The Sun That Shone Through Smoke — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice

Early in the morning of the 51st, various impromptu street meetings were convened to inform the public of recent developments. Newspaper articles had yet to be drafted as the news happened at an inconvenient hour — but everyone needed to know. Dull-voiced KVW politruks in their red and gold uniforms stood before crowds forming in parks and midways and read their scripts as loud as they could over the murmur.

“Comrades of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. From the People’s Peak to your ears this is an important announcement. Last night saw the end of the political deadlock that has been threatening the capital for the past month. The National Council of the SDS has decided to step down from governance, and have appointed Daksha Kansal, from whom many of you heard the past week, as Premier of a new government with a mandate to improve responsiveness and efficient pursuit of the People’s will.”

Pauses, to gauge the crowd. No response. Thus the statement continued. “Premier Daksha Kansal and the newly-created SIVIRA, the Supreme High Command, will be handling executive and military matters henceforth. There will be no changes affecting the self-directed labor of Unions or the economic policies on Cooperatives. Regional Councils will be subordinate to the SIVIRA on military matters but will continue to be responsive to the concerns of the People in this time of war as they have been in the past.”

Nodding heads, glances exchanged, intrigued, curious faces; some confused. Satisfied the politruks continued their announcements. “Our country is in a desperate struggle against a vicious enemy, and it will take great heroism to fend off its heinous attacks. In the coming days, Premier Kansal will interact with the People and commiserate on what can be done by all of us, the socialist workers, to prepare for and win the real war that lies ahead. This being said, the matter is settled. For now, tend to your labors and to yourself — remember that your work and health represent the work and health of the nation!”

Across the city the Politruks delivered their speeches and then stepped down and ambled out of sight, leaving behind the crowds and ignoring any questions asked.

There was no great outcry one way or another, no visible social shift to match this political shift. People simply listened, nodded their heads, and continued about their day with a prayer for the comrades further south, upon whom Nocht continued to encroach. For most citizens of Solstice, the words of Daksha Kansal still resonated, if not entirely the contents then the spirit of them. Many of them knew this was a necessary step and after her showing on the 45th, they were eager to see what her governance would bring.

On the 51st of the Aster’s Gloom, Solstice knew of the Supreme High Command; and that news would be slow to trickle out from the Capital to its embattled children.

51-AG-30. Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Nobody paid the rain any attention. By now it was simply the state of nature.

Dark adobe-red mud covered the ground in the clearing. Sparse green spears of grass stretched from crowns of mud and from murky puddles. Despite the cover of the overgrown canopy above, rainfall scored the site as if unhindered, each drop marking its fall on the soft ooze covering the forest floor. Gloomy and wet, the jungle grew cold.

As the convoy approached, frogs jumped out of the puddles and scattered away. Their falls left their own round prints on the muddy ground. Naya watched, downcast.

Karima sounded a bugle call, perhaps only because she wanted to. As long as she was bugling she was out in the rain — Lila held on to the umbrellas in her place instead.

After the bugle call was done echoing through the forest, everyone made ready.

In a thoroughly unenthusiastic voice, Chief Ravan announced, “Today, we are conducting tests on the 76mm KnK-3 gun. Mainly endurance tests. We already have armor data.”

This time there were few formalities and fewer spectators. Under the unrelenting Dbagbo rainfall, a paltry few engineers set up the prepared plates. Standing off to the side, again under an umbrella, Ravan barely seemed to pay attention to the test.

Inside the Raktapata’s turret, Naya handled one of the 76mm shells. Before her the KnK-3’s mechanisms were much more compact than those belonging to the previous guns, though the casing bumper connected to the breech ring was closer in than the length of a shell. This meant she would have to lift the shells up over the bumper and slide them into the breech. Thankfully each 76mm shell weighed only 6.3 kilograms and had a manageable length.

Naya could pick it up and put it down easy. She set the shell atop the brass bumper.

Unlike the 85 mm and 100 mm gun, the KnK-3 was not exactly a prototype according to Chief Ravan. It was ready for manufacture for all intents and purposes and the model they had was an example of the early production run. Today’s test was much more about how it performed mounted on the Raktapata than about the KnK-3 itself.

One immediate sore spot was the gunnery sight. It was jammed very close to the side of the gun, separated by a thin metal bracket. She could accidentally bang her head on the gun when shooting via the sight. To make matters worse the glass was lower quality and gave a dimmer, foggier view of the surroundings than the experimental gunnery scopes on the other guns. Her periscope could not sight the gun, but it offered a much better view and she would have to rely on it more strongly to spot enemies from afar.

Before the test began, she pulled back from the gunnery sight and raised her head to the periscope, watching the engineers preparing the 80 mm plate at 500 meters.

“Why is the plate so much closer this time?” Naya asked over the radio.

Chief Ravan sounded pained in her reply.  “The KnK-3 gun can’t do better than this.”

“I see.” Naya said. She remembered that her old 45mm anti-tank gun could not penetrate any more than 43 mm of armor at 500 meter ranges, and no more than 32 mm of armor at 1000 meter ranges — and this was taking into account 90 degree angles that were not always guaranteed. It was enough power for light tanks and the sides and rear of medium Nochtish tanks, but inadequate against the faces of most tanks at significant ranges.

