The Battle of Matumaini II — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

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

And she thought briefly of the mountains again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knew this Child was special.

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

The Child sulked. 

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

The Grandfather was patient.

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

The Child shouted.

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

The Grandfather laughed.

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

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

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

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

In this way they carried on for many years. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite renewed effort it was a one-sided fight.

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

This dramatically unfair carnage inspired many of the Nochtish men.

Zimmer seemed utterly absorbed in it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These orders jolted their armor awake.

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

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

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

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

Zimmer was not keen to leave his restaurant.

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

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

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

Rifles sounded from up the street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no response on the radio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25-AG-30 1st Vorkampfer Rear Echelon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seemed from Corporal Chadgura nothing was forthcoming.

There was painful silence.

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

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

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

A column of vehicles approached them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She saluted back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gulab thought she was heading straight for her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporal Chadgura blinked again, twice.

She rubbed her eyes a little.

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

Her story was a touch embellished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gulab felt a pang of guilt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hart and Alfons nodded their heads. Kern kept quiet.

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

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

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

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

The squad squeezed behind the clinic without incident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kern looked over the room again.

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

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

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

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

He was awake.

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

Kern lowered his pistol, but he was immediately anxious.

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

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

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

Hart and Alfons nodded from across the room.

They did not seem eager to draw near the desk.

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

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

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

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

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

It was shaking.

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

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

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

Something had gone through the wall.

Rifles cracked from both sides of the street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gulab marveled at the sheer brutal power of the machine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their prize was ahead.

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

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

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

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

Gulab covered her ears and the Ogre retaliated.

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

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

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

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

But where the Ogre roared the enemy guns merely whined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That challenge was immediate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nocht afforded them no time to establish themselves any better.

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

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

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

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

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

She felt as though in the middle of an earthquake.

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

Armor was thickest in front.

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke rolled over the tank, and the heat dispersed.

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

Gulab stared into Chadgura’s eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

Gulab had no time to brace herself for another shell.

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

This wound stopped the assault gun in its tracks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was about to quickly change.

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

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

Hands up, screaming, they ran from the scene.

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

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

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

Gulab averted her eyes nervously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chadgura nodded and clapped her hands.

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

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

25-AG-30 1st Vorkampfer Rear Echelon

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

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

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

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

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

It was sheer, maddening chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extensive training and instruction had insured this.

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

Everything had grown abstract.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kern swore it must have been contrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kern’s teeth chattered slightly. His heart pounded.

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

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

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

Captain Aschekind stared at him quizzically.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone in the room looked out the window.

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

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

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

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

One landed dead outside the door.

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

25-AG-30 Ayvartan Counterattack, Matumaini 3rd

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

The Ogre hardly needed to be given the order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Corporal, look!” Gulab called out.

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

All the barrels started to point directly at the Ogre.

These were 105mm artillery guns. Perhaps they would not penetrate the glacis, but would they need to? Their high explosive might knock out the crew! Chadgura got the message quickly. Ignoring the remaining assault guns, which had begun to back off and make space, she ordered the Ogre to target the howitzers at once with high explosive.

Painfully slow the heavy turret turned, inching its way to face the battery.

Crates were cracked open, and shells loaded into the field guns. Almost there!

Then an explosive shell fell in between the men.

Their guns, ammo, all went up in flames. But Gulab had not felt the booming and rumbling of her tank’s gun. Her Ogre had never managed to fire at them.

She looked to the eastern and western roads for her answer.

Her comrades were charging in.

From the perpendicular ends of the intersection, the promised second and third tanks unleashed their ire. Tank shells came quickly. One of the assault guns was easily penetrated from its exposed flank, and set ablaze. A second battery of howitzers went up in smoke.

An anti-tank shell pulverized the engine block of a heavy truck backing away to the south. The piercing round penetrated the front of the truck and exploded in the back.

Men launched from the bed like thrown stones. The husk of the truck marked the only path out of the intersection. Any imperialist still in the middle of the intersection was pinched from three directions. Many began to pull back, but those stuck in the defensive positions could afford only to hold down and fight back against fire from all sides.

