A Pulse In The Ruins (18.5)

29th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

South District – 1st Vorkämpfer HQ, 0400 Hours

Once vicious rainfall declined to a light drizzle in the night hours, and the machine of Nocht sent its pseudopods over the receding flood waters, across the ruined streets, and out toward its front lines in the inhospitable wilds, in the thick and forbidding concrete jungles. Chief among its goals at the moment was assessment. The Vorkämpfer needed to know the status of the machine, and in the dead of night thousands of people worked without sleep.

Von Sturm’s plans had gone awry. It was accepted now that in the Kalu, there was essentially no front line. Hundreds of tanks had fallen prey to ambushes, and there were pockets of Nochtish and Ayvartan resistance everywhere, forming a mess that neither could extricate themselves completely from. The 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions hesitated to attack and hesitated to retreat, while the Ayvartans laid fresh traps everywhere around them.

Bada Aso would not be flanked today, tomorrow, or the day after, if ever at all.

Along Penance road the Ayvartans had retreated from the Cathedral, but only after inflicting heavy casualties on the Panzergrenadiers, halting their advance completely. Von Sturm’s attack was a failure there – despite clearing the Cathedral in the end, his spearhead had been utterly blunted, and the Ayvartans retreated in order despite their own casualties. Somehow they had even managed to penetrate his lines and destroy the artillery in Buxa.

So the way was open north, but the enemy was organized and expecting them.

Along Umaiha, Von Drachen’s brilliant attack, that was making so much headway, was disrupted and completely destroyed by flooding. Von Drachen himself had not even reported back. Von Sturm fancied him dead. Everyone had lost a lot of blood in that disaster, Ayvartan and Nochtish both, but the initial successes made the ultimate failure sting all the more. Following these revelations, the mood at every Divisional HQ was somber.

As part of the endeavor currently underway, Fruehauf could not let herself become too distracted, but the enormity of the day’s events haunted her as she worked through the night. The Ayvartans had lost almost half the city, but had they won in the end?

In the gloom between the very early morning and very late night, the first milestone was completed. On the radio, the various units traded figures, and compiled a big picture.

“Just read it,” Von Sturm said, his face laid against the table and hidden by his arms.

Fruehauf sighed audibly. She cleared her throat, raised the clipboard in front of her face almost as if in self-defense, and began to read from it. “Preliminary report from the logistics battalion and intelligence battalion task force on the actions of the past day, the 28th of the Aster’s Gloom, in all theaters: 6132 infantry casualties–”

“Fuck.” Von Sturm shouted, drawing out the vowel while pounding his fist on the table.

“–276 vehicle casualties, 3 scout aircraft MIA, 38 heavy guns lost, 23 mortars lost, several tons of ammunition lost. A significant amount was due to the storm, however.”

“Well, that’s great, I just lost half a classical myriad of people because the weather was bad, instead of my own failure. We’re still standing in Von Sturm Funeral City you twit!”

Fruehauf tried to smile. “Well, we list wounded in the casualties, not just deceased.”

Von Sturm raised his head. “How many did we actually lose, stop fucking around!”

Fruehauf flinched. “Death toll thus far is 3271 killed across the entire operation.”

“Fuck.” Von Sturm shouted, drawing out the vowel while pounding his fist again.

“I’m sorry sir.” Fruehauf said. She tried to sound as earnest as possible.

Both were soon distracted from their woes by an unexpected visitor.

There was a knock on the restaurant door.

Then loud creaking of the old hinges as one of the guards opened it.

Fruehauf and Von Sturm gasped with shock as a sopping wet, limping Von Drachen passed through the door threshold, stopped at the coat rack, and hung up his soaked hat and trenchcoat. His hooked nose was broken, caked with blood. He had an awful, swollen bruise on his head. His gray Nochtish uniform was stained with blood from his shoulder. He limped over to the table, everyone too busy staring at him to offer him help.

When he sat, they heard a wet squish coming from under him.