Though the 85 mm and 100 mm guns had been able to plow through seemingly any amount of steel put in their way, the KnK-3 simply could not punch at that weight class.

“Naya, commence 10-round endurance fire when ready.” Captain Rajagopal said.

Naya nodded her head, entirely to herself. “Acknowledged!”

She picked the 76 mm shell she had been playing with up from the casing bumper, turned it on its side and loaded it in at an angle until it sat on the feed slide, and punched it in. Instead of an electrical trigger like the 85 and 100 mm guns, she instead had a shooting lever. She reached for it, pulled it to open fire, punched the hot brass off the feeding slide that connected the breech ring and bumper, and then started to time herself. Grabbing a shell, loading it, and shooting; this second shot was better representative of the time it took.

Nine seconds. Not bad, she thought. Was she getting better?

After each shot a tiny puff of gas escaped from the breech. It was thinner and less noxious than that of the 85 and 100 mm guns but it was still quite annoying to her! She also had to manually beat away the brass casing after it ejected and hit the bumper. Sometimes it fell off by itself, but most of the time it simply remained on the feeder after firing!

She focused entirely on the repetitive motions, reaching, sliding, pulling. She barely looked through her gunnery sight, and did not need to readjust. Loading and shooting as fast as possible was her number one priority in an endurance fire. Her fingers hurt, and she felt a distinct pain in her left right shoulder and flank with each passing round. Her breathing quickened and her arms felt loose and aching after the 10th round. When the endurance fire was completed about one and a half minutes had elapsed in total.

Naya raised her head to the periscope to view her handiwork.

Many of her shots had stricken the edges of the plate, none of them had hit the dead center. Of course, the aerodynamics of the 76 mm shell were different and she hardly accounted for them. It was significantly lighter and shorter, and she had been told it was made from much cheaper materials than the bigger shells. She could see chunks of metal embedded in the target plate everywhere, leaving ugly scars and compromised sections of the armor. There were two dirty holes with a lot of metal still embedded, but at least indicative of a limited penetration; but most of the plate was merely banged up and dented after the onslaught.

Naya turned her periscope around and saw Chief Ravan rubbing her forehead with her hands in quiet frustration. This was certainly less impressive than the previous guns.

“Sorry ma’am!” Naya said through her radio. “I didn’t do so well now!”

“Dear, for the umpteenth time, it is not your fault.” Chief Ravan replied.

Chief Ravan called her engineers and had them take down the busted plate. For the two penetrations they could not find significant shards even after thoroughly searching the surroundings with magnets — it must not have been a very effective penetration. Perhaps the quality of the shells caused them to ground to dust. Eventually they put up a second plate, this one thinner and smaller than all the previous targets.

“Naya, for this test use five AP shells, drawn from the reserve ammo stowage. Your target is a 50 mm thick plate at a 60 degree angle at 500 meters.” Ravan called out.

Beneath her there was a long shell basket holding the tank’s remaining ammunition. The racks at her back held only ten shells for quick access during a fight, and the baskets below and to her left, hugging the wall, could hold a total of fifty extra shells. However for the day’s test only 15 extra shells had been furnished for the Raktapata’s use.

This was another rate of fire test. After all, a tank would likely have to fight off its reserve ammo in a heated exchange with a mobile enemy, where it could not afford to replenish the ready rack. Reaching down to seize a shell would add time to the firing of the gun.

It might also inflict on her back some punishment she wasn’t sure she could take.

Swallowing hard, hands shaking, she tried to steel herself for the task ahead. She closed her hands into fists, sat back in her chair, and focused away from her own body.

It was tough. She was aching a little everywhere. She could feel the wear on her, as if still stretching taut the muscles and tendons in her shoulder, arms, flank and hips.

“Naya, commence 5-round endurance fire when ready.” Captain Rajagopal said.

Naya breathed in deep, and she started to time herself. She bent down and to the side, seized a shell, raised herself back up to her seat with it, angled it into the feeder slide, loaded it, opened fire. Fifteen seconds. She pushed away the hot brass with her hand — her insulated gloves protected her — and took a quick peek through her gunnery sight.

She confirmed a clean penetration on the plate; she started reaching for the next shell.

“Cease fire and cut the engine now!” Chief Ravan shouted suddenly.

Farwah complied immediately and the tank grew gradually silent. Naya dropped the shell back into the basket and painstakingly helped herself up, standing on her chair, and then on a foothold in the turret wall. She peeked up out of the turret hatch in the rain. Though persistent, the rainfall was gentle and relatively sparse compared to the past few days.

It allowed her to hear the buzzing overhead, beyond the jungle canopy. She looked up in a panic but could not see anything through the green. Chief Ravan waved her down.

“Naya! Get back into the turret now! You’re safer there!” She shouted.

Naya gestured behind her, where an AA machine gun was set on a pintle.

“I could use that to defend us!” She called over the radio, her lips trembling.

“You won’t do any good Naya! Just hunker down and wait for it to pass!

Shaken up, Naya remained out of the hatch. “Could it be one of our planes?”

“No. Our planes have no reason to fly over this place!” Chief Ravan said.

Disobeying the Chief, Naya turned around and seized on the machine gun. It was a Khroda heavy machine gun slapped on a pintle mount with a box magazine. She scanned around the canopy through the pop-up metal sight on the machine gun but she could see nothing but slices of grey sky and the the rain filtering in through the lush ceiling of the forest.

