The End Of A Chivalrous Era

This story contains violence, death, graphic violence and death, animal death, and quick mention and intimation of suicide. Reader discretion is advised.


18th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2008 D.C.E

Kingdom of Franz, City of Calvado — Von Krupp Salient, XIII Corps Line

22 Years Before The Solstice War.

It was his first time stepping outside the soil of the fatherland.

Though he was still on the continent, the young man had charged from the Federation of Northern States to the Kingdom of Franz. God help him; he was in another country. He was the invader; it really was a war. To think he was at war with the renowned gentlemen of Franz. With the men who had devised everything he knew about war. God help him.

Before all of this he had thought men could settle their differences through rhetoric and rationality, finding common cause and understanding. He was no longer so sure of that.

XIII Corps had a prolific season in central Franz. While Army Group A in the North and Army Group C in the South had floundered spectacularly (C’s mission to invade both Franz’s south and Lachy’s northern border, dividing its forces, was especially disastrous), Army Group B had managed to create a bulge in the line, extending half-into the city of Calvado. It was able to use all of its forces without obstruction or diversion and as such had managed to deploy considerable combat power against its enemies in the year’s final campaign season. Franz’s hard drive against the fledging Nochtish Republic halted.

Dreschner felt a sense of dread in the air around little Calvado. Here the bulge created against the royalist lines was called the Von Krupp Salient after the general whose troops had sweated and bled to push it forward. Now that very General, under orders from President Lehner, called for a cessation of movement and a strategic reassessment. Winter was coming, and the ravages of the war had taken too hard a toll on the Republican forces.

Every corps started preparing its defensive positions for the cold. Oberkommando was confident that the heroic men of the salient, who had fought so well, could hold anything.

But the summer was over; Army Group B was not the force it was in the Yarrow’s Sun.

Private 1st Class Einschel Dreschner could see the evidence of that all around him.

His line was almost empty — only his loader was with him, staring nervously out into the street ahead. His commander was sleeping inside a nearby house and three riflemen were pacing up and down the edge of two foxholes they dug into the soft street. Dreschner and the men had been ordered to form a fighting position on the intersection of Loum street just a few blocks up from the city center. It was a bad place to be fighting defensively. Most of their platoon had been wiped out in the last offensive. Support was long awaited.

Dreschner sat around, fantasizing about leaving the wretched infantry.

He had longed, before the start of the war, to be a cavalryman. To ride fast, to feel the wind at his face and the whipping of the air as he sliced his saber into the enemy. To take them down from the flanks with his bayonet and his dragoon pistol. Infantry were mired in mud and trapped behind trenchlines. Dreschner had seen so much of that. Infantry were just useless, nothing more than fodder for large artillery formations. But the cavalry, they were yet untried, yet unsent into the fray. As he waited in this hole he wondered what victories, what gallant triumphs, could the cavalry score, if they were finally committed to war.

But he was not a cavalryman. He was assigned infantry, the wretched, dirty line infantry.

And he was silently despondent. He showed no inkling of his cynicism, but he was spent.

Should he die, however, he and his fellows would never see home again, let alone a horse.

Regardless of their condition the enemy was still out there. And so, they labored. To block their captured road they built a little barricade from scrap wood, bricks and sandbags. It was haphazard, like a spiked pillar toppled over between the height of the intersection and the broad, open park; nevertheless they set their machine gun behind it and they waited.

It had been a long day, a lonely one, since they set up. Hours in the sun changed their priorities rapidly. They had gone from waiting for the enemy, to waiting for support, to waiting for the food carriers and finally, to waiting, longingly, for the sundown. It was a humble wish, for the cold of night to banish the too-hot fall sun. It was all they had.

“Dreschner!”

At first he thought it was a horse, and was elated for a second, but it wasn’t.

He heard the distinctive rattle of a bicycle gear, and saw a man coming in behind him.

Could it be a food carrier? No; they were never as well decorated as this man.

Dreschner turned around and stood at attention for Major Walter Weddel from Battalion Recon command, riding on his big-wheeled courier bike. The Major seemed to have no time for the pleasantries, and he set aside the bike, and charged to the barricade. He pulled up a pair of binoculars and peered with frantic energy into the city center, looking past the park and the roads and the blown-out, crumbling town hall. He gasped for breath.

“Major? You shouldn’t be at the front! It is dangerous!” Dreschner said.

“You’d know far better than I, but I still can’t just sit around!”

Dreschner knew Weddel tangentially, from some previous engagements.

The Major had never been to the front before. For him to have to move, meant that the Battalion was truly, utterly exhausted. There could have been no available underlings.

Fearing the worst, Dreschner cast eyes down the road along with the Major.

He kneeled next to Weddel and waited for orders or information. Every movement he made brought his skin tightly into contact with his gray coat, and he felt a fleeting cold from the sweat at his back and on his chest. Despite the onset of winter, fighting under the sun, without even the smallest tree for protection, caused him to sweat like a pig on a spit. Noon seemed to have brought the sun directly over them like the eye of the devil.

“Dreschner, reconnaissance planes picked up on a column of Frank horses incoming.”

“Horses? How many?”

“Too many. They must have spotted the gap here. Where is your commanding officer?”

“Sleeping. Over there.”

Dreschner pointed to an abandoned house nearby, an ornate little Frank house with a second floor, a gabled roof and a wide balcony on its face. Like every other building it had been defaced by shells and bombs but it was only mildly damaged and stood freely on its own strength. Since he first saw it, Dreschner’s commander had claimed the house and gave strict orders not to be disturbed while his men worked outside to defend it.

Major Weddel looked upon the house with frustration.

“Dreschner, this place is nothing but a hole in the lines. You’ve got barely a squadron here and we have fifty or sixty horses coming. Your commander must have an auxiliary machine gun somewhere. You need to wake that slob up and get it set up, now!”

“Yes sir!”

Peeling off the line with his heart thrashing in his chest, Dreschner rushed into the house nearby. It was a fine little house, like a gable-topped cake, creamy white with wine-brown trim in the form of glossy wooden frames and doors. There were decadent halls leading upstairs and into the heart of the home, but their treasures had been shaken off their pedestals and out of their cases by the quaking shellfire of the previous week’s fighting. All along the sides of the halls were crumpled paintings and smashed glass and pottery. It was a miracle a shell had not blown open the roof or collapsed the walls. Most of the damage to the exterior and to the supporting structures was barely superficial.

In the drudgery of 2008 warfare, a house was a great prize. Being able to command from a house, or fight from a house. It was like heaven compared to a muddy trench-line.

No doubt, the commander was asleep on a fine bed somewhere. Dreschner hurried.

Upstairs, he called out for his commanding officer several times, hoping to wake him.

There was no response, and Dreschner ran from room to room seeking him out.

He turned around a corner and into a open door into a bedroom with a balcony.

He paused at the doorway; what he saw quenched all of his panicked energy.

Dreschner was forced to halt by the sight of his commanding officer, lying dead on a princely bed with a peaceful face, hands on his chest, eyes closed. At his side was a small girl, blond-haired, in a fur coat a size or two too large and little fur-trimmed boots and a dirty little dress. She had a pair of glasses on her face that were also a size too large.

Though he had seen terrible things in this war, this sight was incomprehensible. Not the dead soldier — soldiers died, even the officers did. It was the child that confounded him. How was she here? Why was she not taken? War was a place without children or animals or anything soft and vulnerable. It had to be. Dreschner had seen men drown in mudholes between trenches; he had seen artillery shells explode and vanish men from existence, taking even the dust of their bones so that nothing could be buried. He had heard the wails of gore-strewn soldiers caught in traps in the no-man’s-land, awaiting death.

Dreschner was a child himself, compared to the men around him.

But he was not this small. Something this small just couldn’t survive this carnage.

He was afraid for this girl, afraid for her mortality and afraid of how she reflected on him.

He was afraid of vulnerability and felt a drive to be strong for this girl.

And yet he did not quite know how to be tender or comforting or even whether to be. Could this child be an enemy? Could she have killed the C.O.? Those sounded like insane things. Things no man should dare indulge. But he had seen so much of this war that anything made sense now save for the existence of a simple innocent in these grand battlefields.

“Are you lost?” He asked.

It was the first sensible-sounding thing to land upon his tongue.

From the bed, the child raised her head and gave Dreschner a blank, tired stare.

“Je ne parle pas Noetais.” She said in Frank. Her voice was a little deeper than he expected, more of a woman’s voice than a child’s, but maybe that was all his shell-addled brain.

Dreschner knew a little Frank; possibly enough to speak to a child.

“What happened?” He asked. Que s’est-il passé?

“He drank. He drank from Mama and Papa’s special bottle.” She said in Frank.

Her Frank was easy to understand. Concentrating on it, he could hear in Nochtish.

She pointed to the bottle, lying on the ground amid a pile of other debris, books and clothes and other things, perhaps pulled out by soldiers hoping to find loot.

Dreschner raised his hands, hoping not to scare her by approaching.

She did not even look at him as he moved.

He picked up the bottle and raised it to his nose.

There was a strong scent of something dire and chemical.

In disgust he dropped the bottle and coughed. It was a fatal preparation.

Dreschner turned to the girl and was surprised to find her speaking again.

“On the radio the king said not to leave our houses. Mama and Papa were very scared of the bad people coming. They put something in that wine bottle to drink, in case the bad people came in. But then they heard shooting, and they ran away. They disobeyed the king and left all of their treasures behind, even me.” She said in a listless drone.

Dreschner blinked, stunned.

“I’m a good girl. I obeyed the king and stayed in the house. Like we should. But the stuff in the bottle smelled gross. So I didn’t drink it like Papa and Mama wanted, before they ran.”

“What is your name?” Dreschner asked, unable to bear the scene any longer.

She looked up at him, making direct eye contact for the first time.

“Cecilia Nouvelle.” She said.

Dreschner nodded. “Cecilia, please go to the basement and stay there. You’re right, for now, it is a good thing to stay in the house like the king said. But later, it may be time to leave. If I tell you it is time to leave, will you leave the house?” He asked, trembling.

Cecilia turned her head and stared at the ground, kicking her little feet softly.

“You’re one of the bad men. But I guess you won the big fight. So I’ll do what you say.”

Without another word, Cecilia dropped off the bed and tottered off to the basement.

Dreschner looked at the corpse of his commanding officer. She must have arranged him, closing his eyes, putting his arms on his chest. Maybe even even cleaning up his face.

He was astonished by this child, so much so he nearly forgot his own mission.

Rushing back down to the street, he called out to Weddel.

“No dice, we’ll have to hold with what we have!” He shouted.

“Are you serious?” Weddel shouted back.

Dreschner kneeled behind the machine gun, his bewildered loader mechanically putting another belt into the MG-99 while an additional rifleman supporter replaced the water jacket. Weddel pulled up his binoculars and stared out into the city before them.

“Dreschner, what happened?” Weddel asked.

His voice trembling, Dreschner replied, “You can go in and look if you want to.”

Walter Weddel seemed to have no desire to do that. Sighing, he resigned himself.

“May god have mercy on us.” He said.

“May god take our fucking side for once.” Dreschner added.

Dreschner took the handles of the machine gun and placed his fingers on the spade grip trigger behind them. He looked down the sights and breathed in, and waited, as he had been waiting. Without the artillery or the sound of shooting the air was still and the city too quiet, yet too noisy. Every pebble dropping from a mound of debris, every mechanical cry from his gun and its unlubricated components, every rustling of a man’s coat. Little sounds became incongruously large, too large, they made Dreschner very nervous. He tried to keep as still as possible hoping no one else would hear the sounds he was making.

He could hear the sounds of his spit going down his throat as he swallowed hard.

When the hoof-claps came it was a tidal wave of noise, ever approaching.

Then Dreschner saw the men in the distance, with their tall plumed helms, sabers, guns at their backs, gallantly clad in their glaringly patriotic red and blue uniforms, and riding on beastly brown horses that seemed like elephants as they rode en-masse. Dust blew in their wake, a dreadful cloud that seemed like it could rival the plumes of a shell-fall. They were a blunt arrowhead, charging without ceremony from an interior street and into the city center, charging the barricade. He had fought them before, but never like this.

They seemed so much more fearsome beyond the trench lines.

Dreschner had seen so much of this war and this sight stilled his heart nonetheless.

To close his eyes to the charge, however, would mean death.

“Engaging target! Free fire!” Dreschner shouted.

With three fingers he pulled the trigger and the bolt went wild.

His loader held up the belt of machine gun ammunition and the MG-99 sucked it up into its boxy shell and spat it out through the barrel. Dreschner heard the water in the barrel jacket bubble and sizzle and froth as a dozen rounds and then six dozen and then a hundred exploded out of the barrel. Steam and smoke blew from the tip of the gun.

It made a sound like a thousand hammers pounding nails in millisecond intervals.

It had an effect like a spear driven right into the heart of the horsemen.

From his fixed position, Dreschner’s gunfire struck the center of the enemy’s formation. In an instant the lead horse was crippled by fire and fell and was trampled. Several more horses tripped over the one falling before them, and the formation was forced to spread and to morph, with men at the flanks riding forward, men in the center halting their gallop to maneuver around corpses of horses and men, creating a generalized confusion.

Throughout all of this Dreschner did not stop shooting.

He traversed the gun from left to right, moving deliberately with steeled nerves, putting down hundreds of rounds that swept across the broad front imposed by his enemy. Long streaks of gunfire sliced the heads and shoulders and limbs off men and left them hanging dead from panicked horses; or struck horses in the center of their bulk like iron fists pounding a slab of ham, and causing the beasts to crumple as if on jelly legs; and in response the cavalry turned into an amorphous mass, groups of horses and men scrambling to avoid the eye of the MG-99, and many running into its fire in the attempt.

Major Walter Weddel stood up amid the cacophony of dying men and blazing fire.

“That’s over a dozen horses down already! We can do this men, stand and fight!”

Weddel produced his pistol and opened fire on the approaching cavalry.

At his sides, the spare riflemen picked up their rifles and joined him.

The Major and his men accounted for a pair of horses, while Dreschner’s gun clicked empty. Frantically his loader produced and fed in a new belt, while his third man replaced the red-hot water jacket, that was steaming and boiling and frothing madly. Beneath the jacket the gun barrel was red hot and smoking fiercely. Soon as the new water jacket was applied, it too began to bubble, the cold water inside cooking from the heat.

Within seconds Dreschner was pulling the trigger and resuming his intense barrage.

Those brilliant, gallant, galloping charges should have deflected the bullets, they were full of such glory that it seemed impossible they could be broken. Each burst of gunfire killed an impossible number, downing horse after horse. Cavalrymen reunited, amassed in new formations, and broke into charges toward the barricade, and died. Five-hundred meters; a group of three horses, their legs exploding and turning them to hanging hams rolling back over themselves. Three hundred meters; a column of horsemen, pistols out, shooting desperately past the barricade, over Dreschner’s own head, before being cut down.

Out a mere hundred meters; two horsemen jumped over a great hunk of concrete, and in mid-air the rifle and pistol and machine gun fire tore the blood and gore from them and sprayed it like fireworks in grizzly arcs and shapes. They fell, turned to meat, and stopped.

It was maddening. Dreschner almost wanted to lose this confrontation.

He imagined himself, a proud young lad on a beautiful stallion, riding to a great war.

And on the opposing end some filth-covered scoundrel in a hole with a machine gun.

He felt as if he was shooting down his dreams, shooting down the only beauty left in war.

Dreschner wept; he mumbled to himself to stop but his fingers felt otherwise.

His fingers, that had held seemingly nothing but guns the whole year.

They knew war, and they knew only to shoot. And so they shot, and they shot.

To say they died one by one is to understate the brutal carnage; men died in disparate groups and in glorious processions and in their lonesome and accompanied by such great burdens that even in death they could have never been alone. They died with horses and without them, they died with bodies whole or broken, they died among themselves and with their comrades and among the ghosts. Dreschner could not look out at what he had done. There was such a gruesome landscape before him that he could not take it.

He dried his tears, and he stood up, and he let his legs take him away.

“That’s the platoon! That’s the entire platoon!” Major Weddel celebrated. “Dreschner, you rabid dog, I am giving you a promotion, you will go places my boy, I guarantee–”

But he had no one to celebrate with, for Dreschner had abandoned the gun.

Everyone stared. Dreschner could feel the eyes like knives at his back.

He was abandoning his post, like a coward, filth among the filth of the infantry.

But they had already won. So what did it matter?

Perhaps understanding the situation back then, Major Weddel never charged him with any of the myriad penalties he could have faced for turning away from the battlefield.

Free from the shackles of the gun and the fight, Dreschner returned to the house, and behind the basement door, he found Cecilia, just where he hoped she would be.

She was seated on the stairs in the same way she had been seated on the bed.

She was holding her hands over her ears but seemed eerily calm despite this.

He tapped on her shoulder, and she turned around, and put her hands down.

“Can you leave the house?” He asked her.

“If you say so.” She replied. Her voice was listless, dead, inexpressive.

Dreschner took her hand, and they walked back out onto the street.

Her hand was so small, Dreschner thought, if he held it the way he held a gun, he would likely shatter it. He could not squeeze it. He could barely touch it. It was very eerie.

He dreaded what might happen when Cecilia saw the outside.

Nothing at all happened, however.

If Cecilia caught a glimpse of the field of corpses out in the park, she did not let anyone know. She made no sound, no protest, as Dreschner walked her away from the sight.

She was quiet, and followed along dutifully.

Dreschner led her somewhere, not even knowing where himself. His mind was adrift.

He thought, as he walked, of the cavalry, of the beautiful, ill-fated cavalry.

So that was why they did not fight before.

All of his notions, all of his dreams, had left him, and he was empty.

Empty of any optimism or hope but also empty of juvenile notions and illusions.

Perhaps, he thought, being empty was the better way.

Yet he found himself struck with an aberrant admiration of their bravery, their foolhardy resolve. They had been failed; they themselves had been victorious, but they were betrayed by their tools. Dreschner himself, no matter how gallant it would have been, would ever ride a horse into battle. That age was over. Had these men owned metal horses, perhaps the tide would have swung. Perhaps then, Dreschner would ride a horse into battle.

“What are your parent’s names?” Dreschner asked.

“I don’t think I have any now.” Cecilia said.

He marveled at how well she was taking becoming perhaps as empty as he.

Dreschner figured he must have cried more than Cecilia had this entire time.

Perhaps if he failed to win this war, her generation could do it.

