The Fallen Front (39.3)

This scene contains violence.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

Supply drops had long ceased to be happy events. Their infrequency and the disappointment felt division-wide at the contents of each delivery, led the landsers to feel only bitterness at the sight of the thick Stud trucks making the rounds up and down from Dori Dobo.

Nobody crowded the trucks anymore. Only Kern and Aschekind awaited them; the driver, long since tired of arguments and blame, remained stubbornly inside the cab.

Corporal Kern Beckert was far too familiar with the waiting and disappointment.

It was too early, he thought, to be awake for this business. He was only as awake as he was because the Lieutenant had woken him. Aschekind was a massive man, heads taller than Kern, much broader, a slab of muscle buried beneath a trenchcoat and cap. For someone so rough-looking, the Lieutenant had so far been mostly accommodating. Kern had never turned down a request from him, however, for fear of his attitude changing.

Aschekind had not woken him with words. His mere presence, letting in light into the tent, was enough to shake anyone. Kern followed him out, and there they stood, waiting.

In the distance, the old Stud model 3-ton truck from General Auto approached along an ancient dirt road, through an avenue of tall grass encircled by the tree line. The Stud drove until adjacent to them, and paused momentarily. Lieutenant Aschekind turned around, and like a loyal dog the truck followed him. Kern followed in the truck’s smoking wake.

Though he had served in the once-illustrous 1st Vorkampfer as they triumphantly marched on Bada Aso, Kern was more a jittery boy than a seasoned veteran. He felt ever more childish whenever he had to accompany the Lieutenant on these routine tasks. Too intimidated to lead any maneuver, Kern confined himself to staring at the Lieutenant’s back.

It did not help that his unit was in as pathetic a shape as he felt himself to be in.

After being explosively expelled from Bada Aso, the Vorkampfer remnants had been scattered across the Kalu, a stretch of rolling green hills, rocky escarpments and a patchwork of dense forest that marked the transition from Bada Aso and Adjar to the verdure of Tambwe farther north. It took almost a week to gather everyone farther north of the burning city and inform them of their preliminary new assignments.

That assignment would be reorganizing into the new 13th Panzer Division.

Currently the nascent Division was series of small clusters of tents spread across a peaceful wooded stretch of the Kalu near the Umaiha river in northern Ajdar. Each encampment housed a company-sized formation still clinging to its own as if distrustful of higher command. Lieutanant Aschekind was in charge of this one, known as Camp Ash.

They were short on everything, and had not spoken to a rank above Captain in days.

Trucks like this old Stud should have been a shining light, but they hardly helped. Camp Ash needed a train cart full of supplies to equip its 300 men. But there were no trains, no boats, no planes. Only the wood, and only a truck of food and water every other day.

Their supply area was downright paltry. As it approached, the truck seemed big enough to have taken all of the tents and all of the food and ammunition they had left with it.

Once acknowledged and pointed to where he had to go, the driver backed up the truck. He stopped close to one of the supply tents erected under the shade of a cluster of trees, and killed the engine. This was the signal for unloading to begin without him.

Lieutenant Aschekind pulled down the ramp at the back of the truck. A foul smell suddenly wafted out from inside the canopy tarp and from between the crates inside the truck bed.

When the smell hit Kern’s nose he recoiled physically.

It was disgusting, a salty smell, cloying and dense.

The Lieutenant climbed the ramp; it was implicit that Kern must climb with him.

He reluctantly stepped up onto the bed and soon tearfully regretted his decision.

Inside the back of the truck they found a complete mess. Crates had overturned in transit. Many had been broken, and the rations inside had been contaminated and stank. Several water cans had fallen on their caps, which broke and spilled water that collected on ration boxes. Those cans which had managed to remain upright, had lost their contents mysteriously. Perhaps to evaporation in the arid central plains of Adjar.

Kern covered his mouth and nose with his hands and turned away from the sight.

Lieutenant Aschekind, livid, stomped out of the truck and snatched the driver from the cab.

He threw the man into the bed, slamming him into one of the broken crates.

Kern winced as the man quivered on the bed of the truck, disoriented.

“I demand an explanation.” Aschekind said, in a low, deliberate, dangerous voice.

Shaking, the driver glanced over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the mess.