Chief Ravan pressed her hands against her face in frustration at Naya.

“Can we call for air support?” Farwah asked over the radio, still inside the tank.

“We barely have active planes in Dbagbo. Our airfields close to the border were bombed early in the invasion and surviving planes were moved to improvised airfields farther north.” Captain Rajagopal said. “Nocht’s flights have only been hindered by the incessant winter rains. They otherwise have near full command of our skies right now.”

“I suppose their air men must have gotten testy of late.” Chief Ravan said.

“Or they’re desperate for intelligence to feed an attack.” Captain Rajagopal replied.

They heard the buzzing of the engine again, closer overhead. Everyone quieted for several minutes and stood still. There was no shadow, no way of knowing that the plane had passed or whether it had them in their sights. They heard the buzzing come and go beneath the gentle rain but could not divine its direction. It was moving fast.

Then there was a shriek on the radio that startled everyone.

“I saw it! I saw it through the canopy!” Lila shouted.

Naya scanned around in a panic but the plane did not materialize for her.

“What kind of plane was it?” Karima demanded.

“Monoplane! Grey with big propellers!” Lila replied. “Going that way!”

Again Naya raised her gun, this time with a direction, but again saw nothing. She grit her teeth, her hands shaking against the gun handles. She felt as if half-alive and half-dead, as if her body was preparing for the fact that within an instant all sensation could cease. Though the aching temporarily subsided, her stomach turned and her muscles locked.

Everyone stared helplessly up at their invisible assailant, standing near thirty two tons of armored vehicle that could do nothing to protect them, helmed by a shaking girl whose thoughts were whipped up into a swirl of panic and recklessness and self-hate.

Rain dribbled down the bridge of her nose and her cheeks, masking her tears.

Overhead the buzzing of the engine grew near.

Everyone took cover; with a gasp, Naya succumbed and hid back in the turret.

Holding on to the hatch, she heard a swooping sound.

She grit her teeth, hands tight on the handle, shaking and shaking.

No machine guns, no bombs.

Overhead the buzzing of the engine grew distant.

After several minutes of silence, everyone inched out of cover.

“Back to camp while we have the chance!” Chief Ravan shouted.

Leaving behind the testing plate, the engineers packed up their tools and rushed back into the Sharabha half-track with Ravan and Rajagopal; Farwah exited the tank, hooked it quickly to the Tokolosh, and started out of the clearing. Moving so quickly, everyone forgot Naya inside the turret, but that was fine for her. She was still crying furiously.

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — The 10th Head

Premier Daksha Kansal left her private car and walked down the street a few meters, staring sideways at the property across the empty green park as though it was a suspicious animal that was readying to jump. After a few minutes she turned her back to it and returned to her car. Her driver advanced to one of the driveways around the grass and followed it up to the building. As the Premier and her company rode to the property, she glared at it through the car window with her chin supported by the back of one hand. She shook her head.

“What do you think, Premier?” asked a big man seated across from her.

“It’ll have to do.” Kansal said simply.

Palaces and all they entailed did not sit right with the new Premier.

In 2007 Daksha Kansal and a few accomplices attacked a radio station in the southern capital of Bada Aso. She had been sent there to expose the government’s corruption. There was a script, a quick, punchy message that would embolden the struggling; Kansal hijacked the message in the heat of the moment. She broadcast her ambitions. Across Ayvarta, for a brief moment, people contemplated the possibility that one insolent woman at the bottom of the world could seek after the head of the Emperor and the heads of his family.

What was intended to be a moderate message of protest, became a declaration of war.

One year later, the ambition would be realized. The Zaidi would stand in the bloodstained halls of the Imperial palace having brutally disposed of the regime.

There was nothing left of that particular palace anymore.

It had been destroyed, the land repurposed.

But not all of the royal estates shared the same fate: one Palace remained. Humble for an estate, but complete, accessible, and suitable for Kansal’s new purpose.

Ironically it was once the abode of one Pajar Kashlik, the chief provider of impetus for the project of a nationwide radio infrastructure in the early 2000s.

In Ayvarta it seemed that the past and future always entwined in eerie ways.

Kansal’s car parked just outside the broad, 24-step concrete stairway leading into the estate. Two wings with richly decorated facades extended thirty meters each to the left and right from a grand, gabled entryway in the center. The Kashlik estate house was only two stories, and it was much longer than it was wide. Surrounded by trees and shrubbery on three sides, with an empty green park in front, and situated atop a small hill, the estate had a commanding view of the sparse northern borough of the capital. One could see some of the northern wall of Solstice from almost anywhere on the property.

Despite its richness, compared to the People’s Peak it was a squat, unassuming rectangular building that anyone could believe served no function but to play host to the noble excesses of its occupants. It was just the pleasure house of a low Pajar. Kansal despised large, unnecessary houses. In fact the space made her distinctly uncomfortable and brought back bad memories. But the People’s Peak was a juicy, obvious target. It was a monument — it would be targeted and would be difficult to defend. She needed a hideout.

She needed a 10th Head for her besieged 9-Headed Hydra.

“I hate the place, but we kept it for just such a thing, so let us use it.” She said.