Her generation would understand from the get-go that the chivalrous age was over.


General Einschel Dreschner awoke with a start.

He banged his head on the zeiss telescoping sight, and reared back, holding his face.

For a moment, everything hurt, but his breathing began to steady.

As he became aware of his surroundings he felt calm again.

He was not in a house or on a horse but inside the turret of his Sentinel command tank.

It was not 2008; it was 2030.

There was no Northern War; this was the Solstice War.

“Sir, are you alright? Are you hurt? I can get Eva–“

“It’s fine.”

At his side, Karla Schicksal stared at him with wide, almost child-like eyes.

“It’s fine, return to work.” Dreschner said.

Nodding her head innocently, she returned to the radio and put her headset back on.

Dreschner stared at the back of her head for a moment. He shook his own head.

He had been dreaming an anxious dream of a time annihilated from history.

There was no relevance to it now. Everything had completely changed. Hadn’t it?

“Schicksal, what are your thoughts on horse cavalry?” He asked.

Schicksal turned back to him from the radio, staring quizzically.

She opened and closed her mouth several times, ambushed by this strange question.

“Um, well, I’d guess they would be pretty useless when you have tanks and trucks.”

She sounded fairly certain of this fact when she finally spoke, despite her obvious anxiety.

Shrugging nervously, she then returned to the radio.

Not a shred of sentimentality for those bygone days of the war.

Of course not, she would not have known them.

Dreschner felt eerily satisfied with her generation. He laid back in his seat.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

Scornful Steel (Apocalypse 2030)

THIS STORY CONTAINS SCENES OF VIOLENCE, GRAPHIC INJURY AND DEATH.


12th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Slowly the object of her hate came together before her eyes once more.

As she slid the plate into place, and her coworkers began to weld the side-panel armor covering the ammunition rack on the side, the vehicle began to take its shape. Its rounded body seemed almost friendly when she first saw it. People jokingly referred to the turrets as melons because of how round they were; this was funny for the first shift of her first day, before the downward-sloping rear armor had to be welded on and the bogeys bolted into place and the tracks, welded closed and tight around the drive wheels. Before the turret had to be dropped onto the ring, and the interior hydraulics and controls had to be wired and prepared by a specialized technician. Before all that, sure, it was amusing.

Once every bit of the machine was affixed, however, it had a shape only for killing.

She worked nervously on it, with shaking hands. They were held to an exacting standard, and the factory was run like a military base in a lot of ways. Certainly in its discipline.

On her first day the track had gone on too slack, and earned her a slap across the face.

“You’re not building a toy! Work to specification or get out!” shouted the Overseer.

She still heard his shrill voice in her head, every day she worked at the plant.

A lot had changed since then.

Her hands had grown used to the work and its precision; only the product was the same.

It was an M4 Sentinel, and its kin had killed more people than she had ever known.

One of the casualties was the very land under Marit Hale’s oil-stained shoes.


Iron Isle used to have a name, a beautiful, melodic name, but it was taken from it, and could not be spoken of again; and with it went the oil trees and the sweet tree plantations, and the clear skies and the fragrance of the wilds. Those could not be spoken of again as well. Smokestacks went up, blacktops spread out. Iron Isle was closer to the Nochtish war zones than all of its other territories. Once a minuscule line item in the agricultural department’s accounting of Pelagis province, once it became clear that Nocht would prosecute war across the vastness of the sea, Iron Isle transformed overnight to suit the needs of battles that could not be won with sugar and flowers and vacation homes.

At Plant #13 on the broad side of Iron Isle mostly older women worked, and there was only one exception. This was Marit, the tomboy of the Hale family whose many sons were taken for the war. She was an islander girl through and through; messy black hair, a complexion the color of baked clay, and a round, soft face unlike that of the sharp and pale featured Nochtish secretaries and overseers. She was an islander girl; she was not thought of as a woman. Only recently had she exchanged mud and sand in her sandals and fingers with soot and grease. She was thrust through the threshold of adulthood and went from school days and beach nights to four marks an hour for ten hours a day, six days a week.

Ten hours a day; and there was a promised commission for every tenth tank produced.

She had never seen that commission, and many tenth tanks had come and gone.

As the only healthy member of her family left on the island, Marit worked, alongside the mothers and grandmothers and the widows and wives. She showed up at the Plant campus every morning, striding past a half-dozen buildings on a square blacktop amid what was once farmland to reach a tin-walled and tin-roofed assembly building, baking under a hot, cloudless sky. A cool breeze blew in over the open plain beyond the blacktop, in certain places, at certain times in her morning walk, Marit heard the sound of rushing water from the nearby river as it turned the plant’s old water wheel, a holdover from the old farm.

“Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!”

Though less than enthusiastic about work, Marit kept a bright face and a broad smile and made herself good company. She walked out in front of the warehouse, where a chow line formed every morning for a free breakfast of hot oatmeal porridge and coffee. She slid into the line of women and seemed to slot seamlessly into conversations about news, food, weather, and work, greeting everyone around her as she waited for a tray of sweet slop.

“How’s your mother doing, Marit?”

“She’s recovering. Thank you for your concern.”

“Messiah bless her.”

“What about you Marit? Taking care of yourself? You look thin.”

“Oh, I always look thin to the lot of you!”

Marit had a flat, spindly sort of form factor, thin, long-limbed. Though she ate well she always looked partially starved. It was almost vexing. Her attire was shabby. She wore pants handed down from her brothers and a shirt and vest of the same origin. They had stitched holes and mismatched colors where other clothing was cannibalized to fix them.

Unimpressive, but it was all getting covered in grease and smoke anyway.

“Hey, you old bags quit chatting and eat!”

From behind the line, the factory Overseer appeared with a rolled up newspaper.

He struck a woman in the back of the line, for seemingly no reason.

All around him, people started to move faster. There was no longer gossip and loitering.

A line that had moved maybe one person every other minute was now going quickly.

“Nobody pays you to chat and eat!” He shouted. “Get your gruel and get moving!”

After this display, he left their side, and the women collectively comforted the one poor old woman struck by the beastly Overseer, and assured her that there was no reason for it and that she would be fine, that they would help her. Marit saw all of this from afar and didn’t really think much of it. It happened frequently. She wondered if real soldiers got beat around by their officers as much as the workers in this military factory got beaten.

There was grumbling and resentment, but everyone ate and made for their stations.

Marit, however, took a little bit of time to go somewhere more pleasant.

After grabbing her oatmeal and coffee, Marit sat down on a concrete speed bump along the edge of the factory, in the executive parking lot, her back to the chain link fence. There were no cars, because there were no executives present. There almost never were.

It was a place where she could eat in peace, listening to the lonely winds whistling over the blacktop. Almost like the old forest, where she would spend endless hours just sitting around and listening to all the sounds. Only the wind was left, but even it alone helped her to prepare herself mentally for the long hours with the sizzling welding torch, the click-clacking torque wrenches, the crashing hammers, the grinding of the lathes.

As she drank the last of her coffee she heard a clinking noise more than she did the wind.

Behind her, someone was climbing over the fence.

It was a woman (maybe more a girl like her), Marit was certain of that. She made it up to the top of the fence with anxious hand-holds, and produced a tool from her pocket that she used to cut the barbed wire, and to pull the sliced halves to either side to open a gap. She leaned back, and then threw herself up in one sudden effort, making it up and over.

It was there that she lost her footing and her fingers slipped.

Marit bolted upright and threw herself forward.

She caught the girl in her arms and together they crashed onto the blacktop.

Marit hit the ground on her left arm, with a lot of the girl’s weight on falling on her.

She flinched, and shut her eyes tight and grit her teeth.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry!” said the girl. Marit felt warm hands rubbing against her arm.

She found herself responding in Nochtish. “It’s fine, it’s fine.”

Her command of the language of her tormentors was almost impeccable.

When she opened her eyes, she saw a soft pink face looking down at her with blue eyes, and framed by lengths of wavy, luxurious blond hair. A dab of pink colored pursed lips, and a pair of hands held her own. Now that they were touching skin instead of cloth, the hands felt a little rough, calloused, almost incongruent to the angelic picture formed by the rest.

Marit pulled back her hand and crawled out from under the Nochtish girl.

“I’m fine!” She cried out. “But what are you doing? This is private property!”

She bolted onto her feet; was this an industrial spy? She had overhead the Overseer once talking about people paid to infiltrate factories and steal secrets and sabotage production.

Marit had been taught by some of the older women that in Nocht, there were a few big companies always competing to make new products for the army. Those who could make the most acceptable products for the cheapest price won the contracts. Companies like General Auto, who owned this factory, made money by spending the least they could on workers and production. Setbacks like the ones spies cost could dig deep into profits.

And that would mean they would have to dig deep into the workers to make up the rest.

However, the friendly smile put on by this girl did not seem like it could come from a spy.

“I’m Alicia Kolt.” She said, stretching out a hand. “I’m an engineer.”

She was dressed in an almost workmanlike garb, with a big leather apron over a button-down shirt, and a leather cap over her blond hair. She had toolbelts over her waist with numerous pouches and multiple little cutters and drivers and other knickknacks hanging.

Judging by her hands, she must have been doing some work, but her body did not appear affected as much. Marit was skinny and lean from all the back-breaking torture of factory work; but this girl was rounder and softer everywhere that Marit was flat and angular.

And of course, Marit had never heard of a female engineer. Their factory was mostly women, but all they did was put fabricated parts together. When it came time to wire radios and install hydraulics, they had technicians there from the Rescholdt-Kolt firm, men who knew machines. She had no idea what they would let a girl like this do in an engineering firm other than answer the phone and file papers and reply to letters.

Not that she thought it was impossible, she just knew rich men were bastards like that.

Nevertheless, Marit kept her doubts to herself and returned the handshake.

“I’m Marit Hale. So could you please tell me what you are up to?”

Alicia smiled brightly. “You work here, don’t you?”

Marit averted her eyes slightly. This girl had a very fetching smile.

“I do.” Marit said. “I’m in primary, intermediate and final assembly.”

“Goodness! How do you know which one you’re doing on any day then?”

“I don’t. They treat me like a kid and just have me fill in whatever’s needed.”

“I can relate!” Alicia said. “How old are you? Around eighteen I guess? I’m twenty years old and everybody treats me like I learned to walk yesterday. It’s very frustrating!”

“I’m nineteen. And yes, that is all pretty relatable.”

Marit found herself conversing and almost forgot to suspect Alicia of industrial espionage.

“But hey; Hey! Tell me what you’re up to already. I don’t want to get into trouble.”

Looking over her shoulder guardedly, Marit was relieved to find nobody coming in from the main factory grounds or from the office nearby, and the gate guard was in his booth and not paying any attention to his surroundings now that the workers had all checked in. So at least, the danger of being discovered accidentally was lessened, but she still worried.

Alicia flashed her that heart-stirring smile of hers, and winked one bright blue eye.

“I just want to take a tiny peek at something. And besides, look at this, it’ll be fine.”

She opened one of her pouched and produced a company-issued ID card.

It had the large, golden block letters R-K, for Rescholdt-Kolt, the engineering firm responsible for a lot of the complicated technology behind the factory’s products. General Auto had the raw industrial muscle, but the brains that came up with the blueprints and that put the finishing touches on the tanks, all of that came from Rescholdt-Kolt.

And wait; had she not said her name was Alicia Kolt?

Marit looked up from the card and at Alicia’s self-satisfied little grin.

“You’re getting it now huh?” She raised a hand to her chest and patted over her breast. “I’m the younger sister of Maximillian Kolt, the second partner in Rescholdt-Kolt.”

“Oh! Why didn’t you say so? You don’t have to sneak around then!” Marit replied.

She was less impressed with the connection, and more relieved there wouldn’t be trouble.

Alicia did not seem convinced.

Stepping forward, the young engineer put her warm, soft hands on Marit’s shoulders.

Her big blue eyes and invitingly painted lips were only the length of their noses away.

“Marit, I need your help.” She said.

“You really don’t!” Marit replied, suddenly nervous, excited, aroused(?) far too suddenly.

Alicia sighed. Marit smelled a sweet scent from her and averted her eyes again.

She felt the engineer’s hands squeeze gently with determination.

“Marit, If I just show up, they’ll give me a boring tour of the facilities and use me like a piece of decoration! Listen: there’s something I want to take a quick peek at. I searched around the exterior of the factory, but I can’t tell where to go. When I saw you, I knew that luck was on my side! I just need your help for a teeny-tiny moment, okay? then I’ll be out of your hair for good. Nobody will get in trouble. Trust me; I’m really good at this stuff.”

Marit felt a sudden thrill in her chest, followed by a sinking feeling.

“Pretty please?” Alicia asked again.

She could send her off on her own, go work, and go about her day like any other.

However, Alicia’s presence had suddenly reawakened a fire in Marit’s heart that she thought long since put out. That childish feeling of adventure, of making every day a truly different one, of doing more with oneself than one’s lot allowed. That feeling of defiance, of a child who saw rules and flaunted them, who saw challenges and conquered them, who felt that anything could be possible. That child who wanted to be her own person.

Marit felt suddenly that she had been conforming too much.

After all, what was in it for her if she obeyed the factory boss?

She would still get beaten if she made a mistake. She would still get paid poorly.

Alicia, however, was the promise of something a little different. Even if only for a day.

Besides, she was curious what kind of thing an Alicia Kolt could want with this place.

“I’ll help you.” Marit said. “But we have to be quick. I’ll be yelled at for being late.”

“Oh thank you! Thank you!”

Alicia pulled her into an embrace and kissed her suddenly on the cheek.

Marit felt her head would explode if a pressure valve wasn’t released soon.


“Is there any place where something important might be kept?”

That was Alicia’s only interest and clue, and Marit only really had one answer. There was a specialty workshop on the other side of the factory grounds that was padlocked. She had asked some of the other women if they ever worked there and none of them ever had, so it was not a place for regular assembly. One morning, she was feeling sick, and gave away her coffee to an engineer she found who was driving a crane-pulley tractor in the cold.

“Thanks, kid!” He’d said, “Hey, let me tell you something fun in exchange eh? Sit down.”

Marit had sat in the tractor with him, and heard him brag about how he was part of a team working on new ultra-dense heat-treated steel. There was no facility in the factory Marit had ever seen that could do something like that, so she figured that such things were going on behind the padlock in that specialty workshop. Experimental stuff. That was probably what Alicia wanted to see. If she was treated like a toy at the R-K firm, then maybe she was not allowed to see experimental projects, and it must have vexed her.

“Follow me very closely and keep your head down, okay?” Marit said.

Alicia nodded cheerfully. “Don’t worry, I’m an expert at sneaking.”

As she said this, Alicia carelessly kicked a discarded bolt and sent it rattling around.

Marit snapped her head toward her; Alicia held up her hands defensively, smiling.

“Sorry!”

“Shut up!”

Marit grabbed hold of Alicia’s hand and together they ran across the outer edge of the factory, along the fence, for several dozen meters, and hid behind a stack of discarded wooden pallets. From afar, they watched as a guard with a rifle and a cruel-looking bayonet came from around the corner, to where the bolt had hit a factory wall.

He looked down at the bolt, looked around himself, and kept on patrolling.

“Phew,” Marit sighed, “be careful.”

“Marit! That was a Panzergrenadier! Look at his helmet and coat!”

Marit blinked. She had no idea what Alicia was talking about. He looked like any other soldier to Marit. He had a grey coat, and a gun, and a helmet. Just another Nochtish man.

“To have Panzergrenadiers here– and oh my god, I think that insignia on his shoulder is for the Leibgarde Achim Lehner regiment, elite Presidential guard!” Alicia said.

She covered her mouth and seemed like she wanted to yell with excitement.

“Please calm down. You’ll get us caught.” Marit said.

They stole away around the factory ground, avoiding the guards, with Marit having to gently calm Alicia’s enthusiastic gasps whenever she saw something or other that piqued her interest, whether a model of tractor, or a brief glimpse of a tank being worked on inside one of the warehouses, or more of those soldiers with their strange insignia. Soon they made it to the side wall of the specialty workshop. Unlike the tin buildings around it, this one was concrete and closed. Only the specialty workshop and offices were concrete.

“How do we sneak in?” Alicia asked.

“From the top. There’s a ventilation system connected to the air conditioning.”

“Good! I’m an excellent climber!” Alicia said.

Marit looked at her skeptically and then smiled.

Once more they snuck away around the wall of the workshop and found a garbage bin at the back. Marit gave Alicia a boost onto it, and Alicia helped her climb up. In this way, they also made it from atop the garbage can and onto the roof. There, a series of ventilation grates led down into the workshop itself. Marit kneeled beside one of them and tried to pull it open, but she found it quite stubborn. After a second attempt, she saw the screws.

“Alicia, could you unscrew this for me?”

“I’m extremely good at that. One moment.”

With an inordinately proud look in her eyes, Alicia withdrew a screwdriver of the correct size from her belt and undid the screws locking the vent cover in place. Marit crawled headfirst down the vent, Alicia holding her legs for support, and she found herself at the bottom of the vent shaft quite quickly. Alicia threw down the screwdriver, and Marit opened another vent cover, and squeezed slowly out of the aluminum shafts.

And into open air, with little in the way of support.

Coming out of the vent, Marit fell a few meters down to a stack of asbestos sheets.

“Are you alright?” Alicia called down.

Marit took a few seconds to regain her senses. “Yes! Be careful coming down!”

She had hardly given the warning when Alicia came tumbling down out of the vent and crashed onto the stack of Asbestos sheets as well. She raised her arms and gave a little cheer before standing, and seemed more energized than hurt by the drop. Marit sighed.

“Where are we?”

Marit looked around. They were in a gloomy room, a small section of the shop compared to the exterior size. They were surrounded by stacks of materials along the walls. There were metal plates and the asbestos sheets and a stack of metal tubes. There was something large and covered up in the center of the room. One door led out of the room, and in the back there were a set of double doors that emanated a gentle heat. That was probably the furnace room, and the double doors were probably strongly insulated. No going there.

Alicia produced an electric torch from her belt and pointed the beam at the covered object.

“Marit, help me pull this tarp off it!”

Together, the girls grabbed opposite corners of the tarp and tugged on it several times.

Once the tarp was off, they found a tank under it.

“It’s just an M4 Sentinel.” Marit said. She felt a measure of scorn for the thing.

Alicia’s face lit up.

“It’s not just any old M4!”

