Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are more powerful than we can imagine.

Archive for February, 2015

Cavaria: The Great Disaster

Chapter 1: This is only the begining

 

It was predictable. We had prepared far too long to simply back away from this fight. We were like a dormant beast, ready to pounce on our prey; all we waited was for the word to attack. Morale was high and some soldiers mockingly commented how we would “destroy the enemy in one decisive blow”. However there were some who did not laugh. They had been to Cavaria: they knew war.

 

  • Scout trooper Ezrah of the 105th light infantry regiment, during the Zennor campaign.

 

 

What came to be known as ‘The Great Disaster’, beforehand, was a breath of fresh hope after the long stalemate between the humans and the One-Bakkar. It signalled the first real engagement in years and the prospect of total victory. The campaign itself was a chance to drive the One-Bakkar from the sector. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a failure. The catastrophe at Cavaria marked the defeat of 2nd army group and laid the foundations for Zennor and Phimatia. At its height, it was marked by huge casualties and tragic incompetence. Everything that followed thereafter was because of it.

 

  • Extract from ‘the official histories’.

 

Carevia- Saturday- 18:00 Terran time

 

The night left a navy blue perplexion in the wide cobbled streets, only to be highlighted by white streaks because of clear moonlight. The circle of the moon penetrated the clear, tranquil sky and left much to be desired. Many of the road’s cobbles were usually coloured warm varieties of red, orange and yellow. However, as it so often was with Carevia, the night shrouded everything in a calm, monotone essence. Graft slowly walked down the street, the heels of his black fatigue boots clicking the ground. ‘Another night sky, another calm autumn’, he thought to himself as he strolled down the road of old brick and newer metal buildings. It amazed him that the buildings were so extravagant in their nature, their colours usually red or white from the natural complexion of the bricks. Unless the buildings were wooden, their white paint covered with black stripes where harnesses were placed, or steel, where glass covered the tall structures like absurd packages, everything was brick. He continued to stroll down the street before he reached an old dingy building. The warm yellow lights beaconed out from the stain-glass windows and gave an impression a whole life lingered inside. He paused for a moment metres from outside the building; assessed his hat, taking it off as if it had been a great weight on his cranium, and looked at the inside. Dark purple silk lining sowed together with only the finest fabrics. He turned it around and gazed at the khaki cream that enveloped the officer cap, only to be over-shadowed by a small red badge in the front, its shield displaying the coat of arms which contrasted the shining gold badge. The coat of arms for the Royal public services. Long had the service aimed to keep the reign of the monarchy in place and keep the peace. Graft Dorot was a man in his late thirties, though his posture and stance suggested he had the mentality of an elder. His firm facial features, expressed by his smooth jaw line, were out-shunned by the green colour of his eyes which reminisced of leaves in the countryside. From a first glance, you could tell the man was young but wrinkles had developed around his eyes, giving a varied appearance that was both wild and confusing. His dark brown hair was neatly placed and combed to the left side of his forehead. He put the hat back on, only noticing the red stripe which ran around the side of his cap. He was a skinny man, though military logic suggested muscles lingered beneath his over-lapping clothing. Most of his clothes would have been a monotone black had it not been for the brown bomber jacket he wore on top, its sway leather pleasing to the people who looked. By now, as he put his cap back on; he could see the dark shadows that lurked inside and fumbled around like a decrepit beast that was only bent on going back to its habitat. He walked to the door, pausing for a moment to grasp the lapel of his bomber jacket. He leaned his head towards the lapel of his jacket.
“This is vindication to hummingbird, I’m entering the premises now. Be advised to stand on guard and surround the perimeter after ten mikes have passed, over”. A small static replied in Dorot’s ear.
“Roger, this is hummingbird. Will move in ten mikes when you enter the building. Hummingbird out”. Both men had received a report of some disturbance but by the looks of the place, nothing seemed wrong. On the other hand, it hadn’t been the first time a place like this had been subjected to raids which tackled the black market. The key to this operation would be discretion, he thought to himself.

Dorot opened the black painted door which gave a slight creek as it opened, like an exotic creature in pain. A few heads popped up but it was probably nothing these people hadn’t seen in their daily lives. After all, this was the industrial and commercial sector of the city. He gently walked in, his boots clicking the ground again, this time putting a slight weight on the floorboards which indicated they were hollow underneath. The people inside chatted to each other, each with some sort of beverage in their hands. A middle aged woman, her black curly hair getting in the way of her wrinkled face and her dress dirty from cleaning, was sweeping the floors for dust. Some still turned their heads to look at him. He could tell. As he walked towards her, their heads slowly tracked him like a monitor.
“Good evening, Marina my lovely” he said walking to towards her, his authoritarian pose still lingering. She quickly glanced up, before the glint in her eye indicated she knew him.
“Graft, you’ve actually come tonight. Did they finally give you time off?” she said as they kissed each other on both cheeks. Immediately the few people in the room turned their heads back and began to socialise again. Anyone who was a friend of Marina’s could be trusted. After all, being the lady of a tavern meant an experience of knowing faces.
“You could say that. Do you know where the lot are today?” She paused for a second, looking down, before looking back up again to answer him.
“They haven’t done anything this time, have they?” pointing her broom upwards and gesturing it towards him as if she would hit the people he spoke about.

“No, of course not, I just need to talk to them. Nothing to worry about”.
“Oh okay. They’re downstairs. If anything happens you tell me and I’ll deal with them, okay?”
“ Of course, don’t you worry my dear. I will know who to talk to if anything happens”. She gave a quick laugh before lightly slapping his shoulder.
“Don’t let me bore you. I will see you later my dear. Tell Victor downstairs that you drink for free”. Both of them said their goodbyes and Dorot made his way down the metallic spiral staircase and into the basement.

 

Though the basement was dingy, there was a warm vibe. The florescent yellow lights barely lit up the room to give an impression of a cosy environment. There were three brown mahogany tables. Two were in the centre of the basement and stretched from one side of the room to the other. The other was a small round one. A bar was at the left hand side of the room. The bartender was cleaning the surface of the bar though he still had time to nod his head at Dorot. All the tables were full with people who were drinking, talking very loudly, playing card games and laughter bellowed out from a few promiscuous jokes that heightened the level of noise. He walked to the round table, carefully passing people sitting down. Some glared at him but it was that time of the night where people drank to the point they didn’t care. The people on the round table were laughing more than the others.
“Gentleman” Dorot called out, as if he were talking to ranked men bellow him. The group paused, their enjoyment suddenly grounding to a halt. The noise of the room lowered.
“Officer Dorot. We didn’t know you would be here tonight”, the man on the right said, his voice trailing with a sense of nervousness. He had a bald head, which was underlined by the fact he wore a long sleeved grey sweater. His face was hard-set, like a man who was carved out of brick. Dorot sensed his fear. Part of it was the training and another part was the experience of policing for twenty years. The men raised themselves from their chairs.
“It’s okay friends, don’t get up for me”. Dorot gestures his hands downwards. Immediately the men sat back down slowly.
“Don’t worry, Marina told me you lot were down here”, he turned to the bartender.
“Four glasses of your finest alcohol Victor, for me and my friends”. Each of the men stared at each other, indicating they didn’t know what to do. The bald man began to talk again.
“Sorry comrade, we just didn’t know you would be here tonight“. The sense of disturbance still rang on the faces of the men around him. The other two men on the round table differed in features. The man in the centre was a behemoth in stature, his simple features only characterised by his wild hair. The man to Dorot’s left was the comedian of the group. His warm face was emphasised by the red bobble on his nose typical of a drunken man. He had a card attached to the top which indicated they had been playing a game before. The bartender arrived and with his skilful fingers, placed the glasses of brown liquid on the table. He then left.
“Well, I wouldn’t be if I hadn’t been called for special matters”. A man from behind Dorot heard the conversation.
“There’s no need to be harsh here, officer” the man said sarcastically. A man, with no experience of alcohol, could tell that this man was clearly drunk. Dorot interrupted him abruptly.
“With all due respect, I don’t remember talking to you, so sit down before I have you arrested for being drunk!” Immediately the noise quietened down and the man sat down, though he staggered in the process. Each one of the men’s eyes at the round table, began to scan the place. The bald-headed man’ arm slowly moved his hand to grip his pistol underneath the table. The tension had built up to the point where the noise going on around them was irrelevant. There was just a wall of silence between the men and the Dorot. It seemed like at any second all hell would break loose.
Suddenly, Dorot began laughing. He laughed hysterically to emphasise the humour of the situation, as if he had known the reasons for the tension in the first place. He looked at each man when he laughed to remind them there was no need to be nervous. The men on the table also began to laugh and soon the noise of the basement returned to where it had been. Dorot still laughed for a while after.
“Ah, it works with you lot every time I’m here. So how are things?”

 

The conversation lingered on and eventually the hour passed. By now everyone else had left. They had played the card game ‘guess who?’ and with his wit, Dorot managed to get three out of five guesses right. Laughter sounded when the guesses were wrong and outlandish drunken applauses usually happened when he was right. Luckily, he hadn’t drunk that much, instead keeping the illusion that he had drunk as much as the others. The only person who remained as calm as him was the bald man, his persona still respectable. While the other’s laughed, he was very modest about his actions. The comedian on the left quickly grabbed his attention.
“Mate, get us one more round before the bar closes please? I’ll pay you back next week”. He gestured to the bar.
Dorot intervened. “No, allow me to buy you all drinks. Victor has a bottle of fifty year old whisky, from the mountains. What do you say gentleman?” Dorot stared at the bald man when he said this, with some indication the man needed to be focused on. That whole night, the man sensed there was something Dorot had against him. Even under all the laughter, something didn’t seem right.
“You’re most kind, officer”. Dorot turned to the barman who had a cigar in his mouth.
“Barman, give us your oldest whiskey in new glasses. I don’t want to pollute it with the shit you’re all drinking”. Everyone, even the bartender, laughed.
“How many glasses?” the bar tender asked.
“Three, I don’t like whiskey and whiskey doesn’t like me”.
“Three glasses please”. The man on the right said, lifting his middle three fingers to indicate the order. That’s when Dorot saw it. He could just outline of the tattoo that was on the man’s hand. Its emblem was something entirely different, and he had seen a lot in his years as an officer. The creature’s piercing eyes on the tattoo stared back at him. The darkness of the tattoo shifted to fit the man’s wide hand. For a second, Dorot knew something wasn’t right and he was careful not to show it, though he stared at the bald man. Eventually the man realised and looked at Dorot. Dorot shifted his eyes elsewhere. He began to whistle as the barman came and poured whiskey into three glasses and put them on the table. He gestured a glass to Dorot, to which he replied “yes”, and he was also served a glass. There was a calm silence which was emphasised by the sigh Dorot gave. Once the cups were filled, the bald man passed the glasses around, eager to avoid the stare Dorot was giving him. When the glasses where distributed, Dorot lifted up his glass.
“To a thousand years of the king”.
“To a thousand years of the king”, the rest replied and soothed the whiskey down their throats.
Another silence paused. This time there was no conversation, only the cocking of a pistol underneath the table.
“Do you think I am an idiot, friend?” Dorot said to the bald man, his words now very clear.
“You don’t think I didn’t know you had a pistol aimed at my chest this whole time?” The man took a couple of seconds to reply. The other two men on the table just stared at what was going on, powerless to help their friend.
“Why would I have a gun aimed at your chest?”
“Because I’ve had one aimed at yours the whole time”.
There was another pause.
“Well, it seems we have a bit of a predicament”, Dorot said sarcastically, closing the whiskey to his mouth.
“But if we are going to do this, might as well go out with a bang”.
Dorot drenched the bald headed man’s eyes in whiskey from the glass. The man bellowed in pain as the alcohol stung his face and blurred his vision. Dorot then fired off two shots, both hitting the man’s grey sweater at point blanc range. He lurched to the side, the pain over-riding his sense of speech. As he leaned back, the reflexes in his muscles caused him to fire random shots. One shot swept clean through the wooden table and the bullet embedded itself in the ceiling. Another ricochet off the bar and hit the bartender in the shoulder, who was cleaning glasses. The third travelled wildly into the air. Dorot fell backwards to dodge out of the way. The other two men had shielded themselves from the shots but now un-holstered their pistols. As soon as he hit the ground, Dorot took aim and shot a bullet clean through the comedian’s solar plexus. He fell back with a thump that indicated he had smacked his head on the bar. The tall brutish man in the middle lunged at Dorot. The officer fired off several shots in retaliation. One hit the brute’s shoulder, another his leg, but still he charged forward as if the shots had no effect. He overpowered Dorot and began to choke him with his hands.
“One bakkar! One bakkar! One bakkar!” he echoed, the voice getting louder as his grip on Dorot’s neck tightened. There wasn’t much Dorot could do, he was losing consciousness fast. Out of nowhere, there was a voice.
“What the hell is going on?”. It was Marina. The shock on her face at the blood on the ground overcame her and she fainted on the stairs. That gave enough time for the brute to be distracted. Dorot landed a clean elbow to the man’s forehead. After seeing that it hadn’t worked, he did it a second time. The Brute collapsed to the side and Dorot shot him multiple times in the chest. This time the thing didn’t get up.

Dorot stood up and stared at the scenery around him. In the period of twenty seconds, three men had been killed and one had been severely injured. He turned to the man who minutes ago had a gun aimed at his chest. He could clearly see the tattoo on his arm now. One Bakkars. They were definitely here and there had been no warning. Dorot leaned towards the lapel of his bomber jacket
“This vindication to hummingbird. Come in, over?” there was static followed by a reply.
“Yeah, this is hummingbird, are you okay? I heard some gunfire.”
“Yeah I’m okay. We have a code alpha, I say again code alpha. We are in maximum surface danger. They’re here, the One Bakkar are here”.

While Dorot had talked on his comm link, the man in the grey sweater had got up. The pupils in his eyes were bright red.
“One Bakkar! One Bakkar! One Bakkar!” he shouted. Dorot turned around abruptly, seeing the detonator in the other man’s hand, which he thought was empty.
“Vindication, come in. Vindication, do you copy? Are we go?” the comms link beaconed.
“No officer, you’re not going anywhere, neither you nor your friends!” the bald man’s voice was absurdly deeper than before, it’s tone now grotesque.
“What are you doing? You will kill all of us. You will be the end of us”.
“No officer, not the end. This is only the beginning”. He pulled the trigger.

The officer outside the tavern didn’t realise what was going on until it was too late. The explosion had burst through the windows and tore the building apart. In the blast, the rubble knocked the officer unconscious before his nerves were incinerated by the explosion. A large flame surrounded the remains of the tavern. No one would know what had happened.

Chapter 2: The Seeds are Sown

The upper space of the atmosphere was plain. It was at the height where the upper and lower parts of the atmosphere met and the ocean blue of the sky tangled with the dark plain space, which was animated by the countless number of stars which surrounded it. It was something out of a fairy tale and it was no wonder this part of space attracted so much attention for tourists. It never gets old, Alev thought, now staring out of the clear glass of the observation post. Observation post was an understatement. This place was too large for its size, able to accommodate the bulkiest of vehicles. Its glass windows contrasted with the light grey metallic paint scheme. Even the floors and windows were coloured the same for practicality. The colour made it stand out to everyone who gazed up at the sky. The post was just a grey piece of metal, flouting through the sky at a minute speed. Alev continued looking outside, his dark brown eyes reflecting the absurdity of the horizon that slowly twirled in front of him. His piercing black inner pupils focused on the blurred line between blue and black. Alev measured at a short height, though he’s features indicated he was as tough as military training dictated. His light pale skin looked as subtle as a plank of wood. He inadvertently always gave the impression he was petty because his army fatigues were always baggy. The only thing which did indicate any danger was the fiery temperament of his hair. It seemed to stand out from of all the plain colours around him. God, I’m bored. The purpose of the observation post was to report anything that was happening in the upper atmosphere to the higher ups but nothing ever happened. Maybe one day it would. After all, humanity was at war. For a place so near to the front, things were pretty uneventful. The planet hadn’t experienced a threat for almost forty years, and that was just a small skirmish from raiders. A summary of excitement here was like the planet, small and uneventful. In the moment, Alev wished something would happen. He was about to get his wish.

As Alev peered out of the window, a cup of coffee in his right hand, he noticed a black dot on the horizon. The dot began to grow in size as it got nearer and soon it formed a rectangular shape. In a matter of minutes the small shape had become a large cargo ship, its hull bearing the white insignia of a trading company. It was heading straight to the observation post. He quickly rushed to the control panel opposite the window, nearly spilling coffee on his fatigues and cursing as some drops hit his hand. He picked up the receiver.
“To unknown trading vessel, you are entering military airspace. Please identify yourself, over”. There was a short space of silence. Alev put his mouth to the receiver again.
“Be advised trading vessel. If you do not respond, you will be shot from the sky. You are entering military airspace. Please identify yourself, over”. Finally, something’s actually happening. Maybe my prayers were answered. Soon static filled the receiver and after a few moments, the sound became clearer.

“This is the cargo ship of the inter-planetary trade co limited. We have been stranded from space due to un-expected flight conditions. Permission to land on your observation post and re-navigate our ship, over”. The voice was slightly resilient in its words, though Alev failed to notice.
“Roger, navigate into the cargo area and we will direct you to where you need to go”.
“Many thanks. Cargo ship landing, out”. The ship ran close to the observation window before it hovered and turned. The roar of its engines shook the windows as it tried to control the momentum of its thrusters.
The ship landed in the wide cargo bay, being careful to avoid the loads of supplies each side of the runway. Alev walked out. He gazed at the front of the ship as it came in steady with gas flowing out of its sides to stabilise the pressure of landing. He waited patiently. A small lull occurred where Alev wondered what was going on. Tradesmen were never usually this laid back on journeys. Many needed to travel quickly to get to their locations and treated all situations as urgent. Eventually the front hatch of the ship opened. A dark figure stepped outside, his face marked with a dark tattoo on his bald forehead. His face was concealed under an amplifier mask.
“Welcome, I’ve never seen tradesman like you before”. He walked up to the man and shook his hand professionally. The large man stood still. His eyes beaconed a dark red complexion. Before Alev realised, it was too late. A knife had penetrated his chest and a small patch of blood emerged from his upper body. The dark figure spoke calmly with vindictiveness.
“Yes and you will never see me again”. He drew the knife out of Alev’s body. By now, Alev was choking on his own blood as he stared at the man speechless. He gave a great cough of blood, which littered the floor, and collapsed. The dark figure stared at the dead soldier for a few seconds before pressing a button on his mask. What followed was the phrase “It has been done”.

The black ships began to fall from the sky into the ocean.

….

In the nerve centre of Carevia’s docklands, commerce was at its height. This was the place of the tall metal buildings, their window cubicles marked with large squares. The coast was fairly small for a city but was compact with industrial machinery. There was a wide street which separated the dockyards from the main body of the city. From a birds-eye point of view, the dockyard was dotted with a few coloured warehouses and a wide open space. In the open space, long hull containers were placed until transport ships picked them up and took them to their destination. The only thing which outshone the size of the courtyard was the huge creamy yellow crane, its body eerily still. Today had been an uneventful day for Maik and his counterpart as they sat beside their car, outside a cafe.
“Did you hear what happened last night?” he said to his counterpart as they both lay back on their vehicle. The royal public service vehicle was a long and sublime thing. Its plain silver colour was only contrasted with the 3 black rubber tires on each side for mobility.
“Yeah, heard the Humphries tavern exploded. Lucky bastards”. They were standing outside a cafe, its inside colourful through the clear window. Inside laid a bar, leather couches and the easy going life of the people who lived in the city. Though the weather had changed over the years, the mentality stayed the same inhabitants. A hundred years ago, the temperature use to be higher but because of the planet’s positioning changing only by only inches, the climate had lowered to become more moderate. However that didn’t change the people. People still took siestas and talked for hours in coffee houses, where they drank and conversed until their hearts were content. In fact, the whole street was lined with people who were sitting outside the coffee houses talking. In the calmness of the socialising, both of the officers felt at peace. A look of distain was on Maik counterpart’s face.
“Lucky? Why lucky? Tell me Maik how can anything like that be considered lucky?”. It was clear the man was alarm by what Maik had said. Maik gave him a blunt look.
“It was lucky because they didn’t suffer. What, you want them to have died painfully?”. The counterpart sighed, his exertion of breath indicating that they should change the subject.
“Anyway, I don’t ever remember you being a moralist”. Both of them chuckled. Maik was a chubby man. If the lack of neck didn’t indicate the man was overweight, his large stomach did. It hanged off his trousers. The only thing which differs from his pasty flesh was the thick brown moustache on his face. His counterpart was more fortunate. A tall man, the features on his face were both passive and comforting which were supported by his curly black hair. The peace ended abruptly as the radio sounded from inside the vehicle.
“This is an alert to all units, we have a developing situation at the harbour front. We have a large group of unmarked container ships and they’re refusing to identify themselves, over”.
“So much for a discussion”, Maik replied in thin air as he threw the coffee away, put on his officers cap and utilised the shades on his face. His counterpart did the same, though he ran around the vehicle to get into the other door. Maik leaned down to talk on the radio, the link attached to his vehicle.
“This is unit five, we are the available security force in the area, going to investigate now. Unit five out”. The white light from the sun emphasised the thick warmness in the air, which made the conditions inside the vehicle annoying. Even with the windows down, there was no cool air. Eventually the narrow street opened up the dockyard, its cargo containers only too recognisable. It was absurd that such a cosy planet was a paradox: on the one hand it was a centre of trade and commerce but on the other the weather had made sure that during the day the giant crane was silent. Only late in the afternoon, when things cooled down, would the work begin again. Passing the first wall of cargo containers of vibrant reds, blues and yellows, the car drove into the wide courtyard opening and that was when both public servicemen saw the spectacle that was unfolding in front of them. Directly in front of them, where ships and aircraft would unload their, large hulking things blocked the sunlight. Malik was certain these were ships, but they were too slender and angled unrhythmically to be trading vessels. Still, they hung to the docks, their bridges boarding the docks even though no sailors or men were in sight. The loading crews stood around both idle and confused; the leader distinguished himself by pacing about and looking at maps of the courtyard. Like every other day, orders were issued, orders were met and trade prospered even at the inconvenience of an unexpected arrival. The counterpart stopped the car a few meters from the man as Malik waved and shouted to get his attention.
“Hey”, Malik shouted like a tourist who was lost at the site of a ruin. When the man finally noticed him, he waved back and ran towards the side of the counterpart’s vehicle.
“You boys look like you could use some help” he bellowed with a sense of urgency in his voice. The counterpart stopped the silence.
“We got word that there was hassle at the harbour, thought you might need us to move all your stuff for you”.
“Oh please. If I wanted that I would have asked your mother to help”. All of them chuckled as the joke passed quickly. If there was one thing that was guaranteed, it would be sarcasm. The man continued.
“We got word that there was a large cargo shipment coming to the harbour. Strange thing is there weren’t any logistics placed today, so we’re screwed for making space at the moment. Plus none of the bastards have shown their faces and it’s no ship I’ve ever seen. You’d think the thing came out of thin air”. Malik starred at the ‘ship’ again. It overshadowed anything that had been seen. In terms of size, the only thing that beat it was the commercial buildings but they were tall and looked like delicate figures. These things were strong and imposing. That’s when he realised what was going on. The hovering vehicle that drew upwards from the ships hull re-assured him.
“Get your workers out of here now!”. As the man turned around, he paused. A chatter of bullets struck the bonnet of the vehicle. The bullet had rammed into the leader’s thigh which caused him to collapse and contact the ground at an alarmingly high speed. Blood drained from his lower body as he laid there unconscious. The aircraft hovered in the air, its jet blades secure on its slender wings. It halted as it re-targeted the vehicle and fired another burst of rounds.
“Drive now!” Malik shouted, though his counterpart had already figured that out. More rounds dented into the bonnet of the car as he held the comms link to his mouth.
“88-9, I repeat 88-9 emergency. They have aircraft. I repeat aircraft. Support requested, Caveria is under attack”. Hurrying away, both men saw more rotors dismount from the bridge of the ship. Holes opened up from its hull as it began to unload personnel and vehicles.

Among the black crew dismounting vehicles from the ships, a figure stood out; his mask and abnormally striking figure signalling his authority. His voice spoke elegantly as he said “the bait has been given and Cavaria has seen our strength. Now clear the dockyards”. The turret of the vehicles turned and began to shoot any living thing.

 

Chapter 3: A closed door and an open window

The calm room immersed itself in silence. There was little to want, only a single bed, a drawer on the side with a wired phone and a picture of a couple together. It was designed to accommodate ranking personnel but convenience stood in the way of luxury. In the bed a middle aged man slept as routinely as he had every other night. The comms link sprang to life, waking him. As he held himself upwards, the dark brown hair showed itself with spectacles of grey and a few wrinkles; the signs of aging life. The only thing which stood out to say otherwise was his Roman nose. He grunted slightly as he stretched and picked up the receiver.“General Mutton, this is advisor Morgan. We have a situation developing on Cavaria” Mutton raised an eyebrow, “a situation, advisor?”.
“Communications have been…ambiguous, but it appears a large contingent of One Bakkar have managed to land on Cavaria’s port using disguised merchant holders”. Mutton immediately sat on the edge of his bed, the receiver still firmly placed in his ear.
“So let me get this straight, you’re saying that we have enemy soldiers on one of our frontier planets, advisor? That we’ve been invaded?”.
“Yes General, it seems enemy reinforcements are streaming in to the cargo docks. We have a few units in the area and they are putting up what resistance they can”. It all seemed like a dream, the sudden news made Mutton wish it were for a second.
“I see”, he paused to contemplate his next words. “what options do we have?”.
“They’re rather limited, sir. If we start pulling back units from the main front, we’ll lose control of territory we ha-“. Mutton Interrupted him, he realised what that meant in the grand scheme of things.
“I know, I know. Do we have anything to defend our own frontier with?”.
“I’ve ordered what units we have in the system to go to Cavaria”.
“Who’s leading them?”
“Colonel Arlov, sir. He’s as experienced as they come”. Mutton sighed, no one had expected this.
“He’d better be. Assemble the council. Strategy room. Ten minutes”.
“Very well, sir”. Mutton put down the receiver and immediately started to put his uniform on.

….

Donelle raised her head from the utilitarian bed and sat up. According to the ship’s rota mechanism, it was still classified as evening though she wasn’t able to sleep. It seemed to hit her personality. From a young age, she had never conformed. She always used to hang out with other boys and wear what they wore. Even now, she never understood what drove women to conform and settle. As a child she had always been known to run off and explore. She had always had the zest to experience new things and it always seemed like it was her against the world. That mentality had led her to join the military and establish herself through the ranks as a tank commander. She had earned the respect of the men underneath her and her superiors. Donelle certainly could not be said to be petite. In fact proportionally, her body could be slightly imposing when in uniform. She had a wide rounded face and her buttoned nose connected with a pair of wide blue eyes. The only other variable was the middle length strawberry blond hair. As she thought to herself, she heard a distinct noise of the man lying next to her. She quickly covered her chest with the bed’s covers. On the transports ships in the military, everyone made do with what they had. It was not surprising to see personnel sleeping with each other and things tended to be very fluid in terms of a social life. The vast size of the ships meant it was rare people would see each other again. In the military, things were simpler. The man lied up next to her. “Thinking much?”. she turned towards him.
“Yeah, just about things”. An eerie silence occurred, that was when she got up and began to put on her uniform.
“You know, things would be better if you were more easy going, you should try it sometime”, the man remarked as she put on her trousers and began to button up her fatigues.
“Maybe”, she replied ambiguously. Where meaning had once happened, there was now silence; she had enough experience to know that the conversations were very similar afterwards. People tended to get very philosophical. Now after so long, that quality had lost its effect. In many ways that’s how you could tell who was a novice on the ship. If this was a game (which she was sure it was like life), people got on with things and played the rules rather than being customary about it. For now, action replaced words as she finally got dressed. The young man (a few years younger than her) still lay on the bed, silently staring at her. He began talking again, maybe to get some sort of response from her or maybe just to pass the silence. Humans tended to seek qualification and it seemed he was fulfilling that role. She didn’t really listen. Instead she still thought about life and what it all meant and concluded that words weren’t adequate to describe it. That was when the alarm sounded. “Trouble”, she murmured to herself as she walked out of the confine and into the hallway full of similar looking doors; leaving the man confused. Whatever it was, she knew the alarm was important, it was reserved for all high ranking personnel. Eventually the hallway ended and widened into a monumental cargo hub. Beneath her supplies, transport ships and aircraft stretched outwards to an artificial horizon. No one saw her or took any important notice as she made her way to upper decks of the ship.

…..

The kitchen was basic and represented the essential part of the wooden cabin. Around the clear windows a flat lake; several groupings of trees and a mountain (which was surrounded by a fog) embedded themselves into the land. A communications link rang from the wall of the kitchen; next to it hung a few barnovy fowls. A pinkish hand picked it up.
“Is this Colonel Vlad Arlov?” the other end of the receiver asked.
“Former Colonel, I’m now retired” he said calmly and collectively. The colonel spoke with a thick Slavic accent though his soft words seemed to seep through. Though his family could retrace their background 700 years, it is said that they lived on Barnovy as a result of emigration during the times of the ‘troubles’ thousands of years ago. Barnovy was mainly inhabited by Slavs and he was pretty sure anyone back then would have recognised him. His face was firm but began wrinkling which showed signs of middle-age and his face was round like a boars. What also gave away his age was a thin line of grey hair that surrounded his skull. A grey handle bar moustache stood out between his compact nose and upper lip.
“Not anymore colonel, you’ve been recalled to active service. We need you in Cavaria”.
“Are the One-Bakkar giving you a hard time?” Arlov remarked sarcastically.
“The enemy has proved to be more….resourceful than expected. They’ve made significant gains in Cavaria in a short space of time and most of the planet’s divisions have been wiped out”. A trickle of nervousness could be felt from the advisor’s voice.
“So I have heard. You want me to go to Cavaria?”. The advisor’s voice now became firm.
“Affirmative, sir. You will command a combined force with the order to drive the One-Bakkar out of Cavaria”. Arlov’s voice became blunt like a hammer.
“You do know why I was discharged, don’t you?”
“Well, all has been forgiven, colone-”. The slight tremble re-appeared. So did the frustration in Arlov’s voice.
“I didn’t ask for forgiveness. You got us in this mess in the first place and now you’re just standing there with no idea what to do. That’s what you get with a bunch of selfish bureaucrats”. There was a moment of silence, perhaps one which could have lasted a lifetime but seemed to have filled only a few seconds.
“Do you accept the command, Colonel?”. There was another pause. Maybe they weren’t so stupid after all.
He sighed. “When do I leave?”.

