This story segment contains depictions of psychological and emotional stress, depression and suicidal ideation.
28-AG-30 1st Vorkämpfer Corps Headquarters
“We have an important day ahead of us!” General Anton Von Sturm shouted, atop a table in the middle of the room. “I will tolerate no mistakes! We are going to talk through these objectives until each one of you knows them better than your names! Let us start!”
There was a blur of activity inside the restaurant serving as the Vorkämpfer HQ.
Helga Fruehauf and her radio girls checked their equipment; General Anschel, a small, wide man with a heavy beard departed to rejoin the headquarters for his departing 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions; Generals Von Drachen and Meist assembled along with a gaggle of staff officers around General Von Sturm, the chief architect of their current course of action.
Outside the sky was still dark, the atmosphere cold. The drizzling rain maintained and expanded on several little puddles that had built on the streets over the course of the past few days. There was a stiff breeze that seemed to pick up intensity over time.
They would move with sun, so they had to plan in the gloom.
Together they went through the current situation; as if teaching a kindergarten class, Von Sturm slowly worked his way up to recent history. Ayvarta was controlled by totalitarian communists, he said, who spat upon constitutions like Nocht’s, funded terrorism in the free northern countries and smuggled arms and harmful drugs to criminals.
To this end, Nocht launched an invasion supported by the Government-In-Exile of one empress Mary Trueday, with the hopes of raising her to power once again and having a compliant Ayvartan ally. To achieve this ultimate goal, Generalplan Suden was carefully laid out – Von Sturm puffed himself up and proudly proclaimed his own hand in supplying consultation for it. Like the Bada Aso siege, it was in part his brainchild.
And for Suden to remain on time they had to be out of Bada Aso and at the Tambwean border before the 35th. Thus, this day had to be decisive in achieving that goal.
Von Sturm emphasized decisive and he eyed the generals maliciously as he did.
Matumaini was once the preferred path forward, but due to recent events it was too problematic. Due to the destruction leveled at the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd block, a bridgelayer would have to be used to cross in any reasonable timeframe, and it was too vulnerable to the Ayvartans controlling the other side of the gap. Thus it was forgotten, and for the past 2 days, their forces reorganized along the two remaining lanes north.
On Penance Road to the west, a Cathedral had become a redoubt for Ayvartan forces, and Von Sturm’s own 13th Panzergrenadiers was making ready to challenge it. On the eastern side of the city, Von Drachen’s Azul Corps would move on the Umaiha district.
Meanwhile, 6th Grenadier under Meist had covertly deployed its artillery in Buxa, moving pieces at night and slipping in through thin corridors between the Ayvartan’s overstretched defenses between Penance and Matumaini. This artillery would support 13th PzG in their attack on the Cathedral. The attack on the Cathedral had to be decisive.
At this point Von Drachen raised his hands. He had a nagging curiosity.
Von Sturm stared at him with distaste. “What is it, Von Drachen?”
“Why don’t the Panzer Grenadiers simply drive through Buxa and past Penance, ignoring the static position on the Cathedral entirely?” Von Drachen asked.
“We have intelligence that the Ayvartans have tunnels under the city they can use to get an upper hand if we try to outflank them.” Von Sturm said. “We cannot leave any of their redoubts behind or we stand the chance of a regiment tunneling out in our wake.”
“How much reinforcement can they expect to perform through underground tunnels? Maybe a platoon at a time, certainly nothing heavy.” Von Drachen pressed gently. “You can play to your strengths by speeding past their defenses, creating a corridor forward, through which rear line units can move to surround the Cathedral, and force either a decisive action from the Ayvartans, or the starvation and defeat of the redoubt.”
“Your suggestion would create disorder in our lines Von Drachen! It is an unneeded diversion! We are pushing forward methodically, clearing out each sector, and that is final! We will not give the Ayvartans more opportunities to booby trap every inch of ground along Penance road! I want a direct way forward, and I will carve out! Is that clear?”
Von Sturm was shouting at the top of his lungs. Von Drachen smiled.
“I understand. Please continue the briefing.” He said, unaffected.
Everyone in the room sighed, while Von Sturm’s hands closed into fists and shook.
Thus the briefing resumed.