“I’m afraid I took on some water getting here.” He said, pressing against the sides of his pants, straining out some of the water that had collected in the pockets and fabric.

Behind him, Colonel Gutierrez, wearing nothing but his undershirt and uniform pants, entered the room, nodded his head, and made to leave, until he was hailed by Von Drachen.

“Thank you for fishing me out of the river, Gutierrez.” Von Drachen said. He looked around the room and raised his hands and addressed everyone with a jovial tone of voice. “Let it be known that this old, perhaps addled man leaped into a flooded river to pull me out. Without his aid I certainly would have drowned in the storm. What a world!”

“You would have done the same for me mijo,” Colonel Gutierrez replied. He smiled and was turning a little red under his big beard, clearly flattered by the attention.

No one in the room spoke a word yet save Von Drachen.

“I can’t swim, actually. That is why I was drowning, just so you know!”

He turned toward Von Sturm, and handed him what was left of his sword.

“I clung on to this for dear life, my good man!” Von Drachen said. “That might have troubled my swimming, but I brought it back to you, because it was the right thing to do. I don’t believe in platitudes, but I had this feeling about it. Also; I know who it is in charge of the Ayvartans now, and she is a very frightening and quite fetching young lady.”

Von Sturm dropped his head against the table again and covered it with his arms.

Fruehauf covered her mouth and tried desperately to resist laughing at this absurdity.

Central District – Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”

All the lightning that once raged so brilliantly in the sky, was gone.

Without it the night was pitch black.

Under a light drizzle, Parinita waited and waited. She sat on the steps just outside the headquarters, protected by the concrete roof that stretched out over the stairway. She sat, a backpack radio at her side, watching the road. Behind her, the building lights were shut off and the few personnel still at work did so under candle light, to present less a target in case of night raids. It was deathly quiet outside. She felt that she could hear each raindrop fall.

She picked up the handset, adjusted the frequency.

“This is Army HQ to all available units.” She said. “If any unit has had contact with the Commander, please report to Army HQ immediately. I repeat, please report back.”

Parinita kept the handset braced against her ear by her shoulder, while she fidgeted with her hands, and played with the power dial and tuner. But it was not the radio at fault.

For what seemed like the hundredth time, Parinita put down the handset again.

She stared into the forbidding darkness around her.

They had made some gains today.

In the Kalu, Kimani had prevented the Panzer divisions from flanking the city, buying precious time. Across the south, they had managed to retreat in an orderly fashion from the Penance cathedral and left a few booby traps in their wake. The Umaiha riverside was a disaster area. They had lost the very last organized vestiges of the 1st and 2nd Line Corps to the Cissean attack, and the flooding likely swept away friend and foe alike.

Including, perhaps, Major Madiha Nakar, that somber, sweet, strange woman.

At first, Parinita wept in the privacy of the Major’s office. She had run herself dry of tears. For much of the evening and night, she sat outside the HQ, waiting. Madiha’s convoy had vehicles. Maybe they could get back, with news, or a body, anything at all.

She waited and waited, wondering if she would wait and never receive an answer.

Another hour passed.

She shivered; the storm had brought with it a chill uncharacteristic of the Adjar dominance at any time of the year. But still she sat beside her radio, waiting.

Losing Madiha, perhaps, made no difference to the war as a whole.

There would be other officers, there would be other plans, up until the bitter end.

To Parinita, however, losing Madiha was a wound that would not heal.

It was words that could have been said, blasted into oblivion. It was moments that could have been shared, vaporized, cast into the air. Perhaps she was being foolish, or pathetic. For how long had she known Madiha? But the mourning hit as though she had known her a lifetime. Ten days, just ten days! But she couldn’t help it.

Now the tears started to flow again. She felt so small, foolish, childish, frivolous.

Lips quivering, her long strawberry hair disheveled, Parinita picked up the handset.

“This is,” she sobbed, and sniffled and tried to hide it but could not, so she kept going, “Army HQ, to all units. Please report any contact with the Commander. The Commander has been missing since 1400 hours. Report any contact immediately. Please.”

