Pebbles In The Path (33.1)

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53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance, Town of Benghu — Chanda General School

Shells crashed, cannons roared, rifles cracked, men shouted; meanwhile Aarya sang.

Soon as her hands linked behind Zaheer’s little back, and his head settled against her chest, and she felt his vulnerable little breaths, she began to sing. She paused only to gather the briefest of breaths. She had offered him a song, and she mustered all of her strength to make it a song that could outlast the hostilities. Her singing was continuous.

At first she sang the traditional songs that she remembered, hitting the notes and overturning the lyrics with her tongue as she had been taught, but as the noises grew louder, closer, and more determined she found herself unable to compete. While she held Zaheer against her chest her songs became indistinct syllables riding simple melodies.

She found herself straining to crescendo in the wake of several close blasts, and falling almost to a whimper when there was peace around her. LA LA LA LA LA; la la la la la. She felt the ground rumble from the impacts of artillery, from the striking of stray tank shells. These forces crawled through her wounded hip every time, finding their way through the ground and into her flesh, sending sharp pangs of pain across her body.

Through every sudden stab of agony Aarya strained to continue singing.

In this little island rocking amid the storm she had lost all track of time.

Aarya did not know whether there were winners or losers yet in this conflict.

But the noises came from seemingly everywhere now; it was not one-sided anymore.

One way or another she felt that her fate would be decided very soon.

She looked down, feeling her stomach turn over with a sudden anxiety.

No, she thought; it was not just her fate alone, not anymore.

Zaheer was quiet and still against her chest. When she looked at him his eyes were eerily blank. He was overwhelmed by everything. He had a condition — she did not know what it was, but she knew that he dealt with things differently than other children. Whenever the world became too loud or too bright or too fast for him, he would withdraw. He had never fled the way he did; but everything about today was unique.

She still cursed herself for not paying him better attention. They could have both been safe in the supply depot with the rest of the children and the adults; with Darshan. With the soldiers to protect them. But it was not to be; at least now she could comfort him.

Though she wanted to tell him that she would take care of him, keep him safe, that she would never forget him again, she instead continued to sing. Outside the noise intensified.

“Are they gonna stop soon Ms. Balarayu?” Zaheer said, shutting his eyes.

She did not answer; she continued to sing. She pulled him closer, laying her head over his shoulder and rocking him in her arms a little. He squeezed her harder in response.

Aarya heard a clanging of metal on metal directly behind her.

She turned her head to face the shutters.

There was a ladder, a metal, extendable ladder, outside the window. It had hit the open shutters when going up. Aarya became paralyzed in her little corner, holding Zaheer, her head turned over her shoulder. She felt a quivering in the center of her chest. She stopped singing. He noticed, looked up at her. He tugged on her shirt a little.

“Ms. Balarayu? Are you ok?”

Clanging footsteps on the metal; one, two, one, two.

“Ms. Balarayu? Say something, please!”

“Zaheer, show me how you hid under the desks like you did before.”

She looked down at him with a false smile on her face, as if it was a game.

Zaheer knew it wasn’t; his expression was deadly serious. But he nodded his head, crawled off her lap, and slipped under the stack of desks in the corner of the room.

Aarya stood and made for the broom closet.

She ripped open the closet and withdrew the classroom broom.

Clang, clang, one, two, one two. Footsteps on metal. Handholds.

Aarya snuck up on the window.

She saw the hands first, seizing the handholds just over the window.

On one gloved, grey-sleeved hand, she saw a pistol and nearly shrieked; and on the other hand a pair of cutters big enough to snap the individual shutters in two big bites.

She saw the peak of the helmet, and she waited briefly for the face.

It was not an Ayvartan face; it was not the face of a rescuer. A young face, a blue-eyed, blond face, a pale-pink face; perhaps in another circumstance, a lovely face. But in this circumstance it was a grim face, covered in dirt and smelling of death, and when the lips parted the man shouted words she did not understand, like fearful eldritch curses.

Aarya drew in a breath and threw herself blindly forward.

Holding the broom by the handle with both hands close to the bristled bottom end, she shoved the handle out between the shutters, pulling back and thrusting in furious stabbing motions, slashing across the shutter with fearful sweeps, striking her everywhere she could. She smashed the man in the eye, then his his teeth, his nose. There was blood that burst from him over the open shutters, splashing them brown.

Her hip felt like it had torn open but she swiped and thrust and smashed through the pain without thinking, swallowing every sound she thought she would make.

Groaning unintelligibly, the man dropped his tools then fell backward off the ladder.

He landed at an angle, his head rocking violently as he hit the floor. Stiff and unresponsive he rolled down the muddy slide that Chanda’s hill had become. Ferried there by the mud, he came to lie at the foot of the hill, curled up like a newborn.

Aarya’s stomach churned. She clamped her hands over her mouth, feeling bile rise.

He was dead, a soldier was dead. She killed one of the imperialists; killed a person.

Aarya stared at where the body had fallen. More people ran into her field of view. They had guns and they were crowding at the bottom of the staircase, looking incredulously skyward. She thought she felt their eyes lock with hers, and she stepped back.

Gunfire sounded from below. Aarya dropped the broom and fell to the ground, hitting her hip again. She curled on her side, hugging herself and gritting her teeth with pain.

Helplessly she stared up from the floor; but she saw nothing hit the shutters. No bullets flew past, nothing ricocheted against the panes. They were not shooting at her.

She crawled to the window and helped herself up. She saw the carnage outside.

Several tanks lay smoking. One tank, painted a dark coat of green, moved into the field opposing the enemy, and it swung its turret wildly and cast long bursts of machine gun bullets across the slope and the buildings. Men fled from it, leaving behind the ladder and rushing downhill into the grass. More enemy tanks moved to fight off the green tank with the hexagonal turret. She watched, transfixed, as the machines hurtled toward each other, as they wove around, as they clashed. Aarya winced at the cannon blasts, as if she felt the muzzle flashes and the howls of each shot as if beside her own head.

In rapt attention she watched as the green tank outfought all of the grey ones.

Zaheer appeared at her side. She felt his hand take hers, but she couldn’t look away.

Nocht fled; trucks hitched away their evil guns; cars rushed out of sight as fast as their wheels could take them; men careened across the field and jumped into the backs of moving vehicles seconds before they set off. Only one tank had survived the green tank and it fled with a perforated turret and a dozen men huddling for cover atop its hull.

Atop the green tank, standing wounded but triumphant in the middle of the meadow, a hatch opened. People arrived and helped pull someone up from inside the tank, and they produced an object from a medical bag and stuck her with it. She seized up, and writhed, and she heard the woman shout. Her posture soon softened, however, and people started to carry her toward the school. They carried her around the slope.

Soon as they brought her around the Auxiliary building, Aarya saw her face.

She brought her hands up to her mouth and she started to weep uncontrollably.

She recognized her; with her sporty cheek-length black hair, her locks messy, blunt ended, longer on the sides and shorter on the back; her deep brown skin and slightly round face, her lips, the upper thinner than the lower, the long bridge of her nose–

That was her; Naya Oueddai had come here. She had come and saved them all.

Nocht’s retreat from the meadow left a palpable silence in Chanda, but most of its defenders heard an irregular tinnitus in their ears even in the absence of gunfire. It took a bit of time for the base even to realize that it had been relieved at all. At first the defenders in the campus proper believed the slackening of the enemy attack signaled only a calm before the storm — the enemy would reorganize, and push back harder.

Everyone clung to their positions, never once believing that the fight could end quickly or decisively. Lone submachine guns puttered here and there as jumpy shuja believed they had seen a sign of the enemy. Captain Agrawal continued to transmit orders to hold. Eyes peeled on their doors, windows and corners, the defenders maintained a shaky discipline. Fear of the enemy was the bond that kept them fixed in place and fighting.

Then they heard from the tanker in the field: a new ally had suddenly entered the fight.

Almost as soon as this was transmitted the fight was over. Impromptu scouts probed the campus and reported no sign of active enemy combatants. Defenders emerged from their buildings and ambled to the field in a daze. There were corpses everywhere, men burnt to a crisp, perforated by fragments, crushed under overturned vehicles or lying in the smashed wrecks of others. Shell craters a meter or more wide dotted the landscape, forming pools of mud and water and blood. Several wrecked enemy tanks lay near one another close to the center of the meadow, surrounding the hunters they fell prey to.

Men and women raised their faces skyward, washing blood and filth from their faces and rubbing the rain on their eyes. But when they turned to the field again the apparitions had not gone — there were two tanks there that nobody on campus could identify. Their crews exited the vehicles and tended to one another in their own little world. One tank was quickly verified to belong to the comrade responsible for most of the carnage, while the much larger one had arrived later and mostly spooked the already fleeing enemy.

In the administration building, Dr. Agrawal’s radio came alive again with a new voice.

“This is unit Vijaya. Hang tight, Chanda. We’re coming to help with your evacuation.”

Dr. Agrawal had not ordered an evacuation, but it was an idea with immediate appeal.

