This scene contains violence and death.
Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North
Through the endless forest she ran from her implied enemy, but her body was giving up. Her legs felt tremendously heavy beneath her, and her stride grew slack. Her lungs were raw from the labor, and her throat tight, dry, in stinging pain. She slowed to a stop, her eyes scanning every corner of the wood for the hunters she knew to be after her.
There was nobody in sight; there was nothing in sight at all. Just green and brown.
Selene bowed her head against the trunk of a slender tree, and tugged on the neck of her dress. She felt warm air escape from her chest, and the cold touch of sweaty fabric struggling to cling as she pulled on it. Her parched tongue lolled out of her mouth.
She thought she heard footsteps, and raised her head in a panic.
But there was nothing behind her. Nothing in any direction but trees and endless green canopy overhead, penetrated by thin beams of light. Picturesque as the northern Kalu was, the forest was also heating up as the noon passed, and Selene was thoroughly exhausted. Hungry, thirsty, sweat-soaked, her muscles raw. She had never traversed the Northern Kalu. She knew no landmarks that could lead her back to her village.
And she was not much of an adventurer. She was a teacher, and a nurse — a nun.
A nun that could swing a mean breakfast tray; but a nun nonetheless.
Helplessly her eyes continued to glance over every centimeter of her surroundings.
She could have sworn she was heading south after leaving the tent, but she lost all sense of direction in the wood. And she had made a foolish mistake, too. She had found several rags tied to trees, markers for the enemy. Believing herself pursued, she undid them all and stomped them into the dirt and brush. Now she could not even find her way back to the Nochtish camp. They were the only conspicuous sight.
She was now drowning in the green.
Had God chosen this for her? To slowly wither away here, alone and afraid?
She pushed herself off the tree and ambled in an unknown direction.
At her side the forest scrolled slowly past, like the moving scenery of a clockwork stage.
Wherever the canopy broke, the Ayvartan sun blinded her to the sky.
She could not even use its position to determine her own — she could not even stare at it, it was so hot and close. Even the Heavens had been denied to her. She felt the sweat breaking out of her skin whenever she was exposed to the sun’s heat directly. Clearings became just another location to avoid as she continued her aimless trek forward.
She saw no animals, not even birds.
Perhaps they had all been driven off by the noise and smoke.
She thought to crane her head and try to listen for man-made sounds. To put her ears to the ground and try to feel the mechanical vibrations. Tanks and trucks could be heard and felt from quite afar in a peaceful forest. But she heard nothing. Everything was so silent and still that she felt a force boring through her ears, and a ringing in her head.
Selene kept moving.
Her vision swam. She lost track of time.
One foot in front of the other. Her strength slowly wavered.
She clasped her hands in prayer. They shook with tension and exhaustion.
“Merciful God, deliver me from this. I want only to serve these people of the south and to lead an untroubled life at their side. Powerful God in Heaven, give me the strength to turn my back on the tricolor gates, for I have life left to live upon the world of flesh–”
She tripped on a tree root and fell face-first into a pile of leaves.
Her body hit the floor with an audible thud.
For a moment she lay there, her mind empty of thought.
Instinctively she moved to stand again, and felt this drain her remaining strength.
When she stood, she was unsteady. She did not think she could take another step.
Beneath her, the floor shook unnaturally, sweeping forward and back in a nauseating fashion. She raised her eyes from the ground, hoping her gaze could then keep steady.
In front of her, framed in the light of a clearing, she saw a woman come running in.
Young, brown-haired, tall, pretty.
Waving a bottle in her hand.
“Fuck it all! Fuck everything!” She shouted at the top of her lungs.
Her voice echoed across the forest. She flung her bottle.
Selene felt some of the glass spray close to her as the bottle burst on a nearby tree.
She cringed reflexively and the woman laid eyes on her.
Each silently assessed the other.
Then the woman, eyes puffy with tears and drink, slowly approached, some drunken realization dawning on her face. She staggered forward, weeping, a devastated expression building on her face as if she had seen a family member die before her.
Tears began to cascade from her eyes, and to join fluid dribbling from her nose.
She held out her hand gently, reaching out to the nun.
