Chapter Two: Forward Encampment

Here is the next chapter for Perpetual War, continuing the story of Natalia Ludmila. More character development including introductions of new characters!

The image further down that you’ll see is Natalia with two of these new characters.

I want to give special thanks to the patrons who’ve supported me thus far:

Hypermice, Sean Young, and Mister Artorias

 

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Forward Encampment

The room was clean, lit brightly by the single fluorescent light on the ceiling. She sat at the simple wooden table, shifting in her seat in discomfort. The man sitting across from her wore a white lab coat, his eyes studying a stack of papers atop a clipboard. She watched him slowly flip through several pages, pausing briefly on the occasional line, his eyes scanning with keen interest. “So,” he began, still keeping his eyes on the paper. “How do you feel Natalia? I’m sure a little excited that you not only passed the ‘Esper Test,’ but you excelled in it.”

“Why am I here?” Natalia asked, her arms crossed, pouting.

The man looked up briefly from the clipboard. “Regulations,” he replied, turning his eyes back to his documents. “Just a simple checkup, every esper has to do it. Now please, tell me how you are feeling Natalia?”

She kept her arms crossed, her eyes focused on the man, “No. I mean, why am I here? Against my will.” Natalia’s eyes narrowed.

The man chuckled, placing the clipboard to the side, his hands folding together on the table. “You aren’t here against your will. If you decided to leave, you could. After all, you are an esper,” he said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

She shifted in her chair again, her left hand absentmindedly playing with a strand of hair. “I could leave, but I’d get captured eventually.” She met his gaze, not deterred by him. “I am in the heart of Derdainia.”

The man leaned back, his arms crossed as he smiled. “Yes, you are a very smart girl.” He took the clipboard and brought it up to his face to study again. “Trust me when I tell you that I don’t take pleasure in preparing young girls to fight. It’s not my choice.”

“I want to believe you, doctor…” she replied, slumping forward and resting her arms on the table. “But it still furthers your science, which you seem to enjoy quite a lot.”

He stood up, laughing. “I suppose you are right about that! Well, it is time for the first test. Come along, then.”

***

Natalia woke up to a clean, sterile smell. Coughing, she slowly pushed herself up onto her elbows to look around the tent with disdain, a dizziness starting to swell in her head. The room was large, encompassing dozens of beds filled with an assortment of injured soldiers. Several nurses and a doctor walked among them all, performing checkups. What a relief that I’m here and not in that place. She shuddered.

She stared down at herself, taking in the sight of her left arm and hand bandaged up. Pulling the clean white shirt up slightly, she noticed another bandage going around her stomach. Following the line running out of her right arm, she spotted a stand holding up a pack of clear fluids. Feeling the dizziness growing stronger in her head, she eased back onto the bed with a sigh. The walls of the tent moved above her, giving her a show, the wind that howled outside drowning out the talk among the nurses. Moving her left arm up slowly, she ran her fingers across the bandage over her head. It seems like such a faraway dream, those ruins. Crawling back to the base, I can’t believe I survived. She smirked.

“It is good to see you finally awake, Natalia.”

Natalia looked up to see a gray-haired woman dressed in a plain white nurse gown stained with red along the sleeves. “You look tired, Maria.”

Maria scoffed. “Yes, very tired keeping you alive!” she said, taking Natalia’s wrist and checking her pulse.

“I doubt that. I did all the healing out on the field,” Natalia replied.

“If your idea of healing involved losing nearly three pints of blood, then sure.” Maria presented a thermometer. “Now, open your mouth.”

“That isn’t that mu—”

Maria pushed the thermometer beneath Natalia’s tongue. “A bit more and you would have died!” she snapped. The exhaustion in her eyes flared up for a moment, her wrinkled brow furrowing. Reaching for the stethoscope around her neck, Maria put it on and leaned forward, placing the silver disc atop Natalia’s heart.

“I ‘as ‘ine!” Natalia mumbled through the thermometer.

“Should I remind you how young you are?” Maria asked, moving the disc down to Natalia’s stomach.

“No.” Natalia shivered a little at the cold touch of the silver disc moving further down her midriff.

Standing straight again, Maria took the thermometer from Natalia’s mouth, her eyes looking at the thin red color within. “Good. Now, sit up.”