“At the moment we can’t build something more communist to replace it, comrade Premier; that is the only reason that I suggested it! It is a property where we can house the entire SIVIRA staff apparatus and its equipment in relative safety and comfort.”

“Is it even wired?” Kansal asked skeptically.

“Yes! That is another reason I suggested it, Comrade Premier, and it is one reason it was not demolished. Pajar Kashlik had his estate thoroughly modernized by 2008. He had telephone, he had a personal telegram connection, radio, backup gasoline power generators. He even had refrigeration — a giant gas-powered ice room for storing food! It is the perfect place for our operations. Even as we stomped flat the other palaces, the Commissariat of Development realized that the Kashlik estate had too much practical value to destroy.”

As much as she hated the place, her pragmatism was overcoming her bias.

Her car had an extended rear cabin with two plush seats facing each other. She occupied the rearmost seat, and across and in front of her was comrade Kamau Mamani. A tall, hairless man with skin like black diamond, smooth, dark and glistening in light. His manners were gentle and reserved. He made no movement that was sudden, and spoke with his hands always on his lap. Daksha appreciated this. People who gesticulated wildly always made her nervous, though she knew they had their reasons for those behaviors.

He was her chosen companion on this business. Mamani had picked out the new location of the headquarters of the “SIVIRA Of The Supreme High Command,” or SIVIRA. This would be the new national headquarters unit of the army in the process of unifying — known as the Sunhera Thalsena or “The Gold Army” in the Arjun speech. It was variously referred to in the past two days as both the STS and the Gold Army. The Gold Army had gone through a few names in the KVW’s hasty planning. There was talk of naming it after the Svechthan Red Army, but a unique name was needed. Hydra Army was considered as well, but while Kansal found the name personally appealing, they needed something more universal.

“Gold Army” had history — it was an informal name given to the Emperor’s Ten Million Men.

There were still legends and histories taught to children that referenced it.

Right now, their army needed to feel like living legends in order to survive.

Thus, Gold Army it was. “The Ayvartan People’s Gold Army.”

And this estate would be The 10th Head, SIVIRA’s headquarters.

Kansal walked through the gabled entryway and into a spacious but empty lobby. It would have to be furnished with a front desk. Long hallways in either direction led to the wings, and doors directly ahead led deeper into the building. Recessed staircases around the corners led to the second floor. It seemed as though a lot of foot traffic could channel through the building unimpeded — a necessary feature in the time to come.

Through a ground floor door at the end of the lobby, Kansal wandered deeper into the palace, opening doors and peering inside grand tea rooms and game rooms and gathering places. All of these could be converted to operational areas. At the center of the building there was one room of immediate interest, with a long carpet leading to a desk enclosed on three sides by tall bookcases. Overlooking the desk there was an animal’s head mounted on the wall. Gray with rubbery skin, large, deep-set eyes and four massive tusks surrounding a fiercely grinning stub of a snout — a preserved King Tusker head.

“Remove that grotesque exhibit from here post-haste. Replace it with my copper hydra.”

Mamani smiled at her and rubbed his chin. “Chosen your office then, comrade Premier?”

Daksha silently acknowledged him by walking up to the sizable mahogany desk, running her hand over it to trace a line over the surface dust, and taking a seat in the big chair behind it. She sat with her hands clapped together over the surface and closed her eyes.

“Yes. This will be my office. My above-ground office, anyway.” She said.

“Splendid. We shall start accommodating the departments here.” Mamani said.

“Right. You may go, Mamani. When Chakma arrives, send her here if you meet her.”

Mamani nodded his head, saluted, turned and promptly left the room.

Premier Kansal sat behind the desk for a few minutes after Mamani left the room. She put her elbows to the wooden surface and held her head in her hands. She steepled her fingers and stared out across the room, over the carpet, to the door. Nobody would be soon to arrive — she stood from the desk and checked the books on the shelves. To her surprise, Pajar Kashlik had managed to collect all fifty volumes of the Lubonia Encyclopedic Collection before she had him killed. A lot of other outdated but valuable scientific, anthropological and zoological books lined the shelves. The Pajar had managed to make himself into quite a scholarly man on the backs and purses of the working class people.

Shaking her head, she left the volumes behind and wandered the estate alone.

Over the next few hours more of the staff of the new SIVIRA began to arrive in trucks and half-tracks and liaison cars, finding themselves pointed mostly to empty rooms at first until more of their equipment caught up with them. Trucks started to bring desks, chairs, file cabinets, and other necessary office amenities. In their place, old chairs, leather couches, and king size beds and other frivolities were hurled out onto the green patio until a use for them could be found. Daksha had a mind to donate them to youth hostels.

In the middle of the haphazard furnishing, a KVW gendarme alerted Daksha to the arrival of her new War Secretary, and she promptly made her way to the green to meet her.

Exiting a liaison car, a short, golden-skinned woman with her hair in an orderly black ponytail, pristinely dressed in the KVW black, saluted Premier Kansal. Daksha nodded to her in return, resisting the urge to salute — she wasn’t technically in the military anymore as Premier. Standing across from her Chief Warrant Officer Cadao Chakma had a small smile on her round face, and her diagonal, folded eyes shone with a color like the sun.