“I– I don’t know! I had nothing to do with this! I just pack the boxes in and hurry out!”

Aschekind scoffed, staring the man down. “That is exactly the problem.”

“I was just told to drive here as fast as possible!” shouted the driver.

“Then you had better drive back as fast as possible.” Aschekind said.

“I’ll get another truckload! I’ll– I’ll be more careful with it! I promise!”

“Get moving.” Aschekind shouted. His voice was like the grunt of a rhinocerous.

He waved for Kern to leave the truck, and the young landser stepped off the ramp.

Left alone, the driver scrambled back into the cab and without so much as another glance at the soldiers he whirled the truck back around and rushed out of the trees.

Kern watched the truck go, his stomach growling miserably, still upset by the stench. Once it had vanished down the little hill at the edge of the camp, disappearing behind the grasses, Kern gave their little supply tents a depressed once-over. They would be even smaller and more depleted soon enough. It had taken days for that truck to come.

Unlike the young landser, the Lieutenant committed none of his time to sulking.

“We will need water.” Aschekind said. He turned to Kern. “Food we can acquire.”

Kern nodded his head. During basic training he had been told that a man could survive the average Ayvartan climate for a week without food, but only a day without water. He had also been instructed as to where he could acquire water in a survival situation, and while there were no cactus plants nearby, there was one obvious location that came to mind.

“What about the Umaiha? We can collect water from there.” Kern said.

Aschekind wasted no time shutting him down.

“Not for drinking. Unless you desire to catch an exotic southern disease.”

Kern averted his eyes. So much for basic training. He turned back toward the road.

“Where then?” He asked.

Aschekind sounded solemn. “There was an Ayvartan village on the way here.”

“What? But we can’t trust them! They’re the enemy aren’t they?” Kern said.

He wasn’t even sure why the words left his mouth. He thought he had given things better thought than this. All throughout Bada Aso his mind had wandered and turned over his purpose for being here, and the idea of what the Ayvartans were. He had seen so many, fought so many, killed so many of them. He had spared a few too.

Now they were again “the enemy,” just that, nothing more. He was afraid of them.

It was an ugly reflex that he hated, but it was what overcame him in that instant.

Captain Aschekind did not reveal any emotion to him. He didn’t even blink.

“They are not the enemy, Beckert. They are civilians. I will send someone else.”

The landser gulped, trying to swallow down his childish trepidation toward the task.

“No, I’ll go.” Kern said suddenly. “I-I’ve got nothing to do. I want to be useful.”

There was no pause to punctuate the moment. It was as if the Lieutenant expected this.

“I pray you do not make a mess of things.” Aschekind said. “Listen well. Find one man to accompany you. Take the Sd.Kfz B that we hid in the bushes, and load it with the water tank. Remove the Norglers from it. Put this on the radio antenna.” From his coat, Aschekind withdrew a white towel and deposited it firmly on Kern’s open palms. “Drive south and east along the dirt road. You can’t miss the village, it will be at your side. Fill the tank with water at the village well. Use your Ayvartan phrasebook. Remember: you come in peace.”

Kern nodded his head. He pulled his rifle off his shoulder, and dropped it near the supply tents along with its bayonet, all of his stripper clips of 7.92 ammunition, all of his flares and his stick grenades. “Coming in peace” meant no long weapons and no explosives of any designation. Only his sidearm, which he was clear to take with him anywhere.

Saluting his commanding officer, Kern marched back toward the dirt road, crossed it, and beyond the grasses on its other side he entered a cluster of woods under which the barracks had been established. It was not much of an accommodation. Their company was living out of a tent village, five men to a small tarp, and ten men to a larger one.

Kern passed his own tent, slid down a little slope in the dirt, and found a small tent braced around a thick, arching tree root. He pulled open the flap and knocked on a man’s head.

“Voss, wake up. We’re going somewhere.” Kern said authoritatively.

Voss groggily raised his head from a sack he was using as a pillow. “Where?”

“A village. We need to get water. Lieutenant’s orders.” Kern said.

“Can I drive?” Voss asked, smiling blearily.

Kern nodded, chuckling to himself.

Voss was perhaps the closest thing he had to a friend in the armed forces. They had met in Bada Aso, lost their entire unit together, and nearly burned alive. He was older than him, perhaps by a decade even, but Kern never dared to ask by exactly how much.

