This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
“Go!” Bonde cried out, and Leander stirred his horse to move.
While the tanks extricated themselves from the rubble and swung their faces to meet the riders, the squadron made haste, galloping away from the site.
From the fronts of the tanks, old Nochtish quengler .30 caliber machine guns fired away at the runners, spraying hot lead across the street and up the road.
Squadron III’s riders ducked and hugged closer to their horses to present less a target.
“Keep it steady, I can take out the gun!” Sharna shouted.
She sat up and tried to shift around on her seat to fire on the tanks behind them. However she struggled to do so while keeping steady on the horse, and made herself a target while she fumbled with her gun.
“Are you insane?”
Leander reached back and pulled Sharna down against the horse, as bursts of machine gun fire flew over head and around their horses.
Streaks of gunfire kicked up dust around them. Leander cued his horse gradually to the left and right to evade the shots, and the group followed him, trading positions, leaping over objects that might block shots. They moved fast, and thankfully the horses were well trained. Leander did not have to cue for it to go over the uneven terrain, to climb the jagged earth around shell craters, or leap over large rocks.
They kept ahead of the bullets, but this only pushed their assailants to their more natural weaponry. There was soon a thunderous noise across the thoroughfare. Two shells flew simultaneously from the barrels of their stationary pursuers; the first overflew them and several meters ahead, kicking up smoke and dust and concrete fragments, but they rode through without harm. A second shell fell painfully short of their galloping steeds and merely blew heat at their backs as they rode away.
Unfortunately the tanks reloaded quickly.
Leander felt the heat of another explosion just at his heels and saw a fourth and even a fifth shell crashing on the street sides and blasting a new hole far ahead of him.
His horse took the leap over the fresh, hot shell crater naturally.
Sharna grabbed hold of him with one hand once the horse took to the air, and shot dirty looks behind herself – she had been trying to retaliate, but could not turn around and fire the BKV comfortably at an enemy directly behind her while riding the horse.
A series of rhythmic booming noises issued from the guns as the tanks continued to shoot and the shells crashed around the road and streets, throwing hot smoke and splintered earth into the air, but none of it put a stop to the riders of Squad III. Growing increasingly behind in their pursuit, the tanks were pushed to greater action. Over the clattering of their horses’ shoes Leander heard engines roar and machines trundle forward.
While a significant gap had developed while the M4s were stationary, charging at full speed the tanks made rapid gains on the horses. Machine gun fire raked the debris and air around the riders once again creeping closer and threatening to clip them before they could escape. Leander tried to speed his horse up, but he thought he could feel the effort the animal was putting in just to gallop at the current speed – it was not a machine, and it could not sprint for much longer. He looked over his shoulder at the tanks closing in.
“We can’t keep running them like this, they’ll tire out!” Leander shouted.
“Ahead, we can lose them there!” Elena shouted.
She pointed out a large building up ahead that had toppled over onto the road: a broken doorway and window holes faced them, and they could see right through it, so there must have been similar exits on the other side. It covered most of the road and the tanks could not fit through any of the openings: they would have to stop and go around it, or they would have to punch through the facade. Shells overflew them and struck ahead, ever closer. There was no time for a debate or an alternate route. Bonde raised his hand and waved everyone toward that building, and they pushed their horses to one last sprint.
The riders aligned themselves with the orifices, and at full speed their horses leaped skillfully through the ruined doorways and over the holes of the shattered windows.
They touched down on the overturned walls and without stopping ran through the ruined interior and leaped over a broken and upturned staircase to emerge outside.
Behind them the tanks stopped dead in their tracks.
As they galloped away they heard cannon fire behind the ruin.
Squadron III maintained speed for a few blocks, until they realized the pursuit had ended. They regrouped and slowed to a trot. Leander put his head to the neck of his horse and rubbed its head. He could feel its belabored breathing and quickened pulse.
“Is everyone all right?” Bonde asked. “Anyone hurt?”
“I’m alive, somehow.” Elena said. “And very thankful for a rural upbringing.”
“I’m alright.” Sharna said. “Not a bullet or fragment grazed me.”
“I’m fine. Not sure our horses have another panic run like that in them.” Leander said.
There was another blast, but this one was not from behind them.
They looked forward across the blasted landscape of the thoroughfare, and saw glass and concrete flying, smoke blowing and licks of flame coming from buildings.
“I don’t think our pursuers were alone.” Elena said in a choked voice.
All across the thoroughfare concrete doorways and window-frames burst open onto the street and concrete alley walls blew suddenly apart. Across a half dozen blocks on the leftmost side of the thoroughfare Nochtish tanks began to extricate themselves from the ruins in groups of two and three, revealing their own ambush.
