The Battle of Knyskna II – Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Shaila Dominance Djose Wood, 8th PzD Headquarters Area

A gruesome ambush unfolded in Knyskna; it was all the more chaotic when witnessed only through the radio. Communication was so incoherent that Dreschner periodically ordered the lines to be cut for a moment so they could take a breather from the noise.

With the fighting dying down Karla Schicksal diligently wrote down the details – it would be up to her to pass on the losses to Oberkommando in a preliminary report via radio. Kampfgruppe K lost an entire platoon of assault guns in Knyskna, and several tanks suffered damage from a ceaseless barrage of heavy mortars that would be difficult to repair. However they managed to destroy key enemy positions in the process, and killed many of the entrenched communists, forcing the ambushers to flee from the site.

Kampfgruppe was a disaster, having lost a platoon of assault guns, an M4, and suffered damage similar to Kampfgruppe K, broken periscopes and blasted guns that would require them to pull back to the headquarters. They suffered these loses without taking any of the enemy in turn to show for it. In addition Kampfgruppe R‘s main route of advance had been destroyed and they would be slow and vulnerable if they stuck to the plan.

Piling atop these troubles, both Kampfgruppen had seen a total and devastating loss of foot soldiers. Each would have to bury its compliment of Baumgartner’s men.

There was a bright spot.

Kampfgruppe L had also been ambushed, and lost most of its platoon of assault guns to the attack, but it had retreated diligently and inflicted terrible damage to a platoon of communist light tanks, and its compliment of recon troops survived the onslaught.

This was the extent of the good news.

They could not rely on L for their main penetration: the Western thoroughfare, through which L advanced, wound more and took longer to navigate than the south or south-east.

Despite the setbacks, she realized every Kampfgruppe had achieved its (uncontested) initial objectives, therefore the operation was still on schedule.

Could additional movement be possible in these circumstances? Clearly their final objectives would be heavily contested, and the terrain favored the enemy. Driving through the main thoroughfare would leave them open to more ambushes, and there was still the question of breaking through the rubble in a timely fashion. With their depleted manpower, the 8th Panzer Division’s kampfgruppen in Knyskna might not be able to make it.

Obvious as it seemed with the benefit of hindsight, nobody in the 8th PzD had foreseen the vicious ambushes and the prodigal coordination that had made them possible.

All of the Kampfgruppen had been allowed to advance uncontested toward the ambush points, and had all been struck at almost the same time. Anti-tank rifles at relatively close range had taken tracks and engines. Anti-tank grenades at such ranges scored deadly hits that crippled the vehicles. Their men, inside and out of vehicles, became sitting ducks.

Schicksal sighed audibly. For the most part she felt quite removed from the fighting, as though not really a part of this invading army. But in these moments she felt a sickening sort of solidarity with the poor fools who had been burnt and blasted dead.

She also felt a disgusting complicity. She facilitated their march toward death. She had been a primary medium for many deadly words: “advance!” and “attack!” and so on. While Dreschner gave the orders, so many men heard them through her voice.

Many perhaps found it soothing to do so.

That was probably a key part of her job. Schicksal had a good voice. Did these men feel more inclined to charge into ambush having heard a siren lure them to this course?

Schicksal sighed; she wondered how people reacted to her reports. Would seasoned warriors think about this situation and its participants differently? Was there a different brain in a General or Field Marshal’s skull than the one she had been born with?

She pulled down her glasses and rubbed her temples. She stared long and hard at her radio, her vision blurring in and out of focus and a tight pain flaring across her head as she pressed with her fingers. Her mind was running away with her. She reined it in.

She was just a signals girl, she had no power and no debt of blood to anyone.

Many of these men probably did not even consider her a soldier.

From overhead, Dreschner tapped her on the shoulder with his foot.

“Shicksal!” He called out authoritatively.

“Yes sir!” She replied.

“I order you to eat!” He unexpectedly replied.

Schicksal pulled down her headset and looked over her shoulder.

“Say again sir?”

“You have not eaten a thing in seven hours now. Break open your Keinne and eat.”

“Yes sir.” She said. In the back of her mind she felt he was being quite patronizing. She thought she was just fine. He hadn’t eaten either. But he must have seen her rubbing her head and sighing and staring at her radio with frustration. Obediently Schicksal pulled open a gray pouch on the floor of the tank, along the wall with her radio equipment.

Inside was a can of Fleisch, and bundles of bread and cheese wrapped in wax paper. She spread the creamy, pungent meat paste atop the dark, hard bread and ate, gnawing on the cheese between bites. Beside the bread, meat and cheese they had a large can of mixed vegetables preserved in stock, and sugar candy in the form of little amber rocks.

There was nothing to drink but water.

Schicksal was quick to finish her meal. It fell into her stomach like a stone, and it was all rather bland. Perhaps a bit of oil or mustard would have helped the taste.

She found the repetition of chewing and tasting eerily calming regardless.

While she ate, Brigadier-General Dreschner had thoroughly looked over the same photos for the fifth time, and nodded his head to them. They were all taken days ago and were in Schicksal’s mind mostly useless as a source of information on the current enemy position, but Dreschner was incredibly interested in them. From time to time Dreschner would write something with an ink pen on one of the photos and mutter to himself.

He had invested much into this plan, having received permission to push ahead on his own from the Oberkommando Suden. The High Command wanted movement at any cost, and they were willing to believe that movement could be gained with Dreschner’s limited resources. Dreschner was all too eager to believe he could take Knyskna.

It was an ambitious drive, and though they had planned for a few snags, they had not planned on the level of resistance and ingenuity they were met with. Schicksal always snatched glances of the General as he worked, wondering dimly what went through the mind of a tactician, how he saw the unfolding battle. Did he think anything like she did?

She wondered how he saw the communists too; what he failed to see; what he saw now that could correct his earlier mistakes. It seemed alien to contemplate; and ultimately there was not much of a show for her in watching the man tap and fidget and grit his teeth.

Schicksal made to put her headset back over her hair and turned her back again, but she paused when she heard the General grunt in her direction and felt him tap her on the shoulder again. Graciously, but with an inner sigh, she met his eyes anew.

“Would you like some bread as well sir?” She replied with false cheer.

“No, not that. I’ve got a new route for Kunze and Reiniger to follow.”

Karla feigned interest. “Changing the plan, sir?”

“Our enemy is different than we expected.” Dreschner said.

“Do you think we can still take the rail station before night sir?” She asked.

“Yes.” Dreschner said tersely. Karla wondered whether this was all his pride talking.

But she was just the signals girl.

She listened, and with her soothing voice, she relayed the orders.

“In addition,” Dreschner said, rubbing his chin and smiling with a sudden satisfaction, “Contact Baumgartner and ask if among his men there are any Gebirgsabteilungen soldiers. I want those men in the southeast and the west, advancing into the city, alone. I want them to climb, and I want them to put those hookshots and rifles of theirs to good use.”

Karla nodded.

Dreschner was definitely wrapping his head around the situation now.

She saw it in his eyes.

28-AG-30: Knyskna, Southeast Inner Boroughs FOB

A dismal compliment of soldiers returned to the FOB.

It was late afternoon and the sun had already begun its trek down from the sky.

Soldiers trickled up from the southeast, climbing wearily over the rock, squeezing through rubble, and ambling across the open streets, making their way into the building.

Sgt. Bahir’s headquarters staff greeted the arrivals and furnished them with some food and drink in paper cups, soupy lentils and milk flavored with fruits, a minor pick-me-up.

Staff members took quick reports from surviving officers, gathered inventory and distributed supplies, and found everyone places to sit and rest. There was a somber and eerie mood around them. Nobody wanted to admit it, but they all felt quite defeated.

Squadron III arrived with the others. Though the ambush was far behind them, in Leander’s mind, and likely the minds of his comrades, he still heard the blasts and saw his allies die fighting, and it felt stunning and bizarre to him, like he had watched it in a film.

Sergeant Bahir entered the lobby where all the soldiers were gathered, and he appeared to look over everyone at once from his position by the door of his office.

He had a semblance of a smile and a fiery gaze.

“Good work everyone.” He said. The instant he started to speak all the whispers in the room quieted. Despite only being a Sergeant, Bahir was older than everyone else in the room and more experienced. He commanded the respect of a general within this FOB, and everyone was eager for his message. It would end up being brief.

“Nocht will have to work harder to penetrate through to this FOB. All of our defensive sectors across Knyskna are holding so far. I received word from the railyard that we have only a few more trainloads before our armored train can take us all from here. Avenge your fallen comrades by living to fight another day. Victory is close, comrades!”

He raised his fist into the air, and everyone followed. This was all the speech that he would give. It was not the right time now for long speeches. He acknowledged them and praised their efforts and that was all he could do in the face of what had transpired.

Once Sergeant Bahir and his staff retreated back into their makeshift office, and everyone in the room began to idle once more, Leander felt Elena’s hand settle on his back.

He looked over his shoulder, and she tapped him in the cheek to make him look away, positioning herself behind him and sliding her hands into his jacket solemnly.

Bonde joined her, and from the glances Leander got of his face he appeared concerned.

Though Elena was as ginger to him as she could be, his wounds still stung awfully whenever she touched them. She inspected him, and shook her head several times while doing so and made disapproving sounds. She was exasperated by his condition and he did feel like a bit of a fool for his recklessness back in the thoroughfare.

“Leander, you need to go find a medic and get yourself patched up.” Elena said.

“I’m fine.” Leander replied. He wanted to stand guard. An attack would be coming. It hurt, but he could deal with the pain. He hoped during battle it would fade into the background completely. It was only a dull, persistent ache at the moment.

“Your back is a mess of bloody cuts. You could get an infection. Go.” Elena insisted.

Sharna recused herself from the discussion, but Bonde was watching them intently.

“Go to the medic, Leander.” Bonde said suddenly. It sounded like an order.

Leander complied.

He dropped his BKV and ammunition into a crate, and asked a nearby soldier where to go. With her directions he made his way to the back of the building, arriving at a rectangular sky-blue room once used as a washing and laundry space. Soldiers had pushed the cylindrical washing machines out into the alleyway behind the room’s back door, and the space was now occupied by a few tables and curtains. It was a lonesome place.

There were no wounded men or women to accompany Leander.

Anyone who might have qualified from the forward platoons had been wounded to death. Nobody had even had time to collect their bodies due to the situation.

Leander purged his mind of such morbid ideas, drank his milk and tipped the gooey lentils into his mouth. He could not even focus on the taste. Seated on the edge of a wheeled bed he waited for a medic to come tend to him. There were no medical orderlies on hand this time. Manpower of that nature was scarce; the few medics probably had other duties.

He figured that someone would be sent to him soon enough, after they completed some other chore around the FOB, and so he waited patiently for what seemed like a half hour for attention. He wondered idly what kind of doctor had stayed behind with them.

Whenever he stopped moving or fighting, he always seemed drawn to take greater notice of his condition, and all the little discomforts that were piling up. On the battlefield it was easy for him to forget the slight chafing of his breasts against the brace, the aching of the bruises across his chest and belly and shoulder whenever he bent or moved his arms.

He smelled like gunpowder and smoke, and there was a hollow ringing in his ears from the absence of explosions and screaming and gunfire. He guessed he was a soldier now, more than before. A week ago he had no training and a rifle he could barely work.

Now he had all kinds of scars, and an eerily building knowledge of battle.

Leander sighed a little. But this was the man he had chosen to be.

A man who could protect his people and his dreams in absence of any greater technical skill or ambition. Was that an ideal soldier? He didn’t know. It was just who he was.

He was starting to regret having time alone to think.

When finally he heard steps along the adjoining hall, he raised his head. So far he had given no consideration to seeing another doctor and explaining his unique status to them: but he figured it would not be a problem. Then, through the empty doorway into the room appeared a familiar face. It was Dr. Agrawal in her white coat and long skirt, her hair tied up into a bun and her face looking less rough than the day before. She was on her own and smiled when she came into the room. Leander’s own face brightened at the sight.

“Ah, Leander Gaurige! I did not expect you to be here.” She said, loudly and cheerfully. Leander flushed a little bit. “Don’t be surprised, you are still quite fresh on my mind. I thought by now you would be safe on your way to Solstice. I must admit it is bittersweet to see you again. I love familiar patients, but people only come to me with misfortune.”

“Sorry.” Leander said. “I had to stay. It’s the kind of man I am, you could say.”

“I suppose you could be a much worse kind of man than this!” Dr. Agrawal said, patting him on the shoulder. Leander cringed a little bit, and she removed her hand. “Oh, sorry, sorry. I’m such a friendly oaf sometimes. I need to regain my professional spirit.”

“It is fine. I can feel myself healing already in your care.” Leander said.

Dr. Agrawal laughed. “I’m not that good I’m afraid. Are you surprised to see me?”

Surprised was a large understatement. Leander was quite visibly exuberant.

It was almost like meeting a great friend again after a long time, even though he had only met the doctor for the first time very recently. She had been very kind to him, and as his first real doctor, outside of quacks and spirit healers, she left an impression on him.

“I never asked what you were doing, but I assumed you would leave.” Leander said.

“No, I was never planning to go. I came out of a fairly early retirement in order to do necessary medical work in this time of crisis. A doctor should follow the blood draining from the people. So I decided to rejoin the army, albeit a bit begrudgingly. After all, I’m used to the environment. I learned medicine while in the army. It has been a quite a long time since I was last active military, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Well, I for one am glad you are here, doctor. Makes me feel safe.”

She nodded. “Working with wounded soldiers these past few days was what rekindled my commitment. And I must admit you were on my mind since we last met. Let us not leave your back running red for any longer, Private Leander Gaurige.”

Leander cooperated easily and removed his shirt and loosened brace to free his breasts. He was happy for the doctor’s company in this situation. It was a real relief to see her again.

Dr. Agrawal cut the bloody bandages from his back, and stared with consternation at the red, pitted expanse across his spine, covered in shards of metal and long cuts.

He saw everything in a mirror established across the room.

It was worse than it looked when he had his clothes on.

However it was not crippling. Just a honeycomb of bright red flesh wounds.

The Doctor nodded to herself after examining him, and stepped beside the bed. From a nearby crate she gathered clean towels, tweezers, a roll of bandages and a bottle of clear liquor. She put all the things atop a little trolley and kicked it over to the bed.

Leander was puzzled by the final item and picked up the bottle.

“This is eighty-percent alcohol!” Leander said with child-like wonder.

Dr. Agrawal took the bottle from his hands, and tapped him on the head with the cap. “It would certainly make your throat feel a bit raw if you drank it. But it’s not going in there right now. Liquor has other important uses in a time of crisis you see.”

She popped the top of the bottle, shook it to give him a warning, and then poured a steady stream over Leander’s shoulder. He cringed and clung to the side of the bed with his hands, his wounds flaring up with stinging pain the instant the liquid dripped over them. He felt heat seeping through the cuts and into his flesh, and felt the sharpness of the fragments anew as the liquor flowed past them and over the gashes on the surface.

“We ran out of medical alcohol, but hard liquor is decent.” Dr. Agrawal said.

Leander grit his teeth and tried to smile a little through it, saying nothing.

Dr. Agrawal picked up her tweezers, and the towels and bandages, and she set to work, taking the tiny bits of steel and pulling them gently out of Leander’s body, setting them aside, then cleaning the wound again with another sharp drizzle of liquor. Dabbing from the towels irritated his flesh, but Leander tried to be strong and stony faced.

Between cleaning and pulling, Dr. Agrawal paused and looked up at the mirror, feigning like she was examining him with more interest.

After a few times, she finally came out and said what she was thinking.

“Bullets to the chest and explosions behind your back. I see you’re becoming a regular soldier, my boy!” She pulled another fragment as she spoke. Her ward could not help but burst out laughing through the hot discomfort of the liquor seeping into his wounds and the awkward touch of her tools across his back pulling out pieces of steel.

It was strange but wonderful to him how he could laugh in the middle of these events, in a medic’s quarters having fragments pulled from him and blood cleaned off his back.

Once all the pieces had been pulled from him, Dr. Agrawal dressed the wounds.

“Thanks.” Leander said softly. Both for the treatment and the good laugh.

“I try.” Dr. Agrawal replied. “A good attitude helps everyone. Myself included.”

“Is that how you handle being in the military?” Leander asked.

“All of the labor involved in that is invisible. It happens in the brain. What aspect of the military do you wish to harden yourself against? Fear? Loss? Grief? Everyone thinks about each of them differently.” Dr. Agrawal said. She closed her eyes and smiled contemplatively. “I used to feel a mute pain and pity for everyone around me. Gradually the group of people I mourned for grew smaller, not always by death, but simply by necessity. You’ll start with a big heart in war, but you’ll find that it will shrink.”

“I see. Being honest, I sort of want to weep for all the comrades who lost their lives.” Leander said. He smiled a little. He felt the tears in his eyes but he did not weep. He felt oddly calm. “I do not, though. Perhaps my heart is already hard.”

“It is not. If it were, you would not admit it to yourself so readily.”

“Is it alright to be calm in the middle of this? I’m sitting here awaiting an attack.”

“War is an alien thing, especially in these times. We all process it differently.”

“I suppose that’s just another part of myself I have to figure out.” Leander said.

Dr. Agrawal finished wrapping his bandages and helped him to affix his chest brace anew. She patted him gently on the shoulder with the tips of her fingers, careful to be friendly with her touch but not actually excite his wounds in any way.

“You would be a novel man indeed if you can completely decipher such a thing.”

Leander stood from the bed. He extended his hand toward the doctor and she shook it.

“It is no problem at all comrade.” She said. “This is my reason to live.”

“Will you be staying? With our company, I mean. Or our division? I don’t know.”

Dr. Agrawal chuckled. “I would usually be considered a regimental asset, but perhaps I can convince HQ about the dire need for increased medical care at all levels. But yes, unless misfortune befalls me, I intend to follow your general grouping of men and women as far as we go. I will try to be available specifically to you if that is possible.”

She withdrew a card from her pocket, with her name on it, and handed it to Leander.

“Just show anyone that card if you need care and I will see to it to personally.”

Leander beamed. “Thank you! I would feel much more comfortable that way.”

“I’m glad you appreciate the arrangement.” Dr. Agrawal beamed back. “Until we get to Solstice, I’d like to do what I can to help you. You’re a special patient. I really want you to meet Dr. Kappel. I think it will do you so much good to meet with her.”

“I will definitely make it to Solstice and meet her.” Leander said. Though a part of him wondered why she was so happy to help him, he suppressed this cynicism rapidly and easily. “And maybe you can meet Dr. Kappel yourself as well!”

“Ah, no; I have different people I must meet first if Solstice is ever on my horizon.”

She looked a touch melancholy for a moment, the light wrinkling around her mouth and eyes becoming a bit more pronounced, and a flash of an old pain in her eyes.

Their conversation was cut short before Leander could venture to ask what was wrong and who she might meet instead of her colleague. A uniformed man tapped his fist on the door frame several times and leaned through. He was a little shaken up.

“All HQ staff must prepare for evac, ma’am, and the Private should go out front.”

Dr. Agrawal nodded. “Go on, Leander. And take care.”

Leander followed the beleaguered soldier out to the lobby, where everyone crowded around Sgt. Bahir and a few of his direct subordinates at the door to the FOB.

He sought out Squadron III and easily found Sharna standing about a head taller than anyone else, drumming her fingers along the body of her BKV anti-tank rifle.

Leander regrouped with his comrades and asked them to catch him up on what was happening. He saw people everywhere, and standing at the doorway, Sgt. Bahir spoke determinedly into a radio, but Leander could not hear what he was saying or listening to.

“Supposedly a runner’s coming with information.” Elena said. “Are you well?”

“I’m fine.” Leander sighed. “I was fine before, actually, but I am even better now.”

Elena frowned at him. “You were only a fine way from an infection.”

Shots rang suddenly out across the ruins.

Through the gaps in the bodies around him Leander saw a pair of people running at them from the distance, rifle bullets striking the earth around their feet with sharp cracks.

People started to disperse and he could see better what was going on outside.

It was the forward observers running toward them and under attack, desperately climbing over rubble, squeezing between broken buildings and running across stretches of wide-open street to try to make it to safety. Someone out there was gunning for them.

Men and women from the FOB suddenly leaped over the open window frames and through the door of the lobby and onto the street, their own rifles in hand, and opened fire at the buildings overlooking the thoroughfare to try to cover for the runners.

Leander, stunned, did not join the charge. As he watched things unfold, he felt almost bitterly that he should go fight, but he and his squad stayed behind instead. He felt more than a little foolish huddling in cover with Elena and Sharna and Bonde.

Outside, the situation was confused. Fire fell intermittently, deflecting off rubble or striking the ground near boots and crouched legs. Nobody could find the snipers anywhere at first, until suddenly a bullet carved a bloody hole through the neck of one of the runners, and it seemed that all at once half the company was locked to the same building a block away and firing relentlessly. A body fell from a high window and people ran out to collect it as well as the injured runner, who choked in the street, grasping the wound.

Despite this, bullets continued to fall from nearby rooftops and the battle continued both for the people outside and for the people in the FOB, as the snipers began to put their rounds through the windows and the door with increasing frequency and accuracy.

A burst of chopping gunfire that could have only come from a Norgler fell near the rifle troops outside. The HQ staff began to wave people to cover and distributed guns. Leander picked up a BKV again and aimed out the window, but couldn’t see a thing to shoot. Sharna and Elena filled the air with lead in his stead, and Bonde picked up a scope and scanned the area, but it all seemed hopeless for them from where Leander sat.

A dozen meters away the runners and the soldiers from the FOB linked up, and took cover from the snipers and from the hidden machine gun together. Sgt. Bahir watched them. Unfazed, barely hiding against the building’s door frame, he cast a smoldering look at a cluster of nearby structures. He turned a dial on his radio and called their artillery.

“Company calling for a 120mm barrage on the Dunbe apartment block, hit the rooftops. Three tubes, 15 rounds total across three buildings. Coordinates to follow–”

Minutes later the sound of machine guns and rifles coming from the rooftop was shouted down by the blasting of mortar shells, crashing down in as much of a rolling barrage as three tubes could muster across the rooftops of three adjacent buildings.

Rooftops collapsed under the heavy mortar shells, and smoke and flames belched from the upper floor apartment windows. As the shells fell and the smoke blew Sgt. Bahir waved for the people outside the FOB to run back inside, escorting the live observer and carrying the injured observer and the body of the dead Nocht soldier into safety. Inside they settled the injured observer down on a table, but it was too late. A medic pulled down her eyelids and arranged her hands over her chest. Feeling that the presence of death would upset everyone, a few soldiers were tasked with taking the body out back to be bagged up.

Meanwhile Sgt. Bahir examined the badge on the Nocht soldier.

He picked it up and raised it to his eyes, and everyone around the room could see it.

It was a flower that Leander had never seen before. It was easy to tell that this sniper was a different kind of soldier than the men they had slaughtered around the tanks. He had on a more rugged-looking uniform with a cape and hood and thicker pants, all gray with a strange pattern over them, and his rifle mounted a scope atop.

Clipped to his belt was a folding grappling hook. He was a climber.

Gebirgsjager.” Sgt. Bahir said. “The edelweiss badge leaves no doubt.”

“Mountaineer troops?” A member of Bahir’s staff asked.

“Yes. Trained for mobility in rough terrain. Such as the ruins all around us.”


Behind them, the remaining observer caught his breath and saluted clumsily.

He was not dressed in a military uniform, but in a vest and shirt and trousers, like a civilian, but with an orange scarf around his neck. Leander wondered if he was a civilian, or just dressed like one. Their observers were dispersed all over the city, watching Nocht’s movements and reporting via radio. What kind of circumstances would force them to run back? From the look of it all, it appeared to Leander that this Gebirgsjager soldier had been hunting the observers. He gulped at the thought of it. Such a feat in such a short span of time certainly made the mountain men of Nocht a lot more frightening an enemy.

The Observer stuttered as he spoke. He looked quite shaken up.

“Sir, the imperialist forces have left the thoroughfare here in the Southeast. They didn’t even move the wrecks from the ambush spot. They’re pushing through the buildings and alleys and taking a circumspect route toward us. I lost track of them sir, I’m sorry. I was attacked and lost my radio in a panic. She and I, we were attacked by them.”

“It’s alright.” Sgt. Bahir put his hands on his shoulder. “You did well. Take a horse from out back and evacuate. Carry her body to her family as well if you can. We thank you both for your service. This should not have been your fight, comrade.”

“Thank you sir.” Still shaking, the Observer was helped out back by staff.

Sgt. Bahir turned around to face all the soldiers on guard around the windows and the doorway, rifles out and looking over the windows and rooftops nearby for more of these Gebirgsjager men. He called them all to attention and pointed them outside. “Everyone gather your equipment. I want as many BKVs in hands as we can spare. We’re abandoning the FOB. Run to the alleys, take the horses and ride to the last line.”

Around him, there was a nodding of heads and the evacuation commenced in a hurry. Squadron III formed up quickly, took their things in shoulder slings and packs, and hurried outside with the rest. Leander suddenly looked forward to meeting a horse.

28-AG-30: 8th Panzerdivisione Southeast Advance

The M4 Sentinel medium tank carefully pushed its way into the building through a broken wall, budging cement blocks and rubble. While the structure shook, it did not collapse. Easily, the tank slid itself through a back door and into a little plaza between the buildings, a recreation area where the apartment’s inhabitants could get fresh air and sit.

Treading over a bench and past a wooden fence, the tank found itself squeezing into an alleyway between two buildings that had been reduced to gray and brown mounds. In the alley, the tank commander called his subordinates over the radio, and then one other M4 and a single M3 easily followed his trackmarks through the building and into the alley.

Together they advanced through the depths of Knyskna’s ruins, knowing that any major building collapse would force them to abandon their tanks. They advanced in small groups to avoid choking the tight paths and to coordinate easier. It was nerve-wracking movement, stopping and starting and stopping again, careful not to disturb the area.

As they wandered through broken buildings and squeezed into alleys and trod over hills of rubble, through their periscopes they saw tiny groups of Gebirgsjager men in their cloaks climbing the sides of tall, sturdy buildings to establish positions and flush out scouts.

In pairs and even sometimes on their own, these hunters protected the tanks from any more communist ambushes. Already they had flushed out a few communist scouts.

These were not the only men in the ruins.

Ahead of them, a man in motorcycle approached and waved for them to advance. He led them into open spaces between ruined blocks and standing structures. Every so often the motor soldier would pause beside the lead tank, climb it, pop the hatch and address the commander. He shared what he had learned about the area, and where next they could squeeze the tank platoon into and advance unopposed. They would call it in, await confirmation from a beautiful voice. Then they would be off again.

Brigadier-General Dreschner had ordered them to make their advance directly through the ruins and up north. And so they moved through the rubble, and they called Dreschner’s little siren to keep the General appraised of their progress through the maze.

“This is Signals Officer Schicksal in contact.” She said. “Report confirmed. Continue the advance as ordered. Watch the high ground for enemy activity.”

So they moved through the ruins, high explosive loaded into their cannons and ready to shoot in case of an ambush. They knew the communists had few tanks of their own, and those that did exist could be destroyed even without penetrating rounds.

These tankers had not personally seen the ambushes. They had been briefed, and they understood there was danger. But they were relatively fresh off the staging areas and no harm had come to them as they moved, so they were just as confident as the men in the morning, advancing through a land devoid of the enemy. They had heard of the embarrassing defeat of the communists at Tukino and Dori Dobo and in the borders.

They hailed from Nocht, the capital of capitalism – they would win.

For many of them, they had to win. For their country, yes; but also for their futures. For their careers. Names and histories were being made in this ancient land, and you either flew or you fell. Nocht’s technocrats demanded perfection. Nocht was a land of opportunity, but only the very best, the hardest working, the most skilled, would earn the true riches to be reaped. It was a competition; even as they advanced together every man knew that he had to take the glory for himself first, in order to earn himself a big seat like Dreschner’s.

United without, divided within, and with gold in their eyes, the tanks advanced.

Coordinating this effort in southeast Knyskna was Lt. Kunze. Unlike the Brigadier-General’s Befehlspanzer, Kunte’s M4 Sentinel had the standard radio equipment and a real gun. He could communicate with the FOB in Djose, but the farther he got, the worse he would sound to them. He could definitely not contact any forces farther than that, but he did not need to. Speaking to Dreschner (Schicksal, for the most part) was enough.

His tank was pitted and burnt and the left track was worse for wear – a 120mm mortar had nearly struck him, and he had endured several BKV attacks when he attempted to pursue the communists and avenge the loss of his assault gun platoon.

That had been more than enough combat for Lt. Kunze. He was anxious enough without suffering the persistent sweat and shaking of being in a fight. He hung back now, following a ways behind the advancing troops, always removed from them around a corner or hidden in an alleyway, observing and coordinating well away from the front.

From below him a boy barely out of his teens turned to face him. He was the radio operator of his tank crew, which included a gunner and loader in front of him, and a driver below as well. In a soft voice the boy said, “Schicksal is calling, sir.”

“Is this something you can’t handle? Turning a knob?” Kunze said contemptuously.

“She wants to speak with you personally.” the boy continued, his voice shaking.

“Fine, fine.”

Kunze pulled his headphones from around his neck and up to his ears.

“Lt. Kunze reporting.”

“Status report,” Schicksal asked, “Brigadier-General wishes to know your progress.”

“According to the Jagers, we’re only a few blocks away now. But we have to penetrate the thoroughfare from multiple alleys, or else we will have all the tanks bunched in one place and suffer the same problems.” Kunze replied.

“Correct. Therefore, you should make greater haste.” Schicksal said.

“We are advancing on schedule!” Kunze said, raising his voice suddenly.

Schicksal did not rise to the provocation.

Her own voice was smooth and clear, her lines delivered with precision and skillful timing. “Our schedule is being rewritten. Sunlight is precious right now. Brigadier-General Dreschner expresses his desire for you to personally direct the assault on the communist defenses along the southeast thoroughfare. It is, presently, the shortest and most direct route from which to attack the communist base, given the problems Reiniger is facing.”

She paused. Preempting a response, she spoke again.

“Of course, if you do not feel up to the task–”

Obviously, there was no choice. Clearing his throat and controlling his tone of voice again, Kunze replied much more affirmatively. “I am honored that the Brigadier-General chose me for this mission and I shall conduct it to the best of my ability.”

“Wonderful. Then, do make haste. All tracks are to stop at nightfall.”

Kunze grit his teeth a little reflexively. He hated it when the radio girl tried to tell him how to conduct himself. He hated it even more when she seemed like the one giving him orders, when she spoke with a voice like she had deigned to command him. What would she know about anything? How dare she talk so authoritatively to him as though she had a role of any importance in this battle? What goddamn nerve.

Of course, he knew intellectually that Schicksal was just passing along whatever it was Dreschner mumbled to himself in his radio tank as he waited for them to do the work.

But it still felt condescending and humiliating when it was she who delivered the lines and not the CO. It reminded him of the attitude she pulled in the Djose, talking when she wasn’t supposed to, sitting by Dreschner all the time like she was something special.

He envisioned Schicksal having just as much of a stick up her ass as Dreschner, all the while sitting comfortably behind the lines, and it vexed him.

He almost went as far as to say he hated Schicksal and her ilk.

But Kunze was at heart a fearful and stealthy creature.

He said nothing untoward. Schicksal had nothing to aspire to, and therefore she had nothing to be careful about, but he did, and he had to.

“Acknowledged.” He said. “We will speed up and breach soon.”

“Good. Report just before launching your attack. Schicksal out.”

Silence on the radio. Lt. Kunze and his tanks were now the premier force in Knyskna.

Kunze ripped his headphones from his head and in a sudden fit, threw them and the little box they were attached to at the radio boy, striking him behind the head with the object. Not a peep came out of the boy, and faced with Kunze’s sudden fury he just hunched closer to the small radio unit affixed to the side of the tank.

Irate, incoherent thoughts filled the Lieutenant’s head. He bit his nails. He sweated like a pig. It was all up to him now, suddenly. That snake Schicksal, he thought irascibly, her tone revealed nothing, she did not betray any of the impact of the situation in her voice, but he knew, he knew. This was his chance to either fly or fail. Dreschner was testing him.

He knew. His heart pounded.