Together, the two of them crossed the dirt road once more, this time farther across from the supply area and into a dense part of the forest that had yet to be cleared of low lying bushes. There were no tents here, but behind some of the greenery, Kern found the Sd.Kfz B, with its broad nose and open bed, fully armored. He climbed on the back, unhinged the Norgler machine guns from their posts, and threw them back into the bush. He attached the white towel to the radio antenna. Hopefully it was a visible enough sign of good intention.

Once the water tank was set up on the back of the half-track, Voss took the wheel.

“You ok with fast, Kern? Because I only learned to drive one speed.” He said.

“We do need to hurry, but please take care–”

Voss started the engine and hit the igniter repeatedly to make noise.

“I can’t hear you over this baby purring like that! I assume you’re ok!”

Before any further protest could be made, Voss rammed his foot on the pedal.

Thankfully for both of them, the top speed on a Squire was 52 km/h, which, although speedy, was not as life-threateningly fast as a Wilford car would have been in Voss’ hands. At Voss’ insistence, the Half-Track sped through the bush at top speed, turned onto the road and drove downhill and then eastward in the direction of the Kucha, following the dirt road.

It was quite cramped inside the compartment of the Squire. There was barely enough room for the driver and the passenger. They did not even have doors, only a window on each side and two small windows in front. Behind them, the infantry bed looked quite inviting, much more spacious and open. One could only exit the vehicle by jumping over the side of the bed.

“Go on out! We’ll take turns driving and standing, to keep comfy.”

“I’m not sure I can drive it!” Kern said.

“It’s easy! You just go forward. I’ll teach you. Go get some air.”

Voss pushed Kern, and the landser stepped out of the driving compartment and stood up on the bed, clinging onto the roof of the cab. There was a much clearer field of view. Instead of metal, the predominant smell was the pungent odor of thick, moist grass.

At their side the treeline sped past, and the grasses swayed with the wind. On the road there was open blue sky overhead, as the canopy did not extend enough to cover it.

Kern pulled off his garrison cap and stuffed it in his jacket as it threatened to fly away. His blond hair was still short but had grown enough to whip a little in the wind. He didn’t mind it. Soon they left the trees behind and the wind blew faster and freer. Past the trees they saw the mountain range in the distance, stretching on a scale too grand to fathom, curling around the eastern edge of the Kalu. The Kucha mountain range was enormous enough to cleave the lower half of the Ayvartan continent into two fairly distinct regions.

Perhaps half-way through the journey, they switched places. Kern sat on the driver’s seat, pressed the pedal down gently, and kept the wheel steady. Slowly they began to lose the speed Voss had accrued, but they were going steady. It was easier than Kern had thought.

Voss stepped outside, and stuck his head up into the wind, smiling brightly.

“It’s almost like a greeting card landscape!” He said. “Except for us two!”

He had a grin on like a fox. Kern had to silently disagree with him. He thought Voss looked rather picturesque. When they met, Kern thought he looked scruffy, with a patchy beard and messy hair. In the hospital, they had cleaned him up completely. Now he looked younger, a bit stubbly, but with fine facial features. He was almost a pretty-boy.

Meanwhile, Kern was only average-looking boy from the farmlands of the northern federation, he thought. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, athletic enough, fine-featured. His clean face was starting to grow a little stubble. He didn’t want a beard, but he hated shaving.

He was in all things unimpressive, unlike Voss, unlike Aschekind.

Voss was not outside for long however. He quickly asked to switch places.

“I prefer to be behind the wheel.” He said, tapping Kern on the shoulder.

Once he took control again, he instantly hit the limits of the Squire’s speed again.

Kern found that Lieutenant Aschekind had been right about the village — he definitely could not have missed it. Following the road down another hillside, they found the village stretching out below them, a stretch of brick houses divided by a little brook, a thin vein linking the village to the Umaiha river. It was a rustic place of unpainted buildings each with a neighboring tree, criss-crossing dirt paths, and personal garden plots. As they drove closer, Kern saw men and women working on collecting herbs and tomatoes and squash.