From several alleyways the whining quengler guns opened fire on the runners ahead of Leander’s squad and killed many and their horses; and once they rolled out onto stable ground their cannons blasted the road at deadly ranges, tossing horses into the air and vaporizing men and women where they rode.
In moments it seemed like half their force had been wiped out.
One squadron in sight panicked and made the grave mistake of trying to run into an alley: from the perspective of the tanks, coming from one side of the street and facing the other, all this did was give them a target practice. Guns emptied mercilessly on them, and Leander thought he had never seen so much smoke and fire.
The alleyways would not save them in this battle.
“We can’t stop now! Run past them!” Bonde shouted to his squad.
Squadron III raced forward again across the ruined terrain, their horses working themselves raw once more. Leander felt terribly for the animals but they could not afford to canter in such a situation. All of the thoroughfare seemed still ahead of them.
Terrain was their last concern; before long an M4 had thrust out of a building and down a set of steps onto the street, making to block their way and establish a killzone. It threw itself forward and then began to reverse its direction to face them with its quengler. They were closing in quickly but its machine gun would tear them to shreds at this range.
Sharna was smiling, though from what nobody knew.
Leander glanced at her with a mix of awe and horror as she sat up on the horse and raised her BKV, the barrel extended right over his head. He ducked even closer to the horse so he wouldn’t feel the gas blown out of the muzzle brake. Seemingly without careful aim she opened fire on the tank, her finger rapping the trigger and her shoulder and arms absorbing the shock as the stock pumped back into her like a piston.
A barrage of 14.5mm rounds crashed into the tank ahead of them in a tight grouping. Sharna emptied the entire clip on the M4’s face, and her shots mangled the little bulb on the tank’s hull where its quengler machine gun was mounted. Unable to fire its machine gun and too close to use its cannon the M4 was silent as Leander’s squadron ran past it.
“Sharna get down, you’re going to be killed!” Elena shouted, but Sharna was not listening. Held up on the horse only by her legs and the rope she had tied to Leander, she loaded in a new clip, worked the bolt and aimed ahead again.
Leander resisted the temptation to stare: he had to keep his eyes ahead!
They raced forward through relatively open terrain – a terrible disadvantage in this situation, since their horses could clear obstacles but tanks couldn’t.
In this open stretch they were sitting ducks.
A group of tanks facing the other street swung their turrets, but thankfully not their whole bodies, around to meet the incoming riders. And those were not the only guns closing on them. Behind them the tank with the damaged machine gun turned its turret and readied to fire. Leander and his comrades were trapped in a crossfire of three tank guns.
“What do we do?” Elena shouted. Time was running short to make a decision.
“They could hit each other if they miss, they won’t shoot! Keep going!” Sharna said.
None of the M4s seemed to hear this argument, as their turrets locked on to fire.
“Scatter! Scatter!” Leander desperately shouted. “Get out of their way!”
All three guns opened fire with their first shells.
Elena and Bonde rushed suddenly rightwards, and Leander leftwards to evade. He felt a shell just fly past him, like a fist thrown by a god, rushing by his side with such force that he thought it would split him apart without contact. From behind them another shell thrust between their horses, delivered by the tank with the broken machine gun.
Flying past each other the shells struck armor.
In front of Squadron III a large hole appeared in the turret of one of the tanks, and fire erupted from its hatches as the explosives went off. Karma caught up to the assailant instantly, as the shell that had missed Leander struck the exposed back of this traitorously reckless tank and cooked the engine, setting off a vibrant explosion that covered the way behind Squadron III in smoke. The third shell overflew them and vanished into the smoke.
Again the squadron overran an assailant; but this one was well equipped.
Turning callously from the wrecks of its companions, the surviving M4 swung hastily around to chase them and claim the kills it had fought so recklessly for.
Faced with this threat Sharna suddenly shifted her weight: she turned completely around on the horse, and Leander thought all the Arjun’s spirits must have been with her, because she somehow did not fall. She leaned her back hard on Leander’s own and opened fire. He felt all the force of her shots transferring through her body and down his spine, and grabbed tighter on to his horse from the sheer discomfort.
It was like someone kicking down on his spine each time she fired, but it was effective.
The M4’s machine gun barely fired a burst before Sharna silenced it completely. Her fire did not abate. Sharna went through her clip, reloaded with haste and was firing again much faster than Leander thought possible. Her shooting was much louder too – and suddenly the tank exploded behind them, and even Sharna let out a surprised gasp.
“I did it! I did it! I destroyed a tank from the front with a BKV!” Sharna celebrated.
“It wasn’t you!” Elena shouted. “It was the 85mm! Look!”