Selene backed off a step, but not enough of them; the drunk woman threw herself on the nun and wept and screamed and thrashed into her breast and made a scene.
“Oh sister! Holy sister! I am filthy! I am a fallen woman! I’ve fallen to sin!”
She shouted and shouted the same repetitive cries before moving to new ones.
“I’ve taken to the bottle! I’ve turned away from the Lord! I hate this place, sister! This continent is unholy! It is tearing apart my soul, sister! Save me! Please!”
Some tender instinct engraved in her soul caused Selene to brush Fruehauf’s hair with her fingers to try to console her, but it made no difference. Fruehauf was distraught to a terrible extreme. She tugged on Selene’s dress and nearly brought her to the floor. She wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist, crying and screaming, struggling like a child throwing a tantrum. Selene had to grab her to prevent her from sliding to the dirt.
“Forgive me, blessed, pure woman of God! Forgive me! Save me!”
Her head bobbed against the nun’s waist.
Selene stood still, stunned to silence, her head completely blank. She could not process this scene, it had shocked her numb after all of her sufferings. It was a veritable ambush.
“Sister, please, sister–”
Over Fruehauf’s recurring cries an even louder voice sounded from the distance. It cut off the distraught woman’s shouting and reverberated across the wood like a deific call.
Selene and Fruehauf both turned their heads back toward the clearing.
General Anton Von Sturm approached between trees, staring skeptically.
“Who is this? What are you doing? We’ve been searching for hours! You could’ve been killed by some wild animal here! If you’re going to get drunk, get drunk at the base!”
Mid-shout, the General paused and took stock of the scene before him.
Nun and radio operator, in a compromising position in the middle of the wood.
Von Sturm rubbed his chin, staring at Selene much more intently.
He pointed a finger at her and she bristled in response, her eyes drawing wide.
“Are you the chaplain?” He asked. “Wait, no. Chaplains aren’t female.”
He rubbed his chin again.
Staring dumbly, Selene felt as though she had been given a revelation from God.
To surrender; running any more was futile.
Sighing, Selene raised her arms through Fruehauf’s own.
“I give up.” She moaned.
Von Sturm raised an eyebrow.
“Um. You what?” He asked, staring between Fruehauf and Selene.
Helplessly, the nun shrugged. Fruehauf broke into a fresh round of crying.
One had to suppose this was all God’s will, but Selene found it terribly frustrating.
Adjar Occupation Zone — Ghede Riverside
Elevation levers slammed down across the Nochtish artillery line, and every gun tube fell to its neutral position. Red-hot 10.5 cm barrels smoked; shells flew in straight lines over the cliffs and across the Ghede, smashing apart thick tree trunks, setting alight bushes, and scattering hidden sandbag emplacements and machine gun shields and mortar pits. Direct fire burnt and crushed the Ayvartan cover and slowly unveiled the defending line.
From the felled trees and shredded bushes, the Ayvartans stood undaunted. They pushed out their machine guns and their own cannons, inching forward and joining the duel in earnest. Both sides came in full view of another, and traded fire as if across an open field rather than a river. Had there been a connection they could have been met with bayonets; the standstill became a pitched battle over the cliffs and ramps.
Endless streams of gunfire crossed the riverside.
As the violence played out several meters overhead, riflemen trickled across the river, huddling at the various sand ramps and treelines. Descending into the river, they braved the water as the guns battled. Machine gun fire flew thick on all sides, slowing the beachheads down. Up the ramps, small groups of men crawled, making it to bushes before falling, either dead or suppressed. Snipers in the trees and machine gunners in the remaining brush took their pick of them. There were flashpoints and fires all along the central Ghede in short order. On the cliffs, between the ramps, it was pure chaos.
Field Marshal Haus resolved to put out all the fires in the line as best as he could.
The Sentinel Foot stood briefly above the sand ramp occupied by Alpha unit, named for its commander, Aschekind. Impressed with the man’s stature and commanding presence, Haus had given his unit the most dangerous approach. He witnessed his failure in judgment first-hand. No unit was wholly akin to its commander, and only one man had made it across on the first wave. Now Haus loaded rounds into his turret, and lobbed high explosive across the river to personally cover Aschekind’s second wave.
