View From The Cathedral — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

The World was always burning. Whenever steel cut the air and ripped souls from their bodies, the Flame surged in the heart of the World. There was a time when everybody could see the fire. There were Things That Ruled this world, and they thought they knew best the fickle appetites of the flame. But there were also the People, and in a time forgotten they made war on the Things That Ruled and fed them all to the Flame.

In that instant, it was brighter than it was ever meant to be.

Never again would it grow so bright.

That was the divine time, a long forgotten minute in the lifespan of the universe.

The divine time is long past. Steel flies, souls scatter, but the Flame dwindles.

In the heart of the old continent however, the People traded scraps of that lost history, and they thought, like the Things That Ruled once did, that they knew the Flame best.

“There is a way yet, to gather the flame. Our divinity is not all gone.”

They erected a throne, and there they sat the one who would lead them.

Madiha sat in the throne. She stared down at her subjects with a grim and stately face. Monoliths rose around her, blocking out the sun. They were each as tall as mountains. She was hot, and sweating, and she felt the banging of drums right in the center of her breast, and it was thrilling. There were fire dancers in heated rhythm at the edge of her vision. For a time she was alone in the center of things. Then her subjects finally appeared in flesh, wearing nothing but masks, and they approached her, and they knelt, and they made offerings to her, as though she were a God. She grinned viciously toward them.

“Remember your virtues, old Warlord,” said a person with a fish mask.

“Cunning,” said a person in a bird mask offering hawk’s eye’s earrings.

“Command,” intoned a person in a cat mask offering a lion’s mane.

“Fearlessness,” lulled a person wearing a hyena’s snout offering a necklace of teeth.

Then entered a creature with a man’s mask, in iron, a pitiless face banged into shape over coals. Madiha could not understand its body – was it a Thing That Ruled?

It offered her only a rusty, bloody spear and it hissed: “Ferocity.

Madiha saw the flames in their eyes vanish, and all of them sink into her own, and the fires trailed from her face forming her own half-mask, and she screamed, in a horrible, all-consuming pain, down the center of her skull, across her spine, to where the tail once was, and down the arms and legs that ended in claws. They were always the Things That Ruled? 

25-AG-30: Ox HQ, Madiha’s House

It was close to midnight when Madiha awoke with a start, scattering a stack of maps and documents that had accumulated on her desk over the course of the day’s fighting.

All of the lights had been snuffed out as a passive defense against retaliatory bombing; even her oil lamp was out. She woke in the dark. Slivers of silver moonlight struggled to penetrate the dark drizzling clouds outside. There was a figure softly sleeping on a nearby table whom she assumed to be Parinita, hugging a pack radio they had set up on a chair – this box was the comrade most in touch with what was happening south of the HQ.

“Parinita?” Madiha called out, her lips trembling.

She struggled to move, frozen, as though there was something that would reach out and seize her at any moment if she was not careful. Her lungs worked themselves raw, her breathing choppy. Her eyes stung with tears and cold, dripping sweat.

It was a struggle to keep herself from falling fetal on the ground.

Her secretary woke slowly, peeking her head up from over the radio.

She flicked a switch on its side by accident and a series of tiny globes on the radio pack lit brihglty up and cast Parinita’s face in an eerie green glow. Her secretary stretched out her arms, yawned and rubbed the waking tears from her blurry eyes.

“Good morning Madiha.” She said drowsily. “Are you alright?”

“It’s not morning.” Madiha replied. Her voice was choked and desperate.

“Something wrong?” Parinita asked. “Did you have a nightmare?”

Parinita’s kind words came like a slap to the back of the head.

Madiha felt childish now – yes, she had experienced a nightmare.

She was awake enough now to understand it was not real. But it had seemed so urgent, so horrible, just a few seconds ago. It had made her tongue feel stuck against the floor of her mouth. It had driven the power to move from her. She had felt terror of a sort that nothing yet had caused her. She did not understand the images – the dire figures approached and spoke but she did not remember their contours or the content of their words.

These distorted things invoked a primal horror in her that still took her breath.

Communicating all of that felt foolish now. She turned away her gaze.

“I’m fine. It’s fine.” She said.

“If you say so.” Parinita replied, a little sadly.

“I’ll go back to sleep. Sorry for waking you.”

“It is fine.” Parinita said. “I pray that the Spirits might help still your thoughts.”

Madiha rested her head against her desk, and curled her arms around her face.

Her eyes remained wide open for the rest of the night.

She tried to recall those terrible images, but they faded more with each passing moment. That toxic thing that resided in her breast was growing closer and stronger, and yet her strange power grew no more accessible than before. Perhaps they were not linked at all.

Perhaps one was the gift and the other just the curse, never intertwined.

27th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, South District

6th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

Matumaini was a ghost street, and the southern district was starkly quiet.

Fighting that had been terribly fierce the past days had all but burnt itself out.

No snapping of distant rifles, no rumbling of artillery, no belabored scratching of tracks and treads. Where once columns a thousand rifles in strength challenged one another, now only the corpses, rubble, spent casings, and the lingering dust and smoke remained. It was a calm in the eye of the storm, and there was little shelter left to endure the weather.

Much of the southern district had been ruined, by artillery, by the tank attacks; and by the engineering battalion of the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division, diligently at work since the end of the 22nd’s air raids. Many of the ruins had been planned by them.

Those that weren’t were carefully considered and made part of the rest of the plan. They had funneled Nocht right where they wanted them to go, and many of their comrades paid dearly as the unknowingly caged dogs charged into prepared defenses.

Then, things became complex. By necessity, their plans became fluid.

A small column of vehicles moved under the cover of rain and stormclouds.

Two half-tracks and one of the Hobgoblin medium tanks departed Madiha’s house and made it quickly down Sese Street and into Matumaini Street. They passed vacant positions, destroyed guns, the hulks of vehicles friendly and enemy alike. The Hobgoblin pushed them quickly aside, opening a path for the wheeled vehicles. They drove past bodies and they drove past ruins. Some ruins were marked on the tactical maps.

Some were fresh, and would have to be inspected if time allowed.

One half-track carried two squadrons of KVW soldiers, and another a squadron of soldiers along with Madiha and a cadre – Parinita, Agni, and a few staff and engineers.

They stopped on the edge of Matumaini and 3rd. Madiha climbed the ladder up to the shooting platform of the half-track. Parinita stood hip to hip with her on the platform, holding up a parasol to cover her commander from the rain. The Major produced a pair of binoculars and inspected the intersection from afar. She traded with her secretary, holding the umbrella for a moment so she could see. Parinita whistled, impressed by the damage.

“I think the enemy will be content enough to leave this place alone.”

Parinita seemed calm and certain, and it was easy for her to be. Despite being in the middle of a war, right now it felt eerily like the aftermath, like the last bullet had flown.

But Hellfire had not yet even started. They were still setting up.

Madiha was still burdened with disquiet.

Her mind still spoke out of turn, demanding things from her. Her hands shook. Large bags had formed under her eyes. And the sound of the bombs still rang in her ears.

Outside it was quiet, yes, but the war still maintained its rhythm in a vulnerable heart.

“Do you think any of the pipeline has been compromised?” She asked Parinita.

Parinita adjusted her reading glasses. “I think we’d be well aware if it was!”

Madiha looked down her binoculars again atop the half-track.

From her vantage she had a good look at the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd block.

Constant artillery barrages had caused the road to collapse into the sewer, a massive sinkhole forming between the roads and rendering them largely unusable without further construction. To hold each individual link in the intersection would be pointless – this was an area the enemy would certainly ignore now. That had not been the plan. Madiha had wanted Nocht to commit strength and then have a path north. She wanted them to keep bodies moving into the grinder. Now she would have balance yielding to Nocht while also maintaining her troop’s ability to defend and retreat in good order in order to bleed Nocht.

“Hellfire will have to recline into a small hiatus it seems. It appears to me that our counterattack scared Nocht too much. I was too disproportionate and ruthless.”

Beside her, Parinita shrugged amicably. “Kinda hard to pull punches on these fellows.”

“I want the engineers organized as soon as possible to carry out the inspection.”

Parinita nodded. “I still feel that you should not need to be on-hand for that.”

“I want to be involved. I’m done sitting around.” Madiha replied.

Parinita averted her gaze and sighed a little to herself.

They had talked about this before. It had been a tension and a subtext of all their conversations since the first drops of blood were spilled. But Madiha could not help but feel that this was an injustice. A thousand men and women could die in a single day because she put their formations on a map, and while they suffered she was a dozen kilometers away in relative safety. A gnawing poisonous voice in her mind had convinced her that this was not her place; that she should be out there; she should be suffering with them.

She was a coward not to dive toward death like them.

“You’re not a fireteam leader.” Parinita said sharply. “I wish you’d understand that.”

“It will be fine, Parinita. It’s just a surveying mission with the engineers. We will be planning routes, diving into old empty tunnels and demolishing buildings. I’m not leading an assault on Nocht’s HQ. I just want to do something other than sit in my office.”

Madiha smiled. It was difficult – more difficult than anything she had done that day.

But her keen secretary could always see through her. She was unimpressed, but she did not protest any further. Resigned, Parinita simply replied, “If you say so, Madiha.”


27-AG-30, Bada Aso SW, Penance Road

There was no storm yet, merely a continuous drizzling that pattered against windows, over tents and across the tarps over vehicles. Clouds gathered thick over the broad green park, turning the grass wet and muddy underfoot. A light wind rustled the line of trees around the edge of the park, standing sentinel around the expansive monument within.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Penance, for which the main road had been named, looked all the more grim under a dark sky. Grim gray stone steps between two massive spires led up to an open maw of a doorway shut off by double steel doors. Inside, the nave was particularly spacious, almost forty meters wide inside, and easily two stories tall by itself. Its scale attested to the hopes and dreams of its engineers, and the crowds they expected to gather there during the abortive conversion of the Empire to Messianism.

Such a project, it was believed, would inspire a new golden age for the church.

A new world, full of minds to turn to the service of the Messiah.

Certainly the building, towering over the smashed ruins outside of the park’s limits, seemed an imperious presence. In the middle of the park the Cathedral seemed as old and storied as the earth. To the observer it almost appeared that the soil around the Cathedral’s flat, gray stone base actually rose to embrace the foundation, and fell ever so slightly away from it. As though the ground elevated the building a meter or two into its own little hill.

In truth the Cathedral was an irreverent child when compared to the ruins around it.

Bada Aso was a sea of stone resting half on a hill, but conspicuously flatter and taller than its surroundings, an attempt by civilization to conquer a chaotic earth millennia old. With the times it had warped and it had grown, it had fed and gorged and it jut out in every direction, toward the sea, toward the Kalu. It was one of Ayvarta’s largest, oldest cities.

It had been built first by the indigenous Umma of the region, as a place of monoliths, a shelter straddling the sea, for the gathering of fish, and of the game from the vast, hilly Kalu. Then it became a throne of stone and brick set into place by the Ayvartan Empire, a symbol of the strength of Solstice, the invincible city in the heart of the red sands.

Many of the people who would eventually bring down the throne in Solstice grew up in its surrogate of Bada Aso, thriving in the place meant to control them. Tradition, Empire and Revolution lived and died in it. To this drama, the Messianic church, its teachings and its monuments, were entirely fresh faces. Indeed, communism was now longer lived than the Golden Age of Messianism in Ayvarta. Penance could not challenge this earth.

Once the Revolution overturned the Ayvartan Empire, Bada Aso quite briefly became a place of anti-communist fervor and then, remarkably, a symbol of civilized socialism, of the working order and kindness offered by the concrete and steel bosom of SDS-controlled cities. There was guaranteed housing and food, clinics and state shops and canteens in seeemingly every block, large tenements to keep everyone from the autumn rains, wage stipends for those unwilling or unable to work, and work aplenty for those that wanted it.

Bada Aso had been built and built over according to different time periods, ideologies, and functions. There were streets leading nowhere, byways blocked off by stark brick cul de sacs to keep traffic from spilling out to more than one road, buildings of varying size and style all organized into long uneven blocks that made up the many districts. It was an organic city, a thing that had grown in the same inexplicable way the humans within it grew. It was too tight in places and too open in others. With time, it might have grown even ganglier, more haphazard, its streets the expanding veins of a massive history.

Now the city was on its final journey.

Again the forces of reaction teemed within it.

A fifth of the city had practically been given to the 1st Vorkampfer, an army from abroad coming to reintroduce empire to Bada Aso. Bombing had ruined much of the city. Controlled demolition had rendered many places inaccessible. Four-fifths of the population had been evacuated. Those who remained did so to continue their socialist labor far behind the battle lines – serving food, sewing uniforms, dressing wounds, offering condolences.

Penance Cathedral served as well.

It was an eerie fortress, its true purpose mostly forgotten.

Along its corners trenches had been dug into the park soil, lined with sandbags, filled with men and women and their guns. There were snipers on the spires, and mortars perched precariously atop the dome. Atop the steps, a pair of 76mm divisional field guns had been angled to fire easily against the road approaches.

Inside the nave there were crates of ammunition, food, medicine, all watching a sermon led by a reserve anti-tank gun pointed out the doors. Benches had been pushed aside and there were beds and crates and a radio station set in their place. A Company from the 6th Ox Rifles Division was all that kept these sacred stones from turning hands now.

Penance had not seen battle like Matumaini.

Just a series of actions that sputtered and choked off under the shadow of that Cathedral.

To Ox command, this meant that a larger attack would certainly be forthcoming.

Under the rain, a truck entered the Cathedral district from the northwest, careful to circle the edge of the park, driving with the trees between it and the main thoroughfare. Once the the truck turned and approached the Cathedral from behind, the structure itself provided all the cover it needed from the road in case of a sudden attack.

Facing its lightly armored front to the back of the building, it parked; a passenger dismounted, and knocked on the back door of the cathedral. A woman peered out from the roof, watching their approach; she called in for them, and the door opened.

It was safe – everyone had confirmed everyone else was a comrade.

The truck swung around to make its contents accessible.

In the bed there were crates of medicine, food, canvas; a large section of sandbags and poles and tarps and other construction materials in the back; and atop the sandbags a group of eight soldiers in black and red uniforms, their officer laying unsteadily on her side.

Recently promoted Sergeant Charvi Chadgura had a hand on her stomach and another over her mouth. Her garrison cap lay discarded. She curled her legs.

“I’m car sick.” She droned dispassionately.

Beside her a deputy, newly-minted Corporal Gulab Kajari, stared at her quizzically, fanning the Sergeant with her cap. “How did you ride the tank and then get car sick?”

“It keeps rocking.” Sgt. Chadgura said. Her toneless voice was muffled by her gloves.

“Sergeant, we have a mission! You need to be healthy when we receive our orders!”

“I will be fine in a few minutes. Or an hour.” The Sergeant started to turn a little pale.

Gulab tried rubbing Chadgura’s stomach and fanning her faster with her cap to keep her cool. She had no idea what to do about motion sickness – back in the Kucha they would have just told her to endure it or to get sick in some place nobody had to see.

Once the truck stopped, everyone decided to give Chadgura a moment of stillness.

While she laid down, Gulab and the others picked up crates from the end of the bed and carried them into the Cathedral. There they would be stockpiled for the battle ahead.

Each crate was over a meter wide and tall, and stuffed full of individual ration boxes, or ammunition in belts, clips and magazines. Unloading trucks was a chore nobody was happy to perform, but the KVW troops took to it silently and diligently. They settled quickly into a teamwork system– quickly passing crates to one another in a line to get them out the truck bed and into the nave easily. As the officer on-hand, Gulab stood at the end of the line, and boisterously laid the crates down in the back room of the nave.

She was unperturbed by the weight and stacked the boxes with theatrical flourish.

“Woo hoo! We can carry another crate, can’t we comrades? Certainly one more crate! Ha ha!” Gulab said as more and more crates visibly neared along the line of hands.

This enthusiasm did not go unnoticed.

Gulab did such a fantastic job, and she was so happy and very eager to do it, that once Chadgura recovered and went to contact the commanding officer at the Cathedral, Gulab and the KVW squadron were volunteered to unload several other trucks that day.

Towed 122mm howitzers were brought one by one, and she and her troops unhitched them and arranged them at the tree-line north of the Cathedral for the crews soon to be arriving; three Goblin tanks and a truck full of spare parts and portable machine tools arrived, and the Corporal saw to it that these supplies were set apart, and that the fuel was well stored to keep dry and safe; a half-track with large antennae across its roof arrived at the Cathedral, dropped off a long-range radio set, picked up fuel and food from the stacks, and drove off again, to hide on the edges of the district; but overall most of it was trucks with common supplies. Crate after dark brown crate was unloaded and stacked.

Most of it was ammo and sandbags, but several were rations too.

Slowly, over the course of the day, the Cathedral troops built up various disparate types of materiel and personnel. Within a dozen hours they had a small but serviceable local artillery arm, a tiny armored squadron, and, under the odd direction of Corporal Kajari and Sergeant Chadgura, a minuscule but experienced assault tactics formation for special maneuvers and consulting. Under the irreverent young stones of the Cathedral they would fight to give the old stones of Bada Aso a few more days before Hellfire.

Private Adesh Gurunath rocked back and forth in a dreamless sleep atop one of the benches along the left wall of the nave in Penance Cathedral. He had arrived a few hours earlier on a truck similar to Corporal Kajari’s, carrying supplies and disparate reinforcement personnel. From the moment he appeared, the officers on site had been sympathetic and told him to rest. But he felt fine; as good as he could feel after the tragedy that befell him.

However, since there were only two 76mm guns, and he was part of a gunnery crew, he had nothing to do except relieve a current crew, taking turns. So he waited, and he slept. Atop the cold wood he twisted and turned for hours, until he heard a sharp whistling.

Adesh got up too fast; he felt a slight jolt of pain up his shoulder and along his breast.

Eshe loomed over him so close that they almost banged foreheads.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Eshe said, rubbing Adesh’s shoulder. “I didn’t think, I was a brute-”

“It is fine,” Adesh said, a little exasperated, “It is fine, Eshe. Are we moving?”

“Almost our turn at the gun. Corporal wanted us to get some fresh ammunition for it.”

Adesh nodded. He understood the Corporal wanted him and Nnenia to carry the shells.

Eshe’s arm had been hurt, and it was still in a sling; though no bones had been broken, shrapnel had injured his muscles, and movement would be limited for a time. Despite this, he did not slack in his commitment. His uniform was crisp and neat as always, his hair combed and waxed, his shoes shined. He wore his cap at all times. Professional, collected, a model soldier boy like in the posters. Still at the front even though injured; devoted.

Just not exactly able to lift heavy crates at the moment.

In that regard, Adesh was fairly lucky. A few days rest in a clinic had done him a lot of good. Surviving the dive bombing attack on the the 22nd of the Gloom left him with burns along his chest, over his shoulder and down his back, and a long, ugly burn across his neck that made it feel a bit stiff, but nothing too bad in the final reckoning.

His burns were healing well and did not impede him overmuch, so he had volunteered to return to the front when he could. He looked overall less in disarray than before, despite the bandages up to his neck under his jacket and shirt. His long, messy ponytail had been cut at the hospital. Once he had the presence of mind to do so, he asked that his hair be styled, and it was cut on the sides and back to a neck-length bob. His bangs had been trimmed neatly. After an eye examination a pair of glasses had been issued to him.

They had a noticeable weight on his nose.

After he was released, both Nnenia and Eshe, teaming up for practically the first time, made faces at him and told him he looked cute, like a little desk secretary. He didn’t know whether to take it as a joke, or if they were being serious about his appearance.

“Where is Nnenia? Asleep too?” Eshe asked. He cast quick glances about the nave.

“A few benches down; don’t whistle at her.” Adesh warned.

Nnenia was liable to punch him.

With a hand from Eshe, Adesh stood from the bench and jumped over the backrest. They approached a bench a little ways down the wall; this time Eshe shook the occupant. Nnenia growled and shook and moaned for a few minutes more. Minutes were given, and then Eshe shook her again. She nearly bit his good hand, then woke like a grumpy housecat, staring his way with eyes half-closed and her teeth grit. She sat up, legs up against her chest.

“Good morning.” She mumbled, tying her hair into a short tail.

“It’s nearly evening by now.” Eshe said gently. “And our turn at the gun.”

Nnenia sharply corrected herself. “Good morning, Adesh.”

Eshe exhaled sadly; Adesh raised his hand in awkward greeting.

Nnenia stood up and climbed over the bench by herself, and stood behind Eshe as though awaiting a chance to bite him in the shoulder. Together they crossed the nave into the backroom, where fresh supplies were coming in via truck. Adesh was surprised to find black-uniformed personnel carrying the crates and stacking them around. These were troops of the KVW – the uniform of the elite Uvuli was a black jacket and pants with red trim and gold buttons, and a patch with the nine-headed hydra, superimposed red on a black circle. It was eerie to see these agents carrying crates. They looked so common.

Prior to joining the military he barely heard of the KVW, and knew nothing concrete. Since arriving in Bada Aso Adesh had been quickly brought to speed by everyone around him on all the rumors surrounding the KVW. How they hunted traitors in the night during the scandals years ago, choking them in their own homes after finding secret radio sets transmitting to enemies; how they stared down the barrels of guns fearlessly, ignoring injury and rushing to bloody melee; how they were given special drugs and therapies so they could see in darkness, never miss a shot, and kill without compunction.

These people did not resemble those people.

“Welcome, comrades! Need anything?”

There was an energetic young woman at the fore, soft-faced and smiling at everybody. She appeared supervising the squadron as they went about their work. She had the crates stacked up in a haphazard step pyramid. Judging by her patches, she was a Corporal.

Hujambo,” Eshe said, easily taking the lead for his squad. “Are you in charge?”

“Not really, I don’t think! I just unload! Help yourselves to whatever.” She replied.

Eshe tipped his head. “I’m Eshe Chittur. If I might have your own name?”

Nnenia and Adesh introduced themselves more quietly and awkwardly.

Across from them the lady beamed and crossed her arms happily.

“Of course, comrade! I am Corporal Kajari, an officer in Major Nakar’s own elite 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division!” Kajari stuck out her chest, and tapped her fist once against the flat of her breast, wearing a big proud grin. “Don’t be so stiff, if you kids need anything, just know that you can come to this mountain girl for support. I take care of my comrades like a Rock Bear mama! Take anything you need from the stack. I insist that you do!”

Her tone of voice became more grandiose the more she spoke, as though she were inspiring herself to speak mid-sentence. She looked fairly short, a little shorter than Eshe, and she was slender and unassuming in figure, but the long simple braid of chestnut-brown hair, the bright orange eyes that were slightly narrowed in appearance, and the honey-colored tone of her skin, did remind one of the hardy folk of the Kucha Mountains.

But Adesh knew little specific about them.

“Thanks, but we only need 76mm shells.” Eshe said curtly. He looked put off by her tone. “You seem boisterous for an Uvuli, if I do say, ma’am. Are you the squad leader?”

Corporal Kajari grinned at him, and turned around and pointed at a KVW soldier.

“Private! Am I or am I not your officer?” She asked.

“You are, ma’am,” replied the soldier, saluting stiffly, his face a perpetual near-frown.

“How come you act nothing like them?” Eshe pressed her. He sounded a bit offended.

For a moment the Corporal looked at him. She put her hands on her hips and smirked.

“It’s a specific sort of training that makes you like that. Not all of us are like this,” Corporal Kajari half-closed her eyes and frowned, putting on a sort of sleepy expression, making fun of the stoicism emblematic of the KVW, “High Command thought such training would only dull my powerful abilities! I have acquitted myself so well, that it has been found thoroughly unnecessary, in fact even detrimental, to train me further! It is feared it might dull my considerable skill in killing people and destroying positions and such.”

Nnenia whistled. Adesh smiled. Much to Eshe’s chagrin, they took well immediately to the officer. All of Adesh’s trepidation toward the KVW vanished, and he was taken in by the friendly officer. She held the young soldiers up for a moment and started telling them a few quick stories, while the rest of her troop unloaded without her.

Eshe stood off to one side, sighing at the scene.

Kajari gathered them and told them about how she had shot a man out of a window from two-hundred meters away during the fight for Matumaini – a battle Adesh and his friends had largely sat out in a ward behind the lines, recovering wounds. She told them about riding on a tank, and saving her CO from a Nochtish assault gun. This act had her promoted to Corporal from a lowly private. It gave Adesh hope for the future.

She told them how she survived a brutal artillery strike that caved-in the entire street around them, and how she ran and ran, with the ground collapsing at her wake!

Then she jumped at the last moment, and her Corporal, now a Sergeant, grabbed her hand, pulled her up, and told her she was a real socialist hero, and that now they were even!

“I see a lot of myself in you kids,” she said, hooking her arms around Adesh and Nnenia’s shoulders and pulling them close to her, rubbing cheeks, “y’got potential, I can tell! Give your all against the imperialist scum! I’m sure you’ll make them bleed white!”

“Thank you, Corporal Kajari!” Nnenia and Adesh said at once, cheeks and ears flushed beet read, laughing jovially with the officer. They hugged tightly against her chest.

The Corporal looked positively in love with them!

And Adesh felt amazingly comfortable with her. Eshe started tapping his feet, and regrettably they had to step away from their spontaneous Rock Bear Mama and her radiating charisma. To each of the doting young ones she gave a parting gift, a ration from a crate lying at her feet – when Eshe protested that this was against regulation she ordered him, as a superior officer, to shut his mouth up and to lighten up at once.

“At least two of you are going places!” She said again, nodding her head sagely.

Eshe stared at his shoes, making little noises inside his mouth.

Outside the building another truck arrived, this one towing what looked like an anti-aircraft gun. The KVW troops started to gather around it. Blowing kisses and walking out as though on a cloud, Corporal Kajari finally left the room, like a beloved theater star.

Eshe grumbled the instant she was out of earshot. “What a relentless fibber!”

“Oh, of course you’d know more about the KVW than her.” Nnenia rolled her eyes.

“As a matter of fact, I think I do.” Eshe said. “More than you, and more than her!”

“Oh, I got the red paneer!” Adesh shouted, holding up the ration box triumphantly. In his heart he thanked Comrade Kajari for keeping him well fed. This ration was his favorite!

Nnenia and Eshe watched him as he stared reverently at the package, and laughed. This seemed to diffuse all of the tension. Together they stored the rations in their packs. Eshe took great pains to stuff his under his various other possessions, all in case of an inspection that he was sure would come. He was quite alone in that sentiment.

They found the shells in a corner of the back room.

Each box had 6 shells, each shell weighing about seven kilograms. They had handles on either side that made them easier to carry, but the weight still proved challenging to the young privates less than a half hour after waking. Carrying the crates pulled their shoulders down, and they were reduced to almost to waddling in order to bear with it.

Eshe in the lead, opening the doors for them, the group carried the ordnance across the nave, out the big doors, and to the landing atop of the steps leading to the cathedral, where the two guns had been set up between the spires. They carried the crates toward the right-most of the guns under a tarp pitched up on four poles with plastic bases.

Under the tarp Corporal Rahani and Kufu greeted them.

Corporal Rahani had been largely uninjured in the blast during the air battles of the 22nd, same for Kufu. They had minor scratches, and luckily, Rahani’s pretty face had seen none of those. Rahani looked vibrant and soft as always. Having time to prepare, this time the lucky flower in his hair was not one picked off the ground, but a big bright hibiscus. He had gotten it from the stocks of a state-run goods shop farther north. Kufu meanwhile looked, if anything, more disheveled and bored than usual, reclining against the front of the gun shield with his hands behind his head. Half his buttons were undone.

Kufu waved half-heartedly at them, and nobody waved back – Nnenia and Adesh had their hands full and Eshe was not in a friendly mood. Adesh nodded his head instead.

“We brought two crates, one HE, one AP,” Eshe said, and saluted Rahani.

“Thanks for the gifts,” Cpl. Rahani said, giggling, “you can put them down right here.”

He pointed out a small stack of crates near the tarp. A few had gotten wet in the constant drizzling, but they were all closed shut. Nnenia and Adesh deposited their boxes atop the others. There was a crowbar nearby in case they needed to crack them open.

They sat atop the crates, gently laboring to calm their breathing and loosen up their shoulders. Rahani was all smiles as everyone gathered around the field gun – the same kind of 76mm long-barreled piece had Adesh had haphazardly commanded back at the border battle on the 18th, though his memory of what he did during that time was very fuzzy.

“Now it’s our turn at the gun.” Cpl. Rahani said. “Hopefully it will be a quiet one!”

From the steps, Adesh could see out to the main Penance road about 300 meters away. A line of trees across the edge of the park interrupted the view in places, but certainly if an enemy tried driving up Penance they would be spotted. A few intact buildings stood on the street opposing the park, across Penance road from the Cathedral, but it was mostly ruins all around elsewhere and of little tactical use. To cover the most direct approaches to the cathedral, six trenches and sandbag walls had been set in line with three corners of the cathedral, organized in two ranks, one closer to the edge of the park than the other.

In each trench there were light machine gunners and riflemen waiting to fight.

Atop each of the Cathedral’s spires they had snipers with BKV-28 heavy rifles, and atop the dome on the roof there was a mortar team in a somewhat precarious position but with a commanding view, along a pair of anti-aircraft machine guns, bolted to the stone.

Everything but the northwest approach, the Cathedral’s supply line, could be directly enfiladed by the defender’s weapons. Nocht had no access to a road that directly threatened the northwest supply line, unless they broke through to Penance and passed around the Cathedral itself to get to it. And by that point, there would not be much hope left.

In a few days this holy place had become a fortress. Adesh marveled at it all.

“What’s the situation so far? I’ve only heard bits and pieces.” Eshe asked.

Corporal Rahani smiled. “Nice to know your wounds haven’t slowed you down!”

“Ah, well, I’m just always looking to know something about my surroundings.”

“Is anyone else curious?” Corporal Rahani asked. Adesh didn’t quite know what for. He always thought of Eshe was something of a busybody, but in this case his curiosity made sense, and was perhaps a healthy interest to have. For Eshe’s sake, he awkwardly raised his hand, and Nnenia followed, though both were a little less eager to talk strategy.

“I’m glad I have a crew who is eager for more than just orders.” Rahani said cheerfully.

Kufu made no gesture of any kind. He might have fallen asleep against the gun shield.

Corporal Rahani gathered the privates around a sketchy pencil map of the surroundings – the Cathedral, the park, the roads framing the park. Penance, the largest road running south to north along the eastern edge of the park, was marked as the most obvious incursion point. “On the 25th there was a ground battle in the South District with its main axes around Matumaini, Penance and Umaiha Riverside. Matumaini saw the fiercest fighting, but there was a lot of death here on Penance too. Cissean troops overwhelmed the first line, and the second was ordered to retreat up here to reinforce the Cathedral. It proved too strong a point for the Cisseans – they don’t have the kind of equipment the Nochtish troops do.”

“I take it it’s been quiet since.” Eshe said. “Otherwise we would feel more alarmed.”

“Right. It seems they enemy is not eager to press the attack after what happened on the 25th.” Corporal Rahani said. “They thought sheer momentum would carry them, and were proved wrong. Our defenses and counterattacks cost them a lot of their materiel.”

“But an attack’s got to come sooner or later, and it will hit us harder now.” Eshe added. “Because Matumaini’s in bad condition for road travel. Penance is the best way north.”

“Quite correct. And furthermore that attack will probably hit sooner rather than later,” Corporal Rahani said. “As you’ve seen, Division Command has been building us up here.”

“Too slowly if you ask me.” Eshe said. He crossed his arms over his chest and spoke with a very assertive tone, as though scolding someone. “Just smatterings of infantry and bits and pieces of equipment. What if Nocht throws everything they’ve got at this place?”

Nnenia rolled her eyes. Adesh groaned a little internally. Eshe was overstepping.

“I wouldn’t blame them too much.” Corporal Rahani replied. He pressed a finger on Eshe’s shirt with a little grin on his face. “We’re still waiting to see what the enemy’s tanks do in the Kalu. They could open a second front into the city out of the east. Committing everything to the front line in the south, especially heavy weapons, would render our strategic depth vulnerable to an eastern blow. Did you consider that eventuality, Private?”

“Um, no, I did not think about the Kalu.” Eshe admitted. He sounded embarrassed.

Corporal Rahani smiled cryptically, and put away the map.

He patted Eshe on the shoulder.

“I like your enthusiasm! I hope we can all continue to grow together.”

Due to the injuries among the crew, some roles had changed.

Adesh was the gunner still, and Kufu and Nnenia adjusted the gun’s elevation and traversed it along their vantage. Corporal Rahani was now the loader, and the commander as well. He took his place at the side of the gun, and handed Eshe his hand-held radio so that he could act as their communications crew. Eshe looked a little bashful, one of the few times Adesh had seen him avert his gaze from people. He stood behind the gun, sitting quietly on the closed crates while they waited for an enemy to engage.

Adesh felt a little bad for him.

He was hard-headed, and perhaps needed to be put in his place every once in a while, but nonetheless Adesh found Eshe’s confidence mostly endearing. It was sad to see him squirming and circumspect. He was perhaps the only person Adesh was close to who seemed to have figured himself out. Though, it could be he merely acted the part well.

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

City of Bada Aso – South District, Penance Cathedral

7th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

“I want you to think really hard before you move that pawn.”

“I’ve thought about it.”

“Look at the board again.”

“I have. I’m moving the pawn.”

It was a somewhat farcical scene, but at least it kept their minds engaged.

Their much vaunted special orders had yet to come, so with nothing important to do the KVW assault squadron at the Cathedral had spent their days performing chores and passing the time. Gulab had carried boxes; helped serve the troops a hot supper by ripping open ration boxes and heating them; she had gotten carried away and told tall tales to doting privates, each with enough truth that even Gulab began to believe that was exactly how they happened; and she had run out in the rain at night to guide trucks around the park.

So came and went the 27th; on the 28th of the Gloom, their orders had still not been fully sorted out, and so in the large and ornate bedroom once belonging to the bishop, Gulab and Chadgura traded pieces on the abstract battlefield of a Latrones board they found in the basement. While the pieces were different than Chatarunga the rules were much the same. Surrounded by the rest of the squadron, they set up the pieces and took a few turns.

Now there was a strange tension between the two officers, mostly from Gulab.

“Just so you’re aware, you’re doing all the wrong things if you want to try to win this game,” Gulab said. She was growing quite impatient. She could not believe what was transpiring on the board, and it was almost insulting to see it happening before her.

“I’ve only just moved a few pawns.” Sergeant Chadgura said quickly.

“Yes, yes, and they were terrible moves. Awful moves.”

Chadgura looked at the board. It was impossible to discern whether her expression conveyed disinterest or contemplation. She picked up the pawn she had just moved, looked back up at Gulab and overturned the piece. “I’m not changing them. Your turn.”

Gulab picked up her Queen and moved it diagonally, stamping it down on the board as though she wanted the piece to go through the wood and drill into the floor.

“CHECKMATE.” She shouted. She tapped the queen on the square over and over.

“Oh. I did not notice that.” Chadgura nonchalantly replied.

Gulab sighed. “You can’t just move pieces without looking at what the opponent can do. You know how far pieces can move! I mean, I’m just,” Gulab shook her head and held her hand up to her forehead, pushing up her bangs, “What did I even set this board up for?”

“I assumed to have fun playing a game. Now I don’t know either.” Chadgura said.

Everyone in the room seemed to avert their gazes from the bed all at once, and they left its side and stood apart as though nothing awkward had happened.

Gulab felt like a firecracker had gone off right beside her ear, and choked a little.

All this time Chadgura had amicably played along with an innocent and forward attitude while Gulab nitpicked and yelled at her. She felt as though her eyes had been pulled into the sky to witness her own self from another angle and it looked very ugly.

Her behavior was so stark and frightening. That was how she got when she played Chess with people these days; it was horrible, and she never seemed to become aware that she was doing it fast enough to stop herself. All the worst parts of her seemed to rise up in this one specific arena, whether she was watching games of Chess or playing them.

“Let’s just put the board away for now.” Gulab said, feeling uncomfortable with herself.

“I wanted to try to play. But I understand and am not unhappy with your decision.”

Gulab frowned.

She did not feel particularly absolved by the clumsy phrase “not unhappy.” She did not like thinking she was so aggressive, but there was just something about Chess. There had been so much bound in it for her, and there still seemed to be so much bound in Chess. It represented something to her that it did to nobody else. There was an incongruity in her life whenever she played Chess. A question of ability and intellect. It seemed always that her opponents got worse, and her life got no better. Chess was the arena where she once thought she could prove her value and define who she was in a way nobody could argue.

Even thinking about it sickened her. Gulab turned from the board in shame.

Chadgura folded the set closed, and they put the pieces into niches carved on the side. It was a wooden briefcase-like set-top board, portable and fully self-contained. They found it in the basement of the cathedral while searching for things they could use.

This time around they would need all the resources they could carry.

They were only a single squadron.

Gulab had received a black uniform and a promotion, and was now billed as an elite KVW assault soldier. She supposed Chadgura had something to do with that.

Around the room her squadron was arrayed before her, six other men and women under her command. They were dressed now in the muted green uniform of the Territorial Army as opposed to the black and red uniforms of elite KVW assault troops, or the red and gold of high KVW officers. She was in some ways excited to lead, but in others, quite confused.

Fighting with less than 10 souls at her side seemed like suicide. Command had a mission for them to support Penance, and its mysterious goals required this small group.

Aside from that Gulab knew nothing about it, and Chadgura knew just as little.

Nobody seemed to have any questions or concerns.

Everyone whiled away their time quietly. Gulab found the room around her now largely filled with blank faces, staring quietly into infinity. Despite the time she had spent with Chadgura, it was still difficult to understand their behavior. She understood Chadgura, to an extent. She knew the rumors that KVW troops had no emotion and knew no fear were not exactly true. They felt; they were still human behind the blank faces.

However, she still found their stone-like composure a touch disquieting.

“Is something wrong with them?” Gulab whispered to the Sergeant.

“I don’t know. I can ask.” Chadgura said.

Before Gulab could intimate that she actually did not want Chadgura to ask anybody anything, and that perhaps this entire line of thought was very ill considered and ill timed and should quickly and quietly be dropped, the Sergeant turned her head over her shoulder and singled out a man who looked a few years older than both of them, perhaps in his early thirties. He stood with his back to the wall and his hands in his pockets, and his sharp features and short brow made him appear somewhat disgruntled in comparison to Chadgura. He had cropped frizzy hair and skin the color of baked leather.

“Is something wrong, Private Akabe?” Chadgura asked. Gulab averted her gaze.

Private Akabe raised his eyes to the bed. “No, I do not believe anything is wrong officer.” He spoke in a deep, drawling voice with little inflection to his words.

Chadgura looked over at Gulab again as if to say ‘See?’ in her own odd way.

Gulab shrugged. “I just don’t understand how they endure what is happening. They just stand there staring. I would feel a little offput by all this waiting around for orders.”

“I see.” Chadgura said. She turned her head over her shoulder again, and Gulab gesticulated wildly for a brief moment in protest, but again could not stop her from passing her innocent inquiries to the KVW soldiers in the room. “How do you normally endure circumstances such as this, Private Jandi? I like to think about stamps. What do you do?”

This time she addressed a young woman on the other side of the room. Private Jandi had her hair shaved close to her head, and her skin was dark enough to seem blue in the light from the window. Her striking lips and cheekbones gave her a somewhat glamorous appearance in Gulab’s eyes, a sort of mystique compounded by the disinterested expression fixed upon the features of her face. She spoke in a high-pitched but still dull tone.

“I read a lot of books. I sometimes play cards. Right now I’m focused on the mission. We could deploy at any time.” She said. “So I feel it is irresponsible to become distracted and use the time for leisure. However, ma’am, I trust my officers to do as they wish.”

Gulab cringed again, turning beet-red. She couldn’t believe she was a higher rank than this dead-serious lady. Of course, the KVW soldiers had their own little quirks despite their legendary implacability, but to Gulab there was still something eerie about the calm with which they took in their bloody business. She wished for something to occupy her mind than the grim silence of the room and the view of the ruins out the easterly window.

Despite her Corporal’s mortified expression, Chadgura quickly brought another soldier into the unwanted Q&A, Private Dabo. He was a plump young man, with a round face and slightly widened body, and lots of curly hair. His face looked sagely and contemplative in a way, as though he always saw some truth written in the air. He reminded her of Chadgura in that he had soft features, so he felt more positive to Gulab than some of the other KVW soldiers. He had his submachine gun hugged to his chest. To him, Chadgura repeated the question – how did he endure the moments ticking away? He responded in a low voice.

“I think about music. I used to sit around the tenement record player all day.”  He said.

“Ah. Is the music in your mind accurate to the record’s sound?” Chadgura asked.

“I think so. I can keep the timing, and I can hum some of the tunes.” Dabo replied.

“I see; how wonderful. Sometimes I will also sit, wondering what to do, and I ‘play back’ music I have heard before, in my mind; and I wonder if it is accurate to the sound the record player makes, or if my imagination might embellish the music.” Chadgura said.

There were a few knowing nods from people around the room.

People started whispering and gesticulating toward each other, as if carrying on the conversation around the room. Meanwhile Gulab felt utterly dumbfounded, having had hardly any access to a record player in her life. She did, however, feel less embarrassed and less awkward. She marveled for a moment at how lively the room felt now that there seemed to be a subject, however strange, for all of the soldiers to share in.

There was something about this show of humanity that put Gulab back into her good spirits. Growing calm now, and wanting to make up for her behavior from before, she flipped the chess case, split it open again, and invited Chadgura to take her pieces.

“Despite Jandi’s sage advice, I will accept.” Chadgura said, and laid down her king.

“I’m not gonna go easy on you,” Gulab grinned, “But I’ll restrain my killer instinct.”

Around noon Corporal Rahani’s crew took another turn in the defensive line. Across from then the southeast trenches were fully manned, and the rest partially. Rain fell over the park only a touch heavier. Promises of a terrible storm had yet to prove true.

Aside from recurring sounds of traffic and the sound of precipitation, the front was peaceful. Nearly asleep behind the shield of his gun, Adesh heard distant noisy wheels, tracks and engines, and wondered what was being delivered to the Cathedral this time. Another anti-aircraft gun? Additional tanks? Engineers? They had enough food and ammo.

“What do you think that one is?” He asked.

Nobody heard him – they were busy around a wooden board filled with holes, six holes in two rows, each of the holes filled with seeds. Nnenia and Kufu were playing a mancala game, where stones were taken from pits and sewn along the rows of holes.

Adesh had tried watching the game but he had never liked mancala. Every region seemed to have its own rules and the particulars were difficult and confusing. Even now he didn’t know why they picked up seeds or how they captured pits. Nnenia and Kufu themselves didn’t really seem to know, at least to Adesh’s eyes, it all looked very random.

Eshe was busy giving everyone instructions and Rahani watched, amused by the crew.

Turning from the board Adesh looked over the gun and out over the park green and the road. Unable to make sense of the game he simply watched the empty landscape, taking in the rustling of trees, the vast green, and the long, empty road–

He adjusted his glasses, and something caught his attention.

Around the corner into the Cathedral square there was something large.

It was moving into the main road, and it was not moving alone.

At first he thought his mind was tricking him. Then he realized it had become his curse to receive responsibility in the midst of tragedy, the responsibility of those precious seconds before the bullets started to rain, where he could still shout and people might still live. He remembered that dive bomber coming down upon him, and he seized up in fear for a moment, but only the merest moment. Sure enough he soon found his voice to scream.

“Contact!” Adesh shouted. “Vehicles to the east, they’re protecting riflemen!”

Nnenia and Kufu overturned the mancala board standing up so fast.

Seeds scattered across the floor from the pits.

Corporal Rahani pulled his binoculars to his eyes and bit his lip; he confirmed a movement of men and a vehicle to the southeast, coming out to the two-way intersection on Penance at the park corner. From the corner trench, rifles and machine guns opened fire on the advancing men, but their targets quickly ducked behind the cover of their escort vehicle, a large, armored half-track. Unlike Ayvartan half-tracks the vehicle’s bed had well-armored walls that were high and closed off. Its hull had a long, sloped engine compartment and a well-armored driver’s compartment with small slits, making the driver a difficult target. Machine gun and rifle fire simply bounced off the Nochtish Squire Infantry Carrier.

Once out onto the intersection, the half-track turned from the road and charged into the green from between the trees. It drove toward the cathedral at an angle to shield the men running along its left side. Atop the enemy half-track, a Norgler gunner on a traversing mount opened fire on the trench. With each furious burst of gunfire Adesh saw the dust kick up all around his comrades, and their heads ducking down in response.

Good horizontal cover from the half-track protected the gunner too well from the fire he drew back. Within moments the machine would overrun the first trench.

“Everyone at their stations! Traverse, and load HE!” Corporal Rahani ordered.

Kufu and Nnenia turned the gun eastward, and lowered the barrel elevation.

Corporal Rahani loaded the shell and punched it into the breech – it snapped shut so close to his hand Adesh thought it might take off skin, but he was unscathed.

As they prepared to fire there sounded a loud bang from their right; their adjacent gun launched its first shell downrange and its crew prepared to fire a second. This first HE shell soared over the Squire’s engine block and smashed the treeline, exploding a dozen meters away. Shrapnel and wooden debris burst out in all directions, but the machine did not even shake from the distant blast, and it left no corpses behind as it advanced.

Binoculars up, Corporal Rahani shouted, “Gun ready! First round downrange!”

Adesh pulled the firing pin, and the gun rocked, sliding back to disperse the recoil. Tongues of smoke blew from the muzzle break. Adesh’s shell crossed the distance and impacted the turf several meters shy off the half-track’s right front wheel, punching a meter-wide hole into the green. Though not a direct shot, it was nonetheless deadly.

Shrapnel from the explosion blew through the wheel and pockmarked the side of the Squire, and the pressure wave rocked the vehicle. The Norgler gunner fell right off the side of the half-track, and around him the fire from the trench resumed, and he was perforated by a half-dozen shots before he even hit the ground. While the rear track labored to keep the vehicle moving, the mangled front wheel spun uselessly. It plodded on.

A man in the trench saw an opportunity and stood to throw a grenade at the half-track, but one of the men riding inside the half-track stood too and took up the gun.

He turned the fatal instrument and loosed a dozen shots into the trench.

As the grenade left his fingers the man in the trench was punched through the chest by several shots and fell back. His throw went terribly wide, exploding harmlessly away from the trench and the vehicle both. Adesh grit his teeth watching the scene play out.

One more blast from their partner gun exploded directly behind the half-track, and shook it again, but did nothing to the track and merely rattled the new gunner for a few seconds. Shots from the snipers punched small holes into the driver’s compartment, but the machine trundled ahead regardless. Soon it would be nearly atop the trench, and its men would be able to clear it with grenades from safety, and then advance on the second line.

“Adjust angle! We’ll get them!” Corporal Rahani said. He pushed an Armor-Piercing shell into the breech and gave some mathematical instructions. Nnenia and Kufu adjusted the gun based on Rahani’s estimates. Behind them, Eshe contributed by using his good hand to open shell crates with the crowbard so Rahani could load from them.

Adesh muttered a prayer to the spirits and pulled the firing pin.

There was a roar and a powerful kick from the gun. In an instant the Armor-Piercing High-Explosive shell crossed the park and punched through the Squire’s engine block and into the crew space, detonating close to the driver’s compartment and igniting fuel.

Within seconds the advancing half-track was a husk, its engine block a black smear on the turf, its driver vaporized, and the compartment fully open from the front. Machine gun fire through the gaping hole in the front cut through the survivors in the vehicle’s bed like fish in a barrel. Though the men running alongside the vehicle were mostly untouched by the blast, they had lost their moving cover, and hunkered down behind the bed.

From the trench several comrades rose and threw grenades at the husk aiming to hit the soldiers. They had pistols and bayonets, and it seemed the skirmish was nearly decided.

“Good hit!” Corporal Rahani said. He looked through his binoculars, examining the remains of the husk, and then looked out to the road. “Load HE, and let us put the fear–”

A small plume of fire and smoke rose suddenly in front of the outer trench, tossing dirt and grass into the air. Comrades in mid-charge were flung back into the trenches they came from and many were wounded by shrapnel. There was a sudden screaming of alert across the other trenches, and the gun crews atop the Cathedral steps hesitated from shock.

Out into the two-way intersection crossed a pair of light tanks, their turrets fully turned toward the Cathedral – they had opened fire from around buildings before marching into the open. Behind them Adesh soon saw the noses of more Squire Infantry Half-tracks.

This was a full mechanized assault column heading toward them, not a probing attack.

The Corporal dropped his binoculars and shouted, “Down against the gun shield!”

Not a second passed since Rahani spoke that two shells flew against the steps.

One shot overflew them and smashed into the stone face of the cathedral, throwing down chipped rock atop the tarp erected over the gun. Another crashed at the foot of the steps and set shrapnel flying. Adesh heard the clinking of metal fragments against the gun shield, and he was shaken at first and found it hard to respond. But he collected himself – he could not afford this paralysis, not again. He huddled close to the gun, and Eshe and Nnenia crouched beside him as close as they could get for protection.

“Don’t fear it,” he said, out of breath, sweat dripping across his nose and lips.

Nnenia and Eshe nodded, staring grimly out over the park.

Nnenia passed Rahani a shell.

Behind them the doors to the Cathedral swung open, and a stream of men and women with various weapons rushed out to the trenches, to re-man the line on the northeastern corner of the cathedral and reinforce the southeastern trenches upon which the vehicles were now advancing. A small crew pushed out the 45mm anti-tank gun that had been stuck on the pulpit and set it between the two 76mm guns, aiming for the tanks.

Corporal Rahani grimly welcomed the newcomers, and ordered his own crew to traverse the gun, load and fire, aiming for the enemy’s light tanks that had them zeroed in.

“Load AP,” Corporal Rahani shouted. He punched the shell into place in the breech.

Adesh pulled the firing pin; across the park, one of the tanks approaching the tree line went up in flames as the shell penetrated its thin frontal armor and exploded inside, sending its hatch flying through the air. A second tank charged quickly up to take its place, and a dozen men huddled behind the newly burning husk for cover.

Sporadic mortar and sniper fire from atop the Cathedral crashed around the advancing Panzergrenadiers, but the armored figures of their moving vehicles and the smoking husks of their dead vehicles provided ample cover from the onslaught, and they were easily closing in on the first trench. Corporal Rahani loaded another AP shell handed to him by Nnenia, and while Kufu slightly adjusted the gun’s facing, the officer took his radio back from Eshe. He put in a call to their divisional command for support.

“This is Corporal Rahani on the Cathedral stronghold on Penance road reporting attack from enemy motor, armor, and infantry! I repeat, Penance road, Cathedral, under heavy attack! Requesting artillery support against the intersection on Penance road at the southeast corner of the Cathedral Park!” Corporal Rahani shouted.

He breathed heavily, waiting for a response.

In his hands the radio crackled. Rahani huddled with the crew, and Adesh listened in.

“Negative Penance, artillery is under tactical silence to support a spoiling mission underway. A relief mission for you will begin shortly. Hold out until then. Repeat: Artillery is under tactical silence. Hold out for reinforcement and relief. Spirits be with you.”

Two Squires on the intersection pushed forward along the road, and soon became four, and men began to hop the walls of their armored beds and deploy to the street, taking up positions, and organizing to charge; the one remaining tank crossing into the park green was also joined by two others. All of the tanks were lightweight and drove at the same pace as the half-tracks, boasting horseshoe-shaped turrets of riveted armor and carrying small guns. Their turrets were set centrally atop flat-fronted boxy hulls with tall rumps.

These were modernized M5 Rangers based on the old M2 Ranger.

Soon as they were spotted, the enemy tanks were engaged by the gun line.