Ahead of them the end of the thoroughfare was finally in sight, blocked by three tiered lines of low sandbag walls that provided cover for dismounted troops, and guarded by the thick square figures of the two Orc medium tanks. Atop a gentle incline well behind the last of the sandbag walls covering the approach, a single 85mm anti-aircraft gun had been depressed as low as it could go to enable it to attack the enemy tanks directly.
It had smashed through the glacis plate and killed the tank behind Squadron III instantly, and now the gun crew reoriented it.
However, despite being closer than ever, the way to the line was still barred.
Before Squadron III could even think to rush their way to safety, a group of three tanks extricated themselves from the left-hand street. They pulverized their way past a wall in one of the alleys and made for the defensive line at all speed, opening up with their machine guns and cannons against the sandbag walls.
Those few who had made it to the defensive line rallied and prepared to fight.
In retaliation the large Orc tanks advanced out into the road and opened fire, but their low velocity 45mm explosive shells hardly seemed to matter to the incoming M4s. The Nochtish tanks were pushing aggressively, and switching their positions constantly as they advanced in an attempt to avoid the 85mm gun.
Squadron III stopped in their tracks and regrouped.
“We haven’t lost anyone, have we?” Bonde asked. “Except Sharna’s pride?”
Sharna grumbled a little while reloading her BKV again.
“Sorry.” Bonde said. “Maybe I should refrain from jokes.”
“Why are they so zealous all of a sudden?” Elena said, crossing her arms and sighing. “Why would they take those shots if they knew there was a chance they could kill their own comrades. Are our lives worth so much to take?”
“Inexperience, desperation, overconfindence?” Bonde said. “Who knows?”
“I don’t see how four people on horses could make them desperate.” Elena said.
“Oh, I’ll give them something to be desperate about alright.” Sharna said.
Everyone grinned and sighed a little in equal measure at her vehemence.
“We need to link up with the defenders.” Bonde said. “That’ll take some doing.”
A pitched battle grew between the Nochtish tanks and the defenders on the line, cutting off Squad III’s access. They could not even run past the tanks again now even if they wanted to. It was a firestorm of machine guns and cannon fire from both sides: heavy shells from the 85mm crashing around the mobile Nochtish tanks, and the Orcs’ front armor withstanding several punishing enemy blasts and returning fire with their own guns, and small arms fire filling the gap between the forces without pause.
Should they overrun the tanks, Leander was certain they would die in the ensuing enfilade fire before reaching friendly lines. He sighed heavily, exasperated, his heart pounding non-stop. Now that he had time to think about things, all the terrible condition of his body, the wear, the stress, seemed to catch up to him all at once.
“What do we do now?” He groaned. “We definitely can’t go back.”
Bonde stared at the crossfire, crossing his arms and drumming his fingers along his sleeve. Several more shells were exchanged, and a chunk of the sandbag wall went up into the air and threw a pair of riflemen several meters back.
As medical staff rushed forward to take them, Bonde was deep in thought.
He muttered something to himself, and Leander saw a gleam in his eyes.
“At the FOB, did you two replenish your AT grenades?” Bonde asked.
“I did.” Sharna said, casually lifting up a grenade for him to see.
Leander checked his pouch and produced an AT stick grenade as well.
“Alright. Leander, leave your horse and climb on Elena’s.” Bonde instructed a puzzled Leander, pointing him to Elena’s horse. “I’ll take the reins on your horse. Sharna, give me your grenade; Leander, give Elena your grenade.”
“What’s this about?” Elena asked. “What’s your plan?”
There was a sudden explosion ahead of them.
A fourth tank blasted its way out of a building closer to the defensive line’s first sandbag wall. It was immediately met by the 85mm gun. One shell was all it took, blasting through the turret and disabling the newly risen invader.
But the three other tanks took the initiative and pushed to the defensive line, and were dangerously close to the defenders. One of the Orcs attempted a brave pushback, charging forward and firing its gun, but its front armor finally had enough.
An M4’s shell punched through the glacis plate and a second shell smashed through the turret, and it would move no more, the Ayvartans inside likely cooked by the blasts.
Leander found it hard to peel away from the sight.
Soon they’d have no defensive line to run to!
The remaining Orc scrambled back behind the sandbag walls.
Thin streaks of hot gas emanated from the 85mm as its crew reoriented the gun, loaded a new shell, and fired, striking the earth in front of the line of M4s and momentarily giving them pause. Its barrel was starting to wear out from all the shooting.
Bonde waved his hands together, capturing everyone’s attention again.