Nocht had tried to build their own defense over the ashes of the Ayvartan’s 2nd Defensive Line, but the intersection was nowhere near as secure as it had been hours ago. There was hardly a line, but rather a dozen haphazard positions without a coherent defilade.

Partial trenches were dug at haphazard angles, as if the first place hit by a thrown shovel qualified for a new foxhole. Artillery guns had been set up in plain view without surrounding trenches or sandbags. Sandbag walls and canvas canopies had only been partially rebuilt, and the mortart and gun pits were as a result largely exposed to fire.

Chadgura waved her arm to the troops behind her.

She jumped off the tank, radio against her ear, and Gulab followed her to the floor.

The moment her feet touched the ground, Gulab trained her iron sights on her old anti-tank gun pit front of her. She remembered being thrown to the ground here by Chadgura. But that dirt where her life had been saved was now taken up by a norgler machine gun, emptying its belts on the front of the Ogre to no avail. Gulab leaned and opened fire.

Two quick bursts of gunfire silenced the shooters.

Her body hardly needed to process the action – raise arms, step around tank, look down sight, find gray uniform, shoot gray uniform. She adjusted her aim and searched for more targets. Unlike her comrades with their submachine guns, she could fight at range, and intended to do so. Chadgura clung behind her, both hugging the Ogre’s left track.

Return fire was sporadic.

Gulab’s infantry comrades overtook her. Submachine gun squadrons advanced past the tank in long rows, every man and woman firing his or her submachine gun in front in short but continuous bursts, so that the enemy was endangered any time they left cover to shoot.

The KVW squadrons were particularly fearless in comparison. They ran out in front of the tank after Gulab disabled the machine gun, and they quickly overtook the mortar pits in a bloody melee, stabbing the mortar men with their bayonets and tossing aside their tubes. From the safety of the pits they opened fire across the intersection, turning their carbines to fully-automatic mode. Their rate of fire was tremendous – it was almost like each of them was carrying a small Khroda. Against this wave of fire the enemy’s bolt action rifles could do nothing. Though inaccurate, the Ayvartan’s bullets saturated the air.

Chadgura had organized this: a moving curtain of fire, perfect for a street fight.

All the while the three Ogres fired from their positions, launching their high explosive shells into trenches and buildings, crushing rubble walls and mounds. Every artillery gun left in the intersection was a smoking wreck. Masses of men retreated in human wave that rivaled the magnitude of their advance on this very intersection earlier in the day.

Together the three assault platoons and their tanks wiped out the defenses.

It was hardly a fight – it was like demolitions work.

Gulab fired with discipline, but soon found herself without further targets.

She stopped to marvel at the scene. At once all the gunfire ceased. Men were dead by the dozens across each road to Matumaini and 3rd, and by the hundreds in the intersection and its connections, perhaps by the thousands along the Southern District as a whole. Soon the stench of blood was more common than smoke along the battlefield.

They had won, Gulab thought. They had defeated the enemy. Had they?

All three assault platoons linked up.

Gulab found that each of them was a mix of KVW troops and Territorial Army survivors. It was a pretty colorful bunch all around. Many were walking wounded, hit in the early stages of the counterattack, and hung back from their fellows during the fighting.

Others were wounded already from the defenses earlier in the day, but charged into the counterattack nonetheless. Each assault platoon was not a full compliment – casualties had been sustained. The counterattack had not been bloodless for them. However it seemed to Gulab that they had hit as hard as they had been hit, if not more. She stuck around Chadgura while she briefly discussed whether to push further with her counterparts from the other platoons. This discussion ended abruptly with the falling of a shell.

It was incongruous – a cloud of dust and a shower of debris right in front of them.

While they took notice of it, a second shell fell closer.

Comrades fell back from the blast.

