired by skilled shooters; gunfire was deceptively impenetrable. Those orange streaks were small and fast and inaccurate. Trajectories varied with elements. An urban environment had thousands of surfaces for a bullet to lodge into.

From her vantage Madiha saw men running as though through fire, walk as though on coals. Bullets lodged into the ground around them, ricocheted off objects near them, seemingly flew by their faces, a curtain of fire tracing the air across the main street for every orange muzzle flash. As if suddenly embraced by spirits men would fall before the fire, over the coals; they would spread their arms and fall aback or fold over on their bellies. They would lose their footing as though they had only slipped on a paper, or fall on their knees as though praying.

But the column did not stop. A dozen men died and three dozen ducked into cover where they could, and then ran again when they felt the artillery and shots were lightest before them.

Scattered Nochtish troops got to within 500 meters of the line, leaving behind dozens dead.

“Madiha! We got a call from the ARG-2 stationed in the north; we’ve got air incoming!”

Madiha pulled herself from the telescope. Behind her, Parinita, short of breath and sweating, stood in the middle of the door frame with her clipboard in her hand, squeezing the object.

“Are we almost done destroying evidence?” Madiha asked. Parinita nodded her head.

“Yes, we’ve torn up everything that didn’t have archive priority. We’ve got the rest on a half-track heading north under Kimani’s watch. We don’t have another FOB picked out yet–“

“We don’t need one.” Madiha said. “We can coordinate everything else from the truck.”

“Our planes are taking off as well. But they will not reach before Nocht’s aircraft.”

Madiha nodded. She returned to the telescope. Their second company was joining in–

Parinita took her by the shoulder and she pulled her a step back from the window.

“We have to go too. This building is too exposed now. We don’t even have barrage balloons over it anymore.” She said. She looked at Madiha with concern. Her hand was shaking.

Madiha smiled. Parinita; always looking out for her. “I agree. No protest here, Parinita.”

She did not invent an excuse to stay. She did not need to. Though the attack was larger than she imagined it would be, and proceeding all along the front in a scale greater than she imagined, none of what she saw through the telescope gave her any reason to change the course.

“Just one thing. How soon until our guardian angel arrives?” Madiha asked.

“Seas are fairly calm, so she should be here within a few hours.” Parinita replied.

Madiha shouldered the backpack radio they had been using to communicate periodically with their units, strapping it on. Parinita pulled out the little hand-drawn calendar she had made of the battles, and clipped it to her clipboard. These final effects collected, they rushed downstairs, shutting the door for the last time on their shared office in “Madiha’s House,” Bada Aso.

* * *

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — Absolute Pin