“V”: The Loss Of Innocence

This chapter contains violence and death.

45th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Southern Dbagbo

Guns sounded from the treeline, and flashes pierced the gloom cast by the wood.

From the edge of the forest sailed dozens of shells that soared over the open fields and crashed all along the defensive line. Huddled against the earthworks, infantry of the 3rd Rhino Rifle Division cringed back as columns of earth and shattered wood and splintered stone went up into the air in front of their faces. They hid farther back in their trenches, the defenses stacked three deep, each several dozen meters long in an arrowhead shape.

Several minutes and seemingly a hundred shells later, the tanks began to advance from the forest. M4 Sentinel medium tanks led the charge, over two dozen of them, followed by small concentrations of lighter M5 Rangers and a scant few M3 Hunter assault guns with their distinctive hull-mounted cannons. They rolled over the broad green prairie like a storm of steel, rushing the defenses at full steam. Machine guns blared from the front hulls of the M4s and M5s, fired by the assistant drivers, and every few seconds one or more or the tanks fired a cannon volley, putting shells closer and closer into the interior trenches. Creeping and creeping, the tanks and their ordnance broke the defenders.

Unable to suffer the advance of the enemy, the men in the trenches scrambled out of their positions. As they ran the machine guns never ceased firing, and many were cut down where they stood. Anti-tank guns lay abandoned behind the trenches, having never attempted to fire a shot — the old short-barreled 45mm gun was too ineffective beyond 500 meters to matter in this engagement. Well before the first tracks hit the trench walls, the defenses were deserted, and there lay corpses everywhere, hidden beneath the yellow and red flowers and the dew-licked green grasses that stretched behind the trench line.

A kilometer removed from this carnage, the second defensive line began to break from the sights captured in their binoculars and scopes. Men and women dropped their rifles and tore their uniforms and fled into the woods and hills. Without their commanding officer around to shout at them or shoot them discipline was breaking. Aside from being a kilometer farther than the first line, the second line was not much different. Three columns of trenches, each quite long and deep, fortified with wooden logs and sandbags and rocks and whatever could be sourced in a pinch. Dilapidated old anti-tank guns provided meager support for the defense. Once more, not a shot was fired by them.

Several hundred meters away from this scene, Cadao Chakma did not even attempt to rally the defenders of the second line. Doing such a thing would have compromised her plan, wasted her time, irreparably damaged the winning solution that she had drafted.

As much as she desired to save the infantry, doing so was not her job, for she was not an officer, and in fact should not even have been a combatant. These were desperate times, for a chief warrant officer to be fighting out her own plans. From a wooded hill halfway between the lines and offset farther south, cleverly concealed with netting and fake bush, she watched the lines break and the tanks begin to cross the flower field between the two sets of earthworks. It was on this soft ground that she desired her enemy, and she waited.

It was painful to watch the infantry struggle so much, but she had found the winning solution. Cadao was a solver of problems and she had solved this problem in this way. She hated herself for it, and she felt her heart hurt, but this was the only way, she knew.

All she could do was watch and to pray that her solution was truly the winning one.

“On my signal, all guns will fire until ammunition is exhausted, or the enemy retreats.”

In response, every crew started to load explosive shells and to stack replacements.

There was no need for detailed instructions. Her crews were not trained enough to perform any complicated fire orders. Everything they were going to shoot was pre-sited and pre-calculated. All they had to do was load the “150’s” as they called them, and pull to shoot.

Cadao raised her binoculars to her eyes and followed the tanks on their journey to the second defensive line, which was growing more barren of troops by the passing second.

It happened quickly; a plume of smoke rose suddenly somewhere within the tank formations, burning under a few flowers, its origin point invisible amid the moving mass of armor. One tank, an inconsequential M5 Ranger, stalled. Around it, every other tank continued a dauntless advance. Another tank stopped. Its front sank into the ground. And a third, a valuable M4 this time, stopped abruptly, its hatch thrown open by fire.

One by one the tanks started to stall. Some hit pre-dug pits, others drove too close to the ponds and mud puddles caused by the Dbagdo rain and hidden under the prairie flora, and became mired. Still more struck mines, causing them to de-track. Roughly a quarter of the fifty or sixty tanks in motion became trapped, and caused problems for the bulk of the formation that followed behind them. They slowed and turned in place and started to inch around the stalled tanks, trying to negotiate the obstacle presented by their trapped comrades as well as avoiding the traps that immobilized them in the first place.

As the ranks of the panzer battalion became disorganized, Cadao raised her fist to signal.

Her own treeline lit up as brilliantly as the opposing treeline had before.

Dozens of 152mm shells hurtled out from the wooded hill and directly into the prairie.

Where they struck the earth, great geysers of mud and upturned flowers and chewed-up turf went flying into the air. After the first few volleys the artillery crews scored their first grazes on moving and immobilized tanks. Detonations within a meter or two of a tank caused the tracks of the medium tanks to scatter in every direction, and the sides to collapse inward from the explosive pressure. Light tanks failed to survive even the lightest grazes, and any shell that struck anywhere near them left hundreds of shrapnel holes in their thin armor, and set the engines ablaze, and caused hatches to collapse inward.

There were few direct hits, but each was remarkably brutal. An M4, stricken directly in the neck of its turret, was beheaded, and gunner, loader and commander were sent flying in pieces along with their gun and equipment, leaving behind a hull akin to a squashed can. M5 Lights practically disintegrated when struck, their side walls and half the turrets and chunks of the engine compartment disappearing entirely, leaving behind gaping wounds that billowed thick black smoke and tongues of red fire and no sign of survivors within.

Nobody was counting the volleys, nobody was counting the kills. Cadao watched in silence as barrage after barrage went out. On the wooded hill the crews did nothing but load and shoot as fast as possible, collectively launching hundreds of shells for every minute passed. Maybe a dozen minutes and a thousand shells later the supply was utterly cooked off, hundreds of crates emptied and discarded behind her, and the beautiful prairie was reduced to a cratered hellscape, not a meter of grass or a single flower left amid the sea of craters, amid the chewed-up ground and dozens of burning, mutilated metal coffins.

Not a single tank would make it to the second defensive line. All of the lead formation was crippled or destroyed; Cadao took a moment to finally count, and found 24 tanks of various types destroyed. She spotted at least thirty more tanks, most in states of injury, others perfectly intact, all turning and speeding back over the first trench and into the forest.

She sighed deeply. Despite the loss of her C.O., the cowardice and ill preparedness of the infantry, and the inexperience of her own artillery, she had somehow turned back an overwhelming assault. She had perhaps bought the rear echelon of Battlegroup Rhino a day or two worth of respite to reorganize the line and plug the gap here. Whether they could manage to do so was another matter. Dbagbo was slowly but surely falling.

After sighing, letting out all the bad air, she smiled, not for herself, but for the others.

“Good job! Abandon the guns and let us run east to the HQ. If we are lucky, we may be able to return at night and hitch these guns back with some trucks or horses. Move out!”

Cadao was no leader, she thought. She was just someone who liked to come up with solutions, almost like a hobby, at first. But now everyone seemed to defer to her, and to give her the opportunity to solve the problems she saw. And so without question, without the honor of marking their barrels or even celebrating this victory, the artillery crews abandoned their guns, taking only food and water, and followed her out to the field.

Seeing the state of her troops, Cadao wondered whether any amount of planning could turn around the battered wills of her people — and her own flagging hope as well.

Watching the remnants of the infantry flee, she thought that perhaps her people were too gentle now for this war. Perhaps they could not cope anymore with carnage, after peace.

47th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Eastern Dbagbo

After being relieved of duty for abandoning her artillery post, and being confined to camp in the far rear echelon, Cadao thought she would at least have some peace and privacy and time for herself in a state of “tent arrest.” However, one odd morning, the military police practically fled from around her tent, and were soon replaced by one surprising guest.

“Chief Warrant Officer Cadao Chakma, your presence is requested at the motor pool.”

Cadao was startled by the messenger suddenly barging into her tent. She was quite a mess; jotting down imaginary mobilization plans for the nation on a little notebook, her honey-brown skin was slick with sweat, and she was dressed in little more than an immodest tanktop and short pants. Her hair was disheveled. She had zipped up her tent, to prevent just such an intrusion, but the intruder had simply ripped it open to deliver the missive.

“Don’t just barge in!”

She threw her standard issue booklet of socialist wisdom at the messenger’s face, and found the stoic-faced most unconcerned by the attack. After being struck between the eyes, hardly even flinching, the messenger backed away, and waited outside instead. Judging by her behavior, she must have been with the KVW. Cadao blinked, and scrambled to dress herself, finding pieces of her uniform here and there, tying her hair into a ponytail, and gathering up her notes and proposals into a satchel to take with her.

Once ready, she stepped outside the tent, and nervously saluted the messenger.

“No hard feelings.” responded the messenger.

Cadao sighed. At least she was being let out of her tent now.

The messenger led her from her prison tent, which was large and cozy and strung up under a decorative tree planted just off the Gulguru train station platform, and onto the platform itself, and past several rows of track to a train that was recently arrived amid the hustle and bustle of the unannounced but practically unavoidable evacuation from Dbagbo.

Cadao certainly had no knowledge of its presence prior to seeing it there, but then again, she had little special knowledge of who came and went since her punishment. The train was armored, and heavily armed, but it dragged behind itself one car that was red and gilded and fancifully decorated, the kind of car that once upon a time brought holiday-makers on a tour through the wonders of Ayvarta. It was to this car that she was led.

Inside the train car, there was practically a tea party set up. On a table with a frilly cloth and rose-pattern embroidery, lay a set of a porcelain tea cups and plates. There were cakes, halva, and what smelled like fresh coffee, and black tea, and funky yak’s milk. Sugary syrup and honey were plentiful. Behind this table, a woman poured herself a cup, and with a hand gesture invited Cadao to sit down and partake of the sweet little spread.

Behind Cadao, the messenger left the car, and walked around the side of the train.

“Hujambo! I am Commissar-General Halani Kuracha. Please sit!”

She gestured once more for Cadao to sit, and so, Cadao sat.

When she heard the word ‘Commissar’ Cadao always thought of a taciturn older man, but before her there was a young, slender woman, brown-skinned, black-haired, with gentle features. Her hair was arranged in a cutesy, charmingly messy pair of twin tails. Her most striking feature was her eyes, each a different color behind a pair of round spectacles. As she busied herself stirring honey into a cup of coffee and yak’s milk, Cadao stared.

“I am stricken by your expression; you have lovely eyes, C.W.O.” Kuracha said.

Cadao, alarmed, sat up straighter, feeling a jolt along her back.

“I suppose so! They’re my mother’s eyes.” She said nervously.

Kuracha tapped her spoon on her cup, dripping off coffee from it.

She pointed the instrument at Cadao with a foxy grin on her face.

“Such a beautiful combination of features. If I could hazard a guess, Kitanese?”

Cadao averted her eyes momentarily, rubbing one hand on the opposite forearm.

“Um, well, I consider myself– just Ayvartan.” Cadao replied, suddenly self-conscious.

“Oh, I know. But you understand where I’m coming from, right? Certainly your blood runs many colors, it must have, to have assembled such a pleasant tapestry of features.”

Cadao blinked and shivered. Was she being flirted with? Was this flirting?

Kuracha had certainly developed an almost lascivious grin. It could be flirting.

Still, Cadao did not have to indulge it, if it was. “My mother was Kitanese. I’m Ayvartan.”

She said this in a voice that was low and reserved, and Kuracha took notice.

“Ah, comrade, you needn’t continue to assert such things. I do not come at this from a position of prejudice. I myself come from the stock of a north solstice desert tribe, the Budii. My people were barbarian raiders in antiquity. Now they farm along the Marduk.”

She waved her hands as if to blow away the anxiety in the air.

“There a lot of those tribes, aren’t there?” Cadao said, trying to make conversation.

She had never seen a tribeswoman quite like Kuracha. But then again there were few Kitanese that looked quite like Cadao did. Circumstances easily overcame one’s blood.

“Hundreds. Some are still out there, living their lives the ancient way.” Kuracha said.

“I see.”

“It’s a harsh life. I prefer the gentle glow of civilization.” Kuracha replied.

Cadao would not ask whether she thought the use of the word civilization implied her people’s ways to be savagery or barbarism still. She was not good at conversations or interrogations and she was starting to buckle under Kuracha’s boisterous presence. Whatever Kuracha’s ideas on cultures and ethnicities, it did not matter right then.

“Um, for what reason was I summoned, Commissar.” Cadao asked.

“Punctual! I like that.” Kuracha said, pointing an index finger at her like a gun.

Cadao started to sweat again. Was this how people flirted? She just did not know!

Kuracha looked her in the eyes, and her voice took on a less casual tone. “I was dispatched here to quickly retrieve you; your presence is wanted in Solstice, as part of a potential new military high command, likely to be approved soon by the Council and the KVW.”

“My presence?” Cadao blinked. “Military High Command?” Her mind started to spiral away, and her heart rushed. She found it hard to process anything. “How? What?”

“Cadao Chakma. You submitted a thesis to officer school for a potential mobilization plan in case of a southern invasion, four years ago.” Kuracha calmly explained, taking a sip of her coffee between sentences. “Your proposal was rejected and you were barred entry. It was completely politically motivated — you arrived, unfortunately, in time for demilitarization to enter the lexicon. But Solstice recognizes your worth now.”

Her worth. She felt her heart swell and her eyes drew wide open.

It was as if a bright light had exploded in the darkened recesses of her mind.

Something warm and satisfying and powerful welled up within her.

They had read her plans, seen the work of her imagination.

And they thought she was right enough to support. She felt herself glowing.

“All of that is true,” Cadao began, her speech excited, quick, “but that plan was for a potential war against a resurgent Mamlakha and Cissea, not against the Nocht Federation! To draft an effective mobilization plan I would need new data, both on us and on them.”

Kuracha grinned. “Excitable now, are we?”

Cadao caught herself, and drew back into her own shell once more.

Kuracha laughed. “You can have anything you want.”

She gestured behind herself and clapped her hands.

Behind her a door opened, and the next car over had one its rear door pulled open too.

Inside Cadao saw a veritable library.

“Are those–?”

“Copies of records from the Solstice archive.”

Cadao was speechless. It was wall to wall in that massive train car.

“I should get to work.” She said, still stunned by this turn of events.

Kuracha clapped her hands cheerfully. “You should.”

55th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City, South Gate

Council had fallen bloodlessly, and Daksha Kansal was elevated to Premier.

After a short confrontation, Cadao managed to hold her own against the Premier well enough to receive her post, and she quickly set about to work. Her people, her gentle, peace-loving Ayvartan people, her farmers, her factory workers; she had, as was her custom, identified their problem, and come up with a solution. It was a dire solution.

Under Kansal, Cadao Chakma was now the civilian head of the armed forces. Battle plans were not her responsibility; as she sat, in a small restaurant just off Solstice’s south gate, her head swam with production numbers, potential efficiencies, procurements, R&D, and other engineering and logistical topics. The Wall outside dwarfed everything around it ten times over, and the gate, too, was massive, and very visible even inside the restaurant, even in an aisle seat. Despite this, she paid it little attention. She had become accustomed to the wall and no longer marveled at it. It was big. There were bigger edifices in the world.

Her people, this war, and the structure of communism.

Those were far bigger than the Walls.

She had turned over these problems and her own solutions in her head, over and over.

Always she attacked her own answers. She had to be completely certain.

There was too much now riding on her decisions.

She thought she would be ready for her new position. But it was one thing to solve small problems. From the heights she had attained, she saw a world an infinitude larger than before, and she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem before her.

And she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the solutions.

Everything hung in the balance.

Not only flesh and blood, but now the soul, too.

“Hujambo, here’s your lentils.”

“Thank you.”

A gentle serving girl with frizzy hair beneath a scarf laid down a bowl of lentils and a spread of flatbreads, and accompaniments like mint yogurt and mango-chili puree. Cadao poured the mango-chili mix into the lentil soup and mixed it up. She did this almost absentmindedly, while looking over a thick folder of documents she had prepared.

“Um, excuse me. You’re with the army, right?”

At her side, the service girl looked at her with meek eyes.

Cadao was in uniform and clearly looking at military-stamped documents.

But she was gentle; she was a part of a gentle people and she was gentle herself.

“Indeed, I am.” She said. She smiled. “Is there anything I can do for you, comrade?”

“Yes. Um. I know this is silly but. Have you heard or served with a lad my age, name of Kambaru Chafulu? He,” she paused for a moment, “He means a lot to me, and I–”

“I’m afraid I haven’t.” Cadao replied.

“Thank you. I am sorry to trouble to you.”

There were tears in the girl’s eyes as she bowed down, and turned swiftly away.

A soft and soft-hearted girl, victim of this war.

There would be more if her answers were not the correct ones.

Cadao sighed deeply.

She returned to work, reading over the same lines, doing the math in her head.

Over and over and over, attacking every line from every angle.

There was a war in her head, and it was this war, and it was its own.

Should those two meet, there would be great success.

And if she could not force them together, reality would crush her gentle people.


It was a deeper voice this time. Cadao looked up.

Appearing at the side of the table was Premier Daksha Kansal. Tall, serious in expression, almost regal, with mixed black and grey hair in a big bun, dark skin and eyes, and a face that was only mildly weathered by age and suffering. She looked mature, but perhaps not entirely her own age. Her uniform was unchanged since becoming Premier. She wore the KVW black, red and gold, without visible honors. Her demeanor, attitude, the way she held her head high and her gaze hard, made it obvious that she was a person of authority.

She was a vibrant character who gave off a fiery aura.

Cadao, at first, buckled completely in her presence. Now, she felt more uncomfortable with her own thoughts than with anything Daksha Kansal could say or do.

“Have a seat, comrade Premier.” Cadao said.

Kansal nodded, and sat opposite her.

Soon, the girl appeared again, her eyes and cheeks clearly marked with dried tears.

“What will you have, comrade?” She asked.

“Hello, Yanna.” Kansal said.

She waved gently. Opposite her, the girl stared for a moment and then gasped.

“You’re the one who helped get me to a doctor, weren’t you?” Yanna said.

Cadao looked between Daksha and the girl with a quizzical expression.

“I only made a few phone calls.” Kansal said.

Yanna bowed deeply.

“I apologize ma’am. My brother should not have asked such a thing of you.”

“He was a child concerned for his family. We should all be so caring toward each other.”

“Thank you ma’am.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank the doctor for your speedy recovery. I will have what Cadao had.”

Yanna bowed again, and skipped and hopped away to the kitchen, giggling.

How quickly the whims of her people turned! Cadao thought, they were truly soft souls.

It hurt her heart, how kind everyone was.

“So, talk to me about this plan of yours.” Kansal said.

“That was why you chose this restaurant?” Cadao asked, smiling.

“No, I just like the food. Tell me about your plan, Cadao.”

Cadao sighed, losing her energy instantly. She had thought it over and over again.

No matter how many times she played out the moves in the chessboard of her mind, no matter what data she read or what facts she tried to plug into the formula for a different result, all she could come up with was the dire series of orders written in the terrible little folder she had laid on the table. She spread it open, and pushed it toward the Premier.

She had sealed the fate of Ayvarta with that move, she thought.

For better or for worse. She didn’t know. Perhaps both. She couldn’t know!

That was the solution and she was committing to it even though it hurt.

That was her custom.

“Premier, to accompany the mobilization plan of troops, it is absolutely necessary we mobilize the civilian sector as well, to the fullest capacity. Right now, we can easily raise 500,000 troops to defend Solstice by the Hazel’s Frost, and one million by early next year. But they will all be equipped with the subpar old weapons of the demilitarization regime.”

“So this is a procurement plan?” Kansal said.

“No. It is something bigger.”

“An ambitious procurement plan?”

“It is a change in our very way of life.”

Kansal raised an eyebrow.

“All I’m seeing in this document are R&D profiles of weapons I already know about, and a lot of mathematics that it is too early, and that I am too hungry, to parse. Please explain.”

Cadao nodded. She took in a deep breath and prepared to deliver the dire news.

“That project is called War Plan ‘V’; it is the fifth War Plan ever drafted by the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, and coincidentally, that five can easily stand for Victory. To achieve victory, I have created a plan that assumes the unconquered half of Ayvarta, with Solstice and its five remaining Dominances of Chunar, Govam, Ayanta, Jomba and Karnata, will operate at a hundred percent of its capacity. Everyone who can work, will work. Every factory, every input, very asset, will produce, for the war. Just for the war.”

Kansal blinked. Whether or not she understood the implications immediately, was unclear. Yanna came by with her food, and set it down on the table, and for a moment there were pleasantries exchanged that interrupted the discussion. Kansal took a few bites, drank some cold, spiced milk, and then turned her gaze back to Cadao again.

“Just for the war?”

“Just for the war.”

“You realize you are in a communist country?”

“To each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

“Right. You know that, so–”

“Right now, we have a great need of things for a war, ma’am.”

Cadao was straining to continue this discussion. It weighed so heavily on her.

She like a villain; truly, she must have been. She must have been the villain.

Kansal seemed a touch irritated by everything.

“We are already producing at a high capacity. And industry from the south is being evacuated to Chunar and will be running again in a few months.” Kansal said.

Cadao sighed. “Ma’am, if I told you I could turn a toy factory into a gun factory what would you say? Would you really say that the toy factory producing toys, is being efficient here?”

Kansal narrowed her eyes. “I’d wonder what your opinion of our children is.”

It hurt to hear that, truly. It hurt to hear it said in that way. It really cast Cadao as a villain.

She took a deep breath and prepared to lean into villainhood fully.

Cadao shook her head. “If I turn every toy factory into a gun factory in just Solstice, I can equip a Division with Rifles and Grenades every week, and with enough ammunition to fight for a month, at the cost of a few unhappy kids who can learn to play pretend.”

Kansal hesitated to speak again. That was the kind of math that she truly understood.

“What else are you thinking?” Kansal asked. “What else is in War Plan V?”

Her heart was buckling, and her speech started to stir a bit. Cadao spoke quickly.

“Textile factories can make uniforms for infantry, bodysuits for tankers, camouflage nets, ammunition sacks, straps of various kinds that we need; tractor factories can make tanks, including the Hobgoblin. Automobile clubs can be pressed into patriotic service in making and repairing combat craft, including Aircraft like the Garuda II, which we sorely need. Women and men and children can construct earthworks and man air defenses. We could double the Solstice Air Defense Network, and have round the clock gun shifts, in a week.”

“And when the first teenage girl you allowed behind a gun is blown up by a bomber?”

Cadao almost wanted to weep hearing that. Her composure was starting to shake, but she held herself together as best as she could, shaking, and a little weeping, and yet firm.

“We’ll be secure in the knowledge that we have reserves.” Cadao replied.

She hated herself so much; she hated herself for having said that. Hated!

Even Kansal seemed shocked by Cadao’s response.

There was no more holding it back. Cadao was starting to break.

War Plan “V” was the solution and she had to have it approved.

“Ma’am, I understand what I am saying and proposing. The Socialist Dominances of Solstice was founded and built upon the promise that the state serves and protects its people and takes care of their needs first. To fully embroil them in this war, to use them in this way as a resource, to totalize this war into their everyday lives, is to break the great Ayvartan peace that we were enjoying, to break that gentleness we so valued. But ma’am, the state needs the people’s help. We cannot fight the Federation’s forces alone.”

Cadao broke out into tears over her own words. She felt she was becoming a monster.

But there was a problem, and she had the solution. She had the horrible solution and she could not let it go because that was her nature. She had won over this problem now and she had to declare it. No matter what was destroyed in the process. This was the only way.

“Right now we are producing 300 Hobgoblin tanks a month. I can make 1000 in a week, if I can have men and women currently painting sports cars for a dwindling export market, or building surplus wheelchairs, or putting together children’s bicycles; if I can have those people building tanks every day, on a fair schedule, for fair compensation. I can do that.”

“So,” Cadao’s voice started to crack. “So, ma’am, we may cause harm to Ayvarta. But we may save it too. Do you desire to save Ayvarta, even if it is not the exact same after?”