“We need to hurry here, and I’ve got a plan, yes. Everyone will have to get this precise, but it’s our only option at this point. We can take two of the horses and rush behind two of the tanks: Leander and Sharna will fire their BKVs into the exposed rear of each tank, and then Elena and I will throw the grenades over the engine compartment.” Bonde said. “That should be enough trauma to disable the tanks or at least distract the crews and give us time to run past and link up with the remains of the Company. Do you think so, Sharna?”
Sharna seemed still half-stuck to watching the assault on the line.
“Sharna?” Bonde asked.
The anti-tank riflewoman blinked and shook her head clear.
“Yes, the backs of the tanks have the thinnest armor. It should work.” She said.
Bonde smiled. “I trust your judgment on tanks. Does everyone else?”
Leander and Elena nodded their heads.
“You should trust it!” Sharna smiled and stuck out her chest.
“Then let us switch horses. We don’t have a lot of time.”
Leander and Bonde dismounted, leaving Bonde’s horse to follow however it could.
Leander found the result of the switch strangely, darkly humorous in a way: he sat behind Elena with his BKV over her shoulder, a facsimile of a tank. He was the turret, the horse was the hull. Bonde and Sharna had a similar relationship, albeit Sharna made for a more menacing turret given her skill. With one hand on the reins and another on the grenade, Elena and Bonde started their horses moving, first at a trot and then working up to a canter. Leander’s gun rocked from side to side with the moving horse, he could keep it steady only with great difficulty. Sharna seemed to hold hers perfectly straight.
Elena spurred her horse apart from Bonde’s, and they charged the tanks. One M3 assault gun on the periphery had no machine gun to harass them with. Two M4s, side by side, would be the targets. Leander struggled with all of his might to keep his BKV lined up with the back of the tank. Sharna opened fire first; Leander pressed the trigger in response and felt the stock bash into him, but he pushed forward into the shots, keeping himself upright and on the horse while firing. Sharna put a hole into the back of the engine compartment. Leander’s grouping was scattered but had served its purpose, weakening the armor. Neither tank took notice of them, with the defensive line in their sights.
Elena and Bonde stopped their horses within throwing range and cast their grenades.
Bonde’s grenade was right on target, exploding right into the hole that Sharna had carved for it. The engine went up in flames and the tank almost jumped from the violence.
Elena threw too hard and the grenade struck over the engine compartment, rendering Leander’s effort moot, but the blast was enough to light a fire over the engine.
Both targets halted their fire and their hatches went up, confused crew peering out momentarily, their periscopes thwarted. One tank began to back up in panic.
Squadron III quickly took the opening: Bonde and Elena cued their horses with the reins and sprinted past the damaged tanks as fast as they could.
The horses moved easily around the retreating machines.
They avoided incoming fire from their own troops, but thankfully the friendly fire was not automatic, and the troops quickly stopped shooting past them.
They closed their eyes; Sharna prayed to her Spirits.
Bonde’s plan proved good enough. In moments they cleared the first sandbag wall and ran past the 85mm gun and into the edge of the plaza, where several surviving horses had been hidden around the corner from the fighting. Everyone dismounted, cleared the sweat and the dust from their faces, and caught their breaths. Leander almost threw his arms around Bonde, such joy and relief surging through him.
“I could kiss that shiny head of yours!” Leander said cheerfully.
“Wait until we’re on the train.” Bonde replied nervously.
Behind them the crossfire at the defensive line had died out. They rounded the corner again and peered out carefully, but the tanks they had damaged had fully retreated into nearby alleyways, and the M3 assault gun had itself vanished.
Leander saw someone waving at them from the 85mm mount, and alerted everyone.
They ran down to the gun, past the mortars, two of which were completely decrewed; and one of which had been blasted to pieces by a shell. Sergeant Bahir was waiting for them, and he extended his hand to each of them, congratulating them on making it back. Leander counted perhaps seventeen other people at the line in various places.
“Your fighting spirit has not gone unnoticed, comrades. Squadron III has had the ancestors with them this day.” Sergeant Bahir said. “However, we are not yet out of the fire. We have to defend here. All of our fighting groups on the west and south thoroughfares are also at their final lines. We expect one more major push from Nocht before our train arrives. You have faced so much combat today, but this will be typical of the war if we must win. So I dare ask: will you fight with me on more time, comrades?”
“Of course we shall.” Bonde replied. Leander and Sharna nodded.
“Excellent! You do the Motherland proud. If I am ever in a position to do so, I will reward you for your efforts today, Squadron III. Now I must ask instead: do any of you have experience with the 120mm mortar?” Sgt. Bahir gestured behind himself, where one mortar was shot to pieces and the other two had been completely de-crewed, their occupants in a field hospital one way or another now. “My secretary and I can sight the pieces, but we need loaders. Unfortunately our crews suffered casualties.”
