Pebbles In The Path (33.2)

Shebelle Outskirts — 8th PzD FOB

Schicksal burst suddenly into the medical tent, long rivulets of water dripping from her hood and rubber galoshes. There were several beds inside the tent, hidden behind a screen that divided the room into two areas and kept crates of medicines and tools apart from sick patients. Schicksal saw movement and a few overlapping shadows behind the curtains. She stomped up to the dividing line and struck the curtain with her fist.

“Heinrich! What is the condition of the Captain and Colonel?” Schicksal shouted.

Medic Evangeline Heinrich unceremoniously parted the curtains and stepped out in front of Schicksal. She rolled her eyes and extended her arm toward the back of the room, pointing the roll of gauze bandage in her hand towards the beds and their occupants.

“Calm down. Stop making so much noise, it’s annoying. They’re both alive and stable as you can see. Captain Skoniec’s only got flesh wounds; Spoor’s just lost a bit of blood.”

Spoor seemed to be asleep in his bed, and there were two other men occupying the remaining beds; Noel Skonieczny was awake and shirtless. Cuts on his shoulder and one on the side of his chest had been dressed, and a little red could be seen on the bandages. A bruise on the side of his head had been rubbed with a gel, probably arnica. There was an odd gap in the middle of his chest, a place where his sternum and a few ribs seemed to sink. It must have been congenital, rather than a battle wound.

He had a gloomy look on his face. Schicksal thought he looked almost nymph-like in this state of undress — slim, insubstantial, with soft round shoulders and a unique chest, his girlish and pretty face appeared a perfect match for his stature and silhouette.

Behind him, his driver sat in a chair between the Captain’s bed and the Colonel’s, his eyes shifting between Noel and the floor, and he drummed his fingers against his own chest.

Everyone seemed to have survived the ordeal. Schicksal sighed audibly with relief. There wouldn’t be another Kunze just yet. She doubled over, feeling dazed.

Evangeline crossed her arms and glared at her. “Are you still drunk, Schicksal?”

“Hey! Shut up!” Schicksal said. She arranged several locks of wet hair behind her ears, panting with her head bowed almost to the level of her hips. She spoke slowly. “I’m perfectly cognizant, you uppity brat. I had to run across the whole camp to get here because of you. I get word these two had gotten back, but fifteen minutes and nobody can tell what their condition is, what do you think I would’ve imagined? After Kunze?”

“It’s not my job to report every arrival to the HQ.” Evangeline said dismissively.

Schicksal glared back at her. “These guys are a little too important for that excuse!”

“You’re welcome for the seltzer by the way!” Evangeline said, raising her voice.

“You’re looking more lively, Schicksal!” Noel nervously interjected, raising his hand between the two of them. He flashed a little smile and a v-sign with his fingers.

Both the Medic and the Radio girl blew off some steam and tentatively disengaged.

“I’ve had to be to stay on top of things.” Schicksal said, turning a small smile to him. “So, Captain: we’re going to need a report on everything that happened. How are you doing?”

“I’m beat. In more ways than one.” Noel replied. “Not a good feeling.”

“How are your men doing?” Schicksal asked.

Noel pointed over his shoulder almost dismissively. “Ivan’s untouched. Dolph lost some blood, he will be fine. Bartosz took a few bruises on the way here, entirely his fault for clinging on to the back of the tank all wrong. Everyone else is fine. We got through it.”

Schicksal nodded. She half-turned and gave Evangeline a conspiratorial look.

“Is he fine?” She whispered, while Noel stared distractedly at the front of the tent.

“Physically he is. Bruise in the side of the eyebrow socket, bruise in the upper back, a few cuts on the torso. No fragments; he’s clear to go already.” Evangeline said.

“I don’t mean to intrude, but did you check his chest?” Schicksal said.

Evangeline raised her hands aggressively. “Of course I did!”

“What are you two chirping about?” Noel said in a mock whisper.

Schicksal turned around innocently, her hands behind her back, rocking a bit on her feet. She smiled, and tried to, as gingerly as possible, point to his chest without admitting that she was actually meaning to ask about it. He looked at her quizzically for a moment, and Evangeline looked at her the same; Noel then seemed to divine the problem.

