The Battle of Rangda III (55.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Rangda University Campus

“Lay down suppressing fire overhead! We’re storming the Research Library!”

Sergeant Chadgura shouted out to her troops, her dull voice achieving an air of strength.

Rushing up from University Avenue, she and her forces were poised to lay siege. Sniper bullets struck around their cover and stray machine gun fire swept the street, but it did not slow their advance. Smoke cover went up, elements reorganized and the attack pressed.

Machine gunners from Green and Yellow squadrons rushed uphill along the edge of the snaking road, making use of a brief smokescreen to cover their advance. Before the cloud fully thinned, they dropped on their bellies on the streetside green, using the curve of the hill to partially shield them from gunfire. Laying their Danavas down on their bipods, the gunners opened fire at angle on the upper floor windows of a massive square building overlooking the streets, raking every second floor aperture. Continuous gunfire danced between the windows, pitting the stucco exterior. Across the street an allied group of machine gunners performed the same maneuver on a second, opposite building.

Snipers and machine gunners, once commanding the terrain from inside the red brick buildings, quickly ducked away from the windows. They gave up their advantage for safety.

This was the best chance Sergeant Chadgura would get to invade the building and gain a powerful foothold in the University District. She steeled herself; she would seize it.

“Second Platoon will take the building at nine o’ clock, and we are going at three o’ clock! Move quickly; blocking group peels on contact, while the maneuver group keeps running!”

As she shouted this order, Chadgura stood up from behind a bus stop bench and rain shield and held her pistol into the air. Wind swept up her short, silver-white hair, and beads of sweat glistened over her dark skin. On her face was a stoic, unaffected expression, with easy eyes and neutral lips. She looked like a brave hero from a military poster.

Her gallantry was not lost on her troops. A group of twelve riflemen and women from her Green Squadron immediately left their cover in the vicinity of the fighting and joined her as she rushed uphill and past her deployed machine gunners. They ran without question.

Chadgura ran the fastest and hardest and it showed. She ran with abandon, her sense of pain and exhaustion and fear blunted, so that the palpitations of her heart and the raggedness of her breathing and the struggling of the muscles in her limbs felt distant and disassociated. She ran from the fog in her head and ran headlong into the fray instead.

“For Corporal Kajari! Charge!” She shouted, feeling a desperate pang in her heart.

“Oorah!” her comrades shouted back. She could almost feel their own rising spirits too.

Unbeknown to them the Sergeant was not sweating from mere heat and not screaming with h0t-blooded spirit. She was wracked with pain and stress not evident in her voice or mannerisms. She was conditioned to fight on regardless of this; and so she fought on.

Soon as her feet hit the top of the hill she aimed her pistol and laid down fire mid-run, smashing the glass panels of a long basement level window sinking into the lawn at the building’s far wall. Rifle shots rang out between the volleys of her allied machine guns. Tracers swept past her from the door to the Research Library and struck the turf.

There were riflemen stationed at the building’s ground floor doorway, leaning out of the cover of the doorway to fire on her. She felt chips of earth and concrete come flying at her legs and feet as snap shots struck the ground around her as she ran. She did not retaliate.

She was part of the maneuver group, and so she bounded forward. Others would cover her.

Behind her, three riflemen peeled from her group, took a knee atop the hill and engaged the enemy, shooting into the hallway partially concealed behind the glass panels and wooden frames of the doors. Well-timed long rifle shots on the door kept the enemy in the hallway from leaning out to fight, temporarily silencing the ground floor’s gunfire.

Machine gun fire flashed out from behind the hill and struck the second floor overhead, sending bits of the masonry and spent lead raining down over the maneuver group. Both the snipers and the ground floor defenders offered only scattered resistance, unable to deny the movements of their advancing enemies. Chadgura raised a fist in the air.

Her covering group saw the gesture and got ready for their new task.

“You saw her! We’re assaulting the front! Grenade out!” a man shouted behind her.

A safety pin clicked off. A can-shaped grenade went flying and rolling over stairway handrails in front of the building. It slipped in between half-open doors into the Library.

Chadgura heard the explosion go off to her side as she made it to the window she shot out. Six of her troops hurried past her, coming in from the hilltop she had left behind. They shouldered their rifles, stacking at the door with pistols, grenades and machetes in hand.

Half her squadron followed her to the corner of the building and crouched with her on the edge of the lawn. Chadgura and three soldiers guarded the broken basement window, while three others crouched and slid inside. From the sounds of it, they had a rough landing. It was an actual drop, from the ground roof to the floor of the basement level. Chadgura could not make out what was directly under them below, and had only a few dozen centimeters-wide glimpse at the long rows of book shelves and ceiling lights.

After a few seconds of low mumbling and groaning the entry team regrouped.

“There’s a table down here that’ll break your fall!” one woman shouted up.

She sounded mildly irritated, and likely still in much pain.

Chadgura unceremoniously ducked under the window and rolled inside herself.

Misjudging the height, she slammed side-first into the aforementioned table.

Very real pain shot through her whole body, and she felt the wind go out of her.

Her face contorted subtly, and her movements were sluggish, shaken.

None of her own self would allow her to really emote, to cry out or gnash her teeth.

Instead, stone-faced, she struggled to her feet, silently shaking.

Partially standing from the table, she raised her hands and clapped them softly.

Behind her, the two remaining soldiers dropped clumsily inside and landed hard on the tiled floor behind the table, missing the mark altogether. Neither recovered very quickly.

They had all landed in a small reading area surrounded by the basement’s shelves.

There was little time to take in the surroundings. Becoming stuck in here would spell death. Upstairs, they heard the sounds of individual shots fired, audible beneath the cacophony of the machine guns and snipers dueling outside. That must have been the ground floor team, engaging the enemy. Chadgura had no rifle, and ordered those who did to either shoulder it or affix bayonets. One woman had a submachine gun. Everyone else switched to their pistols — the bundu was too long to wield in confined spaces.

Chadgura withdrew a machete from her belt.

She wielded it one hand with an automatic pistol in the other.

Raising it like a cavalry sword, she ordered her fire team to hug the basement wall and follow it through the shelves. Two soldiers with bayonets led the team, followed by the submachine gunner, and Chadgura near the rear with the rest of the team. On one side they had a stark white wall, and on the other the long lines of black shelves filled with labeled books. At any point an enemy with an automatic weapon could have turned that cramped lane into a killing field, but none did. Chadgura’s group followed the wall down to a corner, and turned into another reading area that was also empty. There was a recess with a staircase inside, as well as an elevator. Chadgura did not trust the latter to be safe.

“Up the stairs. Private Ngebe, you first.”

She nodded to the submachine gunner, who nodded back. Ngebe was a bright-eyed, curly-haired girl that seemed ill at ease, but she was as trained as anyone there. Despite the perplexed look on her face, Ngebe carried out her duties well. Stepping carefully toward the recess, the submachine gunner stacked against the outer wall, quickly leaned in with her weapon to scout the room, and then proceeded inside carefully. Chadgura and the rest of the team followed, keeping out of sight of the staircase steps until Private Ngebe had taken a step and raised her weapon to the next landing. She raised her hand and urged them forward. Carefully, the team ascended the steps, keeping watchful eyes overhead.

An automatic weapon was vital to command access to obstacles like staircases.

But it seemed the enemy had not thought to defend the basement at all.

No sentries, no mines or traps, not even a locked door.

At the top of the stairs, Ngebe and Chadgura simply burst through an unlocked door and immediately joined the ground floor battle from directly behind the enemy defenses.

They entered a square lobby connecting the front hallway to the building proper. Behind a desk reinforced with sandbags a Khroda machine gun blasted the hallway and forced the entry team to duck behind the narrow strip of brick supporting the interior doorway. Already the door itself had been shredded. Three enemies crouched behind the reinforced desk, and a fourth man well inside the room directed the gunfire from within a stairwell.

Chadgura raised her pistol and shot this last man first, striking the side of his head.

He had barely hit the ground dead when Private Ngebe turned her gun on the desk.

She winced anxiously as she held down the trigger and hosed the defenders down.

Nothing that could be called battle unfolded from this — stricken by a hail of automatic gunfire at their backs, circumventing all of their protections, the defenders collapsed suddenly, their bodies riddled with bullets. Blood pooled over the sandbags and splashed the interior of the Khroda’s metal shield. In an instant the room grew dead silent.

The Sergeant wasted no time contemplating the scene.

“Entry team, form up!” Chadgura ordered.

From the hallway, the entry team crossed inside over the bits of door debris.

Now Chadgura had her whole squadron back, and without casualties.

She picked out one man and urged him out the door. “Go outside and signal for the rest to move in. We’ll advance upstairs to the main library.” Nodding, the man hurried out to do as he was told. Chadgura turned her attention to the rest of the squadron. “Reserves will sweep and hold the ground floor, while we secure the rest of the building. Move out.”

Clapping her hands — for effect rather than anxiety — Chadgura and her squadron inspected the stairways up to the second floor with the same caution that they approached the ones from the basement to the ground floor. Submachine gunners approached first, poised as they were to defend themselves from ambush with automatic gunfire. There were two staircases from the lobby, on opposite sides. Chadgura split her squadron into two fire teams and then she accompanied her original team up the leftmost stairway.

Quietly and carefully as they could, the squadron climbed each step without incident.

At the top, Chadgura and Private Ngebe left the stairwell first.

Soon as Chadgura set foot on the second floor landing a bullet struck the wall just a centimeter off from her cheek. She felt the force of the impact and winced. Though the mental shock was muted, the response from her body was visibly the same as anyone’s.

Chadgura ducked blindly behind the frame of stairwell opening to avoid the attack.

Several more rifle rounds flew past her. She heard a wet choking sound follow.

“Throw a grenade!” She ordered.

Some suppressed portion of her brain wanted to turn that into a visceral, echoing scream, but the words came out as a dull, slightly higher pitched cry that was still typical to her.

Nevertheless, she heard that grenade go flying out, thrown from the stairwell.

There was a deafening blast several dozen meters outside.

Chadgura waited a few seconds before leaning out and firing her pistol into the room.

