The Center of Gravity (75.4)

60th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

There was a sense of foreboding permeating the stale air of the bunker as the new year approached. Hundreds of meetings had been held between the many Majors, Colonels and Generals in attendance at the bunker, and their chosen staff of trusted warrant officers, staff officers and specialists. They had decided everything from logistical priorities for hundreds of pieces of war materiel; to the exact supply routes that had to be secured and followed to deliver these supplies; to the tactical use of those materials, how many bullets to a man, how many men to the bullets. Training programs had been outlined, promotions hashed out for new officers leading new units. Every aspect of the war in Ayvarta for the next year had been examined and planned according to what everyone euphemistically referred to as “the new situation,” of the past two months.

Nocht had dearly wanted to have won this war by now, within a hundred days of its commencement. That would no longer be the case. It was found to be impossible.

It was clear that the next phase of the war would be much harder than anything Nocht’s military had ever faced, even the Kingdom of Franz. At the beginning of the conflict, Ayvarta’s army was scattered across its territories and each individual territorial unit was smaller than the Nochtish forces attacking it. Now all of them could concentrate on one defensive line around a very specific target. Solstice would decide everything.

At the dawn of the 60th, much of Ayvarta’s fate had been set in motion by the Federation armed forces. Its air, naval and ground branches each had their grand strategies in order. There were only a few more meetings left for the very highest echelons of Federation command, the few Major and Colonel Generals along with the grand Field Marshal, to review the decisions of the staff and make small amendments if necessary.

Field Marshal Haus was particularly busy at this time, and so, he found himself quite bewildered but not upset when he found Von Drachen early for their afternoon meeting.

At his side, however, a young, mousy-looking woman was far more upset. She had been holding a keyring meant to open the meeting room door, only to find that the lock had been picked and the door left askew. Shocked at this violation of bunker security, she charged through the door and there, they both found Von Drachen reclining in one of the couches that had been brought to the room. He greeted them with a nonchalant wave.

“Wh-what are you doing in here?” shouted the staff girl. “How did you get in?”

“I let myself in.” Von Drachen said. “I wanted to be punctual, and to put up my things.”

Held to the walls of the bunker with sticky tape were some scrawled-upon maps of Ayvarta, covered in lines depicting the flow of troops and supplies for Von Drachen’s vehemently marketed pet project. A mass desert march around Solstice and toward Jomba, the fertile breadbasket of the uppermost half of Ayvarta. Thanks to the desert bifurcating the continent, Jomba’s produce did not travel too far, but in a Socialist Ayvarta that now started at Solstice rather than Adjar, Jomba was wildly important.

Haus smirked at the maps and at Von Drachen himself. He crossed his arms.

“Schicksal, let us permit this nonsense just this once. I don’t want to have to deal with a courts martial for over-politeness.” Haus said, gently patting Schicksal on the shoulder.

“As you say, Field Marshal. At least General Dreschner wasn’t here to see this mess.”

Schicksal sighed and stood outside the door quietly, waiting for their next guest.

Haus, meanwhile, took his seat across from Von Drachen. There were piles of documents on the table between the room’s comfortable couch seats. Clearly Von Drachen took what he had said in their last meeting to heart. Though Haus had not truly meant to do so, he had encouraged Von Drachen to go through the data and craft a plan as thorough as Generalplan Suden. Back then he had wanted to be rid of Von Drachen; this meeting had been arranged before that incident and was supposed to be perfunctory.

They were supposed to shake hands and Haus was supposed to give Von Drachen his blessing to continue operating despite being widely hated by the staff and the President himself. All this owing to the fact that Von Drachen was quietly acknowledged as a powerful commander, and furthermore, a guarantee for continued Cissean cooperation. As the Cisseans’ only frontline general, Von Drachen was a point of pride for that nation, a symbol of their achievement and independence from the communists in Ayvarta.

Von Drachen’s eccentricity and zeal had changed the entire character of this meeting.

It was slightly irritating, but more than that, it was intriguing. Haus would humor him.

He picked up Von Drachen’s information packet, laid out on the table, and began to flip through it, finding himself strangely engrossed by the operation described therein.

He was not so sure that Dreschner, their other guest, would be happy with this outcome.

Nevertheless, he wanted to hear Von Drachen out. He had a chance to pick his brain.

“Gaul Von Drachen.” Haus said. He put down the information packet, having skimmed all of the synopsis and some tables, and spread his arms out almost like a shrug. “I can hardly imagine what goes through your head. If you could make me understand one thing, I would like it to be this: what is it about Madiha Nakar and you? Are you in love?”

Schicksal, outside the door, gasped at the scandalous nature of this question.

Von Drachen blinked and frowned. “She is not my type at all. Women generally aren’t.”

Once again Schicksal was given cause to gasp outside the door at the sheer scandal.

Haus suspected as much and let the comment slide as if it were merely lad humor.

“Then what is it? I’ve dug up her records and studied the reports on Bada Aso and Rangda. Each time she was caught off-guard at first and got lucky with the weather.”

There was a prevailing theory among Nocht’s military intelligence that an earthquake hit the Bada Aso region on that fateful day in the Aster’s Gloom, triggering the fires that consumed the 13th Panzer Division and its affiliates and caused Nocht’s defeat there.

Her second achievement was also explained away as if by enthusiasts divining a piece of stage magic. While the defeat of the traitor Ayvartan forces was seen as inevitable given their weak leadership, the Elven force had the element of surprise and superior training. However, strong winds from a pressure system off the coast of Rangda diverted numerous Elven glider and paratrooper forces and caused them to land scattered, allowing Nakar’s forces to split and pocket and destroy them. Nothing was given to Madiha Nakar’s supposed genius, but to the weather and to military common sense.

These theories were hardly discussed, because Madiha Nakar was not a foremost concern of the Heer, but most officers who heard them believed them readily.

Most.

Von Drachen had his answer immediately, and did not need to dwell on Haus’ question.

“I’m fascinated by the idea that the Ayvarta of her adulthood could possibly create her and use her in this manner.” He replied. “Madiha Nakar is someone that a truly utopian communism should never desire, require or even create. She is militarism given form, an avatar of war and death. She thinks of nothing else but war. And yet, here she is.”

Haus was surprised at this answer. It felt masturbatory and its rebuke self evident. “Of course she is, because Lenanism is not an ideology of empathy except to fools. Lenanism is a brigand’s philosophy, its about stealing from the rich and industrious. Madiha Nakar is a product of a militarist culture that knows it needs force to accrue loot and defend it.”

“Do you know your Ayvartan history, Field Marshal?” Von Drachen replied, amused.

“Of course I do.” Haus scoffed. “I’ll have you know I grew up around Mary Trueday.”

“That wouldn’t teach you anything of value. What did she say, that the communists put rubber on toast in place of cheese? She doesn’t know anything, Field Marshal.”

Haus might have been expected to feel offense at this casual mistreatment of his childhood friend by a nobody like Von Drachen. However, he was not altogether very close to Mary and felt no such impulse. She was something of a romantic rival; and Haus himself considered her a little dim. Nevertheless he cleared his throat loudly in response.

Von Drachen snickered. “Ayvarta was at a crossroads between utopian communism and revolutionary communism. For a while, the militaristic revolutionary elements were highly placed, but with the death of Lena Ulyanova, there was a dawn of utopianism that dominated the Ayvartan trend for the better part of the last decade. Social democrats and libertarian communists developed convoluted distribution systems and generous social policies with one hand, while strangling military spending and drawing down Ayvartan involvement with parallel revolutions like Cissea and Kitan’s. These utopian communists wanted peace in a contained, almost autarkic state, and feared the revolutionaries.”

Von Drachen leaned forward, his fingers steepled, an eerie grin on his face.

“This is the Ayvarta that Madiha Nakar assimilated into in her adulthood. But Madiha Nakar is an avowed Lenanist revolutionary, and if you look into her eyes, you’ll understand that she is a born killer. She loves to inflict death; it is stimulating to her. All of this war is an exercise for her brain. She is the polar opposite of the Utopian communist. It is fascinating to me that Ayvarta is relying so strongly on the kind of person it ought to find the most revolting. All you need to turn Madiha Nakar into the perfect contradiction is to make her a secret royal, and then she would truly be deserving of exile from utopian communism. I saw it in her face, Field Marshal.”

“She would probably deny it if you asked her. All of this is conjecture.” Haus said.

“She would, but she can’t deny it to herself. We fought hand to hand, Marshal. And not only that, I saw her, on the fly, plan and execute a daring attack on an unknown enemy during the Rangda situation. You could see it in her face, Marshal! Flashes of excitement, exhilaration! I wonder, will Madiha Nakar stop fighting after this war? Or will she find cause to challenge her new government just for her own continued edification? Maybe she would keep fighting no matter happened. Maybe her zeal would never be satisfied.”

Haus knew all of this philosophy well enough, but it was in his nature to repudiate any politics that were unnecessary to accomplishing his goal. He as much hated the war profiteers in the Congress meddling with his fighting as he did the soldier-scholar who though too deeply about the matter of war. Both of them ultimately led to complications.

He himself had asked Von Drachen about this, though, so he excused him, for now.

“Why does this matter to you?” Haus pressed him. “It’s an utter inanity, to me.”

“It matters to me that Madiha Nakar is fighting for a future in which she cannot exist.” Von Drachen said. “I’m a scholar of war myself, Field Marshal. She is a threat to me!”

“A threat?”

Von Drachen shrugged and laughed. “Let’s say I just want the vanity and glory of being the most successful and defining strategist of my time. If not me, it would be her, so!”

Haus raised an eyebrow. His tone of voice had changed suddenly. It was as if Von Drachen had actively prevented himself from speaking too seriously; or maybe he was revealing an inkling of his seriousness, and the rest had been satire. He was lying, but Haus could not tell what part of what he said was meant to be the joke in this discussion. It unsettled him, because clearly it was the one on one setting that brought this about.

