The Smoke Blocked The Sinking Sun — Unternehmen Solstice

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This chapter contains descriptions of violence, death, medical procedures, chronic pain, continuous harsh language, and lavish, lingering details of food.

26th-30th A.G., 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance to Dbagbo Dominance Railroad

For several days the armored train evacuating the Knyskna defenders wound its way through the northern Shaila dominance. It stopped twice to couple additional cars and refill its coal at two military bases straddling the border with Dbagbo, the territory to the north, adjacent besieged Shaila.

Soldiers left their cars and stretched their legs on the solid ground for a few hours before the train departed again. From their vantage, the bases seemed large enough to host thousands of people, whole divisions — but when the evacuees made their temporary stops at the military stations at each base they found the garrisons barren, the supply dumps stripped down.

Everyone who could be spared to leave had already left by whatever means available.

Everything to be taken had been picked apart and arranged such that a train could take it.

Everything that couldn’t be taken was burnt or blasted apart; or awaiting such a fate.

Only a skeleton crew manned each base. When the armored train arrived they saw to the final arrangements then joined the evacuation themselves by hopping in the train. Everyone who could was leaving Shaila behind.

As Leander watched the last of bases grow farther in the distance, he saw a fleeting burst of light as the explosives left behind detonated and “secured” the base, once and for all. Nocht would have nothing but the plot of land.

With the capitulation of the forces encircled in Tukino, and the rout or retreat of the scattered forces that remained outside the kettle, including Leander’s own, the Shaila Dominance was considered finished. Of the 50,000 troops inside the pocket, including the majority of Shaila’s tanks, 20,000 souls fought to their death while 30,000 were injured, captured, or both. In addition, 10,000 troops had been killed or captured in breakout attempts coming from outside the pocket, squandering even more troops.

Shaila had played host to Leander for relatively little time — and yet he still felt quite sorry, watching the trees zoom past the open door of his train car as he left behind the landscape. Those trees that swept by each seemed to Leander to signify a person who was now a captive of the invading enemy. He thought he could see faces in the knotholes, flailing arms in the branches. Dimly he wondered how his family was doing; even though they hated him.

“Whatcha lookin’ at so much?” Sharna said. She put her chin on his shoulder and stared out the car herself. “See anything interesting out there?”

“I just had it in mind that the trees here look sad. Like people in distress.”

She turned her head side to side, digging her chin into his shoulder. “Odd.”

Elena, Bonde and Sharna occupied the same train car throughout those long days as military refugees on the armored train. Sometimes they would be called to take turns occupying a train turret — theirs had a 20mm automatic cannon for anti-aircraft fire — but most of the time they merely sat around. Very few times did they feel up to talking, and when they did it was about nothing in particular. Trees; the smell of metal; the taste of the rations they got. There was not much to be said for those days. They felt like limbo.

Everyone was tired. All the adrenaline that had carried them through their Knyska days had been spent. It was as if now their bodies were paying for each second of undue energy with five seconds of lethargy now.

On the 29th they crossed the border into Dbagbo. This transition was barely noticeable, particularly under the heavy rains besetting the area. Patches of conifers and shrubs still dominated most of the landscape that Leander could see, storm or no. As the train drove on, Leander did catch one rapidly changing detail. At the edges of the railroad tracks the ground was turning muddy. Even the land bitten into by the roots of trees started giving way.

Past the patchy forest around the border the railroad tracks followed the slope of a gently rising hill skirting the edge of a vast strip of meadow, far longer than it was wide and covered in flowers and green grasses. Rippling puddles and mud-caked soil were visible wherever the grass was low or gone. A little brook wound through the center of the grasses and flowers, slowly swelling with the inveterate rainfall. Far in the distance near the treeline he could see gentle lines on the earth, the svelte shoulders of small slopes.

It unfolded before him like a postcard picture, but just as quickly brought to mind a harsher image — when would Nocht appear to trample over this?

Nobody in the train was too excited about the crossing, so they kept quiet, each car to itself. Leander saw Sergeant Bahir come up to them only once.

Without incidents or celebrations the armored train reached a military base in the “lower,” or geographically southwestern, portion of Dbagbo on the 30th of the Gloom. At the station the armored train stopped beside a long metal platform with ramps and cranes. There was a call for everyone to be ready, broadcast through the communications inside the train. In an orderly, lethargic fashion the survivors of Knyskna set foot on Dbagbo’s soil. They stuck to their squads, and the few remaining officers, of which there were enough to count in one’s hand, got everyone organized for processing.

Knyskna’s remnants barely constituted a battalion in strength. By the early evening, after checking papers, furnishing clothing, food and other supplies and temporarily housing and vaguely debriefing the new arrivals, it became clear to the on-site administrators of Battlegroup Rhino that it probably was easier to disband the remains of Battlegroup Lion than reconstitute them.

35th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Dbagbo Border, near Silb.

She remembered the field as it used to be. When her father told her that the field represented a division between Dbagbo and Shaila, she remembered running out to the middle of the field and rolling around in the grass and the flowers, laughing, yelling with delight. I’m in Dbagbo! I’m in Shaila! She saw it so simply, that perhaps a meter here and a meter there was the exact line of separation. In reality that was a few kilometers away, if it existed at all.

Her parents laughed and they praised her energy and imagination.

Energy and imagination was all she ever seemed to contribute to anything.

That memory was ten years vintage and it felt like whole lifetimes away.

Now she stood on the hilltops overlooking the fields between the two Dominances, and there were no children playing among golden-red sunflowers and the long green blades of grass across the meadow.

Instead several dozen tanks in broad formation advanced beneath a reddening sky as the Nocht Federation attacked. They raced toward the line of trees, steel girder tank traps, sandbag and trench redoubts and concrete pillbox gun emplacements that constituted the border defenses at the meadow’s end. Hastily assembled, the defensive line stretched to cover maybe one third of Dbagbo’s hundred kilometer border. A kilometer here, a kilometer there, undermanned, stretched thin to cover what they could.

Everyone thought — no, they knew — that it was going to be broken.

It was only a matter of where and when; and how to respond.

Silently she watched the tanks trundle over the flowers and she wept, because her people seemed no different than those flowers to the enemy. Just things to trample over without regard. All they could do was stand in the path.

Over the radio the order sounded.

“Enemy tanks within 2000 meters! Prepare to fire!”

Atop a hill some ten meters high, overlooking the field from behind the light cover of a scattered patch of thin trees skirting the meadow,  Ayvartan 45mm guns zeroed in on the enemy formations and prepared to attack.

Their position was diagonal to the enemy’s line of assault, and therefore it had perhaps the best shot at biting the enemy flank and drawing blood.

Her gunner signaled. She picked an armor-piercing shell from the box beside the gun and handed it to the loader, trying to hide her tears. She looked over the gun shield and saw the enemy frighteningly close. To the defensive line they were within 4000 meters; but for her it was more like 800!

Photos and names and model numbers started coming back to her from the briefings. She knew the tanks by silhouette and visible armaments.

Medium-size M4 Sentinel tanks led pairs of smaller, faster M5 Rangers and guarded small platoons of M3 Hunter assault guns, charging in a staggered formation of reverse spearheads, three tanks per. While the fast tanks closed the distance, the M3 assault guns would move in stops and starts, halting movement, raising their cannons, and launching a covering salvo.

A dozen long plumes of smoke blossomed across the border defense earthworks as the M3’s 75mm explosive shells rocked Ayvartan positions.

“Target the stationary assault guns! Fire!” shouted the Warrant Officer.

Her gunner pulled the firing lever. Four other gunners followed in quick succession to launch the first of many salvoes from their position.

The Hill’s 45mm light shells cut through the canopy and struck around the nearest stationary M3 assault gun platoon. She saw a hole blasted into the side of one tank, and tiny craters blasted on the floor around another. Smoke blew from within the stricken tank, and its hatches went up. Crew members started to vacate the damaged vehicle, but she could hardly see them.

She was already handling the next round again at the gunner’s insistence. Her loader pushed it into the breech, while she silently volunteered to help the gunner to traverse the gun a few degrees. The M3s started to move up.

The Hill’s next salvo was joined by fire from the defensive line. Fountains of dirt and shrapnel burst skyward throughout the Nochtish formations as 122mm divisional artillery delivered their payloads. Smaller shells from entrenched 76mm and 45mm guns zipped by the enemy. Where they struck the AT guns tore track guards and bludgeoned hatches on lead tanks.

The Panzers swerved and slowed, and the practiced formations became erratic under the salvos. Heavy artillery was their main concern. Even at a distance the fragments from a 122mm gun could damage sights and tracks and go through slits and sideplates, hampering the crew. At the very least the shock of a blast and fragments would stress out the advancing enemy.

On a direct hit, a tank could easily burst open like a tin can hit by a sledgehammer. A 122mm could pound to pieces even the modern M4.

But Silb’s defenders had limited heavy support, and maybe a dozen shells went out every minute from their single battery. Most of the volume came from smaller weapons with less destructive power. Three or four 76mm guns struggled to draw a bead on the enemy while a dozen 45mm shots bounced off the armor of medium tanks or scattered earth into the air without effect.

She caught a flash on the corner of her eye as a Light M5 tank charged into a 76mm shell and exploded fantastically. Ripped open front-to-back by a high-velocity 76mm; a picture made all the more savage by the combatant’s proximity. Below 1000 meters any tank gun would maul light armor.

Meanwhile the guns from the Hill claimed the tracks and drive wheels of a second M3 Hunter, again forcing the crew to depart the tank and hide as best as they could in the midst of fire. Staying inside a damaged tank was asking for death. Through a penetration hole machine gun fire or fragments could easily enter, and a downed tank with people inside it was a juicy target.

Again her gunner signaled and she turned quickly away from the meadow. She picked up the next shell, and afterward caught a peek over the gun shield.

An M4 Sentinel and its attendant M5 Rangers wandered toward the downed M3s. Crew on the ground started pointing and hailing, waving their hands at the arrivals from around the wrecks of their tanks. Hatches popped, and the men commiserated. Tanks halted; turrets turned toward the Hill with their hulls faced toward the line. They had been warned of the Hill position.

The Warrant Officer ducked behind one of the foremost guns in the battery.

“Brace for the medium tank’s attack!” He shouted, waving down the crews.

Everyone huddled to their guns and prayed to their gods if they had them.

