Troubled Sky — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains violence and death.


 

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Ocean Road

Ocean Road trembled, buckling under the fury of dozens of tanks.

Burning red tracers flew over the streets, pitting the ground, smashing windows and walls, cutting through street-lights. Commanding the northern streets were several echelons of hull down Goblin tanks, their front armor reinforced with stacks of sandbags and chained-up wooden logs and concrete blocks.  Acting as mobile pillboxes set in staggered ranks, they spat AP-HE tracers with abandon, firing as fast as their beleaguered crews could handle, barely aiming. Even as they faced an encroaching enemy, they did not maneuver for an advantage, staying as still as the stone wall they were meant to represent.

Challenging their control were the Hobgoblin tanks of Shayma El-Amin’s 3rd Tank Battalion. Against the stone wall of the enemy, the Hobgoblins danced. There was barely any fire from them at first. Moving in coordinated groups of three, the tanks advanced using the buildings for cover, the alleyways to avoid lanes of fire, weaving an intricate pattern of track marks as they swung around the unguarded connecting streets. Even as the ground detonated all around them from the saturation bombardment of dozens of tank guns firing down the street, the Hobgoblins encroached with a steeled discipline.

At first the 8th Ram’s Goblin tanks believed they were confusing the enemy with their mass attacks, and the moving pillboxes felt the rush of victory. One Hobgoblin that clumsily exposed a flank was penetrated through the side; another had its track damaged, and was stranded in the middle of the road. Fire began to concentrate upon it until, after dozens of rounds, its pitted, ruined front armor gave in, and the tank violently exploded.

Two kills! Had the radios been working correctly the 8th Ram would have been abuzz with the sound of victory. Even in the face of the enemy’s strange new tanks, the old Goblin could score a victory! Not a single Goblin had yet suffered violence. For the first fifteen minutes of battle it seemed that the unmoving pillboxes had stopped their enemy.

Then suddenly the Hobgoblins reappeared directly behind the defensive line.

No one had thought the “retreating” enemy was actually bypassing them entirely.

Coming in from the alleys and the side streets, smashing through storefronts, the Hobgoblins opened fire. Unprotected engine compartments went up in smoke. Goblins all over the defensive line started to catch fire and explode. Any single 76mm shot from a Hobgoblin sliced through the Goblin’s armor like paper, turning the engine block to slag and cooking the crews inside their compartments. All over the lower Ocean Road the light tanks went up like signal bonfires. Outmaneuvered and encircled, and encumbered by their improvised armor and tight stationary positions, the Goblins could not redeploy.

After the fifteen minutes in which they held the line, it only took Shayma El-Amin’s tanks three minutes to completely dismantle it. Almost half of Ocean Road was open country, or it would be when the wrecks and the fire was cleared out. Engineers advanced from the bottom of the road, following the lead of the tanks. The 3rd Tank Battalion set track on Ocean Road proper and once more faced the north for the next phase of their attack.

“Forward! We’re breaking through to the rally point! 3rd Company will be the speartip, and 2nd Company will follow in from behind us! 1st Company, fade to the rear as we move past you; you’ve earned your rest. See if you can find any survivors in your two wrecks!”

Major Shayma El-Amin set her radio handset back on its unit, a vicious grin on her face. She adjusted her peaked cap and laid back on the commander’s seat of her Hobgoblin. A few centimeters below her, her gunner adjusted the gun and prepared the ready rack, while farther below and to the front, their driver slowly and steadily maneuvered them toward the front of the pack. Ocean Road could hold about six Hobgoblin widths of tank before becoming too crowded. Shayma had immediately noticed this when she arrived.

Ahead of her, the eight remaining tanks of the 1st Company began to make way for her own Company. All in all her battalion had thirty-five “main” tanks, not counting support such as the Kobolds she had allowed Burundi to borrow. She had spent 1/3 of her strength to tackle the first half of the operation. She intended to finish this with the other 2/3.

Her tanks advanced in staggered, alternating triangle formations. Each formation was three tanks, two forward, one rear, and stuck to one side of the road. Behind them, with about thirty meters of distance, a second triangle would take the opposite side of the road, with only these six foremost tanks attacking, to avoid friendly fire. Swinging her periscope behind her, Shayma could see that her vanguard was adhering to this doctrine excellently.

Her own platoon, a two-tank Headquarters, followed safely farther behind, and then the reserve triangle with three more tanks spread out among the center, left and right lanes.

“Brace yourselves, here comes the enemy’s second rank!” Shayma warned her tanks.

Ahead of them the 8th Division’s remaining pillbox goblins remained dug in, while infantry began to wheel artillery and anti-tank guns closer to the front. Guns poked out from the streetside windows, and sandbag circles protected mortar pits. Ocean Road steepened, and the 8th Division started to have a marginal high ground advantage. At the peak of the city, a pair of Orc tanks aimed their short-barreled guns down on them.

“Switch to high explosive rounds and fire on the artillery positions first!”

3rd Battalion’s tanks immediately acted on Shayma’s orders. All the while moving, the Hobgoblins opened a barrage of inaccurate but powerful fire on the enemy’s foremost artillery defenses. Explosive shells 76mm in caliber flew from the Hobgoblin’s muzzles and struck the earth and sandbags surrounding dug-in 76mm howitzers and 82mm mortars. Smoke and dust and shattered concrete burst skyward in front of the defenders and obscured their sight temporarily. Within the cloud a few fires raged from burnt ammo.

The 8th Division quickly retaliated. Howitzers and mortars adjusted for close fire and attacked through the cloud, casting explosives around and over the advancing tanks. Muzzles flashed and falling shells whizzed and sang, but the payload landed harmlessly behind and around the Hobgoblins. Fragments bounced off armor and no tank caught fire.