Corporal Rahani ordered a shot downrange, and Adesh obliged.

The 76mm gun slid back; its AP shell crashed right in front of the lead tank. Almost simultaneously their partner gun fired, and a near-miss from its own 76mm shell managed to blow out the front wheel on the lead tank, marooning it in the middle of the green. This did nothing to its gun. It traded for their 76mm shell with one of its 37mm shots.

At the sight, Adesh flinched and hid behind the shield.

Again the shell crashed nearby, hitting the middle of the stone steps and forming a crater the size of a man’s torso. No shrapnel reached them, but the force of the shot caused their tarp to fall over and off the side of the steps, exposing them to rain. Smoke rose up before them. They were unhurt, but clearly soon to be outmatched.

Adesh felt a churning in his stomach – he girded himself again for the start of a real battle, praying to the Spirits for himself, for Nnenia, for Eshe, and for all their comrades.

“Should we go out there?” Gulab asked.

“Not until we have our orders from higher up.” Chadgura dispassionately replied. “Remember, we were sent here on a special mission. We will await special orders.”

Gulab heard boots along the ground as people in adjacent rooms rose to the commotion and rushed down to do their part. She heard numerous people storming through the adjacent halls and down the stairs. Minutes later she heard artillery – there was a slight shaking loose of dust from the ceiling, and a pounding of shells on the ground and against the stones. Were they trading artillery blows out in the lawn? This must have been a full-fledged attack.

And yet her unit waited in place for several minutes, until specifically roused.

There was a knock on their door, and one of the Privates answered.

She stepped aside, and from the hall a small woman approached the bed, and shook hands emphatically with Chadgura. She was a Svechthan, with short teal-blue hair and a dour expression that looked a touch unfriendly. Her uniform was dark blue, nearly black, part of the Svechthan Union forces training in Ayvarta.

Gulab tried not to stare – the lady was over a head shorter than everyone and her rifle, like a standard Ayvartan bundu, looked comically oversized for her. Svechthans were proportioned well for their adult size, but to Gulab they were still an unusual sight.

Tovarisch!” She declared, “I am Sergeant Illynichna. Orders have arrived for you.”

Gulab noticed somewhat of an accent in her voice when she started speaking Ayvartan. Nonetheless she had rather good pronunciation, and made good word choices.

“Thank you, Sergeant.” Chadgura said. “Please go ahead. We are listening.”

Sgt. Illynichna cleared her throat. “Since the 25th, the KVW with the help of my Svechthan comrades has been using radio interception equipment mounted in half-tracks to gather intelligence on enemy positions within the city. We have gathered enough unencrypted short-range communications between various units to paint a clearer picture of their overall offensive preparations. Our mission will be to scout and disrupt those preparations to buy time for the Hellfire plan. Any Questions before we continue?”

“You’re coming too?” Gulab asked. She was the only one with any questions.

“Of course I am. I’m from the Joint-Training Corps OSNAZ – special tactics.”

Gulab had no idea what that meant at all. She shrugged and looked unimpressed.

“Quit wasting my time duura!” Sgt. Illynichna said, calling her some insult she didn’t understand. The Svechthan girl produced a map of the southern district and laid it down over the bed. As a whole the squadron gathered around the bed to look at it, but Gulab found the symbols hard to discern. “Between Penance and Matumaini there were several evacuated industrial facilities. We believe Nocht will deploy their artillery and tank stations there. Their attacks along Penance and Umaiha will intensify in an attempt to pin us down away from the build-up areas. We must carefully scout Nochtish positions, then relay our findings so our artillery can bury them. A surprise saturation barrage will do the trick.”

“A sound plan. But I am remiss about using only a single squadron.” Chadgura said.

“It is necessary tovarisch!” Illynichna said. “We must take them by surprise. We will use a few tanks to hold back this assault on the Cathedral, and open up this road to the east, toward Matumaini,” she pointed out their route on the map, “but from there we must make our way quietly, like the arctic weasel. Strong head-on attacks are not feasible.”

Gulab supposed that it was easier for a Svechthan to talk about stealth since they were in general so small, but she held her thoughts on that, for fear of further upsetting Illynichna.

Chadgura nodded, and together she and Illynichna led the squadron out. Down in the nave, Gulab saw people rushing out the door, and she saw the guns outside firing against the tree line and the edge of the green turf. The 76mm guns boomed incessantly, their crews in a fever. Enemy vehicles trundled forward from the road, covering for squadrons of men in thick dark gray jackets and gloves, the panzergrenadiers. A rising tempo of anti-tank, sniper, and mortar fire slowed the enemy mechanized forces. Rifle squadrons stationed in the Cathedral rushed out to the trenches in turns, and gathered around the spires and steps.

Nocht improved their foothold on the intersection and the eastern side of Penance road, and their men assembled in the ruins and in the intact buildings. They began to open fire from across the road. This presence increased with each Half-Track allowed to park across the green. Norgler fire and mortars of their own had been deployed, and this sporadic fire punished the recrewing of the trenches. It was a slowly-building mayhem.

“It will get worse if we don’t find that artillery. Let us move.” Chadgura said.

Gulab snapped out of her reverie and nodded grimly.

She followed the two Sergeants out the back behind the Cathedral, where their half-track waited along with three Goblin light tanks. Before mounting the truck the squadron traded their rifles into a crate, and picked up short carbines with long, strangely thick barrel extensions provided by the Svechthan Sergeant. The carbines used magazines, of which they gathered many, throwing their own stripper clips into the crate with their old rifles.

“These are silenced Laska carbines, made in my home country.” Sergeant Illynichna explained. “Smaller cartridge than a regular rifle, but useful for sneaking around.”

Sgt. Chadgura lifted and toyed the small rifle, getting a feel for its weight and size.

“It is an invention of the Helvetians that we Svechthans tested to great results. They’re hard to manufacture, but worthwhile for special times. Its ammo is hard to manufacture too, so we cannot waste it.” Sergeant Illynichna added. “Hopefully it serves us well.”

“I believe it will. It is very easy to wield and aim.” Chadgura said.

Gulab looked down the sights. They felt a little small.

Still, it was a pleasant weapon to hold.

Once everyone was armed, they hopped into the back of the half-track and waited for the tanks to form up in front of them. The trio of Goblins started across the left side of the Cathedral, facing their strongest armor to the southeast, and charged toward the corner trenches. The Half-Track did not follow them. Instead it drove directly north, crossing the green out onto the road and circling around the park east. They drove with the tree line and the fences on the northern edge for cover and moved carefully to eastern-bound roads.

Above them the sky grew slowly furious.

Rainfall grew harsher, the drops larger and more frequent, the patter and tinkling of the rain working itself up to a drumming beat. Forks of light burned constantly within the heart of the blackening clouds, and distant, erratic thundering drowned out the trading of shells. Sergeant Illynichna grinned at the worsening weather overhead.

“Going out in that is good, tovarisch. Harder to be seen and heard in the driving rain.”

Around the park the battle intensified to match that black, rumbling sky.


From the back of the half-track Gulab saw the tanks engaging.

Across from the Cathedral, three Nochtish tanks had overtaken the first trench on the southeast and easily crossed it with their tracks, and the occupants were fleeing to the second trench line under fire from the tank’s hull-mounted machine guns.

One tank was at the head of the enemy advance, a third was farther behind it, and a second was practically hugging its right track. Their machine guns saturated the green in front of them, and their 37mm guns fired incessantly on the Cathedral, smashing into the spires, hitting the dome, sending shells crashing around the gun line at the steps the Cathedral. Their advance was haphazard but swift and vicious.

But their sides were fully exposed.

The Goblins were not seen until they had cleared the left wall of the Cathedral. They charged on the enemy in a staggered rank, each tank ten meters from the side of the next. The instant they left cover the three tanks braked and opened fire. Immediately they scored two hits – the tall engine compartment in the back of the lead enemy tank burst into a fireball, and its turret exploded from a second shot. These explosions sent chunks flying into a second tank to the right of the target, the shrapnel slashing deep into its turret.

Too wounded to continue, and perhaps having lost its gunner and commander, the second M5 backpedaled toward the trees and bushes for cover from further attacks.

The Panzergrenadiers halted their advance in the face of this reversal, hiding behind the smoking ruins starting to pile at the edge of the green. Ayvartan forces pressed their advantage. Small contingents climbed out of their holes to engage the enemy.

One Goblin remained in place and provided cover for rising trench troops.

Two others broke away from it, one headed directly for the road, its coaxial machine gun and cannon trained on the mechanized infantry, and the second hooking around the center of the green to chase the remaining tanks away from the Cathedral.

The KVW Half-Track stopped across the street from its connection out of Penance. They had the trees between them and the fighting. Only when the tanks had fully engaged the Panzergrenadiers and their vehicles on the road, and blocked their way farther upstreet, would it be safe for the Half-Track to cross. A Goblin tank crossed the green and drove onto the road, turning to face the enemy’s half-tracks and charging them.

The Goblin opened fire on the enemy while moving, perforating one of the half-tracks front to back with an armor-piercing shell. The shell exploded at the end of the bed, and its fuel tanks lit on fire from the violence. Panzergrenadiers on the streets hurried away, putting whatever metal they could between the Goblin’s machine guns.

Without warning a black plume erupted near the Goblin tank on the road, and the blast smashed the front wheels on its right track, paralyzing it in the middle of the road.

Subsequent blasts rolled along the road, some so close to the Nochtish line that even the Panzergrenadiers started to run, and the half-tracks to back away. Shells fell by the dozen every minute. One of the Goblins was abandoned, its crew leaping from the hatches as a fireball engulfed the machine’s exterior. The one stationary Goblin had its turret crushed by a shell, split open like a tin can, and its engine caught fire. Its slow movement back toward the Cathedral suggested people inside, still laboring in the flame.

Men and women ran right back out of the newly-reclaimed southeast trench, leaving it to be smashed by the creeping artillery. All of a sudden the Ayvartan battle line was contracting into a circle formed by the closest trenches to the Cathedral.

Chort vozmi!” Illynichna cursed. “They’ve got their guns set up! Tell your driver to go! We must hurry and spot for our own tubes so we can counter-fire!”

Chadgura stuck her hand out the side of the bed through a hole in the tarp and signaled desperately. Up front the driver floored the pedal, and the Half-Track screamed across Penance and out to the connecting eastern road, putting several buildings between itself and the Panzergrenadiers. Gulab could not tell whether the rumbling and noise related to thunder or artillery. Both the fighting and the storm grew in intensity all at once.

Within the Cathedral a large radio set beeped and crackled, coming to life unbidden – the operator had become distracted with the battle raging outside the doors to the nave.

“All units report, urgent.”

Nobody seemed to hear or reply.

“Army HQ has lost contact with the Battlegroup Commander. We cannot confirm whether it may be related to the storm. Have any units managed to make contact with the Commander within the last hour? Repeat, Army has lost contact with Battlegroup Commander. Commander’s unit was last reported to be part of a surveying mission near Umaiha and Angba. Relay contact with the Commander back to Army signals. Repeat–”

NEXT Chapter In Generalplan Suden Is — Under A Seething Sky

The Battle of Matumaini II — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

In the midst of war, her mind was subconsciously pulled back to Home.

And she thought briefly of the mountains again.

But there was so much more to say about the Kucha.

Among the villagers of the Kucha mountain range in the Adjar and Dbagbo dominances, the penetration of socialism was always small. Whereas the outside world praised the virtues of comrades who showed bravery, loyalty and wit in the Revolution, in the mountains the food delivery truck came every week and went every week, the hunters and loggers were not exactly unionized, and the villagers continued to talk of their own comrade, a folk hero whose adventures are taught to every child – Big Bearded Baaku.

It was said that his beard was so long he braided it like a woman’s braid, and he always dressed in a hermit’s robes. He lived outside of the villages, but he always shared his hunts, and he always planted a seed for every tree he logged for his cottage. He foiled many spirits and he commiserated with goblins and werehyenas, back in their own time.

Every child knew of his tales of valor and strength, and at least for a time, every child wanted to follow in his footsteps. He was the heroic comrade of their own revolution, one recurring each year, the revolution of living in a dangerous and distant place.

Because of his big beard, the smallest child of the Kajari family was always convinced that the Kajari’s paternal grandfather was Big Bearded Baaku. He had returned to the village after many years of absence, tentatively welcomed by those he left behind. The Kajari child was struck by the appearance of this outsider, and always called him Baaku.

Maybe he got lonely living outside and he finally settled with them!

Maybe he had finally bested all his enemies and made good on all his bets and debts to the strange creatures! The Child was convinced, and told everyone in the village.

Other family members grew a little exasperated with the child – oh what a flighty load, what a boisterous headache, what a strange and foolish child! A Child that loved to make up stories more than to run and fight other kids; that played chess with the elders rather than throw rocks with the boys; that covered up and wore shawls even in the Yarrow’s Sun.

A Child that acted a little too much like a Girl, some whispered.

The one appropriate thing the Child wanted to do was join the village’s hunts, and it was the one thing the Child could certainly not be allowed to do.

For his part, the grandfather never dispelled this notion, however.

He knew this Child was special.

Each year, around the time of the hunt, despite his prowess in the field, despite his stature and his storied career in traveling, soldiering; he stayed behind with the small child as the men departed, and personally took charge of the child. He told stories, played games and made guarantees – “when you’re bigger and stronger, you will go hunt too. I will go with you! For now little one, focus on being good, like your friend Baaku!”

The Child sulked. 

“I want to go hunt – I’ll show everyone! I’ll catch the biggest Rock Bear!”

The Grandfather was patient.

“You need to get bigger before you can fight a Rock Bear! You’re too small now child, the Bear will walk right past you and not even realize that you want to fight!”

The Child shouted.

“I want to be as big as Baaku and show up everyone in the village!”

The Grandfather laughed.

“Someday you’ll have a beard as big as mine, big enough to braid, you will see. But don’t hurry to grow up just yet. Even your brothers had to wait for their beards.”

The Child would sulk, but the Grandfather would take the child’s long hair and braid it, in a thick, long, scrunchy braid, and the novelty of this would be enough to still the child for a time, until the next story, and the next sulk.

“This braid is like your own beard! In this way, everyone in the village has one!”

The Child laughed at this. It was silly; but pleasing, too.

In this way they carried on for many years. 

This all came back to her, in the back of her mind, in a black and white mix of fear, fantasy, shame, and a little burning flame of determination she had yet to rediscover.

25-AG-30 Z-Company Advance, Matumaini Northwest

First Sergeant Zimmer was in a fugue state after the rout of the defenders at the Matumaini and 3rd intersection, his expression more alive than any of his men had ever seen it, with his eyes glinting, his teeth bared in a manic smile. Most of his platoons had survived, and his company still contained over a good hundred fighting men.

He personally volunteered himself and his men to Captain Aschekind, whose silence he took as an implicit acknowledgment of his mission. Pistol in hand, Zimmer immediately gathered Z-Companie sans a few stragglers and pushed through up the diagonal road in force, a single M3 Hunter assault gun following in his wake to provide supporting fire.

At first the company pursued an under-strength platoon of Ayvartan runners, twenty or thirty people running for their lives. They hardly shot back, and when they did it was a quick pistol shot, more an excuse to look over their own shoulders than an attempt to fight.

Ducking under and around rubble the communists tried to escape pursuit in the ruins, but slowly the territory cleared, and the treacherous, jagged roads and heaps of rubble gave away to clear pavement, largely untouched buildings and, broad alleys and long streets in proper order. Flight turned to desperate fighting retreat. Now these men and women ran over open terrain, and they had to duck into cover and shoot back more in earnest.

Despite renewed effort it was a one-sided fight.

Grenadiers took their pick of them, clipping heads and puncturing bellies from a hundred meters away at their leisure. Any chance the communists took to run was a chance they took to die, and when they took cover the Grenadiers gained on them.

This dramatically unfair carnage inspired many of the Nochtish men.

Zimmer seemed utterly absorbed in it.

The First Sergeant shouted and shouted, firing his pistol ahead, calling for targets with grizzly zeal, ushering his men into a frenzied run. Machine gunners held their fire, and the assault gun was utterly quiet as the riflemen and their commander charged, giving chase until they unknowingly straddled the next of the communist’s defensive lines on Matumaini.

They received only second’s worth of transition after crossing this invisible threshold.

Two kilometers up from the intersection, a lone bullet whizzed by Zimmer from a nearby rooftop, and struck a man to his right, perforating his neck. He dropped to the floor, clutching his wound in disbelief, pressing against the gushing blood with his eyes drawn wide; similarly stunned but much more alive Zimmer quickly hid behind a thick steel bin.

Scrambling for an exit, Zimmer aimed for a restaurant door a few meters away and smashed off the knob with a series of pistol shots. Ahead of him the street awoke with gunfire, and bullets started to fly the company’s way from just across the alley.

Communists with light machine guns and submachine guns attacked from inside the building directly in front of Zimmer’s advancing troops, overlooking their approach. Windows flashed an angry orange-red, and automatic fire covered both sides of the street.

Z-Companie had run gleefully into the next bastion of the enemy, but now lead flowed in opposition to them, and they were not so eager to charge. Zimmer’s men scattered to both sides of the street, huddling behind trash cans, hydrants and mailboxes, squeezing against doorways and in alleys. From behind his own cover, Zimmer called for backup.

He waved his hand to signal his men into the building, and more than a dozen complied, rushing from cover and throwing open the remains of the bullet-ridden doors.

Zimmer threw himself out from behind his metal box and ran inside.

Dozens of bullets struck at his coattails as he vanished behind the walls.

Inside the restaurant much of the seating was fixed around the edges of the building, so many of his men had to squat behind or lay atop long bench seats that were bolted along the walls. They kept their heads down near the long windows. Landsers huddled against every surface that hid them from the communist’s impromptu stronghold.

Zimmer had only centimeters of wall obscuring him from the windows.

He shouted at his men to fight, and they shattered glass with the butts of their rifles and targeted the windows and roofs, but the communists had perfect angles on the restaurant. While nochtish fire hit brick instead of window and bounced off the carved overhangs blocking the roof, the restaurant gained was immediately saturated with gunfire.

Every sliver of flesh that was not fully covered, elbows and shoulders and legs ill considered by cowering grenadier, were scraped and pierced and grazed by the storm. Flashing red tracer bullets ricocheting in the interior made the place look candle-lit.

Within this hurricane of bullets not a landser dared to shoot back.

Hiding in a corner, against a sliver of concrete between two windows and only barely out of the carnage that was consuming the rest of the building and street, Zimmer produced his radio and called the M3 assault gun bringing up the rear.

He peered fitfully out the window whenever the gunfire slowed, sneaking glances at the enemy’s positions and finding them almost exclusively settled on the upper floors. The enemy building and his position inside of the restaurant were separated only by an over-broad alleyway parking that allowed cars and delivery trucks to park beside the restaurant and unload goods and passengers perhaps twenty or thirty meters at the longest.

“Six-V, fire high explosive on the building just ahead of the restaurant!” He shouted. “Concentrate on the upper floor, the two right-most windows from your vantage!”

These orders jolted their armor awake.

At once the M3 Hunter drove in from the side of the restaurant and veered slightly to the west to face its ill-positioned gun. Zimmer, pressed against the wall, felt a light rumbling of the gun, and peeked from cover to watch the destruction.

A well-placed HE shell burst through one of the offending windows on the uppermost floor and shattered the room, collapsing the ceiling from under a pair of machine gunners on the roof, and the floor they were meant to land on after, burying them in the room below.

Fires did not start but the expanding smoke and dust obscured the windows.

Following the blast the building and with it the entire street had gone silent, and Zimmer shoved a small group of his men out the broken windows of the restaurant. They crossed the alley and climbed into the building, under the watchful presence of the assault gun. They wandered inside the makeshift fort, and minutes later radioed in an all-clear.

Zimmer was not keen to leave his restaurant.

Instead he ordered the rest of the men out and ahead.

From the doorway, he raised his binoculars and watched his advance slow to a crawl.

His men crossed the street in front of the suppressed stronghold, and stepped across the adjacent alleyway. They were anxious and they walked slowly as crawling terrapins, as though inching across open streets and road would help them sneak toward the enemy.

Rifles sounded from up the street.

Sniper fire killed two men in the middle of the road.

At once the rest of his men scattered to a suddenly renewed roaring of rifles and submachine guns from the windows and roof of the next nearest building.

“Maneuver around the building!” He shouted from his window, urging the laggards across the road from him and from the fighting to move forward and engage.

Startled and anxious the men stole along the street to join the fighting.

The First Sergeant could hardly see the battle now, as it was moving farther from the restaurant. He rushed from the window of the restaurant, begrudgingly crossing the alleyway and into the building ahead, still hot and suffused with the stench of smoke.

He ran through the interior halls, and he found the place had once been some kind of office. Crossing from one side of the building, around the face, and to the other wall, he found the same men he had shared the restaurant with – sans a few, depleted in the interim.

Zimmer found the situation better in the office building than in the restaurant.

Sturdy walls and spaced-out windows gave clear lanes of fire and complete protection that allowed the men to exchange attacks calmly. Through an adjoining hall, Zimmer could see out to the street stretching in front of the building, and his men pinned down across the road. He hailed the M3 gun on the radio, urging it forward again to help break the deadlock.

It was the next building from the office place that was shooting at them now.

They would have to go house to house, it seemed.

“Fire on the uppermost floor, third window from right, Six-V.” Zimmer ordered.

He observed the assault gun driving past his vantage to the street, and once out of his sight, he heard its tracks turning and awaited the rumbling of the gun. He felt shaking across the ground and through the walls and with glee he heard the tell-tale noise of a nearby cannon shot. Zimmer shouted under the roar of the gun for his men to open fire again.

But there was no explosion, no shell flying at those damnable windows.

From the opposing building the communists retaliated in force, opening fire on him unabated, forcing his men back into cover again when he expected to have an advantage.

Zimmer turned from the side hall of the building, and looked down the adjoining hall to the street. He saw smoke trailing in, its source just out of his field of vision.

“Assault Gun Six-V do you copy? Six-V?”

There was no response on the radio.

“Hold down here!” Zimmer shouted to his men in the midst of the gunfire, and he sidled along the wall into the adjoining hall, and snuck out toward the front of the building.

Peering out to the street, he found the M3 Hunter smoking and burning from the gun mantlet and from an open hatch atop the hull. He could not see the machine’s wounds from his vantage, and its hull and the smoke drawing from it blocked his view of his street troops.

Then above the gunfire he heard tracks moving forward. Was it the M3 reviving?

Across the street a shell flew and exploded on the side of the office building.

Zimmer nearly fell, the walls and ground shaking around him.

He saw a flash and a brief wave of pressure blowing at the opposite end of the hall. Smoke started to stream out of the building. He turned and ran toward the men he had left, and suddenly he found himself exposed, a massive hole blown into the structure.

Around the dire corner there were men at his feet, burnt, concussed, all crushed under the collapsed wall. Zimmer paid them less attention than he did to the street outside.

Like a revelation from God, the hole punched so abruptly into the building offered him a view of his maneuver platoons splayed across the streets and alleys, and a roving green hulk driving from a nearby alley. Never had he seen such a large tank, three and a half meters wide, three meters tall, and perhaps seven meters long. Enormous. Massive.

Feebly he drew his pistol. The roar of the tank’s gun was the last thing he ever heard.

25-AG-30 1st Vorkampfer Rear Echelon

Luftlotte bombing had taken a heavy toll on the buildings of Bada Aso’s south district, but Von Sturm’s staff found a fairly feasible place for a headquarters. It was far from the front line on the southeastern edge of the city, close enough to the green fields on the edge of the hilly Kalu to smell the wind-blown scent of Lillies. Thankfully the stench of powder and burning had been blown out by that same wind long before the Grenadiers got there.

An old restaurant building stood untouched among a block of buildings completely squashed by explosives. To the last they had been smashed down to their foundations, left as bleach-gray holes in the ground. Corps staff let their imagination run wild and thought the restaurant was a lucky spot, a standing omen. There were five ruined buildings ringing the restaurant, and across the street from it three more ruins completed the formation.

The main road parallel to the restaurant was splintered and cracked and trucks driving over it teetered and shook as their wheels rose and fell with the terrain. Supply horses, of which there many more than trucks, tottered over the ruins with a confident step, but the wheels on their wagons took a beating atop the ruined earth. More than one shattered box, its precious contents spilled, lay forgotten on the sides of the road, fallen from convoys.

But the men were driving and the horses cantering, and the war machine was slowly shifting into position. Towing anti-tank guns and artillery guns, food wagons, the few cargo trucks and the many horse-drawn wagons of the Grenadiers and the Cissean infantry were making slow but sure progress on linking their forward units to much-needed supplies.

By nightfall, Nochtish generals predicted they would have three major artillery positions, five established forward bases, numerous roads open to their panzers and personnel vehicles, all of them ready along the edges of the central district, waiting to pounce on the heart of the communist defense in the valuable city center.

They expected that by the 30th Nocht would have full control of the city.

“Perhaps if that map is meant to depict a fantasy land!” Von Drachen laughed.

He regarded all of the planning maps on the table as some kind of elaborate joke.

People accused him of having strange humor, but he thought no humor could be stranger than the thought of taking this city in a week. Everyone stared at him. Staff crowded the table, coddling General Anton Von Sturm as he explained his ambitions.

Behind them, seven women in gray skirt suits manned a communications station, spanning the length of a wall, and handled all contact with the Vorkampfer and the 6th Grenadier, along with what little radio traffic Von Drachen’s Blue Corps generated. During the silence at the table that followed Von Drachen’s remarks, the room was filled with chatter, flicking of switches, the whining and scratching as signals were adjusted.

“Von Drachen, have you anything actually productive to say?” Von Sturm asked. “You’ve sent your entire staff god knows where and instead of talking to them I’m subjected to more of you, so I ask then, have you put any modicum of thought into how to proceed? Around this table we’re trying to plan a major offensive across the week. What about you?”

Von Drachen smiled. “As a matter of fact, I have a suggestion to make! You see, I don’t believe in leaving things up to raw data. It would be prudent to ask the men themselves what they believe they most need at this pressing moment to carry out their objectives.”

He turned and tipped his hat toward a young woman standing near the radios.

She was almost as tall as he was, quite tall for a lady, but slender and graceful, with soft shoulders. She was possessed of a saccharine demeanor, always smiling, very energetic. She had a small nose and big green eyes and short brown hair. Fluffy purple pom poms dangled from her earrings, which were surely not to regulation. Her name, if Von Drachen remembered it correctly, was Helga – Chief Signals Officer Helga Fruehauf.

She smiled graciously, and flipped a few pages on a clipboard when prompted to speak. Her voice was bubbly but her pronunciations and pacing when speaking were very precise.

Von Sturm grunted. “Fruehauf, any trend in the reports you’ve collected?”

Fruehauf stuck out her chest proudly. “Over the course of the 300 radio comms that have thus far been processed, we’ve heard an overwhelming amount of calls for artillery and air support against targets along Matumaini and 3rd, the Umaiha riverside, and Penance Road. Direct fire support from Assault Guns has been committed in only limited amounts, and indirect fire support of any amount seems to be of pressing concern to our COs.”

Von Sturm rolled his eyes, elbows against the table, his fingers steepled under his chin.

“Oh great, indeed, I shall heed the sage voices of our men as they quail and holler about bombing targets they’ve already captured and killing again men they’ve beaten. This would have been useful information to know hours ago, I guess!” He sarcastically replied.

Fruehauf bowed her head a little and looked like a scolded child.

Von Drachen cleared his throat. “Well, you did tell them not to bother you, hours ago.”

Von Sturm sighed. “That’s not my point you blathering beak-nosed idiot!”

Von Drachen quirked his eyebrow and raised his hand to his nose.

“Planning over those maps appears, in my experience, to be solipsistic.” He replied. “It is my opinion our men would move faster and more confidently if they knew a good gun or a plane could be counted on. This is information that we know from having spoken to men who are actively viewing the battlefield. I’m not promising that such things would have a marked or visible impact, as it is not in my nature to promise things; but clearly, it would be doing something in the here and now, and that seems more prescient to me than the divination ritual you’ve got going with these cartographers.”

Around the table several of Von Sturm’s staff officers sneered at this characterization.

“They’ve got the assault guns! And we lost our organic air support.” Von Sturm said, rubbing his own face. “So good luck getting them a plane. I’ll release an extra platoon of assault guns, and I promise you, Von Drachen, those of us who are actually working, and actually thinking about this operation,” he eyed Fruehauf and Von Drachen pointedly for emphasis, “those of us, we are focusing on how best to deploy our artillery for its maximum effect. That is what the data you so derisively refer to has been deployed toward, and that is one of the reasons for the maps you have taken great pleasure in joking about.”

“Ah, I think it is my turn to say you’ve missed my point!” Von Drachen said amicably. “You see, this is only an example, and I believe there is a wider lesson you failed to–”

Von Sturm covered his face with his hands. “Messiah’s sake, shut up Von Drachen!”

While the bickering ricocheted from one side of the table to another, a young woman conspicuously stood from the radio table, and crept shyly across the room toward Fruehauf, whispering something into her ear. The Signals Chief, in turn, crept toward Von Sturm’s side of the table, and waited uneasily for him to stop shouting and acknowledge her. With a heavy sigh, and after about a minute of berating the room, he finally did call to her.

“What is it now, Fruehauf? I thought I said not to bother me with minor reports.”

“Sir, I’m sorry, but we are receiving erratic reports from the South-Central sector.”

Von Drachen perked up from the stony, anhedonic face he made through Von Sturm’s shouting. A strange grin stretched ear to ear across his face. “Erratic how, my dear?”

Fruehauf continued to address Von Sturm as though Von Drachen was not there. “Several units in Matumaini sent forward platoons to link up the front along all the byways stretching from the main street; those units fell out of contact, and we’re receiving many requests to reestablish contact with them. Most of them have been in vain. We believe this signals stiffening enemy resistance. Some units are even reporting tanks counterattacking.”

“You could’ve just said the last line. No need to be so dramatic.” Von Sturm replied. “Release the anti-tank gun platoons from the regiments as quickly as possible and have them directly engage. Ayvartan tanks are no match for an AT gun of any size.”

Fruehauf nodded. “I shall have my teams pass along those orders.”

The Chief Signals Officer sat on the table by her other girls, and communications were feverishly reestablished and passed along. Von Drachen watched as for the first time, Von Sturm seemed to put away his maps and develop an interest in news from the front.

25-AG-30 Matumaini 4th, 42nd Rifles Rear Echelon

As the enemy pushed into the 3rd Battalion area, Corporal Chadgura, Gulab and the remainder of the 3rd Platoon were sent farther back, almost out to Sese Street at the edge of the central district. Nominally they were there to “refit” but it seemed that reinforcement was not forthcoming. This “refitting” took place in the middle of a main road and in two surrounding alleyways. Leaderless remnants of the 42nd Rifles’ 2nd Battalion waited.

Gulab stood with her back to a supply truck on the edge of the road, and Chadgura stood out in the middle of the car road and exchanged brief words with people going to the front. Everything around Gulab was quiet, and she was shaken by the stillness.

In that moment of stark silence that followed the chaos before, Gulab’s head felt like it housed a beating heart. Everything hurt, from her flesh, to her own thoughts.

She cast glum eyes at the Corporal, who herself cast a wan, empty look up the street.

Corporal Chadgura had saved her life; were it not for her, Gulab would be lying in the intersection with many of her comrades. And yet, the fact that Chadgura had nothing to say about that, nothing on her face, no the tiniest glint of pity in her eyes when Gulab peered into them – it unsettled her deeply. She wanted to know what would be made of her for her failure. She needed a reprimand or a dismissal, to allow her to carry on.

It seemed from Corporal Chadgura nothing was forthcoming.

There was painful silence.

Then there was a low rumbling and a labored metal clipping noise.

Gulab snapped her head up, startled by the sound of the tracks. Her head filled with images of the Nochtish assault guns that had devastated the carefully-laid defenses on the intersection, and she heard the cannons and smelled the smoke and iron. Her body shook.

Corporal Chadgura raised her hand and waved to the north. Gulab exhaled ruefully.

A column of vehicles approached them.

There were eight heavy infantry-carrier half-tracks in black and red KVW colors from the Motorized Rifle Division. Between them they carried a whole Company, 200 soldiers, 25 and a commander crammed tight in each vehicle’s bed, with two vehicles to a platoon. It was a handy contrivance, though the vehicles themselves were lightly armored and barely armed with a light machine gun at the top, shooting over the driver’s compartment.

None of the vehicles had their tarps on, so Gulab could see all the people inside the skeletal walls of their beds, all wearing the same dour expression as Corporal Chadgura.

Behind them followed a tank, though Gulab had never seen one it like before.

The Half-Tracks parked around the refitting area, in alleys and around corners.

Black and red uniformed soldiers dropped out of the half-tracks in organized ranks, carrying rifles of a different pattern than Gulab was used to. They were not bundu rifles, because they had a box magazine under them, and the wood had a black tint, and they were thicker, shorter. The KVW troops deployed with precision toward the fighting.

Two platoons strode forward, side-to-side in a rank that covered both streets, with one platoon following – a triangle formation. One platoon was in reserve, and these men and women stood silently along with the survivors of the 42nd Rifles’ 1st Battalion.

Meanwhile the Tank drove to the middle of the refit area and waited, cutting its engine.

A man clad in red and gold approached Corporal Chadgura and he saluted her.

She saluted back.

His sharp and prominent facial features, a strong nose, thick lips, a heavy brow, and narrowed eyes, conveyed a grimmer expression than seen on the other KVW soldiers, but Gulab surmised this was not his own doing. Chadgura’s own dull expression in comparison was a product of her softer features. When the man spoke tonelessly she knew him to be the same as the Corporal; his voice was no more nor less emotive than hers in any way.

“Corporal Chadgura, Command has called for the counterattack to begin.” He said.

“Yes sir. What role has been assigned to me? I wish to participate in the battle.”

The KVW Lieutenant craned his head to give the refitting area a brief look.

”I’d say you have about a platoon’s worth of good soldiers. Leave behind any who are wounded. They needn’t expose themselves to further harm. I am putting the Ogre tank at your disposal; lead it around the alleys and buildings in a surprise attack against Matumaini 3rd.” He pressed a portable short-range radio into Corporal Chadgura’s hands. “This will allow you to communicate with the tank. The crew is fresh and will need your support.”

Corporal Chadgura saluted again. “Yes Lieutenant. I have experience with this.”

“The Motherland counts on you comrade; may you be guided to victory.”

Chadgura left the man’s side, and ambled toward the 3rd Platoon in the alley.

Gulab thought she was heading straight for her.

She had overheard all of the conversation and had it clear as day – she was coming over to tell Gulab to round up the wounded and leave. She herself had been hurt in the fighting, and Chadgura knew this. From the moment the Corporal stepped into the alleyway however Gulab was determined to fight. Her heart was racing, but she would not accept being either dead weight or an afterthought left in the refitting area.

“Permission to speak, ma’am!” She shouted immediately at the Corporal.

Corporal Chadgura blinked. “You don’t need permission to talk to me.”

“Ma’am!” Gulab saluted stiffly and raised her voice. “With all due respect, I understand that I have not acquitted myself to the standards of excellence that are expected of a socialist comrade in this most esteemed Territorial Army! I have been mildly injured and I have become distracted! But I feel a terrible fury toward the imperialists, and I understand now the stakes we face! I wish only to ask you for a second chance! I wish to impress upon you in the strongest terms that I am a capable warrior who will prove invaluable! In the mountains of the Kucha I hunted deadly Rock Bears with the men of my tribe, and though at first I did not fully understand nor respect my prey I came to learn its strength and defeated it, and proved myself to my ancestors! I wish for you to give me the same second chance that my Grandfather did, so I may amend my earlier mistakes! Thank you for listening and considering me, Corporal! I hope my words speak true to you Corporal!”

Her tone had risen almost to a shriek and tears welled up in her eyes.

She delivered her filibuster, and saluted again after a few seconds of utter silence.

Corporal Chadgura blinked again, twice.

She rubbed her eyes a little.

Everyone left in the 3rd Platoon was staring silently at Gulab. Gulab began to shake a little, but held her stiff and awkward salute. She avoided the Corporal’s blank gaze.

Her story was a touch embellished.

“It was not my intention to dismiss you. I apologize for upsetting you, Private Kajari. I should have been more open with you; but I have a latent anxiety toward communication.”

Corporal Chadgura saluted. She raised her voice. It sounded oddly hollow and forced, a poor attempt to be emphatic. “I think of you as a valuable comrade, Private Kajari!”

Everyone else in the Platoon looked confused. Now Gulab just felt like a bully.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Gulab muttered, bowing her head low.

Corporal Chadgura clapped her hands once as though she wanted to hear the sound.

“I have not forgotten that you are part of my command cadre, Private Kajari. I’d like you to help me quickly form a platoon, and to send the wounded on their way.” She said.

Gulab felt a pang of guilt.

Of course; that was why Chadgura was approaching her all along.

Feeling ashamed of her insecurities and embarrassed by the show she had put on in front of the Platoon, but putting it all temporarily aside to perform her work, Gulab helped the Corporal gather volunteers for the ad-hoc platoon. She rushed from person to person on one side of the street, explaining briefly that they were following the tank to perform a flanking attack, and as such they would not suffer the brunt of the enemy fire now.

This characterization of the mission appealed to several people, but many were still too shaken or wounded to participate. Fifteen minutes later Gulab and Chadgura had gathered about 35 enthusiastic people in three squadrons around the tank.

“Congratulations, 3rd Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon.” Chadgura said in a dreary voice.

She clapped her hands twice this time in front of her face.

A KVW staff aide in a skirt uniform helped pull a crate over to the new platoon.

They deposited their bolt-action Bundu rifles, trading them for submachine guns with drum magazines. For the squad leaders, the Corporal, and Gulab, new rifles were procured, fitting the KVW’s odd new pattern. Much to Gulab’s surprise, this new rifle was automatic. Corporal Chadgura explained the action briefly – a switch on the side for automatic or trigger-pull fire, and an option to press down to trigger the automatic fire immediately. She fired off an entire 15-round magazine into an empty window nearby to demonstrate.

“This is a Nandi carbine. Be careful not to waste ammunition. Fire in short bursts.”

Chadgura briefed the squad leaders on more than just the new rifles – with a map of the Southern district they quickly drew up the best way to sweep around the buildings. Gulab stood with the Corporal as the squad leaders took amicable command of their troops.

Once everyone was ready to move the Ogre started its engine, and with Corporal Chadgura at the head the assault platoon got on its way. Gulab marched alongside the Corporal, out of the refit area and down the street, a kilometer behind the KVW’s push back into the embattled Matumaini. They marched with two squadrons forward, the Tank and the Command Cadre in the center, and a squadron trailing behind; another triangle.

“Up ahead we will be making our first detour.” Corporal Chadgura said. She raised her radio to her ear and called the same command into it for the benefit of the tank crew.

First detour point was a long alleyway between two small tenement buildings that would lead them west. Chadgura ordered the tank ahead to start clearing the path.

Slowly and brutally the Ogre forced its way through, smashing a long wound on both walls at its sides with its armored track guards and breaking through a separator at the end with its sheer weight and strength. A simple push against the brick wall toppled it.

Smashing into a broad courtyard, the tank stopped, waiting for the rifle squadrons to catch up. Awed by the size and power of this strange tank, the platoon hurried, all the while stealing glances at the machine’s handiwork. From the courtyard, they would cross into a long alley and push their way south. They were a few hundred meters from the road.

Before they got going, the Corporal extended a hand to Gulab, gently slipping her fingers between Gulab’s own and guiding her toward the Ogre. She gestured toward it.

“We must climb aboard the tank, Private Kajari. This is called riding tank desant.”

Gulab nodded nervously. Corporal Chadgura helped boost her onto the track, and then she climbed on the back and knelt behind the turret. The Corporal followed, easily climbing the tank, first pulling herself up the tracks, then behind it, over the engine block. She stood confidently, with one hand bracing herself on the turret and another on her radio.

Gulab felt the vibrations of metal transferring to her body, a constant stirring of her flesh from the tank’s booming engine behind them and the wide, thick tracks beneath them. The Ogre pushed ahead of the platoon again, tearing down another separator wall and exposing the long alley between the tenement buildings along Matumaini’s western street.

Warm streams of smoke periodically rose from exhaust points on the back of the tank, and Gulab tried not to breathe it in. The smoke was grayish-white and a little smelly but easy enough to avoid by sticking to the center of the tank and hugging the turret.

In the relative safety of the alleyways the platoon and the tank frequently traded places in the lead, and Chadgura stood more often than she probably would in battle. Gulab stayed on her knees, peeking around the side of the tank frequently, practicing by aiming her new rifle at things. She felt anxious and tense. Every building they passed was quiet and desolate.

Gulab had never been in a big city before. To her, the alleyways were like a maze and even the broad intersection they had fought to defend was akin to a cage. In her village houses were separated by dozens of meters of green rising and falling around the dirt roads. She lived on a low peak and yet she could see the whole mountain range from her house.

Comparatively Bada Aso felt flat and tight, though it seemed to curve subtly, so the visible horizon was nearer than she thought it should be. It did not need to fog to cloud her vision, for there always seemed to be something in the way. And yet it felt even less alive than the emptiness of the open mountain. Most of the people had gone. If there was an innocent soul remaining in these tight, gloomy buildings and streets, it had her pity.

That place of her youth was not this place. Then again, she too, was not the same.

Other people might have noticed something in Gulab’s eyes, but Corporal Chadgura did not. She was absorbed with her map, and with her radio. She called in commands, pointed out walls which could be pulverized, buildings which could be driven through.

The Ogre smashed through a tenement wall, ran over an entertainment room for the tenants that had been stripped of its television but not the chairs; they smashed through a small desolate infirmary where only educational posters about the stomach and lungs remained to denote it as such; as though walking through sheets of paper the tank smashed through wall after wall. Behind it, the infantry cast glances about, as if in an alien land.

When it finally came out the other end of the rubble, the tank waited until the infantry overtook it and led the way through a side-street, and into another alleyway. Distantly they heard guns and rifles going off on Matumaini, and the booming of mortar shells, and the thundering of hundreds of stamping feet. They neared their first combat objectives.

“Everybody keep your eyes peeled!” Chadgura shouted, insofar as she even could. “We will soon turn and thrust into the belly of the enemy force. I will be calling in targets for the tank. Space your formation, and selectively target enemies threatening the tank.”

Riding atop the monster of a tank, Gulab wondered what even could threaten it.

She felt utterly superfluous, and yet, still endangered. What was her small strength, to the thundering blows of two gigantic armies? She had seen it in the intersection, and she felt it now, in these desolate concrete halls overseen by the gray, darkening sky. She felt she had caught a glimpse of war’s true magnitude, and it unsettled her convictions deeply.

25-AG-30 Matumaini 3rd, 6th Grenadiers Advance

Machine guns roared from a clinic building at the end of a small byway half a kilometer from Matumaini. On a prominent balcony the gun, set on an anti-aircraft swivel, easily cast lead across the streets, a steady stream covering the approaches to the building.

Soon as the shooting began the landsers of the assault platoon dispersed into nearby buildings, beating down doors for access and setting themselves up on windows, trying to pick off the shooter from safety. But the advantage of high ground against the flat buildings surrounding it, and the thick concrete balustrade of the balcony, made this little gun position a virtual stronghold at the end of the cul de sac. Its shooting continued unabated.

Now the men in buildings could not leave – they would be picked off at the doorways!

“We’ll sneak up on it.” Voss whispered to his men. “We’ll go through the back, cross the street, and break into the clinic from the alley. We’ll disable it from inside.”

“You don’t think they’ll have someone posted there?” Kern asked.

“I’ll take my chances with riflemen on a window. Better than big guns on a balcony.”

Kern had no rebuttal to that. He followed Voss and his two original companions from the struggle on Matumaini, Hart and Alfons, out the back of the building. They smashed one of the windows rounded out the back to a tight space between the building and a brick fence, running along the buildings and intended to cut the byway off from other blocks.

Kern and his new squadron crept along the back of the building, and stopped at the furthest end still covered by the building, standing out of sight at the edge of the street. They were aligned with the clinic’s own little alley, and needed only to run out to it. There were only about twenty or twenty-five meters of separation between their alley and the clinic across the street, and the gun could easily angle on them while they ran.

“I’ll go first. If the gun gets me, don’t try it. Back off and call for help.” Voss said.

Hart and Alfons nodded their heads. Kern kept quiet.

The landsers parted as much as they could between the walls and allowed Voss to the front. He knelt, and looked out to the street and over to the balcony. Bursts of machine gun fire erupted against targets out of sight. Kern saw Voss counting with his fingers.

Moments later he found whatever cue he had been waiting for, and without further hesitation Voss launched out of cover, running as fast as his legs could carry him and his gear. He crossed the distance in under fifteen seconds it seemed, and unnoticed he dashed into the alley and waved emphatically for the rest of the squad to follow. Without organization the three men waiting behind the building ran out across the street as well.

Kern got a good look at the balcony as he ran.

He saw the fierce focus and determination evident on the gunner’s face as he watched the opposite street, raining bullets down on the byway and chewing up the nearby walls.

The squad squeezed behind the clinic without incident.

Everyone laid up against the walls, catching their breaths. There were no windows on this side of the ground floor. There was no door either – it would’ve opened up to brick. It wouldn’t even have been able to open up all the way! “Where to now?” Kern asked.

Voss, breathing heavily, pointed his index finger directly overhead.

“Climb on the brick fence, then to the second floor.” He said, inhaling and exhaling.

“We’re not Gebirgs Voss, messiah’s sake.” Alfons blurted out. Hart said nothing.

“You’ve got arms don’t you? Give me a boost. I’ll get you up.” Voss replied calmly.

Hart and Alfons knelt and pushed Voss up by the soles of his shoes, lifting him until he could grab the top of the brick wall fencing off the byway. He pulled himself atop the smooth brown brick. Voss looked over the wall in every direction briefly, and then gave an all-clear – it was safe to stand on it without being spied on. Carefully he raised himself to his full height on both legs, and he leaped from the brick wall and grabbed hold of a window frame. He pulled himself up into the clinic and leaned back out.

Hart and Alfons nodded to Kern, and boosted him up next.

He climbed the fence, and with Voss’ help he too made it to the window.

Inside, Kern drew his pistol. His rifle would be too long and unwieldy to fight in the building interior. It was gloomy but enough light came in from the gray sky that he could see the layout of the room well. He was in a clinic office. There were posters hung up on the wall, of children’s anatomy, their teeth, their hair; a basket of food in another poster perhaps suggested a healthy diet. Didn’t the Ayvartans ration?

Kern was struck by how peaceful and ordinary this scene was.

Places the enemy called home; and yet communism or not, couldn’t this have been a scene in the fatherland? Though everything was written in the Ayvartans’ script, illegible to him, he felt familiar to this vacated place. There was a small set of weighing scales, old wrapped hard candies overturned from a basket, and a colorful height chart, adorned with a cartoon giraffe, topping out at 140 centimeters. This was a small neighborly clinic for young children. The young landser felt tears almost rising to his eyes.

Why did this place have to be a battlefield? What was he even doing here?

Hart and Alfons climbed inside, and everyone silently grouped together.

They organized themselves by the door to the office, with Kern and Voss on the left side, and Hart and Alfons a few steps back front of the door. They opened the door – Kern and Voss raised their pistols to cover the right and Hart and Alfons looked to the left.

A hallway leading from the door ended dead on their left and stretched right. There was a door opposite theirs. Voss stacked up on it, and Hart and Alfons opened it, but there was no one inside – just another empty clinic office with a window. They pushed on.

Kern followed the squadron as they crept across the featureless hallway, following it past a long staircase leading to the bottom floor, and to the door at the other end. There were no other doors along the hall on either side except for that one.

As they approached Kern heard the blaring of the machine gun from the other side of the door. Everyone readied themselves to breach while the enemy was still unaware.

Voss counted to three with his fingers, then they kicked open the door.

Inside was a larger room than the office they climbed into.

There was no immediate resistance, and in their rush the men saw nobody along the desk or near the walls, nobody standing, and all their eyes turned to the balcony instead.

Voss, Hart and Alfons rushed to the curtains and opened fire, emptying their ten-round magazines on automatic mode through the cloth and riddling the silhouettes of the gunner and loader before they could launch a bullet more down on their platoon in the street.

Kern caught up and threw the curtains open – they found a man, slumped dead over a box of ammunition belts, and a woman collapsed over the gun itself. Both quite dead.

Everyone stood still, breathing heavily, their pistols raised on stiff arms.

Slowly they put down their weapons. “They had support at all.” Voss said.

Kern looked over the room again.

Here the cartoon giraffe was replaced by a taller caricature, a dragon along the wall, and the scales were larger. It seemed a more professional office, a bit less homey and innocent. Perhaps for older children and teenagers, and young adults.

Then Kern found a trail of blood along the floor, as though of a body dragged.

He raised his hand to alert the others, and slowly walked around the side of the large wooden desk, pistol in hand. He found life, faint as it was.

Two people had been laid behind the desk. One was a girl, looking very little past her teens, a thick cloth patched over her uniform on her shoulder, sticky and black with spilled blood. Her brown skin was turning a sickly pale, and she was tossing in restless sleep or unconsciousness. Another was a black-skinned older man, with thick, long hair on his head and heavy wrinkling around his eyes, but perfectly shaven cheeks and chin.

He was awake.

He looked at Kern with eyes pleading for mercy. His leg and stomach had heavy, wet cloths set on them, and he breathed heavily, but did not speak. He had lost a lot of blood.

Kern lowered his pistol, but he was immediately anxious.

He stared, not knowing what to say or to do.

Voss hurried to his side, and then stood in place as well, transfixed by the wounded communists, laying so vulnerable behind the desk. They had no weapons on them, and no capability to fight anyway. Kern didn’t even know if they could survive their wounds.

“Let’s just leave them.” Voss said, patting Kern strongly on the shoulder. He started trying to pull the stricken boy away. “Let’s leave them here to whatever their fate, alright? We disabled the gun, someone else can take care of this more properly than we can.”

Hart and Alfons nodded from across the room.

They did not seem eager to draw near the desk.

“Go out and signal the men that it’s clear.” Voss ordered. “And Kern, let’s go.”

He shook Kern more roughly, and the young landser drew slowly back from the wounded communists, until they were hidden from him again by the desk. How old could that girl have been? And how old was he, was he old enough to be in the midst of this? As he pulled away Hart and Alfons walked out to the balcony, shouting loudly in Nochtish, and when they found it safe to do so they also waved and jumped and tried to catch the attention of the men huddling in the buildings and alleys across from the clinic.

Klar, klar! they shouted, and men shouted back.

Voss tried to guide him back to hallway, but Kern was fixated on the desk.

“Come on, come on Kern; don’t get jelly-brained on me now, boy.”

It was shaking.

Kern saw strewn objects atop the desk, a pen, a little candy pot, shaking.

He pried himself loose from Voss’ grip and pushed him back. “Hart, Alfons, get back!”

Beside the clinic there was a rumbling and a series of thudding noises as bricks well.

Something had gone through the wall.

Rifles cracked from both sides of the street.

Noise; a deep, gaseous sound for a split second followed by a long rolling thoom.

Alfons and Hart fell back from the balcony in a panic, and Kern dropped to the ground with surprise. Voss rushed boldly to the edge of the balcony, kneeling and with his back to the wall. Through the balustrade on the balcony the squadron watched as the building across the street, diagonal from the clinic, burst suddenly and violently open.

A high-explosive shell flew through a window and exploded in the interior, casting a wave of debris and smoke from the windows, blowing the door from the inside out, tearing through the wall like paper and toppling men standing on the street nearby. Following the blast a torrent of bullets perforated the walls and showered the streets. Half the building collapsed, the roof crushing the porous wall, and burying whoever remained inside.

