This story segment contains a scene of violence and death.
28-AG-30: 8th Panzerdivisione Southeast Advance
The M4 Sentinel medium tank carefully pushed its way into the building through a broken wall, budging cement blocks and rubble. While the structure shook, it did not collapse. Easily, the tank slid itself through a back door and into a little plaza between the buildings, a recreation area where the apartment’s inhabitants could get fresh air and sit.
Treading over a bench and past a wooden fence, the tank found itself squeezing into an alleyway between two buildings that had been reduced to gray and brown mounds. In the alley, the tank commander called his subordinates over the radio, and then one other M4 and a single M3 easily followed his trackmarks through the building and into the alley.
Together they advanced through the depths of Knyskna’s ruins, knowing that any major building collapse would force them to abandon their tanks. They advanced in small groups to avoid choking the tight paths and to coordinate easier. It was nerve-wracking movement, stopping and starting and stopping again, careful not to disturb the area.
As they wandered through broken buildings and squeezed into alleys and trod over hills of rubble, through their periscopes they saw tiny groups of Gebirgsjager men in their cloaks climbing the sides of tall, sturdy buildings to establish positions and flush out scouts.
In pairs and even sometimes on their own, these hunters protected the tanks from any more communist ambushes. Already they had flushed out a few communist scouts.
These were not the only men in the ruins.
Ahead of them, a man in motorcycle approached and waved for them to advance. He led them into open spaces between ruined blocks and standing structures. Every so often the motor soldier would pause beside the lead tank, climb it, pop the hatch and address the commander. He shared what he had learned about the area, and where next they could squeeze the tank platoon into and advance unopposed. They would call it in, await confirmation from a beautiful voice. Then they would be off again.
Brigadier-General Dreschner had ordered them to make their advance directly through the ruins and up north. And so they moved through the rubble, and they called Dreschner’s little siren to keep the General appraised of their progress through the maze.
“This is Signals Officer Schicksal in contact.” She said. “Report confirmed. Continue the advance as ordered. Watch the high ground for enemy activity.”
So they moved through the ruins, high explosive loaded into their cannons and ready to shoot in case of an ambush. They knew the communists had few tanks of their own, and those that did exist could be destroyed even without penetrating rounds.
These tankers had not personally seen the ambushes. They had been briefed, and they understood there was danger. But they were relatively fresh off the staging areas and no harm had come to them as they moved, so they were just as confident as the men in the morning, advancing through a land devoid of the enemy. They had heard of the embarrassing defeat of the communists at Tukino and Dori Dobo and in the borders.
They hailed from Nocht, the capital of capitalism – they would win.
For many of them, they had to win. For their country, yes; but also for their futures. For their careers. Names and histories were being made in this ancient land, and you either flew or you fell. Nocht’s technocrats demanded perfection. Nocht was a land of opportunity, but only the very best, the hardest working, the most skilled, would earn the true riches to be reaped. It was a competition; even as they advanced together every man knew that he had to take the glory for himself first, in order to earn himself a big seat like Dreschner’s.
United without, divided within, and with gold in their eyes, the tanks advanced.
Coordinating this effort in southeast Knyskna was Lt. Kunze. Unlike the Brigadier-General’s Befehlspanzer, Kunte’s M4 Sentinel had the standard radio equipment and a real gun. He could communicate with the FOB in Djose, but the farther he got, the worse he would sound to them. He could definitely not contact any forces farther than that, but he did not need to. Speaking to Dreschner (Schicksal, for the most part) was enough.
His tank was pitted and burnt and the left track was worse for wear – a 120mm mortar had nearly struck him, and he had endured several BKV attacks when he attempted to pursue the communists and avenge the loss of his assault gun platoon.
That had been more than enough combat for Lt. Kunze. He was anxious enough without suffering the persistent sweat and shaking of being in a fight. He hung back now, following a ways behind the advancing troops, always removed from them around a corner or hidden in an alleyway, observing and coordinating well away from the front.
From below him a boy barely out of his teens turned to face him. He was the radio operator of his tank crew, which included a gunner and loader in front of him, and a driver below as well. In a soft voice the boy said, “Schicksal is calling, sir.”
“Is this something you can’t handle? Turning a knob?” Kunze said contemptuously.
“She wants to speak with you personally.” the boy continued, his voice shaking.
Kunze pulled his headphones from around his neck and up to his ears.
“Lt. Kunze reporting.”
“Status report,” Schicksal asked, “Brigadier-General wishes to know your progress.”
“According to the Jagers, we’re only a few blocks away now. But we have to penetrate the thoroughfare from multiple alleys, or else we will have all the tanks bunched in one place and suffer the same problems.” Kunze replied.
