Pebbles In The Path — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains violence and death, blood, descriptions of medical procedures and mild infliction of pain. If you enjoy the story, click here to vote.

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance, Town of Benghu — Chanda General School

Shells crashed, cannons roared, rifles cracked, men shouted; meanwhile Aarya sang.

Soon as her hands linked behind Zaheer’s little back, and his head settled against her chest, and she felt his vulnerable little breaths, she began to sing. She paused only to gather the briefest of breaths. She had offered him a song, and she mustered all of her strength to make it a song that could outlast the hostilities. Her singing was continuous.

At first she sang the traditional songs that she remembered, hitting the notes and overturning the lyrics with her tongue as she had been taught, but as the noises grew louder, closer, and more determined she found herself unable to compete. While she held Zaheer against her chest her songs became indistinct syllables riding simple melodies.

She found herself straining to crescendo in the wake of several close blasts, and falling almost to a whimper when there was peace around her. LA LA LA LA LA; la la la la la. She felt the ground rumble from the impacts of artillery, from the striking of stray tank shells. These forces crawled through her wounded hip every time, finding their way through the ground and into her flesh, sending sharp pangs of pain across her body.

Through every sudden stab of agony Aarya strained to continue singing.

In this little island rocking amid the storm she had lost all track of time.

Aarya did not know whether there were winners or losers yet in this conflict.

But the noises came from seemingly everywhere now; it was not one-sided anymore.

One way or another she felt that her fate would be decided very soon.

She looked down, feeling her stomach turn over with a sudden anxiety.

No, she thought; it was not just her fate alone, not anymore.

Zaheer was quiet and still against her chest. When she looked at him his eyes were eerily blank. He was overwhelmed by everything. He had a condition — she did not know what it was, but she knew that he dealt with things differently than other children. Whenever the world became too loud or too bright or too fast for him, he would withdraw. He had never fled the way he did; but everything about today was unique.

She still cursed herself for not paying him better attention. They could have both been safe in the supply depot with the rest of the children and the adults; with Darshan. With the soldiers to protect them. But it was not to be; at least now she could comfort him.

Though she wanted to tell him that she would take care of him, keep him safe, that she would never forget him again, she instead continued to sing. Outside the noise intensified.

“Are they gonna stop soon Ms. Balarayu?” Zaheer said, shutting his eyes.

She did not answer; she continued to sing. She pulled him closer, laying her head over his shoulder and rocking him in her arms a little. He squeezed her harder in response.

Aarya heard a clanging of metal on metal directly behind her.

She turned her head to face the shutters.

There was a ladder, a metal, extendable ladder, outside the window. It had hit the open shutters when going up. Aarya became paralyzed in her little corner, holding Zaheer, her head turned over her shoulder. She felt a quivering in the center of her chest. She stopped singing. He noticed, looked up at her. He tugged on her shirt a little.

“Ms. Balarayu? Are you ok?”

Clanging footsteps on the metal; one, two, one, two.

“Ms. Balarayu? Say something, please!”

“Zaheer, show me how you hid under the desks like you did before.”

She looked down at him with a false smile on her face, as if it was a game.

Zaheer knew it wasn’t; his expression was deadly serious. But he nodded his head, crawled off her lap, and slipped under the stack of desks in the corner of the room.

Aarya stood and made for the broom closet.

She ripped open the closet and withdrew the classroom broom.

Clang, clang, one, two, one two. Footsteps on metal. Handholds.

Aarya snuck up on the window.

She saw the hands first, seizing the handholds just over the window.

On one gloved, grey-sleeved hand, she saw a pistol and nearly shrieked; and on the other hand a pair of cutters big enough to snap the individual shutters in two big bites.

She saw the peak of the helmet, and she waited briefly for the face.

It was not an Ayvartan face; it was not the face of a rescuer. A young face, a blue-eyed, blond face, a pale-pink face; perhaps in another circumstance, a lovely face. But in this circumstance it was a grim face, covered in dirt and smelling of death, and when the lips parted the man shouted words she did not understand, like fearful eldritch curses.

Aarya drew in a breath and threw herself blindly forward.

Holding the broom by the handle with both hands close to the bristled bottom end, she shoved the handle out between the shutters, pulling back and thrusting in furious stabbing motions, slashing across the shutter with fearful sweeps, striking her everywhere she could. She smashed the man in the eye, then his his teeth, his nose. There was blood that burst from him over the open shutters, splashing them brown.

Her hip felt like it had torn open but she swiped and thrust and smashed through the pain without thinking, swallowing every sound she thought she would make.

Groaning unintelligibly, the man dropped his tools then fell backward off the ladder.

He landed at an angle, his head rocking violently as he hit the floor. Stiff and unresponsive he rolled down the muddy slide that Chanda’s hill had become. Ferried there by the mud, he came to lie at the foot of the hill, curled up like a newborn.

Aarya’s stomach churned. She clamped her hands over her mouth, feeling bile rise.

He was dead, a soldier was dead. She killed one of the imperialists; killed a person.

Aarya stared at where the body had fallen. More people ran into her field of view. They had guns and they were crowding at the bottom of the staircase, looking incredulously skyward. She thought she felt their eyes lock with hers, and she stepped back.

Gunfire sounded from below. Aarya dropped the broom and fell to the ground, hitting her hip again. She curled on her side, hugging herself and gritting her teeth with pain.

Helplessly she stared up from the floor; but she saw nothing hit the shutters. No bullets flew past, nothing ricocheted against the panes. They were not shooting at her.

She crawled to the window and helped herself up. She saw the carnage outside.

Several tanks lay smoking. One tank, painted a dark coat of green, moved into the field opposing the enemy, and it swung its turret wildly and cast long bursts of machine gun bullets across the slope and the buildings. Men fled from it, leaving behind the ladder and rushing downhill into the grass. More enemy tanks moved to fight off the green tank with the hexagonal turret. She watched, transfixed, as the machines hurtled toward each other, as they wove around, as they clashed. Aarya winced at the cannon blasts, as if she felt the muzzle flashes and the howls of each shot as if beside her own head.

In rapt attention she watched as the green tank outfought all of the grey ones.

Zaheer appeared at her side. She felt his hand take hers, but she couldn’t look away.

Nocht fled; trucks hitched away their evil guns; cars rushed out of sight as fast as their wheels could take them; men careened across the field and jumped into the backs of moving vehicles seconds before they set off. Only one tank had survived the green tank and it fled with a perforated turret and a dozen men huddling for cover atop its hull.

Atop the green tank, standing wounded but triumphant in the middle of the meadow, a hatch opened. People arrived and helped pull someone up from inside the tank, and they produced an object from a medical bag and stuck her with it. She seized up, and writhed, and she heard the woman shout. Her posture soon softened, however, and people started to carry her toward the school. They carried her around the slope.

Soon as they brought her around the Auxiliary building, Aarya saw her face.

She brought her hands up to her mouth and she started to weep uncontrollably.