“Comrade Premier, I’m honored to be of service! When I heard of my appointment, I immediately set about gathering my proposals. I’m ready to work right way!” She said. Her voice was charming and bubbly; she sounded like she was ready to jump up and down.

“Your initiative is appreciated, Secretary Chakma.” Daksha replied.

“Secretary; I can hardly believe it.” Chakma replied, almost as if to herself.

Having exchanged their pleasantries they walked back to the Premier’s new office side by side. By the time they arrived, the Tusker head had been taken from the room, and a copper Hydra installed in its place. Looming over Daksha’s head as she sat on the desk, this nine-headed serpent reared back in quiet menace. Chakma had the full view of the creature from her seat opposite the Premier. The War Secretary laid various documents on the table.

“You’ve expanded your proposals since we last met, I assume?” Daksha asked.

“Indeed!” Chakma said, clapping her hands together. “I worked very hard!”

Prior to this post, Cadao had been a staff officer working on training doctrine with the readiness corps. As the KVW prepared for war in the past few weeks, she caught Daksha’s attention by compiling and submitting a research paper on resources and organization for rapid remobilization. Like a growing number among the KVW’s troops and staff, her training was not fully complete — in fact they had not even begun to give her conditioning. She lacked the red glow in her eyes because she was not yet even considered for it.

But she had a vision and at the moment Daksha needed above all else people with vision.

“Alright. Let’s pretend I don’t know what you’re here for. What have you got?”

“Yes ma’am! As you can see, I’ve assembled my organizational proposals for your consideration.” Chakma said cheerfully. “These documents contain an expanded version of the proposals I previously submitted. Tapping into various sources, I believe that we can immediately rally six corps worth of troops in Solstice itself — around 225,000 men and women in total, from KVW units, Revolutionary Guards, Police, survivors of the southern battles and Battlegroup Cadets mostly far along in their training.”

“What about the remaining battlegroups in the north?” Daksha asked suddenly.

“That might be the one sticking point.” Chakma breathed in deep, stuck out her chest and spoke with greater conviction. “Comrade Premier! This may be controversial, but I believe it is imperative that these forces remain in place to guard the territorial integrity of northern Ayvarta against potential incursions against the rear echelon of the Solstice Dominance. Though we could sorely use the 400,000 troops in place there, I believe we should tap into only 1/4 of these forces and leave the remainder in case of a naval or aerial threat to us!”

Daksha felt a nervous twitch. She suppressed a snap judgment, an urge to reprimand what she saw as wayward naivety. Certainly it was a daring proposal to make to her, at this time when they needed as much manpower as possible in the south to forestall an invasion. Daksha could not fathom why they wouldn’t make use of all their forces.

“I was led to believe you were submitting a proposal for remobilization.” Daksha said.

Chakma looked momentarily nervous, but gathered her convictions and continued in the same forceful tone of voice as before. “Ma’am, I believe we can build a fully-equipped, thoroughly organized force that will better serve our purposes than painfully remobilizing, reequipping and reorganizing the northern defensive battlegroups, which are currently lacking in officers, standardized training or even a standardized force organization.”

“True,” Daksha said suddenly, nearly interrupting the last part of Chakma’s sentence, “but can Solstice endure the mustering of this force, or will we have an army without a capital?”

“I can make no guarantees, only predictions based on good info, ma’am.” Chakma replied. Her forehead glistened in the room’s dim light, and she swallowed hard after speaking.

“Alright,” Daksha grinned, false sweetness mixed with all too real venom, “I think you need a break, Secretary Chakma. It is your first day on the job and you are visibly nervous.”

“Ma’am?” Chakma choked up and sat very stiffly against her chair.

“Fetch yourself a drink, think things over, and return to continue your proposal.”

Daksha waved her hand dismissively, picked up a pair of reading glasses from her pocket and started to look over the document folders. Chakma looked around the room in confusion, got the hint, and slowly, awkwardly retreated out to the hall. She left the door half-open, and Daksha could see her shadow out in the hall, pacing and pacing without aim.

Finally Chakma returned, and without taking a seat, she saluted the Premier just as stiffly as she previously sat. Her face was composed; she certainly intended to look serious.

“Ma’am, I stand by my proposal. I believe that if we withdraw too many forces from the north we could suffer a surprise attack by Hanwa or Lubon, who are certainly allies of Nocht and whose intentions in the conflict are not yet fully clear to us!” Chakma said.

Daksha looked up from the documents, staring at the new War Secretary over the lenses of her reading glasses. She crooked an eyebrow at her, and then returned to the documents as if disinterested. This further rattled the War Secretary, and though it came from a confrontational place, it represented the most gentle scorn Daksha was capable of.

“That is true, but you are essentially telling me to withdraw no forces.” She said.

“Untrue ma’am! My proposal outlines the creation of one more army out of 100,000 forces from the north deploying to Solstice. Thus leaving three armies, one each guarding the Northwest, North and Northeast! I believe this caution will pay off in the future!”

“We could those 400,000 troops in the South to fight against Nocht and stop them from beheading us here at Solstice. We can raise new troops to defend the North and East, where we have a better position anyway. Compared to Nocht’s forces 225,000 is a paltry number. Do you really believe you can have armies rolling out this quickly?”

“I believe by the new year we will have 500,000 defending Solstice and 1 million on the way, ma’am, if you follow my mustering, training and organizational doctrine!”

