This chapter contains scenes of violence, including fleeting graphic violence, and death, as well as mild sexual content and implications of familial neglect.
32nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Solstice Dominance – City of Solstice, People’s Peak
Proportional representation amendments had bloated the National Civil Council to over 300 members. Many of them were redundant, created as a successful political stunt to chip away the political power of the more committed socialists in the north to the softer centrists and the ambivalent uncommitted of the south. They were nominated and then voted for by people from their community participating in a cargo cult democracy, and thrust with responsibilities they were not trained to handle, and thus they were pushed into cliques taking convenient stances for particular factions. Adjar and Shaila had the majority of these malleable placeholders, over less populated territories like Jomba.
This was a relatively recent atrocity of the political process, but a damaging one.
The Council had taken many forms over the years. Ever since the agreement that created the Socialist Dominances of Solstice it had warped and changed. It was at the time of its inception an ill defined body – a malformed continuation of the Ayvartan Empire’s administrative districts within a democratic framework and with a socialist mission. It had to work because the alternative was too ugly. Bread, shelter, clothing, for all; Kremina once believed that any society oriented around these principles could not be corrupt, no matter what. She thought she could see the end of the “class struggle” that Daksha had waged.
It was this naivety that led to the slow degradation of their power in the government. All of the veteran revolutionaries were slowly burgled out of their voices and their votes.
In her case, she foolishly agreed to it. She walked into it. She was the biggest fool.
It hurt because Daksha had relied on her.
She had failed them both. But Daksha never held her accountable for it.
While criticizing others she always ignored Kremina’s foolish role in that legal coup.
Kremina Qote swallowed down all of that regret. She had to move forward now. They had a chance to recover. She would hate herself if she didn’t at least try her best now.
Four days since the fall of Knyskna, four since the Kalu battle, the Council convened.
Due to the size of the Council and the varying political competence of its councilors, not everyone convened together – for most of their business they various factions sent representatives to speak for them. After preliminary negotiations the representatives returned to their cliques, gathered up votes, and then met again with their counterparts and delivered the numbers. Long form votes were rare, and so was the use of the room at the very peak of the People’s Peak, an auditorium that could fit every single councilor.
On the 32nd the room was full, save for a single councilor from Adjar, Arthur Mansa.
“Why isn’t he here?” Daksha asked. Councilman Yuba shook his head.
“He said he has personal business in Tambwe that he had to oversee.” He said.
“It’s good for us that he’s gone, but it’s still strange.” Kremina said.
“His aides will vote for him. It won’t make a difference.” Yuba said. “Even his leadership cannot salvage this now. I wager that is exactly why he has personal business now. He is weak and can’t afford to lose face publically. He knows he will lose here.”
“I hate this!” Daksha said. “What kind of socialists are we that we allowed this?”
“Socialists who tried hard to put democracy ahead of tyranny.” Yuba said sternly.
“I feel it’s about time we put our survival ahead of the ability to vote.” Daksha replied.
They were convened in the hall outside the auditorium.
Daksha was dressed gallantly that night. Kremina had helped her into a new dress uniform, with a peaked cap, the KVW’s red and gold and black jacket and pants, a pair of tall boots. She personally helped tie her long dark hair into an orderly round bun, several white tufts falling around her forehead. Her dark face had been oiled clean and powdered smooth, her lips painted a subtle red. Kremina loved the few little wrinkles around her mouth and eyes, still visible; she loved her lean, tall, broad-shouldered frame, accented by the pants suit and jacket. She could have kissed her; and she had, before they went out in public. The Warden had never looked so dashing and immaculate.
She satisfied herself with adjusting the Warden’s dress tie and holding her hand before they walked through the curtains into the auditorium. Daksha went ahead to the podium.
Surrounded on all sides by the high seats, occupied by men and women of all ages from all the Dominances, Warden Kansal walked to the circular space in the center of the auditorium. In the middle of it all was a lonely podium, upon which Daksha laid down her papers. She raised a pair of spectacles to her eyes, and opened the folder holding her charts and cheat sheets. There was no applause. Much of her audience had come into office having never heard Kansal speak, and knew her only as the head of the extremist KVW.
Normally the loudest voices in the Council were the elected from Adjar and Shaila. Today they were quiet, shattered. Shaila was lost, and barely a quarter of Adjar remained under the tenuous control of the Socialist government. It too would soon be given up.
Adjar and Shaila had the largest concentration of collaborationist-leaning councilors, owing to their large and largely politically disengaged populations. But without the leadership of their clique those councilors were confused. Mansa had abandoned them.
Yuba had been right. They were vulnerable now.
In the chaos of the invasion their petty ambitions could not be countenanced even by the most politically illiterate, and in the face of the violence that had been witnessed in Bada Aso and Knyskna, diplomacy with Noht was seen as treason. Those among them ambivalent about real socialist policy could not dare to speak a counterposition.
Kremina stayed by the curtain, framed by doorway leading into the room. She watched from afar. She had written almost half of the speech, but now Daksha had to deliver it.
Fearlessly Daksha craned her head. There was fire in her voice but a blank expression on her lips and eyes, devoid of the anger and contempt Kremina knew she felt.
“Tonight you will be asked to consider a typical slate of policies, much the same as you have pored over the past few months. Production, development, awareness projects, outreach campaigns. Many of these things sound insignificant, but you will consider them nonetheless. In our socialist democracy, people’s democracy, even these simple things are considered and carefully analyzed. There are a few decisions on the agenda tonight.”
She paused for a moment, as if to create a hole in the air, to then fill it with her sound.
“You will debate on the best course of action to prevent insect-borne epidemics in Tambwe, that were particularly virulent the past few years; you will debate on the presence of gender markers in our state identification papers; you will debate on whether to modify the amount and kinds of food in the citizen’s free canteen meals each day.”
She looked around the room, her eyes scanning from face to face in the crowd.
“You have gathered data on these subjects. You might have papers written to support a small reduction in the meals, such as the removal of an extra piece of flatbread or the reduction of the dried fruit rations, and explain how there is some benefit or another to this action. There will be citizens speaking to you, providing evidence to help educate you. There are a few witnesses waiting outside, hoping to be allowed into this room to speak.”
It was hot in the room, under the spotlights shining from the corners of the auditorium. But Daksha did not sweat. She spoke, loud and strong, her words perfectly pronounced.
“Unlike them, I’m not here to support a position. I do not believe my ideas are up for debate; there is no contra against me other than inviting the death of our nation. To demand I qualify myself with data, to demand that I substantiate myself with strong rhetoric, to tie me to your discourse – is to do nothing short of submitting our people to slavery and our land to Federation hegemony. In Rhinea, far in the north, there is a democratically-elected parliament of intelligent, educated men who strongly debated whether to withhold aggression or to send their citizens here to kill our citizens. We cannot mimic their procedure – to debate as to whether our citizens should defend themselves is a sick task.”
Not a word was spoken against her.
Not a word could be; the entire council was subdued.
“I am here not to support any position, but to outline a series of actions that must be taken effective immediately to preserve the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. If you wish to become something like The Southern Federated State of Solstice under the auspice of the Lehner administration in Rhinea – then continue on your warped course. Should you realize the urgency and pressure upon us, and resolve to survive to see a tomorrow–”
Daksha picked up her speech papers and threw them over her shoulder. They landed on the floor, the soft sound of the sliding papers resonating across the dead silence of the room. From her abrupt pause, she segued into the line items Kremina had prepared for her. She spoke clearly, at a brisk pace, only pausing for a subtle breath between each item.
“Rescind the current civil administration of the military and unify all military resources under a Supreme High Command responsible for drafting strategic military actions, and responsible for administration, logistics and intelligence. This command must be free to wield all of the nation’s military resources without impediment to answer the immediate threat to the people. It must be commanded by experienced military officers.”
“Merge all current separate military formations and organize them into Armies, Corps and Divisions under the Supreme High Command in whatever way is found most efficient.”
“Redeploy all reservists and recruit more troops, either through patriotic awareness or material incentive campaigns or through conscription as a last resort; restock our current divisions, and create new divisions, using new manpower; promote people with military experience to rebuild our officer corps, reintroducing ranks above Major to the armies.”
“Reduce Divisions from Square to more efficient Triangle formations. We can use the disbanded 4th Regiments to assemble new Divisions. To these more efficient formations, reintroduce shelved heavy weapons, including heavy artillery. Organize heavy weapons so that each infantry unit has organic heavy weaponry, including machine guns, while also retaining specialized heavy weaponry units designed to support explicit offensive actions.”
“Reintroduce high training standards and promote professionalism in the armed forces. Instill in our armed forces a respect for their people, a respect for their own role, and an understanding of accountability to their people. In service to this task, invite civil elements to participate alongside our military such as journalists and union liaisons, to open dialog.”
“In service to this task, rebuild our war industry and promote practical innovation of new weapons. Provide our unions the tools to help our war effort and their own communities in the process. Cease production of obsolete weapons and increase production of new designs. Open a dialog with our unions to increase workplace efficiency, safety, security, and bring them into the process of military development at all levels.”
“Rethink the dualized system of distribution – Honors distribution, and the items controlled under the Honors system, must either be expanded or removed. War will surely disrupt it otherwise. Treating it like an alternate currency has never quite worked. My personal recommendation is a voucher incentive system for a wider range of purposes.”
After each bullet point, many councilors in the room cringed and avoided her eyes. In short, the Warden could simply had said “reverse your policy now and completely.”
Never before had so many radical propositions been made at once to the Council.
There was no conclusion.
Daksha unceremoniously left the podium without even a bit of applause.
There was whispering around the room as she stepped away, but mostly silence. Kremina sighed with relief. She had almost expected her to act out at the end of the speech, but Daksha had managed to quell her anger for a moment and keep an appearance of calm throughout. When she passed the curtain, her hand was closed into a shaking fist.
“A room full of fools!” She said emphatically. “All devolving into blank stares as if I were not speaking the standard dialect to them! Children could have paid better attention!”
Kremina held her hands and tried to calm her. Together they waited through the several speeches and witnesses of the night. They sat in a bench, with their backs to the room wall, drinking water and taking complimentary caramels from hospitality bowls. They paced the hallway, up and down. Several hours passed. Then the council began their deliberations.
There was one topic they did not seem to openly debate – the Nochtish invasion. They would hold a vote on it, Yuba assured them as he ran back and forth from his seat and the hallway, checking up on them between each speaker and each vote, reassuring them. There would be a vote. They did not debate it because they were scattered, and because of Daksha’s speech and presence. But there would a vote. And there was a vote, held, collected, counted. Yuba returned one last time to deliver to them the final results to Daksha.
He smiled awkwardly, crossing his arms against his chest. “Inconclusive, I’m afraid.”
Daksha bolted up from the bench. “What the hell do you mean, inconclusive?’
“Inconclusive. There were votes on several of the positions you outlined and none of those line items received either enough support to pass or enough opposition to be shelved.”
Kremina put a hand on Daksha’s shoulder, passively trying to calm and hold her back.
“Yuba, you don’t seem too concerned. You promised results. Please explain.” She said.
