This chapter contains scenes of violence, including graphic violence, and death.
33rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, 3rd Line Corps Defensive Line “Home”
A dozen rifle rounds struck the gun shield and the sandbags. They could have come from no more than 200 meters away. The gun commander crouched around the edge of the semi-circular sandbag defenses and peered out to the street with his binoculars. He saw a squadron of men, huddling around the edge of an alley on the left-hand side of the street; he called the distance and location and he pointed his gunner to them. They were getting too close.
She responded quickly, turning the heavy carriage of the Khroda water-cooled machine gun to face toward the building. Her loader, crouched beside her, picked up the ammunition belt and ducked his head. She pulled the trigger, counted two seconds, depressed, and hit again.
Short bursts of 10-20 rounds flew across the road and street. She knew her gun well, and she knew that she was hitting the alley at an angle, biting into the wall and the street feeding into the alley. Targeted by the heavy machine gun, the Grenadiers ceased firing on her shield and held back from the street. Every burst chipped pieces of concrete all around them. Any stray appendage out of cover would have been torn apart; any head or shoulder the same.
Suppression was the objective, more than killing. They had to keep the enemy away.
Noise and volume, more than accuracy, kept those men pinned down in that alleyway.
The Gun Commander patted the Gunner and Loader on the shoulders and nodded his head toward the rear of the defensive line, twenty meters back, on the street running perpendicular to theirs; in the middle of this street was Madiha’s House, and along the front of it, and around its street corners, their mortar posts. His troops understood; the Gunner nodded her head back and continued to fire on the alley. The Gun Commander left them and rushed, half-crouched, to the nearest mortar team. He told them of the suppressed Grenadiers, and they adjusted fire.
Within moments, a volley of 120mm and 82mm mortar shells started to drop in front of the alley and along the street in front of it, holding up any potential movements from that area.
When the Gun Commander returned, he raised his binoculars again and found his crew new targets. They could not wait and see if those other men had been killed — they had stopped moving and stopped shooting, but there were dozens of groups of 8-10 men scrambling their way up sector Home, and whenever they picked one to attack they ignored many others.
Directly across the defensive line from this particular gun team, a second identical model Khroda gun fired down the right-hand street to cover its own approach; the third machine gun in the middle of the defensive line laid its fire directly ahead instead, ten rounds a second streaking over the middle of the road. This crucial lane of fire was relentlessly guarded. Unlike his counterparts on the flanks, the central gunner kept his trigger down through each belt.
Steam issued from the central gun’s barrel, and grew copious as the shooting went on — the loader gingerly replaced the water-cooling jacket when next he reloaded the gun.
During this delicate operation five men from a broken squadron crossed the road, bounding from one street to the next and linking up with another group for safety. They were elusive!
For minutes at a time the battle was completely gridlocked. Gunfire and artillery rolled over the invader’s path like the swiping hand of a giant, hurling back in pieces anyone exposed to its iron claws. Whenever the brunt of a volley passed them by, small groups of Nochtish men would dare to leap closer to the defensive line, gaining their side as a whole a handful of meters, sometimes a dozen, before the weight of Ayvartan fire shifted and pinned them anew.
Little by little the grenadiers climbed their way to within 150 meters of the Ayvartan line.
Then the concerted effort began; from the end of the main street toward “Home”, driving up the road as a wedge, a platoon of M3 assault guns trundled toward the defensive line. They rolled in from the street corners, assembled, and then took their first shots northward. Seconds apart, over a dozen 75mm shells crashed in front of and behind the Ayvartan lines. A shell soared over an anti-tank gun and exploded inside of a supply tent; one detonated in front of a machine gun and stunned the crew; another burst through the window of the Major’s office.
Thankfully the Major had just decided to go, and was not there to burn in the explosion.
After the first volley the defenders were shaken up and the assault guns started on their way again, facing their armor forward and rushing toward the defensive line from 800 meters.
Though the mortars and machine guns had temporarily quieted the 122mm divisional artillery was over two kilometers away and continued to sound. Explosive detonations crept across the road from the defensive line, falling in front of and around the advancing tanks. Shells dropped from above like plunging meteors, smashing the ground and bursting into columns of fire and uprooted concrete and gravel three or four meters high, like geysers rising around the tanks.
Fragments ricocheted off armor, dust and smoke blew against slits and periscopes. Falling shells punched holes in the pavement and the tank tracks navigated them expertly, the unflinching vehicles encroaching with purpose. A glancing blow just off the side of the formation smashed the track off an M3 Hunter, and its crew abandoned it; the remaining four tanks pressed on through the swelling rains of hot debris. At 400 meters a second volley struck along the length of the street; behind the platoon the abandoned tank was hit and exploded.
Anti-tank guns from the 3rd Line Corps recovered from the shock of the 75mm shelling, and from two positions in front of Home they joined the artillery barrage. From their guns quick volleys of 45mm shells plunged down the road. Many of the shots flew high or wide and were corrected constantly against the advance of the tanks. 300 meters! Shots started to pound into the front armor. Armor-piercing projectiles plunged right into the tank’s strong, flat glacis plates and their sharp noses flattened out, detonating uselessly without any penetration.
Though more accurate by virtue of firing directly, the 45mm guns had too short barrels and too small projectiles to inflict much damage on the tanks. 200 meters; but the fire did not let up. Inside the tanks the crews felt the metal rattling around them and the hull growing hot. Slits and side hatches opened up temporarily to allow the crew some measure of fresher air.
As the tanks neared, an Ayvartan anti-tank commander spotted an opportunity through her binoculars and called in last-minute adjustments on a shot. Her gunner fired, and the 45mm shell went off; seconds later the M3 in the center of the formation stopped dead in its tracks, a smoking hole less than half a meter in diameter through its front viewing slit. It was likely that the driver had been killed and other crew injured; the Ayvartan gun commander turned her gunner toward different targets while she monitored the wreck for a second just to be sure.
Nothing, dead; but the remaining three tanks had rushed to within a hundred meters of the line. There they stopped in their tracks and turned their guns on the defenders. Artillery fire from the divisional guns now fell behind the tanks, crashing in the street dozens of meters away. The M3 assault guns had conquered the Ayvartan’s pre-planned firing area.
Within seconds of coming to a complete stop the M3 Hunters opened fire on the line. A Khroda machine gun exploded and blew back its own crew, struck dead-center by a 75mm shell and folding under the pressure wave. An explosive projectile punched into the lobby of the HQ building and smashed a hole into the staircase along the back of the room. One M3 shell went wide and exploded beside an anti-tank gun, its crew ducked behind their sandbags and suddenly showered in gravel; luckily the anti-personnel fragments largely missed them.
Having tasted blood, the assault guns adjusted their aim and prepared for their next shots.
Then from both ends of the road running behind the defensive line came reinforcements.
A pair of Hobgoblins appeared from around the street corners. They had been holding back in reserve and awaited just such a moment to strike — aiming their guns at the enemy farthest diagonally from them, they secured sharp angles on the vehicle’s exposed sides. Their 76mm guns roared at once, and with one shell each they ripped into the enemy tanks. Hatches blew open, smoke and fire belched from the cupolas, scrap metal flew into the air. Two M3 Hunter assault guns were immediately destroyed in this attack, leaving a single one behind.
Judging its mission failed, the final M3 retreated at full speed from the defensive line and slid its bulk backwards into a partially ruined storefront for cover, conceding over 200 meters. 45mm and 76mm shells crashed around it every step of the way. A Hobgoblin crawled out from behind the street corner and positioned itself where the Khroda HMG had been destroyed, filling out the gap in the line. Its coaxial and frontal machine guns flashed in place of the gun.
Nochtish men fell back and fell into place, growing timid at the appearance of enemy tanks.
And yet again Operation Surge was gridlocked under 200 meters from the defensive line.
Both sides used the lull as best as they could. The 3rd Line Corps cycled out its fatigued, wounded and dead and hastily shifted their reserves to the reeling defenders. Orders went around to slow down the gunfire, to make the belts and shells last. New firing lanes were discussed with the Svechthan artillery gunners stationed several kilometers behind the line, to account for the closer position of the enemy. But there would still have to be be a minimum range — 50 meters from the line, to avoid potential friendly fire. Trucks delivered ammunition and cooling jackets for the precious machine guns. These stayed around the corner where it was relatively safe; gun commanders rushed out to fetch crates to bring back to their posts.
Across from them, a new platoon of Grenadiers used the smoking wrecks for cover and waded up the street a handful of meters at a time, harassed by persistent artillery, tank fire, machine guns. Existing squadrons held their positions, exhausted, shaking from the noise and their own nerves. They dug themselves wherever there was concrete to cover them, and waited for help. From their vantage, those closest to the lines reported what they could on the Ayvartan disposition. They called in for armor, for artillery, for anything that could help them move. But further armor reinforcements were held up, until the Ayvartan fire abated — if it ever abated.
Then, inside the second floor of an office 200 meters from the line, a beleaguered Nochtish radio man, lying alone against a wall and putting pressure on a bullet wound in his arm, heard his radio come to life. It had been set to receive all missives, as the man hoped for rescue.
He heard a voice, crackling with static and noise. “Sturmvogel wing, 10 km from target, copy?”
South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ
Two hours into the operation Fruehauf and her girls received the first concrete reports from the front. Thirty minutes before that, they heard a man die on the radio; he had accidentally flipped his backpack set on, screaming in the midst of gunfire and artillery. There was a sound like a tin can rolling down a street, followed by a horrific wet choking and coughing on the air.
Shrieking, the girls ripped their headsets from over their ears and chucked them away. Reflexively they shut off their radios with a flick of a switch to kill that haunting noise.
Across the room General Von Sturm snapped his head up from the maps on his table.
“What the hell is their problem now? Fruehauf, control your banshees!” He shouted.
Marie and Erica were shaken up from the noise, weeping, sobbing aloud; Fruehauf assured them as best as she could. There, there, she cooed, like a mother whose children had scraped knees or burned elbows from play. She was four years older than the oldest girl; she had to be strong. She laid her hands gently on the girls’ shoulders; she told them they would not hear such things often and that, in time, they would become calls just like any other they took.
Hands shaking, choking back their sobs, the girls returned to their seats and slipped their headsets over their ears again. They turned down the volume and set the radios to receive.
She was not supposed to give in to conjecture. She had to wait for reports from officers and from reliable unit contacts who made it their purpose to give her their most accurate info. But from the noise and the corps-wide calls for support being traded about between the different officers, from the calls of infantrymen for artillery support, from artillery men for more rounds, for armor requesting patrols, and everyone requesting air support; she could piece together that things were not going so smoothly. Then again, they hardly ever did at first.
Avoid conjecture; she waited out those thirty biting minutes since they heard the man die.
At first they received a call to establish official contact. Erica alerted Fruehauf to this after picking it up. Fruehauf approached, overrode Erica’s radio through her headset and switched the radio set to enable it to call back. She sent out a message and gave the officer a special frequency to call. She switched the radio to receive again, tuning it to that frequency. She listened to the whole of his report, taking down pertinent notes on a pad on her clipboard.
Now she was not operating on conjecture, but the best facts available at the moment as to the disposition of the 6th Grenadier Division. Next the 13th Panzergrenadier called HQ. Finally, what remained of the Azul Corps called in, graciously speaking in Nochtish for her sake.
“Sir, I have with me a preliminary report on the capture of the first wave of Surge objectives.”
Every report opened with timestamps and short summaries of what was accomplished. On Koba, the way to the port was secured; in the east, paths leading north center. Matumaini was bypassed and forces had assembled and launched their first attacks on the main street in the Central District’s innermost sector, particularly on a long stretch connecting two u-shaped street intersections and dominated by a large school building. This sector was strongly defended — likely an enemy Forward Operating Base or FOB. It had priority for now.
That was the good news, brief as it was. Then came the preliminary casualty estimates.
Von Sturm did not care much for the infantry casualty reports; he had told her once in a mostly private setting that if fifteen landsers died fighting to cover a tank, he still had the tank. That was his philosophy, and in part it was also Nocht’s philosophy. Landsers as a whole applied pressure to an area. Machine gunners and mortar squads “got the job done,” they killed and disabled enemy infantry; tanks and planes “won wars” by attacking the enemy’s rear echelon and delivering heavy firepower. Ordinary riflemen merely put pressure on the enemy — they took ground and formed fighting positions to secure Nocht’s expanding influence in the area.
Nonetheless, Von Sturm could be made to take pity on them if too many died at once. Those numbers were on him, and many thousand deaths were simply inexcusable, doctrine or no.
“In the West, along Koba, casualties so far have mounted quickly to three platoons put out of action, though with relatively few dead compared to wounded. In the East, a Company was put out of action. In the Center, heavy fighting has cost two platoons. Arrival of air support and naval support should lessen the amount of casualties going forward, however.” Fruehauf said.
“A little higher than I expected for the first wave, but we have reserves for that.” Von Sturm said. “How about armor and vehicles? They better be making good on those assault guns.”
“Reports so far indicate at least 18 vehicles out of action of various types.” Fruehauf replied.
“Various types? What do you mean? Give me some specifics here.” Von Sturm demanded.
“10 M3 Hunter SPGs, 3 M4 Sentinel tanks, 4 or 5 Squire B half-tracks.” Fruehauf said.
Von Sturm grit his teeth. That was where the losses truly stung. The 2nd and 3rd Panzer Division had lost a significant number of vehicles in the Kalu. For the rest of the Vorkampfer the Matumaini, Penance and Umaiha offensives had also proven costly. Their armored fleet was down to almost half its strength. Nevertheless, Von Sturm seemed to fight his initial instinct to sequester his armor from the operation. Instead, he smiled and nodded.
“Within acceptable losses. Good. That’s what I like to hear. Reaffirm to Aschekind and his lot that I want that port, and I want them to camp beside the sea come hell or high water. I want constant pressure on the center, and I want the flanks secured. I’m not afraid about the east, but we need that port captured and those western streets shut the hell down.” He said.
