The Sun That Shone Through Smoke (28.4)

This story segment contains mild sexual content.

52-AG-30. Dbagbo Dominance — Silb, 8th PzD HQ

Noel ambled confidently into the war room, running his hands gently through his hair. A few heads turned at his arrival, most unfriendly; nevertheless he took his place around the central table, upon which the map of Dbagbo was stretched, its surface cluttered by an array of formation chits and pins with all the last known positions of ally and enemy alike.

He was fashionably late for the strategy meeting, having had to wash and powder his face, brush his hair and freshen it with various care products and don a fresh uniform.

All of the grungy men around the room looked varying levels of upset with this.

Noel certainly could have fixed himself faster — he had applied more makeup, done his hair up fancier and dressed in ornate clothing under worse conditions than this. He took his time because he wanted to enjoy himself. For him, prettying up was a pleasure.

Besides which none of them received a hygiene ration up to the level of a female chief of signals or medicine or a corps adjutant, like he did. What the heck did they know?

“Listen, it takes a little time to get all of this,” he touched his fingers to his cheek, pressing them on the soft skin with a cute smile, and then lifting them suddenly to flip his hair in a flamboyant gesture, “up to a standard befitting a photogenic young lad like myself.”

Eyes blinked incessantly across the room. Signals Officer Schicksal cleared her throat to disperse the silence. She was looking a bit more comely than usual herself, with her hair pinned up in a professional-looking bun and a dab of glossy red lipstick on her lips.

“Anyway,” she said, “we’re all here now, so let us go over the plan definitively.”

Dreschner raised his head from the table and his eyes from the map, and he scanned the room as if for the first time noticing the crowd building around him. Noel spotted Reiniger pouting in a corner and Spoor meditatively in another, but the HQ building was crammed with lower level officers as well. A few battalion commanders were present. There were Captains and Majors of key units looking over the map and awaiting orders.

“Yes,” Dreschner said, perhaps slowly returning from the world of strategy and prying from somewhere in himself a translation of its contents for human consumption.

He cleared his own throat, withdrew an extendable stick, fidgeted with it for a moment, and then tapped the stick on the map between two spots: Shebelle and the Sandari.

“This is the situation. Though the surprise Ayvartan Sandari offensive slowed us down temporarily, the bulk of our forces are now clear of the river, and we have by stroke of luck three full infantry divisions ready to lunge against the main Ayvartan defenses. Shebelle is a humble city, but,” he tapped on the map marker for the city once again, “it is a fortified zone. To even enter we must breach a horseshoe line of pillboxes, trenches, and tunnels built on rough or roughened terrain. Who knows what lurks past it? But the pillboxes are not our immediate responsibility. Instead, our infantry will attack the defenses outside Shebelle with limited Panzer support to draw the enemy’s attention and keep them pinned down.”

Dreschner’s stick seized and slid up the 10th Panzergrenadier Regiment and the 8th Panzer Regiment. “Our mission is to serve as the eastern pincer of an encircling maneuver against Shebelle. The 8th Regiment and the 10th Regiment will attack along the eastern flank of the Shebelle defensive line, but this movement will be largely a feint, maneuvering up the defenses like a stepladder. Once the defenders hunker down in their positions to engage us, we will suddenly break away from Shebelle and sweep north to Benghu and capture the town there. Then we will speed westward to link with the other half of the pincer formed by the 10th Panzer Division, whose mission to take Gollaproulu mirrors our own.”

On the map, the General arranged the forces at play, such that the Panzer Divisions formed a pair of long arms around the back of Shebelle. “In so doing, we will cut off Shebelle from supply and encircle several Ayvartan divisions. Initially our position will be tenuous. The 10th and 15th Division will be working together — they have suffered more damage than us and need each other’s support. We will be depending on the arrival of the Kaiserin Trueday Division formed of Nochtish Ayvartans and defectors. I can’t vouch for their reliability, but they’ll at least reduce the frontage we’ll need to defend ourselves.”

“Until then, we will rely on a few combat multipliers, supplied by our Panzer aces like Captain Skoniec, as well as the new machines that our engineers are preparing. We expect the capitulation of Shebelle, and thus the defeat of Dbagbo, by the 1st of the Frost.”

Dreschner gestured toward Noel and Noel smiled prettily around the room as if hoping to solicit applause. He received none, but he continued to smile just to spite them all.

“Any questions?” Dreschner said. There was a slight hint of weariness to his voice, as though he did not actually want to answer any questions, but it was not the kind of menace that commanders in the old Weiss battalion had shown Noel in similar settings.

Noel raised his hands up in the air, hopping up and down in place.

Dreschner sighed heavily and pointed him out. “Yes, Captain Skoniec?”

“All due respect given, sir, but why not avoid the Shebelle defenses entirely? Instead of leapfrogging across the sights of a bunch of pillboxes, where we’ll lose a lot of tanks–”

Dreschner cut him off quickly. “Flank protection, Captain. Should the entire division rush to Benghu and past the enemy, what stops the enemy from pursuing us and threatening our salient? Furthermore I believe our losses maneuvering around the outskirts of the Ayvartan defense will be minimal. We will not launch a full scale attack against them. We will have a battalion or two attack from range to scare them while everyone else advances.”

Noel was not satisfied with this, but he continued to smile. So far the Ayvartans had not been a threat to them in maneuver warfare, but they had been punishing opponents when properly dug-in. His old Weiss battalion had felt the sting of a proper Ayvartan defense many times. They were masters of making hell-maws out of shellholes.

Though risky, perhaps reckless, forcing them to run out and then sweeping back to destroy them denied them prepared ground for a fight. But this was clearly not negotiable.