Vorwärts!” Kunze shouted, his voice reverberating inside the tank.

His gunner and loader steadied themselves on their makeshift seats, and his driver sped them all out of an alleyway, cutting in front of a platoon of tanks in order to advance toward the creeping front line. He would be getting even closer now to the communists than he had ever been before. In his mind Kunze still heard the shots and the blasts and felt his tank shaking. His whole body trembled with the thought and his stomach roiled, but there was no other way. Regrettably he would have to direct the advance with greater fervor.

Otherwise, he risked a higher rank on Dreschner’s shit-list, along with Reiniger.

So many of their elite 8th PzD had failed already.

Kunze couldn’t afford to fail with them. This was for Nocht, for country, for people, for freedom, for capitalism, for glory, for himself. It was better to die than to fail this.

“Listen up, and broadcast this to the crews when I’m done.” Kunze shouted, his voice strained over the noise of the tank. “Kampfgruppe K has been given the honor of taking the communist’s base of operations in Knyskna. We will be the first into the oven and the last out, as it should be. We are the real men in this fight! Our country depends on us; depends on you. I’m expecting a swift and thorough victory! Allow none of the communist scum to escape your grasp. You have the better weapons, the better training, and the spirit of progress and ingenuity!  I want to hear no excuses and see no failures. There will be rewards, great rewards, to those who distinguish themselves! Vorwärts!

Everyone in the tank cowered; the message soon shook other hearts in Kpfg. K. as well.

28-AG-30: Southeast Inner Boroughs West Bend

Abandoning the FOB the Ayvartan troops ran toward the far side of the thoroughfare and vanished into its alleyways and intersections. Groups of horses had been tied down around the thoroughfare in case emergency transportation was needed.

Headquarters’ own horses were located just behind the FOB, and they were already riding up the thoroughfare: everyone else dispersed hastily off the path.

Leander’s squad ran two blocks up from the FOB and took a corner into a tight alleyway that opened up into a small sitting plaza between two big buildings, within which a single big tree had been planted. Several horses had been left tied to this tree, with one soldier left behind to care for them. He waved to make himself known when he saw Leander’s squadron approaching, and began to untie the horses for them.

Smiling, Leander approached one of the bigger horses in the pack, its hide a uniform brown and its mane long and dark. All of the horses were Ayvartan breeds, middleweight, meant more for riding than for heavy pulling, and they were quite beautiful to behold.

Though he might have been a stranger to war and an untrained warrior, Leander knew horses. A caravan was nothing without them, after all! He made cooing noises and stroked the horse’s muzzle as he stood near it. He laughed contentedly as he petted the animal.

Obediently, the horse made no move away from him, and seemed for the most part ambivalent to his presence. Fair enough! They didn’t know each other yet. He felt oddly excited about the horse, even in the middle of this situation. They could be attacked at any moment! But a horse was such a natural and beautiful and comforting sight.

Behind him, Elena laughed and patted him cheerfully in the back.

“You two are hitting it off, I see! What do you think of it?”

“This is a good horse.” He replied. “It has a great build. Does the army have cavalry?”

“Not in the way you’re thinking.” Bonde said, grinning at Leander. “We have cavalry units that ride horses to battle, dismount and then fight on foot. I’m afraid you won’t be leading any saber charges in this era. Not with machine guns around.”

“Around the caravan I always heard war stories but they were mostly about swordsmen and cavalry charges and things like that. I guess those stories just don’t work anymore.”

Bonde shook his head with a big smile on his face. Elena chuckled again.

“I don’t want my own horse.” Sharna said suddenly.

Everyone stared at her again as though she were going mad in front of them.

“Why not?” Elena asked. “You don’t know how to ride one?”

“I know; but someone needs to be on guard with a good weapon.” Sharna replied.

“We can use our pistols from horseback can’t we?” Elena added.

“I said a good weapon.” Sharna replied, hefting up her BKV.

“You can shoot a BKV from horse-back?” Bonde said with surprise.

“I can shoot a BKV from any position.” Sharna said proudly, sticking out her chest.

Bonde looked puzzled, but he did not argue any further. He waved for Sharna to climb on Leander’s horse. Everyone seemed to correctly assume that Leander was probably the best rider, and the implication pleased him greatly. Finally, something he could do well! Leander climbed on first and took the reins, recalling when his mother had taught him how a proper woman should ride. It was all he knew growing up, so he would have do it.

Sharna sat behind him, her BKV set against her shoulder and her legs tight around the sides of the horse. She raised the barrel over Leander’s shoulder and kept her eyes locked to the sights, swaying from side to side as the horse began to move.

After receiving a good scolding from everyone, she hooked herself up to Leander with a rope, in case the recoil and tenuous position threatened to knock her off. Elena and Bonde both took their own horses, and withdrew their pistols as they rode.

Together, Squadron III trotted out of the alleyway and back onto the thoroughfare, gathering around in the middle of the road to make sure everyone was handling their horses well and fully appraised of the situation.

Behind them followed the horse handler, unarmed, riding his own horse while guiding the spare horses up as well. Soon as they were out on the street they saw a trickle of other riders leaving the alleys as well. Many rode clumsily up, and a few were trotting for lack of experience with galloping. Leander thought it was quite a shame to see.

“Everyone knows where we’re going right?” Bonde said to the huddle.

“Up the thoroughfare to the last defensive line.” Elena replied.

“Good. Everyone got that? Remember to watch your sides and watch the buildings, our enemy is apparently stealthier than we imagined.” Bonde said. “If your horse is sniped at, try to get away from it and not fall with it or it could crush you.”

“Easier said than done.” Leander said sadly. “But if someone gets hurt I will try to swing around and help you. I used to ride horses with my brothers, racing through the wood. This thoroughfare is cake compared to riding the Kasht!

“Riding the what?” Sharna said.

No one heard her; her lips moved but her voice was lost under the booming of a gun.

Flying in from out of sight, a shell cut across the road and blasted the street.

A high explosive charge blasted the handler and the spare horses to oblivion. Responding to the blast the squadron’s horses trembled and grew anxious, they neighed and took several steps away from the source of the heat without command; that they did not jump and panic from such a close blast attested to their thorough training. A few meters closer and the shell fragments might have given the horses cause to panic and topple.

Over his shoulder Leander spotted an M4 Sentinel charging out of a building facade through a shower of concrete debris, with a second tank creeping along not far behind. Both of them turned their cruel turrets from the ruined remains of the handler and the spare horses and the street beneath them, seeking after prey.

The promised attack had come!

“Go!” Bonde cried out, and Leander stirred his horse to move.

While the tanks extricated themselves from the rubble and swung their faces to meet the riders, the squadron made haste, galloping away from the site.

From the fronts of the tanks, old Nochtish quengler .30 caliber machine guns fired away at the runners, spraying hot lead across the street and up the road.

Squadron III’s riders ducked and hugged closer to their horses to present less a target.

“Keep it steady, I can take out the gun!” Sharna shouted.

She sat up and tried to shift around on her seat to fire on the tanks behind them. However she struggled to do so while keeping steady on the horse, and made herself a target while she fumbled with her gun.

“Are you insane?”

Leander reached back and pulled Sharna down against the horse, as bursts of machine gun fire flew over head and around their horses.

Streaks of gunfire kicked up dust around them. Leander cued his horse gradually to the left and right to evade the shots, and the group followed him, trading positions, leaping over objects that might block shots. They moved fast, and thankfully the horses were well trained. Leander did not have to cue for it to go over the uneven terrain, to climb the jagged earth around shell craters, or leap over large rocks.

They kept ahead of the bullets, but this only pushed their assailants to their more natural weaponry. There was soon a thunderous noise across the thoroughfare. Two shells flew simultaneously from the barrels of their stationary pursuers; the first overflew them and several meters ahead, kicking up smoke and dust and concrete fragments, but they rode through without harm. A second shell fell painfully short of their galloping steeds and merely blew heat at their backs as they rode away.

Unfortunately the tanks reloaded quickly.

Leander felt the heat of another explosion just at his heels and saw a fourth and even a fifth shell crashing on the street sides and blasting a new hole far ahead of him.

His horse took the leap over the fresh, hot shell crater naturally.

Sharna grabbed hold of him with one hand once the horse took to the air, and shot dirty looks behind herself – she had been trying to retaliate, but could not turn around and fire the BKV comfortably at an enemy directly behind her while riding the horse.

A series of rhythmic booming noises issued from the guns as the tanks continued to shoot and the shells crashed around the road and streets, throwing hot smoke and splintered earth into the air, but none of it put a stop to the riders of Squad III. Growing increasingly behind in their pursuit, the tanks were pushed to greater action. Over the clattering of their horses’ shoes Leander heard engines roar and machines trundle forward.

While a significant gap had developed while the M4s were stationary, charging at full speed the tanks made rapid gains on the horses. Machine gun fire raked the debris and air around the riders once again creeping closer and threatening to clip them before they could escape. Leander tried to speed his horse up, but he thought he could feel the effort the animal was putting in just to gallop at the current speed – it was not a machine, and it could not sprint for much longer. He looked over his shoulder at the tanks closing in.

“We can’t keep running them like this, they’ll tire out!” Leander shouted.

“Ahead, we can lose them there!” Elena shouted.

She pointed out a large building up ahead that had toppled over onto the road: a broken doorway and window holes faced them, and they could see right through it, so there must have been similar exits on the other side. It covered most of the road and the tanks could not fit through any of the openings: they would have to stop and go around it, or they would have to punch through the facade. Shells overflew them and struck ahead, ever closer. There was no time for a debate or an alternate route. Bonde raised his hand and waved everyone toward that building, and they pushed their horses to one last sprint.

The riders aligned themselves with the orifices, and at full speed their horses leaped skillfully through the ruined doorways and over the holes of the shattered windows.

They touched down on the overturned walls and without stopping ran through the ruined interior and leaped over a broken and upturned staircase to emerge outside.

Behind them the tanks stopped dead in their tracks.

As they galloped away they heard cannon fire behind the ruin.

Squadron III maintained speed for a few blocks, until they realized the pursuit had ended. They regrouped and slowed to a trot. Leander put his head to the neck of his horse and rubbed its head. He could feel its belabored breathing and quickened pulse.

“Is everyone all right?” Bonde asked. “Anyone hurt?”

“I’m alive, somehow.” Elena said. “And very thankful for a rural upbringing.”

“I’m alright.” Sharna said. “Not a bullet or fragment grazed me.”

“I’m fine. Not sure our horses have another panic run like that in them.” Leander said.

There was another blast, but this one was not from behind them.

They looked forward across the blasted landscape of the thoroughfare, and saw glass and concrete flying, smoke blowing and licks of flame coming from buildings.

“I don’t think our pursuers were alone.” Elena said in a choked voice.

All across the thoroughfare concrete doorways and window-frames burst open onto the street and concrete alley walls blew suddenly apart. Across a half dozen blocks on the leftmost side of the thoroughfare Nochtish tanks began to extricate themselves from the ruins in groups of two and three, revealing their own ambush.

From several alleyways the whining quengler guns opened fire on the runners ahead of Leander’s squad and killed many and their horses; and once they rolled out onto stable ground their cannons blasted the road at deadly ranges, tossing horses into the air and vaporizing men and women where they rode.

In moments it seemed like half their force had been wiped out.

One squadron in sight panicked and made the grave mistake of trying to run into an alley: from the perspective of the tanks, coming from one side of the street and facing the other, all this did was give them a target practice. Guns emptied mercilessly on them, and Leander thought he had never seen so much smoke and fire.

The alleyways would not save them in this battle.

“We can’t stop now! Run past them!” Bonde shouted to his squad.

Squadron III raced forward again across the ruined terrain, their horses working themselves raw once more. Leander felt terribly for the animals but they could not afford to canter in such a situation. All of the thoroughfare seemed still ahead of them.

Terrain was their last concern; before long an M4 had thrust out of a building and down a set of steps onto the street, making to block their way and establish a killzone. It threw itself forward and then began to reverse its direction to face them with its quengler. They were closing in quickly but its machine gun would tear them to shreds at this range.

Sharna was smiling, though from what nobody knew.

Leander glanced at her with a mix of awe and horror as she sat up on the horse and raised her BKV, the barrel extended right over his head. He ducked even closer to the horse so he wouldn’t feel the gas blown out of the muzzle brake. Seemingly without careful aim she opened fire on the tank, her finger rapping the trigger and her shoulder and arms absorbing the shock as the stock pumped back into her like a piston.

A barrage of 14.5mm rounds crashed into the tank ahead of them in a tight grouping. Sharna emptied the entire clip on the M4’s face, and her shots mangled the little bulb on the tank’s hull where its quengler machine gun was mounted. Unable to fire its machine gun and too close to use its cannon the M4 was silent as Leander’s squadron ran past it.

“Sharna get down, you’re going to be killed!” Elena shouted, but Sharna was not listening. Held up on the horse only by her legs and the rope she had tied to Leander, she loaded in a new clip, worked the bolt and aimed ahead again.

Leander resisted the temptation to stare: he had to keep his eyes ahead!

They raced forward through relatively open terrain – a terrible disadvantage in this situation, since their horses could clear obstacles but tanks couldn’t.

In this open stretch they were sitting ducks.

A group of tanks facing the other street swung their turrets, but thankfully not their whole bodies, around to meet the incoming riders. And those were not the only guns closing on them. Behind them the tank with the damaged machine gun turned its turret and readied to fire. Leander and his comrades were trapped in a crossfire of three tank guns.

“What do we do?” Elena shouted. Time was running short to make a decision.

“They could hit each other if they miss, they won’t shoot! Keep going!” Sharna said.

None of the M4s seemed to hear this argument, as their turrets locked on to fire.

“Scatter! Scatter!” Leander desperately shouted. “Get out of their way!”

All three guns opened fire with their first shells.

Elena and Bonde rushed suddenly rightwards, and Leander leftwards to evade. He felt a shell just fly past him, like a fist thrown by a god, rushing by his side with such force that he thought it would split him apart without contact. From behind them another shell thrust between their horses, delivered by the tank with the broken machine gun.

Flying past each other the shells struck armor.

In front of Squadron III a large hole appeared in the turret of one of the tanks, and fire erupted from its hatches as the explosives went off. Karma caught up to the assailant instantly, as the shell that had missed Leander struck the exposed back of this traitorously reckless tank and cooked the engine, setting off a vibrant explosion that covered the way behind Squadron III in smoke. The third shell overflew them and vanished into the smoke.

Again the squadron overran an assailant; but this one was well equipped.

Turning callously from the wrecks of its companions, the surviving M4 swung hastily around to chase them and claim the kills it had fought so recklessly for.

Faced with this threat Sharna suddenly shifted her weight: she turned completely around on the horse, and Leander thought all the Arjun’s spirits must have been with her, because she somehow did not fall. She leaned her back hard on Leander’s own and opened fire. He felt all the force of her shots transferring through her body and down his spine, and grabbed tighter on to his horse from the sheer discomfort.

It was like someone kicking down on his spine each time she fired, but it was effective.

The M4’s machine gun barely fired a burst before Sharna silenced it completely. Her fire did not abate. Sharna went through her clip, reloaded with haste and was firing again much faster than Leander thought possible. Her shooting was much louder too – and suddenly the tank exploded behind them, and even Sharna let out a surprised gasp.

“I did it! I did it! I destroyed a tank from the front with a BKV!” Sharna celebrated.

“It wasn’t you!” Elena shouted. “It was the 85mm! Look!”

Ahead of them the end of the thoroughfare was finally in sight, blocked by three tiered lines of low sandbag walls that provided cover for dismounted troops, and guarded by the thick square figures of the two Orc medium tanks. Atop a gentle incline well behind the last of the sandbag walls covering the approach, a single 85mm anti-aircraft gun had been depressed as low as it could go to enable it to attack the enemy tanks directly.

It had smashed through the glacis plate and killed the tank behind Squadron III instantly, and now the gun crew reoriented it.

However, despite being closer than ever, the way to the line was still barred.

Before Squadron III could even think to rush their way to safety, a group of three tanks extricated themselves from the left-hand street. They pulverized their way past a wall in one of the alleys and made for the defensive line at all speed, opening up with their machine guns and cannons against the sandbag walls.

Those few who had made it to the defensive line rallied and prepared to fight.

In retaliation the large Orc tanks advanced out into the road and opened fire, but their low velocity 45mm explosive shells hardly seemed to matter to the incoming M4s. The Nochtish tanks were pushing aggressively, and switching their positions constantly as they advanced in an attempt to avoid the 85mm gun.

Squadron III stopped in their tracks and regrouped.

“We haven’t lost anyone, have we?” Bonde asked. “Except Sharna’s pride?”

Sharna grumbled a little while reloading her BKV again.

“Sorry.” Bonde said. “Maybe I should refrain from jokes.”

“Why are they so zealous all of a sudden?” Elena said, crossing her arms and sighing. “Why would they take those shots if they knew there was a chance they could kill their own comrades. Are our lives worth so much to take?”

“Inexperience, desperation, overconfindence?” Bonde said. “Who knows?”

“I don’t see how four people on horses could make them desperate.” Elena said.

“Oh, I’ll give them something to be desperate about alright.” Sharna said.

Everyone grinned and sighed a little in equal measure at her vehemence.

“We need to link up with the defenders.” Bonde said. “That’ll take some doing.”

A pitched battle grew between the Nochtish tanks and the defenders on the line, cutting off Squad III’s access. They could not even run past the tanks again now even if they wanted to. It was a firestorm of machine guns and cannon fire from both sides: heavy shells from the 85mm crashing around the mobile Nochtish tanks, and the Orcs’ front armor withstanding several punishing enemy blasts and returning fire with their own guns, and small arms fire filling the gap between the forces without pause.

Should they overrun the tanks, Leander was certain they would die in the ensuing enfilade fire before reaching friendly lines. He sighed heavily, exasperated, his heart pounding non-stop. Now that he had time to think about things, all the terrible condition of his body, the wear, the stress, seemed to catch up to him all at once.

“What do we do now?” He groaned. “We definitely can’t go back.”

Bonde stared at the crossfire, crossing his arms and drumming his fingers along his sleeve. Several more shells were exchanged, and a chunk of the sandbag wall went up into the air and threw a pair of riflemen several meters back.

As medical staff rushed forward to take them, Bonde was deep in thought.

He muttered something to himself, and Leander saw a gleam in his eyes.

“At the FOB, did you two replenish your AT grenades?” Bonde asked.

“I did.” Sharna said, casually lifting up a grenade for him to see.

Leander checked his pouch and produced an AT stick grenade as well.

“Alright. Leander, leave your horse and climb on Elena’s.” Bonde instructed a puzzled Leander, pointing him to Elena’s horse. “I’ll take the reins on your horse. Sharna, give me your grenade; Leander, give Elena your grenade.”

“What’s this about?” Elena asked. “What’s your plan?”

There was a sudden explosion ahead of them.

A fourth tank blasted its way out of a building closer to the defensive line’s first sandbag wall. It was immediately met by the 85mm gun. One shell was all it took, blasting through the turret and disabling the newly risen invader.

But the three other tanks took the initiative and pushed to the defensive line, and were dangerously close to the defenders. One of the Orcs attempted a brave pushback, charging forward and firing its gun, but its front armor finally had enough.

An M4’s shell punched through the glacis plate and a second shell smashed through the turret, and it would move no more, the Ayvartans inside likely cooked by the blasts.

Leander found it hard to peel away from the sight.

Soon they’d have no defensive line to run to!

The remaining Orc scrambled back behind the sandbag walls.

Thin streaks of hot gas emanated from the 85mm as its crew reoriented the gun, loaded a new shell, and fired, striking the earth in front of the line of M4s and momentarily giving them pause. Its barrel was starting to wear out from all the shooting.

Bonde waved his hands together, capturing everyone’s attention again.

“We need to hurry here, and I’ve got a plan, yes. Everyone will have to get this precise, but it’s our only option at this point. We can take two of the horses and rush behind two of the tanks: Leander and Sharna will fire their BKVs into the exposed rear of each tank, and then Elena and I will throw the grenades over the engine compartment.” Bonde said. “That should be enough trauma to disable the tanks or at least distract the crews and give us time to run past and link up with the remains of the Company. Do you think so, Sharna?”

Sharna seemed still half-stuck to watching the assault on the line.

“Sharna?” Bonde asked.

The anti-tank riflewoman blinked and shook her head clear.

“Yes, the backs of the tanks have the thinnest armor. It should work.” She said.

Bonde smiled. “I trust your judgment on tanks. Does everyone else?”

Leander and Elena nodded their heads.

“You should trust it!” Sharna smiled and stuck out her chest.

“Then let us switch horses. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Leander and Bonde dismounted, leaving Bonde’s horse to follow however it could.

Leander found the result of the switch strangely, darkly humorous in a way: he sat behind Elena with his BKV over her shoulder, a facsimile of a tank. He was the turret, the horse was the hull. Bonde and Sharna had a similar relationship, albeit Sharna made for a more menacing turret given her skill. With one hand on the reins and another on the grenade, Elena and Bonde started their horses moving, first at a trot and then working up to a canter. Leander’s gun rocked from side to side with the moving horse, he could keep it steady only with great difficulty. Sharna seemed to hold hers perfectly straight.

Elena spurred her horse apart from Bonde’s, and they charged the tanks. One M3 assault gun on the periphery had no machine gun to harass them with. Two M4s, side by side, would be the targets. Leander struggled with all of his might to keep his BKV lined up with the back of the tank. Sharna opened fire first; Leander pressed the trigger in response and felt the stock bash into him, but he pushed forward into the shots, keeping himself upright and on the horse while firing. Sharna put a hole into the back of the engine compartment. Leander’s grouping was scattered but had served its purpose, weakening the armor. Neither tank took notice of them, with the defensive line in their sights.

Elena and Bonde stopped their horses within throwing range and cast their grenades.

Bonde’s grenade was right on target, exploding right into the hole that Sharna had carved for it. The engine went up in flames and the tank almost jumped from the violence.

Elena threw too hard and the grenade struck over the engine compartment, rendering Leander’s effort moot, but the blast was enough to light a fire over the engine.

Both targets halted their fire and their hatches went up, confused crew peering out momentarily, their periscopes thwarted. One tank began to back up in panic.

Squadron III quickly took the opening: Bonde and Elena cued their horses with the reins and sprinted past the damaged tanks as fast as they could.

The horses moved easily around the retreating machines.

They avoided incoming fire from their own troops, but thankfully the friendly fire was not automatic, and the troops quickly stopped shooting past them.

They closed their eyes; Sharna prayed to her Spirits.

Bonde’s plan proved good enough. In moments they cleared the first sandbag wall and ran past the 85mm gun and into the edge of the plaza, where several surviving horses had been hidden around the corner from the fighting. Everyone dismounted, cleared the sweat and the dust from their faces, and caught their breaths. Leander almost threw his arms around Bonde, such joy and relief surging through him.

“I could kiss that shiny head of yours!” Leander said cheerfully.

“Wait until we’re on the train.” Bonde replied nervously.

Behind them the crossfire at the defensive line had died out. They rounded the corner again and peered out carefully, but the tanks they had damaged had fully retreated into nearby alleyways, and the M3 assault gun had itself vanished.

Leander saw someone waving at them from the 85mm mount, and alerted everyone.

They ran down to the gun, past the mortars, two of which were completely decrewed; and one of which had been blasted to pieces by a shell. Sergeant Bahir was waiting for them, and he extended his hand to each of them, congratulating them on making it back. Leander counted perhaps seventeen other people at the line in various places.

“Your fighting spirit has not gone unnoticed, comrades. Squadron III has had the ancestors with them this day.” Sergeant Bahir said. “However, we are not yet out of the fire. We have to defend here. All of our fighting groups on the west and south thoroughfares are also at their final lines. We expect one more major push from Nocht before our train arrives. You have faced so much combat today, but this will be typical of the war if we must win. So I dare ask: will you fight with me on more time, comrades?”

“Of course we shall.” Bonde replied. Leander and Sharna nodded.

“Excellent! You do the Motherland proud. If I am ever in a position to do so, I will reward you for your efforts today, Squadron III. Now I must ask instead: do any of you have experience with the 120mm mortar?” Sgt. Bahir gestured behind himself, where one mortar was shot to pieces and the other two had been completely de-crewed, their occupants in a field hospital one way or another now. “My secretary and I can sight the pieces, but we need loaders. Unfortunately our crews suffered casualties.”

Elena fidgeted a little, but spoke up. “I can probably do that much.”

“Likewise.” Bonde said. “However, these two are anti-tank gunners.”

Bonde put his hands on Sharna and Leander’s shoulders. Leander looked at him critically for a moment, but then realized it was intended as a gesture of faith.

He also realized he knew not even the littlest thing about a mortar, other than it caused an explosion after some unimaginable process. Sharna, meanwhile, seemed very flattered, and crossed her arms with a cool grin on her face and posing confidently.

Sergeant Bahir nodded. “I noticed! We will need their strength on the line itself.”

Soon the sun fell in earnest, and the thoroughfare was cast into an eerie half shadow.

Streaks of orange light played across the road, while the streets were cast in a gloom. Without wind the smoke from the battle was slow to disperse. Leander could see dead horses from where he set up. There were around eleven soldiers on the line itself, counting himself and Sharna. Three others, part of Bahir’s HQ staff, crewed the 85mm gun, while Sgt. Bahir, his secretary, Elena, and Bonde, crewed the 120mm mortars behind the line. Leander guessed the remaining Orc had about three or four crew. So there were less than twenty-five people remaining to hold this line. Nobody had bothered to pick out the corpses from the destroyed Orc still burning away slowly in front of the defensive line.

Their souls now rested with the Spirits, or the Ancestors, or other forms of Gods; their bodies weren’t so important.

Sharna and he took cover behind the front line of sandbags. Standing, they reached only to the waist. Lying against them with their BKVs set up on bipod mounts, they were almost entirely hidden. Beside the footsteps of soldiers pacing and tapping anxiously, and the metal creaking of the Orc’s turret or the 85mm gun’s mount, the thoroughfare was quiet. Stretching far off in front of them it was a landscape of gently rolling smoke clouds, the smooth road pitted with shell holes and covered in dust and chunks and metal hulks.

This last stretch of the thoroughfare had once been open enough to have given them good sight lines, but with the broken tank hulls, the smoke, and collateral damage, visibility had been reduced. Everything reeked of hell, burning oil and gunpowder and smoke, concrete dust in the air. Leander’s eyes teared up from sitting near the front where it all still lingered. His body ached, and he felt like he had been pulled to his limit in a dozen directions by careless hands, his muscles loose and throbbing.

“How long do you think it will take for the train to get here?” Leander asked.

“No idea.” Sharna said. She was far more focused on the road than he.

Having properly sighted the mortars and left behind his secretary in case they had to be adjusted further, Sergeant Bahir rejoined the forces at the front of the defensive line.

From his belt he pulled a pair of binoculars and peered out into the thoroughfare for a moment. He put them down, and kneeled next to Leander and Sharna behind the sandbags.

“Comrades!” He shouted. “We are on the cusp of victory. One final time the enemy will strike us. He will come at us with everything he has. But we must hold this line. Hold this line for your comrades, for your motherland!”

Engines groaned to life in the alleyways.

Smoke canisters flew from the enemy’s positions to cover the road. A white cloud expanded across the thoroughfare and provided the enemy with cover.

Leander could hear the tracks, crunching debris as they went, and he saw distorted phantoms making vague movements out of the rubble and onto the road.

Enemy tanks advanced again from the alleyways, stacking up around the road and turning their strong faces to meet their guns and rifles. Sgt. Bahir raised his fist and the 85mm held its fire. They had limited shells, and within the smoke there was no guarantee of a successful hit. They would need the gun: it was their main defense.

Shells hurtled out of the cloud, crashing into the dead skeletons of lost tanks, falling at the edge of the sandbag wall, crashing over the line. The barrage crept closer and closer.

The defenders ducked their heads and held their positions, the shells now exploding between and around them. When a shell hit a column of fire and smoke rose for a second in its wake, covering a few meters around it. But the area set ablaze by a 50mm shell was limited, and they were spread out enough to survive the sporadic shots.

Only a direct hit from a shell would kill them, but the heat and the smoke and the flying chunks of cement were upsetting and gave the defenders pause.

Leander felt his feet shaking, as though his body was telling him to run. He swallowed hard and set his eyes down the sights of his gun. This was the kind of man he was. 

Figures grew solid in the smoke as the tanks drew closer. Between the blasts Leander thought he heard concerted footsteps as the enemy’s men joined their attacking tanks. Gebirgsjager had probably combed the FOB, and now advanced with the tanks.

Sgt. Bahir raised his fist and then spread his fingers, opening his hand.

At once the Ayvartan line roared to life, with yells of “oorah!” as they opened fire.

DNV machine guns and BKVs and Bundu rifles; anything anyone had on hand they used to trade shots with the enemy. Muzzles flashed all across the defensive line.

Nocht advanced in an arrowhead formation of eight tanks around what Leander assumed was the CO’s tank, as it was clearly damaged from a previous battle and was not firing. Far behind them he could see reserve tanks hiding in the smoke.

Many of the tanks were unbuttoned, their commanders directing volleys of machine gun fire from the coaxial and frontal machine guns on every tank. Hundreds of machine gun bullets struck the sandbags and flew over the defensive line.

Several M4s unloaded their cannons as they moved, and many dozen men moved in tandem with the tanks, stopping and crouching to take aim and fire with their rifles.

Ayvartan machine guns swept across the formation, forcing the riflemen to use their tanks for cover and preventing them from threatening the shooters on the line. Sharna blasted the bulging frontal machine guns and the small holes housing turret coaxial guns, sharply reducing the volume of incoming fire. Leander aimed and waited.

Vorwärts!” screamed the Nocht CO from the center of the formation.

“Hold the line!” Sgt. Bahir shouted. “Comrades, stand your ground!”

The 85mm gun creaked and whistled as the crew moved it, aiming for the lead tanks.

One heavy round went into the breech, and soared across the thoroughfare, smashing easily through the frontal armor of the spearhead M4 and destroying it. Like a phalanx, the tanks compensated for its loss, the back tanks moving around it and a new leader taking its place. The crew worked hard to reload the gun, but it was clear that they were long past the peak of their endurance, and the gun’s barrel was glowing red hot and smoking.

They loaded a new round and then waited, while cannonfire fell around them, creeping ever closer to taking the gun and its crew out. The Orc tank trundled forward to bar the way while the 85mm loaded. Its commander unbuttoned to keep track of the crew, to know when to move away. Acting as a shield was all the Orc could do.

Nocht’s CO screamed again, “Vorwärts!”

Sgt. Bahir replied, “Hold the line! For socialism, comrades!”

In an instant, the center tank fired its first shot of the battle, as directed by the Nocht CO. A 50mm high-explosive shell crashed directly into the sandbag wall and exploded, taking out a large chunk of the bags and tossing back two of the soldiers.

Stunned, the soldiers limped away to the second sandbag line.

All at once, the other Nochtish tanks started landing their own hits on the first sandbag wall, and the Ayvartans ran as fast as they could and jumped behind the second. This gave them only ten more meters on the quickly advancing enemy. Time was running short.

VORWÄRTS!” the scream echoed across the thoroughfare.

Loud thunk noises issued from behind the Ayvartan line as Bonde and Elena dropped mortar rounds into the 120mm tubes and sent them flying high into the air to fall over the Nocht line. Finally Elena got to see their effects on the enemy’s tanks. Mortar rounds crashed around the advancing tanks, smearing riflemen across the road, pounding on the armor of the tanks. They were not designed to penetrate armor, but they left noticeable damage across the turrets and faces of the tanks, and each pounding shook up the crew and slowed the formation, buying just a few more precious seconds with every hit.

Facing deadly bombardment, several enemy tank commanders retreated back into their tanks, many closing their hatches just as a stray mortar round crashed atop their tanks. One good shot smashed the side of a tank and split its track in half. Hastily the formation compensated for its loss. They closed within less than 200 meters, practically face to face with the Ayvartans. Leander established himself behind the wall and aimed.

“Stand your ground for your very lives, comrades!” Sgt. Bahir shouted.

Despite the violence all around them, that center tank had never buttoned.