Chakma spoke up while looking straight forward and over Daksha’s head, avoiding eye contact from the seated Premier. She gesticulated as she grew more nervous and each rapid and unpredictable movement of her hands corresponded with a nervous, strained bump in the Premier’s weary heart. Daksha pulled off her glasses and pointed at the War Secretary with them, jabbing them sharply in the air as she said key words and phrases.

“You are invested in your plan; so then you are willing to take responsibility for it should the worst happen? Staffers have a habit of feeling safe playing with the lives of men and women and cities and farms and other organic things as if numbers on a chart could wholly represent them. I know this: because I was a brash idiot organizer once too.”

Not exactly true. Daksha had been a revolutionary organizer, but she had no formal military experience and could not totally relate to a Cadao Chakma the way she could relate to a Lena Ulyanova. Everything she knew about war and revolution she intuited from experience, from success and failure, from the movements of enemies against her, from the scars on her body and metal still embedded into her flesh. She never had charts back then. War was an animal instinct to her, and it was a clean science for Chakma.

Nevertheless, it appeared that Chakma had unwavering faith in this science. It was perhaps the same intense faith that Daksha had in her own ferocious instincts.

“I am willing to take responsibility!” Chakma said. Her voice was growing strained but there was a fire in her eyes and she stood perfectly still and straight as she spoke.

Daksha smiled warmly in return.

This time it was a genuine smile and accompanied by genuine sentiment.

So genuine it was that Chakma could see the total change in demeanor, and her stiff pose slackened in her confusion. Daksha stood up from her chair, took Chakma by the shoulder, and shook hands with her, the woman looking at her as if she was a ghost.

“Congratulations on your promotion to War Secretary, comrade.” Premier Kansal said.

Chakma blinked, and returned the hand shake in earnest. “Thank you ma’am?”

“Come, sit, and let us discuss the intricacies of your rebuilding plan.”

Leading the woman kindly to her chair, Daksha sat behind the desk with a bubbly expression on her face that seemed to continually confuse and unsettle her new War Secretary. As they spoke, Daksha became even more convinced that this was the proper person, and that her faith in that initial spark she saw in the woman was not misguided.

52-AG-30. Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Though the sky was characteristically bleak in color, the rain had momentarily abated.

Camp Vijaya was lively as could be and took full advantage of the respite. People left their tarps and tents and worked under the sky (technically under the camouflage net). Radio operators brought the receivers out on handcarts and laid back beside them on towels as if sunbathing. Engineers worked on small parts out in the fresh air, soldering and sanding and treating on tables in the grass. There was a soon a pungent scent of chemicals and paint swirling through the camp; but everyone was happy to be free of the rain.

Around noon there was a small disturbance. People cleared out of the area near the workshop at the sound of Karima’s bugle and at the insistence of Captain Rajagopal. Small crowds gathered in a circle around the edges of the camp. Once the way was clear, Chief Ravan had the workshop opened, and stood by with a megaphone in hand.

“Everyone ready? Time to begin the Raktapata tactical mobility test!”

Farwah popped up from the front hatch.

“We’re just driving in circles around the camp.”

Chief Ravan turned the megaphone to his head.

“We will commence the Raktapata tactical mobility test with an additional and valuable scientific stipulation — it is forbidden for Farwah to speak during the test!”

Naya laughed a little, standing at the edge of the wood while Chief Ravan shouted at Farwah. Roaring to life, the Raktapata started its first lap around the workshop, its engine powering an uncommon torsion bar suspension. Power was transferred to the drive wheel in the back of the track, and from there the other wheels. It navigated the terrain at a brisk pace and took corners very easily. She watched it speed up, more gracefully than she would have thought a vehicle of that size capable of. Somehow she had expected the vehicle to move much more stiffly, but it turned and zig-zagged quite smoothly for a tank.

Sadly the spectacle would be short for Naya. She had somewhere to go today.

Nevertheless she continued to steal glances as she made her way. Walking along the outskirts of the camp to stay out of the tank’s path, Naya followed Isa to the back, where he climbed into the Sharabha half-track and cheerfully waved her to the passenger seat. She climbed on beside him and settled on the stiff cushion atop the rigid metal seat.

“Where are we going exactly?” Naya asked. She had been given very little in the way of instructions for the day. Previously she thought she would have no chores on the 52nd.

“Chanda. We’re going to pick up sundries for the camp from the supply dump.” Isa said.

“Hmm? Sundries? What kind of goods are talking about here?”

Isa smiled. “Towels, soap, herb shampoo, kitchen and bath paper, razors, brushes, deodorants, anti-fungals and other hygiene products like that; we can’t run on food alone, you know! A whole camp full of gearheads goes through these things very quickly!”

Naya nodded. “I noticed. Hard to scrub your face three times a day just with water.”

“Too true. We’ll be bringing back a lot hopefully, so help me carry the crates, ok?”

Isa hit the starter, and the Sharabha whined awake. Avoiding the Raktapata as it lapped around the camp, the half-track slipped out of the camp and through the jungle, down a path that Naya had not trod on for over a week now. She suspected that the real reason for this trip was that Chief Ravan and Captain Rajagopal had noticed her flagging condition and decided to get her out of the camp for a breather. Other people came and went to Chanda on errands just to get a breather. Naya was not enthusiastic about returning to Chanda for any length of time. She liked the camp well enough. But orders were orders.