………

The dark semi-circular lecturing hall began to fill up with personnel in a short space of time. In this room were the most important figures in the military, who were essential to begin a campaign. In the seats sat different colours and insignias which dictated rank: officers, NCO’s, advisors, bureaucrats, logistics and supply specialists. Most importantly, the commanding officers stood near the lecturing pulpit. All of them were needed to be committed to this great and monumental endeavour. To even gather all the personnel and make them communicate in the same place was a victory in itself. As Donnelle walked towards her seat in the lower deck, she scanned her eyes around the room. Officers humoured each other with stories about their adventures during the week. In the middle row, two officers calmly sat next to each other and talked about trivial things. Towards the bottom, several logistical officers crowded around a blueprint and discussed the momentous task of supplying army groups. As she found her seat in the second row, she saw one of her comrades. The man was a distinct figure because of his wide shoulders, which made his seat petty in proportion. It gave the illusion he lacked room to manoeuvre himself. His officer cap hid his bald head however his soft features were more than enough to draw attention away. He came to life once he saw Donnelle.
“There you are. Tell me, are you ever early?”. A smile grew on Donnelles face.
“No , I just like to keep you waiting”. Both laughed. Since the academy, both had got along as friends and even worked through the stress of officer training. Rather than strain their friendship, it had only grown to strengthen it and now their conversations were full of humour, banter and euphemisms.
“So, what’s the story?”, Donnelle asked as she sat down.
“I don’t know but whatever it is, it’s big. We’ve never had any briefing this big before in a while. Something serious must be happening”.
“Either that or they’re finally celebrating your retirement”. Both bellowed out laughter again. After a few more minutes of banter the conversation died as the lights dimmed. A figure walked towards the large pulpit. Next to it laid a holographic projector. By now the room was silent.
“Good afternoon, my name is General S. Mutton for those of you who are new”. His voice was emphasised by the acoustics.
“What I am about to tell you is urgent but also classified until specified otherwise”. To his right, a blue hologram spurred into life, displaying a planet. Its surface was covered by oceans and large patches of land masses.
“Approximately two days ago, the planet of Cavaria was attacked by a large army group of One- Bakkar”. Everyone leaned closer to see the hologram.
“During this time, they’ve conducted a large scale invasion in Cavaria’s main harbour, through disguised trading ships. As soon as we received communications from the planet’s surface, I was immediately informed and have ordered the bulk of our fleet to move into the atmosphere two days ago. At this moment, the forces on the ground are putting up resistance however they’ve been pushed from the harbour and have been forced to evacuate, leaving civilians behind. They have fallen back to this location and have set up a front here”. As he pointed, the hologram closed up on an area of forest and plains. In this area, a red line had been drawn to show the front.
“It is our job to relieve their forces and to flood fresh reinforcement into the theatre of war. You will be those reinforcements. Currently, there is a stream of refugees heading outside the city so a few precious units have stayed inside to evacuate civilians”. Donnelle thought to herself for a second. This would be the first time in months she had seen action.
“As much as Cavaria is a major industrial and commercial sector, it is also one of our key frontiers. If we lose this we lose the sector. Do not be mistaken, this is the real deal ladies and gentleman. Everything we have worked towards has been for this moment in time. The importance of this operation will be emphasised by the person who is leading it. Former Colonel Arlov has now been reinstated and will be the head of operations on the ground. We are honoured to have him on board the ship and his personality is the only thing to precede his reputation. This man has conducted over 5 major operations”. Donnelles eyes became fixed on Arlov, who was seated to the left hand side of the pulpit. His stern expression only emphasised his profession nature.
“We are at level-3 people. This means you are to go to your stations, effective immediately after this briefing. There you will brief your lower officers. Remember we are as of now officially in action. Dismissed”.

Slowly and calmly, personnel got up and began to leave. The murmur of conversation slowly made its way back into the room.

….

Smoked enveloped the city’s docks and the sound of small-arms fire raked the surrounding area. Nikolai grasped the steering wheel and humbly made his way through the main streets, chatting on the radio. All around him refugees fled in the opposite direction with the re-assurance they were all travelling in the right direction.
“…we need to fall back from the docks and regroup in the centre of the city”. He half-laughed at the irony of the situation. They had been at war in the sector for months and still no one understood what was going on. He had word that army group vindication was coming in to reinforce them but the main naval group who was suppose to support them was fighting in a distant part of space. They were fooled, as everyone was fooled by the One-Bakkar ruse. But as the first non-human steps entered the city, attempts had been made to set up a desperate defence. They weren’t going to go out without a fight.
“Say again, this is Captain Nikolai of the 14th mechanised. We have to fall back and re-group. I don’t think you understand… give me the person who is in charge. What do you mean ‘it’s you?’”. At that moment, the ground swelled up and burst to the side of Nikolai’s vehicle. A shell had hit the ground, aiming for the vehicle itself. Nikolai grasped the wheel as the 2 ton military vehicle swerved, before crashing into a decorative tree. The crash had impacted directly at the vehicle’s centre which made it stop immediately. Now the large 4-wheeled vehicle laid motionless, as did Nikolai.
A couple of smacks on the window woke him up. He turned to the passenger seat on his left, only to see a refugee. He stared at Nikolai for a moment, realised he was fine and ran off. So much for assistance. In front of him across the street, a makeshift sandbag emplacement had been set up. There, he saw a mix of policemen and soldiers firing into a main road which led to the docks. All around the area, dust kicked from bullets ricocheting. Nikolai moved to the passenger seat, making sure to grab his rifle from the back. After attempting to use the radio and realising it was dead, he left the vehicle and ran to the emplacement. Around him, it was chaos. Rounds peppered the walls and sandbags. A policeman, standing upright, shot his pistol while others around him hid behind the sandbags and took pot-shots. That man is lucky to be alive, Nikolai thought to himself as he crouched next to the nearest soldier. Like him, with the exception of the policemen who were wearing black fatigues, all the soldiers were wearing the standard fatigues and body armour. All of them were green with khaki and brown mixtures and the design only emphasised the size of the armoured vests which went from the shoulders to the pelvis in a V shape. He rose from cover and fired a few bursts spontaneously before taking cover again.
“I need to talk to the commanding officer in this area”. The man next to him was a middle-aged hard set figure whose concentration on aiming shots gave the illusion he was ignoring Nikolai. Finally, he pulled his rifle upwards and pointed to his right.
“He’s over there dealing with co-ordinates on the radio”. A round hit off the top of the sandbag, making Nikolai and the solider duck.
“Thank you”. The man resumed firing at the enemy. He made his way to the right where a figure was crouched with an assistant over a map. The man was bellowing out co-ordinates in the calm and collective way that people on the radio knew how to. After all they were professionals. He reached the man before striking a quick salute.
“Captain Dam Nikolai of the 14th mechanised, give me a sit-rep of the situation”. The man quickly glanced at the captain and then responded to assistance on the radio. He finally turned towards him. “Good to have you here Captain. I’m sergeant Vim. Our squad is ordered to hold this area and we’re the only squad with a radio at the momen-“. A shell hit to the building on their right. Debris fell in front of them. He continued the conversation.
“Right now, I’m co-ordinating fire. What happened to you?”. The question was quick and abrupt.
“I got cut off from the lead element and my radio’s dead. I figured you might need an extra body”. Vim smiled.
“Well, you’re in the right place. Could have used that radio though”.
“I think they’re tracking our radio chatter so be caref-“. Another shell hit a couple of meters in front of them. It had come from the roof of the buildings, those were good vantage points.
“What?”, Vim replied, leaning his head forwards. Nikolai repeated himself, making sure to emphasise the word ‘tracking’ by saying it slowly. Vim nodded.
“I hear you captain but don’t worry about it, I have an armoured vehicle coming this way. The One-Bakkar are about to receive a surprise”. As soon as Vim finished his sentence, Nikolai noticed two men in civilian clothing. They were taking cover behind a sandbag.
“You two!”, he shouted. “Get to the evacuation point!”.
“We’re not evacuees”, the one on the right replied. “I’m Yionas and this is Pitr. We’re conscripts from the 2nd infantry brigade. We’re trying to find our unit”.
“I think they’re directing on the outskirts of the city but stay here for now”.
“Got it, do you have anything we can fire back with?”. Nikolai looked around, there wasn’t anything apart from spent cartridges. He pulled out his pistol from its brown holster and threw it to Yionas, with 3 clips of ammunition.
“That’s all I’ve got for you, use it well”. A maverick round hit the ground between them. Nikolai peered his head upwards. On the roofs, black figures fired at them from the safety of cover. They seemed efficient at what they were doing and he knew they had the advantage of height. Many of them fired rounds indiscriminately at his location. Thank God for the sandbags. Just then a large puff of smoke blew from the roof. From a side-street in front of them, a large behemoth of a tank appeared. It’s heavy rectangular shape made Nikolai wonder how the thing could even move on its large set of tracks. As it moved to the centre of the street, it pivoted on its body until it faced forwards. It carried a large gun on a circular turret. The turret began to turn in the same direction like it was racing to see which part of the tank would reach its destination first. As it turned it finally stopped, elevated itself and fired off a shell. The gun let off a long plume of smoke which rocked the tank backwards. The round hit an upper part of the building, engulfing it in fire and smoke. Debris began to fall. Afterwards, the sponson attached to the turret began to spatter machine gun fire. After the firing stopped, everyone cheered. Even the hard-faced man Nikolai had talked to earlier let off a shout and raised his rifle like a spear. Vim began to radio their position and direct fire again, that was when they heard a sound. The sound of whirling blades began to slowly pick up, growing louder. Above them, the black aircraft appeared.
“Rotor!”, someone called enigmatically. As it steadied itself, the tank began to fire rounds at it in desperation. The rotor shot back. A spout of fire trailed towards the tank before exploding. The once monstrous thing shook backwards again, this time being hit directly. Its turret flew upwards like a champagne cork before crashing down to its side. When Nikolai raised his head he saw that the tank was now a piece of charred black rubble, its metal now twisted in un-natural ways to the human eye. The rotor, thinking that there was nothing important left in the area, dissapeared as fast as it came. The flame was like a signal that it was time to leave. Nikolai turned to Vim.
“Sergeant, I need you to relay a message under my name to all units. Tell them to regroup at the centre of the city and rendezvous at group Charlie. Any units that are stranded need to get this location as well”.
“But sir”, there was nervousness in Vim’s voice. “What about those stranded behind that can’t make it?”. There was a serious look in his eyes, as if the Captain could magically pull a solution out of his helmet.
“They’ll have to fend from themselves. The city is lost. We need to leave now”.
“No can do Captain. My last orders were to hold this place. We will catch up later”. Nikolai got up and placed a hand on Vim’s shoulder.
“Good. Make sure to get out though, okay? We could use more soldiers”.
“Of course, don’t leave us out of the after party”. Both of the men laughed before small-arms fire erupted again in their direction. The One-Bakkar were making a determined attack and now black figures moved from cover to cover in the street whilst firing from the hips. They were too far away to make any real damage. Nikolai ducked into cover again. A stray round hit the standing policeman in the shoulder. He fell with a thump, before he was dragged into cover by a soldier. Brave man, but also foolish, Nikolai thought to himself.
“I’ll see you later”, He said before leaving. Sergeant Vim murmured something but Nikolai didn’t quite hear it under the sound of gunfire. He ran into an empty alley and stopped to peer around a corner to a main street. He would need to go to group Charlie which was half an hour away by foot. The spire of the city was clear where he was, it’s idea as a rendezvous point was obvious. He began to run.

The rendezvous point was only so by name. Outside the large spiral of the city centre, a cultural monument to progress, laid chaos. Everywhere a person turned, crowds of people packed the wide plaza. A massive square in the middle of the city, it was now full of fleeing civilians who came seeking evacuation. Slowly, military trucks were loading families to the point they were crowded like cattle and drove to the outskirts. In the distance somewhere, above all the murmur and commotion, a baby could be heard crying. Its loud irritating whine for help seemed pointless. Even when he was making his way towards the checkpoint, Nikolai looked around the main streets. Many people just stood there in awe at what was going on, unable to comprehend the situation properly. War could be fascinating to watch but up close, it was a whole different story. The images were still live in the Captain’s memory. He remembered a vehicle being discarded like a rag doll, its metal swollen to a blackened crater. A woman huddled with her family as they sat on the side road and held each other. Finally, a body lay on the floor, the blood oozing out and draining into the sewers. It was then it truly hit him that they had been invaded. Nothing, neither his life nor the lives of these people, would ever be the same again. All he knew was this would be the last part in the tragic story of the city. On the crossing points to the square, machine gun emplacements had been set up on sandbags and several squads of regular soldiers in uniform stood guard with armed conscripts in civilian clothing. The attack had been so unanticipated that there wasn’t enough time to mobilise an effective enough force. The camouflage of the regulars mixed with the multi-colours of the conscripts like a muddled painting. As he walked towards the command point next to the spire, the crowds began to swell to the point where Nikolai needed to shout for people to move. Slowly, they moved for him as he reached the command point. A simple waist high barricade had been set up with two guards to distinguish the command post. Nikolai saw two officers standing over a map of the city on a make-shift table. Both seemed to be debating because they looked like there was no firm choice of action. Next to them laid a large radio box with a head-set. As he walked forwards, the guards recognised him and gave a simple nod. He walked over the barricade, calling with a slight tremor in his voice. The invasion, and combat for the first time, had obviously taken their toll on his nerves. Both looked up. Both officers were military personnel from a forgotten time. They had been in the army with the least amount of responsibilities and now they were in control of large groups of personnel. The one of the left was slightly chubby to be in the army, which indicated his role as an administrator more than a soldier. His rosy face was only outshone by his narrow eyes that drew close to his nose. The other man was young, too young (which made Nikolai wonder where the military got officers from). His short black head displayed a large forehead and a petite body.
“At ease, officers”. He was sure that both had never seen him before. They just happened to be two officers in the hierarchy who were at the same place at the same time and could direct the flow of battle. After introducing his rank, both gave him space. He looked at the map. It was both convoluted and unclear, with large red and smaller blue arrows drawn on. A number of X’s marked specific locations.
“What do the X’s stand for?”, Nikolai asked.

“They’re units killed or missing in action, sir”, replied the older man. There were a lot of X’s.
“Captain, we need to organise some sort of retreat. We can’t stay here for long”, bellowed the younger officer out of thin air. The older officer replied, stating how they couldn’t just leave the civilians to die. Things were intense and both voices showed signs of desperation. Soon an argument broke out between the two. While the older man pointed his arm towards Nikolai, the other officer simply poked at the map with his finger. Nikolai shouted as loud as he could to override both voices. The sudden shouting made many of the civilians just stare at them, even the guards slightly moved their heads in the direction of the shouting.
“This is no time for arguing. We need to get these civilians out of here”.
“But Captain”, interrupted the young officer. “If we don’t retreat now, we will be cut of-“.
“I will dictate the terms of war, Sergeant. I will not let the enemy get the satisfaction of making us do what they want”, he turned to the rosy faced officer. The man clearly had more experience with age.
“How many transport trucks do we have?”.
“56. At this rate it will take an hour for all the refugees to get on the trucks and move to the outskirts. That still doesn’t take into account how much fue-”. Nikolai cut him off. They didn’t need more complications.
“We will hold this place for as long as possible, just make sure the refugees get evacuated. Is the radio still working?”. The younger officer simply nodded a yes.
“Good, patch me to our air units”. The officer turned a few dials before a distorted murmur sounded. Nikolai asked for the codename and picked up the microphone.
“This is, err, sound-echo to firebird. Do you copy? Over”. There was a suspension of silence before a voice replied.
“This is firebird, we copy loud and clear”.
“Give me the situation over there”. Another pause. Nikolai wished they would answer quickly.
“Sound-echo, we were attacked by aircraft this morning and we’ve lost a few fighters but have managed to scramble what assets we have”.
“Good, we need assistance. We need you to hit everything you have on the city area around the docks”.
“Erm, sound-echo”, there was resilience in his voice. “Several attempts have been made to scout the air and we’ve lost every fighter that’s been sent. We can’t risk losing anymore aircraft”. Suddenly, a gunshot was heard and then a woman’s scream. Immediately people started panicking and running. From the rhythm of gunfire that occurred after, all the officers knew the machine guns were returning fire. Nikolai picked up the microphone again.
“Firebird, the enemy is nearing our rendezvous point and we need to buy time to evacuate civilians”. He paused for a second to look around. Now people were pushing, shoving and rushing to get near the trucks.
“If I mark co-ordinates, can you run strafes?”.
“That would depend, sound-echo. We would need clear verification from canisters. We’re using thermo-imaging so we need the smoke to mark the enemy’s positions”. He looked around again, seeing the younger officer had two canisters.
“Yes sir, we have them”. Shit, I forgot the call-sign. The radio replied.
“Good good, you have 5 minutes. Firebird out”. Looks like he didn’t mind. The crowd was over-bearing and Nikolai had to shove in order to make any progress. Eventually the gunfire became louder until he reached the main emplacement. Several dead bodies of people in civilian clothing littered the floor around it. None of them carried firearms. Other civilians hid behind the sandbags. A young blond haired woman attempted to flee but a bullet punctured the back of her spine. She waved her arms in the air, as if she was bidding a final goodbye and fell to the ground. Nikolai’s head swept to the side, nearly hitting a soldier who was firing at the enemy and vomited. As he tried to re-gain his composure, he wiped his mouth and half-heartedly crouched behind the sandbags. He peered his head slightly to get a better view. The dark figures were there again but this time they were close enough to be seen. Each was covered in fur. It was said the One-Bakkar used the enslaved as a driving force and each slave was marked with fur to show they had been successfully indoctrinated. According to what Nikolai heard, these were stories told to scare children. But now the nightmare was real. Like an injured animal under attack, he wanted to fight them off. He pulled the pin from the canister and threw it. A round struck his shoulder. He cried in pain as the canister fell short, next to a stone column. 2 more minutes. He pulled out his pistol and ran towards the canister. Rounds hit the ground around him. He finally reached the canister. By now it was letting out a fume of green smoke, which blocked his and the enemy’s view. 1 minute. He took cover behind the stone pillar. He paused for seemed like an hour. 30 seconds. He could hear the screech of jet engines drawing in the feint distance. It was now or never. With his left hand, he threw the canister before being hit in the leg, which made him collapse. The Sound of the engines drew nearer. All he remembered was a scream, followed by severe heat in front of him as he passed out.

 

Chapter 4: Preparations

From the hill, the horizon flashed with the light of explosions and a few streams of anti-air fire could just be made out. With each hour the bursts of light drew closer. From the distance according to Arlov’s binoculars, it was out by about 2 days. Soon. Around him, a scene was unfolding. Surrounding the hill, men dug foxholes and piled sandbags on top of each other. In front of him laid neatly spread machine gun emplacements, barbed wire and tanks which slid into ditches for cover. Behind him, the sound of jets screamed as cargo ships dropped from the air, lowered their supply crates and flew off to the main ships just above the planet’s atmosphere. Sharper screeches from lighter and faster jets were heard as they streamed to the horizon to provide air cover and drop their payload of explosives. Behind him, logistic specialists outside of armoured personnel carriers debated and argued with each other over the best course of action, with their maps surrounding them on makeshift tables. On the far right of the hill, a drop ship which held a large cargo carriage lowered on a flat plain. The door opened and 3 large tanks drove out, constantly correcting themselves as they slowly rumbled outwards. Like most army groups Arlov had commanded, this consisted of different elements. In his army group laid air support, armoured and mechanised formations, heavy weapon teams, regulars and veterans. More importantly, there were conscripts. He would need to make sure they integrated well with the veterans. After all, joining this was wasn’t their choice. It was requirement that came from the planet they were drafted from. Sometimes with little more than 3 months training, they were put in cargo ships and sent to the frontline with a weapon.

….

As the figure sat in his personnel carrier, he gazed at the files in front of him. A series of papers and photographs were muddily assorted together, as if from a child’s classroom. The fact the room of the APC was starting to fog from the man’s cigarette did not help. He brought the smoke to bear on his lips, inhaled deeply and exhaled a large sigh. The aging man kept gazing at the coloured younger picture of Arlov that stood out with a youthful smile. Arlov probably looked different now, the man thought. War did that to people. It changed them to the point where their looks and personalities were unrecognisable. Long had he seen the kind and grateful slowly evolve into monsters that were ripe to pray upon the weak. He let the thought ferment in his mind before cutting it out. That kind of attitude would leave him too bias and judgemental. So much had change and it seemed so little time had occurred in which to grasp it. Like a thin river, the thought of Arlov now provoked memories of home. That’s what was so appealing about emotions. Like a spoilt child, they could not be easily controlled and now a rich variety of images filled his head. He thought about his youth at the academy and more importantly his difficult wife Natasha. Difficult in the sense she was always challenging to him and always teasing him with her infinite amount of sarcasm in her voice. It suited his personality. They were both like two sides of a magnet, different in nature but somehow dependant on each other to survive. He would need to write her a letter soon. That aspect of nature that bonded them together would need to be rekindled. His concentration was quickly cut off as the carrier slumped and rebalanced. He guessed the driver had hit a bump in the dirt road.
“Mind the road, driver”. He wasn’t in the mood for games but life always had a firm habit of providing him a random deck of cards. The APC came to an abrupt halt. In the front seat, the driver pulled a leaver and gently pushed a button which made the rear door open with a smooth automatic push. An assistant helped the man out and onto the clean grass. He walked towards the figure aiming the binoculars. The sunlight had revealed Major Vanery. Underneath his officer cap, which was wrapped with a blue sash and imprinted with a red eagle, laid his aging hair of silver grey. His face was long and bared many humbling features. The long nose and green eyes were only matched by the mash of wrinkles on his face. Such humbling features were necessary of a political officer. As he walked towards Arlov, he realised they were both wearing the standard flak jacket and fatigues, the only exception was that Vanery wore a leather jacket on top. Arlov turned to face him, his hands crossed to show he was as was as humble.
“Ah, Major Vanery. It’s been a while”.
“It has indeed, Colonel Arlov”. Vanery walked closer until both figures were only arm’s length apart.
“I was just wondering who they had sent to babysit me”. Vanery waved his arms around, as if he was giving a brief tour.
“Your command is key to this whole operation, how could they send anyone but me?”. A smirk emerged on Arlov’s face.
“Your sense of self-importance hasn’t lessened I see“.
“But I am important, am I not? Or at least my dear old father in law thinks I am”. A few chuckles were followed by a hug between the two friends. Arlov walked with Vanery, his hand on his back directing him like a father would his son.
“It’s good to see you, old friend”. As they began to walk, the small talked eased Vanery initiated the serious phase of the conversation.
“So, how are we doing?”. Arlov turned to him.
“Everything is in place. I can’t say I’m very happy about all of this”.
“High command knows what his right, ours is but to obey”. Arlov could tell Vanery had diverted his doubt.
“So they have decided then”. He cut through the metaphor and turned to a sergeant with an assistant. They were organising supplies.
“Get me the lieutenants on the radio. I want a survey of the forward preparations”. As Arlov had barked at him, the Sergeant began barking orders to his assistant. He turned back to Vanery and stood next to him. Both of them gazed at the horizon, still flashing with war.
“When?”, Arlov asked.
“Soon”.
….

The harbour of Cavaria was now a desolate place which consisted of half blown skyscrapers, shattered windows and roads lined with corpses of civilians. The corpses were the most memorable to team alpha. As they scanned the roads with their eyes, their rifles pointing in the same direction, team of 5 stacked against the building next to a main door. Opposite them, another team did the same to the opposite building. The leader of the group used his comm link.
“This is team one, we’re ready to breech. Confirm that you’re in position, over”.
“Roger, we’re in position. Don’t try to beat us to the target. We’ll just beat you again, out”. The Sergeant chuckled underneath his black fatigues. All of them wore heavily padded vests, surrounded by ammunition pouches and grenades. Their faces were concealed by a large helmet and balaclava. All that could be seen was their eyes.
“Right team one, breeching the entrance in 3…2….1..”. All of the team straightened up, the butts of their rifles mounted on their shoulders.
“Breach”. With immediate efficiency, the team moved in the door one after the other. The sergeant and the person behind him fired two shots from their silenced rifles as a standard practice for engaging the enemy. As the team moved in, each member’s guns scanning the room, they realised they were the only people in the lobby area. The place wasn’t much, there was only a desk and a flight of stairs to the upper floors. A few pillars surrounded the place which had bumps and holes where bullets had ricocheted. Something was wrong, the enemy was suppose to be in this location. The leader reached his comm link again.
“Team two, we have no hostiles on the lower floor. We’re going to move to the upper floors where the priority target is”.
“Roger, we’ve seen no hostiles either. This doesn’t make sense, the outside is packed with patrols. We’ll scan the upper floor and get back to you. Team 2 out”.
As the team moved upwards, the sergeant signalled them to take cover behind a wall. Opposite them in a corridor stood two One-Bakkar facing away from them, muttering in some absurd language. The leader gestured a same looking man with his hand, both drew their knives out and began to walk to the sentinels. When they reached them, they both struck. The Sergeant went for the guard on the right. He covered his mouth and jammed the knife through his throat and threw him to the ground at the same time. The other levered the one-bakkar’s body on his hip, crashing him to the ground and stabbing him repeatedly. As soon as both were dead, he gave the signal for them to move. According to the map they had read before, they were going the right way but as they scanned the corridor for enemies, they found the place to be empty. As they came to the designated room, they stacked up against the door from both ends. Suddenly, the sergeant’s comm link sprang to life.
“This is team 2, we’re at the location but there’s no one here. We’re going to scan the place further, ove-“. The radio ended abruptly. The leader decided to finish this and get back to them, they must have been rushing to scan the other rooms. No matter, he would get back to them. As soon as the signal was given the team breached the room. The Sergeant kicked down the door and sprayed fire into the room from his hip. Two figures who were guarding the window looked back but in a second were full of led. They now dropped to the floor in a dark red puddle. The team moved in. The sergeant walked towards the corpses and paused for a second. Underneath his balaclava, a shock of horror emerged on his face. These weren’t One-Bakkar. They were dressed in different colours of civilian clothing. One was a man was in a blue sleeveless top and three-quarter length trousers. The other person was a woman, her red dress was now ruined by a dark stain on her stomach. This definitely wasn’t right. It was insanity. He knelt down to take a better look. That was when he spotted the tattoo on the woman’s arm. It bore the dark essence of the enemy. They had been indoctrinated, but in such a short time? Surely something like that was impossible. The comms link buzzed into life again.
“..eam 2…ambus……assista…..respo…”. The leader of team 1 tried to make out what was going on. It was a trap and they had fallen for it. The ground began to shake as the broken glass rattled. A rotor emerged outside the building.
“Get down!”, the leader shouted but it was too late. The aircraft fired a salvo of rounds which had punctured through all of the teams armour. In a matter of seconds, they were all on the floor. Blood began to course out of the sergeant’s armour. His comm link still rattled.
“…..e bak…….ne bakka………one bakkar……”. The sound of footsteps clicked behind him. Several figures appeared in his sights. He tried to raise his firearm but realised his arm wouldn’t let him. One of the one-bakkar knelt down and placed his hands on the sergeant’s head, chanting some absurd mumbling. In the 5 minutes of screaming, the sergeant’s voice went silent.

…….

The large column of trucks and military vehicles strolled across the road away from the horizon, now illuminating flashes of light. People would later call the retreat ‘organised’ but there was a lack of certainty whether people were following orders or everyone was doing what they thought was best. Either way, they all fled with the war now on their heels. In either direction there was a lack of distinction between people. All the trucks were cramps with both soldiers and civilians and those fleeing the outskirts of the city that didn’t fit on, were walking on the side of the streets like a mob of fans walking out of a stadium. On the floor of a truck laying on a stretcher a man groaned slightly, his face half burnt with pinkish wrinkles. His shoulder and legs were crudely bandaged with what seemed like rudimentary cloth. He groaned again and hoisted himself up, his body aching with the pain that came after the surge of adrenaline. Every now and then when he tried to sit up, a sharp pain bit into his shoulder which made him yelp in pain. The young faced sergeant helped him up.
“Easy there captain, you’re lucky to be alive. Take it easy”. As he sat upwards, he saw the flashing horizon which contrasted with the now amber clouds of the sunset.
“We were in danger, I signalled a retrea-“
“Which has been dealt with, the evacuation was a success. You were pretty beaten up, you should rest”. Nikolai’s head felt like it had little energy. He rested his head on the step of the truck wall that enabled people to sit. They were the last truck in the column so the horizon was clear and Nikolai could see the firm and thick trees of the forests. Soon it cleared up. By now there was hardly any forest on either side, only patches of trees dotted around the place. What was evident however, were buildings; remnants of what had been suburbia. To the right, a pair of large pressure tubes lay dormant from a gas plant. As they passed the domineering concrete, both stood tall as if they were looking over him in judgement. The truck bounced from driving over a pothole. The truck’s passengers fumbled and Nikolai hit his head against the step as the truck shook, which sparked off other pains in his body. As if on cue, the truck suddenly stumbled to a halt. In front of his eyes a ring of vehicles had been formed and behind them stood soldiers, each weary about the situation. At a random guess, they were supposed to slow the enemy down but there was little to slow them down with. One soldier held a rocket launcher on his arm and was eerily talking to his comrade. Both smoked cigarettes. All the other soldiers carried rifles. Outside the truck a conversation was heard between a firm voice and a softer coarser one. The sound of footsteps followed and a man in full fatigues looked at the back. He glanced at Nikolai and signalled to the person who Nikolai couldn’t see.
“Yep, that’s him alright. Get him to the F.O.B.”, he said in the firm voice. As soon as the man left, the truck began to move. The touch of the floor changed to stable and that’s when Nikolai realised they were going over a bridge. The bridge was long and took a few minutes to cross. The only interesting part was the calm water on both sides and the large tubes, once imposing, which were now shrinking smaller and smaller in the distance. The truck bounced again which indicated they were on different soil. They had crossed and now a spectacle unfolded as the truck travelled. Soldiers from the left and right moved to the bridge and began to place sandbags. Two soldiers directed the last of the civilians crossing. Around the embankments of the calm and passive river, emplacements were being dug. A tank, its hulking mass indicating it was fairly old fashioned, lumbered near the bridge, rotated anti-clockwise and stopped. Behind it, men began to dig. They were unprepared, it was the same in the city and it was the same now and Nikolai wasn’t sure there was any real chance of holding the bridge. As the sound of a jetfighter roared overhead towards where they had come from, he realised he was tired. Trying to forget the war, he lied down and closed his eyes.

…….

Donelle adjusted her driver’s hat. The thing was fairly uncomfortable as it wrapped around her head like a frightened animal. Its brown leather reflected the blue lights which glowed from the control panel in the tank’s hull. The place was packed and left little room for luxury, though it was spacious near the driver’s seat. She checked her comm link again, fairly shore that it was working and adjusted her buttoned uniform. The dark navy blue indicated her officer class and she relished in the fact she had made her way up. It gave her a certain aura of authority and meant she would be respected by her peers. As long as she kept the act up, she knew her men would obey orders and carry them out; they had trained long enough to make it second nature. She had been advised by other officers that she needed to follow the calm and collective guidelines of the training manuals but she had always insisted that rigorous training would make sure that in battle, her company’s training would take over. She pressed the button to her comm link again.
“Viktor this is Circle, over”, she said frankly. A reply shortly answered.
“Viktor is reading you circle”. The voice was sharp, as if it had snapped to attention.
“Viktor, I want you to give me a sit-rep about the predicament with the refugees. I will be leaving my vehicle and I would like you to give me a transcript from HQ about the situation, over”.
“I read you loud and clear, comma-I mean Viktor”.
“Use your code name. And make sure to say over when you’re finished. For the love of God, I’m not going to lose my company because you can’t say the right words”. She was quick to correct him and the reply had a slight tremor, which suggested the person heard her aggression loud and clear. Good, it means they respect me. With a swift expiration of energy, she climbed up the tank and carried herself out of the wide compartment door on the roof of the turret. She disembarked from the tank, trying very hard not to fall and injure herself. If she was gone, someone else would need to command Janine and she did not want another commander in her vehicle. Weapons like this were as up-to-date as they came and these sort of wonder weapons won battles for her. After a while, veterans began to form attachments to their vehicles. Janine was her baby, her adopted child baptised in fire. It had made its debut three years ago and 2 theatres of wars later, the marvel had survived everything thrown at it. The tank was littered with a few dents but nothing serious. A few patches from burn marks were still evident from previous combat and smudged the green, brown and khaki pattern. That had been from Ferada when they had successfully spearheaded an assault and drove the One-Bakkar into a full scale retreat. That was when she had become a tank commander. As she landed flat on her feet she paused for a second, pulled out a cigarette and gently lighting it with her slender fingers. She was on a steep hill, overlooking a clear field and in the distance stood another forest. On this hill contained her entire company, three platoons of armour. Ten tanks including hers; all under her command and all depended on her competence. In front of her and downwards from the hill, the last slits of trenches were being dug by infantry. Sandbags were being piled at intervals where machine gunners would place their heavy weapons. The line of trenches trickled downwards like water which had been poured on the ground. They bustled like an ant colony. In the Centre, lay the mixed fatigues of the conscripts. These were those of either the olive- green fatigues of Cavaria’s military, who were lucky enough not to be in the city at the time, or those drafted from their home planets to fight this war; in normal camouflage. Either way, she was glad she wasn’t one of those unlucky bastards. They looked tense, many of them determined enough to startle even herself, to whom she reminded herself that many of these people had lost their homes and loved-ones. Many of their comrades were missing and if they lost this planet, it would be the end of their lives as they knew it. No, they had every right to be determined. If it meant more personnel, she was happy and she was sure the famous Colonel Arlov was as well. You could tell he had experience. He had placed the inexperienced in the centre of the anticipated attack and the more experienced units on the flanks and rear. Hopefully, the experienced soldiers would provide support and assistance and keep the conscripts in line. Only an experienced commander could make that decision. Her concentration was stopped when a tank officer ran towards her. He saluted rigidly.
“Tank Captain Walko, reporting for duty Ma’am”. She waved her arm.
“At ease Captain”. She took one last inhale from her cigarette, flicked the thing away and pulled a small paper out of her pocket. She then unfolded it until it became a large tactical map, its design dotted with grids, patches of green and brown and a red mark. The captain hovered over the map opposite her.
“This is where we are positioned. The anticipated plan of attack will be that the enemy will attack this centre point. As they move closer unaware, we will be given the order to ambush their formations. This will be based on my discrepancy. I want you to give the order to the men that when you shoot the first rounds, I want them to be with thermo markers so we can mark targets beforehand”. As she said this, she looked at the captain with piercing eyes.
“Do you understand?”.
“Yes Commander”.
“Good, now report the order to the men. I want them to be prepared”. He ran off but quickly turned back
“Oh, commander?”.
“Yes?”
“I have the information you wanted from HQ about the refugees”.
“Ah yes, I forgot about that”. She smirked slightly. Mistakes like that no matter how trivial were detrimental.
“They’ve successfully made it across the bridge. Remnants of the battalions in the city defended the bridge and held on long enough to destroy it”. When the captain said that, there was a hint of enthusiasm in his voice, as if to say we’ve finally hit them back.
“That’s good captain, now get back to your position”.
“Yes commander”. He gave a quick salute and ran off. Donnelle quickly looked over the map before lighting another cigarette. She gazed to the dirt road which passed on the far right of the emplacement. Along the path, military style trucks passed with refugees on either side of the road. One group of refugees, obviously exhausted from walking, sat for a second in a large crowd and gazed at the spectacle unfolding before them. After a couple of minutes, they were directed to move by one soldier. She did not know exactly what happened at the dockyard but whoever directed the retreat was admirable for his actions. Let’s just hope we have more people like that, she thought to herself. She took one last inhale of the smoke and leaned against her tank surveying the preparations. After seeing a group of soldiers drop an ammunition case by accident, she ran and began to bellow out orders.