From the back of the school the recon troops’ cars and the ambulance truck wheeled out, and they were soon joined by the half-tracks of Camp Vijaya. Commanders from both sides exchanged handshakes and thanks; Dr. Agrawal thought that without the aid of this Captain Rajagopal and her troops she would have certainly died this day.

After a brief conversation in sign language, they set about coordinating the work.

Wounded from Chanda were looked after, woken up or carried out, and then gingerly loaded onto the vehicles. Vijaya and Chanda’s tractors, half-track trucks and cars formed a convoy that could bear about 50 people back to the Benghu train station at a time. More or less people could be loaded depending on how well they (or their injuries) responded to riding in a cramped space with ten to twenty other people.

Injured personnel were taken first in order of severity; after them, it would be the turn of children and noncombatants, and then finally the rest. Moving at the speed of its slowest components, and having forewarned all involved parties of the action through the radio, the convoy managed to travel to the train station, unload, and return to Chanda within thirty to forty minutes. Two trips and then a final one-way trip were scheduled.

While the first group of evacuees traveled out, Chanda’s freshly injured defenders lined up to receive first aid for their battle wounds and then await their turn on the convoy.

Meanwhile, anyone healthy enough for labor was gathered and organized to form cleanup details. These small groups varied in how sanitary their work would be. Under the rain they ran through the halls and combed through the courtyard and field.

Nochtish corpses were piled up, with their dog tags visible on them so they could be identified. It was clear to everyone that this place would be given up to Nocht. They could find their dead there and do with them what they wished after that.

Ayvartan corpses were bagged up; if the convoy had the time and the space, they would be evacuated last. It was miserable work, but there was no shortage of volunteers willing to do it. Nobody wanted to leave their comrades behind — even in death.

Lists were printed and copied quickly while there was still power to the campus, and everyone who left was marked off, until they were completely certain nobody had been left behind. A bonfire was started in every office, and all documents that were not necessary or crucial were burnt. Everything else was boxed and taken out.

Soldiers threw grenades into the supply room and cooked off any remaining ammunition that could not be taken. Grenades were also employed to great effect against facilities and items that the enemy could use, such as medical equipment, the diesel-guzzling power generator in the back of the school, and any radios too heavy to take.

Chanda was stripped as bare as it could be. About all that was left behind were the desks upon which children wrote and drew and spread open their books, and the detritus of the battle. Spent shell casings, chipped wood and cement, grime and blood and glass. As the evening neared there was not a soul wandering the gloomy halls.

Amid the retreat, however, a few wavering souls managed to find support.

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The Benghu Tank War IV (32.1)

This story segment contains violence and death.

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School, Field

For several breathless seconds Aarya counted and counted the children in the supply depot. She had counted and counted them every morning and every night, counted them leisurely, counted them in peace. Never had she missed one of her children.

When the soldiers led them out of the classrooms by the hands she was sure that all of her children had followed. She counted again. She knelt into their little huddle and parted them, gently nudging them apart from one another as if they might be hiding one more child among their number. But try as she might she always came up short.

Aarya had led them all from the classrooms to the supply depot. There was food and water and a little sandbag fort where all the children could be kept. A soldier told her that metal fragments wouldn’t hurt them there — all within earshot of the children. Aarya gave him an intense stare and she felt like it was necessary and that doing it put her on the side of the children; who were bewildered and scared, many already weeping silently and trying their best to stay strong. But whenever she counted she was one short.

Always short one child. One precious child that was alone in the path of the war.

A teacher short one child; one child she should have been guarding with her own life.

Because of her; because she didn’t count them as she did every morning and night that day. She had wanted so badly to shield them, to insulate them from the terror in the air.

Taken out by the hand by the soldiers, she called out, she assumed they would come, she assumed they would follow her sweet singing voice, that they’d be comforted–

She raised her hands to her mouth and she felt nauseous. Her eyes ran with tears.

“Aarya? What’s wrong? Are you feeling ill?” Darshan said. Aarya didn’t respond at first.

In her mind, in that instant, she counted them children again. One short. Impossible.

Several of the children, those who were not staring despondently at the ground or seated with their faces to the wall, trying to ignore the environment; they looked at her.

She tried to smile for them and then turned to Darshan, leading him away from them.

“Zaheer.” Aarya said, struggling for breath. “Zaheer. He is back in the classrooms.”

“Zaheer?” Darshan said in a sudden and strong whisper, as if stifling a shout.

“Yes! He’s not here!” She whispered, her voice cracking with emotion.

“What do we do?” Darshan asked. “We can’t go out there and–”

He had asked a question, but she provided no answer. In place of a response and mostly without thinking, Aarya tore away from Darshan and rushed out of the door; she rushed past the soldiers, past the tank they had parked in the field to defend the supply depot. Her feet splashed in the puddles and mud, heavy, long steps, kicking sludge up to the skirt of her dress and over her yellow sari. Cold rain poured over her head.

It was like a jug of water emptying over her head at all times; but she didn’t look back.

There was shouting, and she heard someone fall and splash in the mud behind her.

But she was thinking about nothing but Zaheer, the little brown hairless boy whose father was almost certainly gone in the savagery now unfolding across  Dbagbo.

She knew where he was and she hated herself for not thinking about him, for not realizing what he would need, how she should have prioritized him to prevent this.

He looked to her; he had nobody else to look to! She couldn’t believe she left him.

Aarya thought she would feel the tug of Darshan’s arm, stopping her and taking her back to protect her over the life of one child but she felt no such thing. She had outran him; she had outran the marathon runner who was second only to Naya in her prime. In her heavy, wet dress and with her ungainly, reckless gait, pushing one leg after the other completely without grace, she had outran him. She crossed from field to school.

Her eyes sought after anyone who could help, but there were no soldiers outside. Everything was eerily quiet to her. She ran along the face of the Auxiliary building, making for the only open door and the thick-walled stairwell that was just off the landing. She set foot inside and ran up the stairs without so much as glancing down the halls.

She fought against the impulse to shout Zaheer’s name — it would frighten him worse.

Halfway to the second floor the world shivered and shrugged Aarya off the ground.

A massive explosion nearby deafened her with its roar. She felt the force of it surging along the ground, crawling up the walls and into the stairwell steps. For an instant it felt enough like everything was shaking that her feet slipped and she hit the cement. She felt heat near the left-most wall and crawled away from it, stretching her hand to the highest step she could reach and slowly laboring to her knees. She hugged herself, her stomach, her ribs, her breasts; it was like she had been stomped on. She labored for air.

When the gunfire began it sounded like nothing she had ever heard. She had imagined something much more ominous, organic, divine, like the hard steps of a tusker or the cry from a dragon of myth. But it was such a tinny, petty noise! Every report sounded eerily like a child slamming palms on a hard tabletop, and in quick succession from multiple men the gunfire seemed more an eerie, chaotic percussion than the sound of death.

This was warfare. It was not some grandiose dance performed by the gods. It was small and pathetic and close and human. It was snapping and cracking and invisible flying lead and awful smells. There was no great flashing of color, no awe-inspiring magics.

She had been exposed to it for a little over a minute and she felt her mind unraveling.

It frightened her; she felt the rattling of the guns in her chest as if the rifles were discharging right beside her. She felt a gross, primal fear that shook her more than the cold of her wet clothes. Despite her pain she bolted up to her feet and started running up the stairwell again, gasping and moaning to relieve the pressure in her chest.

At the top of the stairs she turned a corner and found the familiar hall down all of her classrooms. Every door was closed; the soldiers had shut them all when they left.

Despite all the noise, the incessant back-and-forth of the rifles, the chopping noise of the bigger, faster automatic guns; Aarya shuffled quietly to the first door and gently nudged it open. Throwing open the door, screaming, making a greater panic, would only cause Zaheer even greater distress. He was a gentle boy, who was easily overwhelmed.

Aarya stifled a curse as she let the door swing gently open, stepped inside and found a classroom in disarray, and no sign of Zaheer. All of the desks had been stacked near one of the walls and away from prominent windows. Out of the corners of her eyes she saw something creep — her head turned to the open shutters and she spotted great vehicles moving along the meadow. She ducked reflexively, as if they had eyes as big as their guns that might have seen her, and she crawled out of the room.

“They can’t see me. They’re thick tractors, nothing more.” She whimpered. In the hall she stood, feeling again that she was safe and unseen, and walked to the next door.

The door slid slowly open, its hinges creaking loud. A pistol thrust toward Aarya.

She raised her hands; in control of the gun was the woman soldier from before.

“Lady, what are you doing here? It’s dangerous! You have to go!” She shouted.

She had an instrument, standing on a tripod in front of a half-open window shutter. It looked like a camera with a gauge and a ruler and a radio box all bolted together. Aarya had no idea what this was, what role it played. She was not a soldier. Soldier’s things looked ever more alien and strange to her. She stood dumbfounded in the door.

“You can’t be here!” Continued the soldier. “This area is coming under fire!”

Aarya’s lips quivered, and she muttered a few hasty little things in her defense.

At once the soldier waved her away with the pistol, irate and refusing to listen.

“I don’t care! You need to go! You will just get in the way here! Go back to–”

A distant gun howled and deafened Aarya to the woman’s final words.

Through the shutters blossomed a cloud of orange flames and black smoke.

