A War Apart: The Lion's Cousin - By TheDanish

Sepp Lee spat from his perch atop one of the platoon's tanks. He didn't bother holding his head high once the wad of wet splattered against the dirt; instead he took a relaxed position with elbows on knees, one calloused hand dangling and the other busy with fiddling fingers. He did his damndest to clear out the dirt from his nails one-handed, but after a good minute of effort he gave up and let it loose too.

He squinted up at the sky, wondering at the evening heat. It wasn't so terrible, and for once in his funny life he found himself thanking Command for making a smart move - assigning the unit desert-pattern vehicles. The brighter colors ate up less heat during the day compared to the standard orange and dark green.

Sepp looked back down and a strand of his curly blonde hair fell randomly. Evidence of premature baldness? His pap didn't suffer from it. He thought what he would look like without hair and figured it would be strange. And lumpy.

A solitary soldier ambled by the tank, rifle slung over one shoulder, binoculars around his neck, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Sentry duty. Sepp abruptly shot an extended finger in his direction. "Hey!"

The soldier jolted his head and blinked, startled. "Sir?"

Sepp held his expression firm. It felt odd, like his facial muscles weren't used to it. He didn't do a lot of things with a stern attitude. Then he grinned devilishly. "What time is it, soldier?"

The infantryman grinned back. Lieutenant Sepp, always playing games, Sepp imagined the soldier thought. "'Few after six, sir."

"Thanks." A silence, and then, "Say, soldier, you got another cig on ya?"

"Sure thing." He dug around his pocket and came up with a box of smokesticks. He tossed the whole thing, and a lighter, up to the lanky lieutenant.

Sepp pulled one out, stuck it between his dry, sand-battered lips, and flicked the lighter on. A yellowish flame leaped and danced in merriment of its liberation, bare heat warming his lean face, but the fire's festivities were cut short once Sepp's cigarette was burning. He tossed both pieces back to the soldier. "Thanks a bunch."

"No problem, sir." The soldier, however, didn't continue his patrol. He looked to the west through a gap in the trees, towards the fading orange horizon. Sepp looked too, but not at the sun. He focused on the wood: wasn't dead, despite all the dirt and sand. Patches of green grass splotched the rolling countryside. A low chorus of cricket hums blanketed the late afternoon landscape. Sandstorms hadn't killed everything - lucky that. He reckoned they were all due a bit of luck.

Sepp turned back, bony nose pointing along the tank's long barrel. The exaggerated mental image of the silhouette he and his machine made was almost comical. He inhaled, sucking on his cigarette, and plucked it from his lips. As he let out his breath gray smoke billowed forth, momentarily clouding his vision. He lazily waved one hand in a feeble attempt to encourage the smoke's departure.

The gray stuff gradually floated away, but a small cloud refused to budge, suspended in air. It took Sepp a couple heartbeats to realize it wasn't smoke at all but a plume of dust in the distance. North, the direction his tank faced. All the signals of another sandstorm, except…

"Never from the north," Sepp mumbled.

The soldier glanced over. "What was that, sir?"

Keeping his eyes locked on the cloud, Sepp beckoned his companion over. "Gimme your field glasses, private."

The sentry didn't question his orders. He relieved his neck of the binoculars and slapped them into Sepp's hand. Sepp heaved them up - a heavy pair, meant to take some punishment - and set his eyes on the lenses.

Took a little focusing but Sepp got it right after some fooling around. The dust cloud, it seemed, was sand kicked up by a vehicle breaching a far-off hill. Recon, looked like. But it wasn't Orange Star. Not the right design or color. Sepp couldn't place it.

He offered the glasses back to the soldier while pointing off. "Private, take a look see and tell me what's out there."

Again, the soldier silently obeyed, accepting and readjusting them for his own eyes. "It's a recon, sir."

"I can damn well see that. It's not OSA, though."

Seconds ticked by. Finally, another answer: "Looks like a Green Earth unit." He relaxed his arms, looking curiously at his superior. "Closest Greenie unit around's gotta be… thirty klicks north, Lieutenant. Calciki area. What's he doing way down here?"

Sepp squinted, as if his eyes were a match for the powerful lenses. "You got me," he muttered. "Can't imagine they're lost."