Fruehauf nodded. She bowed her head in deference. “I will pass your directives to him.”
Behind them the door to the restaurant swung open; Von Drachen swung into the room, his arm in a sling, his forehead heavily bandaged. Despite all this he still wore his cap and his full uniform. Fruehauf didn’t recall a time she had ever seen him less than fully dressed. He ambled his way to the planning table, and pulled up a chair just centimeters from Von Sturm.
Von Sturm sidled his chair away from Von Drachen and glared at the arriving Cissean.
“You’re on reserve, you don’t need to be here. You should go rest.” Von Sturm said.
Von Drachen grinned. “My good man, are you worried about my health?” He said.
Von Sturm turned his head away. “You babble enough when healthy, I can’t imagine how annoying you would become when delirious. Take your medicine and go to bed.”
“I shall be just fine. Listen, you need to press your strength into the center. I’m sure she is there and you need to kill her, or this war will be hell for you in the long run.” Von Drachen said.
“See? Look at him Fruehauf, he’s practically speaking in tongues.” Von Sturm sighed. “Look you pus-addled fool, just because a woman can best you doesn’t mean she’s leading the enemy’s operations, ok? We’ve discussed this, Ayvartans press their women into military service, that doesn’t make her special. This is just a woman who defeated you and nothing more!”
“As far as our information is concerned, Elijah Gowon is still leading Ox.” Fruehauf said.
“Oh dear, not you too? I thought you were on my side.” Von Drachen chuckled.
Fruehauf frowned. “I’m on the side of information; that is part of my job, I’m afraid.”
“Thank you!” Von Sturm said, spreading his arms toward her as if to hold her up. “Finally someone here is speaking sense. Don’t worry though, we will have the central district in our grasp shortly. Then we will take the fight to the wider-open north district, where these Ayvartan rat-hole tactics that have caused us so much grief cannot be employed.”
“I have a feeling it will be more difficult than that. But you’re right. We’ll see.”
Von Drachen sat back contentedly in his chair. Von Sturm stared at him in confusion.
Fruehauf nonchalantly left the side of the table, and returned unmolested to her fiefdom of wires and waves. She gave Erica and Marie a friendly squeeze on the shoulder, and hoped their nerves would not become a casualty of the day; that was one kind of casualty that crept up all too often and was never mentioned in the reports. So far, everything seemed to be on track. She had to tell herself that. At the time, with the information available — they were winning.
Central-West Sector, Upper Boroughs
Koba block was shrouded in a cloud of dust and smoke. Windblown debris and dirt flowed through the air, visible like the velvet ripples on a curtain. In the sky a muted white disc hung directly above the combatants, its light dim against the brown and grey billowing mass.
Somehow the battle was carrying itself out, like a force of nature, inscrutable and inevitable; it was a blur to Kern, and he rushed through it like an animal running from lightning in a storm.
Humble rifles no longer sounded across the streets, drowned out in booming shell-fall caused by Ayvartan 122mm howitzers from the north, and by the shocking reports of 75mm M3 Hunter guns from the south and within Koba itself. Ceilings collapsed under the blasts, the road trembled, gravel blossomed into the air to join the shrapnel from the fragmentation rounds. Building-to-building, the soldiers crawled and jumped and sprinted, into doorways, through windows, into black holes bored into the structures by explosives and shells. They got out onto the streets and charged to the nearest opening to leave them, heads down and hands over their helmets whenever a pillar of fire and fragments rose somewhere nearby.
75mm rounds went through walls and buildings fell on their sides like towers of blocks, stifling even the dying screams from inside; 122mm shells punched into structures at an angle and burst into a cone of shrapnel that eviscerated the soldiers inside; where men fought one another it was at close range, jabbing bayonets in a desperate panic, aware that any wall covering them for more than a minute was a wall liable to cover them for eternity.
Intermittently a grenade flashed within the gloom, thrown haphazardly through a window or a door. Those men that threw it rushed to assumed safety in its wake. Those who saw it from afar charged out into the street for a chance to meet and gather in strength. Often the grenade hit nothing; a few times, it caused harm, but not harm enough, and the men charged in on a group of wounded, furious enemies that welcomed them with pistols, shotguns and bayonets.
Ahead a platoon was lost, half dead or dying, half pinned to whatever rock they had to their backs when their bravery finally gave out; behind them more men jumped into the fray. One company gone; but each Battalion had three. And the Regiment had nine altogether. Kern watched the men from afar and saw them give up, as if choosing right there to die. But more men came behind them. Mortar rounds fell on their enemies. Machine guns blared. Then, as if pushed by an incoming tide, the fatigued, disheartened men ahead began to move once more.
Nocht had a doctrine, they had tactics. Establish a base of fire, and advance under its cover. Mortars and machine guns were the lifeline of the unit; riflemen were pressure, a wall that expanded under the unceasing fire of a Norgler. But all of this was lost on those tight, bloody streets and ruins, so alien to the men invading them. In those tight streets against soldiers entrenched in buildings the Norgler machine gunners were just more panicking bodies. There was scarcely machine gun fire from either side, and all of it hit walls and shadows.
Those common bolt-action rifles arming 80% of Nocht’s grenadiers were even more useless, save for the bayonet lug. Grenades were not issued in large quantity. Melee dominated. Men moved, slowed, stopped, some dead, some not; some moved again when more men appeared.
Were they fighting in 2030 D.C.E? Did they not have science and analysis on their side? And yet house to house in Koba block they were reduced to the savagery of long-gone forebears.
House-to-house the line worked its way in this fashion, screaming and clawing up Koba.
Then the triumphal cry: “We got the spotter! Keep your heads down until it blows over!”
Those who heard the call and knew its implications ducked and closed their eyes and prayed to God as those final shells came down upon the block, that His wrath be stayed; those that did not hear a word in the continuing cacophony kept the battle alive, scampering up windows, shoulder through doors, shooting empty rooms. Shadows taunted them every which way.
There was no gradual silence; it came all at once, as deafening as the cacophony preceding.
Ayvartan artillery quieted, and the world was mute around the men of the 6th Grenadier.
Lone bursts of machine guns from shaken men sounded into the silence. Then they realized that the enemy had been conquered. They shouldered their guns. There was no celebration.
Slowly the cloud settled. Shaken landsers wound their way up the ruins to the end of Koba.
Kern had survived again; he shambled out of a house and tried to find the sun again through the gloom and the silence. Everyone around him had their backs to rock, catching their breaths.
He walked blindly through the clouded street. Then he parted the curtain; he stepped out of Koba into the light. Overhead the sun was shining unimpeded. Concrete cage walls no longer surrounded him. He turned his head and he saw a rocky cliff leading down onto a white beach, a gentle tide rolling in and out. He was on the shoulder of the continent, the dirt road curving along the western edge of Bada Aso. There was grass, green grass flanking the road. It was very open, as though he had found a broad clearing in the concrete forest of Koba block.
Koba’s suffocating, haphazard urbanization burst open. There was a view, there was the sky, there was the sea at his side. Kern breathed in the salty, free air. He coughed from it.
He thought he could see half the city from here; he could not, but he got the impression.
Ahead there was a loose formation of buildings sloping gradually downhill. They were old clay brick houses, five or six of them in a little block several meters apart. A wide, dusty road ran through the middle of them, separated from each street by drainage ditches dug along its sides. To the west was the water, and the land they stood on was maybe 10 or 20 meters above the ocean blue; a kilometer out the other direction Kern could see again the edges of the grey and brown thicket of buildings and houses in the inner city, delineated by a steel fence.
Then there was the port of Bada Aso to the north, at the bottom of the shallow decline, straddling the Core Ocean. Closely shaped to the contours of the shore, a wide concrete wharf with several berths had been laid over two kilometers of coastline. It was broken up into two main platforms, forming a reverse arrow-head shape where they met along the sharp curve of the coast. Nearest to the advancing troops, less than a kilometer away, was a smaller wharf for local fishing and small merchant and transport craft; much farther away was the larger platform, with cranes and warehouses and a long, stable berths to host much larger vessels.
Both of these platforms seemed thoroughly empty from the advancing troops’ vantage.
Kern looked over his shoulder, into the settling dusts of Koba. There were men scrounging through the ruins, cleaning up; and there were a smaller number readying to move forward. They would be advancing soon. With the ocean to the west, and visible objectives directly ahead, it was again time to heave his rifle and do battle. At least he got a quick breather.
Schloss reappeared beside him, peering ahead through his binoculars. He picked the handset from Kern’s radio and started talking nonchalantly, as though Kern was just a prop.
“We broke through out of Koba, we’re at the seaside now. Just one loose block of buildings to go and we’ll be at the port– Yes I can see the defense turrets from here. Yes, we’ll try.”
Turrets? Kern scanned across the curve of the seaside again — then he saw them, over a kilometer away, looking out to sea. Three domes of concrete perhaps ten meters tall, sprouting from a hillock just off of the tiny block of buildings. Each turret had two long, wicked gun barrels. These were 100mm all-purpose guns adapted from old ship artillery pieces.
“They’re not shooting yet but that doesn’t preclude them doing so. Yes, we’ll head out now.”
Kern wondered if those turrets had been used to shoot them before, when they were struggling up Koba; but they were facing the ocean with their guns at a low elevation, so he guessed that they were dormant. He also figured that the Ayvartan artillery, which had a confirmed range of at least 10 kilometers, would not be residing a mere 3 kilometers from its attack target.
Schloss returned the handset into its slot on the box. He pointed toward the little block of houses, telling his men, “move out, we’re on combat patrol. We’ll go from those houses, up to the hillock with the guns and then down to the lower wharf. We can expect air and sea support shortly.” He turned specifically to Kern. “Your callsign is Prospector; Eagle is our air support. Do you recall how to call them in? If you don’t, I can handle that. Just stick close to us.”
Kern nodded his head solemnly. Schloss and his squadron started on the first house, and he followed behind them. Though down several of their original men the squadron had picked up enough stray landsers from the charge through Koba to boast a strength of twenty-one rifles — Schloss had led a successful flanking attack despite the artillery barrage, and he broke Ayvartan suppressing fire. Since then every remnant of the thrashed 2nd Platoon stuck behind him.
Walking briskly they crossed the grassy roadside, the terrain gently rising and falling under their feet as land should. They walked with a building covering their approach, and covered the distance quickly. At the first of the little buildings they put their backs to the side wall. Schloss peered around the corner. He pointed at the house across from theirs on the other side of the dirt road. Ten men peeled from the squadron and broke into a run across the street. They assembled against the wall without problem. There Schloss signaled again, and the squadron split once more; five men across the street moved around the back of their house, and then five of the men near Kern followed their own wall and slipped behind the little building.
“Follow me, kid,” Schloss said. Rifle out and up against his shoulder he peered around the corner again, and then led his own group of five men, Kern included. He followed the older soldier into the dirt road. They walked along the shallow ditch, with maybe a meter of cover along each side. They paused, checked every direction again and got onto the street near the house’s doorway. Schloss and Kern stayed outside while three men charged in, bayonets first.
Across the street Kern saw the other team mirroring them and clearing their own house.
“No one here Schloss! House is clear!” a man called out. Schloss nodded for Kern to follow.
Inside the cramped little two-story house, Schloss promptly started stomping on the floor.
“Hollow.” He said. He started speaking in an alarmed tone of voice. “Pull apart the boards.”
Two of his men drew their combat knives and wedged them in between wooden floorboards, bending them up enough to get a grip with their hands. Together they ripped apart a large section of the floor and found what seemed less like a room below them, and more like a concrete pit trap. Kern cast light from an electric torch across the damp, rocky little space. On one end of it he found what he thought was a path leading right under the street and road.
“A tunnel. We don’t have anything to destroy it, but take note.” Schloss said aloud.
“God. They are like rats, these Ayvartans. When did they dig all of this up?” asked a man.
“I honestly do not know. Why would they dig all over the city like this? It can’t have been a defensive measure. These tunnels are all different and too haphazard. Maybe they were digging for gold at one point? Oil? Who knows. Just remember, and be vigilant.” Schloss said.
Kern suddenly caught a whiff of something nasty while they were standing around.
“Do you smell anything off?” He asked, looking around the men for support.
“Yes, it’s those holes,” Schloss said, “they give off a smell sometimes. Don’t let it get to you.”
“Probably dead shit down there,” said a squad member. “Maybe that’s where all the animals in the city have gone off to. Haven’t seen a single cat or a dog in this godforsaken hole.”
Schloss turned to look across the street. His men had just cleared the other house.
“We’re moving, this house is clear. Keep your eyes peeled just in case.” He said.
Between each house was a little slope just a bit deeper than the ditches, offering a small measure of cover. Instead of following the ditch to the next house, they walked between them. As they moved, Kern saw the team they had sent behind the house had already beaten them across the stretch of open grass to the next set of little buildings. They kept watch behind the back of the house and urged Schloss’ group forward when they saw them coming. Just off their position was a steeper slope down to the last little stretch of sandy beach, just a few meters from where the topography was swallowed up by the water between beach and wharf.
Schloss and his men broke into a run, and Kern followed behind them. Everyone stacked against the side wall of the next building. He tried to look through the windows into the little kitchen, but Schloss pushed his head down. Across the street both other teams made it to their next building, and started to probe the entrances. Kern followed his own team around the front and inside the house again, confirming his glimpse through the window — it was empty.
Despite this they still searched the home thoroughly. Schloss stomped on the floorboards again, but this time they felt solid. He still had the men break them up. Kern wandered out into the street, watching the men across the road do the same. It seemed these houses were all empty. He looked across the lands they had yet to cover, and it all looked empty to him as well.