For a moment Leander had a clear look at the Nocht CO, a large man with a grim face, like a beast through the smoke. In the distance he appeared like a grinning, chalk-white monster, reveling as his forces devoured the terrain. He was like some kind of demon.

Leander set his sights a little above the man’s head and without thinking, pulled the trigger once, twice, thrice. He felt the punch of the gun recoiling in his hands, but he was trapped in time suddenly. He saw the rounds strike, wiping features from the man’s face.

His nose was a blur, his eyes disappeared, his mouth was sealed in red.

His face vanished, as though Leander had wiped the paint from a portrait of the man. He slumped forward, smearing blood on the pintle of the Norgler gun atop his tank, and then sliding through the hatch. There would be no more of that alien tongue screaming over the fighting. Suddenly Nocht’s formation slowed, and the cannon fire halted.

Their commander was dead. Leander had killed him.

“Sharna, I think I hit someone!” Leander said, tapping his comrade on the shoulder, his mouth running before words could fully settle in his brain. Sharna looked up from her own sights in confusion at the slowing, quiet tanks.

“I think you did as well.” Sharna said in a distant, incredulous voice.

They then felt a rumbling across the ground that quieted them as much as Nocht. Sharna looked over her shoulder, and Leander followed; he saw a trail of smoke above the plaza and heard the loud whistling of a massive train.

“Stand your ground, comrades! Our ride is here! We have survived the day!”

Sgt. Bahir stood up from the ground, and raised his fist into the air suddenly.

Before them, the Nocht formation erupted into flames as a massive shell struck the two lead tanks with such force that it ripped their turrets from the hulls and scattered them in pieces. Men were sent crashing across the rocks, and those on the periphery caught fire on their cloaks and jackets as burning shrapnel flew every which way.

Nocht’s advance halted immediately, and several tanks reversed as fast as they could, bumping into each other in disarray and panic as the artillery fell on them.

As one the defenders watched in awe as a second heavy shell fell and in a massive explosion tore apart three tanks covering the flank, leaving behind hulls that looked as though crushed under the feet of a giant, and covered in thick, black, choking smoke.

“That’s a ‘Vajra’ gun!” Sharna said in awe. “203mm. Spirits defend.”

Leander peeled his eyes away from the chaos and saw Sgt. Bahir’s secretary using Elena’s backpack radio. They were likely directing the fire on the thoroughfare from the train’s gun. He could hardly believe such destruction was possible.

Nocht was completely scattered.

One final shell and Leander could not even see the enemy anymore through the smoke and fire. They had been erased from existence. What Leander did to one man’s face just happened across a whole mess of tanks and men. He felt the rumbling of the shell falls across his chest, and heard the blast booming inside his head.

In his eyes the fire was trapped. He was purely in awe.

“Retreat to the train yard, comrades!” Sgt. Bahir shouted. “We must depart!”

Stumbling over sandbags and their own rifles the dazed and astonished trickle of soldiers, maybe eight or nine survivors at most, made their way back to the railroad. Some rode their horses, but many were so confused they were simply leading them along. Leander was one of them, blinking and hardly able to think. His own power seemed so shallow and small compared to such a thing! As he neared the rail yard he saw that massive gun, mounted on its own car in the armored train, firing incessantly to cover them.

A crew of twelve swung the piece around and focused fire on the central thoroughfare this time, now that the southeast was clear of the enemy. Men and women rushed into the infantry cars, and the surviving Orc tank took a concrete ramp onto the platform, and then climbed a special loading ramp onto its own metal container. Several goblin tanks from the Western thoroughfare, all remaining horses and a few trucks carrying surviving artillery pieces and crates of munitions were quickly loaded onto the train.


He felt Bonde’s hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake again. He was at the platform. He had been walking all this time, but he was so out of it he did not notice. As he came to this realization an orderly took the horse from him and led it away.

“Get on the train. We’re going now. We lived through it!” Bonde said.

“Oh, right.”

“Come on, Elena and Sharna are already inside.”

Leander shook his head to clear it. “Oh, I said I would kiss your head.”

“I would rather you didn’t.” Bonde said, raising his hands nervously.

They climbed aboard an empty train car and sat in a corner next to Sharna and Elena. Several more soldiers arrived soon from the other thoroughfares and packed in. It was only an infantry car because it had slits out from which they should shoot. In reality it was a very bare car with nowhere to really sit but the floor. Elena unfurled her bedroll against the corner so the squadron could have something soft to rest their backs. Leander breathed heavily, and wiped the sweat from his face. He had survived. He had lived through it.

“Good work taking out the commander.” Sharna said, throwing an arm around Leander’s shoulder and pulling him close to herself, grinning all the while. “I saw it, right here! This boy, he blasted Nocht’s lieutenant right off his commander’s seat.”

Elena and Bonde blinked, and then cheered and patted Leander in praise.

Everyone else in the car, the eight or nine survivors of 824 Lion Company, clapped their hands and added their own compliments. It was a bright spot to them all in the confusion and for a moment they all reveled in it, and Leander thought they might throw him around the cart in celebration. He smiled a little, but had a hard time cheering.

“I did not do much! He was going to die anyway.” Leander protested.

“That doesn’t diminish what you did! That was a real hard shot you must have taken, Leander! Without any training!” Bonde said.

“I would rather shoot a tank next time.” Leander replied, laughing a little.

The train whistled again several times. Smoke started to rise overhead. They felt the car shake a little, and move. It was time to go: they had everyone and everything that could be taken from Knyskna. Slowly their train pushed forward, took a curve around the rail station and then hurtled its way out of the city again at quickly building speeds.

They were on their way to Dbagbo now, the territory adjacent Shaila.

They were safe. They had survived the Battle of Knyskna.

Leander sat back against the corner, staring at the BKV rifle laid beside him.

This was the man he had chosen to be. Or at least, that was what he thought.

He did not think he fully understood what that entailed yet.

28-AG-30: Djose Wood, 8th PzD Headquarters

Karla Schicksal pulled her headphones from over her ears and laid them gently on the makeshift table in front of her. She turned the knob on the radio, shutting it off entirely.

Overhead, Dreschner stared grimly at his own shoes, his hat pulled over his face.

In the gloomy interior of the Befehlspanzer, under the full Ayvartan moon, they were the victors, the takers of the spoils, the marchers triumphant. Knyskna was their dominion now. They had won, by the measure that Nocht used to gauge victory.

Oberkommando had its movement.

Now they just waited to know the price. Schicksal knew.

“Casualties are in.” She said, trying to render it in as neutral a voice as possible.

“Kunze is dead, isn’t he?” Dreschner said.

“Yes.” Schicksal replied. “Lentz and Reiniger managed to retreat in time to avoid the heavy howitzer barrage on the thoroughfares. By all accounts, Kunze and his men were completely lost to it. They were hit first on the arrival of the train.”

“Yes. They were the hardest running, the first ones into the maelstrom.”

Dreschner raised his hands to his face, rubbing his forehead.

“I was not altogether fond of Kunze. He was a wretch, but he had a knack for this line of work. Then I spurred him to die. I personally gambled with his life.”

Schicksal sighed. “We underestimated the enemy.”

Dreschner raised his head, and he stared at her suddenly as though surprised.

She felt a shock across her chest, as though his glance had stabbed her in the sternum and knocked her back. Her mind raced with reprimands to herself; she should’ve kept quiet, she should have stopped speaking out of turn a long time ago. And yet his eyes were not cold. He had a soft expression, like a parent looking fondly on a child.

He leaned back on his seat, with his hands over his knees, and gave a melancholy glance at all the maps, the photos, pinned around his space, the relics of this battle.

We didn’t, Mäuschen. I underestimated them. And from me and my orders, it passed down to you, to Kunze, to all of them. I didn’t see that my hubris would become the hubris of the 8th Panzer Division. I didn’t see that my hubris, my pride, would kill us.”

Gently he pulled the photos and the maps down, and he crumpled them up and threw them out of the hatch. He sighed and drummed his fingers on the metal.

They were both quiet then, quiet almost through the rest of the night. Schicksal wondered if perhaps, it was not the hubris of all of Nocht that was becoming their hubris, appropriated by Dreschner, by the Lieutenants, all the way down to the troops.

Had it passed down to her too?

30th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

“Radio’s fixed! We reestablished contact.”

The Major looked over her shoulder from her desk, peeling herself away from the heavily marked maps and photographs strewn across it. She looked across the room, where the Secretary stood in the doorway, her hand on her heart and a little smile on her face. The Major nodded her head and the Secretary approached and sat across her.

“So, what is the news then?”

Her Secretary smiled wanly at her.

“Knyskna fell to the enemy, but they dealt a terrible blow to Nocht. Warden Kansal thinks she might be able to do something about the Council’s poor decision-making so far. Both their eyes are turning to Dbagbo now as the next major battlefield. Nocht has not yet moved toward it, but it’s only a matter of time until they do. The Warden also commends us on our brave efforts here, and asks that we hold on a little longer.”

“So; that’s useless.” The Major replied.

“It’s politics, you know. Let us hope it’s right politics, soon.” The Secretary smiled sadly and put her hand atop the Major’s, squeezing it in a gesture of solidarity.

Both of them cast their eyes together outside their window, across the ruins, where artillery shells fell unabated, and tanks rolled across the streets of the city. The sky was choked with smoke from fires and blasts, and hundreds, thousands, of soldiers fought across the blocks they could see from their position. The Major took in this sight, in part with melancholy, anger, regret, and in part with renewed determination.

Major Madiha Nakar, current head of Battlegroup of Ox as well the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division and the 5th KVW Mechanized Division, felt the tell-tale pain in her eyes, the eerie sense that blood was rushing to them and out of them, as she put her mind to work on a solution to the deadlock she and her forces had found themselves.

She had a battle to fight, and time was growing short. Nocht was closing in.

“So, what does this mean for us then? Knyskna?” Parinita asked.

“It means we’ll have to speed things up here.” Madiha said.

She looked out to a makeshift calendar on the wall, and swiped a little line across it with a pen. Hastily drawn up and written by Parinita, this record of their days was a grid of checkboxes to mark down.

At the top it read:

Adjar Dominance – Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”

[9th] Day of the Battle of Bada Aso.

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The World Ablaze

The Battle of Knyskna I – Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance South Knyskna, Outer Boroughs

Atop the M3 Hunter a squat, round protrusion easily mistaken for a headlight turned a glass eye on its surroundings. With the periscope the tank commander retained a broad field of vision obstructed only by the form of the tank around them – its height, its broadness, and any open hatches, against which a clever enemy could hide.

There was no such enemy in sight. Around Knyskna the fields were empty. Pillboxes had been abandoned. Trenches had long since been blasted out of existence. Scars cut into the ground by the artillery remained untouched. Kampfgruppe R was eerily alone, save for the smattering of their own recon men, armed escorts in half-track motorcycles.

Ayvartan cities did not have outer walls, at least insofar as the Heer or Army had seen. Ayvarta never went through a period of castling all of its major villages, like the Nochtish had in their antiquity. Ayvartan history had not been as openly barbarous.

Solstice was the one exception they knew, and its walls were prodigious.

But unlike Solstice, Knyskna rose starkly from the surrounding countryside. One step transitioned dirt to paved road, and open field to the first boroughs. There was no barrier. Knyskna was open for the taking. The panzers restarted their engines and advanced.

The M3s trundled forward from the field into the city over the sparse rubble that remained after the aerial bombardment, and past the ghostly defenses on the outskirts. A platoon of assault guns, five machines in all; they advanced in two columns of two tanks with a lead tank following in their wake. They were the first platoon of the southern salient to bite into the city. A platoon of M4s followed a thousand meters behind.

M3 Hunters were slow machines, and better armored, so they set the marching order.

Each platoon was accompanied by five half-tracked motorcycles each carrying three men, one a driver. South Knyskna had the broadest roads, supporting four wide lanes of traffic climbing almost imperceptibly uphill, and the men and tanks fit with room to spare.

Old buildings flanked the invaders on either side, most built of wafer-like brick but many of thick, hardy modern cement. While some had been bombed out and even smashed nearly flat, several blocks stood tall despite the bombing. The tight blocks were broken occasionally by tighter connecting roads and streets between buildings. Their smashed windows and doors were like black eyes, looming over the grenadiers and tankers.

Only heat and distance rendered the city’s heart hazy – the tanks would have otherwise had an unbroken sight-line across the main thoroughfare and right into the Communist base.

Engines burned and treads turned tirelessly. They advanced several careful kilometers into the city, kilometers that they had been warned would be hard-fought for.

The M3s and their motor escorts stopped almost halfway to the city center, and the M4s, having lagged to over a kilometer behind the advance also cut their engines. The platoons had achieved their afternoon objectives in record time, and there was a mood of jubilation among them. Atop the motorcycles the recon men cracked open their ration tins, and in the tanks men inadvisably lit cigarettes for one another and laughed.

The commies had given up!

The tank Sergeant of the assault gun platoon cracked a broad grin as he picked up his transmitter and radioed Lt. Reiniger, in charge of Kampfgruppe R. He gloated about the unfettered advance of his platoon, and about the craven cowardice of his foes.

“Well, shit. Keep advancing. Advance until you take the city or confront an enemy.”

Lt. Reiniger cut radio contact abruptly. His tank platoons sighed among themselves, having dreamt of a good smoke break in the ruins. They stowed their tins, stomped out their smoke-sticks, and took uncomfortable swigs of tepid beer to try to still their nerves. Once everyone was ready they started their engines and trundled forward anew.

Soon they spied the city center, almost clear through the light haze and distortions of the hot Ayvartan sun. It was still kilometers away but through the periscopes it seemed almost adjacent to them, at the end of the long, open southern thoroughfare.

Direct-fire range was 2000 meters, with a good sight-line.

They saw smoke rising in the distance – it was a train leaving the city.

“Shift gears and charge into gun range!” Radioed the tank sergeant to the platoon. “We’ve only a few kilometers to go! We will not let the enemy escape from here!”

Engines grunted under increased strain and treads turned ever faster as the tanks sped toward their optimal range. Periscopes raised, gunners already sighting, the M3s hurled themselves toward the enemy across the unbroken cement tiles of the Ayvartan roads.

The formation tightened and the half-tracked motorcycles sped ahead of the tanks, the men riding them raising their rifles to the second stories to watch for AT snipers.

Behind them the M4s hurried to cut their own distance to the vanguard.

As they moved the outer boroughs transitioned quickly to the inner city. Buildings gradually rose and broadened, taking on new faces – theaters and drug stores and goods shops and other necessities and pleasures proferred under the hydra-headed banner of the government, took the place of the old brick houses and lodges of the outer boroughs.

Around them the main road narrowed slightly but grew two pedestrian streets giving ample room to move. Sewer grates and manhole covers appeared across the slightly bulging stone tiles of the main road, under which the stone arches of the old sewer network easily supported the weight of the charging tanks.

Periscopes tightened their field of view and focused on the base ahead, zooming in across the thoroughfare. Nothing was coming their way.

Nothing impeded their advance.

Attached motorcycle troops kept their eyes peeled while traveling across the few broad intersections and past the alleys, but as a whole the buildings were more tightly packed and it seemed that opportunities for ambush had grown scarcer the further in they traveled.

“Do not slow! We can overtake them! Faster, drive right into the guts of the city!”

Heeding the tank sergeant all of the men pushed their vehicles to top gear.

Dozens of meters ahead of the tanks the two leading motorcycles buckled suddenly, tipping forward and back on a series of hereto unseen broken tiles.

They were given no chance to stabilize.

A blast from underneath consumed both the vehicles, tossing the front wheels and chains of track across the streets and scattering pieces of once whole men even farther.

Remaining motorcycles cut their engines in horror and skidded hard onto the adjacent streets, avoiding the craters beyond which more mines surely lay.

Vanguard tanks braked suddenly, stalling the advancing column amid the carnage.

Hatches went up, and the assault gun commanders peered out into the smoke and debris ahead of them with their own eyes, incredulous. They turned to the recon men left alive, shocked dumb on the streets, and shouted their commands over the sudden silence.

“Don’t just sit there, pull out a bangalore and clear the mines!”

Assault guns faced forward, guarding against targets along the road. M4 Sentinel tanks started to catch up to the vanguard and raised their barrels to cover the higher stories and the roofs. Several surviving recon soldiers linked up with the new arrivals guarding the M4s and together they began to assemble their bangalores, long tube charges that could potentially detonate the hidden minefield ahead in its entirety once installed.

Regardless of setbacks there were ten tanks and twenty men in the column, and despite the minefield, and the flesh of six soldiers splashed across the street, morale was still high. There were no side streets near them, and they had a clear view of the Communist base.

There was no enemy presence to meet them, only desperate defenses.

Soldiers laid the long bangalores down across the minefield and detonated the charges. In an instant fifteen meters length of the road ahead of them went up in feeble flames and smoke. The recon infantry carefully inspected ahead of where their bangalores had blown and found little to arouse suspicion. They waved their hands, and the engines all growled to life again. It was time to clear the final leg of their charge and engage the enemy base.

Hatches went down, cannons faced forward and treads methodically turned.

A periscope among the vanguard caught a glimpse of shock on a recon soldier’s face.

“Contact!” shouted the man, and he turned his rifle on an adjacent building.

His lips mouthed the beginnings of a new word but never spoke it.

His fellows turned but their rifles never found targets.

Not a second passed since the shout that the fizz of a charge, unheard beneath the engines, sparked a series of explosive bundles installed beneath the column.

Violent explosions ripped through the surface.

Underground, the archways toppled; the road collapsed into the sewer.

Through the smoke and fire the recon men and their motorcycles were consumed by the yawning earth, buried helplessly in the rock or blasted apart.

Vanguard tanks unlucky enough to have parked directly over an archway burst into flames, their turrets launching from their hulls from the force of the charges and flung against adjacent buildings like toys. Men trapped inside were butchered by spraying metal as their hatches blew in, their ammo cooked, and screws and instruments turned to shrapnel.

Slow M3 assault guns had no time and no possible reaction to the chaos unfolding, and when the ground beneath them ceased to be they crashed harshly atop heaps of rubble, falling over ten meters below. Treads and road wheels smashed apart and engine compartments burst open from the violence. Crews were battered dead or unconscious.

A pit thirty meters long and ten meters wide was all that remained after the carnage.

One M4 Sentinel found itself half without earth to stand on and before it could move far enough it tipped forward, falling gun-first into the pit – the remainder of its platoon were rewarded for their sluggish advance with their lives, but only for the moment.

Before the smoke could clear, anti-tank rifle shots plinked off the turret and glacis plates of the remaining tanks, alerting them to the presence of an engaging enemy. From four surrounding rooftops appeared small squadrons armed with BKV 14.5mm anti-tank rifles, shooting at the surviving tanks.

The doors to a theater up the street burst open and a crew pushed out a 45mm anti-tank gun, firing a shot over the pit that crashed into the mantlet armor of an M4 and left a sizable dent. Through their periscopes the shell-shocked tank crews watched Ayvartan men and women run out of buildings and huddle in the cover of a street corner a block ahead, with Rasha submachine guns and DNV light machine guns ready to fire on the glass of their ports and hatches. There were suddenly dozens of the enemy upon the Nocht tankers.

Overwhelmed by the events the tank crews shut themselves in their vehicles, closing every hatch, and did not hesitate to back up the street as fast as their treads could reverse.

Gunners loaded High-Explosive into the 50mm High-Velocity guns on the M4s and took running shots over the pit, smashing unoccupied sections of the street, taking out chunks of the theater facade but not the AT gun in front of it, and blasting windows and the corners of building roofs. There was little avail from their inaccurate moving fire.

Compared to the stronger 75mm guns on the lost M3s the M4’s explosive round had a limited area and a weaker punch on the surrounding buildings.

Fiercely the Communists returned every shot however they could, punching holes into the periscopes and headlights of the tanks, opening fire on the viewing ports and hatches to keep them pinned, and throwing shell after 45mm shell against the strong glacis plates of the M4s. Though they did not penetrate, each blast against the glacis that did not rebound entirely left dents and stressed the welding and rocked the tank, startling the crew; and though BKVs and DNVs could not penetrate the medium armor, they kept the tank blind.

Mere minutes trapped inside the rocking steel hulls and the crews had already become disoriented and lost, unable to count on anything but the gunnery port to track the enemy.

In a desperate measure the top hatches on several of the tanks opened once more, and commanders and radio personnel with submachine guns exposed themselves and returned fire. Shells and bullets ricocheting all around them on the tank’s armor, these impromptu gunners sprayed bullets haplessly on the rooftops and streets, hoping to suppress the enemy.

Communist troops saw bullets come flying their way. They huddled behind the edges of their roofs and the thick metal shields of their 45mm guns to avoid the automatic fire.

For a moment the inferno sputtered and gave the tanks their chance to pull away from the ambush. Frantically the surviving tank commanders of the four remaining M4s dove into their tanks and radioed Lt. Reiniger and General Dreschner, screaming that a trap had decimated the Kampfgruppe and that ground would have to be ceded to survive.

28-AG-30: Knyskna, Southeast Inner Boroughs FOB

Knyskna’s southeastern thoroughfare began out in the Djose, along a dirt road that passed through and connected the wood and the field into the city proper. Along the edge of the city the dirt road transitioned to a paved thoroughfare, and sparse blocks of buildings spread many meters apart and flanked the road. Despite this it remained tighter than the main southern road or the western road, and grew more so the deeper it extended.

Unlike both of those roads, Southeast Knyskna curved sharply in two places. First it bent starkly northwest out of the outer boroughs and into the inner city portion of the thoroughfare, and then it cut even more sharply westward to connect to the city center.

It had been a place full of homes and canteens, markets hosting the villagers that had come from out of the Djose, and artisans of similar origin. Compared to the grandiose main thoroughfare with its theaters and drug stores and its big names written in lights, the southeast was comfortable and homey and had played host to many little peoples.

One could have called it a historic place.

Yet many days ago the Luftlotte’s attack hit this little-known place hardest. Bombers avoided the heavy air defenses south of the city by looping around the Djose and closing in from the east, and the little-known markets, canteens and homes, and the little-known villagers that lived and worked there, were caught in the blaze.

Explosives disgorged brick and wood and cement in mounds over the road, and toppled whole structures over the thoroughfare. People ran screaming as the air raid sirens blared and the world collapsed around them. There was little difference now between the thoroughfare and the alleyways and streets branching from them – all of the outer borough and most of the inner borough had become a maze choked at every turn with rubble.

Tanks and motorcycle troops would find it hard to operate in the choked southeastern boroughs, at least until they made it to the cleaner westward bend into the city center.

So the plan was contingent on keeping them in the rubble as long as possible.

Forward observers had already spotted the tanks moving into the city.

Knyskna’s 824th Lion Company, under Sergeant Bahir in the absence of their deceased Lieutenant, counted on the inhospitable terrain as their chief advantage.

Facades that had been blown open by bombs revealed ruined interiors to the wandering troops. Standing doorways opened toward choked stairways and largely collapsed stories, the remaining high ground accessible by climbing the mounds of rubble in the rooms.

Many buildings that from the outside still seemed to stand were occupied only by their collapsed upper floors, each story piled directly atop the ground floor. These were useless to the Company. Most buildings sadly were: they had largely become indistinct hills of piled rock, and a few had been blasted to the point that they were nothing but stark, chalky foundation lines. The material that once stood over these lines now littered the roads, in many cases blocking off those pathways. In places it was as though whole buildings had been plucked from the earth and casually thrown over alleys and across the main street.

Forward elements of 824th Company assembled deep the inner city portion of the southeast thoroughfare. The buildings there were just right for a temporary base.

Eight-Two-Four had established a Forward Operating Base in a large building just off the corner from where the thoroughfare bent westward. Most of the rooftop and third floor had collapsed, but two other floors had their walls and facade mostly intact.

There were many good and sturdy window frames to shoot out of, big rooms to hold meetings and store supplies, and many of the neighboring buildings shared a similar condition. Therefore it was an accessible, defensible position that was not immediately discernible to the enemy. Advancing forces would only see a ruin before it was too late.

Inside, a 45mm anti-tank gun laid in ambush, pointed south off the bend and ready to hit any tanks trying to make the turn unawares – hopefully in the flanks. In a pinch, it could also be elevated to fire over the rubble as long as a radio observer could sight for it.

It was poor artillery, but it was the only field gun they had at the FOB.

A gaggle of troops waited for orders. The FOB temporarily housed the defenders, their weapons and ammunition and their one good long-range radio receiver. The defenders consisted of two platoons forward, forty-eight soldiers in total. Their remaining platoon was three kilometers away preparing another defensive line, with their two Orc tanks in position and their three functioning 120mm Mortars ready to support the forward elements.

Stationed at the rear, an anti-aircraft gun of 85mm caliber was depressed as low as it could go to use as a last-resort direct fire gun for the very last line of the defense.

All the combat platoons were incomplete. Nobody had what was written on paper.

Soldiers were needed to help Bahir as a headquarters troop. In addition several soldiers huddled in alleyways along the thoroughfare, given the crucial task of caring for the horses that would quickly transport survivors between the defensive lines if a retreat was ever necessary. Trucks and tanks would have just slowed them down if used in this role.

Ambush platoons prepared for battle. They knew all too well now that their position bore the crucial task of delaying the enemy as much as possible. From crates laid down atop the uneven, rock-strewn floors of the FOB, the forward troops picked up new weapons.

Men and women lined up, trading their Rasha submachine guns and Bundu bolt-action rifles for heavier weapons: DNV-28 Light Machine Guns, long automatic rifles that loaded from ninety-round pans set across the top of the weapon; and the pipe-like BKV Anti-Tank rifles, large and somewhat unwieldy. Everyone had pouches of grenades, and even a few explosive mines. A few persons, dispersed among the squads, received backpack radios.

Leander was one of the men lining up for a new weapon. In the distance, he heard the explosions, and saw clouds of cement dust and shell smoke mingling over the far end of the outer borough. Nocht tanks were blasting their way in. A quartermaster gave him a BKV and a side-arm, a small semi-automatic pistol that fit his delicate hands well. He did not have a proper holster for a side-arm, however. He stowed it in an empty pouch.

He grouped up with his squadron in one of the rooms on the ground floor, a nursery that was empty save for a strangely macabre series of baby cribs untouched by the violence. He was quite happy that Bonde and Elena remained with him. They had both been given DNV LMGs, and both of them seemed daunted by the chances their weapons stood against a Panzerdivision. Elena also carried the additional burden of a backpack radio, while Bonde once again bore a signal flare gun, with the same purpose as before.

“Looks like we’ll be depending on Leander to help us with the tanks.” Bonde said.

Leander gulped. “I’m not sure why they decided I’d be suited for this.”

“I’m positive they just handed these out randomly.” Elena said.

“Got any advice?” Leander asked his comrades, sounding helpless.

“I learned a little bit from basic training. Aim for flat surfaces in the back of the tank, the tops of the turrets, or at the wheels between the treads. Those spots tend to be vulnerable to BKVs. Don’t shoot at the front armor – it is too thick for that gun.” Bonde said.

“Yes, that. What he said to do.” Elena shrugged. Leander smiled at her.


Reflexively, the squad replied to the traditional greeting with Hujambo! of their own. A young Arjun woman walked through the open doorway, a BKV rifle slung over her shoulder, and stood before them. She bowed a little. She had a vibrant face, with a lovely smile and a richly brown complexion and long, silky black hair down to the waist. Her build was somewhat round and plump for her size, which was actually rather tall.

Leander thought she had probably been a civilian like him.

“I’m Private Sharna Mahajan.” She said, still smiling at them all. “I was told this is where Squad Three was meeting. I’ve been assigned here as an Anti-Tank riflewoman!”

Elena and Bonde stared at her, but Leander did not find her enthusiasm strange at all. Her cheer felt contagious, and soon Leander was replying back in a gregarious tone of voice as well. “Yes, you’ve got the right place comrade! We are happy to join hands in the struggle! Did you get your rifle out of a crate purely at random as well?”

“Oh no comrade, this is my rifle. I completed my training a few years ago and took a leave until things took a turn recently. My platoon was mostly lost in the Djose assault, so I was reassigned. You will be pleased to know I am a dedicated AT riflewoman.”

Leander clapped his hands. Elena and Bonde’s jaws hung, looking stunned.

Aside from Sergeant Bahir, Private Mahajan was then perhaps the first real, fully trained soldier either of them had personally met. They quickly moved ahead of Leander and shook Sharna’s hand, and she smiled and laughed and shook hands very graciously.

Leander thought nothing of it and joined the hand shaking, until Sharna’s hands were thoroughly shaken.

“Ahh, so welcoming!” She giggled. “You all are nothing like my old squadron from the 8243rd. So stodgy. May their spirits rest in peace!” She clasped her hand together as though in prayer and quickly muttered an Arjun chant under her breath, without turning her face away from her squad mates or breaking eye contact at all. It was strange for Leander, who knew very little about Arjun traditions. They were the majority of the Ayvartan population, but Leander had never had much cause to interact deeply with them.

“We are quite glad to serve with you.” Elena said

“Might I ask who our squad leader is?” Sharna said.

Elena pointed at Bonde. “That would be this guy. Private First-Class Bonde Okiro.”

“I received the promotion this morning.” Bonde said. “It is not important.”

Sharna saluted him. “I’ll follow all orders to the best of my abilities. I can hit a field mouse from 500 meters away, and I have already destroyed a vehicle in this war!”

Leander whistled, standing in awe of the woman. “Was it a tank?” He asked.

“It was a motorcycle! My BKV shot took the front wheel off!” She declared proudly.

There was a bit of silence for a moment as Sharna puffed herself up with victory.

“Well, that is better than what any of us have personally done.” Elena said soberly.

“Does the armored car count? I feel like I did a lot to it.” Leander said.

Nobody responded.

They heard a whistle from outside the room and gathered by the door to the hostel with a variety of people from the other squadrons. Atop a small, ruined indoor fountain, Sergeant Bahir stood over the platoons. He lifted his fist into the air, extending his arm completely.

A few people in the room joined him, Bonde one of them.

The fist was a revolutionary gesture that arose within the groups that became the KVW and overthrow the Empire; but its use declined except with the more fervent communists.

Sgt. Bahir held the fist for a full minute, his head bowed.

“It is sad to me how this gesture has been made to disappear.” He said.

Everyone in the crowd stood at attention. They stood to take in their orders, to hear the plan – but Leander knew they also, more than that, wanted to hear that they stood a chance. So far the war was something none of them could have seen coming, and every battle had ended in defeat and retreat. Leander had heard the others talk of officers killed in bombings, of tanks lost by the hundreds in the Tukino pocket. He himself was motivated enough – he wanted to see Solstice. But as a whole the troops needed reassuring.

Sgt. Bahir gestured out past a blasted window frame, to the rubble-choked thoroughfare, a maze of ghostly bombed-out buildings flanking mounds of debris and overturned structures blocking the road. “The same bombing that claimed this hostel, claimed many of our comrades. It claimed the Lieutenants who trained us and many of the people who support and supply us. It claimed much of our strength. But today, it will also claim one final victim – the enemy’s hope of thoroughly destroying us!”

Leander looked across the room. Almost everyone in attendance was fairly young. Most were older than he – Leander was barely a few months past 18 – but not older than the Sergeant. He looked to be pushing forty. The Lieutenants had all been older, or so he had heard. The Territorial army saw little conflict in many years, and its ranks remained static as its staff grew old. In one fell swoop they had been lost – and so a group of Sergeants commanded Companies in the chaos. To Leander though, Bahir was like an old General from the stories of cavalry and swordsmen that got told around the caravan. He was tall and sleek and gallant like a Lendian knight. His real rank didn’t matter to Leander.

“We are not individuals.” Sgt. Bahir continued. “Our enemies believe our camaraderie and empathy are our weakness. But an Ayvartan never fights alone. We are units! We are a community, we are a combat force, we are platoons and squads; we are comrades. And even when individuals are lost, a community survives. Our objective here is to survive and nothing more. Several trains are scheduled to come and to go throughout the day, ferrying our comrades and whatever valuable materiel remains in the city out to the Dbagbo dominance. Many of these people have not fired a shot, but they have contributed to the conditions necessary for us to fight. Our objective is to buy time for these beloved comrades: for our guardians, for our loved ones, for our friends, for people we don’t know, and even for people we might hate, to escape the enemy and continue the struggle.”

