This story segment contains scenes of mild violence and implied death.
24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Shaila Dominance – Tukino, Southeast Shaila
Columns of smoke rose from once clear and quiet fields of Tukino.
Across the open and flat grasslands columns of tanks traded shells, soldiers exchanged deadly fire out in the open, and in the broad daylight the battle took on a surreal character.
Burnt-out steel husks littered fields of poppies, hemp and sunflowers.
Winds grew silent; the bellowing of cannons grew to become the dominant sound, followed by the ominous whining of Nocht dive-bombers that painted the sky with their contrails. Reality seemed to falter against the advancing war – color seemed to warp and the landscape grew alien as each shell-fall kicked gray dust where there were once beautiful flowers; as each field became littered with dead bodies and broken machines; as the oil leaking from husks turned the earth black but the knees of thrashing soldiers, struggling to escape, were still hidden amidst bright greens and yellows of the surviving foliage.
Tukino was long over strategically, but remained a decidedly uneven tactical match.
Outside the village, now little more than a collection of blown-out building foundations, a line of Nochtish M4 “Sentinel” tanks stood in an unmoving spearhead.
They watched the nearby woods, spotting Ayvartan Goblin tanks charging at full speed, throwing themselves toward out of cover and toward the village. The M4 was a medium tank, larger than the Goblin, with a slightly sloped front, smooth curves along the hull and a turret like an upside-down platter hosting a short but powerful 50mm gun.
Approaching them, the Ayvartan Goblin tanks looked pitiably small, like green crates on treads making a strange effort to move, with turrets like oil drums and thin cannons that were no visual match for the enemy. Whether they approached to do battle or escape, the Nochtish tankers did not know. Having observed them before, they knew that Goblins had only one way to penetrate M4 armor with their 45mm guns – luck and proximity.
And they were just as lucky and came just as close to the enemy while charging at full speed as they did while trying to run past the line and escape their encirclement.
A massive barrage ensued, the dozen Goblins scarcely stopping to fire and unleashing all they had upon the M4s. Shells hurtled from across the field, crashing around the M4 tanks, soaring over them into the empty village, smashing into their armored fronts.
Armor-piercing ammunition bounced harmlessly off the M4’s glacis; High-Explosive shells erupting around them rattled the machines and their crews but dealt no grievous damage. Dozens of shells challenged the Nochtish battle line but the M4s did not budge.
The Goblins’ ceaseless, desperate rolling attack was soon returned.
M4 turrets turned with the constantly moving Goblin tanks, aiming ahead before unleashing their salvo. Their 50mm AP shells crashed through the Goblins’ thin armor and instantly destroyed the little tanks, setting engines and ammunition ablaze, instantly demolishing hulls. High-Explosive shells were equally effective, sundering tracks and ripping apart turrets even on otherwise glancing blows. Under accurate fire a dozen tanks were cut down to six in an instant, and only a few meters ahead they became three.
No Ayvartan tank reached the Nocht line –the closest died still fifty meters away.
“Gute Arbeit, Kampfgruppe!” A hard voice cheered from Nochtish radios.
Across the village, atop a small hill that still managed to command a view of the flat land around, Brigadier-General Dreschner watched the skirmish from the magnifying scope mounted atop his command tank. Though in the body of an M4, the gun “turret” on its large, boxy superstructure was a fake that could not shoot. The M4 Befehlspanzer was instead a rolling radio that allowed Dreschner to watch, command, and to share in the jubilation of those who fought. Having congratulated his men, Dreschner sank back down the cupola of his false tank and slipped into the commander’s seat.
For a tank the interior was roomy. His dummy turret had merely a tube affixed to the exterior, so there was no gunner, no cannonry mechanisms, and no ammunition stock crowding it. There was only Dreschner, his silent driver, and his radio operator and her valuable equipment, the medium for Dreschner’s orders, the voice carrying his will.
“Schicksal, disseminate orders. Four companies will stay to aid the grenadiers in reducing the pocket, but I want every remaining Panzer in Knyskna in two days.”
Karla Schicksal stiffly saluted the Brigadier-General and turned anxiously back to her radio, slipping her headset over her messy brown hair. Along the left portion of the crew compartment the tank boasted a powerful radio system, and signals officer Schicksal quite deftly operated its various components, manipulating signal strength and frequency.
