Tales from Kalgachia - 3

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From a rubble-strewn rooftop in the Shrubbery, Sergeant Smiles Flopsy of the Kalgachi Defence Force looked out over the looted, derelict neighbourhoods which comprised the Minarborian capital of Sansabury. His time serving alongside irreverent cossack types had given him the habit of smoking stubby Papirosa cigarettes, held with his palm over the lit end. He happily puffed on one of these, enjoying the irony that the building he stood on had once been the Hall of Prunings - head office of the Minarborian health service which had once been empowered to impose robust penalties for smoking, upto and including short custodial sentences under the guise of psychiatric care. Now, like every other building in the Shrubbery, it was a blackened shell - its last occupants seemed unwilling to leave anything behind and had set the entire citadel ablaze as they departed.

Flopsy was originally a native of the city, a seasoned enlistee of the 2nd Sansabury Regiment, but had deserted along with most of that unit just after the removal of the Shrub-God Minarbor by hardliners of the Minarborian state church. According to rumour they had secreted away their beloved Shrub somewhere in Whisperwood, and in its absence the city of Sansabury seemed to lose its purpose and descend into mass psychosis. The breakdown in order was effectively instant and Flopsy had fled the city as soon as he could. In time, around half a dozen civilian refugees had gathered under the protection of his rifle and the group had headed north, attracted by rumours of a safe haven in the Octavian mountains. On the way through western Novodolor they had been accosted by all manner of keeners, cerahippos and other rogue mutant fauna which now spewed out of their unattended containment biomes in nearby Whisperwood. Chief among these was the notorious beast they called the Tee-al - ten tons of flying, spine-flinging rage wrapped in cuddly hamster fur. Still, Flopsy and most of his companions had made it to the safety of the mountains which the pursuing creatures found too rugged to occupy.

And for his trouble, they had sent him back.

As soon as he had reached the Garden of Kalgachia, as the new order in the mountains called itself, he had volunteered his services in the newly-formed Kalgachi Defence Force. It was a natural enough career move but the KDF's promise of a guaranteed food ration in such an agriculturally poor region was, Flopsy admitted to himself, an equally motivating factor. Before the ink was even dry on his recruitment papers he had been promoted to his old rank, placed in charge of a squad of infantry - some of whom were fellow refugees from his old unit - and assigned to a mission of "critical strategic importance." The prospect of being deployed back to his native Lywall was enough of an unpleasant surprise, but even this was outdone by the nature of the mission - to take and hold the Sansabury Shrubbery against all incursions, for a period of two years, in the service of some diplomatic gymnastics being conducted by Kalgachia's rulers which Flopsy could not even begin to understand. But suicide mission or not, it was not a soldier's place to ask questions - a reminder he frequently gave his griping squadmates when they learned of the mission. For his own silent part, Flopsy was as unimpressed as they were - he only nursed a faint hope that the refugees he had escorted into the mountains would benefit from this, and show some damned gratitude for it when he returned to them. If he returned at all.

The capture of the Shrubbery had been, in the end, relatively easy. The citadel's gutted shell had been ignored by all but a few packs of would-be warlords who proved no match for the howitzers of Kalgachi kossars and air support from Whirdlebirb helicopters. The district of the city known as the Cantonment was occupied by fanatical remnants of Minarboria's special operations unit, the Black Rangers, whose own barracks lay there. They had been rather more troublesome, acquiring an advanced surface-to-air missile system which caused no small amount of grief to the Whirdlebirbs, although skilfully-directed barrages of kossar artillery ensured that they could not approach too close to the Shrubbery. The kossars' own missile systems, meanwhile, were able to swat the Black Rangers' drones out of the sky and deny them a reconnaissance picture.

Flopsy could not shake the memory of marching with those same Black Rangers, through that same Cantonment, only a few short years before. That it had come to this, he could scarcely believe. It seemed inconceivable that he would ever find the Minarborian Shrubbery, an infallible institution that he had been raised to regard with the warmest affection, so derelict in its duties that he would be compelled to seize it by force - even less conceivable that whole swathes of the Minarborian population would join him in doing so. Those who did were motivated by a single and rather simple imperative; a sovereign homeland must be maintained at all costs, Shrub or no Shrub. Anything less would be a disgrace to their ancestors who had made the arduous journey out of Shirerithian Lichbrook, and a betrayal of their children who might find themselves once more under the yoke of a cynical and uncaring foreign power.

Flopsy flicked away his cigarette and raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes, looking south. Crouched next to him was a marksman doing the same with the sight of his sniper rifle, rested on the back of a chair he had dragged up from the building's charred interior. Somewhere in that southern direction the Shirerithians were engaged in a lightning advance along the coast of Lywall, sweeping out of Tellia to link up with their possessions in the far west and claim the final stretch of southern Benacian coast that had eluded their possession until now.

"What do you think they'll do with it?" said the marksman.

Flopsy hissed with derision. "Same as they've done with the rest of this continent," he said. "Turf the natives off their own land into hovels and ghettoes, so an army of baubled aristocrats can come along and build estates that they never visit. A great big desert of manicured lawn is what it'll be, like Natopia. They won't stop until the whole world is their private property."

"Shame," said the marksman. "I used to take my holiday down in Bereliggle Bay."

"Don't go thinking about the good old days too much," said Flopsy. "It'll drive you crazy. You've had your last holiday in a long time, that's for sure."

"Doesn't this count as a holiday?"

"For you maybe, you stinking Novodolor oaf. I grew up around here. See that little open space by the burning building over there? There's a playground in there. Spent the better part of my childhood messing around on the swings and the climbing bars, and... and..."

"You said we shouldn't linger on old memories, sarge."

"I did indeed, private," said Flopsy, ejecting the flood of incoming recollections with a physical shake of the head. "Thank you." He was reluctant to admit the full extent of his inner dissonance since returning to the city. The worst thing was the deafening silence, into which the bustle of the city's past crept as a vivid auditory hallucination. He had come to enjoy the sporadic thud of the Black Rangers lobbing mortar shells out of the Cantonment; anything to distract his ears.

Like everyone deployed to the Shrubbery's ruins, Flopsy had toured the Imperial Palace at its heart which was previously forbidden to ordinary Minarborians. He had circled its great courtyard, seen the dazzling white marble dais in the middle which had once been home to the deified Shrub Minarbor. Its emptiness seemed to imprint an emptiness onto the souls of all ex-Minarborians who looked upon it; whatever the power of the Shrub in the present day, it was not here. Not any more. Only at that point did Flopsy truly realise there could be no return to those leafy, jolly times. Now - for better or worse - the future lay in the mountains to the north, in the region called Kalgachia, the last resolute gasp of a sovereign central Benacia.