This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.
25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE
Adjar Dominance — Bada Aso South District, Matumaini and 1st Block
Kern stared wide-eyed at the latest obstacle blocking their way north. He had already seen buildings collapsed like an avalanche of rubble across whole streets, and roads cratered so deep that one seemed to stare directly through them and into the blackest hells.
Despite these experiences he was still taken aback by the ominous novelty of a crashed bomber, a Wizard plane. On its side a sultry pinup in a swimsuit faced the Grenadiers and blocking passage. Resting on a bed made of collapsed buildings its wings were nowhere to be found. The nose was buried into the rubble and the tail dangled on a strip of metal.
It was the bent fuselage, thirty meters long and almost ten meters tall, along with its nest of rubble that directly prevented the Grenadiers from advancing up Matumaini 1st.
They would have to divert east and then turn around again.
“What’s the hold-up– Oh? Scheiße. Everyone go right, round Goa Street.”
First Sergeant Zimmer joined Kern atop one of the mounds with a map in hand, and took Kern’s binoculars. Kern had been roped into a unit after taking that last intersection. Zimmer swore up and down that Private Beckert belonged in Z-Companie and apologized to Captain Aschekind after finding him “annoying” the CO with his presence.
Kern did not remember Zimmer whatsoever but he went along with it in order to avoid embarrassing himself further to the Captain. Zimmer pushed on ahead with his Z-Companie, with Aschekind bringing up the rear with the remainder of the Battalion.
Slowly the two forward platoons climbed the rubble and approached the wreckage.
Many stopped to stare at it. Such a massive craft; how could it have fallen?
Sgt. Zimmer examined the wreck, fifteen or twenty meters ahead.
“Nice pinup.” Zimmer said.
Even through all the abuse the plane had suffered, the woman painted on the side looked fairly pristine, dressed in a low-cut red corset with black mesh leggings, blonde hair flowing freely as though the plane were in flight and blowing it around. She had flashing blue eyes and a bright smile. Clearly a lot of effort had gone into her. Zimmer shook his head. “Those Luftlotte boys sure know how to paint. Now if they knew how to fight.”
Kern smiled awkwardly. He was not one for inter-service rivalry.
But everyone seemed to have these jokes.
Zimmer handed him back the binoculars. Kern took another look at the plane.
Most of the men started for the east road.
“Get one last good look at her son, because you ain’t seeing a lady like that for a while.”
“Right.” Kern replied, sighing. He was interested in the fuselage than the girl on it.
More men entered the intersection. “Let’s get going, you’ve lagged behind enough.”
He sure was one to talk; Zimmer always seemed a healthy distance from combat.
Kern found something curious about the wreckage, however, but couldn’t confirm it.
“Sir, something is wrong with this. How many windows does a Wizard class bomber normally have? I see at least five along the fuselage and that seems like too many–”
He paused mid-sentence, having found his own answer; Kern dropped his binoculars and shouted a warning, hooking Zimmer with his arm and bringing them both down.
Gun barrels protruded from the makeshift windows along the fuselage.
Long bursts of automatic fire cut across the street facing the wreckage.
Within seconds one whole squadron standing below the wreck seemed suspended in time as they were riddled with bullets, blood splashing from exit wounds, arms flailing, limbs collapsing under the withering fire until they fell dead in a tight heap over each other.
Dozens of men out in the open could do nothing but drop on their bellies or haul away.
Sweeping streams of bullets clipped the legs of many runners, knocking to the ground several helpless grenadiers. Men hit the dirt, covering their heads, while pools of blood formed under them seconds later. Those furthest away ducked behind rubble and into the frames of ruined houses, gathered their wits and exchanged fire, shooting at the ambushers’ firing ports, trying to drive back their barrels or hit the merest hints of a man in the shadows.
These made remarkably small and difficult targets.
Dozens of bullets bounced off the armored hide of the wrecked plane, sturdy enough still to defend the soldiers huddling inside. They hit the frames around each firing port, cleverly cut into the fuselage to appear to be airplane windows.
While the trick would not have fooled an airplane enthusiast, Kern had never even been trained to identify Nochtish planes. That was a separate branch of the service!
Now in the face of this ambush, dozens of men had died or been injured in a moment. Most of a platoon entire had been lost in seconds, and a few scattered rifle squadrons offered all the resistance to the ambush that they could. There were perhaps forty men firing back with rifles against five or six machine guns saturating the area with bullets.
Most of the men had poor angles on the fuselage, shooting from the houses on either side of the street. Everyone who had been in the open was dead or wounded.
“Take them out!” Zimmer shouted into his radio, “I want men straddling that hulk! Respond damn it! Someone run out there and throw a grenade in that hole!”
At first it was unclear that anyone had heard those orders.
Kern saw a dead man ahead with a radio backpack that was making noise.
They finally received a reply from one of the houses relatively closest to the wreckage, and an attack was organized. Zimmer commanded the men to charge on his command.
Ahead of them the machine guns dried and there was silence as the enemy reloaded.
“Vorwarts! Attack the fuselage before they can reload! I want grenades out now!”
But Kern heard the distinctive popping of a mortar nearby.
From a hole atop the fuselage he saw the shell fly out at an almost 90 degree angle, as if directly skyward. Then he saw another, and more shells followed, ejected from the wreckage and blasting the roadway and nearby houses, pockmarking the streets with small craters, throwing up thin columns of dirt and smoke and flinging away dead men.
At Zimmer’s command the squadron came charging across the open street, leaving behind the cover of a hollowed out old brick house. They apprpoached the fuselage from the right, stick grenades in their hands, and closed in as the mortars whistled up and over.
With a great clamor the mortar shells came crashing down.
Men stopped in their tracks as the explosives flashed and sounded all around them. Debris and smoke and shrapnel stung and frightened the men and disrupted the squadron’s charge. Fearing what would come Kern lost his nerve entirely. He flinched away.
Zimmer grabbed him and pulled him behind the slope for cover.
One by one the machine guns opened fire again; Kern heard two explosions to match.
Far less than the twelve men he had seen running.
Zimmer was livid. His charge had failed. His men had died again.
“You coward!” He shouted. “Pull yourself back together, and get reinforcements!”
The 1st Sgt. seized Kern by the shoulders, hit him with his cap and pushed him away.
Kern scrambled down the mound of rubble, but he did not have to run far.
A dozen meters behind them an M3 Hunter assault gun meticulously navigated the rolling hills of rubble and uprooted chunks of the street, climbing over each mound with its tracks and flattening out atop before rushing down the other side.
Kern hurried beside the tank and banged on it.
A hatch opened atop, and Kern pointed the commander forward. Immediately the commander heard the machine guns and spotted the top end of the wreckage ahead, and understood implicitly. Kern rushed ahead of the tank and waved 1st Sgt. Zimmer out of the way. The M3 cleared the rubble mound they had been standing on as easily as any small slope, despite its slippery consistency, climbing atop and aiming its gun at the wreckage.