A massive tank cleared the clinic’s alleyway and became visible from the balcony.

Following in its wake was a platoon full of muted green uniforms.

“Scheiße!” Voss cursed in a horrified whisper. Kern was mute from the sight.

“Hart, you’ve a panzerwurfmine, right?” Alfons asked, tugging on Hart’s satchel.

Speechless, Hart opened his pack, and withdrew the bomb, his hands shaking violently. The grenade had a round head affixed to a thin body with folding canvas fins. Kern had no idea how such a thing could even be operated, or what it would do to such a large tank.

“No, put that thing back!” Voss shouted. “No heroics. We’re leaving now.”

“Leaving where?” Alfons shouted back. “We’re surrounded! We have to fight!”

“We’ll go through the window in the office, jump the brick fence, land on the other side, and hoof it back to Matumaini. We can’t stay here! They’ll storm the building soon!”

Kern glanced over to the desk. Would the communists find their own wounded there?

“Let’s go.” Voss ordered. He stood first and quickly led the way out.

Kern followed unsteadily, his steps swaying as though he were in the middle of an earthquake, feeling his blood thrashing through his veins, his heart and lungs ragged from the effort to keep him standing. Hart and Alfon followed roughly pushing and patting and shoving Kern forward all the way to the office. Voss waved for a man to step out.

He practically shoved Hart and Alfons out the window. It was a five or six meter drop, not exactly pleasant. Kern leaped, and cleared the wall, and he hit his knees and elbows on the other side, rolling down a slight concrete decline behind an old house.

Voss dropped in last, and urged everyone to move, waving his hands down the alley.

Behind the wall they heard the tank gun blaring, and the crushing of concrete and wood.

“Wait!” Kern shouted. He couldn’t get the wounded communists out of his mind.

Back on the clinic balcony those machine gunners were taking care of their downed comrades as best as they could. And in turn, running away from the byway like this did not feel right. He was abandoning his own companions. They would be left there, forgotten, if nobody tried to fight for them. “We need to call this in. I’ve got a radio.” He withdrew it and showed it to Voss. This was the least he could do for the men dying back there.

Hart, Alfons and Voss stared at him a moment before conceding.

They huddled underneath the awning of a little house nearby, and away from windows.

Everyone was anxious, but they kept quiet as they set up for the call.

Kern pulled up the antennae on his radio and adjusted the frequency according to Voss’s officer booklet with the operation’s active channels. They quickly found the one.

He flicked the switch, and with a trembling in his voice, declared, “This is private Kern Beckert, 6th Grenadier 2nd Battalion. A massive tank is wiping us out!” He gulped and tried to control the shaking in his jaw. “Repeat, we are being overwhelmed by an Ayvartan tank. It is huge! It is nothing like those in the drawings. We need help. I repeat, 6th Division 2nd Battalion, we’re in a byway deep in Matumaini and a tank is driving us back!”

25-AG-30 Matumaini 3rd, Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon

They heard the fighting across the wall and prepared to burst through and rescue everyone. But they had been too late. Only moments before the Ogre tank smashed into the byway, the machine gun had gone silent, never to fire again.

The Ogre’s fury more than made up for the loss.

Its cannon roared, and a squadron of Nochtish troops was cooked inside a small house and the machine gunners avenged. Armed with two machine guns, one coaxial to the main gun and another fixed on the front, the Ogre unleashed a stream of inaccurate fire as it trundled forward that nonetheless sent the imperialists running and ducking.

Gulab marveled at the sheer brutal power of the machine.

There was no comparing this to a Goblin tank. It seemed that nothing on Aer could stop the beast from its indefatigable march. Soon as the tank was in the byway proper, the platoon following it rushed forward, submachine guns screaming for the enemy’s blood. Gulab readied her new Nandi carbine, turning the switch to select fire, and girded her loins to meet the fighting head-on. She had to contribute this time. She had to.

“Concentrate your fire on guarding us and the tank.” Chadgura told her.

Even following that directive, there was no shortage of targets.

There was a large platoon, perhaps two, of the enemy’s soldiers in the byway, caught unawares. At the sight of the tank a few men lost their nerve and ran, but on the road they ran through more gunfire than open air, the trails of bullets flying past them a hundred a second it seemed, and they were shredded moments into their escape. Most of the men stuck to cover and tried to fight back, but the volume of fire was too heavy, and they spent the engagement with their shoulders to whatever rock could hide them from bullets.

Ayvartan Raksha submachine guns showered the enemy’s improsived positions with frequent bursts of fire, and the twin machine guns on the Ogre seemed bottomless, stopping only briefly to allow barrels to cool. To avoid friendly fire the platoon kept to the sides of the tank, and in this way the torrent of lead methodically expanded from the breach beside the clinic, conserving the tank’s powerful 76mm explosive shells.

“Clear the alleyways!” Chadgura shouted from atop the tank. Her voice, raised so loud, sounded strangely powerful to Gulab. “They may try to ambush the tank!”

Clinking noises followed in rapid succession; bullets struck the top corner of the Ogre’s turret to match the end of Chadgura’s sentence, harmlessly bouncing off the steel a few centimeters from the Corporal. Had the Spirits, or Ancestors, or the Light, whichever, not been guarding her she would have been perforated through the shoulder and neck.

Breathlessly Gulab raised herself to her knees, braced her gun atop the tank’s turret and quickly zeroed in on a second floor window fifty meters or so away and to their upper right, where she saw a man with a long rifle, feeding in a clip and working the bolt.

He had a good diagonal angle on them, enough to hit the back of the tank over its turret.

Eyes strained and unblinking, Gulab held her breath and rapped the trigger with her finger, feeling each kick of the Nandi carbine on her shoulder as five consecutive bullets cut the distance and smeared the man’s face and neck into the air and the window frame.

His body slumped, and his rifle slid from his fingers down the roof.

“Good shot, Private Kajari. Thank you.” Corporal Chadgura replied.

She put down her radio, and clapped her hands three times in front of her face.

Gulab nodded her head, and inhaled for what seemed like the first time in minutes.

Corporal Chadgura seemed to require no earthly resource to continue. Despite a brush with death and having forced her voice throughout the attack, the woman tirelessly issued orders without slowing down. She called again for the platoon to charge, and through her radio she ordered the tank to give them the opportunity. The Ogre’s machine guns quieted, and it hung back, creeping forward at a snail’s pace while the infantry took the lead.

“Squads split into two, chargers to rush enemy positions and shooters to stay back and keep them pinned. Fire on the enemy’s cover and punish any centimeter of flesh they expose! Rush at the enemy from the sides and drag them to melee!” Chadgura shouted.

Had her voice held any affect, Gulab would have thought these orders bloodthirsty. From the Corporal they likely came solely from proper training and cold rationale.

Her words had an immediate effect. Squadrons rearranged themselves mid-battle and grew efficient. Whereas before it was a wall of fire flying from hips and shoulders without regard, now men and women reloaded with a purpose, and marched in a deadly formation.

With a battle cry the platoon fearlessly charged the enemy’s positions.

They had the offensive initiative, and their enemy was helpless before the onslaught. There was almost no retaliatory fire, and what little was presented the platoon seemed to run past, as though the bullets would fly harmlessly through them. With their submachine guns, short-barreled and compact, easy to wield in tight quarters and able to fire numerous rounds in a quick, controlled fashion, the Ayvartans had the edge in this street fight.

Leading elements of each squadron overran enemy cover and drew them out. Shooters trailing behind fired short, well-aimed bursts around their comrades. Sheer frequency and volume of fire kept the Nochtmen pinned down and unable to move or retaliate, rendering them vulnerable to being flanked. Comrades hooked easily around trees and trash cans and porch staircases being used for cover, and with impunity they entered buildings through side windows or even front doors, and they jumped into alleyways, guns blazing, catching the enemy with their backs to cover and unable to respond. Soon there seemed to be a dead man sitting behind every hard surface, his rifle hugged stiffly to his chest.

Inside a few buildings Gulab saw bayonets flashing and comrades exiting triumphant.

One after another they cleared the alleys and emptied the buildings.

The Ogre advanced out of the byway toward the main street, having fired only a single shell the whole way. Light wounds were all the Ayvartans incurred through the byway. It was astonishing. Gulab had received training in firing her weapon and very basic tactics – cover, throwing grenades, calling for help on the radio, jumping over and around obstacles.

Chadgura however had led them to victory against an enemy. Gulab was sure of this.

Then behind the Ogre tank, Gulab heard someone knocking on the metal.

She shook the Corporal’s shoulder, and they turned around together.

Following alongside the tank, a young man had been trying to get their attention.

“Yes, Private? Have your comrades found something?”

The Private saluted. “Ma’am! We found two comrades wounded in that clinic.”

“How badly?” Corporal Chadgura asked. She clapped her hands together.

“They have been bleeding for some time it seems. Very pale.” He replied.

Gulab covered her mouth with anxiety, but Chadgura did not hesitate for a moment.

“I’m not sure how swiftly we can bring medical attention to them. Ordering common troops to haul them around roughly could be the death of them – leave a radio operator with them and call for medical. Have them follow our trail through the alleys.”

The Private nodded his head and ran back to the clinic along with a radio operator.

Gulab uttered a little prayer for the wounded on her side, lying in their own cold blood.

At least comrades had found them now, whether still alive or in the endless sleep.

Having dispatched resistance on the byway, the 3rd Platoon pushed forward.

Their prize was ahead.

The Corporal invited Gulab to look through her binoculars, and she spotted columns of soldiers moving down the main street. Regrettably they would not have the element of surprise on the thoroughfare – there were no more walls to burst, and in the distance Gulab saw the Nochtish soldiers pointing down the byway, and running for the cover found on either side of the road. They had a fight on their hands. Gulab handed the binoculars back, and loaded a fresh magazine. She was amazed at how simple it was, to simply push a box under her carbine and pull the bolt. She had hurt her thumb before trying to load a Bundu!

“Platoon, stack behind the tank! Use it as moving cover!” Chadgura shouted.

A hundred meters ahead at the end of the byway Nochtish soldiers barred their passage, hurriedly pushing two metal carriages into position on each street corner. Small tow-able anti-tank guns, aiming for the Ogre. Each had six men to it, huddling behind the gun shields.

Chadgura called the tank crew. “Shift turret thirty degrees right and fire!”

Gulab covered her ears and the Ogre retaliated.

While its machine guns renewed their relentless tide of iron, battering the metal shields in front of the AT guns, the Ogre’s main 76mm gun was reloaded and brought to bear after its long quiet within the byway. There was marvelous power behind it. Gulab felt her heart and stomach stir, while a puff of smoke and the vibrations of the recoil forces on the metal announced the shot. An explosive shell hurtled toward the enemy like a red dart. In an instant the shell completely overflew the enemy gun crew and exploded over six meters behind them in the middle of the street, throwing back a smattering of infantry.

“Reload with High-Explosive, adjust aim and fire again.” Chadgura ordered.

Bracing for the enemy’s attack, Gulab hid behind the tank’s projecting turret basket.

Given an opportunity, the enemy anti-tank guns unleashed their own firepower, each launching their 37mm armor-piercing shells through their long, thin barrels. Launched at an angle against the sides, they stood a better chance of penetrating ordinary armor in a weak spot, and entering the tank. Ayvartan shells tended to detonate after that; but the Nochtish guns usually fired solid projectiles that fragmented wildly inside the turret instead.

But where the Ogre roared the enemy guns merely whined.

Both 37mm shells plunged directly into the thick sides of the tank’s front hull and ricocheted, spinning back into the air without even leaving a dent. Then the shells came to lie uselessly by the side of the road. It was an incredible sight. Gulab did not even know that shells could respond in such a way. No penetration, no damage at all. Thrown aside.

Whether the Nochtish troops fought in disbelief of the failure of their shots, or whether they were even paying attention as they hurried to defend against the tank, Gulab did not know. But the AT guns continued to open fire as fast as their crew could reload.

Shell after shell pounded the front of the Ogre. Fighting back, the lumbering giant traded a few of its own shots back, one exploding a few meters behind the battle line formed between the two guns and rattling the enemy crews, and a second moments later blowing up almost directly in front of the rightmost gun, and blinding it with dust and smoke.

Staunchly opposing the Ayvartan advance a dozen shells in a row flew across the byway and slammed against the Ogre’s face without avail, striking the front tread guards, bouncing entirely off the slight slope on the front and sides, and flying in random directions.

A lucky shell struck the turret on its far side and shattered. Gulab felt metal dust and fragments graze her as they scattered across the surface, but then the Ogre’s gun fired, as if to say it was but a flesh wound. Gulab heard metal tearing and saw the rightmost enemy gun consumed by smoke and fire. Brutally the Ogre’s shell burst through the gun’s shield and exploded right on the crew, setting ablaze their ammunition and shredding the men.

Broken by the sight, the remaining enemy crew fled north, leaving behind their gun.

Speeding up, the Ogre overcame the battle line, running over the discarded AT gun. Gulab clung on to the turret as the tank’s left track rose momentarily, rolling against the enemy gun’s ballistic shield, and then crunching the gun under it into a flattened wreck.

“Private Kajari, keep your head down.” Chadgura said.

The Platoon had broken through to the middle of Matumaini and 3rd.

To the south they could see the intersection again, from where they had fled earlier.

Up north the Nochtish troops charged into pitched battle with the KVW.

Gulab saw the black and red uniforms in the distance, and from her vantage they seemed to stand in a line straddling the dark gray border made up of the Nochtish men. There were columns in either direction now, and the Ogre was holding them both up – the assaulting troops could not retreat into the Ogre and give space to the KVW push, and the reinforcements from the intersection would have to challenge the Ogre to move through.

That challenge was immediate.

From the south twelve men pushed two more anti-tank guns, their crews ignorant to the fate of the previous pair, and set them down 200 meters away down the southern end of the street, in a street corner partially obscured by rubble. Protecting them were three more men with a Norgler machine gun, who opened fire the moment the guns were set down. From the north, an assault gun firing into the KVW line began to pull back, turning into a street corner so it could double back to face the incoming tank. It approached from over 500 meters away and adjusted its gun, readying to stop and open fire at any moment.

“Platoon, take up positions on the right side of the road and pin down those anti-tank guns!” Chadgura shouted out. Then she raised her radio to her mouth and gave orders to the crew. “Load AP and turn the gun north. Keep the tank perpendicular to the road.”

They were going to engage the assault gun, and keep their sides to the enemy.

“Corporal, ma’am, are you sure about this?” Gulab asked.

Chadgura nodded. “Yes, I am sure of my decision. The sides will hold. Follow me.”

They leaped down off the back of the tank, and hid behind the hull rather than atop it.

Nocht afforded them no time to establish themselves any better.

It seemed as soon as their feet touched ground again that an onslaught of fire consumed both sides of the tank. Shots from the anti-tank guns pounded the right side of the Ogre, while a blast from the assault gun slammed the left side of the turret as it turned around.

Gulab and Chadgura ducked behind the tank, nearly thrown to the ground – the assault gun’s 75mm HE shell scattered a cloud of fragments and heat. The Ogre rocked on its left, partially covered in residual smoke. One of its own shells flew out from beneath the cloud and smashed into the front of the enemy assault gun. The Armor-Piercing High-Explosive shell detonated on the assault gun’s face, and caused it to rock violently, but did not kill it.

On the street the platoon’s three squadrons took to the standing buildings, and to the rubble of recent battles, and exchanged fire with the Norgler still over 150 meters away. From this distance they could not threaten the anti-tank guns with their submachine guns. Streams of automatic fire from the Ayvartan side of the street slammed on the gun shields. Gunfire flew inaccurately around the Norgler machine gunner and his team, who retaliated with greater precision, firing accurate bursts of automatic fire that pinned comrades behind rocks and fire hydrants and inside blown-out doorways and windows.

Though there was only one Norgler and eight bolt action rifles to over twenty submachine guns, the chopping sound of the gun intimidated the Ayvartans still, and its range, accuracy and position in cover made it more than a match for them. All the while the infantry dueled, the AT guns continued to fire on the Ogre’s exposed flank as though nothing were targeting them, but always to little avail. From the clouds of smoke rolling over the heavy tank, several small shells flew out constantly, deflected by the heavy armor.

Cutting the distance, the assault gun moved forward at full speed, stopped, adjusted, and opened fire again, slamming the Ogre’s track guard with an explosive shell. Fire and smoke blew again, and Gulab coughed, and buried her face against her knees.

She felt as though in the middle of an earthquake.

The Ogre punched back, planting a shell right into the face of the assault gun, and again causing the enemy vehicle to rock and jump. No penetration was achieved.

Armor was thickest in front.

In the midst of this fury Gulab felt terrified for her life. She covered her head and she nearly cried. “Corporal!” She shouted. “This is not working, we need to pull back! We can fight from the cover of the byway! We’re too exposed, you’re being reckless!”

“I apologize for not considering your feelings. But I will not consider your feelings.” Chadgura replied. She radioed the tank crew. “Keep firing AP on the glacis plate.”

Again the immobile Ogre spat a shell north-bound, hitting the assault gun and giving it pause. Southbound came a retaliatory shell, smashing the top of the rearmost track-guard.

In a split second Gulab threw herself on Corporal Chadgura and pressed her down flat.

Waves of pressure and heat washed over the top of the Ogre tank, and Gulab felt the fury of the explosive shell for a split second. It was as though she were trapped in the middle of a burning building, surrounded in a cage of fire, unable to breathe, unable to escape that building sensation over her skin. Heat and smoke and pressure would have crushed their heads had they stood a meter higher than they were.

Smoke rolled over the tank, and the heat dispersed.

On the ground Gulab felt Chadgura’s heart beating. Somehow they were alive.

Gulab stared into Chadgura’s eyes.

They were not blank – the depth of color was different than a normal person’s, so that they looked dull, but there was a tiny, glowing ring around the iris that was intense and beautiful. Her Corporal was flustered. She was emotional. Gulab felt her officer’s heart pounding, her lungs working raw. She was agitated. Perhaps not afraid, not like Gulab, but alive. It was strange, to see another person’s humanity so bared before her and to see, specifically, the humanity of her professional, toneless, bleak-voiced officer.

“Thank you. I am not unhappy to be in this position, Private Kajari.” Corporal Chadgura replied, her voice unshaken, dull as ever. “But we should perhaps move away.”

Gulab breathed in. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” She shouted.

She heard the sound of a second set of tracks growing closer to them.

The Nochtish assault gun stopped within seventy-five meters to shoot again.

Gulab had no time to brace herself for another shell.

She was spared – the assault gun was interdicted. Behind them the earth rumbled again as the Ogre launched another shell at its adversary, scoring a solid hit on the front plate. There was an explosion, and the shell a few centimeters into the armor and warped the hull around it, scoring a deep a dent into the metal just under the driver’s viewing slit. It looked as though a massive fist had punched the front of the vehicle out of shape.

This wound stopped the assault gun in its tracks.

Seventy-five meters away the machine stopped, its engine stirring gently.

“What happened?” Gulab asked, helping herself to stand via the Ogre’s tracks. She had thought despite the damage the tank was not penetrated and would try to shoot again, but it never did. It was like a corpse whose heart still somehow beat despite its wounds.

“Spalling.” Chadgura said. “Enough continuous damage done to the armor will warp the metal and cause screws and rivets and other small parts to burst under pressure. Inside the enclosure of a tank, they ricochet like bullets. The crew is probably dead.”

That answered why Chadgura had ordered the tank to continue shooting.

“There’s more than one way to kill a tank then.” Gulab mused, a bit in awe.

“Inside that hull there are people, and people are always vulnerable.”

Chadgura knocked her fist against the tank, and called on the radio. “Apologies for the momentary silence. Our lives were in temporary danger. Please turn the turret south.”

To the south fire was still being sporadically exchanged between the Platoon infantry and the Nochtish defenders, without much movement on either end

That was about to quickly change.

Following Chadgura’s direction the Ogre fired on the enemy’s Norgler team, and the shell punched through the rubble and exploded directly in the midst of the enemy troops. At once the Norgler and the four men around it seemed to become gaseous, and the anti-tank crews desperately pulled back their guns, trying to move them back along the street.

They could not outrun the Ogre’s turret and shells carrying their equipment. One shell landed easily behind the men of one of the guns and sent them falling, battered from the explosion. The Ogre reloaded, the turret ponderously lined up with the second gun. Finding themselves so directly targeted the men abandoned their gun entirely.

Hands up, screaming, they ran from the scene.

The Ogre held its next shell in the breech, and instead sprayed in their direction with its coaxial machine gun. One by one the six men in the crew toppled over in the distance.

Within these brutal, seemingly endless minutes the way south to the intersection was reopened. Throwing up their fists and crying with elation, the 3rd Ad-Hoc Platoon left their hiding places and reorganized around the tank, cheering and petting it like a good dog.

“You all did wonderfully.” Chadgura called out. She glanced briefly at Gulab.

Gulab averted her eyes nervously.

She glanced over the fighting on road to the north, and spotted a curtain of smoke expanding over the streets. Gunfire erupted from high windows and rooftops against the road; mortar rounds hit the street and thickened the cloud, the smoke rising up and obscuring the shooters on the high ground. Gulab alerted Chadgura to these events.

Moments later, Gulab spotted two dozen red and black uniforms creeping out of the smoke. Two squadrons of KVW infantry escaped the fighting in the upper street and rushed to their side, catching their breaths in the shadow of the Ogre tank.

Chadgura saluted them, and they bowed their heads back to her deferentially. It appeared there were not any higher-ranking officers among them.

“I hope more of you won’t risk their lives to reinforce me this way.” Chadgura said.

A young woman with a blank expression stepped forward out of the group and spoke.

“It is no problem, Corporal. We crept easily through our smoke. Nochtish resistance along the northern block has been confined to a few buildings, and those will soon fall. We’ve been ordered to support you in an attack on the intersection at the edge of Matumaini and 3rd. An additional heavy tank and supporting infantry will attack from the diagonal connecting road in the west, and a third heavy tank will attack from Goa Street in the east.”

Chadgura nodded and clapped her hands.

“Understood. Pvt. Kajari, back on the tank.”

Gulab nodded, and eyeing the KVW troops quizzically, she climbed back on top of the tank. Everyone assembled, and began to march south, to retake the intersection they had all run from just hours ago. But this time, she felt it would be quite different.

25-AG-30 1st Vorkampfer Rear Echelon

Von Sturm was furious; everything was spiraling out of his control.

Fruehauf and her girls struggled to keep up with the volume of radio traffic.

On Penance road the advance had failed to crack the Cathedral and was thrown back; on the Umaiha riverside a company of enemy infantry with unknown vehicle support had pushed the Cisseans back, forming an odd bulge in the lines; and Matumaini was turning into an unmitigated disaster. The Infantry Regiment that the 6th Grenadiers sent forward was being crushed to bits piecemeal. Recon trips into small byways had become suicide missions as platoons and companies were crushed by tanks driving in from nowhere.

There was little hard intelligence on what was transpiring past the intersection on Matumaini. At first Von Sturm had given reasonable, by-the-book orders. But nothing seemed to stick, in-combat communication was erratic, and after-action reports were scarce.

Every gun battle his troops seemed to get into was an annihilating event that nobody seemed able to speak of. Worst of all, countermeasures were growing ineffective. Attempts by anti-tank platoons to stifle the enemy had been brutally repulsed. Air support was not forthcoming. Their armor was supposed to be preparing to assault the Kalu, but the mustering was broken up now because Panzer elements had to be reorganized and rushed into the city. Already Von Sturm had lost an assault gun platoon and a dozen anti-tank guns.

It was sheer, maddening chaos.

Fruehauf bounced back and forth between her radios and the horrified staff along the planning table. At first she had tried to smile but that facade wore thin. Now each trip seemed to unhinge Von Sturm further. Soon he devolved into outright rabid shouting.

“SHELLS. DO NOT. BOUNCE OFF!” Von Sturm shouted at Fruehauf accentuating each bit of sentence, wringing his hands in the air as though he meant to strangle her.

“I know it is strange General!” Fruehauf said, shielding herself with her clipboard. She looked on the verge of tears from all the tension and the shouting and the anxiety in the room. She continued, nearly pleading, visibly shaking in front of the General. “But those are the reports we’re receiving! Our anti-tank guns can’t penetrate these tanks!”

“That is impossible!” Von Sturm shouted, approaching her dangerously. “Impossible! They have nothing that can withstand an anti-tank gun. Their tanks even get shredded by fucking Panzerbuchse rifles! You get on that radio right now and tell these cretins–”

Before he could seize Fruehauf as he seemed to be preparing to do, Von Drachen stepped nonchalantly between them, and looked down at the shorter Von Sturm.

“It’s important we retain the vestige of civilization that we claim to represent.” He said.

Von Sturm grit his teeth and wrung his hands in an even more violent fashion.

Von Drachen looked over his shoulder at Fruehauf. “We should probably alert the supply convoy towing the LeFH guns that their position may become compromised.”

“You don’t give those orders! I do!” Von Sturm shouted. He prodded Von Drachen in the chest, and stared around him at Fruehauf like he was a pillar of rock in his way. “Fruehauf, order the howitzers to rush out, set up, and vaporize the communists!”

Fruehauf nodded fervently, and rushed back to the radios, taking any chance to retreat.

Von Drachen said nothing – he did not even look back at Von Sturm to challenge his gaze. He merely marveled silently at how quickly the sarcasm and aloofness of his superior general broke down into childish violence when the burden of leadership presented itself.

Von Drachen was nowhere near as worried as Von Sturm about his own Blue Corps.

Perhaps because he had altogether different goals for this operation than Von Sturm.

“Aren’t the howitzers being deployed to the intersection?” Von Drachen asked.

“Look at the map, why don’t you?” Von Sturm sarcastically replied.

“That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, my good man.” Von Drachen added.

Von Sturm threw his hands in the air, and walked back to his table. “I’m coming to regret bringing you here, Von Drachen! Perhaps you really ought to have stayed in your dust speck of a country if you are going to question every order your superior is giving!”

“Oh, but I don’t really question your orders.” Von Drachen said, crossing his arms and looking puzzled. “You see, from my perspective, and functionally speaking, I always end up following your orders. It just takes a little effort to get me to fully agree with them.”

Von Sturm slapped his hands over his face, and buried his head in his arms at the table.

25-AG-30 V-Squad Retreat, Matumaini 3rd

Nocht’s assault on Bada Aso had been conducted in three concentrated lanes from east to west each advancing from south to north, led by the 1era Infanteria, 6th Grenadiers and 2da Infanteria. Originally the idea was that these three concentrations of forces could cover each other via artillery and fast-moving units, and would have room to spread out from their lanes at their leisure. Advancing as unified fists, their independent units could always fall back on organized strong points behind them if an expansion mission went awry.

The Battle of Bada Aso would thus start on Penance, Matumaini and Umaiha Riverside where the landsers would secure territory from which to advance confidently into the true heart of the city. From the South; to the city center and the seaside; and finally north. However the state of infrastructure after the bombing had not been accounted for, and this and many other factors now imperiled the original plan and necessitated corrections.

Heavy collapses shut off whole streets from motor and even armor units. Connections between the three lanes were more limited than originally envisioned. There was trouble getting heavy weapons and armor into position at all, let alone on time for the scheduled offenses. Retreat and reinforcement could only be carried out over specific street routes.

Nocht’s carefully charted vision of the conflict was warped out of shape, and without it the front lines were left to their own devices, carrying out improvised attacks and rushed defenses. In the absence of carefully thought orders from their commanders, the troops fell back to a mix of instinct and doctrine that was immediately put to a violent test.

Kern had not been privy to a lot of the plan. None of them were.

That was the natural position of the officers. Officers attended meetings and then passed down their knowledge as orders given on the field. It was a hierarchy that was meticulously organized and carried out. A landser needed only to train to fight and kill the enemy. Kern knew tactics. He knew cover, he knew tactical movement, he knew how to use his knife, he knew ranges, he knew his equipment, he knew equipment that he would be using in the future, like how to drive a small car, or fire an anti-tank gun.

Extensive training and instruction had insured this.

But he didn’t know how war worked. It was a fearful new world to tread upon.

Everything had grown abstract.

His training was supposed to be a tool that he applied to a situation like a formula for a mathematical problem. Reality had grown too complex for that; he could hardly cope.

Now Kern found himself creeping through alleys and inside ruined buildings. Desolation surrounded him on all sides. There was no enemy to fight with and no allies to link up with. Hart and Alfons were quiet. Voss was in the lead. He did not have a map of Bada Aso. Sergeants and above cared about maps, they had maps. Corporals led fireteams – they didn’t need maps. Their maps could fall into enemy hands if they died fighting.

His surroundings felt so isolated he wondered if anyone had even lived in them before.

From the byway wall they jumped across, the squad followed the alleyways behind several buildings headed south. Many times they came across a collapse and had to squeeze in through concrete frames filled with debris of their own roofs and floors like giant standing buckets of rock and dust. They detoured through standing structures, clearing them room by room with their pistols out before jumping out a window or from a second floor into a new alleyway or into an otherwise inaccessible building nearby.

Most buildings they saw, stripped of anything valuable in them (or having had anything valuable in them crushed by bombs), suggested little about what their original purpose was. There were many long walls and empty rooms. Kern believed most of them had to be living spaces. He had heard that Ayvartans lived crammed into three by three meter rooms, their “guaranteed housing.” From what he had seen, the architecture did not support such a claim, but they still needed a lot of living space to support their population.

Twelve houses down from the byway the squadron exited a small building through a back door, and found themselves in a tragic scene. A much taller tenement building, several floors high and wide had completely collapsed and now barred their way.

Kern was reminded of the edge of Matumaini, where collapses like these had forced the battalion to take a detour. This was not like an urban snow, not a smooth mound of soft dust. What was blocking them was all rock struggling to retain shape enough to defy them. It was all misplaced window frames serving as makeshift doors to halls crammed full of rubble, rebar sticking out like thorns from vines of warped concrete columns, chunks of rock the size of one’s fist all in a rumbling stack ready to spill if provoked.

Kern swore it must have been contrived.

On all sides its remains barred the way. Voss covered his hands in washcloth and knelt.

“We’ll crawl in.” He said. He squeezed under a half-buried window frame.

Speechless, Hart, Alfons and Kern crawled inside as well. Kern snaked under the frame and cut himself on a piece of glass, a few centimeters along his right calf. He grit his teeth and pushed blindly ahead. Even the ruins in this place wanted him to suffer.

They crawled deeper into the tight rubble, beneath hard stone at odd angles, around jagged pieces stabbing into the ground. It was tight and dark and it smelled eerily, of smoke or some kind of chemical. Kern pulled himself forward by his forearms and elbows.

Ahead of him he saw Voss stand up, and Hart and Alfons followed.

He crawled into an open room. It was tilted on its side, and there was a window above offering dim illumination and a framed view of darkening, cloudy sky.

“Now we go up. We’ll check to see which direction to go in from there.” Voss said.

He and Hart lifted Alfons up, who in turn helped Kern.

Outside the building sloped irregularly, jutting out in places and sinking in others, but there was a high peak in a particular rubble hill a short ways from the window, formed by the tenement piling atop another building. While his companions helped each other out, Kern started to walk up, eager to see what his vantage would be like from higher up. He carefully walked up the red brick, and broke into a run once he felt sure enough in his steps. He was fifteen or twenty meters up, and he saw the intersection off south and east.

“I’ve found the way!” He called back to Voss.

Hands out like they were walking on a tight-rope, the squadron descended the ruins, and climbed down onto a comparatively intact alleyway. This time Kern led them through, trying his best to square the picture he had in his mind with the direction of the intersection and the layout of the alleys. They ran, frantic, trying to return to their own lines.

Soon they heard traffic – feet, wheels, and treads all – and followed the sounds.

Around a corner, and past several ruined buildings, they squeezed through to the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd. Kern thought the mortar holes still seemed fresh, and certainly they were familiar. There was no time to rest, however. Kern found his situation starkly reintroduced to him after the brief lull in the eerie world within the ruins.

Across the intersection the 6th Grenadier mustered its forces. Men rushed north, carrying sandbags and grenades, pushing anti-tank guns, holding mortars over their shoulders. Every minute, it seemed, a truck would arrive and its crew would hastily unhinge a towed howitzer, a 105mm leFH (leichte fieldhaubitze), and more men would pull these back into corners, organizing them in groups of three, and crews began preparing them.

Three more assault guns then entered the intersection in a line.

And at the very end, they saw the Ayvartans starting to rush.

Scheiße,” Hart said wearily, “We’re back in the frying pan again.”

“At least we’re accompanied.” Voss said, patting him on the back.

Kern left their side. He looked around the crowds for Captain Aschekind.

An artillery crewman pointed him to one of the first buildings just out of the intersection, on the connecting road to Matumaini 2nd. Kern had remembered seeing people hiding in it during the late stages of the charge, because the inside was hollowed out. Mortar rounds might land in it, but it was otherwise one of the safest places from which to fight. He found Captain Aschekind and some of his staff in there, seated in folding chairs and with a table ready. The Captain glanced briefly at the door when Kern entered but then returned to his task. He was tuning into a radio, and barking terse orders into it.

Aschekind’s staff, three men and an older woman that Kern was very surprised to see, ushered the young landser in and asked him if there was any news he had brought.

They seemed to have been expecting someone. Kern shook his head.

“No, I just,” Kern hesitated. He hardly knew what he even wanted out of this exchange. He just felt ashamed and weak, and perhaps he wanted someone to see it, someone to punish him for it. “I just wanted to return this radio. I’ve no real use for it.”

He withdrew the radio Aschekind gave him from his satchel, and placed it on the table.

An explosion outside seemed to punctuate this action. Kern started to shake.

“You have more to say than that.” Aschekind said. He did not look up from the radio set on the table. Kern could not see his eyes – his peaked cap was in the way. “Be honest.”

Kern’s teeth chattered slightly. His heart pounded.

“Sir, I have spent this entire battle running away.” His lips trembled. He tried not to show tears. “I never even grouped with my correct squadron when we came into the city. I’ve been handed off to different platoons and companies like an idiot, because I came here wandering like a vagrant, with no understanding of what I am doing or where I am going. Gradually I have remembered my place, but too late. I joined the army to be anywhere but home. I sat through my training and it went in one ear and out the other. I should not be here. I am simply wasted space and resources among these men.”

“It has never been a question of whether you are meant to be here or should be here. It is always a question of whether you want to be here. Your role, Private, is to occupy space. That is the fundamental role of a Grenadier. Do you want to fight, Private Beckert?” Aschekind asked. “Do you want to occupy space? It all begins in that simple role. There is more than enough space to be occupied. At this juncture that is all that I require of you.”

“I do not feel I have properly acquitted myself, sir.” Kern said, mouth still trembling.

Captain Aschekind stared at him quizzically.

It was the most emotion he’d shown on his face that wasn’t anger or grim resignation.

He pushed the radio back in Kern’s direction with his hand.

“Your last report alerted us to the communist’s attack. What defense we have managed here, we owe partly to you. Do you want to do that, Private? Even just that much?”

Kern could not say anything to that. He hesitated even to take the radio back.

Captain Aschekind put down his own radio handset, and seemed about to say something further. But a sharp noise from the intersection overcame his words.

Everyone in the room looked out the window.

Kern saw a shell fly across the intersection from the west and explode in the middle of an artillery position, shredding through two leFH and their crews. Gunfire parted the intersection in two. Men took cover away from the diagonal west-bound road, from which Ayvartan troops and a huge tank rushed down, right into the heart of their defense.

Kern drew his rifle and stood up, with the intention to find Voss and the others. Captain Aschekind reached out across the table – he was so tall and his limbs so long he easily seized Kern by his shoulder and stopped him. His grip was casually, brutally strong. It hurt.

“Run down the southern road and alert all incoming artillery towing tractors and trucks to stop at the end of Matumaini and 2nd. I will be joining you shortly. This is a mission more valuable than dying in that intersection. Are we clear, Private Beckert?”

A truck nearby exploded – screaming men flew back from it.

One landed dead outside the door.

Stunned, Kern nodded to the Captain, and without thinking, he left the building and ran down the street, careful to avoid the fallen men. He was stuck in the war again.

25-AG-30 Ayvartan Counterattack, Matumaini 3rd

“Charge the intersection at travel speed, and do not pause to shoot.”

The Ogre hardly needed to be given the order.

Like a charging rhinoceros it punched its way through a hastily-erected sandbag wall, overturning the structure and crushing an anti-tank gun under its tracks.

Behind it the infantry of the so-called 3rd Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon, bolstered by KVW reinforcements, advanced at a brisk pace, submachine guns at their hips, firing across the intersection. Accuracy was secondary to shock and speed – this was a breach, a brutal charge, and it did not matter if the horns met flesh yet. Grenadiers fled the edge of the intersection, abandoning anti-tank guns and norgler machine guns in the tank’s way.

Gulab ducked her head, and pushed down Chadgura’s.

Assault guns in the center of the intersection opened fire on the Ogre.

Unlike the 37mm guns, the 75mm gun on these vehicles was dangerous, if not particularly to the tank then to the riders. They exploded in the Ogre’s face, and rattled the entire tank. Gulab felt heat and force and the shaking of the tank transferred right to her gut with every hit. But the short-barreled guns firing explosives could not damage the armor even at 100 meters. The caliber was potent, but the guns lacked muzzle velocity.

The Ogre withstood punishment. Small pits appeared in the front glacis, one of the track guards warped from the blasts, but still the Ogre advanced. Ahead of them the trio of assault guns opened fire, one after the other, pummeling the Ogre. It was undaunted.

Chadgura radioed her orders, and the heavy tank turned its gun on the leftmost of the assault guns, and put a round through the side of its gun mantlet, only a dozen centimeters off from the vehicle’s face. It was a tight angle, but at short distance it was easy to score. Black smoke and a lick of flames billowed from the hole, and the assault gun stopped dead.

“Corporal, look!” Gulab called out.

Priorities changed quickly; at the back of the intersection several men gathered around a trio of howitzers, likely laid down there as a fixed position battery by heavy trucks. They lowered the elevation of the guns and adjusted their angle.

All the barrels started to point directly at the Ogre.

These were 105mm artillery guns. Perhaps they would not penetrate the glacis, but would they need to? Their high explosive might knock out the crew! Chadgura got the message quickly. Ignoring the remaining assault guns, which had begun to back off and make space, she ordered the Ogre to target the howitzers at once with high explosive.

Painfully slow the heavy turret turned, inching its way to face the battery.

Crates were cracked open, and shells loaded into the field guns. Almost there!

Then an explosive shell fell in between the men.

Their guns, ammo, all went up in flames. But Gulab had not felt the booming and rumbling of her tank’s gun. Her Ogre had never managed to fire at them.

She looked to the eastern and western roads for her answer.

Her comrades were charging in.

From the perpendicular ends of the intersection, the promised second and third tanks unleashed their ire. Tank shells came quickly. One of the assault guns was easily penetrated from its exposed flank, and set ablaze. A second battery of howitzers went up in smoke.

An anti-tank shell pulverized the engine block of a heavy truck backing away to the south. The piercing round penetrated the front of the truck and exploded in the back.

Men launched from the bed like thrown stones. The husk of the truck marked the only path out of the intersection. Any imperialist still in the middle of the intersection was pinched from three directions. Many began to pull back, but those stuck in the defensive positions could afford only to hold down and fight back against fire from all sides.

Nocht had tried to build their own defense over the ashes of the Ayvartan’s 2nd Defensive Line, but the intersection was nowhere near as secure as it had been hours ago. There was hardly a line, but rather a dozen haphazard positions without a coherent defilade.

Partial trenches were dug at haphazard angles, as if the first place hit by a thrown shovel qualified for a new foxhole. Artillery guns had been set up in plain view without surrounding trenches or sandbags. Sandbag walls and canvas canopies had only been partially rebuilt, and the mortart and gun pits were as a result largely exposed to fire.

Chadgura waved her arm to the troops behind her.

She jumped off the tank, radio against her ear, and Gulab followed her to the floor.

The moment her feet touched the ground, Gulab trained her iron sights on her old anti-tank gun pit front of her. She remembered being thrown to the ground here by Chadgura. But that dirt where her life had been saved was now taken up by a norgler machine gun, emptying its belts on the front of the Ogre to no avail. Gulab leaned and opened fire.

Two quick bursts of gunfire silenced the shooters.

Her body hardly needed to process the action – raise arms, step around tank, look down sight, find gray uniform, shoot gray uniform. She adjusted her aim and searched for more targets. Unlike her comrades with their submachine guns, she could fight at range, and intended to do so. Chadgura clung behind her, both hugging the Ogre’s left track.

Return fire was sporadic.

Gulab’s infantry comrades overtook her. Submachine gun squadrons advanced past the tank in long rows, every man and woman firing his or her submachine gun in front in short but continuous bursts, so that the enemy was endangered any time they left cover to shoot.

The KVW squadrons were particularly fearless in comparison. They ran out in front of the tank after Gulab disabled the machine gun, and they quickly overtook the mortar pits in a bloody melee, stabbing the mortar men with their bayonets and tossing aside their tubes. From the safety of the pits they opened fire across the intersection, turning their carbines to fully-automatic mode. Their rate of fire was tremendous – it was almost like each of them was carrying a small Khroda. Against this wave of fire the enemy’s bolt action rifles could do nothing. Though inaccurate, the Ayvartan’s bullets saturated the air.

Chadgura had organized this: a moving curtain of fire, perfect for a street fight.

All the while the three Ogres fired from their positions, launching their high explosive shells into trenches and buildings, crushing rubble walls and mounds. Every artillery gun left in the intersection was a smoking wreck. Masses of men retreated in human wave that rivaled the magnitude of their advance on this very intersection earlier in the day.

Together the three assault platoons and their tanks wiped out the defenses.

It was hardly a fight – it was like demolitions work.

Gulab fired with discipline, but soon found herself without further targets.

She stopped to marvel at the scene. At once all the gunfire ceased. Men were dead by the dozens across each road to Matumaini and 3rd, and by the hundreds in the intersection and its connections, perhaps by the thousands along the Southern District as a whole. Soon the stench of blood was more common than smoke along the battlefield.

They had won, Gulab thought. They had defeated the enemy. Had they?

All three assault platoons linked up.

Gulab found that each of them was a mix of KVW troops and Territorial Army survivors. It was a pretty colorful bunch all around. Many were walking wounded, hit in the early stages of the counterattack, and hung back from their fellows during the fighting.

Others were wounded already from the defenses earlier in the day, but charged into the counterattack nonetheless. Each assault platoon was not a full compliment – casualties had been sustained. The counterattack had not been bloodless for them. However it seemed to Gulab that they had hit as hard as they had been hit, if not more. She stuck around Chadgura while she briefly discussed whether to push further with her counterparts from the other platoons. This discussion ended abruptly with the falling of a shell.

It was incongruous – a cloud of dust and a shower of debris right in front of them.

While they took notice of it, a second shell fell closer.

Comrades fell back from the blast.

A third and fourth, creeping upon them, throwing up fragments of steel from discarded weapons shredded in the blasts, casting smoke and dirt into the air. A shell hit right in front of the 3rd Platoon’s Ogre and sent the track guard flying; the tanks backed away from the intersection, and under increasing artillery fire the troops turned and ran as well.

From the far end of Matumaini and 2nd a vicious barrage from several guns fell over the intersection, smashing the pitted earth to pieces, vaporizing Nocht’s wounded and dead, setting new fires to the hulks of their broken vehicles. Nocht was covering its own retreat. Dozens of 105mm shells sailed over the Ayvartan attack and crashed down over them.

Caught in the heat, the Ayvartan troops hurried back north.

Bitterly, Gulab ran with Chadgura and the others, watching over her shoulder as the shells fell with resounding strength. For a moment she thought she had tasted victory, but alas! Alas. She had seen War’s magnitude. She should have known it was far from over.

25-AG-30 6th Grenadier Support Line, Matumaini 2nd

“Brought you something.”

“Is it pills? I could use some stimulants. Or a drink.”

“It’s not either of those.”

Scheiße. Well. Thank you anyway.”

Voss was worse for wear.

He had tight bandages and a cloth soaking up blood on the left side of his stomach. Shell fragments from a tank gun attack had pierced both his arms, and torn a ligament. He could hardly move his right arm. It seemed only his head and face and lower body had been spared some kind of injury. When Kern stepped into the medical tent he had heard Voss joking to one of the medics that at least he still had all he needed to impress the ladies.

What a spirited soul, even in these circumstances; Kern brought him a cigar. It was still wrapped in a brown paper with a wax seal, labeled uninformatively “officer’s cigar.” He had traded one of the good rations (Breakfast #2, bratwurst, beans, and eggs) for it with another soldier after lucking out with his rations from the back of the supply truck.

Anyone would trade anything they’d chanced upon for the brat and beans.

They’d made the trade right next to the truck!

“Well, I’m not gonna be smoking that for a while.” Voss chuckled. “But thanks kid.”

Kern nodded. He was glad to see Voss alive, in any event.

“Hart and Alfons didn’t make it. I paid my respects at their beds.” Kern said. “I didn’t know them at all, but I tried to say good things about them. I will try to remember them.”

Voss smiled. “I didn’t really know those two either. I heard someone say once you don’t really know people in the army until someone dies and you make up the eulogy.”

“That’s morbid.” Kern said, averting his eyes a little.

“S’how things work. We’re soldiers; our boots turn the country morbid.”

“I guess I don’t know you that well either.”

“No, you don’t. You couldn’t.” Voss grinned. “Name’s Johannes Voss.”

“Kern Beckert.” He extended his hand and Voss shook it gently.

“Well Kern. I don’t know where you’ll be ending up now. You kinda just followed me like a puppy dog, ha ha. Not that I mind. But I’ll be down for a while, and I’m guessing the Battalion’s gonna need some restructuring. I’ll put in a good word if you ever need it.”

“Thank you. You don’t mind if I try to find you again if I’m still alive in a few days?”

“Given the state of our battalion, I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting a lot of other visitors. So sure, I would enjoy the company. Bring some crazy stories though. You saw how we moved out there. I want you jumping windows and shooting commies too.”

Kern nodded, though he had his fingers crossed in spirit.

He couldn’t really promise that.

Voss laid back in his bed and drifted off to sleep. Kern left him to it. He wouldn’t go so far as to say Voss deserved sleep – he wasn’t sure what any of them deserved – but he did not want to disturb him. Outside it was dark, night having fully fallen. It was pitch black, starless. Kern had heard warnings of stormier skies coming.

Periodically the area was lit up by a quick flash from the howitzers, like lightning shooting up from the earth. Of the battalion’s six batteries, each of which boasted three guns, only three batteries now remained. While better positions for them were plotted, they remained in a group on Matumaini and 2nd, firing tirelessly against the intersection.

Single-handedly the barrages had prevented an Ayvartan penetration into their rear echelon, or so the Divisional command had boasted in a radio address. They now fired periodically round the clock, with crews taking shifts to keep them manned.

It was a panic move to buy time for reorganization and new battle plans.

Until that time, the battle for Bada Aso was temporarily postponed, it seemed.

Kern crossed a door threshold across the street, passing under rock to enter canvas. A tent had been pitched inside, where the older woman he had seen before in Aschekind’s staff, Signals Officer Hildr, looked after one of the division’s advanced radios. It had the longest range, so it was used to communicate with the Vorkampfer’s command.

Of all the people in the battalion staff Kern preferred Hildr.

She was a tall and somewhat stocky lady, with blonde hair, a soft face with a strong nose and bright blue eyes. She was fairly pleasant to be around compared to Aschekind – terse like him in speech, but lacking the kind of restrained fury that characterized the Captain. For lack of things to do he had been told to be around to help her.

“Visit your friend, Private Beckert?” She asked off-handedly.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Captain Aschekind will be holding a meeting in a moment.”

“Should I go?”

“Might as well stay.”

Minutes later, Hildr stood in salute, and Kern clumsily mimicked her.

Through the door Captain Aschekind arrived, trailed by a shorter man with slicked blond hair and a sizeably larger amount of honors on his lapel. He was boyishly handsome, and had a contented little grin on his soft-featured face – however, a tinge of red around the edges of his eyes, a little twitch in his jaw, was noticeable even in the lamp-light, and perhaps suggested some ongoing stress. Trailing him was a man almost as large and imposing as Aschekind himself, but with a sunburnt look to him, and a thick mustache that seemed linked to his sideburns and precise red beard.

Both these men were Generals. Kern knew the red-bearded man as his highest direct superior, Brigadier-General Meist, the overall acting commander of the 6th Grenadier Division. From what he had gleaned during the lead-up to the attack on Bada Aso, the other man must have been the decorated general in charge of the forces city-wide, Von Sturm. He was head of the elite 13th Panzergrenadier Division who made their fortune in Cissea.

The Generals seated, while Aschekind, Hildr and Kern remained standing.

Von Sturm grinned a little.

“Big fella aren’t you Aschekind? Drank a lot of milk growing up?”

“It helps build strong bones.” Aschekind said. Kern wondered if it was a joke.

Von Sturm laughed. “Good, good. What’s you two’s names?”

“Signals Officer Gudrun Hildr.”

“Jeez, what a name. Your parents must’ve picked that one prematurely.”

“Private Kern Beckert.”

“Private? Really? Are you bringing drinks to her or something?”

Kern felt a thrill down his spine when the general addressed him. It was as if a monster were calling his name before gobbling him up. “Yes sir!” He replied mindlessly.

Von Sturm looked at Hildr for a moment. “Nothing alcoholic I hope?”

“No sir.” Hildr replied. She eyed Kern critically. He cowered a little.

“Good.” Von Sturm replied. His gaze finally turned away from the lower ranks.

He steepled his fingers. “Ok. So, what is the damage?”

“Still being tallied.” Aschekind replied.

“I wish you all would do math a little faster.” Von Sturm replied.

“Not a matter of math, sir. We have little access to the combat areas were we incurred our losses. We were pushed back kilometers. Therefore the data is still forthcoming.”

“Speaking of kilometers, how far are we from our Day 1 goals?”

“Ten kilometers.” Aschekind replied.

“Good God.” Von Sturm crossed his arms. His grin had completely vanished. “Explain to me, exactly, why we’re not having this meeting in the central district right now?”

Aschekind explained in his own quick and dour way.

“Dug-in positions; ambushes; death charges executed by fast-moving communist troops using unorthodox gear, such as wielding submachine guns primarily instead of stronger rifles; and more modern armor than anticipated. All of these factored heavily.”

“Do you have any real solutions to this based on your observations?”

“A stopgap would be to issue more automatic and heavy weapons to our own troops.”

“What, you want police maschinepistoles now? We don’t have enough. We’re having enough trouble as it is trucking guns out here. Support will continue to be committed by regulation for the foreseeable future. I don’t have time to replan the whole army.”

Aschekind gave a grim nod. “I understand, sir.”

At this point, General Meist finally intervened. He spoke gruffly through his beard and mustache. “Anton, Captain Aschekind is one of my best. We kept in contact throughout the offensive. From what I gleaned and observed, the Ayvartans have much more tenacious and fluid tactics than we anticipated. I request that we allow our own troops a greater freedom to counter their tactics – I wager our field commanders would more adequately challenge their counterparts on the communist side if we allocated more resources–”

“Request denied, for now.” Von Sturm interrupted him. “You’d create mass anarchy among the ranks. We have training and doctrine for a reason. It’s proven; it works.”

Kern thought he noticed Aschekind covertly scoffing at the notion.

“For tomorrow, I want us to make up for today. You will capture those 10 kilometers.”

Hildr and Aschekind saluted, perhaps begrudgingly, Kern observed. He saluted too.

Von Sturm stood up, and tapped his chair back into place at the table with his foot.

