View From The Cathedral — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.


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

The World was always burning. Whenever steel cut the air and ripped souls from their bodies, the Flame surged in the heart of the World. There was a time when everybody could see the fire. There were Things That Ruled this world, and they thought they knew best the fickle appetites of the flame. But there were also the People, and in a time forgotten they made war on the Things That Ruled and fed them all to the Flame.

In that instant, it was brighter than it was ever meant to be.

Never again would it grow so bright.

That was the divine time, a long forgotten minute in the lifespan of the universe.

The divine time is long past. Steel flies, souls scatter, but the Flame dwindles.

In the heart of the old continent however, the People traded scraps of that lost history, and they thought, like the Things That Ruled once did, that they knew the Flame best.

“There is a way yet, to gather the flame. Our divinity is not all gone.”

They erected a throne, and there they sat the one who would lead them.

Madiha sat in the throne. She stared down at her subjects with a grim and stately face. Monoliths rose around her, blocking out the sun. They were each as tall as mountains. She was hot, and sweating, and she felt the banging of drums right in the center of her breast, and it was thrilling. There were fire dancers in heated rhythm at the edge of her vision. For a time she was alone in the center of things. Then her subjects finally appeared in flesh, wearing nothing but masks, and they approached her, and they knelt, and they made offerings to her, as though she were a God. She grinned viciously toward them.

“Remember your virtues, old Warlord,” said a person with a fish mask.

“Cunning,” said a person in a bird mask offering hawk’s eye’s earrings.

“Command,” intoned a person in a cat mask offering a lion’s mane.

“Fearlessness,” lulled a person wearing a hyena’s snout offering a necklace of teeth.

Then entered a creature with a man’s mask, in iron, a pitiless face banged into shape over coals. Madiha could not understand its body – was it a Thing That Ruled?

It offered her only a rusty, bloody spear and it hissed: “Ferocity.

Madiha saw the flames in their eyes vanish, and all of them sink into her own, and the fires trailed from her face forming her own half-mask, and she screamed, in a horrible, all-consuming pain, down the center of her skull, across her spine, to where the tail once was, and down the arms and legs that ended in claws. They were always the Things That Ruled? 


25-AG-30: Ox HQ, Madiha’s House

It was close to midnight when Madiha awoke with a start, scattering a stack of maps and documents that had accumulated on her desk over the course of the day’s fighting.

All of the lights had been snuffed out as a passive defense against retaliatory bombing; even her oil lamp was out. She woke in the dark. Slivers of silver moonlight struggled to penetrate the dark drizzling clouds outside. There was a figure softly sleeping on a nearby table whom she assumed to be Parinita, hugging a pack radio they had set up on a chair – this box was the comrade most in touch with what was happening south of the HQ.

“Parinita?” Madiha called out, her lips trembling.

She struggled to move, frozen, as though there was something that would reach out and seize her at any moment if she was not careful. Her lungs worked themselves raw, her breathing choppy. Her eyes stung with tears and cold, dripping sweat.

It was a struggle to keep herself from falling fetal on the ground.

Her secretary woke slowly, peeking her head up from over the radio.

She flicked a switch on its side by accident and a series of tiny globes on the radio pack lit brihglty up and cast Parinita’s face in an eerie green glow. Her secretary stretched out her arms, yawned and rubbed the waking tears from her blurry eyes.

“Good morning Madiha.” She said drowsily. “Are you alright?”

“It’s not morning.” Madiha replied. Her voice was choked and desperate.

“Something wrong?” Parinita asked. “Did you have a nightmare?”

Parinita’s kind words came like a slap to the back of the head.

Madiha felt childish now – yes, she had experienced a nightmare.

She was awake enough now to understand it was not real. But it had seemed so urgent, so horrible, just a few seconds ago. It had made her tongue feel stuck against the floor of her mouth. It had driven the power to move from her. She had felt terror of a sort that nothing yet had caused her. She did not understand the images – the dire figures approached and spoke but she did not remember their contours or the content of their words.

These distorted things invoked a primal horror in her that still took her breath.

Communicating all of that felt foolish now. She turned away her gaze.

“I’m fine. It’s fine.” She said.

“If you say so.” Parinita replied, a little sadly.

“I’ll go back to sleep. Sorry for waking you.”

“It is fine.” Parinita said. “I pray that the Spirits might help still your thoughts.”

Madiha rested her head against her desk, and curled her arms around her face.

Her eyes remained wide open for the rest of the night.

She tried to recall those terrible images, but they faded more with each passing moment. That toxic thing that resided in her breast was growing closer and stronger, and yet her strange power grew no more accessible than before. Perhaps they were not linked at all.

Perhaps one was the gift and the other just the curse, never intertwined.


27th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, South District

6th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

Matumaini was a ghost street, and the southern district was starkly quiet.

Fighting that had been terribly fierce the past days had all but burnt itself out.

No snapping of distant rifles, no rumbling of artillery, no belabored scratching of tracks and treads. Where once columns a thousand rifles in strength challenged one another, now only the corpses, rubble, spent casings, and the lingering dust and smoke remained. It was a calm in the eye of the storm, and there was little shelter left to endure the weather.

Much of the southern district had been ruined, by artillery, by the tank attacks; and by the engineering battalion of the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division, diligently at work since the end of the 22nd’s air raids. Many of the ruins had been planned by them.

Those that weren’t were carefully considered and made part of the rest of the plan. They had funneled Nocht right where they wanted them to go, and many of their comrades paid dearly as the unknowingly caged dogs charged into prepared defenses.

Then, things became complex. By necessity, their plans became fluid.

A small column of vehicles moved under the cover of rain and stormclouds.

Two half-tracks and one of the Hobgoblin medium tanks departed Madiha’s house and made it quickly down Sese Street and into Matumaini Street. They passed vacant positions, destroyed guns, the hulks of vehicles friendly and enemy alike. The Hobgoblin pushed them quickly aside, opening a path for the wheeled vehicles. They drove past bodies and they drove past ruins. Some ruins were marked on the tactical maps.

Some were fresh, and would have to be inspected if time allowed.

One half-track carried two squadrons of KVW soldiers, and another a squadron of soldiers along with Madiha and a cadre – Parinita, Agni, and a few staff and engineers.

They stopped on the edge of Matumaini and 3rd. Madiha climbed the ladder up to the shooting platform of the half-track. Parinita stood hip to hip with her on the platform, holding up a parasol to cover her commander from the rain. The Major produced a pair of binoculars and inspected the intersection from afar. She traded with her secretary, holding the umbrella for a moment so she could see. Parinita whistled, impressed by the damage.

“I think the enemy will be content enough to leave this place alone.”

Parinita seemed calm and certain, and it was easy for her to be. Despite being in the middle of a war, right now it felt eerily like the aftermath, like the last bullet had flown.

But Hellfire had not yet even started. They were still setting up.

Madiha was still burdened with disquiet.

Her mind still spoke out of turn, demanding things from her. Her hands shook. Large bags had formed under her eyes. And the sound of the bombs still rang in her ears.

Outside it was quiet, yes, but the war still maintained its rhythm in a vulnerable heart.

“Do you think any of the pipeline has been compromised?” She asked Parinita.

Parinita adjusted her reading glasses. “I think we’d be well aware if it was!”

Madiha looked down her binoculars again atop the half-track.

From her vantage she had a good look at the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd block.

Constant artillery barrages had caused the road to collapse into the sewer, a massive sinkhole forming between the roads and rendering them largely unusable without further construction. To hold each individual link in the intersection would be pointless – this was an area the enemy would certainly ignore now. That had not been the plan. Madiha had wanted Nocht to commit strength and then have a path north. She wanted them to keep bodies moving into the grinder. Now she would have balance yielding to Nocht while also maintaining her troop’s ability to defend and retreat in good order in order to bleed Nocht.

“Hellfire will have to recline into a small hiatus it seems. It appears to me that our counterattack scared Nocht too much. I was too disproportionate and ruthless.”

Beside her, Parinita shrugged amicably. “Kinda hard to pull punches on these fellows.”

“I want the engineers organized as soon as possible to carry out the inspection.”

Parinita nodded. “I still feel that you should not need to be on-hand for that.”

“I want to be involved. I’m done sitting around.” Madiha replied.

Parinita averted her gaze and sighed a little to herself.

They had talked about this before. It had been a tension and a subtext of all their conversations since the first drops of blood were spilled. But Madiha could not help but feel that this was an injustice. A thousand men and women could die in a single day because she put their formations on a map, and while they suffered she was a dozen kilometers away in relative safety. A gnawing poisonous voice in her mind had convinced her that this was not her place; that she should be out there; she should be suffering with them.

She was a coward not to dive toward death like them.

“You’re not a fireteam leader.” Parinita said sharply. “I wish you’d understand that.”

“It will be fine, Parinita. It’s just a surveying mission with the engineers. We will be planning routes, diving into old empty tunnels and demolishing buildings. I’m not leading an assault on Nocht’s HQ. I just want to do something other than sit in my office.”

Madiha smiled. It was difficult – more difficult than anything she had done that day.

But her keen secretary could always see through her. She was unimpressed, but she did not protest any further. Resigned, Parinita simply replied, “If you say so, Madiha.”


PenanceCathedralPark

27-AG-30, Bada Aso SW, Penance Road

There was no storm yet, merely a continuous drizzling that pattered against windows, over tents and across the tarps over vehicles. Clouds gathered thick over the broad green park, turning the grass wet and muddy underfoot. A light wind rustled the line of trees around the edge of the park, standing sentinel around the expansive monument within.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Penance, for which the main road had been named, looked all the more grim under a dark sky. Grim gray stone steps between two massive spires led up to an open maw of a doorway shut off by double steel doors. Inside, the nave was particularly spacious, almost forty meters wide inside, and easily two stories tall by itself. Its scale attested to the hopes and dreams of its engineers, and the crowds they expected to gather there during the abortive conversion of the Empire to Messianism.

Such a project, it was believed, would inspire a new golden age for the church.

A new world, full of minds to turn to the service of the Messiah.

Certainly the building, towering over the smashed ruins outside of the park’s limits, seemed an imperious presence. In the middle of the park the Cathedral seemed as old and storied as the earth. To the observer it almost appeared that the soil around the Cathedral’s flat, gray stone base actually rose to embrace the foundation, and fell ever so slightly away from it. As though the ground elevated the building a meter or two into its own little hill.

In truth the Cathedral was an irreverent child when compared to the ruins around it.

Bada Aso was a sea of stone resting half on a hill, but conspicuously flatter and taller than its surroundings, an attempt by civilization to conquer a chaotic earth millennia old. With the times it had warped and it had grown, it had fed and gorged and it jut out in every direction, toward the sea, toward the Kalu. It was one of Ayvarta’s largest, oldest cities.

It had been built first by the indigenous Umma of the region, as a place of monoliths, a shelter straddling the sea, for the gathering of fish, and of the game from the vast, hilly Kalu. Then it became a throne of stone and brick set into place by the Ayvartan Empire, a symbol of the strength of Solstice, the invincible city in the heart of the red sands.

Many of the people who would eventually bring down the throne in Solstice grew up in its surrogate of Bada Aso, thriving in the place meant to control them. Tradition, Empire and Revolution lived and died in it. To this drama, the Messianic church, its teachings and its monuments, were entirely fresh faces. Indeed, communism was now longer lived than the Golden Age of Messianism in Ayvarta. Penance could not challenge this earth.

Once the Revolution overturned the Ayvartan Empire, Bada Aso quite briefly became a place of anti-communist fervor and then, remarkably, a symbol of civilized socialism, of the working order and kindness offered by the concrete and steel bosom of SDS-controlled cities. There was guaranteed housing and food, clinics and state shops and canteens in seeemingly every block, large tenements to keep everyone from the autumn rains, wage stipends for those unwilling or unable to work, and work aplenty for those that wanted it.

Bada Aso had been built and built over according to different time periods, ideologies, and functions. There were streets leading nowhere, byways blocked off by stark brick cul de sacs to keep traffic from spilling out to more than one road, buildings of varying size and style all organized into long uneven blocks that made up the many districts. It was an organic city, a thing that had grown in the same inexplicable way the humans within it grew. It was too tight in places and too open in others. With time, it might have grown even ganglier, more haphazard, its streets the expanding veins of a massive history.

Now the city was on its final journey.

Again the forces of reaction teemed within it.

A fifth of the city had practically been given to the 1st Vorkampfer, an army from abroad coming to reintroduce empire to Bada Aso. Bombing had ruined much of the city. Controlled demolition had rendered many places inaccessible. Four-fifths of the population had been evacuated. Those who remained did so to continue their socialist labor far behind the battle lines – serving food, sewing uniforms, dressing wounds, offering condolences.

Penance Cathedral served as well.

It was an eerie fortress, its true purpose mostly forgotten.

Along its corners trenches had been dug into the park soil, lined with sandbags, filled with men and women and their guns. There were snipers on the spires, and mortars perched precariously atop the dome. Atop the steps, a pair of 76mm divisional field guns had been angled to fire easily against the road approaches.

Inside the nave there were crates of ammunition, food, medicine, all watching a sermon led by a reserve anti-tank gun pointed out the doors. Benches had been pushed aside and there were beds and crates and a radio station set in their place. A Company from the 6th Ox Rifles Division was all that kept these sacred stones from turning hands now.

Penance had not seen battle like Matumaini.

Just a series of actions that sputtered and choked off under the shadow of that Cathedral.

To Ox command, this meant that a larger attack would certainly be forthcoming.

Under the rain, a truck entered the Cathedral district from the northwest, careful to circle the edge of the park, driving with the trees between it and the main thoroughfare. Once the the truck turned and approached the Cathedral from behind, the structure itself provided all the cover it needed from the road in case of a sudden attack.

Facing its lightly armored front to the back of the building, it parked; a passenger dismounted, and knocked on the back door of the cathedral. A woman peered out from the roof, watching their approach; she called in for them, and the door opened.

It was safe – everyone had confirmed everyone else was a comrade.

The truck swung around to make its contents accessible.

In the bed there were crates of medicine, food, canvas; a large section of sandbags and poles and tarps and other construction materials in the back; and atop the sandbags a group of eight soldiers in black and red uniforms, their officer laying unsteadily on her side.

Recently promoted Sergeant Charvi Chadgura had a hand on her stomach and another over her mouth. Her garrison cap lay discarded. She curled her legs.

“I’m car sick.” She droned dispassionately.

Beside her a deputy, newly-minted Corporal Gulab Kajari, stared at her quizzically, fanning the Sergeant with her cap. “How did you ride the tank and then get car sick?”

“It keeps rocking.” Sgt. Chadgura said. Her toneless voice was muffled by her gloves.

“Sergeant, we have a mission! You need to be healthy when we receive our orders!”

“I will be fine in a few minutes. Or an hour.” The Sergeant started to turn a little pale.

Gulab tried rubbing Chadgura’s stomach and fanning her faster with her cap to keep her cool. She had no idea what to do about motion sickness – back in the Kucha they would have just told her to endure it or to get sick in some place nobody had to see.

Once the truck stopped, everyone decided to give Chadgura a moment of stillness.

While she laid down, Gulab and the others picked up crates from the end of the bed and carried them into the Cathedral. There they would be stockpiled for the battle ahead.

Each crate was over a meter wide and tall, and stuffed full of individual ration boxes, or ammunition in belts, clips and magazines. Unloading trucks was a chore nobody was happy to perform, but the KVW troops took to it silently and diligently. They settled quickly into a teamwork system– quickly passing crates to one another in a line to get them out the truck bed and into the nave easily. As the officer on-hand, Gulab stood at the end of the line, and boisterously laid the crates down in the back room of the nave.

She was unperturbed by the weight and stacked the boxes with theatrical flourish.

“Woo hoo! We can carry another crate, can’t we comrades? Certainly one more crate! Ha ha!” Gulab said as more and more crates visibly neared along the line of hands.

This enthusiasm did not go unnoticed.

Gulab did such a fantastic job, and she was so happy and very eager to do it, that once Chadgura recovered and went to contact the commanding officer at the Cathedral, Gulab and the KVW squadron were volunteered to unload several other trucks that day.

Towed 122mm howitzers were brought one by one, and she and her troops unhitched them and arranged them at the tree-line north of the Cathedral for the crews soon to be arriving; three Goblin tanks and a truck full of spare parts and portable machine tools arrived, and the Corporal saw to it that these supplies were set apart, and that the fuel was well stored to keep dry and safe; a half-track with large antennae across its roof arrived at the Cathedral, dropped off a long-range radio set, picked up fuel and food from the stacks, and drove off again, to hide on the edges of the district; but overall most of it was trucks with common supplies. Crate after dark brown crate was unloaded and stacked.

Most of it was ammo and sandbags, but several were rations too.

Slowly, over the course of the day, the Cathedral troops built up various disparate types of materiel and personnel. Within a dozen hours they had a small but serviceable local artillery arm, a tiny armored squadron, and, under the odd direction of Corporal Kajari and Sergeant Chadgura, a minuscule but experienced assault tactics formation for special maneuvers and consulting. Under the irreverent young stones of the Cathedral they would fight to give the old stones of Bada Aso a few more days before Hellfire.


Private Adesh Gurunath rocked back and forth in a dreamless sleep atop one of the benches along the left wall of the nave in Penance Cathedral. He had arrived a few hours earlier on a truck similar to Corporal Kajari’s, carrying supplies and disparate reinforcement personnel. From the moment he appeared, the officers on site had been sympathetic and told him to rest. But he felt fine; as good as he could feel after the tragedy that befell him.

However, since there were only two 76mm guns, and he was part of a gunnery crew, he had nothing to do except relieve a current crew, taking turns. So he waited, and he slept. Atop the cold wood he twisted and turned for hours, until he heard a sharp whistling.

Adesh got up too fast; he felt a slight jolt of pain up his shoulder and along his breast.

Eshe loomed over him so close that they almost banged foreheads.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Eshe said, rubbing Adesh’s shoulder. “I didn’t think, I was a brute-”

“It is fine,” Adesh said, a little exasperated, “It is fine, Eshe. Are we moving?”

“Almost our turn at the gun. Corporal wanted us to get some fresh ammunition for it.”

Adesh nodded. He understood the Corporal wanted him and Nnenia to carry the shells.

Eshe’s arm had been hurt, and it was still in a sling; though no bones had been broken, shrapnel had injured his muscles, and movement would be limited for a time. Despite this, he did not slack in his commitment. His uniform was crisp and neat as always, his hair combed and waxed, his shoes shined. He wore his cap at all times. Professional, collected, a model soldier boy like in the posters. Still at the front even though injured; devoted.

Just not exactly able to lift heavy crates at the moment.

In that regard, Adesh was fairly lucky. A few days rest in a clinic had done him a lot of good. Surviving the dive bombing attack on the the 22nd of the Gloom left him with burns along his chest, over his shoulder and down his back, and a long, ugly burn across his neck that made it feel a bit stiff, but nothing too bad in the final reckoning.

His burns were healing well and did not impede him overmuch, so he had volunteered to return to the front when he could. He looked overall less in disarray than before, despite the bandages up to his neck under his jacket and shirt. His long, messy ponytail had been cut at the hospital. Once he had the presence of mind to do so, he asked that his hair be styled, and it was cut on the sides and back to a neck-length bob. His bangs had been trimmed neatly. After an eye examination a pair of glasses had been issued to him.

They had a noticeable weight on his nose.

After he was released, both Nnenia and Eshe, teaming up for practically the first time, made faces at him and told him he looked cute, like a little desk secretary. He didn’t know whether to take it as a joke, or if they were being serious about his appearance.

“Where is Nnenia? Asleep too?” Eshe asked. He cast quick glances about the nave.

“A few benches down; don’t whistle at her.” Adesh warned.

Nnenia was liable to punch him.

With a hand from Eshe, Adesh stood from the bench and jumped over the backrest. They approached a bench a little ways down the wall; this time Eshe shook the occupant. Nnenia growled and shook and moaned for a few minutes more. Minutes were given, and then Eshe shook her again. She nearly bit his good hand, then woke like a grumpy housecat, staring his way with eyes half-closed and her teeth grit. She sat up, legs up against her chest.

“Good morning.” She mumbled, tying her hair into a short tail.

“It’s nearly evening by now.” Eshe said gently. “And our turn at the gun.”

Nnenia sharply corrected herself. “Good morning, Adesh.”

Eshe exhaled sadly; Adesh raised his hand in awkward greeting.

Nnenia stood up and climbed over the bench by herself, and stood behind Eshe as though awaiting a chance to bite him in the shoulder. Together they crossed the nave into the backroom, where fresh supplies were coming in via truck. Adesh was surprised to find black-uniformed personnel carrying the crates and stacking them around. These were troops of the KVW – the uniform of the elite Uvuli was a black jacket and pants with red trim and gold buttons, and a patch with the nine-headed hydra, superimposed red on a black circle. It was eerie to see these agents carrying crates. They looked so common.

Prior to joining the military he barely heard of the KVW, and knew nothing concrete. Since arriving in Bada Aso Adesh had been quickly brought to speed by everyone around him on all the rumors surrounding the KVW. How they hunted traitors in the night during the scandals years ago, choking them in their own homes after finding secret radio sets transmitting to enemies; how they stared down the barrels of guns fearlessly, ignoring injury and rushing to bloody melee; how they were given special drugs and therapies so they could see in darkness, never miss a shot, and kill without compunction.

These people did not resemble those people.

“Welcome, comrades! Need anything?”

There was an energetic young woman at the fore, soft-faced and smiling at everybody. She appeared supervising the squadron as they went about their work. She had the crates stacked up in a haphazard step pyramid. Judging by her patches, she was a Corporal.

Hujambo,” Eshe said, easily taking the lead for his squad. “Are you in charge?”

“Not really, I don’t think! I just unload! Help yourselves to whatever.” She replied.

Eshe tipped his head. “I’m Eshe Chittur. If I might have your own name?”

Nnenia and Adesh introduced themselves more quietly and awkwardly.

Across from them the lady beamed and crossed her arms happily.

“Of course, comrade! I am Corporal Kajari, an officer in Major Nakar’s own elite 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division!” Kajari stuck out her chest, and tapped her fist once against the flat of her breast, wearing a big proud grin. “Don’t be so stiff, if you kids need anything, just know that you can come to this mountain girl for support. I take care of my comrades like a Rock Bear mama! Take anything you need from the stack. I insist that you do!”

Her tone of voice became more grandiose the more she spoke, as though she were inspiring herself to speak mid-sentence. She looked fairly short, a little shorter than Eshe, and she was slender and unassuming in figure, but the long simple braid of chestnut-brown hair, the bright orange eyes that were slightly narrowed in appearance, and the honey-colored tone of her skin, did remind one of the hardy folk of the Kucha Mountains.

But Adesh knew little specific about them.

“Thanks, but we only need 76mm shells.” Eshe said curtly. He looked put off by her tone. “You seem boisterous for an Uvuli, if I do say, ma’am. Are you the squad leader?”

Corporal Kajari grinned at him, and turned around and pointed at a KVW soldier.

“Private! Am I or am I not your officer?” She asked.

“You are, ma’am,” replied the soldier, saluting stiffly, his face a perpetual near-frown.

“How come you act nothing like them?” Eshe pressed her. He sounded a bit offended.

For a moment the Corporal looked at him. She put her hands on her hips and smirked.

“It’s a specific sort of training that makes you like that. Not all of us are like this,” Corporal Kajari half-closed her eyes and frowned, putting on a sort of sleepy expression, making fun of the stoicism emblematic of the KVW, “High Command thought such training would only dull my powerful abilities! I have acquitted myself so well, that it has been found thoroughly unnecessary, in fact even detrimental, to train me further! It is feared it might dull my considerable skill in killing people and destroying positions and such.”

Nnenia whistled. Adesh smiled. Much to Eshe’s chagrin, they took well immediately to the officer. All of Adesh’s trepidation toward the KVW vanished, and he was taken in by the friendly officer. She held the young soldiers up for a moment and started telling them a few quick stories, while the rest of her troop unloaded without her.

Eshe stood off to one side, sighing at the scene.

Kajari gathered them and told them about how she had shot a man out of a window from two-hundred meters away during the fight for Matumaini – a battle Adesh and his friends had largely sat out in a ward behind the lines, recovering wounds. She told them about riding on a tank, and saving her CO from a Nochtish assault gun. This act had her promoted to Corporal from a lowly private. It gave Adesh hope for the future.

She told them how she survived a brutal artillery strike that caved-in the entire street around them, and how she ran and ran, with the ground collapsing at her wake!

Then she jumped at the last moment, and her Corporal, now a Sergeant, grabbed her hand, pulled her up, and told her she was a real socialist hero, and that now they were even!

“I see a lot of myself in you kids,” she said, hooking her arms around Adesh and Nnenia’s shoulders and pulling them close to her, rubbing cheeks, “y’got potential, I can tell! Give your all against the imperialist scum! I’m sure you’ll make them bleed white!”

“Thank you, Corporal Kajari!” Nnenia and Adesh said at once, cheeks and ears flushed beet read, laughing jovially with the officer. They hugged tightly against her chest.

The Corporal looked positively in love with them!

And Adesh felt amazingly comfortable with her. Eshe started tapping his feet, and regrettably they had to step away from their spontaneous Rock Bear Mama and her radiating charisma. To each of the doting young ones she gave a parting gift, a ration from a crate lying at her feet – when Eshe protested that this was against regulation she ordered him, as a superior officer, to shut his mouth up and to lighten up at once.

“At least two of you are going places!” She said again, nodding her head sagely.

Eshe stared at his shoes, making little noises inside his mouth.

Outside the building another truck arrived, this one towing what looked like an anti-aircraft gun. The KVW troops started to gather around it. Blowing kisses and walking out as though on a cloud, Corporal Kajari finally left the room, like a beloved theater star.

Eshe grumbled the instant she was out of earshot. “What a relentless fibber!”

“Oh, of course you’d know more about the KVW than her.” Nnenia rolled her eyes.

“As a matter of fact, I think I do.” Eshe said. “More than you, and more than her!”

“Oh, I got the red paneer!” Adesh shouted, holding up the ration box triumphantly. In his heart he thanked Comrade Kajari for keeping him well fed. This ration was his favorite!

Nnenia and Eshe watched him as he stared reverently at the package, and laughed. This seemed to diffuse all of the tension. Together they stored the rations in their packs. Eshe took great pains to stuff his under his various other possessions, all in case of an inspection that he was sure would come. He was quite alone in that sentiment.

They found the shells in a corner of the back room.

Each box had 6 shells, each shell weighing about seven kilograms. They had handles on either side that made them easier to carry, but the weight still proved challenging to the young privates less than a half hour after waking. Carrying the crates pulled their shoulders down, and they were reduced to almost to waddling in order to bear with it.

Eshe in the lead, opening the doors for them, the group carried the ordnance across the nave, out the big doors, and to the landing atop of the steps leading to the cathedral, where the two guns had been set up between the spires. They carried the crates toward the right-most of the guns under a tarp pitched up on four poles with plastic bases.

Under the tarp Corporal Rahani and Kufu greeted them.

Corporal Rahani had been largely uninjured in the blast during the air battles of the 22nd, same for Kufu. They had minor scratches, and luckily, Rahani’s pretty face had seen none of those. Rahani looked vibrant and soft as always. Having time to prepare, this time the lucky flower in his hair was not one picked off the ground, but a big bright hibiscus. He had gotten it from the stocks of a state-run goods shop farther north. Kufu meanwhile looked, if anything, more disheveled and bored than usual, reclining against the front of the gun shield with his hands behind his head. Half his buttons were undone.

Kufu waved half-heartedly at them, and nobody waved back – Nnenia and Adesh had their hands full and Eshe was not in a friendly mood. Adesh nodded his head instead.

“We brought two crates, one HE, one AP,” Eshe said, and saluted Rahani.

“Thanks for the gifts,” Cpl. Rahani said, giggling, “you can put them down right here.”

He pointed out a small stack of crates near the tarp. A few had gotten wet in the constant drizzling, but they were all closed shut. Nnenia and Adesh deposited their boxes atop the others. There was a crowbar nearby in case they needed to crack them open.

They sat atop the crates, gently laboring to calm their breathing and loosen up their shoulders. Rahani was all smiles as everyone gathered around the field gun – the same kind of 76mm long-barreled piece had Adesh had haphazardly commanded back at the border battle on the 18th, though his memory of what he did during that time was very fuzzy.

“Now it’s our turn at the gun.” Cpl. Rahani said. “Hopefully it will be a quiet one!”

From the steps, Adesh could see out to the main Penance road about 300 meters away. A line of trees across the edge of the park interrupted the view in places, but certainly if an enemy tried driving up Penance they would be spotted. A few intact buildings stood on the street opposing the park, across Penance road from the Cathedral, but it was mostly ruins all around elsewhere and of little tactical use. To cover the most direct approaches to the cathedral, six trenches and sandbag walls had been set in line with three corners of the cathedral, organized in two ranks, one closer to the edge of the park than the other.

In each trench there were light machine gunners and riflemen waiting to fight.

Atop each of the Cathedral’s spires they had snipers with BKV-28 heavy rifles, and atop the dome on the roof there was a mortar team in a somewhat precarious position but with a commanding view, along a pair of anti-aircraft machine guns, bolted to the stone.

Everything but the northwest approach, the Cathedral’s supply line, could be directly enfiladed by the defender’s weapons. Nocht had no access to a road that directly threatened the northwest supply line, unless they broke through to Penance and passed around the Cathedral itself to get to it. And by that point, there would not be much hope left.

In a few days this holy place had become a fortress. Adesh marveled at it all.

“What’s the situation so far? I’ve only heard bits and pieces.” Eshe asked.

Corporal Rahani smiled. “Nice to know your wounds haven’t slowed you down!”

“Ah, well, I’m just always looking to know something about my surroundings.”

“Is anyone else curious?” Corporal Rahani asked. Adesh didn’t quite know what for. He always thought of Eshe was something of a busybody, but in this case his curiosity made sense, and was perhaps a healthy interest to have. For Eshe’s sake, he awkwardly raised his hand, and Nnenia followed, though both were a little less eager to talk strategy.

“I’m glad I have a crew who is eager for more than just orders.” Rahani said cheerfully.

Kufu made no gesture of any kind. He might have fallen asleep against the gun shield.

Corporal Rahani gathered the privates around a sketchy pencil map of the surroundings – the Cathedral, the park, the roads framing the park. Penance, the largest road running south to north along the eastern edge of the park, was marked as the most obvious incursion point. “On the 25th there was a ground battle in the South District with its main axes around Matumaini, Penance and Umaiha Riverside. Matumaini saw the fiercest fighting, but there was a lot of death here on Penance too. Cissean troops overwhelmed the first line, and the second was ordered to retreat up here to reinforce the Cathedral. It proved too strong a point for the Cisseans – they don’t have the kind of equipment the Nochtish troops do.”

“I take it it’s been quiet since.” Eshe said. “Otherwise we would feel more alarmed.”

“Right. It seems they enemy is not eager to press the attack after what happened on the 25th.” Corporal Rahani said. “They thought sheer momentum would carry them, and were proved wrong. Our defenses and counterattacks cost them a lot of their materiel.”

“But an attack’s got to come sooner or later, and it will hit us harder now.” Eshe added. “Because Matumaini’s in bad condition for road travel. Penance is the best way north.”

“Quite correct. And furthermore that attack will probably hit sooner rather than later,” Corporal Rahani said. “As you’ve seen, Division Command has been building us up here.”

“Too slowly if you ask me.” Eshe said. He crossed his arms over his chest and spoke with a very assertive tone, as though scolding someone. “Just smatterings of infantry and bits and pieces of equipment. What if Nocht throws everything they’ve got at this place?”

Nnenia rolled her eyes. Adesh groaned a little internally. Eshe was overstepping.

“I wouldn’t blame them too much.” Corporal Rahani replied. He pressed a finger on Eshe’s shirt with a little grin on his face. “We’re still waiting to see what the enemy’s tanks do in the Kalu. They could open a second front into the city out of the east. Committing everything to the front line in the south, especially heavy weapons, would render our strategic depth vulnerable to an eastern blow. Did you consider that eventuality, Private?”

“Um, no, I did not think about the Kalu.” Eshe admitted. He sounded embarrassed.

Corporal Rahani smiled cryptically, and put away the map.

He patted Eshe on the shoulder.

“I like your enthusiasm! I hope we can all continue to grow together.”

Due to the injuries among the crew, some roles had changed.

Adesh was the gunner still, and Kufu and Nnenia adjusted the gun’s elevation and traversed it along their vantage. Corporal Rahani was now the loader, and the commander as well. He took his place at the side of the gun, and handed Eshe his hand-held radio so that he could act as their communications crew. Eshe looked a little bashful, one of the few times Adesh had seen him avert his gaze from people. He stood behind the gun, sitting quietly on the closed crates while they waited for an enemy to engage.

Adesh felt a little bad for him.

He was hard-headed, and perhaps needed to be put in his place every once in a while, but nonetheless Adesh found Eshe’s confidence mostly endearing. It was sad to see him squirming and circumspect. He was perhaps the only person Adesh was close to who seemed to have figured himself out. Though, it could be he merely acted the part well.


28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

City of Bada Aso – South District, Penance Cathedral

7th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

“I want you to think really hard before you move that pawn.”

“I’ve thought about it.”

“Look at the board again.”

“I have. I’m moving the pawn.”

It was a somewhat farcical scene, but at least it kept their minds engaged.

Their much vaunted special orders had yet to come, so with nothing important to do the KVW assault squadron at the Cathedral had spent their days performing chores and passing the time. Gulab had carried boxes; helped serve the troops a hot supper by ripping open ration boxes and heating them; she had gotten carried away and told tall tales to doting privates, each with enough truth that even Gulab began to believe that was exactly how they happened; and she had run out in the rain at night to guide trucks around the park.

So came and went the 27th; on the 28th of the Gloom, their orders had still not been fully sorted out, and so in the large and ornate bedroom once belonging to the bishop, Gulab and Chadgura traded pieces on the abstract battlefield of a Latrones board they found in the basement. While the pieces were different than Chatarunga the rules were much the same. Surrounded by the rest of the squadron, they set up the pieces and took a few turns.

Now there was a strange tension between the two officers, mostly from Gulab.

“Just so you’re aware, you’re doing all the wrong things if you want to try to win this game,” Gulab said. She was growing quite impatient. She could not believe what was transpiring on the board, and it was almost insulting to see it happening before her.

“I’ve only just moved a few pawns.” Sergeant Chadgura said quickly.

“Yes, yes, and they were terrible moves. Awful moves.”

Chadgura looked at the board. It was impossible to discern whether her expression conveyed disinterest or contemplation. She picked up the pawn she had just moved, looked back up at Gulab and overturned the piece. “I’m not changing them. Your turn.”

Gulab picked up her Queen and moved it diagonally, stamping it down on the board as though she wanted the piece to go through the wood and drill into the floor.

“CHECKMATE.” She shouted. She tapped the queen on the square over and over.

“Oh. I did not notice that.” Chadgura nonchalantly replied.

Gulab sighed. “You can’t just move pieces without looking at what the opponent can do. You know how far pieces can move! I mean, I’m just,” Gulab shook her head and held her hand up to her forehead, pushing up her bangs, “What did I even set this board up for?”

“I assumed to have fun playing a game. Now I don’t know either.” Chadgura said.

Everyone in the room seemed to avert their gazes from the bed all at once, and they left its side and stood apart as though nothing awkward had happened.

Gulab felt like a firecracker had gone off right beside her ear, and choked a little.

All this time Chadgura had amicably played along with an innocent and forward attitude while Gulab nitpicked and yelled at her. She felt as though her eyes had been pulled into the sky to witness her own self from another angle and it looked very ugly.

Her behavior was so stark and frightening. That was how she got when she played Chess with people these days; it was horrible, and she never seemed to become aware that she was doing it fast enough to stop herself. All the worst parts of her seemed to rise up in this one specific arena, whether she was watching games of Chess or playing them.

“Let’s just put the board away for now.” Gulab said, feeling uncomfortable with herself.

“I wanted to try to play. But I understand and am not unhappy with your decision.”

Gulab frowned.

She did not feel particularly absolved by the clumsy phrase “not unhappy.” She did not like thinking she was so aggressive, but there was just something about Chess. There had been so much bound in it for her, and there still seemed to be so much bound in Chess. It represented something to her that it did to nobody else. There was an incongruity in her life whenever she played Chess. A question of ability and intellect. It seemed always that her opponents got worse, and her life got no better. Chess was the arena where she once thought she could prove her value and define who she was in a way nobody could argue.

Even thinking about it sickened her. Gulab turned from the board in shame.

Chadgura folded the set closed, and they put the pieces into niches carved on the side. It was a wooden briefcase-like set-top board, portable and fully self-contained. They found it in the basement of the cathedral while searching for things they could use.

This time around they would need all the resources they could carry.

They were only a single squadron.

Gulab had received a black uniform and a promotion, and was now billed as an elite KVW assault soldier. She supposed Chadgura had something to do with that.

Around the room her squadron was arrayed before her, six other men and women under her command. They were dressed now in the muted green uniform of the Territorial Army as opposed to the black and red uniforms of elite KVW assault troops, or the red and gold of high KVW officers. She was in some ways excited to lead, but in others, quite confused.

Fighting with less than 10 souls at her side seemed like suicide. Command had a mission for them to support Penance, and its mysterious goals required this small group.

Aside from that Gulab knew nothing about it, and Chadgura knew just as little.

Nobody seemed to have any questions or concerns.

Everyone whiled away their time quietly. Gulab found the room around her now largely filled with blank faces, staring quietly into infinity. Despite the time she had spent with Chadgura, it was still difficult to understand their behavior. She understood Chadgura, to an extent. She knew the rumors that KVW troops had no emotion and knew no fear were not exactly true. They felt; they were still human behind the blank faces.

However, she still found their stone-like composure a touch disquieting.

“Is something wrong with them?” Gulab whispered to the Sergeant.

“I don’t know. I can ask.” Chadgura said.

Before Gulab could intimate that she actually did not want Chadgura to ask anybody anything, and that perhaps this entire line of thought was very ill considered and ill timed and should quickly and quietly be dropped, the Sergeant turned her head over her shoulder and singled out a man who looked a few years older than both of them, perhaps in his early thirties. He stood with his back to the wall and his hands in his pockets, and his sharp features and short brow made him appear somewhat disgruntled in comparison to Chadgura. He had cropped frizzy hair and skin the color of baked leather.

“Is something wrong, Private Akabe?” Chadgura asked. Gulab averted her gaze.

Private Akabe raised his eyes to the bed. “No, I do not believe anything is wrong officer.” He spoke in a deep, drawling voice with little inflection to his words.

Chadgura looked over at Gulab again as if to say ‘See?’ in her own odd way.

Gulab shrugged. “I just don’t understand how they endure what is happening. They just stand there staring. I would feel a little offput by all this waiting around for orders.”

“I see.” Chadgura said. She turned her head over her shoulder again, and Gulab gesticulated wildly for a brief moment in protest, but again could not stop her from passing her innocent inquiries to the KVW soldiers in the room. “How do you normally endure circumstances such as this, Private Jandi? I like to think about stamps. What do you do?”

This time she addressed a young woman on the other side of the room. Private Jandi had her hair shaved close to her head, and her skin was dark enough to seem blue in the light from the window. Her striking lips and cheekbones gave her a somewhat glamorous appearance in Gulab’s eyes, a sort of mystique compounded by the disinterested expression fixed upon the features of her face. She spoke in a high-pitched but still dull tone.

“I read a lot of books. I sometimes play cards. Right now I’m focused on the mission. We could deploy at any time.” She said. “So I feel it is irresponsible to become distracted and use the time for leisure. However, ma’am, I trust my officers to do as they wish.”

Gulab cringed again, turning beet-red. She couldn’t believe she was a higher rank than this dead-serious lady. Of course, the KVW soldiers had their own little quirks despite their legendary implacability, but to Gulab there was still something eerie about the calm with which they took in their bloody business. She wished for something to occupy her mind than the grim silence of the room and the view of the ruins out the easterly window.

Despite her Corporal’s mortified expression, Chadgura quickly brought another soldier into the unwanted Q&A, Private Dabo. He was a plump young man, with a round face and slightly widened body, and lots of curly hair. His face looked sagely and contemplative in a way, as though he always saw some truth written in the air. He reminded her of Chadgura in that he had soft features, so he felt more positive to Gulab than some of the other KVW soldiers. He had his submachine gun hugged to his chest. To him, Chadgura repeated the question – how did he endure the moments ticking away? He responded in a low voice.

“I think about music. I used to sit around the tenement record player all day.”  He said.

“Ah. Is the music in your mind accurate to the record’s sound?” Chadgura asked.

“I think so. I can keep the timing, and I can hum some of the tunes.” Dabo replied.

“I see; how wonderful. Sometimes I will also sit, wondering what to do, and I ‘play back’ music I have heard before, in my mind; and I wonder if it is accurate to the sound the record player makes, or if my imagination might embellish the music.” Chadgura said.

There were a few knowing nods from people around the room.

People started whispering and gesticulating toward each other, as if carrying on the conversation around the room. Meanwhile Gulab felt utterly dumbfounded, having had hardly any access to a record player in her life. She did, however, feel less embarrassed and less awkward. She marveled for a moment at how lively the room felt now that there seemed to be a subject, however strange, for all of the soldiers to share in.

There was something about this show of humanity that put Gulab back into her good spirits. Growing calm now, and wanting to make up for her behavior from before, she flipped the chess case, split it open again, and invited Chadgura to take her pieces.

“Despite Jandi’s sage advice, I will accept.” Chadgura said, and laid down her king.

“I’m not gonna go easy on you,” Gulab grinned, “But I’ll restrain my killer instinct.”


Around noon Corporal Rahani’s crew took another turn in the defensive line. Across from then the southeast trenches were fully manned, and the rest partially. Rain fell over the park only a touch heavier. Promises of a terrible storm had yet to prove true.

Aside from recurring sounds of traffic and the sound of precipitation, the front was peaceful. Nearly asleep behind the shield of his gun, Adesh heard distant noisy wheels, tracks and engines, and wondered what was being delivered to the Cathedral this time. Another anti-aircraft gun? Additional tanks? Engineers? They had enough food and ammo.

“What do you think that one is?” He asked.

Nobody heard him – they were busy around a wooden board filled with holes, six holes in two rows, each of the holes filled with seeds. Nnenia and Kufu were playing a mancala game, where stones were taken from pits and sewn along the rows of holes.

Adesh had tried watching the game but he had never liked mancala. Every region seemed to have its own rules and the particulars were difficult and confusing. Even now he didn’t know why they picked up seeds or how they captured pits. Nnenia and Kufu themselves didn’t really seem to know, at least to Adesh’s eyes, it all looked very random.

Eshe was busy giving everyone instructions and Rahani watched, amused by the crew.

Turning from the board Adesh looked over the gun and out over the park green and the road. Unable to make sense of the game he simply watched the empty landscape, taking in the rustling of trees, the vast green, and the long, empty road–

He adjusted his glasses, and something caught his attention.

Around the corner into the Cathedral square there was something large.

It was moving into the main road, and it was not moving alone.

At first he thought his mind was tricking him. Then he realized it had become his curse to receive responsibility in the midst of tragedy, the responsibility of those precious seconds before the bullets started to rain, where he could still shout and people might still live. He remembered that dive bomber coming down upon him, and he seized up in fear for a moment, but only the merest moment. Sure enough he soon found his voice to scream.

“Contact!” Adesh shouted. “Vehicles to the east, they’re protecting riflemen!”

Nnenia and Kufu overturned the mancala board standing up so fast.

Seeds scattered across the floor from the pits.

Corporal Rahani pulled his binoculars to his eyes and bit his lip; he confirmed a movement of men and a vehicle to the southeast, coming out to the two-way intersection on Penance at the park corner. From the corner trench, rifles and machine guns opened fire on the advancing men, but their targets quickly ducked behind the cover of their escort vehicle, a large, armored half-track. Unlike Ayvartan half-tracks the vehicle’s bed had well-armored walls that were high and closed off. Its hull had a long, sloped engine compartment and a well-armored driver’s compartment with small slits, making the driver a difficult target. Machine gun and rifle fire simply bounced off the Nochtish Squire Infantry Carrier.

Once out onto the intersection, the half-track turned from the road and charged into the green from between the trees. It drove toward the cathedral at an angle to shield the men running along its left side. Atop the enemy half-track, a Norgler gunner on a traversing mount opened fire on the trench. With each furious burst of gunfire Adesh saw the dust kick up all around his comrades, and their heads ducking down in response.

Good horizontal cover from the half-track protected the gunner too well from the fire he drew back. Within moments the machine would overrun the first trench.

“Everyone at their stations! Traverse, and load HE!” Corporal Rahani ordered.

Kufu and Nnenia turned the gun eastward, and lowered the barrel elevation.

Corporal Rahani loaded the shell and punched it into the breech – it snapped shut so close to his hand Adesh thought it might take off skin, but he was unscathed.

As they prepared to fire there sounded a loud bang from their right; their adjacent gun launched its first shell downrange and its crew prepared to fire a second. This first HE shell soared over the Squire’s engine block and smashed the treeline, exploding a dozen meters away. Shrapnel and wooden debris burst out in all directions, but the machine did not even shake from the distant blast, and it left no corpses behind as it advanced.

Binoculars up, Corporal Rahani shouted, “Gun ready! First round downrange!”

Adesh pulled the firing pin, and the gun rocked, sliding back to disperse the recoil. Tongues of smoke blew from the muzzle break. Adesh’s shell crossed the distance and impacted the turf several meters shy off the half-track’s right front wheel, punching a meter-wide hole into the green. Though not a direct shot, it was nonetheless deadly.

Shrapnel from the explosion blew through the wheel and pockmarked the side of the Squire, and the pressure wave rocked the vehicle. The Norgler gunner fell right off the side of the half-track, and around him the fire from the trench resumed, and he was perforated by a half-dozen shots before he even hit the ground. While the rear track labored to keep the vehicle moving, the mangled front wheel spun uselessly. It plodded on.

A man in the trench saw an opportunity and stood to throw a grenade at the half-track, but one of the men riding inside the half-track stood too and took up the gun.

He turned the fatal instrument and loosed a dozen shots into the trench.

As the grenade left his fingers the man in the trench was punched through the chest by several shots and fell back. His throw went terribly wide, exploding harmlessly away from the trench and the vehicle both. Adesh grit his teeth watching the scene play out.

One more blast from their partner gun exploded directly behind the half-track, and shook it again, but did nothing to the track and merely rattled the new gunner for a few seconds. Shots from the snipers punched small holes into the driver’s compartment, but the machine trundled ahead regardless. Soon it would be nearly atop the trench, and its men would be able to clear it with grenades from safety, and then advance on the second line.

“Adjust angle! We’ll get them!” Corporal Rahani said. He pushed an Armor-Piercing shell into the breech and gave some mathematical instructions. Nnenia and Kufu adjusted the gun based on Rahani’s estimates. Behind them, Eshe contributed by using his good hand to open shell crates with the crowbard so Rahani could load from them.

Adesh muttered a prayer to the spirits and pulled the firing pin.

There was a roar and a powerful kick from the gun. In an instant the Armor-Piercing High-Explosive shell crossed the park and punched through the Squire’s engine block and into the crew space, detonating close to the driver’s compartment and igniting fuel.

Within seconds the advancing half-track was a husk, its engine block a black smear on the turf, its driver vaporized, and the compartment fully open from the front. Machine gun fire through the gaping hole in the front cut through the survivors in the vehicle’s bed like fish in a barrel. Though the men running alongside the vehicle were mostly untouched by the blast, they had lost their moving cover, and hunkered down behind the bed.

From the trench several comrades rose and threw grenades at the husk aiming to hit the soldiers. They had pistols and bayonets, and it seemed the skirmish was nearly decided.

“Good hit!” Corporal Rahani said. He looked through his binoculars, examining the remains of the husk, and then looked out to the road. “Load HE, and let us put the fear–”

A small plume of fire and smoke rose suddenly in front of the outer trench, tossing dirt and grass into the air. Comrades in mid-charge were flung back into the trenches they came from and many were wounded by shrapnel. There was a sudden screaming of alert across the other trenches, and the gun crews atop the Cathedral steps hesitated from shock.

Out into the two-way intersection crossed a pair of light tanks, their turrets fully turned toward the Cathedral – they had opened fire from around buildings before marching into the open. Behind them Adesh soon saw the noses of more Squire Infantry Half-tracks.

This was a full mechanized assault column heading toward them, not a probing attack.

The Corporal dropped his binoculars and shouted, “Down against the gun shield!”

Not a second passed since Rahani spoke that two shells flew against the steps.

One shot overflew them and smashed into the stone face of the cathedral, throwing down chipped rock atop the tarp erected over the gun. Another crashed at the foot of the steps and set shrapnel flying. Adesh heard the clinking of metal fragments against the gun shield, and he was shaken at first and found it hard to respond. But he collected himself – he could not afford this paralysis, not again. He huddled close to the gun, and Eshe and Nnenia crouched beside him as close as they could get for protection.

“Don’t fear it,” he said, out of breath, sweat dripping across his nose and lips.

Nnenia and Eshe nodded, staring grimly out over the park.

Nnenia passed Rahani a shell.

Behind them the doors to the Cathedral swung open, and a stream of men and women with various weapons rushed out to the trenches, to re-man the line on the northeastern corner of the cathedral and reinforce the southeastern trenches upon which the vehicles were now advancing. A small crew pushed out the 45mm anti-tank gun that had been stuck on the pulpit and set it between the two 76mm guns, aiming for the tanks.

Corporal Rahani grimly welcomed the newcomers, and ordered his own crew to traverse the gun, load and fire, aiming for the enemy’s light tanks that had them zeroed in.

“Load AP,” Corporal Rahani shouted. He punched the shell into place in the breech.

Adesh pulled the firing pin; across the park, one of the tanks approaching the tree line went up in flames as the shell penetrated its thin frontal armor and exploded inside, sending its hatch flying through the air. A second tank charged quickly up to take its place, and a dozen men huddled behind the newly burning husk for cover.