Through the thinning smoke she caught a glimpse of where they were.

Ahead of them stretched a vast and broad room that seemed to encompass the entire floor. There were hundreds of shelves full of books to either side of a broad central space with tables and lamps. Many tables had been flipped over for cover. Several that had been stacked close to form a barricade in the center of the room had been blown to pieces by the grenade, killing and exposing the riflemen hidden behind them. There were men behind the tables, men hiding among the shelves, and a few men running between positions.

Behind her, one of her own men had been shot and was dragged downstairs. There was little room to hide or maneuver in the stairwell; most of her squadron was hidden down the steps. Private Ngebe was hiding behind the stairwell doorframe on the side opposite Chadgura’s own. This was the only place she could fit into and only one person could fit.

Chadgura could almost make out her remaining squadron on the far side of the room.

There were fewer positions opposing them than those opposing her.

Flipping on her radio pack, she called out, “Section, attack the central defenses!”

She waved to Private Ngebe, and reloaded her pistol.

At her signal, both of them leaned out and engaged the central defenses. Chadgura’s pistol was automatic, and the same caliber pistol round as Private Ngebe’s submachine gun, but its rate of fire was much lesser. Her fire flew in fits and starts, striking tables and floors and bookshelves inaccurately; Private Ngebe’s gunfire was continuous and accurate, fired from the shoulder, sweeping over the enemy’s cover and along its edges and forcing the defenders of the central position to cower in fear of being stricken wherever could be seen.

Cower they did, but only momentarily.

Seconds into Chadgura’s attack, from behind the defenders the second fireteam started shooting. A second submachine gun burned its ammunition, and this one had little to contend with and a likely unintruded view of the enemy’s backs. Pistols joined the volley and the volume of gunfire saturated the area. Suddenly the enemy found themselves enfiladed, caught between two pincers of brutal automatic fire. Chadgura could not see through the tables facing her, but she saw small holes punctured in the wooden cover; she heard the screams and shouts; she saw blood spatter, and saw wounded men trying to run.

Private Ngebe’s gun clicked empty, and she ducked behind the doorframe to reload.

Chadgura ducked behind as well.

Out in the library the gunfire did not abate.

Over the radio, Chadgura heard a man cry, “Grenade out! Take cover!”

This was soon followed by a blast in the middle of the room.

When Chadgura peeked out of the doorframe again, she found the barricade of upturned tables scattered in pieces, blown apart into bullet-riddled debris over isolated corpses and spreading pools of blood. There was not a living man still deluded enough to take cover in the mess. All of them had dispersed into the ranks of shelves, putting anything between themselves and the omnidirectional killing field the center of the library had become.

Chadgura grabbed hold of her microphone and shouted, as much as she could, “All units advance and clear the room! Shoot through the shelves! Don’t let them regroup!”

From behind her, the soldiers ducking down the steps came charging out.

Raising her pistol, Chadgura rushed out with them, and Ngebe followed.

Dispersing across the width of the room the column advanced. Pistols flashed repeatedly, shooting diagonally through the ranks of shelving units to avoid hitting their counterparts across the room. Lines of red tracers punched through books and wooden shelves and sent paper flying into the air. There was no resistance. Two submachine guns and a half-dozen automatic pistols systematically laid waste to the room, cutting a swathe across what seemed like a hundred rows of shelves each towering over the bloodshed. Rifle-caliber fire from the bayonet-bearing bundu punched through several shelves at once with each shot.

Within moments the last shot was fired and there were no sounds of resistance.

Checking between each row they found blood and bodies, some dead, many wounded.

Pleas of surrender went out from those still alive enough to know their plight

Papers soared and glided through the air like a cloud of white and yellow butterflies, stacking on the floor wherever they fell, turning crimson where there was blood. Several damaged shelves collapsed spontaneously as if awaiting the end of the violence. There was a partial domino effect on one end of the room, a dozen shelves falling over and crushing several men beneath their bulk; Chadgura’s forces steered clear of this as they marched.

Regrouping in the center of the room, Green Squadron exchanged clear reports.

Once sure that the situation was well in hand, Chadgura called over the radio.

“Second floor clear. Ground team, what’s your status?”

“Ground looks clear so far Sergeant. Should we join up?” one of the men responded.

“Send four of you. Everyone else barricade the basement and guard the lobby.”

After clearing the room, Chadgura completed her picture of its layout. She found the accursed second floor windows that she was being shot from earlier, vacant, at least one abandoned machine gun left lying there. And she found the next set of stairs, and once more stacked up at the stairwell. Ngebe took the lead again, and again Chadgura followed her up. Six fresh soldiers including four from the ground team followed behind her.

This time they were more cautious, and peered into the upper floor before fully climbing up the stairs. Nobody was shooting at the landing. In fact nobody was out in the open in the third floor. There was only a long hallway with closed doors to a dozen rooms. Austere brown carpets and beige walls, windowless showed no sign of tampering. Still, Chadgura was not going to take any chances. She called the ground floor and had a package brought.

On the closest and farthest doors explosives were quietly affixed.

Wire was drawn back to the stairwell.

Chadgura and her team hid, counted, and electrically set off the bombs.

In quick succession four blasts blew through the room.

Doors blew off their hinges and walls partially crumbled. Fires danced over splintered wooden supports and burnt carpet. Smoke swept across the hallway and into the rooms. Dust sifted from the cracked roof shimmering with the rays of the rising morning sun outside, while splintered walls unveiled the clouded remains of reading rooms.

“Clear the rooms.” Chadgura ordered.

Nodding heads; her soldiers donned gas masks and quickly spread among the doors and through the holes in the walls. Chadgura donned her mask and followed Ngebe into one of the nearest doors, pistol on hand. Behind the smashed doorway she found a room full of injured men and women, their weapons discarded or broken, coughing and choking with every wound conceivable from broken bones to missing fingers and limbs and cuts and bruises of all kinds, disoriented and mildly burned and concussed and dazed by the blasts. They crawled under upturned tables, behind fallen shelves and smashed file cabinets.

Across the floor, Chadgura heard the cries of “Clear!” come echoing from every corner.

She wandered through the debris and bodies, feeling nothing for them.

Her heart was always a little dull; today it was absent entirely.

It was somewhere else, with another person, one who needed it more.

“All clear.” She called on the radio. “Send medics up. We’ve got a lot of enemy wounded in grave need of treatment. Tell the ambulance and supply trucks it’s okay to move in.”

University Avenue was conquered, and now they had a castle from which to guard the Main Street. They were only a step from Muhimu Shimba. It felt like they had been fighting for days, but in reality a handful of hours passed. It was not even the proper time for lunch.

Chadgura started out of the building posthaste.

She feared that if she stopped moving, she would have gone back to her.

And though she wanted nothing more to stare at Gulab, to see her rest angelic and to suffer with her every second that she was not awake and aware among them, Chadgura knew that Gulab would not be safe until Muhimu Shimba was taken. She had to move.

“Orange squadron and Purple squadron move up, with me. We’re on the attack.”


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The Battle of Rangda II (54.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Avenue, North Rangda

Standing atop the tenements, Gulab had an incredible view of the surroundings. It was as if the morning sun cast light on the streets and roofs solely to highlight Rangda for her.

“What do you see from up there?” Charvi asked over the radio.

Gulab pulled up the microphone speaker attached to her headset.

“It’s not a mountaintop view, but it’s pretty spiffy.” Gulab replied.

Raising her binoculars, she could see far north across the remaining battlefield. Following the northern road, from behind the lower tenement where Harmony had scored its final victories against the Goblins, it was a straight shot to the heart of Rangda University.

Gulab could see the cluster of research buildings dotting the hilly University terrain in the northwest, the great three-winged library like an upside-down ‘T’ facing her from the northeast, and beyond both, the wooded central park of Muhimu Shimba, accessible by a winding main street crossing between the shadows of each landmark.

All that separated her from the core of the University was one long, flat road flanked by broad streets decorated with trees and sculptures and busts, and housing in blocks various shops, art houses, fashion boutiques, and modern co-ops that catered to the younger, worldly university students. University Avenue was a strip of low-lying buildings widely spaced out, each built to a standardized format with glass fronts framed between stuccoed columns, concrete bodies, flat roofs, each no taller than two stories.

Behind each side of the strip was a back street flanked by the thicker urbanization.

Though there was decent cover in and around the buildings, the enemy was far better entrenched. Tiered defenses dominated the landscape, composed of sandbags and guns split into three large ranks at the edge, center and end of University Avenue. She tried to count the men and women in and around the area but there were simply too many. There must have been two or three squadrons of infantry holding down every sandbag line.

There were likely more riflemen hiding in the buildings as well.

“Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us.” Gulab said to a waiting Charvi.

“How many do you see?”

“I can’t really count heads from this far up, Charvi.”

“Okay. Estimate.”

Gulab coughed. “More than I’d want to see.”

There was a heavy pause on the other end of the line, and a short clap.

“We’ve got reinforcements and supplies incoming. You can come back down now.”

“What if I like it up here? Maybe I wanna stay.” Gulab teased.

She heard a clapping noise over the radio and giggled.

Humor was a balm in perilous times.

On a lark, she raised her binoculars one more time before leaving and looked at the line.

She felt a dark impetus to examine the green uniforms.

It was still hard to believe it was her own people whom she was fighting.

Some part of her accepted it, but another kept confronting it again and again.

Why were they fighting her?

What had she done; what had she chosen; what did they have against her?

She asked about herself, and she asked about Colonel Nakar, and Charvi, and all of them.

Weren’t they all trying to protect Ayvarta? To protect their future?

She could joke to try to keep the dark cloud at bay; joking was a quick patch on a long-bleeding wound that she felt, a wound she feared picking at. Peel off the bandages, and everything could come gushing out. It almost had before, a few times already.

She could not afford to have that happen.

She had a journey to make; a person she wanted to be.

But the reflex to reexamine her enemy did not merely serve to staunch her mind.

Just as she got her final look at them, she caught the defenders starting to move.

Gulab hailed the Sergeant over the radio in a hurry.

“Charvi! I think they’re rotating the line!”