At once the soldier was thrown forward and crushed under a mound of rubble.

A sudden push threw Aarya back meters away and slammed the door shut.

She hit the ground and slid on the floor. In front of her she saw dozens of holes on the door, and its upper hinge snapped. It hung just slightly off-frame, enough that she could see the dancing lights from the fire inside the classroom playing across the hallway wall.

Breathing hurt; the rising and falling of her chest hurt. But it didn’t hurt in her chest.

There was a slicing pain in her upper leg and hip. She slipped a finger over the wound.

Aarya bit her lip. Stinging pain shot through all the sinews in her hip. She writhed.

There was blood on her hand. She was bleeding. Something hit her, like a bullet.

She felt it embedded in her flesh. Biting her lips, she touched it, pulled it out.

A piece of jagged black metal, covered in her blood, the size of an arrowhead.

Was this the real effect of a cannon attack? Jagged metal that speared through flesh?

Her head swam. She shifted onto her back, staring at the ceiling. It looked like liquid, a puddle, rippling with a fluidity that started and ended in her eyes alone. It was unreal.

There was no sound, only a tinnitus, a muffled, continuous whistling. That too was all in her head but it was so powerfully present that she could not make out any other sound.

In a few minutes she had felt what must surely have been a lifetime’s worth of agony.

She had never felt anything like it before. A cold fear gripped her heart. It felt so easy to give up, to stop moving, to lay on the ground in the hall and just become an object.

The metal fragment slipped out of her fingers. She didn’t hear it falling on the floor.

Moving was so hard; breathing so hard. It could all stop and it would be so peaceful.

She was battered by thoughts of surrender, like hands pulling her through the floor.

Aarya was falling and falling. But there were chains keeping her from the pit. She considered them, considered all of the little innocuous things that made up her life. Over all of this time, what had she built? What kept her moving forward with her head high?

She thought of Benghu, of Chanda, and the school. All of the children. Darshan. When he confessed his love to her she didn’t know what to think. She left him in the air for days. But over time, she started painting a picture in her head. And she liked it.

Now like the blood coming out of her, she felt color draining from that picture.

Why ever did she come here? What brought her to this place? But then, she had never gone anywhere. All of her life had revolved around this little town and she liked that because it was stable, peaceful. She had dreamed of making a beautiful life here. A life full of color that would make her feel remarkable and loved and needed. She always thought — was always plagued by the thought — that she was never strong like her friends. She was never ambitious or skilled. She just wanted simple little things that felt within reach.

One boy told her once that she was precious and powerful and she loved that.

At the time her head started to swim with colorful things that she desired so much.

A little house; children; things at least some silly little girls still had in their heads.

Naya hadn’t; but that was Naya. What would Naya think? Seeing her like this?

Would she cry? Would she remember her at all? Would she act the soldier that Aarya had in her mind and think she was weak for taking a hit and falling and lying there? Had Naya gotten so strong now, in some far away exotic place, with her guns, the guns that the men outside shot; had she gotten so strong she would overlook her? Forget her?

No; Naya would definitely lend her a hand. That was Naya. War couldn’t change that.

Naya, who had her own pains and losses, would never judge one for failing or hurting.

But Naya, who set records with her feet, who trained every day, who pushed herself just to see where she could go, how far her feet would take her; Naya would stand back up.

Aarya shook her head, and she felt as if each movement of her neck was made through a puddle of mud. She turned on her side. Gritting her teeth, she struggled to rise.

Zaheer; she had to find him. He was in here, listening to this monstrous cacophony, and he was all alone. Huddling in a corner in a dark room somewhere because everything was happening too fast and nobody had reassured him. She hadn’t reassured him.

All it took was one mistake, one mistake from her. She was not a monument. She was just human. But she couldn’t afford to make mistakes. She was the only thing in the world that was still right and good for these children, that was still consistent.

Her own stability, the stability of her life, of the life around them, didn’t matter.

As long as she was there they could be okay. She had to go on for that reason.

Aarya forced herself forward, step by step, one hand on her injured hip.

She pushed open several doors, and found nothing inside. Then she saw it; the door that the soldier had shut before and that she and Darshan had opened again. It was shut. She must have returned and found it open, the only open door, and shut it again.

Aarya pushed it open. She walked inside, shuffling in carefully, making no noise.

In a corner, under a little mountain of stacked school desks, there was a little boy with his head to the floor, shaking in his tunic and pants, his cloth shoes cast aside.

“Zaheer, it’s Ms. Balarayu.” She said gently. She sang a few notes. “La la la la la.”

Slowly the boy stopped shaking. Slowly he turned his head to stare into the center of the classroom, as if he had to convince himself that there would be something there worth expending the effort to see. Aarya kept a hand over her bloody hip and the red splotch on her clothes around it. She knelt down slowly and gingerly and smiled at Zaheer.

“Everything will be fine, Zaheer. Is it alright if I give you a hug?” She asked.

She stretched out her arms. Zaheer threw himself into her chest, weeping.

“I was so scared Ms. Balaryu, there were so many people and so many people with guns and everyone was talking at the same time.” He started speaking faster. “I stopped listening to the soldiers and to you Ms. Balarayu, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I sneaked away, I wanted–”

“Shh. It’s not your fault.” She said. She stroked his hair and kissed his head. “Let’s settle down here and wait for all of this to pass, alright Zaheer? I’ll sing you a song.”

Perhaps she wasn’t strong, but maybe she had her strengths. Maybe living through this could be one of them. Looking at Zaheer’s bright eyes, thrilled for a song, perhaps uncomprehending of the magnitude of the carnage unfolding around them, she knew that surviving this had to be her strength. She couldn’t accept a world where it was not.

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The Benghu Tank War III (31.1)

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Southeast of Shebelle

As the compartment rocked around her Schicksal covered her mouth and held her stomach, as if applying pressure might soothe what ailed it. She felt something hot and terrible rise in her throat, and a sharp throbbing in her head suddenly coincided with it. Everything in the tank seemed to slant, the crew held at an angle as the Befehlspanzer’s right track hit and subsequently climbed over something in the pond. She bent forward, her forehead coming to rest against the cold steel of the radio box before her.

“Open your hatch and be more careful!” Dreschner grunted over the radio.

Ahead of her the driver opened the front hatch, letting in a little more light into the gloomy confines. She was seated just a few centimeters higher elevated than the driver and she could see right into the driving compartment from the radio operator’s seat. Were it not for her hazy vision she would have been able to see outside through the front hatch.

Instead she saw the silhouette of the driver, his hands expertly working the sticks, maneuvering the M4 Befehlspanzer off the rocks (presumably) and back into the water (she supposed) as they advanced through what was on her map a low-lying meadow surrounded by little wooded hills. This route was chosen on the assumption it could provide some measure of cover from the hostilities in Shebelle while they made their way to the 8th Panzer Division’s new Forward Operating Base southeast of the besieged city.

However due to the storm it had become a series of broad pools each over a meter deep, hiding rocky and jagged terrain. Schicksal could not have anticipated just what the grasses and flowers of Dbagbo had grown to cover over time, and what the water now covered.

She rubbed her forehead while the tank rattled, creeping forward, treading water. Everything shook when the tank climbed over a rock or rose and fell with the terrain below the surface. With every bump she felt gas and fluid dancing violently in her body.

“General, permission to take another seltzer.” Schicksal whimpered into the radio.

Dreschner sighed into the radio. “Do whatever you need before we reach the FOB.”

Immediately, Schicksal reached into her bag and seized a small carton of water. She peeled open the hole atop the waterproof cardboard, and from her breast pocket, produced a white pill, which she forced into the container. She covered the hole with her hand, shook the carton, and desperately tipped the contents into her mouth. It was hot and nasty; the bubbles and fizz made her throat feel raw. But as it went down it offered something of a relief for her nausea. One bad sensation seemed to overpower the other.

“Siren, this is Donkey-2, we just busted a leg back here, please advice, over.”

Schicksal pressed her headphones to her ears and adjusted the microphone. Donkey was one of the trucks bringing in equipment to the FOB from Silb, following about a kilometer back from the Befelhspanzer and its own distant escort tanks. Trying not to sound too tired, she responded, “Donkey-2, this is Siren, what are you carrying, over?”

“Twenty-five heads, over.” Donkey-2’s radio operator responded quickly. “We’ve got hands on, but the weather’s not nice for this kind of work. Might take a while, over.”

Donkey-2 had blown something serious in a wheel and would need to repair their truck, which was carrying twenty-five infantrymen to help guard the FOB. This personnel was not essential. Schicksal told them to take their time and do what they could, and she did not trouble Dreschner with the details. They would catch up when they could. As long as the fuel and ammo trucks were making progress then everything was on schedule.

She breathed in deep. Her head hurt, but she was at least on the ball with her work.

“Head for that slope ahead, and get us out of this mire.” Dreschner demanded.

Acknowledging, the driver pushed his left stick forward and his right back, turning the Befehlspanzer away from the rest of the pond and toward a nearby slope onto one of the surrounding hills. Once out of the muck, the ride went surprisingly smooth. Schicksal almost nodded off as they climbed the hilltops, up and down every few minutes. But she had to coordinate their maneuvers with those of their escorts, so she kept busy relaying to the tanks at their flanks, 500 meters or so apart, where they had to be going now.