She picked up a small speaker and began to recite the message over various frequencies over the next several minutes. Her mousy and delicate voice, clearly pronouncing every word so nothing could be misheard over the waves, was lost to Dreschner under the protestations of the engine and the noise-dampening effect of his headset, unless he strained to hear it. He had bigger things to consider at the time.
Next to him a map of the Shaila dominance had been taped to the turret wall.
Tukino was a large and clumsy red circle, swiftly drawn in a moment of ecstasy. It was another grand victory. Dreschner’s 8th Panzer division, alongside the 10th and 15th Panzer Divisions, and with some help from the Taskforce’s Grenadier infantry, had surrounded the bulk of the Ayvartan Battlegroup Lion’s forces in the village of Tukino and in the wooded outskirts of the vast Djose, separating them from Knyskna, the capital.
This pocket was part of Nocht’s favored strategy for defeating the Ayvartans, and indeed, for waging war in general. Using his fast-moving forces Dreschner could surround the enemy to prevent them from resupplying. So trapped, all they could do was throw themselves at his troops, hoping to escape. Thus far, no one had managed it.
“Schicksal, have the men–”
The signals officer raised her hand, bidding Dreschner for more time.
Below his seat, Karla continued to talk and to fiddle with the transmitter, for longer than it should have taken her to initiate the contacts he had requested. Dreschner pulled off his own headset to better overhear her and soon rolled his eyes, knowing all too well what kept her engaged so long with the radio equipment. Once she was through with the radio, she pulled the headset back halfway off her head and just off her ears, and looked up at him over her shoulder. For the most part he already knew what she would say.
“Sir,” She cleared her throat a little, and once sure she had his attention, she began anew and forced herself to speak a little louder and faster than normal for her.
“Commanders from the 12th Grenadier, 13th Grenadier, 4th Panzergrenadier and 15th Motorized Grenadier divisions have expressed concerns about our departure. They would like to delay the action until their rifle regiments have cleared the pocket and can be transported to support the assault. According to them, the forces around Knyskna consist mostly of suppression companies and recon elements that are holding down the Ayvartans but will not be equipped to support a direct assault on the city quite yet.”
“I will not be relegated to supporting the infantry!” Dreschner said, his tone growing louder and icier. “We will show the Oberkommando that the tanks will lead this new age of warfare. Ayvarta will be the test for future war, and I will make my mark on it!”
“Yes sir.” Karla said, looking perturbed by the outburst.
“Tell the infantry that the Panzers will drive tonight, to make Knyskna by the 26th. If their boots cannot be spared to join us, then so be it. That is the burden of leadership.”
Karla frowned a little. “In those exact words, sir?”
“Of course not. You have a way with politeness. Put it across to them.”
Karla nodded her head quickly, slipped her headset back into place, and opened communication again. Dreschner cast aside his own headset, knowing he might receive direct transmissions from the Infantry commanders and finding the very thought of it wholly mortifying. He was surrounded with stultifying fools and pitiable enemies, but if he could put on a good show regardless, his future would be sealed with a gold stamp.
Moments later, she turned over her shoulder again. “They acknowledge, sir. Limited elements constituting perhaps a battalion of rifles might join you late in the 27th.”
“Good. It is better for us this way.”
“Don’t you agree? You might not be a real soldier, but you’re still a part of this.”
“I have no authority to comment, sir.” Karla said carefully.
“Ach, how painfully dull a response, my dear.” Dreschner laughed.
26th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Shaila Dominance – Knyskna City, Shaila Dominance
“Comrade Gaurige! Comrade Gaurige, please come in now!”
It took Leander a moment to recognize his own name in the early dawn.
Since the trucks returned to Knyskna with remnants of the failed assault (“strategically inconclusive”) Leander had sat against a sandbag wall at the edge of what was once the plaza staging area. Now it became a place full of the wounded, waiting their turn.
There was a priority based on the severity of the injured. Those bleeding, vomiting or otherwise dramatically hurt were the first taken and accommodated, while the bruised and battered waited. Doctors operated largely in the basements of nearby buildings or inside partially ruined buildings, hidden to insure some measure of safety from air strikes.
But for the past day, Noctish planes had been content to leave them alone.