Everyone watched, some looking exhausted, others rapt, but all respectful.

“You will group up into 10 assigned squadrons. Most of you have radios. You will ambush and harass the enemy along with your comrades. We have indirect fire support from three 120mm mortars as well as the 45mm gun here in the FOB. Observers have already spotted tanks moving in – and you have already heard them moving in yourselves. I will not lie, we are not adequately equipped to destroy a Nocht Panzerdivisione. But we can and must slow them down. In coordination via radio, we will resist the advance of the imperialists. We will disperse into the rock, but we will not huddle like they intend us to. We will strike them from every direction. We will fight bitterly. But we will not die.”

Sgt. Bahir turned to face the city center with a flourish.

He raised his voice even more.

“Nobody here will become a martyr! We will survive. In the evening, an armored train will come to cover our escape and ferry us to safety. Keep this hope in mind, and fight to see it. Aim for their tracks, aim for their hatches, aim for exposed men. If you must, retreat to a defensible position. And if they take the FOB we will retreat to the second thoroughfare bend, where we have Orc tanks and a heavy 85mm gun waiting. And if they force us back then we will fight for every piece of track in that rail-yard. We will use every available tool to disrupt and maim the invaders! If they want this rubble, they will bleed for it!”

Sgt. Bahir raised his fist again. Leander raised his own fist almost without thinking – and so did every single other person in the lobby. This was perhaps the speech they needed.

The Sergeant got off from the fountain and the crowd parted as he joined his impromptu staff in his command room. Small hand-drawn maps of the thoroughfare were handed out to each squadron, marking the large clusters of rubble throughout the roads, as well as the positions of escape horses in alleyways. Relative positions for each squadron were listed on the map: Leander’s Squad III would be in the thick of it.

Leander joined Elena and Bonde and newcomer Sharna in front of the FOB and they set off, marching toward the ambush point. They walked across low-lying rubble and over a few eerie stretches of clean road. Far ahead they spotted a thick tangle of debris from a toppled building blocked their view of the road. A window frame along the side of the mass survived the collapse and seemed like the entrance to a labyrinth. It looked ominous.

Soon they reached this obstacle and stood before it in mute awe.

“Well then. I guess it’s time to dig and climb.” Elena said exasperatedly.

“I’m ready when you are, sir!” Sharna said, smiling and saluting Bonde.

“Please don’t call me sir,” Bonde said gently.

“I’m also ready to go, sir!” Leander saluted, miming Sharna.

Bonde shook his head at them. Elena laughed a little. Together they navigated through the rubble. Leander felt an inkling of trepidation, a shaking at the tips of his fingers and feet as he felt the heavy AT rifle at his back, and the shifting rubble below and around him, and heard the explosions far out into the thoroughfare, but he kept himself focused and tried to grin and bear it all. The type of man Leander wanted to be was strong and reliable and committed, and to that kind of man, this trek was no dire ordeal. He had to be brave.

Beyond this rubble, beyond those tanks, he knew Solstice awaited him.

28-AG-30: Djose Wood, 8th PzD Headquarters Area

Karla Schicksal maintained radio communication with the different Kampfgruppe, tracking their progress and reporting to Dreschner, seated above her in the Befehlspanzer with his headphones off, tapping his fingers on the iron walls of the tank.

Kampfgruppe K under the command of Lt. Kunze was advancing sluggishly toward its first objectives in the southeast; Kampfgruppe under Lt. Lenz made decent progress in the West despite tight roads and rubble; Kampfgruppe R under Lt. Reiniger, tasked with the important main thoroughfare in the South, was not cooperating with her.

Schicksal contacted Reiniger various times, and very few times did he reply.

She did not at all intend to cover for him, but she gave him some slack, knowing him a capable enough officer and a willful sort. Reporting to Dreschner, she told him that everything was going to plan and that no engagements were reported. He was satisfied enough with this. “Tell them to give a detailed report at the first objective areas.”

“Yes sir.” She replied. This type of instruction appealed to her. Dreschner being hands-off in these situations was for the best. It meant she had to make no judgment calls.

She sent the message to each crew in turn. Though the Befehlspanzer’s radio could collect multiple frequencies worth of incoming audio in one feed that she and Dreschner could hear, it could only transmit to specific Kampfgruppe channels at a time.

Dreschner hardly ever listened in – it distracted him.

After sending her instructions and receiving replies, she would notify him of what was said instead. Late morning and early noon passed slowly this way, hearing routine reports. She liked the voices of the men (and the very few women) on the radio – the dedicated signals officers were soft spoken and had clear, interesting voices, unlike the fighting crew.

By noon the first objectives should have been seized, and enemy contact long ago reported. Kunze reported his objective and held for instructions; Lentz did the same; both reported no enemy contact. Reiniger reported nothing. Schicksal gave him the benefit of the doubt at first, but then Kunze and Lentz reported advances towards their second objectives, and Reiniger still did not call. He was far past due for a reprimand now.

Schicksal could no longer ignore Reiniger’s foolishness.

She put down her headset and turned on her seat to face General Dreschner, who noticed immediately. “Something wrong?” He asked, still drumming his fingers on the steel.

“Lt. Reiniger’s reports have been sporadic and vague, and for the past hour or so he has not reported anything at all. What’s more worrying sir, is that none of the Kampfgruppe have reported enemy contacts at all throughout the operation. Something is not right.”

“Of course, it had to be Reiniger,” Dreschner grit his teeth. “That insubordinate clod. Had he any less skill or any less trust from his men I would sack him.”

“What should I do, sir?”

“Contact the fool and put him through to me. Accept no excuses.”

Schicksal nodded and put her headset back on and indicated for Dreschner to do the same. She turned back to her radio set, turned the dial to the correct frequency, and picked up her transmitter. Flipping a switch, she spoke calmly into her transmitter.

“8th PzD HQ to Lt. Reiniger, report your progress and disposition, this is 8th PzD–”

“Progress and disposition is everything’s fucked, lady!” Lt. Reiniger shouted.

Schicksal cringed from the sudden, sharp cracking of his voice over the radio.

She heard gunfire around him and the sharp retort of his tank’s cannon firing. Despite the ambient noise it was the voices that disturbed her the most. She had never heard Reiniger sound so anxious and so loud. Dreschner was by that point listening in with his own headset. His face was contorting with anger and confusion. He tapped his headset.

“I’m here as well you thug, do not shout into the radio!” Dreschner said.

Reiniger paused at the Brigadier-Generals’ voice. They heard nothing but his breathing for an awkward moment. “Well, shit sir. I thought I could fix it myself but I’m afraid I’m gonna have to report, we have just gone and lost some tanks to the commies.”

“Explain you miserable idiot! Why have you not been reporting your advance?”

“Sir,” Reiniger began, which for him, was rare and dire a thing to say indeed, “Kampfgruppe captured its objectives early and met no resistance. I ordered them to advance until they made contact with an enemy, and I was so focused on command–”

“You clown! Of course they were trying to lead you into an ambush!”

“I’m going to need a losses report for the Logistics crew,” Schicksal meekly interjected.

Dreschner waited with clenched teeth and fists for Reiniger to deliver the report.

“Six tanks knocked out.” Reiniger said, his voice growing more guttural and restrained, as though he felt the General’s hands choking him. “All escorts and their motorcycles too.”

“How the hell did this happen?” Dreschner shouted suddenly.

Reiniger devolved into a pronounced stutter. “They blew up the floor right from under ’em. We didn’t know there was a sewer or bombs there sir! All the assault guns collapsed or blew up, and an M4 fell in from not retreating fast enough. All the men had been clearing a minefield when the charges went off, so it took them all too. Remaining M4s are retreating back to the first objectives. But sir, I believe we’ve got a bigger problem.”

Schicksal’s head hurt, Dreschner and Reiniger’s shouting bouncing around inside her skull. Dreschner was shaking from head to toe in anger, and he spoke as though to an archenemy rather than a subordinate. “You are dangerously close to the edge Lieutenant! I should like to know what you have to report, with your record this blackened!”

There was audible gulping on the other end. “We’ve been trying to fight back with just the M4’s but their High Explosive is garbage. I’ve got reports that even the fucked-up–”

Mind your filthy tongue when you talk to me you pig!” Dreschner shouted. Schicksal nearly cried out in pain, her hands going up to her earpieces and almost ripping them from her head. She had barely restrained herself from doing so in Dreschner’s presence.

“The M4’s guns can’t even break the ruined buildings the communists are hiding in, sir.” Reiniger said, clearly putting in the effort to affect a dialect more in kind with Dreschner and Schicksal’s speech. “Sir, we need more 75mm assault guns out here and fast if we want to break the main thoroughfares. That 50mm won’t cut it, sir, it’s too limited!”

“Your head is too limited.” Dreschner said, in a low and bitter voice that was far more comforting for Schicksal than the screaming. “You know we don’t have equal amounts of M3s and M4s. Your men will hold their position until the next wave of your Company reaches them, and those will be the last assault guns you will receive, Reiniger.”

Dreschner swiped his hand across his own neck, and Schicksal turned the dial, cutting Reiniger off. Immediately the Brigadier-General turned around and tore some photos that had been taped up from the wall of the tank. He pored over them, flipping between them rapidly, looking over the South roads as photographed days and days ago.

“Knyskna’s main thoroughfare is wide enough for a larger formation than the five-tank advances we were using.” He said, aloud but to himself, Schicksal knew. His mind was racing through possible options. “Six tanks, two rows of three, both M4 and M3.”

He looked up from the photos, and then back down, but at Schicksal instead of his own hands. “Send word to Kunze and Lentz to watch for ambush and avoid overextension. They will expand cautiously past the first objective, with an eye toward the roofs–”

Schicksal turned the dial mindlessly to execute the order, but the radio rewarded her efforts with a blast of static and noise that pummeled her senses.

She winced and stifled a cry, almost in tears now from the unprecedented abuse her ears had received in such a short span, but ever the professional she grit her teeth and got to work, adjusting the sound as best as she could with the radio’s controls. Within moments the mess of noise and static became the frantic voices of Kunze and his tank commanders and the ambient chaos around them, together flooding through the airwaves.

“They’re under attack sir!’ She said. “Kampfgruppe K was ambushed in the southeast!”

28-AG-30: Knyskna, Southeast Thoroughfare

Leander felt his heart beating hard in his chest.

He kept himself pressed against a corner of the room, his rifle in a stiff grip in his hands. As the tanks thundered closer the vibrations along the cement walls transferred to his body and sunk deep into his gut. He tried to be strong, and he endured the situation as much as he could, but the noise and smell and the shaking was turning his stomach.

Sharna lay against the wall on the opposite side of a blasted-out window frame from him. Their dilapidated hideout overlooked the road and made a prime sniping spot – Sharna herself picked it out. She raised her finger to her mouth to signal quiet, and shifted her eyes toward the window. Leander stood carefully beside the frame and peered out.

A column of five assault guns, turretless tanks, advanced in a tight formation, two wide, two deep with a fifth vehicle trailing behind. Leander had committed to memory pictures of the tanks they would be facing, and knew these to be M3 Hunters.

With their guns mounted on the right side of the tank, they would have to turn dramatically to attack Leander’s position, which menaced them from their left. Their awkward design, lack of a machine gun and their engine power meant, according to the notes he had read, that they would be quite vulnerable during such a maneuver.

He took heart in this weakness and hoped he could exploit it.

But the tanks were not completely alone.

Among the armored column traveled over fifteen men, three in a motorcycle, but most on foot – the motorcycle had to start and stop and struggle through the debris beneath and around the column. They were not outfitted for house to house fighting. They had no automatic weapons, only long bolt-action rifles like the ones Leander saw them use when fighting in the woods, and they seemed to struggle with the terrain as they moved.

In addition to the men Leander still heard noises in the distance of tanks blasting at debris, so he knew that the vanguard of the enemy probably counted on reinforcements. Their ambush had to be sprung soon before the rest of the enemy’s tanks caught up to the vulnerable M3s. Every additional tank cratered their chances of success.

Everyone waited for the signal to attack. Below them the Nochtish men kept their eyes to the road and advanced clumsily. Whenever they looked overhead they focused on roofs and balconies and cast only brief glances. They did not know that the buildings ahead and around them were taken up by men and women ready to die fighting them.

When Sgt. Agewa or Sgt. Ibori launched their attacks, it was likely that knowledge of this would be disseminated quickly across Nocht’s forces. They would become far more aware of their surroundings. It was critical to launch their ambushes as soon as possible and with some level of coordination. This was the importance of their radios.

Leander looked behind himself, across the ruined room, where a depression in the floor led to a fairly intact staircase. Elena and Bonde crouched there, waiting to ambush any troops that rushed into the building – and also listening to the backpack radio. When it was time to attack, Elena would let them know with a thumbs up from the staircase.

Leander lifted his rifle for no specific purpose. He could not yet fire, but with every movement he felt more used to its weight, better able to heft it and aim down the sights and quickly take a shot. It was not so different from a Bundu, it was only heavier.

He moved it, and pulled bolt to check the chamber, and felt that these small things could be preparation enough. It helped keep him focused through the rumbling.

“Shoot at the tanks ahead of the column. That will slow them all down.” Sharna said softly, fidgeting absentmindedly with the length of her rifle. “Try to hit the flat, depressed bed right behind the cannon housing. It is the thinnest armor, and right over the engine.”

“Alright,” Leander mouthed, nodding his head to acknowledge her.

They heard a light tapping on the floor behind them, and looked back to see Elena’s hand, raised in a thumbs-up. The time had come for the ambush.

Sharna and Leander stood fully erect against opposite sides of the window frame, their rifles in hand. In this position they were still concealed from the enemy, but could easily fire and take cover before the infantry could get them. They were ready to fight.

Nocht’s tank column was now a short ways past their building, but still well within the BKV rifle’s optimal anti-armor range of 100 to 300 meters. Leander’s five-round internal magazine was already loaded, and he only needed to shoot – the BKV was semi-automatic, a real marvel of a weapon. Leander hardly knew the advantages of this trait.

Sharna took a deep, audible breath, braced her rifle against her shoulder, raised the barrel out the hole in the window frame and took aim while standing on her feet.

In an instant she opened fire, a loud echoing boom issuing from the gun as its 14.5 mm projectile screamed out, the stock pounding against Sharna’s shoulder but hardly rocking her expert stance. She stabilized within seconds and fired again.

Leander stifled a surprised gasp at her and hastily joined the attack, aiming poorly and letting loose a hasty shot – the round ripped from the barrel with a noise like thunder, and the stock pounded his shoulder and nearly pushed him a step back. It was certain to bruise.

The projectile struck the lower left side of an M3 and did seemingly nothing to the track. In a panic the enemy footsoldiers raised their guns and opened on the window.

Leander returned immediately to cover.

From three buildings across the street came similar volleys of sustained anti-tank fire.

Sharna ignored the enemy’s rounds pounding uselessly against the concrete wall around her. She leaned out and fired twice more at Leander’s previous target in quick succession, punching two visible holes into the bed behind the cannon housing.

Her target stalled, black wisps fuming from inside the engine compartment.

Under accurate fire from a building directly overlooking it, four smoking holes quickly appeared on the bed of another leading M3, causing it to stall near its companions.

Nochtish men huddled behind rocks and near stalled tanks, shouting Hinterhalt! as the battle was joined in earnest. With their way blocked by their immobilized lead tanks the remaining three M3s in the back started the laborious process of turning, slowly shifting their glacis plates so that their guns could face toward the buildings and open fire.

“Tracks now, try to aim for the tracks!” Sharna shouted, pausing to work her bolt and load a new clip. “Aim for the farthest tank from you to get a straighter shot at it!”

Leander shifted a step out of cover, swinging the barrel of his gun out of the window and taking aim across the street from his building, where an M3 committed to a ninety degree turn to fire on them. He took aim at the tracks and fired.

His first shot struck the hull plate over the tracks. Enemy fire forced him back to cover.

Because the gun was so large he was unused to thinking of it as semi-automatic – it felt like it should naturally be bolt-action like the Bundu and so he did not rap the trigger or fire successively before going into cover at the sight of retaliatory gunfire.

He had the shoot-and-hide muscle movements from the Bundu too close in mind.

Breathing deep, he stepped out of cover to shoot, this time aiming a touch lower.

Sharna joined him, her rifle now reloaded; Leander’s shot punched through one of the road wheels, blowing it out, and Sharna took out two in quick succession. Under this violence the track split completely, stalling the tank mid-turn and helpless to respond to the ambush. From the opposite side of the street, anti-tank grenades flew toward the immobilized tanks, setting ablaze their stalled engines and smashing holes in their cannons.

Anti-tank fire fell relentlessly upon the hatches and sides of the stalled tanks. Under this onslaught three tanks were rendered useless and their hatches flew open, the crew running out to the street with pistols out and screaming audible nonsense into hand radios.

Stray rifle rounds struck the window frame, kicking up tiny wisps of plaster and cement dust. Sharna and Leander hid again. Nocht’s men were rallying in ever more vigorous support of their tanks, the shock of the ambush fading from them. They aimed for the windows with greater fervor, and though sporadic their fire endangered the snipers.

But the AT rifles were not alone: peeking over the window again with great care Leander saw automatic fire pouring out of the lower floors of the buildings, bouncing off tanks and cutting across the positions of Nocht’s riflemen. Caught in the crossfire several Noctish men fell instantly to the automatic bursts, riddled with bullets in the middle of the road. Several men rushed desperately onto the remains of the streets and charged into the buildings with their pistols out – more easily manageable in close quarters than their rifles.

From behind him, Leander heard the belabored thumping of the DNV light machine guns as Bonde and Elena fought back against the incoming home invaders.

Hidden along the staircase, they could fire on anyone trying to pass the building’s open doorway, as well deliver suppressing fire over the thoroughfare. Their raid on the Djose must have taken its toll on Nocht’s forces, because no grenades or other explosives were flung toward the buildings to dislodge the defenders – the sounds of battle grew decidedly one-sided as the cries and guns of Nochtish men were silenced. DNVs beat like drums from the lower floors. Joined by the booming of intermittent BKV fire this cacophony overwhelmed the mechanical chugging and snapping of Nocht’s weapons.

Leander pulled the bolt on his rifle and loaded a new clip – the bundles were large and difficult to manage, especially while standing with his back awkwardly to a wall.

“You need to shoot more before hiding, Leander,” Sharna said. She was already through two clips, loading her third; Leander was just now reloading for the first time.

Nodding, Leander maneuvered his rifle out of the window to fire once more.

Two remaining tanks had managed to complete their turns and now faced the row of buildings across the street from his position. Leander’s heart skipped a beat when he saw the guns climbing. There were more of their comrades on that side of the street, and their fire had drawn the most attention. He spotted several snipers on the targeted windows, desperately firing into the glacis and gun mantlet of the M3 to no avail.

Alone, their weapons could not stop what was coming.

“Spirits defend,” Sharna gasped, “We have to help them Leander!”

From her pouch, Sharna sought out an anti-tank stick grenade, and found a single, solitary example among a few useless fragmentation grenades. While she prepared to throw it, and at a loss for how else to help, Leander fired three shots into the engine bed of the tank closest to him in quick succession, the BKV stock pounding into his shoulder.

He struck the bed several times at a good angle, smashing through to the engine housing but with seemingly no immediate effect. Sharna took the opportunity to throw her primed grenade at the tank below, aiming to exploit the damage Leander had caused to the engine housing. Those 700 grams of explosive encased in the grenade detonated on contact and blew open a great hole into the weakened engine hatch. Flames burst up from the exposed engine compartment and spread dangerously across the back of the tank.

It was not enough – the vehicle clung on to life. Even as the fire spread they saw the assault gun adjust its cruel aim. Assuredly in its death throes, the gun still readied to fire. There was now no way for Leander and Sharna to stop what was coming.

The M3 Hunter had raised its 75mm cannon as high as the short-barreled gun would elevate. With a dying roar it launched a high-explosive shell through the window across the street, past several snipers still firing in a panic. It detonated behind them.

Leander felt the explosion like a shockwave sinking through his flesh.

Fire and smoke expanded from the windows and doors, casting out burning, dying bodies onto the street. The roof burst from the inside out and showered the thoroughfare in cement chunks, and the upper floor collapsed entirely, burning and burying the machine gunners guarding the doorways. Five meters away the fifth M3, almost entirely unharmed in the chaos, opened fire on a building further down the street, its cannon smashing open the facade and ejecting snipers from the second floor with a crash of thunder. The snipers landed unceremoniously on the streets, instantly dead from their expulsion.

Moments later the vehicle below them had become an inferno.

Leander and Sharna’s previous target had had enough, and the fires finally spread to the ammo racks. From the inside out the great, murderous assault gun burst into pieces with an explosion that forced Leander and Sharna instantly to cover despite their shock.

Whether it had roasted its crew inside it they did not know, but finally the M3 Hunter lay ripped apart along the road. In the span of a few minutes three other assault guns, numerous men, but most importantly, many of their comrades, lay dead with it.

One assault gun remained, and it was unsatisfied with the bloodshed. It once again began to turn, this time casting its murderous cannon directly at Leander’s position.

Bonde ran up to the second floor, loading a new pan magazine atop his empty DNV as he went, and with Elena trailing close behind him and standing guard by the steps. They too had sought cover from the explosion happening almost right in front of them. “We’re abandoning the building. Gather your things quickly. We’ve got time before it shoots.”

Leander and Sharna peeled themselves away from the window, and nodded in silent shock. Leander still felt as though the blast were rolling over him.

Together the crew gathered pouches of ammunition and grenades, clipping them to their belts as they rushed down the steps, Elena and Bonde leading with their machine guns. They each fired a burst out into the streets at any men who might have been cowering somewhere, injured but alive. Seeking new cover the group ran out of the ruin and put their backs to one of the smoking husks, stepping over the dead and the unconscious dying.

Behind them they heard the tank moving and cracking of its gun as it elevated. The squadron crouched near the debris and the hull of a broken M3 and they covered their heads. A 75mm high explosive shell flew into the window that had once been their sniping position and blasted the inside of the building. Chunks of hot concrete and smoke poured out over the street. They heard the tank’s tracks laboring to move once again.

“Does anyone have an AT grenade we can throw at it?” Elena asked.

“Only frags left in my pouch.” Sharna replied, and looked to her fellow anti-tank specialist. Leander silently raised his hand from his grenade pouch, holding a Faru-Kombora 28 or FKB-28 stick grenade, the communist’s AT grenade model.

It was their only one left.

“Do you think you can get close and hit the back?” Bonde said solemnly.

Leander gulped, the fire and smoke and the dead still flashing in his mind.

It was time to be brave.

He set his shoulders and forced his shaking voice.

“I can do it. I just need some covering fire or a distraction.” He said.

Elena looked grimly at him, hands gripping her machine gun as if to say it was useless.

“I think I can keep it busy.” Sharna said. “I can break its periscope and try to put something in the barrel and hatches. I can be very annoying! There are small targets all over the face of that tank I can hit, even if I can’t destroy it by doing so.”

“I guess that will have to do.” Elena said. She patted Leander on the back.

“Run out first, Sharna. Use the debris. Find a good spot.” Bonde said.

With the sling around her shoulder, Sharna confidently rested her BKV against her hip. She held the weapon with one hand on the carrying handle affixed to the barrel, and the other on the trigger guard. Leander nodded to her in the direction he intended to run out from – Sharna nodded back and took position away from it, bracing herself.

She left cover as close to the opposite side of the street as she could, running out into the open and briefly staring down the tank. From the hip she fired her BKV twice at its face – the heavy rounds blasted open the periscope and sank into the front of the leftmost track and took chunks from the treads wrapped around it. A strained noise issued from them as the track began to churn and the tank moved forward. Sharna rushed away from it and took cover behind a collapsed portion of the roof recently shattered by the M3.

Leander marveled for a moment at Sharna’s grace with the BKV – she could carry it and heave it much more competently than he could, and shoot it much more accurately. Perhaps it was her size relative to him, but more likely it was her experience.

“You’re up Leander,” Bonde said. “May the ancestors be with you!”

“Don’t do anything foolish. Throw and hide!” Elena added.

Taking a deep breath, Leander plunged out of cover in the opposite direction from Sharna, scrambling over the fallen men. While in cover he had hardly noticed them, but in motion they all seemed to reappear, staring at him from the earth, bleeding from dozens of wounds across their gray uniforms and unable to even raise their pistols to stop him.

He thought he heard the moaning of their souls in the process of leaving behind their ruined bodies as he ran around the husks they once defended.

Almost on reflexes alone he weaved between the wrecks of the other tanks, using them to conceal himself as he ran closer to the remaining enemy vehicle.

More BKV shots rang out from Sharna’s position and from far up the street, where the last remaining BKV team still lay in hiding and now found occasion again to provide their support. All the shots bounced harmlessly off the tank, but Leander heard the target’s tracks stop and the sound of its gun clanking and groaning as it adjusted elevation.

They had drawn its attention away. Now, however, it threatened his comrades as it had done before, and any one shot would be too much for them. It had to be stopped.

Keeping himself on its left to avoid the gun, Leander ran out into the open, just a few meters from the monster. He threw his anti-tank grenade overhead as best as he could.

Having no immediate and good cover, he hit the dirt and crawled near low-lying rubble.

He closed his eyes and heard the grenade explode atop the vehicle and felt a wave of heat washing suddenly over him. Only a moment later he heard tracks again, and his heart sank. Did he not manage to stop it? He stood and got a grip on his BKV, intending to shoot it anywhere he could in a desperate bid to stop the thing once and for all–

Bonde and Elena opened up on the tank with their machine guns from up the street, despite having no hope of penetrating the thing. Leander realized that it was not moving forward, but retreating carefully down the street, its damaged track rattling as it moved.

Smoke blew from atop the machine, and a hunk of shattered metal flapped against its side. He had blown open the top hatch! Its interiors were now vulnerable.

Leander was breathing again suddenly, ragged, his eyes drawn open, his mind racing to process the opportunity. As his allies’ DNV machine gun fire crashed uselessly against the face of the retreating tank, Leander reached into his pockets and drew his bundle of frag grenades. Purging his mind of dissenting thoughts Leander charged headlong again toward the vehicle, closing physically as fast as he could with the giant machine.

He instantly heard an incoherent screaming from behind him. All machine guns stopped firing lest they kill him as they had done the men lying around him.

He could hear in his head Elena’s voice distinctly asking if he had lost his mind; but he knew he had to move then, as he had in the forest. With a damaged track the vehicle’s movements had been reduced to a careful creep to avoid splitting its treads completely.

Leander ran with all his might and caught up.

He ran alongside the machine, pulling the pins on several grenades and then tossing the entire pouch through the smoking hatch. He heard the deadly metallic ringing of the grenades bouncing down off the commander’s seat and around the interior.

Still running he turned immediately and hurtled away from it as fast as he could, making for any kind of cover from what was about to transpire. He was still running when the blasts began, making his way across the street. It was an instantaneous chaos behind him. Fragments, heat and smoke blew first from the hatch, and then the ammunition stored inside the machine felt its share of the violence as the remaining grenades exploded.

From the inside-out the tank burst open as its stored shells detonated.

Hunks of steel blew from the vehicle’s punctured sides and roof, and when the engine blew the tank almost leaped. Leander heard the pieces flying off the battered machine, whizzing across the air with deadly new life, its rivets, hatches, glass, everything was now ammo. Hundreds of tiny fragments and projectiles blew over him like a cloud, stinging his back and scraping his sides, falling like metallic ashes from a mechanical volcano.

As he set foot on the adjacent street Leander threw himself with all his strength into an open doorway as the larger pieces of burning steel came crashing down around the street, sure to kill whoever they fell upon. He made it to the safety of a building’s interior.

Rolling on the ground in pain; flailing his arms as though trying to beat insects or snakes off his body; blowing out labored breaths as though they could cool the burning metal pinpricks across his back. In this brief, annihilating moment of agony Leander had hardly any time to process that he had almost single-handedly destroyed a tank.

Outside, the street was covered in smoke and fire and metal that any advancing force would have to clear. The ambush had made its indelible mark on the fighting.

No one could be under any illusions, however, that they had stopped Nocht.

As he thrashed over a mound of pulverized concrete and tried to batter down the hot pain across his back, Leander became acutely aware of new sources of noise.

Fresh explosions thundered in the distant parts of the thoroughfare, and Leander, dazed by adrenaline and still in pain, thought it had to be the ammunition in the tank still going off. However, the retorts from cannons soon became unmistakable.

Shots began to fall closer to the ambush sector.

Within minutes he saw the first shell making landfall directly outside his building, and he felt the rumbling of the blast drive right through him like an invisible knife.

Leander forced himself to his feet, grit his teeth against the pain and climbed out of a side window and into a nearby alley. He saw Sharna running up the street and he joined her without looking back, hugging the buildings as he went for what minimal concealment the awnings and collapsed facades might give him from the tanks. Bonde and Elena were not far behind, and vacated their position as Leander and Sharna ran past.

Soon every survivor from the forward platoons was running pell-mell across the ruins.

“How many are coming up?” Leander shouted over the throng.

“It’s a fresh platoon, probably five more tanks. We’ve lost more than half the forces we had here. We can’t stand and fight any longer.” Bonde replied. He seemed stricken suddenly with a thought. “I think it’s about time we called in a favor.”

He paused for a moment, and then he withdrew his flare gun.

Sharna and Elena almost skidded to a stop ahead of them, looking back to see what was keeping their comrades. Bonde raised the gun overhead on a shaking hand.

“Can those three mortars we have left even damage a tank?” Elena asked.

“If they’re 120mm then they might be able to.” Sharna said.

Leander looked back on the street as well in time to see Bonde shoot.

Briefly he saw the M4s charging in the distance, until Bonde launched the flare over the road in as far and high an arc as he could. Before the first shells were even loaded from across the thoroughfare the team began to run again, joining anew the remainder of their company’s forces also fleeing from the sector. Soon the shells began to fall around the advancing M4’s, kicking up dust, rattling the hulls and putting strain on the tracks.

The M4s fired on the retreating forces with their 50mm cannons, but once the platoons dispersed into the ruins they became impossible to directly hit with cannons. Even so, Elena would not yet get her clear answer as to whether the mortars could damage the tanks.

Nobody was looking back into the midst of the shells and the enemy cannon fire.

Under the cover of the mortars and across the rubble-strewn road, the company left behind that bloody, ruined block of houses and the road between them, dotted with bodies and the wrecks of tanks shredded by BKVs and grenades. Their next position was the FOB.

In all, the fighting around that lost block, that had claimed so many lives and tanks, had lasted only minutes, and much of the Nochtish force remained intact.

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Battle of Knyskna, Part 2

A Beacon On The Horizon – Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of mild violence and implied death.

24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Shaila Dominance – Tukino, Southeast Shaila

Columns of smoke rose from once clear and quiet fields of Tukino.

Across the open and flat grasslands columns of tanks traded shells, soldiers exchanged deadly fire out in the open, and in the broad daylight the battle took on a surreal character.

Burnt-out steel husks littered fields of poppies, hemp and sunflowers.

Winds grew silent; the bellowing of cannons grew to become the dominant sound, followed by the ominous whining of Nocht dive-bombers that painted the sky with their contrails. Reality seemed to falter against the advancing war – color seemed to warp and the landscape grew alien as each shell-fall kicked gray dust where there were once beautiful flowers; as each field became littered with dead bodies and broken machines; as the oil leaking from husks turned the earth black but the knees of thrashing soldiers, struggling to escape, were still hidden amidst bright greens and yellows of the surviving foliage.

Tukino was long over strategically, but remained a decidedly uneven tactical match.

Outside the village, now little more than a collection of blown-out building foundations, a line of Nochtish M4 “Sentinel” tanks stood in an unmoving spearhead.

They watched the nearby woods, spotting Ayvartan Goblin tanks charging at full speed, throwing themselves toward out of cover and toward the village. The M4 was a medium tank, larger than the Goblin, with a slightly sloped front, smooth curves along the hull and a turret like an upside-down platter hosting a short but powerful 50mm gun.

Approaching them, the Ayvartan Goblin tanks looked pitiably small, like green crates on treads making a strange effort to move, with turrets like oil drums and thin cannons that were no visual match for the enemy. Whether they approached to do battle or escape, the Nochtish tankers did not know. Having observed them before, they knew that Goblins had only one way to penetrate M4 armor with their 45mm guns – luck and proximity.