A third and fourth, creeping upon them, throwing up fragments of steel from discarded weapons shredded in the blasts, casting smoke and dirt into the air. A shell hit right in front of the 3rd Platoon’s Ogre and sent the track guard flying; the tanks backed away from the intersection, and under increasing artillery fire the troops turned and ran as well.

From the far end of Matumaini and 2nd a vicious barrage from several guns fell over the intersection, smashing the pitted earth to pieces, vaporizing Nocht’s wounded and dead, setting new fires to the hulks of their broken vehicles. Nocht was covering its own retreat. Dozens of 105mm shells sailed over the Ayvartan attack and crashed down over them.

Caught in the heat, the Ayvartan troops hurried back north.

Bitterly, Gulab ran with Chadgura and the others, watching over her shoulder as the shells fell with resounding strength. For a moment she thought she had tasted victory, but alas! Alas. She had seen War’s magnitude. She should have known it was far from over.

25-AG-30 6th Grenadier Support Line, Matumaini 2nd

“Brought you something.”

“Is it pills? I could use some stimulants. Or a drink.”

“It’s not either of those.”

Scheiße. Well. Thank you anyway.”

Voss was worse for wear.

He had tight bandages and a cloth soaking up blood on the left side of his stomach. Shell fragments from a tank gun attack had pierced both his arms, and torn a ligament. He could hardly move his right arm. It seemed only his head and face and lower body had been spared some kind of injury. When Kern stepped into the medical tent he had heard Voss joking to one of the medics that at least he still had all he needed to impress the ladies.

What a spirited soul, even in these circumstances; Kern brought him a cigar. It was still wrapped in a brown paper with a wax seal, labeled uninformatively “officer’s cigar.” He had traded one of the good rations (Breakfast #2, bratwurst, beans, and eggs) for it with another soldier after lucking out with his rations from the back of the supply truck.

Anyone would trade anything they’d chanced upon for the brat and beans.

They’d made the trade right next to the truck!

“Well, I’m not gonna be smoking that for a while.” Voss chuckled. “But thanks kid.”

Kern nodded. He was glad to see Voss alive, in any event.

“Hart and Alfons didn’t make it. I paid my respects at their beds.” Kern said. “I didn’t know them at all, but I tried to say good things about them. I will try to remember them.”

Voss smiled. “I didn’t really know those two either. I heard someone say once you don’t really know people in the army until someone dies and you make up the eulogy.”

“That’s morbid.” Kern said, averting his eyes a little.

“S’how things work. We’re soldiers; our boots turn the country morbid.”

“I guess I don’t know you that well either.”

“No, you don’t. You couldn’t.” Voss grinned. “Name’s Johannes Voss.”

“Kern Beckert.” He extended his hand and Voss shook it gently.

“Well Kern. I don’t know where you’ll be ending up now. You kinda just followed me like a puppy dog, ha ha. Not that I mind. But I’ll be down for a while, and I’m guessing the Battalion’s gonna need some restructuring. I’ll put in a good word if you ever need it.”

“Thank you. You don’t mind if I try to find you again if I’m still alive in a few days?”

“Given the state of our battalion, I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting a lot of other visitors. So sure, I would enjoy the company. Bring some crazy stories though. You saw how we moved out there. I want you jumping windows and shooting commies too.”

Kern nodded, though he had his fingers crossed in spirit.

He couldn’t really promise that.

Voss laid back in his bed and drifted off to sleep. Kern left him to it. He wouldn’t go so far as to say Voss deserved sleep – he wasn’t sure what any of them deserved – but he did not want to disturb him. Outside it was dark, night having fully fallen. It was pitch black, starless. Kern had heard warnings of stormier skies coming.

Periodically the area was lit up by a quick flash from the howitzers, like lightning shooting up from the earth. Of the battalion’s six batteries, each of which boasted three guns, only three batteries now remained. While better positions for them were plotted, they remained in a group on Matumaini and 2nd, firing tirelessly against the intersection.

Single-handedly the barrages had prevented an Ayvartan penetration into their rear echelon, or so the Divisional command had boasted in a radio address. They now fired periodically round the clock, with crews taking shifts to keep them manned.