Sporadic mortar and sniper fire from atop the Cathedral crashed around the advancing Panzergrenadiers, but the armored figures of their moving vehicles and the smoking husks of their dead vehicles provided ample cover from the onslaught, and they were easily closing in on the first trench. Corporal Rahani loaded another AP shell handed to him by Nnenia, and while Kufu slightly adjusted the gun’s facing, the officer took his radio back from Eshe. He put in a call to their divisional command for support.

“This is Corporal Rahani on the Cathedral stronghold on Penance road reporting attack from enemy motor, armor, and infantry! I repeat, Penance road, Cathedral, under heavy attack! Requesting artillery support against the intersection on Penance road at the southeast corner of the Cathedral Park!” Corporal Rahani shouted.

He breathed heavily, waiting for a response.

In his hands the radio crackled. Rahani huddled with the crew, and Adesh listened in.

“Negative Penance, artillery is under tactical silence to support a spoiling mission underway. A relief mission for you will begin shortly. Hold out until then. Repeat: Artillery is under tactical silence. Hold out for reinforcement and relief. Spirits be with you.”

Two Squires on the intersection pushed forward along the road, and soon became four, and men began to hop the walls of their armored beds and deploy to the street, taking up positions, and organizing to charge; the one remaining tank crossing into the park green was also joined by two others. All of the tanks were lightweight and drove at the same pace as the half-tracks, boasting horseshoe-shaped turrets of riveted armor and carrying small guns. Their turrets were set centrally atop flat-fronted boxy hulls with tall rumps.

These were modernized M5 Rangers based on the old M2 Ranger.

Soon as they were spotted, the enemy tanks were engaged by the gun line.

Corporal Rahani ordered a shot downrange, and Adesh obliged.

The 76mm gun slid back; its AP shell crashed right in front of the lead tank. Almost simultaneously their partner gun fired, and a near-miss from its own 76mm shell managed to blow out the front wheel on the lead tank, marooning it in the middle of the green. This did nothing to its gun. It traded for their 76mm shell with one of its 37mm shots.

At the sight, Adesh flinched and hid behind the shield.

Again the shell crashed nearby, hitting the middle of the stone steps and forming a crater the size of a man’s torso. No shrapnel reached them, but the force of the shot caused their tarp to fall over and off the side of the steps, exposing them to rain. Smoke rose up before them. They were unhurt, but clearly soon to be outmatched.

Adesh felt a churning in his stomach – he girded himself again for the start of a real battle, praying to the Spirits for himself, for Nnenia, for Eshe, and for all their comrades.


“Should we go out there?” Gulab asked.

“Not until we have our orders from higher up.” Chadgura dispassionately replied. “Remember, we were sent here on a special mission. We will await special orders.”

Gulab heard boots along the ground as people in adjacent rooms rose to the commotion and rushed down to do their part. She heard numerous people storming through the adjacent halls and down the stairs. Minutes later she heard artillery – there was a slight shaking loose of dust from the ceiling, and a pounding of shells on the ground and against the stones. Were they trading artillery blows out in the lawn? This must have been a full-fledged attack.

And yet her unit waited in place for several minutes, until specifically roused.

There was a knock on their door, and one of the Privates answered.

She stepped aside, and from the hall a small woman approached the bed, and shook hands emphatically with Chadgura. She was a Svechthan, with short teal-blue hair and a dour expression that looked a touch unfriendly. Her uniform was dark blue, nearly black, part of the Svechthan Union forces training in Ayvarta.

Gulab tried not to stare – the lady was over a head shorter than everyone and her rifle, like a standard Ayvartan bundu, looked comically oversized for her. Svechthans were proportioned well for their adult size, but to Gulab they were still an unusual sight.

Tovarisch!” She declared, “I am Sergeant Illynichna. Orders have arrived for you.”

Gulab noticed somewhat of an accent in her voice when she started speaking Ayvartan. Nonetheless she had rather good pronunciation, and made good word choices.

“Thank you, Sergeant.” Chadgura said. “Please go ahead. We are listening.”

Sgt. Illynichna cleared her throat. “Since the 25th, the KVW with the help of my Svechthan comrades has been using radio interception equipment mounted in half-tracks to gather intelligence on enemy positions within the city. We have gathered enough unencrypted short-range communications between various units to paint a clearer picture of their overall offensive preparations. Our mission will be to scout and disrupt those preparations to buy time for the Hellfire plan. Any Questions before we continue?”

“You’re coming too?” Gulab asked. She was the only one with any questions.

“Of course I am. I’m from the Joint-Training Corps OSNAZ – special tactics.”

Gulab had no idea what that meant at all. She shrugged and looked unimpressed.

“Quit wasting my time duura!” Sgt. Illynichna said, calling her some insult she didn’t understand. The Svechthan girl produced a map of the southern district and laid it down over the bed. As a whole the squadron gathered around the bed to look at it, but Gulab found the symbols hard to discern. “Between Penance and Matumaini there were several evacuated industrial facilities. We believe Nocht will deploy their artillery and tank stations there. Their attacks along Penance and Umaiha will intensify in an attempt to pin us down away from the build-up areas. We must carefully scout Nochtish positions, then relay our findings so our artillery can bury them. A surprise saturation barrage will do the trick.”

“A sound plan. But I am remiss about using only a single squadron.” Chadgura said.

“It is necessary tovarisch!” Illynichna said. “We must take them by surprise. We will use a few tanks to hold back this assault on the Cathedral, and open up this road to the east, toward Matumaini,” she pointed out their route on the map, “but from there we must make our way quietly, like the arctic weasel. Strong head-on attacks are not feasible.”

Gulab supposed that it was easier for a Svechthan to talk about stealth since they were in general so small, but she held her thoughts on that, for fear of further upsetting Illynichna.

Chadgura nodded, and together she and Illynichna led the squadron out. Down in the nave, Gulab saw people rushing out the door, and she saw the guns outside firing against the tree line and the edge of the green turf. The 76mm guns boomed incessantly, their crews in a fever. Enemy vehicles trundled forward from the road, covering for squadrons of men in thick dark gray jackets and gloves, the panzergrenadiers. A rising tempo of anti-tank, sniper, and mortar fire slowed the enemy mechanized forces. Rifle squadrons stationed in the Cathedral rushed out to the trenches in turns, and gathered around the spires and steps.

Nocht improved their foothold on the intersection and the eastern side of Penance road, and their men assembled in the ruins and in the intact buildings. They began to open fire from across the road. This presence increased with each Half-Track allowed to park across the green. Norgler fire and mortars of their own had been deployed, and this sporadic fire punished the recrewing of the trenches. It was a slowly-building mayhem.

“It will get worse if we don’t find that artillery. Let us move.” Chadgura said.

Gulab snapped out of her reverie and nodded grimly.

She followed the two Sergeants out the back behind the Cathedral, where their half-track waited along with three Goblin light tanks. Before mounting the truck the squadron traded their rifles into a crate, and picked up short carbines with long, strangely thick barrel extensions provided by the Svechthan Sergeant. The carbines used magazines, of which they gathered many, throwing their own stripper clips into the crate with their old rifles.

“These are silenced Laska carbines, made in my home country.” Sergeant Illynichna explained. “Smaller cartridge than a regular rifle, but useful for sneaking around.”

Sgt. Chadgura lifted and toyed the small rifle, getting a feel for its weight and size.

“It is an invention of the Helvetians that we Svechthans tested to great results. They’re hard to manufacture, but worthwhile for special times. Its ammo is hard to manufacture too, so we cannot waste it.” Sergeant Illynichna added. “Hopefully it serves us well.”

“I believe it will. It is very easy to wield and aim.” Chadgura said.

Gulab looked down the sights. They felt a little small.

Still, it was a pleasant weapon to hold.

Once everyone was armed, they hopped into the back of the half-track and waited for the tanks to form up in front of them. The trio of Goblins started across the left side of the Cathedral, facing their strongest armor to the southeast, and charged toward the corner trenches. The Half-Track did not follow them. Instead it drove directly north, crossing the green out onto the road and circling around the park east. They drove with the tree line and the fences on the northern edge for cover and moved carefully to eastern-bound roads.

Above them the sky grew slowly furious.

Rainfall grew harsher, the drops larger and more frequent, the patter and tinkling of the rain working itself up to a drumming beat. Forks of light burned constantly within the heart of the blackening clouds, and distant, erratic thundering drowned out the trading of shells. Sergeant Illynichna grinned at the worsening weather overhead.

“Going out in that is good, tovarisch. Harder to be seen and heard in the driving rain.”

Around the park the battle intensified to match that black, rumbling sky.

PenanceTankSkirmish

From the back of the half-track Gulab saw the tanks engaging.

Across from the Cathedral, three Nochtish tanks had overtaken the first trench on the southeast and easily crossed it with their tracks, and the occupants were fleeing to the second trench line under fire from the tank’s hull-mounted machine guns.

One tank was at the head of the enemy advance, a third was farther behind it, and a second was practically hugging its right track. Their machine guns saturated the green in front of them, and their 37mm guns fired incessantly on the Cathedral, smashing into the spires, hitting the dome, sending shells crashing around the gun line at the steps the Cathedral. Their advance was haphazard but swift and vicious.

But their sides were fully exposed.

The Goblins were not seen until they had cleared the left wall of the Cathedral. They charged on the enemy in a staggered rank, each tank ten meters from the side of the next. The instant they left cover the three tanks braked and opened fire. Immediately they scored two hits – the tall engine compartment in the back of the lead enemy tank burst into a fireball, and its turret exploded from a second shot. These explosions sent chunks flying into a second tank to the right of the target, the shrapnel slashing deep into its turret.

Too wounded to continue, and perhaps having lost its gunner and commander, the second M5 backpedaled toward the trees and bushes for cover from further attacks.

The Panzergrenadiers halted their advance in the face of this reversal, hiding behind the smoking ruins starting to pile at the edge of the green. Ayvartan forces pressed their advantage. Small contingents climbed out of their holes to engage the enemy.

One Goblin remained in place and provided cover for rising trench troops.

Two others broke away from it, one headed directly for the road, its coaxial machine gun and cannon trained on the mechanized infantry, and the second hooking around the center of the green to chase the remaining tanks away from the Cathedral.

The KVW Half-Track stopped across the street from its connection out of Penance. They had the trees between them and the fighting. Only when the tanks had fully engaged the Panzergrenadiers and their vehicles on the road, and blocked their way farther upstreet, would it be safe for the Half-Track to cross. A Goblin tank crossed the green and drove onto the road, turning to face the enemy’s half-tracks and charging them.

The Goblin opened fire on the enemy while moving, perforating one of the half-tracks front to back with an armor-piercing shell. The shell exploded at the end of the bed, and its fuel tanks lit on fire from the violence. Panzergrenadiers on the streets hurried away, putting whatever metal they could between the Goblin’s machine guns.

Without warning a black plume erupted near the Goblin tank on the road, and the blast smashed the front wheels on its right track, paralyzing it in the middle of the road.

Subsequent blasts rolled along the road, some so close to the Nochtish line that even the Panzergrenadiers started to run, and the half-tracks to back away. Shells fell by the dozen every minute. One of the Goblins was abandoned, its crew leaping from the hatches as a fireball engulfed the machine’s exterior. The one stationary Goblin had its turret crushed by a shell, split open like a tin can, and its engine caught fire. Its slow movement back toward the Cathedral suggested people inside, still laboring in the flame.

Men and women ran right back out of the newly-reclaimed southeast trench, leaving it to be smashed by the creeping artillery. All of a sudden the Ayvartan battle line was contracting into a circle formed by the closest trenches to the Cathedral.

Chort vozmi!” Illynichna cursed. “They’ve got their guns set up! Tell your driver to go! We must hurry and spot for our own tubes so we can counter-fire!”

Chadgura stuck her hand out the side of the bed through a hole in the tarp and signaled desperately. Up front the driver floored the pedal, and the Half-Track screamed across Penance and out to the connecting eastern road, putting several buildings between itself and the Panzergrenadiers. Gulab could not tell whether the rumbling and noise related to thunder or artillery. Both the fighting and the storm grew in intensity all at once.


Within the Cathedral a large radio set beeped and crackled, coming to life unbidden – the operator had become distracted with the battle raging outside the doors to the nave.

“All units report, urgent.”

Nobody seemed to hear or reply.

“Army HQ has lost contact with the Battlegroup Commander. We cannot confirm whether it may be related to the storm. Have any units managed to make contact with the Commander within the last hour? Repeat, Army has lost contact with Battlegroup Commander. Commander’s unit was last reported to be part of a surveying mission near Umaiha and Angba. Relay contact with the Commander back to Army signals. Repeat–”


NEXT Chapter In Generalplan Suden Is — Under A Seething Sky

The Battle of Matumaini II — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.


25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

In the midst of war, her mind was subconsciously pulled back to Home.

And she thought briefly of the mountains again.

But there was so much more to say about the Kucha.

Among the villagers of the Kucha mountain range in the Adjar and Dbagbo dominances, the penetration of socialism was always small. Whereas the outside world praised the virtues of comrades who showed bravery, loyalty and wit in the Revolution, in the mountains the food delivery truck came every week and went every week, the hunters and loggers were not exactly unionized, and the villagers continued to talk of their own comrade, a folk hero whose adventures are taught to every child – Big Bearded Baaku.

It was said that his beard was so long he braided it like a woman’s braid, and he always dressed in a hermit’s robes. He lived outside of the villages, but he always shared his hunts, and he always planted a seed for every tree he logged for his cottage. He foiled many spirits and he commiserated with goblins and werehyenas, back in their own time.

Every child knew of his tales of valor and strength, and at least for a time, every child wanted to follow in his footsteps. He was the heroic comrade of their own revolution, one recurring each year, the revolution of living in a dangerous and distant place.

Because of his big beard, the smallest child of the Kajari family was always convinced that the Kajari’s paternal grandfather was Big Bearded Baaku. He had returned to the village after many years of absence, tentatively welcomed by those he left behind. The Kajari child was struck by the appearance of this outsider, and always called him Baaku.

Maybe he got lonely living outside and he finally settled with them!

Maybe he had finally bested all his enemies and made good on all his bets and debts to the strange creatures! The Child was convinced, and told everyone in the village.

Other family members grew a little exasperated with the child – oh what a flighty load, what a boisterous headache, what a strange and foolish child! A Child that loved to make up stories more than to run and fight other kids; that played chess with the elders rather than throw rocks with the boys; that covered up and wore shawls even in the Yarrow’s Sun.

A Child that acted a little too much like a Girl, some whispered.

The one appropriate thing the Child wanted to do was join the village’s hunts, and it was the one thing the Child could certainly not be allowed to do.

For his part, the grandfather never dispelled this notion, however.

He knew this Child was special.

Each year, around the time of the hunt, despite his prowess in the field, despite his stature and his storied career in traveling, soldiering; he stayed behind with the small child as the men departed, and personally took charge of the child. He told stories, played games and made guarantees – “when you’re bigger and stronger, you will go hunt too. I will go with you! For now little one, focus on being good, like your friend Baaku!”

The Child sulked. 

“I want to go hunt – I’ll show everyone! I’ll catch the biggest Rock Bear!”

The Grandfather was patient.

“You need to get bigger before you can fight a Rock Bear! You’re too small now child, the Bear will walk right past you and not even realize that you want to fight!”

The Child shouted.

“I want to be as big as Baaku and show up everyone in the village!”

The Grandfather laughed.

“Someday you’ll have a beard as big as mine, big enough to braid, you will see. But don’t hurry to grow up just yet. Even your brothers had to wait for their beards.”

The Child would sulk, but the Grandfather would take the child’s long hair and braid it, in a thick, long, scrunchy braid, and the novelty of this would be enough to still the child for a time, until the next story, and the next sulk.

“This braid is like your own beard! In this way, everyone in the village has one!”

The Child laughed at this. It was silly; but pleasing, too.

In this way they carried on for many years. 

This all came back to her, in the back of her mind, in a black and white mix of fear, fantasy, shame, and a little burning flame of determination she had yet to rediscover.


25-AG-30 Z-Company Advance, Matumaini Northwest

First Sergeant Zimmer was in a fugue state after the rout of the defenders at the Matumaini and 3rd intersection, his expression more alive than any of his men had ever seen it, with his eyes glinting, his teeth bared in a manic smile. Most of his platoons had survived, and his company still contained over a good hundred fighting men.

He personally volunteered himself and his men to Captain Aschekind, whose silence he took as an implicit acknowledgment of his mission. Pistol in hand, Zimmer immediately gathered Z-Companie sans a few stragglers and pushed through up the diagonal road in force, a single M3 Hunter assault gun following in his wake to provide supporting fire.

At first the company pursued an under-strength platoon of Ayvartan runners, twenty or thirty people running for their lives. They hardly shot back, and when they did it was a quick pistol shot, more an excuse to look over their own shoulders than an attempt to fight.

Ducking under and around rubble the communists tried to escape pursuit in the ruins, but slowly the territory cleared, and the treacherous, jagged roads and heaps of rubble gave away to clear pavement, largely untouched buildings and, broad alleys and long streets in proper order. Flight turned to desperate fighting retreat. Now these men and women ran over open terrain, and they had to duck into cover and shoot back more in earnest.

Despite renewed effort it was a one-sided fight.

Grenadiers took their pick of them, clipping heads and puncturing bellies from a hundred meters away at their leisure. Any chance the communists took to run was a chance they took to die, and when they took cover the Grenadiers gained on them.

This dramatically unfair carnage inspired many of the Nochtish men.

Zimmer seemed utterly absorbed in it.

The First Sergeant shouted and shouted, firing his pistol ahead, calling for targets with grizzly zeal, ushering his men into a frenzied run. Machine gunners held their fire, and the assault gun was utterly quiet as the riflemen and their commander charged, giving chase until they unknowingly straddled the next of the communist’s defensive lines on Matumaini.

They received only second’s worth of transition after crossing this invisible threshold.

Two kilometers up from the intersection, a lone bullet whizzed by Zimmer from a nearby rooftop, and struck a man to his right, perforating his neck. He dropped to the floor, clutching his wound in disbelief, pressing against the gushing blood with his eyes drawn wide; similarly stunned but much more alive Zimmer quickly hid behind a thick steel bin.

Scrambling for an exit, Zimmer aimed for a restaurant door a few meters away and smashed off the knob with a series of pistol shots. Ahead of him the street awoke with gunfire, and bullets started to fly the company’s way from just across the alley.

Communists with light machine guns and submachine guns attacked from inside the building directly in front of Zimmer’s advancing troops, overlooking their approach. Windows flashed an angry orange-red, and automatic fire covered both sides of the street.

Z-Companie had run gleefully into the next bastion of the enemy, but now lead flowed in opposition to them, and they were not so eager to charge. Zimmer’s men scattered to both sides of the street, huddling behind trash cans, hydrants and mailboxes, squeezing against doorways and in alleys. From behind his own cover, Zimmer called for backup.

He waved his hand to signal his men into the building, and more than a dozen complied, rushing from cover and throwing open the remains of the bullet-ridden doors.

Zimmer threw himself out from behind his metal box and ran inside.

Dozens of bullets struck at his coattails as he vanished behind the walls.

Inside the restaurant much of the seating was fixed around the edges of the building, so many of his men had to squat behind or lay atop long bench seats that were bolted along the walls. They kept their heads down near the long windows. Landsers huddled against every surface that hid them from the communist’s impromptu stronghold.

Zimmer had only centimeters of wall obscuring him from the windows.

He shouted at his men to fight, and they shattered glass with the butts of their rifles and targeted the windows and roofs, but the communists had perfect angles on the restaurant. While nochtish fire hit brick instead of window and bounced off the carved overhangs blocking the roof, the restaurant gained was immediately saturated with gunfire.

Every sliver of flesh that was not fully covered, elbows and shoulders and legs ill considered by cowering grenadier, were scraped and pierced and grazed by the storm. Flashing red tracer bullets ricocheting in the interior made the place look candle-lit.

Within this hurricane of bullets not a landser dared to shoot back.

Hiding in a corner, against a sliver of concrete between two windows and only barely out of the carnage that was consuming the rest of the building and street, Zimmer produced his radio and called the M3 assault gun bringing up the rear.

He peered fitfully out the window whenever the gunfire slowed, sneaking glances at the enemy’s positions and finding them almost exclusively settled on the upper floors. The enemy building and his position inside of the restaurant were separated only by an over-broad alleyway parking that allowed cars and delivery trucks to park beside the restaurant and unload goods and passengers perhaps twenty or thirty meters at the longest.

“Six-V, fire high explosive on the building just ahead of the restaurant!” He shouted. “Concentrate on the upper floor, the two right-most windows from your vantage!”

These orders jolted their armor awake.

At once the M3 Hunter drove in from the side of the restaurant and veered slightly to the west to face its ill-positioned gun. Zimmer, pressed against the wall, felt a light rumbling of the gun, and peeked from cover to watch the destruction.

A well-placed HE shell burst through one of the offending windows on the uppermost floor and shattered the room, collapsing the ceiling from under a pair of machine gunners on the roof, and the floor they were meant to land on after, burying them in the room below.

Fires did not start but the expanding smoke and dust obscured the windows.

Following the blast the building and with it the entire street had gone silent, and Zimmer shoved a small group of his men out the broken windows of the restaurant. They crossed the alley and climbed into the building, under the watchful presence of the assault gun. They wandered inside the makeshift fort, and minutes later radioed in an all-clear.

Zimmer was not keen to leave his restaurant.

Instead he ordered the rest of the men out and ahead.

From the doorway, he raised his binoculars and watched his advance slow to a crawl.

His men crossed the street in front of the suppressed stronghold, and stepped across the adjacent alleyway. They were anxious and they walked slowly as crawling terrapins, as though inching across open streets and road would help them sneak toward the enemy.

Rifles sounded from up the street.

Sniper fire killed two men in the middle of the road.

At once the rest of his men scattered to a suddenly renewed roaring of rifles and submachine guns from the windows and roof of the next nearest building.

“Maneuver around the building!” He shouted from his window, urging the laggards across the road from him and from the fighting to move forward and engage.

Startled and anxious the men stole along the street to join the fighting.

The First Sergeant could hardly see the battle now, as it was moving farther from the restaurant. He rushed from the window of the restaurant, begrudgingly crossing the alleyway and into the building ahead, still hot and suffused with the stench of smoke.

He ran through the interior halls, and he found the place had once been some kind of office. Crossing from one side of the building, around the face, and to the other wall, he found the same men he had shared the restaurant with – sans a few, depleted in the interim.

Zimmer found the situation better in the office building than in the restaurant.

Sturdy walls and spaced-out windows gave clear lanes of fire and complete protection that allowed the men to exchange attacks calmly. Through an adjoining hall, Zimmer could see out to the street stretching in front of the building, and his men pinned down across the road. He hailed the M3 gun on the radio, urging it forward again to help break the deadlock.

It was the next building from the office place that was shooting at them now.

They would have to go house to house, it seemed.

“Fire on the uppermost floor, third window from right, Six-V.” Zimmer ordered.

He observed the assault gun driving past his vantage to the street, and once out of his sight, he heard its tracks turning and awaited the rumbling of the gun. He felt shaking across the ground and through the walls and with glee he heard the tell-tale noise of a nearby cannon shot. Zimmer shouted under the roar of the gun for his men to open fire again.

But there was no explosion, no shell flying at those damnable windows.

From the opposing building the communists retaliated in force, opening fire on him unabated, forcing his men back into cover again when he expected to have an advantage.

Zimmer turned from the side hall of the building, and looked down the adjoining hall to the street. He saw smoke trailing in, its source just out of his field of vision.

“Assault Gun Six-V do you copy? Six-V?”

There was no response on the radio.

“Hold down here!” Zimmer shouted to his men in the midst of the gunfire, and he sidled along the wall into the adjoining hall, and snuck out toward the front of the building.

Peering out to the street, he found the M3 Hunter smoking and burning from the gun mantlet and from an open hatch atop the hull. He could not see the machine’s wounds from his vantage, and its hull and the smoke drawing from it blocked his view of his street troops.

Then above the gunfire he heard tracks moving forward. Was it the M3 reviving?

Across the street a shell flew and exploded on the side of the office building.

Zimmer nearly fell, the walls and ground shaking around him.

He saw a flash and a brief wave of pressure blowing at the opposite end of the hall. Smoke started to stream out of the building. He turned and ran toward the men he had left, and suddenly he found himself exposed, a massive hole blown into the structure.

Around the dire corner there were men at his feet, burnt, concussed, all crushed under the collapsed wall. Zimmer paid them less attention than he did to the street outside.

Like a revelation from God, the hole punched so abruptly into the building offered him a view of his maneuver platoons splayed across the streets and alleys, and a roving green hulk driving from a nearby alley. Never had he seen such a large tank, three and a half meters wide, three meters tall, and perhaps seven meters long. Enormous. Massive.

Feebly he drew his pistol. The roar of the tank’s gun was the last thing he ever heard.


25-AG-30 1st Vorkampfer Rear Echelon

Luftlotte bombing had taken a heavy toll on the buildings of Bada Aso’s south district, but Von Sturm’s staff found a fairly feasible place for a headquarters. It was far from the front line on the southeastern edge of the city, close enough to the green fields on the edge of the hilly Kalu to smell the wind-blown scent of Lillies. Thankfully the stench of powder and burning had been blown out by that same wind long before the Grenadiers got there.

An old restaurant building stood untouched among a block of buildings completely squashed by explosives. To the last they had been smashed down to their foundations, left as bleach-gray holes in the ground. Corps staff let their imagination run wild and thought the restaurant was a lucky spot, a standing omen. There were five ruined buildings ringing the restaurant, and across the street from it three more ruins completed the formation.

The main road parallel to the restaurant was splintered and cracked and trucks driving over it teetered and shook as their wheels rose and fell with the terrain. Supply horses, of which there many more than trucks, tottered over the ruins with a confident step, but the wheels on their wagons took a beating atop the ruined earth. More than one shattered box, its precious contents spilled, lay forgotten on the sides of the road, fallen from convoys.

But the men were driving and the horses cantering, and the war machine was slowly shifting into position. Towing anti-tank guns and artillery guns, food wagons, the few cargo trucks and the many horse-drawn wagons of the Grenadiers and the Cissean infantry were making slow but sure progress on linking their forward units to much-needed supplies.

By nightfall, Nochtish generals predicted they would have three major artillery positions, five established forward bases, numerous roads open to their panzers and personnel vehicles, all of them ready along the edges of the central district, waiting to pounce on the heart of the communist defense in the valuable city center.

They expected that by the 30th Nocht would have full control of the city.

“Perhaps if that map is meant to depict a fantasy land!” Von Drachen laughed.

He regarded all of the planning maps on the table as some kind of elaborate joke.

People accused him of having strange humor, but he thought no humor could be stranger than the thought of taking this city in a week. Everyone stared at him. Staff crowded the table, coddling General Anton Von Sturm as he explained his ambitions.

Behind them, seven women in gray skirt suits manned a communications station, spanning the length of a wall, and handled all contact with the Vorkampfer and the 6th Grenadier, along with what little radio traffic Von Drachen’s Blue Corps generated. During the silence at the table that followed Von Drachen’s remarks, the room was filled with chatter, flicking of switches, the whining and scratching as signals were adjusted.

“Von Drachen, have you anything actually productive to say?” Von Sturm asked. “You’ve sent your entire staff god knows where and instead of talking to them I’m subjected to more of you, so I ask then, have you put any modicum of thought into how to proceed? Around this table we’re trying to plan a major offensive across the week. What about you?”

Von Drachen smiled. “As a matter of fact, I have a suggestion to make! You see, I don’t believe in leaving things up to raw data. It would be prudent to ask the men themselves what they believe they most need at this pressing moment to carry out their objectives.”

He turned and tipped his hat toward a young woman standing near the radios.

She was almost as tall as he was, quite tall for a lady, but slender and graceful, with soft shoulders. She was possessed of a saccharine demeanor, always smiling, very energetic. She had a small nose and big green eyes and short brown hair. Fluffy purple pom poms dangled from her earrings, which were surely not to regulation. Her name, if Von Drachen remembered it correctly, was Helga – Chief Signals Officer Helga Fruehauf.

She smiled graciously, and flipped a few pages on a clipboard when prompted to speak. Her voice was bubbly but her pronunciations and pacing when speaking were very precise.

Von Sturm grunted. “Fruehauf, any trend in the reports you’ve collected?”

Fruehauf stuck out her chest proudly. “Over the course of the 300 radio comms that have thus far been processed, we’ve heard an overwhelming amount of calls for artillery and air support against targets along Matumaini and 3rd, the Umaiha riverside, and Penance Road. Direct fire support from Assault Guns has been committed in only limited amounts, and indirect fire support of any amount seems to be of pressing concern to our COs.”

Von Sturm rolled his eyes, elbows against the table, his fingers steepled under his chin.

“Oh great, indeed, I shall heed the sage voices of our men as they quail and holler about bombing targets they’ve already captured and killing again men they’ve beaten. This would have been useful information to know hours ago, I guess!” He sarcastically replied.

Fruehauf bowed her head a little and looked like a scolded child.

Von Drachen cleared his throat. “Well, you did tell them not to bother you, hours ago.”

Von Sturm sighed. “That’s not my point you blathering beak-nosed idiot!”

Von Drachen quirked his eyebrow and raised his hand to his nose.

“Planning over those maps appears, in my experience, to be solipsistic.” He replied. “It is my opinion our men would move faster and more confidently if they knew a good gun or a plane could be counted on. This is information that we know from having spoken to men who are actively viewing the battlefield. I’m not promising that such things would have a marked or visible impact, as it is not in my nature to promise things; but clearly, it would be doing something in the here and now, and that seems more prescient to me than the divination ritual you’ve got going with these cartographers.”

Around the table several of Von Sturm’s staff officers sneered at this characterization.

“They’ve got the assault guns! And we lost our organic air support.” Von Sturm said, rubbing his own face. “So good luck getting them a plane. I’ll release an extra platoon of assault guns, and I promise you, Von Drachen, those of us who are actually working, and actually thinking about this operation,” he eyed Fruehauf and Von Drachen pointedly for emphasis, “those of us, we are focusing on how best to deploy our artillery for its maximum effect. That is what the data you so derisively refer to has been deployed toward, and that is one of the reasons for the maps you have taken great pleasure in joking about.”

“Ah, I think it is my turn to say you’ve missed my point!” Von Drachen said amicably. “You see, this is only an example, and I believe there is a wider lesson you failed to–”

Von Sturm covered his face with his hands. “Messiah’s sake, shut up Von Drachen!”

While the bickering ricocheted from one side of the table to another, a young woman conspicuously stood from the radio table, and crept shyly across the room toward Fruehauf, whispering something into her ear. The Signals Chief, in turn, crept toward Von Sturm’s side of the table, and waited uneasily for him to stop shouting and acknowledge her. With a heavy sigh, and after about a minute of berating the room, he finally did call to her.

“What is it now, Fruehauf? I thought I said not to bother me with minor reports.”

“Sir, I’m sorry, but we are receiving erratic reports from the South-Central sector.”

Von Drachen perked up from the stony, anhedonic face he made through Von Sturm’s shouting. A strange grin stretched ear to ear across his face. “Erratic how, my dear?”

Fruehauf continued to address Von Sturm as though Von Drachen was not there. “Several units in Matumaini sent forward platoons to link up the front along all the byways stretching from the main street; those units fell out of contact, and we’re receiving many requests to reestablish contact with them. Most of them have been in vain. We believe this signals stiffening enemy resistance. Some units are even reporting tanks counterattacking.”

“You could’ve just said the last line. No need to be so dramatic.” Von Sturm replied. “Release the anti-tank gun platoons from the regiments as quickly as possible and have them directly engage. Ayvartan tanks are no match for an AT gun of any size.”

Fruehauf nodded. “I shall have my teams pass along those orders.”

The Chief Signals Officer sat on the table by her other girls, and communications were feverishly reestablished and passed along. Von Drachen watched as for the first time, Von Sturm seemed to put away his maps and develop an interest in news from the front.


25-AG-30 Matumaini 4th, 42nd Rifles Rear Echelon

As the enemy pushed into the 3rd Battalion area, Corporal Chadgura, Gulab and the remainder of the 3rd Platoon were sent farther back, almost out to Sese Street at the edge of the central district. Nominally they were there to “refit” but it seemed that reinforcement was not forthcoming. This “refitting” took place in the middle of a main road and in two surrounding alleyways. Leaderless remnants of the 42nd Rifles’ 2nd Battalion waited.

Gulab stood with her back to a supply truck on the edge of the road, and Chadgura stood out in the middle of the car road and exchanged brief words with people going to the front. Everything around Gulab was quiet, and she was shaken by the stillness.

In that moment of stark silence that followed the chaos before, Gulab’s head felt like it housed a beating heart. Everything hurt, from her flesh, to her own thoughts.

She cast glum eyes at the Corporal, who herself cast a wan, empty look up the street.

Corporal Chadgura had saved her life; were it not for her, Gulab would be lying in the intersection with many of her comrades. And yet, the fact that Chadgura had nothing to say about that, nothing on her face, no the tiniest glint of pity in her eyes when Gulab peered into them – it unsettled her deeply. She wanted to know what would be made of her for her failure. She needed a reprimand or a dismissal, to allow her to carry on.

It seemed from Corporal Chadgura nothing was forthcoming.

There was painful silence.

Then there was a low rumbling and a labored metal clipping noise.

Gulab snapped her head up, startled by the sound of the tracks. Her head filled with images of the Nochtish assault guns that had devastated the carefully-laid defenses on the intersection, and she heard the cannons and smelled the smoke and iron. Her body shook.

Corporal Chadgura raised her hand and waved to the north. Gulab exhaled ruefully.

A column of vehicles approached them.

There were eight heavy infantry-carrier half-tracks in black and red KVW colors from the Motorized Rifle Division. Between them they carried a whole Company, 200 soldiers, 25 and a commander crammed tight in each vehicle’s bed, with two vehicles to a platoon. It was a handy contrivance, though the vehicles themselves were lightly armored and barely armed with a light machine gun at the top, shooting over the driver’s compartment.

None of the vehicles had their tarps on, so Gulab could see all the people inside the skeletal walls of their beds, all wearing the same dour expression as Corporal Chadgura.

Behind them followed a tank, though Gulab had never seen one it like before.

The Half-Tracks parked around the refitting area, in alleys and around corners.

Black and red uniformed soldiers dropped out of the half-tracks in organized ranks, carrying rifles of a different pattern than Gulab was used to. They were not bundu rifles, because they had a box magazine under them, and the wood had a black tint, and they were thicker, shorter. The KVW troops deployed with precision toward the fighting.

Two platoons strode forward, side-to-side in a rank that covered both streets, with one platoon following – a triangle formation. One platoon was in reserve, and these men and women stood silently along with the survivors of the 42nd Rifles’ 1st Battalion.

Meanwhile the Tank drove to the middle of the refit area and waited, cutting its engine.

A man clad in red and gold approached Corporal Chadgura and he saluted her.

She saluted back.

His sharp and prominent facial features, a strong nose, thick lips, a heavy brow, and narrowed eyes, conveyed a grimmer expression than seen on the other KVW soldiers, but Gulab surmised this was not his own doing. Chadgura’s own dull expression in comparison was a product of her softer features. When the man spoke tonelessly she knew him to be the same as the Corporal; his voice was no more nor less emotive than hers in any way.

“Corporal Chadgura, Command has called for the counterattack to begin.” He said.

“Yes sir. What role has been assigned to me? I wish to participate in the battle.”

The KVW Lieutenant craned his head to give the refitting area a brief look.

”I’d say you have about a platoon’s worth of good soldiers. Leave behind any who are wounded. They needn’t expose themselves to further harm. I am putting the Ogre tank at your disposal; lead it around the alleys and buildings in a surprise attack against Matumaini 3rd.” He pressed a portable short-range radio into Corporal Chadgura’s hands. “This will allow you to communicate with the tank. The crew is fresh and will need your support.”

Corporal Chadgura saluted again. “Yes Lieutenant. I have experience with this.”

“The Motherland counts on you comrade; may you be guided to victory.”

Chadgura left the man’s side, and ambled toward the 3rd Platoon in the alley.

Gulab thought she was heading straight for her.

She had overheard all of the conversation and had it clear as day – she was coming over to tell Gulab to round up the wounded and leave. She herself had been hurt in the fighting, and Chadgura knew this. From the moment the Corporal stepped into the alleyway however Gulab was determined to fight. Her heart was racing, but she would not accept being either dead weight or an afterthought left in the refitting area.

“Permission to speak, ma’am!” She shouted immediately at the Corporal.

Corporal Chadgura blinked. “You don’t need permission to talk to me.”

“Ma’am!” Gulab saluted stiffly and raised her voice. “With all due respect, I understand that I have not acquitted myself to the standards of excellence that are expected of a socialist comrade in this most esteemed Territorial Army! I have been mildly injured and I have become distracted! But I feel a terrible fury toward the imperialists, and I understand now the stakes we face! I wish only to ask you for a second chance! I wish to impress upon you in the strongest terms that I am a capable warrior who will prove invaluable! In the mountains of the Kucha I hunted deadly Rock Bears with the men of my tribe, and though at first I did not fully understand nor respect my prey I came to learn its strength and defeated it, and proved myself to my ancestors! I wish for you to give me the same second chance that my Grandfather did, so I may amend my earlier mistakes! Thank you for listening and considering me, Corporal! I hope my words speak true to you Corporal!”

Her tone had risen almost to a shriek and tears welled up in her eyes.

She delivered her filibuster, and saluted again after a few seconds of utter silence.

Corporal Chadgura blinked again, twice.

She rubbed her eyes a little.

Everyone left in the 3rd Platoon was staring silently at Gulab. Gulab began to shake a little, but held her stiff and awkward salute. She avoided the Corporal’s blank gaze.

Her story was a touch embellished.

“It was not my intention to dismiss you. I apologize for upsetting you, Private Kajari. I should have been more open with you; but I have a latent anxiety toward communication.”

Corporal Chadgura saluted. She raised her voice. It sounded oddly hollow and forced, a poor attempt to be emphatic. “I think of you as a valuable comrade, Private Kajari!”

Everyone else in the Platoon looked confused. Now Gulab just felt like a bully.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Gulab muttered, bowing her head low.

Corporal Chadgura clapped her hands once as though she wanted to hear the sound.

“I have not forgotten that you are part of my command cadre, Private Kajari. I’d like you to help me quickly form a platoon, and to send the wounded on their way.” She said.

Gulab felt a pang of guilt.

Of course; that was why Chadgura was approaching her all along.

Feeling ashamed of her insecurities and embarrassed by the show she had put on in front of the Platoon, but putting it all temporarily aside to perform her work, Gulab helped the Corporal gather volunteers for the ad-hoc platoon. She rushed from person to person on one side of the street, explaining briefly that they were following the tank to perform a flanking attack, and as such they would not suffer the brunt of the enemy fire now.

This characterization of the mission appealed to several people, but many were still too shaken or wounded to participate. Fifteen minutes later Gulab and Chadgura had gathered about 35 enthusiastic people in three squadrons around the tank.

“Congratulations, 3rd Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon.” Chadgura said in a dreary voice.

She clapped her hands twice this time in front of her face.

A KVW staff aide in a skirt uniform helped pull a crate over to the new platoon.

They deposited their bolt-action Bundu rifles, trading them for submachine guns with drum magazines. For the squad leaders, the Corporal, and Gulab, new rifles were procured, fitting the KVW’s odd new pattern. Much to Gulab’s surprise, this new rifle was automatic. Corporal Chadgura explained the action briefly – a switch on the side for automatic or trigger-pull fire, and an option to press down to trigger the automatic fire immediately. She fired off an entire 15-round magazine into an empty window nearby to demonstrate.

“This is a Nandi carbine. Be careful not to waste ammunition. Fire in short bursts.”

Chadgura briefed the squad leaders on more than just the new rifles – with a map of the Southern district they quickly drew up the best way to sweep around the buildings. Gulab stood with the Corporal as the squad leaders took amicable command of their troops.

Once everyone was ready to move the Ogre started its engine, and with Corporal Chadgura at the head the assault platoon got on its way. Gulab marched alongside the Corporal, out of the refit area and down the street, a kilometer behind the KVW’s push back into the embattled Matumaini. They marched with two squadrons forward, the Tank and the Command Cadre in the center, and a squadron trailing behind; another triangle.

“Up ahead we will be making our first detour.” Corporal Chadgura said. She raised her radio to her ear and called the same command into it for the benefit of the tank crew.

First detour point was a long alleyway between two small tenement buildings that would lead them west. Chadgura ordered the tank ahead to start clearing the path.

Slowly and brutally the Ogre forced its way through, smashing a long wound on both walls at its sides with its armored track guards and breaking through a separator at the end with its sheer weight and strength. A simple push against the brick wall toppled it.

Smashing into a broad courtyard, the tank stopped, waiting for the rifle squadrons to catch up. Awed by the size and power of this strange tank, the platoon hurried, all the while stealing glances at the machine’s handiwork. From the courtyard, they would cross into a long alley and push their way south. They were a few hundred meters from the road.

Before they got going, the Corporal extended a hand to Gulab, gently slipping her fingers between Gulab’s own and guiding her toward the Ogre. She gestured toward it.

“We must climb aboard the tank, Private Kajari. This is called riding tank desant.”

Gulab nodded nervously. Corporal Chadgura helped boost her onto the track, and then she climbed on the back and knelt behind the turret. The Corporal followed, easily climbing the tank, first pulling herself up the tracks, then behind it, over the engine block. She stood confidently, with one hand bracing herself on the turret and another on her radio.

Gulab felt the vibrations of metal transferring to her body, a constant stirring of her flesh from the tank’s booming engine behind them and the wide, thick tracks beneath them. The Ogre pushed ahead of the platoon again, tearing down another separator wall and exposing the long alley between the tenement buildings along Matumaini’s western street.

Warm streams of smoke periodically rose from exhaust points on the back of the tank, and Gulab tried not to breathe it in. The smoke was grayish-white and a little smelly but easy enough to avoid by sticking to the center of the tank and hugging the turret.

In the relative safety of the alleyways the platoon and the tank frequently traded places in the lead, and Chadgura stood more often than she probably would in battle. Gulab stayed on her knees, peeking around the side of the tank frequently, practicing by aiming her new rifle at things. She felt anxious and tense. Every building they passed was quiet and desolate.

Gulab had never been in a big city before. To her, the alleyways were like a maze and even the broad intersection they had fought to defend was akin to a cage. In her village houses were separated by dozens of meters of green rising and falling around the dirt roads. She lived on a low peak and yet she could see the whole mountain range from her house.

Comparatively Bada Aso felt flat and tight, though it seemed to curve subtly, so the visible horizon was nearer than she thought it should be. It did not need to fog to cloud her vision, for there always seemed to be something in the way. And yet it felt even less alive than the emptiness of the open mountain. Most of the people had gone. If there was an innocent soul remaining in these tight, gloomy buildings and streets, it had her pity.

That place of her youth was not this place. Then again, she too, was not the same.

Other people might have noticed something in Gulab’s eyes, but Corporal Chadgura did not. She was absorbed with her map, and with her radio. She called in commands, pointed out walls which could be pulverized, buildings which could be driven through.

The Ogre smashed through a tenement wall, ran over an entertainment room for the tenants that had been stripped of its television but not the chairs; they smashed through a small desolate infirmary where only educational posters about the stomach and lungs remained to denote it as such; as though walking through sheets of paper the tank smashed through wall after wall. Behind it, the infantry cast glances about, as if in an alien land.

When it finally came out the other end of the rubble, the tank waited until the infantry overtook it and led the way through a side-street, and into another alleyway. Distantly they heard guns and rifles going off on Matumaini, and the booming of mortar shells, and the thundering of hundreds of stamping feet. They neared their first combat objectives.

“Everybody keep your eyes peeled!” Chadgura shouted, insofar as she even could. “We will soon turn and thrust into the belly of the enemy force. I will be calling in targets for the tank. Space your formation, and selectively target enemies threatening the tank.”

Riding atop the monster of a tank, Gulab wondered what even could threaten it.

She felt utterly superfluous, and yet, still endangered. What was her small strength, to the thundering blows of two gigantic armies? She had seen it in the intersection, and she felt it now, in these desolate concrete halls overseen by the gray, darkening sky. She felt she had caught a glimpse of war’s true magnitude, and it unsettled her convictions deeply.


25-AG-30 Matumaini 3rd, 6th Grenadiers Advance

Machine guns roared from a clinic building at the end of a small byway half a kilometer from Matumaini. On a prominent balcony the gun, set on an anti-aircraft swivel, easily cast lead across the streets, a steady stream covering the approaches to the building.

Soon as the shooting began the landsers of the assault platoon dispersed into nearby buildings, beating down doors for access and setting themselves up on windows, trying to pick off the shooter from safety. But the advantage of high ground against the flat buildings surrounding it, and the thick concrete balustrade of the balcony, made this little gun position a virtual stronghold at the end of the cul de sac. Its shooting continued unabated.

Now the men in buildings could not leave – they would be picked off at the doorways!

“We’ll sneak up on it.” Voss whispered to his men. “We’ll go through the back, cross the street, and break into the clinic from the alley. We’ll disable it from inside.”

“You don’t think they’ll have someone posted there?” Kern asked.

“I’ll take my chances with riflemen on a window. Better than big guns on a balcony.”

Kern had no rebuttal to that. He followed Voss and his two original companions from the struggle on Matumaini, Hart and Alfons, out the back of the building. They smashed one of the windows rounded out the back to a tight space between the building and a brick fence, running along the buildings and intended to cut the byway off from other blocks.

Kern and his new squadron crept along the back of the building, and stopped at the furthest end still covered by the building, standing out of sight at the edge of the street. They were aligned with the clinic’s own little alley, and needed only to run out to it. There were only about twenty or twenty-five meters of separation between their alley and the clinic across the street, and the gun could easily angle on them while they ran.

“I’ll go first. If the gun gets me, don’t try it. Back off and call for help.” Voss said.

Hart and Alfons nodded their heads. Kern kept quiet.

The landsers parted as much as they could between the walls and allowed Voss to the front. He knelt, and looked out to the street and over to the balcony. Bursts of machine gun fire erupted against targets out of sight. Kern saw Voss counting with his fingers.

Moments later he found whatever cue he had been waiting for, and without further hesitation Voss launched out of cover, running as fast as his legs could carry him and his gear. He crossed the distance in under fifteen seconds it seemed, and unnoticed he dashed into the alley and waved emphatically for the rest of the squad to follow. Without organization the three men waiting behind the building ran out across the street as well.

Kern got a good look at the balcony as he ran.

He saw the fierce focus and determination evident on the gunner’s face as he watched the opposite street, raining bullets down on the byway and chewing up the nearby walls.

The squad squeezed behind the clinic without incident.

Everyone laid up against the walls, catching their breaths. There were no windows on this side of the ground floor. There was no door either – it would’ve opened up to brick. It wouldn’t even have been able to open up all the way! “Where to now?” Kern asked.

Voss, breathing heavily, pointed his index finger directly overhead.

“Climb on the brick fence, then to the second floor.” He said, inhaling and exhaling.

“We’re not Gebirgs Voss, messiah’s sake.” Alfons blurted out. Hart said nothing.

“You’ve got arms don’t you? Give me a boost. I’ll get you up.” Voss replied calmly.

Hart and Alfons knelt and pushed Voss up by the soles of his shoes, lifting him until he could grab the top of the brick wall fencing off the byway. He pulled himself atop the smooth brown brick. Voss looked over the wall in every direction briefly, and then gave an all-clear – it was safe to stand on it without being spied on. Carefully he raised himself to his full height on both legs, and he leaped from the brick wall and grabbed hold of a window frame. He pulled himself up into the clinic and leaned back out.

Hart and Alfons nodded to Kern, and boosted him up next.

He climbed the fence, and with Voss’ help he too made it to the window.

Inside, Kern drew his pistol. His rifle would be too long and unwieldy to fight in the building interior. It was gloomy but enough light came in from the gray sky that he could see the layout of the room well. He was in a clinic office. There were posters hung up on the wall, of children’s anatomy, their teeth, their hair; a basket of food in another poster perhaps suggested a healthy diet. Didn’t the Ayvartans ration?

Kern was struck by how peaceful and ordinary this scene was.

Places the enemy called home; and yet communism or not, couldn’t this have been a scene in the fatherland? Though everything was written in the Ayvartans’ script, illegible to him, he felt familiar to this vacated place. There was a small set of weighing scales, old wrapped hard candies overturned from a basket, and a colorful height chart, adorned with a cartoon giraffe, topping out at 140 centimeters. This was a small neighborly clinic for young children. The young landser felt tears almost rising to his eyes.

Why did this place have to be a battlefield? What was he even doing here?

Hart and Alfons climbed inside, and everyone silently grouped together.

They organized themselves by the door to the office, with Kern and Voss on the left side, and Hart and Alfons a few steps back front of the door. They opened the door – Kern and Voss raised their pistols to cover the right and Hart and Alfons looked to the left.

A hallway leading from the door ended dead on their left and stretched right. There was a door opposite theirs. Voss stacked up on it, and Hart and Alfons opened it, but there was no one inside – just another empty clinic office with a window. They pushed on.

Kern followed the squadron as they crept across the featureless hallway, following it past a long staircase leading to the bottom floor, and to the door at the other end. There were no other doors along the hall on either side except for that one.

As they approached Kern heard the blaring of the machine gun from the other side of the door. Everyone readied themselves to breach while the enemy was still unaware.

Voss counted to three with his fingers, then they kicked open the door.

Inside was a larger room than the office they climbed into.

There was no immediate resistance, and in their rush the men saw nobody along the desk or near the walls, nobody standing, and all their eyes turned to the balcony instead.

Voss, Hart and Alfons rushed to the curtains and opened fire, emptying their ten-round magazines on automatic mode through the cloth and riddling the silhouettes of the gunner and loader before they could launch a bullet more down on their platoon in the street.

Kern caught up and threw the curtains open – they found a man, slumped dead over a box of ammunition belts, and a woman collapsed over the gun itself. Both quite dead.

Everyone stood still, breathing heavily, their pistols raised on stiff arms.

Slowly they put down their weapons. “They had support at all.” Voss said.

Kern looked over the room again.