“What was important tonight is showing to all those sleeping councilors that there is leadership outside of their factions, and that leadership is stronger than their own.” Yuba said. “There will be another vote. I will start building a coalition to chip away power from Mansa’s, and I can use tonight’s indecision as a starting point. Warden, you will notice, for example–” He withdrew a piece of paper, a voting results report, hastily scribbled up. He pointed to it. “My factions voted in unison for all of your policies. We were only stopped by the mishmash of indecisive votes, all from Adjar, Shaila, Tambwe and Dbagbo.”
Daksha exhaled loudly. She crossed her arms, turned her back, and paced around.
“Victory takes time!” Yuba said amicably. “You do not encircle an enemy in one day. It is a series of actions; you maneuver around them, isolate them, and you capture them.”
“Or you can just destroy them.” Daksha said, her back still turned on the old man.
“Doubtless, you could, if you wanted to.” Yuba said, shrugging with his hands. “But I believe destruction always carries a human cost, both right away, and in the times that come after. Whereas if you lay siege, you may capture prisoners with less yielded blood.”
There was silence in the hall.
Behind them there was the sound of a gavel to end the meeting.
“When is the next vote? I suppose I should be present for it.” Daksha said.
She sighed a little, as if to let off steam from a burning engine.
Kremina rubbed her shoulders affectionately.
Nocht Federation – Republic of Rhinea, Citadel Nocht
President Achim Lehner kept a mirror on the left-hand wall of his office because he thought whenever someone passed by it, he could see through them in the reflection.
He waited at his desk for the day to be officially over, so he could get started on a few of his off-the-clock hobbies. He contemplated looking in the mirror, maybe straightening out his tie, combing his hair again, making sure he looked as sharp as he could; but then he felt foolish for entertaining the thought. Cecilia didn’t need him looking perfect. That mirror had a power, though; he loved that mirror, in a strange, almost religious way.
Throughout the day he met with a dozen different people.
A Helvetian diplomat met briefly to discuss open sea lanes for neutral countries during the war – he saw one of her cheeks in the mirror, contorted, crooked, as though the scowl of a demon hidden in her everyday smile. Two automotive company executives expressed interest putting their factories to work in the production of trucks. On his mirror Lehner saw a twitch in one’s eye and the other fidgeting behind his back with his fingers.
General Braun appeared too. He looked ghoulish every time.
Lehner did not use this mirror for himself. He hated looking at himself in a mirror because he always focused too much on the little things. One slightly off-white hair in his slick, well-combed locks; what seemed like, perhaps, in the right light, a wrinkle in his boyishly handsome profile and smile; a blemish somewhere on his high cheekbones or aquiline nose. A weird bump in the perfect slant of his lean shoulders that he compulsively patted down. He didn’t need that. Mirrors tried to grind you into their own image.
They were made only to show imperfection.
Good tools to keep where others could see them; pernicious to peer into yourself.
Lately he spent a lot of time in the office.
That would have to change soon, but right now there was simply too much to leave up to chance. He needed to be on-hand to make sure everyone was giving a hundred percent. That was the only problem with his beloved egg-heads – they could take care of business, they certainly had the smarts for it, but they often lacked initiative and bravura. So he stayed in the Citadel, toured it every day, dropping in on the offices, issuing encouragement, holding meetings, making charts, suggesting slogans, promoting synergy.
Busy days, busy days all around; he made sure everyone was doing something for him.
Hopefully he would have the time to take a few field trips soon; meet up with folks, tour facilities, get more contributions and donations going. Maybe take Cecilia out to dinner. Unless Mary returned from Ayvarta first; Cecilia knew perfectly that Mary took precedence. After Mary was gone again, though, he would treat her, certainly.
A beeping sound; he picked up the phone.
“I’m ready if you are, doll,” he told his secretary.
“I’m afraid Agatha’s waiting on the line, should I put her through?” She replied.
“I’m never too busy to talk to my wife,” Lehner said, perhaps a little sharply.
Cecilia had no protests – the rules of their game had been established ahead of time.
There was a click on the line and the dulcet voice of Agatha Lehner filled the wires.
Lehner squeezed the receiver with muted anticipation. Agatha was always soft, at first, but she was clearly not calling to small talk. She never called just to tell him about her day or the weather. Lehner quickly found himself on the defensive as she began to probe him.
“No, dear, I don’t think I’ll be back for Givingsday, I’m sorry. I’d have loved to be there, you know I’d have loved to be there, I wanna see you, doll. You know I want to see you and I would see you and hell, I’d do more to you than just see you, if you follow me – but I can’t sweetie. I’d love to but I’m just too busy, and these Generals are turning out to be like children to me, I’ve got to keep wrangling them. Believe me, I’d love to ruffle up that king-size with you. You gotta be patient, ok? I’ve got too much on my plate.”
He listened to the response, sighing internally.
Agatha sounded upset on the phone.
“I thought you had a picture going? I thought you were filming. Had I known you’d be out on Givingsday I might have planned different, but I thought you had a film running?”
Agatha turned from upset to exasperated – she sighed into the phone.
“Oh don’t be so dramatic; no, no, we won’t be doing the military parade together remember I’m doing that one with Mary, showing support for the Ayvartan Empire and all that. After the parade, ok? We’ll have a date before the end of the Frost, I promise.”
Agatha acknowledged and hung up; President Lehner dropped the phone on his desk.
“Had to marry the actress,” He said to himself, “legitimately didn’t see this coming.”
His agenda for the day was mostly complete.
He leaned back, stretched, yawned and meditated. To hell with Agatha and her rotten attitude – it’s not like she could spoil anything for him anyway. Everything but her was going great, and he wouldn’t focus on one miss in a salvo of non-stop, bulls-eye hits.
President Lehner had few political worries.
Thanks to a Congress that in his father’s pocket twenty years prior and in his own pocket now, he was guaranteed an 8-year term in office, with nothing but a perfunctory mid-term review to threaten him. He had already served two. At the ripe age of 34, Lehner had ridden into office on exactly his youth, vibrancy, and seemingly precocious attitude.
Achim Lehner, man of the future! That had been one of his slogans. He positioned himself as a sharper, more flexible man than his opponents. He talked science, he talked statistics; he talked about the transformative power of knowledge, about the electric age reforms he could bring to the government. He would make government smarter, efficient – people liked that. People liked the numbers. Nobody told them the numbers before.
Lehner positioned himself as a smart kid innocent of vice who simply strode into the dance bar and reinvented the Lindenburgh right in front of all the drunk gents.
People liked that!
They liked it enough to give him a crushing victory with 85% of the vote.
They liked it enough to give him a clear mandate for his administration.
Whether he fulfilled that mandate was for journalists and radio jockeys to argue over. It was not his concern. His government was smarter, was more efficient. He had reformed stagnant state enterprises by selling them off; he had reformed “big money” by wrapping it around his finger, making it work for him and not just for itself; he had improved security by ruthlessly crushing overseas opposition in the wars he had inherited.
He had promised to stop those wars, and he did.
He never promised not to have his own.
So there he sat.
All he had to worry was giving his all too friendly secretary a good time.
Citadel Nocht was always gloomy, except when it was outright dark.
Lehner’s office extended artfully out of the citadel structure, and through the dome roof he had a good look at the sky. There was not much to look at now – it was pitch black.
He could not even see the stars.
Outside, he heard the lobby clock strike. He smiled, and waited a few moments.
Ahead of him the doors to the office opened.
A woman entered, closing the door behind her, and smiling with her back to it. She had her long, luxurious blonde hair done up, with some volume on the sides framing her face and a green hairband. On her nose perched a pair of block glasses, and her lips were painted a glossy pink. She had a grey suit jacket and a grey knee-length skirt.
Lehner did not look at her reflection in the mirror.
He already knew the real Cecilia Foss.
“Madame Foss,” Lehner said, in a sultry voice.
She was his wonderful Frankish secretary.
“Bon nuit, President,” She said mischievously.
She approached the desk and leaned forward.
Their lips briefly met, before gracefully parting. She sat across from him, legs up on the desk. He laughed. She grinned. It was always a game between them, nothing more.
She played him.
“Is Haus on a boat yet? I want that man on a goddamn boat.” Lehner said.
Cecilia rolled her eyes a little. “You always want to talk about men in boats lately.”
Lehner laughed. “Unfortunately I can’t fly them down to that god-forsaken rock. Everything I need sent to Ayvarta goes through Cissea and Mamlakha’s one good port; it is fucking dreadful. And with the way Von Sturm has been going at this all backwards I fear we’re not going to snatch Bada Aso’s port in any decent condition. So; Haus, boat?”
“Oui.” Cecilia replied, crossing her arms. “Field Marshal Haus is on his way south.”
“Thank God. I should’ve sent him in first instead of the fucking kindergarten I’ve got.”
Teasingly Lehner pulled off the secretary’s high-heeled shoes and took her feet, kissing the toes over her seamed black tights. She grinned and giggled, running her digits slowly against his mouth. Their eyes locked as he kissed, squeezed and cracked her toes.
“Sad to see little Sturm choking up.” Cecilia said. She had an intoxicating Frank accent that made her every word sound like a sultry temptation. Lehner could listen to her all day. “Everyone thought him a genius. Our youngest general. Too bad for him.”
Lehner raised his head from her feet, having tasted them well. He had a wry expression.
“I’m so disappointed, to be honest.” He squeezed Cecilia’s foot, massaging under the arch, digging in with his thumbs. She flinched, biting her lip, enthralled. Lehner continued. “I can understand Meist and Anschel being useless. Put together they don’t even constitute one vertebra. But Von Sturm had that fire in him, you know? I guess I misjudged him.”
“Hmm,” Cecilia made only a contented noise in response.
“Haus will straighten all that out; he’ll do it. When he gets there in a week or so.”
Unceremoniously he dropped her feet, climbed on his desk and pulled Cecilia up to him by the collar and tie of her shirt, seizing her lips into his own. She threw her arms around his shoulders and pulled back on him, the two of them nearly dropping into a heap on the floor. They hung in a balance, knees on the edge of support, bodies half in the air.
Breathless, clothes askew, lipstick smeared, they pulled briefly back from each other.
“How many hours we got on the itinerary?” Lehner said, grinning, breathing heavy.
“I accommodated myself well.” Cecilia replied. She pulled him back in again.
33rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Central District, Quadrant “Home”
12th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso
Suds and water splashed across the wooden floor and mixed with the dust seeping through a seam in the roof. Soaked through, the old floorboards turned a sickly grayish green. At one point it had been a fitting room in an old dress shop. All the lights shattered when a small bomb hit the upper floor. There were still bits of bulb in the corners.
On a chair that was turning a little green as well, in the middle of this gloomy old room, a young woman rubbed a bar of soap across her arms and legs and dunked them in a big metal bucket. Orange candlelight danced over her bronzed back, her lean limbs, and the slim valley of her torso. The air was still, but the wicks burned wildly, as if moved by her ragged breath. She conducted herself almost religiously, rubbing in the soap and soaking it off her skin. Her mirror was a long piece of broken glass, but that was fine.
She knew well how she looked.