As one the villagers peered over their gardens and through their windows as they heard the sound of the engine. They stood, transfixed, as the Sd.Kfz. drove closer and parked on the road just meters away from a communal granary on the outskirts of the village. Kern saw a few curious people coming closer to the road, but most of the villagers kept their distance.

“What should we do?” Kern said. He searched his coat for his phrasebook.

“Go talk to them. Say you come in peace.” Voss said.

“You’ll be staying here then?” Kern asked.

“I’ll watch your back. Anything bad happens, shout. I’ll drive in.”

Kern was skeptical that he would even hear any shouting over the noisy engine.

Phrasebook in hand, flipping to the page for greetings, he jumped off the side of the bed and walked down the road. Past the granary was the first little grouping of shelters. Square brick buildings with flat tin and wood roofs, standing up from the ground on squat columns of rock. They looked weathered and old. Tall, dark-haired, deep bronzed women dressed in what Kern could only describe as colorful drapes and robes, some carrying children or holding them by the hand, stood guarded on porches and doorways, staring at him.

“Hujambo!” Kern shouted, waving his hand.

Nobody replied. They continued to stare at him. A few moments later, men had joined the women in the houses. They were all dressed similarly, though some men bared their chests. They stood with the women — perhaps wives, fathers, brothers, he didn’t know. Kern stood in place, keeping a dozen meters from the nearest house, still standing at the edge of the road. He feared encroaching on the families. He flipped through his book.

“Um, Paani, chahiye, mujhe?” He said; he was trying to ask them for water.

Again there was no response. Merely staring; there was a variety of expressions on their faces, but in his anxiety Kern could not tell whether they were angry or fearful or what.

When the units that would come to be known as the 13th Panzer Division first rolled through here, they had each left the village well alone and traveled quickly past. So much so that Kern barely remembered coming through here. Perhaps he had been asleep at the time. At any rate it would be the job of the transitional authority and the security divisions to “assist in the smooth transfer of governmental power,” whatever that meant — it was far from Kern’s task or any landser’s task to take over these villages. As a line unit, they fought Ayvartan line units. They did not act as police or diplomats or governors.

Kern wondered what could be going through the villager’s minds, seeing him standing there, his armored vehicle in the background, shouting at them broken words of their language. He had not been trained to talk to them, to negotiate with them. In the back of his mind, he told himself that he had only been trained to kill them. He felt disgusted –disgusted with this. Disgusted with himself for having the gall to appear before them and ask for favors.

He tried again, reading the pronunciation keys for the words, slowly enunciating them.

Someone shouted something back. A woman waved her hand at him. It was a throwing gesture, but nothing was thrown. Perhaps she was telling him to go away. He sighed.

“Paani–”

“Please be quiet. Your voice only offends us.”

He heard words of perfect Nochtish and his head snapped to the source of the sounds.

Coming in from around the houses was a woman, a familiar sort of woman, pretty, slender, short compared to several of the Ayvartans but average height for him. She had long, flowing golden hair and blue eyes. Her skin was a light olive color, fair, and her lips thin and painted red; she wore a modest black dress, with a white shawl, and a small black cap.

Around her slender neck hung a necklace with a golden cross.

There was one incongruity — a pair of noticeably sharp ears. She was of elvish descent.

And she was unhappy with him, clearly. He read nothing but hatred on her face.

Kern bowed his head in respect. She was a sister of the Messianic church.

“Do not bow to me, but to the God you shun. Why are you here?” She asked.

She approached to within a few steps of him. For some of the way there were a few Ayvartan women with her, but they stayed behind as she stepped within Kern’s presence.

“I’m sorry sister, I’m Corporal Kern Beckert of the 13th Panzer Division of the Federation of the Northern States Task Force Stonewall, Oberkommando Suden.” He said quickly.

“We walk under God, Corporal.” She said, a common phrase of introduction or greeting among certain sects of the church. “My name is Selene Lucci. I’m no longer an official nun for Ayvarta’s tenuous connection to the church was cut by the See five years ago. You need not call me sister. I do not want your honorifics. What is your business here? You ought to leave us all alone. You’ve done damage enough already.” She said.

Kern averted his eyes from her, cowed by the swift barrage of words. He could not muster a reply immediately. He knew she was right and it made him stop to simmer a few seconds.