Across the hill and trees the 37mm guns on the M5s and the 50mm gun on the M4 sounded in quick succession. Three shells smashed past the branches and leaves as easily as through air; two shells crashed on the lip of the hilltop and kicked up smoke and dirt; the 50mm shell punched through the shield on a 45mm gun and cast a cone of hot metal through the hole. Chunks of the breech, shield and the shell itself sprayed through the crew members.

A bright flash as the metal hit, sparked, melted, blew; screams; smoke and silence. Smoke, the predominant smell, mixed with a hint of blood iron.

She froze up, unable to turn her head. There were corpses left behind.

She didn’t want to see them so she focused on the combat. Shells. 45mm.

“Comrades, retaliate or we are next! All guns aim for the M4 Sentinel medium tank!” At the demands of the Warrant Officer the remaining four guns trained on the enemy medium tank and shot in haphazard intervals, crews scrambling to load and turn and join in with as much fire as possible.

In the midst of their fire the tanks loaded and traded shots with the Hill position — all three shots in the enemy volley hit the dirt just off of the front of the 45mm guns. Metal shards bounced off the shields and dirt and smoke rose before the eyes of the gunners as the 45mm guns retaliated. Two shots dug into the flank of the M4 tank with little effect, but one shell struck far enough to punch around the lowest portion of the M4’s sloping engine compartment, punching through to the engine and lighting the tank ablaze. Gasoline-powered rather than diesel-fueled, the M4 caught fire very easily.

Hatches were thrown open, and the M4’s crew joined the M3 tankers in hiding as the tank went up in flames. The remaining M5 lights, correctly judging their situation, charged ahead at full speed to escape the fire from the hill. She wiped sweat from her brow, she was safe; she seized another shell.

While this drama played out between hill and field, the main body of the tank assault had kept moving, and made it within spitting distance of the defensive line. A savage melee started playing out at a hundred meters distance between tanks and earthworks. M4 and M5 tanks stalled at a field of diagonally crossed steel beam tank traps, showering trenches with machine gun fire and the raised earthworks with shells. Sandbags flew, tents caught fire, chunks of steel girders and concrete bunkers flew everywhere.

A precious 76mm gun was an immediate casualty as its pillbox was blown to pieces by the 75mm howitzer on an M3 Hunter SPG. An M4 tank went up as several grenades from a nearby trench rolled across its turret top at landed over its vulnerable radiator block before going off. All of the forward trenches were soon pinned by the unceasing crossfire of a half-dozen tank machine guns. Heavy Artillery could do nothing to tanks so close to their own soldiers.

The 45mm guns from the defensive line fought back but even at so close a distance found it difficult to hit the enemy — when they did they hit the strong, resistant front plates. Hits were scored, but penetrations that would have sent the crew scurrying away did not matter in a pit fight. Immobilized tanks, tanks with smoking holes where the driver once was, tanks with wounded turrets, continued to fight with whatever was left, be it their machine guns, with their cannons, with the grenades and machine pistols of the crew, vehicles acting as impromptu pillboxes and emplacements.

Behind them, in twos and threes more tanks stacked up and joined the mire. The Hill could not stop them or even slow the tide. This was now a foregone conclusion with their weak AT guns. It was always a matter of time–

“Private, run out to the second line; tell them we’ve got a breach underway and that we need them to release the reserves! Run as fast as you can!”

It was an illogical order; there was no reason for her to go.

He had a radio. He could call.

But she realized that she was running nonetheless. Her body had just gone.

Perhaps it was just a fabrication of her own mind.

Maybe she had only run because she was hurt inside and scared.

But she ran with a strange and unknown purpose.

Everything felt dream-like, nebulous, shifting; she scrambled down the hill and toward the Silb line as fast as her feet could carry her. She used the hills skirting the meadow for cover, avoiding the shells and the machine gun fire. Sweat trickled into her eyes, and her vision swam with exhaustion and stress. Dancing pillars of smoke in the distance pointed her in Silb’s direction.

For a second she saw an unnatural shadow sweep over her as she neared the dragon’s teeth at the edge of an unmolested defense perimeter.

Not just her; it swept over the battlefield. She stopped and stared at the sky and thought that some great cloud must have risen before the sun.

But it was smoke. She saw a pillar of smoke, obscuring the sun. It was like a tornado of smoke, impossibly far away, as if crossing the surface of the sun itself. That was impossible — what was she seeing? She thought the smoke was coming in from the west, from Adjar, perhaps, across the mountains. Smoke rising thick and black, enough to obscure the sun momentarily.

There was something behind the smoke, something that was not just the sun it obscured. There was a great fire. She thought she was going insane.

She tore herself from the sight and started toward a nearby pillbox.

Light suddenly started to seep in again; she heard a thrumming noise.

At the pillbox she saw men running out through the doors in the back.

They waved and pointed and shouted at her; they signaled skyward.

She looked directly up and she saw a black lance hurtling to the earth.

Her legs started shaking. She turned to run but her knees locked. Her body tensed as if constricted by an invisible snake. She fell to the ground.

Not now. Not here. She curled up, fetal, her body locking up against her will.

Overhead the black lance swept past and something whistled sharply.

A tremendous wave of heat and pressured followed — but no pain.

She felt power; a force far beyond the strength of a person, picking her from the ground and throwing her with malice. She felt her body pierced in a dozen places and felt the trajectory of the metal through her flesh.

But there was no pain involved, only a sense of floating timelessly.

40th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Town of Benghu, Chanda General School

Savage rains had been falling over Dbagbo for the past week, signaling the Ayvartan transition from the autumn to the winter. Winter in Dbagbo was not white, but blue and brown. Rain and wind battered the Dominance and where it abated, it left behind glistening fields of rich, dark brown mud.

Strong winds tore a branch from a nearby tree and hurled it against the window. Naya Oueddai awoke with a sudden start; she heard the noise. It reverberated around her head. It hurt — it hurt especially bad in the back.

She looked about the room with eyes drawn wide, shaking hands grasping soft white blankets and pulling them up over her body. She was dressed in a hospital patient’s white gown. She felt naked and in some ways she was.

Pain shot suddenly through the back of her head and down to her neck. She saw in her mind the red sky, and the black lance cutting through it–

That plane; more importantly, its payload. What had happened? She panned her head around in disbelief. She was in a bed, stuck into what seemed like a school counselor’s office that had been emptied of its desk but not file cabinets or the plaques on the walls. They were illegible; her vision swam.

Had she been dreaming? She quickly realized that, even if she had, she was hurt. Her head hurt! She put her hand over it, tracing her hair. She followed the unmolested tufts over the crown of her head down to her her irregular black bangs and to the blunt, layered jaw-length locks around the side. She touched the back of her neck and head. Her hair had been cut shorter there, messier; her fingers hit upon something gnarled. She felt a sting. Stitches.

Her ponytail wasn’t there anymore. She sighed a little; she would miss it. There weren’t that many Umma who had long hair. Her father used to tug on it in a friendly way to get her attention; her mother would brush it idly when they met and give her little ribbons for it. It was special, it stood out a little.

Ribbons. She looked around the room again in a sudden panic. Her vision had a hard time adjusting, she found it hard to focus on anything. There was a little table — she bent toward it. Ancestors defend, it was there! She picked up the pink and blue ribbon left at her bed-side and tied it around her wrist.

Had she lost that in the middle of battle it would’ve been worse than a bomb.

In the process she saw the other bandages. She had gauze in a few places in each arm, and a big, thick bandage on the left-hand side of her belly. She dared to lift the patch on her belly, and found under it her dark brown skin tinged a split yellow and red over the site of a particularly mean stitch. She patted the patch down again, and felt a fleeting but harsh sting as she did.

Naya sank back in her bed. She didn’t even know what day it was, or who was running the field hospital. She could even be captured by the enemy. A grey-shirt could walk in any second. She kept her eyes peeled to the door.

She saw the crowns of people’s heads passing by through the window on the door but nothing too identifiable. Very few people came and went by.

After almost half an hour of bated breath, she heard steps outside the door.

It opened; a woman in a green uniform ambled calmly inside. She had thick curly hair coming out the back of a bandana wrapped around her head, and rich brown skin. She couldn’t be farther from a Nochtish person. Naya sighed with relief. After closing the door behind her, the woman smiled briefly at the patient before checked the room temperature and humidity.

“Alright, looks like the central air is doing its job, thank the ancestors.”

She turned from the wall-mounted dials and waved jovially toward the bed.

“Hujambo! I’m so glad to see you awake. You’ve been out a while. I’m very sorry about your hair by the way!” She bowed in apology. “I tried my best cutting it nice for you, but I was all alone and you were bleeding badly.”

Naya blinked — this woman was very energetic. She nodded her head.

“It’s fine, thank you.” She said. She then coughed. Her throat felt dry.

Her caretaker smiled and held up her hand. “I’ll get you something.”

She departed, and returned soon carrying a four-legged bed tray holding a bowl of yellow lentil dal and a metal canteen full of water. Careful not to spill anything, she sat Naya back and placed the tray on her lap such that the legs stood up, two each around each of Naya’s flat hips. She sat next to the bed and talked with Naya while urging her to eat and drink for her health.

“I’m Dr. Chukwu. Nkuyo Chukwu. Well, I say doctor, but to be honest I’m still a medical student. But we’re short-handed here.” The woman said.

Naya took a spoonful of the lentils. They were a little bit watery, but warm and filling, and she could not really complain about the food in her state. After that first spoonful she found herself hungrier than she thought she would be. Under Dr. Chukwu’s watchful eyes she ate a little more of the lentils before settling back and responding to the introduction.

“I’m Naya Oueddai. Private, 6th Rhino Anti-Tank Artillery Battery.”

Dr. Chukwu nodded her head. She lifted a clipboard from the bedside.

“Yes. We’re so short-handed that I’m afraid I have another bit of business here.” Her smile turned a little dimmer. “Your previous unit has been disbanded due to casualties. So you’re between assignments right now. I have a few options we can discuss here, some lists you can put your name in.”

Your previous unit. Unwanted images started to flash in Naya’s mind.

“Am I going to face a courts martial?” Naya asked seriously.

Dr. Chukwu’s eyes drew wide. “Not that I know of; do you expect one?”

Naya averted her eyes. Her recent memory was completely scrambled. She didn’t really know with certainty what had really happened to her the past few days or weeks. She did not even know what the current day was.

“I–” She felt her words catching in her throat. “I failed my unit.”

The Doctor reached her hand across the bed and touched Naya’s shoulder. She patted her gently, smiling and cooing. “Now, now, don’t worry, don’t worry. Our army is not in the habit of putting soldiers through courts martial for getting bombed. You did nothing wrong. Relax and recover, ok?”