Von Drachen had thought of what to say and said this whole spiel. What was his angle?

Before he could press Von Drachen any further, or even think to do so, General Dreschner arrived at the door. He was grim-looking as ever, but gave his aide a gentle pat on the head as he arrived, and took his seat silently after a quick salute to the Marshal and a nod of the head to Von Drachen. Haus had wanted to assemble a group with himself as a neutral party, Von Drachen’s crazy idea, and a General who advocated for a Solstice Attack Operation, the unoriginal draft name for their current course.

“Gentlemen.” Haus began, once both men were comfortable. “Both of you have proven to be great warriors in this conflict. I’ve made many missteps in personnel management, but I correct them when I can. I am standing by my word: Von Drachen has managed to flesh out his ideas into something resembling an operational plan. I am surprised by the effort and on a superficial read, by the quality of his ideas. I think they deserve debate.”

Dreschner nodded his head solemnly. Some of their other generals would have scoffed and immediately began shouting Von Drachen down, but Dreschner was a little more composed when it came to his peers. This was not a quality he always had. It seemed that the course of the war in Ayvarta had tempered some of his most atavistic impulses.

Haus urged Von Drachen to go through with his plan. Dreschner sat back and watched.

Von Drachen stood and stretched a series of marked-up maps on a board atop a tripod.

He would flip between them at various points in his explanation.

“The Ayvartans are hard at work preparing for a valiant final stand in the city of Solstice. It makes sense, doesn’t it? We view Solstice as a vital political center for Ayvarta, from which communism radiates out to the rest of the world. Certainly, Solstice understands the importance we place on it, and mirrors it back in its defense of itself. So Ayvarta will be ready to fend us off from there, creating a long defensive line centered on Solstice.”

Von Drachen flipped to a map with a outwardly-bulging, semi-circular defensive line around Solstice, stretching across vast expanses of the desert from north to south. There were arrows pointing toward the semi-circle, each numbered the same as a major unit of the Federation’s armies that was scheduled to move in that direction. One arrow for example had his own 13th Panzer Brigade, jabbing at central Ayvarta off of the flank of the 3rd Panzer Division of General Anschel and between the 6th Panzergrenadier Division of Meist, recently reinforced with units of light tanks and motorized artillery.

“However, I do not believe Solstice merits this attention. Its military production is sizeable for a single city in the middle of a desert, but it is nothing compared to the industry Ayvarta is squirreling away beyond the sands. Furthermore, Solstice is utterly dependent on the remaining ‘Dominances’ past the desert for most of its precious food.”

Haus was about to ask a question but Von Drachen launched into an uncalled for explanation of the Ayvartan word for Province, which dated back to the Imperial years and the fact that each province was named for a warlord. So “Adjar’s Dominance” for the province controlled by Lord Adjar, and so on. Haus blinked, and Dreschner shook his head and they both wondered what this had to do with anything, and both protested.

“Ayvartan history is deeply important! To everything!” Von Drachen said, as scandalized himself now as Schicksal was when Haus implied he was in love with Nakar. He had a grumpy, petty look on his face, perhaps moreso for being interrupted than anything. “Solstice’s ancient history is the reason we are going after it, and the reason they are defending it. Why, if we understand this history, must we repeat it blindly?”

“Because the swiftest end to this war is decapitating the communist structure so that the Republic can rule in its place.” Dreschner said. “Because all we need to attack is Solstice.”

“Any siege of Solstice will drag out and cost us dearly in materiel and men. I am advocating a different approach that seems riskier but takes advantage of the moment.”

Von Drachen turned over to a new series of maps that showed a three-directional attack on the Ayvartan line; a massive concentration of forces in the southeast, launching a massive punch at one part of the Ayvarta line; a breakthrough in the south and a hasty march past Solstice. One enormous armored thrust at the ‘dominance’ of Jomba, the breadbasket of the Ayvartan east, able to perhaps feed the entire continent someday. Its industry had been young in the waning days of the Empire, but slowly, it was building.

“Our supply lines will collapse.” Dreschner said simply. He was visibly curious, however.

Haus himself was also very curious. He would not have thought of this trick. Had his forces managed any breakthrough he would have sent it directly to the walls of Solstice, hoping to pierce the city defenses and begin the political endgame. Von Drachen’s gamble was that the long Ayvartan line protecting Solstice would rearrange to meet two fake northern thrusts, break in the south, and that the fortress would be unable to chase a blitzkrieg charge past its walls and to its tender, necessary northeastern regions.

Von Drachen seemed to notice their engagement and smiled proudly at them.

“All we need at that point is to cause damage. Ayvarta can’t counterattack into the Republic with its current forces, so they cannot exploit our absence from the Solstice front or truly cut us off. And if Jomba suffers too much under us, they will lose the ability to resupply any kind of force. I believe the Ayvartans will surrender at that point.”

“What kind of forces are guarding Jomba?” Dreschner asked.

“It’s not important; any kind of battle on that soil is a win for us, even if we are beaten around a bit. However, I believe they have concentrated most of their forces defending Solstice. I doubt Jomba has a full army to its defense.” Von Drachen replied.

“So you want us to go in there and what? Torch crops?” Haus said.

“I think it is more useful to steal them for ourselves at that point.” Von Drachen said.

Haus rubbed his chin. “I can’t deny that you have a point, but it is terribly risky. If Ayvarta does not surrender, and continues to fight, we will be in a tough position.”

“Lets say Solstice does keep fighting and locks us in the northeast. They will kill many of us, but we will have done damage to their ability to prosecute this war long-term that will be impossible to repair. We will win eventually. Our sacrifices will still be pivotal.”

Von Drachen seemed to dismiss the concern. Haus blinked. He was ready to put himself in a nearly suicidal position, cut off deep in enemy territory. There was logic to what he said. By making Jomba a battlefield, at all, they would put the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, the power opposed to the new Republic of Ayvarta, under threat of starvation. Von Drachen might be cut off from supply but he had enough power at any time to rip up fields, burn orchards, poison and salt lands, and render the breadbasket useless. Only the Republic and its southern territories would be able to bear the burden of feeding the continent at that point. It would be nearly impossible for Solstice to recover. Even food assistance from Helvetia would be useless. Communism will have lost all credibility with the people if it could not under its own power feed them anymore. The Allies would win.

“I don’t believe it will come to that, because I think there are voices within the communist camp who will realize the damage that is coming and seek a diplomatic solution.” Von Drachen said. “People with the foresight to know they have been beaten.”

“Do you mean Madiha Nakar?” Haus asked, crooking one eyebrow skeptically.

Dreschner looked between the two of them, clearly confused about this new topic.

“No. I think she will realize what is happening, but I think her solutions to the problem will look utterly insane and she will probably be locked up or become a lone partisan. Her presence will certainly help peace seem reasonable, I think.” Von Drachen said.

“I must admit that I see some merit in it, but I must oppose any plan that hinges on our acceptance of suicide.” Dreschner said sternly. “Even if it led to a guaranteed victory, asking me to give up over 200,000 men– no, actually, you put here 500,000? Insane.”

“Not all of them will die.” Von Drachen shrugged. “You’re being overly dramatic.”

“Your glib tone is only making this plan less appealing to me.” Dreschner said.

“Every time we fight, we take a suicidal risk.” Von Drachen said. “You, and me, and him,” he pointed offhandedly at Haus, “and even the girl at the door, could die any minute.”

Schicksal gasped at the door, now scandalized at the casual acceptance of her death.

“There’s a difference between being in danger and plunging into death.” Dreschner said.

“On paper every one of these operations is plunging into death. In the long term, we want to destroy the communists, and this is what will do it. I guarantee it will do it.”

Dreschner scoffed, quickly devolving to his typically passionate debate.

“Which side are you on Von Drachen? Your attitude is putting all of this into question.”

He was shouting, and Von Drachen sighed and replied calmly, “I’m on the side of victory.”

Before Dreschner could shout something again or raise his shaking fists, Haus grunted.

The Major General paused, and seemed to find his calm and shame in himself.

“Apologies, Field Marshal.” Dreschner said.

Haus glared at Von Drachen, over fingers anxiously rubbing down his own face.

He moved his hands off his own face and clasped them together, staring at the maps.

“Von Drachen, tell me one thing and I’ll consider this plan of yours.” Haus said.

Von Drachen nodded his head. “Unknowing of the inquiry, I certainly shall try my best.”

Haus breathed heavily and dropped the question out into the air, heavy, dispassionate.

“Why did you betray the anarchists in Cissea? Why did you become a part of Nocht?”

Dreschner looked up from his seat at the standing Von Drachen.

Haus did not look at him. Still, he looked at the maps.

Von Drachen was smiling. His smile could be felt even if not seen.

“I’m just a man who falls on the side of victory over sure defeat.” He said.

Haus stomped his boot on the ground. “You’re lying.”

“Well, I don’t know what more to say.” Von Drachen said. He was unfazed.

Haus stood up from his seat and dusted off his coat. There was dust everywhere here.

He closed his fist, feeling a strange mixture of disappointment and relief.

“I’m sure your plan is genuine, and you’ve proven to me you’re a canny officer, but not one I can trust to shoulder the responsibility for an entire operation like this.” Haus said. “I’m putting Dreschner in tactical command of Group South, and you will follow his directive. We will break the Ayvartan front line and attack the walls of Solstice. If, as you say, you are on the side of victory, and not yourself, nor anarchy; you will help him out.”

“I am at your service.” Von Drachen said. His tone had not changed one bit.

“That all? Not going to stand up for yourself?”

Von Drachen shrugged. “It’s fine. I did not expect much. I’m glad I got as far as I did.”

It was almost vexing how easily he took being put down this hard.

Dreschner said nothing. He looked between the two men with an expressionless face.

