A Beacon On The Horizon – Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of mild violence and implied death.

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

Shaila Dominance – Tukino, Southeast Shaila

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Schicksal, have the men–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. It is better for us this way.”

“Yes sir.”

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

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

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

26th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance Knyskna City, Shaila Dominance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly the doctor had no agenda toward him.

This emboldened him, even through his feelings of exposure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

Shaila Dominance Djose Wood, Knyskna Region, Shaila

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She chuckled as she lit the cigarette.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He coughed a little bit of smoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His service did us all proud then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance Knyskna City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at his hands with ambivalence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena did not press him to explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance Outskirts of the Djose Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ayvartan anti-air cover was fierce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreschner looked partway between shame and anger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kunze eyed the radio truck with contempt.

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

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

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

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

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

Reiniger covered his mouth to stifle a laugh.

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

Other officers followed suit.

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

He had begged for supporting troops – a taboo.

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

On this note, the conference ended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She pitied it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything would be too stultifying to cause her real grief.

Shaila Dominance Knyskna City

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was the heart of Knyskna’s remaining power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a confusing scheme at first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the remaining sergeants nodded.

Elena almost nodded too, thinking herself included.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Leander!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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