She started going over all the things different. She pointed out the tracks, which were separated further for rough terrain coverage necessary for combat in the Ayvartan forests and hills and in the red desert of Solstice; and the circular armor extensions on the sides of the turret, which, in Alicia’s words, could defeat “delayed-action AP-HE.” She showed Marit the gun barrel, which was longer and of a wider bore than normal. She claimed it was a “75mm KwK 31” instead of the “typical” gun, the “50mm KwK 28.” Compared to the smooth, rounded bodies of other M4s, this one was a bit more angular and robust.

“I think the armor thickness has increased from 50 mm to 62 or even 70 mm!”

Alicia climbed up on the track, stepping on the bogeys, and then onto the tank itself.

“It’s amazing! Look at it! So much power! Isn’t it scary, Marit? It’s so scary!”

While she rooted around the top of the tank like a mouse searching for crumbs, Marit moved closer to the side of the tank and read aloud the block text painted on the side.

“M4A4 ‘Rick Sentinel’ Prototype GA-31.” She said.

“It’s not ‘Rick’ Sentinel, you’re verbalizing the R-K. That’s just the R-K mark.”

Alicia bent down from atop the tank to make eye contact with Marit while explaining.

“Rick Sentinel sounds like it has more personality.” Marit said.

“Hmm. I suppose so! It has plenty of personality already though!”

“So this is what you wanted to see?”

Marit looked up at Alicia, who was acting as if she was standing atop the world and not just a tank. She was inordinately pleased with her discovery, jumping up and down, clapping her hands and laughing as she surveyed the metal monster she had unshackled here.

“Yes, it was! I knew my brother was coming up with a big new project, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. All of these changes are completely elementary: judging by designs coming out of Helvetia and Lubon, the 75mm cannons widely deployed in light artillery units are the natural evolution of the comparatively smaller guns on tanks. To defeat the problem of recoil, the counterweight on the back of the turret was added! Ingenious!”

Alicia sat on said counterweight, stretching from the back of the turret, which was otherwise the round, “melon” turret that Marit was used to. She kicked her legs.

Her unrestrained cheer and the way she spoke about it gave Marit discomforting chills.

“So this is what you wanted to see? Just this?” She asked again.

“Yes it was! Thank you for giving me the opportunity Marit–”

“And what will you do now?” Marit asked. “What is your goal here?”

Alicia smiled. “I’m going to draw up something even more visionary. Knowing that this is possible, that counterweights potentially solve the recoil problem, that we can go above 25 tons, and so on; I can write a spec that will blow this one out of the water. Then they will have to acknowledge my abilities at the firm. Even if it’s not accepted, just the design–”

Marit clenched her fist at her side. “So you want to make a tank that can kill even better?”

“Um.” Alicia seemed taken aback suddenly. She stopped rocking her legs.

That savage hatred that Marit felt for the M4 was crashing over her like a cold wave.

“The M4 Sentinels that we make here are already so fearsome and murderous, and you want them to be bigger? To have bigger guns? To shoot more and faster? To be even harder to stop? You see this thing and you want to make one even more frightening than that?”

“Um, hey, Marit, I’m–”

“These things are the reason the island changed! The reason we can’t be free!”

“Marit–”

Alicia tried to speak but Marit staring at her so intensely that she could not continue.

“You asked me if it looks scary? It looks scary. But you’re scarier, Alicia! You’re an even bigger monster than that thing is! You look at it and laugh and want to make it worse!”

Marit’s tone of voice rose to shouting, and she raised her clenched fists in anger.

Alicia shouted back, weeping. “Marit, please, you’re scaring me–”

“No more than you’re scaring me–!”

In the middle of the shouting match, the doors behind them swung open.

Light entered the room suddenly, framing a pair of figures in a white glare.

Both of the shadows darted forward.

Marit felt something hard strike her in the forehead and knock her down.

“Please stop! She didn’t do anything wrong!”

Alicia’s voice protested, but immediately grew muffled and desperate.

She was already wavering, but when a kick to her stomach knocked all the air out of her, Marit felt like something had unplugged her brain. She went out, and the world with her.


13th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Night had fallen, and Marit was still working. She was working under guard.

Outside the assembly building were two men with guns, smoking.

Inside it was the Overseer, tormenting her.

At first some of the women had stayed with her and tried to help her, but eventually everyone was thrown out, until there was only Marit, the guards and the Overseer.

Though they cursed the man and his cruelty, all her coworkers could do was to leave.

And all she could do was to keep working.

Marit felt the heavy throb of her wound on her forehead. Every little movement she made seemed to exacerbate the pain. And yet, here she was. Kneeling on the cold floor of the workshop, slick with grease and oil and sweat, her arms shaking, her teeth chattering. She moved mechanically. Her humanity had slipped away from her somewhere after the fifth hour of forced overtime labor and the second time the Overseer shouted in her ear.

She was a machine; she was truly doing first, intermediate and final assembly now.

All at once.

“We’re going to break a record here, Hale!” Shouted the overseer. “You’ll put together an entire tank by yourself! That’ll teach you to snoop around where you’re not wanted!”

Marit’s eyes welled up with tears involuntarily, her fingers looked like gnarled claws, bruised and spent and curled roughly as she struggled to get her shaking hands to stretch the track around the front and back gears, the rollers and under the bogeys. She stood, unsteadily, nearly falling, walked to the other end of the workshop. Grasping in the dark, she found the welding torch and came back to seal the track. With that accomplished she had only one more job to do — she had to lower the turret onto the turret ring.

Behind her, like a mocking imp, the Overseer watched from a folding chair.

“Obviously I don’t expect a moron like you to install the hydraulics and electric system. Just set the turret down on the ring, we’ll pretend it was finished, and you’ll be done. Free to go. Doesn’t it feel great to make amends? To work off your debt like a real citizen?”

Marit did not respond. She was not capable of response. Her mind was obliterated by exhaustion and pain. She shambled toward the chains attached to the crane pulley and tugged the crane along its supports on the roof, feeling like she would fall over dead with every effort. Once the crane was close enough, she attached the chain to the turret, and revved up a generator to start the lifting motor. She lifted the heavy turret, welded all by herself, every last part of it from the cheek to the hatch to the gun assembly.

Finally, the turret dropped onto the ring, a little unsteadily, but in its place.

“Congratulations Hale! You’ve made idiot history. Now get the fuck out of my face.”

The Overseer pointed her out the workshop door.

Marit, dirty, exhausted, wounded everywhere, with big empty eyes, shambled out of the shop, almost without recognizing what she was doing or what time it even was.

She was escorted by the guards outside the factory grounds and turned out onto the road.

Staring at the moon like a lost calf in the forest, Marit got walking home.

“Marit! Marit!”

There was a long light coming from the edge of the pavement.

Marit flinched when she heard the chugging noise coming closer.

At her side, a motorized bike stopped, cut engine, and someone left it.

“Marit, oh my god!”

She felt someone take her in arms. Sweet scent, golden hair.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! This was all my fault!”

Marit barely recognized Alicia’s voice.

“What time is it?” She asked.

Alicia pulled back from her, to look her in the eyes, still holding her by the shoulder.

“It’s past midnight, Marit.” She said.

“I have to sleep.” Marit said. “I can sleep maybe three hours if I get home in one.”

“I can get you home.” Alicia said. “But you shouldn’t work tomorrow! You’re hurt!”

“I have to.” Marit said. “If I’m absent now after all this, I’ll be beaten and thrown out the next time I show my face. I can’t stop working. My family needs me.”

She couldn’t muster any emotion, love or hate, for Alicia. She couldn’t muster anything.

Her unsteady legs started to shake. Marit felt like her feet would slip out from under her.

They almost did; Marit nearly fell, but Alicia caught her.

“I’ll give you money. It’s the least I can do.” Alicia said.

“Can you keep giving me money?” Marit mumbled. “If I lose my job–”

Alicia hung her head. Her bright and shining smile was nowhere to be found.

“I’ll drive you home. I’m sorry Marit. I’m sorry about everything. I’ve been stupid and preumptuous and naive and I hurt you so much with my foolishness. I’m so sorry.”

Without response, Marit stumbled onto the passenger car on the motorbike.

Visibly weeping, Alicia put on a helmet, and got on the bike herself.

Marit felt the earth start to move, and the surroundings blur in twilight.


Though she had hoped that a few hours of sleep would undo all the damage, it hardly seemed to change things, save to allow her mind to more fully understand her predicament. When she next woke, it was sunset, and Marit was hurting all over, her bandaged forehead feeling as if freshly broken over by a rifle butt. Alicia was sleeping in a chair next to her bed. Her father was passed out drunk in the kitchen. Her mother was still gone, god knows where in town, doing god knows what. It was all the usual.

“Alicia, wake up!”

Marit shoved the blond girl’s shoulder, and prodded her from sleep.

“Marit? Are you feeling better?” She asked.

“No. I need a ride to work.”

Alicia looked like she would cry again. “You shouldn’t.”

“I have to.”

There was no more protesting. Alicia must have learned would get her nowhere.

Marit changed into fresher clothes, also shabby hand-me-downs from her brothers, and she took a loaf of bread from the pantry, the last one they had. She practically shoved it into her mouth along with a glass of milk and honey. She would not make it in time to stand in line for breakfast today. Even with Alicia’s bike it would probably take a while.

Outside, Marit took one last look at her family’s decaying, shabby A-frame cabin as she mounted Alicia’s bike. It looked ever more empty and forlorn on a hurting head.

“Drive.” Marit said.

“Marit, I’m sorry–”

“You’re forgiven, drive.”

She said it brusquely enough that Alicia seemed to get the hint.

It took them thirty minutes to drive from Marit’s house down to the factory around the other side of the island. Marit normally caught a bus for workers, but to catch it, she had to get on before the sun, and she had not today. Alicia probably did not know the significance of the bus and did not wake her for it. Or maybe Alicia was as tired and asleep and also slept through it. Marit did not know if Alicia had been punished for what happened.

Certainly it can’t have been as severe as what Marit faced.

Once they got to the factory, Marit practically jumped off the sidecar, and she ignored Alicia’s protests as she ran through the front gate. Already the chow line had dissolved and people were at their stations. Marit ran through the factory grounds, and stopped at the assembly building. She turned about face, took a deep breath, and tried to walk as casually as she could into the tin building, hoping to not attract any attention–

“You’re late, Hale!”

Immediately she was pounced on by the Overseer.

Without regard for her wound, he rolled his newspaper and struck her in the head.

“That tank you made yesterday was shabby work! And now you’re late too? Get over there and start tightening drive wheels. You’ll be doing every assembly at least once today!”

Marit turned from him to go where assigned, but she stumbled and fell.

No sooner had she hit the floor that she felt the Overseer kick her in the hip.

“Get up, Hale! You’re not feigning sick with me again! I know that trick too well!”

She could hardly believe his words. He was the same man who had yesterday overseen her as she nearly killed herself putting together a whole tank all day and all night, with a head wound. Did he think her a monster, with unlimited power in her limbs? Did he think her darker skin and darker hair conferred him some natural savagery that could withstand this? She could not even move from the floor. Collapsed face-first, she struggled terribly.

“Stop that!”

From inside the assembly building there was a general murmur.

All of the women working on the tanks had stopped and were staring at the Overseer and at Marit. Many of them had stood up from their stations, and started to shout.

“This is monstrous! Leave that girl alone!”

“Can’t you see she’s hurt?”

“You’ve worked her to the bone, you animal! Leave her alone!”

As more people shouted, more people felt emboldened to shout and to shout louder. People started to refer to their own grievances with the Overseer, rather than just what he had done to Marit. Women started to leave their stations and to gather and walk over to the man and to mob. The Overseer swatted in front of him with his newspaper.

“Get back to work! All of you! If you don’t I’m calling the guards!”

Marit turned over on her side, trying to get up.

“And you, I said, up! Now!”

He delivered another kick to her, this time in the stomach, and she cried out.

It was this that triggered the mob of women to stampede.

Marit could not understand how he had gotten the confidence to do what he did. How in the face of everything, he kept attacking her, he kept provoking them. Did he not see them? Did he not see a hundred women, old and tall and tough with skin like baked leather and big meaty arms and fingers and bellies that had borne a half dozen children each?

He started to understand, perhaps, when the first thrown wheels struck him, when the first hurled cans of pain and oil spilled over him, when the first wrench blows knocked him to the ground. When the women kicked him as he had kicked Marit and when they found it in themselves not to stop kicking, when they found bigger things to kick him with, when they found things to stab with and things to crush with and maybe, as the light left him, he understood when they ruined and defaced his body in every achievable way.

After minutes of escalating violence the Overseer was barely recognizable as human.

Then the women took their bloodied weapons and charged the two guards who appeared, alerted by the cries and the commotion, and they beat them down, but they did not murder them as they had the Overseer. They struck them and pushed them and disarmed them and sent them scurrying away from the factory. Marit had barely managed to get back up on her feet, when the women started to chant, and to roar. They called out Marit’s name.

Blinking, incredulous of the events around her, Marit watched as the women charged toward the office, and the specialty workshop, and as more women from the other assembly buildings came out as well, and they shouted and cried and made commotion. Every woman seemed to shout her grievances aloud at once. There were chants for peace, to bring the boys back home; chants to work less hours, to work for more pay, to have the commissions they were promised for good work, to have new bosses or no bosses.

Soon the entire population of the factory was out on the grounds making mess.

Marit had hardly shambled out of the assembly building, when a siren went off.

In front of the specialty workshop, a metal shutter door started going up.

Marit’s heart sank, and she tried to shout, knowing what was coming.

From the workshop, something flew out with thunderous violence.

Over the heads of the women a projectile detonated and cast fire and metal down.

At once the spontaneous crowd started to break apart and disperse.

The M4A4 “R-K Sentinel” emerged from the building, and people scrambled away from it to avoid being crushed. From its front plate, sporadic machine gun fire sailed out over the crowds, flying between the assembled women, grazing many, striking some, hitting pavement and tin walls and causing a panic to unfold suddenly. Atop the turret, the guard commander for the factory stood half out of the cupola with a pistol in hand, screaming.

“All of you will cease this demonstration at once, or you will be hung as traitors to the Federation of Northern States!” He shouted, firing his pistol off into the air. “We hold fire only because of a sense of decency you all lack! Your ransacking of a military installation is high treason! But we will show mercy if you disarm and disperse immediately!”

His own voice made him sound nervous, though he put up a strong front. Clearly he was in a panic too, his every action and word belied that panic, and he had done something extreme that could not be taken back now, in the hopes of disarming a situation likely to kill him. One tank against hundreds of workers at very close range, even older women, would not end well for him either. Like Alicia had before, they could climb onto the tank, and maybe force the hatch. He was trying to scare them off. It was all going crazy.

Many women retreated, collapsed, wounded or unwounded; but a core was forming around the assembly building that continued to show some defiance, and they gathered together.

Callously, hungry for blood, the Sentinel’s turret descended its gun toward them.

Marit ran out of the building.

With one first and final burst of manic energy, she stood between the crowd and gun.

She spread her arms, shaking all over.

“It was my fault! I’ll take responsibility! Please stop this!” She shouted.

Her eyes filled with tears. Her entire being hurt. Her body, her mind, her soul.

Everything was out of control and she couldn’t help but think it was all her fault.

Had she been better, worked harder–

Had she not lost control around Alicia and berated her–

Had anything gone different, had her parents not broken down, had everything–

Her mind was choppy, thoughts cutting each other off, sensations twisted.

She was shaking, shaking violently in front of the women she sought to defend.

“Get out of the way brat! This is not about you! Disperse now! All of you!”

She heard a clicking from inside the barrel. She was so close to the gun.

It must have been the breech. She had done breech assembly before.

Someone inside had loaded a shell that would go right through her.

Marit swallowed hard. Even if she wanted to move, she could not have. She was out of strength. Everything was lost to her. She had given the last of her to stand with these women and to stand before them, to try to protect them, to try to make amends.

Now she was spent. She couldn’t obey the guard commander.

“I warned you!” He shouted. His own voice sounded as desperate as hers.

Marit closed her eyes.

“Fire–HOLD FIRE. HOLD FIRE!”

Marit reopened her eyes in disbelief.

Standing in front of her, even closer to the gun barrel, was Alicia.

“You can shoot her if you want! But you’ll also kill Alicia Kolt if you do! And I’m not moving no matter what! If you really want to end this, call the Governor instead!”

She was shaking too. Her voice quavered perhaps even worse than Marit’s had.

But she was standing, and she was not moving.

Marit felt herself going forward, and falling onto Alicia’s back.

She held on to her waist, resting her head on Alicia’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry.” Alicia whimpered.

“You’re forgiven.” Marit said, this time much more sincerely.

Behind them, the crowd of women took steps forward, and joined Marit and Alicia.

In response, the R-K Sentinel backed down. It reversed into the specialty workshop, shut itself inside again, and made no more noise and caused no more damage until the police arrived, and the governor arrived, and cooler heads seemed more willing to talk.


18th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Ever since the factory closed down, Marit’s mother and father seemed to have disappeared entirely. As a result of their vanishing near-completely into drink and dance, perhaps too distraught at the loss of the income from their sons and now the income from their daughter too, Marit got to keep her final paycheck. It was a pretty fat sum too — she had finally been given all her unpaid commissions for her good work. Despite this, she could not live very large. Had anything in her been broken it would have obliterated even this precious lifeline. But things had worked out well enough, she was healthy and she was free, and now she could use this last bit of money to leave behind her fallen home.

She would move to the Nochtish mainland and seek opportunity there.

It hurt her heart, but it was all she could do now. She had nothing left on Iron Isle.

Nocht, and Nocht’s war, had destroyed her family, her homeland.

With a hundred and fifty marks in hand, all she could do was to go on, to survive.

She packed up a few things, put the money in with her bag, and left the house.

She hoped to catch the bus, and then a ferry to Pelago, and then maybe a plane or a bigger boat to Nocht. She had never had to think about this, so she had no concrete plans.

Outside, however, she heard a distinctive chugging on the road.

“Marit! Hey, Marit!”

On her motor bike again was Alicia Kolt.

“Where are you going, Marit?” She asked, smiling.

Marit felt a strange softness in her heart and averted her eyes a little from the road.

“I don’t know! Anywhere but here, to be honest!” Marit said.

“Coincidentally, I’m headed the same way.” Alicia replied.

She patted her hand on her sidecar.

Sighing, Marit headed for it, and climbed in.

