This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
Cissean Border Defensive Line
A strong wind made waves across the tall grass. Stretched before him was a vast expanse of green field and rolling woodland that separated Ayvarta from Cissea. He sat with his legs hanging over the gap at the edge of a defensive trench, on the second line of border defenses. This trench was dug right on the first hump in a series of little hills. These gentle slopes served as a good defensive position – at their crest there was enough flat land to establish a long defensive line and a few barracks buildings. From this first crest, a steeper hill lead to the true summit with the HQ building and the divisional depots.
Even on this first and most minor incline, he felt like he was high up over the earth.
His mind was blank as he peered over the empty border.
At his back was his rifle, a 130 centimeter length of wood and iron, fed by stripper clips that filled the pouches of his garrison belt; in his hands was a can of watery curry, a disposable spoon and a piece of round flatbread. He ate, and he felt at peace with the landscape. It was almost like he wasn’t a soldier. Only a boy with a rifle and uniform.
He thought of nothing at the time, nothing about the field, nothing about the trench.
For him, the border guard with Battlegroup Ox was idle work — whereas before he had been merely idle. There was more to do, but not for him. He was never assigned the special tasks given to others, where they would go in trucks deeper into Adjar, and stay in the city for a few days, before returning with a pocketful of paper money and clandestine purchases from the markets. He did not drive a tank so he did not receive odd jobs hitching heavy equipment to and fro, using the idle war machines as tractors for who knows what.
Owing to the distance of the Adjar Dominance from Solstice, he had never even seen a KVW political officer. Owing to the peaceful relationship between the southern politicians and his commandant, he did not even catch wind of anything suspicious.
He in fact knew little about politics, save that the nation took good care of him.
He did not mind any of it. It was all for others to worry about.
After all he had joined the army just to get away from things. This was more peace than he had ever had with his family back in Shaila. He welcomed a blank mind, a cool spring wind and a full plate of warm food.
Just as he started to doze off, he heard multiple voices calling down to him.
“Hujambo!” He shouted back, raising his arm lazily to greet his friends.
Two of Adesh’s squadmates approached the second defensive line and sat with him, ration boxes in their hands. Nnenia sat to his left, hastily removing her cap and quickly ripping open the ration box and picking through its contents. Eshe sat to his right, extracting his food from its box as delicately as he could, carefully cutting open the cans, trying to get nothing on his spotless green uniform. They ate quietly together, staring at the fields every so often. Though they sometimes traded ration contents, this time they were satisfied with what they got. Like a single mind they ate and spoke only in common gestures, nodding and smiling.
When they had picked their ration boxes clean the trio lay back against the tank traps behind them.
Language returned to them, and it was almost enough to make Adesh groan.
“You need to tie up your hair at least, if you’re not gonna cut it.” Eshe said, taking stray tufts of Adesh’s hair in hand to demonstrate how long it had gotten. Eshe was a devout soldier, with hair cut to regulation and his uniform worn the precise way the handbook taught.
Adesh quietly pulled a length of cloth from a pouch and tied his hair into a ponytail, and Eshe seemed pleased enough with the result. Nnenia quietly played with her own hair, which was regulation length, cut to a level just above the shoulder, but much messier and wavier than Adesh’s.
“Why does it matter?” Nnenia said curtly, staring at Eshe.
Eshe put his hands to his hips. “You’re another one who should consider a cut.”
Adesh laughed. “You two remind me of my old house.”
“Ouch.” Nnenia replied. “Sorry.”
“No, not in a bad way!” Adesh quickly corrected.
They laughed. Slothfully the trio fell on their backs, Adesh hand in hand with the others, staring up at the sky.
It was hot and sunny, but a strong breeze kept the weather fairly kind to them.
“I heard the officers are considering putting a film on today.” Nnenia said.
“What kind of film?” Eshe asked.
“I heard it is a new picture, made specifically for the army.” Nnenia said.
“Probably a historical picture then, to teach us something.” Adesh said.
Nnenia nodded. “It is – I heard that the film is a history of the Nocht Federation.”
“I heard the Princess fled to Nocht during the revolution.” Adesh said. “That’s all I know about Nocht.”
“Royalty.” Eshe looked like he wanted to spit in disgust. “The Princess even changed her name to something more Nocht-like after. Mary Trueday I think. Did not stick by us at all. I bet she’s really pampered over in Nocht, telling everyone some sob story about the communists chasing her out.”
“She was a kid back then, even younger than us,” Adesh said, “I wouldn’t judge her too harshly.”
“In any case, maybe the film will clear all of this up for us.” Nnenia said.
Before they could grow any more comfortable, a belligerent foot kicked heaps of dirt and dust from higher up the trench on top of them. They bolted up to their feet and found an officer waylaying them, and struggled to stand at attention while coughing sand through their noses and wiping their burning eyes. The Officer was livid, and when he made his way to them he seized Adesh by his jacket, with his eyes bloodshot and teeth bared.
“Did you not see the KVW liaison car that passed, soldier? Did you dismiss its significance, or are you just completely daft? Are you truly so devoid of wit that you can’t determine the proper conduct during an inspection, soldier? Do you want your platoon to suffer the consequences of your laying about, soldier?”
“No sir!” Adesh said, his voice trembling. “I did not understand the significance sir!”
The Officer pushed him aside and off his feet, nearly throwing him into the trench. “Then you are well and truly incompetent, private! What is your name? What are all of your names? And what made you think you could spend the day merrily laying on your backs while the KVW’s eyes are on us?” He cast mad eyes around the group, Nnenia and Eshe paralyzed before him, and Adesh shaking visibly as he stood anew from the ground.