Past the hills and the ponds the Befelhspanzer and its escorts hit an old wheelbarrow path that had been subsumed by the surrounding woodland over time. Here they rejoined a convoy of ten supply trucks, and together this column advanced to the gathering of half-tracks a few kilometers ahead. Covered in or acting as support pillars to camouflage nets and tents, these vehicles represented the 8th Panzer Divison’s FOB.

“How soon will the entire division have relocated along this path?” Dreschner asked.

“We should be packed between here and Benghu before sundown.” Schicksal said.

“Good. Keep tabs on the infantry divisions in Shebelle. I’m going out.” He replied.

Overhead Dreschner pushed up and out of his commander’s cupola, briefly allowing the torrent into the vehicle. She felt him stepping over the turret and then the body of the tank as he climbed down. When the driver cut the engine, everything went eerily silent and still. One really felt the absence of the tank’s vibrations and the rattling motor.

“Need anything, Miss Schicksal?” asked the driver, pushing open his hatch.

“I’m quite alright Bose.” Schicksal wearily replied. She did not even try to smile.

“Alright. I’m steppin’ out for a smoke.” Bose said. He tipped his hat and climbed out.

Schicksal bristled a little at the mention of a smoke. She sure could use a cigarette; but not only had she smoked her whole ration already, she did not want another source of suggestive sensations when she was already drunk and feeling intermittently very sick. Mustering commendable willpower, she withdrew a pack of dry biscuit, set them on the radio mount and crunched on them bit by bit while monitoring the infantry signals.

When Dreschner returned, he banged on the cupola of the tank, which meant that Schicksal had to climb out. Leaving behind her biscuit crumbs, she climbed onto the fake gunner’s seat, over onto Dreschner’s and then up and out of the tank. To her surprise, Dreschner was shielding the aperture by holding a raincoat over it to keep her from the rain.

“We’ve got the war room tent ready. Let us relocate there.” Dreschner said.

He draped the raincoat over her, and together they dropped down from the tank and rushed across the muddy woodland to a large green tent set between two trees.

Inside a map had been laid over a plain folding table. There was a radio set along the wall, and a stack of ration boxes in a basket in the middle of the room. Drum cans of fuel oil and boxes of spare parts rounded out the disheveled, impromptu look of the gloomy tent, which was lit only by a hanging electric lamp powered by a thick lead acid battery.

There were a few orderlies, some logistics personnel, and an engineer present in the tent, though the engineer was only searching through the spare parts at the moment.

“Alright Schicksal,” Dreschner handed her a marker pen, “what is the situation?”

He looked down at the map. Schicksal slowly approached the table. She shut her eyes hard as if it would clear the colors floating around the lamp-light and the soft blur at the edges of her vision. It didn’t. She stretched out her hand and slashed around the edge of Shebelle, three sloppy lines, not quite the right size nor quite as apart as they should be. But she wasn’t an artist. She then drew a circle around the town of Benghu.

“Alright, umm, so, as of 1300 hours,” Schicksal said. She stopped and caught a breath. “Let’s see here, ok. The 17th Grenadier Division and the 12th Jager Division, with the 16th Grenadier Division behind them, have been fiercely fighting through the defenses around Shebelle. They have penetrated the visible defensive lines stretching from the jumping-off point of the attack up to the outlying habitations of Shebelle. Their closest units at the moment can be considered to be engaged inside the city proper.”

“Considered to?” Dreschner asked, looking down at the map. An orderly gave her a few aerial photographs of Shebelle, and Schicksal pulled one closer and over the map. Her movements were very sluggish and deliberate but her words came to her quick enough.

“It’s a little complicated. Let me explain.” Schicksal paused, showing him the photo.

She collected her thoughts, and with Dreschner pulling closer, began to explain.

“Shebelle is built in three echelons of habitation. Its outskirts are small hamlets with very low population density, wide roads without streets, buildings spread apart; these hamlets lead to the concrete streets and gravel roads we would associate with a city further in, but the density is still relatively controlled; and from there Shebelle expands to a much denser urban core. Shebelle University forms much of this center. Its campus housing, school buildings, and other facilities, are arrayed around a small central plaza.”

Dreschner picked up the photographs and examined them, rubbing his chin.

“I take it the infantry is still fighting over the sheep houses at the edge of the city.”

“Worse. Apparently the Ayvartans threaded an entire additional defensive line of slit trenches and camouflaged guns all through the hamlets. Those men who have made it into a sheep house and cleared it are the lucky ones.” Schicksal said. She put down a photograph and raised her hand to her temple to nurse a deep throbbing at the site.

“How are the infantry doing on casualties? And the guns that we lent them?”

“The 17th Grenadier’s 25th Grenadier Regiment is basically gone, apart from the men who have made it past and are dug in around various points of the Ayvartan defense.”

“How many of our M3s did they take with them? Do you know?” Dreschner pressed.

“Several have been abandoned that could potentially be recovered and repaired after the fighting dies down; but right now there’s about 5 M3s operational in the battle.”

Dreschner shook his head. “That’s a far worse loss than I anticipated. We will have to beat some more discipline into the heads of these crews.” He crossed his arms, looking disgusted. “Abandoned vehicles! Take a little anti-tank fire and suddenly the world’s ending.”

Schicksal nodded wearily. Her eyes were starting to shut periodically. She felt the food and drink sitting like stones in her stomach. It made her heavy to herself, bloated and tired. She fidgeted with things, photographs, the markers, her own hair, for something to do to keep active and awake. She was surprised that she even remembered all the information that she had collected over the radio — and that she hadn’t fallen asleep back then. Before speaking she had to spend some time collecting her words, going over what to say.

“To complicate matters, our breakthroughs are not definitive. All of the parts of the Ayvartan line we have not broken through specifically are still shooting. It’s difficult for me to illustrate, but if I had to draw our penetration of the Ayvartan lines I would probably be drawing something like a radio frequency, more than a coherent front line. Some men are in the first line, some in the second, some in Shebelle. It’s gotten exceedingly messy.”

“Are any Ayvartan divisions breaking off from the city assault?” Dreschner asked.

Schicksal shook her head, more to clear it than to gesture. “Not that we’ve seen.”

Dreschner smiled and clapped his hands together once, threading his fingers together.

“Good! Then the infantry is doing its job. They have eight other Regiments to throw at the city, losing one isn’t a setback right now. Is Reiniger almost ready to break off?”

“Noel is requesting his presence in Benghu, but he has met unexpected defensive belts in seemingly random places between Shebelle and Benghu, and is being held up.”

“Impress upon him the need for haste.” Dreschner said. “He needs to break off from Shebelle and press the attack on Benghu before night, or we’ll lose initiative.”

“I will let him know sir.” Schicksal said. She was sure he knew well enough already.

“Now that Shebelle is engaged, the Ayvartans will hunker down in there to contain potential breakthroughs. They do not have the capability to handle multiple thrusts and form mobile defenses.” Dreschner said. He sounded almost triumphant now.

Schicksal would have told him not to speculate that much on any “capabilities” the Ayvartans might or might not have, but she was too tired to argue. She nodded.

“How are Noel and Spoor? Have they broken through to the train station yet?”

Dreschner seemed to jump from one thought to another very quickly. His mind must have been racing, performing whatever arcane mathematics Generals did in their heads.

Schicksal sighed audibly and rubbed her head again. “That part is complicated.”


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The Benghu Tank War II (30.1)

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Chanda General School

Aarya returned from the cafeteria carrying a stack of boxed lunches.

They were meant for the children in her charge, waiting for her in one of the second floor classrooms of Chanda’s auxiliary school building. She hurried to return to them.

Though she did not like leaving them alone, she had told them to be good while she braved the rains and winds to get them all something to fill their stomachs.

Whistling a song as she climbed the steps she wondered what mischief they must have caused while she was away. They were well-behaved, but still rambunctious.

When she arrived at her classroom she was surprised to find them all in a corner.

They hid away from the windows, their heads down and their arms over their hair.

After seeing the soldiers running hither and thither downstairs she feared the worst.

She felt her chest tighten and her knees shake. Were the imperialists this close?

She dropped the boxes on top of her desk and furtively approached the windows.

Outside she saw only the meadow’s undisturbed fields of red and yellow cosmos flowers, gently swaying and brilliantly glistening from the rain and flashes of lightning.

An exhausted sigh escaped her lips. “Children, don’t worry! I’m here now. Come here.”

Gently, with a warm smile, she urged the children to approach the windows.

Not all of them did — only a few were brave enough. Mostly the older kids. Many of the smaller children stayed in the corner, seated with their backs to the wall and their arms around their knees, looking down at the floor as if to make themselves smaller. Other kids walked a few steps but kept their heads firmly below the aperture of the windows.

“We saw a star flying across the sky Ms. Balarayu!” one girl explained.

“We thought it would fall on the town so we went to hide!” added one of the boys.

Aarya looked out the window again, this time craning her head to the rainy sky.