She washed around her neck, the nape, the apple, collarbones. She scrubbed fiercely. Days without care in the warzone had allowed grime to form like a shackle around her neck, and over her wrists, on her chest. It repulsed her. Seeing people coming in and out of the damaged old shop, she had worked up the courage to ask an officer. Graciously she was afforded a makeshift washroom. She had no intention of looking or feeling like a prisoner. Not in this city, not in this country, not up in those mountains and not in her own body.
Pulling on her hair she dismantled the long braid that she had repeatedly tied it up into in the past few days. Once it was loose, she applied oil, tracing it with her fingers until her mane was slick and honeyed over, and then she leaned down and submerged her head in the water. She closed her eyes and held her breath. She pulled out; she rubbed her hands on the soap and pressed them against her cheeks, against her sharp nose, against her soft lips. She thought she could taste it; up in the mountains they used fat and plant ash in soap.
Had circumstances been different, perhaps she would have still remained in the Kucha, making soap with the women of the village. She dunked her head in the water again.
Outside she heard the distinct report of a howitzer, and resolved to hurry on back out.
Corporal Gulab Kajari pulled her head out of the wash bucket and wrung out her long hair over it. Water dribbled down her brassiere and undershorts, tinged by streaks of bronze-colored oil and soap. She had put a bit of a hair-care solution through her braid and head and it was washing off. Another soldier had found the hair care bottle in a ruin, and left it in here for others to use. Gulab left some for the next person too. It was only right.
She had about four minutes to spare reserved just for her, but she resolved to take care of business quickly. The last thing she wanted was to be half-naked during an attack.
On a nearby chair there was a fresh combat uniform. There was even a new brassiere with it, a small one. Over her flat chest it fit well enough. Her shorts were a little loose, but they fit. She dressed eagerly, a contented sigh escaping her lips as she felt the crisp texture of her new, clean uniform, as smooth as her own clean skin under it. It was a great relief.
She did not notice anymore that her uniforms were not the muted green of the Territorial Army, but the black with red trim of the KVW’s elite assault forces from the 3rd Motorized Division. She buttoned up the jacket, straightened out the sleeves, and tied her hair in a braid again. She tucked herself well into her shorts and pants and laced her boots.
Outside, she bowed respectfully to the older woman in charge of the washroom, who smiled and waved off the need for any thanks, and she went out into the street. As she set foot on the pavement, across the road from her in a cleared-out ruin between two short buildings, a pair of howitzers fired into the distance. She looked down the road, toward the southern bend, and saw no enemies coming, but there was a truck and a tank driving down from the north, and a dozen people bringing out crates of ammunition and small arms.
“Under attack, southeast, southwest! Assault forces needed! 3rd Line Corps form up!”
Within moments there were crowds of green uniforms on both sides of the street, gathering weapons and ammunition and dispersing behind sandbag emplacements and into various houses. Snipers started getting into position, the tank hid around a corner, and the truck unloaded a heavy howitzer that was pulled to a position a few houses farther north.
Gulab looked around, but there was no KVW around that she could ask for her specific orders. She stood in the middle of the street staring idly, waiting as everyone got ready.
She felt awkward in her uniform and tags, all suggesting that she was an officer, idling in the middle of a fight without instructions. But everyone was too busy to berate her.
Then from around the corner of the dress shop, she saw a black and red uniform approach and felt relief. Again Sergeant Charvi Chadgura had come inadvertently to the rescue. Her somewhat curly pale hair was slightly wet, and her dark-brown skin looked clean and healthy. She too had a clean uniform – she had probably come fresh out of a different improvised shower room. Her expression was clean of emotions too, as usual.
“You look clean.” Sergeant Chadgura said softly. Gulab quirked an eyebrow at her.
“Huh? I look clean? I guess I must. I just took a bath.” Gulab said, arms crossed.
Sergeant Chadgura clapped her hands a few times. “Sorry. It was a compliment.”
Gulab nodded. “Alright, sorry about that. Let’s start over. Hujambo, Sgt. Chadgura.”
“Sijambo.” Chadgura replied. It was the rather rare original counterpart to Hujambo; ‘how are you’ was normally answered ‘I am fine’ but in Ayvarta, over time, the response had simply been replaced by a second Hujambo. ‘How are you,’ responded to with ‘How are you?’ so both parties could show their support and care for one another.
“I’ll take it.” Gulab said, smiling warmly. “We got orders yet? Everyone’s mobilizing.”
“There is an attack but we’re not yet meeting it; we’re the mobile reserve. There’s a Half-Track hiding around the corner here that we should group up on, just in case.”
Gulab nodded her head. She felt a surging in her limbs, a need to move. There was an attack! She wanted to ride out to meet it! Corporal Gulab Kajari of the elite 3rd KVW Motorized Division, would save the day like old storybook cavalry. Who among the close-minded old yaks in the Kucha could have foreseen the gallantry to which she had ascended?
“Is something wrong?” Chadgura asked. She had her hands up as though about to clap.
“Nothing. Let’s ride that half-track.” Gulab said sweetly, woken from her daydream.
Around the corner a Sharabha half-track truck, armed with a heavy gun turret, rested under a tree in a grassy lot nestled across the road from the dress shop. Grey metal plates had been bolted over the thick nose and brow of the truck, around the windshield, and also along the sides to raise the armor coverage of the cargo bed, as well as to support the turret. There was a refreshing breeze blowing under the shade of the tree as they approached.
Gulab climbed onto the back using a metal ramp. There was no tarp. All of the machine was armored. It was almost like a wheeled tank. But the interior was still spacious enough for a squadron of infantry. There were benches to sit on, and a ladder for the turret.
There were also several slits and sliding windows from which to shoot.
Inside, Gulab was surprised to find ten Svechthans in the truck alongside the plump, boyish Pvt. Dabo and the stern-looking Pvt. Jande. Gulab had not seen very many of their allies from the far north. Among the small, pale, blue-haired Svechthans was a familiar face, however – Sergeant Illynichna or “Nikka,” her hair tied in an ice-blue ponytail.
She was actually perhaps a few centimeters smaller than the rest of her kin aboard the half-track. Her new subordinates all had beige uniforms with blue plants, and the tallest among them was perhaps 150 centimeters tall. They had for the most part round faces, straight hair and slim builds, with rather dour expressions on their lips and eyes.
“Zdrastvooyte,” Sgt. Nikka said. “This time I brought along some comrades of mine.”
“All of your help is appreciated.” Chadgura said. She bowed her head politely to the newcomers. Gulab knew off-hand that the Svechthans from the Joint-Training corps had been spread around the city as artillery officers and had helped coordinate the construction of the defensive lines, but most of their offensive strength had been kept far in reserve in the north district. They were probably itching for a fight! She would have been.
Gulab looked across the faces of the Svechthan men and women. For the life of her, she could not tell their expressions apart from those on the KVW soldiers. Nikka had a fairly emphatic demeanor however, and she grinned and held up her fist over her head while speaking. She looked like she had a fire in her belly, just like Gulab did.
“Anything to defend the Bread Mother, right, comrades?” Nikka shouted.
Her troops nodded their heads calmly. A few smiled while doing so. This little gesture was enough to separate them as merely reserved folk, rather than altered like the KVW.
“Ah, we do give you guys a lot of food don’t we?” Gulab said. “I guess that’s fitting.”
“Our languages are somewhat difficult to translate to each other. So on both sides we accepted a few unique terms. So your country’s name is the Bread Mother.” Nikka said.
“And what does Svechtha mean?” Gulab said. She found it hard to pronounce.
“Nothing at all, in any tongue. It is a completely invented word. Our continent did not have one word but many different ones for the regions we inhabited; those were lost to colonization. In the end, as a community we created a new word to describe us, one which had no meanings to the oppressors. One that is, in fact, hard to pronounce in Lubonin.”
“I see.” Gulab said. She did not understand well, but she didn’t know their history.
“If you have difficulty with it, you can also call us Narot – ‘people’.” Nikka said.
“No; I will try to pronounce it better from now on.” Gulab said, smiling awkwardly.
“But yes,” Sgt. Nikka turned her eyes back to Sgt. Chadgura, “we had been waiting somewhat restlessly to take a few bites out of Nocht. But I can understand you would be loath to send your allies to fight like this. We have been manning a lot of artillery and doing a lot of organizing. We have also been preparing for the Major’s next operations.”
“You have more experience in such matters than the bulk of our troops, I’d wager.” Chadgura said. “But what the Narot truly specialize in is the forward assault, isn’t it?”
“Indeed!” Sgt. Nikka said. “We have no fear of rushing against the tall folk. Especially not the northern capitalist bastards like Nocht. We are eager to show you Ayvartans how it’s done! Nobody can turn away the bayonets and guns of a Svechthan battle charge!”
Gulab nodded her head with a big smile on her face. She sat down on the bench. Chadgura looked at the bench opposite hers and took a seat as well. Periodically they heard the sound of an artillery gun being fired in the distance – the pounding noise of the 122mm howitzer shooting, and sometimes the clink of a shell casing hitting the earth.
Such sounds were just natural background noise by now.
Inside the Half-Track they had a backpack radio that had been left in a corner, and a few spare arms in a crate. Once they were settled, Pvt. Jande handed Chadgura and Gulab a pair of Nandi automatic carbines and 15-round magazines. These were the same short automatic weapons they used in Matumaini. Gulab noticed however that the Svechthans carried submachine guns or bolt-action rifles in their hands. Nikka had a Laska silenced carbine. Private Jane and Dabo had old Bundu bolt-action rifles, standard-issue.
Gulab supposed she got the automatic because she was an officer and trusted with the rarer weapon, while everyone else was equipped at random or for the sake of balance.
She unloaded her weapon, looked down the sight, and pressed the trigger to test it.
“Careful with the automatic fire on it,” Nikka warned, “it tends to jam every so often.”
“I’ll be careful.” Gulab said. “I don’t like the auto-fire; the magazine is too small.”
“It can be handy in a pinch. Soften your trigger pulls to control it.” Nikka said.
Across the floor of the half-track bed, Sergeant Chadgura looked almost restless herself. She rubbed her hands together and kicked her legs every so often. Her eyes were half-closed and made her look drowsy. She scanned around but avoided moving her head.
To Gulab it looked as though there was something stewing inside the Sergeant’s head.
“Corporal Kajari,” Chadgura finally said. She clapped her hands softly while calling.
“Something wrong?” Gulab asked. She looked at Chadgura, who then averted her eyes.
“I would like to discuss the conditions of my defeat in our last chess game.” She said meekly. “I played better than the first time, because you did not become aggravated.”
Or about as meekly as she could say it; perhaps Gulab was imagining her tone entirely.
Gulab raised her hands to her chin and recalled the board at the end. Ever since the battle at Penance they played at least once a day when together. She had played sloppily to try to give Chadgura a chance. Though she did not fall into a fool’s mate again like before, Chadgura played weakly and cluttered the board very fast. Against an opponent who wanted to take her out, it would have been a smorgasbord of bad trades in their favor. So it was a game that was generally difficult to remember. It was any game Gulab played against a beginner. There was, however, one detail that came to mind most strongly.
