This chapter contains violence and death.
53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Outskirts, 8th Panzer Division FOB
Schicksal grit her teeth and held her tongue long enough to watch the tanks leave the camp. She kept her eyes on one tank in particular, staring with a deathly glare. Once the unit had gone, she turned sharply around, brimming with adrenaline, and stomped from the edge of the camp into Dreschner’s tent. Staff ducked away like she was an incoming shell.
“General, how could you let him treat you like that in front of everyone!”
She went in shouting, but Schicksal quickly found that the General was not alone. At his side on the strategic table she found a man wearing a black bowler hat with his grey infantry uniform. There was a blue and white armband around his arm. He looked up from a document he was filling out briefly, and returned to it almost immediately.
“Settle down, Signals Officer.” Dreschner said, his tone apathetic.
Schicksal blinked. That man at the table was a Schwarzkopf policeman. They were part of the special investigative units in the fatherland. He was a gendarme, judging by his armband and uniform, but the black bowler hat set him quite apart. What was he doing?
“Is everything alright, miss?” He asked, still writing on the page.
“She’s fine. We’re all high-strung here.” Dreschner interceded.
“I understand.” the Schwarzkopf said, delicately writing a ß.
In the Gendarme’s presence, the last thing she wanted to do was cause a furor. Schicksal took a seat by the radios and waited for their business to conclude. Dreschner and the man spoke briefly among themselves, traded photographs and file folders, and once all the papers were filled, the gendarme gathered the materials into a file folder wrapped with a plastic tie. He tipped his hat to Schicksal, and vanished behind the tent flaps.
“General, who was that man after?” Schicksal asked. “Did someone–”
She stopped herself, recalling her own reason for coming here.
Of course; that gendarme must have been here for Reiniger.
Dreschner looked up from the table, over his own steepled fingers.
“You came to ask why I allowed Reiniger to go?” He said. He did not shift from his position, leaning into the table. “Well. Would you rather I beat him into the floor again in front of Captain Skoniec, and in front of Ms. Von Bletzen? Teach him with a fist?”
“No, but.” Schicksal paused and averted her eyes. “I don’t know.”
There was an oppressive, expanding gloom inside the war room tent. A lamp hanging overhead provided the only reliable light source, but its own shields dispersed the color of its flame, such that dire shadows covered half of everyone’s face and half of every surface. Outside the grey sky was darkening and the rhythm of the gently drizzling rain slowed down. Schicksal felt exhausted now that the flame of her anger was snuffed.
She had always felt trepidation around Reiniger. She tolerated him for the value that she thought other people saw in him. She looked at the tables of organization and knew that one less experienced lieutenant meant something to the mathematics that kept all of them alive in this war. So she filtered every thought of him through that. He had to stick around, and he had to get better. But now she was just left with the disgust of him.
Schicksal hated that she was in his presence and felt intimidated by him.
She started to wish that she could have delivered that fist to his nose and drawn blood.
She stood up from her seat and approached the table.
“Honestly,” Schicksal spoke up suddenly, “yes, punch him. Break his teeth. Throw him on the ground and step on him until he vomits his own tongue. I’m sick to death of him.”
“That’s no good.” Dreschner said. “Don’t let that gendarme hear about it.”
“Sorry.” Schicksal said. She felt embarrassed, as suddenly as she had felt angry.
“As long as it doesn’t become a habit. I’d hate to lose your level-headed personality.”
Schicksal felt a mix of shame and frustration, a cocktail that seemed to bubble hot in her chest. This must have been how Dreschner felt on the night of Kunze’s funeral. She wondered, had she been in this mood, in this position, back then, would she have beaten Reiniger? Would that have accomplished anything? What had level-headedness gotten her so far? Finally the cocktail seemed to reach her tongue, and she spoke virulently.
“He was a jackal. He thought he was stronger than all of us and he acted like we only existed because he allowed us to. I don’t want to have to put up with people like that.”
“We’re not putting up with it; that’s what the gentleman was for.” Dreschner said calmly.
Schicksal balled up her hands into fists. “That’s not enough! He needs it seared into his bones! You said it yourself, he doesn’t listen. He’s even come close to hitting me too!”
“It is already seared into his bones. That is the source of the problem.”
“I can’t believe you’re taking this tack now!”
“I agree. But one of us has to.” Dreschner replied.
Schicksal raised her hands to her reddening face.
Dreschner gently continued.
“But I also agreed with you, back then. When you said you thought I had what it takes to fix anything. This is part of that. At the end of the day if I punch Reiniger and accept him among my ranks I am condoning his behavior. That must stop.” Dreschner said.
Red mist started to lift from the world, and Schicksal took a deep breath.
“I got carried away.” She said.
“I can’t judge you for that.” replied the General.
“I feel so powerless.” Schicksal sighed. “Before Knyskna I only barely interacted with these people. You gave me more responsibilities and recognized me, General, and I felt like I had to live up to that, but I failed. And now I feel like I should have done more of, something– I don’t know! I don’t know. I should have done something to stop him.”
It reminded her too much of home.
Both her mother and her father, and her brothers, everything.
She always thought, if she had just taken one bottle away from one hand.
Then everything would have been settled. Everyone would have straightened out.
That was never how it worked out there.
But she thought that was the power Dreschner was giving her.
“I’m sorry sir. This is stupid.” She said.
Dreschner looked at her in the eyes.
“No matter your rank you will never have the power to correct anyone’s history. Neither your words nor your fists, or my fists, can change what a person is dead set on doing. I’m telling you this not because I’m a saint but because I’ve learned this the hard way. You can try, and you will try; you’ll try your damnedest. But you can’t let it consume you.”
“Don’t be. I’m the only one here to blame, for all of this. And I’m sorry enough.”
Her head was swimming a little. She wondered if it was still the alcohol or just exhaustion. She felt all the more ashamed for having drank the night before. It felt like such a weak thing to do, such a stupid thing to give into. Just like the rest of the Schicksals.
She grunted weakly. “So whether he succeeds or not, it’s a courts martial, huh.”
Dreschner straightened out in his seat. He gazed wearily at the flapping tent entrance.
He grunted too. “Solitary confinement or the lash. That’s what this hero has earned.”
Their words hung in the air for a moment.
“I don’t think he would have made it.” Schicksal said. Her brain was scattershot.
“Made what?” Dreschner asked.
She shook her head, tossing her hair around. She clutched her forehead.
“Kunze’s shot. That 2000 meter shot. When it counted. Reiniger wouldn’t have made it.”
Dreschner shook his head. He sighed deeply. “Kunze made that shot to save another tanker. Reiniger has never acknowledged this because he would never take a shot like that. Kunze had run his unit out into the open. He’d made a mistake. He was afraid he would lose his men and fail his mission. He fell back. Everyone retreated, but one crew stuck it out fighting out in front of the unit. He was bound to get killed until Kunze made that miracle shot.”
Schicksal blinked. That was a side of the story she didn’t know. “Who was in that tank?”
“Corporal Jorg Reiniger.” Dreschner said.
Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu Rail Yard, Lower Yard
“Do you see anything?”
“I’m not looking through the rear viewport, Lila.”
Lila turned her head briefly. “Oh, I see there’s shells in the way.”
She pointed behind Karima. It was indeed crowded in the turret basket.
“That’s not even it, I’m just not looking. There’s nobody behind us.” Karima replied.
Lila shrugged and returned to the vision equipment.
Owing to its enormous turret, the 152mm Mandeha Self-Propelled Gun had the dubious honor of being one of the few vehicles that the tall Private Karima Faizan could fit well inside. Even then she felt her hair brushing up against the upper turret hatch. She had an oppressive urge to duck just a little whenever she stood at attention in the turret. On the partial floor projecting from the turret ring guards she could stand somewhat straight, and through the gap she could see Isa, seated at the control sticks below.
“Do it for me, ok?” Lila said.
“Fine, fine, I’ll look, but it’s not for you, it’s so you shut up.”
She rose as much as she could, pushed the ammunition stacks out of the way and leaned into the rear viewport with a sigh. Through the hole, which was meant for a machine gun that had never been installed, she couldn’t see a thing except the train in the far distance.
Karima could scarcely hear the shots being fired outside the extra thick armor, especially over the grinding protests of the Mandeha’s over-stressed engine.
“There’s nothing but the train.” Karima said.
“That’s good, then nothing’s gotten past us.” Lila said. She tugged on her shirt collar, bringing the microphone pinned there to her lips. “How’s the evacuation going Isa?”
