Declaration (66.1)

This scene briefly contains sexual content.


42nd of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Nocht — Rhinea

“Ugh.”

She awakened to an atmosphere of heat and sweat, but also cold, clinging to her skin. Once the haze of pleasure had blown out of the room with the central air, it left behind the staid reality that followed a fantasy. She was back in the world, a person once more inhibited, and she could hardly stand the disappointment and tedium she felt then.

It was the least delectable part of the transgression: dealing with the consequences.

“Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

Cecilia Foss mumbled to herself as she stared into the placid face of the very nude woman in front of her, peeling the woman’s legs off her waist while at the same time gently extricating herself from the arms of her sleeping boyfriend, just behind her. It had become almost a talent, a series of acrobatics, to retrieve herself in such situations. Making sure not to awaken anyone, she slowly left her bedmates, gently stirring behind her.

Surveying the scene, there were a lot of cigarettes, a lot of drinks, a lot of discarded rubber. This was a hotel room made for thrashing, thank God; she was certainly not going to pay any fees for it. She recalled all too clearly the reason for all this. She wished she didn’t; in short it was stress, greed, hunger and neediness and loneliness. Perhaps not so short.

It was an important date, too! And she had blown it off to fuck a computer and her boy.

“Ugh. I’m the worst. God damn it. She’s waiting; Agatha’s going to be waiting.”

She found her leggings, her heels, her skirt and blazer, and the rest of it, strewn about the room. Her brassiere was nowhere to be found; Cecilia glanced over the bed with misty eyes, shook her head, and stubbornly dressed without it. God knows she needed it, but life wasn’t always so forgiving. She dressed, patted everything down, took a quick trip to the restroom to wash her face and apply a coat of lipstick– and the moment she turned around again, making to leave the bathroom, there she was at the door. Cecilia sighed.

“It’s so like you to hit me and run like this, Lia. This must be the millionth time.”

Gretchen had on a fake, coquettish pouting face, her short, curly brown locks greatly disturbed, her body wrapped in her partner’s discarded button-down shirt. Dangling from her fingers was Cecilia’s brassiere. Seeing it again, Cecilia kind of wanted it back; it was big, lacy and cute and firm and having walked a few meters without it she dearly missed it.

“I’m losing my touch. I didn’t expect you to be awake.” Cecilia said.

“No, trust me, you’ve still got your touch.” Gretchen said, winking at her.

Cecilia averted her gaze. “Usually I’m enough for the women I’m seeing.”

Gretchen scoffed and rolled her eyes. “So you can fuck everyone, but everyone has to–.”

“Yes, it’s not fair but it’s how things work around here.” Cecilia interrupted with a grin.

She could not help but feel a little bit jealous of the rings on their fingers; just a little.

Not because she wanted the same; she just didn’t want people in her life to leave her out.

Though judging by the current events, she would not have to worry about that too much.

Gretchen flicked the bra at her, and Cecilia caught it.

Casually, she started to undress again so as to put it on.

“Where are you off to now? Three-timing me?”

“You can’t really call it that? At any rate, I’m meeting a friend.”

“Just a friend?”

“She’s a special friend, but yes. She’s married.”

“Wow. Do you realize what you just said?”

“I know.”

She was married in a way nobody else Cecilia slept with was “married.” Even these two.

It was commonly said by the conservatives that Nocht had lost god, had lost marriage, had lost itself in the frenzy of power and industrialism. Its institutions were a shambles as were its ethics. For the state was only war and killing, the sex of machines; for the treasury, there was only plunder and privation, the sex of economy; and for individual people, whatever indulgence was their sex. Cecilia was not the average Nochtish citizen.

She had never had a faith in anything to begin with.

She told herself, she was a simple person. She just wanted to have fun, pure, easy fun, with whatever pleasure she set her sights on. She found things and took them because she wanted them and because she could. Difficult things to get, became games to be won.

But in the end even the difficult things remained simple.

Or so she thought; but the way her stomach churned and her heart trembled when she thought of meeting Agatha Lehner, after all she had done, after all that had been done to her, to both of them. It was not simple at all. It was the most complicated thing for her.

Achim never made her feel that way.

She thought he would; but he never did. He was simple, just like her.

Simple and comforting in his simplicity, which is what she liked about him.

She had known Agatha longer; and she only became more complicated with time.

“I’m still here, you know.”

Cecilia tried to move to the door, lost in thought.

She was nearly face to face with Gretchen.

Gretchen was complicated too, but in a simple way.

“I’m not going to let you dine and dash this time.” Gretchen said.

Cecilia smiled.

She leaned forward, pulled Gretchen in by the tie around her neck, pilfered from her man.

She took her sloppily painted lips into her own luscious red embrace.

“I’ll see you later. Alone.”

She spoke as her tongue parted her lover’s, and she walked off at the same time too.

Gretchen made no argument.


Nocht Federation — Windsbach, Haupt Radar Center

High atop the mountains separating Windsbach from the northernmost Republics, was a snow unlike anyone had ever seen, even in the mountain villages. However, the signals technicians at the Windsbach Haupt Radar Center did not see this snow fall, silver and swirling like ribbons from the clouds. Since the war began they were on long, rotating shifts that did not end until one was sure, with perfect certainty, to be replaced for at least twelve hours with another restless soul awaiting the slaughter come out from the sky.

All of them had been reared as adults on the nihilism of “the bomber will always get through.” And yet, their job was to stand defiant against it. Should the bomber come, they had to know when, from where, and what it sought. They had to deliver the unspoken retribution that nearly always came to the bomber that “got through.” Scrambling fighters, summoning air defense. These were part of their responsibilities. They had to protect the civilians too, by sounding the air raid sirens and alerting the fire brigades.

Like diviners from ancient times, they had only their scrying glasses: the massive FREIJA radar arrays, top of the line technology, hooked up to glowing green displays that pulsed with eldritch life inside the cold steel bunkers. While Ayvarta slowly toyed with short ranged mobile ground radars hiding in puny trucks, Nocht gambled its money on colossal stationary radars with incredible range and power. Untold amounts of energy flowed into the FREIJA arrays, and their signals could cover vast quadrants of Nocht’s sky and coast.

Inside the FREIJA bunkers, the technicians watched the green light pulse, and they waited.

For the long-timers, the magic had worn off. Their own planes showed up on the radar too, though nowadays, practices had evolved such that advanced warning was given to them to prevent panic and disarray. Seeing those blips made the possibility of an enemy blip far less mythical. Those were hunks of metal in the sky too. Newcomers were glued to their cathode-ray tubes, as interested in them as children had become with Television.

On that fateful winter day of the 42nd, radar technician Helmut Weigel sat in front of his CRT and saw nothing. He waited for hours, he ate his lunch at his desk, he read a book, nervously peeking at his station radar between pages to the point it almost became a character in stories. He looked over the energy output, checked the temperature and atmospheric pressure readings, and pored over various other gauges every thirty minutes.

His shift passed; he declared his intention to stand so as not to startle anyone.

From the upper floors where the military officers congregated, a young woman in uniform came down and urged him to stay in his seat. His replacement had an accident.

“You will have to stay here.”She said. “We’ll procure food and a chance of clothes, and I can stay here for fifteen minutes while you wash up. But you must come back to work.”

Helmut did not protest. What had he to go back to? He lived on his own in the village.

“What kind of food can I get?”

That was his only question, to which the young woman did not reply. She urged him out.

Once he was clean and had on a fresh shirt, coat and a change of pants, he sat back down.

Until a replacement could be found, he was on shift. He would keep working.

He stared at his screen, and saw a dozen blips all clustered together.

On his desk, just below all the gauges, he turned a page on his book. He was almost done with it, but he had another in his suitcase. Helmut loved fantasy adventures, with brave heroes and nasty goblins and mysterious dames. He put one back in his suitcase, retrieved another, and spread it open right in front of his monitor. He saw the blaring blips again.

Helmut put down his book, and he stared dumbfounded at the screen.

Coming in from the east were dozens of bombers.

Hundreds of them.

Helmut stared until the green glow burned in his retinas.

He reached for the telephone at his side.

“Hello? My CRT is broken. Can you send someone down here?”

Procedure dictated he describe the problem in detail–

But on the other end, an engineer too cheerful to have work simply said, “Sure!”

And then they hung up on him.

Helmut stared back at the screen. They were not going away.

Those blips were moving.

He ripped a piece of paper from the side of his workstation and found the numbers for his counterparts in various other stations. Every week they performed a comprehensive data corroboration drill, where Helmut and all of his colleagues in Windbach would call their doppelgangers in Junzien or Tauta or Ciel, and compare readings where their signals met.

“Hello, this is Helmut Weigel, station #13 Windbach. My station’s catching a large concentration of enemy aircraft coming in east-southeast at latitude–”

Helmut described everything he needed to and while he did, he heard an eerie echo from every station around him. People rattling off coordinates and latitudes on the phone, the sharp twisting of the rotary dials, the incredulous chatter between every stations.

“I’m afraid I don’t see anything on my end Helmut. I think you’ve got an ACS fault.”

Automatic control system, the mechanical network that kept the gauges running and regulated the current between stations and dishes, and so on. To so casually say that the entire FREIJA system in Windbach was broken to so fundamental a point put Helmut greatly at ease. Around the room, there was a great heaving sigh of relief as more information came in. No other overlapping stations saw the cluster. It was just ACS.

“Radar techs can go home! We’ll request patrol flights to cover the gap.”

That same girl from earlier, who told Helmut to stay, was now ordering everyone to go.

People grabbed their coats, lined up at the door, and made their way out.

Until the stations were fixed there was no use keeping extraneous staff around.

Outside though, the radar technicians paused all at once, considering the landscape.

Blowing in the wind, all around them, was a snow of silver ribbons mixed in with white.

Helmut held out his hand, and he caught strands, like Hollyday tinsel.

He wanted to report it, right away. But at the door to the bunker, he met with disdain.

“Just go and don’t cause any trouble.”

Helmut was speechless.

Aluminum. He wanted to say that word.

It had a radar signature. They had to know, right?

Why was aluminum falling from the sky?


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Dominoes (64.1)

This scene contains violence.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Council

Palladin Arsenica Livia Varus felt her brain trembling as she tried to process the sudden, deadly turn in her fortunes. She had hastily recalled all of her radio personnel back to her communications room upon discovering Von Drachen’s escape, and there she stood, pacing, rubbing her temples, eyes wide open, jaw hanging open enough to gasp.

“Order all units to fall back to Council and Ocean Road! Shut them down immediately!”

This nonspecific order belied her helplessness. On all sides the Ayvartan attack was slicing through her units. She was being pushed back from Rangda University, from the old 8th Division base, from Ocean Road itself. Madiha Nakar had come suddenly alive again and was sweeping her aside wherever she moved. Arsenica tried to raise her voice but her voice was not a gun, and all around the Lady Paladin, her guns were being silenced, one by one, shot by shot. Radio contact was sketchy at best, and she was short on field leadership.

It was almost enough to make her regret having sacrificed the Paladin combat team once led by her rival for the throne, Gwendolyn Vittoria. Almost, but not quite. She had her pride and still, and this pride was the rod set against her spine and keeping her upright. Throughout the battle, she waited, and she paced, and she hovered like a grim reaper over her radio personnel, over her tactical advisors, over the maps on the battlefield table.

“I want the Cheshires to dig in right on Ocean Road, do not allow anything through! I want barricades erected with whatever can be spared, and I want every gun we’ve got peering over or around cover and shooting until we’re out of ammunition! Use captured Ayvartan weapons, use anything! Throw rocks if you have to! We cannot let them through!”

Paladin Arsenica shouted as if it was a lack of effort and motivation that rendered a rock unable to pierce a tank. Her radio personnel relayed her orders with trembling voices and shaking hands, and they sat at the edge of their seats as if standing on tip-toe, nervously awaiting futile replies. There was nothing for them to hear back save incredulity and desperation, none of which was communicated back to the Paladin. But she was not as foolish as everyone around her assumed, not completely. She knew what was happening.

She was content, however, to remain uninformed. Ignorance allowed for some hope.

Then came the dreadful final blow in the place least expected. Northern Rangda, so stable, quiet, the bulwark sector that had been clinched by the elves at the start of the battle, began to call Arsenica’s headquarters. They called for help. Arsenica’s operators could hardly pass on the depth of the fear in their contact’s voices, and so Arsenica was coaxed into speaking and listening personally. She discovered then that horrific, final truth.

Amid sounds of heated gunfire, a woman’s voice pleaded, “Lady Paladin, we need support right away, the 8th Division is attacking every defensive line, and they’ve broken through to the east and south, heading into Ocean Road! We can’t contain them like this!”

Arsenica said nothing, and put the handset back onto the radio, and turned away.

The 8th Division, which had been several times humiliated, demoralized, broken, disarmed. Pushed into hiding in the darkest, deepest recesses of the city, cut off from supply and command, their communications compromised. Madiha Nakar had damaged them and the elven landings had broken them. So then, why? How? She thought she was hearing all their radio chatter: were they sending fake broadcasts and communicating personally among themselves? She could have sworn they were defeated, and yet here they were, using the last of their blood, bayonets and paltry ammunition to assault her.

And they were winning.

And they had won.

When this sudden surge of manpower met the lines of the Ayvartan motorized infantry under Nakar, they would become as floodwater uncontained. Surely that was their goal; any fool could see that Madiha Nakar had struck some kind of bargain with her former enemies against the threat of the elves, and this was the result. Arsenica had nothing that could stop such a press of bodies. She was barely hanging on as it was because Madiha Nakar had to stretch herself thin to cover the entirety of Arsenica’s line, as she desired to.

Had Von Drachen realized what was happening? She had taken an interest in him, but like all the toys of her girlhood, she had ignored him and was all but ready to discard him.

She could not indulge this fantasy for too long; gunfire erupted outside.

There was an explosion, one not distant enough, that alarmed the whole building.

The Paladin stared out the door, speechless.

Everyone in the room was looking at her.

Arsenica had a haunted appearance. Her skin had turned ghost-pale, her eyes shadowed.

She turned to the radio operators, then cast a sweeping glare at the knights out in the hall.

“What are you all waiting for? An order to retreat? You will receive none! You will remain here or lose your honor as cowards! Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am?”

She drew her sword, and advanced out into the hall, red in the face.

There was a yelp of fear and a most surprising result.

As Arsenica raised her hand to strike down the first subordinate who looked to eager to run, she was struck in the face by an iron-gloved fist. She felt the cold of the gauntlet and the heat of rushing blood as the fist swiped across her face. Arsenica dropped to the ground, bloody, her nose broken, in excruciating pain. She looked through her hands, pressing on her own face and mouth as if trying to keep the blood in, and saw the face of a stoic, black-haired elven woman, who gave her a filthy look as she lay on the carpet.

“Gisella?” Arsenica cried, in disbelief and despondence.

Gisella turned her back and left the hall at a brisk pace.

From around the departing knight, some lesser subordinates became emboldened.

Three younger girls approached Arsenica, and with vengeance in their eyes, lifted their metal boots and kicked. They struck her breasts, her belly, her limbs. Arsenica cried out and pleaded, but they neither intended to sustain their assault nor stay it completely. Each girl delivered several quick, hit and run kicks, before running away, peeling back one by one as each had their seconds fill of thrashing their superior. Shaking, bleeding, hardly able to move, Arsenica curled up on the ground, and cried, her vision blurring with pain.

Passing beside her, the radio personnel then fled, thankfully without violence.

Within minutes, the hallway and the room and maybe the council building, were empty.

Empty, save for a blonde, classically-elven girl, shaking in her ill-fitting breastplate.

She looked barely an adult and her eyes were filled with tears.

When everyone had left, she approached Arsenica.

The Paladin covered her body with her arms as best as she could, and curled up.

She was expecting to be struck, but instead, the girl touched her gently.

“Lady Paladin, I’m sorry, please, lets get you back up.”

Arsenica groaned, every inch of her body screaming with pain as the girl helped her to stand on one foot, and supported the woman over her shoulder. Huffing and puffing with the effort, the girl struggled to get Arsenica back into the communications room, where she laid her on the couch, and wiped the blood from her face, and brought her wine.

“It’s my ration ma’am. You can have it.”

She poured the drink between Arsenica’s broken, bloody lips.

It was hot. That wine had been in a tin pressed against this girl’s body for days.

And yet, that strange act of kindness gave the drink a strange potency.

Arsenica did not feel better. She could not. But she felt an odd inkling of relief.

Watching her drink, the girl started wiping her own tears, and looking down at her.

“I’m so sorry ma’am. I couldn’t– I wouldn’t have been able to fight them all. I was scared if I pulled my gun they would all start shooting and everyone would die. I’m so sorry.”

She locked eyes with her battered superior, pulling back the tin once it was empty.

“You– you don’t deserve it ma’am. I admired you for a very long time ma’am. Those girls have no upbringing! How dare they do this. I wish I could’ve stopped it. I’m so sorry about everything. All of us, if we’d tried harder, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I’m sorry.”

That girl apologized more and more and the reasons why made less and less sense.

Arsenica wanted to ask her for her name, but she couldn’t find the strength to talk.

Instead, she curled up tighter, and wept, traumatized and uncomprehending.


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A Beacon On The Horizon – Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of mild violence and implied death.


24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Shaila Dominance – Tukino, Southeast Shaila

Columns of smoke rose from once clear and quiet fields of Tukino.

Across the open and flat grasslands columns of tanks traded shells, soldiers exchanged deadly fire out in the open, and in the broad daylight the battle took on a surreal character.

Burnt-out steel husks littered fields of poppies, hemp and sunflowers.

Winds grew silent; the bellowing of cannons grew to become the dominant sound, followed by the ominous whining of Nocht dive-bombers that painted the sky with their contrails. Reality seemed to falter against the advancing war – color seemed to warp and the landscape grew alien as each shell-fall kicked gray dust where there were once beautiful flowers; as each field became littered with dead bodies and broken machines; as the oil leaking from husks turned the earth black but the knees of thrashing soldiers, struggling to escape, were still hidden amidst bright greens and yellows of the surviving foliage.

Tukino was long over strategically, but remained a decidedly uneven tactical match.

Outside the village, now little more than a collection of blown-out building foundations, a line of Nochtish M4 “Sentinel” tanks stood in an unmoving spearhead.

They watched the nearby woods, spotting Ayvartan Goblin tanks charging at full speed, throwing themselves toward out of cover and toward the village. The M4 was a medium tank, larger than the Goblin, with a slightly sloped front, smooth curves along the hull and a turret like an upside-down platter hosting a short but powerful 50mm gun.

Approaching them, the Ayvartan Goblin tanks looked pitiably small, like green crates on treads making a strange effort to move, with turrets like oil drums and thin cannons that were no visual match for the enemy. Whether they approached to do battle or escape, the Nochtish tankers did not know. Having observed them before, they knew that Goblins had only one way to penetrate M4 armor with their 45mm guns – luck and proximity.

And they were just as lucky and came just as close to the enemy while charging at full speed as they did while trying to run past the line and escape their encirclement.

A massive barrage ensued, the dozen Goblins scarcely stopping to fire and unleashing all they had upon the M4s. Shells hurtled from across the field, crashing around the M4 tanks, soaring over them into the empty village, smashing into their armored fronts.

Armor-piercing ammunition bounced harmlessly off the M4’s glacis; High-Explosive shells erupting around them rattled the machines and their crews but dealt no grievous damage. Dozens of shells challenged the Nochtish battle line but the M4s did not budge.

The Goblins’ ceaseless, desperate rolling attack was soon returned.

M4 turrets turned with the constantly moving Goblin tanks, aiming ahead before unleashing their salvo. Their 50mm AP shells crashed through the Goblins’ thin armor and instantly destroyed the little tanks, setting engines and ammunition ablaze, instantly demolishing hulls. High-Explosive shells were equally effective, sundering tracks and ripping apart turrets even on otherwise glancing blows. Under accurate fire a dozen tanks were cut down to six in an instant, and only a few meters ahead they became three.

No Ayvartan tank reached the Nocht line –the closest died still fifty meters away.

Gute Arbeit, Kampfgruppe!” A hard voice cheered from Nochtish radios.

Across the village, atop a small hill that still managed to command a view of the flat land around, Brigadier-General Dreschner watched the skirmish from the magnifying scope mounted atop his command tank. Though in the body of an M4, the gun “turret” on its large, boxy superstructure was a fake that could not shoot. The M4 Befehlspanzer was instead a rolling radio that allowed Dreschner to watch, command, and to share in the jubilation of those who fought. Having congratulated his men, Dreschner sank back down the cupola of his false tank and slipped into the commander’s seat.

For a tank the interior was roomy. His dummy turret had merely a tube affixed to the exterior, so there was no gunner, no cannonry mechanisms, and no ammunition stock crowding it. There was only Dreschner, his silent driver, and his radio operator and her valuable equipment, the medium for Dreschner’s orders, the voice carrying his will.

“Schicksal, disseminate orders. Four companies will stay to aid the grenadiers in reducing the pocket, but I want every remaining Panzer in Knyskna in two days.”

Karla Schicksal stiffly saluted the Brigadier-General and turned anxiously back to her radio, slipping her headset over her messy brown hair. Along the left portion of the crew compartment the tank boasted a powerful radio system, and signals officer Schicksal quite deftly operated its various components, manipulating signal strength and frequency.

She picked up a small speaker and began to recite the message over various frequencies over the next several minutes. Her mousy and delicate voice, clearly pronouncing every word so nothing could be misheard over the waves, was lost to Dreschner under the protestations of the engine and the noise-dampening effect of his headset, unless he strained to hear it. He had bigger things to consider at the time.

Next to him a map of the Shaila dominance had been taped to the turret wall.

Tukino was a large and clumsy red circle, swiftly drawn in a moment of ecstasy. It was another grand victory. Dreschner’s 8th Panzer division, alongside the 10th and 15th Panzer Divisions, and with some help from the Taskforce’s Grenadier infantry, had surrounded the bulk of the Ayvartan Battlegroup Lion’s forces in the village of Tukino and in the wooded outskirts of the vast Djose, separating them from Knyskna, the capital.

This pocket was part of Nocht’s favored strategy for defeating the Ayvartans, and indeed, for waging war in general. Using his fast-moving forces Dreschner could surround the enemy to prevent them from resupplying. So trapped, all they could do was throw themselves at his troops, hoping to escape. Thus far, no one had managed it.

“Schicksal, have the men–”

The signals officer raised her hand, bidding Dreschner for more time.

Below his seat, Karla continued to talk and to fiddle with the transmitter, for longer than it should have taken her to initiate the contacts he had requested. Dreschner pulled off his own headset to better overhear her and soon rolled his eyes, knowing all too well what kept her engaged so long with the radio equipment. Once she was through with the radio, she pulled the headset back halfway off her head and just off her ears, and looked up at him over her shoulder. For the most part he already knew what she would say.

“Sir,” She cleared her throat a little, and once sure she had his attention, she began anew and forced herself to speak a little louder and faster than normal for her.

“Commanders from the 12th Grenadier, 13th Grenadier, 4th Panzergrenadier and 15th Motorized Grenadier divisions have expressed concerns about our departure. They would like to delay the action until their rifle regiments have cleared the pocket and can be transported to support the assault. According to them, the forces around Knyskna consist mostly of suppression companies and recon elements that are holding down the Ayvartans but will not be equipped to support a direct assault on the city quite yet.”

“I will not be relegated to supporting the infantry!” Dreschner said, his tone growing louder and icier. “We will show the Oberkommando that the tanks will lead this new age of warfare. Ayvarta will be the test for future war, and I will make my mark on it!”

“Yes sir.” Karla said, looking perturbed by the outburst.

“Tell the infantry that the Panzers will drive tonight, to make Knyskna by the 26th. If their boots cannot be spared to join us, then so be it. That is the burden of leadership.”

Karla frowned a little. “In those exact words, sir?”

“Of course not. You have a way with politeness. Put it across to them.”

Karla nodded her head quickly, slipped her headset back into place, and opened communication again. Dreschner cast aside his own headset, knowing he might receive direct transmissions from the Infantry commanders and finding the very thought of it wholly mortifying. He was surrounded with stultifying fools and pitiable enemies, but if he could put on a good show regardless, his future would be sealed with a gold stamp.

Moments later, she turned over her shoulder again. “They acknowledge, sir. Limited elements constituting perhaps a battalion of rifles might join you late in the 27th.”

“Good. It is better for us this way.”

“Yes sir.”

“Don’t you agree? You might not be a real soldier, but you’re still a part of this.”

“I have no authority to comment, sir.” Karla said carefully.

“Ach, how painfully dull a response, my dear.” Dreschner laughed.


26th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance Knyskna City, Shaila Dominance

“Comrade Gaurige! Comrade Gaurige, please come in now!”

It took Leander a moment to recognize his own name in the early dawn.

Since the trucks returned to Knyskna with remnants of the failed assault (“strategically inconclusive”) Leander had sat against a sandbag wall at the edge of what was once the plaza staging area. Now it became a place full of the wounded, waiting their turn.

There was a priority based on the severity of the injured. Those bleeding, vomiting or otherwise dramatically hurt were the first taken and accommodated, while the bruised and battered waited. Doctors operated largely in the basements of nearby buildings or inside partially ruined buildings, hidden to insure some measure of safety from air strikes.

But for the past day, Noctish planes had been content to leave them alone.

Perhaps they were kept busy with the destruction of Shaila’s air force.

There was a war happening, somewhere; but right now Knyskna had a respite.

At first Leander had been throbbing all over, but the wait grew soporific enough that he nodded off and his whole body shut off any sensation of pain. He struggled to stand up after hearing his name, feeling an intense prickling feeling spreading through his numb limbs. Elena helped him to his feet, but he ambled the rest of the way, waving her hands off him and gently assuring her that he could walk and that he was quite fine. It was less than thirty slow paces to the field hospital, a repurposed old memorial museum.

Inside the building several curtains and beds had been put up to give each soldier some space and privacy. There were several dozen occupied beds, and behind the blue curtains Leander heard haunting cries from the gravely wounded as they tried to rest.

Much of the building’s second story had been purposely destroyed to give the appearance that it had been wrecked by an air-strike. It seemed to work, so far.

Elena waited outside, while a field medic working as an aide led Leander into a curtained-off area at the back of the long, wide room and helped him to his bed. He helped undo the clasps and remove Leander’s armor, but Leander waved him off doing any more.

Gracefully he departed, and was soon replaced by a civilian physician, an older woman with her half-white, half-black hair tied into a bun, and slightly weathered look to her face, with the beginnings of black bags under her eyes, and slight wrinkles around her mouth. She smiled gently for him, and he felt self-conscious about the situation. He had not found the time in Bika to see a doctor, Nocht had attacked too soon after his arrival.

Hujambo,” She said, holding out her hand. Leander shook it. Her grip was weak. Leander thought she must have been very weary. “I’m Doctor Agrawal. I apologize that it took me this long. I’ve had to be a doctor even to other doctors in this disaster – we are dreadfully understaffed. What is your name, comrade? I’m required to keep a record.”

“Leander Gaurige.” He said, a bit more tersely than he wanted.

She sat next to him on the long bed, and wrote down his name on a clipboard.

“I used to be the Chief of Knyskna Public Health.” She said. “Used to. Due to the circumstances I am your field medic today. So I want you to know you’re in good hands.”

Leander nodded stiffly. He was still very guarded. He didn’t know how she might react.

Noticing his demeanor, the doctor sought consent from him. “Would you be willing to undress? I can turn around if you’d like, but to treat you I’ll have to see you disrobed.” She said gently. Her tone of voice suggested their conversation would be private.

“Doctor, I have a– a unique condition, I think.” Leander hated this the instant he said it. He hated thinking of this as a pathology, as if it were some disease. He knew there must have been a better way to talk about how he felt, about the stress between what people would think of his body and the facts of the person he knew that he was. But he could not find the words, and they felt ever more distant each time he sought them out.

“I am here to treat whatever ails you, comrade.” Dr. Agrawal replied.

“This is a little different than what you’re used to, I think. It is not just wounds.”

“I promise you that no matter what, I will tend to you.” She said.

Leander put indecisive hands over the buttons of his muddy green field jacket and undid them bit by bit. He threw it off unceremoniously, and pulled his undershirt over his head, ruffling his black hair. He looked down over his chest, where the old breast binder was gnarled and ripped, and he undid it completely and cast it off his breasts.

Across his shoulder, around the right breast and over his stomach there were deep purple bruises from the hideous impacts of the bullets over his armor.

None of them had penetrated, but they had each felt like punches from a stone fist.

Leander fought off the urge to cover himself again as the doctor examined his wounds. She first pressed over his bruised shoulder, and extended the arm linked to it. She offered no comments until she returned his arm to a neutral position.

