I was killed near Rzhev
In a nameless bog,
In fifth company,
On the Left flank,
In a cruel air raid
I did not hear the explosions
And did not see the flash
Down to an abyss from a cliff
No start, no end
And in this whole world
To the end of its days -
Neither patches, nor badges
From my tunic you’ll find
-Aleksandr Tvardovsky, “I was killed near Rzhev”Kurkesta-II, planetary capital of Volynogra
A distant rumbling echoed through the still morning air like rolling thunder. On the horizon, flashes of light lit up the dawn sky, the sound of orbital artillery washing over the position. Were she as blissfully ignorant as she had been but a year ago, Melekhova could have mistaken it for the innocent murmur of something natural. But she had seen far too much to mistake it for anything else. It had been eight months since she’d been deployed to the war zone raging across the fertile world of Kurkesta-II. Compared to the vast megalopolises of Mirvolyudki, the cities upon this world seemed little greater than a small town - but they had been turned into fortified citadels, bombed to rubble through continuous orbital strikes. The tank battalions of Mirvolyudki had swept aside comparatively less experienced defenders in the open plains where once vast bumper crops had been sewn. Now, though, they had been encamped in a siege of this city for months on end.
The occasional crack of sniper fire echoed across the near landscape. At times, she would hear a muted scream or shriek of pain in response, then the clatter of answering machine gun fire. Sometimes they would find their mark, and an enemy sniper would fall from their perch. Mostly, the killer would have already snuck away, quietly laughing to themselves. She could not fault the gunners, futile as their desperate returning fire was - it was impossible not to do something. To sit idly by as comrades fell without answering. She had done the same.
Soon, it would hopefully end. Today, they would commence the final assault. Now, the traitors’ holdout would be eliminated, and the rebuilding of the world could begin. She of course would be redeployed to the next hellish war zone - but at least she would not be stuck in this nightmare of a city anymore. She would no longer suffer in this ditch, unknowing if a sniper’s bullet awaited her around the next corner.
Behind her, she heard the earth shaking tremor of ground based artillery opening up, their salvos of heavy shells joining the cacophony of the warships in orbit. Explosives arced overhead, slamming into defensive fortifications. Clouds of dust rose from the earthworks and reinforced concrete structures that ringed the city as the explosives slammed into their marks. Even as the artillery continued to increase in its volume, vast fireballs bloomed across the horizon, bomber aircraft far out of her sight delivering precision strikes on the enemy fortifications. A small part of her swelled with some twisted pride in the power of her nation, but a much larger part of her was filled with dread at the thought of what would await them.
The almighty din filled the heavens and earth, even as the mechanical whine of tanks and armored carriers began to trundle towards the enemy lines underneath the cover of the apocalyptic bombardment. From the trenches rang the war cry of the Sukhoputnyye Voyska, a deep, throaty cry of “URA!”
Thousands of vehicles burst forward from the line, followed shortly behind by steady streams of millions of foot soldiers. Ahead of the tanks ranged minesweeper teams, sifting through the devastated hellscape of mine and shell craters to clear safe passage for the assault teams. At times, an explosion would ring out and a team would be destroyed, or a tank would strike an undetected mine, going up in flames. From the enemy positions, those brave enough to open themselves to the artillery spotters, a hail of withering fire erupted. Heavy hypervelocity slugs tearing through body armor and the flesh behind, directed energy weapons supplied from the broader cluster burned horrific holes through plasteel and skin alike. At such close range, few shots missed their mark.
Melekhova cursed the Raygonians, the Arcadians, the Halcyon Continuance, every single member of that accursed alliance that fed supplies and arms to the scum of Tretirykh. She cursed the foul beings who had begun the ‘movement’ deep within the underbelly of the Union. She cursed herself, for she had lapsed, and had she not done so she would not be here now. And as it came time for her unit to go over the top, to charge forth into the awaiting maelstrom of the final stretch of hellish urban war that awaited her and her unit, she joined in the war cry that echoed along the entire front as she and her comrades took their rifles in hand and surged out of the trench.
A sniper bolt burned through the armor covering starshyna Nalikova’s chest. A spray of blood and viscera erupted from the crater where before had been her chest, covering Melekhova’s face and body in pieces of the woman. The starshyna collapsed in a limp heap as the smell of ozone filled the air. Melekhova stared, her mouth agape at the prostrate form of her commander, then up and around at the surrounding buildings, frantic, desperate to see from where the shot had come.
She screamed at her squad to take cover, pulling her machine gunner from her position overlooking the cratered boulevard.