It was perhaps the polar opposite of demilitarization. Everyone had prayed and hoped for a society that could be at peace with the world and free of war. Cadao was proposing to make a society that was steeped in war, and functioned only to prosecute it at its most total, most consuming and brutal, in order to survive. What kind of Ayvarta could survive such a thing, she did not know. That was not the problem right now. She had the solution for the problem that they had. 1000 Hobgoblins a month in two months; after that, tens of thousands if the southern industry could come online in Chunar fast enough. Similar numbers of Garudas and Wyverns in the skies. Qote class aircraft carriers and Megalodon submarines. Millions of Salamander rockets. Untold billions of rifles and grenades.

And, ultimately, an army of several million, whole populations living to fight.

And even greater still a civilian army of billions who lived to support that fight.

Cadao’s horrible, inescapable, haunting vision of total war for the survival of Ayvarta.

“I will think about it.” Kansal said.

Her expression betrayed nothing of what she could be thinking.

She stood, saluted Cadao, and left the scene, stone-faced.

With her superior gone, Cadao finally allowed herself to break down completely.

She screamed, and thrashed, and cried, and nobody around her understood why.

People came up to her and tried to console her. Yanna told her everything would be fine.

All of those gentle souls, who might, in a year, or in two years, see that gentleness gone.

It made Cadao weep and scream all the more. She did not deserve that kindness.

1st of the Hazel’s Frost

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City, SIVIRA

Cadao Chakma appeared before Daksha Kansal one cold evening in Solstice.

She had spent the past few days on forced leave, to recuperate from “an illness.”

It was cold and getting colder, so she had some kind of excuse. Shifting weather.

That the desert was starting to become so unbearably cold at night meant winter was here.

Weather wasn’t it however; weather did not bother her.

Not the physical weather. It was more the philosophical weather bothering her.

There was a storm in her heart, pouring rain in her mind.

To think, Kansal had put so much trust in her, and she was already buckling.

What a joke; for a monster, she was very week.


She did not sit. She was not invited to sit, nor would she.

Cadao knew why she was there.

Under her arms, she had brought it. That hated thing, that fateful thing.

Kansal stretched out a hand and beckoned.

“Give it to me. I have decided to disseminate this.” She said.

Cadao nodded grimly. Her eyes almost welled up in tears again.

“Are you afraid, Cadao?”


Cadao was deathly afraid. Of what she was doing, of the role she would play in it.

“Can you continue your work even so?”

“I can. I have medications.”

Kansal nodded. She pushed back her chair.

“Cadao, I believe that the goodness of the Ayvartan people can survive anything. It blossomed even under the brutality of the Empire. We are not perverting it.”

Kansal stood, and she approached Cadao, in time for the young officer to break down.

Her knees grew weak, and she sank into Kansal’s breast.

Kansal took her in her arms and gave her a strong, reassuring embrace.

“We are saving it, Cadao, you are saving it. That you’re crying right now about all of this, despite being such a genius, with such a strong will to set this into motion. You are not excluded from the beauty and nobility of the Ayvartan people. You are the noblest of us.”

Cadao could hardly think anymore.

From under her arms, War Plan “V” spilled into the floor.

She cried and shouted terribly into Kansal’s chest.

This was an evil thing, it was not a good thing, not a communist thing.

It could not be anything but evil and she was doing it. She was the architect.

“Cadao, if it turns out that what we’re doing is evil and monstrous, I will be the monster. History will judge me, and never you. I will protect you. I promise.” Kansal said.

Cadao withdrew from Kansal and looked her in the eyes, shaking.


Kansal smiled a motherly smile and looked her in the eyes too.

“I will be the monster. Never you.”

Moved by this display, Cadao cried once again, the loudest she ever had.


1st of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

War Plan “V” is approved. Beginning of War Communism and Ayvartan Total War.

<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

Scornful Steel (Apocalypse 2030)


12th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Slowly the object of her hate came together before her eyes once more.

As she slid the plate into place, and her coworkers began to weld the side-panel armor covering the ammunition rack on the side, the vehicle began to take its shape. Its rounded body seemed almost friendly when she first saw it. People jokingly referred to the turrets as melons because of how round they were; this was funny for the first shift of her first day, before the downward-sloping rear armor had to be welded on and the bogeys bolted into place and the tracks, welded closed and tight around the drive wheels. Before the turret had to be dropped onto the ring, and the interior hydraulics and controls had to be wired and prepared by a specialized technician. Before all that, sure, it was amusing.

Once every bit of the machine was affixed, however, it had a shape only for killing.

She worked nervously on it, with shaking hands. They were held to an exacting standard, and the factory was run like a military base in a lot of ways. Certainly in its discipline.

On her first day the track had gone on too slack, and earned her a slap across the face.

“You’re not building a toy! Work to specification or get out!” shouted the Overseer.

She still heard his shrill voice in her head, every day she worked at the plant.

A lot had changed since then.

Her hands had grown used to the work and its precision; only the product was the same.

It was an M4 Sentinel, and its kin had killed more people than she had ever known.

One of the casualties was the very land under Marit Hale’s oil-stained shoes.

Iron Isle used to have a name, a beautiful, melodic name, but it was taken from it, and could not be spoken of again; and with it went the oil trees and the sweet tree plantations, and the clear skies and the fragrance of the wilds. Those could not be spoken of again as well. Smokestacks went up, blacktops spread out. Iron Isle was closer to the Nochtish war zones than all of its other territories. Once a minuscule line item in the agricultural department’s accounting of Pelagis province, once it became clear that Nocht would prosecute war across the vastness of the sea, Iron Isle transformed overnight to suit the needs of battles that could not be won with sugar and flowers and vacation homes.

At Plant #13 on the broad side of Iron Isle mostly older women worked, and there was only one exception. This was Marit, the tomboy of the Hale family whose many sons were taken for the war. She was an islander girl through and through; messy black hair, a complexion the color of baked clay, and a round, soft face unlike that of the sharp and pale featured Nochtish secretaries and overseers. She was an islander girl; she was not thought of as a woman. Only recently had she exchanged mud and sand in her sandals and fingers with soot and grease. She was thrust through the threshold of adulthood and went from school days and beach nights to four marks an hour for ten hours a day, six days a week.

Ten hours a day; and there was a promised commission for every tenth tank produced.

She had never seen that commission, and many tenth tanks had come and gone.

As the only healthy member of her family left on the island, Marit worked, alongside the mothers and grandmothers and the widows and wives. She showed up at the Plant campus every morning, striding past a half-dozen buildings on a square blacktop amid what was once farmland to reach a tin-walled and tin-roofed assembly building, baking under a hot, cloudless sky. A cool breeze blew in over the open plain beyond the blacktop, in certain places, at certain times in her morning walk, Marit heard the sound of rushing water from the nearby river as it turned the plant’s old water wheel, a holdover from the old farm.

“Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!”

Though less than enthusiastic about work, Marit kept a bright face and a broad smile and made herself good company. She walked out in front of the warehouse, where a chow line formed every morning for a free breakfast of hot oatmeal porridge and coffee. She slid into the line of women and seemed to slot seamlessly into conversations about news, food, weather, and work, greeting everyone around her as she waited for a tray of sweet slop.

“How’s your mother doing, Marit?”

“She’s recovering. Thank you for your concern.”

“Messiah bless her.”

“What about you Marit? Taking care of yourself? You look thin.”

“Oh, I always look thin to the lot of you!”

Marit had a flat, spindly sort of form factor, thin, long-limbed. Though she ate well she always looked partially starved. It was almost vexing. Her attire was shabby. She wore pants handed down from her brothers and a shirt and vest of the same origin. They had stitched holes and mismatched colors where other clothing was cannibalized to fix them.

Unimpressive, but it was all getting covered in grease and smoke anyway.

“Hey, you old bags quit chatting and eat!”

From behind the line, the factory Overseer appeared with a rolled up newspaper.

He struck a woman in the back of the line, for seemingly no reason.

All around him, people started to move faster. There was no longer gossip and loitering.

A line that had moved maybe one person every other minute was now going quickly.

“Nobody pays you to chat and eat!” He shouted. “Get your gruel and get moving!”

After this display, he left their side, and the women collectively comforted the one poor old woman struck by the beastly Overseer, and assured her that there was no reason for it and that she would be fine, that they would help her. Marit saw all of this from afar and didn’t really think much of it. It happened frequently. She wondered if real soldiers got beat around by their officers as much as the workers in this military factory got beaten.

There was grumbling and resentment, but everyone ate and made for their stations.

Marit, however, took a little bit of time to go somewhere more pleasant.

After grabbing her oatmeal and coffee, Marit sat down on a concrete speed bump along the edge of the factory, in the executive parking lot, her back to the chain link fence. There were no cars, because there were no executives present. There almost never were.

It was a place where she could eat in peace, listening to the lonely winds whistling over the blacktop. Almost like the old forest, where she would spend endless hours just sitting around and listening to all the sounds. Only the wind was left, but even it alone helped her to prepare herself mentally for the long hours with the sizzling welding torch, the click-clacking torque wrenches, the crashing hammers, the grinding of the lathes.

As she drank the last of her coffee she heard a clinking noise more than she did the wind.

Behind her, someone was climbing over the fence.

It was a woman (maybe more a girl like her), Marit was certain of that. She made it up to the top of the fence with anxious hand-holds, and produced a tool from her pocket that she used to cut the barbed wire, and to pull the sliced halves to either side to open a gap. She leaned back, and then threw herself up in one sudden effort, making it up and over.

It was there that she lost her footing and her fingers slipped.

Marit bolted upright and threw herself forward.

She caught the girl in her arms and together they crashed onto the blacktop.

Marit hit the ground on her left arm, with a lot of the girl’s weight on falling on her.

She flinched, and shut her eyes tight and grit her teeth.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry!” said the girl. Marit felt warm hands rubbing against her arm.

She found herself responding in Nochtish. “It’s fine, it’s fine.”

Her command of the language of her tormentors was almost impeccable.

When she opened her eyes, she saw a soft pink face looking down at her with blue eyes, and framed by lengths of wavy, luxurious blond hair. A dab of pink colored pursed lips, and a pair of hands held her own. Now that they were touching skin instead of cloth, the hands felt a little rough, calloused, almost incongruent to the angelic picture formed by the rest.

Marit pulled back her hand and crawled out from under the Nochtish girl.

“I’m fine!” She cried out. “But what are you doing? This is private property!”

She bolted onto her feet; was this an industrial spy? She had overhead the Overseer once talking about people paid to infiltrate factories and steal secrets and sabotage production.

Marit had been taught by some of the older women that in Nocht, there were a few big companies always competing to make new products for the army. Those who could make the most acceptable products for the cheapest price won the contracts. Companies like General Auto, who owned this factory, made money by spending the least they could on workers and production. Setbacks like the ones spies cost could dig deep into profits.

And that would mean they would have to dig deep into the workers to make up the rest.

However, the friendly smile put on by this girl did not seem like it could come from a spy.

“I’m Alicia Kolt.” She said, stretching out a hand. “I’m an engineer.”

She was dressed in an almost workmanlike garb, with a big leather apron over a button-down shirt, and a leather cap over her blond hair. She had toolbelts over her waist with numerous pouches and multiple little cutters and drivers and other knickknacks hanging.

Judging by her hands, she must have been doing some work, but her body did not appear affected as much. Marit was skinny and lean from all the back-breaking torture of factory work; but this girl was rounder and softer everywhere that Marit was flat and angular.

And of course, Marit had never heard of a female engineer. Their factory was mostly women, but all they did was put fabricated parts together. When it came time to wire radios and install hydraulics, they had technicians there from the Rescholdt-Kolt firm, men who knew machines. She had no idea what they would let a girl like this do in an engineering firm other than answer the phone and file papers and reply to letters.

Not that she thought it was impossible, she just knew rich men were bastards like that.

Nevertheless, Marit kept her doubts to herself and returned the handshake.

“I’m Marit Hale. So could you please tell me what you are up to?”

Alicia smiled brightly. “You work here, don’t you?”

Marit averted her eyes slightly. This girl had a very fetching smile.

“I do.” Marit said. “I’m in primary, intermediate and final assembly.”

“Goodness! How do you know which one you’re doing on any day then?”

“I don’t. They treat me like a kid and just have me fill in whatever’s needed.”

“I can relate!” Alicia said. “How old are you? Around eighteen I guess? I’m twenty years old and everybody treats me like I learned to walk yesterday. It’s very frustrating!”

“I’m nineteen. And yes, that is all pretty relatable.”

Marit found herself conversing and almost forgot to suspect Alicia of industrial espionage.

“But hey; Hey! Tell me what you’re up to already. I don’t want to get into trouble.”

Looking over her shoulder guardedly, Marit was relieved to find nobody coming in from the main factory grounds or from the office nearby, and the gate guard was in his booth and not paying any attention to his surroundings now that the workers had all checked in. So at least, the danger of being discovered accidentally was lessened, but she still worried.

Alicia flashed her that heart-stirring smile of hers, and winked one bright blue eye.

“I just want to take a tiny peek at something. And besides, look at this, it’ll be fine.”

She opened one of her pouched and produced a company-issued ID card.

It had the large, golden block letters R-K, for Rescholdt-Kolt, the engineering firm responsible for a lot of the complicated technology behind the factory’s products. General Auto had the raw industrial muscle, but the brains that came up with the blueprints and that put the finishing touches on the tanks, all of that came from Rescholdt-Kolt.

And wait; had she not said her name was Alicia Kolt?

Marit looked up from the card and at Alicia’s self-satisfied little grin.

“You’re getting it now huh?” She raised a hand to her chest and patted over her breast. “I’m the younger sister of Maximillian Kolt, the second partner in Rescholdt-Kolt.”

“Oh! Why didn’t you say so? You don’t have to sneak around then!” Marit replied.

She was less impressed with the connection, and more relieved there wouldn’t be trouble.

Alicia did not seem convinced.

Stepping forward, the young engineer put her warm, soft hands on Marit’s shoulders.

Her big blue eyes and invitingly painted lips were only the length of their noses away.

“Marit, I need your help.” She said.

“You really don’t!” Marit replied, suddenly nervous, excited, aroused(?) far too suddenly.

Alicia sighed. Marit smelled a sweet scent from her and averted her eyes again.

She felt the engineer’s hands squeeze gently with determination.

“Marit, If I just show up, they’ll give me a boring tour of the facilities and use me like a piece of decoration! Listen: there’s something I want to take a quick peek at. I searched around the exterior of the factory, but I can’t tell where to go. When I saw you, I knew that luck was on my side! I just need your help for a teeny-tiny moment, okay? then I’ll be out of your hair for good. Nobody will get in trouble. Trust me; I’m really good at this stuff.”

Marit felt a sudden thrill in her chest, followed by a sinking feeling.

“Pretty please?” Alicia asked again.

She could send her off on her own, go work, and go about her day like any other.

However, Alicia’s presence had suddenly reawakened a fire in Marit’s heart that she thought long since put out. That childish feeling of adventure, of making every day a truly different one, of doing more with oneself than one’s lot allowed. That feeling of defiance, of a child who saw rules and flaunted them, who saw challenges and conquered them, who felt that anything could be possible. That child who wanted to be her own person.

Marit felt suddenly that she had been conforming too much.

After all, what was in it for her if she obeyed the factory boss?

She would still get beaten if she made a mistake. She would still get paid poorly.

Alicia, however, was the promise of something a little different. Even if only for a day.

Besides, she was curious what kind of thing an Alicia Kolt could want with this place.

“I’ll help you.” Marit said. “But we have to be quick. I’ll be yelled at for being late.”

“Oh thank you! Thank you!”

Alicia pulled her into an embrace and kissed her suddenly on the cheek.

Marit felt her head would explode if a pressure valve wasn’t released soon.

“Is there any place where something important might be kept?”

That was Alicia’s only interest and clue, and Marit only really had one answer. There was a specialty workshop on the other side of the factory grounds that was padlocked. She had asked some of the other women if they ever worked there and none of them ever had, so it was not a place for regular assembly. One morning, she was feeling sick, and gave away her coffee to an engineer she found who was driving a crane-pulley tractor in the cold.

“Thanks, kid!” He’d said, “Hey, let me tell you something fun in exchange eh? Sit down.”

Marit had sat in the tractor with him, and heard him brag about how he was part of a team working on new ultra-dense heat-treated steel. There was no facility in the factory Marit had ever seen that could do something like that, so she figured that such things were going on behind the padlock in that specialty workshop. Experimental stuff. That was probably what Alicia wanted to see. If she was treated like a toy at the R-K firm, then maybe she was not allowed to see experimental projects, and it must have vexed her.

“Follow me very closely and keep your head down, okay?” Marit said.

Alicia nodded cheerfully. “Don’t worry, I’m an expert at sneaking.”

As she said this, Alicia carelessly kicked a discarded bolt and sent it rattling around.

Marit snapped her head toward her; Alicia held up her hands defensively, smiling.


“Shut up!”

Marit grabbed hold of Alicia’s hand and together they ran across the outer edge of the factory, along the fence, for several dozen meters, and hid behind a stack of discarded wooden pallets. From afar, they watched as a guard with a rifle and a cruel-looking bayonet came from around the corner, to where the bolt had hit a factory wall.

He looked down at the bolt, looked around himself, and kept on patrolling.

“Phew,” Marit sighed, “be careful.”

“Marit! That was a Panzergrenadier! Look at his helmet and coat!”

Marit blinked. She had no idea what Alicia was talking about. He looked like any other soldier to Marit. He had a grey coat, and a gun, and a helmet. Just another Nochtish man.

“To have Panzergrenadiers here– and oh my god, I think that insignia on his shoulder is for the Leibgarde Achim Lehner regiment, elite Presidential guard!” Alicia said.

She covered her mouth and seemed like she wanted to yell with excitement.

“Please calm down. You’ll get us caught.” Marit said.

They stole away around the factory ground, avoiding the guards, with Marit having to gently calm Alicia’s enthusiastic gasps whenever she saw something or other that piqued her interest, whether a model of tractor, or a brief glimpse of a tank being worked on inside one of the warehouses, or more of those soldiers with their strange insignia. Soon they made it to the side wall of the specialty workshop. Unlike the tin buildings around it, this one was concrete and closed. Only the specialty workshop and offices were concrete.

“How do we sneak in?” Alicia asked.

“From the top. There’s a ventilation system connected to the air conditioning.”

“Good! I’m an excellent climber!” Alicia said.

Marit looked at her skeptically and then smiled.

Once more they snuck away around the wall of the workshop and found a garbage bin at the back. Marit gave Alicia a boost onto it, and Alicia helped her climb up. In this way, they also made it from atop the garbage can and onto the roof. There, a series of ventilation grates led down into the workshop itself. Marit kneeled beside one of them and tried to pull it open, but she found it quite stubborn. After a second attempt, she saw the screws.

“Alicia, could you unscrew this for me?”

“I’m extremely good at that. One moment.”

With an inordinately proud look in her eyes, Alicia withdrew a screwdriver of the correct size from her belt and undid the screws locking the vent cover in place. Marit crawled headfirst down the vent, Alicia holding her legs for support, and she found herself at the bottom of the vent shaft quite quickly. Alicia threw down the screwdriver, and Marit opened another vent cover, and squeezed slowly out of the aluminum shafts.

And into open air, with little in the way of support.

Coming out of the vent, Marit fell a few meters down to a stack of asbestos sheets.

“Are you alright?” Alicia called down.

Marit took a few seconds to regain her senses. “Yes! Be careful coming down!”

She had hardly given the warning when Alicia came tumbling down out of the vent and crashed onto the stack of Asbestos sheets as well. She raised her arms and gave a little cheer before standing, and seemed more energized than hurt by the drop. Marit sighed.

“Where are we?”

Marit looked around. They were in a gloomy room, a small section of the shop compared to the exterior size. They were surrounded by stacks of materials along the walls. There were metal plates and the asbestos sheets and a stack of metal tubes. There was something large and covered up in the center of the room. One door led out of the room, and in the back there were a set of double doors that emanated a gentle heat. That was probably the furnace room, and the double doors were probably strongly insulated. No going there.

Alicia produced an electric torch from her belt and pointed the beam at the covered object.

“Marit, help me pull this tarp off it!”

Together, the girls grabbed opposite corners of the tarp and tugged on it several times.

Once the tarp was off, they found a tank under it.

“It’s just an M4 Sentinel.” Marit said. She felt a measure of scorn for the thing.

Alicia’s face lit up.

“It’s not just any old M4!”

She started going over all the things different. She pointed out the tracks, which were separated further for rough terrain coverage necessary for combat in the Ayvartan forests and hills and in the red desert of Solstice; and the circular armor extensions on the sides of the turret, which, in Alicia’s words, could defeat “delayed-action AP-HE.” She showed Marit the gun barrel, which was longer and of a wider bore than normal. She claimed it was a “75mm KwK 31” instead of the “typical” gun, the “50mm KwK 28.” Compared to the smooth, rounded bodies of other M4s, this one was a bit more angular and robust.

“I think the armor thickness has increased from 50 mm to 62 or even 70 mm!”

Alicia climbed up on the track, stepping on the bogeys, and then onto the tank itself.

“It’s amazing! Look at it! So much power! Isn’t it scary, Marit? It’s so scary!”

While she rooted around the top of the tank like a mouse searching for crumbs, Marit moved closer to the side of the tank and read aloud the block text painted on the side.

“M4A4 ‘Rick Sentinel’ Prototype GA-31.” She said.

“It’s not ‘Rick’ Sentinel, you’re verbalizing the R-K. That’s just the R-K mark.”

Alicia bent down from atop the tank to make eye contact with Marit while explaining.

“Rick Sentinel sounds like it has more personality.” Marit said.

“Hmm. I suppose so! It has plenty of personality already though!”

“So this is what you wanted to see?”

Marit looked up at Alicia, who was acting as if she was standing atop the world and not just a tank. She was inordinately pleased with her discovery, jumping up and down, clapping her hands and laughing as she surveyed the metal monster she had unshackled here.

“Yes, it was! I knew my brother was coming up with a big new project, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. All of these changes are completely elementary: judging by designs coming out of Helvetia and Lubon, the 75mm cannons widely deployed in light artillery units are the natural evolution of the comparatively smaller guns on tanks. To defeat the problem of recoil, the counterweight on the back of the turret was added! Ingenious!”

Alicia sat on said counterweight, stretching from the back of the turret, which was otherwise the round, “melon” turret that Marit was used to. She kicked her legs.

Her unrestrained cheer and the way she spoke about it gave Marit discomforting chills.

“So this is what you wanted to see? Just this?” She asked again.

“Yes it was! Thank you for giving me the opportunity Marit–”

“And what will you do now?” Marit asked. “What is your goal here?”

Alicia smiled. “I’m going to draw up something even more visionary. Knowing that this is possible, that counterweights potentially solve the recoil problem, that we can go above 25 tons, and so on; I can write a spec that will blow this one out of the water. Then they will have to acknowledge my abilities at the firm. Even if it’s not accepted, just the design–”

Marit clenched her fist at her side. “So you want to make a tank that can kill even better?”

“Um.” Alicia seemed taken aback suddenly. She stopped rocking her legs.

That savage hatred that Marit felt for the M4 was crashing over her like a cold wave.

“The M4 Sentinels that we make here are already so fearsome and murderous, and you want them to be bigger? To have bigger guns? To shoot more and faster? To be even harder to stop? You see this thing and you want to make one even more frightening than that?”

“Um, hey, Marit, I’m–”

“These things are the reason the island changed! The reason we can’t be free!”


Alicia tried to speak but Marit staring at her so intensely that she could not continue.

“You asked me if it looks scary? It looks scary. But you’re scarier, Alicia! You’re an even bigger monster than that thing is! You look at it and laugh and want to make it worse!”

Marit’s tone of voice rose to shouting, and she raised her clenched fists in anger.

Alicia shouted back, weeping. “Marit, please, you’re scaring me–”

“No more than you’re scaring me–!”

In the middle of the shouting match, the doors behind them swung open.

Light entered the room suddenly, framing a pair of figures in a white glare.

