This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
In the midst of war, her mind was subconsciously pulled back to Home.
And she thought briefly of the mountains again.
But there was so much more to say about the Kucha.
Among the villagers of the Kucha mountain range in the Adjar and Dbagbo dominances, the penetration of socialism was always small. Whereas the outside world praised the virtues of comrades who showed bravery, loyalty and wit in the Revolution, in the mountains the food delivery truck came every week and went every week, the hunters and loggers were not exactly unionized, and the villagers continued to talk of their own comrade, a folk hero whose adventures are taught to every child – Big Bearded Baaku.
It was said that his beard was so long he braided it like a woman’s braid, and he always dressed in a hermit’s robes. He lived outside of the villages, but he always shared his hunts, and he always planted a seed for every tree he logged for his cottage. He foiled many spirits and he commiserated with goblins and werehyenas, back in their own time.
Every child knew of his tales of valor and strength, and at least for a time, every child wanted to follow in his footsteps. He was the heroic comrade of their own revolution, one recurring each year, the revolution of living in a dangerous and distant place.
Because of his big beard, the smallest child of the Kajari family was always convinced that the Kajari’s paternal grandfather was Big Bearded Baaku. He had returned to the village after many years of absence, tentatively welcomed by those he left behind. The Kajari child was struck by the appearance of this outsider, and always called him Baaku.
Maybe he got lonely living outside and he finally settled with them!
Maybe he had finally bested all his enemies and made good on all his bets and debts to the strange creatures! The Child was convinced, and told everyone in the village.
Other family members grew a little exasperated with the child – oh what a flighty load, what a boisterous headache, what a strange and foolish child! A Child that loved to make up stories more than to run and fight other kids; that played chess with the elders rather than throw rocks with the boys; that covered up and wore shawls even in the Yarrow’s Sun.
A Child that acted a little too much like a Girl, some whispered.
The one appropriate thing the Child wanted to do was join the village’s hunts, and it was the one thing the Child could certainly not be allowed to do.
For his part, the grandfather never dispelled this notion, however.
He knew this Child was special.
Each year, around the time of the hunt, despite his prowess in the field, despite his stature and his storied career in traveling, soldiering; he stayed behind with the small child as the men departed, and personally took charge of the child. He told stories, played games and made guarantees – “when you’re bigger and stronger, you will go hunt too. I will go with you! For now little one, focus on being good, like your friend Baaku!”
The Child sulked.
“I want to go hunt – I’ll show everyone! I’ll catch the biggest Rock Bear!”
The Grandfather was patient.
“You need to get bigger before you can fight a Rock Bear! You’re too small now child, the Bear will walk right past you and not even realize that you want to fight!”
The Child shouted.
“I want to be as big as Baaku and show up everyone in the village!”
The Grandfather laughed.
“Someday you’ll have a beard as big as mine, big enough to braid, you will see. But don’t hurry to grow up just yet. Even your brothers had to wait for their beards.”
The Child would sulk, but the Grandfather would take the child’s long hair and braid it, in a thick, long, scrunchy braid, and the novelty of this would be enough to still the child for a time, until the next story, and the next sulk.
“This braid is like your own beard! In this way, everyone in the village has one!”
The Child laughed at this. It was silly; but pleasing, too.
In this way they carried on for many years.
This all came back to her, in the back of her mind, in a black and white mix of fear, fantasy, shame, and a little burning flame of determination she had yet to rediscover.
25-AG-30 Z-Company Advance, Matumaini Northwest
First Sergeant Zimmer was in a fugue state after the rout of the defenders at the Matumaini and 3rd intersection, his expression more alive than any of his men had ever seen it, with his eyes glinting, his teeth bared in a manic smile. Most of his platoons had survived, and his company still contained over a good hundred fighting men.
He personally volunteered himself and his men to Captain Aschekind, whose silence he took as an implicit acknowledgment of his mission. Pistol in hand, Zimmer immediately gathered Z-Companie sans a few stragglers and pushed through up the diagonal road in force, a single M3 Hunter assault gun following in his wake to provide supporting fire.
At first the company pursued an under-strength platoon of Ayvartan runners, twenty or thirty people running for their lives. They hardly shot back, and when they did it was a quick pistol shot, more an excuse to look over their own shoulders than an attempt to fight.
