45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North
There was still a war going on, though it would’ve been hard to tell in the Kalu.
The 13th Panzer Division tucked its new headquarters well behind any potential hostilities. Located in a warm, sunny clearing surrounded by thick woods that made excellent cover for resting tanks and empty supply depots, the 13th was spread out in a formless cluster, much of its manpower technically “rebuilding” but mostly directionless, linked only by a dirt road that wound through their stretch of woodland.
While some of the Division struggled for the river Ghede and the way into Tambwe, for the majority of the men and women of the 13th, there were no missions, little communication, and only paltry supplies to tide them over during this “rebuilding.”
On a walk around the camps, one could still see, among the people aimlessly coming and going, variety of insignias on chests and shoulders: 2nd Panzer Division, 3rd Panzer Division, 13th Panzergrenadier, 6th Grenadier, Azul, 8th Grenadier (a latecomer to the hostilities that saw no action except in firefighting, but high casualties nonetheless) and a few smaller, lesser known units with long strings of numbers and very low morale.
There was no insignia yet for the 13th Panzer Division that encompassed them all.
Regardless of insignia, everyone had dim prospects for the coming weeks.
Nobody expected they would cross the river, and they fought with defeat in mind.
While in the far eastern flank of Ayvarta the invaders of Shaila had made decent progress invading Dbagbo, the remnants of the Vorkampfer had lost all momentum, and their supply situation sans Bada Aso was in dire straits. Dori Dobo could not handle their supplies, and Cissea’s ports were so far away that the majority of the firepower in Adjar lay idle, waiting for the food and fuel needed to continue.
Still the 13th struggled on.
Up north, that hopeless and hazy war for the river played out sight unseen.
In the Kalu, similarly bizarre struggles transpired behind the doors of the camp tents.
One such tent, set down in the woods far apart from the rest of the camp, was black, unmarked, and unremarked about. It was a special tent, made for its purpose. Behind its inscrutable walls there was an oppressive gloom save for a dim light mildly illuminating the face of a bound Ayvartan woman in a chair. Pungent, plastic smells inside made it hard to breathe calmly, and the outside world could neither be seen nor heard from within. Icy blue eyes watched the prisoner from dark places. Questions flew at the woman, and threats followed. Sharp implements were prominently displayed as if ready to be used. But the captive paid no attention to the captor, and patience wore thin.
Anton Von Sturm surged forward from the shadows and pounded his fists on a table.
“I’m asking you one last time. This is your final goddamn chance. Tell me everything you know about the new tank program, or you’ll regret holding your tongue!”
There was still no response from the prisoner — not even a turning of the eyes.
“Tell me about Ayvartan positions across the river! Tell me about the state of the government in Solstice! Let me into that head of yours or I swear on my life–”
Across the table the prisoner remained silent and inexpressive, yielding nothing.
“I’m going to set you on fucking fire!” Von Sturm shouted at her in a fit of rage.
Almost casually the prisoner turned her cheek, and her eyes wandered away.
Silence followed for several moments as Von Sturm stewed in this rejection.
Across the tent a man lifted his hand into the air as if to be called on in a classroom.
“Setting her on fire is against the Dahlia 12 agreement.” Von Drachen interjected.
Von Sturm swung around in a fury, waving his fists at Von Drachen instead.
Von Drachen completely turned his cheek, almost casually, mirroring the prisoner.
He shrugged, facing a wall. “And besides, this is not how it works. For example, you can’t tell her it’s her final chance, when you’ve only asked her the question once before.”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Von Sturm shouted. “I ask her once, and then I give her the final chance, that counts, ok! It wouldn’t make sense if the final chance was the only chance, but anything after that works! You goddamn whinging baboon! Shut the fuck up!”
“You have given her several final chances, but all in Nochtish. I don’t think she—”
“Shut up! I’m in command here still, and I order you! Shut up!”
He raised his voice to such a level that it cracked in his throat. None of it could be heard outside, but it reverberated strongly inside the tent and sounded quite unsettling.