There was a loud bang and a puff of smoke from the short barrel on the M3’s gun.
A 75mm shell erupted against the bomber wreckage, blowing open the hull with a fierce explosion. Fire spread across the inside of the fuselage, and the burning was followed by smaller secondary explosions, banging and popping inside of the inferno as the enemy’s ammunition caught flame and went up in smoke. Dust and shrapnel blew out like dust.
Tongues of flame and black smoking trails fumed from each of the windows.
Jostled from its position by the blast, the bomber rolled slightly downhill off the rubble. There were no signs of life inside, only a billowing black cloud punctuated by red flashes.
Lumbering forward, the M3 descended the rubble and its tracks came to rest atop the clear, flat street over which so many of their men had died without an opportunity to fight.
In all, the ambush cost them another thirty men – almost an entire company had been wiped out between the attack on the intersection and the ambush on this road.
Kern could hardly contemplate over a hundred men dying in only a few hours.
Their Regiment had around 4000 men, and their Division had over 12,000, but there was something about those larger numbers that registered as immaterial, impossible to think about in the way he thought about these squadrons, these platoons. Over a hundred men in two actions across a few hours. Should this continue, could they lose the entire regiment by the end of the week? Maybe a thousand a day until they were all gone?
He shook his head, forcing himself out of his reverie.
“Come out of hiding!” Zimmer screamed at the nearby buildings. He was livid. When the surviving rifle squadrons slowly vacated their positions he continued to shout at them and swing his hat as though trying to hit them with the thing in spirit. “From now on we do not stop to take in the scenery! You will keep your eyes peeled for the enemy, on every rooftop, across every mound of rubble, inside every building! Whoever I catch daydreaming will go peel potatoes and dig latrines for the rest of the war!”
Kern started walking ahead. Unceremoniously, 2nd Battalion regrouped, and with the tank platoon following, one vehicle staggered every twenty or thirty meters, the men moved on, cutting eastwards into Goa Street to bypass the heavily ruined Matumaini 1st block; their goal would be found on the 3rd, if any man remained alive to claim it.
25-AG-30 South District, Matumaini Upper Street
Luftlotte bombs had hit the blocks connected by Matumaini Street particularly hard.
There were many collapses. Holes were blown into the streets and the asphalt. Many buildings and roads sank, fully or partially, into the tunnels under the city or into the sewer.
One particularly large collapse was the postal building on Matumaini’s 5th block.
Once a large, bustling place, it had been blasted so that it resembled nothing so much as a hell maw, a burrow, a slit into the earth surrounded by mounds of rubble that cast the hole between them into darkness. Matumaini Post Office had largely sunk into its own basement, where supplies were kept. Thankfully the building had been promptly declared unsafe and fully evacuated by Engineering before the bombings began in earnest.
Nobody was supposed to be anywhere near there; but a curious mission had been given to a private from the 2nd Line Corps that seemed to suggest otherwise.
“Uh, hello? I’m Private Hanabi. I was told to check if someone was stuck here?”
He raised a hand to shield his eyes and stared into the dark pit formed by the ruins.
Someone responded to him quite quickly in a calm, droning tone of voice.
“Hujambo. I’m Corporal Chadgura. I am trapped. But I am fine with this situation.”
Pvt. Hanabi leaned carefully into the rubble and looked down the collapsed floor.
“Oh. Well. You should probably come out of there. Did something happen to you?”
Corporal Chadgura looked up at the Private from the interior of the ruin, and produced for him a small booklet. She raised it up so that he could see it. She flipped the pages quite deliberately so that he could appreciate the contents of every one.
It was a stamp book, and each page had multiple copies of a different stamp.
Most of the stamps were pictures of places in Ayvarta, monuments like the People’s Peak in Solstice, the Kucha Mountains and the great oil fields on the Horn of Ayvarta. Some pages had pictures of revolutionary martyrs, local cultural heroes, and other colorful folklore. Every region had its own circulation of commemorative stamps.
Once she was sure Pvt. Hanabi had fully come to appreciate her discovery, Cpl. Chadgura closed the book and put it in her bag with a triumphant flourish.
“So,” Pvt. Hanabi looked confused for a moment, “You collect stamps?”
“Yes.” Cpl. Chadgura replied. Her voice had lost a lot of its natural character. When she spoke it was fairly monotonous. Deep inside though, she felt rather pleased with her acquisition, even if her face and voice did not show it. She looked over the stamps in the book again, and imagined with great pleasure cutting them from the pages, and sticking them on her book. “I travel regularly. So I collect stamps from the regional post offices.”
“Oh. Do you keep them in a book?” Pvt. Hanabi asked. “I know people do that.”
“Yes. I have a stamp book. I left it at the HQ. A staff member is taking care of it.”
“I see. You wouldn’t want it to get damaged in the fighting.”
“Yes. I used to have an older book, and it was damaged. I had to transplant the surviving stamps to a new book. I learned my lesson then. I was very distraught when that book was burnt. But I am fine now.” She remembered her speech training as she spoke with Pvt. Hanabi. Make frequent use of ‘I’ statements to more easily construct sentences and convey information; remember to declare your emotions so others can tell how you are doing; remind others of your condition so they can better help you.
She remembered her emotive words, like ‘distraught’, ‘fine’, ‘sad’, ‘happy’.
Most people couldn’t tell just from her face and voice.
Pvt. Hanabi stared at her, but he was not unfriendly toward her when he spoke.
“Do you need help getting out of there?”
“While I am personally fine, I do require assistance to escape this hole.” She replied.
“Ok. I’ll go get some rope. There’s an engineer just across the street.”
“I will wait here patiently.”
“Uh, good. Don’t panic or anything, I’ll be right back.”
“I am physically incapable of panic. Thank you for your help.” Cpl. Chadgura said.
Among the agents in her training group, she had been one of the worst speakers both before and after her conditioning was over, necessitating she take additional speech training and therapy. She thought, however, that she did quite well with Pvt. Hanabi.
Once the engineer returned with a rope and they pulled her out of the hole, she casually walked down to the intersection to rejoin the 2nd Line Corps, hoping her new stamps would survive the battle. If not she supposed that Bada Aso had many more post offices. She felt little trepidation about it, but she did feel a desire for her stamps to survive.
It had been hours since the last sandbag had gone down over the intersection.
Preparing the defense had come down to the wire, but everyone had made it.
Now all the 2nd Line Corps’ troops could do was to wait.