…….

The sound of screaming died down next to the operator’s hand. With his hand, wrapped in a camouflaged glove, he finally stopped the scream by pressing the button on his personal comm. link.
“This is Eagle. We are standing by in concealed positions waiting for orders, over”, he said with a flat concise voice. A few seconds later, a voice appeared, static slightly disfiguring the tone.
“Copy that, I’m up linking a message that has been passed down from the Colonel himself. It has arrived on your database now”. As the sergeant gave, he raised his arm and tapped the palm of his hand. Suddenly a beam of blue holographic light sprang to life, displaying a shaded figure of Colonel Arlov.
“Finders, if you are receiving this message you are aware of the gravity of the situation. As our intelligence team has informed you prior to your departure, everyone within the city is a hostile. Complete your objectives and the mission is a free-reign once you are in the vicinity. Make me proud. Falcon-one out”. Just as quickly as it appeared, the hologram receded into the wrist and the sergeant raised his arm, flicking two figures outwards. Immediately, from the undergrowth spawned several men concealed in camouflaged rags. They were the elite of the elite, the last calling card the Army had to offer and that made their mission a dire one. It put the weight of the situation increasingly on their shoulders however their training had insured they did not flinch at its intensity. Instead, years of experience had dictated they were to love and encompass war in every part of their lives. Conflict was their calling and as the sergeant looked upon the smoky ruins of the once vibrant city, he scanned for the possibilities of entry. The last team, Alpha, who came to pass into the underworld were a local force who with their skills attempted to gather some resistance in the city and cause as much destruction as possible. They had failed but had left some vital intelligence while they were alive. From the radio communications between Arlov and the team, they had uncovered a prize while observing the city from the rooftops, a prize worth taking. As the men emerged out of nothingness the sergeant flicked his hand again and with a series of ruffling through the undergrowth, the men began to advance from the hilltop into the city.

The city was now an abandoned wreck, a hollow vassal of what it used to be. A mixture of concrete, brick and glass rubble now littered the streets and vehicles blocked road paths that indicated civilians had fled on foot. A carrier ventured forward, confident the city had been taken. Behind it walked several One-Baker in black fatigues, their visions glancing rather than scanning the premises like a drunken man going home. As they placidly passed a side street, the several figures of Finder’s team emerged. Moving to another corner they halted. With the wave of a hand, the sergeant ordered one of the soldiers, a heavy set man he cradling the long body of a sniper rifle. Sprinting towards the left hand side of the street, he crouched behind the wall and holstered the butt of the rifle into his shoulder. His eye lingered into the slender scope and the slowing of his breathing signalled he was searching for enemies. Pausing for a few seconds, he nodded his head towards the sergeant. Again the sergeant waves his hand. A second trooper, this one shorter than the sniper holding a large pack, jogged forwards the momentum of the pack slowing him down. All of a sudden, his jog was interrupted by a kick of dust by his side. He quickly darted for cover behind a vehicle, now unloading the pack to the floor. The sniper straightened, now scanning the front for the rogue enemy marksman. Subtly, the man holstered the rifle on his shoulder and carried the pack into the alley next to the vehicle. A shot flew through the front of the car’s window. Another shot tore through the car’s body, making it shake forwards from the force of the bullet. The sniper looked to his comrade who was now behind solid cover before nodding at the sergeant again. The sergeant waved his hand a final time and the final soldier sprinted forwards, carrying nothing but a rifle. Pang. Dust kicked to the right of the man. Pang, another smacked the wall behind him. The sniper began to relax as he concentrated his shot. Pang. A shot ricocheted off of the floor, making the soldier shift his direction. He quickly changed direction again, just missing the round striking his anticipated direction. The sniper held the rifle close to him, comforting it. Crack. The sound of the shot echoed through the air cleanly, penetrating the sound of running. After the shot echoed for a few seconds there was silence. The sniper signalled to the sergeant and the group immediately got moved forwards, rendezvousing with the sprinter who clung against a small pile of rubble. Quickly, the team moved forwards knowing probably someone had heard the shot.

The dockyards were busy with the column of rumbling vehicles that queued along the main roads. Overhead, a rotor sprang upwards from the black carrier and flew low. The once wide space that was reserved for trade was now coping with the influx of military personnel. In rows to the sides of the rumbling traffic, columns of tanks stood static in formation and waited for orders. The hulking things, towering over personnel domineeringly, were silent though some rumbled. From the cargo crates, the sergeant’s cover gave him a good view of both the premises and the crates opposite to him where two of the team were also hiding. In front of him stood the imposing black ship that unloaded rotors with its cranes. Its towering holding had blossomed to reveal wide open spaces which housed what seemed like a swarm of aircraft. Some looked small and nimble whilst others hulked over their counterparts, being far too bulky to be aerodynamic. The sergeant took out a torch and out of the darkness flickered it towards the opposite crates. Several seconds later another light flickered back at him. Touching his comm. Link, he began to talk but suddenly the radio let out a loud screech which caused him to let go. Opposite him a nearby slave, idly guarding the tanks, noticed and walked towards his comrade’s cover. The soldier, once the fast sprinter only an hour ago, raised his rifle in anticipation. As quickly as it had been raised, the sergeant pushed it down. Before the slave could get closer, he picked up a small piece of rubble and tossed it towards a tank, the impact making a tingling noise as it smacked the mechanical giant. The slave, now confident it had the target, walked in the opposite direction and disappeared of sight. Both of the finders opposite the Sergeant’s cover moved towards the tank formation. The slave, now looking in the direction of the tank was hopeless against the silenced shot that sealed his fate as the sergeant and the sprinter moved out in the column of tanks.

It didn’t take long to get into the body of the carrier. Silencing a few guards had been easy work and now the team made their way through the dark corridors, only illuminated by dingy red lights. Through the endless maze of metallic tunnels, the squad stumbled upon endless holding bays and dorms for soldiers, whose sizes seemed more torture than utilitarian. Eventually, a flight of stairs led to a vaulted door. All of the squad stacked up against the door.
“Right, this is what was described to us. We’re going to breach to the door with a surprise. Pran, you’re covering me. Dek and Sao, you’ll move forwards and secure the front when we breach”.
All of the unidentifiable masked men simply nodded and the sergeant started turning the vault doors, the sound clanging loudly and echoing against the claustrophobic room. It opened with a clang. Immediately, the Sergeant threw a grenade into the room and shut the door, only leaving an inch open. A few voices could be heard and then a loud explosion overgrew any noises. After, more shouting and groans were heard. Then, the sergeant entered. The held the rifle towards his waste as he stormed in, firing shots. The inside was a lot more generous with lighting and several computers, attached to the walls, surrounded a holographic projector of both the city and the units inside of it. On the wall mapped the planet’s surface. A few bodies, clad in black armour, were now dead on the floor. A few had taken cover behind the projector. One stood up and took a few shots before being flung back by a well aimed hit. The sniper, his rifle hung on his back, fired a few rounds from his pistol. The shots went astray before hitting another One-Bakkar in the shoulder. The final member was shot point blanc as he tried to escape to another door opposite. The short fight was over and the squad shouted ‘clear!’ as they lowered their rifles. The sprinter opened his large backpack and lumbered out a large series of tubes. After setting a few symbols with buttons, he activated a beeping sound. The large and cumbersome tubes began to digitally tick. He packed it beside one of the computers and that signalled the squad to leave. They ventured through the other door which led to a further flight of stairs. Behind them, shots pinged off the metallic walls. The sprinter turned and fired a few shots from the hip. A One-Bakkar sprinting towards them from the command room dropped on the floor taking a direct hit. The others crouched behind cover firing. He fired a final flurry of shots before running out of sight. The One-Bakkar pursued. They were surprised by the circular object that fell their way. It exploded, destroying them in the process.

The black carrier first gave a large creek before a loud thump was heard from the inside of its hull. The sound finally blew to the top of the surface and an explosion of flame and destruction rained on its hull before slowly leaning into the water and sinking.

 

 Chapter 5: We take our hats off to Colonel Arlov

 The large field was calm and dry and the only thing that stood out from the silence was chirping from different birds. After singing, they would wait for a reply before letting off their melodies again. The Forest a distance away from the field, its leaves now turning a slight shade of brown, began to give off a warming effect that was almost as warming as the sunlight. In a couple of hours it would be night and what was a blessing about this planet was that the sunset seemed to linger on. By now the flashing on the horizon had ceased long ago and indicated that the enemy was on the move. It was long to be expected and now all the soldiers could do was dig in and wait. Waiting was the hardest part. It was that anticipated time when there was a lot of energy but not much to do. Men fidgeted, cleaned their guns or engaged in silent conversation underneath camouflaged netting of the trenches. No one really knew what to expect, many soldiers had seen several theatres of war and witnessed different things. The One-Bakkar were no ordinary adversaries and their tactics varied. With each new person under them came a new way of waging war and that strategy proved costly for the humans. In one theatre of war mechanised units would clash with each other. In another, strenuous guerrilla campaigns were launched which aimed to slow the Terran armies down. More horribly, mystic forces were employed, tearing the fabric of reality itself. This was a type of war which had not been witnessed since the first time the One-Bakkar encountered human traders. According to records, those people were never seen or heard from again. The reports began to echo on the radios. The enemy had been sighted on the outskirts of the forests, with mechanised and armoured divisions and most importantly of all, manpower. It had also been reported that the air units that had been sent to cover the retreating forces from the dockyards, were managing to fend off any enemy aircraft and no air force, neither ally nor foe, would take part in this battle. Many soldiers now stood to attention in the trenches and held their guns towards outwards in an aiming fashion. The birds which were once lively were now quiet. A plump black bird with a red beak gave its final call before flying towards a distant land. The trees began to shake widely. As they rocked, leaves violently fell, giving the illusion they were going to collapse at any second. A soldier at the far end of a trench gazed out of cover with his comrade hunched over him also looking. That’s when the enemy arrived.

Private Perkish in the first line of defence, witnessed the enemy first hand. It was as if a wif of red had emerged out of black of the forest, like a raw paintbrush stroke from an artist. The enemy was advancing towards them and judging by their actions, had not seen them yet. The forest began to rumble again with the suddenness of tress falling. Each tree gave a large yelp before crashing to the ground and over them roared the bulky mass of the One-Bakkar tanks. Each one was huge in proportion to the human ones and boasted a very long gun; its main body was a U shape which held the tracks in front of the gun. On the body were embedded symbols and unknown profanities, each one in stabbing red to contrast with the plain grey of the tank’s body. The first wave of tanks approached with the infantry in front of them. Perkish put his rifle to the side for a second, took off his helmet and wiped the sweat off his forehead. He was a slim built character, probably one of the lankiest in the regiment. It gave the illusion he was still a teenager and his equipment seemed to be larger than he was. As he mounted the helmet back on his head, he stepped up and peeked his head over the trench, the rifle held downwards by his right hand and gazed in wonder:

They were advancing in solid square lines standing out sharply against the skyline, and you couldn’t hitting them. To the left and right of him, soldiers stood quietly with neither sound nor sign. At this moment, the only noise could be heard from the footsteps of the One-Bakkar and the deafening rumbling of their machines. They crept nearer and that’s when the officers gave the word. Aimed shots began to hit and the enemy was taken completely by surprise. Their first line staggered like a drunk man being hit between the eyes. Instantly One-Bakkar dropped to the floor, his successor from the rear stepping over his corpse. A shell smacked into the ground, flinging dirt and shattering a whole blob of slaves in the second line. The One-Bakkar tanks, startled and confused, began to shoot rounds aimlessly. One flew over Perkish’s trench and landed flat on the ground. Another flew too wide and encased itself on a flat piece of hill. Perkish aimed his rifle and began to fire in short burst, his weapon kicking his shoulder like a jackass. A Shot hit a slave’s shoulder. It staggered for a second and tried to walk forwards again. Another round hit him dead at the centre of his skull and he collapsed lifeless. Perkish fired another salvo of shot which peppered the ground and took out another slave. The machine gun emplacement to the left began to open. Like Perkish, it fired in short bursts making sure not to overheat the weapon. In the period of twenty seconds the One-Bakkar line charged wildly shouting some outlandish battle cry that Perkish couldn’t make out; advancing in a company of 150 slaves in ranks of 4 deep. They were simply wiped out by the gunfire at 700 yards. In their insane formation, every bullet was likely to find two bodies and soon droves of slaves collapsed at the intensity of the projectiles flying towards them. They had absolutely no chance. Shells from the tanks encamped on the hill hit the second line, pummelling more large holes in their formation. The Second line began to spread out, now kneeling and firing at the flashes of gunfire from the trenches. The tanks, now spotting the location of their mechanical adversaries on the hill, stopped and began to fire shots at a more accurately. Rounds punctured the ground around Perkish as he attempted to fire back. A shell hit the ground a few yards away from him, spilling dirt onto his helmet. He grab his helmet and pressed it onto his head as he crouched from the bombastic sound the explosion made. The gunner to his left was hit squarely on the chest. He flew back and smacked the back of his head on a corner of the trench. The man next to him, who had been feeding the ammunition into the thin mechanism of the gun, took over and sprayed the gun on full automatic. The enemy was now too close to aim and many soldiers around Perkish began to spray as many bullets as possible. Their lines had formed into large waves which simply charged forwards with their guns blazing. One tank blew alight as a shell hit it between the turret and the body. A shell from the One-Bakkar hit a trench directly, launching several men off the ground and flinging them in random directions. A slave managed to approach a trench before being hit in the shoulder. Another, using him as cover, dragged him to the side and lunged at the nearest soldier. He was thrown to the ground and stabbed through the chest. More rounds found their way to Perkin’s position. He ducked for cover and when he looked up, that’s when he saw the slave coming for him. The grey figure covered in fur snarled at him before sprinting, firing sporadically from his hip. Perkish returned fire as fast as possible. One round ricocheted off the ground and flew far, another hit the ground just short but it was too late. The slave lunged at Perkish like an animal. Both of them fell flat on the ground, the slave on top of him. It began to choke him with its bare hands and sluggishly lifted Perkish’s head, piling it into the ground like a hammer. Perkings squirmed in desperation, trying to cling onto the monster’s arms and counter but the thing was too strong. He looked around, everyone was occupied. In the hysteria of the moment, no one had seemed to notice. Many still looked forward, returning fire. Then the pummelling stop. In the chaos of the situation, Perkish managed to look up. The thing had drawn a knife and now slowly moved it towards his neck. He stammered to draw his own knife. It slipped slightly in his hands but he managed to grasp the handle and plunged the hollow blade into thing’s neck. It fell on top of him now dead. He threw it off, the look of terror evident on his face. The dark red splodge on his shirt contrasted with his olive green uniform. He looked at his hands now covered in the same colour, they wouldn’t stop shaking. His chest felt heavy and he found it difficult to breath. After a few second, seeming like hours, he recomposed himself.

…….

On the hill top, the tanks propelled shells into the ranks of the enemy below. In the process of 5 minutes, the hill which was once a tactical haven was now a ripe target. Shells hit the embankment below spewing dirt up, with the occasion shot going overhead. There had been problems. At the start one of the tanks, out of fear or instinct, fired a shell into the enemy’s ranks. The other tanks followed suit and soon every tank began wasting valuable rounds.
“Thermal flares. For God sake, use Thermal flares. For the love of God, the next person who fires a shell without my orders will be reprimanded”, Donnelle bellowed on the comm link, her voice powerful enough for everyone to feel. Immediately, the radio came alive with confirmations, which signalled that the firing had stopped.
“Viktor to all units, mark targets before engagements. That’s what the flares are there for. I don’t want to see ammunition being wasted”. Like a well oiled machine, the tanks began to fire in succession. All ten tanks fired their flares as if they were firing towards to horizon to see who would be the first to reach space. She and the crew braced for a second whilst Janine rocked back from the recoil and she looked into the optics. For a second, the round gave the illusion that it flew high before landing a few meters behind the first line. She bellowed on the comm link again, this time making sure no one was to make a mistake.
“Make sure to use the flares as references. Mark your targets and fire at will”. Shit, I forgot to use the code-name. Never mind, no one noticed. If the crew did notice, they didn’t say anything other than the confirmation they had received the order. Immediately, she could hear the loud thud of round being fired from outside Janine. Proud of the fire-discipline, she carried on the tradition.
“Target-marked 1000 meters. Target is an armoured vehicle, load armour piercing rounds”. The Turret whizzed into life as the gunner slightly elevated it. He then slapped a round through the breach of the large gun.
“Open fire”. The tank shook as the round ejected from the gun. It arched upwards before falling down and striking an advancing tank in the hull. The vehicle’s turret shot upwards in a plume of flame and crashed to its side, crushing 2 slaves in the process.
“Direct hit. Target- marked 800 meters. Infantry in the open. Load high explosive”. Again the sound of the turret whizzed into life but this time more quickly. The gunner slapped another round into the launcher. As Donnelled yelled fire, the tank shook again. She covered her head for a second in surprise and looked back at the optics again. Unlike the previous round, the shell flew straight and crashed into the ground, immediately puffing a large burst of smoke. Around it infantry were scattered and thrown about like rag-dolls.
“Direct hit, give me a second”. She levered the handle above her and with a straining push, opened the hatch.The driver, a stocky man in his late thirties, turned his head and saw what she was doing. “Comrade commander, what are you doing?”.
“I’m going to mark targets with my binoculars, make sure to listen closely”. The man protested.
“But Commander, it’s ill-advised to expose yourself during battle”. She gave him a stabbing glare with her eyes.
“Driver, if I want to be advised by you I will do it. Now get back to what you were doing”. The driver confirmed in a short phrase and looked into his vision slit. Donelle raised her head above the turret and looked at what was happening below her. On one advancing line, small particles charged and fired, with much larger bulks slowly moving behind them. On the other side, encrypted lines drawn in the soil were firing back, tracers and rockets flying. Suddenly, a round of a tank turret fired to her left hand side. She shook instinctively in response, having to remind herself that things were louder outside the tank. As if the situation was scripted, a round flew overhead and hit a tree directly at the middle of its body. It rocked like an intoxicated figure and toppled on to another tree. Now the tree supporting its structure of another for balance like a drunk friend. Gazing at the diorama for a few moments, she turned back to the battle and held up the binoculars. Now she could see the particles were people, like her; people with emotions, feelings and intentions. Well, at least the people on her side did, it wasn’t clear if the other side had such concepts. She could see displays being set in motion like a drama. The advancing one-bakkar were charging at the lines. Some kneeled and took aimed shots. By the looks of it they were taking quite a beating. One slave charged the lines and was hit in the left hip. As it twirled, he threw his rifle at the nearest trench in a gesture of defiance before lying on the ground motionless. Another hurdled itself against the trench, got caught in the camo netting and was quickly executed by the other side. The slight jolt in the hips indicated the deed had been done. After gazing at the line and realising Janine was silent, she lowered her head to talk to the gunner.
“Their infantry are wavering so focus on the armour. How many rounds do we have left”.
“29 armour piercing and 24 high explosives”.
“Good, fire at will. Make sure every target hits something valuable”. The gunner gave a quick nod and began the cue of directing orders. The tank rocked back. A round hit the side of a tank trying to manoeuvre around wreckage. As the round went through the side, it created a quick burning glow grounding the tank to a halt. Another round hit the tracks of an advancing vehicle trying to manoeuvre over a trench. Its movement was disabled and as if becoming lazy, it slouched in the trench and refused to move. Soldiers moved on top of it, opened the hatches and fired inside with their small arms. As each tank was hit, another moved behind it, more One Bakkar came with greater momentum. That’s when Donnelle heard the whistling sound.
“Oh shit, artillery. Get down”. Immediately, her body sprang into life as if she had awoken from a deep sleep. As she closed the hatch, she managed to catch a small glimpse of a shell hitting the ground just in front of Janine. It spewed up dirt as if the planet was rejecting it. The force of the explosion rocked the tank to the right.
“Viktor to all units, brace yourselves. Artillery incoming”, she yelled into the radio. The tank shook forwards again. At a guess, the round landed somewhere behind. The enemy must have been tracking their. Suddenly, a loud bang worked its way through the left side of the tank. Something was hit. For a second, all went silent. Then the radio came alive with chatter.
Cameral has been hit. I repeat, Cameral has taken a direct hit”. Cameral, the vehicle which housed the captain she had been talking to just hours before, was now a heaping pile of scrap metal.
“Keep firing, stay at your positions. Maintain the initiative”. No time to worry now, you can worry later when the battle is over. The tank resumed firing.

Arlov looked at the situation on his tactical display, the green display humming and displaying the movement of both armies, in the operating tent and then looked at his map. Outside, two guards stood idle. He repeated himself again and curiously watched the scene unfolding in awe. The enemy were throwing everything they had into the attack, something wasn’t right. Even for the One-Bakkar, unsophisticated and clumsy as they may be, this was just… stupid. No person in their right tactical mind would risk this much damage. Of course, given the recent enemy artillery barrage on key positions, that was something to be expected and he could see that the first and second lines were a diversion but the enemy had failed to change anything. They were simply just repeating tactics and, it seemed hoping for the best. In all of Arlov’s experience, he had never witnessed anything like it. At some point in time, the attack would need to halt or run out of momentum. That was logic. That was the laws of science, every form of energy ran out of momentum at some point. This thing was more like a stream of a flowing river, constantly moving and never stopping. His own forces had built themselves up and like a coiled spring they had been ready to throw themselves into the fray. All they had waited for was one word: attack. But it was like the attack had been halted, a fist caught so easily. The enemy were already close to penetrating the first line of defence and was bound, at this rate, to close in to the second one. This meant so many things, including the fact he had underestimated the strength of the enemy. He would have to use their numbers against them. He moved the radio towards his hand.
“This is Ramav”. Both guards edged their heads back, hearing the Colonel’s voice.
“Withdraw back to the secondary positions on the hill”.

……

The Withdrawal was sudden and chaotic. Many of the soldiers in the trenches fell back in a mess, occasionally turning back to return fire. Perkish sprinted. His experience of running had often been non-existent. He had been a farmer all his life and the only fast pace he had experienced was during training but now he ran as fast as the momentum of his body could push his legs. All around, other soldiers were running too. Two soldiers ran together, both holding a heavy machine gun. Some conscripts, many close comrades to Perkish, decided to run across the field to save time. They were all gunned down instinctively. His thought was interrupted quickly by his sergeant who he bumped into. The sergeant, recognising his face, instantly shouted “get to the hill-top, that’s the only way we’ll survive”, pointing in a specific direction. Perkish didn’t hesitate for a second to listen to him. He ran and after a few minutes he noticed the floor began to elevate. The last he saw of the sergeant for the battle was the image of him standing still, directing the men in an obvious fashion. If there was a god, or some sort of higher power, Perkish prayed to it for a second that the sergeant would be rescued in some existential way. The withdrawal had been so sudden that nobody had anticipated the fast pace of the retreat.

….

Donnelle’s gunner kept firing. At this point there was no point marking targets, the only hope was to fire enough rounds to slow the enemy down and slow the enemy down they did. With each shot, a group of slaves were scattered to fate. With each shot, a tank was hit. At this point, their company had lost another tank, the battering ram, and Donnelle had tried to keep the images out of her head of faces she use to know. She focused on the battle by looking through her optics. In the blue light of the imaging, she could see tracer fire hitting the One-Bakkar back. It meant the soldiers had reached their secondary positions. From the forest, more soldiers streamed in, by now the enemy would have overrun the forward positions but now the One-Bakkar came as fast as the withdrawal, reaching the second line. Suddenly the sky roared like thunder. Several missiles stabbed through the forest like a spear and unloaded themselves. The forest in under a short amount of time burst into flames. Another missile exploded a few meters above the now engulfed remnants of trees. It let off a large sphere of gas in the air which soon caught fire, causing a huge explosion to crisp the trees into skeletons. It soon subsided, causing a vacuum which dragged the skeletal forest back in. In what seemed like an instant, the assault halted and slowly fell back. Many of the retreating One-Bakkar, fell back around the now giant plume of smoke. Donnelle wasted no time ordering her company to shoot the retreating armour, avenging the loss of her men. The battle had been won. As she opened her hatch and exited the tank, she heard the cheer of men. In the distance, gunfire rang as retreating One-Bakkar were shot down.

 

 Cavaria: The Great Disaster- Chapter 6: Picking up the pieces

 The wide dirt road which had once been a referencing point for refugees and military failure, was now packed with apc’s and trucks that transported thousands of troops. The defence of hill 34 would be hailed as a success and the first real attempt to seize the initiative from the One-Bakkar. That’s at least what Colonel Arlov thought and he re-assured himself that others felt the same. Beside the dirt road he squatted over a dead body, its life long gone from battle and pale. They said that when a body died, it finally relaxed all its muscles making the blood vessels soar to the skin in a last act of defiance: this must have been the aftermath when there wasn’t any blood left and it was lifeless. The body looked surprisingly at peace, its eyes closed and the arms crossed over the chest like a famous king. A soldier interrupted the moment by shrouding the body in a sheet before surrounding it in black bag. Arlov looked to his left, the roadside was full of similar looking bags. Each one was carefully organised like fish on a market stall and each bore a single dog tag: the only thing which would recognise a dead soldier. Arlov chuckled at the thought: they had the ability to travel through space and calibrate super-computers, but simply couldn’t recognise a human after death. The thought of such a paradox was slightly disturbing and Arlov sighed.
“It has begun”, he murmured just loud enough for Vanery to hear behind him. He was looking towards the constant stream of vehicles passing.
“It indeed has. I often wonder how it will end”. Again Vanery was verbally prodding him, provoking him into an answer. Such was the work of political officers: to dance around phrases and words to push someone to compromise themselves. Arlov ignored dwelling on the sentiment.
“Best soon. Today was an easy victory, who knows what will happen tomorrow”, he replied standing up. The conversation was quickly distracted by music playing from the road. A group of soldiers were siting on top of an apc, its body slender and flat, playing music and cheering. The sound drew drastically louder when they saw Arlov. In response, he simply held up his hands to signify he appreciated their sentiments. His hands then returned to the crossed position that he always used. Both men began walking.
“So Vanery, I hear your son is doing service on the front line?”, Arlov asked. War could not stop the simple conversation between family.
“Ah yes, Ezrah is on one of the main fleets, I was talking to him before I came here. He’s currently with a fleet in the sector. They’re heading for a planet called Zennor where they’ll be doing garrison duty. Good thing he didn’t get to see this, huh?”. In all things political, Arlov couldn’t help but read Vanery like a book. Even officers didn’t want family to fight and suffer, especially when it was a son.
“I’m sure he will be fine”. The sound of footsteps came towards them. Unlike other sounds of walking, this one was irregular, it made a gap in rhythm. It was a figure on a crutch and it slowly moved towards Arlov and Vanery. When the man arrived, he made an effort to whip a salute from his free arm.
“Captain Nikolai, reporting for duty”. Arlov put his hand out to direct Vanery.
“This is my Nephew Nikolai. He really distinguished himself at Cavaria’s docks during the retreat”. Nikolai saluted Vanery. In return, he looked at Nikolai and stared at him for a few seconds, assessing the man’s face.
“Please to make your acquaintance, Captain. This was a crushing victory you helped win for us”. Nikolai straightened up.
“One of many to come. Soon the One-Bakkar will see our victory. Will you be accompanying my uncle?”, he asked Vanery. Arlov quickly interrupted.
“He will have that pleasure, but you should return to your unit and rest. Tell the men I am proud of them”.
“I will uncle. We will do anything to ensure victory on this planet”. He gave a firm, almost, robotic salute to both men and quietly limped away. There was a pause in the air. Arlov finally broke the silence.
“He takes after his mother”. Vanery chuckled slightly, still surprised by the man’s spirit.
“A few more like him and the war should be over in 2 weeks”, he boasted, pointing to the direction Nikolai walked off in. Arlov squatted over another sheeted corpse and removed the sheet to look at the body.
“I Hope you are right Vanery Oravinch, I really do”. The column of vehicles continued to pass un-bothered.

….

The medical ward was full of groans from the men who had suffered injuries which seemed to penetrate through the white sterilized beds and walls. There was not enough room to perform medical procedures and hours before these beds had been used as operating stations. It had meant an unexpected rush of the injured after the battle ended. Now the room was packed with wheeled beds. Underneath the clear white covers were different men, each one compacted with defects that frontline duty created. Next to Nikolai, one man was completely bandaged around the head, his mouth only being exposed. The only exposed skin on his body was bruised and burnt, leaving a layer of pinkish wrinkles and dark brownish scabbing. Another bed held a man upright, his face now unrecognisable. All that could be made out was the clear tube going down his throat and a respirator by his side. Every time it swept downwards, it’s provided his lungs with air since they were incapable of breathing by themselves anymore. Apart from the afternoon when he saw his uncle, Nikolai had moved back to the medical bay. His recovery was promising. After 2 days of trying to walk again, his movement showed promise. Apparently, both bullets had missed any valuable points with the exception of a shoulder muscle which meant he would need to go easy on holding a weapon again. Immediately after the retreat, he had been given time to recover and it also gave him time to see the rush of casualties enter the facility. He had managed to stay awake during the night to see each individual casualty as it passed his bed and it occurred to him that maybe he shouldn’t have. The images of burnt and mangled flesh still permeated in his memories and he was glad they were now covered. At that moment, a wheeled bed was parked by a nurse in the open gap to his right. In the bed was a man, his eyes wide and motionless as if conceived with madness. He didn’t move and every so often his face twitched.
“Hey nurse, what’s wrong with him?”. The nurse, a simple woman from the fact there was little to go about her, turned to Nikolai.
“We found him buried just below the dirt. When we managed to get him around, he couldn’t talk and hear. I talked to one of the doctors and he said he was suffering from something called ‘traumatic neurosis’, whatever that is”. Nikolai knew what that was. Traumatic neurosis: ‘shell shock’, ‘battle fatigue’, ‘trauma’, ‘war hysteria’, he had seen a few of those before he was stationed at Cavaria; and was surprised the nurse didn’t know the condition. She was probably new. He had seen similar cases in previous hospitals. Patience would panic from a single word, urinate themselves, shake uncontrollably, turn mute; all for reasons he didn’t quite comprehend. All he knew is it had something to do with nerves. Whereas physical scars would heal, mental scars would never and these people would never see action again. He guessed that was what happened in combat. Gone were the days where soldiers who were scarred could simply run; now many just stood and fought and perhaps their bodies and minds couldn’t take it. As he looked at the nurse while she left, he thought of his own wife. He thought of his Sasha, the thin and perky woman who he loved dearly, pregnant with his child and who always had her hair tied in a bun (an early sign of motherhood responsibilities). What stood out was she was like him in many ways: optimistic and somewhat naive. Like him, she always sought validation from family. That was the type of tradition he was raised in and she just happened to be raised in it as well; aspects like that were needed. It was especially needed with his uncle Arlov, who loved him dearly. As Nikolai re-assessed he feelings, he gazed at the ceiling and waited for meals to come later in the afternoon.