Over the intercomm, their driver replied, “Last ETA I got was still thirty minutes.”
Though he was directly below them, nobody could hear anybody outside the radio thanks to the ungodly noise being made by the tank. Everything rattled and ground.
Thirty minutes; how long ago had they last said thirty minutes?
“Great.” Karima said, crossing her arms and sighing loudly. “I hope the Chief at least manages to evacuate all of her trinkets safely. We’ll just wait our turn out here.”
“Shush, you! No cynicism.” Lila scolded in her chirpy voice.
Though the interior turret was large enough for multiple people to occupy when empty, when the ammunition was loaded, it became cramped again. Each shell came in two pieces, one a propellant charge and the other a warhead. There were no baskets installed, so they ran around with these charges sitting on every surface. No chairs had been installed either, but in their previous excursion, Karima had found a good place to sit in the lip of the rear turret basket, where it connected to the turret’s cylindrical neck. So there she sat.
As they guarded the tracks, Karima was surrounded on all sides by the flat-tipped explosive charges and the cylindrical propellant pieces. Together, the pieces made a shell over 60 cm long and 15 cm wide, weighing 40 kg. Every piece was labeled for charge strength from one to three, but all the charges she had available at the moment were Tier 3 low velocity propellant and Tier 3 and 4 HE warheads. Tier 4 was only a handful of powder above a training cartridge; Tier 3 was barely enough to put one-meter holes into things.
In front of her, Private Lila Bennewitz bounced around between the vision slits on the turret sides, and the rotating periscope in front. Most of the interior turret face was dominated by the massive breech of the 152mm gun, adapted directly from a heavy howitzer, and the hydraulic traverse mechanisms of the turret, controlled by a wheel. Nobody seemed able to turn turret or lift the shells except Karima. Hence why she received this assignment.
On any other occasion she would’ve been frustrated, but she had to admit riding around alone in a big turret with Lila was not such a bad deal as far as combat posts could go.
“Sorry.” Karima said.
“For what?” Lila asked.
“Being me, I guess.”
Lila chuckled. “Don’t be.”
“No! Don’t be sorry!”
“That’s gonna take some work.”
Lila breathed out.
Their blocking position on the eastern, “back” end of the rail yard, straddling the track, gave them a lot less insight into the battle than Karima would have thought. They had buildings obstructing all of their view to the meadow on the right, the factory areas left, and creating a tunnel of vision to the grasslands dead ahead over which the track continued east. It was the best they could do: the Mandeha couldn’t climb the ramps to get off the southern side of the rail yard and into the raised ground of the factory areas on their left.
At least, not without destroying the ramps and potentially breaking the suspension.
Standing near the tracks with their gun pointed down the length was all they could do.
“Karima, could you peek out of the hatch and listen for the enemy?” Lila asked.
“Over the sound of this monster groaning?”
“You’ll hear everything better once you’re outside.”
Shrugging, Karima pushed herself up to as much of a stand as she could manage in the turret. She stretched her hand, pushed up the hatch, and took three steps out. She kept her head low to the metal. Set atop the chassis of an early production version of the experimental Ogre heavy tank, the Mandeha was over four meters tall. Karima was still not high enough to see around the buildings, but she could hear the sounds of battle.
Cannons crying out in the distance, one after the other.
Shells crashing through walls, exploding; debris hitting ground, structures collapsing.
She listened to each rumbling noise, to each distant point of collapse.
It evoked little feeling in her. Guns weren’t what she was afraid of.
Karima panned her head around the static landscape, the train tracks, the brick fence sealing the factories off from the rail yard, the warehouse buildings. Despite the shelling going on in the distance it was eerily quiet, lonely. It gave her a little bump in the chest, thinking about how desolate this place was, how she could step out of this tank and just be shut off from all the humanity she could palpably interact with in a matter of minutes.
She shook her head. No good to go down that route.
Having had her fill of the outside she took a step down the ladder.
Smoke and dust blew skyward as a shell smashed a building much closer to them.
Startled, Karima slipped on a foothold.
She fell into the turret, the hatch closing and hitting her on the head on the way down.
Crashing atop Lila, the two of them ended up breast to breast on the floor.
“Ow!” they cried at once.
They locked eyes briefly, both wincing with pain, breathing ragged.
Karima averted her gaze quickly and scrambled back up the steps.
“What happened? Hey!”
Lila shouted after her, but Karima was already out of the turret.
She pulled a pair of binoculars and watched through an alley as the Raktapata tread cautiously about, trading positions with an enemy tank. Judging by their movements they were circling, trying to catch each other in the flank. She heard guns going off; when the tanks moved just so she could see the shots through the alley. It was tense.
She shouted down into the turret, “Naya needs help! Turn this thing around!”
“Isa! Turn 90 degrees!” Lila ordered.
At once the Mandeha’s engine blew thin streams of black smoke, and its tracks crunched along the ground. Karima closed the hatch and returned to the gun, looking through the fixed gunnery sight as the tank turned itself to face the alleys, through none of which it would fit. Though they could traverse the turret, shooting with the turret in anything but the neutral position could ’cause some issues’ according to Chief Ravan.
“Can we do anything from here?” Lila asked.
“We can scare them.” Karima said.
She felt a sense of urgency — Naya was in danger, and Farwah too.
They could get killed.
And when you die you don’t come back.
That’s one less voice she’d never hear again. It spiraled in her brain, causing a near-panic, the idea that someone she had seen, heard, mucked about with, gone.
Just a little bit more alone than before.
“I’ll help you with the shell!” Lila said in her bubbly voice.
“It’s fine, keep an eye out!” Karima replied, clearing her head.
She opened the breech on the 152mm gun, threw in one of the warheads and screwed in the propellant canister. All of the pieces were heavy, but she was strong enough for the task, and desperate enough for it. She didn’t want Lila exerting herself with them unless absolutely necessary. Once the shell was in, Karima closed the breech, locked it, and holding the chain in her hands she looked through the gunnery sight again.
The Raktapata started backing away, moving half out of her sight.
A shell sailed through empty space, smashing into Naya’s gun mantlet.
Retreating after the blow, the Raktapata vanished from sight.
“Firing 152mm HE!”
Karima pulled the chain.
Recoil forces shook the entire turret.
A sound like boulder falling onto hard ground issued from the gun.
Through the alleys the shell soared and hit the ground between Naya and her enemy.
Smoke and dust soared several meters high over a hole two meters wide and one deep.
“Isa, move closer to that building on the left!”
Nobody in the Mandeha questioned that they were leaving behind their blocking position. Isa started driving and Lila kept a lookout on the periscopes. This was Naya, and Farwah, their compatriots, their friends; if they were fighting like this it was because the Raktapata couldn’t win like it did before. Otherwise they would not have been retreating.
To hell with the tracks! Karima couldn’t let Naya’s voice go silent in her head.
Even if she didn’t like her all that much; she couldn’t take being left alone again.
Thanks to a well-placed HE shell, the walls before the Dicker Max collapsed, the large assault gun shoved its way through the rubble and into the open area of the machining yard in time to intervene in Noel’s duel with the new Ayvartan tank. As Reiniger thought, the fairy was making no progress against that behemoth — not even a 50mm gun could do it! At least he hadn’t gotten killed. It was time he left the job to a professional.
With a smile on his face, Reiniger lined up what he thought would be a killing shot.
Noel played a fine distraction, but this was to be Reiniger’s moment, his trophy.
Cackling, he pulled the chain and loosed a 10.5 cm APC tracer.
Frustration soon set in again.
Blinded by the smoke and dust blown everywhere by the muzzle brake, Reiniger failed to see where his shot had gone at all. Owing to his slow traverse and the maneuvering of the duelists, his aim was put extremely off. He took out nothing of his enemy, merely punching a hole in a wall several dozen meters across from the two combatants.
“Turn 20 degrees left, now!”
To make matters worse the Dicker Max traversed so slowly that it was impossible to realign before the enemy escaped. Reiniger shouted for Noel to go after it–
Then with a roar of its heavy gun, a new contender entered the fray.
“God damn it! God, fucking, damn it!”
Reiniger shouted at the top of his lungs, flailing his fists around in a fury.
Smoke started to clear around the machining yard; and it was like seeing a giant peer its eyes through a window. There was nothing but green metal to be seen through the hole his shell had made in the wall. The Ayvartans had made a tank that was at least three meters tall and nearly as much wide, and what Reiniger could see of the gun through the debris was massive. Gargantuan even compared to the other new type.