Elena fidgeted a little, but spoke up. “I can probably do that much.”
“Likewise.” Bonde said. “However, these two are anti-tank gunners.”
Bonde put his hands on Sharna and Leander’s shoulders. Leander looked at him critically for a moment, but then realized it was intended as a gesture of faith.
He also realized he knew not even the littlest thing about a mortar, other than it caused an explosion after some unimaginable process. Sharna, meanwhile, seemed very flattered, and crossed her arms with a cool grin on her face and posing confidently.
Sergeant Bahir nodded. “I noticed! We will need their strength on the line itself.”
Soon the sun fell in earnest, and the thoroughfare was cast into an eerie half shadow.
Streaks of orange light played across the road, while the streets were cast in a gloom. Without wind the smoke from the battle was slow to disperse. Leander could see dead horses from where he set up. There were around eleven soldiers on the line itself, counting himself and Sharna. Three others, part of Bahir’s HQ staff, crewed the 85mm gun, while Sgt. Bahir, his secretary, Elena, and Bonde, crewed the 120mm mortars behind the line. Leander guessed the remaining Orc had about three or four crew. So there were less than twenty-five people remaining to hold this line. Nobody had bothered to pick out the corpses from the destroyed Orc still burning away slowly in front of the defensive line.
Their souls now rested with the Spirits, or the Ancestors, or other forms of Gods; their bodies weren’t so important.
Sharna and he took cover behind the front line of sandbags. Standing, they reached only to the waist. Lying against them with their BKVs set up on bipod mounts, they were almost entirely hidden. Beside the footsteps of soldiers pacing and tapping anxiously, and the metal creaking of the Orc’s turret or the 85mm gun’s mount, the thoroughfare was quiet. Stretching far off in front of them it was a landscape of gently rolling smoke clouds, the smooth road pitted with shell holes and covered in dust and chunks and metal hulks.
This last stretch of the thoroughfare had once been open enough to have given them good sight lines, but with the broken tank hulls, the smoke, and collateral damage, visibility had been reduced. Everything reeked of hell, burning oil and gunpowder and smoke, concrete dust in the air. Leander’s eyes teared up from sitting near the front where it all still lingered. His body ached, and he felt like he had been pulled to his limit in a dozen directions by careless hands, his muscles loose and throbbing.
“How long do you think it will take for the train to get here?” Leander asked.
“No idea.” Sharna said. She was far more focused on the road than he.
Having properly sighted the mortars and left behind his secretary in case they had to be adjusted further, Sergeant Bahir rejoined the forces at the front of the defensive line.
From his belt he pulled a pair of binoculars and peered out into the thoroughfare for a moment. He put them down, and kneeled next to Leander and Sharna behind the sandbags.
“Comrades!” He shouted. “We are on the cusp of victory. One final time the enemy will strike us. He will come at us with everything he has. But we must hold this line. Hold this line for your comrades, for your motherland!”
Engines groaned to life in the alleyways.
Smoke canisters flew from the enemy’s positions to cover the road. A white cloud expanded across the thoroughfare and provided the enemy with cover.
Leander could hear the tracks, crunching debris as they went, and he saw distorted phantoms making vague movements out of the rubble and onto the road.
Enemy tanks advanced again from the alleyways, stacking up around the road and turning their strong faces to meet their guns and rifles. Sgt. Bahir raised his fist and the 85mm held its fire. They had limited shells, and within the smoke there was no guarantee of a successful hit. They would need the gun: it was their main defense.
Shells hurtled out of the cloud, crashing into the dead skeletons of lost tanks, falling at the edge of the sandbag wall, crashing over the line. The barrage crept closer and closer.
The defenders ducked their heads and held their positions, the shells now exploding between and around them. When a shell hit a column of fire and smoke rose for a second in its wake, covering a few meters around it. But the area set ablaze by a 50mm shell was limited, and they were spread out enough to survive the sporadic shots.
Only a direct hit from a shell would kill them, but the heat and the smoke and the flying chunks of cement were upsetting and gave the defenders pause.
Leander felt his feet shaking, as though his body was telling him to run. He swallowed hard and set his eyes down the sights of his gun. This was the kind of man he was.
Figures grew solid in the smoke as the tanks drew closer. Between the blasts Leander thought he heard concerted footsteps as the enemy’s men joined their attacking tanks. Gebirgsjager had probably combed the FOB, and now advanced with the tanks.
Sgt. Bahir raised his fist and then spread his fingers, opening his hand.
At once the Ayvartan line roared to life, with yells of “oorah!” as they opened fire.