Pushing her microphone up with one hand while holding the binoculars in the other, Gulab watched as horse riders arrived at each of the checkpoints. They brought fresh horses with them. Riders came, alerted the defenders, and set them moving. Several people started to pick up weapons and to gather around the lines. Gulab could not tell what they were doing, but all across University Avenue the defenders were in flux.

“Are you sure, Gulab?”

“Yes! Cavalry’s come in to contact them, and people are moving around.”

Again there was a pause on the radio.

“We could attack them now then.” Charvi said.

“They’re completely off their guard, the guns aren’t pointing at anything, we can clean house. We just need to move fast enough to smash through all of them.” Gulab said.

“It could be a trap.”

“If it’s a trap they’ll have to set up longer or they’ll be throwing it on their own men!”

“Also true.”

Charvi seemed to ponder the implications.

Gulab felt a twinge of excitement, a stark contrast to her formerly somber thoughts.

This was the other half of her, the hunter, the fighter, the little mountain bandit.

Her prey was showing its juicy flanks, and she wanted meat for the week.

“Come down quickly.” Charvi finally said.

Gulab hastily complied.

She gathered up a large pack she had left in corner of the building’s roof and ran down the skeletal steel step stairs descending the sides and rear of the building, yelling for Red Squadron units still searching tenement rooms on each floor to gather their things, get up and move. Her troops quickly realized it was time to go, and perhaps wanting no more of huddling dozens of meters off the ground level, they wasted no time following her.

Within minutes she and a train of 12 charged down the lobby of the tenement and out.

There they found four freshly-arrived trucks on the lawn.

Two of the trucks were infantry-carrier trucks with thin, hastily assembled metal plate walls on large beds that could carry a squadron and a heavy machine each gun or anti-tank gun each, or two infantry squadrons if the men and women did not mind being crammed in tight. Utility trucks rounded out the convoy, their own beds covered only by a canvas tarp, and likely carrying ammunition, rations and medical supplies in small crates.

From around the trucks, Charvi appeared alongside that long-haired engineer girl that Colonel Nakar was fond of, Sergeant Agni. Both of them had very similarly affect-less expressions on their faces and Gulab suppressed a laugh. She waved and walked over, joining them in what seemed to be a quick strategy session before the coming battle.

Atop a picnic table in the middle of the children’s playground, they laid down a map.

“We don’t have much time, Sergeant.” Charvi said. “We’ve got enemies mobile. If we can catch them while they’re shuffling feet we’ll have the advantage on our side.”

Sergeant Agni nodded her head. “I merely wanted to let you know that I supplied Shaumian’s northwestern thrust an hour ago. He will link up with you at the University, but any regrouping will have to be done past Avenue. I sincerely doubt he will arrive in time to cut off the retreat you might cause if you attack Avenue right now.”

“That’s ok! We’ll cut it off ourselves!” Gulab said, raising a fist.

Charvi and Agni stared at her for a moment before returning to their deliberations.

Charvi almost looked like she wanted to smile. Maybe Gulab was imagining it.

“What about Sergeant Krima?” She asked.

Agni shook her head. “Still in reserve. We do not want to expend our forces too quickly.”

“Understood.” Chadgura said. “Then I must seek this advantage now, Sergeant.”

“Yes. You will need speed. We can use my trucks to lift your advance force.” Agni said.

“I would appreciate it.” Charvi replied. She turned to Gulab with a slightly darkened face. “Harmony will have to lead the attack, and dangerous as it is, I need someone with them who has seen the layout of the Avenue and can direct their fire. Can you ride desant?”

“Of course I can.” Gulab said.

“Alright. I must go organize our the remaining squads. Red and Green will follow you.”

Charvi seemed to not want to say another word on the matter. Perhaps she feared she might take back her decision. After all she had already objected to endangering Gulab before. But sometimes it was necessary to jump into the fray; and no one was more eager to do so than Gulab. She was practically brimming with excitement in the toes of her feet.

She had discovered the enemy’s weakness; this would be her battle.

She, Gulab, would be making a difference.

And she could not allow herself to let down the people counting on her. Not in this hunt.

Saluting both the sergeants, Gulab took her leave. From the tenement lobby, Red Squadron saw her moving and began to follow along with their weapons at the ready.

On the road north, behind a repurposed sandbag wall where a few of Blue Squadron’s soldiers manned an anti-tank gun and a machine gun stolen from the 8th Division, Harmony sat guard over the entry to University Avenue. Atop the turret, the upper half of Caelia Suessen watched the road through binoculars. Around the tank, Gulab finally caught sight of the elusive Private Danielle Santos, a slender and slight girl with a frizzy head of black hair and big glasses, just a touch shorter and darker in complexion than her superior. Upon being stopped, she visibly shook a little and gave an awkward salute.

“What’s the damage on our friend here?” Gulab asked.

Caelia put down her binoculars and looked down from over the turret.

Danielle briefly stared at her as if seeking reassurance, then addressed Gulab.

“Um, not much. I was just tightening the road wheels and the track, it got a little slack.”

“You took a few shots, didn’t you?” Gulab asked.

“It was all on the turret front.”

Danielle pointed to the bulging armor around the gun. Two big dents scarred the armor.

“We’ve got sixty millimeters of armor there. No Goblin will crack it.”

She started to sound more confident. Tank minutia might have been her strong point.

Gulab smiled. “I’ll take your word for it. Mind having me as a passenger again?”

Danielle blinked. “Um–”

“Not at all.” Caelia interjected. “Climb up, Corporal.”

“One second.”

At the feet of the tank, Gulab dropped the large bag that she had been carrying and unfurled the contents. The Norgler she had disabled at that horrid intersection fell out in three pieces, barrel, bipod and the rest. Several belts of ammunition also dropped out of the sack. Danielle and Caelia watched as Gulab quickly reassembled the gun, the former wide eyed, the latter stoic. Gulab stuck the barrel back into place and fastened it. She tossed the bipod away, and threw the ammunition over her shoulder. Supporting it via an improvised leather shoulder-strap made of a pouch belt, Gulab hefted the Norgler.

“How’s it look?” She asked, grinning as she loaded in a belt.

“It looks like it’s going to vomit a stuck round into your face.” Caelia replied bluntly.

Danielle stared dejectedly at the formerly evil weapon, as if nervous in its presence.

Norglers had quickly become a symbol of fear for them all over the past month.

Gulab would count on this; she would use it.

“It’s just a gun, it’s not surgery or anything. I’ll be fine.” Gulab said.

“I don’t know.” Caelia said, glancing at her shoes.

“Corporal Kajari has done some weird things in the past, so I guess, it will work out.”

Danielle patted Caelia in the back, smiling nervously.

“Okay.” Caelia replied dejectedly. “Climb aboard then.”

“I can’t. Not like this anyway. Help me up.” Gulab said.

It was impossible for her to climb aboard with all of the equipment she was carrying.

And she was not keen to take it all off and throw it on individually.

That might have resulted in the Norgler finally falling completely apart.

Caelia and Danielle, heaving many a sigh, had to pick the Corporal up by her legs, while Gulab supported herself on their shoulders, and together they lifted her. Several Red squaddies stood in confusion as the trio struggled. Gulab banged the Norgler on Danielle’s head more than once, and the iron sight fell off as she smashed the weapon against Harmony’s turret. Eventually they managed to get Gulab atop the rear of the tank.

There she quickly knelt, raising the Norgler over the turret, unsupported without its bipod. For footing, she stuck her ankle through an iron loop meant for tow ropes, and wound her leather strap around the antennae mount for the Kobold, near Caelia’s hatch.

Once at her onerous position, Gulab winked at the tankers with a smile.

“That looks like a bad time.” Caelia sighed.

Danielle shook her head and marched toward her front hatch.

Gulab’s ankle started to hurt and she barely had a grip on the Norgler.

But she ignored both those minor annoyances.

Her radio sounded. “Gulab, can you hear me? Are you in position?”

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab replied.

Charvi ran her through the situation as everyone formed up.

Behind Harmony, two of Sergeant Agni’s infantry-carrier trucks formed the rear of a spearhead formation. Red Squadron climbed aboard one, while the recently arrived Green Squadron occupied the other. Yellow, Blue and the fresh Purple squadron would follow on foot, with a small rearguard trailing slowly behind. Red and Green would dismount near battle and leave their trucks behind while Harmony engaged the first sandbags.

“Are you ready?” Charvi asked.

“Yup!” Gulab shouted. She banged her fist atop Harmony’s turret. “Get going!”

Beneath her, Gulab felt the tank start shaking as the engine started.

“Gulab, please be careful.” Charvi said.

“I’m invincible! You’ll see!”

With a quick clap, Charvi’s voice quieted.

Gulab heard the distinctive sound of tracks, and pressed herself against the turret.

Holding the Norgler with both hands, she readied herself as the tank picked up speed.

“Hold on tight Corporal, we’re going in fast!” Danielle said.

She seemed a lot more upbeat over the radio than in person.

Gulab felt a jolt in her stomach. “How fast?”

“As fast as Tank Commander Suessen likes!” Danielle cheerily added.

“How fast is that?” Gulab pressed her.

“Pretty fast.” Caelia added.

Within the next few seconds, Harmony began to pick up a prodigious speed.

Gulab held on much more tightly.


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The Battle of Rangda I (53.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

After the Colonel’s speech on the loudspeakers it was clear that the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment was going to battle, and it was clear against whom it was. What was not immediately clear was how they would go about the endeavor; there had never been, in all of their training in Rangda, any focus on strategy. It had all been about real time tactics.

Tactical units and officers thus stood in quiet contemplation, waiting for the Majors.

Once the speech concluded, the Colonel summoned her battalion commanders for an emergency meeting. It was the first time they would see the Colonel since the current events. They convened in an unusual location: a curtained-off corner of the base infirmary, around Madiha Nakar’s bed. She sat against several pillows stacked in front of the raised backrest of her bed, the lower half of her body covered in a medical blanket. On her lap, a small, heavily bandaged pet drake lay, curled up and asleep, purring softly.

