Genre: A/U, Action/Horror
Rating: NC-17 to be safe
Warnings: Violence, death
Spoilers: It'd be a good idea to have seen the FMA anime first, but this AU diverges from later events anyway.
Word count: ~7000 for these chapters combined
Final Note: Criticism is much appreciated, have you time to spare.
25/12/06: Exasperated by all this military jargon? My laughable MSPaint skills bring you this helpful illustration.
Early tried in vain to rub the grit from his face. The sun had been swallowed by the horizon moments before, and an ominous red glow remained on the right of the awakening column. Friedrich was already up; he'd been part of the night watch, and weariness had hollowed out his eyes. Early clapped him on the shoulder and set to waking the others. Marder and Jochim had already been stirred to wakefulness by the fall of darkness, and each now arose from their pioneer graves and trudged to meet their sergeant. Their division had been inching along towards the Aerugan border each night, travelling a mere ten miles per hour in their trucks, headlights dimmed. Night brought the camel-spiders and scorpions crawling from their lairs, banishing any desire to stay in the relative comfort of the hastily-dug sleeping pits.
"Get some coffee going, we aren't moving out for another hour or so." They nodded and Early continued his walk along the roadside, past scattered pioneer graves and piles of equipment. Some wag had erected a sign reading Crater City, 120 miles! Ahead was Lieutenant Dietrich, hunched over a map with Jens. His gaze rose to meet Early's as he heard the platoon sergeant's approach.
"I don't know who we pissed off, but we just got spearhead detail."
Dawn was less than an hour away, and Dietrich felt as if he was perched on a precipice staring down into darkness. His platoon formed a link in the chain encircling the slumbering Aerugan base visible a shade under two miles away. This battle would formally mark the Amestrine invasion, and would be executed with overwhelming force. Estimates placed the base's garrison at battalion level, roughly five hundred fighting men. They were expected to be well-armed and trained to a high standard, and once alerted would quickly move to prepared positions. Once the attack was underway, they'd call for help, only to find that their phone lines had been cut in the night, courtesy of Special Operations.
In the forefront of the attack were the second and fourth battalions of the twenty-third infantry brigade, the 2/23rd and 4/23rd. The 3/23rd would remain in reserve, much to third battalion's chagrin. This attack force represented only a third of the 6th Division's manpower, but it would be supported by the full strength of the divisional artillery, some fifty howitzers in total. Six tanks had also been committed to the attack, and waited in defilade to Dietrich's left, their engines ticking over. The twenty-third was arrayed in classic "two up, one back" formation, with the 3/23rd forming the rear point of a triangle and the 2/23rd and 4/23rd forming the flat base. This pattern repeated fractally down to the company level, with White and Red deploying ahead of Blue, and the 4/23rd's heavy weapons company, Green, at their flank. Dietrich's platoon, as part of Red Company, would therefore be in the first (and hopefully only) wave of attack. He'd already exchanged some final words with sergeants Starr, Kessler and Jens, and now crouched in the cover of a dune with Early, standing by with the platoon's radio for the order to attack. The rest of Early's section lay nearby, all eyes on the distant Aerugan outpost. The shemaghs the troops habitually wore to keep out the dust left only their eyes bare, making it hard to discern their thoughts. Dietrich thought they were, by and large, doing a good job of hiding their pre-battle shakes. Friedrich's glasses kept sliding down his thin nose, and Jochim's hands unceasingly clenched on a small bronze pendant in the shape of a serpent. A good luck charm, most likely. Abrams and Marder exchanged some low words, their gaze flicking to the tanks concealed nearby. Dietrich's thoughts were interrupted by a whisper from Sieg.
"Sir! The Boss wants you at the head-shed; some last minute pep talk or something." Sieg was one of the section's more dependable soldiers; a policeman for two years in Aquroya. Despite being part of Dietrich's platoon, he was more often posted at Red Company's headquarters, serving as one of the messengers that each platoon kept at Captain Haumaier's command post if the need for radio-silent communication came up. Now he trailed Dietrich back to the forward CP. It wasn't much to look at, an olive-drab tent splayed over a table laden with maps and radios, a lonely field telephone resting on a chair, and a worn-out captain presiding over an equally grey command team. A storm lamp cast a red glow over the proceedings. Red Company's other lieutenants arrived alongside Dietrich, filling the already cramped command post.
"Coffee, anyone?" The captain looked up from a map plotting the battle plan. "No? Fine, gather round." A series of revisions had been inked on the map in red, and Haumaier's flashlight followed their trails. "Ok, this is pretty elementary stuff, but Battalion decided to give us some prior warning instead of springing it on us as we move. Red's going to flank around the base's western side, so we'll be doing some eleventh-hour repositioning, heading to Green's right flank." Muted groans. "On the plus side, we'll have the tanks screening our movement, so we should be ok. Ok, get the fuck out of here, back to your men. You've got half an hour to unass and redeploy."