“No bone fractures. You were lucky, comrade. Or perhaps, that armor is good quality. I want to check your ribs now. Can I touch there? I will not if it is uncomfortable to you.”

Silently, Leander nodded. He turned away his head while the Doctor pressed against his belly, between and under his breasts. It stung when she pressed the bruises, and when she tried to feel the outline of his ribs with her fingers, and Leander grit his teeth a few times and tried not to flinch from it. His heart quickened as she pulled away and wrote something on her clipboard. Gently she made eye contact with him and smiled.

“No bone fractures. No bullets managed to bite skin either. I will make sure you have some pain medication and ice, and you will rest here until tomorrow, Leander. In a week or two the bruises should be gone, and the pain will subside much sooner.”

Leander nodded. He removed his shoes for comfort, and sat more upright.

Clearly the doctor had no agenda toward him.

This emboldened him, even through his feelings of exposure.

Dr. Agrawal laid the clipboard at the far edge of the bed, and hesitated a moment before speaking. Leander watched her with a bit of trepidation, trying to anticipate what she might say. “Now, if you’re comfortable with it,” She began, “we can talk about what is stressing you, with regards to your identity. I will admit, I understand this problem only superficially, but I can refer you to a colleague of mine who might be able to help you.”

This was something Leander expected – even in the best case scenario that a doctor accepted what he was going through with a gentle hand, how could they know what to do about it, when he himself was still finding his own way? Despite this he breathed a sigh of relief. He had expected some kind of cruel reprimand of the sort that the caravan had given him on that distant day he left them. But Dr. Agrawal did not look at him with the unkind eyes still floating in his memories. She seemed to genuinely accept him as he was.

“What kind of help?” Leander asked. He felt a little morbid about his next thought, but he said it earnestly nonetheless. “Could this person remove my breasts for example?”

“I believe she could. My colleague Willhelmina Kappel is conducting research on how male and female minds and bodies develop to certain characteristics – and how those characteristics can be changed when people desire to change them. She has written about experiences like yours before. You’re not the only one who has gone through this.”

Leander, slightly bewildered, nodded his head quietly to acknowledge her.

“She has a name for what you might be experiencing, Leander. And I stress that I’m not an authority on this, but she calls it dysphoria, I believe. In Kappel’s papers she talks about a feeling of stress and even pain arising from feeling out of place with the physical sex and associated gender that is assigned to the person at birth, and toward which they feel distance as they uncover their real identity. Does that sound familiar?”

Leander nodded solemnly. It was strange to hear a word for what he felt; a word someone had invented to describe him. He did not know and had never heard of Wilhelmina Kappel. However, the feelings the Doctor had clumsily described distantly mirrored him. He could see himself through that lens. Some of the fog around his emotions began to clear.

“Is this making sense? I’m sorry if it’s just a lot of babble from me. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I don’t know as much as Dr. Kappel about how to make things more comfortable to you. I’m afraid even our society is still in the early stages of this understanding. But– I can get you a chest brace to replace your binder for now.”

Dr. Agrawal pointed over her shoulder, where behind the curtains there were crates and closets of medical supplies ready to be picked through. Her clumsy little smile made Leander laugh. She was being very warm to him. He certainly would feel more comfortable with a chest brace. It would probably be sturdier than his old binder in the middle of a fight.

In the middle of a fight. Leander felt foolish with the realization of where he still was.

“Now, there is another thing I can do.” Dr. Agrawal said, sounding more serious. “I could arrange for you to be evacuated to Solstice, by writing you a discharge saying you need complex treatment I can’t perform. The nature of the treatment need not be revealed unless you want it to. I doubt many around here would care to know, given the present circumstances. You could meet Dr. Kappel in person. I’m sure she would love to see you.”

“I would be deserting the battle.” Leander said. “My wounds aren’t grave.”

“I understand that feeling. You can think about this today and give me your answer after.” Dr. Agrawal said. “I don’t want to plant the seeds of any decision for you, but just know that the option is there, and that there is no shame in it, Leander. I’ll get your brace.”

Leander nodded in response, and the doctor left his side and crossed the curtain. He felt more energized and positive than before, though the pain from his wounds had grown now that his body was awake and had acknowledged his injured state again.

He had a difficult decision to make, but the positive attitude shown by the doctor had exceeded all of his expectations. Perhaps he had not much to fear with regards to others understanding him in Ayvarta. But he was still in the middle of a war here.

When the doctor returned, she helped Leander don the brace – it was originally designed to help those with chest deformities, but it worked just fine in creating an impression of a flat chest for Leander. He loosely dressed in his undershirt and jacket, and laid back in bed to relax. Soon he was brought ice bags for his bruises, pills for the pain, and a boxed ration with some slightly bland curry.

Surrounded by blue curtains indoors, he lost his sense of time after a few hours. He soon fell asleep, with his stomach full and a comfortable and dimly-lit place to lie, his mind dizzy from the medicine, and his exhaustion catching up.

~ ~ ~

Shaila Dominance Djose Wood, Knyskna Region, Shaila

“Those fools! I cannot believe this! Worthless to the last pair of boots!”

Dreschner shouted from his cupola for several minutes, cursing everything that he could get his eyes on, and then he stormed off the tank entirely and disappeared from sight.

Like the sound of a rolling barrage, Dreschner’s screaming wandered far away.

Heaving a sigh of relief, Karla Schicksal savored the relative silence.

She climbed out of the command tank, first stepping up a foothold and onto Dreschner’s abandoned little throne where the gunner’s space would otherwise be, and then pulling herself up and out of the cupola at the top of the tank. Dreschner had ordered the tank stopped in the middle of a small clearing that lay at the edge of the nearby forest base, guarded by a battalion of recon soldiers from the 14th Jager Division.

It was morning, but the forest was still dusky and nondescript, the clearing painted with only a light glaze of orange and the surrounding trees gray and black. Their base was a horrific mess. A few men wandered about in a dazed patrol around mortar shell craters and long clusters of burnt-out crates all around the camp. They had been attacked last night.

She sat atop the would-be turret, wiping sweat from her brow and hair and pulling a cigarette and a lighter from inside a small silver tin in her hip pouch.

On the tin there was a cartoonish picture of an obsolete M1 tank, and the words Gib dir Mühe, mein Mäuschen! Inscribed under it. Her lighter matched the tin.

She chuckled as she lit the cigarette.

It was the first time in almost a dozen hours that she had a break out of the tank.

She held the cigarette up to her mouth, her fingers forming a ‘V’ in front of her lips.

Some of the men wandering about stared at her atop the tank.

Schicksal thought herself not much to look at, with messy brown hair and dull black eyes, a poor posture and fairly small figure. She envisioned herself smiling all smug at the boys and telling them something sexy and coy, perhaps curling one leg over the other like a hot pinup girl. In reality she kept quiet and looked down at the grass, adjusting her glasses with her free hand and returning only scattered glances when the men turned away.

She sucked on the end of the cigarette, savoring the hit of cheap tobacco smoke.

In the distance Brigadier-General Dreschner reappeared, stomping his way back to the tank, looking at every man about him as though he wanted to rip their throats out with his teeth. He was a lanky man with an angular face, made to appear thicker than he was by the big gray officer’s overcoat that he wore, with its large, unadorned, almost industrial-seeming black epaulettes and big broad sleeves. His high-brimmed officer’s hat was adorned with a gold cross and the wings of an otherwise disembodied eagle.

“Can you believe this Schicksal?” He shouted toward her, though to her relief, not explicitly at her, “These idiots allowed the enemy to ravage all of our supplies!”

“Would you like a cigarette, sir?” Schicksal replied, and held her tin out to him.

“Would I like a cigarette?” He shouted suddenly and threw up his hands, shocking her. He put his hands down from the air and over his face. “Fine. I’ll have one.”

Schicksal forced a little smile for him and leaned down from atop the tank, holding the lighter in one hand and the tin in another. Dreschner picked a cigarette, put it in his mouth, and lifted his head up. Schicksal dutifully lit the cigarette for him, and then pulled herself back upright. The Brigadier-General leaned back below her, against the tank.

He coughed a little bit of smoke.

“Is this what they give you in the rations these days? It’s terrible. Did they make these in a Mamlakhan slum? I’m going to put in an appeal over this,” he said.

After a little laugh, Schicksal replied, “It would be appreciated, sir.”

“I like your tin. Very whimsical depiction of the M1. Who made the inscription?”

To think he had noticed her crappy little tin. Schicksal tried to draw a little more strength to her voice – Dreschner would always harangue her about speaking too softly. “My mama and papa, sir! My papa was a tank man, sir. He drove a Vaterland in the old war, and then he drove an M1 during the first islands conflict and the rebellions.”

“Oh, ho! So he served during the very inception of the tank. Incredible.”

“Yes sir. Back when they still called it the ‘Kavallerie‘ and not ‘Panzerdivisione‘.”

“His service did us all proud then.”

Schicksal made no reply, and simply nodded. Deep down she hated this assumption that her father was some hero and that it was all good and patriotic for him. Her father had been badly burnt in an explosion of his tank, of which he was the only survivor. Her mother told her it changed him forever. The little tin that he gave her and its inscription was a rare bit of good humor from him before he saw her off to her present destination.

“And they call you ‘little mouse’, your parents? That’s their nickname for you?”

“Yes sir.” She said, before taking a long drag of her cigarette.

Dreschner laughed. “It is appropriate, Schicksal! No offense intended.”

“None taken, sir.” Schicksal said, fidgeting a little with her cigarette.

“I hope they are proud! You are making panzer history, just like your father.”

She was lucky to have this job at all. Women were not allowed on the frontline, normally, except for two positions: medics and radio operators.

And only because the technocrats in power over the government and military, with their high-tech tests and polls and research, and their cabals of number-crunching eggheads poring over it, testing and retesting like the robots in the pulp books, had discovered that women performed better than men in those two positions.

Just those two – so sayeth the Lord’s numbers.

Anything to be out of the house, to be somewhere, doing something herself.

“Yes sir,” she said dutifully. “If I may ask, where does history next take us?”

Dreschner dropped his cigarette and stepped on it. He crossed his arms and bowed his head. “We will have to postpone the attack on Knyskna until tomorrow at the earliest, and that is optimistic. We cannot mount an assault on the remnants of our Panzer’s transit fuel. 14th Recon is a mess, and I will not allow our operations to be further disrupted because these fools cannot keep their eyes on the trees. The Grenadiers will guard our rear.”

“Alright sir. Would you like me to communicate the new orders?”

“Please do. And put them across nicely. Have you any thoughts on the plan?”

“I don’t believe myself qualified to speak on it.” She said meekly.

Dreschner shook his head and laughed. “I thought you were finally opening up!”


27th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance Knyskna City

Leander slept soundly through the day, an unknown dream carrying him across daylight, and toward the eerie midnight hour where one date became the next.

It was a creeping chill that finally woke him, a dry, cold feeling seeping through the thin blanket. He lifted himself up and stared from his bed, unfocused eyes scanning around his little curtained room. He yawned and stretched out.

Beside him, he was surprised to find Elena sleeping on a chair, seated in reverse; the chair’s backrest was turned to face him and she had her head and chest pressed against it.

Flickering candlelight played across her uniform, but most of her face remained concealed in shadow.

“Are you awake?” Leander asked softly, stretching to tap her shoulder.

Her head snapped up, her short red hair flipping for a moment before falling again over her ears and forehead. Clearly she was awake now. Leander drew back reflexively.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I overreacted! I’m a restless sleeper.” Elena said.

“Perhaps you need the rest even more than I!” Leander chuckled.

“No, it is fine, it is fine. Here, I have something for you.”

From out of her unbuttoned jacket she presented Leander with a boxed ration, likely from the same origin as the curry he ate before. He felt pangs of hunger previously unknown from just staring at it, and with a hushed thanks he accepted the gift. He ripped open the box and inside found several breaded, fried cauliflower and potato balls. He ate a few, and they tasted a little bland and stale, with too much dough. They were also rather dry. He felt as though he had been wandering a desert, his mouth dry and his throat itching.

Elena read his predicament and pressed her flask into his hands. He flipped open the cap and took a long drink from it, nearly retching from the cloyingly sweet wine.

“Our supplies leave a lot to be desired, don’t they?” Elena laughed.

Leander sighed. “I don’t remember Arjun wine and pakoras tasting this poor.”

“Do not inspect the box! The packing dates on these are frightening.”

Leander chuckled. “I appreciate your company, Elena. Did they let you in easily?”

“I volunteered to help, so I carried a lot of boxes and helped administer bandages and deliver food today. Then I told them I was part of your squadron and they let me stay here.”

“So you’re finally part of the medical corps then? I’m sure you’re happy.”

Elena offered a weak little smile. “No, I’m afraid I’m still stuck a riflewoman.”

They talked in hushed voices, mindful of waking the rest of the field hospital. Elena was thankfully uninjured – she opened up her coat more, and pulled up her undershirt a little to show her flat belly, without a mark on it, and her pale shoulders, also untouched. As an amicable exchange Leander showed her the safest bruise he could reveal, the one on his shoulder. She gasped at how broad and purple it was. If she noticed the brace beneath his undershirt she made no comment on it. Leander thought this was for the best.

“Does it hurt much now?” Elena asked, staring dejectedly at his shoulder.

“Not at all.” Leander said. In reality there was still a bit of dull pain.

“You received so many impacts. It’s a miracle you had any strength to move!”

“I’m not sure what came over me, myself.” Leander said. He grinned nervously.

“It was an amazing sight!” Elena said, betraying a touch of awe. “You ran off with my shovel and suddenly all the enemy’s attention seemed to be on you. But it was well timed. Bonde rallied everyone to try to cover you, and then led a charge when Nocht soldiers tried to pull out of their positions to go kill you. We just rushed the men behind the overturned log, they were pinned down, and we slaughtered them where they sat and stood.”

While she was excitable about it, these events still held some discomfort for Leander, and he found it hard to meet her gaze while she recounted them. He felt frightened and in awe at himself, as though he were judging a different man for these exploits.

He had been raised to be calm and cautious and meek, to avoid fighting and to especially avoid a close, brutish confrontation. And yet, he’d stuck those soldiers with his shovel like he had seen wild pigs stuck by the caravan men.

He looked at his hands with ambivalence.

He was a soldier, and he had been terribly scared, and he had to defeat his enemy. But he wondered if there was anything more to the events – if there was more to him, in relation.

His discomfort always seemed a lot more visible than he thought it would be. He was bad at masking his emotions, and Elena saw through his mannerisms even in the dimness of the room. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to glorify what happened to you. I hope you’re ok.”

“I’m alright.” Leander said, a little feebly. “Just a bit shaken still.”

“That is understandable. For all of us that was a terrible night.”

“Do you know why we turned back?” Leander said. Circumstances colored his perception. He had a hard time seeing himself as a hero, or his charge as admirable, when they retreated directly after he took action. That was not how the stories went.

“I do know now. I heard the officers talking, earlier today. It was no fault of ours that the attack was called off. A very sizable amount of the Battlegroup’s forces, five divisions total, had been defeated and encircled in a battle in Tukino, south of here. Fifty thousand troops in the pocket. This happened many hours before our assault on the wood, but word only reached us when the attack was already underway. We were pulled back then.”

Leander was astonished. Pocketing was a deadly tactic – a surrounded unit could not receive food or fuel or ammunition and would surely be destroyed, if not immediately then within days, as their bullets dwindled and their vehicles gave out. A pocket of 50,000 was an unreal number to him. It was like hearing that the entire army had just collapsed in a single day. He did not know how right he was – unbeknownst to him a Battlegroup was only 100,000 troops at most. Elena had made it quite clear to him why they had to retreat.

After sharing this morbid news, Elena was quiet for a time. Leander offered no replies.

They heard murmuring from other curtained rooms, but could not make out the words.

In Leander’s head a number of questions floated, suspended far away from their answers. He had joined the army out of a sense of duty and gallantry. How could a man run from battle, when he had nothing else to give for his community?

That was what he had thought, dimly and distantly and foolishly, the day that he heard news of the invasion, and knew that his little village, Bika, was about to be overrun.

He scarcely fought then, and he had scarcely fought every other day until the battle in Djose. There was a picture of himself that was forming, put together from all kinds of disparate pieces and still missing many others but trying to give itself shape.

He was not sure he liked it – and not sure he had control of the pieces.

Leander laid back in bed, stretching his arms. Elena looked at the wall, as though trying not to watch too uncomfortably close. He hated that nervous distance he felt, but he also knew they hardly knew each other. They had known each other for less than a day’s time.

At last however, Elena inched her chair a bit closer, and made an earnest expression.

“Leander, it might be too soon to say we’re friends, but we are comrades. Is something bothering you? If you are merely tired I can leave you to rest; but otherwise–”

“I’m just a little mixed up about everything. It’s all a shock to me still.”

Leander replied quickly, and took Elena a little aback. She smiled softly.

“I can understand that.” She said. “I don’t really know how to feel about all of this – I think in my head, I’m still not able to treat my surroundings with the gravity they deserve.”

Leander worked up the courage and put across to her what was really on his mind.

“Had you the opportunity, would you leave? Would you evacuate Knyskna?”

“To where?” Elena asked. She shrugged. “I think the war will catch up anywhere.”

Leander gulped. That was not really what he had wanted to hear her say.

“Just anywhere, away from Knyskna. Have you a goal you want to strive for?”

“I don’t have much anymore.” She smiled wanly. “Which is why I volunteered for the army in the first place. I don’t know what has become of my past life at all.”

It was strange to hear someone refer to, potentially, their family and friends and their place in the world as a lost collection of things, a past life. It felt cold and glib. And yet, he also felt that he should not have had that reaction – after all, his own life had become just such an assortment. Disparate people and things and connections, all wavering in a place beyond being, alive only on the surface of his mind when he recalled dark times.

“I preferred the medical corps because I thought that I had a better way with people than weapons. But who knows – I shot a few men last night. And I did not even blink. Maybe I’m not the best judge of my own capabilities anymore. Like I said, I’m feeling very adrift lately, Leander, so I don’t really know what to say. I’m very sorry.”

Elena looked at Leander as she said this, with her same sad little smile.

Leander had thought her more complete than him, somehow more put together and in control, but in reality they had all been swept up in the tide. The events around them seemed eerily transformative, and he did not know where they would lead.

Before the war, Leander had known that he was a man, but not what kind – he had not given that particular point any thought. When he looked back on the night of the attack on Djose, it felt eerily defining, as though within that chaos he had taken steps toward becoming a certain kind of man without even knowing it.

All of them had been robbed by the war, robbed of what they were in so little time.

There was still something for him though. There was a beacon on the horizon.

“I want to go to Solstice, the capital,” he said, “I might have an opportunity to go.”

Elena did not press him to explain.

She stretched out her hands over his own in solidarity and did not question him further, for which he felt incredibly grateful. She was better with people than she thought.

“Solstice is beautiful. If you want to see it, then you should take the chance and go. It’s your life, Leander. You should not let anyone pressure you to do anything.”

He felt a pressing need to reply. “Elena, I’ve felt as though for the longest time, I was living a hand-me-down life. These past few days have been the first week of my life; my life, like you said. But I feel like I’m still finding myself, like I’m still without control of myself. There might be someone who can help me in Solstice, but if I leave the battle–”

He paused, out of fear and stress of admitting to himself any more, but he did not have to continue. Elena nodded solemnly, understanding what he had left hanging.

A foreign army was out to do god-knows-what to Ayvarta – conquer it or smash it or enslave it, who knew? The monsters in the gray uniforms were on the march, and Leander saw an increasing possibility that there might not be a Solstice in the future for him.

A dark hand loomed over his beacon, that beacon on his horizon, and it was about to douse the light that had finally promised to lead him to paradise. What would they do to the city? What would they do to this Dr. Kappel? What would they do to Leander Gaurige?

“You are putting a horrible burden on yourself if you want to save this city.” Elena said. “I think Knyskna will fall no matter what. The decisions leading up to that are out of our control. We’re just rifles. I’m not saying you should leave or stay. There might be more chances to leave if you want to wait. Then again, we might not see them if you do.”

“Everything feels like it’s leading me to a decision right now.” Leander said glumly. “There is someone in Solstice I want to meet, Elena. A doctor, who can help me with something important. I’m not sick or anything, mind you; I don’t want you to worry; but I need to meet her nonetheless. Despite this, part of me desperately wants to stay and fight.”

“I understand. But tell me this. I know your reason to leave; but I want to know, why does that part of you feel like you must stay here?” She asked, holding Leander’s hands.

Leander did not have to think it over much more. “I would be a coward if I left.”

She squeezed his hand in solidarity. “You are very mistaken about that, Leander. You are not and would not be a coward. And you should not stay if that is your only reason.”

Leander sighed a little and laid back on his pillows. In his mind everything he was thinking twisted into a storm, and his thoughts felt heavy and hard to escape. He had acknowledged their existence and they would not leave him alone.

Though he wanted so badly to take Elena’s soothing voice as the unvarnished truth and to believe in everything that she said, so much of his mind was filled with doubts, a cascade of them, and he felt physically incapable of ignoring them all.

“Thank you. I’m sorry for being so glum. I feel completely drained.” Leander said.

“It’s fine. I’m here to listen!” She said. “But you should probably get some rest.”

She turned her chair around, to sit the proper way, except she extended her feet onto the bed, and cushioned her head with her hands. Very soon she had nodded off again, almost as quickly as she had closed her eyes, leaving Leander to the whispering voices, indistinct under the night wind. Lulled by trying to make out what they were saying, whether they heard or understood, whether they judged or approved, Leander fell into a restless slumber, the pressure of his decision mounting even in his sleep.


28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance Outskirts of the Djose Wood

In the darkness of the early morning the 8th Panzer Division prepared for battle.

Across the edge of the Djose wood, facing Knyskna, the Panzertruppen established three large staging areas. Fuel, ammunition and spare parts were gathered and jealously guarded in these three camps. Tank crews waited idly beside long rows of dormant tanks.

A majority of their vehicles were M4 Sentinel medium tanks with curved bodies and pan-like turrets, supported by small hosts of squat M3 Hunter assault guns, characterized by the unfortunate position of their main 75mm gun – on a recessed portion of the glacis to the right side of the machine. This arrangement gave the gun little horizontal traverse.

Engineers busy with tune-ups and repairs rushed across the aisles of machines to make their very final inspections and preparations, and marked all machines ready to fight.

Their attack would begin in the afternoon, under a centered sun.

Knyskna, or at least the outskirts, was suitable territory for them.

Surrounded on three sides by the Djose wood – and in turn by the three camps established in advantageous positions – the land between forest and city was flat and broad territory that gave the Panzers terrific sight lines toward the outermost Ayvartan defenses.

Six Panzerkompanie had been gathered to commence the assault on the city, while four remained in reserve. One thrust of three companies would attack first, to be joined in the late afternoon by a second wave of three companies – one company would attack from each of the camps and divide the enemy defenders’ already limited resources.

Each of these companies boasted 20 tanks, mostly M4s, divided into four platoons of five tanks. Two platoons from each company would advance first, to be joined by the two others at least two hours after the initial penetration of the city limits.

Once their turn was up the second wave of companies would follow the same doctrine with their own platoons before night fully fell. This staggered assault would allow Nocht to thoroughly probe the Ayvartan defenses meter by meter and to keep a steady but flexible advance, able to react to any trouble with an injection of fresh reserve armor.

Their target was the railroad hub in the city’s north-center, where they would cut off any opportunity for escape. A thrust from the south would meet thrusts from the east and west at that point, and seal the enemy’s fate – or so it was planned.

“Our intelligence on the enemy puts their rifle strength at essentially one Regiment cobbled together from various formations and vastly under-strength and fatigued owing to constant battle; their armoured strength as one or two Platoons; and their artillery as scattered batteries. Despite our superiority, the terrain could potentially make the advance difficult. So therefore, our initial goal is only a partial encirclement of the city center, enough to quickly knock out the rail hub,” Dreschner concluded, “any questions?”

In a tent a kilometer from the southern staging area, Dreschner briefed his subordinate officers on the grand scheme he had concocted. His map of the city, pinned to a chalkboard behind him and heavily written upon, was a vast collage of slightly blurred, black and white photographs, taken and arranged by Luftlotte pilots. It was four days old and the city center was a blank circle that read Ziel, of which no pictures had been safely taken.

Ayvartan anti-air cover was fierce.

Schiksal had interviewed pilots by radio to get an idea of what was there.

She watched everything from outside the tent, sitting on the bed of a heavy truck parked beside the war room and housing an enormous encryption machine and messaging set. Due to the weather, she had requested the tarp be removed, so the truck was open to the air, and gave her a slightly raised view of the men.

To the last man the Nochtish officers were indistinct Karls and Jörgs and Svens with grave faces, gray coats and cropped hair. Schicksal knew their radio channels and divisions better than their actual names and ranks, though she had made a mental note to familiarize herself better with them. All of them scratched their chins and pored over the plans, save the beleaguered commander of the 14th Jager Division’s forward battalion.

He was the quietest and meekest man in the room – the failure of his men had been so costly that he had lost any ability to raise an objection to the Panzer COs.

Though Dreschner left the room open to questions, his brow developed a slight twitch the instant a man raised his hand to ask something. First in line was Lieutenant Reiniger, a slender man with a slight dusting of a beard and wide grin on his face.

“Say, Brigadier-General, any chance we can get a few birds to shit on the Ayvartan line before we go ahead?” Schicksal cringed away from Reiniger’s crude, slurred rendition of their language, indicative of a man from the backwaters.

Dreschner looked partway between shame and anger.

“Schicksal!” Dreschner called out. “What is the status of our air support?”

“Nonexistent.” Schicksal replied. “The Luftlotte contingent in Shaila has been almost entirely committed to reducing the Tukino pocket. Fighting there is fiercer than expected, with multiple breakout attempts supported by Ayvartans from outside the pocket.” She had been on the radio and working the Loki encryption machine all day to gather such information. However, she knew Dreschner wanted it only as a matter of routine.

“That should be sufficient for you, Reiniger.” Dreschner said.

“Sorry Brigadier-General, I am just fond of the gallantry of our air divisions.” Reiniger replied, his face still dominated by a smile. Everyone knew Dreschner’s antipathy toward non-Panzer units. “It would have been a show to see them dive on our helpless enemy.”

“They are far from helpless against the air,” Schicksal said, her voice a little low and unsteady, “Luftlotte took many casualties from their concentrations of anti-air batteries.”

Lt. Reiniger side-eyed the communications truck. She should not have spoken then.

Dreschner did not seem to care that she did. He did not even acknowledge that she had. “We will make do, Reiniger. Artillery support will also be scarce. Rebuilding our lost fuel supplies and tank ammunition took priority over all else, due to unexpected events.” Saying this Dreschner fixed his eyes on Major Baumgaertner of the 14th Jager, who had been the villain of this cheerful film since the fiasco on the 25th. Despite the striking largeness of the man, he was cowed by the Brigadier-General, who had a fiercer nature overall.

“How soon can we count on any infantry support then?” Asked Lieutenant Kunze, a man with caricaturesque shoulders, a thick build and heavy cheekbones who commanded one of the first Panzerzugs to enter the battle. He always spoke with a high-strung voice regardless of the subject. “Without air or artillery we will need more men on the ground.”

Schicksal looked away briefly, feeling embarrassed for Kunze. What a faux-pas!

“Our plan has no need of men, Kunze. If it did, you would get them.” Dreschner said.

Unwisely, Kunze pressed him. “City fighting would be safer with extra eyes.”

Though unasked for, Schicksal had the information and hastily interjected then.

“Elements of 13th Grenadier will be trickling in over the day, but mostly they will cover our rear. Everything else is in Tukino.” Her voice trembled a little and her heart sped a touch, since she knew she was stepping quite slightly out of line. The officers could all speak among themselves – she should have only spoken when spoken to.

Kunze eyed the radio truck with contempt.

“That satisfy you?” Dreschner added, before Kunze could say any more.

There was then yet another unwise interjection, this time from poor persecuted Major Baumgaertner, who nearly pounced on the chance to offer his men to the slaughter.

“The 14th Jager is eager provide support to the heroic Panzers, Brigadier-General. I can have one of my Rifle Platoons accompany each of your Tank Platoons.”

Dreschner lips curled slowly down with a building fury. Kunze, dangerously oblivious to the social circumstances within their little clique, openly counted his fingers and then loudly scoffed at Baumgaertner, feeling far too free to criticize and act out at the disgraced Major. “That’s only thirty-two men to each of our ten tanks Baumgaertner, surely you must have the manpower to muster a fiercer presence; we need more than three men per tank!”

