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53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance, Town of Benghu — Chanda General School
Shells crashed, cannons roared, rifles cracked, men shouted; meanwhile Aarya sang.
Soon as her hands linked behind Zaheer’s little back, and his head settled against her chest, and she felt his vulnerable little breaths, she began to sing. She paused only to gather the briefest of breaths. She had offered him a song, and she mustered all of her strength to make it a song that could outlast the hostilities. Her singing was continuous.
At first she sang the traditional songs that she remembered, hitting the notes and overturning the lyrics with her tongue as she had been taught, but as the noises grew louder, closer, and more determined she found herself unable to compete. While she held Zaheer against her chest her songs became indistinct syllables riding simple melodies.
She found herself straining to crescendo in the wake of several close blasts, and falling almost to a whimper when there was peace around her. LA LA LA LA LA; la la la la la. She felt the ground rumble from the impacts of artillery, from the striking of stray tank shells. These forces crawled through her wounded hip every time, finding their way through the ground and into her flesh, sending sharp pangs of pain across her body.
Through every sudden stab of agony Aarya strained to continue singing.
In this little island rocking amid the storm she had lost all track of time.
Aarya did not know whether there were winners or losers yet in this conflict.
But the noises came from seemingly everywhere now; it was not one-sided anymore.
One way or another she felt that her fate would be decided very soon.
She looked down, feeling her stomach turn over with a sudden anxiety.
No, she thought; it was not just her fate alone, not anymore.
Zaheer was quiet and still against her chest. When she looked at him his eyes were eerily blank. He was overwhelmed by everything. He had a condition — she did not know what it was, but she knew that he dealt with things differently than other children. Whenever the world became too loud or too bright or too fast for him, he would withdraw. He had never fled the way he did; but everything about today was unique.
She still cursed herself for not paying him better attention. They could have both been safe in the supply depot with the rest of the children and the adults; with Darshan. With the soldiers to protect them. But it was not to be; at least now she could comfort him.
Though she wanted to tell him that she would take care of him, keep him safe, that she would never forget him again, she instead continued to sing. Outside the noise intensified.
“Are they gonna stop soon Ms. Balarayu?” Zaheer said, shutting his eyes.
She did not answer; she continued to sing. She pulled him closer, laying her head over his shoulder and rocking him in her arms a little. He squeezed her harder in response.
Aarya heard a clanging of metal on metal directly behind her.
She turned her head to face the shutters.
There was a ladder, a metal, extendable ladder, outside the window. It had hit the open shutters when going up. Aarya became paralyzed in her little corner, holding Zaheer, her head turned over her shoulder. She felt a quivering in the center of her chest. She stopped singing. He noticed, looked up at her. He tugged on her shirt a little.
“Ms. Balarayu? Are you ok?”
Clanging footsteps on the metal; one, two, one, two.
“Ms. Balarayu? Say something, please!”
“Zaheer, show me how you hid under the desks like you did before.”
She looked down at him with a false smile on her face, as if it was a game.
Zaheer knew it wasn’t; his expression was deadly serious. But he nodded his head, crawled off her lap, and slipped under the stack of desks in the corner of the room.
Aarya stood and made for the broom closet.
She ripped open the closet and withdrew the classroom broom.
Clang, clang, one, two, one two. Footsteps on metal. Handholds.
Aarya snuck up on the window.
She saw the hands first, seizing the handholds just over the window.
On one gloved, grey-sleeved hand, she saw a pistol and nearly shrieked; and on the other hand a pair of cutters big enough to snap the individual shutters in two big bites.
She saw the peak of the helmet, and she waited briefly for the face.
It was not an Ayvartan face; it was not the face of a rescuer. A young face, a blue-eyed, blond face, a pale-pink face; perhaps in another circumstance, a lovely face. But in this circumstance it was a grim face, covered in dirt and smelling of death, and when the lips parted the man shouted words she did not understand, like fearful eldritch curses.