“Anyway, we’ve met now, so that should satisfy that lout Von Drachen, at any rate–”

A bright orange flash illuminated the room and street, drowning the General out. Kern smelled and heard fire and debris. He heard a swooping noise, a laboring propeller. Von Sturm dropped under the table; Aschekind, Hildr and Meist rushed out to the street.

Kern followed, and he saw the smoke, and the dancing lights and shadows along the road and street, in rhythm with the fires. Bombs had dropped among the artillery, finally quieting them. Norglers pointed skyward and began to fire; men rushed to tear the tarps off truck-mounted spotlights, switched them on and scanned the skies for planes. Their assailant made off with the lives of thirty crewmen and nine guns in the blink of an eye.

There were cries all around, Flak! Vorbereiten der Flak! but even so nobody could readily find an anti-aircraft gun to prepare, for they were all part of the Divisional reserve.

“Messiah protect us,” Kern whispered, half in a daze from fear. Von Sturm appeared from behind them, livid. His own staff car had caught several pieces of shrapnel.

“Am I the only one around here paying attention to the war?” He shouted in a rage.

26-AG-30, Midnight. 42nd Rifles Rear Echelon, Matumaini 4th

Night had fallen and it would soon rain.

Remnants of the 42nd Rifles were gathered in a small school building off Matumaini and 4th. Division had sent down supply trucks to feed them, and staff had come to supervise a reorganization. With 42nd Rifles Regiment nearly totally destroyed in the fighting, it was being removed from the 4th OX Rifle Division and reorganized as the 1st Assault Support Battalion under the Major’s 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division. This was an ad-hoc move meant to salvage them to some useful purpose. Perhaps it would even work.

It also meant that for the foreseeable future, Gulab would work under Chadgura.

The Corporal returned from the supply trucks with perhaps the most blank and starkly apathetic face she had made yet – although it could all be Gulab’s imagination, since she swore Chadgura’s cheeks and brow barely ever seemed to move. She brought two steaming bowls of lentil curry in one big tray, along with flatbread and fruit juice.

Gulab bowed her head to her in thanks, and started to eat.

Chadgura held off for a moment, praying and offering her food to the Spirits. When she was done praying she clapped her hands and ate briskly, in a disciplined fashion.

“Thanks for the curry.” Gulab said.

“No problem.”

“And, um, thanks for today, too.”

“No problem. Thank you too.”

Gulab scratched her head. It was more than a little strange talking to the Corporal. Especially thanking her so nonchalantly about saving her life from certain, painful death. Perhaps it was time to give up normality in general in this situation.

“So, you like stamps, you said?”

“I love them.”

“Any particular reason why?”

Chadgura raised her head, and rubbed her chin.

“Hmm. I like the smell of the glue and the special paper they use. I like the colors. I like the art; it reminds me of places I have been to, but they’re not photographs, so they do not prompt me to question my imagining of a place. I feel happy sticking them. They make a unique sound when peeled from the postage booklets. They have a postage value, so you can sort them by postage value as well as color and region. It is very neat. They fit well together when you stick several across a page. Very standardized and coherent. They have limited editions for special days so you have something to look forward to all year.”

Gulab giggled. “Okay! Wow! You really do like stamps a lot.”

Chadgura nodded her head.

She dipped a piece of her flatbread into the curry sauce and ate it. For a moment, Gulab thought she had seen a glint in the Corporal’s eyes as she discussed her love of stamps. Her voice had almost begun to sound emphatic. It might have all been in Gulab’s mind, however. She blew the steam off the hot curry and began to eat herself.

“Why do you like Chess?” Chadgura asked.

“It’s something I’m a little good at, I guess.” Gulab replied.

There was another long silence.

“Why did you end up joining the army?” Gulab said. “To get stamps?”

“My reasons for joining are foolish. I’d rather not discuss them.” Chadgura replied.

How cryptic, but then again, this was just her; Gulab felt a sense of unease with herself.

“I joined the army because I wanted to go on an adventure.” Gulab said. She smiled. It was a bitter smile, full of a cruel, self-flagellating mockery. “I wanted to have an adventure like my grandfather. To leave everything and change myself. To come back as someone that the Kucha folk can’t place as simply the foolish son of my father. Someone truer to me. Someone who was really me, a me that was born outside of them.”

Chadgura extended her hand to Gulab’s shoulder. “I don’t really know, but I’d like to say that I think your grandfather would be proud of you. He should be proud of you.”

She clapped her hands three times, rapidly. It almost sounded like agitation.

“I think.” She added. Gulab could see her stirring a little. She was nervous.

The KVW could take away her fear of battle; but she was still shy and anxious.

“Maybe he shouldn’t.” Gulab said. “And maybe it shouldn’t matter.”

“Perhaps. Self-validation is important, I think.” Chadgura said.

They were quiet a moment; the conversation had gotten away from both.

Chadgura clapped her hands again and then started to speak once more.

“It rings hollow, I understand, since we have only worked a day together. But I have you to thank for this.” Chadgura opened her sidepack, and showed Gulab a little book.

Inside were pages upon pages of meticulously glued postage stamps, sorted by Dominance and Region and by major colors. It was a stamp collection album. Chadgura presented it to her proudly and continued. “I will hold you in the highest esteem for allowing me to return safe and sound to my stamps. Please, do me the honor.” She withdrew a second book, this one a common stamp book out of the Bada Aso post office. She spread open a page, and held it out to Gulab. “Pick a stamp and stick it next to the others.”

This was an incredibly corny honor to be given; Gulab felt almost as much flattered as embarrassed by it. And yet, Chadgura’s sincere words, delivered in her characteristically deadpan way, served to wring her away from her problems. She graciously picked a stamp depicting the Kucha Mountains, which she felt was very appropriate at the moment, and gingerly stuck it beside the others on one of the album pages.

She returned the album and Chadgura stared at it seriously.

“I did not think this through.” Chadgura said, leafing through the pages again. “I apologize for my confusion, but you,” she paused for a moment, and uncharacteristically repeated the word, “you, you glued it on the wrong page, Private Kajari. That stamp should have been on the other side of the page, on the purple page for Bada Aso, with the other purple stamps. I’m afraid you glued the stamp, a little recklessly, for my taste.”

Despite her hollow voice, she sounded distressed.

Graciously, Gulab took the album, peeled the stamp as gently as possible, and stuck it again on the correct page. She returned the album gingerly and with a smile.

Corporal Chadgura took it and hugged it to her chest. “Thank you, Private.”

“You’re welcome, Corporal.” Gulab said, still smiling.

What a bizarre thing, war was; near to a thousand of her comrades had died this day, but Gulab was most grateful than she and one other woman had not. Perhaps the only mourning that would do, was simply to keep fighting, to lead the life for herself that was taken from her comrades. At the time, she could only think of curry and stamps, and the time Grandfather braided her hair and told her it was her beard to try to placate her.

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — View From The Cathedral

The Battle of Matumaini I — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Adjar Dominance — Bada Aso South District, Matumaini and 1st Block


Kern stared wide-eyed at the latest obstacle blocking their way north. He had already seen buildings collapsed like an avalanche of rubble across whole streets, and roads cratered so deep that one seemed to stare directly through them and into the blackest hells.

Despite these experiences he was still taken aback by the ominous novelty of a crashed bomber, a Wizard plane. On its side a sultry pinup in a swimsuit faced the Grenadiers and blocking passage. Resting on a bed made of collapsed buildings its wings were nowhere to be found. The nose was buried into the rubble and the tail dangled on a strip of metal.

It was the bent fuselage, thirty meters long and almost ten meters tall, along with its nest of rubble that directly prevented the Grenadiers from advancing up Matumaini 1st.

They would have to divert east and then turn around again.

“What’s the hold-up– Oh? Scheiße. Everyone go right, round Goa Street.”

First Sergeant Zimmer joined Kern atop one of the mounds with a map in hand, and took Kern’s binoculars. Kern had been roped into a unit after taking that last intersection. Zimmer swore up and down that Private Beckert belonged in Z-Companie and apologized to Captain Aschekind after finding him “annoying” the CO with his presence.

Kern did not remember Zimmer whatsoever but he went along with it in order to avoid embarrassing himself further to the Captain. Zimmer pushed on ahead with his Z-Companie, with Aschekind bringing up the rear with the remainder of the Battalion.

Slowly the two forward platoons climbed the rubble and approached the wreckage.

Many stopped to stare at it. Such a massive craft; how could it have fallen?

Sgt. Zimmer examined the wreck, fifteen or twenty meters ahead.

“Nice pinup.” Zimmer said.

Even through all the abuse the plane had suffered, the woman painted on the side looked fairly pristine, dressed in a low-cut red corset with black mesh leggings, blonde hair flowing freely as though the plane were in flight and blowing it around. She had flashing blue eyes and a bright smile. Clearly a lot of effort had gone into her. Zimmer shook his head. “Those Luftlotte boys sure know how to paint. Now if they knew how to fight.”

Kern smiled awkwardly. He was not one for inter-service rivalry.

But everyone seemed to have these jokes.

Zimmer handed him back the binoculars. Kern took another look at the plane.

Most of the men started for the east road.

“Get one last good look at her son, because you ain’t seeing a lady like that for a while.”

“Right.” Kern replied, sighing. He was interested in the fuselage than the girl on it.

More men entered the intersection. “Let’s get going, you’ve lagged behind enough.”

He sure was one to talk; Zimmer always seemed a healthy distance from combat.

Kern found something curious about the wreckage, however, but couldn’t confirm it.

“Sir, something is wrong with this. How many windows does a Wizard class bomber normally have? I see at least five along the fuselage and that seems like too many–”

He paused mid-sentence, having found his own answer; Kern dropped his binoculars and shouted a warning, hooking Zimmer with his arm and bringing them both down.

Gun barrels protruded from the makeshift windows along the fuselage.

Long bursts of automatic fire cut across the street facing the wreckage.

Within seconds one whole squadron standing below the wreck seemed suspended in time as they were riddled with bullets, blood splashing from exit wounds, arms flailing, limbs collapsing under the withering fire until they fell dead in a tight heap over each other.

Dozens of men out in the open could do nothing but drop on their bellies or haul away.

Sweeping streams of bullets clipped the legs of many runners, knocking to the ground several helpless grenadiers. Men hit the dirt, covering their heads, while pools of blood formed under them seconds later. Those furthest away ducked behind rubble and into the frames of ruined houses, gathered their wits and exchanged fire, shooting at the ambushers’ firing ports, trying to drive back their barrels or hit the merest hints of a man in the shadows.

These made remarkably small and difficult targets.

Dozens of bullets bounced off the armored hide of the wrecked plane, sturdy enough still to defend the soldiers huddling inside. They hit the frames around each firing port, cleverly cut into the fuselage to appear to be airplane windows.

While the trick would not have fooled an airplane enthusiast, Kern had never even been trained to identify Nochtish planes. That was a separate branch of the service!

Now in the face of this ambush, dozens of men had died or been injured in a moment. Most of a platoon entire had been lost in seconds, and a few scattered rifle squadrons offered all the resistance to the ambush that they could. There were perhaps forty men firing back with rifles against five or six machine guns saturating the area with bullets.

Most of the men had poor angles on the fuselage, shooting from the houses on either side of the street. Everyone who had been in the open was dead or wounded.

“Take them out!” Zimmer shouted into his radio, “I want men straddling that hulk! Respond damn it! Someone run out there and throw a grenade in that hole!”

At first it was unclear that anyone had heard those orders.

Kern saw a dead man ahead with a radio backpack that was making noise.

They finally received a reply from one of the houses relatively closest to the wreckage, and an attack was organized. Zimmer commanded the men to charge on his command.

Ahead of them the machine guns dried and there was silence as the enemy reloaded.

“Vorwarts! Attack the fuselage before they can reload! I want grenades out now!”

But Kern heard the distinctive popping of a mortar nearby.

From a hole atop the fuselage he saw the shell fly out at an almost 90 degree angle, as if directly skyward. Then he saw another, and more shells followed, ejected from the wreckage and blasting the roadway and nearby houses, pockmarking the streets with small craters, throwing up thin columns of dirt and smoke and flinging away dead men.

At Zimmer’s command the squadron came charging across the open street, leaving behind the cover of a hollowed out old brick house. They apprpoached the fuselage from the right, stick grenades in their hands, and closed in as the mortars whistled up and over.

With a great clamor the mortar shells came crashing down.

Men stopped in their tracks as the explosives flashed and sounded all around them. Debris and smoke and shrapnel stung and frightened the men and disrupted the squadron’s charge. Fearing what would come Kern lost his nerve entirely. He flinched away.

Zimmer grabbed him and pulled him behind the slope for cover.

One by one the machine guns opened fire again; Kern heard two explosions to match.

Far less than the twelve men he had seen running.

Zimmer was livid. His charge had failed. His men had died again.

“You coward!” He shouted. “Pull yourself back together, and get reinforcements!”

The 1st Sgt. seized Kern by the shoulders, hit him with his cap and pushed him away.

Kern scrambled down the mound of rubble, but he did not have to run far.

A dozen meters behind them an M3 Hunter assault gun meticulously navigated the rolling hills of rubble and uprooted chunks of the street, climbing over each mound with its tracks and flattening out atop before rushing down the other side.

Kern hurried beside the tank and banged on it.

A hatch opened atop, and Kern pointed the commander forward. Immediately the commander heard the machine guns and spotted the top end of the wreckage ahead, and understood implicitly. Kern rushed ahead of the tank and waved 1st Sgt. Zimmer out of the way. The M3 cleared the rubble mound they had been standing on as easily as any small slope, despite its slippery consistency, climbing atop and aiming its gun at the wreckage.

There was a loud bang and a puff of smoke from the short barrel on the M3’s gun.

A 75mm shell erupted against the bomber wreckage, blowing open the hull with a fierce explosion. Fire spread across the inside of the fuselage, and the burning was followed by smaller secondary explosions, banging and popping inside of the inferno as the enemy’s ammunition caught flame and went up in smoke. Dust and shrapnel blew out like dust.

Tongues of flame and black smoking trails fumed from each of the windows.

Jostled from its position by the blast, the bomber rolled slightly downhill off the rubble. There were no signs of life inside, only a billowing black cloud punctuated by red flashes.

Lumbering forward, the M3 descended the rubble and its tracks came to rest atop the clear, flat street over which so many of their men had died without an opportunity to fight.

In all, the ambush cost them another thirty men – almost an entire company had been wiped out between the attack on the intersection and the ambush on this road.

Kern could hardly contemplate over a hundred men dying in only a few hours.

Their Regiment had around 4000 men, and their Division had over 12,000, but there was something about those larger numbers that registered as immaterial, impossible to think about in the way he thought about these squadrons, these platoons. Over a hundred men in two actions across a few hours. Should this continue, could they lose the entire regiment by the end of the week? Maybe a thousand a day until they were all gone?

He shook his head, forcing himself out of his reverie.

“Come out of hiding!” Zimmer screamed at the nearby buildings. He was livid. When the surviving rifle squadrons slowly vacated their positions he continued to shout at them and swing his hat as though trying to hit them with the thing in spirit. “From now on we do not stop to take in the scenery! You will keep your eyes peeled for the enemy, on every rooftop, across every mound of rubble, inside every building! Whoever I catch daydreaming will go peel potatoes and dig latrines for the rest of the war!”

Kern started walking ahead. Unceremoniously, 2nd Battalion regrouped, and with the tank platoon following, one vehicle staggered every twenty or thirty meters, the men moved on, cutting eastwards into Goa Street to bypass the heavily ruined Matumaini 1st block; their goal would be found on the 3rd, if any man remained alive to claim it.

25-AG-30 South District, Matumaini Upper Street

Luftlotte bombs had hit the blocks connected by Matumaini Street particularly hard.

There were many collapses. Holes were blown into the streets and the asphalt. Many buildings and roads sank, fully or partially, into the tunnels under the city or into the sewer.

One particularly large collapse was the postal building on Matumaini’s 5th block.

Once a large, bustling place, it had been blasted so that it resembled nothing so much as a hell maw, a burrow, a slit into the earth surrounded by mounds of rubble that cast the hole between them into darkness. Matumaini Post Office had largely sunk into its own basement, where supplies were kept. Thankfully the building had been promptly declared unsafe and fully evacuated by Engineering before the bombings began in earnest.

Nobody was supposed to be anywhere near there; but a curious mission had been given to a private from the 2nd Line Corps that seemed to suggest otherwise.

“Uh, hello? I’m Private Hanabi. I was told to check if someone was stuck here?”

He raised a hand to shield his eyes and stared into the dark pit formed by the ruins.

Someone responded to him quite quickly in a calm, droning tone of voice.

“Hujambo. I’m Corporal Chadgura. I am trapped. But I am fine with this situation.”

Pvt. Hanabi leaned carefully into the rubble and looked down the collapsed floor.

“Oh. Well. You should probably come out of there. Did something happen to you?”

Corporal Chadgura looked up at the Private from the interior of the ruin, and produced for him a small booklet. She raised it up so that he could see it. She flipped the pages quite deliberately so that he could appreciate the contents of every one.

It was a stamp book, and each page had multiple copies of a different stamp.

Most of the stamps were pictures of places in Ayvarta, monuments like the People’s Peak in Solstice, the Kucha Mountains and the great oil fields on the Horn of Ayvarta. Some pages had pictures of revolutionary martyrs, local cultural heroes, and other colorful folklore. Every region had its own circulation of commemorative stamps.

Once she was sure Pvt. Hanabi had fully come to appreciate her discovery, Cpl. Chadgura closed the book and put it in her bag with a triumphant flourish.

“So,” Pvt. Hanabi looked confused for a moment, “You collect stamps?”

“Yes.” Cpl. Chadgura replied. Her voice had lost a lot of its natural character. When she spoke it was fairly monotonous. Deep inside though, she felt rather pleased with her acquisition, even if her face and voice did not show it. She looked over the stamps in the book again, and imagined with great pleasure cutting them from the pages, and sticking them on her book. “I travel regularly. So I collect stamps from the regional post offices.”

“Oh. Do you keep them in a book?” Pvt. Hanabi asked. “I know people do that.”

“Yes. I have a stamp book. I left it at the HQ. A staff member is taking care of it.”

“I see. You wouldn’t want it to get damaged in the fighting.”

“Yes. I used to have an older book, and it was damaged. I had to transplant the surviving stamps to a new book. I learned my lesson then. I was very distraught when that book was burnt. But I am fine now.” She remembered her speech training as she spoke with Pvt. Hanabi. Make frequent use of ‘I’ statements to more easily construct sentences and convey information; remember to declare your emotions so others can tell how you are doing; remind others of your condition so they can better help you.

She remembered her emotive words, like ‘distraught’, ‘fine’, ‘sad’, ‘happy’.

Most people couldn’t tell just from her face and voice.

Pvt. Hanabi stared at her, but he was not unfriendly toward her when he spoke.

“Do you need help getting out of there?”

“While I am personally fine, I do require assistance to escape this hole.” She replied.

“Ok. I’ll go get some rope. There’s an engineer just across the street.”

“I will wait here patiently.”

“Uh, good. Don’t panic or anything, I’ll be right back.”

“I am physically incapable of panic. Thank you for your help.” Cpl. Chadgura said.

Among the agents in her training group, she had been one of the worst speakers both before and after her conditioning was over, necessitating she take additional speech training and therapy. She thought, however, that she did quite well with Pvt. Hanabi.

Once the engineer returned with a rope and they pulled her out of the hole, she casually walked down to the intersection to rejoin the 2nd Line Corps, hoping her new stamps would survive the battle. If not she supposed that Bada Aso had many more post offices. She felt little trepidation about it, but she did feel a desire for her stamps to survive.


It had been hours since the last sandbag had gone down over the intersection.

Preparing the defense had come down to the wire, but everyone had made it.

Now all the 2nd Line Corps’ troops could do was to wait.

For many it was a casual wait despite the fact that death might loom on the horizon. They ate, they ambled around the line, they talked with each other, and they cleaned and checked their kit in anticipation. There were hundreds in the intersection and most were being a little noisy. Soldiers cracked open their meager rations of palm wine and banana gin, drinking the liquor down while telling stories or singing songs. Less enthusiastic folk sat around their guns or mortars and tried to get to sleep. There was also at least one game of Ayvartan chess, Chatarunga, being played nearby with a sandbag holding the board.

Private Gulab Kajari watched the game intently.

Back in her village they liked Shatranj, which was quite similar to Chatarunga. It differed from Lubonin chess, Latrones, in that the peasants did not get a double move to begin with and you could not hide the king behind the chariots. One thing Gulab did like better about Latrones over the other variants of the game was that the best piece was a Queen and not a Counselor. She always found that rather heartening. Her grandfather had taught her to play. Before he passed he was the best player in their region.

During the old old war he had played a lot of chess in the different places he fought.

Almost on reflex she found herself muttering a little prayer.

Gulab herself had played many games, of Chatarunga, Chatranj, Latrones and even the Nochtish Schach. As a kid she had nurtured some ambition for this game of warring royals, and she had even played people in villages outside her own. She played enough that it was a little frustrating to watch some of the clumsy moves being made by the soldiers.

They were cowardly and indecisive, and when they committed it was to foolish moves.

Both of them stared at the board for long minutes and then almost always made mistakes. Soon she could not bear to watch anymore. It grated on her nerves to see it.

She turned on her back on the sight, facing an empty building.

Waiting was starting to get on her nerves too.

Almost reflexively she pulled her hair free, gathered it again and began to braid it into a tail, just for something to do. Her hair was long and a little wavy, a bit messy, rich dark chestnut in color, darker than the brown tone of her skin. Whenever she could spare the time she meticulously tied her hair up in a simple braid. Since being redeployed from the wilderness outposts in the Kalu Hilltops she had precious little idle time to spend on hair.

Toying with her hair was simple and relaxing – it helped affirm a lot of who she was. Whenever she braided her own hair it brought back memories of home. It was hard not to think about it. There was a lot about her that had been bound up in those simple twists of her gathered hair, that was bound up in the length of her hair, in the care that she took with it; a lot that made her different. Back in her village, hair braiding was a kind of boundary that she crossed. She was brazen, and usually asked girls to braid her hair.

They would have thought it strange, but they would have done it, giggling and laughing and saying silly things about her. They would go to one of the girls’ homes while their family was out, and they would braid her hair and paint her face and smile.

They would say she was pretty and had a cute-looking face, and comment on how slender and soft she was compared to her brothers. Gulab would enjoy the teasing thoroughly. It was all compliments to her, unbeknownst to the girls making them.

Those were good times.

She was on the last twist, her fingers right right at the lower end of her hair, when she heard noise and commotion. She finished her braid with a little elastic band she had gotten out of a toolbox months ago. From the middle of the vehicle road, Lt. Kone shouted and raised his radio handset up over his head. “We’ve received orders to take up positions! As of right now, carry yourselves as though an attack is imminent!”

As one, the soldiers heeded him.

Food and drink were thrown away, and the Chatarunga pieces went back in their case.

There was smoke over Matumaini and 3rd, rising from several blocks away.

The defenders made it to their positions, and waited, knowing they were soon to be drawn into battle. Gulab went over in her mind what she thought of the situation. She had not played chess all those years without thinking about life in moves – she had gone through effort to try to understand the situation today. She had asked people, looked at maps.

Building collapses made it impossible to see the actions of the enemy from this distance, but they were certainly on the move. Sounds of gunfire intensified, at first distant, but moving closer and heightening in volume. To attack the line, the Nochtish forces would have curve around the heavy collapses on Matumaini 1st and connect to the adjacent Goa street east of Matumaini and then return through the western connection to Matumaini 2nd.

Now finally around the rubble, they could turn around back into Matumaini and assault north along the road and directly within the lane of fire held by the 2nd Line Corps’ 42nd Ox Rifles Regiment, tasked with occupying Matumaini 3rd. This was the only route that made sense at the moment, since there was no direct connection to Penance in the west.

It seemed the enemy was ready to do just that.

Already remnants of the 1st Line Corps had begun retreating.

Over the next half hour Gulab saw injured and scared men and women coming in from the south, from the smoke and the din of gunfire. Medical units of the 2nd Line Corps were soon busy with the remnants of the 1st Line Corps, who largely had to be transported away behind the lines. Matumaini 3rd would be the main battlefield in moments.

Matumaini 3rd’s defenders established themselves along the intersection separating the blocks on Matumaini 2nd with those on Matumaini 3rd. It was a very open and broad four-way intersection. The streets were wide and several building lots straddling the road had been pounded into crushed dust, opening up even more terrain for the defenders.

Gulab had never quite seen a road layout like this one.

Matumaini ran along the northern and southern ends of the intersection, with a connection west to Goa, and a diagonal connecting road to the next district curling into the intersection from the northeast and bypassing Penance road and the old Cathedral block entirely. The defense of the intersection was tiered across these areas.

Each of the three battalions had its place in the defense of this area of more or less a kilometer all around. The 1st Battalion was responsible for the edge and center of the intersection, while the diagonal road was 2nd Battalion’s to hold. The extreme end of the intersection along Matumaini itself, as well as Matumaini and 4th block, to the rear of the 1st Battalion area, was 3rd Battalion’s responsibility. Gulab herself was part of the 4th Ox Rifle Division’s, 42nd Rifles’ Regiment’s 1st Battalion, B Company, 3rd Platoon.

Order of battle was confusing at times.

She thought of herself mostly as “3rd Platoon,” but the defense of the intersection made her think in larger terms than that. There were a lot of people present. When she joined the army she barely trained with twenty or thirty people. Perhaps had she been around longer, and in a better time, these masses of humanity would seem normal.

Sandbag walls had been erected along the southern end of the road. The 42nd Rifle Regiment’s 1st Battalion did not have enough sandbags to wall off the entire intersection, it was simply too large. Instead, several half-moon firing positions had been made, with a machine gun, anti-tank gun or mortar providing a base of fire for a platoon of rifle troops.

There were four large positions along the south with heavy machine guns and a rifle platoon stacking around or near each. In the center of the intersection there were three more positions, one for an anti-tank platoon and two for mortar platoons, along with supporting defenses centered on a mostly intact residential building on the northeast, straddling the intersection toward Goa and Umaiha, and mostly harboring light machine gunners and rifle troops. Far to the back was their supply platoon, and a reserve rifle platoon occupying the connection to the 3rd Battalion area in case of retreat. This was their full disposition.

Gulab and the 3rd Platoon was in the center.

She was part of a platoon stationed around a grouping of three 45mm anti-tank guns.

Her thoughts finally arrived at her own disposition. In this way she ran through the situation in her head, waiting with bated breath for the enemy. For nearly an hour everyone was quite static, but surprisingly, a latecomer arrived at the 1st Battalion area.

“I apologize for being late, Lieutenant. I shall take charge of the platoon now.”

Over her shoulder, Gulab listened in on Lt. Kone and his new guest. He was in a mortar pit adjacent to her post. She wondered why he wasn’t chewing out this woman who was light-only-knows how late to the defense, and worse, late to command her own troops! And she wondered even more what kind of pathetic character would be late to something of this magnitude, late to her command responsibilities. She almost had half a mind to say something to this fool later on – but then she caught a good glimpse of the woman.

Gulab was stunned to silence.

Lt. Kone deferred to the newcomer because she was a KVW agent; but Gulab found herself staring at the woman just because she looked so gallant in uniform.

Soon the woman approached the 3rd Platoon’s position. Gulab was still transfixed.

Hujambo, I am Corporal Charvi Chadgura. I will be temporarily in command.”

Cpl. Chadgura shared perhaps the dullest hujambo Gulab had ever heard.

She spoke and carried herself completely without expression. Her eyes were just a little bit narrowed, and her lips remained in a neutral position when she quieted. She wore neither a smile nor a frown. Her cheeks were relaxed, and there was not a wrinkle along her brow. She had a striking appearance in spite her lack of expression, with a rich and dark complexion, and slightly curly, strangely pale hair to a length below chin level. It was a collection of traits that Gulab had never seen in the mountains, the Kalu, or Bada Aso.

It was hard for Gulab to accept this picturesque person as the owner of that dull and droning voice, as someone who had been late to assemble her own platoon – as a less-than-perfect officer. Especially for KVW, heralded as terrifying, perfect soldiers.

Everyone in the platoon was quiet for a moment.

It seemed that there was no one among them used to dealing with the KVW, or perhaps, specifically with someone like the corporal, who had a sort of scatter-brained air from the moment she appeared. Gulab could not tell what Corporal Chadgura was thinking, and the Corporal was very quiet and still. She tried in vain to find somewhere to sit, but then remained standing. There were no other officers in their platoon. It was a young unit.

Cpl. Chadgura rubbed the side of her own arm perhaps as a form of fidgeting.

Her face continued to betray nothing of what she was thinking. She was a complete cipher. Finally, after long silence, she found a place to sit down on the sandbag wall.

Once she seated she patted her hand on her lap as if beckoning a child.

“Does anyone want to join my command cadre?” She asked in her droning voice.

There was no response at first. It seemed the answer was a hesitant ‘no.’

Without thinking Gulab thrust her hand up, feeling as if she had a duty to do so.

Now the platoon stared at her instead. Cpl. Chadgura clapped her hands once.

“Thank you. One person will be enough. What is your name and rank?”

“Private Gulab Kajari, ma’am!” Gulab said. She tried to seem enthusiastic.

Chadgura rubbed her chin as if she had forgotten something. She cast a long glance around the platoon, then snapped her fingers. It was the most expressive gesture she had made so far. “Private Kajari, please share with everyone one thing that you enjoy doing.”

Gulab paused for a moment.

“I like Chess.” She finally said in a hushed voice.

“I enjoy collecting stamps. Now we know each other on a deeper level.”

Chadgura’s expression did not change at all, there was not even the slightest twitch.

Nobody in the platoon could peel themselves away from this scene.

Even Gulab found it puzzling.

25-AG-30 South District – Matumaini 1st, 6th Grenadier


Along Goa street Kern was haunted by the snapping sounds of distant rifles, and the occasional boom of heavy artillery. On Goa itself there was no war yet, only the appearance of one on the rubble-strewn street; but it could not have been said to be peaceful.

Kilometers away to the east the Cissean 2da Infanteria attacked along the riverside, on far cleaner terrain than the 6th Grenadiers – but also facing far stiffer resistance and a dreadful river crossing. Westward, the 1era Infanteria was fighting for the old cathedral and Penance road, on terrain that was comparatively open but blocked by a veritable fortress. Kern could hear the fighting, a far-away chaos rendered in choppy noises on and off again. It was a discordant prelude to a violence that could sweep him up at any second.

It bothered him most that the noise was far enough away to draw no violent physical reaction from him. He did not scream or fall aback with surprise. Anxiety built in his chest and tension roiled under his skin, but the environment offered him no release.

Facing the war would be better than this. At least there he wouldn’t feel so foolish.

It would be immediate.

First Sergeant Zimmer was still at his side, but now with his pistol in his hand. Kern did not know what it was for – there were least thirty men between themselves and the “front,” nebulous as it was. Zimmer was fixated on every suspicious surface that came into view. But after the eighth or ninth partial roof and rubble-choked frame, the 1st-Sgt. relaxed, and put on a big grin on his face, as though he had bested his enemy.

“Private, from what part of the fatherland do you hail?” He asked suddenly.

Kern avoided his eyes. “Oberon, sir, from the farmlands.”

“Ah, the breadbasket. Ever hunt, son?”

“No sir. My families were just farmers.”

Zimmer looked at him like he was preparing to spit in his face.

Just farmers? You’ve no pride, boy. That’s your problem.” He said brusquely.

Kern felt as though he would have been criticized for anything he said.

“My family hunted in western Rhinea. Hunted tundra drakes.”

“Tundra drakes?” Kern asked.

1st-Sgt. Zimmer extended his pistol arm, looking through the sights.

“Large things. Scaly. Big bite. Remnants of old power. Long before you and I were here, they were the kings of that ice. It is said that once upon time they controlled the ice, shaping the blizzards. It is said that they still can. That is my people’s point of pride.”

He glared again at Kern. His contempt was obvious.

“Run out front. You’re joining the next assault. I want to see you fighting.”

Kern felt an icy grip around his heart.

Short of having a literal death warrant handed to him, he felt there could have been no greater sign of his worthlessness in the eyes of the first sergeant than to be thrown ahead. Certainly he would die; certainly Zimmer was saying nothing less than “go die, boy, go find a machine gun to shred you, go become meat on the pavement.”

He felt disposed of.

Why had been so keen to take him? Had he just been trying to kiss Aschekind’s ass then? Pulling away a nuisance to earn some mild esteem from the Captain?

The Captain didn’t even seem like the type of person who responded to that!

With the 1st-Sgt.’s eyes boring holes through him, Kern ran ahead in clumsy, jelly-legged strides, feeling a nervous tingling throughout his body, and heat up to his throat, nausea, a throbbing headache, as if he bore all the maladies of life at once.

He joined a group of men near the front of the advance.

None of them spoke to him and they did not speak to each other. Kern felt that he might have seen them standing around the last intersection, staring at the corpses.

He had been wrong. He took it back. Facing the war would not have been better.

He begged silently to whatever unseen force – please, not the war.

No matter how much he begged with his mind, his body was still moving forward, a step at a time, over the rubble-strewn across Goa Street. He had joined the war to escape a stagnant existence, to make something of himself other than the ceaseless struggle of Oberon’s fields in the wake of growing debt and alienation for the “breadbasket.”

Who cared for the wheat when you could live better working in an assembly line for the bread? He thought he was escaping stubborn old family to make himself. How on Aer did he wind up doing this? Rifle in hand, grenades in his belt, his bayonet glinting, and Captain Aschekind’s useless hand radio in his bag. He walked to death now.

Marching quietly, perhaps sharing the same thoughts that had stricken Kern, the Landsers crossed the block along Goa Street and then, as instructed, they turned back westwards through the connection to Matumaini street. Judging by their maps of the area, they would be right around the corner from their objective. Those among them who had been designated Jagers moved forward stealthily, and crawled atop and around the rubble, climbing surreptitiously into the buildings and ruins near the corner to Matumaini, and gathering what information they could from their position without being spotted.

More elements of the 6th Grenadier began to catch up to the lead elements.

Kern heard the noise of tank tracks behind them as their platoon of M3 Hunter Assault Guns approached. An unbroken line of men moved into connection to Matumaini. Squad Machine Gunners moved with their Norglers in hand and assistant gunners carrying extra ammunition; Snipers with panzerbuchse anti-tank rifles and scoped carbines kept watch; and large groups of common grenadiers carrying rifles and grenades made up the bulk.

Captain Aschekind appeared from among them, a head taller than any of the men.

He carried a monstrously large pistol. Kern had never seen anything like it before.

Around him was a squadron of soldiers with cross-shaped medals on their jackets – the 1st Squadron, who rode on Aschekind’s Squire Half-track. Would they be leading the march? Probably not. They were too valuable. Each of them was a decorated veteran.

The Captain’s arrival did little to change the situation at first. He simply stood sentinel.

Soon the scouts returned from around the corner with a report on the enemy’s positions.

Captain Aschekind then gathered the platoon commanders.

He conveyed to them the scout’s findings in his terse and spare style of speaking.

There were four machine guns up front, and more positions behind them in a second tier with anti-tank and minor artillery support. They were well dug-in, and they had to be engaged before any movement could be made. To charge the tanks in first would have exposed them to the communist’s anti-tank guns, so officers and armor held back.

For their first wave it would be only men, ordinary grenadiers with their rifles and grenades, ordered to move as fast as possible and as far as possible to engage the defenders. Supporting elements would follow once the battle was well underway.

Assault platoons began stacking around the corner, ready to charge into the fray.

Once everyone was organized, squadron by squadron the men began penetrating enemy territory by charging around the corner, across the streets, into whatever position they could find. Soon as boots touched rubble, gunfire erupted in response.

Battle was joined.

From the connection to Goa, Matumaini Street seemed endless, stretching hundreds of meters, probably six or seven hundred meters long in all. Though Matumaini was a much wider street than Goa, rubble occupied so much of the double-wide car lanes that a sure-footed step could only be taken into a ten meter wide path along the dead center of the road.

Assault Grenadiers ran for seconds along the road before meeting lead and fire.

Machine guns blared, and streams of their gunfire covered the street. Mortar shells fell over them fifteen to twenty a minute. Plumes of smoke rose along the street like wisps and ghosts freed by fire to rise to heaven, and angry red streaks of tracer gunfire ricocheted over the rubble. Volleys of battle rifle and machine gun bullets soared through the open air, and low shots chipped at the ruined ground in the wake of the desperately running men.

Landsers rushed forward one or two squadrons at a time. Kern ran out with the very first men of Zimmer’s platoon, challenging the communist’s furious defense. Projectiles streaked the air just behind him, rounds flying past his helmet. Two men just centimeters behind him were caught by a burst of gunfire and collapsed over the uneven ground.

Kern felt the heat of a mortar shell exploding a few meters from him, launching tiny, fast pieces of metal that grazed his shoulder and back, and triggering a great fear in him.

Suddenly he ran with abandon until his muscles were hot and sore.

In a panic Kern crossed the street and threw himself into a doorway choked with rubble. He hugged the rocks for dear life – there was barely enough room to hide his body, and he was squeezed against the ruin as though he would fall from a mountain if he took a step.

All he could do was peek out in fear every few moments, desperate for an opportunity.

6th Grenadier’s charge was gaining meters in fits and starts as men ducked gunfire and avoided explosions. Riflemen ran out from the cover of awkwardly jutting rock and dusty mounds of rubble sliding out from collapsed buildings, and they were gunned down in the open street, making it two or three meters perhaps from where they started.

In the wake of fresh deaths, and the attention of the enemy guns being elsewhere, more men dared to run. Many died in the attempt, but several lucky ones bounded ahead.

There was a chaos of movement on the street, and almost every squadron found it hard to keep fully together in the chaotic terrain and under the pressure of suppressing fire. Stung by shrapnel, deafened by blasts and shaken by a storm of lead, men ran to the first concealing object they could find, and when these crowded they had to find new places to hide. Meter by meter, rock by rock, they pushed the fighting closer to the communists.

Into alleyways men ran, and from them crossed the street found more cover. Several men climbed through windows into ruined husks, seizing a second’s respite in the cold gloomy ruins. Kern heard a man cry out in desperation, trapped in one such building.

Many men even lost the will to move entirely. They hid in the rock like Kern did.

Squadrons in good condition and within rifle range started to fight back.

Taking turns, each stationary squad leaned from cover and shot, half the assembled men attacking while the other half worked their bolts or reloaded to prepare for an attack.  They aimed to stall for time, trying to startle the gunners or hurt auxiliaries, perhaps slow the guns enough for someone else to move. It was the start of something.

Behind them support squadrons began to commit to the fight.

Snipers fought through the smoke and fire and took aim at the communist line, threatening any centimeter of human flesh they could see. Ayvartan gunners started to drop once accurate fire flew in from across Matumaini, but this silenced the guns for only seconds. Soon another man or woman would take the weapon and death would resume.

Nochtish machine gunners tried to find heights from which to shoot down over the shields of the Ayvartan machine guns, but the footing was bad and the ruins unstable. It was on these last support units that the infantry’s tactics most strongly depended on, but the environment was uniquely hostile to them. They could find no place to brace their bipods, and many fired wildly from the hip, or with their guns laid over crumbling rock.

Sawing noises issued from the Norglers; long bursts hit sandbags and ballistic shields, forcing the communists to hide behind cover, preventing them from safely traversing their guns or spotting along the road and streets. Machine guns screamed blindly and recklessly from both ends of the street, landser and enemy taking turns hiding and shooting, and beneath the fire exchanged in their duel the riflemen continued to run and to die.

A gargantuan effort from the 6th Grenadier Division finally made it within 200 meters of the communist line – but it was only a smattering of random landsers hiding on both sides of the street that maintained this distance, their squadrons broken up and split up.

In reality much of Nocht’s power was still as far back as 400 meters from the enemy.

Close, but not close enough.

Over the course of the fighting the enemy showed several weaknesses to the grenadiers. Kern found the Ayvartan fire to be sporadic and sloppy all told: the machine guns seemed to concentrate terrifying volleys on the first flashing of movement, and more landsers managed to move from cover to cover than were killed on the street because of this.

They found that they were not fighting a wall of fire, but a whip, that cracked at the air and then retracted. Kern himself learned something of the timing, or at least, he hoped.

He took a deep breath and waited, pressed against the rubble.

When he felt the time was right Kern pushed himself off and hurtled out of cover.

Five or six other men ran with him from various positions along the road, each a few seconds off Kern’s timing. Some were running diagonal to him, others in parallel but from farther behind his position, fresh off the line. All of them ran amid brutal gunfire.

Ayvartan machine guns made a very deliberate, metallic crock-crock-crock sound during continuous fire; Norglers made a crack-thoom noise at the beginning of a volley and then a continuous, infernal sawing noise. With the Ayvartan guns Kern almost thought he could hear every bullet being fired from the gun thanks to its weary noises.

Once the volley commenced anew, Kern was in the middle of the street, and from the corner of his eyes he saw the split second flashes in the distance, and he saw the red trails of the tracers, and the sharp bursts of dust and chipped earth that followed in the wake of bullets striking earth around his feet, behind him, right in his shadow, right where he was.

He caught a glimpse of the streaks of red in the air around him, splashes of blood, and spurts of red mist as flesh was perforated by bullets. He kept his arms closed and his rifle against his chest, his head and shoulders bowed, and he ran with a controlled gait.

Through the open road and the leaden cloud he crossed, and threw himself behind a mound with three other men. They patted him on the shoulder and atop his helmet, and then steeled themselves ahead again. Two men rose from cover and fired, hitting nothing.

They hid again.

Now sixty meters from the communist line, none of them were willing to move further.

Kern checked his gun, found it fully loaded, and steeled himself to fight from cover.

On the street he saw five freshly killed men.

They had the timing wrong, perhaps by a few seconds.

Kern wished he could explain how he was alive still and those men were not.

He felt a man’s hand on his shoulder and turned his head. There was a scruffy-looking blonde man with a patchy beard and mustache, with his back to the building adjacent to their rubble, and his rifle pointing at the floor. He was lean but he looked tough.

“Corporal Voss,” he introduced himself, “I think you should stick with us.”

“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere.” Kern said.

Voss smirked, and loaded a new stripper clip into his rifle. “Let’s give ’em a show!”

Voss and one of his men leaned out from cover, aimed quickly, and let off a shot; they hopped back in, and a hail of gunfire pounded the front of the mound. Kern and the second man took their turn, bullets still striking in and around their area. He fired a snap shot; it was as if he was aiming for the concept of a man, trying to predict where the owner of the flashes might be, where a head might rise over a sandbag. He did not know what he hit.

Two Norglers suddenly emptied out against the communist line and bought a few seconds of silence. A few men bolted from cover and made it across the street. From behind Kern a fifth man showed up at Voss’ spot, struggling to breathe, nursing a bleeding gash along the side of his belly. Kern handed the man a cloth from his own pouch.

“Thanks,” the man struggled to say, “Grazed me. Coulda took my guts off.”

Kern nodded, and he prepared to lean out and shoot again.

Enemy guns awakened almost the instant he leaned out, and he was forced to hide.

Gunfire flew past his position. He peered back down the street.

He found himself transfixed when ten or twenty meters behind and slowly approaching he saw the ridiculous figure of Captain Aschekind, holding a chunk of concrete to cover the length of his body, shrugging off the fire of the Ayvartan’s guns. It was as though he had ripped a pillar from a building and wielded it like a shield via a piece of bent rebar.

Kern and Voss and the other men watched, bewildered, as Aschekind returned fire with his pistol – a massive round ejected from the barrel, and an explosion larger than a standard grenade smote the Ayvartan’s sandbags, instantly quieting one of the big guns.

One slightly shaking hand holding his heavy shield, Aschekind used the other to reload. He popped open his gun, a flare gun design with a longer barrel and larger chamber, and from a belt he pushed in a new grenade using his thumb. He locked the barrel back into place with his forefinger, and inching forward he fired again. His projectile overflew the machine guns and exploded behind them, quieting a second gun with the fragmentation.

Kern found himself muttering, his lips quivering. “Is that a man walking or a monster?”

“Couldn’t be anything but both, I think.” Voss replied, similarly taken back.

As if in response, the Ayvartan second tier awakened, and an explosive shell flew out, shattering Aschekind’s concrete pillar – but the man quickly rolled out of the way and into safe cover from behind the crumbled chunks of cement. He disappeared into a nearby ruin. Moments later Kern heard a crackling sound coming from his bag, and he withdrew the radio that the Captain had handed him. He turned one of the knobs to clarify the signal.

Soon he heard Captain Aschekind’s voice. Despite everything he delivered his lines with his usual force. “All units currently on the street hold positions and provide support. I repeat, hold positions and provide support. Armor and artillery are mobile.”

Far behind Kern’s position tank engines started anew, and tracks started grinding.

25-AG-30 South District – Matumaini 3rd, 42nd Rifles

Matumaini was alight in waves of gunfire.

From her vantage Gulab watched the machine guns spraying hot red streaks of lead down the street at the distant silhouettes of men. She took aim with her iron sights and did what she could to support, but she was not sure how she was supposed to score hits at the distance her rifle was rated for. An enemy hundreds of meters away was hard to see even if her bullets could make the distance. She was not sure she had killed anyone.

Men only seemed to appear clearly when the machine guns cut them down in the open.

Machine gun fire flew ceaselessly from the defensive line. It was crucial to the defense. A high volume of fire suppressed any enemy it did not kill. But there were many technical difficulties on their side. It was not simply standing behind sandbags and shooting.

Due to the wheeled carriages on the Khroda machine guns it was an ordeal to turn the weapons to match the enemy’s movements, limiting the spread of the line’s gunfire. She saw the machine gun crews struggling to turn the guns, and due to the effort many crews mimed the crew next to them, and saturated particular sides of the street with heavy fire to the exclusion of any other lanes. There was no real direction; the situation did not allow for much finesse. Their enemy could only struggle forward and they could only push back.

Gulab counted thirty dead from automatic fire, and the Nochtish line appeared largely suppressed. For a time it was almost as though they were firing at ghosts of men, flitting about without material direction. But then Gulab saw men coming closer and closer, their figures becoming clearer and clearer, moving wherever the guns were not.

For a half hour it seemed the guns and the mortars were tireless.

Calls started to go out for fresh supplies.

Behind them, a supply truck drove carefully into the intersection, delivering reserve ammunition. Volunteers from each platoon ran out from their sandbag positions, increasingly under the sporadic fire of enemy machine guns and soon their snipers as well, all moving closer. Dodging enemy fire they grabbed crates full of ammo belts and mortar shells and brought them back to the front to refresh their hungry weapons.

Thousands of rounds flew across Matumaini.

Whenever Nocht got it in their minds to shoot back, even Gulab had to duck. Nocht’s light machine guns made a sound like a mechanical saw, chopping and chopping with continuous fire, and as the enemy’s men got closer their rounds punctured the sandbags around her and ricocheted off the ballistic shields on her platoon’s anti-tank guns. She heard a scream, and saw a woman shot and killed instantly in the Lieutenant’s mortar pit.

She had been shot as she rose over the sandbags to fire. Things were turning around.

Soon even ordnance threatened them.

Explosive shells from what Gulab imagined was a light cannon struck the defensive line from behind a moving chunk of concrete. One shell struck the sandbags guarding a Khroda machine gun and threw the crew from their positions. Their platoon had to rush three fresh men and women to recrew the machine gun, and pull away the injured crew. Quickly the new crew worked on the gun, replacing the damaged gun barrel, adding a new water jacket to cool it, and fitting a new ballistic shield. After unjamming the ammunition belt and replacing it with a fresh one, the gun opened fire once again.

It seemed to have little effect on the grenadier attacking them.

From the same position as before a second light cannon shell fell between the anti-tank position and one of the mortars and exploded violently. Gulab felt the heat and the force, and smelled the burning. Fragments flew over her head, grazing one of the gun crewmen. Nobody was seriously hurt from it, but everyone was shaken.

To think Nocht had access to a portable light cannon!

It was clearly being fired from behind cover by an infantryman. Gulab tried to make him out, but she could see nothing but a hunk of cement debris in the middle of the street.

“Raise the guns. I want high explosive on that man.” Corporal Chadgura shouted.

This was her first order the entire battle.

Even when she shouted, though the volume of her voice rose, her tone was very unaffected, and her face looked quite untouched by everything happening. It was bizarre.

At first the gun crew looked startled – the anti-tank guns were supposed to hold their fire and to do battle against tanks. Their gun model was meant primarily for direct fire, and had very little elevation and no artillery sighting mechanisms. Despite this one of the three gun crews stopped gawking and did as they were told, loading a high-explosive shell and raising the gun elevation. One of the men raised a pair of binoculars and gave instructions on sighting. It was all raw mathematics done in their heads without the aid of an artillery sight or an elevation gauge or any other instruments. It was very impromptu.

When the gunner pulled the switch, the 45mm gun kicked back a step.

An explosive shell sailed across the street in a fraction of a second.

A modest blast issued as the shell struck the slab of concrete across the way.

Everyone was operating at ranges where Gulab found it hard to trust her eyes on what happened, but she thought she saw a solid hit and maybe even a good kill. The crew popped open the breech and the shell casing slid easily out, ready for another explosive shot.

Binoculars raised before his eyes, the gun spotter relayed a confirmed kill.

“Good work. Stand by.” Corporal Chadgura replied.

She was unshaken by the events. Gulab had not seen her flinch away from anything. Even when they were forced to duck or hug the sandbag walls tight to avoid intensifying enemy fire, Corporal Chadgura’s face showed no reaction. It was hard to tell whether she was bored, deadly serious, or perahps stunted with fear. Gulab could read nothing in her eyes or her face and the officer had seldom spoken since the shooting began.

There was a lull. They had been fighting for over an hour. Orders were to delay Nocht’s advance, but for how long? To Gulab it didn’t feel like this intensity could be maintained forever. Along the street there were far fewer targets. Those enemy soldiers that had made it to cover stayed in it and traded small arms fire. When the machine guns sounded back to them, they hit rubble and kept the enemy’s heads down. No one was making progress.

More targets – taking the corner to Goa spotters found a pair of gray hulks.

“Ready yourselves! Load Armor Piercing!” Corporal Chadgura declared.

Behind the central 45mm gun, the crew inserted a new shell, and pushed a lever to feed it and lock it in place. The platoon’s two other crews followed, loading their own guns and raising the carriages, turning them to try to get a good angle on the enemy. Gulab’s heart skipped a beat – they were really engaging armor. Faces glistened with sweat and a little soot, and everyone in the crew hunkered behind the sandbags and ballistic shields.

Gulab peered over the sandbag wall and saw the two armored vehicles, and another following behind them. Unlike men they were clearly visible even from afar, each three meters wide and tall, a lumbering iron box with a gun, each one fast approaching.

Machine guns opened on them to no avail, trying to force them to button down their hatches and viewing slits and blind themselves – but Nochtish tank crews had no fear of rifle caliber bullets. Their tracks rolled easily over the uneven street, across the shallow craters made by mortars, driving through mounds of rubble and collapsed concrete ruin without obstacle. On the right-hand side of each tank’s face was a gun with a large bore.

“Assault gun sighted!” Shouted the spotter, after adjusting the elevation on the gun slightly. Elevation of the central gun completed, he hurried to aid the other two crews, and soon the entire platoon was ready to fight. Three guns, fully loaded with Armor Piercing High Explosive (AP-HE) rounds, and a line of direct fire to the enemy.

“Fire!” Corporal Chadgura declared.

First shot went out at about 500m distance, and crashed into the center of one tank’s glacis plate. Two consecutive shots from the other guns smashed into the thick front of the tanks at awkward angles. Gulab saw and heard the detonations one after the other, and for a moment the tanks were obscured by smoke from the blasts.