“You pushed too fast and you had a bad bishop at the end of the game. You blocked it from moving anywhere when you could have pressured me if you used it right.” Gulab said.
Chadgura snuck a peek into Gulab’s eyes and averted her gaze again. “I see.” She said.
“You lost your aggressive knights and rooks very quickly, and put yourself in a bad position in the endgame where your only aggressive pieces left were bishops.” She started to think almost faster than she could speak – she pointed her finger strongly at Chadgura. She recalled some of the things she had been told about her own game when she was little. “You have to watch the board and think of what trades you are making. A lot of beginners underrate the bishop and leave it stuck on the board while parading the knights and rooks.”
“Yes, I can see what you mean.” Chadgura replied. “Thank you.” She clapped her hands softly again. “I want to be an opponent worthy of entertaining you someday.”
Gulab blinked hard. Her thoughts ground to a halt from their previous breakneck speed.
“Yes, well, I think so,” Gulab awkardly said, “I’m a great teacher after all.” She laughed. She crossed her arms, her face frozen in a clumsy grin. “You’ll do great, kiddo.”
Chadgura nodded dutifully after every repetitive affirmation out of Gulab’s mouth.
Gulab was certainly not ready for someone else to become invested in Chess with her.
On the radio set a little needle in a gauge started to move, giving everyone in the vehicle something to stare at other than their awkward commanders.
Sgt. Chadgura stood up, knelt down beside the radio and put the headset against her ear. For a minute or two she took the message and then set down the handset.
Calmly she returned to the bench and sat again.
She cleared her throat and addressed everyone in her usual, inexpressive tone of voice.
“We have our orders: travel down to Mulga and hunt down an artillery position that is covering for the advance in the Central sector, then return to Home.” Chadgura said.
Everyone nodded, and began to load their weapons and make themselves ready.
Chadgura stared at them for a moment. She raised her fist.
“Let us make haste, comrades!”
Her forced emphatic voice sounded tinny and choked.
Everyone stared at her momentarily.
For close to a minute their Half-Track idled under the shade without any effort to move.
“Oh.” Chadgura said aloud suddenly. “I forgot.”
She stood stiffly off the bench. Nonchalantly she stepped out of the half-track. Gulab heard her footsteps going around the side, and the twisting of the driver’s side window lever. Chadgura informed him of the orders and then started to trample back to the truck’s rear.
When she returned, she clapped her hands quickly and loudly in front of her face.
“There is a slit for talking with the driver, you know.” Nikka said. She pointed at it.
Chadgura turned her head slowly and spotted the opening in front of the benches.
“I see.” She said. Dejectedly she returned to her seat and began to stare at her shoes.
Gulab leaned forward, reached out across the bed and patted her on the shoulder.
Their bodies stirred as the Half-Track’s engine churned.
“I think Kajari should go up on the heavy gun.” Nikka said. “She can handle it, right?”
“It’s the same as shooting an anti-tank gun right? I got some training in that.” Gulab said. This time it was not an exaggeration or misconception – she had shot about a hundred dummy rounds on a 45mm gun for training. Every Shuja in the Kalu had to take river-defense courses where they shot light artillery across the banks. This could not have been that different! After all it was the same gun, only modified for turret use.
“I have confidence in Kajari.” Sergeant Chadgura said, rubbing her hands together.
Feeling energized, Gulab stood up on the moving half-track and carefully made her way to the steps bolted to the back of the driving compartment wall, climbing them into a squat, drum-like turret structure with 45mm gun, like the one on a Goblin tank. She sat herself on a canvas and strapped herself to the turret, and looked around the interior.
There was a niche carrying the gun’s high-explosive shells, each close to the size of her arm. There was a manual handle to traverse the gun turret, and a wheel for gun elevation. There was a scoped sight. It reminded her of the inside of the tank that she had stolen in Buxa the other day. Sliding plates on either side gave her some ability to look at the streets, but a periscope and gun sight hanging before her were the gun’s key visual aids.
“Are you comfortable in your position, Corporal Kajari?” Chadgura asked from below.
“I’m fine!” Gulab said. She picked up a 45mm shell and turned around in her hands. Once they got going in earnest, she looked out the gun’s telescopic sight at their surroundings as the half-truck drove south at a brisk 60 km per hour on a slight downhill journey from “Home” block and toward their objective. She scanned around the area.
“Keep your eyes peeled!” Nikka said. “There could be hidden enemies!”
“I was informed that our way was mostly clear.” Chadgura said.
Regardless the Half-Track advanced. Mulga was a small, tight urban block to the southeast of Madiha’s House, quickly accessible through the road network leading to the school. There was a large, square U-shaped tenement building, five stories tall and surrounded by a broad street and a grassy lawn, dotted with trees and shrubbery; this building and its surroundings made up most of Mulga block. Much of the tenement had been damaged, but even split down the middle by bombs it still dominated the skyline of the Central District. She could see it over the rest of the buildings as they drove downhill.
Gulab adjusted her sights and opened the gun breech, to have it ready to fire.
“Hey, don’t play around in there!” Nikka shouted. “Bozhe moi! Shoot only if ordered!”
“Yes ma’am.” Gulab replied sourly. She closed the breech and put the round back.
“Eyes ahead, Corporal.” Chadgura said. “We may be coming up on our objective.”
They would have their answer to that soon enough; Gulab had it in her sights already.
As their half-track rounded a bend in the road toward the large tenement, Gulab saw some of the Territorial Army soldiers rushing forward. They drew up their rifles and opened fire across the green and plaza in front of the building. Passing the buildings she took in the full view of an all-out firefight. On the margins of the tenement’s grounds, squadrons of Territorial Army troops scrambled for cover in bushes and behind trees, behind playground objects and benches and fire hydrants. Positions across the street from the tenement opened machine gun fire on the building and all across the green.
Opposite these maneuvers, Nochtish soldiers ran out of the wide pass-through hallway through the front of the tenement building, pausing to take shots on the landing before hurtling forward off the steps and behind the low concrete walls of a square fountain basin just off the facade. From blown-out windows and half-collapsed fire-escape walkways machine gunners and riflemen took shots at advancing Ayvartan troops, the Norglers’ loud chopping noise dominating the atmosphere as its gunfire slashed across their ranks.
The Half-Track stopped just around the corner, taking partial cover near the dilapidated flank of a nearby civil canteen building. A soldier from the Territorial Army ran past and boarded the half-track. Gulab could hear him speaking with Chadgura about their plight in the area. “…we thought the 3rd Line Corps could contain them in the east, but there too many men slipping through our defenses. That’s how they ended up in Mulga of all places. Our strength is deployed on the main streets, so I don’t have much here–”
Chadgura interrupted the man. “Do not fear, we will help you. Corporal,” she shouted up to the turret, “the Nochtish attack may possess a greater scope than we feared. We will provide fire support for the 4th Division’s counterattack in Mulga. Fire at your discretion.”
“I’m ready if you all are.” Gulab replied. She opened her little windows and pulled out the same shell she was playing with, opened the breech, punched the shell into place and locked the breech. This action made distinctive noises – everyone below could tell what she was doing. When she was done, the gun was ready to fire at the pull of a chain.
The squadron dismounted, and at Nikka’s insistence the Svechthan soldiers took the lead. The Half-Track cruised forward out of cover and onto the street, and the Svechthans crept down the side of the half-track, opening fire on the Nochtish soldiers visible across the green with their submachine guns and rifles. As the Half-Track drove onto the street and past the benches and bushes, machine gun rounds pelted the engine block and the vehicle halted. The Svechthans ducked beside the half-track for cover against the fire.
“Devushka!” She heard Nikka shout outside. “There’s a Norgler, second floor left!”
Gulab twisted the turret clumsily around using the manual turret drive wheel. She heard gunshots from her side and checked her window briefly – Nikka and her troops had taken a pair of men apart for trying to approach and throw one of those ridiculous anti-tank canvas-winged mines the Nochtish loved so much. They fell with the bombs in hand.
Around her the Territorial Army troops held in position. Fire flew from all sides. Rifle troops took snap shots out of cover and threw themselves on the ground to buy time to aim. It was sheer volume that killed here. Men and women ran through individual bullets, each hitting the floor or a taking a chunk out of a piece of cover; but in the dozens, lucky shots were sooner scored. Even as she traversed there were casualties. She could not pay heed to every fallen comrade or enemy; her vision tunneled, and she focused on her objectives.
Gulab raised the elevation of the gun. On the second floor window she saw the Norgler shooter, his fire trailing toward the Half-Track and then across the street to ruined shop, where a woman with an LMG had been dueling with him. Gulab sighted him, waited for the flash to confirm, and then pulled the firing mechanism. She felt the breech slide, and a slight force feeding back across the turret. Her shell flew through the window and exploded.
There were no more flashes through the thin smoke left in the wake of the blast.
She had either gotten him or suppressed him.
The Half-Track started to move again, asserting its armored bulk closer into the green, all bulletproof glass and 10mm steel. Around them the Territorial Army soldiers were emboldened by the support. Two squadrons of twenty or so men and women moved forward from the playground and from the bushes, advancing across the open terrain into the firing line. They took aimed shots at the Nochtish defenses and felled a man.
There was an immediate casualty in reply – a woman was hit in the stomach as she left the cover of a bench and exposed herself. Fire from her comrades forced the attackers to duck again behind the fountain as they pulled her back into cover, likely to die. Meanwhile the Nochtish men huddled in front of the building facade and in the pass-through – a long, tall hallway leading through the tenement building and out the other end of the block.
Gulab scarcely noticed this. Her turret was still turned skyward when she fired again.
She put a shell into a fire escape, shattering the floor out from under a few grenadiers jumping out of a window. Those that did not die from the pressure or the fragments fell from the third floor to their deaths, land in the concrete with bonecrushing thuds. She put another round into the window itself; a man with a Norgler had appeared there just in time to see his allies fall. She did not see what happened to him beneath the smoke.
She heard no more machine gun fire coming from the Nochtish corner.
“Molodets!” Nikka shouted. “Put few into that pass-through in front of the building!”
“Yes ma’am!” Gulab shouted out the sliding window.
She reached out her arms and scooped several rounds from her racks, dropping them on her lap. Taking a deep breath, she punched the first shell in and fired; the spent casing crashed down the stairs as it was discarded, and Gulab quickly loaded the next round. She fired as fast as she could. Her first shot hit the corner of the building’s aperture and exploded, sending fragments flying back on the men hiding behind the fountain. Many were cut and wounded, she could see them shake and thrash around in fear and pain. Then she put the second and third rounds right into the hall. Landsers ran out under a spray of steel, ducking their heads and hurtling headfirst into the green, diving away in desperation. There was not a man without red slashes across his shoulders or back or along his arms or cheeks. Her fourth and fifth rounds hit the same places, flushing out a dozen men.