“Why are you helping me?” Marit asked.

“Why did you help me that day?” Alicia asked in turn.

She thought back to it. It seemed petty. There was no life-changing revelation to be had. She had seen a pretty girl who had made her swoon a little and who needed help, and she wanted the sense of adventure, she wanted to do something interest. She did not think it over too much. Her actions could not truly be justified. It was almost completely random.

Unwilling to answer that maybe she had wanted a kiss, Marit instead shrugged.

“Because it was different.” She said.

“Would you accept that as my answer too?” Alicia said.

“Absolutely not. You can do better than that.” Marit said, grinning in jest.

“You’re right. Let me come up with something better.”

Alicia leaned in from the driver’s seat and kissed Marit in the cheek.

Marit flinched and rubbed her own cheek and felt her heart jumping in her chest.

“How’s that? If you want it verbally: it’s because you’re so different.”

“I don’t think I am, but okay.” Marit replied, still rubbing her cheek.

“Trust me, I’m extremely good at these things. You made think a lot, you know.”

Alicia looked out over the road and down the hilly way from Marit’s house.

“I want to do something that a person like you would admire, not despise. If someone as brave and strong and selfless as you thinks it’s wrong– I can’t carry on with it.”

“Hey,” Marit said, suddenly alarmed, “I’m sorry about what I said to you. It was nasty and you didn’t deserve it. You shouldn’t just do whatever I say, who am I to dictate your life?”

Alicia smiled. “It’s okay. I’ve made up my mind. I might still make weapons, you know. But if I do, it wont be for Rescholdt-Kolt. It wont be so they can be used against you.”

She reached out and held Marit’s hand.

“Marit, I don’t know what to do right now, but I know I don’t want to leave you behind, whatever it is that happens. I know this sounds silly, because we just met a while ago, and because I was doing things to assuage my guilt. But I really want to stay with you.”

Marit smiled back. She laid her other hand on Alicia’s too. She liked the feeling of both their worn, callused hands, a little rough and spent, holding each other so closely.

“Whatever happened to wanting to one-up your brother’s designs, huh?” Marit asked.

“Oh, I’ll beat him. I’ll become a better person than him in every way. I’ll build things that will save people and protect people. Things you can be proud of and love, Marit.” Alicia said. “I’ll trample his scornful steel with the power of love. You can count on that.”

Marit burst out laughing. “Oh my god; what a queer bunch of ideas.”

Alicia worked the bike’s ignition and revved up the engine.

“I’m extremely good at this, remember? Anyway, where do you want to go?”

Marit leaned against the backrest, and breathed out. For once, she felt relaxed.

“I want to go with you, Alicia.” She said.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

The Breakout

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Tukino Village Outskirts

At first the sound of caterpillar tracks was a whisper in the distance.

Then the bright yellow beam of a spotlight sliced across the forest.

Though they could not yet see the enemy tank, it had become terrifyingly corporeal.

There was no escaping that light. To survive, it had to be put out.

Within a thick cluster of nondescript bushes the group crouched close and still. Silence was of the utmost importance. They left their rifles on the dirt. Keeping them shouldered or holding them would make too much noise moving and hiding in the bush. Instead, their steady fingers wound tight around knives, pistols and grenades. Breathless, they waited.

To pull the pins; to dig the blades deep; to rap the trigger until the gun clicked empty.

And then, to run over the corpses, as fast and as far as they could from the track sound.

That track sound that was everywhere. Surrounding them; a perfect circle of metal.

Biding time and breath, they waited for the enemy to come closer into the trap.

They heard the sound of bushes displaced, and fallen trunks crushed under the tracks.

Though it was crucial that they know, they could not tell whether the tank was one of the bigger ones or the smaller ones. Both of them burned when the Anti-Tank grenade exploded on top of their engine hatches. But the bigger one always killed a friend.

From the bush, an excited voice. “It’s a small one. I can tell.”

Everyone urged Hasim to silence. He bowed his head, ashamed.

Though the tanks were always nearly blind and almost deaf, they were never alone.

All of them were accompanied by the same black-helmeted, gray-coated ghosts that had become so hated by the defending soldiers: the Panzergrenadiers of the Nocht Federation. In the shadows they were little more than the suggestion of a coat and coal scuttle helm with a long rifle in hand. Their footsteps couldn’t be heard beneath the racket of the tank.

They always seemed to kill a friend too, no matter what one did.

Closer, and closer, came the sound of the tracks.

Then the beam of the spotlight shone across the front of the bushes.

Gray ghost men with steel skulls wandered in from the shadows.

Hasim was the first to stand.

He primed his grenade and threw it amid the screaming men.

Rifles flashed in the dark. Green tracers flew through Hasim’s chest and neck.

He fell, bleeding and choking and dead before anyone could say another word.

His dying aim had been miraculously true.

Among the Panzergrenadiers, the grenade went off.

A cloud of smoke and metal burst skyward between them as the frag grenade exploded. Hundreds of invisible knives flying faster than anyone could fathom tore through the enemy, and they fell as if without cause and without wounds, swift to die but slow to bleed. All among their number realized then what was happening, and scrambled.

Granate!” they cried in their alien tongue.

More grenades flew toward the invaders, pistols sounded from the bushes, and the forest was momentarily lit with flash fire and then the fleeting light of tracer rounds from the enemy’s rifles as they retaliated. Gunfire flew in all directions in a great sudden confusion. Men drove into bushes with bayonets seeking the ambushes. Men threw themselves on the ground at the sight of sparks or flashes or the merest glint of movement.

Amid all this chaos, the tank, nearly blind and nearly deaf, maintained its composure.

Several dozen meters away from the battle the tank tracks ground to a halt.

In the next instant many ambushers dispersed, sweeping left and right in small groups.

With a roar that overtook the petty gunfire ahead, the tank opened fire.

A single heavy round plunged into the bush and exploded with the harshest flash yet seen.

At once, it seemed, that old hiding spot disintegrated.

Two men ran screaming from the remains of the bush, maimed and aflame.

Machine guns on the tank’s front lay a curtain of gunfire in their way, finally killing them.

Everywhere else there had been to run, the remaining ambushers ran, and now watched.

This was definitely one of the larger tanks.

Its turret panned around the forest, hungrily seeking targets.

With an ominous noise, its tracks got turning, and it trundled forward to cover its men.

Huddling around the tank, the remaining Panzergrenadiers shot blindly into the wood.

Over every bush, around every tree in front of them, the spotlight turned.

There was no retaliation. The invaders were doing all the shooting.

Meanwhile the ambushers were on the move, around the flanks, toward the rear.

Something then clanked atop the engine compartment.

A grenade like a food tin packed with explosives.

On top of the tank it detonated with a brilliant fireball. Under this violence the engine exploded, melted down into slag, and the burning fuel set ablaze the floor of the tank and set ablaze all of the stored ammunition. Rifle rounds went off like popping firecrackers and shells exploded one after another. Every hatch on the tank flew off, and jets of flame erupted from them, and the side armor burst open and perforated the huddling men.

From safe positions all around the tank, the dispersed ambushers emerged.

Between their groups there was the burning tank and all of the dead men.

There was no time for anyone to celebrate.

Survivors quickly regrouped, and used their Pyrrhic victory to distance themselves further from the enemy. There would be more patrols, more tanks. It was a temporary reprieve.

This is what they had lost friends for. It was all they could do to escape.


In more than one way the sun had set on Tukino.

Tukino, the village; Tukino, the battle; Tukino, the brave last stand of a doomed army.

Tukino, the home; it was all gone. A shadow behind the backs of fleeing men and women.

It was now whatever the Federation of Northern States decided it would become.

Provided safe passage to the Ayvartan border by the treacherous nation of Mamlakha thousands of Nochtish troops marched swiftly into the southern reaches of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, and made short work of the border guards. Divisions of fast-moving Panzer troops quickly engaged the defending Ayvartan Battlegroup Lion, guardian of the southern Ayvartan territory of Shaila, and there the Panzers and Panzergrenadiers trapped the bulk of the confused, stubbornly-resisting Shailese army in the Tukino kettle.

It was a hopeless battle. From all sides, the tanks penetrated any defense. Indigenous tanks like the Goblin and Orc could guard against the smaller M5 Ranger used by the bulk of the enemy army. But when the terrifying M4 Sentinel medium tank appeared, it took with it Goblins by the dozens. Staggering losses in matériel and the disintegration of their supply lines left the defenders in Tukino stranded and nearly unarmed for modern war. Nearly a hundred thousand troops were trapped, either to perish or to be captured.

Brave officers fought to the last and died. Those least deserving of escape fled early.

Slowly, trapped inside the ring of steel, Battlegroup Lion bled itself white.

Now Tukino was a ghost town of sandbag emplacements and wooden bunkers dug into hills, all abandoned. Guns lay discarded. Remaining tanks were destroyed and dumped on the roads as obstacles to slow down the advancing enemy. Now, bravery and cowardice became meaningless words. Survival was paramount, and the communist soldiers fled in every direction, hoping to escape the pocket before the enemy could lock it all down.

Private Sahil Pushkar was one of those driven to escape.

He had fled Tukino alongside twenty other riflemen and women.

One patrol had cut his group down to twelve. Last night four men had died.

Now, it was night again.

And the remaining eight in the group had to convene. There was a grave issue at hand.

Within a circle of berry bushes, they prepared for a difficult decision.

“We have a chance to make it out, but to do so, we’ll need a distraction.”

Sergeant Siya was a tall, dark woman with close-cropped hair. She had once proudly worn a peaked cap, but had long since lost it. Sahil had served under her and respected her greatly during the battle for Tukino, and she had been crucial to their subsequent escape. But this was as far as she went; they were all aware of this miserable truth. Everyone in the group kept their eyes away from her leg, where her pants were ripped. It was a fragment wound, clearly infected, yellow and black. How she moved at all was anyone’s guess.

She was the strongest of them. She had already decided to stay behind.

Sahil wanted to protest, as one last show of his gratitude and solidarity.

But he was too weary to say anything. They all were. So they silently went along.

“You can hear the tracks, can’t you?”

Sahil could hear them in the distance. During the day, everyone hid wherever they could and tried to ignore the distant sounds, and tried to ignore them even as they closed in. There were imperialist patrols everywhere, because the imperialists were everywhere now. They controlled a circle all around the village. That was undeniably what a kettle was.

Now they could not ignore it. Judging by the distance they had already traveled, any one of them could potentially escape to friendly lines beyond the kettle. It was night again, and the enemy was still searching, and it was time once more to run for their lives.

“I’m going to need two people to stay with me. You’ll fight until I tell you to run, then throw smokes, and peel away. I’ll stay here, come what may.” Sergeant Siya said.

“How do we decide who stays?” asked a young woman among them. She was nearly unarmed. She still had her pistol, but her knife had caught in a man’s face and all her grenades had set fire and metal upon the imperialists. They were all in a similar state.

There was no pretext that anyone wanted to volunteer anymore. Bravery was past them.

Sahil vehemently did not desire to volunteer for this.

Though he had no idea what life he wanted to live, he knew he could not die here.

He felt that he had been running all of his life, and he had more to run from than ever.

“Forgive me my old fashioned ways,” began Sergeant Siya, “but I think the least cruel thing we can do is give first shot to those who have wives and children and dependents outside this hellhole. So if you’ve got a family to care for, you can run now. And if you lie, well, let that be on your conscience. I cannot stop you. I can barely stop them.”

She gestured over her shoulder with a pistol.

Everyone was somber. Sahil felt a shot of panic in his chest.

“I have nobody. I guess I am staying.” said the young woman from before.

“Do not consider yourself dead, comrade.” Sergeant Siya said. “I am dead. You will escape. And by staying behind you will insure all of your comrades can escape. Fight proudly.”

Far from inspirational, this notion sent fresh anxiety like electricity through Sahil’s body.

One by one, the remaining members of the squadron quickly listed the family that needed them. Wives, children, sisters and brothers, parents that needed care. Sahil felt dread with each voice that spoke that wasn’t his. It felt like every whispered declaration was followed and accentuated by the sound of the tank tracks coming closer and closer. He felt himself be spirited from his body, and he looked as if at himself, wondering what he would–

“Sahil?”

Sergeant Siya, and the rest of the squadron, looked at him.

Despite everything their faces were calm, resigned. They had gone through their panics already. They were dull of emotion. They had seen death and they had seen the seemingly inevitable power of the enemy, encroaching on them again and again and every time taking someone with them who would never come back. Maybe all of them were ready to be that someone, but Sahil simply wasn’t. He was the youngest among them, the least experienced — perhaps the least useful. He didn’t even know all of their names.

“Sahil, please.”

He snapped out of his paralyzing panic. Sahil drew in a breath.

“I have a son.” He said.

Those were dire words. Those were the words that set him running.

It was no lie, he had a son. Or at least, someone thought he had a son.

He had no wife, but people said he had a son. He himself had never said it until then.

He had no son before, but now, in this moment of cowardice, he concretely had a son.

“I see.”

Sahil felt a hand on his shoulder, patting him.

From among his squad a young man joined the young woman at Sergeant Siya’s side.

“You go on, Sahil. Having a kid takes precedence over my old folks.”

Sahil struggled to remember his name. Tamir? Tamur? He dared not say anything.

He merely nodded in stunned silence and gratitude and felt a deep, sick feeling in him.

He almost felt like staying, like dying. Those words he had said once felt to him like death.

“Alright. Everyone knows what they’re doing–”

Sergeant Siya was cut off.

Suddenly the forest had lit up.

From behind them and over their heads, the searchlight shone.

Everyone handed their ammunition and grenades to the distraction group.

“Start moving, quietly at first. When you hear gunfire, run.” Sergeant Siya said.

Struggling to hold back the tears in his eyes, Sahil was the first to disappear into the wood.

He left the group behind in every way. He did not flee with them. He went his own direction. He did not sneak, not as instructed. Choking back the boyish sobbing in his throat he closed his eyes and ran with abandon, beating back bushes, stumbling over logs, tearing through the undergrowth with his steel-toed boots. He felt as if all of the mistakes of his life were coming back in this instant to haunt him. He felt lower than the lowest rat.

When the gunfire started, and the grenades sounded, Sahil opened his eyes and cursed.

When he heard the tank’s gun firing, he felt everything spill from his mouth.

He was screaming, sobbing, crying with desperation.

That should have been him, back there.

No; he should have accepted responsibility. Tukino was not his home, it should not have been, it should not have been his to defend. He cried out her name. And his son’s name.

He cried out in apology.

Had he not been a coward then he would not have to become a greater one now.

Losing all direction in the darkness of the night, and the thickness of the forest, Sahil briefly stopped, leaning forward against a tree and catching several violent breaths. He felt his chest heaving as if his ribcage wanted to flee from under his skin. His stomach churned like a cauldron of acid. His legs shook. There was no part of him not sweating.

Everywhere around him was indistinct darkness.

Save for what seemed like kilometers behind him, where he could see the brief, distant flashes of rifle tracer rounds like fireflies, specks of light in the shadow.

Maybe if he escaped, he could say he was sorry and acknowledge all he had done.

Sahil knew this was foolish and unrealistic but it was all that kept him moving.

He pushed himself off from the tree, and started to run again.

Overhead, he heard a macabre whistling, much closer than the sound he left behind.

He ran headlong, harder and faster, pushing his legs until they felt like jelly.

He plowed through a string of bushes and felt a strong breeze ahead.

There was a light. Two lights, even.

Raising his head, he found himself outside the forest, under the moonlight.

He saw the road, and the open countryside, stretching before him, broad and green.

And he was under the spotlight of a tank. One of the smaller ones — an M5 Ranger.

It had come in from all that country. It had come in and it had found him.

Along its side, a purple stripe and the words Konnigin adorned the hull, along with marks for kills. There were over ten such marks. Despite being called the “small” tank, the M5 was over a meter taller than Sahil, its boxy armored bulk playing host to a turret with a large rear bustle and a small, long-barreled, thin but acccurate 37mm gun. Sahil stared down the barrel of this gun as it descended to meet him. It was ten or fifteen meters away.

For a tank, this kind of range was equivalent to a knife fight for a human.

Sahil had nothing but a knife. He had no grenades, he had no guns.

He raised his hands and swallowed his cries.

For moments the spotlight shone on him.

He thought to plead for mercy, but he could not speak the Nochtish tongue.

He knew only one word, a word that filled him with shame.

But his drive to survive was stronger than his pride then.

“Zivilist!” he screamed at the tank.

Civilian.

Not a proud communist fighter, defending the motherland from the imperialist invasion.

Just a helpless civilian begging for mercy.

He heard a mechanical sound from the tank and knew he was done for.

It was the sound of the turret ring, turning.

Moments passed and he continued, somehow, to live.

Speechless, Sahil raised his head and ceased to cower.

The Konnigin turned its turret away from him. It raised its gun to its neutral position.

Swiftly and without warning it maneuvered around him and back into the forest.

For an instant Sahil had thought it meant to run him over, but it did not.

He was alive. Alone, under the moonlight. Not for any of his own power.

Everyone had spared him. They had carried him to this place.

Despite all of his running and all of his cowardice, he survived and they all had died.

“Chanja, Sahil, I’m sorry.”

He mumbled their names, over and over. That girl; and his son.

She had named the baby after him, before he fled. Before he left them to fate.

His legs shook out from under him, and he fell to the ground, sobbing.

There was so much country ahead of him, but nowhere to go anymore.

What he had had not taken from himself, the Federation of Northern States now took.

All he could hope for then was that there were better people than he still fighting.

And that they had better reasons to fight than his own.


 << APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

La Battaglia Di Rangda IV — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Shapur Way

“Stand by.”

Gulab craned her head toward the smoking, burning, plane-ridden sky and wondered how much more of a mess, if any, would rain down on them in the intervening time. Thankfully she did not have to wait long. No sooner had their support truck come up from around the bend, that the radio on Private Dabo’s back started to stir. He passed the handsets back to her and to Chadgura, who stood on the side of the road without a weapon in hand.

“Sergeant Chadgura here. We are in position.” She said into the handset.

Gulab held the secondary handset to her ear and waited, tapping her foot.

Minutes seemed to go by. A small trickle of men and women took positions behind the truck. Gulab’s unit, the headquarters and fire support section, was small. Chadgura, herself, and the soft and round Private Dabo, and the tall, angular Private Jandi. Dabo carried the radio, Jandi carried a BKV anti-tank rifle, and Chadgura had a submachine gun hanging on her belt, but made no effort to ready it or aim it at anything. Gulab had a rifle.