Dietrich jogged back to his platoon's position in the lee of a shallow dune. Hand signals drew the platoon's sergeants together, and the platoon's movement was planned out. Soon the men were jogging through the grit and passing Green Company's dug-in mortars and heavy machine guns, their bodies low to the ground and their voices low. Occasionally, glances were thrown at the enemy positions, but there was no sign of alertness. It was a moonless night, lit only by flashes of lightning from storms piled on the Aerugan mountains, promising an arriving storm.
Within twenty minutes the men were settled again, and Dietrich lay prone, peering at the Aerugan fortifications through his field glasses. Magnified, the enemy base wasn't particularly impressive. A set of concrete barracks, garages and equipment sheds surrounded a central parade ground and were enclosed in turn by a chain-link fence. Guard towers sat at each corner, and armoured pillboxes guarded the front and rear entrances. A concrete-lined trench sat forward of the fence, zig-zagging to provide fighting positions for the garrison in case of an attack. Still, their location presupposed advance warning of attack, unless there were tunnels connecting them to the barracks. Dietrich shrugged the thought away. We're expecting a fight anyway. He turned to Early.
"Sarge, what're your thoughts on this one?" He passed the man his binoculars. The staff sergeant accepted them and took a look himself.
"Those trenches out front? The tanks aren't going to get past them. That's probably the reason for our redeployment." He lowered the glasses. "They'll have tunnels linking those to their barracks, stops them being caught out in the open. Noticed the zig-zags? Even once we've flanked them, our enfilading fire won't hit the whole trench, so we're probably better off tossing a few grenades, then bypassing them and hitting the barracks; they'll have a command post in there somewhere." He caught Dietrich's eye. "Looks like this could be a career-making action, if you want my opinion." The second lieutenant grimaced and looked again at the entrenchments.
"Heading through the wire didn't even occur to me." Early grinned tightly in the gloom.
"Don't worry LT, that's what I'm here for." The radio crackled. Both men turned to look, and Dietrich grabbed the handset. Over the channel came a terse message: Red Company, Haumaier. Execute. Repeat, execute.
"That's it," breathed Dietrich. He drew his flashlight and blinked twice at each section's position. A constellation of blinks answered him.
"Everybody up," hissed Early "we need to move before those bastards wake up!" The rest of the section rose. Ahead, the squads under Jens, Kessler and Starr had moved out, padding forward as ten-man skirmish lines, rifles held in readiness. The platoon's progress was mirrored to their left as the rest of Red Company moved out, ochre uniforms near-invisible against the sand. The eastern horizon beyond held a red dimness that seemed to presage the day's coming bloodshed. Dietrich flinched as a snarl sounded behind him, and he turned to see the battalion's tank detachment crawling forward, churning the sand under their treads as they kept pace with the advancing infantry.
The lightning had stopped some time before, but now the horizon lit up again as the State's artillery spoke, sending fountains of earth skywards and blasting the Aerugan base. The artillery would fire a handful of massed salvoes before leaving the infantry to do their work. As the first detonations sounded, the skirmish line broke into a jog, weapons braced and eyes straining at the objective. Beside Dietrich, Jochim stuck close with the platoon's radio, and visible alongside him was Doc Maxwell, from the brigade's medical detachment. He'd first met the man after they'd disembarked, and the medic had insisted on each man in the platoon wearing a set of ready field dressings around their necks. No-one had been able to argue with the flint-eyed corpsman, and Dietrich was sure his pre-preparation would pay off in future.
Now he could hear the sharp crack of mortar fire, the support platoons of each company opening up with their own artillery. Next came the machineguns, sending streams of tracer fire arcing lazily into the enemy encampment. The Aerugans were only four hundred metres away, now. The southerners replied with their own automatic weapons, muzzle flashes lighting up each guard tower. However, the heavy weapons platoons soon found their targets, and the towers came apart in a shower of splinters and pulverised flesh.
The sun was visible now, and revealed clouds of smoke hanging above the camp, the light from burning buildings illuminating everything else. The Aerugans were fighting back in earnest now, rifle fire erupting from the trenches and the windows of each barracks building, their firepower pitifully inadequate against the 23rd brigade's. Dietrich's platoon dived to the ground as they too were noticed, Aerugan bullets singing over their heads. The range was still long for accurate rifle fire, but the Aerugans needed to work their bolt-action rifles after every shot, whereas Dietrich's men could empty their magazines at the distant enemy before needing to reload. To his left, the lieutenant saw Abrams drop prone, resting his light machinegun on its bipod and firing a series of bursts at the enemy. Spent casings littered the ground next to him, and a fixed grin was plastered to his face.