The soldier frowned and returned to watching the object of their fascination. By now, the remote hum of the recon was perceptible. It bounced down the hill, angling this way and that. The damndest thing. Wonder if they ran into some groundhogs. Looking for help, maybe? Groundhogs. The less-than-flattering euphemism for Black Hole troops.

"Sweet heaven!"

Sepp broke his stare from the recon and glanced to his right. The sentry's mouth hung open. Sepp reexamined the northern terrain.

The entire far side of the hill swelled with dust even as he watched. More shapes rose over the hill's crest, by ones and twos, until a dozen came into view. Though the particulars were hard to distinguish, the collective din of the new outlines was unmistakable. Enormously loud diesel engines. Tanks.

Sepp tossed that over in his head. Diesel meant they weren't Orange Star. OSA main battle tanks - Oberons - were propelled by turbine engines, which produced a recognizable roar.

"Glasses." They changed hands once more. Sepp brought them up and his augmented vision told him all he needed to know. The tanks were squatter than Oberons but noticeably larger. Lynx. Definitely Green Earth.

Sepp twisted his torso and leaned over the side of his metallic roost, looking back towards the main body of the camp. The figures that strolled about were few. No one seemed anxious, no one ran to and fro bearing messages. He figured that there would've been some sort of radio chatter from the Greens. There was no news of scheduled troop movements as far as Sepp knew.

It really didn't concern him all that much. Everyone was so damn tired of the war that they were probably just doing as they pleased, having some fun. Sepp grinned inwardly at the thought of joining them, if he didn't bear the respect he did for Christoph's command.

But still, it was probably prudent to head to the comm tent. He stood slowly and stretched, cigarette still sloping from his mouth, and then sluggishly clambered down to the ground. No need to rush. He handed off the binoculars for the final time. "Aight, soldier, I'm heading over to the radio boys, see if they know anything about this. Keep an eye out and tell me if they come this way. They're probably just bored out of their minds, like us."

The sentry nodded with a salute. "Yes sir. Will do."

Sepp turned to leave and moseyed his way between his tank and the next, still puffing on his cigarette. He left the perimeter and walked about ten meters into the collection of tents, doing his best to remember which one housed the radio station.

A few moments later, a muffled poom sounded to Sepp's rear. He knew that sound. It wasn't a good sound. He whirled about, ready to scan for the characteristic rounded profile of Black Hole armor-

His tank was suddenly and absolutely shattered by a searing yellow explosion. Sepp yelped and desperately threw his arms in front of his face. White hot pain sheeted his unclothed forearms. Thousands of pinpricks punched their way through his thin summer shirt - like a horde of bees all stung his chest at once.

Everything was blue and orange. What the hell? Then he realized he was looking at the sky. He was on his back. There was a strange ringing in his ears. Sepp groaned - or, he thought he did, he couldn't even hear himself think - and sat up. Probably shoulda checked himself for injuries. His head reeled, but he managed to focus his vision and look around. His former tank was a shell of scrap, a heap of burning metal so bright he couldn't look at it directly. The sentry he'd exchanged words with was nowhere to be seen.

Sepp realized the man was probably dead.

"Shit." This he heard. Good, he wasn't deaf. Men yelled, curses filled the air. Sepp picked himself up and almost fell over, stumbling and catching his balance. His legs worked. Also good. He staggered deeper into the camp. More explosions. Soldiers ran frantically with no perceptible order, but Sepp's subconscious knew they were all drilled for an event like this. Each had their own place.

He seized one tankman stiffly by the arm. The soldier's eyes were wide with fright and confusion. He struggled before realizing his assailant was the lieutenant.

"Sir, what the f*** is going on?" Sepp's breathing was ragged. "Don't know, private. Was hoping you could tell me. I think I blacked out. Where's Black Hole?" He had a million questions about where they came from too, and how they'd managed to get the jump on them, but Sepp's better judgment told him this man knew no more than he.

The soldier blinked. "Sir? It's not the groundhogs."

Sepp's grip on his arm tightened. "What?"

"It's not Black Hole, sir. It's the Greens!"

Sepp felt his body go rigid. He processed this revelation, still shell-shocked. "What the f***? Where'd they come from?"

"The north, sir! Weren't you there?" The soldier looked at his arm, ready to say something about Sepp's clutch, but he stopped. "Lieutenant…"

Sepp glanced down. His inner forearm was burned a deep red, hairs charred black. Trickles of blood seeped from a few open wounds. The front of his shirt was almost completely shredded and in places stained rose. Funny, there was no pain.

