This story segment contains a scene of medical treatment.
28-AG-30: Knyskna, Southeast Inner Boroughs FOB
A dismal compliment of soldiers returned to the FOB.
It was late afternoon and the sun had already begun its trek down from the sky.
Soldiers trickled up from the southeast, climbing wearily over the rock, squeezing through rubble, and ambling across the open streets, making their way into the building.
Sgt. Bahir’s headquarters staff greeted the arrivals and furnished them with some food and drink in paper cups, soupy lentils and milk flavored with fruits, a minor pick-me-up.
Staff members took quick reports from surviving officers, gathered inventory and distributed supplies, and found everyone places to sit and rest. There was a somber and eerie mood around them. Nobody wanted to admit it, but they all felt quite defeated.
Squadron III arrived with the others. Though the ambush was far behind them, in Leander’s mind, and likely the minds of his comrades, he still heard the blasts and saw his allies die fighting, and it felt stunning and bizarre to him, like he had watched it in a film.
Sergeant Bahir entered the lobby where all the soldiers were gathered, and he appeared to look over everyone at once from his position by the door of his office.
He had a semblance of a smile and a fiery gaze.
“Good work everyone.” He said. The instant he started to speak all the whispers in the room quieted. Despite only being a Sergeant, Bahir was older than everyone else in the room and more experienced. He commanded the respect of a general within this FOB, and everyone was eager for his message. It would end up being brief.
“Nocht will have to work harder to penetrate through to this FOB. All of our defensive sectors across Knyskna are holding so far. I received word from the railyard that we have only a few more trainloads before our armored train can take us all from here. Avenge your fallen comrades by living to fight another day. Victory is close, comrades!”
He raised his fist into the air, and everyone followed. This was all the speech that he would give. It was not the right time now for long speeches. He acknowledged them and praised their efforts and that was all he could do in the face of what had transpired.
Once Sergeant Bahir and his staff retreated back into their makeshift office, and everyone in the room began to idle once more, Leander felt Elena’s hand settle on his back.
He looked over his shoulder, and she tapped him in the cheek to make him look away, positioning herself behind him and sliding her hands into his jacket solemnly.
Bonde joined her, and from the glances Leander got of his face he appeared concerned.
Though Elena was as ginger to him as she could be, his wounds still stung awfully whenever she touched them. She inspected him, and shook her head several times while doing so and made disapproving sounds. She was exasperated by his condition and he did feel like a bit of a fool for his recklessness back in the thoroughfare.
“Leander, you need to go find a medic and get yourself patched up.” Elena said.
“I’m fine.” Leander replied. He wanted to stand guard. An attack would be coming. It hurt, but he could deal with the pain. He hoped during battle it would fade into the background completely. It was only a dull, persistent ache at the moment.
“Your back is a mess of bloody cuts. You could get an infection. Go.” Elena insisted.
Sharna recused herself from the discussion, but Bonde was watching them intently.
“Go to the medic, Leander.” Bonde said suddenly. It sounded like an order.
He dropped his BKV and ammunition into a crate, and asked a nearby soldier where to go. With her directions he made his way to the back of the building, arriving at a rectangular sky-blue room once used as a washing and laundry space. Soldiers had pushed the cylindrical washing machines out into the alleyway behind the room’s back door, and the space was now occupied by a few tables and curtains. It was a lonesome place.
There were no wounded men or women to accompany Leander.
Anyone who might have qualified from the forward platoons had been wounded to death. Nobody had even had time to collect their bodies due to the situation.
Leander purged his mind of such morbid ideas, drank his milk and tipped the gooey lentils into his mouth. He could not even focus on the taste. Seated on the edge of a wheeled bed he waited for a medic to come tend to him. There were no medical orderlies on hand this time. Manpower of that nature was scarce; the few medics probably had other duties.
He figured that someone would be sent to him soon enough, after they completed some other chore around the FOB, and so he waited patiently for what seemed like a half hour for attention. He wondered idly what kind of doctor had stayed behind with them.
Whenever he stopped moving or fighting, he always seemed drawn to take greater notice of his condition, and all the little discomforts that were piling up. On the battlefield it was easy for him to forget the slight chafing of his breasts against the brace, the aching of the bruises across his chest and belly and shoulder whenever he bent or moved his arms.
He smelled like gunpowder and smoke, and there was a hollow ringing in his ears from the absence of explosions and screaming and gunfire. He guessed he was a soldier now, more than before. A week ago he had no training and a rifle he could barely work.
Now he had all kinds of scars, and an eerily building knowledge of battle.
Leander sighed a little. But this was the man he had chosen to be.
A man who could protect his people and his dreams in absence of any greater technical skill or ambition. Was that an ideal soldier? He didn’t know. It was just who he was.
