Zugzwang (19.2)

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

City of Bada Aso – Outskirts, 1st Vorkämpfer Headquarters

Outside Bada Aso a Nochtish truck convoy halted off the road after almost a week’s worth of uninterrupted driving. One vehicle had broken down due to a lack of oiling. Horse wagons were dispatched from the Headquarters inside the city and the cargo was loaded on them. At around noon, the equipment was unloaded at the HQ and installed by engineers overseen by Fruehauf. They spent about an hour working with cables and vacuum tubes.

Finally, a telephone was installed in the Vorkämpfer HQ. Line operation was overseen through the Ayvartan cables and headquartered in the occupied city of Dori Dobo near the border to Cissea. Fruehauf informed Von Sturm about the successful installation. She was excited about having a phone. It was a cute, homey kind of object. After all, she used to be a telephone girl before she joined the army. Von Sturm did not share her enthusiasm at all.

The 30th of the Aster’s Gloom saw the first international phone call between Ayvarta and the Nocht Federation. From occupied Bada Aso, the single telephone line out to Dori Dobo carried a call request that was manually forwarded through three boards in Cissea, until it reached the first trans-oceanic radio-telephone station in the northern coast of Cissea. Through the airwaves the call crossed the sea. Upon reaching The Federation of Northern States, it was forwarded to its destination in the Nocht Citadel, where it was picked up.

One hour of routing, waiting, and growing, sinking dread in Von Sturm’s stomach.

Finally, the call was put through. Von Sturm tremulously raised the handset to his ear.

“I love the telephone, don’t you, Anton?” President Lehner said. “Love the telephone. I’m a man of technology, Anton. I want no barriers between human hands and scientific achievement. Today, we’re making history! And oh, it couldn’t have come a better time. I’ve been waiting so long to express my disappointment. Thank the Messiah for these lines.”

“Yes sir.” Von Sturm replied. He seemed to struggle to keep his teeth from chattering.

“Let us talk, Anton. Let us talk, primarily, about my disappointment. Once you understand the depths of my disappointment, we can talk about what comes next. Did you know that Dreschner took Knyskna? Dreschner is on time. I like Dreschner; honestly, I am fond of all my personnel, Anton. And that is why this hurts. Disappointment hurts.”

Fruehauf watched on innocently, smiling at the presence of a cute little dial telephone in the HQ’s second floor, while President Lehner coolly dismantled and berated Von Sturm.

Thirty minutes later the pair reconvened with the rest of the staff downstairs.

Von Sturm’s eyes seemed permanently forced open, and he walked stiffly.

Fruehauf whistled and skipped and wondered if she might be able to organize calls to home from Ayvarta on the radio-telephone. She was in love with the little thing.

Down in the restaurant dining area, Von Drachen waited on one of the tables. He had a thick bandage over his forehead, gauze over his nose, his arm in a sling and patches over his shoulder, easily seen under his dress shirt. He wore his jacket still, but with his arms out of the sleeves. Von Sturm sat across the table, holding his head up by his hands.

“Oh good, I’m glad you’re here.” Von Drachen said. “I’ve been rehearsing this speech I wanted to give to someone. My mind is bursting with ideas after the battles of the 28th.”

“Are you sure that’s not a result of having your forehead broken?” Fruehauf asked.

“It might be, but in that case, it is a good result.” Von Drachen said, shrugging.

“I was just joking. But I guess I’ll accept that response.” Fruehauf sighed.

“I’m listening.” Von Sturm said sullenly.

He looked at Von Drachen over steepled fingers.

Von Drachen’s face lit up.

Afforded the chance to speak, he stood and backed away from the table, and spread his good arm as if to gesture for the attention of a crowd. Fruehauf and a few of her radio crew, on their breaks, turned around to watch. Von Drachen cleared his throat, and he swept his hand slowly in front of himself, and began to speak in a serious voice.