Shayma smiled to herself, baring a flash of white fangs, protected amid the blasts.

The 8th Division was operating on experience with slower and weaker tanks than a Hobgoblin and it showed in their every decision. Her armor could more than withstand indirect fire, and her tracks would always outrun it. Their gunnery just was too weak.

Quickly closing to within a hundred meters of the enemy, the Hobgoblins switched targets. Priority went to hard targets: the Goblins and the Orcs spread around the line.

Anti-armor fire grew fiercer the closer they moved.

At such short ranges the Goblin’s gun could punch above its weight class.

It was not enough. Armor piercing shells struck the fronts of the Hobgoblins and bounced off the thick, steeply sloped armor of the glacis and the strong, hardened armor of the gun mantlet, inflicting seemingly no damage. A Goblin’s 45mm gun could not penetrate the front of a Hobgoblin; if it could not be done under 100 meters, then it was impossible.

Across the enemy line, panic visibly set in. Shayma’s tanks coolly pressed their advantage.

HE shell casings popped out of the 76mm guns, and the lead Hobgoblins reloaded AP-HE.

Turrets quickly turned, guns correct elevation, and everyone found targets.

For an instant, the 3rd Tank Company’s formation paused completely.

In the few seconds that followed they fired almost a dozen deadly accurate shots.

Goblins went up in smoke throughout the defensive line, penetrated through their improvised armor of logs and blocks and the thin flat glacis armor behind it. Atop the hill both of the defending Orcs were accurately struck on the thinner armor on the bottom of their glacis plates, and the detonations inside their turrets sent smoke and fire blowing out of their guns until they finally exploded, spraying metal over nearby infantry.

Within the smoke and dust lifted by the previous high explosive attacks Shayma’s gunner indicated several moving shadows and outlines. Once the dust started to clear more, they could see several positions abandoned. Intact anti-tank guns were left behind. Mortars were decrewed. Useless machine guns, including a few Norglers, were discarded.

Soon as the last Hobgoblin gun sounded, Shayma ordered the advance to continue.

Her 3rd Company trundled forward, and then started to split up.

Taking adjacent road connections and alleyways, they dispersed from the center and opened the way for the fresh 2nd Company to repeat the two-phase barrage: first high explosive attacks on the defensive positions, and then armor piercing attacks on any remaining or arriving armor. Meanwhile Shayma’s Headquarters platoon drove through a connecting road and hooked around the enemy defenses; much of the rest of her 3rd Company did the same, dispersing through the urban environment in the same way they had dispersed through the Kalu wood, peeling off the line and evading enemy positions.

Bypassing the enemy strong point, Shayma and her tanks pinched off the rear of the enemy’s positions. Farther down the road her 2nd Company advanced to the positions previously held by the third. Now there were 12 tanks that could fire safely on the main road, and they held positions all around the enemy. They had formed a vice, and as the gunfire began to rain from all sides, it was clear that the vice was tightening quickly.

Once more the Kalu Raiders encircled the enemy line, and this fact was not lost on the enemy. More and more 8th Division troops gave in and abandoned their positions and weapons and even their uniforms. Retreating enemies threw themselves on the ground and begged for mercy. Those still nominally fighting hunkered down in their posts and waited for the cruel fire to blow over them. Remaining Goblin pillbox tanks popped their hatches and the crew waved signal flags in surrender. Ocean Road was quickly broken.

Hull-down tactics, a porous line of thick formations with nonexistent flanks, and outdated equipment exposed completely to a technically superior enemy — it was amateur hour tanking, Shayma knew. Standing at the top of Ocean Road and looking down on Rangda and the distant ocean, Major El-Amin became the first of Colonel Madiha Nakar’s commanders to take her assigned objectives, and she did so in little over an hour’s time.

Even so, much of the 8th Division did not know that they had been split into two sections in Rangda and that neither section had the power now to unite with the other. All of them knew even less that they would soon become nearly irrelevant to the conflict entirely.


 

Tambwe Dominance, Village of Yarta — Rail Yard

For the workers of the Yarta rail station, it had been a confusing morning.

Preparations for the arrival of a whole Regiment of the 8th Division had consumed the past day and would consume the current, or so they believed as the work day started.

Yarta was a large station, but its star had long faded. Faster routes had been laid farther north of it, and the volume Yarta had to handle had long lessened. That it was to be used at all meant that something had happened at the more modern, more Solstice-administered railways. Nobody knew what that was, but they did not question it. To prepare to bear the burden of thousands of soldiers and their equipment, a lot of work had to be done. There was need to clear out old warehouses and store Regimental stockpiles, to move aside stranded cars and engines to open up lanes of traffic, to restore the tracks to bear the burden of heavy-duty rail and perform thorough maintenance on switches and turntables.

It used to be Yarta station could run just fine with an engineer, a safety officer, a secretary and few interested part-timers who lived off stipends in the village. Now they had to put out an emergency call to the village for dozens of hands. Overnight, a lot of work had been accomplished, and twice as much more would have to be done before the 53rd deadline.

That morning, however, they first received a rare long distance telephone call, warning them to halt all traffic. Everyone stood puzzled around the telephone for about an hour, wondering who to call to confirm this puzzling order. Then the phone rang again, and the Secretary once more picked it up. Now the irate voice, same but also different, told them to prepare for a Battalion of troops coming today instead of a Regiment by tomorrow.