She recognized her; with her sporty cheek-length black hair, her locks messy, blunt ended, longer on the sides and shorter on the back; her deep brown skin and slightly round face, her lips, the upper thinner than the lower, the long bridge of her nose–

That was her; Naya Oueddai had come here. She had come and saved them all.

Nocht’s retreat from the meadow left a palpable silence in Chanda, but most of its defenders heard an irregular tinnitus in their ears even in the absence of gunfire. It took a bit of time for the base even to realize that it had been relieved at all. At first the defenders in the campus proper believed the slackening of the enemy attack signaled only a calm before the storm — the enemy would reorganize, and push back harder.

Everyone clung to their positions, never once believing that the fight could end quickly or decisively. Lone submachine guns puttered here and there as jumpy shuja believed they had seen a sign of the enemy. Captain Agrawal continued to transmit orders to hold. Eyes peeled on their doors, windows and corners, the defenders maintained a shaky discipline. Fear of the enemy was the bond that kept them fixed in place and fighting.

Then they heard from the tanker in the field: a new ally had suddenly entered the fight.

Almost as soon as this was transmitted the fight was over. Impromptu scouts probed the campus and reported no sign of active enemy combatants. Defenders emerged from their buildings and ambled to the field in a daze. There were corpses everywhere, men burnt to a crisp, perforated by fragments, crushed under overturned vehicles or lying in the smashed wrecks of others. Shell craters a meter or more wide dotted the landscape, forming pools of mud and water and blood. Several wrecked enemy tanks lay near one another close to the center of the meadow, surrounding the hunters they fell prey to.

Men and women raised their faces skyward, washing blood and filth from their faces and rubbing the rain on their eyes. But when they turned to the field again the apparitions had not gone — there were two tanks there that nobody on campus could identify. Their crews exited the vehicles and tended to one another in their own little world. One tank was quickly verified to belong to the comrade responsible for most of the carnage, while the much larger one had arrived later and mostly spooked the already fleeing enemy.

In the administration building, Dr. Agrawal’s radio came alive again with a new voice.

“This is unit Vijaya. Hang tight, Chanda. We’re coming to help with your evacuation.”

Dr. Agrawal had not ordered an evacuation, but it was an idea with immediate appeal.

From the back of the school the recon troops’ cars and the ambulance truck wheeled out, and they were soon joined by the half-tracks of Camp Vijaya. Commanders from both sides exchanged handshakes and thanks; Dr. Agrawal thought that without the aid of this Captain Rajagopal and her troops she would have certainly died this day.

After a brief conversation in sign language, they set about coordinating the work.

Wounded from Chanda were looked after, woken up or carried out, and then gingerly loaded onto the vehicles. Vijaya and Chanda’s tractors, half-track trucks and cars formed a convoy that could bear about 50 people back to the Benghu train station at a time. More or less people could be loaded depending on how well they (or their injuries) responded to riding in a cramped space with ten to twenty other people.

Injured personnel were taken first in order of severity; after them, it would be the turn of children and noncombatants, and then finally the rest. Moving at the speed of its slowest components, and having forewarned all involved parties of the action through the radio, the convoy managed to travel to the train station, unload, and return to Chanda within thirty to forty minutes. Two trips and then a final one-way trip were scheduled.

While the first group of evacuees traveled out, Chanda’s freshly injured defenders lined up to receive first aid for their battle wounds and then await their turn on the convoy.

Meanwhile, anyone healthy enough for labor was gathered and organized to form cleanup details. These small groups varied in how sanitary their work would be. Under the rain they ran through the halls and combed through the courtyard and field.

Nochtish corpses were piled up, with their dog tags visible on them so they could be identified. It was clear to everyone that this place would be given up to Nocht. They could find their dead there and do with them what they wished after that.

Ayvartan corpses were bagged up; if the convoy had the time and the space, they would be evacuated last. It was miserable work, but there was no shortage of volunteers willing to do it. Nobody wanted to leave their comrades behind — even in death.

Lists were printed and copied quickly while there was still power to the campus, and everyone who left was marked off, until they were completely certain nobody had been left behind. A bonfire was started in every office, and all documents that were not necessary or crucial were burnt. Everything else was boxed and taken out.

Soldiers threw grenades into the supply room and cooked off any remaining ammunition that could not be taken. Grenades were also employed to great effect against facilities and items that the enemy could use, such as medical equipment, the diesel-guzzling power generator in the back of the school, and any radios too heavy to take.

Chanda was stripped as bare as it could be. About all that was left behind were the desks upon which children wrote and drew and spread open their books, and the detritus of the battle. Spent shell casings, chipped wood and cement, grime and blood and glass. As the evening neared there was not a soul wandering the gloomy halls.

Amid the retreat, however, a few wavering souls managed to find support.

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.

Benghu — Chanda General School

Dr. Agrawal produced a handkerchief from her pocket and presented it to her pupil.

“Bite down on this and try to keep steady, Elena.”

Elena looked at the rag and at her with wide-open, fearful eyes; Dr. Agrawal couldn’t blame her for it. They were completely short on drugs and did not even have as much as a drink of brandy available to soothe Elena. Her upper arm had absorbed a pistol shot from the side, and the Doctor had to extract the remains of the bullet. Both of them had performed this procedure several times on others; but never on Elena herself of course.

“I understand it hurts, but you know we can’t leave it there.”

“Yes. I know. It’s silly isn’t it? I ran out into the field, got shot; and I’m more anxious about a little visit to the doctor for this bullet, than I was about all of that.” Elena said.

“That’s adrenaline for you.” Dr. Agrawal smiled. It wasn’t silly; it was human.

With her good hand, Elena took the handkerchief, and stuffed it into her mouth.

“I’ll try to be ginger and quick.” Dr. Agrawal said.

She sat beside Elena, atop a teacher’s desk in one of the auxiliary building’s lower classrooms. There was a massive hole behind them, punched into the wall through relentless shelling — a quality desirable and convenient at the moment. It allowed the Doctor to turn her head and see out to the field where her troops were evacuating.

From her coat, the doctor withdrew a pair of scissors and cut Elena’s sleeve.

She saw the bullet wound, biting into the deltoid. Blood still trickled from it.

“I’m going to clean it.” Dr. Agrawal said. She raised a canteen of collected rainwater in front of Elena’s face so that the girl could see it. She touched the canteen on her nose so that Elena could feel the temperature, and sloshed it so she knew the volume more or less.

Elena met her eyes and nodded her head in acknowledgment.

“It’s cold. Is that ok, Elena?” Dr. Agrawal warned.

Elena nodded again, closing her eyes and biting down on the rag.

Dr. Agrawal tipped the contents over the wound. Elena almost jumped forward.

“I’m going to cut a little. Please try to stay still. It will hurt less than if I try to get the tweezers into the wound without an incision.” Dr. Agrawal said in a gentle voice.

Elena nodded her head, her jaw quivering.

The Doctor set aside her scissors and canteen. As quickly and carefully as possible, she laid a scalpel on the wound and made a precise incision to reveal the affected area as a whole. Elena bowed her head, squeezing on her leg with her good hand to cope with the pain.