Bombed? So that black lance was indeed a plane as she suspected it was.

She sighed. She couldn’t believe she survived such a thing. A darker subject soon imposed itself on her mind too — why her? Of all the people to survive a bombing run from a Nochtish plane, why did the Ancestors protect her?

“When will I be cleared to go?” She asked idly. “I’d like an assignment.”

The Doctor crossed her arms, grinning. “You’re pretty eager for someone who got blasted to sleep for nearly a week. You just woke up again today, Private Oueddai — I’d like to keep you a little bit to see how well you hold up. We’ll put your name on a few reserves lists and you’ll hvae some jobs soon.”

“How long have I been asleep for? I’ve little sense of the time.” Naya asked.

“Five days, not down to the hour, but almost. Today’s the 40th of the Gloom. Our border defenses were heavily bombed by the Nochtish air force. You suffered a good deal of fragmentation from a hundred kilogram bomb. Worst of it all was a piece of metal that lodged right into the back of your head — it failed to kill you comrade, but it certainly could have. It was a damn miracle.”

Naya looked out the window again. Outside, the rain intensified. Winds battered the few trees in the courtyard, and sheets of water fell diagonally over the muddy puddles forming around benches and dirt walkways.

“Where am I exactly? How far is Nocht from this place?” Naya asked. For all her desire to return to fight, she suddenly felt a sense of dread thinking that the enemy had five whole days to maneuver since last she saw them.

Dr. Chukwu smiled again. “You are in Chanda General School, in the town of Benghu in north-central Dbagbo. Do you know of this place, Private?”

Naya was stunned. She turned her eyes everywhere as if the walls and the windows had gained a brand new character in the last few moments.

“I’m home.” She mouthed under her breath, near totally speechless.

“And as far as the enemy is concerned,” Dr. Chukwu looked out the window and cocked her little grin again, “let’s just say we have a new ally in the fight.”

41st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, near Dbagbo Border

AGAIN?

Karla Schicksal thrust her arms up and shouted at the top of her lungs. She pushed open the top hatch and climbed out of the cupola. Her worst fears were confirmed as she pushed herself up over the edge of the turret top.

She found the M4 Befehlspanzer struggling to turn its tracks, helplessly in place, sloshing the wet goo of a pit that it had somehow worked itself into.

Wedged into the mud, the tank’s rear was a touch higher than its front. She pulled herself clear off the turret and stood up on the tank’s hull. Looking over the sides she could see the return rollers, half of the track idler and the top of the track over the puddle, but the drive sprocket and all but one of the road wheels were completely submerged. There was water and mud up to the drive hatch up front. No amount of spinning seemed to move the tank.

Schicksal collapsed, sitting with her hands up to her face, wanting to cry.

Soon it started to drizzle again. Big, cold droplets splashed over the tank.

Schicksal had promised General Dreschner she would have the Befehlspanzer at the new base in Silb by the time he returned from his plane trip, down to the Oberkommando Suden’s new base at Dori Dobo in Adjar Dominance. It was her shot to command a tank — a weaponless radio tank, but a tank. She was the first woman ever to command a tank for the Federation’s forces.

Twice already her tank had become mired in the muddy fields of Dbagbo.

At least the first time, Reiniger and some of his men were around with a staff truck and helped push and pull her out. Now, however, she was all alone.

She felt embarrassed about it, though this was not a unique predicament. In fact mud had been a recurring issue for everyone since the generals of the Oberkommando Suden gave the order to start the Dbagbo Attack Operation.

Generalplan Suden estimated that Dbagbo was to fall by the 40th of the Aster’s Gloom. That was no longer possible. On the 41st, much of Battlegroup Lee was still coming in slow and the Panzer Divisions in Dbagbo had failed to make it to the Champa Wildlands, a vast savanna with low tree density where Panzers would have a powerful advantage against Ayvartan troops.

Oberkommando Suden had failed to account for the mud and bad weather.

Schicksal returned to the inside of the tank, assured the driver that it was not his fault and took to the radio. She called the Panzerpionierie — the engineers who served the 8th Panzer Division in mechanized support positions.

“This is the Siren; the General’s panzer is mired along Crapway 66, maybe a few kilos from S-Point, umm, possibly 7-S-9250. Could use a mule here.”

She was speaking in code — broadcasting grid points taken from their maps of Dbagbo. Much of Dbagbo functioned on dirt roads, which the Nochtish called “crapways” as a derisive play on “highways.” They had numbers for the roads, and then major grid locations revolving around Dbagbo’s towns. S-Point was Silb, and the S coordinates where all in Silb’s map squares.

“All our mules are tied up at the moment Siren, there’s a lot of dirt to plow.”

That meant that their armored recovery vehicles were just too busy. Right now the 8th, 10th and 15th Panzer Divisions were active in Dbagbo, and they had in total close to 800 tanks in theater, with reinforcements on the way.

That was 800 tanks that could be getting stuck in the mud at any given time.

Not to mention supply trucks, staff cars, personnel-carrier half-tracks — all of these vehicles were just as unprepared to wade through the winter mud.

“Roger, but I’m gonna need to press you on this mule-driver. Leave the cloth wagons behind, there’s a grand chariot here in need of pulling.” She said.

Her voice grew irritated. She insisted that a recovery vehicle drop whatever light panzer it was tugging around and come pick her up instead.

“I’ll see what I can do to make you the priority Siren. Mule-Driver out.”

Schicksal stuck the radio microphone back into its hook on the radio box.

She sank back, sighed and kicked her legs childishly. What an annoying conversation that had been — it put her in a completely foul mood now.

Ever since the disasters in Bada Aso the Heer issued guidelines and urged that the lower rungs had to take greater care with their radios. Though there was no evidence for this yet, many in signals theorized that the Ayvartans had sophisticated radio capture and possibly dedicated signals intelligence teams undermining Federation communications. Chatty signals girls were blamed for many missteps — equally gossipy grunts with portable radios, less so.

She sighed and prayed that their encryption equipment got here soon. She hated having to speak like one of the automatons in science fiction pulps. She just wanted to be behind her radios again, doing her job. Then she could not possibly fail. Not like now, where Dreschner was asking her to do all this.

She hoped for all that was holy that an ARV would come for her soon.

* * *

Silb was a woodland village of about eight hundred people, spread across a few kilometers of small clearings with wooden buildings linked by winding dirt roads. It was linked to the outside world chiefly by a train station and supply yard connected to the city of Shebelle up north. Since the communist expansion, only a paltry few modern administrative and service buildings had gone up. Its inhabitants were largely treated as a collective farm, growing in clearings in the wood and small plots out in the meadow. They also hunted and logged in the Silba forest into which the village was mostly set.

That was true, perhaps, until around a week ago. Now it was another ghost town. Schicksal had not yet actually seen a real Ayvartan village inhabited by Ayvartans. There were in fact many villages that had been left behind the line of the Nochtish advance, but it seemed Schicksal was always sent to the deserted ones. More room for the division’s panzers to sit on, she supposed.

By the early evening the Befehlspanzer’s long journey to Silb was finally complete. Following the dirt road, the tank made it into a clearing a short distance into the Silba, where a pair of panzergrenadiers were acting as guards. They checked up on Schicksal, and quickly allowed her to pass. Her tank trundled up past the collapsed ruins of a red brick building, and followed a series of road signs to a brick platform. Across from it there was another ruin, this one a roof of tin sheets fallen over black and grey ash.

The Ayvartans had destroyed their administration building and the supply warehouses near the train station. It didn’t quite matter. Nocht didn’t have any trains yet that ran on Ayvartan rail gauge, and conversion of the railroad network was an undertaking not even in the planning stages at this point.

Instead the supply yard was used as parking space for the 8th Panzer Division Headquarter’s compliment of fighting vehicles — 3 M4 Sentinels, and 5 Squire Half-Tracks with long noses and Norgler machine guns.

Schicksal climbed out of the Befelhspanzer and shook hands on the train platform with Colonel Spoor, the gaunt, serious leader of the 8th Panzer Division’s newly-acquired 7th Panzergrenadier Regiment. Though General Dreschner preferred to be at the front lines with his handpicked cadre of young, brash Panzerkompanie lieutenants, the organizing work of higher officers like Spoor was necessary for Dreschner to have his little adventures.

Spoor had arrived days ago and paved the way for the relocation of the 8th Panzer Division to Dbagbo. A relocation that, by all accounts, had become a nightmare for everybody involved. Spoor looked as if dragged bodily through the brush. There were streaks of mud across his uniform, and the lines on his face looked to Schicksal like they were greatly accentuated by fatigue.

“Good to see a lively face in this bleak place.” Spoor said while they shook.

“Apologies for the delays. I had trouble getting here.” Schicksal said.

“Everything here is delayed; no apology necessary, milady. We don’t even have the supplies yet to start a proper camp. We had to clear a trap bomb out of the civil canteen building just so we could have a place without a leaking roof in which to establish a radio room. No food to be found in there, too.”

As soon as they started talking another drizzle came down from the grey sky.

Mein gott; this leaking has been endless for the past week.” Spoor cursed.

“I was mired in it myself. You look like you’d had to push a few tanks too.”

“My half-track nearly dug a pit into the dirt road. Every man had to get out and push the damned thing, knee-deep in mud, under the pouring the rain.”

“Rotten luck.” Schicksal said. She could imagine what an ordeal that was.

Spoor raised his hand to his mouth and sneezed into it. “I suspect I might become ill from that exposure. We then had to cut open our few sandbags to pour the contents over the mud and stabilize it for incoming vehicles.”

“Engineering vehicles were too busy to help, I assume.” Schicksal said. She still felt quite salty about having to wait most of the day in a muddy pit.

“Indeed. It is my understanding that most of our Panzerpionierie, are out near the Sandari on the front lines. As of four hours ago the Ayvartans destroyed the major bridges across the river and are shelling us from positions just beyond the opposing banks — the crossing will be painful.”

Though the Sandari was not a major river, without load-bearing bridges it would be very difficult for tanks to cross — and tanks and other vehicles were the overwhelming majority of Nocht’s strength in Dbagbo. Schicksal sighed. Crossing the Sandari would become another few day’s worth of obstacles. Pontoon bridges would have to be put up, bridgeheads slowly cleared.

“We have lost incredible amounts of time this week.” Spoor said.

“Guess it’s time for another Generalplan revision.” Schicksal replied.

