The Fallen Front — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains descriptions of burning and violence.


35th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Dominance — Bada Aso, Matumaini Street

Far in the distance, the spiraling pillar of fire and smoke reached out to the heavens, piercing the skies like a javelin hurled from hell. At the epicenter everything burned in moments, and then the fire crept through everything flammable, bursting through every gas line, every petrol tank, through cracks in the streets and roads, over roofs.

It was the most visible thing to the fleeing grenadier. There was nothing but that hellish edifice at his back, and the whistling fires that swarmed over every available surface.

In the heat the flames took the shape of demon’s hands, hungry and greedy.

He ran with all of his might as the red fingers snatched at him from all sides.

Whenever they closed he felt the burning, the agonizing, all-encompassing heat.

There was no part of his body that did not go white-hot, that did not hurt as if bubbling and warping within his skin. He felt that he would melt, even in the open street. He felt the agonizing pressure of the fires everywhere, building over his skin and inside his guts.

His helmet became hot a a frying pan and he threw it away before it cooked his brains.

His vision swam and he could only barely tell he was running by his own clumsy footfalls.

Everything around him raged and thrashed, everything tore and shook and warped.

Angry red tongues slithered from windows in a burst of glass and concrete.

Creeping orange-blue claws reached from the cracking earth to seize him.

Where there was not red fire there was black smoke that made him choke and cry.

Mid-run he searched desperately in every pouch, every pocket. He threw away everything but his gas mask, casting aside his smoking coat and his belts, and donned the object. It was hot, and it hurt, but it cleared his head, allowing him to breathe. Behind him his ammunition cooked off in its pouches. His coat slowly disintegrated in the oven.

Everything hurt. His heart pounded, his teeth chattered, and he screamed.

He screamed for release, for some measure of relief. But he found no respite.

No street numbers, no landmarks; everything wavered within the inferno.

Every second that passed, he felt, as if time was slowed around him. He felt every minute instant of pain, every touch of hurt over his flesh, a horrifying depth of pain.

Layers and layers of agony washed over him but he would not allow himself to stop.

He ran with all of his might, knowing he would be consumed if he did not take each step.

With every step he found the fires staying farther and farther behind. Sweet release!

Gathering the last of his strength, he hurled himself past the fire and into smoke.

He found his body slowly freed from the burning grip of the demons.

In front of him, wavering in the haze, was the hole in the center of Matumaini.

That hole that had been blown in by the artillery; it was the only form of cover.

He dashed for the hole, hearing laughter in his head coming from all sides.

Bada Aso’s burning demons hungered for him, hungered for everything. 

“Help! Help me!”

That voice was not the demons and was not his own. It was his mother tongue, almost forgotten in the scramble. He stopped at the edge of the aperture, and a greater human instinct overtook him. His stressed body, outside the flame, found some equilibrium, enough to pause, to take stock, to gather breath, and to scan the surroundings.

He turned his head over his shoulder and gazed into the creeping wall of fire.

How had he escaped such a thing? He did not know.

“Help me!”

Over the strange crackling sound of the flames, he heard the voice again.

Dashing away from the hole, the grenadier hurried to a nearby ruin, and pushed through the half-collapsed doorway into the rubble. The building had become a skeleton of rebar and concrete that held inside it a mound of gently smoking wood and stone from its ceilings.

There was another scream, and it was much closer. Quickly pushing away rubble, the grenadier found a comrade, trapped under a chunk of board and filler that had fallen.

“I’m here to help you! Try to slide out when I pull it up!” He shouted.

Below him, the trapped person, his face also covered by a gas mask, nodded his head. His screams subsided into gasping, quavering cries between sharp, panicked breaths.

The grenadier seized the slab of debris and lifted it with all of his strength.

From beneath the rubble the trapped soldier slipped out and dashed to the door without another word. The grenadier dropped the slab, and was about to go after him, but the trapped soldier stopped at the door. He was framed suddenly in a bright light.

In front of them, a column of fire and smoke blew skyward from the Matumaini crater.

Black smoke belched from the street and into their building, sucking out the air.

Once more the heat began to permeate their environment.

Their remaining clothes smoked.

While the trapped man stood transfixed at the door, the grenadier slowly and gently settled behind the mound of rubble, nestled into the bowels of the ruin with his arms around his knees and his legs against his chest. All of his energy had left him.

Outside the fires crept and crept, until they overtook them, and everything.