Nikka’s Strelky were more than happy to welcome them. The Svechthans rushed fearlessly ahead, even as intermittent Nochtish gunfire flew their way. Submachine gunners led the attack, rapping their fingers on the triggers and unleashing careful bursts of fire on the men as they escaped the hall. Many imperialists were stricken dead in mid-dive, falling on their faces behind cover never to get up. Nikka herself put a round through the head of a man in mid-run down the stairs, and shifted her attention to the stomach of a second man within seconds. With disciplined, agile bounds they pushed right into the enemy’s line.
Gulab traversed the cannon again as fast as she could. Her arm was starting to feel raw with the effort required to turn the gun. Her next shell fell right on the laps of several men huddling behind the stairway up into the tenement’s ground floor. Its concrete steps had defended them from the Svechthans; the 45mm shell exploded behind it in a grizzly column of smoke and steel that carried with it blood and flesh. There was little left behind.
Ayvartan Shuja and Svechthan Strelky reached the hallway and Gulab held her fire. Those with submachine guns led the way, and Gulab saw vicious flashes of automatic gunfire through the windows along the building’s facade. Sergeant Nikka ran up the steps and ducked around the corner of the hallway, peering in to take careful, practiced shots with her silenced rifle. Gulab saw a man’s head burst like a pale pustule through one of the windows. She saw various darker heads take his place indoors as her allies pushed up.
Patrolling soldiers moved on to the second floor. Gulab waited anxiously. She saw Nikka through a gaping hole in the building’s facade, walking carefully forward with her rifle up. She shouted something and ducked – from behind her several shots traced the length of the room. Nikka rose again and signaled an all-clear.
Territorial Army soldiers moved in her place.
There was no more gunfire.
A Svechthan soldier ran back to the Half-Track from the building’s front, and climbed aboard. From the opposite direction Gulab saw a platoon of Territorial Army soldiers running in from side streets, running around the sides of the parked Half-Track and stepping through the pass-through hallway, penetrating deeper into the tenement structure.
Fifty Nochtish corpses and a few dozen Avyartan ones were visible from her vantage.
Below her, Sergeant Chadgura appeared under the turret hole so Gulab could see her.
“Corporal Kajari, it appears the building’s been reclaimed for now.” Chadgura said. “Good job. Sergeant Nikka believes we should leave this to the comrades of 4th Division.”
Gulab sighed with relief. For the moment, it was over. They had won, and she thought she could feel each individual ligament in her arms throbbing and twisting. Nobody could maintain a steady rate of fire for very long, even on a light gun like the 45mm.
“Yes ma’am. I pray to the Ancestors they will be able to hold the fort there.”
“Oh, I had thought that you prayed to the Spirits.” Sergeant Chadgura asked curiously.
“Ah, my village has a strange syncretic religion. The Ancestors were seen as more war-worthy; the Diyam’s light was for healing and fertility; the Spirits took care of a lot of things. Over time, different people have ended up seeking refuge in the Kucha, you know?”
Chadgura nodded quietly, a dull expression in her eyes. Perhaps she did not understand.
Sergeant Nikka returned shortly. She slapped her hand on the front armor of the half-track’s bed, as if to get Gulab’s attention in the turret. Gulab looked down the turret hole.
“Well met, Gulachka! You cooked those imperialist bastards medium well!”
“Do you mean dead?” Gulab asked, not quite getting the joke entangled in those words.
Nikka simply grinned, and took her seat again out of Gulab’s sight. Gulab did notice that her nickname had changed again all of a sudden with Nikka’s newfound good humor.
“Ey, Sgt. Chadgura; one of your good army men who was pushed up to Mulga from Katura just a block down, thinks we might find that artillery there.” Sgt. Nikka said. “He says the Nochtish pigs overtook him and he retreated because he only had a squadron.”
“We are only a squadron.” Sergeant Chadgura said. “How many enemies did he see?”
“Two platoons. We can take them!” Nikka replied. “Gulachka can do it!”
“I only have twenty rounds or so I think.” Gulab shouted down at them from the turret.
“You think?” Sergeant Nikka shouted.
“I know! Jeez! I can count them for you!” Gulab shouted back.
Chadgura clapped her hands loud. Everyone else quieted.
“I’m not convinced that we can fight that many.” She said.
“We won’t fight them all! We have a vehicle, tovarisch. We perform a hit and run on the artillery. A taste of their medicine. This is a scouting vehicle isn’t it? It has the speed.”
Sergeant Chadgura quieted for a moment. Gulab could imagine her fidgeting.
“Very well. But I’ll quite readily abort if we are overwhelmed.” Chadgura finally said.
The Half-Track got going again, and Gulab saw more Territorial Army folks trickling in around the tenement, remnants of squadrons that had once occupied all the periphery of the home sector and now had to plug a breach. The KVW continued their hunt by taking a tight eastward bend away from the tenement. At first they drove at a mere 30 km/h. Gulab’s eyes sought for contacts – during the first few minutes of the drive at least.
She pulled on her shirt collar. It was sweltering hot inside the turret, and very little breeze got through the windows. She looked around at the tiny wisps of heat playing over the demolished structures at their flanks, and at the clear, sunny skies. She almost preferred the storm. Her uniform felt very stifling. Around her the walls were turning hot. Even the eyepiece of her sight and the gun controls were growing hot enough to bite at her.
Sighing she continued to peer out the windows.
Something caught her attention then.
She stuck her head out the turret and shielded her eyes.
Black objects hurtling through the sky, several of them. She had a good guess about their identity from their trajectories. Low velocity shells from howitzers, lumbering across the air at high angles before coming down on some unlucky soul and completing their journey. There were dozens of them flying out toward “Home” sector.
Maybe even to Madiha’s House.
“Ma’am, I think the enemy’s artillery is definitely south of here.” Gulab shouted.
“We’ve got a map.” Chadgura said from below. “There’s an open-air Msanii lot not far from here. We can try to break through to it – it is the best spot for artillery in Katura.”
“Acknowledged!” Gulab said. She then heard noises below. “Uh, what’s happening?”
She heard the ramp drop, and all kinds of rattling behind her.
She turned around and opened the turret’s rear sliding window in confusion.
Below her, the Svechthans peeked out of the sliding windows on the metal armor bolted over the Sharabha’s sides, sticking their submachine guns out of the apertures to shoot at the street while standing on the benches. Meanwhile Chadgura, Dabo and Jande stood near the open back of the half-track’s bed and watched the rear with their weapons up. The Half-Track dragged the open ramp along, bumping and scratching on the pitch.
“Gulachka, face forward, we have got company!” Nikka shouted, raising a fist.
Gulab spun around back to her sight.
The Half-Track accelerated. On the winding street ahead she saw grey-uniformed men with rifles bounding from between buildings and through the rubble collecting on the sides of the street. The Half-Track rushed past an enemy squadron and took a corner; an anti-tank shell soared miraculously past their vehicle as it slid to a halt and missed them.
At a hastily assembled checkpoint dead ahead from the corner, a PAK 26 37mm anti-tank gun zeroed in. Three men hid behind its gun shield and hastily loaded another round.
“Not a chance!” Gulab shouted, arms growing sore as she loaded and shot.
Her turret lobbed the 45mm high-explosive shell directly against the anti-tank gun. Smoke and fire and fragments blew over the gun shield and the men fell back in pieces; those that were not left skinless by the blast were left headless and limbless by the flying shards of metal. Behind her Gulab heard rifles and submachine gun fire. The Nochtish squadron they bypassed must have been running back. She started to turn the turret around–
“Eyes forward Gulachka! We’ll handle the streets! Focus on the road!” Nikka shouted.
The Half-Track broke off abruptly, tearing down the road.
Gulab turned the hard turret crank again and returned the gun to the neutral position. Their driver rushed forward as fast as the truck could handle, and instead of taking the next corner he squeezed into a side street between a pair of buildings, smashed through a fence, and broke out into the next block. When their wheels hit tar again they had overtaken a Nochtish squadron – a dozen men with a machine gun, five others setting down a pair of mortars, right in the middle of the street. They looked over their shoulders in disbelief.
At Gulab’s command the turret gun bellowed, launching an explosive round.
She barely saw the resulting carnage as the high-explosive shell went off over them.
Wheels and tracks and metal screeched against the pavement.
Bursts of gunfire struck the turret and the armored bed, bouncing off with hard reports.
Shots flew everywhere from buildings and alleys and from behind rubble as the Half-Track tore past scattered enemy positions. Building speed the Half-Track took one last corner to the Katura Msanii, sliding almost entirely off the road and into the street as the tracked half of the vehicle struggled to complete the turn. Little speed was lost and the vehicle hurtled forward and downhill. The Msanii was in sight – a fenced-off area of green lot with a pair of trees and some benches, where kiosks of hand-made goods could be bartered, traded or sold as was Ayvartan tradition even before the era of the Empire.
There were no goods on sale today; everything was flying off into the sky.
Six 10.5 CM LeFH howitzers in the middle of the Msanii lobbed shells relentlessly over Katura and Mulga as if trying to shoot down the sky. A half-dozen shells soared upward and arced down onto Home sector; smoke drifted skyward from afar, thickening further with each volley. Nochtish defenders spotted the Half-Track careening toward them, but there was nowhere to take cover. Artillery crews ducked behind their guns and tried desperately to turn them toward the road, while a dozen riflemen stood stalwart in the way and shot desperately into the armored engine block and bulletproof windshield.
Gulab pulled the firing pin and put a shell several meters behind the defenders.
She did not hit, the explosion caught nobody and the fragments fell short – but the men threw themselves down on the ground to avoid the shot and lost precious time. Biting her lip, Gulab tried adjusting her gun once more, but the second round overflew the lot.
She could not keep up anymore with the vehicle’s speed.
The Sharabha hit the foot of the shallow hill down onto the msanii’s lot and bolted toward off the road heedless of the obstacles before it. Without slowing or maneuvering at all the vehicle tore through the fence and crushed three men under its wheels and tracks.
It smashed into one of the howitzers; Gulab heard a flare-up of decidedly one-sided gunfire as the vehicle’s engine cut off. She heard boots on the dirt and Nochtish screams. She undid the buckles holding her to the turret and slid down the ladder to view the result.
Outside, the Strelky coolly approached and held up the Nochtish artillery crews.
During the rush, Gulab had hardly been able to pay attention to it, but now she saw the Half-Track had taken quite a beating. Repeated bursts of machine gun fire had pitted and banged up the engine compartment. There were tongues of black smoke playing about the vehicle’s nose, not a good sign. Their driver sat dejectedly behind glass cracked so badly that it was a wonder he could see where he was going at all. There were holes in the side plates of the bed, full penetrations perhaps delivered by heavy panzerbuchse rifles.
It was a wonder any of them survived the assault at all.
“We cannot risk going back the way we came.” Chadgura said aloud as if to herself. She addressed Gulab when she saw her dismount. “We will go through the tunnels.”
There were almost 20 men on the site, quickly collected into a crowd along the green.
“Brechen!” Nikka shouted at them. She gestured toward the decrewed howitzers.
“Don’t shoot.” One man said, in incredibly poor Ayvartan. “Don’t shoot ours; please.”
“Halt die klappe! Zerstören die haubitzen!” Nikka shouted at them again.
