The One Who Will Die (35.5)

54th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Midnight

Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu Rail Yard, Lower Yard

The 8th Panzer Division presided over the quietest night the town of Benghu had ever seen. Once the tanks shut off or became distant, all one could hear was the tinnitus of one’s own stressed ears, or the total silence of the ghost town and its ghost train station.

Few people remained in the villages, too stubborn or too unprepared to leave behind everything they had ever known. When Nocht arrived in limited numbers at their doors, they were as unfriendly as they could be short of shooting the scouts on the welcome mats.

Of greatest concern was the rail yard; the Siren had not heard from its contingent since the attack began. Lt. Reiniger was known for his poor communication, but this was too much.

Search-light equipped Squire half-tracks arrived shortly after the sun had set and far too late to catch the train. They canvassed the warehouses and the factory, soon accompanied by the Panzer Division’s remaining M4 tanks. Shining powerful carbon arc lights, they spotted the scars of battle across the walls and the concrete of the Lower Yard, and found the husks of their compatriots’ vehicles, the fires playing over their hulls having long since gone out.

They identified three destroyed M4s, two M3s out in the meadow, and hit a truly low point in the night upon discovering the M4A2 broken down as well. No sign of the Dicker Max, no sign of survivors. Despondently the search parties continued, now organizing a foot search. Panzergrenadiers, medics with crisis and rescue training, and lightly armed security personnel with hand torches, combed the entire area again for signs of life.

It was this foot search that finally bore fruit.

Within a collapsed warehouse in the upper yard they found the buried Dicker Max.

And sitting on it were Noel Skonieczny and Ivan Tyzska, snacking on black bread.

“I was startin’ to think we would have to live out of this warehouse.” Noel said.

After his confrontation with the Ayvartan tank, Noel had snuck through the warehouses, hoping to duck any Ayvartan patrols and make his way to the grass. Emboldened by the total absence of his enemy, however, he revised his plans. Instead he headed for the lower yard, with Ivan in hand, hoping to uncover the fate of Lieutenant Reiniger. At last they come upon this collapsed warehouse, and the distinctive muzzle brake sticking just out of a mound of rubble. Pleased with this outcome, Noel sat atop the mound and waited.

He thought he heard a noise from the rubble, but it proved to be just his imagination.

They waited, until the sun went down, and the evening breeze whistled through the broken walls and shattered roofs. Finally they were found. Noel waved his arm in the air, smiling ecstatically. It was good to see an intact motor vehicle after all this carnage.

Within minutes, the Sd.Kfz. B’s had to make way for the arriving Befehlspanzer.

Dreschner’s transport cut engines at the edge of the track. Schicksal and the General climbed atop the turret and dropped down. Shadows played about their faces, stirring from the light of handheld lamps as they approached. This mix of light and gloom made their expressions graver, ghostly, accentuating their eyesockets and mouths.

“Everything in its place, Captain Skoniec?” Dreschner asked.

Noel stretched out his arms. He then embraced himself, and finished by spinning a little loop of his hair around his index finger and cracking a little smile. “Looks like it!”

“You were incommunicado for hours. We thought you were dead.” Schicksal said.

“Our radio was in pieces, I’m afraid.” Noel said.

“Why weren’t you keeping consistent communication before that?”

“Jorg Reiniger.” Noel explained.

Schicksal paused, and averted her eyes.

“How about you, Sergeant? Sustain any wounds?” Dreschner added.

Ivan breathed out and held his drooping head by his fists.

“We’ve suffered a severe case of wounded egos.” Noel said in his place.

He patted his lover in the back, trying to comfort him.

“I take it then that your duel with the Ayvartan tank went poorly.” Schicksal said.

Noel grinned at her. “I’m calling it a draw. I’ll get even with her later.”

Schicksal and Dreschner exchanged looks.

General Dreschner then spoke up, climbing a few steps onto the mound.

He laid hands on the one piece of visible metal jutting out of the garbage.

“Judging by the muzzle brake, then, this is–”

“Yes, this is the Dicker Max. Or what’s left.” Noel said. “From the looks of it, and I don’t mean to gloat, but. I warned you guys; I warned you about the open top. I told you.”