Once the rain let up a little she followed Spoor back to the village proper. Though she was only a signals officer, Dreschner had left instructions for her to be treated as his personal and professional deputy, albeit without any grand decision-making capability. As such Spoor treated her cordially. Perhaps it was not just Dreschner’s directives either — Schicksal had it in mind that Spoor seemed quite the gentleman. He was serious but gentle, blunt and severe in physical appearance but soft-spoken in personal manner.

Schicksal felt a little tense at first — after all she was handling the General’s official business in Silb for a while. But Colonel Spoor made it seem easy.

They walked across little dirt roads and through sparse brush beneath scattered trees barely forming an irregular canopy. Most of the village houses were very similar log constructions with mesh screen windows and concrete foundations that served as unvarnished floors. Here and there she spotted Spoor’s men gathering around the houses, searching for materiel — or mines.

Panzergrenadiers were a new sight to her. They looked rather impressive.

After the losses in Knyskna, OKS reinforced the accomplished and important 8th Panzer Division, The Spearhead Of Knyskna, with the addition of the 7th Panzergrenadier Regiment. Before, they possessed no dedicated infantry component whatsoever save a few Pioniers, engineering troops. Now they had Panzergrenadiers with them. Across the village Schicksal saw them, traveling the dirt roads, camping out in the bushes, exploring the houses.

Nocht’s elite tank-support troops, tall, rugged men, with thick hooded coats, flared helmets, carrying submachine guns and anti-tank rifles at their backs. There were a few medics with them, a few of them women; mostly the troops were tough-looking men, a bit older than the average landser. She knew that the Panzergrenadierie had higher standards for recruitment and rougher training. This seemed very evident when looking at these men up close.

Spoor himself was pretty tall, but he was an older man and an officer, and he did not at all appear able to best any of the grunts in sheer physicality.

“How are your men deployed, Colonel? Is this just your personal cadre?”

“Yes. This is my Headquarters platoon and a security company. Most of my men are making their way to Sandari to support the operation.” Spoor said. “Let us gather around a map and I will appraise you on the situation.”

After showing her around the village, Spoor led Schicksal back to the main dirt road and took the path opposite the one leading to the train station. At the path’s end a massive conifer with a thick trunk leaned into and over a red brick, open-faced building. The Civil Canteen’s cooking equipment had been left in place, but the small dining area was cleared out, and a tarp hung before it as an awning to help keep out the rain. Radio equipment and a war-room table had been set up in the building in place of the dining tables and chairs.

Ayvarta’s civil flag had been taken down from a pole and used as a carpet by the irreverent Panzergrenadiers. Waving on the flagpole in its place was the flag of the Federation of Northern States, red and blue stripes with a white eagle in the center, orbited by a star for each of the twelve Nochtish Republics (including Lachy and Franz, but not yet the Republic of Cissea).

On the table was a map of Dbagbo. Flag skewers marked current positions. Civilian maps captured in Shaila and Adjar added much needed detail on the names and locations of minor villages and towns. Dbagbo was not as large as Shaila or Adjar, but constituted a significant buffer between Nocht’s forces and the Red Desert wherein the main objective, Solstice, was located. In the interior of Dbagbo, the Sandari river and Shebelle city constituted the main defensive areas. After that, the way was clear until the Garanges, a major river dividing Dbagbo and the desert in the north and northeast.

Spoor touched his index finger on the map, along the line of the Sandari, and he slid the tip of the gloved finger down from the river and back to Shaila.

“We entered Dbagbo on the 35th, after a week-long delay imposed by the supply situation, reorganizing after the Shaila operations and the moving of prisoners from the Tukino pocket. Though the penetration of the border was simple and took only a few hours, storms began to hit and the Ayvartans retreated in good order. Mud across the front made it difficult for Panzers to advance — it was difficult for us to maintain speed on soft and loose terrain, and many tanks became mired in pits and puddles. This cost us time and it prevented us from rapidly encircling any part of the Ayvartan retreat.”

Schicksal nodded, following along as Spoor’s finger traveled across the stretch between Dbagbo’s border, and the Sandari, to which Silb served as a sort of halfway point. She noticed the flags pinned near the Sandari — 10th PzG and 15th PzG were the primary combat units currently that far up.

“Due to the situation that transpired in Bada Aso, the OKS is reassessing its intentions in Shebelle city. In the original plan this would have slowed us down, but since we haven’t even reached Shebelle yet, it does not matter.”

“Shebelle is not as big as Bada Aso, is it? And it’s not coastal.” Schicksal said.

“You are correct: it is smaller, and it can be more easily besieged.”

“Are only the 10th and 15th out there? I assumed the 8th is fighting.”

“Our 8th Panzer Division is performing mobile support. Right now the 10th and 15th Panzer Divisions are our spearhead: after being freed from holding the Tukino pocket, they were tasked with heading the Dbagbo attack. They also took the fewest losses in Shaila, when compared to our 8th Panzer Division. So then we should be in prime shape to launch an attack; but–”

He left it hanging for a moment. “But?” Schicksal said, crossing her arms.

Spoor smiled. He pointed again at the flags of the 15th and 10th PzG.

“It is true that the 10th and 15th have suffered few material losses compared to us, but they have been active for longer and more intense combat. They are tired, and they have stalled at the Sandari due to this terrible spate of rains.”

Schicksal nodded. “I assume also they must be spooked about Bada Aso.”

“Yes. Bada Aso shook our whole army to its foundations.” Spoor said.

It took them some time to get word of the catastrophe in Adjar. Schicksal could hardly believe it herself when it came in, and it was part of the reason Dreschner was recalled to OKS. Because of Bada Aso, actions in the north-west of Ayvarta were heavily delayed. Not only had upwards of 40,000 troops been killed or maimed, with the majority of the survivors wounded badly enough they would not fight for months, if ever again; but in addition the loss of the city and its port, meant that the north of Adjar was a black spot for supplies. Its potential as a transport hub and supply station was all gone.

Mobilizing Nochtish troops there in such a situation was a nightmare. Even so a minimal attack on Tambwe had to be prepared and launched to coincide with the Dbagbo operations. To date, however, it had not cracked the border.

It was still on everyone’s minds in the Federation army. Fighting in Ayvarta’s cities could prove unbelievably deadly, if Bada Aso was taken as a sign of a new paradigm in Ayvartan strategy. Nobody knew for certain what had happened, but they had a city in ruins, and tens of thousands of casualties.

“Right now General Dreschner, and the 10th PzG’s General Strich, are meeting with the OKS and Field Marshal Haus.” Spoor said. “Hopefully they can entreat the OKS to delay our attacks until we have more fresh divisions that can catch up at Sandari to support our tired Panzer companies.”

Schicksal blinked. She’d heard General Dreschner was meeting with OKS, obviously. But she didn’t know he was meeting with the Field Marshal in person. She thought he was just going to consult, or receive a briefing.

“What is the disposition of the enemy, that we know?” Schicksal asked. She felt a little tense all of a sudden, but she had to keep her cool and act like a professional. After all she was here as Dreschner’s deputy in the region.

Spoor shook his head. “We’re not certain. We know that the ‘Battlegroup’ of Dbagbo, known as Rhino, consists of 100,000 troops, just the same as Shaila’s. However, we do not have the advantage of superior numbers this time, because the majority of our divisions are far behind the line, or holding the rear in Shaila. We do not have a 10-division surprise border attack up our sleeve anymore. And for all we know Ayvarta has reinforced Dbagbo by now. Eventually they must overturn their peacetime regulations and deploy larger forces. So far we believe we have fought 4 distinct infantry divisions, all of which have retreated in good order, so we expect the Shebelle line to have 4-8 infantry divisions. Ayvarta’s tanks are practically nonexistent thus far.”

“In a perfect world, what would be the plan of attack for the coming weeks?” Schicksal asked. She hoped to brief Dreschner on the situation, which, knowing the dispositions of the Ayvartans, she now could; but she also wanted to know, for her personal curiosity, what everyone’s plans were.

Spoor arranged the little markers around the city of Shebelle. He had the 10th, 15th and 8th Panzer Divisions, the 16th and 17th Grenadier Divisions and the 11th Grenadier and 14th Jager Divisions. These latter two he had plucked from all the way down in the Knyskna area and stuck in Dbagbo. Idealistic, perhaps, with the current climate and supply situations.

“While the Ayvartans hold a small numerical advantage in Central Dbagbo, the mobility of our troops has forced the communists into holding a long, thin line across the front of Shebelle. They are unable to respond to our mobile attacks, so their only recourse is to stretch out to try to catch them in progress wherever they might happen. This gives us the advantage.”

“How so? Being outnumbered is being outnumbered, isn’t it?” Schicksal said.

Spoor never once lost patience with her. He smiled and responded politely.

“Because the Ayvartans are turtled up in defensive positions, they cannot thicken the line everywhere in response to an attack. We can decide to attack any part of the line with any amount of troops available, but they have only a fixed amount of assets with which to defend any given part of the line.”

Schicksal nodded rapidly. “Ah, I see. I understand now. Thank you Colonel.”

Spoor bowed his head. He returned to the map, picking up a little pointer stick and tracing lines from his little divisional flags. “We will engage the enemy line in Shebelle with our infantry, but instead of assaulting the city, we will break through along the flanks using our Panzer Divisions. Elements of our 8th PzG will punch through in the east and rush up to Benghu; elements of the 15th will rush to Gollaproulu in the west. With a loose square kettle around Shebelle, we can either pocket it, or force a large enemy retreat.”

“Who is the architect of this plan? It’s not General Dreschner, or else he would not have asked me to gather information for him.” Schicksal asked. Since shortly after their conversation began this had been bothering her.

“We received these orders a few days ago from Field Marshal Haus. He is an avid war-maker.” Spoor said. “General Dreschner should receive a copy when he meets with the Field Marshal. So I’m not sure why he decided to trouble you so much, milady. Perhaps he thought you should be kept a little busy, or perhaps he just isn’t well aware of how things are done by the Field Marshal.”

“I see.” Schicksal looked down at the map. Spoor was right. She had been caught up in the seriousness of the situation, but in reality this was not much of a splendid occasion for her. She got to drive a tank somewhere that a tank transporter could have just taken it; and she attended a meeting with a Colonel to learn information Dreschner would get from the OKS itself.

Dreschner did not logically require any briefings from her. After all, he was meeting with the Field Marshal, so he would have access to information at the top level. So she didn’t really have any reason to do this but busywork.

Unless he just wanted to hear what she picked up on for some other reason.

44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Town of Benghu, Chanda General School

“Forceps please!”