And they were just as lucky and came just as close to the enemy while charging at full speed as they did while trying to run past the line and escape their encirclement.

A massive barrage ensued, the dozen Goblins scarcely stopping to fire and unleashing all they had upon the M4s. Shells hurtled from across the field, crashing around the M4 tanks, soaring over them into the empty village, smashing into their armored fronts.

Armor-piercing ammunition bounced harmlessly off the M4’s glacis; High-Explosive shells erupting around them rattled the machines and their crews but dealt no grievous damage. Dozens of shells challenged the Nochtish battle line but the M4s did not budge.

The Goblins’ ceaseless, desperate rolling attack was soon returned.

M4 turrets turned with the constantly moving Goblin tanks, aiming ahead before unleashing their salvo. Their 50mm AP shells crashed through the Goblins’ thin armor and instantly destroyed the little tanks, setting engines and ammunition ablaze, instantly demolishing hulls. High-Explosive shells were equally effective, sundering tracks and ripping apart turrets even on otherwise glancing blows. Under accurate fire a dozen tanks were cut down to six in an instant, and only a few meters ahead they became three.

No Ayvartan tank reached the Nocht line –the closest died still fifty meters away.

Gute Arbeit, Kampfgruppe!” A hard voice cheered from Nochtish radios.

Across the village, atop a small hill that still managed to command a view of the flat land around, Brigadier-General Dreschner watched the skirmish from the magnifying scope mounted atop his command tank. Though in the body of an M4, the gun “turret” on its large, boxy superstructure was a fake that could not shoot. The M4 Befehlspanzer was instead a rolling radio that allowed Dreschner to watch, command, and to share in the jubilation of those who fought. Having congratulated his men, Dreschner sank back down the cupola of his false tank and slipped into the commander’s seat.

For a tank the interior was roomy. His dummy turret had merely a tube affixed to the exterior, so there was no gunner, no cannonry mechanisms, and no ammunition stock crowding it. There was only Dreschner, his silent driver, and his radio operator and her valuable equipment, the medium for Dreschner’s orders, the voice carrying his will.

“Schicksal, disseminate orders. Four companies will stay to aid the grenadiers in reducing the pocket, but I want every remaining Panzer in Knyskna in two days.”

Karla Schicksal stiffly saluted the Brigadier-General and turned anxiously back to her radio, slipping her headset over her messy brown hair. Along the left portion of the crew compartment the tank boasted a powerful radio system, and signals officer Schicksal quite deftly operated its various components, manipulating signal strength and frequency.

She picked up a small speaker and began to recite the message over various frequencies over the next several minutes. Her mousy and delicate voice, clearly pronouncing every word so nothing could be misheard over the waves, was lost to Dreschner under the protestations of the engine and the noise-dampening effect of his headset, unless he strained to hear it. He had bigger things to consider at the time.

Next to him a map of the Shaila dominance had been taped to the turret wall.

Tukino was a large and clumsy red circle, swiftly drawn in a moment of ecstasy. It was another grand victory. Dreschner’s 8th Panzer division, alongside the 10th and 15th Panzer Divisions, and with some help from the Taskforce’s Grenadier infantry, had surrounded the bulk of the Ayvartan Battlegroup Lion’s forces in the village of Tukino and in the wooded outskirts of the vast Djose, separating them from Knyskna, the capital.

This pocket was part of Nocht’s favored strategy for defeating the Ayvartans, and indeed, for waging war in general. Using his fast-moving forces Dreschner could surround the enemy to prevent them from resupplying. So trapped, all they could do was throw themselves at his troops, hoping to escape. Thus far, no one had managed it.

“Schicksal, have the men–”

The signals officer raised her hand, bidding Dreschner for more time.

Below his seat, Karla continued to talk and to fiddle with the transmitter, for longer than it should have taken her to initiate the contacts he had requested. Dreschner pulled off his own headset to better overhear her and soon rolled his eyes, knowing all too well what kept her engaged so long with the radio equipment. Once she was through with the radio, she pulled the headset back halfway off her head and just off her ears, and looked up at him over her shoulder. For the most part he already knew what she would say.

“Sir,” She cleared her throat a little, and once sure she had his attention, she began anew and forced herself to speak a little louder and faster than normal for her.

“Commanders from the 12th Grenadier, 13th Grenadier, 4th Panzergrenadier and 15th Motorized Grenadier divisions have expressed concerns about our departure. They would like to delay the action until their rifle regiments have cleared the pocket and can be transported to support the assault. According to them, the forces around Knyskna consist mostly of suppression companies and recon elements that are holding down the Ayvartans but will not be equipped to support a direct assault on the city quite yet.”

“I will not be relegated to supporting the infantry!” Dreschner said, his tone growing louder and icier. “We will show the Oberkommando that the tanks will lead this new age of warfare. Ayvarta will be the test for future war, and I will make my mark on it!”

“Yes sir.” Karla said, looking perturbed by the outburst.

“Tell the infantry that the Panzers will drive tonight, to make Knyskna by the 26th. If their boots cannot be spared to join us, then so be it. That is the burden of leadership.”

Karla frowned a little. “In those exact words, sir?”

“Of course not. You have a way with politeness. Put it across to them.”

Karla nodded her head quickly, slipped her headset back into place, and opened communication again. Dreschner cast aside his own headset, knowing he might receive direct transmissions from the Infantry commanders and finding the very thought of it wholly mortifying. He was surrounded with stultifying fools and pitiable enemies, but if he could put on a good show regardless, his future would be sealed with a gold stamp.

Moments later, she turned over her shoulder again. “They acknowledge, sir. Limited elements constituting perhaps a battalion of rifles might join you late in the 27th.”

“Good. It is better for us this way.”

“Yes sir.”

“Don’t you agree? You might not be a real soldier, but you’re still a part of this.”

“I have no authority to comment, sir.” Karla said carefully.

“Ach, how painfully dull a response, my dear.” Dreschner laughed.

26th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance Knyskna City, Shaila Dominance

“Comrade Gaurige! Comrade Gaurige, please come in now!”

It took Leander a moment to recognize his own name in the early dawn.

Since the trucks returned to Knyskna with remnants of the failed assault (“strategically inconclusive”) Leander had sat against a sandbag wall at the edge of what was once the plaza staging area. Now it became a place full of the wounded, waiting their turn.

There was a priority based on the severity of the injured. Those bleeding, vomiting or otherwise dramatically hurt were the first taken and accommodated, while the bruised and battered waited. Doctors operated largely in the basements of nearby buildings or inside partially ruined buildings, hidden to insure some measure of safety from air strikes.

But for the past day, Noctish planes had been content to leave them alone.

Perhaps they were kept busy with the destruction of Shaila’s air force.

There was a war happening, somewhere; but right now Knyskna had a respite.

At first Leander had been throbbing all over, but the wait grew soporific enough that he nodded off and his whole body shut off any sensation of pain. He struggled to stand up after hearing his name, feeling an intense prickling feeling spreading through his numb limbs. Elena helped him to his feet, but he ambled the rest of the way, waving her hands off him and gently assuring her that he could walk and that he was quite fine. It was less than thirty slow paces to the field hospital, a repurposed old memorial museum.

Inside the building several curtains and beds had been put up to give each soldier some space and privacy. There were several dozen occupied beds, and behind the blue curtains Leander heard haunting cries from the gravely wounded as they tried to rest.

Much of the building’s second story had been purposely destroyed to give the appearance that it had been wrecked by an air-strike. It seemed to work, so far.

Elena waited outside, while a field medic working as an aide led Leander into a curtained-off area at the back of the long, wide room and helped him to his bed. He helped undo the clasps and remove Leander’s armor, but Leander waved him off doing any more.

Gracefully he departed, and was soon replaced by a civilian physician, an older woman with her half-white, half-black hair tied into a bun, and slightly weathered look to her face, with the beginnings of black bags under her eyes, and slight wrinkles around her mouth. She smiled gently for him, and he felt self-conscious about the situation. He had not found the time in Bika to see a doctor, Nocht had attacked too soon after his arrival.

Hujambo,” She said, holding out her hand. Leander shook it. Her grip was weak. Leander thought she must have been very weary. “I’m Doctor Agrawal. I apologize that it took me this long. I’ve had to be a doctor even to other doctors in this disaster – we are dreadfully understaffed. What is your name, comrade? I’m required to keep a record.”

“Leander Gaurige.” He said, a bit more tersely than he wanted.

She sat next to him on the long bed, and wrote down his name on a clipboard.

“I used to be the Chief of Knyskna Public Health.” She said. “Used to. Due to the circumstances I am your field medic today. So I want you to know you’re in good hands.”

Leander nodded stiffly. He was still very guarded. He didn’t know how she might react.

Noticing his demeanor, the doctor sought consent from him. “Would you be willing to undress? I can turn around if you’d like, but to treat you I’ll have to see you disrobed.” She said gently. Her tone of voice suggested their conversation would be private.

“Doctor, I have a– a unique condition, I think.” Leander hated this the instant he said it. He hated thinking of this as a pathology, as if it were some disease. He knew there must have been a better way to talk about how he felt, about the stress between what people would think of his body and the facts of the person he knew that he was. But he could not find the words, and they felt ever more distant each time he sought them out.

“I am here to treat whatever ails you, comrade.” Dr. Agrawal replied.

“This is a little different than what you’re used to, I think. It is not just wounds.”

“I promise you that no matter what, I will tend to you.” She said.

Leander put indecisive hands over the buttons of his muddy green field jacket and undid them bit by bit. He threw it off unceremoniously, and pulled his undershirt over his head, ruffling his black hair. He looked down over his chest, where the old breast binder was gnarled and ripped, and he undid it completely and cast it off his breasts.

Across his shoulder, around the right breast and over his stomach there were deep purple bruises from the hideous impacts of the bullets over his armor.

None of them had penetrated, but they had each felt like punches from a stone fist.

Leander fought off the urge to cover himself again as the doctor examined his wounds. She first pressed over his bruised shoulder, and extended the arm linked to it. She offered no comments until she returned his arm to a neutral position.

“No bone fractures. You were lucky, comrade. Or perhaps, that armor is good quality. I want to check your ribs now. Can I touch there? I will not if it is uncomfortable to you.”

Silently, Leander nodded. He turned away his head while the Doctor pressed against his belly, between and under his breasts. It stung when she pressed the bruises, and when she tried to feel the outline of his ribs with her fingers, and Leander grit his teeth a few times and tried not to flinch from it. His heart quickened as she pulled away and wrote something on her clipboard. Gently she made eye contact with him and smiled.

“No bone fractures. No bullets managed to bite skin either. I will make sure you have some pain medication and ice, and you will rest here until tomorrow, Leander. In a week or two the bruises should be gone, and the pain will subside much sooner.”

Leander nodded. He removed his shoes for comfort, and sat more upright.

Clearly the doctor had no agenda toward him.

This emboldened him, even through his feelings of exposure.

Dr. Agrawal laid the clipboard at the far edge of the bed, and hesitated a moment before speaking. Leander watched her with a bit of trepidation, trying to anticipate what she might say. “Now, if you’re comfortable with it,” She began, “we can talk about what is stressing you, with regards to your identity. I will admit, I understand this problem only superficially, but I can refer you to a colleague of mine who might be able to help you.”

This was something Leander expected – even in the best case scenario that a doctor accepted what he was going through with a gentle hand, how could they know what to do about it, when he himself was still finding his own way? Despite this he breathed a sigh of relief. He had expected some kind of cruel reprimand of the sort that the caravan had given him on that distant day he left them. But Dr. Agrawal did not look at him with the unkind eyes still floating in his memories. She seemed to genuinely accept him as he was.

“What kind of help?” Leander asked. He felt a little morbid about his next thought, but he said it earnestly nonetheless. “Could this person remove my breasts for example?”

“I believe she could. My colleague Willhelmina Kappel is conducting research on how male and female minds and bodies develop to certain characteristics – and how those characteristics can be changed when people desire to change them. She has written about experiences like yours before. You’re not the only one who has gone through this.”

Leander, slightly bewildered, nodded his head quietly to acknowledge her.

“She has a name for what you might be experiencing, Leander. And I stress that I’m not an authority on this, but she calls it dysphoria, I believe. In Kappel’s papers she talks about a feeling of stress and even pain arising from feeling out of place with the physical sex and associated gender that is assigned to the person at birth, and toward which they feel distance as they uncover their real identity. Does that sound familiar?”

Leander nodded solemnly. It was strange to hear a word for what he felt; a word someone had invented to describe him. He did not know and had never heard of Wilhelmina Kappel. However, the feelings the Doctor had clumsily described distantly mirrored him. He could see himself through that lens. Some of the fog around his emotions began to clear.

“Is this making sense? I’m sorry if it’s just a lot of babble from me. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I don’t know as much as Dr. Kappel about how to make things more comfortable to you. I’m afraid even our society is still in the early stages of this understanding. But– I can get you a chest brace to replace your binder for now.”

Dr. Agrawal pointed over her shoulder, where behind the curtains there were crates and closets of medical supplies ready to be picked through. Her clumsy little smile made Leander laugh. She was being very warm to him. He certainly would feel more comfortable with a chest brace. It would probably be sturdier than his old binder in the middle of a fight.

In the middle of a fight. Leander felt foolish with the realization of where he still was.

“Now, there is another thing I can do.” Dr. Agrawal said, sounding more serious. “I could arrange for you to be evacuated to Solstice, by writing you a discharge saying you need complex treatment I can’t perform. The nature of the treatment need not be revealed unless you want it to. I doubt many around here would care to know, given the present circumstances. You could meet Dr. Kappel in person. I’m sure she would love to see you.”

“I would be deserting the battle.” Leander said. “My wounds aren’t grave.”

“I understand that feeling. You can think about this today and give me your answer after.” Dr. Agrawal said. “I don’t want to plant the seeds of any decision for you, but just know that the option is there, and that there is no shame in it, Leander. I’ll get your brace.”

Leander nodded in response, and the doctor left his side and crossed the curtain. He felt more energized and positive than before, though the pain from his wounds had grown now that his body was awake and had acknowledged his injured state again.

He had a difficult decision to make, but the positive attitude shown by the doctor had exceeded all of his expectations. Perhaps he had not much to fear with regards to others understanding him in Ayvarta. But he was still in the middle of a war here.

When the doctor returned, she helped Leander don the brace – it was originally designed to help those with chest deformities, but it worked just fine in creating an impression of a flat chest for Leander. He loosely dressed in his undershirt and jacket, and laid back in bed to relax. Soon he was brought ice bags for his bruises, pills for the pain, and a boxed ration with some slightly bland curry.

Surrounded by blue curtains indoors, he lost his sense of time after a few hours. He soon fell asleep, with his stomach full and a comfortable and dimly-lit place to lie, his mind dizzy from the medicine, and his exhaustion catching up.

~ ~ ~

Shaila Dominance Djose Wood, Knyskna Region, Shaila

“Those fools! I cannot believe this! Worthless to the last pair of boots!”

Dreschner shouted from his cupola for several minutes, cursing everything that he could get his eyes on, and then he stormed off the tank entirely and disappeared from sight.

Like the sound of a rolling barrage, Dreschner’s screaming wandered far away.

Heaving a sigh of relief, Karla Schicksal savored the relative silence.

She climbed out of the command tank, first stepping up a foothold and onto Dreschner’s abandoned little throne where the gunner’s space would otherwise be, and then pulling herself up and out of the cupola at the top of the tank. Dreschner had ordered the tank stopped in the middle of a small clearing that lay at the edge of the nearby forest base, guarded by a battalion of recon soldiers from the 14th Jager Division.

It was morning, but the forest was still dusky and nondescript, the clearing painted with only a light glaze of orange and the surrounding trees gray and black. Their base was a horrific mess. A few men wandered about in a dazed patrol around mortar shell craters and long clusters of burnt-out crates all around the camp. They had been attacked last night.

She sat atop the would-be turret, wiping sweat from her brow and hair and pulling a cigarette and a lighter from inside a small silver tin in her hip pouch.

On the tin there was a cartoonish picture of an obsolete M1 tank, and the words Gib dir Mühe, mein Mäuschen! Inscribed under it. Her lighter matched the tin.

She chuckled as she lit the cigarette.

It was the first time in almost a dozen hours that she had a break out of the tank.

She held the cigarette up to her mouth, her fingers forming a ‘V’ in front of her lips.

Some of the men wandering about stared at her atop the tank.

Schicksal thought herself not much to look at, with messy brown hair and dull black eyes, a poor posture and fairly small figure. She envisioned herself smiling all smug at the boys and telling them something sexy and coy, perhaps curling one leg over the other like a hot pinup girl. In reality she kept quiet and looked down at the grass, adjusting her glasses with her free hand and returning only scattered glances when the men turned away.

She sucked on the end of the cigarette, savoring the hit of cheap tobacco smoke.

In the distance Brigadier-General Dreschner reappeared, stomping his way back to the tank, looking at every man about him as though he wanted to rip their throats out with his teeth. He was a lanky man with an angular face, made to appear thicker than he was by the big gray officer’s overcoat that he wore, with its large, unadorned, almost industrial-seeming black epaulettes and big broad sleeves. His high-brimmed officer’s hat was adorned with a gold cross and the wings of an otherwise disembodied eagle.

“Can you believe this Schicksal?” He shouted toward her, though to her relief, not explicitly at her, “These idiots allowed the enemy to ravage all of our supplies!”

“Would you like a cigarette, sir?” Schicksal replied, and held her tin out to him.

“Would I like a cigarette?” He shouted suddenly and threw up his hands, shocking her. He put his hands down from the air and over his face. “Fine. I’ll have one.”

Schicksal forced a little smile for him and leaned down from atop the tank, holding the lighter in one hand and the tin in another. Dreschner picked a cigarette, put it in his mouth, and lifted his head up. Schicksal dutifully lit the cigarette for him, and then pulled herself back upright. The Brigadier-General leaned back below her, against the tank.

He coughed a little bit of smoke.

“Is this what they give you in the rations these days? It’s terrible. Did they make these in a Mamlakhan slum? I’m going to put in an appeal over this,” he said.

After a little laugh, Schicksal replied, “It would be appreciated, sir.”

“I like your tin. Very whimsical depiction of the M1. Who made the inscription?”

To think he had noticed her crappy little tin. Schicksal tried to draw a little more strength to her voice – Dreschner would always harangue her about speaking too softly. “My mama and papa, sir! My papa was a tank man, sir. He drove a Vaterland in the old war, and then he drove an M1 during the first islands conflict and the rebellions.”

“Oh, ho! So he served during the very inception of the tank. Incredible.”

“Yes sir. Back when they still called it the ‘Kavallerie‘ and not ‘Panzerdivisione‘.”

“His service did us all proud then.”

Schicksal made no reply, and simply nodded. Deep down she hated this assumption that her father was some hero and that it was all good and patriotic for him. Her father had been badly burnt in an explosion of his tank, of which he was the only survivor. Her mother told her it changed him forever. The little tin that he gave her and its inscription was a rare bit of good humor from him before he saw her off to her present destination.

“And they call you ‘little mouse’, your parents? That’s their nickname for you?”

“Yes sir.” She said, before taking a long drag of her cigarette.

Dreschner laughed. “It is appropriate, Schicksal! No offense intended.”

“None taken, sir.” Schicksal said, fidgeting a little with her cigarette.

“I hope they are proud! You are making panzer history, just like your father.”

She was lucky to have this job at all. Women were not allowed on the frontline, normally, except for two positions: medics and radio operators.

And only because the technocrats in power over the government and military, with their high-tech tests and polls and research, and their cabals of number-crunching eggheads poring over it, testing and retesting like the robots in the pulp books, had discovered that women performed better than men in those two positions.

Just those two – so sayeth the Lord’s numbers.

Anything to be out of the house, to be somewhere, doing something herself.

“Yes sir,” she said dutifully. “If I may ask, where does history next take us?”

Dreschner dropped his cigarette and stepped on it. He crossed his arms and bowed his head. “We will have to postpone the attack on Knyskna until tomorrow at the earliest, and that is optimistic. We cannot mount an assault on the remnants of our Panzer’s transit fuel. 14th Recon is a mess, and I will not allow our operations to be further disrupted because these fools cannot keep their eyes on the trees. The Grenadiers will guard our rear.”

“Alright sir. Would you like me to communicate the new orders?”

“Please do. And put them across nicely. Have you any thoughts on the plan?”

“I don’t believe myself qualified to speak on it.” She said meekly.

Dreschner shook his head and laughed. “I thought you were finally opening up!”

27th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance Knyskna City

Leander slept soundly through the day, an unknown dream carrying him across daylight, and toward the eerie midnight hour where one date became the next.

It was a creeping chill that finally woke him, a dry, cold feeling seeping through the thin blanket. He lifted himself up and stared from his bed, unfocused eyes scanning around his little curtained room. He yawned and stretched out.

Beside him, he was surprised to find Elena sleeping on a chair, seated in reverse; the chair’s backrest was turned to face him and she had her head and chest pressed against it.

Flickering candlelight played across her uniform, but most of her face remained concealed in shadow.

“Are you awake?” Leander asked softly, stretching to tap her shoulder.

Her head snapped up, her short red hair flipping for a moment before falling again over her ears and forehead. Clearly she was awake now. Leander drew back reflexively.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I overreacted! I’m a restless sleeper.” Elena said.

“Perhaps you need the rest even more than I!” Leander chuckled.

“No, it is fine, it is fine. Here, I have something for you.”

From out of her unbuttoned jacket she presented Leander with a boxed ration, likely from the same origin as the curry he ate before. He felt pangs of hunger previously unknown from just staring at it, and with a hushed thanks he accepted the gift. He ripped open the box and inside found several breaded, fried cauliflower and potato balls. He ate a few, and they tasted a little bland and stale, with too much dough. They were also rather dry. He felt as though he had been wandering a desert, his mouth dry and his throat itching.

Elena read his predicament and pressed her flask into his hands. He flipped open the cap and took a long drink from it, nearly retching from the cloyingly sweet wine.

“Our supplies leave a lot to be desired, don’t they?” Elena laughed.

Leander sighed. “I don’t remember Arjun wine and pakoras tasting this poor.”

“Do not inspect the box! The packing dates on these are frightening.”

Leander chuckled. “I appreciate your company, Elena. Did they let you in easily?”

“I volunteered to help, so I carried a lot of boxes and helped administer bandages and deliver food today. Then I told them I was part of your squadron and they let me stay here.”

“So you’re finally part of the medical corps then? I’m sure you’re happy.”

Elena offered a weak little smile. “No, I’m afraid I’m still stuck a riflewoman.”

They talked in hushed voices, mindful of waking the rest of the field hospital. Elena was thankfully uninjured – she opened up her coat more, and pulled up her undershirt a little to show her flat belly, without a mark on it, and her pale shoulders, also untouched. As an amicable exchange Leander showed her the safest bruise he could reveal, the one on his shoulder. She gasped at how broad and purple it was. If she noticed the brace beneath his undershirt she made no comment on it. Leander thought this was for the best.

“Does it hurt much now?” Elena asked, staring dejectedly at his shoulder.

“Not at all.” Leander said. In reality there was still a bit of dull pain.

“You received so many impacts. It’s a miracle you had any strength to move!”

“I’m not sure what came over me, myself.” Leander said. He grinned nervously.

“It was an amazing sight!” Elena said, betraying a touch of awe. “You ran off with my shovel and suddenly all the enemy’s attention seemed to be on you. But it was well timed. Bonde rallied everyone to try to cover you, and then led a charge when Nocht soldiers tried to pull out of their positions to go kill you. We just rushed the men behind the overturned log, they were pinned down, and we slaughtered them where they sat and stood.”

While she was excitable about it, these events still held some discomfort for Leander, and he found it hard to meet her gaze while she recounted them. He felt frightened and in awe at himself, as though he were judging a different man for these exploits.

He had been raised to be calm and cautious and meek, to avoid fighting and to especially avoid a close, brutish confrontation. And yet, he’d stuck those soldiers with his shovel like he had seen wild pigs stuck by the caravan men.

He looked at his hands with ambivalence.

He was a soldier, and he had been terribly scared, and he had to defeat his enemy. But he wondered if there was anything more to the events – if there was more to him, in relation.

His discomfort always seemed a lot more visible than he thought it would be. He was bad at masking his emotions, and Elena saw through his mannerisms even in the dimness of the room. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to glorify what happened to you. I hope you’re ok.”

“I’m alright.” Leander said, a little feebly. “Just a bit shaken still.”

“That is understandable. For all of us that was a terrible night.”

“Do you know why we turned back?” Leander said. Circumstances colored his perception. He had a hard time seeing himself as a hero, or his charge as admirable, when they retreated directly after he took action. That was not how the stories went.

“I do know now. I heard the officers talking, earlier today. It was no fault of ours that the attack was called off. A very sizable amount of the Battlegroup’s forces, five divisions total, had been defeated and encircled in a battle in Tukino, south of here. Fifty thousand troops in the pocket. This happened many hours before our assault on the wood, but word only reached us when the attack was already underway. We were pulled back then.”

Leander was astonished. Pocketing was a deadly tactic – a surrounded unit could not receive food or fuel or ammunition and would surely be destroyed, if not immediately then within days, as their bullets dwindled and their vehicles gave out. A pocket of 50,000 was an unreal number to him. It was like hearing that the entire army had just collapsed in a single day. He did not know how right he was – unbeknownst to him a Battlegroup was only 100,000 troops at most. Elena had made it quite clear to him why they had to retreat.

After sharing this morbid news, Elena was quiet for a time. Leander offered no replies.

They heard murmuring from other curtained rooms, but could not make out the words.

In Leander’s head a number of questions floated, suspended far away from their answers. He had joined the army out of a sense of duty and gallantry. How could a man run from battle, when he had nothing else to give for his community?

That was what he had thought, dimly and distantly and foolishly, the day that he heard news of the invasion, and knew that his little village, Bika, was about to be overrun.

He scarcely fought then, and he had scarcely fought every other day until the battle in Djose. There was a picture of himself that was forming, put together from all kinds of disparate pieces and still missing many others but trying to give itself shape.

He was not sure he liked it – and not sure he had control of the pieces.

Leander laid back in bed, stretching his arms. Elena looked at the wall, as though trying not to watch too uncomfortably close. He hated that nervous distance he felt, but he also knew they hardly knew each other. They had known each other for less than a day’s time.

At last however, Elena inched her chair a bit closer, and made an earnest expression.

“Leander, it might be too soon to say we’re friends, but we are comrades. Is something bothering you? If you are merely tired I can leave you to rest; but otherwise–”

“I’m just a little mixed up about everything. It’s all a shock to me still.”

Leander replied quickly, and took Elena a little aback. She smiled softly.

“I can understand that.” She said. “I don’t really know how to feel about all of this – I think in my head, I’m still not able to treat my surroundings with the gravity they deserve.”

Leander worked up the courage and put across to her what was really on his mind.

“Had you the opportunity, would you leave? Would you evacuate Knyskna?”

“To where?” Elena asked. She shrugged. “I think the war will catch up anywhere.”

Leander gulped. That was not really what he had wanted to hear her say.

“Just anywhere, away from Knyskna. Have you a goal you want to strive for?”

“I don’t have much anymore.” She smiled wanly. “Which is why I volunteered for the army in the first place. I don’t know what has become of my past life at all.”

It was strange to hear someone refer to, potentially, their family and friends and their place in the world as a lost collection of things, a past life. It felt cold and glib. And yet, he also felt that he should not have had that reaction – after all, his own life had become just such an assortment. Disparate people and things and connections, all wavering in a place beyond being, alive only on the surface of his mind when he recalled dark times.

“I preferred the medical corps because I thought that I had a better way with people than weapons. But who knows – I shot a few men last night. And I did not even blink. Maybe I’m not the best judge of my own capabilities anymore. Like I said, I’m feeling very adrift lately, Leander, so I don’t really know what to say. I’m very sorry.”

Elena looked at Leander as she said this, with her same sad little smile.

Leander had thought her more complete than him, somehow more put together and in control, but in reality they had all been swept up in the tide. The events around them seemed eerily transformative, and he did not know where they would lead.

Before the war, Leander had known that he was a man, but not what kind – he had not given that particular point any thought. When he looked back on the night of the attack on Djose, it felt eerily defining, as though within that chaos he had taken steps toward becoming a certain kind of man without even knowing it.

All of them had been robbed by the war, robbed of what they were in so little time.

There was still something for him though. There was a beacon on the horizon.

“I want to go to Solstice, the capital,” he said, “I might have an opportunity to go.”

Elena did not press him to explain.

She stretched out her hands over his own in solidarity and did not question him further, for which he felt incredibly grateful. She was better with people than she thought.

“Solstice is beautiful. If you want to see it, then you should take the chance and go. It’s your life, Leander. You should not let anyone pressure you to do anything.”

He felt a pressing need to reply. “Elena, I’ve felt as though for the longest time, I was living a hand-me-down life. These past few days have been the first week of my life; my life, like you said. But I feel like I’m still finding myself, like I’m still without control of myself. There might be someone who can help me in Solstice, but if I leave the battle–”

He paused, out of fear and stress of admitting to himself any more, but he did not have to continue. Elena nodded solemnly, understanding what he had left hanging.

A foreign army was out to do god-knows-what to Ayvarta – conquer it or smash it or enslave it, who knew? The monsters in the gray uniforms were on the march, and Leander saw an increasing possibility that there might not be a Solstice in the future for him.

A dark hand loomed over his beacon, that beacon on his horizon, and it was about to douse the light that had finally promised to lead him to paradise. What would they do to the city? What would they do to this Dr. Kappel? What would they do to Leander Gaurige?

“You are putting a horrible burden on yourself if you want to save this city.” Elena said. “I think Knyskna will fall no matter what. The decisions leading up to that are out of our control. We’re just rifles. I’m not saying you should leave or stay. There might be more chances to leave if you want to wait. Then again, we might not see them if you do.”

“Everything feels like it’s leading me to a decision right now.” Leander said glumly. “There is someone in Solstice I want to meet, Elena. A doctor, who can help me with something important. I’m not sick or anything, mind you; I don’t want you to worry; but I need to meet her nonetheless. Despite this, part of me desperately wants to stay and fight.”

“I understand. But tell me this. I know your reason to leave; but I want to know, why does that part of you feel like you must stay here?” She asked, holding Leander’s hands.

Leander did not have to think it over much more. “I would be a coward if I left.”

She squeezed his hand in solidarity. “You are very mistaken about that, Leander. You are not and would not be a coward. And you should not stay if that is your only reason.”

Leander sighed a little and laid back on his pillows. In his mind everything he was thinking twisted into a storm, and his thoughts felt heavy and hard to escape. He had acknowledged their existence and they would not leave him alone.

Though he wanted so badly to take Elena’s soothing voice as the unvarnished truth and to believe in everything that she said, so much of his mind was filled with doubts, a cascade of them, and he felt physically incapable of ignoring them all.

“Thank you. I’m sorry for being so glum. I feel completely drained.” Leander said.

“It’s fine. I’m here to listen!” She said. “But you should probably get some rest.”

She turned her chair around, to sit the proper way, except she extended her feet onto the bed, and cushioned her head with her hands. Very soon she had nodded off again, almost as quickly as she had closed her eyes, leaving Leander to the whispering voices, indistinct under the night wind. Lulled by trying to make out what they were saying, whether they heard or understood, whether they judged or approved, Leander fell into a restless slumber, the pressure of his decision mounting even in his sleep.

28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Shaila Dominance Outskirts of the Djose Wood

In the darkness of the early morning the 8th Panzer Division prepared for battle.

Across the edge of the Djose wood, facing Knyskna, the Panzertruppen established three large staging areas. Fuel, ammunition and spare parts were gathered and jealously guarded in these three camps. Tank crews waited idly beside long rows of dormant tanks.

A majority of their vehicles were M4 Sentinel medium tanks with curved bodies and pan-like turrets, supported by small hosts of squat M3 Hunter assault guns, characterized by the unfortunate position of their main 75mm gun – on a recessed portion of the glacis to the right side of the machine. This arrangement gave the gun little horizontal traverse.

Engineers busy with tune-ups and repairs rushed across the aisles of machines to make their very final inspections and preparations, and marked all machines ready to fight.