“Your offer is adequate, Baumgaertner, and we all pray that it may it absolve your infamy!” Dreschner shouted then. He turned sharply from the recon commander to his subordinate. “Kunze, unless you want to personally dig my latrines until we take Solstice, you will heed how you speak and act in my war room. Do you understand me?”

Reiniger covered his mouth to stifle a laugh.

Schicksal ducked her head from the suddenness and strength of Dreschner’s shouting.

Other officers followed suit.

Kunze nodded his head slowly and quietly. It was not his conceited attitude that had earned him a strong reprimand, but his ignorance of Dreschner’s predilections.

He had begged for supporting troops – a taboo.

Meanwhile Baumgaertner voided his face of emotion and dipped his head down like a beaten dog. Even his one small victory had been subverted through vicious reprimand. Schicksal felt quite sorry for him. If he had any hopes of promotion they were now lost.

On this note, the conference ended.

Officers trickled out of the tent until it was empty, and on personal motorcycles they made their ways back to their staging areas with hand-drawn copies of Dreschner’s map prepared by intelligence officers. Schicksal waited in the truck for everyone to be clear of the place, before stepping off and walking around the camp. She immediately cracked open her tin and lit another cigarette. She’d been craving it for a while.

Schicksal took a deep smoke while spying a gaggle of horses waiting near a wagon loaded with fuel drums. She had come to notice them from their neighing and impatient tapping a few hours earlier and found their presence quite humorous.

Though she knew dimly about the horses, seeing them in the flesh was always a marvel. They used their horses for many things – infantry transport, short-range delivery of supplies between staging areas, artillery hauling. Between the disparate troops in the Djose, and around Knyskan and Tukino they had over a thousand animals.

Nobody wanted to acknowledge them too much, even as they rode them everywhere. Here was the most advanced army in the world, scientifically proven down to the number of bullets in crates, and their tenuous fuel supplies made horses a serious option over trucks or motorcycles. It was almost embarrassing. And it made Schicksal laugh.

Ever since she spotted the horses she had wanted to give them a good petting.

She approached the wagon, and ran her fingers through the mane of one of the animals, and brushed its neck with her hand. It was a beautiful horse, tall and regal, with a soft hide and marvelous hair, a top quality breed exclusively for a demanding and exacting army.

She pitied it.

It was another misunderstood and maligned part of a system plagued by callousness. It simply did its work as best as it could, even as its companions sneered and ignored it. They would run it to the ground and expect it to be pleased and proud of its labors.

In a few hours they would attack a city with no essentially no gun or rifle support, led by bickering men in tanks who only agreed that they found their enemy inferior, while awaiting the animal wagons hauling their fuel between staging areas and bringing their ammo crates from supply corps miles away. Oberkommando wanted them in the desert around Solstice before the Postill’s Dew, but refused to release reserves this early.

Everything was rushed and stressed. The technocrats demanded dramatic results.

She still expected they would win. Nothing she had seen thus far proved otherwise.

Thinking about the army like she was watching it from the clouds was simply too depressing to sustain. Schicksal took a final drag of her cigarette, bid farewell to the horses, and made her way back to the Befehlspanzer as the sun started to rise in earnest.

She would be spending the next few days on the radio in that hot metal box, but at least she would be hearing some pleasant voices talking back.

Everything would be too stultifying to cause her real grief.


Shaila Dominance Knyskna City

Elena North barely had time to eat her morning ration before Sgt. Bahir collected her and the other assault troops and formed them up, and marched them toward the city center.

She had left the hospital, and a sleeping Leander, at dawn to rejoin the infantry, where a mood of ambivalence was setting in. Now she traveled up a main road arm beside arm with about sixty others. Unlike the outermost blocks, the inner city had been mostly spared bombardment and its brick facades still stood tall over her flanks. The tile road under her feet was largely intact and the depleted little Company kept a brisk pace over it.

Ahead they heard the whistling and chugging of an engine departing the city.

They left behind the southern Knyskna thoroughfare and walked out onto the broad streets and the sprawling parks of the city center, and stopped in front of the rail station in time to watch the train departing, loaded with anyone and anything that could be saved.

Knyskna’s station was one long rectangular building atop a platform surrounded with loops of track and necessary equipment such as cranes and warehouses for the purpose of unloading goods. All around the station in the parks and plazas there were tents established for officers, staging areas stocked with fuel and repair stations for the few tanks and armored cars available, and scores of anti-aircraft guns ready to set ablaze the sky.

One train station was all they could count on now to ferry remaining civilians and military wounded out of the city, and it was heavily defended.

This was the heart of Knyskna’s remaining power.

Overhead the sun rose; the skies were clear. Nocht’s bombers had bombed themselves out. Still, the teeming concentration of troops around the station put Elena on edge.

“North, Eboh, Jakande and Okiro, follow me.” Sergeant Bahir shouted.

Elena nearly jumped from hearing her name. She stepped out of the formation, along with Bonde, who had been far ahead of her through the march and invisible to her save for the peak of his nearly bald, nearly pitch black head, and two others: Private Eboh, a tall woman with short, flowing hair and Private Jakande, a broad-shouldered, bespectacled boy.

Sergeant Bahir, who though quite older than them had statuesque features and a commanding presence, led the group to a conference table beside a fountain in one of the nearby plazas. There were two other sergeants there from different companies, along with a few privates from each. Everyone around her seemed so formidable.

Elena felt tiny, weak and pale, like a wet little maggot in the midst of fierce mantids.

The groups assembled near the fountain. “824th company reporting in,” Bahir said simply upon their arrival. He pronounced it as “eight-two-four” company.

Elena dimly remembered this being her assigned formation number during the Djose assault. She was part of the 8244th Lion Platoon, which meant that she was in 4th Platoon of the 4th Company, of the 2nd Regiment, of the 8th Division in Battlegroup Lion.

It was a confusing scheme at first.

The two other sergeants stepped forward to acknowledge and introduce themselves. 822 was led by Sergeant Agewa, an older woman with pale hair and a fair face that Elena recognized from the staging area on the night of the Djose assault. 821 was introduced by Sergeant Ibori, a bearded man with a reddish complexion and a broad forehead. The third company, 823, would not be joining them – it had been wiped out to the last rifle.

Together with Bahir they arranged a map of Knyskna over a table.

Elena could not see the map, but she paid close attention as everyone discussed tactics.

Though it was not a big city, Knyskna was still a lot of ground to cover for the enemy, and it could be defended, but with the number of troops they had at their disposal 82nd Regiment would never be able to hold it. Instead it was agreed that they would try to delay the enemy until the city was fully evacuated. It would take the enemy hours to move on the rail hub, which would surely be their goal.

Four main thoroughfares met at the city center, but unless they encircled the city from the outside, Nocht would have access to only three – south, southeast and west.

Those mobile forces that had not been squandered in the Tukino breakout attempts, Lion command had tasked with keeping the northern roads free of the enemy. The Nochtish line in the Djose had been painfully kept confined to the South and West directions, but even by attacking in the directions available, Nocht could still encircle the rail hub in the middle of the city, which would be enough to rout the defenders even if the Northern boroughs and outskirts of the city held out. It was a tenuous situation.

“My 822nd company is the most intact, I believe. We have 240 men and women at our disposal. I believe we should hold the larger southern thoroughfare.” Sgt. Agewa said.

There was no disagreement. Comrade Agewa and her men and women would fight for the broader southern thoroughfare, essentially the main street. It was wide open and easily accessible to enemy armor, and would likely prove the bitterest and bloodiest sector of the fight. She had a hard face, and appeared void of of discernible emotion, but Elena thought she heard a tremble in Agewa’s voice when she volunteered for the mission.

“824th has only 76 rifles.” Sgt. Bahir said. “I’ll take the tighter south-east – there are more ruins there. My comrades can use the rubble to ambush the enemy there.”

“We can arrange for some of the Orcs to stack up with you.” Sgt. Ibori said, putting a hand on Bahir’s shoulder. The Orc was a medium-size tank, decently armored and gunned, but it existed in forgettable numbers, and had proven unreliable even outside battle. “They might be slow but they have better guns than the Goblins. They’ve been collecting dust with all the running fights we’ve been doing, but speed won’t matter much here.”

“I’ll take anything you can give. My company has few other guns.”

Sergeant Bahir and Ibori then went over the amount of support weapons available to them. Because the sergeants stuck close and hunched over the table to look at their maps and documents, and there were already a few eager eyes over their shoulders, Elena could not see much of their photos and files.

From their discussion, she picked out that there were few dedicated artillery batteries remaining, but many anti-air guns that could potentially be fired directly at the enemy. They had a platoon of Goblin tanks, small and fast but cripplingly under-armored and undergunned, and a platoon of Orcs, slow and unreliable but slightly more combat-capable.

“What about air support?” Sgt. Bahir asked.

“Very little. We have a few Anka available, but those biplanes are becoming relics.”

“They can still help. Tell them to get ready. They could support Agewa.”

“We should also allocate the Goblins to Agewa.” Ibori said. “She will need more support, her troops will not enjoy as much cover or as tighter roads as ours will.”

Sgt. Agewa shook her head and spoke up after minutes of listening.”No, 821st should take the Goblins. Instead, I believe I would better profit from our engineering resources.”

“Ah, so you plan to create your own cover?” Sgt. Ibori said.

“Yes, we can topple some of the larger buildings over the road with charges, and damage the main roads to slow down their tanks. But we can only prepare these measures in the inner thoroughfare areas. Nocht has the outer boroughs too thoroughly sited, so operations there would be dangerously exposed to the enemy.”

“Then we should not deploy there at all. We should let them come to the inner boroughs, and ambush them from the rubble or houses as they move past.” Sgt. Bahir said.

“I agree.” Sgt. Agewa said, but she quickly added, “However, it is a very risky plan.”

“Sister Agewa is right. I don’t feel right giving up any ground to them.” Sgt. Ibori said.

“They essentially have the ground there – they can see from their positions everything we’re doing and they can shoot at us from them. They have everything but a flag on the ground.” Sgt. Bahir said. “I suspect the attack will include significant amounts of tanks, so it is even more folly to fight in the outskirts. I say we invite them to fight in our streets.”

“Like I said, I agree with Bahir. But I’m unsure how wise that is.” Sgt. Agewa repeated.

“Doesn’t sound wise at all to me.” Sgt. Ibori crossed his arms. “But if that’s the plan–”

“It’s the plan.” Sgt. Bahir interjected. “So everyone agrees on the plan?”

All the remaining sergeants nodded.

Elena almost nodded too, thinking herself included.

It had been about thirty minutes since the companies convened in this manner.

For their final order of business the sergeants turned to their cadres and communicated the plan once again in rapid detail. It would be the duty of each cadre of privates to disseminate their orders among the platoons and share information quickly before deployment. The sergeants showed the soldiers their maps and photos and charts. Despite her previous curiosity, Elena was disappointed with the actual planning documents.

It seemed that there was little overall plan except “stop the enemy.”

There were several maps of Knyskna but they had hardly any writing on them and the Table of Organization and Equipment for the 82nd Regiment was untouched and did not reflect the true strength of the depleted regiment. On the back of the documents there were a few notes on the current strength, but they were vague and sloppily written.

Elena guessed that all the real insight into the battle, beyond the basic deployment plan, lay exclusively in the Sergeant’s heads. There was no time for grand strategy.

Luck and small unit tactics would have to carry the day.

As they were prepared to leave, Bahir called for everyone’s attention suddenly.

“I hate to ask, but what is happening politically?” Sgt. Bahir asked. “Do we know?”

There was a noticeable pallor across the mostly brown faces of the privates.

All of them had heard dire rumors from the capital – of the bicameral friction between the KVW and the Civil Council, of possible surrenders to Nocht. They were not privy to anything but rumors, but the sergeants probably knew more.

Bahir, who had been out fighting and organizing all this time, seemed to probe his fellow sergeants with his gaze as though he knew they had learned something more than him in the interim. Ibori and Agewa hesitated for a moment.

“There has been some news.” Sgt. Agewa said. “From Division and from some of our personal sources in the capital. None of it is very good news.”

“I think we would all like to know.” Sgt. Bahir said. “Before we risk our lives.”

Sgt. Agewa put a hand across her face, and Ibori grunted. “Civilian Council’s orders to the 82nd Regiment are just to hold Knyskna until evacuations complete.” Sgt. Ibori said. “81st, 85th and 88th Regiment is going to give one final shot to breaking the pocket, and we have some broken bits of 89th and 80th guarding our rear from Nocht right now. It’s bad. They’re looking for whatever kind of victory and they’re not thinking straight here.”

“We’ll never crack that pocket.” Sgt. Bahir said. He closed his fists over the table.

“No. That’s 5 divisions we’ve doomed there, and a sixth that we have squandered. Not to mention what we lost along the border when they caught us with our pants down.”

“They think they might be able to negotiate with Nocht. It is out of our hands. We answer to Territorial command and they answer to the Council.” Sgt. Agewa said.

“Any chance KVW or Revolutionary Guard may become involved?” Sgt. Bahir said.

“Not a chance.” Sgt. Agewa replied. “There is too much friction right now after those inspections the KVW started conducting just before the war broke out. Last I heard they pulled their gendarme presence entirely from the big cities. They will not cooperate with the Civil Council any longer in protest for being sidelined from government.”

“This is absurd. Someone has to be able to help us here.” Sgt. Bahir said. “What about Rhino in Dbagbo? Can’t they send forces down here? Nocht’s armies aren’t that large.”

Sgt. Agewa sighed and crossed her arms. “No, I don’t think so. Even in the face of this war, we’re still sticking to the doctrine of defending each Dominance individually with self-sufficient formations. Rhino is compelled to stay in Dbagbo. At this point we’re playing attrition here in Shaila. Council eyes are already moving the goalposts to Dbagbo.”

“Not only that, the other battlegroups are also watching out for the KVW.” Sgt. Ibori added. “I hear the KVW even fomented some kind of coup in Bada Aso already. They deposed the governor and took over the garrison to call the shots – but my info’s scarce.”

“Ridiculous.” Sgt. Bahir spat. “How can we be so paranoid of our own comrades?”

“The KVW has antagonized them too much. It is what it is.” Sgt. Agewa said. “No one really knows their intentions, and Demilitarization has too much traction in the Council.”

Elena’s head was almost spinning – she knew so little about politics. Sergeant Bahir was red with frustration and the rest of the privates in each cadre had their heads down.

“Whatever happens outside this city, we have comrades in it and a duty toward them.” Sgt. Ibori said, breaking a short silence. “Right now the best we can do is buy our brothers and sisters time. Once they are safe we can give a long consideration to the rest of this.”

Sgt. Agewa nodded her head solemnly. Bahir said nothing.

After a brief and tense silence, the cadres from each Company parted ways.

Elena followed the others out of the plaza, where the Company waited on the streets and in the shadows of abandoned buildings, awaiting news or orders. Jakande and Eboh hurried out to their own platoons to share what they had learned, but Elena was not feeling quite as leaderly, and Bonde seemed to share the sentiment. They walked slowly and a little despondently back to their platoon. A group of them were goofing off around a run-down trolley in one of the southern bends of the road circling the plaza.

“I guess this is not exactly our finest moment.” Elena said, trying anything to break the silence that had fallen around them. Bonde laughed a little and shook his head.

“You win some, you lose some. How is Leander doing?” Bonde asked.

“He is probably on his way to Solstice.” Elena said. “He was going to evacuate.”

Bonde squinted his eyes. “Really? Then who is that?” He pointed to the old trolley.

In front of the trolley, several soldiers stood puzzled around one brown-skinned boy who was all too familiar. Elena gasped a little. Freshly military age, slender and lean, soft-faced, with wavy dark hair hanging just below the level of his jaw and striking green eyes.

It was Leander!

Around him a group of men and women were trying to get him out of his banged-up assault armor, which he had somehow worn again despite its terrible condition, and was on too tight. Several hands struggled against the clasps while others pulled on the gaps under the armpits. It was a ridiculous sight. With one final heave-ho three men dove one way and two women the other, hitting the ground with half of Leander’s armor apiece.

Leander apologized profusely, but the soldiers just laughed and patted him in the back.

Elena and Bonde rushed over to him as the little crowd dispersed.

“Leander! I thought you were going to evacuate!” Elena told him.

Leander smiled. “I never said I would, only that I was considering it.”

Elena felt suddenly very worried for him. He had been so exhausted and confused last night that she found it hard to believe he could be all here and ready to fight now.

Bonde looked between them as though the odd man out. “I’m beginning to think I should have volunteered at his hospital too. But I am glad you are with us, Leander.”

Elena snapped at him. “Hearing you say that, I’m glad you didn’t come.”

Bonde raised his hands defensively, with a big grin on his face.

Leander burst out laughing. “It is fine, you two. I have made my decision.”

“I hope you have a better reason to be here than we discussed.” Elena said.

“I might not have one.” Leander cheerfully admitted. “But I’m going to see this through to the end, and then I will go to Solstice on my own terms. That’s what I decided.”

Elena sighed a little, in equal parts relieved and disturbed. She did not know why she felt like being so critical to him; but nothing she said would really matter at this point. She mentally recused herself, reached out and patted Leander on the shoulder as well. “Well, I wouldn’t know what to say to that then. I’m glad you’re out and about, in any case.”


NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Battle of Knyskna, Part 1

A Place Amid Ashes – Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Shaila Dominance – Djose Woods, outside Knyskna.

Twenty-three others joined Leander in the back of the truck, sitting where they could, submachine guns and rifles in their hands. They were motorized troops now – they would ride a truck close as possible to battle, dismount the truck, and then rush in with their feet. They were lucky to have a good truck, with a roof and benches – there were soldiers riding in on their backs in open flatbeds, like they were cargo sacks.

Behind them a squat, boxy Goblin tank with a drum-like turret and a straw-like gun noisily followed, its turret surveying the wood, providing close support to the attack. A few soldiers in the truck grumbled about it, telling the rookies that they should not get their hopes up about the Goblin. There were other similar tanks with them as well, but they were out of sight, riding ahead of them and split between guarding different trucks.

Their convoy boasted over a dozen trucks with hundreds of soldiers. Leander had also heard his compatriots speaking about a second flank with just as many troops. A significant portion of their regiment was invested into this attack.

He swallowed to force down a lump in his throat.

It was an atmosphere so different from his few peaceful days in Bika.

Everyone was quiet. Leander included, the people on the truck sat rigid, stone-faced, forcing themselves upright. Nothing seemed to cross their minds, as though betraying a thought would topple them like towers of matchsticks.

Outside it was pitch black, without spotlights in the sky or occasional flashes of shells. There was only the tank following them, the gloomy seated figures, the dirt road, and a vast expanse of darkness. The Djose was impenetrable, a solid curtain of shadow scrolling past. There was no point in keeping their eyes peeled to the woods; their eyes could see nothing there. To conceal their movements they drove slowly and with all of the lights off, save for a dim lamp in the middle of the troop compartment.

Most of his comrades had their heads down, trying to get some rest before the attack. Others mumbled while barely making any eye contact. Leander felt a little uneasy.

He tried not to let his doubts show on his face, but it was hard not to feel out of place in a truck of soldiers headed to battle. He shook his legs nervously.

“What’s your name, comrade?”

Beside him, a small, fair woman with short hair addressed him. Her metal armor and helmet seemed too large for the overall size of her body, and fastened tighter than his.

“Leander Gaurige.” He said. He politely appended, “Comrade,” after.

She nodded. She had a bashful demeanor, barely making eye contact or lifting her face to look at him. When she spoke again she did so very seriously, in a hushed and secretive tone of voice. “I’m Elena North. This might sound silly, but I wanted to know a name I could call out if I needed help. I don’t know anybody here, and received little training.”

Leander was astonished at how close her name was to his former, feminine name: Elea.

“Neither do I.” He said quickly. “I was from Bika.”

“I was from Klima, close to the Cissean border.” She said. “My family were originally from Cissea, but I grew up in Ayvarta. We were forced to flee from Klima a week ago. I joined the military in Knyskna after that, thinking that I could be of service here.”

“I joined it in Bika, but we fled there too.” Leander said.

He recalled the horror he felt as those tanks rolled over the hills as if they had materialized from nowhere– but he closed his eyes, breathed deep and wiped them away from the film reels spinning in his mind. He didn’t want to fixate on those events. He was not ready to mourn a lost home, or even to admit that he had lost anything. Instead, he tried to smile, and force away the dark thoughts, hardening his heart to them.

He offered Elena his hand. “Let’s cling together, Comrade North.”

She took his hand, smiling a little bit herself. “Yes, Comrade Gaurige.”

“If you’re making friends, I want in,” said a young man on Leander’s left, putting his hand on Leander’s shoulder. Unlike Leander and Elena his hair was short enough they could see none of it coming out from under his helmet, and his skin was very dark, almost a blueish black. He held out his hands and Leander shook it; he reached over Leander’s lap and took Elena’s hand as well. She bashfully took the tips of his fingers, and shook them as though shaking salt or pepper over a dish. He laughed, and returned to his seat.

“I’m Bonde.” He said. “I’m from Knyskna itself. Pushed right out of a training battalion, into a pillbox, and now a truck. I prefer it to waiting for a concrete-buster to hit my head.”

“Likewise.” Leander said. “Pillboxes are hellish.”

“I wanted to be part of the medical corps, but they needed nimble people for the assault teams.” Elena said. “I guess they glanced over and found me nimble enough for the task.”

Leander did notice that nobody around them looked very heavy.

A hatch opened from the front of the truck. From the passenger seat, their commanding officer, a tanned man with short, wispy white hair, looked back on them and provided instructions. Sergeant Bahir had jumped into the truck last, once everyone had been loaded up, and nobody got to see him until now. He was a sleek, dark man, like a figure precisely sculpted, with no edges out of place and no parts gone unsmoothed.

“Alright troops, we’ve suffered some setbacks before, but now is our time to surprise the imperialists.” Sgt. Bahir said, his voice taking a fiery tone of oratory, “Nocht thought they could run over Knyskna, but in their greedy charge they outran their armored support, and ran right into our guns. Now they’re holed up in this forest waiting for the dawn to launch an attack. We won’t let them get started. Our air recon may be limited, but this afternoon we found critical positions in the woods, and signs of movements that are key to their operation here. We’ve taken these unused backroads in a circumspect route around the forest to avoid Nocht patrols. When this truck stops, we’ll dismount and we’ll trail through the forest on foot to flank their rear echelons where they least expect. Our goals in particular are to threaten their artillery positions and destroy their supplies. We’re not taking any prisoners. But if you see any documents, you take those and you make sure you survive to see a Commissariat information officer. They may be vital to our success here.”

Everyone in the truck sat up straighter as they listened to him. Leander felt a fire light in his chest. It sounded like such an important mission to be on, for someone who had been a socialist for a mere ten days. Now he felt even more committed, though he had little formal training save what he was told by officers during lulls in the fighting.

He had first been a support rifleman for a gun crew, and then a gun loader, after seeing death for the first time. Now he was part of the assault troops.

It didn’t enter into his mind how desperate this seemed.

Sgt. Bahir continued. “Another formation of our troops is preparing for an assault on the opposite flank – we will storm through the forest by surprise and pinch the imperialists in their camp. We will have the support of a 120mm heavy mortar battalion that will stay behind, but we can only signal them through flares. Check your supplies now: if you have a flare with you then you will shoot it when instructed by me. Understood?”

Around the truck, several soldiers fondled their packs thoughtfully, where their flare guns were kept. Not everyone had such a gun. Leander was not given one. So only a few of them carried this responsibility. Leander sighed a little with relief. He did not know if he trusted his own judgment on these matters.

“Those of you with flares must shoot them over the position to be targeted.” Sgt. Bahir said. “The artillery fire will be imprecise due to our present conditions – launch your flare so that it rises over your target and then take cover. Don’t shoot any position closer than 10 meters from yourself. Got that?”

Those soldiers with flare guns nodded their heads.

“Then let us teach Nocht to fear the shadows in the woods, comrades!”

Leander gripped his own Rasha submachine gun tighter, and he cheered with the rest of the squadron in the truck. When everyone settled back down he was still gripping it tight. He had fired the longer Bundu rifles before, when serving as gun crew support. The submachine gun, he had been told, suited him better because it was light and he could fire a lot of bullets without immediately reloading, which was his major problem when operating the old bolt-action rifle. Each Rasha was a simple design, with a wooden stock and a short steel body, easy to carry and wield, and fed through box magazines or drums – he had drums now, provided by the woman in the staging area.

He checked the drum currently attached. It was fully loaded.

“How much is in here?” He asked Elena.

“I believe sixty. But it shoots so fast you can barely count it.”

Elena was armed similarly to Leander. Neither had flare guns. Unlike them Bonde had a flare gun in a pouch. Elena had instead been entrusted two big packs strapped to her back.

“Careful with the drums,” Bonde warned. “They’re prone to jamming.”

“What do I do if it jams?” Leander asked.

“Toss it, pull out a pistol, and get in cover.” Bonde said.

In other words, he could do nothing about it.

The trucks stopped and Sgt. Bahir called for everyone to form up on the side of the road. All twenty-four riflemen and women formed up into two squads on a natural ditch by the side of the road. They could see precious little around them.

The skies were cloudy and a dim electric torch attached to the Sgt’s rifle was all the light they were allowed. It was growing cold, and if he could have seen all their faces Leander was sure his comrades would look miserable.

Sgt. Bahir called them to attention again, and pointed his Bundu rifle into the pitch-black behind him.

“March carefully and spread out. When you first see the lights from the enemy camp, regroup quietly, shoot an artillery flare and then begin our assault after the shells fall.”

Leander looked over his shoulder and saw the artillery crews, putting down their mortars on the road. They worked by dim lamp-light, holding up oil lanterns to their mortar’s sights and scopes and adjusting them. A few riflemen and all of the tanks would stay behind to guard them and the trucks. They started to site the woods nearby.

When Sergeant Bahir started move the entire assault squad followed. They climbed the ditch up into the woods, advancing on a wide front. Leander took long, precise steps forward, careful not to trip in sudden depressions or to walk into any trunks in the dark. He stuck by Elena, as he had said he would, and she marched alongside him.

Bonde followed close behind them, and he looked around himself as if with a keener eye than theirs. Perhaps his training taught him something to look out for that Leander did not know. Cold, slightly shaking, and feeling anxious in the dark, Leander tried to betray no undue sounds or sudden movements. He wished he could see better in the dark.

As he advanced Leander scanned from side to side, despite being hardly able to see a few feet in front of his nose, and he kept his submachine gun raised in front of him, moving its barrel along his field of vision as he surveyed. Around him the forest was thick with trees, thin and tall and with bushy crowns but growing in clusters. He was often reaching out with his gun and touching a trunk, and had to then weave around it and several neighbors with great care to keep his feet from catching on roots or slipping on a carpet of leaves, or his face from crashing into wood. Marching, he lost track of time.

The Sergeant’s electric torch pointed out the direction in which they were headed, and gave the formation a center around which to form. Leander and Elena would often find themselves too far from the thin beam, and slowly moved toward it to keep in formation with it. Bonde seemed unconcerned and marched confidently in his own path.

Leander sometimes heard or saw his comrades in the squad, difficult as it was to make them out in the dark. They were spread out wide enough, and part of such a larger formation, that it all seemed very abstract. He was marching with a platoon that was part of a company, and part of a battalion, part of a regiment. Leander imagined that there must have been hundreds of troops treading through the forest just like them, rifles out, a massive spearhead across the Djose. He was emboldened by this vision and felt he had the upper hand, though he did not know the size of the enemy’s formations. To him, company and regiment and division were still confusing and vague words that others had only briefly taught him.

“Up ahead,” Elena said, in a voice just high enough for Leander to hear.

They skirted around a line of trees and bushes and found themselves able to see more clearly than before. Lanterns and bonfires in the Nocht camp cast their light out into the forest, providing dim illumination several meters from the camp.

Elena, Bonde and Leander hid at the edge of the lights, using the trees for cover from the camp, and used portable scopes from their equipment pouches to investigate the clearing ahead. Through the lens Leander could see a large tent camp, likely a branch of a bigger Nocht operating base in the Djose wood. This was their intended target.

There were several men wandering the camp, some in various tents established around the clearing, and others huddled around their fires. Leander counted dozens of men, lounging and waiting, and he knew those were only the ones he could see – more probably lurked in the tents or in parts of the camp blocked from his sight. They were all fairly young looking, pale men with bright eyes and hair, whose faces glistened with sweat by the pyrelight. Leander thought some of them could be Cissean too.

