This story segment contains scenes of medical treatment and gender dysphoria.
26th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Shaila Dominance – Djose Wood, Knyskna Region, Shaila
“Those fools! I cannot believe this! Worthless to the last pair of boots!”
Dreschner shouted from his cupola for several minutes, cursing everything that he could get his eyes on, and then he stormed off the tank entirely and disappeared from sight.
Like the sound of a rolling barrage, Dreschner’s screaming wandered far away.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Karla Schicksal savored the relative silence.
She climbed out of the command tank, first stepping up a foothold and onto Dreschner’s abandoned little throne where the gunner’s space would otherwise be, and then pulling herself up and out of the cupola at the top of the tank. Dreschner had ordered the tank stopped in the middle of a small clearing that lay at the edge of the nearby forest base, guarded by a battalion of recon soldiers from the 14th Jager Division.
It was morning, but the forest was still dusky and nondescript, the clearing painted with only a light glaze of orange and the surrounding trees gray and black. Their base was a horrific mess. A few men wandered about in a dazed patrol around mortar shell craters and long clusters of burnt-out crates all around the camp. They had been attacked last night.
She sat atop the would-be turret, wiping sweat from her brow and hair and pulling a cigarette and a lighter from inside a small silver tin in her hip pouch.
On the tin there was a cartoonish picture of an obsolete M1 tank, and the words Gib dir Mühe, mein Mäuschen! Inscribed under it. Her lighter matched the tin.
She chuckled as she lit the cigarette.
It was the first time in almost a dozen hours that she had a break out of the tank.
She held the cigarette up to her mouth, her fingers forming a ‘V’ in front of her lips.
Some of the men wandering about stared at her atop the tank.
Schicksal thought herself not much to look at, with messy brown hair and dull black eyes, a poor posture and fairly small figure. She envisioned herself smiling all smug at the boys and telling them something sexy and coy, perhaps curling one leg over the other like a hot pinup girl. In reality she kept quiet and looked down at the grass, adjusting her glasses with her free hand and returning only scattered glances when the men turned away.
She sucked on the end of the cigarette, savoring the hit of cheap tobacco smoke.
In the distance Brigadier-General Dreschner reappeared, stomping his way back to the tank, looking at every man about him as though he wanted to rip their throats out with his teeth. He was a lanky man with an angular face, made to appear thicker than he was by the big gray officer’s overcoat that he wore, with its large, unadorned, almost industrial-seeming black epaulettes and big broad sleeves. His high-brimmed officer’s hat was adorned with a gold cross and the wings of an otherwise disembodied eagle.
“Can you believe this Schicksal?” He shouted toward her, though to her relief, not explicitly at her, “These idiots allowed the enemy to ravage all of our supplies!”
“Would you like a cigarette, sir?” Schicksal replied, and held her tin out to him.
“Would I like a cigarette?” He shouted suddenly and threw up his hands, shocking her. He put his hands down from the air and over his face. “Fine. I’ll have one.”
Schicksal forced a little smile for him and leaned down from atop the tank, holding the lighter in one hand and the tin in another. Dreschner picked a cigarette, put it in his mouth, and lifted his head up. Schicksal dutifully lit the cigarette for him, and then pulled herself back upright. The Brigadier-General leaned back below her, against the tank.
He coughed a little bit of smoke.
“Is this what they give you in the rations these days? It’s terrible. Did they make these in a Mamlakhan slum? I’m going to put in an appeal over this,” he said.
After a little laugh, Schicksal replied, “It would be appreciated, sir.”
“I like your tin. Very whimsical depiction of the M1. Who made the inscription?”
To think he had noticed her crappy little tin. Schicksal tried to draw a little more strength to her voice – Dreschner would always harangue her about speaking too softly. “My mama and papa, sir! My papa was a tank man, sir. He drove a Vaterland in the old war, and then he drove an M1 during the first islands conflict and the rebellions.”
“Oh, ho! So he served during the very inception of the tank. Incredible.”
“Yes sir. Back when they still called it the ‘Kavallerie‘ and not ‘Panzerdivisione‘.”
“His service did us all proud then.”
Schicksal made no reply, and simply nodded. Deep down she hated this assumption that her father was some hero and that it was all good and patriotic for him. Her father had been badly burnt in an explosion of his tank, of which he was the only survivor. Her mother told her it changed him forever. The little tin that he gave her and its inscription was a rare bit of good humor from him before he saw her off to her present destination.