Ducking under and around rubble the communists tried to escape pursuit in the ruins, but slowly the territory cleared, and the treacherous, jagged roads and heaps of rubble gave away to clear pavement, largely untouched buildings and, broad alleys and long streets in proper order. Flight turned to desperate fighting retreat. Now these men and women ran over open terrain, and they had to duck into cover and shoot back more in earnest.
Despite renewed effort it was a one-sided fight.
Grenadiers took their pick of them, clipping heads and puncturing bellies from a hundred meters away at their leisure. Any chance the communists took to run was a chance they took to die, and when they took cover the Grenadiers gained on them.
This dramatically unfair carnage inspired many of the Nochtish men.
Zimmer seemed utterly absorbed in it.
The First Sergeant shouted and shouted, firing his pistol ahead, calling for targets with grizzly zeal, ushering his men into a frenzied run. Machine gunners held their fire, and the assault gun was utterly quiet as the riflemen and their commander charged, giving chase until they unknowingly straddled the next of the communist’s defensive lines on Matumaini.
They received only second’s worth of transition after crossing this invisible threshold.
Two kilometers up from the intersection, a lone bullet whizzed by Zimmer from a nearby rooftop, and struck a man to his right, perforating his neck. He dropped to the floor, clutching his wound in disbelief, pressing against the gushing blood with his eyes drawn wide; similarly stunned but much more alive Zimmer quickly hid behind a thick steel bin.
Scrambling for an exit, Zimmer aimed for a restaurant door a few meters away and smashed off the knob with a series of pistol shots. Ahead of him the street awoke with gunfire, and bullets started to fly the company’s way from just across the alley.
Communists with light machine guns and submachine guns attacked from inside the building directly in front of Zimmer’s advancing troops, overlooking their approach. Windows flashed an angry orange-red, and automatic fire covered both sides of the street.
Z-Companie had run gleefully into the next bastion of the enemy, but now lead flowed in opposition to them, and they were not so eager to charge. Zimmer’s men scattered to both sides of the street, huddling behind trash cans, hydrants and mailboxes, squeezing against doorways and in alleys. From behind his own cover, Zimmer called for backup.
He waved his hand to signal his men into the building, and more than a dozen complied, rushing from cover and throwing open the remains of the bullet-ridden doors.
Zimmer threw himself out from behind his metal box and ran inside.
Dozens of bullets struck at his coattails as he vanished behind the walls.
Inside the restaurant much of the seating was fixed around the edges of the building, so many of his men had to squat behind or lay atop long bench seats that were bolted along the walls. They kept their heads down near the long windows. Landsers huddled against every surface that hid them from the communist’s impromptu stronghold.
Zimmer had only centimeters of wall obscuring him from the windows.
He shouted at his men to fight, and they shattered glass with the butts of their rifles and targeted the windows and roofs, but the communists had perfect angles on the restaurant. While nochtish fire hit brick instead of window and bounced off the carved overhangs blocking the roof, the restaurant gained was immediately saturated with gunfire.
Every sliver of flesh that was not fully covered, elbows and shoulders and legs ill considered by cowering grenadier, were scraped and pierced and grazed by the storm. Flashing red tracer bullets ricocheting in the interior made the place look candle-lit.
Within this hurricane of bullets not a landser dared to shoot back.
Hiding in a corner, against a sliver of concrete between two windows and only barely out of the carnage that was consuming the rest of the building and street, Zimmer produced his radio and called the M3 assault gun bringing up the rear.
He peered fitfully out the window whenever the gunfire slowed, sneaking glances at the enemy’s positions and finding them almost exclusively settled on the upper floors. The enemy building and his position inside of the restaurant were separated only by an over-broad alleyway parking that allowed cars and delivery trucks to park beside the restaurant and unload goods and passengers – perhaps twenty or thirty meters at the longest.
“Six-V, fire high explosive on the building just ahead of the restaurant!” He shouted. “Concentrate on the upper floor, the two right-most windows from your vantage!”
These orders jolted their armor awake.
At once the M3 Hunter drove in from the side of the restaurant and veered slightly to the west to face its ill-positioned gun. Zimmer, pressed against the wall, felt a light rumbling of the gun, and peeked from cover to watch the destruction.
A well-placed HE shell burst through one of the offending windows on the uppermost floor and shattered the room, collapsing the ceiling from under a pair of machine gunners on the roof, and the floor they were meant to land on after, burying them in the room below.