“Correct. Therefore, you should make greater haste.” Schicksal said.
“We are advancing on schedule!” Kunze said, raising his voice suddenly.
Schicksal did not rise to the provocation.
Her own voice was smooth and clear, her lines delivered with precision and skillful timing. “Our schedule is being rewritten. Sunlight is precious right now. Brigadier-General Dreschner expresses his desire for you to personally direct the assault on the communist defenses along the southeast thoroughfare. It is, presently, the shortest and most direct route from which to attack the communist base, given the problems Reiniger is facing.”
She paused. Preempting a response, she spoke again.
“Of course, if you do not feel up to the task–”
Obviously, there was no choice. Clearing his throat and controlling his tone of voice again, Kunze replied much more affirmatively. “I am honored that the Brigadier-General chose me for this mission and I shall conduct it to the best of my ability.”
“Wonderful. Then, do make haste. All tracks are to stop at nightfall.”
Kunze grit his teeth a little reflexively. He hated it when the radio girl tried to tell him how to conduct himself. He hated it even more when she seemed like the one giving him orders, when she spoke with a voice like she had deigned to command him. What would she know about anything? How dare she talk so authoritatively to him as though she had a role of any importance in this battle? What goddamn nerve.
Of course, he knew intellectually that Schicksal was just passing along whatever it was Dreschner mumbled to himself in his radio tank as he waited for them to do the work.
But it still felt condescending and humiliating when it was she who delivered the lines and not the CO. It reminded him of the attitude she pulled in the Djose, talking when she wasn’t supposed to, sitting by Dreschner all the time like she was something special.
He envisioned Schicksal having just as much of a stick up her ass as Dreschner, all the while sitting comfortably behind the lines, and it vexed him.
He almost went as far as to say he hated Schicksal and her ilk.
But Kunze was at heart a fearful and stealthy creature.
He said nothing untoward. Schicksal had nothing to aspire to, and therefore she had nothing to be careful about, but he did, and he had to.
“Acknowledged.” He said. “We will speed up and breach soon.”
“Good. Report just before launching your attack. Schicksal out.”
Silence on the radio. Lt. Kunze and his tanks were now the premier force in Knyskna.
Kunze ripped his headphones from his head and in a sudden fit, threw them and the little box they were attached to at the radio boy, striking him behind the head with the object. Not a peep came out of the boy, and faced with Kunze’s sudden fury he just hunched closer to the small radio unit affixed to the side of the tank.
Irate, incoherent thoughts filled the Lieutenant’s head. He bit his nails. He sweated like a pig. It was all up to him now, suddenly. That snake Schicksal, he thought irascibly, her tone revealed nothing, she did not betray any of the impact of the situation in her voice, but he knew, he knew. This was his chance to either fly or fail. Dreschner was testing him.
He knew. His heart pounded.
“Vorwärts!” Kunze shouted, his voice reverberating inside the tank.
His gunner and loader steadied themselves on their makeshift seats, and his driver sped them all out of an alleyway, cutting in front of a platoon of tanks in order to advance toward the creeping front line. He would be getting even closer now to the communists than he had ever been before. In his mind Kunze still heard the shots and the blasts and felt his tank shaking. His whole body trembled with the thought and his stomach roiled, but there was no other way. Regrettably he would have to direct the advance with greater fervor.
Otherwise, he risked a higher rank on Dreschner’s shit-list, along with Reiniger.
So many of their elite 8th PzD had failed already.
Kunze couldn’t afford to fail with them. This was for Nocht, for country, for people, for freedom, for capitalism, for glory, for himself. It was better to die than to fail this.
“Listen up, and broadcast this to the crews when I’m done.” Kunze shouted, his voice strained over the noise of the tank. “Kampfgruppe K has been given the honor of taking the communist’s base of operations in Knyskna. We will be the first into the oven and the last out, as it should be. We are the real men in this fight! Our country depends on us; depends on you. I’m expecting a swift and thorough victory! Allow none of the communist scum to escape your grasp. You have the better weapons, the better training, and the spirit of progress and ingenuity! I want to hear no excuses and see no failures. There will be rewards, great rewards, to those who distinguish themselves! Vorwärts!”
Everyone in the tank cowered; the message soon shook other hearts in Kpfg. K. as well.
28-AG-30: Southeast Inner Boroughs West Bend
Abandoning the FOB the Ayvartan troops ran toward the far side of the thoroughfare and vanished into its alleyways and intersections. Groups of horses had been tied down around the thoroughfare in case emergency transportation was needed.
Headquarters’ own horses were located just behind the FOB, and they were already riding up the thoroughfare: everyone else dispersed hastily off the path.