At least, unsettling in theory. Neither Von Drachen nor the prisoner reacted strongly.
“This is all very wrong. You need a good cop here. Let me do this, Anton.”
Ignoring Von Sturm’s frantic commands, Von Drachen turned to the prisoner.
He nodded at her. Surprisingly, she nodded back.
“How many women are in the Ayvartan army?” He asked her.
His Ayvartan was fluent and his tone was ordinary and conversational. His body language was yielding rather than aggressive or guarded. He sat across the table from her, relaxed his shoulders, and gestured with his hands. They could have served tea between them, and it would not have been amiss. It was an eerily peaceable scene.
“More than men.” Replied the prisoner. Her voice sounded very dull and affectless.
“I find that interesting. What would you say is the ratio?” Von Drachen asked.
“Sixty-forty.” Replied the captive.
“Incredible! An army more woman than man, and yet, they square off against us so beautifully. Tell me, is it a certain woman, Nakar, who is responsible for your success?”
“You speak our tongue well, imperialist pig.” Replied the captive, avoiding the question.
Von Drachen nodded gently. “I am a Cissean, and I was born during the Ayvartan Empire. So I picked up some here and there, though never formally. Common Cisseans were as a whole poorly literate. I self-taught; so I thank you for the compliment.”
“Aren’t you surprised by my ethnicity?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“Well. Hmm. What do you think of Cissea? It’s right across the border.”
“I think your country is a disgrace to this continent, lying in bed with the Northern Federation. You are betrayers to this land and we will have our vengeance on you.”
Throuhgout the captive spoke without passion. Her words had no more or less force than before, despite the aggression inherent in them. But she had spoken, at least a little. Now she seemed again inclined to silence, staring down at the table.
Nodding, Von Drachen turned to Von Sturm with a grin on his face.
“You must build up a rapport with the prisoner.” He said.
“What the hell did you two talk about?” Von Sturm asked.
“She wants to destroy my country, I think.” Von Drachen replied.
Furiously, Von Sturm pounded his foot on the ground.
He then pounced on the desk again. “I’ll goddamn kill you! Start talking tanks, now!”
Von Drachen sighed.
“You need to give her incentives to answer. Otherwise what is the point?”
Again Von Sturm pointed furiously at the woman across the table.
She started rubbing her feet on one another, staring at the walls indifferently. She was a little scuffed up from her capture but mostly unharmed — she had been caught very recently, wandering half-starved in the Kalu region, over a week after Bada Aso. Dark skin, dark hair, fairly tall, rather slender; typically Ayyartan. Tiny red rings glowed around her eyes; Von Drachen knew not their origin or significance. They had only this one prisoner, and he did not pay particular attention to people’s eyes anyway.
To him, she was just another poor friendly Ayvartan caught up in this mess.
“Listen,” Von Sturm pointed at her even more sharply, touching her nose, “listen here you unfathomable moron. Her incentive, is that I’ll set her on fire if she doesn’t answer!”
“She’s already been set on fire before.” Von Drachen replied. “She lives in the Ayvartan south, my good man. She cannot be set any more on fire. And as I said, such actions against Dahlia 12 anyway, and I’ll have to inform the field marshal if you harm her.”
Von Sturm slapped the palm of his hand against his face. He lowered his voice to a clearly agitated whispering. “You moron, we’re threatening her so she’ll give us information. I’m not actually setting her on fire. I can’t believe you would do this–”
“She doesn’t understand you, my good–”
Von Drachen shrugged.
“I am only trying to uphold propriety here, Anton. You start with setting a girl on fire. Then they set their prisoners on fire, if they have any. I don’t know. Next thing you know, we’re setting more of our prisoners on fire. Then they drop chemical weapons on us. Have you seen what phosgene does to a person? We must avoid that at all costs.”
Von Drachen felt that he was being perfectly reasonable, and there was a great disappointment in him for the future of the human race when Von Sturm merely stood and stared at him in confusion, as opposed to changing his ways and accepting this rationale. He saw the General’s hands rise threateningly, shaking, as if ready to–
There was then a stark instant of white sunlight piercing the gloom in the tent.