Their attack would begin in the afternoon, under a centered sun.

Knyskna, or at least the outskirts, was suitable territory for them.

Surrounded on three sides by the Djose wood – and in turn by the three camps established in advantageous positions – the land between forest and city was flat and broad territory that gave the Panzers terrific sight lines toward the outermost Ayvartan defenses.

Six Panzerkompanie had been gathered to commence the assault on the city, while four remained in reserve. One thrust of three companies would attack first, to be joined in the late afternoon by a second wave of three companies – one company would attack from each of the camps and divide the enemy defenders’ already limited resources.

Each of these companies boasted 20 tanks, mostly M4s, divided into four platoons of five tanks. Two platoons from each company would advance first, to be joined by the two others at least two hours after the initial penetration of the city limits.

Once their turn was up the second wave of companies would follow the same doctrine with their own platoons before night fully fell. This staggered assault would allow Nocht to thoroughly probe the Ayvartan defenses meter by meter and to keep a steady but flexible advance, able to react to any trouble with an injection of fresh reserve armor.

Their target was the railroad hub in the city’s north-center, where they would cut off any opportunity for escape. A thrust from the south would meet thrusts from the east and west at that point, and seal the enemy’s fate – or so it was planned.

“Our intelligence on the enemy puts their rifle strength at essentially one Regiment cobbled together from various formations and vastly under-strength and fatigued owing to constant battle; their armoured strength as one or two Platoons; and their artillery as scattered batteries. Despite our superiority, the terrain could potentially make the advance difficult. So therefore, our initial goal is only a partial encirclement of the city center, enough to quickly knock out the rail hub,” Dreschner concluded, “any questions?”

In a tent a kilometer from the southern staging area, Dreschner briefed his subordinate officers on the grand scheme he had concocted. His map of the city, pinned to a chalkboard behind him and heavily written upon, was a vast collage of slightly blurred, black and white photographs, taken and arranged by Luftlotte pilots. It was four days old and the city center was a blank circle that read Ziel, of which no pictures had been safely taken.

Ayvartan anti-air cover was fierce.

Schiksal had interviewed pilots by radio to get an idea of what was there.

She watched everything from outside the tent, sitting on the bed of a heavy truck parked beside the war room and housing an enormous encryption machine and messaging set. Due to the weather, she had requested the tarp be removed, so the truck was open to the air, and gave her a slightly raised view of the men.

To the last man the Nochtish officers were indistinct Karls and Jörgs and Svens with grave faces, gray coats and cropped hair. Schicksal knew their radio channels and divisions better than their actual names and ranks, though she had made a mental note to familiarize herself better with them. All of them scratched their chins and pored over the plans, save the beleaguered commander of the 14th Jager Division’s forward battalion.

He was the quietest and meekest man in the room – the failure of his men had been so costly that he had lost any ability to raise an objection to the Panzer COs.

Though Dreschner left the room open to questions, his brow developed a slight twitch the instant a man raised his hand to ask something. First in line was Lieutenant Reiniger, a slender man with a slight dusting of a beard and wide grin on his face.

“Say, Brigadier-General, any chance we can get a few birds to shit on the Ayvartan line before we go ahead?” Schicksal cringed away from Reiniger’s crude, slurred rendition of their language, indicative of a man from the backwaters.

Dreschner looked partway between shame and anger.

“Schicksal!” Dreschner called out. “What is the status of our air support?”

“Nonexistent.” Schicksal replied. “The Luftlotte contingent in Shaila has been almost entirely committed to reducing the Tukino pocket. Fighting there is fiercer than expected, with multiple breakout attempts supported by Ayvartans from outside the pocket.” She had been on the radio and working the Loki encryption machine all day to gather such information. However, she knew Dreschner wanted it only as a matter of routine.

“That should be sufficient for you, Reiniger.” Dreschner said.

“Sorry Brigadier-General, I am just fond of the gallantry of our air divisions.” Reiniger replied, his face still dominated by a smile. Everyone knew Dreschner’s antipathy toward non-Panzer units. “It would have been a show to see them dive on our helpless enemy.”

“They are far from helpless against the air,” Schicksal said, her voice a little low and unsteady, “Luftlotte took many casualties from their concentrations of anti-air batteries.”

Lt. Reiniger side-eyed the communications truck. She should not have spoken then.

Dreschner did not seem to care that she did. He did not even acknowledge that she had. “We will make do, Reiniger. Artillery support will also be scarce. Rebuilding our lost fuel supplies and tank ammunition took priority over all else, due to unexpected events.” Saying this Dreschner fixed his eyes on Major Baumgaertner of the 14th Jager, who had been the villain of this cheerful film since the fiasco on the 25th. Despite the striking largeness of the man, he was cowed by the Brigadier-General, who had a fiercer nature overall.

“How soon can we count on any infantry support then?” Asked Lieutenant Kunze, a man with caricaturesque shoulders, a thick build and heavy cheekbones who commanded one of the first Panzerzugs to enter the battle. He always spoke with a high-strung voice regardless of the subject. “Without air or artillery we will need more men on the ground.”

Schicksal looked away briefly, feeling embarrassed for Kunze. What a faux-pas!

“Our plan has no need of men, Kunze. If it did, you would get them.” Dreschner said.

Unwisely, Kunze pressed him. “City fighting would be safer with extra eyes.”

Though unasked for, Schicksal had the information and hastily interjected then.

“Elements of 13th Grenadier will be trickling in over the day, but mostly they will cover our rear. Everything else is in Tukino.” Her voice trembled a little and her heart sped a touch, since she knew she was stepping quite slightly out of line. The officers could all speak among themselves – she should have only spoken when spoken to.

Kunze eyed the radio truck with contempt.

“That satisfy you?” Dreschner added, before Kunze could say any more.

There was then yet another unwise interjection, this time from poor persecuted Major Baumgaertner, who nearly pounced on the chance to offer his men to the slaughter.

“The 14th Jager is eager provide support to the heroic Panzers, Brigadier-General. I can have one of my Rifle Platoons accompany each of your Tank Platoons.”

Dreschner lips curled slowly down with a building fury. Kunze, dangerously oblivious to the social circumstances within their little clique, openly counted his fingers and then loudly scoffed at Baumgaertner, feeling far too free to criticize and act out at the disgraced Major. “That’s only thirty-two men to each of our ten tanks Baumgaertner, surely you must have the manpower to muster a fiercer presence; we need more than three men per tank!”

“Your offer is adequate, Baumgaertner, and we all pray that it may it absolve your infamy!” Dreschner shouted then. He turned sharply from the recon commander to his subordinate. “Kunze, unless you want to personally dig my latrines until we take Solstice, you will heed how you speak and act in my war room. Do you understand me?”

Reiniger covered his mouth to stifle a laugh.

Schicksal ducked her head from the suddenness and strength of Dreschner’s shouting.

Other officers followed suit.

Kunze nodded his head slowly and quietly. It was not his conceited attitude that had earned him a strong reprimand, but his ignorance of Dreschner’s predilections.

He had begged for supporting troops – a taboo.

Meanwhile Baumgaertner voided his face of emotion and dipped his head down like a beaten dog. Even his one small victory had been subverted through vicious reprimand. Schicksal felt quite sorry for him. If he had any hopes of promotion they were now lost.

On this note, the conference ended.

Officers trickled out of the tent until it was empty, and on personal motorcycles they made their ways back to their staging areas with hand-drawn copies of Dreschner’s map prepared by intelligence officers. Schicksal waited in the truck for everyone to be clear of the place, before stepping off and walking around the camp. She immediately cracked open her tin and lit another cigarette. She’d been craving it for a while.

Schicksal took a deep smoke while spying a gaggle of horses waiting near a wagon loaded with fuel drums. She had come to notice them from their neighing and impatient tapping a few hours earlier and found their presence quite humorous.

Though she knew dimly about the horses, seeing them in the flesh was always a marvel. They used their horses for many things – infantry transport, short-range delivery of supplies between staging areas, artillery hauling. Between the disparate troops in the Djose, and around Knyskan and Tukino they had over a thousand animals.

Nobody wanted to acknowledge them too much, even as they rode them everywhere. Here was the most advanced army in the world, scientifically proven down to the number of bullets in crates, and their tenuous fuel supplies made horses a serious option over trucks or motorcycles. It was almost embarrassing. And it made Schicksal laugh.

Ever since she spotted the horses she had wanted to give them a good petting.

She approached the wagon, and ran her fingers through the mane of one of the animals, and brushed its neck with her hand. It was a beautiful horse, tall and regal, with a soft hide and marvelous hair, a top quality breed exclusively for a demanding and exacting army.

She pitied it.

It was another misunderstood and maligned part of a system plagued by callousness. It simply did its work as best as it could, even as its companions sneered and ignored it. They would run it to the ground and expect it to be pleased and proud of its labors.

In a few hours they would attack a city with no essentially no gun or rifle support, led by bickering men in tanks who only agreed that they found their enemy inferior, while awaiting the animal wagons hauling their fuel between staging areas and bringing their ammo crates from supply corps miles away. Oberkommando wanted them in the desert around Solstice before the Postill’s Dew, but refused to release reserves this early.

Everything was rushed and stressed. The technocrats demanded dramatic results.

She still expected they would win. Nothing she had seen thus far proved otherwise.

Thinking about the army like she was watching it from the clouds was simply too depressing to sustain. Schicksal took a final drag of her cigarette, bid farewell to the horses, and made her way back to the Befehlspanzer as the sun started to rise in earnest.

She would be spending the next few days on the radio in that hot metal box, but at least she would be hearing some pleasant voices talking back.

Everything would be too stultifying to cause her real grief.

Shaila Dominance Knyskna City

Elena North barely had time to eat her morning ration before Sgt. Bahir collected her and the other assault troops and formed them up, and marched them toward the city center.

She had left the hospital, and a sleeping Leander, at dawn to rejoin the infantry, where a mood of ambivalence was setting in. Now she traveled up a main road arm beside arm with about sixty others. Unlike the outermost blocks, the inner city had been mostly spared bombardment and its brick facades still stood tall over her flanks. The tile road under her feet was largely intact and the depleted little Company kept a brisk pace over it.

Ahead they heard the whistling and chugging of an engine departing the city.

They left behind the southern Knyskna thoroughfare and walked out onto the broad streets and the sprawling parks of the city center, and stopped in front of the rail station in time to watch the train departing, loaded with anyone and anything that could be saved.

Knyskna’s station was one long rectangular building atop a platform surrounded with loops of track and necessary equipment such as cranes and warehouses for the purpose of unloading goods. All around the station in the parks and plazas there were tents established for officers, staging areas stocked with fuel and repair stations for the few tanks and armored cars available, and scores of anti-aircraft guns ready to set ablaze the sky.

One train station was all they could count on now to ferry remaining civilians and military wounded out of the city, and it was heavily defended.

This was the heart of Knyskna’s remaining power.

Overhead the sun rose; the skies were clear. Nocht’s bombers had bombed themselves out. Still, the teeming concentration of troops around the station put Elena on edge.

“North, Eboh, Jakande and Okiro, follow me.” Sergeant Bahir shouted.

Elena nearly jumped from hearing her name. She stepped out of the formation, along with Bonde, who had been far ahead of her through the march and invisible to her save for the peak of his nearly bald, nearly pitch black head, and two others: Private Eboh, a tall woman with short, flowing hair and Private Jakande, a broad-shouldered, bespectacled boy.

Sergeant Bahir, who though quite older than them had statuesque features and a commanding presence, led the group to a conference table beside a fountain in one of the nearby plazas. There were two other sergeants there from different companies, along with a few privates from each. Everyone around her seemed so formidable.

Elena felt tiny, weak and pale, like a wet little maggot in the midst of fierce mantids.

The groups assembled near the fountain. “824th company reporting in,” Bahir said simply upon their arrival. He pronounced it as “eight-two-four” company.

Elena dimly remembered this being her assigned formation number during the Djose assault. She was part of the 8244th Lion Platoon, which meant that she was in 4th Platoon of the 4th Company, of the 2nd Regiment, of the 8th Division in Battlegroup Lion.

It was a confusing scheme at first.

The two other sergeants stepped forward to acknowledge and introduce themselves. 822 was led by Sergeant Agewa, an older woman with pale hair and a fair face that Elena recognized from the staging area on the night of the Djose assault. 821 was introduced by Sergeant Ibori, a bearded man with a reddish complexion and a broad forehead. The third company, 823, would not be joining them – it had been wiped out to the last rifle.

Together with Bahir they arranged a map of Knyskna over a table.

Elena could not see the map, but she paid close attention as everyone discussed tactics.

Though it was not a big city, Knyskna was still a lot of ground to cover for the enemy, and it could be defended, but with the number of troops they had at their disposal 82nd Regiment would never be able to hold it. Instead it was agreed that they would try to delay the enemy until the city was fully evacuated. It would take the enemy hours to move on the rail hub, which would surely be their goal.

Four main thoroughfares met at the city center, but unless they encircled the city from the outside, Nocht would have access to only three – south, southeast and west.

Those mobile forces that had not been squandered in the Tukino breakout attempts, Lion command had tasked with keeping the northern roads free of the enemy. The Nochtish line in the Djose had been painfully kept confined to the South and West directions, but even by attacking in the directions available, Nocht could still encircle the rail hub in the middle of the city, which would be enough to rout the defenders even if the Northern boroughs and outskirts of the city held out. It was a tenuous situation.

“My 822nd company is the most intact, I believe. We have 240 men and women at our disposal. I believe we should hold the larger southern thoroughfare.” Sgt. Agewa said.

There was no disagreement. Comrade Agewa and her men and women would fight for the broader southern thoroughfare, essentially the main street. It was wide open and easily accessible to enemy armor, and would likely prove the bitterest and bloodiest sector of the fight. She had a hard face, and appeared void of of discernible emotion, but Elena thought she heard a tremble in Agewa’s voice when she volunteered for the mission.

“824th has only 76 rifles.” Sgt. Bahir said. “I’ll take the tighter south-east – there are more ruins there. My comrades can use the rubble to ambush the enemy there.”

“We can arrange for some of the Orcs to stack up with you.” Sgt. Ibori said, putting a hand on Bahir’s shoulder. The Orc was a medium-size tank, decently armored and gunned, but it existed in forgettable numbers, and had proven unreliable even outside battle. “They might be slow but they have better guns than the Goblins. They’ve been collecting dust with all the running fights we’ve been doing, but speed won’t matter much here.”

“I’ll take anything you can give. My company has few other guns.”

Sergeant Bahir and Ibori then went over the amount of support weapons available to them. Because the sergeants stuck close and hunched over the table to look at their maps and documents, and there were already a few eager eyes over their shoulders, Elena could not see much of their photos and files.

From their discussion, she picked out that there were few dedicated artillery batteries remaining, but many anti-air guns that could potentially be fired directly at the enemy. They had a platoon of Goblin tanks, small and fast but cripplingly under-armored and undergunned, and a platoon of Orcs, slow and unreliable but slightly more combat-capable.

“What about air support?” Sgt. Bahir asked.

“Very little. We have a few Anka available, but those biplanes are becoming relics.”

“They can still help. Tell them to get ready. They could support Agewa.”

“We should also allocate the Goblins to Agewa.” Ibori said. “She will need more support, her troops will not enjoy as much cover or as tighter roads as ours will.”

Sgt. Agewa shook her head and spoke up after minutes of listening.”No, 821st should take the Goblins. Instead, I believe I would better profit from our engineering resources.”

“Ah, so you plan to create your own cover?” Sgt. Ibori said.

“Yes, we can topple some of the larger buildings over the road with charges, and damage the main roads to slow down their tanks. But we can only prepare these measures in the inner thoroughfare areas. Nocht has the outer boroughs too thoroughly sited, so operations there would be dangerously exposed to the enemy.”

“Then we should not deploy there at all. We should let them come to the inner boroughs, and ambush them from the rubble or houses as they move past.” Sgt. Bahir said.

“I agree.” Sgt. Agewa said, but she quickly added, “However, it is a very risky plan.”

“Sister Agewa is right. I don’t feel right giving up any ground to them.” Sgt. Ibori said.

“They essentially have the ground there – they can see from their positions everything we’re doing and they can shoot at us from them. They have everything but a flag on the ground.” Sgt. Bahir said. “I suspect the attack will include significant amounts of tanks, so it is even more folly to fight in the outskirts. I say we invite them to fight in our streets.”

“Like I said, I agree with Bahir. But I’m unsure how wise that is.” Sgt. Agewa repeated.

“Doesn’t sound wise at all to me.” Sgt. Ibori crossed his arms. “But if that’s the plan–”

“It’s the plan.” Sgt. Bahir interjected. “So everyone agrees on the plan?”

All the remaining sergeants nodded.

Elena almost nodded too, thinking herself included.

It had been about thirty minutes since the companies convened in this manner.

For their final order of business the sergeants turned to their cadres and communicated the plan once again in rapid detail. It would be the duty of each cadre of privates to disseminate their orders among the platoons and share information quickly before deployment. The sergeants showed the soldiers their maps and photos and charts. Despite her previous curiosity, Elena was disappointed with the actual planning documents.

It seemed that there was little overall plan except “stop the enemy.”

There were several maps of Knyskna but they had hardly any writing on them and the Table of Organization and Equipment for the 82nd Regiment was untouched and did not reflect the true strength of the depleted regiment. On the back of the documents there were a few notes on the current strength, but they were vague and sloppily written.

Elena guessed that all the real insight into the battle, beyond the basic deployment plan, lay exclusively in the Sergeant’s heads. There was no time for grand strategy.

Luck and small unit tactics would have to carry the day.

As they were prepared to leave, Bahir called for everyone’s attention suddenly.

“I hate to ask, but what is happening politically?” Sgt. Bahir asked. “Do we know?”

There was a noticeable pallor across the mostly brown faces of the privates.

All of them had heard dire rumors from the capital – of the bicameral friction between the KVW and the Civil Council, of possible surrenders to Nocht. They were not privy to anything but rumors, but the sergeants probably knew more.

Bahir, who had been out fighting and organizing all this time, seemed to probe his fellow sergeants with his gaze as though he knew they had learned something more than him in the interim. Ibori and Agewa hesitated for a moment.

“There has been some news.” Sgt. Agewa said. “From Division and from some of our personal sources in the capital. None of it is very good news.”

“I think we would all like to know.” Sgt. Bahir said. “Before we risk our lives.”

Sgt. Agewa put a hand across her face, and Ibori grunted. “Civilian Council’s orders to the 82nd Regiment are just to hold Knyskna until evacuations complete.” Sgt. Ibori said. “81st, 85th and 88th Regiment is going to give one final shot to breaking the pocket, and we have some broken bits of 89th and 80th guarding our rear from Nocht right now. It’s bad. They’re looking for whatever kind of victory and they’re not thinking straight here.”

“We’ll never crack that pocket.” Sgt. Bahir said. He closed his fists over the table.

“No. That’s 5 divisions we’ve doomed there, and a sixth that we have squandered. Not to mention what we lost along the border when they caught us with our pants down.”

“They think they might be able to negotiate with Nocht. It is out of our hands. We answer to Territorial command and they answer to the Council.” Sgt. Agewa said.

“Any chance KVW or Revolutionary Guard may become involved?” Sgt. Bahir said.

“Not a chance.” Sgt. Agewa replied. “There is too much friction right now after those inspections the KVW started conducting just before the war broke out. Last I heard they pulled their gendarme presence entirely from the big cities. They will not cooperate with the Civil Council any longer in protest for being sidelined from government.”

“This is absurd. Someone has to be able to help us here.” Sgt. Bahir said. “What about Rhino in Dbagbo? Can’t they send forces down here? Nocht’s armies aren’t that large.”

Sgt. Agewa sighed and crossed her arms. “No, I don’t think so. Even in the face of this war, we’re still sticking to the doctrine of defending each Dominance individually with self-sufficient formations. Rhino is compelled to stay in Dbagbo. At this point we’re playing attrition here in Shaila. Council eyes are already moving the goalposts to Dbagbo.”

“Not only that, the other battlegroups are also watching out for the KVW.” Sgt. Ibori added. “I hear the KVW even fomented some kind of coup in Bada Aso already. They deposed the governor and took over the garrison to call the shots – but my info’s scarce.”

“Ridiculous.” Sgt. Bahir spat. “How can we be so paranoid of our own comrades?”

“The KVW has antagonized them too much. It is what it is.” Sgt. Agewa said. “No one really knows their intentions, and Demilitarization has too much traction in the Council.”

Elena’s head was almost spinning – she knew so little about politics. Sergeant Bahir was red with frustration and the rest of the privates in each cadre had their heads down.

“Whatever happens outside this city, we have comrades in it and a duty toward them.” Sgt. Ibori said, breaking a short silence. “Right now the best we can do is buy our brothers and sisters time. Once they are safe we can give a long consideration to the rest of this.”

Sgt. Agewa nodded her head solemnly. Bahir said nothing.

After a brief and tense silence, the cadres from each Company parted ways.

Elena followed the others out of the plaza, where the Company waited on the streets and in the shadows of abandoned buildings, awaiting news or orders. Jakande and Eboh hurried out to their own platoons to share what they had learned, but Elena was not feeling quite as leaderly, and Bonde seemed to share the sentiment. They walked slowly and a little despondently back to their platoon. A group of them were goofing off around a run-down trolley in one of the southern bends of the road circling the plaza.

“I guess this is not exactly our finest moment.” Elena said, trying anything to break the silence that had fallen around them. Bonde laughed a little and shook his head.

“You win some, you lose some. How is Leander doing?” Bonde asked.

“He is probably on his way to Solstice.” Elena said. “He was going to evacuate.”

Bonde squinted his eyes. “Really? Then who is that?” He pointed to the old trolley.

In front of the trolley, several soldiers stood puzzled around one brown-skinned boy who was all too familiar. Elena gasped a little. Freshly military age, slender and lean, soft-faced, with wavy dark hair hanging just below the level of his jaw and striking green eyes.

It was Leander!

Around him a group of men and women were trying to get him out of his banged-up assault armor, which he had somehow worn again despite its terrible condition, and was on too tight. Several hands struggled against the clasps while others pulled on the gaps under the armpits. It was a ridiculous sight. With one final heave-ho three men dove one way and two women the other, hitting the ground with half of Leander’s armor apiece.

Leander apologized profusely, but the soldiers just laughed and patted him in the back.

Elena and Bonde rushed over to him as the little crowd dispersed.

“Leander! I thought you were going to evacuate!” Elena told him.

Leander smiled. “I never said I would, only that I was considering it.”

Elena felt suddenly very worried for him. He had been so exhausted and confused last night that she found it hard to believe he could be all here and ready to fight now.

Bonde looked between them as though the odd man out. “I’m beginning to think I should have volunteered at his hospital too. But I am glad you are with us, Leander.”

Elena snapped at him. “Hearing you say that, I’m glad you didn’t come.”

Bonde raised his hands defensively, with a big grin on his face.

Leander burst out laughing. “It is fine, you two. I have made my decision.”

“I hope you have a better reason to be here than we discussed.” Elena said.

“I might not have one.” Leander cheerfully admitted. “But I’m going to see this through to the end, and then I will go to Solstice on my own terms. That’s what I decided.”

Elena sighed a little, in equal parts relieved and disturbed. She did not know why she felt like being so critical to him; but nothing she said would really matter at this point. She mentally recused herself, reached out and patted Leander on the shoulder as well. “Well, I wouldn’t know what to say to that then. I’m glad you’re out and about, in any case.”

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Battle of Knyskna, Part 1

A Place Amid Ashes – Generalplan Suden


This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Shaila Dominance – Djose Woods, outside Knyskna.

Twenty-three others joined Leander in the back of the truck, sitting where they could, submachine guns and rifles in their hands. They were motorized troops now – they would ride a truck close as possible to battle, dismount the truck, and then rush in with their feet. They were lucky to have a good truck, with a roof and benches – there were soldiers riding in on their backs in open flatbeds, like they were cargo sacks.

Behind them a squat, boxy Goblin tank with a drum-like turret and a straw-like gun noisily followed, its turret surveying the wood, providing close support to the attack. A few soldiers in the truck grumbled about it, telling the rookies that they should not get their hopes up about the Goblin. There were other similar tanks with them as well, but they were out of sight, riding ahead of them and split between guarding different trucks.

Their convoy boasted over a dozen trucks with hundreds of soldiers. Leander had also heard his compatriots speaking about a second flank with just as many troops. A significant portion of their regiment was invested into this attack.

He swallowed to force down a lump in his throat.

It was an atmosphere so different from his few peaceful days in Bika.

Everyone was quiet. Leander included, the people on the truck sat rigid, stone-faced, forcing themselves upright. Nothing seemed to cross their minds, as though betraying a thought would topple them like towers of matchsticks.

Outside it was pitch black, without spotlights in the sky or occasional flashes of shells. There was only the tank following them, the gloomy seated figures, the dirt road, and a vast expanse of darkness. The Djose was impenetrable, a solid curtain of shadow scrolling past. There was no point in keeping their eyes peeled to the woods; their eyes could see nothing there. To conceal their movements they drove slowly and with all of the lights off, save for a dim lamp in the middle of the troop compartment.

Most of his comrades had their heads down, trying to get some rest before the attack. Others mumbled while barely making any eye contact. Leander felt a little uneasy.

He tried not to let his doubts show on his face, but it was hard not to feel out of place in a truck of soldiers headed to battle. He shook his legs nervously.

“What’s your name, comrade?”

Beside him, a small, fair woman with short hair addressed him. Her metal armor and helmet seemed too large for the overall size of her body, and fastened tighter than his.

“Leander Gaurige.” He said. He politely appended, “Comrade,” after.

She nodded. She had a bashful demeanor, barely making eye contact or lifting her face to look at him. When she spoke again she did so very seriously, in a hushed and secretive tone of voice. “I’m Elena North. This might sound silly, but I wanted to know a name I could call out if I needed help. I don’t know anybody here, and received little training.”

Leander was astonished at how close her name was to his former, feminine name: Elea.

“Neither do I.” He said quickly. “I was from Bika.”

“I was from Klima, close to the Cissean border.” She said. “My family were originally from Cissea, but I grew up in Ayvarta. We were forced to flee from Klima a week ago. I joined the military in Knyskna after that, thinking that I could be of service here.”

“I joined it in Bika, but we fled there too.” Leander said.

He recalled the horror he felt as those tanks rolled over the hills as if they had materialized from nowhere– but he closed his eyes, breathed deep and wiped them away from the film reels spinning in his mind. He didn’t want to fixate on those events. He was not ready to mourn a lost home, or even to admit that he had lost anything. Instead, he tried to smile, and force away the dark thoughts, hardening his heart to them.

He offered Elena his hand. “Let’s cling together, Comrade North.”

She took his hand, smiling a little bit herself. “Yes, Comrade Gaurige.”

“If you’re making friends, I want in,” said a young man on Leander’s left, putting his hand on Leander’s shoulder. Unlike Leander and Elena his hair was short enough they could see none of it coming out from under his helmet, and his skin was very dark, almost a blueish black. He held out his hands and Leander shook it; he reached over Leander’s lap and took Elena’s hand as well. She bashfully took the tips of his fingers, and shook them as though shaking salt or pepper over a dish. He laughed, and returned to his seat.

“I’m Bonde.” He said. “I’m from Knyskna itself. Pushed right out of a training battalion, into a pillbox, and now a truck. I prefer it to waiting for a concrete-buster to hit my head.”

“Likewise.” Leander said. “Pillboxes are hellish.”

“I wanted to be part of the medical corps, but they needed nimble people for the assault teams.” Elena said. “I guess they glanced over and found me nimble enough for the task.”

Leander did notice that nobody around them looked very heavy.

A hatch opened from the front of the truck. From the passenger seat, their commanding officer, a tanned man with short, wispy white hair, looked back on them and provided instructions. Sergeant Bahir had jumped into the truck last, once everyone had been loaded up, and nobody got to see him until now. He was a sleek, dark man, like a figure precisely sculpted, with no edges out of place and no parts gone unsmoothed.

“Alright troops, we’ve suffered some setbacks before, but now is our time to surprise the imperialists.” Sgt. Bahir said, his voice taking a fiery tone of oratory, “Nocht thought they could run over Knyskna, but in their greedy charge they outran their armored support, and ran right into our guns. Now they’re holed up in this forest waiting for the dawn to launch an attack. We won’t let them get started. Our air recon may be limited, but this afternoon we found critical positions in the woods, and signs of movements that are key to their operation here. We’ve taken these unused backroads in a circumspect route around the forest to avoid Nocht patrols. When this truck stops, we’ll dismount and we’ll trail through the forest on foot to flank their rear echelons where they least expect. Our goals in particular are to threaten their artillery positions and destroy their supplies. We’re not taking any prisoners. But if you see any documents, you take those and you make sure you survive to see a Commissariat information officer. They may be vital to our success here.”

Everyone in the truck sat up straighter as they listened to him. Leander felt a fire light in his chest. It sounded like such an important mission to be on, for someone who had been a socialist for a mere ten days. Now he felt even more committed, though he had little formal training save what he was told by officers during lulls in the fighting.

He had first been a support rifleman for a gun crew, and then a gun loader, after seeing death for the first time. Now he was part of the assault troops.

It didn’t enter into his mind how desperate this seemed.

Sgt. Bahir continued. “Another formation of our troops is preparing for an assault on the opposite flank – we will storm through the forest by surprise and pinch the imperialists in their camp. We will have the support of a 120mm heavy mortar battalion that will stay behind, but we can only signal them through flares. Check your supplies now: if you have a flare with you then you will shoot it when instructed by me. Understood?”

Around the truck, several soldiers fondled their packs thoughtfully, where their flare guns were kept. Not everyone had such a gun. Leander was not given one. So only a few of them carried this responsibility. Leander sighed a little with relief. He did not know if he trusted his own judgment on these matters.

“Those of you with flares must shoot them over the position to be targeted.” Sgt. Bahir said. “The artillery fire will be imprecise due to our present conditions – launch your flare so that it rises over your target and then take cover. Don’t shoot any position closer than 10 meters from yourself. Got that?”

Those soldiers with flare guns nodded their heads.

“Then let us teach Nocht to fear the shadows in the woods, comrades!”

Leander gripped his own Rasha submachine gun tighter, and he cheered with the rest of the squadron in the truck. When everyone settled back down he was still gripping it tight. He had fired the longer Bundu rifles before, when serving as gun crew support. The submachine gun, he had been told, suited him better because it was light and he could fire a lot of bullets without immediately reloading, which was his major problem when operating the old bolt-action rifle. Each Rasha was a simple design, with a wooden stock and a short steel body, easy to carry and wield, and fed through box magazines or drums – he had drums now, provided by the woman in the staging area.

He checked the drum currently attached. It was fully loaded.

“How much is in here?” He asked Elena.

“I believe sixty. But it shoots so fast you can barely count it.”

Elena was armed similarly to Leander. Neither had flare guns. Unlike them Bonde had a flare gun in a pouch. Elena had instead been entrusted two big packs strapped to her back.

“Careful with the drums,” Bonde warned. “They’re prone to jamming.”

“What do I do if it jams?” Leander asked.

“Toss it, pull out a pistol, and get in cover.” Bonde said.

In other words, he could do nothing about it.

The trucks stopped and Sgt. Bahir called for everyone to form up on the side of the road. All twenty-four riflemen and women formed up into two squads on a natural ditch by the side of the road. They could see precious little around them.

The skies were cloudy and a dim electric torch attached to the Sgt’s rifle was all the light they were allowed. It was growing cold, and if he could have seen all their faces Leander was sure his comrades would look miserable.

Sgt. Bahir called them to attention again, and pointed his Bundu rifle into the pitch-black behind him.

“March carefully and spread out. When you first see the lights from the enemy camp, regroup quietly, shoot an artillery flare and then begin our assault after the shells fall.”

Leander looked over his shoulder and saw the artillery crews, putting down their mortars on the road. They worked by dim lamp-light, holding up oil lanterns to their mortar’s sights and scopes and adjusting them. A few riflemen and all of the tanks would stay behind to guard them and the trucks. They started to site the woods nearby.