For many it was a casual wait despite the fact that death might loom on the horizon. They ate, they ambled around the line, they talked with each other, and they cleaned and checked their kit in anticipation. There were hundreds in the intersection and most were being a little noisy. Soldiers cracked open their meager rations of palm wine and banana gin, drinking the liquor down while telling stories or singing songs. Less enthusiastic folk sat around their guns or mortars and tried to get to sleep. There was also at least one game of Ayvartan chess, Chatarunga, being played nearby with a sandbag holding the board.
Private Gulab Kajari watched the game intently.
Back in her village they liked Shatranj, which was quite similar to Chatarunga. It differed from Lubonin chess, Latrones, in that the peasants did not get a double move to begin with and you could not hide the king behind the chariots. One thing Gulab did like better about Latrones over the other variants of the game was that the best piece was a Queen and not a Counselor. She always found that rather heartening. Her grandfather had taught her to play. Before he passed he was the best player in their region.
During the old old war he had played a lot of chess in the different places he fought.
Almost on reflex she found herself muttering a little prayer.
Gulab herself had played many games, of Chatarunga, Chatranj, Latrones and even the Nochtish Schach. As a kid she had nurtured some ambition for this game of warring royals, and she had even played people in villages outside her own. She played enough that it was a little frustrating to watch some of the clumsy moves being made by the soldiers.
They were cowardly and indecisive, and when they committed it was to foolish moves.
Both of them stared at the board for long minutes and then almost always made mistakes. Soon she could not bear to watch anymore. It grated on her nerves to see it.
She turned on her back on the sight, facing an empty building.
Waiting was starting to get on her nerves too.
Almost reflexively she pulled her hair free, gathered it again and began to braid it into a tail, just for something to do. Her hair was long and a little wavy, a bit messy, rich dark chestnut in color, darker than the brown tone of her skin. Whenever she could spare the time she meticulously tied her hair up in a simple braid. Since being redeployed from the wilderness outposts in the Kalu Hilltops she had precious little idle time to spend on hair.
Toying with her hair was simple and relaxing – it helped affirm a lot of who she was. Whenever she braided her own hair it brought back memories of home. It was hard not to think about it. There was a lot about her that had been bound up in those simple twists of her gathered hair, that was bound up in the length of her hair, in the care that she took with it; a lot that made her different. Back in her village, hair braiding was a kind of boundary that she crossed. She was brazen, and usually asked girls to braid her hair.
They would have thought it strange, but they would have done it, giggling and laughing and saying silly things about her. They would go to one of the girls’ homes while their family was out, and they would braid her hair and paint her face and smile.
They would say she was pretty and had a cute-looking face, and comment on how slender and soft she was compared to her brothers. Gulab would enjoy the teasing thoroughly. It was all compliments to her, unbeknownst to the girls making them.
Those were good times.
She was on the last twist, her fingers right right at the lower end of her hair, when she heard noise and commotion. She finished her braid with a little elastic band she had gotten out of a toolbox months ago. From the middle of the vehicle road, Lt. Kone shouted and raised his radio handset up over his head. “We’ve received orders to take up positions! As of right now, carry yourselves as though an attack is imminent!”
As one, the soldiers heeded him.
Food and drink were thrown away, and the Chatarunga pieces went back in their case.
There was smoke over Matumaini and 3rd, rising from several blocks away.
The defenders made it to their positions, and waited, knowing they were soon to be drawn into battle. Gulab went over in her mind what she thought of the situation. She had not played chess all those years without thinking about life in moves – she had gone through effort to try to understand the situation today. She had asked people, looked at maps.
Building collapses made it impossible to see the actions of the enemy from this distance, but they were certainly on the move. Sounds of gunfire intensified, at first distant, but moving closer and heightening in volume. To attack the line, the Nochtish forces would have curve around the heavy collapses on Matumaini 1st and connect to the adjacent Goa street east of Matumaini and then return through the western connection to Matumaini 2nd.
Now finally around the rubble, they could turn around back into Matumaini and assault north along the road and directly within the lane of fire held by the 2nd Line Corps’ 42nd Ox Rifles Regiment, tasked with occupying Matumaini 3rd. This was the only route that made sense at the moment, since there was no direct connection to Penance in the west.
It seemed the enemy was ready to do just that.
Already remnants of the 1st Line Corps had begun retreating.
Over the next half hour Gulab saw injured and scared men and women coming in from the south, from the smoke and the din of gunfire. Medical units of the 2nd Line Corps were soon busy with the remnants of the 1st Line Corps, who largely had to be transported away behind the lines. Matumaini 3rd would be the main battlefield in moments.
Matumaini 3rd’s defenders established themselves along the intersection separating the blocks on Matumaini 2nd with those on Matumaini 3rd. It was a very open and broad four-way intersection. The streets were wide and several building lots straddling the road had been pounded into crushed dust, opening up even more terrain for the defenders.
Gulab had never quite seen a road layout like this one.
Matumaini ran along the northern and southern ends of the intersection, with a connection west to Goa, and a diagonal connecting road to the next district curling into the intersection from the northeast and bypassing Penance road and the old Cathedral block entirely. The defense of the intersection was tiered across these areas.
Each of the three battalions had its place in the defense of this area of more or less a kilometer all around. The 1st Battalion was responsible for the edge and center of the intersection, while the diagonal road was 2nd Battalion’s to hold. The extreme end of the intersection along Matumaini itself, as well as Matumaini and 4th block, to the rear of the 1st Battalion area, was 3rd Battalion’s responsibility. Gulab herself was part of the 4th Ox Rifle Division’s, 42nd Rifles’ Regiment’s 1st Battalion, B Company, 3rd Platoon.
Order of battle was confusing at times.
She thought of herself mostly as “3rd Platoon,” but the defense of the intersection made her think in larger terms than that. There were a lot of people present. When she joined the army she barely trained with twenty or thirty people. Perhaps had she been around longer, and in a better time, these masses of humanity would seem normal.
Sandbag walls had been erected along the southern end of the road. The 42nd Rifle Regiment’s 1st Battalion did not have enough sandbags to wall off the entire intersection, it was simply too large. Instead, several half-moon firing positions had been made, with a machine gun, anti-tank gun or mortar providing a base of fire for a platoon of rifle troops.
There were four large positions along the south with heavy machine guns and a rifle platoon stacking around or near each. In the center of the intersection there were three more positions, one for an anti-tank platoon and two for mortar platoons, along with supporting defenses centered on a mostly intact residential building on the northeast, straddling the intersection toward Goa and Umaiha, and mostly harboring light machine gunners and rifle troops. Far to the back was their supply platoon, and a reserve rifle platoon occupying the connection to the 3rd Battalion area in case of retreat. This was their full disposition.
Gulab and the 3rd Platoon was in the center.
She was part of a platoon stationed around a grouping of three 45mm anti-tank guns.
Her thoughts finally arrived at her own disposition. In this way she ran through the situation in her head, waiting with bated breath for the enemy. For nearly an hour everyone was quite static, but surprisingly, a latecomer arrived at the 1st Battalion area.