There was abrupt movement at the back of the group; someone tried to reach for a pistol to shoot Nikka. He shoved aside another man and quickly received several more pistol bullets from the Svechthans than he would have released, and fell onto a rapidly growing pool of his own blood at the feet of his men. Judging by his lapel, he was their artillery officer, fed up with his men’s capitulation. He lay on the grass, choking, bleeding.
All the other captured men raised their hands higher in response.
Nikka approached them.
“Zerteilen!” She shouted at the men, and once again, she pointed them to the howitzers. They seemed to understand her, whatever it was she said. From their satchels the men produced small explosives, and sealed them into the breeches of each gun. After a moment they detonated inside the chambers and ruined them. Smoke and flame blew from each barrel. Instead of a battery, the howitzers were now nothing more than scrap.
Nikka shouted more Nochtish at them; while the Strelky menaced the artillerymen with their submachine guns and pistols, the captives emptied all of their pockets, dropped their belts and quickly stripped their uniforms and pouches down to their skin. Under threat of violence the naked men ran as fast as they could out of the msanii and down the street – a token burst of inaccurate gunfire gave them sound to fear as they fled.
“With a good vehicle we could have taken a few of them prisoner.” Nikka lamented.
“I was expecting you would kill them all.” Gulab said, shrugging her shoulders.
“We need to conserve ammunition.” Nikka said, waving her hand dismissively.
“If you say so. However, we should go. Please follow me.” Sergeant Chadgura said.
All the Nochtish troops they had rushed past before could not have been far; the assault squadron detonated emergency satchels under the half-track and in the turret, ruining the vehicle and its arms so that the enemy could not capture it. They handed the driver a pistol, and he followed them without a hint of mourning for his vehicle. Then they left the scene, running across the Msanii, darting over the fence. Chadgura had a map open as they ran.
“This house further south has a cellar that should have a connection to the tunnels.” She shouted. “If it’s been built over recently we can use a satchel to blow open a hole.”
They found the house, an old baked brick building. Its door had been thrown open, but there was nobody inside. They hurried in, guns pointing in every direction. A recessed stairway led into the cellar. No sooner had they begun their descent, that they heard tracks and saw the shadows of vehicles along the interior wall. They hurried down into the dark.
Moments later several men stepped inside, shouted “Klar!” and left once more.
Underground, Chadgura and Gulab traded their guns for electric torches. Damp and humid and just a little too short for her to comfortably stand in, Gulab hated every step of this tunnel. Her father had said no son of his would be anything but a hunter; despite all the firefights Gulab felt more like a beleaguered sewer crawler with every step she took, head crouched, torch forward. For once she envied the Svechthan’s smaller height.
Everyone was silent at first, but the tunnels were so featureless that they could practically feel the silence around them like a toxic fume. Nikka was the first to grow restless and speak up. Gulab thought she could hear the desperation in her first few words.
“Gulachka, I must say, I underestimated you. You have a real killer instinct.” She said. “I dare say you are a natural with weapons. You may have messed around with that tank, but you got it moving; and you handled that turret skillfully. Maybe your place is a gunner and not a driver ey? Ha ha! Do you have a secret technique you could teach us mortals?”
Gulab laughed. She took all of that as a joke and thought that Nikka could not possibly be serious, but it also tickled her ego and she quite easily played along with the flattery.
“I’ve been shooting all my life.” Gulab said. “Slingshots, hunting rifles, etc; it was not anything natural, I trained hard! I made myself into the person that I am today! Ouch!” She hit her head a loose brick in the ceiling, sticking out just a little lower than the rest.
“Be careful.” Chadgura said in a low voice. She rubbed Gulab’s head briefly.
“What brought you to the military? Part of making yourself as you say?” Nikka asked.
“I suppose; it was my father trying to stomp me into a perfect son.” Gulab said irritably. She gently took Chadgura’s hand and put it back down from her head. “It is hard to get out of a dumpy village in the middle of the mountains, until a military recruiter comes around.”
“Familial troubles? I understand. I’m the 11th of 13 children.” Nikka said. “We tend to treat boys and girls the same too in Svechtha. But my father was very old and not too strict. He worked in a collective farm. But farm work in my homeland is dreary and often fruitless, so I joined the military. Then I got sent here to melt in the hot sun, ha ha.”
“I am an only child. I joined the army foolishly.” Chadgura interjected. ”And I am frankly confused as to how anyone can have thirteen children. It seems overambitious.”
“Mother was powerful. How were your parents, Chadgura?” Nikka asked. “How would they feel about you crawling in these sewers to escape a hundred armed pursuers?”
“They would tell me my hand clapping is annoying them.” Chadgura replied. “They might also ask me if I intended to marry any of those men someday and become decent.”
Gulab patted Chadgura in the back again.
Everyone quieted for the rest of the journey. The tunnel was cramped enough as it was without their awkwardness floating in their limited air. Gulab thought that if anything this exchange just made Nikka more restless. She resorted to counting bullets for a distraction.
West-Central Sector, Koba and 1st Block
After Matumaini Kern had waited and he had sought prophecy in people’s faces, in radio messages, in the storm rains and the cries of men driven to panic by traumatic wounds. When he heard about Operation Surge he got his sign – the end of him was quite near.
Now in the middle of the rallying area he waited anxiously for marching orders.
For two days the machinery of the Oberkommando Suden’s elite 1st Vorkampfer shifted its great bulk throughout the region, cramming as much of its firepower as could be made available in Bada Aso into three starting attack points that would eventually branch into a dozen advancing lanes as Operation Surge got underway. Every truck and horse that could be found was enlisted to carry men and pull weapons and supplies to the western, central and eastern rallying areas. Each rallying area spanned a few blocks in its third of the city with easy access to various streets and alleys leading north into the city’s depths.
A common “block” in Bada Aso was one to three kilometers long, and as one neared the city center, the number, size and purpose of the buildings along a block became less definitive. As one got further inward, the city became older, and one saw far less of the carefully planned outer blocks, with their large central tenements serviced by an outer ring of canteens, co-op and state goods shops, post offices, administrative buildings, workplaces such as factories and civil services such as hospitals and ferry stations.
Along the edge of Koba block, an ancestral two-story house stood next to a drug dispensary for the state healthcare authority, itself next to a cooperative cobbler’s workshop, next to a spirit shrine in a grassy plot, and several houses. A gloomy alleyway wide enough for a small car separated a pair of houses. Across the street there were several houses, a civil canteen, and a playground for children. It looked macabre in its abandoned state.
This was all perhaps half a kilometer worth of roadside. But it went on in that exact way upstreet as far as the eye could see. Buildings small and large without any symmetry.
Between the two streets was a road perhaps 10 meters across, if that. It was fairly tight.
To the landsers of the 6th Grenadier division, Koba and 1st Block was “Koba Sector” and there were no blocks. On their maps the Central-West was just a number of kilometers that they needed to cut through. These buildings were potential strongholds. Whether something was once a shop or a place or worship or a house made no difference. It had walls and windows. It was just dangerous. Kern certainly didn’t think of their purpose.
Was this what they called the Fog of War? Would he slowly lose all recognition of his surroundings until there were only shapes? Rectangles sprouting from the ground, nondescript? What would his fellow soldiers become? What would the enemy?
A strong breeze blew through the streets, but it did little to ease the hot, humid weather. He almost felt steam coming off of his pale body, his short, straight golden hair. He shouldn’t be here, he thought. He was the farthest thing apart from the people born to live in this place. Oberon was temperate, and a gentle coolness always ran through it, even in the summer. That was the proper place for scrawny, shiftless men, milking cows, picking veggies, tilling fields. Kern ran his hands across his face anxiously. He was a good looking boy. He could have found a nice girl and gotten some of his father’s land.
What a fool he had been to leave the farms!
When the breeze passed, he could hear again the sounds of struggling engines and clanking tracks. With every vehicle that came and went he knew that the hour drew nearer and nearer. Every gun and mortar accumulated, every machine gun handed out.
Kern was stationed alongside a company of a few hundred men. They were all huddled in a cluster of buildings closer to the front than the rest of the regiment in the rallying area. They would be going in first. Kern saw a dozens of groups of men idling around nearby.
Far behind him he had watched transports come and go, moving the regiment forward. A truck or a horse wagon would bring in a squadron of men and an artillery gun, maybe a few crates, and pull up in front of a big church one street down that was selected as a storage point for Koba. Men would unhitch the gun and pull it away, and the soldiers would be pointed to their battalion or company. They would form up and wait for commands. Some of them had been waiting for a day now without any sign of combat.
Many idled between orders to crack open rations or to lie for a few hours.There were men smoking, playing cards, cleaning their rifles. He wondered what was going through their heads. Kern couldn’t busy himself much. He was part of the Combat Command HQ Platoon for the battalion. He stood in attention, with his back to a half-broken electric post, hands in his pockets, counting the trucks. Captain Aschekind leaned against a wall with his head bowed low, his thick arms crossed over his chest, a portable radio on hand.
“Do you drink or smoke, Private 1st Class Beckert?” Captain Aschekind asked.
Kern nearly jumped from being so suddenly addressed. He had nearly forgotten he had received the meaningless appellation “1st Class” four days ago. It was meant to bolster his morale, but it only made him feel even more inadequate in the face of titans like Aschekind.
“No sir.” Kern said. He felt a tremble in his lips that felt all too noticeable.
Aschekind did not comment on it, if he heard it at all. “There is no shame in it.”
Kern wondered what he would have said instead if he had replied in the affirmative.
“Yes sir. My father was a mean drunk and a mean smoker. I don’t want to be either.”
Aschekind nodded his head solemnly. “Do you fear for today, private?”
“No sir.” Kern replied without thinking. If he was honest with himself, he was anxious.
“Alcohol or a cigar keeps you upright and moving; but so can the force of your will.”
It’s not like Kern would know – he had never tried either thing in his life. “Yes sir.”
“Choices that we make without even thinking. You might drink to stay awake just like you run to stay alive. There are many alternatives; but you don’t always live after.”
“Have you made a wrong choice, sir?” Kern asked. He nearly interrupted the Captain.
Captain Aschekind raised his head and stared at Kern with a strikingly neutral expression. All of his intensity seemed gone – there was only an eerie hollowness left there.
“I have made several choices that took from me more than they gave.” He said.
He adjusted his peaked hat and left the wall, walking past Kern, raising his hand radio.
Captain Aschekind turned to face down the street at the assembled men. A few turned or raised their heads to stare, but most barely acknowledged him at all until he addressed them. “We’re moving!” He bellowed. “Company, start walking. Keep your eyes open. Our combat patrol did not return. We will reconnoiter in force. Stay alert and march! “
At first only a few men responded; they shouldered their packs, affixed bayonets and started marching north in a loose formation. They were leaves falling from a tree. Few at first glance – but slowly the wind of war peeled more and more of them, taking them from their cards, their food, their cigars, their game boards, their jovial conversation. Recognition dawned upon them one by one, and the entire company marched off to war.
Aschekind did not drive them forward.
He only stood and he stared as they passed him. When he started walking, so did Kern, joining the rest of the headquarters platoon in the rear. There was no turning back.
On a marching stride, a kilometer went by in forty minutes or so.