Both of the shadows darted forward.

Marit felt something hard strike her in the forehead and knock her down.

“Please stop! She didn’t do anything wrong!”

Alicia’s voice protested, but immediately grew muffled and desperate.

She was already wavering, but when a kick to her stomach knocked all the air out of her, Marit felt like something had unplugged her brain. She went out, and the world with her.

13th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Night had fallen, and Marit was still working. She was working under guard.

Outside the assembly building were two men with guns, smoking.

Inside it was the Overseer, tormenting her.

At first some of the women had stayed with her and tried to help her, but eventually everyone was thrown out, until there was only Marit, the guards and the Overseer.

Though they cursed the man and his cruelty, all her coworkers could do was to leave.

And all she could do was to keep working.

Marit felt the heavy throb of her wound on her forehead. Every little movement she made seemed to exacerbate the pain. And yet, here she was. Kneeling on the cold floor of the workshop, slick with grease and oil and sweat, her arms shaking, her teeth chattering. She moved mechanically. Her humanity had slipped away from her somewhere after the fifth hour of forced overtime labor and the second time the Overseer shouted in her ear.

She was a machine; she was truly doing first, intermediate and final assembly now.

All at once.

“We’re going to break a record here, Hale!” Shouted the overseer. “You’ll put together an entire tank by yourself! That’ll teach you to snoop around where you’re not wanted!”

Marit’s eyes welled up with tears involuntarily, her fingers looked like gnarled claws, bruised and spent and curled roughly as she struggled to get her shaking hands to stretch the track around the front and back gears, the rollers and under the bogeys. She stood, unsteadily, nearly falling, walked to the other end of the workshop. Grasping in the dark, she found the welding torch and came back to seal the track. With that accomplished she had only one more job to do — she had to lower the turret onto the turret ring.

Behind her, like a mocking imp, the Overseer watched from a folding chair.

“Obviously I don’t expect a moron like you to install the hydraulics and electric system. Just set the turret down on the ring, we’ll pretend it was finished, and you’ll be done. Free to go. Doesn’t it feel great to make amends? To work off your debt like a real citizen?”

Marit did not respond. She was not capable of response. Her mind was obliterated by exhaustion and pain. She shambled toward the chains attached to the crane pulley and tugged the crane along its supports on the roof, feeling like she would fall over dead with every effort. Once the crane was close enough, she attached the chain to the turret, and revved up a generator to start the lifting motor. She lifted the heavy turret, welded all by herself, every last part of it from the cheek to the hatch to the gun assembly.

Finally, the turret dropped onto the ring, a little unsteadily, but in its place.

“Congratulations Hale! You’ve made idiot history. Now get the fuck out of my face.”

The Overseer pointed her out the workshop door.

Marit, dirty, exhausted, wounded everywhere, with big empty eyes, shambled out of the shop, almost without recognizing what she was doing or what time it even was.

She was escorted by the guards outside the factory grounds and turned out onto the road.

Staring at the moon like a lost calf in the forest, Marit got walking home.

“Marit! Marit!”

There was a long light coming from the edge of the pavement.

Marit flinched when she heard the chugging noise coming closer.

At her side, a motorized bike stopped, cut engine, and someone left it.

“Marit, oh my god!”

She felt someone take her in arms. Sweet scent, golden hair.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! This was all my fault!”

Marit barely recognized Alicia’s voice.

“What time is it?” She asked.

Alicia pulled back from her, to look her in the eyes, still holding her by the shoulder.

“It’s past midnight, Marit.” She said.

“I have to sleep.” Marit said. “I can sleep maybe three hours if I get home in one.”

“I can get you home.” Alicia said. “But you shouldn’t work tomorrow! You’re hurt!”

“I have to.” Marit said. “If I’m absent now after all this, I’ll be beaten and thrown out the next time I show my face. I can’t stop working. My family needs me.”

She couldn’t muster any emotion, love or hate, for Alicia. She couldn’t muster anything.

Her unsteady legs started to shake. Marit felt like her feet would slip out from under her.

They almost did; Marit nearly fell, but Alicia caught her.

“I’ll give you money. It’s the least I can do.” Alicia said.

“Can you keep giving me money?” Marit mumbled. “If I lose my job–”

Alicia hung her head. Her bright and shining smile was nowhere to be found.

“I’ll drive you home. I’m sorry Marit. I’m sorry about everything. I’ve been stupid and preumptuous and naive and I hurt you so much with my foolishness. I’m so sorry.”

Without response, Marit stumbled onto the passenger car on the motorbike.

Visibly weeping, Alicia put on a helmet, and got on the bike herself.

Marit felt the earth start to move, and the surroundings blur in twilight.

Though she had hoped that a few hours of sleep would undo all the damage, it hardly seemed to change things, save to allow her mind to more fully understand her predicament. When she next woke, it was sunset, and Marit was hurting all over, her bandaged forehead feeling as if freshly broken over by a rifle butt. Alicia was sleeping in a chair next to her bed. Her father was passed out drunk in the kitchen. Her mother was still gone, god knows where in town, doing god knows what. It was all the usual.

“Alicia, wake up!”

Marit shoved the blond girl’s shoulder, and prodded her from sleep.

“Marit? Are you feeling better?” She asked.

“No. I need a ride to work.”

Alicia looked like she would cry again. “You shouldn’t.”

“I have to.”

There was no more protesting. Alicia must have learned would get her nowhere.

Marit changed into fresher clothes, also shabby hand-me-downs from her brothers, and she took a loaf of bread from the pantry, the last one they had. She practically shoved it into her mouth along with a glass of milk and honey. She would not make it in time to stand in line for breakfast today. Even with Alicia’s bike it would probably take a while.

Outside, Marit took one last look at her family’s decaying, shabby A-frame cabin as she mounted Alicia’s bike. It looked ever more empty and forlorn on a hurting head.

“Drive.” Marit said.

“Marit, I’m sorry–”

“You’re forgiven, drive.”

She said it brusquely enough that Alicia seemed to get the hint.

It took them thirty minutes to drive from Marit’s house down to the factory around the other side of the island. Marit normally caught a bus for workers, but to catch it, she had to get on before the sun, and she had not today. Alicia probably did not know the significance of the bus and did not wake her for it. Or maybe Alicia was as tired and asleep and also slept through it. Marit did not know if Alicia had been punished for what happened.

Certainly it can’t have been as severe as what Marit faced.

Once they got to the factory, Marit practically jumped off the sidecar, and she ignored Alicia’s protests as she ran through the front gate. Already the chow line had dissolved and people were at their stations. Marit ran through the factory grounds, and stopped at the assembly building. She turned about face, took a deep breath, and tried to walk as casually as she could into the tin building, hoping to not attract any attention–

“You’re late, Hale!”

Immediately she was pounced on by the Overseer.

Without regard for her wound, he rolled his newspaper and struck her in the head.

“That tank you made yesterday was shabby work! And now you’re late too? Get over there and start tightening drive wheels. You’ll be doing every assembly at least once today!”

Marit turned from him to go where assigned, but she stumbled and fell.

No sooner had she hit the floor that she felt the Overseer kick her in the hip.

“Get up, Hale! You’re not feigning sick with me again! I know that trick too well!”

She could hardly believe his words. He was the same man who had yesterday overseen her as she nearly killed herself putting together a whole tank all day and all night, with a head wound. Did he think her a monster, with unlimited power in her limbs? Did he think her darker skin and darker hair conferred him some natural savagery that could withstand this? She could not even move from the floor. Collapsed face-first, she struggled terribly.

“Stop that!”

From inside the assembly building there was a general murmur.

All of the women working on the tanks had stopped and were staring at the Overseer and at Marit. Many of them had stood up from their stations, and started to shout.

“This is monstrous! Leave that girl alone!”

“Can’t you see she’s hurt?”

“You’ve worked her to the bone, you animal! Leave her alone!”

As more people shouted, more people felt emboldened to shout and to shout louder. People started to refer to their own grievances with the Overseer, rather than just what he had done to Marit. Women started to leave their stations and to gather and walk over to the man and to mob. The Overseer swatted in front of him with his newspaper.

“Get back to work! All of you! If you don’t I’m calling the guards!”

Marit turned over on her side, trying to get up.

“And you, I said, up! Now!”

He delivered another kick to her, this time in the stomach, and she cried out.

It was this that triggered the mob of women to stampede.

Marit could not understand how he had gotten the confidence to do what he did. How in the face of everything, he kept attacking her, he kept provoking them. Did he not see them? Did he not see a hundred women, old and tall and tough with skin like baked leather and big meaty arms and fingers and bellies that had borne a half dozen children each?

He started to understand, perhaps, when the first thrown wheels struck him, when the first hurled cans of pain and oil spilled over him, when the first wrench blows knocked him to the ground. When the women kicked him as he had kicked Marit and when they found it in themselves not to stop kicking, when they found bigger things to kick him with, when they found things to stab with and things to crush with and maybe, as the light left him, he understood when they ruined and defaced his body in every achievable way.

After minutes of escalating violence the Overseer was barely recognizable as human.

Then the women took their bloodied weapons and charged the two guards who appeared, alerted by the cries and the commotion, and they beat them down, but they did not murder them as they had the Overseer. They struck them and pushed them and disarmed them and sent them scurrying away from the factory. Marit had barely managed to get back up on her feet, when the women started to chant, and to roar. They called out Marit’s name.

Blinking, incredulous of the events around her, Marit watched as the women charged toward the office, and the specialty workshop, and as more women from the other assembly buildings came out as well, and they shouted and cried and made commotion. Every woman seemed to shout her grievances aloud at once. There were chants for peace, to bring the boys back home; chants to work less hours, to work for more pay, to have the commissions they were promised for good work, to have new bosses or no bosses.

Soon the entire population of the factory was out on the grounds making mess.

Marit had hardly shambled out of the assembly building, when a siren went off.

In front of the specialty workshop, a metal shutter door started going up.

Marit’s heart sank, and she tried to shout, knowing what was coming.

From the workshop, something flew out with thunderous violence.

Over the heads of the women a projectile detonated and cast fire and metal down.

At once the spontaneous crowd started to break apart and disperse.

The M4A4 “R-K Sentinel” emerged from the building, and people scrambled away from it to avoid being crushed. From its front plate, sporadic machine gun fire sailed out over the crowds, flying between the assembled women, grazing many, striking some, hitting pavement and tin walls and causing a panic to unfold suddenly. Atop the turret, the guard commander for the factory stood half out of the cupola with a pistol in hand, screaming.

“All of you will cease this demonstration at once, or you will be hung as traitors to the Federation of Northern States!” He shouted, firing his pistol off into the air. “We hold fire only because of a sense of decency you all lack! Your ransacking of a military installation is high treason! But we will show mercy if you disarm and disperse immediately!”

His own voice made him sound nervous, though he put up a strong front. Clearly he was in a panic too, his every action and word belied that panic, and he had done something extreme that could not be taken back now, in the hopes of disarming a situation likely to kill him. One tank against hundreds of workers at very close range, even older women, would not end well for him either. Like Alicia had before, they could climb onto the tank, and maybe force the hatch. He was trying to scare them off. It was all going crazy.

Many women retreated, collapsed, wounded or unwounded; but a core was forming around the assembly building that continued to show some defiance, and they gathered together.

Callously, hungry for blood, the Sentinel’s turret descended its gun toward them.

Marit ran out of the building.

With one first and final burst of manic energy, she stood between the crowd and gun.

She spread her arms, shaking all over.

“It was my fault! I’ll take responsibility! Please stop this!” She shouted.

Her eyes filled with tears. Her entire being hurt. Her body, her mind, her soul.

Everything was out of control and she couldn’t help but think it was all her fault.

Had she been better, worked harder–

Had she not lost control around Alicia and berated her–

Had anything gone different, had her parents not broken down, had everything–

Her mind was choppy, thoughts cutting each other off, sensations twisted.

She was shaking, shaking violently in front of the women she sought to defend.

“Get out of the way brat! This is not about you! Disperse now! All of you!”

She heard a clicking from inside the barrel. She was so close to the gun.

It must have been the breech. She had done breech assembly before.

Someone inside had loaded a shell that would go right through her.

Marit swallowed hard. Even if she wanted to move, she could not have. She was out of strength. Everything was lost to her. She had given the last of her to stand with these women and to stand before them, to try to protect them, to try to make amends.

Now she was spent. She couldn’t obey the guard commander.

“I warned you!” He shouted. His own voice sounded as desperate as hers.

Marit closed her eyes.


Marit reopened her eyes in disbelief.

Standing in front of her, even closer to the gun barrel, was Alicia.

“You can shoot her if you want! But you’ll also kill Alicia Kolt if you do! And I’m not moving no matter what! If you really want to end this, call the Governor instead!”

She was shaking too. Her voice quavered perhaps even worse than Marit’s had.

But she was standing, and she was not moving.

Marit felt herself going forward, and falling onto Alicia’s back.

She held on to her waist, resting her head on Alicia’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry.” Alicia whimpered.

“You’re forgiven.” Marit said, this time much more sincerely.

Behind them, the crowd of women took steps forward, and joined Marit and Alicia.

In response, the R-K Sentinel backed down. It reversed into the specialty workshop, shut itself inside again, and made no more noise and caused no more damage until the police arrived, and the governor arrived, and cooler heads seemed more willing to talk.

18th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Territory of Pelagis — Iron Isle

Ever since the factory closed down, Marit’s mother and father seemed to have disappeared entirely. As a result of their vanishing near-completely into drink and dance, perhaps too distraught at the loss of the income from their sons and now the income from their daughter too, Marit got to keep her final paycheck. It was a pretty fat sum too — she had finally been given all her unpaid commissions for her good work. Despite this, she could not live very large. Had anything in her been broken it would have obliterated even this precious lifeline. But things had worked out well enough, she was healthy and she was free, and now she could use this last bit of money to leave behind her fallen home.

She would move to the Nochtish mainland and seek opportunity there.

It hurt her heart, but it was all she could do now. She had nothing left on Iron Isle.

Nocht, and Nocht’s war, had destroyed her family, her homeland.

With a hundred and fifty marks in hand, all she could do was to go on, to survive.

She packed up a few things, put the money in with her bag, and left the house.

She hoped to catch the bus, and then a ferry to Pelago, and then maybe a plane or a bigger boat to Nocht. She had never had to think about this, so she had no concrete plans.

Outside, however, she heard a distinctive chugging on the road.

“Marit! Hey, Marit!”

On her motor bike again was Alicia Kolt.

“Where are you going, Marit?” She asked, smiling.

Marit felt a strange softness in her heart and averted her eyes a little from the road.

“I don’t know! Anywhere but here, to be honest!” Marit said.

“Coincidentally, I’m headed the same way.” Alicia replied.

She patted her hand on her sidecar.

Sighing, Marit headed for it, and climbed in.

“Why are you helping me?” Marit asked.

“Why did you help me that day?” Alicia asked in turn.

She thought back to it. It seemed petty. There was no life-changing revelation to be had. She had seen a pretty girl who had made her swoon a little and who needed help, and she wanted the sense of adventure, she wanted to do something interest. She did not think it over too much. Her actions could not truly be justified. It was almost completely random.

Unwilling to answer that maybe she had wanted a kiss, Marit instead shrugged.

“Because it was different.” She said.

“Would you accept that as my answer too?” Alicia said.

“Absolutely not. You can do better than that.” Marit said, grinning in jest.

“You’re right. Let me come up with something better.”

Alicia leaned in from the driver’s seat and kissed Marit in the cheek.

Marit flinched and rubbed her own cheek and felt her heart jumping in her chest.

“How’s that? If you want it verbally: it’s because you’re so different.”

“I don’t think I am, but okay.” Marit replied, still rubbing her cheek.

“Trust me, I’m extremely good at these things. You made think a lot, you know.”

Alicia looked out over the road and down the hilly way from Marit’s house.

“I want to do something that a person like you would admire, not despise. If someone as brave and strong and selfless as you thinks it’s wrong– I can’t carry on with it.”

“Hey,” Marit said, suddenly alarmed, “I’m sorry about what I said to you. It was nasty and you didn’t deserve it. You shouldn’t just do whatever I say, who am I to dictate your life?”

Alicia smiled. “It’s okay. I’ve made up my mind. I might still make weapons, you know. But if I do, it wont be for Rescholdt-Kolt. It wont be so they can be used against you.”

She reached out and held Marit’s hand.

“Marit, I don’t know what to do right now, but I know I don’t want to leave you behind, whatever it is that happens. I know this sounds silly, because we just met a while ago, and because I was doing things to assuage my guilt. But I really want to stay with you.”

Marit smiled back. She laid her other hand on Alicia’s too. She liked the feeling of both their worn, callused hands, a little rough and spent, holding each other so closely.

“Whatever happened to wanting to one-up your brother’s designs, huh?” Marit asked.

“Oh, I’ll beat him. I’ll become a better person than him in every way. I’ll build things that will save people and protect people. Things you can be proud of and love, Marit.” Alicia said. “I’ll trample his scornful steel with the power of love. You can count on that.”

Marit burst out laughing. “Oh my god; what a queer bunch of ideas.”

Alicia worked the bike’s ignition and revved up the engine.

“I’m extremely good at this, remember? Anyway, where do you want to go?”

Marit leaned against the backrest, and breathed out. For once, she felt relaxed.

“I want to go with you, Alicia.” She said.

<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

Alea Iacta Est II (60.1)

This scene contains violence and death.

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Ocean Road

Harmony charged out of the alleyway to reclaim the street, and found itself alone.

At the sight of the air raid, it seemed everyone had fled into cover. And even when the guns started shooting back at the sky, no comrades emerged into the street to capitalize.

She was truly alone. And more painfully, she felt she had engineered this for herself.

Not the planes; not the fleeing; but the fact that she was alone. She shouldn’t have been.

But she couldn’t become mired in that guilt. Losing hope now would surely kill her.

Gunnerless, Harmony’s only defense was the DNV light machine gun tenuously attached by an improvised mount beneath the open front hatch. Far down the street, the remains of the elven bomber had split pilot Danielle Santos from her (beloved) partner Caelia Suessen. Rescuing her became Danielle’s singular priority as she leaped into her tank in a panic.

Seeing the hulk, however, sowed distress in Danielle’s breast. Fallen near-intact save its wings, Danielle was sure such a heavy, large bomber wouldn’t be dented by her 45mm gun.

Breathing quickly and intermittently, Danielle felt overwhelmed by the situation. She felt a tingling in the front of her head, a weight, as if a swarm of ants were crawling over her brain. Her hands were shaking wildly, one deftly twitching between the two control sticks and the other gripping handle and guiding the swivel on the removable DNV machine gun.

She leaned forward and put her head through the hatch. Gradually the sky had become a chaotic palette of red, blue, black and white. Every few seconds a shell went off, or an aircraft exploded or crashed, and the reek of smoke and metal started to fall from the heavens and come down to the city. Several aircraft seemed to deliberately be crashing into the city. There was noise and violence everywhere above — and it was spreading.

There were no enemies on the ground that she could see.

But Danielle soon found more white in the sky than just the wind-battered clouds.

Strings of parachutes started descending from the airborne no-man’s land at an alarming pace. Hundreds of troops were falling on the city. Automatic fire consumed many immediately, but more and more began to drop after them. As she leaned out of her Kobold tank she saw a dozen parachute troops coming closer to her, only a few hundred feet away, and even saw a few disappear behind distant buildings. She dove back inside.

From the pilot’s seat, she put both hands on the machine gun, and aimed high.

Drawing in a breath, putting the reticle on a cloudy white parachute, she hit the trigger.

From the front of the Kobold a stream of automatic fire launched skyward. Danielle, unable to aim for the small figures, instead aimed to clip the parachutes wherever she could get them. She could hardly see through the muzzle flash and the gun itself, blocking her hatch. But between three-shot bursts she spied parachutes precipitously dropping from holes punched in them, parachutes holding hanging men who seemed not to move.

She popped out a pan magazine from atop the gun, discarded it, attached a new one.

Rapping the trigger, pressing for a second or two and depressing for burst fire, reloading quickly from magazines she had dropped at her side, she sent hundreds of rounds sailing.

Soon she could see no more parachutes between her gunfire.

Satisfied with what little hindrance she caused the flow of men onto Rangda, Danielle pushed the control sticks forward and started Harmony down the road toward the bomber. She crossed a few blocks, and parked the tank several dozen meters from the obstacle. Now that she was closer to it, the fallen fuselage seemed ever larger and more daunting.

It had fallen in just about the worst place it could have. Rammed between opposing alleyways attached to buildings with ruined, blocked off entrances, the bomber fuselage could not be easily walked around. Previous fighting had taken its toll on Ocean Road. Caelia could have run into the alleys on her own side, but there was no telling where a parachutist had landed, or where debris, new or old, might bar the way forward again.

Danielle had no idea what Caelia might decide to do. If only she could signal her–

She remembered, from back in training camp. They had a signal. Tankers had flare guns with yellow smoke. Infantry had red smoke and white smoke. Maybe if Caelia remembered this detail she would know that Danielle was on the other side. Maybe she would hold on.

It was not just a matter of keeping her safe. To survive, both needed to be in this tank.

They had learned long ago they did exceptionally better together than apart.

Without each other, it was doubtful they would have even gotten to where they were now.

Caelia, an exceptional gunner, but a clueless driver. Danielle, a worthless commander, but a pilot who could make a tank glide over any terrain as if centimeters above the ground. They had known something of each other before all of that, but it was in the metal confines of a tank, separated by the turret ring, blind to each other and communicating exclusively over radio, that they found each other’s true selves, and maybe even their own.

Unglamorous as it was, they had achieved this goal together. Full-fledged tankers. From out of nothing, from everything they had left behind, from everything holding them back.

Danielle grit her teeth. She couldn’t believe how easily she had let petty jealousy root itself in her heart before. She should have known better. Caelia was special to her and she was special to Caelia. They had all of this; more importantly, they had always had it together. No matter where it was, what they did, it was always a medium for them, together.

Danielle had to trust her. She would hate herself forever if she lost Caelia for lack of trust.

Seizing the flare gun from the emergency kit, she reached her arm out the front hatch.

She pulled the trigger, and the flare launched right over the bomber fuselage.

It detonated over the barrier between them in a bright yellow flash and yellow smoke.

Caelia must have seen it. She must have — and she must have understood what it meant.

Now, however, she had to get that fuselage out of the way, some way or another.

Clumsily, she left the sticks and climbed up into Caelia’s seat, a place she never had occasion to see. A tank’s gun was probably the sturdiest part of the whole design. Engines and tracks and suspensions were under constant stress and frequently wore out during operations. Correctly mounted, the gun could last extremely long, and it was the one part that Danielle was not certified to repair. It required heavy equipment and a crew.

This was Caelia’s domain, walled off during operations. Danielle had her own space.

Now, however, she was gone and the gun was needed.

She was immediately struck with something she did not expect to see.

Sitting down on Caelia’s seat, she immediately spotted two photographs clipped to the gun sight. One had a large, friendly-looking black cat, staring inquisitively at the camera.

Another was of Danielle, sitting atop their old Goblin. Caelia herself had taken that one.

Shaking her head and stifling tears, Danielle reached into the rack for a 45mm AP round.

They had hardly been restocked. There were maybe a dozen fresh rounds available and a handful of leftovers from earlier in the day. Danielle grit her teeth. Even if she could penetrate the armor on the bomber’s hull, a small round would just poke a hole through it, and would get her no closer to removing it from the way. She felt helpless and trapped.

Sighing, praying for a miracle, she closed her eyes, she loaded the round, and looked down the sights. There was no need to aim. Her target was massive and it was very close.

Remembering how the gun operated, from her short-lived career as a gunner in training camp, Danielle shouted to no one in particular that she was firing an armor piercing shell.

There was a boom and a crack and a sharp, striking ding on metal.

Looking through the sight again, she found the bomber’s armor penetrated by a fist-sized hole. Moreover, she found something rather astonishing about the hole itself.

Danielle pushed open the top hatch and leaned out to look upon the wound she inflicted.

Her eyes were not deceiving her. This was not a well-armored bomber plane.