“I just think you are being ridiculous. I was not that beat up,” she replied, slowly sitting up.

Maria placed the silver disc on Natalia’s back, “You showed up covered in dirt, mud, and blood.” She moved the disc. “Take a deep breath.”

“Just some dirty Union soldiers’ blood,” she retorted before taking a deep breath.

“You were coated in it, and a lot of it was your own,” she said, moving the disc again. “Breathe.”

Taking another deep breath, Natalia rolled her eyes. “So, some of the blood was my own. So what?”

“You are fifteen, Natalia, and I swear you still act like a kid. Stubborn as ever… Inhale deeper.”

Natalia took as deep a breath possible, holding it longer than necessary before exhaling. “There!”

“Exactly what I mean—a kid.” Maria replied, taking the stethoscope out from her ears and placing it back around her neck. “There is no need to be stubborn and act tough. It’ll get you killed. You are honestly lucky that the bullet holes weren’t that bad, and that you are an esper.”

“Wait, bullet holes? As in more than one?” Natalia said looking over her body. Glancing to her right she noticed the bandage around her right shoulder. “Oh yeah, I got shot there too.” She shrugged and lowered back down to the bed. “Do I get any medicine? I feel a little dizzy.”

Maria sighed, “Yes I’ll give you some in a moment,” she replied, taking the clipboard attached to Natalia’s bed, her eyes scanning the information on it. Pencil in hand, she began to fill in numbers into the charts. “What did you even do that caused such a heavy impact to your head?”

“Oh, you know. Fell from the second floor of a building and landed on my back,” Natalia replied, catching the eye of Maria before she returned to her charts. “I know you’re going to ask where my helmet was. Well, I lost it.”

“Yeah, sure,” Maria replied, placing the clipboard back onto its hook. Reaching into a nearby cabinet, she produced a bottle and took a pill from within.

“Honest!”

“Of course.” Maria took a pitcher of water from a nearby cart and poured a glass, handing it to Natalia along with the pill. “I believe you.”

“You don’t believe me.”

“I do. Now drink, already. I have more patients to check on.”

Gulping down the pill and water, Natalia handed the glass back. “How long am I supposed to lay here?”

“You have to get up now, actually. There aren’t enough beds,” Maria said, removing the IV from Natalia’s arm and pushing the stand to the side. “I was told to tell you that the colonel is waiting for your report and to find him in his tent.”

“Alright.”

“Now get back up so I can give you fresh bandages,” Maria said, taking a roll of white gauze and beige bandages from a drawer on the cart.

Sitting back up, Natalia raised her arms as Maria began to remove the bandage around her stomach and replace it with a fresh one. Glancing down, Natalia noticed the circular red scab along the right side of her midriff. “How long was I out?”

“You’ve been out since when you arrived at two in the morning,” Maria replied, taking Natalia’s left arm and replacing the bandage there.

“Did you get any sleep?” Natalia asked. She noticed the jagged thin line of scabs where the shrapnel had entered her left arm.

“You shouldn’t worry about me. You need to focus on yourself.”

Natalia nodded in response, waiting patiently as Maria did her work. She looked around the medical tent, whispers catching her attention. She spotted the white gowns adorning two nurses whispering to one another, looks of exhaustion crossing each of their faces. She saw past the nurses as they moved to a man lying still, his legs missing entirely. Natalia quickly looked away, her eyes closing at the image. I hate this place.

“Straighten your head so I can replace the bandage.”

“Why are there so many injured here today? Was there a charge while I was gone?” Natalia asked, looking ahead and closing her eyes as Maria’s hands came close to her face.

“There was a Union charge to the east. The medics there are overcrowded and had to send a lot of the wounded over here,” Maria replied, dropping the dirty bandages into a bin and beginning to wrap a fresh bandage around Natalia’s head.

“Do you think they’ll attack here next?”

“I don’t know,” Maria said. “There, all done.” She gently placed her hand along Natalia’s cheek, running her bony thumb along Natalia’s skin. “Such a pretty face, you need to be careful not to ruin it with scars. Then how’ll you impress the boys?”

“Oh stop, you know I hate talking about that!” Natalia protested. She brushed Maria away with a hand and stood up. She felt a slight dizziness take her, its effects quickly washing away as she placed her hand on the bed’s post for support.