As they scrambled to get the essentials taken care of to house a whole battalion in just ancestors-knew-how-many hours, a second long distance telephone call mysteriously informed them to stay tuned to the national emergency radio. This set of frequencies, operated out of Solstice, was rarely used for Yarta in any significant fashion, and so, amid their hectic work, the station staff left only the Secretary to take care of the radio.

Outside, a crane car labored to pick a damaged coal car that had become stuck on the tracks. Soon as it dropped the car off the track, the radio went off quite loudly.

When the Secretary answered, she was told to clear the tracks immediately.

She ran outside and shouted this, but nobody seemed to believe it.

Her protests were quickly silenced by an overwhelming whistle and a rumbling noise.

Moments later they saw the armored train in the distance.

Everyone scrambled off the tracks and into the station or the warehouses.

The Armored train was headed right for occupied track with reckless abandon.

Like a battering ram, the armored train smashed through the crane car and practically hurled it off the tracks. Barreling past the station, the engine braked harshly, and many of the cars overshot the station — only the brake van aligned with the departure platform, after the train finally stopped. Unceremoniously, a door slid open at the end of the train.

Stepping onto the platform from the train was a woman dressed in a yellow uniform with black highlights, studded with red from her rank insignia and a beret. Twin black ponytails waved behind her in the breeze, tied at the rear sides of her head, just behind her ears, with bright flowing red ribbons. Behind her round spectacles a pair of eyes each a different color, green and blue, coldly appraised the startled station staff from outside the glass doors to the office. The arriving Commissar was a bit short, slender, and her skin a baked brown. She knocked her gloved fist on the door with a cool expression on her face.

“I told you to clear up the tracks! What is wrong with you? We could’ve been killed!”

Her voice was high pitched and a little nasally. At her urging, the station staff allowed her into the managing office. Behind her, the cars of the armored train opened their doors.

Dozens of black and red uniformed KVW troops left their transports. Some went to work on dismantling parts of the train, taking down dummy wooden walls and roofs that seemed more at home on cattle cars, and revealing gun turrets and artillery emplacements beneath. Others dragged out wheeled heavy machine guns and anti-tank guns. Yet more started to climb the station buildings and to rush out with submachine guns in hand to inspect the warehouses. It was a total takeover of the station, by at least a hundred troops.

Amid all the sudden infantry activity it was easy to miss the impressive firepower of the train. One by one the engineers dismantled the fake cars and revealed many weapons. On one of the rearmost cars, facing the incoming lengths of track, a 203mm Howitzer “Vajra” waited for a target. Several cars mounted 76mm turrets that had full rotation. Around the tank turrets were stationary machine guns with shields, and anti-aircraft guns.

One broadside from the armored train could devastate almost any enemy position.

Once inside the office, the KVW commander made herself quite at home. As the staff stared quizzically at her, she walked up to the station manager’s desk, took the chair, and leaned back with her feet up on the desk top. She sighed loudly and then smiled brightly.

“I’m Commissar-General Halani Kuracha.” She said, waving with the tips of her fingers. “My command is the 9th Revolutionary Guards Reconnaissance Battalion ‘ASURA’.”

At the sound of this the station staff looked quite shaken.

“To what do we owe the pleasure?” Asked the station manager.

Kuracha shifted her feet on the desktop, putting the right one atop the left one.

She raised one of her hands skyward as if pointing her index finger at the ceiling.

“You’ve all been incredibly disappointing. Even after receiving instructions from the central government, you continued to aid and supply Rangda’s traitors. I am here to deliver a firm but loving correction.” Kuracha replied, smiling with satisfaction.

At the sound of this the station staff looked utterly distraught.

“Please, Commissar, we’ve been jerked around the past few days like children’s toys, we don’t know anything that has been happening.” the station managed begged.

“That is why the correction will be loving instead of harsh.” Kuracha replied.

She turned her head toward the door with a seeming disinterest in the staff.

Outside, a defensive line formed with the armored train as its center, encompassing a semi-circular projection of guns and metal shields that faced south from Yarta. Soon an infantry officer from the battalion arrived at the station manager’s office and passed through the door. She stood at the side of the desk, looking down at Kuracha with a blank expression. Her rifle was slung over her shoulder and she had a peaked cap on.

“Commissar-General,” she said tentatively.

“Are we all set up?” Kuracha asked.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Do we know when the train is coming?” Kuracha asked.

“No ma’am.”

Kuracha nodded. She turned to the station staff.

“When are the traitors due? I aim to correct them as well. Painfully.”

At once the staff devolved into a generalized shivering.

“I see. Well, you had better find out.” Kuracha demanded.

Radio and telephone calls went out in a panicked flurry.

“Oh! Never mind!”

Kuracha put her feet down from the desk and practically leaped out of her chair.

Bewildered, the staff watched as she ran outside, practically skipping as she went.

Dust and pebbles along the tracks began to stir with a distant rumbling.

Outside, over the distant hills, a second train was coming in.

This one from the south rather than the north.

There were several dozen wooden cars with thin armored supports, and interspersed between them were larger open cars carrying tanks under tarps and chains. All of these cars trailed behind a conventional engine the shape of a blocky cylinder on wheels. Though a red star was marked on the front of the train, it was not an ally. Festooned on its sides were sloppily painted identifying insignias for the 8th Ram Rifle Division of Rangda.

“Weapons free!” Kuracha shouted in an excitable tone of voice.

Across the line, the voices of the infantry officers echoed the command.

First to fire was the enormous Vajra cannon mounted near the rear of the train.

An earthshaking rumble followed as the 203mm shell plunged toward its target.

In seconds the steel cap of the explosive shell met the side of the engine.

An explosion followed that was loud enough to be heard well at the station itself.