“And they call you ‘little mouse’, your parents? That’s their nickname for you?”
“Yes sir.” She said, before taking a long drag of her cigarette.
Dreschner laughed. “It is appropriate, Schicksal! No offense intended.”
“None taken, sir.” Schicksal said, fidgeting a little with her cigarette.
“I hope they are proud! You are making panzer history, just like your father.”
She was lucky to have this job at all. Women were not allowed on the frontline, normally, except for two positions: medics and radio operators.
And only because the technocrats in power over the government and military, with their high-tech tests and polls and research, and their cabals of number-crunching eggheads poring over it, testing and retesting like the robots in the pulp books, had discovered that women performed better than men in those two positions.
Just those two – so sayeth the Lord’s numbers.
Anything to be out of the house, to be somewhere, doing something herself.
“Yes sir,” she said dutifully. “If I may ask, where does history next take us?”
Dreschner dropped his cigarette and stepped on it. He crossed his arms and bowed his head. “We will have to postpone the attack on Knyskna until tomorrow at the earliest, and that is optimistic. We cannot mount an assault on the remnants of our Panzer’s transit fuel. 14th Recon is a mess, and I will not allow our operations to be further disrupted because these fools cannot keep their eyes on the trees. The Grenadiers will guard our rear.”
“Alright sir. Would you like me to communicate the new orders?”
“Please do. And put them across nicely. Have you any thoughts on the plan?”
“I don’t believe myself qualified to speak on it.” She said meekly.
Dreschner shook his head and laughed. “I thought you were finally opening up!”
27th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Shaila Dominance – Knyskna City
Leander slept soundly through the day, an unknown dream carrying him across daylight, and toward the eerie midnight hour where one date became the next.
It was a creeping chill that finally woke him, a dry, cold feeling seeping through the thin blanket. He lifted himself up and stared from his bed, unfocused eyes scanning around his little curtained room. He yawned and stretched out.
Beside him, he was surprised to find Elena sleeping on a chair, seated in reverse; the chair’s backrest was turned to face him and she had her head and chest pressed against it.
Flickering candlelight played across her uniform, but most of her face remained concealed in shadow.
“Are you awake?” Leander asked softly, stretching to tap her shoulder.
Her head snapped up, her short red hair flipping for a moment before falling again over her ears and forehead. Clearly she was awake now. Leander drew back reflexively.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I overreacted! I’m a restless sleeper.” Elena said.
“Perhaps you need the rest even more than I!” Leander chuckled.
“No, it is fine, it is fine. Here, I have something for you.”
From out of her unbuttoned jacket she presented Leander with a boxed ration, likely from the same origin as the curry he ate before. He felt pangs of hunger previously unknown from just staring at it, and with a hushed thanks he accepted the gift. He ripped open the box and inside found several breaded, fried cauliflower and potato balls. He ate a few, and they tasted a little bland and stale, with too much dough. They were also rather dry. He felt as though he had been wandering a desert, his mouth dry and his throat itching.
Elena read his predicament and pressed her flask into his hands. He flipped open the cap and took a long drink from it, nearly retching from the cloyingly sweet wine.
“Our supplies leave a lot to be desired, don’t they?” Elena laughed.
Leander sighed. “I don’t remember Arjun wine and pakoras tasting this poor.”
“Do not inspect the box! The packing dates on these are frightening.”
Leander chuckled. “I appreciate your company, Elena. Did they let you in easily?”
“I volunteered to help, so I carried a lot of boxes and helped administer bandages and deliver food today. Then I told them I was part of your squadron and they let me stay here.”
“So you’re finally part of the medical corps then? I’m sure you’re happy.”
Elena offered a weak little smile. “No, I’m afraid I’m still stuck a riflewoman.”
They talked in hushed voices, mindful of waking the rest of the field hospital. Elena was thankfully uninjured – she opened up her coat more, and pulled up her undershirt a little to show her flat belly, without a mark on it, and her pale shoulders, also untouched. As an amicable exchange Leander showed her the safest bruise he could reveal, the one on his shoulder. She gasped at how broad and purple it was. If she noticed the brace beneath his undershirt she made no comment on it. Leander thought this was for the best.
“Does it hurt much now?” Elena asked, staring dejectedly at his shoulder.
