A Place Amid Ashes (2.1)

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

Shaila Dominance – Djose Woods, outside Knyskna.

Twenty-three others joined Leander in the back of the truck, sitting where they could, submachine guns and rifles in their hands. They were motorized troops now – they would ride a truck close as possible to battle, dismount the truck, and then rush in with their feet. They were lucky to have a good truck, with a roof and benches – there were soldiers riding in on their backs in open flatbeds, like they were cargo sacks.

Behind them a squat, boxy Goblin tank with a drum-like turret and a straw-like gun noisily followed, its turret surveying the wood, providing close support to the attack. A few soldiers in the truck grumbled about it, telling the rookies that they should not get their hopes up about the Goblin. There were other similar tanks with them as well, but they were out of sight, riding ahead of them and split between guarding different trucks.

Their convoy boasted over a dozen trucks with hundreds of soldiers. Leander had also heard his compatriots speaking about a second flank with just as many troops. A significant portion of their regiment was invested into this attack.

He swallowed to force down a lump in his throat.

It was an atmosphere so different from his few peaceful days in Bika.

Everyone was quiet. Leander included, the people on the truck sat rigid, stone-faced, forcing themselves upright. Nothing seemed to cross their minds, as though betraying a thought would topple them like towers of matchsticks.

Outside it was pitch black, without spotlights in the sky or occasional flashes of shells. There was only the tank following them, the gloomy seated figures, the dirt road, and a vast expanse of darkness. The Djose was impenetrable, a solid curtain of shadow scrolling past. There was no point in keeping their eyes peeled to the woods; their eyes could see nothing there. To conceal their movements they drove slowly and with all of the lights off, save for a dim lamp in the middle of the troop compartment.

Most of his comrades had their heads down, trying to get some rest before the attack. Others mumbled while barely making any eye contact. Leander felt a little uneasy.

He tried not to let his doubts show on his face, but it was hard not to feel out of place in a truck of soldiers headed to battle. He shook his legs nervously.

“What’s your name, comrade?”

Beside him, a small, fair woman with short hair addressed him. Her metal armor and helmet seemed too large for the overall size of her body, and fastened tighter than his.

“Leander Gaurige.” He said. He politely appended, “Comrade,” after.

She nodded. She had a bashful demeanor, barely making eye contact or lifting her face to look at him. When she spoke again she did so very seriously, in a hushed and secretive tone of voice. “I’m Elena North. This might sound silly, but I wanted to know a name I could call out if I needed help. I don’t know anybody here, and received little training.”

Leander was astonished at how close her name was to his former, feminine name: Elea.

“Neither do I.” He said quickly. “I was from Bika.”

“I was from Klima, close to the Cissean border.” She said. “My family were originally from Cissea, but I grew up in Ayvarta. We were forced to flee from Klima a week ago. I joined the military in Knyskna after that, thinking that I could be of service here.”

“I joined it in Bika, but we fled there too.” Leander said.

He recalled the horror he felt as those tanks rolled over the hills as if they had materialized from nowhere– but he closed his eyes, breathed deep and wiped them away from the film reels spinning in his mind. He didn’t want to fixate on those events. He was not ready to mourn a lost home, or even to admit that he had lost anything. Instead, he tried to smile, and force away the dark thoughts, hardening his heart to them.

He offered Elena his hand. “Let’s cling together, Comrade North.”

She took his hand, smiling a little bit herself. “Yes, Comrade Gaurige.”

“If you’re making friends, I want in,” said a young man on Leander’s left, putting his hand on Leander’s shoulder. Unlike Leander and Elena his hair was short enough they could see none of it coming out from under his helmet, and his skin was very dark, almost a blueish black. He held out his hands and Leander shook it; he reached over Leander’s lap and took Elena’s hand as well. She bashfully took the tips of his fingers, and shook them as though shaking salt or pepper over a dish. He laughed, and returned to his seat.

“I’m Bonde.” He said. “I’m from Knyskna itself. Pushed right out of a training battalion, into a pillbox, and now a truck. I prefer it to waiting for a concrete-buster to hit my head.”