Just then, someone stepped past Schicksal at the door, and the little aide merely gasped and shrieked and did not seem to put up much of a fight. A beautiful blond woman in a pristine uniform charged past, holding in her hands a document and a letter, breathing heavily. Haus stepped closer and held her shoulders gently to reassure her. It was his trusted aide, Cathrin Habich. She was sweating and had clearly been running hard.

“What’s wrong?” Haus asked. He put one hand on her own, and signaled with his fingers over the back of her hand, where she could see it. They had developed this system together. He was trying to see if it was something they could talk about among them.

Cathrin signaled affirmatively with her own hand and slowly rose, caught her breath, and regained her composure and the cold, steely gaze for which she was known.

“Sir, McConnell went around all our backs.” She said.

“What?”

Haus raised his voice. He felt a sudden shock in his chest, a swelling of anger.

Dreschner looked speechless, caught in the sweep of events. He could not have known what McConnell was planning, unless McConnell also went to him with his idea. But Cathrin certainly made it sound ominous and deadly serious. Von Drachen, meanwhile, was cleaning up his things without concern for the drama unfolding around him.

“Show me.” Haus said.

Cathrin showed him the document. “Presidential approval. Here’s a telegram.”

She then opened the letter and handed Haus the paper.

Haus almost did not want to open it.

He felt stung, betrayed. He imagined what it must say and it made him hurt and angry.

In one sweeping move accompanied by a sigh he spread the paper open.

“Prepare Rolling Thunder. McConnell is sharp. Trust him like I did you.”

Trust him like I did you? When did Haus ever have to prove himself to Achim? When did he have to come up with some unnecessary, nonsense plan to earn his trust? Haus felt a level of dismay and even jealousy that he knew was irrational but could not contain. He had felt secure in his knowledge that he would be trusted utterly to make decisions like this. Achim had interfered in operations before, and Haus had allowed it and even seen some of the wisdom in it; but this time he had promoted a subordinate over him.

McConnell would get to execute an operation Haus had blocked as infeasible.

Had he used his pull with his brother in the Senate? Haus did not know.

He could only fantasize angrily about every backhanded thing that may have happened.

In a bid to tear his mind away from the shock and hurt, he handed Dreschner the paper.

Dreschner read it, and the accompanying document, and almost seemed not to believe it.

“This is exactly like Bada Aso. Why would the President order this to happen again?”

“Field Marshal, what are we going to do?” Cathrin asked.

Haus had no answers for anyone.

He stood, breathing heavily, his soft, boyish face broken up by anger and despair.

Looking up from the his hands, he only saw Von Drachen’s back as the man left the room with all of his maps and charts in tow, without a word or seemingly a care in the world.

Something in Haus yearned to understand how Von Drachen could continue to raise his head like that, where Haus felt such a burden upon his own that it was hard to even live.


On the 1st of the Postill’s Dew of 2031, a brand new year, the active airports of northern Dbagbo and Tambwe, in cities like Rangda and Karahad captured mere weeks ago, began preparations to launch massive daily air attacks on Solstice under plan Rolling Thunder.

At their disposal were the Archwizard class heavy strategic bombers with 7000 kg of bombs; Wizard class long range bombers with 3000 kg of bombs; the standby Archer fighter and its new cousin, the Crossbow; and the old reliable Warlock ground attack plane with its cannons, light bomb-load and a screeching dive right out of a nightmare.

There were other weapons being cooked up too; but the pilots knew little about that.

Enemy opposition was always implied in battle operations, but in this case, it was largely unremarked upon that the Ayvartans would try to keep them out of their airspace.

As far as they knew, their flying would be mostly opposed by the Ayvartan’s old Anka biplane with nowhere near the fighting power of even the older Archer. Perhaps a first generation Garuda might appear once in a while, to speak nothing of the rare Garuda II. In their minds the pilots of the Luftlotte’s Jagdwaffe and Schlachtwaffe felt that they would easily own the skies over Solstice, and kill without obstacle. It was almost funny.

None of the men on the ground had taken part in that meeting where Haus quoted a very large number of anti-aircraft guns on the ground and walls of Solstice. So in the minds of the pilots, it was a scenario where they would either fight gallant duels in the sky, or just bully Ayvartan planes into the dirt over and over while the bombers rained death.

In this environment, all the preparatory activities of Rolling Thunder were carried out with zeal. Lehner had finally been talked down, and the Eagles were now cut loose.

The Luftlotte scheduled the attacks to commence on the 13th and last for weeks, maybe as far into the month as the 30th or 40th from there, or until Solstice utterly collapsed.

Or until their ability to fly collapsed. Whichever came first; but only one was acceptable.

Thus began the apocalyptic Battle of Solstice.


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.3)

This scene contains violence and death, and an experience of dysphoria.


Loose stones began to shake and rattle atop the ruin, trembling with the ground.

“Gulab, the Vishap is approaching. Good luck. I love you.”

She almost muttered the last sentence.

“No luck, just skill! I love you too, Charvi!”

Gulab was loud about it as usual.

She switched the radio frequency on the portable talkie and put it in her pouch.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to steel herself for what was to come.

It was just like hunting the rock bears, she told herself.

But even that gone poorly for her in the past.

Atop the mound of rubble that was once the first gate of the Conqueror’s Way, the approaching Vishap was like a boulder rolling down from the mountains, like an avalanche of metal. Sergeant Gulab Kajari tried to find more homely metaphors to describe what she was seeing, but without embellishment, it was a gigantic tank with a big gun pointed directly at them. Its dauntless trundling kicked up clouds of sand, and the infantry at its sides looked minuscule in comparison. It was easy to forget them.

She was surrounded by people who could not afford for her to overlook anything.

She sighed internally, smiled outwardly, and pointed at the incoming Vishap.

“Troops, I’ve got nothing here to say but: we gotta kill that thing.” Gulab said.

Loubna and Aditha and the rest of the rookies in the squadron cast eyes at the floor. They were huddled atop the mound, half their bodies on the steep end away from the approaching Vishap, looking over the makeshift hill. They were hidden from the enemy, hoping to ambush them as they neared. In their hands they had submachine guns and rifles, useless against armor, and one their belts they had anti-tank grenades. Though small, these could at least fare better than a rifle round against the heavy tank.

There was more to it than that, but Gulab didn’t have the time to catch everybody up on everything the General hurriedly told her over the field telephone. Even Gulab herself thought she had not caught all of it. But she had to somehow make all of it work out.

“Trust me, I’ve hunted bigger!” Gulab said. “We just have to know when to run away.”

She pounded her fist against her chest and put on a proud expression.

Morale did not improve upon hearing such a thing with the Vishap in the background.

“Why isn’t it shooting?” Loubna asked. Everyone was watching the machine breathlessly.

Gulab cast her eyes at the approaching tank. She remembered some of the things she had learned from Adesh Gurunath about cannons, in the various times they had cooperated during the war. Longer cannons could shoot farther, and their shots flew faster; the larger the hole of the cannon, from which it ejected shells, the stronger and larger the ammunition was. The Vishap’s cannon was very short and stubby, though the bore was wider than most of the guns Gulab had seen on tanks. It was mounted on the front face of the tank and seemed unable to swivel or turn, since it had no turret to move with.

“I don’t think it can shoot this high, and I don’t think it’s in range yet.” Gulab said.

There were a few sighs of relief among the assembled soldiers, but the trundling of the machine nearing them seemed to put into doubt whether it had any weakness at all.

As the Vishap approached the bridge, the machine noise that accompanied it grew louder, but it strangely enough began to slow down a tick, as it neared closer to 1000 meters from the Conqueror’s Way. Then from around the Vishap’s flanks rushed enemy riflemen, charging across the open desert. Gulab raised her hand at the sight and silently ordered her squadron to huddle closer to the ground and to hide themselves.

Within minutes the enemy riflemen were jumping over the rubble and onto the bridge itself ahead of the machine. A squadron of foot Cissean soldiers was in the lead, and several more followed them. They were armed with rifles and bayonets and quickly left the cover of the rocks. Boldly, they started across the open space to the first gate ruin.

This was good fortune for Gulab’s team; they had to pose a credible threat to the enemy.

And while Gulab doubted she could even dent the Vishap, she knew she could kill men.

“Fire on mark; Loubna, sweep the left flank, everyone else aim at the right.” Gulab said.

“Are these guys related to the men before? Don’t they know we’re here?” Aditha asked.

“I don’t think so. I think they’ve been lost in the desert for longer.” Gulab replied.

“So it’s an ambush?”

“That’s the plan.”

In truth, it was General Nakar who thought that, but Gulab nonetheless took the credit.

It was important for the kids to look up to her!

Aditha did not seem impressed, but she did focus back on the enemy with steeled eyes.

Loubna prepared her partially concealed light machine gun, facing the approach she was to cover; Gulab checked her Rasha submachine gun for one final time before cocking it and setting it on a stone for stability. Squadron members with basic Bundu rifles set them on the rocks, partially hidden, taking impromptu sniping positions across the ruin.

Gulab drew in a breath and aimed for the men running toward the mound.

“Mark!”

Gulab briefly raised her fist, and then laid it down, finger on the trigger, and fired.

Her squadron quickly followed suit.

Tracer fire sailed from atop the rubble of the first gate and showered the advancing enemy infantry. It was almost a moment of deja vu as Gulab watched the men struck down mid-run as if they weren’t expecting to be shot, and their compatriots clinging to the nearest piece of rubble for cover, or running back to the Vishap. Automatic fire from the submachine guns and Loubna’s Danava viciously covered the approach, and a dozen men were killed almost simultaneously before the rest took the hint and scattered.

As the waves of enemy infantry grew timid they began to concentrate around the Vishap.

There was only one way Gulab could account for this behavior among enemy soldiers.