Leander looked over the tools atop the medical cart and unwrapped the forceps from their sterile kerchief. He deposited the object in Dr. Agrawal’s waiting hand. She nodded to him, and slipped the forceps gently into the incision, pulling it quite open. There was blood, and such a gradation of fleshy colors, that Leander felt a little sick, and had to avert his eyes from the patient. Dr. Agrawal used a hand-pumped drain to suck off excess blood.

“Elena, vitals?”

On the opposite side of the table, Elena tapped on the patient’s neck to check for a pulse, and lowered her head to the chest to check breathing and feel out the man’s heart. She stood upright again and nodded. “He sounds normal!”

“Good. I can see the main fragment.” Dr. Agrawal said. “Clean tweezers!”

Eyes half-closed, Leander picked the tweezers from the assortment of surgical instruments, unwrapped them and handed them off. He felt strangely squeamish in such close proximity to a minor surgery. While he had shot people and potentially caused much worse damage than this in battle, he never had to see the wounds he inflicted up close. He didn’t have to watch a supine person, unconscious from injury, picked open with metal tools.

“Leander, drain; blood is pooling over the fragment.” Dr. Agrawal asked.

“It’s really easy Leander, you’ve seen me do it!” Elena said reassuringly.

Leander tried to hide the apprehension in his eyes as Elena and Dr. Agrawal looked at him. They all wore masks and caps, but Leander’s entire body language gave away his discomfort. For Dr. Agrawal this was just routine; and Elena had her convictions as a burgeoning medical officer to carry her. Her expression and body language were nonchalant. As they should be, he supposed. He picked up the pump, pushed aside the cart with the tools, and leaned in on the patient beside Dr. Agrawal. With one hand he dipped the pump tube in the blood, careful not to touch the patient’s open flesh, while his other hand squeezed the bulb and slowly drained the blood pool.

“You’re doing good Leander!” Elena cheered. She had had her turn with tools while assisting a previous patient. They traded places twice that day.

For Leander, it never got easier to look at people cut up on the table.

He tried to avoid looking directly at the incision, but he caught glimpses of it nonetheless. It was inevitable. He could see the splinter embedded into the person’s flank. Luckily it had not managed to cause any major damage — just a small nick into the stomach. Dr. Agrawal calmly pulled the piece of metal with a pair of tweezers and deposited it in a plate held out by Elena.

This splinter was a sharp, jagged bit of metal, perhaps 4 millimeters long and 1 millimeter wide. Enough to kill if it went too far inside; even if it stopped short of the vitals, it would cause sickness and a slow death. Many modern weapons were designed with the delivery of cruel fragments in mind. Fragment pulling had been most of their work for the past few days.

Once the splinter was out, Leander stepped back, and Elena came around his side. She was more delicate with her hands and better suited for the final stretch of each operation. She helped clean the incision and Dr. Agrawal sewed it back. They applied surface disinfectant on a cotton swab.

One more surgery completed. Dr. Agrawal sighed with relief. Elena covered the dormant patient in blankets and wrote up a few things on the clipboard stuck to the end of the table, and they left the room, Leander pushing the medical cart. Once outside they removed their masks and head coverings. A pair of soldiers nodded to them and walked in. They would carry the patient from the operating table to a more permanent bed for observation.

Dr. Agrawal wrapped her wavy hair into a part-black, part-white ponytail. She removed her blue operating gown, as did Elena and Leander. Under them, Leander and Elena had their territorial army uniforms, standard green. Dr. Agrawal had her white coat, her button-down blouse and her skirt. They dropped their gowns in a tub under the cart, slated for thorough disinfecting.

“You both did very well today. You’ve been a great help.” Dr. Agrawal said.

“Thank you!” Leander said, smiling brightly and waving his hands.

“I’m glad to help.” Elena said. She looked admiringly at the Doctor.

“I’ll be sure to put in a good word for you with the medical corps.”

Elena beamed, lighting up with good humor. Leander felt happy for her. Finally she got a taste of her ultimate goal. It must have been nice to know what you wanted and to be able to carry it out even in a small way.

Dr. Agrawal smiled back. Though the subtle wrinkles around her eyes and mouth didn’t disappear, she looked a lot less weary and weathered when she was in her element. It made her appear younger and more energetic — she was visibly in good spirits whenever she was taking care of somebody.

“I’ve got a little task for you two, and then you can take off the rest of the day.” She said. “Please check up with your friends in the supply depot and fetch me a crate of Notatum. We’re running low; I wouldn’t want to have to run out and search for one in an emergency. Situation’s still fluid out there.”

Elena took down a note on her pad; Leander looked down the hall. No new patients were coming in, but the battle was still ongoing, and had been for the past week. Any moment now a chronic patient could be rushed through.

“Of course, Doctor!” Leander nodded his head, turned around and ran off to the supply depot without a moment’s delay. Elena looked up from her pad, shouted for him to wait and ran after him. Dr. Agrawal waved as a parting gesture, but the two barely saw it, they were already taking the corner.

* * *

After arriving in the Dbagbo Dominance, Leander and his unit, as well as the other remnants of Battlegroup Lion, were put under the custody of Dbagbo’s regional army unit, Battlegroup Rhino. Rhino troops fed and housed and clothed them as comrades but ultimately, Battlegroup Lion was limping too badly to continue to fight. Units like Leander’s were parceled off to rear echelon positions in need of staffing while Rhino fought to defend Dbagbo.

Meanwhile the Civil Council was still in disarray. Dbagbo was on its own.

Dr. Agrawal pulled some strings to get Leander and Elena assigned out of the supply corps into her little surgery unit. Leander because she liked him well enough, he supposed; and Elena because Leander confided in the Doctor that Elena was eyeing a position in the medical corps. Dr. Agrawal approved.

Thankfully his other friends were not far away. They had elected to work in the town of Benghu several kilometers to the northeast of Shebelle, one of Dbagbo’s primary cities. Benghu was also within a reasonable distance of Dbagbo’s coastal capital of Lamu. So while Benghu itself was a sleepy rural town stretched over a few meadows and woodlands, its roads and railroad brought daily news from the front in Shebelle and the Army HQ in Lamu.

It was a good spot for any Lion troops who wanted to be near the action.

Chanda General School was primarily a pair of long, rectangular two-story classroom buildings painted peach built parallel to one another, flanked by a small square administration building and a big field for sports and other activities. This field had a sporting supplies warehouse that had been turned into a supply depot for the few army support units stationed in the school.

“Today’s patients weren’t that bad. And there were comparatively fewer of them too.” Elena said. “So I guess the front might be stabilizing.”

“I hope so; it’d be nice to have a break. Everyone still seems to be in a hurry. I thought we’d be less desperate here than in Knyskna, but I guess it’s bad everywhere you go.” Leander replied. As they passed through the school halls they saw various people coming and going, bringing food and medicine to patients, carrying tubs of water and sponges to bathe the bedridden.

One whole building of the school had been taken up as a hospital, because the local infirmary in Benghu was too small. There was a field hospital several kilometers closer to the front line, but there was only so much that anyone could do for the injured out in the mud while under fire. Rear echelon hospitals were the best bet for the incapacitated and heavily wounded.

Outside the hospital building, they followed a dirt path, lined with decorative shrubs, that led between the two big buildings out toward the gate on one end and the field in the other. Through the windows on the opposite building they saw teachers, still teaching, and small children and a few teens still attending school. Not everyone could be evacuated. Not even all of the children.

“You’d think they could spare at least one truck.” Leander said as they passed. He waved to the classroom window, but all the children were marveling at a science experiment, a little fake volcano erupting.

“Literally everything is tied up. It takes us how many days just to get new tools in? I think Dbagbo’s hit its limit on transportation.” Elena said.

“Still, they’re kids, y’know? I wish they could be gotten out of here.”

“I know. But the children who had parents willing to leave were allowed to leave already. So those who are left, maybe they can’t or won’t go.”

“That’s true.” Leander said. It hadn’t crossed his mind that maybe some people wouldn’t want to run away from home. He felt suddenly ashamed. Perhaps he was a coward, thinking about running and retreating all the time. But who could blame him? He was a Zigan; his people had always been running. He always thought first of preserving life than “homes.” Most of his life he hadn’t “a home,” but when things got bad, you moved and survived.

Together the two soldiers left the buildings and started across the field. For once, Dbagbo was seeing a fairly nice day, so there were people outside partaking of the partly cloudy weather. There was a circular track for races and dashes, and in the center a broad, grassy green area for football and exercises. Leander saw a few recovering soldiers running laps; Elena pointed him toward the center field, where a teacher was sitting with a gaggle of small children all around her. They sat in a circle and had a little picnic, singing songs and eating snacks drawn from army patrol ration boxes. Elena started waving to the children, and they waved back.

Their teacher joined in the waving and urged Leander and Elena forward.

Leander pointed at himself in confusion, and she nodded and waved again.

Elena wasted no time and ambled toward the group. Laughing and smiling she pulled Leander along by the hand. There were a few different children present; very dark-skinned little umma, light and tan zungu kids with blond and brown and red hair, arjun children with long black hair and grey eyes. Meanwhile their teacher was a zungu woman with dusty olive skin and wavy brown hair, in a simple brown dress with an orange sari. She looked very young — perhaps not that much older even than Leander himself. Early into her twenties perhaps. She was pretty, with a gentle appearance to her.

All of this group, from the children to the adult, stared expectantly at them.

The teacher stood from the grass and bowed her head. She spoke softly. “Sorry, I know you two must be busy; I’m Ms. Balarayu. I took the children out of the classroom to reassure them, and I was hoping you could help.”

“Oh!” Leander nodded. “Sure! I’m Private Gaurige. Army medical corps; temporarily.” He added quickly, so they didn’t think him a doctor.

Elena looked at the children as though she had found a glade of fairies. She looked quite taken with the kids and excited to be in their presence. “I’m Private North, also Army medical corps. Pleased to meet you! You have such a wonderful class! Anything we can do to help you, consider it done!”

Ms. Balarayu bowed her head. Her smile never faded. And it looked very natural too, like that of a cheerful teenage girl accustomed to smiling. He supposed working with small children meant a lot of smiling, whether one wanted to or not. But he truly couldn’t tell if she was putting on an act.

“Children, these two are soldiers, here to help people! Our soldiers are our friends who are trying to make things better for us. Isn’t that right?”

She smiled at Leander, and Leander smiled back. “That’s right, children.”

“There are bad soldiers who are trying to do bad things, but our good soldiers here, they are heroes who will do everything to protect us.” Ms. Balarayu said. She gestured toward Elena. “For example, Private North is a doctor.”