Behind them, two rifle squadrons were slowly forming up. 1st Battalion was still something of a mess, with communications having been disrupted in the panic caused by the sudden appearance of hundreds of enemy bombers overhead. They wouldn’t have their full platoon available, but as far as Gulab was concerned they had everyone who wasn’t a coward right now, and that was good enough for her. Gulab recognized some of the faces, but she had not committed any names to memory. It had been a hectic day and she had been more concerned with the people in her immediate vicinity. Perhaps this made her a poor officer — she did not quite think of herself as one, despite making Corporal.

“Stand by.”

Gulab grumbled. Chadgura glanced her way and clapped her hands gently.

At their side, the support truck they had been promised was a standard M.A.W 6-ton with an open, steel-plated bed. Atop the bed, alongside a few crates of ammunition and explosives, the truck was armed with a very much non-standard swiveling platform supporting the weight of a 37mm automatic-firing anti-aircraft gun. This was a familiar and welcome cannon from the A.A.W labor and engineering union that was, as they spoke, employed across the city. Over half the shooting red stars in the sky were 37mm shells.

From inside the cab, the driver, a plump, friendly-looking lady, waved at Gulab.

Gulab waved back nonchalantly.

“Skip the stones.” said the voice on the radio.

At once, Gulab and Chadgura returned the handsets to the radio box.

“Comrades, march!” Chadgura called out aloud. “Squadron Alpha on the left, Beta on the right, and the Delta will bring up the rear of the triangle! We’re freeing up the crossroads from Shapur to Umaru and linking up with the lead elements of the artillery detachment. The 37mm will cover us in case anything nasty comes from the air — or the ground. Watch out for enemy aerial reinforcements, and keep your eyes peeled. There’s a lot of cover!”

Gulab pointed down the street as if it would motivate the troops any further.

From behind them, the rifle squadrons picked up their weapons and kit and started running down the street. They were flanked on all sides by ghastly urban debris.

Shapur Way was a tight road that divided a historic housing district, one of the few remnants of the old city. Unlike the large tenements and apartments built by Solstice, Shapur was full of small houses once meant to be personal holdings, relics from the era of private ownership. Those charming old facades and slanted roofs in the suburban Nochtish style, that had long ago survived the civil war, had now been turned mostly to rubble. Blocks and bricks pavement, regurgitated earth and piled dust, glass and doors and roofing tiles, all spilled out over the streets, rendered the road uneven, and clogged up the interiors of otherwise gutted, skeletal buildings. Walled courtyards and gardens adjacent to each ruin were hidden from sight but likely just as dilapidated as the rest. There were no alleyways. It was all open air streets and house plots cut by adjoining walls.

Shapur Way had been decimated by a massive artillery bombardment coinciding with the attack on University Avenue. This prevented the 8th Division from potentially flanking the attack. Regimental artillery from the headquarters, and the Independent Mobile Artillery, unloaded hundreds of shells, shells every few minutes, across nearly an hour, to insure nobody set foot in Shapur, and that anybody who did, would not live to set foot out of it.

This was the result, and now, owing to present circumstances, Gulab and Chadgura would reap what their commanders sewed. They had to traverse the worst of Shapur, and quickly.

Alpha, Beta and Delta split up, with Alpha and Beta taking the opposing streets and Delta following a hundred meters behind down the central road. Behind them, the truck started moving, and Gulab and Chadgura jumped on the platform in the back and rode with it.

“So, Delta’s bringing up the rear? And we’re bringing up, the rear-rear?” Gulab asked.

“We’re not an infantry squadron. We don’t count for their triangle.” Chadgura replied.

“So you want me to just sit here and watch them fight?” Gulab asked, frowning.

“Gulab, in a disparaging way, you have summarized what officers do, yes.”

“Bah, that’s not what I want to do as an officer!”

Gulab sighed. She looked out over the back of the truck, spotting Dabo and Jandi sitting with their backs to the cab, while she and Chadgura stood on the platform with the crew of the 37mm gun. They were nondescript youths; they reminded Gulab of “her kids,” whom she worried were now stuck in Umaru or somewhere close, surrounded by elves.

She was eager to get the action.

Chadgura shook her head and put a hand on her shoulder.

“I have a job for you.”

“I’m listening.”

“Gulab, I’m going to need you to spot targets for the 37mm gun. That means keeping an eye on the air and ground.” She said. “I’m going to focus on directing the fire of our infantry squads and artillery support. Just tell the gun what to shoot, and they’ll do it.”

Gulab’s restless faded with the flashes of flak overhead; she commanded the big gun.

“Yes ma’am, officer ma’am!” Gulab said cheerfully, saluting Chadgura with a smile.

Chadgura clapped her hands in response.

She had been as teased by this as Gulab had intended.

Leaving Chadgura’s side, she sat behind the 37mm gun’s crew and held up binoculars.

“Can this shoot over the cab?” Gulab asked.

In the next instant she looked out over the barrel and found her question answered as it poked right over the driver’s compartment. It could descend further and shoot directly into the driver, if the gunner was uniquely careless, but its neutral position was very safe.

Regardless, the young gunner and loader nodded their heads eagerly.

They were a pair of young girls, dark-skinned, one with long chestnut hair, the other with very curly black hair. Certainly younger than Gulab; possibly as young as the kids. Gulab smiled at them and tried to seem reassuring. Neither smiled back. They were consumed in their labors, greasing the gun’s traverse mount, calibrating the angle sights, and so on.

Ahead of the truck, the column moved closer to the intersection. There were no contacts yet, though the likelihood of an enemy encounter felt high. Aircraft debris littered the center of the intersection. What seemed like the fuselage of a short, stubby plane lay ripped open in the middle of a pile of upturned gravel. One old house burnt slowly, a pair of propellers and the steel skeleton of a bomber plane rammed through its center and out its doorway. A tail stuck out an an eerie angle from between that house and its neighbor.

Gulab raised a pair of binoculars to the intersection, glancing over the burning house, to the collapsed ruin across the street, opposite their column, and to the houses on the same side of the intersection as the column occupied. She saw nothing of the enemy nearby.

“Load high explosive, just in case.” Gulab ordered, binoculars still over her eyes.

At her side, she heard the thunk of the five-round magazine catching on the gun’s loader.

It was brief, satisfying, and drowned out by a sound like bellowing civilization of bees.

Gulab felt the wind blow harshly past her and lifted her binoculars skyward.

She spotted one of those engine-less planes swooping over the column.

“Open fire! Open fire!” Gulab shouted.

She put down the binoculars and turned to the gunner and loader. One slammed the wheel-shaped elevation levers in a panic, quickly raising the gun and aiming it at the sky while the gunner shouted corrections in degrees, so that the gun would be turned and turned to match the trajectory of the falling aircraft. Then a firing lever went down.

In a matter of seconds, the five shots from the magazine went sailing over the column.

Flying past the falling craft, the red tracers exploded harmlessly into fragments.

Somewhere farther ahead, behind the debris and burning houses across the intersection, the plane landed. There was no series of loud bangs as the it disintegrated upon the street. Instead there was a long, loud, consistent whining as it slid across the pavement.

Not one hit, even at this altitude. They had merely watched the enemy safely land.

“Charvi!”

“I saw it!” Chadgura replied quickly. “All units take combat positions! Brace for contact!”

Gulab looked through her binoculars again.

“Charvi!”

Chadgura looked back at her briefly. Her expressionless eyes drifted skyward.

She blinked, and withdrew her submachine gun and aimed high.

“Delta, pull back and secure the rear, now!” She called out, opening fire.

Overhead, it seemed as if a hundred flowers bloomed in the sky.

Pure white, dangling a thin blue stem of a person.

The 37mm gun elevated to meet the threat, but did not shoot. There was seemingly no place it could start shooting that would make a dent in what was unfolding overhead.

Dropping from some of the bombers circling over the city, the paratroopers vastly outnumbered the undersize, thirty-strong Ayvartan platoon. Though it looked as if all of them were ready to land right on their heads, the wind started to pull them different directions. Riflemen and women from Delta squadron opened fire on the drop troops, and Chadgura’s submachine gun spat hundreds of tracers into the air after them. But the gunfire was ineffective; the paratroopers were dispersing. They would land in adjacent streets, adjacent blocks, behind walls and on roofs and between the paths of the multi-pronged Ayvartan counteroffensive. Like spores dispersing into the air, they sewed far.

And they were not alone.

While Delta shot aimlessly into the sky overhead, enemy gunfire started to ring out closer.

Green tracer shots began to fly from behind the aircraft fuselage up ahead in their twos and threes, pausing to pull bolts and loads clips. Through the remains of the doorway and portholes, through gashes in the frame and the windows of what remained of the cockpit, the enemy garrisoned the piece of debris. Gulab ducked her head and crouched closer to the gun, trying to put the truck’s cab between herself and the open intersection.

Alpha and Beta rushed to opposing streets, taking cover behind the brick walls and the cement bases of the spear-tipped townhouse fences. Rifle shots struck the obstacles and lifted dust and cement chips into the air. Gulab peeked out briefly with her binoculars. She could see no heads on the aircraft fuselage, but she saw the muzzle flashes, some hundred odd meters forward. There were at least a dozen rifles laying bolt-action fire on them.

“HQ section, form up on the truck bed, and fight defensively!” Chadgura shouted.

Jandi and Dabo withdrew from the sides of the truck and onto the bed, pressed between the cab and the gun. Chadgura barked orders from a similar position, but Gulab was too eagerly surveying the battlefield ahead of her and did not hide with the rest of them.

Though they had the strength of numbers, their position was rotten. Alpha and Beta, crammed essentially around the corner from the enemy, could not meet it with the full strength of their rifles. Men and women traded places on the edge of their brick and cement cover, firing three or four at a time, as many as could peer safely together, and striking the thick wooden frame and the exposed steel skeleton of the enemy’s cover. Rounds that made it through windows or portholes seemed to sail past with no effect. When the enemy returned fire it was still a dozen or more shots at a time, and accurate. Everyone quickly retreated to cover, and to fight back, three or four had to scramble out of the mass again. It was disorganized compared to the enemy’s battle line, and ineffective.

Luckily, they were not alone.

Gulab peered through her binoculars, hoping to spot for the 37mm.

“Crew, site the intersection and fire high exp–”

Sharp noise and a brief sting of heat; Gulab drew back suddenly as a bullet ricocheted off the lightly-armored cab wall a hair’s breadth from her cheek. She put her back to the metal and stared her gun crew with wide, panicked eyes, breathing suddenly heavy.

“Lay down fire on that fuselage! Now! Right now!” Gulab cried out.

At this order, the 37mm gun’s crew descended the barrel as low as it could go against the top of the truck’s cab. Bullets bounced off the barrel shroud and against the bulletproof glass on the front of the truck. Gulab raised her binoculars again and peered over the cab, standing atop an ammunition crate. Amid the telltale reports of rifles on both sides, and the swooping and falling and booming of planes above, she heard the gun load behind her.

From afar, the firing of a 37mm gun sounded like a loud, chunky, rap-rap-rap.

When the barrel was a meter away, it sounded like a lion roaring.

Gulab shook with the transfer of energy as the 37mm emptied its magazine.

She grit her teeth, but did not have time to fret; the result was instantaneous.

Across the intersection, five fist-sized holes sprouted across the plane fuselage.

Behind the hulk, Gulab saw flashes as the delayed-action high explosive went off.

Hundreds of dust-size holes opened on the fuselage, causing it to collapse partially on itself. No longer did it resemble a piece of an aircraft. Though still an obstacle, it was a mound of shredded metal and wood more than anything.  There were no more muzzle flashes coming from it. It was a miracle it had not outright caught fire from the blasts.

In a split second the intersection and the surrounding suburban blocks grew silent.

Gulab looked skyward. She saw no more of the parachutes. They had either landed or died.

“Alpha, move forward and inspect the wreckage!” Chadgura commanded.

Alpha squadron heard the call and began to move up the street to occupy the position left by the defeated enemy. They stacked behind the shapeless debris in the middle of the intersection, reloading their rifles and looking over and around the wreck. Once they made it to the obstacle, they held position and awaited orders. Gulab breathed out a long sigh.

Chadgura stood up on the bed and looked over the cab of the truck, shouting her orders. “Beta, split to cover the sides of the street. Delta, continue guarding the rear. Alpha, reconnoiter the intersection, and carefully. We will try to advance within fifteen.”

Nodding their heads, the rifle troops dispersed as Chadgura ordered. Beta took both sides of the street position, splitting to cover Alpha’s old half, hiding behind the brick divider walls and cement fence bases and keeping their guns trained on the intersection. Behind the truck, Delta stacked half behind the bed itself, and half behind rubble on the street.

Alpha split into three sections, four rifles each. One remained attached to the remains of the fuselage, while the other two split in opposite directions, running a ways down the intersection to inspect the remains of the houses on the far side and on the perpendicular paths. Gulab climbed down from the truck bed, and walked around the front of it to see.

She was distracted by the damage done to the truck’s cab. There were seemingly a hundred pits where rifle shots had struck the cab and its bulletproof glass windows. Concentric circles of bruised glass dotted the windshield, so that the driver behind could hardly be seen, and probably, could hardly see back. Along the engine housing, and the front bumper, and on the wheel guards, there were a dozen lodged rifle rounds. Without the cab and the driver in it all of that ammunition would have sailed right into Gulab and her crew.

Gulab saluted to the driver, who apparently did not see.

“All clear!”

Ahead at the intersection, Alpha squadron’s detachments returned, waving their rifles in the air to signal an all-clear while also shouting it out. Beta squadron started to emerge from their positions — without yet being prompted to do so — and Delta seemed to slacken in their vigil, as it seemed to everyone that there was no enemy among them.

“Regroup in your current formations and get ready to advance. Alpha in front, Beta guarding the flanks and Delta in the rear.” Chadgura called out. “We march in five!”

Gulab nodded her head to her commander, and obediently got back onto the bed of the truck. Chadgura had gotten quite appreciably loud. Her voice was still rather unemotive, but Gulab thought there was a greater force and confidence behind it than she had heard before. There was some new hint of resolve and passion that had awakened in Chadgura.

“Sergeant!”

She called out, and Chadgura turned her head over.

“What is it?”

“You haven’t clapped in a while.”

Gulab smiled. Chadgura blinked, and turned her head back to the intersection.

In turn, Gulab laughed.

“Keep your eyes peeled. Those paratroopers landed somewhere.” Chadgura said seriously.

Nodding again, Gulab raised her binoculars.

She felt the world shake for a moment as the truck’s engine got started.

Slowly the column began to move, one block closer to the intersection, past the fences, past new dilapidated houses, the road ahead of them widening and opening as it met its opposites from the other important thoroughfares and joined around the disorderly wooden mass that had collected in the center of the intersection. Gulab scanned each facade, each unremarkable street corner, each fenced-off driveway around them.

There were so many hiding places, and so few opportunities to march quickly.

It was an environment that reminded her of the forest. Though there was a clear path through the woods of the Kucha, long since carved out by the mountain folk who crossed the woods every day and week, and though there were gaps between the individual trees, it felt like a very busy, crowded, thick, tight place to be nonetheless. You could not run through the forest, even on the path. You couldn’t trust it. Shapur was the same. Though there was empty visual space between each house and each street around them, there was an oppressive atmosphere, with the brick dividing walls and fence bases, the fence spears themselves, the debris spilled out onto the lawns and the streets, and the debris on the road itself and on the intersection, serving as the tightly spaced trees of their urban forest.

In short, while she was sure they could squeeze the rifle squadrons through the space as a a whole, there was still very little room to move between all the rough and ruined terrain.

Nonetheless, the platoon marched. They were now very close to their objective.

“Hey, girls,” Gulab turned to the gun crew, “stand at attention, we’re gonna need–”

Gulab’s gentle orders were overtaken by a violent cry.

Across the rubble rang the report of a single, precise rifle shot.

Falling from the 37mm, the gunner hit the truck bed, screaming and holding her side.

Her loader fell to her knees next to her.

“Kalim!” She cried. She laid hands on her crewmate for support, but found them bloody.

This realization made her even more distraught. As Kalim began to gasp for air, the loader cried and panicked seemed not to know what to do other than to press on the wound.

Gulab ducked behind the gun and turned her head to the soldiers behind her.

Chadgura looked back on the scene and finally clapped her hands once.

“Sniper! Sneak one of Delta’s medics back here!” She shouted.

“Do as she says!” Gulab added, trying to squeeze behind the gun to conceal herself.

There was a sudden ringing of metal as a bullet struck the gun’s body near Gulab’s arm.

The Corporal quickly discerned that this bullet had not come from the same direction as the one before. This one had flown past her; and had struck her in the shadow of the gun.

She turned her head to the ruins behind her.

And to the ruins ahead, and to the ruins on all sides.

“Enfilade!” Gulab shouted. “Charvi, there’s more than one!”

“Everyone fall back on the truck! Form a defensive ring!” Chadgura shouted.

Two more shots rang out, and then three, and then six. Bullets flew in livid green lines over and around the truck, striking the cab from the sides, the gun from seemingly every direction. Gulab, Jandi and Dabo dropped off the bed; Gulab pulled the wounded Kalim and her distraught companion off the bed, and quickly hid them under the truck, behind the rear wheels. A Delta medic crawled under with them, and tried to administer first aid in the cramped confines. On his belly, his kit at his side, and Kalim crying near, he labored.

Crawling under the bed herself, Gulab loaded her rifle and aimed for a fence gate.

She held her breath, praying for Kalim, and waited.

Moments later, she saw a golden-haired elf in blue uniform peer out to shoot.

From the ground Gulab shot, like a hunter hitting the briefly detected head of a deer.

She struck the elf, and they fell dead instantly, sprawled out from behind the gate column.

“They’re coming from the buildings and lawns!” Gulab shouted. “It’s the paratroopers!”

Around the bed of the truck, Gulab saw several boots and pants legs as the rifle troops formed up. She also, immediately, saw one boy fall, fatally bloody, shot in the neck.

Mayhem ensued around them. Gunfire of increasing intensity bore down on the platoon from two opposing houses nearby. Around the corners and behind the fences and from the walls and gardens, the paratroopers that had survived the fall had slowly crept close to the column, and now they were attacking from seemingly every side. Blue garrison caps and sleeves and flashes of golden hair were followed by rifle fire from behind mounds of rubble, from around the columns at the sides of fence gates, from over the walls of side gardens and from within the windows of ruined buildings. Beta squadron, divided along the flanks, was hit hard with immediate loses, and many men and women around the sides of the truck fell wounded and scared, and Gulab had to pull a few under the truck.