“Likewise.” Leander said. “Pillboxes are hellish.”

“I wanted to be part of the medical corps, but they needed nimble people for the assault teams.” Elena said. “I guess they glanced over and found me nimble enough for the task.”

Leander did notice that nobody around them looked very heavy.

A hatch opened from the front of the truck. From the passenger seat, their commanding officer, a tanned man with short, wispy white hair, looked back on them and provided instructions. Sergeant Bahir had jumped into the truck last, once everyone had been loaded up, and nobody got to see him until now. He was a sleek, dark man, like a figure precisely sculpted, with no edges out of place and no parts gone unsmoothed.

“Alright troops, we’ve suffered some setbacks before, but now is our time to surprise the imperialists.” Sgt. Bahir said, his voice taking a fiery tone of oratory, “Nocht thought they could run over Knyskna, but in their greedy charge they outran their armored support, and ran right into our guns. Now they’re holed up in this forest waiting for the dawn to launch an attack. We won’t let them get started. Our air recon may be limited, but this afternoon we found critical positions in the woods, and signs of movements that are key to their operation here. We’ve taken these unused backroads in a circumspect route around the forest to avoid Nocht patrols. When this truck stops, we’ll dismount and we’ll trail through the forest on foot to flank their rear echelons where they least expect. Our goals in particular are to threaten their artillery positions and destroy their supplies. We’re not taking any prisoners. But if you see any documents, you take those and you make sure you survive to see a Commissariat information officer. They may be vital to our success here.”

Everyone in the truck sat up straighter as they listened to him. Leander felt a fire light in his chest. It sounded like such an important mission to be on, for someone who had been a socialist for a mere ten days. Now he felt even more committed, though he had little formal training save what he was told by officers during lulls in the fighting.

He had first been a support rifleman for a gun crew, and then a gun loader, after seeing death for the first time. Now he was part of the assault troops.

It didn’t enter into his mind how desperate this seemed.

Sgt. Bahir continued. “Another formation of our troops is preparing for an assault on the opposite flank – we will storm through the forest by surprise and pinch the imperialists in their camp. We will have the support of a 120mm heavy mortar battalion that will stay behind, but we can only signal them through flares. Check your supplies now: if you have a flare with you then you will shoot it when instructed by me. Understood?”

Around the truck, several soldiers fondled their packs thoughtfully, where their flare guns were kept. Not everyone had such a gun. Leander was not given one. So only a few of them carried this responsibility. Leander sighed a little with relief. He did not know if he trusted his own judgment on these matters.

“Those of you with flares must shoot them over the position to be targeted.” Sgt. Bahir said. “The artillery fire will be imprecise due to our present conditions – launch your flare so that it rises over your target and then take cover. Don’t shoot any position closer than 10 meters from yourself. Got that?”

Those soldiers with flare guns nodded their heads.

“Then let us teach Nocht to fear the shadows in the woods, comrades!”

Leander gripped his own Rasha submachine gun tighter, and he cheered with the rest of the squadron in the truck. When everyone settled back down he was still gripping it tight. He had fired the longer Bundu rifles before, when serving as gun crew support. The submachine gun, he had been told, suited him better because it was light and he could fire a lot of bullets without immediately reloading, which was his major problem when operating the old bolt-action rifle. Each Rasha was a simple design, with a wooden stock and a short steel body, easy to carry and wield, and fed through box magazines or drums – he had drums now, provided by the woman in the staging area.

He checked the drum currently attached. It was fully loaded.

“How much is in here?” He asked Elena.

“I believe sixty. But it shoots so fast you can barely count it.”

Elena was armed similarly to Leander. Neither had flare guns. Unlike them Bonde had a flare gun in a pouch. Elena had instead been entrusted two big packs strapped to her back.

“Careful with the drums,” Bonde warned. “They’re prone to jamming.”

“What do I do if it jams?” Leander asked.

“Toss it, pull out a pistol, and get in cover.” Bonde said.

In other words, he could do nothing about it.

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