“Oh, this? My chest has been like this since puberty. I don’t know what caused it, but to be honest, I think it’s a good feature.” Noel said. “Look at this; when I hug my chest like a model in one of those bawdy nouveau pictures it gives an impression of small breasts.”

He went on to do the pose as he described it, hugging his bare arms tightly around his chest, and turning bedroom eyes toward the wall. He puckered his lips and batted his eyelashes, and turned on his hips. Schicksal and Evangeline stared in awkward confusion.

At that moment, the tent flaps parted again and General Dreschner walked inside.

“Captain Skoniec, good to see you up, I require a full report–”

He paused. Noel continued to hug his chest demurely as if actually covering breasts.

General Dreschner turned to Schicksal instead. “How is the Colonel holding up?”

Evangeline spoke up. “He lost some blood to a fragment injury, but he will be fine.”

Noel stopped fooling around, and slipped his dress shirt back on, buttoning it up.

“Old man got lucky; there were at least three instances he nearly died.” He said.

“You are your usual energetic self I see.” Dreschner said. “What happened in Benghu?”

Noel averted his eyes. “Our intelligence guys missed some elephants in those woods.”

Once he got the last button, Noel threw his black jacket over his shoulders. He did not put his arms through the sleeves just yet. He wore it more like a blanket or cape instead. Staring at the floor, rocking back and forth gently, he expounded on his cryptic response. Though his tone of voice was obviously tired and dejected, he was serious, clear and concise and speaking no nonsense. Schicksal was impressed — and worried. Clearly the events in Benghu had rattled his vibrant, giddy confidence. He had a dire picture to paint.

“We destroyed about thirteen Ayvartan AFVs, captured a couple dozen soldiers; it was going very well at first. We chopped up a blocking position, made it to the town, cut around east and tried to capture the rail yard and a school that was likely a supply depot. We almost had the school. Things went awry quite suddenly. We divided our forces; then one Ayvartan tank appeared out of nowhere and wiped us all out. We lost every last AFV and many men.”

“Except the Strike Ranger.” Dreschner said. “I saw it parked here. You returned in it.”

“Technically, but the gun’s dead, the hull’s compromised. We limped away; we lost.”

A shadow seemed to settle over Dreschner’s face. Schicksal recalled the reports from Bada Aso, where singular Ayvartan tanks, unidentified, were blamed for devastating tactical reverses. One tank, taking out five or six by itself. Dreschner dismissed these accounts as myth conjured by panicked, demoralized men under too much pressure to perform. Schicksal herself had never seen conclusive photos or analysis. Now however, they were forced to confront the situation themselves. Noel did not look like a myth-maker here.

“And you say only one tank did this?” Dreschner asked, a hand over his chin.

“I only fought one. A second unidentified tank appeared later, but I didn’t see it.”

Dreschner grunted. “Then describe the tank that you fought to me, Captain.”

Schicksal wondered how anyone was supposed to glean enough information to reply to that question; it’s not as if Noel had taken a look at the blueprints! To her surprise however Noel had apparently been compiling a datasheet in his head the entire time.

“Gun was definitely around 75 mm bore; front armor was bouncing off 37 mm rounds even at point blank range so I think we’re looking at 80 mm armor up front, and maybe even 50 mm in back. Judging by its speed relative to us, it was probably doing 50 km/h. It was a bit more compact than an M4 Sentinel but definitely much better armored.”

Dreschner rubbed his gloved hand over his mouth. Schicksal heard his gloves scraping on the stubble that had grown around his mouth and over his chin the past few days.

“What you’re describing to me is not a 4th Generation tank.” Dreschner finally said.

“Nope.” Noel laughed a little nervously. “I’m thinking we need new nomenclature.”

“You understand, Captain Skoniec, that I find it very difficult to believe that Ayvarta has produced a 5th Generation tank that can run and isn’t just a lazy wooden mockup built by a bored old man in a nationalized factory somewhere in the desert.” Dreschner said.

Noel looked up. He had that shark-like grin of his from cheek to cheek. “Well then; why don’t you go see it for yourself General? I guarantee it will be easier to believe then.”