“Are you ok? I’m extracting it now.” Setting down the bloody scalpel, Dr. Agrawal withdrew her forceps, spread the wound a bit, and then pulled the bullet from Elena’s arm using a blunt-ended, long pair of tweezers. She dropped the bullet on the floor.

“It’s out. You will be ok.” Dr. Agrawal said. She had this kind of tone with all of her patients, regardless of their knowledge of the procedure. Even though Elena knew everything that would happen and in the order it would happen, the lack of anesthetic, the bloody nature of the procedure, it would all throw her emotions into chaos. An affirming, gentle word, warnings at every step; making her feel included, acknowledged, and safe.

This did not just work with children. Adults liked to be treated this way as well.

Breathing heavily, eyes tearing up, Elena endured as the wound was sealed, cleaned again, and finally dressed. Doctor Agrawal procured a medical sling to keep Elena’s arm set in place. She urged Elena to stand up from the desk; her patient and pupil withdrew the rag from her mouth, set it on the table, and stood up. She bowed her head to her.

“Thanks.” She said. Her voice was still trembling a little from the pain and anxiety.

“I should thank you, for being so brave.” Dr. Agrawal replied.

Elena chest rose and fell with heavy, calming breaths. She sighed audibly.

“During the Knyskna defense, there was one point where we assaulted a camp in the woods. That was when I met Leander, and Bonde. We got stuck fighting some fierce Nochtish soldiers and even a vehicle. Leander was visibly in anarchy; Bonde was in control the whole time. I was afraid, and I didn’t know what to do, but I tried to at least get a grip.”

She turned her head to stare out into the field, perhaps hoping to see them. Leander, Bonde and Sharna had volunteered for body duty. Though Leander had taken some brutal hits to the head, he insisted on being allowed to leave and would not have it any other way. He always claimed to be okay, to be able to go on; he always seemed energetic enough that everyone trusted him. They let him go on, even as they worried about him.

“Leander did a crazy thing later. He took an entrenching tool and rushed out and killed a few men with it. He didn’t know it, but that saved us. It’s been in my head for a while. I wondered whether Leander could do that because he was Leander, or whether he plotted it, whether he was wicked. When it came down to it, could I do it too? But I didn’t think about that today, when I did something similar. I didn’t think about anything. I just saw an opportunity, and I threw my body into it like it was disposable. I killed a few men; and maybe I saved more.”

Dr. Agrawal raised her hand to stop the story. “You’re quitting medical, aren’t you?”

Elena smiled, and bowed her head. She glanced off the side again.

“Back then I thought it was the only thing I could do.” She said wistfully.

Dr. Agrawal nodded. She took a few steps toward Elena, laid her hands gently on her shoulders, and looked into her eyes, forehead to forehead, with a smile. It was the kind of smile she never thought she’d have for someone again, and the kind of words she did not think she would be able to say. But today, had changed a lot of paradigms for her.

“Listen: you can fight this war and make a perfectly fine doctor someday.”

In Elena’s eyes, she thought she saw that little girl from so many years ago, conflicted about killing, and war, and wondering what she could offer to the world to end the strife. In those eyes she also saw the person standing across from that child: she saw herself.

“Everyone in this army kills men, has killed men, and will kill men. But we don’t do it just to do it. We are trying to build something to replace this mess. It might seem a twisted moral, but we’re not gods or spirits. This is all we can do with our situation, Elena.”

In the past, she would have felt foolish saying that. She would have felt like a hypocrite — a self-proclaimed doctor who had killed and maimed and poisoned and done terrible things in her past, saying that there was a future for someone with bloodied hands. Saying that those hands were not rusty knives; thinking that they could be gentle. Her hands–

And Elena’s good hand, suddenly circling around her back and embracing her kindly.

She would have felt foolish, because she was being foolish. She had been foolish about herself this whole time. These wayward children of this war helped her to see that.

Leander, and Elena, and the patients in this hospital, could see gentleness and worth in her. So she had no reason to be reluctant; and they had no reason to be reluctant either.

“Thank you, Dr. Agrawal. Perhaps someday, then, I will be a proper student.” Elena said.

Dr. Agrawal nodded her head. “You’ve been an incomparable student.”

One convoy departed, and now there was only the tense wait for it to return.

Walking with a crutch, her head swimming a little from the morphine, she approached the the Auxiliary building. Her hip didn’t hurt anymore, thanks to the good doctor. She crossed through the threshold and walked over bits of rubble without much trouble.

Aarya waited outside a little room for a few moments, thinking of what to say, before she finally stepped through the open doorway. She decided she would just speak to them from the heart and hope that they understood. There was a hole in the back, and several people inside she did not immediately recognize; a younger man, with light brown skin and dark, messy hair, and a bandage around his head; a tall, plump, long-haired woman with rich brown skin, both standing at ease with their long rifles resting on the wall.

She then easily found the two soldiers she recognized; the red-headed, skinny young woman, her arm in a sling, and the black-skinned man with the shaved head.

All of them looked her way curiously. Aarya felt a touch intimidated by their presence.

She walked in front of the Umma soldier and bowed her head to him. She recognized him as the one who had been left in charge of the defense of the supply depot.

“Sir, thank you, and your troops, for protecting the children, and my fiance.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, please, no need to thank us.” He raised his hands a bit defensively.

Aarya turned her head, acknowledging the other soldiers. Everyone briefly introduced themselves to her: Bonde, Elena, Sharna and Leander. Each name brought a smile to her face. They all looked so young, maybe even younger than her; save the big woman. Yet they had stood and fought against these terrible odds, and performed so heroically.

“Without all of you, these children would have had no future.” Aarya said. “And neither would I. I’m sorry that I could not do more to help; and that I actively caused trouble for you at one point. Darshan got hurt because of me. And I could’ve caused one of you–”

“It’s perfectly fine. You didn’t just run for yourself.” Bonde interrupted. “Darshan told us that there was a child missing. In the moment, we might have been irritated, but after everything is said and done you had all the reason in the world to run out like that.”

Aarya had expected a reprimand. She felt almost giddy with joy at their replies; perhaps it was the morphine. But there was a dawning of powerful realization. These soldiers were not harsh or cynical people. They were kind and they empathized, they were nothing like she had imagined. She had gotten a skewed image of them, she thought. All of her life she had thought the soldiers of the SDS to be creatures far apart from her.

Elena, Bonde, Sharna, Leander; if there were soldiers that were this considerate and understanding, then certainly, Naya could still be her good old self among their number.

“All of the children send their thanks. They were evacuated quickly; I stayed behind to thank you, and to see after Darshan. He is resting. We will be traveling away soon, hopefully to meet back with the children and keep them from making any more trouble.”

“Best wishes for his health.” Elena said. “He looked shaken up in the fight.”

“He will be alright. He is fatigued, perhaps a bit ill. He was caring for sick children all this time and then spent a lot of time out in the rain, and then hurt and exhausted himself.”

“A quick way to get oneself bedridden.” Sharna said, grinning a little.