“Come now Natalia, it is only natural for a girl your age to talk of these things.” Maria said, placing a reassuring hand on Natalia’s back.

Straightening her shirt, Natalia noticed her pants and trench coat hanging over the edge of the bed. “I’m not exactly natural,” she replied. Taking hold of the gray pants, she pulled them up over her shorts, smiling at how clean they were. “I’m a sniper. The last thing I need to do is get distracted.” She took the dark gray coat next, wrapping it around her body, its ruggedness and warmth comforting. At the foot of the bed she found her boots neatly scrubbed, along with her rifle, belt, and pack. Putting her feet into the holes of her boots, she knelt and began to tie them.

Maria sighed and sat down on the side of the bed, her shoulders slumping. “I suppose you’re right.”

Tightening the last boot, Natalia stood up and turned around to see the older nurse with a forlorn look, her hands clenching one another and shaking slightly. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be alright,” she said, embracing Maria in a hug. “Thank you for everything,” she said, backing away from her but keeping a reassuring hand on Maria’s shoulder.

Maria brightened slightly and met Natalia’s eyes with a forced smile. “Get to the colonel, he’ll be waiting.”

“Of course,” Natalia said and quickly turned away. Kneeling at the foot of the bed, she took hold of her rifle and pack, slinging the straps onto her shoulders, and began to wrap the belt around her waist. Leaving Maria’s presence, Natalia felt an ache come over her heart, the smile crossing her face vanishing into disinterest. Stepping out from the tent, she found herself in a brown patch of grass barely surviving under the presence of the encampment. She paused to look around at the brown walls of other tents surrounding her, a group of soldiers walking past, crates and barrels lining the dirt path. She felt a drop of water hit the bridge of her nose and glanced up to see rolling gray clouds covering the sky, sections of white filling the gaps. A subdued darkness was placed on the area, the sound of the wind drowning out any distant noise. The familiar smells of rot drifted on the wind, replacing the clean sterile smell from the medical tent.

Nothing seems to change here, she thought. Looking past the group of soldiers Natalia saw row after row of tents, and in the distance she could make out a line of trees and hills beyond. I hope the colonel isn’t too angry with me. She finished tightening her belt, checking to make sure the holster for the revolver and cartridges of bullets were all secured. She followed in the footsteps of the soldiers, her head lowered in thought. She glanced at wooden posts that denoted what each tent was, the numbers guiding her along to an eventual turn down a new path. A light drizzle of rain began to fall, a nearby patch of flowering weeds impossibly bright and yellow seeming to move in delight at the drops.

Natalia paused at the end of the tight path between the tents, her hand taking hold of a nearby post as a brief dizziness washed over her. Damn medicine needs to work faster. Reaching into an inside pocket of her coat she found her small white mirror and brought it up to her face. Her blue eyes looked back. I look like a mess. Though it could be worse, I guess. She returned the mirror to its pocket, and reached in deeper for a thin hair tie. Pulling her hair back into a ponytail, she took a deep breath and walked out onto the main path filled with soldiers going about their business. A horse walking by pulled a wagon full of supplies. Reaching the other side of the path, Natalia knocked on a wooden post at the entrance to a tent, the signage above denoting it as ‘C7’.

Knocking again, Natalia heard nothing from the tent. Pulling the flap back, she poked her head in. Within she saw lanterns hanging from the poles supporting the tent, lighting up the space to reveal a mess. Tables and boxes filled the sides of the tent, cluttered with papers. At the center was a large table, unable to fit the map that covered its surface. Beyond the table sat a desk in the back with a lantern on its surface, more paper lining it. The man sitting at it had sleek black hair and a grizzled face, his black mustache kept in perfect trimmed condition. His eyes stayed glued to the stack of papers beneath his pen. The black coat adorning his shoulders was worn, most noticeable by the graying at the edges of the sleeves. The bronze bands on the shoulders of his coat denoted him as a colonel.

Stepping the rest of the way through the flaps, Natalia paused before the table with the map. She recognized several locations on it as the surrounding area, the black drawn lines going across its surface depicting the current trench lines. “Colonel Baranfel, I’m here to give my report.”