It was a ramshackle wooden plane with a layer of silver foil on the exterior.

How it survived the fall with any remaining integrity of form, Danielle did not know.

But she felt her heart soar suddenly. She felt a combination of foolishness and euphoria.

All of this time, that great impenetrable obstacle, forever separating her from Caelia; it was all in her mind. There was no invincible steel barrier isolating her. Caelia and her were separated by little more than a dozen millimeters of wooden skin with foil glued over it. She had been drowning in a glass of water. Danielle laughed, a bit bitterly, but relieved.

Perhaps this was not the only barrier that she had completely imagined.

Climbing back down to the driver’s seat, Danielle took the Danava machine gun mount off the front, backed the tank several dozen meters more into the street and lined herself up with the side hatch on the bomber plane. She shut her own front hatch, and then thrust the sticks as far forward as she would go, accelerating downhill at the plane with abandon.

“I’m coming, Caelia!”

Caelia Suessen found herself whistling, alone in the middle of the street.

Around her there was an uproarious battle happening between sky and earth.

She did not think about it, not at first. She was fixated on the way forward.

In front of her, in a scene that seemed fake, as if it had been staged for a production, stood the fuselage of a bomber plane. It had fallen from the sky, and in an instant, barred the way higher up Ocean Road. Behind her, a similar hulk had also fallen out of the sky, trapping her in a block of ruined buildings. Danielle was somewhere on the other side; she had ran out of their meeting in clear distress, and Caelia, deeply worried, had ran after.

But she was too late running, and not fast enough to make up the difference.

Danielle had been offended or hurt, that much she knew. Whether it had been Shayma’s effusive praise, or her own fault in overlooking Danielle, or something else entirely. Those were not the steps of an unwounded woman. She could imagine what happened, though she did not want to presume, lest she risk hurting her feelings even more. Danielle was soft in ways Caelia was not as much; or at least in ways Caelia did not let on as readily.

Now, though, they were in a situation where she could be killed.

Losing Danielle, never again having her in her life–

Caelia was not fond of mental time travel, but that was a future she had to prevent.

She was still processing what would happen next, and what to do.

She spontaneously whistled a song from a play. It was near and dear to her.

Though it was not necessarily calming, it was an outlet for her nerves.

Mustering her resolve, and shaking her head hard to relieve the dazedness she felt, Caelia started searching her surroundings. There seemed to be nobody around. Most of the buildings around her had collapsed, either in earlier fighting or because of the falling aircraft and aircraft debris. She was blocked off on all sides it seemed. She had her pistol in her possession, and she drew it and made sure it was loaded. She had no other weapons, no grenades, not even a knife. She had left much of her kit behind with the tank.

Any kind of fighting in this state would be pointless. She didn’t even have spare ammo.

Caelia thought of trying to climb the unsteady rubble and jump over the plane.

Suddenly she heard a loud buzzing overhead and raised her eyes to the sky.

She was ripped from her reverie, and forced to confront the wider world.

Flying low, a plane with a long and rounded fuselage, trailing smoke from its twin engines, swooped over Caelia, over Ocean Road, and crashed somewhere close by. Caelia could feel the impact, diffusing through the earth itself, and the vibration in her gut unsettled her.

But the plane mattered less than what followed it. High in the sky, and descending much more gently than their transport, a line of parachutes blossomed on high, popping from their packs and spreading like hard clouds against the smoke and fire in the blue.

Everywhere, it seemed, there were parachutes dropping, and planes falling.

One pack was closest and closing in. Any kind of wind would drop them right on her head.

“Almost a full platoon.” She whispered to herself. She immediately began to whistle.

There was nowhere really to hide, and if they landed close enough, they could dispatch her easily. They had rifles, numbers, and time was on their side. She had a pistol and music.

And she barely had music, and barely had a pistol in any way that counted.

Her hands shook with the futility of it, but she raised her pistol to the sky to fight back–

Soon as she pulled the trigger, a stream of tracers went flying overhead into the enemy.

Caelia watched as a succession of quick, bright red volleys went flying into the platoon, cutting parachutes, striking men. There were dozens of rounds going out in practiced bursts, and anywhere they struck would be tragic for the vulnerable paratroopers. Parachutes with holes in them or missing strings struggled to stay aloft but quickly and ultimately collapsed and sent the wearers plummeting to their deaths. Several surviving parachutes spilled blood onto the ground, carrying corpses. All the remaining living Parachutists struggled to influence the direction of their drop away from the gunfire.

Then, coming from behind her, Caelia saw the yellow flare and the smoke.

She knew immediately who it was. Danielle had come to her defense, to pick her up.

She had no way to signal back, but she knew it was a tanker, a tanker who was stuck on the other side of this fuselage. A tanker who was trying to get to this side. It had to be Danielle. She was trying to find a way through. Despite everything, she had turned around and sought her out. Caelia, briefly elated, moved to the side of the street, hiding behind a pile of rubble, and she drew in a breath. She heard shots, sounds of struggle. She felt the fuselage shake. But nobody was coming through yet. She still had some time to wait.

Caelia started to whistle again. She thought of what she could even say to Danielle now.

Whistling, music; though she had given them up, those were things she was good at.

Being forward with her partner was not something that came as naturally to her.

I love you, was a set of words that eluded her tongue. For one reason or another.

Even then, they were perhaps not fitting for their situation anyway.

She felt her heat beat faster as she thought of Danielle, of how to mend things.

If things needed mending; if they could be mended at all.

Caelia drew in a breath. She began to whistle again–

Soon as the first notes drew from her lips, she was interrupted.

A rifle bullet struck the fuselage near to her, forcing her to duck farther behind the rubble.

She peered briefly into the street, just in time for a handful of paratroopers to drop from out of nowhere, silently yet solidly. Blue-uniformed elves with sharp ears, long, blond hair, and piercing green eyes. They dropped, stumbling onto the pavement and quickly rising, and threw off the bulk of their parachutes. Four rifles pointed her way.

She had been concentrating on hiding and waiting, and Danielle had probably been concentrating on trying to break through to her. Neither of them realized that the parachutes were still dropping. That they would continue dropping, for who knew how long. Rangda was under siege from the sky. Caelia felt foolish for feeling a little safe.

Desistere!” they shouted, jabbing their bayonets into the air in front of them.

Her song wouldn’t last many more notes. Caelia paused to sigh and breathe.

Across from her the elves responded to the lack of compliance by opening fire.

Caelia crawled tighter behind the rubble. She heard the bullets striking the fuselage, and felt the hot lead bouncing off the surface and coming suddenly down on her back.

All they had to do was run forward and stab. Caelia wanted to cry. Though she had a hard time grappling with emotion, Caelia knew then and there who’s name she would cry.


Behind her the fuselage gave a great shudder that no rifle could have caused.

Chunks of wood burst from it, and a great metal thing thundered past as if through a door.

Caelia watched as Harmony hurtled through the fuselage toward the riflemen.

Surprised and speechless, the men did not move fast enough to avoid their fate.

Harmony trundled through them, crushing whatever of them it caught underfoot.

Two men it mashed to bits beneath its tracks. One man rolled out of the way, and a second attempted to evade far too late, and he dropped to the floor and lost his legs to the tank.

Harmony ground to a halt.

Caelia drew in a breath and stepped out from cover.

Standing to full height, she held her pistol up.

Across from her, the man with the rifle dropped his weapon, broke, and ran.

She did not fire after him. He disappeared, panicked, into the buildings.

Was this their foe?

Caelia shook her head. It didn’t matter. Not now. There was someone more important.

Whistling again, scarcely believing all that transpired, she ran swiftly past the corpses and around to the front hatch of the tank, where Danielle sat, stupefied, with her front hatch swung open. She was the same Danielle, with her brown skin and messy, curly black hair and her glasses, unharmed, just as she had been left. Her Danielle; her Danielle.

“Hey,” Caelia said, leaning into the hatch. She stifled a hint of tears of her own.

Inside, Danielle was shaking, and weeping, holding the tank’s sticks with a deathly grip.

“H-Hello.” Danielle said.

They looked into each other’s eyes, both shaking from toe to top, teeth slightly chattering, hair on end, sweating, breathing heavily. Exhausted; having both fought, both killed, and yet, both still surrounded by the enemy nonetheless. Both having suffered some shocks. Caelia’s eyes began to water as she reached a hand down to Danielle and wiped the tears from her partner’s eyes. A little sob escaped her, and briefly interrupted her whistling.

“I’m sorry I made such a big show in the tent. I was an idiot.” Danielle stammered.

“It’s okay.” Caelia said simply.

And for the moment, perhaps everything was simply okay for them.

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Bad Bishop — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence, including fleeting graphic violence, and death, as well as mild sexual content and implications of familial neglect.

32nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance – City of Solstice, People’s Peak

Proportional representation amendments had bloated the National Civil Council to over 300 members. Many of them were redundant, created as a successful political stunt to chip away the political power of the more committed socialists in the north to the softer centrists and the ambivalent uncommitted of the south. They were nominated and then voted for by people from their community participating in a cargo cult democracy, and thrust with responsibilities they were not trained to handle, and thus they were pushed into cliques taking convenient stances for particular factions. Adjar and Shaila had the majority of these malleable placeholders, over less populated territories like Jomba.

This was a relatively recent atrocity of the political process, but a damaging one.

The Council had taken many forms over the years. Ever since the agreement that created the Socialist Dominances of Solstice it had warped and changed. It was at the time of its inception an ill defined body – a malformed continuation of the Ayvartan Empire’s administrative districts within a democratic framework and with a socialist mission. It had to work because the alternative was too ugly. Bread, shelter, clothing, for all; Kremina once believed that any society oriented around these principles could not be corrupt, no matter what. She thought she could see the end of the “class struggle” that Daksha had waged.

It was this naivety that led to the slow degradation of their power in the government. All of the veteran revolutionaries were slowly burgled out of their voices and their votes.

In her case, she foolishly agreed to it. She walked into it. She was the biggest fool.

It hurt because Daksha had relied on her.

She had failed them both. But Daksha never held her accountable for it.

While criticizing others she always ignored Kremina’s foolish role in that legal coup.

Kremina Qote swallowed down all of that regret. She had to move forward now. They had a chance to recover. She would hate herself if she didn’t at least try her best now.

Four days since the fall of Knyskna, four since the Kalu battle, the Council convened.

Due to the size of the Council and the varying political competence of its councilors, not everyone convened together – for most of their business they various factions sent representatives to speak for them. After preliminary negotiations the representatives returned to their cliques, gathered up votes, and then met again with their counterparts and delivered the numbers. Long form votes were rare, and so was the use of the room at the very peak of the People’s Peak, an auditorium that could fit every single councilor.

On the 32nd the room was full, save for a single councilor from Adjar, Arthur Mansa.

“Why isn’t he here?” Daksha asked. Councilman Yuba shook his head.

“He said he has personal business in Tambwe that he had to oversee.” He said.

“It’s good for us that he’s gone, but it’s still strange.” Kremina said.

“His aides will vote for him. It won’t make a difference.” Yuba said. “Even his leadership cannot salvage this now. I wager that is exactly why he has personal business now. He is weak and can’t afford to lose face publically. He knows he will lose here.”

“I hate this!” Daksha said. “What kind of socialists are we that we allowed this?”

“Socialists who tried hard to put democracy ahead of tyranny.” Yuba said sternly.

“I feel it’s about time we put our survival ahead of the ability to vote.” Daksha replied.

They were convened in the hall outside the auditorium.

Daksha was dressed gallantly that night. Kremina had helped her into a new dress uniform, with a peaked cap, the KVW’s red and gold and black jacket and pants, a pair of tall boots. She personally helped tie her long dark hair into an orderly round bun, several white tufts falling around her forehead. Her dark face had been oiled clean and powdered smooth, her lips painted a subtle red. Kremina loved the few little wrinkles around her mouth and eyes, still visible; she loved her lean, tall, broad-shouldered frame, accented by the pants suit and jacket. She could have kissed her; and she had, before they went out in public. The Warden had never looked so dashing and immaculate.

She satisfied herself with adjusting the Warden’s dress tie and holding her hand before they walked through the curtains into the auditorium. Daksha went ahead to the podium.

Surrounded on all sides by the high seats, occupied by men and women of all ages from all the Dominances, Warden Kansal walked to the circular space in the center of the auditorium. In the middle of it all was a lonely podium, upon which Daksha laid down her papers. She raised a pair of spectacles to her eyes, and opened the folder holding her charts and cheat sheets. There was no applause. Much of her audience had come into office having never heard Kansal speak, and knew her only as the head of the extremist KVW.

Normally the loudest voices in the Council were the elected from Adjar and Shaila. Today they were quiet, shattered. Shaila was lost, and barely a quarter of Adjar remained under the tenuous control of the Socialist government. It too would soon be given up.

Adjar and Shaila had the largest concentration of collaborationist-leaning councilors, owing to their large and largely politically disengaged populations. But without the leadership of their clique those councilors were confused. Mansa had abandoned them.

Yuba had been right. They were vulnerable now.

In the chaos of the invasion their petty ambitions could not be countenanced even by the most politically illiterate, and in the face of the violence that had been witnessed in Bada Aso and Knyskna, diplomacy with Noht was seen as treason. Those among them ambivalent about real socialist policy could not dare to speak a counterposition.

Kremina stayed by the curtain, framed by doorway leading into the room. She watched from afar. She had written almost half of the speech, but now Daksha had to deliver it.

Fearlessly Daksha craned her head. There was fire in her voice but a blank expression on her lips and eyes, devoid of the anger and contempt Kremina knew she felt.

“Tonight you will be asked to consider a typical slate of policies, much the same as you have pored over the past few months. Production, development, awareness projects, outreach campaigns. Many of these things sound insignificant, but you will consider them nonetheless. In our socialist democracy, people’s democracy, even these simple things are considered and carefully analyzed. There are a few decisions on the agenda tonight.”

She paused for a moment, as if to create a hole in the air, to then fill it with her sound.

“You will debate on the best course of action to prevent insect-borne epidemics in Tambwe, that were particularly virulent the past few years; you will debate on the presence of gender markers in our state identification papers; you will debate on whether to modify the amount and kinds of food in the citizen’s free canteen meals each day.”

She looked around the room, her eyes scanning from face to face in the crowd.

“You have gathered data on these subjects. You might have papers written to support a small reduction in the meals, such as the removal of an extra piece of flatbread or the reduction of the dried fruit rations, and explain how there is some benefit or another to this action. There will be citizens speaking to you, providing evidence to help educate you. There are a few witnesses waiting outside, hoping to be allowed into this room to speak.”

It was hot in the room, under the spotlights shining from the corners of the auditorium. But Daksha did not sweat. She spoke, loud and strong, her words perfectly pronounced.

“Unlike them, I’m not here to support a position. I do not believe my ideas are up for debate; there is no contra against me other than inviting the death of our nation. To demand I qualify myself with data, to demand that I substantiate myself with strong rhetoric, to tie me to your discourse – is to do nothing short of submitting our people to slavery and our land to Federation hegemony. In Rhinea, far in the north, there is a democratically-elected parliament of intelligent, educated men who strongly debated whether to withhold aggression or to send their citizens here to kill our citizens. We cannot mimic their procedure – to debate as to whether our citizens should defend themselves is a sick task.”

Not a word was spoken against her.

Not a word could be; the entire council was subdued.

“I am here not to support any position, but to outline a series of actions that must be taken effective immediately to preserve the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. If you wish to become something like The Southern Federated State of Solstice under the auspice of the Lehner administration in Rhinea – then continue on your warped course. Should you realize the urgency and pressure upon us, and resolve to survive to see a tomorrow–”

Daksha picked up her speech papers and threw them over her shoulder. They landed on the floor, the soft sound of the sliding papers resonating across the dead silence of the room. From her abrupt pause, she segued into the line items Kremina had prepared for her. She spoke clearly, at a brisk pace, only pausing for a subtle breath between each item.

“Rescind the current civil administration of the military and unify all military resources under a Supreme High Command responsible for drafting strategic military actions, and responsible for administration, logistics and intelligence. This command must be free to wield all of the nation’s military resources without impediment to answer the immediate threat to the people. It must be commanded by experienced military officers.”

“Merge all current separate military formations and organize them into Armies, Corps and Divisions under the Supreme High Command in whatever way is found most efficient.”

“Redeploy all reservists and recruit more troops, either through patriotic awareness or material incentive campaigns or through conscription as a last resort; restock our current divisions, and create new divisions, using new manpower; promote people with military experience to rebuild our officer corps, reintroducing ranks above Major to the armies.”

“Reduce Divisions from Square to more efficient Triangle formations. We can use the disbanded 4th Regiments to assemble new Divisions. To these more efficient formations, reintroduce shelved heavy weapons, including heavy artillery. Organize heavy weapons so that each infantry unit has organic heavy weaponry, including machine guns, while also retaining specialized heavy weaponry units designed to support explicit offensive actions.”

“Reintroduce high training standards and promote professionalism in the armed forces. Instill in our armed forces a respect for their people, a respect for their own role, and an understanding of accountability to their people. In service to this task, invite civil elements to participate alongside our military such as journalists and union liaisons, to open dialog.”

“In service to this task, rebuild our war industry and promote practical innovation of new weapons. Provide our unions the tools to help our war effort and their own communities in the process. Cease production of obsolete weapons and increase production of new designs. Open a dialog with our unions to increase workplace efficiency, safety, security, and bring them into the process of military development at all levels.”

“Rethink the dualized system of distribution – Honors distribution, and the items controlled under the Honors system, must either be expanded or removed. War will surely disrupt it otherwise. Treating it like an alternate currency has never quite worked. My personal recommendation is a voucher incentive system for a wider range of purposes.”

After each bullet point, many councilors in the room cringed and avoided her eyes. In short, the Warden could simply had said “reverse your policy now and completely.”

Never before had so many radical propositions been made at once to the Council.

There was no conclusion.

Daksha unceremoniously left the podium without even a bit of applause.

There was whispering around the room as she stepped away, but mostly silence. Kremina sighed with relief. She had almost expected her to act out at the end of the speech, but Daksha had managed to quell her anger for a moment and keep an appearance of calm throughout. When she passed the curtain, her hand was closed into a shaking fist.

“A room full of fools!” She said emphatically. “All devolving into blank stares as if I were not speaking the standard dialect to them! Children could have paid better attention!”

Kremina held her hands and tried to calm her. Together they waited through the several speeches and witnesses of the night. They sat in a bench, with their backs to the room wall, drinking water and taking complimentary caramels from hospitality bowls. They paced the hallway, up and down. Several hours passed. Then the council began their deliberations.

There was one topic they did not seem to openly debate – the Nochtish invasion. They would hold a vote on it, Yuba assured them as he ran back and forth from his seat and the hallway, checking up on them between each speaker and each vote, reassuring them. There would be a vote. They did not debate it because they were scattered, and because of Daksha’s speech and presence. But there would a vote. And there was a vote, held, collected, counted. Yuba returned one last time to deliver to them the final results to Daksha.

He smiled awkwardly, crossing his arms against his chest. “Inconclusive, I’m afraid.”

Daksha bolted up from the bench. “What the hell do you mean, inconclusive?’

“Inconclusive. There were votes on several of the positions you outlined and none of those line items received either enough support to pass or enough opposition to be shelved.”

Kremina put a hand on Daksha’s shoulder, passively trying to calm and hold her back.

“Yuba, you don’t seem too concerned. You promised results. Please explain.” She said.

“What was important tonight is showing to all those sleeping councilors that there is leadership outside of their factions, and that leadership is stronger than their own.” Yuba said. “There will be another vote. I will start building a coalition to chip away power from Mansa’s, and I can use tonight’s indecision as a starting point. Warden, you will notice, for example–” He withdrew a piece of paper, a voting results report, hastily scribbled up. He pointed to it. “My factions voted in unison for all of your policies. We were only stopped by the mishmash of indecisive votes, all from Adjar, Shaila, Tambwe and Dbagbo.”

Daksha exhaled loudly. She crossed her arms, turned her back, and paced around.

“Victory takes time!” Yuba said amicably. “You do not encircle an enemy in one day. It is a series of actions; you maneuver around them, isolate them, and you capture them.”

“Or you can just destroy them.” Daksha said, her back still turned on the old man.

“Doubtless, you could, if you wanted to.” Yuba said, shrugging with his hands. “But I believe destruction always carries a human cost, both right away, and in the times that come after. Whereas if you lay siege, you may capture prisoners with less yielded blood.”

There was silence in the hall.

Behind them there was the sound of a gavel to end the meeting.

“When is the next vote? I suppose I should be present for it.” Daksha said.

She sighed a little, as if to let off steam from a burning engine.

Kremina rubbed her shoulders affectionately.

Nocht Federation – Republic of Rhinea, Citadel Nocht

President Achim Lehner kept a mirror on the left-hand wall of his office because he thought whenever someone passed by it, he could see through them in the reflection.

He waited at his desk for the day to be officially over, so he could get started on a few of his off-the-clock hobbies. He contemplated looking in the mirror, maybe straightening out his tie, combing his hair again, making sure he looked as sharp as he could; but then he felt foolish for entertaining the thought. Cecilia didn’t need him looking perfect. That mirror had a power, though; he loved that mirror, in a strange, almost religious way.

Throughout the day he met with a dozen different people.

A Helvetian diplomat met briefly to discuss open sea lanes for neutral countries during the war – he saw one of her cheeks in the mirror, contorted, crooked, as though the scowl of a demon hidden in her everyday smile. Two automotive company executives expressed interest putting their factories to work in the production of trucks. On his mirror Lehner saw a twitch in one’s eye and the other fidgeting behind his back with his fingers.

General Braun appeared too. He looked ghoulish every time.

Lehner did not use this mirror for himself. He hated looking at himself in a mirror because he always focused too much on the little things. One slightly off-white hair in his slick, well-combed locks; what seemed like, perhaps, in the right light, a wrinkle in his boyishly handsome profile and smile; a blemish somewhere on his high cheekbones or aquiline nose. A weird bump in the perfect slant of his lean shoulders that he compulsively patted down. He didn’t need that. Mirrors tried to grind you into their own image.

They were made only to show imperfection.

Good tools to keep where others could see them; pernicious to peer into yourself.

Lately he spent a lot of time in the office.

That would have to change soon, but right now there was simply too much to leave up to chance. He needed to be on-hand to make sure everyone was giving a hundred percent. That was the only problem with his beloved egg-heads – they could take care of business, they certainly had the smarts for it, but they often lacked initiative and bravura. So he stayed in the Citadel, toured it every day, dropping in on the offices, issuing encouragement, holding meetings, making charts, suggesting slogans, promoting synergy.

Busy days, busy days all around; he made sure everyone was doing something for him.

Hopefully he would have the time to take a few field trips soon; meet up with folks, tour facilities, get more contributions and donations going. Maybe take Cecilia out to dinner. Unless Mary returned from Ayvarta first; Cecilia knew perfectly that Mary took precedence. After Mary was gone again, though, he would treat her, certainly.

A beeping sound; he picked up the phone.

“I’m ready if you are, doll,” he told his secretary.

“I’m afraid Agatha’s waiting on the line, should I put her through?” She replied.

“I’m never too busy to talk to my wife,” Lehner said, perhaps a little sharply.

Cecilia had no protests – the rules of their game had been established ahead of time.

There was a click on the line and the dulcet voice of Agatha Lehner filled the wires.

Lehner squeezed the receiver with muted anticipation. Agatha was always soft, at first, but she was clearly not calling to small talk. She never called just to tell him about her day or the weather. Lehner quickly found himself on the defensive as she began to probe him.

“No, dear, I don’t think I’ll be back for Givingsday, I’m sorry. I’d have loved to be there, you know I’d have loved to be there, I wanna see you, doll. You know I want to see you and I would see you and hell, I’d do more to you than just see you, if you follow me – but I can’t sweetie. I’d love to but I’m just too busy, and these Generals are turning out to be like children to me, I’ve got to keep wrangling them. Believe me, I’d love to ruffle up that king-size with you. You gotta be patient, ok? I’ve got too much on my plate.”