Before her, the recently promoted Majors arrived together. Marion Burundi stood in the middle like an obsidian pillar, dark, strong, with his face lit by a bemused grin. He positioned himself front and center. At his sides were Shayma El-Amin, a sharp-featured woman maybe a year Madiha’s junior with short cropped hair under her peaked cap and sandy skin; and Nizar Jakan, a lanky, blunt-faced man with a sleepy expression.

“Ma’am, it is good to see you back. Consider me fully at your disposal.” Burundi said first.

“All tank crews are at full combat readiness, Colonel. Just say the word.” El-Amin added.

Jakan contributed nothing to the greetings. He seemed almost to want to hide in the back.

Despite her many visibly bandaged wounds, the Colonel had a fire in her eyes and spoke with a candor unhindered by exhaustion or medication. At her side, Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani had pinned a map of the city on a board. Already there were several different markings on it. Neater ones could be attributed to C.W.O Maharani’s careful writing, while the more chaotic lines and scribblings in black were likely the Colonel’s.

“I am pleased with how you have handled yourselves in my absence. It was prescient to put the base on high alert and to build up combat readiness. You have vindicated my faith in your abilities a hundredfold. But the real battle begins now.” Colonel Nakar said.

Clearly her will to fight had not been diminished by her experiences. Nobody in the room knew what thoughts were swirling in the Colonel’s head, but all of them knew, quite clearly now, that her health was deteriorated. Some among them could ignore it or brush it aside, especially hearing her speak with such force. But one among them had concerns.

“Colonel, if it’s not much to ask, I’d like to inquire as to your condition.” Burundi said.

El-Amin glared sharply at him. Jakan again made no move. Across from them, Parinita averted her eyes from the group. Burundi was friendly, outgoing — perhaps too much. Whether he was being comradely or intrusive didn’t matter to the room. It was just taboo.

His inquiry did not appear to offend the Colonel, however, and she responded neutrally.

“To call what I suffered the past night anything but torture would be putting it too lightly. I do not wish to say any more than that, Major. Despite the torment I went through, I acquired useful information. With your aid, I am ready to exploit it.” She calmly said.

“Very well. I am glad you’ve got eyes forward, Colonel.” Burundi said with a soft smile.

El-Amin spoke so quickly and with such a strong voice she almost cut off Burundi.

“Colonel, my forces stand ready to shove aside the Federation sympathizers.” She said. “Merely say the word, and the cannons of the 3rd Tank Battalion will crush them!”

Where Burundi was easygoing, El-Amin was serious and intense. She had proven herself in the forest fighting of the Kalu, where she whipped into shape meager Goblin-armed tank companies into vicious and brave ambush groups that devastated the vaunted Panzer forces of the Federation. Her spirit and focus were unmatched among their peers, and she had a particular single-minded loyalty to the Colonel that was visible and indisputable.

Madiha smiled at her and treated her like a friend.

“Your zeal is always appreciated, Shayma.” She said.

El-Amin’s cheeks turned a touch redder but her stony expression was unchanged.

The Colonel then turned her eyes toward her even more faithful, ever-present aide.

“Parinita, explain the situation on the board.”

“Yes ma’am!” Parinita said. She turned to everyone else. “As you well know, we’re going to launch offensive operations against the 8th Ram Rifle Division. Our goal is no less than the complete destruction of the division, and the capitulation of Rangda’s government.”

Burundi’s eyes drew wide. El-Amin grinned with delight. Jakan nodded off a little.

“Complete destruction sounds like a bit much with our numbers.” Burundi said.

“Well I’ve crunched the numbers, and the disparity is not as great as you may believe.” Parinita said sharply. “Please allow me to explain, and have faith in the Colonel.”

Burundi frowned and shrugged but maintained his calm.

The Chief Warrant Officer picked up the corkboard map from the wall and set it on a tripod easel that was closer to the bed. Producing a telescopic pointer from her jacket, Parinita pointed at three separate locations marked with blue circles — Rangda University in the north, Ocean Road in the center, and Forest Park in the eastern city limits.

“Elements of the 8th Division in the city of Rangda number an estimated four to six thousand personnel, with the remaining quantities of their men and matériel expected to arrive between today and tomorrow. There are three key areas for the 8th Division in the city. Their strongest forces, the Lion Battalion, are located in Rangda University, and would likely make up the vanguard of any encirclement assault on our positions. Forest Park is a necessary entry point into the city for arriving forces, and Ocean Road is a necessary transportation route that bisects the city and connects all points.”

Parinita spoke clearly and concisely, with a warm, excitable smile on her face she pointed to the three locations and to three chits stationed in their base on the map. She stretched her arm and took one from the corkboard and stuck it on Forest Park, a second on Ocean Road and a third on Rangda University. Once she had the chits in their proper places, she addressed the room again as a whole, with her pointer swiping at the chits in turns.

“These will be our initial objectives. Our attacks will benefit from surprise, but not for long. And because of our current resources, we can only black out the communications of the Lion Battalion and the Council. So the rest of the 8th Division in Ocean Road and Forest Park will be able to talk with each other, but not with them. One greater advantage that we enjoy is numerical parity — you might be skeptical, but our ability to concentrate our forces means we will outnumber the 8th Division in critical areas at the start of the battle. They have to defend all of Rangda; we’re hitting three specific locations.”

Having taken her part in the briefing, Parinita ceded the floor to the Colonel with a smile.

Madiha took up the deliberations from there. “Jakan, 2nd Battalion will attack Forest Park, avoiding Ocean Road and carving a pathway through the urban center. This will be a diversionary attack disguised as our main thrust. You will attack ahead of all other units and at first without additional support, drawing in 8th Division units from other positions. The 8th Division knows that they require the rest of their forces to decisively defeat us, and that those forces are slowly arriving. By securing Forest Park, we have a stronghold from which we can fight their arriving units piecemeal at Rangda’s city limits, negating the advantage of their numbers. They will place a lot of importance in sealing up the city limits, so you should expect heavy resistance. Your goal is to tie them up.”

Jakan nodded his head silently. Shayma and Burundi glanced sidelong at him and sighed.

“El-Amin.” Madiha continued, setting her gaze on the tank battalion commander. “Once the attack in the center is underway and we know the enemy is recommitting their forces to defend or to take back Forest Park, your 3rd Battalion will form the right wing of our attack by moving on Ocean Road. Yours will be our most decisive thrust. I want you to hit the enemy with excessive force. Your goal will be to cut the 8th Division off from Council and to divide it into two pockets of resistance, stuck on either side of Ocean Road.”

“They’ll scream under the weight of our tracks, Commander.” El-Amin said. She had a wide, vicious beaming expression as she spoke. She must have been delighted to have had the Colonel’s trust and attention and to be tasked with delivering a decisive thrust.

Madiha then turned to Burundi, who saluted amicably in response, awaiting his orders.

“Burundi, your attack starts after Jakan’s breakout to the east. You will break through to the Lion Battalion’s stronghold in Rangda University and destroy it, preventing Lion from relieving Forest Park’s defenders. Lion is the only force available that could potentially disrupt Jakan’s takeover of the Park. They threaten his flank all throughout the urban center, and they are loyal veterans of the 2026 mutiny. Right now they are likely the unit in Rangda with the best equipment and largest numbers. You must break them.”

“I like the sound of that.” Burundi replied. “Matumaini is on it, Commander.”

Of all the newly-promoted personnel, Burundi was the least officer-like of the bunch. He had started the war a platoon sergeant on the border with Cissea, and exhibited great leadership qualities throughout the retreat. He practically acted as a Captain when several went AWOL during the organization phase of the battle of Bada Aso. After great personal bravery during the Matumaini defense, his battalion was granted the street as a moniker.

“Once Lion is routed, Ocean Road is ours, and Forest Park is held, we will decapitate the government by launching an attack on Council, and force the 8th to stand down.”

Parinita crouched by the corkboard and withdrew a pen, drawing lines connecting the circles and chits and various numbers and other markings on the map. As Madiha spoke, she drew. All of them swept east and north toward the exterior of the city, and then finally slammed back onto Council. Whether with overwhelming force or as a final desperate measure it remained to be seen. Judging by the excitable look on Col. Nakar’s face as she explained her plan, she seemed confident in what the outcome could be.

Once the drawing was done, the Chief Warrant Officer stood at the Colonel’s side with a confident smile that mimicked the Commander’s own, holding a clipboard to her chest.

“Any questions?” Parinita asked warmly.

At this, Jakan raised his hand stiffly into the air.

“Go ahead.” Madiha said.

Jakan cleared his throat roughly.

“Ma’am, may I humbly suggest that the Light Self-Propelled Gun Battalion and the Motorcycle Recon Company launch an attack between mine and Burundi’s thrusts? They can support a small push against displaced elements from both areas, while being available for artillery support for both of us. I would find that comforting.” He said.

His voice was nasally, froggish, and a little grim, but he made perfect sense.

Madiha smiled and nodded her head. “An excellent suggestion. I will consider it.”

Jakan bowed his head.

Unlike Shayma and Burundi, Jakan had already been a commissioned officer for a time.

He was the kind of officer who outlasted demilitarization, and he was one of the very few Captains of Battlegroup Ox who did not disappear when the going got tough. His forces held the Umaiha river with great bravery until the weather swept most of them away. His new battalion was named Umaiha in commemoration of their sacrifice. Though he was a bit of an eccentric, he had Madiha’s trust. And she had entrusted him the toughest task.

“Thank you, Commander. I will diligently seek the objective.” He said.

El-Amin gave him a look of begrudging respect. Burundi laughed.

Thus the strategy was set forth, and the seed for the battles to come planted.

“I can’t move from here right now, but I will keep an eye on your progress.” Madiha said.

One by one, the battalion commanders bowed in respect, and left the infirmary.

“With that kind of plan, they can definitely win.” Parinita said, almost as if to herself.

Madiha merely grinned, and settled back against the bed to rest.