Aarya flushed slightly. All of them had been fighting and soaking in the rain, taking bullets; she and her fiance had hardly experienced anything of the war they had so fiercely fought all of this time. Her problems felt so small beside theirs. But they still held their heads up high. She knew that they did not judge her. They treated her as an equal.

She bowed her head again. “Thank you all so much. I truly mean it.”

Everyone in the room grew timid under the continuing praise.

“Really, those tankers deserve the praise. They saved us all too.” Elena said.

Sharna crossed her arms. “Showed up out of nowhere and won it all.”

“They really made us infantry look bad.” Leander said, chuckling at himself.

Tankers. Aarya remembered what she saw. Naya in that armored vehicle.

“I would like to do that.” She said. “Thank them. By any chance have you seen them?”

Bonde shook his head. “They’re from Camp Vijaya, farther out in the wood. They’re doing most of the legwork for the evacuation because they control most of the vehicles, and so they took their people and things quickly with the first convoy.”

“The Doctor gave first aid to the crew of the squat green tank.” Elena said. “But they were in and out fast. If it means anything, the gunner and driver were stable enough.”

“It means a lot.” Aarya replied. Naya was fine. She had survived everything.

Aarya supposed there would be another day to be able to meet her again.

Shebelle Outskirts — 8th PzD FOB

At 1700 hours the attack on Shebelle was as stagnant as ever, and many of the 8th Panzer Division’s assets that had been committed to that task were now returning to the fold, having passed the baton to freshly deployed infantry-based combat units. Reiniger’s M4 tank companies arrived under the roaring noise of continuous shellfire from M3 Hunters stationed just outside the camp, peppering Shebelle and Benghu from afar.

Noel stood at the side of his broken-down M5A2 when the medium tanks arrived, weaving through the woods in a single file line before arranging themselves again into platoons wherever they could find space to park. Noel counted maybe twenty tanks on the whole; so not all of them came back. Under his umbrella, he waved at the crews crawling out of their hatches. Most of them waved back; Reiniger himself was a notable exception.

He ran past the makeshift tent garage and headed for the HQ without so much as a glance toward Noel. He did not even gloat about having preserved his own tank.

So much the better; Noel turned his back on the arrivals and resumed fussing with his hamstrung vehicle. There was no getting around the fact that the Konnigin had been slain. A shell hole the size of his fist adorned the gun mantlet, and inside it his breech block was smashed to pieces; these pieces had then flown across the turret and embedded themselves in his ammunition racks. It was a miracle that the shells did not explode.

While Noel circled around the tank, surveying the damage from various angles, Ivan toiled in the rear. Soon as the engine cover came off smoke and steam billowed out in copious amounts. There was still a thin, dancing line of smoke wafting from the engine when Noel returned to the tank’s rear. He put a hand on Ivan’s back, as if they were staring with grief at a sick child; Ivan laid his hand over Noel’s, shaking his head and breathing out heavily.

“That last supercharge really screwed it up, Noel. There’s a warped cylinder in there. You can hear it. We destroyed the engine, basically. It’s a miracle it got us back.” Ivan said.

“Well it has been a real miraculous day.” Noel said, his voice thick with sarcasm.

Ivan withdrew a piece he had set aside. It was the tank’s thermostat, at one point; now the spring and the cap seemed to have fused together, and it became a chunk of slag.

“You tell me, Noel, how is this even possible?” Ivan said with evident despair.

“We’ll see if they let us borrow an M4 Sentinel to drive or something.” Noel said.

“I sincerely hope so, because our little queen needs half her parts replaced.” Ivan said. He threw away the thermostat. It rolled gently downhill into the surrounding forest.

Noel chuckled. “I’ll see what I can do, sweet-heart. Just relax for the moment.”

He turned and made to head toward the war room tent, meaning to speak with Dreschner; but he was distracted when he heard metal clanking in the distance. He saw birds flying into the air from the crowns of the surrounding trees, and found something large navigating the woodland. From between the trees arrived a pair of tank transporters, heavy trucks with thick, large wheels towing canvas-topped steel crates on tracked beds. Chains holding the road train together rattled incessantly as the vehicles cleared the treeline.

Each crate bore simple markings in large print, easily read once the road train had parked itself amid Reiniger’s tanks: WP6, alongside an eight-digit serial number.

Noel stood in the periphery, alongside several other curious onlookers in their coats and hoods. There was a knocking sound; the backs of the crates opened and hit the mud, forming ramps. Small parties of engineers ran outside, assessed the situation, and gestured into the interior with their hands. Engineers gesticulated wildly and angrily at nearby tank drivers taking their breaks; there was not enough clearance around the ramps. Several tankers were compelled to return to their tanks and move them away from Wa Prüf 6’s cargo.

Lights shone from inside the crates, and white smoke exhaust escaped the canvas.

Two tanks drove carefully down the ramps and over the muddy ground.

One tank reminded Noel strongly of the M4. Though the turret was a touch flattened and less round, it had the same 50mm KwK gun; the hull was a bit taller, but retained the same curved silhouette, with its glacis sloped inward, and the hull and side armor sloping gently down from the front. However, the glacis seemed thicker, its frontal bulge much more prominent, its track guards like sharp cups laid over the caterpillars. In addition, the side-plates did not conform as much to the otherwise uniform curve of the hull. They had a sharp, tapering, definitive edge to them. He wondered how thick the armor was.

When the second vehicle rolled out of its crate a collective whispering began around it.

The lower half of the second vehicle was reminiscent of the first, but that was the only similarity. Certainly this was built on the new M4, on its tracks, on its hull; set atop the rear hull, a rigid, open-topped superstructure housing an absolutely massive gun replaced the traditional turret. Its armament outclassed the gun on that new Ayvartan type tank — it looked more like the old schwere kanone artillery guns in the rear echelon than it did a tank gun. Its barrel must have been ten centimeters bore, and at least three meters long. A pair of removable metal struts supported the long barrel against the front hull.

Both of the new tanks drove into the center of the camp, parting the crowd of gawkers and coming to a stop near the war room tent. Behind them, a blond-haired woman in a sharp office suit ambled in the mud, protected by galoshes and an umbrella. Sleek and professional, with her hair gathered into a wrapped bun, she had a mature look to her, with a hint of crow’s feet behind her spectacles, and some gray hair mixed in with the gold. Still she left an impression as she strutted confidently beside the tanks. Noel could no longer discern whether the crowd was goggling the armor, or eyeing the secretary.

General Dreschner and Signals Chief Schicksal stepped out of their tent, surprised by the arrival of the tanks, and shook hands vigorously with the General Auto official.

Noel circled around the crowd, and surreptitiously approached the party.

He arrived in time to hear the lady’s concise introduction. “Tanja Von Bletzen, chief computer for diagnostic and testing support.” she said, pushing up her glasses.

“Brigadier General Einschel Dreschner. And this is my signals chief, as well as chief of various unofficial duties, Karla Schicksal. Pleasure to meet you.” Dreschner said.