He listened to the response, sighing internally.

Agatha sounded upset on the phone.

“I thought you had a picture going? I thought you were filming. Had I known you’d be out on Givingsday I might have planned different, but I thought you had a film running?”

Agatha turned from upset to exasperated – she sighed into the phone.

“Oh don’t be so dramatic; no, no, we won’t be doing the military parade together remember I’m doing that one with Mary, showing support for the Ayvartan Empire and all that. After the parade, ok? We’ll have a date before the end of the Frost, I promise.”

Agatha acknowledged and hung up; President Lehner dropped the phone on his desk.

“Had to marry the actress,” He said to himself, “legitimately didn’t see this coming.”

His agenda for the day was mostly complete.

He leaned back, stretched, yawned and meditated. To hell with Agatha and her rotten attitude – it’s not like she could spoil anything for him anyway. Everything but her was going great, and he wouldn’t focus on one miss in a salvo of non-stop, bulls-eye hits.

President Lehner had few political worries.

Thanks to a Congress that in his father’s pocket twenty years prior and in his own pocket now, he was guaranteed an 8-year term in office, with nothing but a perfunctory mid-term review to threaten him. He had already served two. At the ripe age of 34, Lehner had ridden into office on exactly his youth, vibrancy, and seemingly precocious attitude.

Achim Lehner, man of the future! That had been one of his slogans. He positioned himself as a sharper, more flexible man than his opponents. He talked science, he talked statistics; he talked about the transformative power of knowledge, about the electric age reforms he could bring to the government. He would make government smarter, efficient – people liked that. People liked the numbers. Nobody told them the numbers before.

Lehner positioned himself as a smart kid innocent of vice who simply strode into the dance bar and reinvented the Lindenburgh right in front of all the drunk gents.

People liked that!

They liked it enough to give him a crushing victory with 85% of the vote.

They liked it enough to give him a clear mandate for his administration.

Whether he fulfilled that mandate was for journalists and radio jockeys to argue over. It was not his concern. His government was smarter, was more efficient. He had reformed stagnant state enterprises by selling them off; he had reformed “big money” by wrapping it around his finger, making it work for him and not just for itself; he had improved security by ruthlessly crushing overseas opposition in the wars he had inherited.

He had promised to stop those wars, and he did.

He never promised not to have his own.

So there he sat.

All he had to worry was giving his all too friendly secretary a good time.

Citadel Nocht was always gloomy, except when it was outright dark.

Lehner’s office extended artfully out of the citadel structure, and through the dome roof he had a good look at the sky. There was not much to look at now – it was pitch black.

He could not even see the stars.

Outside, he heard the lobby clock strike. He smiled, and waited a few moments.

Ahead of him the doors to the office opened.

A woman entered, closing the door behind her, and smiling with her back to it. She had her long, luxurious blonde hair done up, with some volume on the sides framing her face and a green hairband. On her nose perched a pair of block glasses, and her lips were painted a glossy pink. She had a grey suit jacket and a grey knee-length skirt.

Lehner did not look at her reflection in the mirror.

He already knew the real Cecilia Foss.

Madame Foss,” Lehner said, in a sultry voice.

She was his wonderful Frankish secretary.

Bon nuit, President,” She said mischievously.

She approached the desk and leaned forward.

Their lips briefly met, before gracefully parting. She sat across from him, legs up on the desk. He laughed. She grinned. It was always a game between them, nothing more.

She played him.

“Is Haus on a boat yet? I want that man on a goddamn boat.” Lehner said.

Cecilia rolled her eyes a little. “You always want to talk about men in boats lately.”

Lehner laughed. “Unfortunately I can’t fly them down to that god-forsaken rock. Everything I need sent to Ayvarta goes through Cissea and Mamlakha’s one good port; it is fucking dreadful. And with the way Von Sturm has been going at this all backwards I fear we’re not going to snatch Bada Aso’s port in any decent condition. So; Haus, boat?”

Oui.” Cecilia replied, crossing her arms. “Field Marshal Haus is on his way south.”

“Thank God. I should’ve sent him in first instead of the fucking kindergarten I’ve got.”

Teasingly Lehner pulled off the secretary’s high-heeled shoes and took her feet, kissing the toes over her seamed black tights. She grinned and giggled, running her digits slowly against his mouth. Their eyes locked as he kissed, squeezed and cracked her toes.

“Sad to see little Sturm choking up.” Cecilia said. She had an intoxicating Frank accent that made her every word sound like a sultry temptation. Lehner could listen to her all day. “Everyone thought him a genius. Our youngest general. Too bad for him.”

Lehner raised his head from her feet, having tasted them well. He had a wry expression.

“I’m so disappointed, to be honest.” He squeezed Cecilia’s foot, massaging under the arch, digging in with his thumbs. She flinched, biting her lip, enthralled. Lehner continued. “I can understand Meist and Anschel being useless. Put together they don’t even constitute one vertebra. But Von Sturm had that fire in him, you know? I guess I misjudged him.”

“Hmm,” Cecilia made only a contented noise in response.

“Haus will straighten all that out; he’ll do it. When he gets there in a week or so.”

Unceremoniously he dropped her feet, climbed on his desk and pulled Cecilia up to him by the collar and tie of her shirt, seizing her lips into his own. She threw her arms around his shoulders and pulled back on him, the two of them nearly dropping into a heap on the floor. They hung in a balance, knees on the edge of support, bodies half in the air.

Breathless, clothes askew, lipstick smeared, they pulled briefly back from each other.

“How many hours we got on the itinerary?” Lehner said, grinning, breathing heavy.

“I accommodated myself well.” Cecilia replied. She pulled him back in again.

33rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Central District, Quadrant “Home”

12th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

Suds and water splashed across the wooden floor and mixed with the dust seeping through a seam in the roof. Soaked through, the old floorboards turned a sickly grayish green. At one point it had been a fitting room in an old dress shop. All the lights shattered when a small bomb hit the upper floor. There were still bits of bulb in the corners.

On a chair that was turning a little green as well, in the middle of this gloomy old room, a young woman rubbed a bar of soap across her arms and legs and dunked them in a big metal bucket. Orange candlelight danced over her bronzed back, her lean limbs, and the slim valley of her torso. The air was still, but the wicks burned wildly, as if moved by her ragged breath. She conducted herself almost religiously, rubbing in the soap and soaking it off her skin. Her mirror was a long piece of broken glass, but that was fine.

She knew well how she looked.

She washed around her neck, the nape, the apple, collarbones. She scrubbed fiercely. Days without care in the warzone had allowed grime to form like a shackle around her neck, and over her wrists, on her chest. It repulsed her. Seeing people coming in and out of the damaged old shop, she had worked up the courage to ask an officer. Graciously she was afforded a makeshift washroom. She had no intention of looking or feeling like a prisoner. Not in this city, not in this country, not up in those mountains and not in her own body.

Pulling on her hair she dismantled the long braid that she had repeatedly tied it up into in the past few days. Once it was loose, she applied oil, tracing it with her fingers until her mane was slick and honeyed over, and then she leaned down and submerged her head in the water. She closed her eyes and held her breath. She pulled out; she rubbed her hands on the soap and pressed them against her cheeks, against her sharp nose, against her soft lips. She thought she could taste it; up in the mountains they used fat and plant ash in soap.

Had circumstances been different, perhaps she would have still remained in the Kucha, making soap with the women of the village. She dunked her head in the water again.

Outside she heard the distinct report of a howitzer, and resolved to hurry on back out.

Corporal Gulab Kajari pulled her head out of the wash bucket and wrung out her long hair over it. Water dribbled down her brassiere and undershorts, tinged by streaks of bronze-colored oil and soap. She had put a bit of a hair-care solution through her braid and head and it was washing off. Another soldier had found the hair care bottle in a ruin, and left it in here for others to use. Gulab left some for the next person too. It was only right.

She had about four minutes to spare reserved just for her, but she resolved to take care of business quickly. The last thing she wanted was to be half-naked during an attack.

On a nearby chair there was a fresh combat uniform. There was even a new brassiere with it, a small one. Over her flat chest it fit well enough. Her shorts were a little loose, but they fit. She dressed eagerly, a contented sigh escaping her lips as she felt the crisp texture of her new, clean uniform, as smooth as her own clean skin under it. It was a great relief.

She did not notice anymore that her uniforms were not the muted green of the Territorial Army, but the black with red trim of the KVW’s elite assault forces from the 3rd Motorized Division. She buttoned up the jacket, straightened out the sleeves, and tied her hair in a braid again. She tucked herself well into her shorts and pants and laced her boots.

Outside, she bowed respectfully to the older woman in charge of the washroom, who smiled and waved off the need for any thanks, and she went out into the street. As she set foot on the pavement, across the road from her in a cleared-out ruin between two short buildings, a pair of howitzers fired into the distance. She looked down the road, toward the southern bend, and saw no enemies coming, but there was a truck and a tank driving down from the north, and a dozen people bringing out crates of ammunition and small arms.

“Under attack, southeast, southwest! Assault forces needed! 3rd Line Corps form up!”

Within moments there were crowds of green uniforms on both sides of the street, gathering weapons and ammunition and dispersing behind sandbag emplacements and into various houses. Snipers started getting into position, the tank hid around a corner, and the truck unloaded a heavy howitzer that was pulled to a position a few houses farther north.

Gulab looked around, but there was no KVW around that she could ask for her specific orders. She stood in the middle of the street staring idly, waiting as everyone got ready.

She felt awkward in her uniform and tags, all suggesting that she was an officer, idling in the middle of a fight without instructions. But everyone was too busy to berate her.

Then from around the corner of the dress shop, she saw a black and red uniform approach and felt relief. Again Sergeant Charvi Chadgura had come inadvertently to the rescue. Her somewhat curly pale hair was slightly wet, and her dark-brown skin looked clean and healthy. She too had a clean uniform – she had probably come fresh out of a different improvised shower room. Her expression was clean of emotions too, as usual.

“You look clean.” Sergeant Chadgura said softly. Gulab quirked an eyebrow at her.

“Huh? I look clean? I guess I must. I just took a bath.” Gulab said, arms crossed.

Sergeant Chadgura clapped her hands a few times. “Sorry. It was a compliment.”

Gulab nodded. “Alright, sorry about that. Let’s start over. Hujambo, Sgt. Chadgura.”

Sijambo.” Chadgura replied. It was the rather rare original counterpart to Hujambo; ‘how are you’ was normally answered ‘I am fine’ but in Ayvarta, over time, the response had simply been replaced by a second Hujambo. ‘How are you,’ responded to with ‘How are you?’ so both parties could show their support and care for one another.

“I’ll take it.” Gulab said, smiling warmly. “We got orders yet? Everyone’s mobilizing.”

“There is an attack but we’re not yet meeting it; we’re the mobile reserve. There’s a Half-Track hiding around the corner here that we should group up on, just in case.”

Gulab nodded her head. She felt a surging in her limbs, a need to move. There was an attack! She wanted to ride out to meet it! Corporal Gulab Kajari of the elite 3rd KVW Motorized Division, would save the day like old storybook cavalry. Who among the close-minded old yaks in the Kucha could have foreseen the gallantry to which she had ascended?

“Is something wrong?” Chadgura asked. She had her hands up as though about to clap.

“Nothing. Let’s ride that half-track.” Gulab said sweetly, woken from her daydream.

Around the corner a Sharabha half-track truck, armed with a heavy gun turret, rested under a tree in a grassy lot nestled across the road from the dress shop. Grey metal plates had been bolted over the thick nose and brow of the truck, around the windshield, and also along the sides to raise the armor coverage of the cargo bed, as well as to support the turret. There was a refreshing breeze blowing under the shade of the tree as they approached.

Gulab climbed onto the back using a metal ramp. There was no tarp. All of the machine was armored. It was almost like a wheeled tank. But the interior was still spacious enough for a squadron of infantry. There were benches to sit on, and a ladder for the turret.

There were also several slits and sliding windows from which to shoot.

Inside, Gulab was surprised to find ten Svechthans in the truck alongside the plump, boyish Pvt. Dabo and the stern-looking Pvt. Jande. Gulab had not seen very many of their allies from the far north. Among the small, pale, blue-haired Svechthans was a familiar face, however – Sergeant Illynichna or “Nikka,” her hair tied in an ice-blue ponytail.

She was actually perhaps a few centimeters smaller than the rest of her kin aboard the half-track. Her new subordinates all had beige uniforms with blue plants, and the tallest among them was perhaps 150 centimeters tall. They had for the most part round faces, straight hair and slim builds, with rather dour expressions on their lips and eyes.

Zdrastvooyte,” Sgt. Nikka said. “This time I brought along some comrades of mine.”

“All of your help is appreciated.” Chadgura said. She bowed her head politely to the newcomers. Gulab knew off-hand that the Svechthans from the Joint-Training corps had been spread around the city as artillery officers and had helped coordinate the construction of the defensive lines, but most of their offensive strength had been kept far in reserve in the north district. They were probably itching for a fight! She would have been.

Gulab looked across the faces of the Svechthan men and women. For the life of her, she could not tell their expressions apart from those on the KVW soldiers. Nikka had a fairly emphatic demeanor however, and she grinned and held up her fist over her head while speaking. She looked like she had a fire in her belly, just like Gulab did.

“Anything to defend the Bread Mother, right, comrades?” Nikka shouted.

Her troops nodded their heads calmly. A few smiled while doing so. This little gesture was enough to separate them as merely reserved folk, rather than altered like the KVW.

“Ah, we do give you guys a lot of food don’t we?” Gulab said. “I guess that’s fitting.”

“Our languages are somewhat difficult to translate to each other. So on both sides we accepted a few unique terms. So your country’s name is the Bread Mother.” Nikka said.

“And what does Svechtha mean?” Gulab said. She found it hard to pronounce.

“Nothing at all, in any tongue. It is a completely invented word. Our continent did not have one word but many different ones for the regions we inhabited; those were lost to colonization. In the end, as a community we created a new word to describe us, one which had no meanings to the oppressors. One that is, in fact, hard to pronounce in Lubonin.”

“I see.” Gulab said. She did not understand well, but she didn’t know their history.

“If you have difficulty with it, you can also call us Narot – ‘people’.” Nikka said.

“No; I will try to pronounce it better from now on.” Gulab said, smiling awkwardly.

“But yes,” Sgt. Nikka turned her eyes back to Sgt. Chadgura, “we had been waiting somewhat restlessly to take a few bites out of Nocht. But I can understand you would be loath to send your allies to fight like this. We have been manning a lot of artillery and doing a lot of organizing. We have also been preparing for the Major’s next operations.”

“You have more experience in such matters than the bulk of our troops, I’d wager.” Chadgura said. “But what the Narot truly specialize in is the forward assault, isn’t it?”

“Indeed!” Sgt. Nikka said. “We have no fear of rushing against the tall folk. Especially not the northern capitalist bastards like Nocht. We are eager to show you Ayvartans how it’s done! Nobody can turn away the bayonets and guns of a Svechthan battle charge!”

Gulab nodded her head with a big smile on her face. She sat down on the bench. Chadgura looked at the bench opposite hers and took a seat as well. Periodically they heard the sound of an artillery gun being fired in the distance – the pounding noise of the 122mm howitzer shooting, and sometimes the clink of a shell casing hitting the earth.

Such sounds were just natural background noise by now.

Inside the Half-Track they had a backpack radio that had been left in a corner, and a few spare arms in a crate. Once they were settled, Pvt. Jande handed Chadgura and Gulab a pair of Nandi automatic carbines and 15-round magazines. These were the same short automatic weapons they used in Matumaini. Gulab noticed however that the Svechthans carried submachine guns or bolt-action rifles in their hands. Nikka had a Laska silenced carbine. Private Jane and Dabo had old Bundu bolt-action rifles, standard-issue.

Gulab supposed she got the automatic because she was an officer and trusted with the rarer weapon, while everyone else was equipped at random or for the sake of balance.

She unloaded her weapon, looked down the sight, and pressed the trigger to test it.

“Careful with the automatic fire on it,” Nikka warned, “it tends to jam every so often.”

“I’ll be careful.” Gulab said. “I don’t like the auto-fire; the magazine is too small.”

“It can be handy in a pinch. Soften your trigger pulls to control it.” Nikka said.

Across the floor of the half-track bed, Sergeant Chadgura looked almost restless herself. She rubbed her hands together and kicked her legs every so often. Her eyes were half-closed and made her look drowsy. She scanned around but avoided moving her head.

To Gulab it looked as though there was something stewing inside the Sergeant’s head.

“Corporal Kajari,” Chadgura finally said. She clapped her hands softly while calling.

“Something wrong?” Gulab asked. She looked at Chadgura, who then averted her eyes.

“I would like to discuss the conditions of my defeat in our last chess game.” She said meekly. “I played better than the first time, because you did not become aggravated.”

Or about as meekly as she could say it; perhaps Gulab was imagining her tone entirely.

Gulab raised her hands to her chin and recalled the board at the end. Ever since the battle at Penance they played at least once a day when together. She had played sloppily to try to give Chadgura a chance. Though she did not fall into a fool’s mate again like before, Chadgura played weakly and cluttered the board very fast. Against an opponent who wanted to take her out, it would have been a smorgasbord of bad trades in their favor. So it was a game that was generally difficult to remember. It was any game Gulab played against a beginner. There was, however, one detail that came to mind most strongly.

“You pushed too fast and you had a bad bishop at the end of the game. You blocked it from moving anywhere when you could have pressured me if you used it right.” Gulab said.

Chadgura snuck a peek into Gulab’s eyes and averted her gaze again. “I see.” She said.

“You lost your aggressive knights and rooks very quickly, and put yourself in a bad position in the endgame where your only aggressive pieces left were bishops.” She started to think almost faster than she could speak – she pointed her finger strongly at Chadgura. She recalled some of the things she had been told about her own game when she was little. “You have to watch the board and think of what trades you are making. A lot of beginners underrate the bishop and leave it stuck on the board while parading the knights and rooks.”

“Yes, I can see what you mean.” Chadgura replied. “Thank you.” She clapped her hands softly again. “I want to be an opponent worthy of entertaining you someday.”

Gulab blinked hard. Her thoughts ground to a halt from their previous breakneck speed.

“Yes, well, I think so,” Gulab awkardly said, “I’m a great teacher after all.” She laughed. She crossed her arms, her face frozen in a clumsy grin. “You’ll do great, kiddo.”

Chadgura nodded dutifully after every repetitive affirmation out of Gulab’s mouth.

Gulab was certainly not ready for someone else to become invested in Chess with her.

On the radio set a little needle in a gauge started to move, giving everyone in the vehicle something to stare at other than their awkward commanders.

Sgt. Chadgura stood up, knelt down beside the radio and put the headset against her ear. For a minute or two she took the message and then set down the handset.

Calmly she returned to the bench and sat again.

She cleared her throat and addressed everyone in her usual, inexpressive tone of voice.

“We have our orders: travel down to Mulga and hunt down an artillery position that is covering for the advance in the Central sector, then return to Home.” Chadgura said.

Everyone nodded, and began to load their weapons and make themselves ready.

Chadgura stared at them for a moment. She raised her fist.

“Let us make haste, comrades!”

Her forced emphatic voice sounded tinny and choked.

Everyone stared at her momentarily.

For close to a minute their Half-Track idled under the shade without any effort to move.

“Oh.” Chadgura said aloud suddenly. “I forgot.”

She stood stiffly off the bench. Nonchalantly she stepped out of the half-track. Gulab heard her footsteps going around the side, and the twisting of the driver’s side window lever. Chadgura informed him of the orders and then started to trample back to the truck’s rear.

When she returned, she clapped her hands quickly and loudly in front of her face.

“There is a slit for talking with the driver, you know.” Nikka said. She pointed at it.

Chadgura turned her head slowly and spotted the opening in front of the benches.

“I see.” She said. Dejectedly she returned to her seat and began to stare at her shoes.

Gulab leaned forward, reached out across the bed and patted her on the shoulder.

Their bodies stirred as the Half-Track’s engine churned.

“I think Kajari should go up on the heavy gun.” Nikka said. “She can handle it, right?”

“It’s the same as shooting an anti-tank gun right? I got some training in that.” Gulab said. This time it was not an exaggeration or misconception – she had shot about a hundred dummy rounds on a 45mm gun for training. Every Shuja in the Kalu had to take river-defense courses where they shot light artillery across the banks. This could not have been that different! After all it was the same gun, only modified for turret use.

“I have confidence in Kajari.” Sergeant Chadgura said, rubbing her hands together.

Feeling energized, Gulab stood up on the moving half-track and carefully made her way to the steps bolted to the back of the driving compartment wall, climbing them into a squat, drum-like turret structure with 45mm gun, like the one on a Goblin tank. She sat herself on a canvas and strapped herself to the turret, and looked around the interior.

There was a niche carrying the gun’s high-explosive shells, each close to the size of her arm. There was a manual handle to traverse the gun turret, and a wheel for gun elevation. There was a scoped sight. It reminded her of the inside of the tank that she had stolen in Buxa the other day. Sliding plates on either side gave her some ability to look at the streets, but a periscope and gun sight hanging before her were the gun’s key visual aids.

“Are you comfortable in your position, Corporal Kajari?” Chadgura asked from below.

“I’m fine!” Gulab said. She picked up a 45mm shell and turned around in her hands. Once they got going in earnest, she looked out the gun’s telescopic sight at their surroundings as the half-truck drove south at a brisk 60 km per hour on a slight downhill journey from “Home” block and toward their objective. She scanned around the area.

“Keep your eyes peeled!” Nikka said. “There could be hidden enemies!”

“I was informed that our way was mostly clear.” Chadgura said.

Regardless the Half-Track advanced. Mulga was a small, tight urban block to the southeast of Madiha’s House, quickly accessible through the road network leading to the school. There was a large, square U-shaped tenement building, five stories tall and surrounded by a broad street and a grassy lawn, dotted with trees and shrubbery; this building and its surroundings made up most of Mulga block. Much of the tenement had been damaged, but even split down the middle by bombs it still dominated the skyline of the Central District. She could see it over the rest of the buildings as they drove downhill.

Gulab adjusted her sights and opened the gun breech, to have it ready to fire.

“Hey, don’t play around in there!” Nikka shouted. “Bozhe moi! Shoot only if ordered!”

“Yes ma’am.” Gulab replied sourly. She closed the breech and put the round back.

“Eyes ahead, Corporal.” Chadgura said. “We may be coming up on our objective.”

They would have their answer to that soon enough; Gulab had it in her sights already.

As their half-track rounded a bend in the road toward the large tenement, Gulab saw some of the Territorial Army soldiers rushing forward. They drew up their rifles and opened fire across the green and plaza in front of the building. Passing the buildings she took in the full view of an all-out firefight. On the margins of the tenement’s grounds, squadrons of Territorial Army troops scrambled for cover in bushes and behind trees, behind playground objects and benches and fire hydrants. Positions across the street from the tenement opened machine gun fire on the building and all across the green.

Opposite these maneuvers, Nochtish soldiers ran out of the wide pass-through hallway through the front of the tenement building, pausing to take shots on the landing before hurtling forward off the steps and behind the low concrete walls of a square fountain basin just off the facade. From blown-out windows and half-collapsed fire-escape walkways machine gunners and riflemen took shots at advancing Ayvartan troops, the Norglers’ loud chopping noise dominating the atmosphere as its gunfire slashed across their ranks.

The Half-Track stopped just around the corner, taking partial cover near the dilapidated flank of a nearby civil canteen building. A soldier from the Territorial Army ran past and boarded the half-track. Gulab could hear him speaking with Chadgura about their plight in the area. “…we thought the 3rd Line Corps could contain them in the east, but there too many men slipping through our defenses. That’s how they ended up in Mulga of all places. Our strength is deployed on the main streets, so I don’t have much here–”

Chadgura interrupted the man. “Do not fear, we will help you. Corporal,” she shouted up to the turret, “the Nochtish attack may possess a greater scope than we feared. We will provide fire support for the 4th Division’s counterattack in Mulga. Fire at your discretion.”

