A Pulse In The Ruins (18.4)

This story segment contains scenes of violence.

South District – 1st Vorkämpfer HQ

Von Sturm had been reduced to pacing the headquarters, kicking at the puddles of water forming along the ground. Without word from the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions, and with bad news from Penance road, he became lost in thought. Fruehauf was at first glad to leave him to his devices, but soon radio traffic was coming in that he had to listen to.

She plugged a handset into Erika’s radio, flipped a switch to override her headphones, and took responsibility for the call. She raised her hand to wave Von Sturm over.

“Sir, your security division is requesting transport for prisoners.”

“What?” At once Von Sturm stopped his pacing and turned to face Fruehauf and the row of radios and operators. “What prisoners? They’re supposed to be guarding the rear!”

“They apparently captured many Ayvartans near the Umaiha.”

“When did this happen and on whose authority?”

Fruehauf picked up the radio handset and spoke into it. She then put her hand over the receiver and turned over her shoulder to stare at the general while responding.

“Under your authority sir, according to them. I know you have not spoken to them at all but that seems to be what they believe. They claim it was your orders that they go out to the Umaiha riverside to help secure Von Drachen’s prisoners.”

Von Sturm paused, eyelids drawn wide. He had a look of dawning revelation.

“Von Drachen! That bastard took my sword so he could trick my security division!”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Nevermind!” He crossed his arms in a huff. “Fine, if he took prisoners he’s making progress. Tell them I’ll send a few Sd.Kfz. B from the reserve. How many prisoners?”

Fruehauf raised the handset to her ears again. She spoke, listened, nodded.

“Seventy-two.” She replied.

“Good God.” Von Sturm started grinning and chuckling and his mood took a dramatic turn. “Finally something’s coming up for us! I will have to congratulate that ridiculous man once he returns. He seems to be the only one of my subordinates who can follow my plans and not screw everything up. I might not even court martial him for this one.”

Fruehauf smiled outwardly and sighed internally. “If you say so sir.”

At the end of the room, Marie, one of the radio operators, a plump girl with short blonde hair, raised her hand and urged Fruehauf over. She had been tasked with external communications duty – keeping track of the units that followed behind the Vorkämpfer’s front line – and had spent much of the day monitoring the lines to HQ and Supply and to the divisions outside of Bada Aso, who had little to say with regard to the current offensive.

Fruehauf unplugged her handset from Erika’s radio and plugged it into Marie’s.

Many of the external divisions whiled away the opening days of the occupation by doing manual labor, pitching tents, repairing buildings that could be used as headquarters, rounding up Ayvartan prisoners behind the lines, dealing with unruly villagers who clung on to the hope of rescue, and confiscating valuables the army could use. They were in short playing the role of cleanup crews lagging behind the blitzkrieg. Most of the officers in the Vorkämpfer had a low opinion of those units that stayed behind, but not every military asset could move fast enough to join the Bada Aso offensive.

Particularly the more esoteric intelligence personnel.

Such as, in this particular instance, the weather battalion.

Freuhauf listened with growing alarm, and then called out to the General.

“Sir, the storm is growing worse, we have to evacuate the Umaiha district ASAP!”

Umaiha Riverside – Old Police Station

Gunfire in the immediate area rattled Madiha awake and forced her to feign sleep.

From the corner of a half-open eye she saw a figure in a black coat and hat, surrounded by four figures in beige uniforms, move in from across the room with rifles drawn. Sgt. Agni dropped her pistol and raised her hands in surrender. In the distance she heard gunfire, both automatic bursts and the snaps of rifles, so resistance had not been entirely annihilated.

Madiha surreptitiously tested her arms and legs – and found she could move.

“My name is Gaul Von Drachen. Surrender immediately,” said the man in the coat.

Sgt. Agni offered no reply.

Her eyes wandered, looking toward the ground. Madiha could not see them, but one of their comrades had probably been shot dead near her as the men entered the room. Since the police station was near the bridge, it was a natural hiding spot for any gun battle in the adjacent street – and a natural staging area. Certainly these men had broken from the larger fight outside, hoping to end it quickly, but that meant it was not yet over.

“I see no value in doing that at the moment.” Sgt. Agni nonchalantly replied.

The Cissean officer, Von Drachen, shot his pistol at the floor several times, each time hitting Agni’s pistol and launching it further and further from her. He reloaded, and then, speaking Ayvartan eloquently and fluently, he pressed Agni for a surrender once again.