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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XI

42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Morning

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Arsia Wood

Soft-pink skies high along the forest horizon preceded the dawning of the sun over the Arsia. As the morning light started to climb the weathered walls of the Agnelli Estate, its doors quietly opened onto the vastness of the forest. Under the gloom of the ancient trees a pair of stout horses soon set out through the underbrush and dirt, ferrying a pair of young women. They crossed a low wooden gate and immersed themselves in the wood.

Within the forest the breezing air was crisp and cool, and it blew the rider’s hair gently as they marched deeper in. The Arsia was a feast for the senses. Light played through the gaps in the canopy, across the dew-strewn bush and over the puddles on the forest floor, illuminating flowers and fruit and leaves with brilliant color. There were smells sensuously sweet from every corner. And as the riders navigated the brush they heard the peaceful sounds of the forest between each strike of the hooves and rattling of their packs. Chirping insects, singing birds, dripping dew and whistling winds sang for the sun.

Passing paths of stones stamped into the earth, and through natural gardens of berries and mushrooms, beneath trees filled with wild fruit, the riders entered a clearing.

Golden sunlight shone across a field of short green grasses slashed across by extravagant streaks of blood-red poppies. On all sides the field was enclosed by thick-trunked and tall trees. As the horses strode into the clearing swarms of insects peeled off the underbrush and paraded skyward. There were butterflies and bees and green katydids, brilliantly colored beetles, and gaudy purple dragonflies. It was as if a living rainbow rose out of the ground to herald their every step. Birds joined the procession, and beneath them ermines and foxes fled into the wood or into holes in the earth. At once the clearing quieted.

Byanca Geta took a deep breath of the fresh morning air and sighed contentedly.

“Shall we put the blankets down here?”

Behind her, Rosalia gracefully dismounted her horse without waiting for an answer. Byanca smiled. Her lover was clad in a wonderful silk sundress, sleeveless, soft yellow with thin straps and baring an exquisite bit of skin around the shoulders and upper chest. She had her hair up in a braided bun with a stag-horn ornament. Dressed in such a way, Byanca could see the lines along her skin hinting at wiry muscle on her slim arms and shoulders.

She was a stunningly elegant and a rugged woman all at once, a natural beauty.

For her part, Byanca was dressed in a traditional long shepherd’s woolen shirt and dark pants with long suspenders. Rosalia’s clothes did not fit her build too well, which was a little wider and denser in key places. Her departed brother’s clothing on the other hand fit better, albeit still a little tight in places due to the differences in a woman’s figure. Rosalia seemed to enjoy the sight. Her eyes lingered mischievously on Byanca as the centurion dismounted her own horse and took charge of unpacking their intricate picnic assortment.

“My, my,” she said, covering her mouth to stifle bouts of giggling.

“Judging by your reaction, at least I know I’m not too plain in these.” Byanca said.

“Your arse looks amazing in those trousers.” Rosalia finally said, giggling some more.

“Well then. In that case, let me flex my muscles for your viewing pleasure.”

Rosalia stepped aside. Byanca lifted a few rolls of blankets off the horses, followed by baskets of food, and a parasol large enough for two. She unfurled and then set the blankets over the grass, overlapping at their edges to give them ample room to lay their spread. From the baskets she withdrew bread and preserves, fresh fruits and honey, slices of meat wrapped in paper, containers of cheese and vegetables suspended in dressing and a bottle of wine with two rustic old cups. Byanca laid out all of the food, bending down to her knees.

She then felt a light slap on her rear and heard laughing from Rosalia behind her.

After the kind of night they had, it was a wonder that she settled for such tame flirting.

Certainly she had become very well acquainted with Byanca’s arse already.

She felt like she would carry the whip-marks on there for a week at least.

Rosalia pushed open the parasol by its handle and set it down on a wooden stand. Beneath the shade, they prepared the food, spreading preserves and honey on bread and cheese and smoky slices of prosciutto, mixing salads of fruit, cheese and veggies with the dressing in which they had been canned, and pouring wine into their glasses.

“A toast, to more than friendship!” Rosalia said.

They tapped their glasses together and took a sip. Byanca’s sip drained her glass.

“That was good. More please,” she said.

“You will have to learn to pace yourself.” Rosalia replied, withholding the bottle.

Byanca smiled innocently and tried to keep that in mind as she ate.

Everything was fresh and delicious. There was such a world of difference from the dry rations she had consumed for years. It was enough to give pause to her habit of eating everything as fast as possible, a habit picked up owing to a need to swallow bland food very quickly to energize herself for training that was only minutes away from lunch. She had to stop to taste the tart, salty cheese and the sharp, tangy dressing on the vegetables, the sweet, deep flavor of the preserves and the dense texture of the bread.

“Is it sour?” Rosalia asked.

“No! It is wonderful.” Byanca replied.

“Your eyes kept closing, and you kept wrinkling your face.”

“I was overwhelmed! I’m not used to strong tastes. Army food is very bland.”

“You should consider retiring to the countryside once all of this is over.”

Byanca blinked with surprise. She thought Rosalia averse to commitment, but this did not feel like a joking invitation. Though, she did have an impish little grin saying it.

“I’ll think about it.” Byanca said, flashing her own little grin.

Once enough of the food had been made to disappear, they set aside the rest, plated and under paper towels to keep the bugs away, and laid down beneath the shade of the parasol together, hand-in-hand. As they watched the clouds pass by over the horizon, their bodies grew closer, until they laid as they had in bed, Rosalia nestled against Byanca’s chest, and Byanca’s strong arms wrapped around her. It was warm; they started to sweat.

Both enjoyed spooning so much that they did not move despite this.

“Are you afraid, Rosalia?” Byanca asked.

“Not especially. Should I be?”

“Nobles are being targeted, you know?”

“I know. But I am not being targeted.”

Byanca held her a little closer in response.

She felt guilty again; she felt like she was using Rosalia to comfort herself. There was somebody else whom she wanted to hold too. She thought her feelings for that person, or even for the idea of being with that person, were much stronger. She had a fantasy. She was treating Rosalia like a proxy, or consolation. It wasn’t fair. And yet she couldn’t stop. Whenever she hurt, she knew this was the only realistic place to come heal.

She knew that Rosalia didn’t mind. In fact she knew Rosalia felt comfortable with this arrangement because she could not agree to any more. That was her nature too.

And yet it was not fair to her, nonetheless. Byanca felt she could have offered her more.

“Whoever chooses to attack me must attack this forest as well.” Rosalia said.

“I suppose so.”

“And besides, the Agnelli family has lived through many regimes without impediment. We do not care whether the guardian of the tree rises or falls. We do not own the Arsia; it cannot be taken from us. It is our real caregiver, our real king and queen.” Rosalia replied.

She shifted her back, perhaps relishing in pressing herself against Byanca’s breasts.

“These anarchists are different. They’re specifically here to attack the aristocracy.”

“Queen Vittoria did plenty of that as well. She overlooked us. They always do.”

“Rosalia, if you need anything, if you feel any kind of discomfort or distress, I want to know that you would put aside your pride and tell me. Can you promise me that?”

Byanca felt Rosalia shifting again, and she opened her eyes, and found herself staring deep into Rosalia’s own contented face. Their hands lay between each other’s chests, the fingers clasped together. Rosalia tipped forward, and laid a kiss on Byanca’s lips.

“Were I ever to commit to someone, it could only be you, Byanca.” She said cryptically.

Byanca blinked. Those were not words she thought she would hear out of Rosalia.

The Lady Agnelli did not allow her time to contemplate. After the kiss she stood up, and returned to her own horse, and from another bag hanging at its side, she withdrew paints, brushes, a hand-held palette, a slender easel, and a slice of canvas stretched on a thin board. She set up her easel outside the parasol, in the sun, and stood behind it.

“Byanca, could you sit down in the sun for a little while? I want to paint you.” She said.

“I’m honored to be your subject!” Byanca replied. She felt her face turning red-hot.

She stood from under the parasol and sat in a patch of poppies. Rosalia instructed her on her posture — she should sit like a princess, with her hands on her lap, her legs together and turned to the side, and her back straight. It was an arduous position, especially under the sun. Rosalia was dissatisfied with Byanca’s ponytail, and she pulled off the woman’s band and redid her dirty-blond hair with the tail starting further up her head.

Finally Rosalia returned to her easel, took up a thick pencil and made a quick drawing. After that she picked up her palette and brushes and laid the pencil aside to paint.

Her painting was the gentlest and most thoughtful series of physical actions Byanca had ever seen a human being perform. Whenever she saw a hand raised Byanca connected this to a strike; but Rosalia’s hands never slashed down or thrust forward, and instead hovered, and fluttered over the canvas, and back to the palette. She looked over her colors, mixed them, and painted. She re-examined Byanca from afar several times. It was as if the painting was a child that she was doting heavily upon; petted, clad and fed by hand.

After what seemed like almost an hour under the sun, a very rosy-cheeked Byanca was finally called to see behind the easel. She was astonished by the quality of the painting. It certainly looked like her, and it was very softly colored. Her contours were gently captured. Thin layers of color gave everything a very soft and subdued texture so that it almost seemed like a colored drawing on paper or a photo more than a painting for a wall.

“It was hasty, and I did not have my best materials.” Rosalia said.

“It is beautiful, Rosalia! And I never thought I would say that about myself!”

“Oh, but you are beautiful, Byanca. This painting captures a fraction of your beauty.”

Byanca smiled and rubbed the back of her own head.

Rosalia turned to the painting with a mildly wistful expression.

“Are you sure you cannot stay another night?”

“I’ve got some pressing business.” Byanca said sadly.

“Will you be back?” Rosalia asked, still staring at the painting as it dried.

“Of course I will! I will visit right after the matter is settled.”

“I don’t mean to sound selfish but– I’d like it if you visited more regularly.”

Byanca smiled at her again. She felt a mixture of hurt and joy in her heart.

“I won’t go to Borelia again or anything like that. I’ll be here if you need me.” She said.

Rosalia nodded her head. “I’m so very relieved to hear that.”

Hand in hand once more, the odd noblewoman of the wood and her failed knight returned to their picnic. They ate the remainder of the food, emptied the bottle of wine, picked flowers, frolicked under the sun, examined the Agnelli dogs, and all the while until the carriage came around those fingers did not separate. Even after she left, Byanca continued to feel her touch. It was an eerie sensation, welcome but hard to place.