He was starting to regret having time alone to think.
When finally he heard steps along the adjoining hall, he raised his head. So far he had given no consideration to seeing another doctor and explaining his unique status to them: but he figured it would not be a problem. Then, through the empty doorway into the room appeared a familiar face. It was Dr. Agrawal in her white coat and long skirt, her hair tied up into a bun and her face looking less rough than the day before. She was on her own and smiled when she came into the room. Leander’s own face brightened at the sight.
“Ah, Leander Gaurige! I did not expect you to be here.” She said, loudly and cheerfully. Leander flushed a little bit. “Don’t be surprised, you are still quite fresh on my mind. I thought by now you would be safe on your way to Solstice. I must admit it is bittersweet to see you again. I love familiar patients, but people only come to me with misfortune.”
“Sorry.” Leander said. “I had to stay. It’s the kind of man I am, you could say.”
“I suppose you could be a much worse kind of man than this!” Dr. Agrawal said, patting him on the shoulder. Leander cringed a little bit, and she removed her hand. “Oh, sorry, sorry. I’m such a friendly oaf sometimes. I need to regain my professional spirit.”
“It is fine. I can feel myself healing already in your care.” Leander said.
Dr. Agrawal laughed. “I’m not that good I’m afraid. Are you surprised to see me?”
Surprised was a large understatement. Leander was quite visibly exuberant.
It was almost like meeting a great friend again after a long time, even though he had only met the doctor for the first time very recently. She had been very kind to him, and as his first real doctor, outside of quacks and spirit healers, she left an impression on him.
“I never asked what you were doing, but I assumed you would leave.” Leander said.
“No, I was never planning to go. I came out of a fairly early retirement in order to do necessary medical work in this time of crisis. A doctor should follow the blood draining from the people. So I decided to rejoin the army, albeit a bit begrudgingly. After all, I’m used to the environment. I learned medicine while in the army. It has been a quite a long time since I was last active military, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Well, I for one am glad you are here, doctor. Makes me feel safe.”
She nodded. “Working with wounded soldiers these past few days was what rekindled my commitment. And I must admit you were on my mind since we last met. Let us not leave your back running red for any longer, Private Leander Gaurige.”
Leander cooperated easily and removed his shirt and loosened brace to free his breasts. He was happy for the doctor’s company in this situation. It was a real relief to see her again.
Dr. Agrawal cut the bloody bandages from his back, and stared with consternation at the red, pitted expanse across his spine, covered in shards of metal and long cuts.
He saw everything in a mirror established across the room.
It was worse than it looked when he had his clothes on.
However it was not crippling. Just a honeycomb of bright red flesh wounds.
The Doctor nodded to herself after examining him, and stepped beside the bed. From a nearby crate she gathered clean towels, tweezers, a roll of bandages and a bottle of clear liquor. She put all the things atop a little trolley and kicked it over to the bed.
Leander was puzzled by the final item and picked up the bottle.
“This is eighty-percent alcohol!” Leander said with child-like wonder.
Dr. Agrawal took the bottle from his hands, and tapped him on the head with the cap. “It would certainly make your throat feel a bit raw if you drank it. But it’s not going in there right now. Liquor has other important uses in a time of crisis you see.”
She popped the top of the bottle, shook it to give him a warning, and then poured a steady stream over Leander’s shoulder. He cringed and clung to the side of the bed with his hands, his wounds flaring up with stinging pain the instant the liquid dripped over them. He felt heat seeping through the cuts and into his flesh, and felt the sharpness of the fragments anew as the liquor flowed past them and over the gashes on the surface.
“We ran out of medical alcohol, but hard liquor is decent.” Dr. Agrawal said.
Leander grit his teeth and tried to smile a little through it, saying nothing.
Dr. Agrawal picked up her tweezers, and the towels and bandages, and she set to work, taking the tiny bits of steel and pulling them gently out of Leander’s body, setting them aside, then cleaning the wound again with another sharp drizzle of liquor. Dabbing from the towels irritated his flesh, but Leander tried to be strong and stony faced.
Between cleaning and pulling, Dr. Agrawal paused and looked up at the mirror, feigning like she was examining him with more interest.
After a few times, she finally came out and said what she was thinking.
“Bullets to the chest and explosions behind your back. I see you’re becoming a regular soldier, my boy!” She pulled another fragment as she spoke. Her ward could not help but burst out laughing through the hot discomfort of the liquor seeping into his wounds and the awkward touch of her tools across his back pulling out pieces of steel.
It was strange but wonderful to him how he could laugh in the middle of these events, in a medic’s quarters having fragments pulled from him and blood cleaned off his back.
Once all the pieces had been pulled from him, Dr. Agrawal dressed the wounds.