“Not at all.” Leander said. In reality there was still a bit of dull pain.
“You received so many impacts. It’s a miracle you had any strength to move!”
“I’m not sure what came over me, myself.” Leander said. He grinned nervously.
“It was an amazing sight!” Elena said, betraying a touch of awe. “You ran off with my shovel and suddenly all the enemy’s attention seemed to be on you. But it was well timed. Bonde rallied everyone to try to cover you, and then led a charge when Nocht soldiers tried to pull out of their positions to go kill you. We just rushed the men behind the overturned log, they were pinned down, and we slaughtered them where they sat and stood.”
While she was excitable about it, these events still held some discomfort for Leander, and he found it hard to meet her gaze while she recounted them. He felt frightened and in awe at himself, as though he were judging a different man for these exploits.
He had been raised to be calm and cautious and meek, to avoid fighting and to especially avoid a close, brutish confrontation. And yet, he’d stuck those soldiers with his shovel like he had seen wild pigs stuck by the caravan men.
He looked at his hands with ambivalence.
He was a soldier, and he had been terribly scared, and he had to defeat his enemy. But he wondered if there was anything more to the events – if there was more to him, in relation.
His discomfort always seemed a lot more visible than he thought it would be. He was bad at masking his emotions, and Elena saw through his mannerisms even in the dimness of the room. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to glorify what happened to you. I hope you’re ok.”
“I’m alright.” Leander said, a little feebly. “Just a bit shaken still.”
“That is understandable. For all of us that was a terrible night.”
“Do you know why we turned back?” Leander said. Circumstances colored his perception. He had a hard time seeing himself as a hero, or his charge as admirable, when they retreated directly after he took action. That was not how the stories went.
“I do know now. I heard the officers talking, earlier today. It was no fault of ours that the attack was called off. A very sizable amount of the Battlegroup’s forces, five divisions total, had been defeated and encircled in a battle in Tukino, south of here. Fifty thousand troops in the pocket. This happened many hours before our assault on the wood, but word only reached us when the attack was already underway. We were pulled back then.”
Leander was astonished. Pocketing was a deadly tactic – a surrounded unit could not receive food or fuel or ammunition and would surely be destroyed, if not immediately then within days, as their bullets dwindled and their vehicles gave out. A pocket of 50,000 was an unreal number to him. It was like hearing that the entire army had just collapsed in a single day. He did not know how right he was – unbeknownst to him a Battlegroup was only 100,000 troops at most. Elena had made it quite clear to him why they had to retreat.
After sharing this morbid news, Elena was quiet for a time. Leander offered no replies.
They heard murmuring from other curtained rooms, but could not make out the words.
In Leander’s head a number of questions floated, suspended far away from their answers. He had joined the army out of a sense of duty and gallantry. How could a man run from battle, when he had nothing else to give for his community?
That was what he had thought, dimly and distantly and foolishly, the day that he heard news of the invasion, and knew that his little village, Bika, was about to be overrun.
He scarcely fought then, and he had scarcely fought every other day until the battle in Djose. There was a picture of himself that was forming, put together from all kinds of disparate pieces and still missing many others but trying to give itself shape.
He was not sure he liked it – and not sure he had control of the pieces.
Leander laid back in bed, stretching his arms. Elena looked at the wall, as though trying not to watch too uncomfortably close. He hated that nervous distance he felt, but he also knew they hardly knew each other. They had known each other for less than a day’s time.
At last however, Elena inched her chair a bit closer, and made an earnest expression.
“Leander, it might be too soon to say we’re friends, but we are comrades. Is something bothering you? If you are merely tired I can leave you to rest; but otherwise–”
“I’m just a little mixed up about everything. It’s all a shock to me still.”
Leander replied quickly, and took Elena a little aback. She smiled softly.
“I can understand that.” She said. “I don’t really know how to feel about all of this – I think in my head, I’m still not able to treat my surroundings with the gravity they deserve.”
Leander worked up the courage and put across to her what was really on his mind.
“Had you the opportunity, would you leave? Would you evacuate Knyskna?”
“To where?” Elena asked. She shrugged. “I think the war will catch up anywhere.”
Leander gulped. That was not really what he had wanted to hear her say.
“Just anywhere, away from Knyskna. Have you a goal you want to strive for?”
“I don’t have much anymore.” She smiled wanly. “Which is why I volunteered for the army in the first place. I don’t know what has become of my past life at all.”
