25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Tukino Village Outskirts
At first the sound of caterpillar tracks was a whisper in the distance.
Then the bright yellow beam of a spotlight sliced across the forest.
Though they could not yet see the enemy tank, it had become terrifyingly corporeal.
There was no escaping that light. To survive, it had to be put out.
Within a thick cluster of nondescript bushes the group crouched close and still. Silence was of the utmost importance. They left their rifles on the dirt. Keeping them shouldered or holding them would make too much noise moving and hiding in the bush. Instead, their steady fingers wound tight around knives, pistols and grenades. Breathless, they waited.
To pull the pins; to dig the blades deep; to rap the trigger until the gun clicked empty.
And then, to run over the corpses, as fast and as far as they could from the track sound.
That track sound that was everywhere. Surrounding them; a perfect circle of metal.
Biding time and breath, they waited for the enemy to come closer into the trap.
They heard the sound of bushes displaced, and fallen trunks crushed under the tracks.
Though it was crucial that they know, they could not tell whether the tank was one of the bigger ones or the smaller ones. Both of them burned when the Anti-Tank grenade exploded on top of their engine hatches. But the bigger one always killed a friend.
From the bush, an excited voice. “It’s a small one. I can tell.”
Everyone urged Hasim to silence. He bowed his head, ashamed.
Though the tanks were always nearly blind and almost deaf, they were never alone.
All of them were accompanied by the same black-helmeted, gray-coated ghosts that had become so hated by the defending soldiers: the Panzergrenadiers of the Nocht Federation. In the shadows they were little more than the suggestion of a coat and coal scuttle helm with a long rifle in hand. Their footsteps couldn’t be heard beneath the racket of the tank.
They always seemed to kill a friend too, no matter what one did.
Closer, and closer, came the sound of the tracks.
Then the beam of the spotlight shone across the front of the bushes.
Gray ghost men with steel skulls wandered in from the shadows.
Hasim was the first to stand.
He primed his grenade and threw it amid the screaming men.
Rifles flashed in the dark. Green tracers flew through Hasim’s chest and neck.
He fell, bleeding and choking and dead before anyone could say another word.
His dying aim had been miraculously true.
Among the Panzergrenadiers, the grenade went off.
A cloud of smoke and metal burst skyward between them as the frag grenade exploded. Hundreds of invisible knives flying faster than anyone could fathom tore through the enemy, and they fell as if without cause and without wounds, swift to die but slow to bleed. All among their number realized then what was happening, and scrambled.
“Granate!” they cried in their alien tongue.
More grenades flew toward the invaders, pistols sounded from the bushes, and the forest was momentarily lit with flash fire and then the fleeting light of tracer rounds from the enemy’s rifles as they retaliated. Gunfire flew in all directions in a great sudden confusion. Men drove into bushes with bayonets seeking the ambushes. Men threw themselves on the ground at the sight of sparks or flashes or the merest glint of movement.
Amid all this chaos, the tank, nearly blind and nearly deaf, maintained its composure.
Several dozen meters away from the battle the tank tracks ground to a halt.
In the next instant many ambushers dispersed, sweeping left and right in small groups.
With a roar that overtook the petty gunfire ahead, the tank opened fire.
A single heavy round plunged into the bush and exploded with the harshest flash yet seen.
At once, it seemed, that old hiding spot disintegrated.
Two men ran screaming from the remains of the bush, maimed and aflame.
Machine guns on the tank’s front lay a curtain of gunfire in their way, finally killing them.
Everywhere else there had been to run, the remaining ambushers ran, and now watched.
This was definitely one of the larger tanks.
Its turret panned around the forest, hungrily seeking targets.
With an ominous noise, its tracks got turning, and it trundled forward to cover its men.
Huddling around the tank, the remaining Panzergrenadiers shot blindly into the wood.
Over every bush, around every tree in front of them, the spotlight turned.
There was no retaliation. The invaders were doing all the shooting.
Meanwhile the ambushers were on the move, around the flanks, toward the rear.
Something then clanked atop the engine compartment.
A grenade like a food tin packed with explosives.
On top of the tank it detonated with a brilliant fireball. Under this violence the engine exploded, melted down into slag, and the burning fuel set ablaze the floor of the tank and set ablaze all of the stored ammunition. Rifle rounds went off like popping firecrackers and shells exploded one after another. Every hatch on the tank flew off, and jets of flame erupted from them, and the side armor burst open and perforated the huddling men.
From safe positions all around the tank, the dispersed ambushers emerged.
Between their groups there was the burning tank and all of the dead men.
There was no time for anyone to celebrate.
Survivors quickly regrouped, and used their Pyrrhic victory to distance themselves further from the enemy. There would be more patrols, more tanks. It was a temporary reprieve.
This is what they had lost friends for. It was all they could do to escape.
In more than one way the sun had set on Tukino.
Tukino, the village; Tukino, the battle; Tukino, the brave last stand of a doomed army.
Tukino, the home; it was all gone. A shadow behind the backs of fleeing men and women.
It was now whatever the Federation of Northern States decided it would become.