“Thanks.” Leander said softly. Both for the treatment and the good laugh.
“I try.” Dr. Agrawal replied. “A good attitude helps everyone. Myself included.”
“Is that how you handle being in the military?” Leander asked.
“All of the labor involved in that is invisible. It happens in the brain. What aspect of the military do you wish to harden yourself against? Fear? Loss? Grief? Everyone thinks about each of them differently.” Dr. Agrawal said. She closed her eyes and smiled contemplatively. “I used to feel a mute pain and pity for everyone around me. Gradually the group of people I mourned for grew smaller, not always by death, but simply by necessity. You’ll start with a big heart in war, but you’ll find that it will shrink.”
“I see. Being honest, I sort of want to weep for all the comrades who lost their lives.” Leander said. He smiled a little. He felt the tears in his eyes but he did not weep. He felt oddly calm. “I do not, though. Perhaps my heart is already hard.”
“It is not. If it were, you would not admit it to yourself so readily.”
“Is it alright to be calm in the middle of this? I’m sitting here awaiting an attack.”
“War is an alien thing, especially in these times. We all process it differently.”
“I suppose that’s just another part of myself I have to figure out.” Leander said.
Dr. Agrawal finished wrapping his bandages and helped him to affix his chest brace anew. She patted him gently on the shoulder with the tips of her fingers, careful to be friendly with her touch but not actually excite his wounds in any way.
“You would be a novel man indeed if you can completely decipher such a thing.”
Leander stood from the bed. He extended his hand toward the doctor and she shook it.
“It is no problem at all comrade.” She said. “This is my reason to live.”
“Will you be staying? With our company, I mean. Or our division? I don’t know.”
Dr. Agrawal chuckled. “I would usually be considered a regimental asset, but perhaps I can convince HQ about the dire need for increased medical care at all levels. But yes, unless misfortune befalls me, I intend to follow your general grouping of men and women as far as we go. I will try to be available specifically to you if that is possible.”
She withdrew a card from her pocket, with her name on it, and handed it to Leander.
“Just show anyone that card if you need care and I will see to it to personally.”
Leander beamed. “Thank you! I would feel much more comfortable that way.”
“I’m glad you appreciate the arrangement.” Dr. Agrawal beamed back. “Until we get to Solstice, I’d like to do what I can to help you. You’re a special patient. I really want you to meet Dr. Kappel. I think it will do you so much good to meet with her.”
“I will definitely make it to Solstice and meet her.” Leander said. Though a part of him wondered why she was so happy to help him, he suppressed this cynicism rapidly and easily. “And maybe you can meet Dr. Kappel yourself as well!”
“Ah, no; I have different people I must meet first if Solstice is ever on my horizon.”
She looked a touch melancholy for a moment, the light wrinkling around her mouth and eyes becoming a bit more pronounced, and a flash of an old pain in her eyes.
Their conversation was cut short before Leander could venture to ask what was wrong and who she might meet instead of her colleague. A uniformed man tapped his fist on the door frame several times and leaned through. He was a little shaken up.
“All HQ staff must prepare for evac, ma’am, and the Private should go out front.”
Dr. Agrawal nodded. “Go on, Leander. And take care.”
Leander followed the beleaguered soldier out to the lobby, where everyone crowded around Sgt. Bahir and a few of his direct subordinates at the door to the FOB.
He sought out Squadron III and easily found Sharna standing about a head taller than anyone else, drumming her fingers along the body of her BKV anti-tank rifle.
Leander regrouped with his comrades and asked them to catch him up on what was happening. He saw people everywhere, and standing at the doorway, Sgt. Bahir spoke determinedly into a radio, but Leander could not hear what he was saying or listening to.
“Supposedly a runner’s coming with information.” Elena said. “Are you well?”
“I’m fine.” Leander sighed. “I was fine before, actually, but I am even better now.”
Elena frowned at him. “You were only a fine way from an infection.”
Shots rang suddenly out across the ruins.
Through the gaps in the bodies around him Leander saw a pair of people running at them from the distance, rifle bullets striking the earth around their feet with sharp cracks.
People started to disperse and he could see better what was going on outside.
It was the forward observers running toward them and under attack, desperately climbing over rubble, squeezing between broken buildings and running across stretches of wide-open street to try to make it to safety. Someone out there was gunning for them.
Men and women from the FOB suddenly leaped over the open window frames and through the door of the lobby and onto the street, their own rifles in hand, and opened fire at the buildings overlooking the thoroughfare to try to cover for the runners.
Leander, stunned, did not join the charge. As he watched things unfold, he felt almost bitterly that he should go fight, but he and his squad stayed behind instead. He felt more than a little foolish huddling in cover with Elena and Sharna and Bonde.