And it was hiding behind a building, its turret seams stuck with rivets.
So its armor must have been trash.
His loader pushed another shell into the breech, and Reiniger shouted into the radio.
“Turn 10 degrees right!”
Owing to its limited traverse, every shot from the Dicker Max was a collaboration between the driver and the gun crew. This was perhaps the most annoying aspect of it.
Thankfully, the giant size of this new enemy tank meant that it was a massive target.
The Dicker Max turned on its tracks and aimed through the hole in the wall.
At once the Ayvartan tank pulled away from the aperture.
Reiniger’s shell launched and he saw nothing of it through his own smoke.
“Pursue! Pursue! Run through this infernal smoke cloud!”
“Into the building you moron!”
His M4s would be circling around the rail yard, Noel would be chasing the other tank; this one had to be his kill, otherwise all he accomplished in this attack was biting walls!
The Dicker Max pushed out into the machining yard, past the open space and into the building. Through the hole in the back wall the assault gun pushed up, running over debris and peering through. Reiniger reacquired the Ayvartan tank, backpedaling along the tracks and around the corner of another building. He quickly traversed and fired.
Once more the Dicker Max smashed clean into a wall and took it out. One hole through the corner, and then the detonation, collapsing two brick walls for the price of one. A quarter of the building became a mound of bricks, tin and glass, behind which the Ayvartan tank must have been hiding. He could see no green around the rubble.
“They’ll have to come out if they want to fight back. They’re fucked now.”
The Dicker Max had no traverse and Reiniger knew it would be the same for that gigantic tank. It must have been an Ayvartan assault gun. Only an assault gun could mount a gun like that. In so doing, it gave up its turret completely. Reiniger’s mind was racing, his heart beating fast, but he knew that he had them. They would have to slip out from beside the building and turn their whole tank around to meet his own and fire.
In that span of time the Dicker Max would put a 10.5 cm shell right through them.
They were separated by less than 100 meters of clear space along the track.
Reiniger was sure the Dicker Max would get through its armor. He just had to be patient.
“Correct five degrees left.” Reiniger ordered.
“Roger sir,” his driver replied. The Dicker Max gently shifted.
Reiniger waved his hand in the air. “Can we do something about this smoke?”
Without warning he heard a deep, booming crash as a wall collapsed.
“What was that?” Reiniger asked. “Everyone pull up, take a look around.”
Reiniger looked around over the superstructure and saw nothing the matter. Half-inside the building and half-out, the Dicker Max had a good view of the track, of the open space in front of them, of the buildings on either side. There was nothing to see.
“I don’t see anything sir, but we should turn left, toward the sound.” said his driver.
“Finally a good idea. Turn us 50 degrees left.”
The Dicker Max once again undertook the laborious process of shifting its weight.
Only a few degrees into the turn Reiniger heard a second explosion, closer.
In a flash the green metal hulk appeared at the edge of his vision.
They had not gone around the corner at all.
“Fuckers blew through the wall, shit! Traverse, traverse!”
Reiniger threw his arm back in a panic, pulling his gun chain and loosing a shell.
Smoke, dust, blindness. No idea what he hit.
“God damn it, forward, forward, turn faster–”
There was a flash through the gloom.
Overhead a shell struck the building, disgorging bricks into the Dicker Max.
In an instant much of the building came down with those bricks.
“Isa, back away now!”
That huge assault gun had them in its sights, and with Naya gone there was no more reason to stick around for it to target. The Mandeha backed away from the building it had once thought was safe, its crew quickly learning that nothing was cover when faced with a 10.5 cm gun. Hitting the second reverse gear, Isa took them as fast as the tank could move backward around a building corner straddling the side of the tracks.
Through the aperture created by its own shot the enemy assault gun rumbled out.
A sharp flash and a thick cloud of smoke accompanied its next attack.
As the Mandeha slipped behind the building the heavy shell smashed the wall flat. A pile of debris accumulated where the corner once was, but the Mandeha avoided any harm.
“It’s going to be gunning for us now, we can’t go back out in the open.” Isa said.
“But we have to stop it, we can’t let it turn tail and run for the train.” Karima replied.
Lila stepped toward the right-hand side of the turret. There was a small viewing slit with thick, yellowed glass there that was obstructed by the wall at their side, so she couldn’t actually see anything through it. Still she gazed ponderously through the glass, rubbing her chin and bouncing up and down from one foot to the other. She crossed her arms.
She turned her head over her shoulder toward Karima, beaming brightly to herself.
“I only got a little glimpse of it, but the gun doesn’t look like it can turn, right?” Lila said.
“It doesn’t have a turret, I don’t think. The gun just looks stuck there.” Karima replied.
Lila grinned. “So if we come at it from the side, it won’t be able to target us quickly.”
It dawned upon Karima just what Lila’s plan was, and she was immediately satisfied.
“Isa, back us out, we’re gonna punch a hole in the wall for you.” Karima said.
“Use the weaker heads for that, otherwise the whole building will come down.” Isa said.
Retreating along the side of the building, the Mandeha cleared the back wall, turned sideways enough to give its gun some clearance. Inside the turret, Karima rooted around the charges, found a Tier 4, and made to pick it up. Lila’s hand then laid on it.
Karima looked up. “What is it?”
Looking pensive, Lila stood just beside the charge, rubbing her hands atop the thing.
“I want to help you with it.” Lila said.
“No! It’s not necessary!” Karima said. “I’ll do it. Don’t sully your hands.”
Lila smiled. She raised her hands as though to say, ‘they’re not on it now.’
Karima smiled back.
She loaded the Tier 4 warhead into the breech after pulling out the old brass. She screwed in the low-velocity propellant, sealed the breech, and pulled the chain.
Though the charge was weaker, the gun’s deafening roar and intimidating recoil were largely unchanged. Karima reflexively moved back a step, as if she feared the howitzer would launch back into her. The 152mm barrel and breech pushed back over the slide and easily buffered back into position. Karima looked through the gunnery sight and found a nice hole in the wall. The Mandeha started moving. Isa took them inside the building.
In the warehouse building, the Mandeha started to turn again, this time toward the side.
Karima loaded another Tier 4 head and a Tier 3 propellant.
She pulled the chain; the Mandeha’s gun smashed through the side wall and revealed the the broad side of the enemy assault gun, standing on a pile of rubble, half inside the building’s shadow, and laboring to turn its massive gun around to face them.
That flank armor was not vulnerable for long, however.
In seconds the gun mantlet was coming into view.
Karima grit her teeth and quickly assembled a new shell.
“I don’t know how much even the Tier 3 will do, it’s not an armor-piercing shell.”
“We’ll aim up!” Lila said. She took a wheel next to the gun and started to turn it.
Clicking noises issued as the gun barrel elevated.
Lila then laid a hand on Karima’s; their fingers locked over the trigger chain.
“Go!” Lila shouted.
Karima nodded and locked the breech.
They pulled the chain together.
Before the enemy could shoot, the Mandeha lobbed a shell over the enemy.
Smashing through brick and wood it entered the building.
A wild detonation vaporized the interior supports.
In an instant it seemed an avalanche of bricks, wood and tin disgorged over the enemy, falling right into the open canopy. Debris topped off the canopy and spilled around the sides of the vehicle, burying it up to its tracks. Collecting into a mound, more and more chunks of the building toppled over the tank in progression, until it appeared as if half the structure had leaned forward to vomit its contents into the assault gun’s crew compartment. Pieces of tin went flying, and one by one every standing surface toppled.
Smoke and dust blew from the gun when the violence settled.
All that remained unburied was one enormous muzzle brake.
It was pointed straight into the Mandeha’s armor on the lower turret front.
A stream of dust blew from it.
Karima could feel her own heart beating much too fast. She was short of breath.
“Did we get it?” Isa asked over the intercomm.
“Kill confirmed, I think.” Lila said, wiping sweat and smoke dust from her face.
“I’ll– I’ll call it in.” Karima said. Her body shook with the residual thrill of the fight.
She pulled back the turret floor hatch, and crouched into the gloomy niche below. At her back, Isa worked the two control sticks, turning the tank around again. On the wall, she found the radio unit, an old model furnished for the prototype tank so it would possess some perfunctory communications functions. She started working the dials.
Nothing but static on everything but the intercomm. Of course.
Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu Rail Yard, Upper Yard
Smoke billowed from the train engine’s chimney pipe as the civilians finished boarding.
Impatient whistling sounded from the front and was heard across the cars.
Leander walked back and forth along the side of the train with his BKV in hand. Beside him, Sharna made a better show of it, waving at the passengers, panning her head around as if she had a keen eye for trouble to employ. From the train windows people looked at them, pointed their children toward them, waved. Some blew kisses.
They were the only two soldiers, it seemed, who had kept around a BKV; and the gun looked so impressive that by dint of its size, it kept civilian morale from plummeting.
“Leander, I think there’s a cute girl goggling me.” Sharna said, winking at nothing Leander could see. He sighed, unable to muster the same enthusiasm for this post.
“Sharna, aren’t you even a little anxious?” Leander said. He had to walk with his BKV held well aloft. Sharna was tall enough that her stock didn’t scrape the floor as she went along, but Leander had no such luck. His arms started to feel sore quite quickly.
“Of course I am! But I have to put up a strong face for people without anti-tank rifles! And you know, if that strong face attracts some comely comrades, well, great!”
She flashed a smile at the train cars again, her round face lighting up, her long black ponytail bobbing up down against her back as she mugged as if for pictograph boxes.
Leander tried to join her, but his expression came up much weaker than hers.
He heard shells periodically striking and exploding in the lower yard and it shook him.
On their umpteenth patrol around the side of the engine, the conductor stepped off from the locomotive and waved them over. At first Leander didn’t even think it was anything to do with him, but then he saw Sharna skip toward the man, moving so lightly that he thought the BKV must have exerted no weight on her. Then he himself approached after.
“Comrades, everyone is getting restless. We must depart! Go talk to that obstinate Chief Ravan at the back of the train and tell her to hurry up!” pleaded the Conductor.
“Roger!” Sharna said, saluting.
Leander saluted just to mimic her, but he didn’t have to. Conductors had no real rank.
Once more they followed the length of the train down to the caboose, where loading was still being conducted from atop the raised concrete platform. Through the open doors of several cars they peered and found them half full of mechanical contraptions, track links, whole engines, crates full of parts. Several engineering cars, long and sturdy enough to contain whole vehicles on their flatbeds, and with wide fenced sides to allow people aboard, were being prepared. One flatbed was being loaded with a half-track car. At the very rear of the train the flatbeds were followed by two thick, black armored cars.
“Be gentle with that!” Shouted a woman engineer, standing atop a ramp extending from the door to one of these cars. Several dozen meters away a pair of soldiers with a portable gantry crane hooked up what looked like a naked tank cannon, trying to unload it from the back of a large tractor so they could haul it around the yard while she shouted at them.
Leander figured this was the “Chief Ravan” the train crew was so angry about. He and Sharna approached from the side, panning their heads around whenever they heard an explosion in the distance. They were becoming less frequent, but that could have just as easily been a sign of an enemy victory as an enemy defeat. He was on his guard.
“Excuse me ma’am!” He called out, approaching the ramp from the side.
She turned her head to face him, and arranged her wavy blond hair behind her ear.
“Hmm? What is it? I’m a little busy right now.” She snapped at him.
Leander felt a touch intimidated. She gave off a rather unapproachable aura.
“Ma’am, the conductor wants to know how much longer it will take before we’re ready. Everyone’s anxious to go, and all of the civilians are loaded up now.” Sharna said.
Chief Ravan looked almost offended to be asked that question. She crossed her arms, took a deep drag of her cigarette, and spread her lips, allowing the smoke to escape.
When she finally spoke it was with a voice of open contempt.
“We’re almost done! Besides, my units are out there fighting to buy us time, so–”
Before Chief Ravan could protest any further, another woman came running in from the side of the train, making gestures with her hands. Her neck-length hair whipped around as she rushed to their side. Judging by her pins and uniform she was a Captain, and probably a politruk. She had one hand over the other, sliding them across in an odd gesture.
“Oh, Dhorsha, you’re–” Chief Ravan paused to stare at the gesturing.
Leander could not tell what the Captain was saying. She made no sounds.
Chief Ravan’s jaw dropped as she read the Captain’s signs.
“TANK? Where?” She shouted suddenly.
A blast sounded behind them, much closer than any before.
Between the cars Leander saw portions of brick wall dividing the factories from the rail yard and its platforms topple over, and a familiar curved, narrow bodied M4 tank trundle through the debris. Its 50mm cannon turned from the back of the train to the open platform. It was such a ridiculous sight that Leander could scarcely believe it was happening in reality.
An enemy tank, materializing behind them this easily. The enemy that he had ambushed in Knyskna had now wound its way behind his back to plunge its own dagger.
Over the distant sounds of the shells, their engines and tracks grew louder.
Close behind it, a second tank emerged and moved to threaten the yard as well.
Both cannons turned to the nearest visible Ayvartan soldiers.
Exposed, the soldiers working on the portable gantry raised their hands.
They backed away from the gun they had been hauling.
Leander winced, thinking of what would follow.
Then a loud noise issued from the tanks, like a brass instrument.
Hatches went up, and tank commanders with bullhorns started talking.
In drawled Ayvartan, they shouted: “Communist soldiers, surrender immediately! You will not be harmed! Stop fighting and separate from the civilians! You have five minutes!”
Both M4 turrets scanned around the rail yard, looking for contacts.
But the armored cars at the back of the train blocked their view.
Chief Ravan, Leander and Sharna took cover with the cars between them and the tanks.
“Now would be a great time for Naya to reappear.” Chief Ravan whispered.
She took a drag of her cigarette and tapped her feet. Nothing happened.
Blowing out the smoke, she cursed under her breath.
Captain Rajagopal unceremoniously climbed into the car and rooted around the boxes.
Again the enemy tankers sounded a warning, this time counting down four minutes.
“Civilians and soldiers, leave the train and line up, right now!”
One of the tanks started moving closer, turning in toward them, down the train.
Bearing its right-hand side armor to them.
Leander started to nurse a reckless idea in his head.
It was a familiar feeling, an emptiness and clarity that drowned out the sense of his own blood rushing, his own lungs struggling. There was only one image in his mind.
He recalled the man that had died in their hands at the hospital.
M4 Sentinels had a major weakness on their flanks: they stored ammunition there.
All he needed was an opportunity. With those tank guns pointed away from them, he and Sharna could take out the closest tank and maybe rush the other one with grenades using the exploded husk as partial cover. He rolled around the plan in his mind while he stood, stock still, in cold, silent shock over the situation. But he couldn’t–
Captain Rajagopal jumped out of the car with several grenades in hand.
One by one she tossed them out over the top of the car.
Then from the floor of the car she seized what seemed like a tank round.
Soon a thick smoke screen built from the back of the train to the men at the gantry.
It blocked the tanks’ view of the remainder of the platform.
Pulling Chief Ravan by the hand, Captain Rajagopal rushed out into the smoke.
“Hey! What was that! Desist immediately or we will shoot!”
Into the smoke the officers disappeared.
Around the side of the car Leander watched the tank turrets turn in consternation.
Machine guns sounded, firing into the air in warning bursts.
“Sharna, we need to move!” Leander shouted.
He didn’t have to explain, it seemed.
With a grin on her face, Sharna pulled up her BKV and nodded her head.
Jumping in between the couplings, they snuck toward the closest tank. It had its turret turned all the way around and the commander was back inside. Peering around the train, Leander took a deep breath, held his gun out. Sharna patted him on the shoulder.
Together they leaped out from the couplings and landed on the hard dusty floor.
Belly-down, they held up their guns to fire stably.
Less than a hundred meters — far inside the BKV’s effective range.
He heard the last words of the dying man in his mind. Right-hand side.
Aligning their sights, the snipers held their breath and rapped their triggers.
From the anti-rifles came an initial volley.
Leander saw chips and sparks on the metal of the tank as their shots impacted.
Alerted, the enemy turreted started to turn from the smokescreen toward them.
Sharna’s gun clicked.
Leander tapped on the trigger; he felt a push and then an empty click.
One last round cut through the air.
An impact on the middle of the right-hand side armor from Leander’s perspective.
There was no spark; a hole, and a tiny flash as the incendiary effect went off.
Suddenly that hole expanded as the ammunition detonated.
Sharp, rapid bursts sounded from inside the machine as its racks were consumed.
Sharna pushed down his head and ducked her own.