He struck one machine gun dead-on, and blasted away a curtain of bushes, killing several snipers in the process and saving the first man across the river. Morale seemed to hold for now. Haus had opened the way, and the second platoon wading into the Ghede was making good process. He felt confident he could leave the area in a minute.
There were many more fires to fight, and not enough hoses to fight them all.
“Alpha unit has crossed the river and are engaging. Delta and Theta are stuck, and suffering loses. All units are on their second wave. None of the first waves were successful.” Cathrin reported, crouched beside the radio and shouting into the turret.
“Wouldn’t be a military plan if it didn’t initially fuck up.” The Field Marshal replied.
He pulled open the 50mm gun breech, shoved a rotund shell inside, and locked it.
Through his gun sight, he focused on the treeline just over Alpha’s sand ramp.
Haus pressed his electric trigger, and his shell soared over his own men and detonated.
A curtain of smoke fell over them, blocking the enemy’s view of the ramp.
“That will have to do. Driver, east, one kilometer, full speed!”
Eight wheels propelled the Sentinel Foot, four on each side, and the sleek machine turned around its body and charged along the river-side, leaving behind Alpha’s ramp.
At almost 80 kilometers per hour the machine sped past the trenches and the artillery guns, strafing to present a harder target for the mortars and artillery. His own guns held their fire as he passed, before joining battle again. Fragments bounced off the thirty millimeters of armor, and it rolled through the plumes of mortar blasts and through the hail of machine gun fire unharmed. Haus turned his turret perpendicular to the chassis to face the enemy defenses, and found an almost unbroken line of rifles and guns flashing relentlessly. He lifted his hand from the cannon and seized his coaxial Norgler machine gun, holding the down the trigger and spraying the opposing side of the river.
“Sir, we’re almost to the flashpoint!” Cathrin called out.
Haus pushed open the top hatch and peered out, careful not to expose too much.
The Sentinel Foot slowed, and ahead he spotted the place where the ground descended from the rocky river-side cliffs, forming another sand ramp into the water. He saw his men rushing down the ramp, charging into the water, and immediately slowing to crawl, wading, taking long, tall strides as if they wanted to extricate their feet entirely from the chest-high water with each step. Machine gun fire met them from the riverbank.
“Men! Press on!” Haus shouted, lifting up a fist. “You can take this river!”
In the next instant a mortar shell fell into the water and exploded amid the lead platoon elements before they could be heartened by Haus’ appearance. The remainder of the platoon turned frantic, and began to overexert themselves, hurrying to cross.
Gritting his teeth, Haus descended into his turret again. He hit the electric drive, and the gun swung toward the enemy emplacements, again hidden behind thick bushes atop the ramp on their side of the river. In a few seconds he acquired a target, watching the muzzle flash inside of the vegetation. He loaded a shell, took aim and quickly fired.
There was a burst, and a cloud of smoke and flying plant debris obscured the top of the ramp. Once the dust settled the machine gun lay unveiled, a hole through its shield.
He drew in a breath and scanned around for contacts.
At the edge of his vision a much brighter muzzle flashed.
He heard a blast, too quickly and too close by, and the Sentinel Foot shook up, as if it suddenly desired to tip over on its side. Dirt and rocks scattered skyward from the blast then fell over the vehicle’s armor, rapping the metal with a sound like ricocheting bullets.
“Anti-tank gun! Seventy-six millimeters, 6 o’ clock from your vantage!” Cathrin shouted.
“Deploy counter-measures!” Haus shouted back.
Cathrin bolted up from the radio’s side and ran to the corners of the vehicle. Clicking noises issued from each side as she hit the triggers on the smoke launchers.
Grenades jumped up over the vehicle’s sides and erupted with a snap.
Clouds of gray smoke spread over the surrounding area and obscured the machine.
Haus swung the gun around, again perpendicular to the chassis.
He peered through the sights.
As the driver hit the acceleration, he waited for a muzzle flash from outside the smoke.
He saw the machine guns’ bullets, blaring red in every direction. Within the curtain of smoke it was an eerie sight, the red lines tracing swift patterns in the thick air.
An average crew could reload a 76mm gun fairly quickly.
Haus counted the seconds.
