26th-30th A.G., 2030 D.C.E
Shaila Dominance to Dbagbo Dominance Railroad
For several days the armored train evacuating the Knyskna defenders wound its way through the northern Shaila dominance. It stopped twice to couple additional cars and refill its coal at two military bases straddling the border with Dbagbo, the territory to the north, adjacent besieged Shaila.
Soldiers left their cars and stretched their legs on the solid ground for a few hours before the train departed again. From their vantage, the bases seemed large enough to host thousands of people, whole divisions — but when the evacuees made their temporary stops at the military stations at each base they found the garrisons barren, the supply dumps stripped down.
Everyone who could be spared to leave had already left by whatever means available.
Everything to be taken had been picked apart and arranged such that a train could take it.
Everything that couldn’t be taken was burnt or blasted apart; or awaiting such a fate.
Only a skeleton crew manned each base. When the armored train arrived they saw to the final arrangements then joined the evacuation themselves by hopping in the train. Everyone who could was leaving Shaila behind.
As Leander watched the last of bases grow farther in the distance, he saw a fleeting burst of light as the explosives left behind detonated and “secured” the base, once and for all. Nocht would have nothing but the plot of land.
With the capitulation of the forces encircled in Tukino, and the rout or retreat of the scattered forces that remained outside the kettle, including Leander’s own, the Shaila Dominance was considered finished. Of the 50,000 troops inside the pocket, including the majority of Shaila’s tanks, 20,000 souls fought to their death while 30,000 were injured, captured, or both. In addition, 10,000 troops had been killed or captured in breakout attempts coming from outside the pocket, squandering even more troops.
Shaila had played host to Leander for relatively little time — and yet he still felt quite sorry, watching the trees zoom past the open door of his train car as he left behind the landscape. Those trees that swept by each seemed to Leander to signify a person who was now a captive of the invading enemy. He thought he could see faces in the knotholes, flailing arms in the branches. Dimly he wondered how his family was doing; even though they hated him.
“Whatcha lookin’ at so much?” Sharna said. She put her chin on his shoulder and stared out the car herself. “See anything interesting out there?”
“I just had it in mind that the trees here look sad. Like people in distress.”
She turned her head side to side, digging her chin into his shoulder. “Odd.”
Elena, Bonde and Sharna occupied the same train car throughout those long days as military refugees on the armored train. Sometimes they would be called to take turns occupying a train turret — theirs had a 20mm automatic cannon for anti-aircraft fire — but most of the time they merely sat around. Very few times did they feel up to talking, and when they did it was about nothing in particular. Trees; the smell of metal; the taste of the rations they got. There was not much to be said for those days. They felt like limbo.
Everyone was tired. All the adrenaline that had carried them through their Knyska days had been spent. It was as if now their bodies were paying for each second of undue energy with five seconds of lethargy now.
On the 29th they crossed the border into Dbagbo. This transition was barely noticeable, particularly under the heavy rains besetting the area. Patches of conifers and shrubs still dominated most of the landscape that Leander could see, storm or no. As the train drove on, Leander did catch one rapidly changing detail. At the edges of the railroad tracks the ground was turning muddy. Even the land bitten into by the roots of trees started giving way.
Past the patchy forest around the border the railroad tracks followed the slope of a gently rising hill skirting the edge of a vast strip of meadow, far longer than it was wide and covered in flowers and green grasses. Rippling puddles and mud-caked soil were visible wherever the grass was low or gone. A little brook wound through the center of the grasses and flowers, slowly swelling with the inveterate rainfall. Far in the distance near the treeline he could see gentle lines on the earth, the svelte shoulders of small slopes.
It unfolded before him like a postcard picture, but just as quickly brought to mind a harsher image — when would Nocht appear to trample over this?
Nobody in the train was too excited about the crossing, so they kept quiet, each car to itself. Leander saw Sergeant Bahir come up to them only once.
Without incidents or celebrations the armored train reached a military base in the “lower,” or geographically southwestern, portion of Dbagbo on the 30th of the Gloom. At the station the armored train stopped beside a long metal platform with ramps and cranes. There was a call for everyone to be ready, broadcast through the communications inside the train. In an orderly, lethargic fashion the survivors of Knyskna set foot on Dbagbo’s soil. They stuck to their squads, and the few remaining officers, of which there were enough to count in one’s hand, got everyone organized for processing.
Knyskna’s remnants barely constituted a battalion in strength. By the early evening, after checking papers, furnishing clothing, food and other supplies and temporarily housing and vaguely debriefing the new arrivals, it became clear to the on-site administrators of Battlegroup Rhino that it probably was easier to disband the remains of Battlegroup Lion than reconstitute them.