“I apologize for being late, Lieutenant. I shall take charge of the platoon now.”
Over her shoulder, Gulab listened in on Lt. Kone and his new guest. He was in a mortar pit adjacent to her post. She wondered why he wasn’t chewing out this woman who was light-only-knows how late to the defense, and worse, late to command her own troops! And she wondered even more what kind of pathetic character would be late to something of this magnitude, late to her command responsibilities. She almost had half a mind to say something to this fool later on – but then she caught a good glimpse of the woman.
Gulab was stunned to silence.
Lt. Kone deferred to the newcomer because she was a KVW agent; but Gulab found herself staring at the woman just because she looked so gallant in uniform.
Soon the woman approached the 3rd Platoon’s position. Gulab was still transfixed.
“Hujambo, I am Corporal Charvi Chadgura. I will be temporarily in command.”
Cpl. Chadgura shared perhaps the dullest hujambo Gulab had ever heard.
She spoke and carried herself completely without expression. Her eyes were just a little bit narrowed, and her lips remained in a neutral position when she quieted. She wore neither a smile nor a frown. Her cheeks were relaxed, and there was not a wrinkle along her brow. She had a striking appearance in spite her lack of expression, with a rich and dark complexion, and slightly curly, strangely pale hair to a length below chin level. It was a collection of traits that Gulab had never seen in the mountains, the Kalu, or Bada Aso.
It was hard for Gulab to accept this picturesque person as the owner of that dull and droning voice, as someone who had been late to assemble her own platoon – as a less-than-perfect officer. Especially for KVW, heralded as terrifying, perfect soldiers.
Everyone in the platoon was quiet for a moment.
It seemed that there was no one among them used to dealing with the KVW, or perhaps, specifically with someone like the corporal, who had a sort of scatter-brained air from the moment she appeared. Gulab could not tell what Corporal Chadgura was thinking, and the Corporal was very quiet and still. She tried in vain to find somewhere to sit, but then remained standing. There were no other officers in their platoon. It was a young unit.
Cpl. Chadgura rubbed the side of her own arm perhaps as a form of fidgeting.
Her face continued to betray nothing of what she was thinking. She was a complete cipher. Finally, after long silence, she found a place to sit down on the sandbag wall.
Once she seated she patted her hand on her lap as if beckoning a child.
“Does anyone want to join my command cadre?” She asked in her droning voice.
There was no response at first. It seemed the answer was a hesitant ‘no.’
Without thinking Gulab thrust her hand up, feeling as if she had a duty to do so.
Now the platoon stared at her instead. Cpl. Chadgura clapped her hands once.
“Thank you. One person will be enough. What is your name and rank?”
“Private Gulab Kajari, ma’am!” Gulab said. She tried to seem enthusiastic.
Chadgura rubbed her chin as if she had forgotten something. She cast a long glance around the platoon, then snapped her fingers. It was the most expressive gesture she had made so far. “Private Kajari, please share with everyone one thing that you enjoy doing.”
Gulab paused for a moment.
“I like Chess.” She finally said in a hushed voice.
“I enjoy collecting stamps. Now we know each other on a deeper level.”
Chadgura’s expression did not change at all, there was not even the slightest twitch.
Nobody in the platoon could peel themselves away from this scene.
Even Gulab found it puzzling.
25-AG-30 South District – Matumaini 1st, 6th Grenadier
Along Goa street Kern was haunted by the snapping sounds of distant rifles, and the occasional boom of heavy artillery. On Goa itself there was no war yet, only the appearance of one on the rubble-strewn street; but it could not have been said to be peaceful.
Kilometers away to the east the Cissean 2da Infanteria attacked along the riverside, on far cleaner terrain than the 6th Grenadiers – but also facing far stiffer resistance and a dreadful river crossing. Westward, the 1era Infanteria was fighting for the old cathedral and Penance road, on terrain that was comparatively open but blocked by a veritable fortress. Kern could hear the fighting, a far-away chaos rendered in choppy noises on and off again. It was a discordant prelude to a violence that could sweep him up at any second.
It bothered him most that the noise was far enough away to draw no violent physical reaction from him. He did not scream or fall aback with surprise. Anxiety built in his chest and tension roiled under his skin, but the environment offered him no release.
Facing the war would be better than this. At least there he wouldn’t feel so foolish.
It would be immediate.
First Sergeant Zimmer was still at his side, but now with his pistol in his hand. Kern did not know what it was for – there were least thirty men between themselves and the “front,” nebulous as it was. Zimmer was fixated on every suspicious surface that came into view. But after the eighth or ninth partial roof and rubble-choked frame, the 1st-Sgt. relaxed, and put on a big grin on his face, as though he had bested his enemy.
“Private, from what part of the fatherland do you hail?” He asked suddenly.
Kern avoided his eyes. “Oberon, sir, from the farmlands.”
“Ah, the breadbasket. Ever hunt, son?”
“No sir. My families were just farmers.”
Zimmer looked at him like he was preparing to spit in his face.
“Just farmers? You’ve no pride, boy. That’s your problem.” He said brusquely.
Kern felt as though he would have been criticized for anything he said.
“My family hunted in western Rhinea. Hunted tundra drakes.”
“Tundra drakes?” Kern asked.
1st-Sgt. Zimmer extended his pistol arm, looking through the sights.
“Large things. Scaly. Big bite. Remnants of old power. Long before you and I were here, they were the kings of that ice. It is said that once upon time they controlled the ice, shaping the blizzards. It is said that they still can. That is my people’s point of pride.”
He glared again at Kern. His contempt was obvious.
“Run out front. You’re joining the next assault. I want to see you fighting.”
Kern felt an icy grip around his heart.
Short of having a literal death warrant handed to him, he felt there could have been no greater sign of his worthlessness in the eyes of the first sergeant than to be thrown ahead. Certainly he would die; certainly Zimmer was saying nothing less than “go die, boy, go find a machine gun to shred you, go become meat on the pavement.”
He felt disposed of.
Why had been so keen to take him? Had he just been trying to kiss Aschekind’s ass then? Pulling away a nuisance to earn some mild esteem from the Captain?
The Captain didn’t even seem like the type of person who responded to that!
With the 1st-Sgt.’s eyes boring holes through him, Kern ran ahead in clumsy, jelly-legged strides, feeling a nervous tingling throughout his body, and heat up to his throat, nausea, a throbbing headache, as if he bore all the maladies of life at once.
He joined a group of men near the front of the advance.
None of them spoke to him and they did not speak to each other. Kern felt that he might have seen them standing around the last intersection, staring at the corpses.
He had been wrong. He took it back. Facing the war would not have been better.
He begged silently to whatever unseen force – please, not the war.