Dietrich raised his head and shouted over the cacophany of battle, "Friedrich! Berhold! Get to Jens and Starr and tell them to leap-frog their squads forward, bounding overwatch-" A roll of staccato cannon blasts behind him, the light throwing every man into shocking relief against the ground. "-No, forget that! Tell them to get behind the tanks and keep advancing! Axel, get the same message to Kessler!" Nods all around. The squadron of light tanks had passed the prone infantry by, rolling forward at walking pace heedless of enemy gunfire. Their short-barrelled 37mm cannon spoke again, and explosions blossomed on the barracks buildings and along the Aerugan trenches. Each tank also boasted a pair of hull-mounted machine guns, and these fired ceaselessly, showering the southerners with lead. Dietrich motioned the rest of the squad up and sprinted to take cover behind the nearest of the steel monsters. He shouldered his submachinegun and mantled onto the tank's rear hull, making his way to the turret, banging his fist on the closed hatch. It popped open and the lieutenant found himself eye-to-eye with the vehicle's commander.
"Get the fuck off my vehicle!"
"Fuck your vehicle! Can you make a hole in their perimeter fence?" The man turned to look at the approaching wall as bullets swarmed past them.
"Our orders are to hit the trenches and forward bunkers!" They were screaming in each other's faces as the cannons fired again.
"I don't have time to go through the proper channels! Drive your tank through the wire and then go back to the attack, I don't give a shit! Just give my men an opening!" The other man paused and then nodded. He crouched further down in the turret and relayed orders to his driver. Abruptly the tank veered to the right, almost throwing Dietrich clear. He crouched lower and looked up. Ahead of them, Aerugan soldiers were visible on the roofs of the barracks buildings, taking potshots at Red company as it advanced. Higher up, they were perfect targets for every heavy machinegun in the brigade, and the fire took a terrible toll.
Dietrich took stock from his perch on top of the tank. His platoon seemed intact, with each section huddling behind or on top of a tank, firing when they could. Jens had gotten his squad's machinegunner to brace his weapon on the rails of their tank's cupola, adding what seemed a meagre amount to the armoured units' firepower. This close to the base, the lieutenant could make out the mangled forms of Aerugan personnel caught in the open during the artillery strike, and he could see the destruction wrought by the constant stream of machinegun fire, blasting showers of concrete from the buildings the garrison sheltered within. The frontal component of the attack had made steady progress, the 2/23rd advancing to almost point-blank range to engage the defensive trenches under supporting fire. The rest of the 4/23rd was likewise on the advance, and Dietrich saw grenades detonate among the defenders. He cast around for Jochim and saw him leaning around the tank, firing his rifle. Rolling from the tank, he grabbed the handset from the man's backpack radio. "Red HQ, One Platoon. Ready to breach western perimeter with support of tank group. Notify support and Green that we are danger close!" In other words, the mortar fire on this section of the base needed to stop.
"Roger, One Platoon. Red HQ out." The enemy were within spitting distance now, and Dietrich rose slightly from behind the turret to loose a burst of submachinegun fire through a window as a hint of movement caught his eye. Beneath him the tank dove forward once more, smashing through the seemingly insubstantial perimeter fence. It idled for a moment, and then began to reverse; if experience had taught the tank corps anything, it was that urban engagements were bad news, fit only for the infantry. Dietrich slapped the turret hatch once more in thanks, and slid from the vehicle, landing in a crouch next to Early.
"I would have suggested wire cutters, sir." The lieutenant barked a laugh as Early motioned the squad through the breach. The other squads had gotten the idea, and to their right Starr's tank broke through, continuing on into the base. Still further beyond, Red's third platoon hit the wall with a satchel charge, tearing a gap in the wire. As Early's section ran for the cover of a blasted barracks wall, a private Dietrich didn't recognise sprinted up, out of breath.
"S-sir! The LT -our Lieutenant- I mean, Lieutenant Irons in second platoon say he'll stay at the end of the trench system and secure your flank!" Dietrich nodded in reply and sent the messenger back on his way.
"Ok, first platoon hold here! Who's the least out-of-breath?" Every hand in the section rose. "Hah! Marder, get to Starr and tell him to get that tank back to the rest of the armour and rejoin us." The building they sheltered beside had collapsed under the weight of the Division's opening barrage, and Kessler and Jens had found cover for their squads in the ruins. As Dietrich gave his orders, Early pulled off his helmet and held it over the edge of the rubble. Satisfied, he peered over their shelter and across the parade ground. Pre-positioned barricades, oil drums filled with gravel, had been arranged to cover each exit from the barrack buildings, and each makeshift barrier sheltered a squad of Aerugan regulars, firing over the heads of their compatriots further forward in the trenches. Early glanced further to the right. Shit, they've got a-
The Aerugan anti-tank gun spat a round at the platoon, the shell colliding with a section of wall bare metres from Early. Choking in the dust, he fell behind the barrier. Dietrich's head whipped around in alarm.