"Sir, I need to get to my tank! Get yourself to a medtent!" With that, the soldier yanked himself free and sprinted off, helmet nearly falling from his skull.

Sepp merely stood there like an abandoned child, watching the retreating man. Another explosion tore into something metal behind him, the evening air briefly lit as superfluous evidence of its power.

Green Earth. What the f***? He had to see it to believe it. He looked to his right and left. A pile of crates rested in the middle of the encampment. He dashed over, and, one by one, scaled the manmade mountain. The top wasn't much higher than the tents, but it was high enough. When he reached it he stood on shaky legs and looked to the north.

There had been a dozen pine-green Lynx tanks out there before. Now there were twenty or so, the latest newcomers still rolling down the far hill. The closer ones alternatively let loose with their cannons. The dull thuds of their firing were drowned out by the detonation of their rounds, which came far more frequently now. A couple of the first ones to show were already trekking up the quarter-mile slope towards the Orange Star embankment.

Awe-struck, Sepp swept the camp's perimeter. Three metal hulks on the very far edge, formerly Oberons, burned in their own fuel, his perch included. Two more closer in were visibly crippled. A couple bodies were scattered amongst the wreckage, but a solitary pair of field glasses lay deserted in the dirt. The remaining tankmen scrambled to their machines.

A familiar sound growled underneath the deafening din of exploding tank rounds. The high-pitched whine of Oberon turbines starting up, and before long the whine became a roar. Sepp prayed fervently that wonderful noise would only become louder with the addition of more friendly tanks.

Once Sepp clambered down from the crates and hit the ground, he did his best to sprint for the radio tent. His mind worked over and over, seeking an impossible answer to an impossible question.

Why Green Earth?

* * * * *

Christoph leaned forward, elbows on the wooden table. An air of suspense saturated the conference room. If he didn't know better, he would've said Rachel was dragging out the disclosure just to create apprehension.

Max, however, wasn't amused. "What about Green Earth?" he asked simply.

Rachel's eyes swung between the members of her audience. Then, they rested on the folder sitting in front of her. She flatted a hand over it and propelled it across the table; it expertly halted in front of the four of them. Well, Jake had to lean in a little.

Max took this as unspoken permission to open it and did so. Within were a series of eight-by-eleven black-and-white photographs. The big man spread them out for all to see. Christoph half-stood to get a better view.

They were clearly reconnaissance photos. Christoph guessed aircraft, not satellite, but something was odd about them.

Rachel cleared her throat again. "These photos were taken a few days ago, by one of our recon aircraft."

Sami picked one up and handled it, tilting it one direction and her head in another, her hair sagging to one side. She narrowed her eyes. "These look pretty high up for a jet."

Christoph looked at her. "But too low for a sat."

"I can't tell you anything other than they were taken by aircraft. Trust me." Christoph examined Rachel. Only a slight curling of one lip. Clearly holding something else back. He guessed immediately that the aircraft in question was new and most probably classified. They wouldn't get any more answers from the CG concerning it.

So, instead, he turned his attention back to the content of the pictures. Wooded plains, it looked like, with lighter areas more uniform in shade. Those were probably regions that had undergone desertification. Just like his hometown. He frowned. That wasn't what he wanted to see, and definitely wasn't the subject of the photographs.

The true focus seemed to be the armored regiments sitting in battle-ready formation. The individual tanks and machines were impossible to pick out, the photos had been taken from so high up, but something about them didn't exactly feel right.

Jake poked a finger at his sheet. "These are Green Earth guys, right?"

"That's right. But the problem is-"

"They're definitely not in the right place. Uncool," Jake said, advertently or inadvertently interrupting Rachel, Christoph couldn't tell. "I can make it out. That's southern Calciki, where I'm from."

It was Sami's turn to ask a question. "Is that not where they're supposed to be?"

Rachel shook her head. "No. Like Jake said, the Green Earth unit is stationed south of the city of Calciki. Their last assignment was north of the city proper."

Max blew air from his lungs, tossing his picture onto the table. "So what? We're not their boss, maybe Green Earth wanted to move them for whatever reason. Maybe they found some Black Hole goons and decided to take 'em out."

Again, the CG shook her head. "There's something else. While relations between the Four Great Nations haven't been stellar of late, Orange Star and Green Earth affairs have taken a turn for the worse. That hasn't been reported to the media yet."