It was a panic move to buy time for reorganization and new battle plans.

Until that time, the battle for Bada Aso was temporarily postponed, it seemed.

Kern crossed a door threshold across the street, passing under rock to enter canvas. A tent had been pitched inside, where the older woman he had seen before in Aschekind’s staff, Signals Officer Hildr, looked after one of the division’s advanced radios. It had the longest range, so it was used to communicate with the Vorkampfer’s command.

Of all the people in the battalion staff Kern preferred Hildr.

She was a tall and somewhat stocky lady, with blonde hair, a soft face with a strong nose and bright blue eyes. She was fairly pleasant to be around compared to Aschekind – terse like him in speech, but lacking the kind of restrained fury that characterized the Captain. For lack of things to do he had been told to be around to help her.

“Visit your friend, Private Beckert?” She asked off-handedly.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Captain Aschekind will be holding a meeting in a moment.”

“Should I go?”

“Might as well stay.”

Minutes later, Hildr stood in salute, and Kern clumsily mimicked her.

Through the door Captain Aschekind arrived, trailed by a shorter man with slicked blond hair and a sizeably larger amount of honors on his lapel. He was boyishly handsome, and had a contented little grin on his soft-featured face – however, a tinge of red around the edges of his eyes, a little twitch in his jaw, was noticeable even in the lamp-light, and perhaps suggested some ongoing stress. Trailing him was a man almost as large and imposing as Aschekind himself, but with a sunburnt look to him, and a thick mustache that seemed linked to his sideburns and precise red beard.

Both these men were Generals. Kern knew the red-bearded man as his highest direct superior, Brigadier-General Meist, the overall acting commander of the 6th Grenadier Division. From what he had gleaned during the lead-up to the attack on Bada Aso, the other man must have been the decorated general in charge of the forces city-wide, Von Sturm. He was head of the elite 13th Panzergrenadier Division who made their fortune in Cissea.

The Generals seated, while Aschekind, Hildr and Kern remained standing.

Von Sturm grinned a little.

“Big fella aren’t you Aschekind? Drank a lot of milk growing up?”

“It helps build strong bones.” Aschekind said. Kern wondered if it was a joke.

Von Sturm laughed. “Good, good. What’s you two’s names?”

“Signals Officer Gudrun Hildr.”

“Jeez, what a name. Your parents must’ve picked that one prematurely.”

“Private Kern Beckert.”

“Private? Really? Are you bringing drinks to her or something?”

Kern felt a thrill down his spine when the general addressed him. It was as if a monster were calling his name before gobbling him up. “Yes sir!” He replied mindlessly.

Von Sturm looked at Hildr for a moment. “Nothing alcoholic I hope?”

“No sir.” Hildr replied. She eyed Kern critically. He cowered a little.

“Good.” Von Sturm replied. His gaze finally turned away from the lower ranks.

He steepled his fingers. “Ok. So, what is the damage?”

“Still being tallied.” Aschekind replied.

“I wish you all would do math a little faster.” Von Sturm replied.

“Not a matter of math, sir. We have little access to the combat areas were we incurred our losses. We were pushed back kilometers. Therefore the data is still forthcoming.”

“Speaking of kilometers, how far are we from our Day 1 goals?”

“Ten kilometers.” Aschekind replied.

“Good God.” Von Sturm crossed his arms. His grin had completely vanished. “Explain to me, exactly, why we’re not having this meeting in the central district right now?”

Aschekind explained in his own quick and dour way.

“Dug-in positions; ambushes; death charges executed by fast-moving communist troops using unorthodox gear, such as wielding submachine guns primarily instead of stronger rifles; and more modern armor than anticipated. All of these factored heavily.”

“Do you have any real solutions to this based on your observations?”

“A stopgap would be to issue more automatic and heavy weapons to our own troops.”

“What, you want police maschinepistoles now? We don’t have enough. We’re having enough trouble as it is trucking guns out here. Support will continue to be committed by regulation for the foreseeable future. I don’t have time to replan the whole army.”