“I’m ready if you all are.” Gulab replied. She opened her little windows and pulled out the same shell she was playing with, opened the breech, punched the shell into place and locked the breech. This action made distinctive noises – everyone below could tell what she was doing. When she was done, the gun was ready to fire at the pull of a chain.

The squadron dismounted, and at Nikka’s insistence the Svechthan soldiers took the lead. The Half-Track cruised forward out of cover and onto the street, and the Svechthans crept down the side of the half-track, opening fire on the Nochtish soldiers visible across the green with their submachine guns and rifles. As the Half-Track drove onto the street and past the benches and bushes, machine gun rounds pelted the engine block and the vehicle halted. The Svechthans ducked beside the half-track for cover against the fire.

Devushka!” She heard Nikka shout outside. “There’s a Norgler, second floor left!”

Gulab twisted the turret clumsily around using the manual turret drive wheel. She heard gunshots from her side and checked her window briefly – Nikka and her troops had taken a pair of men apart for trying to approach and throw one of those ridiculous anti-tank canvas-winged mines the Nochtish loved so much. They fell with the bombs in hand.

Around her the Territorial Army troops held in position. Fire flew from all sides. Rifle troops took snap shots out of cover and threw themselves on the ground to buy time to aim. It was sheer volume that killed here. Men and women ran through individual bullets, each hitting the floor or a taking a chunk out of a piece of cover; but in the dozens, lucky shots were sooner scored. Even as she traversed there were casualties. She could not pay heed to every fallen comrade or enemy; her vision tunneled, and she focused on her objectives.

Gulab raised the elevation of the gun. On the second floor window she saw the Norgler shooter, his fire trailing toward the Half-Track and then across the street to ruined shop, where a woman with an LMG had been dueling with him. Gulab sighted him, waited for the flash to confirm, and then pulled the firing mechanism. She felt the breech slide, and a slight force feeding back across the turret. Her shell flew through the window and exploded.

There were no more flashes through the thin smoke left in the wake of the blast.

She had either gotten him or suppressed him.

The Half-Track started to move again, asserting its armored bulk closer into the green, all bulletproof glass and 10mm steel. Around them the Territorial Army soldiers were emboldened by the support. Two squadrons of twenty or so men and women moved forward from the playground and from the bushes, advancing across the open terrain into the firing line. They took aimed shots at the Nochtish defenses and felled a man.

There was an immediate casualty in reply – a woman was hit in the stomach as she left the cover of a bench and exposed herself. Fire from her comrades forced the attackers to duck again behind the fountain as they pulled her back into cover, likely to die. Meanwhile the Nochtish men huddled in front of the building facade and in the pass-through – a long, tall hallway leading through the tenement building and out the other end of the block.

Gulab scarcely noticed this. Her turret was still turned skyward when she fired again.

She put a shell into a fire escape, shattering the floor out from under a few grenadiers jumping out of a window. Those that did not die from the pressure or the fragments fell from the third floor to their deaths, land in the concrete with bonecrushing thuds. She put another round into the window itself; a man with a Norgler had appeared there just in time to see his allies fall. She did not see what happened to him beneath the smoke.

She heard no more machine gun fire coming from the Nochtish corner.

Molodets!” Nikka shouted. “Put few into that pass-through in front of the building!”

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab shouted out the sliding window.

She reached out her arms and scooped several rounds from her racks, dropping them on her lap. Taking a deep breath, she punched the first shell in and fired; the spent casing crashed down the stairs as it was discarded, and Gulab quickly loaded the next round. She fired as fast as she could. Her first shot hit the corner of the building’s aperture and exploded, sending fragments flying back on the men hiding behind the fountain. Many were cut and wounded, she could see them shake and thrash around in fear and pain. Then she put the second and third rounds right into the hall. Landsers ran out under a spray of steel, ducking their heads and hurtling headfirst into the green, diving away in desperation. There was not a man without red slashes across his shoulders or back or along his arms or cheeks. Her fourth and fifth rounds hit the same places, flushing out a dozen men.

Nikka’s Strelky were more than happy to welcome them. The Svechthans rushed fearlessly ahead, even as intermittent Nochtish gunfire flew their way. Submachine gunners led the attack, rapping their fingers on the triggers and unleashing careful bursts of fire on the men as they escaped the hall. Many imperialists were stricken dead in mid-dive, falling on their faces behind cover never to get up. Nikka herself put a round through the head of a man in mid-run down the stairs, and shifted her attention to the stomach of a second man within seconds. With disciplined, agile bounds they pushed right into the enemy’s line.

Gulab traversed the cannon again as fast as she could. Her arm was starting to feel raw with the effort required to turn the gun. Her next shell fell right on the laps of several men huddling behind the stairway up into the tenement’s ground floor. Its concrete steps had defended them from the Svechthans; the 45mm shell exploded behind it in a grizzly column of smoke and steel that carried with it blood and flesh. There was little left behind.

Ayvartan Shuja and Svechthan Strelky reached the hallway and Gulab held her fire. Those with submachine guns led the way, and Gulab saw vicious flashes of automatic gunfire through the windows along the building’s facade. Sergeant Nikka ran up the steps and ducked around the corner of the hallway, peering in to take careful, practiced shots with her silenced rifle. Gulab saw a man’s head burst like a pale pustule through one of the windows. She saw various darker heads take his place indoors as her allies pushed up.

Patrolling soldiers moved on to the second floor. Gulab waited anxiously. She saw Nikka through a gaping hole in the building’s facade, walking carefully forward with her rifle up. She shouted something and ducked – from behind her several shots traced the length of the room. Nikka rose again and signaled an all-clear.

Territorial Army soldiers moved in her place.

There was no more gunfire.

A Svechthan soldier ran back to the Half-Track from the building’s front, and climbed aboard. From the opposite direction Gulab saw a platoon of Territorial Army soldiers running in from side streets, running around the sides of the parked Half-Track and stepping through the pass-through hallway, penetrating deeper into the tenement structure.

Fifty Nochtish corpses and a few dozen Avyartan ones were visible from her vantage.

Below her, Sergeant Chadgura appeared under the turret hole so Gulab could see her.

“Corporal Kajari, it appears the building’s been reclaimed for now.” Chadgura said. “Good job. Sergeant Nikka believes we should leave this to the comrades of 4th Division.”

Gulab sighed with relief. For the moment, it was over. They had won, and she thought she could feel each individual ligament in her arms throbbing and twisting. Nobody could maintain a steady rate of fire for very long, even on a light gun like the 45mm.

“Yes ma’am. I pray to the Ancestors they will be able to hold the fort there.”

“Oh, I had thought that you prayed to the Spirits.” Sergeant Chadgura asked curiously.

“Ah, my village has a strange syncretic religion. The Ancestors were seen as more war-worthy; the Diyam’s light was for healing and fertility; the Spirits took care of a lot of things. Over time, different people have ended up seeking refuge in the Kucha, you know?”

Chadgura nodded quietly, a dull expression in her eyes. Perhaps she did not understand.

Sergeant Nikka returned shortly. She slapped her hand on the front armor of the half-track’s bed, as if to get Gulab’s attention in the turret. Gulab looked down the turret hole.

“Well met, Gulachka! You cooked those imperialist bastards medium well!”

“Do you mean dead?” Gulab asked, not quite getting the joke entangled in those words.

Nikka simply grinned, and took her seat again out of Gulab’s sight. Gulab did notice that her nickname had changed again all of a sudden with Nikka’s newfound good humor.

Ey, Sgt. Chadgura; one of your good army men who was pushed up to Mulga from Katura just a block down, thinks we might find that artillery there.” Sgt. Nikka said. “He says the Nochtish pigs overtook him and he retreated because he only had a squadron.”

“We are only a squadron.” Sergeant Chadgura said. “How many enemies did he see?”

“Two platoons. We can take them!” Nikka replied. “Gulachka can do it!”

“I only have twenty rounds or so I think.” Gulab shouted down at them from the turret.

“You think?” Sergeant Nikka shouted.

“I know! Jeez! I can count them for you!” Gulab shouted back.

Chadgura clapped her hands loud. Everyone else quieted.

“I’m not convinced that we can fight that many.” She said.

“We won’t fight them all! We have a vehicle, tovarisch. We perform a hit and run on the artillery. A taste of their medicine. This is a scouting vehicle isn’t it? It has the speed.”

Sergeant Chadgura quieted for a moment. Gulab could imagine her fidgeting.

“Very well. But I’ll quite readily abort if we are overwhelmed.” Chadgura finally said.

The Half-Track got going again, and Gulab saw more Territorial Army folks trickling in around the tenement, remnants of squadrons that had once occupied all the periphery of the home sector and now had to plug a breach. The KVW continued their hunt by taking a tight eastward bend away from the tenement. At first they drove at a mere 30 km/h. Gulab’s eyes sought for contacts – during the first few minutes of the drive at least.

She pulled on her shirt collar. It was sweltering hot inside the turret, and very little breeze got through the windows. She looked around at the tiny wisps of heat playing over the demolished structures at their flanks, and at the clear, sunny skies. She almost preferred the storm. Her uniform felt very stifling. Around her the walls were turning hot. Even the eyepiece of her sight and the gun controls were growing hot enough to bite at her.

Sighing she continued to peer out the windows.

Something caught her attention then.

She stuck her head out the turret and shielded her eyes.

Black objects hurtling through the sky, several of them. She had a good guess about their identity from their trajectories. Low velocity shells from howitzers, lumbering across the air at high angles before coming down on some unlucky soul and completing their journey. There were dozens of them flying out toward “Home” sector.

Maybe even to Madiha’s House.

“Ma’am, I think the enemy’s artillery is definitely south of here.” Gulab shouted.

“We’ve got a map.” Chadgura said from below. “There’s an open-air Msanii lot not far from here. We can try to break through to it – it is the best spot for artillery in Katura.”

“Acknowledged!” Gulab said. She then heard noises below. “Uh, what’s happening?”

She heard the ramp drop, and all kinds of rattling behind her.

She turned around and opened the turret’s rear sliding window in confusion.

Below her, the Svechthans peeked out of the sliding windows on the metal armor bolted over the Sharabha’s sides, sticking their submachine guns out of the apertures to shoot at the street while standing on the benches. Meanwhile Chadgura, Dabo and Jande stood near the open back of the half-track’s bed and watched the rear with their weapons up. The Half-Track dragged the open ramp along, bumping and scratching on the pitch.

Gulachka, face forward, we have got company!” Nikka shouted, raising a fist.

Gulab spun around back to her sight.

The Half-Track accelerated. On the winding street ahead she saw grey-uniformed men with rifles bounding from between buildings and through the rubble collecting on the sides of the street. The Half-Track rushed past an enemy squadron and took a corner; an anti-tank shell soared miraculously past their vehicle as it slid to a halt and missed them.

At a hastily assembled checkpoint dead ahead from the corner, a PAK 26 37mm anti-tank gun zeroed in. Three men hid behind its gun shield and hastily loaded another round.

“Not a chance!” Gulab shouted, arms growing sore as she loaded and shot.

Her turret lobbed the 45mm high-explosive shell directly against the anti-tank gun. Smoke and fire and fragments blew over the gun shield and the men fell back in pieces; those that were not left skinless by the blast were left headless and limbless by the flying shards of metal. Behind her Gulab heard rifles and submachine gun fire. The Nochtish squadron they bypassed must have been running back. She started to turn the turret around–

“Eyes forward Gulachka! We’ll handle the streets! Focus on the road!” Nikka shouted.

The Half-Track broke off abruptly, tearing down the road.

Gulab turned the hard turret crank again and returned the gun to the neutral position. Their driver rushed forward as fast as the truck could handle, and instead of taking the next corner he squeezed into a side street between a pair of buildings, smashed through a fence, and broke out into the next block. When their wheels hit tar again they had overtaken a Nochtish squadron – a dozen men with a machine gun, five others setting down a pair of mortars, right in the middle of the street. They looked over their shoulders in disbelief.

At Gulab’s command the turret gun bellowed, launching an explosive round.

She barely saw the resulting carnage as the high-explosive shell went off over them.

Wheels and tracks and metal screeched against the pavement.

Bursts of gunfire struck the turret and the armored bed, bouncing off with hard reports.

Shots flew everywhere from buildings and alleys and from behind rubble as the Half-Track tore past scattered enemy positions. Building speed the Half-Track took one last corner to the Katura Msanii, sliding almost entirely off the road and into the street as the tracked half of the vehicle struggled to complete the turn. Little speed was lost and the vehicle hurtled forward and downhill. The Msanii was in sight – a fenced-off area of green lot with a pair of trees and some benches, where kiosks of hand-made goods could be bartered, traded or sold as was Ayvartan tradition even before the era of the Empire.

There were no goods on sale today; everything was flying off into the sky.

Six 10.5 CM LeFH howitzers in the middle of the Msanii lobbed shells relentlessly over Katura and Mulga as if trying to shoot down the sky. A half-dozen shells soared upward and arced down onto Home sector; smoke drifted skyward from afar, thickening further with each volley. Nochtish defenders spotted the Half-Track careening toward them, but there was nowhere to take cover. Artillery crews ducked behind their guns and tried desperately to turn them toward the road, while a dozen riflemen stood stalwart in the way and shot desperately into the armored engine block and bulletproof windshield.

Gulab pulled the firing pin and put a shell several meters behind the defenders.

She did not hit, the explosion caught nobody and the fragments fell short – but the men threw themselves down on the ground to avoid the shot and lost precious time. Biting her lip, Gulab tried adjusting her gun once more, but the second round overflew the lot.

She could not keep up anymore with the vehicle’s speed.

The Sharabha hit the foot of the shallow hill down onto the msanii’s lot and bolted toward off the road heedless of the obstacles before it. Without slowing or maneuvering at all the vehicle tore through the fence and crushed three men under its wheels and tracks.

It smashed into one of the howitzers; Gulab heard a flare-up of decidedly one-sided gunfire as the vehicle’s engine cut off. She heard boots on the dirt and Nochtish screams. She undid the buckles holding her to the turret and slid down the ladder to view the result.

Outside, the Strelky coolly approached and held up the Nochtish artillery crews.

During the rush, Gulab had hardly been able to pay attention to it, but now she saw the Half-Track had taken quite a beating. Repeated bursts of machine gun fire had pitted and banged up the engine compartment. There were tongues of black smoke playing about the vehicle’s nose, not a good sign. Their driver sat dejectedly behind glass cracked so badly that it was a wonder he could see where he was going at all. There were holes in the side plates of the bed, full penetrations perhaps delivered by heavy panzerbuchse rifles.

It was a wonder any of them survived the assault at all.

“We cannot risk going back the way we came.” Chadgura said aloud as if to herself. She addressed Gulab when she saw her dismount. “We will go through the tunnels.”

There were almost 20 men on the site, quickly collected into a crowd along the green.

Brechen!” Nikka shouted at them. She gestured toward the decrewed howitzers.

“Don’t shoot.” One man said, in incredibly poor Ayvartan. “Don’t shoot ours; please.”

Halt die klappeZerstören die haubitzen!” Nikka shouted at them again.

There was abrupt movement at the back of the group; someone tried to reach for a pistol to shoot Nikka. He shoved aside another man and quickly received several more pistol bullets from the Svechthans than he would have released, and fell onto a rapidly growing pool of his own blood at the feet of his men. Judging by his lapel, he was their artillery officer, fed up with his men’s capitulation. He lay on the grass, choking, bleeding.

All the other captured men raised their hands higher in response.

Nikka approached them.

Zerteilen!” She shouted at the men, and once again, she pointed them to the howitzers. They seemed to understand her, whatever it was she said. From their satchels the men produced small explosives, and sealed them into the breeches of each gun. After a moment they detonated inside the chambers and ruined them. Smoke and flame blew from each barrel. Instead of a battery, the howitzers were now nothing more than scrap.

Nikka shouted more Nochtish at them; while the Strelky menaced the artillerymen with their submachine guns and pistols, the captives emptied all of their pockets, dropped their belts and quickly stripped their uniforms and pouches down to their skin. Under threat of violence the naked men ran as fast as they could out of the msanii and down the street – a token burst of inaccurate gunfire gave them sound to fear as they fled.

“With a good vehicle we could have taken a few of them prisoner.” Nikka lamented.

“I was expecting you would kill them all.” Gulab said, shrugging her shoulders.

“We need to conserve ammunition.” Nikka said, waving her hand dismissively.

“If you say so. However, we should go. Please follow me.” Sergeant Chadgura said.

All the Nochtish troops they had rushed past before could not have been far; the assault squadron detonated emergency satchels under the half-track and in the turret, ruining the vehicle and its arms so that the enemy could not capture it. They handed the driver a pistol, and he followed them without a hint of mourning for his vehicle. Then they left the scene, running across the Msanii, darting over the fence. Chadgura had a map open as they ran.

“This house further south has a cellar that should have a connection to the tunnels.” She shouted. “If it’s been built over recently we can use a satchel to blow open a hole.”

They found the house, an old baked brick building. Its door had been thrown open, but there was nobody inside. They hurried in, guns pointing in every direction. A recessed stairway led into the cellar. No sooner had they begun their descent, that they heard tracks and saw the shadows of vehicles along the interior wall. They hurried down into the dark.

Moments later several men stepped inside, shouted “Klar!” and left once more.

Underground, Chadgura and Gulab traded their guns for electric torches. Damp and humid and just a little too short for her to comfortably stand in, Gulab hated every step of this tunnel. Her father had said no son of his would be anything but a hunter; despite all the firefights Gulab felt more like a beleaguered sewer crawler with every step she took, head crouched, torch forward. For once she envied the Svechthan’s smaller height.

Everyone was silent at first, but the tunnels were so featureless that they could practically feel the silence around them like a toxic fume. Nikka was the first to grow restless and speak up. Gulab thought she could hear the desperation in her first few words.

“Gulachka, I must say, I underestimated you. You have a real killer instinct.” She said. “I dare say you are a natural with weapons. You may have messed around with that tank, but you got it moving; and you handled that turret skillfully. Maybe your place is a gunner and not a driver ey? Ha ha! Do you have a secret technique you could teach us mortals?”

Gulab laughed. She took all of that as a joke and thought that Nikka could not possibly be serious, but it also tickled her ego and she quite easily played along with the flattery.

“I’ve been shooting all my life.” Gulab said. “Slingshots, hunting rifles, etc; it was not anything natural, I trained hard! I made myself into the person that I am today! Ouch!” She hit her head a loose brick in the ceiling, sticking out just a little lower than the rest.

“Be careful.” Chadgura said in a low voice. She rubbed Gulab’s head briefly.

“What brought you to the military? Part of making yourself as you say?” Nikka asked.

“I suppose; it was my father trying to stomp me into a perfect son.” Gulab said irritably. She gently took Chadgura’s hand and put it back down from her head. “It is hard to get out of a dumpy village in the middle of the mountains, until a military recruiter comes around.”

“Familial troubles? I understand. I’m the 11th of 13 children.” Nikka said. “We tend to treat boys and girls the same too in Svechtha. But my father was very old and not too strict. He worked in a collective farm. But farm work in my homeland is dreary and often fruitless, so I joined the military. Then I got sent here to melt in the hot sun, ha ha.”

“I am an only child. I joined the army foolishly.” Chadgura interjected. ”And I am frankly confused as to how anyone can have thirteen children. It seems overambitious.”

“Mother was powerful. How were your parents, Chadgura?” Nikka asked. “How would they feel about you crawling in these sewers to escape a hundred armed pursuers?”

“They would tell me my hand clapping is annoying them.” Chadgura replied. “They might also ask me if I intended to marry any of those men someday and become decent.”

Gulab patted Chadgura in the back again.

Everyone quieted for the rest of the journey. The tunnel was cramped enough as it was without their awkwardness floating in their limited air. Gulab thought that if anything this exchange just made Nikka more restless. She resorted to counting bullets for a distraction.

West-Central Sector, Koba and 1st Block

After Matumaini Kern had waited and he had sought prophecy in people’s faces, in radio messages, in the storm rains and the cries of men driven to panic by traumatic wounds. When he heard about Operation Surge he got his sign – the end of him was quite near.

Now in the middle of the rallying area he waited anxiously for marching orders.

For two days the machinery of the Oberkommando Suden’s elite 1st Vorkampfer shifted its great bulk throughout the region, cramming as much of its firepower as could be made available in Bada Aso into three starting attack points that would eventually branch into a dozen advancing lanes as Operation Surge got underway. Every truck and horse that could be found was enlisted to carry men and pull weapons and supplies to the western, central and eastern rallying areas. Each rallying area spanned a few blocks in its third of the city with easy access to various streets and alleys leading north into the city’s depths.

A common “block” in Bada Aso was one to three kilometers long, and as one neared the city center, the number, size and purpose of the buildings along a block became less definitive. As one got further inward, the city became older, and one saw far less of the carefully planned outer blocks, with their large central tenements serviced by an outer ring of canteens, co-op and state goods shops, post offices, administrative buildings, workplaces such as factories and civil services such as hospitals and ferry stations.

Along the edge of Koba block, an ancestral two-story house stood next to a drug dispensary for the state healthcare authority, itself next to a cooperative cobbler’s workshop, next to a spirit shrine in a grassy plot, and several houses. A gloomy alleyway wide enough for a small car separated a pair of houses. Across the street there were several houses, a civil canteen, and a playground for children. It looked macabre in its abandoned state.

This was all perhaps half a kilometer worth of roadside. But it went on in that exact way upstreet as far as the eye could see. Buildings small and large without any symmetry.

Between the two streets was a road perhaps 10 meters across, if that. It was fairly tight.

To the landsers of the 6th Grenadier division, Koba and 1st Block was “Koba Sector” and there were no blocks. On their maps the Central-West was just a number of kilometers that they needed to cut through. These buildings were potential strongholds. Whether something was once a shop or a place or worship or a house made no difference. It had walls and windows. It was just dangerous. Kern certainly didn’t think of their purpose.

Was this what they called the Fog of War? Would he slowly lose all recognition of his surroundings until there were only shapes? Rectangles sprouting from the ground, nondescript? What would his fellow soldiers become? What would the enemy?

A strong breeze blew through the streets, but it did little to ease the hot, humid weather. He almost felt steam coming off of his pale body, his short, straight golden hair. He shouldn’t be here, he thought. He was the farthest thing apart from the people born to live in this place. Oberon was temperate, and a gentle coolness always ran through it, even in the summer. That was the proper place for scrawny, shiftless men, milking cows, picking veggies, tilling fields. Kern ran his hands across his face anxiously. He was a good looking boy. He could have found a nice girl and gotten some of his father’s land.

What a fool he had been to leave the farms!

When the breeze passed, he could hear again the sounds of struggling engines and clanking tracks. With every vehicle that came and went he knew that the hour drew nearer and nearer. Every gun and mortar accumulated, every machine gun handed out.

Kern was stationed alongside a company of a few hundred men. They were all huddled in a cluster of buildings closer to the front than the rest of the regiment in the rallying area. They would be going in first. Kern saw a dozens of groups of men idling around nearby.

Far behind him he had watched transports come and go, moving the regiment forward. A truck or a horse wagon would bring in a squadron of men and an artillery gun, maybe a few crates, and pull up in front of a big church one street down that was selected as a storage point for Koba. Men would unhitch the gun and pull it away, and the soldiers would be pointed to their battalion or company. They would form up and wait for commands. Some of them had been waiting for a day now without any sign of combat.

Many idled between orders to crack open rations or to lie for a few hours.There were men smoking, playing cards, cleaning their rifles. He wondered what was going through their heads. Kern couldn’t busy himself much. He was part of the Combat Command HQ Platoon for the battalion. He stood in attention, with his back to a half-broken electric post, hands in his pockets, counting the trucks. Captain Aschekind leaned against a wall with his head bowed low, his thick arms crossed over his chest, a portable radio on hand.

“Do you drink or smoke, Private 1st Class Beckert?” Captain Aschekind asked.

Kern nearly jumped from being so suddenly addressed. He had nearly forgotten he had received the meaningless appellation “1st Class” four days ago. It was meant to bolster his morale, but it only made him feel even more inadequate in the face of titans like Aschekind.