She made to put down the handset when she heard a unit responding.

“This is Hobgoblin B-5 of the 1st Separate Bada Aso Tank Brigade, previously on silent patrol. I am escorting a convoy of vehicles toward the headquarters. Please stand by.”

Parinita clutched the handset.

“Y-Yes. This is C.W.O Maharani. I will await your arrival.”

She stood up.

She waited with bated breath.

Minutes later, she saw the Hobgoblin’s light from afar.

Approaching the HQ, the tank turned on the intersection, and behind it followed several Half-Tracks. They parked haphazardly, and began unloading wounded in stretchers. Lights started to turn on behind them all, in the HQ building. People rushed past Parinita to help the arrivals. She stood, transfixed, her eyes scanning slowly around the scene.

Across the street, Major Madiha Nakar dismounted, holding a towel to her head.

Slowly she left the half-track’s side and ambled toward the stairway.

At the foot, she looked up and locked eyes with Parinita.

The secretary dropped the handset and fought back tears.

“I am sorry for making you worry.” Madiha said. “You were probably right about this.”

Without a word Parinita rushed down the steps and threw her arms around Madiha.

“Stop being sorry for things when nothing’s actually your fault!” She wailed.

Madiha stroked her hair. “I know that now. I was being wrongheaded about things. You could say I had sort of a revelation. I can’t tell you that everything’s fixed upstairs; but I’ve never felt it easier to talk or think. Reminds me of the film Flashing Before My Eyes.”

Parinita cried softly into her chest. Madiha went silent, and held her in embrace.

“That film was so stupid.” Parinita finally whimpered. “Nobody has dreams like that.”

30th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Solstice Dominance City of Solstice, KVW camp

Councilman Yuba finished recounting the events of the 28th of the Gloom as he saw them, from the information that the Council had managed to acquire. It had been a pivotal day across the entire warring front, as Warden Kansal and Admiral Qote knew all too well. Now it seemed that the Council was waking up to that fact as well.

No Councilman acted alone.

They always had their little cliques. That Yuba could come here to the KVW camp and meet with the striking soldiers, showed more than just his own convictions. It meant there was a faction in the Council that propelled the old man to move forward.

After going over his long story, the Councilman gestured toward the Warden.

“So you see, Warden Kansal, the events of the 28th, now that they have trickled over to the Council, have put you in a better position. You have the advantage with them now. Knyskna fell, but Bada Aso stands. Nocht’s powerful Panzer Divisions took over one city but failed to take the other. We know the reason. There is a great difference here.”

“You know it, but I’m not so sure your fellows are so open to it.” Kansal said.

Councilman Yuba stretched out his hand, and Kansal took it, holding it firmly.

“Warden, I think if we play our cards right we can promote the idea that it was your leadership and the KVW’s expertise that was the decisive factor in the battles of the 28th. Under Council guidance Knyskna fell miserably to the enemy, but under your leadership Bada Aso stood. Yes, my fellows will wish to extract compromise. But they will relent on the key points. It is a way forward for all of us. Step by step, we may yet be able to win back the Council. I need your help in order to do this. I cannot lead this thrust alone.”

“You better be sure.” Admiral Qote interjected. “We’re done playing political games.”

“I cannot promise you anything except that we have an opportunity on our hands, and that I need you in order to set it in motion.” Councilman Yuba said. “I have been sitting on my hands trying to make a peace that won’t come. It’s time I picked a side.”

“And you are picking our side?” Kansal said.

Yuba looked anguished for a split second. “I’m picking the side that can save us.”

“What about our contrarian friends, like Mansa? What do they think?” Kansal said.

Councilman Yuba smiled bitterly. He let out a little laugh, an angry, sad laugh.

“I believe they may be more vulnerable than we thought. Or perhaps distracted.”

“In what way?”

Yuba looked at Kansal. He appeared weary. “I think Mansa has abandoned Council.”

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