“We thought we were still clear and at ease, sir!” Adesh said.
“You thought wrong, Private!” the officer shouted, “Nobody is at ease during a KVW inspection, not you, not I, not even the ghosts of your ancestors. I want all three of you dimwits’ full names, right–”
A sound louder than his voice drowned out the Officer’s words.
All across the line, the carnage played out too quickly.
Adesh saw it coming first; he did not know enough to identify the object but he was certain it would crash near them, and that he he had no hope of avoiding it. There was no time even to call out in alarm. Meters behind them a column of dust and a plume of smoke rose from the ground amidst a deafening explosion; like dolls their bodies were thrown out in the air. Adesh landed inside the trench, slamming his back hard against the wooden support. Around him the whole world twisted and quaked, while thundering blasts near and far kept him deafened and dumb. Across his head and spine he felt intense, paralyzing pain.
He thought he heard a voice call out, Artillery! in the midst of the chaos.
He then thought he heard the voice scream in pain.
Disoriented, he pulled himself blindly over dirt and rock, up against the wooden frame of the trench and over its edge. Grit and grime covered his eyes and he could hardly open them. When he did he saw columns of dirt and smoke and dark, rolling clouds around him before the grime and blood forced him blind anew. He dimly heard a second round of explosions and let himself drop back into the trench. They sounded far off but he knew it was his rattled ears tricking him. He was in every way disoriented.
Nnenia and Eshe were still out there somewhere.
With his arm up against it he pulled himself along the wooden frame, following the trench. He felt each new blast as though it had fallen atop him, heat and force sweeping over him deadly close. He crept along the trench with his life in the balance.
Every so often his heart would skip a beat as a shell hit.
For a moment he would pause as though he were dead.
Shaking, he would trudge on.
Behind him he felt the heat closer than ever, and his whole body seized up. He felt flames trailing along him as though he were caught in a path of coals. Something had blown inside the trench and he screamed, feeling an indistinct agony all across his body. In a panic he pulled himself forward faster, not knowing the condition of any specific part of himself, until he hit a wall dividing the trenches. Adesh laid back against it and with shaking hands he reached back to his feet, across his legs, around his waist and chest.
It was all there. He breathed deep.
Mustering all of his strength, he pulled himself up over the trench wall. He felt hard ground against his knees, and forced himself upright and into a run over the hill. He heard other boots trampling around him, and a distant voice shouting “Retreat up the hill, abandon the trenches.” When he opened his eyes briefly there were people around him, also running and leaping over the trenches and foxholes along the hill, and toward its crest. They abandoned the defensive lines and rushed up this first climb.
He could still hardly see and only stopped when he ran into someone.
He could not hear their voice at first, he only felt himself in a person’s grip.
A canteen was emptied over his face. The cold water shocked him.
“You need to move from here. Can you understand me? Are you injured?”
Adesh had made it to the first crest, past the few broken-down pillboxes and sandbag redoubts that made up the final line of defense before the barracks and warehouses, and before the second hill up to the HQ. He stood stock still, his ears still ringing but his hearing slowly returning. His whole body was shaking and he had some trouble breathing. In front of him a medic assessed his condition and kept a hand on him to keep him from falling.
He snapped his fingers and spoke slowly to Adesh, and cleaned his eyes so that he could see again. He applied a light dressing to his forehead to stop the blood.
Around him soldiers rushed to the hill he abandoned and hastily established a battle line. Trucks towed guns into position, and teams established machine guns and sniper posts.
“I see them!” someone shouted, “soft-skin vehicles, moving out onto the field!”
“Are you ok?” the medic said again.
“I’m fine,” Adesh stammered. “Where do I go?”
The medic nodded to him with relief in his eyes. “Run uphill, back up the road, and join up with the reserve to get your orders.” He said. He pointed out the main road uphill from the defensive line at the first crest, leading closer to the headquarters.
When Adesh started on his way the medic rushed to the next nearest arriving soldier to continue his work. A woman had arrived up the hill and nearly ran into a towing truck and fallen over. The medic helped her out of the way of the defenders, and applied the same tests to her, snapping his fingers, speaking slowly, and pouring water just like before.
There were more medics and more people arriving every moment, and a disparity between those fighting and those out. He felt like a ghost walking, light and strange, as though his feet could not touch the ground. He heard the retort of guns, these ones deadly close, and he flinched and nearly threw himself to the ground.
Then it dawned on him that those sounds were his guns, their guns, the guns of the Ayvartan people. People like Nnenia and Eshe. Nnenia and Eshe.
Adesh broke into a run for the nearest crowd of people he could see along a branching road leading to the barracks buildings and the little plazas between each, with a flagpole proudly displaying the 9-headed snakes, the Hydras, which symbolized the struggles of the revolution and the freedom of the people, curled around a hammer and sickle.
He walked dazedly beneath the flag pole, toward the crowd along the barracks.
“Adesh! It’s Adesh! He’s alive! Thank the spirits!”
Adesh saw hands waving in front of him and in an instant found himself embraced by Nnenia and Eshe, each one kissing one of his cheeks and throwing their hands around him. They cried and pressed themselves on him, shouting that they were worried and that the artillery had struck for so long, and that there were this and that many dead and wounded. He was so stunned that he cried with them, unable to express with words or expressions the relief he felt. Only with muted tears. They were his alive; his friends were alive.
At no point did Adesh consider that it was not only himself, or his close friends, but his entire division, his entire army, his entire country, that had come under attack.