Perhaps they were kept busy with the destruction of Shaila’s air force.
There was a war happening, somewhere; but right now Knyskna had a respite.
At first Leander had been throbbing all over, but the wait grew soporific enough that he nodded off and his whole body shut off any sensation of pain. He struggled to stand up after hearing his name, feeling an intense prickling feeling spreading through his numb limbs. Elena helped him to his feet, but he ambled the rest of the way, waving her hands off him and gently assuring her that he could walk and that he was quite fine. It was less than thirty slow paces to the field hospital, a repurposed old memorial museum.
Inside the building several curtains and beds had been put up to give each soldier some space and privacy. There were several dozen occupied beds, and behind the blue curtains Leander heard haunting cries from the gravely wounded as they tried to rest.
Much of the building’s second story had been purposely destroyed to give the appearance that it had been wrecked by an air-strike. It seemed to work, so far.
Elena waited outside, while a field medic working as an aide led Leander into a curtained-off area at the back of the long, wide room and helped him to his bed. He helped undo the clasps and remove Leander’s armor, but Leander waved him off doing any more.
Gracefully he departed, and was soon replaced by a civilian physician, an older woman with her half-white, half-black hair tied into a bun, and slightly weathered look to her face, with the beginnings of black bags under her eyes, and slight wrinkles around her mouth. She smiled gently for him, and he felt self-conscious about the situation. He had not found the time in Bika to see a doctor, Nocht had attacked too soon after his arrival.
“Hujambo,” She said, holding out her hand. Leander shook it. Her grip was weak. Leander thought she must have been very weary. “I’m Doctor Agrawal. I apologize that it took me this long. I’ve had to be a doctor even to other doctors in this disaster – we are dreadfully understaffed. What is your name, comrade? I’m required to keep a record.”
“Leander Gaurige.” He said, a bit more tersely than he wanted.
She sat next to him on the long bed, and wrote down his name on a clipboard.
“I used to be the Chief of Knyskna Public Health.” She said. “Used to. Due to the circumstances I am your field medic today. So I want you to know you’re in good hands.”
Leander nodded stiffly. He was still very guarded. He didn’t know how she might react.
Noticing his demeanor, the doctor sought consent from him. “Would you be willing to undress? I can turn around if you’d like, but to treat you I’ll have to see you disrobed.” She said gently. Her tone of voice suggested their conversation would be private.
“Doctor, I have a– a unique condition, I think.” Leander hated this the instant he said it. He hated thinking of this as a pathology, as if it were some disease. He knew there must have been a better way to talk about how he felt, about the stress between what people would think of his body and the facts of the person he knew that he was. But he could not find the words, and they felt ever more distant each time he sought them out.
“I am here to treat whatever ails you, comrade.” Dr. Agrawal replied.
“This is a little different than what you’re used to, I think. It is not just wounds.”
“I promise you that no matter what, I will tend to you.” She said.
Leander put indecisive hands over the buttons of his muddy green field jacket and undid them bit by bit. He threw it off unceremoniously, and pulled his undershirt over his head, ruffling his black hair. He looked down over his chest, where the old breast binder was gnarled and ripped, and he undid it completely and cast it off his breasts.
Across his shoulder, around the right breast and over his stomach there were deep purple bruises from the hideous impacts of the bullets over his armor.
None of them had penetrated, but they had each felt like punches from a stone fist.
Leander fought off the urge to cover himself again as the doctor examined his wounds. She first pressed over his bruised shoulder, and extended the arm linked to it. She offered no comments until she returned his arm to a neutral position.
“No bone fractures. You were lucky, comrade. Or perhaps, that armor is good quality. I want to check your ribs now. Can I touch there? I will not if it is uncomfortable to you.”
Silently, Leander nodded. He turned away his head while the Doctor pressed against his belly, between and under his breasts. It stung when she pressed the bruises, and when she tried to feel the outline of his ribs with her fingers, and Leander grit his teeth a few times and tried not to flinch from it. His heart quickened as she pulled away and wrote something on her clipboard. Gently she made eye contact with him and smiled.
“No bone fractures. No bullets managed to bite skin either. I will make sure you have some pain medication and ice, and you will rest here until tomorrow, Leander. In a week or two the bruises should be gone, and the pain will subside much sooner.”