The 13th Panzergrenadiers would attack with a regiment forward, trickling in units to probe every way through Penance and Buxa until they had hurled the Ayvartan line right out of the southern district. They would depend on their rapid deployment and fast reinforcement as well as their superior firepower, and make it a slugging match with that Cathedral – their superior combat power would allow them to bleed the place dead with minimal losses, and leave no Ayvartans behind the Nochtish line to cause trouble.
In Eastern Bada Aso, the Umaiha river straddled the exterior of the city, and in the Umaiha Riverside district it veered west into the city then curled once toward the south for several kilometers, and was then funneled west again, under the city and out to the ocean through a series of underground channels that also supplied some city water.
Right now the Ayvartans controlled everything west of the curl and north of the veer. A crossing on each side would have to be effected by Azul, using all the firepower available to them. Von Drachen had nothing to say to this – he knew his plan already.
One final dimension to the day’s events was the Kalu, a massive stretch of chaotic wooded hillside that made up the space between Bada Aso and the Shaila dominance in the east, the Kucha mountains in the northeast, and Tambwe in the north.
Intelligence indicated that some military formation had to be hiding in the Kalu, and it would be drawn to battle against the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions. Their objectives were to avoid the worst of the Kucha through circuitous routes, drag out and destroy the Ayvartans hiding in the wild, and turn back southwest to the city. They would penetrate through northern areas of the city’s eastern limits, areas that were not protected by the Umaiha, and rush through with their superior firepower to encircle the enemy forces.
In the confusion, Azul would push fiercely and link with elements of the Panzer Divisions, completing and securing a major breach. That would be the end of Bada Aso.
One decisive day ahead of them. How soon would the 28th be a triumph behind them?
“Any questions?” Von Sturm asked.
Nobody responded because nobody was supposed to.
This was Von Sturm’s indication that he was done, and that any mistakes would henceforth fall on the individual, and he washed his hands of them. Fruehauf and her cadre returned to their radios to begin their work in earnest. Meist left the room unceremoniously. Staff dispersed every which way. Gradually the restaurant emptied again. Von Sturm sat on his table with his hands on his chin. He breathed out in exasperation.
“What do you want this time Von Drachen?” He asked.
From the edge of the room Von Drachen smiled and approached the table.
He took a seat across from Von Sturm, and raised his own hands to his chin.
“My good man, can I borrow your sword for the day?” Von Drachen asked.
Von Sturm’s voice went suddenly flat, void of inflection.
“What?” He stared at Von Drachen, his left eye twitching. “What sword?”
“You have an officer’s ceremonial sword. I was never given one.”
“What do you want it for?” Von Sturm was so taken aback he was responding earnestly.
“I want your blessing – I should say, I need your blessing. I want a symbol of you.”
Von Sturm’s eyes drew wide. “I don’t understand a word you are saying.”
Von Drachen nodded. “I have been hassled by your Security division a few times already trying to move between the front lines and the rear echelon, and I want something to show them so that they will shut up quickly. A symbol of your authority.” He replied.
“That’s not supposed to be happening. I can just have Fruehauf call them.”
“While you do that, I’d like to head to my front lines as quickly as possible, and the first check point is a kilometer away. Can I borrow your sword? It would be quicker.”
Von Sturm seemed to be grappling with the logic behind Von Drachen’s request.
He covered his mouth with one hand, rubbing his lips. He stared at Von Drachen’s eyes, and his expression was empty of the rancor or mischief that characterized him. He looked dazed. On his part, Von Drachen was very serious.
He thought, if he had the sword, a Nochtish officer’s sword, then those idiots from Security would not talk to him. They would not look at him, they would not appear near him. He thought, if he confronted another Security officer, he would wring the man’s neck, and hurl his carcass at another man nearby. There would be violence.
So, a sword – he could show it, nobody would speak, and he would move.
Failing that, he could open a man’s ribcage with it. But he wanted to avoid that.
He hoped that his honesty, earnestness and good intention would get through to General Von Sturm. Across the table from him, the General was catatonic for a moment.
Finally Von Sturm seemed to have caught up to everything. He grit his teeth.
“It’s upstairs with my formal uniform. Just take it and go and don’t say anything again.”
Von Drachen nodded, stood, returned his seat to the table, and went on his way.
He stepped outside, under the rain, and waited.