Aschekind gave a grim nod. “I understand, sir.”

At this point, General Meist finally intervened. He spoke gruffly through his beard and mustache. “Anton, Captain Aschekind is one of my best. We kept in contact throughout the offensive. From what I gleaned and observed, the Ayvartans have much more tenacious and fluid tactics than we anticipated. I request that we allow our own troops a greater freedom to counter their tactics – I wager our field commanders would more adequately challenge their counterparts on the communist side if we allocated more resources–”

“Request denied, for now.” Von Sturm interrupted him. “You’d create mass anarchy among the ranks. We have training and doctrine for a reason. It’s proven; it works.”

Kern thought he noticed Aschekind covertly scoffing at the notion.

“For tomorrow, I want us to make up for today. You will capture those 10 kilometers.”

Hildr and Aschekind saluted, perhaps begrudgingly, Kern observed. He saluted too.

Von Sturm stood up, and tapped his chair back into place at the table with his foot.

“Anyway, we’ve met now, so that should satisfy that lout Von Drachen, at any rate–”

A bright orange flash illuminated the room and street, drowning the General out. Kern smelled and heard fire and debris. He heard a swooping noise, a laboring propeller. Von Sturm dropped under the table; Aschekind, Hildr and Meist rushed out to the street.

Kern followed, and he saw the smoke, and the dancing lights and shadows along the road and street, in rhythm with the fires. Bombs had dropped among the artillery, finally quieting them. Norglers pointed skyward and began to fire; men rushed to tear the tarps off truck-mounted spotlights, switched them on and scanned the skies for planes. Their assailant made off with the lives of thirty crewmen and nine guns in the blink of an eye.

There were cries all around, Flak! Vorbereiten der Flak! but even so nobody could readily find an anti-aircraft gun to prepare, for they were all part of the Divisional reserve.

“Messiah protect us,” Kern whispered, half in a daze from fear. Von Sturm appeared from behind them, livid. His own staff car had caught several pieces of shrapnel.

“Am I the only one around here paying attention to the war?” He shouted in a rage.

26-AG-30, Midnight. 42nd Rifles Rear Echelon, Matumaini 4th

Night had fallen and it would soon rain.

Remnants of the 42nd Rifles were gathered in a small school building off Matumaini and 4th. Division had sent down supply trucks to feed them, and staff had come to supervise a reorganization. With 42nd Rifles Regiment nearly totally destroyed in the fighting, it was being removed from the 4th OX Rifle Division and reorganized as the 1st Assault Support Battalion under the Major’s 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division. This was an ad-hoc move meant to salvage them to some useful purpose. Perhaps it would even work.

It also meant that for the foreseeable future, Gulab would work under Chadgura.

The Corporal returned from the supply trucks with perhaps the most blank and starkly apathetic face she had made yet – although it could all be Gulab’s imagination, since she swore Chadgura’s cheeks and brow barely ever seemed to move. She brought two steaming bowls of lentil curry in one big tray, along with flatbread and fruit juice.

Gulab bowed her head to her in thanks, and started to eat.

Chadgura held off for a moment, praying and offering her food to the Spirits. When she was done praying she clapped her hands and ate briskly, in a disciplined fashion.

“Thanks for the curry.” Gulab said.

“No problem.”

“And, um, thanks for today, too.”

“No problem. Thank you too.”

Gulab scratched her head. It was more than a little strange talking to the Corporal. Especially thanking her so nonchalantly about saving her life from certain, painful death. Perhaps it was time to give up normality in general in this situation.

“So, you like stamps, you said?”

“I love them.”

“Any particular reason why?”

Chadgura raised her head, and rubbed her chin.

“Hmm. I like the smell of the glue and the special paper they use. I like the colors. I like the art; it reminds me of places I have been to, but they’re not photographs, so they do not prompt me to question my imagining of a place. I feel happy sticking them. They make a unique sound when peeled from the postage booklets. They have a postage value, so you can sort them by postage value as well as color and region. It is very neat. They fit well together when you stick several across a page. Very standardized and coherent. They have limited editions for special days so you have something to look forward to all year.”