"AT gun! They've got a bead on us!" The other two squads had opened up on the barricades, but the AT crew had their sights set on Early's section. "Sir, I've got this! Abrams, Friedrich, on me!" No fucker fires a fucking cannon at my fucking face! Fuck! The LT nodded and motioned for the rest of the section to relocate.
Early ran in low loping strides, the two privates barely keeping pace. The sergeant risked another glance over the rubble. Close enough. He pulled a stick grenade from his webbing and pulled the pin. Waited a few seconds. Friedrich blanched and started to say something, and Early hurled the bomb overarm, sending it along a shallow arc to land next to the AT crew's gun shield. For a moment Early swore he could see their pupils constrict. The detonation obscured the enemy in a flash of dust, a blood-soaked sleeve visible for a moment. As the dust fell away to reveal two mangled corpses, the three Amestrine soldiers braced their weapons and fired on the other barricades. Early's finger tightened on the trigger, and the enemy filled his sight.
Fire at any movement.
Fire at anything that's stopped moving.
Just to be sure.
Empty the whole fucking magazine.
He must be in some kind of bunker system, because every door he finds is an armoured hatch, adjacent to a narrow slit demonstrating the metre thickness of each wall. There are rifle racks and ammunition bins at each one, and the chipped surfaces of the surrounding walls attest to some kind of action here. Every door has been thrown open.
He wanders up stairwells, his nakedness an unwelcome imposition in this grim environment. Most of the lights have failed, and for a few levels he feels his way upward, both hands clenched around the handrail. After what could only have been minutes of ascent, he looks out on a communal area, a mess hall in all likelihood. It's empty like the rest of the complex, but the furniture remains, benches in disarray as if the hall had been evancuated hastily. He starts as a siren echoes through the complex, distorted by its journey through miles of cold concrete hallways. The blast continues for a handful of seconds, and then accedes to the silence.
Beyond the mess hall are the personnel quarters. Spots of blood are visible here and there on the floor and walls. A set of clothes sits, neatly folded, at the edge of one bunk. Trousers, white shirt, jacket. A pair of boots rest on the floor. He smiles privately.
A wide concrete staircase grants access to an entrance chamber. A freight elevator looms in the corner, and there are patches of dampness on the concrete floor. He looks up to see veins of moisture reaching out from minute cracks in the ceiling, drops of water raining down with barely perceptible rings against the floor. The ceiling itself is cylindrical in form, and draws his attention to an armoured door in the distant, unlit side of the room. A flickering field light sits next to it, focused on a man-sized access door. This is as clear a sign as he will receive.
The door leads to a room that in turn is promised to lead to the outside world. This isn't immediately apparent, because there is a severed head resting on the room's only item of furniture, a chair. The head sits in a pool of red fluid. As he approaches, it blinks, and mouths a single word.
A smile distorts his face.
3. This is the tragedy "Man"
Puppet trudged through the hissing sand, goggles fixed over his eyes. Through the dust, the moonlight shifted, chasing blurred shadows along the ground. Division HQ was lit up like an Ishbalan bazaar at dusk, visible through the sleeting clouds of grit. Camouflage netting had been thrown across the ruined bulk of an ancient temple surmounted by the worn figure of a stone harpy, detail etched from its face by time. He'd forgotten to wrap a shemagh around his face, and the alchemist's mouth curled as he tried to spit out some sand, settling into a resigned grimace as he neared the cluster of tents. Throwing the sentry a desultory salute, he made to enter. The canvas walls rippled in the wind, surrounded by a waist-high sandbag barricade. Unclasping the entrance's fastenings, he stepped across the threshold and out of the relative calm of the storm.
The Division HQ was a buzz of activity, built around the message centre. Three shifts of signal corps personnel worked tirelessly, letting Falkender and his headquarters company bring the Division's unwieldy bulk into motion. Like fabled Behemoth, it could only move slowly, and reacted to attack with ponderous might.
The 6th and 12th Divisions had long since parted ways, as Battlegroup Falkender split in two to handle the demands of the Fuhrer's campaign. While Falkender himself remained in nominal command of the 12th, the distance was too great for effective leadership, and he trusted in his junior, Major-General Blaine, to sucessfully hold the line along the Reyo Chiprana.