Outside, the situation was confused. Fire fell intermittently, deflecting off rubble or striking the ground near boots and crouched legs. Nobody could find the snipers anywhere at first, until suddenly a bullet carved a bloody hole through the neck of one of the runners, and it seemed that all at once half the company was locked to the same building a block away and firing relentlessly. A body fell from a high window and people ran out to collect it as well as the injured runner, who choked in the street, grasping the wound.
Despite this, bullets continued to fall from nearby rooftops and the battle continued both for the people outside and for the people in the FOB, as the snipers began to put their rounds through the windows and the door with increasing frequency and accuracy.
A burst of chopping gunfire that could have only come from a Norgler fell near the rifle troops outside. The HQ staff began to wave people to cover and distributed guns. Leander picked up a BKV again and aimed out the window, but couldn’t see a thing to shoot. Sharna and Elena filled the air with lead in his stead, and Bonde picked up a scope and scanned the area, but it all seemed hopeless for them from where Leander sat.
A dozen meters away the runners and the soldiers from the FOB linked up, and took cover from the snipers and from the hidden machine gun together. Sgt. Bahir watched them. Unfazed, barely hiding against the building’s door frame, he cast a smoldering look at a cluster of nearby structures. He turned a dial on his radio and called their artillery.
“Company calling for a 120mm barrage on the Dunbe apartment block, hit the rooftops. Three tubes, 15 rounds total across three buildings. Coordinates to follow–”
Minutes later the sound of machine guns and rifles coming from the rooftop was shouted down by the blasting of mortar shells, crashing down in as much of a rolling barrage as three tubes could muster across the rooftops of three adjacent buildings.
Rooftops collapsed under the heavy mortar shells, and smoke and flames belched from the upper floor apartment windows. As the shells fell and the smoke blew Sgt. Bahir waved for the people outside the FOB to run back inside, escorting the live observer and carrying the injured observer and the body of the dead Nocht soldier into safety. Inside they settled the injured observer down on a table, but it was too late. A medic pulled down her eyelids and arranged her hands over her chest. Feeling that the presence of death would upset everyone, a few soldiers were tasked with taking the body out back to be bagged up.
Meanwhile Sgt. Bahir examined the badge on the Nocht soldier.
He picked it up and raised it to his eyes, and everyone around the room could see it.
It was a flower that Leander had never seen before. It was easy to tell that this sniper was a different kind of soldier than the men they had slaughtered around the tanks. He had on a more rugged-looking uniform with a cape and hood and thicker pants, all gray with a strange pattern over them, and his rifle mounted a scope atop.
Clipped to his belt was a folding grappling hook. He was a climber.
“Gebirgsjager.” Sgt. Bahir said. “The edelweiss badge leaves no doubt.”
“Mountaineer troops?” A member of Bahir’s staff asked.
“Yes. Trained for mobility in rough terrain. Such as the ruins all around us.”
Behind them, the remaining observer caught his breath and saluted clumsily.
He was not dressed in a military uniform, but in a vest and shirt and trousers, like a civilian, but with an orange scarf around his neck. Leander wondered if he was a civilian, or just dressed like one. Their observers were dispersed all over the city, watching Nocht’s movements and reporting via radio. What kind of circumstances would force them to run back? From the look of it all, it appeared to Leander that this Gebirgsjager soldier had been hunting the observers. He gulped at the thought of it. Such a feat in such a short span of time certainly made the mountain men of Nocht a lot more frightening an enemy.
The Observer stuttered as he spoke. He looked quite shaken up.
“Sir, the imperialist forces have left the thoroughfare here in the Southeast. They didn’t even move the wrecks from the ambush spot. They’re pushing through the buildings and alleys and taking a circumspect route toward us. I lost track of them sir, I’m sorry. I was attacked and lost my radio in a panic. She and I, we were attacked by them.”
“It’s alright.” Sgt. Bahir put his hands on his shoulder. “You did well. Take a horse from out back and evacuate. Carry her body to her family as well if you can. We thank you both for your service. This should not have been your fight, comrade.”
“Thank you sir.” Still shaking, the Observer was helped out back by staff.
Sgt. Bahir turned around to face all the soldiers on guard around the windows and the doorway, rifles out and looking over the windows and rooftops nearby for more of these Gebirgsjager men. He called them all to attention and pointed them outside. “Everyone gather your equipment. I want as many BKVs in hands as we can spare. We’re abandoning the FOB. Run to the alleys, take the horses and ride to the last line.”
Around him, there was a nodding of heads and the evacuation commenced in a hurry. Squadron III formed up quickly, took their things in shoulder slings and packs, and hurried outside with the rest. Leander suddenly looked forward to meeting a horse.