“I’m Captain Noel Skoeniczny!” Noel suddenly said, springing up beside them all. “How many marks a month does it cost to insure those monstrosities for the road, huh?”

Schicksal and Dreschner glared sidelong at him for intrusion and comment.

Tanja turned and politely shook Noel’s hand.

“Pleasure to meet you. I’ve been informed of your exploits, Captain. Colonel General Ferdinand holds you in high regard. I’m glad you’re here to see our new product.”

Dreschner and Schicksal looked on in mute surprise.

“I only wish I could have arrived sooner.” Tanja continued. “It would have made a great debut for these vehicles if a Panzer Ace used them to defeat his enemies and seal the Shebelle pocket. Hopefully there is still some action for them to participate in.”

“Oh, so you’re dying to see me wearing one of those, huh?” Noel said cheekily.

“It is fated to be, I just know it.” Tanja returned her own mischievous grin.

Dreschner and Schicksal both palmed their foreheads with eerie synchronization.

“Glad you’re both enthused. So; what are their capabilities?” Dreschner asked.

Tanja stretched her arm behind herself, gesturing toward the turreted tank. Dreschner and Schicksal’s heads turned with the computer’s arm, silently examining the vehicle.

“While I regrettably only have one example on hand today, this tank represents the next evolution in the M4 Sentinel line. Designation M4A2, WP6 calls it the Gran Sentinel.”

“Same gun as an M4; but it’s up-armored, isn’t it?” Noel said.

“Correct.” Tanja smiled. “The M4A2 features a much improved armor profile compared to the original M4: 75 mm glacis, 90 mm gun mantlet, 55 mm side, 30 mm rear. Hull top and turret top are still 20 mm, but those plates are rarely vulnerable to the enemy.”

“That is impressive.” Dreschner said. “But what is the cost in movement?”

“None.” Tanja said.


“None.” She repeated. She clapped her hands once.

Tanja’s face lit up; she seemed to be enjoying herself.

“The M4A2 is actually faster than the original M4, thanks to its new engine. It can achieve speeds of 50 km/h. Using the old engine, the speed is a respectable 40 km/h. And this particular model has a built-in motor supercharger solution we are testing.”

“I must admit I’m not terribly fond of those superchargers.” Dreschner said.

“Ivan likes it well enough, but it burnt a few things in sustained use.” Noel said.

Tanja tipped her head in a gracious little bow. “Feedback noted.”

Schicksal jabbed her finger in the air. “So, the drake in the room; what is that?”

“10.5 cm Dicker Max.” Tanja turned her head, glancing toward the open-topped tank.

“Is it supposed to be a new assault gun? A replacement for the M3?” Dreschner asked.

A conceited smile played across the computer’s face.

“The Dicker Max is a complete re-imagining of the armored assault gun concept, using an M4 hull.” Tanja said, a soft opener before she shifted fully into sales pitch mode. She next barraged them with facts, and Noel wondered whether she had rehearsed it all.

“An enclosed structure or rotating turret is limited in the types of weapons its hull can reasonably support. Tweaking the armor profile, and redesigning the gun housing, we have achieved dramatic results. As you can see, the Dicker Max is fielding a 10.5 cm schwere kanone. This would be impossible for an ordinary M3 or M4 tank. Fully armored in the front and side, the Dicker Max can withstand long range direct fire and destroy any bunker, anti-tank emplacement, or enemy tank, from over 1000 meters away.”

“Until someone chucks a grenade through the open roof.” Noel said.

Tanja drew back, offended.

When she next spoke her voice had gone from enthusiastic to downright cold.

“Use of appropriate tactics is, of course, a prerequisite for effective deployment.”

“How many rounds does it hold in there?” Dreschner asked.

“Twenty-six. More than enough.” Tanja said dismissively.

“Sounds stingy.” Noel added, crossing his arms and grinning.

Calmly, Dreschner pressed on. “Is there a secondary armament?”

Tanja was starting to visibly bristle. “No.”

Noel shrugged comically, wiggling his hips a little.

Tanja pushed up her glasses, though they could not go any higher over her nose.

“Extensive tests have shown that in its appropriate role the Dicker Max can break a position in under twenty shells. You underestimate the schwere kanone.” She said.

“Extensive testing didn’t seem to identify the fact that you can chuck grenades through that open roof, so I’m not completely convinced, to be honest.” Noel said.

She turned her cheek on him.

“There’s an optional canvas roof for rainy day deployment.”

“Do you have it with you?” Dreschner gently asked.

“No.” Tanja said.

Schicksal crossed her arms and stared at her shoes. General Dreschner rubbed his chin. Both of them seemed at a loss for words to voice their trepidation. Noel wasn’t.

“Hey, no offense Tanja, you’re nice and all, but.”

Noel pointed at the Dicker Max with his free hand while twirling his umbrella.

“That thing just doesn’t match my aesthetic.” He dramatically said.

Everyone around him let his theatrical words hang awkwardly in the air for a moment.

But someone else had been listening in and lying in wait.

“Sounds fuckin’ good to me!”

Behind them the war room tent flapped open; Reiniger suddenly pushed Noel aside and stomped toward Tanja, and took her hand brusquely in his for an uncalled for shaking. He turned his head over his shoulder to glare at Noel while shaking up the computer.

“Lieutenant Jorg Reiniger. Ma’am, if the fairy doesn’t want this tank, that’s his problem. You got your ace tanker right here. I’ll drive your Dicker Max right fuckin’ now, ma’am.”

Tanja looked at him with tentative disdain, drawing her hand away from him.

“Reiniger, control yourself.” Dreschner snapped.

“General, c’mon, you can’t still be pinning your hopes on this Lachy fool who spends more time with his hair than his gun.” Reiniger said. He pointed sharply in Noel’s face — his finger was only a few centimeters from Noel’s nose. “He’s already fucked up one op, and if he can’t see how good this fuckin’ thing is, he’s rarin’ to fuck up the next one. I can take this tank, some of my boys, drive top speed to that rail yard, and end this now.”

Noel slapped aside Reiniger’s hand and contemptuously averted his eyes. He was eager to tussle with words, but when a brute started throwing around his hands, it rendered the situation utterly beneath him. Reiniger was no longer fun anymore.

Reiniger raised his hand again, and this time gave Noel a half-hearted shove, pushing the slender Captain back a step, and then taking his own to confront him. Noel sighed.

Dreschner laid a hand over his own face. He closed his other hand into a fist. Noel thought that he would step forward and pound Reiniger again, but the General held his ground. He underwent a gargantuan effort to show restraint. There was a pallor to his face, a nervous twitch around his eyes and jaw, a palpable tension thrumming just beneath his skin. He crossed his arms, perhaps so as to drown away the eagerness of his fist to punch.

“Mrs. Von Bletzen, I apologize for the conduct of my over-eager lieutenant.” He said.

“It is nothing, General.” Tanja said. She was stone-faced and disinterested.

Reiniger grunted with frustration. “Just answer me this lady: do you think the Dicker Max could defeat an Ayvartan tank with over 80mm of armor layered on the front?”