Dreschner turned his cheek, arms crossed. His gaze fell to the floor. “Point taken.”

Schicksal felt the room growing tense, and friction developing. This was Captain Skoniec, not any ordinary grunt, but he was still saying fanciful things that nobody wanted to believe were true. Could this have just been a big Goblin? Nobody wanted to believe that the Ayvartans could have leapfrogged them in technology like this.

Silence started to settle, but Dreschner’s gaze did not. Schicksal watched him crane his neck and stare over Noel’s shoulder, finding his driver, Ivan, seated behind him and spending his time fidgeting. There was a glint in his eyes. He took an interest in the young man and pointed him out, taking a few steps around Noel’s bed to meet him.

“Sergeant, you bore witness to all of this. Do you support the Captain’s assertions?”

Barely a second had passed since Dreschner asked his question when Ivan nodded his head. From his chair, he saluted the General, his other hand forming a fist over his heart.

“Sir! General sir!” His saluting hand was shaking a little. Despite his rapid response he was obviously nervous. Noel looked over his shoulder at him from the bed — it was this gesture that seemed to finally draw some words from the Sergeant. “Sir, General; I had a close view of the events, and corroborate everything Captain Skoniec has just said.”

Raising his voice, responding with greater alacrity, Dreschner launched into a barrage of questions that surprised the Sergeant and everyone in the room with their vehemence.

“What do you make of the Captain, Sergeant Tyszka? How does he treat you? How did you synchronize during the battle? You’re the only person in that tank with him; do you feel privy to his thoughts and actions? Does Captain Skoniec’s gaze right now intimidate you? Is it familiar or alien to you? Tell me; what emotion does his gaze invoke in you?”

Noel rolled his eyes and averted his gaze from Ivan to deny Dreschner that fodder. The General must have thought that they had rehearsed their words. Schicksal found that a slightly cruel implication to make, but it seemed to annoy Noel more than it offended him.

Schicksal thought to say something, but she kept quiet. This was a charged discussion.

Dreschner was prying; the Sergeant was putting on a brave face but Schicksal found it plain to see that he was withering under the General’s gaze. His face void of emotion, his hands clapped behind his back, Dreschner stood tall in front of the bed and waited. Sergeant Tyszka opened and his closed his mouth several times, going over his words.

What did Dreschner want from him? Did he really think Noel was lying about all this?

“Tell him the truth, Ivan.” Noel said suddenly, crossing his arms and acting aloof.

Dreschner stared at him sidelong, but quickly turned his gaze back on Sergeant Tyszka.

Meanwhile the Sergeant nodded, and raised his head to the General. Locking eyes with Dreschner looked like it was a monumental feat. Schicksal saw his chest rise and fall.

“Sir,” Sergeant Tyszka smiled bashfully and finally said, “it empowers me, sir. His gaze, that is. It is affirming to work with Captain Skoniec. He is without equal in tank combat, and he is compassionate and a very good leader. I feel safe and strong at his side.”

There was a warm pink glow over Noel’s cheeks and ears as his driver spoke of him.

“Well! Fair enough, Sergeant,” replied the General, an amused smile on his face.

All of the tension in the room seemed to dissipate as Dreschner let the topic go.

Was that just a test then? She supposed it called back to the time he let her collect information around the base that he must have surely already known. Dreschner seemed to believe he would get more honest feedback through trickery than by asking honestly. It irritated her a little to think that was the reason; but perhaps it came with the rank. And perhaps it was a response to everyone’s meekness toward him — including her own.

Nevertheless, with the interrogation ended the mood considerably lightened in the tent.

General Dreschner turned from Ivan back to Noel. “I’m willing to put stock in your assessment of the threat, Captain Skoniec. But you must tell me some good news; the attack on Shebelle is flagging at the second defensive line. Ten and Fifteen are in position in Gollaprollou, but cannot move until we have Benghu. How do we proceed?”

Leaning back against the bedrest, Noel grinned again, narrowing his eyes.

He shrugged comically as if none of that was his problem.

“The crew of that tank are amateurs, if that comforts you any.” He said.

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