They had caught them by surprise! It was just as General Nakar had predicted; they had not been in contact with the Republic of Ayvarta troops that had attacked this position previously. These new arrivals with the Vishap group likely expected an ambush but could not have known its ferocity or character, because they were acting independently of the main body of RoA troops deployed to take the Conqueror’s Way. As such, like the RoA troops defeated before them, these Cisseans and Nochtish were taken by surprise.

“Hah! Trekking through the desert melted their brains! Pick them off!” Gulab shouted.

Loubna reloaded, and she began to fire on the enemy’s cover selectively. Gulab praised her discipline and began to fire upon a sited spot herself. A few men tried to contort themselves with their rifles around the chunks of rock and from out the pits and trenches that scarred the Conqueror’s Way, but to no avail. Every time a rifle came out, a stream of bullets from atop the remains of the first gate silenced it. More and more of the enemy appeared and consolidated in thick formations behind cover, but without any cover down the middle Way they could not approach the mound. They were pinned.

For a moment, it seemed almost like they had turned back the tide. The enemy had advanced, lost men, retreated a step, and become bogged down in relentless gunfire.

This was all part of the General’s plan! It was all working as she had said.

In any other situation such a stalemate could be exploited. Gulab had seen it before.

However, there was nothing the bullets could do to stop the Vishap, ever closing-in.

It was this detail that made this battle different, and rendered this triumph so null.

Soon as its tracks hit the stone of the Conqueror’s Way, the Vishap changed the tide of the battle. It ground rocks beneath its bulk, and shoved rubble away with the bulldozer on its face, and its own men leaped out of its way as it charged forward. But once it moved past their positions, the Cisseans took up its back and began to advance again. Though the mound continued to brutalize the Conqueror’s Way with submachine gun, rifle and machine gun fire, there was nothing they could do. All manner and caliber of small arms fire was bouncing harmlessly off the Vishap’s blades and its wounded front plate armor.

“It’s not doing anything!” Aditha shouted, rapping the trigger of her rifle uselessly.

“Keep shooting! Wait for my signal before doing anything more!” Gulab shouted back.

Trundling to within a stark 500 meters of the first gate, the Vishap’s cannon glowed.

Smoke and fire belched from the aperture, and with a terrifying growl the Vishap loosed a heavy shell that flew in a belabored, shallow arc into the bottom of the mound. There was a monumental flash. Fire and metal and chunks of rock flew straight into the air in front of the defender’s very eyes. Everything shook under them. It felt like the mound would collapse. The Vishap moved once more, and it loomed larger and larger as it did.

Atop the machine, two of the shoulder cupolas turned to face the mound, and the dark slits cut across the sides of the structures flashed a bright green. Hundreds of rounds of machine gun fire struck the rubble at the peak of the mound, and a cacophonous sawing noise sounded above the shifting of the stones and the sound of loading and firing of rifles. Hundreds of bright green tracers bounced skyward or overflew the peak. Even the rookies could identify the sound as that of the deadly Norgler machine gun, and they scrambled back from the rubble, putting the slope between them and the Vishap.

The Vishap’s top-mounted machine guns blazed as the machine crawled toward the mound. It was like a demon, belching fire from its snout-like cannon, its cupolas like eyes firing searing, chaotic beams of green tracer ammunition. It was a terrifying sight that cowed the defenders like nothing else. Not another shot flew out from atop the mound; Gulab swallowed hard and shrank back with the rest of her squadron, pinned.

“Comrades, get ready to retreat! Grab your weapon and start moving toward–”

Beneath the infernal noise of the machine guns the Vishap’s cannon cried out once more.

One more shell impacted the rubble of the first gate, and this time the force of the blast wound itself inside the rubble, and rocks and concrete belched out the other side of the mound, collapsing some of the rookies’ own footholds on the rear of the slope. Several squadron members were blown back with the rock, and they dropped from the mound and hit the ground. Disoriented, but alive, they fled in a panic back to the second gate.

There was no time to hold the Vishap there. They had to sacrifice the first gate and fast.

“Comrades, over the side barriers, right now!” Gulab shouted. “Come with me!”

Everyone looked at her with surprise. They clung on to the rubble and rock as if they were suspended over a precipice, and their guns were almost an afterthought, hanging by belt loops or pressed between them and the slope. Nobody was moving at all.

“Come on!”

Gulab grabbed hold of rookie Loubna with one hand, who was paralyzed with her Danava embraced in her arms, and the sweating, panting Aditha with the other. Finding purchase on a solid slab of concrete beneath her, Gulab could afford to let go of the mound for this maneuver, and with all her strength, she dragged the two rookies, and leaped from the mound and atop the side-barrier. She pushed Loubna and Aditha off, and it looked to everyone as if she was throwing them in the river. There was no splashing or screaming, however, if any such thing could even be audible under all the machine gun fire; and witnessing Gulab herself disappearing behind the barriers, the remainder of the squadron gasped with collective fear and charged toward the water.

Jumping around the meter-and-a-half tall concrete barriers on the side of the bridge, Gulab found herself in a drainage segment off the side of the bridge. There was maybe a meter in which to stand or sit, and the rushing waters of the Qural below. Loubna and Aditha clung to the barrier, terrified by the rushing water. Gulab urged them to move; in a moment, five additional squadron members would jump the barrier and land messily one after the other, some nearly falling into the river. Gulab got everyone organized.

She huddled the group and addressed them. “Alright, see, nobody fell, nobody got–”

Behind them, there was a much louder blast and an even more violent rumbling and rattling as the Vishap finally destroyed the mound of the first gate. Then, the grinding of its tracks and the roaring of its engine resumed, and they could all feel it moving past them, like a dragon stomping its way past their village as they hid from the destruction.

Gulab had no intention to remain hidden. This was all another chance to attack.

“Comrades, any hunter can kill any beast by stopping it from moving! If that thing gets past the second gate, it will have a clear shot at the wall. We can’t let it get any further.”

All of her squadron was clearly shaken. In a span of minutes they had lost a position, lost comrades, and witnessed head-on a massive tank bearing down on them. Their eyes were watering, their faces sweating and turning pale, their bodies shaking. But they were focused: Gulab saw it in their faces that they understood the urgency. That was good; a soldier could be afraid, but they had to channel that fear into their survival.

“On my mark,” Gulab continued, and laid a hand on Aditha’s shoulder, and quickly explained as the Vishap neared them, “Aditha and Seer will throw frag grenades at the road to distract the riflemen, and then, me, Loubna, Fareeha and Jaffar will rise up and throw anti-tank grenades at the tank’s side and tracks. We only have one shot at this!”

Aditha looked frightened at first, but Loubna put a hand on her shoulder too, and her face turned red. She averted her eyes, turned her cheek on Loubna and withdrew a pair of grenades from her pouch. Looking sour in expression, she nodded silently to the team, most of whom seemed perplexed by her behavior. Meanwhile Fareeha, a tall, dark, athletic woman, and Jaffar, a rugged-looking boy, both gave Gulab intense looks that suggested to her their eagerness to fight. Both were rookies. Everyone here was now.

Gulab didn’t look at Loubna, she felt she didn’t need to. Loubna was ready. Gulab felt it. Loubna was big and tough, and she had a soft heart that yearned to defend the weak.

She saw her own face in Loubna’s, like staring into her reflection on the mountain ice.

She hoped she could count on at least her.

Behind them, the Vishap chewed up the remaining rubble of the first gate, and the ground beneath them and the barrier in front of them and seemingly even the water at their backs, all of it shook and shuddered with the weight and power of the beast. It fired a round at the ruined second gate, resulting in a massive explosion, and its machine guns screamed as it engaged the blocking position set up around the second gate’s remains

Gulab’s stomach vibrated, and she felt the presence of the machine in her neck when she tried to speak, like constant jolt to the adam’s apple. Her words came out shaken.

The Vishap was within zero of the squadron; they had to attack now or never.

Its frontal machine guns were occupied, and its gun was unable to target them.

It was time.

“Aditha, Seer, now!”

Aditha and Seer pulled the pins on their grenades, waited a second, and threw.

Four grenades, one in each hand, landed in the road and exploded in various directions.

Gulab stood and launched her AT grenade in as straight a throw as she could muster.

Only on a direct hit from the head would the grenade be primed and detonated.

She caught sight of something that made her throat seize up.

The Vishap had an armored skirt protecting its wheels and track.

Would the attack even be effective?

She watched the grenade strike the top of the skirt at an angle and burn a visible hole.

The Vishap trundled on.

On the road were dead and wounded riflemen, caught out by the grenades.

Their own comrades were coming in for them.

Just then, behind Gulab, in a sluggish sequence, came Loubna, Jaffar and Fareeha.

Their own throws were haphazard, with Jaffar throwing from the grenade’s head and Loubna lobbing hers. Both grenades exploded over the armor skirt and left minor cosmetic wounds on the tank. Fareeha seemed to have had the best throw. Her grenade hit the Vishap in the side of the skirt and burnt through the armor, exposing a wheel. Some smoke and fire spat out of the wound, but the Vishap continued to advance.

“Everyone down!” Gulab shouted. They had stood out too long, threw too late–

Atop the Vishap, the leftmost rear cupola turned to the edge barriers and opened fire.

Alarming green norgler fire sprayed over the concrete.

Gulab shoved herself into Loubna and Jaffar, the two closest, and brought them down.

Seemingly hundreds of rounds struck the concrete, chipping away bits and pieces that fell over the squadron and casting concrete dust into the air. So many rounds were fired at the barrier that the chipped concrete dust formed a small cloud over the edge of the bridge. Disdainfully the Vishap pressed on, fully leaving behind Gulab and her team.

On the floor, Gulab pressed her hands over herself and found no wounds.

She grabbed hold of Loubna, who was staring at something mouth agape.