After their signal victory at the Aerugan border, the battlegroup had proceeded unmolested more than forty miles into enemy territory, necessitating a halt while their lengthened supply lines were able to establish a new supply point further forward. Major-General Falkender leant on a creaking table that spanned the far side of the message centre, hovering over soldiers from the Signals company constantly working the switchboards. The 2/22nd was in the process of fighting off a night attack, their enemy Aerugan irregulars down from the hills, the so-called Broken Lances. A sound like thunder rose above as the divisional artillery fired in support of the dug-in grenadiers, and Falkender's eyes flicked up to fix Puppet.
"You'll accompany the cavalry to the 2/22nd's bivouac. They're waiting at the wire." he said flatly. Puppet's salute was less sketchy this time.
"...yes, sir." He strode away.
The convoy sat, as promised, at the wire barrier delineating the end of the camp and the beginning of the temporary minefields the pioneers threw down every time Division HQ settled. A squadron of six tanks hunched alongside ten armoured cars from the division's armoured cavalry troop. Painted along the flank of the second car in line was a fairly neat depiction of the rampant Amestrine dragon swallowing a stylised Aerugan wasp. The troop commander looked up as Puppet approached.
"Major, just in time!" The captain gave the alchemist a hand up into his command vehicle. The thinly-armoured car had a soft top that provided scant relief from the scouring dust, but it was better than nothing. As he sat, the captain reached down, selecting a stone from a small pile on the floor of the vehicle's bed. Puppet stared quizzically as the officer pitched it, striking the lead tank's turret. The captain caught his look and explained, "It's the storm fouling up our radios; the blasted dust gets into everything." Now the tank commander had emerged and turned to face the captain. Clenching his fist, he waved his arm in the go signal. The convoy shuddered into motion.
He feels the sand beneath his feet, between his toes. The Aerugan man sitting by the fire looks up (why are his eyes red?) and smiles, motioning for him to sit beside the fire. He smiles as well, and presses the muzzle of his pistol to the man's forehead.
This was the third night enlivened by that dream. Early woke with a start, eyes flicking around the shaded length of the tent. His nerves were on fire, and he sighed at the unfairness of it. Safely behind the lines at the 4/23rd's supply dump, Red Company was taking what amounted to R and R, spending their days riding shotgun on the field convoys keeping the rest of 4/23rd fed, and then - untold luxury! - falling asleep on bedrolls within the shelter of a tent as night fell. Rumours abounded that irregulars were about to pour out of the mountains and swamp the State forces, but apart from the Lances further south, the quasi-religious factions that the Aerugans had ceded border control to - the Orders Limitant - had been utterly silent. The Special Operatives had alluded to hidden troop movements and the building up of supplies, but Early knew they thrived on that kind of cloak-and-dagger stuff. He wasn't complacent, though. The border forces, their honour sullied, would either turn and attack - as the Lances had - or bide their time, waiting for the State's forces to be attrited by combat before striking out at its vulnerable flank. Not that Old Man Falkender would let that happen; he'd no doubt dispatch the SOs and picked detachments of troops to root out the Orders in their mountain fastnesses before they became a real thorn in Division's side.
Settling further down in his cot, the sergeant stared at the moon, a glimmer through the canvas. It took an instant of conscious effort to hear the sand whistling past the walls; the noise had been ubiquitous for the last few days. Over the muffled roar, he fancied he could hear the squad breathe. He'd expected Abrams, at least, to snore, but the big man slept silently, and none of the others broke the hush within the tent. Despite the hour, he suddenly felt no need for sleep. The voice of experience shrieked within him. Grab every second you can. This may be the last chance you'll have to rest. Fatigue dulls your edge, gets your men killed. He forced his eyes shut, and willed dreamless sleep to come.
The car bucked as it traversed the broken ground, knocking about the men within. The cavalry troop's commander, going by the name Kilgore, had been pleased to make Puppet's acquaintance once he'd recognised the badge of a State Alchemist. The convoy had travelled as a staggered column for the last half an hour, as rough country roads faded into unmarked dirt and scrub, and now they neared the fighting. The storm had begun to clear, allowing an awesome starlit vista to open up ahead of them. At each horizon loomed the mountains of the border zone, their chill heights glistening. As they approached, shells whickered overhead and threw the approaching ridges into relief against the star-specked sky.
One of Kilgore's men had manage to coax the vehicle's radio back into working order, and had made contact with the 2/22nd's headquarters. Their field telephone lines had been cut, but they'd managed intermittent radio contact with Division HQ since the convoy's departure.
"This is it, Major: up the next ridge and we'll have direct sight of the 2/22nd's field base." Kilgore's eyes were unreadable behind their field goggles, but his bared teeth shone. The tanks were outpacing them now, their broad treads and lozenge-shaped hulls leaving them well-equipped for the navigation of treacherously sandy inclines. The armoured car wove back and forth across the face of the ridge, gradually gaining purchase. Then the base came into view.