A column of fire, smoke and metal fragments burst out of the open hatch. Smoke and fire outgassed from the gun. There was a wave of heat that Leander could feel washing over him. Metal fell around them. Atop the tank the commander screamed and fell down the hatch, back into the inferno as he was filleted by the fragmentation and burned alive. Leander’s tiny pinprick of a penetration hole grew to the size of a tank hatch. Blooming outward like a metal flower, the bullet hole coughed black smoke from the interior.
Leander raised his head. Over the skeletal remains on the tank the inferno settled into a calm burn. A cannon pointed toward them, the hull blocking the path parallel to the track.
“We got it!” Sharna celebrated.
“Watch out!” Leander shouted back.
A mournful whine issued from a second set of tracks.
From around the burning wreck the remaining tank pointed its gun on them.
Helpless on the ground, they couldn’t even duck. They stared, shocked dumb.
Rajagopal could have spoken through the radio, but she did not. To her the radio was a relatively new development in her life. When she was frightened, and thinking quickly, she thought, and she talked, with her hands. This was the character of her instincts.
In the face of danger, she thought too quickly for her voice, but never for her hands.
It helped that the world around her was eerily peaceful owing to the absence of sound; and that half of the world she could see was a blur of colors. Her unique configuration of senses kept her a little focused on her task; and on her hands and other’s lips.
Everything was a gargantuan effort, but she was so used to hardship already.
She barely signed it, and perhaps Vimala had seen, but the instant she threw the grenades she was already rushing past communication. It all leaned on trust, on skill, on instinct, on the practice she had put in all of her life in order to exceed expectations.
Most of her was moving too fast to dwell, but she felt a touch of anger with herself that she had to put Vimala in danger like this. She had taken her hand, and whenever their hands touched she knew Vimala would follow. But they had no choice; and she would have done nothing had she not managed to come up with a workable plan anyway.
It all hinged on the fact that the Chief had hoarded so much of camp Vijaya during the evacuation, down to the tiniest things from the workshop — such as leftover training ammo. Leftover guns. They were surrounded with weapons. Should they survive for a fraction of a second in the face of the enemy’s weapons they could make them pay.
Pulling Vimala by the hand, and holding on to a 85mm shell under her other arm, Dhorsha Rajagopal charged into the smokescreen, ducking her head and running as fast the situation allowed. As she expected she felt no tug from the woman at her back.
She looked over her shoulder exactly once, enough to see a word from Vimala’s lips.
“Dhorsha!” She angrily called out. She ran nonetheless; there was no real pulling.
Outside the smokescreen the silhouettes of the tanks shifted in response to the expanding smoke, turning their coaxial machine guns to face the expected approach.
A warning burst of gunfire flew overhead, but the women did not stop.
Not until they reached the mobile gantry crane with the AAW gun.
Pushing aside the frightened soldiers standing around the weapon, Rajagopal and Vimala grabbed hold of the mobile gantry crane and swung around the gun to face the tanks. Rajagopal loaded the training shell into the breech, and Vimala, immediately understanding the plan, stuck her wrench onto the manual trigger bolt. They braced the gantry against the side of the Tokolosh to prevent it from flying too wildly, and struggled to turn the swinging, chained-up cannon to face where the enemy tanks should have been.
Outside the smokescreen there was a bright flash and a rumbling through the floor.
Vimala and Rajagopal ducked reflexively.
They turned to each other, blinked, and hastily turned back to the gun.
Whatever that had been, there was still a tank out there.
“No matter how we do this, the AAW’s going to fly back in pieces!” Vimala signed.
Rajagopal moved her hands swiftly. To her, there was no disconnection between the words in her brain and the movements of her hands. Her limbs had become her voice so thoroughly that her mind and hands worked fully in tandem whenever she signed.
“Better that than potentially losing everyone.” Rajagopal signed back.
Vimala looked around for her cigarette, but she had long since dropped it.
“Oh, you’re causing me so much stress. Fine. Fine!” She said, shrugging.
Rajagopal smiled at her, blew a little kiss at her, and ducked away.
Scratching her hair and with a petulant look on her face, Vimala casually slapped the wrench and threw herself on the ground as far as she could get from the gun in one jump.
Without a slide to fall back over and nothing heavy to ground it, the recoil force of the 85mm AAW snapped the gantry chains, and punched the entire contraption back into the tokolosh, smashing off one of the drive wheels in the process. Metal pieces flew everywhere as the breech practically disassembled itself in mid-air after its backward thrust.
Despite this the desired effect was achieved. From cannon launched a trail of smoke and a red tracer that sailed in a perfect trajectory toward the enemy’s remaining tank.
Outside the smokescreen there was a second bright, destructive flash.
In one instant the tank was dead set on them; the next, it was merely dead.
From inside the smokescreen a muzzle lit up, and a projectile thrust through one end of the tank and out the other end. Leander watched the shell overpenetrating, flying out of the tank’s side, igniting its ammunition, and crashing into the ground near the separation fence. Any slower and the tank would have minced them — they were finally safe now.
Leander nearly dropped his gun as the moment’s adrenaline wasted away.
He felt everything coming down on him like heavy hail stones smashing his back.
Had the merest little thing gone wrong they could have all been dead.
What’s more they might have coaxed the tanks into firing near the train.
A train loaded with flammables and full of civilians. Leander felt nauseous.
“Good job!” Sharna amicably shouted, patting him on the back. She was oblivious.
“I need to stop coming up with plans.” He moaned. He remembered the forest again.
They doubled back around the side of the train, and found figures emerging from the slowly dissipating smokescreen, unharmed. Chief Ravan stomped her way back to the train.
“Ugh! I blame A.A.W for this! For all of this!” She shouted.
Behind her, the Captain smiled and patted her back and comforted her.
They walked past Sharna and Leander, waved them over to the flatbed cars, and sat around on a train ramp. Expectant stares clued in the soldiers hiding around the train that there was still unloading to be done. Sharna and Leander watched as they scrambled to complete it, while the two officers watched, and the wrecked tanks burned behind them.
Leander felt such an eerie mix of triumph and exhaustion, he nearly collapsed.
Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu Rail Yard, Center Yard
Charging past each other, the Raktapata and Konigin whipped around their guns to target each other’s vulnerable rear sections, where the armor would be thinnest. Aiming cannons over their own engine blocks, they each hoped to end the battle in one strike. At such close ranges and against the least amount of armor on the tank, these shots had deadly force.
Naya stuck to her sight. She had a big target and close. The Konigin’s blocky ear hull was covered in a thin sheet of metal armor that sloped around the back in the shape of an upside down ‘u’. Her gun sight shook violently as the tanks charged past, and even more as she tightened her grip on the shooting lever, but the rear hull occupied most of the reticle.
“Engine temperature is rising sharply!” Farwah warned.
His plight was only barely heard.
In the next instant, Naya slammed down the firing lever and unleashed her shot.
The Konnigin fired its own shoot almost concurrently.
Everything happened too quickly for Naya to grasp at first.
Chief Ravan had done a sloppy job on the engine. Shooting directly over the engine block shook the poorly attached engine cover loose. Half-turned screws flew right off.
As red tracer crossed green tracer, cutting the distance between the tanks in a fraction of a second, the Raktapata’s engine cover burst open, issuing a thick cloud of steam.
The enemy’s APCB shell sliced through the metal armor cover as it rose.
Angling poorly off this premature penetration it became embedded in the upper hull.
Naya felt a thump, and she panicked at the sight of the steam.
Behind her the engine spat and sizzled, much too hot for regular operation.
But nothing exploded; no fragments became embedded in her. There was no effect.
Meanwhile her own shell fell too low and bit into the track guard.
Despite this the effect was much more dramatic.
The AP-HE detonation split the Konnigin’s track, and dislodged several of the left-side bogeys and wheels. Spinning right off the drive wheels the track peeled off in several pieces, littering the ground as the hull slid out of control, unable to stop. Pieces of the suspension spilled from the vehicle, and sparks flew as the raw metal of the track parts slashed through concrete propelled by the vehicle’s unreal burst of speed. At last the machine crashed into a brick column between two shutter doors on a nearby warehouse.
A grinding noise issued from the Konnigin’s suddenly jammed turret ring.
A few dozen meters away the Raktapata screeched to a halt as its engine shut off.
Hot steam got into the fighting compartment, and Naya and Farwah coughed violently.
Hatches went up; Naya climbed partially out of the tank, pistol in hand.
The Konigin stirred. Its own top hatch rose.