Mysterious objects, probably support weapons, covered in green and brown tarps had been lined up to one side of the camp. Stocks of supply crates littered the site, labeled in Nocht script indecipherable to Leander’s eyes. Some had been pried open and partially unloaded, their contents distributed; the majority, dozens in tall stacks, lay out in the open.

There were mounds dug up, upon which Norgler machine guns and Schnitzer light field guns guarded potential approaches to the camp. Only one of these positions faced Leander’s direction.

More of his comrades stepped out of the shadows and they grouped up at the edge of the wood.

“Put a flare over that Norgler, and then we rush in.” Sgt. Bahir said.

Everyone in the squadron scrambled for their flare guns, but Bonde already had his out. He raised it, and aimed over the mound that the Norgler had been mounted on. He fired before anyone else could. Sgt. Bahir called everyone to attention as the flare ascended over the Nocht camp in a bright green flash that discolored the surrounding wood.

Within moments a red and a yellow flash rose skyward from other sides of the camp.

The enemy troops had immediately noticed the flares, and reached for their rifles or ran to their guns, but within moments they were suppressed by Ayvartan shelling.

Heavy mortars set up behind them dropped over a half-dozen shells into the camp from the safety of the truck convoy. Mortar shells crashed around the clearing, smashing the Norgler position in front of Leander and a nearby tent, setting ablaze a stack of crates and sending a group of men near a pyre flying in pieces.  Enemy troops scattered into cover or out in the open away from fragments kicked up by the remaining shells.

Near the back of the camp the shelling grew more inaccurate, but at least one shell hit a box of Nocht ammunition and caused an explosion and a spreading fire that threw the camp into confusion. The time was ripe for the attack to begin.

Sgt. Bahir raised his fist, and the squad charged into the camp.

Leander ran toward the raised Norgler gun mound, hoping to use the raised ruin for cover – it was the only thing close to him. Many of his comrades had instead elected to run headlong toward the tents, across wholly open ground at the edge of the clearing. Leander opened fire with his rasha as he advanced, barely raising it to his shoulder and hardly aiming. His bullets hit nothing but the amount of fire kept several men pinned down behind crates in front of him, and rendered their return fire panicked and ineffective.

Around the camp the Nochtish troops secured weapons and tried to rally, shooting back at the advancing Ayvartans from whatever cover they could scramble for.

Their stray shots hit comrades still in the open, but most of the squad penetrated the camp and took good positions, having shocked the Nocht troops back. Soon the forest was livid with the popping of submachine guns and the cracking of rifles.

There was a sudden explosion in the south, probably an HE shell from a defensive gun, but too far for Leander to do anything about. He felt his sight narrow, and he prayed to the Zigan gods for strong comrades covering his flanks, because his own mind would not let him see anything but forward anymore, and he was losing the lay of the land.

When he reached the wreck of the Norgler position he dropped behind the mound, which covered him fully if he laid on his knees, and took a deep, ragged breath.

Elena and Bonde dropped beside him, firing tentative bursts into the crates ahead as they took cover, hitting no men but suppressing several runners. Bonde gathered the companions in a little huddle and gestured for their guns, and then a thumb behind his back.

Leander and Elena knew what he meant, it was simple enough.

They nodded to one another, held their guns up close and each took a preparatory breath of dirty, smoking air.  As one, the trio rose from cover to shoot, unleashing several bursts downrange at whatever seemed hostile in the embattled camp. Leander tried to brace his barrel over the dirt, but the muzzle climb was considerable for his untrained hands. He could not control the amount fired with each burst either. His bullets flew wildly.

Opposition soon materialized in earnest.

Across from them, three Nocht riflemen huddled near the same troublesome stack of crates that had been repeatedly punished during the advance, and from there they opened fire on Leander and his comrades. The enemy leaned out, fired several rounds from their stripper clips, and returned to cover to work the bolts on their rifles, loading new clips, and then firing again, moving in precise rhythm so that one or two men were always firing and the remainder could reload and prepare in the meantime.

Leander marveled at their discipline, and wondered dimly if their hearts were pumping as hard as his, and if their breaths came as intermittently. Their rifle rounds were more powerful than Leander’s submachine gun ammunition, which was all pistol caliber, and a direct hit would have bit through his plate armor.

But enemy fire either flew over, bit harmlessly into the dust on the mound or stuck into the skeletal remains of the steel Norgler turret in front, crushed by the mortars.

Meanwhile Leander and Elena sprayed lead into the crates, to little effect.

They could not penetrate.

They had a better rate of fire but not the training to know how to leverage this.

Bonde, however, had taken notice of their situation. When he dropped back to reload his submachine gun, he pulled on Leander’s and Elena’s pants sleeves for attention. “Fire long bursts to keep them hidden, and I’ll move forward and shoot them from another angle.” He said, affixing a new drum to his gun. Elena dove back into cover and nodded; Leander tapped his foot while shooting to show that he understood.

Leander took cover again, waited a moment. He and Elena rose to a stand and opened fire on the crates at once. They timed their bursts as best as they could to keep the enemy’s heads down. The Nocht riflemen cowered behind cover, overwhelmed by the dozens of bullets flying their way. While they weathered the storm, Bonde took off from the side of the mound, running in a half-crouch out toward the line of covered objects.

He slid into cover behind what appeared to be a field gun with a tarp over it, and had a perfect flanking angle on the crates. Leander’s weapon dried, as did Elena’s, and the Nocht riflemen leaned out again. But Bonde had them in his sights.

When Elena and Leander dropped into cover, Bonde started shooting, cutting through the riflemen mercilessly. Elena and Leander heard the cries and saw the enemy’s weapons and helmets drop from behind the crates as their bodies fell on the spot.

They had little room to breathe despite this little victory. Battles occurred all around them, shots being traded in every direction. Smoke and dust rose to form a fog of war. Leander found it difficult to maintain awareness of everything happening. Their group, the twenty-five riflemen and women in their truck, had attacked from the east of the camp, but other squads of twenty-five now joined from several directions.

In the distance they dimly heard another crashing rounds of mortar shells, suggesting that their counterparts had begun their own assault from the far west that would pinch the Nocht troops. Leander and Elena ran out from the mound and crouched in front of the crates once occupied by the opposition, pushing the assault forward.

They saw and ignored the enemy bodies, flanked and struck down by Bonde, and established themselves behind the crates with their weapons up and firing anew. Bonde could cover their right flank, and to their left a tent had been knocked half down, and an Ayvartan officer ruffled inside it for documents. They saw Ayvartan assault troops move up from the south, pinning down the remaining Nocht troops and shooting them.

There was one last great crescendo of submachine guns in the nearby area before silence seemed to fall for certain. Sounds of gunfire became distant and the air around the camp stilled. The immediate area looked clear. Sgt. Bahir crawled out of the tent beside Leander and Elena and sat with his back to their crates, catching his breath.

“Found nothing.” He told them. “But this whole place was a big artillery dump. This’ll hurt ’em bad tomorrow.”

Leander nodded solemnly, his head pounding. “Orders, sir?”

“We’re gonna regroup, demolish all of these ammo crates, then push north down that path–”

The Sergeant stopped, and suddenly urged them to keep quiet.

“I hear it.” Elena said in fear, turning her head every which way. “But where–?”

A whirring, rumbling thing approached swiftly, its crunching wheels and engine noises drawing closer upon the camp.

Sgt. Bahir seemed to recognize it and screamed for everyone to disperse.

Within moments the sandbags blocking a path north of the camp collapsed under the eight wheels and sloped, battering face of an armored car, the machine losing no speed as it charged into the camp. A squat, sliding turret atop the back of the car turned its Norgler gun barrel and loosed dozens of bullets every second.

Leander hid without hesitation.

Like a stampeding animal the car drove past his position and charged south through the camp center. Leander peeked his head and watched the machine overrun a fire team shocked dumb behind a low sandbag wall, crushing the four of them under its wheels.

It swung around the edge of the camp, and the Norgler howled, puncturing crates and tents and cutting down soldiers behind their cover with withering fire. Leander saw bullets perforate the tent beside him and fly past, and he recoiled in fear, pushing against the crate with his back and scrabbling with his feet as though he could move the entire stack and protect himself. The bullets bit into the earth around him and kicked up tiny fragments of rock and wisps of dirt that made him terribly nervous.

Elena shook him and grabbed him and tried to keep him still. She finally seized his hand and led him to the other side of the crate, where they huddled over the corpses of the Nocht soldiers Bonde had killed and waited for the car to come for them as it circled around the camp. Hidden from fire again Leander tried to catch his breath, his mind racing and unable to settle on any course of action. Elena kept a nervous watch.

The armored car had hooked around the east side of the camp, covering the path from where they had first approached, and turned its turret right on them. It stopped briefly upon the Norgler mound they had destroyed, one of its front wheels catching in the hole left by the heavy mortar, all the while firing wildly around itself.

Machine gun bullets penetrated the crates, but luckily their silhouettes were hidden, and they were not the only targets, so Elena and Leander went uninjured through the salvo. Bullets flew inaccurately around them, grazing their heads and sides and chipping away their cover; then the gun turned to suppress other threats, leaving them trapped but alive.

“Without bigger guns we’re hopeless!” Leander said.

“We have the mortars.” Elena replied. “Where is the sergeant?”

“I don’t know!” Leander said, clutching his chest in fear.

“He was right here with us when the car attacked!” Elena said.

“Sergeant!” Leander shouted. He called out again and again, but there was no response. He didn’t know what to do in this situation – how did a soldier fight a vehicle head-on like this? He thought the second that he tried to move in the open the armored car would reduce him to meat in the blink of an eye. How did anyone survive a fight like this? How did a person of flesh and blood ever possibly stand up to this monster?

“Sergeant Bahir, use the mortars!” Elena cried out, looking desperate herself.

In front of them gunfire paused for an instant.

The Norgler machine gun atop the armored car turned again to face the source of the shouts, the gunner having heard Leander and Elena yelling behind the crates.

A burst of submachine gun fire bounced off the armored turret before it could fire.

“Throw a grenade at the front!” Bonde shouted, ducked behind the tarped weapons.

He leaned out from cover and fired at the turret, his bullets threatening the gunner’s slits but never accurate enough to go through. The turret turned to suppress him, gunfire puncturing the tarp and plinking against the weapons. Bonde survived the volley, crawling between the different tarped weapons while the Norgler tried to perforate them. The line of fire slowly followed him, biting centimeters behind him as he scrambled away.

Leander stood as tall as he could behind the crates while still hiding from the Norgler, and he withdrew his pipe grenade and pulled the catch on its handle.

His hands were shaking and his eyes stung with tears and dirt and even droplets of blood from tiny cuts delivered by fragments.

That moment before the throw felt impossibly long, slow, and terrifying.

He wound his arm and threw the grenade as hard as he could at the front of the armored car. There must have been at least twenty meters between them and the armored car, but the pipe hit the driver’s viewing slit nonetheless, became stuck in it and exploded.

Leander cowered like a child expecting a strike, but his legs were shaking and he did not dive back behind the crates. He saw the blast and the aftermath. The grenade punched a hole in the driver’s compartment, blowing fragments and heat through the openings and mauling the man at the wheel, leaving nothing but smoke and a smear on the seat.

But the explosion cost the car as a whole little integrity.

Though shaken, the turret came alive again.

“Stay down,” Elena warned, her voice quivering. They heard a click as the gun fixed itself on them. Leander could not move, staring down that gun, and even if he could he had nowhere to go that was safe. The crates had taken a beating, and would not last any longer. Elena seemed to want to help him, but he waved his hand stiffly for her to keep down. He had done everything he could, he thought. He grimly awaited the next volley.

Then a red flare rose high over the armored car, illuminating the gunner’s slit.

Leander thought he saw a face, gasping in horror before the shells fell.

With the driver dead the Armored Car could not escape the barrage. Mortar shells pounded into the roof of the vehicle and collapsed the turret, burying the gunner in shredded steel before it could shoot, and crashed into the ground around the vehicle, rattling its wounds. Fuel began to leak from it and the hull caught fire as a result of the violence.

Sergeant Bahir ran out from behind the nearby tent, dropping a flare gun and urging Elena and Leander away from the car, and shouting for Bonde to run.

They fled, while the fire spread over the ruined car and its fuel tank erupted.

Fragments of armor plate and Norgler ammunition flew in every direction as it exploded. Burning chunks of metal and torch-like projectiles flew from the carcass, igniting the shell crates that moments earlier had served so admirably as cover for Leander’s group. Bonde’s line of tarp-covered guns were soon caught in spreading flames.

“Ancestors, what a mess,” Sergeant Bahir shouted, looking over the remaining troops and the ruins of the camp. The survivors of the assault and subsequent battle regrouped away from the fires to quickly take stock of the situation.

Three assault groups had participated in this area, Leander soon found out.

One had been wiped out almost in its entirety – the first squad approaching from the south contended with both a Norgler and a Schnitzer and high-explosive fire from the latter weapon crushed the advancing troops. The south-east squadron, which joined after the battle had commenced, picked up the slack for them; Leander’s east squadron had luckily fought from the most advantageous positions in the camp, and the mortar attacks supporting them scored the most accurate hits on the defenders.

Leander gulped: in retrospect his own side of the attack was terrifying, and he could not even imagine how the survivors of the southern assault squad felt. He peered their way and they seemed a little shaken, but standing, and they willingly joined a new assault group. Would it later return to their minds that they had survived being shot at with explosives?

And what about him? Would he himself vomit with the realization that he stood face to barrel with a Norgler and at any moment could have been cruelly butchered before it?

His eyes were tearing up, his mind distorted.

He wiped his face, and thought of nothing. His mind and emotions came up a blank, as though his soul had been what the Norgler fire suppressed.

Sergeant Bahir was still lively, and he began to deal out orders. “Gather up any stray Schnitzers, and point them north. Keep six or seven shells around for each. We’re advancing. I’ve got more Imperialists to kill. We’ll leave behind a few people to rig up the Imperialist’s ammunition and supplies for destruction. You,” He pointed at Elena, “You’ve got explosives in that pack, right? Leave them for the cleanup crew before we go.”

Elena nodded and she did as instructed, leaving behind her pack. She seemed relieved to be rid of it. Sergeant Bahir ordered about ten people to stay behind, crewing two undamaged Schnitzer 37mm guns and setting explosives around the stacks of crates and in the contents of overturned tents.

About forty other soldiers, including Leander, Elena and Bonde, gathered around Sgt. Bahir and advanced north over the toppled sandbag wall the armored car had run over to attack them. He divided them into three teams that would spread out and follow the woods around a path about five meters wide that ran downhill from the clearing and into the forest. The path was an old woodland trail just flat enough and wide enough for cars to move through, but the fire teams stuck to the treeline on either side.

Everyone moved briskly, no longer caring what they trampled over to make it from cover to cover. Without the element of surprise they had to treat every stretch of wood as though the enemy was charging to meet them. Electric torches cast wandering lights into the wood to make up for the distance they had put to the Nocht pyres and lanterns in the camp. Two people in each thirteen-gun squadron walked with a sidearm and a flashlight, guiding the rest downhill. Eleven others stuck to their submachine guns.

As they advanced Leander saw flashes in the west, flares and gunfire in the distance.

“The other assault group,” Bonde said. “They haven’t found respite like us.”

No sooner had this been said that the respite was at its end.

From the gloom of the forest Leander heard the clinking sounds of several grenades striking the carpet of twigs. He could not judge the distance well, but nobody was about to risk being bombarded by fragments. Everyone in Leander’s squadron took cover against the thickest, closest trees they could find and steeled themselves.

No explosion followed.

A thick cloud of smoke rose from the forest floor instead, and there was a din of running boots, moving in the cloud, crunching leaves and twigs. Leander and Elena stuck shoulders to either side of a big tree, put their backs to one another, and leaned out in preparation. Nocht soldiers moved up in force, known at first only by the stomping of their boots, and then by the cracking of their bullets, chipping bark off trees used for cover.

After the first exchanges of gunfire the battle grew pitched. Smoke grenades burst around the forest, some igniting patches of dry leaves and creating dancing torches in the gloom. Assault teams hunkered down and shot their Rashas and pistols into the wood in the hopes of stemming the hidden tide. Nocht’s combat presence grew from distant flashes and rustling movements through the fog; to withering bursts of concentrated gunfire probing the Ayvartan’s cover; to shadows, darting from tree to tree and charging ever closer to Leander and his team. He directed tentative fire their way, hitting nothing.

Chaos unfolded in the thick wood. Leander could have sworn that he had heard men fall and cry in pain, but nonetheless the opposing ranks crashed into one another as though their numbers had never thinned, and he found himself firing at gray uniforms so close that he could discern everything about them. The battle lines were just a few meters from each other, and it felt far more personal even than the battles in the well-lit camp.

He saw the helmets, like coal pails, with a projecting visor and a flared rim; faces white as chalk with piercing eyes; great gray coats that seemed to hide their real shapes.

Rather than Nocht carbines, many of the soldiers Leander now faced returned fire with metallic SMGs, pinning him with the same deadly bursts as the Ayvartan Rasha.

Leander and Elena quickly found their backs directly pressed to each other, both fully in hiding from intense gunfire. Wood chips flew around them as gunfire struck cover.

“Watch your sides!” Sergeant Bahir shouted through the storm. “They’re going to flank you! Ignore the gunfire facing your cover and keep your flanks and backs guarded!”

Leander swallowed hard, realizing that he and Elena were now a flank of their team, positioned by ill fate on the extreme left side of the advance.

He leaned out of cover and opened fire, hoping he might dissuade Nochtish movement, but a retaliatory blaze from the enemy forced him into hiding again. Nocht gunners fought back with precision, while the Ayvartans had no coordination as to who was firing, who was reloading, and how to advance. Without Sergeant Bahir screaming from somewhere in the middle of the battle, there would have been no leadership at all.

Their squadron was concentrated, and had poor angles on the enemy’s positions despite proximity. Leander could see Bonde and many of his other squad mates crowding the adjacent trees, sloppily trading low caliber gunfire with the enemy.

A principal obstacle in front of them, preventing them from advancing or dispersing, was a long, overturned tree trunk serving as cover for crouched and seated Nocht troops, and guarded on either side by Nocht submachine gunners in good cover behind standing trees. It was from there that a rising gale of bullets kept Leander’s team pinned down.

He could not see the positions occupied by the other teams through the shadows and smoke, but he knew his own team was gaining no ground at all.

“I’m throwing a grenade!” Elena told him suddenly. “I hear movement over there!”

She pointed out to their left flank, at an indistinct series of shadows in the gloom that Leander assumed were more trees. SMG fire raged in front of them and prevented Leander from leaning out to try to spot enemy movement, but he was not about to doubt Elena if she thought they were in danger. He nodded to her in acknowledgment.

“I’ll cover you.” He crouched and tried to guard her as she primed.

Elena had a good arm, and reared back and cast the grenade exactly where she had told him. It soared between a pair of thin trees and over a series of cleared stumps. Within an instant they saw the blast as a brief, powerful flash. They heard a crashing noise from something heavy nearby, and a helmet flew out of the wood and rolled past them.

Looking over the site of the carnage they thought they could make out a corpse, sprawled over a tree stump with an uninhibited view of Leander and Elena’s tree. He had been trying to circumvent their cover, and Elena had managed to stop him.

They stared in shock, wondering whether this was horror or fortune before them.

Emboldened by Elena’s throw, one of their squad mates at Bonde’s side reached for his own grenade. He shouted, “Throwing a grenade!” and signaled his intention to throw forward at the Nocht position. Several other squadmates stepped out and fired fiercely to cover for him, while Elena and Leander reloaded and attempted to join.

But this maneuver would prove very short-lived.

Nocht gunners retaliated instantly despite the suppressive volleys from his squadmates, and the man received a wound to the leg as he leaned out to throw, and fell out of cover. His grenade rolled out of his hands and barely left the battle line.

Nobody could reach out to save the man; everyone hunkered down in a panic, as the grenade was primed and about to blow. Leander cried out in shock and covered himself. Between the lines the grenade went off, the trees fully absorbing the blast and fragments. When the squad recovered their comrade lay butchered on the floor just centimeters away, and the enemy gunners were mildly shaken and certainly far from dislodged.

Leander’s stomach tightened, and he could not grip his weapon well.

In the midst of the noise he remembered the only other time he had ever felt so sick and hurt and fearing for his life – once when his family had stopped to hunt wild boar in the woods of some lost corner of Ayvarta, untouched by anyone but nomads for years and years. He had never been allowed to go hunting, and was forced to stay with the girl children. But one time he had ventured to escape and to find the hunters.

Unfortunately for him, he met a wild boar before they did.

He saw firsthand how one of the caravan men killed it to save him.

It was faster and stronger than them, a massive beast against mere men, but it wanted Leander’s flesh, not theirs. They dove upon it from behind and butchered it alive with their knives. Despite all its brute strength the boar could not match their ferocity.

Leander had not been able to move a muscle, facing that hideous thing, but in his terror he had played a part in their success. He had drawn the monster’s attention to himself.

“Elena,” he found himself saying, his voice shaking and his Ayvartan tongue ever more accented and difficult to maintain, “You have a sharp spade, a trench spade, do you?”

His grammar was becoming loose as well. Still in shock, Elena nodded.

It was easily seen on her pack, and Leander took it, hands shaking.

“What are you going to do?” She asked, staring with wide eyes at him.

He did not respond, not with words. He did not even breathe.

Leander dropped his SMG and stormed unceremoniously out of cover.

Running with desperate strength he tried to circle the engagement, putting as many trees between himself and the enemy as he could. He had to cover as much ground as he could while they were still focused on the trees and not their flanks. The gun, the ammo, the grenades, none of it would help him. He had to bet everything on his feet, his arms, his foolishness, and the enemy’s focus – and on their primal fear of claws, teeth, and melee.

He ran with his head down, vaulting over stumps and roots, charging with both hands on his spade, held out in front of him, swinging with his arms. For a foolish instant he believed he went unnoticed, then bullets started to trail his way from the enemy’s right flank, chipping pieces off the trees and striking the dirt as his feet left the ground.

He did not pause, he took no cover – he felt as if his heart would seize up with the rush.

Around him the gunfire grew in intensity.

Stray SMG bullets ricocheted off the back of his plate armor and off his shoulder with each enemy burst and he screamed in pain and rage from the blunted impacts. He screamed to keep moving, his entire body hurtling forward in a daze. He screamed to live. If his voice gave out, if his mind froze up, his limbs would too and he knew he would die.

Through the firestorm he ran a dozen meters to cover less than six, and it was like a writhing blur before him. Leander ran the left flanks of the enemy’s position and charged toward a pair of guards still firing at his comrades from behind the trees. He put his spade in front of him and threw himself as fast as he could toward the two men.

One man looked over his shoulder and saw him coming.

He ripped himself from his position, turning in a panic and opening fire as Leander drew upon him. Rounds caught in the metal assault armor, hitting Leander like rocks thrown at his stomach, but he did not slow. He came crashing forward and swept the man aside, throwing him to the ground and casting his weapon away into the shadows.

Ayvartan fire resumed as Leander attacked, chipping at the trees; the second SMG gunner turned away from the front and fully around in time to meet Leander.

He did not get to fire a shot.

Leander bashed his hands with the spade, turning his gun to the ground, and bashed him across the head. His opponent stumbled, hitting his back against the tree. Leander reared back and with all the strength he could summon he drove the spade through the man’s mouth. The sharpened edge split the cheeks and cut right through the back of the neck. Leander thought he felt the tip slicing through bone and hitting wood.

From the ground the surviving gunner witnessed the horror that had become of his squad-mate and crawled away on his back. Leander ripped the bloody spade free from the corpse with both hands and in one fluid motion he turned and swung again.

With one horrible thrust he pierced the man’s head across his nose.

There was silence for a few confounding seconds before Leander was again aware of the gunfire, of the rustling in the trees, of the distant blasts. He dropped his spade.

More pressingly, he had become hyper-aware of his own body, trapped in it.

He sucked in air desperately, choking and heaving. Every tissue in his body seemed to thrash and thrum with pain, blood crashing through sheared sinews, muscles twisting, his tongue hanging out and drooling. Rivulets of sweat felt like razors across his skin. He felt the bullet impacts blunted by his armor across his back and belly and chest, swelling and scorching. He kneeled helplessly over the corpses, about to vomit in pain and trauma.

From the forest came a renewed stomping and screams in a strange language.

Leander looked slowly up and saw figures in the forest, staring at him like a beast.

Kommunisten! Feuer frei!”

They brought their rifles up to shoot at him.

From behind him a hail of gunfire lit up the figures, like fiery arrows in the gloom.

“Leander, we’re retreating! Leander!”

Elena knelt beside him, firing her submachine gun into the woods and screaming at him. Leander lay dazed for a moment, while his squadron moved up to the position behind the long overturned trunk, firing into the woods and leaping over the cover.

His distraction must have allowed them to overrun it.

He helped himself to stand by Elena’s shoulder, hobbling to look around the tree he had charged. All of the men that had impeded their progress lay dead, and his comrades hurried to pick the officer among them for anything important.

Bonde hurried up to the front, and took Leander over his shoulder.

He looked Leander in the eyes and nodded, smiling at him. Acknowledging him.

“I’m afraid we can’t take a token of this, but we will remember it.” Bonde said.

They left the spade where it lay over the corpses, and Elena took Leander’s other arm over her own shoulder. She tried to smile at him too, but she was visibly more shaken than Bonde. Leander thought that like him she was nearing the end of her composure.

Something intangible that allowed them both to fight as they had done until now was dangerously close to breaking. Leander could hardly make sense of his own head anymore.

Sergeant Bahir screamed out from somewhere in the forest: “All remaining flares, fire overhead to the closest enemy position and retreat quickly! We need to cover our escape, we’re falling back to the trucks. The enemy is livelier than we anticipated!”

Leander sighed pitiably, feeling a terrible pain just doing that.

It all had been for naught.

All at once the remaining flares rose skyward from the depths of the wood, and were followed by a torrent of mortar fire from the far-off road. Like stars falling from heaven the shells would scream down behind them and light up the forest for an instant, forcing the imperialists into hiding or tossing them like toys with direct hits.

Joining the attack on the advancing Nocht forces were captured Schnitzer guns from the camps in the rear, lobbing High-Explosive shells over the retreating Ayvartans and deep into the ranks chasing them. Many shells caught in the trees above Nochtish troops, but burst into fragments and lit fires that nonetheless worked in the communist’s favor.

Leander did not look back, but the fire and the marching he heard in the distance suggested to him that they had likely not even chipped at the imperialist’s strength in the wood. Surprise had been their only advantage and they barely left a scratch on the enemy.

Somehow the desperate retreat was not overrun. Elena and Bonde hurried through the wood with Leander in tow, past the clouds of smoke and the corpses of enemy and comrade alike. They rushed uphill, and the Schnitzers were abandoned and disabled with grenades.

Leander asked to be put down, and on shaking and hurting but still capable legs he ran alongside his comrades. His chest felt like it would rip open from the inside whenever he breathed while running, and he was soon feeling light-headed again, but he would not stop moving. He did not want to be carried again. He hated feeling like a burden.

Soon the group was deep into the forest, and could see the lights from the trucks ahead of them on the road. They heard resounding explosions at their backs as the imperialist’s stockpiles detonated, consuming the remainder of their outer camps in an inferno.

Even that felt like a hollow victory.

Everyone who reached the road pulled themselves back into their trucks with bleak expressions in their faces, if their face had an expression at all. Many soldiers seemed struck dumb with glassy eyes and no understanding of their surroundings.

Adrenaline now wearing off, Leander felt he too must have looked confused and spent, struggling to raise his legs and climb into the bed of a truck while feeling as though his body would rip itself apart in the process. He had never felt so drained.

Of the 24 people who could fit in this truck, there were only 8 left.

He settled uncomfortably on his bench, playing with the catches fastening his armor at his shoulder. He knew his binder was totally ruined under his clothes – he felt the itchy fabric sheared to pieces against his chest. But he still wanted the damned armor off. He could not quite remove it by himself, and was advised to wait until a physician could see him – the armor might have been helping to keep him standing, his comrades told him.

The truck rattled to a start, drove into the ditch on its side and turned around back the way it came, toward Knyskna. It had been many hours since they departed. Goblin tanks lobbed shots into the length of the wood to stymie an enemy interdiction as the convoy drove forward at full speed, the time for stealth and silence long since over.

Leander’s vision went in and out of focus. He felt someone reach out to him.

“You did well, Leander. You were brave.” Bonde said. “You too, Elena, you fought fiercely. All of us are still learning, and right now the enemy is our only teacher. Today you conquered an enemy who fought like he was born to do so. We were not born into this. But if we can buy more time and fight like that, we can win. I know we can win.”

“Can we?” Elena said, sighing. “Nocht has felt nothing short of invincible to me.”