The Sharabha was much faster than the Tokolosh, quickly reaching a speedy 60 km/h even on the meadow. After leaving the forest Naya raised her eyes reflexively to the sky, and she looked out for airplanes. She had two too many encounters with Nocht’s damnable Luftlotte in her life and she did not need another. However the skies were clear of planes and though partly cloudy the weather was agreeable. Chanda was soon in sight and without incident. Isa drove the Sharabha up a steep grassy slope north of the school and followed it into the sports field, reducing his speed. They were among civilians and had to be careful.

Naya saw children out on the field near them, playing, gathering around teachers–

She sat up against the back of the seat, avoiding the window at her side.

“Something wrong?” Isa asked, turning the wheel to steer the Half-Track to the depot.

“Nothing. Just don’t want to seem like I’m goggling anyone.” Naya replied.

Isa looked skeptical, shook his head, and parked the half-track beside a big tin warehouse that had been set up near the track and field in order to house army supplies.

“You know, you’re a real weird gal sometimes, Naya.” He said. He was smiling.

Naya smiled back, in a cutesy, deflecting sort of way.

She had seen Aarya out on the field, and an awkward instinct overcame her.

Inside the tin warehouse, a tall, plump young woman was hard at work unpacking many syringes from small wooden boxes packed with foam rubber sheets and sand. She had her black hair bunched up behind her head, pinned with a wooden hair clamp. When she turned to meet them her round, dark brown face was dusty from the packing sand, and she wiped herself with a towel before reaching out a hand and vigorously shaking with Naya and Isa.

“Hujambo! I’m Sharna. You’re the folks from the forest, right?” She said happily.

“Sounds like us!” Isa replied. “Can you help us find the sundries we requested?”

“I’ll do ya one better!” Sharna pointed over her shoulder at a corner of the room. There was a stack of seven or eight crates of varying sizes there, labeled “FOR CAMP V.”

“Mighty kind of you!” Isa said. “Naya, please get started on those crates.”

Naya looked at him critically. Had he just brought her here so he could be lazy?

Isa seemed to catch on to her silent accusation. “I have to fill out some records!”

“Yeah you’d better have to, you sloth!” Naya grumbled. Sharna snickered.

“Here, I’ll help you. Better than unpacking individual spirits-damned syringes!”

Sharna stacked two large crates together and hefted them easily. Naya watched in awe as she casually left the warehouse with them. She struggled to pick a crate up and follow. When she lifted her own box she felt like a penguin waddling under the weight.

Out behind the Sharabha, Sharna pulled down the ramp and pushed her crates into the back, securing them with the ropes on the benches. She stretched out her hands to Naya and generously took her crate in too, setting it down on the benches with the rest. Naya bent down, holding on to her knees, breathing heavily, sweat dripping from her forehead. When did she get this weak? She used to be able to carry things like this so easily. Now her lower back and her hips protested from walking thirty meters with a box.

“Listen, I can carry the rest.” Sharna said. She had a big smile on her face. “Just leave it to me alright? I don’t want to see a comrade put herself out of sorts for a crate of soap.”

Naya felt a bit annoyed, like she didn’t want the sympathy. But she suppressed the bad thoughts and smiled back. “Is it because it’s better than unwrapping individual syringes?”

Sharna’s eyes glanced off to one side and she whistled a little. “Maybe it is.”

She walked down the ramp. Naya started back to the warehouse, but stopped when she saw Sharna staring out into the field suddenly, and heard a voice calling out to her.

“Hujambo, Sharna! I see you’re busy, but can you spare a few towels from–”

Naya froze up at the sound of the voice. It traveled down her spine like a surge of electricity. She tried to slouch, hands in her pockets, shoulders raised over her neck, head down; she tried to make herself smaller, less noticeable. She kept her back turned to the two of them, and moved millimeter by millimeter, trying to inch away from the field.

“Eh? What do you need them for? How have you run out this quickly?” Sharna said.

His voice sounded deeper, stronger, more confident than she remembered it. She hated everything about it and hated how it had changed more. “We’ve got some sick kids, just little colds, but they’re contagious. It’s not fair other kids get to play in the field and they don’t so I want to get them cleaned up, give them some towels and take them–”

Naya felt the pause, palpably. It was in the air. She felt it like a dart hitting her shoulder.

In that interminable second she prayed a thousand times not to hear the word–

“Naya? Naya Oueddai? Is that you over there?”

She grit her teeth.

From her slouching, sneaking stance, she turned her head a little over her shoulder, trying to appear disinterested. But then the sight of him drew too genuine a shock from her.

She remembered Darshan as a lanky teenage boy, too-tall in his ill fitting track shirt and shorts, long-legged, tough in a wiry way, sort of like she had been at his age. He had grown into himself. His chest was broader, his shoulders too. Even in a dress shirt and tie, in plain brown pants, she could see thickness to him she didn’t before. He had cut his hair closer and neater, his face smooth and clean cut without his thin mustache and beard. As a kid he had been cute perhaps, but he was infuriatingly handsome now.

“You know each other?” Sharna said, clearing the dead air. She remained unacknowledged.