“It can break 100 mm of armor at over 1000 meters.” Tanja curtly replied.

“Then we have nothing to fear.” Reiniger said.

“There’s plenty to fear, Reiniger! You can’t just–” Schicksal said.

Reiniger side-stepped Noel and instead planted his feet in front of Dreschner.

Schicksal blinked, and was taken aback by the action. He was just a breath away.

“General, I must insist that we deploy immediately. Right now the only thing we have to fear is inaction. We have them, General. We can win!” Reiniger said. “You know that we don’t have much time left before sundown. We can be there in an hour if we deploy light. They’re already exhausted, they’re weak, and even if that new tank shows up, we can–”

Dreschner raised his hand to quiet him. “I know perfectly well our situation, Lieutenant.”

Noel almost winced when the General’s hand moved, expecting the fist to come flying.

“Then let us deploy! My men are eager to close this fucking pocket.”

Calmly, Dreschner turned his head to look over Reiniger. He faced Noel.

Noel shrugged. It was not his place to demand anything here.

Meanwhile Reiniger awaited a response right in the General’s personal space.

Dreschner replied coolly.

“Reiniger, deploy the Dicker Max. Noel will be joining you in the M4A2. Take three other tanks, two of the M3 assault guns for long range support, and three half-track carriers full of Spoor’s Panzergrenadiers for close support. Everyone else will catch up when they can.”

“Sir!” Reiniger saluted. His saluting hand was almost touching Dreschner’s face.

He had on a terribly wicked grin. Noel almost felt a bit of hatred in that instant.

Noel had been wrong. In his voice Noel heard so many voices whose textures and tones made him feel sick; voices that signaled craven hearts, thrashing hands, cold tongues, oozing with hurtful power. Before, he had put Reiniger mentally in with the kind of men who could be played with and sculpted, men who were nothing one way or another, the kind who turned up at the cabaret and cracked jokes and couldn’t take the girls taunting him.

But that was wrong. Reiniger was rancorous, the worst sort of man, the kind that would take a girl out back just to slap her. He would do it and he would revel in it. Noel just knew.

He grit his teeth, hiding behind his pretty lips, locking up the memories.

Now that a deployment was authorized, Tanja seemed to regain her enthusiasm.

“I shall have our engineers perform a quick final check on the vehicles.” She said, polite and energetic. It was as if the confrontation before had been an entirely different world.

Reiniger nodded. “Sure thing. I’ll go get my crew and climb aboard.”

When the Lieutenant turned around, he shoved brusquely past Noel again.

“Stay close, shut up, and follow orders.” Reiniger said as he walked away.

“At your command, instructor.” Noel called out. His tone was thick with sarcasm.

Benghu — Northern Rail Yard

A thin film of liquid spread between her eyelids as Naya came to, partially distorting the gray, gloomy world around her as it came into focus. She felt the sting of foreign fluid in her eyes, and jolted upright, rubbing her fists against them. Tears joined the sweat that trickled down her face. Her skin was cold and damp; she felt cold air as well.

When she could see again she found herself atop a mattress laid on the floor of a warehouse constructed out of tin plates on a wooden frame. There were a lot of junk parts around her in mounds. Rusted old train wheels in stacks, chunks of split track, buckets full of red-brown bolts, wasted old steam engine trunnions, even an old boiler.

Yellow light traveled into the room through a slit window behind her. She heard a whistle blowing outside, accompanied by loud rattling cylinders and thundering wheels.

After a second whistle there was a period of relative silence.

“Oh, you’re awake! I’m sorry, it’s my fault. I gave you too big a dosage.”

Naya was in the train yard; she had survived. Her final moments in combat with the purple-striped tank were a blur. She was in so much pain and everything happened so quickly. With time, she began to recall those final moments before sleep — the slide, the shot, all the soldiers moving in to defend the Konigin and allowing it to escape.

Then she had an attack; another tank rolled into the field. A sizable one, larger even than the Raktapata. Everyone was already running, but they ran faster upon its arrival. She was pulled out, first by Farwah, then others. She felt a pinprick — a syrette.

“Morphine.” Naya said to herself aloud. She shook her head, trying to dispel the mist.

“Right.” Lila Bennewitz replied. She was seated across the room, atop an old fuel drum. Her medical bag, decorated with a red cross, lay closed atop another drum nearby.

“How’d we get a train to come?” Naya asked. Out the slit window she saw figures moving and heard car doors sliding open. A train had just arrived. She knew the sounds well.

“A train was always coming, at least for Vijaya.” Lila said. “We’re too important. Where it pertains to our safety, radio calls for evacuation happen quickly. But by stopping the Nochtish attack, you bought invaluable time to include the school in the evacuation plans.”

She smiled. Naya smiled weakly back. Her head was clouded, no amount of shaking her head seemed to clear all the fog billowing in her brains. However she felt no pain from anywhere. She felt normal. That was the magic of morphine. One little syrette right in the belly–

Naya looked at Lila’s bag; she had suffered an attack. She had been treated with morphine. Now everyone knew, or suspected, that something was definitely wrong with her. Something pervasive, something they could not fix through time or tribulation.

Something bad enough that Ravan and Rajagopal might be forced to discharge her.

“Lila, I,” she paused. Naya had begun to speak but then she realized in a panic that if she said something like ‘don’t tell anyone’ she was already admitting to something terrible. There was still a chance Lila might not know or notice anything more than what she noticed the last time she had Naya under her care. Should Naya lie again now?

But then, Rajagopal and Ravan had already seen an outburst from her earlier in the day. They were probably on alert for any more strange behavior. Maybe Lila already told them? Then there would be no need for subterfuge. Perhaps she was just waiting now for the papers.

There was no going around it anymore. Naya paused, breathed in solemnly, and with a cold, sickening tension in her chest and stomach, she came right out and asked.

“Are you going to refer me for a medical discharge, Lila? Is that why you’re here?”

Lila averted her eyes. “I wish you’d stop seeing me as an enemy, or opponent.”

Naya rubbed her own shoulder, sighing. “I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to think.”

Their eyes did not meet anew for a time. A gloom settled over the medic’s face.

“I’m not Nochtish, by the way.” Lila said. “I’m a Lachy by nationality, and my family are Hudim by blood and tradition. What you know as Messianism incorporated much of our writing and some of our culture, but we are not the same. Even Messianites see us as opposition. Since the old lands split, sunk and sundered, they’ve never accepted us.”

She rocked her legs in front of the drum. “A thousand years ago they would force us to convert or to die. These days they supplant that by casting us as cheats and liars. So, why am I here? Because we all thought you got hurt and I wanted to take care of you.”

Naya turned her eyes to the floor. Her words came as a blow. Despite everything, Naya was still desperately clawing to protect her own self first and didn’t think of who she was hurting or how she was doing it. She had thought of Lila as an enemy, when all she was doing was trying to help, to understand, to keep her healthy and alive. To do her job.