Provided safe passage to the Ayvartan border by the treacherous nation of Mamlakha thousands of Nochtish troops marched swiftly into the southern reaches of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, and made short work of the border guards. Divisions of fast-moving Panzer troops quickly engaged the defending Ayvartan Battlegroup Lion, guardian of the southern Ayvartan territory of Shaila, and there the Panzers and Panzergrenadiers trapped the bulk of the confused, stubbornly-resisting Shailese army in the Tukino kettle.
It was a hopeless battle. From all sides, the tanks penetrated any defense. Indigenous tanks like the Goblin and Orc could guard against the smaller M5 Ranger used by the bulk of the enemy army. But when the terrifying M4 Sentinel medium tank appeared, it took with it Goblins by the dozens. Staggering losses in matériel and the disintegration of their supply lines left the defenders in Tukino stranded and nearly unarmed for modern war. Nearly a hundred thousand troops were trapped, either to perish or to be captured.
Brave officers fought to the last and died. Those least deserving of escape fled early.
Slowly, trapped inside the ring of steel, Battlegroup Lion bled itself white.
Now Tukino was a ghost town of sandbag emplacements and wooden bunkers dug into hills, all abandoned. Guns lay discarded. Remaining tanks were destroyed and dumped on the roads as obstacles to slow down the advancing enemy. Now, bravery and cowardice became meaningless words. Survival was paramount, and the communist soldiers fled in every direction, hoping to escape the pocket before the enemy could lock it all down.
Private Sahil Pushkar was one of those driven to escape.
He had fled Tukino alongside twenty other riflemen and women.
One patrol had cut his group down to twelve. Last night four men had died.
Now, it was night again.
And the remaining eight in the group had to convene. There was a grave issue at hand.
Within a circle of berry bushes, they prepared for a difficult decision.
“We have a chance to make it out, but to do so, we’ll need a distraction.”
Sergeant Siya was a tall, dark woman with close-cropped hair. She had once proudly worn a peaked cap, but had long since lost it. Sahil had served under her and respected her greatly during the battle for Tukino, and she had been crucial to their subsequent escape. But this was as far as she went; they were all aware of this miserable truth. Everyone in the group kept their eyes away from her leg, where her pants were ripped. It was a fragment wound, clearly infected, yellow and black. How she moved at all was anyone’s guess.
She was the strongest of them. She had already decided to stay behind.
Sahil wanted to protest, as one last show of his gratitude and solidarity.
But he was too weary to say anything. They all were. So they silently went along.
“You can hear the tracks, can’t you?”
Sahil could hear them in the distance. During the day, everyone hid wherever they could and tried to ignore the distant sounds, and tried to ignore them even as they closed in. There were imperialist patrols everywhere, because the imperialists were everywhere now. They controlled a circle all around the village. That was undeniably what a kettle was.
Now they could not ignore it. Judging by the distance they had already traveled, any one of them could potentially escape to friendly lines beyond the kettle. It was night again, and the enemy was still searching, and it was time once more to run for their lives.
“I’m going to need two people to stay with me. You’ll fight until I tell you to run, then throw smokes, and peel away. I’ll stay here, come what may.” Sergeant Siya said.
“How do we decide who stays?” asked a young woman among them. She was nearly unarmed. She still had her pistol, but her knife had caught in a man’s face and all her grenades had set fire and metal upon the imperialists. They were all in a similar state.
There was no pretext that anyone wanted to volunteer anymore. Bravery was past them.
Sahil vehemently did not desire to volunteer for this.
Though he had no idea what life he wanted to live, he knew he could not die here.
He felt that he had been running all of his life, and he had more to run from than ever.
“Forgive me my old fashioned ways,” began Sergeant Siya, “but I think the least cruel thing we can do is give first shot to those who have wives and children and dependents outside this hellhole. So if you’ve got a family to care for, you can run now. And if you lie, well, let that be on your conscience. I cannot stop you. I can barely stop them.”
She gestured over her shoulder with a pistol.
Everyone was somber. Sahil felt a shot of panic in his chest.
“I have nobody. I guess I am staying.” said the young woman from before.
“Do not consider yourself dead, comrade.” Sergeant Siya said. “I am dead. You will escape. And by staying behind you will insure all of your comrades can escape. Fight proudly.”
Far from inspirational, this notion sent fresh anxiety like electricity through Sahil’s body.
One by one, the remaining members of the squadron quickly listed the family that needed them. Wives, children, sisters and brothers, parents that needed care. Sahil felt dread with each voice that spoke that wasn’t his. It felt like every whispered declaration was followed and accentuated by the sound of the tank tracks coming closer and closer. He felt himself be spirited from his body, and he looked as if at himself, wondering what he would–
Sergeant Siya, and the rest of the squadron, looked at him.
Despite everything their faces were calm, resigned. They had gone through their panics already. They were dull of emotion. They had seen death and they had seen the seemingly inevitable power of the enemy, encroaching on them again and again and every time taking someone with them who would never come back. Maybe all of them were ready to be that someone, but Sahil simply wasn’t. He was the youngest among them, the least experienced — perhaps the least useful. He didn’t even know all of their names.