The colonel slowly looked up, his bushy eyebrows making him appear angry. His right hand began to tap on the desk as he waited.

Confused, Natalia watched the colonel continue to tap his fingers. “Oh, right!” She suddenly snapped to attention, her right hand rising to a salute.

Colonel Baranfel leaned back in his chair with crossed arms. “Gamayun Ludmilla, you’re missing your cap.” He sighed. “Actually, nevermind. There’s no point,” he stated in his gruff voice, boredom clearly having taken him.

“Colonel?” Natalia replied, lowering her hand, unsure of what to do.

“Just take a seat, already.”

“Yes sir!” Natalia barked, quickly moving around the table and taking a seat in one of two chairs sitting across from Baranfel. She placed her pack and rifle by her side.

“Report.”

Natalia nodded, averting her eyes away from the colonel’s intense gaze. “I took up position in the town of Bosavan for three days, as ordered. Midday of the third, a tank of the Union entered the town. The commander did not match the descriptions of Doxul. I sent message by leaflet code that I would be returning. It was at that moment that I was found by a spotter and was forced to engage the Union soldiers along with their tank,” she finished, a tightness coming over her from the heat of the room.

“What makes you think it was a spotter?” the colonel asked, his chair creaking as he shifted his weight.

Reaching into her pack, Natalia placed the circuit board on the desk. “After sending the message, the tank preceded to take aim and fire at my position in the third story of a ruined building.” Natalia glanced up to see the colonel’s attention on the board, and the invisible pressure of his gaze seemed to lift slightly. “During my retreat, the transmitter was destroyed. As per instruction, I removed the circuits.”

Baranfel picked up the circuit board with care, looking over its complex surface of wires and lines. “So a spotter, then,” he sighed, placing the board back down and leaning back into his chair with a tired expression. “I will inform the communications division to change the encoding of the messages once more.” The colonel brought his attention back on Natalia, “Do you have anything else to report?”

“No, Colonel.”

“Good. You have the rest of the day off, go get something to eat and some rest. I expect to see you back here tomorrow for the briefing at oh-seven-hundred hours.”

“Thank you, sir,” Natalia said. Standing up with rifle and pack in hand, she placed them onto her shoulders and began to head out.

“And Natalia.”

“Yes, sir?” she asked, turning around to see the colonel already bent over, pen in hand, writing.

“Be more careful next time. The Brigadier was not happy when I told him his favorite esper came back covered in blood.”

“Yes, sir…” Natalia mumbled before walking out of the tent, the light shower of rain greeting her with its coolness. She knelt against a nearby post, rubbing her forehead of sweat, the dizziness from before washing over her. ‘Be more careful’? Not like I enjoyed getting shot at. She exhaled, looking up and closing her eyes, enjoying the feel of the falling rain. Shaking her head she began walking, following the signs as she crossed aisles of tents. Something to eat and hopefully I’ll be back to my normal self. Getting tired of being lightheaded.

I’m the Brigadier’s favorite esper. Makes me feel like an object. Stopping by a signpost Natalia reached into her pocket, her hand finding her flask. Unscrewing the top, she peered inside, disappointment crossing her face at the realization that it was empty. Sighing, she screwed it closed and placed the flask back into her pocket. I guess it is good to feel needed, though… How ridiculous.

Waiting for a pause in the foot traffic along the dirt path, she crossed over, dodging past a large artillery piece getting pulled by two horses. Glancing back, she marveled at the massive barrel of the gun, and the gears and wheels used to adjust its barrel.

“Careful!”

Twisting forward, Natalia quickly jumped to the side, out of the way of two men carrying a crate towards a tent. I hate this place. Too many people, too much going on. I guess I can’t hate the Brigadier for promoting me to Gamayun. How I’d love to be someplace quiet right now, alone.

Turning down another corner, Natalia reached a massive set of tents placed near each other in a long rectangle. Alone… So many advantages to being alone. For one, I wouldn’t have to worry about all the stupid military regulations. Walking beneath an overhanging flap, she found herself among a space full of dozens of tables, men and women scattered among the benches eating and talking. Finding her way to the line towards the tables serving as the kitchen, she waited patiently, her fingers gently rubbing together for warmth. She looked along the sides of the tent to see the outside, a darkness starting to grow over the encampment and a chill coming in.