No matter how much he begged with his mind, his body was still moving forward, a step at a time, over the rubble-strewn across Goa Street. He had joined the war to escape a stagnant existence, to make something of himself other than the ceaseless struggle of Oberon’s fields in the wake of growing debt and alienation for the “breadbasket.”
Who cared for the wheat when you could live better working in an assembly line for the bread? He thought he was escaping stubborn old family to make himself. How on Aer did he wind up doing this? Rifle in hand, grenades in his belt, his bayonet glinting, and Captain Aschekind’s useless hand radio in his bag. He walked to death now.
Marching quietly, perhaps sharing the same thoughts that had stricken Kern, the Landsers crossed the block along Goa Street and then, as instructed, they turned back westwards through the connection to Matumaini street. Judging by their maps of the area, they would be right around the corner from their objective. Those among them who had been designated Jagers moved forward stealthily, and crawled atop and around the rubble, climbing surreptitiously into the buildings and ruins near the corner to Matumaini, and gathering what information they could from their position without being spotted.
More elements of the 6th Grenadier began to catch up to the lead elements.
Kern heard the noise of tank tracks behind them as their platoon of M3 Hunter Assault Guns approached. An unbroken line of men moved into connection to Matumaini. Squad Machine Gunners moved with their Norglers in hand and assistant gunners carrying extra ammunition; Snipers with panzerbuchse anti-tank rifles and scoped carbines kept watch; and large groups of common grenadiers carrying rifles and grenades made up the bulk.
Captain Aschekind appeared from among them, a head taller than any of the men.
He carried a monstrously large pistol. Kern had never seen anything like it before.
Around him was a squadron of soldiers with cross-shaped medals on their jackets – the 1st Squadron, who rode on Aschekind’s Squire Half-track. Would they be leading the march? Probably not. They were too valuable. Each of them was a decorated veteran.
The Captain’s arrival did little to change the situation at first. He simply stood sentinel.
Soon the scouts returned from around the corner with a report on the enemy’s positions.
Captain Aschekind then gathered the platoon commanders.
He conveyed to them the scout’s findings in his terse and spare style of speaking.
There were four machine guns up front, and more positions behind them in a second tier with anti-tank and minor artillery support. They were well dug-in, and they had to be engaged before any movement could be made. To charge the tanks in first would have exposed them to the communist’s anti-tank guns, so officers and armor held back.
For their first wave it would be only men, ordinary grenadiers with their rifles and grenades, ordered to move as fast as possible and as far as possible to engage the defenders. Supporting elements would follow once the battle was well underway.
Assault platoons began stacking around the corner, ready to charge into the fray.
Once everyone was organized, squadron by squadron the men began penetrating enemy territory by charging around the corner, across the streets, into whatever position they could find. Soon as boots touched rubble, gunfire erupted in response.
Battle was joined.
From the connection to Goa, Matumaini Street seemed endless, stretching hundreds of meters, probably six or seven hundred meters long in all. Though Matumaini was a much wider street than Goa, rubble occupied so much of the double-wide car lanes that a sure-footed step could only be taken into a ten meter wide path along the dead center of the road.
Assault Grenadiers ran for seconds along the road before meeting lead and fire.
Machine guns blared, and streams of their gunfire covered the street. Mortar shells fell over them fifteen to twenty a minute. Plumes of smoke rose along the street like wisps and ghosts freed by fire to rise to heaven, and angry red streaks of tracer gunfire ricocheted over the rubble. Volleys of battle rifle and machine gun bullets soared through the open air, and low shots chipped at the ruined ground in the wake of the desperately running men.
Landsers rushed forward one or two squadrons at a time. Kern ran out with the very first men of Zimmer’s platoon, challenging the communist’s furious defense. Projectiles streaked the air just behind him, rounds flying past his helmet. Two men just centimeters behind him were caught by a burst of gunfire and collapsed over the uneven ground.
Kern felt the heat of a mortar shell exploding a few meters from him, launching tiny, fast pieces of metal that grazed his shoulder and back, and triggering a great fear in him.
Suddenly he ran with abandon until his muscles were hot and sore.
In a panic Kern crossed the street and threw himself into a doorway choked with rubble. He hugged the rocks for dear life – there was barely enough room to hide his body, and he was squeezed against the ruin as though he would fall from a mountain if he took a step.
All he could do was peek out in fear every few moments, desperate for an opportunity.
6th Grenadier’s charge was gaining meters in fits and starts as men ducked gunfire and avoided explosions. Riflemen ran out from the cover of awkwardly jutting rock and dusty mounds of rubble sliding out from collapsed buildings, and they were gunned down in the open street, making it two or three meters perhaps from where they started.
In the wake of fresh deaths, and the attention of the enemy guns being elsewhere, more men dared to run. Many died in the attempt, but several lucky ones bounded ahead.
There was a chaos of movement on the street, and almost every squadron found it hard to keep fully together in the chaotic terrain and under the pressure of suppressing fire. Stung by shrapnel, deafened by blasts and shaken by a storm of lead, men ran to the first concealing object they could find, and when these crowded they had to find new places to hide. Meter by meter, rock by rock, they pushed the fighting closer to the communists.
Into alleyways men ran, and from them crossed the street found more cover. Several men climbed through windows into ruined husks, seizing a second’s respite in the cold gloomy ruins. Kern heard a man cry out in desperation, trapped in one such building.
Many men even lost the will to move entirely. They hid in the rock like Kern did.
Squadrons in good condition and within rifle range started to fight back.
Taking turns, each stationary squad leaned from cover and shot, half the assembled men attacking while the other half worked their bolts or reloaded to prepare for an attack. They aimed to stall for time, trying to startle the gunners or hurt auxiliaries, perhaps slow the guns enough for someone else to move. It was the start of something.
Behind them support squadrons began to commit to the fight.
Snipers fought through the smoke and fire and took aim at the communist line, threatening any centimeter of human flesh they could see. Ayvartan gunners started to drop once accurate fire flew in from across Matumaini, but this silenced the guns for only seconds. Soon another man or woman would take the weapon and death would resume.
Nochtish machine gunners tried to find heights from which to shoot down over the shields of the Ayvartan machine guns, but the footing was bad and the ruins unstable. It was on these last support units that the infantry’s tactics most strongly depended on, but the environment was uniquely hostile to them. They could find no place to brace their bipods, and many fired wildly from the hip, or with their guns laid over crumbling rock.
Sawing noises issued from the Norglers; long bursts hit sandbags and ballistic shields, forcing the communists to hide behind cover, preventing them from safely traversing their guns or spotting along the road and streets. Machine guns screamed blindly and recklessly from both ends of the street, landser and enemy taking turns hiding and shooting, and beneath the fire exchanged in their duel the riflemen continued to run and to die.
A gargantuan effort from the 6th Grenadier Division finally made it within 200 meters of the communist line – but it was only a smattering of random landsers hiding on both sides of the street that maintained this distance, their squadrons broken up and split up.