36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, Bada Aso Outskirts

Bada Aso, jewel of the Adjar Dominance, became a ruin choked in smoke and bursting with flames. Although the fires had long since reached their peak, having risen so far that people swore to have seen them from the sea or beyond the mountains, in their place they left a pillar of smoke, a black tower that descended slowly overnight until it covered the area in a choking gloom. Inside the cloud seething red bursts flashed every other hour, whenever something new erupted, snapping like lightning contained in an earthbound sky.

There were still things to burn, and so the unseen demons unleashed from beneath Bada Aso’s earth continued to feed. Some untouched gas line, some discarded petrol container, some hidden pocket of the monstrous gas still dormant below the red-hot earth; whatever the red claws of this monster grasped, instantly and violently exploded and burned.

Von Sturm stood dumbfounded atop a hill in the outskirts of the city. His blonde, slightly wavy hair was disheveled, sticking up; he had not had the presence of mind to gel it back into the smart style he usually wore. He was a short, soft-faced man who looked as if too boyish, too unripe for war, and facing the devastated city, his youth seemed all the more pernicious. It made him seem smaller, helpless, easier to break where he stood.

Through his tear-swollen, reddened eyes and through the foggy lenses of his binoculars, the General watched silently as the fire and smoke carried on its implacable course.

One night’s fitful sleep was not enough to make sense of the scale of the carnage. Yesterday he was leading a triumphant assault; today he was thoroughly beaten, his forces, his battlefield, everything blasted to pieces too dramatically for even the wildest imgination. For once, he had a sense of fear so strong that it stifled his passion and a sense of confusion and helplessness that overwhelmed his pride. He had no idea what to do.

It was as if his mind had burnt away with the city, and there was only the holy awe left.

He was staring into the billowing black face of a god as it ate his city, the city out of which he was destined to lead a glorious campaign that would cement his name in history. Matumaini, the Umaiha Riverside, Penance, the central districts, the open, grassy north of the city upon which he had intended to blitz through with his tanks, all of it was buried under that black cloud and the red bursts that periodically raged enough to be seen through it.

Just after the explosion, much of the city could still be seen, in the midst of its destruction. As the survivors retreated from it, and the smoke slowly descended, everything was obscured. At the edges of the city he could see fires spreading as if fed by invisible magma.

Any farther and the cloud became too thick to really see through. He could see outlines, sometimes, when something exploded violently enough. Outlines of ruined buildings that jutted at alien angles and seemed like architecture from hell. Faces, he saw them too; groaning, hurting faces in the cloud; cheerful, mad-driven grimaces in the fires–

That might have been his own head. He was afraid to confirm these sights with others.

Nobody came to fetch him, but the movement of the sun overhead indicated to Von Sturm that a long time had passed. He had been transfixed with the flames and smoke, drawn as if out of his own body to watch the devastation unfold in a dull, quiet panic.

Slowly he pried himself from the grip of Bada Aso. He scanned the surroundings with his binoculars. He watched the road. A line of water-tank equipped Sd.Kfz B Squire half-tracks wound their way toward the city, carrying a platoon of fire-fighters armed with everything they could muster to fight the fires and look for survivors in the black poison. Water guns, shovels, asbestos suits with oxygen masks; they were diving into hell now.

In a time that felt like another world away, Bada Aso and its port were critical to the supply line running through Adjar and aiding in the push to Tambwe. Putting out the burning city was necessary, but seeing it from the hill, Von Sturm found it a hopeless task.

He felt a strange desire to reach out with his hands and stop them. To tell them to stop. To tell them that it was futile, that it couldn’t be fought, that nobody would be in there. That there was nothing here for them, on this continent, that they should’ve never–

But he stopped. Stopping them, stopping this, meant the final death of him.

What else could one call rendering irrelevant nearly a decade of one’s life?

Von Sturm felt the fear of a God much closer to him; the peril of his own existence.

There was too much inertia here to stop. Too much inertia in the wheels of those armored carriers, in the solemn hearts of those men, and in the angry, desperate need of the man with the violent, noble surname who could not now stop. There was a weight of history behind them that would– no, must, carry them all forward. In a fraction of a second, the doubt was dispelled from him, and buried, and forgotten. Because it had to be.

Von Sturm left the holy awe behind and turned his back on Bada Aso as he turned his back on all other useless things. For his simple ambitions, no introspection was necessary. His heart hardened again, encased so that it could neither breathe nor bleed in this war.

But It wouldn’t be the same as before. His hands were still shaking. His eyes were still red.

There was a chain-link in him that had been inexorably severed, just as the 1st Vorkampfer had been inexorably destroyed and Bada Aso inexorably burnt to the ground.

He returned to his command post to await his demotion, and to seize back control of his weary staff from the panic of the moment. Yelling at others would at least distract him.