It might have been artillery fire from Benghu. She had been told that there was a battery stationed there. She didn’t know how many guns that was, and she didn’t know what they were capable of. She supposed if they fired skyward it would be visible on a dark day.

Aarya was not a soldier. She was a teacher. To these children, maybe even a mother.

“Follow me, back to the corner. We’ll turn it from a sad little corner to a happy one.”

She took a little girl and a little boy in hand and the rest followed her. She sat down among those children still pensive on the floor, gently wedging herself in, and extending her arms as far as she could like the wings of a mother bird. All of the children accommodated themselves near her. When everyone was settled, she cleared her throat, and sang a little la la la as if to test her voice, to excite the children. They looked at her suddenly with wide and aware eyes, and clapped their hands in anticipation. She then started to sing actual verse.

Whenever the children seemed bored or anxious, Aarya sang old songs to them.

Almost all traditionally Ayvartan songs had a religious origin. When Aarya sang she often sang the Spirit Stories, because as an Arjun it was what she knew. She sang of the beautiful Kanpa whose dancing gathered the wind and clouds and brought rain. She sang of the great calmness and patience of the hero Bakti who sat through the flame of the demon Karna and with his devotion and will survived the onslaught and turned away the beast.

Today she sang the song of Bakti again so they would endure this fire patiently.

Until she became a teacher, Aarya only sang these songs a few times a year in festivals in Benghu, where the temple chorus would open and close the festivities with song.

She never sang alone. There had always been Darshan; and her. She had been by her side too. Today when she sang, she thought she heard her voice in accompaniment.

Current events had brought that remembrance screaming back into her mind.

Of late she had been singing to the children, all by herself, every day.

For many reasons she fretted about doing so.

Innocently the children gathered around her skirt and watched with wide-drawn eyes.

She felt those little eyes and little smiles hanging on every second of her voice.

They loved the stories, and they loved her voice. They started clapping as soon as she stopped. After every song they asked questions. She answered as best as she could to maintain the innocent fancy she saw in their eyes. She answered as if there was a Bakti who withstood a demon or a Kanpa who danced for a king, in this day and age.

Aarya fretted because her singing gave them hope in completely immaterial things.

In real life they could not rely on spirits or magic to turn away Nochtish guns.

It also brought back bittersweet memories. Memories of things undone, incomplete.

But it was all she could do to make the children happy and to keep them healthy.

So she sang. She sang like a genuine prayer. She sang as if to the Spirits themselves.

Aarya had become a teacher because she loved children and loved working with them. Even as a student herself, at this very school, she always helped out with the smaller kids. It was a blessing to be able to protect and nurture them. But it also unsettled her at times.

For the past few weeks Aarya had been a surrogate mother more than a teacher to her small gaggle of kids. There were a dozen kids with different stories. Little Lakshmi had parents but they were helping evacuate industry from Shebelle. Because Shebelle was a combat zone the children were sent further north, to Benghu, to Chanda; there was the oldest boy, ten years, named Zaheer. His father was a soldier, his only parent after his mother passed a year ago. She had not heard from him recently, but she assured Zaheer he was fine.

Several of the children were orphaned, and they essentially lived in school — they slept in a tiny hostel in Benghu and spent most of their day in Chanda. Lately the hostel was requisitioned for use as a barracks for Battlegroup Rhino, and the children spent the nights with Aarya in a classroom with a view of the meadow. For fun she had everyone pitch in and put up big tents indoors. They “camped out” in the classroom with the windows open.

Two of those big tents currently took up the opposite side of the classroom.

They spent their days this way in the classrooms of the school’s auxiliary building; in the lunch room once or twice a day, and if not, then eating boxed lunches together; and in the field whenever possible, reading under the cloudy sky. Whenever the children asked about the school’s main building she gently turned away the question. Whenever they asked about the soldiers, she told them they were friends — “comrades!” — and working to help everyone.

Aarya had to be strong and gentle and almost god-like to the children. She had to be perfect for them because she was the only thing in the world that could be perfect for them.

So she sang and played and fed them, cleaned them, clothed them, taught them arithmetic and reading and as much of the curriculum as she could teach by herself — her specialty was arithmetic. There were a few other teachers with their own specialties, but nobody could handle hosting a real semester under these circumstances. Everyone was just taking care of the children as best as they could under the duress of this historical moment.

She sang for them. That was all that she could do. She was a teacher, not a soldier.

She was not their real parent either, but perhaps that was the least concern right now.

Whenever she sang, Aarya put a lot of passion into her voice. She wanted to drown out the mental voice with the physical voice. Her thoughts wavered toward those close to her.

Her fiance, Darshan; he was a teacher too and was certainly not a soldier either.

Her students, now like her children; they barely knew that there was a war. They didn’t know the scope of it. Soldiers kept information from her and when she found out things that perhaps she should not know she kept them all from the children. Perhaps in the future they might have to become soldiers. To Aarya that was the worst tragedy of them.

But Naya– Naya was apparently a soldier now. Perhaps she had been for a while.

She didn’t know how to square that with everything that was happening right now.

What should one think of a beloved friend who flitted, ghost-like, out of one’s reach?

When she heard of her again she felt a mixture of relief, hope, trepidation, bitterness–

Aarya sang, silently praying that the voice would carry away all of this evil in the world.

In the midst of singing however a soldier, weapon in hand, charged into the room.

The soldier’s eyes darted around the room then settled on the windows. She shouted.

“Please close the windows Ms. Balarayu! They’ll offer some protection from enemy fire!”

Aarya grit her teeth and gave the soldier a nasty look and hugged some of the smaller children close — everyone had been startled when she barged in. How tactless of her!

She was about to respond when Darshan followed in behind the soldier. Despite having almost a head’s worth of height over the soldier he looked demure in her presence.

“You’re scaring them.” He said softly, his hand hovering over the soldier’s shoulder.

“Apologies, but that’s not really my priority right now. Close the windows.”

At once the soldier turned around and ran out the room. They heard the door open to the adjacent classroom, and the one after that. She was checking for vulnerabilities.

Darshan looked at Aarya and gave her a helpless little shrug. Aarya smiled at him.

“Children, me and Mr. Puri have to discuss something. Why don’t you try singing the song among yourselves? You all know the words.” Aarya said. Most of the children nodded. Many of them kept their eyes on Aarya and Darshan as they left the classroom together, smiling mischievously. She had told them before that he was special to her.

They started gossiping about “Ms. Balarayu liking Mr. Puri” as soon as she left.

Out in the hall Aarya kissed Darshan briefly on the lips. He held her by the waist and then pulled her into an embrace, head over shoulder. He was so strong — she felt like she could lose herself in his arms. He had gotten big since they first met. Even dressed in his unassuming button-down shirt and tie she thought he looked big and burly.

“How are things in your class?” Darshan asked, almost whispering.

“They’re scared. They know something’s wrong, Darshan.” Aarya said.

“My kids are all still sick. They’re getting better but the weather’s not helping. I’ve done everything I could for them short of getting sick with them.” He said, his expression wan.

Due to the sudden change in the country’s fortunes and in the nature of their work, Aarya only saw Darshan a few times a day. Sometimes they contrived to have their classes together, but Darshan’s children were ill and as such their interactions even more limited. They met in the mornings and they shared their nights when they could, very rarely.

“You’re doing the best you can. It’s all anyone could ask of you.” She assured him.

“I left them napping in the room. That soldier nearly woke them up. I followed her back out here hoping I could stop her from scaring every kid in the building.” Darshan said.

“What is happening with the soldiers today? Do you know anything?” She asked.

Darshan broke off their embrace. He could never quite look her in the eyes — he tried to look like he was doing so but he would always gaze just off them as if anxious to meet them. He was big and he looked tough outwardly, but Darshan was a sensitive sort.

“I asked Sharna about it; I wanted to talk with her and see how she knows Naya, but she ended up telling me not to bother with that and that we may have to evacuate soon.”

Aarya nearly winced at the mention of their old friend. It was a too-recurring subject.

“So the Nochtish soldiers are definitely coming this way.” Aarya said heavily.

“Given how all of our soldiers are acting, I think they’re around the corner.”

There was a clanging from a door behind them; the soldier from before ran out of a room and past them, charging down the hall. Holding hands, they walked down the hall and opened the door — the soldier had closed all of the metal shutters on the windows. They were intended for child safety but she supposed they could perhaps take a bullet.

“I keep thinking about her. She could be out there fighting right now.” Darshan said.

Aarya sighed a little. “I pray that she is well. But I have no hopes of meeting her.”

Darshan looked at her with surprise. “She was such a good friend to me, Aarya. I feel I’d be half the man I am without her. Ever since she left I’ve wanted her back. I felt like we could have a chance now!” He looked at the shuttered windows. “If only this wasn’t happening!”

Aarya did not like this conversation, because it was another issue that made her feel helpless and hopeless, ill equipped. She too had thought of Naya as a valuable friend and she thought Naya felt the same. But years back — spirits know how many, it was so many years, she felt — everything seemed to fall apart for Naya all at once. Aarya only pieced it together little by little from the ashes. She didn’t know the whole story. Aarya only knew that a lot of hurt had befallen Naya and it forced her away — and there had been nothing she or Darshan could do to stop it or to help her. As if dust blown by the air, she was swept away from their grasp.