Sami chewed on her lower lip, a worried shadow newly cloaking her face. "How far downhill?"

Christoph glanced over to her; the tone in Sami's voice sounded almost personally affected by the news.

"Fairly far. They've made some pretty ridiculous demands. Territory cessations in Omega Land. Additional reparations for their aid, beyond what was originally agreed upon. Things like that.

"And," Rachel added, rotating her pointing index finger, "If you look at all of the photos and where they were taken, it's pretty clear that Green Earth is making moves to defend against the other armies, as if it expects an attack. Except towards us. Most nearby Green Earth units are, ah - well, intelligence says they're making preliminary preparations for an assault."

Christoph was taken aback. "Shit," he mumbled. "Assault us?"

Rachel nodded solemnly.

A full minute passed without a noise other than their collective breathing. Christoph sat there, brow furrowed, unable to understand any of it. He wasn't a politician. He'd just been handed a Commanding Officer rank but now he felt less sure of his new position. He was a fighter, meant to be out on the front lines. Sure, he was smart enough, but what the hell use was he here?

He studied the other COs. Max's hands were clasped together, expression stone. Jake's arms were crossed. He didn't look like the kind of person who frowned often, but that's what he was doing. Looked strange, coming from such an upbeat individual.

Sami held a palm against her forehead, fingers in her hair, clearly perturbed. Moreso than anyone else. Her lips moved silently, as if she'd found a word problem on her photograph and had committed herself to solving it.

Rachel simply looked weary. Someone who was too young and too overburdened to do her job, but did it anyway.

Finally, one of them spoke quietly. "Is it gonna come to war? All over again?" Jake. He sounded as Rachel looked. Too young to see what he'd seen, done what he'd done. The pitch of his voice unmistakably communicated that he didn't want to go through that a second time.

Rachel answered, also quiet. "Maybe." For her, though, there was an underlying acceptance in her response.

Green Earth. Some years ago, the aggressors had been Blue Moon. It was only the realization that Black Hole was manipulating the conflict that encouraged the Four Greats to make peace. While Christoph certainly did not relish the prospect of war, he couldn't say he was surprised. Conflict was the nature of man, one could say.

"So," Christoph ventured after a while, "I don't mean to steer the topic, but why is this news linked to my promotion? I should be out there, heading my platoon. If Green Earth does decide to attack, they're leaderless."

"No." Rachel again. Seemed she had all the answers. Of course, one would expect her to, being the Commanding General. "Your record is good, and we had some positions to fill after the last war. We didn't let it get around that Black Hole had a - what's the word - propensity for assassinating lower rung COs. Namely captains, some majors."

Wonderful. At least to Black Hole, he was spy bait. Hopefully the Greens didn't take a liking to those kinds of tricks.

"And we needed one position filled in particular. HQ's Commanding Officer."

Christoph leaned back, shifting his uniform and doing his best to relax in the tense atmosphere. "Why's that?"

"Well, there was no one else for the job, really. Max and Jake do offense very well. That's what they're best at. Sami is Special Operations, of course. I'm usually dealing with higher levels of command. There are other captains, yes, but they earned their stripes mainly through procedure. Everyone else," that probably meant Commander Andy and C-in-C Nell, "is back on the main continent, at the capital."

"So I'm in charge of conducting facility defense, is that it?"

"Right. You're pretty good with combined arms, and that's what's best for defensive strategies." She spread her fingertips over the table. "A network of units that work well together. You'll be given some additional troops, mechanized infantry in particular. And some of the better tanks. Neo, perhaps a Megatank or two that survived the fighting."

Christoph's heart smiled guiltily. Finally, a chance to use some of the big guns. Then he remembered something, and his elation broke. He knew the answer to his question even before he asked. "What about my platoon? Will they be transferred to my authority?"

A pause. Then, "I'm sorry Christoph. That creates a conflict of interests. They will remain with Max."

Max himself spread his hands. "Sorry, Chris. I promise you can come visit, if you want."

Christoph sighed lightly. Perhaps he would have the opportunity to remain in touch with Roma and Sepp and Sigfried. That much at least. If the drums of war didn't end up fading in just as they faded out, there was a good chance of that. But if conflict did spark again, there was no telling what the fate of his friendships with the trio would be.