Alpha and Delta dispersed, taking cover where they could. Two men, along with Jandi, Dabo and Chadgura, hid directly behind the truck, and Gulab saw their boots, and heard their shots sing defiantly against the enemy. Because the elves were coming from the flanks, the back of the truck provided some measure of safe cover. But the enemy gunfire was growing in strength. Soon Chadgura and her group had to duck down to avoid it.

Gulab saw Chadgura as she crouched behind the truck.

“How many?” Gulab shouted.

“At least a dozen, both sides.” Chadgura replied. “We can’t hit them well from here.”

Tiny columns of dust and pinpricks of splintered gravel followed a series of shots that fell just centimeters from Gulab, forcing her to crawl further under the shadow of the truck. She saw the offending elves briefly through the fences on the surrounding buildings.

Carelessly, she hit her head on the thick bolt under the bed that affixed the gun above.

Gritting her teeth, stifling tears; but the blow suddenly gave her an idea.

“How far can you all throw grenades?” Gulab shouted.

“Not far enough to kill, from here.” Chadgura replied.

Dabo and Jandi seemed to agree with her, while the two Delta men were busy shooting.

“Can you cook them and have them go off in the air at least?” Gulab asked.

Chadgura stared at her under the truck bed for a moment, and seemed to understand.

“Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I’m always stupid. Give me a moment and then count down your throws.”

“Gulab–”

“Just do it Charvi!”

Gulab started to crawl toward the edge of the truck.

She approached the distraught loader, still crawling next to the medic tending to Kalim.

“What’s your name?” She said, caressing her curly hair.

“S-S-Siba.” She moaned.

“Siba, I need your help with the gun.”

Siba tried to speak, but her words broke under the weight of a sob.

“We were gonna go back home together and we were gonna tell everyone–”

“Hey, listen.” Gulab held her hand. “Kalim is in danger right now. Not just from that one shot. To get her out of here, to save her, I need your help. You can help me; you can help her. I know you can. I know you want to. You can keep crying. But help me load the gun.”

Siba grit her teeth, closed her eyes, and nodded her head, shaking from head to toe.

“Charvi, now!” Gulab cried.

Several grenade pins hit the floor.

For a brief instant, Jandi, Dabo and Chadgura held a live grenade in each hand.

“That’s enough, throw!” Chadgura commanded.

Four grenades flew over the left-hand side of the street, and two toward the right.

All of them detonated in mid-air over the positions of the nearest elves.

“Siba, go!” Gulab shouted.

She rushed out from under the bed of the truck, and the young girl followed.

Not one bullet flew their way.

Together they climbed onto the bed of the truck. Gulab scrambled with the elevation and traversal controls, swinging the lightly dented 37mm around while Siba picked up a clip from an ammunition box and shoved it into the loading slot. Gulab trained the weapon first on the left-hand side of the street, where the sturdiest fence wall and gate columns provided ample cover for the elves, and the tight fence spears gave them free portholes to shoot from. All of the elves had gone into cover from the blasts. Cover wouldn’t matter.

“Firing high-explosive!” Gulab shouted.

She pulled down the firing lever and felt the force of the gun stir throughout her body as the barrel pushed back and recoiled forward, again, and again, five times in a row. Snap chunk snap chunk snap– followed by series of blasts that completely collapsed the walls and the gate columns, each shot striking the elves’ cover at an unfortunate angle. Fence spears fell over or snapped apart and became part of a fragment cloud that went slashing through the stacked-up enemy squadron. When the dust had settled, the lawn of the targeted house was a mess of rubble and bodies all partially buried, all partially together.

“Siba, reload, I’m turning it around!” Gulab shouted.

There was a familiar sound as a pair of bullets struck the ammunition crates on the bed.

Two rounds sailed just over Gulab’s head from down the street.

Siba screeched and stepped back from the ammunition.

“Shit!” Gulab cried out, getting ready to duck behind the gun.

“Keep going!”

From behind the truck bed Chadgura, submachine gun in hand, and stepped out of cover.

Holding down the trigger, she sent dozens of rounds down the street against the elves.

She struck the edge of their cover and forced them temporarily back.

“Gulab, traverse the gun now!” She shouted.

Gulab practically leaped back to the gun’s controls and began to turn it.

Chadgura continued to fire in quick bursts.

Click.

Smoke billowed from the end of her superheated barrel.

She was dry.

Chadgura quickly withdrew a new drum to reload.

In the sudden lull the elves drew forth out of cover once more.

“Siba!” Gulab shouted.

Almost as she did, the young loader shoved a new magazine into the 37mm.

“Shoot, please!” Siba shouted back.

No more prompting was necessary.

Gulab slammed down the firing lever.

Five more 37mm high-explosive shots sailed like comets from the bed of the truck.

Chadgura’s face was lit briefly by the flash of wrathful red tracers.

Five nearly concurrent explosions followed, down the street.

In the wake of the high-explosive blasts, the enemy squadron disappeared beneath the rubble as the protective wall collapsed over them. So much damage had been done that when the Rangdan winds swept the smoke and dust off the impact areas, there was a clear view of the bright green grass on the house’s lawn, its fence having been wiped out.

Gulab stepped back from the gun.

“Siba, are you alright?” She asked.

Slumped over an ammunition crate, Siba was crying her heart out with fear and shock.

Gulab left her bed, and jumped down to Chadgura’s side.

“So much for not doing anything stupid!” She said.

Chadgura nonchalantly reloaded her submachine gun. “I saved your foolish plan.”

“You did, but it was still stupid.”

Chadgura raised her hands in front of Gulab’s face and clapped.

“Hey!”

“You made me clap. Congratulations.”

Chadgura stared at her without expression.

Gulab knew her enough to see a smile where there wasn’t one, and smiled back.

From under the bed of the truck, the Delta medic peered out, triumphantly.

“She’s stable! Gunner girl is stable! We can call her an ambulance, and she’ll be ok!”

Hearing this, Siba, atop the truck bed, burst out crying and screaming again.

This time perhaps a little less suffered, and more elated.

“Dabo, radio for a ambulance.” Chadgura ordered. “Everyone else, regroup in–”

Nobody would know whether it was fifteen or twenty or more minutes.

As Chadgura spoke, a swooping noise, loud as the stride of a giant, drowned her out.

A shadow passed briefly but ominously over the platoon.

Overhead, an enemy aircraft vacated a sky thinning of allies and thickening with fire.

It made for the intersection just ahead.

At such close a range, it seemed unearthly huge.

Far in the sky the aircraft looked like flies. This one was massive, rotund, solid.

Onto the intersection it descended, crushing the remains of the discarded fuselage that the platoon had been fighting for and striking the ground running. Conspicuously lacking engines, the craft glided earthward, dashed its landing gear to pieces, skid, and swung around. Wings flew off it and bounced like skipped stones, striking nearby buildings.

Crucially, the fuselage was battered, but did not collapse.

Across dozens of meters of now-opened road it skidded and slid without control.

Over a chunk of upturned cement its right side lifted, and its tail swung.

Slowing down, the craft fully turned before coming to an abrupt halt.

Where it stopped, the glider faced the platoon.

Transfixed, they watched as the aircraft’s nose split suddenly open.

Inside its shadowed fuselage, a pair of headlights shone.

Over the silence left in the wake of the crash, Gulab heard an engine, and worse, tracks.


City of Rangda — Umaru Way, Shapur Connection

“Fire mission target rating point, over?”

A response came quickly, and would have been poorly understood by most personnel. A series of numbers with no immediately discernible pattern came flying out of the radio and Adesh turned them over in his mind for a brief instant, checking the operational map to insure he was correct. Once he had the coordinates, he turned them into degrees for Kufu to turn the tank, and Nnenia to traverse and elevate the gun. Then, Eshe helped to load the 76mm cannon, and Adesh sent the shell sailing skyward, to then hurtle down.

Two shells would follow the first, vanishing into the sky with a thin trail of smoke.

“Good kills! We’re moving to the objective. Thank you, comrades!”

Everyone on the radio seemed elated. Adesh could not see the results of his own shots, which would fly many kilometers away before landing and having an effect. He would have to take the man at his word that the shells had been effective. Sighing slightly, he pulled off his headset and sat on the side of the fighting compartment, his arms aching.

Eshe and Nnenia both reached out to pat him on the shoulder, found the other trying to do so, and stopped awkwardly mid-motion. Adesh sighed all the harder at their display.

“What is wrong with you two lately?” Adesh asked.

Neither of them seemed able to immediately answer.

Adesh was spared further aggravation when Sergeant Rahani appeared and climbed aboard their Chimera self-propelled gun. As overall platoon commander, Rahani traveled between the three tanks in his unit fairly frequently now. He was no longer exclusively at their side. However, he did come back to them eventually after making his rounds.

Something for which Adesh was extremely grateful. Rahani had a stabilizing influence.

“How are my favorite artillery crew holding up?” He asked.

“We’re holding up.” Nnenia replied dryly.

“Sir, when will we start moving again?” Eshe asked.

After the order to vacate Umaru went out, the Chimera unit had doubled back down the connecting streets to Shapur. However, once the paratroopers began to land, there were units all over requesting fire support on the radio, and their plight roused the artillery officers from their retreat. Battalion found the artillery a nice, broad, open-air Msanii square to park in, and they began to lob shells wherever asked for the better part of an hour. Everyone knew, however, that linking up with a friendly unit, like the 1st motor rifle battalion down in University, was a necessary next step that was only being delayed.

At the suggestion, Rahani smiled.

“Feeling restless? Well, you’re in luck, corporal! We’ve been tasked with opening a path for a friendly unit from University. Once we link up, we’ll oversee the transfer of the artillery battalion entirely from Umaru and Shapur and down to the safety of University Avenue. So, get that engine going, Kufu! We’re moving down south, post-haste.”

Kufu did not reply, but the Chimera started to shake as its engine came to life.

Rahani waved over the sides of the Chimera at the allied vehicles in the platoon.

Their own Chimera would be in the lead, followed by two others in a triangle formation. One other platoon of three vehicles would move ahead in a similar fashion. Behind them, a heavy truck with additional ammunition and supplies as well as security personnel (lightly armed riflemen in a slightly different uniform) would guard the rear of the convoy.

Rolling out of the square, the Chimera hit the rubble-strewn pavement and road, and with their long, widely-spaced tracks, tackled the rough terrain expertly. While they moved, Adesh surveyed the terrain ahead with his binoculars, and tried not point them at the sky. Though he had downed a bomber plane mid-flight and had given useful intelligence to the battalion regarding the disposition of the enemy aircraft, he was still unsettled by their appearance over the Rangdan skies. He recalled all too clearly what they were capable of.

So he settled his gaze over the earth instead. At their sides, seemingly around every corner and every block, there was nothing but debris and the hollowed out remains of old storefronts and houses. The 8th Division had once garrisoned this area to protect Umaru and the path farther north to the Rangdan airport. Adesh and his comrades had seen to it that the enemy be dislodged with overwhelming firepower. This ruination was the result.

As Adesh surveyed the damage he caused he felt a hurt in his heart that was hard to shake.

“Something on your mind?” Nnenia asked, sitting on a crate of ammunition next to him.

Overhearing her, Eshe put down the maps he was looking at and turned straight to Adesh.

“It’s nothing.” Adesh replied. He did not want to become a burden to anybody. And in the middle of a battle, thinking about why one fought at all seemed the most wearying burden.

“You can tell us.” Eshe said gently. Behind him, Rahani was gabbing away on the radio.

Adesh sighed. “I knew only basic reading and arithmetic before I entered the army. I was not a very good student. I rarely turned in my home work, even. Now I know all this math. I can look at the horizon and I think of angles and degrees and velocities. Physics. It’s like a new world. And all that it’s good for is killing people. It doesn’t sit right with me is all.”

He did not want to think he was destined for a life of killing. It was naive of him, perhaps. He had joined the army after all. You joined the army to kill people. That was your job. But he had hoped there would be something else for him. Maybe driving a truck, or becoming handy with tools and wires and repairing radios and tanks. Or becoming a medical doctor. But the Ayvartan army in the midst of its Demilitarization dreams had nothing better for him than a rifle. And the Ayvartan army in the midst of Remilitarization had something better — a much bigger rifle that required fancy university math cheat sheets to shoot.

Everywhere he looked, he thought he could see the mathematics of the world. He traced the 76mm gun’s angle aligner and directional compass and elevation gauge onto all of his surroundings, noting the degree to which a ruined roof sloped (a shell that struck a flat, weak surface would penetrate more easily), or the height of an abandoned hospital as they passed (at this range, an elevation of 15 degrees would be sufficient to sail a shell over it). He noted the amount of big rooms he crossed (fragmentation was maximally lethal inside broad but enclosed spaces, like the front lobby of the abandoned Umaru Hotel in the distance). Over the course of his training in Bada Aso and Rangda, Adesh thought his head was now filled, irreparably, with far more facts about killing than about anything else.

Weeks ago, that ability almost scared him. Amid battle, it definitely did scare him.

“It’s not about killing.” Nnenia said suddenly.

She pulled her black hair behind her ears and sidled forward, looking Adesh in the eyes.

“You’re protecting people.” She said. “You’re saving them.”

She laid her hands on his own.

“Maybe.” Adesh sighed, and averted his gaze from Nnenia. “That doesn’t change the fact that I’m behind the barrel of a math-powered gun. It’s not what I think I ought to be.”

When his gaze shifted, it shifted over to Eshe, who smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“It won’t be like this forever. You can use that math however you want after the war!”

Adesh stared at him, not quite comforted by those words. Nnenia stared critically too.

“What? I’m telling the honest truth here. If we win, you don’t have to fight anymore.”

Adesh was about to say something when Rahani got off the radio and addressed them.

“Are any of you keeping an eye out for contacts?” He asked gently.

Nnenia and Eshe stared at each other and Adesh; Adesh stared between the two of them.

“Can one of you keep an eye on the–”

Rahani cut off. Everyone inside violently lurched as the Chimera braked without warning, and all of them dropped against the nearest surface. Adesh struck the firing lever, Nnenia hit the instruments, Eshe one of the side walls. Rahani fall forward between all of them.

“Well, shit. We’ve got a stopped tank ahead.” Kufu shouted from below.

“Mechanical failure, maybe?” Rahani picked himself up, and went to his radio.

Before he could confirm the situation, everyone heard the booming report of a rifle.

Then there was a scream coming from the platoon ahead of them.

“Contact, contact! On the building along the two-way ahead!”

Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe leaped to their feet and tried to get a look over the front superstructure, holding the gun, but Rahani grabbed hold of their uniforms and pulled them roughly down into the fighting compartment once more. He gestured for them to keep their heads down. “Use the instruments! You could’ve been killed just now!”

Pointing to the telescopic sight, Rahani nodded for Adesh to go look.

Ducked low, Adesh made it to the sight and put his eyes to it.

In front of him, one of the Chimera in the lead was leaking fuel, a hole the circumference of one’s thumb having been put into its side plain for all to see. Men and women of its crew scrambled to get out of the vehicle, covered by the commander of the tank, who fired on the intersection ahead with the crew’s self-defense submachine gun. The Commander stood from the fighting compartment, and still shooting, slowly made it onto the caterpillar and off the tank. A second Chimera started bravely shoving up against the dangerous carcass that had been abandoned, pushing it off the road. More gunfire rang out, striking holes in the pavement. Its source was a heavy rifle, an anti-tank type.

Judging by the rate of fire, and the time between shots and between shots at different targets especially, Adesh thought it had to be work of a single AT sniper in hiding.

He could not spot a muzzle flash anywhere, but the shooter had to be dead ahead.

“Corporal, we’re under fire from the intersection. One Chimera is leaking fuel and was abandoned.” Adesh said, his voice switching to the cold, official-sounding one of a gunner handing a report. “Requesting a direct fire mission. Ten shells should do it.”

“I’m making it platoon-wide.” Rahani said, and he radioed their other two vehicles.

Adesh looked to Nnenia, who in turn started to crack open one of their ammunition crates.

Eshe blinked, and raised a hand to his head.

“The barrel lock’s on. We’ve got the gun fixed to the front right now.” He said.

Nnenia and Adesh stared at him suddenly.

“It’s still in travel position?” Adesh cried out.

“We were traveling.” Nnenia said.

“I should have had that thing unlocked. Shit.” Eshe replied.

He looked at the wall of the fighting compartment, face turning pale.

“Eshe, no.” Adesh said.

Preemptively, Eshe shoved Nnenia and Adesh back to keep them from grabbing him.

While they were striking the gun and the wall, he leaped clean over the side.

“Shit!” Nnenia shouted.

Rahani looked at the whirlwind of activity suddenly at his side in disbelief.

“What is–”

Adesh reached around the instrument panel and pulled the self-defense weapon from free from a hidden compartment. Loading a drum onto it, he handed it to Nnenia, who rose up from the side of the fighting compartment and opened with wild automatic fire down the street. Adesh drew a pistol and joined her, suddenly rising from the Chimera’s fighting compartment, the green metal walls giving way to a view of the tight street, flanked by dilapidated buildings, and the scrambling gun crews, and the leaking tank, pushed aside.

Over a hundred and fifty meters down the street was the intersection, a two-way T-shape road, up the stem of which they currently traveled. Along the upper bend was a block of partially collapsed houses, their ground floor and second story windows still together enough to offer cover for a sniper. Adesh aimed at a window, and Nnenia aimed at several. They shot wildly over the heads of their comrades ahead of them, firing into the shadows.

In front of them, Eshe scrambled over the glacis of the Chimera, and started to unscrew the locking lever, a metal rod with a loop that affixed the gun to the tank’s front during travel to prevent its misuse and help mitigate wear and tear on the gun mantlet.

“Hurry up Eshe!” Adesh shouted.

His pistol clicked dry, and Adesh reached for a new magazine.

Suddenly he saw a muzzle flash, bright and violent, coming from down the way.

Eshe recoiled in pain as a heavy bullet severed the barrel lock. Shards of metal resulting from this collision struck him in the arm, and he began to bleed through his uniform. Adesh cried out, pushed Nnenia toward the location of the muzzle flash and held out his hand over the gun. Nnenia held down the trigger and opened fire with greater zeal.