Aarya drew in a breath and threw herself blindly forward.
Holding the broom by the handle with both hands close to the bristled bottom end, she shoved the handle out between the shutters, pulling back and thrusting in furious stabbing motions, slashing across the shutter with fearful sweeps, striking her everywhere she could. She smashed the man in the eye, then his his teeth, his nose. There was blood that burst from him over the open shutters, splashing them brown.
Her hip felt like it had torn open but she swiped and thrust and smashed through the pain without thinking, swallowing every sound she thought she would make.
Groaning unintelligibly, the man dropped his tools then fell backward off the ladder.
He landed at an angle, his head rocking violently as he hit the floor. Stiff and unresponsive he rolled down the muddy slide that Chanda’s hill had become. Ferried there by the mud, he came to lie at the foot of the hill, curled up like a newborn.
Aarya’s stomach churned. She clamped her hands over her mouth, feeling bile rise.
He was dead, a soldier was dead. She killed one of the imperialists; killed a person.
Aarya stared at where the body had fallen. More people ran into her field of view. They had guns and they were crowding at the bottom of the staircase, looking incredulously skyward. She thought she felt their eyes lock with hers, and she stepped back.
Gunfire sounded from below. Aarya dropped the broom and fell to the ground, hitting her hip again. She curled on her side, hugging herself and gritting her teeth with pain.
Helplessly she stared up from the floor; but she saw nothing hit the shutters. No bullets flew past, nothing ricocheted against the panes. They were not shooting at her.
She crawled to the window and helped herself up. She saw the carnage outside.
Several tanks lay smoking. One tank, painted a dark coat of green, moved into the field opposing the enemy, and it swung its turret wildly and cast long bursts of machine gun bullets across the slope and the buildings. Men fled from it, leaving behind the ladder and rushing downhill into the grass. More enemy tanks moved to fight off the green tank with the hexagonal turret. She watched, transfixed, as the machines hurtled toward each other, as they wove around, as they clashed. Aarya winced at the cannon blasts, as if she felt the muzzle flashes and the howls of each shot as if beside her own head.
In rapt attention she watched as the green tank outfought all of the grey ones.
Zaheer appeared at her side. She felt his hand take hers, but she couldn’t look away.
Nocht fled; trucks hitched away their evil guns; cars rushed out of sight as fast as their wheels could take them; men careened across the field and jumped into the backs of moving vehicles seconds before they set off. Only one tank had survived the green tank and it fled with a perforated turret and a dozen men huddling for cover atop its hull.
Atop the green tank, standing wounded but triumphant in the middle of the meadow, a hatch opened. People arrived and helped pull someone up from inside the tank, and they produced an object from a medical bag and stuck her with it. She seized up, and writhed, and she heard the woman shout. Her posture soon softened, however, and people started to carry her toward the school. They carried her around the slope.
Soon as they brought her around the Auxiliary building, Aarya saw her face.
She brought her hands up to her mouth and she started to weep uncontrollably.
She recognized her; with her sporty cheek-length black hair, her locks messy, blunt ended, longer on the sides and shorter on the back; her deep brown skin and slightly round face, her lips, the upper thinner than the lower, the long bridge of her nose–
That was her; Naya Oueddai had come here. She had come and saved them all.
Nocht’s retreat from the meadow left a palpable silence in Chanda, but most of its defenders heard an irregular tinnitus in their ears even in the absence of gunfire. It took a bit of time for the base even to realize that it had been relieved at all. At first the defenders in the campus proper believed the slackening of the enemy attack signaled only a calm before the storm — the enemy would reorganize, and push back harder.
Everyone clung to their positions, never once believing that the fight could end quickly or decisively. Lone submachine guns puttered here and there as jumpy shuja believed they had seen a sign of the enemy. Captain Agrawal continued to transmit orders to hold. Eyes peeled on their doors, windows and corners, the defenders maintained a shaky discipline. Fear of the enemy was the bond that kept them fixed in place and fighting.