Here the cartoon giraffe was replaced by a taller caricature, a dragon along the wall, and the scales were larger. It seemed a more professional office, a bit less homey and innocent. Perhaps for older children and teenagers, and young adults.

Then Kern found a trail of blood along the floor, as though of a body dragged.

He raised his hand to alert the others, and slowly walked around the side of the large wooden desk, pistol in hand. He found life, faint as it was.

Two people had been laid behind the desk. One was a girl, looking very little past her teens, a thick cloth patched over her uniform on her shoulder, sticky and black with spilled blood. Her brown skin was turning a sickly pale, and she was tossing in restless sleep or unconsciousness. Another was a black-skinned older man, with thick, long hair on his head and heavy wrinkling around his eyes, but perfectly shaven cheeks and chin.

He was awake.

He looked at Kern with eyes pleading for mercy. His leg and stomach had heavy, wet cloths set on them, and he breathed heavily, but did not speak. He had lost a lot of blood.

Kern lowered his pistol, but he was immediately anxious.

He stared, not knowing what to say or to do.

Voss hurried to his side, and then stood in place as well, transfixed by the wounded communists, laying so vulnerable behind the desk. They had no weapons on them, and no capability to fight anyway. Kern didn’t even know if they could survive their wounds.

“Let’s just leave them.” Voss said, patting Kern strongly on the shoulder. He started trying to pull the stricken boy away. “Let’s leave them here to whatever their fate, alright? We disabled the gun, someone else can take care of this more properly than we can.”

Hart and Alfons nodded from across the room.

They did not seem eager to draw near the desk.

“Go out and signal the men that it’s clear.” Voss ordered. “And Kern, let’s go.”

He shook Kern more roughly, and the young landser drew slowly back from the wounded communists, until they were hidden from him again by the desk. How old could that girl have been? And how old was he, was he old enough to be in the midst of this? As he pulled away Hart and Alfons walked out to the balcony, shouting loudly in Nochtish, and when they found it safe to do so they also waved and jumped and tried to catch the attention of the men huddling in the buildings and alleys across from the clinic.

Klar, klar! they shouted, and men shouted back.

Voss tried to guide him back to hallway, but Kern was fixated on the desk.

“Come on, come on Kern; don’t get jelly-brained on me now, boy.”

It was shaking.

Kern saw strewn objects atop the desk, a pen, a little candy pot, shaking.

He pried himself loose from Voss’ grip and pushed him back. “Hart, Alfons, get back!”

Beside the clinic there was a rumbling and a series of thudding noises as bricks well.

Something had gone through the wall.

Rifles cracked from both sides of the street.

Noise; a deep, gaseous sound for a split second followed by a long rolling thoom.

Alfons and Hart fell back from the balcony in a panic, and Kern dropped to the ground with surprise. Voss rushed boldly to the edge of the balcony, kneeling and with his back to the wall. Through the balustrade on the balcony the squadron watched as the building across the street, diagonal from the clinic, burst suddenly and violently open.

A high-explosive shell flew through a window and exploded in the interior, casting a wave of debris and smoke from the windows, blowing the door from the inside out, tearing through the wall like paper and toppling men standing on the street nearby. Following the blast a torrent of bullets perforated the walls and showered the streets. Half the building collapsed, the roof crushing the porous wall, and burying whoever remained inside.

A massive tank cleared the clinic’s alleyway and became visible from the balcony.

Following in its wake was a platoon full of muted green uniforms.

“Scheiße!” Voss cursed in a horrified whisper. Kern was mute from the sight.

“Hart, you’ve a panzerwurfmine, right?” Alfons asked, tugging on Hart’s satchel.

Speechless, Hart opened his pack, and withdrew the bomb, his hands shaking violently. The grenade had a round head affixed to a thin body with folding canvas fins. Kern had no idea how such a thing could even be operated, or what it would do to such a large tank.

“No, put that thing back!” Voss shouted. “No heroics. We’re leaving now.”

“Leaving where?” Alfons shouted back. “We’re surrounded! We have to fight!”

“We’ll go through the window in the office, jump the brick fence, land on the other side, and hoof it back to Matumaini. We can’t stay here! They’ll storm the building soon!”

Kern glanced over to the desk. Would the communists find their own wounded there?

“Let’s go.” Voss ordered. He stood first and quickly led the way out.

Kern followed unsteadily, his steps swaying as though he were in the middle of an earthquake, feeling his blood thrashing through his veins, his heart and lungs ragged from the effort to keep him standing. Hart and Alfon followed roughly pushing and patting and shoving Kern forward all the way to the office. Voss waved for a man to step out.

He practically shoved Hart and Alfons out the window. It was a five or six meter drop, not exactly pleasant. Kern leaped, and cleared the wall, and he hit his knees and elbows on the other side, rolling down a slight concrete decline behind an old house.

Voss dropped in last, and urged everyone to move, waving his hands down the alley.

Behind the wall they heard the tank gun blaring, and the crushing of concrete and wood.

“Wait!” Kern shouted. He couldn’t get the wounded communists out of his mind.

Back on the clinic balcony those machine gunners were taking care of their downed comrades as best as they could. And in turn, running away from the byway like this did not feel right. He was abandoning his own companions. They would be left there, forgotten, if nobody tried to fight for them. “We need to call this in. I’ve got a radio.” He withdrew it and showed it to Voss. This was the least he could do for the men dying back there.

Hart, Alfons and Voss stared at him a moment before conceding.

They huddled underneath the awning of a little house nearby, and away from windows.

Everyone was anxious, but they kept quiet as they set up for the call.

Kern pulled up the antennae on his radio and adjusted the frequency according to Voss’s officer booklet with the operation’s active channels. They quickly found the one.

He flicked the switch, and with a trembling in his voice, declared, “This is private Kern Beckert, 6th Grenadier 2nd Battalion. A massive tank is wiping us out!” He gulped and tried to control the shaking in his jaw. “Repeat, we are being overwhelmed by an Ayvartan tank. It is huge! It is nothing like those in the drawings. We need help. I repeat, 6th Division 2nd Battalion, we’re in a byway deep in Matumaini and a tank is driving us back!”


25-AG-30 Matumaini 3rd, Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon

They heard the fighting across the wall and prepared to burst through and rescue everyone. But they had been too late. Only moments before the Ogre tank smashed into the byway, the machine gun had gone silent, never to fire again.

The Ogre’s fury more than made up for the loss.

Its cannon roared, and a squadron of Nochtish troops was cooked inside a small house and the machine gunners avenged. Armed with two machine guns, one coaxial to the main gun and another fixed on the front, the Ogre unleashed a stream of inaccurate fire as it trundled forward that nonetheless sent the imperialists running and ducking.

Gulab marveled at the sheer brutal power of the machine.

There was no comparing this to a Goblin tank. It seemed that nothing on Aer could stop the beast from its indefatigable march. Soon as the tank was in the byway proper, the platoon following it rushed forward, submachine guns screaming for the enemy’s blood. Gulab readied her new Nandi carbine, turning the switch to select fire, and girded her loins to meet the fighting head-on. She had to contribute this time. She had to.

“Concentrate your fire on guarding us and the tank.” Chadgura told her.

Even following that directive, there was no shortage of targets.

There was a large platoon, perhaps two, of the enemy’s soldiers in the byway, caught unawares. At the sight of the tank a few men lost their nerve and ran, but on the road they ran through more gunfire than open air, the trails of bullets flying past them a hundred a second it seemed, and they were shredded moments into their escape. Most of the men stuck to cover and tried to fight back, but the volume of fire was too heavy, and they spent the engagement with their shoulders to whatever rock could hide them from bullets.

Ayvartan Raksha submachine guns showered the enemy’s improsived positions with frequent bursts of fire, and the twin machine guns on the Ogre seemed bottomless, stopping only briefly to allow barrels to cool. To avoid friendly fire the platoon kept to the sides of the tank, and in this way the torrent of lead methodically expanded from the breach beside the clinic, conserving the tank’s powerful 76mm explosive shells.

“Clear the alleyways!” Chadgura shouted from atop the tank. Her voice, raised so loud, sounded strangely powerful to Gulab. “They may try to ambush the tank!”

Clinking noises followed in rapid succession; bullets struck the top corner of the Ogre’s turret to match the end of Chadgura’s sentence, harmlessly bouncing off the steel a few centimeters from the Corporal. Had the Spirits, or Ancestors, or the Light, whichever, not been guarding her she would have been perforated through the shoulder and neck.

Breathlessly Gulab raised herself to her knees, braced her gun atop the tank’s turret and quickly zeroed in on a second floor window fifty meters or so away and to their upper right, where she saw a man with a long rifle, feeding in a clip and working the bolt.

He had a good diagonal angle on them, enough to hit the back of the tank over its turret.

Eyes strained and unblinking, Gulab held her breath and rapped the trigger with her finger, feeling each kick of the Nandi carbine on her shoulder as five consecutive bullets cut the distance and smeared the man’s face and neck into the air and the window frame.

His body slumped, and his rifle slid from his fingers down the roof.

“Good shot, Private Kajari. Thank you.” Corporal Chadgura replied.

She put down her radio, and clapped her hands three times in front of her face.

Gulab nodded her head, and inhaled for what seemed like the first time in minutes.

Corporal Chadgura seemed to require no earthly resource to continue. Despite a brush with death and having forced her voice throughout the attack, the woman tirelessly issued orders without slowing down. She called again for the platoon to charge, and through her radio she ordered the tank to give them the opportunity. The Ogre’s machine guns quieted, and it hung back, creeping forward at a snail’s pace while the infantry took the lead.

“Squads split into two, chargers to rush enemy positions and shooters to stay back and keep them pinned. Fire on the enemy’s cover and punish any centimeter of flesh they expose! Rush at the enemy from the sides and drag them to melee!” Chadgura shouted.

Had her voice held any affect, Gulab would have thought these orders bloodthirsty. From the Corporal they likely came solely from proper training and cold rationale.

Her words had an immediate effect. Squadrons rearranged themselves mid-battle and grew efficient. Whereas before it was a wall of fire flying from hips and shoulders without regard, now men and women reloaded with a purpose, and marched in a deadly formation.

With a battle cry the platoon fearlessly charged the enemy’s positions.

They had the offensive initiative, and their enemy was helpless before the onslaught. There was almost no retaliatory fire, and what little was presented the platoon seemed to run past, as though the bullets would fly harmlessly through them. With their submachine guns, short-barreled and compact, easy to wield in tight quarters and able to fire numerous rounds in a quick, controlled fashion, the Ayvartans had the edge in this street fight.

Leading elements of each squadron overran enemy cover and drew them out. Shooters trailing behind fired short, well-aimed bursts around their comrades. Sheer frequency and volume of fire kept the Nochtmen pinned down and unable to move or retaliate, rendering them vulnerable to being flanked. Comrades hooked easily around trees and trash cans and porch staircases being used for cover, and with impunity they entered buildings through side windows or even front doors, and they jumped into alleyways, guns blazing, catching the enemy with their backs to cover and unable to respond. Soon there seemed to be a dead man sitting behind every hard surface, his rifle hugged stiffly to his chest.

Inside a few buildings Gulab saw bayonets flashing and comrades exiting triumphant.

One after another they cleared the alleys and emptied the buildings.

The Ogre advanced out of the byway toward the main street, having fired only a single shell the whole way. Light wounds were all the Ayvartans incurred through the byway. It was astonishing. Gulab had received training in firing her weapon and very basic tactics – cover, throwing grenades, calling for help on the radio, jumping over and around obstacles.

Chadgura however had led them to victory against an enemy. Gulab was sure of this.

Then behind the Ogre tank, Gulab heard someone knocking on the metal.

She shook the Corporal’s shoulder, and they turned around together.

Following alongside the tank, a young man had been trying to get their attention.

“Yes, Private? Have your comrades found something?”

The Private saluted. “Ma’am! We found two comrades wounded in that clinic.”

“How badly?” Corporal Chadgura asked. She clapped her hands together.

“They have been bleeding for some time it seems. Very pale.” He replied.

Gulab covered her mouth with anxiety, but Chadgura did not hesitate for a moment.

“I’m not sure how swiftly we can bring medical attention to them. Ordering common troops to haul them around roughly could be the death of them – leave a radio operator with them and call for medical. Have them follow our trail through the alleys.”

The Private nodded his head and ran back to the clinic along with a radio operator.

Gulab uttered a little prayer for the wounded on her side, lying in their own cold blood.

At least comrades had found them now, whether still alive or in the endless sleep.

Having dispatched resistance on the byway, the 3rd Platoon pushed forward.

Their prize was ahead.

The Corporal invited Gulab to look through her binoculars, and she spotted columns of soldiers moving down the main street. Regrettably they would not have the element of surprise on the thoroughfare – there were no more walls to burst, and in the distance Gulab saw the Nochtish soldiers pointing down the byway, and running for the cover found on either side of the road. They had a fight on their hands. Gulab handed the binoculars back, and loaded a fresh magazine. She was amazed at how simple it was, to simply push a box under her carbine and pull the bolt. She had hurt her thumb before trying to load a Bundu!

“Platoon, stack behind the tank! Use it as moving cover!” Chadgura shouted.

A hundred meters ahead at the end of the byway Nochtish soldiers barred their passage, hurriedly pushing two metal carriages into position on each street corner. Small tow-able anti-tank guns, aiming for the Ogre. Each had six men to it, huddling behind the gun shields.

Chadgura called the tank crew. “Shift turret thirty degrees right and fire!”

Gulab covered her ears and the Ogre retaliated.

While its machine guns renewed their relentless tide of iron, battering the metal shields in front of the AT guns, the Ogre’s main 76mm gun was reloaded and brought to bear after its long quiet within the byway. There was marvelous power behind it. Gulab felt her heart and stomach stir, while a puff of smoke and the vibrations of the recoil forces on the metal announced the shot. An explosive shell hurtled toward the enemy like a red dart. In an instant the shell completely overflew the enemy gun crew and exploded over six meters behind them in the middle of the street, throwing back a smattering of infantry.

“Reload with High-Explosive, adjust aim and fire again.” Chadgura ordered.

Bracing for the enemy’s attack, Gulab hid behind the tank’s projecting turret basket.

Given an opportunity, the enemy anti-tank guns unleashed their own firepower, each launching their 37mm armor-piercing shells through their long, thin barrels. Launched at an angle against the sides, they stood a better chance of penetrating ordinary armor in a weak spot, and entering the tank. Ayvartan shells tended to detonate after that; but the Nochtish guns usually fired solid projectiles that fragmented wildly inside the turret instead.

But where the Ogre roared the enemy guns merely whined.

Both 37mm shells plunged directly into the thick sides of the tank’s front hull and ricocheted, spinning back into the air without even leaving a dent. Then the shells came to lie uselessly by the side of the road. It was an incredible sight. Gulab did not even know that shells could respond in such a way. No penetration, no damage at all. Thrown aside.

Whether the Nochtish troops fought in disbelief of the failure of their shots, or whether they were even paying attention as they hurried to defend against the tank, Gulab did not know. But the AT guns continued to open fire as fast as their crew could reload.

Shell after shell pounded the front of the Ogre. Fighting back, the lumbering giant traded a few of its own shots back, one exploding a few meters behind the battle line formed between the two guns and rattling the enemy crews, and a second moments later blowing up almost directly in front of the rightmost gun, and blinding it with dust and smoke.

Staunchly opposing the Ayvartan advance a dozen shells in a row flew across the byway and slammed against the Ogre’s face without avail, striking the front tread guards, bouncing entirely off the slight slope on the front and sides, and flying in random directions.

A lucky shell struck the turret on its far side and shattered. Gulab felt metal dust and fragments graze her as they scattered across the surface, but then the Ogre’s gun fired, as if to say it was but a flesh wound. Gulab heard metal tearing and saw the rightmost enemy gun consumed by smoke and fire. Brutally the Ogre’s shell burst through the gun’s shield and exploded right on the crew, setting ablaze their ammunition and shredding the men.

Broken by the sight, the remaining enemy crew fled north, leaving behind their gun.

Speeding up, the Ogre overcame the battle line, running over the discarded AT gun. Gulab clung on to the turret as the tank’s left track rose momentarily, rolling against the enemy gun’s ballistic shield, and then crunching the gun under it into a flattened wreck.

“Private Kajari, keep your head down.” Chadgura said.

The Platoon had broken through to the middle of Matumaini and 3rd.

To the south they could see the intersection again, from where they had fled earlier.

Up north the Nochtish troops charged into pitched battle with the KVW.

Gulab saw the black and red uniforms in the distance, and from her vantage they seemed to stand in a line straddling the dark gray border made up of the Nochtish men. There were columns in either direction now, and the Ogre was holding them both up – the assaulting troops could not retreat into the Ogre and give space to the KVW push, and the reinforcements from the intersection would have to challenge the Ogre to move through.

That challenge was immediate.

From the south twelve men pushed two more anti-tank guns, their crews ignorant to the fate of the previous pair, and set them down 200 meters away down the southern end of the street, in a street corner partially obscured by rubble. Protecting them were three more men with a Norgler machine gun, who opened fire the moment the guns were set down. From the north, an assault gun firing into the KVW line began to pull back, turning into a street corner so it could double back to face the incoming tank. It approached from over 500 meters away and adjusted its gun, readying to stop and open fire at any moment.

“Platoon, take up positions on the right side of the road and pin down those anti-tank guns!” Chadgura shouted out. Then she raised her radio to her mouth and gave orders to the crew. “Load AP and turn the gun north. Keep the tank perpendicular to the road.”

They were going to engage the assault gun, and keep their sides to the enemy.

“Corporal, ma’am, are you sure about this?” Gulab asked.

Chadgura nodded. “Yes, I am sure of my decision. The sides will hold. Follow me.”

They leaped down off the back of the tank, and hid behind the hull rather than atop it.

Nocht afforded them no time to establish themselves any better.

It seemed as soon as their feet touched ground again that an onslaught of fire consumed both sides of the tank. Shots from the anti-tank guns pounded the right side of the Ogre, while a blast from the assault gun slammed the left side of the turret as it turned around.

Gulab and Chadgura ducked behind the tank, nearly thrown to the ground – the assault gun’s 75mm HE shell scattered a cloud of fragments and heat. The Ogre rocked on its left, partially covered in residual smoke. One of its own shells flew out from beneath the cloud and smashed into the front of the enemy assault gun. The Armor-Piercing High-Explosive shell detonated on the assault gun’s face, and caused it to rock violently, but did not kill it.

On the street the platoon’s three squadrons took to the standing buildings, and to the rubble of recent battles, and exchanged fire with the Norgler still over 150 meters away. From this distance they could not threaten the anti-tank guns with their submachine guns. Streams of automatic fire from the Ayvartan side of the street slammed on the gun shields. Gunfire flew inaccurately around the Norgler machine gunner and his team, who retaliated with greater precision, firing accurate bursts of automatic fire that pinned comrades behind rocks and fire hydrants and inside blown-out doorways and windows.

Though there was only one Norgler and eight bolt action rifles to over twenty submachine guns, the chopping sound of the gun intimidated the Ayvartans still, and its range, accuracy and position in cover made it more than a match for them. All the while the infantry dueled, the AT guns continued to fire on the Ogre’s exposed flank as though nothing were targeting them, but always to little avail. From the clouds of smoke rolling over the heavy tank, several small shells flew out constantly, deflected by the heavy armor.

Cutting the distance, the assault gun moved forward at full speed, stopped, adjusted, and opened fire again, slamming the Ogre’s track guard with an explosive shell. Fire and smoke blew again, and Gulab coughed, and buried her face against her knees.

She felt as though in the middle of an earthquake.

The Ogre punched back, planting a shell right into the face of the assault gun, and again causing the enemy vehicle to rock and jump. No penetration was achieved.

Armor was thickest in front.

In the midst of this fury Gulab felt terrified for her life. She covered her head and she nearly cried. “Corporal!” She shouted. “This is not working, we need to pull back! We can fight from the cover of the byway! We’re too exposed, you’re being reckless!”

“I apologize for not considering your feelings. But I will not consider your feelings.” Chadgura replied. She radioed the tank crew. “Keep firing AP on the glacis plate.”

Again the immobile Ogre spat a shell north-bound, hitting the assault gun and giving it pause. Southbound came a retaliatory shell, smashing the top of the rearmost track-guard.

In a split second Gulab threw herself on Corporal Chadgura and pressed her down flat.

Waves of pressure and heat washed over the top of the Ogre tank, and Gulab felt the fury of the explosive shell for a split second. It was as though she were trapped in the middle of a burning building, surrounded in a cage of fire, unable to breathe, unable to escape that building sensation over her skin. Heat and smoke and pressure would have crushed their heads had they stood a meter higher than they were.

Smoke rolled over the tank, and the heat dispersed.

On the ground Gulab felt Chadgura’s heart beating. Somehow they were alive.

Gulab stared into Chadgura’s eyes.

They were not blank – the depth of color was different than a normal person’s, so that they looked dull, but there was a tiny, glowing ring around the iris that was intense and beautiful. Her Corporal was flustered. She was emotional. Gulab felt her officer’s heart pounding, her lungs working raw. She was agitated. Perhaps not afraid, not like Gulab, but alive. It was strange, to see another person’s humanity so bared before her and to see, specifically, the humanity of her professional, toneless, bleak-voiced officer.

“Thank you. I am not unhappy to be in this position, Private Kajari.” Corporal Chadgura replied, her voice unshaken, dull as ever. “But we should perhaps move away.”

Gulab breathed in. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” She shouted.

She heard the sound of a second set of tracks growing closer to them.

The Nochtish assault gun stopped within seventy-five meters to shoot again.

Gulab had no time to brace herself for another shell.

She was spared – the assault gun was interdicted. Behind them the earth rumbled again as the Ogre launched another shell at its adversary, scoring a solid hit on the front plate. There was an explosion, and the shell a few centimeters into the armor and warped the hull around it, scoring a deep a dent into the metal just under the driver’s viewing slit. It looked as though a massive fist had punched the front of the vehicle out of shape.

This wound stopped the assault gun in its tracks.

Seventy-five meters away the machine stopped, its engine stirring gently.

“What happened?” Gulab asked, helping herself to stand via the Ogre’s tracks. She had thought despite the damage the tank was not penetrated and would try to shoot again, but it never did. It was like a corpse whose heart still somehow beat despite its wounds.

“Spalling.” Chadgura said. “Enough continuous damage done to the armor will warp the metal and cause screws and rivets and other small parts to burst under pressure. Inside the enclosure of a tank, they ricochet like bullets. The crew is probably dead.”

That answered why Chadgura had ordered the tank to continue shooting.

“There’s more than one way to kill a tank then.” Gulab mused, a bit in awe.

“Inside that hull there are people, and people are always vulnerable.”

Chadgura knocked her fist against the tank, and called on the radio. “Apologies for the momentary silence. Our lives were in temporary danger. Please turn the turret south.”

To the south fire was still being sporadically exchanged between the Platoon infantry and the Nochtish defenders, without much movement on either end

That was about to quickly change.

Following Chadgura’s direction the Ogre fired on the enemy’s Norgler team, and the shell punched through the rubble and exploded directly in the midst of the enemy troops. At once the Norgler and the four men around it seemed to become gaseous, and the anti-tank crews desperately pulled back their guns, trying to move them back along the street.

They could not outrun the Ogre’s turret and shells carrying their equipment. One shell landed easily behind the men of one of the guns and sent them falling, battered from the explosion. The Ogre reloaded, the turret ponderously lined up with the second gun. Finding themselves so directly targeted the men abandoned their gun entirely.

Hands up, screaming, they ran from the scene.

The Ogre held its next shell in the breech, and instead sprayed in their direction with its coaxial machine gun. One by one the six men in the crew toppled over in the distance.

Within these brutal, seemingly endless minutes the way south to the intersection was reopened. Throwing up their fists and crying with elation, the 3rd Ad-Hoc Platoon left their hiding places and reorganized around the tank, cheering and petting it like a good dog.

“You all did wonderfully.” Chadgura called out. She glanced briefly at Gulab.

Gulab averted her eyes nervously.

She glanced over the fighting on road to the north, and spotted a curtain of smoke expanding over the streets. Gunfire erupted from high windows and rooftops against the road; mortar rounds hit the street and thickened the cloud, the smoke rising up and obscuring the shooters on the high ground. Gulab alerted Chadgura to these events.

Moments later, Gulab spotted two dozen red and black uniforms creeping out of the smoke. Two squadrons of KVW infantry escaped the fighting in the upper street and rushed to their side, catching their breaths in the shadow of the Ogre tank.

Chadgura saluted them, and they bowed their heads back to her deferentially. It appeared there were not any higher-ranking officers among them.

“I hope more of you won’t risk their lives to reinforce me this way.” Chadgura said.

A young woman with a blank expression stepped forward out of the group and spoke.

“It is no problem, Corporal. We crept easily through our smoke. Nochtish resistance along the northern block has been confined to a few buildings, and those will soon fall. We’ve been ordered to support you in an attack on the intersection at the edge of Matumaini and 3rd. An additional heavy tank and supporting infantry will attack from the diagonal connecting road in the west, and a third heavy tank will attack from Goa Street in the east.”

Chadgura nodded and clapped her hands.

“Understood. Pvt. Kajari, back on the tank.”

Gulab nodded, and eyeing the KVW troops quizzically, she climbed back on top of the tank. Everyone assembled, and began to march south, to retake the intersection they had all run from just hours ago. But this time, she felt it would be quite different.


25-AG-30 1st Vorkampfer Rear Echelon

Von Sturm was furious; everything was spiraling out of his control.

Fruehauf and her girls struggled to keep up with the volume of radio traffic.

On Penance road the advance had failed to crack the Cathedral and was thrown back; on the Umaiha riverside a company of enemy infantry with unknown vehicle support had pushed the Cisseans back, forming an odd bulge in the lines; and Matumaini was turning into an unmitigated disaster. The Infantry Regiment that the 6th Grenadiers sent forward was being crushed to bits piecemeal. Recon trips into small byways had become suicide missions as platoons and companies were crushed by tanks driving in from nowhere.

There was little hard intelligence on what was transpiring past the intersection on Matumaini. At first Von Sturm had given reasonable, by-the-book orders. But nothing seemed to stick, in-combat communication was erratic, and after-action reports were scarce.

Every gun battle his troops seemed to get into was an annihilating event that nobody seemed able to speak of. Worst of all, countermeasures were growing ineffective. Attempts by anti-tank platoons to stifle the enemy had been brutally repulsed. Air support was not forthcoming. Their armor was supposed to be preparing to assault the Kalu, but the mustering was broken up now because Panzer elements had to be reorganized and rushed into the city. Already Von Sturm had lost an assault gun platoon and a dozen anti-tank guns.

It was sheer, maddening chaos.

Fruehauf bounced back and forth between her radios and the horrified staff along the planning table. At first she had tried to smile but that facade wore thin. Now each trip seemed to unhinge Von Sturm further. Soon he devolved into outright rabid shouting.

“SHELLS. DO NOT. BOUNCE OFF!” Von Sturm shouted at Fruehauf accentuating each bit of sentence, wringing his hands in the air as though he meant to strangle her.

“I know it is strange General!” Fruehauf said, shielding herself with her clipboard. She looked on the verge of tears from all the tension and the shouting and the anxiety in the room. She continued, nearly pleading, visibly shaking in front of the General. “But those are the reports we’re receiving! Our anti-tank guns can’t penetrate these tanks!”

“That is impossible!” Von Sturm shouted, approaching her dangerously. “Impossible! They have nothing that can withstand an anti-tank gun. Their tanks even get shredded by fucking Panzerbuchse rifles! You get on that radio right now and tell these cretins–”

Before he could seize Fruehauf as he seemed to be preparing to do, Von Drachen stepped nonchalantly between them, and looked down at the shorter Von Sturm.

“It’s important we retain the vestige of civilization that we claim to represent.” He said.

Von Sturm grit his teeth and wrung his hands in an even more violent fashion.

Von Drachen looked over his shoulder at Fruehauf. “We should probably alert the supply convoy towing the LeFH guns that their position may become compromised.”

“You don’t give those orders! I do!” Von Sturm shouted. He prodded Von Drachen in the chest, and stared around him at Fruehauf like he was a pillar of rock in his way. “Fruehauf, order the howitzers to rush out, set up, and vaporize the communists!”

Fruehauf nodded fervently, and rushed back to the radios, taking any chance to retreat.

Von Drachen said nothing – he did not even look back at Von Sturm to challenge his gaze. He merely marveled silently at how quickly the sarcasm and aloofness of his superior general broke down into childish violence when the burden of leadership presented itself.

Von Drachen was nowhere near as worried as Von Sturm about his own Blue Corps.

Perhaps because he had altogether different goals for this operation than Von Sturm.

“Aren’t the howitzers being deployed to the intersection?” Von Drachen asked.

“Look at the map, why don’t you?” Von Sturm sarcastically replied.

“That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, my good man.” Von Drachen added.

Von Sturm threw his hands in the air, and walked back to his table. “I’m coming to regret bringing you here, Von Drachen! Perhaps you really ought to have stayed in your dust speck of a country if you are going to question every order your superior is giving!”

“Oh, but I don’t really question your orders.” Von Drachen said, crossing his arms and looking puzzled. “You see, from my perspective, and functionally speaking, I always end up following your orders. It just takes a little effort to get me to fully agree with them.”

Von Sturm slapped his hands over his face, and buried his head in his arms at the table.


25-AG-30 V-Squad Retreat, Matumaini 3rd

Nocht’s assault on Bada Aso had been conducted in three concentrated lanes from east to west each advancing from south to north, led by the 1era Infanteria, 6th Grenadiers and 2da Infanteria. Originally the idea was that these three concentrations of forces could cover each other via artillery and fast-moving units, and would have room to spread out from their lanes at their leisure. Advancing as unified fists, their independent units could always fall back on organized strong points behind them if an expansion mission went awry.

The Battle of Bada Aso would thus start on Penance, Matumaini and Umaiha Riverside where the landsers would secure territory from which to advance confidently into the true heart of the city. From the South; to the city center and the seaside; and finally north. However the state of infrastructure after the bombing had not been accounted for, and this and many other factors now imperiled the original plan and necessitated corrections.

Heavy collapses shut off whole streets from motor and even armor units. Connections between the three lanes were more limited than originally envisioned. There was trouble getting heavy weapons and armor into position at all, let alone on time for the scheduled offenses. Retreat and reinforcement could only be carried out over specific street routes.

Nocht’s carefully charted vision of the conflict was warped out of shape, and without it the front lines were left to their own devices, carrying out improvised attacks and rushed defenses. In the absence of carefully thought orders from their commanders, the troops fell back to a mix of instinct and doctrine that was immediately put to a violent test.

Kern had not been privy to a lot of the plan. None of them were.

That was the natural position of the officers. Officers attended meetings and then passed down their knowledge as orders given on the field. It was a hierarchy that was meticulously organized and carried out. A landser needed only to train to fight and kill the enemy. Kern knew tactics. He knew cover, he knew tactical movement, he knew how to use his knife, he knew ranges, he knew his equipment, he knew equipment that he would be using in the future, like how to drive a small car, or fire an anti-tank gun.

Extensive training and instruction had insured this.

But he didn’t know how war worked. It was a fearful new world to tread upon.

Everything had grown abstract.

His training was supposed to be a tool that he applied to a situation like a formula for a mathematical problem. Reality had grown too complex for that; he could hardly cope.

Now Kern found himself creeping through alleys and inside ruined buildings. Desolation surrounded him on all sides. There was no enemy to fight with and no allies to link up with. Hart and Alfons were quiet. Voss was in the lead. He did not have a map of Bada Aso. Sergeants and above cared about maps, they had maps. Corporals led fireteams – they didn’t need maps. Their maps could fall into enemy hands if they died fighting.

His surroundings felt so isolated he wondered if anyone had even lived in them before.

From the byway wall they jumped across, the squad followed the alleyways behind several buildings headed south. Many times they came across a collapse and had to squeeze in through concrete frames filled with debris of their own roofs and floors like giant standing buckets of rock and dust. They detoured through standing structures, clearing them room by room with their pistols out before jumping out a window or from a second floor into a new alleyway or into an otherwise inaccessible building nearby.

Most buildings they saw, stripped of anything valuable in them (or having had anything valuable in them crushed by bombs), suggested little about what their original purpose was. There were many long walls and empty rooms. Kern believed most of them had to be living spaces. He had heard that Ayvartans lived crammed into three by three meter rooms, their “guaranteed housing.” From what he had seen, the architecture did not support such a claim, but they still needed a lot of living space to support their population.

Twelve houses down from the byway the squadron exited a small building through a back door, and found themselves in a tragic scene. A much taller tenement building, several floors high and wide had completely collapsed and now barred their way.

Kern was reminded of the edge of Matumaini, where collapses like these had forced the battalion to take a detour. This was not like an urban snow, not a smooth mound of soft dust. What was blocking them was all rock struggling to retain shape enough to defy them. It was all misplaced window frames serving as makeshift doors to halls crammed full of rubble, rebar sticking out like thorns from vines of warped concrete columns, chunks of rock the size of one’s fist all in a rumbling stack ready to spill if provoked.

Kern swore it must have been contrived.

On all sides its remains barred the way. Voss covered his hands in washcloth and knelt.

“We’ll crawl in.” He said. He squeezed under a half-buried window frame.

Speechless, Hart, Alfons and Kern crawled inside as well. Kern snaked under the frame and cut himself on a piece of glass, a few centimeters along his right calf. He grit his teeth and pushed blindly ahead. Even the ruins in this place wanted him to suffer.

They crawled deeper into the tight rubble, beneath hard stone at odd angles, around jagged pieces stabbing into the ground. It was tight and dark and it smelled eerily, of smoke or some kind of chemical. Kern pulled himself forward by his forearms and elbows.

Ahead of him he saw Voss stand up, and Hart and Alfons followed.

He crawled into an open room. It was tilted on its side, and there was a window above offering dim illumination and a framed view of darkening, cloudy sky.

“Now we go up. We’ll check to see which direction to go in from there.” Voss said.

He and Hart lifted Alfons up, who in turn helped Kern.

Outside the building sloped irregularly, jutting out in places and sinking in others, but there was a high peak in a particular rubble hill a short ways from the window, formed by the tenement piling atop another building. While his companions helped each other out, Kern started to walk up, eager to see what his vantage would be like from higher up. He carefully walked up the red brick, and broke into a run once he felt sure enough in his steps. He was fifteen or twenty meters up, and he saw the intersection off south and east.

“I’ve found the way!” He called back to Voss.

Hands out like they were walking on a tight-rope, the squadron descended the ruins, and climbed down onto a comparatively intact alleyway. This time Kern led them through, trying his best to square the picture he had in his mind with the direction of the intersection and the layout of the alleys. They ran, frantic, trying to return to their own lines.

Soon they heard traffic – feet, wheels, and treads all – and followed the sounds.

Around a corner, and past several ruined buildings, they squeezed through to the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd. Kern thought the mortar holes still seemed fresh, and certainly they were familiar. There was no time to rest, however. Kern found his situation starkly reintroduced to him after the brief lull in the eerie world within the ruins.

Across the intersection the 6th Grenadier mustered its forces. Men rushed north, carrying sandbags and grenades, pushing anti-tank guns, holding mortars over their shoulders. Every minute, it seemed, a truck would arrive and its crew would hastily unhinge a towed howitzer, a 105mm leFH (leichte fieldhaubitze), and more men would pull these back into corners, organizing them in groups of three, and crews began preparing them.

Three more assault guns then entered the intersection in a line.

And at the very end, they saw the Ayvartans starting to rush.

Scheiße,” Hart said wearily, “We’re back in the frying pan again.”

“At least we’re accompanied.” Voss said, patting him on the back.

Kern left their side. He looked around the crowds for Captain Aschekind.

An artillery crewman pointed him to one of the first buildings just out of the intersection, on the connecting road to Matumaini 2nd. Kern had remembered seeing people hiding in it during the late stages of the charge, because the inside was hollowed out. Mortar rounds might land in it, but it was otherwise one of the safest places from which to fight. He found Captain Aschekind and some of his staff in there, seated in folding chairs and with a table ready. The Captain glanced briefly at the door when Kern entered but then returned to his task. He was tuning into a radio, and barking terse orders into it.

Aschekind’s staff, three men and an older woman that Kern was very surprised to see, ushered the young landser in and asked him if there was any news he had brought.

They seemed to have been expecting someone. Kern shook his head.

“No, I just,” Kern hesitated. He hardly knew what he even wanted out of this exchange. He just felt ashamed and weak, and perhaps he wanted someone to see it, someone to punish him for it. “I just wanted to return this radio. I’ve no real use for it.”

He withdrew the radio Aschekind gave him from his satchel, and placed it on the table.

An explosion outside seemed to punctuate this action. Kern started to shake.

“You have more to say than that.” Aschekind said. He did not look up from the radio set on the table. Kern could not see his eyes – his peaked cap was in the way. “Be honest.”

Kern’s teeth chattered slightly. His heart pounded.

“Sir, I have spent this entire battle running away.” His lips trembled. He tried not to show tears. “I never even grouped with my correct squadron when we came into the city. I’ve been handed off to different platoons and companies like an idiot, because I came here wandering like a vagrant, with no understanding of what I am doing or where I am going. Gradually I have remembered my place, but too late. I joined the army to be anywhere but home. I sat through my training and it went in one ear and out the other. I should not be here. I am simply wasted space and resources among these men.”

“It has never been a question of whether you are meant to be here or should be here. It is always a question of whether you want to be here. Your role, Private, is to occupy space. That is the fundamental role of a Grenadier. Do you want to fight, Private Beckert?” Aschekind asked. “Do you want to occupy space? It all begins in that simple role. There is more than enough space to be occupied. At this juncture that is all that I require of you.”

“I do not feel I have properly acquitted myself, sir.” Kern said, mouth still trembling.

Captain Aschekind stared at him quizzically.

It was the most emotion he’d shown on his face that wasn’t anger or grim resignation.

He pushed the radio back in Kern’s direction with his hand.

“Your last report alerted us to the communist’s attack. What defense we have managed here, we owe partly to you. Do you want to do that, Private? Even just that much?”

Kern could not say anything to that. He hesitated even to take the radio back.

Captain Aschekind put down his own radio handset, and seemed about to say something further. But a sharp noise from the intersection overcame his words.

Everyone in the room looked out the window.

Kern saw a shell fly across the intersection from the west and explode in the middle of an artillery position, shredding through two leFH and their crews. Gunfire parted the intersection in two. Men took cover away from the diagonal west-bound road, from which Ayvartan troops and a huge tank rushed down, right into the heart of their defense.

Kern drew his rifle and stood up, with the intention to find Voss and the others. Captain Aschekind reached out across the table – he was so tall and his limbs so long he easily seized Kern by his shoulder and stopped him. His grip was casually, brutally strong. It hurt.

“Run down the southern road and alert all incoming artillery towing tractors and trucks to stop at the end of Matumaini and 2nd. I will be joining you shortly. This is a mission more valuable than dying in that intersection. Are we clear, Private Beckert?”

A truck nearby exploded – screaming men flew back from it.

One landed dead outside the door.

Stunned, Kern nodded to the Captain, and without thinking, he left the building and ran down the street, careful to avoid the fallen men. He was stuck in the war again.


25-AG-30 Ayvartan Counterattack, Matumaini 3rd

“Charge the intersection at travel speed, and do not pause to shoot.”

The Ogre hardly needed to be given the order.

Like a charging rhinoceros it punched its way through a hastily-erected sandbag wall, overturning the structure and crushing an anti-tank gun under its tracks.

Behind it the infantry of the so-called 3rd Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon, bolstered by KVW reinforcements, advanced at a brisk pace, submachine guns at their hips, firing across the intersection. Accuracy was secondary to shock and speed – this was a breach, a brutal charge, and it did not matter if the horns met flesh yet. Grenadiers fled the edge of the intersection, abandoning anti-tank guns and norgler machine guns in the tank’s way.

Gulab ducked her head, and pushed down Chadgura’s.

Assault guns in the center of the intersection opened fire on the Ogre.

Unlike the 37mm guns, the 75mm gun on these vehicles was dangerous, if not particularly to the tank then to the riders. They exploded in the Ogre’s face, and rattled the entire tank. Gulab felt heat and force and the shaking of the tank transferred right to her gut with every hit. But the short-barreled guns firing explosives could not damage the armor even at 100 meters. The caliber was potent, but the guns lacked muzzle velocity.

The Ogre withstood punishment. Small pits appeared in the front glacis, one of the track guards warped from the blasts, but still the Ogre advanced. Ahead of them the trio of assault guns opened fire, one after the other, pummeling the Ogre. It was undaunted.

Chadgura radioed her orders, and the heavy tank turned its gun on the leftmost of the assault guns, and put a round through the side of its gun mantlet, only a dozen centimeters off from the vehicle’s face. It was a tight angle, but at short distance it was easy to score. Black smoke and a lick of flames billowed from the hole, and the assault gun stopped dead.

“Corporal, look!” Gulab called out.

Priorities changed quickly; at the back of the intersection several men gathered around a trio of howitzers, likely laid down there as a fixed position battery by heavy trucks. They lowered the elevation of the guns and adjusted their angle.

All the barrels started to point directly at the Ogre.

These were 105mm artillery guns. Perhaps they would not penetrate the glacis, but would they need to? Their high explosive might knock out the crew! Chadgura got the message quickly. Ignoring the remaining assault guns, which had begun to back off and make space, she ordered the Ogre to target the howitzers at once with high explosive.

Painfully slow the heavy turret turned, inching its way to face the battery.

Crates were cracked open, and shells loaded into the field guns. Almost there!

Then an explosive shell fell in between the men.

Their guns, ammo, all went up in flames. But Gulab had not felt the booming and rumbling of her tank’s gun. Her Ogre had never managed to fire at them.

She looked to the eastern and western roads for her answer.

Her comrades were charging in.

From the perpendicular ends of the intersection, the promised second and third tanks unleashed their ire. Tank shells came quickly. One of the assault guns was easily penetrated from its exposed flank, and set ablaze. A second battery of howitzers went up in smoke.

An anti-tank shell pulverized the engine block of a heavy truck backing away to the south. The piercing round penetrated the front of the truck and exploded in the back.

Men launched from the bed like thrown stones. The husk of the truck marked the only path out of the intersection. Any imperialist still in the middle of the intersection was pinched from three directions. Many began to pull back, but those stuck in the defensive positions could afford only to hold down and fight back against fire from all sides.

Nocht had tried to build their own defense over the ashes of the Ayvartan’s 2nd Defensive Line, but the intersection was nowhere near as secure as it had been hours ago. There was hardly a line, but rather a dozen haphazard positions without a coherent defilade.

Partial trenches were dug at haphazard angles, as if the first place hit by a thrown shovel qualified for a new foxhole. Artillery guns had been set up in plain view without surrounding trenches or sandbags. Sandbag walls and canvas canopies had only been partially rebuilt, and the mortart and gun pits were as a result largely exposed to fire.

Chadgura waved her arm to the troops behind her.

She jumped off the tank, radio against her ear, and Gulab followed her to the floor.

The moment her feet touched the ground, Gulab trained her iron sights on her old anti-tank gun pit front of her. She remembered being thrown to the ground here by Chadgura. But that dirt where her life had been saved was now taken up by a norgler machine gun, emptying its belts on the front of the Ogre to no avail. Gulab leaned and opened fire.

Two quick bursts of gunfire silenced the shooters.

Her body hardly needed to process the action – raise arms, step around tank, look down sight, find gray uniform, shoot gray uniform. She adjusted her aim and searched for more targets. Unlike her comrades with their submachine guns, she could fight at range, and intended to do so. Chadgura clung behind her, both hugging the Ogre’s left track.

Return fire was sporadic.

Gulab’s infantry comrades overtook her. Submachine gun squadrons advanced past the tank in long rows, every man and woman firing his or her submachine gun in front in short but continuous bursts, so that the enemy was endangered any time they left cover to shoot.

The KVW squadrons were particularly fearless in comparison. They ran out in front of the tank after Gulab disabled the machine gun, and they quickly overtook the mortar pits in a bloody melee, stabbing the mortar men with their bayonets and tossing aside their tubes. From the safety of the pits they opened fire across the intersection, turning their carbines to fully-automatic mode. Their rate of fire was tremendous – it was almost like each of them was carrying a small Khroda. Against this wave of fire the enemy’s bolt action rifles could do nothing. Though inaccurate, the Ayvartan’s bullets saturated the air.

Chadgura had organized this: a moving curtain of fire, perfect for a street fight.

All the while the three Ogres fired from their positions, launching their high explosive shells into trenches and buildings, crushing rubble walls and mounds. Every artillery gun left in the intersection was a smoking wreck. Masses of men retreated in human wave that rivaled the magnitude of their advance on this very intersection earlier in the day.

Together the three assault platoons and their tanks wiped out the defenses.

It was hardly a fight – it was like demolitions work.

Gulab fired with discipline, but soon found herself without further targets.

She stopped to marvel at the scene. At once all the gunfire ceased. Men were dead by the dozens across each road to Matumaini and 3rd, and by the hundreds in the intersection and its connections, perhaps by the thousands along the Southern District as a whole. Soon the stench of blood was more common than smoke along the battlefield.

They had won, Gulab thought. They had defeated the enemy. Had they?

All three assault platoons linked up.

Gulab found that each of them was a mix of KVW troops and Territorial Army survivors. It was a pretty colorful bunch all around. Many were walking wounded, hit in the early stages of the counterattack, and hung back from their fellows during the fighting.

Others were wounded already from the defenses earlier in the day, but charged into the counterattack nonetheless. Each assault platoon was not a full compliment – casualties had been sustained. The counterattack had not been bloodless for them. However it seemed to Gulab that they had hit as hard as they had been hit, if not more. She stuck around Chadgura while she briefly discussed whether to push further with her counterparts from the other platoons. This discussion ended abruptly with the falling of a shell.

It was incongruous – a cloud of dust and a shower of debris right in front of them.

While they took notice of it, a second shell fell closer.

Comrades fell back from the blast.

A third and fourth, creeping upon them, throwing up fragments of steel from discarded weapons shredded in the blasts, casting smoke and dirt into the air. A shell hit right in front of the 3rd Platoon’s Ogre and sent the track guard flying; the tanks backed away from the intersection, and under increasing artillery fire the troops turned and ran as well.

From the far end of Matumaini and 2nd a vicious barrage from several guns fell over the intersection, smashing the pitted earth to pieces, vaporizing Nocht’s wounded and dead, setting new fires to the hulks of their broken vehicles. Nocht was covering its own retreat. Dozens of 105mm shells sailed over the Ayvartan attack and crashed down over them.

Caught in the heat, the Ayvartan troops hurried back north.

Bitterly, Gulab ran with Chadgura and the others, watching over her shoulder as the shells fell with resounding strength. For a moment she thought she had tasted victory, but alas! Alas. She had seen War’s magnitude. She should have known it was far from over.


25-AG-30 6th Grenadier Support Line, Matumaini 2nd

“Brought you something.”

“Is it pills? I could use some stimulants. Or a drink.”

“It’s not either of those.”

Scheiße. Well. Thank you anyway.”

Voss was worse for wear.

He had tight bandages and a cloth soaking up blood on the left side of his stomach. Shell fragments from a tank gun attack had pierced both his arms, and torn a ligament. He could hardly move his right arm. It seemed only his head and face and lower body had been spared some kind of injury. When Kern stepped into the medical tent he had heard Voss joking to one of the medics that at least he still had all he needed to impress the ladies.

What a spirited soul, even in these circumstances; Kern brought him a cigar. It was still wrapped in a brown paper with a wax seal, labeled uninformatively “officer’s cigar.” He had traded one of the good rations (Breakfast #2, bratwurst, beans, and eggs) for it with another soldier after lucking out with his rations from the back of the supply truck.

Anyone would trade anything they’d chanced upon for the brat and beans.

They’d made the trade right next to the truck!

“Well, I’m not gonna be smoking that for a while.” Voss chuckled. “But thanks kid.”

Kern nodded. He was glad to see Voss alive, in any event.

“Hart and Alfons didn’t make it. I paid my respects at their beds.” Kern said. “I didn’t know them at all, but I tried to say good things about them. I will try to remember them.”

Voss smiled. “I didn’t really know those two either. I heard someone say once you don’t really know people in the army until someone dies and you make up the eulogy.”

“That’s morbid.” Kern said, averting his eyes a little.

“S’how things work. We’re soldiers; our boots turn the country morbid.”

“I guess I don’t know you that well either.”

“No, you don’t. You couldn’t.” Voss grinned. “Name’s Johannes Voss.”

“Kern Beckert.” He extended his hand and Voss shook it gently.

“Well Kern. I don’t know where you’ll be ending up now. You kinda just followed me like a puppy dog, ha ha. Not that I mind. But I’ll be down for a while, and I’m guessing the Battalion’s gonna need some restructuring. I’ll put in a good word if you ever need it.”

“Thank you. You don’t mind if I try to find you again if I’m still alive in a few days?”

“Given the state of our battalion, I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting a lot of other visitors. So sure, I would enjoy the company. Bring some crazy stories though. You saw how we moved out there. I want you jumping windows and shooting commies too.”

Kern nodded, though he had his fingers crossed in spirit.

He couldn’t really promise that.

Voss laid back in his bed and drifted off to sleep. Kern left him to it. He wouldn’t go so far as to say Voss deserved sleep – he wasn’t sure what any of them deserved – but he did not want to disturb him. Outside it was dark, night having fully fallen. It was pitch black, starless. Kern had heard warnings of stormier skies coming.

Periodically the area was lit up by a quick flash from the howitzers, like lightning shooting up from the earth. Of the battalion’s six batteries, each of which boasted three guns, only three batteries now remained. While better positions for them were plotted, they remained in a group on Matumaini and 2nd, firing tirelessly against the intersection.

Single-handedly the barrages had prevented an Ayvartan penetration into their rear echelon, or so the Divisional command had boasted in a radio address. They now fired periodically round the clock, with crews taking shifts to keep them manned.

It was a panic move to buy time for reorganization and new battle plans.

Until that time, the battle for Bada Aso was temporarily postponed, it seemed.