Sami seemed to have recovered from whatever perplexed her. Something was different, though. She seemed tapped, emotionally exhausted for no observable reason. "So, what's our next move?" She sounded jaded. Weary of fighting, Christoph supposed.

"We have about a platoon's worth of mixed troops on location, with another company arriving tomorrow. Those will be under Christoph. Max's battalion is already stationed northwest of here, ready to receive any potential Green Earth aggression. Jake, your troops…"

But Christoph wasn't listening. Something was wrong. His soldier's experience immediately told him it was aural, and his brain automatically muted out Rachel's orders. A sound much like a low-flying jet grew in his ears. But the building's walls had muffled the noise, and it was already far too late.

It ended with a hugely powerful explosion, impossible to tell from where. The floor shook, the table vibrated. Someone yelled, "Holy sh-" but they were cut off. Another blast, then another. The walls jarred at eight different angles. Christoph made it to the floor, via his own power or not. Didn't matter. He rolled under the table. Somehow Jake was next to him, but not beneath the protection of the wood, so Christoph grabbed him and hauled him under too. No time to worry about the others. He barricaded his head with his arms and just prayed. There was nothing else he could do.

Each time the shaking let up, another explosion sounded, sending the world reeling all over again. Christoph felt like the floor was a wall and he was about to slip off into freefall. The terrifying thing was there was nothing he could do about it. He was completely helpless, wholly at the mercy of this unknown cataclysm.

Then, the upheaval subsided as unexpectedly as it had begun. He opened his eyes. Dust. Couldn't see two feet in front of his face. Someone coughed.

"Everyone ok?" Max.

A few voices responded, Christoph's included. One was missing, though. Rachel's.

"Rach?" Jake said.

Heavy breathing. Then, weakly, "I'm here…"

Christoph crawled forward. His head bumped into something. The table. Rachel's end had collapsed. Oh, hell.

He found his way out from under his shelter, standing carefully. Nothing broken. The dust had only begun to settle, but he felt his way around the room regardless.

A portion of the roof had caved in over the CG's chair. Christoph hurriedly looked around, but there was still a sheet of floating dust over the floor. It dissipated only after Christoph's impatient waiting.

Rachel lay on the floor, largely whole, but her left leg was caught under concrete debris. Blood ran from her now-uncapped hair. Shit.

He knelt. "Don't move, Commander."

She disregarded his concern and propped herself up, teeth gritting. A mild groan escaped her in the process, but she was able to sit up properly. "I'm ok, I think."

Now the others were standing. Max shook his head. "What the hell was that?" His interest in the event, however, quickly died once he saw Rachel's leg under the rubble. He shoved his chair out of the way and came over, also kneeling. He examined her predicament, clearly unsure of how to take action

"Ah… I'm no good at first aid. What do we do?"

But Christoph reversed Max's train of thought for his own purposes. He stood, less concerned with Rachel's dilemma now that he knew her back and skull weren't broken. Instead he moved to the window and jerked on the blinds cord.

"Artillery," he stated.

"Huh?" Jake was visibly dazed.

"That was an artillery strike. On HQ. We need to get out of here, fast." He looked outside. The west side of the compound had also been hit. The one visible low building had a few holes punched in its roof. A couple vehicles burned, as did one of the compound's tanks. There were only four tanks stationed on the grounds, now three. The HQ guard was hideously undermanned. Evidently they hadn't anticipated a sudden barrage like this.

Movement, on the far plains. More tanks. Not Orange Star. Flat green tracks.

"F***," he said, louder than he'd intended.

Sami was next to him. She followed Christoph's gaze and saw the tracked vehicles approaching. "Green Earth." As she said it, one tank's cannon pumped smoke. An orange fireball struck the side of the battered two-story structure.

"Yea. Like I said, we need to leave."

"Not without Rachel," Jake spat, a tinge of hysteria marring his normally laid-back behavior. The two at the window spun to look. Max was removing chunks of concrete from Rachel's trapped leg, as gently as he could. Rachel's eyes met Sami's. "I think it's broken. You said they're Green Earth?"

Sami nodded.

Rachel rounded their faces. "You guys need to go. Now. I'd rather let them capture one CO than five."

"With all due respect," Max grunted, "that's bullshit. We aren't leaving you here. This isn't a time for heroics. I'm getting you out."

Jake pulled a sidearm from a waist holster. Christoph hadn't noticed it. "Me too."