Ever since Darshan got his hopes up a day ago he was obsessed with the subject.

Like her, he probably wanted to smother Naya to make up for perhaps abandoning her.

“I feel the same way Darshan. But this is happening — and we can’t affect it at all.”

“I know. It has really ruined everything, hasn’t it? All of our well laid plans.” He said.

Aarya smiled weakly in response, now averting her own eyes from him. “Someday if everything works out, I know Naya might attend our wedding and hold our crowns.”

“Spirits bless; that would be such a lovely outcome.” Darshan said. “I will pray for it.”

There was a part of Aarya that didn’t want to pray for it — that feared the distance of these intervening years. That feared how everyone had changed from her good memories.

Aarya had thought of work and marriage as the crossroads where the childish tumult of her life would be left behind, and she would finally grasp firmly at meaning, at strength, at the invisible power and certainty that supposedly defined adulthood. Now everything was in a greater disarray than it had ever been. All of the constants were thrown into chaos.

She was not a soldier or a politician or anything; all she could do was sing and pray.

That was what she told herself, because she simply didn’t know what to do anymore.

“Yes. I have to feed the children, Darshan. It was good seeing you.” Aarya said.

She leaned up and pecked him on the lips. She patted him on the chest, and walked around him and back into the classroom. He stood, diffident, back in the hallway, staring out at the shutters that closed their view of the meadow and perhaps Naya’s direction.

Naya had been so special to both of them. Nowadays the absence felt punctuated again. But Aarya feared that the two of them had broken in ways that could not mend, and that meeting again would only tear open wounds that had no chance to heal now.

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The Benghu Tank War I (29.1)

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Plain

Though the sun had risen over Dbagbo, early in the morning the sky was so thick with clouds that a twilight gloom remained settled over the land. At dawn the glow of the sun diffused through the clouds allowed one to see through the rain, but one could not call it day.

Nine aircraft soared high over the plains of Shebelle, carefully divided into three tight, mutually supporting groups of three planes each. Clouds raged around them as though aware of their intrusion. They saw colored lightning crackling in the distance, and a buffeting wind brought the deluge right to their cockpit wind shields. One by one the aircraft banked down and to the right, slowly descending several hundred meters only to find themselves with much more grey beneath them and the unabating rain still around them.

It seemed that much like the sun overhead, the ground below was being denied to them.

“I didn’t expect the alto clouds to be this thick. What the hell is this storm?”

“Whatever it is, we can’t see shit Captain! We’re gonna have to go lower!”

“We’re not going below 4000 meters without a target, whatever the cloud cover.”

“It’s your call Captain, but I think we’re hopeless unless we shed some altitude.”

Reluctantly, the squadron leader ordered all aircraft down to 4000 meters over Shebelle. One by one the aircraft gently descended, again down and to the right. The Warlock dive-bomber was not an agile craft, it was monstrously slow compared to the Archer fighter plane and one could feel its weight when it tilted and banked. One propeller on the nose lifted the craft’s robust frame, with its distinctive gulled, inverted wings. Large, unarmored landing gear stretched helplessly below the craft and made a nuisance of itself in flight, but it allowed them to lift off and touch down from improvised airfields — the only reason they were flying at all today. Each plane’s payload of 500 kg worth of bombs was kept in a bomb bay in the belly on the craft. A tail gunner scanned the rear for contacts.

Warlocks were easy prey for fighters in the open air, everyone knew that much.

But nobody in this squadron had ever met the Ayvartan air force in open combat. In the first few days of the war they had bombed plenty of air fields in Shaila and never saw a fighter around. Some of them were starting to believe there wasn’t an Ayvartan air force.

Instead the fear of sinking below the 4000 meter threshold, a line that should not be passed without a target firmly in sight, stemmed from their position over a city. Everyone knew of the 500 air men who lost their lives to the withering gunfire over Bada Aso. It was a story that had passed around, exaggerated, over the past two weeks, but these men believed it strongly. They didn’t get to read the reports that equivocated damages and injuries and crafts “to-be-repaired.” They got to hear 500 casualties, over and over.

The Nochtish Air Force in its modern incarnation had never seriously been challenged.

Something about the sky around them took on a mythical character, and as they descended, the ground below them slowly revealed its nature as a vast, menacing foe. Through magnified bomb sights and rain-slick windows they surveyed the terrain.

“Messiah defend, look at the size of that. Do we have surveillance pictures of this?”

Shebelle was a humble city, home to scarcely twelve thousand inhabitants in peace time, with a low lying skyline, nothing like the massive spires of Rhinea’s cities or the vast urban sprawl of Tauta. A cluttered city center two or three kilometers long and wide was surrounded on its three southern-facing sides by staggered lines of small hamlets, like a shield set before the advancing front, and wide open plains to the north.

There were scattered habitations, lone cabins and small farmland and tiny three-house “villages,” all situated haphazardly two or three kilometers from the outer hamlets and the city. Though mostly flat and wide open the terrain around Shebelle also gently rose and fell, forming sweeping dips and scattered mounds with meadows between. Vegetation was intermittent and mostly diminutive, and hard landforms simple and sparse.

From the air, the sizable preparations of the city defenders were evident. Large and broad arrowhead trenches had been cut into the earth along the city’s outskirts. There were three main defensive lines, on the south, east and west of the city, each quite long and deep and composed of several trenches and positions. Large fortifications made of wooden logs and sandbags formed the joints between the trench networks, but pillboxes and cannon lines, sniper dugouts, gun nests were scattered all along the lines. There were men and guns, barbed wire, sandbags, and likely mines, in the outlying hamlets and the center.

“What do we even hit first? We’ll need a dozen sorties to make a dent in that.”

“Then we’ll sortie a dozen times. Right now orders say to soften up south Shebelle.”

“Lotta things in the south, Captain. Gotta pick one, do we hit those forts or–”

“Captain! I see a group of tanks and vehicles going out the main road.”

There was an exasperated sigh over the radio. “Problem solved, I guess.”

“I’ll deal with that column. Split up into flights. Take the two southern forts.”

Across the squadron every man responded in turn with an ‘Aye, Aye, Sir!’

The Captain smirked. “Hustle up. Infantry’s only an hour out from this mess.”

Flying in groups of three aircraft the Warlocks broke formation and descended on the southern trench grouping. Of particular interest was the column of vehicles moving south along the one main road running through Shebelle that bisected the city. The Captain claimed this as his target and led his flight toward the road. Even in the rain the enemy was easy to make out. There were fifty small tanks, likely Goblins, heading south to intercept the infantry; or perhaps to be dug-in as last-minute emplacements.

From an altitude of 4000 meters the Captain and his two wing-men lined up with the road and began their dive. Though the Warlock was clunky compared to speedy fighter planes it was a born and bred bomber with enviable features for the task. As soon as the pilot pulled back the dive lever, various assisting mechanisms came to life in the cockpit.

Red tabs protruded from the wings, signalling that the auto-pilot was properly engaged. Coolant flaps closed; soon as the pilot adjusted the throttle and threw on the brakes, the gyros kicked in and the aircraft practically dove itself, swooping down at a near-vertical angle, its speed maintained at a steady 500 kilometers per hour. From the 4000 meter starting point of the Warlock’s dive, the Captain and his men would hurtle to the 500 meter bombing point within 25 seconds. His cockpit accurately gauged everything for him.

The Captain took a deep breath, armed his weapons and stared between the cockpit front and the altimeter. When a light on the instrument blinked at the 500 meter dive point from the target, he released his bombs and instantly hit the automatic pull-out switch.

Below him one of his two bombs crashed onto the road and detonated violently among the enemy. Each 250 kg bomb was the size of a bulky man, and each blast would be a hellstorm of fire followed by a massive shockwave, strong enough to knock a tank on its side. Following in his wake, the Captain’s wingmen launched their own bombs, each capable of landing within 25 meters of the other thanks to the Warlock’s consistent diving.

As he pulled up the Captain was seeing stars from the effect of the g-forces, strong during his dive but most deadly during his renewed ascent. His Warlock plane automatically pulled up from 400 meters at a preset angle and climbed from the dive. For five or six seconds he blacked out completely from the forces exerted on his body — his aircraft climbed over 500 meters in this span of time thanks to its speed. When he regained the fullness of his senses, he was nearly 2000 meters up. He then leveled his craft and regained his breath.

“What do you see out there right now?” The Captain asked his tail gunner.

“We got them sir,” the tail gunner replied. “I can see kills. Bombs on target.”

He banked a few degrees and looked over his shoulder past the wing of his craft. Along a hundred meter stretch of the road, thick columns of black smoke rose against the rain. As he flew over the impact area he quickly appraised that perhaps twenty or thirty vehicles were wrecked by the bombs. He witnessed first-hand surviving Ayvartan troops abandoning several remaining vehicles, like ants fluttering about underfoot. Moments later, the storm gusts started to clear away the smoke and there was evidence of the chaos. Broken wrecks, smashed turrets sent flying into trees, fires and meter-deep craters on the road.