Down a shallow slope from the buildings the dirt road curled away from the hillock with the turrets and met a concrete road that split, one path perpendicular and stretching farther north, another west to the wharf. Though sprawling, the wharfs had little in the way of buildings save for a few warehouses and the port authority office. The north road led out across a space of grass and sandy trail before connecting to the next urbanization a few kilometers away.
Kern nursed a faint hope that perhaps the Ayvartans had seen sense and abandoned the port. He could see no enemies, save for the ominous turrets atop the hillock. Around the hillock there was only dirt and grass and what seemed like empty lots where houses might have once stood. Everything just off the port was more open and far less developed than inside Koba.
He would have seen the enemy, if there was an enemy out there. Kern turned back into the house. Under the floorboards Schloss had only found solid concrete. There was no tunnel.
“Fancy that. I guess it was just the last row that had a tunnel.” He said. “Pays to know this.”
Schloss made a circle in the air with his finger. Kern nodded and turned around. Again the man plucked the radio from the box like if Kern was but a post carrying the device, but the young landser did not much mind the treatment. After everything that had happened so far he did not see himself as much of a soldier. Carrying the radio and running behind everyone was his lot.
“Sir, we’ve got nothing in the houses just off Koba. Way seems to clear down to turret hill and the first Wharf. Requesting permission to hold position until the company just out of Koba can regroup.” Schloss waited. Kern could almost imagine Aschekind’s unaffected, bellowing voice. He even thought he heard it coming from the handset pressed tight to Schloss’ ear.
Schloss bowed his head a little. “Yes sir. Understood.” He laid down the handset again. His men braced for the bad news already. “Combat patrol out to turret hill. Captain doesn’t care that we’ve got nothing that can put a dent in those turrets. He just wants us around them. They haven’t fired on us yet, so maybe they have been abandoned. Cross your fingers.”
A collective sigh followed. Canteens were collected again, stoppered, put away; rifles were picked up from the wall. Helmets set again on heads. Everyone marched out of the house.
Out on the street, Schloss waved everyone over. There were more men just starting to trickle into the dirt road from Koba. Across the street there were men still checking in the house — but they were in the kitchen. Kern could see them through a window on the facade.
“That a tunnel?” Schloss shouted, forming a cone around his mouth with his hands.
“Yessir!” A man shouted back. They were ripping up floorboards just like before. “It was in the kitchen rather than the foyer room — there’s a big ol’ fuckin’ hole down here too.”
“Shit.” Schloss said. He nodded to two of his men. “Get back in there and check.”
They nodded and took off past Kern and into the house that the squadron had just left behind. Everyone else stood outside on the street, milling around under the sun. Kern could almost feel his helmet cooking his brain after a while. Without the buildings on every side there was a lot more heat coming down on him. He became more aware of his ragged breath. He was tired.
Kern bent over, touched his fingers to his boots. He held on to his knees. He twisted his head, staring at the sideways Turret Hill. He saw the figures moving but he could not place them.
A deep noise shook him; the north-facing wall of the building directly across the street exploded and the building partially collapsed, the roof tilting and folding over its side.
Through the window he saw the men disappear in a blinding flash before the collapse.
Kern fell on his side in shock — something had cut his arm, he was bleeding. A shell fragment had flown out the window perhaps; Schloss knelt down, having suffered a similar wound.
“Scheiße!” Schloss yelled out. “Ayvartan tanks, 400 meters down, the unidentified types!”
He snapped to the north again and got a glimpse of the tanks and men now approaching from around the Hillock, where perhaps they had been waiting all this time, hidden by its face.
From the foot of the shallow sloping road before them the tank guns bellowed once more.
Schloss shouted something to the men more before the shell hit, but it was drowned out. Within arms reach of the squadron the projectile dove into the hard dirt and detonated.
High-Explosive was a misnomer; these shells never merely exploded. When the shell detonated it splintered its casing into hundreds of tiny shards of steel that scattered about the impact area based on the shell trajectory. Frags traveled at incredible velocity across an area dozens of times the diameter of the shell, within less than a second from impact. Kern hit the dirt and felt the heat wave wash over him, and he felt the fragments flying, like a cloud of razor-tipped flies brushing past his body. He was grazed before he even touched ground, caught in mid-flight like a duck brushed by a hunter’s buckshot. He screamed from the sudden stinging and burning.
Along his back, and around his arms, he felt the metal inside his flesh. He screamed and screamed and thrashed in the dirt. He felt hands, tugging him, and he felt the metal stick deeper in him as his back dragged across the dirt. Sweat and blood trickled down his eyes. It stung him even to look at his surroundings. He felt like a writhing knot of flaring pain.
Machine guns sounded, too close; he opened his eyes and briefly saw the trail of dust across the road as the bullets scratched across the dirt. Gunfire streaked just past him. He heard a cry. He was shaking. He could not keep his eyes open, they stung too much from the tears and sweat.
“Kid, come on!” Someone shouted, right in his ear, and he felt like his shoulder would be torn off. Kern’s felt his feet flatten out, his body rise. Someone was lifting him up He planted his feet and twisted around and ran blindly with whoever was tugging him on, tearing him viciously toward an unknown direction. Shells crashed again, and between the billowing of the smoke, the fuming of flames and the thunder of gun reports he heard feet stomping on the dirt.
He felt like he ran a mile headlong, his legs unsteady, his whole body screaming for release. But when finally he stopped and gazed through rivulets of sweat, dizzy from the pain and exertion, he was behind the first of the little houses again. Two of the houses ahead had been crushed. He did not believe anyone in them could have survived. There were bodies, a trio fifty or sixty meters away, gnarled, shapeless. A dozen meters a man twisted on the ground, gushing blood.
A long burst of machine gun fire sliced across the road and finally laid the man down.
Moisture and foul air made his eyes feel cold and they stung again. He wiped them down, flaring up the pain in his arm. His legs were shaking. Kern looked around himself. There were two men with him, staring at him, their own faces red either from exertion and bleeding.
“You ok?” One of the men asked. They helped him to remove the radio from his back.
“I’m injured,” Kern said. He felt stupid. He was hurting so much and yet he could walk, he could talk, he was alive. But he also felt as though he had been mortally eviscerated.
“You’ll live. Check the radio. Is it broken or anything? We need to report contact–”
“Where’s Schloss?” Kern asked. He looked out behind himself. He looked again to the road.
“He’s gone.” The man’s voice trembled and cracked. Kern felt as if the words had gone through his head clean out each way and he did not even comprehend them. He had no reaction. Nobody had any reaction. Both men in front of him were breathing heavy and clearly shaken up but nobody seemed to realize that squad leader Schloss had been killed. He wouldn’t be back!
One of the men shook Kern. “I’m Private Kennelmann. You’re 1st class; you need to call in.”
Yes, Kern recognized this; he was a Private 1st Class. He was promoted. That was correct.
“Then you’re supposed to listen to me.” Kern said. It came out sounding almost pleading.
Kennelman nodded his head deeply. Beside him the other man stared quietly at them.
“We’re listening.” They said. It sounded like a cry; there were tears accompanying it too.
Kern looked up the street. Few of their number remained. There were five men shooting from behind the ruins of one of the houses, but there were Ayvartans in black uniforms advancing systematically upon them from downhill, breaking up into groups, hooking around the house, climbing atop the debris. Scattered little teams that had come up from Koba were pinned behind the standing houses. On the road Ayvartans with submachine guns and light machine guns kept everyone pinned down. Meanwhile the tanks advanced very slowly up the slope of the road. All the fighting was less than 100 meters away and expanding without impediment.
“We’ve got to find better cover than this or we’re done, but we can’t go out in the street–”
Another foreign noise shook him. Kern half-expected another shell. This was different though; the swooping noise, the buzzing propellers. He looked overhead — there was a t-shaped shadow cutting across the clouds with a short blunt head. There was no mistaking what this was.
Kern suddenly crouched beside the radio. There was a tiny hole through it where a fragment had gone through. He felt his stomach sink, he felt a hole growing in him. His fingers shook as he tuned the frequency — the dial went all over the place, it felt loose. There was a weak hum of life inside the machine. It was working on some capacity. He raised the handset to his ear.
He practically begged: “Eagle this is Prospector! We are pinned down! We need help! Eagle!”
* * *
For the first time since the 23rd of the Gloom, a combat wing of the Luftlotte took command of the skies over Ayvarta, its fifty aircraft cruising toward the bloody ruins of Bada Aso.
This time no heavy bombers accompanied them — it was all Warlocks and Archers in flight.
Wings in the Nochtish Air Fleet or “Luftlotte” consisted of three squadrons, and for the day’s tasks each flying squadron of 15-20 aircraft had been assigned to support an important sector of the city as part of Operation Surge. Sturmvogel had the most pressing mission over the Central District of Bada Aso; Eagle and Hawk squadrons took the west and east respectively.
Eagle squadron soared over a thousand meters over open plains stretching between the captured airfield at Azaria and Bada Aso and its pilots watched the territory sliding past them at over 500 kilometers per hour. The Archer was primarily a fighter plane, but with its sturdy-looking cylindrical body, tough wings, and powerful engine, it was a very versatile machine.
Within Eagle, three Flights of five combat aircraft further divided up the workload — one was to fly over the ocean to support a detachment of the Bundesmarine, another was to support the ground attack through Koba and the seaside, and the third would maintain air control.
Though before the mission he thought of himself as Liam Kurz, in flight he was Eagle-3, Flight Leader of the 44th group. Back at the base the ground crew thought of Ayvarta as a hole, a place of patchy grass and shrubs and dirt and crooked-looking trees in the distance. From above, Eagle-3 thought it looked beautiful. He could see herds of horned beasts and even the odd slithering orange drake, larger than a horse, among the expansive yellow and green plains. Trees were solitary and sparse but tall and majestic. A trail of bright green followed the Umaiha’s little tributaries along the middle of the plain. As he neared the doomed city he saw the earth grow gradually green, thick with patchy vegetation along the Kalu hills and Umaiha.
When the city came into view it was almost a dismaying sight. It was a skeleton of concrete, its tiny tar-black and cobblestone arteries pockmarked with shells or pasted over with the ruins of its thousands of collapsed organs. Bada Aso’s lower half was choked with rubble, block after block of blown out buildings blown out again from street fighting. Further north where the city’s congested layout opened up, and the streets were wide and the buildings sparse, there was less damage overall, and splashes of green from the grass and trees made it seem alive.
But the fighting would get there eventually. That he could see it was proof enough of this.
He put his fingers to his lips and then pressed them against a photograph on his instrument panel — a blonde, blue-eyed beauty in a sundress and hat, standing at the pier in Mascius.
“Wish me luck honey,” he said. Within moments he passed over the ruins of the southern districts. He contacted his fighters, and they broke off from the Wing; over Penance Road, where the Cathedral stood solemn, half-collapsed from the artillery battering it received, the Flights divided to carry out their tasks. 40th group headed for the sea, 42nd climbed; 44th headed straight forward. Within minutes they overflew Koba block and passed over the little houses, the clear terrain just off the wharfs, the hillock with the turrets, the larger wharf.
They surveyed the area, lowered their altitude, and went in for another pass to check targets.
Then he received the radio call — he thought the voice could not have come from anything other than a boy, no older than maybe 16 or 17. He answered quickly. “Prospector, this is Eagle leader, Eagle-3. We’ve got you covered, don’t worry about that. Keep your heads down.”
Eagle-3 instructed two men, -4 and -5, to take his wings, and these three craft banked and turned, while -1 and -2 broke off in different directions. He looked below and to his left; a small blue trail from a smoke bomb signaled where Prospector was located, in the farthest of the houses away from the coast; a thinner red trail from a signal flare pointed Eagle-3 to the road.
He took stock quickly. There was at least a company of Ayvartans from his vantage, a platoon already moving up the road and two others following from the hill with the turrets. They were KVW, he could tell from the black uniforms. Behind them were three tanks of the unidentified medium type, advancing in an arrowhead formation. Prospector was trapped. Shells and machine gun bullets flew around his position with vehemence. Incoming support was minimal. As he turned again, Eagle-3 could see a few men moving in thin columns from Koba.
“This is Eagle leader; -1 and -2 strafe the infantry column along the dirt road in perpendicular lanes. Slow them down, quickly. -4 and -5, follow me and use your 20mm. Attack the tanks.”
Eagles 3, 4, and 5 swung around the shore just off of koba block, following the black fence. They started to pick up more speed, but their turning was still calm, wide and easy. In the distance they could see the marine group plodding its way, the two small torpedo boats and the larger destroyer. Eagle-3 and his men dropped altitude further and completed their turn around toward the red smoke. The three Archers launched into a shallow dive together. One and two swept across in front, cutting trails into the dirt with their machine guns. Ayvartan infantry dispersed under the fire and the swooping of the planes. In the middle of the road the tanks were exposed. Eagle-3 held down his cannon trigger, and heard the 20mm crack under him.
His wingmen joined him and opened fire in long automatic bursts, and a hail of high velocity cannon rounds fell over the tanks at sharp angles. He knew he was scoring hits; when he pulled back up at around 600 meters altitude his group had probably unloaded sixty or seventy rounds together and he had seen a few holes on those tanks. He climbed and twisted around, feeling a mounting pressure. Everything around him felt tighter until he leveled out.
Machine gun fire flew ineffectually from below as the Ayvartans tried in vain to scare Eagle off; Eagle-3 and his men flew out toward the city again to gently pick up distance and altitude for another run. Where the green seaside blocks gave away again to the grey urban landscape, they turned around back to sea. He could not see the tanks from his vantage quite yet. Eagle-3 instead called Prospector for ground confirmation: “How was that for an opener, Prospector?”
He heard an explosion on the radio. Prospector gasped. “Eagle, tanks are still rolling in!”
Eagle-3 swung back around, completing his turn. He tipped his nose to get a look at the enemy again and he briefly saw the muzzle flashes on two of the tank guns. They were still alive.
Then the third; a blast in one of the houses belched smoke and fire through the windows.