Punching through the side of the train with its sheer weight alone, the 203mm shell detonated partially inside the engine and blew a massive hole in it through which smoke and fire and steam belched into the air. Thrown off-balance by the sheer explosive force, the train tipped, its wheels coming clean off the tracks, and in moments derailed entirely. Pushed off the tracks and onto its side, the engine’s coupler split like a twig amid the violence, and the cars following behind it crashed into the engine and smashed into a pile.

Over a dozen cars, one after the other, derailing and crashing end to end. Tanks hurled from cars mid-crash and rolled downhill. Men and women were thrown bodily from the farthest of the cars in the crash, lucky to survive the bloody press of flesh that had become of the cars closest to the engine. Beneath the stress, the engine finally detonated, spraying molten steel and fragments and steam every which way and spreading an violent fire.

Into this mound of death, the ASURA battalion stared, and prepared to add fuel to its fires.

“Launch a two-shell barrage on the cars! Mark!” Kuracha ordered.

Promptly following orders, the anti-tank guns along the defensive line and the howitzers on the armored train performed a prompt two-shell barrage. Within the next thirty seconds a few dozen rounds crashed into the engine, around the derailed cars, into the smashed troop transports and mobile depots. Dozens of smaller explosions went off across the wrecks. Fires spread across every car and over the tracks, catching on spilled and stored fuel. Thick, noxious black smoke billowed up from the crash site.

Halani Kuracha rubbed her hands together and stretched them out in a cutesy flourish.

“Good job! That and the next few trains they send will make a fine example.”

She turned heel and stared sweetly at the train station staff.

“Now, for your loving correction.” She said, clapping her hands. “Please follow me to your warehouses, where we will uncover all supplies bound for the traitors, tally them up, and send them to Solstice, where the loyal among us need them the most. Please send all villagers and volunteers back to their homes. My loving correction is only for you.”

There was no vocal disagreement. The Secretary, the Engineer and other paid station staff descended the platform onto the tracks and ran to the warehouses in a sprightly dash. It was only the station manager who seemed to tarry, staring behind himself at his office with a sense of confusion. Kuracha tapped her feet and stared at him with a sour face.

“Hey,” she said in a dangerous tone of voice, “do you think you’ve got it any different?”

At this implication, the station manager got started running himself.

Kuracha eyed the infantry officer with the peaked cap. She nodded her head toward her.

“Slash all the phone lines to Rangda. Destroy any other Ram marked trains that come here. Until we’re clear the 8th Division has surrendered, they’re all suspect.”

With scarcely any acknowledgment, the KVW officer set about her work without question.

Kuracha smiled sweetly.

Oh ho ho ho! Little Madiha’s the all-important sword; but we’re a fine shield.”

She stared at the burning wreckage of the enemy train with much satisfaction.


 

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

“Summon the Coastal defense brigade! Arm them out of police stocks and have them redeploy to fight as infantry! Do it now, I don’t want to hear any damned complaints!”

There was a nodding of heads and an anxious flitting of staff as the work began to be carried out. Through the telephone lines, for the radio was long since found unreliable, maritime troops that were native to Rangda and could be reached were given their orders, to leave their guns at the seaside and rush to defend the Council from Madiha Nakar.

It was a desperate measure and nobody could be sure any men would make it in time.

It was all that could be done now.

The 8th Division was crumbling, and Rangda was running out of material to prop it up.

The Coastal Brigade was the only unit of manpower that could reach Council without fighting through Madiha Nakar’s lines at the moment. They would have to do.

Nobody could have imagined the situation would turn this bleak, this quickly.

Aksara Mansa had partaken of a leisurely breakfast, preparing his words as he coolly readied to unleash the 8th Division on the perfidious 1st Motor Rifles Regiment sitting like a stone in the middle of his city. It was to be the first act in a complicated gamble to secure his precious city its independence within the seemingly inevitable framework of a Nocht-subsidiary state in Ayvarta. Destroying the 1st Regiment should have been nothing. All he needed was a casus belli, and Daksha Kansal had given him one. With reason to swarm, he could unleash his numerical advantage upon Madiha Nakar’s head and eliminate her.

However, by the time he delivered his speech, his army was being swept from under him.

Since then he had not eaten, and he had thoroughly expended the energy he had gained in the morning, shouting into radios, screaming at staff, and falling ever further into despair.

The Lion Battalion was not the first to fall, but it was the first to declare a surrender. In the North, the 96th Battalion had been pushed to surrender with such alacrity there had been no time to forewarn the Council. Lax radio discipline led to the failure of Mansa’s men to realize that every incoming signal from a besieged unit into Council was being blocked by sophisticated jamming. Lion’s surrender only arrived because Madiha Nakar allowed it.

Ocean Road was under Nakar’s control almost in its entirety. Rangda’s northern expanses were also sealed by the 1st Motor Rifles, and the loss of Rangda University gave Nakar a very useful staging area. The 8th Division in Rangda was completely fragmented, split into two large pockets in the southwest and Council, and a dozen pieces everywhere else. And by the time the radio jamming had been noticed and partially overcome, it was too late.

All around Council there was panic. Everyone had been reading in the papers about Madiha Nakar and her ruthlessness. Should she come into power in Rangda as she had in Adjar anyone who sided with the Mansas would likely face a purge for treason. As such even the most far removed and least complicit menial desk worker had a fever about their work, an aimless energy that was rendered useless when applied to filing reports and answering phone calls. It was an energy the soldiery did not possess – theirs was a depressed panic, a demoralized staggering crawl as they struggled to reinforce windows, dig trenches outside, set up sniper nests and in general attempt to turn the Council building into a strongpoint.

“What’s the word from the Yarta station? Is our battalion here?”