Then the armored hulks strode forward again, still advancing as unbroken unit.

There was no penetration of the armor, and no visible damage as the tank rolled forward. Nocht’s assault guns continued their meticulous advance toward Matumaini 3rd.

As one, 3rd Platoon’s crews ejected the spent shells, reloaded, and at Corporal Chadgura’s command they fired again and again, pounding the tanks relentlessly, but this did little but momentarily slow the enemy. Their front armor was simply too tough!

As the front row of tanks endured the blasts of three anti-tank guns at once, around them the enemy gained a second wind. Gulab heard the whipping noise of rifle bullets.

Reflexively she hid behind the sandbags for cover.

She promptly felt like a coward when she saw Corporal Chadgura standing behind one of the the AT guns without fear and continuing to direct their fire.

More AP-HE shells loaded, and flew. All of the guns sounded continuously.

Gulab swallowed hard, and stood again with a mind to retaliate.

She then failed to raise her rifle.

Under continuous anti-tank fire, the assault guns reached a distance of 300 meters, about the halfway point from Matumaini 2nd and Goa to the intersection. There all three of the guns stopped, and from behind them two more tanks started to roll out of Goa with a new mass of men huddling around and behind them. Reinforcements.

The Assault guns in front adjusted their cannons and opened fire.

Powerful 75mm high explosive shells rocked the defensive lines. One shell struck a machine gun position dead-on just thirty meters in front of Gulab. While the double-thick stacks of sandbags absorbed a heroic amount of the blast, people ran out of the impromptu redoubt nonetheless, panicking and coughing from smoke. Repeated blasts rolled along the line. Every thirty meters the front two tanks would stop and shoot a half-dozen rounds.

Open terrain around the intersection was smashed repeatedly, forming smoking craters.

Sandbag pits were struck time and again and collapsed entirely.

Corporal Chadgura dauntlessly ordered the anti-tank teams to fire and fire, but they could not stop the enemy armor. The 45mm, with its small bore and short barrel was too weak for the thick front glacis of the tanks even at this close distance.

Soon the assault guns crawled to within 200 meters, now almost upon the defensive line, and the Nochtish men that had been hiding saw the near-total defeat of the Ayvartan machine gun positions and began to move on the intersection, running without fear.

Triumphantly the assault guns now fired constantly even while on the move, and they targeted their fire exclusively at the second tier of defenses. Gulab heard the thundering of the guns and the booming of explosives hitting the ground and scattering the defenses.

“Spirits preserve me,” Gulab mumbled.

Fire and black smoke blocked her view and it felt like it was digging into her eyes, like black and red was everything she could see. It was overwhelming, the blasts came twenty a minute. She felt her heart pound and her stomach tighten. A hot hand dug into her chest and she felt short of breath. Nochtish rifles and machine guns opened up on them unopposed, showering the sandbags and the ballistic shield on the anti-tank gun and adding to the noise. There was flame and thunder and a storm of metal streaking past.

Gulab felt outside her own body, trapped watching the environment, shaking, stuck. Her courage had left her, obliterated with the last semblances of thought by the falling of the shells. It hadn’t merely collapsed the sandbags but reality itself all around her.

“Private Kajari, get down!”

Gulab was falling.

She felt stricken across the face, but in reality Corporal Chadgura had thrown herself atop her. Behind them something roared with heat and power, casting a massive gout of flame and choking black smoke into the air. When the shell fell they were both thrown against the sandbags, as though picked up and launched by a giant.

They hit the ground together in embrace, gasping for breath.

Gulab’s vision swam, but she saw the burning husks of the anti-tank guns behind them, and the corpses of the crews caught in the inferno. For a second she thought the corporal too might have been a corpse, and she panicked, and scurried away from her.

On the floor, Chadgura looked at her with that unchanging expression.

She pushed herself up on her knees.

“Are you capable of walking, Private Kajari? We are in danger here.”

Her voice was still so dry and drained.

She did not look as if in pain, as if affected. Cpl. Chadgura’s endurance was astonishing. Almost heroic. Gulab felt a biting pain across her shoulder, but it was nothing tragic, and she found she could move all of her limbs, shaking perhaps, but without undue effort.

Her mind a sudden blank, Gulab stood, and Chadgura stood with her, seemingly unharmed. There was smoke all around them, but Gulab could see others reeling and standing and running. There was a great outcry, and dozens of people running to the back of the intersection. Corporal Chadgura collected their rifles from the floor.

“We must retreat to the 3rd Battalion area. This position is useless now.”

Together Chadgura and Gulab joined the remains of the battalion retreating pell-mell across the intersection. As they ran, a pair of shells flew overhead and smashed one of the few buildings standing intact along the eastern side of the intersection. From the first floor ran its remaining occupants, some burnt, some pulling along concussed allies.

Gulab grit her teeth and held her breath and ran herself raw.

Now it was their side’s turn to be cut down.

Enemy machine guns grew closer and fiercer, and the shells continued to fly from their advancing armor. In the middle of the intersection the drivers and crew of the ammunition truck abandoned their vehicle and joined the runners. Soon a small mass of humanity was running past the end of the intersection and into 3rd block proper.

Behind the retreating Ayvartans the enemy’s assault guns rolled over what was left of their Khroda machine guns, and Nochtish soldiers set up their bipods and took parting shots at them from the opposite end of the remains of their sandbag walls. More and more soldiers poured into the breach and took the positions she and her crew once manned.

Gulab ran almost a hundred meters past the intersection.

Soon she found herself and Chadgura well into the 3rd Battalion area. There the men and women from 3rd Battalion pushed up Khroda guns on their wheeled carriages and prepared their own 45mm anti-tank guns to retaliate against the invaders. She and the corporal both stopped near an alleyway and waited as more people from their platoon filtered in. About half of them were accounted for within a few minutes. There was a flurry of movement all around them, and the gunfire never ceased even during the retreat.

It seemed the fight would continue right into the 3rd Battalion area.

“Are you unhurt, Private Kajari?” Chadgura asked.

Gulab couldn’t reply. She was still catching her breath. She nodded her head instead.

Chadgura nodded back. “Do not fear. We have not shown an inkling of our tenacity.”

Gulab nodded her head again, sweating, weeping from the smoke in her eyes. It was hard to be inspired. She felt like she had been defeated, like she had run like a coward instead of fighting. And hearing her late-comer, lazy-voiced officer was not helping.

Chadgura checked her bag suddenly, and held out a thin little book triumphantly.

“Ah. It survived.”

Nocht advanced quickly upon the 2nd Battalion area, and through the power of its assault guns ejected them from the intersection. Along the diagonal road and the northern road to Matumaini 3rd the Nochtish attack continued, with grenadiers rushing forward and engaging the 1st and 3rd Battalion lines. Others dug hastily into the intersection, in many places using the remnants of Ayvartan positions to springboard fresh assaults.

The 1st and 3rd Battalions held on tenaciously, and for a brief moment they fought only the enemy infantry, but it was a short-lived respite, and within ten or fifteen minutes the M3 Hunters were moving forward again, savaging the Ayvartan’s defenses with their 75mm guns and withstanding blows to their thick armor. The 42nd Rifles Regiment and the 4th Ox Rifles Division requested anti-tank support as quickly as possible.

According to the operational plan, this call was soon answered.

Elements of the elite 3rd KVW Motor Rifles assembled behind the 42nd Rifles’ Regiments struggling front line. Black-and-red clad veterans of Cissea began to intersperse themselves among the Ox troops, preparing for Major Nakar’s counterattack.

Farther behind them, waiting for their chance to lunge, Ayvarta’s new armor stacked up to bewildered gazes, their crews quiet inside the giant machines. Major Nakar delivered her orders through the radio, primarily to the KVW and to select units of the Ox rifles.

The Ogres would not reclaim the street; they would annihilate the occupants.

It was time for the real face of Matumaini’s defense to make itself plain.

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Battle of Matumaini II

The Legions of Hell — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death, as well as a mention of suicidal ideation.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE, Night

Solstice Dominance – Postill Square

A bonfire raged in the massive common square outside of the main barracks. Revolutionary Guard and KVW soldiers stood around it, staring into it, quiet, seemingly pensive. They threw badges, patches, identifications into the flames in protest.

Their old lives as part of the government were over.

Men and women looked on at their comrades before taking their turns.

There were similar expressions across every face, difficult to read, regardless of whether KVW or Revolutionary Guard. Both the black-uniformed and red-and-gold uniformed troops looked the same, and had similar training. They had similar opinions about the events in the city. Warden Kansal had given them orders, and they would follow them. It was impossible that a disloyal thought could cross their minds.

Those who were used to the eccentricities of KVW-conditioned people, though, could see signs of anxiety. Pacing, lack of sleep and loss of appetite, reluctant eye contact.

They were humans still, after all. They feared for the future.

Everyone resisting the Civil Council traveled to the far north of the city, assembling in makeshift barracks around Postill Square, a grand plaza dedicated to the Revolutionary Guards who had fought so bravely to defeat the White Army in the Ayvartan Civil War. Armaments Hill loomed in the background, opening its doors to supply them. Trucks were still arriving around the area, carrying police and Revolutionary Guards from across the vast capital city. An army growing to almost 200,000 troops built up, unit by unit, with the ten divisions of the Revolutionary Guards making up the bulk, along with several divisions of police rearmed as KVW soldiers, and the 3rd KVW Mechanized Division.

It was an army that could have conquered the city it had sworn to protect.

Instead, under orders from Warden Kansal, they abdicated their positions, essentially going on a mass labor strike. They would not abide the suspicious allegiances of the Civil Council – but they also did not mobilize to end it. They could not mobilize south to fight Nocht even if they wanted to – their rail capacity was at its limits, and any other mode of transportation would not be enough to ferry them. Their action so far was only protest.

There was only one enemy in sight, and they chose to fight it in a different fashion.

The Warden knew that the city administration was reeling from this mass betrayal.

The Civil Council had always loved the police and guards, so courteous and loyal, perfect in their demeanor and professional in their duties. The Civil Council loved obedience and order and they let their guard down around anyone after they obeyed enough orders and followed enough regulations. But who established them? Who trained them?

These things could not be removed by simply changing jurisdictions and making new uniforms. The Revolutionary Guard and Police accepted severance from the KVW because Kansal allowed it to happen. She allowed them to become part of the Civil Council, she allowed herself to become separated from her followers this way, because they were still loyal to her throughout. Warden Kansal’s trump card was always poorly hidden.

It was disbelief that kept suspicion at bay.

She counted on a lack of understanding, first and foremost.

She was always blunt. She hid only because people opted not to see her. Always those eyes had overlooked her for one reason or another. Perhaps because she was a woman; perhaps because in the past she had been injured, altering the functioning of her body. Perhaps because she seemed foolish and brutish and unsuited to scheming.

How could this one woman control hundreds of thousands of people?

How could she, with the snap of a finger, organize them to turn their backs on everything they committed themselves to for years without an inkling of visible rebellion?

Short of magic, it was simply not possible.

Across the last five years everyone was certain that the Police was the Police and the Revolutionary Guard the Revolutionary Guard. The KVW had been broken and shrunk.

Short of magic, indeed.

It was not magic, but much of it might as well have been. It had worked miraculously.

Now the Warden stared out at the consequences of her decision. From the guard tower on Armaments Hill, her temporary new home, she watched as the guardians of the city gathered in this strip of land below, to live away from their police stations, from their depots, from everything still nominally owned by the Civil Council. To protest; to strike.

An army, essentially, on strike; and a city visibly bereft of their stewardship.

Crime was always low, and grew lower the more people discovered that socialism was apparently here to stay, and that it was largely taking care of them. Would people revert to barbarity without them? Certainly not. But they would see the movement. They would understand that things were changing, and perhaps for the worse.

Perhaps, now freed from hunger, they would take notice of the politics around them.

There would be anxiety and tension; the violence of the world upon the human mind.

Violence could bring change.

Daksha Kansal felt that violence in her own mind, and it made it hard to understand her own thoughts. Other people could see a continuity of their experiences, and they could analyze the torrent of information that led them to action. Daksha’s whole life felt as if she could only see it through cracked glass. She felt an existential pain when she tried to think about what she had done, the faces she had seen, the promises she had made.

She thought of the people who stewarded her, and what they would think.

Fundamentally, she had failed Ayvarta.

“Among all religions, the Messians, the Ancestor-Worshipers, the Spiritists, the Diyam, the Hudim; all of them believe that the world was forged in fire. I don’t believe, but I understand what they see in that first flame, the World Flame, that their Gods used to forge what would become the world. I can see why they think we all rose from fire.”

Behind her, Admiral Kremina Qote looked up from a long table that had become her new desk. Despite how quickly Kremina spoke and how little she thought about what she would say, her words always had meaning for Kremina.

She gave her a subdued smile, looking wistfully at the floor.

“Well. One way or another, the whole world is likely burning now.” Kremina said.

“Indeed. Was this trajectory inevitable? Or, had we been stronger, could we have built something more lasting? I feel guilty that I allowed things to come to this.”

“Daksha, this is not over yet, we have not–”

Daksha raised her hand to stop her, all the while continuing to speak.

“As a child I saw people build and rebuild only to face continuing destruction. I perpetuated it myself. I have always felt myself drawn to violence and scarred by violence. I have committed horrible, horrible acts. Could the world be changed by anything else?”

“Are you going to overthrow them?” Kremina asked suddenly. “I would support you.”

Daksha paused. She broke eye contact, staring at a candle on the table.

“I don’t want to. I wanted revolution to end the violence. But I can’t seem to escape it.”

Daksha’s mind was like a cipher but Kremina was closer to earth. Her feelings were tangible. Kremina felt ashamed of herself for a moment, but she also felt strongly that this violence was necessary. When she was younger she thought she saw virtue in compromise, but tension now cut through her restraint and made her optimism appear naive.

She hated the ridiculous government that had needled its way to influence over Ayvarta. She hated the passivity she felt in interacting with them on their level. Were they not revolutionaries? Why not murder them all? Why not run right into council, and excise all of those irrelevant fools from the world. What was the worth of an election where people chose between hacks who had simply swapped into a new political aesthetic?

“We need to put a stop to this while we still have land to fight over.” Kremina insisted.

“People need to be spared this cycle.” Daksha said. “People cannot grow like I have, feeling what I do. They need stability. When the world changes they need to see it that it is not just fire that does it. People aren’t phoenixes: they can’t keep rising healthily out of fire and ashes. They should not have to burn to a crisp to see the world grow better. This is why we are merely striking. I want to believe we can change this without more war.”

“I know your trepidation, Daksha, but in this case I am coming to believe that more radical action might be required. We need major changes. The Collaborators sympathize with Nocht: I can feel it. Their ambivalence is only that if Nocht takes over, they have no guarantee that it will be their Empire again. Kaiserin Trueday will not spare them. They don’t care about their own people; all they want is to reposition themselves for privilege, morphing to take advantage of whatever environment they’re in, like chameleons.”

“That might be a little harsh.” Daksha said. She was treading lightly.

It felt very fake and unlike her.

Kremina scoffed at this. “Can we be truly so sure? Don’t you also feel this from them?”

Daksha turned away again, her eyes fixed on the black, moonless sky overhead.

Even the stars were bleak. Light from the bonfire stretched far across the square and shadows stretched with it. Passersby put on a play on the walls with their every movement across the great fire. Even now she was trying to protect Kremina. Between them there were many dynamics clashing; they were lovers, state partners, military minds, comrades. They had been so many things together and occupied so many roles toward on another. Kremina thought Daksha’s distance misguided. But she said no word of obvious criticism.

“What will it take then for us to take action?” Kremina demanded.

“I want the Council to collapse and make way for us to take over and conduct this war right.” Daksha said. “But I don’t want a mass murder to carve that path for us.”

“It’s not a mass murder! It’s a revolution!” Kremina said.

She could tell Daksha was not listening to her in full.

The Warden had a tired, dreaming look in her eyes.

“I am putting my hopes on Nakar. I’m not religious, yet I foolishly desire a sign from her. She showed us a sign before, didn’t she? As a child, we saw in her the power to destroy something that seemed eternal, and to erect something better in its place.”

“She forgot everything.” Kremina said. She spoke in an almost pleading voice. “Her powers might have died along with the Empire. You are elevating her to a position that we are not sure she can take; or that she even wants. We are an army, Daksha!”

“I know. I know it is irrational. But I will give her time, down in Bada Aso. I will give her time to win for us. Upon her I want to pin my humanity. It is unfair to use her again like this, after all we have done. But I want to believe that there can be something for us other than a second civil war with an even greater foe waiting to pounce upon us.”

Kremina gazed upon her lover with pain.

Both of them buckled under the weight of this crisis.

“I understand that. But if you won’t do what is necessary, then I might have to.”

Daksha smiled. Kremina stood resolute.

“I don’t wish that blood on anyone’s hands.” Daksha said.

“When the time comes it will be my decision. We tried our best for all these years to work with them, and to try to rationally reconcile all of our positions for the good of people. We have housed them and fed them, but have we truly freed them? Or are they simply waiting in the interim between one set of tyrants and another burgeoning set? That is my fear, Daksha, when I speak to these councilors and when I engage their politics.”

“Let us wait for a while. Worse comes to worse, I promise I will be history’s monster.”

Her attitude changed easily when others swore themselves to extremes. Daksha was still protecting her, still trying to be the first to die and still making herself the monster, the face of the evil the world saw in them. Kremina saw her then as she had seen her over twenty years ago, when they made their secret pact.

She was a low-ranked naval officer, slim and untouched by the world. Daksha was tall and strong, her skin a warm brown like baked leather, her hair black as the night. One of her arms had been broken and now it moved with difficulty. One of her legs was stiff from injuries. She was awkward in pure motion, but with her own grace, taken in aggregate. Strong, passionate; that was the Daksha she knew.

But she saw herself always as the monster.

“Can we wait? Kremina?”

She reached out her hand. Kremina took it.

Their fingers entwined. Irrationally, they would wait.

As these two souls tried desperately to see through the fog suddenly surrounding each other, suddenly clouding the world they thought they knew, ambivalence reigned around the capital. Everyone wanted to see a future ahead of them. As the patches of the police and revolutionary guards burnt in the bonfire outside, everyone waited, almost religiously, for a sign that might justify a course of action, for better or worse.

Their eyes fell on Bada Aso.

Perhaps there was another monster there in whom they could all count.

There was still a chance that Madiha Nakar could win in Bada Aso.

Her victory would be a victory for Daksha and Kremina.

Then the Council would have to acknowledge that success, and their own failures.

It was either that, or another bloody civil war.

24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Nocht Federation Republic of Rhinea – Citadel Nocht

Citadel Nocht was alive with the ringing of phones and the crackling of noisy radios.

Under a constant barrage of snow the massive spiraling black building that was the nerve center of the Federation housed thousands of workers, hundreds of guards; its offices fielded millions of questions and gave billions of answers through kilometers upon kilometers of telephone and telegraph wire. These were the neurons that carried impulse for the movements of Nocht’s twelve state organs and its untold amounts of limbs, the most important of which, at the present included the Schwarzkopf secret police, the Brown Shirt police, the Vereinigte Heer, the Luftlotte and Bundesmarine.

At the crown of this man-made encephalon was the office of the Federation President, elected by the voters of each state. Largely, this organ existed to digest a world’s worth of information and within the day both inform this singular man, and transform his reactions into a world’s worth of policies, answers, and, lately, retributions.

This was the machine of the Libertaire technocrats, the temple of their industry, the proving ground of their science. Atop this machine, the exceptional man seethed; President Lehner had received a world’s worth of news and it was not news that he liked.

A wave of terrorist attacks in Lubon had slowed the tottering nation of elven faeries even further than expected; in Yu-Kitan resistance from the Jade Throne and the communist guerillas in the jungles of the interior had forced the Hanwan Shogun to commit more troops and reduce his own commitment to the larger war. While attacks on the major ports of northern Ayvarta were still planned, supporting landings would be cancelled.

In Nocht itself, Lehner’s foolish, misguided voters broke out in riots over a tightening on banks and groceries to prevent malcontents from hoarding resources the nation required. His brown shirts and black heads had gone swiftly to work, but the minor episodes across the Republics of the Federation left a sour taste in his mouth. He thought his people better educated than this; he would have to take new and special efforts to instill upon them proper and patriotic values. He needed his population capable of supporting a war.

War was the current bright spot; a week’s worth of fighting was going beautifully.

But Lehner did not pride himself on complacency.

He found problem areas, and he seethed at them too.

To his office he summoned General Aldrecht Braun, chief of the Oberkommando Des Heeres. He was the kind of man that Lehner hated. Facing him was like peering at a museum piece. He was thin as a stick and straight as one, his skin graying, pitted, covered in cracks. He had an old world flair to him, a chiseled countenance with a dominating mustache that seemed to link to his sideburns, and a dozen medals on his black coat none of which Lehner had given him. Through the double doors he strode proudly into the office, chin up, maintaining eye contact; he trod casually upon the red and blue stripes of the Federation, over the twelve stars of the Republics, over the iron Eagle. All of the Presidents peered down at him from their portraits. He did not sit before Lehner’s desk.

Always, he stood, and always, he stared, keeping Lehner’s eyes.

Miserable old codger; Lehner could’ve spat at him.

But it would not do to give anyone that satisfaction.

It would have looked bad in the papers.

“Mr. President, it is always an honor to be in your presence. I am prepared to clarify any report made to you. I assume you have received most of our current information.”

“I have,” Lehner replied, smiling, “Actually, wanted to talk to you about that, big fella. I want you to do some of that clarifying you speak of. See, I’ve spoken with some ladies and gentlemen about a few planes; well, actually not a few, quite a lot. A disturbing amount of planes, none of which are flying, would you happen to know anything about that?”

President Lehner always spoke in a rapid-fire tone, as though his thoughts would run away from him if he did not hurry. He spoke quickly and easily without a hitch.

“I heard that Air Admiral Kulbert has grounded the Luftlotte due to losses.”

“Yeah, I know! Funny that! I told him to ground it after he gave me this ridiculous number of planes he lost to try to help your boys break into a city that, by the way, they still don’t seem to have broken into at all. Six hundred sorties two days ago, three hundred yesterday, and a few token ones today. Sounds like he was busy; and you weren’t.”

“First incursions into Bada Aso begin tomorrow, Mr. President. All has its due time.”

“So,” President Lehner started to laugh, a nervous, haughty laugh, an effort to conceal his rising fury, “so Braun, tell me about those planes, huh? Don’t try to divert me from those planes, right? I love planes, I have a plane right here in my desk because I fucking love planes. So let’s be honest. Tell me about how we lost almost five hundred planes in three days, and then if you’d be so kind, tell me why I haven’t sacked you. I’m eager to listen! Always eager to listen. I love my people. I don’t love losing five hundred fucking planes,” He exhaled thoroughly, “but I can give you the benefit of the doubt.”

General Braun was direct. In a matter-of-fact voice, he spoke. “We have not lost 500 planes, mister President. We completely lost 250 planes; plus 100 critically damaged, 50 lightly damaged, 100 planes grounded due to crew injury, out of 1000 planes–”

President Lehner interrupted him. “Word of advice? This angle is not saving your job right now.” He picked up a model airplane from his desk, and raised his hand up with it. “This is your job right now. And this is where it’s going.”

He dropped the model; it smashed on the desktop.

General Braun winced as the pieces flew from the desk.

Several fell in front of his shoes.

“My apologies, Mr. President. I do not have the full details, but from what I understand the air defense network in Bada Aso seemed to have become much more efficient than we anticipated. Our highest losses occurred on the very first day, and lessened afterward.”

“Well, yeah, because you flew less sorties. Otherwise you’d have pissed away even more of my planes, maybe even all of my planes. All because you got some bad info.”

“With all due respect sir, I do not command the air troops nor am I in charge of the intelligence gathering for the air troops. Kulbert might be able to tell you more.”

President Lehner smiled. “You’re right Braun. You’re right. Let’s just press on, shall we? We’ll talk about those planes more in the future, because they won’t ever fly again over the Adjar dominance without my explicit authorization, in order to prevent more of these thick-headed, wasteful operations. So, we have all the time in the world, don’t we?”

General Braun did not flinch. He remained standing.

President Lehner’s own frenetic pace worked against him, and he felt an almost physical pain at the thought of remaining on the subject of the damaged planes. Quickly they turned to discussing the ground forces. Braun displayed an intimate knowledge of the city of Bada Aso, the final bastion of the communist resistance in Adjar.

The city had not yet been seriously challenged from the ground, and the forces retreating pell-mell from the rest of the region had gathered there to make their stand; or, Lehner assumed, they had been merely told not to run any further on the pain of death, and thus the pathetic flight of the communist forces by coincidence had happened to end there. It’s what he would have done in the situation. Braun boasted about his advantages.

“We know the city and surrounding regions like the backs of our hands now.”

“I’m skeptical.” Lehner replied. Had he really had such knowledge of the city, the air troops would not have been caught off-guard. Hubris alone did not account for that.

“We have first-hand information from former communists.” Braun said.

Lehner blinked with surprise. “I love having people inside places; I don’t understand how we did it though. I thought these people were fanatica. Can you trust anything they say? Who did you manage to rope in anyway? Are you picking through the peasants?”

“A few officers from the Adjar command, and a few captured soldiers. Apparently the invasion caused them to reconsider their allegiances. It’s not surprising to me. Adjar was one of the most rebellious Dominances of the old Ayvartan Empire. When the Empire fell, Adjar moved quickly to secede into its own country, same with Cissea and Mamlakha. But Adjar didn’t get away with it: the communists tightened the screws on them. They would win eventually, but Adjar resisted enough that they settled things with a truce instead and formed a collaborative government, making certain concessions to the rebellious territories. There have been seeds of anti-communist rebellion in Adjar ever since, though the Ayvartan KVW has swiftly rooted out and crushed many of these over time.”

“Love a good history lesson, but cut to the chase here. What have ‘our people’ done for us yet, huh? They didn’t seem to be much help to our planes these past few days.”

“Well, Mr. President, they aren’t magic. But for one, we have some decent basic maps of Bada Aso, as well as some understanding of the forces inside. Their intelligence has been valuable in guiding our pace, Mr. President. And that is why Bada Aso is not yet under attack. We’ve made preparations. Tomorrow, the hammer will fall upon it.”

“Battlegroup Ox are our opponents, right? Led by that ore smuggler, Gowon. A pretty farcical enemy if you ask me. Thanks to him we have details on Ayvartan weapons.”

“Indeed. Gowon has proven very valuable and very predictable so far. He saw us, turned tail and ran from the border. But we’ve got him cornered now. He has about eight good divisions and two resoundingly pathetic tank divisions at his disposal. All of them are holed up inside the city. We will advance from the south and force a sizable foothold within the city, and once we have tied up their forces, we will sweep in from the east across the Kalu. Von Sturm is the primary architect of this assault. Meist, Anschel and Von Drachen stand in support. Lead elements are the Blue Corps, 6th Grenadier and 13th Panzergrenadier; in the Kalu we will use the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions.”

“I’m not fond of that Drachen guy,” President Lehner said, “I read his file. Actually, my secretary read his file, and then she told me I wouldn’t be fond of him. Guess what? I wasn’t. She’s a sharp lady; anyway, I don’t like him. He’s weird. Did you know that’s not even his name? Tell me about a man who chooses to name himself Von Drachen and won’t tell you his real name. Von Drachen? How pretentious; I’m not fond of him at all, Braun, not at all. I don’t like him or his fake name. His grammatically poor fake name.”

“He was commissioned by your predecessor sir. He practically delivered Cissea to us in a few weeks after he defected from them, and has been fully trustworthy since then.”

“Well, y’know, sometimes you have to recognize geniuses even if they’re assholes. The man’s got a gift for killing people. But I wouldn’t give him a front-line position in a really critical urban operation. There’s a difference, it’s like friends you drink with and friends you show your parents. And friends who haven’t betrayed anyone before, too.”

Braun nodded deferringly.

“Then do you wish for me to impress upon Von Sturm this difference?”

“Oh, no, that’d set us back right now. Just. Ugh. Ignore I said anything. This was a stupid angle. I should just keep my feelings to myself more often, I suppose.”

“If you say so, Mr. President.”

President Lehner was fickle, and he knew it, but he let his moods carry him away. In speech he let his wild flourishes of the tongue go where they went, and when there came a time to confront an issue his massive staff could not quantify and break down, he let his instincts dictate the course. His mood had not yet failed him; he had rode it over opposition that deemed him too young and brash for the office, and now he rode it over a people in his eyes too old and worn to capably fight back against it. It was nature, science, progress; it was manifest that the new men would defeat and replace the old.

He was the New Man.

Behind the big desk, President Lehner felt compelled to extend discourse to his lessers. What was meant to be a quick chewing out and terrorizing of a hated officer, turned into an hours-long discussion on war and strategy in which General Braun almost impressed the President. Not in his ability to talk or conduct war, which Lehner largely thought overrated: but rather, in his ability to stand, unblinking, and speak for extended periods.

What a hilarious old buffoon.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Adjar Dominance – Outskirts of Bada Aso, South-Center District

Gray clouds loomed overhead, but the Kalu region and Bada Aso received little of the expected rains. Under the muggy gloom, a new army advanced across the wet grassland and over the muddy old roads, tramping in shallow puddles and across broken street.

From the southern approach the city was eerily quiet. The Landsers could hear every mechanical struggle and hiccup and neigh of their long convoy of vehicles and horses. An entire Battalion rode to battle that day, comprised of over 800 men in vehicles and horse mounts, but nobody alive met them through their long drive into the city.

Even the wind was quiet, picking up little except foul smells of day-old smothered fires. Gradually they left the countryside behind and pushed into the urbanization of Bada Aso. Dirt roads turned black with sturdy pavement; clusters of buildings grew thicker around them, though few stood taller than burnt out foundation.

The 6th Grenadier Division’s 2nd Battalion crept through the ruins of the outer neighborhoods of Bada Aso, finding several kilometers worth of ghost town. It seemed like three out of every four buildings had been smashed by bombs, and the debris spilled across the streets. Near the city limits the mounds and stretches of debris that crossed the landscape were largely surmountable, either navigable enough for the convoy to run over or near a clean road by which the march could circumvent the obstacle entirely.

With every block bypassed the ruins raised new challenges. In the thicker urbanization there were larger buildings and tighter crossings. The 6th Grenadiers found themselves considerably slowed down by their mounts and vehicles. Soon the Landsers stopped entirely. They found themselves faced with a wall of rubble from a tenement collapse.

Captain Aschekind gave the dismount order.

At the head of the convoy, a single Squire half-track unloaded its compliment of ten men, who quickly surveyed the wall. Aschekind was among them. Other infantry squads mounted on horses and a few on trucks dismounted and assembled in turn. In all there were over forty of these squads, accounting for more than half the men in the battalion.

Making up the rest were support groups of Norgler machine gunners, a small cadre of snipers, and far behind them at the rear of the march, communications officers and the logistics train. Food, ammunition, medical; over a kilometer behind for safety. They would start putting down wires for field telephone, and coordinate the arrival of reinforcements and the deployment of higher-level assets. Second Battalion lacked any kind of personal heavy anti-tank guns or heavy artillery support, all of it waiting to be released piecemeal by the Divisional command that lagged outside of the city, dozens of kilometers away.

Horse-drawn carts would have to pull many of these weapons into the city, and would also be responsible for towing them between reserve zones and combat areas.

In the midst of all this, Private Kern Beckert was overwhelmed with uncertainty.

Nocht was moving. Boots hit the ground in Bada Aso.

To the east and west, the Cissean Azul corps protected their flanks. They had arrived first, and they were likely fighting even as the Nochtish men dismounted. For the 6th Grenadier Division’s 2nd Battalion the most crucial objective had been saved. They would drive down the center and secure the major thoroughfare of Bada Aso, winning operational freedom for Nocht’s motor and horse pool, and for their armored forces.

Or at least that had been the theory; given the poor terrain conditions it seemed much more complicated than that. Planting your flag on a road did not make it more navigable.

As his fellow Landsers dismounted, checked their weapons and awaited orders to march, Kern faced the rubble in front of him and the debris-choked expanse of the city around him, and even in the midst of hundreds of his fellow men, he felt remarkably small.

He knew none of the other men. He hardly spoke to them. He felt his burning in his gut when he thought of speaking to anybody. What would he tell them?

Riveting stories from the corn farms of Oberon?

He put up a tough front, because everyone else seemed to do the same.

There was idle chatter from men who had fought alongside one another before and had some familiarity. This was Kern’s first combat action. He had been assigned to 2nd Battalion just a few days ago from the boat-bound reserve forces.

What was he doing in Ayvarta?

He had thought the world smaller than it was. It was too big for a farmer’s boy.

He shouldn’t have run from home.

Before he knew it, Captain Aschekind called for a forward Company, over 200 men; and Kern found himself moving, mimicking the eager men around him. They joined their Captain at the edge of the rubble, and began to climb the high mound. Aschekind was a monument of a man, broad-shouldered, thick-armed, and imposing in his officer’s coat. His fists seemed more frightful than his pistol. An angry red scar crossed his left cheekbone. His expression was grim and focused, betraying little of what he might have thought of the men around him. Kern felt helpless around him, and instinctually feared him.

The Captain hardly seemed to climb; instead he took determined steps up the slippery rubble, crunching with his feet on the dusty cement, brick, wood and jagged rebar debris.

Kern was just an ordinary man; a boy, some would even say, barely twenty years. Blonde and blue-eyed and clean-faced, athletic, or so he once thought. Perhaps the sort of man that a man like Aschekind once was, before war turned them into moving stone. He climbed with his hands and his feet, as though crawling up the mound. Dust and small rocks fell in the wake of faster climbers and momentarily dazed him. He felt the sharp rock and bits of metal scrape him through his gray uniform. His kit felt heavier than ever.

He had a grenade, he had his rifle and he had various accouterments like rations and rope and a battery-powered torch. He had extra ammunition for his squad’s light machine gun. He was exhausted a dozen hand-holds up the rubble, perhaps nine or ten meters from the floor. Kern struggled to catch his breath. Groaning men wedged up past him.

He cast eyes around himself at his fellow climbers.

He could hardly tell who was even in his own squad.

Atop the mound of rubble they had a commanding view of the surrounding area. It was hotter and drier up there than on the road. There was a breath-taking view from over the rubble, but he wouldn’t get to cherish it for long. Aschekind tersely ordered the men to drop to their stomachs and crawl so they would not be spotted atop the mound. Forward observers moved front, surveying with binoculars the streets ahead.

From their position they relayed that they could see the first Ayvartan defensive line, comprising various shapes of sandbag barriers around heavy machine guns and a couple of light mortars. Observers reported that the communists had based their defense in two echelons of fifty troops, including, regrettably, both men and women, and these cadres stood each across from the other on a tight, three-road intersection like a side-ways ‘T.’

Overturned buildings, mounds of rubble and shattered streets that would block the full brunt of the enemy’s attack covered half of the way to the enemy’s defenses at the intersection. Then just as starkly the ruins stopped for hundreds of meters. For significant length of the way to the intersection the assault run over pristine terrain.

Kern listened with growing trepidation.

Captain Aschekind, however, was unmoved by this obstacle.

“Establish the eight centimeter mortars here. All of the forward rifle squads here will advance undettered but with caution. We may yet surprise them.” Aschekind said.

Kern and his fellow Landsers crawled along the top of the mound and slid carefully down the other end to the ground. Immediately they took cover in whatever rubble they could find. Aschekind was right: the Ayvartans had not yet spotted them.

Methodically the rifle squads advanced toward the line.

Squad leaders moved ahead with their designated scout partners, followed by the gun group, consisting of the Company’s Norgler machine gunners. Everyone moved from cover to cover. And at first there was a king’s ransom of potential cover: a collapsed piece of the road, drenched in water from broken pipes; the overturned facade of a building, creating a mound behind which a man was invisible; husks of blown-out vehicles; and open ruins and the spaces between and around buildings, acting as cement barriers.

Squad by squad the Landsers moved forward, each treading the expert paths of the men before them. Kern found himself pressed into the middle of the column near the Gewehrsgruppe, the machine gun group responsible for volume fire to cover the Company’s advance. All of them had heavy packs, and walked in twos.

Up ahead the “headquarters” consisting of various leading officers made the first moves to new cover, and directed everyone; when to run, when to duck, when individual squads should tighten or loosen formation. Behind his place in the line followed riflemen like Kern with no special designation. It was a textbook march, and they carried it out with professional character. Over two-hundred men, moving almost in secret.

Everything was going perfectly.

Despite himself, Kern felt a strangely renewed sense of confidence when he saw everyone moving as the pamphlets showed and as they had practiced in drills. Perhaps by rote he could survive the battle ahead. Perhaps he had learned to be a soldier. No longer was he the farm boy running from responsibility; he was a Nochtish Grenadier.

Tactical movement carried the Company far into the rubble, but cover grew sparser as they went. About a hundred meters from the collapsed tenement, they had only waist-high cover to count on, and just a few meters from that they would have nothing.

Captain Aschekind moved to the center of the men. Beneath the notice of the Ayvartans the men huddled in the edge of the rubble, scouting out the defensive line. Aschekind ordered for word to be passed around the Company that squad leaders and rifle groups (but not the machine gun groups) would cross the open terrain as fast as possible.

They could not count on any cover until they reached the sandbags: closing to assaulting distance was their only chance of success. Gun groups would remain behind in supporting positions. Through whispers passed around their hiding places, man to man, the entire forward company was soon appraised of the situation. Captain Aschekind ordered the assault to begin with a mortar attack on the defensive line followed by a charge.

Kern closed his eyes. He was soaked in sweat. It traveled down his nose and lips.

Captain Aschekind raised his portable radio to his mouth.

“Ordnance, fire at will. Smoke to cover us, and then high explosive on the enemy.”

Seconds after Aschekind’s command, Kern heard the chunk of deployed mortar rounds dispelling the eerie silence in the city, flying from their tubes atop the tenement rubble. Moments later they crashed back to earth, throwing up smoke to cover the advance of the Landsers and crashing across the Ayvartan’s defensive line. 2nd Battalion’s first few shells on the enemy did little more than scatter sandbags and awaken the communists.

Ayvartan machine gunners took their places and opened fire on the rubble and across the long, smooth street before them, their red tracers flying through the smoke.

Bereft of cover, it was like a killing field. Only the smoke prevented a massacre.

“Forward company, charge!” Aschekind shouted. “Over the walls, into their faces!”

From behind cover the Landsers rose and threw themselves headfirst into the fight.

As one body the Company charged ahead from their hiding places and crossed immediately into the thickening smoke over the connecting road, tackling the open stretch as fast as possible to assault their objective. No longer was theirs the movement of a methodical force, advancing efficiently in a column expertly hidden from the enemy.

Amid the fire they started a glunt stampede.

Behind them, standing atop rubble, several squads worth of machine gunners fired continuously over and around the running Landsers, directing their fire across the smoke and trying to silence the flashing muzzles of the Ayvartan defenders. Each burst of allied gunfire bought precious seconds for the desperate riflemen to run. It was all they could do.

Vorwarts!” Roared the Captain, running with his men into the death and dark.

Into the smoke advanced this march of close to two hundred men.

Kern seemed caged in the center of the charge, anxious from the thunderous noise of so many footsteps. Whistling mortar ordnance crashed intermittently in their ranks, pulverizing men. Sparse but deadly fire seemed to pick off soldiers like a finger from the heavens, indecisively falling, tapping a man in the shoulder, the legs, or the head, and taking off whatever was touched. Every few seconds a choppy stream of red gunfire from an Ayvartan machine gun took two or three men in a visible line of blood and tracer light.

Then the enemy paused to reload their machine guns or to hide from retaliatory fire launching from the Norgler machine guns. Reloading was quick; soon their bullets soared across the road once again, sweeping blindly through the smokescreen for men to kill.

Landsers in the press fired their weapons in a desperate bid to open ground for the charge. Most riflemen stood little chance of hitting a target, but the Light Machine Gunners in each Squad, ducking near the edges of the road, could match the Ayvartan’s rate of fire for the briefest moments before having to take off running again to avoid a killing spray.

Ahead of the march a few men blindly threw grenades far out in front of them as they could, but the explosions did little good. Mortar shells from the rubble behind the Grenadiers fell intermittently and inaccurately on the communists, proving at best a momentary inconvenience to one or two of the positions fiercely defending the road.

Everything they threw at the line was only a minimal distraction that bought the Landsers small chunks of time between deaths and deafening blasts and seething tracers.

Every few seconds of Ayvartan stillness took the company a few bounding steps closer to the objective ahead, and every few seconds of Ayvartan activity claimed lives.

Kern raised his rifle and threw himself forward.

He coughed in the smoke and held his breath when he could.

His head was spinning, and he took clumsy steps. He felt as though constantly falling, hurling headlong down the road. Around him men fell to their knees and onto their hands, cognizant of their deaths for mere seconds before uttering their final cries. Kern cowered from streams of machine gun fire and narrowly avoided mortar blasts. Fortune smiled upon him somehow; he pushed toward the edge of the cloud, and found a shadow behind the Ayvartan line that he could attack. Closing in on the enemy, he engaged.

He raised his carbine and fired a shot while running, hitting nothing, working the bolt; he saw his target, the shadow, flinch in the distance, and he fired again to no avail.

Crying out, Kern pushed himself to the brink of physical pain and finally overtook the sandbag wall, leaping over and shoving a man from behind the tripod of an empty machine gun. Over a dozen landsers overcame the defenses and bore down on the enemy with him, throwing themselves over their mortars and rushing their machine guns.

Kern thrust his rifle out in front of him, coming to blows with one of the defending communists. He swung the barrel of his rifle like a club in a frenzied melee, and around him it seemed every man was fighting with fists and elbows and knives rather than guns.

There was no bayonet on the end of Kern’s rifle, and his opponent proved stronger.

Bare forearms blocked the feeble, clubbing blows of the landser, and quick hands grasped the weapon, punishing the boy’s repeated, pathetic flailing. With a titanic pull, the communist tore the firearm from Kern’s hands, and used it to push the landser back, throwing him against the sandbag wall as though he was weightless.

He then turned the carbine around.

More men vaulted the low sandbag wall, and Captain Aschekind was one.

He leaped over Kern and charged in with his bare hands. He threw himself against Kern’s opponent like a charging bull, quickly pulling down the stolen rifle with one mighty hand to avoid a fatal shot, and with another taking the man by the throat, choking and lifting him off the ground. Kern’s stolen carbine shot into the earth and spared his life.

Aschekind squeezed the man’s windpipe and with a mighty heave he threw the man three whole meters away. Like a stone the unconscious communist struck another man to the floor, and the two of them were stabbed dead by rushing landsers using their bayonets and knives. Kern stared helplessly at the bloody brawl, fixated on the violence.

It seemed then that the company’s human wave had finally torn past the sandbag wall. With the communist’s machine guns and mortars tied up, the landsers rushed confidently ahead to threaten the intersection, stepping over the bodies of fallen friends and foes.

Aschekind did not immediately join them.

He half-turned to the sandbag wall and he threw Kern’s carbine against the boy.

“Bayonets before bravery, Landser.” He said, his voice deep and grim. “Make sure that you affix the knife point before your next charge unless you desire an early death.”

Hands shaking, Kern picked through his pockets for his bayonet, and snapped it into the lug before running ahead. He took cover inside one of the mortar rings.

Enemy fire resumed around him from the second echelon of Ayvartan defenders at the intersection. With the opposing forces poised on each side of the roads, the battle for the middle of the intersection was soon underway. Smoke cleared, and Kern could see several enemy squads with their men and women hidden behind post boxes and street lights, inside ruined buildings and even ducking behind fire hydrants. There were probably fifty or sixty more riflemen and women opposite the attacking landsers.

One ominous building stood almost intact across the intersection.

Kern saw communists run in.

From the second floor automatic fire soon rained down on the assault group.

Kern saw charging Grenadiers cut easily down.

Mid-run, several of the leading men turned tail, threw themselves down or grabbed what defenses they could. Few got lucky; butchered bodies littered the ground ahead.

“Hunker down! Fight from positions!” Aschekind shouted, leaping into the mortar pit with Kern. The Ayvartan machine gun across the intersection had a poor angle on them, and the sandbags stopped the enemy’s rounds, providing an adequate defense for the Captain and Kern. But it swept across the captured portions of the defensive line from commanding ground, pinning several riflemen behind a few scraps of cover.

At this range, their own gun groups could not support them well, and their mortars were far too inaccurate. It was the worst situation imaginable for Kern. Riflemen in a static fight without a base of automatic fire, against entrenched enemies. His fellow Landsers hid as well as they could and fired back, directed by Aschekind’s shouting.

Several men took shots at the machine gun, but its metal shield protected the gunner perfectly within the relatively narrow window. On the ground rifle shots deflected off cover on both sides. Kern loaded his own rifle and rose quickly from cover, taking a barely-aimed shot at the building. He hit the windowsill and hid again, working the bolt on his rifle.

Whenever the Ayvartan machine gun fired it issued a continuous tapping noise that sent a chill down his spine. Angry red tracers flew like lines of fire weaving over the air.

Their own fire grew sporadic and ineffective in the face of the communist opposition.

The Ayvartans had freedom of movement under the protection of their second-floor machine gun. They attacked with confidence, having the leisure to aim for targets, and they struck many more men than they lost. The Landsers were stuck. Communists began to encroach, inching closer whenever their machine gun suppressed the Grenadier’s side of the road. Nocht’s riflemen could hardly shoot back for fear of that second floor window.

Kern himself hardly knew where to shoot.

Whenever he peeked out of the pit he saw dozens of the enemy, all of them either moving under the cover of automatic fire, or entrenched in unassailable positions. Rifle bullets bit into the sandbags whenever he even thought of shooting. Whenever he ranged a good target, Kern found that he would have to hide again to work the bolt on his carbine, losing whatever chance he had of making a second or third shot on the same man.

His Captain seemed to have taken notice of his reticence in the face of the enemy.

“Give me that.” He scowled.

Aschekind yanked the rifle roughly from Kern’s grip.

He attached an old, worn-out metal adapter from his satchel to the end of Kern’s rifle, and to it, he attached an old-model grenade – Kern had seen this kind of weapon in pictures, but not in the field. He did not believe it was a standard procurement for them.

“Stay down,” the Captain warned. Kern ducked even lower in cover.

Captain Aschekind waited for a momentary lull in the Ayvartan’s machine gun fire, and he rose half out of cover, looking through the metal sight now sticking out from the front of the gun. He pressed the trigger and the old grenade launched out of the muzzle.

Soaring across the road in an arc the olde grenade crashed through the second floor window of the building across the intersection. A fiery explosion ruptured the wooden floor, and the machine gunner and the machine gun came crashing down to the ground level.

In an instant the communists had lost their fire support.

Without the machine gun the volume of Ayvartan fire slowed to little more than a few cracks from bolt-action battle rifles every couple of seconds, striking harmlessly against the dirt and into the sandbags. All around him Kern saw the Nochtish troops taking notice of the stark change in the level of ambient noise and turning to their fellows with surprise.

The Grenadiers grew bolder and the assault reawakened.

Those men huddling in cover rose out of it and fired for the first time in minutes; and those who had been fighting most fiercely before now redoubled their efforts, shooting and working their bolts with greater speed, and moving across to new cover. Squads developed a good rhythm of shooting men, covering for reloading landsers who would then return the favor. Men stepped from cover entirely and charged forward with their rifles out. They reached the center of the intersection, and threw grenades across. Many of them fell, wounded by close-range Ayvartan fire; but their throws blasted communists out of hiding.

Kern heard the ghastly chopping of the Norglers behind him.

Streams of automatic fire crossed the intersection.

All of the Gewehrsgruppe was moving up to support them.

Now the situation was fully reversed in their favor.

Pushed back and with their heavy weapons depleted, the Ayvartans became disorderly, and as their numbers began to fall, many retreated further and further out of the intersection until they abandoned it. Grenadiers crossed the street unopposed, taking to their knees and firing at the rapidly fleeing enemy. Both echelons of defense at the intersection had been suddenly ejected, and the 6th Grenadier’s 2nd Battalion claimed its first objective.

Once again the eerie silence fell over the city.

Without the machine guns and mortars there seemed to be nothing.

Captain Aschekind removed his grenade adapter and threw Kern’s rifle back into his hands as though he were discarding trash. He did not consider the boy any more than that and hardly looked at him while returning the arm. He made to leave the sandbag pit.

“Sir!” Kern pulled himself half-up the mortar pit. “Sir, what was that weapon?”

“An obsolete piece from an old war. We should have been able to do better.”

Captain Aschekind did not turn or look at him to address him. He walked coldly away.

Kern sighed. He was indeed still a farm boy; his presence had changed nothing here.

He left the mortar pit, and looked around the intersection. He had not attacked with his squadron; he didn’t even really know what squadron he was a part of. There were dead men behind him, and littered across the approach to the intersection, dead men over the sandbag walls and in the middle of the intersection. Platoon Commanders left their hiding places. He saw them counting. Kern himself counted, and he tallied at least seventy dead men.

There were a few lightly wounded men who had been grazed or clipped in the limbs and shoulders when moving out of cover to shoot; but in this assault it seemed that the dead would naturally far, far outnumber the wounded. Soon he caught the stench of blood.

Squads regrouped, but Kern saw quite a few people like himself, in disarray, standing apart from the carnage. A few men sat on the sides of the road with no one around and Kern didn’t know whether they had been wounded, or if they were just in shock.

He figured that too was a kind of wound.

Nobody counted them.

There were more people coming in. From the road that had cost them so much blood to claim, a column of new men marched calmly to the intersection. Some began to haul the bodies of the dead away, while others rushed to the wounded to lend treatment.

A horse-drawn cart appeared from one of the connecting roads to the intersection, carrying ammunition, grenades, and towing a small anti-tank gun behind itself. The rest of 2nd Battalion moved up. They were a legion walking into Hell, unknowing of the horrors herein. Nobody seemed to cover their mouths in disgust, or flinch away from bodies.

They hadn’t seen the fighting yet. They didn’t know.

Of course, Kern had seen it. And his own horror was imperceptible, mute and stunted. He heard a whistling inside his ear, becoming more pronounced from the transition from cacophony to silence. There was noise inside his head too, however, and he could not sort out his own thoughts quite yet. Nothing was silent for him yet. Idly he crossed the intersection to stare at Captain Aschekind’s handiwork inside the old building.

Kern looked down at the machine gunner, lying beneath the fallen weapon and bleeding from a dozen shrapnel wounds. He thought that it was the body of a woman.

He had heard tell that the Ayvartans pressed their own women to their cause, but he never believed he would see a woman die among soldiers as though she was a natural ally to the fighting men. He looked at her with silent fear. What kind of people were they?

What kind of person had she been?

Back again onto the intersection, he left behind the building and the corpse.

Nobody was counting the communist corpses.

Just off the intersection inside the husk of a concrete building a command post was being hastily assembled. From the horse-drawn cart three men carried out a heavy radio and set it under a hastily pitched tent. Laborers began to raise sandbags around it, while Aschekind ducked inside. Kern stood nearby. He could hear the radio crackling. Captain Aschekind reported their victory in low, terse, grunted words.

A superior officer replied; Kern realized he had heard the man’s voice before.

“Good. Aschekind, a Panzer Platoon will meet you at the intersection, and from there you will assault Matumaini Street. Von Drachen is on the move and will guard your flank. Control of Matumaini is essential. It will give us a central jumping-off point to attack the rest of the city. Matumaini is the first step in crushing the communists. Press forward, and do not stop! The Cisseans will assure your momentum and then link up with you.”