When Sergeant Bahir started move the entire assault squad followed. They climbed the ditch up into the woods, advancing on a wide front. Leander took long, precise steps forward, careful not to trip in sudden depressions or to walk into any trunks in the dark. He stuck by Elena, as he had said he would, and she marched alongside him.

Bonde followed close behind them, and he looked around himself as if with a keener eye than theirs. Perhaps his training taught him something to look out for that Leander did not know. Cold, slightly shaking, and feeling anxious in the dark, Leander tried to betray no undue sounds or sudden movements. He wished he could see better in the dark.

As he advanced Leander scanned from side to side, despite being hardly able to see a few feet in front of his nose, and he kept his submachine gun raised in front of him, moving its barrel along his field of vision as he surveyed. Around him the forest was thick with trees, thin and tall and with bushy crowns but growing in clusters. He was often reaching out with his gun and touching a trunk, and had to then weave around it and several neighbors with great care to keep his feet from catching on roots or slipping on a carpet of leaves, or his face from crashing into wood. Marching, he lost track of time.

The Sergeant’s electric torch pointed out the direction in which they were headed, and gave the formation a center around which to form. Leander and Elena would often find themselves too far from the thin beam, and slowly moved toward it to keep in formation with it. Bonde seemed unconcerned and marched confidently in his own path.

Leander sometimes heard or saw his comrades in the squad, difficult as it was to make them out in the dark. They were spread out wide enough, and part of such a larger formation, that it all seemed very abstract. He was marching with a platoon that was part of a company, and part of a battalion, part of a regiment. Leander imagined that there must have been hundreds of troops treading through the forest just like them, rifles out, a massive spearhead across the Djose. He was emboldened by this vision and felt he had the upper hand, though he did not know the size of the enemy’s formations. To him, company and regiment and division were still confusing and vague words that others had only briefly taught him.

“Up ahead,” Elena said, in a voice just high enough for Leander to hear.

They skirted around a line of trees and bushes and found themselves able to see more clearly than before. Lanterns and bonfires in the Nocht camp cast their light out into the forest, providing dim illumination several meters from the camp.

Elena, Bonde and Leander hid at the edge of the lights, using the trees for cover from the camp, and used portable scopes from their equipment pouches to investigate the clearing ahead. Through the lens Leander could see a large tent camp, likely a branch of a bigger Nocht operating base in the Djose wood. This was their intended target.

There were several men wandering the camp, some in various tents established around the clearing, and others huddled around their fires. Leander counted dozens of men, lounging and waiting, and he knew those were only the ones he could see – more probably lurked in the tents or in parts of the camp blocked from his sight. They were all fairly young looking, pale men with bright eyes and hair, whose faces glistened with sweat by the pyrelight. Leander thought some of them could be Cissean too.

Mysterious objects, probably support weapons, covered in green and brown tarps had been lined up to one side of the camp. Stocks of supply crates littered the site, labeled in Nocht script indecipherable to Leander’s eyes. Some had been pried open and partially unloaded, their contents distributed; the majority, dozens in tall stacks, lay out in the open.

There were mounds dug up, upon which Norgler machine guns and Schnitzer light field guns guarded potential approaches to the camp. Only one of these positions faced Leander’s direction.

More of his comrades stepped out of the shadows and they grouped up at the edge of the wood.

“Put a flare over that Norgler, and then we rush in.” Sgt. Bahir said.

Everyone in the squadron scrambled for their flare guns, but Bonde already had his out. He raised it, and aimed over the mound that the Norgler had been mounted on. He fired before anyone else could. Sgt. Bahir called everyone to attention as the flare ascended over the Nocht camp in a bright green flash that discolored the surrounding wood.

Within moments a red and a yellow flash rose skyward from other sides of the camp.

The enemy troops had immediately noticed the flares, and reached for their rifles or ran to their guns, but within moments they were suppressed by Ayvartan shelling.

Heavy mortars set up behind them dropped over a half-dozen shells into the camp from the safety of the truck convoy. Mortar shells crashed around the clearing, smashing the Norgler position in front of Leander and a nearby tent, setting ablaze a stack of crates and sending a group of men near a pyre flying in pieces.  Enemy troops scattered into cover or out in the open away from fragments kicked up by the remaining shells.

Near the back of the camp the shelling grew more inaccurate, but at least one shell hit a box of Nocht ammunition and caused an explosion and a spreading fire that threw the camp into confusion. The time was ripe for the attack to begin.

Sgt. Bahir raised his fist, and the squad charged into the camp.

Leander ran toward the raised Norgler gun mound, hoping to use the raised ruin for cover – it was the only thing close to him. Many of his comrades had instead elected to run headlong toward the tents, across wholly open ground at the edge of the clearing. Leander opened fire with his rasha as he advanced, barely raising it to his shoulder and hardly aiming. His bullets hit nothing but the amount of fire kept several men pinned down behind crates in front of him, and rendered their return fire panicked and ineffective.

Around the camp the Nochtish troops secured weapons and tried to rally, shooting back at the advancing Ayvartans from whatever cover they could scramble for.

Their stray shots hit comrades still in the open, but most of the squad penetrated the camp and took good positions, having shocked the Nocht troops back. Soon the forest was livid with the popping of submachine guns and the cracking of rifles.

There was a sudden explosion in the south, probably an HE shell from a defensive gun, but too far for Leander to do anything about. He felt his sight narrow, and he prayed to the Zigan gods for strong comrades covering his flanks, because his own mind would not let him see anything but forward anymore, and he was losing the lay of the land.

When he reached the wreck of the Norgler position he dropped behind the mound, which covered him fully if he laid on his knees, and took a deep, ragged breath.

Elena and Bonde dropped beside him, firing tentative bursts into the crates ahead as they took cover, hitting no men but suppressing several runners. Bonde gathered the companions in a little huddle and gestured for their guns, and then a thumb behind his back.

Leander and Elena knew what he meant, it was simple enough.

They nodded to one another, held their guns up close and each took a preparatory breath of dirty, smoking air.  As one, the trio rose from cover to shoot, unleashing several bursts downrange at whatever seemed hostile in the embattled camp. Leander tried to brace his barrel over the dirt, but the muzzle climb was considerable for his untrained hands. He could not control the amount fired with each burst either. His bullets flew wildly.

Opposition soon materialized in earnest.

Across from them, three Nocht riflemen huddled near the same troublesome stack of crates that had been repeatedly punished during the advance, and from there they opened fire on Leander and his comrades. The enemy leaned out, fired several rounds from their stripper clips, and returned to cover to work the bolts on their rifles, loading new clips, and then firing again, moving in precise rhythm so that one or two men were always firing and the remainder could reload and prepare in the meantime.

Leander marveled at their discipline, and wondered dimly if their hearts were pumping as hard as his, and if their breaths came as intermittently. Their rifle rounds were more powerful than Leander’s submachine gun ammunition, which was all pistol caliber, and a direct hit would have bit through his plate armor.

But enemy fire either flew over, bit harmlessly into the dust on the mound or stuck into the skeletal remains of the steel Norgler turret in front, crushed by the mortars.

Meanwhile Leander and Elena sprayed lead into the crates, to little effect.

They could not penetrate.

They had a better rate of fire but not the training to know how to leverage this.

Bonde, however, had taken notice of their situation. When he dropped back to reload his submachine gun, he pulled on Leander’s and Elena’s pants sleeves for attention. “Fire long bursts to keep them hidden, and I’ll move forward and shoot them from another angle.” He said, affixing a new drum to his gun. Elena dove back into cover and nodded; Leander tapped his foot while shooting to show that he understood.

Leander took cover again, waited a moment. He and Elena rose to a stand and opened fire on the crates at once. They timed their bursts as best as they could to keep the enemy’s heads down. The Nocht riflemen cowered behind cover, overwhelmed by the dozens of bullets flying their way. While they weathered the storm, Bonde took off from the side of the mound, running in a half-crouch out toward the line of covered objects.

He slid into cover behind what appeared to be a field gun with a tarp over it, and had a perfect flanking angle on the crates. Leander’s weapon dried, as did Elena’s, and the Nocht riflemen leaned out again. But Bonde had them in his sights.

When Elena and Leander dropped into cover, Bonde started shooting, cutting through the riflemen mercilessly. Elena and Leander heard the cries and saw the enemy’s weapons and helmets drop from behind the crates as their bodies fell on the spot.

They had little room to breathe despite this little victory. Battles occurred all around them, shots being traded in every direction. Smoke and dust rose to form a fog of war. Leander found it difficult to maintain awareness of everything happening. Their group, the twenty-five riflemen and women in their truck, had attacked from the east of the camp, but other squads of twenty-five now joined from several directions.

In the distance they dimly heard another crashing rounds of mortar shells, suggesting that their counterparts had begun their own assault from the far west that would pinch the Nocht troops. Leander and Elena ran out from the mound and crouched in front of the crates once occupied by the opposition, pushing the assault forward.

They saw and ignored the enemy bodies, flanked and struck down by Bonde, and established themselves behind the crates with their weapons up and firing anew. Bonde could cover their right flank, and to their left a tent had been knocked half down, and an Ayvartan officer ruffled inside it for documents. They saw Ayvartan assault troops move up from the south, pinning down the remaining Nocht troops and shooting them.

There was one last great crescendo of submachine guns in the nearby area before silence seemed to fall for certain. Sounds of gunfire became distant and the air around the camp stilled. The immediate area looked clear. Sgt. Bahir crawled out of the tent beside Leander and Elena and sat with his back to their crates, catching his breath.

“Found nothing.” He told them. “But this whole place was a big artillery dump. This’ll hurt ’em bad tomorrow.”

Leander nodded solemnly, his head pounding. “Orders, sir?”

“We’re gonna regroup, demolish all of these ammo crates, then push north down that path–”

The Sergeant stopped, and suddenly urged them to keep quiet.

“I hear it.” Elena said in fear, turning her head every which way. “But where–?”

A whirring, rumbling thing approached swiftly, its crunching wheels and engine noises drawing closer upon the camp.

Sgt. Bahir seemed to recognize it and screamed for everyone to disperse.

Within moments the sandbags blocking a path north of the camp collapsed under the eight wheels and sloped, battering face of an armored car, the machine losing no speed as it charged into the camp. A squat, sliding turret atop the back of the car turned its Norgler gun barrel and loosed dozens of bullets every second.

Leander hid without hesitation.

Like a stampeding animal the car drove past his position and charged south through the camp center. Leander peeked his head and watched the machine overrun a fire team shocked dumb behind a low sandbag wall, crushing the four of them under its wheels.

It swung around the edge of the camp, and the Norgler howled, puncturing crates and tents and cutting down soldiers behind their cover with withering fire. Leander saw bullets perforate the tent beside him and fly past, and he recoiled in fear, pushing against the crate with his back and scrabbling with his feet as though he could move the entire stack and protect himself. The bullets bit into the earth around him and kicked up tiny fragments of rock and wisps of dirt that made him terribly nervous.

Elena shook him and grabbed him and tried to keep him still. She finally seized his hand and led him to the other side of the crate, where they huddled over the corpses of the Nocht soldiers Bonde had killed and waited for the car to come for them as it circled around the camp. Hidden from fire again Leander tried to catch his breath, his mind racing and unable to settle on any course of action. Elena kept a nervous watch.

The armored car had hooked around the east side of the camp, covering the path from where they had first approached, and turned its turret right on them. It stopped briefly upon the Norgler mound they had destroyed, one of its front wheels catching in the hole left by the heavy mortar, all the while firing wildly around itself.

Machine gun bullets penetrated the crates, but luckily their silhouettes were hidden, and they were not the only targets, so Elena and Leander went uninjured through the salvo. Bullets flew inaccurately around them, grazing their heads and sides and chipping away their cover; then the gun turned to suppress other threats, leaving them trapped but alive.

“Without bigger guns we’re hopeless!” Leander said.

“We have the mortars.” Elena replied. “Where is the sergeant?”

“I don’t know!” Leander said, clutching his chest in fear.

“He was right here with us when the car attacked!” Elena said.

“Sergeant!” Leander shouted. He called out again and again, but there was no response. He didn’t know what to do in this situation – how did a soldier fight a vehicle head-on like this? He thought the second that he tried to move in the open the armored car would reduce him to meat in the blink of an eye. How did anyone survive a fight like this? How did a person of flesh and blood ever possibly stand up to this monster?

“Sergeant Bahir, use the mortars!” Elena cried out, looking desperate herself.

In front of them gunfire paused for an instant.

The Norgler machine gun atop the armored car turned again to face the source of the shouts, the gunner having heard Leander and Elena yelling behind the crates.

A burst of submachine gun fire bounced off the armored turret before it could fire.

“Throw a grenade at the front!” Bonde shouted, ducked behind the tarped weapons.

He leaned out from cover and fired at the turret, his bullets threatening the gunner’s slits but never accurate enough to go through. The turret turned to suppress him, gunfire puncturing the tarp and plinking against the weapons. Bonde survived the volley, crawling between the different tarped weapons while the Norgler tried to perforate them. The line of fire slowly followed him, biting centimeters behind him as he scrambled away.

Leander stood as tall as he could behind the crates while still hiding from the Norgler, and he withdrew his pipe grenade and pulled the catch on its handle.

His hands were shaking and his eyes stung with tears and dirt and even droplets of blood from tiny cuts delivered by fragments.

That moment before the throw felt impossibly long, slow, and terrifying.

He wound his arm and threw the grenade as hard as he could at the front of the armored car. There must have been at least twenty meters between them and the armored car, but the pipe hit the driver’s viewing slit nonetheless, became stuck in it and exploded.

Leander cowered like a child expecting a strike, but his legs were shaking and he did not dive back behind the crates. He saw the blast and the aftermath. The grenade punched a hole in the driver’s compartment, blowing fragments and heat through the openings and mauling the man at the wheel, leaving nothing but smoke and a smear on the seat.

But the explosion cost the car as a whole little integrity.

Though shaken, the turret came alive again.

“Stay down,” Elena warned, her voice quivering. They heard a click as the gun fixed itself on them. Leander could not move, staring down that gun, and even if he could he had nowhere to go that was safe. The crates had taken a beating, and would not last any longer. Elena seemed to want to help him, but he waved his hand stiffly for her to keep down. He had done everything he could, he thought. He grimly awaited the next volley.

Then a red flare rose high over the armored car, illuminating the gunner’s slit.

Leander thought he saw a face, gasping in horror before the shells fell.

With the driver dead the Armored Car could not escape the barrage. Mortar shells pounded into the roof of the vehicle and collapsed the turret, burying the gunner in shredded steel before it could shoot, and crashed into the ground around the vehicle, rattling its wounds. Fuel began to leak from it and the hull caught fire as a result of the violence.

Sergeant Bahir ran out from behind the nearby tent, dropping a flare gun and urging Elena and Leander away from the car, and shouting for Bonde to run.

They fled, while the fire spread over the ruined car and its fuel tank erupted.

Fragments of armor plate and Norgler ammunition flew in every direction as it exploded. Burning chunks of metal and torch-like projectiles flew from the carcass, igniting the shell crates that moments earlier had served so admirably as cover for Leander’s group. Bonde’s line of tarp-covered guns were soon caught in spreading flames.

“Ancestors, what a mess,” Sergeant Bahir shouted, looking over the remaining troops and the ruins of the camp. The survivors of the assault and subsequent battle regrouped away from the fires to quickly take stock of the situation.

Three assault groups had participated in this area, Leander soon found out.

One had been wiped out almost in its entirety – the first squad approaching from the south contended with both a Norgler and a Schnitzer and high-explosive fire from the latter weapon crushed the advancing troops. The south-east squadron, which joined after the battle had commenced, picked up the slack for them; Leander’s east squadron had luckily fought from the most advantageous positions in the camp, and the mortar attacks supporting them scored the most accurate hits on the defenders.

Leander gulped: in retrospect his own side of the attack was terrifying, and he could not even imagine how the survivors of the southern assault squad felt. He peered their way and they seemed a little shaken, but standing, and they willingly joined a new assault group. Would it later return to their minds that they had survived being shot at with explosives?

And what about him? Would he himself vomit with the realization that he stood face to barrel with a Norgler and at any moment could have been cruelly butchered before it?

His eyes were tearing up, his mind distorted.

He wiped his face, and thought of nothing. His mind and emotions came up a blank, as though his soul had been what the Norgler fire suppressed.

Sergeant Bahir was still lively, and he began to deal out orders. “Gather up any stray Schnitzers, and point them north. Keep six or seven shells around for each. We’re advancing. I’ve got more Imperialists to kill. We’ll leave behind a few people to rig up the Imperialist’s ammunition and supplies for destruction. You,” He pointed at Elena, “You’ve got explosives in that pack, right? Leave them for the cleanup crew before we go.”

Elena nodded and she did as instructed, leaving behind her pack. She seemed relieved to be rid of it. Sergeant Bahir ordered about ten people to stay behind, crewing two undamaged Schnitzer 37mm guns and setting explosives around the stacks of crates and in the contents of overturned tents.

About forty other soldiers, including Leander, Elena and Bonde, gathered around Sgt. Bahir and advanced north over the toppled sandbag wall the armored car had run over to attack them. He divided them into three teams that would spread out and follow the woods around a path about five meters wide that ran downhill from the clearing and into the forest. The path was an old woodland trail just flat enough and wide enough for cars to move through, but the fire teams stuck to the treeline on either side.

Everyone moved briskly, no longer caring what they trampled over to make it from cover to cover. Without the element of surprise they had to treat every stretch of wood as though the enemy was charging to meet them. Electric torches cast wandering lights into the wood to make up for the distance they had put to the Nocht pyres and lanterns in the camp. Two people in each thirteen-gun squadron walked with a sidearm and a flashlight, guiding the rest downhill. Eleven others stuck to their submachine guns.

As they advanced Leander saw flashes in the west, flares and gunfire in the distance.

“The other assault group,” Bonde said. “They haven’t found respite like us.”

No sooner had this been said that the respite was at its end.

From the gloom of the forest Leander heard the clinking sounds of several grenades striking the carpet of twigs. He could not judge the distance well, but nobody was about to risk being bombarded by fragments. Everyone in Leander’s squadron took cover against the thickest, closest trees they could find and steeled themselves.

No explosion followed.

A thick cloud of smoke rose from the forest floor instead, and there was a din of running boots, moving in the cloud, crunching leaves and twigs. Leander and Elena stuck shoulders to either side of a big tree, put their backs to one another, and leaned out in preparation. Nocht soldiers moved up in force, known at first only by the stomping of their boots, and then by the cracking of their bullets, chipping bark off trees used for cover.

After the first exchanges of gunfire the battle grew pitched. Smoke grenades burst around the forest, some igniting patches of dry leaves and creating dancing torches in the gloom. Assault teams hunkered down and shot their Rashas and pistols into the wood in the hopes of stemming the hidden tide. Nocht’s combat presence grew from distant flashes and rustling movements through the fog; to withering bursts of concentrated gunfire probing the Ayvartan’s cover; to shadows, darting from tree to tree and charging ever closer to Leander and his team. He directed tentative fire their way, hitting nothing.

Chaos unfolded in the thick wood. Leander could have sworn that he had heard men fall and cry in pain, but nonetheless the opposing ranks crashed into one another as though their numbers had never thinned, and he found himself firing at gray uniforms so close that he could discern everything about them. The battle lines were just a few meters from each other, and it felt far more personal even than the battles in the well-lit camp.

He saw the helmets, like coal pails, with a projecting visor and a flared rim; faces white as chalk with piercing eyes; great gray coats that seemed to hide their real shapes.

Rather than Nocht carbines, many of the soldiers Leander now faced returned fire with metallic SMGs, pinning him with the same deadly bursts as the Ayvartan Rasha.

Leander and Elena quickly found their backs directly pressed to each other, both fully in hiding from intense gunfire. Wood chips flew around them as gunfire struck cover.

“Watch your sides!” Sergeant Bahir shouted through the storm. “They’re going to flank you! Ignore the gunfire facing your cover and keep your flanks and backs guarded!”

Leander swallowed hard, realizing that he and Elena were now a flank of their team, positioned by ill fate on the extreme left side of the advance.

He leaned out of cover and opened fire, hoping he might dissuade Nochtish movement, but a retaliatory blaze from the enemy forced him into hiding again. Nocht gunners fought back with precision, while the Ayvartans had no coordination as to who was firing, who was reloading, and how to advance. Without Sergeant Bahir screaming from somewhere in the middle of the battle, there would have been no leadership at all.

Their squadron was concentrated, and had poor angles on the enemy’s positions despite proximity. Leander could see Bonde and many of his other squad mates crowding the adjacent trees, sloppily trading low caliber gunfire with the enemy.

A principal obstacle in front of them, preventing them from advancing or dispersing, was a long, overturned tree trunk serving as cover for crouched and seated Nocht troops, and guarded on either side by Nocht submachine gunners in good cover behind standing trees. It was from there that a rising gale of bullets kept Leander’s team pinned down.

He could not see the positions occupied by the other teams through the shadows and smoke, but he knew his own team was gaining no ground at all.

“I’m throwing a grenade!” Elena told him suddenly. “I hear movement over there!”

She pointed out to their left flank, at an indistinct series of shadows in the gloom that Leander assumed were more trees. SMG fire raged in front of them and prevented Leander from leaning out to try to spot enemy movement, but he was not about to doubt Elena if she thought they were in danger. He nodded to her in acknowledgment.

“I’ll cover you.” He crouched and tried to guard her as she primed.

Elena had a good arm, and reared back and cast the grenade exactly where she had told him. It soared between a pair of thin trees and over a series of cleared stumps. Within an instant they saw the blast as a brief, powerful flash. They heard a crashing noise from something heavy nearby, and a helmet flew out of the wood and rolled past them.

Looking over the site of the carnage they thought they could make out a corpse, sprawled over a tree stump with an uninhibited view of Leander and Elena’s tree. He had been trying to circumvent their cover, and Elena had managed to stop him.

They stared in shock, wondering whether this was horror or fortune before them.

Emboldened by Elena’s throw, one of their squad mates at Bonde’s side reached for his own grenade. He shouted, “Throwing a grenade!” and signaled his intention to throw forward at the Nocht position. Several other squadmates stepped out and fired fiercely to cover for him, while Elena and Leander reloaded and attempted to join.

But this maneuver would prove very short-lived.

Nocht gunners retaliated instantly despite the suppressive volleys from his squadmates, and the man received a wound to the leg as he leaned out to throw, and fell out of cover. His grenade rolled out of his hands and barely left the battle line.

Nobody could reach out to save the man; everyone hunkered down in a panic, as the grenade was primed and about to blow. Leander cried out in shock and covered himself. Between the lines the grenade went off, the trees fully absorbing the blast and fragments. When the squad recovered their comrade lay butchered on the floor just centimeters away, and the enemy gunners were mildly shaken and certainly far from dislodged.

Leander’s stomach tightened, and he could not grip his weapon well.

In the midst of the noise he remembered the only other time he had ever felt so sick and hurt and fearing for his life – once when his family had stopped to hunt wild boar in the woods of some lost corner of Ayvarta, untouched by anyone but nomads for years and years. He had never been allowed to go hunting, and was forced to stay with the girl children. But one time he had ventured to escape and to find the hunters.

Unfortunately for him, he met a wild boar before they did.

He saw firsthand how one of the caravan men killed it to save him.

It was faster and stronger than them, a massive beast against mere men, but it wanted Leander’s flesh, not theirs. They dove upon it from behind and butchered it alive with their knives. Despite all its brute strength the boar could not match their ferocity.

Leander had not been able to move a muscle, facing that hideous thing, but in his terror he had played a part in their success. He had drawn the monster’s attention to himself.

“Elena,” he found himself saying, his voice shaking and his Ayvartan tongue ever more accented and difficult to maintain, “You have a sharp spade, a trench spade, do you?”

His grammar was becoming loose as well. Still in shock, Elena nodded.

It was easily seen on her pack, and Leander took it, hands shaking.

“What are you going to do?” She asked, staring with wide eyes at him.

He did not respond, not with words. He did not even breathe.

Leander dropped his SMG and stormed unceremoniously out of cover.

Running with desperate strength he tried to circle the engagement, putting as many trees between himself and the enemy as he could. He had to cover as much ground as he could while they were still focused on the trees and not their flanks. The gun, the ammo, the grenades, none of it would help him. He had to bet everything on his feet, his arms, his foolishness, and the enemy’s focus – and on their primal fear of claws, teeth, and melee.

He ran with his head down, vaulting over stumps and roots, charging with both hands on his spade, held out in front of him, swinging with his arms. For a foolish instant he believed he went unnoticed, then bullets started to trail his way from the enemy’s right flank, chipping pieces off the trees and striking the dirt as his feet left the ground.

He did not pause, he took no cover – he felt as if his heart would seize up with the rush.

Around him the gunfire grew in intensity.

Stray SMG bullets ricocheted off the back of his plate armor and off his shoulder with each enemy burst and he screamed in pain and rage from the blunted impacts. He screamed to keep moving, his entire body hurtling forward in a daze. He screamed to live. If his voice gave out, if his mind froze up, his limbs would too and he knew he would die.

Through the firestorm he ran a dozen meters to cover less than six, and it was like a writhing blur before him. Leander ran the left flanks of the enemy’s position and charged toward a pair of guards still firing at his comrades from behind the trees. He put his spade in front of him and threw himself as fast as he could toward the two men.

One man looked over his shoulder and saw him coming.

He ripped himself from his position, turning in a panic and opening fire as Leander drew upon him. Rounds caught in the metal assault armor, hitting Leander like rocks thrown at his stomach, but he did not slow. He came crashing forward and swept the man aside, throwing him to the ground and casting his weapon away into the shadows.

Ayvartan fire resumed as Leander attacked, chipping at the trees; the second SMG gunner turned away from the front and fully around in time to meet Leander.

He did not get to fire a shot.

Leander bashed his hands with the spade, turning his gun to the ground, and bashed him across the head. His opponent stumbled, hitting his back against the tree. Leander reared back and with all the strength he could summon he drove the spade through the man’s mouth. The sharpened edge split the cheeks and cut right through the back of the neck. Leander thought he felt the tip slicing through bone and hitting wood.

From the ground the surviving gunner witnessed the horror that had become of his squad-mate and crawled away on his back. Leander ripped the bloody spade free from the corpse with both hands and in one fluid motion he turned and swung again.

With one horrible thrust he pierced the man’s head across his nose.

There was silence for a few confounding seconds before Leander was again aware of the gunfire, of the rustling in the trees, of the distant blasts. He dropped his spade.

More pressingly, he had become hyper-aware of his own body, trapped in it.

He sucked in air desperately, choking and heaving. Every tissue in his body seemed to thrash and thrum with pain, blood crashing through sheared sinews, muscles twisting, his tongue hanging out and drooling. Rivulets of sweat felt like razors across his skin. He felt the bullet impacts blunted by his armor across his back and belly and chest, swelling and scorching. He kneeled helplessly over the corpses, about to vomit in pain and trauma.

From the forest came a renewed stomping and screams in a strange language.

Leander looked slowly up and saw figures in the forest, staring at him like a beast.

Kommunisten! Feuer frei!”

They brought their rifles up to shoot at him.

From behind him a hail of gunfire lit up the figures, like fiery arrows in the gloom.

“Leander, we’re retreating! Leander!”

Elena knelt beside him, firing her submachine gun into the woods and screaming at him. Leander lay dazed for a moment, while his squadron moved up to the position behind the long overturned trunk, firing into the woods and leaping over the cover.

His distraction must have allowed them to overrun it.

He helped himself to stand by Elena’s shoulder, hobbling to look around the tree he had charged. All of the men that had impeded their progress lay dead, and his comrades hurried to pick the officer among them for anything important.

Bonde hurried up to the front, and took Leander over his shoulder.

He looked Leander in the eyes and nodded, smiling at him. Acknowledging him.

“I’m afraid we can’t take a token of this, but we will remember it.” Bonde said.

They left the spade where it lay over the corpses, and Elena took Leander’s other arm over her own shoulder. She tried to smile at him too, but she was visibly more shaken than Bonde. Leander thought that like him she was nearing the end of her composure.

Something intangible that allowed them both to fight as they had done until now was dangerously close to breaking. Leander could hardly make sense of his own head anymore.

Sergeant Bahir screamed out from somewhere in the forest: “All remaining flares, fire overhead to the closest enemy position and retreat quickly! We need to cover our escape, we’re falling back to the trucks. The enemy is livelier than we anticipated!”

Leander sighed pitiably, feeling a terrible pain just doing that.

It all had been for naught.

All at once the remaining flares rose skyward from the depths of the wood, and were followed by a torrent of mortar fire from the far-off road. Like stars falling from heaven the shells would scream down behind them and light up the forest for an instant, forcing the imperialists into hiding or tossing them like toys with direct hits.

Joining the attack on the advancing Nocht forces were captured Schnitzer guns from the camps in the rear, lobbing High-Explosive shells over the retreating Ayvartans and deep into the ranks chasing them. Many shells caught in the trees above Nochtish troops, but burst into fragments and lit fires that nonetheless worked in the communist’s favor.

Leander did not look back, but the fire and the marching he heard in the distance suggested to him that they had likely not even chipped at the imperialist’s strength in the wood. Surprise had been their only advantage and they barely left a scratch on the enemy.

Somehow the desperate retreat was not overrun. Elena and Bonde hurried through the wood with Leander in tow, past the clouds of smoke and the corpses of enemy and comrade alike. They rushed uphill, and the Schnitzers were abandoned and disabled with grenades.

Leander asked to be put down, and on shaking and hurting but still capable legs he ran alongside his comrades. His chest felt like it would rip open from the inside whenever he breathed while running, and he was soon feeling light-headed again, but he would not stop moving. He did not want to be carried again. He hated feeling like a burden.

Soon the group was deep into the forest, and could see the lights from the trucks ahead of them on the road. They heard resounding explosions at their backs as the imperialist’s stockpiles detonated, consuming the remainder of their outer camps in an inferno.

Even that felt like a hollow victory.

Everyone who reached the road pulled themselves back into their trucks with bleak expressions in their faces, if their face had an expression at all. Many soldiers seemed struck dumb with glassy eyes and no understanding of their surroundings.

Adrenaline now wearing off, Leander felt he too must have looked confused and spent, struggling to raise his legs and climb into the bed of a truck while feeling as though his body would rip itself apart in the process. He had never felt so drained.

Of the 24 people who could fit in this truck, there were only 8 left.

He settled uncomfortably on his bench, playing with the catches fastening his armor at his shoulder. He knew his binder was totally ruined under his clothes – he felt the itchy fabric sheared to pieces against his chest. But he still wanted the damned armor off. He could not quite remove it by himself, and was advised to wait until a physician could see him – the armor might have been helping to keep him standing, his comrades told him.

The truck rattled to a start, drove into the ditch on its side and turned around back the way it came, toward Knyskna. It had been many hours since they departed. Goblin tanks lobbed shots into the length of the wood to stymie an enemy interdiction as the convoy drove forward at full speed, the time for stealth and silence long since over.

Leander’s vision went in and out of focus. He felt someone reach out to him.

“You did well, Leander. You were brave.” Bonde said. “You too, Elena, you fought fiercely. All of us are still learning, and right now the enemy is our only teacher. Today you conquered an enemy who fought like he was born to do so. We were not born into this. But if we can buy more time and fight like that, we can win. I know we can win.”

“Can we?” Elena said, sighing. “Nocht has felt nothing short of invincible to me.”

“I’m not quite together enough to return the optimism, Bonde.” Leander said.

“I’m just trying to lift your spirits up. You did not fail by any measure today.”

The two of them looked skeptically at Bonde.

“I’m being serious with you two!” He said. He took off his helmet, and ran his hand through his very short, closely cropped hair, scratching. He showed them the helmet – a bullet had caught in it, a hair’s width from his head. “All of us survived an ordeal today. All of us cheated death today. Our continent has so many legends about this.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m a Zungu.” Elena said, referring to people of Lubon or Cissean or Nochtish or Svechthan extraction – “ivory-faced” – that were nonetheless native to Ayvarta.

Leander was a Zigan so he already did not fit the demographics particularly well.

But he knew Bonde was an Umma, the most ancient people of the continent, even more so than the majority Arjuns of Ayvarta, examples of which were many around them.

“I don’t know the legends,” Elena said, “and I don’t really worship the Umma’s ancestors or the Arjun’s spirits. I just know what I saw – and it looked like defeat.”