Her vision shifted into infrared as she ducked behind a nearby wall, and she scanned the skyscraping residential buildings. She strained to glimpse anything out of the ordinary for the devastated metropolis, any stray heat signatures that might give the killer away.
Out of a ruined home, she saw something, a faint glimpse of what looked like the barrel of a rifle, warm from the recently fired shot. Forgetting her own self preservation, she seized the abandoned machine gun from its position, hefting the weapon to her shoulder and squeezing the trigger. The deafening burst of the weapon filled the air as her helmet clamped tight over her ears, shielding them from the worst of it. The bullets tore through the plascrete and anything that might be hiding behind it, kicking up a dust cloud that obscured much of her vision, even thermal.
A dull thud reached her ears, and she cautiously took a step forward, and then another, her eyes alighting on the bleeding, crumpled, bullet ridden form that had fallen from its perch. A strange thing, what of its skin she could discern an unusual greenish, scaly material. The eyes, now dead and lifeless, were small and beady, out of place from the squat, densely built body. A rifle unlike their own lay next to it, a strange device that glowed gently with indicator lights. Hurriedly, she dashed forward, seizing the rifle, or whatever it was.
She stood right over the dead body of the foreigner. It was true, she realized. Wherever this creature… a Raygonian, if she recalled correctly, had come from - it was most certainly from outside of the Union’s space. Most probably sent by the unholy cabal that ruled the hive planet to which the thing’s species had lent their name. The implications weighed heavy on her, and she stumbled back to her squad and sank to her knees next to the dead body of starshyna Nalikova.
“My god, it’s true.” She muttered, looking up at the remaining members of her squad. “It’s true, that… it wasn’t from here. The rumors are true.”
Her comrades said nothing, the gunner gingerly moving towards her and resting an arm on her shoulder, taking back her weapon. Another moved up, grabbing hold of one of the starshyna’s ID tags and yanking the chain free.
Wetness fell upon her chin, and Melekhova realized she had been crying. “Her children.” She whispered hoarsely, “She joined for them, she was telling me how excited they were that mommy was fighting the traitors, that her oldest would turn ten soon. She was due for leave to visit her in just a few weeks. Oh god, what do I tell her? What do I tell them? Little mladshiy
was due for her first implant but she wanted to be there for her because she was scared.” Tears came faster now, streaming down her face as she sobbed, pulling the gunner into her embrace, “I’ll kill them all.” She said, teeth gritted, “I’ll kill every single one of them.” She choked back another sob, crushing a piece of rubble to powder with a cybernetic fist, not minding the signals of pain, “Why wasn’t it me? I have nobody, why was it her? She’s not a priztuyvnik like me, she had something to give!”
Out of the corner of her eye, her vision blurred by tears, she noticed something - Nalikova’s arm outstretched before her, a small electronic device in her hand. Gently, another member of the squad pulled it from her fingers, before she too began to cry. Her tears joined those of Melekhova as she slumped against the wall. On the dimly glowing screen, the image of a happy family beamed back at them. Starshyna Nalikova’s eyes filled with life, a broad smile on her face as she held her newborn son, her first child beaming up at her with a face full of wonder. Behind them stood five others, Nalikova’s other mates, one of them pregnant, all beamed at the camera. One of them - Melekhova remembered her name being Nataly - had her hand rested on the starshyna’s shoulder, an expression of the purest adoration on it.
Melekhova clutched the image tight to her chest as the unit mourned in silence.
It felt as though hours passed, but slowly the gunner returned, crouching low beside her. “We need to move on, Corporal.” She pulled Melekhova’s eyes away from the dead form of the commander, “I know you two were close, but we need to move on.” The sounds of urban warfare echoed around them in the distance as she spoke, explosions and gunfire muted by the husks of the dying city.
Melekhova nodded, slowly standing from her perch. “I’ll carry her.” She murmured, “We’ll rendezvous with Kapitan Galina. We can move on from there.” She looked around at her unit, “Pass me the thing’s rifle - I’m sure command will want to get their hands on as many of these things as possible. They go straight through our armor.”
An uneasy look passed between the squad and the gunner stepped forward again. “Corporal, her body is heavy. We’ll be slowed down, we might not be able to rendezvous with the Kapita-”
She was cut off as Melekhova placed her hand over her mouth, “I am not leaving her here.” She said, her voice choked with emotion. “We leave nobody behind. I’m not leaving her here in this godforsaken city. I’m not leaving her to be found by some pack of those… things
from the rest of the cluster for them to do… Heaven knows what they might do to her! Yefreytor Filippovnu Madgalina, I will carry every single member of this squad back home myself, if I have to. Is that understood?”