Kern crossed a door threshold across the street, passing under rock to enter canvas. A tent had been pitched inside, where the older woman he had seen before in Aschekind’s staff, Signals Officer Hildr, looked after one of the division’s advanced radios. It had the longest range, so it was used to communicate with the Vorkampfer’s command.

Of all the people in the battalion staff Kern preferred Hildr.

She was a tall and somewhat stocky lady, with blonde hair, a soft face with a strong nose and bright blue eyes. She was fairly pleasant to be around compared to Aschekind – terse like him in speech, but lacking the kind of restrained fury that characterized the Captain. For lack of things to do he had been told to be around to help her.

“Visit your friend, Private Beckert?” She asked off-handedly.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Captain Aschekind will be holding a meeting in a moment.”

“Should I go?”

“Might as well stay.”

Minutes later, Hildr stood in salute, and Kern clumsily mimicked her.

Through the door Captain Aschekind arrived, trailed by a shorter man with slicked blond hair and a sizeably larger amount of honors on his lapel. He was boyishly handsome, and had a contented little grin on his soft-featured face – however, a tinge of red around the edges of his eyes, a little twitch in his jaw, was noticeable even in the lamp-light, and perhaps suggested some ongoing stress. Trailing him was a man almost as large and imposing as Aschekind himself, but with a sunburnt look to him, and a thick mustache that seemed linked to his sideburns and precise red beard.

Both these men were Generals. Kern knew the red-bearded man as his highest direct superior, Brigadier-General Meist, the overall acting commander of the 6th Grenadier Division. From what he had gleaned during the lead-up to the attack on Bada Aso, the other man must have been the decorated general in charge of the forces city-wide, Von Sturm. He was head of the elite 13th Panzergrenadier Division who made their fortune in Cissea.

The Generals seated, while Aschekind, Hildr and Kern remained standing.

Von Sturm grinned a little.

“Big fella aren’t you Aschekind? Drank a lot of milk growing up?”

“It helps build strong bones.” Aschekind said. Kern wondered if it was a joke.

Von Sturm laughed. “Good, good. What’s you two’s names?”

“Signals Officer Gudrun Hildr.”

“Jeez, what a name. Your parents must’ve picked that one prematurely.”

“Private Kern Beckert.”

“Private? Really? Are you bringing drinks to her or something?”

Kern felt a thrill down his spine when the general addressed him. It was as if a monster were calling his name before gobbling him up. “Yes sir!” He replied mindlessly.

Von Sturm looked at Hildr for a moment. “Nothing alcoholic I hope?”

“No sir.” Hildr replied. She eyed Kern critically. He cowered a little.

“Good.” Von Sturm replied. His gaze finally turned away from the lower ranks.

He steepled his fingers. “Ok. So, what is the damage?”

“Still being tallied.” Aschekind replied.

“I wish you all would do math a little faster.” Von Sturm replied.

“Not a matter of math, sir. We have little access to the combat areas were we incurred our losses. We were pushed back kilometers. Therefore the data is still forthcoming.”

“Speaking of kilometers, how far are we from our Day 1 goals?”

“Ten kilometers.” Aschekind replied.

“Good God.” Von Sturm crossed his arms. His grin had completely vanished. “Explain to me, exactly, why we’re not having this meeting in the central district right now?”

Aschekind explained in his own quick and dour way.

“Dug-in positions; ambushes; death charges executed by fast-moving communist troops using unorthodox gear, such as wielding submachine guns primarily instead of stronger rifles; and more modern armor than anticipated. All of these factored heavily.”

“Do you have any real solutions to this based on your observations?”

“A stopgap would be to issue more automatic and heavy weapons to our own troops.”

“What, you want police maschinepistoles now? We don’t have enough. We’re having enough trouble as it is trucking guns out here. Support will continue to be committed by regulation for the foreseeable future. I don’t have time to replan the whole army.”

Aschekind gave a grim nod. “I understand, sir.”

At this point, General Meist finally intervened. He spoke gruffly through his beard and mustache. “Anton, Captain Aschekind is one of my best. We kept in contact throughout the offensive. From what I gleaned and observed, the Ayvartans have much more tenacious and fluid tactics than we anticipated. I request that we allow our own troops a greater freedom to counter their tactics – I wager our field commanders would more adequately challenge their counterparts on the communist side if we allocated more resources–”

“Request denied, for now.” Von Sturm interrupted him. “You’d create mass anarchy among the ranks. We have training and doctrine for a reason. It’s proven; it works.”

Kern thought he noticed Aschekind covertly scoffing at the notion.

“For tomorrow, I want us to make up for today. You will capture those 10 kilometers.”

Hildr and Aschekind saluted, perhaps begrudgingly, Kern observed. He saluted too.

Von Sturm stood up, and tapped his chair back into place at the table with his foot.

“Anyway, we’ve met now, so that should satisfy that lout Von Drachen, at any rate–”

A bright orange flash illuminated the room and street, drowning the General out. Kern smelled and heard fire and debris. He heard a swooping noise, a laboring propeller. Von Sturm dropped under the table; Aschekind, Hildr and Meist rushed out to the street.

Kern followed, and he saw the smoke, and the dancing lights and shadows along the road and street, in rhythm with the fires. Bombs had dropped among the artillery, finally quieting them. Norglers pointed skyward and began to fire; men rushed to tear the tarps off truck-mounted spotlights, switched them on and scanned the skies for planes. Their assailant made off with the lives of thirty crewmen and nine guns in the blink of an eye.

There were cries all around, Flak! Vorbereiten der Flak! but even so nobody could readily find an anti-aircraft gun to prepare, for they were all part of the Divisional reserve.

“Messiah protect us,” Kern whispered, half in a daze from fear. Von Sturm appeared from behind them, livid. His own staff car had caught several pieces of shrapnel.

“Am I the only one around here paying attention to the war?” He shouted in a rage.


26-AG-30, Midnight. 42nd Rifles Rear Echelon, Matumaini 4th

Night had fallen and it would soon rain.

Remnants of the 42nd Rifles were gathered in a small school building off Matumaini and 4th. Division had sent down supply trucks to feed them, and staff had come to supervise a reorganization. With 42nd Rifles Regiment nearly totally destroyed in the fighting, it was being removed from the 4th OX Rifle Division and reorganized as the 1st Assault Support Battalion under the Major’s 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division. This was an ad-hoc move meant to salvage them to some useful purpose. Perhaps it would even work.

It also meant that for the foreseeable future, Gulab would work under Chadgura.

The Corporal returned from the supply trucks with perhaps the most blank and starkly apathetic face she had made yet – although it could all be Gulab’s imagination, since she swore Chadgura’s cheeks and brow barely ever seemed to move. She brought two steaming bowls of lentil curry in one big tray, along with flatbread and fruit juice.

Gulab bowed her head to her in thanks, and started to eat.

Chadgura held off for a moment, praying and offering her food to the Spirits. When she was done praying she clapped her hands and ate briskly, in a disciplined fashion.

“Thanks for the curry.” Gulab said.

“No problem.”

“And, um, thanks for today, too.”

“No problem. Thank you too.”

Gulab scratched her head. It was more than a little strange talking to the Corporal. Especially thanking her so nonchalantly about saving her life from certain, painful death. Perhaps it was time to give up normality in general in this situation.

“So, you like stamps, you said?”

“I love them.”

“Any particular reason why?”

Chadgura raised her head, and rubbed her chin.

“Hmm. I like the smell of the glue and the special paper they use. I like the colors. I like the art; it reminds me of places I have been to, but they’re not photographs, so they do not prompt me to question my imagining of a place. I feel happy sticking them. They make a unique sound when peeled from the postage booklets. They have a postage value, so you can sort them by postage value as well as color and region. It is very neat. They fit well together when you stick several across a page. Very standardized and coherent. They have limited editions for special days so you have something to look forward to all year.”

Gulab giggled. “Okay! Wow! You really do like stamps a lot.”

Chadgura nodded her head.

She dipped a piece of her flatbread into the curry sauce and ate it. For a moment, Gulab thought she had seen a glint in the Corporal’s eyes as she discussed her love of stamps. Her voice had almost begun to sound emphatic. It might have all been in Gulab’s mind, however. She blew the steam off the hot curry and began to eat herself.

“Why do you like Chess?” Chadgura asked.

“It’s something I’m a little good at, I guess.” Gulab replied.

There was another long silence.

“Why did you end up joining the army?” Gulab said. “To get stamps?”

“My reasons for joining are foolish. I’d rather not discuss them.” Chadgura replied.

How cryptic, but then again, this was just her; Gulab felt a sense of unease with herself.

“I joined the army because I wanted to go on an adventure.” Gulab said. She smiled. It was a bitter smile, full of a cruel, self-flagellating mockery. “I wanted to have an adventure like my grandfather. To leave everything and change myself. To come back as someone that the Kucha folk can’t place as simply the foolish son of my father. Someone truer to me. Someone who was really me, a me that was born outside of them.”

Chadgura extended her hand to Gulab’s shoulder. “I don’t really know, but I’d like to say that I think your grandfather would be proud of you. He should be proud of you.”

She clapped her hands three times, rapidly. It almost sounded like agitation.

“I think.” She added. Gulab could see her stirring a little. She was nervous.

The KVW could take away her fear of battle; but she was still shy and anxious.

“Maybe he shouldn’t.” Gulab said. “And maybe it shouldn’t matter.”

“Perhaps. Self-validation is important, I think.” Chadgura said.

They were quiet a moment; the conversation had gotten away from both.

Chadgura clapped her hands again and then started to speak once more.

“It rings hollow, I understand, since we have only worked a day together. But I have you to thank for this.” Chadgura opened her sidepack, and showed Gulab a little book.

Inside were pages upon pages of meticulously glued postage stamps, sorted by Dominance and Region and by major colors. It was a stamp collection album. Chadgura presented it to her proudly and continued. “I will hold you in the highest esteem for allowing me to return safe and sound to my stamps. Please, do me the honor.” She withdrew a second book, this one a common stamp book out of the Bada Aso post office. She spread open a page, and held it out to Gulab. “Pick a stamp and stick it next to the others.”

This was an incredibly corny honor to be given; Gulab felt almost as much flattered as embarrassed by it. And yet, Chadgura’s sincere words, delivered in her characteristically deadpan way, served to wring her away from her problems. She graciously picked a stamp depicting the Kucha Mountains, which she felt was very appropriate at the moment, and gingerly stuck it beside the others on one of the album pages.

She returned the album and Chadgura stared at it seriously.

“I did not think this through.” Chadgura said, leafing through the pages again. “I apologize for my confusion, but you,” she paused for a moment, and uncharacteristically repeated the word, “you, you glued it on the wrong page, Private Kajari. That stamp should have been on the other side of the page, on the purple page for Bada Aso, with the other purple stamps. I’m afraid you glued the stamp, a little recklessly, for my taste.”

Despite her hollow voice, she sounded distressed.

Graciously, Gulab took the album, peeled the stamp as gently as possible, and stuck it again on the correct page. She returned the album gingerly and with a smile.

Corporal Chadgura took it and hugged it to her chest. “Thank you, Private.”

“You’re welcome, Corporal.” Gulab said, still smiling.

What a bizarre thing, war was; near to a thousand of her comrades had died this day, but Gulab was most grateful than she and one other woman had not. Perhaps the only mourning that would do, was simply to keep fighting, to lead the life for herself that was taken from her comrades. At the time, she could only think of curry and stamps, and the time Grandfather braided her hair and told her it was her beard to try to placate her.


NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — View From The Cathedral

The Exiles I

(Supplemental story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden)

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16th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Tauta — Thurin City

It had seemed alien and ridiculous, that scene on the night of the 15th of the Aster’s Gloom when the plan to end communism had fallen into his lap. Papers documenting extensively Nocht’s preparations to invade the continent of Ayvarta, and within eight months, to utterly consume it. They would attack in secret from their new client states, Mamlakha and Cissea, former Ayvartan Imperial territories. Under the shock of the surprise attack they would advance, with a focus on capturing territories, town by town, and ultimately either forcing heavy Ayvartan concessions, or utterly destroying the communists militarily.

Bercik and Kirsten had laughed. They were trapped in a stunningly bizarre situation. Along with the documents was a letter from a faceless contact, with whom Bercik had naively planned to save Nocht from the greed of the Libertaire party via a series of scathing articles.

In this letter it was made clear that Bercik should leave immediately, and within the instant he planned it almost like a vacation. Go to the seaside, take the barges to Ayvarta, deliver the documents. Become a hero; save Nocht. So easy! Almost fun. He promised Kirsten an exotic instrument from the southern continent to satisfy his love of music and crafts, and roped him in as well. After all, he had read the fatal letter aloud! They were both implicated.

Their laughter grew nervous, their cheer disingenuous; it started to dawn on them what was happening.

“You should prepare to leave immediately,” the letter had said.

This was not an invitation to a holiday. They were targets know; someone might know to go after them.

Kirsten and Bercik parted ways for the night, but Bercik could not sleep through the night of the 15th; he kept an eye on his door and his small window, wondering if a bullet could have gone through if someone knew what he had under his bed. He heard footsteps and felt himself shake There was tension in his chest and stomach, a sickening sense of vulnerability. He kept his eyes and ears peeled for anything that might target Kirsten — more than once he awoke in the middle of the night, thinking he had heard someone step in front of his neighbor’s door. Anyone in the building could have told Bercik’s terrible, invisible enemy that Kirsten was a good friend and that they frequented each other’s rooms. He laid in stark awareness of every sound, every shadow seeping under the crack of his door, and yet he could not move. He laid with a tension across his entire body, muscles tight and sweat travelling down his body, awaiting a fatal shot, or a choked scream; the silence afterward was even worse.

Each time, after several minutes, Bercik would convince himself that Kirsten was alive and safe, and he would sleep.

Morning broke this awful cycle. He knocked on the adjacent wall, and he heard knocking back, and a Guten Morgen! in Kirsten’s cheerful, high-pitched voice. Bercik sighed with relief and sat up in his bed. What little sleep he got was poor consolation for all the horrid moments he experienced awake.

He felt pathetic. Would someone stronger, more courageous, have rushed out onto the hall, ready to confront the shadows?

But then, what use was an individual’s strength against the forces arrayed against him? He had slept with the dreaded thing in his pillow. Generalplan Suden. A folder chock full of details on Ayvarta and Nocht, and the dance of death that Citadel Nocht was about to pull the communists into. Bercik did not consider himself a military guy, but he had read enough books and talked to enough war buffs to be able to summarize the documents. There was a lot of metal coming the communist’s way, and a lot of plans laid out to their disadvantage. He held this thing in his hands, and he wondered what his course of action should even be. Would someone stronger and more courageous challenge the world with this information, sacrifice themselves for what was right? He had thought, months ago, that his writing could make a difference.

Could he throw this away and go back to covering the bullshit beats? Digging up dirt and writing for the thug papers? Or worse, could he go crawling back to what was left of his family, to that dark old part of the city where there was even less in life, and beg them for whatever awful work they needed done?

What was worse was all that he did not know about his situation; for all his efforts, the choice might have already been made for him. The Schwartzkopf — Nocht’s secret police, so called for their distinctive black hats — could appear outside his door at any time, and pull him in for terrorist activities. They might even kill him on the spot and say he was dangerous and had to be neutralized. They could say he stole government secrets, and that he was a communist who would sell them out to Nocht’s enemies. Who would know or care why he had the documents? Who would question them? Planting them on him with the money and that sympathetic note might have even been part of some plot, that he was unwittingly falling for already. Perhaps his contact was trying to frame him to the Schwartzkopf. He couldn’t know!

Bercik pulled his chest from under his bed, checking through all of his possessions. Whatever happened, he could not stay here; it was too predictable. He had to go further south, whether to get closer to Ayvarta or farther from the big cities. Higwe would probably be good: there were options there, whatever he decided to do. He put on a fresh shirt and pants, his one good jacket, and over all of it his one long trench-coat. He donned his hat — his uncle had given it to him. He hated the hat, with its tall creased crown and wide curled brim; but it was the only hat that he owned. Then he sorted through his things for what to take and what to leave.  He wrapped the Generalplan Suden folder in some clothes and packed it into his waterproof briefcase. Near the bottom of his chest was his pistol, an old Zwitscherer ’12 with a handle like the stub at the end of a broom, a long thin barrel and an integral magazine in front of the trigger fed through stripper clips. He looked it over.

Certainly he would need this. He loaded ten rounds from the top, and stowed the gun in his trench-coat.

His typewriter would have to stay. Bercik could not carry it. If he wrote it would have to be in his notepad.

For the last time he left his room, locked it behind himself and took a few steps to his right. Kirsten opened the door before he could knock on it, smiling brightly. He was dressed in his own long coat, and his long, curly blonde hair was as combed as Bercik had ever seen in it, and wrapped up in a fairly proper ponytail with an actual ribbon. Bercik asked if he could come in and Kirsten stepped aside and allowed him. There was little different in his room than in Bercik’s. A small window, a bed, a little drawer, and barely any room. They each seemed to occupy a half of the room, Kirsten seated on his bed and Bercik standing up.

“We’re going somewhere, right? I’ve got a bag ready with my things.” Kirsten said.

“I don’t know.” Bercik replied. “I’m dressed up to go but I don’t really know where to begin.”

“Right. We didn’t exactly make a lot of plans yesterday except ‘let’s get out of here’.”

Both of them avoided mentioning where to go. Neither of them had any idea of how to get to Ayvarta. Bercik supposed they could hitch a ride on a fishing boat out to the Higwe, and he supposed from there they had to have ships going out to Ayvarta. The Higwe was neutral territory, even if it did favor Nocht. But across the night, the fervor of leaving their dull lives was overtaken by the enormity of that endeavor, and the terror and uncertainty of it settled inside them. Bercik didn’t tell Kirsten anything about the Schwartzkopf. Everyone who had lived on the streets knew of their existence, from word of mouth, or friends lost in the red scares. Even organized crime was starting to fear the growing presence of the Schwartzkopf. They didn’t just target agitating workers anymore. He was sure his companion had the same basis in both the reality and fiction of the arms of the law in Nocht, and the same percolating fears surrounding the letter and the documents they had.

“I know someone we can talk to about this.” Bercik said. “But I need to know if you’re really in.”

Though serious, the question quickly felt ridiculous. Here he was asking a 20-year-old paper boy who liked to sing and play instruments whether he wanted to uproot his life and probably betray his country, and for what? For nothing. All they knew was that they could either keep this secret and hope nobody else knew; or they could flee and use what they had somehow. They could try their luck, gambling with a meager living and hoping nobody knew to come after them, despite the letter telling them to leave; or they could heed its advice and go. Bercik both knew it was terrible of him to have involved Kirsten in any of this, and to continue to involve him would be worse. All Kirsten did was live next to him, express curiosity in his activities, and see something he shouldn’t have. He was innocent of it all.

But Bercik was also terribly alone, and he wanted dearly someone to accompany him in the dark.

He felt weak and vulnerable, and for the longest time he had stood in those shadows on his own.

Kirsten was smiling however. He was usually smiling, even when bad things happened around the tenements.

“I thought it over,” Kirsten said, shouldering his bag, “and I realized I don’t really have a lot here in Thurin anyway. I’m not cut out for the heavy jobs at the factories, and I’ll never get anywhere delivering papers. My family are all scattered on the streets. I’ve not heard of them in years.”

“Think it over again.” Bercik said. “This is serious. You saw those papers. Whatever we do, it’s not going to be ok with a lot of people. It’s not gonna be sight-seeing. When we pursue this story, we won’t have anywhere safe to go, and no real allies to count on.” He couldn’t believe he said pursue this story, as though he were still acting as a journalist. What would he write about, and from where? But it was an angle that he understood implicitly. Bercik knew about following leads, he knew about chasing sources, he knew about collecting facts and checking records. He knew his own kind of treason, a treason he carried out in letters. In a sense, this was all still the story, the story of a country led astray that he needed to help straighten out. So that angle, so hastily proposed, stuck with him. It made him feel in control.

He, Bercik Scheldt, reporter for a paper to be determined; he was working on the story of Nocht’s secret war. Communist spies, the evil Schwartzkopf, state of the art weapons, the fate of the world in the balance, intrigue and mystery. It was a narrative; his life felt like it had a purpose as a narrative.

“I’ve been wanting to ask you for a long time to make me your assistant or something.” Kirsten replied. “I said before I thought you were with the mob. I see mob guys every so often and they’ve all been pretty swell guys. I thought, ‘I’d definitely be able to get a car and a house if I worked for them!'”

Bercik sighed. “I’m not a mobster, I already told you. We’re not getting cars and houses out of this. Messiah’s sake.”

“I’m not stupid, I know; the point is, I wanted to do something more important than deliver the drat paper.”

“Good. Fine. I’ll take it. I know a guy we can talk to about maybe getting out of town.” Bercik spoke in the terms he knew, skipping town. In reality he had to skip the whole damn continent, but he figured the same guy might be able to help him with that. After all, he got stuff into the continent.

“You know a guy, huh? That sounds shady, Bercik.” Kirsten asked, giggling a little.

“Shady? How is it shady?”

Kirsten could hardly contain his laughter. “Would this guy happen to be with the mob?”

Bercik ran his hands over his face. “Stop laughing about it. These are not people you should happy to be around.”

“Then if they’re so bad, how come you know them, and how come you dress like them?”

“What? Dress like them? I’m not dressed like them, jeez; what is wrong with you?” Bercik adjusted his awful hat and his old trenchcoat. He pointed his finger accusingly. “And I know them because I got to know them. They got good info that I need. You need to quit it with this fascination you have.”

Kirsten pointed and laughed at him again. Perhaps he didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation after all.

With his bag in tow, Kirsten locked his own door, and Bercik led the way down the stairs and out of the tenement building. He did not think he would be coming back, but crossing the threshold felt strangely easy and casual. Perhaps it was due to how familiar the atmosphere felt. Outside the streets had hardly changed. People went about their business under the drizzling rain. Thurin played a common, dreary song, its instruments the sound of drops striking the earth, the susurrus of the sparse crowds on either street, shoes tapping the asphalt or splashing in puddles, and the chugging of the few cars traveling the roads. They made their way down to the plaza. Bercik avoided the statues in the little park this time. It was early, so only a few of the shops and restaurants were open.

He knew one place that was open where he could drop in. But he hadn’t been there in a while.

As they walked Bercik kept a sharp eye out. He told himself that he had developed an instinct for being followed and for throwing people off, but in reality it was unlikely he had ever been seriously followed. Even while covering the military leaks for The National, the consequences tended to end at a few brown shirt police officers appearing at the office and making a mess of a few rooms. So far he was a gnat, beneath the notice of a giant. So he walked with confidence, and he started to forget to check the faces in the crowd, or the men around street corners, or to watch those who followed in his wake across intersections and past alleyways.

Thurin was so unmoved, the world so still. It was comforting and it lowered Bercik’s guard. It was like a time capsule of a world on the verge of upheaval, but far enough that nobody knew quite how close it was. Would tomorrow, or the day after, bring worse? No street could confide him this knowledge.

Past the plaza and across the center of the city, for two mostly quiet hours intermittently on foot and hanging on the sides of trams and the backs of trucks, Bercik and Kirsten traveled out to the seafront. Thurin was a busy port despite its unremarkable appearance, being a common connection to the Higwe, and its concrete harbor was full of large cargo ships. The pair veered away from the warehouses and container yards at the shipyard, walked past the fish markets near the old docks, and hitched out to the dismal, rocky beaches on the northern edge of the coast. Riding the back of a truck headed out of town, they dropped off in the center of a small neighborhood, little more than a beachside restaurant and sparse houses overlooking the sea. Waves crashed behind them against the jagged black shore.

From this small neighborhood and its quaint seaside restaurant the Krawiec family quietly subverted the port authority.

Past the glass doors the restaurant was a simple wooden abode with a few tables dressed in square-patterned linens, fanned from the ceiling by leisurely spinning wooden blades. Dark reddish-brown walls and a flat ceiling made one feel enclosed in a box. A woman behind the counter stared at them while shining a plate. Beside her was a display case of cured meats. Despite the restaurant’s proximity to the sea it did not appear that any seafood was sold there.

Bercik and Kirsten sat down on one of the tables and cracked open the laminated menus. There were a lot of sandwiches, and a lot of meat and soup.

“Oh, what a nice place, I’m feeling pretty excited. I’ve never eaten at a nice place.”

“Nice? This place is a hole. You need some perspective.” Bercik replied, more aggressively than warranted.

“Oh, well, that’s sad,” Kirsten lamented, looking at the menu closely, “no fish or shrimp or anything.”

“No, this isn’t that kind of place.” Bercik replied. He lifted his hands, shaking the menu in the air.

It took a minute for the lady behind the counter to notice them in between taking long drags of a cigarette. She spent a few seconds giving them surly looks from across the restaurant, and squinting her eyes as though the two of them would disappear like a mirage in the desert. Soon the woman reluctantly left her post and strolled toward their table, her apron stained red across the front, and her red hair long and loose, without a cap or a net. She didn’t have a pen and pad to take down their order. She simply looked at them, crossed her arms, and with an indifferent tone asked, “What will you have? I recommend the meatballs.”

“Eggs.” Bercik said simply. “I want eggs and he wants some eggs too.” He pronounced the Nochtish word for eggs, Eier, with a strong emphasis.

In response the lady blew smoke in Bercik’s face. “We don’t do eggs anymore. You and your friend get lost.”

“No, I seriously came all this way for some Eggs.” Bercik pressed, slowly and awkwardly pronouncing the word.

Exasperated with them, the woman rolled her eyes and put out her cigarette on the floor.

“That ain’t the fuckin’ code anymore you putz. Wait a second.” She replied. She turned her head over her shoulder and shouted toward the back, “Greis,we’ve got a dunce here that I just barely recognize, spewing the old password. Do you want to talk to him or do I kick him out?”

Behind the counter a door slammed open. An tall, balding, heavyset man stepped through, squinting his eyes. He gripped a wooden cane, using it to balance the steps of his wobbling left leg. He leaned over the edge of the counter, staring hard over at the table like he couldn’t see.

“I ain’t expecting anyone. Y’tell him we don’t do the eggs anymore?” He shouted.

“I told him already Greis.” She shouted back. “He keeps insisting on the fuckin’ eggs.”

Bercik stood up from his seat. “God damn it uncle, it’s me, stop shouting already.”

Kirsten stood up as well, and then sat back down in confusion. He stared in shock at the menu.

Uncle Kraweic squinted his eyes even more. “I shout all I fuckin’ want in my house. I shout all I fuckin’ want!”

He perched a pair of spectacles on his nose for a moment.

He smiled, and peeled them off his face, throwing them atop the meat display.

“Bercik! Bercik! I can’t believe it, Julitta that’s fuckin’ Bercik! Can you believe it?”

“I don’t know who that is.” Julitta replied. She looked over Bercik with indifference.

“Come in, come in! Come talk to Uncle Kraweic, Bercik. Messiah defend, it’s been a long time.”

Kirsten leaped out of his own seat once again. Bercik took him by the hand and led him behind the counter, where Uncle Krawiec beckoned them both into his office, a cramped and dark little backroom to the restaurant where the meat was dried and crates of potatoes for the soup lay around. There were long chains of sausage links across the walls, and jerky drying by the dozens on hooks across the ceiling. Bercik and Kirsten sat on a stack of potato crates, while Uncle Krawiec took his place behind a grandiose writing desk and a grand mahogany chair. Betraying the grandeur of these objects was a huge drying pig hanging from a hook suspended on a rail over the desk. Uncle Krawiec knocked the pig away from himself, sat in his chair, and steepled his fingers, shining Bercik a smile missing a few teeth.

“You look just like your mother I swear to the Messiah. God bless her soul. Have you been eating well?”

“Been eating just fine.” Bercik said tersely. He was growing agitated by this place.

“Who’s that?” Uncle Kraweic asked, pointing to Kirsten.

“Just a guy. We are not here for pleasantries, okay? We need something from you.”

“Anything for you Bercik. Anything for my nephew. You name it.”

Bercik averted his gaze. Kirsten looked around the room, and paid special, quizzical attention to the pork hanging near Uncle Krawiec. While the two youths fidgeted on their crates, the old man rubbed his hands together and waited patiently for a reply, smiling and looking between the two expectantly. When nobody spoke for a long moment, he took it upon himself to infer the reason for their visit, and started checking his drawers feverishly for things to give them.

“I know what you need. You need guns? I can get you a gun. Is that kid your right hand? Can he shoot? Can you shoot?”

Kirsten raised his hands defensively at the machine gun barrage of words. “I can shoot but I don’t really want a gun!”

Uncle Kraweic shook his head. “Lookin’ like you do? You look too soft. You need a gun. I’ll get you a gun.”

He opened a large drawer, reached his hand down into it. There was a series of strange mechanical clicks.

“Here you go. Zwitscherer ’96. They don’t make them like this anymore. The 90s, oh god, what a decade.”

Uncle Krawiec reached out to Kirsten’s hands and deposited a pistol much like Bercik’s own in his hand.

Bercik rubbed his forehead. He hated Uncle Kraweic. He hated the fucking mob. When he was young all his family had been supported by this nonsense, taking place first in the factories and then in the docks, and any of those who fretted Uncle Kraweic’s rise to power were completely shunned and left behind. That is, until they died in the street; and then the Kraweics remembered the Scheldt’s, and went to the funeral dressed up, and cried their hearts out. And then Bercik was back in with the thugs and the shit-tongues, spewing their nonsense and slapping the crap out of each other every night over dinner, screaming and cursing and acting like savages as the money and the corpses piled up behind them. It was like living in some kind of northman tribe from the pulp books. Bercik could not stand them.

From his childhood Bercik told himself he was not like these people. He and his mother wanted better.

But whenever he was in need he always found himself coming back to rooms like this, feeling like an idiot.

“I read your stories in the paper Bercik. Don’t think I don’t read your stories. I always kept up.” Uncle Kraweic said. “I’m so proud of you boy. Papers are real important, and paper writers too. It’s a real institution of democracy, why it’s the only one we have left anymore I think. Can’t believe the crooks we’ve been voting into power, can’t believe it. That’s why I don’t vote no more, see? Guy tells you he’s gonna free up the money laws, and that he’s gonna lower the taxes, and that he’s gonna fix poverty and all that shit, and then look at him in the big chair, sending our boys to die in the woods in countries no one cares about.”

Bercik rubbed his forehead. “I’m glad you enjoyed ’em. Anyway, Uncle, I need your help. I’m in trouble.”

Uncle Kraweic looked serious all of a sudden. He pounded his fist on his desk in anger.

“Tell me who it is Bercik, swear to God, I’ll have him off the docks in pieces by tomorrow night, swear to God.”

Kirsten nearly jumped. Bercik held up his hands pleadingly. “Uncle–”

“Nobody messes with us, we own this fuckin’ town! No respect anymore, I tell you. I’ll castrate ’em–”

“Uncle, the Schwartzkopf are after me. I need to skip town. I need to get to the Higwe.”

Silence; it took some time for Uncle Kraweic to respond after hearing that dreaded set of words. He stood stock still, slowly quirking one of his eyebrows as though this was all a joke he was just too old to get. When Bercik remained perfectly serious and still, only then did Uncle Kraweic reply.

“Oh. Well. Shit. That’s no good. What bonehead thing you do to get the Schwartzkopf on you?”

“Papers I wasn’t supposed to touch. It’ll blow over.” Bercik said. It wouldn’t; but Kraweic didn’t need to know that.

Now Kirsten looked well and truly helpless, holding his new pistol on his lap and shaking openly.

“You goddamn better hope it blows over. You weren’t followed here or nothin’? Blazej and Izaak don’t get back for a few hours and I’m not as good a shot as I used to be so you better hope nobody followed you here for a scrap.” Uncle Kraweic said. He looked over to the door with suspicion. “Julitta, get the Rashas out of the back.” He shouted. They had a few Ayvartan submachine guns around the place. Communist weapons were popular with the gangsters.

“Nobody followed me.” Bercik said. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought nobody had. “Calm down.”

Uncle Kraweic sat back on his chair and steepled his fingers again. He was getting serious now. That wasn’t good. In his jokey moods he would have given Bercik anything, even killing a man like he promised; but now he was definitely rolling over in his head whether the son of his beloved little sister, whom he had essentially neglected to death due to his own greed, was now worth perhaps dying over himself. The Schwartzkopf were not playing softball with the mob anymore. Uncle Kraweic was a blowhard, but he was not stupid. He was the most careful when it came to his money, and he knew how to take gambles that paid. This was not one. He knew that and Bercik knew that. But blood ran thicker than water, and it weighed more than gold. That was something even a money-grubber like Kraweic held dearly.

“I know you get your funny dust in from the Higwe, so you can smuggle me out can’t you?” Bercik said. He was becoming more demure. When Kraweic got serious everyone else had to. Or else he might start to get violent. “I’ll be out of your hair quick Uncle, I promise.”

Kraweic rubbed his own chin. “Not from here. I’ll get you down to Konig. It’s too obvious in Thurin. Too close to the Higwe.”

“Suits me fine as long as I get to go. Kirsten’s coming with me. I need a second pair of hands out there.”

Kirsten shrank in his chair, turning a little red around the cheeks and ears. Uncle Kraweic stared at him.

“Always a good idea to have a second shooter.” Uncle Kraweic said. “Though your boy there is questionable.”

“But I can trust him, and there aren’t a lot of people I can trust right now.” Bercik said.

Kraweic swiped his hand in the air dismissively. “Go wait outside for Blazej. I’ve got some calls to make.”

So Kirsten and Bercik walked stiffly out of the office, past the surly Julitta  staring out the window with her submachine gun in hand, and out to the back of the restaurant. There was a small lot reserved for the big trucks that were the favorites of the ethnic Lachy mobsters in Thurin and the greater Tauta in general. This was Bercik’s family — and perhaps one of the reasons he was still alive as a journalist, and not under a dock after some of his old stories.

He hated them, but he needed them. For all his life, it seemed, he lacked his own power to do anything.

Together he and Kirsten stood there under the continuously drizzling rain, so light that it was only barely perceptible as it built over their coats. They were waiting for Kraweic’s main thugs, Blazej and Izaak, two big burly Lachy, taller and tougher even than Bercik himself. Bercik had grown up with both of them, and he was not particularly happy to see them again. But he was not particularly happy about a lot of things at the moment. At least his passage out of the country seemed secure. He felt a newfound paranoia, instilled in him by his uncle’s questioning, and he looked around for signs of people hiding or watching him everywhere.

There was no one around but Kirsten, the one person he could have any faith in now.

“So, did that go well or badly? I can’t tell.” Kirsten said, still holding on to the pistol.

“As well as it could– Put that away. Put it in your coat pocket.” Bercik said.

Kirsten stowed the Zwitscherer. “I keep my hand in the coat like this so I can draw, right?”

“Do you have any reason right now to need to draw?”

“No, but tell me if I’m doing it right.”

“I don’t know! I guess that’s how I’ve seen it in the pulps. I don’t know.”

But soon he too had his hand in his trenchcoat pocket, ready to draw his own gun if necessary.

* * *

Next Chapter In The Exiles Story — Part Two

The Maw of Hell — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.


22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

Late into the morning the signals technicians crowding the ARG-2 radar trucks in the southern districts found their CRT displays crowded by green blips. They witnessed for the first time an immediate shift from a clear sky on the radar to one choked with objects each occupying their own tiny portion of the indicators, their own eerie wavelengths.

Were the ARG-2 more sophisticated they might have thought it a malfunction.

But it was clear to them that this was far from an error.

They quickly contacted Parambrahma, who in turn alerted everyone in the Battlegroup Command. An ARG-2 couldn’t tell how many planes approached: it could only tell that enough were coming that they drove the instruments into a frenzy.

They had never seen anything like it. It could only have been a real attack.

Madiha had arrived from the rail yard well before the alert.

She took a prescribed barbiturate to control the near panic attack that she had when she arrived, and hid in one of the school rooms on the lowest level for about an hour before returning to the general population. She sat down in the cafeteria, feeling hollow and weak.

About halfway through a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of milk that Parinita had all but forced her to eat, several KVW guards and the staff brought her new reports. Exhausted, with her brains pounding inside her skull and her stomach gurgling as though ready to expel everything she had just eaten, Madiha forced herself to stand straight and look certain.

She covered up her shaking hands as best as she could and authorized a general alert.

She made the calls to the divisions over the army-level long range radio herself.

Her eight divisions in Bada Aso began to take their air raid positions.

Much of their materiel was already hidden as best as it could be from the Luftlotte, and their anti-air batteries were at their positions and ready to fire within minutes.

Amid the chaos Madiha had additional orders for the Battlegroup as a whole.

First she ordered the deployment of an aerial counterattack from the northern Adjar regions. All Anka and the few more modern Garuda in the arsenal would be prepared immediately; pilots were to be briefed thoroughly, and then lift of as soon as possible.

Where possible Garuda should be grouped together into homogenous squadrons to maximize the concentration of strength. Anka would have to do most of the work however.

Having little experience with air power she hoped that the air officers could take care of the deployment, but nobody sounded confident in a speedy reinforcement.

Next she turned her eyes back to the city.

Thankfully she was not making her stand out in the open: a preponderance of radio and telephone equipment allowed her will to easily reach all of her troops, an invaluable advantage that would have been lost anywhere but inside the developed confines of the city. Through the various lines more orders came, reaching each division and many of the lower rung officers directly. Hundreds of anti-air batteries with dozens of guns all over the city prepared to launch a curtain of fire into the skies the instant the enemy appeared.

To support the smaller anti-air batteries Madiha also ordered the 100mm coastal turrets to elevate their barrels and turn around to defend the city. Though primarily meant for naval defense, the 100mm was an All-Purpose Gun with the range and ammunition to defend the air. Several of the guns had been set into huge stationary pillboxes, but at least six new guns had been built on turrets that could be rotated manually with some effort.

Troops garrisoned in the city were the next major consideration.

Too many losses from carelessness now could sway the outcome of the future battle. Madiha ordered any troops stationed near entrances to the Bada Aso underground to hide in the tunnels and sewer system, unless they were specifically in support positions to Anti-Air batteries, in which case they were to remain in the open with their batteries. Those hidden underground would be safer there, and their preservation was necessary. Several divisions were ordered to take shelter with the civilians near their defensive positions.

However a strong presence was still needed in the streets.

She ordered the platoon of mobile-anti-air trucks to ready themselves to respond quickly to concentrations of air power in the area, and for a few foot-mobile machine gun battalions to support them and the air batteries. This was a particularly painful deployment, given the inadequacy of the Khroda heavy machine gun when fighting against air power.

Finally she had one very necessary order which countermanded previous briefings.

“Inform our forces in the Kalu that they are to ignore their air raid posture and remain hidden in their positions unless they are specifically attacked.” Madiha ordered. “If Nocht overflies the Kalu and their air power reports almost nothing there to resist them, we will have a key advantage in the upcoming battle. It is vitally important that the Kalu forces maintain as much stealth as possible. Fight back only if necessary to preserve yourselves.”

Over the long range radio these orders went out to the Kalu, where soldiers had been establishing themselves in the rolling hills and rocky scarp, behind the tors and in wooded gorges near the streams and tributaries of the Umaiha. They used the varied terrains of the hilltops to their advantage. Camouflaged netting hid tanks and trucks and guns across the uneven span. Operations staff in the base appeared to question the wisdom of this advice, but relayed the orders; out in the wilderness the men and women, including the 5th KVW Mechanized Division, simply hid, in prepared positions or as best as they could improvise.

With this order given, the die was cast.

Putting down the phone and radio sets, Madiha knew she could not shuffle around any of the forces that she had ordered from their positions. Everything she did was now set into stone. Should her judgments turn out to be wrong, there was no undoing them.

Parinita took charge of the civilian alert.

At first she sounded the sirens for a minute to get everyone’s attention. They were then silenced and radio broadcasts took their place. Across the city the speaker system instructed the remaining civilian population of around ten thousand to take shelter. Those who were close or those who could make the trek rushed to designated air raid shelters.

For those who could not leave or could not leave behind, a basement offered the most protection, and everyone in the staff hoped that the civilians remembered their drills.

Air raid shelters had been stocked with supplies in the event of an air attack, which would surely prevent citizens from reaching civil canteens or shopping at msanii markets. Emergency rations had been handed out yesterday to civilians in their homes as well, in case they could not make it out in time and needed to sustain themselves for a day or two while sheltered in place. Windows were sticky taped; basements crowded up.

Parinita’s voice calmly repeated the needed instructions, and people moved.

It was an ordered chaos.

Everyone was scared, and everyone was rushed, but all proceeded according to plan.

The ARG-2 had done their jobs waking the Ayvartan community in the face of danger. Now the equipment was temporarily powered down and the precious radar trucks quickly sequestered to secure positions to give them a better chance to survive the coming storm.

First blood would soon be shed on the Battle for Bada Aso.

Everything was set into motion.


22-AG-30 Bada Aso Northeast

Once the Staff Secretary’s voice had gone silent, the air raid sirens blared one final time to insure everyone was fully aware, and then ceased to sound as well.

In Adesh’s corner of the world there was an eerie state.

There was little sound and it seemed like silence, but to someone inclined to notice there was enough noise to bother one’s sensibilities. Those noises that remained seemed to beat just off from the rhythm of his heart and made him anxious. Footsteps, tools, the locking of loaded gun breeches. Metal sounds that had no music to them. In poems and stories about war everything seemed to have a poetic rhythm. Here, nothing did.

Soon this anxiety seemed to pass from him to his colleagues.

“Nnenia, you’re doing that wrong.”

“What wrong?”

“You’re working the elevation handle wrong.”

“I’m elevating it just fine.”

“You’re holding it oddly, you’ll tire yourself out.”

“Stop micromanaging what I’m doing and focus on your loading.”

Four days ago Adesh had stood, confused and afraid, behind a 76mm anti-tank gun. He had been told that his crew (somehow Nnenia and Eshe had become his crew) had scored three vehicle kills. He remembered shooting, but he certainly didn’t feel victorious. Now he had a similar task. He was part of Lt. Bogana’s battery in the northeast district, stationed in the middle of a park. Outside the grounds the streets were empty and every building closed. Since the sirens first went off the few people remaining went into hiding. Only gun crews remained outside, awaiting the aircraft soon to approach.

“So, do you have any amazing observation instructions to share, professor?” Nnenia asked. She had on her face a common look for her: a strange mix of apathy and grimness where she was between cheer and genuine morbidity toward their situation.

Eshe seemed annoyed by her.

“When you somehow manage to spot a plane, Adesh shoots at it.” He replied tersely.

Adesh sighed a little, seated on a rough metal platform with a sight and a firing mechanism before him. His friends and crew were a little nervous. They had every right to be. They had survived the border but now found themselves in a similar situation. But their bickering was not just nervous. Those two were always grinding against each other.

“I just thought there was some other amazing gunnery trick you learned from one of your pamphlets that you could share with us.” Nnenia sarcastically said.

Eshe crossed his arms. “Here’s one you fool: don’t get distracted by the pretty planes and the wonderful colors of shells and do your job correctly for once.”

“I’ll keep my eyes skyward and not on the regulations booklets, you pinhead.”

It was if they wanted to cry for help, but this nonsense was all that came out.

“Could you two be quiet?” Adesh sighed. “You’re going at it even more than usual!”

Eshe and Nnenia looked at each other and at Adesh and seemed to feel shame.

As before their little trio was behind an artillery piece, and this time with a much greater responsibility than they once had. It was no longer an anti-tank gun but an air defense gun that defended their position. The 37mm was a small bore on a large weapon, with a long barrel and preponderance of mechanisms, mounted on a swiveling base that could be rotated all the way around and locked to specific positions as well.

It was also an automatic gun, a fact which took some getting used to. Fed with five-shell clips and boasting a simple firing mechanism it could sustain a high rate of fire, though the barrel risked overheating if the rate of fire was used to its fullest advantage.

Four other people stood with him. His bosom friends Nnenia and Eshe remained in his crew, having miraculously lived through their earlier tribulations. He was now their gunner however, not their leader. In his place as gun commander was a pretty corporal from another unit, Cpl. Rahani. He was a young Arjun of pleasant features, brown-skinned, with a gentle face and flowing hair down to the shoulders, decorated by a lovely rose above his left temple. He had quite a lot in common with Adesh and his friends, and he was probably just little older than their own ages. Prior to the sirens sounding, he had tried to get everyone to wear their own flowers for good luck. Nnenia, Adesh and Eshe accepted, a little awkwardly, and received a bundle of purple lilies which they wore over their ears.

Alongside Rahani served another private, the mysterious, grim Kufu. He had eyes like a fox, a thick beard, and strong features. When he spoke he had a smooth voice, but seemed to think ill of saying anything with it. He looked like he could have fathered the other members of the crew, even Corporal Rahani, and was not a lively fellow at all. He had refused to wear any flowers. He was a traditional man, he explained to them tersely.

“Well if you say so!” Cpl. Rahani said in an amused, good-natured voice. “But in that case, I have a good idea! We will put your flowers on the gun itself. There. Now we will catch the attention of the spirits and they will protect us. It was a tradition in my village.”

Kufu scoffed, and sat by the side of the gun, looking away. He was assigned to traverse the mount across the ground. Eshe loaded, Adesh was the gunner, and Nnenia and Rahani were in charge of elevation and sighting, as well as communication and other odd jobs.

“I apologize if I offended you; are you an ancestor worshiper?” Cpl. Rahani asked.

“No. I don’t worship nothin’. No spirits, no ancestors, no messiah, not the light; nothing. Thought this country’s supposed to be secular now.” Kufu replied calmly.

Cpl. Rahani looked slightly distressed. “Oh, well, double sorry.” He said softly.

“Well, it is secular in the state apparatus, but individuals can still worship, you know. Even the Messianic church is around.” Eshe interjected in a know-it-all tone.

“Too bad.” Kufu replied. He still was not facing them. Everyone sighed a little.

A foul mood fell upon the crew while they waited, looking tentatively at the sky and between each other. Cpl. Rahani’s cheerful smiling faded too. But not everything was so bleak. Some things had changed since the battle at the border, even as some things had remained quite the same. Adesh was part of an A.A. unit, and the guns, while larger and heavier, were state of the art and had more sophisticated mechanisms that allowed for a faster firing rate and easier handling than their cheaper, six-year-old 76mm anti-tank guns. Everyone was impressed with the quality of the equipment when they first saw it.

Lt. Bogana also made sure they were better organized.

Every position was five meters apart and none of them arranged in straight lines. This made strafing them difficult. The five 37mm guns in the battery were positioned in an outer ring that could cover the two 85mm guns and the three 57mm guns from close-air attack. It was the job of Adesh’s crew to cover against lower altitude attacks from faster planes.

Two teams of machine gunners with Khroda 7.62mm guns on hastily-assembled anti-aircraft mounts hid in bushes and under trees nearby, covering the 37mm gunners in case even they failed to stop a strafing aircraft or a dive bomber. Though the Khroda looked unwieldy in this role, it still gave the team a little fallback. It made all the difference.

Adesh had a measure of confidence in their phalanx. Everyone acted with discipline and carried out concrete orders under the auspice of a commander. It was like being part of a real army with a strong direction. They had even received a visit from Major Nakar, who had personally taught them to shoot. Things had changed substantively now.

Nocht was not ambushing them this time. The People awaited them.

Adesh found his hands still shaking and his heart quivering, however.

That certainly had not changed.

Every ten minutes Corporal Rahani would spend some time watching the skies with a pair of binoculars, seeking for contacts. Adesh thought that there would be some stark transition between readiness and annihilation; the sky would turn red, great meteoric tears of flame would fall from the heavens and engulf them all, in the blink of an eye.

Instead, their first glimpse of the enemy came from Lt. Bogana, who left the side of a signals officer calling for all crews to proceed to combat alert; the southern district batteries had already made eye contact with the enemy aircraft through their sighting equipment.

As he said this Corporal Rahani passed around the binoculars, pointing his crew toward the sky. Adesh saw tiny pinpricks of smoke and fire blooming in the dark, distant skies when Nnenia passed him the lenses. Thus with little fanfare the battle was joined as the southern district batteries opened fire on objects the northeast district could not yet even clearly see in the sky. Adesh felt an uncomfortable thrill across his entire body.

Helplessly he watched as hundreds of objects came closer and closer.

They flew like a flock of birds, and to Adesh’s eyes they were just as small at first, but the closer the came the deadlier they appeared. Flashes of gunfire became visible, closer than before. Ayvartan batteries awoke all around the city. Like red glowing darts thrown by errant hands hundreds of rounds of anti-air tracer ammunition began to light the sky from the southern defensive sectors, then the central sectors.

Seconds later Adesh heard the first thousand-kilogram bomb drop on the city.

He felt a shudder, rumbling waves straining through the earth into his body, and he saw the smoke rising in the distance. He had just blinked and missed the flash and the short-lived geyser of fire in the bomb’s wake. Strategic bombers were now directly over the city.

Dozens of isolated explosions swept across the south and center.

Adesh looked up at the sky and it was as if he were watching the heavens shatter, lines of ordnance coming down like metal teardrops from the bays of barely visible bomber planes, pounding the earth like the footfalls of a giant. The quivering in his hands grew into a terrible shaking across most of his body that he struggled to control.

Aircraft squadrons began to take distinct shapes and their groupings became terrifyingly apparent as they neared the northeast district. Adesh saw a dozen squadrons splitting off from the massive fleet and sweeping through the sky in every possible direction. Five fighter planes in a tight group banked and lunged straight for the park, flying through the fire from the adjacent batteries across the nearby blocks as though not one gun were actually shooting them. Adesh and his battery comrades took their positions and opened fire on them, but the the planes maneuvered through the curtain with ease.

In a moment Adesh found his gun unloaded once again.

“Battery, the enemy has entered our zone!” Lt. Bogana shouted.

Adesh released his iron grip on the large trigger-handle for the 37mm gun, while Eshe pushed a five-round clip of its shells into place atop the gun and stamped it down to properly feed the weapon. Each shell had a tracer and explosive-fragmentation filler.