“Zigan folklore is even grimmer on this subject.” Leander said, his voice beginning to grow weak again as the pain across his chest flared up. “If you cheat death you owe him, and he will collect far sooner than if you had lived a full and healthy life. Daredevils are not rewarded among us. We are a cautious sort who try to avoid trouble.”

“Well, fine, then let’s not talk about legends. I’m comforted by religion – but I understand a lot of communists are simply not. If you need a reason to carry on, think of this.” Bonde said. “We are free. We have our place in the world. They’re trying to take it away. There is no other place for us like Ayvarta. That is why we must, and we will, keep fighting. We do not exist anywhere else – what you are here, Leander, you can be nowhere else. Same goes for you, Elena, and for all of us. What we are here, will fight here or will die here. It has to win here.”

Bonde’s words shocked him. He instantly wondered whether Bonde knew those inalienable and difficult feelings which Leander held about his body, about his soul – but of course he could not have. What chance had he had to learn them?

However, some of what he said rang true for him in other ways.

Leander remembered Gadi, the brightly-dressed woman who accepted him into Bika. He remembered the people of Bika and his few days living under the auspice of their generosity. He thought he’d had a place with them in a way that he never had before. He was free with them. He felt both a strong disgust and fear that Nocht had taken it all from him, but also a growing strength to resist. He had to fight for it, all of them had to.

He had to stand amid its ashes to preserve his freedom if needed.

“You’re right about that, in more ways than you know.” Elena said.

When they wanted to kill Leander, the Nochtish men had screamed Kommunisten.

It was strange. His eyes began to water, but not because of corporeal pain or the reverberations of gunfire and shells and wailing death that played out inside of his skull. His tears were sentimental. He felt the fighting so close now, much closer than ever before; each round fired was being fired on the soil of his only home.

He had been fighting for something borrowed all this time, and it was becoming his now. But it gave him a strange kind of courage too. Bonde and Elena both noticed him weeping, and they patted him in the back and tried to console and comfort him, as their trucks drove hurriedly back to Knyskna to prepare for Nocht’s counterattacks.

They looked like they understood what he felt.

This was something common among them all now. They were Ayvartans.

~ ~ ~

In the year 2030 D.C.E the Federation of Northern States, “Nocht,” launched “Operation Monsoon,” as part of Generalplan Suden, the invasion of the Communist southern continent of Ayvarta. Across the twin dominances of Adjar and Shaila, Nocht deployed half a million troops for their first wave, and held more in reserve.

The largest concentrations of these troops were the elite Task Force Lee in Shaila, whose Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions stormed quickly through Ayvartan defenses and seemed unstoppable as they took land, bombed airfields, and drove back defenders.

Shaila was defended by Battlegroup Lion, an army weakened by the policies of the national civil council parliament in Solstice. Suffering crushing defeats, the bulk of its troops were encircled in Tukino. In its darkest hour they were unable to defend Knyskna.

* * *

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — A Beacon On The Horizon

Change of Scenery – Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and mild discrimination.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Shaila Dominance Knyskna City, northern Shaila.

Leander Gaurige felt quaking artillery blasts and heard the shrieking of rifles and the rhythmic thudding of machine guns. Nestled inside the tunnel that once led out of his pillbox, he had his eyes closed but could still see the flashes inside his eyelids whenever a shell went off outside, cutting instantly through the dark. He could feel the hot air wafting into the pillbox. It would become hard to breathe for a moment as the smoke blew inside.

He could not sleep, not in this appalling situation, but he was expected to. This would be the only rest he was allowed at his post. Perhaps it would even be the final time that he voluntarily laid down on his pack and closed his eyes.

Soon he would have to join the battle in earnest.

He was thankful, however.

He got to live these dark days as a he felt a man would have lived them.

And others recognized his efforts.

“Gaurige,” He felt a rifle butt scrape against his cheek.

But it was too soon! He wanted to cry out at the injustice of it.

“Just a minute, please, comrade.” Leander dazedly said.

Satisfied with this response the rifle retreated through the tunnel opening again. There was no more putting it off. All the noise had died down, and with a lull in the enemy shelling, that meant he would rotate out. Leander sat up as much as he could, and gathered his implements, his sub-machine gun, his sharpened trench shovel, his one grenade.

He clipped his belt on and began to button up his uniform shirt. He sighed as he did so, feeling an itch from the worn and sheared elastic of his chest binder, threatening to snap. It was starting to slack a bit as well – he had been fighting for days now and just had no time to try to find a replacement binder to keep his breasts bound.

He crawled out of the dirt tunnel and up to the tight concrete quarters of the pillbox.

Once back on his feet and straightened out, he saluted.

“Oh, forget that.” the Sergeant said, shaking his head from a corner of the pillbox where the machine gun was set, right beside their dilapidated 45mm short-barreled gun. “Don’t salute anyone on your way! Just, run with all your might to the staging area!”

Everyone cooperated to push aside the 45mm gun to create an opening around the side of the aperture. Their pillbox was a fairly large structure for its kind, made to hold both an anti-tank and a machine gun emplacement. With their tunnel partially collapsed behind them by a shell, the only way to leave the circular, concrete defense was to dive through the long firing slit and run. Leander nodded to his comrades, and took a deep breath.

He was soaked in sweat and felt his stomach rolling in his belly. Lining himself up with two other men, he waited for the sergeant’s signal. All of them had been called to join an assault group – the fighters in the city needed everyone they could spare.

From the slit of their box, they could see the outline of the Djose woods almost a kilometer out in the dark.

Since Nocht had taken the forest, largely without a fight, the woods had become a thing to fear at night, a black fortress in the distance from which cannons belched fire out to Knyskna, the rail hub and economic capital of the Shaila dominance.

A broad and open road leading from the wood to Knyskna had been smashed featureless and the field between the defensive line and the forest was littered with shell holes. Craters of many sizes pockmarked the area. No longer was the field an undisturbed green, but a sickly expanse of ashen holes and upturned dirt, intercut with bizarre areas of intact grass and flowers.

The Sergeant was almost in tears before giving his signal.

“Run fast, ok? Don’t look back. Ayvarta needs you now.”

Leander nodded grimly, as did the soldiers with him. Nocht bunker-suppression batteries had pre-sighted the fronts of their pillboxes already. It was their feet, versus the enemy spotters.

The Sergeant looked out to the woods with his binoculars.

He snapped his fingers and cried, almost in pain, “Go!”

Leander and the men with him rushed out of the slit, climbing over the lip and forcing themselves through. Leander was very slender, and he easily rolled between the slit, gathered himself and took off running from the pillbox and into town. His comrades were not as lucky. He heard the ominous sawing noise of a Norgler machine gun and put his hands over his head, closing his eyes as he ran. Behind him he heard screams.

Someone had been clipped in the leg.

He heard a thud as a compatriot tripped, and became fodder for the guns.

There were still steps behind him, so at least one ally remained.

Leander would not dare to look and confirm this.

From the forest the enemy opened up on the pillbox and their fire trailed up the road. Norglers blew automatic fire across the defensive line, and were soon joined by field artillery. Half-hunched and running as fast as he could, Leander could still tell a shell had fallen – there was a silence like a sucked-in breath followed a loud, echoing blast. Had the blast been solitary he would have heard the fragments and the dirt falling back to earth a few moments later, and the billowing of smoke; but shells hardly ever fell alone. As he ran into the city a tumultuous artillery barrage followed. Blast after blast silenced the screaming at his back. It was a cruel cacophony that the victim would never get to hear.

Leander took solace in that he only heard the shells.

That he heard the blasts meant that the shells were not meant for him.

He rushed up the road and weaved around the closest row of buildings. To the last one they had been bombed out, the walls collapsed and the roofs sunken through the middle of each structure. They had been hit with sparse bombardments but even one bomb was enough to knock them out. Once they had been beautiful buildings, whimsical, made of rough clay and straw bricks so that they seemed like a confectionary, like brown wafer. Most of the southern part of the city had been reduced to such a state. Leander walked as fast as he could using the buildings for cover, going through two or three blocks of ruined houses before finding himself in an open plaza, the staging area.

He looked behind him one last time and saw nobody coming.

Soldiers gathered into the center of the plaza, picking up armaments and climbing into the backs of trucks to be driven out for the assault on the forest, while officers made the ruins closest to the plaza into their headquarters for fear of being out in the open.

A collection of flat-bed trucks were arranged around the plaza, each carrying air defense guns, 37 or 85mm cannons pointing at the sky. Searchlights shone from the park and up into the dark sky as well, working in tandem with the guns. Looking closely, Leander could see similar lights trailing across the sky further into the city.

They were on the lookout for possible air strikes. Nocht had not yet attacked them at night — but nothing precluded this happening. After all, they themselves were planning a night attack right at that moment. Leander turned his attention away from the sky and stood in the line behind the other soldiers. There were crates near them, and officers handing them weapons and tools that they would need before ushering them into the trucks.

As more soldiers climbed in and Leander came closer to the front of the line, an older woman officer pulled him aside unceremoniously. She seemed very interested in his body, looking down at his legs and examining his build. At first Leander was afraid.

What was this woman noticing about him? Did she have something to say about his identity as a male soldier – and what would it possibly be? But this was Ayvarta, and such things seemed beyond anyone’s concerns.

Instead the woman officer thrust upon him a metal helmet and a metal plate vest, and she led him to a different line and a different set of trucks than where he previously stood. She helped him to affix the metal armor over his chest, and to strap on the helmet over his head. She took his submachine gun magazines, and gave him round drums instead. Once he was fully equipped, she put his SMG in his hands and saluted him.

“You’re going in with the shock troops, comrade. You look nimble enough for it. Frankly, if we left it to volunteers nobody would go. But don’t fret. The armor will protect you from pistols and SMGs, as will the helmet. Don’t dive in front of any Norglers and you’ll be fine. Your job is to punch a hole for us.”

Around him were several other soldiers, similarly dressed. He realized that she was not just addressing him, but all the men and women who were already standing in the line as well. “Punch a hole, ma’am?” Leander asked. He became suddenly conscious of his voice – it was very similar to that of the lady officer.

“We’re gonna be trucking you ladies and gents into the forest to flank the Nocht line – we’re expecting them to attack in the morning and we need to disrupt their advance. You’ll get more instructions on the way.” She gave him a friendly slap in the back and a gentle shove into the line. “Have at them, boy.”

Leander nodded and took his place in the line. Despite the bleakness of his situation, there was something in the character of the Ayvartans around him that gave him strength and that made him face the dark woods and the screeching guns with a nugget of pride and purpose in his heart. Perhaps this was that ephemeral-sounding camaraderie of socialism – or perhaps a hidden little joy he felt from the officer’s acknowledgment.

He felt more strongly than ever that he wanted to protect his new home.

15th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Shaila Dominance Outskirts of Bika, southern Shaila, near Mamlakh border.

“It’s time to go Elea, wake up.”

Leander felt his uncle’s knobby wooden cane rubbing against his cheek.

He heard his dead name being spoken, and he thought to ask for a few more minutes of sleep, but he knew the circumstances would no longer permit it.

“I’ll be right out, uncle,” Leander moaned, turning over in the long basket that had been his bed. Many years ago he fit perfectly, but now he was taller, and his lean brown body almost doubled over to fit inside the basket. He heard the thick, beaded curtain clinking as his uncle walked out of the wagon to give him room to make himself ready.

Leander pulled himself up to a stand by the wooden beams running across the wall of the wagon. He took a mango from a nearby basket and nibbled on it while searching around the wagon for some men’s clothes. He threw on a shirt, at first, and a coat over it, and he buttoned both half the way up – then as he remembered, looking into the mirror.

He undid his shirt again, took a roll of bandages, and bound his breasts down with the bandages. They were not very big, thankfully, and he could bind them nearly flat with the bandages. It was uncomfortable – it hurt a bit. But it was all that he could do to them.

Leander looked over himself again and felt pleased.

He was confident in how he looked. Over the past two years, as he had started to feel a certain wrongness with his body and the way people saw him, he had started to make some changes. He had kept his dark hair shorter, to the bottom of his jaw. He had done harder work, and gotten, at least in his own eyes, a bit more muscular and taller. He had hid under a lot of coats and thick pants. It had been a journey of discoveries – nobody in the caravan felt the ways he did, and he had been reluctant to seek their help.

He was right to be cautious – they had started to think he was strange.

Until the past few days, they had kept that to themselves.

But he was overjoyed now, even in light of recent events. He felt so confident, in fact, that he chose not to wear his uncle’s coat anymore. He would not hide himself under layers of thick clothes. He was now a man, a free man, and he would walk without shame.

Leander wrapped the coat around his waist instead, after zipping up a pair of long pants and lacing up some boots that felt a size too big for him. But they were his boots now, and his coat, and his shirt. He was a man, in more ways than one. He would finally leave the caravan and his familiar lifestyle behind, to live with the Ayvartans – the communists. Though he had no choice in the matter, the change of scenery felt proper to him.

His uncle pushed through the beaded curtain again. He embraced Leander, and patted him in the back. He was one of the older, bigger men in the caravan, said to be strong enough to stop a rhinoceros from charging, and yet he had the gentlest face when he looked upon Leander. Tears welled in his eyes as he beheld his new nephew ready to leave.

“Listen, Elea–”

“Leander.” Leander said sternly.

“Yes. Leander.” He nodded. “Listen. I’m sorry, about everything. Had I known how they would react, damn it, I would have just smuggled you out to the communists myself. You don’t deserve this treatment and it is my fault, because I advised you to tell the people. It was my fault you were humiliated like that. I should have known better.”

Leander smiled. “I don’t care about the caravan, uncle. Besides, it worked, didn’t it? They gave me a man’s way out of here. I was not ever going to become anyone’s bride.”

“I just wish you hadn’t had to feel all those glares.” His uncle said. “To hear all the nasty things they said. I think our traditions are important – but nobody should force you to marry anyone, or to be anything you don’t want. Now you’re out there all by yourself, and I feel like I could have done more to protect you.”

“Thank you, Uncle. I’ll be fine. I’ve heard that the communists give lodging and food and clothes to people for free. I know I can go to their village and live there. I’ll be fine.”

They embraced again. It would likely be the last time.

The instant they let go, Leander was on his way, and he was out for good. He climbed off the back of the wagon, without a traveling bag or money or anything but his half-eaten mango. He hoped that the generosity of the communists was as great as the tales his former friends had told him. He walked away from the circle of wagons, leaving their little clearing in the woods. He felt the stares from the women and the girls folding and washing clothes, and from the men chopping wood for fire, following his every step. They watched him leave with vicious interest. He could hear mumbling all around him as he went.

Past the line of bushes and trees, into the wood, the caravan and its nomadic people disappeared behind him. It was as though Leander had pushed past another beaded curtain, and left so much of himself behind. He could not hear them anymore and thought it unlikely that he would again. There was soon another transition as he saw the road up ahead.

He walked out of the woods, passing from forest to field. He stepped onto the dirt road and began to follow it to the village of Bika. It was very big, for a countryside Ayvartan village, with a multitude of log houses and a few newer, taller concrete buildings that he could easily see from the road. Their caravan had passed through Bika before.

Leander felt as though the sun was hovering directly over his head, and he sweated profusely while crossing the dirt road, flanked by log houses on either side. Sparse trees planted (or perhaps, simply left standing) around each block gave him a temporary respite from the heat. Whenever he took to the shade he felt a cool, comforting breeze. Had the sun not been so furious he would have said it was good weather overall.

There were a few people out on the street as well, looking energetic and untroubled, carrying little baskets or boxes to and fro with food wrapped in paper. Most of the villagers were probably still working – he recalled that the “big” industries in Bika were textiles and wooden construction materials. Interspersed with the log houses there were a few big concrete buildings with tin shutters, where this work probably happened.

After asking around, he was pointed toward the big red and gold building in the middle of the village, and he made for it as fast as he could. There was a sign outside with the Ayvartan government’s coat of arms – a menacing reptile, a hydra, with multiple long necks ending in heads that grasped around the words For Bread, For Cotton, For Home. 

Past the doors there was a reception office with two benches. A long desk accessible through a little door separated the front of the reception office from the more spacious back. It was a refreshingly cool room, well lit with electric torches. Spinning fans in the ceiling drove out the heat. At the desk a young, dark-skinned woman in an elaborate red and gold dress and hat greeted him. Her hair was tied into several long braids, which themselves were gathered into a ponytail with a gold ribbon. Leander bowed his head to her and reached for his own hat to tip, only to discover he had brought none.

She smiled nonetheless.

“Welcome, comrade.  What do you require?” She asked.

“Ah, well, I don’t know if I have the right place.” Leander said, feeling foolish. He had never spoken to an official before – he wondered if she had more pressing business than to listen to his troubles. “I’m from out of town, you see. I need a place to stay, and some clothes, and other things like that. I have nothing. I’m more than willing to work for it.”

“This is an office of the Commissariat of Civil Affairs.” She replied, and beamed even more brightly his way. “If you’ve nothing to your name but those clothes then you are in the right place.”

“I am ready to work for a home and bread, you see.” Leander hurriedly said.

“Work is not necessary for a minimum of lodging, food and clothes.”

Leander nodded. He marveled at her words – work was unnecessary? He still planned to work. He would have felt too guilty taking from the communists without doing anything in return. In the caravan you had to work or do chores or something to get any food, unless you were a little child. He was too used to it. It was a man’s place, he told himself, to repay his debts and to help make things and do things for his community. But he was astonished that she sounded so willing to feed him and clothe him, and give him a place to stay.

From one of the shelves along the back of her desk, the woman produced a thick, black, leather-bound ledger, which she opened to a fresh page. There were many fields in the ledger page. One in particular evoked a small sense of dread in Leander, but he would tackle it when they got to it. The receptionist urged him to take a stool from one of the corners and drag it over to sit on. They looked over the paper together.

“What name do you wish to register in the Bika township?”

“Leander Gaurige is my name.” He said.

“A lovely name. You can call me Gadi, comrade Gaurige.”

She jotted the name down with her ink pen. “I hope not to presume too much, comrade, but you are a Zigan, are you not? If you register, we will have to ask you stay in the town for at least a year, and until any work season you have started with a state company is completed. Is that acceptable to you, Leander?”

“I’m a Zigan, but it is acceptable. I have left my caravan.”

“You do not have to leave permanently. We respect your nomadic lifestyle. We just ask you give us some of your time before leaving, you see, for administrative–”

“Ah, it’s irrelevant, ma’am.” Leander interrupted. “They don’t want me.”

“Oh, I see. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Gadi wrote down a few things in the big fields near the bottom of the paper, and Leander wondered if her handwriting was just difficult to follow, or if his Ayvartan was slipping. He spoke it well, he thought, and the older folks had taught him to read it as well, and to write it in big, clumsy strokes. But he had a hard time parsing her script, and she seemed to write a lot of acronyms and contractions. Whoever read and processed these letter for the government probably understood, but Leander did not. Eventually she turned to face him again, smiling, and put her finger on a dreaded little blank.

“You wish to register as a male person, correct?”

Leander felt his heart thrashing. “Yes.” He said.

Without any protest, the receptionist put down a D for Dume or male.

“If you ever want this changed, you can return to this office and ask. Administratively, it will take some time to be processed all the way to Solstice. You can also change your name, which takes even longer to process, sadly; but it will be reflected eventually if you ask for it.” Gadi said. Leander wondered if this was something she mechanically told to everyone registering. Regardless, he felt a huge burden lift from his back.

“I think I’m good for now.” Leander said.

Gadi nodded her head in acknowledgment. She bid Leander to wait a moment, and took the ledger to an adjacent room behind a door. He heard a few noises issue from the room, like the whistling of steam and stamping of metal on a surface.

When next the little door opened Gadi had a few additional papers with her, one sheet of which she deposited in a box. She put away the ledger, and handed Leander a piece of paper – it was a copy of everything they had written on the ledger.

“In case you want some proof of your registration.” She said.

From a drawer she then handed Leander several tickets of different colors, some small as those one would get from having gone to a film theater, others the size of business cards. They were made of cheap paper, not even like a treasury note of the sort one exchanged for coins. Each ticket had the stamp of the Ayvartan government, and instructions in small print that described what they traded towards – ration card, housing card, goods card.

All of these tickets did not look like the cards he saw other Ayvartans carrying.

He asked about this.

“Those tickets are traded for the real cards.” Gadi said. “You can go to the Civil Canteen for a ration card, and you get a housing card for your room in one of the lodges, or from someone with a family home that has a room to spare and is willing to let you stay. You can get a shopping card from the msanii, the artisan market, or from the state-run general store in the village. Oh!” Gabi seemed to remember something suddenly.

“Wait one more moment, please.”

Gadi turned and looked in the back of her little room. She bent over a table, pulled a little ticket from a drawer and wrote on it. She then returned to the desk and pressed this ticket into Leander’s hands along with the rest. “This is a ticket for a clinic card. You don’t have to work, but if you wish to register for work, you will be asked to have a check-up at the local clinic, so if you’re eager you should do this as soon as you can.”

Leander quivered inside. He was not eager for someone to look over his body.

Gadi wrapped her hands around his own, and around the little tickets and vouchers.

She seemed to have noticed his reticence and smiled reassuringly.

“Please do not be afraid to go to the clinic. They’ll understand your situation.”

Leader blinked, and smiled a little awkwardly. Again he wondered if she just said that whenever she thought there was some unspecified trouble, or if she said it to people like the Zigan, or if she was saying it to him specifically because she knew. He had been hesitant the moment he took the clinic voucher. How could they understand, when even he did not, when he had so little language for what he felt? But perhaps it was safe to go.

He took all of the vouchers and put them into his pockets.

“If you choose to sign up for work, you can return here and I will give you a stipend equal to a week’s pay, to help you settle.” Gadi said. “From there you will receive wages for your labor, which will be disbursed by your union or cooperative according to council regulations, and which may be adjusted with the season and your work ethic. If not, you will receive a smaller monthly stipend instead.”

“And food, clothing and lodging is still provided?” Leander asked.

“It is everyone’s right to be lodged, fed and dressed.” Gadi assured.

“Alright.” Leander said, slightly bewildered. “Is there anything more?”

“No, that should be all. I look forward to seeing you again.”

Gadi thanked him for his patience and sent him on his way, her encouraging smile never fading from her face. That was all the deliberation necessary – it felt like only minutes since he passed through the door a vagrant, and now he was out the door again a citizen, with papers and prospects.  He had distantly heard about the communists and the way they lived nowadays, but never could he have imagined they were true.

He walked a few blocks down to the Civil Canteen, a building emblazoned with the same symbol as the Civil Affairs office, but also a sign depicting a large loaf of bread and a glass of milk. There was no one currently eating, which to Leander proved his idea that most of the villagers were working at the moment. Half the building was open to the air, with only two walls, and the roof held by concrete pillars.

There was one enclosed room, where perhaps the food was kept and prepared, and one long serving counter against the back wall. An older village man stood behind a serving counter, and Leander showed him his ticket. The man went into the adjacent room and withdrew a real ration card and an ink pen, and bid Leander to write his name in clear characters in the back. Leander looked over the card, with its cheerful design of a hilly village overlooking a farm, and he happily signed it, and set it aside to dry.

While they waited for the ink to dry, Leander took a wooden tray from a nearby stack and helped himself to the food, stored in containers along the counter and kept warm by little flames caged far beneath each container, likely turned off and on throughout the day to keep the food delectable. He served himself some curried vegetables, long beans and potatoes and cauliflower in a yellow broth; a few scoops of long-grain rice; and a flatbread the size of his face. Milk was abundant, flavored with different fruits, and he took a wooden mug and filled it to sate himself. He dipped the flatbread in the curry sauce first, to try it out. It was a bit watery, but spicy and flavorful. Better than the food at the caravan!

“So, do you work here?” Leander asked. He then nearly bit his tongue. It seemed a very stupid thing to say right after he had said it, but it was all the conversation that he could contrive.

“Yes, in a sense. People serve themselves, I just take notes for the office. I got a condition, you see.” The man showed Leander his shaking black hands. “Nervous condition, says the clinic, and I can’t work other things. But there’s always something to do if you want to. This counts as a job to the Office, so I took it.”

Leander nodded. He soon emptied his plate, and the ink on his card dried. Nobody had come or gone since he had arrived, though he had seen a few people walk up the street behind him. The Canteen man asked him to sign on a clipboard hooked on one of the pillars, to record that he had eaten one of his meals for the day. There were quite a few names already, likely from people coming in for breakfast. Leander complied graciously.

“I’m new around here, by the way. I hope to settle down. I’m Leander.”

“You can call me Kibwe.” The Canteen man said. “And I understand. We’re near the border so we see people a couple times a year. Runnin’ from awful things in Mamlakah or Cissea, I bet.”

“Where could I find a tailor and a place to stay?”

“Village center, we have a big plaza with the Msanii and the goods shop. Lodge there should have room.”

“Thank you.” Leander pocketed his new ration card.

“By the way, about that card. You won’t get punished or anything if you eat more than you’re allowed, but just know that it puts a bit of a burden on the village.” Kibwe said. “If you’re hungry and you’ve had your meals for the day, you should pay for any extra food – helps keep the village going in the long run.”

Leander nodded. “I understand. I will see you again soon then, Kibwe.”

“You look like a nice boy, Leander. I expect you’ll be fine in Bika. Peace to you.”

The compliment gave Leander quite a spring in his step. He practically skipped all the way to the plaza in the center of the village.

Everything was conveniently close in Bika, only a few blocks away – it was a big village but still smaller than all the cities his caravan frequented. Despite the heat and the lack of a cool breeze, Leander easily made his way to the open plaza, a stretch of grass and flower beds surrounded by a square of paved street.

This street connected several buildings; the most commanding was large warehouse, entirely open air with a concrete and wood frame and a vaulted tin roof, inside which various kiosks had been erected. There was a fence all around the warehouse instead of a wall – it must have been the artisan market, the Msanii. Leander had visited them in the past, when the older children were allowed day-trips to the city.

Aside from the Msanii the other buildings were perfectly homogenous red and gold-painted concrete rectangles. Both had a long front window and a nondescript wooden door with a single word painted on it – ClinicGeneralCivil Lodge. They were big, wide buildings. The window to the Clinic was obscured by various signs stuck to it that warned of seasonal allergies and diseases and offered other health care tips, such as encouraging regular hand-washing and rinsing hair with champo to avoid parasites. In contrast, the General Shop window was laden with goods, such as radios and binoculars and ruffled shirts, and encouraged people to spend their Honors on them.

He stepped into the General Shop, where a pale, balding man in a big robe trailing multicolored beads arranged shoes in a series of small racks along the entryway. He raised up his hand in welcome, but continued his task nonetheless. From the door the shop floor was quite broad and open, with hanging racks of clothes along the walls, stalls with canned food and sweets, and tables along the middle with various boxed goods, or unboxed examples with informational flyers stuck to them.

Many of them bore non-Ayvartan lettering. Some looked to Leander like the Svechthan cyrillic script, which he could not read, while a few even had Hanwan or Noctish markings that he could also not read. He was impressed with the Nochtish items, however, since these had to have been the oldest goods in the store – trade with Nocht had ended with the imperial days, if Leander remembered his Ayvartan history correctly, which he was confident that he did.

Once he organized the shoes, the shopkeep welcomed Leander in earnest.

“Comrade,” he spread open his arms, and jovially took Leander in for a quick, arms-reach embrace, “Good to see you, good to see you.” His Ayvartan was a little tortured. “Looking for a vintage radio, comrade?” He seemed to have noticed Leander’s interest in the Nochtish items, one of which was a radio.

“Oh, not at all. I was wondering if you could exchange this for me.”

Leander handed the man his shop ticket, and it was graciously received.

“Oh, new in town? Excellent. I have to write a little form then – in the meantime, pick some clothes for yourself, you have the right to some clothes for free. Pick from anything without a gold mark.”

The Shopkeep produced a gold-colored paper bill with the Hydra symbol.

“You don’t get these as wages – they’re special issue for rare or shortage goods. If a good has a gold mark, it costs Honors. Unfortunately I cannot part with them for free, in that case.”

Leander nodded his head. He watched the man vanish behind his long counter, looking through messy drawers. While the shopkeep filled his forms and looked for a new shop card for him, Leander perused the clothing aisles along the walls of the store.

He did not want anything too fancy. Or at least, he thought he didn’t as he began to look through the clothing items, until he noticed something very handy tucked away in a corner, behind various women’s ruffled shirts. There were a couple of elastic chest binders, with cords near the small of the back, that when pulled would press against the body – probably for church women from when Messianites had influence in Ayvarta. They would certainly be more convenient to bind his breasts that rolls of bandages.

He picked one of them up, along with some button-down shirts and pants, and a new coat. Most of it looked fairly new, but simply made. He avoided anything gold-marked.

He was issued his card without hassle, and received a cloth bag to carry his things. The shopkeep did not look over them, and cheerfully saw Leander out of the shop, patting him in the back.

“You have a great time in Bika,” the shopkeep told him, though Leander thought he sounded a little artificial, as though he was playing a character, “Remember to say ‘comrade’ a lot!”

Leander laughed a bit, waved him goodbye, and went on his way.

He was feeling tired, and thought it about time to find himself a home.

And home was thankfully only a few steps away from the shop, with a lodge in the same plaza.

He stood before the door and felt a sudden bit of trepidation. After all, if the communists refused him now for some reason, he would be out on the street and everything would have been a waste of time! But he had come this far. He knew it would be fine.

He swallowed his fears and went through the door. Inside he found a desk with a sleepy-looking young woman in a red and gold kaftan, a long robe-like overdress. There was a long hall to his left and right with various doors, and a staircase further ahead leading to the second floor. Leander introduced himself and turned in the appropriate ticket. The young woman woke slightly more, stood up from her desk, took his hand and smiled. Standing, she did not look all that grown-up – she was quite shorter than him.

“Welcome, Leander. I’m Saheli. It’s nice to see a brand new face.”

Saheli searched her desk for the appropriate forms and a card, to which a key was attached by a loop of metal. Leander signed his name again, and he took his room card and the associated room key.

“Is there anything I should know about living here? Is there a fee?” He asked.

“Not in the lodge, no!” Saheli said cheerfully. “Your room is free. It comes with a bed, sheets, pillows, drawers and a closet, a basket, one window looking out. The usual things you expect.”

Her words brought Leander great relief. To think he kept expected different!

“I can come and go as I please?” He asked.

“I would entreat you not to disturb the others with noise, but yes, you can.”

Leander read the card on his key. It was room 2-15, so it was probably upstairs.

“I see. Thank you. So, to confirm, I may retire to this room now?”

“Of course! It is your room, comrade Leander. I suggest you rest – you look a bit tired, and you are clearly a bit strung up! Take some time to calm your anxieties, and you shall love Bika!”

“I shall. Thank you, um, comrade Saheli.”

Saheli bowed her head and took her seat again.

Your room.

It seemed that the generosity of the communists had not been a fairy tale after all, though Leander found it all still so difficult to completely wrap his head around how well all of it worked.

Upstairs, Leander unlocked his door – his door. His own door. 2-15 was about the size of the living space in the back of his uncle’s wagon. He put down his cloth bag next to his wooden closet, and laid down on the bed. It was long enough for all of him, he did not have to curl up, and it was firm but comfortable. He bounced on his back a few times. This was his bed, in his room, just a few hours after his family had deserted him, called him awful things and threw him out into the world for what he knew in his heart that he was – a man, no matter what his birth.

He wondered with hazy thoughts what work he would do for the communists.

What kind of work would befitted an honorable man of this society?

It was a strange thought when he put it to himself that way, but heartening.

Leander smiled and sat up in his bed, feeling free of worry.

At his side, on the drawer, he noticed that someone had left a book, perhaps with the knowledge that any new boarders might not have any possessions to their names with which to entertain themselves in their rooms. It was a book of Ayvartan fables, tales and religious songs. When he spread open the pages they made crisp sounds, and the book had a distinctively fresh smell. This was a very new book. Leander smiled, and contented himself with reading the book on his new bed, passing the hours, until the sun started to fall, and his eyes grew heavy, and he dozed off without even really noticing it. He felt an eerie peace of mind, as though he had never been exiled at all.

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — A Place Amid Ashes