“No sir. There’s been no word from them for hours.”

“Keep trying. Nakar must be interfering with our communications again.”

“Can she interfere with the phone sir?”

“Keep trying!”

Aksara Mansa was fighting on borrowed time, and he knew it. His own panic was an existential one. It was up in the air whether the Right Hand of Death would claim the life of a secretary or a rifleman. It was explicit that a vengeful Madiha Nakar would definitely kill him, as she had killed his father. He thought he could squash her, that he had her at her weakest, but he had been wrong. He had underestimated her. Right now, he could only reinforce his position and bide time to escape. But there was one other major obstacle.

“You? Escape to where? And with who’s help?”

General Von Drachen sat back, lounging comfortably. He had on a self-satisfied grin.

Mansa’s future was in his hands and he seemed to have already made up his mind about it.

His own troops had stopped fighting ever since Nakar had escaped his grasp. Had Council been logistically capable of deploying anything to anywhere in the city now, perhaps Drachen’s company could have put out a fire somewhere. His veteran Cissean troops were the most effective thing nominally in Mansa’s arsenal. But Council did not know its tail from its claws at the moment, and so Von Drachen just sat around. And every second he sat around, he had nothing to think about but that Mansa was failing at every step.

Still, Mansa would not show him weakness. He proceeded as if he had value to Nocht.

“General Drachen–”

“It is Von Drachen.”

Mansa swallowed hard.

“General Von Drachen, this city owes much to my family. Its people are fiercely loyal to my father, who has made sure they have always had everything they needed to flourish. Any future administration of this city would be greatly aided by my presence.”

“Will you run the city with the same ease with which you ran the 8th Division?”

Von Drachen smiled.

“And will you run the city into the same place you ran your troops?”

He chuckled.

Mansa quieted, turned his back and returned to his maps and radios.

Clearly Nocht was fast become an infeasible option.

Perhaps he could make for the forests, become an old-style warlord in the rough terrain, his elite core of supporters living off the villagers and establishing a base of power to–

Von Drachen raised his hand.

“Into the ground, is what I meant to imply. Will you run it into the ground?” He laughed.

“Shut up, Von Drachen!”

Beneath the sound of the incipient argument there was a phone ringing.

Mansa’s secretary rushed past skittering personnel to pick up the phone. Almost immediately she set it down and urged Mansa to take the call personally. Extricating himself from Von Drachen’s foul presence, Mansa seized the phone and found himself talking with his chief of maritime defense. He sounded quite noticeably distressed.

“Sir I’ve got urgent news. It’s not confirmed, but I have reason to believe it. We received word from a group of civilian scientists testing a new type of detection equipment–”

“Have you managed to redeploy my coastal troops yet?” Mansa impatiently asked.

At the other end of the line the man was momentarily speechless.

“Sir, I’m afraid such a monumental task takes time and right now–”

“Cease chasing after the fancies of eggheads and get me my troops!”

Aksara Mansa practically slammed the phone down.

He was certain that the man was trying to tell him about a freak read off a sonobuoy or something equally insipid. Those were the things the scientists at Rangda Engineering were obsessed with. Waves and blips on cold dark glass. He had no time for such things. He knew the only things out in that ocean were either Nocht or Ayvarta and neither’s control of the seas made any difference to him at this point. He had to think of escape.

“Von Drachen, you behave far too comfortably for one utterly surrounded.”

Mansa pointed sharply at the General, who in turn was luxuriantly seated in a couch intended for guests waiting out in the hall for an audience. He had moved it himself into the room, where it looked quite out of place amid all the wooden chairs and desks strewn with paper reports and maps and codebooks and dilapidated old audio equipment.

“Oh? I’m surrounded now?”

“Rangda gives respect back in kind. You turned this place into your hornet’s nest.”

Mansa nodded at the door, where a guard stood at the ready.

Von Drachen sighed deeply. “That seems to be every place lately.”

Clumsily brandishing a pistol, the guard approached Von Drachen and loomed over the seated man. Mansa nodded at him again, pointing him toward the General with the implication that he should be detained. But the guard, who had perhaps never had to detain a man in his life, fumbled with one shaking hand for a pair of cuffs on his belt, and seemed to dedicate a too-large block of his day to deciding what to do about the General.

In return, Von Drachen was far too swift.

One hand flashed from the seat, and in a blink it seemed, the guard was seized by the scruff and dragged down. His gut met Von Drachen’s knee as the General jumped up to his feet in the same flourish with which he seized his standing captor. This impossible move left the guard drooling on the floor and Von Drachen right in Mansa’s general space, with a pistol in his hand. Mansa felt the cold barrel swiftly pressed to against own stomach.

“My good man, I do not believe anything in this world is for certain or ascertained. I have seen too much chaos in my life to ever believe anything is set in stone, save for stone itself. Sometimes I have lapses in this judgment, as all men do, when victory nears. Never, however, have I met a man who so preordains his victories as you do. It is upsetting.” Von Drachen began, speaking his bizarre poetry in a far too unconcerned, casual tone of voice.

Von Drachen paused for a moment, and rubbed his own smooth chin with one hand.

“No, actually I have met one man whom you reminded me of, except, he is a beautiful soul whose radiance fills my heart with joy, a precious little piece of knackebrot who has done nothing wrong, while you are merely small, pathetic and upsetting.” He then said.

Mansa raised his hands. Around the room were nothing but blue, paralyzed faces.

“Can anybody stop him?” Mansa mouthed and whispered and ultimately groaned.