Captain Aschekind appeared for a moment frustrated with the radio. He expressed no disdain verbally. Kern saw only a flicker of anger in his eyes, and found him stressing the radio handset’s plastic shell with his powerful grip. A crack formed on the device.

“Acknowledged, General Von Sturm.” Aschekind said.

“Good.” Von Sturm said. “I knew I could count on the Butcher of Villalba.”

Kern thought he saw another brief convulsion on the Captain’s face, but perhaps he only imagined it. Major General Von Sturm cut contact, and Captain Aschekind looked down the road ahead of them, past the intersection. He strained his eyes, turned his head.

He thrust a radio into Kern’s hands.

Kern was surprised; he did not think the Captain even knew he was there.

“Follow me. Keep that on hand, and keep close. We will press the attack soon.”

Kern nodded his head. Captain Aschekind departed down the road, and Kern followed. Men followed them; it seemed without further orders that the entire company was marching ahead again. Matumaini Street was the next target. Kern’s hands were still shaking.

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Adjar Dominance – Battlegroup Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”

Ruined blocks of old buildings flanked the broad thoroughfare up to Madiha’s House.

In some respects this proved advantageous, as it improved the field of view from the higher floors. It was even harder to hide from the kilometers-long sight-line of the FOB, and it made the headquarters an even worthier prize. But Madiha had established herself in one of the forward offices, and she had the window unblocked. She wanted to see out the window, to be reminded of what happened. She wanted this penance, this torture, to gnaw at her until it destroyed her. To her, the stretch of burnt-out buildings, the damaged streets, was a symbol of her failure. She was a failed commander. At times, in her vulnerable state, she even thought of visiting the necessary retribution upon herself for her failure.

It was a frightful idea, and even more frightful how hollow she felt.

Parinita had perhaps noticed, as she had “misplaced” Madiha’s service revolver and always had something better to do than to replace it. It was just as well, since Madiha was not fighting. She was stuck behind the 3rd Defensive Line corps, an impromptu formation that, alongside the 1st, 2nd and 4th Defensive Line Corps, represented the men and women struggling to hold Bada Aso for as long as possible. These defensive lines differed in depth and combat ability. Half the Corps had simple instructions, and the other half had a more complex purpose. They were corps in name only, as none of them had headquarters.

They could not spare the staff for it.

They could not spare a lot of things.

Madiha could only sit and wait for the grim news as Parinita answered the phone.

“We’ve got trouble along the first defensive lines.” Parinita said, pulling the handset slightly off her head and covering the receiver with her hand. She was still on speaker.

“I expected that. Phone call first, and then relay the information.” Madiha replied.

Parinita shrugged comically and pressed the handset against her head again.

When she was done she put it down.

“We’ve got trouble along the first defensive lines.” She said again in a mock sing-song.

Madiha sighed and rubbed her eyes down. “This is not a reasonable time for that.”

“I’m just dealing with things in a healthy way. I find it is better to laugh than to cry.”

“I will do neither.” Madiha said tersely. “So, without charm, what is the situation?”

Parinita shrugged comically again, but sorted herself out fast enough to preempt another complaint. “At around nine the first Nochtish forces breached the city limits. We had nothing out there to intercept them but observers, who called it in and then hauled away as you ordered. Shortly thereafter we received the first reports of fire being exchanged in the Southern district. The enemy forces appear to be approaching along Matumaini in the center, Penance road in the southwest, and the old bridge road in the Umaiha riverside in the southeast. In each place the first defensive line held out as much as it could then folded. The 2nd Defensive Line Corps are in place on Upper Matumaini, Nile Street, and at the old Cathedral of Penance along Penance road. They’re not engaged with the enemy yet.”

“Any estimates of our losses in battle thus far?”

“Not a clue. The 1st Defensive Line Corps was deliberately undermanned so it’s not like we had a lot to lose. None of the other Line Corps are engaged yet.”

“Yes.” Madiha felt another terrible stab of guilt.

It was all going according to her bloody plans so far.

“Nocht appears to have committed three divisions, each with a regiment forward.”

“No matter. We will soon spring the trap. Everyone is aware of this?”

Parinita nodded, but she had a bleaker expression on her face than before. “I reiterated the plan from yesterday’s briefing to them as best as I could. But you know our officer quality is not what it should be; and the quantity is even less so. We are largely depending on a big game of telephone here to relay the plan to common troops. There were already a few episodes of panic along the front from troops who didn’t get the memo straight.”

Madiha knew too well.

She was staring down the elite of Nocht’s troops, and her own army was crippled.

Demilitarization was at first lauded by the Civil Council as a way of empowering the public and pushing socialism to its next stages. Taking power away from traditional military structures. But the ‘arming of the citizenry’ was limited to the keeping of ammunition and weapon dumps and stocks in cities that were carefully guarded, to be distributed “during emergencies.” This was not happening now, largely because Madiha could not find the Spirits-damned depots and she was becoming sure they did not exist.

What Demilitarization entailed in practice was the curtailing of the size and efficacy of the army, due to fear of the old revolutionaries once in charge of it. Many Generals in the Ayvartan army were dismissed; while most deserved a retirement due to their age and inability to adapt to rapid changes in technologies, very few were promoted to take their place. Those that remained were kept away from the troops, as advisers to the bureaucracy.

Ranks above Captain thinned out, and so lower officers were thrust with greater responsibilities, limited contact with superiors, and few opportunities for promotion. Standards were relaxed or in many cases forcibly lowered; organization was up to each individual Battlegroup. Formation sizes were wildly variable as long as the end result was an army with 100,000 soldiers in each territory. Hundreds of thousands of reserve troops were dismissed and hundreds of thousands of capable troops were added to reserve. Overnight, the fabled “Ten Million Men” of the Ayvartan Empire had evaporated.

To speak against Demilitarization was an awkward place, and few did it. Judging the role of a traditional military in a communist nation was a strange exercise. After all, was not the Imperial army largely reactionary and cruel? Madiha herself did not know, at the time, how to feel about it. Her superiors cooperated with the new rules of the law.

Now she felt anger and helplessness, at the result of these laws.

Demilitarization had accomplished its goal: both the vestiges of the imperial army and the ghost of the revolutionary army ceased to exist. In its place, was an unthreatening force that the Civil Council ignored. They created a new responsibility for themselves, and just as quickly relieved themselves of that burden and several others. The Armies could now never threaten the Civil Council, never bargain with them, and never beg of them.

Nobody seemed to care about the Battlegroups. While the KVW raised their own standards, and the Revolutionary Guards in Solstice were untouched, it mattered little.

It came from a time and place where they could not see an enemy attacking them; or perhaps, from a time when they did not want to see it. Madiha was staring down an organized, professional army with a disastrous organization of her own.

Many of her Captains were unaccounted for, heaping even more responsibilities on her Lieutenants. Parinita had told her that most of the Captains had sour relationships with Gowon and carried themselves fairly independently, conducting training on their own and traveling with their personal cadres where they pleased.

Madiha figured the chaos of the invasion, their disdain for the territorial authority, combined with their lingering fear of the KVW’s inspections, must have caused them to lose their nerve and finally vanish from the ranks. Some had probably even defected.

She had over ten divisions, and not a single Colonel or General among them.

She was the highest rank.

In the room with her yesterday there had been two Captains and a gaggle of Lieutenants. She gave the briefing to them as best as she could. She conveyed the plan for the Bada Aso Strategic Defensive Operation, “Hellfire.” From there, those few officers she briefed had the task of effectively controlling the entire army to carry out this plan.

Though Parinita and her staff had done their best to return order to the organization, there was only so much that could be done at this point to combat the idiosyncrasies of Battlegroup Ox’s deployment. This was year’s worth of damage to fix.

Now strategy was done; real-time tactics would have to carry the day from here on.

Madiha stood from her desk, took up the phone and dialed a number.

She waited through the tones and relayed the necessary orders.

“Once the 1st Defensive Line fully dissolves, and the 2nd Defensive Line comes under threat, you are to wait until the enemy is fully committed against the line before launching the flanking counterattack. Ogre heavy tanks are authorized to join the attack then.”

Madiha put down the phone, and sat behind her desk again.

She felt helpless. Everything felt out of her hands now. Whether the counterattack on Matumaini succeeded or failed; whether the city survived; whether her own life proved to be of any worth. None of it was within her power to affect.

“Spirits guide us all.” Parinita said, looking out the window of the office.

They could see none of the fighting. Only ruins.

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Battle of Matumaini, Part 1

The Maw of Hell — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

Late into the morning the signals technicians crowding the ARG-2 radar trucks in the southern districts found their CRT displays crowded by green blips. They witnessed for the first time an immediate shift from a clear sky on the radar to one choked with objects each occupying their own tiny portion of the indicators, their own eerie wavelengths.

Were the ARG-2 more sophisticated they might have thought it a malfunction.

But it was clear to them that this was far from an error.

They quickly contacted Parambrahma, who in turn alerted everyone in the Battlegroup Command. An ARG-2 couldn’t tell how many planes approached: it could only tell that enough were coming that they drove the instruments into a frenzy.

They had never seen anything like it. It could only have been a real attack.

Madiha had arrived from the rail yard well before the alert.

She took a prescribed barbiturate to control the near panic attack that she had when she arrived, and hid in one of the school rooms on the lowest level for about an hour before returning to the general population. She sat down in the cafeteria, feeling hollow and weak.

About halfway through a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of milk that Parinita had all but forced her to eat, several KVW guards and the staff brought her new reports. Exhausted, with her brains pounding inside her skull and her stomach gurgling as though ready to expel everything she had just eaten, Madiha forced herself to stand straight and look certain.

She covered up her shaking hands as best as she could and authorized a general alert.

She made the calls to the divisions over the army-level long range radio herself.

Her eight divisions in Bada Aso began to take their air raid positions.

Much of their materiel was already hidden as best as it could be from the Luftlotte, and their anti-air batteries were at their positions and ready to fire within minutes.

Amid the chaos Madiha had additional orders for the Battlegroup as a whole.

First she ordered the deployment of an aerial counterattack from the northern Adjar regions. All Anka and the few more modern Garuda in the arsenal would be prepared immediately; pilots were to be briefed thoroughly, and then lift of as soon as possible.

Where possible Garuda should be grouped together into homogenous squadrons to maximize the concentration of strength. Anka would have to do most of the work however.

Having little experience with air power she hoped that the air officers could take care of the deployment, but nobody sounded confident in a speedy reinforcement.

Next she turned her eyes back to the city.

Thankfully she was not making her stand out in the open: a preponderance of radio and telephone equipment allowed her will to easily reach all of her troops, an invaluable advantage that would have been lost anywhere but inside the developed confines of the city. Through the various lines more orders came, reaching each division and many of the lower rung officers directly. Hundreds of anti-air batteries with dozens of guns all over the city prepared to launch a curtain of fire into the skies the instant the enemy appeared.

To support the smaller anti-air batteries Madiha also ordered the 100mm coastal turrets to elevate their barrels and turn around to defend the city. Though primarily meant for naval defense, the 100mm was an All-Purpose Gun with the range and ammunition to defend the air. Several of the guns had been set into huge stationary pillboxes, but at least six new guns had been built on turrets that could be rotated manually with some effort.

Troops garrisoned in the city were the next major consideration.

Too many losses from carelessness now could sway the outcome of the future battle. Madiha ordered any troops stationed near entrances to the Bada Aso underground to hide in the tunnels and sewer system, unless they were specifically in support positions to Anti-Air batteries, in which case they were to remain in the open with their batteries. Those hidden underground would be safer there, and their preservation was necessary. Several divisions were ordered to take shelter with the civilians near their defensive positions.

However a strong presence was still needed in the streets.

She ordered the platoon of mobile-anti-air trucks to ready themselves to respond quickly to concentrations of air power in the area, and for a few foot-mobile machine gun battalions to support them and the air batteries. This was a particularly painful deployment, given the inadequacy of the Khroda heavy machine gun when fighting against air power.

Finally she had one very necessary order which countermanded previous briefings.

“Inform our forces in the Kalu that they are to ignore their air raid posture and remain hidden in their positions unless they are specifically attacked.” Madiha ordered. “If Nocht overflies the Kalu and their air power reports almost nothing there to resist them, we will have a key advantage in the upcoming battle. It is vitally important that the Kalu forces maintain as much stealth as possible. Fight back only if necessary to preserve yourselves.”

Over the long range radio these orders went out to the Kalu, where soldiers had been establishing themselves in the rolling hills and rocky scarp, behind the tors and in wooded gorges near the streams and tributaries of the Umaiha. They used the varied terrains of the hilltops to their advantage. Camouflaged netting hid tanks and trucks and guns across the uneven span. Operations staff in the base appeared to question the wisdom of this advice, but relayed the orders; out in the wilderness the men and women, including the 5th KVW Mechanized Division, simply hid, in prepared positions or as best as they could improvise.

With this order given, the die was cast.

Putting down the phone and radio sets, Madiha knew she could not shuffle around any of the forces that she had ordered from their positions. Everything she did was now set into stone. Should her judgments turn out to be wrong, there was no undoing them.

Parinita took charge of the civilian alert.

At first she sounded the sirens for a minute to get everyone’s attention. They were then silenced and radio broadcasts took their place. Across the city the speaker system instructed the remaining civilian population of around ten thousand to take shelter. Those who were close or those who could make the trek rushed to designated air raid shelters.

For those who could not leave or could not leave behind, a basement offered the most protection, and everyone in the staff hoped that the civilians remembered their drills.

Air raid shelters had been stocked with supplies in the event of an air attack, which would surely prevent citizens from reaching civil canteens or shopping at msanii markets. Emergency rations had been handed out yesterday to civilians in their homes as well, in case they could not make it out in time and needed to sustain themselves for a day or two while sheltered in place. Windows were sticky taped; basements crowded up.

Parinita’s voice calmly repeated the needed instructions, and people moved.

It was an ordered chaos.

Everyone was scared, and everyone was rushed, but all proceeded according to plan.

The ARG-2 had done their jobs waking the Ayvartan community in the face of danger. Now the equipment was temporarily powered down and the precious radar trucks quickly sequestered to secure positions to give them a better chance to survive the coming storm.

First blood would soon be shed on the Battle for Bada Aso.

Everything was set into motion.

22-AG-30 Bada Aso Northeast

Once the Staff Secretary’s voice had gone silent, the air raid sirens blared one final time to insure everyone was fully aware, and then ceased to sound as well.

In Adesh’s corner of the world there was an eerie state.

There was little sound and it seemed like silence, but to someone inclined to notice there was enough noise to bother one’s sensibilities. Those noises that remained seemed to beat just off from the rhythm of his heart and made him anxious. Footsteps, tools, the locking of loaded gun breeches. Metal sounds that had no music to them. In poems and stories about war everything seemed to have a poetic rhythm. Here, nothing did.

Soon this anxiety seemed to pass from him to his colleagues.

“Nnenia, you’re doing that wrong.”

“What wrong?”

“You’re working the elevation handle wrong.”

“I’m elevating it just fine.”

“You’re holding it oddly, you’ll tire yourself out.”

“Stop micromanaging what I’m doing and focus on your loading.”

Four days ago Adesh had stood, confused and afraid, behind a 76mm anti-tank gun. He had been told that his crew (somehow Nnenia and Eshe had become his crew) had scored three vehicle kills. He remembered shooting, but he certainly didn’t feel victorious. Now he had a similar task. He was part of Lt. Bogana’s battery in the northeast district, stationed in the middle of a park. Outside the grounds the streets were empty and every building closed. Since the sirens first went off the few people remaining went into hiding. Only gun crews remained outside, awaiting the aircraft soon to approach.

“So, do you have any amazing observation instructions to share, professor?” Nnenia asked. She had on her face a common look for her: a strange mix of apathy and grimness where she was between cheer and genuine morbidity toward their situation.

Eshe seemed annoyed by her.

“When you somehow manage to spot a plane, Adesh shoots at it.” He replied tersely.

Adesh sighed a little, seated on a rough metal platform with a sight and a firing mechanism before him. His friends and crew were a little nervous. They had every right to be. They had survived the border but now found themselves in a similar situation. But their bickering was not just nervous. Those two were always grinding against each other.

“I just thought there was some other amazing gunnery trick you learned from one of your pamphlets that you could share with us.” Nnenia sarcastically said.

Eshe crossed his arms. “Here’s one you fool: don’t get distracted by the pretty planes and the wonderful colors of shells and do your job correctly for once.”

“I’ll keep my eyes skyward and not on the regulations booklets, you pinhead.”

It was if they wanted to cry for help, but this nonsense was all that came out.

“Could you two be quiet?” Adesh sighed. “You’re going at it even more than usual!”

Eshe and Nnenia looked at each other and at Adesh and seemed to feel shame.

As before their little trio was behind an artillery piece, and this time with a much greater responsibility than they once had. It was no longer an anti-tank gun but an air defense gun that defended their position. The 37mm was a small bore on a large weapon, with a long barrel and preponderance of mechanisms, mounted on a swiveling base that could be rotated all the way around and locked to specific positions as well.

It was also an automatic gun, a fact which took some getting used to. Fed with five-shell clips and boasting a simple firing mechanism it could sustain a high rate of fire, though the barrel risked overheating if the rate of fire was used to its fullest advantage.

Four other people stood with him. His bosom friends Nnenia and Eshe remained in his crew, having miraculously lived through their earlier tribulations. He was now their gunner however, not their leader. In his place as gun commander was a pretty corporal from another unit, Cpl. Rahani. He was a young Arjun of pleasant features, brown-skinned, with a gentle face and flowing hair down to the shoulders, decorated by a lovely rose above his left temple. He had quite a lot in common with Adesh and his friends, and he was probably just little older than their own ages. Prior to the sirens sounding, he had tried to get everyone to wear their own flowers for good luck. Nnenia, Adesh and Eshe accepted, a little awkwardly, and received a bundle of purple lilies which they wore over their ears.

Alongside Rahani served another private, the mysterious, grim Kufu. He had eyes like a fox, a thick beard, and strong features. When he spoke he had a smooth voice, but seemed to think ill of saying anything with it. He looked like he could have fathered the other members of the crew, even Corporal Rahani, and was not a lively fellow at all. He had refused to wear any flowers. He was a traditional man, he explained to them tersely.

“Well if you say so!” Cpl. Rahani said in an amused, good-natured voice. “But in that case, I have a good idea! We will put your flowers on the gun itself. There. Now we will catch the attention of the spirits and they will protect us. It was a tradition in my village.”

Kufu scoffed, and sat by the side of the gun, looking away. He was assigned to traverse the mount across the ground. Eshe loaded, Adesh was the gunner, and Nnenia and Rahani were in charge of elevation and sighting, as well as communication and other odd jobs.

“I apologize if I offended you; are you an ancestor worshiper?” Cpl. Rahani asked.

“No. I don’t worship nothin’. No spirits, no ancestors, no messiah, not the light; nothing. Thought this country’s supposed to be secular now.” Kufu replied calmly.

Cpl. Rahani looked slightly distressed. “Oh, well, double sorry.” He said softly.

“Well, it is secular in the state apparatus, but individuals can still worship, you know. Even the Messianic church is around.” Eshe interjected in a know-it-all tone.

“Too bad.” Kufu replied. He still was not facing them. Everyone sighed a little.

A foul mood fell upon the crew while they waited, looking tentatively at the sky and between each other. Cpl. Rahani’s cheerful smiling faded too. But not everything was so bleak. Some things had changed since the battle at the border, even as some things had remained quite the same. Adesh was part of an A.A. unit, and the guns, while larger and heavier, were state of the art and had more sophisticated mechanisms that allowed for a faster firing rate and easier handling than their cheaper, six-year-old 76mm anti-tank guns. Everyone was impressed with the quality of the equipment when they first saw it.

Lt. Bogana also made sure they were better organized.

Every position was five meters apart and none of them arranged in straight lines. This made strafing them difficult. The five 37mm guns in the battery were positioned in an outer ring that could cover the two 85mm guns and the three 57mm guns from close-air attack. It was the job of Adesh’s crew to cover against lower altitude attacks from faster planes.

Two teams of machine gunners with Khroda 7.62mm guns on hastily-assembled anti-aircraft mounts hid in bushes and under trees nearby, covering the 37mm gunners in case even they failed to stop a strafing aircraft or a dive bomber. Though the Khroda looked unwieldy in this role, it still gave the team a little fallback. It made all the difference.

Adesh had a measure of confidence in their phalanx. Everyone acted with discipline and carried out concrete orders under the auspice of a commander. It was like being part of a real army with a strong direction. They had even received a visit from Major Nakar, who had personally taught them to shoot. Things had changed substantively now.

Nocht was not ambushing them this time. The People awaited them.

Adesh found his hands still shaking and his heart quivering, however.

That certainly had not changed.

Every ten minutes Corporal Rahani would spend some time watching the skies with a pair of binoculars, seeking for contacts. Adesh thought that there would be some stark transition between readiness and annihilation; the sky would turn red, great meteoric tears of flame would fall from the heavens and engulf them all, in the blink of an eye.

Instead, their first glimpse of the enemy came from Lt. Bogana, who left the side of a signals officer calling for all crews to proceed to combat alert; the southern district batteries had already made eye contact with the enemy aircraft through their sighting equipment.

As he said this Corporal Rahani passed around the binoculars, pointing his crew toward the sky. Adesh saw tiny pinpricks of smoke and fire blooming in the dark, distant skies when Nnenia passed him the lenses. Thus with little fanfare the battle was joined as the southern district batteries opened fire on objects the northeast district could not yet even clearly see in the sky. Adesh felt an uncomfortable thrill across his entire body.

Helplessly he watched as hundreds of objects came closer and closer.

They flew like a flock of birds, and to Adesh’s eyes they were just as small at first, but the closer the came the deadlier they appeared. Flashes of gunfire became visible, closer than before. Ayvartan batteries awoke all around the city. Like red glowing darts thrown by errant hands hundreds of rounds of anti-air tracer ammunition began to light the sky from the southern defensive sectors, then the central sectors.

Seconds later Adesh heard the first thousand-kilogram bomb drop on the city.

He felt a shudder, rumbling waves straining through the earth into his body, and he saw the smoke rising in the distance. He had just blinked and missed the flash and the short-lived geyser of fire in the bomb’s wake. Strategic bombers were now directly over the city.

Dozens of isolated explosions swept across the south and center.

Adesh looked up at the sky and it was as if he were watching the heavens shatter, lines of ordnance coming down like metal teardrops from the bays of barely visible bomber planes, pounding the earth like the footfalls of a giant. The quivering in his hands grew into a terrible shaking across most of his body that he struggled to control.

Aircraft squadrons began to take distinct shapes and their groupings became terrifyingly apparent as they neared the northeast district. Adesh saw a dozen squadrons splitting off from the massive fleet and sweeping through the sky in every possible direction. Five fighter planes in a tight group banked and lunged straight for the park, flying through the fire from the adjacent batteries across the nearby blocks as though not one gun were actually shooting them. Adesh and his battery comrades took their positions and opened fire on them, but the the planes maneuvered through the curtain with ease.

In a moment Adesh found his gun unloaded once again.

“Battery, the enemy has entered our zone!” Lt. Bogana shouted.

Adesh released his iron grip on the large trigger-handle for the 37mm gun, while Eshe pushed a five-round clip of its shells into place atop the gun and stamped it down to properly feed the weapon. Each shell had a tracer and explosive-fragmentation filler.

Nnenia and Kufu traversed the weapon on its swiveling mount and constantly adjusted and readjusted the elevation in order to follow their fast-moving enemies. Nneia elevated the barrel over 65 degrees, then 70 degrees, then descended it down to 50; while Cpl. Rahani instructed Adesh on the positions of the targets. Adesh watched the enemy through the large metric sights. His breath began to outrun him as the aircraft neared; a tight group of five sleek monoplanes, with long wedge-shaped wings bristling with armament.

From afar Adesh thought he could see off-color paint across the hulls of the planes. They were gaping maws; bright red mouths bristling with teeth, painted on each plane. These were Nochtish Archer fighter planes. In an instant the planes swooped on them.

Withering fire from nose-mounted Norgler machine guns swept the park as the planes overflew them in a shallow dive, coming down from the sky like bolts of lightning and storming away into the distance again. Dozens of rounds ricocheted off gun shields and clipped the grass and the trees; miraculously nobody was killed in the attack.

Kufu and Nnenia and Rahani worked frantically to turn around the 37mm, while around them the 85mm guns opened fire at an almost 90 degree angle into sky, and the 57mm guns joined them, both targeting the Wizard bombers dropping heavy payloads.

Adesh was temporarily deafened whenever their unseen assailants dropped their heaviest payloads, crushing buildings in an instant under thousand-kilogram explosions. Debris flew so far it almost hit the park from a whole block away; window frames, chunks of concrete, gnarled street lights, all soared on the blast waves and across the streets.

None of the heavy bombs actually hit the battery, or even near them.

Thank the spirits! One would be all it took to kill them all.

Armed with a 37mm they stood no chance against a high-altitude level-bomber.

Adesh swallowed hard and focused on the fighters.

The Archer squadron split from its wedge-like formation to pick off the battery crews. Constituent planes flew from one another’s sides, two of them sweeping around the edges of the park like vultures, drawing fire from the support machine guns; and three running lanes across the battery’s position. Adesh squeezed the handles on his gun and watched his five rounds fly away in a few seconds, hitting nothing. His shells joined the dozens other ineffectual missiles streaking across the air, scarcely hitting anywhere near the enemy.

They reloaded and spun the gun until they went nearly dizzy with motion, and again the shells flew into the air with seemingly no avail. Adesh and his comrades’ gunfire reminded him of a sky full of fireworks, and yet the enemy aircraft soared through the red and gray curtain as though the fragments and smoke and fire was utterly harmless to them.

Their fragmentation rounds had timed fuses and scattered splinters into the air to threaten enemy aircraft, but the timing had an element of precision nonetheless.

Effectively unopposed despite the intense fire coming from the ground, the Archers sped through several runs on the battery, firing volleys of 80mm rockets from under each of their wings that exploded across the park. Adesh and crew hunkered down, crawling meekly behind or against the gun shield as best as they could while loading and traversing the weapon to match the movements of the enemy as best as they could.

A rocket hissed overhead and blasted apart a tree a dozen meters behind them.

Smoking craters littered the periphery.

Somehow the battery survived.

No rockets had managed to strike a comrade dead.

The Archers soared out of the park and turned easily back around over the streets, taking a new formation for their next run. Two outlying craft moved in to substitute two of the planes that had unloaded all of their ordnance. Those two planes then circled the park.

Eshe heaved one of the shell clips and punched it into the vertical loading wedge.

“Overhead!” Nnenia said suddenly.

Adesh looked up, and found the sky alight.

Fire and smoke spread within the dark clouds and burning pieces of metal rained down on the city. A pair of Wizard bombers fell down from the sky like meteors, wreathed in flames and splitting into a scattering of debris as they descended. Remains of the planes, more fire than steel, smashed into the roof of a civil canteen building on one of the park’s adjoining streets and spilled out onto the pavement and road along with the debris.

“Don’t get distracted!” Eshe shouted, pushing on Adesh’s shoulder.

“Finally the kid says something I can agree with!” Kufu shouted, frantically turning the wheel to loosen the mount, and pushing his shoulder into the gun and turning it. Grumbling, Nnenia joined him in working on the gun and descended the barrel.

Adesh desperately tracked the incoming fighters through the sights.

“Adesh, fire!” Cpl. Rahani ordered.

But the corporal was not looking through the sights.

Adesh was; nothing aligned, and no matter how fast the team moved he felt helpless against the planes. He pressed the handle-triggers and watched his gun shoot, rock back a little with recoil, and shoot again. Popping noises, the creaking of sliding metal from the recoil buffers, the gentle thud of the shell dropping on the ground, all was drowned by a single bomb falling on the street behind them and raising a pillar of fire and smoke.

Fences around the park fell over from the force of the blast. Adesh felt the heat behind his back, and felt his body pump with the consecutive force of his own gun as he kept shooting. Five rounds of his flak cut across the sky and exploded in gray bursts of smoke and fragments between three of the fighter planes as they approached.

The Nochtish fighters veered violently away from the shots, and found themselves trapped in a massive net as the remaining 37mm guns and 7.62 machine guns saturated the skies. Instantly the guns on the Nochtish aircraft were silenced, their propellers slowed and stopped, their engines caught fire, their cockpit windshields burst to pieces.

One by one the aircraft passed them overhead, spun out of control, and vanished into the inferno raging behind the battery, landing in bomb craters and smashed buildings.

Two remaining planes circling the park turned sharply away from their careful course and fled the district. Ayvartan fire trailed them every meter they flew, and triumphantly the entire 37mm compliment of the battery lowered their barrels and shot after the planes until they disappeared from sight. Lt. Bogana leaped out from behind the gun shield of his 85mm, raised his fist into the air and roared with triumph. They had driven them away.

Cpl. Rahani raised his own fist and joined with his own sweeter-sounding cheer.

Spirits rose momentarily across the park.

The sound of bombs and the chopping of norgler machine guns grew distant again and it seemed that their sector was clear for the moment, however long that would be.

Over Bada Aso the skies still raged with battle.

Bright flak cut across the dark clouds, long lines of fire streaking overhead from the multitude of guns stationed across the city. Trickles of Nochtish planes began to fall.

Bombers careened toward the ground like the fallen angels of the Messianic religion, set ablaze and cast from the paradise above the clouds; thousands of rounds of ammunition from 37mm guns and heavy machine guns around the sector began to add up, and Adesh saw a fighter group fall suddenly from over a nearby sector, blown to pieces in mid-air.

Like the ashfall from a volcano fire and smoke and metal seemed to rain down over the city. It was like the end of the world; Adesh could think of no other way to describe it. Hundreds of planes were attacking them but it also felt like hundreds were falling too.

While Adesh’s battery had a moment of calm they rushed to a nearby groundskeeper’s cellar and hastily pushed out crates of hidden ammunition. Fighting those five planes had consumed hundreds of rounds of the battery’s 37mm ammo. They reloaded their guns, sliding fresh shells and clips into the breeches, and accommodated reserve ammo nearby.

Lt. Bogana knelt beside a radio unit and called the adjacent sectors.

“Our southern batteries have taken the brunt of the attack,” Lt. Bogana shouted for the benefit of the crews, “but we have not yet dealt any kind of decisive damage to the enemy, comrades! Those planes are moving closer, so stay alert and be ready to fire!”

It was disheartening to hear; but it sounded far too true.

Even if Adesh counted all the planes he had seen fall so far, it was really only around fifteen or twenty out of spirits know how many in the air fleet. Their battery after all this fighting had only personally accounted for three fighters and a pair of bombers!

Eshe sighed. “Once, I read that the average stock needed for an air kill is 598 shells.”

“Thanks for the heartening tip.” Nnenia said, slumping against the side of the gun.

Adesh sat silently behind the 37mm gun and Corporal Rahani scanned the skies for targets using his binoculars. Kufu grumbled something inaudible while he and Nnenia readjusted the gun to face south and the barrel elevation to an angle between 60 and 70 degrees. Around them every other 37mm gun crew searched for targets as well.

The crews of 85mm and 57mm guns adjusted the elevation of their guns to hit bombers overflying other sectors now that bombs had ceased to fall directly around their own sector. Soon they began to fire again, casting their shells forward toward the skyline and out of the northeast district. Above them the skies were eerily silent, and their battery shifted its attitude toward supporting fire more than direct engagement.

“No distractions next time, alright? I want to live through this.” Eshe said bitterly.

Nnenia raised her head from over the gun to launch a smoldering stare at Eshe.

“Now now, no harm was done.” Cpl. Rahani said, trying to smooth things out.

“Don’t be using this to start a stupid argument now, kid.” Kufu grumbled.

“I thought you agreed with me!” Eshe said, throwing his hands up in the air.

Kufu grunted. “I did in the fight, but not now when it doesn’t matter.”

Adesh sighed. Nnenia and Eshe’s bickering worsened when introduced to more people.

“Everyone focus, please,” Cpl. Rahani softly said, waving his hands gently.

Minutes passed; from the sky fell a light drizzle.

Smoke billowed away from the burning craters and ruins, blown around the park as the wind picked up. Adesh was shaking and his legs were weak. There was something about this scene that he could not square away in his mind as he watched the sky, a thick, choking knot building inside his throat and tears spilling from his eyes. His teeth chattered. He was as unprotected from the cold droplets as he was from the enemy planes.

He saw figures fighting in the distance, and he heard the guns of his comrades, the rockets and bombs and cannons of the enemy, and yet, they were intermittent sounds.

Sound and violence and horror flitted in and out of his reality, an intermittent chaos. He cast eyes around the park and across the air, his fingers stretching and closing on the trigger-handle, his jaw twitching, mute, violent panic building and building in his belly.

“Adesh?” Cpl. Rahani whispered, shaking him gently. “It is fine to be scared, but–”

His eyes had gone hollow, staring over his gun sight and directly skyward, directly overhead. Much closer than the distant fleets of the enemy he saw an object.

“Dive bomber.” He shouted at the top of his lungs.

For a few seconds he felt that he had gone mad, that the unreal reality of everything had consumed him. Then the bombs fell among them and the planes swept past from out of nowhere and there was fire, and there was rage again in the middle of Bada Aso.

22-AG-30 Bada Aso North-Central

Madiha had gotten her rain; she had the water; she had the iron; the fire and fury.

Across Bada Aso guns fired relentlessly, and the drizzling rain picked up as smoke and fire fed into the clouds. Soon there was a rolling shower over the city that smothered the bomb-fires in the streets. All of those hundreds of planes seemed suddenly distant.

There was quiet, so Madiha assumed the enemy must have been between major waves.

The Cafeteria had become her makeshift office. It lay close to the center of the building on the bottom floor, and had no windows. Whenever a bomb went off somewhere all the dreary lights would fluctuate and dust would fall from the ceiling. But the noise and the rumbling was minimal and Madiha could try to focus and to keep her calm.

More than once she hyperventilated when she heard the sound of a nearby gun or a swooping aircraft in the outer offices. Worst of all was the lobby. A massive pane of clear glass had been raised over the archway doors into the school building lobby. She felt as though it was a scope forcing her to gaze up at the sky. Was this black and red billowing inferno what she wanted? Could she have done anything more to try to prevent it?

Her eyes twitched and she felt her arms seize up at the sight. So she returned to the cafeteria for shelter. There she waited, impotent, as the clockworks she had set into motion now worked themselves out. She was haunted by her inability to respond within this mechanical performance. She waited, hearing the bombs and the guns in her own head.

“Major, we got combat reports.” Parinita said, laying a hand on Madiha’s shoulder.

Her secretary gently laid a small folder in front of her. Madiha donned a pair of reading glasses and turned the pages. She had begun wearing them that very morning. They not only helped to hide the deepening dark bags under her eyes, but they allowed her to read the small print crammed on some of the hastily typed reports coming in.

She was surprised at the difference they made. She had always thought her eyesight just fine. Thankfully there were a few pairs of generic readers in the school clinic and after trying a few she found some that suited her fine. Parinita had helped her pick them out.

“Forty-three guns are down this quickly. Only two hours have transpired; only a few waves of the bombardment.” Madiha said. Her voice lost strength and turned to whispers. “According to this our batteries have only been able to account for thirty aircraft.”

“It’s difficult. But historically speaking, losing thirty aircraft in a few hours is a major blow to the enemy’s fleet. Several of those were heavy bombers.” Parinita said.

“Our losses cannot be the equal of theirs. Should this continue we’ll be helpless.”

“I know. And the air army hasn’t come to our rescue quite yet. What keeps them?”

“Inexperience and unpreparedness.” Madiha said. “None of those pilots have even flown a combat mission and their air units have been poorly funded since demilitarization.”

Parinita nodded. “Good news though: our caches and manpower are mostly intact.”

“For how long, I wonder.” Madiha said. She felt her breath quickening.

She stood from behind the lunch table serving as her desk, and she walked out behind the long serving counter to disguise her nervous tics and building anxiety. She reached into her coat pocket and withdrew a little plastic bottle, out of which she drew a small, white pill. She popped it into her mouth and swallowed it with a glass of water from a nearby sink. Behind her Parinita graciously attended to a pair of soldiers in thick rubber hoods, soaked from head to toe and leaving a wet trail wherever they moved.

They were aircraft observers, carrying heavy tripod-mounted telescopes strapped on belts around their backs. Madiha had asked them to hide on the roofs of buildings to keep watch, protected, at best, by machine guns and barrage balloons; but mostly, by nothing. When Madiha stepped out from behind the lunch counter they were conversing already.

“Anything to report?” She asked.

“Cpl. Somner here says that a larger wave of planes is coming, with, he believes, more low-flying bombers.” Parinita said. Her words barely sank in when Madiha felt like someone had ticked a box inside her, turned on some strange machinery.

“This could be our chance then.” Madiha said.

She felt a thrill down her spine, and the words she wanted to say stuck fast to her throat and silenced her. Her body felt heavy and the drugs in her system could barely stifle the sheer terror she was experiencing. She moved slowly back to her cafeteria table and withdrew her maps of the city, as well as her diagrams for the airspace altitudes.

Along the main thoroughfares leading to the headquarters there were a few assembled batteries. One of them was positioned centrally enough, and built on a natural slope above the level of the district, that it likely had enough of coverage of the sky to make it the central threat to this incoming assault. Low-flying planes: maybe dozens of them.

All targets that she could crush in one fell-swoop.

“Parinita, have my scout car brought out and made ready to leave. I have to rally the sector battery near the old observatory on Nyota hill to fend off this wave.”

Parinita looked stunned and confused, and stood fidgeting with a file folder.

“I wouldn’t advise that Major.” Cpl. Somner said. Parinita put on a nervous face.

“I can’t stand to lounge here a second longer! Prepare my car.” Madiha shouted.

No one argued further.

Twenty minutes later she stepped through the lobby, and descended the steps outside into the rain. Her little green scout car had been driven to the front of the building, flanked by two trucks equipped with anti-aircraft quad machine guns. Her four-wheeled, two-passenger unarmored car stood no chance if shot by an airplane, but it could potentially outmaneuver strafing runs on the street if she ran it as hard as it could go.

Or at least, that is what Madiha told herself.

Unlike guns she could not be entirely sure of the car’s performance, it was all a gut feeling, and one felt in desperation, perhaps. She ordered the KVW driver to dismount, and he did so immediately and without argument. Raising her hands to signal the drivers of the anti-air trucks, Madiha stepped behind the wheel of the scout car and–

“Wait, Major! Please wait! Don’t drive off yet!”

A series of pleas from the steps to the school; Madiha turned her head over in frustration and tried to shoo away Parinita, who ignored her completely as she charged out of the lobby and down the steps, carrying a Khroda machine gun and its mounting kit.

She had roped an engineer into helping her heave the damned thing to the car: Sergeant Agni, the brown-skinned young woman with long, wavy hair that had was once covered in ash from setting off the explosive traps at the border. She was part of an engineer battalion, and was now more covered in oil than ash, washing off her face and hands in the rain.

“What are you doing?” Madiha shouted. “Go back inside the base, Parinita!”

“We’re helping you! I’m not staying behind. I can drive the car and you can use this machine gun.” Parinita shouted back. “You never miss when you shoot, right? Inspector Kimani always said that. So you can use this to shoot at any planes. You’ll be safer.”

“You can hardly steer over dry ground on a peaceful day, think of what you’re saying. And how can I use that machine gun? It is too heavy for me to heave it around from the passenger seat. Please, Parinita, trust me and return to the base. I have to do this–”

“I can fix the part about the gun, commander.” Sgt. Agni interjected.

She pulled the beige cloth tarp off the top of the car and raised the machine gun, with Parinita’s help, onto the passenger’s metal seat. She laid a plate in the open space between the front and back seats, produced a few tools, and set to work bolting the mount to the plate and the plate to the car’s rear. With the confident and quick way that the engineer worked on the gun Madiha thought she might not even stop if ordered to do so.

Madiha felt a terrible wracking guilt watching all of these people rushing to her side; she felt that she was contributing so little to what all the people in this army were giving in return. Parinita’s own words still stung, somewhere in the back of her mind.

What was she worth? Was it really worth dying to protect her? Why?

“I don’t want you to be involved in this and endangered!” Madiha shouted.

“I’ve made my decision commander,” Parinita said, and suddenly she began talking quickly and loudly over the rest of Madiha’s objections without listening to them.

Developing a pronounced stutter as she went along, she cited several seemingly disconnected military regulations involving her role in Madiha’s staff, her role in case of emergencies, and proper procedure for procuring and organizing convoys. Parinita continued: “Furthermore it is written in the military code of conduct and basic organization concerning command convoys, that the commander’s car when travelling in dangerous territory must always have a defensive retinue involving at least one heavy weapon!”

Stunned, Madiha could hardly get a word in edgewise during this filibuster.

During this cacophony, Sgt. Agni finished mounting the Khroda.

One last bolt turn groaned over the arguments of the officer and her secretary.

They quieted and turned their heads.

“I can also drive the car.” Sgt. Agni said, raising her dull voice.

She then saluted stiffly.

“You can’t argue with this, Major.” Parinita said sternly.

Madiha sighed, raising her hands to her face. “I cannot believe your stubbornness right now Parinita! And especially you, Agni! You’re all supposed to follow my orders!”

“My loyalty is to Ayvarta.” Sgt. Agni replied with little discernible affect.

Madiha supposed that meant keeping her alive over indulging her guilt and trepidation.

She stepped out of the car, ceding the driver’s seat to Sgt. Agni, and climbed onto the back. She stood behind the Khroda and locked her feet into catches built into the vehicle mounting plate, and tested the swivel. It was smooth and quick to turn, and the gun elevated easily, even with the ballistic shield weighing it down. Along with the gun Parinita had brought ammunition and Madiha loaded the machine gun and worked the bolt.

She raised her hands overhead, and signaled the crews of the gun trucks to follow her.

“To Nyota hill, Sgt. Agni, as fast as possible; and I hope for the sake of this nation that you are a better driver than the Chief Warrant Officer!” Madiha called out.

Parinita crossed her arms and sat with a grumbling expression on the passenger seat.

In the distance Madiha spotted almost a hundred planes flying lanes across the sector.

She would have to challenge them.

22-AG-30 Bada Aso Northeast

Adesh woke without sense, without a window to the world. He was overwhelmed by the smell of smoke and fire but at first he could not move, and he could not see through the dark clouds around him, and he could hear nothing but a vicious whistling and buzzing in his ears. His mind swam. A dull pain traced the center of his narrow chest and across the small of his back. It flared, turning hot and sharp as his sinews throbbed beneath the ruined flesh. His body jerked up from the ground, but not of his own volition; his limbs lolling in the air, his neck hanging, the smoke whipping across his face with the strong winds.

Distant voices, warping in the hot air, called out his name.

Touch returned with the sound.

He was under drizzling rain, and he felt something, solid and budging beneath him.

Pain returned to him and urged him blindly to move and struggle. He was stricken with panic toward the condition of his body. He gasped, coughed violently, and he shook his arms and his legs, twisted his waist and torso. He screamed as he felt himself beaten back.

“Calm down Adesh! Calm down! You’re hurting me! Stop thrashing already!”

Adesh fell and it seemed an eternity before he hit the hard ground on his wounds – what he now recognized as his wounds. He cried out and jolted awake from his stupor, embracing himself on the floor of a nondescript building with a view of the park through its open door. A vast plume of smoke seemed to consume the park and the road between them and whatever could possibly remain of the anti-aircraft battery, if anything remained.

Guns did not sound and bombs did not drop.

There was only the sound of burning and collapse.

Near him Eshe had also fallen, and he too became fetal in his agony, clutching his shoulder and closing his eyes and biting his lips. For a moment both of the boys nursed their pains, unable to address or acknowledge the other. Adesh’s eyes were foggy and overflowing with tears. He felt burns across his chest and back. Anxious he touched his body with blood-spattered hands, spreading the blood across his face, his legs, his belly.

All of him was still there.

Burnt, bleeding from open blisters and bad cuts; but nothing near the irreversible maiming he had feared. When he finally recovered his senses fully and took better notice of Eshe, he saw no burns on him, but ash and blood and grime spread across his face.

“Eshe! I’m so sorry.” Adesh said through sobbing and tears. “I didn’t know!”

“You’ve got to focus.” Eshe said, his voice strained. “Stop being so distracted.”

Adesh smiled feebly, tasting his own tears. “I should maybe follow the rules more.”

Eshe breathed quickly, and his body shook violently as he forced himself off his side and onto his back. He sat up, and got onto his knees. From there he could barely stand again, and when he did it was only to step closer to Adesh and sit near him. He pulled open the remains of Adesh’s coat and shirt, and breathed a sigh of relief. He laid his head on Adesh’s shoulder, their bodies nearly collapsed together, and he wept. “Second degree, just a little blistering and bleeding for you. I’m so glad. You might scar but you’ll live. When she gets back we should be able to patch you up good, my friend. Thank everything.”

Adesh lifted his hand and stroked Eshe’s hair. Eshe laid his hand over Adesh’s own.

Behind them a shadow cast into the building from the doorway.

There was a gasp and a series of rapid footsteps.

Nnenia dropped to her knees and threw her arms around both boys, kissing their heads, kissing on their noses and cheeks and lips and everything she could reach in a sudden frenzy, accompanied by a muted weeping and sobbing. Adesh could hardly return the embrace or affection, he felt so weak and physically incapable; Eshe raised his injured arm around her in his place. Together they cried and wept in their little hiding place.

“Thank the spirits you’re both alive! Eshe, I said I would look for him! It was stupid of you to leave again! Now you’ve gotten more hurt than before!” Nnenia cried.

“It’s fine; I found him, so there’s that. It’s done.” Eshe shouted.

“At least you’re safe now.” Nnenia sighed weakly.

Unlike Eshe, Nnenia seemed to have been spared any obvious injury.

Her normally unaffected expression was touched now with such emotion, such pain and fear, that Adesh almost felt like weeping again just from the sight of her. Her eyes were red and swelling from these outbursts. She always fairly quiet and a little guarded, and it was very moving for him to see her cry and worry and wear her emotions so openly. Though she made little noise her face looked like she’d screamed her lungs out.

Flashing from the doorway–

An explosion outside rocked the building.

Adesh cringed back, a sudden animal reflex forcing him to try to move.

Nnenia and Eshe held him and tried to calm him, and he wept and bit his lip as he struggled to control himself again. He felt a rushing of energy and agony at once.

“Please, Adesh, you’re hurt, be still! We’re safer in here than out there.” Eshe said.

“Where are Kufu and Corporal Rahani?” Adesh said suddenly, breathing heavily but trying to calm down. He turned his head around the room. “Are they alive?”

There was a thump in the dark. Adesh found himself in an enclosed hall a few meters from the door in what seemed like a large building. There were a half-dozen doors along the hall, and at the end of it on either side he saw staircases leading up to a second floor, perhaps a third. Everything was brick and concrete. It seemed a sturdy place. He heard the thump again, and squinted his eyes. A pair of legs dangled from one of the staircases.

“Right ‘ere kids,” Kufu said from the end of the hall. “We’re all accounted for. If I was a believing man, I’d say one of your gods helped us, maybe whatever flowery god the Corporal’s got a liking to. But I ain’t; those dive bombers just got muddy goddamn sights.”

“He’s been back there all this time,” Eshe whispered to Adesh, “Not keen on being included, that one. He’s hung back ever since we got out from the fires.”

“He’s not keen on going outside either, the coward,” Nnenia said, “Corporal Rahani is outside looking for survivors. I went out too once the shock wore off.”

Adesh shook his head and tried to remember.

At the park he had looked up at the sky, and he was captivated by the stillness he saw, until he thought he saw a silhouette, and heard a whistling noise, the sound of an enemy cutting through the air to dive upon them. He alerted everyone too late.

Coming down from a high altitude, directly overlooking the battery, the dive-bombers had been impossible to spot. A group of three bombers, each of them unloaded a small bomb from the underside of their hulls at a steep angle with deadly accuracy.

Adesh was thrown away by the force of the blasts, and lost consciousness.

Eshe told him that he had found him lying under a rent blast shield with some burning material around him; perhaps the source of his burns. He was lucky to be alive.

Together everyone theorized that perhaps the bombs had been intended to destroy the 85mm guns, and thus the attack was concentrated away from their own guns.

“And despite this I was flung away like a doll. I don’t know how I survived.” Eshe said.

Nnenia stood in the middle of the conversation, approached the building’s face and closed the door after taking a quick peek outside. She sat again with them. “I don’t know how I came out as well as I did.” She said. “My head is just bleeding a little, that’s all.”

She bowed her head.

There was blood; and Adesh would not have characterized it as a small amount.

“Nnenia that looks serious to me. You should patch yourself up.” Eshe said.

“Adesh is more important right now.” She replied. Blood trickled down her ears.

“These blisters are nowhere near as bloody as the cuts on your head.” Adesh said.

From inside Nnenia’s pouch they took a roll of bandages and a bottle of antiseptic. Adesh demanded again that she be patched up first, and begrudgingly Nnenia bowed her head and allowed Eshe to sop up blood from her cuts, using some of the bandages as cloth. He applied antiseptic from the bottle, clumsily and with a heavy hand, and then bandaged around her head as best as he could. It was a sloppy job, but at least her wounds were clean and shut from the air. Nnenia touched her bandaged head and winced a little. Dark red color spread across them. She laid against the wall beside Adesh, sighing audibly.

“Now Eshe, your shoulder is wounded too isn’t it? I see red on your coat. Fix that.”

“You can’t be serious with this, Adesh, you’ve been sitting there for so long now–”

“It’s against some regulation somewhere to have a bleeding wound I’m sure.”

Eshe shook his head. “You don’t care about rules! What a time it is for you say this!”

“But I know that you care, Eshe, so, get patched up first.” Adesh said.

He tried to say it with good humor.

Eshe stroked his own mouth with growing agitation and handed Nnenia the bandages to clothe the wound on his shoulder. Nnenia pulled back his jacket and shirt and found a bloody, ugly gash and a few offending pieces of metal, which she pulled out. She then practically poured the antiseptic bottle over his shoulder, and Eshe flinched and balled his fists and grit his teeth with pain, but it was a large wound and a lot of cleaning was necessary. They wiped it, again with some of the bandages for lack of any clean paper or towels, before wrapping it up around the shoulder and arm as best as they could.

Then Eshe joined them against the wall of the long hall.

Outside the rain had picked up, but the bombs were very distant.

“Hopefully the Corporal will return soon.” Nnenia said.

Adesh nodded. He sat up straighter and turned his head.

“Kufu, have you any wounds in need of–”

Adesh had hardly finished speaking his name when Kufu waved dismissively at them.

“Suit yourself then!” Eshe shouted.

He turned his head and took a softer tone after. “So, that means it’s your turn Adesh.”

Behind them the door gently opened, and someone took a tentative step in. They turned, with welcoming faces, ready to say a hujambo; but there was a haunted figure at the doorway, clutching his arm and scarcely able to stand on one of his legs. Chalk-white of skin, with hair almost as pale, like seeing a ghost; and mauled along the limb he guarded. But it was his uniform that gave him away, gray, and on his breast a medal like a black cross, specked with blood. Around his neck hung a pair of goggles and a respirator.

His eyes filled with tears.

Much faster than he had stepped in, the man limped away down the steps, making choked, pathetic noises and sobbing in some incomprehensible tongue, nicht, nicht, hier nicht. He could hardly get off the short steps with his bad foot, and nearly tripped in fear.

Breathless, paralyzed, the trio watched him, as though they had truly seen a ghost.

This silent terror passed Adesh by like a flash of lightning before his eyes. His stomach churned, and his eyes felt cold and dry and keenly focused. Fear washed from him quicker than ever. He was assaulted with images, the firing of guns and the booming of bombs.