“I don’t suppose you tried to check for anyone alive under that rubble.”

Noel leaned forward and played at pushing on the mound of bricks, concrete, wood, metal struts and tin sheeting that had come to cover the Dicker Max so thoroughly. He made strained faces, and engaged in a gargantuan mock struggle, but budged none of the weight off the buried tank. Abruptly, he stopped, shrugged his shoulder and sat again.

Dreschner ran a hand over his face in consternation; Schicksal sighed audibly.

“Point taken.” Dreschner said. Rubbing his chin, he retreated from the mound.

Schicksal tottered after, giving one last anxious look at the mess.

“Anyone got something to drink?” Noel called out. “Ration bread is too dry!”

An hour later the Sd.Kfz. B and the Befehlspanzer all had to find new places to park along the track to make way for tractor towing a tracked excavator. Using its motor-powered digging arm, the excavator scooped up the debris from atop the Dicker Max, slowly unearthing the tank. Working on the superstructure first, the diggers made their way into the crew compartment. Medics bagged the human remains; engineers checked the tank’s mangled instruments and concluded that the hull could be reused.

However, Lieutenant Jorg Reiniger could not be.

It didn’t matter.

Shebelle was set to collapse. For a certain definition of winning, they had won.

Noel gave his respects, however. He observed the two minute moment of silence, and he held his salute while the medics stowed the body bags on the tractor and drove away.

More for the poor men led to their deaths than for Reiniger himself, however.

Noel had survived the day, somehow. But then again, so had that girl.

His pride was a little wounded, but his body was not. There would be other chances.

He had a perfect example in front of him of why egos needed tempering.

Dbagbo Dominance — Train #9, En Route To South Solstice

Beyond the train cars the landscape was blurred and forbidding, too dark and scrolling too fast to be anything but an abstraction to the passengers. They looked out their windows and over the sides of the open cars, and were unable to bid a proper farewell to the home that they were running from. Train #9 was shooting across the countryside at almost 100 kilometers per hour, leaving the Nochtish armored advance well behind then.

Most of the soldiers, who had fought all day, and the civilians, who had fled and stressed and endured the turmoil of vacating their homes and lives, took the time to sleep and recover.

Camp Vijaya, now “Battalion Vijaya,” continued to work, as they were wont to do.

Directly under the pitch black skies, illuminated by lamps that swung when hung up and shook incessantly when set down, Chief Ravan and Farwah assessed the damage to the Raktapata. Tied down on one of the open bed cars near the back of the train, the machine’s front armor was pitted by dozens of impacts and its rear hull was slashed open.

Climbing around the front armor with a torch, Farwah shone his light down into the driver’s compartment, and Naya, taking the driver’s seat, counted the cracks and near-penetrations and traced over them with bright, phosphorescent paints. Chief Ravan wanted to undertake a thorough examination of the damage in order to both fix and strengthen the Raktapata’s front armor. Photographs of the damage would be taken in the morning.

“How many so far?” Farwah asked.

“Twelve.” Naya said. “Most of them pretty thin, but there was a nasty bulge about right where your head would normally be. So, we’re not as invincible as we thought.”

“I never thought we were.” Farwah replied.

Naya crossed her arms and grunted. She supposed only she nursed those fantasies.

They had personally destroyed 15 tanks, after all. That had to be a record.

Chief Ravan ordered everyone out and off the tank once the cracks were marked.

“I’ll tidy up here. You two go get something to eat, and rest.” She said.

Farwah and Naya nodded. From the back of the car they jumped over the short gap over the coupling and walked into the adjacent armored train car, where Vijaya’s supplies had been stacked up, including food. Crew, too; Karima laid her sleeping bag in a corner next to a case of grenades. Captain Rajagopal lay atop a plank balanced on the 100mm gun. Lila and Isa sat next to a box of ration cases rifling through them for choice picks.

“Can I have a paneer masala?” Naya asked.

Isa picked out a box and chucked it over his shoulder.

Naya caught it in mid-air.

“All of you better eat those room temperature.” Karima warned.

“Oh, right.” Naya said, startled. She thought Karima would be asleep.