“Maybe. But I doubt it.” Von Drachen replied. He pressed the borrowed pistol harder against Mansa’s stomach, to the point it almost felt as if he meant to stab him with the gun alone. Mansa froze up. “They did not stop me in Cissea, where in an uncharacteristic fit of rage I won a war; they did not stop me in that den of wolves in Klagen, where I proved myself an officer to the federation’s key staff; they did not stop me in Adjar, where I survived the fury of your Right Hand of Death. They did not stop me in the Ghede. Your very own 8th Division did not stop me in Jadruz, at the edge of your miserable jungles.”

Though he wanted to speak, Mansa could not. All words had left him. He wanted to say that he made this city, along with his father, that he had made every stone on every street, that he had made every co-op store and state shop, every canteen. That all of Rangda’s history owed him for his existence, owed him for his leadership, owed his family for their luxuriant attention to its every need. Ayvarta owed him and nobody else for Rangda, for his Rangda, for his crown jewel that should have been his, his, his! to control as he–

“History implies I will not be stopped again. I’m not proud of my history. Humorously enough, yours is riddled with more cowardice and failure, and yet you extol it whenever you feel like. Allow me to add an additional black mark. May this one be humbling.”

Von Drachen lifted his pistol arm and struck a backhand blow across Mansa’s face. The Governor felt the pistol batter out several of the front row of his teeth, and gushing blood from his mouth he collapsed on the floor, squirming, his thoughts obliterated by pain.

“I’ll kill you!” Mansa cried out, spitting up blood and white flecks.

Von Drachen lifted his foot as if to kick him, but then seemed to regret it, and retract it.

Looming over Mansa, the General hurled the pistol to the back of the room. He clapped his hands together as if ridding them of dust, and then addressed the room in a serious tone.

“Anyway. I plan to leave here with my life. Those of you who desire this as well, are welcome into my Drachen brigade if you assist me in my preparations. We train four days when not on maneuvers. Women can become staffers and medics. That’s just how it is in Nocht I’m afraid. I’ll lobby strongly for you if you desire to shoot! Now, If you don’t want to come, you are welcome to help this pitiable, small man fulfill his impossible dreams.”

There were blank, speechless faces all around him. There was quiet contemplation.

Von Drachen shrugged his shoulders and promptly moved to leave the room.

He stopped, as did everyone else, upon hearing the eerie, swooping noise outside.

Before anyone could decide whether to join him or not, a man rushed into the room.

“Aircraft!” he cried out, “There are aircraft flying over the city!”


 

City of Rangda — Ocean Road, Tank Command

Throughout the units of the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment there was a sense of jubilation.

Though the injuries and deaths had weighed heavily on the minds of the frontline combat units, there was also a sense that they had made it through a trial by fire, and come out the other end immune to the burning. They had fought forces that, up until recently, boasted similar training and had similar equipment. Following the strategy outlined by Colonel Nakar and the tactics of their battalion and company and platoon commanders, they had routed the 8th Division in its three key strongholds and rallying areas. They had won.

Soon as the morning operations came to a halt and the last rifle shots cracked into the distance, and the logistics units and medical personnel arrived at the front, and the frontline troops were rotated out for fresh reserves, word of the various battles began to spread. In off-duty radio lines chatty personnel exchanged brief tales of valor; on the backs of ambulances and cargo trucks soldiers turned their experiences into legends; and in the battle reports of the three battalions every important kill on a tank or a sniper or a gun position, every act of commendable bravery, was being investigated and recorded.

One story that quickly spread was that of the small, vulnerable recon tank, Harmony, and its tiny crew of two, and the borrowed Corporal Kajari; and how they saved the offensive at Rangda University by defeating the fearsome Lionheart of the 8th Division, Lt. Badir.

Corporal Kajari would be celebrated in Burundi’s battalion. Meanwhile the Harmony was quickly recalled to its actual parent unit, El Amin’s 3rd Tank Battalion “Kalu Raiders.”

Since they left the battlefield, there had been an awkward quiet between Harmony’s two crew members. There had been little celebration — merely a lifting of the burden of mortal anxiety. Having been through such a series of hellish situations, any cheer was tempered by fatigue. Danielle Santos found the silence increasingly hard to endure.

“What do you think is gonna happen?” Danielle asked, behind the tank’s controls.

“I don’t know. I think it will be fine.” Caelia replied, lying back in the commander’s seat.

“Maybe your promotion will finally go through!” Danielle said. Every tank should have been commanded at least by a corporal or sergeant. Caelia was only still a private because the Regiment had not been intended to go into battle yet, and promotions and payments, handled now in Solstice after the fall of Adjar, had been significantly delayed.

Danielle knew Caelia would make an amazing officer. Even if she did not see it herself, Danielle witnessed first-hand through the years what an observant person Caelia was, how well she learned and how well she communicated and iterated on her knowledge. In the Kalu, it was Caelia’s quick thinking and snap decisions that saved them in the jungle. Without her direction Danielle would have been hopelessly lost. Caelia was definitely more of an officer candidate than Danielle herself, or so the driver thought while fawning.

Caelia had no response to that but a little affirmative sound, wordless and brief.

Retracing their tracks back to base and through to Ocean Road, they witnessed the aftermath of the battles they had fought. Remains of sandbag positions, still spinning off trails of smoke; bodies lined up on the side of the street for identification and preservation; pitted streets where shells from both sides had landed, in various places exposing ducts and electrical cable; shattered storefronts, partially collapsed apartments.

There were rear echelon troops, like medics and engineering labor, transportation crews and mine clearing troops, moving all along the route. The Regiment was unique in its number of support personnel. The 8th Division’s constituent units lacked this amount of non-combat aid. As a result, while the 8th Division would have been hard-pressed to make its battlefields into accessible pathways, the 1st Motor Rifles were easily clearing and supplying all of theirs. It was a relatively smooth trip down to Ocean Road, which itself was quickly being cleared of the wrecks of enemy tanks, and the detritus of high caliber gun battle. Harmony found itself well able to maneuver into and around Ocean Road.