Far in the background, another explosion raged within the cloud. Its sound shook him.

It was like laughter.


42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — Citadel Nocht, Soundproof Room

[START OF RECORDING]

BERGER: It is the 42nd of the Aster’s Gloom.

FOSS: God it sounds like a workshop rubberwheel. Is it on?

LEHNER: You better hope so, because I’m not takin’ any notes.

BERGER: It is recording, mein herr.

FOSS: How long can it go for?

BERGER: We have an hour’s worth of spool in the machine.

FOSS: Like that bundle there on the table? Is that a spare?

BERGER: I brought two spools just in case. We have two hours total.

LEHNER: We probably won’t even need one.

WEDDEL: So it’ll pick up our voices, and we can play it back?

FOSS: That’s the idea, yes. We can take notes without taking notes.

LEHNER: Berger is a damn sight better than Mrs. Fress dying in slow motion on a chair.

BERGER: Thank you, mein herr.

FOSS: Don’t encourage him.

WEDDEL: To think a piece of wire can potentially carry my voice forever.

LEHNER: Don’t say anything you don’t want to commit to history, Weddel!

WEDDEL: I’ll try to be responsible with my words.

FOSS: You’d be the only one here.

BERGER: We should introduce ourselves in the recording, otherwise it may be difficult for future listeners to tell apart the differences in our voices and identify us.

FOSS: Fine. I’m Cecilia Foss, presidential computer, secretary, speechwriter, etcetera.

LEHNER: Achim Lehner, President of the Federation of Northern States.

WEDDEL: Field Marshal Walter Weddel, Oberkommando Norden and Des Heeres.

BERGER: And I am Emilia Berger, a communications engineer.

FOSS: The purpose of this meeting is to discuss past and current events in the continent of Ayvarta and to consolidate our information about the southern matter.

LEHNER: Yikes, you’re making it sound like a goddamn thesis.

FOSS: I’m making it sound professional! As it should be!

LEHNER: For my part, I just want to know what the fuck is going on down there.

FOSS: You’re such a brute! First we should establish context.

LEHNER: Yeah, well, sure, okay, whatever. Context away.

FOSS: Ahem. On the 18th of the Gloom, we put into action Generalplan Suden, a strategic campaign to dismantle the political, economic, military and social structures of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice and begin a new paradigm under the former Empress Mary Trueday–

LEHNER: Uh, the term we use is Empress-In-Exile, Cecilia. She’s not former anything.

FOSS: Right. Empress-In-Exile. Anyway. Our objective for this campaign is to end the rogue state of the SDS, thereby bringing needed stability to the region and to the balance of global power as a whole. Not only will the destruction of the SDS open Ayvartan markets and goods to Nocht, and the world at large, as well as eradicate a sweeping social malaise in the world’s south, but the fall of communism will leave scores of saboteurs, anarchists, guerillas and terrorists worldwide without an ally and supplier.

LEHNER: Love it. God I’ll sleep so easy once the Worker’s International collapses. After I’ve put my big grey metal boot on Solstice’s goddamn neck and snapped it they’ll be left crying alone for mommy. They tried to start a fucking factory riot a few days ago!

WEDDEL: Well, I’m not so sure this war alone will take care of that, mister President. Worker’s International is a legal political organization, even if dubious and at odds with–

LEHNER: Weddel don’t ruin my dreams like this, man. Be gentle with me here.

FOSS: Let the man have his fantasies while we return to context. What was the makeup of forces for Suden, Weddel? What did we activate on the 18th of the Gloom?

WEDDEL: Well. I was only involved in planning at an advisory capacity, but if I recall correctly, the Task Forces were codename Stonewall, starting in Cissea with 20 Divisions and codename Lee in Mamlakha with 30 Divisions, for an opening wave of about 550,000 men and several thousand machines. In 15 days, an additional 10 Divisions should have been added to Stonewall. Give or take reinforcements, the plan was for 100 Divisions in the final operation, for a total of 1.2 million men to be deployed by next year.

FOSS: And the strategic objectives for Suden, as originally envisioned?

WEDDEL: Two simultaneous thrusts from Cissea and Mamlakha. Stonewall’s Cissean thrust would have begun in the Adjar dominance, and moved north and east along the upper curve of Ayvarta and into North Solstice. Lee’s Mamlakhan thrust would go through Shaila and Dbagbo, along the lower curve of Ayvarta, mirroring Stonewall. Both thrusts are to meet at Solstice in the middle of the desert, take the city at any cost, and end the war that way.

LEHNER: We also wanted the elves and the orientals to help by attacking from the northwest and northeast, but those plans have been delayed until next month it seems.

