This scene contains violence and a graphic depiction of disease.
46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu North, near the Ghede
Turning in from the road, Field Marshal Haus’ Sentinel Foot 8-wheeled armored car followed a series of blue flags across several kilometers of the wood. There were no men, and any tracks from patrolmen were carefully covered; but any traveler with a keen enough eye would have been wary of the rags hanging from various trees across the forest. Each flag was a different amount of meters from the next, but the path was still there for those who knew where to look and how to interpret the posted signs.
Standing out of the Sentinel-type 50mm gun turret that was the vehicle’s namesake, Haus directed his driver through the thick, hard terrain, crossing the forest toward the northern riverside. They did not come across a single other soul along the way. Haus knew the significance of the flags, and the lack of patrols did not disturb him.
It was all of his own design, after all. He had ordered the patrols ended.
He would need every last man he could spare in the center for this next effort.
Haus found himself painlessly navigating through the forest into the T-Battalion staging area, an eerie space devoid of trees save for one massive trunk with a hollow that embraced the entire clearing, and a deeply bowed crown of evergreen leaves. Hundreds of men lurked in the outskirts, and what seemed like a hundred loitered within the clearing itself, sitting on the beds of trucks, with their backs against crates, downcast.
Standing under the ancient, mournful giant, they seemed defeated already.
It was an atmosphere that was fit for mourning, punctuated by screams of agony that resounded across the clearing — there was a commotion in a nearby medical tent.
Haus stared quizzically from atop his turret.
“Cathrin, I think you should stay in the car for this one.” He said, wincing at the noise.
Below him, seated calmly beside a radio, Cathrin bowed her head in acknowledgment.
Haus pulled himself up from the turret hatch, and climbed down the side of the Sentinel Foot. He hit the floor in a quick stride and hurried to the medical tent. Sweeping aside the entrance flaps, Haus found several men gathered around a bed where another landser lay, struggling against belt bonds and screaming as loudly as his lungs would allow. Between fits and screams sounded recurring snapping noises, and few of the men backed away with each snap. As Haus closed in on the mob, he averted his eyes.
From a bleeding ulcer on the bound man’s leg a long, sharp worm struggled against a stick held from afar by a medic, who was driven to near hysterics by the terror of his task. As he turned his stick, he wound the worm around it, and pulled more of its length from the man’s wound. Haus thought the abomination must have been at least a meter long, and thick as a thumb. At the beast’s front end, dripping jaws snapped at the men.
“Messiah defend.” Haus intoned. “What the hell happened to this man?”
“Sir!” One of the men in the sidelines, a Sergeant judging by his pins, saluted the Field Marshal while the rest of the men watched in stunned horror or wincing sympathy. The Sergeant swallowed hard, glanced at the bloody sight, and explained, “He came in this morning saying his leg hurt. He couldn’t remove his boot, so we got the medic to cut his leg, and we found that thing. He must’ve drank unfiltered water somewhere, maybe a few weeks ago, and got infected; this thing must’ve grown in him and it wants out now!”
“Why the hell would you drink unfiltered water around here?”
Twist; the worm snapped, the man screamed, the medic gingerly turned the stick.
Blood spurted on the bed.
One of the tent guards grabbed hold of his mouth and ran outside, leaving his rifle.
His choking and heaving joined the cacophony of bodily noises in the tent.
The Sergeant cringed. He pinned his eyes on Haus, the least unsettling sight in the tent.
“It was part of our survival training sir! River water is supposed to be fresh!” He said.
“Fresh as in not salt water! It’s still unsafe!” Haus replied. He felt a touch irate that he was being made to witness such a grotesque sight that could’ve been prevented.
He almost wanted to take out his handgun and shoot the worm dead.
But then it might putrefy inside the man and that would definitely cripple him.
“You’re all dismissed from the operation; stay here, tend to this man, and please, for the love of God, enlighten your units about the price of carelessness in this bestial nation.”
Shaking his head at the men, Haus left the tent.
Fresh screaming followed him out.
“Where is Major Troppf?” He called out.
A gaggle of depressed-looking soldiers pointed him into the wood.
“Look lively!” Haus shouted at them. “We’re carrying out an operation today!”
There were nods in response but no change in demeanor.
Haus returned to the Sentinel Foot and tapped his knuckles on the armor. Out from the top popped Cathrin’s blond head, peeking over the hatch just enough for a pair of bespectacled blue eyes and some golden hair to come into view. She blinked, and Haus silently beckoned her to follow. She pulled herself over the hatch, and climbed delicately down the side, clip-board in hand, a radio backpack fastened by her waist-belt and around her shoulders, and its paired headset perched on her crown. She had traded her heels for combat boots, and wore thicker, sturdier black leggings with her skirt uniform.
“What was the commotion?” She asked. Was seemed out of place; the man in the tent had never quite stopped screaming. They had merely gotten used to the noise now, enough that it blended into the background of rustling leaves and billowing breezes and pattering boots.