The second battalion, 22nd Infantry Brigade had made their camp on the crown of a wide, low-slung mound that looked out across the plain, unchallenged except by the ridges the convoy now crossed. The entire battle was lit in actinic intensity; mortars raining star-shells down on the perimeter, and threads of tracer fire swinging down the slope, where here and there Puppet could see irregulars concealed behind boulders and in ditches, exposing themselves as little as possible as they fought. Puppet had come from a scientific background instead of a martial one, but here he had no problem discerning the tactical problem facing the 2/22nd. Night's fall and the ferocity of the storm had allowed the Lances to exploit the terrain, slipping past the listening post that should have been established outside the battalion's perimeter and closing to within a hundred metres of the Amestrine position. Danger close. Two words encapsulating the fear inspired by even friendly artillery. Puppet narrowed his eyes as another barrage landed, utterly obliterating an swathe of empty field. With the enemy concentrated so close, Division's firepower was essentially neutered, useful only for preventing retreat. In the face of the enemy's fanatical resistance, that wasn't a great comfort. Still, broken bodies scattered no closer than fifty metres of the Amestrine fighting positions spoke of their continued discipline, and even as the convoy gained the top of the ridge another assault was repulsed, the survivors scuttling to safety as bullets threw up showers of dirt.
"Shit, the apes have a whole battalion down there, at least." Kilgore grabbed the radio's handset and began barking orders.
"Captain, this is where I leave you." Kilgore looked at him, aghast. "Don't fret, this is my area of expertise. Thank you for the ride." The alchemist eased over the car's door and dropped to the ground, landing in a crouch with his eyes fixed on the battle ahead. Without looking down, he tugged the gloves from his hands. On the left, an alchemical array was revealed, spidery lines tatooed across each surface, converging on the palm. He rose, framing the scene before him, dozens of Aerugan irregulars, apes, holding fast in the dead ground below the State positions. A dance of alchemical energy lit up the array and ahead sparks crawled along the ground, jumping across the startled Lances with no ill effect. Puppet released a breath in a convulsive shudder, and looked up. "Captain? Order the tanks to fire when ready." Perplexed, the officer nodded. A moment later and the snub-nosed barrels spat, their shells detonating amidst the Aerugans-
-and being completely subsumed in the hellishly bright glare of an explosion that wreathed the bottom of the hill in fire. Thunder rolled over the 2/22nd on a wave of dust. The twisted cloud above the detonation lingered for a moment, then frayed in the desert wind, revealing a smooth-sided crater where before the Lances had rallied. At its periphery a scattered few lay, apparently intact. The entire battle paused for a further few seconds, and then the guerrillas broke, all but the most die-hard throwing down their weapons and running for the hills.
"Major, what did you do?" Puppet pulled his gaze from the crater.
"Let's join the second battalion." He smiled thinly. "Your men are heroes now."
Dietrich and Early strode along the buried length of an ancient highway as they approached the temple Division HQ had reclaimed. The eyeless stone woman perched above the capstone still managed to regard them balefully as they trudged into the command tent, letting a shaft of unfiltered daylight in with them. Dietrich brought his eyes up as he entered and pulled up short as he recognised Captain Haumaier. He resisted the urge to salute; the HQ was still technically in the field, and saluting a superior was an excellent way of wishing them death by sniper. He stepped further forward, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of Red Company's lieutenants, gathered around the captain. As he nodded at Irons from Two platoon, Major-General Falkender looked up from the table he'd been working at and turned to face the gathered officers.
"That's it? Good." Falkender wasn't a particularly remarkable man; of average height, sporting an impressive moustache matching hair bleached by age. Round spectacles gave the Old Man a somewhat fatherly appearance, but his posture was impeccable and Dietrich straightened further still as the general's gaze rested upon him for a moment. "The captain will brief you in-depth later, but for now I need volunteers and you're them. Special Ops have identified a guerrilla stronghold in the mountains and Red Company is tasked with erasing it. The major here will provide support to the extent it proves necessary." Now Dietrich noticed the man standing at Falkender's side, the soot-dulled gleam of a State Alchemist's pocket-watch visible at his hip. He'd spoken briefly with the man, in what seemed an age ago back at the mustering ground deep in South City, and had never learned his name.
Red Company inched along through the brush, an ochre column dragging their feet in the parched soil. Early cast hooded eyes along the ridge looming ahead of them, the latest knife-edged barrier in a series they'd conquered so far, these weary miles out from the western encampments. The plains beyond the border mountains were visible only as a flat sliver over the farthest rises to the south, coloured a dull red in the light of the sinking sun. There was a crackle from Jochim's radio and Dietrich reached out for the proffered handset. He listened for a moment.