The gunner said nothing, her eyes wide as she took a slight step back from the incensed Corporal. Melekhova looked at her squad, meeting each of their eyes in turn. None raised further protest.
Silently, they turned back the way they had come, crouching low as they dashed between points of cover. Steadily, they made their way to the point of the heaviest fighting, following the sound of explosions and the callouts barked on radio. The ground began to shake once more, and the squeal of tank tracks pierced through the air. The deafening report of field artillery shook loose a small rain of pebble sized rubble from the ruins surrounding them with every blast.
The central city square lay ahead. On its outskirts, a forward operating base had been hastily erected. A primitive hospital and morgue showed the devastating results of the final push to capture the city. The moans and cries of the sick and dying filled the air, the rows upon rows of simple coffins awaiting disposal via composting, were ample testament to the cost. Formality was not stood upon, not now - in short order she and her squad had reported to the Kapitan of the company. They had been assigned on scouting duty, to investigate the quality of defenses and debrief command of possible assault routes. Images flashed between them, audio recordings, and the final moments of Starshyna Nalikova.
“I couldn’t leave her there.” She said, after some minutes had passed without an exchange. “I… you saw the thing that killed her. I couldn’t just leave her out there, we don’t know what they might do!”
The kapitan remained silent for a moment longer before nodding, resting a hand on Melekhova’s shoulder. “I understand. It was dangerous, what you did, but I understand. There is a time to mourn, but that time is not now. I can’t have you if you can’t fight, understand? There is precious little time to waste now, I will see to it that you are given time to mourn and contact her next of kin.”
“With respect, kapitan, there is no time for this.” interrupted the gunner, stepping between the two.
Melekhova nodded, steeling herself. “My unit is awaiting orders, kapitan. We are ready.”
A red burst of blood splattered the wall behind the unarmored humans, his strange energy-weapon clattering to the ground as he fell forward. Melekhova stared grimly down the sights of her rifle, her heart hardened to the man’s expression of shock. Another one of the Ragyonians - as she had confirmed they were called - hastily aimed its weapon in her direction, and she shifted her aim, sending another two bullets downrange. More blood painted the floor of the corridor, and the thing crumpled to the ground.
An earthshaking tremor rocked the building, and the squad steadied themselves, well accustomed to the impact of artillery on the remaining defenses. Only a small shrivel of enemy territory remained in the city, and before entering the building they had been able to view the other side of the battle, as the encircling army of the Soyuzka i Mirvolyudkiyska ground its way through the defenses. It was a matter of hours at most now until the last defender was killed, and the world would be restored to order.
Gunfire erupted in the room adjacent to the corridor, accompanied by the erie crack
of foreign energy rifles discharging. A tense moment followed as Melekhova and her squad positioned themselves by a doorway.
“Three enemy combatants behind a barricade, 3 o’clock, two of our own and one injured, 10 o’clock.” Reported a squad member, watching through a small crack in the wall through which her enhance vision could penetrate. “Wall is too thick to hit them from behind. Solid plascrete.”
Melekhova grimaced, “Just for this one room, I’d like it if we hadn’t built it to withstand the apocalypse. Federova, you’re on point, flashbang and go in shooting. Our people should be unaffected. Nataliya, suppressing fire while we take position. Now move, move, move!”
As she had ordered, her squad carried out the plans to the letter - a brilliant flash lit up the room as the grenade detonated, and the squad poured through the doorway, weapons blazing. Instantly, one of the enemy went down, another unarmored human, her body collapsing limply over one of her comrades, shielding him from the worst of the gunfire. Another went down in short order, her weapon discharging wildly in all directions as she fell. Outflanked and caught off guard by the unexpected assault the remaining man threw his weapons to the ground, crying out in thickly accented, broken speech, “Surrender! Me surrender!”
Melekhova blinked, unsure how to react. She looked back at her unit, her confusion obvious. Nobody in her squad moved, they remained crouched behind cover. The members of the other unit, however, did move. One of them leapt from his position, sprinting over to the enemy soldier and driving his fist into the man’s face, then his gut, his ear, his chest. Again, and again, and again, as he screamed meaninglessly, tears glistening on his cheeks.
“Heavens damn you!” He screamed, grabbing the man and throwing him into the center of the room, pulling his sidearm from its holster and aiming it in his direction. "Give me a reason not to shoot you right here and now."