In reality much of Nocht’s power was still as far back as 400 meters from the enemy.
Close, but not close enough.
Over the course of the fighting the enemy showed several weaknesses to the grenadiers. Kern found the Ayvartan fire to be sporadic and sloppy all told: the machine guns seemed to concentrate terrifying volleys on the first flashing of movement, and more landsers managed to move from cover to cover than were killed on the street because of this.
They found that they were not fighting a wall of fire, but a whip, that cracked at the air and then retracted. Kern himself learned something of the timing, or at least, he hoped.
He took a deep breath and waited, pressed against the rubble.
When he felt the time was right Kern pushed himself off and hurtled out of cover.
Five or six other men ran with him from various positions along the road, each a few seconds off Kern’s timing. Some were running diagonal to him, others in parallel but from farther behind his position, fresh off the line. All of them ran amid brutal gunfire.
Ayvartan machine guns made a very deliberate, metallic crock-crock-crock sound during continuous fire; Norglers made a crack-thoom noise at the beginning of a volley and then a continuous, infernal sawing noise. With the Ayvartan guns Kern almost thought he could hear every bullet being fired from the gun thanks to its weary noises.
Once the volley commenced anew, Kern was in the middle of the street, and from the corner of his eyes he saw the split second flashes in the distance, and he saw the red trails of the tracers, and the sharp bursts of dust and chipped earth that followed in the wake of bullets striking earth around his feet, behind him, right in his shadow, right where he was.
He caught a glimpse of the streaks of red in the air around him, splashes of blood, and spurts of red mist as flesh was perforated by bullets. He kept his arms closed and his rifle against his chest, his head and shoulders bowed, and he ran with a controlled gait.
Through the open road and the leaden cloud he crossed, and threw himself behind a mound with three other men. They patted him on the shoulder and atop his helmet, and then steeled themselves ahead again. Two men rose from cover and fired, hitting nothing.
They hid again.
Now sixty meters from the communist line, none of them were willing to move further.
Kern checked his gun, found it fully loaded, and steeled himself to fight from cover.
On the street he saw five freshly killed men.
They had the timing wrong, perhaps by a few seconds.
Kern wished he could explain how he was alive still and those men were not.
He felt a man’s hand on his shoulder and turned his head. There was a scruffy-looking blonde man with a patchy beard and mustache, with his back to the building adjacent to their rubble, and his rifle pointing at the floor. He was lean but he looked tough.
“Corporal Voss,” he introduced himself, “I think you should stick with us.”
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere.” Kern said.
Voss smirked, and loaded a new stripper clip into his rifle. “Let’s give ’em a show!”
Voss and one of his men leaned out from cover, aimed quickly, and let off a shot; they hopped back in, and a hail of gunfire pounded the front of the mound. Kern and the second man took their turn, bullets still striking in and around their area. He fired a snap shot; it was as if he was aiming for the concept of a man, trying to predict where the owner of the flashes might be, where a head might rise over a sandbag. He did not know what he hit.
Two Norglers suddenly emptied out against the communist line and bought a few seconds of silence. A few men bolted from cover and made it across the street. From behind Kern a fifth man showed up at Voss’ spot, struggling to breathe, nursing a bleeding gash along the side of his belly. Kern handed the man a cloth from his own pouch.
“Thanks,” the man struggled to say, “Grazed me. Coulda took my guts off.”
Kern nodded, and he prepared to lean out and shoot again.
Enemy guns awakened almost the instant he leaned out, and he was forced to hide.
Gunfire flew past his position. He peered back down the street.
He found himself transfixed when ten or twenty meters behind and slowly approaching he saw the ridiculous figure of Captain Aschekind, holding a chunk of concrete to cover the length of his body, shrugging off the fire of the Ayvartan’s guns. It was as though he had ripped a pillar from a building and wielded it like a shield via a piece of bent rebar.
Kern and Voss and the other men watched, bewildered, as Aschekind returned fire with his pistol – a massive round ejected from the barrel, and an explosion larger than a standard grenade smote the Ayvartan’s sandbags, instantly quieting one of the big guns.
One slightly shaking hand holding his heavy shield, Aschekind used the other to reload. He popped open his gun, a flare gun design with a longer barrel and larger chamber, and from a belt he pushed in a new grenade using his thumb. He locked the barrel back into place with his forefinger, and inching forward he fired again. His projectile overflew the machine guns and exploded behind them, quieting a second gun with the fragmentation.
Kern found himself muttering, his lips quivering. “Is that a man walking or a monster?”
“Couldn’t be anything but both, I think.” Voss replied, similarly taken back.
As if in response, the Ayvartan second tier awakened, and an explosive shell flew out, shattering Aschekind’s concrete pillar – but the man quickly rolled out of the way and into safe cover from behind the crumbled chunks of cement. He disappeared into a nearby ruin. Moments later Kern heard a crackling sound coming from his bag, and he withdrew the radio that the Captain had handed him. He turned one of the knobs to clarify the signal.
Soon he heard Captain Aschekind’s voice. Despite everything he delivered his lines with his usual force. “All units currently on the street hold positions and provide support. I repeat, hold positions and provide support. Armor and artillery are mobile.”
Far behind Kern’s position tank engines started anew, and tracks started grinding.
25-AG-30 South District – Matumaini 3rd, 42nd Rifles
Matumaini was alight in waves of gunfire.
From her vantage Gulab watched the machine guns spraying hot red streaks of lead down the street at the distant silhouettes of men. She took aim with her iron sights and did what she could to support, but she was not sure how she was supposed to score hits at the distance her rifle was rated for. An enemy hundreds of meters away was hard to see even if her bullets could make the distance. She was not sure she had killed anyone.
Men only seemed to appear clearly when the machine guns cut them down in the open.
Machine gun fire flew ceaselessly from the defensive line. It was crucial to the defense. A high volume of fire suppressed any enemy it did not kill. But there were many technical difficulties on their side. It was not simply standing behind sandbags and shooting.
Due to the wheeled carriages on the Khroda machine guns it was an ordeal to turn the weapons to match the enemy’s movements, limiting the spread of the line’s gunfire. She saw the machine gun crews struggling to turn the guns, and due to the effort many crews mimed the crew next to them, and saturated particular sides of the street with heavy fire to the exclusion of any other lanes. There was no real direction; the situation did not allow for much finesse. Their enemy could only struggle forward and they could only push back.
Gulab counted thirty dead from automatic fire, and the Nochtish line appeared largely suppressed. For a time it was almost as though they were firing at ghosts of men, flitting about without material direction. But then Gulab saw men coming closer and closer, their figures becoming clearer and clearer, moving wherever the guns were not.
For a half hour it seemed the guns and the mortars were tireless.
Calls started to go out for fresh supplies.