FOSS: They said they required thirty days to reorganize themselves for battle, and then however long it takes them to launch the actual attacks according to our plans.

LEHNER: I’d be happy if they just did SOMETHING within the next week or so.

WEDDEL: That seems unlikely at the moment. But they still have plenty of time.

FOSS: Right. On paper, the campaign was to last 180 days at the most, starting in Aster’s Gloom of 2030 and ending definitively by the Lilac’s Bloom of 2031 after seizing Solstice.

LEHNER: Are we even sure taking Solstice would end the war?

WEDDEL: While the Ayvartans possess another powerful industrial fortress in Chayat, Solstice is the rooted center of their communications, command and control, and all of their political and logistical apparatus. Chayat can’t run a centrally-planned economy.

LEHNER: That’s kind of reassuring, but play along here: what the hell happened after? Those first few days were so triumphant, but it’s been doom and gloom the past week.

WEDDEL: Well, that is where it gets tricky, isn’t it? We’ve suffered several setbacks. I’m not in charge of the theater, but I’ve been poring over documents and reports, I’ve gotten a picture of it. Operation Monsoon, the initial border battle and subsequent push into Adjar and Shaila, was successful. We routed scores of Ayvartan forces, including almost a whole Army pocketed in Shaila. We destroyed hundreds of Ayvartan planes on the ground within hours of the invasion, and thousands of Ayvartan tanks were destroyed in ensuing battles within the first two weeks. We thought that would be enough. That was our problem.

FOSS: I still see it as more a failure of intelligence than anything else.

LEHNER: I thought we had plenty of information. We planned this very thoroughly! I checked in at the offices every day, there were always maps and tables strung up!

WEDDEL: Our planning was thorough, but misdirected. Let me give you an example. Operation Monsoon was supposed to destroy the bulk of Ayvartan manpower in Adjar and Shaila within days by forcing a decisive battle near the border and sweeping through every escape route in a rapid, encircling advance. However, Ayvarta’s distributed system of manpower meant that the concentrations at the border were much smaller than anticipated. We knew Ayvarta’s armies were small and geographically unable to support one another. But we didn’t account for how distributed the armies were within their own territories.

LEHNER: There’s a lot going on there. Okay. Let me get this straight. So it wasn’t just that 100,000 troops were stationed far apart in Adjar and Shaila, which is what we put on a map. We didn’t account for where inside Adjar and Shaila those small amounts could be?

WEDDEL: Exactly, Mr. President. In Adjar, the overwhelming bulk of armed opposition was stationed far north of the border, and could not be encircled in the first few days as planned. We wasted precious time driving through every village and town searching for Ayvartan manpower, weapons and supplies long since gone. We cast a net into a dry river.

LEHNER: We assumed they would defend their border with everything they had at their disposal. Or the bulk, at least. I mean, that shit only makes sense, you know? Why the heck would they have Battlegroup Ox manpower in central Adjar, or near Tambwe?

WEDDEL: Their border in Adjar being lightly defended was a blunder on their part, but it ended up defusing our plans entirely. When we gave chase to Ox, it was too late. We had wasted too much time combing through lower Adjar, and they had reconvened north. We ended up overstretched, with only the motor and tank troops able to reach Bada Aso and engage Battlegroup Ox before they got the chance to fully fortify the city.

LEHNER: That’s why the air force got hurled at Bada Aso in such a sloppy fashion?

WEDDEL: Yes, Von Sturm and Kulbert believed that the only way to “catch up” to Bada Aso and make up the manpower differential was a quick bombing campaign.

FOSS: And then Bada Aso happened as it happened.

LEHNER: What exactly happened at Bada Aso? Explain it to me like I’m dumb. We lost twenty thousand men on that last day alone, on the 35th. How does that happen?

WEDDEL: It’s still being investigated. We don’t know. It might have been a secret Ayvartan weapon. If it is, they have not used it since then. Some investigators claim it might have been a natural disaster. But Bada Aso still isn’t very safe to explore. We may never know exactly what happened, unless we secure Ayvartan confessions post-war.

LEHNER: That’s real unsatisfying. I can’t live with that in the back of my head.

WEDDEL: Those are our alternatives.

FOSS: Von Sturm’s incompetence lit a fire under his arse that eradicated our men.

LEHNER: Now there’s something I’m willing to believe.

WEDDEL: Well. We criticize Von Sturm and Kulbert for the conduct of that battle, but I must say, they made the correct call strategically. Look at the damage the Ayvartans did with a few days time to dig in. Imagine if we gave them weeks instead? Rushing to Bada Aso made the most sense. It was the best option out of a slate of very bad options. We had to disrupt the Ayvartans as much as possible to have any chance to seize Bada Aso’s port.