Darshan approached a few steps, and his face brightened up. He raised his hands to his head and laughed a little, and he spread his arms as if he wanted to embrace her.

“Naya, spirits bless you, it’s been so long! It’s been years! Gods alive.”

Naya turned fully around. There was no helping it anymore.

“Six years or so?” Naya said, grinning a little, keeping her distance.

“I’ve lost count; I never counted! You just vanished one day. Does Aarya know you’re around? Gods she’ll be so happy to see you! Listen, she was right around here a minute ago–”

Naya raised her hands defensively. “No, no, no. I’m busy right now, sorry Darshan.”

Her eyes kept honing in on the ring around his finger. She found it hard to stand in place. Some part of her wanted to run away and hide somewhere; another just wanted to tackle him down and crush his goddamned face. He didn’t deserve that, she knew it, but it would have felt so good to have finally broken these awful ties once and for all–

“Yeah, she’s kind of got a job to do. You two can catch up some other time, this is urgent.” Sharna interrupted. Thank the Spirits for her. Naya nodded her head vigorously.

Darshan smiled kindly, a bit bashfully. It was a sudden, burning flash of the boy Naya had known once, scratching his hair as though something had hit him in the head, laughing self-effacingly and responding in a subdued tone of voice. It was the same voice that he had used when he confided in Naya that he was very fond of Aarya Balarayu.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Naya! You know I’m just so happy to see you. It’s great that you’re working hard for the army. We civilians owe you a lot these days.” Darshan said.

“Yeah.” Naya said, simply, awkwardly. She had to force it out of her tongue. Just one syllable, but it felt like such a burden to say. It had been years! What did two people in this situation tell each other? Particularly when one wanted again to be gone?

But Darshan simply didn’t know malice. He smiled again like a little kid.

“Me and Aarya are both working as teachers here. I’ll tell her you’re around, maybe we can meet up tomorrow, circumstances permitting. Spirits bless you.” He clapped his hands together in front of his face and bowed his head to her in reverence.

Naya waved her hand stiffly and nervously at him in response.

Still smiling, Darshan departed to the field. As he left, Isa exited the warehouse with a crate, upon which rested a carbon copy of the supply corps documentation he was filling out.

“Never in a million years would I have thought a crate of towels could be this heavy!” Isa protested, waddling up to the ramp with the crate in hand. Sharna plucked it from his grip and set it easily down on the benches with the rest while Naya stood around.

Sharna tactfully said nothing while they loaded the rest of the crates. When everything was loaded and it was time to leave, she gave Naya a wan little smile and wiggled her fingers while waving at her. Naya waved back and then rubbed her shoulders while she waited in her seat, trying to pat down the aching tendons. Isa took his seat on the other side of the half-track, Sharna secured the ramp, and the Sharabha started up anew.

Under the engine whine, Isa turned to Naya with a cheerful expression.

“Do you want to stick around longer, maybe get a breath of meadow air?” He asked.

Naya shook her head. Isa looked briefly downcast and turned back to the wheel.

He sighed. “I’m sorry Naya, I thought a little exercise outside the camp would make you feel better and I asked the Chief to send you along. It was presumptuous of me.”

“It’s fine. Thanks for caring.” Naya replied. She stared down at her own shoes.

“I really want to make things right. I know I messed up the other day–”

“It’s not your fault, I told you. My back’s been that bad for years.”

“Has it?” Isa looked at her with surprise. She shouldn’t have said that.

“It’s on and off. It’ll be ok. It happens to the best of us.” Naya said.

For once he seemed to divine her feelings from her tone and said nothing more.

On the drive back, she felt quite stupid about everything. She felt terrible, avoiding her old friends like that. Aarya and Darshan had been so good to her. They deserved better than this behavior. After her parents separated she left to join Battlegroup Rhino and disappeared for years without word to them. Now she was suddenly back, and she saw explicitly in Darshan’s face how awestruck, how happy, how relieved he was to see her. To break that up so she could load crates was nonsense. He must have known it was nonsense. He must know now that she was trying to avoid confronting them. He must have some inkling of her feelings.

Any confrontation with them meant a confrontation with herself that she didn’t want.

She felt sick of herself; framing it as “confrontation” made her feel even more foolish.

“Isa, what would civilians know of the current situation on the front, huh?” She asked.

Driving down the meadow toward the forest, Isa turned his head to her briefly.

“Well, they wouldn’t really know much. We tell them to evacuate, they evacuate, otherwise they don’t have to know what the army is doing explicitly.” He replied. “It would only cause undue panic for them to hear that the offensive is going badly and at the moment we’re still processing how to get as many people away safely as we can.”

Naya started to tear up. So they definitely thought that they might get to speak with her soon, that it was just any other day for them and they could spend it peacefully with a friend.

Isa was still staring. “Naya, what happened? I know something happened.”

“Nothing. It’s fine.” Naya replied. Her face was rigid, contorted into a fake smile while the tears streamed down her cheeks. She still thought she could run away from everything.

Isa shook his head. “There’s only so many times I can respond with ‘if you say so.'”

“Find synonyms then.” She said bitterly. Isa looked on at the meadow without reply.

The rest of the ride was quiet; the rest of her day in camp, equally, painfully so.

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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Next Chapter In Unternehmen Solstice — The Benghu Tank War, Part I

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