In a long column, the squad of olive green conscripts marched by the large crowd of refugees in the internment camps. It was as if they were part of a miniature society and an aura of distress circulated. People talked, gossiped and sat around their tents but through the etiquette there was a constant theme of panic: worrying about missing loved one, worrying about the future and most importantly of all, worrying about survival. Perkish couldn’t help but pity them but his exhaustion from fighting, retreating and marching stopped him. When the battle had finally finished, he and his comrades got word that they would march to their bases for rest: so much for the apc’s the regulars drove in. Maybe when they got there, they would get such wonderful pleasures, he thought to himself. His sergeant interrupted his thoughts, his bushy moustache hanging above his upper lip.

“Don’t worry my friend, we will make it. Maybe when we get back to base, there will be food and a few women, eh?”, he said in his slightly tangy accent. It made Perkish chuckle. The sergeant was by no means a ruthless man. If Perkish could describe him, he would say placid and spiritual. The man seemed to have some aura of enjoyment about him that lifted everyone around him up. It made socializing and the occasional card games enjoyable when time needed to pass. Whenever there were extra supplies in the barracks, it was the sergeant. Whenever a beautiful girl was getting charmed with wit and banter, it was the sergeant. Whenever an extra ration of cigarettes was being distributed, it was the sergeant. The man took it upon himself to serve all of them and everyone appreciated him like a close relative. He always made sure to pay back the favour. Both him and Perkish seemed to have gotten along more than anyone else. They would both constantly joke and soon a bond was formed that could not easily be broken.
“Ah Laurraine, what would we do without you?”.
“Probably be in a ditch, covered in fire somewhere”. This made Perkish, and a few others behind, laugh. The sound drew attention from the refugee camp opposite the road.
“Come on, only a few more miles to go lads. You’re going to let exhaustion kill you but not the enemy? You must be joking. Remind me to go and get your mothers to breastfeed you when you want to go to sleep”. More laugher roared through the column. The improved joyous occasion opened a window to humour and now soldiers appeased each other with jokes and the occasional song could be heard. As they passed a valley, they began to sing in unison the songs they had been taught by previous sergeants before the war, adding a verse of their own.:

Send in the great warriors, to keep us brave and free.
Send me my mum, my sisters and my brothers,

but for God sake don’t send me.

In the placid stillness of the night, lights blared from outside the tent. Even at night, the barracks was busy with the rustling of personnel. The injured needed to be treated, vehicles needed to be repaired, stocks replenished and fresh soldiers deployed. Occasionally the roar of engines stabilizing themselves was heard from the air. Through those spaces in time, the main over-riding sound was the humming of insects and, in this context, the humming of the projector hologram in the centre of Arlov’s tent. The distorted rendering image depicted the noble features of General Mutton, his voice also distorted through interference from the atmosphere.
“Colonel Arlov. I understand your concern and believe me, I have debated this with the head advisors but it has been decided that we need to press the attack while we still have the chance”.
“But general, you don’t understand what I’m saying. The only reason why the enemy was held back was because of superior firepower. I have reason to believe, in all confidence, that the enemy has a large numerical superiority”. By now, the frustration in Arlov’s voice was seeping through, displaying his thick Slavic accent.
“We have affirmed that which is why we are sending another group under Colonel Marashov. He will pursue the enemy to the West while you push the weaker flank to the East”. It sounded like a sound idea. The One-Bakkar was taken off-guard and now was in full retreat, splitting their forces and it seemed like the logical choice to pursue. Colonel Marashov even suited the situation perfectly. Part of the old officer class, he believed in naked aggression. However every strength has its weakness. The man was reckless at times with a lack of consideration for the wider area of operation. In the past, his recklessness had cost many lives. It would also mean Arlov would have to delegate his veteran units to Marashov to spearhead the attack.
“With all due respect General, something is wrong here. The One-Bakkar are hiding something from us. Their tactics made no sense and it seems they have superiority over us. We should wait for another fleet to arrive and support us with more men and materials”. Mutton’s voice also became angered.
“Colonel, we are going to conduct this operation now. To wait for the nearest fleet would take weeks and would cost valuable time. You will proceed with what you have as ordered and you will be provided with tactical assets from our ships. You have your orders”. In a blink, the hologram turned off. In a moment of anger, Arlov slammed his fist onto the table. It will take hours of preparation to plan this next phase of attacking, induct the new units and mobilise them and he anticipated there would be a lack of sleep. More importantly, no one seemed to be listening to him and now the reckless fool Marashov would make some mistake as he always did. All for the price of victory.


Chapter 7: Retaking the initiative

The brightness of midday became increasingly more evident with increasingly thick humid air. It was true that the vehicles had air-conditioning but personnel had been advised not to use it until they were on the move. That had resulted in agitated boredom. Soldiers grumblingly trotted along the base, with the difficulty of holding conversation. The beginning of autumn: out of all the seasons to wage war, this had to be the one. To do it in a colder climate was apparently not possible and Donnelle began to curse the logistical problems that the capital ships brought. As she took off her long and rugged brown boots, she slowly tapped her feet in the stream to test for temperature. After satisfied with coolness of the water, she plugged both her feet in like a socket. The base had been constructed near a river, either out of luck or coincidence, Donnelle couldn’t decide and the imposing make-shift watchtowers and artificial embankments imposed themselves behind her. Since they were given 2 days rest, her tank company had been given the chance to relax. The now 24 members took time to cool down by washing themselves and splashing each other in the wide stream. The clear naval water reflected the temporary joy embedded on each person’s face and distinguished itself from those lying down on the clear grass, resting their eyes. As much as Donelle made an effort to disguise her feelings, she was proud of all of them and her silence was permission to give them lee-way. After all, she didn’t want to give the illusion that she couldn’t have fun every now and then. She sat beside the stream and splashed her feet for a few seconds. The trinkets of water seemed to energetically go upwards before abruptly falling into the calmness of the stream. In competition with nature, she tried again. The water went slightly higher before falling in the same fashion. Realising she was doomed to fail she moved her feet out of the water, hoisted herself on her knees and looked at her reflection. Through the wobbling of her image, she was surprised by her face; as though the one day of fighting had left its mark. Her once fair skin was now red and slightly bloated from the heat, which brought out the stretched bags from her eyes. Out of carelessness, her hair was organised into a pretend bun with streams of individual hair rebelling against conformity, seeming to ping outwards. It showed the effects of responsibility and more importantly exhaustion. From the looks of the reflection, she assessed she was irritably hot. In an act of denial, she splashed the water gently with her hand in a cup and she brought a segment of water to her face; it being cool, she graciously accepted the offer. The sudden impact of the liquid sensually un-tightened her face and gave it permission to relax. As she sat down, she admired the continual column of passing vehicles. Unlike previous ones, these bore giant tubular guns which were attached to the vehicle’s body rather. Denied of any slender angles, these were monstrous things of a grotesque size designed to fling large shells. The majority of the crew sat on each vehicle and talked with each other. Suddenly, the rumbling of vehicles jolted to a halt. The sudden silence was enough to make each of Donnelle’s men notice and now all of them stared at the column. Noticing this, the artillery crewmen also began to. The silence was marked with an atmosphere of resentment, Donnelle could tell. There had been a resentment of timing.
“Oi!”, one of the men from the stream shouted out like a challenge, “Where the hell were you guys when we needed you? We lost valuable men”.
“Up yours! We’re going to be spearheading the attack. I don’t see you making a contribution anyway”.
“Oh really?”, the man’s voice was now bellowing. “Would you like to come down from that piece of shit and say that to my face?”. Again silence permeated. The crew men on the vehicle, recognising Donelle as commander from her blue uniform, looked at her with validation for the next step. She simply gave a shrug like it was outside her jurisdiction and kept silent. The men deserved to be let loose and she wasn’t going to get in the way, especially since she was resting. The silence became abrupt with the sudden movement of the vehicles. The lack of reply had implied there wasn’t enough time. Soon the rumbling of sound and bellowing of the men’s playfulness resumed. She reminded herself that she would need to be careful in maintaining discipline. People were spontaneous in times of stress. She would also need to be careful because she may see those people again. Her company would be transferred to Colonel Marashov and she resented that fact; the fact that the company (her company) could be transferred. Soon she would need to rely on new people to co-operate with and more importantly, new tank personnel. That would make her whinge inside at how easily lives could be replaced in this constant war.

…..

The heat of the closing summer had hindered and ended almost overnight. The once blaring sun now did little to bother many of the actors on the planetary stage. Now the temperature was transferring to mild, it gave many of the soldiers the prospect that there would be one unnecessary hardship scraped. It also stopped the metallic taste of gunpowder which the heat had encouraged and provided a suitable atmosphere for an arriving colonel. As Arlov and Vanery waited, an honour guard of two ranks stood to the side of them and they were relieved to embrace the sudden cool breeze that signified the coming autumn. Now placid breeze faded as they waited for their guest. Because of the scarcity of a landing strip, one had been constructed on a clear plain on top of what was once hill 36 and it marked the occasion symbolically. This would signify transference of power and be the new supply centre for both army groups, the supply creates doted around the make-shift landing bay made that evident. In all the humble silence the quiet ended. The masquerading sound of humming increasingly grew louder with each second until the once distant grey pixel became a fully developed drop ship. Its back-tail spun the aircraft to gain a vantage point to land. The aircraft was thin and shaped like some sort of mammal, its small body mounted with two small wings that held rocket pods. The front slanted downwards, reflecting the bullet-proof windows of the cockpit; contrasting visually with the long tail on the other side that erected upwards. It flew low (evidence of a veteran’s piloting) stabilizing itself, whilst turning sideways at the same time. As it landed, the attached engines to either side of the wings exhausted their fuel, blowing smoke to stabilize pressure. Touching the floor, it came to an abrupt halt that finally made it slump: a signal that the engines had been cut off. Finally the side door slid open. Outside stepped an imposing figure, clearly well bred like an animal that had was natured to kill. His flesh being dead white from months of travelling in the void of space began to become rich with some pink animation which symbolised the natural human colour was arriving once again. From the looks of things, the figure was clearly an officer and embodied the characteristics of the old class. Straight backed, low shouldered, chest outwards and chin up he walked with authority, making sure to emphasise the several medals decorated on the left breast of his combat fatigues. With every step taken the echo of his black heels clicked, the sound echoing twice with every imprint. His arms made the effort to impose themselves by swaying backwards and forwards militarily. The face attached to the self-evident physique was granted of few noble qualities and signified a past of pressure, stress and experience. The face was dotted with seemingly endless miniature scars that had formed naturally as a result of contact with different atmospheres but nevertheless had animated a full fleshy pink. As he naturally strutted towards the now two shorter officers, the lined up honour guard mounted their rifles to the centre of their bodies with both hands and stamped their right feet in regimented celebration. Once reaching both officers, he gave a comical salute to signify a deed that had been done a thousand times.
“Arlov, you old bastard!” he shouted enthusiastically, reaching to embrace him with a hug. Arlov, taken by surprise, hugged him back. He shouted on.
“I know they wanted to clean this place out but when they bring you, you know they mean business”. He let out a boar of a laugh before gazing eyes on Vanery.
“Ah, I see you have an assistant to pick up the pieces behind you. You were always one to need help walking”, as if to verify his own humour, he laughed boarishly again.
“The Colonel needs assistance for his actions, but I don’t think you will”, Vanery replied in monotone sarcasm, which silenced the imposing figure greatly. It had come at the price of basic etiquette. Arlov continued the conversation.
“Colonel Marashov, it’s a pleasure. We have a tent set up for you, let’s go to it and discuss matters”.

The tent was a spacious place with a fully functional bed, radio set to the side and a petite holographic projector opposite a table dotted with maps. This left a large space in the centre where Marashov looked around and eagerly exclaimed, “Yes this will do, it feels like home”. Such pleasures were made available only to high ranking officers and Marashov clearly embraced the pleasure as if it were his birthright. Smiling, he reached into one of his numerous pouches and pulled out a flask, making sure to extend it in offering to Arlov and Vanery. With a nod, he detracted it and opened the lid.
“Oh I forgot, you officers don’t drink anymore. It’s a shame”, he said lifting it to his lips and lifting his head back to gulp the alcohol. After putting the flask back down, he sat down on his bed.
“So I heard I am to lead the attack in the West, is high command doubting your abilities Arlov?”. The question was straight forward and represented Marashov’s outlandish humour that the ‘dying breed’ (as Arlov quoted) were bred to expressed. It apparently encouraged competition and toughness between officers. It did little for intelligence though, Arlov thought to himself.
“The situation had become more…complicated. We think the enemy has a numerical advantage but is splitting their forces accordingly: one as a distraction in the East and the other to regroup in the mountains to the West. Since you’re known to be aggressive in strategy, high command asked for you”.
“And rightly so they did”, he replied. “If the enemy is retreating, you need to pursue and grind him down like oceans on a cliff. Eventually, the cliff erodes and finally breaks. There’s no space to become soft in situations like this, you should know this”. He took time to savour what he said before downing another gulp of alcohol. Vanery interrupted.
“It’s just Colonel, with all due respect, we have limited resources at our disposal and we need to be sure that men aren’t foolishly given up for the great cause. Such a sacrifice is in vain if there are no men left, I am sure you are aware of that”. Marashov struck a stabbing glare to Vanery, the political officer’s logic obviously irritating him.
“And I am sure you are aware that victory is nothing without sacrifice”, he remarked with great strength; the kind of strength that could wrestle a man to the ground with remarkable force.
“I am important to this operation, don’t forget that. I make the shots around here, I am in charge of the section given to me and I will act as I see fit in stopping the enemy. It’s worked in the past and it will work now”.
“I’m sure it will Marashov, we will leave you to get acclimatised to your quarters. We start tomorrow”, Arlov replied.
“I am aware of the situation. Now I need to rest”. Both officers gave a salute and left and Marashov half-heartedly returned the etiquette. Once they were gone, he got up and took another gulp of alcohol in frustration. So, they think they are good enough to dictate what I should do? He thought, the anger becoming very evident in his eyes. I’ll show them, I’ll show Arlov and his half-arsed sidekick how to wage a real war against the enemy and once they see, they will come back to beg, like dogs usually do.

….

As darkness surrounded Nikolai, he panicked slightly at the void of nothingness. Blackness surrounded him in a never ending stream which meant he couldn’t distinguish anything. Suddenly he gazed upon a light, it’s clear white essence showing him direction. As he slowly walked towards it, it expanded and surrounded him. In one quick flash it was gone. He opened his eyes. He was now in the calm grace of countryside, its features incredibly similar to his home. All was clear with little of anything in the way, only the rumbling of grassy hills in the distance, whose light green separated from the blue of the sky. He looked down and saw that he was wearing white robes, clean and made of soft cotton. Next to him stood a small camp fire which let off a small plume of smoke that lazily rose upwards. In the distance, a figure ran towards him. As the figure got closer, he recognised her as a woman holding what looked like a round object in a blanket. On close inspection, he saw it was a baby and by its size it was a newborn. It too was wrapped around the softness of white cotton. Holding it, the woman became more distinctive as she got closer. Her face now radiant with perkiness and slender features that were partially covered by long fair hair. “Sasha”, he shouted as loudly as possible but she took no notice, she was still running. He tried to shout again but she showed no sign of listening, only presenting a cheerful and radiant smile. A few meters from him, she suddenly tripped. Her landing was very abrupt and made her scream, which made the baby begin to cry. On instinct, he ran towards her. Suddenly as he looked up, the once thin line of smoke now surrounded his vision and made his eyes water. The outline of flames made their way through the smoke and danced. Walking forwards, he was unsure where he was. There was no sign of anything, just the smoke, the outline of the flames and the baby’s constant irritating cry. He shouted out to make it stop but it kept persisting, unable to answer his ironic cry for help. As he prodded forwards, he stumbled on something and realised it was his wife, the baby now gone. As he touched her, her body set of fire and in fear he threw her to the ground. He gazed at her now helplessly. Her face began to melt, the skin passed the bone and drained to the ground until her skeleton was left. Soon the red flesh became charred and all that could be seen was the grinning smile of a grey skull. Nikolai grasped his ears in madness, the baby’s wailing still present, trying to make it stop. Flame and smoke now surrounded him, the burning sensation making him scream in pain and tearing his face.

Nikolai woke up abruptly in the hospital bed. From his sensations, he was sweating and a cold chill ran down his spine. What happened was nothing like he had experienced before. Breathing deeply, he began to calm down and cumbersomely regained his composure. The burning he saw in his dream, it reminded him of Cavaria’s docks and that’s when it struck him. It made sure he would stay up that night in fear, his heart thumping ever more firmly.

….

Perkish shouldered his rifle as he waited in a long line. Apparently, the conscripts were supplied with vehicles. It bought relief to his eyes and a sense of purpose. Now they would not toil through the terrain like animals but instead would be supported in this new initiative. However, due to inexperience and lack of proper training, they wouldn’t be going West. Instead, they would be supporting Arlov’s attack in the East which would hopefully pacify the countryside of One-Bakkar. Perkish was just glad they would not be thrown into the meat grinder that the offensive in the West would probably become. The line trudged forward slightly which force Perkish to shuffle forwards. The sudden coolness had been a relief and now he and his men were issues with special trench coats. It indicated things would be colder but the thinness of the material indicated it wasn’t expected that it would be freezing. Around the coat were wrapped pouches containing ammunition. On his back was a large rucksack which contained all the essentials: rations, equipment for tenting, a shovel for digging and a basic medi-pack. Around him, all matter of things were being put in place. Soldiers moved around him trying to find their deployment points. Trucks were being laid with food, ammunition and spare parts for vehicles that broke down. Soon the line ended and Perkish was in front. As he waited, the armoured personnel carrier in front of him rumbled into life and departed. Another one quickly took its place. It made its way forwards and swivelled to show its back, the slender frame making it easy to pivot on its centre. Abruptly, the back door opened slamming downwards into the dirt. As he got in, he sat next to a recognisable figure.
“Miss me?” Laurainne exclaimed. He too was in a trench coat except unlike Perkish and the other men now in the carrier, he wore an officer’s hat, the beak slanting downwards and covering his forehead. They were all in this together and now the carrier rumbled into life and moved, its speed making all the men rock against each other.

….

Donnelle did some final checks on the tanks, all lined up in a neat row and spaced apart. After finally ticking the last box on the list she handed it to a new supporting officer, his face round with youth, and ordered him to inform the men that they would depart. Despite her feelings, he would need to replace Walko and so she moved on though the image of him was still clearly imbedded in her memory. She gazed at the tanks, each one identical with the slight variations of combat scars; the only exception was the two new tanks in the company. Speckled and sleek, they gave the impression they had just rolled off the assembly line. She chuckled at the thought that these things would be defiled in any way. She then corrected herself. Where she was going in the mountains, these vehicles would be tried and tested and so would the crew members who she hoped would be trained enough to deal with them. She felt fresh and was relieved that the two days of rest had made their mark. Slowly but surely the crew members made their way their tanks and, after a brief summary by Donnelle, they went inside their tanks. After she went inside Janine and was relieved that the tank had received a new supply of shells. Checking the radio, and satisfied with the answer she received, she gave the order for her company to move out. Placidly, each tank pivoted on its centre, following a successor in front of it.

The Great Disaster- Chapter 8: The river crossing

The golden wheat from the farms opposite the river contrasted with the light green fields before. Since the group of fresh battalions had travelled out of their bases it was the same story: green grass, golden fields of wheat and on the horizon dense forests, surprisingly green for autumn. Little changed as the mass of lumbering vehicles moved into position on a shallow hill. In a group of vehicles numbering the hundreds arrived the tanks, their field grey standing out. Next, lumbering behind like a child, came the armoured personnel carriers. Unlike the tanks, they were striped with a random combination of colours that marked their camouflage. Their front sloped upwards and then cut flat on the top. The only piece standing out on the apc’s were the large calibre auto cannons mounted on the top. After, came the new artillery pieces. Their hulking masses clearly held a giant gun in place, which laid flat like a sleeping creature. Finally, the support vehicles rumbled slowly behind. The command was given and now the whole group came to a sudden halt. The vehicle rears hummed in unison as their engines exalted fumes. In the front of the grand formation, the upper hatch of an apc opened and a figure stood out. He cited the environment in front of him, looking through binoculars, and scanned the area. A Single dirt road led to a wide river which was only connected by a short country bridge, it then continued onwards to the horizon. On the other side laid the wide golden farms on either side of the road. To the right was what looked like an abandoned barn accompanied by a small strip. Towards the left the vision of a farming complex was blocked by high bushy trees, though it was recognisable by the large water tower that just peaked over. With the exception of the engines, it was silent. To Arlov it was an untrustworthy silence. The initial stages had been a success: they had the outposts secured and now moved into the surrounding countryside. To an extent, it had felt satisfying roaming free from the confined spaces of the barracks’ and for the new comers, the cramped spaces of the transport ships. However not everything was positive. The One-Bakkar soon rallied themselves and the battalions began to encounter pockets of heavy resistance. After a fierce fight they would melt back into the surrounding countryside. The medics counted the dead and wounded. It wasn’t long before the frustration of being in a hostile environment began to show on some of the men. He reached for a portable radio that was held up to him by an assistant.
“Come in synod, over”.
“This is Synod, reading you loud and clear. Something’s wrong, it’s too quiet”.
“I agree Captain, the river is the perfect place to defend. We need better intelligence, I need you to scout the area. Be wary of ambushes”.
“Okay. Will do, Synod out”. The three apc’s made their way down the mild hill and turned rightwards. They came a few metres from the river before stopping and Nikolai peered up from the wide hatch. As he looked around, he saw nothing but the placid calm of the river and up close it looked deeper than expected. The Hedges surrounding it bustled from the wind.
“This is synod, no sign of the enemy yet”, he said to the radio in a feverent voice which showed signs of fatigue. He was tired, more so than his peers. Ever since the dream he had been unable to sleep, the images now ingrained into his memory. It rarely let him sleep. Every time he did, he witnessed the same thing: his wife in flames, her flesh melting and intense heat which made him wake up in a cold sweat. It had caused some of the other men to also wake up and now he was worried many were talking behind his back. Still he tried to concentrate. He signalled the driver to move to the left and radioed the other two apc’s to follow him. After a while, they stopped just to the right of the bridge. Nikolai looked from the top of his apc with feverishly red eyes. The bridge was basic and only made out of wood. It seemed like a delicate thing that stood out against the river and Nikolai wondered how the thing was able to hold together. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he signalled again on the radio.
“This is synod, I’m not seeing anything. The One-Bakkar won’t fight us”.
“Patience captain, I need you to keep your wits about you”.
“Don’t worry about me Uncle, worry about the enemy. Synod out”. The apcs moved the left of the area and saw nothing. The river cut in a steep angle to the left, surrounding them and leaving a small island to go across. Nikolai didn’t risk the danger.
“This is synod, still no sign but I think the enemy is close. I can feel it”.
“I believe you are right Captain but we will still move forward with the plan. You are to move over the bridge regardless. Armour will move to support you once you are in place”. There was a small space of silence as the apc’s moved across the bridge, feeling the rickets of the structure’s suspension. Once the vehicles were across, the radio came to life again.
“Falcon-one to all units, continue the advance but hold on the north side of the bridge until it has been secure-”.
At that point, Nikolai was force to ignore the rest of the transmission. At that moment, a missile swooped low and just missed his apc by a few metres. It travelled widely before exploding in the ground on the opposite side of the embankment. Rounds started pinging off of his vehicle. Through his optics, the enemy began to swarm out from the trees. According to Nikolai, there were probably 60 figures running towards his platoon of apcs. Accompanying them were apcs of their own. Though small and dingy, they held a large machine gun which now sprayed bullets in their direction.
“Dismount, now”, Nikolai bellowed into the radio. Outside the rear doors of the other apcs opened and the infantry poured out of them. As they turned to fire, they too sprayed ammunition in all directions. One soldier who ran outwards was struck by a richoeting bullet in the shoulder. He flung backwards on the ground. The solider next to him dragged the injured person into the apc. Many of the men, so taken by the intense fire coming towards them, lay prone on their stomachs and began to fire at the enemy. All around them, dust kicked upwards. Another rocket flew low before hitting the ground in front of the soldiers. Many covered their heads as the shrapnel from the round flew in all directions, one piece imbedding itself in a gunner’s hand. The One-Bakkar were charging directly at them. One soldier kneeled upwards, levelled a rocket launcher on his shoulder and fired it. It streamed forwards before striking an apc, exploding and flipping it side wards, giving a massive roar as it impacted the ground. The autocannons of the apcs once silent now began to open up, making a distinctive ‘thudding’ noise. Each round found their target, pumping explosive bullets either into a vehicle or the ground which made the One-Bakkar fall in droves. In a matter of minutes, it was silent again.
“This is synod, the bridge has been secured over”. Behind the apcs, the advancing grouping of tanks moved towards the bridge and the first three tanks formed a column. As they rumbled across, a screeching sound grew louder. No one had noticed the lonely jet and soon it flew over the apcs and dropped its explosives. The blast cut a clean hole through the bridge, making its suspension give way. The central tank was blasted away and the other two crashed inwards on it. Nikolai sat in the back of the vehicle, glad that they had fended off a surprise attack, when the reports began to swarm over the radio. A jet that no one had reported (not even the radar vehicles) had destroyed the bridge. It put the whole plan into jeopardy and now Nikolai’s head began to weigh with stress, the tiredness from lack of sleep magnetising his frustration. He held his fist towards his chest and lowered it down again, whispering “damn it” to himself.
“Captain, the nearest platoon says they’re ten minutes out”, the driver reported. Nikolai repeated the whisper and replied, “tell that bastard I will personally shoot him in the head if he is not here in five”. He grabbed the radio, turning the dials to contact the person in charge.
“This is synod to falcon-one. The bridge has been destroyed my platoon is surrounded and need reinforcements, respond”. Arlov at the back of his vehicle was looking over a map. The apc had stopped and its hull, which was exceptionally large, turned the vehicle into a make-shift command centre. Its walls were embellished with computers and battle plans.
“Synod, I am aware of the situation. Move your troops to the Southern river crossing, second company will create a diversion to the North”.
“We don’t have time for flanking manoeuvres, I need a bridge layer”, Nikolai responded abruptly. Arlov made sure to match his abruptness.
“I say again, you are to flank to the South, synod. Falcon out”.
Nikolai tried to reinstate his composure and tried to mount the radio back on its holster. The radio fell off. Nikolai tried again and again it fell with little ease. In a burst of emotion, Nikolai began to hit the receiver on the radio.
“Stick, stick, stick, stick!”, he shouted. Realising his rage he held both of his fists together, took a deep breath and issued the order to his driver to move his and second platoon south. The driver quickly set himself to the task, making sure to keep silent.

Apc’s began to move from the now smouldering remnants of the bridge.

…..

The platoon had received an update that they would be moving to the crossing they had discovered earlier. It was the only hope they had of advancing and once secured, the main tanks could roll behind them. The last thing they were told was that heavy resistance could be expected. As they strolled east in their vehicles, behind them One-Bakkar from the cover of the trees began to open fire on the front spear-head of tanks, opposite the river. In response, the tanks began to pepper the trees with rounds, attempting to find targets. Soon the carriers behind the tanks began to provide fire-support as they raked the trees with explosive rounds. Suddenly, an explosion was felt to Nikolai’s right, vibrating the carrier, which made him halt the platoon. Ordering the men to dismount once again, he ordered them to survey what exactly was going on. It surprised him to hear that his presence was needed. When he lay prone on the ground over a small hill next to his men, he figured out why. The sound had come not from an explosion but from an large monstrosity of metal. The monstrosity was shaped as a large chasse on wide tracks. The sheer weight of the things meant the tracks dug into the ground. Mounted on the top was a slender barrel. It fired, sending out the large sound which nearly shattered all the men’s ear drums. The round went straight and cut through a tank. It flew in the air and crashed downwards, the 60 tonne vehicle now a heap of rubble. The tanks around it, trying to confirm where the target had fired, lay motionless.
“I have an idea”, said Nikolai to the men. The tank fired another round then felt its rear being pinged with bullets. As its turret turned, it saw the three apc’s who backed away down the gentle hill out of sight. It turned its body furiously and followed, racing to destroy its newfound targets. As the tank lurched over the hill, it felt a heavy blow to its left track and stopped. The same blow was felt again, this time from the front. It tried to reverse, realising its mistake, but began to sink into the ground as its broken track failed to move. As it turned its turret left, it was too late. The crew did not expect its hatch doors to open and when it did, gunfire dropped all of them. A soldier looked inside before shouting to his comrades “Clear”.