Nnenia and Kufu traversed the weapon on its swiveling mount and constantly adjusted and readjusted the elevation in order to follow their fast-moving enemies. Nneia elevated the barrel over 65 degrees, then 70 degrees, then descended it down to 50; while Cpl. Rahani instructed Adesh on the positions of the targets. Adesh watched the enemy through the large metric sights. His breath began to outrun him as the aircraft neared; a tight group of five sleek monoplanes, with long wedge-shaped wings bristling with armament.

From afar Adesh thought he could see off-color paint across the hulls of the planes. They were gaping maws; bright red mouths bristling with teeth, painted on each plane. These were Nochtish Archer fighter planes. In an instant the planes swooped on them.

Withering fire from nose-mounted Norgler machine guns swept the park as the planes overflew them in a shallow dive, coming down from the sky like bolts of lightning and storming away into the distance again. Dozens of rounds ricocheted off gun shields and clipped the grass and the trees; miraculously nobody was killed in the attack.

Kufu and Nnenia and Rahani worked frantically to turn around the 37mm, while around them the 85mm guns opened fire at an almost 90 degree angle into sky, and the 57mm guns joined them, both targeting the Wizard bombers dropping heavy payloads.

Adesh was temporarily deafened whenever their unseen assailants dropped their heaviest payloads, crushing buildings in an instant under thousand-kilogram explosions. Debris flew so far it almost hit the park from a whole block away; window frames, chunks of concrete, gnarled street lights, all soared on the blast waves and across the streets.

None of the heavy bombs actually hit the battery, or even near them.

Thank the spirits! One would be all it took to kill them all.

Armed with a 37mm they stood no chance against a high-altitude level-bomber.

Adesh swallowed hard and focused on the fighters.

The Archer squadron split from its wedge-like formation to pick off the battery crews. Constituent planes flew from one another’s sides, two of them sweeping around the edges of the park like vultures, drawing fire from the support machine guns; and three running lanes across the battery’s position. Adesh squeezed the handles on his gun and watched his five rounds fly away in a few seconds, hitting nothing. His shells joined the dozens other ineffectual missiles streaking across the air, scarcely hitting anywhere near the enemy.

They reloaded and spun the gun until they went nearly dizzy with motion, and again the shells flew into the air with seemingly no avail. Adesh and his comrades’ gunfire reminded him of a sky full of fireworks, and yet the enemy aircraft soared through the red and gray curtain as though the fragments and smoke and fire was utterly harmless to them.

Their fragmentation rounds had timed fuses and scattered splinters into the air to threaten enemy aircraft, but the timing had an element of precision nonetheless.

Effectively unopposed despite the intense fire coming from the ground, the Archers sped through several runs on the battery, firing volleys of 80mm rockets from under each of their wings that exploded across the park. Adesh and crew hunkered down, crawling meekly behind or against the gun shield as best as they could while loading and traversing the weapon to match the movements of the enemy as best as they could.

A rocket hissed overhead and blasted apart a tree a dozen meters behind them.

Smoking craters littered the periphery.

Somehow the battery survived.

No rockets had managed to strike a comrade dead.

The Archers soared out of the park and turned easily back around over the streets, taking a new formation for their next run. Two outlying craft moved in to substitute two of the planes that had unloaded all of their ordnance. Those two planes then circled the park.

Eshe heaved one of the shell clips and punched it into the vertical loading wedge.

“Overhead!” Nnenia said suddenly.

Adesh looked up, and found the sky alight.

Fire and smoke spread within the dark clouds and burning pieces of metal rained down on the city. A pair of Wizard bombers fell down from the sky like meteors, wreathed in flames and splitting into a scattering of debris as they descended. Remains of the planes, more fire than steel, smashed into the roof of a civil canteen building on one of the park’s adjoining streets and spilled out onto the pavement and road along with the debris.

“Don’t get distracted!” Eshe shouted, pushing on Adesh’s shoulder.

“Finally the kid says something I can agree with!” Kufu shouted, frantically turning the wheel to loosen the mount, and pushing his shoulder into the gun and turning it. Grumbling, Nnenia joined him in working on the gun and descended the barrel.

Adesh desperately tracked the incoming fighters through the sights.

“Adesh, fire!” Cpl. Rahani ordered.

But the corporal was not looking through the sights.

Adesh was; nothing aligned, and no matter how fast the team moved he felt helpless against the planes. He pressed the handle-triggers and watched his gun shoot, rock back a little with recoil, and shoot again. Popping noises, the creaking of sliding metal from the recoil buffers, the gentle thud of the shell dropping on the ground, all was drowned by a single bomb falling on the street behind them and raising a pillar of fire and smoke.

Fences around the park fell over from the force of the blast. Adesh felt the heat behind his back, and felt his body pump with the consecutive force of his own gun as he kept shooting. Five rounds of his flak cut across the sky and exploded in gray bursts of smoke and fragments between three of the fighter planes as they approached.

The Nochtish fighters veered violently away from the shots, and found themselves trapped in a massive net as the remaining 37mm guns and 7.62 machine guns saturated the skies. Instantly the guns on the Nochtish aircraft were silenced, their propellers slowed and stopped, their engines caught fire, their cockpit windshields burst to pieces.

One by one the aircraft passed them overhead, spun out of control, and vanished into the inferno raging behind the battery, landing in bomb craters and smashed buildings.

Two remaining planes circling the park turned sharply away from their careful course and fled the district. Ayvartan fire trailed them every meter they flew, and triumphantly the entire 37mm compliment of the battery lowered their barrels and shot after the planes until they disappeared from sight. Lt. Bogana leaped out from behind the gun shield of his 85mm, raised his fist into the air and roared with triumph. They had driven them away.

Cpl. Rahani raised his own fist and joined with his own sweeter-sounding cheer.

Spirits rose momentarily across the park.

The sound of bombs and the chopping of norgler machine guns grew distant again and it seemed that their sector was clear for the moment, however long that would be.

Over Bada Aso the skies still raged with battle.

Bright flak cut across the dark clouds, long lines of fire streaking overhead from the multitude of guns stationed across the city. Trickles of Nochtish planes began to fall.

Bombers careened toward the ground like the fallen angels of the Messianic religion, set ablaze and cast from the paradise above the clouds; thousands of rounds of ammunition from 37mm guns and heavy machine guns around the sector began to add up, and Adesh saw a fighter group fall suddenly from over a nearby sector, blown to pieces in mid-air.

Like the ashfall from a volcano fire and smoke and metal seemed to rain down over the city. It was like the end of the world; Adesh could think of no other way to describe it. Hundreds of planes were attacking them but it also felt like hundreds were falling too.

While Adesh’s battery had a moment of calm they rushed to a nearby groundskeeper’s cellar and hastily pushed out crates of hidden ammunition. Fighting those five planes had consumed hundreds of rounds of the battery’s 37mm ammo. They reloaded their guns, sliding fresh shells and clips into the breeches, and accommodated reserve ammo nearby.

Lt. Bogana knelt beside a radio unit and called the adjacent sectors.

“Our southern batteries have taken the brunt of the attack,” Lt. Bogana shouted for the benefit of the crews, “but we have not yet dealt any kind of decisive damage to the enemy, comrades! Those planes are moving closer, so stay alert and be ready to fire!”

It was disheartening to hear; but it sounded far too true.

Even if Adesh counted all the planes he had seen fall so far, it was really only around fifteen or twenty out of spirits know how many in the air fleet. Their battery after all this fighting had only personally accounted for three fighters and a pair of bombers!

Eshe sighed. “Once, I read that the average stock needed for an air kill is 598 shells.”

“Thanks for the heartening tip.” Nnenia said, slumping against the side of the gun.

Adesh sat silently behind the 37mm gun and Corporal Rahani scanned the skies for targets using his binoculars. Kufu grumbled something inaudible while he and Nnenia readjusted the gun to face south and the barrel elevation to an angle between 60 and 70 degrees. Around them every other 37mm gun crew searched for targets as well.

The crews of 85mm and 57mm guns adjusted the elevation of their guns to hit bombers overflying other sectors now that bombs had ceased to fall directly around their own sector. Soon they began to fire again, casting their shells forward toward the skyline and out of the northeast district. Above them the skies were eerily silent, and their battery shifted its attitude toward supporting fire more than direct engagement.

“No distractions next time, alright? I want to live through this.” Eshe said bitterly.

Nnenia raised her head from over the gun to launch a smoldering stare at Eshe.

“Now now, no harm was done.” Cpl. Rahani said, trying to smooth things out.

“Don’t be using this to start a stupid argument now, kid.” Kufu grumbled.

“I thought you agreed with me!” Eshe said, throwing his hands up in the air.

Kufu grunted. “I did in the fight, but not now when it doesn’t matter.”

Adesh sighed. Nnenia and Eshe’s bickering worsened when introduced to more people.

“Everyone focus, please,” Cpl. Rahani softly said, waving his hands gently.

Minutes passed; from the sky fell a light drizzle.

Smoke billowed away from the burning craters and ruins, blown around the park as the wind picked up. Adesh was shaking and his legs were weak. There was something about this scene that he could not square away in his mind as he watched the sky, a thick, choking knot building inside his throat and tears spilling from his eyes. His teeth chattered. He was as unprotected from the cold droplets as he was from the enemy planes.

He saw figures fighting in the distance, and he heard the guns of his comrades, the rockets and bombs and cannons of the enemy, and yet, they were intermittent sounds.

Sound and violence and horror flitted in and out of his reality, an intermittent chaos. He cast eyes around the park and across the air, his fingers stretching and closing on the trigger-handle, his jaw twitching, mute, violent panic building and building in his belly.

“Adesh?” Cpl. Rahani whispered, shaking him gently. “It is fine to be scared, but–”

His eyes had gone hollow, staring over his gun sight and directly skyward, directly overhead. Much closer than the distant fleets of the enemy he saw an object.

“Dive bomber.” He shouted at the top of his lungs.

For a few seconds he felt that he had gone mad, that the unreal reality of everything had consumed him. Then the bombs fell among them and the planes swept past from out of nowhere and there was fire, and there was rage again in the middle of Bada Aso.


22-AG-30 Bada Aso North-Central

Madiha had gotten her rain; she had the water; she had the iron; the fire and fury.

Across Bada Aso guns fired relentlessly, and the drizzling rain picked up as smoke and fire fed into the clouds. Soon there was a rolling shower over the city that smothered the bomb-fires in the streets. All of those hundreds of planes seemed suddenly distant.

There was quiet, so Madiha assumed the enemy must have been between major waves.

The Cafeteria had become her makeshift office. It lay close to the center of the building on the bottom floor, and had no windows. Whenever a bomb went off somewhere all the dreary lights would fluctuate and dust would fall from the ceiling. But the noise and the rumbling was minimal and Madiha could try to focus and to keep her calm.

More than once she hyperventilated when she heard the sound of a nearby gun or a swooping aircraft in the outer offices. Worst of all was the lobby. A massive pane of clear glass had been raised over the archway doors into the school building lobby. She felt as though it was a scope forcing her to gaze up at the sky. Was this black and red billowing inferno what she wanted? Could she have done anything more to try to prevent it?

Her eyes twitched and she felt her arms seize up at the sight. So she returned to the cafeteria for shelter. There she waited, impotent, as the clockworks she had set into motion now worked themselves out. She was haunted by her inability to respond within this mechanical performance. She waited, hearing the bombs and the guns in her own head.

“Major, we got combat reports.” Parinita said, laying a hand on Madiha’s shoulder.

Her secretary gently laid a small folder in front of her. Madiha donned a pair of reading glasses and turned the pages. She had begun wearing them that very morning. They not only helped to hide the deepening dark bags under her eyes, but they allowed her to read the small print crammed on some of the hastily typed reports coming in.

She was surprised at the difference they made. She had always thought her eyesight just fine. Thankfully there were a few pairs of generic readers in the school clinic and after trying a few she found some that suited her fine. Parinita had helped her pick them out.

“Forty-three guns are down this quickly. Only two hours have transpired; only a few waves of the bombardment.” Madiha said. Her voice lost strength and turned to whispers. “According to this our batteries have only been able to account for thirty aircraft.”

“It’s difficult. But historically speaking, losing thirty aircraft in a few hours is a major blow to the enemy’s fleet. Several of those were heavy bombers.” Parinita said.

“Our losses cannot be the equal of theirs. Should this continue we’ll be helpless.”

“I know. And the air army hasn’t come to our rescue quite yet. What keeps them?”

“Inexperience and unpreparedness.” Madiha said. “None of those pilots have even flown a combat mission and their air units have been poorly funded since demilitarization.”

Parinita nodded. “Good news though: our caches and manpower are mostly intact.”

“For how long, I wonder.” Madiha said. She felt her breath quickening.

She stood from behind the lunch table serving as her desk, and she walked out behind the long serving counter to disguise her nervous tics and building anxiety. She reached into her coat pocket and withdrew a little plastic bottle, out of which she drew a small, white pill. She popped it into her mouth and swallowed it with a glass of water from a nearby sink. Behind her Parinita graciously attended to a pair of soldiers in thick rubber hoods, soaked from head to toe and leaving a wet trail wherever they moved.

They were aircraft observers, carrying heavy tripod-mounted telescopes strapped on belts around their backs. Madiha had asked them to hide on the roofs of buildings to keep watch, protected, at best, by machine guns and barrage balloons; but mostly, by nothing. When Madiha stepped out from behind the lunch counter they were conversing already.

“Anything to report?” She asked.

“Cpl. Somner here says that a larger wave of planes is coming, with, he believes, more low-flying bombers.” Parinita said. Her words barely sank in when Madiha felt like someone had ticked a box inside her, turned on some strange machinery.

“This could be our chance then.” Madiha said.

She felt a thrill down her spine, and the words she wanted to say stuck fast to her throat and silenced her. Her body felt heavy and the drugs in her system could barely stifle the sheer terror she was experiencing. She moved slowly back to her cafeteria table and withdrew her maps of the city, as well as her diagrams for the airspace altitudes.

Along the main thoroughfares leading to the headquarters there were a few assembled batteries. One of them was positioned centrally enough, and built on a natural slope above the level of the district, that it likely had enough of coverage of the sky to make it the central threat to this incoming assault. Low-flying planes: maybe dozens of them.

All targets that she could crush in one fell-swoop.

“Parinita, have my scout car brought out and made ready to leave. I have to rally the sector battery near the old observatory on Nyota hill to fend off this wave.”

Parinita looked stunned and confused, and stood fidgeting with a file folder.

“I wouldn’t advise that Major.” Cpl. Somner said. Parinita put on a nervous face.

“I can’t stand to lounge here a second longer! Prepare my car.” Madiha shouted.

No one argued further.

Twenty minutes later she stepped through the lobby, and descended the steps outside into the rain. Her little green scout car had been driven to the front of the building, flanked by two trucks equipped with anti-aircraft quad machine guns. Her four-wheeled, two-passenger unarmored car stood no chance if shot by an airplane, but it could potentially outmaneuver strafing runs on the street if she ran it as hard as it could go.

Or at least, that is what Madiha told herself.

Unlike guns she could not be entirely sure of the car’s performance, it was all a gut feeling, and one felt in desperation, perhaps. She ordered the KVW driver to dismount, and he did so immediately and without argument. Raising her hands to signal the drivers of the anti-air trucks, Madiha stepped behind the wheel of the scout car and–

“Wait, Major! Please wait! Don’t drive off yet!”

A series of pleas from the steps to the school; Madiha turned her head over in frustration and tried to shoo away Parinita, who ignored her completely as she charged out of the lobby and down the steps, carrying a Khroda machine gun and its mounting kit.

She had roped an engineer into helping her heave the damned thing to the car: Sergeant Agni, the brown-skinned young woman with long, wavy hair that had was once covered in ash from setting off the explosive traps at the border. She was part of an engineer battalion, and was now more covered in oil than ash, washing off her face and hands in the rain.

“What are you doing?” Madiha shouted. “Go back inside the base, Parinita!”

“We’re helping you! I’m not staying behind. I can drive the car and you can use this machine gun.” Parinita shouted back. “You never miss when you shoot, right? Inspector Kimani always said that. So you can use this to shoot at any planes. You’ll be safer.”

“You can hardly steer over dry ground on a peaceful day, think of what you’re saying. And how can I use that machine gun? It is too heavy for me to heave it around from the passenger seat. Please, Parinita, trust me and return to the base. I have to do this–”

“I can fix the part about the gun, commander.” Sgt. Agni interjected.

She pulled the beige cloth tarp off the top of the car and raised the machine gun, with Parinita’s help, onto the passenger’s metal seat. She laid a plate in the open space between the front and back seats, produced a few tools, and set to work bolting the mount to the plate and the plate to the car’s rear. With the confident and quick way that the engineer worked on the gun Madiha thought she might not even stop if ordered to do so.

Madiha felt a terrible wracking guilt watching all of these people rushing to her side; she felt that she was contributing so little to what all the people in this army were giving in return. Parinita’s own words still stung, somewhere in the back of her mind.

What was she worth? Was it really worth dying to protect her? Why?

“I don’t want you to be involved in this and endangered!” Madiha shouted.

“I’ve made my decision commander,” Parinita said, and suddenly she began talking quickly and loudly over the rest of Madiha’s objections without listening to them.

Developing a pronounced stutter as she went along, she cited several seemingly disconnected military regulations involving her role in Madiha’s staff, her role in case of emergencies, and proper procedure for procuring and organizing convoys. Parinita continued: “Furthermore it is written in the military code of conduct and basic organization concerning command convoys, that the commander’s car when travelling in dangerous territory must always have a defensive retinue involving at least one heavy weapon!”

Stunned, Madiha could hardly get a word in edgewise during this filibuster.

During this cacophony, Sgt. Agni finished mounting the Khroda.

One last bolt turn groaned over the arguments of the officer and her secretary.

They quieted and turned their heads.

“I can also drive the car.” Sgt. Agni said, raising her dull voice.

She then saluted stiffly.

“You can’t argue with this, Major.” Parinita said sternly.

Madiha sighed, raising her hands to her face. “I cannot believe your stubbornness right now Parinita! And especially you, Agni! You’re all supposed to follow my orders!”

“My loyalty is to Ayvarta.” Sgt. Agni replied with little discernible affect.

Madiha supposed that meant keeping her alive over indulging her guilt and trepidation.

She stepped out of the car, ceding the driver’s seat to Sgt. Agni, and climbed onto the back. She stood behind the Khroda and locked her feet into catches built into the vehicle mounting plate, and tested the swivel. It was smooth and quick to turn, and the gun elevated easily, even with the ballistic shield weighing it down. Along with the gun Parinita had brought ammunition and Madiha loaded the machine gun and worked the bolt.

She raised her hands overhead, and signaled the crews of the gun trucks to follow her.

“To Nyota hill, Sgt. Agni, as fast as possible; and I hope for the sake of this nation that you are a better driver than the Chief Warrant Officer!” Madiha called out.

Parinita crossed her arms and sat with a grumbling expression on the passenger seat.

In the distance Madiha spotted almost a hundred planes flying lanes across the sector.

She would have to challenge them.


22-AG-30 Bada Aso Northeast

Adesh woke without sense, without a window to the world. He was overwhelmed by the smell of smoke and fire but at first he could not move, and he could not see through the dark clouds around him, and he could hear nothing but a vicious whistling and buzzing in his ears. His mind swam. A dull pain traced the center of his narrow chest and across the small of his back. It flared, turning hot and sharp as his sinews throbbed beneath the ruined flesh. His body jerked up from the ground, but not of his own volition; his limbs lolling in the air, his neck hanging, the smoke whipping across his face with the strong winds.

Distant voices, warping in the hot air, called out his name.

Touch returned with the sound.

He was under drizzling rain, and he felt something, solid and budging beneath him.

Pain returned to him and urged him blindly to move and struggle. He was stricken with panic toward the condition of his body. He gasped, coughed violently, and he shook his arms and his legs, twisted his waist and torso. He screamed as he felt himself beaten back.

“Calm down Adesh! Calm down! You’re hurting me! Stop thrashing already!”

Adesh fell and it seemed an eternity before he hit the hard ground on his wounds – what he now recognized as his wounds. He cried out and jolted awake from his stupor, embracing himself on the floor of a nondescript building with a view of the park through its open door. A vast plume of smoke seemed to consume the park and the road between them and whatever could possibly remain of the anti-aircraft battery, if anything remained.

Guns did not sound and bombs did not drop.

There was only the sound of burning and collapse.

Near him Eshe had also fallen, and he too became fetal in his agony, clutching his shoulder and closing his eyes and biting his lips. For a moment both of the boys nursed their pains, unable to address or acknowledge the other. Adesh’s eyes were foggy and overflowing with tears. He felt burns across his chest and back. Anxious he touched his body with blood-spattered hands, spreading the blood across his face, his legs, his belly.

All of him was still there.

Burnt, bleeding from open blisters and bad cuts; but nothing near the irreversible maiming he had feared. When he finally recovered his senses fully and took better notice of Eshe, he saw no burns on him, but ash and blood and grime spread across his face.

“Eshe! I’m so sorry.” Adesh said through sobbing and tears. “I didn’t know!”

“You’ve got to focus.” Eshe said, his voice strained. “Stop being so distracted.”

Adesh smiled feebly, tasting his own tears. “I should maybe follow the rules more.”

Eshe breathed quickly, and his body shook violently as he forced himself off his side and onto his back. He sat up, and got onto his knees. From there he could barely stand again, and when he did it was only to step closer to Adesh and sit near him. He pulled open the remains of Adesh’s coat and shirt, and breathed a sigh of relief. He laid his head on Adesh’s shoulder, their bodies nearly collapsed together, and he wept. “Second degree, just a little blistering and bleeding for you. I’m so glad. You might scar but you’ll live. When she gets back we should be able to patch you up good, my friend. Thank everything.”

Adesh lifted his hand and stroked Eshe’s hair. Eshe laid his hand over Adesh’s own.

Behind them a shadow cast into the building from the doorway.

There was a gasp and a series of rapid footsteps.

Nnenia dropped to her knees and threw her arms around both boys, kissing their heads, kissing on their noses and cheeks and lips and everything she could reach in a sudden frenzy, accompanied by a muted weeping and sobbing. Adesh could hardly return the embrace or affection, he felt so weak and physically incapable; Eshe raised his injured arm around her in his place. Together they cried and wept in their little hiding place.

“Thank the spirits you’re both alive! Eshe, I said I would look for him! It was stupid of you to leave again! Now you’ve gotten more hurt than before!” Nnenia cried.

“It’s fine; I found him, so there’s that. It’s done.” Eshe shouted.

“At least you’re safe now.” Nnenia sighed weakly.

Unlike Eshe, Nnenia seemed to have been spared any obvious injury.

Her normally unaffected expression was touched now with such emotion, such pain and fear, that Adesh almost felt like weeping again just from the sight of her. Her eyes were red and swelling from these outbursts. She always fairly quiet and a little guarded, and it was very moving for him to see her cry and worry and wear her emotions so openly. Though she made little noise her face looked like she’d screamed her lungs out.

Flashing from the doorway–

An explosion outside rocked the building.

Adesh cringed back, a sudden animal reflex forcing him to try to move.

Nnenia and Eshe held him and tried to calm him, and he wept and bit his lip as he struggled to control himself again. He felt a rushing of energy and agony at once.

“Please, Adesh, you’re hurt, be still! We’re safer in here than out there.” Eshe said.

“Where are Kufu and Corporal Rahani?” Adesh said suddenly, breathing heavily but trying to calm down. He turned his head around the room. “Are they alive?”

There was a thump in the dark. Adesh found himself in an enclosed hall a few meters from the door in what seemed like a large building. There were a half-dozen doors along the hall, and at the end of it on either side he saw staircases leading up to a second floor, perhaps a third. Everything was brick and concrete. It seemed a sturdy place. He heard the thump again, and squinted his eyes. A pair of legs dangled from one of the staircases.

“Right ‘ere kids,” Kufu said from the end of the hall. “We’re all accounted for. If I was a believing man, I’d say one of your gods helped us, maybe whatever flowery god the Corporal’s got a liking to. But I ain’t; those dive bombers just got muddy goddamn sights.”

“He’s been back there all this time,” Eshe whispered to Adesh, “Not keen on being included, that one. He’s hung back ever since we got out from the fires.”

“He’s not keen on going outside either, the coward,” Nnenia said, “Corporal Rahani is outside looking for survivors. I went out too once the shock wore off.”

Adesh shook his head and tried to remember.

At the park he had looked up at the sky, and he was captivated by the stillness he saw, until he thought he saw a silhouette, and heard a whistling noise, the sound of an enemy cutting through the air to dive upon them. He alerted everyone too late.

Coming down from a high altitude, directly overlooking the battery, the dive-bombers had been impossible to spot. A group of three bombers, each of them unloaded a small bomb from the underside of their hulls at a steep angle with deadly accuracy.

Adesh was thrown away by the force of the blasts, and lost consciousness.

Eshe told him that he had found him lying under a rent blast shield with some burning material around him; perhaps the source of his burns. He was lucky to be alive.

Together everyone theorized that perhaps the bombs had been intended to destroy the 85mm guns, and thus the attack was concentrated away from their own guns.

“And despite this I was flung away like a doll. I don’t know how I survived.” Eshe said.

Nnenia stood in the middle of the conversation, approached the building’s face and closed the door after taking a quick peek outside. She sat again with them. “I don’t know how I came out as well as I did.” She said. “My head is just bleeding a little, that’s all.”

She bowed her head.

There was blood; and Adesh would not have characterized it as a small amount.

“Nnenia that looks serious to me. You should patch yourself up.” Eshe said.

“Adesh is more important right now.” She replied. Blood trickled down her ears.

“These blisters are nowhere near as bloody as the cuts on your head.” Adesh said.

From inside Nnenia’s pouch they took a roll of bandages and a bottle of antiseptic. Adesh demanded again that she be patched up first, and begrudgingly Nnenia bowed her head and allowed Eshe to sop up blood from her cuts, using some of the bandages as cloth. He applied antiseptic from the bottle, clumsily and with a heavy hand, and then bandaged around her head as best as he could. It was a sloppy job, but at least her wounds were clean and shut from the air. Nnenia touched her bandaged head and winced a little. Dark red color spread across them. She laid against the wall beside Adesh, sighing audibly.

“Now Eshe, your shoulder is wounded too isn’t it? I see red on your coat. Fix that.”

“You can’t be serious with this, Adesh, you’ve been sitting there for so long now–”

“It’s against some regulation somewhere to have a bleeding wound I’m sure.”

Eshe shook his head. “You don’t care about rules! What a time it is for you say this!”

“But I know that you care, Eshe, so, get patched up first.” Adesh said.

He tried to say it with good humor.

Eshe stroked his own mouth with growing agitation and handed Nnenia the bandages to clothe the wound on his shoulder. Nnenia pulled back his jacket and shirt and found a bloody, ugly gash and a few offending pieces of metal, which she pulled out. She then practically poured the antiseptic bottle over his shoulder, and Eshe flinched and balled his fists and grit his teeth with pain, but it was a large wound and a lot of cleaning was necessary. They wiped it, again with some of the bandages for lack of any clean paper or towels, before wrapping it up around the shoulder and arm as best as they could.

Then Eshe joined them against the wall of the long hall.

Outside the rain had picked up, but the bombs were very distant.

“Hopefully the Corporal will return soon.” Nnenia said.

Adesh nodded. He sat up straighter and turned his head.

“Kufu, have you any wounds in need of–”

Adesh had hardly finished speaking his name when Kufu waved dismissively at them.

“Suit yourself then!” Eshe shouted.

He turned his head and took a softer tone after. “So, that means it’s your turn Adesh.”

Behind them the door gently opened, and someone took a tentative step in. They turned, with welcoming faces, ready to say a hujambo; but there was a haunted figure at the doorway, clutching his arm and scarcely able to stand on one of his legs. Chalk-white of skin, with hair almost as pale, like seeing a ghost; and mauled along the limb he guarded. But it was his uniform that gave him away, gray, and on his breast a medal like a black cross, specked with blood. Around his neck hung a pair of goggles and a respirator.

His eyes filled with tears.

Much faster than he had stepped in, the man limped away down the steps, making choked, pathetic noises and sobbing in some incomprehensible tongue, nicht, nicht, hier nicht. He could hardly get off the short steps with his bad foot, and nearly tripped in fear.

Breathless, paralyzed, the trio watched him, as though they had truly seen a ghost.

This silent terror passed Adesh by like a flash of lightning before his eyes. His stomach churned, and his eyes felt cold and dry and keenly focused. Fear washed from him quicker than ever. He was assaulted with images, the firing of guns and the booming of bombs.

Him; it was all his fault. Everything was his fault.

Forgetting his pain, Adesh bolted up onto his feet in a fury, brandishing his revolver.

“Come back here! You coward! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill all of you!”

It was like a demon had consumed him.

Adesh fired off a shot into the air, whizzing past the man’s head.

Almost limping himself he charged outside into the rain, dodging Nnenia and Eshe’s hands as they tried to hold him back. Cold water washed over his head and shoulders and stung at the burns on his exposed chest. Step by tumultuous step he gave chase to the fiend without regard for his own body. His adversary cried louder and louder, swinging his good arm to remain upright, his injured limb hanging useless at his side. His alien tongue worked itself raw with screaming. Adesh closed the distance, raising a shaking hand to shoot.

His bullets flew past the man’s feet, between his legs, under his dangling fingers. Adesh rapped the trigger until only clicks sounded from the gun, screaming after him.

“I’ll kill you, you fucking animal! You did this, you did all of this, all of it!”

Around him the world spun, but at the edge of his vision Adesh spotted the wreckage of a Nochtish plane, a dive bomber, like before. His hatred for the pilot was all consuming and spurred him to move. He dropped his revolver, tore his knife free and pushed forward, gaining step by step under the driving rain. Not once did the man look back, he continued hopping, dragging his leg, clawing with his good arm as though there was a lifeline to grab.

He was near the edge of the smoke, close to escaping.

Adesh screamed and cursed and swung his knife in the air.

Then a shot rang out.

The Nochtish man fell forward, his skull blasted open.

He fell half inside the smoke with a barely visible splash of gore.

Adesh felt as though the shot had woken him from a nightmare.

He felt a thrumming in his head, and tightness around his eyes.

“Adesh, please go back inside.” Corporal Rahani said. “And watch your language.”

Adesh was so surprised he nearly fell himself.

Rahani was behind him, holding his own revolver out.

Blood and water trailed down his face, giving him a grimmer look, and the flower in his hair had lost several petals, and the remainder had been clearly stressed and had their own little wounds. But he was upright, and around his shoulder he carried an injured man.

It was Lt. Bogana, his eyes closed, blood and dirt caked around his face, and one of his hands little more than a knob of glistening red flesh. Adesh turned around, and walked slowly back into the building with him. Both of them stowed their sidearms.

Inside, Rahani laid the lieutenant near the wall and tended to him gently, wrapping bandages around his mauled hand and cleaning his face with water collected on a helmet from the rain outside. He made several trips to collect water, and he cleaned and dressed the lieutenant. He had a calm expression on his face, concealing his emotions.

All the while that Rahani worked, Adesh stood beneath the doorframe, his knife slipping from his fingers, standing frozen, staring at the ground. Nnenia and Eshe stood impotently with him, themselves paralyzed, trapped in some stupor.

At the back of the hall Kufu leaned out in shock.

Without aid or input Rahani bandaged up the lieutenant and let him rest.

He stood up and ambled to the door frame.

On his face was a smile, a gentle, pretty smile.

Rahani took Adesh into an embrace, laying a hand on his head and stroking his hair.

“There, there. Everything is fine, Adesh. It is alright for you to be scared, and alright to be angry and sad. Please be all of those things, but please stay safe.” Rahani said.

Adesh slumped in the corporal’s warm embrace, and he wept.

It struck him then that he had lost his own flower from his hair.


22-AG-30 Bada Aso North-Central

For the first few blocks it appeared they might have a peaceful drive to Nyota Hill.

Would the heavy rain remain the only obstacle to their journey?

Unfortunately this was a notion they were quickly disabused of.

Driving the scout car, Sergeant Agni led the small convoy of anti-aircraft vehicles south on the main thoroughfare for a few kilometers, while Parinita watched the sky with an aircraft observer’s scope that she had to wipe down every few moments.

Profiting from her dedication she alerted them to the presence of enemy craft.

Standing behind the Khroda heavy machine gun, Madiha followed Parinita’s directions and spotted the Archer fighter planes, now acting as ground strafing aircraft and circling the sector in search of new prey. Madiha elevated the gun and began to follow them.

“Unless aircraft rocket technology has grown by leaps and bounds in a year, we should be able to avoid their ordnance. It is those machine guns that we must be wary of. Sergeant Agni, they will fire in long, tight lanes, and you will have to strafe around them to survive.”

“Understood.”

Sgt. Agni sped up and switched gears, and expertly took the next corner, losing almost no speed from it; her driving certainly eclipsed Parinita’s, and she was likely a better driver than Madiha herself. Her eyes were locked on the road and nothing seemed to distract her.

At times it was as though the car drove itself perfectly without her input.

Confident in Agni’s ability, Madiha shifted her attention skyward again.

On a stationary position, the Khroda heavy machine gun, a relic in use by the Ayvartan army since 2000 D.C.E was rated at a maximum range of 4 kilometers and an effective range of 2.2 kilometers. Its rate of fire was 600 rounds per minute. On a moving vehicle, spirits only knew how accurate it was; of course, these were considerations for different eyes than Madiha’s. Kimani always told her: she could hit anything if she aimed.

“We’re coming up on them! They’re banking this way!” Parinita shouted.

Madiha caught a glimpse of the five planes speeding suddenly above the convoy.

One city block away the squadron split and the separate aircraft turned sharply in the sky, doubling back to run their lanes along the convoy’s path. They moved so freely that even Madiha found it difficult to keep up with them in the darkening skies.

Old roads limited the convoy cars to ungainly, predictable sidestepping, while the Archer planes could almost double over their own paths, banking and turning, diving and climbing, with very few obstacles in the way of their movement. There was only one consideration for them: because of the disparity between flying altitude and the convoy on the ground, the Archers would have to take shallow dives in order to shoot at them.

Like any attack on the ground it would happen across a series of dives and climbs, and against moving targets in an urban arena the lanes they could run were even more limited. Most of the planes were flying perpendicular to the road and circling around.

Above the convoy the formation broke. Enemies banked, twisted and doubled back.

“Open fire!” Madiha shouted, raising her hand and opening her palm.

From behind the scout car the anti-aircraft trucks began shooting, saturating the sky with machine gun bullets. Little came from it; the Archers maintained altitude, perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters in the air, and the cutting streams of fire seemed to almost intentionally miss the craft, so naturally did they fly away from danger.

Sheer volume seemed to do almost nothing against them.

Avoiding their fire the planes circled around the convoy, three lining up behind them, maneuvering themselves parallel to the road, and two others flying in eccentric patterns.

“Ahead, Agni, one of them is going to cut us off!” Madiha shouted.

Sgt. Agni veered sharply and cut their speed.

One of the circling Archers flew across and blasted the road ahead with its cannons, leaving behind a line of small holes before flying away. They would have been within its lane had they not slowed when they did. Free to move again Agni sped back to full speed as quickly as she could and drove over the lacerations on the road with ease.

Three planes behind them accelerated into their own shallow dives, quickly overtaking them, and opened fire with their Norglers, a modern equivalent to the Ayvartan Khroda. A stream of bullets chased the convoy and perforated the ground around them.

Madiha heard a loud, wet cry and found the windshield of the one of the trucks behind her splashed with blood. The truck veered violently, toppled over on the leftmost street and was no more, riddled with bullet holes and leaking oil, its crew butchered where they sat.

Overhead she heard a loud cracking and fizzing noise.

Rockets launched from under the wings of the craft, crashing around the scout car and kicking up columns dust and smoke and concrete, but Agni veered away from the volley and managed to avoid every potential hit. All of the ordnance was 30 kg rockets, too small to rely on indirect hits. While the car rumbled from the explosions they hardly lost speed or control, Agni was far too tight in her driving to be thrown off by the blasts.

Madiha hid behind her gun shield and waited.

Less then fifty meters overhead the planes leveled out and started to climb. She finally had a bead on them. Madiha raised her Khroda as far as it would go and opened fire.

Archers had thin armor; they were protected mainly by speed and maneuverability.

Throughout the day they had proved this, but against Madiha it was a different story. Her machine gun bullets traced a line under the hull of the leading craft, drawing smoke and fire from its undercarriage and even striking one of its remaining rockets.

Seizing up and starting to burn the craft banked away from the formation and crashed, out of sight and over the rooftops. In the midst of firing Madiha turned the stream of bullets to the next craft and clipped numerous wounds into one of its wings, causing the remaining planes to split up and peel violently away from the convoy’s now accurate fire.

“Almost there!” Parinita shouted, huddling low in her seat.

While the pursuing planes scattered, circling planes tore suddenly from their paths and haphazardly laid fire on the road. Agni turned violently from the road and onto a connecting cobblestone path, avoiding desperate sweeping shots from the two circling planes.

Larger explosions sounded overhead, targeting the circling planes and forcing them back with smoke and fragments. Ahead of the convoy, Nyota Hill appeared and woke violently, seeking to reclaim the sky with hundreds of explosive shells from its guns.

Nyota Hill was an urban park built around a cylindrical hillock dozens of meters in circumference that also rose several meters over the buildings surrounding the park across the adjoining streets. Small for a hill, compared to the larger formations present in the Kalu, Nyota was nonetheless one of the highest places in Bada Aso, with a commanding view. A small observatory had been raised over its peak to study the constellations, but only a pair of walls and a thick plume of black smoke remained of this landmark.

A bomb had leveled it; much of the rest of the hill showed signs of violence.

Bomb craters and trails of Norgler fire pockmarked the once perfectly green hill, and the wreckage of a dive bomber rested at the foot. Nyota Hill bore the brunt of the enemy attack on the city’s open north, but Nocht’s fury had not yet broken the important positions across its surface. The trenches that had been dug across the slopes of the hillock to accommodate dozens of artillery and anti-aircraft guns still stood, and mostly intact.

From the cobblestone path Sgt. Agni drove over a fallen fence and onto the green, while the guns around the hill cast their explosive projectiles over the the roofs of the district, shooing away the fighter planes still marauding. Thanks to the altitude, the surroundings, the slope of the hill, and a varied placement of firing positions, Nyota Hill made a very difficult target for enemy aircraft. Within the range of those guns, no planes dared continue their pursuit. Everyone was safe in the shadow of Nyota, for the moment.

Sgt. Agni swerved to a stop, and Madiha dismounted.

She ran to the hill and dove into one of the artillery trenches cut into it, calling for the commanding officer to meet her immediately. Parinita and Agni took their own places in the nearby trenches, cramped with sopping wet men and women manning the guns.

In command at Nyota Hill was a middle-aged woman, comrade Lieutenant Munira, her light skin and dark brown hair dusty from the smoke and powder around the hill. She arrived promptly, dropping into the same shallow trench as the Major and directing the gun commander of the nearby 85mm to depart and run up to the Lieutenant’s old position.

Lt. Munira clapped her hands together and bowed her head as a greeting.

Salam, Major; we received your radio message an hour ago and have been fighting fiercely since. This was a dangerous journey you undertook; foolhardy even. I thank the Light that you were guided safely to us. What brings you to our little fortress?”

Madiha nodded. “Thank you for your blessing, Lieutenant; I believe we will soon be faced with renewed enemy attack. I hope to aid you in coordinating the defense.”

“Our observers spotted an incoming air fleet minutes ago. We are preparing now.”

“I shall join.” Madiha said. “I hope that my presence might reinvigorate the troops.”

“I defer to you, comrade commander.” Lt. Munira graciously replied.

“No, I wish for you to command.” Madiha said. “Address your troops as you see fit.”

Lt. Munira nodded her head. She stepped outside the trench momentarily, and delivered a speech to her batteries in a loud, fierce and very slightly accented voice. “Comrades, Major Nakar has joined us in the face of the enemy’s bombardment, having braved rockets and gunfire to bear witness to our victory today! As she did in the border, the Major is here to help us brave the odds, and together we shall become a legend of the city of Bada Aso! Fix yourselves toward the southwest, from whence the imperialist’s aircraft approach, and turn them back with all your fury! With Comrade Major Nakar at our side we will eject them across the seas once more! Man your guns, and fight bravely!”

Madiha hadn’t heard of Lt. Munira much, aside from the fact that she was one of the rare Diyam, worshipers of “the Light,” in the Ayvartan army. Perhaps she had been at the border battle, perhaps she was a convert to this odd legend going around.

When the Lieutenant called her out from her trench, and held her hand in the air to show everyone that she was present, Madiha could not say much. Munira’s oratory was intense and the reaction from the troops was boisterous and determined like she had never seen. It was uncomfortable to hear such powerful and flattering words, and worse to feel flattered by them, and feel flattered by the synchronized cheers from the battery crews assembled around the hill. But Madiha had little time to feel uncomfortable.

She cleared her throat and said few words of her own.

“Comrades, I do not merely plan to watch you fight; I would be honored to join you in battle. As one, let us come together to resist the profligate imperialist invaders!”

She offered to take the position of gunner for Lt. Munira’s 85mm gun, and the Lieutenant and the previous gunner were equally pleased to cede the seat and gun shield to her. They returned to the trench, where Madiha took her new position. While everyone was setting up she asked for the names of soldiers in adjacent batteries, surreptitiously trying to collect and remember as many names as possible in order to awaken her latent potential.

For her plan to work, she could not simply have one gun at her disposal. She needed as many of the heavy guns as possible, firing the strongest fragmentation ordnance available. During the hustle and bustle, she identified most of the crews of the big guns.

“I admire your learning their names,” Munira said, “Should I die, you can honor the fallen in my place. Truly everything said about you is coming true before me, Major.”

Madiha nodded as though that was exactly what she had been thinking.

One could not have gone further from the truth.

Then across Nyota Hill the call sounded: “Enemy aircraft, from the southwest!”

Almost in tandem every crew adjusted their gun elevation. Sounds of twisting and sliding metal issued from every trench as gun elevation was adjusted, and clunking and thumping noises as shells and shell-clips went into breeches. Gun commanders pulled up their binoculars and issued coordinates to their crews.

On the horizon Madiha spotted the enemy air group, or fleet, approaching them in force. Fighters made up the bulk once again, and in groups of five; dive bombers and level bombers flew higher in the dark, rainy sky. Madiha’s own gun was not automatic, and could only fire one shell at a time. Thanks to its breech mechanisms it was a simple affair: dropping in a shell, locking the breech and pulling the firing pin to shoot the gun, then removing the shell remnants from the breech and repeating the process for the next shell.

The 85mm could manage 10 to 15 rounds a minute with a good crew.

Sadly, unlike the anti-tank guns, it lacked automatic shell ejection.

In minutes the two sides collided.

Nyota Hill opened fire with everything it had, and the Nochtish squadrons dispersed in the sky and whirled around the landmark like currents in a storm of metal. Fighter planes strafed the trenches with their machine guns and 12mm cannons, tearing up the green, kicking up dust, slamming gun shields and disorienting crews, but unable to put rounds on flesh. Dive-Bombers descended at steep angles, launching small bombs from their undersides and rising sharply away under constant fire. It was a trick that could not be repeated overmuch, and the hill was like a rock in the face of the bombardment.

Four bombers stricken by flak seemed to disintegrate mid-dive, while several smashed portions of the trench and threw back men and women but did no serious damage; two planes flew into heavy fire, lost their nerves and broke away with light damage; a single plane sped into the green, sliding uselessly downhill from the lip of a trench.

Lt. Munira raised a danava LMG over the top of the trench and riddled the cockpit of the fallen plane with bullets. Blood spattered over the cracked and perforated glass.

Nam jeyid.” She said under her breath.

The wreckage joined the other plane at the foot of the hill.

There were soon dozens more planes circling the hill, but Madiha focused skyward.

Shell into the breech; she turned the handle and locked it.

Lt. Munira and crew raised the barrel almost directly overhead.

Being behind an artillery gun was different than shooting a firearm.

As a child Madiha had fired a revolver. It was the first time she shot at anything.

She hit a man in the foot; there was one bullet left and she hit him inside his mouth. Both shots had been perfect, as though she had been born handling a gun. A firearm had a sort of texture, a grip, a series of motions. To her eyes there was something visible, guiding lines, a blue-print in the air that would guide her shots. Artillery pieces were impersonal. Even if you could see the target, the piece was stationary, and your body had no control over it. There was distortion in the lines. She was removed from the blueprint.

She likened it to moving her limbs with her eyes closed.

There was a unique feeling to one’s body moving without input from the eyes.

Time to aim was an abstraction. Madiha hardly aimed. She always simply moved.

An artillery piece didn’t allow her to.

Nonetheless, whatever monstrous thing twisted away her humanity, it was powerful. She felt that eerie, demonic strength course through her mind as her hand touched the firing pin and unleashed the fragmentation shell into the sky. Her consciousness traveled with the ordnance for what was to her a split second, but encompassed the whole of its flight; the shell flew straight into the air at a steep angle, crossing thousands of meters in tens of seconds. There was no contact with metal, no grand rending to pieces of the enemy.

The shell reached fuse altitude and flew past an unsuspecting level-bomber.

It did not miss; the shell exploded just over the wings.

One by one the engines on the bomber’s wing began to fail, stricken with shrapnel. Rapidly losing altitude, the machine fell from the clouds, its propellers fanning flames spreading across its wings and hull. Minutes later every man and woman in the trenches watched the massive bomber crash to earth, another wreck at the foot of Nyota Hill.

There were more targets. Now it was Madiha’s chance.

While everyone was distracted, she touched that power again.

Her head grew hot, hot enough to draw sweat. Her eyes burnt, and her vision wavered.

Bomb bay doors opened far in the sky, and lines of ordnance dropped on the surrounding streets. A massive bomb struck the top of the hill and pulverized the remains of the observatory. Dive bombers and strafing planes swarmed over them like bees and came down in their twos and threes, sweeping across the hill. Norglers blazing, under-wing rockets bursting across the hillock, artillery flak answering each blow; Madiha felt the power erupt from her body, hyperaware of the tumultuous environment.

Fire and smoke and a ceaseless cacophony, and the burning, the infernal burning; her tendrils reached across the hillock, touching every gun she could identify with the power.

Soon as shells left muzzles Nochtish planes immediately began to fall.

Quick-firing 37mm guns rent apart whole fighter squadrons and dive bombers; 85mm and 57mm guns fired directly skyward and sliced through level bombers and their escorts. She sustained perhaps thirty seconds of fire, enough for a few hundred shells, before she slumped on her gun, weeping, blinded, immobilized. She saw the wraith again, forcing its way back inside of her, bleeding back into some unseen wound in her very humanity.

“Major? Major!” Lt. Munira pulled her back from the gun and laid her back on the trench. She smacked her gently in the cheek as if to wake her. “Major, are you alright?”

“Yes, yes,” Madiha gasped, starting to recover, “Yes, I am fine. It’s the smoke.”

She looked out from the trench and through her wavering, blurry vision she saw a sky still filled with enemy planes. Two squadrons of fighters took turns strafing the trenches. An instant later a dive-bomber plunged from the sky and dropped a bomb right into a trench several meters above Madiha’s own, casting dirt and rocks and metal down on her and Lt. Munira’s crew. It was like fighting a swarm. How many had she managed to kill with her power? Fifty or sixty? Nyota Hill was throwing thousands of rounds of ammunition into the sky and seemed to make no gain. Madiha started to hyperventilate again.

Could she reach for a barbiturate in front of her troops?

Could she sit here, the legend they counted on, and fail them?

“Major, are you sure you’re not injured? You look disoriented.” Lt. Munira said.

Dirt and rocks slid down from above, covering Madiha’s head in a tiny stream of debris before she could reply. Something larger dropped from above; Parinita slid clumsily down, almost crushing the loader under herself. In her hands she gripped one of the few hand-held radios distributed to the battery. Moments later Sgt. Agni appeared overhead as well, firing uselessly into the sky with a Danava LMG, before casting it aside and dropping down onto the unoccupied gunner’s seat of the 85mm gun. Lt. Munira looked puzzled by their appearance. The emplacement trench was getting cramped now with their presence.

“Major! You’re looking pale!” Parinita said. “I have some good news–”

An explosion drowned out Parinita’s voice, but she continued to speak.

Madiha made out a phrase from her voiceless lips: Ox Air Army.

Two fighter planes circling the hillock burst to pieces as if spontaneously. Four smaller green biplanes took their place, collectively casting a hail of bullets over the Nochtish planes. Across the park and over the district Nochtish fighters found themselves torn from their strafing attacks and forced into sudden dogfights with the arrival of dozens upon dozens of Anka biplanes from over the city. Slower, but numerous and dogged, the biplanes surrounded their enemies and shot at them from every direction, taking several down.

As the rain abated, the Ayvartan air force joined the battle.

Lt. Munira leaped out of the trench and shouted across the hillock for the batteries to watch their fire, because now they might hit friendlies participating in pitched dogfights.

Madiha joined her, not to give orders, but to watch the sky temporarily clearing, both of the dark clouds, and of the beleaguered enemy fleets, swarmed by hundreds of Ayvarta’s weak but numerous planes, blasted from below by hundreds of guns, and again unable to break Nyota Hill and conquer the skies over the city. Above them the sky was ablaze.

Bada Aso burnt, with fury, with agony, with courage, with defiance.


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

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

At “Madiha’s House” not a soul seemed to welcome the relative silence of the new day.

Stillness gave everyone nothing but a painful moment to contemplate, to fall prey to discomfiting thoughts. As if to fill in the sounds of bombs and guns, everyone seemed to speak louder and step harder on the ground. Everyone worked hard to fill in the silence in their hearts and minds, the cruel silence of a world that had been blasted emptier and stiller.

“It appears the Luftlotte has stopped running sorties since the attacks this morning. The ARG-2 haven’t picked up a thing in hours! So their continuous attacks are over.”

Madiha sat behind a cafeteria table, turning over her curry dinner with a spoon. Parinita tried to smile at her while giving her the news. After what seemed like interminable bombing and strafing, they had somehow expelled the Luftlotte. Unfortunately, massive damage had been dealt to the city infrastructure. Only a big portable petrol generator provided power to the headquarters now, and the lights flickered even without bomb blasts and shockwaves to disturb them. Half the city was without water service or lights.