Him; it was all his fault. Everything was his fault.

Forgetting his pain, Adesh bolted up onto his feet in a fury, brandishing his revolver.

“Come back here! You coward! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill all of you!”

It was like a demon had consumed him.

Adesh fired off a shot into the air, whizzing past the man’s head.

Almost limping himself he charged outside into the rain, dodging Nnenia and Eshe’s hands as they tried to hold him back. Cold water washed over his head and shoulders and stung at the burns on his exposed chest. Step by tumultuous step he gave chase to the fiend without regard for his own body. His adversary cried louder and louder, swinging his good arm to remain upright, his injured limb hanging useless at his side. His alien tongue worked itself raw with screaming. Adesh closed the distance, raising a shaking hand to shoot.

His bullets flew past the man’s feet, between his legs, under his dangling fingers. Adesh rapped the trigger until only clicks sounded from the gun, screaming after him.

“I’ll kill you, you fucking animal! You did this, you did all of this, all of it!”

Around him the world spun, but at the edge of his vision Adesh spotted the wreckage of a Nochtish plane, a dive bomber, like before. His hatred for the pilot was all consuming and spurred him to move. He dropped his revolver, tore his knife free and pushed forward, gaining step by step under the driving rain. Not once did the man look back, he continued hopping, dragging his leg, clawing with his good arm as though there was a lifeline to grab.

He was near the edge of the smoke, close to escaping.

Adesh screamed and cursed and swung his knife in the air.

Then a shot rang out.

The Nochtish man fell forward, his skull blasted open.

He fell half inside the smoke with a barely visible splash of gore.

Adesh felt as though the shot had woken him from a nightmare.

He felt a thrumming in his head, and tightness around his eyes.

“Adesh, please go back inside.” Corporal Rahani said. “And watch your language.”

Adesh was so surprised he nearly fell himself.

Rahani was behind him, holding his own revolver out.

Blood and water trailed down his face, giving him a grimmer look, and the flower in his hair had lost several petals, and the remainder had been clearly stressed and had their own little wounds. But he was upright, and around his shoulder he carried an injured man.

It was Lt. Bogana, his eyes closed, blood and dirt caked around his face, and one of his hands little more than a knob of glistening red flesh. Adesh turned around, and walked slowly back into the building with him. Both of them stowed their sidearms.

Inside, Rahani laid the lieutenant near the wall and tended to him gently, wrapping bandages around his mauled hand and cleaning his face with water collected on a helmet from the rain outside. He made several trips to collect water, and he cleaned and dressed the lieutenant. He had a calm expression on his face, concealing his emotions.

All the while that Rahani worked, Adesh stood beneath the doorframe, his knife slipping from his fingers, standing frozen, staring at the ground. Nnenia and Eshe stood impotently with him, themselves paralyzed, trapped in some stupor.

At the back of the hall Kufu leaned out in shock.

Without aid or input Rahani bandaged up the lieutenant and let him rest.

He stood up and ambled to the door frame.

On his face was a smile, a gentle, pretty smile.

Rahani took Adesh into an embrace, laying a hand on his head and stroking his hair.

“There, there. Everything is fine, Adesh. It is alright for you to be scared, and alright to be angry and sad. Please be all of those things, but please stay safe.” Rahani said.

Adesh slumped in the corporal’s warm embrace, and he wept.

It struck him then that he had lost his own flower from his hair.

22-AG-30 Bada Aso North-Central

For the first few blocks it appeared they might have a peaceful drive to Nyota Hill.

Would the heavy rain remain the only obstacle to their journey?

Unfortunately this was a notion they were quickly disabused of.

Driving the scout car, Sergeant Agni led the small convoy of anti-aircraft vehicles south on the main thoroughfare for a few kilometers, while Parinita watched the sky with an aircraft observer’s scope that she had to wipe down every few moments.

Profiting from her dedication she alerted them to the presence of enemy craft.

Standing behind the Khroda heavy machine gun, Madiha followed Parinita’s directions and spotted the Archer fighter planes, now acting as ground strafing aircraft and circling the sector in search of new prey. Madiha elevated the gun and began to follow them.

“Unless aircraft rocket technology has grown by leaps and bounds in a year, we should be able to avoid their ordnance. It is those machine guns that we must be wary of. Sergeant Agni, they will fire in long, tight lanes, and you will have to strafe around them to survive.”


Sgt. Agni sped up and switched gears, and expertly took the next corner, losing almost no speed from it; her driving certainly eclipsed Parinita’s, and she was likely a better driver than Madiha herself. Her eyes were locked on the road and nothing seemed to distract her.

At times it was as though the car drove itself perfectly without her input.

Confident in Agni’s ability, Madiha shifted her attention skyward again.

On a stationary position, the Khroda heavy machine gun, a relic in use by the Ayvartan army since 2000 D.C.E was rated at a maximum range of 4 kilometers and an effective range of 2.2 kilometers. Its rate of fire was 600 rounds per minute. On a moving vehicle, spirits only knew how accurate it was; of course, these were considerations for different eyes than Madiha’s. Kimani always told her: she could hit anything if she aimed.

“We’re coming up on them! They’re banking this way!” Parinita shouted.

Madiha caught a glimpse of the five planes speeding suddenly above the convoy.

One city block away the squadron split and the separate aircraft turned sharply in the sky, doubling back to run their lanes along the convoy’s path. They moved so freely that even Madiha found it difficult to keep up with them in the darkening skies.

Old roads limited the convoy cars to ungainly, predictable sidestepping, while the Archer planes could almost double over their own paths, banking and turning, diving and climbing, with very few obstacles in the way of their movement. There was only one consideration for them: because of the disparity between flying altitude and the convoy on the ground, the Archers would have to take shallow dives in order to shoot at them.

Like any attack on the ground it would happen across a series of dives and climbs, and against moving targets in an urban arena the lanes they could run were even more limited. Most of the planes were flying perpendicular to the road and circling around.

Above the convoy the formation broke. Enemies banked, twisted and doubled back.

“Open fire!” Madiha shouted, raising her hand and opening her palm.

From behind the scout car the anti-aircraft trucks began shooting, saturating the sky with machine gun bullets. Little came from it; the Archers maintained altitude, perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters in the air, and the cutting streams of fire seemed to almost intentionally miss the craft, so naturally did they fly away from danger.

Sheer volume seemed to do almost nothing against them.

Avoiding their fire the planes circled around the convoy, three lining up behind them, maneuvering themselves parallel to the road, and two others flying in eccentric patterns.

“Ahead, Agni, one of them is going to cut us off!” Madiha shouted.

Sgt. Agni veered sharply and cut their speed.

One of the circling Archers flew across and blasted the road ahead with its cannons, leaving behind a line of small holes before flying away. They would have been within its lane had they not slowed when they did. Free to move again Agni sped back to full speed as quickly as she could and drove over the lacerations on the road with ease.

Three planes behind them accelerated into their own shallow dives, quickly overtaking them, and opened fire with their Norglers, a modern equivalent to the Ayvartan Khroda. A stream of bullets chased the convoy and perforated the ground around them.

Madiha heard a loud, wet cry and found the windshield of the one of the trucks behind her splashed with blood. The truck veered violently, toppled over on the leftmost street and was no more, riddled with bullet holes and leaking oil, its crew butchered where they sat.

Overhead she heard a loud cracking and fizzing noise.

Rockets launched from under the wings of the craft, crashing around the scout car and kicking up columns dust and smoke and concrete, but Agni veered away from the volley and managed to avoid every potential hit. All of the ordnance was 30 kg rockets, too small to rely on indirect hits. While the car rumbled from the explosions they hardly lost speed or control, Agni was far too tight in her driving to be thrown off by the blasts.

Madiha hid behind her gun shield and waited.

Less then fifty meters overhead the planes leveled out and started to climb. She finally had a bead on them. Madiha raised her Khroda as far as it would go and opened fire.

Archers had thin armor; they were protected mainly by speed and maneuverability.

Throughout the day they had proved this, but against Madiha it was a different story. Her machine gun bullets traced a line under the hull of the leading craft, drawing smoke and fire from its undercarriage and even striking one of its remaining rockets.

Seizing up and starting to burn the craft banked away from the formation and crashed, out of sight and over the rooftops. In the midst of firing Madiha turned the stream of bullets to the next craft and clipped numerous wounds into one of its wings, causing the remaining planes to split up and peel violently away from the convoy’s now accurate fire.

“Almost there!” Parinita shouted, huddling low in her seat.

While the pursuing planes scattered, circling planes tore suddenly from their paths and haphazardly laid fire on the road. Agni turned violently from the road and onto a connecting cobblestone path, avoiding desperate sweeping shots from the two circling planes.

Larger explosions sounded overhead, targeting the circling planes and forcing them back with smoke and fragments. Ahead of the convoy, Nyota Hill appeared and woke violently, seeking to reclaim the sky with hundreds of explosive shells from its guns.

Nyota Hill was an urban park built around a cylindrical hillock dozens of meters in circumference that also rose several meters over the buildings surrounding the park across the adjoining streets. Small for a hill, compared to the larger formations present in the Kalu, Nyota was nonetheless one of the highest places in Bada Aso, with a commanding view. A small observatory had been raised over its peak to study the constellations, but only a pair of walls and a thick plume of black smoke remained of this landmark.

A bomb had leveled it; much of the rest of the hill showed signs of violence.

Bomb craters and trails of Norgler fire pockmarked the once perfectly green hill, and the wreckage of a dive bomber rested at the foot. Nyota Hill bore the brunt of the enemy attack on the city’s open north, but Nocht’s fury had not yet broken the important positions across its surface. The trenches that had been dug across the slopes of the hillock to accommodate dozens of artillery and anti-aircraft guns still stood, and mostly intact.

From the cobblestone path Sgt. Agni drove over a fallen fence and onto the green, while the guns around the hill cast their explosive projectiles over the the roofs of the district, shooing away the fighter planes still marauding. Thanks to the altitude, the surroundings, the slope of the hill, and a varied placement of firing positions, Nyota Hill made a very difficult target for enemy aircraft. Within the range of those guns, no planes dared continue their pursuit. Everyone was safe in the shadow of Nyota, for the moment.

Sgt. Agni swerved to a stop, and Madiha dismounted.

She ran to the hill and dove into one of the artillery trenches cut into it, calling for the commanding officer to meet her immediately. Parinita and Agni took their own places in the nearby trenches, cramped with sopping wet men and women manning the guns.

In command at Nyota Hill was a middle-aged woman, comrade Lieutenant Munira, her light skin and dark brown hair dusty from the smoke and powder around the hill. She arrived promptly, dropping into the same shallow trench as the Major and directing the gun commander of the nearby 85mm to depart and run up to the Lieutenant’s old position.

Lt. Munira clapped her hands together and bowed her head as a greeting.

Salam, Major; we received your radio message an hour ago and have been fighting fiercely since. This was a dangerous journey you undertook; foolhardy even. I thank the Light that you were guided safely to us. What brings you to our little fortress?”

Madiha nodded. “Thank you for your blessing, Lieutenant; I believe we will soon be faced with renewed enemy attack. I hope to aid you in coordinating the defense.”

“Our observers spotted an incoming air fleet minutes ago. We are preparing now.”

“I shall join.” Madiha said. “I hope that my presence might reinvigorate the troops.”

“I defer to you, comrade commander.” Lt. Munira graciously replied.

“No, I wish for you to command.” Madiha said. “Address your troops as you see fit.”

Lt. Munira nodded her head. She stepped outside the trench momentarily, and delivered a speech to her batteries in a loud, fierce and very slightly accented voice. “Comrades, Major Nakar has joined us in the face of the enemy’s bombardment, having braved rockets and gunfire to bear witness to our victory today! As she did in the border, the Major is here to help us brave the odds, and together we shall become a legend of the city of Bada Aso! Fix yourselves toward the southwest, from whence the imperialist’s aircraft approach, and turn them back with all your fury! With Comrade Major Nakar at our side we will eject them across the seas once more! Man your guns, and fight bravely!”

Madiha hadn’t heard of Lt. Munira much, aside from the fact that she was one of the rare Diyam, worshipers of “the Light,” in the Ayvartan army. Perhaps she had been at the border battle, perhaps she was a convert to this odd legend going around.

When the Lieutenant called her out from her trench, and held her hand in the air to show everyone that she was present, Madiha could not say much. Munira’s oratory was intense and the reaction from the troops was boisterous and determined like she had never seen. It was uncomfortable to hear such powerful and flattering words, and worse to feel flattered by them, and feel flattered by the synchronized cheers from the battery crews assembled around the hill. But Madiha had little time to feel uncomfortable.

She cleared her throat and said few words of her own.

“Comrades, I do not merely plan to watch you fight; I would be honored to join you in battle. As one, let us come together to resist the profligate imperialist invaders!”

She offered to take the position of gunner for Lt. Munira’s 85mm gun, and the Lieutenant and the previous gunner were equally pleased to cede the seat and gun shield to her. They returned to the trench, where Madiha took her new position. While everyone was setting up she asked for the names of soldiers in adjacent batteries, surreptitiously trying to collect and remember as many names as possible in order to awaken her latent potential.

For her plan to work, she could not simply have one gun at her disposal. She needed as many of the heavy guns as possible, firing the strongest fragmentation ordnance available. During the hustle and bustle, she identified most of the crews of the big guns.

“I admire your learning their names,” Munira said, “Should I die, you can honor the fallen in my place. Truly everything said about you is coming true before me, Major.”

Madiha nodded as though that was exactly what she had been thinking.

One could not have gone further from the truth.

Then across Nyota Hill the call sounded: “Enemy aircraft, from the southwest!”

Almost in tandem every crew adjusted their gun elevation. Sounds of twisting and sliding metal issued from every trench as gun elevation was adjusted, and clunking and thumping noises as shells and shell-clips went into breeches. Gun commanders pulled up their binoculars and issued coordinates to their crews.

On the horizon Madiha spotted the enemy air group, or fleet, approaching them in force. Fighters made up the bulk once again, and in groups of five; dive bombers and level bombers flew higher in the dark, rainy sky. Madiha’s own gun was not automatic, and could only fire one shell at a time. Thanks to its breech mechanisms it was a simple affair: dropping in a shell, locking the breech and pulling the firing pin to shoot the gun, then removing the shell remnants from the breech and repeating the process for the next shell.

The 85mm could manage 10 to 15 rounds a minute with a good crew.

Sadly, unlike the anti-tank guns, it lacked automatic shell ejection.

In minutes the two sides collided.

Nyota Hill opened fire with everything it had, and the Nochtish squadrons dispersed in the sky and whirled around the landmark like currents in a storm of metal. Fighter planes strafed the trenches with their machine guns and 12mm cannons, tearing up the green, kicking up dust, slamming gun shields and disorienting crews, but unable to put rounds on flesh. Dive-Bombers descended at steep angles, launching small bombs from their undersides and rising sharply away under constant fire. It was a trick that could not be repeated overmuch, and the hill was like a rock in the face of the bombardment.

Four bombers stricken by flak seemed to disintegrate mid-dive, while several smashed portions of the trench and threw back men and women but did no serious damage; two planes flew into heavy fire, lost their nerves and broke away with light damage; a single plane sped into the green, sliding uselessly downhill from the lip of a trench.

Lt. Munira raised a danava LMG over the top of the trench and riddled the cockpit of the fallen plane with bullets. Blood spattered over the cracked and perforated glass.

Nam jeyid.” She said under her breath.

The wreckage joined the other plane at the foot of the hill.

There were soon dozens more planes circling the hill, but Madiha focused skyward.

Shell into the breech; she turned the handle and locked it.

Lt. Munira and crew raised the barrel almost directly overhead.

Being behind an artillery gun was different than shooting a firearm.

As a child Madiha had fired a revolver. It was the first time she shot at anything.

She hit a man in the foot; there was one bullet left and she hit him inside his mouth. Both shots had been perfect, as though she had been born handling a gun. A firearm had a sort of texture, a grip, a series of motions. To her eyes there was something visible, guiding lines, a blue-print in the air that would guide her shots. Artillery pieces were impersonal. Even if you could see the target, the piece was stationary, and your body had no control over it. There was distortion in the lines. She was removed from the blueprint.

She likened it to moving her limbs with her eyes closed.

There was a unique feeling to one’s body moving without input from the eyes.

Time to aim was an abstraction. Madiha hardly aimed. She always simply moved.

An artillery piece didn’t allow her to.

Nonetheless, whatever monstrous thing twisted away her humanity, it was powerful. She felt that eerie, demonic strength course through her mind as her hand touched the firing pin and unleashed the fragmentation shell into the sky. Her consciousness traveled with the ordnance for what was to her a split second, but encompassed the whole of its flight; the shell flew straight into the air at a steep angle, crossing thousands of meters in tens of seconds. There was no contact with metal, no grand rending to pieces of the enemy.

The shell reached fuse altitude and flew past an unsuspecting level-bomber.

It did not miss; the shell exploded just over the wings.

One by one the engines on the bomber’s wing began to fail, stricken with shrapnel. Rapidly losing altitude, the machine fell from the clouds, its propellers fanning flames spreading across its wings and hull. Minutes later every man and woman in the trenches watched the massive bomber crash to earth, another wreck at the foot of Nyota Hill.

There were more targets. Now it was Madiha’s chance.

While everyone was distracted, she touched that power again.

Her head grew hot, hot enough to draw sweat. Her eyes burnt, and her vision wavered.

Bomb bay doors opened far in the sky, and lines of ordnance dropped on the surrounding streets. A massive bomb struck the top of the hill and pulverized the remains of the observatory. Dive bombers and strafing planes swarmed over them like bees and came down in their twos and threes, sweeping across the hill. Norglers blazing, under-wing rockets bursting across the hillock, artillery flak answering each blow; Madiha felt the power erupt from her body, hyperaware of the tumultuous environment.

Fire and smoke and a ceaseless cacophony, and the burning, the infernal burning; her tendrils reached across the hillock, touching every gun she could identify with the power.

Soon as shells left muzzles Nochtish planes immediately began to fall.

Quick-firing 37mm guns rent apart whole fighter squadrons and dive bombers; 85mm and 57mm guns fired directly skyward and sliced through level bombers and their escorts. She sustained perhaps thirty seconds of fire, enough for a few hundred shells, before she slumped on her gun, weeping, blinded, immobilized. She saw the wraith again, forcing its way back inside of her, bleeding back into some unseen wound in her very humanity.

“Major? Major!” Lt. Munira pulled her back from the gun and laid her back on the trench. She smacked her gently in the cheek as if to wake her. “Major, are you alright?”

“Yes, yes,” Madiha gasped, starting to recover, “Yes, I am fine. It’s the smoke.”

She looked out from the trench and through her wavering, blurry vision she saw a sky still filled with enemy planes. Two squadrons of fighters took turns strafing the trenches. An instant later a dive-bomber plunged from the sky and dropped a bomb right into a trench several meters above Madiha’s own, casting dirt and rocks and metal down on her and Lt. Munira’s crew. It was like fighting a swarm. How many had she managed to kill with her power? Fifty or sixty? Nyota Hill was throwing thousands of rounds of ammunition into the sky and seemed to make no gain. Madiha started to hyperventilate again.

Could she reach for a barbiturate in front of her troops?

Could she sit here, the legend they counted on, and fail them?

“Major, are you sure you’re not injured? You look disoriented.” Lt. Munira said.

Dirt and rocks slid down from above, covering Madiha’s head in a tiny stream of debris before she could reply. Something larger dropped from above; Parinita slid clumsily down, almost crushing the loader under herself. In her hands she gripped one of the few hand-held radios distributed to the battery. Moments later Sgt. Agni appeared overhead as well, firing uselessly into the sky with a Danava LMG, before casting it aside and dropping down onto the unoccupied gunner’s seat of the 85mm gun. Lt. Munira looked puzzled by their appearance. The emplacement trench was getting cramped now with their presence.

“Major! You’re looking pale!” Parinita said. “I have some good news–”

An explosion drowned out Parinita’s voice, but she continued to speak.

Madiha made out a phrase from her voiceless lips: Ox Air Army.

Two fighter planes circling the hillock burst to pieces as if spontaneously. Four smaller green biplanes took their place, collectively casting a hail of bullets over the Nochtish planes. Across the park and over the district Nochtish fighters found themselves torn from their strafing attacks and forced into sudden dogfights with the arrival of dozens upon dozens of Anka biplanes from over the city. Slower, but numerous and dogged, the biplanes surrounded their enemies and shot at them from every direction, taking several down.

As the rain abated, the Ayvartan air force joined the battle.

Lt. Munira leaped out of the trench and shouted across the hillock for the batteries to watch their fire, because now they might hit friendlies participating in pitched dogfights.

Madiha joined her, not to give orders, but to watch the sky temporarily clearing, both of the dark clouds, and of the beleaguered enemy fleets, swarmed by hundreds of Ayvarta’s weak but numerous planes, blasted from below by hundreds of guns, and again unable to break Nyota Hill and conquer the skies over the city. Above them the sky was ablaze.

Bada Aso burnt, with fury, with agony, with courage, with defiance.

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

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

At “Madiha’s House” not a soul seemed to welcome the relative silence of the new day.

Stillness gave everyone nothing but a painful moment to contemplate, to fall prey to discomfiting thoughts. As if to fill in the sounds of bombs and guns, everyone seemed to speak louder and step harder on the ground. Everyone worked hard to fill in the silence in their hearts and minds, the cruel silence of a world that had been blasted emptier and stiller.

“It appears the Luftlotte has stopped running sorties since the attacks this morning. The ARG-2 haven’t picked up a thing in hours! So their continuous attacks are over.”

Madiha sat behind a cafeteria table, turning over her curry dinner with a spoon. Parinita tried to smile at her while giving her the news. After what seemed like interminable bombing and strafing, they had somehow expelled the Luftlotte. Unfortunately, massive damage had been dealt to the city infrastructure. Only a big portable petrol generator provided power to the headquarters now, and the lights flickered even without bomb blasts and shockwaves to disturb them. Half the city was without water service or lights.

“Do you want to take a look for yourself, or just the highlights?” Parinita said.

Across from her, the secretary pushed forward a file folder with a fresh strategic report.

“I will confess a touch of fear at the prospect of reading that.” Madiha said.

“Well the news is about as rosey as it can be.” Parinita shrugged. “On the bright side, judging by the wreckage, and from reports from the flak batteries and from pilots, over the course of the fighting we downed almost 300 Nochtish aircraft, including large amounts of the fighter craft they used for strafing. So future dogfights will be a little easier on what’s left of our Anka planes. Which brings me to the downside, which is that we’ve maybe got 100 planes left, if that. The Luftlotte flew twenty times the sorties we did, and it cost them, but it also practically destroyed our air force too. Nobody’s got the skies anymore.”

Madiha raised her hands to her face. That first day of air battles was a large boost in morale for the troops, but then the reality set in. There was massive attrition of planes on both sides. The Ox air army was decimated in two days. She had no idea how much Nocht had left, but the Luftlotte had gotten the message. From 600 sorties the first day, to 200 sorties the second, and now not a single enemy plane over their skies.

She could only hope that both their air forces had been broken by the brutality of the air fighting, and not just hers. Swallowing hard, she cracked open the report.

It was more or less what she expected to see, and she wanted to weep and scream and stomp her feet from the sight of it. Casualties were massive. They had to bury 10,000 bodies. There were thousands injured. Civilians had taken the cruel brunt, maimed and killed in collapses of shelters that had proven inadequate, but the stationary troops, gun battery crews and observers were hit hard as well. Materiel loses were minimal, and she still had the overwhelming majority of her eight divisions in Bada Aso.

One ARG-2 had been damaged in an evacuation accident.

One miraculous bright spot: the forces in the Kalu had gone entirely unmolested.

But the more she thought about it the more she felt personally responsible for this failure, for the debacle of this air defense, for how poorly ready the city was for the attack. What had she known about air defense, about air battle; what did she even know now? She knew that if she personally fired an artillery gun, she could hit a bomber.

She was worse than useless as a commander.

She was no genius, no hero of the border or any of that nonsense her troops desperately clung to in order to view themselves as anything more than pawns in an abstract political game between their bickering government and the bloodthirsty imperialists from overseas who saw them as a threat to the peace of the world. With a shaking hand she reached into her jacket and withdrew a barbiturate pill to calm her nerves.

Parinita reached out her hands, holding Madiha’s with both of hers.

“Please, don’t.” She said. “I saw you drink one just thirty minutes ago Madiha.”

Madiha didn’t struggle.

She dropped the pill, and collapsed over the table, burying her face in her arms.

She was a monster more useless than the human she had once thought she was.

A monster that could not even wield her monstrous power against anybody.

All she had left was the pain and the plan. Parinita was right.

Taking the pills was just useless.

“Schedule a briefing with the captains from each division. We need to go over the defense plan and deploy. Nocht’s land forces will not be far.” Madiha said.

She was speaking without affect, like someone from the KVW.

Not because of conditioning, which she had never received, but exhaustion. She was just too beleaguered to feel anymore. What use were the tears of a monster in commemorating the dead? The pity of a monster for the people she herself had condemned? There was no point in living in this shell of humanity any longer. She was Major Nakar, a freakish thing in human form given pitiless command over an army.

Parinita nodded obediently and stepped away from the table.

She rounded it, pulled up a chair beside Madiha.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you–”

“Not now, please.” Madiha mumbled.

Again, Parinita nodded obediently. She laid her head on her arms as well.

For a moment, they just sat there together. It felt nicer than Madiha wanted to admit.

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Legions of Hell

The Gates of Hell — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of psychological distress.

21-AG-30 Early Morning

Adjar Dominance – Village of Mapele, 2da Infanteria zone.

Charging across the border the Cissean Cuerpo Azul or “blue corps” was the first Allied force to engage the Ayvartans in combat, absorbing the shrapnel from their mines and the shells spat by their cannons. Thousands of soldiers of Nocht’s client state died ingloriously to open the way into the enemy nation, starting the march to end Communism.

Supported by Nochtish armor, Azul breached the defenses, and was then relegated to silence. Both divisions in the corps, the Primera and Segunda Infanteria, had been downgraded to mobile reserve status, and were essentially given busywork and chores to do now several kilometers behind the advance as Nocht took charge of the attack.

The 1st Vorkämpfer, an elite Nochtish force of mobile Panzergrenadiers and Panzer elements, took the lead of Generalplan Suden in Adjar, claiming key cities such as Dori Dobo that the Ayvartans strangely refused to defend. Their air cover raced again and harried the Ayvartan evacuations where they could, though it was soon apparent the enemy military had largely escaped. Ayvartan rail was far more developed than they thought, and their forces counted on a large, previously unknown motor pool for support.

As the Nochtish line incrementally advanced, bombing air fields and capturing major roads, the Cisseans combed through the little villages, the backwater towns. They checked for mines, they confiscated weapons caches, inspected their new civilian subjects and claimed whatever food, tools and vehicles the fleeing Ayvartan army left behind.

Brigadier-General Gaul Von Drachen had no opinion of these maneuvers.

His soldiers found them degrading. Their morale had become quite low. They winced under the despondent, confused, wrathful gazes of the villagers and townspeople. They confessed that they felt like thieves and bandits, like lowlives; they, and Von Drachen in turn, had been relegated to the job of a security division in the rear echelon.

A picture had been painted for them of this conflict but with every brush stroke they made they failed to reproduce it. This was not their glorious battle for democracy.

Von Drachen responded to every subordinate officer the same: “You’ve come under a delusion about your role in this conflict that regrettably only you can solve.”

He did not say this with an air of malice, but a smooth, unaffected tone of voice. He did not believe he was necessarily right. Nobody was necessarily right.

Regardless of their feelings, they had orders to carry out, and they did.

Under an autumn shower, Von Drachen’s personal convoy followed a muddy road through a small village, consisting of a town hall and a few small tenements and granaries. But these were merely a backdrop for the large fields of grain, lentils and vegetables that led into the village. Everyone here worked on the farm, or supported the work of others there. Thankfully for Nocht, this small farming village had not been evacuated.

Von Drachen took in the scenery as he rode on the side-car of a motorcycle, followed by two other motor bikes mounting Norgler machine guns on their side-cars, and an Sd.Kfz B. “Squire” personnel half-track bringing up the rear, with its broad nose and long, tall armored bed, carrying over a dozen security troops and staff in its protective embrace.

This last vehicle was a prestige token: the only one of its kind among the Azul corps.

They rolled through the rural landscape, headed for the center of the town. Lined up on each side of the road were the villagers, silently watching the vehicles pass them by, while a few soldiers silently watched over them with submachine guns in hand. Von Drachen thought he would see the Ayvartans in rags, but their coats and robes, their shirts and trousers, their dresses, looked as good as anything worn in his home province of Gracia. They stood there, picturesque, soaking up rain, over a hundred sets of eyes in captivity.

Von Drachen dismounted in the middle of the village.

Dozens of his men were hard at work searching the tenements, the town hall, the granaries. Out to their trucks they carried boxes of village books for the Corps Headquarters to translate. Men with detection equipment tiptoed further uptown to check the dirt road for mines. Lightly armed gendarmes gathered any native stragglers, checked them for weapons, and sent them out to line up along the road where they could be easily watched.

Privates searched for anything that could be useful to the Corps right away, such as food for the mess company, and medicine for the hospital company.

There was one obvious problem. Though the fields had not been cleaned of all their veggies quite yet, the granaries were empty, the town hall ransacked before Azul could claim it. Garbage bins sat full to bursting with the ashes of sensitive papers.

Von Drachen walked among the men, tipping the peak of his hat to greet them.

General!” they responded in chorus. Those with their hands empty saluted physically.

Que han descubierto?” He asked them. What have you found?

An officer stepped forward. “Nada pertinente al objetivo, General.” Nothing.

Las ordenes no han cambiado. Continúen.” Your orders haven’t changed. Continue.

Von Drachen sat on the steps to the town hall.

Azul‘s busywork continued under his wandering eyes.

For a time the rain abated, but the sky was still dark and nasty.

Over the continuing labor Von Drachen soon heard the sound of an unfamiliar convoy, a mixture of trundling noisy tracks and the thumping engines of motor bikes and cars.

He looked out to the road, and first he saw dust and exhaust smoke kicked up by the advancing column. Ahead of the vehicles was a light tank, the M5 Ranger, with a short 37mm gun that seemed like it had been wedged into the horseshoe-like turret shape, and a steep glacis. This small, quick, dull gray vehicle escorted three more Squire Half-tracks, a number of motor bikes interspersed between vehicles and a long truck, followed by a more robust M4 Sentinel medium tank far in the back. Past the villagers the convoy rolled.

Inside the village proper the half-tracks and motor bikes found places to settle, while the long truck pulled up in front of the steps. Its crew wanted to greet Von Drachen.

Panzergrenadiers from the 1st Vorkämpfer’s elite 13th Panzergrenadier Division.

A procession of men in thick greatcoats and black helmets left their transports and approached Von Drachen on the steps of the town hall. He made no move to meet them.

He barely acknowledged them at all.

At the head of the Panzergrenadiers was a blond man with a round chin and slick, shiny hair. He stretched out a hand, a large grin on his high, sharp-boned cheeks. Von Drachen casually shook with him at arm’s length, and then retracted his hand and laid it on his lap in a stiff, slow motion. The officer laughed openly at his mannerisms.

“Whatever goes on in that head of yours, Von Drachen?” He asked.

“I can’t quite explain it myself.” Von Drachen easily replied.

“I’m sure you can’t. What are you doing in this grain pit, pal?”

Von Drachen was probably ten years older than the young officer, but this hardly mattered to either of them. Von Drachen’s sharp, rigid facial features slowly contorted into a small smile, and he stood up from the steps and dusted himself off.

“We have been assigned to security and cleanup. We are picking through this village.”

Von Drachen stood at least a head over the panzergrenadier officer when face to face, but if anything the young man seemed to find this detail amusing as well. He craned his head to stare at Von Drachen with a defiant, perpetually amused affect.

“I saw the folks you had lined up outside. Mighty colorful, aren’t they?” He said.

“Pigmentation naturally shades this far south.” Von Drachen replied.

Again the officer burst into laughter. He looked at Von Drachen as though he could not believe what he was hearing, with the kind of surprise reserved for a shocking comedian. He seemed to find the entire existence of Von Drachen quite hilarious.

“So, you found anything yet? They hiding some actual weapons in this dump?”

Lieutenant-General Anton Von Sturm cast looks around the village, raising his hand over his brows as if to shield them from a nonexisting sun. He made a series of noises, ooh’s and aah’s like he found himself impressed with the Azul corps at work all around him. Von Drachen’s unyielding seriousness seemed to prompt him to act out even more.

The Cissean men looked back at him quizzically, but his own men stood in attention, humorless. Whether Von Sturm’s mockery was cruel or friendly, Von Drachen could not tell. It did not altogether matter what the intention was. It was immature and emphatic and perhaps unbecoming. But it was what it was and Von Drachen would not interfere with it.

Finally Von Sturm laughed. “Lots of effort for a bit of hide ‘n seek eh?”

“I don’t expect to find anything dramatic, but we have our orders.” Von Drachen said.

“Of course, it’s still valuable work you’re doing, very commendable.”

“Quite. I believe I have another village due after this one.” Von Drachen dryly replied.

Von Sturm covered his mouth to stifle another burst of laughter.

“A credit to the war effort. But regrettably, I’m here to pull you off this crucial task.”

From his great-coat, Von Sturm produced an official assignment letter from the Oberkommando. When they had the time or impetus to print this over the past three days, Von Drachen did not know. He read the brief assignment quite diligently.

Azul was to be part of the infantry component of a two-pronged assault on the Ayvartan city (classified in their documents as a Festung or fortress) of Bada Aso.

Attached to the orders was a small preliminary map and a summary of the operation’s primary positions. After three days of attack by the Luftlotte, the 1st Vorkämpfer and the 2nd Panzercorps along with the Azul corps and the 6th Grenadier Division would target the city primarily from the south while also attacking from the southeast toward the flank of the city via the Kalu hilltops. It was a simple plan, made simpler by their superiority in arms over the Ayvartans. Encircle the city and secure the border.

Azul would be inside the city, upgraded from reserve to first line troops.

“You’re welcome, by the way. I recommended Azul for this mission.” Von Sturm said.

“I do welcome a return to active combat.” Von Drachen said.

“I’m part of the strategic committee for this operation.” Von Sturm declared.

“So you did!” Von Drachen said. “I must admit I am surprised.”

Von Sturm raised a hand to Von Drachen’s shoulder and patted.

“Prove your commitment to the fatherland, Von Drachen. You Cisseans should stand proudly among the forces bringing democracy and progress to this place. But remember: nobody else gave you that chance but me. In return, I hope I will have your support.”

Von Drachen smiled again. This time almost as wide as Von Sturm.

His eyes narrowed, and his cheeks spread as far as they would go.

From his lips, came a sonorous, morbid laugh like a demon’s howling. Democracy and pride! Politics in the middle of war!  Oh, the boy had jokes!  Von Drachen laughed until he was hoarse, and the panzergrenadiers watched him as if he were about to leap at them.

“I admit it,” Von Drachen said through his fit, “you’ve got some good material!”

Von Sturm was no longer amused. He turned quickly around with a parting, “Just get moving.” He and his entourage returned to their characteristic half-tracks and disappeared down the road. Overhead, under the treacherously darkening sky, Von Drachen saw the planes of the Luftlotte on maneuvers, swooping over the villages spoiling for a fight.

He gave it perhaps a week until the city of Bada Aso was reduced to rubble, over which they could leisurely drive. Not because of democracy or honor or anything of the sort but simply mathematics, as Von Drachen knew them at the time. He was careful though not to be too certain nor too invested in these actions. He had a different set of goals than most of the Nochtish commanders, so he should not succumb to certainty.

21-AG-30 Morning

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

Over the past few days Bada Aso had seen exemplary weather, but on the 21st the clouds began to pack together across the sky and created an intermittent darkness. The Military Weather Service predicted a strong chance of rain on the 23rd and up. Parinita had heard Madiha wishing for rain to fall sooner, since any such disturbance would affect Nocht’s mobility and in particular the Luftlotte’s readiness in the air.

Despite Madiha’s wishes however, the rains had yet to visit ruin upon them.

Past the dawn the rays of the sun came and went at the whims of a gray sky, but there was still light coming into the office, and no pitter-patter yet on the glass. Parinita looked out the window to her new office, and released a long, deep, contented yawn. One shaking hand kept her pen hovering off her desk to prevent her writing unwanted lines. Her office overlooked an empty children’s playground, squeezed between two other buildings.

No children tumbled down the slides or climbed the bars.

They were either evacuated or with their families.

Parinita shook her head, trying to clear a cold fog that was settling over her mind, and she tried to regain her bearings. Table of Organization, right; she recalled that she was finishing a summary for the Major. She snatched the topmost folder from a nearby stack.

Labeled “Battlegroup Aviation,” it contained documentation about the air fields in the Adjar dominance: the planes kept there, state of readiness, and the number of trained crews and crews undergoing training, among dozens of other important facts. She flipped through the pages, yawning every once in a while, until she found where she had left off. She transcribed a number of things from the folder to series of templates on her desk.

This was her job; putting the final touches on Information Product for the Major.

Though she had another job, one self-imposed, it was much harder to explain rationally.

She returned the folder to the stack, and found another that was in need of transcribing. This one was a mess of gathered data on the Disposition of Armored and Motorized Forces. Her head began to ache as she looked through the data.

Several facts did not add up across her sources.

There was some mathematical game playing out before her eyes, where vehicles had been assigned overlapping categories like “cosmetic damage,” “extensive repair” and “needs replacement” all at once, resulting in confusion over the real disposition of many units. Though it was the duty of her staff to find ways to reconcile these kinds of problems, they had been rushed and stressed over the past few days. It was inevitable.

Sighing with frustration, Parinita reached out over the stacks of documents and folders populating her desk, and took the rotary dial phone there and pulled it up over all the mess. She rolled the numbers on the dial and pressed the handset to her face.

A young man picked up. There was a bit of commotion behind him. “Yes ma’am?”

“Bhishma, come up here and help me reconcile the auto-workers union archives with the data we collected from the engineers in Tiffils. One or the other is either wrong or trying to embellish the numbers. Put aside whatever you’re doing right now.”

There was acknowledgement over the line, and Parinita hung up, and waited.

As Staff Secretary, Parinita oversaw many professionals at work.

She controlled a Headquarters Company in the Army hierarchy.

Her company counted on a Signals crew who could be consulted on communication equipment and methods; Operations staff who helped to plan maneuvers (in this case the defense of the city); Administrative staff who gathered information from after-action reports and informed the staff at large of readiness and efficacy, as well as overseeing training and equipping of troops; Logistics officers of utmost importance, who tracked the flow of supply and the sustainability of operations; Intelligence specialists who compiled reports on the movements of the enemy, relying on data from scouts, and on various forms of surveillance; and even a Meteorologist who was in contact with the Weather Service and ready to advice the Army on the natural elements for or against their operations.

Bhishma worked in Administration, gathering much of the troubled vehicle data.

A few minutes after the call, Bhishma and his three aides joined her, pulling up children’s desks around Parinita’s grand wooden desk and looking over the data one more time. He was nervous at first, and shied away from eye contact; but Parinita was gregarious and easy-going and managed to diffuse the tension and get everyone working calmly.

She made sure that nobody was stuck thinking that it was their fault and dispelled any notion that punishment might ensue. Every problem had a solution, however belabored.

Working together they broke down their data back to its sources, isolated errors and made several more phone calls inside and outside the city to confirm and update their information. There was much shouting over the lines, back and forth, especially with the divisional maintenance crews that had been in charge of the materiel under Gowon, and were clearly unhappy with this level of scrutiny being brought upon them.

Thankfully, the staff was used to working over the lines.

Over the past two days they had been forced to gather data like this, talking with logistics and maintenance crews, with administration officials, with union managers, all of it over the radio, in the middle of evacuations, working out of the back of Madiha’s trucks. To do the same but in a comfortable office was child’s play in comparison.

Finally they were able to work out a much more accurate account of what Battlegroup Ox actually had to work with. Parinita wrote “793/217/490” next to Goblin tanks, for operational / undergoing repair / mechanical losses on her Table of Equipment and Organization. Similar but much smaller numbers arose for the Orc tanks. Spare parts availability for the Sharabha half-tracked truck was squared out. Fuel consumption and fuel availability for the diesel-engine tanks was determined.

In about an hour and spare change they had mostly fixed the data.

Parinita thanked Bhishma and his aides, and humbly they bowed their heads before they hurried out of the office and back to their original posts to continue their work.

Much of the morning was spent the same way.

Parinita looked over the work of her colleagues, cross-referencing sources and summarizing the information to produce Madiha’s Table of Organization and Equipment. Parinita was one woman, head of a staff, and a lot of the work on the document had been delegated. Much the same as she supported Madiha, who was just one woman and could never research and consume all of this data alone, her own staff gathered information to support her. Her logistics personnel, her administration personnel, her operational personnel; their disparate handwriting traded places across all these documents.

They worked relentlessly. She was supposed to have a staff of 70 to 100 people in war-time, including personal aides; there was no time to recruit more hands, so she made do with 30 people, and she was forced put in a lot of overtime work herself.

She started two days ago; now the table neared completion. After going through a stack of papers and figuring out a glaring discrepancy in the terms being used to refer to the formations documented therein, she put down three radar “units” each consisting, sadly, of only a single truck, into the ToOE. This detail completed the regional structure for the forces defending Bada Aso. Parinita had finished the product on time.

Parinita pulled up the papers and stared at them, half in a daze, numbers and figures still dancing in her head. This was her contribution to the war.

While her comrades prepared to die, she counted, and she wrote.

Sometimes it felt pathetic; but it was also all she could do.

And she wanted, desperately, to help.

She picked up the phone again and dialed the communications staff.

“We’ve got a Table ready to disseminate.”

“Yes ma’am, I will send someone to collect it. We’re still working on the printer.”

“No problem. Give my congratulations and thanks to everybody.”

She hung up the phone, and some childish part of her wanted to toss all of the documents, to throw them into the air like confetti, to kick down all the stacks and roll around in them like fallen leaves. But she couldn’t; this all had to go to Archives.

Instead she settled for knocking the phone off her desk with a mischievous giggle.

Promptly there was a knock on the door.

An expressionless KVW guard entered the room and saluted her.

Parinita stood up from behind the desk, feeling a cracking sensation in her back and knees as she moved. Cheerful and with a mind still bouncy and high with a sense of accomplishment, she approached him and exchanged pleasantries – a strange event when it came to dealing with the deadpan KVW, whom she had trouble reading.

Hujambo Gange, what’s new since I last left the comms office?” She said jokingly.

Hujambo. I am here to collect some documents.” Gange said.

His tone of voice was terse and dry though not in a rude way; KVW people had a knack for sounding both apathetic and courteous. Parinita handed him the documents, which he carried in his open arms as though he were a human library rack.

“Also: a shower-head was installed in the second floor bathroom.” Gange said.

Parinita smiled. “Ah, thanks Gange! Now I can freshen up!”

She clapped her hands happily.

Gange bowed his head deferentially, turned on his feet, and left.

Parinita was not far behind him.

She picked up the phone, tidied the desk a bit, and went on her own way.

The newly-formed Battlegroup Ox Headquarters Company had chosen to establish themselves in a four-story rectangular school building looming over a fork in the road toward the north-center of the city. The building’s forward-facing windows gave the occupiers a sight-line several kilometers to the south, east and north.

It was perfect not just for an HQ, but to defend the main street.

All of the front offices bristled with machine guns and even a few 45mm anti-tank guns painstakingly pushed up the stairs. Soldiers worked in the forward-facing rooms, piling sandbags around window frames and walls to provide additional protection against machine gun and anti-tank fire. An 82mm mortar had also been set up on the roof.

Lovingly, many of the workers referred to the place as “Madiha’s House” though the commander had not yet caught on to the nickname. Parinita had given the order to “decorate Madiha’s house to the best of their ability” last night, and it had stuck since then.

Defensive emplacements in front provided obvious targets to assaulting enemy forces, so the headquarters staff worked out of the back. Overnight, dozens of people gave up sleep in order to prepare the space for the interminable hours of work that would surely follow.

Staff members and troops relocated piles of office supplies, heavy old file cabinets, typewriters and radios to the classrooms. They combed the building for anything useful and dragged it toward the back. Parinita mostly cheered on those stronger than her.

Ultimately she had gotten about three hours of sleep in a stretcher she had pilfered from the school’s clinic, while her writing desk was taken from downstairs and pushed up.

Thankfully, Parinita had done enough work to not feel completely worthless.

Having, in her mind, earned a good shower and a little more rest, Parinita took a flight of stairs down from the third to the second floor, where she heard a bit of a racket. She found a few members of her staff struggled to push a printing press the size of a large office desk into one of the classrooms. Once used to reproduce educational materials, they could now put it to work printing military literature. They had found it in one of the front offices, and had spent the better part of the night and morning relocating it to a safe place.

Parinita congratulated them on their progress so far and left them to their devices, squeezing past them, around the corner and into the adjoining hall with the bathroom.

Outside of it she found a rather moist-looking Madiha sitting on the floor.

She was fully dressed but only half-awake.

Hujambo!” Parinita said.

Hujambo,” Madiha half-heartedly replied, “I apologize for my current state.”

“Things finally caught up to you, huh?” Parinita said. “You should’ve slept.”

Madiha breathed in deep. “I went under the hot water and now I feel terribly sleepy.”

“Tut tut. You’ve got a busy day today, Major, you can’t just sleep in.” Parinita said, gently and cheerfully ribbing Madiha. “We have to meet Kimani at the rail yard, and inspect the anti-air defenses and the port. I can’t do that alone you know!”

“As of late I have come to regret much.” Madiha said, half through a long yawn.

Parinita beamed and patted her on the shoulder. “Take a little nap, I won’t tell anyone.”

There was a sense of relief, seeing Madiha this way.

Her eyes were in good condition. Parinita could not see the flames behind her eyes. They came and they went from the Major, working in ways no one knew. Thankfully they were dull now and Parinita did not need to worry. She could leave the commander there and know that she would not soon burn in her own flame as those old legends said.

Such thoughts were alien at first; now they flowed naturally with her new, strange task.

Past her commander, Parinita entered the bathroom and found the installation of the shower had been as barbaric as she had imagined. They had battered the sink off the wall and left it in a corner, and attached an extension to the water pipe that led up to an ordinary faucet. Sighing heavily, Parinita closed the door behind herself, undressed, and stood under the rushing water for a few minutes, scrubbing herself with hard bar of soap.

She understood how Madiha felt after a while.

Hot water pounding her head and back, steam rising all around; it was soporific.

When next she opened the door, she too was half asleep and barely through dressing herself. Gently she laid next to her commander, and they nodded off together.

21-AG-30 Noon

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

When Parinita first joined the army she was barely an adult, yet she could hardly read or write. To the callous Empire the education of the lower class was an afterthought; to the bold revolutionary in the civil war, the education of the lower class was an abstract thing that should first and foremost serve the revolution; when the socialists picked things up afterwards, they had a lot of ground to cover. Parinita was seven years old when she first spoke, and ten years old when she learned to read. Her early childhood had been chaotic.

Never had she been a prodigy, or outstanding in any way. To her, the military’s slogans appealed: “First and foremost a comrade; first and foremost in service of socialism.” It was noble and dignified in a way her life had never been until she joined.

It’s not like she had anything else to turn to for a future.

After graduating and earning her rank, Parinita had always worked diligently and put in the required effort to complete her tasks. There was a sense of tedium sometimes, but it came with casual purpose that motivated her to continue.

On some level she enjoyed the work she did. But there was a new sensation, now both terrifying and powerful, that she felt while walking astride Major Nakar across Bada Aso, a doomed city standing ominously still before a rising tide of flames. She brimmed with a strange, new purpose that made her old reality feel unreal.

She remembered the cackling words of her grandmother: you will see those eyes burning her alive, and like me you will be a witness to history. Was it on some level just inevitable that time would pass and slowly Madiha would die in front of her eyes?

Thankfully her days were distracting enough to keep those thoughts away.

Outside a car had been prepared for them. After their impromptu nap, a refreshed Major Nakar (she preferred just Madiha, but propriety made demands) bid farewell to the headquarters and ushered Parinita outside with her to conduct the long business ahead of them. First they drove out toward the airport in the northeastern district of the city.

For once, traffic was a little stiff; KVW Police from the city had been posted at key roads to direct the hundreds of trucks, tanks, tractors, bikes, horses and other vehicles on the asphalt. Everyone was in a hurry, and everyone’s tasks were important. Madiha waited patiently behind the convoys that, by her words, had been organized and put to work.

While they waited they went over the day’s business. Kimani and the evacuation; the Revenant, a large vessel in the port that Admiral Qote had given them command over; Anti-Air defenses organizing across the city; and the radar units in the airport.

“Each of these ‘radar units’ is actually a truck, according to this report?” Madiha asked.

Parinita nodded. “Well, the truck’s not alone. There are eight folks working inside.”

“So that’s why it was labeled a ‘unit’ I suppose. I had hoped we had more equipment.”

“Radar is a very new technology, I’m afraid.” Parinita said. “Those three trucks are it.”

“At least we have some means of detection. Better than staring skyward for days.”

Parinita stared at the sky. Any second now she could have heard a plane swooping.

“They’ll be hitting us soon, won’t they?” She said, in an idle, ponderous tone.

“We will interrogate that once we have the equipment available to do so.”

“Yeah. That’s right. We’ll be ready for them, I’m sure of it.” Parinita said.

She said this as much for herself as for Madiha. She needed to hear it. She only wished it had not been herself who said it. Coming from her it was less encouraging by an order of magnitude. There was no power in her that could sway these events.

They endured the traffic and worked their way further north. Soon the roads widened enough that they were free from the two-lane clog and could drive more leisurely. Bada Aso Air Base was outside the thickly urbanized areas in the center, northeast and south of the city. Nearer to the coast, the terrain became comparatively open.

Once a place of old capitalist villas with wide acreage, broad greens and a commanding view of the ocean, it had been enclosed just a bit when the opulent villas were demolished and the housing, factories, and social infrastructure went up to support a population of equal comrades. But the blocks were much less dense, and there was still grass and loose, natural dirt straddling the road and street. One could still get that commanding view of the ocean, but only by climbing a rooftop, or driving past the district and into the bay proper.

“Parinita,” Madiha began, while keeping her eyes on the road.

She let the statement hang.

“Yes?” Parinita said, smiling and friendly.

“I wanted to thank you for the work you’ve done. All the reorganization I desired demanded a lot from you and your staff. I did not ask you to undergo these tribulations lightly, and I could not provide you any aid. Your efforts have been splendid.”

Parinita was surprised to receive thanks.

She smiled and she held back a fit of giggling from Madiha’s long, discursive way of speaking. She couldn’t have just said a ‘thank you’ or a ‘congratulations’! Though the Major had claimed her words sounded unnatural and inhuman, Parinita did not think she had ever heard someone in the military speak in a more genuine fashion than Madiha. It was a quirk, a bit of her nature that war had done nothing to change. It was like a window to her heart. She had to revise just how much different Madiha was than other officers.

“Thank you! I am happy to help my comrades in the ways that I can.” Parinita replied.

“To each according to his ability.” Madiha said. She was smiling, too. How rare! “I am glad to have you. Doubtful that I will find the time to properly address each member, so I must also ask you to please relay to the general staff my congratulations as well.”

“I will! They will be happy to hear it. All the raw data came from them.” Parinita said.

Madiha nodded. “There will be Honors awarded as well, if we survive the ordeal.”