There were many things in the car that could react terribly to the chemical burners.

Sitting down beside the plastic-bundled remains of the 85mm A.A.W. gun, Naya ripped open the packaging on her ration, pulled out the plastic spoon, stirred in the spice packs, and dug into her cold, gloppy spiced sauce and cubes of paneer cheese.

“What are you all looking for?” Naya asked.

“Chickpeas. Those are good cold or hot, no matter what the situation. I couldn’t eat a sauce ration cold like you are. You’re far braver than I am, Naya.” Lila said.

Karima grunted from across the car.

“Paneer’s my favorite food.” Naya said, her mouth full of it.

“I’m trying to find something with meat, like the pork curry.” Isa said.

Hearing this wish, Farwah started searching in the boxes himself.

Naya whistled. “Good luck with that. You don’t see a lot of meat around here.”

“What do you like, Farwah?” Isa asked.

“My favorite ration is the mashed plantains.” Farwah said.

“I’ve honestly never even seen that one as a ration. What’s it like?”

“It is good.” Farwah said simply, staring on with his blank eyes.

Isa laughed.

“Should’ve expected that response.” Naya said, shaking her head.

“I have dietary restrictions, so I only eat the vegetarian rations.” Lila said.

“That’s most of the rations, anyway.” Isa said.

“They should make some kosher ones.” Lila said dejectedly.

“They should! Lodge a complaint.” Karima added.

Lila picked up a few more rations to add to the pile forming near her. She found a box at the bottom of the ration crate with the red stripe, meat labeling. She handed it to Isa.

“Chicken tikka! Victory!” Isa said, examining the package.

Farwah clapped gently for him.

“You’re seriously going to eat cold chicken?” Karima shot from across the car.

“It’s been processed. It’s fine.” Isa said.

Farwah nodded in support of him.

“Suit yourself.”

Karima turned over in her sleep bag. She was already facing away from them, but this time she was facing away from them in a different and more belligerent direction.

“So what’s our next stop now?” Naya asked.

“Solstice.” Farwah said.

Everyone alive in Ayvartan had heard of Solstice. It was impossible not to, even if you would never see it in your life. Ayvarta’s heart, in the middle of the red desert, protected by fifty meter high walls and three enormous cannons, as well as the Revolutionary Guards. All of the Unions in Ayvarta, all of the farms, all of the regional governments, had their true headquarters in Solstice, where they would negotiate, develop plans, form contracts, and direct resources wherever they were most needed, under Council guidance.

To the Ayvartan form of government, losing Solstice practically meant a total collapse.

She supposed as a soldier she was fated to see it someday.

But she and the Raktapata had the heavy responsibility to defend it now.

Her performance against the Konigin and its crew emboldened her, however.

Instead of intimidated, she almost wanted to see it happen — to have that duel again.

One crazy thought traded for another. She spooned more paneer into her mouth.

“Specifically, southern Solstice, on the edge of the desert.” Lila said.

“Spirits defend I hate the desert.” Isa said. He spooned some chicken into his mouth and talked through it. “I’ll take a year’s worth of storms over a month in the desert.”

Behind him Farwah patted him on the back for comfort.

Naya stared at them in sharp consternation.

“How come I don’t get someone doting on me?” Naya said, chewing on paneer.

“I’ll dote on you.” Lila said mischievously.

“What?” Karima shouted in sudden outrage.

“I’ll pass.” Naya said.

Lila giggled again. Naya sighed. She wanted someone else to dote on her.

“You think I can make it all the way to the civilian cars?” She said, on a lark.

“No!” Karima shouted. “You’ll stay here and get doted on, and see if I care!”

She turned again in her sleeping bag, now facing her original direction.

Covering up her giggling mouth, Lila stood and tip-toed over to the sleeping bag.

“Maybe I’ll dote up Karima then, huh?”

She knelt beside Karima and started to run her hands over her.

Karima growled like an angry cat but allowed the massaging to go on.

Her reticence drew some laughter from Naya.

So this was Camp Vijaya; where she now belonged.