These were no Goblin tanks. He almost felt bad for the Panzer men fighting these things.
“Ready rockets, we’re going to dump everything on that arrowhead.” Eagle-3 said. Through the radio 4 and 5 acknowledged. Each Archer in his Flight had 2 heavy rockets and a 250 kg bomb.
He would need the bomb for those turrets — so he had to make his rockets count right now.
Eagle-3 and his group started to descend in earnest and picked up speed. Below them Eagles 1 and 2 swept across the roads again, carving an x-shaped wound across the dirt. Eagle-3 and his men corrected their course and swept toward the tanks yet again. They adjusted for the distance the vehicles had covered. Descending to almost under 1000 meters altitude, they released their payloads. Six rockets hurtled toward the column of tanks and exploded, leaving thick black smoke in their wake from the heavy explosive payloads. Eagle-3 pulled sharply up, and he felt like his belts would choke him for a moment. It became hard for him to breathe.
Once he leveled and the world’s forces lessened their grip, Eagle-3 called down again. He turned his plane gently to get a better look at the road while he tried to confirm the kill.
“Prospector, we hit your tanks hard as we could, confirm effect on target?” He said.
As he twisted his Archer fighter around for a better look all Eagle-3 could see was fire and smoke. He thought he had to have taken out those tanks. “Prospector, confirm effect–”
He saw something burst out of the cloud and an explosion several meters up the road.
“One left! There’s one left!” Prospector shouted. Eagle-3 looked down again. Still smoke.
“Can you confirm effect, Prospector? I just unloaded a shitton of rockets on that arrow–”
“I can’t confirm but I know I’m still being shot by a tank gun!” Prospector shouted back.
“Shit.” Eagle-3 muttered. “Men, swing around, we’ve got one still rolling up on ’em.”
Below the situation seemed almost unchanged. Landsers along the ditches and behind the farthest two houses were still pinned down. They took cracks at the Ayvartans from the corners and windows, and the Ayvartans huddled near the ruins of the other buildings and shot back. Despite the strafing from one and two there were even Ayvartans blithely running across the road with their guns up. Eagle 1 and 2 had killed over a dozen men, but suppressed none.
From the smoke and fire Eagle-3 watched the remaining tank emerge, scarred by cannon fire and with what seemed from afar like a limping track, but undeterred. Thirty meters from Prospector’s position, it turned its cannon around and fired just across the street from him at the other building, at its corner — where at least one whole platoon of men was stacked up.
There was a vicious blast when the shell hit the wall. Eagle-3 grit his teeth as he watched. Several men were butchered completely by the high-explosive, several more retreated in pain. All of the corner they were hiding behind had been blasted open, hot chunks of brick likely contributing to the fragments flying every which way and forcing the grenadiers back.
Men huddled on their bellies for cover, and a few ran screaming toward the sea.
“We’re going down and we’re diving long this time; we’re not pulling up until that motherfucker’s burning, copy?” Eagle-3 radioed. Four and Five responded affirmatively.
Eagle-3 climbed, banked hard, and swung around into a deep dive. As he picked up speed he stiffened up from his neck down to his legs. He had 200 rounds for his cannon and he had probably discharged twenty or thirty. Soon as he hit cannon range at 1000 meters he held down his trigger — it was time to stop caring about how many rounds he discharged. A relentless stream of cannon fire bore down on the tank’s position like a metal hailstorm. He thought he could see the sparks coming off the green beast as hundreds of rounds crashed across its hull.
His men pulled up; he didn’t. At 500 meters Eagle-3 continued to shoot relentlessly.
All of his body tightened, and he felt like he’d burst. His engines and cannons sounded tinny and he felt the world darken. His finger was growing slack on the trigger. Realizing he was unable to take more he pulled sharply up from the dive at under 200 meters this time, cutting it dangerously close. Even as he rose his body was under intense pressure. Breathless, he soared into the sky again, slowly leveling out when he reached a safer height. Even as he started to level the craft, he felt like moving any of his body too much would cause it to pop like a balloon.
“Eagle, I can confirm the kill on that last tank. Thank God you were here.” Prospector called in.
Eagle-3 couldn’t respond. His heart was beating so quick, he needed a moment to rest.
* * *
Kern’s mind was racing and he couldn’t think right. He felt a thrumming just under the skin of his head, and a shaking along his back and his limbs. He couldn’t concentrate and he couldn’t spare the time to think. Instead he kept himself behind the rearmost house on the block and tried his best to breathe and to focus on mechanical movements. Speaking happened in his throat, not his head; peeking out from cover and back into it was all his legs, not his mind.
At least Eagle-3 had taken care of their most pressing problem. Those tanks had been like a guillotine blade racing toward them. Absent their guns the whole street felt eerily quiet.
A team of three men gingerly climbed aboard the smoking wreck of the last enemy tank and flipped the hatches. One man peered in– red streaks exploded from his back as a burst of submachine gun fire tore through him at close range. His body collapsed into the wreck and the men behind him fell back from the hull. They stacked against the intact left track and lobbed their grenades through a gap in the chassis. Light and fire flashed momentarily through the multitude of thumb-sized holes across the hulk. Smoke blew from the engine block and hatch.
That had been Kennelmann — they had shot Kennelmann. Nobody checked if he was alive, though he almost certainly wasn’t. They left him hanging inside the tank’s cupola. Kern left him too. His mind was off Kennelmann and onto the next flash of sensory input in mere seconds.
“Clear!” shouted the men. Kern watched from a mere dozen meters away from the wreck. Then he crouched beside his radio again, and he informed Eagle-3 of the successful kills. He tried to ignore how the gun on the turret was turning toward him the whole time Eagle showered it in lead. Even a fraction less gunfire might have allowed it to shoot and vaporize him utterly.
His relief did not last very long. Automatic fire cut across the road from up the street. Joining the sounds of small arms were the buzzing engines of the archer planes, and the cry of the wind and the screeching of their guns as they swooped down from the sky and attacked. Bursts of cannon fire hit the dirt just off the tank wreck and kicked up dust almost as bad as a shellfall.
Crouched down, Kern sidled into cover behind the house and pulled his radio along with him.
A series metallic thuds alerted him; there were enemies stacking up. He snuck a glance.
There were black uniforms, dark faces, black hair, machine guns in hand. They were half-visible behind the thin smoke of the dying engine and the sloped metal body of the tank.
Kern retreated back behind the wall of the house. He heard the first gunshots traded between the Ayvartans and his own men, and then the diving of the planes. Long bursts of automatic airborne fire swept across the top of the tank and over the house, perforating the roof.
Chunks of brick and wood and tile rained down on him; Kern covered his head. “Eagle, hold your fire on the enemy infantry!” He shouted into the radio. “They’re too close to us now!”
A diving plane overhead came close to the house and the tank and tore abruptly skyward without shooting. Eagle’s formation broke apart and they started to bank away and circle.
Kern sighed with relief. His lungs were raw and his throat dry. All the water in his body seemed to have gone out through his skin. He felt clammy and cold under his uniform, and yet also a burning sensation across the fragment wounds, and also under his helmet, cooking in the sun–
There was a shadow at the edge of his vision, and he almost thought a monster was bearing down on him; Kern turned over his shoulder and found Captain Aschekind dashing toward the house. When this colossus of a man put his back to the wall Kern thought he felt it shake. He put the radio handset down and stood, saluting the Captain. Aschekind nodded to the road.
“Third company is right behind me.” The Captain intoned. “Third battalion is on its way.”
“Then the entire Regiment will be pushing down this block.” Kern muttered weakly to him.
“That is Operation Surge.” Aschekind replied. “Eyes ahead and on your men, soldier.”
Kern nodded his head. Worrying about 3000 men was the Regiment’s job after all; he could scarcely comprehend the movement of the fifty men all around him and the few hundred coming in behind him. Let alone the thousands that composed the entirety of the Regiment.
He felt a sudden sense of relief. He was not in command now. He did not have to make any decisions. All of this was not on him anymore. It was too enormous. He was glad to be rid of it.
“On my signal, we move ahead.” Aschekind shouted. There were maybe a dozen men who could have heard him. He turned to Kern. “Forget your rifle right now. Draw your pistol.”
“Yes sir.” Kern said. He felt the grip of fear, seizing upon his neck, his stomach, into his calves, as though a pump forcing ice water down his vein. He set his rifle behind his back with its strap, and drew out his semi-automatic Zwitscherer pistol, with its long, thin barrel and its characteristic broom handle and magazine forward of the trigger. He made sure it was loaded.
Periodic bursts of fire over the dirt road reminded them of the presence of their enemy.
And yet the more he thought about it, the more relieved Kern became. Even if he hadn’t had a chance to rest, for once he felt like fighting. He did not want to look like a child in front of the Captain. Running and shooting was something he could do if Captain Aschekind was ahead of him. He was more like a tank than he was a man — Kern wondered if bullets even harmed him.
“Move quickly; try to use the smoke on the road to your advantage.” Aschekind said to him.
Aschekind produced a grenade round from under his coat and pushed it into place in his gun. The Sturmpistole split almost in half when loading, and snapped back into shape when the round was properly set. It was a 27mm gun, essentially a short cannon in the Captain’s hands.
“There are four behind the tank; three in the middle of the street; twelve around the ruins on the left; eight around the ruins on the right; ten more incoming.” Aschekind said. He raised his gun with one hand, cocked it; with the other hand he withdrew a fragmentation grenade.
Kern raised his pistol, holding it in both his hands. He steeled himself for Aschekind’s signal.
“Out!” Aschekind shouted, and in the next instant the Captain hurtled out of cover and shot his oversized pistol down the road, laying the grenade round in front of a group of submachine gunners and disorienting them. Bursts of blind gunfire passed him by as he rushed up the road. He threw the frag behind the tank, catching the Ayvartans in hiding behind the wreck. With these immediate threats suppressed, the dozen men across the street ran out to join them.
Kern, Aschekind and the landsers ran forward as a loose group. Smoke blew across the road from the rockets and the collapsed houses and from shellfalls in the dirt. Bullets cut through the cloud in short bursts and thin streaks from haphazard locations. As they ran the men traded rifle fire. Aschekind reloaded his pistol on the run and fired, launching the grenade over the ruins. Kern held his pistol out and shot, rapping the trigger every few steps he took.
From within the haze he put two bullets into the chest of a woman carrying a machine gun, and several into the legs of a pair of men on the road, dazed by Aschekind’s first grenade. Three more shots went wide into the ruin and his pistol clicked empty. He pushed a stripper clip into the integral magazine. As a whole the squadron charged to thirty meters from the enemy.
Kern paused and raised his sights to his eyes. A man exposed himself to shoot from around the corner of one of the ruined houses, and Kern hit him twice in the collarbones.
He almost celebrated the kill, but soon as the body fell a woman appeared in his place, crouched behind the rubble. Kern kept shooting, hitting the debris, forcing her down.
He saw the characteristic conical barrel extension of a Danava LMG rise over the bricks.
Kern froze up as a burst of blind gunfire enfiladed the group. He felt a round graze his leg and stepped clumsily away. Behind him three men dropped to the ground, hit several times each.
Kern retreated, shooting his pistol blindly at the debris as he stepped toward the ditch.
But the woman was not the only one shooting. A squadron of enemy riflemen cleared the slope and set their sights directly on the advancing landsers from a mere twenty meters away. Like a firing line from a war a hundred years ago the Ayvartans crouched, aimed and opened fire.
“Off the road now!” Aschekind shouted, “get onto the roadside ditch and get down!”
As a trail of rifle rounds raced by them, Aschekind and Kern dove into the ditch. On their bellies, the ditch provided much better cover than it did while they were standing. Bullets flew over them, and crashed into the dirt atop both sides of the ditch. Kern saw the little pillars of dust and dirt wherever the rounds hit, like shell impacts in miniature. Just one through his head was all it would take — and they were already falling a dozen at a time, too damn close.
They started to crawl forward, loading their weapons against the ground. Aschekind raised his heavy pistol and fired over the ditch. There was a blast, but Kern couldn’t see the effect. He raised his own hand out of cover but retracted it when he felt dirt whipping against his fingers. One good shot from those enormous Ayvartan rifles would take his whole hand!
Ayvartan fire sounded like firecrackers now, all in a row, crack-crack-crack-crack. Dozens of bullets lodged into the sides of the ditches. Dozens more flew south to cover the dirt road.
“Keep shooting!” Captain Aschekind said. “Drop your rifles and use your pistols!”
Kern swallowed hard, gathering his courage. He raised his shaking hand up and over again and rapped the trigger on his pistol. Behind him a few more broomhandles sounded as the rest of the men dropped their rifles and pulled their Zwitscherers out to fire blind over the road.
Along the ditch the smell of gunpowder grew almost intolerable. Kern felt sick. Would he die here? He hadn’t moved a centimeter in what seemed like a minute now. There was dust all around him and smoke blowing over the street. Raising his hand to shoot felt like a monumental effort. He had never felt so heavy. He held down the trigger — nothing.
He scrambled to pull a clip out from under himself and fumbled to load it into his gun.
He heard an unfamiliar sound. Tinkling metal, like the drop of a coin on the ground.
Several of Kern’s allies screamed and struggled behind him, “Throw it back! Throw it back!”
A deafening blast followed. Kern, who had been so keen on the sounds around him, his only means of detecting the enemy, now heard only a loud whistling. Dirt and grass fell over him in chunks, thrown up by the blast; along with a splash of something brown and grotesque. For several seconds he felt his body numb, and he thought he was hit. His eyes watered over.
Ahead of him, Captain Aschekind rolled on his side, and produced his own Zwitscherer pistol.
Three shadows appeared over the ditch with bayonets, knives and pistols in hand. Their mouths moved and Kern could not hear them. He could only hear that whistling, tunneling through his ears into his brain, and the movements of his jaw, and the swallowing of saliva.
