This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Shaila Dominance – Knyskna City, northern Shaila.
Leander Gaurige felt quaking artillery blasts and heard the shrieking of rifles and the rhythmic thudding of machine guns. Nestled inside the tunnel that once led out of his pillbox, he had his eyes closed but could still see the flashes inside his eyelids whenever a shell went off outside, cutting instantly through the dark. He could feel the hot air wafting into the pillbox. It would become hard to breathe for a moment as the smoke blew inside.
He could not sleep, not in this appalling situation, but he was expected to. This would be the only rest he was allowed at his post. Perhaps it would even be the final time that he voluntarily laid down on his pack and closed his eyes.
Soon he would have to join the battle in earnest.
He was thankful, however.
He got to live these dark days as a he felt a man would have lived them.
And others recognized his efforts.
“Gaurige,” He felt a rifle butt scrape against his cheek.
But it was too soon! He wanted to cry out at the injustice of it.
“Just a minute, please, comrade.” Leander dazedly said.
Satisfied with this response the rifle retreated through the tunnel opening again. There was no more putting it off. All the noise had died down, and with a lull in the enemy shelling, that meant he would rotate out. Leander sat up as much as he could, and gathered his implements, his sub-machine gun, his sharpened trench shovel, his one grenade.
He clipped his belt on and began to button up his uniform shirt. He sighed as he did so, feeling an itch from the worn and sheared elastic of his chest binder, threatening to snap. It was starting to slack a bit as well – he had been fighting for days now and just had no time to try to find a replacement binder to keep his breasts bound.
He crawled out of the dirt tunnel and up to the tight concrete quarters of the pillbox.
Once back on his feet and straightened out, he saluted.
“Oh, forget that.” the Sergeant said, shaking his head from a corner of the pillbox where the machine gun was set, right beside their dilapidated 45mm short-barreled gun. “Don’t salute anyone on your way! Just, run with all your might to the staging area!”
Everyone cooperated to push aside the 45mm gun to create an opening around the side of the aperture. Their pillbox was a fairly large structure for its kind, made to hold both an anti-tank and a machine gun emplacement. With their tunnel partially collapsed behind them by a shell, the only way to leave the circular, concrete defense was to dive through the long firing slit and run. Leander nodded to his comrades, and took a deep breath.
He was soaked in sweat and felt his stomach rolling in his belly. Lining himself up with two other men, he waited for the sergeant’s signal. All of them had been called to join an assault group – the fighters in the city needed everyone they could spare.
From the slit of their box, they could see the outline of the Djose woods almost a kilometer out in the dark.
Since Nocht had taken the forest, largely without a fight, the woods had become a thing to fear at night, a black fortress in the distance from which cannons belched fire out to Knyskna, the rail hub and economic capital of the Shaila dominance.
A broad and open road leading from the wood to Knyskna had been smashed featureless and the field between the defensive line and the forest was littered with shell holes. Craters of many sizes pockmarked the area. No longer was the field an undisturbed green, but a sickly expanse of ashen holes and upturned dirt, intercut with bizarre areas of intact grass and flowers.
The Sergeant was almost in tears before giving his signal.
“Run fast, ok? Don’t look back. Ayvarta needs you now.”
Leander nodded grimly, as did the soldiers with him. Nocht bunker-suppression batteries had pre-sighted the fronts of their pillboxes already. It was their feet, versus the enemy spotters.
The Sergeant looked out to the woods with his binoculars.
He snapped his fingers and cried, almost in pain, “Go!”
Leander and the men with him rushed out of the slit, climbing over the lip and forcing themselves through. Leander was very slender, and he easily rolled between the slit, gathered himself and took off running from the pillbox and into town. His comrades were not as lucky. He heard the ominous sawing noise of a Norgler machine gun and put his hands over his head, closing his eyes as he ran. Behind him he heard screams.
Someone had been clipped in the leg.
He heard a thud as a compatriot tripped, and became fodder for the guns.
There were still steps behind him, so at least one ally remained.