"Copied, sir. One platoon out." He replaced the handset and shouldered his gun, reaching for a canteen as he met Early's look. "We're stopping here and digging in for the night. Get the men dispersed." Early nodded and hopped atop a nearby rock, catching Axel's attention. The junior sergeant stood at the back of the platoon, and he signalled his understanding. The three sections ground to a weary halt, each squad falling apart as men found places to sit and shucked off their webbing, loaded down with water and ammunition. After a brief respite, the sergeants took over, assigning tasks and cursing the grunts out of their torpitude.
"Get those fox-holes ready! Sweat now, or you'll bleed later!" Jens' bellow was clearly audible and brought a smile to Early's face. He looked expectantly at his squad, and with a groan they got their entrenching tools clear and began hacking at the ground. Dietrich, Early and Sieg remained standing, eyes out in every direction to provide local security. Back to the east, down a slight slope, the rest of Red dug in. A line of mules was being led upward by a sour-looking corporal from Red's command section. The vile animals carried the company's rations and additional ammunition, leaving the men only their essentials and freeing them for combat. Accompanying the junior NCO were a gaggle of privates: the company cook and his assistants. Tonight their culinary talents were exercised only in the doling out of mess tins and cardboard-packed ration boxes.
After some initial resistance, the baked earth had proven amenable to excavation and now each member of the squad stood within a deepening waist-high hole, dirt piling up at each parapet. Sieg had been reassigned to sand-bag duty and Dietrich's place in the watch had been replaced by Axel, with the second lieutenant making his way down-hill to put his head together with the other officers and work out the company's defensive disposition. Now the LT was making his way back to One platoon, a quintet of grenadiers from the heavy weapons platoon in tow. Their senior introduced himself as Corporal Moresby, and the four privates under his command made up one of Red's two machine-gun teams. Their tripod mounted weapon had a long, air-cooled barrel and outsized Abrams' LMG by a fair margin. Three of the gunners began assembling the weapon while Moresby and the fourth began hacking out a pit for the weapon next to Connol's fox-hole. The rest of the squad had completed their pits and now converged on the pile of ration packs at the edge of their makeshift camp.
The State's "C" Field rations consisted of three cans of tinned meat per man, one tin of vegetables, and a packet of crackers. The men wolfed them down cold, unwilling to build a fire in the enemy's territory. Early dug in his pocket and brought out a four-ounce chocolate bar, "D" ratio issue. He made a habit of saving the things; they were too bitter to eat unless you were desperate, which was the entire point. He still needed something to take the edge off after the "C", though. Munching slowly, he swept his eyes over the rest of the company. The whole thing was spread out in a roughly triangular shape, a rifle platoon forming each corner and the HQ section buried in the middle with the weapon platoon's mortars. The rest of Heavy Weapons had been split between One, Two and Three platoons to provide extra perimeter security. A party had been detached from HQ to mark out firing lanes for each machine-gun and set trip-flares at likely lay-up points for enemy scouts.
"Connol, you're first up on night watch." The private nodded uphappily and accepted a pair of binoculars and an extra canteen from Dietrich. The stars were dimly visible against the darkening sky, and the lieutenant stared for a moment. Growing up with Central's light pollution meant that Aerugo's stars were the first ones he'd really had time to sit and gaze at. They weren't worth it, though. Not with everything else he'd seen.
Early sat back in his fox-hole and pulled his rain-cape over to cover the entrance, hoping to trap some warmth within as the night gradually grew chill. His eyes had lain closed for an hour before they flew open again, the smiling Aerugan fading from his vision as gunshots sounded. The sergeant bolted upright, fixing a magazine in his submachine-gun as he rose. Eyes narrowed, he lifted the rain-cape's edge and scanned the mounded top of the ridge. There. A muzzle-flash, a hint of movement, figures caught for a moment by the starlight. Three hundred metres away, but closing at a steady lope. Early threw aside the cape and raised his voice.
"Squad, fingers on triggers!" The others were rising now, and Connol, nearing the end of his shift, had already emptied one magazine at the enemy and was crouched down, the top of his helmet visible as he brought another home. More to direct the squad than in the hope of actually hitting anything, Early fired a burst at the rushing shapes, hearing the squad's rifles join him one by one. Abrams opened up with the light machine-gun, expending an entire drum of ammunition with a sound like tearing cloth. There was a shout from Moresby and the heavy machine-gun opened up, its incessant howl drowning out the rest of One platoon as it spat red tracer rounds in an arc, over the heads of the advancing guerrillas. The gunners adjusted their weapon and the chain of glowing rounds was interrupted shockingly as one irregular fell into its line of fire, his death a pause in the red stream as a hail of bullets pulped his torso. Heedless of the fire, the Aerugans continued to close, screaming in their incomprehensible tongue as they ran, shooting from the hip or kneeling for a moment to loose an aimed shot. Dirt danced into the air near Early and he snarled, crouching further and resting the barrel of his gun atop the fox-hole's parapet. The guns continued to chatter and a star-shell drifted overhead in a lazy arc, casting its glow over the battlefield and narrowing the night into knife-edged shadows. "Berhold, Sieg, hit that fucker with the grenade," Early yelled as a guerrilla brought his arm back, a stick bomb clenched in his hand. Red stars bloomed on the man's chest and he fell to his knees, losing his grip on the grenade. It detonated a moment later, driving him face-first into the ground.