“No sir.” Kern said. He felt a tremble in his lips that felt all too noticeable.

Aschekind did not comment on it, if he heard it at all. “There is no shame in it.”

Kern wondered what he would have said instead if he had replied in the affirmative.

“Yes sir. My father was a mean drunk and a mean smoker. I don’t want to be either.”

Aschekind nodded his head solemnly. “Do you fear for today, private?”

“No sir.” Kern replied without thinking. If he was honest with himself, he was anxious.

“Alcohol or a cigar keeps you upright and moving; but so can the force of your will.”

It’s not like Kern would know – he had never tried either thing in his life. “Yes sir.”

“Choices that we make without even thinking. You might drink to stay awake just like you run to stay alive. There are many alternatives; but you don’t always live after.”

“Have you made a wrong choice, sir?” Kern asked. He nearly interrupted the Captain.

Captain Aschekind raised his head and stared at Kern with a strikingly neutral expression. All of his intensity seemed gone – there was only an eerie hollowness left there.

“I have made several choices that took from me more than they gave.” He said.

He adjusted his peaked hat and left the wall, walking past Kern, raising his hand radio.

Captain Aschekind turned to face down the street at the assembled men. A few turned or raised their heads to stare, but most barely acknowledged him at all until he addressed them. “We’re moving!” He bellowed. “Company, start walking. Keep your eyes open. Our combat patrol did not return. We will reconnoiter in force. Stay alert and march! “

At first only a few men responded; they shouldered their packs, affixed bayonets and started marching north in a loose formation. They were leaves falling from a tree. Few at first glance – but slowly the wind of war peeled more and more of them, taking them from their cards, their food, their cigars, their game boards, their jovial conversation. Recognition dawned upon them one by one, and the entire company marched off to war.

Aschekind did not drive them forward.

He only stood and he stared as they passed him. When he started walking, so did Kern, joining the rest of the headquarters platoon in the rear. There was no turning back.

On a marching stride, a kilometer went by in forty minutes or so.

Certainly trained athletes could clear a kilometer very quickly.

An athlete did not have to walk over rubble, did not have to check every window and door an alley around them for contacts, stop and start whenever they thought they saw a person dressed differently than them. They did not have to account for the slowest among their number, walking at a pace and formation that protected their precious machine gunners and AT snipers. They did not travel with twenty-five kilograms of equipment.

As part of the Headquarters platoon, Kern carried a backpack radio that added ten kilograms to his combat load. He could never clear a kilometer at a competitive speed.

For thirty minutes there was nothing worth breaking up the march. Then from the front of the march, one of the forward squadrons called for a halt of the column. Their platoon then sent these men to the rear to speak to the command platoon. Through their binoculars they had seen movement ahead of them on the road. Aschekind sent them out front again.

Within moments the column broke up – two platoons formed up side-by-side, fifty to seventy-five men on the left and right streets along the road. Squadrons of eight to ten men advanced north, each separated from another by a few meters for protection. A hundred meters from the leading elements the third platoon followed, and then the headquarters, ten meters behind them. Everyone was in formation, and ready to meet any engagement.

Kern felt out of place in this movement of men. He felt sluggish and unprepared.

“Run forward, stay behind the front line. Keep in contact.” Aschekind said. Around him, a pair of light mortars were being positioned on the road by the rest of the HQ platoon.

Kern thought he was talking to the air at first, but he reflexively saluted, while his mind tasted the words like poisoned caramel in an unwary tongue. Once he understood what the Captain meant, and to whom it was addressed, Kern dropped the extra mortar ammo he had been carrying for the HQ platoon, and ran past the rear platoon, a terrible sensation in his stomach. He took to the right side of the street with the assault forces.

Ahead of him the men broke into a run. He heard the first cracks of enemy gunfire.

Several hundred meters ahead were two houses built across the street from each other, with third stories that caused them to dominate the low-lying urban landscape of the lower Koba sector. From those windows came the first shots.

Streaks of machine gun fire and bolt-action rifle fire flew over and around the platoons as they charged. Each house attacked the street diagonal to it, and the enfilade fire took its first casualties almost immediately. Kern saw a few stragglers at the back of the columns hit by fire that had soared over the advance troops. Lines of gunfire slashed over the street.

From his vantage he could not see the enemy, just their handiwork.

But there was no panic, except in Kern’s rushing, flailing mind.

Meticulously the men of the two forward platoons moved to disperse into and around several houses even as the bullets fell around them in vicious bursts and streaks. Kern swallowed hard and ran in with the closest group into an alleyway about a hundred meters from the houses. The Ayvartans did not let up for a second – enemy fire bit into the corner of their building and fell relentlessly across the street just outside their alley.

“Call it in!” A man shouted at Kern over the continuous gunfire from the houses.

Call it in? Words came and went through his ears, barely registering at first.

Realization; he was talking about the mortars.

Kern picked up the radio handset, but then he froze.

As the observer and point of contact he was supposed to feed a set of map and landmark coordinates back to the company’s mortar team, but he forgot entirely what he was supposed to say. All of the numbers he had practiced before escaped his mind. Lips quivering, he stared helplessly at the nearby squad leader, denoted as such by the pins on his uniform. Shaking his head the squad leader, a tall, lightly bearded older man, physically turned him around and picked up the radio handset from his backpack to speak.

“This is Schloss, calling in a fire mission. Yes chief he’s right here. I don’t know.” Schloss paused and quickly recited a string of numbers and letters. He put back the handset.

Within moments they heard a series of blasts in quick succession farther up the street.

“Listen kid,” Schloss turned him around again and held him by his shoulders, staring straight into his eyes. “I’m not mad at you yet, but it’s getting close. If running’s all you’re good for then run close to me so I can use that radio when I need it. Ok?”

Kern almost felt like weeping. He nodded affirmatively.

He pulled the shoulder strap of his rifle over his head and readied the weapon in his hands. Seconds later they heard another round of blasts. At once the bullets stopped falling on the street outside their alley, and the squadron broke into a run, dashing out into the street. Ahead of them mortar fire crashed over the two tall houses, pounding on the roof.

A cloud of smoke and dust descended over the high windows.

As they ran, figures in the shadows of the ground floor doors and windows launched sporadic bursts of rifle fire their way, hitting the street and flying past their helmets with a whining sound. Kern struggled against his instinct to duck somewhere – there was not a lot of fire with the machine guns suppressed, and yet he was terrified of any individual bullet that he saw. He recalled the volume of fire in Matumaini, and this was nothing like it, but it only took one bullet. Just one bullet would kill him.

He could run fifty meters in ten seconds; bullets traveled that in less than a second.

Schloss’ squadron bolted ahead, and with titanic effort Kern bolted with them.

They closed to within a dozen meters of the enemy before their mortar fire lapsed, and the machine gun fire from the upper floors resumed. Schloss pointed everyone to the ruins of a nearby building. One remaining north-facing wall and corner provided enough protection from the second and third story gunners in the strongholds ahead.

Inside the ruin there was only a mound of rubble. Men started climbing it.

Standing at its peak they could peer over the remains of the wall.

Across the road Kern saw men carrying a Norgler machine gun and settling atop the remains of a collapsed wall. No sooner had the shooter braced the gun that a bullet speared him through the neck. He fell over the rubble and into the street, thrashing to his death.

“Five men up there, three men on what remains of the door!” Schloss shouted. He climbed up the mound, and beckoned Kern to go up as well. Kern peeled himself away from the doorway and the corpse; he climbed over the rocks, some of which still had rusty metal bars going through them. They crouched along the corner, where the rubble formed a platform. One man put his helmet on his rifle and raised it over the wall. Nothing.

“They’re not looking this way. We’re not a machine gun squad.” said the grenadier.

“On my mark everyone rise, shoot into the window, and hide again.” Schloss said.

“Which window?” Kern asked. He had not gotten a good enough look at the houses.

“Corner window, closest to the street, facing us. Second floor.” Schloss shouted. Ayvartan machine gun fire grew vicious again and he had to raise his voice to be heard.

Kern nodded. He gripped his rifle and steadied his feet, waiting for the signal.

Schloss nodded his head, and the fireteam rose over the wall. Kern saw the window, and he thought he saw a shadow in the faint smoke and scarcely thinking he opened fire.

All at once the high windows on both houses exploded.

Smoke and dust and a brief burst of fire flashed from inside the windows, and the walls crumbled, launching debris onto the streets and belching fumes into the surroundings.

Kern stared at his rifle in disbelief as the house was wiped from the world before him.

Plumes of smoke and dust rose from the structure.

Kern heard a noise as something flew in overhead.

Explosive shells; hurtling in from farther south they battered the buildings into chunks. Guns and mortars pounded the roof and walls until they sank, crushing the Ayvartans in the rockfall; ceilings and floors collapsed and walls folded out onto the street. Debris flew into nearby buildings and the grenadiers closest to the building hunkered in cover.

“Too close! Too close!” the men shouted at nobody who could hear as the debris fell.

Men abandoned their forward positions and ran back down the street to escape the concrete shrapnel, but the violence had already peaked. Rubble settled on the street and the guns and mortars concluded their fire missions. There was only dust, billowing in clouds.

Schloss stood over the wall and peered out at the carnage. He waved his men down, and the soldiers on the mound slid off the rubble and regrouped, vacating the ruin together.

On the street, the wind blew away the murky air. Kern heard the chugging of engines in the distance and the whining of tracks; he looked over his shoulder through parting clouds. At the rear of the company, third platoon left the road and stood on the street, sidelined by a platoon of M3 Hunter assault guns advancing to the urban front.

Each of these vehicles was a self-propelled seventy-five centimeter howitzer, and the ruins ahead proved the strength of their massed fire. Because of the tight road, they moved forward in a box formation, two rows of two tanks followed by the command vehicle alone in the rear. Even this arrangement occupied most of the road. Company foot soldiers stuck close to the buildings, giving the machines space as they moved through the block.

Once the machines had gotten clear of the men, third platoon moved up to where the fighting had taken place, and Aschekind reappeared. Beige clouds blew in from the ruins ahead, travelling on the strong afternoon breeze. Aschekind did not even blink as he walked.

“We will be following the tanks.” Aschekind said aloud. “I want third platoon directly behind them, and second platoon following within fifty meters. First platoon, take the rear.”

After listening to the Captain’s orders Kern realized how quiet everything had become.

Kern could have sworn that hundreds of landsers must have died from the fire and carnage, but with the benefit of silence, he found that only a dozen men had died, and several of the wounded had survived. Many men were only bruised. He looked at his surroundings as though the block had been taken from him and replaced somehow.

Idle thoughts dropped heavily onto his consciousness from someplace unknown, and all at once he felt the fatigue that his anxiety and adrenaline had suppressed.

He shivered without cold.

All of the shooting and killing and he had not even gotten a good look at the Ayvartans.

Fighting at these ranges that made him question if he was engaging human beings at all. They barely needed to see him in order to kill him; he barely saw them before they died.

“Move ahead with these men,” Aschekind instructed Kern, “stay behind the tanks.”

The Captain’s hand fell heavily on his shoulder.

Kern felt almost as if being shoved forward.

“Yes sir.” Kern replied.

He saluted, and beside him, Schloss saluted as well, acknowledging.

Joining the rest of the mostly-intact second platoon, Kern advanced behind the assault guns. They moved between the rubble of the stronghold houses and continued up Koba Street. Most of the buildings were low-lying, and every taller building seemed like the ominous pillars of a great gate in the distance. The M3 Hunters raised their guns whenever they neared a building that possessed a second story, ready to flatten it.

They crossed the shadows of several buildings without incident.

Whenever Kern walked past however he felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. He had heard the Ayvartans had tunnels, and that they would often reappear suddenly in buildings thought cleared. There was a reason their recon squadron had never returned to report to them. Would they find those six men dead somewhere ahead, their sacrifice forewarning the Company of danger? Would they be discarded, faceless on the street?

Or did they just disappear into the haphazard blocks of buildings, never to be found?

Another kilometer behind them, no contacts. Everyone peered ahead expectantly. Atop the tank there was a man with binoculars, one of the vehicle commanders. He played with the lenses, magnifying. Every so often he waved his hand, and everyone continued to march.

They had a sight-line about 800 meters forward. Koba, like a lot of Bado Aso’s streets and blocks, was tight, flat, and fairly straight. In Bada Aso the chief limitations faced by soldiers with otherwise good eyesight were rubble and ruins obstructing the way, and the haze of dust, heat and humidity, and of course, the curvature of the horizon itself. Even with binoculars it was difficult to acquire a reliable picture any further ahead of the column than 800 meters to a kilometer, no matter how straight the road was. And some roads were not so straight – on the Western side, Bada Aso softly curved, following the shape of the coast. Koba and other western streets curved as well and limited their sight.

Everyone marched briskly, some with their guns out, many with their guns shouldered.

Then the tank commander raised his fist instead and the column stopped in its tracks.

Men ran back and forth from him, and several then crept around the front of the tanks.

Word traveled through the column – another Ayvartan position, a few hundred away.

Kern and Schloss took cover around a street corner and peered ahead around the tanks.

Two M3s trundled ahead, paused, and then put shells downrange. Columns of dust and uprooted gravel rose across the Ayvartan line. A shell hit a sandbag wall dead center. Kern saw figures disperse from behind the bags in a panic. Grenadiers from the third platoon, gathered around the assault guns, saw the opportunity and charged the enemy line.

Rifles and machine guns cracked and flashed from the ground floor windows of a store and a co-op restaurant a few dozen meters behind the sandbag emplacement. Kern counted the flashing muzzles and thought there had to be at least a dozen Ayvartans in each building.

It was the same as before; two buildings across from each other, barring the way.

Bullets filled the air, red tracer lines lending them the appearance of burning arrows, flying past and crashing around the men as they approached. Landsers cut the distance by taking cover until the gunfire shifted its weight to a different position and then bounding toward a new piece of cover. Working in this fashion they managed to confound the poor fire discipline of their enemies and make rapid gains even in the face of the gunfire.

Assault guns carefully shifted their bulk, repositioned their guns and resumed firing on the Ayvartan line, kicking up debris in front of the windows and doors and striking the walls and corners. High-explosive blasts collapsed walls and smashed the streets.

Even as their cover turned to ruins the Ayvartans continued to fire with zeal.

Third platoon kept mobile, and soon occupied several positions close to the two structures, including a squadron of men huddling right behind the Ayvartan sandbags.

These were the eight closest men to the enemy, and with the best view. Armed with bolt-action rifles they took turns firing over the smashed remains of the sandbags and ducking for safety. Hits on the thick concrete walls issued thin and fleeting wisps of dust and chipped cement; most of the exchange on both sides hit cover, tracing sharp lines across the distance between the sandbags and cooperative restaurant or to the shop.

Farther down the street groups of stray landsers, their squadrons sometimes split across the street or in adjacent alleyways and buildings, took cover in doorways and windows and behind staircases. When the gunfire swept past them they hid, and a few then moved; but most remained in place behind cover and plinked at the crumbling windows and doors.

Shells pounded the side of the restaurant and the store. Kern marveled at the sustained rate of fire on their assault guns, but the frames of the houses stood even as their walls started to fall. Though 7.5 cm shells blasted holes into the walls that pooled rubble onto the street, the buildings did not complete crumble and the Ayvartans continued to shoot. No shell had yet managed to soar through the small windows and into the interiors.

A third M3 peeled from the assault gun platoon and crammed beside the first two, opening on the strongholds with its own gun. Though it added some volume to the artillery volley, it was ill-positioned and could only hit the store from its vantage, and not the restaurant. Both the other M3s subtly shifted on their tracks, trying their damnedest to put a shell into a window but in so doing mostly pitted the street and the road ahead.

“We can’t just stand here, lets go,” Schloss declared.

He started leading his men off the street and deeper west into the alleys. Kern watched them go and wondered whether to follow. West of Koba block was a long, five meters tall wall that separated the block from the coast. Skirting around the houses adjacent Koba Street, Schloss could probably flank the enemy ahead from behind or the side.

A muffled roar sounded far too close for comfort interrupted Kern’s thoughts; livid red flashes off the corner of his eye startled him. Smoke started to blow in across the street from a sudden blast. Was that one of theirs? Kern pulled up his binoculars.

He peered along the road.

In the middle of the street a shell crashed and consumed the squadron at the sandbags in a fireball. A pillar of thick black smoke rose from a 3-meter wide crater smashed into the place. Gunfire halted on both sides, a second of silence followed by dozens more shells.

Kern ducked back behind the corner.

Shells crashed all along the column, punching through roofs and smashing grenadiers hiding in buildings, bursting into showers of fragments outside of alleyways and spraying unlucky landsers with piercing shards of metal. Men caught in the middle of the street when the heat fell threw themselves face down as the road pitch was thrown up into the air around them, and fire and smoke rose up around them like geysers, consuming unaware men.

In the face of this fire the three assault guns broke from their attack. Ceasing all fire they clumsily reversed from their cramped positions, inhibited by the space. They turned a few centimeters this way and that trying to stay off one another and off the walls of nearby buildings while inching back out of the combat area. Metal clanked as they hit each other.

Sluggishness proved fatal; a pair of projectiles overtook the vehicles at a sharp angle.

Fire and fragments chewed brutally through the assault guns. One tank burst almost as if from the inside out, its hull left in the middle of the road like a shredded can. Chunks of track and ripped pieces of armor flew every which way, and the short barrel of a 7.5 cm gun was launched through the air by the blasts and smashed through a nearby wall. Explosive pressure so heavily and directly on the armor left behind wrecked, charred hulls in the middle of the street, hollowed out wherever the blast waves hit them.

Kern’s ears rang even as the blasts subsided.

He pressed himself against the corner of the same building and dared not move. Breathing heavily, he produced the radio handset from his pack, and he called out to Captain Aschekind. “The Ayvartans have deployed heavy artillery support!”

“I heard. First Platoon is rejoining. Second company is en route.” Aschekind replied.

In response Kern raised his binoculars and looked south, the way the column came. Through the thin dust he saw the first platoon rushing back up; father behind them he saw a brand new unbroken column moving in. Two hundred more men moving in to fight.

Behind him an isolated shell descended into the middle of the street. He saw only the flash in the corner of his vision, and he heard the booming explosive and falling debris.

Something compelled him, and the distress in his voice surprised even him. “Sir, you have to tell them to hold off, there’s a chokepoint up ahead, we can’t keep trying to—“

“Air support will take care of that. Focus on advancing.” Aschekind replied. “We have to advance. That is Operation Surge, Private. Join Second Company and advance.”

Kern heard the shuttering sound of the Captain’s radio disconnecting from his own.

He replaced the headset in its spot on the backpack. With his back still to the wall and his eyes to the south, Kern hyperventilated as he waited for the second company to move in, all the while the Ayvartan artillery fire resumed behind him, shells falling by the dozens.

Central Sector, Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”

Panic on the radio. “Ma’am, there’s too many of them out here, they’re coming in from the side-streets, from the main streets, I think they’ve broken through Katura and Koba. Whole platoons, dozens of them! Tanks and artillery moving in. We can’t hold any longer!”

“Retreat slowly back to the Home line with 3rd Corps, but no further than that.”

“Yes ma’am.” He hung up, energized by the idea of a limited retreat. Major Madiha Nakar sighed and put down the radio. She watched the battle unfolding down the road through a telescope from her office. The enemy had indeed broken through to Home.

A kilometer away down the main street, an enemy column had colonized the street corners leading in from Matumaini. She supposed they had filtered through the east and west and moved into Home from those directions to avoid the collapses in the center.

Moving in bounds – stopping in one spot, covering a team until they overtook you, then moving when that team in turn stopped in one spot – the Nochtish men made rapid gains along the end of the street, surging forward almost 300 meters closer to the FOB. There was a platoon of men along each side of the street, a hundred souls; behind them there were two more platoons starting to move. A company at time, coming for her head.

Her defensive line in the center was not a meticulous defense in depth. There was one line of sandbags with three machine guns and three anti-tank guns. Two Hobgoblins waited around the street corners near the school building everyone affectionately called “Madiha’s House.” There was a battalion of soldiers, each company stationed in tall buildings along the end of the street. And there was a hell of a lot of a gunfire flying down at the enemy.

All along the front of the school building, muzzle flashes went off like orange sparklers, guns firing continuously, changing crews every couple minutes to sustain the rate of fire. Machine gun fire streaked from the defensive line and the nearby buildings. Rifles cracked slow and steady in their rhythm. It was a wall of metal, unending volleys roaring down the street. Meanwhile, mortars and 122mm guns manned by the Svechthans cast shots over the school building and smashed the end of the main street a dozen shells at a time.

Smoking pillars rose skyward by the dozen every minute as heavy projectiles impacted the ground, accompanied by a noise like a giant taking a deep breath. Machine gun and rifle bullets fell upon the road in consistent bursts, issuing a continuous cracking noise.

Gunfire was ultimately quite fickle.

An advancing man could survive a mortar shell hitting near him; maybe the angle was off and the fragments flew upward and missed him. Maybe he was hit but not badly enough to stop him. Maybe it just wasn’t his time. Human beings could charge through gunfire, they could be missed by millimeters or centimeters or whole meters by bullets traveling at unfathomable speeds and fired by skilled shooters; gunfire was deceptively impenetrable. Those orange streaks were small and fast and inaccurate. Trajectories varied with elements. An urban environment had thousands of surfaces for a bullet to lodge into.

From her vantage Madiha saw men running as though through fire, walking as though on coals. Bullets lodged into the ground around them, ricocheted off objects near them, seemingly flew by their faces, a curtain of fire tracing the air across the main street for every orange muzzle flash. As if suddenly embraced by spirits men would fall before the fire, over the coals; they would spread their arms and fall aback or fold over on their bellies. They would lose their footing as though they had only slipped on a paper, or fall on their knees as though praying. Then the light of life would leave them and they would die.

But the column did not stop. There was always movement.

A dozen men died and three dozen ducked into cover where they could, and then ran again when they felt the artillery and shots were at their lightest before them.

Scattered enemy troops got within 500 meters of the line, leaving behind dozens dead.

“Madiha! We got a call from the ARG-2 in the north; we’ve got air incoming!”

Madiha pulled herself from the telescope.

Behind her, Parinita, short of breath and sweating, stood in the middle of the door frame with her clipboard in her hand, squeezing the object with shaking fingers.

“Are we almost done destroying evidence?” Madiha asked. Parinita nodded her head.

“Yes, we’ve torn up everything that didn’t have archive priority. We’ve got the rest on a half-track heading north under Kimani’s watch. We don’t have an FOB picked out yet–”

“We don’t need one.” Madiha said. “We can coordinate everything from the truck.”

“Our planes are taking off as well. But they will not reach before Nocht’s aircraft.”

Madiha nodded. She returned to the telescope. Their second company was joining in–

Parinita took her by the shoulder and she pulled her a step back from the window.

“We have to go too. This building is too exposed now. We don’t even have barrage balloons over it anymore.” She said. She looked at Madiha with concern.

Madiha smiled. Parinita; always looking out for her.

“I agree. No protest here, Parinita.”

She did not invent an excuse to stay. She did not need to.

Though the attack was larger than she imagined it would be, and proceeding all along the front in a scale greater than she imagined, none of what she saw through the telescope gave her any reason to change the course that she had planned since before the battle.

“Just one thing. How soon until our guardian angel arrives?” Madiha asked.

“Seas are fairly calm, so she should be here within a few hours.” Parinita replied.

Madiha shouldered the backpack radio they had been using to communicate periodically with their units, strapping it on. Parinita pulled out the little hand-drawn calendar she had made of the battles, and clipped it to her clipboard. These final effects collected, they rushed downstairs, shutting the door for the last time on their shared office in “Madiha’s House,” Bada Aso. It had withstood so much in this terrible battle.

Soon it would be time to put it to its final rest.

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — Absolute Pin

The Exiles II

Side-Story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden.

This chapter contains descriptions of violence, injury, death and corpses.