Certainly trained athletes could clear a kilometer very quickly.
An athlete did not have to walk over rubble, did not have to check every window and door an alley around them for contacts, stop and start whenever they thought they saw a person dressed differently than them. They did not have to account for the slowest among their number, walking at a pace and formation that protected their precious machine gunners and AT snipers. They did not travel with twenty-five kilograms of equipment.
As part of the Headquarters platoon, Kern carried a backpack radio that added ten kilograms to his combat load. He could never clear a kilometer at a competitive speed.
For thirty minutes there was nothing worth breaking up the march. Then from the front of the march, one of the forward squadrons called for a halt of the column. Their platoon then sent these men to the rear to speak to the command platoon. Through their binoculars they had seen movement ahead of them on the road. Aschekind sent them out front again.
Within moments the column broke up – two platoons formed up side-by-side, fifty to seventy-five men on the left and right streets along the road. Squadrons of eight to ten men advanced north, each separated from another by a few meters for protection. A hundred meters from the leading elements the third platoon followed, and then the headquarters, ten meters behind them. Everyone was in formation, and ready to meet any engagement.
Kern felt out of place in this movement of men. He felt sluggish and unprepared.
“Run forward, stay behind the front line. Keep in contact.” Aschekind said. Around him, a pair of light mortars were being positioned on the road by the rest of the HQ platoon.
Kern thought he was talking to the air at first, but he reflexively saluted, while his mind tasted the words like poisoned caramel in an unwary tongue. Once he understood what the Captain meant, and to whom it was addressed, Kern dropped the extra mortar ammo he had been carrying for the HQ platoon, and ran past the rear platoon, a terrible sensation in his stomach. He took to the right side of the street with the assault forces.
Ahead of him the men broke into a run. He heard the first cracks of enemy gunfire.
Several hundred meters ahead were two houses built across the street from each other, with third stories that caused them to dominate the low-lying urban landscape of the lower Koba sector. From those windows came the first shots.
Streaks of machine gun fire and bolt-action rifle fire flew over and around the platoons as they charged. Each house attacked the street diagonal to it, and the enfilade fire took its first casualties almost immediately. Kern saw a few stragglers at the back of the columns hit by fire that had soared over the advance troops. Lines of gunfire slashed over the street.
From his vantage he could not see the enemy, just their handiwork.
But there was no panic, except in Kern’s rushing, flailing mind.
Meticulously the men of the two forward platoons moved to disperse into and around several houses even as the bullets fell around them in vicious bursts and streaks. Kern swallowed hard and ran in with the closest group into an alleyway about a hundred meters from the houses. The Ayvartans did not let up for a second – enemy fire bit into the corner of their building and fell relentlessly across the street just outside their alley.
“Call it in!” A man shouted at Kern over the continuous gunfire from the houses.
Call it in? Words came and went through his ears, barely registering at first.
Realization; he was talking about the mortars.
Kern picked up the radio handset, but then he froze.
As the observer and point of contact he was supposed to feed a set of map and landmark coordinates back to the company’s mortar team, but he forgot entirely what he was supposed to say. All of the numbers he had practiced before escaped his mind. Lips quivering, he stared helplessly at the nearby squad leader, denoted as such by the pins on his uniform. Shaking his head the squad leader, a tall, lightly bearded older man, physically turned him around and picked up the radio handset from his backpack to speak.
“This is Schloss, calling in a fire mission. Yes chief he’s right here. I don’t know.” Schloss paused and quickly recited a string of numbers and letters. He put back the handset.
Within moments they heard a series of blasts in quick succession farther up the street.
“Listen kid,” Schloss turned him around again and held him by his shoulders, staring straight into his eyes. “I’m not mad at you yet, but it’s getting close. If running’s all you’re good for then run close to me so I can use that radio when I need it. Ok?”
Kern almost felt like weeping. He nodded affirmatively.
He pulled the shoulder strap of his rifle over his head and readied the weapon in his hands. Seconds later they heard another round of blasts. At once the bullets stopped falling on the street outside their alley, and the squadron broke into a run, dashing out into the street. Ahead of them mortar fire crashed over the two tall houses, pounding on the roof.
A cloud of smoke and dust descended over the high windows.
As they ran, figures in the shadows of the ground floor doors and windows launched sporadic bursts of rifle fire their way, hitting the street and flying past their helmets with a whining sound. Kern struggled against his instinct to duck somewhere – there was not a lot of fire with the machine guns suppressed, and yet he was terrified of any individual bullet that he saw. He recalled the volume of fire in Matumaini, and this was nothing like it, but it only took one bullet. Just one bullet would kill him.
He could run fifty meters in ten seconds; bullets traveled that in less than a second.
Schloss’ squadron bolted ahead, and with titanic effort Kern bolted with them.
They closed to within a dozen meters of the enemy before their mortar fire lapsed, and the machine gun fire from the upper floors resumed. Schloss pointed everyone to the ruins of a nearby building. One remaining north-facing wall and corner provided enough protection from the second and third story gunners in the strongholds ahead.
Inside the ruin there was only a mound of rubble. Men started climbing it.
Standing at its peak they could peer over the remains of the wall.
Across the road Kern saw men carrying a Norgler machine gun and settling atop the remains of a collapsed wall. No sooner had the shooter braced the gun that a bullet speared him through the neck. He fell over the rubble and into the street, thrashing to his death.
“Five men up there, three men on what remains of the door!” Schloss shouted. He climbed up the mound, and beckoned Kern to go up as well. Kern peeled himself away from the doorway and the corpse; he climbed over the rocks, some of which still had rusty metal bars going through them. They crouched along the corner, where the rubble formed a platform. One man put his helmet on his rifle and raised it over the wall. Nothing.
“They’re not looking this way. We’re not a machine gun squad.” said the grenadier.
“On my mark everyone rise, shoot into the window, and hide again.” Schloss said.
“Which window?” Kern asked. He had not gotten a good enough look at the houses.
“Corner window, closest to the street, facing us. Second floor.” Schloss shouted. Ayvartan machine gun fire grew vicious again and he had to raise his voice to be heard.
Kern nodded. He gripped his rifle and steadied his feet, waiting for the signal.
Schloss nodded his head, and the fireteam rose over the wall. Kern saw the window, and he thought he saw a shadow in the faint smoke and scarcely thinking he opened fire.
All at once the high windows on both houses exploded.
Smoke and dust and a brief burst of fire flashed from inside the windows, and the walls crumbled, launching debris onto the streets and belching fumes into the surroundings.
Kern stared at his rifle in disbelief as the house was wiped from the world before him.
Plumes of smoke and dust rose from the structure.
Kern heard a noise as something flew in overhead.
Explosive shells; hurtling in from farther south they battered the buildings into chunks. Guns and mortars pounded the roof and walls until they sank, crushing the Ayvartans in the rockfall; ceilings and floors collapsed and walls folded out onto the street. Debris flew into nearby buildings and the grenadiers closest to the building hunkered in cover.
“Too close! Too close!” the men shouted at nobody who could hear as the debris fell.
Men abandoned their forward positions and ran back down the street to escape the concrete shrapnel, but the violence had already peaked. Rubble settled on the street and the guns and mortars concluded their fire missions. There was only dust, billowing in clouds.
Schloss stood over the wall and peered out at the carnage. He waved his men down, and the soldiers on the mound slid off the rubble and regrouped, vacating the ruin together.
On the street, the wind blew away the murky air. Kern heard the chugging of engines in the distance and the whining of tracks; he looked over his shoulder through parting clouds. At the rear of the company, third platoon left the road and stood on the street, sidelined by a platoon of M3 Hunter assault guns advancing to the urban front.
Each of these vehicles was a self-propelled seventy-five centimeter howitzer, and the ruins ahead proved the strength of their massed fire. Because of the tight road, they moved forward in a box formation, two rows of two tanks followed by the command vehicle alone in the rear. Even this arrangement occupied most of the road. Company foot soldiers stuck close to the buildings, giving the machines space as they moved through the block.
Once the machines had gotten clear of the men, third platoon moved up to where the fighting had taken place, and Aschekind reappeared. Beige clouds blew in from the ruins ahead, travelling on the strong afternoon breeze. Aschekind did not even blink as he walked.
“We will be following the tanks.” Aschekind said aloud. “I want third platoon directly behind them, and second platoon following within fifty meters. First platoon, take the rear.”
After listening to the Captain’s orders Kern realized how quiet everything had become.
Kern could have sworn that hundreds of landsers must have died from the fire and carnage, but with the benefit of silence, he found that only a dozen men had died, and several of the wounded had survived. Many men were only bruised. He looked at his surroundings as though the block had been taken from him and replaced somehow.
Idle thoughts dropped heavily onto his consciousness from someplace unknown, and all at once he felt the fatigue that his anxiety and adrenaline had suppressed.
He shivered without cold.
All of the shooting and killing and he had not even gotten a good look at the Ayvartans.
Fighting at these ranges that made him question if he was engaging human beings at all. They barely needed to see him in order to kill him; he barely saw them before they died.
“Move ahead with these men,” Aschekind instructed Kern, “stay behind the tanks.”
The Captain’s hand fell heavily on his shoulder.
Kern felt almost as if being shoved forward.
“Yes sir.” Kern replied.
He saluted, and beside him, Schloss saluted as well, acknowledging.
Joining the rest of the mostly-intact second platoon, Kern advanced behind the assault guns. They moved between the rubble of the stronghold houses and continued up Koba Street. Most of the buildings were low-lying, and every taller building seemed like the ominous pillars of a great gate in the distance. The M3 Hunters raised their guns whenever they neared a building that possessed a second story, ready to flatten it.
They crossed the shadows of several buildings without incident.
Whenever Kern walked past however he felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. He had heard the Ayvartans had tunnels, and that they would often reappear suddenly in buildings thought cleared. There was a reason their recon squadron had never returned to report to them. Would they find those six men dead somewhere ahead, their sacrifice forewarning the Company of danger? Would they be discarded, faceless on the street?
Or did they just disappear into the haphazard blocks of buildings, never to be found?
Another kilometer behind them, no contacts. Everyone peered ahead expectantly. Atop the tank there was a man with binoculars, one of the vehicle commanders. He played with the lenses, magnifying. Every so often he waved his hand, and everyone continued to march.
They had a sight-line about 800 meters forward. Koba, like a lot of Bado Aso’s streets and blocks, was tight, flat, and fairly straight. In Bada Aso the chief limitations faced by soldiers with otherwise good eyesight were rubble and ruins obstructing the way, and the haze of dust, heat and humidity, and of course, the curvature of the horizon itself. Even with binoculars it was difficult to acquire a reliable picture any further ahead of the column than 800 meters to a kilometer, no matter how straight the road was. And some roads were not so straight – on the Western side, Bada Aso softly curved, following the shape of the coast. Koba and other western streets curved as well and limited their sight.
Everyone marched briskly, some with their guns out, many with their guns shouldered.
Then the tank commander raised his fist instead and the column stopped in its tracks.
Men ran back and forth from him, and several then crept around the front of the tanks.