It was strange to hear someone refer to, potentially, their family and friends and their place in the world as a lost collection of things, a past life. It felt cold and glib. And yet, he also felt that he should not have had that reaction – after all, his own life had become just such an assortment. Disparate people and things and connections, all wavering in a place beyond being, alive only on the surface of his mind when he recalled dark times.
“I preferred the medical corps because I thought that I had a better way with people than weapons. But who knows – I shot a few men last night. And I did not even blink. Maybe I’m not the best judge of my own capabilities anymore. Like I said, I’m feeling very adrift lately, Leander, so I don’t really know what to say. I’m very sorry.”
Elena looked at Leander as she said this, with her same sad little smile.
Leander had thought her more complete than him, somehow more put together and in control, but in reality they had all been swept up in the tide. The events around them seemed eerily transformative, and he did not know where they would lead.
Before the war, Leander had known that he was a man, but not what kind – he had not given that particular point any thought. When he looked back on the night of the attack on Djose, it felt eerily defining, as though within that chaos he had taken steps toward becoming a certain kind of man without even knowing it.
All of them had been robbed by the war, robbed of what they were in so little time.
There was still something for him though. There was a beacon on the horizon.
“I want to go to Solstice, the capital,” he said, “I might have an opportunity to go.”
Elena did not press him to explain.
She stretched out her hands over his own in solidarity and did not question him further, for which he felt incredibly grateful. She was better with people than she thought.
“Solstice is beautiful. If you want to see it, then you should take the chance and go. It’s your life, Leander. You should not let anyone pressure you to do anything.”
He felt a pressing need to reply. “Elena, I’ve felt as though for the longest time, I was living a hand-me-down life. These past few days have been the first week of my life; my life, like you said. But I feel like I’m still finding myself, like I’m still without control of myself. There might be someone who can help me in Solstice, but if I leave the battle–”
He paused, out of fear and stress of admitting to himself any more, but he did not have to continue. Elena nodded solemnly, understanding what he had left hanging.
A foreign army was out to do god-knows-what to Ayvarta – conquer it or smash it or enslave it, who knew? The monsters in the gray uniforms were on the march, and Leander saw an increasing possibility that there might not be a Solstice in the future for him.
A dark hand loomed over his beacon, that beacon on his horizon, and it was about to douse the light that had finally promised to lead him to paradise. What would they do to the city? What would they do to this Dr. Kappel? What would they do to Leander Gaurige?
“You are putting a horrible burden on yourself if you want to save this city.” Elena said. “I think Knyskna will fall no matter what. The decisions leading up to that are out of our control. We’re just rifles. I’m not saying you should leave or stay. There might be more chances to leave if you want to wait. Then again, we might not see them if you do.”
“Everything feels like it’s leading me to a decision right now.” Leander said glumly. “There is someone in Solstice I want to meet, Elena. A doctor, who can help me with something important. I’m not sick or anything, mind you; I don’t want you to worry; but I need to meet her nonetheless. Despite this, part of me desperately wants to stay and fight.”
“I understand. But tell me this. I know your reason to leave; but I want to know, why does that part of you feel like you must stay here?” She asked, holding Leander’s hands.
Leander did not have to think it over much more. “I would be a coward if I left.”
She squeezed his hand in solidarity. “You are very mistaken about that, Leander. You are not and would not be a coward. And you should not stay if that is your only reason.”
Leander sighed a little and laid back on his pillows. In his mind everything he was thinking twisted into a storm, and his thoughts felt heavy and hard to escape. He had acknowledged their existence and they would not leave him alone.
Though he wanted so badly to take Elena’s soothing voice as the unvarnished truth and to believe in everything that she said, so much of his mind was filled with doubts, a cascade of them, and he felt physically incapable of ignoring them all.
“Thank you. I’m sorry for being so glum. I feel completely drained.” Leander said.
“It’s fine. I’m here to listen!” She said. “But you should probably get some rest.”
She turned her chair around, to sit the proper way, except she extended her feet onto the bed, and cushioned her head with her hands. Very soon she had nodded off again, almost as quickly as she had closed her eyes, leaving Leander to the whispering voices, indistinct under the night wind. Lulled by trying to make out what they were saying, whether they heard or understood, whether they judged or approved, Leander fell into a restless slumber, the pressure of his decision mounting even in his sleep.