Gasping for breath, Eshe shambled over the gun and back into the firing compartment.

“It’s free! Start shooting!” He cried out in pain.

Rahani could spare no time to chastise them. He withdrew the first aid kit and dropped to his knees beside Eshe, bandaging his bloody arm and pulling off visible shards of metal.

Nnenia and Adesh rushed to load and elevate the gun.

Once the first shell was in, no time was wasted.

In a rage, Adesh smashed the firing lever as he never had before.

“Firing High-Explosive-Incendiary!” He called out.

Through the sighting scope, Adesh watched the shell sail into the house and explode into a fireball that set the building alight like a tinderbox. He paid little heed to the effect, he was already loading the next incendiary before the fire had much time to spread. Nnenia loaded the second shell, and almost as quickly as it locked inside, Adesh released it.

Seemingly following his lead, and with no countermanding orders, the two other Chimeras in their unit opened fire the same as Adesh had, sending three shells each flying down the road and striking nearby buildings with incendiary rounds, lighting the block across the intersection on slowly spreading fire. Walls and windows burnt up, and collapsed. Roofs tumbled into the bonfires cooking in their ground floors and refreshed the blaze.

Great dancing flames consumed the street. Foul black smoke blew in a great billowing cloud across the intersection, obscuring the flames and the ruins and the way forward.

There was no more enemy gunfire heard or felt. Aside from the sounds of the rushing flames and the slow collapse of the buildings in those flames, the road was starkly quiet.

On the floor of the Chimera, Rahani looked up from the quivering, wounded Eshe.

“Adesh, I did not authorize incendiary fire!” He said.

Adesh snapped.

“We can’t afford not to use it!” He shouted back suddenly. “We don’t know exactly how many or where they’re hiding! High explosive won’t cut it in this situation!”

Nnenia raised her head from the ammunition crates, stunned.

Eshe, wincing with pain, cowered away from the sight.

Rahani frowned and bowed his head slightly.

Adesh realized he had crossed a line.

He felt his heart tremble. His lips quivered.

“I’m sorry.” He said.

That anger of his had risen again. And it was not fielded on his enemies this time.

Rahani looked utterly disappointed.

Outside the Chimeras, someone could be heard asking ‘who the hell shot that HE-I?'”

Rahani sighed deeply, and stood up from inside the Chimera.

He looked down at Adesh, who was still crouched near the gun.

“Adesh I understand that you’re upset. But you cannot protect Eshe and Nnenia like this. Doing these impulsive things only endangers us. Please. I want to believe in you.”

He then looked over the side of the Chimera and waved.

“Sir, forgive me! I panicked when one of my crew was wounded.”

Adesh gasped. He wanted to say something, but Nnenia put a hand over his mouth.

“No. You’ll make it worse.” She said.

Rahani smiled and waved and played it off casual while speaking to someone Adesh couldn’t see, outside the Chimera. Adesh could hear his voice, however, when he shouted.

“Rahani? You? Jeez, man, keep it together will you? What the hell happened? Now we’ll have to divert through an alleyway. It’ll take us even longer to make it to University now, if we can get there at all. One more like this and I’m going to have to report it.”

“I’m sorry! It won’t happen again.” Rahani said, playing off his cutesy charm.

He nodded his head, waved again, and then sat back down near the radio, sighing.

He looked at Adesh with that familiar charm of his.

“Next time, you’ll be explaining that yourself.” He said, a little coldly.

Adesh nodded, feeling deeply ashamed of what had transpired, but also, helpless.

He laid down on the floor of the Chimera. Rahani leaped out of the vehicle and joined the other commanders in deciding which way to move now. Linking up with the 1st motor rifle battalion was essential to Colonel Nakar’s new plans. Now because of one impulsive gun crew that whole plan was being thrown for loop. In an army that valued the following of plans as closely as possible to achieve success, it was a wonder Rahani wasn’t punished.

Perhaps everyone understood it couldn’t have been Rahani. Perhaps everyone knew.

It was a stupid little gunner like Adesh, who let the blood run away with him.

“I’m sorry Adesh. It’s my fault.” Eshe replied, breathing heavily.

“No, it wasn’t.” Nnenia said.

Somehow, Nnenia always found it in her to disagree with Eshe.

Adesh sank his head against his knees. “She’s right.” He said.

Both of his friends quieted.

As the Chimeras got moving again, Adesh saw the numbers dancing around in front his eyes, and he closed them, and the doubt in his head grew greater and heavier than ever.


City of Rangda — Shapur Way

“TANK! IT’S A TANK!”

“How? How the hell did it come out of the sky?”

“Where’s the arty detachment? Can we call them up?”

“They’re diverting course right now! We can’t count on them now!”

All around Gulab there was confusion and panic as the tank emerged from the glider.

Soon as the unpowered aircraft had landed, the nose of its massive fuselage suddenly split open sideways, revealing that it had all along been a swing door into a very large interior compartment. From within this compartment came neither enemy crew nor infantry.

Slowly, an enemy tank began to make its way out of the aircraft. Four massive wheels surrounded by caterpillar track bore a boxy hull with a slightly sloped glacis leading to a flat front plate with a hatch. Its riveted turret had slanted sides, and bore a long, thin main gun affixed to a thick mantlet and paired with what seemed like a small machine gun.

Perhaps it was a light tank, but any tank was a problem for a small gaggle of infantry.

At once, Jandi raised her BKV rifle and put rounds downrange, and several riflemen loaded armor piercing shot into their standard rifles and joined her, but there was no visible effect on the enemy tank, which was beyond any rifle’s effective distance against armor. Tracers flew by the dozens against the tank’s glacis and gun mantlet and bounced harmlessly or dissipated into the armor. From several hundred meters away but quickly closing, the tank trundled indomitably over the rubble, undeterred by the small arms.

As it entered the intersection, however, it paused as if to ponder.

The next instant its gun lit up, and a torso-sized chunk of the street went up in the air.

There was no use to standing out in the open against this beast.

“Get to cover! Move over those walls and into the lawns and gardens!” Chadgura ordered.

Alpha, Beta and Delta seemed to spread every which way without organization.

Gulab shook her head free of its shock and ran back behind the truck.

There, she found the Delta medic and Siba trying to move the injured, delirious Kalim; Gulab grabbed hold of the injured girl, and along with her crewmate and the medic, rushed her into the street, and over a wall that had been blasted open five times by the 37mm, and that had ultimately collapsed onto itself. They crossed the lawn and dashed under the leaning, damaged threshold of the house, hiding Kalim in the ruin. Gulab ran back out.

As she stepped onto the lawn again, Gulab felt a spray of flying glass cut her cheek.

Ahead of her, an armor-piercing round smashed the front of the truck and punched through the back in a single swift, brutal movement. Such was the force of the attack that it caused all of the truck’s bulletproof glass to splinter suddenly and go flying. Gulab raised her arms seconds too late, and withstood the makeshift fragmentation attack with a few cuts, and peered over her own arms at the wreck. Hanging by a single bolt, the door to the truck slipped open, and the disoriented driver fell out onto the street, bloody in the head.

Chadgura and Dabo grabbed hold of her and pulled her over the wall and into the lawn.

“It’s closing in! A hundred meters–” Chadgura began to shout–

Then the opposing garden wall buckled instantly under pressure from a shell. Chunks of brick went flying, striking men and women nearby with a force more vicious than a thrown stone, and a hunk of deformed metal embedded itself at Chadgura’s feet. She did not spring away from it; she would not have had the time. And she did not have the reflex.

Instead she looked down, appraising the shell.

She let go of the driver, and clapped her hands together.

Jandi ran in from the street, her BKV shouldered, and grabbed hold of the driver.

Chadgura simply stared out into the street, clapping.

While Dabo and Jandi pulled the barely conscious driver closer to the wall, and out of sight of the street, and the tank, Gulab rushed down from the steps to the ruined house, and she grabbed hold of Chadgura and brought her closer to the wall as well. She pulled Chadgura to the ground, and she did so with great timing — in the next instant a solid shell punched through the wall and zipped over their shoulders, and over the heads of several soldiers.

At their backs, the walls concealing them were slowly collapsing under the tank’s attacks.

“We don’t have a lot of brick left!” Gulab shouted.

She looked over her shoulder at the assembled forces for some kind of initiative.

She found none.

Everyone was busy tending to wounded comrades or to themselves or hiding.

“Anybody?”

At her side, Chadgura tugged on her arm.

Gulab turned back to her, on the floor, and stared.

“I’m better now.” Chadgura said plainly.

“You weren’t before?” Gulab said, surprised.

“I was not.”

Gulab patted her on the head.

“Well, I’m glad one of us is doing well.”

Chadgura stared up at Gulab for a moment.

She leaned up, and quickly, like a lunging viper, gave Gulab a peck on the cheek.

“Huh?”

Gulab looked down at her, both of them on the ground with their backs to the troops.

“I wanted it to be romantic, because we’re in a stressful situation, but I was nervous and I missed, so, it was merely friendly.” Chadgura said, in an uncharacteristically quick voice.

Gulab found it a little hard to process. Her cheek felt incredibly hot.

“Excuse me?” She replied.

Directly over their heads the brickwork exploded into the lawn.

Finger-sized chunks of pulverized brick spilled over them, and they covered their heads.

On the other end of the lawn, a solid steel penetrator tumbled down a mound of debris.

It struck the pile of collapsed masonry with such force it raised a thick dust cloud.

Gulab, rubbing her cheek, stared at Chadgura, and then back at the dusty pile of debris.

“Smoke. We can use the signal smoke!”

She laid hands on Chadgura’s belt, pulling free one of the colored smoke signal grenades.

“Wait, Gulab!”

Moving faster than she was thinking, Gulab took off from the ground, pulled Jandi’s BKV free of its owner in a very unkind fashion that left her comrade on the floor, and ran right out of the lawn within which they had all been hiding, making for the back of the truck. She crouched behind it, grenade in one hand, and the heavy, unwieldy BKV held by its midsection in the other. Ahead of her, the tank was maybe a hundred meters out.

She took a deep breath and readied to run, when she felt someone bump into her.

At her back, Chadgura appeared with an oddly meek expression on her face — that is to say, meek, relatively speaking, and expression, also applied very liberally. Chadgura generally lacked in both departments, but Gulab thought she could read her face as clearly as the primary school textbooks her grandfather mentored her in. She was unarmed, save for a signal smoke grenade, and she had a hand on Gulab’s back, as if stacked in support.

“I’ll throw first.” She said. “We can move on my mark, unless–”

“You’re the boss! We move on your mark.” Gulab replied, trying to dispel the tension.

She smiled, and Chadgura nodded her head.

Glancing behind herself, Chadgura signaled a group of people assembled at the fence gate.

From around those columns, several riflemen opened fire on the tank.

In response, the tank opened fire.

One armor-piercing shot slashed the column down its midsection and caused it to topple over instantly. There were screams and groans of surprise, and the riflemen retreated.

“Now!”

Chadgura patted Gulab on the back and stepped around her and out of cover.

She pulled the pin and threw her instantly-smoking can grenade into the air.

Purple-blue smoke trailed the grenade as it sailed over the empty road and landed between the truck and the tank. Within seconds, a cloud began to form and rise that was growing to obscure the road almost completely. From inside the cloud, there was an audible and incessant trundling, and then, from closer still than before, a flash.

An armor-piercing shell smashed through the front of the truck and out the back.

It struck the 37mm gun’s mount and toppled over the weapon.

But Gulab was already running and would not become so easy a target.

She charged past Chadgura, patted her in the back, and threw her grenade.

Landing behind the purple-blue smokescreen, the grenade started spreading green gas.

Gulab shifted the BKV’s weight, got a proper handle on it, and ran into the cloud.

Her eyes teared up and she thought she felt her lungs shrivel.

Inside the cloud the signal smoke was an overwhelming, disgustingly false scent, like synthetic paint or diesel fuel, that seemed to force its way into her lungs. Holding her breath, struggling to see through tears and a cold burning sensation and the thick darkness of the smoke, Gulab ran along the side of the street, disoriented.

Again she saw a gun flash.

This time it was close, and it was not ahead of her. It flashed at an angle from her.

She heard the trundling, closer than ever. She felt the ground shaking.

Gulab raised her BKV, and from a tenuous standing position, opened fire.

Holding down the trigger she released five Armor-Piercing Incendiary rounds into the air.

In front of her there was a new flash, smaller than before.

It was a spark, lighting up.

Several more sparks followed.

Abruptly the trundling tracks stopped making noise.

Within ten meters, she saw a bright fire start to dance as if in mid-air.

It cast a shadow inside the smoke, a shadow of a tank with its engine ablaze.

Feeling her breath leaving her, and her head spinning, Gulab retreated.

She dropped her BKV, turned, and ran back out of the cloud of signal smoke.

Overhead, the embattled sky soon cast its light on her anew, and once out of the cloud, Gulab made a sound like an animal as she struggled to cough up gas and breathe in rejuvenating air. She leaned forward, supporting her upper body with hands on knees, and gasping and heaving for air. Tears streamed down her cheek, her eyes burning.

Through eyelids rapidly spreading and shutting, she detected a shadow over her.

Chadgura approached, and crouched down to her own knees, staring at her blankly.

She looked like she wanted to say something, but no words escaped her lips.

She merely sat there and blinked, her brown skin and pale hair darkened with soot and debris, her face glistening with sweat, smelling like the inside of an ammo crate.

Gulab looked up at her, struggling to hold in a breath.

Without warning she seized Chadgura by the collar of her shirt and pulled her closer.

Her smoke-stained lips took Chadgura’s own and took in the taste of sweat and dust.

She could have held her there forever, devoured her; a violent cough forced them apart.

Gulab gasped for air, and held on to her own throat for a brief moment.

Chadgura hovered in front of her, their lips a finger’s width apart.

“That’s how you do it!” Gulab struggled to say between breaths. “Kiss like a hero!”

Chadgura blinked, her mouth hanging slightly open.

Her lips finally articulated something resembling a word.

She would not get to say it, not yet.

In the distance, the braided-haired mountain girl and her emotionless lover both heard the sounds of crashing, of sliding and skidding, of landing gear and propellers and wood snapping and hydraulics cranking. They saw them, in the sky, briefly but with an ominous presence. Gliders were falling, parachutes spreading, and the sky slowly clearing.

“More of them?” Gulab cried out.

Chadgura was still silent. She merely nodded her head.

“Shit. I wanted to kiss more.”

Gulab nervously played with her long honey-brown braid and laughed out loud, a little bitterly, the gross but delectable taste of Chadgura’s mouth still on the tip of her tongue.

At the time she did not know, could not have known, that while they silently consummated their long-held, barely-hidden feelings, the first major battle between elves and ayvartans in over a hundred years was about to be joined in earnest.

Rangda was about to see its first tank war, and it would somehow come from the sky.


City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks, Regimental HQ

At first there had been a sense of despair surrounding the capture of Shayma El-Amin by the scarcely-known elven enemies dropping from the sky. The 3rd Battalion was their most powerful combat unit, comprising almost two thirds of their armor strength and heavy combat power. But within moments after receiving and spreading the news, Madiha Nakar dispelled the encroaching fear with a resounding proclamation of her own.

“I will lead the rescue operation. Prepare the Rakshasa for me.”

There was a sense of stunned admiration that followed the Colonel’s orders as they traveled quickly down the chain of command. After all, she had issued them from a wheelchair, while still receiving periodic medical attention to recover from the torture she suffered at the hands of the vile leaders of the traitor city. Soon everyone would realize that Madiha was deadly serious. She stood from her wheelchair and walked, painstakingly, without even her cane, rebuffing the support offered by her secretary, Parinita Maharani.

“Madiha, please, you’ll make it–”

Madiha raised a finger to her own lips, and then to Parinita’s.

Parinita sighed and huffed. “You’re so stubborn!”

But she knew Madiha well enough it seemed, to know to drop the subject.

Walking was difficult, and painful. But the gunshots were healing fast, thanks to Madiha’s innate blessings, and the frayed feeling in her nerves from the drugs was also dissipating.

Every exertion hurt, but the adrenaline rush and tension of the coming fight kept her up.

Making their way down to the depots, everyone assembled in the tanker’s staging area as the engineers brought out the large and impressive Rakshasa Command Tank, newly-painted in the standard green, with a unit number, 34, in white sprayed paint on its side. While they worked on it, the commander and her staff were ushered inside a cleaned-up depot nearby for supplies. There were guns, clothes, and rations for all tankers.

Tanker suits were quickly issued. It was the first time Madiha had seen one up close.

In the privacy of a makeshift changing room, she shed her uniform, and donned the suit.

It was nearly skin-tight on Madiha’s slender, muscular form, and a touch awkward. There were pads on the chest, waist and joints that helped smooth out her form a little, but she still felt a little exposed. Over the suit, she wore a sleeveless jacket with all of her insignia, which did a little to make her feel decent. She straightened out her shoulder-length, slightly messy black hair and donned a radio headset over it, completing the tanker attire.

Stepping outside the changing room, she found Parinita waiting for her dressed in a similar garb. But her secretary’s slightly plumper and curvier form seemed starkly better suited to the design. Her wavy, strawberry hair was tied in a ponytail. She smiled and waved coquettishly upon sighting Madiha, very visibly examining her from head to toe.

“You look so dashing in that! I rescind my protests — you should command more often!”

Madiha shook her head and sighed. “Who designed this? I don’t understand it.”

Parinita twiddled her index fingers and turned beet red.

“Well–”

“Parinita–”

“Kimani asked me to come up with a spec for a separate tanker uniform that wouldn’t get caught on the instruments and I drew her a spec! It was just a neat little spec, you know! I’d read all about this new plastic technology that the M.A.W group developed and–”

Madiha averted her eyes, turning red in the face herself.

“You two look quite fetching in those!”

Minardo flounced into the room, conspicuously dressed in a very ordinary uniform.

“You’re not coming with us?” Madiha asked.

“Of course not.” Minardo pointed subtly at her own belly.

“Oh. Do you not fit in the tank?” Madiha asked.

Parinita elbowed Madiha in her visibly lean stomach.

Minardo stared at the two of them critically.

“Honestly do the two of you still don’t understand? Spirits defend. I guess it is true that mothers really are alone in the world. If you weren’t so charming otherwise, I’d hate you.”

Madiha and Parinita shrank away from her.

She shrugged, and picked up a headset from the table and donned the piece.