“Do you want to take a look for yourself, or just the highlights?” Parinita said.

Across from her, the secretary pushed forward a file folder with a fresh strategic report.

“I will confess a touch of fear at the prospect of reading that.” Madiha said.

“Well the news is about as rosey as it can be.” Parinita shrugged. “On the bright side, judging by the wreckage, and from reports from the flak batteries and from pilots, over the course of the fighting we downed almost 300 Nochtish aircraft, including large amounts of the fighter craft they used for strafing. So future dogfights will be a little easier on what’s left of our Anka planes. Which brings me to the downside, which is that we’ve maybe got 100 planes left, if that. The Luftlotte flew twenty times the sorties we did, and it cost them, but it also practically destroyed our air force too. Nobody’s got the skies anymore.”

Madiha raised her hands to her face. That first day of air battles was a large boost in morale for the troops, but then the reality set in. There was massive attrition of planes on both sides. The Ox air army was decimated in two days. She had no idea how much Nocht had left, but the Luftlotte had gotten the message. From 600 sorties the first day, to 200 sorties the second, and now not a single enemy plane over their skies.

She could only hope that both their air forces had been broken by the brutality of the air fighting, and not just hers. Swallowing hard, she cracked open the report.

It was more or less what she expected to see, and she wanted to weep and scream and stomp her feet from the sight of it. Casualties were massive. They had to bury 10,000 bodies. There were thousands injured. Civilians had taken the cruel brunt, maimed and killed in collapses of shelters that had proven inadequate, but the stationary troops, gun battery crews and observers were hit hard as well. Materiel loses were minimal, and she still had the overwhelming majority of her eight divisions in Bada Aso.

One ARG-2 had been damaged in an evacuation accident.

One miraculous bright spot: the forces in the Kalu had gone entirely unmolested.

But the more she thought about it the more she felt personally responsible for this failure, for the debacle of this air defense, for how poorly ready the city was for the attack. What had she known about air defense, about air battle; what did she even know now? She knew that if she personally fired an artillery gun, she could hit a bomber.

She was worse than useless as a commander.

She was no genius, no hero of the border or any of that nonsense her troops desperately clung to in order to view themselves as anything more than pawns in an abstract political game between their bickering government and the bloodthirsty imperialists from overseas who saw them as a threat to the peace of the world. With a shaking hand she reached into her jacket and withdrew a barbiturate pill to calm her nerves.

Parinita reached out her hands, holding Madiha’s with both of hers.

“Please, don’t.” She said. “I saw you drink one just thirty minutes ago Madiha.”

Madiha didn’t struggle.

She dropped the pill, and collapsed over the table, burying her face in her arms.

She was a monster more useless than the human she had once thought she was.

A monster that could not even wield her monstrous power against anybody.

All she had left was the pain and the plan. Parinita was right.

Taking the pills was just useless.

“Schedule a briefing with the captains from each division. We need to go over the defense plan and deploy. Nocht’s land forces will not be far.” Madiha said.

She was speaking without affect, like someone from the KVW.

Not because of conditioning, which she had never received, but exhaustion. She was just too beleaguered to feel anymore. What use were the tears of a monster in commemorating the dead? The pity of a monster for the people she herself had condemned? There was no point in living in this shell of humanity any longer. She was Major Nakar, a freakish thing in human form given pitiless command over an army.

Parinita nodded obediently and stepped away from the table.

She rounded it, pulled up a chair beside Madiha.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you–”

“Not now, please.” Madiha mumbled.

Again, Parinita nodded obediently. She laid her head on her arms as well.

For a moment, they just sat there together. It felt nicer than Madiha wanted to admit.


NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Legions of Hell

The Gates of Hell — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of psychological distress.


21-AG-30 Early Morning

Adjar Dominance – Village of Mapele, 2da Infanteria zone.

Charging across the border the Cissean Cuerpo Azul or “blue corps” was the first Allied force to engage the Ayvartans in combat, absorbing the shrapnel from their mines and the shells spat by their cannons. Thousands of soldiers of Nocht’s client state died ingloriously to open the way into the enemy nation, starting the march to end Communism.

Supported by Nochtish armor, Azul breached the defenses, and was then relegated to silence. Both divisions in the corps, the Primera and Segunda Infanteria, had been downgraded to mobile reserve status, and were essentially given busywork and chores to do now several kilometers behind the advance as Nocht took charge of the attack.

The 1st Vorkämpfer, an elite Nochtish force of mobile Panzergrenadiers and Panzer elements, took the lead of Generalplan Suden in Adjar, claiming key cities such as Dori Dobo that the Ayvartans strangely refused to defend. Their air cover raced again and harried the Ayvartan evacuations where they could, though it was soon apparent the enemy military had largely escaped. Ayvartan rail was far more developed than they thought, and their forces counted on a large, previously unknown motor pool for support.

As the Nochtish line incrementally advanced, bombing air fields and capturing major roads, the Cisseans combed through the little villages, the backwater towns. They checked for mines, they confiscated weapons caches, inspected their new civilian subjects and claimed whatever food, tools and vehicles the fleeing Ayvartan army left behind.

Brigadier-General Gaul Von Drachen had no opinion of these maneuvers.

His soldiers found them degrading. Their morale had become quite low. They winced under the despondent, confused, wrathful gazes of the villagers and townspeople. They confessed that they felt like thieves and bandits, like lowlives; they, and Von Drachen in turn, had been relegated to the job of a security division in the rear echelon.

A picture had been painted for them of this conflict but with every brush stroke they made they failed to reproduce it. This was not their glorious battle for democracy.

Von Drachen responded to every subordinate officer the same: “You’ve come under a delusion about your role in this conflict that regrettably only you can solve.”

He did not say this with an air of malice, but a smooth, unaffected tone of voice. He did not believe he was necessarily right. Nobody was necessarily right.

Regardless of their feelings, they had orders to carry out, and they did.

Under an autumn shower, Von Drachen’s personal convoy followed a muddy road through a small village, consisting of a town hall and a few small tenements and granaries. But these were merely a backdrop for the large fields of grain, lentils and vegetables that led into the village. Everyone here worked on the farm, or supported the work of others there. Thankfully for Nocht, this small farming village had not been evacuated.

Von Drachen took in the scenery as he rode on the side-car of a motorcycle, followed by two other motor bikes mounting Norgler machine guns on their side-cars, and an Sd.Kfz B. “Squire” personnel half-track bringing up the rear, with its broad nose and long, tall armored bed, carrying over a dozen security troops and staff in its protective embrace.

This last vehicle was a prestige token: the only one of its kind among the Azul corps.

They rolled through the rural landscape, headed for the center of the town. Lined up on each side of the road were the villagers, silently watching the vehicles pass them by, while a few soldiers silently watched over them with submachine guns in hand. Von Drachen thought he would see the Ayvartans in rags, but their coats and robes, their shirts and trousers, their dresses, looked as good as anything worn in his home province of Gracia. They stood there, picturesque, soaking up rain, over a hundred sets of eyes in captivity.

Von Drachen dismounted in the middle of the village.

Dozens of his men were hard at work searching the tenements, the town hall, the granaries. Out to their trucks they carried boxes of village books for the Corps Headquarters to translate. Men with detection equipment tiptoed further uptown to check the dirt road for mines. Lightly armed gendarmes gathered any native stragglers, checked them for weapons, and sent them out to line up along the road where they could be easily watched.

Privates searched for anything that could be useful to the Corps right away, such as food for the mess company, and medicine for the hospital company.

There was one obvious problem. Though the fields had not been cleaned of all their veggies quite yet, the granaries were empty, the town hall ransacked before Azul could claim it. Garbage bins sat full to bursting with the ashes of sensitive papers.

Von Drachen walked among the men, tipping the peak of his hat to greet them.

General!” they responded in chorus. Those with their hands empty saluted physically.

Que han descubierto?” He asked them. What have you found?

An officer stepped forward. “Nada pertinente al objetivo, General.” Nothing.

Las ordenes no han cambiado. Continúen.” Your orders haven’t changed. Continue.

Von Drachen sat on the steps to the town hall.

Azul‘s busywork continued under his wandering eyes.

For a time the rain abated, but the sky was still dark and nasty.

Over the continuing labor Von Drachen soon heard the sound of an unfamiliar convoy, a mixture of trundling noisy tracks and the thumping engines of motor bikes and cars.

He looked out to the road, and first he saw dust and exhaust smoke kicked up by the advancing column. Ahead of the vehicles was a light tank, the M5 Ranger, with a short 37mm gun that seemed like it had been wedged into the horseshoe-like turret shape, and a steep glacis. This small, quick, dull gray vehicle escorted three more Squire Half-tracks, a number of motor bikes interspersed between vehicles and a long truck, followed by a more robust M4 Sentinel medium tank far in the back. Past the villagers the convoy rolled.

Inside the village proper the half-tracks and motor bikes found places to settle, while the long truck pulled up in front of the steps. Its crew wanted to greet Von Drachen.

Panzergrenadiers from the 1st Vorkämpfer’s elite 13th Panzergrenadier Division.

A procession of men in thick greatcoats and black helmets left their transports and approached Von Drachen on the steps of the town hall. He made no move to meet them.

He barely acknowledged them at all.

At the head of the Panzergrenadiers was a blond man with a round chin and slick, shiny hair. He stretched out a hand, a large grin on his high, sharp-boned cheeks. Von Drachen casually shook with him at arm’s length, and then retracted his hand and laid it on his lap in a stiff, slow motion. The officer laughed openly at his mannerisms.

“Whatever goes on in that head of yours, Von Drachen?” He asked.

“I can’t quite explain it myself.” Von Drachen easily replied.

“I’m sure you can’t. What are you doing in this grain pit, pal?”

Von Drachen was probably ten years older than the young officer, but this hardly mattered to either of them. Von Drachen’s sharp, rigid facial features slowly contorted into a small smile, and he stood up from the steps and dusted himself off.

“We have been assigned to security and cleanup. We are picking through this village.”

Von Drachen stood at least a head over the panzergrenadier officer when face to face, but if anything the young man seemed to find this detail amusing as well. He craned his head to stare at Von Drachen with a defiant, perpetually amused affect.

“I saw the folks you had lined up outside. Mighty colorful, aren’t they?” He said.

“Pigmentation naturally shades this far south.” Von Drachen replied.

Again the officer burst into laughter. He looked at Von Drachen as though he could not believe what he was hearing, with the kind of surprise reserved for a shocking comedian. He seemed to find the entire existence of Von Drachen quite hilarious.

“So, you found anything yet? They hiding some actual weapons in this dump?”

Lieutenant-General Anton Von Sturm cast looks around the village, raising his hand over his brows as if to shield them from a nonexisting sun. He made a series of noises, ooh’s and aah’s like he found himself impressed with the Azul corps at work all around him. Von Drachen’s unyielding seriousness seemed to prompt him to act out even more.

The Cissean men looked back at him quizzically, but his own men stood in attention, humorless. Whether Von Sturm’s mockery was cruel or friendly, Von Drachen could not tell. It did not altogether matter what the intention was. It was immature and emphatic and perhaps unbecoming. But it was what it was and Von Drachen would not interfere with it.

Finally Von Sturm laughed. “Lots of effort for a bit of hide ‘n seek eh?”

“I don’t expect to find anything dramatic, but we have our orders.” Von Drachen said.

“Of course, it’s still valuable work you’re doing, very commendable.”

“Quite. I believe I have another village due after this one.” Von Drachen dryly replied.

Von Sturm covered his mouth to stifle another burst of laughter.

“A credit to the war effort. But regrettably, I’m here to pull you off this crucial task.”

From his great-coat, Von Sturm produced an official assignment letter from the Oberkommando. When they had the time or impetus to print this over the past three days, Von Drachen did not know. He read the brief assignment quite diligently.

Azul was to be part of the infantry component of a two-pronged assault on the Ayvartan city (classified in their documents as a Festung or fortress) of Bada Aso.

Attached to the orders was a small preliminary map and a summary of the operation’s primary positions. After three days of attack by the Luftlotte, the 1st Vorkämpfer and the 2nd Panzercorps along with the Azul corps and the 6th Grenadier Division would target the city primarily from the south while also attacking from the southeast toward the flank of the city via the Kalu hilltops. It was a simple plan, made simpler by their superiority in arms over the Ayvartans. Encircle the city and secure the border.

Azul would be inside the city, upgraded from reserve to first line troops.

“You’re welcome, by the way. I recommended Azul for this mission.” Von Sturm said.

“I do welcome a return to active combat.” Von Drachen said.

“I’m part of the strategic committee for this operation.” Von Sturm declared.

“So you did!” Von Drachen said. “I must admit I am surprised.”

Von Sturm raised a hand to Von Drachen’s shoulder and patted.

“Prove your commitment to the fatherland, Von Drachen. You Cisseans should stand proudly among the forces bringing democracy and progress to this place. But remember: nobody else gave you that chance but me. In return, I hope I will have your support.”

Von Drachen smiled again. This time almost as wide as Von Sturm.

His eyes narrowed, and his cheeks spread as far as they would go.

From his lips, came a sonorous, morbid laugh like a demon’s howling. Democracy and pride! Politics in the middle of war!  Oh, the boy had jokes!  Von Drachen laughed until he was hoarse, and the panzergrenadiers watched him as if he were about to leap at them.

“I admit it,” Von Drachen said through his fit, “you’ve got some good material!”

Von Sturm was no longer amused. He turned quickly around with a parting, “Just get moving.” He and his entourage returned to their characteristic half-tracks and disappeared down the road. Overhead, under the treacherously darkening sky, Von Drachen saw the planes of the Luftlotte on maneuvers, swooping over the villages spoiling for a fight.

He gave it perhaps a week until the city of Bada Aso was reduced to rubble, over which they could leisurely drive. Not because of democracy or honor or anything of the sort but simply mathematics, as Von Drachen knew them at the time. He was careful though not to be too certain nor too invested in these actions. He had a different set of goals than most of the Nochtish commanders, so he should not succumb to certainty.


21-AG-30 Morning

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

Over the past few days Bada Aso had seen exemplary weather, but on the 21st the clouds began to pack together across the sky and created an intermittent darkness. The Military Weather Service predicted a strong chance of rain on the 23rd and up. Parinita had heard Madiha wishing for rain to fall sooner, since any such disturbance would affect Nocht’s mobility and in particular the Luftlotte’s readiness in the air.

Despite Madiha’s wishes however, the rains had yet to visit ruin upon them.

Past the dawn the rays of the sun came and went at the whims of a gray sky, but there was still light coming into the office, and no pitter-patter yet on the glass. Parinita looked out the window to her new office, and released a long, deep, contented yawn. One shaking hand kept her pen hovering off her desk to prevent her writing unwanted lines. Her office overlooked an empty children’s playground, squeezed between two other buildings.

No children tumbled down the slides or climbed the bars.

They were either evacuated or with their families.

Parinita shook her head, trying to clear a cold fog that was settling over her mind, and she tried to regain her bearings. Table of Organization, right; she recalled that she was finishing a summary for the Major. She snatched the topmost folder from a nearby stack.

Labeled “Battlegroup Aviation,” it contained documentation about the air fields in the Adjar dominance: the planes kept there, state of readiness, and the number of trained crews and crews undergoing training, among dozens of other important facts. She flipped through the pages, yawning every once in a while, until she found where she had left off. She transcribed a number of things from the folder to series of templates on her desk.

This was her job; putting the final touches on Information Product for the Major.

Though she had another job, one self-imposed, it was much harder to explain rationally.

She returned the folder to the stack, and found another that was in need of transcribing. This one was a mess of gathered data on the Disposition of Armored and Motorized Forces. Her head began to ache as she looked through the data.

Several facts did not add up across her sources.

There was some mathematical game playing out before her eyes, where vehicles had been assigned overlapping categories like “cosmetic damage,” “extensive repair” and “needs replacement” all at once, resulting in confusion over the real disposition of many units. Though it was the duty of her staff to find ways to reconcile these kinds of problems, they had been rushed and stressed over the past few days. It was inevitable.

Sighing with frustration, Parinita reached out over the stacks of documents and folders populating her desk, and took the rotary dial phone there and pulled it up over all the mess. She rolled the numbers on the dial and pressed the handset to her face.

A young man picked up. There was a bit of commotion behind him. “Yes ma’am?”

“Bhishma, come up here and help me reconcile the auto-workers union archives with the data we collected from the engineers in Tiffils. One or the other is either wrong or trying to embellish the numbers. Put aside whatever you’re doing right now.”

There was acknowledgement over the line, and Parinita hung up, and waited.

As Staff Secretary, Parinita oversaw many professionals at work.

She controlled a Headquarters Company in the Army hierarchy.

Her company counted on a Signals crew who could be consulted on communication equipment and methods; Operations staff who helped to plan maneuvers (in this case the defense of the city); Administrative staff who gathered information from after-action reports and informed the staff at large of readiness and efficacy, as well as overseeing training and equipping of troops; Logistics officers of utmost importance, who tracked the flow of supply and the sustainability of operations; Intelligence specialists who compiled reports on the movements of the enemy, relying on data from scouts, and on various forms of surveillance; and even a Meteorologist who was in contact with the Weather Service and ready to advice the Army on the natural elements for or against their operations.

Bhishma worked in Administration, gathering much of the troubled vehicle data.

A few minutes after the call, Bhishma and his three aides joined her, pulling up children’s desks around Parinita’s grand wooden desk and looking over the data one more time. He was nervous at first, and shied away from eye contact; but Parinita was gregarious and easy-going and managed to diffuse the tension and get everyone working calmly.

She made sure that nobody was stuck thinking that it was their fault and dispelled any notion that punishment might ensue. Every problem had a solution, however belabored.

Working together they broke down their data back to its sources, isolated errors and made several more phone calls inside and outside the city to confirm and update their information. There was much shouting over the lines, back and forth, especially with the divisional maintenance crews that had been in charge of the materiel under Gowon, and were clearly unhappy with this level of scrutiny being brought upon them.

Thankfully, the staff was used to working over the lines.

Over the past two days they had been forced to gather data like this, talking with logistics and maintenance crews, with administration officials, with union managers, all of it over the radio, in the middle of evacuations, working out of the back of Madiha’s trucks. To do the same but in a comfortable office was child’s play in comparison.

Finally they were able to work out a much more accurate account of what Battlegroup Ox actually had to work with. Parinita wrote “793/217/490” next to Goblin tanks, for operational / undergoing repair / mechanical losses on her Table of Equipment and Organization. Similar but much smaller numbers arose for the Orc tanks. Spare parts availability for the Sharabha half-tracked truck was squared out. Fuel consumption and fuel availability for the diesel-engine tanks was determined.

In about an hour and spare change they had mostly fixed the data.

Parinita thanked Bhishma and his aides, and humbly they bowed their heads before they hurried out of the office and back to their original posts to continue their work.

Much of the morning was spent the same way.

Parinita looked over the work of her colleagues, cross-referencing sources and summarizing the information to produce Madiha’s Table of Organization and Equipment. Parinita was one woman, head of a staff, and a lot of the work on the document had been delegated. Much the same as she supported Madiha, who was just one woman and could never research and consume all of this data alone, her own staff gathered information to support her. Her logistics personnel, her administration personnel, her operational personnel; their disparate handwriting traded places across all these documents.

They worked relentlessly. She was supposed to have a staff of 70 to 100 people in war-time, including personal aides; there was no time to recruit more hands, so she made do with 30 people, and she was forced put in a lot of overtime work herself.

She started two days ago; now the table neared completion. After going through a stack of papers and figuring out a glaring discrepancy in the terms being used to refer to the formations documented therein, she put down three radar “units” each consisting, sadly, of only a single truck, into the ToOE. This detail completed the regional structure for the forces defending Bada Aso. Parinita had finished the product on time.

Parinita pulled up the papers and stared at them, half in a daze, numbers and figures still dancing in her head. This was her contribution to the war.

While her comrades prepared to die, she counted, and she wrote.

Sometimes it felt pathetic; but it was also all she could do.

And she wanted, desperately, to help.

She picked up the phone again and dialed the communications staff.

“We’ve got a Table ready to disseminate.”

“Yes ma’am, I will send someone to collect it. We’re still working on the printer.”

“No problem. Give my congratulations and thanks to everybody.”

She hung up the phone, and some childish part of her wanted to toss all of the documents, to throw them into the air like confetti, to kick down all the stacks and roll around in them like fallen leaves. But she couldn’t; this all had to go to Archives.

Instead she settled for knocking the phone off her desk with a mischievous giggle.

Promptly there was a knock on the door.

An expressionless KVW guard entered the room and saluted her.

Parinita stood up from behind the desk, feeling a cracking sensation in her back and knees as she moved. Cheerful and with a mind still bouncy and high with a sense of accomplishment, she approached him and exchanged pleasantries – a strange event when it came to dealing with the deadpan KVW, whom she had trouble reading.

Hujambo Gange, what’s new since I last left the comms office?” She said jokingly.

Hujambo. I am here to collect some documents.” Gange said.

His tone of voice was terse and dry though not in a rude way; KVW people had a knack for sounding both apathetic and courteous. Parinita handed him the documents, which he carried in his open arms as though he were a human library rack.

“Also: a shower-head was installed in the second floor bathroom.” Gange said.

Parinita smiled. “Ah, thanks Gange! Now I can freshen up!”

She clapped her hands happily.

Gange bowed his head deferentially, turned on his feet, and left.

Parinita was not far behind him.

She picked up the phone, tidied the desk a bit, and went on her own way.

The newly-formed Battlegroup Ox Headquarters Company had chosen to establish themselves in a four-story rectangular school building looming over a fork in the road toward the north-center of the city. The building’s forward-facing windows gave the occupiers a sight-line several kilometers to the south, east and north.

It was perfect not just for an HQ, but to defend the main street.

All of the front offices bristled with machine guns and even a few 45mm anti-tank guns painstakingly pushed up the stairs. Soldiers worked in the forward-facing rooms, piling sandbags around window frames and walls to provide additional protection against machine gun and anti-tank fire. An 82mm mortar had also been set up on the roof.

Lovingly, many of the workers referred to the place as “Madiha’s House” though the commander had not yet caught on to the nickname. Parinita had given the order to “decorate Madiha’s house to the best of their ability” last night, and it had stuck since then.

Defensive emplacements in front provided obvious targets to assaulting enemy forces, so the headquarters staff worked out of the back. Overnight, dozens of people gave up sleep in order to prepare the space for the interminable hours of work that would surely follow.

Staff members and troops relocated piles of office supplies, heavy old file cabinets, typewriters and radios to the classrooms. They combed the building for anything useful and dragged it toward the back. Parinita mostly cheered on those stronger than her.

Ultimately she had gotten about three hours of sleep in a stretcher she had pilfered from the school’s clinic, while her writing desk was taken from downstairs and pushed up.

Thankfully, Parinita had done enough work to not feel completely worthless.

Having, in her mind, earned a good shower and a little more rest, Parinita took a flight of stairs down from the third to the second floor, where she heard a bit of a racket. She found a few members of her staff struggled to push a printing press the size of a large office desk into one of the classrooms. Once used to reproduce educational materials, they could now put it to work printing military literature. They had found it in one of the front offices, and had spent the better part of the night and morning relocating it to a safe place.

Parinita congratulated them on their progress so far and left them to their devices, squeezing past them, around the corner and into the adjoining hall with the bathroom.

Outside of it she found a rather moist-looking Madiha sitting on the floor.

She was fully dressed but only half-awake.

Hujambo!” Parinita said.

Hujambo,” Madiha half-heartedly replied, “I apologize for my current state.”

“Things finally caught up to you, huh?” Parinita said. “You should’ve slept.”

Madiha breathed in deep. “I went under the hot water and now I feel terribly sleepy.”

“Tut tut. You’ve got a busy day today, Major, you can’t just sleep in.” Parinita said, gently and cheerfully ribbing Madiha. “We have to meet Kimani at the rail yard, and inspect the anti-air defenses and the port. I can’t do that alone you know!”

“As of late I have come to regret much.” Madiha said, half through a long yawn.

Parinita beamed and patted her on the shoulder. “Take a little nap, I won’t tell anyone.”

There was a sense of relief, seeing Madiha this way.

Her eyes were in good condition. Parinita could not see the flames behind her eyes. They came and they went from the Major, working in ways no one knew. Thankfully they were dull now and Parinita did not need to worry. She could leave the commander there and know that she would not soon burn in her own flame as those old legends said.

Such thoughts were alien at first; now they flowed naturally with her new, strange task.

Past her commander, Parinita entered the bathroom and found the installation of the shower had been as barbaric as she had imagined. They had battered the sink off the wall and left it in a corner, and attached an extension to the water pipe that led up to an ordinary faucet. Sighing heavily, Parinita closed the door behind herself, undressed, and stood under the rushing water for a few minutes, scrubbing herself with hard bar of soap.

She understood how Madiha felt after a while.

Hot water pounding her head and back, steam rising all around; it was soporific.

When next she opened the door, she too was half asleep and barely through dressing herself. Gently she laid next to her commander, and they nodded off together.


21-AG-30 Noon

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

When Parinita first joined the army she was barely an adult, yet she could hardly read or write. To the callous Empire the education of the lower class was an afterthought; to the bold revolutionary in the civil war, the education of the lower class was an abstract thing that should first and foremost serve the revolution; when the socialists picked things up afterwards, they had a lot of ground to cover. Parinita was seven years old when she first spoke, and ten years old when she learned to read. Her early childhood had been chaotic.

Never had she been a prodigy, or outstanding in any way. To her, the military’s slogans appealed: “First and foremost a comrade; first and foremost in service of socialism.” It was noble and dignified in a way her life had never been until she joined.

It’s not like she had anything else to turn to for a future.

After graduating and earning her rank, Parinita had always worked diligently and put in the required effort to complete her tasks. There was a sense of tedium sometimes, but it came with casual purpose that motivated her to continue.

On some level she enjoyed the work she did. But there was a new sensation, now both terrifying and powerful, that she felt while walking astride Major Nakar across Bada Aso, a doomed city standing ominously still before a rising tide of flames. She brimmed with a strange, new purpose that made her old reality feel unreal.

She remembered the cackling words of her grandmother: you will see those eyes burning her alive, and like me you will be a witness to history. Was it on some level just inevitable that time would pass and slowly Madiha would die in front of her eyes?

Thankfully her days were distracting enough to keep those thoughts away.

Outside a car had been prepared for them. After their impromptu nap, a refreshed Major Nakar (she preferred just Madiha, but propriety made demands) bid farewell to the headquarters and ushered Parinita outside with her to conduct the long business ahead of them. First they drove out toward the airport in the northeastern district of the city.

For once, traffic was a little stiff; KVW Police from the city had been posted at key roads to direct the hundreds of trucks, tanks, tractors, bikes, horses and other vehicles on the asphalt. Everyone was in a hurry, and everyone’s tasks were important. Madiha waited patiently behind the convoys that, by her words, had been organized and put to work.

While they waited they went over the day’s business. Kimani and the evacuation; the Revenant, a large vessel in the port that Admiral Qote had given them command over; Anti-Air defenses organizing across the city; and the radar units in the airport.

“Each of these ‘radar units’ is actually a truck, according to this report?” Madiha asked.

Parinita nodded. “Well, the truck’s not alone. There are eight folks working inside.”

“So that’s why it was labeled a ‘unit’ I suppose. I had hoped we had more equipment.”

“Radar is a very new technology, I’m afraid.” Parinita said. “Those three trucks are it.”

“At least we have some means of detection. Better than staring skyward for days.”

Parinita stared at the sky. Any second now she could have heard a plane swooping.

“They’ll be hitting us soon, won’t they?” She said, in an idle, ponderous tone.

“We will interrogate that once we have the equipment available to do so.”

“Yeah. That’s right. We’ll be ready for them, I’m sure of it.” Parinita said.

She said this as much for herself as for Madiha. She needed to hear it. She only wished it had not been herself who said it. Coming from her it was less encouraging by an order of magnitude. There was no power in her that could sway these events.

They endured the traffic and worked their way further north. Soon the roads widened enough that they were free from the two-lane clog and could drive more leisurely. Bada Aso Air Base was outside the thickly urbanized areas in the center, northeast and south of the city. Nearer to the coast, the terrain became comparatively open.

Once a place of old capitalist villas with wide acreage, broad greens and a commanding view of the ocean, it had been enclosed just a bit when the opulent villas were demolished and the housing, factories, and social infrastructure went up to support a population of equal comrades. But the blocks were much less dense, and there was still grass and loose, natural dirt straddling the road and street. One could still get that commanding view of the ocean, but only by climbing a rooftop, or driving past the district and into the bay proper.

“Parinita,” Madiha began, while keeping her eyes on the road.

She let the statement hang.

“Yes?” Parinita said, smiling and friendly.

“I wanted to thank you for the work you’ve done. All the reorganization I desired demanded a lot from you and your staff. I did not ask you to undergo these tribulations lightly, and I could not provide you any aid. Your efforts have been splendid.”

Parinita was surprised to receive thanks.

She smiled and she held back a fit of giggling from Madiha’s long, discursive way of speaking. She couldn’t have just said a ‘thank you’ or a ‘congratulations’! Though the Major had claimed her words sounded unnatural and inhuman, Parinita did not think she had ever heard someone in the military speak in a more genuine fashion than Madiha. It was a quirk, a bit of her nature that war had done nothing to change. It was like a window to her heart. She had to revise just how much different Madiha was than other officers.

“Thank you! I am happy to help my comrades in the ways that I can.” Parinita replied.

“To each according to his ability.” Madiha said. She was smiling, too. How rare! “I am glad to have you. Doubtful that I will find the time to properly address each member, so I must also ask you to please relay to the general staff my congratulations as well.”

“I will! They will be happy to hear it. All the raw data came from them.” Parinita said.

Madiha nodded. “There will be Honors awarded as well, if we survive the ordeal.”

They rolled right over this grim reminder in their conversation, their spirits temporarily too high for it to affect them. This spectre of death was too weak to spear their hearts at that moment. After this they would all survive and they would all definitely buy themselves something nice from the restricted goods store with their Honors, war be damned!

Both of them even shared a little laugh about it as they drove.

Parinita was already planning what to do with her prize. Surely there was a good camera she could buy, whether it be a film or photo camera, whatever was available.

“I have not an inkling of what I would want to buy.” Madiha said.

“How about nice clothes? Are you a fluffy dress or a fancy suit sort of woman?”

“I believe I am a military uniform kind of woman.” Madiha awkwardly replied.

Parinita rubbed shoulders with her. “So you have an excuse to try them both on!”

Both of them were soon laughing like small girls.

It had become a rather pleasant drive.

Bada Aso Air Base was itself a monumental site compared to the confines of much of the city. The base was surrounded by high fences and barbed wire and its runways spanned almost a kilometer in length. There were four wide parallel runways, and several buildings, including the main control office for the base. A high capacity runway and several hangars and warehouses would have made it a perfect host for 10,000-plus kilogram transport and passenger aircraft, but there were no large guests in sight during Madiha and Parinita’s visit.

Solstice was still much more used to conducting its heavy transport using its large rail network, and its fleet of 300 or so cargo planes was contributing little to the operation.

In fact there were few planes on-hand in general. Madiha had ordered most of the small craft to evacuate further north and quickly reestablish themselves, away from potential Luftlotte assault, but close enough to respond in time to a threat on the city.

As they drove to the back of the airport they saw a skeleton screw on the runways, performing maintenance on a squadron of Anka biplanes that had been left in the base. These planes were going on seven years old now. They boasted a gulled wooden upper wing and a flat lower wing, with a body of mixed steel and duralumin. A skilled pilot could make them sing, but Parinita knew they were relics compared to Nochtish planes.

Crew on the runway stopped to wave at their car. Madiha and Parinita waved back.

There was a smaller hangar straddling the back wall where a group of people had been waiting for them. Madiha parked the car just outside the location and stepped out, and they were greeted by a handsome young man with dark brown skin who was dressed quite sharply in a suit and a tie, and had gelled his dark hair back sleek and shiny.

He addressed them from his wheelchair, and there was another young man following behind him, a colleague gently pushing the chair wherever needed. Behind the two of them a group of aides opened the hangar and drove out to the runway a long truck with a sizeable aerial projecting from the roof over its bed. The aerial was several meters tall.

“Thank you for visiting us, Major,” said the young man, shaking Madiha’s hand, “I am Chief Technology Officer Parambrahma. This is my colleague Narayam. And behind us is the ARG-2 or Argala. We are ready to demonstrate its operation.”

Madiha bowed her head, a little lower than normal due to the difference in height.

“Thank you for having me Officer Parambrahma, Narayam.” Madiha replied. Perhaps a little too humbly for the commander of an army, but that was not a bad thing, Parinita thought. “Is this vehicle our radar unit? Could you describe its function?”

“Certainly.”

Narayam pushed Officer Parambrahma closer to the truck, and Madiha and Parinita followed them. An aide opened the back of the truck, which was built like a chamber moreso than a standard cargo bed, enclosed with walls and ceiling and a door.

From inside the truck a ramp was pushed out, so that the vehicle became accessible to the C.T.O’s wheelchair, and together the posse climbed into the back of the vehicle. It was dim inside, and would be very dark indeed had the back door been shut and the ramp closed.

Visibility was provided almost exclusively by the lights on various consoles, and especially by an array of cathode ray tube screens that projected green color that, upon closer inspection, seemed to form a long scale, with lines superimposed on the screen that gave it a scale. Parinita examined the screens, and found the scale was in kilometers.

“Here is where the science of radar becomes something coherent to human eyes.” Parambrahma said. “Essentially, this truck will send out a wave, and then wait for that wave to bounce back to it, and here we can draw some crucial information.”

Narayam happily pushed the C.T.O closer to the CRT screens, and Parambrahma tapped on one to demonstrate, “On this screen, the presence of an object in the sky will be indicated by a blip on the screen, and we can determine its distance from us using the scale printed on the console. Thus we can be alerted to the presence of incoming aircraft.”

“Interesting,” Madiha said, “So from how far away can we detect incoming aircraft?”

“Depending on the target’s altitude, around 100 kilometers. Continuous detection and true distance is a little unreliable right now, unfortunately. So while it cannot act as a guide for gunnery quite yet, I believe it can provide an invaluable service to the city nonetheless.”

Madiha nodded. It was not perfect, but it was better than she expected nonetheless.

“A hundred kilometers should be more than enough to give us an effective early warning.” She said. “We can scramble aircraft in response with that lead. You have three units of ARG-2s, correct? Do you have the crew to operate them all at once?”

Narayam spoke up then. “We have enough crew, but only one C.T.O.” He said sadly.

“That’s fine.” Madiha replied. “I require two of the units in the southern districts, and one near Ganesha Arithmetic and Reading College. C.T.O Parambrahma can supervise them via radio from the Battlegroup HQ in the school. I’ll give him the equipment.”

“I can try.” Parambrahma said. “However, if something goes awry at a station

“We shall live with that.” Madiha interrupted. She tipped her head toward Parinita. “Ask Chief Warrant Officer Maharani for a copy of our operational plans, and organize your units to provide as much range along the south, around the coast, and over the Kalu.”

“Will do.” Parambrahma said. “You sure get to business quickly, Major. It took months of my time to convince your predecessor that Radar even worked as I purported it did. You on the other hand accept it immediately. I was wondering if you would have liked a demonstration of the system; we have an Anka ready around here somewhere.”

Parinita thought a test seemed sensible enough, but Madiha shook her head in response.

“You seem like a bright young man, C.T.O. I will put my faith in you.”

“I hope, if the system succeeds, we shall have your backing for future resources?”

Parambrahma had a big grin on his face, and Narayam seemed cheerful as well.

“For whatever my opinion is worth, if your system contributes to our survival, I shall support you.” Madiha replied. Parinita wondered how people interpreted the current political situation; Madiha’s word might not be worth anything in the near future.

In fact it might soon be worth a negative amount should the Civil Council decide to act out against her for the takeover of the city. Whether or not this was running through anyone’s minds in the room but her own, Parinita did not know. Madiha quickly returned them to the business at hand. “Right now though, I must ask you to set aside future ambition and focus on giving me as much coverage of the Dominance map as you can.” She said.

“Of course. I work within the military structure exclusively. I’ve developed many theories for the deployment of the ARG-2 in military combat. I can assure you that Nocht will not enter our skies without our knowledge once the ARG-2s are operational.”

Madiha nodded. Parinita could only hope Nocht was not flying overhead right then. If a bomb fell, she thought perhaps she would leap atop Madiha, and try to protect her from the blast. That was all she thought she could do. Perhaps Madiha would even live.


21-AG-30 Afternoon

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

Once their business at the airport concluded, the next stop for the Commander and her secretary was the main rail yard in the northeast district, where trains came and went.

Kimani should be waiting for them there.

Yesterday Madiha had selected her to oversee the deployment of Ox in Lt. Purana’s place, and in tandem, to oversee the evacuation. After the councilors were shipped off, Kimani had been absorbed in this work and spent much of her time in the rail station.

Madiha knew Kimani wanted no part in the battlegroup command. At first she thought the reasons had been political, despite her saying otherwise. It was difficult to believe that she could consider Madiha more qualified for this task. Clearly it would have been outrageous for the inspector to take over herself, so she left a reliable old friend, Madiha, to take the reins symbolically. That emphatic support must have been meant to help Madiha cope with the political realities of the situation. However it was more and more borne out that Kimani truly believed what she said at the border and that Madiha had misread her intentions. Politics or not, Kimani was leaving full command of Ox to her, without strings.

Though she did not understand the decision, Madiha had no real choice in it.

Rails stretching from the east, north and south converged on Yhana station’s multiple platforms, feeding Bada Aso materials bound for factories and for the port, and taking from the city large amounts of fish and industrial goods from its factories.

Most of those factories were shipping out in pieces when Madiha arrived.

Vast and entirely open to the air, the station was incredibly busy.

Hundreds of workers loaded trains with tools and machines stripped from evacuated factories, and unloaded materiel that had been evacuated to the city from across the Dominance. Soon as Madiha parked the car she saw a train depart loaded with half-built trucks from the auto factory; and another train arriving full of tanks.

“Madiha, what are those? I’ve never seen that tank pattern before.” Parinita asked.

“It’s a Hobgoblin, they’re a new type commissioned by the KVW.” Madiha replied, staring at the train. She was puzzled. Who brought them here? “The 3rd KVW Motor Rifles had a small battalion of them as support, but I was not expecting to see any more.”

“Inspector Kimani is meeting us here, so I assume she must have gotten them for us.”

They approached the military cargo train, and took a closer look at the cars.

It was quite a long train, and loaded with over forty of the tanks.

They were far more impressive that the boxy Orcs or the small and outdated Goblins.

Colored a dull, fresh-out-of-the-factory green, the Hobgoblins had thicker armor in the front than either of the two common tank patterns, boasting a sloped glacis and a new turret, mounted closer to the front of the tank and composed of slanted armor plates with a tough, bulging gun mantlet. This tank could withstand much more punishment than the barely-armored Goblins. Armed with a medium-barreled 76mm gun, it boasted firepower unlike any other piece of Ayvartan armor. It mounted two Krodha machine guns as well, one on the front of the vehicle and one coaxial to the 76mm gun, to round out its impressive armament. Like the Orc, this was a medium tank, but it was much more effective in the role, being faster, better armored, and state of the art. There was not a tank like it.

Parinita whistled, admiring the new tanks. “To think we have a weapon like this.”

“Without the Civil Council behind it, production has been limited.” Madiha explained.

“Why don’t they support it? It seems far better than the Goblins.”

“Demilitarization; it’s a KVW project, so they see it as pointless and wasteful.”

Madiha crossed the length of the platform, and found an additional three cars at the back of the train, carrying five tanks that she did not recognize at all.

These were significantly larger than the Hobgoblins, with boxier riveted turrets that ended in a large, blunt counterweight. While the weaponry was similar, the tracks were longer, with eight, larger road wheels rather than the seven smaller ones on a Hobgoblin. If a Hobgoblin was a medium tank, certainly this model was a Heavy tank. Madiha guessed it must have weighed several more tonnes than a Hobgoblin, and a Hobgoblin already weighed 26 tonnes! Parinita knocked on the armor with her knuckles, in awe of its size.

“I take it you know as much about this one as I do.” Parinita said.

“I have never seen anything of its kind.” Madiha said.

They stepped off the platform and approached some of the laborers. From the glowing rings around their eyes Madiha recognized them as KVW agents. They quickly pointed out the next platform, where the automobile factory equipment was being loaded onto a train.

There Madiha found Kimani, signing off on the transport manifest and watching the work of both trains carry on. Tanks started to be crewed and unloaded little by little using ramps and heavy platform cranes. Kimani thought nothing of Madiha’s presence until she exhausted other things to pay attention, and then she greeted her apathetically.

“Afternoon, Major. How stand things? Have you visited the air defenses or the port?”

“What are those tanks, Kimani? Those larger ones?” Madiha demanded.

Changing the topic did not appear to faze Kimani. She responded to the questions as though the conversation had flowed naturally from her greeting. “A pick-me-up from Solstice. They’re a new Heavy tank pattern, called the Ogre. Fresh off factories in Jaati.”

Growing irritated, Madiha pressed her. “Why do we have them here?”

“I assume they will be firing at other tanks.” Kimani casually said.

“That’s not what I mean.” Madiha said. “I don’t appreciate you being coy.”

“I apologize if this upsets you, Major.” Kimani said. “I hesitate to mention that the 5th KVW Mechanized is joining us soon as well. I desire to command them in the defense of the Kalu to protect your flank. I hope that is not a problem. The KVW is simply gathering allies and materiel to support your plans. Nobody means for this to undermine you.”

Parinita raised her hands in sudden distress.

“Now my table of organization has to be redone!” She shouted. She sounded like she was about to cry. Kimani and Madiha both stared at her, and she started to sob.

Madiha could see that Kimani was trying to protect her. And on some level, she wanted protection, but not in the way Kimani wanted to provide it. She wanted her here, in the city. Close enough to advise Madiha should she lose her way. Not in the hills running a delaying action within a delaying action, losing materiel so Madiha would have more time to lose her own share of materiel. A kettle boiled over inside Madiha, a mix of emotions confused and strong that burned at her heart and brain. Her stress seemed to suddenly multiply.

She didn’t feel ready for this responsibility. She could carry out all the tasks that came with it, but when she tried to lift the entire edifice her spine shuddered from the weight.

Her brain was running away with her. Madiha felt a burning sensation in her skull.

She tried to stomach it all and continue, as she seemed to be doing with terrible frequency these days. Feeling anxious shivers just under her skin, she pushed forward with her original agenda, mustering as firm and emotionless a voice as she felt she had.

She had visited the rail yard to quickly assess the evacuation.

“I put you in charge of overseeing the evacuation here, so I hope you would complete that work before leaving. So, with that in mind, tell me: how proceeds the evacuation?” Madiha said. “Are we moving at a good pace? Could we do any better?”

“We are making as much progress as we are able to.” Kimani said. “Militarily speaking there are a few stragglers, maybe two or three Companies worth that simply haven’t made it back. I believe air patrols might have gotten them. Where materiel and civilian evacuations are concerned, we have about 80% of our vehicles accounted for, and our supplies have been distributed along the city and are hidden underground or in caches to hopefully survive bombing. It also appears that our rail capacity is at its limits. Already the councilors that we evacuated yesterday are marooned in the Tambwe Dominance with thousands of other refugees for the next week or so, because we need the lines clear for industrial evacuation toward and beyond Solstice. Tambwe is the major chokepoint for traffic right now. No matter what we do here, Ayvarta as a whole cannot do any better.”

Madiha felt a pang of guilt for Chakrani. “I assume the council will be provided for.”

“Obviously they won’t starve; whether they’ll have nice offices is another story.”

“So it is out of our hands to move the evacuation any faster?” Madiha asked.

“Committing more resources is untenable. Let the unions handle it from here.”

Delegating sounded good. It was a bit less weight on Madiha’s shoulders.

“Speaking of, is the Port Worker’s Union willing to become city authority?” She said.

“I’m afraid the union has voted to evacuate. You are still in charge.” Kimani said.

Madiha sighed. “Find me another union. I don’t desire to rule this city any longer.”

Kimani’s expression turned to the closest thing to a smile that Madiha had ever seen on her. Kimani stared at her, directly into her eyes, and laid hands on her shoulders as though preparing to pull her into an embrace that she knew would not be returned. Madiha did not understand the expression. Was this some kind of a joke to her?

Was she condescending to Madiha? It didn’t make sense.

“You’ll deal with the responsibility well. I’m sure of it, Major. May I return to work?”

Stunned, incapable of reading the situation any longer, Madiha simply nodded her head, knowing that she would make no headway talking to the Inspector any more.

Kimani, with that unfamiliar expression, turned on her heels and crossed the tracks to supervise the unloading of the tanks. Her stride and stature was unshaken by the conversation. She walked tall and confident as ever, as though it was any other day.

Madiha wanted to scream at her. Do you or do you not want to protect me? Do you or you do not care about me? But she had that common sensation that the words coming from her mouth would be different and worse. So she let it all go. There was no point.

Behind her, Parinita sulked at the prospect of having to produce another entirely new Table of Organization and Equipment to accommodate the new equipment.

“You do not have to incorporate them.” Madiha said.

Parinita perked up at once hearing those words.

Putting her mind off the disastrous spiral of thoughts that threatened to consume it, Madiha returned to the car and drove herself and Parinita around the designated air defense zones in the city. She had been meaning to make an appearance at a few of them. Though their coordination was out of her hands, she had given overall guidelines and felt it would help the troops to see her actively involved in their training and readiness.

It was a simple plan, largely because air defense with their equipment would not have benefited from a genius sleight. Barrage balloons had begun going up over precious areas of the city, dragging steel cables that would make the air around them a hazardous terrain for craft, but there were not enough of them to make a world of difference. Madiha ordered the balloons they had to be raised over important monuments and buildings.

Guns still made up the bulk of the air defense.

In parks, on rooftops, along large intersections and broad thoroughfares, they had established searchlights and anti-aircraft posts. Powerful 85mm guns would put in the bulk of the anti-bomber work, with their delayed-action explosives and higher combat ceiling. To cover for their slower rate of fire, each team of three 85mm guns partnered with two 57mm guns and some 37mm guns. These smaller guns would engage lower altitude targets.

All of these guns were relatively new and technically sound, but unproven. Ayvarta’s cities had never needed to fend off a sustained aerial attack, and like their Infantry and Armored formations, their Anti-Aircraft Batteries had seen no real combat.

Compounding these problems was the fact that all of their positions were completely fixed in the grand scheme of things. Their only mobile anti-aircraft defense was a platoon of trucks armed with quad-mount machine guns on their open beds. Operated by two soldiers, these were nothing more than four Krodha heavy machine guns firing 7.62x54mm rounds, stuck together on a mount and mechanically tethered so they would all fire at once. It was unwieldy and the round had poor impact and range compared to real AA guns.

While there had been some suggestions with regards to mounting a real AA gun on a tank turret, nothing had been done about it. At best she could hitch her heavy guns to trucks and drag them between positions, but this took so long that changes to the defensive plan could not be feasibly made in the middle of an air battle. In desperation she could also bolt a gun to the bed of a truck, but this feat of engineering was sloppy and unsound.

Her plan called for the guns to be dispersed to cover as much of the air as possible.

Inevitably, as some sectors faced stronger air presence than others, these would be forced to engage disproportionately larger amounts of aircraft. Perhaps her strange powers could support those forced to carry that burden, when the time to do so came.

In the northern district, a large urban park had been quickly taken over by an anti-air battery. Here Lt. Bogana oversaw deployment of a battery of three 85mm guns, five 57mm and three 37mm guns, each with a crew of four to six people to load, traverse, fire and an additional, relatively more experienced gun commander who would handle communication and complex sighting. Together they would cover a whole neighborhood from air attack.

Bogana had survived the battle along the border with Cissea several days ago, where Madiha had relied on him to command guns holding a hilltop along the border against an armored assault. He had met her expectations then, and she had elevated him to the role of battlegroup artillery commander and gun crew trainer, a demanding task.

He was pleased with her visit. When he saw her car driving up the multi-purpose path along the center of the park, Bogana had everyone stand in attention.

“Greetings, Major!” He said. “The 6th Ox Anti-Air Battery is at your disposal!”

Behind him the men and women (some closer to boys and girls) saluted at once.

“Thank you!” Madiha replied. “I am pleased with your dedication and discipline, comrades. While I speak with your commanding officer, please ready your guns for a fire exercise. I hope to impart some of my own knowledge to you this day.”

Parinita had a clipboard in her hand and seemed to be pretending that she was busy.

“Hear that comrades? Bring out the air targets and the launcher!” Bogana called out.

Everyone seemed excited, especially the younger soldiers. They looked as though they had been biting their nails waiting for a chance to get behind their guns. They quickly scrambled to their positions and prepared themselves, while Bogana’s aides crewed a small aircraft catapult from the back of a nearby truck. This launcher would deploy small wooden planes, launching them one at a time straight into the air to serve as the “fast moving” targets for practice. Kites were gathered as well to represent “slow moving” targets.

From afar it probably looked like a hobbyist gathering in the middle of the park: flying kites, tossing gliders, having fun. Though perhaps the cannons ruined the imagery.

There was a lot of energy in the air, and Madiha was glad for it.

Even Parinita found something to do.

She produced a stopwatch and had begun “gathering data.”

At first Madiha knew precious little in detail about crewing an anti-air gun, but the moment she laid hands on one of the guns she knew that she would not fail to employ it correctly. Ever since she was a child, that was one thing that never flitted out of her memory, one thing she could hold on to and know for certain. She would pick up a weapon and never fail to employ it. In visiting the battery, she hoped to test those out of body experiences of hers with multiple people and more complex gunnery, as well as play the good commander.

Instruction was a good cover: she figured if she used her ability in the future, soldiers would not be so keen to suspect the rapid improvement in their aim if they had previously received training. They would believe they had improved organically.

While the gun crews prepared, Lt. Bogana beckoned Madiha aside.

“Great to see you here major. Lt. Purana and I have been spreading the word about you, and how you took command in the border, and I think it will do our comrades good to see their commander walking among them in these uncertain times.”