Someone climbed out, too uncanny to be real; the first Nochtish soldier she had really laid close eyes on. Did they all look like this? This person had a certain charm to their face, smiling, a wicked little grin playing about their face. She pointed her pistol at them; they raised their hands. That elegant delicacy of their features, their pretty hair, their little grin, laughing: it struck her. Like finding a fairy amid battlefield charnel.
Naya knew that this was the tanker who had caused all this trouble.
By all rights, they deserved to die here for this mess.
Her fingers hesitated on the trigger.
She thought about demanding a surrender instead.
Across from her the fairy’s bright eyes drew suddenly wide.
“Aldricht! Nein! Lassen!” They shouted, waving their arms.
Someone had arrived.
Hearing the tracks crunching behind her, Naya dropped back into the turret.
Everything rattled as a shell struck and deflected off the front of the Raktapata.
She searched through the steam for a shell, loaded it, and found through her gun sight another M4 tank, having come out of the alley perhaps hoping to rescue its ally. Owing to their game of chicken, however, Naya’s strongest armor faced the lower yard alleys. In any other situation the tank could have ambushed her rear, but they were face to face.
Reaching for the traverse gear, she swung the turret sharply back around to the front.
Another shot from the M4 deflected off the slope of the turret armor.
No effect; the 76mm KnK-3 was brought to bear on the new enemy.
Naya hit the shooting lever.
This M4 was not like the Konigin; one shot through the glacis plate dismantled it. A hole the size of a human head smoked black as fire and smoke rose from the hatches of the tank. There were audible bursts as the ammunition cooked off. That was all she needed to hear.
She did not stay to celebrate the kill. Immediately she reached for the handholds.
Hurrying back out of the tank, she found the Konigin empty, hatches up, abandoned.
She glanced around, pistol out, but found no trace of them anywhere.
“Farwah, turn us around! They’ve escaped!” Naya cried out.
She looked over the front of the turret and found Farwah seated on the hull.
He shrugged. “Our engine’s cooked. Let’s agree to be happy we’re still alive.”
Naya slapped her own hands against her face.
She wondered if she would come to regret not shooting when she could.
It was a train of thought she dropped quickly.
Instead she pulled herself out of the turret, sat on the edge, and patted Farwah on the head in a friendly fashion. “Try calling the rail yard for a tractor tow.”
“Okay.” Farwah said.
He paused for a moment, looking at her over his shoulder.
“What is it?” She asked.
He pulled open the driver’s hatch, letting out the collected steam.
“I am thankful to have had you on the turret.” He said in a shy little voice.
Naya grinned and patted him on the head again.
“I’m glad you were on the sticks, buddy.” She replied.
Nodding, Farwah descended into the tank once more.
Over the Benghu Rail Yard the sun was well into setting.
Once grey skies took a reddish tinge as the sun descended.
Owing to the magic of radio it didn’t take long for the various units clustered at the rail station to discover that they had somehow resisted the enemy’s attack. Though the shells had only constituted intermittent background natter for most of the battle, their absence created an atmosphere of great relief in the train yard. Soon the Mandeha and Raktapata were gathered again at the lower yard, and ready to be loaded into the train.
Naya leaped out of the turret once the tractor dropped them off, and waved her hands.
All around her, various engineers and soldiers clapped and cheered for her.
There was a little crowd gathered to celebrate her heroics.
Chief Ravan and Captain Rajagopal headed the little greeting party, clapping too.
Naya turned to them, excited for praise.
Rajagopal made a cheerful-looking hand gesture Naya could not read.
“Next time, could you not destroy my tank?” Chief Ravan cheerfully said.
Not what she had been expecting.
“Wow, I can’t catch a break.” Naya replied, grinning.
On the platform, cranes struggled to load the Mandeha’s enormous turret into one of the cars. Its hull would have to go in separately. Isa, Karima and Lila approached from the flatbed tank cars, clapping their own hands for the new arrivals. Naya in turn clapped her own hands for them. After all they had fought too, and even saved her life. She had noticed that shot fired behind her as she fled from the machining yard duel with the Konigin.
“Thanks for having my back there.” She said.
“You’re welcome.” Karima replied in a surly, self-satisfied voice.
Lila elbowed her gently, giggling.
Meawhile Farwah nonchalantly extricated himself from the driver’s compartment, ambled toward the crowd, and slowly wound his arms around Isa, resting his head on his fellow driver’s chest. Not once did his expression alter — as he rubbed his head on Isa’s chest he had a completely neutral face. Isa laughed, and cuddled up to him a little himself.
Soon all of the attention seemed to turn to them. It was a cute scene.
Naya sighed fondly. She really couldn’t catch a break.
But it was fine, because she knew how all of them really felt now.
Everything that happened had proved to her that the Vijaya folk were her folk.
She turned around, looking for Aarya, but not expecting to find her.
That was fine too. They had time and space now to mend things.
Somehow, despite everything arrayed against them, they had survived.
They had come together, trusted each other and beaten the odds.
54th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Midnight
Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu Rail Yard, Lower Yard
The 8th Panzer Division presided over the quietest night the town of Benghu had ever seen. Once the tanks shut off or became distant, all one could hear was the tinnitus of one’s own stressed ears, or the total silence of the ghost town and its ghost train station.
Few people remained in the villages, too stubborn or too unprepared to leave behind everything they had ever known. When Nocht arrived in limited numbers at their doors, they were as unfriendly as they could be short of shooting the scouts on the welcome mats.
Of greatest concern was the rail yard; the Siren had not heard from its contingent since the attack began. Lt. Reiniger was known for his poor communication, but this was too much.
Search-light equipped Squire half-tracks arrived shortly after the sun had set and far too late to catch the train. They canvassed the warehouses and the factory, soon accompanied by the Panzer Division’s remaining M4 tanks. Shining powerful carbon arc lights, they spotted the scars of battle across the walls and the concrete of the Lower Yard, and found the husks of their compatriots’ vehicles, the fires playing over their hulls having long since gone out.
They identified three destroyed M4s, two M3s out in the meadow, and hit a truly low point in the night upon discovering the M4A2 broken down as well. No sign of the Dicker Max, no sign of survivors. Despondently the search parties continued, now organizing a foot search. Panzergrenadiers, medics with crisis and rescue training, and lightly armed security personnel with hand torches, combed the entire area again for signs of life.
It was this foot search that finally bore fruit.
Within a collapsed warehouse in the upper yard they found the buried Dicker Max.
And sitting on it were Noel Skonieczny and Ivan Tyzska, snacking on black bread.
“I was startin’ to think we would have to live out of this warehouse.” Noel said.
After his confrontation with the Ayvartan tank, Noel had snuck through the warehouses, hoping to duck any Ayvartan patrols and make his way to the grass. Emboldened by the total absence of his enemy, however, he revised his plans. Instead he headed for the lower yard, with Ivan in hand, hoping to uncover the fate of Lieutenant Reiniger. At last they come upon this collapsed warehouse, and the distinctive muzzle brake sticking just out of a mound of rubble. Pleased with this outcome, Noel sat atop the mound and waited.
He thought he heard a noise from the rubble, but it proved to be just his imagination.
They waited, until the sun went down, and the evening breeze whistled through the broken walls and shattered roofs. Finally they were found. Noel waved his arm in the air, smiling ecstatically. It was good to see an intact motor vehicle after all this carnage.
Within minutes, the Sd.Kfz. B’s had to make way for the arriving Befehlspanzer.
Dreschner’s transport cut engines at the edge of the track. Schicksal and the General climbed atop the turret and dropped down. Shadows played about their faces, stirring from the light of handheld lamps as they approached. This mix of light and gloom made their expressions graver, ghostly, accentuating their eyesockets and mouths.
“Everything in its place, Captain Skoniec?” Dreschner asked.
Noel stretched out his arms. He then embraced himself, and finished by spinning a little loop of his hair around his index finger and cracking a little smile. “Looks like it!”
“You were incommunicado for hours. We thought you were dead.” Schicksal said.
“Our radio was in pieces, I’m afraid.” Noel said.
“Why weren’t you keeping consistent communication before that?”
“Jorg Reiniger.” Noel explained.
Schicksal paused, and averted her eyes.
“How about you, Sergeant? Sustain any wounds?” Dreschner added.
Ivan breathed out and held his drooping head by his fists.
“We’ve suffered a severe case of wounded egos.” Noel said in his place.