“I’d rather not recall it.” Haus replied. “Come on.”
Ambling a short distance out from the clearing, Haus and Cathrin followed the landser’s vague directions and found a big tent with the symbol for a headquarters. It was surrounded by bushes and camouflaged with a net entwined with twigs and leaves and green branches. Inside, Major Troppf, an older man with a gaunt face, sat behind a skeletal folding table, spinning a pencil around. He looked sleepy and bored.
At the sight of the Field Marshal, he dropped his pencil and thrust up from his chair.
“Sir!” He raised his arms in salute.
Haus stared inexpressively at the man. “Are your troops ready?”
“Yes sir! We’ve mobilized the entire battalion to this general area.”
“Have they been appraised of the situation?”
“They’ve been taught what they need to do.”
Haus was not especially pleased with that answer.
One could teach a parrot words, but they would not know their context or meaning. A parrot could say your name, but it would never be able to call it out with any emotion or in a complete sentence. He would have hoped in the past few hours he could have told the troops the exact nature of Haus’ plan and the day’s strategy, but it was too late for that now. He would have to hope his parrots could sing their words well enough.
As Haus’ gaze fell more bluntly upon Troppf, the Major averted his own.
“I will be taking tactical command at the front.” Haus said. “Tell your units to keep contact with Ms. Habich here at all times, and to answer any command from myself immediately.”
Major Troppf looked taken aback. His eyes rose again to Haus’ face, and he raised his hands as if trying to calm down an irate child. “Sir, with all due respect, it is too dangerous for the Field Marshal to take to the front! We can command the battle from here; this headquarters might not seem like much, but our radio reception is reliable.”
Haus felt insulted; what commander didn’t pine for the war at the front?
“If I was not willing to get my hands dirty I would not have come this far.” He said.
Without further explanation, Haus turned his back on the Major and ambled nonchalantly out of the tent. Cathrin remained behind only long enough to hand the stunned Troppf a card with the frequencies she would be using. After that, she too turned on her heel and vacated the area. They returned to the Sentinel Foot, through the little gaggles of men lying depressingly about, and under the almost rhythmic cries of the worm-stricken man.
“What was your impression of him?” Haus asked aloud, as if to the air.
Cathrin answered. She pushed up her glasses; her face was coolly dispassionate.
“Another man who thought he could slide by; unwilling to take risks.”
“Unwilling, or incapable?”
“You’re a harsh but precise judge of character.”
Haus offered Cathrin a hand, and helped lift her onto the step at the back of the Sentinel Foot. It was help she did not need, but that he always offered, and that she always took. She opened the hatch, and climbed inside. Haus followed. They settled in their places. A box of ammo for him; the little corner where the radios had been bolted to the armored wall, for her. At the front, their driver waved a greeting. They would not be leaving yet.
“Is Von Sturm’s presence required at the front?” Cathrin asked, sliding her headset gently onto her head and over her ears. She adjusted the microphone on her collar. If necessary, she could ring him up, and he could arrive within the hour. He had more than enough time.
“No, let him come if he wants to.” Haus said.
Cathrin nodded. “Do you desire for him to appear?”
“It would improve my respect for him.” Haus replied.
He looked over his shoulder at the Sentinel turret near the vehicle’s front, set atop the highest point of the Sentinel Foot’s backward-sloping armor. Steps on the wall allowed one to climb into the turret basket, which projected down into the chassis, and from there onto the gunner’s seat. Though the Foot was only lightly armored, its 50mm Sentinel gun packed a better punch than the M5 Light Tanks that constituted most of the 13th’s armor power.
It encapsulated Haus’ view of war. High risk, high reward.
Unlike many of his Generals, he could climb on that turret and fight.
He wanted to.
“How much is your respect worth?” Cathrin asked.
Haus chuckled. He could tell what she was implying.
“In the end, whether he appears or not, Von Sturm will retain a position, because men other than me who gave him a position do not desire to be proven wrong about their judgment. His name, his legacy, and what he represents, make him too big to fail too utterly. Propriety dictates that he will be part of this army, will have missions, and may even share in the glory at the end of the hostilities. He cannot fail anyone but himself.”
Cathrin nodded her head, and turned her back on Haus, returning to her radios.
“Then I don’t think your respect is worth enough for him to come.” She said.
Haus smiled. “You really are a cruel girl.”
Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North
Selene Lucci slept well considering the circumstances.
It helped that prisoners were held in a tent that was exceedingly dark.
She could hardly see the features of her hands or the thick seam stitches on the sleeves of her dress. It was fairly cool when she laid close to the ground, and the earth was soft and comforting. Her captivity was relatively more livable than she had imagined.
Cages had come to mind, but instead she was only chained.
Her legs were chained to a block which had been buried beneath the tent, thus preventing her from even attempting to drag it around. Her arms were chained, but there was a lot of slack, and they were not tied behind her back as they were when she was kidnapped from the village. And she had been left well enough alone since yesterday, so she did not have to contend with any blathering Nochtish interrogators or guards.