Gunfire popped outside. Christoph caught a glimpse of the action through the window - the Green forces were engaging what remained of the HQ's defenders. It wouldn't be a contest. He guessed they had maybe ten minutes to flee or risk capture.

Sami ran a hand through her hair. "Our soldiers need coordination. They don't have a CO giving them orders. If they did, that would give both them and us more time to withdrawal."

They all exchanged glances. Rachel coughed. "You're right. Are you up for that, Sami?"

"Yea." She pointed to Christoph. "You're with me. Jake and Max can take care of Rachel."

Christoph's ears arbitrarily popped. "Ok. Right."

"You have a gun in your office, right Rach?"

The CG murmured something that sounded like 'yes'.

"Good." Sami moved for the door. "Come on Captain. Let's move."

Christoph looked back to Rachel, Max, and Jake. Max met his eyes and mouthed go. So he did.

For the second time that day, Christoph found himself following Sami. They exited the conference room and took four quick steps to the Commanding General's office. Both looked left and right down the hall. People crowded at the end windows. Bad idea, Christoph thought, but the pair was through the wooden door before he could say anything.

The secretary's desk was deserted. Sami reached Rachel's office door; if she hadn't turned the handle, Christoph would've thought she'd have busted right through it. More bangs rippled through the dense walls. Some distant shouting.

Sami moved into the familiar room and rounded the desk, wrenching open three drawers before finding what she needed. She pulled out a standard issue army handgun and holster, along with an extra clip. She expertly checked the already-loaded magazine, and, apparently satisfied, cocked the gun and set the holster to her belt. The weapon was still in her hand.

"Let's go."

They jogged from the room and down the hall. "We'll go to the radio station first. We can rally whoever's left from there and you can pick up a weapon."

"Ok."

Sami shouldered her way past Christoph and pushed open the stairway door. She held her pistol straight, ready to fire, tracking the stairs below them as they began their descent.

No one met them. The all-too-recognizable sputtering of small arms fire echoed up the stairway. Sami took the steps slowly, one leg over the other, crouching and as tense as an instrument cord. Christoph stayed a safe distance back. He felt naked without a gun. Hell, he felt naked without a platoon. Right now he was entirely dependant on Sami's defense if enemy soldiers stormed the building.

They reached the bottom after an antagonizing minute. Sami signaled for him to open the door. Christoph ducked past, avoiding the stairwell window. Sami kept her gun trained and nodded. He pulled it open, staying behind the solid steel surface. Nothing happened save the outdoor fighting increasing in volume.

"Clear."

Again Sami went first. Looked right, then left. She moved. Christoph followed. The first floor wasn't as easily laid out as the rest of the structure, with nonsymmetrical corridors and various offices. The walls were wood paneling instead of white plaster. Christoph had no idea where they were, but Sami kept moving, familiar with the floor plan. He had to trust her implicitly if either of them hoped to make it out alive. Any of them, for that matter.

Daylight ahead. An open door. They walked closer.

An infantryman rounded the door frame. His uniform was dark, the color hard to discern in the shaded indoors. But the style of his rifle and helmet gave away his nationality. Christoph lurched to a stop.

There was no cursing, no initial shout. He watched as Sami squeezed the trigger of her pistol in rapid succession. Two loud cracks invaded Christoph's ears, the sound amplified in the close quarters. The Green Earth soldier staggered. Irregular splotches spread over the man's uniform and he fell over.

She kept her pistol aimed at the door while pushing Christoph to the left with her other hand. "Move!"

Christoph needed no coaxing - he stumbled down the side hallway. Behind him another pair of handgun rounds made themselves known. Then heavy footsteps. He dared to look over his shoulder and saw Sami sprinting after him. She bore no expression, other than a blank determination. He picked up his pace.

Another intersection. Christoph paused, unsure of which way to go. One direction led to an exit, the other-

Oh God.

Orange Star soldiers. Strewn across the floor, blue carpet stained brown and purple with their blood. Torsos discolored in vaguely circular patterns, sometimes five or six on one man. The farthest one - his skull was quite literally cracked open. Something that wasn't blood leaked out.

Christoph had seen death before. He knew the terror, the primal fear of being trapped within his tank, knowing full well he and his crew would never see an ill-fated shell coming. He'd seen soldiers - his own men - crawl screaming from their metal deathtraps, their living skin engulfed in flames. He'd seen enemy soldiers do the same. He'd been the harbinger of that very fate on more than one occasion.