Now it was Elena’s turn to point at herself in confusion. “Well, I– yes, I’m a doctor. I help people who get hurt or sick!” She quickly seemed to gather that the children could use as simplified a version of the events as possible.

“It can be a little scary to have soldiers with weapons at the school and around the town, but they are good people who are here to help us. They are nothing like the bad soldiers you’ve heard about. Those bad soldiers are not Ayvartans like you and I. Ayvartans are good people.” Ms. Balarayu said.

All of Ms. Balarayu’s children looked at Leander and Elena. They were dressed in simple tunics and pants. Some of the girls had skirts and sari. None of them could have been older than ten years. Leander felt a little awkward from all the attention. He was probably not much of a sight for them. He wasn’t very strong or tall — he was pretty slender, soft-faced, more the picture of a singer or dancer than a soldier. Elena wasn’t much either.

“Do you have any questions for our new soldier friends, children?”

One child eagerly raised his hand, a little umma boy, with brown curly hair and very dark skin. Elena leaned forward, hands on her knees, and smiled at him. He looked past her — he seemed fixated on Leander above all else.

“Mr. Soldier, I heard there was a big fight. My daddy is a soldier too, Mr. Soldier, like you; what will happen if my daddy loses the big fight?” He said.

Leander froze up. His eyes drew wide. Elena looked on speechlessly at the little boy. Ms. Balarayu clutched her skirt, but tried to keep up a picture of strength. Leander collected himself as fast as he could. This was not a question anyone was expecting. It was such a dire question on so many levels. It touched upon him, upon his insecurities; but it also meant that this boy, circumstances depending, might never see his father again after this.

Though the responsibility was suddenly enormous, Leander spoke up.

“Your father is trying his best to protect you and all of us. He won’t lose; even if he has to run away from the bad guys sometimes, he’ll come back a winner, because he fought hard to save everyone.” Leander said. He made it all up quickly as he went. But he found as he spoke, it captured his feelings.

After all, he believed that he lost at Knyskna, and he was still here. No amount of tanks destroyed changed that outcome. Maybe this boy’s father would lose the battle; but Leander knew, if it was him, like it was before, he would retreat so he could fight back some other day. He had to believe that he was meant to be here even though he lost. That life went on beyond one battle, and that there would be more chances. Knyskna, Dbagbo, they were not about winning or losing, not yet; he had to believe that to be the case.

“That’s right.” Elena said. She stared briefly at Leander, a little mystified.

Opposite him, the little umma boy nodded his head and smiled at Leander.

Thank everything; his words had reached the boy. Leander sighed a little.

Ms. Balarayu seemed to sigh with relief as well. “Thank you, Private Gaurige.”

Thankfully, the two of them found cause to extricate themselves from Ms. Balarayu and her group after that exchange. Waving goodbye, he and Elena made their way quickly to the tin warehouse under a big tree across the field.

Inside, there were many dozen crates of supplies. Sitting near the open back of the warehouse, they found Bonde and Sharna lying around near a table. Sharna was lying atop the table, taking up most of it — she was a big girl. Bond meanwhile was balancing a patrol ration box on his index finger.

“Hujambo!” Leander said, waving his arms happily as he entered.

“Hujambo!” Elena joined in, sweeping her red hair behind her ears.

Bonde looked up from the ration box and dropped it. It crashed on the floor and made a noise that seemed momentarily to startle the young man.

“Hujambo, Leander, Elena! Nice to see you again. You both look like you’ve had it pretty easy.” Bonde cheekily said. He spoke nonchalantly as though he did not care that he had dropped that box so noisily on the floor.

“How’s the work today? You look busy!” Leander said, grinning at him.

“Don’t get cocky, my friend; you’ve come right after peak hours for us.” Bonde said, wagging his finger. “You should see it when a truck comes.”

Sharna raised her head from the table. She waved half-heartedly, and shifted against the surface. “We’re waiting on a truck right now.” She moaned sadly.

“You sound under the weather, did something happen?” Leander asked.

This happened.” Sharna said. Her voice was a long, slow droning.

“Not yourself outside a sniper post?” Elena said, poking her plump belly.

“You weren’t here when it happened,” Sharna moaned, “you don’t know.

“She’s just whining because we had to take inventory of everything here.” Bonde said. “We weren’t exactly efficient about it so it took us all night.”

“They had us count down screws. Do you know there’s special screws for medical stuff? Do you know there’s more than one kind? I had to count and sort how many of each different size we had. There’s a LOT of sizes.” Sharna said. She shifted from lying on her side to lying on her back, and spread her arms and kicked her legs on the table. She seemed to be trying to fly.

Leander burst into laughter at her antics. Elena cocked a little grin.

“Oh ho ho, then you’re poised to help, Sharna.” Elena said. “We need a crate of antibiotics, if you please. You must know where they are, I’m sure.”

“Doctor, help thyself.” Sharna said, sticking out her tongue childishly.

Leander continued to laugh, while Elena sighed and walked past them.

“I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what I put where I’m afraid.” Bonde said. He went back to trying to balance the ration box on his finger, while Elena dug through medical crates. Leander would have helped but he was still busy giggling to himself over uncontrollably over everything.

* * *

Dr. Agrawal had a dedicated office on the second floor of the occupied school building. There she had her desk, a cabinet for medical records, a telephone, and enough space along the wall for a trio of sleeping bags. Though she slept relatively little, her assistants both made good use of the little nook.

Elena and Leander took turns carrying the wooden crate of anti-biotics gingerly up the stairs. They found Dr. Agrawal sitting behind her desk, looking at herself on the back of a steel plate while applying pigment to her lips. She was startled when they opened the door, but managed not to run the brush off course. She quickly applied the rest of the bright red layer, put away the pigments in her desk, and addressed her two waiting assistants.

“You sure took a while to return! But thank you.” She said. She took the crate and laid it atop the desk, cracking open the top to check the contents.

“Everything in order?” Elena said, hands behind her back.

“Yes, it looks quite fine.” Dr. Agrawal smiled. “Thank you so much.”

Elena looked relieved. She must have wanted to make a good impression on the doctor. It was easier for Leander, he had nothing particular riding on the outcome of these errands. Elena must have thought each of them a test.

“Yes. You have both done splendidly, comrades.” She said.

Leander and Elena both saluted her at once.

“Thank you ma’am!”

Dr. Agrawal chuckled. Her eyes lingered on Leander for an instant.

She sat farther back on her desk chair. “Elena,” she began, “I would like to speak to Leander in private. Patient-Doctor confidentiality, you know. I look forward to working again with you tomorrow. Please go relax for now.”

Elena looked concerned for a moment. She gave Leander a hesitant look. Leander nodded to her and smiled, trying to communicate silently that he would be alright. She nodded back; her concern not quite alleviated.

“Yes, of course.” She finally replied. She bowed and exited the room.

Leander closed the door behind her and returned to Dr. Agrawal’s desk.

“Hey, um, what is going on Doctor? Anything bothering you?” He asked.

The Doctor beamed at him and withdrew a very large foil paper package from under her desk. She handed him the package and a letter that came with it.

“My friend Dr. Kappel is very excited about meeting you.” Dr. Agrawal said. “She sent me a gift for you, as well as a letter to help lift your spirits.”

“Oh wow!” Leander said. He put down the foil package, unable to discern what it was from shaking it. It was flat and broad. Instead he broke open the letter and started reading. In Knyskna, Dr. Agrawal had turned Leander on to the science of Dr. Willhelmina Kappel, who was studying gender and gender identity — things quite important Leander, as a very non-conventional man.

His eyes crawled hungrily over the soft cursive scribbles of Dr. Kappel.

Dearest Leander,

Guten Tag! Or should I say, “Hujambo!” Do you like my hand-writing? Can you read it? Please ask Dr. Agrawal to recite it to you in a safe place if you cannot read it. I do not like to type to kindred souls. It feels too cold. Besides which, handwriting is a better way to practice my Ayvartan than typing.

My name is Willhelmina Kappel, PHD from Rhinea University, and I am today both a Master Surgeon and Chief Psychotherapist in Solstice’s Ulyanova Medical Center, as well as a voting member of Solstice’s Commissariat of Health. To me, however, those things matter less than my job as a teacher. A teacher to surgeons, to psychotherapists. But more importantly, a teacher to my fellows, all over the world, who have not had a friend who is like them and that understands them as they are.

I want to share with you something that I think you will understand. You see, when I was very young, my family had it in their heads the odd notion that my name should rightly have been “Willhelm.” I think you can relate to this situation! I indulged myself in secret, feeling like a deviant; but in reality, the deviation is in society, not in ourselves. I am a woman just as much as you are a man, or whatever or whoever you desire to be, Leander.

I want you to know that you are not alone and that you are not sick in any way; what you have is not a disease. You do not need to be cured, and with some help, you can become your ideal person. Doubtless you have met some very ignorant people in your life. But I want you to know that there are many people who understand, who appreciate you, who do not look down on you for who you are; and many others who are exactly like you and I.

This world is a different one than the one “Willhelm” was forced to grow up in. There are people who don’t understand, but there are also people and cultures that have been paving the way for us. Since I began looking and sharing, I have found many people like me, and with all of their experiences and my own expertise, I have begun to compile a lot of documentation about our many situations. But those words and documents don’t mean anything by themselves; making people happy and healthy is what I am after. I will do everything in my power to help you, Leander, because I know what it feels like. Until then, I urge you to be calm and hopeful.

Medicine has come very far; I have personally seen to it that it has!

Should you require professional-sounding words to describe us try these: “transgender” persons. It is an adjective, not a noun or verb. I took it from chemical literature. So you can say with pride, I am a transgender man! Or just a man, you know, whatever makes you happy! There are many traditional words in the Ayvartan language, such as Hijra or Kojja, but I hesitate to use them as I am a whole foreigner — not even a Zungu! 

Excuse the ramblings of a silly woman, but I am very excited about this!

Because Panchali shared with me some details about you and your case, I’ve begun to make preparations. As a token of my appreciation for you and what you have experienced thus far, enclosed you will find a much better binder than any you can fashion for yourself or encounter casually.

Wear it around people — it can pass as a form of underclothes easily, and it will smooth the form of your breasts under your uniform. PLEASE DO NOT BIND USING BANDAGES. This is very important. Some disclaimers: for safety concerns, try not to sleep in your binder if you can help it. Also, stretch your arms over your head and twist your chest often. This is not perfect, but hopefully it will keep you comfy until we can meet in person.