The apc’s finally reached the crossing point. Having to make up time they drove at combat speed making sure to skip any targets, the crossing point was more vital. Just as Nikolai had seen it, this part of the river was shallow and mediated by a small island in the middle. Crossing the river was second platoon. They slowly slouched into the shallow water, crawled over the island and dropped again; finally lifting themselves on land. After greeting them on the radio, Nikolai ordered them to form a wide line that faced outwards to the right of the crossing. In front of them was a wide open field. To their left was a thick hedge line and in front of them was the farming complex. It consisted of a few imposing barns made of wood, a small office and the water tower, it’s slender skeleton holding the heavy water tank up. Below it, the enemy approached. Once seemingly empty, the One-Bakkar appeared, their U-shaped tanks forming the spearhead. Behind them travelled the monstrosities that Nikolai and his platoon had witnessed earlier. The dingy apc’s followed, travelling in wide spaces. Nikolai’s men dismounted and he gave the order to advance a few hundred yards, the men jogging at either side of the apcs to catch up. Once they had reached their positions, they were ordered to lie on their stomachs. Now they waited. The look on each of the men’s faces was a mix of excitement, anxiety and nervousness; Nikolai could tell. They breathed heavily, many calming themselves through some personal habit or superstition. To Nikolai’s left, a man’s hand shook uncontrollably as he tried to aim his rifle. Nikolai understood more than enough what the person was going through and he too felt, in some weird way, the same. He guessed people expressed the same thing differently. As the formation crept closer, his radio came alive.
“This is falcon to Synod. What’s your situation, over?”.
“This is synod, the One-Bakkar are renewing their attack from the South-east. Reporting some 20 plus heavy vehicles coming our way”.
“Understood synod, can you hold?”, the tone in the colonel’s voice displayed his concern.
“We can hold whatever these bastards throw against us”. The colonel’s voice became re-assured again.
“Good, I’m talking to our comrades in the air-force and they will soon give us priority. It’s very welcome. Falcon out”. A few minutes later, Arlov radioed Nikolai again, confirming a large number of One-Bakkar at the complex and that the air-force would strike; warning them to stay clear of the area. The former screech of the lone enemy jet was nothing compared to the roar of the bombers from the air-force. They glided elegantly through the air unhindered by any possibility they could be stopped. Just as they arrive they left and so did the munitions from their holsters. The bombs dropped downwards and exploded in mid-air, sending large shockwaves. The complex, being made of wood, disintegrated instantly by the force of the explosion. The One-Bakkar mixture of soldiers, personnel and vehicles were destroyed by the payload of explosives but the smoke covered Nikolai’s company from any sight. As the smoke cleared, black chards of the once powerful formation littered the field. The bombs had been so powerful they had flushed the One-Bakkar from the complex and the centre forest covering the sides of the bridge. Everything became silent, only to be broken by the sudden chatter from the radio. Arlov reported a large formation coming towards the bridge in a large ditch attempt to capture it and ordered Nikolai’s company to secure it beforehand. When the vehicles arrived at the bridge, Nikolai saw that a bridge-layer had beaten them to the location. On top of its head stood 3 layers of steel platforms which gently lowered and fanned forwards. Once the platform was laid, it extended forwards until it formed a pathway wide enough for a tank to cross. Lowering it down on the other side, the support vehicles backed away. Soon the tanks began to cross the artificial bridge. The tanks formed a multi-layered defence. Around Nikolai’s platoon, tanks prepared themselves for the upcoming battle. Around them, troops dismounted from their carriers and were ordered to dig ditches or go wherever they could take cover. It showed good preparation: a multi-layered defence was difficult to penetrate through. Like a forest if one tree was cut, several trees would lay behind it making the process time consuming. After a few minutes, reports came in of the enemy approaching and Nikolai prayed their preparations had been worth it. Around them, artillery shells began to land though they were clumsily aimed. A grouping of them fell far to the right on a farmstead and marked the ground with craters. Another group uselessly hit the remnants of the farming complex. Then the vehicles swarmed forwards. They got within range, marked by the first tree line near the road and began to open fire. The tanks and carriers began to return fire. An apc to Nikolai’s left exploded in a puff of smoke. A heavy tank of the one-bakkar, seeing its target clearly halted and fired its shell directly, taking the vehicle clean out. It flew backwards by the sheer force of the blast, taking several surprised engineers with it. A human tank fired its gun, recoiling backwards. The round hit the side track of a monstrous tank, causing it to rock. After, a rocket hit it squarely in its side and it laid motionless. Slaves disembarked from their carriers, firing wildly and were joined by more of their comrades coming out of the woods. The defending apc’s spurted their autocannons but many of them became easy targets.
“Aim for the tanks, don’t let them take out the apc’s!” Nikolai shouted at his men. The heavy weapons teams mounted their rocket launchers and began to fire. The rockets flew in volleys. Two tanks were directly hit and the others simply flew too high, hitting the rear harmlessly.
“This is Synod, we need support. Please respond”, Nikolai bellowed on the radio. There was no reply. The enemy drew nearer, firing more intensely. Rounds pinged around Nikolai’s squad. A slave ran towards them in the open and was gunned down outright. An artillery shell slammed on the top of a tank, charring it completely in flames. Around him the lines were dwindling as artillery shells began to fall of their position. One shell hit a group of soldiers in a dug out. After the smoke, they were nowhere to be seen. Another crashed into the roof of a carrier and slammed it downwards. The timed round then exploded, sending a great bout of smoke upwards. Suddenly the static cleared. “Don’t worry synod, I have a little surprise coming the enemy’s way. Falcon out”.
The resistance of heavy fire didn’t stop the enemy. They moved with fierce determination and soon their vehicles were 400 yards away. Nikolai saw One-Bakkar flanking their position to the left. Mounting the hatch, he grabbed his assault rifle and began to fire at them. He felt the heaviness in his arm making the rounds stray in different directions. Seeing a group of One-Bakkar to the left, he shouted at the machine gunner of his squad to fire on the flanking force. The man shifted his heavy weapon and began to fire. All around him, the One-Bakkar were charging forward and attempting to envelope their defences. The tanks and carriers behind him opened fire. They too were peppered with rounds and soon 3 vehicles were disabled. One man in his squad had been killed outright and two wounded from shots; one in the thigh and the other in the cranium. The intensity of the fire fight meant the injured sat in their ditches. Where the hell was Arlov? Thought Nikolai. Waited for the worse, he shouted “Bayonets”. Some of the men looked at him in confusion. “You heard me, mount bayonets!”. It would come to this, close-quarters, blood and guts, decisions being made at the edge of a knife’s blade.
Nobody anticipated the sudden sight of the front ground swelling up. As artillery shells fell, they found easy targets. The funnelling of the One-Bakkar in a tight space meant there were no difficult targets and most rounds made a direct hit. They succeeded in flinging men and vehicles in the air, breaking them apart and causing chaos. The One-Bakkar were halted and soon began to fall back. As they did the roar of jets made their debut again, dropping explosives which cleared any stragglers. In a couple of moments, the tide had turned. Arlov had bided his time and unleashed hell on the enemy. If only he waited a little while less.

…..

The ruins of the farmstead could be seen from a mile away. The once golden fields of wheat were now scorched with large pot holes dotted black, scarring the landscape. In the near distance a barn was on fire. Its flames grew brightly inside the structure that was now nothing more than a wooden skeleton. The glow inside gave an impression of a furious spirit trying to escape as it exasperated smoke from its head, now thick, potent and black. An abandoned tractor, remarkably untouched, remained still in the field, a man leaning against it. Dress in his combat trousers and a simple white vest, he read the intact piece of paper in his hands, the clean white contrasting with the now decadent landscape. Arlov sighed. He cherished the few moments of peace and it gave him an opportunity to assess himself. The letter from his wife made that more possible. It’s hard to face the day without you by my side. I cannot stop thinking about all the boys out there whose mothers cannot sleep for worry… His darling Natasha. Middle aged and compassionate like him, she made sure her opinions were only heard by him; her sentiments genuine. He could still remember her well. It had been 6 months but he could picture her warm and forgiving face: the face of an empathetic mother. Where she was from, her business had been everyone’s and she made sure they knew it. He would need to write her a letter soon: about the planet and the One-Bakkar and his feelings about the situation; about the civilians and how these people weren’t so different from the farmers back on his planet. He would also need to outline his doubts, she would understand that. Nikolai was unwieldy and Arlov would need to show him that he was in command. More importantly the un-cooperation dumbfounded Arlov. Nobody had anticipated the civilians putting up such heavy resistance. Everywhere they went, where the One-Bakkar had passed, they were greeted with bullets and their army group had it easy. They had been tasked with pacifying the countryside while Marashov’s army group had pushed north into the mountains. They were heading for a valley where there was some grand objective not even Arlov knew the details about. All he knew is it might mean an end to the war. He pictured those comrades, struggling through the cold and snow facing death at every turn and suddenly he felt ashamed, for he was happy he was not with them.

……

Cold chills continued through the high-altitude of the mountains. In the snow covered hills, personnel struggled in the white foliage that had halted their efforts to advance. The change in temperature had been drastic and last minute efforts were made to issue soldiers with coats, with the prospect that would stay warm against minus temperatures. Due to ambushes, many of the carriers had been destroyed and solders now sat on top of the carriers or waddled through the density of snow. In both cases they were freezing, their rifles slung over their shoulders and their hands in their coat pockets. They travelled past Janine and stared at the seemly warm woman standing next to a tank. Janine, her Janine. She was dressed in the standard blue officer’s uniform with the exception of high boots, a thick leather jacket, leather gloves and a standard issue fur hat that soldiers were given in the winter. It covered her tank hat, whose tightness already provided her head with comfort. Waiting, she took time to glance at the map she had placed on the tank’s side and then rose up to view the passing soldiers. They were all miserable, Donnelle noted. Many simply repeated her, placing their heads in their collars. It alleviated some pain but didn’t always help. The drastic change in temperature had caught many soldiers off guard and cases were already being processed of soldiers being found on the floor, having frozen to death. However those had only been a minority of cases and Donnelle relished the fact her tank provided central heating. Her train of thought was quickly interrupted by a wide fellow. Dressed similarly to her, he gave a quick salute and stated his name. He was a chubby figure, and seemed like more of an office clerk than a tankman.
“Captain Jame Non reporting for duty”.
“Your late, Captain”, the sound of her voice echoed cold hard frustration at the man’s failure to do a simple job properly.
“I’m sorry ma’am. I was stopped by this beautiful girl in another company and sh-“
“Your excuses don’t interest me. I am your tank commander and I will be directing you as your officer. Your platoon is waiting for you just beyond this patch of forest”. The look on Non’s face suggested he was struggling to intake all the information and any time he opened his mouth, Donnelle simply cut him off. She pointed to the distant grouping of trees.
“You can actually see it from here”.
“Yeah, err… I see it, err”. She cut him off again.
“Move there now, we’ll be moving in the next hour”. He gave a salute and confirmed the orders before running off to the direction Donnelle pointed to. Incompetent clown, she thought to herself. A man with no experience, she wondered how long he would survive before dying in the field. Very eager, he’ll be dead by dinner…we’ll see. She needed to correct herself and her composure though it was plainly obvious she didn’t like him. Giving a last inhale of breath, she folded the map into her pocket and got back into the tank. Immediately upon entering, she felt the wave of heat smack into her and it forced her to remove her fur hat. Inside, the driver was checking the specs of the tank’s computer and twisting dials to test the radio frequency.
“Go follow Non, I don’t think he’s sure where he’s going”.
“Yes sergeant”, the smooth faced driver replied. As soon as he left, Donnelle sat her command chair. She thought about her past experiences, the change in scenery on Cavaria and the people she had known. Alone, she thought of Walko’s face: the man she had once directed was now gone. She didn’t know him personally but they had served well enough that she understood his mannerisms. The faces of the other soldiers she had once known also began to flash in her memories, each one as fresh as if they had been in front of her. That was the thing about war, you led people into battle but afterwards it was a different situation. These people stopped becoming simple logistics and suddenly became people. The thought weighted her head and soon tears rolled down her face. Putting her head in her hands, she began to cry.

…..

Darkness now covered the once blackened craters and scorched earth. It was night and the forest now hummed with the thick voices of beady insects. If the light did show itself, it would have displayed the tattered fatigues that were once Perkish’s coat, its dark green now mixed with a khaki brown of hardened dust. His face was similarly covered in the same essence. The non-stop action that had taken place on the river had drained the life out of him and now simply walking was a laborious chore. His company had been the first to cross the bridge after the tanks, once it had been repaired, and he faced the thick of the fighting. Combat had been nerve racking. He had known several men in his platoon alone, who had suffered some sort of injury in the intense fire fight, and a few who didn’t make it out alive. He still remembered the spontaneous flashes which gulped his mind and the seemly endless projectiles that were thrown to and fro. He then remembered the rag dolls he once called his friends who littered the grown in no particular order. The image was still an absurd one. Like a theatre performance, they all stayed in the position where they had lied in the same spacing. Some light illuminated Perkish’s face from behind, from the camp lights still bright. It was only disturbed by the increase and decrease in shadows which danced and faded. Slowly trying to find his way over the elaborate formation of broken branches, he sluggishly ventured forwards and tried to find a place to urinate. Each step surprised him, teased him and tested his balance. The darkness didn’t help. Though his eyes had now accustomed to the outlines of the night, they could only pinpoint the outlines. The illusion that he had the opportunity to simply walk over the branches made him stagger. Suddenly, his leg caught on to a firm root which embedded his foot. As he struggled to move free, he finally collapsed on the ground. He hit something soft. By its angle, the thing lowered into a steep slide which he guessed as a ditch. Ironically this had prevented him from falling down the ditch itself. The texture of the thing he fell on was nothing like what was supposed to be in the forest; it wasn’t particularly hard but had cushioned the blow to the ground. As Perkish raised his head, he was distraught by the sight. It was a body, a human body: motionless. As if coincidence, the moonlight illuminated the expired life. Its head was turned towards him but the eyes were turned inwards. Both arms were flung in different directions. Its legs, slightly turned away, signified the person had collapsed. From the trench coat, Perkish recognised it as one of theirs. He must have ventured too forwards and was ambushed, Perkish thought to himself. Eerily, though the eyes were turned inwards, the white pupils gazed at him. The man had clearly died in pain and was hoping to theatrically show the gruesome nature of war. It upset him, the thing wasn’t buried; it wasn’t at peace. Like a child without a parent, it wept to be comforted again in the earth from once it came. When he was young his mother and father, wise in their folk tales, taught him that all things together came from where they arrived from. It gave him comfort knowing that soon this person would be the same. Don’t worry my friend. I will give you that honour. He bent down to pick up the body, it refused to move. He tried again and this time he fell over it. The fall had caused his ankle to twist making him weep in pain. The face of the man, his eyes very clear, now starred at him, judging him. Lying down next to it, Perkish wept.


Chapter 9: Into the valley

The high end mountain tops had given way to the hilly forest of green, causing the temperature to rise drastically. Like the weather, the drastic change began to reflect the personality of soldiers making their way downwards. The cold had taken away valuable sleep and now many of the men were irritable as they lurched in thin columns next to the slow rumbling vehicles. A head of them a small patrol lingered forwards, scanning their eyes for any sign of disturbance. The vanguard finally left the sight of the advancing column as they swept through the thinly layered forest. The squads, like the vines in the woods, weaved and swerved around thick branches and were halted by the sudden but clear update. In a careful patrol, they had stumbled upon a sloping cliff. The sergeant of the group raised his bent arm upwards, forming a fist with his hands. Everyone stopped, now seemingly motionless. Out of a pouch he pulled a pair binoculars and gaze into them. Relishing the sight in front of him, he smirked and touched the button on his comm. Link.
“This is alpha. Put me through to HQ. The town is in sight”.

…..

The town had been insignificant. Before hand, it had been a quiet location on a curved and sandy coastline but now fate happened to place it at the forefront of a war. The hours had passed, preparations had been made. Now 10 companies sprung into action, all of them: Armour, mechanised infantry, artillery, air support and finally the conscripts. Like a well placed point, they formed the spearhead of the attack and now were making their way around the cliff to the town. The ground forces waited for a final confirmation to attack and that laid in the hands of the Colonel. Since the bombardment began, no such orders were given. As Marashov gazed downwards with his binoculars, he witnessed the hell he ordered to unleash. Shells impacting the town permeated large flashes. Each shell smashed its way onto the ground of a building which exploded on impact. A building was hit and instantly collapsed, its structure refusing to tolerate the pain. Another shell smacked into the ground near the beach and scattered an entrenched group of One-Bakkars, destroying a vehicle in the process. Whenever a flash blared in the town, smoke began to rise. The only thing which out-performed the pounding of artillery was the roar of the jet bombers. They cruised overhead, drifted slightly in the air and dropped their explosives. Unlike the artillery these rounds weren’t cumbersome. They hit individual buildings with such precision that they left little damage outside their blast radios. As another jet steam overhead and dived for a strafing run, Marashov heard his adjutant whisper to another, “The harpies come screaming down”. It made Marashov chuckle for a second.

….

The small four wheeled vehicle was inadequate in front of the domineering figures who gazed in front of a map. Opposite them, the town was being pulverised into dust. Donnelle wondered if there was going to be any town left to capture after the bombardment. Next to her, another newcomer thought the same thing. She could tell by his face, it told her that he had some experience in the field and, unlike the others, he listened with the empathy of a saint. The first week had shown his responsibility and now Captain Willins was given the honour of being Donnelle’s assistant in battle planning, though she had the final word. After all, what was a commander without authority? The other man opposite her was not as understanding. He was also a commander (called commandant instead for some reason) but wore the olive green fatigues of a Cavarian conscript with a cap rather than a helmet. A fiery man with a nose of a roman nobleman, it suggested arrogance. His Cavarian accent, thick with the whine that came from bold pronunciation of words, only showed his resolve further. The conversation had been occasionally interrupted by the screaming of jets. It resumed quickly.
“Charlie company will assist you here”, she said pointing gently at the map. “We will provide main assaults to the outskirts the town, where the infantry will then support us by clearing the streets. After that, we can secure the town square. You mentioned at you lost one of your officers?”
“Yes”, the commandant proclaimed, calling him something in a dialect that she couldn’t make out. “The fool stepped on a mine”.
After a few seconds of silence, Donnelle replied “Willins can handle that”. Willins nodded in agreement. The commandant looked at Donnelle in dis-belief.
“You want your ud’no to lead my men? That is unheard of”. She gave him a stabbing look.
“Do you doubt the competence of my men, Commandant?”. The man was now heated with anger.
“You arrogant Terran imperialists, you think you can rule Cavaria how you see fit”. It didn’t overshadow Donnelle’s cold words.
“We have a war to win and I will do what is necessary”. To emphasise her decision, she picked up her sidearm from the table and holstered it.
“My decision stands”. She and Willins left. The commandant in a moment of frustration threw the map to the floor. He then mumbled a group of profanities and walked away.

….

As soon as the bombardment finished, the tanks swarmed towards the outskirts of the city from the beach. Once they had visuals on the buildings, they began to open fire. Each round pummelled into the stumpy flat buildings causing the structures to chip away piece by piece. Under the cover of the tanks the infantry stormed forward with their carriers behind, their olive green trench coats forming a wave of drab blurs. They immediately came under fire from the buildings. An enclosed entrenchment from a road opened up on the position. Several men from the front were hit and the others followed their example by lying down. Soon the infantry began to open fire. Around the buildings, dust kicked as bullets ricocheted in a mindless fashion against the walls and rooftops and gave the illusion they were finding no targets. The only fire that seemed to have any effect was from the apcs, whose rounds spurted flames through the windows. It gave the infantry enough time to begin advancing again. Suddenly the ground began to subtly vibrate. Soon it grew more potent and the shaking became noticeable on the radio as it interfered with chatter. The troops, noticing the change, stood still and attempted to brace themselves fool-heartedly. In a moment of drastic change, the ground opened up. As the hole gave way, the waves of men plummeted from sight and their carriers collapsed on top of them. It put horror on many of the crew’s faces; all they could do was watch through their visors. Donnelle gasped in sudden horror, not wanting to picture the outcome. Chatter wildly cracked on the radio, blocking out any clear message. Donnelle attempted to talk on it but the level of feedback was far too much for her to make anything out. Suddenly, the ground shook again.
“Oh god, what now?”. She peered through her optics and her eyes widened at the sight. Rotating horns appeared from the black abyss and drew upwards. Attached to the drills were several rotating drills, forming a cyclical pattern. As they went over-ground the drills rotated faster. Holding them in place were thick hulls with bridges of windows above them, presumably where the drivers sat. Once grounded, they picked up speed and stormed towards the tanks. What remained of the men who hadn’t sunk to their deaths began to run away.
“They’re charging us, back up. Engage them at the flanks”. They needed to manoeuvre, the hulking beasts were now driving closer. In their way soldiers were simply crushed. At a notice, the tanks began to reverse, many of them positioning themselves to work around the drills. There were only five drills but they seemed titanic compared to Donnelle’s company and it created a feeling of panic for some of the tank crews. One tank, trying desperately to reverse out of range, reversed backwards into a support vehicle. It drove upwards before stopping and its crew disembarked and fled. A conscript tank attempted to flank the vehicle but did so too late. It was speared through its hull by the rotating drills and disintegrated into fragments.
“Forward speed, I have an idea”. The driver looked at her with an absurd notion on his face for a second. It was fear, pure and genuine. She understood the feeling but her face said otherwise. Ordering him again, he accelerated Janine at full speed.
“Viktor to all units, drive at full speed forwards and get between them. Get them at the flanks and rear. That’s where they’re weakest”. Donnelle then looked into her visor, they were getting close. As they did, the size of the things grew until they were five times the height of her tanks. Timing the moment just right, she traversed the tank. It missed the drill by inches and now her tank was between two of them. She wasn’t sure if the other tank crews made it or even if they had listened but she was relieved. She ordered the turret to be traversed until it was facing the rear. As she passed the two drills, the turret was perfectly facing back. Behind both laid fat and decadent engines which spewed noxious fumes. The gunner needed no instructions. On her word, he aimed the turret and fired it into the right drill’s engine. The thing stopped for a second after the round impacted it. Then the fuel reacted and in a combination of chemistry, the monster was consumed by flame. The explosion sent a shockwave that was felt by everyone. Peering out of the hatch she saw the thing, once monstrous, was now a wreck engulfed with flame. She also saw that other tank captains had followed her example and they too opened fire. A round hit a drill clear in its side which damaged its tracks. It swerved sideways and speared another drill before a round pierced its engine and set both alight. Both collapsed and then exploded and in a few minutes all the monsters were slain and cheers sounded throughout the crews. Suddenly rounds began to ping off of Janine. Their cheering had attracted attention and foolishly made new targets. She ducked her head inside the tank and closed the hatch.
“Focus fire on the buildings”.

….

Marashov spat on the ground in dismay. He had seen the ambush take place from his binoculars and slightly shook that such an ambush was possible. It was plausible the enemy had simply dragged them into the mountains to slow them down and it gave them time for their trap to be sprung. On the opposite outskirt of the town, two companies had taken heavy fire and the engineer battalion accompanying it was suppressed from an ambush. The two companies had found they were unable to advance because all the streets leading into the town were barricaded by collapsed buildings.
“Commander, Third and Forth companies say they are pinned down and cannot advance”, said an adjacent. Marashov spat on the ground again.
“Tell those bastards that if they don’t advance, I will make them advance. They have a support company, tell them to use it. I’ll be damned if I have to do everything myself. Assistant!”. The Adjacent snapped to attention.
“Get me 1st armoured on the line”.

….

The message from HQ was very clear. 3 companies had been stranded on the other side of the town and were trying to fight their way in. They were hoping to blast their way through wreckage but it was clear that they weren’t going to be of any assistance for a while. That was made clear from the Colonel’s tone.
“Your armour is to advance into the town supported by infantry. Be warned, everything in the town is hostile and is to be fired upon. Do I make myself clear?” Donnelle replied as clearly as any other point in time. The depth of Marashov’s voice only illustrated the seriousness of the responsibility thrusted upon her. With a quick confirmation, HQ radioed out.
The advance was arduous and took precious time. The now gaping hole in the ground meant the vehicles had to move around it. The infantry (or what was left) ran on either side of the tanks hoping to cover them in some way. Before entering the town, Donnelle dismounted the tank and met with the other tank captains. After briefing them, she moved on. Captain Non seemed to be the only one who commented at any order she made. She had ordered his tank platoon and some mechanised units to attack from another part of the town.
“What’s the use of advanced tactics? These One-Bakkar seem like a sorry bunch”, he thought out loud on the radio.
“The moment we underestimate the enemy Captain Non is the moment we lose. If we treat them below us, they’ll win”. The commandant came alive on the radio as well.
“That’s wise words, you should listen to you commander, Captain”.
“Err….yes commandant”. After, the radio went silent. Donnelle guessed Non was somewhere between oblivious and stupid. Donnelle’s tank finally reached the entrance road at last, the other half of the tank company trailing behind. Leading from the front, she pushed into the road. The desperation of Marashov had caused her to make a frontal attack into the town. Stupidity, she thought to herself. The first thing tank officers were taught at the academy was to fight in the open and avoid urban areas. It left her company heavily exposed. Even with the squads of infantry on each side as escorts, their vision was still limited. The sound of a blast behind her tank, followed by gunfire, confirmed her fears. The tank behind her had been struck and she hoped it could still move. The feedback from her driver told her otherwise. Bullets began to ping off of the roof of Janine.
“Drive! Drive fast!” she shouted. She didn’t want her crew to stay still. The sudden speed of the tank revving forwards drag the tank crew backwards and Donnelle grabbed the handle on the hatch.
“I got eyes on infantry on the roofs with heavy weapons. I count more than 30”. The tank suddenly jolted as it moved over an obstacle.
“Just keep moving”.
“I’ve got a barricade in front”, Yelled the driver.
“Ram it”, Donnelle yelled back. From the vision slit she saw the barricade. It was a mix of vehicles which had been lined up to block the road.
“Brace yourselv-“ The tank shook frantically and threw everyone around and the crash flung the driver forwards and smacked it on the dashboard violently. He lay unconscious. The tank had crashed into the barricade and rammed through before halting. When Donnelle got up, she saw the driver was unconscious. Everyone else was unharmed.
“Gunner, give me visuals”. The stocky man looked through the optics.
“It’s not good, we’re right on the side of the town square. I see multiple heavy vehicles and infantry advancing”.
“We’re in the hot. Mark targets and fire high explosives, I’ll let you judge the distance. If the infantry gets close, rake them with machine gun fire”. He confirmed the order with a “yes ma’am” and fired the tank’s gun. The shell struck a wall on the right had side and blasted a large portion of it outwards. He fired another round, this time hitting a vehicle directly. The thing served out of control, taking out a few One-Bakkar with it. The machine gun began to rake the area with bullets. An enemy rocket hit the wall behind Janine and, with a mighty crash, rubble collapsed on the tank. The gunner attempted to move the turret but it refused. It simply groaned in defiance as the rubble blocked the mechanism from working.
“The main gun’s disabled plus I can’t see for shit”.
“Try to get it to working agai-“, she was cut off by the sound of bullets pinging off the tank again. Pulling out her pistol, she opened the hatch. Luckily the rubble wasn’t too heavy and she freed herself. What she saw made her wish she hadn’t. A swarm of One-Bakkar and vehicles were firing at her tank and charging directly at her. She aimed her pistol and tried to control her breathing. Snap. The bullet hit the ground. The One-Bakkar edged closer. Snap. The second one hit an enemy in the leg. Bullets began to hit the wall behind her. Out of nowhere, rounds splattered the ground around the One-Bakkar. Infantry ran around her tank during the ambush. Firing from the hips, they took cover next to the tank. The One-Bakkar surprised, began to fire back and hesitantly began to move forwards. Some still charged at the tank. Donnelle began to empty her magazine. With a precision shot, she blew away a slave which climbed the tank. It fell off lifeless. Another shot landed clean through a skull. Panicking, she began to empty her rounds quicker. By now, some One-Bakkar had taken cover on the flat roofs and were firing downwards at her. The sudden intensity of the fire made her duck. A stray round sprained her left shoulder. She gasped in pain. Suddenly, the shooting stopped. A tank shell flew into a roof, making it collapse. Another pummelled through a wall and several tanks appeared from the right hand side of the square. They were human. Dismounted men, camouflaged and itching for a fight, fired widely behind them. Out of all the odds, her battalion had regrouped around the town and her actions had been a convenient diversion. The one-sided suicide mission had now become a pitched battle.

….

What came to be known as ‘the battle of valley square’ was a brutal and bloody affair. Platoons of tanks surged into the large square made of khaki stone. Behind them followed the infantry, taking cover and attempting to find targets. The camouflage of the professional soldiers proceeded forward in formation, many of them taking positions and acquiring targets. Next to them came the green trench coated conscripts who followed suit and attempted to distinguish themselves as equals. Soon both were fighting together in tangent, the professionals utilising skill and the conscripts demonstrating courage. As they proceeded into the square they reached the opposite buildings. Stacking against the wall, the camouflaged soldiers breeched each building and cleared each room they came across. It was not successful every time. Littered on the floor were indiscriminate groupings of soldiers, both camouflaged and green. After an hour of pitch battle, the square was secured. Now they advanced into the surrounding area. With each building came a death-trap. Building by building, the companies slowly advanced and constantly were bogged down in dense urban fighting. The fighting had become so fierce that the tanks stayed idle in the square, only advancing when it had become perfectly clear the roads were secured. As much as support was requested, it was feverently denied. Any urban combat ran the risk of failing to distinguish friend from foe and Marashov, the old classed colonel, thought it best that victory could only be one by an unrelenting push forward. If it wasn’t for the many companies at his disposal, he would have probably been wrong. Donnelle sat on the hull of her tank, idle and only showing animation by drinking from her canteen. The combat had exhausted her and the crew and she simply tried to gain enough energy to compose herself. She was happy, the new-comer Willins had relieved her and behind his tank platoon, Captain Non’s rumbled lazily behind. He lagged his crew as if they were heavy luggage and joked with them constantly in an easy going persona. She wasn’t sure he was the type of person to be Captain. The commandant had survived and his once anguished frustration was replaced by admiration that Donnelle had done her job. Once again, she gathered the entire staff from her tank company. In the distance of the square lay a hillside, it was separated from the main town by a bridge. It was densely packed with buildings. She pointed at it.
“We’ll move our advance forces across the bridge”. The commandant nodded with a smile. As far as he was concerned, she and her subordinates had proved themselves.
“Those ud-no’s will be well fortified”.
“Oh yes”, she muttered in agreement with the commandant, opening a map out and pointing to an area of it.
“I’ve received information that a barrage to commence shortly. It should loosen them up”. The commandant simply shook his head.
“No quarter should be given. I want these bastards gone from my planet!”. Donnelle looked down and looked back again.
“After today commandant, they will be. Willins, I want you to lead the attack. Captain Non will be in reserve”. Non’s head rose in frustration.
“Reserve” he said, dabbing his finger at the map. “Sir, my battalion should form the spearhead”.
“Your armour will be needed soon enough” she remarked, not bearing to look at him.
“But ma’am, we might miss the battle”. Her eyes automatically fixed on him as soon as he finished his sentence.
“Is this about fame and glory, Captain?”. Non backed away slightly at the challenge.
“No…I…”.
“You’ll find none of that on this battlefield. Now go brief your crew”. He formed a half-hearted salute.
“Yes ma’am”. Turning robotically, to emphasise his remark, he walked away. The moment of silence was broken by the sound of shells hitting the hill.
“That’s our curtain, the show has begun”.

Flashes began to illuminate.

….

Slow and cautionary preparations meant it took hours to get anywhere near the bridge. Fighting in the outer blocks of the town delayed the attack and the two companies who tried to breach the town from the opposite end only began to break through. Shells still hit parts of the elevated urban area in groupings. Several shells would often burst at the same time in close order however it was nowhere near as intense as before. Donnelle guessed that it was due to counter-battery fire. Already shells began landing in the town at random points from the One-Bakkars guns, creating pillars of rising smoke. Aircraft had stopped flying overhead altogether. Beforehand they had merely glided over the town from a distance but now the sky was empty, leaving their presence somewhat guessed. Some lights flickered through the clouds suggesting they were busy. There had also been ambushes. For every street secured, another one lay ready with a tank or a rocket that destroyed a vehicle or defected a squad of soldiers. Several times the point of attack had to change as paths became blocked by rubble and in two cases that had been tanks from Donnelle’s company. By this time Janine had been looked over in the lull of the fighting and was still operational. The turret now buzzed rather than whirled, irritating the crew and there was some trouble trying to elevate the thing to hit high targets. She prayed Janine would hold on. Losing it would mean she would personally loose her first vehicle and it created a vile taste in her mouth. To come so far and then to die was an insult. In her moment of prayer, she prayed that Janine would die in battle when she did.