He looked over his shoulder at the door every few minutes. Finally a man older than him, in a beige uniform, dark tanned and thickly bearded, appeared holding a golden scabbard and hilt. He presented the weapon to Von Drachen with some trepidation, his meaty, wrinkled hands shaking around the purloined weapon in his grasp.
“Is this alright general?” He asked.
“Yes, I have permission. Thank you for fetching it, Gutierrez.”
Von Drachen took the sword and affixed it to the outside of his trench-coat, where it could easily be seen. He adjusted his peaked cap over his head. His facial features, sharp and stiff, contorted slowly into an amused smile. He was still getting wet.
He did not quite care.
“Is my personal battalion ready, Colonel? Unfortunately this will be an efffortful day.”
At his side the older Colonel smiled fondly. “We are ready, sir.”
28-AG-30 Umaiha Riverside, 31st Engineers Survey
Around noon the first lightning bolts fell over Bada Aso, but the rain was barely above a light shower and the sky was a pale gray. Though the river stirred, it was not yet a threat nor projected to be one. Unaware of how quickly the weather could escalate, Madiha joined the survey company without any sense of urgency. The day’s mission took the 31st KVW Engineering Battalion’s “A” Company down the side of the river in the southeast district.
They drove several meters above the water, and out the back of their trucks and the sides of their tractors the engineers could see the water rushing through the stone channel, the defining feature of the district. It was the ability to command these waters that transformed the district into a place of lovers, of trendy shops and fine restaurants, and, after the Empire, a burgeoning industry now annihilated by evacuation and bombing.
Madiha remembered moonlit walks and sweet kisses, however much she tried not to.
Riverside Street, one of those kissing places, was the main thoroughfare in the southeast district, the Matumaini and Penance of the city’s eastern limits. From the Kucha mountains in the northeast the Umaiha rushed diagonally toward Bada Aso, taking the path of least resistance through the Kalu region. It straddled over half of Bada Aso’s eastern boundary before veering sharply west inside the limits themselves, and then curling again south. Riverside’s two lanes of traffic were split by the southern direction of the river and joined only through intermittent bridges over gap a few dozen meters wide.
Finally the river shifted westward again in a bid to find the sea.
Several decades ago at the peak of the Empire, the river had been forced underground. Matumaini, Penance, Buxa; such places had been paved over the tamed river. A show of force of humans over nature, largely to profit everyone but the people living over the old river. Madiha could not drive far enough south to see the river vanish again – that was the front line. Instead the column halted its advance a few kilometers behind the front line.
They veered up a cobblestone street toward the interior and parked along a block of buildings lightly damaged by bombs. Most of the old buildings had been spared a direct assault, and some, build of rock rather than brick, had even survived a rocket or light bomb.
Only one building nearby was reduced to rubble, and that was the Goloka restaurant.
This was another place full of unwanted memories that now bubbled up from Madiha’s injured mind. Around her the engineers dismounted their vehicles and equipped themselves with their tools. Cutters were used to snap open locks on sunken little doors set into the alleys between old buildings. These doors lead into cellars and those cellars into tunnels.
Gas masks were distributed for the exploration. There were nasty fumes lying dormant beneath the ground if one went too far. While the chemical troops inspected their share of the underground, other squadrons inspected the damage and remaining durability of nearby buildings and the street, assessing their capability to resist future punishment.
They measured craters on the street, checked the ages and material composition of the damaged homes, searched for pieces of bombs or rocket shells, and tried to assemble a postmortem assessment of the block, and whether it was even safe for continued use. If it was not, then they would have to level or booby trap everything to repulse the Cisseans.
Meanwhile, Madiha stared distantly at the restaurant.
Inside the inviting facade the roof had collapsed, spilling out from the doorway like a tongue, a tongue from a ruined mouth beneath a brow battered open.
She could not help but humanize the structure, to see it as a murdered thing, as a living being gored before her eyes. She still tasted Chakrani’s tongue from that terrible night. She felt the hurt freshly, and felt additional hurt, because the location that bore witness to that last tender moment was gone. It was another casualty that she could not prevent.
Soon nothing of Bada Aso would remain.
She would never be able to expiate for her sins.
“We will meet up with the special squad soon.” Sgt. Agni tonelessly said. She looked on the Goloka with her dull eyes. “Do you recognize this building?”
“My girlfriend and I visited once. We had a falling out near the river over there.”