He snapped out of his paralyzing panic. Sahil drew in a breath.
“I have a son.” He said.
Those were dire words. Those were the words that set him running.
It was no lie, he had a son. Or at least, someone thought he had a son.
He had no wife, but people said he had a son. He himself had never said it until then.
He had no son before, but now, in this moment of cowardice, he concretely had a son.
Sahil felt a hand on his shoulder, patting him.
From among his squad a young man joined the young woman at Sergeant Siya’s side.
“You go on, Sahil. Having a kid takes precedence over my old folks.”
Sahil struggled to remember his name. Tamir? Tamur? He dared not say anything.
He merely nodded in stunned silence and gratitude and felt a deep, sick feeling in him.
He almost felt like staying, like dying. Those words he had said once felt to him like death.
“Alright. Everyone knows what they’re doing–”
Sergeant Siya was cut off.
Suddenly the forest had lit up.
From behind them and over their heads, the searchlight shone.
Everyone handed their ammunition and grenades to the distraction group.
“Start moving, quietly at first. When you hear gunfire, run.” Sergeant Siya said.
Struggling to hold back the tears in his eyes, Sahil was the first to disappear into the wood.
He left the group behind in every way. He did not flee with them. He went his own direction. He did not sneak, not as instructed. Choking back the boyish sobbing in his throat he closed his eyes and ran with abandon, beating back bushes, stumbling over logs, tearing through the undergrowth with his steel-toed boots. He felt as if all of the mistakes of his life were coming back in this instant to haunt him. He felt lower than the lowest rat.
When the gunfire started, and the grenades sounded, Sahil opened his eyes and cursed.
When he heard the tank’s gun firing, he felt everything spill from his mouth.
He was screaming, sobbing, crying with desperation.
That should have been him, back there.
No; he should have accepted responsibility. Tukino was not his home, it should not have been, it should not have been his to defend. He cried out her name. And his son’s name.
He cried out in apology.
Had he not been a coward then he would not have to become a greater one now.
Losing all direction in the darkness of the night, and the thickness of the forest, Sahil briefly stopped, leaning forward against a tree and catching several violent breaths. He felt his chest heaving as if his ribcage wanted to flee from under his skin. His stomach churned like a cauldron of acid. His legs shook. There was no part of him not sweating.
Everywhere around him was indistinct darkness.
Save for what seemed like kilometers behind him, where he could see the brief, distant flashes of rifle tracer rounds like fireflies, specks of light in the shadow.
Maybe if he escaped, he could say he was sorry and acknowledge all he had done.
Sahil knew this was foolish and unrealistic but it was all that kept him moving.
He pushed himself off from the tree, and started to run again.
Overhead, he heard a macabre whistling, much closer than the sound he left behind.
He ran headlong, harder and faster, pushing his legs until they felt like jelly.
He plowed through a string of bushes and felt a strong breeze ahead.
There was a light. Two lights, even.
Raising his head, he found himself outside the forest, under the moonlight.
He saw the road, and the open countryside, stretching before him, broad and green.
And he was under the spotlight of a tank. One of the smaller ones — an M5 Ranger.
It had come in from all that country. It had come in and it had found him.
Along its side, a purple stripe and the words Konnigin adorned the hull, along with marks for kills. There were over ten such marks. Despite being called the “small” tank, the M5 was over a meter taller than Sahil, its boxy armored bulk playing host to a turret with a large rear bustle and a small, long-barreled, thin but acccurate 37mm gun. Sahil stared down the barrel of this gun as it descended to meet him. It was ten or fifteen meters away.
For a tank, this kind of range was equivalent to a knife fight for a human.
Sahil had nothing but a knife. He had no grenades, he had no guns.
He raised his hands and swallowed his cries.
For moments the spotlight shone on him.
He thought to plead for mercy, but he could not speak the Nochtish tongue.
He knew only one word, a word that filled him with shame.
But his drive to survive was stronger than his pride then.
“Zivilist!” he screamed at the tank.
Not a proud communist fighter, defending the motherland from the imperialist invasion.
Just a helpless civilian begging for mercy.
He heard a mechanical sound from the tank and knew he was done for.
It was the sound of the turret ring, turning.
Moments passed and he continued, somehow, to live.
Speechless, Sahil raised his head and ceased to cower.
The Konnigin turned its turret away from him. It raised its gun to its neutral position.
Swiftly and without warning it maneuvered around him and back into the forest.
For an instant Sahil had thought it meant to run him over, but it did not.
He was alive. Alone, under the moonlight. Not for any of his own power.
Everyone had spared him. They had carried him to this place.
Despite all of his running and all of his cowardice, he survived and they all had died.
“Chanja, Sahil, I’m sorry.”
He mumbled their names, over and over. That girl; and his son.
She had named the baby after him, before he fled. Before he left them to fate.
His legs shook out from under him, and he fell to the ground, sobbing.
There was so much country ahead of him, but nowhere to go anymore.
What he had had not taken from himself, the Federation of Northern States now took.
All he could hope for then was that there were better people than he still fighting.
And that they had better reasons to fight than his own.