When they reached the bridge it was quiet. There was no sign of the enemy and now it was well into midday. The sun beaconed overhead. Advancing, they stumbled into a mechanised division who became stranded in the fighting. Donnelle welcomed them aboard. That division was the first to cross the bridge and while they passed her tanks which laid to either size, she briefed her men and the commandant again quickly. They all seemed content with the orders apart from Non who seemed disappointed. Finally the trail of carriers ended and she gave the signal. Her tank was the first to cross and the bridge successfully withstood the weight of 60 tonne bulk of metal and computer. Behind her came 5 other tanks, two of her own and three under Willins. Her driver suddenly halted. Donnelle opened the hatch. By now, her tank platoon had made it over the bridge as had Willins but they were were stuck in the narrow street. In front of her, the column of carriers laid idle. A sergeant was trying to direct them from a side street.
“What’s going on?”, she yelled from the hatch.
“We’re being engaged so we’ve dismounted”.
“Where’s your superior?”
“I don’t know. We lost him when we got stranded. I’m in charge at the moment”.
“You look like you could use some assistance with orders”. The sergeant smiled.
“You got any bright ideas?”. Donnelle smiled. She then pointed at the side street.
“Where does it lead?”, the sergeant shrugged.
“It might be another way up”, she shouted above the sound of rumbling engines. “If you move through, we’ll cover you when we reach the end of the side street”.
“Sounds like a plan, I’ll move our carriers first”. After issuing orders, the carriers slowly began to reverse. Donnelle ordered her two platoons to also reverse. The streets were wide enough to accommodate a turn and the carriers simply pivoted on their tracks and went through the side-street. After 4 had passed, Donnelle ordered the move forward. The side-street, being slightly more cramped, just had enough space for the tanks to move through. When they reached the end, Donnelle couldn’t believe her eyes. Down the side of the hill was a long road and as far as she could tell there was nothing but open fields. She wondered for a second why no one had seen this and then signalled one of her officers to radio the details to Marashov. Suddenly, her senses were blocked by pain. A round from an opposite building flew into her shoulder, making her jolt back. She screamed in pain and collapsed into the tank. The gunner picked her up, placed her to the side and began bandaging her. The screaming became exemplified more during the wrapping and finally lingered down afterwards.
“Didn’t expect that”, remarked the gunner.
“You’re funny, do you know that?”, she remarked back. Sitting for a while, she gained her breath and ordered the driver to take over. The tank whirled back into life and moved forwards before turning into another main road. The driver called for the gunner and began to explain co-ordinates. Operating the gun, which annoyingly buzzed again, it fired. The tank then began to move. After repeating the process several times, it stopped firing.
“What’s the problem now?”, Donnelle remarked.
“Infantry’s engage- oh shit, we got hostiles to our left side”. Grabbing two rifles from the bottom compartment, he handed one to the driver and opened the hatch. Donnelle grabbed her pistol.
“You’re not going anywhere, commander. Not with that arm”, the gunner said.
“Last time I recalled, I was still in charge”.
“You’re arm good?”.
“It’s still an arm, now dismount from the tank”. As she rose up, her left arm stabbed a sharp pain. It made things worse when she tried to dismount and the gunner was helpful enough to lower her down. From his face, he knew she wasn’t going to give up. All three crewmen stacked against the wall clumsily, they weren’t use to this sort of thing. Near them, the occasional round struck a wall. There was no sign of anyone else, just the rattle of gunfire in the distance.
The driver (on the other side of the door) gave a nod to Donnelle. Reluctantly, she confirmed it with a nod of her own. He then kicked the door down and entered the building, Donnelle followed, the gunner behind her.
The opening was a wide room with remnants of what use to be furniture, which were now stacked against the windows. A sound was heard from upstairs. All of them ran towards it. The gunner saw a shadow. Creeping upstairs slowly he saw a large passage and in a room on the left, three one-bakkar were crouching over the radio, one of them looking through the window muttering some obscene language. Observers. The gunner moved forward, the rifle holstered against his shoulder. The stairs made a loud creek that caused the observers to look up. The gunner wasted no time. He fired his gun numerous times at the room. The One-Bakkars staggered and took cover behind the remnants of a couch, the radio chattering loudly in the background. The firing gave time for the gunner to move up the stairs and hide behind a corner on the right. He fired a few more rounds before signalling Donnelle and the driver to move upwards. The driver stacked against the wall of the room the One-Bakkar were in while Donnelle took cover on the stairs, occasionally taking pot shots. The One-Bakkar fired back aggressively . Then one of them threw a grenade. It landed flat at the gunner’s feet. He picked it up and tossed it back into the room. It made a loud bang but did no damage. One observer then charged forwards. Donnelle dropped him with a shot of her pistol. Another took a pot shot which barely missed her hand. The driver ran in firing his weapon from the hips. His shots hit a One-Bakkar in the chest and it collapsed. The other rose but was hit by a well aimed shot by the gunner. Then there was silence. Donnelle ordered both men to check all the rooms, the place was empty apart from a map. It wasn’t just any map, there were plans on
it. Moving downstairs, some of the tank crew had also dismounted and were waiting outside wondering what was going on.
“What happened?”, asked one of the crewmen when Donnelle exited.
“Nothing, go back to your tanks. Prepare to move”.

…..

High command had received word from one of the tank commanders that the enemy had plans to withdraw and a runner was sent to retrieve the map. Meanwhile, the tank company which had advanced past the bridge were ordered to halt until further instructions were given. High command, in its infinite wisdom, had decided that the killing blow should not be struck too hastily. Marashov’s advisors had pleaded with him to take the map into consideration and reluctantly he accepted. When it finally did arrive, Marashov saw why the map was important. It was an old thing, ragged and wet, but on it laid everything a commander could want: emplacements, traps, units and manoeuvres. Near the illustration of the town lay a giant red pointing arrow which moved back into the valley that the same tank commander had confirmed. The chatter from the captured radio had also confirmed the illustrations. Such a rare finding had been accidental but it highlighted the inefficiencies of the campaign: lack of reconnaissance and the interference from the atmosphere had weirdly disabled any satellites. All the clouds had also begun to turn a dark shade of grey through the campaign, something never before seen on the planet. One adjacent stared from the steep hill and gazed downwards with binoculars. It was the same as it had been an hour ago: the chatter from gunfire, streams of smoke and the occasional explosion which disrupted the rhythm of things. By now the artillery had stopped firing completely to prevent friendly fire but that had not stopped the enemy. Occasionally a few shells poured into random parts of the village, kicking up large pieces of soil and driving through a building’s structure every now and then. On the outskirts of town, where the fighting was now abysmal, the aftermath of battle was blindingly evident. Scattered along in drawn out lines were charred or immobile vehicles, ruined equipment and lifeless bodies. They all were eerily still in the hectic fighting. The only movement that could be seen were the small groups of stretcher bearers who picked up the bodies and organised them into recognisable lines.

Inside the town, the move to capture the bridge had technically cut off the main body of One-Bakkar (with surprising ease) but a large number still were in the town and each street was a bloody struggle. Through experience the One-Bakkar had no sense of fear, many of them simply fought and died. They also used whatever means were at their disposal, whether it was arms, slaves or even magic. Magic, the adjacent thought and then laughed. Such stuff was myth. Magic was for the ignorant minded and for those who couldn’t face the truth of Science. However, so many things were unexplained on the campaign and previous campaigns which haunted many personnel: people mysteriously disappearing, the weather changing drastically, stories of ghosts and screaming spirits. It bought a shiver to his shoulders. The thought was interrupted by the domineering figure.
“What’s the word?”, the adjutant quickly snapped out of his thoughts.
“Commander Marashov, 1st armoured has reported no enemy activity”. The commander seemed satisfied.
“Good, tell them to proceed forwards. They need to capture that square soon”.
“But commander. Would it not be wise to wait for them to be reinforced?”. A look appeared on Marashov’s face, one which suggested the adjutant had annoying interrupted him.
“No, that would be foolish. We don’t have the time to simply wait and let the enemy pass. We need to attack them now and cut off any chance of retreat. Is that clear, adjutant?”.
“Errr…..yes sir”. He began to relay the order.

…..

The main street leading upwards had been quiet and there had been no sign of the enemy. The company had waited for an hour before being given the order to advance again. In that time, Donnelle had ordered the crew to stay in their tanks and some of the infantry (who had joined them) to guard the front. Many of them begrudgingly followed her orders. To stay inactive in a tank was to stay in a death-trap and any attack, even with the infantry guarding, in an urban environment would mean certain defeat. The order had come as a relief and the absence of the enemy had only raised morale more. With each building Janine had passed, there was only emptiness and it made her feel anxious. Since being ordered to halt there had been no enemies, not one One-Bakkar. Compared to the main body of the town that was ablaze with vicious fire fights, this had been tranquil and every building they passed just confirmed her anxiousness more. Such an uphill street was a good position to defend, where were the One-Bakkar? Eventually the tank column came across the square. It was surprisingly spacious, surrounded by small blocks of dachas. Facing away from the rocky tip was a temple. It was a simple structure with a small body and a tall spire, which curved upwards in a decorative manner. Around it, the square was completely empty. Donnelle looked upon it and gave the order for the tanks to made use of the space. She decided that they would surround the temple and face outwards. It would prevent any unexpected attacks. She then dismounted and stared at the temple. She felt as if something was calling her to go in. She saw that Wilkin had also dismounted. He could tell she was nervous about the temple.
“Something wrong, commander?”.
“Yeah, there’s something weird about this place. At some point we’re going to have to go inside, might as well be now”. She gave the order for a small group of infantry to be assembled and to go in. After a few minutes, the team radioed that the place was empty. They also asked her to go inside. As she walked in, she saw why. The building was made of wood but was decorated with grey stone. To each side there were colonnades which distinguished the seating areas and the pathway to an altar. The columns were small, small enough to let Donelle see that windows were boarded up. It had also showed the bodies. Gruesomely, they were nailed to the walls and beared two black marks where their eyes were. On the walls, mad designs and runic symbols were splattered with their entrails and each one expressed an unknown profanity. It made her feel nauseous and the feeling was only cut off by a soldier who signalled her over to the altar. Silent, she jogged to it. Without words the soldier showed her a book, his expression very similar to hers. It was in another language but instantaneously as she read the symbols on the pages, the symbols glowed and disappeared. Suddenly, the radio came alive that made both her and the solider jump. It was Non’s voice and it wasn’t good.
“Commander, this is Captain Non. Something’s coming out of the ground. They’re coming right at us. Our bullets are doing nothing. Please assist, over”. Donnelle thought to herself for a second. The statement was absurd. She tried telling Non to calm down but he wasn’t picking up the signal. Then the radio began to come alive with voices. Willins shouted at her to come outside and when she did she gazed up at the sky like all the people around her. The clouds were black and the rumble of thunder grew louder. Suddenly, lighting struck the centre of the town, doing so again several more times, and the clouds began to twirl in a ritual fashion. Finally, a stream of lighting penetrated the floor, making the square on the hill crack. The ground began to shake. As it shook frantically, patches of ground opened up. Then the sky cleared with silence and that’s when the first limped bodies emerged.
A seemingly endless stream of bodies swarmed cumbersomely out of the dark reaches of the doors and short alleyways, only making way for the creatures climbing out of the narrow holes in the ground. They were all mangling forwards on their stomachs or two feet, their rags dangling against their repressed flesh. They seemed to linger slowly, biding their time. The gunfire in the background had died down, Donnelle guessed only one side was now firing.
“Infantry, shoot them. Shoot them to hell! Into the tanks now!”. The majority of the tank personnel sprinted to their tanks. Some of them just stared, incapacitated by fear. Donnelle pushed one of them.
“To the tanks, now! Did you not hear me?”, the remaining men squandered off to their vehicles. The infantry did not need further instructions and began to fire at the undead. Their bursts flew straight into flesh but did nothing to pummel the hoards into the ground. A few shots managed to penetrate the skulls and some collapsed to the ground. Donnelle was lucky enough to see.
“Their heads, they’ll die when you shoot them there”, she shouted as she fled to Janine. She also made sure to blurt it onto her comm link to all the other tanks. Her last view of the outside was the stream of creatures now edging closer to her emplacement. In preparation for an attack, a few sandbag walls had been set up but not much more. This hadn’t been expected. As she entered the hull and lowered the hatch, she had failed to notice that the gunner began to fire the sponson on the turret. Looking through her optics, she saw nothing before realising she had it on thermal imaging. The things didn’t even have body heat. Switching it to standard, she saw the same sight again. It made her temporarily clench her nerves in fear. She asked the gunner now many canister shells they had.
“24, last time I checked”. They had used some in the fighting to dislodge infantry when explosives. She cursed the situation she found herself and her company in. Ordering canister shells to be loaded, she gave the order to fire at will.
The shell was flung straight momentarily in the air as it was fired from the gun. After a few seconds, it burst and flung metal pellets downwards. It shredded the hoard, mowing down small groups as the rounds peppered them. Others simply went through flesh, doing nothing. Still the hoard lingered towards them.
She gave the general order for her company to load canisters. This was interfered by panic, especially from Non. He reported that his shots were simply doing nothing. She shouted for him to get himself together.
“You’re useless unless you can prove that you can survive this. Get off the radio if you have nothing useful to say”. It helped the situation. Soon the radio was aloud with confirmations of orders and soon the sound of shells bursting rattled outside. It helped to thin the swarm but it was still not enough. They crept nearer until they overtook the infantry’s gunfire. One crawling undead grasped his nails into a soldier’s leg and dragged him down before gutting his throat. 2 others pounced on a soldier, using their unnatural strength against him. He was dragged down and swarmed over. The sight provoked fear in the soldiers, professional or conscript and many began to run towards the temple. The trembles of fear were heard over the radio. The expected retreat made Donnelle slam her palm against the side of her hull. She sighed and then talked in her radio.
“This is viktor to all units. Infantry is retreating into the temple. Focus your fire near the entrance and cover them”. The tanks traversed their turrets and unloaded rounds once more, also spattering machine gun fire in all directions. Some pellets managed to hit the other tanks but did nothing but ping off their armour. The undead were too many. They began to diverge on a vehicle and climbed it. The tank, like a wounded beast, panicked and swivelled. It rammed forwards, running over countless undead before crashing into a building and becoming immobile. The turret swung backwards and began to fire again. The recoil made it pummel into the building and the roof collapsed on to the bulky beast. The turret stopped moving.

….

Marashov was not the first to notice the darkening sky or the sudden strikes of lighting into the centre of the town. However, he did notice the ground grow thinner underneath him. He stepped away and, drawing his pistol, witnessed the hand spring from the ground. He fired a short burst as it tried to grab his leg and the hand receded. He turned to find a group of undead walking towards him and his adjundant. His adjundant had already started to fire several shots from his pistol which he clasped nervously with both hands. Marashov also fired a few shots before his gun clicked, signalling that his magazine was empty. He drew his sabre.
“Draw your knife, boy”. Everything around both of them seemed empty and spacious. Now the sudden chatter of the radios had become silent and any remnants of his staff were nowhere to be seen. His breath was visible in the sudden cold air. He threw the pistol to the ground and stabbed an emerging undead in the skull at point blanc range. It fell instantly. Ordering the adjundant next to him, he then slashed an undead in the chest and realizing it did nothing, pummelled its head. His adjundant stepped out of the way of a clawing undead and stabbed it, yelling as he did so. Another tried to tackle Marashov to the ground but he parried the arms and cut its throat open, making sure to stab the blade inwards. Another scraped his arm. He yelled in pain and hit the undead squarely in the face with his fist. Like a dance, Marashov manoeuvred and glided around each undead and merely applied the finishing blows with his knife. Immediately, he remembered his days as an officer and the intense training of the practice halls in the academy. Glide right foot around, slice blade downwards, follow through. Side step, stab. Back step, glide and pivot, upwards slash. In a moment of time, he was reliving his younger days. A fresh officer of old mentality, he indulged himself in the hunt and manoeuvring around being hunted. To him, it was an exciting game and gave the illusion of giddiness. Only now, there was no stopping. He began to tire and breathed heavily with fatigue. With every slice, his arm weighed downwards with the heaviness of a anchor on a chain. With each move, a new weight seemed to be added to the immeasurable scale. It strained his nerve. He backed away and looked around, breathing heavily.
“Why won’t you die?”, he shouted but the sound seemed to be lost in the darkness. Now there was no elegance, it was simply a brawling match and the foe with the greater strength would win. He slashed his knifeaimlessly into bodies, punching and palming each face with velocity which knocked many undead on their backs. More surged forwards. Now, the adjundant was nowhere to be seen. By himself, Marahov yelled again. There was no answer.

….

By now the square was full with undead who were clinging onto the tanks, scratching their hulls. The turrets flung them off and dosed them with machine gun fire. Janine still held. It constantly moved backwards and forwards, rotating and firing in all directions to simply grind the undead down to a pulp. Suddenly, Janine stopped moving. The sheer weight of the foes numbers meant the tracks became stuck. Once again, the undead climbed onto Donnelle’s tank. A hand, seemingly weak, ripped a large hole into the tank. The driver shot at it with his pistol. Soon more holes began to rip through. An arm pierced near the driver, the driver shot an undead squarely in the head with a few rounds. Another scratched Donnelle’s arm. She turned to it and fired a round. This was it, this would be her fate. The very one she wished. She and her coffin would die together and be transferred into the netherworld. It gave her hope. Giving up, she lifted her head and closed her eyes. Suddenly, the unnatural groaning was replaced with the sound of gunshots. Donnelle quickly rushed to her optics. Reinforcements. The infantry moved along the rooftops and fired below at the undead. Through the main road came the carriers which drove over undead and fired explosive rounds. A bullet ricocheted into the hole of Janine and all the crew took cover. They were gunning the undead off the tanks and soon began to mow them down in the square. The infantry in the temple, who had managed to bottleneck the creatures into the main pathway, began to move outside once they heard the sound of their comrades. Soon the square was piled with corpses. Though some struggled, they were quickly executed.

….

Advancing through the narrow street up the hill, Non peered through his visors. It was empty. Wiping the sweat off of his exhausted and sweaty forehead, he took a second to sit down and regain his strength. He didn’t want to be here. He never wanted to be here. To his mother’s dismay, he had done it to impress his father. The proud veteran had never approved of him in his life, he wanted to show he was worth something. When he left, his father had started drinking again, calling him a failure.
“In my day, we wouldn’t have let the enemy reach anywhere. What makes you think you can make a difference you sissy?”. His mother had just stared as he left the house, silently weeping as she disappeared from her sight. The traditional women had been raised to radiate a smile to mask the difficulties of home and he understood she couldn’t bare to see her only baby leave, she would have broken down. Now he was here. It had been hours of non-stop advancing, waiting and fighting street by street. That should have been enough but then all hell, literally, broke loose. His tank and a few other elements had been ordered by Donelle, her vindictiveness being nasty and blunt, to guard the rear while the spearhead captured the high ground. Suddenly, after a temporary fog, the dead began to rise from the ground. Unable to find any other comrades, his team fought tooth and nail to fend off the endless stream of undead that shuffled to his metal titan. Several times they climbed on the tank, only to be gunned down by Non’s barrelled pistol or a crewman’s rifle. Holes patterned the vehicle where the undead had un-naturally ripped through the armour like cloth. Then as suddenly as it came the dead had disappeared and now the streets were empty, apart from the remains and rags of fallen comrades in arms. Now Non’s tank rushed to find his company. His short rest was quickly interrupted by his gunner.
“Captain, I’ve got visuals on light infantry charging directly towards us”. Non rushed towards his visor, peering into them instantaneously.
“Engage”. The gunner hesitated.
“Captain, something’s not right”.
“Didn’t you hear me, open fire”. The gun’s recoil shook the tank back. A short delay of locking mechanisms sounded the lull before the gun fired again. Suddenly, Non’s eyes winced.
“Cease fire! Cease fire! Stop the tank”. The tank rumbled to an abrupt halt, rocking Non and the crew forwards. He immediately dismounted and as his legs hit the ground, his face was overridden with horror. A group of lanky figures, their clothes obviously being too big for them, were strung across the floor and their overcoats covered their bodies. All of them differed in sizes, the smaller ones clearly standing out from their absent legs outside their overcoats. One figure held a makeshift helmet on a stick. The other a female with long brunette hair, and a fresh face that indicated early adulthood, held a white flag firmly in her still hand. She was surrounded by two elderly men who lay on top of her as if to shield her. They were all dead. Non gasped for air before leaning over to his side to vomit. As he raised his head he saw his crewmates, as shocked as him.
“I..I thought they were charging us”.
“What’s going on here?” said a firm feminine voice. It was Donnelle. She looked at the corpses before glancing away.
“They, I thought they were attacking us”. Immediately, she walked towards Non, grabbing the back of his head like a disrespectful child. The fury could clearly be heard in her voice and now the tank crew backed away.
“With what? Broomsticks?” she shouted, throwing him at the pile of corpses.
“Take look at your handy work, Non”. She then marched away, leaving the Captain with his hands against his head.

…..

The relief party who searched the hill wasted little time in killing any undead stragglers. They had managed to form up and search for Marashov. After shooting the remaining bodies, they found a dead adjutant, his body sprawled on the ground. Next to him, half naked with his fatigues ripped and with just a pummel of a shattered bladed around his hand, Marashov clutched the adjacent. The sound of the arriving party made him aim his empty pummel at them in fear but realising they were human he lowered it, the tears evidently rolling down his eyes in relief.

….

The void of night buzzed with the ringing of insects that crowded around the artificial lights, mounted on poles. The small space was indicated by the fact the lights were spaced out neatly in a narrow circle. In the background, gunfire rattled. It signalled the last remaining One-Bakkar were being dislodged. During the unnatural fiasco, they had continued the attack and many soldiers and crewmen simply didn’t make it out. It put a silence on the senior staff’s faces as quiet at the evening lull. Many of them just stared at the commander. In new fatigues, he looked over the new detailed map that designated a largely scribbled design of an unknown valley. This with satellite images displayed a new path where the One-Bakkar was retreating.
“Comrade, commander”, one of the adjutants said. He’s trivial voice seemed to linger in the air. “The enemy has been defeated, what now?”. Marashov still glanced at the map and put his hand on scribbles.
“They are not defeated”. Marashov said, his voice low and unenergetic. He felt ashamed. The One-Bakkar had outdid him in some way that he could not comprehend. Most of all, they made a fool of him. They had stripped him of dignity. They needed to pay.
“What commander?”
“You heard me! We need to renew an attack. You saw what these…things did. We all heard the rumours and accounts but nothing like this. I don’t think anyone was expecting this and we need to put an end to it”.
“But commander, we’ve sustained large casualties taking the town. Most of 2nd company are either missing or killed and several other companies are at three-quarters strength because of the wounded. To even consider a renewed attack would take some time and resources. To even gather the dead and wounded wil-“
“I don’t care how long it takes!”, Marashov bellowed painfully. “We need to chase these one-bakkar and destroy them once and for all. Gather the dead and wounded as fast as you can, I’m not letting this opportunity pass”.

Chapter 10: Pacifying the countryside

The disenfranchised look on Arlov’s face stared bluntly and gazed at the grey wreckage of vehicles laying against the rocky hillside; their bodies were hollow and burned out. He and Vanery, next to each other, heard the report from the radioman, his hands eagerly twisting the dials of the dismounted backpack. He reported some trivial details before closing the signal off. Such damage had been the work of guerrillas. Arlov’s job was to stop them. Whereas Marashov had been given the majority of military assets to pursue the One-Bakkar in the West, Arlov had only been issued with some companies: each consisting of mechanised and infantry battalions with a few support assets. Such domineering manpower was not needed here. That was exemplified by the remains of Cavaria’s docks. Reports and satellite imagery confirmed the place was now a ghost city: the ruined buildings abandoned and the black transport ships nowhere to be seen. Recent encounters had been surprising. Some loses were expected and even resistance from the local population was something that was taken for granted: the stubbornness of Cavarian farmers and townsfolk had been mentioned in Arlov’s brief, but no one had expected full-scale resistance. Everywhere Arlov’s army group travelled, there was a fire fight followed by a lull and the enemy sank back into the scenery. With every encounter bodies were piled up. The same thing happened again and again and again. It only deepened Arlov’s embedded frustration. In all his previous experience of war, this one was evidently the strangest in terms of the territory the One-Bakkar occupied. In the advance, pass countless fields and grass lowlands, with patches of forests, people seemed to change drastically. First, they succumbed to their emotions easier and it wasn’t long before their sense of reason disappeared. In such cases it was only a matter of moments before un-quenchable anger evolved into outright violence. It seemed that wherever the One-Bakkar travelled, the roots of madness began to flourish into an incomprehensible insanity. The recent ambushes only made matters worse. These weren’t just spontaneous fire fight. Such damage was now the work of organised combatants. It began to ingrain frustration on many of the officers, especially Nikolai. While talking mildly to Vanery, Arlov signed a paper on a clipboard which confirmed a number of casualties. This was only outweighed by the shouting coming from Nikolai who was ordering a subordinate to fix a problem. He then marched to Arlov.
“15 dead, 4 wounded and 20 missing. I demand that something be done”. From Nikolai’s eyes, it was clear he had not slept which furthered the outlandish frustration in his voice.
“Captain, I am aware of the situation. The One-bakkar will be dealt with in the ideal fashion”.
“But these are my men we are talking about!”, Non yelled, flailing his arms to emphasise the drama. Arlov stepped close to him, his face his inches from Non’s.
“They’re my men too. Don’t ever forget that. Now go and give me an update of the casualties”. Silently building anger, Non marched away and began to shout at an orderly for not clearing rubble properly.
“His idea is some value”, Vanery mentioned calmly after NIkolai left. He had been laying in the shadows and now sprouted into the light. Arlov pointed his hand in Nikolai’s direction.
“I will not be accustomed to wholesale killings just so he can satisfy his need for blood”.
“It might work though”. There was a lull in the conversation as Arlov stood there, looking at Vanery in dismay. He had known Vanery for years and knew the works of a political officer was dirty. He had served with Vanery on Daceron and Palab and saw the horrors that war produced and the role the political officer had in cleaning dirty hands. He did not know it stretched to the blunt immorality. The suggestion disgusted him.
“Vanery no! I will do no such thing. The inhabitants hate us enough already. We have the location of their command and will strike them there”. He turned away to see some stretcher bearers carrying the wounded passed him. Without hesitation, Vanery walked up to him.
“You don’t believe in this, do you? You don’t believe we belong here”. Arlov looked around before turning back to Vanery.
“Do you?”.

…..

The dimly lit cream of the lamp cast a variety of dark shadows in the leaf green tent. Between a simple wooden table, the figures’ dark faces were serenaded in the make-shift light. Vanery put his finger on the recorder.
“No need to worry Nikolai, we’re just filling out a few sections on the morale part of the base”. It was clear there had been concern from Nikolai after Cavaria. He was displaying slight signs of trauma, hallucinations, screaming at night and waking up in cold perspiration. Such symptoms did not go without notice. ‘Anonymous reports’ began to feed in from soldiers. After mildly admitting some details to Vanery: the sensation of burning, the same dream over and over again, he was arranged to have some ‘meetings’ where Vanery could detail his progress. It was helping, only just so.
“I am not worried Comrade Vanery”, Nikolai replied trying to cover up the silence.
“Very well”. Vanery pushed the button of the recorder and prescribed both his and Nikolai’s ranks.
“So Captain, we have been in Cavaria for a few weeks now. What are your thoughts?”.
“Major Vanery, things are going well and we are making glorious progress. The only thing is…”. Vanery was quick to question the hesitation.
“Is what, Captain?”
“Well, we received word that the civilians would join us but I have yet to see the people help. Instead, they lay ambushes and try to attack us at random intervals. They’ve done a lot of damage”. Vanery paused for a second, assessing his thought, thinking carefully of how to articulate the appropriate words in proper annunciation.
“Well, I suppose we cannot expect everyone to support us. As is in war, there are always grey areas-”
“Then we must demonstrate our resolve! Casualties are inevitable, that is true, but the more of these attacks go unpunished the more daring the enemy will become”.
“And you are proposing?”, an atom of caution was heard in Vanery’s words. He could see Nikolai was becoming agitated. The once proud officer was now weak fleshed around the face, the bumps of his cheeks and jaw showing disproportionally.
“It is simple. For every soldier that is killed, we execute ten random civilians. They will see the price they will pay and stop”.
“And if they don’t?”. Nikolai stood up and walked away. Non’s sound was too quiet to pick up on the recorder but Vanery managed to make out his final words.
“Then we will kill them all”.

…..

The makeshift ‘barracks’ was dimly lit as the afternoon dragged into evening. The tents hung on to their support beams like rags on a skeleton and were evenly spaced out to make room. Due to guerrilla attacks, the lamps were shut to low and their weak raze just made out the stream of personnel that were swaying through the narrow paths to and fro. They were preparing. Many of them carried rounds of ammunition, equipment and shells for vehicles. The only personnel that were stagnant were the guards who watched outside for any movement. Everyone else was assigned to their barrack tents. Overhead, the moon lit a clear gaze and reflected onto the carriers and tanks lined up in a staging area. The lighting made created silhouettes of the crew and outlined their manual labour. At this point, all was placid in the calm breeze. In the wide tent, Perkish starred idly upwards in on his bed. Every other bed in the room was empty and he supposed it was because the other men were making preparations. After what was called ‘the incident’, he was given breathing space and time to relax. It did little to improve him. The flicker of the tent opening signalled someone was entering. It was Laurraine.
“Hey Perkish”, he said.
“Hey”, Perkish replied still starring at the ceiling. Laurraine still looked the same. The moustache still beamed outwards and his well-built height was still evident after weeks of combat, compared to other personnel. He sat on the side of Perkish’s bed.
“Sit up, I want to show you something”. Perkish slowly sat up. Laurraine pulled out a locket. Opening it, it produced the image of a very young woman definitely younger than Laurraine who was now middle age.
“Whose that?”
“That my friend is my wife”. Perkish was taken back by the evidence.
“You were married?”.
“Yep, she was my darling. My sunshine. There wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t love her. Perkish your my friend, right?”
“Right”, Perkish said uneasy.
“Good, then you know I’m not only your Sergeant. I think we have that permission because what we do is for survival. There are no lulls in war”. He gestured the locket to Perkish who held it
delicately.
“Jonne was my darling. I fell in love with her when I was but a little’un of a man. When I use to work in the dockyards in Cavaria, I saved her from falling debris and she thanked me by taking me out. We fell in love. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her and nothing she wouldn’t do for me, that was until she fell ill. Until the end I was by her side until she finally left life. I wept. God, I wept for so long afterwards. The one person I gave my life to was now gone from me and there was nothing I could do about it. And then my son-“
“You had a son?”.
“Yep, a wife and a child. The full catastrophe”. Perkish chuckled and a smile radiated on Laurraine’s face.
“He was only young and died young. I wonder what he would have looked like if he had grown up to be like his father”. There was a long silence. It seemed Laurraine was trying to find words to come up with. He finally broke the silence.
“Listen, I didn’t have control over what happened to them. I love them so much but part and parcel of that is to accept that life is a pattern of things and sometimes the pattern goes one way then the other. I understand the dead solider bothered you-“
“It didn’t bother me, I will admit I was disturbed since I’ve never seen that before. It’s just, I feel so ashamed. Ashamed I couldn’t stop it. I don’t feel like a man anymore”.
“Ah there you go, there’s the problem. Tell me, do you think we’re made of dreams?”. Perkish was a little taken back by the statement.
“What?”
“You heard me. Do you think we’re made of dreams? That this is all something we made?”
“I dunno-“
“Exactly it could be a dream, it couldn’t. All I know is when my darling passed away, I was gut stricken. I stayed in my house and wept for days on end but then I realised something. I realised, in a strange way, this is a dream. Not like a dream where you’re floating. More like an act, a façade. What I found is that there are two things that are guaranteed in death: the destruction of the ego and the destruction of responsibilities. People stop acting and realise what life is about. I saw that in Jonne’s eyes, that relaxation. She seemed so relax, so accepting of her fate. It made me weep even more and it made me think it was the end but it showed me that death isn’t a bad thing. If anything, we should be congratulating the dead for dying. Do you know what I mean?”.
“Kinda…”
“Okay, so you saw the dead body and heck, it may have even traumatised you a bit. It tore down your manhood. But I think it made you realise how much a facade it was in the first place. That’s the only good thing about war; it stops the superficial. I’m no doctor but I think it’s made you genuine”. Perkish chuckled again.
“So it’s okay. What, do you think this tall, dark and handsome exterior doesn’t get scared? I learned a long time ago if you act like a man, it will show. Just make sure you’re genuine to yourself. I’m going to leave now but I hope you listened to what I’ve said”. Perkish handed the locket back and Laurraine walked off.
“Laurraine?”, Perkish asked.
“Yes”.
“Thank you”. Perkish’s face had warmed.
“You’re welcome. Now private, can I expect you to follows orders? A dead weight does little for me”.
“Of course, sergeant”, Perkish replied throwing a fake salute.
“Very good. Get some rest. I want you up by 0600 hours tomorrow”. Laurraine walked out of the tent. For the first time in a long time, Perkish felt at peace.

The morning saw preparations come into full swing. Regiments rose to attention and paraded, ready to face the problems of the day. After being briefed, many of them returned to their section of the barracks and began to holster their equipment onto their fatigues. For the soldiers, it was a case of attaching pouches and equipment to sockets in the armour. For the conscripts, they holstered it onto their fatigues. Perkish talked to many of the professional soldiers during the fighting and got to know many of them. Overall, they seemed like regular people and distinctly use to the situation. He guessed it was just a product of the job for many of them.
“If I’m getting paid for it, better do a good job I say”, remarked one who was loading bullets into a magazine.
“Yeah, that’s the thing. We volunteered for it, we’re asking for it. No reason to complain. I guess we just got to get on with it”, remarked another who was reading a book on his bed. It amazed Perkish how well skilled the soldiers were. During training, he considered himself a marksman: he had scored the highest points in target practice and was able to hit the centre as close as possible by two rings. These men however did it as if it was second-nature. Firing in short bursts, they could hit anything at a short range and with patience they hit anything double the distance, usually in single shots. It bought embarrassment to the mindless and wild fighting he had seen. He guessed the philosophies were different. Many were also surprising welcoming; always sharing rations and telling stories. Rendezvousing with Laurraine, he was grouped into his platoon and sounded off in formation. As his regiment marched to the personnel carriers, they were seen off by Arlov. Beside him stood an officer in a blue striped officer cap. The cold look in Arlov’s face suggested he was determined to win. As Perkish saw the amount of personnel and vehicles assembled, he understood why.