Leander’s squad ran two blocks up from the FOB and took a corner into a tight alleyway that opened up into a small sitting plaza between two big buildings, within which a single big tree had been planted. Several horses had been left tied to this tree, with one soldier left behind to care for them. He waved to make himself known when he saw Leander’s squadron approaching, and began to untie the horses for them.
Smiling, Leander approached one of the bigger horses in the pack, its hide a uniform brown and its mane long and dark. All of the horses were Ayvartan breeds, middleweight, meant more for riding than for heavy pulling, and they were quite beautiful to behold.
Though he might have been a stranger to war and an untrained warrior, Leander knew horses. A caravan was nothing without them, after all! He made cooing noises and stroked the horse’s muzzle as he stood near it. He laughed contentedly as he petted the animal.
Obediently, the horse made no move away from him, and seemed for the most part ambivalent to his presence. Fair enough! They didn’t know each other yet. He felt oddly excited about the horse, even in the middle of this situation. They could be attacked at any moment! But a horse was such a natural and beautiful and comforting sight.
Behind him, Elena laughed and patted him cheerfully in the back.
“You two are hitting it off, I see! What do you think of it?”
“This is a good horse.” He replied. “It has a great build. Does the army have cavalry?”
“Not in the way you’re thinking.” Bonde said, grinning at Leander. “We have cavalry units that ride horses to battle, dismount and then fight on foot. I’m afraid you won’t be leading any saber charges in this era. Not with machine guns around.”
“Around the caravan I always heard war stories but they were mostly about swordsmen and cavalry charges and things like that. I guess those stories just don’t work anymore.”
Bonde shook his head with a big smile on his face. Elena chuckled again.
“I don’t want my own horse.” Sharna said suddenly.
Everyone stared at her again as though she were going mad in front of them.
“Why not?” Elena asked. “You don’t know how to ride one?”
“I know; but someone needs to be on guard with a good weapon.” Sharna replied.
“We can use our pistols from horseback can’t we?” Elena added.
“I said a good weapon.” Sharna replied, hefting up her BKV.
“You can shoot a BKV from horse-back?” Bonde said with surprise.
“I can shoot a BKV from any position.” Sharna said proudly, sticking out her chest.
Bonde looked puzzled, but he did not argue any further. He waved for Sharna to climb on Leander’s horse. Everyone seemed to correctly assume that Leander was probably the best rider, and the implication pleased him greatly. Finally, something he could do well! Leander climbed on first and took the reins, recalling when his mother had taught him how a proper woman should ride. It was all he knew growing up, so he would have do it.
Sharna sat behind him, her BKV set against her shoulder and her legs tight around the sides of the horse. She raised the barrel over Leander’s shoulder and kept her eyes locked to the sights, swaying from side to side as the horse began to move.
After receiving a good scolding from everyone, she hooked herself up to Leander with a rope, in case the recoil and tenuous position threatened to knock her off. Elena and Bonde both took their own horses, and withdrew their pistols as they rode.
Together, Squadron III trotted out of the alleyway and back onto the thoroughfare, gathering around in the middle of the road to make sure everyone was handling their horses well and fully appraised of the situation.
Behind them followed the horse handler, unarmed, riding his own horse while guiding the spare horses up as well. Soon as they were out on the street they saw a trickle of other riders leaving the alleys as well. Many rode clumsily up, and a few were trotting for lack of experience with galloping. Leander thought it was quite a shame to see.
“Everyone knows where we’re going right?” Bonde said to the huddle.
“Up the thoroughfare to the last defensive line.” Elena replied.
“Good. Everyone got that? Remember to watch your sides and watch the buildings, our enemy is apparently stealthier than we imagined.” Bonde said. “If your horse is sniped at, try to get away from it and not fall with it or it could crush you.”
“Easier said than done.” Leander said sadly. “But if someone gets hurt I will try to swing around and help you. I used to ride horses with my brothers, racing through the wood. This thoroughfare is cake compared to riding the Kasht!”
“Riding the what?” Sharna said.
No one heard her; her lips moved but her voice was lost under the booming of a gun.
Flying in from out of sight, a shell cut across the road and blasted the street.
A high explosive charge blasted the handler and the spare horses to oblivion. Responding to the blast the squadron’s horses trembled and grew anxious, they neighed and took several steps away from the source of the heat without command; that they did not jump and panic from such a close blast attested to their thorough training. A few meters closer and the shell fragments might have given the horses cause to panic and topple.
Over his shoulder Leander spotted an M4 Sentinel charging out of a building facade through a shower of concrete debris, with a second tank creeping along not far behind. Both of them turned their cruel turrets from the ruined remains of the handler and the spare horses and the street beneath them, seeking after prey.
The promised attack had come!