55th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Benghu-Gollaproulu North Junction

Thirty kilometers from the town of Benghu, General Dreschner stood on a grassy mound of earth at the edge of a vast stretch of flat country. Every which way he looked there was beautiful, green open terrain. Far in the distance he could see a curling railroad track that briefly reminded him of a worse time, but everything else was perfect.

This was tank land all the way from here to the desert. No more rivers. No more forests. No more slopes. No more mud. 200 beautiful kilometers of country before the sand.

He stood on this slope and shook hands with the square-headed General Strich of the 10th Panzer Division atop this mound, signaling the closure of the Shebelle Pocket, in which elements of six Ayvartan Divisions were now trapped. Though both the 10th, 15th and 8th Panzer Divisions had taken a costly beating to secure this encirclement, it did not matter now. Around Dbagbo the weather was bettering. It was airplane weather all over tank country, and the Ayvartans would not be able to endure these dual terrors.

“How fare your men, Strich?” Dreschner asked.

“Boisterous as always.” Strich said. “I can hardly keep up.”

Strich was at least fifteen years older than Dreschner. He rarely went anywhere without his kubelwagen to ferry him, the vehicle now parked at the bottom of the little hill.

“How fare your tanks?” Strich said.

Dreschner felt a touch of frustration with this interaction already, but restrained himself. He had committed to changing his old ways. Strich was owed respected as a peer, not derision. As respectfully as he could muster, he replied. “Enough are active to hold.”

“My 10th division is the same. But, are enough active for my comfort? Certainly not!”

“One can never have enough active firepower.” Dreschner said, chuckling.

Strich took his leave, and started ambling downhill toward his car.

Another car had stealthily parked beside it.

As Strich vacated the area he walked past Colonel-General Ferdinand, who climbed the hill with enthusiasm, and met Dreschner at the top. He stretched out his own hand, and gave Dreschner a vigorous shake. He was beaming through his old style mustache.

“General Dreschner, or should I say, Major-General Dreschner, congratulations.”

Dreschner’s hand shook, and not from Ferdinand’s grip.

Grinning, the old man continued. “Owing to another brilliant encirclement, I have fast-forwarded the paperwork, this very morning. Field Marshal Haus agrees completely. You will lead the 10th, 15th and 8th Panzer Divisions as part of the 2nd Vorkampfer.”

“Thank you, sir.” Dreschner said simply. His mind was drawing a blank.

“I will make sure you can personally direct every single tank in those divisions to suit your purposes Dreschner. I’ve already got a green light from the Field Marshal; he will personally entreat the Congress for more funding for the WP6. You have succeeded beyond my wildest expectations, Dreschner. You and Noel; you have done excellently. Excellently!”

Difficult as it was to believe, this was happening. Dreschner’s lower back still ached so this was not a dream. This was perhaps a different world; a world where Noel had not been defeated on two successive occasions by an Ayvartan tank they had not one photo of, where Reiniger had not died in that hideous WP6 rust bucket, where they had not lost almost 80 tanks in a single day to various problems around Shebelle and Benghu.

“Our next stop, is Solstice. Then this bloody business is concluded. Soon the world will be our oyster Dreschner! I for one can’t wait; this taste of success is too intoxicating!”

Major-General Dreschner of the 2nd Vorkampfer Panzer Corps felt quite ill at ease.

His sense of triumph was marred by a great trepidation and the weight of unreality.

“Excuse me, Colonel-General. I should go pick my new staff.” Dreschner said.

Colonel-General Ferdinand smiled at him from his eerie, rose-colored world.

Dbagbo was all but over. Now the real war was beginning. Unternehmen Solstice. The plan to advance 600 kilometers from the edges of the middle Dominances, through desert and rocky wasteland, in order to finally reach and encircle a thousand square kilometers of city fully enclosed behind fifty meters of wall in the middle of the red desert.

All of this had to be done before the summer.

Only 600 kilometers. In 37 days they had already advanced that amount along several parts of the front. They had nearly conquered the most populous and difficult parts of Ayvarta. Now it was not a question of whether they could continue at this pace.

Drescher had to maintain that pace. Nocht had to maintain that pace.