Looking up and out farther afield, he saw columns of smoke, warped by the water pattering against the cockpit glass, rising from two familiar locations along the southern lines.

Two of the large fortifications and their surroundings were burning after the attacks performed by the other Flights. Reduced to piles of shattered logs and scattered sandbags, the forts would not longer be able to hold the gaps between the trenches.

“Good kills, good kills,” said the Captain. “Looks like all bombs on target.”

He leveled his craft again and searched for his men. He found them a ways from their burning targets, their aircraft climbing and sweeping — maneuvering evasively.

Outside his cockpit he heard a snapping sound like a giant balloon bursting.

Metal shards struck his windshield, sounding like grains scattering on the floor.

“Anti-air fire from below, they’ve got us in their sights!” a wingman called out.

Bright red tracer shots ripped through the air like burning arrows, filling the sky with light and fire and smoke. Around Shebelle the ground was coming alive with the skyward fire of the anti-air guns. From as far away as eight to ten kilometers the shells came flying. Snappy automatic shots burst all around them like firecrackers, sending hot fragments bouncing off the hull and scratching the wings and leaving puffs of smoke in mid-air. Heavier and larger shells exploded just off the edge of the Captain’s vision, and he thought he felt the force of them going off, the noise generated by the distant blast, the sound of grain-like fragments scattering impossibly fast and punching tiny holes in his wings and tail on contact.

It was like flying through a mine field as all the mines went off at once. Dozens of shells flew at them from seemingly every direction. The Captain felt the engine lurch for a fragment of a second whenever the propellers munched on a burst of small fragments, and he banked hard to avoid the worst of the explosions, but the volume was building. The Warlock’s fixed landing gear and bulky frame created too much drag for any kind of skillful evasion. Every shot was chipping away at the craft; he gambled with every second of flight.

“One more pass, squad! Drop the rest of your bomb load and lets get the fuck out of here!” shouted the Captain, turning his sights again on the main road to Shebelle.

A Warlock could appear momentarily quicker while diving at a locked speed of 500 kilometers per hour. But that was with the force of gravity at its back. Cruising at the 4000 meters altitude that was necessary to start an optimal dive, the Warlock was limited to 300 kilometers per hour, less than half the speed of an Archer fighter plane. Battered by the rain and struggling against the wind the craft was forced to move even slower and it was almost agonizing to the pilots how sluggishly the Warlock cleared the skies around it.

The Captain’s Flight made its way over Shebelle’s center, high above the humble university campus and the central plaza where they saw scores of guns rallying over the yellow and orange brick roads and parks. All three craft endured intense automatic fire from all around the city, almost completely exposed in spite of the rain and their altitude.

Lightning flashed overhead, a bolt crashing down onto a tree outside the city. Once grey skies were turning pitch black. Around them the rains thickened. Gunfire did not abate. As the planes swept over their enemy they seemed even more exposed under each flash of lightning as if the sky was launching its own tracers down to point the way.

Sweeping around the empty northern edge of the city, still dodging tracers from the east and west, the Captain instructed his Flight to commence a soft turn. Under worsening winds and blinding rain their maneuverability had only grown worse. Tight turns were too risky, especially for partially damaged air frames — the Flight took a very wide and sluggish turn, leaving the road and doubling back around in the city’s north-eastern boroughs, tracing a quarter circle around the edge of the city before coming out of the turn facing south.

Far ahead of them the Captain spotted the other flights in time to see two planes shot out of the sky and spinning down in flames toward the trench lines across the city from him. It was almost a casual sight — he looked up, briefly confirmed the location of his other crews, and then the red tracer shot up, like a dart lancing onto a board and burning it. He could hardly believe it at first, though it captivated his mind this way for only a few seconds before he saw the tracers directed at him and reestablished control of his craft.

Suddenly the radio filled with expletives and cries and shouting back in a tone almost as incoherently as his own men was all the Captain could do to try to restore order.

“Drop your last bombs and return to base. Calm your panic. We’re almost through.”

Everyone went silent. It was as though he had killed all the men with his words.

Visibility was growing ever poorer. Through the shower he had been able to spy on the Ayvartans below, looking like ants, and their vehicles and guns like big fat beetles crawling beneath him. Now he could discern scarcely anything of his surroundings. Rain washed down his windshield with such strength that it warped the world below utterly out of recognition. Only his bomb sight gave him a clear picture, but one limited in scope.

He could still see the bright flashes of ordnance exploding in the air around him.

As the Warlocks soared out of Shebelle due south, the Captain found the vehicle column again, roaring down the road to try to get away from the battle. There was no cover from an air attack available to the tanks and trucks — there were trees, but too sparse to hide in, and the terrain was too open otherwise. Their best bet was running on the road where their speed was relatively unhindered. But he was still several times faster.

“Prepare to dive! We’re dropping the bombs in a line along the road!”

He pulled the dive brake and flipped a switch to arm his second 250 kg bomb.

As he initiated the dive he saw a flashing red from a tracer soaring up beside him.

Overhead the monstrous shell detonated and cast hundreds of fragments down.

A chunk of metal the size of his hand burst through the top of the cockpit and embedded itself in his instrument panel. Water and glass fell over him, and he felt the force of the wind battering his face as his craft pulled down into its dive. In an instant the rest of his canopy broke off, and only his leather belts kept him anchored. He heard a tiny sound near his face and found it difficult to breathe — glass or metal had pierced his oxygen mask.

Shaking his head, he suddenly realized that he smelled smoke. At his side one of his men had a chugging propeller and was losing control. He spiraled away from the dive area and disappeared. The Captain locked his hands around his control stick.

“Stay on target!” He shouted. Sparks flew from his damaged instruments.

His altimeter failed to alert him and missed the bombing window — but he had been counting the seconds in his head. A perfect dive was always from 4000 meters down to 500 meters. A perfect dive was always at 500 kilometers per hour. He focused, through the cold and the wind intruding in his cockpit, through the dangerous sparking of his instruments, through the wild swinging of his damaged gauges. He opened the bomb bay.

Despite the instrument damage, the Warlock started the automatic pull-up on cue.

Behind him the Captain heard the bombs.

First his own, and then his first wing-mate seconds later.

There was no third bomb.

He heard a discordant, distant noise as he climbed.

“We lost Adalwein!” groaned the tail gunner as if in pain.

The Captain barely heard it, and in fact the gunner barely said it. They were climbing and the strength of the g-forces increased exponentially, and the loss of the canopy took away their only slim protection against the outside pressures. The Captain’s vision went black and he felt as if his brain was being squeezed, pressed like a grape between God’s fingers.

With his oxygen mask breached he was utterly unable to breathe.

Split-second images filtered through the black.

Over Shebelle all matter of colors raged in the clouds. It was beautiful.

He thought that words escaped his lips. He thought they were poignant and fitting.

Losing all consciousness, he suffered no more as his plane rose ever skyward, the fuselage tearing, the propeller failing, and then fell back as though cast down from the heavens.

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The Sun That Shone Through Smoke (28.4)

This story segment contains mild sexual content.

52-AG-30. Dbagbo Dominance — Silb, 8th PzD HQ

Noel ambled confidently into the war room, running his hands gently through his hair. A few heads turned at his arrival, most unfriendly; nevertheless he took his place around the central table, upon which the map of Dbagbo was stretched, its surface cluttered by an array of formation chits and pins with all the last known positions of ally and enemy alike.

He was fashionably late for the strategy meeting, having had to wash and powder his face, brush his hair and freshen it with various care products and don a fresh uniform.

All of the grungy men around the room looked varying levels of upset with this.

Noel certainly could have fixed himself faster — he had applied more makeup, done his hair up fancier and dressed in ornate clothing under worse conditions than this. He took his time because he wanted to enjoy himself. For him, prettying up was a pleasure.

Besides which none of them received a hygiene ration up to the level of a female chief of signals or medicine or a corps adjutant, like he did. What the heck did they know?

“Listen, it takes a little time to get all of this,” he touched his fingers to his cheek, pressing them on the soft skin with a cute smile, and then lifting them suddenly to flip his hair in a flamboyant gesture, “up to a standard befitting a photogenic young lad like myself.”

Eyes blinked incessantly across the room. Signals Officer Schicksal cleared her throat to disperse the silence. She was looking a bit more comely than usual herself, with her hair pinned up in a professional-looking bun and a dab of glossy red lipstick on her lips.

“Anyway,” she said, “we’re all here now, so let us go over the plan definitively.”

Dreschner raised his head from the table and his eyes from the map, and he scanned the room as if for the first time noticing the crowd building around him. Noel spotted Reiniger pouting in a corner and Spoor meditatively in another, but the HQ building was crammed with lower level officers as well. A few battalion commanders were present. There were Captains and Majors of key units looking over the map and awaiting orders.

“Yes,” Dreschner said, perhaps slowly returning from the world of strategy and prying from somewhere in himself a translation of its contents for human consumption.

He cleared his own throat, withdrew an extendable stick, fidgeted with it for a moment, and then tapped the stick on the map between two spots: Shebelle and the Sandari.