“I’m not quite together enough to return the optimism, Bonde.” Leander said.

“I’m just trying to lift your spirits up. You did not fail by any measure today.”

The two of them looked skeptically at Bonde.

“I’m being serious with you two!” He said. He took off his helmet, and ran his hand through his very short, closely cropped hair, scratching. He showed them the helmet – a bullet had caught in it, a hair’s width from his head. “All of us survived an ordeal today. All of us cheated death today. Our continent has so many legends about this.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m a Zungu.” Elena said, referring to people of Lubon or Cissean or Nochtish or Svechthan extraction – “ivory-faced” – that were nonetheless native to Ayvarta.

Leander was a Zigan so he already did not fit the demographics particularly well.

But he knew Bonde was an Umma, the most ancient people of the continent, even more so than the majority Arjuns of Ayvarta, examples of which were many around them.

“I don’t know the legends,” Elena said, “and I don’t really worship the Umma’s ancestors or the Arjun’s spirits. I just know what I saw – and it looked like defeat.”

“Zigan folklore is even grimmer on this subject.” Leander said, his voice beginning to grow weak again as the pain across his chest flared up. “If you cheat death you owe him, and he will collect far sooner than if you had lived a full and healthy life. Daredevils are not rewarded among us. We are a cautious sort who try to avoid trouble.”

“Well, fine, then let’s not talk about legends. I’m comforted by religion – but I understand a lot of communists are simply not. If you need a reason to carry on, think of this.” Bonde said. “We are free. We have our place in the world. They’re trying to take it away. There is no other place for us like Ayvarta. That is why we must, and we will, keep fighting. We do not exist anywhere else – what you are here, Leander, you can be nowhere else. Same goes for you, Elena, and for all of us. What we are here, will fight here or will die here. It has to win here.”

Bonde’s words shocked him. He instantly wondered whether Bonde knew those inalienable and difficult feelings which Leander held about his body, about his soul – but of course he could not have. What chance had he had to learn them?

However, some of what he said rang true for him in other ways.

Leander remembered Gadi, the brightly-dressed woman who accepted him into Bika. He remembered the people of Bika and his few days living under the auspice of their generosity. He thought he’d had a place with them in a way that he never had before. He was free with them. He felt both a strong disgust and fear that Nocht had taken it all from him, but also a growing strength to resist. He had to fight for it, all of them had to.

He had to stand amid its ashes to preserve his freedom if needed.

“You’re right about that, in more ways than you know.” Elena said.

When they wanted to kill Leander, the Nochtish men had screamed Kommunisten.

It was strange. His eyes began to water, but not because of corporeal pain or the reverberations of gunfire and shells and wailing death that played out inside of his skull. His tears were sentimental. He felt the fighting so close now, much closer than ever before; each round fired was being fired on the soil of his only home.

He had been fighting for something borrowed all this time, and it was becoming his now. But it gave him a strange kind of courage too. Bonde and Elena both noticed him weeping, and they patted him in the back and tried to console and comfort him, as their trucks drove hurriedly back to Knyskna to prepare for Nocht’s counterattacks.

They looked like they understood what he felt.

This was something common among them all now. They were Ayvartans.

~ ~ ~

In the year 2030 D.C.E the Federation of Northern States, “Nocht,” launched “Operation Monsoon,” as part of Generalplan Suden, the invasion of the Communist southern continent of Ayvarta. Across the twin dominances of Adjar and Shaila, Nocht deployed half a million troops for their first wave, and held more in reserve.

The largest concentrations of these troops were the elite Task Force Lee in Shaila, whose Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions stormed quickly through Ayvartan defenses and seemed unstoppable as they took land, bombed airfields, and drove back defenders.

Shaila was defended by Battlegroup Lion, an army weakened by the policies of the national civil council parliament in Solstice. Suffering crushing defeats, the bulk of its troops were encircled in Tukino. In its darkest hour they were unable to defend Knyskna.

* * *

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — A Beacon On The Horizon

Change of Scenery – Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and mild discrimination.


25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Shaila Dominance Knyskna City, northern Shaila.

Leander Gaurige felt quaking artillery blasts and heard the shrieking of rifles and the rhythmic thudding of machine guns. Nestled inside the tunnel that once led out of his pillbox, he had his eyes closed but could still see the flashes inside his eyelids whenever a shell went off outside, cutting instantly through the dark. He could feel the hot air wafting into the pillbox. It would become hard to breathe for a moment as the smoke blew inside.

He could not sleep, not in this appalling situation, but he was expected to. This would be the only rest he was allowed at his post. Perhaps it would even be the final time that he voluntarily laid down on his pack and closed his eyes.

Soon he would have to join the battle in earnest.

He was thankful, however.

He got to live these dark days as a he felt a man would have lived them.

And others recognized his efforts.

“Gaurige,” He felt a rifle butt scrape against his cheek.

But it was too soon! He wanted to cry out at the injustice of it.

“Just a minute, please, comrade.” Leander dazedly said.

Satisfied with this response the rifle retreated through the tunnel opening again. There was no more putting it off. All the noise had died down, and with a lull in the enemy shelling, that meant he would rotate out. Leander sat up as much as he could, and gathered his implements, his sub-machine gun, his sharpened trench shovel, his one grenade.

He clipped his belt on and began to button up his uniform shirt. He sighed as he did so, feeling an itch from the worn and sheared elastic of his chest binder, threatening to snap. It was starting to slack a bit as well – he had been fighting for days now and just had no time to try to find a replacement binder to keep his breasts bound.

He crawled out of the dirt tunnel and up to the tight concrete quarters of the pillbox.

Once back on his feet and straightened out, he saluted.

“Oh, forget that.” the Sergeant said, shaking his head from a corner of the pillbox where the machine gun was set, right beside their dilapidated 45mm short-barreled gun. “Don’t salute anyone on your way! Just, run with all your might to the staging area!”

Everyone cooperated to push aside the 45mm gun to create an opening around the side of the aperture. Their pillbox was a fairly large structure for its kind, made to hold both an anti-tank and a machine gun emplacement. With their tunnel partially collapsed behind them by a shell, the only way to leave the circular, concrete defense was to dive through the long firing slit and run. Leander nodded to his comrades, and took a deep breath.

He was soaked in sweat and felt his stomach rolling in his belly. Lining himself up with two other men, he waited for the sergeant’s signal. All of them had been called to join an assault group – the fighters in the city needed everyone they could spare.

From the slit of their box, they could see the outline of the Djose woods almost a kilometer out in the dark.

Since Nocht had taken the forest, largely without a fight, the woods had become a thing to fear at night, a black fortress in the distance from which cannons belched fire out to Knyskna, the rail hub and economic capital of the Shaila dominance.

A broad and open road leading from the wood to Knyskna had been smashed featureless and the field between the defensive line and the forest was littered with shell holes. Craters of many sizes pockmarked the area. No longer was the field an undisturbed green, but a sickly expanse of ashen holes and upturned dirt, intercut with bizarre areas of intact grass and flowers.

The Sergeant was almost in tears before giving his signal.

“Run fast, ok? Don’t look back. Ayvarta needs you now.”

Leander nodded grimly, as did the soldiers with him. Nocht bunker-suppression batteries had pre-sighted the fronts of their pillboxes already. It was their feet, versus the enemy spotters.

The Sergeant looked out to the woods with his binoculars.

He snapped his fingers and cried, almost in pain, “Go!”

Leander and the men with him rushed out of the slit, climbing over the lip and forcing themselves through. Leander was very slender, and he easily rolled between the slit, gathered himself and took off running from the pillbox and into town. His comrades were not as lucky. He heard the ominous sawing noise of a Norgler machine gun and put his hands over his head, closing his eyes as he ran. Behind him he heard screams.

Someone had been clipped in the leg.

He heard a thud as a compatriot tripped, and became fodder for the guns.

There were still steps behind him, so at least one ally remained.

Leander would not dare to look and confirm this.

From the forest the enemy opened up on the pillbox and their fire trailed up the road. Norglers blew automatic fire across the defensive line, and were soon joined by field artillery. Half-hunched and running as fast as he could, Leander could still tell a shell had fallen – there was a silence like a sucked-in breath followed a loud, echoing blast. Had the blast been solitary he would have heard the fragments and the dirt falling back to earth a few moments later, and the billowing of smoke; but shells hardly ever fell alone. As he ran into the city a tumultuous artillery barrage followed. Blast after blast silenced the screaming at his back. It was a cruel cacophony that the victim would never get to hear.

Leander took solace in that he only heard the shells.

That he heard the blasts meant that the shells were not meant for him.

He rushed up the road and weaved around the closest row of buildings. To the last one they had been bombed out, the walls collapsed and the roofs sunken through the middle of each structure. They had been hit with sparse bombardments but even one bomb was enough to knock them out. Once they had been beautiful buildings, whimsical, made of rough clay and straw bricks so that they seemed like a confectionary, like brown wafer. Most of the southern part of the city had been reduced to such a state. Leander walked as fast as he could using the buildings for cover, going through two or three blocks of ruined houses before finding himself in an open plaza, the staging area.

He looked behind him one last time and saw nobody coming.

Soldiers gathered into the center of the plaza, picking up armaments and climbing into the backs of trucks to be driven out for the assault on the forest, while officers made the ruins closest to the plaza into their headquarters for fear of being out in the open.

A collection of flat-bed trucks were arranged around the plaza, each carrying air defense guns, 37 or 85mm cannons pointing at the sky. Searchlights shone from the park and up into the dark sky as well, working in tandem with the guns. Looking closely, Leander could see similar lights trailing across the sky further into the city.

They were on the lookout for possible air strikes. Nocht had not yet attacked them at night — but nothing precluded this happening. After all, they themselves were planning a night attack right at that moment. Leander turned his attention away from the sky and stood in the line behind the other soldiers. There were crates near them, and officers handing them weapons and tools that they would need before ushering them into the trucks.

As more soldiers climbed in and Leander came closer to the front of the line, an older woman officer pulled him aside unceremoniously. She seemed very interested in his body, looking down at his legs and examining his build. At first Leander was afraid.

What was this woman noticing about him? Did she have something to say about his identity as a male soldier – and what would it possibly be? But this was Ayvarta, and such things seemed beyond anyone’s concerns.

Instead the woman officer thrust upon him a metal helmet and a metal plate vest, and she led him to a different line and a different set of trucks than where he previously stood. She helped him to affix the metal armor over his chest, and to strap on the helmet over his head. She took his submachine gun magazines, and gave him round drums instead. Once he was fully equipped, she put his SMG in his hands and saluted him.

“You’re going in with the shock troops, comrade. You look nimble enough for it. Frankly, if we left it to volunteers nobody would go. But don’t fret. The armor will protect you from pistols and SMGs, as will the helmet. Don’t dive in front of any Norglers and you’ll be fine. Your job is to punch a hole for us.”

Around him were several other soldiers, similarly dressed. He realized that she was not just addressing him, but all the men and women who were already standing in the line as well. “Punch a hole, ma’am?” Leander asked. He became suddenly conscious of his voice – it was very similar to that of the lady officer.

“We’re gonna be trucking you ladies and gents into the forest to flank the Nocht line – we’re expecting them to attack in the morning and we need to disrupt their advance. You’ll get more instructions on the way.” She gave him a friendly slap in the back and a gentle shove into the line. “Have at them, boy.”

Leander nodded and took his place in the line. Despite the bleakness of his situation, there was something in the character of the Ayvartans around him that gave him strength and that made him face the dark woods and the screeching guns with a nugget of pride and purpose in his heart. Perhaps this was that ephemeral-sounding camaraderie of socialism – or perhaps a hidden little joy he felt from the officer’s acknowledgment.

He felt more strongly than ever that he wanted to protect his new home.

15th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Shaila Dominance Outskirts of Bika, southern Shaila, near Mamlakh border.

“It’s time to go Elea, wake up.”

Leander felt his uncle’s knobby wooden cane rubbing against his cheek.

He heard his dead name being spoken, and he thought to ask for a few more minutes of sleep, but he knew the circumstances would no longer permit it.

“I’ll be right out, uncle,” Leander moaned, turning over in the long basket that had been his bed. Many years ago he fit perfectly, but now he was taller, and his lean brown body almost doubled over to fit inside the basket. He heard the thick, beaded curtain clinking as his uncle walked out of the wagon to give him room to make himself ready.

Leander pulled himself up to a stand by the wooden beams running across the wall of the wagon. He took a mango from a nearby basket and nibbled on it while searching around the wagon for some men’s clothes. He threw on a shirt, at first, and a coat over it, and he buttoned both half the way up – then as he remembered, looking into the mirror.

He undid his shirt again, took a roll of bandages, and bound his breasts down with the bandages. They were not very big, thankfully, and he could bind them nearly flat with the bandages. It was uncomfortable – it hurt a bit. But it was all that he could do to them.

Leander looked over himself again and felt pleased.

He was confident in how he looked. Over the past two years, as he had started to feel a certain wrongness with his body and the way people saw him, he had started to make some changes. He had kept his dark hair shorter, to the bottom of his jaw. He had done harder work, and gotten, at least in his own eyes, a bit more muscular and taller. He had hid under a lot of coats and thick pants. It had been a journey of discoveries – nobody in the caravan felt the ways he did, and he had been reluctant to seek their help.

He was right to be cautious – they had started to think he was strange.

Until the past few days, they had kept that to themselves.

But he was overjoyed now, even in light of recent events. He felt so confident, in fact, that he chose not to wear his uncle’s coat anymore. He would not hide himself under layers of thick clothes. He was now a man, a free man, and he would walk without shame.

Leander wrapped the coat around his waist instead, after zipping up a pair of long pants and lacing up some boots that felt a size too big for him. But they were his boots now, and his coat, and his shirt. He was a man, in more ways than one. He would finally leave the caravan and his familiar lifestyle behind, to live with the Ayvartans – the communists. Though he had no choice in the matter, the change of scenery felt proper to him.

His uncle pushed through the beaded curtain again. He embraced Leander, and patted him in the back. He was one of the older, bigger men in the caravan, said to be strong enough to stop a rhinoceros from charging, and yet he had the gentlest face when he looked upon Leander. Tears welled in his eyes as he beheld his new nephew ready to leave.

“Listen, Elea–”

“Leander.” Leander said sternly.

“Yes. Leander.” He nodded. “Listen. I’m sorry, about everything. Had I known how they would react, damn it, I would have just smuggled you out to the communists myself. You don’t deserve this treatment and it is my fault, because I advised you to tell the people. It was my fault you were humiliated like that. I should have known better.”

Leander smiled. “I don’t care about the caravan, uncle. Besides, it worked, didn’t it? They gave me a man’s way out of here. I was not ever going to become anyone’s bride.”

“I just wish you hadn’t had to feel all those glares.” His uncle said. “To hear all the nasty things they said. I think our traditions are important – but nobody should force you to marry anyone, or to be anything you don’t want. Now you’re out there all by yourself, and I feel like I could have done more to protect you.”

“Thank you, Uncle. I’ll be fine. I’ve heard that the communists give lodging and food and clothes to people for free. I know I can go to their village and live there. I’ll be fine.”

They embraced again. It would likely be the last time.

The instant they let go, Leander was on his way, and he was out for good. He climbed off the back of the wagon, without a traveling bag or money or anything but his half-eaten mango. He hoped that the generosity of the communists was as great as the tales his former friends had told him. He walked away from the circle of wagons, leaving their little clearing in the woods. He felt the stares from the women and the girls folding and washing clothes, and from the men chopping wood for fire, following his every step. They watched him leave with vicious interest. He could hear mumbling all around him as he went.

Past the line of bushes and trees, into the wood, the caravan and its nomadic people disappeared behind him. It was as though Leander had pushed past another beaded curtain, and left so much of himself behind. He could not hear them anymore and thought it unlikely that he would again. There was soon another transition as he saw the road up ahead.

He walked out of the woods, passing from forest to field. He stepped onto the dirt road and began to follow it to the village of Bika. It was very big, for a countryside Ayvartan village, with a multitude of log houses and a few newer, taller concrete buildings that he could easily see from the road. Their caravan had passed through Bika before.

Leander felt as though the sun was hovering directly over his head, and he sweated profusely while crossing the dirt road, flanked by log houses on either side. Sparse trees planted (or perhaps, simply left standing) around each block gave him a temporary respite from the heat. Whenever he took to the shade he felt a cool, comforting breeze. Had the sun not been so furious he would have said it was good weather overall.

There were a few people out on the street as well, looking energetic and untroubled, carrying little baskets or boxes to and fro with food wrapped in paper. Most of the villagers were probably still working – he recalled that the “big” industries in Bika were textiles and wooden construction materials. Interspersed with the log houses there were a few big concrete buildings with tin shutters, where this work probably happened.

After asking around, he was pointed toward the big red and gold building in the middle of the village, and he made for it as fast as he could. There was a sign outside with the Ayvartan government’s coat of arms – a menacing reptile, a hydra, with multiple long necks ending in heads that grasped around the words For Bread, For Cotton, For Home. 

Past the doors there was a reception office with two benches. A long desk accessible through a little door separated the front of the reception office from the more spacious back. It was a refreshingly cool room, well lit with electric torches. Spinning fans in the ceiling drove out the heat. At the desk a young, dark-skinned woman in an elaborate red and gold dress and hat greeted him. Her hair was tied into several long braids, which themselves were gathered into a ponytail with a gold ribbon. Leander bowed his head to her and reached for his own hat to tip, only to discover he had brought none.

She smiled nonetheless.

“Welcome, comrade.  What do you require?” She asked.

“Ah, well, I don’t know if I have the right place.” Leander said, feeling foolish. He had never spoken to an official before – he wondered if she had more pressing business than to listen to his troubles. “I’m from out of town, you see. I need a place to stay, and some clothes, and other things like that. I have nothing. I’m more than willing to work for it.”

“This is an office of the Commissariat of Civil Affairs.” She replied, and beamed even more brightly his way. “If you’ve nothing to your name but those clothes then you are in the right place.”

“I am ready to work for a home and bread, you see.” Leander hurriedly said.

“Work is not necessary for a minimum of lodging, food and clothes.”

Leander nodded. He marveled at her words – work was unnecessary? He still planned to work. He would have felt too guilty taking from the communists without doing anything in return. In the caravan you had to work or do chores or something to get any food, unless you were a little child. He was too used to it. It was a man’s place, he told himself, to repay his debts and to help make things and do things for his community. But he was astonished that she sounded so willing to feed him and clothe him, and give him a place to stay.

From one of the shelves along the back of her desk, the woman produced a thick, black, leather-bound ledger, which she opened to a fresh page. There were many fields in the ledger page. One in particular evoked a small sense of dread in Leander, but he would tackle it when they got to it. The receptionist urged him to take a stool from one of the corners and drag it over to sit on. They looked over the paper together.

“What name do you wish to register in the Bika township?”

“Leander Gaurige is my name.” He said.

“A lovely name. You can call me Gadi, comrade Gaurige.”

She jotted the name down with her ink pen. “I hope not to presume too much, comrade, but you are a Zigan, are you not? If you register, we will have to ask you stay in the town for at least a year, and until any work season you have started with a state company is completed. Is that acceptable to you, Leander?”

“I’m a Zigan, but it is acceptable. I have left my caravan.”

“You do not have to leave permanently. We respect your nomadic lifestyle. We just ask you give us some of your time before leaving, you see, for administrative–”

“Ah, it’s irrelevant, ma’am.” Leander interrupted. “They don’t want me.”

“Oh, I see. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Gadi wrote down a few things in the big fields near the bottom of the paper, and Leander wondered if her handwriting was just difficult to follow, or if his Ayvartan was slipping. He spoke it well, he thought, and the older folks had taught him to read it as well, and to write it in big, clumsy strokes. But he had a hard time parsing her script, and she seemed to write a lot of acronyms and contractions. Whoever read and processed these letter for the government probably understood, but Leander did not. Eventually she turned to face him again, smiling, and put her finger on a dreaded little blank.

“You wish to register as a male person, correct?”

Leander felt his heart thrashing. “Yes.” He said.

Without any protest, the receptionist put down a D for Dume or male.

“If you ever want this changed, you can return to this office and ask. Administratively, it will take some time to be processed all the way to Solstice. You can also change your name, which takes even longer to process, sadly; but it will be reflected eventually if you ask for it.” Gadi said. Leander wondered if this was something she mechanically told to everyone registering. Regardless, he felt a huge burden lift from his back.

“I think I’m good for now.” Leander said.

Gadi nodded her head in acknowledgment. She bid Leander to wait a moment, and took the ledger to an adjacent room behind a door. He heard a few noises issue from the room, like the whistling of steam and stamping of metal on a surface.

When next the little door opened Gadi had a few additional papers with her, one sheet of which she deposited in a box. She put away the ledger, and handed Leander a piece of paper – it was a copy of everything they had written on the ledger.

“In case you want some proof of your registration.” She said.

From a drawer she then handed Leander several tickets of different colors, some small as those one would get from having gone to a film theater, others the size of business cards. They were made of cheap paper, not even like a treasury note of the sort one exchanged for coins. Each ticket had the stamp of the Ayvartan government, and instructions in small print that described what they traded towards – ration card, housing card, goods card.

All of these tickets did not look like the cards he saw other Ayvartans carrying.

He asked about this.

“Those tickets are traded for the real cards.” Gadi said. “You can go to the Civil Canteen for a ration card, and you get a housing card for your room in one of the lodges, or from someone with a family home that has a room to spare and is willing to let you stay. You can get a shopping card from the msanii, the artisan market, or from the state-run general store in the village. Oh!” Gabi seemed to remember something suddenly.

“Wait one more moment, please.”

Gadi turned and looked in the back of her little room. She bent over a table, pulled a little ticket from a drawer and wrote on it. She then returned to the desk and pressed this ticket into Leander’s hands along with the rest. “This is a ticket for a clinic card. You don’t have to work, but if you wish to register for work, you will be asked to have a check-up at the local clinic, so if you’re eager you should do this as soon as you can.”

Leander quivered inside. He was not eager for someone to look over his body.

Gadi wrapped her hands around his own, and around the little tickets and vouchers.

She seemed to have noticed his reticence and smiled reassuringly.

“Please do not be afraid to go to the clinic. They’ll understand your situation.”

Leader blinked, and smiled a little awkwardly. Again he wondered if she just said that whenever she thought there was some unspecified trouble, or if she said it to people like the Zigan, or if she was saying it to him specifically because she knew. He had been hesitant the moment he took the clinic voucher. How could they understand, when even he did not, when he had so little language for what he felt? But perhaps it was safe to go.

He took all of the vouchers and put them into his pockets.

“If you choose to sign up for work, you can return here and I will give you a stipend equal to a week’s pay, to help you settle.” Gadi said. “From there you will receive wages for your labor, which will be disbursed by your union or cooperative according to council regulations, and which may be adjusted with the season and your work ethic. If not, you will receive a smaller monthly stipend instead.”

“And food, clothing and lodging is still provided?” Leander asked.

“It is everyone’s right to be lodged, fed and dressed.” Gadi assured.

“Alright.” Leander said, slightly bewildered. “Is there anything more?”

“No, that should be all. I look forward to seeing you again.”

Gadi thanked him for his patience and sent him on his way, her encouraging smile never fading from her face. That was all the deliberation necessary – it felt like only minutes since he passed through the door a vagrant, and now he was out the door again a citizen, with papers and prospects.  He had distantly heard about the communists and the way they lived nowadays, but never could he have imagined they were true.

He walked a few blocks down to the Civil Canteen, a building emblazoned with the same symbol as the Civil Affairs office, but also a sign depicting a large loaf of bread and a glass of milk. There was no one currently eating, which to Leander proved his idea that most of the villagers were working at the moment. Half the building was open to the air, with only two walls, and the roof held by concrete pillars.

There was one enclosed room, where perhaps the food was kept and prepared, and one long serving counter against the back wall. An older village man stood behind a serving counter, and Leander showed him his ticket. The man went into the adjacent room and withdrew a real ration card and an ink pen, and bid Leander to write his name in clear characters in the back. Leander looked over the card, with its cheerful design of a hilly village overlooking a farm, and he happily signed it, and set it aside to dry.

While they waited for the ink to dry, Leander took a wooden tray from a nearby stack and helped himself to the food, stored in containers along the counter and kept warm by little flames caged far beneath each container, likely turned off and on throughout the day to keep the food delectable. He served himself some curried vegetables, long beans and potatoes and cauliflower in a yellow broth; a few scoops of long-grain rice; and a flatbread the size of his face. Milk was abundant, flavored with different fruits, and he took a wooden mug and filled it to sate himself. He dipped the flatbread in the curry sauce first, to try it out. It was a bit watery, but spicy and flavorful. Better than the food at the caravan!

“So, do you work here?” Leander asked. He then nearly bit his tongue. It seemed a very stupid thing to say right after he had said it, but it was all the conversation that he could contrive.

“Yes, in a sense. People serve themselves, I just take notes for the office. I got a condition, you see.” The man showed Leander his shaking black hands. “Nervous condition, says the clinic, and I can’t work other things. But there’s always something to do if you want to. This counts as a job to the Office, so I took it.”

Leander nodded. He soon emptied his plate, and the ink on his card dried. Nobody had come or gone since he had arrived, though he had seen a few people walk up the street behind him. The Canteen man asked him to sign on a clipboard hooked on one of the pillars, to record that he had eaten one of his meals for the day. There were quite a few names already, likely from people coming in for breakfast. Leander complied graciously.

“I’m new around here, by the way. I hope to settle down. I’m Leander.”

“You can call me Kibwe.” The Canteen man said. “And I understand. We’re near the border so we see people a couple times a year. Runnin’ from awful things in Mamlakah or Cissea, I bet.”

“Where could I find a tailor and a place to stay?”

“Village center, we have a big plaza with the Msanii and the goods shop. Lodge there should have room.”

“Thank you.” Leander pocketed his new ration card.

“By the way, about that card. You won’t get punished or anything if you eat more than you’re allowed, but just know that it puts a bit of a burden on the village.” Kibwe said. “If you’re hungry and you’ve had your meals for the day, you should pay for any extra food – helps keep the village going in the long run.”

Leander nodded. “I understand. I will see you again soon then, Kibwe.”

“You look like a nice boy, Leander. I expect you’ll be fine in Bika. Peace to you.”

The compliment gave Leander quite a spring in his step. He practically skipped all the way to the plaza in the center of the village.

Everything was conveniently close in Bika, only a few blocks away – it was a big village but still smaller than all the cities his caravan frequented. Despite the heat and the lack of a cool breeze, Leander easily made his way to the open plaza, a stretch of grass and flower beds surrounded by a square of paved street.

This street connected several buildings; the most commanding was large warehouse, entirely open air with a concrete and wood frame and a vaulted tin roof, inside which various kiosks had been erected. There was a fence all around the warehouse instead of a wall – it must have been the artisan market, the Msanii. Leander had visited them in the past, when the older children were allowed day-trips to the city.

Aside from the Msanii the other buildings were perfectly homogenous red and gold-painted concrete rectangles. Both had a long front window and a nondescript wooden door with a single word painted on it – ClinicGeneralCivil Lodge. They were big, wide buildings. The window to the Clinic was obscured by various signs stuck to it that warned of seasonal allergies and diseases and offered other health care tips, such as encouraging regular hand-washing and rinsing hair with champo to avoid parasites. In contrast, the General Shop window was laden with goods, such as radios and binoculars and ruffled shirts, and encouraged people to spend their Honors on them.

He stepped into the General Shop, where a pale, balding man in a big robe trailing multicolored beads arranged shoes in a series of small racks along the entryway. He raised up his hand in welcome, but continued his task nonetheless. From the door the shop floor was quite broad and open, with hanging racks of clothes along the walls, stalls with canned food and sweets, and tables along the middle with various boxed goods, or unboxed examples with informational flyers stuck to them.

Many of them bore non-Ayvartan lettering. Some looked to Leander like the Svechthan cyrillic script, which he could not read, while a few even had Hanwan or Noctish markings that he could also not read. He was impressed with the Nochtish items, however, since these had to have been the oldest goods in the store – trade with Nocht had ended with the imperial days, if Leander remembered his Ayvartan history correctly, which he was confident that he did.

Once he organized the shoes, the shopkeep welcomed Leander in earnest.

“Comrade,” he spread open his arms, and jovially took Leander in for a quick, arms-reach embrace, “Good to see you, good to see you.” His Ayvartan was a little tortured. “Looking for a vintage radio, comrade?” He seemed to have noticed Leander’s interest in the Nochtish items, one of which was a radio.

“Oh, not at all. I was wondering if you could exchange this for me.”

Leander handed the man his shop ticket, and it was graciously received.