She was unwounded too; Jaffar was also alright from the looks him, and then–

Just a few steps away from them, sitting with her back to a black-red smear on the barrier, was Fareeha. Her chest and neck had bled out heavily in moments, judging by the red stain all around her, like an aura burnt into the ground and wall. Her feet dangled from the bridge, and her eyes were open, staring endlessly out into the water.

She was dead.

Gulab hadn’t been able to knock her down too.

From behind Gulab sounded a heart-rending cry.

“Fareeha! No! No!”

Aditha, crouched on the floor, held back a thrashing, screaming Seer, whose black face was turning pale and flushed, her eyes red and strained, weeping. She tried to claw over Gulab to make it to Fareeha’s corpse, and Aditha and Loubna both tried to hold her back. She was screaming for Fareeha, screaming that she could not be left behind, that she could not stay here, that she would be fine if they could get her out of this place.

Gulab looked back at the corpse as if, mindlessly, trying to assess whether it could be ok.

It could not.

She pored over, in that eternal instant where anxiety reigns over the mind, whether she had seen anyone die before. She had seen people die, but had they died? There was an importance difference there that she felt but could not grasp. Certainly, nobody had died under her command before. Because she had not really done that much commanding.

Now, she was in command. And a young woman of merely eighteen had died under her.

In the background to all this, was Solstice city, and Gulab stared at the wall.

She felt the Vishap, attacking the second gate. She felt its motion through the ground.

Gulab turned toward Seer and grabbed hold of her shoulders and shook her roughly.

“An entire city of millions of defenseless people will join Fareeha if we don’t do something, Private Dbouji! Wait to mourn until we’re inside some safe walls!”

She picked up her submachine gun from the floor, crawled past Loubna and Jaffar, and without turning back, motioned for everyone to follow. She hated all of this, and herself.

She hated how much it felt like something her father had done and said to her, long ago.

How much that voice sounded like his own.


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Storm The Castle (68.1)

This chapter contains graphic violence and death.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — South Wall Defensive Line

Around the city of Solstice the Red Desert rolled into hills and valleys. It rose, and it fell, and patterns formed on its surface like ocean waves captured solid, an endless sea of windswept rust-colored dust parched by a brutal heat. Stones set on the ground in ancient times traced paths through the desert to the oasis that is Solstice, but these paths came and went with the winds, and with the shape and stature of the surrounding dunes.

Since the beginning of the war, the unkempt paths had all but disappeared into sand.

One of those vanished roads once led to the southern wall of Solstice, said to be the only one “touching ground.” On the famous eastern road the massive stone bridge of the Conqueror’s Way parted Solstice from the rest of the land, the Qural river flowing from the north and down underneath the massive fortification; to the west, sheer cliffs, wide pits and broad gorges, which had been filled with water artificially, blocked the city access.

And so, it was along the fated south, that the first grey shirts and the first black jackboots, climbed the sandy hills to stare face to face, for the first time, at the vast walls of the city.

Upon spying the wall for the first time, the men, already enervated by the stinging, relentless heat, grew quieter, and their muscles tensed, their whole bodies frozen still. Eyes drew wide at the distant sight of the ancient stone wall, dozens of meters tall. It was tall enough to keep the giants of nochtish legend out of the socialist’s streets. It was like staring at a cliff from far off, an obstacle one knew to be in one’s own future; it was the polished, brown stone face of a mountain that set itself on an adventurer’s weary trail.

Those who trudged up the hill without hope, simply collapsed at the peak, dead in spirit if not already dead. They had come for little reason or no reason at all, and nothing could drive them further. Months of campaigning in the desert had all but killed them, in spirit if not flesh. Those who had come to fight, loaded their weapons. Masses of men, broken up by tanks, backed up by the small, quick cars upon which their offices rode on, crested the hill, and assembled atop the sand. There were no horses. All of the horses were dead.

Some men were allowed to ride on the backs of the light tanks driving up to the wall. Many were old model light “Ranger” tanks, worn and pitted with bullets and discolored in places where old worn-out plate had been replaced with new armor. Even the most veteran of these tanks was obsolete now. It was a motley assemblage. On these tanks, men could ride atop the enclosed turret and in the back, over the engine, if they could stand the heat.

Many among the fighting men griped about the lack of sturdy, powerful M4 tanks in this crucial juncture. They suspected shortages, but did not suspect the nature of their mission.

Their true purpose was cleverly concealed by a few pieces of less expendable technology.

Among the old warhorses there were scattered signs of Nocht’s ruthless wartime evolution, enough to improve the general morale and to make the charge seem a little less doomed. These new tanks, moving at a faster clip, and with open-topped turrets boasting powerful 76mm guns inspired by the new Ayvartan tanks, were new model M3A3 R-K Hunter light tank destroyers, replacing the old, flawed Hunter artillery tanks.

Those men who got to ride on the “Rick Hunters” got a breezy journey to the starting line.

Trucks pulled artillery into place, engineers dug earthworks for the camps. Crucial water was stockpiled air-tight and under tarps. A village of tents rose to support the battle.

However, everyone’s eyes were taken by the gallantry of the front line.

Atop the hill, Nocht’s combat power arranged itself into neat, preplanned ranks.

Slowest first, fastest last, and in staggered waves down to the platoon level.

Back at the camps, numerous tents housed radio control teams, staffed by young women as had become customary, who worked the wireless boxes, set up antennae, and delivered orders from nearly endless slate of officers down the chain of command. Firing off hundreds of calls, the radio girls kept everyone on time, in place and organized, and kept their commanders appraised of the situation moment to moment. Everyone spoke in prepared codes on the radio, but officers in the tents allowed themselves to be candid.

“Bring forward the C-10 teams! We’re breaching that fucking wall!”

Thousands of men, hundreds of vehicles, assembled across a several-kilometer swath of desert, and faced the wall. Within fifteen minutes, not even enough time for the vast, long, multi-headed shadow they cast upon the sand to shift a degree, the command was shouted, and there was a convulsion along the body of this great beast, and it shrugged.

The 365th Infantry Division along with elements of the 25th Panzer Division would be the historic vanguard, the honored heroes who would initiate the 1st Wall Attack Operation.

First into the fray was the 3rd Battalion of the 365th’s 18th Regiment. One thousand men almost to the head broke off from the body of the Division and began to move across the ten kilometers of flat distance between the crowded divisional area and Solstice. It was a charge of the modern day, not a sprint of a hundred meters from speartip to speartip, but a tactical march against a fortification on a strict timetable. Some men ran as if they could cross the desert flats and fight within the minute, and those men fell ten minutes later.

Those marching steady kept weary eyes forward, on the walls that came closer and closer.

Across the desert the cry resounded, unchallenged by the silent stone: Vorwarts!

Accompanying the cry and the charge were the sound of loud, intermittent blasts behind them. It was not enough to startle anyone; they all knew the plan. They had to. Over the heads of the men, artillery guns fired heavy shells that crossed the distance to the city in moments, and they struck the stone walls like iron fists. These were the first blows of the war directly at the walls of Solstice. Chunks of stone went flying, and smoke and dust blew up in front of the wall and obscured the obstacle. Each shot sent a triumphant thrill through the mass. The 3rd Battalion picked up the pace. Within the hour they had cut the distance to half. Several tanks caught up quickly, and the Pionier engineering teams and their explosives started to make ready. In an hour more they would be in the city!

Maybe in two or three, the war might be over! They could go home, triumphant!

Owing to the wind and the dust, and the contribution of their own artillery fire to both, a yellow curtain fell over the march. There was a foul wind picking up that was scattering sand into the atmosphere, an effect known to the locals as the “khamsin.” Within an atmosphere the color of parchment that howled and stung, the 3rd Battalion did not see the shells flying over their own head. They did not see the flashes atop the wall, nor the casings falling from on high. And when the blasts fell at their backs, those ahead believed it to be their own guns, and did not see the carnage that was creeping slowly back to front.

When the dusts ahead began to settle, and their own artillery quieted, and the wall again came to view, the 3rd Battalion saw minimal damage inflicted on the stone. They paled as they saw something glinting in the scorching sunlight: reinforced plates behind a false layer of stone. All of that howitzer fire had done nothing; Solstice was still untouched.

And then there was another flash, and another, these were no trick of the desert light.

Guns started flashing from several openings on the stone. With the dust clear and the distance cut, it was possible to see a hint of gun barrels protruding over the top wall, belonging to heavy rampart guns. These impressive weapons launched massive 100+ millimeter shells along the length of the column, with one or two startling shots a minute.

The carnage they wrought distracted the men from the guns in the wall itself.

There was an instant of silence. The advancing infantry seemed not to realize their fate.

Amid the khamsin a hail of gunfire met the 3rd Battalion. At first soundless in the wind, their red tracers masked by the haze, the machine gun fire was an invisible reaper that swept across platoons and companies and put to the ground dozens of men. They fell like they had fallen all along the trek through the desert, suddenly and mysteriously, as if the heat had finally dried out the last drop of their souls. They fell as they had fallen before and so they fell forgotten, and the 3rd Battalion marched on as it had learned to.

Hidden within the soundless stone, inside the face and the columned corners and interred at the base of the wall, were machine guns, anti-tank cannons, mortar emplacements.

When mortars and gun shells began to land, blasting skyward pillars of earth and gore, and the buzzing machine gun fire started to build enough to chop men to pieces as they stood, the urgency of the situation became horrifically apparent. It was then that the bullets became visible, and that death became less abstract. The disciplined mass of the 3rd Battalion split and scattered and charged the wall in haphazard patterns, and all across the carpet of flesh blossomed horrific circles of death where howitzer shells exploded.

There was still some semblance of a plan. Guide the C-10 to the wall. The C-10, the 10th of the Wall-Breaking Potentials. Those men who ran with hope ran with that hope in hand.

Around the teams of C-10 carrying engineers, the attacking troops rallied, and so the battalion coalesced into three distinct masses with gaggles of stray soldiers between.