“I’m sorry.” Naya said. She started to tear up. “I’m a fool; I didn’t know. I was scared. It felt like I was so close to losing everything I’ve grown proud of again, and I didn’t–”

Lila raised her hand. She smiled again. “I understand. At least, I understand some of what is happening, anyway. Naya, if you want to make it up to me — I’d like to know more, Naya. As a medic but also a comrade who cares. Tell me about these pains. I want to help.”

Naya sat up straighter on the bed. A bitter smile played across her face. She hugged herself. Tell her about the pains? Where to even begin? She sat for minutes in silence, wondering what to say. Lila waited, rocking her feet, careful not to hit the drum.

It would hurt, but there was only one thing Naya could say anymore: the truth.

Though her lips felt heavy and her tongue clumsy at first, words quickly built up.

“I remember having these pains since I was 17 or 18 years old. Back then I was obsessed with running. My family life was growing very strained at the time — everyone had found their own ambitions and sort of, drifted apart pursuing them. Mine was running. I would run every day, run faster and farther, push myself harder. Whether it was raining, or muddy, or burning under the summer sun, I would run. I ran to get out of the house.”

She remembered the house of her teenage years. It was a squat, square unit in the urban center in Benghu, four walls, two roomy bedrooms, and little else inside. It was its own house — it was not part of a hostel or barrack. Her parents got that house, and a few gold honors tickets, because they had helped pioneer Benghu’s new electrical system. They were engineers. Tackling problems like that was what they did. Day in and day out; Benghu was like their pet project for a few years, until the union started to urge them to think bigger. To think about Solstice or Chayat. They resisted at first; but only at first.

“I won every race I was ever in as a teen. I consistently beat people in the school leagues and I was nearly at the age where I could compete nation-wide in clubs matches and Commissariat of Health sponsored events. I didn’t really have anything going for me but running. So I just ran. I was obsessed with it; I loved every second I ran.”

She ran and ran and ran away from the prospect that her life would change. That her parents would separate, out of love with each other and the family life she once treasured; that they would be moving to Solstice or Chayat or somewhere, somewhere far from her friends, from her loves, where there were engineering feats in need of doing.

When she ran, there was nothing but the sensation of running. It was so reassuring.

Lila listened intently, her face void of emotion. She stopped rocking her feet.

“Maybe it was because when I was running, it took everything out of me. I didn’t have to acknowledge other things. But then, just, out of the blue; these pains took everything out of me. I don’t even remember how they started. I thought I ran myself ragged. I gave it a rest. But they recurred every so often. I figured out soon, that I couldn’t escape them.”

Her parents didn’t help because she didn’t tell them. Because she was afraid of what they would do. She was afraid of every outcome. Afraid that they might discard their ambitions for her; afraid that she would be worth less than their future, and that they would forget her. Afraid that they might force her to give up. So she endured. She played it down. She made excuses. They were distracted enough to accept everything.

“So you don’t know the origin of them. It might be a congenital condition that took some time to manifest. Maybe an old injury? I don’t know that I can identify this.” Lila said.

Naya shook her head. “I have no idea. It feels more like a curse than a condition.”

Lila nodded her head. “Go on, please. I’m willing to listen if you’re willing to share.”

Naya nodded her head. She sat up straighter, crossed her legs, and continued.

“I remember there was a big competition on national health day at the school; a friend of mine, Darshan, he was going to run with me. There were a lot of contenders, but he was the only one who rivaled me. It was his first real, important run; he’d been trialing now for a year or two and getting better and better and better. I wanted to beat him. But I had a pain event the day before the race. I was scared; scared that he’d take first place from me.”

“So you didn’t go.” Lila said gently. She sounded almost worried.

An evil little chuckle escaped Naya’s lips. It wasn’t funny; it hurt. She still laughed.

“It occurred to me that if I didn’t show up, everyone would just attribute his victory to my absence. They would all know that had I been there he would be second place. But that didn’t happen. Everyone was happy for him, for his first big victory. I tried to go along with it. Later, he would confide in me that everyone’s support gave him the courage to confess to his sweetheart and that she had said yes and held his hand and kissed him happily.”

“I see. I assume he wasn’t the only person that was sweet on her.” Lila said.

Naya did not answer. Instead she looked down at her feet. “I’ve always nursed a really nasty thought since then — I should’ve just gone to the race, and had a big pain event there and spoiled his victory for him.” She laughed bitterly at herself. “Focus it all back on me. Maybe then, I could have confessed instead of him. But I was a coward. I ran away from it. Just like I ran away from confessing before him. I ended up unable to beat him at anything. Don’t you think it’s pathetic? Nasty? I’ve regretted everything about that, ever since.”

“I’m sorry, Naya. For what it’s worth, no, I do not think you are pathetic or nasty. You were a teenager and you were hurt and scared. I’d have done the same.” Lila replied.

It became easier to speak frankly as she went along. It was easier now that all of it was out in the air. Somebody knew as much of the story as Naya’s brain could pull from the stream of history. She no longer had reason to hide it. Unburdened of her fears and unprotected by her lies, however, all that seemed to remain was bitterness, loneliness. There was no sensation to it; no pain. She was just void of anything palpable now.

“On some level, I think I deserve it all. It’s just my karma. It is the way I have done things, the way I do things, the way I will do things. Even today, I can’t break that.”

“You do not deserve that at all, Naya! You are a hero!” Lila said, raising her voice.

Naya almost laughed again, but before she could she heard feet striking cement.

Lila jumped off the drum and started toward her. Crossing the warehouse, she stopped before Naya, knelt down and gently stretched out her hand to help her stand up.

“All of us in the camp, we know that it was you who got Chief Ravan and the Captain to stay and fight for Chanda. We saw you run in there. We saw what happened after. And we all admire that and we all think that it was the right thing to do.” Lila said.

“They would have done it anyway.” Naya replied, almost murmuring. “Anyone could sit on the Rakpata’s turret and man that gun. I’m just an unstable rookie AT gunner.”

“No! You were the only one who could sit in that chair because you were the only one who would’ve given the Raktapata a chance. Its previous gunner was nearly killed by it; it had all kinds of problems. Everyone was ready to evacuate, not because we were bad or cowardly, but because we never would’ve given ourselves a chance.” Lila said.

She wiggled the fingers on her hand, and set it right above Naya’s own.

“I’m not here to push you down. I want to help you get back up. All of us do: Farwah does, the officers do, and everyone who saw you today does. Do you believe me?”

Naya hesitated at first, but she took her hand. She felt a sense of relief wash over her as she tightened her fingers around the medic’s warm skin. Lila pulled her back to her feet.

The medic smiled and patted her in the back. “We’ll start with a morphine prescription, and you should talk to the Chief about making your chair in the tank a bit more comfy.”

“I’d like that.” Naya said. She was out of breath. Her heart was beating so fast.

She squeezed Lila’s hand gently. It was the hand of a friend. Such a nostalgic feeling.