DNV machine guns and BKVs and Bundu rifles; anything anyone had on hand they used to trade shots with the enemy. Muzzles flashed all across the defensive line.
Nocht advanced in an arrowhead formation of eight tanks around what Leander assumed was the CO’s tank, as it was clearly damaged from a previous battle and was not firing. Far behind them he could see reserve tanks hiding in the smoke.
Many of the tanks were unbuttoned, their commanders directing volleys of machine gun fire from the coaxial and frontal machine guns on every tank. Hundreds of machine gun bullets struck the sandbags and flew over the defensive line.
Several M4s unloaded their cannons as they moved, and many dozen men moved in tandem with the tanks, stopping and crouching to take aim and fire with their rifles.
Ayvartan machine guns swept across the formation, forcing the riflemen to use their tanks for cover and preventing them from threatening the shooters on the line. Sharna blasted the bulging frontal machine guns and the small holes housing turret coaxial guns, sharply reducing the volume of incoming fire. Leander aimed and waited.
“Vorwärts!” screamed the Nocht CO from the center of the formation.
“Hold the line!” Sgt. Bahir shouted. “Comrades, stand your ground!”
The 85mm gun creaked and whistled as the crew moved it, aiming for the lead tanks.
One heavy round went into the breech, and soared across the thoroughfare, smashing easily through the frontal armor of the spearhead M4 and destroying it. Like a phalanx, the tanks compensated for its loss, the back tanks moving around it and a new leader taking its place. The crew worked hard to reload the gun, but it was clear that they were long past the peak of their endurance, and the gun’s barrel was glowing red hot and smoking.
They loaded a new round and then waited, while cannonfire fell around them, creeping ever closer to taking the gun and its crew out. The Orc tank trundled forward to bar the way while the 85mm loaded. Its commander unbuttoned to keep track of the crew, to know when to move away. Acting as a shield was all the Orc could do.
Nocht’s CO screamed again, “Vorwärts!”
Sgt. Bahir replied, “Hold the line! For socialism, comrades!”
In an instant, the center tank fired its first shot of the battle, as directed by the Nocht CO. A 50mm high-explosive shell crashed directly into the sandbag wall and exploded, taking out a large chunk of the bags and tossing back two of the soldiers.
Stunned, the soldiers limped away to the second sandbag line.
All at once, the other Nochtish tanks started landing their own hits on the first sandbag wall, and the Ayvartans ran as fast as they could and jumped behind the second. This gave them only ten more meters on the quickly advancing enemy. Time was running short.
“VORWÄRTS!” the scream echoed across the thoroughfare.
Loud thunk noises issued from behind the Ayvartan line as Bonde and Elena dropped mortar rounds into the 120mm tubes and sent them flying high into the air to fall over the Nocht line. Finally Elena got to see their effects on the enemy’s tanks. Mortar rounds crashed around the advancing tanks, smearing riflemen across the road, pounding on the armor of the tanks. They were not designed to penetrate armor, but they left noticeable damage across the turrets and faces of the tanks, and each pounding shook up the crew and slowed the formation, buying just a few more precious seconds with every hit.
Facing deadly bombardment, several enemy tank commanders retreated back into their tanks, many closing their hatches just as a stray mortar round crashed atop their tanks. One good shot smashed the side of a tank and split its track in half. Hastily the formation compensated for its loss. They closed within less than 200 meters, practically face to face with the Ayvartans. Leander established himself behind the wall and aimed.
“Stand your ground for your very lives, comrades!” Sgt. Bahir shouted.
Despite the violence all around them, that center tank had never buttoned.
For a moment Leander had a clear look at the Nocht CO, a large man with a grim face, like a beast through the smoke. In the distance he appeared like a grinning, chalk-white monster, reveling as his forces devoured the terrain. He was like some kind of demon.
Leander set his sights a little above the man’s head and without thinking, pulled the trigger once, twice, thrice. He felt the punch of the gun recoiling in his hands, but he was trapped in time suddenly. He saw the rounds strike, wiping features from the man’s face.
His nose was a blur, his eyes disappeared, his mouth was sealed in red.
His face vanished, as though Leander had wiped the paint from a portrait of the man. He slumped forward, smearing blood on the pintle of the Norgler gun atop his tank, and then sliding through the hatch. There would be no more of that alien tongue screaming over the fighting. Suddenly Nocht’s formation slowed, and the cannon fire halted.
Their commander was dead. Leander had killed him.
“Sharna, I think I hit someone!” Leander said, tapping his comrade on the shoulder, his mouth running before words could fully settle in his brain. Sharna looked up from her own sights in confusion at the slowing, quiet tanks.