God had truly blessed her.
Having carried her through that first night, she hoped He might deign to give her a way out of this test which He had put before her. Comfortable captivity was still captivity.
In the morning, Selene woke, and sat on a chair which had been left for her.
She could not see outside the tent. Her only source of light was a thin slit beneath the door, which was otherwise fastened tight from the outside with a zipper, and made of a fabric that allowed no light to filter through the cloth. Still, she frequently turned her eyes to the slit, and the very dim light filtering into her confinement. Should someone come to the door of the tent even that precious sliver of light would become obvious shadow.
Soon the slit was shadowed, as she expected.
Outside, the zipper came undone, and the tent flap parted.
Selene expected the sudden entry of sunlight to blind her. But the effect was far less dramatic than she envisioned. When the tent flaps opened, she caught a glimpse of green and brown from the tent’s surroundings, but the light in the tent was still dim, as was the world outside of it. Carrying a little lamp and a tray of food, Kern Beckert entered the tent. He had on the same dismal expression as he did yesterday.
She felt nothing at his appearance. She turned her head from the door.
“I brought food.” He said. He sounded drained.
“Comforting to know I won’t starve.” Selene dryly replied. He cringed a little. Causing him discomfort had become almost empowering to her. He was visibly torn up about what he was doing, but if he did not stop nor change, then he was the same as the rest. His regrets were useless to her; his squirming in her presence was at least mildly amusing.
Kern ambled toward the chair and set the tray on her lap. He put a spoon in her hand.
“It’s oatmeal, with milk. There’s a sugar packet on the tray too.”
Selene considered playing the hard prisoner, and refusing her food, maybe even tossing the tray at Kern and soiling his smart grey uniform. Would that have caused him to recoil? Would he have gotten angry, or felt the words of his uncouth companion with the gun vindicated by her actions? Would he think her a savage in a savage land?
She stared down at the oatmeal, dimly lit by the tiny orange flicker from the lamp.
She dipped her spoon in it, and ate. It was bland, but it was food.
She was hungry, and playing tough would get her nowhere.
Catharthic as it was, she might have to lighten up on the northern boy.
“Are you going to be my guard?” She asked.
“No,” he replied. He sttuttered his next words. “I’m going to the front soon. There’ll be another guard posted. I just thought– I don’t know. I wanted to come see you.”
Selene raised her eyes off her tray and glared at him.
“I’m far from comfortable being in your thoughts.” She said.
“I expected that.” Kern said. He rubbed his hand down his face. “I’m going to go. Please stay put and don’t rile up the guards, Sister. Nobody wants you to come to harm. I think once we’re past this river, they’ll let you go. Everyone thinks you might give up our position if you are released now, but that won’t matter when we move forward.”
Selene scoffed. “This is ridiculous. How could I give up your position now? To whom? I can’t escape north, through your lines, only south. And you’ve conquered the South.”
“I don’t know.” Kern said. He sighed. “I don’t know. I’m truly sorry.”
He turned around, hands in his pockets, head drooping, and left the tent.
Outside, he zipped the tent again.
She vaguely heard his first few steps away from the tent.
Then, like everything else in the outside world, the sound of him was blocked off.
On her lap, she still had the tray.
Oatmeal, sugar, a milk bag, a rounded spoon.
And a hard, metal tray.
Sensing the opportunity, Selene ate voraciously, spooning oatmeal into her mouth with zeal, drinking her milk in one gulp, and tossing aside the sugar. She picked up the tray and hid it behind her back on the chair. She tossed her spoon away as well.
Then she waited.
Time passed, indistinct to her. She finally saw the zipper pulling down.
Again the tent opened. A slim, brown-haired boy entered the room.
Unlike Kern, he did not have a lamp. Like Kern, he left the tent flap open.
“Afternoon ma’am. I’m Private Cohls. I’ll be sitting just outside the tent. Pull on the flap if you need to use the latrine, I’ll unlock ya. Food and drink comes three times a day.”
As he spoke, he closed in to within a few meters.
Selene had tested the length of her leg shackle the previous night.
Young, and smiling, cheerful, the Private entered her little circle.
Perhaps he was happy to have a cute girl for company, or under his power.
“Just gimme a shout if you want something. I’ll try to accomodate. My boss might be wanting to talk to you soon. I’ll give you a heads-up about that. Anyway. Nice to meet–”
He came close enough to stretch out a hand to shake.
Selene bolted up from her chair and hurled herself forward.
Swinging the tray, she struck the man on the jaw.
Blood and teeth sprayed into the air.
Private Cohls hit the ground. Selene heard a keyring jingling as he collapsed.
She knelt beside him and picked his body.
Her shackles soon fell to the floor beside him.
Through the open tent flap, Selene charged into the forest.
“God preserve me, for what I’ve done cannot be taken back.” She prayed.