……..

The armoured column rumbled passed the remnants of the wrecked debris, which splattered the ground grey with the occasional shards of metal. As it moved forwards, scouts in gillie fatigues on the rocky hill slope relayed orders to their commanding officers from portable radios. Opposite the road, after a wide space of grassland, was a grouping of trees. Behind that was the guerrilla camp. To the left around the mini-forest was a line of natural dykes, presumably to divide property. Beyond that were endless fields of green. The carriers stopped near the trees and their rear doors heaved open from the hydraulic levers. Then the infantry dismounted.
Perkish slightly tripped as he exited the confined space of the apc, his feat touching the ruff and dry mud the vehicle’s tracks had churned up. On the far right, a group of camouflaged soldiers advanced on foot and made their way inwards. As they entered, they mounted their rifles to their shoulders in preparation. Laurraine ordered their platoon to advance and soon they conjoined with other platoons in a wide line. Like an olive green wave, they advanced slowly. The carriers began to slowly move behind them as support. Around him, it was difficult to tell comrade to stranger apart from the officers who wore caps. The forest was very thin and soon they could see the other side. Laurraine gave the order the halt; he then produced a hand signal which ordered his platoon to kneel. Other platoons around Perkish did the same. Calling a radioman to him, he listened carefully to the receiver, nodding his head as if he was personally part of the conversation. After mumbling a few details, he hung the receiver and signalled the radioman to go back to the line.
“Okay, this is the plan. 3rd mechanised has moved to our right and are covering the plains. They will engage with the enemy. That will be our signal to open fire and after we will advance. The carriers will provide us with enough firepower to move forwards”. After finishing, he ordered the platoon to advance to the trees and lie down. From here, Perkish clearly saw the camp. It wasn’t so much of a camp then an abandoned farm. A large barn dominated the proceedings, behind that were a few buildings which were not as outstanding. Around it stood crowds of armed civilians. Some stood guard while others chatted to each other. They were all covered in dark tattoos. Near the entrance of the barn, a large man was talking to a One-Bakkar. Its face was surprisingly hairless and its mouth was shrouded by a balaclava. Its large masculine physique (that was twice as large compared to the human) was covered in leather armour, decorated with metal plates of red lining. On his back, there was a fur cloak that bore the remnants of a creature. Such an honour marked it as the leader. It was an Amagos. Perkish had heard horror stories of such fiends. They were the elite of the One-Bakkar, the immortals. In red clad armour, they were rumoured to be invincible against enemy fire and were ruthless in combat. In all the stories of massacres and disappearances, they were blamed, seeing one without dying was considered a blessing. Suddenly there was an explosion, a building lit up in flames. Fire began to pour from the left. In the surprise, two guerrillas on guard duty ducked but were dead in seconds. The chief guerrilla was also hit in the shoulder. Surprised, they returned fire. Crowds of guerrillas fired east with the chatter of heavy weapons bursting from the buildings. A rocket flew from the barn and hit a grouping of trees. The Amagos ran into the forest opposite and was not seen again. The order was then given to engage. Like a display, all the rifles came alive with the flash and chatter of bullets firing. These pummelled into the guerrillas who collapsed in either surprise or death.
“Fix bayonettes!” Laurraine shouted. All the soldiers nervously holstered their daggers on their rifles. Now firing at the conscripts, the One-Bakkar and guerrillas charged forwards. With every one that fell, two took their place. It seemed like the entire population had mobilized. They charged straight without hesitation. Laurraine drew his sabre.
“Charge!”, his platoon howled as they stood up. A trooper to the left of Perkish collapsed instantly. Now several One-Bakkar vehicles raced to the charge and began firing their heavy weapons. A mortar round took one of them out. Perkish ran as fast as he could, the rifle hanging from his right hand. The carriers behind him began to fire, their thump thump sound now all too familiar. It sprayed shrapnel into the One-Bakkar who fell in droves. Some explosive rounds smashed through the barn windows, killing countless guerrillas inside. Both lines crashed into each other. Perkish was one of the first. He jammed his bayonet into a guerrilla’s throat. It coughed blood then died. Blocking an attack from another, he slammed his rifle butt against its head and pummelled it again. Laurraine, who had managed to stay alive at the front of the charge, was slashing and stabbing aimlessly. A One-Bakkar knocked into Perkish. He collapsed on the ground and as it lunged at him, he stabbed it through the chest. It gave a loud squirm and fell sideways. Soon the One-Bakkar began to fall back. The attack from two sides was too much and now piles of guerrillas and slaves accumulated. The conscripts stepped over their bodies and charged at the buildings. Heavy weapons thudded at them. Many tried to take cover but were pulverised. Perkish’s company took cover in the barn. As they entered, they saw the space was open surrounded by a few ammunition creates. It was full of guerrillas. Immediately they opened fire and the platoon spaced out. Two men to Perkish’s left returned fire, everyone else ducked. Perkish hid beneath an abandoned truck and saw foot movements. They were advancing towards him. He pulled a grenade and threw it under. As it exploded, it flung several figures backwards and slamming them against the crates. Falling back behind cover, the remnants began to fire back.

….

From the sight of blackened smoke through binoculars, Arlov could tell the attack was going well. The chatter received from his radio link suggested the place was slowly but surely being secured. It lifted his spirits and lowered his doubts. Soon this would be over with and they could leave this place and he could retire. No more politics, no more assignments and especially no more games of one-upmanship within the hierarchy. For a second, he felt a smirk lift his lips but refrained at the last second. He would need to finish first and that meant completing whatever side-quest high command sent him. The smirk turned to a sigh. The radioman interrupted Arlov’s train of thought.
“Comrade Colonel, 4th infantry has reported that the hill has been captured”.
“Good, give them my thanks and ask them to dig in after”. The radioman nodded and then paused for a second.
“Erm Colonel, you’re going to want to hear this”. The statement made Arlov hesitate slightly but he picked up the receiver and listened. Suddenly, he dropped it and ran towards the other side of his look-out point on the hill they had passed before the attack. In the clear flat planes which stretched for miles, dust kicked from the ground. Then the swarm of metal appeared.
“Good god. Oh dear god”. He turned to the radioman
“Tell the battalions to move to the outskirts where the ditches are and dig in, now!”. This was supposed to be a simple round-up, Arlov thought. He quickly disregarded the thought and looked at the map.

The cannon from Nikolai’’s APC fired continuously. Through his optics, he could see vehicles burning a sunder and parties surrendering. In the 10 minutes after combat, he dismounted and looked distastefully at the guerrillas.
The remnant of the once intact base, many moments ago, was now a blissful ruin churned into twisted grey. Around Marashov, platoons walked in small columns and were only overshadowed by the guerrillas who surrendered. Guided by one of two guards, the crowds were diverted towards transports where they would be driven away to god knows where. Now the area was bustling with the small lingo of military figures who began setting up sand-bag positions. An anti-air tank, its top pointed with several rotating barrels was directed into position by a soldier with illuminate signs. Apart from the few soldiers and logistic-men, the place was empty. They had received orders to move out but that wouldn’t stop Marashov. He marched determinately towards the large barn that was now decked with scotch marks. Inside, a platoon stayed guarding what looked like a command personnel. They were on their knees.
“Who is in charge here”, Nikolai shouted, showing signs he was too irritable to have his time wasted.
“I am”, the large moustached figure replied. “Sergeant Laurraine of the 4th infantry battalion. I have orders to guard these prisoners until directed otherwise”.
“Well, you’re in luck Sergeant. I will be directing things from here. Arlov has put me in charge of these prisoners”, he lied. Laurraine stared at him for a few seconds as if he was assessing the soul
between Marashov’s eyes.
“I’m not sure, I will need some identification”.
“And I am sure”, Nikolai remarked “that I will have your ass cleaning toilets if you do not obey what I’m saying. Now get out of here. Go to the front line”. After a few seconds of silence, Laurraine simply shrugged and ordered his squad to move.
“Assign some soldiers to look after these prisoners under my command”, he bellowed to a subordinate and then mounted his APC which began moving.

I will deal with them later.

…..

On the horizon, the gleaming sunlight was only foreshadowed by the mass of black and grey on the fields. They were heading towards the encamped hill and slowly prowled the soil and eroded it. It would not be deterred from the fight, the fight it felt it deserved: the fight it believed it was entitled to by right. Whatever it felt the thing lingered on, its veins in the form of endless marks from heavy tracks; its pixelated skin from endless swarms of vehicles and big guns and flowing blood from the endless carriers which darted in between the heavier vehicles trying to get to the prize first. The chaos of the rush depicted it as a disorganised rabble but ‘rabble’ was an understatement: this was an army, a cohesive fighting unit. It may not have looked like one but under the superficial vision of chaos laid a self-perpetuating machine, one which did not stop. From the horizon, it kept coming until its rear was finally exposed that signalled the swarm had finally ended: that didn’t imply the force was small. Arlov could only prepare and wait as he still stared through his binoculars, watching the large shadowy mass draw cumbersomely nearer. There was only so much he could do: he had ordered trenches to be dug to extend the dyke and build emplacements on the former guerrilla camp but it wasn’t enough. Even with the tanks and carriers at his disposal, there was not much he could do. The best hope was to form a multi-layered defence so as the swarm fell on the first barrier, it would be blocked by the second and so on and so forth. The newest tanks were placed in the front. With their stabilizers, they could move and fire at the same time which would give them the chance to reverse back if overwhelmed. The more out-of-date ones were placed in the rear layers where they could simply focus on range. It made sense theoretically but on the ground, it was a whole other story. He was only in charge of a few elements and there wasn’t as much as he hoped of: a full scale confrontation was not expected. But with the ditches, he hoped he could lure the One-Bakkar into a bottleneck and hold them off as long as possible before….before the unthinkable outcome occurred. With the lack of forces at his disposal, Arlov could only pray for a victory. Contacting the higher-ups, he was given some assistance but was ordered to hold at all costs: most of the resources had gone to Marashov’s offensive in the west. Some of the extra help was doing small amounts to stop the inevitable ocean that would crash against the outer ditches. The screeching of jet aircraft was followed by bright flames that illuminated large pockets of ground. These successfully destroyed large groups of tanks, sections of carriers and swarms of infantry around the hulking masses. However it wasn’t enough. Soon the airstrikes stopped altogether. In the absence of the screeches, Arlov guessed they were now occupied by the enemy. There was going to be no more support. In light of this, he gave the word.

Surrounding the remnants of the camp, flashes bursed and banged loudly as they flew overhead. All of them pummelled the soil and flung metal and limps into the air. Shells burst many enemies went out with a flash. Next to the explosive shells came the canister shots that flew overhead and burst, dropping bomblets which exploded into the shrapnel once they dropped nearer to the ground. It made good work of any infantry in the open, their flesh being cut to shreds by the shards of metal. The explosions engulfed the One-Bakkar, sharding rubble and making a mess of the swarm. Still they edged nearer, their comrades simply going on top or around the first casualties. As they crept closer, the flurry of missiles began to fling. Their concentrated fireballs smashed into the enemy from vehicles or pockets of men in pre-mature holes.

….

In their very shallow dug-outs, 3rd Platoon of 4th infantry waited and watched. All they could do is stare, their petite heads leaning out to pierce into the wave of grey and black that ploughed towards them. In the commuted feeling of awe that engulfed the platoon, there was silence. It was nothingness pure and simple, except it was ‘no thing’ rather than emptiness. It gripped each individual like a cancer sucking on their emotions and in the void, the white noise of life slowly began to become overtaken by the rumble of tracks. In the moment of awe, Cavaria paused in a gasp of air. Realising he was staring, Perkish turned to see his squad, all of them immersed by the sight. The spectacle amused it and separated him at the same time because, for a split second, he became a observer rather than a participant of the battle. Everything, the approaching death, the eagerness, the fear and the intricate details of his surroundings spoke more loudly than the heaviest thud. The cool winded sound of an easterly breeze, the utility of the cotton fabric that eerily hung to his skin; the chill which raised the hair on his hands and arms. All of these gave absurd feedback and for a moment, Perkish felt like nothing mattered. He snapped back to his sights and realised he was staring at Laurraine. Noticing at that particular moment, Laurraine turned and both of them met eyes. For a second, nothing happened before Laurraine smiled. Perkish returned the favour and that second of intimacy between the two, the bonds of comradeship earned on the journey so far, was felt. It was broken by the whining of rockets.
“They’re in the thousand yard mark. This is it. Mark your targets and open fire. Heavy weapons fire in bursts. Mortars make sure to hit the most crowded areas”, Laurraine said on the comm link. Perkish felt the eeriness in his voice. All of the squad readied themselves and each person did their own little thing to prepare for the possible last moments of their lives. Some murmured underneath their helmets a prayer whilst others checked their supplies and webbing. Perkish simply took aim and looked down the barrel of his rifle. He was no longer a novice. Being sensual with the weapon, he felt his finger involuntarily move towards the trigger and pressed lightly against it. Breathing out, he involuntarily pulled the trigger.

….

The first volley of small-arms fire rattled and struck. Just as the soldiers weapon’s opened up, the One-Bakkar began to dismount from their carriers, leaving the side hatches. In the intense period of combat fire, many simply dropped. Others began to run forwards with their carriers, firing small bursts of fire while making sure to take cover at intervals. Are brief pauses, they advanced again. A rocket smashed through a carrier from a random direction. It immediately pulsated into flame and engulfed both the crew inside and the One-Bakkar around it. A One-Bakkar tank fired a shell whilst on the move. The round flew wide but hit a small pocket of infantry which scattered, the blast killing all of them outright. Confident they were range, the One-Bakkar vehicles unleashed their weaponry. Machine guns scattered bullets, flung up dirt and occasionally hit troopers who were unlucky enough to be in the open. A stray round slammed into the trooper next to Perkish. He fell backwards which caused his body to fling to one side. It reminded Perkish of the dead body in the forest. Some of the carriers didn’t open fire until they got close to 500 meters and then unleashed their secret weapons. The throwers on top began spouting snakes of fire which arched into the dugouts. Those it hit completely engulfed the soldiers inside and many simply burned to death in the insinuating burning. A shell from a dug in tank, its model quite old, hit a flamer tank and it lit up like decorative lights. Its stockpiled fuel gave way and contributed to the black smoke that rose from the metal corpse. It did a successful job of blocking the line of sight for both parties. None of the soldiers had expected the flames and several simply stared, incapacitated by the sight their brains were not prepared for. Eventually, the sergeants began shouting orders to get back into the fight. A Squad a space away from 3rd platoon was hit by the gout of flame. They immediately stopped. Some instantly fell in complete silence whist others ran out of their dug holes kicking, screaming and rolling. Eventually they lay still, unable to douse the flame by manoeuvring. Perikish had little time to comprehend what was going on. Instead, he popped single shots from his rifle in multiple directions before ducking back into cover. Small thuds from mortars being flung into the air were heard near them but Perkish didn’t have time to see where they were coming from or what damage they were doing. The sound was only overlapped by the chatter of machine gun fire in Perkish’s squad. From short bursts, the shooter began to increase their rhythm as the enemy drew nearer. To the left, a stray round struck a soldier who collapsed instantly. As Perkish glanced at him, he recognised the youthful and puffy features of the man’s face and concluded he was probably 17. The expanding smoke only made things worse. With no sighted targets, gunfire and shells were random and chaotic. Bullets peppered the ground, successfully keeping many of the soldier’s heads down. Only the professionals, their rifles aided by scopes, were trained enough to take well aimed pot-shots at the right intervals. The APC’s, aiding the soldiers in artificially makeshift ditches, began to open fire. Flashes illuminating out of the smoke signalled hits of target. There were many flashes. They weren’t enough. Slowly and surely, black figures began to emerge from the smoke much larger than their slave counterparts. These were clad in sloping black armour were reinforced with chainmail underneath. They had been given many names: ‘the masters’, ‘the dark legion’, ‘the companion of the void’, however one thing was clear. These were no lambs for the slaughter, they were professionals. As they entered through the smoke, they ducked from side to side to gain vantage points. Once found, they lay down and punched as much fire into the enemy as possible. Perkish gunner was no longer firing in bursts. Many of the machine gunners had abandoned the idea and now continuous chatter surrounded the area. It did much to pin the emerging black figures into cover. The increase in fire was only overshadowed by a distinct gurgling from the horizon. It grew louder until it finally was blindingly evident to the theatre of war. Then the swarm appeared in an insane formation of grey and black like insects. From the horizon they closed in before reports began to signal, each one becoming more drastic. Rotors. Since Cavaria’s docks they had finally made an appearance. Even through the blackened smoke, they soon swarmed low over their comrades on the ground. As if on cue, flames spurted from their small wings. They formed into gouts of fire that swerved and reeled until they found targets. Some directly hit tanks, immediately disabling them in a burst of explosion. Others found their way into enclaves of dug in troops, annihilating them instantly. The carrier’s began to fire back with the repetitive thudding sound of their autocannons but only did little damage. An explosive round, luckily aimed, slammed into the cockpit of a rotor, instantly demolishing it in mid-air. Its remains poured downwards like metallic rain. It was not enough. That was when the human tanks began to fall back, their reversing sounds blindingly evident. They escaped from their dug in positions. Perkish could hear the dismay from other platoons in his comrades radio link.
“What the hell? Where are they going?” one link blurted out.
“Where the fuck’s our armour? We need support”, another gasped desperately as if suffocating. The sound of panic only heightened the sense of defeat that seemed of loom over the situation. Even the professional soldiers in the rear gazed for a second, assessing what was going on, before returning fire again.

…..

Arlov cautiously viewed the unveiling situation with his binoculars. He was well aware that Vanery was assessing him from behind, constantly judging his every move. At this very moment, his next decision would make or break is career. More importantly it would make or break his life. The flashes from the ditch line indicated things were going to plan. He turned to his radioman.
“They’ve taken the bait, radio all forward armour elements to move to secondary positions. Tell support to identify air targets before firing”.

…..

In the hot pursue of the chase, the swarm of rotors lost all composure. Like a starving beast, they leapt forward to chase their prey to an inevitable defeat. As they followed the armour towards the forest behind the ditch, spraying rockets, they halted in shock as they came under fire. The hidden anti-air tanks in the forest began firing streams of bullets from their rotating barrels. The rate of fire was more than enough to bring down the first few rows of rotors. All the rest could do was back off out of range. It rendered their weapons pointless. At the flanks, the tanks began to move outside the side of burning wreckage and in clear visibility of the enemy.

…..

“This is Mike-One Sierra, 1st platoon is in place. Turrets facing outwards, north east. Locate target at 600 meters. Engage. Reload. Target is a moving vehicle some 1000 meters away. Load kinetic round. Elevate turret for full effect. Fire. Reload. Switch off thermals, we’re past the smoke now. Infantry in the open advancing, order 1st platoon to load up high explosives. Rake the survivors with machine gun fire. Engage. They’re trying to escape, make sure they don’t make it. The less the better. Target vehicle on my 2, spread out formation for full effect. Maintain comm links. Fire for full effect. You have permission to fire at will. I’ve just received news that gravitas has been hit, report 2 crewman injured, the rest bailed out. Contact the troops covering us and give the observers co-ordinates for artillery, we’ve got some heavy targets for them. That’s a hit, vehicle is scrap-metal. Tell the gunners to pummel the apc’s, their armour’s weak. Designate thermal lasers for effective fire. Getting reports from Quebec-Seven Delta, they’ve secured the flank to the east and are engaging with minimal loses, we’ll see them on the other side. Good hunting men, save some for us as well”.

…….

The intense fire made Nikolai’s nerves exhilarate in excitement. It gave him the satisfaction of control that had been denied to him since his re-occurring nightmare. The satisfaction of power began to blur his mind, everything had become a blur. Now there were no thoughts, only the raw instincts of an animal. It merged with his rage and anger. All the emotions that he built up over the 2 months in Cavaria had finally let out. As he yelled victory from every shot of his apc, it seemed to flourish and grow like a virus. It pushed unfinished business into his mind.
“Driver, get me back to the barn. I have an idea”. Reluctantly, the driver geared the apc into reverse.

……..

The breathing became shallower as things became more successful. Eventually, the lungs calmed altogether. The enemy was in full retreat and before the Humans knew it, they had sunk back into the horizon from where they came, leaving hundreds of dead vehicles and thousands of bodies. Smoke still blazed from the ignited fuel of the flamer tanks. Near the horizon, a few flashes indicated the surviving elements were still being destroyed. The fighting had lasted an hour but it seemed like minutes and more importantly the plan had worked. The intense breathing finally subsided with a sigh of relief. Arlov’s doubt became confidence that he was still a gifted commander.

“All is well, Arlov”.
“Yes it is , Vanery. We used our initiative and now the enemy has been defeated. Maybe we can win”.
“Perhaps”, Vanery simply replied ambiguously. It wasn’t the role of a political officer to give a final decision until the facade was very much unravelled. Nevertheless, Arlov turned to him.
“This calls for a celebration. I hear Nikolai’s battalion did very well. Tell my nephew to report here so I can congratulate him”. Vanery quickly glanced at the radioman who murmured into the radio. The expression on his face indicated fear.
“Er, comrade colonel…. Nikolai is gone…..”. Arlov paused, almost dumbstruck by the statement.
“What do you mean ‘Nikolai is gone?’”.
“Well….Comrade Colonel..Second Battalion has reported his carrier disappeared during the counter-attack. There was murmuring that he had ‘unfinished business’”. Instinctively, Arlov yanked the receiver out of the radioman’s hand, his hidden strength nearly the scrawny man up if he hadn’t let go at the last second. He listened, bellowed a command and then his hand began to shake nervously.
“No, no no no no no. I’ll skin him alive for this. No, I’ll kill him”. Dropping the receiver, he entered the nearest carrier and barked at the driver to drive him to the barn. Vanery hastily followed quietly behind.

…..

Patches of sunlight permeated from the bullet holes in the barn. It landed the foreheads of the guerrillas, whose bodies had been made to kneel in a line. They were prisoners and many were endangered. Some prayed, others shook nervously. A few remained surprisingly calm in the fit of rage that had befallen the Captain. He shouted “Don’t just stand there, open fire! You hear me? Open fire!”. The soldiers holding the rifles aimed lazily in fear.
“But comrade Captain. Colonel Arlov gave specific orders to not harm prisoners”. Finally breaking, Non yelled at the man who dared to speak out to him. He insulted him, calling him a woman before pulling out his pistol and aiming it at a random guerrilla. As he did, she clenched her nerves.
“This is what you get for betraying us behind our backs!”. The tension was broken by a thick Slavic voice
“What is the meaning of this?”. It was Arlov. His large figure was made moderate by both arms being crossed.
“Get them out of here”, he bellowed at the men who immediately picked up the prisoners and walked them outside, eager to wash their hands of forced dirty work.
“Explain yourself, Captain”, he sternly barked at Nikolai. Nikolai looked to the side, unable to stare into his uncle’s eyes.
“They were harbouring food and weapons for the ene-“. Arlov cut him off, his years of experience in military politics made him know when to do so properly.
“I gave explicit orders that there would be no firing squads”.
“They were aiding the enemy!”.
“That is irrelevant Captain. You do not have the right to disobey my orders”. Nikolai’s eyes finally met Arlov’s with fury.
“But what if your orders are wrong?”, Nikolai shouted. Arlov could no longer control himself.
“If you disobey my orders I will have you court-martialled and sent back home in shame. Is that understood?”. He walked closer, making sure Nikolai felt the his breath.
“Is that understood?”. From anger, Nikolai surprisingly became calm.
“No, no it isn’t”, he murmured as he shoved pass Arlov. It left him dumbstruck. The only people left in the barn were himself and Vanery, who had been watching with hawk eyes. All that remained was the captured weapons cache that was now unguarded.
“What, you think I am wrong?” Arlov asked Vanery.
“It does not matter what I think Arlov. For better or worse, you have made your decision”.
“Yes but have you?”, Arlov yelled back, walking out of the barn.
“Sooner or later you will have to”.
Chapter 11: Tragedy

Rumbling vehicles, many of them still displaying weathering from the effects of war, plagued the narrow alley that stretched to yonder. There was anticipation, rushed anticipation. As far as the soldiers were concerned, the enemy was on the run and even their magic had not stopped them. On the side of the road, apc’s mounted with under strength squads passed the long hull of the command vehicle, the riders clearly fatigued. For a brief moment, the column of vehicles halted; Marashov glanced at one of the men in a long grey trench coat sitting on a carrier. The man was clearly tired, his head kept drifting to sleep before bobbing upwards again and the drop in temperature, caused by the concentration of high altitude air in the valley, left this face unnaturally pink. The only thing which stood out was the brown beard which surrounded his lower face, he clearly didn’t have time to shave. The line of Apc’s rumbled back to life again and his carrier shaking made him lift his head once again. Marashov wasn’t sure he could stay awake but that was none of his concern. His face darted forwards to the make-shift command table that had been set up. Maps and displays from inside had been laid on the table and all the lower ranking officers around it held their own personalised versions. A small holographic display showed a copy of the planet with territory marked red against a background of light green. The meeting was only brief but it was important he confronted his officers about the situation at a time like this. In all his years of campaigning and experience, he hadn’t felt confident. During his lifetime, he had risen through the ranks in constant military campaigns and, needless to say, he had seen a lot. At Becta, he has served as part of a military contingent against the local guerrillas. From that, he had steadily risen to fame with added respect from his counterparts. It was on Becta that he had seen nasty things from both sides. In the early days, when Terran armies were pulling their heads out of their asses, the military was plagued with constant deficiencies. Lack of supplies meant soldiers looted from locals and often traded weapons and ammunition, and when there was nothing to do soldiers got bored. Boredom led to restlessness or idleness, idleness led to alcohol and both alcohol led to abuse. In his time, soldiers tortured prisoners, gunned down civilians and stole their belongings, usually under the influence. At times, from what he had heard going on, prisoners were often killed outright or thrown off aircraft to the amusement of the crew members. Drugs made the situation worse and did more to damage trust between the army and the population. The Guerrillas expressed their fair share of cruelty. Soldiers were often skinned alive or tortured under the most heinous conditions. One rule Marashov had learned was to never leave a soldier behind, not even a corpse. He had seen what happened to survivors and it wasn’t pretty. It had been 40 years since Becta, he had been a child on the desert plain. Now everything was different. He was a man, an old man, a man with stories. Since then things had changed and he had made it so; the only way to do so was to pull your muscle around the place and he was respected and decorated enough for it to work. It’s from that the army learned its valuable lessons that helped it in future campaigns. Nevertheless, even now, what he experienced on Cavaria was nothing compared to Becta or any other battlefield. It was like the 3 months had accumulated everything he had experienced then on the battlefield and thrown it out of the window. This was no ordinary counter-insurgency campaign. It was a civilian conflict plagued by the vestiges of a conventional war. The enemy would engage them, seep back into the scenery and leave devastation in their wake. Houses were destroyed, roads booby trapped and wives and children left devastated. The hate boiled over to the army. To them the Terrans were the cause of this. They caused the loss of lives; the mobilisation of their fathers, brothers and sons and the corpses that were lined up or strung in piles. This was a political as well as military game. If the One-Bakkar could persuade the population that this wasn’t a war worth fighting for the campaign was over. Marashov hoped it would never come to that. Still the enemy creeped him out. Since the undead, he hadn’t stopped having nightmares. He looked all his staff in their eyes, assessing each one of their faces. Several men surrounded the table and the only exception was a single woman who was a tank commander.

“Gentleman, this is going to be the final push. From the damage we’ve inflicted, and the assessment of enemy casualties, it seems we are going to win this war but I will expect that you will all stay vigilant. Still, I am confident that we will learn from our lessons and bring the fight to the enemy”. He leaned over, putting this bulky form forwards and pointing at the map but he couldn’t hide the shaking of his other hand. He was sure it was the cold.

“We will be deploying on this flat, since every battlefield here seems to be a plain”, the staff chuckled slightly.

“There is little to assume however as always the One-Bakkar will be making great use of cover. Directly in front of us will be a large forest and after that is the coast where intelligence tells us the One-Bakkar’s command ships are. If we win on land we can capture them and if they try to escape, they will be gunned down by our fleet. From this I conclude they will be making a final stand. We will decimate them. We have been directed the majority of air assets and I will do all I can with it to tear them a new asshole. Some of you have illustrated constantly that many of our elements are under strength but I have been re-assured that these will be enough to overpower the enemy and seize the initiative. We are looking at a 3 to 1 ratio in terms of active manpower”. All the officers wrote on their maps, noting the different locations Marashov pointed out.

“I look forward to seizing this victory in due time, we can win this”. He went silent for a second, gazing at the men, and woman, who were staring at him now the air was silent of voice.

“Listen, I know many of you consider me ‘old guard’ in my philosophy and in many ways I am. You don’t get paid to not wipe your own ass”. The squad of staff officers giggled at the comment.

“But I do so because I grew up when being an ‘old guard’ counted for a lot more than now. I am going to bring up a word no-one ever uses anymore: duty. Just because things are tough does not mean we doubt or buckle or give way. The enemy expects us in our time of need to give up. Even if they and the population hate us, we must always do what they expect us to do. If they fight us, we will take the fight to them and disarm them and protect those who need protection. We are not just officers. We are the best, we are kings, we are knights and we do our most wherever is needed, so let us do that. You officers have done amazing work and taken so much”. All the officers nodded in appreciation.

“Which is why I know you can do this. Now, can I expect you to accomplish your missions?”. A confident murmur was heard in all of the voices above the cold.

“Good, we are ETA 2 hours away from our deployment zone. See you get some good rest in that time and make sure your men do as well, dismissed”.

In a small huddle, the officer returned to their stationary units.

…..