I apologize for the length and casual character of this letter. I hope I do not assume too much about you. I promise to have the most open of minds when we meet, and to listen to every word of yours without judgment. Let us meet, for it is always an auspicious occasion when people like us do.

I wish you the best of luck and health. Say hello to Panchali for me too!

You can trust Panchali; I trust her too. She is one of the good ones!

Love,

Dr. Willhelmina Kappel

Leander felt his eyes tearing up as he read the letter. Dr. Agrawal stood up from her desk and tentatively approached, putting a supporting hand on his shoulder. She looked at him as he read, and grasped the paper in his hands, and of course she could only see the tears in his eyes, and not the swelling of his spirit, the immeasurable feeling of relief that rushed through him as he read the words of this woman he had never seen. He felt so immensely strong to finally have words for what he felt and to finally meet someone like him.

“Leander, is something wrong? Did Willhelmina write something insensitive? She can be a little over-eager; just tell me and I will have words with–”

He shook his head, and suddenly embraced Dr. Agrawal as if in Kappel’s place. He started to weep into her chest. She returned the embrace, stroking his short wavy hair and patting his back. Leander whimpered, “it’s fine, everything is fine, everything is wonderful,” to her and she quieted and allowed him to sob and work everything out. He was so stricken with emotion that it was hard to think. It was an eerie but delightful experience.

“Thank you for everything, Doctor Agrawal.” Leander said. He felt an outpouring of affection for her too. After all, when he had no idea if he could trust anyone, she was so kind to him. “Dr. Kappel says hello.” He added.

Dr. Agrawal smiled. “She can be a handful, but I know she means well.”

After Leander calmed down, they opened the foil package together, and there was a black sleeveless shirt inside. It looked flat enough at first sight, like normal clothes, but with some sort of panels and meshwork inside. The neckline was fairly concealing and the underarm too. It was an incredible piece of clothing. When Leander picked it up it had a bit of heft to it too.

“Dr. Agrawal, could you stand by the door, facing away? I want to try this on, but I’m a little uncomfortable being looked at.” Leander said softly.

“Of course! Of course! You needn’t hesitate to ask.” Dr. Agrawal replied.

She quickly turned her back and stood in front of the door, blocking it in case anyone tried to go in unexpectedly. Once out of her sight, Leander removed his jacket and undid his shirt. He removed the medical brace that he had been using to bind his breasts. Easily, he slipped into Kappel’s binder.

Leander pressed his hands against his chest. He never quite considered the size or shape of his breasts much, he didn’t think they were especially big or cumbersome, but there was still something incredible and interesting about being able to slide his palms and the underside of his fingers over a suddenly smooth chest. There was no mirror in the room, but he knew it looked flat.

“Doctor, you can turn around; what do you think, how does it look?”

Dr. Agrawal turned around and smiled at him with delight. She approached, and walked all around him, checking the garment. She pulled on the straps and on the back, and stared directly at his chest. “Not even a little bump left behind. It is indeed a much better binder than we had. Is it comfortable?”

He moved his arms and twisted his waist and chest. “It’s very flexible.”

“That Willhelmina is incredible. In such a short time, to produce this–”

Suddenly the door opened behind them; a woman with a bandana leaned her head inside the door and looked at the two of them, at first casually and then with a growing confusion. Both of them froze up, Leander shirtless, Dr. Agrawal hovering near him. The Doctor stared back nervously over her shoulder. Leander fought his instinct to cover his breasts with his hands — after all they were bound down and covered, so he should have been fine.

“Oh, excuse me, I didn’t know you were busy.” said the woman at the door.

Dr. Agrawal turned around, hands behind her back, smiling and speaking with a contrived, sweet affect. “It’s nothing Dr. Chukwu. You are not intruding. What brings you to my office today? Would you like a mint?”

Leander cringed reflexively, averted his eyes and started putting his shirt and jacket quickly back on. Dr. Agrawal stretched her arms out, picked up the tray of mints and thrust it toward the door, beaming ear to ear. Her hand was shaking a little and it was quite obvious she was nervous about this.

Dr. Chukwu quirked an eyebrow and waved away the mint tray.

“Not today, Dr. Agrawal. Anyway. Ma’am. I need to consult with you about our amputation procedures. There’s a few borderline cases here.”

“Of course! Let’s go see the patients.” Dr. Agrawal briefly nodded toward Leander, and then pulled Dr. Chukwu away down the hall, defusing their little situation. Leander remained behind, sighing with embarrassment.

At least now he knew that people had no visceral reaction to him.

45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Town of Benghu, Chanda General School

Naya felt a sting in her calf seven hundred meters into the endurance run. She grit her teeth and ran with all of her might, trying to remember the strength and stamina that she used to have. It wasn’t so long ago. It was only three years ago that she had competed right in this track, for this very event. She had run for the whole two kilometers. She could run it! She grit her teeth with frustration. She had run it before! Naya kept muttering to herself.

Dashing across the track, arms pumping, taking long strides with her legs, the cold air washing over her, the sweat. None of these sensations measured against the pain. She felt sick to her stomach with anticipation. When it hit, she had to ready. She had to power through it. She couldn’t let it stop her–

It started in the muscles in her legs, but that was only the warning shot.

Any part of her that was sore and active could be struck by the pain first.

Moments later her whole body felt as though she had hit a wall of nails; the pain overtook her, coming from no wound and no apparent source. She slowed down. Sharp, puncturing initial pains gave way to a coursing electrical agony, low-key at first but spreading and gaining strength. Her body started to shake with it. Her teeth chattered, her fingers curled. She wept from it.

Naya tried to run through the pain, forty meters more, fifty meters, sixty, but then her knees shook, her legs locked. She took a bad step and she fell.

Just short of the kilometer marker on the orange track she collapsed. She reached out a shaking hand but she could not touch it, could not crawl to it.

There was nobody else on the field. Not even the sun was up to look upon her predicament. She had come out early, precisely to be alone. To struggle, to fight; and to fail without anyone there to panic at her plight. She curled up in a ball, clutching herself, sweating, weeping, gritting her teeth, dressed still in a hospital gown that just barely kept out the cold. Waiting; enduring the pain.

* * *

“Hey! You’re still under my care, so don’t run off without telling me.”

“I’m supposed to be out today.”

“You’re out when I clear you. Please follow procedure for a little bit.”

Naya had nonchalantly walked back to her room, hoping not to meet anyone along the way, but Dr. Chukwu had apparently come to take care of release procedures early. She had waited in front of the room, who knows for how long now. When they met she shook her head and ran her hand across her forehead. Naya could understand her frustration. She didn’t really intend to cause trouble for the doctor or anybody. She just had an impulse to satisfy.

“Are you cold? Your hands are shaking a little.” Dr. Chukwu said. “Ancestors defend; you shouldn’t have gone out like this in just your bed clothes!”

“I just had a bad night. It’ll go away once I get breakfast.” Naya said.

“If you say so.” Dr. Chukwu produced a file folder from her coat. She spread it open. There were photographs of Naya, taken not only within the past few days, but also a few from her teenage years. There were several documents, some looking worse for wear with age. Naya felt tense as the doctor leafed through them. She procured one specific page and handed Naya the rest.

Naya opened the folder. It contained medical records, her birth certificate, photographs, school evaluations. There were various sizes and descriptions. Of her current self, at age 20, Dr. Chukwu’s handwriting remarked things like, “lean build, some conditioning but a comparative decline in muscle judging by teen photos, average height, bit underweight, still visibly athletic.”

“What is this?” Naya asked, though she knew what she was seeing.

Dr. Chukwu explained. “After the storm two years ago a lot of records were damaged, including your own. You’ve not sought out any healthcare since, and your army fitness test was sloppily recorded; in short I’ve taken the liberty of starting a new record for you, based on what I could salvage from the remnants of your combined records, surviving school records, and the tests I’ve run the past few days. I apologize for my comments in advance; I’m supposed to supply a written description, and I’ve never been good at that.”

Naya searched through the documents and found no mention of persisting or chronic pains. She cracked a little grin. “I find them flattering, to be honest.”

After signing the medical records and release document, Dr. Chukwu gave Naya a fresh uniform to change into in a paper bag, and a meal card for the local civil canteen — in her case this meant the school cafeteria, unless she wanted to walk three kilometers to the town center of Benghu for her meals. Perhaps she could have made it on her own, but she didn’t want to risk it.

Dr. Chukwu then lead her to outpatient processing, where she answered a few final questions from a clerk. She handed in her documents and waited for them to be copied, sorted, and processed. She then received a bag of things she was carrying when she came in — her old weathered uniform, her pouch belts, her revolver and ammunition, flares. There was a fresh copy of the Comrade’s Companion, a little book of socialist philosophy, everyday wisdom and wilderness survival tactics, handed to new recruits in the armed forces.

“We wish for your continued health, comrade.” Said the clerk.

Naya nodded her head. She wasn’t so sure she had her health back at all.

She bid farewell to Dr. Chukwu, and used the privacy of her hospital room one final time to change into her green army clothes. She left the makeshift hospital rooms behind and made her way across the building to the cafeteria.

Sitting in a bench table, she caught the smell of mixed spices, coming from the kitchen. A basket of fresh baked flatbreads was already set on each table. Naya picked one of the breads and started to nibble on it for a moment, until she saw a man behind the counter waving at her. She raised her head.

“Don’t just sit there nibbling on bread!” shouted the man. He smiled and waved at her again. “Food’s ready, come on up and I’ll serve you some!”

Naya took her place at the counter, at the head of a line that had yet to materialize. Behind the counter, the man took a half-glance at Naya’s meal card and urged her to take a metal tray, already divided with sections for various meal items. Into the round bowl-like segment he spooned a hefty helping of orange curry with eggplant, potatoes, carrots and peas, topped with a handful of fried cheese cubes; a cup of simple stewed lentils went into a small scoop-shaped portion of the tray; and in a square, flat area he deposited a big piece of seitan covered in a sauce of nuts and butter.

Finally, the man gave her a little bag of creamy, drinkable yogurt with berry preserves mixed in. He had taken it from a box, from which he also took a straw and gave it to her as well. Water was also available if she desired.

Warm air wafted up from the meal, carrying fresh scents. Naya bowed her head to the cafeteria man. Behind the counter she saw two other people lounging near hot flat-tops, ovens and stoves, having prepared large batches of food meant to last the breakfast and probably lunch period. Maybe even the supper. All of it could sit and be reheated easily. She was lucky to get it fresh out of the kitchens. She thanked everyone and returned to her table.

Soon as she set her tray down, children began to trickle into the cafeteria.