“Hail your units on the radio and order a surrender. We can end this bloodshed immediately or I can crush you with my artillery as I have been doing for the past several hours. It was easy to see that your objective was to prevent me from entering the station, and that mission has miserably failed. I am here – hail them and tell them to stop.”

At the officer’s side, one of the men finally examined the room and found Madiha.

General, hay otra mujer recostada en las piedras–

Blood drew from the man’s neck as a revolver bullet ripped through his throat.

Von Drachen and his subordinates had scarcely turned their guns to acknowledge the pile of rubble in the center of the room, and Madiha sat up, sidearm drawn, both hands on the handle. In blinding quick succession she continued to shoot. As the man fell, clutching his neck, Madiha put a bullet between a pair of eyeballs, and into a gaping open mouth, and through the bridge of a thick nose. Her final bullet blasted Von Drachen’s pistol out of his hand. It hit the floor with the rest – his team collapsed in two heaps around him.

Stunned, he raised his hands as Madiha rose to her knees. She felt a little weight as she tried to stand, but the lag was over in seconds. Adrenaline kept her going strong.

She was out of rounds but she kept the Cissean officer in her sights nonetheless.

“That certainly was some impossible shooting.” He said.

“I don’t miss.” Madiha replied. Her words came to her precisely. Her mind was clear.

“By any chance are you the actual officer in charge?” Von Drachen asked.

“I’m just Sergeant Nakar.” Madiha said. He did not need to know her real rank, and she did not make a habit of wearing her pins and insignia. “How about you surrender now?”

“Oh, I don’t see any value in doing that.”

He reached into his long, flapping coat and with a sudden flourish Von Drachen brazenly hurled himself toward Madiha. She dropped her gun, drew her combat knife and intercepted Drachen’s draw – she had expected a knife or a bayonet to come out from under his coat and was shocked to see a an actual sword clash against her knife instead.

It had a brilliant blade and fine etchings.

The officer’s sword had enough handle that he could push against her with the strength of both his hands. Madiha reacted by supporting her knife hand with her free hand, but she was buckling against Von Drachen’s sword, and the edge was pressing against her gloves. She could feel the pressure of the metal against the side of her hand as they struggled.

“I absolutely hate this sort of thing, it will end badly for both of us; what say you we just pick up our guns and fight like civilized human beings do?” Von Drachen asked.

Madiha grinned at him. “I’m perfectly fine with this. I don’t miss with a knife either.”

She pushed back against the sword with both of her hands, and momentarily lifted the blade and broke the clash, creating enough room to step back. Von Drachen recovered fast and swung wide against her; she leaped further back from him, raised her hand back over her shoulder and then threw her knife in a quick whipping motion. She put the blade solidly through Drachen’s coat, stabbing the knife through his shoulder.

He grit his teeth and cried out.

But his grip on the sword did not loosen and his stance was not even shaken.

Now it was his turn to grin. “You don’t miss, but you really don’t want to kill me, do you? Gambling on a prisoner when you could have had a kill seems unwise to me.”

Von Drachen drew the knife from his flesh, turned and threw it in one fluid motion.

Across the room Sergeant Agni cried out, falling to the ground several meters away from her pistol as the knife struck her leg. Madiha was shocked, she had completely forgotten Sgt. Agni in the midst of the fight. She broke from the fight to help her.

Von Drachen threw himself forward, heaved his blade and swung again.

His cutting edge soared over Madiha as she ducked and rolled off the rubble.

She broke into a run for the other side of the room with Von Drachen in pursuit.

“Agni, don’t move!” She cried out, but the Sergeant signaled for her to halt.

“Forget the pistol Madiha, use this instead!” Agni shouted.

Sgt. Agni cast something, sliding it along the ground – a machete from her tools.

Madiha stopped the weapon with the tip of her boot and swiftly kicked it up to her hand. She caught it in time to intercept another one of Von Drachen’s blows; edge met edge. Madiha started turning back his attacks with one hand, the butchering edge of her machete bashing back the refined blade of the officer’s sword. Von Drachen started to tighten his swings and he stepped back with every exchange, likely in fear of Madiha trapping his blade. She could easily take off a few fingers in a clash if he closed with her too recklessly.

Edge continued to meet edge, metal at the tip of metal, glinting in the gloom and rain.

Step by step they made it back almost to the center of the room.