Relative silence descended, and Melekhova and her squad rose from their own positions. Cautiously, they approached the two, motionless as they watched each other. Her eyes alighted on the surrendering man, a haggard looking thing, his eyes bloodshot and his leg was wrapped tightly in a dirty bandage. She almost pitied him, but her heart held little room for sympathy for the soldiers of Tretirykh, let alone those who had come from abroad to aid them.
“They killed everyone.” Melekhova’s attention was drawn back to the man from the other squad, his hand trembling as he pointed the handgun at the foreigner. “You killed everyone! How many of my family are left?! Just me? My sister, what of her? My mother, my brothers, my father? How many of them are lying in some ditch somewhere?” He stomped closer, pressing the muzzle to the man’s forehead.
Wide eyed, the captive looked around at the others for help, for salvation, desperate for something to save him. “I- I… I not Trah- Trahterick! From Federation! Not Trahterick!” His breath came in ragged gasps, and he looked between each of the observers, seeking their intervention. “I… I like Mirvolyudki!” He forced a smile, his eyes darting between the gun to his head and the other soldiers standing around him. He began to sing the anthem of the union - or at least, he tried to. The cadence was there, but the words themselves were scattered and confused.
“Nikita, put the gun down.” Murmured the second member of the squad, her eyebrows narrowed. “Put the gun down, and I’ll take him and green over there back to camp. We’ve won at this point.”
The foreigner’s eyes shifted to her, his expression filled with hope. He smiled at her, “Y-yes, surrender! I surrender! I lose! You win! I help!” He edged towards her, “Help carry! I help!” The man was visibly trembling, his emaciated body barely looked as though it could support his own weight, let alone assist in carrying a wounded soldier. He began to speak rapidly to himself in his own language, incomprehensible to any of the assembled soldiers. Melekhova debated intervening as he looked back up, “Pl-please! I have fami-”
The sound of a gunshot echoed through the room. Two dozen more followed in its wake as the soldier emptied his gun into the foreigner.
The man fell to the floor, dead, in a rapidly forming pool of his own blood and brain matter. Melekhova stared, wide eyed in shock as he tossed the empty magazine aside, inserting a new one and emptying it into the foreigner’s body as well. Callously, he slid the weapon back in its holster, delivering a final kick to the corpse and spitting on what used to be his face.
“So did I.”
At last. They had taken the planet. As she looked out from the viewing screen at the planet below, Melekhova could not help but wonder at the purpose behind it all. Tretirykh had seized the world, murdered millions, and begun a war that already had claimed in excess of a billion lives. What was their aim? They knew, surely, that their war was futile, that the people of the union would stand strong against their atrocities. And yet, how many wasted lives now lay upon that godforsaken rock? How many broken promises lay upon the plains of the world below? How many children would awake, now motherless, how many parents would have to consecrate the memorials of their children, how many had been robbed of family and friends by Tretirykh?
Behind her, her squad gunner lurked, wordless like she.
“You never told me what happened to your old squad before you were reassigned to us, Lavrova.” Melekhova murmured to her, breaking the silence. “You never told anyone, as far as I know.”
Silence reigned between them again as Lavrova did not respond, remaining soundless as she watched the planet gradually shrink away. They had been spared little more than a few hours before being ordered aboard the transports once more, enough time to visit the dead and pay their last respects before being ordered away.
As the silence lapsed on, Melekhova dug out the small device she had taken from the Starshyna, her lips pursed as she held back fresh tears at the sight of it. She would return it to Nalikova’s family, of that she was adamant.
A sound from her side drew her attention away from the device, and she looked back up at the gunner. Tears streamed down Lavrova’s cheeks, her eyes red from crying. It was evident she had been for some time, her cheeks and nose red from wiping away the tears.
“Artillery shell.” She finally whispered in reply, her voice choked with emotion. “A month after deployment. Some… artillery piece supplied from one of the foreign countries. There was barely anything left.” She wiped her hand along her nose again, trying to clear her face of the signs to little avail. “I couldn’t even find their tags. Ana had a letter on her tablet she wanted me to give her mother if she died. It burned with her. I was helping someone else set up a gun, all I received was a sunburn. But there was nothing left. No bodies. No bones. Not even ashes to scatter.” Again, she drew breath, unable to tear her eyes from the view of the planet. “Nalikova knew, of course.” She muttered, and a fresh round of tears began to well in Melekhova’s eyes once more. “She knew, she never told me, but she knew. She told me I could tell her anything, that she was there for all of her soldiers.”
Melekhova nodded, gingerly placing an arm around the shoulder of her comrade. No more words passed between them as they watched the planet fade away into a distant, blue sphere, almost lost amidst the vastness of space. Another warzone awaited them on the next world, and another, and another.