Solstice Dominance — SIVIRA of the Supreme Command

“Have you a new five-point plan for World Peace that you wish to promote, Larissa?”

Seated behind her desk, Daksha Kansal stared over steepled fingers at the arriving ambassador to the Republic of Helvetia, a large northern nation geographically smack in the middle of Lubon, Nocht and, with some imagination, Ayvarta as well. Helvetians reminded Daksha of the Nochtish people, except much more predisposed to preaching.

Even before the motion of no confidence made things awkward for them, Ayvartan’s few visiting foreign ambassadors were loathed to have any kind of actual diplomatic discussion. They just seemed to enjoy renting the space for their buildings, and tasting the local cuisine. One notable exception was the Helvetian ambassador, who came to censure the Ayvartan government frequently. Just a few days ago she had condemned Ayvarta’s “failure of democracy” after the dissolution of the Council. Daksha enjoyed putting her in her place, and immediately wrote a deliciously belligerent article explaining Yuba’s role in the proceedings, as well as the fact that she was elevated to her position by democratic blocs.

Never was Larissa daunted by these retorts. Time and again she would reappear in front of the Ayvartan government, submitting herself to whatever skepticism or ridicule they had in store in exchange for some time to talk about her own high-handed views.

Daksha supposed that was what brought her here today. Again.

And she never knocked or made her presence known. So she always startled Daksha and always set off her anxiety. Self-centered puffy fool. Shooting was too good for her.

Reigning in her fury, Daksha silently bid the ambassador to come forward.

Despite the hot weather, Larissa was clad in a fur cap and coat. Long locks of blonde hair trailed down the sides of her face, perfectly parted in the center. She was a fairly tall woman, with an angular face that gave her a humorless appearance. She bore a variety of pins on her breast; supposedly they reminded her of various causes she stood for. Ending world hunger, preserving historic treasures, curing cancer, and such things.

Without the revolutionary science of Lenanism none of those things had any hope of happening, so Daksha just found the Helvetians ineffective and tedious. To the last one they would drone about World Peace while offering Nocht and Lubon nothing but stern reprimands, and Ayvarta nothing but worthless platitudes. Much of the globe laughed at their faces. This was perhaps the one thing Nocht and Ayvarta gladly agreed on.

Behind Larissa, Cadao stood helplessly, fidgeting. Daksha knew not exactly why; but Cadao fidgeted and acted like an anxious puppy about every damned thing anyway.

“She has important news, Premier.” Cadao said.

Daksha separated then clapped her hands together. “This is new. What is it?”

“You’ll find that this,” Larissa approached and dropped a folder on the desk, “is newer.”

Helvetia never had news for anyone, because they never did anything.

Caught off-guard by the contents of the folder, Daksha scarcely looked at it before she delivered a skeptical glance at Larissa, and then at Cadao, who shrank away from it.

“Explain.” Daksha said brusquely.

“ULTRA has intercepted various signals from Lubon over the past thirty days. In your hands, you hold ULTRA’s final report, and their complete findings.” Larissa said.

“I can see that.” Daksha replied.

That was not all; there were certainly many transcripts, broken codes, intercepted diplomatic communications. Already scandalous things, only available through spying. However there were also troop movement projections, maps of Ayvarta extensively labeled, code names, formations. According to this folder, Lubon would be landing two Armies in North Solstice within weeks if not days; if not already on the way.

It was alarming; though the veracity of this information was suspect.

“Explain what your angle is.” Daksha curtly reiterated.

“Daksha,” Larissa said, her tone still serious, neutral. “Let us talk.”

“Concerning what?” Daksha said. She was wary of some kind of northern trick.

After all, Helvetia had helped Nocht before, a few decades ago, in their darkest hour.

“Helvetia’s global role and partners in that global role.” Larissa replied.

Daksha raised an eyebrow. This was certainly new — and interesting.

“I thought you didn’t like working with ‘totalitarian dictators.'” Daksha said.

“That was then. This is now. Besides, you wouldn’t characterize yourself as that, would you? I thought your role now was a guarantor of your people’s revolution.” Larissa said.

“You annoy the hell out of me.” Daksha, grinning. “Let’s talk then, peacenik.”

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