At either side of the road, Gendarmes directed traffic swiftly enough to prevent blockages. There were rows of Hobgoblins parked in alleyways under guard of their own resting crews, hidden from the main road for safety. Large tank transporters and prime movers winched chains of Goblin tank wrecks, and dragged them along to be disposed of. Danielle marveled at the destruction on the road. There seemed to be a pit for every meter of road from mortars and artillery and tank gunfire. Wheeled vehicles would have had a hell of a time maneuvering on the tarnished remains of Ocean Road. Buildings bore the scars of several poorly aimed shots. Danielle remembered the bright lights and beautiful facades she saw with Caelia during the festival. All were mangled and blasted apart now.

“It’s awful. All those nice little places.” Danielle said.

Caelia nodded, and sat back against the commander’s seat with a low sigh.

“It is bad, but I mean, at least we’re alive. Ocean Road can be rebuilt, you know?”

“Yes, of course. You’re right.”

Danielle wondered if she had said something foolish or inhuman. Had she focused too much on the pretty storefronts and not thought enough of the people who could have died in them; who did die in them? She wondered if Caelia thought differently of her having heard that snap reaction. It was an anxiety she often fought with as they interacted.

She thought to change the subject and engage her in conversation as she wheeled them around to the temporary battalion headquarters. But she ended up saying not a single word more the whole way. Crippled with anxieties, her tongue felt heavy and she could think of nothing that would engage Caelia’s mind. She cursed herself for this — it felt like she was only making the trip even less palatable. Wordlessly, with a tension in the air that perhaps only Danielle felt, they parked Harmony up the street from the Battalion HQ, a large tent strung between a pair of Hobgoblins. They had to leave Harmony a block or two away from the tent, in a safe and unoccupied alley shown to them by a Gendarme.

“Major El-Amin is waiting for you personally, Suessen.” the military policeman said.

He then saluted and smiled.

Caelia nodded. Danielle did too, though she was not similarly addressed.

Walking their way back, they were as quiet as before, but Caelia seemed a little energetic. She had a bit of odd pep to her step and a very subtle, small smile on her lips as they approached and entered the headquarters tent. There were a few people inside, but they vacated almost immediately, patting Caelia on the shoulders amicably as they left behind their radios and maps. There was only one remaining occupied table in the room.

Sitting behind the table was Major Shayma El-Amin, their Battalion commander and the highest rank they were expected to personally meet. She looked sharp in her uniform, just the barest hint of close-cut black hair peeking from under her peaked cap, wearing her officer’s jacket over her tanker bodysuit. She had a sharp smile, too, and she brandished that smile with what a Cissean like Danielle would’ve called gusto. Soon as they walked through the tent flaps, her face lit up, far from the stoic seriousness she was known for.

Under this eerie scrutiny, Danielle felt very unsure of herself. She resolved to try to make it through without tripping on her own tongue. Meetings were not her strong suit at all. And she certainly did not feel like a hero, though she secretly wished for at least one little acknowledgment for her deeds. It seemed it was the one she was not destined to get.

Caelia was focused on Major El-Amin, her smile broadening just the littlest bit.

She saluted, and Danielle mimed her.

After a few seconds worth of looking them over, Major El-Amin gave them a greeting.

“Congratulations Cello! Word of your heroism has spread around the battalion! I figured it was a sign that I should finally take a leave from my duties and reconnect with you.”

More accurately, Shayma El-Amin gave Caelia a rather unique greeting.

Danielle’s eyes drew a little wider, and her body sank a little lower. She had come into the tent feeling inadequate and unworthy. Now she felt invisible. She felt something crawling around in her chest too. Cello? Major El-Amin was clearly staring right at Caelia, who flushed and wilted a little herself under the attention. The Major was smiling like a schoolgirl, and when she extended a hand across the table, it was for Caelia only.

“To think, when I last saw you, you seemed so vulnerable. Now you’re a hero!”

“I’m really not. That’s you. And when I last saw you, I definitely imagined a hero.”

“Hah! Middle officers can’t be heroes. That’s for Sergeant and under or General and up.”

Caelia smiled graciously and gave Major El-Amin’s hand an energetic, laughing shake.

Then the Major retreated back behind her table; she did not extend the same hand to Danielle. It was as if the driver simply wasn’t there. That oversight was not on Danielle’s mind at all, however. She was consumed by the familiarity between the two of them. They did not look like a pair of professionals just meeting. They were definitely good friends.

She felt a twinge of something in her chest that she hated feeling. It was something ugly and petty and alien and the feeling of it was bad enough to create a generalized bad enough feeling throughout her entire self, spiraling and spiraling. But she simply couldn’t help it.

When I last saw you? What did that mean? And Caelia had a rather unique expression for the Major, it seemed. Rarely had Danielle seen her so unabashedly and outwardly cheerful. Sure, sometimes Danielle made her laugh, or said something charming enough to prompt a smile, but rarely did Caelia seem infused with this kind of subtle, glowing energy. What was happening here in front of her eyes? What was happening in her chest? She knew the answer to that one at least, but she did not want to admit to the green in her eyes.

“It’s good to see you.” Major El-Amin said. “You’ve, well, changed. Grown into your own.”

“Hah. You could say that. There’s been some changes, yes.”

“I’m glad. You look good.”

“Ehh. I’m okay. I never got to thank you for it. Your help was appreciated.”