“Your support is invaluable.” Madiha said. “How are the troops holding up?”

“Most of them know up from down, at least, and they’re keeping busy enough. I’ve heard a couple words of discontent, but I sorted them out right quick. I think most people just don’t know what makes a good commander these days. We barely ever got see or hear a word from Gowon, but when we most needed it, you were right there. Folks around here might silently doubt you, but the people at the border, we know, Major.”

Madiha wondered what exactly she did that was so revolutionary.

At the border she gave simple instructions that basically any commander should have known. Lt. Purana had gathered much of the gun line on his own. When she took command she barked orders that should have been instinctual. Fire at the enemy, hold the line, hit the sides of tanks, organize artillery and fight back; what part of this made her a good commander? She was not about to give herself undue credit for that.

Of course she could not doubt herself in front of the troops, so she graciously accepted every compliment Lt. Bogana wanted to throw her way. However she could not help but wonder if it was her strange power that influenced them. Perhaps her only genius was being born some kind of monster, and not anything learned or practiced.

Perhaps it was nothing that she could be proud of.

She knew so little about what was happening to her.

Never had she been so uncertain about everything.

“Thank you.” She said. “Keep the troops focused Lieutenant, but please do not be harsh to those who disagree with me. I can understand their point of view. I have already taken actions and made decisions that I know I will regret, and be made to regret further.”

“Well, it’s not as if I am swatting their heads. But it’s important they respect you.”

“Avoid pushing the subject too far. I hope to win them over in time.” Madiha said.

“I understand.” Lt. Bogana said. “I’m sure it will happen once the cheese starts frying.”

Madiha feigned a little laughter at his metaphor.

Parinita, meanwhile, laughed raucously.

Soon the demonstration was ready. First the crews fired at large kites and balloons, hitched on tough cables and thrown into the strong wind around Bada Aso. They were raised to different altitudes, some several kilometers high. Crates of practice ammunition with low amounts of explosive were cracked open and the rounds distributed among the crews. They would explode, but less violently than real ammunition.

When enough targets had gone up, and enough ammo around, Madiha blew a whistle to order the crews to begin firing. At once the battery lit up the sky – for a very restrained definition of ‘lit up.’ It was not a terribly impressive showing.

Crew performance was extremely homogenous against the relatively stationary kites and balloons: the inexperienced crews encountered similar problems when loading and firing the smaller 37mm as they did loading the larger 57mm and 85mm.

As such none of the guns covered each other; furthermore Madiha found them all aiming at the same targets and altitudes. She saw tracers fly quite sloppily overhead.

“Comrades, do not aim directly at the targets!” Madiha shouted in a firm but well-meaning voice during the exercise. She had noticed all of the crews traversing their guns and trying to aim directly for the stationary targets. It was a very bad habit to pick up, as it would lead them to waste time trying to score direct hits as if they were shooting at a tank with AP rounds. “In a real combat situation you would be firing high explosives! It is fine to ‘miss’ because the fragmentation will harm the target on a close ‘miss’. Shoot near your target, lead into it. Furthermore, 37mm guns should aim at the lowest altitude targets, while the 85mm guns should focus on the highest altitude targets. Let me show you!”

Madiha rushed toward one of the guns and placed herself among the crews.

When she closed in on a 37mm gun, the second her fingers brushed the metal she was already adept with it. All of the information came to her immediately. She picked up a shell, loaded it, traversed the gun with the help of the crew, and she opened fire. She “missed” one of the low-flying kites, but the small fireworks pop from the gun struck it. From the 37mm she hopped to an 85mm and repeated the process. Within moments everyone in the park was clamoring for the commander to help them with their own gunnery.

Her insights were limited, she thought, and this was all basic stuff.

But everyone was impressed.

“Let us pass on the kites,” Madiha called out to Lieutenant Bogana, “Launch the moving targets, and load some real ammunition this time. They need to see the effect their real rounds will have. I think that will do far better to prepare them.”

Lt. Bogana grinned. “You’re in for a treat, troops.” He called out.

The target truck drove out of the park and out into the street, towing a cart full of extra planes. An aide pushed a wheeled table with several radio consoles out into the field.

Bogana took one of the consoles, and from it he could control the little planes sent out from the catapult, via radio-remote-control, a relatively new technology that had found little military use save for target practice. He seemed quite enthused.

From what Parinita told her about the little targets, Madiha understood why live fire exercises on moving targets such as these were not often performed under Gowon’s leadership. Certainly it seemed wasteful to destroy these clever little machines using live ammunition. But the experience would be invaluable for the crews. It had to be done.

Honking the truck’s horn, the aides signaled to the crews their intention to launch.

They raised the catapult ramp and launched the first plane into the sky.

Lt. Bogana twisted knobs and pulled on sticks on the console, causing the plane to zip around in the air. It was small compared to real piloted plane; about the size of a human being, and also slower than a real plane. Its maneuverability was similar, however.

Madiha joined a 57mm crew and waited for the plane to fly up two or three kilometers. Still visible against the gray sky, but a challenging target due to its size, at the limits of her vision. Bogana banked and dove the craft the way a real plane would attempt, and the crews were mesmerized by the speed of their new target compared to the ones before.

Again with the help of the crew Madiha lead her aim onto the target.

The 57mm made a loud snapping sound when it fired.

Overhead there was a large explosion and a cloud of smoke.

Pieces of the little plane fell over the field a few kilometers away, shredded by fragments. Soldiers began to clap and cheer for her, clamoring for another go.

She felt quite uncomfortable with the accolades.

Soon more planes started to go up, and more consoles brought out to control them, more staff to coordinate the exercise, and Madiha stepped aside. She had given the crews enough instruction. Standing back from the guns, she and Parinita watched the crews open fire. Dozens of shells went up in the air, many overflying their target and exploding uselessly, many more undershooting, and several exploding meters away from effective range. Madiha tried to recall the people she had briefly met while going from gun to gun.

Names like Private Adebe and Sergeant Rutva. Names and ranks, letter by letter, she concentrated her mind on them. It became easier to lose herself in each name now that she knew the trick to it, and her ghostly exported self flitted from person to person with new alacrity: but the impossible task now was seeing through their eyes.

She felt as though lying down near the ocean, her body pushed and pulled with the invisible rhythm of the tides. But it was not the moist, cold embrace of water but fire that swept over her, somehow exerting strength and heat over her mind and body.

Her consciousness projected outside again. She had “switched on” her strange power.

At the border she knew she had seen through the eyes of Private Adesh Gurunath, she had been directly inside of his mind. Now however she was like a ghost, haunting bodies but unable to emphatically connect with them. Her point of view floated over and around people but could not tap into their essence, could not fully immerse herself in them.

Over the shoulder of a certain Private Panchala she looked up at the plane, and the tendrils sweeping forth from her pushed his hands, guiding him gently so that he traversed the gun just enough, so that he helped just enough to load a round faster, so that the crew could fire – and then hit. Everybody celebrated, congratulating the crew that scored the hit. Madiha felt the explosion rattle her brains. Her phantom body both became incredibly heavy and immobile, while also turning fluid and incoherent. It was distressing.

Her vision swam, and she got the sudden, sick sensation of seeing her body from outside it. Yet her body was also seeing, and it saw the projection, like a wraith of smoke, like the outline of a body cast by the only light in a dark room. She felt disoriented.

It was her and it wasn’t. It looked at her, and she looked at herself.

This was the monster inside her; was it becoming easier to control it?

Or was the pain worsening?

Forced back into her flesh, Madiha staggered back, covering her nose and mouth with her hands. She thought she would bleed or vomit. She felt her eyes and head burning and her stomach and chest retching and shuddering as if sucking something down.

Parinita caught her. She had nearly fallen over from the pain and disorientation.

“Whoa! Major, what’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“I’m feeling a touch dizzy.” Madiha lied. “It might be smoke from the shells.”

Parinita withdrew a handkerchief from her jacket and handed it to Madiha.

“We might want to get going then.” Parinita said. “We have to go to the port also, remember? And you should talk to a medic too, I think, if you’re still feeling unwell later. All the stress and lack of sleep might be catching up to you, Major.”

“A few minutes more. I will be fine.” Madiha said.

She stood again, and she heard Bogana’s voice warp and waver as he shouted to continue the exercise. Madiha felt nauseous and weak as she tried to lose herself again, to separate that avatar of her power from her flesh. When her perspective ripped from her body and took flight again it was weak and blurry, its eyesight terribly diminished.

She reached out to the nearest familiar gun crew, and she tried to touch all of them at once with her tendrils, but to no avail. Helplessly Madiha watched her mental appendages dissipate in front of her, and she found herself propelled again into her body.

As though struck by a cannonball she fell back into Parinita once more, who gasped loudly as she caught her weak, limp-limbed commander for the second time.

Lt. Bogana noticed the commander’s collapse, as did many of the soldiers, and he shouted for the gun crews to keep focused on the sky. Handing his remote control console to a staff member he rushed to the Major’s side and snapped his fingers near her.

“Commander, can you hear me? We have a clinic not far from here, are you unwell?”

Madiha’s mind was swimming. She could hardly see in front of her face, and could barely hear voices speaking to her. Vaguely conscious of her surroundings, she mustered the presence to shake her head and say, “I have been working too hard, that is all.”

She would not leave abruptly. She stood again, on legs that keen observers saw lightly shaking under the weight of her upright body. Unsupervised, the troops had managed to knock down the test planes on their own after going through many explosive rounds.

Lt. Bogana called them to attention again, and Madiha congratulated them, and reassured them that they were prepared to face the enemy. She told them to pass on what they had learned to all of their comrades and to become good officers themselves in the future. Parinita stood close as the Major spoke, in case her hands were needed. Soldiers clapped for the Major, though on many faces there was clear concern for their leader.


21-AG-30 Evening

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Coastline

“Madiha, are you sure you want to do this? I think we should go back and rest.” Parinita said. Her stuttering had grown pronounced, and she was practically shouting every word as though it would be her last. She was driving now, was constantly correcting and overcorrecting on the steering wheel, shifting the scout car to the wrong gears, and she could only turn corners by braking to a snail’s pace and accelerating into them little by little.

Madiha would not have been surprised if this was her very first time driving a vehicle outside of basic instruction. Nonetheless she had insisted in driving, and insisted that Madiha keep her head tipped back against the seat, with a wet, warm cloth over her forehead. They ate peanuts, strips of flatbread and dry, roasted chickpeas out of a box, and it seemed to Madiha that more of the food flew from the box than was actually eaten.

“Madiha, I asked if you were sure–”

“I’m becoming gradually certain that I do not want you to drive.” Madiha replied.

Parinita blinked hard and took her eyes off the road. “Oh, wow; I can’t believe I’d hear a sarcastic joke from you of all people! I meant if you wanted to go the port or not! Now it’s my turn to tell to you not to be coy and to consider my words, Madiha!”

“I was not being sarcastic! Please, Parinita, park the car and surrender the wheel!”

“No! You need to rest. If we’re going to the port, you need to be fresh and relaxed.”

No sooner had Parinita completed the sentence that both of them jumped from their seats as the scout car took a sudden bump in the road very roughly. Parinita hit the steering wheel with her chest, and Madiha’s head snapped forward and back against the seat.

Had the road defect been any worse they might have been completely ejected from the car! It had no canopy and the windshield was not of great quality.

Still, Parinita refused to cede the wheel to Madiha.

She drove them out to the waterfront, stopping and starting and swerving side to side whenever she sped up, going over every bang and bump. She had navigated using a map of the city and took several wrong paths. They were further south than they were meant to, atop the stone ramparts overlooking the low, sandy beaches of the Ayvarta’s western coast.

Embarrassed but determined, Parinita switched gears needlessly and drove them up the coastline for forty-five minutes. Gradually the beach receded, and the water rose. From quite afar they spied the port along the large artificial harbor, a projection composed of thousands of tons of concrete straddling the old stone ramparts on the coast.

Building it had been quite a project, and the Empire did not fully complete it before falling. The Socialist Dominance of Solstice, however, had quickly finished the job after the Revolution, and for a time had very busy trade with the outside world.

Almost no commercial vessels occupied the harbor now. Many had fled.

In their place there was one very visible heavy cruiser, the Revenant.

Almost 200 meters across, the Revenant had a long thick hull, ungainly but reliable and heavily armed. A main turret containing two 300mm guns was supported by six 37mm guns organized in three pairs that acted as an anti-air defense, and six 100mm dual-purpose guns organized in pairs for both air and surface combat, as well as several machine guns.

Bristling with weapons, packed with sailors ready to fight, it was one of the proudest ships of the Ayvartan navy, more effective perhaps than even its capital ships.

Parinita whistled again, the same as she did seeing the tanks.

Madiha was not planning on keeping this gift.

“Are you feeling hot, Madiha?” Parinita asked out of the blue.

“No, I am not.” Madiha replied. “I am room temperature, I suppose.”

“Alright, good. I think your condition is bettering then.”

“I already told you it was. I’m driving on the way back.”

They parked along the water and Parinita offered to help Madiha walk to the ship, but the help was not necessary. Madiha had recovered fully from her bitter failure to reengage her powers. Though overwhelming at first, the pain and confusion was shorter-lived than she imagined. As soon as they pulled away from Lt. Bogana’s air defense zone Madiha recovered her senses. She hesitated to say that she was becoming more used to employing her eerie, nameless gift, but she nursed that secret hope. Parts of her hated and feared this power and what it meant; but her pragmatic side believed that if she could channel it and use it sparingly and without discovery, she might inflict brutal damage on Nocht.

But that was not the plan, not right now. It could not be. It was simply too uncertain.

Madiha led the way up the steps to the bow of the ship, where five marines, the captain, and her executive officer. Captain-At-Sea Monashir was a younger woman than Madiha would have thought would be in command of such a vessel.

She was dressed sharply in her full uniform, with her hair in a bun and a pair of glasses perched on her nose. Madiha and Parinita looked disheveled in front of her.

“Good evening, Major.”

Evening it was. Madiha had scarcely taken notice of the growing darkness. She was running out of time and simply could not muster much eloquence anymore. She was exhausted and had a heavy heart and mind. She made her case quickly.

“Evening, Captain. I’m afraid I haven’t much time. But I must insist that you depart.”

“We’ve just barely arrived, Major.” Captain Monashir explained.

“Then it will be that much easier for you to depart anew.” Madiha continued. “Our air defenses cannot protect the Revenant from a sustained bombing by the Luftlotte. I must request that you leave for the ports in Tambwe, and return in two weeks time with any naval resources that the Admiral can spare. Right now it is too dangerous for you remain.”

Captain Monashir shook her head. “Do you know if you will control the port by then?”

“You can smash it back into our grasp if necessary.” Madiha said.

Parinita handed the Captain a copy of the operational plan as well as the now slightly inaccurate Table of Organization. Captain Monashir glanced at them before handing them to her XO and crossing her arms. She sighed a little bit.

“Admiral Qote ordered me to follow your orders, and I shall. I will attempt to remain in radio contact with your office as much as I can, but I cannot promise anything at sea. I hope you understand what you are doing, Major.” The Captain said.

She had reason to be wary. She was not with the army, and not at the border; she was not one of those few people with a glowing view of Madiha. She had every right to be skeptical and she exercised those rights. Clearly this was what people outside the situation thought. Madiha was unprepared and foolish and making poor decisions.

“Godspeed, Captain.” Madiha said. She and Parinita departed the heavy cruiser.


21-AG-30 Late Evening

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Coastline

The Major was burning again. Whenever they were together, the burning was less terrible to behold, but the fire behind her eyes was so bad now that blood was seeping from the sockets. Could nobody see this but Parinita? Could nobody help her?

While Madiha spoke with the Captain, Parinita had tried her best to do what she learned from her grandmother’s superstitions. Surreptitiously she blew on the flame, she swiped away the flame. Why was this something only she could do?

In a panic all those questions seemed to flood her again. She could not let Madiha know about the burning; it was too crazy, too horrible. But it all bore out; the burning was really getting worse all this time. Madiha might go up in flames.

But her labors seemed to bear results. By the time Captain Monashir had accepted her orders, Madiha’s eyes had returned to their dull, sorrowful old facet. Parinita breathed a sigh of relief, and tried to ask if she felt hot. There was no response.

Scarcely fifteen minutes had passed since they arrived at the port before they were off the ship again. Standing over the edge of the pier they watched the Revenant prepare again to sail into the darkness. An hour passed, and the ship was off with the last hints of the sun.

Slowly becoming a sliver of lights playing about the moonlit surface of the sea, the ship’s departure was a strange sight on which to hang up another day.

Madiha looked exhausted.

They climbed into the scout car and then started the drive back, but Madiha soon stopped again and parked along the ramparts overlooking the sea.

She stepped out of the car and leaned on the edge barriers.

Parinita joined her.

She did not ask when they were going to return to the headquarters. She knew that Madiha needed a little break, and that it had been a heavy day, and given no combat had occurred, heavier days yet awaited them. After a long quiet period she decided to speak up.

Perhaps it was time again for a film night!

Anything to try to distract the both of them from their situation.

“Is it fine if I call you Madiha?” Parinita said. “While we’re away from work.”

“I don’t mind. You’ve been doing so all this time.” Madiha said.

“True. Just making sure!” Parinita replied. “So, what was the first film you saw?”

Madiha stared at her for a moment, but then she smiled and complied.

“I cannot remember the name. I was about five or six years old at the time. One day the nuns at the orphanage took us to see it as a treat for some holiday. It was a very tedious religious film, even worse because it was silent, so I nodded off a lot.”

“Ah, yes, talkies didn’t exist back then. We’ve only had talkies for ten years or so now.”

“As a teen and adult I watched films mostly on dates or out with friends.” Madiha said.

Parinita nodded. She took a deep breath and she laughed a little telling the long story of her first film. It was something she had rehearsed a little in her own mind.

“When I was a kid I went to the theater multiple times a week. I practically lived out of the theater. My grandmother took care of me while my mother was out, and she thought I was tedious to look after, so she would send me to the theater with money to ‘get looked after.’ And nobody at the theater really cared who watched what films.”

She took a little breath, all of the sights flashing in her mind. She continued. “So I always watched grown-up pictures and not the kiddie shows. My first was a silent slapstick movie from Nocht, Well-Mannered Mr. Krauss. Mr. Krauss was clumsy and he hurt himself a lot. He fell down pits and got hit by doors and he tripped and smashed into a cart full of cabbages. At the time I laughed. I feel bad about it now that I’m a clumsy adult.”

Madiha looked surprised and elated with her. She seemed on the verge of laughter, but just controlled enough to appear merely fond of the anecdote. “You have an incredible memory.” She said, holding her hand up to her mouth for a fraction of a second.

“For remembering slapstick movies, maybe.” Parinita laughed.

“I would probably laugh at some simple slapstick. I don’t like deep comedies much; especially social comedies. They make me cringe when I watch them.”

“Ah, so something like The Wedding of Dr. Franz would not please you?”

Madiha smiled. “I have actually watched that, and no, it did not please me.”

“I knew you had to have seen it. It has been extremely popular these past few years. Even aired dubbed on the television in Solstice and Bada Aso and a few other cities that have television service. It’s seen extremely wide distribution for such a fool’s film.”

“I must say I despise those kinds of films. I hate humiliation and social comedy.”

“I agree! Slapstick is cruel, but you can write slapstick so other people aren’t to blame.”

“Perhaps that’s what it is. I lack an explanation for my preference. I simply feel discomforted by humiliating situations. I can’t laugh at them at all.”

“On the other hand though, slapstick has more violence. You can draw blood in slapstick. So when you watch a slapstick flick, if it gets too intense, like when they try to incorporate guns going off, it can make you a little sad too. So I don’t know if it’s better.”

Madiha laughed nervously. “Talking with you makes me feel that I am the type of person who pushes aside introspection too much. I’ve never really thought about this.”

“Oh, well, don’t worry about it. I think we all do that a lot. Especially in times like this, we need to push through the bad brains and focus on the job at hand don’t we? But when it comes to films, I’m always thinking on what I got out of watching.”

In truth Parinita simply channeled her own runaway mind into a hobby, so that the spectacle of film would drown out her innermost insecurities when work could not be called upon to do so. She supposed Madiha did the same but she either channeled them into work, or when work was not available, she allowed them to devour her. At least now Parinita could occupy her with silly things about film and waste both of their time.

And it gave her an opportunity to try to dull the flames otherwise gnawing at Madiha from within. She could see it behind her eyes, like in her grandmother’s stories.

When she first saw those eyes she felt a sense of urgency.

To her grandmother these stories had been so important; more important than Parinita herself. They had been her grandmother’s life. But now, what could Parinita even do? How could she save Madiha? She hadn’t even known Madiha at all when she first saw those burning, sorrowful eyes. Did she even know her at all right now? One thing she knew was that her presence seemed to dull the flames. Grandmother had been incredibly cryptic and cruel, and her stories full of poison, but Parinita was too kind. She could not write off Madiha’s fate as some superstition, and the more she partnered with the Major the more that felt driven to do something about her condition, to support her however she could.

The burning was not as intense now, but a tiny flame was nursed again in Madiha.

Parinita reached out while Madiha was fixated on the moon shining in the water. She grabbed some of the flame. She smothered it in her hands. Parinita could do this too. At all costs she could not allow Madiha to burn up like that. It was too horrible a fate. If only she had paid more attention to those wicked old stories; she would know more of what to do.

Quickly, she changed the subject to gossip that Madiha could contribute to.

“I was wondering, how do you know Inspector Kimani? Not to sound untoward, Madiha, but you two seem to have more than a working relationship, to me.”

“She was one of the first people I ever really knew.” Madiha said. “I spent my childhood in an orphanage, and then on the streets. Such a situation precludes truly knowing anyone; other people are enigmas one must beware. Kimani was the closest thing I had to an acquaintance or friend; everyone else was a guardian or a mentor, or gone.”

“I suspected it was something like that based on how you talked to each other. In Gowon’s office everyone had to be really stiff to each other. You cultivate a lot of familiarity around yourself. Not that I mind. I like being able to talk to my boss.”

Madiha stared at her for a moment as though unsure of how she should feel about this.

“Well, if you are comfortable with it, then that is fine with me. I don’t really try to do anything untoward or casual with my command. It is merely that I have no opinion of how I am addressed.” Madiha said. “My rank has never really meant anything, as I was always subordinate to Kimani. I was staff to her in the same way that you are staff to me. I still have that kind of relationship to most soldiers I suppose.”

“You don’t have to explain it! It’s nice, that’s all. So how did you meet Kimani?”

Now it was Madiha’s turn to sigh and to attempt to construct a narrative.

“We were working together during the revolution. I was a courier, when I was seven years old or so. She was one of the many people to whom I brought letters. One of the revolutionaries. We had our own code; certain people wrote letters in it that contained organizational plans, sabotage, intrigues, and so on. I delivered letters to many people. Each of them had their own predilections that I would come to discover. Kimani was much more concerned for my well-being than the others. We would sit and talk, and she would teach me things. She would give me changes of clothes and food. Other people just took my letters and looked the other way as I struggled out in the world.”

“Ah, I see. I’m glad you had someone like that. Kind of like an older sister to you?”

“I can’t really say. I never had siblings or parents. Kimani was just Kimani to me.”

“Well, if it means anything, she sounds like a better parent than mine! My mom would have looked the other way. She might have even thought I was a nuisance to take care of. Heck, sometimes she even pretended I wasn’t her child. So hey, you dodged a bullet!”

All those words had come out so easily. They were bitter and didn’t hurt anymore. Parinita had gotten too used to the taste of that vinegar. Others would have been shocked, but Madiha, whose life had been so irregular, did not seem to understand their magnitude. Her eyes were still cast on the water off the coast. Sorrowful and unchanging, hiding that fearsome, eroding fire. She was a strange woman. Her grandmother had never made it clear what kind of person the Warlord could even turn out to be in any given era.

Parinita thought it would have been a man, like a knight.

Or nobility, like the former Emperor.

Instead it was Madiha, gazing sorrowfully at the sky and water as though trying to find something buried in the dark, something that fire in her eyes could not illuminate. Slowly burning, dying, with no knowledge of what was really happening.

“I like to think that I have progressed past the life of that child,” Madiha said, presumably referring to herself. “But I don’t really know a lot about her life so in turn I can’t really know if I’ve changed. I was told I was very precocious during the revolution.”

“People don’t change a whole lot, I don’t think. You probably weren’t that different!”

“Perhaps they don’t and perhaps I wasn’t. It simply gnaws at me not to know.”

“Well, maybe life just doesn’t work that way for anyone. Maybe time is just nonsense outside of a film story.” Parinita said, guiding them haphazardly back into Film Night, and away from that minefield of personal anguish. “In films everything is all neat and tidy and happens in a line. People get stronger, they learn new things; it’s really dramatic, isn’t it? People in real life don’t experience things like that, and that’s okay! Unlike in the films we have more than the sixty or ninety minutes to make up for problems along the way.”

“Perhaps.” Madiha said. Her eyes smoldered again. Sorrowful, burning; slowly dying.

“We’re limited.” Parinita said sadly. “But we can still change the course of things!”

“I suppose so.”

“Your plan, for example. I’m confident we will give Nocht a good whacking!”

From the look on the Major’s face this was not a happy topic. She had seen Madiha concoct the plan in the back of their half-track, bitterly and tentatively, agonizing over it. In the end it appeared that she had accepted the plan, and everyone in the staff agreed. To them it was just words on paper, positions on a map, an order of battle, a route of supply. These were things pinned to a board that they had to make reality, they were abstract.

You could put your faith in abstractions, like you could with the plots of fantastic films.

To Madiha though, the defense of the city was probably a lot more real. Parinita realized her insensitivity then and her gregarious, cheerful nature was muted for a moment.

“I would not be so quick to throw your hopes behind Operation Hellfire.” Madiha finally said, in a dull, detached voice. “It is brutal and bloody, heinous, wasteful. I never thought the first operation I would command would be a defense in depth. There are times where I wish I could die in place of all the people who will be thrown against Nocht; and not just in this operation but in the coming months. I feel weak, Parinita.”

“Don’t say that Madiha! You are very important! As important as any rifleman!”

“They sacrifice blood and flesh, while I hide behind them. I am unimportant.”

“Then what about me?” She asked clumsily. “How important is someone like me?”

Parinita shocked herself with the response, and how easily she had said it, and Madiha was shocked even more. Her eyes drew wide and her expression bore a note of horror. It was a Madiha unlike any she had ever seen looking back at her. She was turning pale. Those simple words had invoked something terrible in her mind.

“I am so sorry.” Madiha said. “Forgive me. I was a fool. In no way did I mean–”

“Nah, it’s okay!” Parinita hastily said and patted her shoulder. “It’s okay!”

Her eyes did not burn any harder despite the clear anguish building in her face. So it was not hardship that made them burn. Thank the Spirits for that. Had it been, Parinita thought to herself that she might have killed the Major on this night.

Both of them pretended to move forward from that, but Parinita knew that neither of them would think of anything but that painful exchange until morning. They returned to headquarters after hours of staring at the water and sky, finishing their trail ration along the way. Departing the scout car they exchanged awkward goodnight wishes and went their separate ways. Parinita felt very stupid lying on her stretcher in the office, covered in a medical blanket, feeling cold and weeping lightly about everything.

She knew she had cost Madiha a night’s worth of sleep and she felt grotesque for it. She had said something haunting. It was something that had haunted her for very long and now she had set it on Madiha atop all of her other problems. She bit the flesh on the side of her thumb in frustration, and managed very little sleep herself.


22-AG-30 Morning

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Rail Yard

Rail traffic showed no signs of slowing down the following morning. Several new trains passed through Bada Aso, including a very long train carrying numerous tanks and half-tracks for the 5th KVW Mechanized Division. This train was immediately ordered to ship out to the middle of the Kalu and deploy its cargo there. Thirty minutes later a passenger train carrying the infantry component of the 5th Mechanized arrived as well, and Kimani was about to set foot through its door when a car pulled up behind the platform.

Madiha Nakar quickly exited the vehicle and climbed the platform, breathing heavily. Dark bags had developed under her eyes, but they were hard to see due to her brown skin. She had at least taken the time to comb her hair. But clearly she was upset.

“Chinedu, at least have the heart to wait a moment for me to properly see you off!”

Kimani turned to her. Her face was inexpressive. “Apologies. I didn’t expect this.”

“I suppose I should have other priorities; but you cannot blame me for this.”

“I would not do that.” Kimani said. “But it is very pernicious for you to prioritize me.”

“I understand you’ve lost feelings for me; but I can’t lose them for you. I just can’t.”

“I have not lost all feeling. Only some. Everyone in the KVW still has feeling.”

Madiha balled up her hands into fists and avoided eye contact. She felt like a child.

“I understand why you’re leaving.” She said. “I’m not small. I can’t hide behind you.”

“That is part of it, yes. But you are wrong: I am not leaving you, Madiha.”

Madiha shook her head. Her voice started to crack. “You know what I mean!”

“No. I am not, in any way that you imagine, leaving you. I will never leave you.”

Madiha scarcely allowed her to finish speaking.

She threw herself at Kimani, wrapping her arms tight behind the woman’s back and throwing her head into her chest. She was weeping, and she did not want Kimani to see it, even if the heard the sobs, even if she felt the quivering. She did not want Kimani to see the tears. Kimani in turn wrapped her own arms around Madiha, and brushed her hair like a mother would to her child. She felt Kimani’s chin and nose against her head and she wondered whether the Inspector was weeping too. She never confirmed it.

“I only wish I could have been a real protector to you. Perhaps I will yet make that up.” Kimani said. “All I have done is wrong you. Perhaps I will make amends for everything that has happened. Please understand Madiha; I’m trying to make things right.”

They stood on that platform for close to fifteen minutes.

It was hard to let go. It was near impossible to watch the train depart.

She never even saw Kimani’s face as the train separated them. Madiha was not sure that she left the station any better or worse than she entered it. She was hollowed out, and she was not done crying. She knew there would be many more tears to come. She knew none of this was definitive. None of this was a forging experience. But she left it, and she breathed, and her heart thrashed. Time passed. She still stood upon the earth.

There was a burning inside her, and a monster yawning to life.

She was not ready, but not yet gone. Her heart was faltering, but not broken.


22-AG-30 ????????

Adler 1, reporting in.”

Adler 2, reporting in.”

Reports came in. All Adlers reported. Three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

Frequencies toggled.

Falke 8, let’s show them the Blitz part of the Blitzkrieg huh fellas?”

Falke 9, just shut up and fly Falke 8 for Messiah’s sake.”

“Falke 10 just quietly following the luftgruppe.

“Affirmative luftgruppe, all of Falkegruppe is ready. Milans, report.”

Milan 3, going steady, ready to dive on target on mark.”

One by one the calls came in and were logged by flight command.

All Call-Signs reported in. Dozens of planes in groups making up hundreds of planes.

Quick Archer monoplanes speeding forward with their cannons ready to shed blood. Thicker, slower, more heavily armed Warlock dive-bombers and ground-attack craft followed, waiting to take their precise bites out of buildings and armor. Wizard bombers lumbered somewhere far overhead, bearing their apocalyptic payloads of hundreds of heavy bombs that would not spare the innocent from the guilty. The Luftlotte was bringing its force to bear. Flight command cheered that they had the planes to darken a clear sky, and they had a dark sky already. Soon the Battle for Bada Aso would begin in earnest.

“We are approaching our attack vectors. City is in sight, over.”

“Roger. Give them commies some hell for us, boys.”


NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Maw of Hell

Stoking Hell’s Fire — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of psychological distress.


20th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Morning

Adjar Dominance — Bada Aso Region, Foot Of The Kalu

Madiha found herself suspended in a void.

A dim and invisible light source allowed her to tell her own body from the infinite darkness. She sat, alone, in a soundless, mostly sightless place, holding her legs against her chest. An enclosure around her forced her head bowed, her legs squeezed in, and her arms locked tight. Her enclosure seemed to turn around her, and sometimes a corner would scrape her head, or an edge would brush against her legs. She was trapped in an invisible, moving cage. It was only big enough to hold her body, and not even her actual body.

She was a child inside the moving walls.

She was the androgynously-dressed little girl who passed beneath the notice of the guards in the city of Bada Aso to deliver key letters between the ideologues who would eventually overthrow the Empire; the child who would eventually be taken to the capital to see the start of the Revolution. To take part in it. Perhaps even to cause it.

Her heart was gone. In its place there was a candle. Her only light.

She felt it burning in her child-like chest. She was a child of the Revolution.

A child who was exploited; they used you until your flame was dead.

Her body started to grow. And the flame blew out. She was entirely in the dark. She felt her legs growing longer, her arms, her back, stressed against the gyrating walls. She was being crushed. Who exploited her? She didn’t remember anything about a flame, anything about being used. Her memories of the Revolution were vague. She was so young; she didn’t truly understand the death she saw. Skin brushed against the enclosure, pounded against it, stressed, ripped, bled; her body was her adult body, and it compacted.

She felt bone breaking and flesh splitting.

All of that death; she had forgotten it. She forgot that she caused it.

You had a spark of the World Flame. Your spark burnt so powerfully that the shine was seen through your eyes. But Warlord, your eyes don’t shine over the battlefield anymore, not like they used to. They used your spark to start their revolution; they burnt through all of you. That was not the conflict you were born for.

Now you are a shade of your true self. You will lose your destined battle.

Madiha started to choke. She could see a figure outside the box, watching.

There was a figure outlined in the darkness, featureless, sexless; all at once naked and in leopard bands and in in uniform, brandishing a club, a shield and a throwing spear, a rifle. When the all-being spoke it did so in a hundred voices at once.

You would not be the first. Many of us failed. All of us died. History went on.

As Madiha choked to death in her little box, the figure looked at her without pity.

At least, you are remembering a little now. Maybe you will die fighting.

Screaming, she woke, but only halfway.

Everything was rattling and moving and dark.

She was in the half-track, laying in a hammock tied up to the tentpoles holding the roof tarp, but she had no way of knowing this. She was trapped in a terrified haze.

She shouted, and cried, and flailed her arms, trying to pry apart that box which had held her. Memory of the box and the man dissipated, but the physical sensation of her prison seemed fatally real now. Suddenly she felt a multitude of hands reaching out and touching her, holding her, and she heard words, but whatever was being said her ears did not pick up. All sound was drowned out in a sharp whistling, and all sight was a blur.

“Madiha!”

Parinita’s light brown face appeared before her like the moon on a clear night.

Her gentle features and her strawberry-colored hair came into focus, and her voice rose above everything else, annihilating that horrible world from which Madiha had somehow escaped. She was like a spirit in the flesh, glowing in the dark, her innocent face and soft hands seeming to reach into Madiha’s very being.

Whatever rotten thing had latched onto Madiha, those hands had ripped it from her. Her touch registered in Madiha’s senses, and she stopped struggling.

She was not trapped in a box anymore, she was not choking; she was in the radio half-track, driving to Bada Aso for that fateful battle that she had ordered everyone to prepare for. All around her were the impassive faces of KVW rifle troops. Though they wore very deadpan expressions, she could tell they were worried by the intensity with which they stared at her, and the hesitation in their normally decisive and confident movement.

Having served with the KVW for so long, she was used to the way they behaved by now. They were even easier for her to read than Parinita, and “ordinary” people. Parinita’s proximity, the softness of her expression, Madiha found it hard to understand anymore.

“Are you alright now? Were you having a bad dream?”

Though she knew that Parinita meant well, the way that she offered her sympathy rattled Madiha. It made her feel like a child running from nightmares.

An Ayvartan officer, commanding an army group with tens of thousands of soldiers, crying in her sleep, weeping as she woke from a dream. As the content of her dream began to waver and become lost in the fog of her mind, Madiha felt more foolish receiving Parinita’s sympathy than she felt relieved. However she made no show of emotion.

She nodded cryptically and stood from the hammock.

“Did I say anything in my sleep?” She asked, wiping fibers from her uniform.

“You moaned a little at first. I went to sleep;; then I heard you groaning and begging.”

“Begging?”

“It’s what you sounded like to me. Like you were pleading.” Parinita said.

Madiha shook her head. “I see. I apologize for disturbing you.”

“It’s fine.” Parinita said. She smiled. “I will pray for sweeter dreams.”

“I will pray for gods to actually answer.” Madiha replied, grinning a little.

She looked across the blank expressions of the KVW rifle troops around her.

They nodded their heads and sat on their benches again, leaning on their rifles and against the walls, understanding immediately that they were not to relate this event to anyone. Battlegroup Ox was already confused and demoralized enough; if in addition their replacement commander, whom they had been essentially coerced into accepting, was already breaking down in her sleep from shell shock, their fighting spirit would plummet.

For better or worse, Madiha had to present a strong front from now on.

Until the sun came up, Madiha rested in her hammock, but she no longer slept.

She felt a strange burning sensation in the back of her eyes, and though she tried to remember the exact content of her nightmares, it was beyond her grasp.

Knowing nothing was a familiar situation to her; in a way she knew nothing about herself first-hand. There was a stranger living in this flesh, and she did not know whether that was her, or someone else. Yet despite living with this insecurity for so long, it was always newly disturbing to realize the gaps in her existence.

As soon as the dawn came, the half-track slowed to a stop off the side of the road, and one of the KVW soldiers traded places with the sleepy driver. Two other soldiers disembarked with a toolkit, and together they checked the tires and refilled the fuel.

Parinita started making calls on the radio again, and her staff continued the difficult work of imposing order and efficiency on the scurrying elements of Battlegroup Ox, and organizing them to effectively carry out Madiha’s sweeping defensive plans.

Their work for the moment largely went on without the merest hint of oversight from their new commander. Madiha stepped out for a moment, settling down beside a withered old tree by the side of the road and catching a breath of air untainted by exhaust. She felt a tingle across her body, as though still seated against the shaky walls of the half-track.

Though she scratched her skin and scraped against the tree, she could not relax.

It grew into a discomfort in her own flesh that was familiar and disgusting.

She shook a little, feeling overwhelmed by the touch of cloth against her body, feeling trapped and tight. But even if she shook off her clothes it wouldn’t be enough: she couldn’t shake off her entire flesh. Her breathing grew a little labored and she remembered her mantras and her meditation therapy, and distracted herself from the anxiety by taking in the landscape. There was a strange comfort in the vastness and openness around her.

Between Dori Dobo and Bada Aso the terrain was flat and broad, covered in wispy grassland and a few sparsely wooded stretches. Strong winds began to blow from the north, and the skies were cloudy and foreboding. Despite the dismal weather, Madiha was easily captivated by the surroundings. There was a monumental green landscape stretching before her, with the edge of the Kalu Hilltops on the northeast, gently rising, and Bada Aso in the distance to the northwest, a long cluster of buildings rising to block her view of the coast.

She had spent the most significant years of her life in Bada Aso, and she had seen the terrain from so many angles. She had arrived to the city, starting from the rural southwest at Dori Dobo; she had come from inside the city and headed northeast to Solstice, across Tambwe straddling the foreboding mountains, and past the desert; and she had returned to Bada Aso, moving southwest again. She had left it and then returned to it from the Bakor isles. From every compass direction, it seemed, she had seen her city and its surroundings.

Familiarity never bred boredom; Bada Aso seemed new with every visit.

She cast eyes behind herself now, trying to focus on the movement of people.

It was an alien sight sometimes, to see others moving under their own power, existing apart from her. In a way though, this made them their own landscape in Madiha’s mind. She could watch them and keep herself calm. She could track them, the soldiers changing tires, the soldiers hauling fuel, the ones eating rations, the ones cleaning their rifles. Seeing them carry out their business without being under her power was strangely calming.

Soon Madiha’s suffocating anxieties had dissipated completely – for now.

Far as human landscapes were concerned, the one about to arrive at Bada Aso dwarfed anything Madiha had ever witnessed. Behind her was a convoy of thirty vehicles, many of them civilian trucks borrowed from local unions. Several such convoys, each with their own dozens of vehicles, traveled on different roads and paths, evading potential pursuit and aerial reconnaissance, ferrying the tens of thousands of soldiers that they would need.

Those soldiers who had been in a position to do so took the trains in their cities or towns and rushed ahead to Bada Aso and established themselves outside the city.

It was a massive undertaking, and even these measures did not cover all the men and women and their equipment. Many soldiers rode on tanks, bikes or even on horses.

Fuel was plentiful, though it far outstripped the supply of vehicles. Being able to run their fuel supply ragged was the one advantage that Ayvarta definitively had over Nocht, who received most of their fuel from Lubon or the Higwe dominions. Ayvartan trains could run nigh-on endlessly, and the trucks could drink heartily, in a way that their pursuers could not afford. They could run and run; but Madiha only ran as far as Bada Aso.

Her beautiful city; she had finally returned to it.

Sadly it was to witness its destruction.

All of the vehicle crews went through their own paces, and many found a few things to fix. Their stop dragged on a little. As new tires were rolled out, engines oiled, tarps adjusted, Parinita walked out to Madiha, having completed her radio calls.

Since they had met two days ago, Parinita seemed to be tackling everything with a lot more energy than Madiha expected. Her skirt had gotten a little bit dusty in the truck, and she had tied her long, wavy, and increasingly messy hair up into a high, charmingly arched ponytail. In her hands she had a piece of paper, shaking in the wind.

Madiha could see furious scribbling all over it, including the margins.

For a secretary, Parinita took some incredibly untidy notes.

“I’ve got good news, and bad news! But I think the good news outweighs the bad!” Parinita jovially said. She withdrew a pair of glasses, lightly cracked from the battle they survived at the border, and perched them on her little nose.

Madiha sat up from leaning against the tree. “Bad news first.”

“Glass half-empty kind of woman, I see?” She said, cocking a grin.

“That doesn’t even make sense.” Madiha replied. “Tell me the news.”

Parinita waved her hands. “Just trying to be personable! Anyway here goes; the Regional Council at Bada Aso is displeased that the KVW has taken command of Ox, and they would like to have a word about it with you once you get to the city.”

“Ring them up again and tell them I will meet them soon, but I have other plans first.”

“Besides that, I have a lot of good news.” Parinita said. She sat down beside Madiha on the tree, legs up to her chest, and with her head resting on atop of her legs. Looking up at Madiha, she continued.  “Okay! Evacuations are going well in north Adjar. Despite objecting to your command, the Civil Council followed your evacuation orders completely. I wager because Inspector Kimani also called Solstice yesterday and they yelled about it. So the retreat to Bada Aso is going about as well as it can at the moment.”

“I notice you didn’t mention the Center and South.” Madiha said.

Pulling her legs in even closer, Parinata shook from side to side in childish distress. “Hmm. I guess I undersold the bad news. But in a way, this is good news too. Nocht’s forces are advancing slower than expected because they’re moving to capture and consolidate the resources we have been abandoning pell-mell as we retreated. We received messages in secret from the police in Dori Dobo and Hajal that Nocht was moving in slowly. Yesterday they hardly even tried to catch up with us. Instead they went for whatever industry and agriculture didn’t make it out, and they swept around it quickly.”

Madiha sighed. “I thought they would prioritize differently. Since they aren’t chasing us, this means they want to capture the port cities to use as bases for the war effort.”

Parinita nodded. “Yes. Unfortunately, we were unable to destroy or evacuate as much as we wanted to before they grabbed it. Thankfully none of it is fuel production. All of that is farther out, past Solstice and down the Horn of Ayvarta and all of that.”

“Agriculture helps them though. We could’ve stretched their food supply.”

“We did what we could.” Parinita lifted a hand from off her leg and patted Madiha in the shoulder. “It’s a miracle we managed to evacuate anything at all with just a few hours notice. For the circumstances, we’re as well off as we can be. Now we have time to plan.”

“I’ll take your word for it. You’re good with organization, aren’t you?”

“Gowon seemed to think so. As quick as he was to make me the idiot and toss me under the cattle to the Inspector, the old fool never spent a second organizing supply schedules, drafting response plans, or considering emergency policy. That was all the staff, under my direction. Not to brag or anything.” Parinita fidgeted with one of the temples of her reading glasses. “I always worked diligently. Gowon was hardly ever around. He would just tell us to research and write reports and organize fact sheets and maps. We developed the rhetorical and factual backbone of his ideas. I never thought he could be doing anything bad. I never analyzed it. I just wrote reports and edited plans and military papers.”

“It’s not your fault.” Madiha said.

Major Gowon, the previous commander of Battlegroup Ox, had been complicit in a lot of dirty deeds. Parinita’s staff had likely helped him, unknowingly, to realize a lot of projects that would have been unfeasible without the data and planning resources available to a military branch. He was suspected of smuggling arms out, likely for Nocht to study and take apart; of helping to hoard away silver and pushing iron and lead across the border into Cissea through his family’s old mining company, with which he had devious pull.

Now he was dead.

They would never know the true extent of his crimes.

She hoped Parinita would not have to bear the weight of that sin now that Gowon’s head was sprayed across a white wall in an old warehouse on the now occupied border.

Madiha gave her a weary smile. “Parinita, I appreciate your help. I’ll have to rely on you a lot from now. This is my first big command. But hopefully I can give you better direction where it counts. I would like to work closely with a good staff.”

Parinita smiled back. “I’m already feeling more confident, Captain!”

“I’m glad. And I have a curiosity, if you have a moment to spare.”

“Alright.” Parinita said.

She appeared puzzled by the request, but she innocently accepted.

Together they stood off the roots of the decayed tree and walked a few paces around the trunk. Madiha pointed Parinita towards a cluster of trees in the distance, some twenty or thirty meters away, taller and greener than the one nearby.

In other countries, the Aster’s Gloom was the first of the ravages of cold: but in Adjar there were always plants in bloom. Fruit grew prominently from the branches of this little grove, and it was plentiful and large, and its yellow and red gradation of colors helped it to stand out from the green leaves and gray bark of the trees.

Carefully, so as not to cause Parinita any fright, Madiha withdrew her sidearm, a fairly small revolver chambered for the 7.62mm x 38 caliber. Parinita looked even more confused at first, but Madiha just wanted to give her a little demonstration. She gently drew her attention to the grove again and asked her to to cover her ears with her hands.

Holding the weapon with both hands, Madiha aimed and pulled the trigger. Parinita watched the grove in the distance. In an instant, a lone piece of fruit, severed from its branch, fell from one of the trees and into the patchy grass below it.

“Now I want you to try it.”

Madiha took Parinita’s hand and deposited the weapon on her palm.

“Back at the border, you were shooting that BKV rifle; your stance was not very good, but I could see some potential. I’m wondering how accurate you could be in a more relaxed setting. Nobody is going to interfere, so take your time and line up the shot.”

Madiha closed Parinita’s fingers around the weapon.

Parinita began to stutter. “I c-c-certainly can’t land a hit like yours!”

“I never miss what I am aiming; but I’m telling you, I think you can do it.”

There were ulterior motives, but Madiha certainly did feel she would be able to do it.

Standing behind Parinita, Madiha instructed her on a better posture for target shooting.

She patted Parinita’s legs gently, coaxing her legs closer together, and bending her knees just a little; she pulled Parinita’s arms, which she had fully extended with the weapon, to a more relaxed position, so she could retract and extend more easily; and she taught her how to hold the revolver with both of her hands. Three fingers and thumb around the grip, index finger along the frame, and her off-hand over the main hand with the thumbs together on the side of the weapon opposite her shooting finger. Parinita’s hands were a little shaky, and when she fired her first shot, she hit the trunk of the tree.

“Don’t be discouraged.” Madiha said. “Try again.”

Madiha stood close by her and helped Parinita to align the gun’s iron sights and to properly aim at her target. All the while, however, her mind was on other matters entirely. Back at the border, Madiha knew that she had seen through the eyes of a soldier, and that she had subconsciously improved the aim of a gun team firing on the Nochtish assault guns.

This was no dream, she remembered it perfectly.

She had not passed out or had a shell shock episode; odd as it sounded, she knew that she had left her body behind entirely and occupied another mind. Though the sensation was all but gone from her memory, Madiha knew that she could do it again.

She had to coax out this strange ability.

Ever since she was little, Madiha had never missed a shot she took.

That much she remembered.

If somehow, she could make the aim of her own soldiers that good, it would be a coup.

Once again, Parinita aimed and fired.

She hit a branch this time and shook the fruits upon it, but nothing fell. No direct hit on the target. Parinita slumped a little and breathed quickly. “I’m just no good at this. Guns make me a little scared. I had a bad score with weapons in basic training. I’m thankful for the instruction; I just don’t see the point of it. I’ll never be able to hit the fruit like you can.”

“Simply relax and focus.” Madiha said, as gently as she could.

She said this just as much to herself as to Parinita. Dealing with something fully unknown, Madiha turned, begrudgingly, to Dhyana. It was part of the prescription for her anxiety and shell shock. Meditation was the only thing she felt applicable to this situation, and she felt comfortable tapping into it, so she controlled her breathing, relaxed her body as much as she could, and tried to separate her thoughts from her self.

Standing eye to eye with Parinita, her hands loosely holding the woman’s waist and arm, Madiha tried to clear her mind of thought, to try to rip herself from her body again.

Of course, the objective was not the same.

Her meditation focused on overcoming her anxiety and the stress she suffered. She had projected herself outward and tried to find some measure of peace around her to quiet the palpitations of shell shock. Meditation helped her extend her conscience. She felt Parinita’s pulse through their close contact, felt the warmth of the woman’s cheek against her own. She felt the outside. But she could not just waver off into the landscape now, vanishing among the grasses; she needed to slip into another person’s consciousness.

Parinita fired again. Madiha thought she felt as though one shaking flesh with her.

“No good, I missed again.” She said. Her words had grown hazy.

Madiha did not even see what she had hit this time. She closed her eyes.

“Parinita, I know you were a head secretary, but what was your rank before?”

“I was non-comish.” She stammered gently. “Chief Warrant Officer.”

“C.W.O Parinita Maharani; I believe in you. Try it one more time.”

It was the rank. Rank and name; that is how Madiha understood the people around her; that was how she related to them, how her consciousness sought out their own. That was how she entered their minds. It was a hierarchy; that was how she controlled them.

This alien realization, this almost inhuman thought, was what propelled Madiha’s power. She was suddenly out of her own body and staring over Parinita’s shoulder, and she was staring over her own shoulder as well but with ghostly, detached eyes.