“This is the situation. Though the surprise Ayvartan Sandari offensive slowed us down temporarily, the bulk of our forces are now clear of the river, and we have by stroke of luck three full infantry divisions ready to lunge against the main Ayvartan defenses. Shebelle is a humble city, but,” he tapped on the map marker for the city once again, “it is a fortified zone. To even enter we must breach a horseshoe line of pillboxes, trenches, and tunnels built on rough or roughened terrain. Who knows what lurks past it? But the pillboxes are not our immediate responsibility. Instead, our infantry will attack the defenses outside Shebelle with limited Panzer support to draw the enemy’s attention and keep them pinned down.”

Dreschner’s stick seized and slid up the 10th Panzergrenadier Regiment and the 8th Panzer Regiment. “Our mission is to serve as the eastern pincer of an encircling maneuver against Shebelle. The 8th Regiment and the 10th Regiment will attack along the eastern flank of the Shebelle defensive line, but this movement will be largely a feint, maneuvering up the defenses like a stepladder. Once the defenders hunker down in their positions to engage us, we will suddenly break away from Shebelle and sweep north to Benghu and capture the town there. Then we will speed westward to link with the other half of the pincer formed by the 10th Panzer Division, whose mission to take Gollaproulu mirrors our own.”

On the map, the General arranged the forces at play, such that the Panzer Divisions formed a pair of long arms around the back of Shebelle. “In so doing, we will cut off Shebelle from supply and encircle several Ayvartan divisions. Initially our position will be tenuous. The 10th and 15th Division will be working together — they have suffered more damage than us and need each other’s support. We will be depending on the arrival of the Kaiserin Trueday Division formed of Nochtish Ayvartans and defectors. I can’t vouch for their reliability, but they’ll at least reduce the frontage we’ll need to defend ourselves.”

“Until then, we will rely on a few combat multipliers, supplied by our Panzer aces like Captain Skoniec, as well as the new machines that our engineers are preparing. We expect the capitulation of Shebelle, and thus the defeat of Dbagbo, by the 1st of the Frost.”

Dreschner gestured toward Noel and Noel smiled prettily around the room as if hoping to solicit applause. He received none, but he continued to smile just to spite them all.

“Any questions?” Dreschner said. There was a slight hint of weariness to his voice, as though he did not actually want to answer any questions, but it was not the kind of menace that commanders in the old Weiss battalion had shown Noel in similar settings.

Noel raised his hands up in the air, hopping up and down in place.

Dreschner sighed heavily and pointed him out. “Yes, Captain Skoniec?”

“All due respect given, sir, but why not avoid the Shebelle defenses entirely? Instead of leapfrogging across the sights of a bunch of pillboxes, where we’ll lose a lot of tanks–”

Dreschner cut him off quickly. “Flank protection, Captain. Should the entire division rush to Benghu and past the enemy, what stops the enemy from pursuing us and threatening our salient? Furthermore I believe our losses maneuvering around the outskirts of the Ayvartan defense will be minimal. We will not launch a full scale attack against them. We will have a battalion or two attack from range to scare them while everyone else advances.”

Noel was not satisfied with this, but he continued to smile. So far the Ayvartans had not been a threat to them in maneuver warfare, but they had been punishing opponents when properly dug-in. His old Weiss battalion had felt the sting of a proper Ayvartan defense many times. They were masters of making hell-maws out of shellholes.

Though risky, perhaps reckless, forcing them to run out and then sweeping back to destroy them denied them prepared ground for a fight. But this was clearly not negotiable.

“Yes sir! Thank you sir!” Noel said in a bubbly voice. He saluted in resignation.

It was Dreschner’s call and he’d deal with the caskets in the end.

* * *

Following a strict information control and anti-surveillance policy, the 8th PzD Headquarters at Silb shut off all lights and cut all high level communications at 2000 hours. Nobody would call the Divisional HQ after that. In case of a tactical emergency, Regiment HQs closer to the front would be contacted first, and expected to handle the situation themselves.

Schicksal should have long ago joined the camp’s sleeping ranks by 2300 hours. Instead she stood in the middle of the little house given to her for personal use and waited in the dark. A string of very long days fueled by very poor meals the past week had left her so little time for herself that she was too stressed to simply lay down and pass away the hours.

Some days she just paced indoors, but she was starting to get into the habit of going out at night and into the woods until around 0200. Then after catching five hours of sleep or so she would jolt herself awake with caffeine and a stimulant pill. Yesterday she had escaped the curfew and smoked a few cigarettes under a tree, shielded from a light evening drizzle.

Tonight was surprisingly dry, and as such gave her a unique opportunity. She withdrew an electric torch and prepared bag, then snuck out of the house and into the forest.

There was one particular tree she had found about 500 meters from the camp that possessed a sizable knothole into which she could curl up for cover. Two thick roots stretched down the sides of the hole like arms open to an embrace. Protected in this little place, she set down her bag, opened it and produced from it a one liter, brown glass bottle of white wine from the Officer Special Ration; and a roll of pulp fiction magazines.

After removing the stopper and passing a cloth over the bottle’s mouth to clean off dust and bag lint, she raised it to her lips and tasted the contents right out of the bottle.

It tasted quite sweet but with a bit of a sharp sting hidden beneath. Sort of like her.

Bottle in one hand, she spread open a book on her lap; torch in the other, she started to read in the dark about Johannes Jager’s epic battle against a communist airship.

Alcohol seemed to make the letters blur on the page. Somehow she found them more pleasing that way. Her mind was more pliable, and she could imagine the situations in the story more easily. She felt herself get swept up as Jager shot a hook at the back of the airship hull and stowed away; she felt each bonecrushing hit as Jager took on The World’s Tallest Svechthan, struggling via fisticuffs for control of the communist vessel–

She felt a murmur building up around her, a bit of laughing, the rustling of leaves.

“Slow down! I’m tired. I spent all day on maintenance.”

“Well, well; that’s what this trip is about! You need maintenance yourself.”

Was it the liquor tricking her senses? Was she this drunk already?

Schicksal set down the bottle and book, and stood up from her little nook. She crept around the side of the tree, staring off into the dark, and saw two figures in the distance. One had a lighter, flicking it on and off to create an intermittent bursting of light. Both were well-dressed in uniform. She recognized the bouncy blond hair on one — it was Noel. And the boy with him looked like his driver. Ivan, was it? Her head hurt.

She watched them frolic for a bit and sit down together near a tree. They produced a little candle lamp, lit the wick, and left it to flicker near them on the ground. Noel rested his head on Ivan’s chest, and Ivan stroked his hair gently, lifting up the long tufts.

“We sortie tomorrow right? What do you think of the General’s plan?” Ivan said.

“Eh. It’s ok. I don’t really care to attack infantry. It feels like bullying.” Noel said.

Ivan laughed. “Well, you are kind of a bully sometimes to be brutally honest, Noel.”

“Aww, c’mon, that’s not fair. I do it gently, gently.” He rubbed his head against Ivan’s chest, laughing haughtily in response. Ivan wrapped his arms around Noel’s shoulders.

“I wish we could just go back to Nocht sometimes.” Ivan said. “You and me.”

Noel sighed loudly. “I thrive in chaos. I’ve found it makes people overlook things.”

“I’ve got nothing back there either. I just wish I did; or that I could, with you.”

“I literally came off the street, you know. I’d only go back to that if I returned.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I would get you a place, Noel. I’d do anything for it.”

Noel looked up from Ivan’s lap and pulled him into a deep kiss.

Schicksal blinked blearily. She felt her head throb. She was clearly drunk.

Once their lips separated, Noel pulled Ivan down to the floor and loomed over him.

“Forget about that, Sergeant. It’s time I gave you a bit of maintenance.”

“Engine’s ready for inspection, Captain.” Ivan mischievously replied.

Schicksal heard the tinkling of a belt buckle.

She saw Noel’s head dip in against Ivan’s waist and rise up again in a slow, gentle rhythm.

Ivan laid back, mouth hanging.

Their shadows entwined against the light from the lamp.

Sharp intakes of breath punctuated their embrace.

Schicksal raised her hands to her head, rubbing her temples in confusion.

She was very clearly drunk. She sank back behind her tree, picked up the magazine, and tried to ignore the array of noises that her head was fabricating to distract her.

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Camp Vijaya

Naya volunteered for the radio tent chores and successfully wormed her way to the top of the list by virtue of false enthusiasm and an utter lack of competition. As such she got to while away the hours listening in to idle chatter, staring at the encryption machine, reading a booklet on code procedures, and being alone. After the past few days, it was an improvement. Her head seemed, for the moment, all out of nasty words for her.

Around noon, the teleprinting message machine started to act up. At first, Naya thought it was broken, because it made a sound like a Needlemaw’s thousand gnashing teeth crushing the entire skeleton of a small forest mammal. But then after several minutes of crunching, it didn’t spit out all of its internal machinery, and instead put out a paper.

Naya stared at it for a moment before producing her code booklet and going to work.

Minutes later, feeling considerably worse for the effort, Naya ran out of the tent.

Benghu was under attack and everyone at Chanda was suddenly in danger.

Aarya was suddenly in danger.

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