“Prior to to this conflict all of our battles have been against forces in underdeveloped, broad, open areas. Cissean villages, Bakorean fields, and Ayvarta’s grasslands afforded us the ability to bring our superior firepower to bear on the enemy. Exposed enemies would be rushed and obliterated. Enemy strongholds were few and far between and we could seize them or bypass them at our leisure. If they moved against us, they were destroyed, and if they failed to move, they were encircled. We dictated the terms of any engagement.”

Von Sturm was dejected throughout. Von Drachen continued without skipping a beat.

“Bada Aso is a large, fairly tight, conventional city. It restricts our movement, our lines of sight, and it prevents us from concentrating our forces – how many men and tanks can you feasibly cram into a street before you have a slow-moving soup kitchen line in uniform?” Von Drachen smiled in the middle of his explanation, as though he was overjoyed by the works of his enemy. “And the Ayvartans have used these conditions expertly. Their equipment and training is meager compared to ours, but they have been organized to take the fullest advantage of this uncertain environment around us. They have created a situation where we will bleed men fighting them, bleed men scouting them and bleed men bypassing them. It’s like fighting in hell, it’s like a medieval engagement! We cannot look at this using our ordinary strategies. It might even be best that we do not move at all for now. We must be more meticulous, Anton Von Sturm, or else we will–”

“But we have to move!” Von Sturm shouted, interrupting him. “How the hell does it make sense that with worse equipment and poorer training they can successfully slow us down! Just because they have holes to crawl into? Tunnels to squirm and crawl around?”

“Because they know what’s around every corner of this city and we don’t.” Von Drachen said. “They can see through the stones and we can’t. We think we have the initiative because we are the ones launching attacks, but they are the ones who dictate every engagement because they have tactical control in every situation. They can retreat when they want, counter when they want, and lay whatever traps they want. It is they who have the initiative despite not attacking. It’s simply fascinating, don’t you think?”

“It makes no sense.” Von Sturm shook his head. “It is absolute madness to think that.”

“They have preyed on our superior position.” Von Drachen said. “Our entire army was built and trained to punch through defenses with overwhelming power, and then break into a marathon run toward new objectives. But we can’t run in Bada Aso: we keep slipping and hurting ourselves on the concrete with this vaunted ‘overwhelimg power’ of ours.”

Von Sturm pushed back his chair and stormed from the table, rubbing his forehead in consternation. Fruehauf and Von Drachen looked on, until he had disappeared upstairs.

“Was it something I said?” Von Drachen asked. “It’s just my opinion on things.”

Central District FOB, “Madiha’s House”

After days of tinkering, a silent breakthrough occurred.

In the basement of the school building an engineer finally found a compatible vacuum tube for the old long-range radio, and quietly he installed the tube in the correct slot and tested the device. There were no sparks and he picked up a signal. He left it at that.

In his maintenance report, “potentially” fixing the radio telephone was the last item, behind adjusting an office chair, checking the air circulator and fixing a hallway light.

Hours later an alien sound echoed across the halls of the FOB – the radio telephone was ringing. On the first floor of the FOB the switchboard operator, stationed in front of the obsolescent radio-telephone monitoring equipment, awoke in a puddle of her own saliva. She scrambled to connect the call, having forgotten most of the controls.

She had been almost sure she would never have to use the device.

After a moment’s panic she managed to connect the incoming call through to to C.W.O Parinita Maharani in the Major’s office, who was just as puzzled by the communique as anyone else. With Madiha watching behind her, she picked up the handset.

Parinita listened to the call carefully. At the other end, the KVW radio operator read several press-worthy statements – confirmation that Solstice had been brought around to Madiha’s plan for the city, on the condition that she evacuate by sea to Tambwe, as well as offering assurances that the end was in sight for the political deadlock of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. Parinita was optimistic about the call and glad to receive it. She told Madiha the gist of everything. Knyskna had fallen, but there was good news too.

Madiha was less optimistic. “Useless,” was one of her choice words about the call.

Regardless, they both agreed it was time to start putting into motion the end of Hellfire.

Then, another alien sound, same as before.