“My unit is in desperate need of water supplies.” He said, staring at her shoes.

“Drink from the river Umaiha.” She said. Her tone of voice was painfully unconcerned.

“We might catch diseases from the river.” Kern pathetically replied.

“Welcome to the struggle for life, Corporal.” Selene said sarcastically.

“Please, we just want to fill our water tank from the well.” Kern begged.

“And you will leave after?” Selene asked.

Kern nodded. He felt lower than a gnat picking at one of her ears.

Her disapproving expression softened slightly.

She turned around, shouting something at the villagers, and turned back.

“Tell your man to follow us, but to keep his truck the length of your pump hose behind us. I will lead you slowly to the water well. You will draw, and then you will leave. Talk only to me — do not address anyone else. Do not go near anyone else. Just me.”

Without a word more she started ambling casually toward the village.

Kern ran clumsily back toward the Sd.Kfz. B. He raised his head through Voss’ window.

“Who’s the broad? She’s a real diamond in this dung-pile.” Voss said, grinning.

Kern shook his head at him. “Follow us, and keep a wide berth.”

“Aww. I kinda wanted to get her name.”

“Shut up and go.”

Kern slapped his hand twice on the side of the Squire and then ran forward.

Voss started slowly behind him.

When Kern caught back up to Selene she was winding around past the houses again. They cut through the center of the village. There was a wooden building still flying the Hydra flag — Kern felt intimidated by its presence, but there seemed to be nobody there. He saw another construction he recognized as one of those Civil Canteens, also empty. Much of the town square, such as it was, consisted of these abandoned official buildings.

“You needn’t become alarmed. Locals work out of these buildings. There are no communist agents here unless you consider every citizen one.” Selene said.

Kern nodded his head silently. Following the elf across the main dirt path through the village, and over a little bridge across the brook, he tried not to stare intently at anything or anyone. There were villagers, all frozen in place wherever they happened to have been upon his arrival, staring, guarded. There were maybe a few hundred people.

Every so often Selene would say something in Ayvartan, or respond to a shouted question by one of the villagers. She sounded quite skilled in that language too.

“Are there any soldiers here?” Kern asked.

Selene bristled. “Do you realize what you are doing here, Corporal?”

She turned her head over her shoulders, glaring at him.

“You are a stone’s throw away from our farmlands — collective farmlands. You have come here to destroy everything we need to live. Don’t think we do not know it.”

She said nothing more to him. Kern felt initially shocked, and didn’t understand. What did a collective farm have to do with him? Her words had stunned him. Of course, a moment’s worth of evaluation led him to the quick truth. Collective farms were a thing done by the government in Solstice. Nocht did not come here to uphold such concepts.

For all he knew the villagers might think he was here to steal their land.

Thinking about it further, that was exactly what he was doing.

He wanted desperately to leave. He didn’t want to stay here another second.

Behind them the Sd.Kfz half-track dutifully followed. The villagers gave it a very wide berth, and it in turn gave them plenty of space as well. Eventually, Selene nodded her head mysteriously at Kern, and Kern, seeing the village’s water well ahead, signaled for the half-track to stop. Voss immediately hit the brake, but he did not kill the engine.

Kern walked back to him.

“So what’s her name?” Voss asked amicably.

“Selene. It doesn’t matter.”

“Says you! So what’s the plan?”

“We’ll get the water and go.”

“Sounds good. These folks are creepy as hell. I hate that I can’t understand what they say. They could be plotting something and we wouldn’t know what.” Voss replied.

Kern sounded exasperated. “They’re not plotting anything. Just calm down.”

He walked past Voss’ window and climbed on the back of the bed, where they had tied the water tank to the end of the half-track using steel climbing wire. Kern removed a very heavy red cloth pack fastened to the back of the water tank and set it down on the bed. He unpacked, fueled up and assembled the “portable” water pump, which had its own little engine, and attached one hose to the tank. He dragged the other length of water hose back out toward the well, where Selene stood sentinel beneath the trees.

They were far enough from the village now that there was not an Ayvartan for several hundred meters. The well was in a little thicket of trees straddling the eastern-most side of the village, well past the brook, well past the last houses. Kern thought perhaps this was not the well the villagers normally used — but looking down into it, there was plenty of water within the stone cylinder cut into the earth. It suited his purposes just fine.