“Yes sir! Thank you sir!” Noel said in a bubbly voice. He saluted in resignation.

It was Dreschner’s call and he’d deal with the caskets in the end.

* * *

Following a strict information control and anti-surveillance policy, the 8th PzD Headquarters at Silb shut off all lights and cut all high level communications at 2000 hours. Nobody would call the Divisional HQ after that. In case of a tactical emergency, Regiment HQs closer to the front would be contacted first, and expected to handle the situation themselves.

Schicksal should have long ago joined the camp’s sleeping ranks by 2300 hours. Instead she stood in the middle of the little house given to her for personal use and waited in the dark. A string of very long days fueled by very poor meals the past week had left her so little time for herself that she was too stressed to simply lay down and pass away the hours.

Some days she just paced indoors, but she was starting to get into the habit of going out at night and into the woods until around 0200. Then after catching five hours of sleep or so she would jolt herself awake with caffeine and a stimulant pill. Yesterday she had escaped the curfew and smoked a few cigarettes under a tree, shielded from a light evening drizzle.

Tonight was surprisingly dry, and as such gave her a unique opportunity. She withdrew an electric torch and prepared bag, then snuck out of the house and into the forest.

There was one particular tree she had found about 500 meters from the camp that possessed a sizable knothole into which she could curl up for cover. Two thick roots stretched down the sides of the hole like arms open to an embrace. Protected in this little place, she set down her bag, opened it and produced from it a one liter, brown glass bottle of white wine from the Officer Special Ration; and a roll of pulp fiction magazines.

After removing the stopper and passing a cloth over the bottle’s mouth to clean off dust and bag lint, she raised it to her lips and tasted the contents right out of the bottle.

It tasted quite sweet but with a bit of a sharp sting hidden beneath. Sort of like her.

Bottle in one hand, she spread open a book on her lap; torch in the other, she started to read in the dark about Johannes Jager’s epic battle against a communist airship.

Alcohol seemed to make the letters blur on the page. Somehow she found them more pleasing that way. Her mind was more pliable, and she could imagine the situations in the story more easily. She felt herself get swept up as Jager shot a hook at the back of the airship hull and stowed away; she felt each bonecrushing hit as Jager took on The World’s Tallest Svechthan, struggling via fisticuffs for control of the communist vessel–

She felt a murmur building up around her, a bit of laughing, the rustling of leaves.

“Slow down! I’m tired. I spent all day on maintenance.”

“Well, well; that’s what this trip is about! You need maintenance yourself.”

Was it the liquor tricking her senses? Was she this drunk already?

Schicksal set down the bottle and book, and stood up from her little nook. She crept around the side of the tree, staring off into the dark, and saw two figures in the distance. One had a lighter, flicking it on and off to create an intermittent bursting of light. Both were well-dressed in uniform. She recognized the bouncy blond hair on one — it was Noel. And the boy with him looked like his driver. Ivan, was it? Her head hurt.

She watched them frolic for a bit and sit down together near a tree. They produced a little candle lamp, lit the wick, and left it to flicker near them on the ground. Noel rested his head on Ivan’s chest, and Ivan stroked his hair gently, lifting up the long tufts.

“We sortie tomorrow right? What do you think of the General’s plan?” Ivan said.

“Eh. It’s ok. I don’t really care to attack infantry. It feels like bullying.” Noel said.

Ivan laughed. “Well, you are kind of a bully sometimes to be brutally honest, Noel.”

“Aww, c’mon, that’s not fair. I do it gently, gently.” He rubbed his head against Ivan’s chest, laughing haughtily in response. Ivan wrapped his arms around Noel’s shoulders.

“I wish we could just go back to Nocht sometimes.” Ivan said. “You and me.”

Noel sighed loudly. “I thrive in chaos. I’ve found it makes people overlook things.”

“I’ve got nothing back there either. I just wish I did; or that I could, with you.”

“I literally came off the street, you know. I’d only go back to that if I returned.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I would get you a place, Noel. I’d do anything for it.”

Noel looked up from Ivan’s lap and pulled him into a deep kiss.

Schicksal blinked blearily. She felt her head throb. She was clearly drunk.

Once their lips separated, Noel pulled Ivan down to the floor and loomed over him.

“Forget about that, Sergeant. It’s time I gave you a bit of maintenance.”

“Engine’s ready for inspection, Captain.” Ivan mischievously replied.

Schicksal heard the tinkling of a belt buckle.

She saw Noel’s head dip in against Ivan’s waist and rise up again in a slow, gentle rhythm.

Ivan laid back, mouth hanging.

Their shadows entwined against the light from the lamp.

Sharp intakes of breath punctuated their embrace.

Schicksal raised her hands to her head, rubbing her temples in confusion.

She was very clearly drunk. She sank back behind her tree, picked up the magazine, and tried to ignore the array of noises that her head was fabricating to distract her.

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Naya volunteered for the radio tent chores and successfully wormed her way to the top of the list by virtue of false enthusiasm and an utter lack of competition. As such she got to while away the hours listening in to idle chatter, staring at the encryption machine, reading a booklet on code procedures, and being alone. After the past few days, it was an improvement. Her head seemed, for the moment, all out of nasty words for her.

Around noon, the teleprinting message machine started to act up. At first, Naya thought it was broken, because it made a sound like a Needlemaw’s thousand gnashing teeth crushing the entire skeleton of a small forest mammal. But then after several minutes of crunching, it didn’t spit out all of its internal machinery, and instead put out a paper.

Naya stared at it for a moment before producing her code booklet and going to work.

Minutes later, feeling considerably worse for the effort, Naya ran out of the tent.

Benghu was under attack and everyone at Chanda was suddenly in danger.

Aarya was suddenly in danger.

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