It was the radio-telephone again. Once more the operator was in an anxious and manic state, and this time she forwarded the call directly to Major Nakar instead of Parinita. For her part, the Major did not know whether to think this ominous or auspicious.

She picked up the handset and raised it to her head. “This is Major Nakar.” She said.

“Major, congratulations on your recent victories. You are a beacon in this darkness.”

Madiha felt a thrill down her spine.

Her eyes widened. Parinita stared, and silently tried to ask what was wrong. She received no answer. Madiha recognized the voice – it was the Warden of the KVW and head of the Military Council, Daksha Kansal. She was once the voice and face of their revolution – though sidelined by the petty politics of the council she had been instrumental in fomenting the unrest, seeding the ideologies, and supplying the strategies to overthrow the Empire. She was in a sense Madiha’s boss, but they hadn’t spoken for many years.

“I,” Madiha hesitated for a moment, but found words quicker than she would have before recent events, “I am grateful for the kind words, Warden. However I would be hesitant to refer to anything occurring in this city as a victory. As I communicated to the esteemed Admiral via our offices, this is not a battle that I plan to win in the strictest sense.”

“Yes, of course. I recall your plan and continue to support it. But you humble yourself; with Gowon’s leadership this entire operation would have been impossible.” Kansal said. “Gowon would have been intimidated by Nocht’s strength. You confronted them.”

“Thank you for your confidence. To what do I owe this rare call?” Madiha asked.

“Regrettably rare; but I hope to take a more active role in our operations from here on.” Kansal said. She paused for a second before continuing to speak in a strong tone.

“Major, you have been informed that there are strides being made here in Solstice to support the war. I have committed to sending special trains from Tambwe to evacuate your wounded. Support from Ram will be available as well if you think it would be warranted.”

“I do not.” Madiha said. “Ram should remain put and fortify the border to Tambwe.”

“I expected you would say that.” Kansal replied. “You were always putting other people ahead of yourself. I am happy to see that. I should leave you to conduct your strategy, Commander. I wanted to personally commend you. I feel it is the least I can do.”

“Thank you. I will send any special requests via encrypted telegrams.” Madiha said.

“I will keep someone on hand to handle communications, round-the-clock. Mark my words, we will retake the reins of this war, Major. We will overcome this together.”

“Thank you again, Warden.” Madiha gripped the handset and worked through a sudden shot of anxiety. “If I can make one request now: I would like to talk to you personally in Solstice. Not simply about things present, but also those past. I hope that can be arranged.”

There was a moment of silence on the line, but Kansal replied nonetheless. She sounded a little deflated. “I owe you that much, Madiha. It has been a long time, I admit, since I have thought of that fateful day where I put the gun into your little hands and told you to shoot. Perhaps that is an indictment on my character. I was so willing to forget.”

“I remember most of those days fairly well now, Shacha. On that day, I shot because I wanted to protect you. I was small; I didn’t understand what I was doing completely. But I did it of my own volition, not because you made me do it. All of this was never something that I was coerced or tricked into doing.” Madiha said. “I’ve never understood your own feelings on the situation. I do not blame you. I just wish to speak to you about it.”

Parinita craned her head to one side, puzzled over the sudden turn in the conversation.

“We will speak, Madiha. As far as tricking and coercing – I would not be so quick to absolve me of my guilt. We will speak, so that you may fully remember, and then decide.”

“Yes. Until then, we should be keeping our communication sparse.” Madiha said.

“Indeed. Once again, thank you for your service, Madiha– Major.” Kansal hung up.

Madiha set down the handset. She rubbed her forehead, feeling a bit of a headache.

“What was that about?” Parinita asked. “Did something happen between you two?”

Madiha smiled. “She was one of the people who raised me into this sort of life.”

Parinita’s eyes drew wide. She wiped a few tufts of hair from the side of her face.

“Madiha, is Daksha Kansal your mother? Is this one of those secret child things?”

Madiha burst out laughing. “You’ve internalized one too many film plots, I see.”

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