The remaining guerrillas had taken cover on the reverse slope of the ridge's other side, exposed to Two platoon's fire but out of Early's sight. A few feet away, Dietrich struggled out his fox-hole and cast around, grabbing his webbing and submachine-gun.
"Sarge, I'm taking Jens' squad and flanking the bastards. Hold here."
"Understood, sir," Early replied "no heroics, right?" The lieutenant's eyes were in shadow as he grinned. Bounding across the dead space between the dug-in squads, he brought up Jens' men with a gesture and the eleven of them set off at a jog, heading towards the ridge's crown. As they approached, each man dropped flat to avoid silhouetting themselves, and every second man primed a grenade. Three hundred metres away, Early heard the collective shout from his fox-hole: "Frag out!" Plumes of dirt rose from behind the ridge and the men rose swiftly, darting forward the last few feet to the summit and dropping prone once more, each man in a firing position.
Dietrich's world narrowed down as if viewed through a telescope. Below him, a platoon's worth of Aerugans, at least forty men, lay crouched or prone, exchanging fire with the Amestrine troops further down-hill. Some had been torn by the volley of frag grenades, and still others rolled to focus on the new threat to their flank. Eyes widened in dirt-smeared faces and rifles swung to regard the enfilading squad. Too slow!
Moments later, they looked down on a score of corpses. A groan sounded and the men fired again on reflex.
"Cease fire," he raised his voice, "cease fire! Snowball, get Doc up here." He'd begun to look back at the wounded when the gunfire started afresh; a second detachment of Lances coming from the north. Dietrich swore and wriggled further into cover as tracers swung overhead, out of the darkness. The bastards have a machine-gun. By the sound of it, one of the cumbersome water-cooled models that ape central command happily dispensed to the feudalistic border groups. The gun was set up in defilade on an adjacent ridge, and the second wave of guerrillas were advancing under the cover it provided. Jens coaxed the men into opening fire once more, and ahead one of the advancing figures dropped to the ground as if his strings had been cut.
Dietrich started as a man dove to the ground beside him. It was the alchemist accompanying Red, and he'd brought a section from Three platoon with him. Tugging the shemagh from over his mouth, he rolled to face the lieutenant.
"Have you started zeroing in the mortars?" Dietrich blanched; he'd been too caught up in the firefight. Hastily he grabbed a handset from Jens' radioman and tugged out a spare pair of binoculars. The newly-arrived squad was dispersing into firing positions, and more of the guerrillas ahead staggered and fell.
Puppet dared a look above the ridge's summit. Exposed like this, it was damn lucky the irregulars had no field artillery with them. On their own initiative, the mortars had launched star-shells beyond Dietrich's position, putting a spotlight on the advancing guerrillas. That gun's a little far for line-of-sight transmutation, but these men out in the open...
"Ease!" Bellowed the unnamed major. That was a signal in the artillery corps, a sign to open the mouth before the cannon fired and the air pressure changed. The rest of the men repeated the yell on instinct. Dietrich had given the fire-for-effect order only an instant before his vision was washed out by a blast that outshone the star-shells and gave way to a boiling crimson cloud of ash and smoke that rose before the ridge. His ears sore and ringing, he rolled back onto his stomach and stared open-eyed at the expanding cloud that blotted out the stars above like a thunderhead.
The door's bolt surrenders with a screech as it flies apart, revealing a sun-bleached panorama that staggers him before his eyes readjust. He stands under the lip of a multi-kilometre-wide crater, looking down on to a terraced city, a wilting amalgamation of stucco walls and red-tiled roofs. Rising in the centre is a spired building that commands a set of scenic grounds, their lush green shocking in the midst of this bleakness. He stumbles through the threshold in a daze, his feet resting on compacted earth. In the shadows to either side of him, in artificial caverns hollowed from the crater walls, webs of steel and machinery boom in the darkness. Looking up, he sees that the crater's rim is limned in grey, one thousand thousand shades of it, pumping torrents of smoke skyward.
Even standing in the shadows as he does, he feels the air's warmth, so greatly different than the chill confines of the bunker he's just escaped from. He's much further south than he'd suspected, but comfort fills him as memories tumble back, and he knows he is safe, at least for now. Retreating back through the doorway, he resculpts himself carefully, preening over each detail until he's appropriately inconspicuous.