Leander would not dare to look and confirm this.
From the forest the enemy opened up on the pillbox and their fire trailed up the road. Norglers blew automatic fire across the defensive line, and were soon joined by field artillery. Half-hunched and running as fast as he could, Leander could still tell a shell had fallen – there was a silence like a sucked-in breath followed a loud, echoing blast. Had the blast been solitary he would have heard the fragments and the dirt falling back to earth a few moments later, and the billowing of smoke; but shells hardly ever fell alone. As he ran into the city a tumultuous artillery barrage followed. Blast after blast silenced the screaming at his back. It was a cruel cacophony that the victim would never get to hear.
Leander took solace in that he only heard the shells.
That he heard the blasts meant that the shells were not meant for him.
He rushed up the road and weaved around the closest row of buildings. To the last one they had been bombed out, the walls collapsed and the roofs sunken through the middle of each structure. They had been hit with sparse bombardments but even one bomb was enough to knock them out. Once they had been beautiful buildings, whimsical, made of rough clay and straw bricks so that they seemed like a confectionary, like brown wafer. Most of the southern part of the city had been reduced to such a state. Leander walked as fast as he could using the buildings for cover, going through two or three blocks of ruined houses before finding himself in an open plaza, the staging area.
He looked behind him one last time and saw nobody coming.
Soldiers gathered into the center of the plaza, picking up armaments and climbing into the backs of trucks to be driven out for the assault on the forest, while officers made the ruins closest to the plaza into their headquarters for fear of being out in the open.
A collection of flat-bed trucks were arranged around the plaza, each carrying air defense guns, 37 or 85mm cannons pointing at the sky. Searchlights shone from the park and up into the dark sky as well, working in tandem with the guns. Looking closely, Leander could see similar lights trailing across the sky further into the city.
They were on the lookout for possible air strikes. Nocht had not yet attacked them at night — but nothing precluded this happening. After all, they themselves were planning a night attack right at that moment. Leander turned his attention away from the sky and stood in the line behind the other soldiers. There were crates near them, and officers handing them weapons and tools that they would need before ushering them into the trucks.
As more soldiers climbed in and Leander came closer to the front of the line, an older woman officer pulled him aside unceremoniously. She seemed very interested in his body, looking down at his legs and examining his build. At first Leander was afraid.
What was this woman noticing about him? Did she have something to say about his identity as a male soldier – and what would it possibly be? But this was Ayvarta, and such things seemed beyond anyone’s concerns.
Instead the woman officer thrust upon him a metal helmet and a metal plate vest, and she led him to a different line and a different set of trucks than where he previously stood. She helped him to affix the metal armor over his chest, and to strap on the helmet over his head. She took his submachine gun magazines, and gave him round drums instead. Once he was fully equipped, she put his SMG in his hands and saluted him.
“You’re going in with the shock troops, comrade. You look nimble enough for it. Frankly, if we left it to volunteers nobody would go. But don’t fret. The armor will protect you from pistols and SMGs, as will the helmet. Don’t dive in front of any Norglers and you’ll be fine. Your job is to punch a hole for us.”
Around him were several other soldiers, similarly dressed. He realized that she was not just addressing him, but all the men and women who were already standing in the line as well. “Punch a hole, ma’am?” Leander asked. He became suddenly conscious of his voice – it was very similar to that of the lady officer.
“We’re gonna be trucking you ladies and gents into the forest to flank the Nocht line – we’re expecting them to attack in the morning and we need to disrupt their advance. You’ll get more instructions on the way.” She gave him a friendly slap in the back and a gentle shove into the line. “Have at them, boy.”
Leander nodded and took his place in the line. Despite the bleakness of his situation, there was something in the character of the Ayvartans around him that gave him strength and that made him face the dark woods and the screeching guns with a nugget of pride and purpose in his heart. Perhaps this was that ephemeral-sounding camaraderie of socialism – or perhaps a hidden little joy he felt from the officer’s acknowledgment.
He felt more strongly than ever that he wanted to protect his new home.