16th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Tauta — Thurin City, Seaside

As the sun started to set, the drizzling showed no signs of a pause. Outside the Krawiec restaurant, Bercik heard a car horn, and he and Kirsten nearly jumped. A stately black automobile approached around the back of the restaurant, and drove up with its side doors to the two of them. Two men exited the vehicle; one left them without so much as a greeting, making his way into the restaurant. From the passenger side, a tall man stood up, looked them over, and spread his arms. He had big burly shoulders, a square jaw, and shiny, waxed brown hair combed back over his head, and a shark’s grin on his face.

“Not gonna hug me Bercik? You too good for hugs now?” Blazej said.

Bercik begrudgingly approached him. Blazej’s arms clamped around him like a vice, lifting him off the ground and squeezing him, laughing riotously as Bercik’s legs kicked helplessly in the air and he gasped for breath. This embrace squeezed the air out of him and he felt his back and arms crack under Blazej’s brute strength. When he let go, Bercik fell gasping on his back, holding his chest, and crawling fitfully away toward Kirsten, who knelt down to help him.

“You want one too kid? Come on, I think you can last more than Bercik, he’s a wimp.”

Kirsten shook his head vigorously, his hair golden whipping about as he did.

“You’re no fun. Bercik, this kid you got, he’s no fun. Where did you even scrounge him up?”

Blazej procured a cigarette and lit it in the middle of the rain. He took a long drag from it.

“You’re both getting wet, come on, get in the car.” He said, his Nochtish subtly accented.

Since coming up with this scheme Bercik knew that he couldn’t stay in Nocht. He had few options — aside from the Lachy mob all of his contacts were either too legit or too cowardly to help him. Blazej was a brute, and rough manner toward others was just his natural state. But lying on the ground heaving and gasping, Bercik felt that he could not actually be sure whether or not Blazej meant him harm or not. Getting in a mob car meant things.

“Where are we going, Blazej?” Bercik asked, standing up slowly from the ground.

“We’ll be driving down to Konig, further south, along the rural roads.” Blazej said. He smiled. “Then I’ll get you on a nice boat down to the islands. You can take a little vacation there, just you and your friend, a little house by the beach. You might not even want to come back, ha!”

Bercik cringed. Was that a threat or was he reading too much into Blazej’s glib demeanor?

Despite his trepidation Bercik knew the bitter and frustrating truth, that he could not run away at this point, or test his luck somewhere else in the fatherland. When he was chasing stories he always thought himself as a good reader of people, but that skill kept being tested lately and he was no longer sure whether he had passed a challenge. These were hurdles he would not know he cleared until he hit the ground or a pole did. Bercik nodded toward Kirsten that it was alright to get in the car. Kirsten sat in the back, and Bercik in the passenger side, and they shut the doors. It was warm and dry inside, and made Bercik conscious of how wet he had gotten in the rain. It also smelled terribly, of cigarettes, maybe even reefer. There was a brown stain on the backseat that made Kirsten flinch when he saw it.

“I was shaking up a guy for money he owed us before I got called for this. That guy’s got an angel looking out for him.” Blazej said, putting the car into gear. “Anyway, I much prefer driving you around, friend.” He nudged Bercik in the shoulder with his meaty fist.

“Then I guess my guardian angel has defected.” Bercik said. Blazej laughed.

“Well you got yourself a new one — though I’m more of a guardian devil.”

Blazej discarded his cigarette out the window, getting his arm wet in the process. After putting the car in gear he hardly gave it any time to warm up. He slammed the gas pedal and twisted the wheel with a violent cheer, and the car swung, tossing Kirsten on his side and slamming Bercik into the door. Blazej cut around the restaurant parking and hurtled down the road. Wheels screeching and the engine grinding drowned out their thoughts. Across the pier and the empty backroads Blazej drove like a charging beast, taking the corners at near to full speed.

“Izaak doesn’t know how to really drive!” He shouted. “THIS is how you drive!”

“Messiah defend us, we’re gonna die Bercik! He’s gonna kill us!” Kirsten cried.

“Blazej, drive like a human being!” Bercik shouted, shoving the driver’s shoulder.

“Oh but I am Bercik! I am!” Blazej laughed, ignoring both of their protests.

Ahead they saw the first connection onto a trafficked thoroughfare and both passengers gulped and averted their eyes. Once he was on the populated roads Blazej slowed down, but only by a fraction. He controlled his speed enough that he could scare the soul out of pedestrians trying to cross the street or standing at a corner as he hurtled past without outright killing them. He took particular pleasure in splashing water and blowing away the umbrellas of the suited businessmen coming and going from the banks and the stock markets in the city center. They shouted curses and slurs in his wake, but could do nothing more than that.

“Blazej, do you want to get stopped by the police? I’m in danger here goddamn it!” Bercik said.

“There’s just three motor police vehicles in Turin. Three! Can you believe it?” Blazej laughed.

Kirsten curled up in a corner of the back seat, and took a fetal position. Bercik held on to the door and tried center himself and avoid looking out to the streets. Owing to its exceptional speed the car carried them out of the city, down the southern roads overlooking the seaside, and rapidly they left behind the industrial grayness of Turin, and proceeded into the yellowing green of the southeastern countryside. Trees and shrubs were beginning to lose their summer luster, and the farms were planting their sweet potatoes, so the fields straddling the city limits looked barren of stalks and grasses. Here Blazej began to slow down to natural speeds. He looked out the windows with a grin, and kept a steadier hand on the wheel while navigating the gentle bumps on the dirt roads. Night was falling, and they could hear the rain again.

“It wouldn’t do to scream down these roads.” He said. “Wouldn’t be right.”

So there was something he respected after all. Or maybe it was just no fun for him without streets and roads full of people to torment. Bercik honestly didn’t know.

He had grown up around Blazej. When they were kids they would fight the other neighborhood kids, the ones who weren’t Lachy; they had their own little cliques and gangs even back then. Fighting and spying and stealing and smuggling were things they did even in that distorted mirror of adult life they lived as children. These things happened, but in miniature, and they served as preparation, like a kitten’s climbing and clawing made it a hunter when grown. But Bercik told himself that the results were far more evident in Blazej and Izaak than in him. He still saw it in them, and he tried to suppress what he saw of it in himself.

Or sometimes, as in his papers work, to redirect it somewhere else.

“So,” Blazej lifted his right hand from the steering wheel and gestured with it, driving with a leisurely hold from his left, “Bercik, what happened to you? Greis didn’t give me the whole picture, and I’d like to know what you did to anger the Schwartzkopf of all people.”

Bercik hesitated. Kirsten looked between the two of them; Bercik could see his eyes in the mirror.

“C’mon, you can talk to me.” Blazej said. “I’m not gonna be much help otherwise.”

“Been readin’ the newspapers lately?” Bercik said. “You should know, then.”

“Yeah, I saw your articles. Didn’t much care for them. After all, who cares what the government’s doing wrong. I ain’t doing any better and you ain’t either.”

“Well, I care. Enough that I managed to steal some top secret information from them.”

Bercik was lying, but he felt comfortable doing so where it concerned Blazej. It was unnecessary to be open about the exact mechanics of the operation. All that Blazej needed to know was that Bercik was formidable — that he had outwitted the government once already, that he had something mysterious and valuable on him, and more importantly, that he was skilled enough to get it. That another person largely did the work for him and then surprised him with the results was not a piece of information that Blazej needed to know. Kirsten kept quiet throughout, which was good. Hopefully he understood the pressing need here.

Blazej eyed him with a goofy grin. “I’m surprised at you Bercik. Stealing information and from the government? Going on the lam? I thought you were better than that.”

“Better than what?” Bercik said sharply. “Better than what, Blazej?”

“Stealing. Crime.” Blazej pointed the finger of his free hand and tapped Bercik shart in the collarbone. “You don’t want nothin’ to do with us, but you keep coming back in spirit, don’t you Bercik? I read your stories. All those scandals, all those interviews, the anonymous tips, the ‘leaks’ from the government. How did you get that? You don’t get that by being nice, right? You get it by knockin’ folks down, by breakin’ their windows, by knocking their teeth out until they spill the beans. You think I don’t know you? You think you changed?”

His finger was pressing hard enough now that it started to hurt, but Bercik offered no reaction.

Blazej’s voice started rising. Bercik looked him hard in the eyes, but it was contact he strained to maintain. “You ain’t no better than me, Bercik. Frankly, were I not the magnanimous soul that I am, I’d be more than a little pissed off at you. But I’m happy now that I know that you’ve spent the past year rolling in the same mud as I. You think you’re better than anybody.”

Ahead of them a little black car was slowing down, and Blazej lifted his finger from Bercik, put both hands on the wheel again, and stomped the pedal down. He violently cut around the little car on the tight road and speed up past it, leaving it far behind along the rural road.

“You think, you’re so good, that everyone will naturally just listen to you.” Blazej shouted. “You think you’re so smart, so above it all, that everyone’s gotta listen to you, like you got all the fuckin’ answers. That’s what I got out of your big splash on the front pages. In fact, I got a question for you genius man. Do you really know the Schwartzkopf are after you? Or is it just your imagination, that you’re so important that they gotta be at your heels?”

“He knows!” Kirsten shouted. His eyes looked a little wet. “Just shut up already!”

His sudden intrusion quieted the car for a minute. Blazej let go of the steering wheel, searched his pockets, and placed a cigarette between his lips. He periodically looked up out the windshield while lighting the stick and taking his first long drag from it. He raised his hand back to the wheel, using the other to manipulate the cigarette. He opened a window and blew out.

“That’s a relief, kid. Then at least I’m not wasting my time.” Blazej finally replied.

Kirsten made a little noise and curled his fists and crossed his arms. He sat back on the seat, tears in his eyes and red in the face, staring out the window with his teeth grit.

“So why are you here huh? Why’re you trailing this knucklehead around like a dog?”

“Because I wanted to.” Kirsten said through his teeth. The tears started to flow.

“Well, I’ve heard worse reasons.” Blazej replied. He raised the cigarette back to his mouth and made no further conversation. Bercik had nothing to say to him. He just stared out the window.

What good would it do to keep talking? It was better to let him blow smoke and say whatever he wanted and then leave it all at that. Otherwise the argument would just go on. And though he wanted to say something to Kirsten to encourage him, Bercik found himself feeling too guilty to do so. It was his fault that Kirsten was in this environment now. He was not a boy — Kirsten was an adult. He wasn’t even all that much younger than Bercik. The gap between them was just large enough to school someone at a college and no more. He had wanted to leave and so he left. But obviously, Bercik gave him the opportunity. Otherwise Kirsten might have remained a paperboy, day in and day out, returning home to play his instruments, his life a peaceful standstill. All of their future hardship was on Bercik. He had enabled it. He had coaxed perhaps the only friend he had left in the world to betray that same world with him. It was selfish. Could someone blame him for it? They could — he blamed himself certainly.

More and more as he thought about it, he thought maybe Blazej was right.

Night fell in earnest, pitch black from the thickening clouds overhead. Thurin’s light drizzling became as wild and overgrown as the new surroundings, rain striking the earth with growing vehemence. Along the dirt road they had passed the farms, and at their flanks there were soon only trees. Trees hung over the road from either side, tall and thick, a web of branches that gave a unique character to the growing dark. Wet branches hanging ahead of them glistened when illuminated by the car’s headlights. Eyes glinted from the trunks and the bushes as nocturnal animals traced their instinctive paths. Under the car the road grew muddy, and its passage kicked up sheets of water over the sides of the road.

They hit a bump in the road; water and mud splashed over the hood.

“Messiah’s sake!” Blazej cried out. “Bercik hit that lever there for me.”

Bercik reached across the instrument panel and started cranking a long handle back and forth. This motion was mirrored outside by wipers, sweeping the mud off the windshield. For each turn of the lever the wipers cycled to the left completely, and a second crank reset them to their natural position. Several exhausting cycles later, the windshield was serviceable again.

“Piece of junk looks nice and runs fast but it’s got no amenities.” Blazej grumbled.

He opened a window and threw out his third cigarette of the drive. Bercik was about to tell him not to light another one — the car was filling with smoke — but even Blazej seemed to be realizing as much. Instead, he offered one to Bercik, who declined immediately. Blazej threw the fresh cigarette out the window with the stub as well.

“You know that’s a disgusting habit right?” Kirsten said, speaking up again.

“Listen kid, I ain’t lookin’ for a lady, so it don’t matter how disgusting I am.” Blazej said.

Bercik shook his head. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking or for whom, if we fill up the car with smoke we’re all gonna be choking the entire drive. Can you control it, Blazej?”

“You know you smoke too you fuckin’ hypocrite. What, is he your girlfriend or something? You gotta look good in front of him? Jeez, you just saw me throw it out, quit nagging me.”

Kirsten crossed his arms turned his head again, looking furious once more.

They moved on a rural crossroad, itself heavily overgrown with trees and shrubbery, the signs nearly reclaimed by mother nature. There was a car perpendicular to them that had arrived at the intersection first, and Blazej sped past and cut it off gleefully, forcing it to break hard. He went on his way and it stopped at the intersection and blared its horn for a moment while they left it behind. Blazej then turned to look at Bercik, and at the briefcase he carried.

“Listen, if what you got is papers, I know someone who might take ’em.”

“What do you mean?” Bercik asked. “Take them? Like buy them?”

“What do you think I mean? I ain’t daft, yes, I mean transactions Bercik. I know people who I’m almost positive would take any government papers you’ve got off your hands.”

“Forgive me if I’m unconvinced.” Bercik replied. “How do you know this?”

“Listen.” Blazej raised his hand to him. “Look, five or six years ago, these little guys, these Svecthans, they started moving into the Higwe, doing business. I was out there for Greis, getting things stable again after one of our smugglers got caught out at sea like an idiot. These Svecthans started moving in and then started setting up a shop.”

“Really? You barely see Svechthans out of their home. They got no reason to leave.” Bercik said. It was not unheard of, but they were very few and far between. They had embassies, but most were little more than one fancy room rented out of an office building.

“Surprised me too! Everything goes in the islands, y’know, and they apparently had weapons to sell, drugs to push. Those Rashas Greis had were basically gifts from them. Rumor was, they got sick of all the happy hoorah times in communist country, and wanted to try for the big bucks in the freest market in the world. Complete bullshit. It’s the communists.”

“So you think it’s a front for something?” Bercik said, though he was still very unconvinced. He had great faith that Blazej could kill people, break things and steal stuff that was maybe worth selling, but Blazej the spy hunter was a dozen steps too far. Clearly he let his imagination run too wild out there in the tropics, maybe it was all the palm wine.

“I know it’s a front. They don’t care about the business. See, someone playing for keeps, who had the kind of firepower and funds these guys had, would have just offed me and Greis and taken everything over. For Messiah’s sake, I’ve bought bombs and rifles from these folk. Greis is good, but he’s not bomb-pushing good. We stick to drugs and meds ’cause that shit’s sustainable. These guys have got to be communists, and they’re probably the communists that’ve been causing trouble here and in Lubon. Those attacks, last year? Bet you it was their work.”

Some time ago, during the Federation Day celebrations, armed assailants had attacked the presidential motorcade. They had weapons and explosives. Grenades flew everywhere, setting cars ablaze, killing police. There were snipers, submachine gunners, automatic pistols slinging bullets everywhere. It was a warzone right in the middle of Junzien. Dozens had been killed, mostly police. President Lehner was nearly caught in it. Right away the communists had been blamed, and chiefly Ayvarta. Empress-in-Exile Trueday condemned her old country, and all suspects caught were either south-blooded in some way, or with sympathies toward defunct unions. Back then, Bercik had thought it must have been the Ayvartans. Who else had the power or motive to do so?

When he started writing his stories on the government, he changed his tune, and the way he figured it had to have been a false flag attack to drum up a casus belli now.

He never would have thought, however, that it might be a different communist group altogether who could be responsible. It intrigued him.

However he was still heavily skeptical. He would have to see it for himself.

“I’ll think about it Blazej. Right now there’s too much shit unknown.” He said.

“Just giving you a lead. You don’t look like you have a lot of direction right now.”

“I don’t, but let’s take things one at a time. Harbor, ocean, island, then business.”

“Whatever you say.” Blazej replied. He made as if to reach for a cigarette, but then he stopped himself, his hand shaking in mid-air in front of his coat. It seemed to take a lot of willpower to put his hand back on the wheel and overcome the urge to smoke.

“Thanks for your consideration.” Kirsten said sarcastically, still fuming in the backseat.

Blazej said nothing back at him this time. He did not even make an expression.

Bercik adjusted the rearview mirror to get a good look at Kirsten. He had to admit there was something comical and endearing about the childish and petty way he looked, with his arms crossed and his eyes turned to the window, like a kid who hadn’t gotten their way.

“You should get some rest, we’ll be there around sunset.” He said.

“I’ll be fine. I’ve stayed up all night practicing before.” Kirsten said.

“I know. I’ve heard it.” Bercik said, chuckling. “But take it easy, ok?”

Kirsten returned a subdued smile, while Blazej made a grunting noise.

Bercik readjusted the mirror again before Blazej took it as a chance to open his maw again. He pushed it up, until he could see the dark road behind them. But a powerful glare irritated his eyes — a car close behind them had turned on its high beam headlights.

“Where the fuck did you come from?” Blazej said, looking in his side mirror.

Accelerating suddenly, the car rammed them from behind. Bercik nearly hit the glove compartment, and Kirsten was pushed against Blazej’s seat. Blazej jerked close to the wheel, but kept himself in control and accelerated. Racing through the wood under the pouring rain, the cars were bumper to nose, their wheels hissing in the slick road.

The pursuer rammed them again, and accelerated even more, laboring to overtake them. The vehicle in pursuit was a newer model car, faster than Blazej’s by enough to gain on it. Centimeter by centimeter the nose of the pursuing car overtook their back wheel.

Blazej turned the crank to lower his window, letting in the rain. He drew his pistol, leaned out the window and opened fire. He shot off the pursuer’s side mirror and put several holes in the windshield before retreating. Both cars wobbled on the road, but neither relented.

At the sight and sound of the gun Bercik went nearly fetal for cover and Kirsten ducked in the space between the front and back seats. He feared the worst; but there was no retaliatory fire. Instead the enemy accelerated until their nose was right against the driver’s side rear door.

The pursuing car broke off from them to gain momentum before accelerating again and slamming viciously into their side, smashing off their fender on the left rear wheel.

This sheer brute force force pushed their car aside and their right wheels off the road, and a wave of mud and dirt and water rose at their flank. Blazej struggled for control. They took out a wooden road sign that crashed over their windshield and flew off their roof.

Blazej heaved on the wheel and maneuvered the car back into the flat, wet terrain of the road, while firing off his last few rounds, fruitlessly striking the surrounding wood.

“Kid, put your window down quick!” Blazej shouted, “I’m gonna brake slow when they’re on our side, you fill ’em with lead while they creep past! Hit the windows with the whole clip!”

Shaking and breathing heavily, his eyes wide with shock, Kirsten slowly drew out the gun Uncle Krawiec had given him, and reached out a trembling hand from the floor of the car, turning the crank and opening the window. Bercik drew his gun and looked out the back window at their assailant, but he could see nothing of the enemy behind the glass and the streaming rain.

There were amorphous shadows playing about the interior of the vehicle that could have been easily a trick of the night and rain. It was as if a wraith was in pursuit of them.

Again the enemy vehicle accelerated suddenly and broke off from them.

Blazej pumped on the brake pedal and ducked his head as best he could. Kirsten rose and opened fire blindly out the window; Bercik fired over Blazej’s shoulder. Over a dozen shots flew out their windows and crashed through the glass and doors of the pursuing car, shattering the windows and windshield and revealing humanoid figures for a brief second.

Their pursuers sped out of control, charging past and across the front of Blazej’s car, and crashing through a thicket on the side of the road.

Blazej stopped the car and hit the glove compartment. He tore out the shelf inside. Behind it there were stripper clips of zwitscherer ammunition, and he loaded one into his gun. “Let’s go Bercik. Kid, stay here and watch the road for more company. Shoot first, no questions.”

Kirsten nodded rapidly, shaking all over and with his eyes bloodshot and streaming with tears. Bercik reloaded, passed him a stripper clip, and dismounted without a word. He followed Blazej out into the rain following the skid marks off the side of the road. Past the line of bushes they found the car, a tree buried through the front of the vehicle. The passenger lay ten meters away, flung into the wood while the driver was gruesomely smashed against the wheel and dashboard. Blazej looked through the men’s coats, while Bercik opened the car’s rear door.

Between the front and backseats Bercik found a case, and in it, a loaded submachine gun.

“Everyone had a gun, and everyone had a badge, and whaddaya know,”

Blazej returned from inspecting the ejected passenger and the mutilated driver — he brandished in one hand a square, silver badge with an insignia, of an iron eagle holding the ringing bell of liberty. On the other hand he twirled a black fedora hat.

“Schwartzkopf.” He said, stretching his lips in a delighted, shark-like grin.

“We better hurry away then.” Bercik said. His heart was racing. They could have killed him easily, they had the means. All they had to do was light up the car with the submachine gun, instead of all that ramming. But that would have definitely killed him, and it seemed like they would have rather not. It seemed instead that perhaps they wanted him alive, so they could draw sound from him in a dark room. His imagining of their motives nearly made him vomit.

Blazej tossed the fedora over his shoulder. “Not my style at all.”

When they returned the found Kirsten sitting in the car with the the driver’s side passenger door open, aiming out the window and using it for cover.

“I saw this in a pulp once.” Kirsten said, his voice trembling. His eyes were open very wide and he had a tight, violently shaking grip on his pistol. Water trailed down his hair.

“It’s a good trick.” Blazej replied. He stood by the driver’s side door and fidgeted without a cigarette, as though about to light it, but under the rain that was certainly not possible. He threw it away. Bercik approached Kirsten and knelt down near him.

“You’re alright? Nothing happened out here?” Bercik asked.

“Nothing more than before.” Kirsten said. He was sopping wet.

Blazej took his place behind the wheel, and Bercik entered the car as well. He passed his wet jacket to Kirsten to try to warm him up, a kind gesture in his mind, though perhaps not fully thought out. Nonetheless Kirsten accepted it, smiled, and threw it on over his own. He settled on his side in the backseat and tried to sleep. They sped away from the scene.

View From The Cathedral — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

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

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

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

Never again would it grow so bright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25-AG-30: Ox HQ, Madiha’s House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine. It’s fine.” She said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, South District

6th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madiha was still burdened with disquiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita averted her gaze and sighed a little to herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the city was on its final journey.

Again the forces of reaction teemed within it.

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

Penance Cathedral served as well.

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

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

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

Penance had not seen battle like Matumaini.

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

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

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

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

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

The truck swung around to make its contents accessible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This enthusiasm did not go unnoticed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had a noticeable weight on his nose.

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

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

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

Nnenia was liable to punch him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These people did not resemble those people.

“Welcome, comrades! Need anything?”

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

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

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

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

Nnenia and Adesh introduced themselves more quietly and awkwardly.

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

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

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

But Adesh knew little specific about them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Corporal looked positively in love with them!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the tarp Corporal Rahani and Kufu greeted them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporal Rahani smiled cryptically, and put away the map.

He patted Eshe on the shoulder.

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

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

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

Adesh felt a little bad for him.

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

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

City of Bada Aso – South District, Penance Cathedral

7th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso

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

“I’ve thought about it.”

“Look at the board again.”

“I have. I’m moving the pawn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gulab frowned.

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

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

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

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

They were only a single squadron.

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

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

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

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

Nobody seemed to have any questions or concerns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He adjusted his glasses, and something caught his attention.

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

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

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

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

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

Seeds scattered across the floor from the pits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nnenia passed Rahani a shell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He breathed heavily, waiting for a response.

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

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

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

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

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

Corporal Rahani ordered a shot downrange, and Adesh obliged.

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

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

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

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

“Should we go out there?” Gulab asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gulab snapped out of her reverie and nodded grimly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, it was a pleasant weapon to hold.

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

Above them the sky grew slowly furious.

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

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

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


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

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

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

But their sides were fully exposed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All units report, urgent.”

Nobody seemed to hear or reply.

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

NEXT Chapter In Generalplan Suden Is — Under A Seething Sky