“More rain…” a voice spoke nearby. “Poor bastards at the front tonight are going to be knee deep in mud again.”

Natalia looked up from her thoughts to see two men in line with her talking to one another. Both were older than her by several years, the first having grown a beard, his cap shadowing his eyes. The other who had spoken first had scruff along his face, poorly trimmed, his hair shaggy.

“We’ll be stuck in that mud soon, ourselves,” the bearded man said.

“You think?”

“For sure. There’ll be plenty of rain the next few days. That’s what we get for building the trenches in this valley.”

“Still doesn’t make sense to me why we’re in a valley of all places,” said the shaggy-haired man. “Why not up in the hills so we have the high ground?”

“It’s just how things worked out. Damn Union showed up and got us stuck here.” The bearded man looked over to Natalia, his eyes quickly averting away.

“What’s wro-” the other man began, looking down to see the black winged insignia on Natalia’s coat, then meeting her gaze. “Gamayun…” he mumbled, quickly looking away.

Such a warm welcome, Natalia thought, turning her eyes back to the floor, her feet shuffling as she moved along in line. Taking a tray, she raised it for food to be placed onto it by the servers behind the table. Feeling the weight on the tray, she looked down to see a biscuit and a bowl full of a brown stew that smelled bland, only a few chunks of meat floating at the top. Natalia walked away from the line, her eyes scanning the rows of tables for familiar faces. She spotted two men sitting alone at a table, the older one waving a hand towards her.

The man who waved her over had a full head of gray hair pulled back in a short tail. He had a clean-shaven face etched with wrinkles from age and long nights. His eyes looking back at her were black, a youthfulness behind them. The sleeves of his trench coat were rolled up to reveal some muscle of his thick forearms, his large hands showing visible wear from use. “Come join us, Natalia!” he said, his voice strong but beginning to become raspy.

“Thank you Kadir,” Natalia replied, taking a seat beside him.

“Hey Natalia, are you feeling better?” the other man said from across the table in an even-toned voice, a smile on his lips. A gray cap covered his clean-cut brunette hair and his mustache was kept trimmed. Leaning forward he rested his elbows on the table, his left hand tapping the table rhythmically. A visible scar ran between his ring and middle finger, the trail vanishing up the sleeve of his gray coat. “You look better, that’s for sure!” He laughed at his own joke, his hazel eyes taking her in.

Natalia rolled her eyes. I swear…

“Vakhno, have some respect for our Natalia. She went through a lot yesterday!” Kadir growled.

“I am being respectful,” Vakhno replied. “I did ask her if she was doing better, did I not? You heard me, right Natalia?” His fingers began to drum faster.

“Yeah, I heard you, unfortunately.” Natalia shook her head. “And yes, I am doing much better.” She picked up the spoon on her tray and began to scoop up some of the stew. A grimace crossed her face at the taste as she forced it down her throat.

“How was your first mission? Heard you came back with a lot of blood on you. Did you use a vial?” Vakhno asked, eyeing her curiously.

A shiver ran down her spine, her left hand hurting at the memory of the glass vial breaking in her palm. “I… I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

“Honestly, Vakhno. You ask too much. And stop that infernal tapping,” Kadir ordered.

“Sorry,” Vakhno replied, pulling a pair of gloves from an inside pocket of his jacket, the brown leather worn and beginning to turn black. Lying the gloves flat on the table, he resumed his tapping on the gloves, the leather muffling the sound. “Anyway, I am merely curious. I’ve heard a lot about the vials, never even used myself.” He reached into a pocket with his free hand and produced a small vial with crimson blood inside, twirling it between his fingers.

“You should hope you never use it,” Kadir said before taking a gulp of his large mug sitting before him.

“Why’s that?”

Kadir lowered his mug. “I’ve seen enough espers use them in combat, and it’s never good. Friend or foe, no one lives around an esper fueled on those damn vials.”

“Oh, come now, that is just exaggeration. Surely it ain’t that bad.”

Natalia paused in her eating, watching the vial of blood twirl into the air before getting caught by Vakhno. “It was horrible,” she said.

“Oh?” he replied, eyeing her curiously. “What made it so horrible?”

“Vakhno!”