Benghu’s main train station straddled the northern end of the meadows. A single track coming in from the east cut across the grass and joined tracks coming in from the north and curling through Benghu and around its hills from the west. Servicing the adjacent textile and wood processing facilities, it was the industrial heart of Benghu, stationed only a few kilometers from the town, from Camp V, and from Chanda General School.

In total, the train station, the warehouses, some made of tin and some made of brick, and the nearby factory, all formed a property about as large as Chanda’s campus.

Much of the rail yard was devoted to housing raw material and finished product that would be packed for transport further north or south as orders came in. In the ensuing days of the battle for Shebelle much of the raw wood that had been collected was shipped away, and along with it much of the paneling, canvases, nets, parachutes, tents and other similar products made at the nearby factory. Once the products and materials were gone, machinery was stripped and taken. Empty buildings left behind now temporarily housed the refugees from Benghu and Chanda, including civilians and soldiers.

Most of the warehouses became impromptu playgrounds for children, or barracks for weary soldiers that had been wounded in Shebelle. Older tin warehouses closer to the center let the rain in and were cold and uncomfortable, but the brick buildings straddling the meadow were good enough for temporary shelter. Outside the buildings, hasty sandbag emplacements had been constructed alongside a guard pillbox, forming a defensive line. Anti-tank guns and machine guns watched the meadow and the eastern track for signs of the enemy. Everyone behind a gun prayed to be able to abandon it soon.

Once the train came in, loading it with equipment, weapons and other war materiel being rescued from Shebelle and from Camp Vijaya became a priority. People and personnel waited patiently to board. There had been promises made that everyone would be riding out of here tonight — this was the last train that would come to Benghu.

As the sun began its descent, and the day’s rainfall slowed to a meager drizzle tapping irregularly against their hoods, Chief Ravan spent her idle time on one of the train loading platforms working on the Rakpata. Farwah Kuchenkov stared in mute horror.

Their heroic tank was separated into two pieces, its turret hanging on a crane. A canvas roof had been erected over the hull to keep the vehicle dry during the work period. Chief Ravan knelt into the tank from the top of the hull, viciously attacking the turret ring with an eclectic variety of absolutely filthy, terribly worn-out looking metal tools. She had been cranking, smashing, tossing things over her shoulder, dumping all kinds of substances into the turret. It was filthy and strange. Farwah blinked and stared at it, dead in the face, but deep inside, feeling the tiniest bit of despair at the tank’s condition.

“Ah ha!” She shouted triumphantly. “Improper tension in the slip ring! I fixed it!”

Chief Ravan sat up and raised her arms triumphantly, her hair slick with lubricants.

Farwah blinked. He held up his hand. She looked his way and tossed her hair.

“Woo! That was stimulating.” She said, a touch embarrassed. “So, what is it?”

“Ma’am, there was an overheating problem I was having. I’d like you to look at it.”

He came to regret this question almost as soon as he asked it. Chief Ravan crawled up to the engine hatch, unscrewed it, and kicked the plate off. She nearly hit an engineer working nearby. Then she started yanking things out of the engine. Hoses and screws and plugs went flying and Farwah ran hither and yon, catching and collecting them and picking them up from the ground. It was chaos. Finally Chief Ravan got through to the thermostat, and she yanked it out, dropped down from the tank, and ambled toward a small half-tracked miniature tractor, towing a power generator and a metal basket with a canvas cover.

From this basket, Chief Ravan pulled a pistol-grip drill attached to the generator by a thick cable. She braced the thermostat against the basket using metal clamps, and drilled two holes into the object. Farwah blinked in confusion as she returned to the tank.

“Fuel efficiency will drop, but this should keep the Raktapata running a little colder until I can contrive a better solution.” Chief Ravan said. She smacked the piece back into place.

Farwah shivered as Chief Ravan snatched various pieces from his hands and returned them to place, and nearly jumped when she slammed the engine cover plate back on.

She wiped her face with a rag, cleaning off the grease and lubricants. She dropped the rag on Farwah’s shoulders and walked past with a long, easy stride and a smile.

Picking it up with the tips of his fingers, Farwah cast the rag off, turned around and followed behind her. The two of them did not go far. A dozen meters away behind them, the Mandeha self-propelled gun awaited dismantling and accommodation in a crate for the train ride. Its astoundingly tall turret was its most distinctive feature. It was disproportionate, almost charming in a strange way. Behind the engine, Isa toiled, tuning the tank up and staring in confusing at a damaged spark plug. Atop the hull, Karima sat, kicking her legs idly.

“Karima! Tell me, what was it like riding this abomination?” Chief Ravan said. Her tone was light-hearted. She seemed to be in high spirits, though Farwah had no idea why.

“I hate the shells, they’re too big.” Karima said, holding her head up with her hands. Rain trickled off her high, perfectly arching ponytail. It did not seem to bother her.

“Not my problem!” Chief Ravan said coyly. “How was the gun traverse?”

“Nonexistent. Do you mean the turret traverse?” Karima replied.

Chief Ravan crossed her arms. “Yes, yes, you know what I mean when I say that!”

Karima nodded her head. “Nonexistent.” She said again in a surly tone.

Giving up on Karima, who was known to be unfriendly, Chief Ravan skipped around the side of the tank and knelt beside Isa, staring into the Mandeha’s engine block with him. Farwah felt his heart bump and bump a little faster near Isa. He liked the way his comrade handled the wrench as he screwed the pieces he had removed back on. When he turned his head and smiled Farwah could feel his own face grow a little warmer from his attention.

“So what are you two busybodies up to?” Isa said jovially.

Chief Ravan rubbed her chin and put on a mock quizzical expression.

“I’m wondering what you’re doing other than preparing this tank for transport.”

Isa shrugged. “It had a bad spark plug! I had to replace that. Imagine some hapless engineer turns the thing back on for a test with a bad plug. I had to replace it.”

“Yes, but the Mandeha is, as you can see, extraordinarily large. It will take time to get it apart and well fitted into crates, and even more since you haven’t started.”

“We have all of the time in the world.” Isa protested, raising his hands.

At that moment a guard post exploded on the outer edge of the rail yard.

Everyone saw the rising pillar of fire over the low roofs of the surrounding buildings.

For a moment the Mandeha’s crew stood dumbfounded. Chief Ravan looked at the smoke as if there was something to analyze. Isa and Farwah looked at one another in confusion. Karima jumped down from atop the tank’s hull but made no other movements. It wasn’t until a second explosion followed the first, that everyone around began to scramble for weapons and cover and to look around at each other for orders.

“Change of plans!” Chief Ravan shouted, ducking behind her tool tractor. “Isa, get the Mandeha ready to deploy immediately! Farwah, we need to restore the Rakpata back to fighting condition post-haste! And where on Aer has Naya gone! Someone fetch her!”

Nodding heads; behind them, a small open-topped car arrived, and from the back, Captain Rajagopal leaped out and hurried to their side. She ducked beside Chief Ravan behind the tractor, and pointed a finger down south, to the direction of the warehouses.

“Large enemy tank. New type. Coming here.” She gestured with her hands.

Next chapter in Unternehmen Solstice — DICKER MAX

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