But this was much more personal. This wasn't just frightening, this was sickening. He felt like he would vomit on the spot, not from the sight of the dead but the sheer inhumanity that pierced his very heart.

Instead Christoph stood frozen, eyes wide. His vision traveled down the corridor, closer to the intersection, until they reached his feet. Another body lay there. A bright orange star was stitched to the former soldier's sleeve. He didn't have a rifle in his hands. His round helmet had shifted somehow, and obscured his face.

Christoph felt an unwarranted urge to kneel next to the body and remove the helmet, to reveal the features of the dead man. He probably would have if Sami hadn't nearly tripped over him.

"Captain, get your ass MOVING!"

Christoph broke from his trance, almost reluctantly. He left the dead soldier, again following Sami. He felt drained. Drained and very, very afraid.

The Special Forces commander went opposite the corpses, down the right hall. An emergency exit marked the end. This certainly qualified, and it bore no argument as she rammed into the handlebar full-body. They finally emerged into the cool evening.

Chaos was the only word that could describe the scene. Half of the eastern structure was damaged in some way, the other half on fire. Deafening spurts of yellow flashed from shattered windows. Bullet holes rattled the concrete walls in response. A streak of smoke pillared laterally towards the north, impacting on the front face of a Lynx tank a hundred yards away. The projectile ricocheted off harmlessly. Another Lynx rolled up next to it; its cannon jolted. Even at three hundred feet the sound made Christoph's ears ring, and when the tank round ripped a hole in the building the resulting shockwave was equally immobilizing.

They bolted across the open space between the buildings. Sami dove for the alcove that housed the low structure's main entrance. Christoph followed, nearly eating dirt as he impacted and skidded the last two feet. The thought flashed across his mind that this was nothing like being a tankman. This was heart-pounding and very, very brutal.

Christoph spat. The wet dribbled down his chin. He dragged himself up against the wall. Sami already had her back pressed against it. Her chest rose and fell sharply, but in a rhythmic and controlled manner, even in the heat of battle. Her face was marked with dirt from the impact with the ground; Christoph realized his probably was too.

Then he noticed an Orange Star soldier cringing in the corner of the alcove. His rifle, the barrel dented out of alignment, was still clutched tight in his hands, but they shook wildly. His breathing was erratic. His unshaven face only added to his miserable condition. It was covered in blood and discolored bits, but he didn't have any noticeable wounds.

The infantryman's large eyes clearly spelled fright beyond anything he'd experienced. They shifted between Christoph and Sami. Only Christoph wore his officer's emblem. Sami'd lost hers at some point.

"You alright soldier?" Christoph cursed himself. What the f*** kind of question was that? He chalked it up to his own naïveté in dealing with infantry on the field.

The man only stared at them. Then he shook his head.

Sami found her voice. "Where's your squad, soldier?" At least her query was rational, considering their current state.

Again he shook his head. "Gone."

"What do you mean, gone?"

If his eyes could get any larger, they did. "I saw 'em. I saw 'em all get blown up right in my face. One sec they were there and the next they're all pieces and fire."

It dawned on Christoph that the blood and specks on the man's face weren't his. The urge to vomit rose again.

"It's alright, private. You're coming with us, understand?"

For what seemed like ages he didn't reply. As he started to nod, another shell impacted on the main structure across from their position. Christoph instinctually shielded his face. When he dropped his arms the private was dead. Throat cut from shrapnel. Holy f***. Sami and he were goddamned lucky.

Sami's looked at the dead man, mouth slightly open. Then she leaned over and grasped his pack strap to haul him over. She removed one strap, then the next, and slung the rucksack over her own shoulders.

"There's one there. Grab it." She pointed next to the door. Christoph did as he was told, copying her and shouldering it.

"Ok. This is what we're doing. We run south," her index finger indicated away from the two Lynx, "and then east. Into the woods. We don't stop running."

"But what about Max? The troops?"

She slipped her legs underneath, propping herself on her knees. "We have to save ourselves. HQ is lost. We can't hold it. Green Earth is going to overrun this place in a matter of minutes."

He manoeuvred himself to sprint with her. "Is there nothing we can do for them?"

Sami gazed south. "Pray."

* * * * *

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