He dropped the hose into it, ran back, started the pump, and returned to the well.

Water started to suck into the house. Now it was just a matter of time.

He looked up from the well at Selene, who crossed her arms and watched him.

“Thank you.” He said.

She did not reply. She merely stared at him.

Kern felt a stirring of shame in his stomach. He wanted to talk to her — he found it so confusing that she would be here, that she would be accepted among these people.

His voice shook as he overcame his anxiety. “Can I ask you a question?” He said.

“I’ve not much choice but to endure it.” Selene quickly replied.

“Why are you here?” He asked. It was not eloquent, but it go to the point.

Selene sighed lightly. “I was sent here on a mission years ago.”

“I did not know the Messianic church sent missions to Ayvarta.”

“They used to, but only when they needed to be rid of scandalous nuns.”

Her voice was so cutting and direct, it made Kern feel more childish and petty.

“Are you a communist? Is that why you remain here?” Kern asked.

“I am whatever one is when one tries to live peacefully here.” Selene sharply said.

Kern thought her expression was proud and haughty and it upset him a little.

“Are you an atheist now too then?” He asked, a little more directly than he wanted.

“I have found God in this land to be quite flexible.” She replied.

Kern almost felt annoyed with her answer, but he tried to keep calm.

“Solstice killed millions to make the country to go communist. Is God flexible enough now to condone that? Does He turn his head from that history now?” Kern said.

He didn’t even know why he was arguing, much less why he was saying the things in the leaflets he got when he was shipped here to fight. He had a reflex to explain himself, to defend himself, but the words in his head and the words in his mouth came out muddled and he knew he was not succeeding. He knew he was not convincing her.

“History? Will you blame Ayvarta for everyone you’ve needlessly killed here too?”

She crossed her arms and stared critically at him. Kern closed his fists.

“We’re here to free these lands from Solstice so there can be peace.” He declared.

“I don’t find death very liberating or peaceful, but I guess that’s my aberration.”

“We are not just here to kill people.” Kern said. Even he was unable to truly believe that. But it was all he could say, because he childishly needed to fight her judgments on him.

“No, you’re right — you’re chiefly here to rob them, not kill them. Killing is just a tool you’ll use for burglary. When the communists killed Imperials they gave the Imperial lands back to the villagers. You’ll kill the villagers to give the village land back to the Imperials.”

Selene’s expression did not change. She was not becoming any more agitated with him. She was still upright and strong where he was unsure and weak. She was winning.

Kern turned his head and looked down the well again. The hose had stopped pumping.

He picked it up in a huff and made to get away from her.

Suddenly Selene grabbed hold of the hose.

She locked gazes with him, contesting his grip on the hose with one hand and grabbing him directly with the other. They were so close he could see himself reflected in her eyes.

“You are a naive kid here playing soldier. Your mind is not your own right now. I advise you to stop. You can stop. All of you can stop. For the love of God — just leave.”

She let go of the hose and Kern took it back. Shaking his head, he made for the Squire.

Standing outside the vehicle he found Voss approaching the well.

Voss had his pistol out.

“Voss, what are you doing?” Kern asked.

It was not pointed at him, of course. So it had to be pointed at someone else.

Voss was aiming at Selene.

“They’re at the fucking bridge. There’s a crowd.”

“So?” Kern asked. “We’ll get out.”

“That goddamn phrasebook isn’t gonna get us out. We need a guarantee.”

Kern blinked, uncomprehending. “Voss, what? What is with you right now?”

Selene stared at them both defiantly, not moving from her place.

“Lady, get over here, you’re coming with us.” Voss demanded. He ignored Kern.

Kern was speechless. He didn’t understand at all what was happening.

“Voss, we don’t need to do this. We got the water. They’ll let us out.” Kern said.

He said it as though the facts could reason with Voss, not yet realizing that neither Voss, nor any of this, was about facts, or about reason. That pistol did not move a millimeter.

“You’re too naive, Kern.” Voss said. He extended his firearm toward the elfin girl.

Shaking her head, Selene raised her hands and walked out to the half-track.