“Oh, new in town? Excellent. I have to write a little form then – in the meantime, pick some clothes for yourself, you have the right to some clothes for free. Pick from anything without a gold mark.”

The Shopkeep produced a gold-colored paper bill with the Hydra symbol.

“You don’t get these as wages – they’re special issue for rare or shortage goods. If a good has a gold mark, it costs Honors. Unfortunately I cannot part with them for free, in that case.”

Leander nodded his head. He watched the man vanish behind his long counter, looking through messy drawers. While the shopkeep filled his forms and looked for a new shop card for him, Leander perused the clothing aisles along the walls of the store.

He did not want anything too fancy. Or at least, he thought he didn’t as he began to look through the clothing items, until he noticed something very handy tucked away in a corner, behind various women’s ruffled shirts. There were a couple of elastic chest binders, with cords near the small of the back, that when pulled would press against the body – probably for church women from when Messianites had influence in Ayvarta. They would certainly be more convenient to bind his breasts that rolls of bandages.

He picked one of them up, along with some button-down shirts and pants, and a new coat. Most of it looked fairly new, but simply made. He avoided anything gold-marked.

He was issued his card without hassle, and received a cloth bag to carry his things. The shopkeep did not look over them, and cheerfully saw Leander out of the shop, patting him in the back.

“You have a great time in Bika,” the shopkeep told him, though Leander thought he sounded a little artificial, as though he was playing a character, “Remember to say ‘comrade’ a lot!”

Leander laughed a bit, waved him goodbye, and went on his way.

He was feeling tired, and thought it about time to find himself a home.

And home was thankfully only a few steps away from the shop, with a lodge in the same plaza.

He stood before the door and felt a sudden bit of trepidation. After all, if the communists refused him now for some reason, he would be out on the street and everything would have been a waste of time! But he had come this far. He knew it would be fine.

He swallowed his fears and went through the door. Inside he found a desk with a sleepy-looking young woman in a red and gold kaftan, a long robe-like overdress. There was a long hall to his left and right with various doors, and a staircase further ahead leading to the second floor. Leander introduced himself and turned in the appropriate ticket. The young woman woke slightly more, stood up from her desk, took his hand and smiled. Standing, she did not look all that grown-up – she was quite shorter than him.

“Welcome, Leander. I’m Saheli. It’s nice to see a brand new face.”

Saheli searched her desk for the appropriate forms and a card, to which a key was attached by a loop of metal. Leander signed his name again, and he took his room card and the associated room key.

“Is there anything I should know about living here? Is there a fee?” He asked.

“Not in the lodge, no!” Saheli said cheerfully. “Your room is free. It comes with a bed, sheets, pillows, drawers and a closet, a basket, one window looking out. The usual things you expect.”

Her words brought Leander great relief. To think he kept expected different!

“I can come and go as I please?” He asked.

“I would entreat you not to disturb the others with noise, but yes, you can.”

Leander read the card on his key. It was room 2-15, so it was probably upstairs.

“I see. Thank you. So, to confirm, I may retire to this room now?”

“Of course! It is your room, comrade Leander. I suggest you rest – you look a bit tired, and you are clearly a bit strung up! Take some time to calm your anxieties, and you shall love Bika!”

“I shall. Thank you, um, comrade Saheli.”

Saheli bowed her head and took her seat again.

Your room.

It seemed that the generosity of the communists had not been a fairy tale after all, though Leander found it all still so difficult to completely wrap his head around how well all of it worked.

Upstairs, Leander unlocked his door – his door. His own door. 2-15 was about the size of the living space in the back of his uncle’s wagon. He put down his cloth bag next to his wooden closet, and laid down on the bed. It was long enough for all of him, he did not have to curl up, and it was firm but comfortable. He bounced on his back a few times. This was his bed, in his room, just a few hours after his family had deserted him, called him awful things and threw him out into the world for what he knew in his heart that he was – a man, no matter what his birth.

He wondered with hazy thoughts what work he would do for the communists.

What kind of work would befitted an honorable man of this society?

It was a strange thought when he put it to himself that way, but heartening.

Leander smiled and sat up in his bed, feeling free of worry.

At his side, on the drawer, he noticed that someone had left a book, perhaps with the knowledge that any new boarders might not have any possessions to their names with which to entertain themselves in their rooms. It was a book of Ayvartan fables, tales and religious songs. When he spread open the pages they made crisp sounds, and the book had a distinctively fresh smell. This was a very new book. Leander smiled, and contented himself with reading the book on his new bed, passing the hours, until the sun started to fall, and his eyes grew heavy, and he dozed off without even really noticing it. He felt an eerie peace of mind, as though he had never been exiled at all.


NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — A Place Amid Ashes

 

Operation Monsoon – Generalplan Suden

This chapter, and much of the story, contains scenes of violence and death, as well as descriptions of weapons and their effects. Please be advised when reading.

If you would like to read the story in smaller segments at a time, click here.


Under a brutal northern snowfall the old Federation capital of Junzien was alive with the fire of history. It was a day when every thread of Nocht’s timeline would tragically collide.

Cheering crowds gathered along the streets as the Presidential motorcade departed the Hotel Reich and made its way toward the Foundation Stone at the site of the former capitol building. Alongside the motorcade the crowd marched as a procession, throwing roses and lighting snapping sticks, hoping to catch a glimpse when the President finally lit the ceremonial fireworks that symbolized the old fortress cannons, their heavy shells striking down the approaching monarchist enemy in the name of independence.

Clad in their thickest winter coats the citizens braved the cold drift to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Federation of Northern States. To the northern people, it was still better known as the Nocht Federation, for the man who first lit the matches that sounded the fateful cannons. But that ancient name was not the one sung on this triumphant day.

President Achim Lehner leaned back in his seat, arms behind his head, listening to the crowd as they chanted his name and recited several of his campaign slogans. He cast a sly smile toward his radiant wife, dolled up in pigments and shiny hair, mink and silk, sitting with one limousine seat between them, hoping she would join the festivities. She coldly and immediately shrugged off his attentions, staring out the window with her head held up on a closed fist. He could see her half-closed, bored eyes reflected in the tinted glass.

No matter; he was riding too high to care. Whatever embittered her this time would soon pass. Chuckling to himself, he leaned forward from his seat, rubbing his hands.

Across from him, his lovely secretary leaned to meet him, and handed him papers.

“Revised copies of the speech, as requested.” She said.

“Cecilia, doll, you never cease to impress.” He replied.

Scanning the lines, he was elated to find his most recent successes were all featured on the pages. He could reveal to the world, even before the press, the capitulation of the Cissean rebellion, and the establishment of Nocht’s newest ally in the global south. He had finally put that war to bed as he had promised. He was almost assured an eight-year term now.

And where were the pundits now? Lehner laughed aloud. This was too good.

Turning out of the hotel avenue, the motorcade drove deep into the urban heart of Junzien, through roads flanked with buildings wedged one between the other, gray, gloomy cement and glass monuments to the city’s endurance. Lehner much preferred the new capital further up Rhinea, a larger, more modern place, sleek and efficient and artful, but Junzien was his people’s heart. So he begrudgingly made space for it in his own.

“We have to start moving quick after this. Build Cissea up.” Lehner said.

“Unfortunately, the island campaigns have sapped the strength of the Bundesmarine.” Cecilia quickly replied. “Our capacity to ship to Cissea is currently very limited.”

“Work on that, darlin’. It’s nothin’ that can’t be be fixed. You gotta find the problems and the solutions and you move heaven and earth — that’s what all of you are here for.”

“We can start on it; but in this case we need to move an ocean.” Cecilia said.

Lehner burst out laughing, slapping his knees. “God. I keep remembering why I hired you. And I just think to myself ‘damn, Lehner, good move, my man, good move.'”

Cecilia pushed up her glasses, her face reflecting his own impish grin.

At Lehner’s side, his wife’s expression soured ever so slightly more.

Outside the snowfall thickened, but the people struggled all the more to keep up. Everyone was used to the conditions of this venerable celebration. It had been this cold on that fateful day, and yet the rebel soldiers fought on nonetheless. Lehner waved through the tinted glass at the marchers, men, women, and children, cheering and running. They were separated from the motorcade by marching policemen in dress uniform.

Slowly the motorcade was poised to escape the tightest confines of Junzien.

Lehner picked a glass of wine from the side of his limousine seat.

There was a flash and a crack from up ahead.

At once the limousine came to a stop sudden enough to shake President Lehner.

Red wine spilled on his shirt and coat.

Lehner threw his hands up in anger. “Fuck! What the hell–”

Red blood sprayed on the window beside him, and there was a thud on the glass as one of the police escorts hit the limousine, falling dead with shells through his chest.

Muzzles flashed skyward, and gunfire rang out from inside the crowd.

Police drew their pistols in a split-second response and fired into the streets.

Panicked marchers ran every which way to escape the carnage.

Grenades flew out from the throngs and detonated among the motorcade.

Glass windshields shattered on police cars and motorcycles. Fuel tanks went up in columns of flame, sending shards of metal screaming through the crowd and roasting special agents and foot police inside their vehicles. Policemen fighting on the streets were grazed or clipped by metal shards and many fell. Amid the massacre the limousine stood unharmed, explosive fragments bouncing off its sloped, disguised armor plating.

From the rapidly thinning crowd, an assailant in a covering trenchcoat and hat opened fire into the window of the limousine. Twin wounds marred the glass, each composed of dozens of concentric circles with a cap lodged between. His gun failed to penetrate.

Agatha Lehner nevertheless screamed and ducked against her husband in fear.

President Lehner grit his teeth.

“Cecilia.” He said, more aggravated than anxious.

Shaking with nervousness, Cecilia slammed her heeled shoe on the floor, and dug out from under a sliding panel a sleek, fully automatic Norgler machine gun, top of the line.

She clumsily pulled up the cover on the feed tray, slid the ammunition belt into it, locked it in place, and pulled back the charging handle to ready the weapon. It fed with a satisfying click, just like they had practiced. She held the gun aloft, her shoulders shaking.

Outside the assailants concentrated their gunfire on the limousine.

Bulletproof glass absorbed a dozen rounds of punishment.

It was getting hard to see the fight.

Lehner nodded his head with determination and Cecilia nodded back. She dropped between the rows of seats in the back of the limousine, sidling close to the door with the Norgler in hand. She pushed it up to the door. Lehner leaned down, holding his wife close, both their heads down under the level of the windows for safety. He pulled a catch.

On the door a panel just large enough for the Norgler opened.

Cecilia pushed the gun through the slot and slipped a slender finger over the trigger.

Swinging the weapon from side to side she opened fire indiscriminately.

At once a noise like an automatic saw overwhelmed the sounds of battle.

Casings dropped to the floor of the limousine by the dozens every second as Cecilia held down the trigger on the Norgler, barely controlling its overwhelming fire. She closed her eyes and held on to the weapon as bursts of automatic fire swept from the side of the limousine. Lehner peered over the window and watched as best as he could through the marred glass as the weapon rained lead on the streets. He strained his eyes and saw the trenchcoat men as they were brutally cut down with barely a struggle.

Another sharp click and the Norgler ejected its last casing.

Once the noise of the automatic fire died down, the street was empty and silent.

Lehner waited in the limousine, stroking his wife’s shoulders and pulling her head to his chest, her tears soaking into the wine-stained coat and shirt. He sighed deeply.

Cecilia stood up from the floor, sweating, breathing heavily.

“It’s a hell of a gun.” She said, her voice trembling.

After several minutes, a surviving police officer knocked on the window.

President Lehner stepped out of his battered limousine and inspected the carnage.

His weary eyes rolled over the blood and viscera, the bodies of innocents, of officers, of assailants alike, the burning wrecks, the bullet casings littered all over the ground, all of the madness that had unfolded on his streets in mere moments on this historic day.

Only on detail burned in his mind at that instant.

All of the weapons he saw gripped in the death-frozen fingers of the soon-to-be infamous Federation Day Terrorists, were of Ayvartan make. Their grenades, their firearms, all of their arsenal had been manufactured in the Socialist Dominances of Solstice.

“That’s damning.” He told himself under a cold breath. “And useful.”


10th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

Despite knowing she was unwanted there, she took a seat at one of the parasol-shaded tables outside the Uttarakuru, a small cooperative restaurant, and she waited.

This was a place with a long history for her.

Too long; she had done too much in this city, and at these tables.

Her return was almost painful and she knew it would be brief.

She knew in the back of her mind that her visit was fruitless. It would change nothing. All that she had done was now burned into the inscrutable body of history.

Her words would not expiate for the sins she committed here.

She turned her head, away from the brick and glass etched with painful history.

People came and went down the old cobblestone streets. It was midday and they flocked to eateries: Civil Canteens, Ration Offices, and Restaurants like the Uttarakuru. They were in a hurry. There were always essentials like flatbread, fruit juice and lentils, but a few items were always first come, first serve. Especially the meat items.

Watching the crowds hurry under the sun exacerbated the heat that she felt in her military uniform, even while shaded by the parasol. The Adjar Dominance in general had a furious climate even in the autumn, and especially before the winter rains.

Around her the people coming and going wore loose overall trousers and tunics, cloth and silk drapes, long gentle robes and dresses, in all kinds of colors. All she had was her military uniform to wear; in more ways than one it was the skin that she wanted to show.

In many ways she had resigned herself to it — and to the consequences.

She looked into the restaurant.

No service had taken note of her yet; she waited, and she sighed.

Her heart beat furiously. Blood pounded through her veins.

Her very presence was an injustice.

As she sat and waited for the inevitable conclusion, her mind drifted. She closed her eyes and heard the voices around her. There was sound all around the city, and close by a dozen conversations traveled through the air, like the pulse of life in Bada Aso.

“Lubon only stopped trading with us only a month ago and it already feels like an eternity since I’ve had some good wine. Our people are hopeless about wine, let me tell you, comrade. We’re hopeless about a few things, but wine is the worst of them all.”

“You tacked on the comrade pretty fast, didn’t you, you bourgeois swine? Ha ha! Stop complaining about the wine. You’ve got a guaranteed roof over your head and food on the table and here you are, crying about wine? Some things never change, I suppose.”

“Wine’s never been a bourgeois thing! I always drank it, back when we could get it, it was cheap. It’s always been cheap. It’s always been proletarian. Until those backstabbing elves stopped trading it! That’s the problem. And the hopeless grape farmers in Jomba.”

“Drink your palm wine, your ancestors didn’t even have the grapes.”

Swirling away from the complaints of old men the wind began to carry the gossip of the young ladies, fashionable and energetic, streaming in from offices nearby.

“Looks like Nocht is trotting out the Empress on another pity party for the Old Empire. Some of those Noctish politicians have been saying the Warden and the Councilors should meet with her and discuss reconciliation. But the President still calls us terrorists.”

“Hmph. That so-called Empress is so tiring and so shameful. No Ayvartan cares for her except all the parasites and thieves who fled with her to Nocht and who ran away to Mamlakha and Cissea. She should give up and stay in Nocht. Do something useful there.”

“I would not be so quick to dismiss her. A lot of countries treat her and her retinue as a legitimate government in exile. There are even people here in Ayvarta who think things were better under the Empire than right now. I read a newspaper article about it recently.”

“What paper would say that? Stop reading the Cissean’s rags, it’s all Nocht propaganda to foment unrest here. No self-respecting Ayvartan wants that woman back here.”

She nearly lost herself while listening to others. Those people were meant to be here, meant to discuss their problems and feelings openly and cheerfully. That was why their voices had such strength, while her own was suppressed. She sighed painfully to herself.

Then, finally, the wind carried a heartbreaking voice to her ears.

“Madiha,”

Like a dagger to the heart, she heard her own name and felt like she would stagger.

Madiha Nakar turned on her seat clumsily, partially, whipping around to meet the woman that she had come to see. She was one of the recent owners of this old diner, Chakrani Walters, in her long brown jumper and dress shirt and her ribbon tie, her hair done up in long, luxuriant ringlet curls. She had just the expression that Madiha expected to see on her – shock, anger, disgust, hatred. Her green eyes seemed on the verge of tears just from having to meet Madiha. This was a cruelty that Madiha was inflicting on her.

But Madiha wanted– no, she needed to try one last time.

“Does the KVW have business with me?” Chakrani sharply asked.

“I have come to visit as a civilian.” Madiha said.

“Really? You don’t look like one.”

“I do not own very many clothes, so I am here in uniform.”

“So, you’re just here because you felt like it?”

“Well—“

“Okay. Then get out.” Chakrani said. “You’re unwelcome here. Go away.”

“Chakrani, I simply wish to speak to you.” Madiha said.

Many of patrons quieted and made a deliberate act of minding their business.

But they were all watching.

Some of their eyes probably shifted to Madiha’s lapel and to her breast, where her medals were proudly pinned, including her twice-earned title of Hero of the Socialist Dominances. On her shoulder, her pins indicated she held the rank of Captain.

“I have nothing to say to you.” Chakrani said. “Leave and don’t come back.”

“I wanted to say that I am sorry.” Madiha said. Her voice was faltering.

“You’re sorry?” Chakrani shouted.

She pulled some of her curls off from over her ears, as though she could not believe this and must have heard it wrong. “Sorry? You came to say you’re just sorry?”

“Please, listen, what happened has haunted me for a very long time–”

Chakrani reached out suddenly and with a quick, dismissive gesture she shoved Madiha on her breast, overturning her chair and throwing her on the ground.

“Poor miserable Madiha! I guess you’ll be haunted and hungry. Go away or I’ll shove those medals down your throat. I’m filing a complaint!” She shouted again, raising her voice all the more, until it seemed like all of the Dominance would soon hear her shout.

Madiha could not help it herself. She felt angry and frustrated; she thought she deserved a change to speak. She wanted to say everything she felt as gently as possible but her own anger conspired against her, and the words she thought would be convincing to Chakrani, words that might finally absolve Madiha of her sins, instead came out warped, twisted into a petty whimpering. What she said was all too far from what she wanted.

“You cannot refuse service to military personnel!” were the dreadful words.

Chakrani had been holding back tears; now she wept.

She wept openly and loudly and without hesitation.

Tears streaming down her anguished face Chakrani raised her foot and delivered the sharpest, most hate-filled blow that she could to Madiha’s stomach, as though she wanted the kick to push Madiha’s innards out her mouth. Madiha stifled a cry.

Chakrani’s foot came down on her again and again. She kicked her in the stomach, then swiped her in the hip, all the while shouting, “Out, out, out! You monster!”

Feeling like she would die if she remained, Madiha crawled away, to her knees and then to her feet, and she ran away from the diner holding onto her bruised stomach. She wept and sobbed and whimpered, while behind her Chakrani screamed even more, no longer able to say words. She screamed and roared and made noise just to let out the anger, as though the words might finish Madiha off as she retreated pitifully away.

Limping across the street, Madiha felt like she would drop dead any second.

18th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance — Cissean (Nocht) Border

Lately the guards at the entrance to the Ox army HQ building had grown used to unexpected visits. There were a lot of strange cars coming and going from the base. This latest visitor shocked them stiff and nervous, however. Helpless, they watched from afar the mysterious arrival of a half-track truck painted in the pattern of a KVW liaison.

They knew the name and its significance very well.

Kivuli Jeshi A Watu  known as the Shadow Army during the Revolution.

The vehicle drove around the garrison and the depots at a leisurely pace. It circled the border defenses, where abandoned anti-tank guns lay in slumber and barbed wire and tank traps formed a rust red line between Ayvarta and the woodlands at the edge of Cissea.

On this ancient continent, Cissea was one of two independent countries connected to but outside the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, Ayvarta’s ruling government. Its border in the south was once sleepy but always necessarily guarded. Now that it was treated as a border with the Nocht Federation its protection was of the utmost importance.

Paralyzed in their booth, the guards tailed the vehicle with their eyes as much as they could. Soon its inspection took it uphill toward the headquarters.

When the half-track stopped at their gate, the guards scarcely knew how to react.

There was such disarray in the entry booth that both the guards had even gone so far as to salute the car without their hats or headgear and with their guns lying forgotten on the floor. Thankfully for them, the arriving Inspector overlooked these details.

“You are being inspected by the KVW.” She said. “I’m here to see Major Gowon.”

At the Inspector’s order the guards stepped out.

They pulled open the gates and stepped aside. The half-track car inched up the cobblestone driveway and around the elaborate statue fountain to the front entrance.

Gowon’s resplendent new headquarters brought to mind the bourgeois word Estate — this place was a massive ornate building flanked by a circle of thick hedges, originally constructed decades past as a capitalist villa. There was a thick scent of fresh paint about the courtyard, and indeed the rich facade of the estate glistened in the sun. Branches and fresh plant detritus lay under the hedge trees, suggesting a recent trim.

The Half-Track parked up on the concrete street before a series of pearlescent steps leading to the rich entryway. Two people dismounted from the vehicle.

Most notably among them was the Inspector General, a striking older woman, perhaps in her early forties, her tall black body and dark curly hair in sharp contrast to the bright red and gold KVW Officer uniform; the other agent seemed like a liaison or aide, a young woman, skin a muted brown, wearing the common troops’ green jacket and pants.

Madiha Nakar, the aide, seemed unassuming, despite the medals and pins suggesting her rank and accomplishments. She had a pen clipped over her neck-length, straight dark hair and she held a paper pad in her hand, many pages of which had already been folded back and filled with notes. Her expression was neutral and professional.

The Inspector approached the landing, and she approached always a step behind.

There was no established greeting party so they dismounted to no acclaim.

The Inspector scoffed at the top of the steps. There should have been a proper contact for them. Madiha wondered if Gowon’s staff had elected not to relay their messages.

A minute later the soldiers from the gate recognized their folly and ran all the way from the gate and past the two women, hurrying up to the door. They stood in front of the two arrivals and saluted, this time with their hats on and their rifles across their chest. They then ushered the new arrivals up the steps and took their places beside the doorway.

“You are trying my patience.” The Inspector said.

Her voice was devoid of emotion, but still menacing.

She tapped one of the soldiers on the nose with a light wooden truncheon.

“Madiha, take note of these soldier’s names and ranks. I will want to speak with them personally regarding the kind of discipline that has been instilled in this garrison, and the kind of training that they have been offered by their superiors.”

Madiha approached the guards with casual indifference and pulled their tags up to get a good look at the names and ranks etched upon them. The soldiers stayed frozen in their salute. In reality she knew all too well what must have been crossing their minds as this happened. They were only there to secure extra rations and get to shoot a gun.

As a whole the military was being treated like a game — it was not their fault that Adjar had been run ragged, exploited by the unruly, rebellious command of Battlegroup Ox.

It was not their decision to make or influence, they could not right these wrongs, if they even understood them. Something was rotten in these rebellious southern Dominances and it simply swept along all the naive youth. They did not deserve punishment.

She hoped they would receive none but she could not be sure of that.

These were trying times and there was a lot of friction.

“Yohannes Degbo, and Radama Malouf.” Madiha said under her breath while writing down the names in clumsy strokes. The men were so artificially stiff that their shaking looked all the more obvious. They were terrified of her; she hated that.

She did not smile at them, but she did nod her head thoughtfully at them once she had their names and ranks, and she hoped this was taken for the sympathy that it was.

Regardless, the men opened the richly carved wooden door for them to reveal a grand entryway flanked with treasures of jade and onyx and opal upon display pedestals. Captured from capitalists, ill-gained in some way, or merely original to the Estate? Madiha could not tell. She struggled to show no expression in the face of such opulence.

Inspector Kimani looked very briefly stricken with disgust. She narrowed her eyes.

Stray staff members passing the entryway took notice of them, and quickly guided the Inspector and Madiha upstairs, and through a hallway with a wonderful view of the countryside, the scope of its defenses, and of the intermittent line of red made by the old barbed wire, gun shields and tank traps. Madiha thought she could see a few people along the defensive line now, like ants appraising the guns and pillboxes.

Perhaps the half-track driving around had momentarily awoken them.

Perhaps they just had lunch on the trenches everyday, as if it was picnic scenery.

Gowon’s staff hung back while the Inspector and Madiha ambled into a princely office, heavily decorated, its centerpiece a desk made of exotic woods and painted glass.

Behind this desk sat Major Gowon, soaked in sweat and developing a cough. He was a very tall, broad man – the half of him visible above his desk was an ample display of his physical power even in uniform. And yet, he was struck dumb and sick with horror, able to say or gesture nothing to acknowledge the Inspector and Madiha in his Estate.

He offered no seat to either of the inspectors.

They nonetheless sat before him, and the room remained deathly quiet while the Inspector appraised the Major, giving him more time to quiver. She drummed her black fingers on the desk, and turned her red-ringed golden eyes from the Major to the golden dishes and ivory trinkets hanging on his walls. Madiha took down a few idle notes.

Inspector Kimani was the first to break the silence.

“The Adjar Dominance is a valuable command, Major. Nocht-controlled Cissea lies beyond the woods. I was dispatched by the Military Council to insure this Dominance is above the standard of the rest, as it must be. Yet, I appear to have found a garrison far below the standard of even the sleepiest and most rural of the outer Dominances.”

Gowon choked suddenly. He started to cough and hack with increasing harshness. He raised his hand and gestured for the Inspector to give him a moment. He was forced to withdraw a fancy silver flask from his desk drawer and suck down several drinks from it.

Once he regained his voice it was coarse and frog-like.

“Perhaps we could discuss this in greater detail without the Captain in the room?”

Madiha blinked. She moved to stand. Kimani gestured for her to remain.

“She is my subordinate, Gowon. Since this is an official action taken by the KVW to discipline the Territorial Army she outranks you, whatever the bars on her shirt might say.”

There was a brief, vicious turn in the Major’s disposition. His eyes wandered over her with a violence in them. Madiha remained composed despite the fleeting scorn directed at her. Working in the shadow of the Inspector she had learned to keep a strong front and in a way, Kimani’s immense authority over ordinary enlisted personnel served to shield her from the scorn of many older officers. She had been seated in several meetings like this before, characterized by the desperation and terror of slack officers. But those meetings had been about minor things: circulation of subversive materials, or of failures to participate in patriotic programs. Gowon was definitely worse than merely slack.

“I just thought we could speak more comfortably one to one.” Gowon said.

Finally Inspector Kimani seemed finished with tormenting Gowon. “Let us cut through to the heart of the matter. You have allowed Adjar to fester. Your tanks all lay forgotten in depots; across the defensive line your guns have been left ajar in seemingly random sectors with little strategic forethought, and the men and women sleep away the days without nearing their pillboxes. Static defenses have been rusted and crippled by who knows how many seasons of rain, without a hint of repair. A week ago, Military Council General Order 43 declared that the borders were to be garrisoned through two twelve-hour rotations.”

“The Military Council’s General Orders are just a suggestion; comrade, I must gently remind you the Territorial Army answers to the Civil Council. I heard about this recent tour the KVW was doing of the military bases but certainly I didn’t think it was so pressing–”

Kimani interrupted him again, growing almost visibly furious at his rebuttals.

“Where are your troops Gowon? What are they doing? You won’t answer me but I have some ideas. Perhaps they working in your family’s quarry a few kilometers away? Perhaps they have left their uniforms behind to more easily travel where you need them for your black market. How do you prioritize their labor nowadays? More theft? Less theft?”

Major Gowon spoke with a clumsy, shifting pitch, like a weeping child screaming at a parent. He avoided Kimani’s eyes and gesticulated with zeal. “I gave up the quarries during the nationalization! I am a member of the Council myself and I resent these unwarranted and unverifiable accusations. I have had trouble with incompetent subordinates and unmotivated troops! But I assure you, everything here is under control!”

Kimani replied with unconfined scorn. “Under whose control? I have traveled through your defenses, where you’ve let your troops fester in barracks, receiving almost training and performing no drills or defensive rotations. I traveled through the city, where supplies earmarked for you continue to flow, and yet where they end up I am not sure. I see no advancement or improvement in this place. Except of course within the grounds of your lovely estate. I love the smell of fresh paint; you surely have your priorities in order.”

While Gowon further choked and shifted in his chair, a young woman entered the room from the adjacent hall, holding a thick folder full of documents in her hands. Encountering guests in the office, she stood at the threshold and stared, seeming oblivious to what was happening. Madiha thought the woman was probably a part of the intelligence or logistics staff: she wore her strawberry-colored hair long and flowing, in a casual fashion, and she wore a mid-length skirt with her military uniform instead of the standard infantry pants.

Major Gowon gave her an impish look, and then gestured the Inspector toward her.

“Look, here comes my incompetent Chief of Staff now. Parinita, it appears your poor oversight has brought shame upon Battlegroup Ox once again. Explain the rusty defenses and the missing supplies to the Inspector, and to me for good measure, post-haste!”