He patted his lover in the back, trying to comfort him.
“I take it then that your duel with the Ayvartan tank went poorly.” Schicksal said.
Noel grinned at her. “I’m calling it a draw. I’ll get even with her later.”
Schicksal and Dreschner exchanged looks.
General Dreschner then spoke up, climbing a few steps onto the mound.
He laid hands on the one piece of visible metal jutting out of the garbage.
“Judging by the muzzle brake, then, this is–”
“Yes, this is the Dicker Max. Or what’s left.” Noel said. “From the looks of it, and I don’t mean to gloat, but. I warned you guys; I warned you about the open top. I told you.”
“I don’t suppose you tried to check for anyone alive under that rubble.”
Noel leaned forward and played at pushing on the mound of bricks, concrete, wood, metal struts and tin sheeting that had come to cover the Dicker Max so thoroughly. He made strained faces, and engaged in a gargantuan mock struggle, but budged none of the weight off the buried tank. Abruptly, he stopped, shrugged his shoulder and sat again.
Dreschner ran a hand over his face in consternation; Schicksal sighed audibly.
“Point taken.” Dreschner said. Rubbing his chin, he retreated from the mound.
Schicksal tottered after, giving one last anxious look at the mess.
“Anyone got something to drink?” Noel called out. “Ration bread is too dry!”
An hour later the Sd.Kfz. B and the Befehlspanzer all had to find new places to park along the track to make way for tractor towing a tracked excavator. Using its motor-powered digging arm, the excavator scooped up the debris from atop the Dicker Max, slowly unearthing the tank. Working on the superstructure first, the diggers made their way into the crew compartment. Medics bagged the human remains; engineers checked the tank’s mangled instruments and concluded that the hull could be reused.
However, Lieutenant Jorg Reiniger could not be.
It didn’t matter.
Shebelle was set to collapse. For a certain definition of winning, they had won.
Noel gave his respects, however. He observed the two minute moment of silence, and he held his salute while the medics stowed the body bags on the tractor and drove away.
More for the poor men led to their deaths than for Reiniger himself, however.
Noel had survived the day, somehow. But then again, so had that girl.
His pride was a little wounded, but his body was not. There would be other chances.
He had a perfect example in front of him of why egos needed tempering.
Dbagbo Dominance — Train #9, En Route To South Solstice
Beyond the train cars the landscape was blurred and forbidding, too dark and scrolling too fast to be anything but an abstraction to the passengers. They looked out their windows and over the sides of the open cars, and were unable to bid a proper farewell to the home that they were running from. Train #9 was shooting across the countryside at almost 100 kilometers per hour, leaving the Nochtish armored advance well behind then.
Most of the soldiers, who had fought all day, and the civilians, who had fled and stressed and endured the turmoil of vacating their homes and lives, took the time to sleep and recover.
Camp Vijaya, now “Battalion Vijaya,” continued to work, as they were wont to do.
Directly under the pitch black skies, illuminated by lamps that swung when hung up and shook incessantly when set down, Chief Ravan and Farwah assessed the damage to the Raktapata. Tied down on one of the open bed cars near the back of the train, the machine’s front armor was pitted by dozens of impacts and its rear hull was slashed open.
Climbing around the front armor with a torch, Farwah shone his light down into the driver’s compartment, and Naya, taking the driver’s seat, counted the cracks and near-penetrations and traced over them with bright, phosphorescent paints. Chief Ravan wanted to undertake a thorough examination of the damage in order to both fix and strengthen the Raktapata’s front armor. Photographs of the damage would be taken in the morning.
“How many so far?” Farwah asked.
“Twelve.” Naya said. “Most of them pretty thin, but there was a nasty bulge about right where your head would normally be. So, we’re not as invincible as we thought.”
“I never thought we were.” Farwah replied.
Naya crossed her arms and grunted. She supposed only she nursed those fantasies.
They had personally destroyed 15 tanks, after all. That had to be a record.
Chief Ravan ordered everyone out and off the tank once the cracks were marked.
“I’ll tidy up here. You two go get something to eat, and rest.” She said.
Farwah and Naya nodded. From the back of the car they jumped over the short gap over the coupling and walked into the adjacent armored train car, where Vijaya’s supplies had been stacked up, including food. Crew, too; Karima laid her sleeping bag in a corner next to a case of grenades. Captain Rajagopal lay atop a plank balanced on the 100mm gun. Lila and Isa sat next to a box of ration cases rifling through them for choice picks.
“Can I have a paneer masala?” Naya asked.
Isa picked out a box and chucked it over his shoulder.
Naya caught it in mid-air.
“All of you better eat those room temperature.” Karima warned.
“Oh, right.” Naya said, startled. She thought Karima would be asleep.
There were many things in the car that could react terribly to the chemical burners.
Sitting down beside the plastic-bundled remains of the 85mm A.A.W. gun, Naya ripped open the packaging on her ration, pulled out the plastic spoon, stirred in the spice packs, and dug into her cold, gloppy spiced sauce and cubes of paneer cheese.
“What are you all looking for?” Naya asked.
“Chickpeas. Those are good cold or hot, no matter what the situation. I couldn’t eat a sauce ration cold like you are. You’re far braver than I am, Naya.” Lila said.
Karima grunted from across the car.
“Paneer’s my favorite food.” Naya said, her mouth full of it.
“I’m trying to find something with meat, like the pork curry.” Isa said.
Hearing this wish, Farwah started searching in the boxes himself.
Naya whistled. “Good luck with that. You don’t see a lot of meat around here.”
“What do you like, Farwah?” Isa asked.
“My favorite ration is the mashed plantains.” Farwah said.
“I’ve honestly never even seen that one as a ration. What’s it like?”
“It is good.” Farwah said simply, staring on with his blank eyes.
“Should’ve expected that response.” Naya said, shaking her head.
“I have dietary restrictions, so I only eat the vegetarian rations.” Lila said.
“That’s most of the rations, anyway.” Isa said.
“They should make some kosher ones.” Lila said dejectedly.
“They should! Lodge a complaint.” Karima added.
Lila picked up a few more rations to add to the pile forming near her. She found a box at the bottom of the ration crate with the red stripe, meat labeling. She handed it to Isa.
“Chicken tikka! Victory!” Isa said, examining the package.
Farwah clapped gently for him.
“You’re seriously going to eat cold chicken?” Karima shot from across the car.
“It’s been processed. It’s fine.” Isa said.
Farwah nodded in support of him.
Karima turned over in her sleep bag. She was already facing away from them, but this time she was facing away from them in a different and more belligerent direction.
“So what’s our next stop now?” Naya asked.
“Solstice.” Farwah said.
Everyone alive in Ayvartan had heard of Solstice. It was impossible not to, even if you would never see it in your life. Ayvarta’s heart, in the middle of the red desert, protected by fifty meter high walls and three enormous cannons, as well as the Revolutionary Guards. All of the Unions in Ayvarta, all of the farms, all of the regional governments, had their true headquarters in Solstice, where they would negotiate, develop plans, form contracts, and direct resources wherever they were most needed, under Council guidance.
To the Ayvartan form of government, losing Solstice practically meant a total collapse.
She supposed as a soldier she was fated to see it someday.
But she and the Raktapata had the heavy responsibility to defend it now.
Her performance against the Konigin and its crew emboldened her, however.
Instead of intimidated, she almost wanted to see it happen — to have that duel again.
One crazy thought traded for another. She spooned more paneer into her mouth.
“Specifically, southern Solstice, on the edge of the desert.” Lila said.
“Spirits defend I hate the desert.” Isa said. He spooned some chicken into his mouth and talked through it. “I’ll take a year’s worth of storms over a month in the desert.”
Behind him Farwah patted him on the back for comfort.
Naya stared at them in sharp consternation.
“How come I don’t get someone doting on me?” Naya said, chewing on paneer.
“I’ll dote on you.” Lila said mischievously.
“What?” Karima shouted in sudden outrage.
“I’ll pass.” Naya said.
Lila giggled again. Naya sighed. She wanted someone else to dote on her.
“You think I can make it all the way to the civilian cars?” She said, on a lark.
“No!” Karima shouted. “You’ll stay here and get doted on, and see if I care!”
She turned again in her sleeping bag, now facing her original direction.
Covering up her giggling mouth, Lila stood and tip-toed over to the sleeping bag.
“Maybe I’ll dote up Karima then, huh?”
She knelt beside Karima and started to run her hands over her.