Entering the lit center of the interrogation area, a slender young woman, tall, soft-featured, with brown hair hanging at the level of her jaw, purple pom-poms dangling from her earrings. Dark circles around her half-closed, sleepy-looking eyes and an unpleasant facial expression attested to the state of her morale. Her dark red lips added the smell of cigarettes and liquor to the artificial scents of the interrogation tent.
“Fruehauf! Finally! A ray of hope in this gloom!” Von Sturm shouted, raising his hands.
“At your disposal, Brigadier.” She drawled; but still sharply punctuated the final word.
Von Sturm winced; likely he felt her pronunciation, a verbal dagger to his proud heart.
Once, Von Sturm had been a Major General. Now he was a lowly Brigadier again.
Despite her intentions, the General took a much gentler, coddling tone with her now.
“Fruehauf, I need you to talk to the prisoner, woman to woman.” Von Sturm said.
Fruehauf slowly raised an eyebrow. “I do not speak Ayvartan, Brigadier.”
“That doesn’t matter. You two have a deeper connection than language. Talk to her.”
“I don’t follow.” Fruehauf groaned. She rubbed her head as if stricken by a sudden pain.
Von Sturm started to talk with his mouth and hands at once. Von Drachen realized to his mute horror that his hands were making far more sense than his mouth at this point.
“Listen, Fruehauf, you, and her, you are linked by these incredibly deep, ancient, powerful and secret oaths of femininity. You are sisters in this world. You two have a history, thousands of years old, developed over hearths and berries and children and humours; no interrogator can unlock that bond! I know once you get in front of her, you’ll be able to plumb the depths of her like no one else can! It’s a woman’s touch!”
There was silence in the tent for several seconds as Von Drachen and Fruehauf struggled to catch up to the monumental proclamations frantically rushing out of Von Sturm’s mouth. His eyes were open too wide and his mouth hung too slack. It seemed every syllable built into an ever more inscrutable edifice, and the fullness of his incoherence was not readily apparent until well after the last word was said. Unraveling this abstract masterpiece of word, Fruehauf scoffed, comprehending enough to be offended.
“What are you talking about? What the hell has gotten into you today?” She said. She turned her head sharply toward Von Drachen. “What the hell has gotten into him?”
“I really cannot say.” Von Drachen replied, stroking his chin, wide-eyed, unsettled.
Von Sturm reached out his hands to her. “Fruehauf, you bring new paradigms here. You’re a communications expert, aren’t you? You need to decrypt this woman.”
Fruehauf crossed her arms and grit her teeth and glared at Von Sturm with deadly intent.
“I’m an electronic communications expert! Brigadier, are you drunker than I?”
She looked and sounded steadily more irritated with the Brigadier General. And since his recent demotion, she was no longer demure about her displeasure. She was raising her voice, and her expression made it clear she was both sober enough and drunk enough now to throttle him. She leaned forward on him, adjusting her height to his own.
Von Sturm squirmed beneath her stature. “Fruehauf, I’m running out of options.”
Fruehauf stared dully at him for a moment and shook her head.
“Brigadier, I believe I have several empty frequencies to listen to. Guten tag.”
Turning sharply on her heels, Fruehauf stormed out of the tent.
Flash white; then the gloom settled once again.
“Wait, Fruehauf, please!”
Von Sturm ran after her in complete hysterics.
Again the room was silent and still, save for the rubbing of the prisoner’s feet against one another under the table as she waited. In the furor, she had been forgotten again.
For a while longer Von Drachen turned over Von Sturm’s words in his head. It seemed almost like the kind of thing that would come to Von Drachen’s mind unbidden, and he wondered how and why Von Sturm was siphoning his fancies now before he even had them. It was strangely endearing, and put a smile on his face as he thought of it.
“I feel that I rather like that lad. Is that wrong?” Von Drachen asked.
Behind the table, the prisoner shrugged.