FOSS: I’ve conducted a few interviews that suggest the tactical conduct of that battle was a comedy of errors. I wouldn’t be so quick to praise little Sturm for anything.

WEDDEL: I don’t know anything about that. It could very well have been that way. But talking pure strategy, he made the right call. How is the 1st Vorkampfer reacting now?

FOSS: Morale in what was once the 1st Vorkampfer is at a catastrophic low these days. Thousands of seasoned veterans from Cissea are dead — no amount of reinforcements can replace that. Survivors have no confidence in the unit after the brain drain that’s resulted. And the survivors are not confident in their prospects, and much less in their leadership.

LEHNER: I thought we broke up the Vorkampfer, didn’t we? What’s happened there?

FOSS: We slapped together all the remains into a “13th Panzer Division.”

LEHNER: Jeez. It’s hard to keep all these guys’ numbers straight in my head.

FOSS: Don’t fret; with this wave of reinforcements to Ayvarta we’re deploying the corps headquarters and army commands, so the organization will become simpler after that.

LEHNER: Not simple enough for these migraines.

FOSS: Poor dear. Want a kiss to make it better?

LEHNER: Right now I just want an updated map of this nonsense.

FOSS: Who’s to say you can’t have both? Tee hee.

WEDDEL: Ahem. There is good news in Shaila and Dbagbo, however.

LEHNER: Does it reverse the bad news?

WEDDEL: Not exactly.

LEHNER: Then I don’t care, Weddel! I want to know what’s going wrong so I know who I should start firing to fix it. I brought you here for kindling, not cotton candy.

FOSS: He’s no better at kindling than Braun!

WEDDEL: I’m a strict disciplinarian, but I can’t chastise an army a world away.

LEHNER: Volunteering?

WEDDEL: Goodness, no. No! I much prefer Oberkommando Norden.

FOSS: Really? Sunny beaches, moist air, exotic wildlife, beautiful women–

WEDDEL: Sunburn, disease, monstrosities, and armed communist insurgents.

LEHNER: God. We should’ve just brought Braun in to make us depressed.

WEDDEL: To steer ourselves back: Shaila is fully under our boot, and Dbagbo is next to fall. Our supply lines are stretched, but we are making incredible progress for 26 days of fighting. Supplies and manpower are building up rapidly. Even Von Sturm’s unit has reconstituted enough to complete its movement to the Tambwean border, where Field Marshal Haus will meet it and try to stabilize the situation and continue the attack.

LEHNER: Dietrich is finally off the boat? That’s the one bit of good news I wanted!

FOSS: You’re so excited! Let the records show, the President is excited.

LEHNER: Dietrich is a mean sonofabitch. I’ve seen him snap men over his knees.

WEDDEL: If there’s one man who I believe could do such a thing to an army, it’s him.

LEHNER: So what happens next Weddel? Share some more of this optimism.

WEDDEL: Ha, I thought you wanted bad news?

LEHNER: News of Dietrich taking care of things always turns me around.

WEDDEL: Very well. I believe limited offensives will be carried out next to maintain pressure while the Task Forces consolidate, and the Army commands are set up.

FOSS: Judging by the AG-40 maps, it’s looking like quite a daunting job!

WEDDEL: Right now there are clusters of units separated by a hundred kilometers or twice that in some sectors. They definitely need time and an opportunity to catch up. Supply lines have to be stretched out from the ports up into newly conquered areas and further to the front. Reinforcements have to be moved. It will take time, and whatever is at the front will have to make do until everything can be set in order.

FOSS: I’m sure Dietrich will whip them into shape. It’s practically his hobby.

LEHNER: God I’m gonna sleep so good tonight. Dietrich is gonna fix ALL the problems.

FOSS: Aww, you’re so fond of him, it’s kind of cute– hmm, what’s that noise?

BERGER: Excuse me. It seems like the machine is taking issue.

FOSS: Do these recorders always sound like they’re munching glass?

BERGER: We may have to recalibrate the recorder, it is using wire too fast.

LEHNER: Fine, we’ll reconvene later. What happens to this recording now?

BERGER: We create copies for editing, archival, dissemination if necessary.

LEHNER: Cut out the parts where Cecilia is talking nonsense.

FOSS: Edit it so I’m the president. It would be an improvement on reality.

LEHNER: Hey! Listen here you. I try my best and I work hard.

BERGER: I’ll take requests once the spool is changed.

LEHNER: Atta girl!

[END RECORDING]


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.


Next Chapter In Unternehmen Solstice — The Fallen General

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