Aschekind blasted through two of them, shooting them several times in the chest and knocking them onto their backs, while the third man pounced upon him with a knife in his hand.
Kern did not stop to think, even if it was too close, even if it could lead to friendly fire; he discharged his pistol into the unfolding struggle several times, trying to shoot high.
He heard nothing, he couldn’t hear his gun going off, couldn’t hear the Captain struggling. He unloaded all ten in his clip, and he couldn’t hear his gun clicking. He just felt the empty recoil.
For a second everything stopped moving. Then Aschekind kicked the dead body off of him, and reloaded his heavy pistol once again. Undeterred, he would continue fighting. Again the rifles from across the street struck all along the ditch. Nothing was over yet. Kern hadn’t won a thing.
How many had he killed so far? He was fighting, he was fighting, and yet, it didn’t end. He dropped his pistol at his side, and curled up in the ditch. He shook. He wept and shook.
It didn’t end; no one act of heroics he dared undertake would ever end this horrible war.
On his side in that bloody ditch, dirt falling over him from the rounds tearing up the turf, desperate to bite into him instead, Kern lay immobile. He couldn’t even hear himself sob.
Slowly the ringing in his ears faded. Then he was startled by the sound of gnashing metal.
And the screaming of a gun! He saw a flash from across the road and felt the heat. A heavy shell soared into the brick ruins and threw back the Ayvartans huddling behind the debris. Was he saved? He felt a burst of energy and raised his head. He watched as a pair of assault guns moved forward together, commanding the middle of the road and sheltering a squadron of men behind each. While the machines charged past the ditch, several men peeled away from the tank and lifted Captain Aschekind, and Kern, and several wounded, dragging everyone behind the machines. More and more men came running up the street behind the tanks.
This must have been the third battalion, a fresh injection of men into the western Surge attack. Overhead the Archer planes hurtled northbound to support the suddenly mobile column. The Ayvartans fell back, he could see figures cutting away from the ruins and back downhill.
Kern felt a little more lucid but his body was still spent. He could barely move even with the help of two men. Everyone manhandled him like he was a dummy, like he was an object, pulling him around like he had no force of his own. When the tank came to a full stop, the men laid him against the machine’s warm rear plate, and they left him for a medic to tend to.
Behind the M3 Hunter a combat medic stuck him and the Captain with a morphine syrette, slipped a honey and mint drop into Kern’s mouth, gave the two a quick examination. Aschekind seemed almost contemptuous of the procedure. He waved away the medic after receiving the injection and allowing him to look briefly under his shirt. Kern caught a glimpse of scars all across his thick, rippling chest — and a fresh bloody wound along his burly shoulder
“I shot you.” Kern said weakly. His hand shook. He thought he still had his gun there.
“You shot the enemy more.” Captain Aschekind replied. “I would’ve done the same.”
“Sir, I’m sorry. I can’t. I can’t keep going.” Kern said. His jaw started to slack. He was forgetting to close his mouth. He was breathing through it. His nose was running heavily, like his eyes.
Captain Aschekind turned his head from him suddenly. He looked around the tank.
His eyes drew wide, he seized Kern by the arm. “Revisit those feelings later, Private!”
Aschekind took the immobile Kern over his back like a bag, and he broke into a sprint; and behind him the earth shook. Kern felt the shaking through Aschekind’s body, through his burly arms holding the boy’s limp body in place. Kern looked behind him, and saw the brightest flash and the biggest blasts yet. Behind them the tanks were consumed in flame; Aschekind leaped into the ditch again. A wave of heat and pressure and metal fragments swept over them.
On “turret hill” a few hundred meters from them the turrets had finally come alive.
* * *
“Eagle-3, this is Patriarch.” A calm female voice hailed the Archers over the radio. Patriarch meant the Vorkampfer HQ. This was probably Ms. Fruehauf speaking on behalf of General Von Sturm. “Our destroyer-leader Kummetz is moving on the port. It is vital that the coastal defense guns are destroyed so that it can occupy the wharf: 250 kg bombs are authorized.”
Along the ground it might have been difficult for the men to notice, but from the air, Eagle-3 got a good glimpse of the Kummetz, a long, sleek destroyer, unleashing its guns from afar on the roads leading to the harbor, cutting off the expanding Ayvartan column. Eagle-3 saw a noticeable decrease in the flow of Ayvartan troops coming to challenge Prospector’s position, and a surge of men from the south pushing up to relieve him and the Captain. So far so good.
Then the coastal guns began to turn southward. They opened fire with a resounding clamor, heard even from far overhead. Four guns targeted the M3s freshly arrived and smashed them like a mallet hitting a can; the last turret turned to the sea and opened fire on the approaching vessels. One of the torpedo boats moving along the flank of theKummetz dashed right into a shell and was crippled as it detonated. Water and foam blew into the air as the second shell exploded just off the destroyer’s bow. The Kummetz slowed and turned away from the shore; meanwhile the Nochtish infantry attack sputtered out immediately under heavy fire.
“You heard the lady,” Eagle-3 said to his men. “Get your bomb sights ready and make it count!”
He could no longer pay attention to the tussle between the infantry. There were three turrets, and he might just need all five bombs to take them out. Eagle-3 would not be performing the first attack; as the senior flyer, he would circle the strike area and watch his men first.
“Eagle-1 and Eagle-2, you’re up first. Try to drop your 250s in between the turrets. If we can get all of them like that we might be able to drop some to help out the boys.” Eagle-3 said.
Eagle-3 watched his men break off and coordinated them via radio. They flew east, turned around, and achieved the proper altitude and angle. Everything was textbook. They lined up, gathered speed, dove down, and got themselves ready to snap up and drop the bomb.
Just as they readied to attack, the aircraft met a sudden hail of anti-aircraft fire. They dropped their heavy payloads at the foot of the hillock, blasting apart dirt and concrete but little else.
Hundreds of small caliber autocannon fragmentation rounds exploded around the planes, and they banked away with smoking wings and torn fuselages. Eagle-1 went up in flames right before Eagle-3’s eyes. Eagle-2 was losing altitude, its propellers starting to spin down.
“Eagle-2, pull away south! South! Try to land behind our lines!” Eagle-3 screamed.
But the limping plane could not handle this task. Burning up, Eagle-2 crashed through a building several kilometers away nearer to the city center. Eagle-3 cursed aloud. That was Heidemann — he liked Heidemann! He’d drunk with Heidemann before. God damn it.
His mind was in a furious rage. He felt a haze. Was it the G-forces? He shook his head.
Again the seaward turret opened fire, splashing the Kummetz along its bow.
No direct hits — the ship kept moving parallel to shore. But those two shells were too close.
Mourning would have to wait. Heidemman wouldn’t have wanted them to fuck up a mission in his name. He would have wanted victory — yes, that was it. That would suffice for now.
Eagle-3 hailed the rest of the flight groups, “Eagle-8, Eagle-12; we’ve got AA around the big guns. Requesting concentration, we need the whole Flight to take these turrets out now!”
Soon as he was done speaking, he found the turrets reorganizing themselves below him — one toward the sea, one covering the road, and the middle turret pointed skyward. Two 100mm fragmentation shells burst from below and exploded in the sky. Eagle-3 banked away from the explosions and put some distance between himself and Turret Hill until the Flight could gather.
He received a pair of acknowledgments from the other leaders. Every Archer plane belonging to Eagle Flight flew away from their objectives, and then they assembled like vultures peering down at Turret Hill. Organized into their groups, they prepared to attack. Light anti-aircraft fire from impromptu positions around the hill burst around them, little clouds forming in the air wherever a shell went off. Heavy machine gun tracer fire lit up the airspace a dizzying array of colors. Eagle-3 spotted trucks, hiding behind the hillock, playing host to the AA guns.
Shells from the central turret exploded dangerously close to his plane, and again Eagle-3 banked away in a rush. The Kummetz fired its main guns from the sea, but they came up short, crashing into the road just off the hillock. Meanwhile the coastal guns continued to batter the ocean around the destroyer and lay down fire on the advancing Grenadiers.
“Everyone in position?” Eagle-8 asked over the radio.
“Ready whenever.” Eagle-3 replied. “Make this count. I lost men, I want this done.”
“Cool off, Eagle-3. We all know what’s at stake here.” Eagle-8 said.
Eagle-3 honestly appreciated being told to shut up. He needed it now.
“We’re all ready here. Droppin’ 250s right? Who goes where?” Eagle-12 asked.
“How’s about you and Eight make the wings and I form the beak? We can hit ’em from everywhere. Killing the turrets is paramount, but some dead AA is fine too.” Eagle-3 said.
“Affirmative. We’ll do our best for the guys you lost, Eagle-3.” Eagle-12 replied.
Eagle-3 formed up alongside his men in a tight three-plane arrowhead; Eagle-8 and Eagle-12 instead spread out, the ten remaining craft fanning along the east and west to swoop down from the flanks. Eagle-3 and his men would be attacking up the middle. All of the planes built up altitude and distance; one by one planes started peeling away from the circle just far enough apart to avoid each other but close enough that they would divide the air defenses or if lucky, bypass them completely. Half a dozen planes hurtled toward turret hill, snapped up, and dropped their bombs; the next half-dozen quickly followed, each attack mere seconds apart.
Heavy bombs dropped around the hillock, blowing anti-aircraft guns into the sky, blasting apart trucks, punching deep holes into the road. Wind and direction and altitude all contributed to the trajectory of the bomb. Not for lack of trying, many of the bombs landed far apart and off-target. There was heavy damage across the hill; but the air defense was tenacious and scored its own kills. One plane crashed down almost alongside its own bomb, another two were hit directly, speared through the cockpit by heavy machine gun fire and brought down. Two planes flew through the curtain of fire and came out with heavily pockmarked wings.
Eagle-3 and his group soared blindly through the curtain, snapped up, and prayed.
He wasn’t hit; Eagle-3 pulled away from the tracers and the autocannon rounds, alive.
A massive pressure wave just below him sent a spray of metal far up into the air.
He saw flaming shards rush past his plane and rolled away in fear. Was it a frag round?
“Got visual! We hit the turrets! Blew those suckers up sky high!” Eagle-8 cheered.
“Sky-high is right.” Eagle-3 said. “Holy shit. We sent the whole hill into the air.”
Turret hill had practically become a hole in the ground. A few of the bombs must have smashed through the entry hatches and the explosions must have set off the magazine for the turrets; every 100mm shell packed into the bunkers must have gone off for an effect like that. There was only a bonfire, thick pillars of black smoke over a row of steel wrecks sitting atop several impact craters. Not a single round more of anti-aircraft fire flew their way.
“Eagle, I– I lost everyone here. All four of my guys. I, um–” Eagle-12 said. “I can’t–”
“I lost a man too. We’ve only got eight planes left then, god damn.” Eagle-8 said.
“Then we all know what it feels to lose an ally today.” Eagle-3 said. He sighed into the radio, taking a hand off his instruments and nursing a knot of pain in his temple. “Twelve, you should retreat from the air space. We’ve got this covered. You can’t keep going on your own.”
“I agree. Go back to base. We’ll buy you a drink when we get back. You did good. Don’t blame yourself for what happened. We all take a risk when we lift off.” Eagle-8 added.
“Verstanden.” Eagle-12 stammered. He hung on the Ver, he was clearly very shaken.
His plane flew turned away from the rest and headed south, quickly disappearing. This left seven planes in the air space — two under Eagle-3 and three with Eagle-8.
“Three, you and your men got any ordnance left?” Eagle-8 asked.
“Nothing. Just cannon ammo. Definitely nothing that’d hurt a ship.”
“Shit. We were the air superiority squad. Eagle-12 and his men had all the remaining anti-armor rockets. I’ve got nothing but machine guns now.” Eagle-8 said.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take water duty; you keep watching the skies.” Eagle-3 said.
Free to move, the Kummetz increased its speed and headed for the upper wharf. Eagle-3 and his wingmen soared over the lower wharf and out to sea to meet them. They were maybe a kilometer off the coast. On Eagle-3’s instructions the formation broke off to cover the rear and flanks of the vessel. Eagle-3 headed out west, just a little deeper into the ocean.
He did not have to go too far to find an unforeseen problem. He could hardly believe his eyes in fact, and he called Patriarch to confirm something. “Can the Kummetz detect ships?”
Patriarch was slow to answer. After about a minute she returned. “No, currently only a few of our battleships are fitted with detection gear. A destroyer has no such equipment.”
“Ok, well, I think you better call them and tell them there’s something headed this way.”
“Something? Please confirm the number of enemies and the types.” Patriarch asked.
“Several really big ships that I can do literally nothing to stop!” Eagle-3 shouted. “Over!”
* * *
“Follow the tanks to victory! Forward! Forward, men! Our objective is within reach!”
Aschekind bellowed out at the top of his lungs, holding his pistol in the air. Everything was smoke and fire, Kern could barely follow along, he felt sick, he was practically hobbling. A pair of M4 tanks ahead provided cover as the third battalion and the remnants of the first and second — the entire regiment — hurried past the smoking, charred remains of Turret Hill.
A few squadrons of men divided from the column and rushed out to the lower wharf, bayoneting tarps on empty fishing boats and storming the little guard house there.
Most of the column scrambled to the north. The M4’s guns boomed, targeting wherever a muzzle flash was seen. Shells smashed into the warehouses ahead, punched right through abandoned containers and crashed into the port authority office. There was little cover between the wharf and the dirt road, so the Ayvartans fought from ditches by the sides of the road.
Third battalion had not expended its strongest men and best equipment yet. Because they did not have to struggle up Koba, they had many Norgler machine guns chopping across the ditches, tearing apart exposed Ayvartans who stood resolutely before them. They had mortars set up along the ruined houses where Kern had lost Schloss and his group, shooting ahead of the tanks and keeping the Ayvartans off the streets and the road, forcing their heads down.