A shot; something flew past the Sentinel Foot, and the Field Marshal had his target.
From a shell rack at his side, Haus seized an HE shell and put it through the tube.
His own report was much tinnier than that of the broader 76mm gun.
But he had a much longer barrel and thus greater velocity.
Through the smoke, he saw the effect immediately.
A muted orange glow in the distance.
When the Sentinel Foot escaped its own smoke cloud, Haus found the Ayvartan gun burning, its ammunition likely triggered by the HE detonation. He had killed it.
With his own hide safe and secure, Haus turned his attention to the battle again.
He jerked the elevation wheel to lower his gun, and spied his men through the sight.
Across the river, a dozen men huddled behind the rock walls at the sides of the opposing ramp, hiding from the gunfire in the cliff overhead. Meanwhile the Ghede ran red with the blood of the other forty men who had attempted to cross, cut down by incessant fire while the AT gun tied up the Sentinel Foot. Haus grit his teeth at the sight.
He might have misjudged the amount of firepower the Ayvartans had committed to this center. And there would be more to come if they could not seize this opportunity.
Taking a bullhorn from a hook nearby, Haus rose from the top of his turret.
Amid the gunfire, to the men across the river, he shouted, “Men, take heart! Field Marshal Dietrich Haus personally supports your advance! Press the assault with me!”
Haus dove back into the turret, and hailed his driver on the intercom.
“Into the river.”
Without a word of dissent, the driver took the Sentinel Foot down the ramp and into the water at a gentle speed. Immediately the machine slowed further to a crawl, the wheels sloshing water and dragging sand. And yet, they moved at a better clip than any of the men could against the onrushing river, and with much greater endurance for the current.
The Ayvartans did not merely sit and gawk at the vehicle. At the top of the ramp and along the tree lines, the machine guns concentrated their red tracers on the armored car and ignored the men in the cliffs. Thousands of bullets hurled toward the Sentinel Foot.
“Hatches down, slits closed!” Haus called out.
Cathrin shut the slit at her side, and up front the driver did the same.
Buttoned down, the Sentinel Foot was impervious to the bullets.
Haus sat through the cacophonous noise of thousands of hits ringing against his armor, confident he would not be injured. The Sentinel Foot slogged on, meter by grueling meter. His men on the other side stared over their shoulders in disbelief as the Sentinel Foot approached, and they rallied; picking their submachine guns, grenades and rifles back up, searching their waterproof bandoliers for ammunition, they readied to attack.
Then there was a voice on the radio, broadcasting to all frequencies.
“Please make way in sector Delta, precious cargo coming!”
Haus raised an eyebrow.
Cathrin peered her head beneath the turret, looking up at Haus with confusion.
“Sir, it’s Von Drachen!” She said.
In response Haus slammed the electric drive switch.
Swinging the turret to his sides and up, Haus peered through the sight just in time.
From atop the cliff, a Stud cargo truck launched across the river at the closest point between two cliffs. It almost cleared the jump, using the cliff like a ramp, but there was no miracle. It slammed into the rocks and was crushed and splattered in pieces.
But this was not the end of this bizarre event.
Trailing behind the truck were several cargo containers, stuck stiffly together somehow.
Down they fell; but they were longer than the cliffs were apart.
Haus could not believe what he was watching unfold.
Von Drachen had never quite gotten driving down to a science, so at his side, Colonel Gutierrez handled the wheel, the gear shifts, and other technical details. Von Drachen insisted, however, on pressing down the acceleration pedal of the Stud truck with his own boot, so that he could be sure it was jammed all the way down to the floor.
“Mijo! We need to slow down!” shouted the old Colonel.
“That defeats the purpose of everything.” Von Drachen gently replied.
The Stud had no room to dodge any foliage, and instead plowed right through bushes and over slender young trees. Behind it, the truck towed several thick metal cargo containers on tank-transport beds. Von Drachen and Gutierrez had personally welded the containers together, and made it so the truck could not possibly maneuver in any direction. This was all engineered for a purpose, Von Drachen assured everyone.
All it would take was one too-thick tree to end that purpose.