There was no louder sound in the desert than the Ayvartan guns. Even the panic in the invader’s heads was quieter. Shells fell savagely around the advancing infantry. A near-miss would detonate in a hail of cruel metal fragments; if the concussive blast of a nearby explosion did not take an arm or a leg, a cloud of jagged metal knives would. Any group so unlucky as to have a shell land on them disappeared, a red mist and a red splash atop the ruddy-brown sand. It was as if the men were bubbles being popped by falling needles.

Hundreds died immediately, and hundreds more followed, as the shells and the machine gun fire and the guns swept forward and back, forward and back, leaving a trail to the wall.

Tanks, lagging behind the advance, were picked off by the large-caliber guns atop the walls. There were several M3s and few M4s, and none could withstand the concentrated fire of the wall guns. They moved implacably, an iron wall buckling at its supports, some tanks trying to swerve and zig-zag, others praying as their front armor took stray shots.

It was too much. Single shots to the front plate outright destroyed the light tanks, and even the brand new M3s would falter, their open tops exposing their crews to shrapnel and flame. M4 tanks shot in the cheek, would diffuse the blast across their hulls and rattle mad every man inside it. Whether or not the armor survived, the machinery inside was doomed, shaken to pieces. Many tanks were abandoned, serving no function but cover. The Ayvartan fire was accurate and ferocious, and when the line of tanks stalled, it joined the other human detritus of the operation, a vast graveyard soiling the southern desert.

But while the battle raged on, the landscape was shifting.

Wind and war moved the sand and the earth, creating craters, mounds, features otherwise missing in the flat terrain between the Division and Solstice. While their heavy machinery and thick formations crumbled, individual men clung to life within the storm like dogs hurled into ocean water. Within one or two kilometers, a step away from their destination, the men of the 3rd Battalion could huddle in holes and against the shadowed parts of their ephemeral sandy hills and found a measure of safety. Machine gun fire was sailing above them, and shells striking safely behind them. They now had a foothold.

“This is Storm-Two!”

At the head of the bloody march, a captain from a C-10 team picked up a radio.

“Repeat, this is Storm-Two! We’ve made it to the shadow of the wall!”

“Acknowledged, Storm-Two,” replied a dispassionate female voice. She was speaking in code, but the Captain knew her words immediately, having memorized the ciphers, and so in his mind he heard her speaking crisp Nochtish. “1st and 2nd Battalion will move forward soon to reinforce the approach. Ready to deploy the C-10 against the wall.”

“Division, I don’t think we can advance in this condition. We’ve lost almost everything up here.” the Captain grimly said, huddled behind a boulder unearthed by a fortunate wind. Around him were maybe a dozen engineers and riflemen, and the big packs of C-10 bombs.

“Losses are within acceptable parameters,” corrected the voice, “continue the attack.”

The Captain knew that as that radio went dead, another dozen of his men went dead too.

Still, he turned to them, and he raised his hand and waved to the wall with conviction.

“Huddle around the engineers! We’re taking that C-10 to the fucking wall!” He shouted.

There were stares of disbelief, even as the men’s bodies slowly went to work.

Back in the rear, the 1st and 2nd Battalions started to retrace the steps of the 3rd. Little had changed for them. In this battlefield even the veterans among them knew nothing. Without having seen the fire falling first-hand, without the intimate yet split-second knowledge of the good shell-holes, the blind spots, the good cover, these men were butchered the same as before. It was only Ayvartan reloading and refitting, which became more frequent as ammo cycled and barrels overheated, that allowed many to escape.

Those at the front threw themselves at the wall. Escorting the C-10 explosive teams, stray platoons and even impromptu squadrons of survivors organized, shouted their last words, and charged with rifles up. Machine guns on the base of the wall opened fire, cutting dozens of them down in plain sight. For the last 1 kilometer dash of the fight, there was little cover, little sand, no boulders, no shell-holes. Just dry, packed dirt, a wall and death.

“Run! Run! Run!”

Storm-Two was reduced to near-incoherence the slobber from his visceral screams evaporating in the heat and the scorching wind of the khamsin. Ahead of him he saw the bullets, the screeching red tracers flying by him like fiery arrows, and each one could have been for him and each one wasn’t. At his side one of his men took a bullet in the eye and collapsed. Another’s helmet flew off his head from a dozen shots, and the thirteenth blew his nose apart. Storm-Two could barely register what was happening. He ran, and he ran, clutching the explosive pack, charging into the curtain of bullets, and not one hit him.

With a final, guttural cry he stamped the pack against the stone of the wall, maneuvering himself so that he stood between two obvious firing ports built into the stone and hidden by the sand. He slammed the C-10 pack against the wall, and he reached inside of it.

There was a mechanism, wires, string, a tiny snap lever, attached to thick, gray blocks.

His entire body shook and rattled as hundreds of thousands of bullets flew out from the wall. He thought he could feel every instant of recoil, every muzzle burst, every click of the trigger, through the cold stone of the southern wall. He kept the pack up, fumbled with the mechanism. He wasn’t even thinking that if it exploded, it would take him.

He was at the wall. Nobody knew. Nobody was alive to know. But he was there.

He took the C-10 home, and he was going to blow a hole in the fucking wall.

Storm-Two linked the wires, waited for the tell-tale sign of an electric charge.

Around him the gunfire intensified. Overhead the wall cannons fired, and he felt the massive energy of several heavy guns transferring down the wall, shaking up his guts. He thought he would throw up. He shuttered his eyes. Had he heard the fizzing noise?

He looked at the C-10 pack, and he saw no smoke, no sparks.

Had he missed it? Storm-Two was too deep to back off.

At least he would die a hero. He would destroy the wall. He would win the war.

He held the pack against the stone and put his head head to it.

In a few minutes, certainly–

Nothing.

Far behind him several artillery shells exploded, wiping out more men and machines.

He looked desperately inside the pack for signs that it was armed, that it would blow.

He prayed for death, and he could not have it. His C-10 remained unexploded.

It was a dud. He had a dud bomb.

Storm-Two dropped the pack, collapsed onto his knees.

In front of him, a stone slid on the wall.

For a brief instant, Storm-Two saw a face in the wall.

Clean, soft, with large eyes and little expression. Long hair, lovely lips, dark brown skin.

He was regarded, quizzically at first, by the Ayvartan behind the defenses.

Storm-Two looked up in futility.

He put his fist to his chest, and then he raised his arm to sign the eagle’s wing.

He died patriotically as the Ayvartan behind the stones shot him in the face with her rifle.

She closed the stone, locked the armored hatch behind it, and returned to her post.


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Dominoes (64.1)

This scene contains violence.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they were winning.

And they had won.

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

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

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

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

The Paladin stared out the door, speechless.

Everyone in the room was looking at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When everyone had left, she approached Arsenica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Rumbling Hearts (42.1)


47th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison HQ

As the sun rose to keep its noon-time appointments, the door to the temporary Regimental Headquarters slammed suddenly open. Logia Minardo wandered nonchalantly inside, singing a little tune to herself. Despite her visible pregnancy, she was as sprightly as a teenage girl, swinging her hips, tossing her shoulder-length hair, taking little dancing steps into the building. From her fingers swung a cloth bag that she used as a prop in her act.

Her feet thudded on the floor as she neared her desk, adding percussion to her voice.

Coming out of a quick spin, she set down her bag and snapped her fingers with a flourish.

Behind the main desk, Colonel Madiha Nakar and her pet dragon glared the Staff Sergeant’s way, both taking the same guarded posture and wearing exactly the same sour expression toward her. Neither of them seemed amused with Minardo’s antics. Kali was even growling. Fully uniformed, even wearing her officer’s cap, Madiha looked likewise unapproachable.

Minardo smiled and waved her hand at the pair. She spoke in a flighty tone of voice.

“Oh my, I don’t know if it’s pet influencing owner or owner influencing pet anymore.”

Madiha’s sour expression grew concertedly sour. Kali then mimicked her.

In the Colonel’s mind, a reservoir of good will toward Minardo was rapidly emptying.

“I am wondering why you failed to pick me up this morning, and why you are here so late in the day with that nonchalant expression on your face. Furthermore, I’m curious to see if you know the answers to those questions with regards to my assistant.” Madiha said.

Across the room, the staff sergeant quizzically panned her head around. Her gaze settled on each desk and table in the room, and it dawned on her what Madiha had known for hours now. Parinita had failed to show up for work; she hadn’t even taken a minute to tell Madiha where she was going, despite them living in the same building. It was the shock of a lonely morning and a lonely walk from her lodgings to the base, that had Madiha quite on edge.

That, and her building disdain for Minardo’s roguish sense of humor.

“Oh no! Perhaps she was kidnapped.” Minardo said, putting on a face of mock fright.

“Don’t joke about that.” Madiha said brusquely.

Minardo raised her hands defensively. “I’m sorry. I don’t think anything bad could have happened to her. She might have gone to the shops to get an outfit to wear to the festival.”

“She didn’t have any money. None of us do.” Madiha said.

“There are more ways to acquire goods than through money.” Minardo said.

She blew a little kiss at Madiha, who discovered then that what she hated more than Minardo’s roguish sense of humor was her coquettish sense of humor.

“Don’t joke about that, either!” Madiha snapped loudly, pushing herself to an irate stand, and Kali joined in with tinny growls, stretching up on the desk as if ready to pounce.

Minardo shrugged. “My, my, this is a tough crowd.” She then sighed heavily. “Anyway, I lent her some money, okay? I’m sure she is only out on the town. It is fine, Colonel.”

“And where did you get this money you lent her from? Are you suddenly a bank?”

“I just had it tucked away, and I decided to be kind. What do you want from me?”

Madiha grumbled. She irrationally bitter that Parinita had turned to Minardo for funds.