All the Ayvartans had left at their disposal were platoons of inexpressive KVW troops with their various small arms. Someone should have told them of their position. Despite being outgunned their stubborn resistance forced the third battalion to pay with a corpse every few meters.
Those black uniformed soldiers scared Kern. They didn’t care when you shot them. They just stood there in the face of everything. Crouched in the ditches their light machine gunners put a steady stream of fire down the road until the tank’s machine guns or a lucky shot from a grenadier put them down. Several crouched as though dead only to throw grenades out onto the road when a squadron of landsers passed them by. Kern had seen them run out into the sight of a Norgler, discharging their rifles against the gunner with no concern for their own life. It paid off more than once — several Norgler LMGs were now crewed only by their loaders.
Several others lay discarded, waiting to be picked up by the next wave of grenadiers.
Meter by meter they cleared the way, and finally the M4 tanks cruised ahead onto the massive concrete structure of the upper wharf. They cleared a long and gently sloping ramp leading from the dirt onto the level concrete floor of the wharf, a few meters higher than the road.
Bursts of machine gun fire leveled several wooden crates arranged ahead of the ramp, and killed a handful of desperate troops using them for cover. Their turrets then turned to a nearby warehouse and cast shells deep into the structure, blasting through shutter doors.
Aschekind stood at the foot of the ramp and he ushered men up into the wharf. Kern set down his radio and put his back to the concrete. At once the entire column seemed to hurtle forward.
Men ran up the ramp and charged out onto the berths, into the warehouses, and up to the cranes. Sporadic fire from the warehouses gave them little pause. The 6th Grenadier was overrunning the port, each man running on the momentum of a dozen around him. This was it! Their final Surge objective for the day and they had claimed it before the sun went down!
“Get up. We will take a commanding position in the port authority office.” Aschekind said.
Kern nodded weakly. He had barely a thought left in his head. Looking haggard and pale, he picked up his radio by its handle and carried it up the ramp alongside Aschekind.
As they cleared the ramp, the entire left wall of the port authority office collapsed to reveal a little garage, probably for rescue or liaison vehicles. It had a closed shutter door, for a moment.
Until something walked through the shutters as though they were barely even there.
A muzzle flashed from inside the building, and a shell pierced the exposed side of an M4.
Aschekind and Kern tumbled back as the stricken tank exploded violently. They crouched, the sides of the ramp offering some protection as they watched the unidentified Ayvartan heavy tank trundle out of the remains of the port authority building. It was like an old lion, scarred by hundreds of battles to maintain its territory. One of its track guards had been blown clean off. One track looked to be on its last few spins, riddled with bullet marks. All across its front from the gun mantlet to the glacis, over a dozen cavities had been burnt into its face by weak shell impacts. On the turret basket was a small hole, maybe from a point blank panzerbuchse shot.
And yet, it challenged them again, the tank that had killed so many. Like the black-uniformed Ayvartans it seemed to have no sense of self-preservation. As long as it could make them bleed it would fight. Kern’s whole body started to shake as it turned its turret to face the remaining tank. The M4 Sentinel opened fire directly into its glacis plate at under a hundred meters.
Finally there was concrete damage — the shell smashed the front hatch off the Ayvartan tank, exposing the concussed driver behind the sticks, bleeding profusely from her head. But this was not the end for the tank. In retaliation the monster, the entire rest of its crew still willing to fight, unleashed its own, larger, stronger gun, and blew open the M4’s turret from front to back. So brutal was the impact that the gun barrel went flying, the mantlet burst open, and the explosion ripped apart the back of the turret, exposing the dead gunner and commander.
The M4’s side hatch slid open and the remaining crew ran out, nursing bloody wounds.
Nobody evacuated from the Ayvartan tank. Another woman pulled the driver away and took her place. Within seconds the giant tank backed into the building, turned, and exited out onto the berths. It opened fire again, its cannon and machine guns blaring as it enfiladed the troops charging ahead. Behind Kern and Aschekind, frightened landsers started to pile up to watch the scene. Watching their comrades speared through the back, they stared helplessly.
Captain Aschekind turned to Kern. “Do you know how to throw one of these?”
Panzerwurfmines — the canvas-finned anti-tank grenade given to every few landsers as a last resort against tanks. Aschekind had one in hand, and Kern had one in his pouch. Kern’s had belonged to a man he had barely known who had died on the 25th. Kern didn’t remember his name. Kern didn’t remember very many names at the moment. He remembered little at all.
But he had seen film of men throwing the things, and he had seen men throw it in the flesh.
He found himself nodding to the Captain, and saying “Yes sir!” He felt suddenly as though watching his own body from afar. He was at once both scared witless and moving forward.
“I don’t trust anyone else to do this.” Captain Aschekind said. “Run right behind me, and throw with me at the engine block. I know that you can do this, Private Kern Beckert.”
Kern nodded again. He withdrew the Panzerwurfmine and held it by its stick handle.
Captain Aschekind leaped up the solid sides of the ramp and onto the concrete again. Kern pulled himself up, lacking the man’s monstrous athleticism. They stacked up behind the wreck of the M4, and moved around its side. A mere thirty meters away the Ayvartan tank had stopped, leisurely blasting apart every concentration of men it found in the open.
Both its machine guns and its tank guns were facing away. Its rear armor was exposed.
Without warning Aschekind ran out; but Kern ran right behind him. Ayvartan rifle fire buzzed over from the warehouses to the left. Officer and Private both stopped within fifteen meters, pulled the covers off the bottom of their grenades, reared back, and threw. In the air the canvas spins opened, and as the bombs descended they started to spin, stabilizing their trajectories.
Aschekind’s bomb landed on the beast’s track and burst right through it, sending road wheels flying and splitting the brutalized track clean in half. A small chunk of the sideplate ripped.
Kern’s panzerwurfmine blew right through the engine block and set the beast ablaze.
He would have celebrated — but then a rifle bullet hit the concrete beside him. He and the Captain ran out to the burning tank and crouched with it between them and the enemy.
“I hit it sir!” Kern said. He started to weep. Finally he had destroyed the goddamned thing!
“Yes. You did.” Aschekind replied. “I knew you would. In my time, I did it as well.”
Kern blinked, not quite recognizing what this meant. He smiled weakly, and breathed deep.
Emboldened by the destruction of the tank, the men grouping around the foot of the ramp finally ran up and charged the warehouses on the left, taking the fight to the Ayvartans and getting some heat off of Kern and the Captain. They walked out from behind the tank. Nobody inside was coming out. Kern dared not check the front hatch. He remembered Kennelman.
Captain Aschekind threw a fragmentation grenade inside and walked away. Kern did not see the blast. He was not paying attention to it. He just stood off to the side, waiting.
“You left your radio behind?” Captain Aschekind asked him.
“Yes sir. Sorry. I thought I would run faster without it.” Kern said.
“Go back and signal to the Kummetz that the port of Bada Aso is ours.”
Kern nodded. He felt a thrill through his whole body. They had won. It didn’t bring back Schloss or Kennelman or all the men whose names Kern had forgotten or never bothered to even learn but they had won. It was not for nothing. 6th Grenadier completed its objective.
He ran back out to the ramp, picked up his radio, and tried to remember the naval contact frequency. There might not even have been one — maybe he had to go through Patriarch. He wracked his brain for it. Out across the wharf he saw the Destroyer approaching.
He almost wondered if he could contact it directly, it seemed so close to them. Perhaps that was only because of its size. It was a very large ship — Kern thought he had never seen its like before, and he had traveled to Cissea in a pretty large ship. Bristling with guns, over a hundred meters long, once the ship parked in one of the berths, the port was as good as theirs. From the ground the Ayvartans would never be able to overcome the firepower of the Kummetz.
Crouched beside the radio, Kern found it had an even bigger hole in it than he remembered.
One of the vacuum tubes was shot — he could see right through it. Whenever he turned the dial it caused a little spark in the box. He felt a sting and drew his hand away from the radio.
Sighing, he stood up and called out at the approaching men. “Anyone got a working radio?”
Nobody acknowledged him — as soon as he spoke a horrifying bellow sounded at sea.
Kern crouched and covered his head instinctively when he heard the explosions. Crawling up the ramp on his belly, he looked out onto the water and his mouth hung open.
Shelling commenced from farther out at sea; heavy bombardment turned the bridge of the Kummetz into a smoldering column of fire belching smoke into the sky. Its forward turrets turned westward and replied in kind, but Kern could not see clearly what the destroyer was attacking at first. A salvo from the destroyer’s two heavy guns flew over the water.
He produced his binoculars and struggled to keep them steady. He looked over the water.
Closing in on the wharf was a massive Ayvartan ship, larger than the Kummetz. Two smaller ships behind it were screening for what seemed like a troop transport. Two dozen aircraft in groups of four overtook the vessels and soared over the wharf, tangling with the outnumbered Nochtish aircraft. These were not the old biplanes he saw in photos and diagrams. They were sturdy-looking monoplane designs flying in tight formations. They must have come from a carrier not far from the berth-breaking group headed for the port.
Kern watched as a pair of Archer planes out at sea were overtaken by the incoming aircraft and quickly devoured by machine gun fire. Noses and wings lit up across the Ayvartan formations — each craft had multiple machine guns. Ambushed and bitten apart the Archers smoked, spun out, and crashed into the water without putting up any kind of a fight. Completely wiped out.
Shadows then swept across the terrain. Men started to retreat out of the wharf area.
On the lead Ayvartan ship a pair of enormous main guns sounded, and within seconds the deck of the Kummetz was rocked by a series of explosions. Turrets burst into clouds of shredded steel, and the bow of the destroyer started to take on water. Men leaped overboard and swam away. Across the water the rising flames and smoke rippled in nightmarish reflections.
The remaining Motor Torpedo Boat accompanying the Kummetz did not even attempt to launch its ordnance. Its crew dropped anchor close to shore and abandoned ship, the crew rushing for the beaches and up the rocky incline to Koba and the Nochtish lines.
At the edge of the pier a short concrete berth for support craft exploded violently and dropped a dozen men to sea. Across from the Port Authority building machine gun fire speared across a the front of a block of warehouses and dashed several men securing the area. Ayvartan aircraft were diving with impunity, coming down like birds of prey, their talons slashing across the open concrete. Without any kind of allotted anti-aircraft weapons and the destroyer in flames, they were helpless. At least ten Ayvartan aircraft buzzed over the port of Bada Aso, reigning over the sky. Several more aircraft overflew the port and penetrated to the central district.
Soon as the Kummetz started to visibly sink, a naval volley thundered across the wharf.
Kern looked around for Captain Aschekind, and couldn’t find him until he peered over his binoculars. The Captain and a few men retreated from the warehouses and ducked along the ramp beside Kern. There was nobody fighting anymore. They were all just targets now.
“Private Beckert, report to HQ, we are retreating!” Captain Aschekind said.
Kern started to shake. He couldn’t speak anymore. He felt like someone had plunged a knife right into his brain. All around him, as easily as they had triumphed, the 6th Grenadier had failed. Everything had swung against them in what seemed like seconds. After all that struggle, all of that death. It took less than half an hour to completely dismantle them.
All that escaped from his mouth was a stammering, “vacuum tube’s shot. Can’t speak.”
South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ
Fruehauf’s hands trembled as she listened to the report from the seaside.
“The Regiment is done.” Aschekind said. “Between the three battalions we have maybe 500 men left holding scattered positions. We were too exposed out on the port and the road.”
“That’s still almost a battalion-sized force.” Fruehauf said. “You can maintain your positions until the rest of the Division can be forwarded to support you. Think of it as a bridgehead.”
“It cannot hold. Those guns out at sea are too much. The 6th Grenadier is not equipped to dislodge air and naval power of that magnitude. I am requesting permission to withdraw to Koba until more air support or naval support can be brought to bear.” Aschekind replied.
Fruehauf developed a slight stutter. She tried to conceal it, but she was under too much stress. Earlier she had listened to the final transmission from the Kummetz as it burned. Her captain had gone down with the ship — mostly because he was trapped in a burning bridge.
Now she simply did not know what to say or do. This was a defeat of a greater magnitude than the mere setbacks faced in Matumaini, Penance and Umaiha. More Ayvartan troops had come. There might even be an incoming Ayvartan offensive if the port was wrested from them. Nobody could have foreseen that the Ayvartans had been stalling for this kind of support.
In fact as far as her information went the Ayvartan Navy should have been almost inactive.
Freuhauf opened her mouth. Her girls were watching. No words came from her lips.
Von Sturm then seized the radio from Fruehauf’s hands and started to scream into it.
“You will not move from your position Aschekind! I don’t care if the sky is falling in pieces over you! I need you to cover the central district! My 13th Panzergrenadiers have almost taken the center for good! As far as I am concerned you are pinned to that piece of my strategic map until the 13th has secured the area! Understood?” He shouted, almost becoming hoarse.
“You are issuing a death sentence!” Aschekind shouted back. His voice was so loud that Fruehauf could hear it from the handset. “We have nothing that can hold against this force! They have a cruiser, two frigates, a troopship big enough to carry a division, and there’s an aircraft carrier out at sea! We must give space for time or the 6th Division is finished!”
“You are finished! You! Not the 6th Division! If you move a meter back from that port, I am shredding your rank! You’ll be an expendable sergeant in a reserve rifle platoon!”
“With all due respect sir; it appears I am just as expendable a Captain as a Sergeant.”
Aschekind’s voice cut out. He had stopped transmitting altogether.
Von Sturm stared dumbly at the radio, as if he could not believe it worked that way.
“He’s finished! Make a note of it!” He shouted at his staff nearby. “Fruehauf!”
“Yes sir!” Fruehauf stiffened up. She had to set an example here. She had to.
“How are we doing in the northeast? Can any of them divert center?” Von Sturm asked.