Word traveled through the column – another Ayvartan position, a few hundred away.
Kern and Schloss took cover around a street corner and peered ahead around the tanks.
Two M3s trundled ahead, paused, and then put shells downrange. Columns of dust and uprooted gravel rose across the Ayvartan line. A shell hit a sandbag wall dead center. Kern saw figures disperse from behind the bags in a panic. Grenadiers from the third platoon, gathered around the assault guns, saw the opportunity and charged the enemy line.
Rifles and machine guns cracked and flashed from the ground floor windows of a store and a co-op restaurant a few dozen meters behind the sandbag emplacement. Kern counted the flashing muzzles and thought there had to be at least a dozen Ayvartans in each building.
It was the same as before; two buildings across from each other, barring the way.
Bullets filled the air, red tracer lines lending them the appearance of burning arrows, flying past and crashing around the men as they approached. Landsers cut the distance by taking cover until the gunfire shifted its weight to a different position and then bounding toward a new piece of cover. Working in this fashion they managed to confound the poor fire discipline of their enemies and make rapid gains even in the face of the gunfire.
Assault guns carefully shifted their bulk, repositioned their guns and resumed firing on the Ayvartan line, kicking up debris in front of the windows and doors and striking the walls and corners. High-explosive blasts collapsed walls and smashed the streets.
Even as their cover turned to ruins the Ayvartans continued to fire with zeal.
Third platoon kept mobile, and soon occupied several positions close to the two structures, including a squadron of men huddling right behind the Ayvartan sandbags.
These were the eight closest men to the enemy, and with the best view. Armed with bolt-action rifles they took turns firing over the smashed remains of the sandbags and ducking for safety. Hits on the thick concrete walls issued thin and fleeting wisps of dust and chipped cement; most of the exchange on both sides hit cover, tracing sharp lines across the distance between the sandbags and cooperative restaurant or to the shop.
Farther down the street groups of stray landsers, their squadrons sometimes split across the street or in adjacent alleyways and buildings, took cover in doorways and windows and behind staircases. When the gunfire swept past them they hid, and a few then moved; but most remained in place behind cover and plinked at the crumbling windows and doors.
Shells pounded the side of the restaurant and the store. Kern marveled at the sustained rate of fire on their assault guns, but the frames of the houses stood even as their walls started to fall. Though 7.5 cm shells blasted holes into the walls that pooled rubble onto the street, the buildings did not complete crumble and the Ayvartans continued to shoot. No shell had yet managed to soar through the small windows and into the interiors.
A third M3 peeled from the assault gun platoon and crammed beside the first two, opening on the strongholds with its own gun. Though it added some volume to the artillery volley, it was ill-positioned and could only hit the store from its vantage, and not the restaurant. Both the other M3s subtly shifted on their tracks, trying their damnedest to put a shell into a window but in so doing mostly pitted the street and the road ahead.
“We can’t just stand here, lets go,” Schloss declared.
He started leading his men off the street and deeper west into the alleys. Kern watched them go and wondered whether to follow. West of Koba block was a long, five meters tall wall that separated the block from the coast. Skirting around the houses adjacent Koba Street, Schloss could probably flank the enemy ahead from behind or the side.
A muffled roar sounded far too close for comfort interrupted Kern’s thoughts; livid red flashes off the corner of his eye startled him. Smoke started to blow in across the street from a sudden blast. Was that one of theirs? Kern pulled up his binoculars.
He peered along the road.
In the middle of the street a shell crashed and consumed the squadron at the sandbags in a fireball. A pillar of thick black smoke rose from a 3-meter wide crater smashed into the place. Gunfire halted on both sides, a second of silence followed by dozens more shells.
Kern ducked back behind the corner.
Shells crashed all along the column, punching through roofs and smashing grenadiers hiding in buildings, bursting into showers of fragments outside of alleyways and spraying unlucky landsers with piercing shards of metal. Men caught in the middle of the street when the heat fell threw themselves face down as the road pitch was thrown up into the air around them, and fire and smoke rose up around them like geysers, consuming unaware men.
In the face of this fire the three assault guns broke from their attack. Ceasing all fire they clumsily reversed from their cramped positions, inhibited by the space. They turned a few centimeters this way and that trying to stay off one another and off the walls of nearby buildings while inching back out of the combat area. Metal clanked as they hit each other.
Sluggishness proved fatal; a pair of projectiles overtook the vehicles at a sharp angle.
Fire and fragments chewed brutally through the assault guns. One tank burst almost as if from the inside out, its hull left in the middle of the road like a shredded can. Chunks of track and ripped pieces of armor flew every which way, and the short barrel of a 7.5 cm gun was launched through the air by the blasts and smashed through a nearby wall. Explosive pressure so heavily and directly on the armor left behind wrecked, charred hulls in the middle of the street, hollowed out wherever the blast waves hit them.
Kern’s ears rang even as the blasts subsided.
He pressed himself against the corner of the same building and dared not move. Breathing heavily, he produced the radio handset from his pack, and he called out to Captain Aschekind. “The Ayvartans have deployed heavy artillery support!”
“I heard. First Platoon is rejoining. Second company is en route.” Aschekind replied.
In response Kern raised his binoculars and looked south, the way the column came. Through the thin dust he saw the first platoon rushing back up; father behind them he saw a brand new unbroken column moving in. Two hundred more men moving in to fight.
Behind him an isolated shell descended into the middle of the street. He saw only the flash in the corner of his vision, and he heard the booming explosive and falling debris.
Something compelled him, and the distress in his voice surprised even him. “Sir, you have to tell them to hold off, there’s a chokepoint up ahead, we can’t keep trying to—“
“Air support will take care of that. Focus on advancing.” Aschekind replied. “We have to advance. That is Operation Surge, Private. Join Second Company and advance.”
Kern heard the shuttering sound of the Captain’s radio disconnecting from his own.
He replaced the headset in its spot on the backpack. With his back still to the wall and his eyes to the south, Kern hyperventilated as he waited for the second company to move in, all the while the Ayvartan artillery fire resumed behind him, shells falling by the dozens.
Central Sector, Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”
Panic on the radio. “Ma’am, there’s too many of them out here, they’re coming in from the side-streets, from the main streets, I think they’ve broken through Katura and Koba. Whole platoons, dozens of them! Tanks and artillery moving in. We can’t hold any longer!”
“Retreat slowly back to the Home line with 3rd Corps, but no further than that.”
“Yes ma’am.” He hung up, energized by the idea of a limited retreat. Major Madiha Nakar sighed and put down the radio. She watched the battle unfolding down the road through a telescope from her office. The enemy had indeed broken through to Home.
A kilometer away down the main street, an enemy column had colonized the street corners leading in from Matumaini. She supposed they had filtered through the east and west and moved into Home from those directions to avoid the collapses in the center.
Moving in bounds – stopping in one spot, covering a team until they overtook you, then moving when that team in turn stopped in one spot – the Nochtish men made rapid gains along the end of the street, surging forward almost 300 meters closer to the FOB. There was a platoon of men along each side of the street, a hundred souls; behind them there were two more platoons starting to move. A company at time, coming for her head.
Her defensive line in the center was not a meticulous defense in depth. There was one line of sandbags with three machine guns and three anti-tank guns. Two Hobgoblins waited around the street corners near the school building everyone affectionately called “Madiha’s House.” There was a battalion of soldiers, each company stationed in tall buildings along the end of the street. And there was a hell of a lot of a gunfire flying down at the enemy.
All along the front of the school building, muzzle flashes went off like orange sparklers, guns firing continuously, changing crews every couple minutes to sustain the rate of fire. Machine gun fire streaked from the defensive line and the nearby buildings. Rifles cracked slow and steady in their rhythm. It was a wall of metal, unending volleys roaring down the street. Meanwhile, mortars and 122mm guns manned by the Svechthans cast shots over the school building and smashed the end of the main street a dozen shells at a time.
Smoking pillars rose skyward by the dozen every minute as heavy projectiles impacted the ground, accompanied by a noise like a giant taking a deep breath. Machine gun and rifle bullets fell upon the road in consistent bursts, issuing a continuous cracking noise.
Gunfire was ultimately quite fickle.
An advancing man could survive a mortar shell hitting near him; maybe the angle was off and the fragments flew upward and missed him. Maybe he was hit but not badly enough to stop him. Maybe it just wasn’t his time. Human beings could charge through gunfire, they could be missed by millimeters or centimeters or whole meters by bullets traveling at unfathomable speeds and fired by skilled shooters; gunfire was deceptively impenetrable. Those orange streaks were small and fast and inaccurate. Trajectories varied with elements. An urban environment had thousands of surfaces for a bullet to lodge into.
From her vantage Madiha saw men running as though through fire, walking as though on coals. Bullets lodged into the ground around them, ricocheted off objects near them, seemingly flew by their faces, a curtain of fire tracing the air across the main street for every orange muzzle flash. As if suddenly embraced by spirits men would fall before the fire, over the coals; they would spread their arms and fall aback or fold over on their bellies. They would lose their footing as though they had only slipped on a paper, or fall on their knees as though praying. Then the light of life would leave them and they would die.
But the column did not stop. There was always movement.
A dozen men died and three dozen ducked into cover where they could, and then ran again when they felt the artillery and shots were at their lightest before them.
Scattered enemy troops got within 500 meters of the line, leaving behind dozens dead.
“Madiha! We got a call from the ARG-2 in the north; we’ve got air incoming!”
Madiha pulled herself from the telescope.
Behind her, Parinita, short of breath and sweating, stood in the middle of the door frame with her clipboard in her hand, squeezing the object with shaking fingers.
“Are we almost done destroying evidence?” Madiha asked. Parinita nodded her head.
“Yes, we’ve torn up everything that didn’t have archive priority. We’ve got the rest on a half-track heading north under Kimani’s watch. We don’t have an FOB picked out yet–”
“We don’t need one.” Madiha said. “We can coordinate everything from the truck.”
“Our planes are taking off as well. But they will not reach before Nocht’s aircraft.”
Madiha nodded. She returned to the telescope. Their second company was joining in–
Parinita took her by the shoulder and she pulled her a step back from the window.
“We have to go too. This building is too exposed now. We don’t even have barrage balloons over it anymore.” She said. She looked at Madiha with concern.
Madiha smiled. Parinita; always looking out for her.
“I agree. No protest here, Parinita.”
She did not invent an excuse to stay. She did not need to.
Though the attack was larger than she imagined it would be, and proceeding all along the front in a scale greater than she imagined, none of what she saw through the telescope gave her any reason to change the course that she had planned since before the battle.
“Just one thing. How soon until our guardian angel arrives?” Madiha asked.
“Seas are fairly calm, so she should be here within a few hours.” Parinita replied.
Madiha shouldered the backpack radio they had been using to communicate periodically with their units, strapping it on. Parinita pulled out the little hand-drawn calendar she had made of the battles, and clipped it to her clipboard. These final effects collected, they rushed downstairs, shutting the door for the last time on their shared office in “Madiha’s House,” Bada Aso. It had withstood so much in this terrible battle.
Soon it would be time to put it to its final rest.
NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — Absolute Pin