Naya took the piece of flatbread she had been nibbling and dipped it in the lentils, taking a bite; she then punctured the bag of thin, milky light blue yogurt and drank. She took a wooden fork and knife from the center of the table and started to cut a piece of her seitan. A few soldiers came in to eat. She paid them no mind — she didn’t really know anybody here anymore.

She took her time with the food. It was the first nice meal she had been able to eat in weeks. She had spent far too much of the Aster’s Gloom eating lentils and dehydrated eggs and powdered milk out of boxes. Nutty, mildly spicy Seitan, firm vegetables in the curry, fresh, soft bread; it was like a dream.

Painstakingly tasting the eggplant, she caught a glimpse of a woman her age, striding through the cafeteria’s twin doors and skipping gaily toward a table full of children. Naya’s eyes fixed on her. At the table, children greeted her.

“Good morning Ms. Balarayu! Thank you for joining us!” They said at once.

Ms. Balarayu sat down among them and touched hands with each of them.

For a moment, a brief, foolish instant, Naya thought that perhaps she should tell Aarya that she was there, that she was back home, that there was nothing bitter between them anymore. But she found herself quickly unable to. The more she thought about it, the more the taste in her mouth turned to vinegar.

Naya averted her eyes, and shifted toward the end of her own table. She hunched, as though she could make her shoulders cover her whole head. It would not do to waste the food; so she ate quickly, desperately spooning lentils into her mouth and shoving big bites of the flatbread in with it.

Hearing Aarya’s sweet voice singing to the children was like a torment.

Her plate was soon empty save for remnants of the sauce at the bottom of each tray. She left that behind, an un-Ayvartan thing to do; everyone relished scooping up the sauces with flatbread, wiping the plate. Naya did not want to linger any longer. She was suddenly sure that she was not supposed to be here. She was an unwanted thing in this old place. She had to go now.

It was nothing like the nails in her legs that morning, but it still hurt.

Perhaps she was being childish but she couldn’t talk to Aarya Balarayu.

She just couldn’t talk to her about little dreams born and killed in Benghu.

Naya left her tray, and as surreptitiously as she could she ambled out of the cafeteria, hands in her pockets, head bowed low so as not to be recognized. She got past the doors, through a hallway and out the lobby, exiting the building. Her pace did not slack. She felt like she was being chased.

On the short flight of stairs down from the rearmost school building, Naya bumped into someone in her hurry, causing them to drop a file folder and scatter its contents. She realized then that she was clear of the building, and felt foolish for her lack of attention. She took her hands out of her pockets and kneeled beside the soldier, helping them to gather up the papers.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking, it was my fault,” Naya said. Across from her the soldier shook their head quietly. She saw the soldier’s eyes — dull grey but with clear, bright red rings around the iris. She wasn’t just imagining them.

“Oh, I know you,” the soldier said in a dry, dull voice, looking at her more closely, wiping some of their neck-length gray-blue hair behind one ear. Naya however did not know this person at all. This soldier had a smooth, gentle, light face. Probably a zungu; from the hair color she had to guess Svechthan ancestry might play a part. Slender and a little shorter than her size, the soldier dressed in the green of the territorial army with an engineer’s badge.

“I don’t believe we have met.” Naya replied, handing them the documents.

“We haven’t before; I’m Farwah Kuchenkov. This file is about you.”

From the name, she thought she could pin down a bit more about him.

Naya and Farwah stood up together. Farwah bowed his head at her in thanks.

She took the gathered-up file from his hand and looked through the pages. It was indeed about her, a military record. It also contained her medical record from earlier — there was a copy of what she had signed just a few hours ago. Ayvartan bureaucracy could apparently be very speedy when it wanted to be.

“I’m a KVW Engineer, with a research unit stationed nearby.” He said. His voice was wholly devoid of affect. It sounded a strange mix of eerie and comical. “My superior requested someone of particular dimensions.”

“Excuse me?” Naya said, looking up from the file with an eyebrow raised.

“We’re testing equipment and need someone of particular height, weight; strength requirements in general must be taken into consideration too.”

“You’re a Svechthan, right?” Naya asked suddenly. “Sorry, just, this would be my first time meeting a Svechthan if so. Not that I avoided your kind or anything, Mister Kuchenkov, just that I’m pleased to be able to meet–”

“I’m Ayvartan.” Farwah said. “My mother was an emigre who found love.”

Naya scratched her hair nervously. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I’m not offended. My mother was a Svechthan, but I wouldn’t be considered a naturalized citizen of that nation. I wanted to clear that up. Facts are important.” He said. His voice sounded even more monotonous now.

Naya closed the filed and returned it to him. “Facts are indeed important.”

Farwah nodded. “Would you be willing to start working today, Ms. Naya Oueddai? We are under a bit of stress due to the current circumstances.”

“Sounds good to me. I haven’t a thing else to do.” Naya replied. It was not exactly what she had hoped, but it was a military position away from here. At the moment, she was feeling empty and aimless. This would be good for her.

Farwah stretched out his hands and took hers, shaking them vigorously, with a small smile. He seemed as excited as someone like him could get.

“Good! I’m very glad. The RKS-57-P Raktapata awaits us then, Naya.”

# # #

Dbagbo Dominance  — Village of Silb, 8th Panzer Division HQ

“Reiniger! What is your problem, huh? Answer me right now!”

Schicksal rushed down the dirt paths of Silb village, trailing after the irreverent lieutenant in command of their R-company. He had a head start on her, but he wasn’t running. She caught up quick; but he kept walking as though there was no problem at all, coolly smoking a cigarette. Halfway through the march he dropped it, stomped it, and kept right on.

She continued to follow him and to berate him all the way down a side path toward a workshop he had occupied as a roof over his M4 Sentinel tank. He walked into his makeshift garage, threw his hat in a corner and sat down on a bench, staring at the bogeys and the return rollers as if there was anything at all there that he could tweak at the moment. Schicksal followed him in and hovered around him, hands on her hips. Both were wearing full dress uniforms — Schicksal even had a peaked cap with a silver eagle.

“Reiniger, answer to me! I’ll be writing a report for General Dreschner on your disrespect and it behooves you to cooperate!” She shouted.

“Jeez! Stop shouting in my ear you banshee!” He shouted back. He slammed his fist aggressively on the tank’s track but she was not intimidated by it.

“Why did you run out on the honor’s ceremony for Kunze?” She asked.

That was the crux of the evening’s problems. Reiniger had stormed out of the ceremony in the midst of it, in a way that was public and untoward and so very Reiniger. Everyone knew he was a rough, irreverent guy, but this was too much. His fellow soldiers could very well wonder whether he’d run out on their own funerals and posthumous honors. And as a commander in battle it may someday be his duty to arrange such things. How would he fare then?

“I’m not payin’ any respects to that piece of shit. I’m glad he’s dead.”

“That’s far too much Reiniger! You shouldn’t say such things!”

“Oh come on Karla! You hated him too! Everybody did! Not a single, goddamn soul in the division liked Kunze, because he was an idiot, a blowhard, a good-for-nothing, who just went and got people killed!”

Reiniger stared at her briefly, sighed loudly and went back to staring at the bogeys and the track, running his fingers along the segmented metal.

“This a service that everyone expects of everyone else.” She said. “Just as you are expected to protect your fellow soldiers in battle, you need to be there for them when they’re gone. What would you say to his wife, Reiniger?”

“She ain’t here; and that’s different! That’s completely goddamn different! You think I’d tell her all this? I’m not a goddamn monster, Schicksal!”

Schicksal squeezed her own forehead. What a stubborn, difficult fool!

“So you don’t feel an ounce of remorse for your actions at all?”

“Nah, write me up, Schuldirektorin Schicksal. I’ll take a detention.”

“You know this is really easy! You can just say you are sorry!”

“I ain’t sorry for making up fake shit to say about a useless gasbag.”

Schicksal felt like she was dealing with a literal child at the moment.

“So if he’s so worthless as you say, how did he become a lieutenant?” She said, hands on her hips, leaning Reiniger like a teacher to a student.

“Dumb luck. You don’t know him? I’ll tell you all about him.”

He turned his chair around to face her with a big grin on his face.

“Our dearly departed son-of-a-dog Kunze was part of a light platoon scouting out a village in Santa Vista. His unit came under attack, and he found and shot the AT gun that had them pinned. Made a 2000 meter shot with his pokey 37mm. Suddenly everyone’s lining up to hump his leg.”

Schicksal crossed her arms. “That sounds like an achievement to me.”

“To you, yeah, and probably anyone who hasn’t shot a tank gun before, probably why they promoted him.” Reiniger said dismissively.

Schicksal pouted. “So what’d you do for your rank then, mister?”

“I earned it!” Reiniger shouted, raising his voice sharply. “I fought the goddamn Cissean Civil War since it started. I was part of the so-called ‘volunteers’ who got sent in 2026; then because the volunteers’ Nochtish ties couldn’t be acknowledged, all my work before 2028 didn’t count for shit. I was fighting the anarchists while Kunze was sitting his ass in a school chair and earning below averages on his officer tests! Fuck that guy!”

Reiniger looked like he wanted something to throw to the ground to complete his tantrum, but there was nothing in the way. He settled for a back-handed kick against one of the bogeys on his tank, making a loud noise in the shop.

“Reiniger you are very overly impassioned about this.” Schicksal said.

“I hate people who just glide to success overnight.” He said. He turned his chair back around, giving Schicksal his back. “Leave me alone already.”

“Even if it’s crap, just give me an apology! We need you on the field!”

Schicksal was raising her voice now too. Reiniger shouted back.

“Shut the fuck up and leave Schicksal, before I make you!” He shouted.

Before he could air anymore heated invective they were interrupted.

“Hi~! Hey~! Hello~! What’s all the commotion huh?”

They heard a sing-song voice coming from outside the shop — the doors were left open to the air, and their row could probably be heard from afar with everyone else attending the ceremony. Reiniger and Schicksal turned their eyes on the doors and outside, where a panzer officer strutted closer.

A panzer officer with a lot of medals, pins and a fancy black dress uniform.

“Oh wow! I’m so lucky~! I found exactly who I wanted to see!”

Approaching them, the youthful, slender, pretty officer smiled and tipped his head in a cute gesture with his hands behind his back. Reiniger snorted.

“And just what brings you here, fairy?” He said under his breath.

In an affected voice, sweet and self-indulgently cruel, the officer said, “After all the whining that I heard, I’ve decided I came here to laugh at you.”

* * *

Next chapter in Generalplan Suden — The Queen Crowned In Tukino

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