Somehow she was inside Parinita and out of her, while also inside and out of herself.

Was this how those false spirits and ancestors and gods were supposed to act and feel?

She viewed the world perfectly as though through any ordinary lens, and she felt as free to move about the landscape as she ever had. But she felt veins, tendrils, appendages of some sort that seemed to connect her to everything around her, so that her touch could reach far beyond her body. Subconsciously those strands of thought with which she touched the world took Parinita’s arms and steadied them, took her eyes and guided them.

Parinita aimed and fired once more with confidence. A second fruit fell from the tree.

Madiha, both Madihas, however many Madiha; all of her distributed consciousness heard the gunshot. She felt a burning pain the back of her eyes and a rushing sensation, as though blood was about to burst through her sockets. Madiha’s projection raised her hand to her eyes, and found them covered in blood, hot blood as though freshly boiled in a kettle, burning her avatar’s hands, gushing through her avatar’s brain, causing an alien agony.

Everything started to spin, and all of the tendrils of thought retracted as though into a ball or a knot. Her extension cut off entirely. Though she once glided over the world like a god in the limited space occupied by Parinita, now she was shocked back to frailty.

No longer could she sustain the ghostly warlord.

A sudden pain forced her into retreat.

Once more, Madiha knew flesh. For a moment she was as dazed as when she woke in the morning, her arms letting go of Parinita, her feet shaking, her body taken from her own control. Beside her Parinita celebrated as though nothing happened.

“Did you see that? Wow! I did hit it!” Parinita said. She turned toward Madiha and threw her arms around the Captain in elation. “Incredible! I feel incredible, Madiha!” She held Madiha’s shoulders at arms length, and staring at her Captain’s confused, numbed, awkwardly expressionless face, she looked suddenly quite conscious of her impropriety.

She lifted her hands from Madiha’s shoulders as though they were poisonous, and stuffed them into her pockets. “I mean, umm, Captain! Thank you for instruction, Captain!” She saluted stiffly and averted her eyes, standing like a comical statue.

Once more, Madiha knew control. As though her spirit had fully filtered back into her, the pain subsided, and the fog clouding her mind was gone. Around her the world stopped spinning. Realizing her situation Madiha mustered a quick smile.

“I told that you could do it.” She said, a little slurred. Her voice recovered slowly.

Parinita held her salute stiffly. “Yes sir; I mean ma’am! Yes Captain ma’am!”

They heard someone approach from the other side of the tree, and turned their heads.

“Major, you mean. She is a Major now.” Inspector Kimani said.

The Inspector hung back from them, leaning against the trunk of the dead tree and lighting a cigarette after addressing them. She had her peaked cap in her hand, and the red and gold jacket of her KVW Officer uniform was half-unbuttoned.

Kimani evoked no exceptional feeling when delivering the news.

She spoke in a serious and factual voice that was hard to ascribe any emotion to. Everything she did seemed purposeful and planned. It was though Kimani moved through history with certainty. Madiha could hardly meet her eyes. She felt quite beneath her.

Kimani seemed comfortable enough leaving the news to hang in the air.

She continued to smoke casually in front of them.

“I was promoted?” Madiha asked, trying to draw further reaction.

“The Warden herself declared it and called me.” Kimani said simply.

“Is it so I can more appropriately replace Gowon?”

“Yes.” Kimani replied. “Among other things. You deserve it. Feel proud.”

Major Madiha Nakar, Commander of Battlegroup Ox.

It was a contested title, at the moment. But something about it still sunk hard into the pit of Madiha’s stomach, causing her to feel heavy and sick when she thought about it too much. And yet she had a plan for it, for Battlegroup Ox, for everybody in it. In the span of a few minutes she had begun to draft it, and over the past day she had fleshed it out.

Now it was official, it was on paper, and her staff knew all about it.

Everyone was preparing for it already.

Bada Aso, the city of her childhood, where she first learned of revolution, where she first found love, where the broken pieces of her heart and mind and soul had been painfully picked from the bloody earth and affixed again: she would turn it into Hell.

Three of them stood there, Inspector Kimani, Chief Warrant Officer Maharani, and Major Nakar, silently exchanging glances, waiting to get back into motion, with the city far away in the background. They would be the architects of this Hell.

Engines growled behind them, and exhausts coughed gray smoke into the air.

“Looks like the convoy’s ready.” Kimani said. “Let us depart then, Major.”

“Right.” Madiha said. “We’re taking a little detour. Have the rest of the convoy stand by outside Bada Aso, but do not enter the city yet. I don’t want any more potential panic or political friction. We’ll be going to the Svechthan barracks, instead.”

Kimani nodded. She took a final drag of her cigarette and then stepped on it.

“Yes ma’am.” She said. She saluted her. Madiha found it a very bittersweet response. She was in power now, and Kimani could no longer protect her, neither from the scrutiny and ire of others, nor from the vacillating images of her forgotten past.


20-AG-30, Noon

Adjar Dominance Bada Aso Region, Kalu Coastline

Battlegroup Ox, under Lt. Purana’s overview, assembled outside of Bada Aso to gather their forces and await any updates on the political situation.

Madiha had given them instructions to await and support incoming elements, and if worse came to worse and they were not allowed into the city, to establish a preliminary battle line out of it. Meanwhile Madiha, Kimani and Parinita took their own small convoy of half-track trucks farther north, past Bada Aso and further along the coast.

Kimani’s half-track was in the front, leading two other trucks with Parinita’s Battlegroup Command staff. Even as they drove they were assembling information and making necessary contacts on the radio to smooth over Madiha’s grand defensive plans.

Near the front and the tail of the convoy were two smaller trucks, each with a quad-mount 7.62mm machine gun assembled on its bed: these linked machine guns were their only recourse for anti-air defense should the Luftlotte begin raiding the city and countryside. It was a poor defense, but it was all they could muster at the time.

Madiha worried that she had left too much work behind to Lt. Purana’s unproven divisional staff. Mobilizing the troops and handling what was essentially the front line, or as close to one as they had, was a monumental task to give the relatively green troops of Battlegroup Ox. But Madiha had work for her own staff that had to be completed soon.

So they drove, and they drafted, and even Parinita couldn’t take in the countryside passing them by, her face deep in tables of organization, warehouse manifestos, projected industrial output. Madiha had delegated everything as best as she could.

Her own work was for the moment disagreeably political.

She had to round up allies, and she had to coerce skeptics.

However, the drive allowed her to stare out into the open and take in the view.

Built across a gentle rise in the terrain at the foot of the Kalu Hilltops, straddling the coastline and the Umaiha River, Bada Aso was a major port to the Core Ocean, and even as war approached the city there were still fishing ships and merchant vessels visible on the open sea. It was a beautiful city, and Madiha loved every moment she could spend simply staring at it, burning its pristine condition into her mind. A rail hub, a hive of industry, a port, a place of culture, of history, of romance. Bada Aso was so much to her.

Yet along with these fond thoughts was the military mind.

Her plan would destroy the city.

Past the limits of the city the terrain on the Kalu along the coast began to rise a little more sharply, and soon Madiha could look to the distance behind them and see the port extending from out the cover of the northernmost city buildings.

There were several massive ships docked.

Madiha would have to remember to ask Admiral Qote about them. Any kind of firepower available in Bada Aso had to be used for their advantage. For the next few days, she would have to assemble a war machine to defend the city. Her role as both savior and destroyer weighed heavily on her, and even as she stared along the empty green and blue it haunted her. She had always found her emotions difficult. Now they seemed impossible.

“Major! I’m sorry if there was something on your mind, but I need your opinion–”

Thank the spirits for Parinita! She and Madiha quickly went to work together on breaking down Support Battalions in each division and how best to reallocate them for Ox’s needs. It was utter drudgery, and felt relatively pointless. Ox’s organization was a mess: 8 small Regiments per Division with no Brigade structure was unmanageable and impossible. She had to make it work somehow. It made a good tonic for Madiha’s depression.

Several dozen kilometers they drove along a steep cliff on the edge of the continent, until it gradually sloped and descended into the rocky berm of a very long beach. Straddling a few more kilometers of rainforest just off the shoreline, they found a complex of scattered groups of long buildings, arranged four or five a block surrounding a broad square field.

Madiha opened a slit in the Half-Track’s armored bed and spoke with the driver, giving permission to approach the base. A strange flag flew from a raised guard post just outside the entrance arch to the fenced-off camp. It was white and blue and had red rock in the center; nothing like the flag she knew, with its hammer and sickle and black hydra.

At the gate, the half-track was recognized from afar and quickly greeted.

Dobroe tovarich! May I take a look in the back?” said a guard with a heavy accent.

Parinita snuck a peek through the viewing slit to see the guard, but couldn’t see anyone at all from it. Madiha turned her around to the back of the truck. There a rather small individual had come to inspect them. He waved amicably and made an effort to climb aboard. Parinita looked taken aback. The person inspecting them was a Svechthan.

He was smaller than everyone in the truck, but fairly slender and well proportioned to his size. Parinita looked like she had never seen anything like him in her life. He took a quick head count, exchanged a few pleasantries with Madiha half in his language and half in theirs, and stepped off the truck, clearing them to pass. They drove deeper into the camp, and a few other equally small-seeming men and women waved them toward an unused parking spot near warehousing blocks for the 1st Joint-Training Corps.

“They’re like little dolls!” Parinita said, her hands raised to her cheeks.

“Don’t say that aloud, you fool.” Kimani hissed.

Parinita turned red in the face and made a gesture to cover her mouth. But she still had a mischievous look in her eyes. All around them there were more Svechthans coming and going about their business, and Parinita watched them like it was a show.

Madiha was very well acquainted with them, but to an Ayvartan who was not exposed to them, certainly they seemed a whimsical people, being very soft-featured, and pale like snow, with flowing hair of exotic, icy shades and that matched their white and gray-blue military uniforms. What most people tended to focus on was their height, however. They were proportioned like adults, but rather small ones altogether compared to other folk.

Hailing from the harsh frozen north, where food was scarcer and the sun all but vanished for months at a time, Svechthans had adapted their size. Adult Svechthans topped out at around 155 centimeters for the truly rare tall folk among them, and stopped growing at 145 centimeters on average. Average Ayvartan men and women tended to settle at about 170 to 190 centimeters; Madiha was about 185 centimeters tall, and Kimani 192. At 176 centimeters or so, Parinita was quite taller than all of the Svechthans around them.

It was a very visible and striking difference.

Madiha could see how Parinita might feel as though among fairytale folk. Despite the best efforts of both people to cooperate, and despite the great debts of friendship they owed, they were still somewhat rare sights to one another in their respective lands.

“Don’t stare so intently.” Kimani scolded again. Parinita sighed heavily.

“We’re headed for the main barracks over there. Try not to be rude.” Madiha said.

“I’m not going to be rude!” Parinita said, flustered. “Just little surprised is all!”

Despite its name the 1st Joint-Training Corps was actually a professional and fully-trained Svechthan formation deployed to Ayvarta, composed of a Tyazhelyy (Heavy) Division and a Pekhota (Infantry) Division. There were over 20,000 people in this complex, largely Svechthans, taking part in harsh weather training and other exercises that suited the Ayvartan climate and geography. The Svechthan Union was a very cold and gloomy nation and found the heat and constant sunlight in Ayvarta very unwelcoming.

Since each found the others’ homeland to be difficult terrain, the two countries exchanged units to participate in training for potential operations north or south, and thereby improve their readiness. During their walk to the main barracks offices, Madiha saw the field in the middle of the camp teem with activity.

Tanks fired test shots into armored target walls, men and women ran through obstacle courses in their full gear, and there were even a few games of Gorodki, a sport where a wooden bat was launched at a group of wooden pins. All these activities helped build the soldiers’ warm weather endurance, and strengthened their bodies.

She supposed the Ayvartans in Svechtha performed similar activities.

Madiha and Kimani ducked their heads to pass through the doorway into the main office building just off the edge of the training fields. Though buildings and objects made for Svechthans were not miniature to Ayvartans, and all of the buildings, the chairs and desks, possessed fairly relatable dimensions to them, particularly tall Ayvartans often had to bow their heads and curl up their legs to fit comfortably through doors and in vehicles. Madiha spoke with the desk secretary, and she stood up from her post and bid them to wait, while she walked through the office door at the back of the room. Moments later, she returned, and bid them to enter. Once again they bowed their heads as they passed through.

“Welcome, tovarich, I expected your arrival. Please, have a seat.”

Inside the office they were greeted by an older man, Kapitan Golovkin, judging by the nameplate on his desk. He was well built for his size, and had a rather stately mustache. Madiha thought he looked familial, like a small and pleasant uncle. And certainly he did seem to have been expecting them, having worn his full dress uniform that day, with all of his assorted honors clipped on it, in 35 degree heat. He was smiling and gracious, and offered everyone in the room a cigar. Madiha and Parinita begged pardon and passed.

Kimani on the other hand was quick to accept, and even quicker to taste the smoke.

There was a subtext to this action, beyond being a gracious guest or a lover of tobacco products. Madiha had never seen Kimani smoke in a meeting before. She assumed, then, that this was a gesture meant to push Madiha into the spotlight.

Kimani would be smoking, not speaking.

“Recent events have been unkind to us, haven’t they Mayor,” said the Captain, lighting his cigar and staring up from it at Madiha, “To think that scum of the North would launch an undeclared war upon you. Upon us. It is horrifying to consider.”

Eager to get to the main point, and to cut the chances that she might misspeak or grow nervous in the interim, Madiha quickly replied. “And it is our material reality, Captain. I assume that you know the purpose of my visit, then.”

“You seem sharp, and you get to business quickly,” Golovkin waved his cigar, jabbing sharply toward Madiha and grinning, “We appreciate that in the north.”

He looked directly at her.

“Yes, I know you wish the aid of the 1st Joint-Training Corps in the defense of Bada Aso. I learned of your ascension to battlegroup commander just yesterday, at the same time as I received in full the details of the border battle. So I assumed you would come here.”

“I need all the manpower I can get.” Madiha said. She felt a pang of guilt. Ayvarta seemed a poor host, incapable of protecting her guests. Instead she was asking them to risk their lives to protect her. On some level she felt this was not their fight.

“We cannot refuse.” Golovkin cheerfully explained. “After all, we are subordinated to Ayvarta’s territorial command. So you do not need to ask us for our consent.”

Madiha had rehearsed on the trip and spoke as directly as she could.

“I know that as a formation under my regional command in Ayvarta you would carry out my directives. But I do not merely want you and your forces to follow orders, Captain. I need your support. Battlegroup Ox is disorganized, and I can only stretch our professional forces so far among the vastly greater number of green troops. Your forces are more experienced. I need your cooperation Captain, not simply obedience. I need your forces to help lead my own in addition to fighting alongside them. I need a shared camaraderie.”

Golovkin blew smoke and suddenly devolved into a prolonged coughing fit.

Madiha raised her hand tentatively to help, though in what way she didn’t know, it was all a reflex; equally reflexively Golovkin seemed to wave her hand away, grinning through the violent coughing fit. He looked at her with a glimmer in his eyes, and he began to laugh all the while he coughed, and to smile as he choked on the smoke.

Eventually his voice returned, and he was only smiling and laughing.

Prekrasniy! Oh that was a wonderful entreaty, tovarich. Major Gowon would have never said something like that. I’ve only known you for a few minutes, but you are already a breath of fresh air. I am pleased to hear this; and do not worry. Any fight for Ayvarta is a fight for Svechtha. Nocht knows very well that it cannot fight in our territory. Our seas are stormy and difficult, and our land is rocky, icy, and inhospitable. They’ve tried to fight us before and it has been catastrophic for them. But they know that they can starve us out.”

Golovkin’s response was quite endearing; Madiha felt instant relief.

“I will do whatever is necessary, tovarich, for your food, and the food of my people.”

Ayvarta and Svechtha were incredibly close partners in the modern day. Where other nations either ignored or preyed upon Svechtha and its small and unique people, Ayvarta had little history with them before the new millennium. Svechtha was the birthplace of Socialism, and it inspired the ideals of the current Ayvartan administration. The Revolution came as a shock to the world, and only the Svechthans welcomed it.

Both nations found themselves in a world where they were each other’s only real lifeline. At first the approach was tentative and contact almost alien. Gradually, as their friendship with the Ayvartans deepened, the two countries exchanged military and resource aid. Ayvartans supplied Svechthans with much of their food, in return for raw materials and an open exchange of ideas and expertise. They met each other’s needs well.

So therefore Golovkin certainly viewed this as his people’s fight as well.

Ayvarta’s fall would create a food crisis in Svechtha. Though they could grow some food, and they certainly did, their existence would become bleak and meager once again. Decades of heavy rationing and food insecurity had ended when those first ships full of grain and dried produce arrived on their shores from Ayvarta.

To return to darker days after experiencing such joy and freedom from want would be a tragedy. Regardless of Madiha’s efforts, their commitment was guaranteed.

There was a thrust of history behind this meeting that neither could escape.

Regardless, for the sake of her own conscience Madiha asked again. She knew that she had secured his help, but in a way, she still felt a little like she was taking advantage of him. She wanted to hear him say it again, to lift the final burden from her.

“So can I count on the strength of your people, Captain? Will you join me?” She asked.

“Major,” Golovkin stretched his small hand over his desk, “Let us not tarry.”

Madiha took his hand into hers, and shook gently.

He laughed heartily and praised her strength.

She was almost forty centimeters taller than he, but they were seeing eye-to-eye over that desk. In an instant, Madiha added two divisions to her effort. It had been an easy conversation between two people who had wanted to trust and cooperate, and perhaps had no other option but to do so. It lifted her morale, and for the first time it made her feel that she had a handle on the situation, that she grasped at the pulse of war with a master’s hand.

However, she had one more crucial meeting to attend, and it was very clear from the smoke ring blowing from her lips that Kimani would not interfere with these affairs.

She had lifted her wings from over Madiha; it was time the chick learned to fly alone.


20-AG-30, Late Afternoon

Adjar Dominance City of Bada Aso

More of Ox’s troops had arrived outside the city by the time Madiha returned.

They had followed her and Parinita’s instructions marvelously, and the mobilization was efficient. Trucks and tanks were strewn about the open field straddling the edge of the city creating a makeshift encampment that stretched out a few kilometers.

Along the dirt roads connecting to the city minor officers had been posted to direct incoming traffic. Staff had organized arrival, food distribution and medical stations for incoming divisions. Temporary headquarters areas had been established. These were little more than tarps slung over the sides of radio trucks and pinned up with tent poles.

Around each temporary HQ the divisional staff was hard at work organizing the arrival and debriefing of Ox’s ten divisions. To protect them, anti-aircraft artillery guns of 37mm and 85mm calibers had been unhitched from vehicles and set up to watch the skies.

Visually it was all a mess. But it functioned and everyone who came in had directions to follow. Madiha was pleased with the results of her orders. Now she had make good on getting all of these soldiers into the city that they were supposed to defend.

Arriving at the camps, Parinita radioed their presence to Lt. Purana, left in charge of the mobilization temporarily. Kimani’s half-track was marked, and so they escaped the scrutiny of the checkpoints and advanced briskly into the heart of the camp; past parked trucks arrayed like houses on a block; down a long line of Goblin and Orc tanks from the Independent Ox Tank Battalions that accompanied every Rifle Division; turning a corner around a battery of artillery pieces being hastily inspected and cleaned; and past stray gaggles of soldiers cracking open crates and distributing basic kit to platoons.

Madiha’s own convoy had grown as well.

Two more small trucks trailing her carried some of Golovkin’s seasoned Corps staff into the camp, as well as a 76mm gun towed behind each. Svechthans went nowhere without their precious artillery, Golovkin had explained. They loved artillery.

The Half-Tracks drove past the 6th Ox Rifle Division area, where Lt. Purana was established, and looked for a good spot to park out of everyone’s way.

While they established themselves, Madiha looked out the back of the half-track and saw the Lieutenant working outside of a nearby radio half-track, going over documents and maps and listening in on various calls. He looked quite busy: several people seemed to be vying for his attention, while he himself was moving between various radio stations and makeshift war room tables. It was a very hectic time. Nocht was on their heels, and they had to manage the evacuation, reconnaissance efforts made against the Nochtish advance, the mobilization of their own troops from all corners of the dominance, as well as keeping Solstice appraised of the unfolding events. Lt. Purana had been temporarily left with it all.

He looked as effective as he could be given the circumstances.

“Inspector, we’re going to meet with the Lieutenant. I want you to help him.”

“Aye aye, Major.” She said simply. She lay against the wall of the half-track with her arms crossed, meeting Madiha’s eyes effortlessly. That confidence of hers, that bluntness, it came so easily. Madiha resented it a little, now that it was deployed on her.

Once all of their trucks were well situated within the encampment, Parinita and Madiha disembarked, the former trotting behind the latter with a thick folder in her arms.

They approached Purana and waited for him to finish with one of the radio operators. Once his attention was drawn he made his way past the staff and saluted the two of them.

“Glad to see you return Commander!” He said.

“Glad to have returned.” Madiha said. “I’ve secured the cooperation of the Svechthan troops, Lieutenant. That’s 15,000 soldiers and around a thousand additional medical, communications and logistics and planning staff. Show them camaraderie.”

“Yes ma’am!” Lt. Purana said. “I assume I needn’t worry about sorting them out?”

“My staff and the Svechthan’s will take care of things from here.” Parinita said.

“Ah, that’s good.” Lt. Purana breathed deeply. “I read books and received all kinds of training; but that never makes it easier actually coordinating forty people on signals and logistics and intelligence who all need me to look over their work.”

Parinita laughed. “Well, your staff is just as anxious and new at it as you. Don’t worry; my Battlegroup Command staff will take everyone under their wing and show them the way. We’ve done things like this in the past. I’m sorry we had to dump it all on you.”

She looked quite chipper being in a position of seniority for once. Madiha found herself fond of her expression and energy. She was a lot more reliable than Madiha had initially thought, and both in the sense of her professional skill, and her willpower.

“I understand.” Lt. Purana said. “You had work to do, and you deferred the rest to us. That’s how the army works. Frankly, while we’re a bit ragged, I think everyone’s pleased to have a chance to do something serious and important in these dire times.”

“I’ll make you put that training to use.” Madiha said. “Soon you might make Captain.”

Lt. Purana rubbed the back of his neck anxiously. “I’m happy with Lieutenant, ma’am.”

“Indeed.” Madiha put on an amicable face.

Lt. Purana, however, turned a grave expression. “Back to business then.”

“Did something happen?”

“Yes ma’am. I’m afraid the situation with the city took a bad turn.”

Madiha raised an eyebrow. “How bad?”

“The Civil Council in the city is holding a meeting, and have denounced us.”

“I can’t believe they would play politics at a time like this. What have they done?”

“From what I’ve been given to understand they’re not only preventing us from entering the city, they are preparing to move military stockpiles and surplus food, fuel and materials out of the city against your evacuation orders.” Lt. Purana said.

“They can’t do that.” Madiha said. It took all her strength not to tremble. She was wholly unprepared for such a thing. “We need those stockpiles to hold the city. That’s the food and ammunition that Ox is depending on. Without it we can’t do anything.”

“I tried telling them that. Even I could see what a nonsensical situation this was; but they weren’t keen on listening to me. This happened maybe thirty minutes ago, so I think we have plenty of time still. But they really want you in a room with them.”

Madiha gritted her teeth.

It was all Council bickering, and though she had foreseen it, she had no foresee the extent to which it would hinder her efforts. Even if they did not intend to go through with this – and Madiha could not know for sure – politically the Civil Council of Adjar had to look like they were retaining their authority in the face of the KVW’s overreach.

Kimani had executed Gowon, which had been the start of a figurative coup.

The Regional Battlegroup was not supposed to be administered by the Military Council. The KVW controlled the Navy and their ten divisions. No more than that.

Demilitarization had stripped the Military Council of the power to control the state army, and had made that a civil power. Technically the KVW had certain rights such as inspecting and vetting state commanders, giving them some de jure influence over the state army as a whole. However, appointing a KVW officer, even a Civil Liaison like Madiha, was a bold step into the territory beyond the Military Council’s legal borders.

Madiha was not KVW anymore as of a few days ago, technically speaking, but for all anyone knew, Kimani was pulling the strings. And behind Kimani was Warden Kansal and Admiral Qote and the Military Council, marginalized and weakened but still very active.

After the inspections, it could definitely be seen as the beginning of a military coup.

“This is a constitutional minefield. I expected them to object.” Madiha said. “But I didn’t expect them to take such drastic action. I thought they would bicker in a room for a few hours then agree we had to defend the city. Not put all the ammo on a train.”

“Yes, this is more than an objection, ma’am. They’ve taken off their gloves and slapped us.” Lt. Purana replied. “The Civil Council never stepped over Gowon’s toes in this way, even if they did boss him around sometimes. You should go talk some sense into them, Major. While the troops around here are rattled, they all know that it was your decisions that saved us at the border. And every division that arrives here, I’ll them the same thing. We’re all behind you, Major. We want to stop running and protect our comrades.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Madiha said. “It means a lot to me. Disseminate orders to all arriving divisions to keep their guns hitched and their trucks loaded. I want six divisions ready to relocate into the city with all their materiel by tonight. Come what may.”

“Yes ma’am.” Lt. Purana said. He saluted, and reached out his hand and shook Madiha’s, before turning around and heading back up into his radio half-track, and gathering the attention of the divisional staff there to appraise them of the situation.

He looked so much more confident than before. Back at the border, Lt. Purana had gathered up his barracks and gone out to fight Nocht in a near total absence of leadership.

When Madiha arrived to take command he was a little rattled, but the bravery it took to walk out and fight without orders sustained him through the battle.

Clearly his comrades believed in him, and so Madiha had promoted him to lead the remnants of the 6th Ox Rifles Division that survived the border battle.

Seeing him around the staff gave her hope; perhaps she was a better judge of character than she thought. And perhaps Ox was not as hopelessly scattered as she had hastily thought. Given some time to think, they were settling into their roles well.

Now the only one who needed to fully accept their role in this conflict was herself.

Kimani and Parinita’s staff members arrived, carrying their equipment and documents.

“Remember our contingency. Defending this city is paramount.” Kimani said.

She put her hand on Madiha’s shoulder, and just as quickly seemed to brush past her.

The Battlegroup Command staff led by Parinita walked among Lt. Purana’s staff, rechecking information and becoming appraised of the situation. They were a team of 25 people, small but with a variety of professional backgrounds. Signals specialists, engineers, mathematicians, technical writers, logistics personnel, and more.

Their counterparts in Lt. Purana’s divisional staff made space for them, and looked relieved to have more support. Parinita herself would not be joining them for long; Madiha quickly pulled her away from the work at the camp, and together they departed the field of military vehicles and headed toward the Council at the heights of the city.

They took a small and fast scout car, half the size of the half-tracked trucks, and Madiha drove them up the gentle slope that separated the dirt and grass from the paved edge of the city. She pored over her options on the drive there, while taking in the sights.

Around its southern and eastern borders Bada Aso was a collection of humble old buildings; the skyline rose with the hill upon which the city had been built, and receded again on the western and north-northern edges, downhill and straddling the coast.

It was a fairly tight city despite its wide roads, with few parks and truly open stretches of land. Alleyways and thoroughfares, blocks of buildings, dominated the space. It was a large city as well, of many square kilometers, occupied by hundreds of thousands of people. Though it was no Solstice it was a major city, and its layout and architecture commanded respect. This was not currently evident in the streets, but the city teemed with life.

A dozen divisions could potentially brawl inside of it.

“Do you have copies of the plans we worked out yesterday?” Madiha asked.

Parinita nodded her head. “Rough copies, but y’know, it’s been a rough time!”

Madiha smiled. “As long as they can hold them in their hands and read them, it’s fine.”

They drove over the Umaiha River and past the richly developed center of the city, and north, uphill, to the Council Building, an old capitalist palace that dominated the city skyline with its domed tower and dominated the hilltop with its broad, columned facade.

Madiha parked the scout car at the foot of the building staircase, helped Parinita off the car by her hand, and the two of them ventured inside, past swaying flags and a hectic mob of personnel and citizens taking care of last-minute affairs of the city’s evacuation.

From a world of light they seemed to transition to a stage of shadow.

Stiff police guards led them through the building to a broad office that faced away from the sun, cast into a gloom by the early evening sun. Six people turned their heads to the door from a square table in the middle of the room.

Electric torches on the wall, their bulbs and handles mimicking real torches, cast a dim light that seemed only to accentuate the shadow. Police guards took their places along the shuttered windows at the back of the room, and along the door. They had the emotionless demeanor of KVW, and saluted the Major when she entered the room.

Parinita hugged her documents close to her chest.

No one offered them a seat.

“The Council acknowledges Captain Madiha Nakar.” said an older man.

“Correction, I’m now a Major.” Madiha said.

No one at the table seemed content with the information.

Madiha looked across their faces. At first she glossed them over and found nobody familiar. She was not looking for anyone familiar after all.

From the first pace she took through the door she was aware that there would have been a new Council since she was last living in the city some four years ago. And with all the recent developments she had not had the time to study up on them: that had been delegated to the KVW office staff. But it slowly dawned upon her, working through a sudden and fierce denial, that there was one person in the room she did recognize.

A young woman, her hair styled into luxurious curled ringlets, her green eyes narrowed. She sat in a corner, as though shying away from notice, with her arms crossed and her gaze averted from where Madiha stood. She tapped her feet in frustration.

Since when had Chakrani Walters been given a seat on the Council?

Heart pounding, chasing her own breath, Madiha could only suppose that she had been appointed Vox Populi, the extra seat that was rotated between prominent citizens who had made great contributions to the city. Everyone else in the room was a career bureaucrat that had been voted into political office on two-year terms as Regional Representatives.

“I must raise one objection,” said one of the younger men, “Representative Walters had connections to the Major in the past. The Council should rightly scrutinize whether it would be a conflict of interest for her to rule on this issue right now.”

Chakrani spoke up quickly and bluntly. “I’ve no depth of feeling left for the Major.”

“There are records of cohabitation and even preliminary paperwork for a marriage–”

“That is all in the past.” Chakrani interrupted. “We have been separated for years.”

In an instant it seemed the matter was dropped.

Of course, nobody in the Council seemed to care that Chakrani likely harbored ill will toward Madiha; so long as she did not love her, everything in the meeting room was fine. Parinita squirmed a little behind her documents, and Madiha strained to control her own breathing, still her thrashing heart and present a stony expression before the Council.

“Then let us deliberate,” said an older councilor, “Major, we the Council hold that your ascendance to Battlegroup Commander of Ox was an illicit move that oversteps the boundaries of the Military Council’s power, and interacts antagonistically with the Civil.”

Madiha wished she knew anyone’s names there. They would not introduce themselves.

They just wanted this meeting out of their way. She could tell that they were not about to listen to her. However she had to make her case and pray they listened.

“The Military Council has the power to replace officers of the state army.”

“Yes, but to replace them with KVW agents is a decision clearly driven by agenda. There were likely suitable and qualified candidates in the regional military pool that could have taken proper command. Why did Inspector Kimani appoint one of her own?”

“We were being fired upon by the enemy. We had no room to deliberate.”

Another councilor spoke up.

“Then after your escape, the decision should have been reopened.”

“I am not a KVW agent, by the way. I was found incompatible with the training scheme. I am a planner and a civil liaison. I do not have an agenda here but to stop Nocht.”

Now it was Chakrani’s turn to speak, and she found quite cutting words with which to rebut Madiha’s statements. “But you’ve worked alongside Kimani for your entire tenure and have not participated in any reconciliation activities with the Civil Council, therefore your impartiality is obviously suspect.” Her tone was indifferent. Madiha would have preferred outright hatred and anger. Something about the way she was addressed and spoken to seemed to paste over that anything had existed between them.

At least the anger would have acknowledged and condemned Madiha’s sin.

“Have you any reply to that, Major?” Chakrani pressed on.

“No, I do not. That is factual. Having said that, I believe interrogating my loyalty is a waste of precious time. Nocht is advancing on the city with military force, and without its defense they will walk right into Tambwe and from there set foot on Solstice’s sand.”

The only older woman out of the six councilors in the room took this opportunity to interject, speaking in a gentle, motherly tone of voice. “We understand this point of view. However, there are diplomatic and military concerns to consider first.”

Madiha blinked. “Diplomatic?”

“That aspect is not your particular arena.” Chakrani said, her voice dripping with self-righteous sarcasm. “But yes, we’re considering diplomatic channels.”

Madiha struggled to hide her outrage. “I have a proposal for the defense of the city.”

“Your actions have rendered a defense of the Dominance impossible by our accounts.” Replied the older woman councilor. She sneered at Madiha and Parinita.

“Excuse me? What would you have done? What are you implying?” Madiha said.

“She means we’re retreating.” Chakrani said. “We have already begun plans to move materiel out of the city and into Tambwe. You elected not to fight Nocht at all, and fled from the border; so now we have no recourse left but to flee as well. We are not staying. We will relocate to Tambwe and attempt to get world leaders together in discourse; or failing that we will mount a defense from a position of greater readiness–”

“Councilor, you, perhaps, are not staying. You, perhaps, wish to beg the imperialists for mercy. Battlegroup Ox is standing here and fighting until the Imperialist’s blood and gore decorates our streets.” Madiha shouted. She began to talk over the Councilors as they tried to respond. “I retreated because the terrain between Dori Dobo and Bada Aso was indefensible. Mobile units would have trounced us in such featureless open terrain and encircled any fortified settlement. However the conditions around Bada Aso give us a unique opportunity to score a blow against Nocht. To encircle the city they must advance over the rough and defensible terrain of the Kalu. We have a port through which we are linked to the outside world in case of a siege; and the city itself will disadvantage Nocht’s mechanized and armored forces. We can fight them here and we can win!”

“Order!” Chakrani shouted. “Major do not disrespect the Council again!”

Madiha laughed bitterly. “Of course. I shall watch my tongue in the face of this.”

“Walters, do calm down,” said the older woman councilor.

Chakrani was turning red in the face.

With an opportunity to speak again, Madiha continued.

“We can’t just keep running now. Nocht’s forces, fully organized along Tambwe’s border, will outnumber even two intact Regional Battlegroups. Right now we have a shot at drawing in their forces into terrain where we have advantage. I ran because it was necessary to fight another day; but if we don’t fight now, we will give them free reign to recreate the border situation again, where their entire force will be fully ready to attack us at will with their supply lines established and all of their formations in supporting distances. They will crush us on open terrain again. I ran so I could pick my fight, and consolidate all of the strength I could get. I did not run just to get a head start on more running.”

“The Council understands your fervor to fight, Major,” the younger man councilor said, “But a more level-headed decision has been taken. Your proposal is too little too late. The Civil Council in Solstice is in agreement with the Civil Council here in Bada Aso.”

There was no other choice.

Madiha had a plan; Madiha had to construct the Hell which would consume Nocht. Something inside her burnt, and she felt the injury as though her flesh was really ablaze. She felt that other mind pushing her to make a difficult decision, a monstrous decision.

In a second all of her hesitation was obliterated, burning up over the all-consuming pain in her mind. From there it was as simple as snapping her fingers, a voiceless command, pointing the guards toward the table. Within an instant of seeing the gesture and hearing the cracking noise, the Regional Police drew their rifles and surrounded the table.

Those guards standing outside the door did nothing to stop anything. Councilors raised their hands in stunned defense; Chakrani screamed and covered her head. Madiha ordered the police to stand around and kettle the councilors at the table with their guns.

“Ayvartan Republican Guards Police, the kind that guard VIPs such as you, receive a form of the conditioning given to KVW agents. They are actually loyal to me above you.”

“What is the meaning of this, Major?” Shouted the old woman councilor.

Madiha’s expression was as void as those of the police. Parinita looked from side to side, scanning over the faces to see if any of them might betray a hint of emotion. She was not let in on the plan; nobody was except the KVW High Command, Kimani and Madiha.

It was their desperate last resort.

“You will act to temporarily dissolve Council, on account of a successful censure motion that will happen right now. All ordinances drafted within the past five days will be annulled and reversed. Social functions will continue to act as normal for citizens who don’t evacuate. In 15 days we will hold a special election with the Unions which you are welcome to attend, though if we’re still fighting, I’ll have it pushed back another fifteen days.”

“I can’t believe you! You disgusting thug! You’re staging a coup!” Chakrani shouted, weeping. “You destroy everything you touch! Can you perform nothing but violence?”

It took all her strength not to weep alongside Chakrani. With every word she said she wanted to break down. “A rather humble coup, I suppose. You will be all ferried out to Solstice by train directly after your vote. You can complain all you want there.”

Blue-uniformed Police stood silent with their rifles partially raised. For the next fifteen minutes Madiha and Parinita quietly oversaw the dissolution of the Council.

Executive authority was temporarily granted to Madiha, and her first act if possible would be to find a Union representative to whom she could shunt that authority toward.

Without the evacuating public finding out most of the details, the Council was escorted by the Police and fast-tracked through the lines of evacuees as a special exemption. Madiha had hardly left the Council building by the time the train had ferried all of her enemies safely out of her grasp. Flanked by the KVW-aligned police, she sat on the steps in front of the scout car, and for a moment she went wholly numb over what she had done.

In her mind she reminded herself of the mantras her therapist had told her: she was a good socialist, an honored soldier, a valuable person; she had worth, she could be happy.

Along the way everything broke down from repetition.

The mantras warped in her mind.

She was a petty dictator of a city soon to be ruins; she was a murderer and a liar; she never even got to look at Chakrani in the eyes again before the police led her out and onto a train, helplessly away from the city that she loved and the old lover she hated.

Parinita sat beside her, quiet, still a little stunned.

The Battle of Bada Aso had ingloriously begun.


21st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Midnight

Adjar Dominance City of Bada Aso

Battlegroup Ox was finally moving into the city.

Once again the streets were alive at night.

Trains kept running as people fled, but many decided to stay behind for their own reasons. Come daylight, Madiha would have to find them useful work.

While the staff was setting up according to the plans, the Major simply walked alone.

Madiha did not smoke and she never drank to get drunk. Given a brief respite from her responsibilities by the fall of night, she nearly always chose to walk as a distraction, alone, over any other potential diversion. She would stare at the landscape, and try for a brief moment to internalize the life that she saw in it, and to feel as though a part of it.

Often she committed herself to fanciful thoughts of swelling streams, eternal fields of tall, uniformly green grass, vast cities of red clay and brick and blue cobblestone, sharp and vibrant in her fantasies; and always she would try to imagine her form enmeshed within the grand tapestry. Lost in the colors, she thought she could feel closer to something genuine and alive. She would recite her mantras and try to feel good about herself, to combat that anxiety and doubt and even a surreptitious ideation of suicide.

These daydreams hardly ever lasted long. There was always something off about the landscape in reality that all too easily distinguished it from her fantasy.

And furthermore she felt too apart from the creation of some loving force. Whoever was responsible for those fields and streams and monuments, they would not want her around them. She was an alien existence, alone and apart from creation.

Even in the depths of her own mind she was not safe.

Thoughts smoldered, burning her brain.

In those moments alone, it seemed like all the worries she kept suppressed would come rushing back. Every moment of tranquility forced her to confront all of the wounds that she worked to bury under titles like Major and Battlegroup Commander.

She walked along the Umaiha river, like she used to do with a certain someone who was forever gone. It brought along painful recollections. All of her few memories seemed to hurt now. For a long time Madiha barely had reliable memories of anything.

As a teenager she felt like she was an empty goblet, and she tried to fill it, but always with the fear that there were droplets of poison leftover from another drink. People told her about events she had participated in. She was the youngest person ever to receive the commendation Hero of the Socialist Dominances and a few others.

She never wore the medals.

They meant nothing to her. All she wondered about was the identity of that person that had done those things and whether she would ever return. Certainly she was more authentic and desirable than the person standing there along the river.

For a time, living in this city, her beautiful and vibrant city, Madiha had filled the goblet. She had seen studied in a school with people she once considered friends; she had seen films and went swimming and learned to drive a car; she had taken a clerical position and worked peacefully; she had lived with someone whom she thought she loved, and consummated the relationship. She thought that she could construct a love and friendship and community so powerful it would drown out the rifles and fires going off in her head.

Little by little everything fell apart– no, not by itself, she destroyed it all, she thought.

Now the entire goblet was poison. All of her stable memories just brought her pain.

That little candle inside her was still burning, and it hurt.

It always hurt, just more or less.

“Major! Wait a moment, I’ve almost caught up!”

She heard Parinita’s voice long before she saw her, along with the cracking and grinding of a pair of treads. She turned her head to see a little over her shoulder, and found her riding desant on the back of a Goblin tank that was headed for the regional depots.

The Goblin switched its lights on and off in order to offer its own greeting to the Major.

Parinita hopped off the machine with a big grin on her face and a lot of dust and even a few bugs on her uniform. Brushing herself off, she insinuated herself into Madiha’s little walk. Somehow Madiha found it even easier to drown in her own melancholy even with the oblivious cheer of a recovered Parinita at her side, humming and strutting along.

“If it means anything to you, I think that could have all gone much worse.” She said.

“I see. So you think it was that terrible?”

“Well, by any honest metric it was. Not exactly democratic. But it was bloodless.”

“Thanks for the kind words.” Madiha ambivalently replied.

“I support you nonetheless.” Parinita said. She clapped her hands together and her tone of voice grew quite perturbed. “Anyway. Anyway! Anyway: that lady used to be your lover then? Was all that true? I was very shocked by her attitude. She was so nasty to you.”

Her gossipy chirping was a little more amusing than Madiha wanted to admit.

“It was true. I’m homosexual; we were going to marry.”

“I see.” Parinita smiled. “I can relate a bit; I’m more the type that goes both ways.”

Madiha laughed. For a moment she had thought she might experience prejudice; it was extant, still, but it was very rare. One could mostly tell who still held fondness for the last days of the Ayvartan Empire by their resistance to varying sexuality or gender.

In the distance they heard the whistling of a train leaving Bada Aso.

Between them there was nothing but silence. Much of the city had evacuated.

Those that remained had better things to do now with their time than walk outside and air their footsteps and breathing to fill in the void. Soldiers were gathering in places other than the edge of the Umaiha right now, and the occasional passing tank and half-track had a destination in mind and no time for two women walking side by side along the river.

Water, the occasional insect flying by her ear, breathing, and the small idle noises of two people with nothing to do. It was easy to cast all of this as a pure, content-less silence, because it was all devoid of human words and filled only by simple sounds.

Human words were supposed to force meanings from the brain.

Though Madiha questioned whether her own speech had any such powers.

Soon Parinita broke their silence. She stopped walking, and reached out to the Major, waving her over to the guard-rails directly overlooking the river. Standing over the water, she drew Madiha’s attention with those gentle amber eyes.

“Major, may I speak freely to you? I have a concern.”

“You weren’t until now? Then, you may, if you wish.” Madiha said.

“I am concerned about your health. Your eyes hide a deep sorrow.”

Parinita had seen her tossing and begging in her sleep, trapped in nightmares that she had only a vague imagining of. So, Madiha expected her to be curious at some point, to approach her and ask her in how many pieces she was broken, and whether she could hold.

It was not so much the content of her words that surprised Madiha, but the delivery.

Parinita met her, bluntly, with a presence that she had never mustered in any other context. She was cutting through the fog that kept them professionally distant. And yet her expression was delicate, as though she wanted to understand pain equal to Madiha’s.

Her entreaty lacked the scrutiny and flagellation Madiha felt she deserved.

All Madiha could rally in reply to those alien words was, “My eyes?”

“Window to the soul and all.” Parinita said. She crossed her arms and averted her gaze, perhaps with embarrassment. Her behavior was uncharacteristically forward and determined. As Madiha’s secretary, in a traditional setting it would be improper for her to pry. Her work was simply to prepare informational products for the Major’s benefit.

However, Madiha thought she sensed a kindness in Parinita that was too deep for the secretary to suppress. Soon their eyes met again and Parinita continued.

“Your eyes really struck me when I first saw you.” She said. “You looked so hurt. But during the battle at the border, you looked more at ease with yourself. In a fight, you feel at home; I can tell. I want to help you feel at ease – around the staff, too.”

She delivered the last part with a building embarrassment, her voice trembling before the white lie. That was obviously an excuse to hide away her true intentions.

Where did the staff fit into anything?

They had been quite absent at the beginning of the conversation. Clearly Parinita was worried about her, and she was worried about the extent of her worry and whether it was right and proper. Madiha felt touched by it all. Even her fumbling to cover herself up was very endearing in its own way. Parinita was a far kinder person than she had known.

Touching as it was, the facts were fundamentally unaltered.

Madiha was at a loss for what to say.

“I find it difficult to speak plainly about it.” She said. “Anything I say would be incomplete, Parinita. My self, my life, is very complicated and strange.”

“Then speak to me how you would usually speak. I just want to listen.” Parinita said.

At the edge of the river a silence fell between the two women for a moment. The Umaiha rushed beneath them, both physically and beneath their notice. This was the spot indeed; Madiha remembered. She had come here with Chakrani so many years ago.

Here she had lied in a caring voice, trying desperately to salvage some depth of feeling between them. Back then they had drowned out the noise of the river in their own silence, the same way that they suddenly did now. In the days after that meeting, when Chakrani’s father was condemned to execution, both of them tried to continue, they tried desperately to pick themselves up, but their relationship was too tainted at that point.

Chakrani’s hatred built every time they saw one another.

Back then, her voice, however much she spoke, could not overcome the silence.

“I can’t speak easily or plainly about this.” Madiha said. “This is the voice that I’m cursed with. I sometimes wish I could speak with a voice more genuine and full of emotion. But I’ve never been able to do that. I feel like I speak and think in the way a telegraph does. A series of clicks on a board. I’m like a machine. Keys strike in my mind and words escape, and none of it feels warm or alive. I say things but they do not come out of me.”

“That’s a very dehumanizing way to think about yourself.” Parinita said.

“Everything about me has been very dehumanizing.” Madiha said.

Her face was reflected in the water. Just like that time.

And although it attested to the fact of her existence at the moment, to the configuration of her flesh in a face that had more than once been regarded as living and well and even beautiful, all of it felt false, muddled. It felt like a plastic skin that hid some ungodly horror, a real Madiha that reflected the condition of her mind. Everything about her felt wavering and false, and she feared what might have been more genuine about her and less constructed in a bid to live. It was not just her speech, though that was an obvious part of it.

Madiha had always felt as though her very humanity seeped through her fingers.

She was helpless to keep it in her own grasp.

“My entire life has occurred outside the scope of anything which I could consider human, Parinita.” Madiha said. “I have not lived a human life. Just today I coerced my way into control of a city. At the tips of my fingers is a war machine that could ravage this entire dominance. As a child I participated in a revolution. I might have killed people as a child. I definitely did as an adult. And yet, much of it is hard to remember.”

“Well, you’re in the army, Madiha. That’s a business that needs to get done, at the moment.” Parinita replied, nervous but visibly empathizing. She put a gentle hand on Madiha’s shoulder, and they both looked down at the water again.

“I spent my childhood in an orphanage, and my recorded age was seven years old at the time of the Revolution. But how can I know that this was the truth? Years of my life have gone from my recollection: what was my origin, what happened during the Revolution and after? It’s all faded from my head. I lost years and years. I feel that I have flitted in and out of my own existence. It’s disgusting. I feel downright monstrous, Parinita.”

“Madiha, everyone struggles with memories. It’s as human as it gets.”

She remembered the dreams. People don’t have these dreams, do they? People, ordinary people, they do not get tortured to death in their own dreams. They do not wake feeling a flame burning their brains to ooze. Madiha felt a shiver, a horrifying disgust and fury at her entire existence. Was her mind so thoroughly in pieces?

Had it always been this way, or were there some happy figments in her life?

Perhaps her time with Chakrani. But she had destroyed all of that as well.

“Not in the way I do. You don’t understand how alone I am in this.” Madiha said.

She was pleading now, she even had her hands out, as though she expected to be given something that could calm her. Madiha stared, for once appearing as broken as she felt. Parinita averted her eyes and looked out to the water again. Both of them grew silent for what seemed like the hundredth time. Starting and stopping, running into walls, unable to communicate. That was Madiha’s experience with humanity.

But Parinita cut through the silence.

“Do you like films, Madiha? I love them, you know.”

Did she like films? It felt like a complete non-sequitur. Who was she talking to?

“What is this about now?” Madiha said.

“C’mon, just answer me simply, okay? Do you like films? Moving pictures?”

“I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of films.” Madiha replied with marked confusion.

Parinita beamed at her, clapping her hands together with joy.

“Good! We have that in common. I think everybody likes films. They’re very novel.”

“I suppose so?” Madiha could not help but voice it in the tone of a question.

“Would you like to get together every once in a while to talk about films? It would give us both a break from the war; and I feel it beats drinking away our sorrows like my recruiter used to suggest I do back during officer candidate school.”

Parinita patted her jovially in the back and shoulder, her body language cheerfully insisting upon an answer. Her energy and directness was refreshing to Madiha, and it imparted on her a surprising sense of relief. Just from talking to her in this way she felt a burden lift. All those psychic fires burning away Madiha’s soul began to recede.

That fury and disgust with herself, that storm that pulled her from her flesh and cast her away into the void was passing away, for the moment. Her own skin felt familiar again. She felt less wretched and more alive within herself. There was a soul in her bosom, and while it could burn and hurt and alienate her, she was rediscovering comfort, fondness.

Someone just wanted to talk to her about films. It was dumb, in a way; in a good way.

Soon the pain would return. But for the moment she felt a little restored.

Her head had been pulled out from the smoke and she could breathe without coughing.

Though her lungs may still be blackened, she had earned a respite somehow.

“I probably don’t know as much as you do. But I would be happy to.” She replied.

“Great! Have you ever seen Life Blossoms On the 17th Terminal?” Parinita said.

“Well, no, not really. I know it’s popular. I’m not fond of love stories.” Madiha said.

“But it’s so much more than a love story! It has so many charming subplots!”

Faces reflected on the river below, for over an hour that night they ceased to be Major and Chief Warrant Officer and were simply two people talking about the behavior of an eccentric train guard and the stowaways he encountered day by day.

For once Madiha felt that if she slept tonight, she would not wake haunted.


NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Gates of Hell