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