For a time, she suppressed the guilt and sadness that she felt for the majestic antler-woman of the wood who simply could not be the princess of her childish dreams.

She wanted to feel happiness, for the unique connection they shared — for their love.

Despite everything, however she could not deny that she felt drawn back to Salvatrice.

No matter what the mind told the heart, she continued to nurture that strange and empowering childhood fantasy of being the knight whom the Princess elevates above all. For a girl who felt little value toward herself, this was the height of comforting fantasy.


Kingdom of Lubon — Pallas Messianic Academy

“Announce yourself before you’re set to arrive, Ms. Geta!”

Canelle screamed and waved a gun at the doorway, nearly in tears.

Salvatrice pressed her hand against her chest, trying to control her breathing.

Though she was almost ready to welcome her Centurion back with open arms, as usual something quickly interrupted to turn Salvatrice’s affection, almost alchemy-like, into disdain for the Blackshirt. Byanca Geta had arrived later than expected and completely unannounced, and so she scared everyone in the apartment witless once more with her brutish knocking on the door. Canelle retreated from the doorway looking quite flustered.

To add insult to this fresh injury, Byanca arrived with some unusual company.

This is the gift you come bearing?” Salvatrice snapped with indignation.

Salvatrice glared at the doorway, a look of disgust starting to twist her features the instant Byanca passed through, nonchalantly pulling a dog on a red leash and allowing the beast into the apartment. Her princely and princessly heart skipped a beat with every step of the monster’s paws. Though the creature was as comely as a dog could be, clean and cinnamon-smelling and covered in shiny, brushed golden-brown fur; and though it had an elegant, streamlined profile with a slender body, a long snout and small, intelligent eyes; Salvatrice could still not help but withdraw from its presence. It was still, despite all of this, a dog.

“Good to see you too, princess.” Byanca said, a small smile on her face.

Her expression was almost enough to make Salvatrice feel guilty at her own response.

And yet, not quite, owing to the presence of a dog.

Especially as the Centurion closed in to within a meter of her couch.

“What compelled you to bring this thing here?” Salvatrice said.

Salvatrice started shooing the dog away before it could even get a look at the food that was set on the tea table. There was a spread of cheeses and tomatoes, cured ham and baguettes, and a large pitcher of lemonade comprising the ladies’ light lunch. Surely it attracted the monster’s nose and insatiable appetite, even if it had no immediate response.

Byanca raised her hand to her face and sighed deeply into it.

“That is not an adequate response, Centurion! When did I ever permit such a thing?”

Laying lazily down on the carpet, the dog put on an apathetic expression.

Sensing movement from the beast, the Princess grew ever more alert.

“You don’t have to react so bluntly to it.” Byanca said.

“This is my apartment, and decide how to react to intrusion!” Salvatrice shouted.

Cannelle drew back from the dog herself, drawing out a little gasp. She turned to face the princess with growing concern. “Salvatrice, you’re not allergic to dogs, are you?”

On its face the dog had what seemed an almost dismissive expression now.

“No!” Salvatrice replied. “But a Lady’s domicile is not the place for a dog!”

“Funny, because I got this dog from a Lady. It’s been very well trained.”

Byanca gave an amicable glance at the dog and patted its long, slim head.

An unfriendly, toothy frown warped the creature’s snout. Byanca drew her hand back.

“Well-trained or no! Dogs are too pushy and messy!” Salvatrice replied.

“Maybe some of them, but this one is of good breeding!” Byanca insisted.

“It can be the most quiet and sagacious dog on Aer, and it will still be a dog the way that the most quiet and gentle gun in the world is still a gun that shoots!” Salvatrice shrieked.

She realized it was not a fashionable look for her. After all, dog was “man’s best friend” supposedly, but she could not help it. Dogs mortified her; she found them disgustingly greedy creatures. Everywhere she went the aristocracy harbored these beasts, that pushed and prodded and forced their presences into every particle of the world around them, that slobbered and smelled and soiled the ground wherever they traveled. On more than one occasion she shared a dinner table with a horrid dog! It was madness!

Dogs and dog culture got her hackles up in a visceral way. She couldn’t help it.

“Princess, that is not fair!” Byanca replied. “Look at Terry, she’s not doing anything.”

Terry and the Princess briefly locked eyes and averted their glances almost at once.

Salvatrice petulantly crossed her arms. “I will not suffer such indecent company!”

“Did a dog bite you as a kid?” Byanca asked, looking at her with concern, like Canelle.

“Whether a dog bit me or not is none of your business! I just don’t like them!”

Again Byanca sighed, but not with defeat. She remained rooted in place with the dog.

“Princess, I’m sorry, but the dog is a tactical asset. I need her for security reasons.”

“I can’t believe you! Next you’ll bring a gorilla out of the zoo as a ‘tactical asset’!”

Byanca turned a sad expression on the princess. “You hate gorillas too?”

“Listen to me for one second!” Salvatrice said, feeling a tightness in her head from holding the same indignant expression for so long. “I do not hate these creatures! I do not deign to hate them! There is no value in hating them! But I do not associate with gorillas, or with magpies, or with drakes, or with dogs. I do not want them in my home!”

“Is there an animal you don’t hate?” Byanca asked, crossing her own arms.

She turned a pitying expression on the princess that Salvatrice deeply resented.

Salvatrice was too invested in this childish tussle to see her own petulance anymore.

“I told you I don’t hate them! But fine: cats! Cats are a most noble creature!”

“You know that cats just manipulate you to get food, right?” Byanca said.

Salvatrice’s eyes drew wide. “Take that back! You barbarian! Cats have more than love for us, they have respect! They respect our time and our space and our property!”

Byanca put on a sour expression and seemed to be getting invested in the argument.

“Princess, dogs actually go up to you and show their affection! Cats don’t care at all!”

“I don’t want a filthy dog’s ignorant invasions against my person! Cats know their place!”

“Dogs can track things and hunt and protect you! Cats are just lazy and selfish!”

“Dogs just destroy your furniture! Cats get rid of vermin, and they clean themselves!”

“Name one other animal you like beside cats!” Byanca childishly challenged her.

“Fish! I love Fish! So as you can see I am an animal lover!” Salvatrice shouted back.

“Princess you’re just lazy! You don’t want any animals that take any effort to care for!”.

Behind them a series of sharp little noises diffused the ridiculous tension that had built.

“What’s so funny?” Salvatrice asked, whipping around.

She found Canelle holding her own mouth shut, giggling and snorting in recurring fits.

“Oh, Princess, I’m so sorry! But after all this cat-and-dog fighting, I’ve just imagined miss Geta as a big dopey pooch, and you as a prissy little puss! And it just fits too well!”

Canelle burst out into fresh laughter the second she finished the thought.

Salvatrice made a skeptical, perhaps feline expression that prompted further laughter.

Byanca stifled a laugh herself.

“Alright, Princess, you win.” the Centurion said, a light-hearted smile on her face.

With regal disdain, Salvatrice regarded the dog and turned the other cheek.

Terry seemed to turn almost the exact expression back on her.

Canelle covered her mouth once more, her cheeks puffing up with subdued laughter.

There was an eerie silence in the room for over a minute.

Salvatrice glanced around the corner of her eye at Byanca, who stood pitifully still.

She was waiting for a reaction, perhaps anxiously.

Suddenly the atmosphere in the room made Salva feel a little foolish.

The Princess made a few discontented noises before turning back around.

“Fine. Fine! You can keep the dog, and it can stay, today.” Salvatrice said. “Henceforth, that dog is your responsibility, Byanca, since you love it so much. It lives with you, it eats with you, and it bathes with you, and it stays out of my apartment. I warn you that anything it soils, you will pay for, and everything in this apartment is very expensive!”

Byanca smiled and bowed her head in deference. “Thank you, your highness.”

Salvatrice turned again and hissed. “Hmph! It’s not like I wanted to placate you or anything.”

Soon the episode was forgiven and forgotten by all parties, perhaps except Canelle, who continued to laugh at her imagined adventures of Salva-Cat and Geta-Dog throughout the hour. Salvatrice elegantly partook of her tomatoes and cheese, drank her sweet lemonade and tried to ignore the presence of the dog sitting calmly at Byanca’s side, likely waiting for scraps. However, she was soon drawn again into acknowledging the beast.

“Don’t feed it people food.” Salvatrice preemptively said.

“I won’t. It’d spoil her. Her tongue’s been dyed.” Byanca said.

“What does that mean?” the Princess asked.

“It’s an indelicate tradition.” Byanca turned suddenly nervous.

“Do I look like I have a fainting couch in here? Don’t treat me like a child.”

Byanca sighed.

“Fine. Terry primarily hunts and kills for food and eats in cold blood, and she has tasted human blood in a controlled environment. It’s a traditional way to rear hunting dogs.”

Salvatrice stared at the dog and found it with its mouth open and its tongue lolling.

For a moment she actually did feel rather faint in the little monster’s presence.

Even Canelle was staring at it with incredulous eyes. Her good humor swiftly subsided.

“It won’t hurt you or anyone here!” Byanca quickly said. “I promise! Terry’s a good dog!”

As if prompted, Terry jumped up on the couch, laid down and stared at them all sideways.

“I am going to make an effort to forget all of this.” Salvatrice said, rubbing her forehead.


That night was not to be one made for forgetting.

After tea-time, Byanca withdrew with her new pet back to her room, and Salvatrice went about her day. She read her books on socialism, ate another light meal, took her hormones and helped Canelle fold clothes. Overhead the sun traveled across the sky only to wind back down into the horizon and disappear from view. Everything was soon dark. Canelle turned off all the lamps, served a little booster shot of warm honey-lemon tea to help everyone ward off the seasonal cold, and retreated to her own room after kissing Salva on the cheek.

“Good night, Princess! I will see you on the ‘morrow, whenever that may be.”

She winked her eye.

Salvatrice smiled back at her as the doors to her room shut.

Turning sharply around she set about enacting her plan.