Even though she knew that she wouldn’t have been able to help at all in that arena.

“Fine. I’ll accept that. Go busy yourself for now.” Madiha ordered.

Minardo nodded her head and turned around to her desk.

Aside from Madiha and now Minardo, the room was empty. The Colonel dismissed Bhishma early; without Parinita around she had no idea what work she could even have Bhishma do. Padmaja had come fluttering in early in the morning, and took a few radio calls, and organized every desk. Then, having run out of things to do, Madiha had her go on errands.

For a few hours after, the Colonel was alone in the office.

Despite this, Minardo’s presence was not exactly welcomed.

Ever since they met, Madiha felt like her image of the Staff Sergeant was deteriorating.

She knew that she was on edge, and that her condition was heightening her low-key disdain for Minardo’s flighty but harmless antics. The Staff Sergeant was useful and could be more useful in the future; but in the present, Madiha wanted to be angry at her, and indulged that anger more openly than she had in the past. Her emotions bubbled beneath her skin.

If the Staff Sergeant sensed any danger, she hid that intuition well.

Minardo sat behind her desk, and for a moment she pretended to do some work. At a glance she seemed to busy herself, picking up papers, tapping them against the desktop, setting them down, and going over them. However, all of those papers were taken from a stack of blank requisition sheets, so there was nothing to read. And Minardo was constantly glancing over at Madiha’s desk. Despite meeting the Colonel’s disapproving gaze several times this way, Minardo did not cease her little facade until the Colonel called her out.

“What do you want, Minardo?” Madiha asked, exasperated.

“I am wondering if you have any hobbies, Colonel.”

Madiha frowned back, irritated and glum.

“I–”

Suddenly Minardo interrupted. “No military stuff!”

She felt like replying with ‘go to hell’ but restrained herself.

Madiha gave a throaway answer. “Kali.” She said.

At her side, the dragon’s eyes drew wide open and it kneaded its legs happily.

“I happen to have an affinity for puzzles.” Minardo replied.

“What’s your point? Do you want to show me a puzzle?”

Minardo smiled and stood up from her desk. “Since we have nothing better to do.”

She withdrew a box from her bag, and set it down on Madiha’s desk.

“I was thinking,” she continued, “we could take up a little challenge.”

It was a chess board from Solstice Toys & Games, updated to match the sensibilities of the time. Pawns were laborers, Knights were revolutionaries, bishops Commissars, and so on. At the very top of the hierarchy of pieces was the Premier, or Central Committee Head; in this edition the piece was a small, ivory Lena Ulyanova. It was a rather cute board all told.

“Chess?” Madiha asked. Her demeanor softened just a little.

“I prefer crossword puzzles to keep my mind sharp, but this works for two.”

Kali drew close to the chess set, sniffed the box, and recoiled, snarling.

“Does it smell like me?” Minardo asked, leaning close to the dragon.

Kali blew a puff of white smoke into Minardo’s face.

Drawing back again from the desk, Minardo sighed audibly.

“Anyway, would you like to have a match, Colonel?” Minardo asked.

Madiha knew that the excuse of ‘I have work to do’ had all dried up. She had hardly the capacity to work in this office, and other than yelling at various suppliers to hurry up with her orders, she had little administrative work to do. And what little she could do, she needed Parinita to record and organize. Doing anything without her secretary would have led to confusion later, as both wondered what parts of the work were done or not.

So in those circumstances, the idea of besting Minardo sounded palatable.

“I wanted to go over the table of organization, but fine. We can play one game.”

Nodding her head contentedly, Minardo pulled up the top of the game box, and set up the board atop Madiha’s empty desk, putting all the pieces in their places. “Black or white?”

“Black.” Madiha replied.

Minardo flipped the board, and put her hand on a pawn.

“That means I go first.” She said, winking.

Madiha acknolwedged, and watched as Minardo made a simple opening move.

Out of the front ranks, a white pawn moved.

Figuring there was no better move at the time, Madiha mirrored her opponent.

She thought she could already see a game unfolding here.

Pawns drew out, and then knights started moving. Madiha thought it would become a pitched battle, and her mind was racing to plot out the moves that she would make. She viewed the knights as tanks, able to move around obstacles. Pawns were small but vicious infantry who could hold key positions. And then there was the Queen, most powerful of all.

She viewed it as the war of mobility that had been swirling in her mind for days now.

Her imagination got the better of her.

Despite this exertion of brainpower, Minardo was soon laughing in Madiha’s face.

Though in her head many moves had been made, in reality, only pawns had set out.

Two moves worth of pawns from both sides. White, black, white, black–

Win.

A white Queen came creeping out of her phalanx for a surprise victory.

“I can’t believe this! You fell for the fool’s mate! Are you eight years old?”

Minardo continued to laugh while Madiha surveyed the board in confusion.

She could imagine all she wanted, but she had never actually played chess.

As such, her play was apparently incredibly weak.

“I feel so cruel to have won this way! But I couldn’t resist trying it.” Minardo boasted.

Madiha rubbed her chin, quietly staring at the board.

Her sour expression returned.

Kali swiped its tail at the board, scattering the pieces on the desktop.

“Hey!” Minardo said, frowning childishly. “Don’t break my set!”

Feeling rather sour, Madiha did notthing to restrain her rampant companion.

She turned her head away instead.

“You need to be a better sport than this, Colonel!” Minardo said, picking up her pieces.

Madiha grumbled.

“Were it not for the restrictions of this game I would’ve beaten you.” She said.

Minardo blinked. Now it was her turn to put on a sour face.

“It is quite ugly of you to act so petulantly!” She said. “Chess is a simulation of war, Colonel!”

Perhaps her actions had offended the Staff Sergeant, but Madiha found it hard to care at the time. She crossed her arms and averted her eyes, but continued to talk in a haughty tone, feeling somewhat empowered by her sudden ability to needle Minardo on this topic. In fact she resolved to push the issue further and see where her Staff Sergeant would snap again.

“You can gloat about your skills in a game all you want. Chess is nowhere near the reality of war. Combat does not move on grids or follow turns. Had we both been on a real battlefield I would have had you in ropes in a captive’s tent easily, Staff Sergeant.” Madiha said.

Again this attitude seemed to put her opponent quite off-balance.

“Those are loser’s words indeed!” Minardo said, raising her voice.

It was poor sport; Madiha was still disassatisfied with the game and with Minardo.

Even prodding her was not cathartic enough for the Colonel’s frustrations.

She would not dismiss or discipline Minardo. She felt that would hurt her too much.

Instead she resolved just to try to ignore her.

“Well, whatever; you’ve had your fun, now leave me be.” Madiha said.

Unfortunately her Staff Sergant never seemed to relent on any issue.

“Not so soon! I have a game you could try then, if you’re so high and mighty!”

Minardo stood up in a hurry, and withdrew a file folder from her bag.

She slapped it down onto the table.

It was a red folder with the insignia of the Solstice Officer’s School.

Madiha’s eyes darted down to the folder. It immediately captured her attention.

“Well, Colonel, if chess is too simple for you, how about a wargame? You’ve taken part in these exercises before, correct? Then, you should have no complaints in this arena.”

“What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Madiha asked.

Minardo smirked. That mischevious glint returned to her eyes.

“I am merely curious about the legend of this so-called ‘hero of the border’.”

Madiha bristled. She did not particularly like that epithet and the burden it carried when spoken. However, she also felt a building anger at how easily Minardo took the name in vain, at how conceited she was behaving. Though Madiha tried to present a friendly and approachable face, she was the Colonel, and Minardo was showing her too little respect.

Had she done such a thing to Kimani, she would have been slapped across the face.

Madiha stood up as quickly as Minardo had, a determined look on her face.

“Fine! You shall see that legend first-hand.” She said.

They sealed the challenge with a hand-shake, and cleared the desk.

Thankfully this was the compact version of the wargame, playable even in a barracks.

Atop the Colonel’s desktop they unfurled a long map, and began to deploy chits that represented various army units. It was a map of Vassaile, an area between the Frank Kingdom and the Nocht Federation, and the game was set in during the Unification War. It was a scenario that Madiha knew well; she knew every battle of these modern wars quite well, but this scenario was rather common in officer training across the world.

Played according to the rules of the Nochtish Kriegsspiel games, adapted for Ayvartan use, the scenario pitted the Frank 66th Army (Bluefor) against the Nochtish 11th Army (Redfor). In the battle of Vassaile, the 66th Army had crossed the border to Nocht in force, launching an offensive against Federation forces. Historically, the Nocht Federation retreated from Vassaile in disarray. It was the job of Bluefor to assail Nocht, and to achieve a victory better than history — the complete destruction of the 11th army. Meanwhile, Redfor had to attempt to keep the Nochtish lines straight while escaping from destruction. It was a scenario that helped prove the leadership qualities of the commanders on both sides.

Classically, it was a scenario that, when played well, had no victory for either side.

Redfor classically held on at the edges of Vassaile and prevented the Frank forces from entering too deep into Nocht; Bluefor classically took all of its objectives, but without destroying Redfor or managing to invade the Nochtish heartland past Vassaile.

“I’m calling Bluefor.” Minardo said, stamping her hand on a chit representing the 1st Chasseurs Division, light cavalry. Around her hand were dozens more Frank units. The Franks were noted for having the larger starting army, though Nocht had more reinforcements and reserves. Thus it was known Franz had an offensive advantage.

“Then I’m Redfor.” Madiha calmly replied.

It unsettled her slightly. In officer school she had played Bluefor and won the ahistorical victory, destroying the 11th Army completely through encirclement around Vassaile. She had not opted then to penetrate too deep into Nocht. Destroying the 11th Army was enough.

Likely, if Minardo brought this game here and called Bluefor, she intended to do the same.

“We’ve both played this game before, so let us settle things honorably.” Minardo said.

Madiha thought it certainly fit her roguish character to say such a thing.