“I think you did as well.” Sharna said in a distant, incredulous voice.
They then felt a rumbling across the ground that quieted them as much as Nocht. Sharna looked over her shoulder, and Leander followed; he saw a trail of smoke above the plaza and heard the loud whistling of a massive train.
“Stand your ground, comrades! Our ride is here! We have survived the day!”
Sgt. Bahir stood up from the ground, and raised his fist into the air suddenly.
Before them, the Nocht formation erupted into flames as a massive shell struck the two lead tanks with such force that it ripped their turrets from the hulls and scattered them in pieces. Men were sent crashing across the rocks, and those on the periphery caught fire on their cloaks and jackets as burning shrapnel flew every which way.
Nocht’s advance halted immediately, and several tanks reversed as fast as they could, bumping into each other in disarray and panic as the artillery fell on them.
As one the defenders watched in awe as a second heavy shell fell and in a massive explosion tore apart three tanks covering the flank, leaving behind hulls that looked as though crushed under the feet of a giant, and covered in thick, black, choking smoke.
“That’s a ‘Vajra’ gun!” Sharna said in awe. “203mm. Spirits defend.”
Leander peeled his eyes away from the chaos and saw Sgt. Bahir’s secretary using Elena’s backpack radio. They were likely directing the fire on the thoroughfare from the train’s gun. He could hardly believe such destruction was possible.
Nocht was completely scattered.
One final shell and Leander could not even see the enemy anymore through the smoke and fire. They had been erased from existence. What Leander did to one man’s face just happened across a whole mess of tanks and men. He felt the rumbling of the shell falls across his chest, and heard the blast booming inside his head.
In his eyes the fire was trapped. He was purely in awe.
“Retreat to the train yard, comrades!” Sgt. Bahir shouted. “We must depart!”
Stumbling over sandbags and their own rifles the dazed and astonished trickle of soldiers, maybe eight or nine survivors at most, made their way back to the railroad. Some rode their horses, but many were so confused they were simply leading them along. Leander was one of them, blinking and hardly able to think. His own power seemed so shallow and small compared to such a thing! As he neared the rail yard he saw that massive gun, mounted on its own car in the armored train, firing incessantly to cover them.
A crew of twelve swung the piece around and focused fire on the central thoroughfare this time, now that the southeast was clear of the enemy. Men and women rushed into the infantry cars, and the surviving Orc tank took a concrete ramp onto the platform, and then climbed a special loading ramp onto its own metal container. Several goblin tanks from the Western thoroughfare, all remaining horses and a few trucks carrying surviving artillery pieces and crates of munitions were quickly loaded onto the train.
He felt Bonde’s hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake again. He was at the platform. He had been walking all this time, but he was so out of it he did not notice. As he came to this realization an orderly took the horse from him and led it away.
“Get on the train. We’re going now. We lived through it!” Bonde said.
“Come on, Elena and Sharna are already inside.”
Leander shook his head to clear it. “Oh, I said I would kiss your head.”
“I would rather you didn’t.” Bonde said, raising his hands nervously.
They climbed aboard an empty train car and sat in a corner next to Sharna and Elena. Several more soldiers arrived soon from the other thoroughfares and packed in. It was only an infantry car because it had slits out from which they should shoot. In reality it was a very bare car with nowhere to really sit but the floor. Elena unfurled her bedroll against the corner so the squadron could have something soft to rest their backs. Leander breathed heavily, and wiped the sweat from his face. He had survived. He had lived through it.
“Good work taking out the commander.” Sharna said, throwing an arm around Leander’s shoulder and pulling him close to herself, grinning all the while. “I saw it, right here! This boy, he blasted Nocht’s lieutenant right off his commander’s seat.”
Elena and Bonde blinked, and then cheered and patted Leander in praise.
Everyone else in the car, the eight or nine survivors of 824 Lion Company, clapped their hands and added their own compliments. It was a bright spot to them all in the confusion and for a moment they all reveled in it, and Leander thought they might throw him around the cart in celebration. He smiled a little, but had a hard time cheering.
“I did not do much! He was going to die anyway.” Leander protested.
“That doesn’t diminish what you did! That was a real hard shot you must have taken, Leander! Without any training!” Bonde said.
“I would rather shoot a tank next time.” Leander replied, laughing a little.
The train whistled again several times. Smoke started to rise overhead. They felt the car shake a little, and move. It was time to go: they had everyone and everything that could be taken from Knyskna. Slowly their train pushed forward, took a curve around the rail station and then hurtled its way out of the city again at quickly building speeds.
They were on their way to Dbagbo now, the territory adjacent Shaila.
They were safe. They had survived the Battle of Knyskna.