“Not any more than we have already sent.” Fruehauf said. She found her words again quite quickly. When Von Sturm gave her a stare smoldering with rage she could not remain quiet. “We haven’t been able to break that Hill the Ayvartans reinforced; Nyota. They have almost a hundred guns in place there, of various calibers. Even with air and armor support, I’m afraid the attack there is at a standstill.” She averted her gaze from Von Sturm after speaking.
“What happened to our artillery? Why isn’t it shooting without pause?” Von Sturm said.
“They have not been able to fall into the rhythm of the operation, sir.” Fruehauf said gingerly. “Our self-propelled artillery like the M3 Hunters has managed to keep up for the most part. Grounded artillery has had difficulty firing into combat to support mobile forces. We have had a few friendly fire incidents; and many other guns fell behind the advance altogether.”
“And where is Meist? Call Meist and tell him to control that dog Aschekind!” Von Sturm said.
Fruehauf nodded. She looked over her shoulder at Marie and silently assigned her that task.
Von Sturm brushed his fingers through his golden hair. He looked suddenly like a teenager in an ill-fitting suit, small and afraid, growing pale, his eyes wide and staring into space.
Fruehauf tried to coax him out of his foul mood. She smiled and turned up the charm, fixing her hair a bit, hugging her clipboard against her chest and leaning in a little to make the General feel less small, the pom poms on her earrings dancing as she tipped her head.
“But sir, we can’t simply focus on the difficulties all the time; thanks to your leadership there are several hopeful sides to this. For example the attack in the center has almost broken–”
Von Sturm snapped and stomped his feet twice on the floor, silencing Fruehauf.
“This is all your fault!” He swept his arms across the room. “All of you, from day 1 you have utterly failed to carry out even my simplest commands! You disgraceful incompetents! I lay every failure here at your feet; and yet in the end it will be I who has to suffer for them all!”
His voice was cracking and he spat when he spoke. There were tears in his eyes. He cast eyes about the room as though he was waiting for the staff to fall on him like wolves. Fruehauf stepped away. He almost looked like he wanted to lunge whenever he turned someone’s way.
Von Drachen suddenly stood up from the table, and made as if to depart from the room.
“And where are you going?” Von Sturm shouted. “Nothing smart to say now, Von Drachen?”
Von Drachen looked over his shoulder. Fruehauf would have characterized his expression as simply frowning, but it seemed eerily like much more than that. Von Drachen looked hurt somehow. His eyes looked sunken and moist, and his hooked nose had a slight drip.
“I would rather remember you as the amusing, witty and collected sort of boy I knew before.”
Von Sturm stood in the middle of the room staring at him with confusion as he left. Everyone else was just as speechless. Fruehauf did not quite understand what had just transpired.
In the middle of this, Erika pulled down her headset and tugged on Fruehauf’s sleeve and said, “Ma’am, I don’t know how to process a request for retreat, please come take this call.”
Vorkampfer HQ became silent. Von Sturm sat at his table and covered his face with his hands.
Central Sector, Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”
Soon as she exited the tunnel Gulab had been fighting desperately once again. Her squadron came out of the civil canteen near the home base to find a labyrinth of burning hulks just off of the defensive line and dozens of men huddling behind them. Two of the Svechthans were picked off by a Norgler almost immediately and nobody had time to mourn — everyone ran off the street and rushed as fast as they could to take cover behind the nearest surface. Nikka and the remaining Svechthans made for the street corner, but Gulab, Chadgura, Dabo and Jande ran forward and jumped behind a half-circle of sandbags protecting a 76mm gun off the left side of the line. Since they began running the gun had not put a single shell downrange.
For a second they caught their breaths behind cover, having barely made it to safety.
“Why isn’t this 76mm shooting?” Gulab cried out in anger, trying to yell over the gunfire.
To her surprise, she found huddled behind the sandbags all the kids she had met days earlier. Adesh, Nnenia, and Eshe, all with their heads down. They looked up and pointed at her in amazement when she appeared. Their commander, a soft-faced and pretty Arjun with a peach slice clipped to his hair, banged on the side of a radio and shouted into the handset.
Behind the gun was a scruffy looking man leaning drowsily against the shield. He waved.
“No ammo, ma’am.” He shouted with a shrug. “I dare say we’re kinda doomed here.”
“Shut up, Kufu!” Eshe shouted. “Nobody asked you for your pessimistic opinion!”
Corporal Rahani put down the handset and sighed. “Now’s not the time for this.”
“I agree.” Sergeant Chadgura said suddenly. “Is there anything we can do to help?”
“You can’t go out there!” Adesh interrupted. “Those Nochtish men are just waiting for that!”
Nnenia slid a small portable periscope over to Gulab. She picked it up and looked over the sandbags and across the fighting. Their little gun redoubt was positioned diagonally and just off the western side of the defensive line, across the street from the civil canteen, on the road running in front of Madiha’s House. Twenty meters away the wreck of a Nocht troop carrier and an assault gun shielded a what seemed to Gulab like several squadrons of men, who fought from in and around the remains of those vehicles. They had practically split the line in two just by losing their vehicles in that spot. A Hobgoblin wreck was the nearest piece of cover.
Overhead, Gulab spotted a group of aircraft. Orange spears from somewhere in the horizon shot at them and dispersed them every few minutes, but they remained solidly in control of the air space. Gulab figured that was long-range AA fire from Nyota Hill to the northeast of Home. Judging by the wrecks of Hobgoblins all along the defensive lines, it had been ineffective.
She handed the periscope to Chadgura and urged her to look as well. “How are those planes?”
“We think the planes are out of bombs now. A few of them even went down.” Nnenia said.
“Good. Those planes are all that worried me.” Gulab said. “Just let us handle the rest!”
“Ms. Kajari– err, I mean, Corporal Kajari,” Adesh said, rubbing his hands together nervously. “It’s too dangerous to go out now. We’re glad you came along but– you just can’t!”
Gulab felt a surge of warm fondness for the boy. She smiled, and lifted her chin up, and pressed her fist flat to her chest. “You do not know me very well, Private. I don’t know the meaning of can’t! I can run out, get some shells and run right back here. Just tell me where to go.”
“Please be careful, Corporal Kajari.” Adesh said, frowning. He looked utterly deflated.
She sympathized with him. But Gulab did not let herself get bogged down with fear. Certainly all the physical symptoms were present. She felt a thrill along the surface of her skin, as though bugs were crawling on her. She felt a slight shaking in her feet and across her hands. There was a slight ache in her head. It must have been adrenaline and nerves, but it didn’t stop her.
Whenever she was overcome by fear, someone had died or been hurt. Even Chadgura had been hurt before. Her grandfather had paid dearly for it. She couldn’t allow that anymore. That was her bad star’s luck to bear and nobody else should have to suffer for depending on her.
“I will go, on my honor!” She turned to Corporal Rahani, who looked terribly perplexed.
“I suppose they must have some ammunition left inside the HQ proper.” He said softly. “They were hit by a shell at the start of the enemy attack, but since then they have recovered.”
Gulab turned to Chadgura for permission. The Sergeant clapped her hands.
“I agree with the urgency of the situation and I also agree, regrettably, that there are not many solutions beside your proposition. But please, do be careful. I do not believe that I would recover easily from the loss of you at this juncture.” Chadgura said. Her voice sounded awkward for once. Deadpan as it was, Gulab could see a lot of feeling behind this.
She patted Chadgura on the shoulder. “I like you too, comrade. So, I will be back.”
“We’ll be cheering for you.” Nnenia said. Eshe and Adesh nodded, looking subdued.
Gulab took her rifle, crawled to the back of the redoubt, and looked to the street corner.
“Nikka!” She yelled at the top of her lungs. “I’m going to run out, keep them off me!”
From the corner a small head peeked out. “Are you mad, Gulachka?” She shouted back.
“Maybe!” Gulab shouted back.
She thought she saw the Svechthan flash a grin.
“I like your spirit Tovarisch! Udači!”
Several submachine guns and Nikka’s rifle suddenly appeared from around the corner.
Beside the overturned troop carrier, a Norgler gunner using the damaged track for cover caught a bullet between his eyes and slumped against his weapon, momentarily silencing a third of the gunfire on the redoubt. Behind him his loader crawled up to the discarded gun. Submachine gun rounds then started plinking off the vehicle’s armor and across the dusty, torn-up concrete between the hulks. Heads started going down, men started stepping back.
Gulab took off running, discharging her rifle toward her right flank on automatic.
Chadgura suddenly took off behind her, twisting around her side to shoot as she ran. She held down the trigger and sprayed the husk of an assault gun until her magazine emptied. Dabo and Jande were left speechless behind, and got up over the sandbags momentarily to cover her.
Combined, the threat of automatic fire from the street corner, Nikka’s sniping, and Gulab and Chadgura’s haphazard running and gunning bought enough time for the sprint. Not one rifle snapped at them as they crossed the no-man’s-land. Both officers reached the Hobgoblin’s battered metal corpse and crouched behind it, catching their breath for a moment.
“Why did you run after me like that? You could’ve been killed!” Gulab shouted.
Chadgura looked at her with that deadpan expression of hers, blinking her eyes. She started talking abruptly, as though she had rehearsed and was waiting for an opportunity. “You see, it is a feature of my psychological condition that I sometimes become too restless to remain in one place. At those times, I sometimes jump in place, or run in a circle; now I was compelled–”
“You’re making excuses!” Gulab said. She grinned at Chadgura, more amused than angry.
“It is for the best that I am present for this tactical deployment.” Chadgura said. She reloaded her rifle, and Gulab did the same. Whatever he reasons, she was glad for the Sgt.’s company.
“Well, you are present, boss. Now what?” Gulab looked to the side of the Hobgoblin. There was a stretch of ten meters or so to get to the stairway, and then the steps up to the lobby, and finding safe cover in said lobby, added perhaps ten more meters to the journey. On the other side of the street, Nochtish riflemen behind the remains of abandoned sandbag redoubts and burnt out frames of tanks exchanged fire with the troops garrisoning the school lobby.
She waited patiently for Chadgura to survey the area as well and give her a response.
The Sergeant pulled four grenades out of her pouches. They looked like sealed bean cans.
“We throw all of these and run as quickly as we can.” Chadgura said calmly.
Gulab blinked. She searched her own equipment and found a single can in her bag.
Chadgura nodded her head. They pulled the pins and threw the first two cans over the top of the tank wreck. Chadgura pulled the pins on her remaining three grenades simultaneously and threw them after. Soon as they heard the first bomb went off they took off running.
To their right several enemy positions had been temporarily suppressed as a grenade went off near them. Gulab had hear the cries of GRANATE from the line, and caught glimpses of men crouched behind sandbags and metal debris from damaged vehicles. They covered the few meters to the steps in mere seconds, and took the first steps without slowing.
Then the enemy came alive again. Preceded by a chewing noise like that of an automatic saw, bursts of Norgler machine gun fire flew beside them and hit the walls around the lobby entrance. Bolt action rifle fire bit at their heels and flew past their heads. They bowed their heads and raised their guns behind them as if that would provide any protection.
A pair of Nochtish stick grenades landed a few steps behind their feet and rolled down.
At the top of the stairs, Gulab and Chadgura themselves through the door and onto the ground.
Fire and smoke and fragments blew in from behind them. Medics scrambled to pull them from the doorway and help them out of sight, behind the thick concrete walls. Though dizzy at first Gulab recovered, feeling an urgency to check her own body — and then a different urgency.
“Everything there?” Gulab asked, breaking away from a medic and grabbing Chadgura. She looked over the Sergeant, searching behind her back, under arms, across her legs, for wounds.
“I’m unharmed, I believe.” Chadgura said, standing very stiff and still while Gulab obsessed.
“Thank everything.” Gulab said, heaving a sigh of relief. She collapsed against the wall.
In the lobby, two large groups of soldiers huddled behind the concrete walls to the sides of the door. Because all of the glass on the windows had been broken, and the ornate door frame had been shattered by the fighting as well, there was only a strip about two meters wide on either side of the broad, open doorway that was safe to stand on. They had provisions stacked up against the corners, mostly boxes of various shell and ammunition calibers. There was one broken mortar piece of maybe 81mm caliber, and a smaller piece intact and unused. Behind the front desk a big radio box was constantly monitored. There were maybe 25 people around.
Periodically, fire from a Norgler or rifle would soar through the middle and hit the back wall. So often had gunfire penetrated the lobby that the back wall sported a crater a meter wide and several centimeters deep, formed from hundreds, maybe thousands of bullet impacts on it. After each burst of Norgler fire a man with a Danava light machine gun peered through the window and fired a long burst into the sandbags ten or twenty meters away.
One of the medics who dragged them off the door knelt beside them and offered them a nondescript bagged drink with a cardboard straw. “You both ok?” He said. “Drink this.”
Gulab tasted it first — the drink was salty and bitter and thick. “Yuck! It’s horrible.”
“It tastes bad but it will energize you. What’s your errand, Corporal?” asked the Medic.
“We require 76mm gun ammunition.” Chadgura said. She tasted the drink, and her left eye twitched ever so slightly as she swallowed the slurry. “I assume you have some.”
“We probably do. Check the crates. Don’t know how you expect to get out though.”
“Huh? You guys are stuck here?” Gulab asked, making a face at the medic.
“I’d think so. Biggest bulge in the Nochtish lines is right in front of us. They’re maybe fifteen meters away from us. They almost penetrated into the lobby once before.” said the Medic. “Had their tanks not been destroyed they would still be trying to charge us. They must be waiting for the next wave of reinforcements. Meanwhile we’re here waiting for some good news.”
In the distance, several howitzer shells hit the ground deep into the Nochtish lines, a hundred meters away. Gulab hunched her shoulders, startled; she wondered what they even hit.
“We don’t hand your orders though,” the Medic smiled, “if you try and succeed, try to get word out that we’d really like to leave this school before a tank sends a shell through the door.”
He stood up, and rushed across the room after the next Norgler burst, rejoining a pair of medics on the other side of the lobby. They sat together and shared the rest of the drink.