Parinita’s eyes drew suddenly wide.

Her light honey-brown face flushed a bloody red. She stared at the Inspector in horror, several times trying to defend herself but making only small sounds through quivering lips.

Madiha felt her own heart burn. A fury built within her that was barely restrained.

She uttered the first words of a vicious attack on Major Gowon for his craven cowardice, but she halted her assault instantly when Kimani shot her a glare instead.

Madiha was paralyzed. Rarely did the Inspector become infuriated with her.

Thankfully Kimani then turned her attention to Gowon once again.

“You will not escape my wrath by throwing your staff into the open jaws, Gowon. It is you and you alone upon whom I lay down judgment for this mess. My division, the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division, is inspecting all of the Dominance as we speak for standards compliance. You know the punishment for military incompetence, Gowon, and it is light, considering; but how does treason sound? That rusty barbed wire and sleeping garrison looks like treason, and it is not the only treasonous thing. You have run wild since the demilitarization policies, contrary to their stated intent — more corruption has bloomed under them than ever before. But of course, you knew this. You were one of the architects!”

“This is outrageous,” Gowon mumbled, his tongue tying as he spoke, “Accusing me of treason? Of theft from the people? Extreme; the KVW have become extremists!”

Parinita remained frozen still at the door, and Gowon pulled on the neck of his uniform as though it were it that which would bring him to death, and not the rifles of a KVW squad.

Gowon was poised to continue, but a rattling atop his desk gave him pause.

In the distance Madiha heard a rising cacophony of harsh and recurring noise that startled Parinita. Gowon’s secretary clung to the door frame as though she expected an earthquake. The Major looked around in confusion. Suddenly a series of blasts boomed somewhere far away, creeping closer and closer, as if sweeping across the landscape.

A picture fell from a weak hanger on the wall and burst on the floor.

As the blasts abated the room grew silent for a moment.

“What was that?” Kimani seized Major Gowon by the neck of his shirt.

“Is there anything else I need to be aware of Major? Strip-mining? Clearing yourself grounds for a park using earmarked explosives?” Madiha shifted her chair back from the Inspector, nearly falling over and bewildered by the sudden fury.

Major Gowon cried and croaked. “I don’t know what is happening! Those sounded like shells falling!”

~ ~ ~

A strong wind made waves across the tall grass. Stretched before him was a vast expanse of green field and rolling woodland that separated Ayvarta from Cissea.  He sat with his legs hanging over the gap at the edge of a defensive trench, on the second line of border defenses. This trench was dug right on the first hump in a series of little hills. These gentle slopes served as a good defensive position – at their crest there was enough flat land to establish a long defensive line and a few barracks buildings. From this first crest, a steeper hill lead to the true summit with the HQ building and the divisional depots.

Even on this first and most minor incline, he felt like he was high up over the earth.

His mind was blank as he peered over the empty border.

At his back was his rifle, a 130 centimeter length of wood and iron, fed by stripper clips that filled the pouches of his garrison belt; in his hands was a can of watery curry, a disposable spoon and a piece of round flatbread. He ate, and he felt at peace with the landscape. It was almost like he wasn’t a soldier. Only a boy with a rifle and uniform.

He thought of nothing at the time, nothing about the field, nothing about the trench.

For him, the border guard with Battlegroup Ox was idle work — whereas before he had been merely idle. There was more to do, but not for him. He was never assigned the special tasks given to others, where they would go in trucks deeper into Adjar, and stay in the city for a few days, before returning with a pocketful of paper money and clandestine purchases from the markets. He did not drive a tank so he did not receive odd jobs hitching heavy equipment to and fro, using the idle war machines as tractors for who knows what.

Owing to the distance of the Adjar Dominance from Solstice, he had never even seen a KVW political officer. Owing to the peaceful relationship between the southern politicians and his commandant, he did not even catch wind of anything suspicious.

He in fact knew little about politics, save that the nation took good care of him.

He did not mind any of it. It was all for others to worry about.

After all he had joined the army just to get away from things. This was more peace than he had ever had with his family back in Shaila. He welcomed a blank mind, a cool spring wind and a full plate of warm food.

Just as he started to doze off, he heard multiple voices calling down to him.

“Hujambo, Adesh!”

“Hujambo!” He shouted back, raising his arm lazily to greet his friends.

Two of Adesh’s squadmates approached the second defensive line and sat with him, ration boxes in their hands. Nnenia sat to his left, hastily removing her cap and quickly ripping open the ration box and picking through its contents. Eshe sat to his right, extracting his food from its box as delicately as he could, carefully cutting open the cans, trying to get nothing on his spotless green uniform. They ate quietly together, staring at the fields every so often. Though they sometimes traded ration contents, this time they were satisfied with what they got. Like a single mind they ate and spoke only in common gestures, nodding and smiling.

When they had picked their ration boxes clean the trio lay back against the tank traps behind them.

Language returned to them, and it was almost enough to make Adesh groan.

“You need to tie up your hair at least, if you’re not gonna cut it.” Eshe said, taking stray tufts of Adesh’s hair in hand to demonstrate how long it had gotten. Eshe was a devout soldier, with hair cut to regulation and his uniform worn the precise way the handbook taught.

Adesh quietly pulled a length of cloth from a pouch and tied his hair into a ponytail, and Eshe seemed pleased enough with the result. Nnenia quietly played with her own hair, which was regulation length, cut to a level just above the shoulder, but much messier and wavier than Adesh’s.

“Why does it matter?” Nnenia said curtly, staring at Eshe.

Eshe put his hands to his hips. “You’re another one who should consider a cut.”

Adesh laughed. “You two remind me of my old house.”

“Ouch.” Nnenia replied. “Sorry.”

“No, not in a bad way!” Adesh quickly corrected.

They laughed. Slothfully the trio fell on their backs, Adesh hand in hand with the others, staring up at the sky.

It was hot and sunny, but a strong breeze kept the weather fairly kind to them.

“I heard the officers are considering putting a film on today.” Nnenia said.

“What kind of film?” Eshe asked.

“I heard it is a new picture, made specifically for the army.” Nnenia said.

“Probably a historical picture then, to teach us something.”  Adesh said.

Nnenia nodded. “It is – I heard that the film is a history of the Nocht Federation.”

“I heard the Princess fled to Nocht during the revolution.” Adesh said. “That’s all I know about Nocht.”

“Royalty.” Eshe looked like he wanted to spit in disgust. “The Princess even changed her name to something more Nocht-like after. Mary Trueday I think. Did not stick by us at all. I bet she’s really pampered over in Nocht, telling everyone some sob story about the communists chasing her out.”

“She was a kid back then, even younger than us,” Adesh said, “I wouldn’t judge her too harshly.”

“In any case, maybe the film will clear all of this up for us.” Nnenia said.

Before they could grow any more comfortable, a belligerent foot kicked heaps of dirt and dust from higher up the trench on top of them. They bolted up to their feet and found an officer waylaying them, and struggled to stand at attention while coughing sand through their noses and wiping their burning eyes. The Officer was livid, and when he made his way to them he seized Adesh by his jacket, with his eyes bloodshot and teeth bared.

“Did you not see the KVW liaison car that passed, soldier? Did you dismiss its significance, or are you just completely daft? Are you truly so devoid of wit that you can’t determine the proper conduct during an inspection, soldier? Do you want your platoon to suffer the consequences of your laying about, soldier?”

“No sir!” Adesh said, his voice trembling. “I did not understand the significance sir!”

The Officer pushed him aside and off his feet, nearly throwing him into the trench. “Then you are well and truly incompetent, private! What is your name? What are all of your names? And what made you think you could spend the day merrily laying on your backs while the KVW’s eyes are on us?” He cast mad eyes around the group, Nnenia and Eshe paralyzed before him, and Adesh shaking visibly as he stood anew from the ground.

“We thought we were still clear and at ease, sir!” Adesh said.

“You thought wrong, Private!” the officer shouted, “Nobody is at ease during a KVW inspection, not you, not I, not even the ghosts of your ancestors. I want all three of you dimwits’ full names, right–”

A sound louder than his voice drowned out the Officer’s words.

All across the line, the carnage played out too quickly.

Adesh saw it coming first; he did not know enough to identify the object but he was certain it would crash near them, and that he he had no hope of avoiding it. There was no time even to call out in alarm. Meters behind them a column of dust and a plume of smoke rose from the ground amidst a deafening explosion; like dolls their bodies were thrown out in the air. Adesh landed inside the trench, slamming his back hard against the wooden support. Around him the whole world twisted and quaked, while thundering blasts near and far kept him deafened and dumb. Across his head and spine he felt intense, paralyzing pain.

He thought he heard a voice call out, Artillery! in the midst of the chaos.

He then thought he heard the voice scream in pain.

Disoriented, he pulled himself blindly over dirt and rock, up against the wooden frame of the trench and over its edge. Grit and grime covered his eyes and he could hardly open them. When he did he saw columns of dirt and smoke and dark, rolling clouds around him before the grime and blood forced him blind anew.  He dimly heard a second round of explosions and let himself drop back into the trench. They sounded far off but he knew it was his rattled ears tricking him. He was in every way disoriented.

Nnenia and Eshe were still out there somewhere.

With his arm up against it he pulled himself along the wooden frame, following the trench. He felt each new blast as though it had fallen atop him, heat and force sweeping over him deadly close. He crept along the trench with his life in the balance.

Every so often his heart would skip a beat as a shell hit.

For a moment he would pause as though he were dead.

Shaking, he would trudge on.

Behind him he felt the heat closer than ever, and his whole body seized up. He felt flames trailing along him as though he were caught in a path of coals. Something had blown inside the trench and he screamed, feeling an indistinct agony all across his body. In a panic he pulled himself forward faster, not knowing the condition of any specific part of himself, until he hit a wall dividing the trenches. Adesh laid back against it and with shaking hands he reached back to his feet, across his legs, around his waist and chest.

It was all there. He breathed deep.

Mustering all of his strength, he pulled himself up over the trench wall. He felt hard ground against his knees, and forced himself upright and into a run over the hill. He heard other boots trampling around him, and a distant voice shouting “Retreat up the hill, abandon the trenches.” When he opened his eyes briefly there were people around him, also running and leaping over the trenches and foxholes along the hill, and toward its crest. They abandoned the defensive lines and rushed up this first climb.

He could still hardly see and only stopped when he ran into someone.

He could not hear their voice at first, he only felt himself in a person’s grip.

A canteen was emptied over his face. The cold water shocked him.

“You need to move from here. Can you understand me? Are you injured?”

Adesh had made it to the first crest, past the few broken-down pillboxes and sandbag redoubts that made up the final line of defense before the barracks and warehouses, and before the second hill up to the HQ. He stood stock still, his ears still ringing but his hearing slowly returning. His whole body was shaking and he had some trouble breathing. In front of him a medic assessed his condition and kept a hand on him to keep him from falling.

He snapped his fingers and spoke slowly to Adesh, and cleaned his eyes so that he could see again. He applied a light dressing to his forehead to stop the blood.

Around him soldiers rushed to the hill he abandoned and hastily established a battle line. Trucks towed guns into position, and teams established machine guns and sniper posts.

“I see them!” someone shouted, “soft-skin vehicles, moving out onto the field!”

“Are you ok?” the medic said again.

“I’m fine,” Adesh stammered. “Where do I go?”

The medic nodded to him with relief in his eyes. “Run uphill, back up the road, and join up with the reserve to get your orders.” He said. He pointed out the main road uphill from the defensive line at the first crest, leading closer to the headquarters.

When Adesh started on his way the medic rushed to the next nearest arriving soldier to continue his work. A woman had arrived up the hill and nearly ran into a towing truck and fallen over. The medic helped her out of the way of the defenders, and applied the same tests to her, snapping his fingers, speaking slowly, and pouring water just like before.

There were more medics and more people arriving every moment, and a disparity between those fighting and those out. He felt like a ghost walking, light and strange, as though his feet could not touch the ground. He heard the retort of guns, these ones deadly close, and he flinched and nearly threw himself to the ground.

Then it dawned on him that those sounds were his guns, their guns, the guns of the Ayvartan people. People like Nnenia and Eshe. Nnenia and Eshe.

Adesh broke into a run for the nearest crowd of people he could see along a branching road leading to the barracks buildings and the little plazas between each, with a flagpole proudly displaying the 9-headed snakes, the Hydras, which symbolized the struggles of the revolution and the freedom of the people, curled around a hammer and sickle.

He walked dazedly beneath the flag pole, toward the crowd along the barracks.

“Adesh! It’s Adesh! He’s alive! Thank the spirits!”

Adesh saw hands waving in front of him and in an instant found himself embraced by Nnenia and Eshe, each one kissing one of his cheeks and throwing their hands around him. They cried and pressed themselves on him, shouting that they were worried and that the artillery had struck for so long, and that there were this and that many dead and wounded. He was so stunned that he cried with them, unable to express with words or expressions the relief he felt. Only with muted tears. They were his alive; his friends were alive.

At no point did Adesh consider that it was not only himself, or his close friends, but his entire division, his entire army, his entire country, that had come under attack.

~ ~ ~

Madiha stood tense in front of the divisional tank depots, waiting for Gowon’s orderlies to open the locked shutter doors. They fumbled with their keys and Madiha could not blame them for their anxiety. Behind the little crowd stood Inspector Kimani, wearing a face as though sculpted from stone, never flinching even as the shells exploded in the distance over the lower hill, even as they heard the cracking retorts from distant rifles.

A battle, a real battle with an enemy military force, was unfolding close by.

Within this cacophony the party at the depots worked in silence, carrying out an inspection as though in a world that was not yet at war.

Madiha took up her pen and pad once again to take note of the inventory, knowing exactly why the Inspector had insisted on coming here.

Gowon also knew. He had turned as pale as a Nochtish man. He was quivering in place.

Finally the door was unlocked. The orderlies pulled up the shutter enough for Parinita and another man to crawl under, and they pulled the door the rest of the way by a chain, and secured it. Inside the depot were dozens of discrete aisles that should have been crowded with lines of tanks, but instead they saw only shelves of spare parts and tools, pools of oil, discarded old engine blocks and cannon housings.

There was not a tank in sight.

“Where did you send them, Gowon?” Kimani calmly asked.

“They are refitting,” he explained desperately, “I sent them to Bada Aso for refitting.”

She pressed on. “You have contacts there who work in machining, don’t you?”

Gowon paused, and then stamped the ground in anger.

“I don’t have to suffer this from you Kimani!” He shouted. “I don’t require you to lecture me on ethics and disclosures, I don’t need you looking through all my family and friends! I’m a high ranking member of the civil council and the head of this battlegroup! The military council has no right to come here and–”

Before anyone could gasp or cry or even conceive of what was happening, Kimani had already drawn her revolver and she had already shot.

Madiha did not flinch or move.

At point blank range the heavy round from the high caliber revolver overturned Gowon like a pillar, and burst open the back of his head onto a nearby wall. Only once the streaks of gore had hit and drip to the floor did anyone come to recognition. The orderlies tripped over their own feet in shock and horror. Parinita screamed and covered her ears as though she would go deaf from a noise that had already gone. Gowon was dead.

Madiha knew that Justice had been done in the only way the situation would allow.

She took her pen and put it down neatly and simply: On the 18th of the Aster’s Gloom, Major Elijah Gowon was summarily executed by KVW Inspector General Chinedu Kimani for misuse of army materiel, misappropriation of the people’s funds, capitalistic abuses, and incompetence in the face of the enemy. 

She paused after, contemplating what she had written. Incompetence in the face of the enemy. Distantly behind her the guns were still roaring. For the first time in years and years, a high-ranking officer was executed in the midst of a battle. All of the implications of what was happened, what had happened, seemed to fail to penetrate to Madiha.

“Madiha, we have no time to lose.” Kimani said. “I’m putting you in command of Ox.”

“Yes ma’am.” Madiha said. Somehow the words had not registered.

She could not entirely grasp the concept of what she doing. It was just another order from Kimani that she had to obey as an agent of the KVW. She did not interrogate it.

Kimani continued. “Elements of my division are scattered around Adjar. Some are close. I will contact them, and they will help us evacuate. But you must keep the enemy back until then with whatever we have here. I need time to clear out Gowon’s headquarters. We can’t have any sensitive information falling into enemy hands. This is it, Madiha. It is what we feared might happen. Do you understand?” Madiha nodded her head solemnly, and Kimani nodded back. The Inspector turned her attention to Parinita, staring dumbly still at Gowon’s corpse. “You, girl, brief Captain Nakar on Ox’s disposition.”

Parinita blinked hard in confusion. Madiha took her hand and pulled her along. Kimani rounded up the rest of the orderlies and they parted ways. Kimani and the orderlies ran to the looming headquarters building as fast as they could, but Madiha and Parinita walked, a world apart still. In command of Ox, she had said. Madiha turned over in her head what this meant and what she was doing. In her own strange way, she was broken by shock.

Together she and Parinita rushed all the way down to the lower crest, overlooking the field and forest dividing them from Cissea (Nocht), where a semicircular battle line had formed to contain the enemy advance. Anti-tank guns, long-barreled artillery guns and heavy machine guns had been pushed to the edge of the crest, and stood just behind the old line of abandoned pillboxes. Old concrete guard posts and hill edge barriers provided cover from which they could shoot down to the field and the outskirts of the forest. A skeleton crew held the line, men and women enough only to man the guns and shoot down the hill if necessary – a force that might easily be displaced by sustained attack. Thankfully there was a lull now in the fighting. There were bodies of the enemy lying dead on the field.

“Parinita, is it? What is our disposition?” Madiha asked.

Her words sounded distant to herself; she could only imagine how much farther and more dream-like they must have been to the secretary. Parinita stared at Madiha’s face blankly for a moment, their eyes locked to each other, and then she began to speak, droning in the voice of one still half lost in their own mind. “Ox is the Battlegroup size formation responsible for the Adjar Dominance. Under the edicts of the civilian council and the Demilitarization policy we are limited to no more than 100,000 standing troops, 3000 guns, 2000 tanks, a limited officer corps, assorted staff and logistical personnel and vehicles–”

Madiha seized her by the shoulders and stood nose to nose with her.

“How much do we have within grasp and how much out of it?” She said.

Parinita shivered, and she looked down at her hands as though counting something with her fingers, but the fidgeting seemed all to be an act. When she responded she was almost in tears. “I don’t know. A division-sized group is supposed to hold this base – 10,000 troops, but not all of them are here, many were given other jobs, or allowed unspecified leave or to enter a reserve if they performed work that Major Gowon approved of.”

Madiha looked around herself, at the crowds around the distant barracks buildings, at the crews at the hill. There were probably no more than a thousand rifles, if that.

They had trucks and half-tracks scattered around the base, many of which were now towing artillery guns to positions behind the battle line. They had formed an impromptu line long enough to cover the expected approaches toward the base, and dispersed enough that enemy artillery could not destroy all their fighting positions– but there were still less than 30 guns across the battle line, and of those almost all were direct fire guns.

There were a few machine gunners scattered around with a stock of ammo and a gunner beside each. From her vantage she could see only a few mortars in support.

And beyond that there were no armored vehicles at hand – even if there were, they were likely to be Goblin tanks, too lightly armed and armored to make any difference.

Madiha felt herself coming close to shaking and had to steel herself from it. Washing over her like ice-cold water was the realization that she was in charge now of an army that was not here, where she needed it. She slowly let go of Parinita, and approached the guns.

“Who commands here?” Madiha shouted, approaching the nearest fighting position.

A tall young man, bronze as a statue, looked back at her from one of the 76mm guns, leaving the protection of its gun shield to run back to her in a half crouch. He saw the Hydra-headed KVW insignia on her uniform and straightened himself out, saluting her with a sudden grim composure. “I’m Lieutenant Purana, ma’am. Junior Lieutenant, actually. We’ve gotten, umm, mixed up, you could say. I’m not supposed to be in command of the defense but I rallied the people in my barracks to man this position and a few others along the battle line here. We have managed to repel some of the enemy, ma’am.”

“A notably good idea within this chaos. What is happening?” Madiha asked.

“From what I understand at around–” He paused, and seemed to wrack his brain.

“You needn’t develop a timeline for me.” Madiha pressed.

“Yes ma’am.” He looked relieved. “Enemy forces targeted the border defenses with artillery fire; they must have thought it was manned, but in reality there was almost no one there in the trenches and pillboxes. Just some poor trainees and privates having their lunch in the sun! Then it was all thrown into confusion, we had little training on how to handle this, and we expected Major Gowon or some of his staff to come, but nobody did. Our barracks was near one of the truck depots, so when we heard the blasts, some of us went out there, and we came back, and organized bringing guns to the hill with our trucks and manning them, since the ones already positioned here were rusted and useless. We developed this position, and it is haphazard, but we are doing our best, ma’am.”

Madiha nodded. They had done a good job.

“How many comrades do you have in position now?”

“On the line? About a hundred of us. Across the base? Can’t really say. My barracks held about,” he looked at his fingers, counting in his mind perhaps, “two hundred, and we split up the work. People were always coming and going ma’am, so I don’t know for sure.”

“I commend you.” Madiha said. She fixed her eyes on him so that he would understand the seriousness with which she spoke. “You have done quite well. I will make sure you no longer occupy a junior position if we survive. However, I am now taking command.”

“I have no complaints ma’am, but,” He scratched his hair, and sighed audibly, “We were trained to say to KVW that our forces are part of the civilian volunteer army and cannot be commanded by the Military Council. I am relieved to see real army here.” He paused, and Madiha could not help but feel a little disturbed that he considered her the ‘real army’ and not himself. What did he think he was? She could hardly believe what sort of politics was at work here.

“Then you have said it, but the facts remain unchanged. I’m Captain Nakar, KVW Civilian Liaison.”

“Well, you do occupy a space between the two councils, so that works for me. Just, you know, if any of the Civil Council folks object, I’m going to have to say that you coerced me, to preserve my rank.”

Madiha wanted to scream at him, but instead nodded her head in silence and walked past him, out to the edge of the gun line, to see things more closely for herself.

She looked down off the crest of the hill. Most of the trenches in the slope below her had been reduced to splinters and chunks of concrete, and to mounds of upturned dirt, pockmarked with dozens of craters. Despite this she believed that it had not been a fierce shelling. It had been sustained, but the impacts had been small and far apart and did not deliver as much power as they could. It was a hasty and poorly planned attack.

Madiha tapped a woman behind one of the guns on the shoulder and silently demanded her binoculars, which the woman quickly and clumsily gave up. Madiha raised them to her eyes and peered beyond the trenches, to the field dividing Ayvartar and Cissea in this sector.

She saw unmoving bodies in the grass and the woods.

She also saw a couple of flatbed cars and trucks, abandoned across the field. Some were truly wrecked, others merely pockmarked with bullets. A few still burned brightly.

“What happened out there? I assume those are enemy dead?”

“After the artillery, some soft vehicles and foot soldiers charged in to attack us.” Lt. Purana said. “Motorized assault troops I suppose. They ran into all of the traps we laid in the field. Ran into a decade’s old minefield, fell into ditches, sunk in mud-holes. It bought us some more time. We grouped up and opened fire from here before they could bring up their engineers, and they turned tail and ran back again – a lot of them across more traps.”

“So in all, their first artillery attack and the charge after that were wasted.”

“Yes ma’am. I don’t know whether they overestimated or underestimated us. I think it might’ve been some combination of the two – they crush our unused trench, but run over mines? Makes no sense to me, but I’m not gonna second-guess our good fortune.”

Madiha looked again. She focused on the bodies in the grass, the men (for the Nocht army never allowed women into battle) sent to charge the minefield. They were thick with blood and their own gore but she knew something about them was off. She wondered, primarily, what the color of their uniforms would have been before they died, and became soaked red and brown in the blood and muck. Madiha suspected they were not Nochtish.

“Those could be Cisseans.” Madiha said. “I believe deployed Cissean forces to launch the initial attack and then to absorb our fire. This would explain the situation.”

“Ancestors defend,” Lt. Purana said, “So the actual Nocht forces may be–”

“Biding their time. Perhaps organizing their armor to assail us. That means we still have time – but that the worst is yet to come. What is the disposition of our other forces? You say that these people here are just your own barracks-mates? Where are the others?”

“Everyone is in a sorry state right now ma’am, I’m very sorry. I’m not entirely sure. I think some of the other officers in the division were organizing for a counterattack?”

“That would be ridiculous right now.” Madiha said. She turned her head. “Parinita!”

Behind her, Parinita seemed like she would fly off the ground in fear when called. She had been standing back from the line and observing bashfully. She nodded her head in acknowledgment when Madiha called, and stood in attention as the Captain spoke.

“Spread the word around the base. I am in command.” Madiha said. She began to gesticulate alongside her orders, pointing out the positions and weapons she was referencing as she spoke. “Major Gowon has been removed by the KVW for incompetence. We are in a state of emergency. Half the troops will organize to defend this hill, the others will rush into the HQ and help Kimani evacuate materiel and destroy intelligence that could fall into enemy hands. I want all 122mm and 152mm guns we can muster formed into a support battery under my command. I want all 45mm and smaller anti-tank guns in ambush positions at the rear echelon, protecting the artillery batteries. All 76mm guns and available machine guns must be brought forward and organized across this line on a wide front. Each fighting position at least 5 meters apart from the other. Did you get all that?”

Parinita looked dumbstruck by the orders at first, but then she nodded quickly and saluted, standing stiff and tall with her chest stuck out. Was she trying to make up for earlier? “Yes ma’am, Captain Nakar! I have a good memory,” she said, stuttering her words. “I will muster everyone, Captain, ma’am,” she added in a loud, strained voice.

She then took off to spread the word, as instructed.

Madiha spotted her stopping in front of a medic for a few minutes, and then taking off for the barracks. The Medic, too, ran in a different direction, alerting others along his way.

Everything seemed to be moving now. Madiha sighed with relief.

“Did you get that as well?” She asked the forces around her.

Behind each anti-tank gun and the few machine guns, there was a concerted nodding.

~ ~ ~

Parinita’s heart was racing as fast as her feet.

She ran farther uphill, climbing a gentle slope from the first crest and up to the next closest barracks that she could spot. It seemed empty – so she ran further up to the next one. She reasoned then that the first barracks from the crest of the hill was the one she saw deployed to the battle line. Her legs quickly felt sore from the effort.

Her mind raced too.

Everything around her was at once collapsing but finally falling into place as well. All of the cryptic things she had been told, all of the expectations that she had tried hard to forget. It was all catching up to her again. She and Madiha both had to survive this. She had seen the omens in Madiha’s eyes. She thought she would never see those eyes; and that she would never see them facing death. Those eyes were at once so alien but so familiar.

She had been taught to find those sorrowful eyes.

Like in the old legends, that was her long-forgotten fate. This was not just fancy or imagination. Seeing the fire in those eyes told her it was real; everything had been real.

She had work to do.

A series of barracks spaces were scattered all around the base with their own depots. A network of roads ringing Gowon’s base connected them. It had all been terribly haphazard and had never been corrected – the outpost was ancient, and they had built over it and built over it for generations. Some of the buildings standing here were built before the revolution. Some had been laid before anyone even considered revolution.

Parinita was a Staff Secretary or Chief of Staff for the Battlegroup, a rank created by the Civil Council to help civilians find palatable military work, without feeling tied down to combat and danger, and to help the main army become a more civilian enterprise.

She had received a bare minimum of training, and she could run a good mile.

At the second barracks, she was out of breath, her legs hurt, and her throat and chest felt raw and overworked; but she had run for ten minutes up the slope without stopping. A crowd was gathering outside the buildings and a crate full of rifles and clips was being parceled out. Parinita shambled toward an officer and bent double, gasping for breath.

“Staff Secretary?” asked the female officer. “Where is Major Gowon?”

“Relieved of command.” Parinita said simply. “Our new commander due to the emergency situation will be Captain Madiha Nakar of the KVW. Before you ask, I support the KVW’s decision, and without them, we will not survive this day. We will cooperate.”

The officer quieted for a moment, thinking, and then said, “Nakar? I feel like I have heard that name. I trust you, Maharani; what does Captain Nakar wish for us to do?”

“She has specific orders we must carry out before the enemy musters again.”

Parinita relayed the orders quickly, and added an additional order that she felt would improve the situation – she asked for radios to be distributed to key personnel.

On her orders the soldiers took several radio boxes out of storage, and completed the set with the additional emergency radio from a barracks lockbox, setting the latter outside the barracks for Parinita. She sent a private from the crowd to deliver some radios to Madiha’s line, and sent others with similar deliveries to the artillery battery being organized in the rear, and a last box to be taken to the headquarters building. Runners were sent to the other barracks to get everyone to distribute their own radios as quickly as possible across their own officers and their own parts of the defensive line – this would allow for the transmitting of orders at a far faster rate than Parinita running across the base.