Kern stared helplessly as Voss lifted her onto the half-track bed, climbed after her and handcuffed her to the water tank. Kern climbed after, his entire body shaking. Voss thrust his pistol into Kern’s hands. “You watch her, I’ll drive. Villagers try anything, pretend you’re gonna shoot. We’ll take her to camp. They’ll have to let us out.”

Kern wanted to shout that they did not need to do this, that the villagers would just let them out, that they did not have to kidnap this woman for any reason, that what they were doing was abusive and violent and disproportionate and wrong– none of that came out of him. He watched, as if a bystander to his own movements, as everything unfolded. Wordlessly he climbed onto the bed. He didn’t turn the gun on Selene. He still had that much of himself. But he did not release her. He could have; he could have done a lot.

There was no sign on her face of fear or distress. She looked closer to disappointed.

Voss drove the Half-Track back toward the bridge over the brook. He was right, there was a small crowd there, watching them. People started to block the bridge as they approached. Perhaps they had seen the events unfolding. As the Sd.Kfz. approached within meters of the bridge, the crowd started to grow agitated. Voices were raised.

Kern, standing on the bed, could not understand what was being said. He tried to catch the sounds and match them to things in the phrasebook, but it was quite hopeless.

A rock flew past him from across the bridge. It hit the water tank.

“Get out of the way or I’ll crush you!” Voss shouted. He revved the engine.

Before the situation escalated further, Selene stood as well as she could with her hands tied behind her back to the water tank, and leaned partially over the side of the bed.

She spoke some sentences in Ayvartan.

Reluctantly, the crowd began to part. Weary expressions adorned each face.

Voss hit the gas rushed out of the village.

Children and young men and women gave chase to the half-track, throwing stones in anger at the rear armor and the water tank and the wheels until Voss had cleared the buildings and hit the dirt road again. Then he picked up enough speed to leave everyone well behind. Selene settled back down against the tank, sighing deeply.

Kern stared helplessly, the gun feeling affixed to his hand. “I’m sorry.” He said.

“Perhaps God will forgive you before you die. I never will.” Selene said.

Her words hit Kern like a cold lance, and he was quiet the entire trip. No longer did the mountains and the grasses have any effect on him. He could not enjoy them as an invader, as an abuser, who had broken a border, ravaged a city, terrorized a village and taken prisoners. He felt his mind unraveling with the prospect of what he was doing and yet he could not stop. He could not conceive of how to extricate himself from this.

Deep in his agonizing ruminations, Kern failed to notice the base coming in closer.

Lieutenant Aschekind stood along the road, waiting for them.

When the half-track stopped at his side, he peered at the contents.

His eyes drew wide at the sight of the girl cuffed to the water tank.

Voss jumped the side of the half-track, stood before Aschekind and saluted.

“Sir, faced with hostilities in the village, we took a hostage to escape safely with the water tank. I take full responsibility. But the prisoner may be useful. She speaks both fluent Nochtish and Ayvartan. I think she can help us make use of the surrounding–”

Lieutenant Aschekind did not allow Voss to continue speaking.

Mid-sentence he seized the man by the neck and lifted him with one hand.

Voss squirmed, his arms and legs flailing in mid-air.

Gritting his teeth, Aschekind slammed Voss down into the dirt road.

Cracks formed in the packed, dry earth where Voss crashed down.

Voss ceased to thrash. He curled on his side, shaking, drooling.

Stretching his arm over the half-track, Aschekind seized Kern by the collar of his shirt.

Kern froze — he could feel the man’s monstrous strength through that loose grip.

“I will give you the privilege of explaining your atrocity, before you join him in the floor.”

Lieutenant Aschekind lifted him from the bed of the half-track.

Selene averted her eyes.

One final swerve saved Kern from this well deserved beating.

A bugle call sounded in the distance.

Lieutenant Aschekind turned to the road and let Kern drop from his hands.

There was a black vehicle approaching — it resembled a Sd.Kfz. Squire like the one Kern had previously occupied, but its nose was broader, its hull closer to the ground, and it had eight wheels, instead of two and a pair of tracks. Most strikingly, the vehicle was fully enclosed, and atop the driver’s compartment there was a Sentinel turret.

On the front of the machine there was a white oakleaf and a big red number 1.

It was the insignia of the 1st Panzer Army of Field Marshal Dietrich Haus.


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