Leander nodded. He removed his shoes for comfort, and sat more upright.
Clearly the doctor had no agenda toward him.
This emboldened him, even through his feelings of exposure.
Dr. Agrawal laid the clipboard at the far edge of the bed, and hesitated a moment before speaking. Leander watched her with a bit of trepidation, trying to anticipate what she might say. “Now, if you’re comfortable with it,” She began, “we can talk about what is stressing you, with regards to your identity. I will admit, I understand this problem only superficially, but I can refer you to a colleague of mine who might be able to help you.”
This was something Leander expected – even in the best case scenario that a doctor accepted what he was going through with a gentle hand, how could they know what to do about it, when he himself was still finding his own way? Despite this he breathed a sigh of relief. He had expected some kind of cruel reprimand of the sort that the caravan had given him on that distant day he left them. But Dr. Agrawal did not look at him with the unkind eyes still floating in his memories. She seemed to genuinely accept him as he was.
“What kind of help?” Leander asked. He felt a little morbid about his next thought, but he said it earnestly nonetheless. “Could this person remove my breasts for example?”
“I believe she could. My colleague Willhelmina Kappel is conducting research on how male and female minds and bodies develop to certain characteristics – and how those characteristics can be changed when people desire to change them. She has written about experiences like yours before. You’re not the only one who has gone through this.”
Leander, slightly bewildered, nodded his head quietly to acknowledge her.
“She has a name for what you might be experiencing, Leander. And I stress that I’m not an authority on this, but she calls it dysphoria, I believe. In Kappel’s papers she talks about a feeling of stress and even pain arising from feeling out of place with the physical sex and associated gender that is assigned to the person at birth, and toward which they feel distance as they uncover their real identity. Does that sound familiar?”
Leander nodded solemnly. It was strange to hear a word for what he felt; a word someone had invented to describe him. He did not know and had never heard of Wilhelmina Kappel. However, the feelings the Doctor had clumsily described distantly mirrored him. He could see himself through that lens. Some of the fog around his emotions began to clear.
“Is this making sense? I’m sorry if it’s just a lot of babble from me. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I don’t know as much as Dr. Kappel about how to make things more comfortable to you. I’m afraid even our society is still in the early stages of this understanding. But– I can get you a chest brace to replace your binder for now.”
Dr. Agrawal pointed over her shoulder, where behind the curtains there were crates and closets of medical supplies ready to be picked through. Her clumsy little smile made Leander laugh. She was being very warm to him. He certainly would feel more comfortable with a chest brace. It would probably be sturdier than his old binder in the middle of a fight.
In the middle of a fight. Leander felt foolish with the realization of where he still was.
“Now, there is another thing I can do.” Dr. Agrawal said, sounding more serious. “I could arrange for you to be evacuated to Solstice, by writing you a discharge saying you need complex treatment I can’t perform. The nature of the treatment need not be revealed unless you want it to. I doubt many around here would care to know, given the present circumstances. You could meet Dr. Kappel in person. I’m sure she would love to see you.”
“I would be deserting the battle.” Leander said. “My wounds aren’t grave.”
“I understand that feeling. You can think about this today and give me your answer after.” Dr. Agrawal said. “I don’t want to plant the seeds of any decision for you, but just know that the option is there, and that there is no shame in it, Leander. I’ll get your brace.”
Leander nodded in response, and the doctor left his side and crossed the curtain. He felt more energized and positive than before, though the pain from his wounds had grown now that his body was awake and had acknowledged his injured state again.
He had a difficult decision to make, but the positive attitude shown by the doctor had exceeded all of his expectations. Perhaps he had not much to fear with regards to others understanding him in Ayvarta. But he was still in the middle of a war here.
When the doctor returned, she helped Leander don the brace – it was originally designed to help those with chest deformities, but it worked just fine in creating an impression of a flat chest for Leander. He loosely dressed in his undershirt and jacket, and laid back in bed to relax. Soon he was brought ice bags for his bruises, pills for the pain, and a boxed ration with some slightly bland curry.
Surrounded by blue curtains indoors, he lost his sense of time after a few hours. He soon fell asleep, with his stomach full and a comfortable and dimly-lit place to lie, his mind dizzy from the medicine, and his exhaustion catching up.