“All I did was offer a little push. It’s the same I would do for any comrade.”

“Well then. It is good to see you too, comrade.”

“It has been a long time. I only wish we could have met again under a brighter star.”

“If you’re thinking stage lights, I’m going to have to disappoint you.”

“Ah, oh well. I’ll hold out hope, Cello.”

Danielle froze up. She couldn’t really follow or understand what was happening and dared not speak. She felt ostracized in this small room with two people who seemed to know depths of one another that she simply could not fathom. She had been Caelia’s partner (in tanks) for two years, and Caelia had already seemingly changed, she supposed, when Danielle had met her. She had not felt Caelia had changed much at all since then.

“I apologize for your promotion being tied up. Admin has gone to hell recently. I still haven’t been paid my military wage. After today, I will lobby for you quite strongly!”

Caelia laughed a little. “It’s alright. You don’t have to be sorry.”

Major El-Amin became quiet and looked at Caelia contemplatively.

“Ah, Caelia. Back in camp, and in those jungles, I was distantly thinking about you. Your plight rather motivated me, you know. You appreciate my support; but you supported me too. To think that gallant star I saw storm off the stage of the Ulyanova theater would–”

Though they carried on some kind of conversation for the next few moments Danielle simply could not listen anymore. She could not register the sounds under the trembling of her body and the pumping of her sinews and the sheer struggle to hold a neutral face.

That evil word in her mind that she felt in her chest, that dark petty little word.

She felt jealousy; that destructive word that she meant she had failed as a good person.

She felt jealousy for a lot of things then. It was flooding all her good waters with bile.

Tank drivers often got marginalized when it came to promotions and accolades. Nobody quite thought of their work as anything impressive. It was a prerequisite that somebody move the lumbering bulk of a tank around, and most fancy maneuvering got a tanker killed; simple movements to and fro were directed by a commander and unimpressive. So Danielle was used to thinking of herself as unimpressive, just a somebody among people.

Danielle was used to just being the driver. But she was not used to being ignored like this.

Ignored by her, special friend Caelia; ignored for someone brighter, stronger, better.

It was not this alone that caused her to break. Many things had been compounding ever since the calm that followed the battle, and even ever since before, far ahead of the eerie calm where neither of them seemed able to speak. In a more logical mood Danielle might have understood that they were two awkward, young and tired people who were not at fault for their silence; she might have seen this one conversation, though perhaps inconsiderate, as nothing inherently offensive against her. But she was vulnerable.

Danielle was an isolated person prone to isolation, and delicate within this stage.

And this felt like an extraordinary event she was witnessing. And indeed it was.

As such she simply could not take the cocktail of emotions brewing in her heart.

Her chest pounding, feeling a distinct pressure both to make herself known, a need to cry out to Caelia for some acknowledgment of her existence and importance; and also feeling the pressure to make herself scarce, to let these bosom friends have their space to reconnect without her vile presence in between; Danielle blurted something out.

“I should get started on repairs!”

And she turned and fled, before the tears in her eyes became noticeable at all.

“Danielle–?”

Caelia called out her name but Danielle did not hear it. She ran out of the tent, past a group of engineers trying to fill up portions of the road for trucks to pass, and up the streets as fast as her legs could carry her, weeping and sobbing, her chest thrashing and her stomach churning from the anxiety of it all. Her head assaulted her with a terrifying violence.

Crying and screaming and stumbling around the road, her brain on fire.

As she ran, she thought that, of course, ultimately she was nobody special. She was nobody compared to anybody in anyone’s life; in Caelia’s life. Shayma El-Amin was a Major and a tank prodigy and someone special to Caelia who had helped her. Danielle had sat under her feet in various tanks for two years. She was someone who read lesbian fiction with her and felt inadequately equipped compared to the heroines of such tales. She was someone who told her sweet things that sometimes got replies. They shared rations and bathed together once or twice as cadets. She was someone who thought of herself as a girl because Caelia had taught her that she could do so– she was someone in a tank because Caelia gave her the courage to pursue that dream and yet. She was still just herself. Just there.

What had she really done for anybody? What had she done but take and occupy space?

Where had she even been during those times Caelia needed support, years and years ago?

She did the right thing to run. She felt like she needed to disappear now, after what she felt, after breaking down like that over nothing. After offering nothing and doing nothing and being nothing for all of this nothing-time. She felt stupid and small and horrible–

“Danielle, wait–!”

Far behind her in the distance she made out Caelia’s footsteps and resolved to run faster.

Until another sound completely blocked her partner out.

Danielle froze.

Gendarmes nearby sounded the alert.

“AIR RAID POSITIONS!”

Danielle’s tear-flooded eyes lifted their heavy gaze up toward the sky.

From over the noon horizon she saw the heavens suddenly thicken.

Hundreds of aircraft were coming in from over the ocean.

Many overflew her completely, their shadows swiftly crossing the road.

One started to drop precipitously. Danielle could see no engines attached to its wings.

Soaring as if over her own shoulder, the plane barely overflew her, whipping her curly hair and the loose dress jacket over her bodysuit nearly off her body with a strong gust of wind.

Crashing violently into a nearby building, the heavy glider aircraft split into pieces.

All of Danielle’s spiraling self-hatred emptied out and was slowly replaced with fear.

Emblazoned prominently on the smashed tail now sticking out of a nearby store, was the Father-Tree of the Elven Kingdom of Lubon. Dropping right out of the pristine Rangdan skies, the second prong of the invasion of Ayvarta had finally decided to join the fray.

Far behind her, down the street, Caelia stood frozen as well.

As more gliders began to descend it felt like the gulf between them was a continent wide.

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