She seized a bundle from under her bed, and pulled off and discarded her night-gown.

In its place, she donned the short pants, button-down shirt and large cap of a newsboy.

Owing to light pollution, Salvatrice could not see stars in the sky when she snuck out.

From her balcony all she could see were the myriad lights of the academy.

And far in the distance, the town of Palladi, where her love was waiting.


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The One Who Will Die (35.1)


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Outskirts, 8th Panzer Division FOB

Schicksal grit her teeth and held her tongue long enough to watch the tanks leave the camp. She kept her eyes on one tank in particular, staring with a deathly glare. Once the unit had gone, she turned sharply around, brimming with adrenaline, and stomped from the edge of the camp into Dreschner’s tent. Staff ducked away like she was an incoming shell.

“General, how could you let him treat you like that in front of everyone!”

She went in shouting, but Schicksal quickly found that the General was not alone. At his side on the strategic table she found a man wearing a black bowler hat with his grey infantry uniform. There was a blue and white armband around his arm. He looked up from a document he was filling out briefly, and returned to it almost immediately.

“Settle down, Signals Officer.” Dreschner said, his tone apathetic.

Schicksal blinked. That man at the table was a Schwarzkopf policeman. They were part of the special investigative units in the fatherland. He was a gendarme, judging by his armband and uniform, but the black bowler hat set him quite apart. What was he doing?

“Is everything alright, miss?” He asked, still writing on the page.

“She’s fine. We’re all high-strung here.” Dreschner interceded.

“I understand.” the Schwarzkopf said, delicately writing a ß.

In the Gendarme’s presence, the last thing she wanted to do was cause a furor. Schicksal took a seat by the radios and waited for their business to conclude. Dreschner and the man spoke briefly among themselves, traded photographs and file folders, and once all the papers were filled, the gendarme gathered the materials into a file folder wrapped with a plastic tie. He tipped his hat to Schicksal, and vanished behind the tent flaps.

“General, who was that man after?” Schicksal asked. “Did someone–”

She stopped herself, recalling her own reason for coming here.

Of course; that gendarme must have been here for Reiniger.

Dreschner looked up from the table, over his own steepled fingers.

“You came to ask why I allowed Reiniger to go?” He said. He did not shift from his position, leaning into the table. “Well. Would you rather I beat him into the floor again in front of Captain Skoniec, and in front of Ms. Von Bletzen? Teach him with a fist?”

“No, but.” Schicksal paused and averted her eyes. “I don’t know.”

There was an oppressive, expanding gloom inside the war room tent. A lamp hanging overhead provided the only reliable light source, but its own shields dispersed the color of its flame, such that dire shadows covered half of everyone’s face and half of every surface. Outside the grey sky was darkening and the rhythm of the gently drizzling rain slowed down. Schicksal felt exhausted now that the flame of her anger was snuffed.

She had always felt trepidation around Reiniger. She tolerated him for the value that she thought other people saw in him. She looked at the tables of organization and knew that one less experienced lieutenant meant something to the mathematics that kept all of them alive in this war. So she filtered every thought of him through that. He had to stick around, and he had to get better. But now she was just left with the disgust of him.

Schicksal hated that she was in his presence and felt intimidated by him.

She started to wish that she could have delivered that fist to his nose and drawn blood.

She stood up from her seat and approached the table.

“Honestly,” Schicksal spoke up suddenly, “yes, punch him. Break his teeth. Throw him on the ground and step on him until he vomits his own tongue. I’m sick to death of him.”

“That’s no good.” Dreschner said. “Don’t let that gendarme hear about it.”

“Sorry.” Schicksal said. She felt embarrassed, as suddenly as she had felt angry.

“As long as it doesn’t become a habit. I’d hate to lose your level-headed personality.”

Schicksal felt a mix of shame and frustration, a cocktail that seemed to bubble hot in her chest. This must have been how Dreschner felt on the night of Kunze’s funeral. She wondered, had she been in this mood, in this position, back then, would she have beaten Reiniger? Would that have accomplished anything? What had level-headedness gotten her so far? Finally the cocktail seemed to reach her tongue, and she spoke virulently.

“He was a jackal. He thought he was stronger than all of us and he acted like we only existed because he allowed us to. I don’t want to have to put up with people like that.”

“We’re not putting up with it; that’s what the gentleman was for.” Dreschner said calmly.

Schicksal balled up her hands into fists. “That’s not enough! He needs it seared into his bones! You said it yourself, he doesn’t listen. He’s even come close to hitting me too!”

“It is already seared into his bones. That is the source of the problem.”

“I can’t believe you’re taking this tack now!”

“I agree. But one of us has to.” Dreschner replied.

Schicksal raised her hands to her reddening face.

Dreschner gently continued.

“But I also agreed with you, back then. When you said you thought I had what it takes to fix anything. This is part of that. At the end of the day if I punch Reiniger and accept him among my ranks I am condoning his behavior. That must stop.” Dreschner said.

Red mist started to lift from the world, and Schicksal took a deep breath.

“I got carried away.” She said.

“I can’t judge you for that.” replied the General.

“I feel so powerless.” Schicksal sighed. “Before Knyskna I only barely interacted with these people. You gave me more responsibilities and recognized me, General, and I felt like I had to live up to that, but I failed. And now I feel like I should have done more of, something– I don’t know! I don’t know. I should have done something to stop him.”

It reminded her too much of home.

Both her mother and her father, and her brothers, everything.

She always thought, if she had just taken one bottle away from one hand.

Then everything would have been settled. Everyone would have straightened out.

That was never how it worked out there.

But she thought that was the power Dreschner was giving her.

“I’m sorry sir. This is stupid.” She said.

Dreschner looked at her in the eyes.

“No matter your rank you will never have the power to correct anyone’s history. Neither your words nor your fists, or my fists, can change what a person is dead set on doing. I’m telling you this not because I’m a saint but because I’ve learned this the hard way. You can try, and you will try; you’ll try your damnedest. But you can’t let it consume you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m the only one here to blame, for all of this. And I’m sorry enough.”

Her head was swimming a little. She wondered if it was still the alcohol or just exhaustion. She felt all the more ashamed for having drank the night before. It felt like such a weak thing to do, such a stupid thing to give into. Just like the rest of the Schicksals.

She grunted weakly. “So whether he succeeds or not, it’s a courts martial, huh.”

Dreschner straightened out in his seat. He gazed wearily at the flapping tent entrance.

He grunted too. “Solitary confinement or the lash. That’s what this hero has earned.”

Their words hung in the air for a moment.

“I don’t think he would have made it.” Schicksal said. Her brain was scattershot.

“Made what?” Dreschner asked.

She shook her head, tossing her hair around. She clutched her forehead.

“Kunze’s shot. That 2000 meter shot. When it counted. Reiniger wouldn’t have made it.”

Dreschner shook his head. He sighed deeply. “Kunze made that shot to save another tanker. Reiniger has never acknowledged this because he would never take a shot like that. Kunze had run his unit out into the open. He’d made a mistake. He was afraid he would lose his men and fail his mission. He fell back. Everyone retreated, but one crew stuck it out fighting out in front of the unit. He was bound to get killed until Kunze made that miracle shot.”

Schicksal blinked. That was a side of the story she didn’t know. “Who was in that tank?”

“Corporal Jorg Reiniger.” Dreschner said.


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DICKER MAX (34.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


47th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari River Crossing

“Shit! Shit! Is that an eighty-five? Messiah defend; they’re pulling up an eighty-five!”

The arriving Ayvartan gun attacked them much sooner than anyone thought.

Several hundred meters ahead a pillar of fire rose from the back of an M4 tank, its engine compartment bursting open. Fire belched out of its open hatches, and the closed top hatch slammed up and flew into the air. Rainfall turned the flames into a cloud of grey smoke that obscured the wreck. Everyone inside was still surely cooked dead.

All of its platoon mates scattered at the sight, M4 and M5 tanks veering behind trees and rocks and into bushes. The 8th Panzer Division’s breakout was instantly blunted.

“We’ve got an eighty-five! Eighty-five, it’s almost two klicks ahead, Messiah defend!”

Ayvartan Goblin tanks could hardly scratch an M4 tank except at close ranges; but the Ayvartans were far from defenseless against tanks. Their Anti-Aircraft 85mm gun could destroy an M4 tank from the front at practically any range — and much to the misfortune of Kampfgruppe R, the Ayvartans pushing against the Sandari had brought just such a weapon to bear upon their defensive lines. Soon as it was deployed, it scored a kill.

Reiniger scowled, his own tank camouflaged inside a bush just off of the river’s edge.

“Repeat distance! Accurately this time!” Reiniger shouted into his microphone.

A second 85mm shell flew in between two positions, past the camp, and struck a thick old tree ten meters behind Reiniger’s tank. Reiniger heard the dispersion of debris against the back of his turret armor when the explosives in the AP-HE shell went off.

“Gun’s 1.7 kilometers away exactly!” one of Reiniger’s observers replied on the radio.

Reiniger grit his teeth and squeezed his hands against the hand-holds on his cupola.

The 8th Panzer Division’s beachhead across the western Sandari was barely reinforced, largely because there was nothing to reinforce it with. He had the manpower but he did not have the sandbags. He had no construction materials, in fact, and he hadn’t been able to get so much as a measly anti-tank gun across the river. His defensive line was a hundred men in groups of five or ten huddling in disordered foxhole trenches. All the artillery they had to count on were tanks hiding in bushes and behind rocks and trees.

Third shell; it went right through a bush, hit and exploded, lighting the vegetation on fire.

Moments later a tank frantically backed out of the bush, a sizable dent in its glacis plate. Judging by the fact that it was backing away, it must not have been severely damaged. A hit by an 85mm gun either killed an M4 or it didn’t, there was rarely anything between.

On the radio the commander of the miracle tank hyperventilated violently.

“Holy shit. Holy shit, Lieutenant; premature detonation; it– holy shit–”

Reiniger pressed on his microphone in a rage. “Shut up and get back you moron!”