She definitely intended to play Madiha’s game. That result was no secret among wargamers.

“I won’t kick up a storm; but you had best umpire it properly.” Madiha replied.

There was no use fighting it. Using good results from previous players was common.

Kali leaned over the map, flicking her tongue at the chits.

“No, settle down.” Madiha said. She wanted to see this game through.

Kali looked at her, and then curled in a corner of the table.

“This set is not my property, so let’s not ruin it.” Minardo said.

“Kali will behave.”

Madiha and Minardo shook hands over the table.

Thus the game began.

It was the 17th of the Lilac’s Bloom, and the Franks made the first move.

Minardo rattled off her orders.

“1st Division Chasseurs à cheval will move along the curve of Paix and Moltke on the Nochtish border, initiating hostilities against the 5th Grenadier Division. 5th Division Vernon Royal Hussars will ascend the Crux and Cateblanche line and attack the 10th Grenadier Division alongside the 1st Independent Scout Car battalion–”

Madiha acknowledged each move. These were standard openers. Madiha had performed all of them herself during her ahistorical winning game. 5th Grenadier and 10th Grenadier had historically arrived quite late, but early enough to be counted as standing units in the game. Unlike much of the Nochtish army at the time they lacked even minimal entrenchment along the border, and thus made prime targets for Franz’ few mobile units of the period.

As was standard, Nocht retreated both divisions, as they would be unable to stand and face the Chassuers and the Hussars in their early game condition. Even weak old horse cavalry was enough to burst these rushed Grenadier divisions. This created holes in the line that the standard Divisione D’Infanterie could then move through to attack Nocht entrenchments behind their lines. Madiha was forced into the standard early game retreat.

Beginning officers unused to the game would often muck about the border for several game periods, making for the impressive military fisticuffs that characterized the battle as it actually played out. But those with experience in the game always played it ahistorically, preserving their forces to try to game the system where they could do so later on.

Madiha began her retreat. Using a pointer, she pushed back her chits from the bulging Paix-Moltke curve at the Frank border, abandoning the Nochtish entrenchments and losing their defensive bonuses, but escaping what would have otherwise been an easy Frank trap and a sweeping early victory. This was all still standard; nobody had innovated at all yet.

She presumed that Minardo would not innovate; she waited for tell-tale signs of her own play, and soon found the first indication that Minardo was playing her old game to the letter. The 17th Royal Durst Pikers challenged the retreating Nochtish 19th Grenadier Division, an otherwise unassuming division that happened to hold Nocht’s only heavy mortars in the sector. Its destruction would greatly hamper defensive play for Redfor in the coming turns.

It was a move Madiha could not prevent, and she picked up the chit and discarded it.

All the while, Minardo laughed haughtily and grinned to herself.

“It’s interesting isn’t it?” She said, in a mock sweet voice.

Madiha could not disagree. She felt it was rather exhilirating to see this board again.

This was a bloodless battlefield where she had total control. Units could live or die only as necessary to achieve a victory. There was no complications, only pure strategy.

Madiha felt something close to elation, to entertainment, to purpose.

Her heart raced, and her skin brimmed with energy.

She felt the time had come for her first innovation.

“I will bypass the free entrenchment opportunity at the Lehner line. 11th Army will continue to retreat west. Let the umpire know I surrender the objective at Erfring.”

“Oh ho ho. So– You give up some points to me just like that?”

“Yes. You can have it.”

Minardo gleefully pushed her chits forward, and Madiha, though she kept a stony outward face was smiling inside. Someone who only read a list of Madiha’s winning moves or a summary of the scenario she played at the academy, would see this as a winning situation. In reality, it meant the entire nature of the scenario that Madiha played back then was fundamentally changed. Minardo’s memorized moves would no longer apply to the game.

Giving up the Lehner line forced Nocht dangerously close to a technical defeat.

After all, being kicked out of the battlefield almost entirely was a loss, in every sense.

Historically, Nocht had held on at the edge of Vassaile.

For Nocht to move too far past this line meant a total defeat regardless of objectives.

However, the way Madiha intended to play, this would not matter.

The 11th Army continued to retreat and finally took up its new positions in a strained, u-shaped curve straddling a forest and a large rural boom town called Schmelzdorf.

It lay behind the half-way point of a tactical map that began far on the right, near Franz.

Retreat beyond the forest would mean a loss for the 11th Army, opening Nocht to invasion.

It was the kind of bait no reckless player would let go.

Pressing her offensive advantage, Minardo launched several attacks with her 66th army.

She continued to move closer and closer on the map, bloodthirsty with victory after tactical victory. Madiha removed various chits, and shored up the line with reinforcements that had begun moving at the start of the game and only now reached the line, in time to plug it. Now Minardo was dubiously innovating. She was attacking much more than Madiha had been.

Perhaps she realized the game had changed; and this was her own original play now.

Regardless, Madiha had achieved her result, and now launched her coup.

“I’m calling for a rail movement.” She declared.

She indicated the length of the movement and the rail lines she would use.

Minardo nodded, and looked over the proposal.

Her eyes drew wide.

“You realize your rail point is behind my lines.”

Now it was Madiha’s turn to put on a fake sweet smile and a mock sweet voice.

“Did you cut the line? I did not seen any engineers moving.”

Minardo grumbled. “You’ll have to roll to move through enemy lines.”

So far, dice had not come into play, because most of the moves were easily agreeable.

Madiha picked up a pair of red arbitration dice, and cast them without looking.

Whatever the outcome did not matter to her.

She began to push chits through the rail line and behind Minardo’s group.

Then she repeated the movement, rolling the dice again.

And she repeated it again.

Finally, it dawned upon Minardo the shape that the battlefield was taking.

It was a cauldron.

Drawn into the sunken curve of the 11th Army’s long, tormented line, the 66th army fit inside the belly of the u-shape line as if it was always meant to go there. And now, 6 Divisions of Madiha’s Nochtish forces, having suffered some attrition from trying to rail through enemy lines but ultimately successful in doing so, were beginning to form a lid.

For the first time in the match, Madiha began to call her own attacks.

Attacks that hit by surprise from behind the battered, overstretched 66th Army, that had moved so quickly, so aggressively, against a constantly retreating army, that they were completely tired out. Madiha had baited them in, and now owned their strategic depth. Her “mobile” forces were cut off from supply behind the Frank lines, and their days were ultimately numbered in such a situation, but she did not care, because she was now winning.

Her play would end the game before the units engaged in deep battle ran out of supply.

Ignoring any strong units lagging behind Minardo’s advance, she struck her weak rear.

Seeing the events, Minardo started to stare at the board in the same way that Madiha had stared at the chess board before. Incredulous, rubbing her chin, twisting some of her hair around her index finger, she scanned every chit for some possibility. It was not only Madiha’s play that had stumped her. She had made some blunders too. For example, her cavalry and rudimentary early Unification War era cars were stuck in the center of the 66th Army, unable to move freely. Her front line was all Infantry, and her rear mostly artillery.

In several strokes, Madiha’s weak but cunning penetration units inflicted heavy damage. Minardo’s artillery blew up in her face. Her engineers division was slaughtered. Supply points were captured. To add insult to injury, a battered Grenadier Division parked itself on the Erfring objective, technically taking it back from the Franks. It was absolute mayhem.

Minardo picked up the folder and flipped through the rules.

“Oh good, you’ve got the manual out. If you have a second, Staff Sergeant: I don’t know the rules for capturing a Headquarters behind its own line. Please find them.” Madiha said.

Smiling as coyly as Minardo once did, Madiha brimmed with energy.

Minardo put down the folder, and sighing heavily she also put down her pointer stick.

She cast it atop the center of the map.

This was a sign of surrender.

“Alright, fine! Fine. It looks like I was wrong, Colonel. I apologize.”

Madiha stared at her, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“I’m being genuine!” Minardo whined. “I am sorry. I got carried away.”

Madiha stretched out a hand, still smiling, high on the adrenaline of her dream war.

They shook. Minardo’s lips curled up a little.

“My, my, Colonel; you have such a beautiful smile. I’d love to see it more often.”

“I would smile more if you didn’t mortify me so much.”

“I said I was sorry! I was just trying to be friendly.”

“Trying to be friendly by bullying me?” Madiha said.

“My professional curiosity got the best of me. I told you I’m an awful gossip.”

“I’d advise you to stop gathering information on me.” Madiha replied.

“Will do!” Minardo said. “What say we let bygones be bygones?”

She withdrew her hand and saluted Madiha.

“Staff Sergeant Logia Minardo, at your service, ma’am! Pleased to serve under you!”

“You even manage to make that tick me off a bit.” Madiha said, grinning a little.

“Oh no, is your opinion of me irrevocably damaged?”

“It will need time to recover.”

Minardo’s whole body seemed to wilt, comically glum.

Ignoring her, Madiha poked the end of the map, and it rolled a little bit closed.

“Did you really memorize all of my play in this game?” She idly asked.

Minardo rubbed her index fingers together, putting on a bashful face.

“Ah, well. Once upon a time, I was shooting for an officer’s commission, and this game came up as a way. I had it in mind to impress someone; but they saw through the ruse.”

“Did you think it would work now?” Madiha asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Truth be told, I was hoping to be humiliated again.” Minardo said.

Sensing the game was over, Kali reared up to claw at the map, and knock it off.

“No!” Madiha said, raising her index finger. “Bad.”

Kali stared bitterly at Minardo and curled into a ball at the far edge of the desk.

Shaking her head, Madiha turned back to her Staff Sergeant. “Anything else?”

Minardo crossed her arms. “Just remember, we’ve only hit a draw right now. Someday soon, Colonel, I’ll make it 2-1! I’d advise you to polish up your Mancala skills!”

As quickly as it went, her wry, foxy little smile reappeared.

Madiha heaved a long sigh.


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