They rolled right over this grim reminder in their conversation, their spirits temporarily too high for it to affect them. This spectre of death was too weak to spear their hearts at that moment. After this they would all survive and they would all definitely buy themselves something nice from the restricted goods store with their Honors, war be damned!

Both of them even shared a little laugh about it as they drove.

Parinita was already planning what to do with her prize. Surely there was a good camera she could buy, whether it be a film or photo camera, whatever was available.

“I have not an inkling of what I would want to buy.” Madiha said.

“How about nice clothes? Are you a fluffy dress or a fancy suit sort of woman?”

“I believe I am a military uniform kind of woman.” Madiha awkwardly replied.

Parinita rubbed shoulders with her. “So you have an excuse to try them both on!”

Both of them were soon laughing like small girls.

It had become a rather pleasant drive.

Bada Aso Air Base was itself a monumental site compared to the confines of much of the city. The base was surrounded by high fences and barbed wire and its runways spanned almost a kilometer in length. There were four wide parallel runways, and several buildings, including the main control office for the base. A high capacity runway and several hangars and warehouses would have made it a perfect host for 10,000-plus kilogram transport and passenger aircraft, but there were no large guests in sight during Madiha and Parinita’s visit.

Solstice was still much more used to conducting its heavy transport using its large rail network, and its fleet of 300 or so cargo planes was contributing little to the operation.

In fact there were few planes on-hand in general. Madiha had ordered most of the small craft to evacuate further north and quickly reestablish themselves, away from potential Luftlotte assault, but close enough to respond in time to a threat on the city.

As they drove to the back of the airport they saw a skeleton screw on the runways, performing maintenance on a squadron of Anka biplanes that had been left in the base. These planes were going on seven years old now. They boasted a gulled wooden upper wing and a flat lower wing, with a body of mixed steel and duralumin. A skilled pilot could make them sing, but Parinita knew they were relics compared to Nochtish planes.

Crew on the runway stopped to wave at their car. Madiha and Parinita waved back.

There was a smaller hangar straddling the back wall where a group of people had been waiting for them. Madiha parked the car just outside the location and stepped out, and they were greeted by a handsome young man with dark brown skin who was dressed quite sharply in a suit and a tie, and had gelled his dark hair back sleek and shiny.

He addressed them from his wheelchair, and there was another young man following behind him, a colleague gently pushing the chair wherever needed. Behind the two of them a group of aides opened the hangar and drove out to the runway a long truck with a sizeable aerial projecting from the roof over its bed. The aerial was several meters tall.

“Thank you for visiting us, Major,” said the young man, shaking Madiha’s hand, “I am Chief Technology Officer Parambrahma. This is my colleague Narayam. And behind us is the ARG-2 or Argala. We are ready to demonstrate its operation.”

Madiha bowed her head, a little lower than normal due to the difference in height.

“Thank you for having me Officer Parambrahma, Narayam.” Madiha replied. Perhaps a little too humbly for the commander of an army, but that was not a bad thing, Parinita thought. “Is this vehicle our radar unit? Could you describe its function?”


Narayam pushed Officer Parambrahma closer to the truck, and Madiha and Parinita followed them. An aide opened the back of the truck, which was built like a chamber moreso than a standard cargo bed, enclosed with walls and ceiling and a door.

From inside the truck a ramp was pushed out, so that the vehicle became accessible to the C.T.O’s wheelchair, and together the posse climbed into the back of the vehicle. It was dim inside, and would be very dark indeed had the back door been shut and the ramp closed.

Visibility was provided almost exclusively by the lights on various consoles, and especially by an array of cathode ray tube screens that projected green color that, upon closer inspection, seemed to form a long scale, with lines superimposed on the screen that gave it a scale. Parinita examined the screens, and found the scale was in kilometers.

“Here is where the science of radar becomes something coherent to human eyes.” Parambrahma said. “Essentially, this truck will send out a wave, and then wait for that wave to bounce back to it, and here we can draw some crucial information.”

Narayam happily pushed the C.T.O closer to the CRT screens, and Parambrahma tapped on one to demonstrate, “On this screen, the presence of an object in the sky will be indicated by a blip on the screen, and we can determine its distance from us using the scale printed on the console. Thus we can be alerted to the presence of incoming aircraft.”

“Interesting,” Madiha said, “So from how far away can we detect incoming aircraft?”

“Depending on the target’s altitude, around 100 kilometers. Continuous detection and true distance is a little unreliable right now, unfortunately. So while it cannot act as a guide for gunnery quite yet, I believe it can provide an invaluable service to the city nonetheless.”

Madiha nodded. It was not perfect, but it was better than she expected nonetheless.

“A hundred kilometers should be more than enough to give us an effective early warning.” She said. “We can scramble aircraft in response with that lead. You have three units of ARG-2s, correct? Do you have the crew to operate them all at once?”

Narayam spoke up then. “We have enough crew, but only one C.T.O.” He said sadly.

“That’s fine.” Madiha replied. “I require two of the units in the southern districts, and one near Ganesha Arithmetic and Reading College. C.T.O Parambrahma can supervise them via radio from the Battlegroup HQ in the school. I’ll give him the equipment.”

“I can try.” Parambrahma said. “However, if something goes awry at a station

“We shall live with that.” Madiha interrupted. She tipped her head toward Parinita. “Ask Chief Warrant Officer Maharani for a copy of our operational plans, and organize your units to provide as much range along the south, around the coast, and over the Kalu.”

“Will do.” Parambrahma said. “You sure get to business quickly, Major. It took months of my time to convince your predecessor that Radar even worked as I purported it did. You on the other hand accept it immediately. I was wondering if you would have liked a demonstration of the system; we have an Anka ready around here somewhere.”

Parinita thought a test seemed sensible enough, but Madiha shook her head in response.

“You seem like a bright young man, C.T.O. I will put my faith in you.”

“I hope, if the system succeeds, we shall have your backing for future resources?”

Parambrahma had a big grin on his face, and Narayam seemed cheerful as well.

“For whatever my opinion is worth, if your system contributes to our survival, I shall support you.” Madiha replied. Parinita wondered how people interpreted the current political situation; Madiha’s word might not be worth anything in the near future.

In fact it might soon be worth a negative amount should the Civil Council decide to act out against her for the takeover of the city. Whether or not this was running through anyone’s minds in the room but her own, Parinita did not know. Madiha quickly returned them to the business at hand. “Right now though, I must ask you to set aside future ambition and focus on giving me as much coverage of the Dominance map as you can.” She said.

“Of course. I work within the military structure exclusively. I’ve developed many theories for the deployment of the ARG-2 in military combat. I can assure you that Nocht will not enter our skies without our knowledge once the ARG-2s are operational.”

Madiha nodded. Parinita could only hope Nocht was not flying overhead right then. If a bomb fell, she thought perhaps she would leap atop Madiha, and try to protect her from the blast. That was all she thought she could do. Perhaps Madiha would even live.

21-AG-30 Afternoon

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

Once their business at the airport concluded, the next stop for the Commander and her secretary was the main rail yard in the northeast district, where trains came and went.

Kimani should be waiting for them there.

Yesterday Madiha had selected her to oversee the deployment of Ox in Lt. Purana’s place, and in tandem, to oversee the evacuation. After the councilors were shipped off, Kimani had been absorbed in this work and spent much of her time in the rail station.

Madiha knew Kimani wanted no part in the battlegroup command. At first she thought the reasons had been political, despite her saying otherwise. It was difficult to believe that she could consider Madiha more qualified for this task. Clearly it would have been outrageous for the inspector to take over herself, so she left a reliable old friend, Madiha, to take the reins symbolically. That emphatic support must have been meant to help Madiha cope with the political realities of the situation. However it was more and more borne out that Kimani truly believed what she said at the border and that Madiha had misread her intentions. Politics or not, Kimani was leaving full command of Ox to her, without strings.

Though she did not understand the decision, Madiha had no real choice in it.

Rails stretching from the east, north and south converged on Yhana station’s multiple platforms, feeding Bada Aso materials bound for factories and for the port, and taking from the city large amounts of fish and industrial goods from its factories.

Most of those factories were shipping out in pieces when Madiha arrived.

Vast and entirely open to the air, the station was incredibly busy.

Hundreds of workers loaded trains with tools and machines stripped from evacuated factories, and unloaded materiel that had been evacuated to the city from across the Dominance. Soon as Madiha parked the car she saw a train depart loaded with half-built trucks from the auto factory; and another train arriving full of tanks.

“Madiha, what are those? I’ve never seen that tank pattern before.” Parinita asked.

“It’s a Hobgoblin, they’re a new type commissioned by the KVW.” Madiha replied, staring at the train. She was puzzled. Who brought them here? “The 3rd KVW Motor Rifles had a small battalion of them as support, but I was not expecting to see any more.”

“Inspector Kimani is meeting us here, so I assume she must have gotten them for us.”

They approached the military cargo train, and took a closer look at the cars.

It was quite a long train, and loaded with over forty of the tanks.

They were far more impressive that the boxy Orcs or the small and outdated Goblins.

Colored a dull, fresh-out-of-the-factory green, the Hobgoblins had thicker armor in the front than either of the two common tank patterns, boasting a sloped glacis and a new turret, mounted closer to the front of the tank and composed of slanted armor plates with a tough, bulging gun mantlet. This tank could withstand much more punishment than the barely-armored Goblins. Armed with a medium-barreled 76mm gun, it boasted firepower unlike any other piece of Ayvartan armor. It mounted two Krodha machine guns as well, one on the front of the vehicle and one coaxial to the 76mm gun, to round out its impressive armament. Like the Orc, this was a medium tank, but it was much more effective in the role, being faster, better armored, and state of the art. There was not a tank like it.

Parinita whistled, admiring the new tanks. “To think we have a weapon like this.”

“Without the Civil Council behind it, production has been limited.” Madiha explained.

“Why don’t they support it? It seems far better than the Goblins.”

“Demilitarization; it’s a KVW project, so they see it as pointless and wasteful.”

Madiha crossed the length of the platform, and found an additional three cars at the back of the train, carrying five tanks that she did not recognize at all.

These were significantly larger than the Hobgoblins, with boxier riveted turrets that ended in a large, blunt counterweight. While the weaponry was similar, the tracks were longer, with eight, larger road wheels rather than the seven smaller ones on a Hobgoblin. If a Hobgoblin was a medium tank, certainly this model was a Heavy tank. Madiha guessed it must have weighed several more tonnes than a Hobgoblin, and a Hobgoblin already weighed 26 tonnes! Parinita knocked on the armor with her knuckles, in awe of its size.

“I take it you know as much about this one as I do.” Parinita said.

“I have never seen anything of its kind.” Madiha said.

They stepped off the platform and approached some of the laborers. From the glowing rings around their eyes Madiha recognized them as KVW agents. They quickly pointed out the next platform, where the automobile factory equipment was being loaded onto a train.

There Madiha found Kimani, signing off on the transport manifest and watching the work of both trains carry on. Tanks started to be crewed and unloaded little by little using ramps and heavy platform cranes. Kimani thought nothing of Madiha’s presence until she exhausted other things to pay attention, and then she greeted her apathetically.

“Afternoon, Major. How stand things? Have you visited the air defenses or the port?”

“What are those tanks, Kimani? Those larger ones?” Madiha demanded.

Changing the topic did not appear to faze Kimani. She responded to the questions as though the conversation had flowed naturally from her greeting. “A pick-me-up from Solstice. They’re a new Heavy tank pattern, called the Ogre. Fresh off factories in Jaati.”

Growing irritated, Madiha pressed her. “Why do we have them here?”

“I assume they will be firing at other tanks.” Kimani casually said.

“That’s not what I mean.” Madiha said. “I don’t appreciate you being coy.”

“I apologize if this upsets you, Major.” Kimani said. “I hesitate to mention that the 5th KVW Mechanized is joining us soon as well. I desire to command them in the defense of the Kalu to protect your flank. I hope that is not a problem. The KVW is simply gathering allies and materiel to support your plans. Nobody means for this to undermine you.”

Parinita raised her hands in sudden distress.

“Now my table of organization has to be redone!” She shouted. She sounded like she was about to cry. Kimani and Madiha both stared at her, and she started to sob.

Madiha could see that Kimani was trying to protect her. And on some level, she wanted protection, but not in the way Kimani wanted to provide it. She wanted her here, in the city. Close enough to advise Madiha should she lose her way. Not in the hills running a delaying action within a delaying action, losing materiel so Madiha would have more time to lose her own share of materiel. A kettle boiled over inside Madiha, a mix of emotions confused and strong that burned at her heart and brain. Her stress seemed to suddenly multiply.

She didn’t feel ready for this responsibility. She could carry out all the tasks that came with it, but when she tried to lift the entire edifice her spine shuddered from the weight.

Her brain was running away with her. Madiha felt a burning sensation in her skull.

She tried to stomach it all and continue, as she seemed to be doing with terrible frequency these days. Feeling anxious shivers just under her skin, she pushed forward with her original agenda, mustering as firm and emotionless a voice as she felt she had.

She had visited the rail yard to quickly assess the evacuation.

“I put you in charge of overseeing the evacuation here, so I hope you would complete that work before leaving. So, with that in mind, tell me: how proceeds the evacuation?” Madiha said. “Are we moving at a good pace? Could we do any better?”

“We are making as much progress as we are able to.” Kimani said. “Militarily speaking there are a few stragglers, maybe two or three Companies worth that simply haven’t made it back. I believe air patrols might have gotten them. Where materiel and civilian evacuations are concerned, we have about 80% of our vehicles accounted for, and our supplies have been distributed along the city and are hidden underground or in caches to hopefully survive bombing. It also appears that our rail capacity is at its limits. Already the councilors that we evacuated yesterday are marooned in the Tambwe Dominance with thousands of other refugees for the next week or so, because we need the lines clear for industrial evacuation toward and beyond Solstice. Tambwe is the major chokepoint for traffic right now. No matter what we do here, Ayvarta as a whole cannot do any better.”

Madiha felt a pang of guilt for Chakrani. “I assume the council will be provided for.”

“Obviously they won’t starve; whether they’ll have nice offices is another story.”

“So it is out of our hands to move the evacuation any faster?” Madiha asked.

“Committing more resources is untenable. Let the unions handle it from here.”

Delegating sounded good. It was a bit less weight on Madiha’s shoulders.

“Speaking of, is the Port Worker’s Union willing to become city authority?” She said.

“I’m afraid the union has voted to evacuate. You are still in charge.” Kimani said.

Madiha sighed. “Find me another union. I don’t desire to rule this city any longer.”

Kimani’s expression turned to the closest thing to a smile that Madiha had ever seen on her. Kimani stared at her, directly into her eyes, and laid hands on her shoulders as though preparing to pull her into an embrace that she knew would not be returned. Madiha did not understand the expression. Was this some kind of a joke to her?

Was she condescending to Madiha? It didn’t make sense.

“You’ll deal with the responsibility well. I’m sure of it, Major. May I return to work?”

Stunned, incapable of reading the situation any longer, Madiha simply nodded her head, knowing that she would make no headway talking to the Inspector any more.

Kimani, with that unfamiliar expression, turned on her heels and crossed the tracks to supervise the unloading of the tanks. Her stride and stature was unshaken by the conversation. She walked tall and confident as ever, as though it was any other day.

Madiha wanted to scream at her. Do you or do you not want to protect me? Do you or you do not care about me? But she had that common sensation that the words coming from her mouth would be different and worse. So she let it all go. There was no point.

Behind her, Parinita sulked at the prospect of having to produce another entirely new Table of Organization and Equipment to accommodate the new equipment.

“You do not have to incorporate them.” Madiha said.

Parinita perked up at once hearing those words.

Putting her mind off the disastrous spiral of thoughts that threatened to consume it, Madiha returned to the car and drove herself and Parinita around the designated air defense zones in the city. She had been meaning to make an appearance at a few of them. Though their coordination was out of her hands, she had given overall guidelines and felt it would help the troops to see her actively involved in their training and readiness.

It was a simple plan, largely because air defense with their equipment would not have benefited from a genius sleight. Barrage balloons had begun going up over precious areas of the city, dragging steel cables that would make the air around them a hazardous terrain for craft, but there were not enough of them to make a world of difference. Madiha ordered the balloons they had to be raised over important monuments and buildings.

Guns still made up the bulk of the air defense.

In parks, on rooftops, along large intersections and broad thoroughfares, they had established searchlights and anti-aircraft posts. Powerful 85mm guns would put in the bulk of the anti-bomber work, with their delayed-action explosives and higher combat ceiling. To cover for their slower rate of fire, each team of three 85mm guns partnered with two 57mm guns and some 37mm guns. These smaller guns would engage lower altitude targets.

All of these guns were relatively new and technically sound, but unproven. Ayvarta’s cities had never needed to fend off a sustained aerial attack, and like their Infantry and Armored formations, their Anti-Aircraft Batteries had seen no real combat.

Compounding these problems was the fact that all of their positions were completely fixed in the grand scheme of things. Their only mobile anti-aircraft defense was a platoon of trucks armed with quad-mount machine guns on their open beds. Operated by two soldiers, these were nothing more than four Krodha heavy machine guns firing 7.62x54mm rounds, stuck together on a mount and mechanically tethered so they would all fire at once. It was unwieldy and the round had poor impact and range compared to real AA guns.

While there had been some suggestions with regards to mounting a real AA gun on a tank turret, nothing had been done about it. At best she could hitch her heavy guns to trucks and drag them between positions, but this took so long that changes to the defensive plan could not be feasibly made in the middle of an air battle. In desperation she could also bolt a gun to the bed of a truck, but this feat of engineering was sloppy and unsound.

Her plan called for the guns to be dispersed to cover as much of the air as possible.

Inevitably, as some sectors faced stronger air presence than others, these would be forced to engage disproportionately larger amounts of aircraft. Perhaps her strange powers could support those forced to carry that burden, when the time to do so came.

In the northern district, a large urban park had been quickly taken over by an anti-air battery. Here Lt. Bogana oversaw deployment of a battery of three 85mm guns, five 57mm and three 37mm guns, each with a crew of four to six people to load, traverse, fire and an additional, relatively more experienced gun commander who would handle communication and complex sighting. Together they would cover a whole neighborhood from air attack.

Bogana had survived the battle along the border with Cissea several days ago, where Madiha had relied on him to command guns holding a hilltop along the border against an armored assault. He had met her expectations then, and she had elevated him to the role of battlegroup artillery commander and gun crew trainer, a demanding task.

He was pleased with her visit. When he saw her car driving up the multi-purpose path along the center of the park, Bogana had everyone stand in attention.

“Greetings, Major!” He said. “The 6th Ox Anti-Air Battery is at your disposal!”

Behind him the men and women (some closer to boys and girls) saluted at once.

“Thank you!” Madiha replied. “I am pleased with your dedication and discipline, comrades. While I speak with your commanding officer, please ready your guns for a fire exercise. I hope to impart some of my own knowledge to you this day.”

Parinita had a clipboard in her hand and seemed to be pretending that she was busy.

“Hear that comrades? Bring out the air targets and the launcher!” Bogana called out.

Everyone seemed excited, especially the younger soldiers. They looked as though they had been biting their nails waiting for a chance to get behind their guns. They quickly scrambled to their positions and prepared themselves, while Bogana’s aides crewed a small aircraft catapult from the back of a nearby truck. This launcher would deploy small wooden planes, launching them one at a time straight into the air to serve as the “fast moving” targets for practice. Kites were gathered as well to represent “slow moving” targets.

From afar it probably looked like a hobbyist gathering in the middle of the park: flying kites, tossing gliders, having fun. Though perhaps the cannons ruined the imagery.

There was a lot of energy in the air, and Madiha was glad for it.

Even Parinita found something to do.

She produced a stopwatch and had begun “gathering data.”

At first Madiha knew precious little in detail about crewing an anti-air gun, but the moment she laid hands on one of the guns she knew that she would not fail to employ it correctly. Ever since she was a child, that was one thing that never flitted out of her memory, one thing she could hold on to and know for certain. She would pick up a weapon and never fail to employ it. In visiting the battery, she hoped to test those out of body experiences of hers with multiple people and more complex gunnery, as well as play the good commander.

Instruction was a good cover: she figured if she used her ability in the future, soldiers would not be so keen to suspect the rapid improvement in their aim if they had previously received training. They would believe they had improved organically.

While the gun crews prepared, Lt. Bogana beckoned Madiha aside.

“Great to see you here major. Lt. Purana and I have been spreading the word about you, and how you took command in the border, and I think it will do our comrades good to see their commander walking among them in these uncertain times.”

“Your support is invaluable.” Madiha said. “How are the troops holding up?”

“Most of them know up from down, at least, and they’re keeping busy enough. I’ve heard a couple words of discontent, but I sorted them out right quick. I think most people just don’t know what makes a good commander these days. We barely ever got see or hear a word from Gowon, but when we most needed it, you were right there. Folks around here might silently doubt you, but the people at the border, we know, Major.”

Madiha wondered what exactly she did that was so revolutionary.

At the border she gave simple instructions that basically any commander should have known. Lt. Purana had gathered much of the gun line on his own. When she took command she barked orders that should have been instinctual. Fire at the enemy, hold the line, hit the sides of tanks, organize artillery and fight back; what part of this made her a good commander? She was not about to give herself undue credit for that.

Of course she could not doubt herself in front of the troops, so she graciously accepted every compliment Lt. Bogana wanted to throw her way. However she could not help but wonder if it was her strange power that influenced them. Perhaps her only genius was being born some kind of monster, and not anything learned or practiced.

Perhaps it was nothing that she could be proud of.

She knew so little about what was happening to her.

Never had she been so uncertain about everything.

“Thank you.” She said. “Keep the troops focused Lieutenant, but please do not be harsh to those who disagree with me. I can understand their point of view. I have already taken actions and made decisions that I know I will regret, and be made to regret further.”

“Well, it’s not as if I am swatting their heads. But it’s important they respect you.”

“Avoid pushing the subject too far. I hope to win them over in time.” Madiha said.

“I understand.” Lt. Bogana said. “I’m sure it will happen once the cheese starts frying.”

Madiha feigned a little laughter at his metaphor.

Parinita, meanwhile, laughed raucously.

Soon the demonstration was ready. First the crews fired at large kites and balloons, hitched on tough cables and thrown into the strong wind around Bada Aso. They were raised to different altitudes, some several kilometers high. Crates of practice ammunition with low amounts of explosive were cracked open and the rounds distributed among the crews. They would explode, but less violently than real ammunition.

When enough targets had gone up, and enough ammo around, Madiha blew a whistle to order the crews to begin firing. At once the battery lit up the sky – for a very restrained definition of ‘lit up.’ It was not a terribly impressive showing.

Crew performance was extremely homogenous against the relatively stationary kites and balloons: the inexperienced crews encountered similar problems when loading and firing the smaller 37mm as they did loading the larger 57mm and 85mm.

As such none of the guns covered each other; furthermore Madiha found them all aiming at the same targets and altitudes. She saw tracers fly quite sloppily overhead.

“Comrades, do not aim directly at the targets!” Madiha shouted in a firm but well-meaning voice during the exercise. She had noticed all of the crews traversing their guns and trying to aim directly for the stationary targets. It was a very bad habit to pick up, as it would lead them to waste time trying to score direct hits as if they were shooting at a tank with AP rounds. “In a real combat situation you would be firing high explosives! It is fine to ‘miss’ because the fragmentation will harm the target on a close ‘miss’. Shoot near your target, lead into it. Furthermore, 37mm guns should aim at the lowest altitude targets, while the 85mm guns should focus on the highest altitude targets. Let me show you!”

Madiha rushed toward one of the guns and placed herself among the crews.

When she closed in on a 37mm gun, the second her fingers brushed the metal she was already adept with it. All of the information came to her immediately. She picked up a shell, loaded it, traversed the gun with the help of the crew, and she opened fire. She “missed” one of the low-flying kites, but the small fireworks pop from the gun struck it. From the 37mm she hopped to an 85mm and repeated the process. Within moments everyone in the park was clamoring for the commander to help them with their own gunnery.

Her insights were limited, she thought, and this was all basic stuff.

But everyone was impressed.

“Let us pass on the kites,” Madiha called out to Lieutenant Bogana, “Launch the moving targets, and load some real ammunition this time. They need to see the effect their real rounds will have. I think that will do far better to prepare them.”

Lt. Bogana grinned. “You’re in for a treat, troops.” He called out.

The target truck drove out of the park and out into the street, towing a cart full of extra planes. An aide pushed a wheeled table with several radio consoles out into the field.

Bogana took one of the consoles, and from it he could control the little planes sent out from the catapult, via radio-remote-control, a relatively new technology that had found little military use save for target practice. He seemed quite enthused.

From what Parinita told her about the little targets, Madiha understood why live fire exercises on moving targets such as these were not often performed under Gowon’s leadership. Certainly it seemed wasteful to destroy these clever little machines using live ammunition. But the experience would be invaluable for the crews. It had to be done.

Honking the truck’s horn, the aides signaled to the crews their intention to launch.

They raised the catapult ramp and launched the first plane into the sky.

Lt. Bogana twisted knobs and pulled on sticks on the console, causing the plane to zip around in the air. It was small compared to real piloted plane; about the size of a human being, and also slower than a real plane. Its maneuverability was similar, however.

Madiha joined a 57mm crew and waited for the plane to fly up two or three kilometers. Still visible against the gray sky, but a challenging target due to its size, at the limits of her vision. Bogana banked and dove the craft the way a real plane would attempt, and the crews were mesmerized by the speed of their new target compared to the ones before.

Again with the help of the crew Madiha lead her aim onto the target.

The 57mm made a loud snapping sound when it fired.

Overhead there was a large explosion and a cloud of smoke.

Pieces of the little plane fell over the field a few kilometers away, shredded by fragments. Soldiers began to clap and cheer for her, clamoring for another go.

She felt quite uncomfortable with the accolades.

Soon more planes started to go up, and more consoles brought out to control them, more staff to coordinate the exercise, and Madiha stepped aside. She had given the crews enough instruction. Standing back from the guns, she and Parinita watched the crews open fire. Dozens of shells went up in the air, many overflying their target and exploding uselessly, many more undershooting, and several exploding meters away from effective range. Madiha tried to recall the people she had briefly met while going from gun to gun.

Names like Private Adebe and Sergeant Rutva. Names and ranks, letter by letter, she concentrated her mind on them. It became easier to lose herself in each name now that she knew the trick to it, and her ghostly exported self flitted from person to person with new alacrity: but the impossible task now was seeing through their eyes.

She felt as though lying down near the ocean, her body pushed and pulled with the invisible rhythm of the tides. But it was not the moist, cold embrace of water but fire that swept over her, somehow exerting strength and heat over her mind and body.

Her consciousness projected outside again. She had “switched on” her strange power.

At the border she knew she had seen through the eyes of Private Adesh Gurunath, she had been directly inside of his mind. Now however she was like a ghost, haunting bodies but unable to emphatically connect with them. Her point of view floated over and around people but could not tap into their essence, could not fully immerse herself in them.

Over the shoulder of a certain Private Panchala she looked up at the plane, and the tendrils sweeping forth from her pushed his hands, guiding him gently so that he traversed the gun just enough, so that he helped just enough to load a round faster, so that the crew could fire – and then hit. Everybody celebrated, congratulating the crew that scored the hit. Madiha felt the explosion rattle her brains. Her phantom body both became incredibly heavy and immobile, while also turning fluid and incoherent. It was distressing.

Her vision swam, and she got the sudden, sick sensation of seeing her body from outside it. Yet her body was also seeing, and it saw the projection, like a wraith of smoke, like the outline of a body cast by the only light in a dark room. She felt disoriented.

It was her and it wasn’t. It looked at her, and she looked at herself.

This was the monster inside her; was it becoming easier to control it?

Or was the pain worsening?

Forced back into her flesh, Madiha staggered back, covering her nose and mouth with her hands. She thought she would bleed or vomit. She felt her eyes and head burning and her stomach and chest retching and shuddering as if sucking something down.

Parinita caught her. She had nearly fallen over from the pain and disorientation.

“Whoa! Major, what’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“I’m feeling a touch dizzy.” Madiha lied. “It might be smoke from the shells.”

Parinita withdrew a handkerchief from her jacket and handed it to Madiha.

“We might want to get going then.” Parinita said. “We have to go to the port also, remember? And you should talk to a medic too, I think, if you’re still feeling unwell later. All the stress and lack of sleep might be catching up to you, Major.”

“A few minutes more. I will be fine.” Madiha said.

She stood again, and she heard Bogana’s voice warp and waver as he shouted to continue the exercise. Madiha felt nauseous and weak as she tried to lose herself again, to separate that avatar of her power from her flesh. When her perspective ripped from her body and took flight again it was weak and blurry, its eyesight terribly diminished.

She reached out to the nearest familiar gun crew, and she tried to touch all of them at once with her tendrils, but to no avail. Helplessly Madiha watched her mental appendages dissipate in front of her, and she found herself propelled again into her body.

As though struck by a cannonball she fell back into Parinita once more, who gasped loudly as she caught her weak, limp-limbed commander for the second time.

Lt. Bogana noticed the commander’s collapse, as did many of the soldiers, and he shouted for the gun crews to keep focused on the sky. Handing his remote control console to a staff member he rushed to the Major’s side and snapped his fingers near her.

“Commander, can you hear me? We have a clinic not far from here, are you unwell?”

Madiha’s mind was swimming. She could hardly see in front of her face, and could barely hear voices speaking to her. Vaguely conscious of her surroundings, she mustered the presence to shake her head and say, “I have been working too hard, that is all.”

She would not leave abruptly. She stood again, on legs that keen observers saw lightly shaking under the weight of her upright body. Unsupervised, the troops had managed to knock down the test planes on their own after going through many explosive rounds.

Lt. Bogana called them to attention again, and Madiha congratulated them, and reassured them that they were prepared to face the enemy. She told them to pass on what they had learned to all of their comrades and to become good officers themselves in the future. Parinita stood close as the Major spoke, in case her hands were needed. Soldiers clapped for the Major, though on many faces there was clear concern for their leader.

21-AG-30 Evening

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Coastline

“Madiha, are you sure you want to do this? I think we should go back and rest.” Parinita said. Her stuttering had grown pronounced, and she was practically shouting every word as though it would be her last. She was driving now, was constantly correcting and overcorrecting on the steering wheel, shifting the scout car to the wrong gears, and she could only turn corners by braking to a snail’s pace and accelerating into them little by little.

Madiha would not have been surprised if this was her very first time driving a vehicle outside of basic instruction. Nonetheless she had insisted in driving, and insisted that Madiha keep her head tipped back against the seat, with a wet, warm cloth over her forehead. They ate peanuts, strips of flatbread and dry, roasted chickpeas out of a box, and it seemed to Madiha that more of the food flew from the box than was actually eaten.

“Madiha, I asked if you were sure–”

“I’m becoming gradually certain that I do not want you to drive.” Madiha replied.

Parinita blinked hard and took her eyes off the road. “Oh, wow; I can’t believe I’d hear a sarcastic joke from you of all people! I meant if you wanted to go the port or not! Now it’s my turn to tell to you not to be coy and to consider my words, Madiha!”

“I was not being sarcastic! Please, Parinita, park the car and surrender the wheel!”

“No! You need to rest. If we’re going to the port, you need to be fresh and relaxed.”

No sooner had Parinita completed the sentence that both of them jumped from their seats as the scout car took a sudden bump in the road very roughly. Parinita hit the steering wheel with her chest, and Madiha’s head snapped forward and back against the seat.

Had the road defect been any worse they might have been completely ejected from the car! It had no canopy and the windshield was not of great quality.

Still, Parinita refused to cede the wheel to Madiha.

She drove them out to the waterfront, stopping and starting and swerving side to side whenever she sped up, going over every bang and bump. She had navigated using a map of the city and took several wrong paths. They were further south than they were meant to, atop the stone ramparts overlooking the low, sandy beaches of the Ayvarta’s western coast.

Embarrassed but determined, Parinita switched gears needlessly and drove them up the coastline for forty-five minutes. Gradually the beach receded, and the water rose. From quite afar they spied the port along the large artificial harbor, a projection composed of thousands of tons of concrete straddling the old stone ramparts on the coast.

Building it had been quite a project, and the Empire did not fully complete it before falling. The Socialist Dominance of Solstice, however, had quickly finished the job after the Revolution, and for a time had very busy trade with the outside world.

Almost no commercial vessels occupied the harbor now. Many had fled.

In their place there was one very visible heavy cruiser, the Revenant.

Almost 200 meters across, the Revenant had a long thick hull, ungainly but reliable and heavily armed. A main turret containing two 300mm guns was supported by six 37mm guns organized in three pairs that acted as an anti-air defense, and six 100mm dual-purpose guns organized in pairs for both air and surface combat, as well as several machine guns.

Bristling with weapons, packed with sailors ready to fight, it was one of the proudest ships of the Ayvartan navy, more effective perhaps than even its capital ships.

Parinita whistled again, the same as she did seeing the tanks.

Madiha was not planning on keeping this gift.

“Are you feeling hot, Madiha?” Parinita asked out of the blue.

“No, I am not.” Madiha replied. “I am room temperature, I suppose.”

“Alright, good. I think your condition is bettering then.”

“I already told you it was. I’m driving on the way back.”

They parked along the water and Parinita offered to help Madiha walk to the ship, but the help was not necessary. Madiha had recovered fully from her bitter failure to reengage her powers. Though overwhelming at first, the pain and confusion was shorter-lived than she imagined. As soon as they pulled away from Lt. Bogana’s air defense zone Madiha recovered her senses. She hesitated to say that she was becoming more used to employing her eerie, nameless gift, but she nursed that secret hope. Parts of her hated and feared this power and what it meant; but her pragmatic side believed that if she could channel it and use it sparingly and without discovery, she might inflict brutal damage on Nocht.

But that was not the plan, not right now. It could not be. It was simply too uncertain.

Madiha led the way up the steps to the bow of the ship, where five marines, the captain, and her executive officer. Captain-At-Sea Monashir was a younger woman than Madiha would have thought would be in command of such a vessel.

She was dressed sharply in her full uniform, with her hair in a bun and a pair of glasses perched on her nose. Madiha and Parinita looked disheveled in front of her.

“Good evening, Major.”

Evening it was. Madiha had scarcely taken notice of the growing darkness. She was running out of time and simply could not muster much eloquence anymore. She was exhausted and had a heavy heart and mind. She made her case quickly.

“Evening, Captain. I’m afraid I haven’t much time. But I must insist that you depart.”

“We’ve just barely arrived, Major.” Captain Monashir explained.

“Then it will be that much easier for you to depart anew.” Madiha continued. “Our air defenses cannot protect the Revenant from a sustained bombing by the Luftlotte. I must request that you leave for the ports in Tambwe, and return in two weeks time with any naval resources that the Admiral can spare. Right now it is too dangerous for you remain.”

Captain Monashir shook her head. “Do you know if you will control the port by then?”

“You can smash it back into our grasp if necessary.” Madiha said.

Parinita handed the Captain a copy of the operational plan as well as the now slightly inaccurate Table of Organization. Captain Monashir glanced at them before handing them to her XO and crossing her arms. She sighed a little bit.

“Admiral Qote ordered me to follow your orders, and I shall. I will attempt to remain in radio contact with your office as much as I can, but I cannot promise anything at sea. I hope you understand what you are doing, Major.” The Captain said.

She had reason to be wary. She was not with the army, and not at the border; she was not one of those few people with a glowing view of Madiha. She had every right to be skeptical and she exercised those rights. Clearly this was what people outside the situation thought. Madiha was unprepared and foolish and making poor decisions.

“Godspeed, Captain.” Madiha said. She and Parinita departed the heavy cruiser.

21-AG-30 Late Evening

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Coastline

The Major was burning again. Whenever they were together, the burning was less terrible to behold, but the fire behind her eyes was so bad now that blood was seeping from the sockets. Could nobody see this but Parinita? Could nobody help her?

While Madiha spoke with the Captain, Parinita had tried her best to do what she learned from her grandmother’s superstitions. Surreptitiously she blew on the flame, she swiped away the flame. Why was this something only she could do?

In a panic all those questions seemed to flood her again. She could not let Madiha know about the burning; it was too crazy, too horrible. But it all bore out; the burning was really getting worse all this time. Madiha might go up in flames.

But her labors seemed to bear results. By the time Captain Monashir had accepted her orders, Madiha’s eyes had returned to their dull, sorrowful old facet. Parinita breathed a sigh of relief, and tried to ask if she felt hot. There was no response.

Scarcely fifteen minutes had passed since they arrived at the port before they were off the ship again. Standing over the edge of the pier they watched the Revenant prepare again to sail into the darkness. An hour passed, and the ship was off with the last hints of the sun.

Slowly becoming a sliver of lights playing about the moonlit surface of the sea, the ship’s departure was a strange sight on which to hang up another day.

Madiha looked exhausted.

They climbed into the scout car and then started the drive back, but Madiha soon stopped again and parked along the ramparts overlooking the sea.

She stepped out of the car and leaned on the edge barriers.

Parinita joined her.

She did not ask when they were going to return to the headquarters. She knew that Madiha needed a little break, and that it had been a heavy day, and given no combat had occurred, heavier days yet awaited them. After a long quiet period she decided to speak up.

Perhaps it was time again for a film night!

Anything to try to distract the both of them from their situation.

“Is it fine if I call you Madiha?” Parinita said. “While we’re away from work.”

“I don’t mind. You’ve been doing so all this time.” Madiha said.

“True. Just making sure!” Parinita replied. “So, what was the first film you saw?”

Madiha stared at her for a moment, but then she smiled and complied.

“I cannot remember the name. I was about five or six years old at the time. One day the nuns at the orphanage took us to see it as a treat for some holiday. It was a very tedious religious film, even worse because it was silent, so I nodded off a lot.”

“Ah, yes, talkies didn’t exist back then. We’ve only had talkies for ten years or so now.”

“As a teen and adult I watched films mostly on dates or out with friends.” Madiha said.

Parinita nodded. She took a deep breath and she laughed a little telling the long story of her first film. It was something she had rehearsed a little in her own mind.

“When I was a kid I went to the theater multiple times a week. I practically lived out of the theater. My grandmother took care of me while my mother was out, and she thought I was tedious to look after, so she would send me to the theater with money to ‘get looked after.’ And nobody at the theater really cared who watched what films.”

She took a little breath, all of the sights flashing in her mind. She continued. “So I always watched grown-up pictures and not the kiddie shows. My first was a silent slapstick movie from Nocht, Well-Mannered Mr. Krauss. Mr. Krauss was clumsy and he hurt himself a lot. He fell down pits and got hit by doors and he tripped and smashed into a cart full of cabbages. At the time I laughed. I feel bad about it now that I’m a clumsy adult.”

Madiha looked surprised and elated with her. She seemed on the verge of laughter, but just controlled enough to appear merely fond of the anecdote. “You have an incredible memory.” She said, holding her hand up to her mouth for a fraction of a second.

“For remembering slapstick movies, maybe.” Parinita laughed.

“I would probably laugh at some simple slapstick. I don’t like deep comedies much; especially social comedies. They make me cringe when I watch them.”

“Ah, so something like The Wedding of Dr. Franz would not please you?”

Madiha smiled. “I have actually watched that, and no, it did not please me.”

“I knew you had to have seen it. It has been extremely popular these past few years. Even aired dubbed on the television in Solstice and Bada Aso and a few other cities that have television service. It’s seen extremely wide distribution for such a fool’s film.”

“I must say I despise those kinds of films. I hate humiliation and social comedy.”

“I agree! Slapstick is cruel, but you can write slapstick so other people aren’t to blame.”

“Perhaps that’s what it is. I lack an explanation for my preference. I simply feel discomforted by humiliating situations. I can’t laugh at them at all.”

“On the other hand though, slapstick has more violence. You can draw blood in slapstick. So when you watch a slapstick flick, if it gets too intense, like when they try to incorporate guns going off, it can make you a little sad too. So I don’t know if it’s better.”

Madiha laughed nervously. “Talking with you makes me feel that I am the type of person who pushes aside introspection too much. I’ve never really thought about this.”

“Oh, well, don’t worry about it. I think we all do that a lot. Especially in times like this, we need to push through the bad brains and focus on the job at hand don’t we? But when it comes to films, I’m always thinking on what I got out of watching.”

In truth Parinita simply channeled her own runaway mind into a hobby, so that the spectacle of film would drown out her innermost insecurities when work could not be called upon to do so. She supposed Madiha did the same but she either channeled them into work, or when work was not available, she allowed them to devour her. At least now Parinita could occupy her with silly things about film and waste both of their time.

And it gave her an opportunity to try to dull the flames otherwise gnawing at Madiha from within. She could see it behind her eyes, like in her grandmother’s stories.

When she first saw those eyes she felt a sense of urgency.

To her grandmother these stories had been so important; more important than Parinita herself. They had been her grandmother’s life. But now, what could Parinita even do? How could she save Madiha? She hadn’t even known Madiha at all when she first saw those burning, sorrowful eyes. Did she even know her at all right now? One thing she knew was that her presence seemed to dull the flames. Grandmother had been incredibly cryptic and cruel, and her stories full of poison, but Parinita was too kind. She could not write off Madiha’s fate as some superstition, and the more she partnered with the Major the more that felt driven to do something about her condition, to support her however she could.

The burning was not as intense now, but a tiny flame was nursed again in Madiha.

Parinita reached out while Madiha was fixated on the moon shining in the water. She grabbed some of the flame. She smothered it in her hands. Parinita could do this too. At all costs she could not allow Madiha to burn up like that. It was too horrible a fate. If only she had paid more attention to those wicked old stories; she would know more of what to do.

Quickly, she changed the subject to gossip that Madiha could contribute to.

“I was wondering, how do you know Inspector Kimani? Not to sound untoward, Madiha, but you two seem to have more than a working relationship, to me.”

“She was one of the first people I ever really knew.” Madiha said. “I spent my childhood in an orphanage, and then on the streets. Such a situation precludes truly knowing anyone; other people are enigmas one must beware. Kimani was the closest thing I had to an acquaintance or friend; everyone else was a guardian or a mentor, or gone.”

“I suspected it was something like that based on how you talked to each other. In Gowon’s office everyone had to be really stiff to each other. You cultivate a lot of familiarity around yourself. Not that I mind. I like being able to talk to my boss.”

Madiha stared at her for a moment as though unsure of how she should feel about this.

“Well, if you are comfortable with it, then that is fine with me. I don’t really try to do anything untoward or casual with my command. It is merely that I have no opinion of how I am addressed.” Madiha said. “My rank has never really meant anything, as I was always subordinate to Kimani. I was staff to her in the same way that you are staff to me. I still have that kind of relationship to most soldiers I suppose.”

“You don’t have to explain it! It’s nice, that’s all. So how did you meet Kimani?”

Now it was Madiha’s turn to sigh and to attempt to construct a narrative.

“We were working together during the revolution. I was a courier, when I was seven years old or so. She was one of the many people to whom I brought letters. One of the revolutionaries. We had our own code; certain people wrote letters in it that contained organizational plans, sabotage, intrigues, and so on. I delivered letters to many people. Each of them had their own predilections that I would come to discover. Kimani was much more concerned for my well-being than the others. We would sit and talk, and she would teach me things. She would give me changes of clothes and food. Other people just took my letters and looked the other way as I struggled out in the world.”

“Ah, I see. I’m glad you had someone like that. Kind of like an older sister to you?”

“I can’t really say. I never had siblings or parents. Kimani was just Kimani to me.”

“Well, if it means anything, she sounds like a better parent than mine! My mom would have looked the other way. She might have even thought I was a nuisance to take care of. Heck, sometimes she even pretended I wasn’t her child. So hey, you dodged a bullet!”

All those words had come out so easily. They were bitter and didn’t hurt anymore. Parinita had gotten too used to the taste of that vinegar. Others would have been shocked, but Madiha, whose life had been so irregular, did not seem to understand their magnitude. Her eyes were still cast on the water off the coast. Sorrowful and unchanging, hiding that fearsome, eroding fire. She was a strange woman. Her grandmother had never made it clear what kind of person the Warlord could even turn out to be in any given era.

Parinita thought it would have been a man, like a knight.

Or nobility, like the former Emperor.

Instead it was Madiha, gazing sorrowfully at the sky and water as though trying to find something buried in the dark, something that fire in her eyes could not illuminate. Slowly burning, dying, with no knowledge of what was really happening.

“I like to think that I have progressed past the life of that child,” Madiha said, presumably referring to herself. “But I don’t really know a lot about her life so in turn I can’t really know if I’ve changed. I was told I was very precocious during the revolution.”

“People don’t change a whole lot, I don’t think. You probably weren’t that different!”

“Perhaps they don’t and perhaps I wasn’t. It simply gnaws at me not to know.”

“Well, maybe life just doesn’t work that way for anyone. Maybe time is just nonsense outside of a film story.” Parinita said, guiding them haphazardly back into Film Night, and away from that minefield of personal anguish. “In films everything is all neat and tidy and happens in a line. People get stronger, they learn new things; it’s really dramatic, isn’t it? People in real life don’t experience things like that, and that’s okay! Unlike in the films we have more than the sixty or ninety minutes to make up for problems along the way.”

“Perhaps.” Madiha said. Her eyes smoldered again. Sorrowful, burning; slowly dying.

“We’re limited.” Parinita said sadly. “But we can still change the course of things!”

“I suppose so.”

“Your plan, for example. I’m confident we will give Nocht a good whacking!”

From the look on the Major’s face this was not a happy topic. She had seen Madiha concoct the plan in the back of their half-track, bitterly and tentatively, agonizing over it. In the end it appeared that she had accepted the plan, and everyone in the staff agreed. To them it was just words on paper, positions on a map, an order of battle, a route of supply. These were things pinned to a board that they had to make reality, they were abstract.

You could put your faith in abstractions, like you could with the plots of fantastic films.

To Madiha though, the defense of the city was probably a lot more real. Parinita realized her insensitivity then and her gregarious, cheerful nature was muted for a moment.

“I would not be so quick to throw your hopes behind Operation Hellfire.” Madiha finally said, in a dull, detached voice. “It is brutal and bloody, heinous, wasteful. I never thought the first operation I would command would be a defense in depth. There are times where I wish I could die in place of all the people who will be thrown against Nocht; and not just in this operation but in the coming months. I feel weak, Parinita.”

“Don’t say that Madiha! You are very important! As important as any rifleman!”

“They sacrifice blood and flesh, while I hide behind them. I am unimportant.”

“Then what about me?” She asked clumsily. “How important is someone like me?”

Parinita shocked herself with the response, and how easily she had said it, and Madiha was shocked even more. Her eyes drew wide and her expression bore a note of horror. It was a Madiha unlike any she had ever seen looking back at her. She was turning pale. Those simple words had invoked something terrible in her mind.

“I am so sorry.” Madiha said. “Forgive me. I was a fool. In no way did I mean–”

“Nah, it’s okay!” Parinita hastily said and patted her shoulder. “It’s okay!”

Her eyes did not burn any harder despite the clear anguish building in her face. So it was not hardship that made them burn. Thank the Spirits for that. Had it been, Parinita thought to herself that she might have killed the Major on this night.

Both of them pretended to move forward from that, but Parinita knew that neither of them would think of anything but that painful exchange until morning. They returned to headquarters after hours of staring at the water and sky, finishing their trail ration along the way. Departing the scout car they exchanged awkward goodnight wishes and went their separate ways. Parinita felt very stupid lying on her stretcher in the office, covered in a medical blanket, feeling cold and weeping lightly about everything.

She knew she had cost Madiha a night’s worth of sleep and she felt grotesque for it. She had said something haunting. It was something that had haunted her for very long and now she had set it on Madiha atop all of her other problems. She bit the flesh on the side of her thumb in frustration, and managed very little sleep herself.

22-AG-30 Morning

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Rail Yard

Rail traffic showed no signs of slowing down the following morning. Several new trains passed through Bada Aso, including a very long train carrying numerous tanks and half-tracks for the 5th KVW Mechanized Division. This train was immediately ordered to ship out to the middle of the Kalu and deploy its cargo there. Thirty minutes later a passenger train carrying the infantry component of the 5th Mechanized arrived as well, and Kimani was about to set foot through its door when a car pulled up behind the platform.

Madiha Nakar quickly exited the vehicle and climbed the platform, breathing heavily. Dark bags had developed under her eyes, but they were hard to see due to her brown skin. She had at least taken the time to comb her hair. But clearly she was upset.

“Chinedu, at least have the heart to wait a moment for me to properly see you off!”

Kimani turned to her. Her face was inexpressive. “Apologies. I didn’t expect this.”

“I suppose I should have other priorities; but you cannot blame me for this.”

“I would not do that.” Kimani said. “But it is very pernicious for you to prioritize me.”

“I understand you’ve lost feelings for me; but I can’t lose them for you. I just can’t.”

“I have not lost all feeling. Only some. Everyone in the KVW still has feeling.”

Madiha balled up her hands into fists and avoided eye contact. She felt like a child.

“I understand why you’re leaving.” She said. “I’m not small. I can’t hide behind you.”

“That is part of it, yes. But you are wrong: I am not leaving you, Madiha.”

Madiha shook her head. Her voice started to crack. “You know what I mean!”

“No. I am not, in any way that you imagine, leaving you. I will never leave you.”

Madiha scarcely allowed her to finish speaking.

She threw herself at Kimani, wrapping her arms tight behind the woman’s back and throwing her head into her chest. She was weeping, and she did not want Kimani to see it, even if the heard the sobs, even if she felt the quivering. She did not want Kimani to see the tears. Kimani in turn wrapped her own arms around Madiha, and brushed her hair like a mother would to her child. She felt Kimani’s chin and nose against her head and she wondered whether the Inspector was weeping too. She never confirmed it.

“I only wish I could have been a real protector to you. Perhaps I will yet make that up.” Kimani said. “All I have done is wrong you. Perhaps I will make amends for everything that has happened. Please understand Madiha; I’m trying to make things right.”

They stood on that platform for close to fifteen minutes.

It was hard to let go. It was near impossible to watch the train depart.

She never even saw Kimani’s face as the train separated them. Madiha was not sure that she left the station any better or worse than she entered it. She was hollowed out, and she was not done crying. She knew there would be many more tears to come. She knew none of this was definitive. None of this was a forging experience. But she left it, and she breathed, and her heart thrashed. Time passed. She still stood upon the earth.

There was a burning inside her, and a monster yawning to life.

She was not ready, but not yet gone. Her heart was faltering, but not broken.

22-AG-30 ????????

Adler 1, reporting in.”

Adler 2, reporting in.”

Reports came in. All Adlers reported. Three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

Frequencies toggled.

Falke 8, let’s show them the Blitz part of the Blitzkrieg huh fellas?”

Falke 9, just shut up and fly Falke 8 for Messiah’s sake.”

“Falke 10 just quietly following the luftgruppe.

“Affirmative luftgruppe, all of Falkegruppe is ready. Milans, report.”

Milan 3, going steady, ready to dive on target on mark.”

One by one the calls came in and were logged by flight command.

All Call-Signs reported in. Dozens of planes in groups making up hundreds of planes.

Quick Archer monoplanes speeding forward with their cannons ready to shed blood. Thicker, slower, more heavily armed Warlock dive-bombers and ground-attack craft followed, waiting to take their precise bites out of buildings and armor. Wizard bombers lumbered somewhere far overhead, bearing their apocalyptic payloads of hundreds of heavy bombs that would not spare the innocent from the guilty. The Luftlotte was bringing its force to bear. Flight command cheered that they had the planes to darken a clear sky, and they had a dark sky already. Soon the Battle for Bada Aso would begin in earnest.

“We are approaching our attack vectors. City is in sight, over.”

“Roger. Give them commies some hell for us, boys.”

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Maw of Hell