Gulab giggled. “Okay! Wow! You really do like stamps a lot.”

Chadgura nodded her head.

She dipped a piece of her flatbread into the curry sauce and ate it. For a moment, Gulab thought she had seen a glint in the Corporal’s eyes as she discussed her love of stamps. Her voice had almost begun to sound emphatic. It might have all been in Gulab’s mind, however. She blew the steam off the hot curry and began to eat herself.

“Why do you like Chess?” Chadgura asked.

“It’s something I’m a little good at, I guess.” Gulab replied.

There was another long silence.

“Why did you end up joining the army?” Gulab said. “To get stamps?”

“My reasons for joining are foolish. I’d rather not discuss them.” Chadgura replied.

How cryptic, but then again, this was just her; Gulab felt a sense of unease with herself.

“I joined the army because I wanted to go on an adventure.” Gulab said. She smiled. It was a bitter smile, full of a cruel, self-flagellating mockery. “I wanted to have an adventure like my grandfather. To leave everything and change myself. To come back as someone that the Kucha folk can’t place as simply the foolish son of my father. Someone truer to me. Someone who was really me, a me that was born outside of them.”

Chadgura extended her hand to Gulab’s shoulder. “I don’t really know, but I’d like to say that I think your grandfather would be proud of you. He should be proud of you.”

She clapped her hands three times, rapidly. It almost sounded like agitation.

“I think.” She added. Gulab could see her stirring a little. She was nervous.

The KVW could take away her fear of battle; but she was still shy and anxious.

“Maybe he shouldn’t.” Gulab said. “And maybe it shouldn’t matter.”

“Perhaps. Self-validation is important, I think.” Chadgura said.

They were quiet a moment; the conversation had gotten away from both.

Chadgura clapped her hands again and then started to speak once more.

“It rings hollow, I understand, since we have only worked a day together. But I have you to thank for this.” Chadgura opened her sidepack, and showed Gulab a little book.

Inside were pages upon pages of meticulously glued postage stamps, sorted by Dominance and Region and by major colors. It was a stamp collection album. Chadgura presented it to her proudly and continued. “I will hold you in the highest esteem for allowing me to return safe and sound to my stamps. Please, do me the honor.” She withdrew a second book, this one a common stamp book out of the Bada Aso post office. She spread open a page, and held it out to Gulab. “Pick a stamp and stick it next to the others.”

This was an incredibly corny honor to be given; Gulab felt almost as much flattered as embarrassed by it. And yet, Chadgura’s sincere words, delivered in her characteristically deadpan way, served to wring her away from her problems. She graciously picked a stamp depicting the Kucha Mountains, which she felt was very appropriate at the moment, and gingerly stuck it beside the others on one of the album pages.

She returned the album and Chadgura stared at it seriously.

“I did not think this through.” Chadgura said, leafing through the pages again. “I apologize for my confusion, but you,” she paused for a moment, and uncharacteristically repeated the word, “you, you glued it on the wrong page, Private Kajari. That stamp should have been on the other side of the page, on the purple page for Bada Aso, with the other purple stamps. I’m afraid you glued the stamp, a little recklessly, for my taste.”

Despite her hollow voice, she sounded distressed.

Graciously, Gulab took the album, peeled the stamp as gently as possible, and stuck it again on the correct page. She returned the album gingerly and with a smile.

Corporal Chadgura took it and hugged it to her chest. “Thank you, Private.”

“You’re welcome, Corporal.” Gulab said, still smiling.

What a bizarre thing, war was; near to a thousand of her comrades had died this day, but Gulab was most grateful than she and one other woman had not. Perhaps the only mourning that would do, was simply to keep fighting, to lead the life for herself that was taken from her comrades. At the time, she could only think of curry and stamps, and the time Grandfather braided her hair and told her it was her beard to try to placate her.

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — View From The Cathedral

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