Von Drachen stepped back to the place Madiha had been trapped in, and she let him create distance. Catching their breath after their vicious clashes, all too aware now of the danger they posed to one another, the combatants circled and waited.

Madiha gripped hard her machete. She could feel it in her hand, its weight, the way it interacted with the air, the subtle pull of the earth as it moved. She knew it perfectly.

They exchanged spots; circling, Madiha stepped in the ring of rubble and Von Drachen off it, each holding up a blade and keeping a free hand. For several minutes it seemed they only stared. Neither could count quite count on any more backup – and both could tell as much from the actions of the other. This pile of rubble might just be a tomb for one of them.

Von Drachen smiled. “Nocht is a cesspit of arrogance and ignorance, so it’s hard for me to convince you to surrender to them and guarantee it will be a step up. However, I would like to impress upon you, that if you surrendered, it would be very helpful to me.”

Madiha did not look at his face. She looked over his arms, his legs, and his weapon.

In her mind all of the mathematics played out perfectly. Every centimeter of muscle on her body, every nerve fiber, readied itself to move in whatever way suited the long knife.

She could fight with the machete even though she never once practiced it.

This did not feel alien or frightening anymore. It just felt like something she did.

To her it was just like a gun. Any weapon worked for her ability. She might not be able to shoot Von Drachen unfailingly but she knew how to skillfully counteract him. He would try to stab or cut her arms if he wanted to capture her, which she was almost certain he would want to. She would try to do the same. She definitely wanted him in shackles.

Physically they were nearly evenly matched.

Madiha was as tall as he, and they were both lean and fairly muscular for their frames. Madiha appeared a little smaller, but Von Drachen was probably similar once his big coat and tall boots came off him. She felt confident, and made the first move, tentatively swiping at the edge of his blade. Von Drachen stepped back, avoiding the glinting metal swipe in the gloom of their arena. At first he raised his sword to guard, but as they backed off out of each other’s reach again he lowered the weapon to his side and became more relaxed.

“When I took this sword I thought it would make things easier for me, but suddenly it has made them all the harder. This such a regrettable situation.” Von Drachen said.

“Believe me, there’s other things I’d rather be doing.” Madiha replied.

Movement; her eyes darted to Von Drachen’s feet and back up, and she held her machete out for a block as he threw himself forward again; she met his blade, the metal scraped, but there was no strength from Von Drachen’s end.

Rather than clash he allowed himself to be brushed aside.

He used the impetus to step away, past her, onto the remains of the roof slab.

He had drawn a radio from his coat.

Artilleria pesada a las coordenadas–

Madiha turned and approached.

For each step she took Von Drachen backed hastily away, speaking Cissean into the radio. It was a short conversation – barely a few seconds later he stopped speaking abruptly, sighed and threw his radio over his shoulder, smashing it on the wall behind him.

“Just my luck; out of HE shells.” He said, a childish, exaggerated frown on his face.

Von Drachen charged down from the slab, raised his sword and brought it down over Madiha as if to batter her down; with one hand she caught the blade and with the other she swung her blade right into his own weapon and hacked it apart. Her machete went through Von Drachen’s sword, taking a dull half in her hand and leaving half in his.

And the blade barely managed to scuff her glove in the act. It had no real edge.

“Hit me with a sword enough times and I can tell if it’s a toy or not.” Madiha said. She dropped the chunk of the sword that she had caught to the floor, and stepped on it.

Von Drachen backed away from her, holding the remaining bit of his blade.

He shifted his feet, bent his shoulders, and held out the broken blade like a fencer.

“You cannot be serious.” Madiha said. She was becoming exasperated with him.

En guarde, Sergeant!” Von Drachen said, twisting his wrist and blade with a flourish.

Now it was Madiha’s turn to rush. But Von Drachen jabbed the air with his jagged dagger as Madiha charged him. She twisted away from his thrust, and put the resulting momentum into an attack on his flank. With her fist and the handle of her machete she struck the side of his head. He staggered back, dazed by the blunt blow.

Madiha flicked her wrist and held the machete by its blunt blade end, wielding it like a club. Sensing an opportunity to end the struggle she advanced on him.

He recovered in time to strike first, and swiftly kicked her feet out from under her.

Madiha fell back, and Von Drachen reversed his own dagger and loomed over her.

He raised his hand, blade to the floor, ready to drive through her flesh.