Truly the Messiah defended them, for there were no thick trees in their way yet that would have simply killed them as they failed to plow through. Instead of fatal, the ride was simply bumpy and uncomfortable. Wildly shaking in the cabin, Guttierrez barely had to move the wheel. Their truck was so heavy with its cargo and so stiff in the back that it could not possibly maneuver. It hurtled at such terrible speed it was like a train.
At the truck’s sides, a pair of scout cars followed, weaving through the forest in close support. Von Drachen looked out at the men in the cars and hailed them on the radio.
“Cuan cerca?” He asked. How close?
There were two tiers of answers Von Drachen received, one of which was most prevalent and multifaceted: cries of panic, desperate shrugs, and entreaties to please stop the madness. He ignored all of these. He intended to continue the madness as far as it would go. He reminded them that he had engineered this for a purpose.
Then there was the hysterical screaming that told Von Drachen his objective was close.
That particular answer, he would respond to.
Von Drachen picked up the truck radio, and broadcast as far and wide as possible.
“Please make way in sector Delta, precious cargo coming!”
Nonchalantly, he then set the handset down.
“We should jump.” He said, as if looking for consensus.
Gutierrez hastily let go of the wheel, threw open the door and hurled himself out.
Von Drachen glanced ahead, nodded to himself with satisfaction, and leaped too.
He hit the ground on his shoulder, then his hip, and collapsed groggily on his side.
Slowly he turned to face the river and laughed raucously through fits of agony.
Careening out of control, the truck burst out of the treeline, knocked over some sandbags, perhaps ran over a trench harmlessly, and then flew over the river as it was intended to. It had picked up enough speed, and the cliff was elevated enough, to launch. Von Drachen watched it sail impossibly into the air with child-like glee.
While the truck portion was crushed against the opposing cliff and fell to pieces in the water, the containers did their job as planned. They became wedged at a steep angle between the two sides of the river, forming a makeshift bridge across the water, and better still, quite a good ways up to the opposing cliffside. Though it was not perfect, with a bit of rope and ingenuity, or maybe just upper body strength, it was now possible to scale the cliffs. Von Drachen smiled and laughed. This obviated the bloody business with the ramps. He reached for his radio, and found it crushed against his bloodied hip.
Though he had wanted to call for a general assault, he figured it was now implied.
Behind him, the men from the scout cars stopped and helped him to stand.
“No, no! Vayan al puente!” cried Von Drachen, urging them to fight.
The men stared at each other, and at Von Drachen, who repeated himself more harshly.
“Al rio, idiotas! Dejenme ir!”
At once, both men dropped Von Drachen, who hit the ground badly again, and charged toward the cliff without question, jumping down onto the bridge, and breaking into a run across, submachine guns and pistols blaring against the opposing cliff face.
Von Drachen watched them go with a great sense of satisfaction.
Even after he lost all track of them in the chaos of the battle, he felt elated.
From the bushes, a bruised Colonel Gutierrez reappeared, hobbling toward him.
“Gutierrez!” Von Drachen shouted. “I’m afraid I threw something out and am finding it difficult to stand. You seem healthier. Please go command the battle in my stead.”
Gutierrez scoffed loudly at him. “You crazy mijo? I’m not setting foot on that goddamn contraption. I’m almost sixty years old, I’m not up to this nonsense anymore! It’s bad enough you made me weld all of that together on such short notice. I’m done.”
Defiantly, Gutierrez sat down beside the fallen Von Drachen, crossing his legs.
From his back pocket, he withdrew a little book and began to read scripture.
“Well, if that’s the way you feel about it.” Von Drachen replied, shrugging.
Despite his Colonel’s recalcitrance, the Cissean contingent began to carry the battle. More of Von Drachen’s men came charging in from the bush, and arriving to battle in cars and tractors and old, weathered motorcycles. Without word the Cisseans rushed past their fallen commander and leaped down onto the bridge, and followed it up the nearby cliff. A line of men, jumping down their cliff and running up to the opponent’s.
Soon his entire battalion was rolling across his bridge and into the fight.
Though the Nochtish men had crossed first, it was the Cissean who broke the line.
Within the hour, the Ghede would see a rout, and Von Drachen, laying at the riverside, would personally see it as well. Or as much of it as he could see from the dirt.