Behind them, a supply truck drove carefully into the intersection, delivering reserve ammunition. Volunteers from each platoon ran out from their sandbag positions, increasingly under the sporadic fire of enemy machine guns and soon their snipers as well, all moving closer. Dodging enemy fire they grabbed crates full of ammo belts and mortar shells and brought them back to the front to refresh their hungry weapons.
Thousands of rounds flew across Matumaini.
Whenever Nocht got it in their minds to shoot back, even Gulab had to duck. Nocht’s light machine guns made a sound like a mechanical saw, chopping and chopping with continuous fire, and as the enemy’s men got closer their rounds punctured the sandbags around her and ricocheted off the ballistic shields on her platoon’s anti-tank guns. She heard a scream, and saw a woman shot and killed instantly in the Lieutenant’s mortar pit.
She had been shot as she rose over the sandbags to fire. Things were turning around.
Soon even ordnance threatened them.
Explosive shells from what Gulab imagined was a light cannon struck the defensive line from behind a moving chunk of concrete. One shell struck the sandbags guarding a Khroda machine gun and threw the crew from their positions. Their platoon had to rush three fresh men and women to recrew the machine gun, and pull away the injured crew. Quickly the new crew worked on the gun, replacing the damaged gun barrel, adding a new water jacket to cool it, and fitting a new ballistic shield. After unjamming the ammunition belt and replacing it with a fresh one, the gun opened fire once again.
It seemed to have little effect on the grenadier attacking them.
From the same position as before a second light cannon shell fell between the anti-tank position and one of the mortars and exploded violently. Gulab felt the heat and the force, and smelled the burning. Fragments flew over her head, grazing one of the gun crewmen. Nobody was seriously hurt from it, but everyone was shaken.
To think Nocht had access to a portable light cannon!
It was clearly being fired from behind cover by an infantryman. Gulab tried to make him out, but she could see nothing but a hunk of cement debris in the middle of the street.
“Raise the guns. I want high explosive on that man.” Corporal Chadgura shouted.
This was her first order the entire battle.
Even when she shouted, though the volume of her voice rose, her tone was very unaffected, and her face looked quite untouched by everything happening. It was bizarre.
At first the gun crew looked startled – the anti-tank guns were supposed to hold their fire and to do battle against tanks. Their gun model was meant primarily for direct fire, and had very little elevation and no artillery sighting mechanisms. Despite this one of the three gun crews stopped gawking and did as they were told, loading a high-explosive shell and raising the gun elevation. One of the men raised a pair of binoculars and gave instructions on sighting. It was all raw mathematics done in their heads without the aid of an artillery sight or an elevation gauge or any other instruments. It was very impromptu.
When the gunner pulled the switch, the 45mm gun kicked back a step.
An explosive shell sailed across the street in a fraction of a second.
A modest blast issued as the shell struck the slab of concrete across the way.
Everyone was operating at ranges where Gulab found it hard to trust her eyes on what happened, but she thought she saw a solid hit and maybe even a good kill. The crew popped open the breech and the shell casing slid easily out, ready for another explosive shot.
Binoculars raised before his eyes, the gun spotter relayed a confirmed kill.
“Good work. Stand by.” Corporal Chadgura replied.
She was unshaken by the events. Gulab had not seen her flinch away from anything. Even when they were forced to duck or hug the sandbag walls tight to avoid intensifying enemy fire, Corporal Chadgura’s face showed no reaction. It was hard to tell whether she was bored, deadly serious, or perahps stunted with fear. Gulab could read nothing in her eyes or her face and the officer had seldom spoken since the shooting began.
There was a lull. They had been fighting for over an hour. Orders were to delay Nocht’s advance, but for how long? To Gulab it didn’t feel like this intensity could be maintained forever. Along the street there were far fewer targets. Those enemy soldiers that had made it to cover stayed in it and traded small arms fire. When the machine guns sounded back to them, they hit rubble and kept the enemy’s heads down. No one was making progress.
More targets – taking the corner to Goa spotters found a pair of gray hulks.
“Ready yourselves! Load Armor Piercing!” Corporal Chadgura declared.
Behind the central 45mm gun, the crew inserted a new shell, and pushed a lever to feed it and lock it in place. The platoon’s two other crews followed, loading their own guns and raising the carriages, turning them to try to get a good angle on the enemy. Gulab’s heart skipped a beat – they were really engaging armor. Faces glistened with sweat and a little soot, and everyone in the crew hunkered behind the sandbags and ballistic shields.
Gulab peered over the sandbag wall and saw the two armored vehicles, and another following behind them. Unlike men they were clearly visible even from afar, each three meters wide and tall, a lumbering iron box with a gun, each one fast approaching.
Machine guns opened on them to no avail, trying to force them to button down their hatches and viewing slits and blind themselves – but Nochtish tank crews had no fear of rifle caliber bullets. Their tracks rolled easily over the uneven street, across the shallow craters made by mortars, driving through mounds of rubble and collapsed concrete ruin without obstacle. On the right-hand side of each tank’s face was a gun with a large bore.
“Assault gun sighted!” Shouted the spotter, after adjusting the elevation on the gun slightly. Elevation of the central gun completed, he hurried to aid the other two crews, and soon the entire platoon was ready to fight. Three guns, fully loaded with Armor Piercing High Explosive (AP-HE) rounds, and a line of direct fire to the enemy.
“Fire!” Corporal Chadgura declared.
First shot went out at about 500m distance, and crashed into the center of one tank’s glacis plate. Two consecutive shots from the other guns smashed into the thick front of the tanks at awkward angles. Gulab saw and heard the detonations one after the other, and for a moment the tanks were obscured by smoke from the blasts.
Then the armored hulks strode forward again, still advancing as unbroken unit.
There was no penetration of the armor, and no visible damage as the tank rolled forward. Nocht’s assault guns continued their meticulous advance toward Matumaini 3rd.
As one, 3rd Platoon’s crews ejected the spent shells, reloaded, and at Corporal Chadgura’s command they fired again and again, pounding the tanks relentlessly, but this did little but momentarily slow the enemy. Their front armor was simply too tough!
As the front row of tanks endured the blasts of three anti-tank guns at once, around them the enemy gained a second wind. Gulab heard the whipping noise of rifle bullets.
Reflexively she hid behind the sandbags for cover.
She promptly felt like a coward when she saw Corporal Chadgura standing behind one of the the AT guns without fear and continuing to direct their fire.
More AP-HE shells loaded, and flew. All of the guns sounded continuously.
Gulab swallowed hard, and stood again with a mind to retaliate.
She then failed to raise her rifle.
Under continuous anti-tank fire, the assault guns reached a distance of 300 meters, about the halfway point from Matumaini 2nd and Goa to the intersection. There all three of the guns stopped, and from behind them two more tanks started to roll out of Goa with a new mass of men huddling around and behind them. Reinforcements.