Sergeant Agni was a comforting presence.
Madiha had served with her in the motor rifles before, in Mamlakha. She could not say she really knew her; to what extent did she really know anyone? But she was a familiar face, and a familiar voice, and they were used to each other. She did not want to be tempted to vulnerability near her – but she could vent a little, right? She could have that much?
“It is a morbid feeling to stand here and see a place where we shared a kiss, perhaps our most passionate kiss, broken under a bomb. There was so much I could not stop.”
Sgt. Agni nodded. “With respect, you are young, handsome and likely to bounce back.”
Madiha almost laughed, but she knew she would have sounded bitter.
“Have you ever been in love, Sergeant Agni?” She was getting carried away now.
“I do not know. I have found people sexually attractive, but it was nothing profound.”
“I was in love.” Now she truly sounded bitter, and she could not stop. She didn’t want to. “But my ambivalence tore it all apart. I felt a drive away from peace and warmth, but I wanted so desperately to keep it in addition. I thought I could fill myself up everything she wanted to give me, and that regardless of what I chose to do afterwards, I could always come back and nothing would change. I never gave anything back – I never had anything to give back. I took, and I didn’t even know that was what I was doing. I drank to fill the absence and left with the thirst. Maybe if I had settled, things would be different.”
Sgt. Agni said nothing. What could she say? She knew nothing about this.
It was foolish for Madiha to continue.
She had wanted to wave her hand and dissipate all of these vulnerabilities but water (perhaps blood) kept seeping through the cracks, winding its way and eroding deeper and greater fissures in her facade. This time, it was all the same as before. She was pulled too many ways at once, and she just ended up broken in the same manner over and over again.
She wanted both the grave strength and the genuine warmth, so she had none.
She had wanted the world of light and love and peace to fill all the dark cracks in the monument of her life, all those moments lost to violence and chaos and never to return.
And yet, the scything blade of history called to her again and again.
Always she and Chakrani wrestled with this ambivalence, this desire to chase after the forgotten child hero of the old war and to conduct that old war over again. For a time they made love, they played house, each desiring the other above all else. But ultimately, war called to her, for the final fateful act. Overnight, Chakrani’s Madiha was gone.
Instead she became Kimani’s “Right Hand of Death,” hunting spies for years.
Now she became “The Hero of the Border,” a phantom created to repel Nocht.
Always something filled her, because she had nothing of her own but to chase War.
War – “the scything blade of history” – could not be escaped. Was she born to it?
What was its promise? What was it that lured her away from comfort in the light?
Her mind flailed behind her cold facade, and it settled on a tragic conclusion.
Yes, it all made sense, when one played with thoughts of inhumanity.
Over twenty years ago during the Ayvartan Civil War there was a child named Madiha Nakar who would become entangled in events beyond her reckoning, and become a hero to people who would slowly forget as they lost the need to remember. Even she forgot.
Perhaps, in truth, this child, whose mind was lost to those events, was born without a purpose, without an origin. Perhaps there was never a Madiha Nakar who was lost, who never completed her childhood, who never lived in the world as others did, who never became a human to anyone’s reckoning, because there was no Madiha Nakar at all.
Perhaps there was not now a Madiha Nakar and perhaps there was not then a Madiha Nakar. Perhaps she was a fleeting will that had been born to die.
More blood for the scything blade. So much was absent – it made sense.
War offered her only the promise of death. That was the purpose.
Her mind was void of anything else. What would drive Madiha to do anything?
It wasn’t even a question because there was no concrete Madiha in her mind.
“Commander, are you alright? You are shaking.” Sgt. Agni asked.
Reflexively, as though the only thing left of her still thinking rationally were her hands, Madiha withdrew her barbiturates, and drank a pill. She felt it go roughly down her throat.
“I need to see a doctor about my dosage.” Madiha said, her voice falsely amicable.
Sgt. Agni quietly nodded.
Without further comment she left and rejoined the survey company’s efforts.
Madiha took one last look at the remains of the Goloka.
Staggered by storming memories she peeled herself away from the ruin, taking heavy steps away with Sgt. Agni. She thought if she looked at it any more she would have wanted to be buried with the rubble. While the cruel voices in her head quieted, Madiha still felt obliterated, as though truly turned to nothing. They had chipped away the last of her.