Soon she had Madiha and the officers on the radio, while a few troops waited for orders around them, and the rest ferried crates of rifles and ammunition or helped push guns into place. Everyone as moving and there was direction and order returning to the base.

“This was a perfect idea, Parinita.” Madiha said, her voice crackling over the radio speaker, a small box that was raised to one’s ear to hear the speaker on the other end. “We have begun to see surreptitious enemy movements along the front, and smoke from the forest. Enemy armor will be moving in soon. We need to form that artillery battery and retaliate soon. It is our only chance against the forces they deployed. Our goal is merely to hold out until Inspector Kimani deems it safe to abandon this position and evacuate.”

“Yes ma’am.” Parinita said, trying to sound enthusiastic.

“How are things moving along around you?”

Across the road Parinita saw the trucks advancing at a more expeditious rate.

“They are moving, Captain.” Parinita said.

“Has anyone heard from Kimani yet? How long until they clear the HQ?”

“One moment.” Parinita said. She turned the dial on the big metal radio box, switching from Madiha’s channel to those of the runner’s box she sent to the headquarters. “This is the Staff Secretary, what is the status of the HQ?” She issued her requests and there was a moment of silence and a bit of crackling noise, before a voice replied to her, sounding rushed and stressed. Parinita listened to the HQ units, barely able to parse their shouting over the poor quality of the audio and the heavy stress that was evident in their voice.

She nodded to herself and reported back to Madiha. “It will take time.”

“Then we must make a concerted effort to hold.” Madiha said.

Parinita stepped away from the radio, ceding the speaker to an officer. No sooner had she given the speaker away that she saw a cloud of dust and smoke suddenly rise from the direction of the defensive line. She took the speaker box and put it to her ear again.

“Captain, are you alright, is that–?”

Successive explosions roared across the defensive line, throwing up fire and debris.

Madiha replied in a rush. “Artillery attack; is the counter battery ready?”

Parinita snatched a pair of binoculars from the dumbfounded officer at her side and peered out across the road, where a group of 152mm howitzers – long-barreled cannons with wider tubes that bore heavy rounds and fired overhead at an angle – were setting up behind a building for cover against the enemy’s own guns. They established themselves and Parinita called them quickly on the radio. She then switched back to Madiha.

“They’re ready Captain, awaiting firing information. Contact them directly.”

Moments later Parinita looked back to the battery with her binoculars as they adjusted their elevation, turned the gun further to their right, and opened fire. With those bellowing retorts, Ayvarta had begun to fight back, their own artillery likely causing the first Nocht casualties of what she believed would become a long, bloody war. In a sense, all of this had been made known to her long ago – she had only forgotten, when she was a child and wanted to get away, until those eyes told her again. She clasped her hands and prayed while the soldiers scrambled around her. She prayed for Madiha to survive everything.

~ ~ ~

Madiha hid behind the rubble of one of the concrete guard posts near the defensive line. It had been shattered instantly by a direct hit from an enemy shell moments ago. Unlike the scattered artillery in the first attack, this one was more spirited, with shells falling consistently and by the dozen, but the majority of the blasts simply pitted the hillside. Despite its power Nochtish artillery had a deficiency in range when compared to Ayvartan cannons: Madiha knew she could pinpoint and destroy the artillery positions given a little more time, a battery of her own, and of course, that she survived the barrage.

Around her the machine gunners and cannon operators hunkered down and prayed. There was little protection from the artillery fire sporadically hitting the line save for its inaccuracy. Already a cannon was in pieces thirty meters from Madiha’s impromptu redoubt, and she saw bodies cooked around it. A shell had fallen on top of them.

But those deaths were not without their value – she thought she knew now where the enemy’s artillery batteries were located and she was almost ready to counter.

All she needed was for her own batteries to pick up their pace and follow her instructions.

Far behind her another shell landed, and she felt a wave of heat and bits of flying dust.

Another guard post crumbled under the blast.

Madiha pulled out her compass, and held the radio speaker box to her ear, calling the gunners.

“Ready for coordinates, ma’am!” They replied.

“Load High Explosive rounds and follow my directions, then fire with all available guns.” Madiha said. She then gave them the coordinates that she had thought up, using known map sectors; she put down the radio and looked out toward her own defensive line.

All of her crews were still cowering.

“Enemy forces are firing explosive shells aimed at destroying the pillboxes, edge barriers and guard posts,” she shouted out to her crews, “they are inaccurate and you will not be killed except by a direct hit on your position! Slowly and calmly relocate yourself and your weapons away from the concrete barriers! Crouch low to the ground and keep as still as possible while fighting. Maintain a distance of 5 meters or more from other friendly positions. This will prevent multiple crews from being hit at once! Nochtish guns have lower accuracy and range than our own. You can survive this day if you follow my orders!”

As she shouted this several more shells fell around the line, most of them many meters away on the slope below them, tearing out chunks of the earth and smashing concrete pillboxes flat. One lucky shell landed a few meters in front of her, but the rubble between her and the blast shielded her from the heat and from the shell fragments. She peeked out after the blast and found an unoccupied pillbox smashed to pieces a few meters away.

Nocht was attacking the fortifications still – they must really have thought them all manned. This was a preparatory bombardment. They still had time to prepare!

Then Madiha finally heard the retort of an artillery battery close by: her own artillery guns had begun to fire using the solutions she had given them. She saw the red tracers briefly in the sky. Explosions rocked the forest a few kilometers out.

She had gotten a good bead on the enemy after observing their fire.

Almost a supernaturally good bead – she had never considered herself good at math or even terribly well educated in it at all, but she could tell almost everything about a gun and its fire by observing the situation enough. She knew her fire was accurate.

Her own batteries continued to work, dropping shells across the field into the forest. At first the enemy guns sounded and more shells started to crash around her position and several meters behind her cover. But the enemy’s fire started to slacken under the attack of her guns, until the Nochtish artillery quieted completely. Madiha hoped they had lost cannons or crew, and that they weren’t merely repositioning themselves.

Madiha raised her binoculars to her eyes and looked across the field, watching the edge of the forest and the tall, unkempt grass between the borders for signs of the enemy.

With her free hand she pulled up her radio and called Sergeant Bogana on the extreme end of the defensive line from her own position. The hillside was long enough that she could not verbally call from her end, the rightmost end, to the leftmost portion of the line – Sergeant Bogana had been one of Purana’s experienced men, and she had sent him to the other end with a hand-held radio in order to coordinate their defense of the line.

“I have lost a gun. How fares your side of the line, Lieutenant?” Madiha said.

“We lost a 76mm anti-tank gun, but we’re fine. We’ve got a half-dozen anti-tank guns and a couple of machine guns over here – but the troops have had very little training with them, I’m afraid. We’ll do our best to stop any attacks, commander.”

“Put it into perspective for me: how little training?”

“The Regional Council reduced the training times so much that I’ve barely been able to get two live fire exercises going in two months.” replied Bogana. “They know the basics of how to aim, load and shoot but they’ve hardly had time to practice in the field ma’am.”

“Grave, but not insurmountable as long as someone with experience can command them. Keep them together, Lieutenant. We can survive the day.”

Across the field the grass and shrubs, and the trees on the edge of the wood, began to sway and shake from some disturbance. Madiha focused her binoculars. She saw trees collapsing in the forest and earth being thrown up, and then she saw the black and grey exhaust blowing from the green woodland. She called out to the line for attention.

Grey steel hulks cleared the tree line and advanced across the field and toward the slope. These were Nocht M3 Hunter Assault Guns: boxy, rattling machines each mounting a somewhat short-barreled but still powerful 75mm cannon. While the placement of the cannon was unfortunate – it was stuck on one side of the chassis with limited traverse in any direction – the vehicle was well armored and had a low profile, lacking any semblance of a turret. It was also relatively quick on its tracks for an armored vehicle.

The armor advanced quickly in a tight formation, trampling the field, rolling harmlessly over the pits and the mines and the hidden barbed wire that had slowed and destroyed numerous light vehicles and infantry. They were charging the hill directly.

Madiha shouted, first to the line and then into the radio for the rest of the troops who were not within earshot, “Armor incoming! All guns to attention, begin loading armor-piercing high-explosive rounds and fire once the tanks come within 1000 meters of you! Aim for the sides of the tank or for the tracks! Avoid shooting directly at the front!”

As she shouted this the lead tank raised its gun and paused its march for a moment in order to fire a shot – a high explosive shell erupted from the gun and hurtled just past Madiha’s hiding spot and leveled a checkpoint building, casting debris over her gun line.

“Open fire!” She called out. In succession and all across the line her own guns sounded.

She heard the rhythmic cracking of the guns and saw her own shells suddenly flying the length of the field. Shells overflew the hill and crashed into the forest; they smote holes into the ground around the advancing tanks; several poorly angled shots crashed uselessly against the front and side armor of the vehicles, deflecting into the air.

Madiha counted eight tanks spread across the front, and their own fire soon joined hers in earnest. Their cannons had poor traverse, but more than enough to make up the quickly shrinking range, closing in under five hundred meters and firing their cruel shots in well-planned arcs. Enemy fire bounded off the side of hill, smashing against the crest, or roared overhead, taking chunks out of the road or the nearby buildings, showering the line with flying metal fragments and casting aside defenses in bursts of explosive force.

A series of explosions close and afar took Madiha’s senses.

She was neither hit nor even injured, but a gun near to her had gone up in smoke and flames, and she knew its crew to be dead or dying; and in that instant she also knew that an M3 had been penetrated and destroyed. She saw it go up in flames amid the grass.

This triggered something in her. Inside the cacophony of battle she felt her mind growing dull and her spirit seemed to leave her body as she realized who scored the kill.

For a strange moment, she saw through the eyes of Adesh Gurunath.

~ ~ ~

A shell landed five meters away. It hit the gun shield on a nearby cannon dead on and exploded, flinging the crew like pieces off an upturned game board. Nothing of the cannon or mount remained, all of it scattered to the air. Adesh felt the fragments of metal like hot needles falling all around him. They bit into his uniform and cut his cheek and neck.

He had wanted to weep, to crumple and beg for his life to some unseen force–

But in the same instant he grit his teeth and through hot tears he braced himself against his 76mm anti-tank gun. Lifting it by two long, metal carriage rods, he turned the piece along its side until the barrel of the gun pointed ahead of the advancing target.

He grew suddenly numb to the pain and fear.

Something was burning in him, something urged him forward.

He felt like crying, and he cried; but he also felt protected and led. Inspired.

“200 meters and closing in!” Adesh cried out, “Load AP!”

Nnenia adjusted the gun sight quickly while Eshe heaved the weighty armor-piercing shell and loaded it into the breech. Adesh and Nnenia readjusted the gun by lifting and swinging around its carriage again and again – the enemy tank kept moving.

Working as one they dropped the gun, and Eshe pulled the firing mechanism.

There was a thundering of metal and a kick back as the shell erupted from the gun and soared downhill, across hundreds of meters of the field, crashing directly through the side of the M3 assault gun. Penetrating the weaker side armor it detonated inside the hull; smoke blew from the crippled machine, and it later exploded in earnest, perhaps from abuse to its engine or to its ammunition compartment. The blast was loud enough to drown out the screaming of the enemy tanks’ own guns and the intermittent explosions across the defensive line, as if to declare the Ayvartan victory louder than that of the enemy.

Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe did not notice the explosion – by then they were readjusting their gun for the next shot as the assault guns drew into ever closer range, soon to be upon them if something was not done. They worked rapidly, with precision and confidence unknown to them before this crisis. Until today their training hours had been minimal.

All of them could feel it, something pulling at them, twisting their emotions, keeping them standing. They felt oddly familiar with war. Through the burning tears, their vision was clear; through the pain and exhaustion and nausea their bodies still moved. Adesh felt like he would collapse any second, like he had already passed the border between life and death in all but the action of dropping down. But his body did not quit him – he felt as though his soul, something indeterminate within, fought on, where he had given up.

The team turned the weapon, targeting the lead tank – Adesh felt a growing confidence in his knowledge of the gun. He felt like he had the blueprint right in his mind.

“300 meters!” He said with unnatural precision, “Load AP!”

Their gun was stationed on the far right of the line, and they had lost many comrades; from more populated sectors a renewed barrage began to cover for the missing fire from Adesh’s fallen allies. A tank that was fast approaching Adesh’s position was hit in the side of its gun mantlet, caving-in the steel and paralyzing the machine with a smoking wound to its head. They were whittling them down. Nnenia helped Eshe haul the next round, and Adesh fired it – they lacked crew discipline, switching roles constantly, but nonetheless their next shot burst through the tracks of one of the tanks causing it to lose control. Where it finally stopped, its fixed gun faced harmlessly away from the defensive line.

One by one the remaining assault guns began to fall, shells smashing tracks, striking cannon housings and warping the riveted armor, exploding in front of portholes and stunning crews. Smoke rose from the wrecks, and men escaped the hatches and were cut down by machine guns that rained fire on the grass without remorse.

“200 meters!” Adesh shouted again, “Load AP!”

Everyone loaded, aimed and took fire once again, sending a red tracer shell flying out, but the shock from their cannon was subsumed into a greater, sudden disturbance.

Their feet shook, the chains and sights on their gun rattled loudly; a blast several magnitudes larger than anything they could launch drowned out the entire battlefield.

Behind them a thick column of smoke rose around the headquarters building, fires raging behind the cloud. There were several detonations each louder than the next, followed by the pounding of rubble on concrete as the building completely collapsed and fell over the hedges. Flames danced within the cloud of dust and smoke at the top of the hill.

There was little time to take in the astonishing magnitude of the HQ’s demolition – the silence along the line lasted only a moment after the collapse, before they heard renewed cries and roaring engines from across the field. Dozens of gray uniformed riflemen and several additional assault guns charged toward the field, treading the safe routes cut through the traps by the first armored spearhead. Adesh and crew huddled behind their gun shield as the approaching riflemen took quick shots between their charges.

Adesh felt the strange fire in him going out.

He began to shake, weary and unused to battle.

Though he reached in his mind for that experience he had before, it slowly left him.

“900 meters,” he mumbled, stammering, his voice failing him, “load High-Explosive.”

Nnenia tried to lift the gun to move its barrel back in line with the approaching riflemen, but she hardly could. Eshe reached down into a big sack, and tugged on a heavy explosive shell, trying to lift it into the breech. “Adesh, help me with this,” Eshe cried, his hands and knees shaking, “I can barely move it, I’m sorry, I feel dizzy.”

Adesh’s thoughts grew more alien and distant. He could barely hear or speak anymore.

His guardian spirit had awoken and left him and he did not know.

~ ~ ~

“Captain? Captain, are you hurt?”

Madiha heard a sharp cracking noise deadly close to her, and jolted back to life, shaking as though experiencing a convulsion.

She looked in every direction, a sudden and nauseating panic overtaking her. Her eyes had not been her own and they still weren’t.

She heard Parinita’s voice, but in front of her she saw only carnage of ages past. A warlord in the savannah guiding his spearmen to battle against another tribe; a shaman, in a straw hut on a journey to the spirit world, seeing and tasting the war that his tribe was waging; a soldier in the pre-modern age, when Ayvarta first fought Lubon, who knew exactly how far every bit of his inaccurate grapeshot would go; and his subordinates below the ramparts, whose minds he manipulated to make them fiercer, to keep them from buckling as they charged out to the field, a vanguard sure to die against the line of muskets braced against them; and a little girl at the end of the Empire whose cursed eyes coordinated revolution across all of Ayvarta, as the socialist Hydra plan was put into place–

She grabbed hold of her head, grit her teeth and screamed.

“Captain!”

Her vision slowly cleared, and the pounding in her brains slowly subsided.

She was shaken violently out of her stupor when a high-explosive shell flew overhead and crashed several meters behind them, punching a hole into the road out to the headquarters building – of which nothing was left but a pillar of smoke.

Parinita huddled close to her, behind the rubble; after the shell struck, she rose from cover and put a round from an anti-tank rifle down the field, braced against the rocks. She cursed under her breath and dove behind cover again, working the bolt on the rifle.

“Captain, are you injured? I’ve been trying to cover you with this BKV,” she ran her hands along the BKV-28 anti-tank rifle, loading a round in frustration, “but I can’t stop them! And I think the Inspector is done with the demolition but I can’t get a hold of her!”

Madiha silently took the rifle from her hands and inspected it briefly. She peeked from her cover and looked out to the field, where the Nocht soldiers had begun a new charge. Many riflemen ran across the open field, only to step into mines or fall under the withering fire of the defensive line’s few remaining machine guns. The bodies were already piling. More successful were the men huddling behind a renewed assault gun charge, advancing on the line in the same route that the earlier, now broken spearhead had tread. They were around 500 meters in – and closing. At around 100 meters it would be their victory.

“Parinita, radio in a howitzer barrage on the field after I take this shot.” Madiha said.

Parinita nodded and took the radio from Madiha.

“Captain, you’re bleeding.” She said, in a stammering voice.

Madiha felt it then, a slick sensation across her upper lip and under her nose. She wiped her face with her hands, and found that her nose was bleeding. She felt no pain, no injury. “We will lament the lost fluid soon enough.” She said. “Be ready with that radio.”

Using the BKV’s bipod she braced the gun on the rubble and faced the lead tank in the new formation. There were no enhanced optics on the rifle, only fixed iron sights, a major failing of the BKV that was scarcely ever corrected – but Madiha knew just where to shoot. She had known it the second she touched the BKV, the instant she braced it on the rocks and looked down the irons toward the advancing armor. She pulled the trigger.

BKV rifles were long and clunky and made a lot of noise, but their shots went fast and they could cover this range easily. Madiha saw the effects of her attack almost instantly. The round pierced one of the road wheels, knocking it clean off the tank.

She reloaded quickly and fired again, this time through the track, splitting it.

The lead tank lost control and veered to its right, slamming into an adjacent vehicle.

Nocht’s spearhead slowed as the infantry following behind the knocked-out tanks had to scramble to find new cover, all the while the machine guns and AT guns on the hill took the opportunity to hone in on them and inflict more accurate fire. Parinita called in the fire mission, and Madiha was impressed by the thorough coordinates she gave.

Madiha heard the howitzers shooting from behind their lines and saw the shells fall around the infantry and assault guns. A hit across the lightly armored tops of the assault guns might have struck the engines dead-on and killed the machines immediately, but she could not hope for such accuracy – carnage was the more immediate goal.

Carnage, she got: the entire field went up in smoke and flames after the first few shells.

Madiha was taken aback by the ferocity of the blasts, a series of explosions all across the borderline from the field to the forest. They coincided with her fire mission, but her guns could not possibly have done this. There were massive explosions, like several dynamite charges going off at once, blasting the whole field between Ayvarta and Cissea; men butchered, turned to pieces instantly from underfoot; massive steel chunks from the assault guns flying through the air; deafening blasts and blinding flames swallowing the foot of the hill. It was as if hell itself had opened beneath the enemy, digging its demons a burning trench. Columns of fire streaked across the field. It was a horrific show.

“What was that?” Parinita cried, but Madiha only knew this from reading her lips.

The moment her mouth opened another blast went off and silenced them both.

Madiha raised the radio to her mouth and shouted herself hoarse, calling for a retreat from the front line. She picked up the BKV, took Parinita’s hand and made for the burnt-out guard post a few meters behind her. Ahead she saw trucks coming down the road, led by a KVW half-track, and she ordered everyone to run for the safety of the trucks and prepare to evacuate. Then she heard someone behind her calling through a sudden silence.

“Captain Nakar, please wait!”

Madiha found a figure hailing her and moving in from the line of pillboxes, carrying a shovel and a green metal case. She stopped, and bid Parinita to stop as well. The figure was a familiar KVW engineer, dressed in the green KVW rifle squadron uniform but with a shawl and utility belt indicating engineer status. When she caught up with them, the engineer had a stony expression, and her breathing and demeanor was eerily calm – she was not stressed at all by the explosions. Her long wavy black hair was a little tossed about, and her brown skin was going slightly gray with exposure to ash and smoke.

“Captain,” the KVW engineer saluted, and then tonelessly continued, “At the order of Inspector Kimani I triggered all of the explosives that had been hidden under the field as Last Resort measures, via cable charges – I apologize that it was not done more promptly, but I found it difficult to dig up the old fuses, and Gowon’s staff was of little help in finding them. We also demolished the headquarters to prevent it falling to the enemy.”

That explained the explosions; the engineer had detonated the entire field under Nocht’s feet. It was not Madiha’s work. She had been saved at the last minute here.

“Good work, Sergeant Agni,” Madiha said, trying to keep a strong front despite her bewilderment with the events transpiring, “I take it then that the 3rd Motorized Division has arrived to cover the evacuation then. Are we ready to depart now?”

“Yes, we are all here, but I’m afraid we had to commandeer vehicles from nearby towns to have enough to start evacuating the base.” Sgt. Agni said, “Battlegroup Ox is woefully lacking in motorization, unlike the KVW. But nonetheless we are ready.”

Madiha’s head had cleared entirely, and her nose had ceased to bleed.

Through a mild headache she took stock.

Behind them, the field and most of the hill had become an inferno, the sky darkening with the smoke, the corpses of fallen soldiers burning within raging, open flames. Madiha thought that the traps along the border must have been more elaborate than she could have ever imagined – and yet they had failed. This area was no longer defensible. Adjar had been breached, and Nocht was rolling in to attack them over the open terrain. Certain structures in their government had predicted and had feared this with every fiber of their being for the past few weeks. Nothing concrete had been done to allay that fear. None of their cries were listened to. Now a border of flames stalled Nocht, but only temporarily. There were probably breaches elsewhere in the dominance. They had to leave quickly.

“Parinita, I suspect I will need you close in the coming days.” Madiha said.

“Yes, I had been meaning to say something about that as well.” Parinita said. She tied up her strawberry-colored hair into a ponytail while she spoke with renewed determination, and not a hint of her stuttering. “I had no love and little respect for Major Gowon, Captain. Few people in Ox had any – so, while it might be damning you with faint praise, I feel a lot better led by you, Captain. We survived all of this thanks to you.”

She bowed her head, and tried to smile a bit. She raised her left arm in a stiff salute.

“I feel as though the full reality of what has happened has not sunk in for me, Captain. If I weep, later on, or if I shake, I hope you will understand. But please allow me to serve you even if I serve with tears in my eyes. Thank you, and spirits defend you.”

Parinita held her salute. There were indeed tears in her eyes.

Madiha felt like asking the same of her – but instead she simply nodded and smiled.

Sergeant Agni led them from the front lines, with Madiha shouting for any stragglers to put grenades into the barrels of their anti-tank guns, to deny them to the enemy, and then to leave their positions behind and follow her. There were few people to call on – of all her emplacements across the defensive line, barely six or seven still stood.

She had lost almost all of the impromptu defense that Lt. Purana and Bogana had managed to build, and had it not been for the cable charges hidden in the field, they would have all been lost in the end. Shambling away from their positions as though dazed by strong drink, the soldiers destroyed their guns and headed up the road.

At the top of the slope, near the burning HQ, there were many trucks full of troops leaving the base, and towing the leftover guns behind them. A large, green, armored truck with four antennae and a machine gun turret stood prominently in the midst of the evacuation, and Madiha and Parinita made their way to it.

Inspector Kimani sat in the back, and saluted them as they approached.

“Good work, Madiha. For what you had on-hand, you did admirably.” Kimani said.

“Thank you, ma’am. May I make a call on the radio? We need to make preparations.”

“Ox is yours to command.” Kimani said. “And I will follow your orders as well.”

Madiha was confused. This was a sudden change in the plans.

“I’m only a Captain in the KVW, ma’am. I cannot command you. You are in charge of the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles – and I will defer to your command again once we evacuate. I am simply a member of your planning staff, who wishes to carry out a plan.”

“It would be disastrous, if I remain in command.” Kimani said. She was as stony and toneless now as Sergeant Agni – it was a common trait in KVW soldiers. Madiha was only a civilian liaison, and had been deemed incompatible with the crisis training that helped the KVW maintain their almost unnatural calm. This only made her all the more wary of her current position. Kimani stood off the back of the truck, and put both of her hands on Madiha’s shoulders, staring into her eyes. Madiha could see the thin, red lines circling around the inspector’s irises – the mark that she had received the full KVW training regime.

Kimani started to speak again, her fingers tracing Madiha’s broad shoulders. “Madiha, I told you before that there was a specific reason I wanted you with me, here, now. It was not so you could go to Bada Aso to try to repent, nor to write notes on a clipboard. I knew this fight was coming, and I told you as much. In truth, as a KVW inspector I am unfit to lead it. I do not balk at casualties, I do not preserve my own life – I do not feel pain and hardly feel exhaustion. I can feel your heart rushing even as I touch you now. That is why you have to lead them. Not just Ox, but the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles. It must be you.”

Madiha was overwhelmed. Things she would have rather not remembered resurfaced in her mind as she stared into the unfeeling eyes of Inspector Kimani. Madiha had never led full-scale battles, even as a military advisor. She had sat behind the lines, offering training, talking about gun ranges and precision shooting, formulating strategies, supporting operational planning. During the revolution she had been a courier between rebel groups; she had never even picked up a rifle after that. During the Akjer incident she was a spy-hunter, finding radios hidden in walls and breaking ciphers passed along in seedy bars, and then sending unarmed infiltrators to their deaths by firing squad.

She was a thinker, a planner, a good socialist, she thought.

And she was repentant and haunted by so many awful things.

“I am not a commander, Chinedu.” Madiha pleaded, using Kimani’s given name.

Kimani shook her head. “You could have fooled me. You have a plan, don’t you?”

In an instant, without thinking over it much, Madiha felt a burning in her head and her heart that compelled her. As if from another mind a dozen thoughts rushed to her. She began to explain without stopping and without thinking it over, “The situation: Dori Dobo is doomed to us, as is the border; it is impossible to organize a defense there. We must evacuate everything possible from the city. Move all food and equipment to Bada Aso. We will make our stand at Bada Aso, abandoning Dori Dobo to slow down Nocht.”

She realized what she had said, but she was helpless to take it back.

Kimani squeezed Madiha’s shoulders, an uncommonly gentle gesture from her superior officer. “I thought your peculiar strengths would be gone after what you suffered in the Revolution. But that was not the war you were born for after all.”

That terrible headache burned at all of her mind.

Madiha felt like her brains would split in two.

“You will reconcile all your confusion, eventually.” Kimani said gently. “If I understood what was in store for you in detail, Madiha, I would explain it. I want to help you. But I don’t know. For now, all I can tell you is that you are needed here. Make your call on the radio, Captain. For all of our sakes, you must carry out your plan.”

Madiha was unable to speak back to her or understand fully what she meant.

She felt that if she spoke, some other person would talk in her stead. Was she losing her mind? She felt Parinita hold her hand in support, and she felt Kimani let her go, and she stepped aside, ushering Madiha into the command truck.

Still struck dumb, Madiha opened the radio channel and called Dori Dobo’s command, mechanically repeating her orders to the confusion of everyone there. Kimani and Parinita butted in and supported her – she hoped that would be enough to get things going.

She switched to Ox’s communications and radioed all forces to fall back to Bada Aso.

Finally, she braced herself for the most frightening of her planned calls.

“Battlegroup Lion, this is Captain Nakar of the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division. Ox has come under attack by Nocht forces. What is your status? I repeat, what is your status, Lion? Has the Shaila dominance fallen under attack? Is the Nocht Federation attacking in Shaila?” There was silence on the line. Then there was screaming.

“Oh thank the ancestors!” A voice, cracking and shifting and almost too rough to understand. “We need your support, Captain. At this rate we’ll be encircled! We need everything you can spare, or we will lose Shaila’s borders for sure!”

Madiha trembled at the desperation inherent in the voice.

“We have nothing to spare. How long can Lion hold out?”

There was no response.

Madiha turned off the radio. She buried her face in her hands.

“It appears that I have been given command.” She said, her heart rushing. “We move to Bada Aso, and make our stand there. It is the only defensible area left.”

Parinita and Kimani nodded solemnly.

The evacuation proceeded quickly, and they were out on the Ayvartan roads long before the flames along the field had gone out. Flames that might soon engulf all of Adjar dominance, all of the adjoining Shaila dominance that Battlegroup Lion was struggling to protect, and perhaps all of Ayvarta. Lines of trucks rushed out of the border area, filled with soldiers like Adesh, Nnennia and Eshe, towing behind them the few guns they had left, watching the skies and the burning trail they had left behind.

The Solstice War had begun.


NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan SudenA Change of Scenery