“No, he’s fine Kadir…” Natalia said. Taking a deep breath, she looked down in thought before talking, “The rush of energy that fueled me, I only wanted to kill and revel in ending the lives of others. It was terrifying knowing I could find enjoyment in such a thing…”

“Your actions aren’t your fault, it was the vial,” Kadir said.

“Honestly, it must be an experience thing. After a few vials, I bet any esper can control it,” Vakhno said.

“It is not based on experience. You are a fool to think that,’ Kadir said.

“How would you know?” Vakhno asked, turning his attention to Kadir. “You aren’t even an esper.”

“I have seen plenty of espers use their vial in combat. Their experience means nothing,” Kadir stated.

Natalia watched the two men glare at one another before returning to her meal. “Please, let’s change the topic. We don’t need to fight.”

“Sorry,” Kadir said before taking another gulp from his mug.

Vakhno sat back up, his arms crossing as he began to shake his legs. “Sure, we can change it.” He leaned forward, his eyes taking in Natalia. “You looking forward to your next mission?”

“I don’t believe that’s the topic she meant, Vakhno,” Kadir said.

“No, it’s fine Kadir,” Natalia replied, lowering her spoon again, her eyes studying the eager look of Vakhno. “Yes, I am.”

Vakhno stopped shaking his legs, his fingers resuming their tapping on the gloves, a grin crossing his lips. “So, enjoy the life of a Gamayun?”

“Yes.”

Vakhno’s grin grew bigger. “Came back covered in blood, and you want to go back out there. It is exciting, you showed up just a couple years after I started and we’re both so alike in our desires to be Gamayuns!”

“There is nothing exciting about this job. You should take it more seriously,” Kadir stated.

“Nothing wrong finding a little fun in your job,” Vakhno said. Picking up his leather gloves, he pulled them onto his hands. “Surely Kadir, you find some enjoyment in being a Gamayun? At least the satisfaction in lining up a long distance shot and hitting the mark?”

Kadir slowly exhaled, his arms crossed. “I suppose I can’t deny there being some… satisfaction.”

“See?” Vakhno laughed.

“I fail to see how we are alike though,” Natalia stated.

Vakhno smiled. “Well, I could give you lots of reasons. But personally, I’d rather invite you to go shooting sometime, just you and me.” He stood up, arching his back to stretch. “Maybe we can get to know each other a bit more… personally. Afterall, it is healthy for us Gamayuns to remember who we fight with and for, so we have a reason to come back from our solitary paradise.” Stepping from the bench he waved his hands, starting to walk off. “That’s what you always say, right Kadir?” he chuckled. “Natalia, let me know what you think at the briefing!”

Go shooting with him? Natalia thought, watching Vakhno leave, her eyes taking in the rifle slung over his back, the wooden stock and scope giving off a slight shine, having been cleaned recently. Maybe… Her eyes trailed further down for a moment before she looked back to her tray of food.

“I swear, that boy is ridiculous.” Kadir scoffed, watching Vakhno walk off before vanishing among a crowd of soldiers. “Two years a Gamayun and he thinks he can take on anything. Damn fool.” He took the final gulp of rum sitting at the bottom of his mug.

Natalia picked up her spoon and began to finish the last of the stew in her bowl. Solitary paradise… Being out there, is that really paradise? I should hate going out there among the enemy. And yet… it was comforting in a strange way.

Slamming the mug back onto the table, Kadir knelt close, his eyes taking in Natalia. “You’re thinking about what he said.”

“Yes. He is… Well, he isn’t entirely wrong,” Natalia replied before taking the last spoonful of the brown stew. “Glad I’m done eating this stuff.”

Kadir sighed. “Unfortunately he learned from me, just like you have. So no, he isn’t wrong.” He stood up, placing a reassuring hand on Natalia’s shoulder. “I never said, but great job on your first mission. Get as much rest as you can, you’ll need it after tomorrow’s briefing.”

“Okay, see you later Kadir,” Natalia replied, watching him go before she returned to staring at the empty bowl. Vakhno is right… There is satisfaction. I hate this war, and yet I became good enough to become a Gamayun. She began to nibble away at the biscuit. And his offer to go shooting with him… I guess I do need rest if I’m actually considering that ludicrous idea. Finishing the biscuit, she gathered up her belongings and left

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