A light blue illuminated the inside of a metal hull. Quiet but methodically, the driver operated the computer system with the mundane twisting of dials and pushing of buttons that someone used to their work would know. It was a an imperfect perfection, the sign that the man knew what he was doing so much he was unconscious of the movements he made; everything was instinctive as birds nesting on a tree branch. The blue light radiated onto this face, obscuring the darkness surrounding him in the tank. As methodically, the gunner to his side slept on the floor, piercing the silence with shallow light breaths that skimmed but didn’t penetrate the atmosphere of lull. The lull was broken by a series of taps on the tank’s hull followed by a mechanical whine. With a clang, the turret door swung open. Inside stepped the woman who minutes before had been at the staff meeting. Making sure to mute the sound of wind outside, she closed the hull door as quickly as she had opened it, being sure to not wake up the gunner. Despite her efforts the door closed with a thump though the driver failed to wake up. He snorted slightly before turning and laying humbly silent. She looked at him for a second, surprised by his lack of catching her out and silently whispered to the driver. After a minute or two of conversation between both, he nodded in agreement and began to tweak the tank controls before looking through the visor. Slowly, the tank rumbled to life and began to move and as it moved onto the main road, it shook. The shake was more than enough to cause the driver to hit his head, waking him up. He murmured something obscene, sitting up and rubbing his face with his free arm. Looking at Donnelle, he provoked a look that suggested ‘on the move already?’.
“It’s okay Vek, we won’t be there for a while. Go back to sleep”. That was all the certainty the gunner needed and he sat on a level part of the tank where he drifted back to sleep again.
“One with words, aren’t you?”, the driver whimpered to Donnelle. She chuckled.
“You’re one to talk, last time I checked they handed rewards to people who say nothing”. He paused for a moment, taking in what she said and then began to laugh.
“Yeah, I’m a right oddball me. You seem like an oddball as well, Donnelle, we should think about settling down together”. She stared in the air, pausing briefly.
“You and me? Together? Like a married couple?”.
“With kids as well, don’t forget. We need kids, at least 7 oddballs as well, each one more odd than the next. I can picture it now”. Donnelle began to chuckle at the thought, she continued chuckling as he did so.
“We can have sons and daughters, all of them running around the place. All of the sons can have my head and all the daughters yours. What children we would have”. Donnelle put her hand to her mouth, trying to conceal her laughter at the image of her daughters having her adult life sized head.
“What children we would have and they would run around the place on sugar”, she said chuckling to each word.
“Yeah, they would be running up the walls and ceiling saying ‘blah blah blah blah, mommy mommy, quick, look!”. Immediately, Donnelle bellowed in laughter, the driver also laughing as hard. The gunner undeterred in dreaming, kept silent. After a few minutes of laughter, the voices died down. The few seconds of comedy available drifted away.
“Commander, we’re really jumping the next mile of this one, aren’t we”.
“Yeah, I guess we are”, she replied plainly.
“I mean they’re really pushing this one out, we’re really going all out. For the first time, I’m not sure what’s going to happen”.
“Don’t worry Jal, it’ll be fine, most of our job consists of not knowing what the hell we’re doing”, things quietened, the driver still stared at the computer his eyes darting closely, his mind
wondering what to say.
“Commander, listen though all the things we’ve ever done this seems unstable, more so then anything that’s ever happened to us. I literally can’t picture what happens next. How many years has it
been?”, he sighed. “I’m scared commander”.
Donnelle paused for a second, recapping what had happened in the last few months. Things had been so structured, so routine, even the battles had worked on a repetitive formula. Some things had gotten out of hand or confusion reigned but everything had seemed set and planned and nothing blew over. She put her gloved hand on his shoulder.
“I know Jal, I’m scarred too”. He looked back at her and both smiled before the driver got back to making sure not to knock the tank off the narrow valley road. Things had changed, Donnelle thought to herself. In the past month things had escalated, the men were more exhausted than ever but no one complained. They had been fighting continuously on end and most were at the end of their nerves. Non didn’t talk much after the incident. It was hard to keep a hold on what happened and rumours had spread that he was responsible for civilian deaths and he was being transferred out. Of course Donnelle didn’t say anything about it. He would reep what he sowed after this, she thought to herself. People changed in war, the thought came to mind. People changed, it separated those who could cope with those who broke. Non she guessed was someone who couldn’t cope from the start. She had heard stories about Marashov, the bastard had seen some things over the years. One time he nearly killed a soldier for leaving a dead comrade behind as they were retreating on some forgotten battlefield when he was a sergeant. She didn’t know what had happened but something seemed to have seeped into his mind. Six theatres of war was a lot of time not even Donnelle could comprehend in her relatively young life. Still, she thought to herself as rising daylight flickered through the slits on the tank’s visors.

………..

Despite autumn, the air was thick and humid and it was a drastic change from the insulating air of the valley pass. The plain was flat and the overpowering view of endless grassland made finding a good spot to observe trouble. Command ended up placing themselves on a slightly raised patch of land that managed to overlook the fields after it. Marashov looked through his binoculars while the staff around him drastically sought to re-construct a headquarters base from the carrier. In his sights, he could see the forest. It was vast, vaster than anything he had ever seen and unlike before, it was a mixture of warm autumn reds and browns. The pattern stretched back to the horizon and looked like a mixed stroke of paints on a canvas from a frustrated artist. The smell of gas fed into the humid air, making breathing more of a task than a natural privilege and around the sound of clanking tracks, loud hums and whines dominated the spectrum of visual sight. Hulking metal containers bristling with wonder weapons made their way to take positions, churning the grass behind them. They moved out, slowly becoming dots before stopping in their pre-designated positions. Only stories and folktales could tell the magnitude of this assembly and to see something like this in person was a miracle of its own. A whole battle group equipped with state of the art technology. An innumerable amount of men, tanks, vehicles and aircraft would be participating in the battle and everything that could be thrown into the fray would be. Columns of tanks moved to their forward positions in a clumsy manner but from the relays from satellites, the birds-eye master-stroke could be seen. Everything, though small and insignificant, assembled to form a large and magnificent centrepiece that formed a huge pattern. From Marashov’s position, there was only a miniscule view of events that were unfolding. From the binoculars, he could see the seemingly endless fields of trees in the distance that were barely visible in the horizon. That’s where the army group was going. Even with the binoculars, the trees were still barely distinguishable. The rumbling of vehicles suddenly were over-taken by the roar of overhead engines. Jet bombers, their bodies sleek and agile, sliced through the air, wheeling in position. Quickly as they had passed they were gone and as they disappeared into the cloud, flashes beaconed within the forest. From Marashov’s view they were nothing but quick flares.
“Colonel, several armoured regiments have said they are in position and are waiting for the other elements to catch up”, the adjundant behind him said. Marashov still stared at the quick flashes. This was it, the big push. With the brute strength of numbers, he would pummel the enemy into nothing and destroy them into oblivion. Through all the rustling and forward motion; the introverted recollections and slugging matches, it had come down to this.
“Good, tell the forward elements to hold position until I give them further instructions. It’s time to execute phase alpha of the combat phase”. The adjundant have a quick nod and spoke to the radioman. That assistant had come a long way from a few months ago, Marashov could tell from his calm demeanour. Everyone had come a long way. Gone were the novices in this campaign and replacing them were cold and collective professionals. In that way, he understood them well.
The captain of the main artillery element calmly stood outside his vehicle, eerily smoking. The man was a stodgy fellow whose years of officer class had allowed him to attain certain leisures and as a result, he possessed a wide waistline. He cared about his men, they were all good kids. They followed instructions, never lacked discipline and, most importantly, they all listened. He was glad to serve with them, especially since unlike the frontline soldiers they would not see direct action. Taking a large inhale of the cigarette, he stared at the artillery that surrounded his vehicle in a line. All of them held huge tubular cannons that would be summoned to destroy at a given notice. It was the most powerful thing they had. He guessed, like his crew, the crew in other vehicles were resting, smoking, drinking tea or sleeping. Some, to his amusement, treated the waiting in their own way. Men he had known to be atheists prayed to be given some final closure from a God they had never talked to before. Others would nervously annoy their colleagues with egotistical tales of romance, action and boastfulness. It was strange how rational men could be driven to such behaviour. Suddenly, his train was thought was interrupted by a junior officer.
“Sir, we’ve received fire orders”. The officer was baby faced, he knew him well and they both got on.
“Good, set the pieces in place. Contact the other elements with the co-ordinates you’ve received and relay them into to the computer, I’ll be inside in a few seconds. The captain flicked his cigarette out and went inside, the hydraulic door closing after him. In tangent, the row of vehicles pivoted on their tracks slightly to re-adjust their angles. As they halted in place, their bodies began to whine as the bulking barrels began to rise. Elevating until they met the trajectory that overtook the tree line, the barrels of the artillery platoon halted. After a few moments of waiting, the ground shook as a universal volley of bangs deafened ears up to a mile away. The shells began to fall on their designated locations, illuminating the ground in flashes and pluming smoke and fire upwards. The ground spewed upwards and lifted thick trees from their roots, which had lain undisturbed for thousands of years. Other simply burned to a cinder, their fruitful branches now delicately naked. The sight brought a smile to Marashov’s face.

…..

The ground trembled ferverently with each thump, followed by a short lull, however it was merely an inconvenience to the swarm of dark figures that crowded in a wide circle. Various forms made themselves known in the darkness. Some figures were slave captains, emphasised by their fur cloaks and skull trophies that hung on their chests. Unnaturally large figures of clad armour and muscle stood next to them, their presence eerily quiet for such large beasts. Out of their armoured masks, visible breath could be seen. Ruffling about in between them, warriors clad in chainmail and black fatigues conversed with each other. A person stepped forwards, his audible mask only too recognisable to the degrees of monstrosity around him. With a scarred face, he looked around and raised his arms that were held underneath his Byzantine cloak. From his hand, he drew a dagger. Immediately, the mysterious and battle hardened crowd drew silent. Through the amplifier, the master spoke.
“With the darkness more present than ever, the bait has been given and the pray has been fed. Now we shall clear the land”. In a pattern of circles, the master swerved the blade, picking up momentum.
“To the spirits of lunacy and decay of worms, to the forces not seen in the night, to the perversion of reality, we summon you to fulfil the instruction we give you”. Turning, the master’s voice drew louder and louder with each turn.
“With your instruction, we shall bless your presence with the gift of the most precious thing in the universe, the force which drives us. Only this sacrifice can satiate your thirst and inspire your summoning. We call upon you, arrive!”. With an inward thrust, he plunged the knife into his stomach, tearing through the intestines and pulling sideways. With a final breath, he collapsed to the ground, his remains silently watched by those around him.

The circle began to illuminate.

……..

Dirt kicked, spewing flames upwards in the semi-no man’s land that use to be the forest; several minutes of bombardment had rendered it useless to any organism who wished to lay a habitat. The blue light from the visor showed that fact.
“I’ve got nothing. Little heat signature coming from anything else other than the munitions”. Donnelle glanced a look at the driver.
“You got anything your way?”.
“Nothing. You’d think there’d be some sign of anything. From this, there’s no scrap of life, or even the remains of life”. She could tell a weariness on his face and then realise she could feel the same emotional landscape on her own. Diverting her feelings elsewhere, she ordered him to repeat his task. Like before, their survival would like in cold methodical discipline, underlined by a constant repetition of actions. That’s how you survived, that’s how you adapted; you did it again and again until you were dead. Looking through her visor again, she anxiously looked outwards in several different images, comfortable Janine would keep her safe.

……..

Rearing up to the tanks, the carriers, their heavy wide tracks soiling the once luscious green soil, grounded to a halt. Cumbersomely, the hydraulic doors slammed down and the infantry dismounted. After running out, they walked towards the ensuement of explosions; to their confident stride, nothing looked like it could survive the wall of gouting hell in front of them. With a final burst of spewing dirt, the bombardment ended; a wall of smoke now formed a wall of mayhem that seemed like a barrier to an underworld. Still, the infantry strode on, cautiously advancing with their weapons mounted on their shoulders in the disciplined fashion. The squads halted suddenly and the order was given to crouch. A forward sergeant of a squad pointed at the smoke to his radioman and the odd fellow quickly spoke into his receiver. The radios of all the squads came alive with disfigured chatter of confusion before abruptly cutting off with static; many of the radiomen looked at their devices, some hitting them to work. That soon stopped. In front of them, a mirage deduced and formed from the smoke, relaying in the air too and forth in its own essence. It seemed like nothing of this world. Forming outwards in the clear air, it was clear something was there but wasn’t. Everyone simply stared at it, not knowing what to do. No-one could even comprehend this entirety of something was possible and the illumination of disbelief on the soldiers faces confirmed they did not understand. All of a sudden, the essence began to crackle and erupt, deafening the ears of the soldiers and many of them dropping their weapons. A burst of white light asudden cut a sway through reality and when the light cleared, a thing could be seen. It was a woman, at least that what form it took, but it clearly was not. Its white essence was see-through though inside was the inclination of black; like a thin veil, the white light was transparent and the darkness inside was evident. The spirited body held up the quaking head, its blank eyes and open mouth draining existence into itself. Everyone stood still, everything paused. Time itself froze to a miniscule burden and in that time frame, all living things visible to the banshee saw their fate unfold in twenty different incomprehensible ways. In all the stillness, it screamed.

……

Abrupt chatter on the radios could only confirm chaos in the vicinity and then, as if it were all taken away, it all died, replaced by static. Donnelled looked into her visors and to her surprise, there was no news in front of her. Before the radios cut out, reports had confirmed the front line had halted and in front of her, waves of crouching men waited, still as logs in the night. Without warning, they began to run backwards.
“What’s going on, I’ve got nothing. Who ordered a retreat?”, the crew looked at her than looked at each other. All of them were in confusion.
“I’m looking outside to see what’s happening”. Unclanking the turret door, she looked outwards to see nothing from the ruin of the once prospering forest. However, around her all the soldiers were running away, the look of terror evident on their faces. Warriors pushed and shoved each other, screaming as they swept past her tank company. She tried screaming at them to rally but her voice was lost in the ocean of noise. She just picked up enough vibration with her ears to hear her driver calling her name and as she looked downwards, he pointed to the forest. Grabbing binoculars, she peered at the trailing smoke with her magnetized vision and as the smoke cleared, her jaw dropped. The grey of the smoke now animated with the bulking mass of black and red lining armour, brandished with the sickening markings from another world. The huge figures charged forwards at immeasurable speed, quickly reaching the vanguard of retreating soldiers.
“Amagos!”, she shouted into the tank, closing the hatch at the same time. The beasts charged forwards, reaching the first ranks of humans. The first amagos smacked a soldier to the side like a pin and he flew outwards. Another, swinging a chained axe, crushed a grouping of men, dismembering them in the process. Behind them, a master hulk of machines emerged behind the amagos, their turrets looking for targets. The massacre began. Donnelle thought for a second before realising she was shaking.
“Get the company on the radio if you can, tell them to load up canister shots. Tear them down. Don’t let them get near”. Immediately, the gunner, as fearful, loaded a canister shell and slammed the breech. The gun fired. Donnelle saw the shell fire wide and smack into a group of amagos. They stuttered for a second, barging through the giant metal pellets. Only one fell. The tank fired again. By this time, the amagos were near the tank. The shell ripped through the armour of the beasts but it was not enough. Two fell this time. Around Janine, machine gun fire chattered and cut through amagos as fast as soldiers were being mowed down. None of them fell, their mystical origins dictating they would not. An amagos mounted Janine and raised his decrepit axe. Janine drove backwards, rocking the turret to no avail; as the monster slammed his blade into the vehicle, it drove the vehicle downwards, causing the internals of the vehicle to malfunction. In a split second, the damaged caused the ammunition ignite and the tank shot upwards into burst of explosion before crashing to the ground as a pile of scrap metal.

……

The carrier halted outside of a side road in a forest. It was calm as the ambient rustle of insects mixed with the various bird calls. Next to Marashov stood the adjundant, his figure all but frail compared to the well bred officer. Both of them were tired, their clothes were dirty and their faces ruined with a mixture of soil and sweat.
“I will be gone for 5 minutes, wait here”, Marashov said abruptly before walking off. Strolling imposingly into the thick surrounding of wood, after 5 minutes he was out of sight from anyone. He peered his head around the place, putting his arms against the body of the tree. It was all so simple here, he wondered if by some displaced possibility what the chances would be that, like the animals, he could have lived here in another existence, a being isolated in the forest left to its own devices. He would live here, gather food and do nature’s call but ultimately that was his existence. There would be nothing else, not even the disruption of things greater than what he would have been able to comprehend. What would it mean to be a human like this? In his mind, he thought the funny thing about humans was the way they venerated themselves in life, as if by some thought if they were wiped from existence, life would stop for them. But no it would just continue how it did, independent of that small existence of species in an otherwise far spanning time. All this would continue and when his bones were nothing more than dust, this forest would still be rich. He spotted a small unknown creature that quickly darted out of sight; it made him wonder what motivated it to be. What world it inhabited was a lifetime spent that we would not understand. Similarly, the creature would not understand Marashov. Sitting down and still leaning against the tree, Marashov thought back to his past. He pictured the early days of the academy and the spick ballrooms where officers would, in polite etiquette, seduce and charm the women and smooth dancing evolved into drunken love. He remembered his love, his only love, the love of his life. He had not seen her in years and yet she was more real to him than any time since he had left; her delicate hand still coldly felt in his face and her forehead rested against his nose. She had always been cold and in a way that separated her with a quality no other person possessed, which ingrained her presence into his memory. No matter where he was, the cold would remind him of her sweet emerald eyes and an intimate gaze that connected both their souls together; they were no longer two but one essence. There were no more people, it was just them; an experience so simple it was incomprehensible. In a way, life was like that. Sure, there were words and barriers but at the end of the day it was just that: people doing things. Cutting through all the barriers, that’s all there was. Looking at a small vegetation of remote grass, he pictured the clean cut fields of his family’s farm when he was but a youngling. His father, though an honourable and disciplined man, had always been warm hearted and the child’s laughter than once persisted was carried on the father’s back, as they made their way home from the fishing river. Mother had been kind, she had cared for him in a way that many would not experience. It was the small things; the smiles, the soft and gentle tone, the cleanliness she kept for him. It was all these things that made him feel unworthy to have even experienced it. He missed them, he missed the simplicity of things. Tales of soldiering from his father than inspired him to join the army and though proud of the decision, his father had let Marashov choose when many would have forced. He was a compassionate man and the aging middle-age man who spawned the first grey hairs was still fresh as if leaving home had been yesterday. Since then, he had rarely seen them. The last time he did the middle aged man was a hunchbacked elder and the mother a frail vessel of her former self. He was lucky enough to have been there on their final days before shipping off to another warzone. He wished he had told them the things he had seen but it was too late. Now he was here, he had traded that possible life for this one. Like his rather, he pictured a farm except now he was the father of a small delicate child, smiling and laughing as he carried him on his back home to a warm mother. Cutting off from the fantasy, Marashov realised tears rolled down his cheeks and for a while he held his hand to his mouth and let out a moan of weeping.

Getting up, he walked to an overgrown log and sat down. Nothing could help what had happened hours before. All of his men were dead, his army group was gone. The remnants had either broke or were being intercepted and the enemy, he thought had been defeated, was undefeated. It didn’t make sense. They had defeated every attempt by the enemy to win on the battlefield. They had denied every privilege imaginable and took the fight to them. Maybe he should have listened had used military council more but he was sure he was making the right decisions, they had always worked before. Now all that was irrelevant. Every blow that was struck, the darkness came back twice as powerful and now he had suffered the consequences. Standing up, Marashov gave a sigh before upholstering his weapon, the metal felt against his gums made him wonder about a better life that might have existed. The blast from the pulled trigger was a sweet relief.


Chapter 12: Last falling leaves of Autumn

In the open grassland, next to a dirt road, stood a stone convent house. Inside, there was little space, a minial room of simplicity in which a farmer might spend his yesterdays consulting what imagination he to pass the seasons. There was little relief to say otherwise, it was empty of leisures, with the exception of a few tables, chairs and pictures on the hard-faced walls. All of it was so remote, so plain that it could match the most feverent religious believer. At least, that’s what it seemed to Arlov. Stopping at the wooden door in front of him, he could only imagine what was on the other side. It had been decided that this remote place would make a convenient place for consultation and he could see why. Consultation was needed. The once uplifting victory had turned into despair with little hope. It was a rout. The remnants of a once powerful army were now heading to Cavaria’s docks, with the sense of refuge they hoped they would find there. It made Arlov sigh. To use something from another reality, it was insanity on a scale unmatched even by his own generals. It also destroyed what little hopes the humans had of ever achieving victory on Cavaria. The humour to this joke made Arlov chuckle: if it hadn’t been for radio communication with stragglers, he would not have known about the defeat. According to communications from the fleet, all was as fine as could be and victory was still apparently in reach. He now knew better. It had all been somewhat in vain. Everything they had thrown at the One-Bakkar had been repulsed. They had used every method, strategy and discipline and their disposal but no matter what had happened, the One-Bakkar was one step ahead. None of it made any sense, like some cosmological joke Arlov had no fate in understanding. How do you kill what cannot be killed? How to you defeat what cannot be defeated? Giving an exhale of sigh again, he opened the wooden door and the creek of its hinges alerted Vanery who was sitting on a wooden stool, his arm propped on a table with a chair opposite. Behind him, there was a wide rip through the wall, showing the endless golden fields outside.
“Come in Arlov. Please, have a seat”. Arlov paused for a second, scanning the table. There was a recording device in Vanery’s palm.
“Is that thing on?”,  Vanery responded plainly.
“No, don’t worry about it. This thing will be gathering dust somewhere in a basemen-“, Arlov cut him off.
“Shut it off”,
“Bu-“, Arlov interrupted him again in another language, his stare lurking deep in Vanery’s eyes.
“As you wish, Colonel”, Vanery replied in an aura of cautiousness that emphasised his diplomatic nature. There was a pause as Arlov pulled the chair outwards and seated himself.
“There is no room for the truth on that thing”. Vanery put his hand on Arlov’s arm, his look telling the Colonel to be careful, warning him that his next words may undo him. His eyes pleaded with him, begged almost.
“That’s a dangerous word Arlov, ‘Truth’, such an ambiguous concept-“. Arlov interrupted with a sigh, and broke the contact from Vanery’s hand. He leaned forwards, making it seem as if both men were friends sitting outside a cafe of sorts.
“Oh stop it Vanery. We are defeated here, I know it and you know it too”. A emerging smirk on Vanery’s face indicated the language game was up.
“I’m afraid high command cannot accept that”.
“I am not talking to high command, I’m talking to you”,
“And what exactly are you trying to tell me?”,
“That I did not bring my men to Cavaria to commit mass suicide!”. Arlov paused for a second, letting what he just said sink in. He felt the gravity in his voice and saw observed how serious the tone was.
“And what will happen, I will need you with me”. Vanery replied with a smile, satisfied with the adequate reply Arlov had given. For all his skill, Arlov had never been a diplomat but this gesture had the seeping of genuine honesty and no skill was needed. After all, both were family.
“You can count on me Arlov”. Arlov Looked at the recording device.
“Good, now put that thing on and we’ll get this over with”.
“As you wish”, Vanery replied, his diplomatic tone still strong. Clicking on a button, he dictated both his and Arlov’s ranks into the device’s microphone and began the interview. After what seemed like a lifetime, the interview ended.

……

The retreating column lumbering back to Cavaria’s docks was vulnerable. A rotor, appearing out of the tree line from nowhere, strafed the skeletal line of vehicles. Spewing fire from its compartments, the once preserved lineage going back to HQ was all but cut through as vehicles set on jumped, capsized and jolted as they were hit. The anti-air vehicles, stopping to take position, raised their barrels and fired indiscriminately in the sky. A stray shot finally hit the rotor’s tail and the aircraft swerved before hitting a hillside. As it collapsed it swayed in circles, trying to gain altitude but ultimately failed. It had been the fifth time in the day the remaining group of what use to be called an ‘army group’ had been harassed and it was a miracle they had survived. Wherever they turned, they fell into a well placed ambush. In towns, they came under fire from the population. In every country alley, a tank was waiting to pop a shot and then sink into the background. It brought both frustration and helplessness to Arlov’s mind. Ordering the column to halt, he planned his staff to meet him in his headquarters. Beforehand he gathered both Vanery and Non, they were the only people he could trust. He still had doubts about Non but from later performances, he seemed to be coping; he could cope with the news. Outside of the wide tracked command vehicle, Arlov discussed their placing on the map with both personnel. He traced his figure to a specific rout. After pointing at the map, he stepped back.
“If we go to Cavaria, we will die in Cavaria. The One-Bakkar will not allow us to get to the city let alone let us land reinforcements there. We saw in the valley, with the Banshee, how far they are willing to go”. Non thought drastically to himself, lowering his head and moving his arms as quickly as he was thinking, barely containing himself. He looked up.
“What exactly are you saying?”. Arlov gave a quick look at Vanery before turning back to Non.
“We’re not going to Cavaria. I’ve arranged to take the men home”, he pointed at a small dock town on the map.
“A ship is expecting to take the men home tonight at a coastal town called Izmit”. During Arlov’s talking, Non stopped listening and his anger began to boil over. He snapped.
“And what? Betray our duty?”, he shouted, the anger seeping through his voice.
“It’s the right thing to do”, Arlov looked at Vanery for validation. “I will accept full responsibility”.
Non prodded a finger at Vanery, seeing that both of the men had some sort of connection that he wasn’t in on. He shouted again.
“Were you aware of this?”. Arlov moved towards Non.
“He’s not in command here, I am!”. After raising his voice, Arlov fell back to reason.
“Please try to understand No-“, Non interrupted him, broadening up his chest in a saluting stance.
“I am Captain Non of Terra’s army and you are acting like a traitor!”. Arlov’s voice was still reasonable.
“I’m doing this for the men, Non”. Nothing could have anticipated what would happen next. Non drew his pistol and pointed it at Arlov. Vanery, seeing the weapon and unarmed, backed away a few steps.
“Those ‘men’ belong to the army. They don’t belong to you, they don’t belong to him. I did not have my face burnt off at Cavaria’s docks and see my family die so you can turn tail and run”. There was a moment of silence. Both Arlov and Non stared directly at each other, the old veteran and the youth of the Army. In the moment, Arlov realised Non’s pain and what he was going through, he should have ended the carnage when this campaign had begun.
“But we don’t belong here”. He pointed his hand outside before walking towards Non.
“This entire venture has been a foolis-“, before he could say another word, the trigger was pulled. The shot landed in Arlov’s un-armoured chest and he stumbled to the ground, wide opened and dead. Non pointed the pistol at Vanery.
“Err, than you, Comrade. T-thank you, he was a traitor”, Vanery said to the best of his skills.
“I’m taking the men to Cavaria”, Non said in a cold tone.
“I’ll bring the officers, to victory”, those words were the only ones Non needed to hear, as if a key had been inserted into a lock of his mind.
“To victory”. Non stormed off, leaving Arlov strung on the floor in a foetal position. His position was surprisingly one of peace and comfort compared to what Vanery had seen in his past days. Better peaceful than violated, he thought to himself. Walking up to Arlov vessel, devoid of a spirit, he knelt down and closed Arlov’s eyes with his fingers.
“Time to choose, old friend”. He peered around before seeing the main radio. Pressing a button, he put the receiver to his mouth.
“To all elements, this is Major Vanery. The Colonel is dead. I am taking command”.

……

Surging forward in a single column, the small remnants of tanks and carriers in the army group left at a narrow crossroads. It was the bulk of the element that left the main strength of the army behind. Around it on the roadsides, units stopped and stared blankly at the spectacle happening before them. No one could figure what was happening since Arlov’s death. News had spread he has suffered from a sudden heart-attack and his body was now wrapped in the black bag on one of the many stretcher carriers. Was it some kind of ruse for the enemy? Where were they going? Would they go home? The men, tired and dirty, could only guess at the apparent despair of the situation though no one said anything. Many of the sergeants weren’t sure if the orders were being followed or everyone collectively thought they were doing the right thing. Either way, in the silent lull soldier’s lazed about awaiting their orders. After half an hour, the rumbling of the engines turned to silence as the element of carriers and tanks were gone. Suddenly the radio came alive with the cold logical voice of the next in command. In his distinct voice, he told the army group they were not going to Cavaria. A subordinate echoed what he just said as a confirmation, his voice illustrating his confusion. After confirming, the subordinate simply confirmed and closed his radio line.

…..

“Comrades, you have fought bravely. I can see why the Colonel puts so much trust in you all, you have all saved each other’s lives today. This is Major Vanery to all remaining units, the time has come for us to retreat. We will not be going to Cavaria but instead will be going to a coastal town where a freight ship will be taking us home. This directive comes from Army Command. Major Non and Second company will not be joining us. After multiple times, I was not able to contact them on the back-up frequency arranged. Our ancestors have a saying “live to fight again” and that is what we will do and then we will honour the Colonel’s memory by winning this war. Vanery out”.

…..

In the small docks of the remote coastal village a wheeled vehicle waited, its engine rumbling. The coast, though cramped was spacious enough to host an array of surface aircraft however they had not arrived yet. Instead there was just the vehicle, the mild rain and the desolate architecture of a place that had not been refurbished, even before war. After thinking for a second, Vanery, sitting in the back seat smoking a cigarette, concluded that it was simply the local lifestyle and he could do nothing about it. A stodgy fellow, balled headed and wearing glasses, walked up to the vehicle slightly bent, a large book covering him from getting wet. He passed the two guards to either side of him and knocked on the window. It slowly opened. Vanery popped his head outwards.
“They say you are asking me for papers?”. The clerk hesitated for a second before replying.
“I’m sorry Major but Colonel Arlov is dead. I cannot leave port with-“, Vanery interrupted him. He had tried twice in a short space of time but needed to raise his voice. The clerk, frustrated and shielding his already wet uniform, went silent.
“Do you know who Minister C’pavek is?”. Vanery leaned back, forcing the clerk to peer his head into the vehicle.
“Of course, he is minister of the region in this part of space”.
“And my father-in-law. Do this and I will make sure you are rewarded for your selfless service to the king”. The Clerk lowered his head, no longer making eye-contact with Vanery. Raising his voice in frustration, he said “Major, without some confirmation-”. Vanery cut him off again.
“Or perhaps I could just have my men shoot you. Perhaps your second in command is more eager to listen”. As if on cue, both sentinels raised their rifles at the clerk, clearly eager to get off the planet. Both had a dark look of vigilance in them. He paused for a second, looking at both men, assessing their willingness before peering his head back into the vehicle.
“We’ll go with the clear wind”.
“Very good”, Vanery bluntly said. He tapped the ash off his cigarette before signalling one of the guards to his window. He leaned in to hear Vanery’s voice.
“Tell the men”. The guard simply nodded and walked away. The window closed.

……..

In the day, there was chaos. Perkish was not sure where he was or what the army was doing but something was happening. In these times, he would consult with Laurraine, his dear friend, but Laurraine was nowhere to be seen and during the retreat he had gone missing. After that, everything fell apart and the only thing keeping everyone in a semblance of order was the prospect of leaving this place. After his squad broke down, he hitched a ride with another unit and managed to fit into the carrier, then he simply fell asleep. When he awoke, he was at Izmit, one of the coastal towns of Cavaria. His home, he would never see it again but after considering his options there was no other choice. If he stayed, it was likely he would suffer. He had seen the harm committed by the opposing army and that made him draught with anxiousness. He couldn’t fight on his own and the people who wanted to stay had no co-ordinated plan of how to survive. This was his only choice. He was in the centre of town and around him, there was no status quo of order. Soldiers of all rank and file mixed and moved about, eager to get to the evacuation transports. Civilians also took the opportunity to go as well. Many of them rushed to the ships, worry on their faces as if it had spread like a disease. The sense of hopelessness had overtaken all the inhabitants, new and recent, of the town and everyone shared the same feeling. For those who didn’t, those who wanted to stay, the prospects were different. Screaming and shouting could be heard from an alley somewhere in the town. Perkish tried to consider what it was but blanked out the possibility. Broken windows surrounded him where looting was evident and in some cases he had come across blood stains on the floor. Chaos and destruction was an ideal time to take advantage, loot and make reprisals against those who did wrong in one way or another. Somewhere in a district of the town, smoke rose where a building caught on fire and from the increasing thickness, it was spreading. It confirmed to Perkish the future prospects of this place once they left. A woman crashed into him, knocking him on the ground. Looking at him briefly, the middle aged figure moved on with no consideration of what she had just done. Getting up, he was knocked over again. After finally bracing himself on his legs, he stood up and began to move with the crowd.

…..

In the long line, the group of soldiers edged closer to the transport aircraft. They were close. A separate civilian line had been set up and was closely guarded. A man broke out of the line and was subsequently hit with the butt of a sentinel’s rifle and moved back in. A elderly woman pleaded with the soldiers to advance her but to no avail, they took no notice of her. In the distance somewhere, gunfire broke out. Several troops ran forwards to the sound. The line moved forward again. As the next aircraft landed and opened its hatch doors, troops began to move in. Perkish took a step on the ship before looking around. He would never see this again: the smell of the dry salted ocean that clung to the air, the endless golden fields of fertile soil, the rising concrete and glass spires of Cavaria’s docks. It put doubt into his mind to the future, he had never known anything outside and now there was little choice but to leave it. For some reasons which he could comprehend, either by the play of luck or God’s, he was here and would now go to wherever he was needed. He prayed Laurraine would also and he would see him one day. As he glanced around one last time, he saw the smoke once more and the clear blue sky, wondered what had happened before. He wondered what had led high command to this before being shoved by a soldier behind him into the ship. He braced as the aircraft lifted up and slowly elevated itself to a balance. Finding a seat next to a wounded private, he gazed out of a small hatch window. From above, the chaos looked organised as if the small contexts contributed to a whole grand narrative. It then clicked in Perkish’s head that even in the chaos, the killing, the cruelty of it all, it somehow promoted harmony on a higher level that he could not comprehend. Thinking about high command again, he wondered if they knew what they were doing and then gave up. Peering out of the window, he bid Cavaria a final farewell:

Never to see his home again.

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