Then they heard from the tanker in the field: a new ally had suddenly entered the fight.
Almost as soon as this was transmitted the fight was over. Impromptu scouts probed the campus and reported no sign of active enemy combatants. Defenders emerged from their buildings and ambled to the field in a daze. There were corpses everywhere, men burnt to a crisp, perforated by fragments, crushed under overturned vehicles or lying in the smashed wrecks of others. Shell craters a meter or more wide dotted the landscape, forming pools of mud and water and blood. Several wrecked enemy tanks lay near one another close to the center of the meadow, surrounding the hunters they fell prey to.
Men and women raised their faces skyward, washing blood and filth from their faces and rubbing the rain on their eyes. But when they turned to the field again the apparitions had not gone — there were two tanks there that nobody on campus could identify. Their crews exited the vehicles and tended to one another in their own little world. One tank was quickly verified to belong to the comrade responsible for most of the carnage, while the much larger one had arrived later and mostly spooked the already fleeing enemy.
In the administration building, Dr. Agrawal’s radio came alive again with a new voice.
“This is unit Vijaya. Hang tight, Chanda. We’re coming to help with your evacuation.”
Dr. Agrawal had not ordered an evacuation, but it was an idea with immediate appeal.
From the back of the school the recon troops’ cars and the ambulance truck wheeled out, and they were soon joined by the half-tracks of Camp Vijaya. Commanders from both sides exchanged handshakes and thanks; Dr. Agrawal thought that without the aid of this Captain Rajagopal and her troops she would have certainly died this day.
After a brief conversation in sign language, they set about coordinating the work.
Wounded from Chanda were looked after, woken up or carried out, and then gingerly loaded onto the vehicles. Vijaya and Chanda’s tractors, half-track trucks and cars formed a convoy that could bear about 50 people back to the Benghu train station at a time. More or less people could be loaded depending on how well they (or their injuries) responded to riding in a cramped space with ten to twenty other people.
Injured personnel were taken first in order of severity; after them, it would be the turn of children and noncombatants, and then finally the rest. Moving at the speed of its slowest components, and having forewarned all involved parties of the action through the radio, the convoy managed to travel to the train station, unload, and return to Chanda within thirty to forty minutes. Two trips and then a final one-way trip were scheduled.
While the first group of evacuees traveled out, Chanda’s freshly injured defenders lined up to receive first aid for their battle wounds and then await their turn on the convoy.
Meanwhile, anyone healthy enough for labor was gathered and organized to form cleanup details. These small groups varied in how sanitary their work would be. Under the rain they ran through the halls and combed through the courtyard and field.
Nochtish corpses were piled up, with their dog tags visible on them so they could be identified. It was clear to everyone that this place would be given up to Nocht. They could find their dead there and do with them what they wished after that.
Ayvartan corpses were bagged up; if the convoy had the time and the space, they would be evacuated last. It was miserable work, but there was no shortage of volunteers willing to do it. Nobody wanted to leave their comrades behind — even in death.
Lists were printed and copied quickly while there was still power to the campus, and everyone who left was marked off, until they were completely certain nobody had been left behind. A bonfire was started in every office, and all documents that were not necessary or crucial were burnt. Everything else was boxed and taken out.
Soldiers threw grenades into the supply room and cooked off any remaining ammunition that could not be taken. Grenades were also employed to great effect against facilities and items that the enemy could use, such as medical equipment, the diesel-guzzling power generator in the back of the school, and any radios too heavy to take.
Chanda was stripped as bare as it could be. About all that was left behind were the desks upon which children wrote and drew and spread open their books, and the detritus of the battle. Spent shell casings, chipped wood and cement, grime and blood and glass. As the evening neared there was not a soul wandering the gloomy halls.
Amid the retreat, however, a few wavering souls managed to find support.