As fast as the reverse gear allowed, the M4 sought another hiding spot. Backing away from the burning bush, veering to avoid the gun tracking, it slid sideways behind a nearby boulder. Only the top of the turret cupola was visible over the rock. In that position the M4 could not shoot back, only hide from fire. Reiniger grit his teeth.

“Not there! God damn it! Find a position you can fight from!” He shouted.

His own tank shook suddenly; fire flashed through the glass slits on his cupola.

Debris fell over Reiniger’s M4 as a shell hit a few meters in front of the bush.

Reiniger heard dozens of tiny clanks against the front of his turret.

“Mortars! We’ve got one-twenties deploying from the trucks!”

“Enemy riflemen moving up! Looks like a whole company, sir!”

All of Reiniger’s observers seemed to have bad news to report.

Reiniger dropped from his cupola, a small niche at the top of the turret where he could sit and look out of vision slits, as well as have quick access to the hatch. He took the gunner’s position, pushed the loader out of the way and looked down the gun sight. Unlike his vision slits, the gun sight had magnification. He spied the enemy position.

Kampfgruppe R’s portion of the Sandari battle meant holding on to a small strip of riverside land directly adjacent to a hidden pontoon bridge in a portion of the river about 3 meters deep and ten meters wide. Except for the edges of the river, delineated on both sides by meter-tall bumps of terrain, much of the ground was flat sandry brown intermittently covered in grass, sparse on vegetation, and dotted with boulders.

Several hundred meters ahead, Ayvartan trucks had arrived on one of the dirt roads from Shebelle. One of the trucks was a novel conversion — an anti-aircraft truck carrying an 85mm gun on its bed, mounted on a rotating plate. All of the other dozen trucks were loaded with men and women. Mortars deployed, the Ayvartans charged with rifles and bayonets, grouped in thick ranks as the shells began to fall over the Nochtish camp.

Norgler machine guns retaliated against the charging Ayvartans at first, claiming several victims at the start of the charge. Behind the infantry attack, rose the first mortar shells.

A dozen blasts pounded the foxholes, while 85mm shells ripped over them.

The Panzergrenadiers bowed their heads into their holes and the Ayvartans ran free.

Reiniger put the 85mm firmly in his cross-hairs. He held a breath; it felt like eternity.

Kunze had made this shot before. That rat bastard; he’d hit it from a world away.

That was what had made him. Other than that shot he had nothing going for him.

Reiniger could make this shot. He could make it right. Kunze had nothing but luck.

From behind him his nervous loader slid a shell into position.

“Firing HE!” Reiniger shouted, striking the gun’s footpad trigger.

His 50mm shell sailed out of the end of the cannon, hurtled toward the truck, and sailed on. Overflying the right side of the truck bed, it vanished from sight. Almost immediately the 85mm gun turned on its base. Smoke danced from the thick bushes around him; and the bright flash of his gun had given him away completely to the enemy.

At once Reiniger ordered his driver to pull back.

With a roar of the engine the M4 retreated sideways from the bush.

Turning a lever, Reiniger rotated the turret to match the tank’s movements.

He could make this shot; Kunze had made it, god damn it. He could make it too!

“Reload HE!”

Beside him the loader stuck a fresh round into the breech.

There was a flash far across the way.

Reiniger smashed his face on the gun sight as the tank violently rattled.

A piece of metal from the side armor snapped; like a swarm of flying razors, screws and bits of flaked metal blew inward and up from the lower left. Reiniger heard a scream and a gurgling noise, and he felt something bite into his leg. Disoriented from hitting his head on the scope, Reiniger sat, doubled over, feeling nauseous and short of breath.

He turned his head and found his loader lying dead behind him. He had fallen from his seat and came to lie face down in front of the ammo rack. The M4 Sentinel’s turret was cramped enough, and the turret floor still intact enough, that his body had nowhere to fall. It was as if someone had just shoved him off his seat on the turret’s left side.

Most of the spall that had come flying had become embedded in him.

There were holes in the turret floor, and a deformity on the side of the turret ring.

His armor had been partially cratered from an angled 85mm impact.

The enemy shell didn’t explode as it should have — it was a dud.

Reiniger tried the turret lever. He pulled on it, heard a click and a cry.

It was stuck.

He shook his head and called out on his radio as if nothing had transpired.

“I want shells on that fucking eighty-five! Everyone shoot it now! I don’t care where–”

His engine cut.

He stopped breathing. He heard it sputter and turn quiet; felt the seat shake when the tank came to a sudden stop, its injured side still fully exposed to the enemy, stranded in the middle of the camp. Looking through his sight, his gun had been frozen just a few degrees off of a possible shot at the enemy. Meanwhile the enemy gun turned, slowly, cruelly. It was going to pick him off. None of his men seemed to heed his orders.

Reiniger crouched; through the screen on the lower turret ring he saw his driver slumped over the brake lever, a bright red splotch across the small of his back.

Breathing heavily again, he rose back to his gun and spied through the sights.

The 85mm gun settled, elevated slightly. He saw movement around it.

“All guns on the eighty-five! Right fucking now!” He shouted.

Nobody took a shot.

Reiniger’s heart seemed to stop. There was no sound in his tank.

From the sky came a loud buzzing.

Something dropped onto the Ayvartan truck and engulfed it in a column of flames.

Automatic fire flew from all sides as his tanks emerged, coaxial guns blazing.

Charging Ayvartans started dropping mid-run. Mortar fire abated completely.

Reiniger stood on the turret floor, climbed onto the flip-down seat for the Commander and stood up and out of his top hatch. Overhead a dozen Archer planes cut through sky, soaring past his sector. They were dropping bombs on targets of opportunity and swooping down with their machine guns at unseen lines of infantry several kilometers away from him. He saw smoke rising in the far-away distance, and the figures of the planes turning slowly into indistinct dots against the grey, pouring heavens overhead.

It finally happened: he got to see a plane take out the enemy. Front row seats too.

He lowered his gaze from the heavens, and found a hundred corpses stretched across the suddenly quiet kilometer stretch before him. Most were Ayvartans, killed in their charge. But many were his own men, blow up in their foxholes by vicious mortar fire.

On the road, a cloud of thick smoke covered the ruined Ayvartan truck and its artillery.

To think that everything could turn so dramatically in that one fiery instant.

It was too abrupt; it felt unreal, like a jerky old movie that was missing reels.

All Reiniger felt, watching this mess unfold, was frustration.

He picked his helmet off his head and threw it on the turret floor below him.

Climbing out his turret, he spotted the closest tank, charged at it, climbed again.

He threw open the hatch and seized the commander by his jacket.

“Why the fuck did you defy my orders soldier? Why was nobody shooting!”

His face was covered in sweat and rain, contorted with his rage, his eyes twitching.

Cowering, the tank commander replied, “We received no orders sir!”

Reiniger let him go — the man dropped clumsily off his seat and onto the turret floor.

That last 85mm impact must have damaged the radio system too.

He felt momentarily foolish.

“At ease.” He said half-heartedly. He dropped down from the tank and walked away.

Everything always had to be so difficult. Nothing could go as planned for him.

Nothing could be simple and correct, no matter how hard he tried.

Everything always spiraled out of his control. No matter how much he shouted, how much he thrashed and clawed and bit and fought; it always ended up going sideways. Cissea went sideways, Knyskna went sideways. Everything he tried ended in failure where others somehow found success. What was missing from him; what did they have?

Reiniger ambled around the Sandari camp as if in a stupor. He made it to one of the blasted foxholes and sat down quietly at the edge, staring down the flat horizon.

Schicksal would be mad at him for not reporting soon. Not that it mattered.

There was nothing important to report, because he had not made the shot.

Back then, back in Cissea, Kunze had made that shot. Everyone knew he had.

When you made a shot like that, you reported immediately. That was how you got ahead. There was no reason to report a kill you didn’t make. Let the airmen report that.

Kunze reported a shot, and his loader reported with him, and his tank commander backed him up. That was how he got ahead. He had something to report. Something went right.

Not because he was good; not because he had an advantage. He just somehow did it.

And it made no sense. It had never made sense. Reiniger wanted to scream for it.

Why was it Kunze, that time? Both times? Why had he been praised, given the spotlight, and elevated to lieutenant so quickly, so easily, as if by the hand of god himself; and then why had he been smashed to pieces by that very hand so shortly thereafter? Now they buried Kunze, now they remembered him. They couldn’t praise nor berate him anymore.

Reiniger had struggled, had thrashed his way from a car-driving private, a nobody, to tank loader, to tank gunner, to tank commander. To Lieutenant — to one of General Dreschner’s right-hand men. And before that: from the streets of Mutz, the cold, cracked concrete of the youth hostel, to the hard-top of the training camp as soon as he was of age, to the warm dirt, bright grass and the open sky of a Cissea at war with itself.

From the child so unwanted that he was outright abandoned at the steps; to the hated, hopeless teenager who fought with everyone on the street, because fuck them that’s why; to the boot camp fuckup, shouted at in the ears by the sergeant over and over.

Every step of the way he fought. Every step of the way he fell. His face tasted the mud and pavement, sometimes so intimately that they tasted of his blood. That was his life.

Reiniger made himself in the mud and the gore. He couldn’t ever seem to escape it.

Kunze had leaped clean over the whole process with one good shot.

He wasn’t even a reliable shot like Noel! He had never replicated the feat!

He had no fundamentals. Just one measly lucky shot, a few photo opportunities.

Why did the world pick that man over him?

How? How did that skittish slab of butter manage to rise so high?

And how did he fall so hard? How did he break upon the stone without standing again?

It confounded him; it vexed him. Because even after he vanished from the face of Aer, Reiniger still could not beat him. He would never exorcise the phantom of what Kunze was, what he represented. He still couldn’t overcome the clawing, the struggle, the bestial melee of his life. Nothing ever went right. He was not Dreschner or Noel; or Kunze.

He was the mud and the gore and the screaming and the fury. It was all he had.

There would never be a hand that would pick him up. He always had to fight for it.

It became so common now that Reiniger didn’t wait to fight. He just fought always.

He wasn’t irreverent. He was at war, with everyone, with himself. For everything.


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