Karima growled like an angry cat but allowed the massaging to go on.
Her reticence drew some laughter from Naya.
So this was Camp Vijaya; where she now belonged.
55th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu-Gollaproulu North Junction
Thirty kilometers from the town of Benghu, General Dreschner stood on a grassy mound of earth at the edge of a vast stretch of flat country. Every which way he looked there was beautiful, green open terrain. Far in the distance he could see a curling railroad track that briefly reminded him of a worse time, but everything else was perfect.
This was tank land all the way from here to the desert. No more rivers. No more forests. No more slopes. No more mud. 200 beautiful kilometers of country before the sand.
He stood on this slope and shook hands with the square-headed General Strich of the 10th Panzer Division atop this mound, signaling the closure of the Shebelle Pocket, in which elements of six Ayvartan Divisions were now trapped. Though both the 10th, 15th and 8th Panzer Divisions had taken a costly beating to secure this encirclement, it did not matter now. Around Dbagbo the weather was bettering. It was airplane weather all over tank country, and the Ayvartans would not be able to endure these dual terrors.
“How fare your men, Strich?” Dreschner asked.
“Boisterous as always.” Strich said. “I can hardly keep up.”
Strich was at least fifteen years older than Dreschner. He rarely went anywhere without his kubelwagen to ferry him, the vehicle now parked at the bottom of the little hill.
“How fare your tanks?” Strich said.
Dreschner felt a touch of frustration with this interaction already, but restrained himself. He had committed to changing his old ways. Strich was owed respected as a peer, not derision. As respectfully as he could muster, he replied. “Enough are active to hold.”
“My 10th division is the same. But, are enough active for my comfort? Certainly not!”
“One can never have enough active firepower.” Dreschner said, chuckling.
Strich took his leave, and started ambling downhill toward his car.
Another car had stealthily parked beside it.
As Strich vacated the area he walked past Colonel-General Ferdinand, who climbed the hill with enthusiasm, and met Dreschner at the top. He stretched out his own hand, and gave Dreschner a vigorous shake. He was beaming through his old style mustache.
“General Dreschner, or should I say, Major-General Dreschner, congratulations.”
Dreschner’s hand shook, and not from Ferdinand’s grip.
Grinning, the old man continued. “Owing to another brilliant encirclement, I have fast-forwarded the paperwork, this very morning. Field Marshal Haus agrees completely. You will lead the 10th, 15th and 8th Panzer Divisions as part of the 2nd Vorkampfer.”
“Thank you, sir.” Dreschner said simply. His mind was drawing a blank.
“I will make sure you can personally direct every single tank in those divisions to suit your purposes Dreschner. I’ve already got a green light from the Field Marshal; he will personally entreat the Congress for more funding for the WP6. You have succeeded beyond my wildest expectations, Dreschner. You and Noel; you have done excellently. Excellently!”
Difficult as it was to believe, this was happening. Dreschner’s lower back still ached so this was not a dream. This was perhaps a different world; a world where Noel had not been defeated on two successive occasions by an Ayvartan tank they had not one photo of, where Reiniger had not died in that hideous WP6 rust bucket, where they had not lost almost 80 tanks in a single day to various problems around Shebelle and Benghu.
“Our next stop, is Solstice. Then this bloody business is concluded. Soon the world will be our oyster Dreschner! I for one can’t wait; this taste of success is too intoxicating!”
Major-General Dreschner of the 2nd Vorkampfer Panzer Corps felt quite ill at ease.
His sense of triumph was marred by a great trepidation and the weight of unreality.
“Excuse me, Colonel-General. I should go pick my new staff.” Dreschner said.
Colonel-General Ferdinand smiled at him from his eerie, rose-colored world.
Dbagbo was all but over. Now the real war was beginning. Unternehmen Solstice. The plan to advance 600 kilometers from the edges of the middle Dominances, through desert and rocky wasteland, in order to finally reach and encircle a thousand square kilometers of city fully enclosed behind fifty meters of wall in the middle of the red desert.
All of this had to be done before the summer.
Only 600 kilometers. In 37 days they had already advanced that amount along several parts of the front. They had nearly conquered the most populous and difficult parts of Ayvarta. Now it was not a question of whether they could continue at this pace.
Drescher had to maintain that pace. Nocht had to maintain that pace.
Solstice Dominance — SIVIRA of the Supreme Command
“Have you a new five-point plan for World Peace that you wish to promote, Larissa?”
Seated behind her desk, Daksha Kansal stared over steepled fingers at the arriving ambassador to the Republic of Helvetia, a large northern nation geographically smack in the middle of Lubon, Nocht and, with some imagination, Ayvarta as well. Helvetians reminded Daksha of the Nochtish people, except much more predisposed to preaching.
Even before the motion of no confidence made things awkward for them, Ayvartan’s few visiting foreign ambassadors were loathed to have any kind of actual diplomatic discussion. They just seemed to enjoy renting the space for their buildings, and tasting the local cuisine. One notable exception was the Helvetian ambassador, who came to censure the Ayvartan government frequently. Just a few days ago she had condemned Ayvarta’s “failure of democracy” after the dissolution of the Council. Daksha enjoyed putting her in her place, and immediately wrote a deliciously belligerent article explaining Yuba’s role in the proceedings, as well as the fact that she was elevated to her position by democratic blocs.
Never was Larissa daunted by these retorts. Time and again she would reappear in front of the Ayvartan government, submitting herself to whatever skepticism or ridicule they had in store in exchange for some time to talk about her own high-handed views.
Daksha supposed that was what brought her here today. Again.
And she never knocked or made her presence known. So she always startled Daksha and always set off her anxiety. Self-centered puffy fool. Shooting was too good for her.
Reigning in her fury, Daksha silently bid the ambassador to come forward.
Despite the hot weather, Larissa was clad in a fur cap and coat. Long locks of blonde hair trailed down the sides of her face, perfectly parted in the center. She was a fairly tall woman, with an angular face that gave her a humorless appearance. She bore a variety of pins on her breast; supposedly they reminded her of various causes she stood for. Ending world hunger, preserving historic treasures, curing cancer, and such things.
Without the revolutionary science of Lenanism none of those things had any hope of happening, so Daksha just found the Helvetians ineffective and tedious. To the last one they would drone about World Peace while offering Nocht and Lubon nothing but stern reprimands, and Ayvarta nothing but worthless platitudes. Much of the globe laughed at their faces. This was perhaps the one thing Nocht and Ayvarta gladly agreed on.
Behind Larissa, Cadao stood helplessly, fidgeting. Daksha knew not exactly why; but Cadao fidgeted and acted like an anxious puppy about every damned thing anyway.
“She has important news, Premier.” Cadao said.
Daksha separated then clapped her hands together. “This is new. What is it?”
“You’ll find that this,” Larissa approached and dropped a folder on the desk, “is newer.”
Helvetia never had news for anyone, because they never did anything.
Caught off-guard by the contents of the folder, Daksha scarcely looked at it before she delivered a skeptical glance at Larissa, and then at Cadao, who shrank away from it.
“Explain.” Daksha said brusquely.
“ULTRA has intercepted various signals from Lubon over the past thirty days. In your hands, you hold ULTRA’s final report, and their complete findings.” Larissa said.
“I can see that.” Daksha replied.
That was not all; there were certainly many transcripts, broken codes, intercepted diplomatic communications. Already scandalous things, only available through spying. However there were also troop movement projections, maps of Ayvarta extensively labeled, code names, formations. According to this folder, Lubon would be landing two Armies in North Solstice within weeks if not days; if not already on the way.
It was alarming; though the veracity of this information was suspect.
“Explain what your angle is.” Daksha curtly reiterated.
“Daksha,” Larissa said, her tone still serious, neutral. “Let us talk.”
“Concerning what?” Daksha said. She was wary of some kind of northern trick.
After all, Helvetia had helped Nocht before, a few decades ago, in their darkest hour.
“Helvetia’s global role and partners in that global role.” Larissa replied.
Daksha raised an eyebrow. This was certainly new — and interesting.
“I thought you didn’t like working with ‘totalitarian dictators.'” Daksha said.
“That was then. This is now. Besides, you wouldn’t characterize yourself as that, would you? I thought your role now was a guarantor of your people’s revolution.” Larissa said.
“You annoy the hell out of me.” Daksha, grinning. “Let’s talk then, peacenik.”
Next chapter in Unternehmen Solstice: Gloom On The Shining Port.