The Assault guns in front adjusted their cannons and opened fire.
Powerful 75mm high explosive shells rocked the defensive lines. One shell struck a machine gun position dead-on just thirty meters in front of Gulab. While the double-thick stacks of sandbags absorbed a heroic amount of the blast, people ran out of the impromptu redoubt nonetheless, panicking and coughing from smoke. Repeated blasts rolled along the line. Every thirty meters the front two tanks would stop and shoot a half-dozen rounds.
Open terrain around the intersection was smashed repeatedly, forming smoking craters.
Sandbag pits were struck time and again and collapsed entirely.
Corporal Chadgura dauntlessly ordered the anti-tank teams to fire and fire, but they could not stop the enemy armor. The 45mm, with its small bore and short barrel was too weak for the thick front glacis of the tanks even at this close distance.
Soon the assault guns crawled to within 200 meters, now almost upon the defensive line, and the Nochtish men that had been hiding saw the near-total defeat of the Ayvartan machine gun positions and began to move on the intersection, running without fear.
Triumphantly the assault guns now fired constantly even while on the move, and they targeted their fire exclusively at the second tier of defenses. Gulab heard the thundering of the guns and the booming of explosives hitting the ground and scattering the defenses.
“Spirits preserve me,” Gulab mumbled.
Fire and black smoke blocked her view and it felt like it was digging into her eyes, like black and red was everything she could see. It was overwhelming, the blasts came twenty a minute. She felt her heart pound and her stomach tighten. A hot hand dug into her chest and she felt short of breath. Nochtish rifles and machine guns opened up on them unopposed, showering the sandbags and the ballistic shield on the anti-tank gun and adding to the noise. There was flame and thunder and a storm of metal streaking past.
Gulab felt outside her own body, trapped watching the environment, shaking, stuck. Her courage had left her, obliterated with the last semblances of thought by the falling of the shells. It hadn’t merely collapsed the sandbags but reality itself all around her.
“Private Kajari, get down!”
Gulab was falling.
She felt stricken across the face, but in reality Corporal Chadgura had thrown herself atop her. Behind them something roared with heat and power, casting a massive gout of flame and choking black smoke into the air. When the shell fell they were both thrown against the sandbags, as though picked up and launched by a giant.
They hit the ground together in embrace, gasping for breath.
Gulab’s vision swam, but she saw the burning husks of the anti-tank guns behind them, and the corpses of the crews caught in the inferno. For a second she thought the corporal too might have been a corpse, and she panicked, and scurried away from her.
On the floor, Chadgura looked at her with that unchanging expression.
She pushed herself up on her knees.
“Are you capable of walking, Private Kajari? We are in danger here.”
Her voice was still so dry and drained.
She did not look as if in pain, as if affected. Cpl. Chadgura’s endurance was astonishing. Almost heroic. Gulab felt a biting pain across her shoulder, but it was nothing tragic, and she found she could move all of her limbs, shaking perhaps, but without undue effort.
Her mind a sudden blank, Gulab stood, and Chadgura stood with her, seemingly unharmed. There was smoke all around them, but Gulab could see others reeling and standing and running. There was a great outcry, and dozens of people running to the back of the intersection. Corporal Chadgura collected their rifles from the floor.
“We must retreat to the 3rd Battalion area. This position is useless now.”
Together Chadgura and Gulab joined the remains of the battalion retreating pell-mell across the intersection. As they ran, a pair of shells flew overhead and smashed one of the few buildings standing intact along the eastern side of the intersection. From the first floor ran its remaining occupants, some burnt, some pulling along concussed allies.
Gulab grit her teeth and held her breath and ran herself raw.
Now it was their side’s turn to be cut down.
Enemy machine guns grew closer and fiercer, and the shells continued to fly from their advancing armor. In the middle of the intersection the drivers and crew of the ammunition truck abandoned their vehicle and joined the runners. Soon a small mass of humanity was running past the end of the intersection and into 3rd block proper.
Behind the retreating Ayvartans the enemy’s assault guns rolled over what was left of their Khroda machine guns, and Nochtish soldiers set up their bipods and took parting shots at them from the opposite end of the remains of their sandbag walls. More and more soldiers poured into the breach and took the positions she and her crew once manned.
Gulab ran almost a hundred meters past the intersection.
Soon she found herself and Chadgura well into the 3rd Battalion area. There the men and women from 3rd Battalion pushed up Khroda guns on their wheeled carriages and prepared their own 45mm anti-tank guns to retaliate against the invaders. She and the corporal both stopped near an alleyway and waited as more people from their platoon filtered in. About half of them were accounted for within a few minutes. There was a flurry of movement all around them, and the gunfire never ceased even during the retreat.
It seemed the fight would continue right into the 3rd Battalion area.
“Are you unhurt, Private Kajari?” Chadgura asked.
Gulab couldn’t reply. She was still catching her breath. She nodded her head instead.
Chadgura nodded back. “Do not fear. We have not shown an inkling of our tenacity.”
Gulab nodded her head again, sweating, weeping from the smoke in her eyes. It was hard to be inspired. She felt like she had been defeated, like she had run like a coward instead of fighting. And hearing her late-comer, lazy-voiced officer was not helping.
Chadgura checked her bag suddenly, and held out a thin little book triumphantly.
“Ah. It survived.”
Nocht advanced quickly upon the 2nd Battalion area, and through the power of its assault guns ejected them from the intersection. Along the diagonal road and the northern road to Matumaini 3rd the Nochtish attack continued, with grenadiers rushing forward and engaging the 1st and 3rd Battalion lines. Others dug hastily into the intersection, in many places using the remnants of Ayvartan positions to springboard fresh assaults.
The 1st and 3rd Battalions held on tenaciously, and for a brief moment they fought only the enemy infantry, but it was a short-lived respite, and within ten or fifteen minutes the M3 Hunters were moving forward again, savaging the Ayvartan’s defenses with their 75mm guns and withstanding blows to their thick armor. The 42nd Rifles Regiment and the 4th Ox Rifles Division requested anti-tank support as quickly as possible.
According to the operational plan, this call was soon answered.
Elements of the elite 3rd KVW Motor Rifles assembled behind the 42nd Rifles’ Regiments struggling front line. Black-and-red clad veterans of Cissea began to intersperse themselves among the Ox troops, preparing for Major Nakar’s counterattack.
Farther behind them, waiting for their chance to lunge, Ayvarta’s new armor stacked up to bewildered gazes, their crews quiet inside the giant machines. Major Nakar delivered her orders through the radio, primarily to the KVW and to select units of the Ox rifles.
The Ogres would not reclaim the street; they would annihilate the occupants.
It was time for the real face of Matumaini’s defense to make itself plain.
NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Battle of Matumaini II