But as he closed in to stab her Madiha gathered all her strength and in a sudden motion propelled herself from the ground and on her feet. She timed it just right; her head and Von Drachen’s met halfway, and he staggered back and away from the collision, his nose broken open. She was not unharmed either. Blood rushed from her forehead, and her vision momentarily swam. She struggled to remain standing and her machete shook in her hand.

Von Drachen stumbled and stepped as though drunk. But he was laughing all the while.

“Sergeant, you rascal. I’m starting to think you’re more than you claim.” He said, clutching his face. He was bleeding profusely from his nostrils, and his temple was badly bruised. Despite these injuries he did not seem to slow down. He straightened out again and stowed the remains of the sword into its scabbard. He then held up his fists like a boxer.

He took a few weak jabs into the air, and locked his eyes to Madiha.

Madiha raised her eyebrows, and with them, her machete, ready for another round. She was growing tired – she would have to kill Von Drachen if this did not subdue him.

Abruptly, Von Drachen straightened out, loosening his guard and lowering his fists.

“It appears I successfully stalled for time. I am now going to extricate myself from this before any more of me is cut up. Sorry, Sergeant, or should I say, Major.” He said jovially.

Behind him a shell penetrated the hole in the roof and crashed where Madiha had once lain. She reflexively shielded her eyes, but the shell explosion cast little heat and no light.

A curtain of smoke blew from the center of the room. Shots rang out as Agni recovered a pistol, and Madiha saw the silhouette of Von Drachen fleeing the scene in the cloud.

Something else entirely had her attention, however. Her feet were getting wet. In fact, for the past minute or so, her footsteps had been splashing and she did not notice it until the water was up to her shins. The Umaiha was flooding over from the storm.

“Stop, Agni! Let him go! We have to retreat before the river floods any higher!”

“Yes ma’am. Requesting transportation – I cannot quite move at the moment.”

Madiha ran to Agni’s side, following her voice through the smoke, and found the engineer sergeant on the ground, coughing. She had flipped on her back, sat up as best she could and braced herself against rubble to shoot. Without hesitation Madiha stripped Agni of her tool belts and ammunition and other burdens, and picked her up and lifted her from the floor. Even with just her uniform she was still a little heavy, but 60 kg was manageable.

“I envisioned being the one to carry you out, Commander, but I don’t think I could have lifted you. So I am relieved I did not have to attempt it.” Sergeant Agni said.

“It’s my height! I’m only 75 kg!” Madiha said, chuckling lightly.

Sergeant Agni didn’t laugh – she couldn’t really laugh much anymore – but she did relax against Madiha’s arms and chest, and heaved a little sigh. She was clearly relieved.

Outside the station they found the fighting largely diffused.

The Umaiha had grown high enough that the water consumed the outline of the riverside street and the bridges. Periodic waves struck the edges of the street, battering anyone in the open, and the Cisseans on the other side of the river cabled themselves to structures, and held on to their ropes and hook bridges, trying desperately to keep the line stable as the remnants of their forces retreated pell-mell across to the western bank.

More than just the water impeded them.

Standing at the parking spaces in front of the police station, the surviving Goblin tank harassed the Cisseans with inaccurate gunfire, the 45mm armor-piercing shells doing little but soaring around the men and giving them noise and stress. Around it, the wrecks of the teletanks smoked, both having been smashed to pieces by 15 cm artillery shells.

At least the technology in them thoroughly burnt with the rest.

For their part the Engineers busied themselves loading their wounded into half-tracks. A few men and women guarded the vehicles, and took snap shots at the Cisseans, as if it to direct their interests firmly toward retreating. By and large the column had extricated itself from the ruined buildings now that the Cisseans had left the street.

Aside from the tanks, and a few stray riflemen on each side of the river, the weather had brought the forces the closest they could be to a ceasefire. Their battle was over.

Madiha carried Sergeant Agni out to the nearest half-track truck, where a pair of engineers helped both of them up into the covered bed of the truck. She laid herself against the steel frame holding the canvas tarp in place, and caught her breath. She was shivering from her wet clothes, until an engineer placed a towel and blanket over her.

Another soldier began to disinfect and cover up the bleeding from her injured forehead.

“Retreat farther east as soon as possible.” Madiha ordered. “We need to be away from the river. We’ll wait for the worst to pass before attempting to head up north.”

Around her the engineers nodded their heads, and hastened their labors.

She hoped some of the bridges survived. But for now, she was alive – and whole.

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