Leander sat back against the corner, staring at the BKV rifle laid beside him.
This was the man he had chosen to be. Or at least, that was what he thought.
He did not think he fully understood what that entailed yet.
28-AG-30: Djose Wood, 8th PzD Headquarters
Karla Schicksal pulled her headphones from over her ears and laid them gently on the makeshift table in front of her. She turned the knob on the radio, shutting it off entirely.
Overhead, Dreschner stared grimly at his own shoes, his hat pulled over his face.
In the gloomy interior of the Befehlspanzer, under the full Ayvartan moon, they were the victors, the takers of the spoils, the marchers triumphant. Knyskna was their dominion now. They had won, by the measure that Nocht used to gauge victory.
Oberkommando had its movement.
Now they just waited to know the price. Schicksal knew.
“Casualties are in.” She said, trying to render it in as neutral a voice as possible.
“Kunze is dead, isn’t he?” Dreschner said.
“Yes.” Schicksal replied. “Lentz and Reiniger managed to retreat in time to avoid the heavy howitzer barrage on the thoroughfares. By all accounts, Kunze and his men were completely lost to it. They were hit first on the arrival of the train.”
“Yes. They were the hardest running, the first ones into the maelstrom.”
Dreschner raised his hands to his face, rubbing his forehead.
“I was not altogether fond of Kunze. He was a wretch, but he had a knack for this line of work. Then I spurred him to die. I personally gambled with his life.”
Schicksal sighed. “We underestimated the enemy.”
Dreschner raised his head, and he stared at her suddenly as though surprised.
She felt a shock across her chest, as though his glance had stabbed her in the sternum and knocked her back. Her mind raced with reprimands to herself; she should’ve kept quiet, she should have stopped speaking out of turn a long time ago. And yet his eyes were not cold. He had a soft expression, like a parent looking fondly on a child.
He leaned back on his seat, with his hands over his knees, and gave a melancholy glance at all the maps, the photos, pinned around his space, the relics of this battle.
“We didn’t, Mäuschen. I underestimated them. And from me and my orders, it passed down to you, to Kunze, to all of them. I didn’t see that my hubris would become the hubris of the 8th Panzer Division. I didn’t see that my hubris, my pride, would kill us.”
Gently he pulled the photos and the maps down, and he crumpled them up and threw them out of the hatch. He sighed and drummed his fingers on the metal.
They were both quiet then, quiet almost through the rest of the night. Schicksal wondered if perhaps, it was not the hubris of all of Nocht that was becoming their hubris, appropriated by Dreschner, by the Lieutenants, all the way down to the troops.
Had it passed down to her too?
30th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
“Radio’s fixed! We reestablished contact.”
The Major looked over her shoulder from her desk, peeling herself away from the heavily marked maps and photographs strewn across it. She looked across the room, where the Secretary stood in the doorway, her hand on her heart and a little smile on her face. The Major nodded her head and the Secretary approached and sat across her.
“So, what is the news then?”
Her Secretary smiled wanly at her.
“Knyskna fell to the enemy, but they dealt a terrible blow to Nocht. Warden Kansal thinks she might be able to do something about the Council’s poor decision-making so far. Both their eyes are turning to Dbagbo now as the next major battlefield. Nocht has not yet moved toward it, but it’s only a matter of time until they do. The Warden also commends us on our brave efforts here, and asks that we hold on a little longer.”
“So; that’s useless.” The Major replied.
“It’s politics, you know. Let us hope it’s right politics, soon.” The Secretary smiled sadly and put her hand atop the Major’s, squeezing it in a gesture of solidarity.
Both of them cast their eyes together outside their window, across the ruins, where artillery shells fell unabated, and tanks rolled across the streets of the city. The sky was choked with smoke from fires and blasts, and hundreds, thousands, of soldiers fought across the blocks they could see from their position. The Major took in this sight, in part with melancholy, anger, regret, and in part with renewed determination.
Major Madiha Nakar, current head of Battlegroup of Ox as well the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division and the 5th KVW Mechanized Division, felt the tell-tale pain in her eyes, the eerie sense that blood was rushing to them and out of them, as she put her mind to work on a solution to the deadlock she and her forces had found themselves.
She had a battle to fight, and time was growing short. Nocht was closing in.
“So, what does this mean for us then? Knyskna?” Parinita asked.
“It means we’ll have to speed things up here.” Madiha said.
She looked out to a makeshift calendar on the wall, and swiped a little line across it with a pen. Hastily drawn up and written by Parinita, this record of their days was a grid of checkboxes to mark down.
At the top it read:
Adjar Dominance – Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”
[9th] Day of the Battle of Bada Aso.