“I’ll provide support from here.” Minardo said.

She sat down behind a mess table upon which a radio unit had been laid.

Plugging herself in, she leaned back on her chair, crossing her arms.

“So, how’s the plan lookin’ at this hour, fearless leader?” Minardo asked.

Madiha did not have to think about her response too much.

“At this point the conditions for a victory, as in retaking the city completely, are slim. We can be sure that this airborne invasion is being supported by a naval thrust — that is the elven art of war. And we cannot hold off such an attack. However, the conditions for an escape are very possible. We just have to link our units back together.” Madiha said.

“An escape, huh? I can’t say I’m opposed. I’m sick to death of this city.” Minardo said.

“It’s so scenic, on the one hand. But then there’s the treason and invasion.” Parinita said.

Madiha chuckled a little. It was a healing bit of laughter. She had desperately needed it.

“Presently I am out of love with Rangda as well. But that’s neither here nor there.”

Madiha wandered over to a table nearby where grenades and pistols and flare guns were laid out for tankers and tank commanders to equip themselves. She examined the items before affixing a few to the pouches and belt over her suit. There were also boxes of dry chickpeas, water canteens, and hardtack, as emergency tanker rations. She took some.

“Parinita, you should take some food as well.”

There was no immediate response. Madiha turned over her shoulder to the mess table.

She found Minardo and Parinita both huddled around the radio all of a sudden.

Parinita waved Madiha closer.

The Colonel ambled over to the table, as ginger on her own wounds as she could be while still hurrying to her secretary’s side. She plugged her headset into the radio.

Broadcasting over every open frequency was a message, from the 8th Division.

“Attention 1st. Regiment of the Kansalite forces! This is the 8th Division’s 2nd Regiment’s Lieutenant Yassir Karak! Rangda’s Council has fallen! We have no reason to oppose you! We offer assistance against the Elven aggressors in return for clemency! Repeat–”

Madiha unplugged her headset from the radio box. Her head filled with possibilities.

Parinita and Minardo looked at her with wide, disbelieving eyes.

At this, Madiha gave an uncharacteristic grin, satisfied with the plan brewing in her mind.

“He sounds like a punctual boy. We shall make use of him.” Madiha said.


 

La Battaglia Di Rangda IV (61.4)


City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks, Regimental HQ

At first there had been a sense of despair surrounding the capture of Shayma El-Amin by the scarcely-known elven enemies dropping from the sky. The 3rd Battalion was their most powerful combat unit, comprising almost two thirds of their armor strength and heavy combat power. But within moments after receiving and spreading the news, Madiha Nakar dispelled the encroaching fear with a resounding proclamation of her own.

“I will lead the rescue operation. Prepare the Rakshasa for me.”

There was a sense of stunned admiration that followed the Colonel’s orders as they traveled quickly down the chain of command. After all, she had issued them from a wheelchair, while still receiving periodic medical attention to recover from the torture she suffered at the hands of the vile leaders of the traitor city. Soon everyone would realize that Madiha was deadly serious. She stood from her wheelchair and walked, painstakingly, without even her cane, rebuffing the support offered by her secretary, Parinita Maharani.

“Madiha, please, you’ll make it–”

Madiha raised a finger to her own lips, and then to Parinita’s.

Parinita sighed and huffed. “You’re so stubborn!”

But she knew Madiha well enough it seemed, to know to drop the subject.

Walking was difficult, and painful. But the gunshots were healing fast, thanks to Madiha’s innate blessings, and the frayed feeling in her nerves from the drugs was also dissipating.

Every exertion hurt, but the adrenaline rush and tension of the coming fight kept her up.

Making their way down to the depots, everyone assembled in the tanker’s staging area as the engineers brought out the large and impressive Rakshasa Command Tank, newly-painted in the standard green, with a unit number, 34, in white sprayed paint on its side. While they worked on it, the commander and her staff were ushered inside a cleaned-up depot nearby for supplies. There were guns, clothes, and rations for all tankers.

Tanker suits were quickly issued. It was the first time Madiha had seen one up close.

In the privacy of a makeshift changing room, she shed her uniform, and donned the suit.

It was nearly skin-tight on Madiha’s slender, muscular form, and a touch awkward. There were pads on the chest, waist and joints that helped smooth out her form a little, but she still felt a little exposed. Over the suit, she wore a sleeveless jacket with all of her insignia, which did a little to make her feel decent. She straightened out her shoulder-length, slightly messy black hair and donned a radio headset over it, completing the tanker attire.

Stepping outside the changing room, she found Parinita waiting for her dressed in a similar garb. But her secretary’s slightly plumper and curvier form seemed starkly better suited to the design. Her wavy, strawberry hair was tied in a ponytail. She smiled and waved coquettishly upon sighting Madiha, very visibly examining her from head to toe.

“You look so dashing in that! I rescind my protests — you should command more often!”

Madiha shook her head and sighed. “Who designed this? I don’t understand it.”

Parinita twiddled her index fingers and turned beet red.

“Well–”

“Parinita–”

“Kimani asked me to come up with a spec for a separate tanker uniform that wouldn’t get caught on the instruments and I drew her a spec! It was just a neat little spec, you know! I’d read all about this new plastic technology that the M.A.W group developed and–”

Madiha averted her eyes, turning red in the face herself.

“You two look quite fetching in those!”

Minardo flounced into the room, conspicuously dressed in a very ordinary uniform.

“You’re not coming with us?” Madiha asked.

“Of course not.” Minardo pointed subtly at her own belly.

“Oh. Do you not fit in the tank?” Madiha asked.

Parinita elbowed Madiha in her visibly lean stomach.

Minardo stared at the two of them critically.

“Honestly do the two of you still don’t understand? Spirits defend. I guess it is true that mothers really are alone in the world. If you weren’t so charming otherwise, I’d hate you.”

Madiha and Parinita shrank away from her.

She shrugged, and picked up a headset from the table and donned the piece.

“I’ll provide support from here.” Minardo said.

She sat down behind a mess table upon which a radio unit had been laid.

Plugging herself in, she leaned back on her chair, crossing her arms.

“So, how’s the plan lookin’ at this hour, fearless leader?” Minardo asked.

Madiha did not have to think about her response too much.

“At this point the conditions for a victory, as in retaking the city completely, are slim. We can be sure that this airborne invasion is being supported by a naval thrust — that is the elven art of war. And we cannot hold off such an attack. However, the conditions for an escape are very possible. We just have to link our units back together.” Madiha said.

“An escape, huh? I can’t say I’m opposed. I’m sick to death of this city.” Minardo said.

“It’s so scenic, on the one hand. But then there’s the treason and invasion.” Parinita said.

Madiha chuckled a little. It was a healing bit of laughter. She had desperately needed it.

“Presently I am out of love with Rangda as well. But that’s neither here nor there.”

Madiha wandered over to a table nearby where grenades and pistols and flare guns were laid out for tankers and tank commanders to equip themselves. She examined the items before affixing a few to the pouches and belt over her suit. There were also boxes of dry chickpeas, water canteens, and hardtack, as emergency tanker rations. She took some.

“Parinita, you should take some food as well.”

There was no immediate response. Madiha turned over her shoulder to the mess table.

She found Minardo and Parinita both huddled around the radio all of a sudden.

Parinita waved Madiha closer.

The Colonel ambled over to the table, as ginger on her own wounds as she could be while still hurrying to her secretary’s side. She plugged her headset into the radio.

Broadcasting over every open frequency was a message, from the 8th Division.

“Attention 1st. Regiment of the Kansalite forces! This is the 8th Division’s 2nd Regiment’s Lieutenant Yassir Karak! Rangda’s Council has fallen! We have no reason to oppose you! We offer assistance against the Elven aggressors in return for clemency! Repeat–”

Madiha unplugged her headset from the radio box. Her head filled with possibilities.

Parinita and Minardo looked at her with wide, disbelieving eyes.

At this, Madiha gave an uncharacteristic grin, satisfied with the plan brewing in her mind.

“He sounds like a punctual lad. We shall make use of him.” Madiha said.


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La Battaglia Di Rangda IV (61.3)

This scene contains violence.


City of Rangda — Shapur Way

“TANK! IT’S A TANK!”

“How? How the hell did it come out of the sky?”

“Where’s the arty detachment? Can we call them up?”

“They’re diverting course right now! We can’t count on them now!”

All around Gulab there was confusion and panic as the tank emerged from the glider.

Soon as the unpowered aircraft had landed, the nose of its massive fuselage suddenly split open sideways, revealing that it had all along been a swing door into a very large interior compartment. From within this compartment came neither enemy crew nor infantry.

Slowly, an enemy tank began to make its way out of the aircraft. Four massive wheels surrounded by caterpillar track bore a boxy hull with a slightly sloped glacis leading to a flat front plate with a hatch. Its riveted turret had slanted sides, and bore a long, thin main gun affixed to a thick mantlet and paired with what seemed like a small machine gun.

Perhaps it was a light tank, but any tank was a problem for a small gaggle of infantry.

At once, Jandi raised her BKV rifle and put rounds downrange, and several riflemen loaded armor piercing shot into their standard rifles and joined her, but there was no visible effect on the enemy tank, which was beyond any rifle’s effective distance against armor. Tracers flew by the dozens against the tank’s glacis and gun mantlet and bounced harmlessly or dissipated into the armor. From several hundred meters away but quickly closing, the tank trundled indomitably over the rubble, undeterred by the small arms.

As it entered the intersection, however, it paused as if to ponder.

The next instant its gun lit up, and a torso-sized chunk of the street went up in the air.

There was no use to standing out in the open against this beast.

“Get to cover! Move over those walls and into the lawns and gardens!” Chadgura ordered.

Alpha, Beta and Delta seemed to spread every which way without organization.

Gulab shook her head free of its shock and ran back behind the truck.

There, she found the Delta medic and Siba trying to move the injured, delirious Kalim; Gulab grabbed hold of the injured girl, and along with her crewmate and the medic, rushed her into the street, and over a wall that had been blasted open five times by the 37mm, and that had ultimately collapsed onto itself. They crossed the lawn and dashed under the leaning, damaged threshold of the house, hiding Kalim in the ruin. Gulab ran back out.

As she stepped onto the lawn again, Gulab felt a spray of flying glass cut her cheek.

Ahead of her, an armor-piercing round smashed the front of the truck and punched through the back in a single swift, brutal movement. Such was the force of the attack that it caused all of the truck’s bulletproof glass to splinter suddenly and go flying. Gulab raised her arms seconds too late, and withstood the makeshift fragmentation attack with a few cuts, and peered over her own arms at the wreck. Hanging by a single bolt, the door to the truck slipped open, and the disoriented driver fell out onto the street, bloody in the head.

Chadgura and Dabo grabbed hold of her and pulled her over the wall and into the lawn.

“It’s closing in! A hundred meters–” Chadgura began to shout–

Then the opposing garden wall buckled instantly under pressure from a shell. Chunks of brick went flying, striking men and women nearby with a force more vicious than a thrown stone, and a hunk of deformed metal embedded itself at Chadgura’s feet. She did not spring away from it; she would not have had the time. And she did not have the reflex.

Instead she looked down, appraising the shell.

She let go of the driver, and clapped her hands together.

Jandi ran in from the street, her BKV shouldered, and grabbed hold of the driver.

Chadgura simply stared out into the street, clapping.

While Dabo and Jandi pulled the barely conscious driver closer to the wall, and out of sight of the street, and the tank, Gulab rushed down from the steps to the ruined house, and she grabbed hold of Chadgura and brought her closer to the wall as well. She pulled Chadgura to the ground, and she did so with great timing — in the next instant a solid shell punched through the wall and zipped over their shoulders, and over the heads of several soldiers.

At their backs, the walls concealing them were slowly collapsing under the tank’s attacks.

“We don’t have a lot of brick left!” Gulab shouted.

She looked over her shoulder at the assembled forces for some kind of initiative.

She found none.

Everyone was busy tending to wounded comrades or to themselves or hiding.

“Anybody?”

At her side, Chadgura tugged on her arm.

Gulab turned back to her, on the floor, and stared.

“I’m better now.” Chadgura said plainly.

“You weren’t before?” Gulab said, surprised.

“I was not.”

Gulab patted her on the head.

“Well, I’m glad one of us is doing well.”

Chadgura stared up at Gulab for a moment.

She leaned up, and quickly, like a lunging viper, gave Gulab a peck on the cheek.

“Huh?”

Gulab looked down at her, both of them on the ground with their backs to the troops.

“I wanted it to be romantic, because we’re in a stressful situation, but I was nervous and I missed, so, it was merely friendly.” Chadgura said, in an uncharacteristically quick voice.

Gulab found it a little hard to process. Her cheek felt incredibly hot.

“Excuse me?” She replied.

Directly over their heads the brickwork exploded into the lawn.

Finger-sized chunks of pulverized brick spilled over them, and they covered their heads.

On the other end of the lawn, a solid steel penetrator tumbled down a mound of debris.

It struck the pile of collapsed masonry with such force it raised a thick dust cloud.

Gulab, rubbing her cheek, stared at Chadgura, and then back at the dusty pile of debris.

“Smoke. We can use the signal smoke!”

She laid hands on Chadgura’s belt, pulling free one of the colored smoke signal grenades.

“Wait, Gulab!”

Moving faster than she was thinking, Gulab took off from the ground, pulled Jandi’s BKV free of its owner in a very unkind fashion that left her comrade on the floor, and ran right out of the lawn within which they had all been hiding, making for the back of the truck. She crouched behind it, grenade in one hand, and the heavy, unwieldy BKV held by its midsection in the other. Ahead of her, the tank was maybe a hundred meters out.

She took a deep breath and readied to run, when she felt someone bump into her.

At her back, Chadgura appeared with an oddly meek expression on her face — that is to say, meek, relatively speaking, and expression, also applied very liberally. Chadgura generally lacked in both departments, but Gulab thought she could read her face as clearly as the primary school textbooks her grandfather mentored her in. She was unarmed, save for a signal smoke grenade, and she had a hand on Gulab’s back, as if stacked in support.

“I’ll throw first.” She said. “We can move on my mark, unless–”

“You’re the boss! We move on your mark.” Gulab replied, trying to dispel the tension.

She smiled, and Chadgura nodded her head.

Glancing behind herself, Chadgura signaled a group of people assembled at the fence gate.

From around those columns, several riflemen opened fire on the tank.

In response, the tank opened fire.

One armor-piercing shot slashed the column down its midsection and caused it to topple over instantly. There were screams and groans of surprise, and the riflemen retreated.

“Now!”

Chadgura patted Gulab on the back and stepped around her and out of cover.

She pulled the pin and threw her instantly-smoking can grenade into the air.

Purple-blue smoke trailed the grenade as it sailed over the empty road and landed between the truck and the tank. Within seconds, a cloud began to form and rise that was growing to obscure the road almost completely. From inside the cloud, there was an audible and incessant trundling, and then, from closer still than before, a flash.

An armor-piercing shell smashed through the front of the truck and out the back.

It struck the 37mm gun’s mount and toppled over the weapon.

But Gulab was already running and would not become so easy a target.

She charged past Chadgura, patted her in the back, and threw her grenade.

Landing behind the purple-blue smokescreen, the grenade started spreading green gas.

Gulab shifted the BKV’s weight, got a proper handle on it, and ran into the cloud.

Her eyes teared up and she thought she felt her lungs shrivel.

Inside the cloud the signal smoke was an overwhelming, disgustingly false scent, like synthetic paint or diesel fuel, that seemed to force its way into her lungs. Holding her breath, struggling to see through tears and a cold burning sensation and the thick darkness of the smoke, Gulab ran along the side of the street, disoriented.

Again she saw a gun flash.

This time it was close, and it was not ahead of her. It flashed at an angle from her.

She heard the trundling, closer than ever. She felt the ground shaking.

Gulab raised her BKV, and from a tenuous standing position, opened fire.

Holding down the trigger she released five Armor-Piercing Incendiary rounds into the air.

In front of her there was a new flash, smaller than before.

It was a spark, lighting up.

Several more sparks followed.

Abruptly the trundling tracks stopped making noise.

Within ten meters, she saw a bright fire start to dance as if in mid-air.

It cast a shadow inside the smoke, a shadow of a tank with its engine ablaze.

Feeling her breath leaving her, and her head spinning, Gulab retreated.

She dropped her BKV, turned, and ran back out of the cloud of signal smoke.

Overhead, the embattled sky soon cast its light on her anew, and once out of the cloud, Gulab made a sound like an animal as she struggled to cough up gas and breathe in rejuvenating air. She leaned forward, supporting her upper body with hands on knees, and gasping and heaving for air. Tears streamed down her cheek, her eyes burning.

Through eyelids rapidly spreading and shutting, she detected a shadow over her.

Chadgura approached, and crouched down to her own knees, staring at her blankly.

She looked like she wanted to say something, but no words escaped her lips.

She merely sat there and blinked, her brown skin and pale hair darkened with soot and debris, her face glistening with sweat, smelling like the inside of an ammo crate.

Gulab looked up at her, struggling to hold in a breath.

Without warning she seized Chadgura by the collar of her shirt and pulled her closer.

Her smoke-stained lips took Chadgura’s own and took in the taste of sweat and dust.

She could have held her there forever, devoured her; a violent cough forced them apart.

Gulab gasped for air, and held on to her own throat for a brief moment.

Chadgura hovered in front of her, their lips a finger’s width apart.

“That’s how you do it!” Gulab struggled to say between breaths. “Kiss like a hero!”

Chadgura blinked, her mouth hanging slightly open.

Her lips finally articulated something resembling a word.

She would not get to say it, not yet.

In the distance, the braided-haired mountain girl and her emotionless lover both heard the sounds of crashing, of sliding and skidding, of landing gear and propellers and wood snapping and hydraulics cranking. They saw them, in the sky, briefly but with an ominous presence. Gliders were falling, parachutes spreading, and the sky slowly clearing.

“More of them?” Gulab cried out.

Chadgura was still silent. She merely nodded her head.

“Shit. I wanted to kiss more.”

Gulab nervously played with her long honey-brown braid and laughed out loud, a little bitterly, the gross but delectable taste of Chadgura’s mouth still on the tip of her tongue.

At the time she did not know, could not have known, that while they silently consummated their long-held, barely-hidden feelings, the first major battle between elves and ayvartans in over a hundred years was about to be joined in earnest.

Rangda was about to see its first tank war, and it would somehow come from the sky.


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