“We could go to the second floor, follow the hallway to the west, and drop from a window.” Chadgura said. She seemed to be musing to herself aloud, staring out the doorway.
Gulab stood up and sidled across the right wall. She picked through the mound of supply crates and found a box of 76mm shells, buried under crates of unused 60mm smoke rounds. She found a canvas bag and stuffed five shells into the thing, and then awkwardly rigged it to her belt and pouches like a backpack. It was heavy and awkward, but manageable enough for her.
Errand completed, she returned to Chadgura’s side, sat down, and sighed deeply. She put her fists to her cheeks and waited a moment. Another five-second spray of Norgler fire flew in.
Bits of lead dislodged from the wall and clinked as they struck the ground. At the window the Danava was passed to a young woman, and she took her turn shooting at the grey uniforms.
“We’ve got a message on the radio!” Shouted a young man behind the front desk.
Gulab and Chadgura looked over; so did everyone else in the room. He set the radio atop the desk and turned up the volume. It was connected to a speaker loud enough for the room.
“–Repeat, this is Ox HQ! Naval group ‘Qote’ has arrived in Bada Aso. The Revenant, Selkie, Selkie II, Charybdis and the Admiral Qote have arrived to support us. Naval and air support will help to relieve the siege across the Central districts. Now is the time to awaken, comrades! Seize your arms and fight! Push back against the imperialists!”
“That sounded like C.W.O Maharani,” the Medic said, looking around, “so help is coming?”
“You heard her, comrades!” shouted the woman at the window. “It’s time to fight back!”
Everyone in the room seemed truly to awaken at that point. The Medic and his friends recovered their weapons from the corner and huddled at the window. The Danava gunner looked down her sight with renewed zeal and did not hide away from the window, firing burst after burst of automatic fire on the Nochtish line. Her comrades opened fire from the sides of the doorway. This burst of energy seemed to take the grey uniforms by surprise.
Gulab looked over the supplies. She got an idea. She stood up and took the 60mm mortar in hand. She gathered some of the people hiding behind the desk, and got them together near the center of the room and told them to hold the mortar just so — suspended over their shoulders, at an angle more suitable to a direct-fire cannon than a mortar. Confused by her intentions the hapless non-commissioned signals staff served as her stand without making a peep.
“What the hell are you doing?” shouted the Medic, watching Gulab as she schemed.
“Just watch! It’s a brilliant idea. Besides, we’re only using a smoke round.”
The Medic stared between Gulab and the confused signals men holding the mortar.
“What?” He asked again, gesturing impotently at the contraption.
Gulab had no time to explain any further. “Chadgura, get ready!”
She nonchalantly shoved mortar shell down the tube. It shook, and the shell soared out the door. Both signals staff members holding the mortar fell back, and the backplate on the piece snapped, but the shell crashed into the street outside and kicked up the smokescreen.
“Ho ho ho! It worked! It worked!” Gulab shouted. She took Chadgura by the arm.
In seconds the smoke had risen high enough, and the two of them ran out of the lobby, stomping down the steps, sporadic fire from startled enemies crashing around them. They leaped off the bottom steps and ran for the tank. When the Norgler started shooting again, they were well away, and the lobby had engaged the enemy again and given them their next chance.
Soon they cleared the tank, and managed to return to the sandbags with the shells in tow.
Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe stared, mouths agape, when Gulab and Chadgura reappeared. They had all kinds of cuts on their uniforms — those bullets had come a lot closer than they thought in the middle of things. Didn’t matter. Gulab unloaded her bag and offered Corporal Rahani a 76mm shell like it was a piece of candy, with a big, self-congratulatory grin on her face.
“Anyway, we’re all saved. Naval and air’s on its way to clean up here.” She said.
“Air and naval?” Eshe asked, crawling to the gun. “From where?”
Gulab shrugged. “I don’t know. Somewhere in the ocean. You’re welcome, by the way.”
“My, my, you are quite reliable, Corporal.” Rahani said softly. “Thank you for your help. Adesh, please get behind the gun again. We only have five shots; but I have faith in you.”
“Yes sir!” Adesh said. He glanced over Gulab with awe before taking his place behind the gun. Eshe pulled the crate behind the gun shield, and Nnenia and Kufu lifted the gun by the bracing legs and adjusted it. Rahani called their first target — the overturned APC in front of them.
“Adjust elevation to account for proximity, and then fire when ready, my precious crew!”
Gulab peeked out with the periscope while Adesh punched the shell into place and fired.
With a target less than thirty meters away it was not a question of hitting or missing, but the effect achieved. In this case, the 76mm HE shell easily punched through the thin armor of the overturned half-track troop carrier, even without a penetrating nose, due to the proximity and the muzzle velocity of the gun. Rahani was likely counting on this. Behind the carrier Gulab saw the burst of fire and smoke from the shell. Then she saw men running and crawling away.
Many were bleeding or mauled. Behind her, Nnenia helped traverse the gun further to the left. Eshe pushed away some of the sandbags from the wall to give space for the gun to be moved.
“Hit the assault gun wreck next, and then shoot the sandbags!” Corporal Rahani called out.
Adesh easily obliged. He put a shell right through a large hole that had been bored through the dead tank by whatever killed it first, and penetrated the flimsy, decayed armor on the other side. Again he hit the men hiding behind the gun. Gulab saw the concrete and dust flying behind the obstacle. This time no one sprinted away, though a few did crawl desperately.
All across the line the defenders started to awaken. Over the lazy, sporadic din of the Norglers she heard again the belabored thock thock thock of Danava and Khroda guns, and the sharp whiplash of rifles, the chachachachak of submachine guns from the Svechthans on the street corner. She saw men and women charge out of the lobby and take the steps again.
Rahani’s crew launched another shell and sent flying a wall of their own sandbags, tossing away a half-dozen Nochtish men who must have thought the arrangement convenient until now.
“One more down the road! Let us turn the fiends back, my beautiful crew!” Rahani said.
“I’m startin’ to feel like objecting to these!” Kufu groaned as he helped traverse the gun.
Gulab sat back and laughed. She just could hear the triumphant marching drums and trumpets in her head already, the battle hymn of the socialists; she felt energized. She knew that she had not been abandoned, that help was on its way. They all knew it now, they knew it from each other, even if they had not heard the radio address from the Headquarters. Perhaps each of them had seen one comrade who had started to fight, and it renewed the strength of them all.
At their side, the Svechthans reappeared from the street corner. They pushed out all of the sandbags, and started shooting from over them. Nikka seemed to be having a great time.
“Like shooting ducks frozen into the lake!” She said. She looked through her scope and easily picked off a man lying on the ground behind the stock of a Norgler. Gulab had barely seen him before she got him. Svechthan submachine gunners laid down a curtain of fire against the enemy. Not a single rifle seemed to retaliate now. The volume of fire was too much.
Then came the sound of tracks, and Gulab could pick it out even amid all the shooting.
“To the south! Adesh, you can see them, can’t you?” Rahani asked. He pointed south.
“Their reinforcements have arrived; we can’t let this break our counterstroke!” Nikka warned.
From the bottom of the main street Gulab saw a group of tanks approaching. Everyone scrambled to turn the gun back to the right, but they had only two shells left! Nnenia and Kufu set down the gun, and laid back on the floor, exhausted. Adesh pulled the firing pin; his shell struck the track guard of an M4 Sentinel and blew it off. One shell left; it was no good–
Over the advancing tank platoon a massive shell descended, casting a very brief shadow.
When it crashed, all five tanks disappeared into a grand fireball. A hole was smashed into the road six meters in diameter and four deep, and the tanks collapsed, broken into burning pieces.
Adesh looked over his gun shield as though wondering if he could have potentially done that.
When the rest of the heavy shells started to drop, it was clear that it was not him. Nonetheless, he smiled, and laughed. Nnenia and Eshe took him into their arms. Rahani burst out laughing as well. It was not exactly funny by itself to see the Nochtish men being blasted to pieces. But Gulab thought that everyone was so glad to be alive that there was no other natural response.
“We held!” Shouted the younger gun crew members together. “We held! We held! We held!”
Rahani clapped his hands softly along with them, as though providing percussion. Nikka and the Svechthans seemed to fall over on their backs all at once, like dolls pushed by the wind. They had the same grumpy faces as usual, but they seemed eerily contented nonetheless.
Gulab pulled down the periscope and surveyed herself the carnage unfolding along the line.
All across the road Nochtish men left their arms and hurried away as the naval artillery rolled over their path. Hurtling shells from 300mm and 200mm guns stomped massive holes into the tar and concrete and cast vast clouds of fast-moving debris and fragments. Previous artillery volleys seemed like a child throwing rocks in comparison to the overwhelming power on display. Choking smoke and the stench of gunpowder spread rapidly across the Nochtish lines. Even men safely ensconced in buildings retreated from the disaster unfolding. Troop carriers freshly arrived abruptly reversed from the combat area and turned away from Sector Home.
A Nochtish Archer plane crashed near the line, its wings and cockpit riddled with bullet holes. Gulab heard the familiar, lazy sound of the propellers on a modern Garuda fighter plane, and then saw the long green shapes cutting through the sky and chasing after Nochtish planes. There were far less Garuda in the Air Force than the old but compact and tenacious Anka biplane fighters — but in the Navy, the Anka had been completely replaced by Garuda. Now Nocht got a taste of their own medicine in the air, as a fighter as capable as their own now outnumbered them. Archer planes banked and rolled and struggled with all of their might and skill shake off the Garudas, but there were three green planes to every gray plane.
Within thirty minutes it became clear that the attack was completely broken. The Nochtish troops had given up all of the several hundreds of meters they had gained on Sector Home. Twenty meters from the door, and they had been turned away. Above, the Nochtish Air Force either flew away wounded or crashed down to earth The 3rd Line Corps had held.
“We held!” Gulab joined in, seated against the sadbags, wrapping her arms around Chadgura and kicking her legs. “We held! We held! Eat shit you imperialist scum! Rotten mudpigs!”
Chadgura did not clap or cheer or protest. Instead she simply sat, seeming almost relaxed.
34th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ
“All of the reports say the same, sir. In the Central District, and in the East–”
“That can’t be right. It can’t be right. They must be in the wrong place.”
“No sir, they retraced the Panzergrenadier’s attack path from yesterday.”
“They must have fucked up on some street or another! At this point I would not put that past all of you numbskulls! I’m telling you it is impossible. Give me that radio, I want to hear this.”
Von Sturm seized the radio handset from Fruehauf and leaned in on the radio. Fruehauf leaned in beside the general so she could listen. He did not seem to mind, and even included her. Perhaps he thought she would hear something that might vindicate his point of view.
“Lieutenant, repeat for us again. Have you made contact with the enemy?” He asked.
One of the Jäger armed patrols sent to the central district responded quickly and calmly.
“Negative sir. We think there might be a minefield further up the streets, but the central district is a ghost town. Our combat patrol has met absolutely no resistance. Twenty men, and we just walked right past the shell craters, right past the husks of all our lost tanks, and right up to their supposed headquarters. Nothing here, sir. They must have fully retreated at night.”
“Repeat that again, Lieutenant, because you are not making sense. You returned to the combat area from yesterday, to the central sector with the big school. You found nothing there?”
Even the Jäger sounded exasperated with General Von Sturm’s attitude at the moment.
“No enemies, sir. Their entire line was uprooted. I don’t know what more I can say. I have taken photographs so you can see for yourself. You could send a Squire to come fetch us and get them back even faster. I dare say, sir, the Squire won’t meet any resistance at all.”
Von Sturm seemed to want to ask him to repeat one more time, but he did not. He returned the radio handset to Fruehauf, who stared at him as he shambled back to the stable and sat down. He steepled his fingers, fidgeting by touching the tips of each linked pair of fingers in sequence, as if he were playing some kind of instrument. He had a glassy kind of look in his eyes.
Fruehauf felt the same way, but perhaps because it was not her planning that was thrown into confusion, it did not hit her as hard. Still, she had to wonder, and it gave her a feeling of dread, clawing in her stomach, when she considered how little everyone seemed to know.
Yesterday was a setback, but they had made some gains and they still had large amount of troops and equipment that was ready to throw in. They had been planning to probe the Ayvartan central positions, and to prepare their own defenses. Requests to the Bundesmarine and Luftlotte were still being sorted, so operations on the seaside had been put off. Though at a standstill, the situation was not completely untenable for the city invaders. Had the Ayvartans decided to attack and exploit their momentum from the day before, the Panzergrenadiers and Azul could have easily counterattacked and punished them. Everything was still salvageable.
So on the morning of the 34th Von Sturm sent his patrols and awaited crucial intelligence.
Once they received the initial scouting reports, however, the information haunted them.
On everyone’s minds the question was: why did the Ayvartans completely retreat from every sector that they had won the day before? Why was there no pitched fighting against Surge? Why was there no counterattack? On the 33rd they had rebuffed all of the Nochtish strength, and yet now their ships were silent, their planes were grounded, and there was not a communist man on the streets of Bada Aso who was looking to fight with a capitalist one.
Everyone in the Vorkampfer was unsettled. It simply made no sense. It was unprecedented.
“We will use the time to regroup. Push everything up as far as the Ayvartan are willing to let us move, and then launch rapid attacks again against the North. If they’re giving us this then we’re taking it.” Von Sturm declared. “They must be fools, complete fools, just like we thought. Fruehauf, call in the combat engineers, I want every significant structure and every street examined for mines and traps. Relocate the wounded south, and forward all reserves north.”
Fruehauf nodded. She felt helpless in the face of all this. “Yes sir. Right away sir.”
Von Sturm looked at the table and rubbed his hands. “They must be fools, just like we thought. All of their little victories so far have been nothing but flukes. We’ll end it tomorrow.”
* * *
Next Chapter in Generalplan Suden — Hell Awakens