Fires did not start but the expanding smoke and dust obscured the windows.
Following the blast the building and with it the entire street had gone silent, and Zimmer shoved a small group of his men out the broken windows of the restaurant. They crossed the alley and climbed into the building, under the watchful presence of the assault gun. They wandered inside the makeshift fort, and minutes later radioed in an all-clear.
Zimmer was not keen to leave his restaurant.
Instead he ordered the rest of the men out and ahead.
From the doorway, he raised his binoculars and watched his advance slow to a crawl.
His men crossed the street in front of the suppressed stronghold, and stepped across the adjacent alleyway. They were anxious and they walked slowly as crawling terrapins, as though inching across open streets and road would help them sneak toward the enemy.
Rifles sounded from up the street.
Sniper fire killed two men in the middle of the road.
At once the rest of his men scattered to a suddenly renewed roaring of rifles and submachine guns from the windows and roof of the next nearest building.
“Maneuver around the building!” He shouted from his window, urging the laggards across the road from him and from the fighting to move forward and engage.
Startled and anxious the men stole along the street to join the fighting.
The First Sergeant could hardly see the battle now, as it was moving farther from the restaurant. He rushed from the window of the restaurant, begrudgingly crossing the alleyway and into the building ahead, still hot and suffused with the stench of smoke.
He ran through the interior halls, and he found the place had once been some kind of office. Crossing from one side of the building, around the face, and to the other wall, he found the same men he had shared the restaurant with – sans a few, depleted in the interim.
Zimmer found the situation better in the office building than in the restaurant.
Sturdy walls and spaced-out windows gave clear lanes of fire and complete protection that allowed the men to exchange attacks calmly. Through an adjoining hall, Zimmer could see out to the street stretching in front of the building, and his men pinned down across the road. He hailed the M3 gun on the radio, urging it forward again to help break the deadlock.
It was the next building from the office place that was shooting at them now.
They would have to go house to house, it seemed.
“Fire on the uppermost floor, third window from right, Six-V.” Zimmer ordered.
He observed the assault gun driving past his vantage to the street, and once out of his sight, he heard its tracks turning and awaited the rumbling of the gun. He felt shaking across the ground and through the walls and with glee he heard the tell-tale noise of a nearby cannon shot. Zimmer shouted under the roar of the gun for his men to open fire again.
But there was no explosion, no shell flying at those damnable windows.
From the opposing building the communists retaliated in force, opening fire on him unabated, forcing his men back into cover again when he expected to have an advantage.
Zimmer turned from the side hall of the building, and looked down the adjoining hall to the street. He saw smoke trailing in, its source just out of his field of vision.
“Assault Gun Six-V do you copy? Six-V?”
There was no response on the radio.
“Hold down here!” Zimmer shouted to his men in the midst of the gunfire, and he sidled along the wall into the adjoining hall, and snuck out toward the front of the building.
Peering out to the street, he found the M3 Hunter smoking and burning from the gun mantlet and from an open hatch atop the hull. He could not see the machine’s wounds from his vantage, and its hull and the smoke drawing from it blocked his view of his street troops.
Then above the gunfire he heard tracks moving forward. Was it the M3 reviving?
Across the street a shell flew and exploded on the side of the office building.
Zimmer nearly fell, the walls and ground shaking around him.
He saw a flash and a brief wave of pressure blowing at the opposite end of the hall. Smoke started to stream out of the building. He turned and ran toward the men he had left, and suddenly he found himself exposed, a massive hole blown into the structure.
Around the dire corner there were men at his feet, burnt, concussed, all crushed under the collapsed wall. Zimmer paid them less attention than he did to the street outside.
Like a revelation from God, the hole punched so abruptly into the building offered him a view of his maneuver platoons splayed across the streets and alleys, and a roving green hulk driving from a nearby alley. Never had he seen such a large tank, three and a half meters wide, three meters tall, and perhaps seven meters long. Enormous. Massive.
Feebly he drew his pistol. The roar of the tank’s gun was the last thing he ever heard.
25-AG-30 1st Vorkampfer Rear Echelon
Luftlotte bombing had taken a heavy toll on the buildings of Bada Aso’s south district, but Von Sturm’s staff found a fairly feasible place for a headquarters. It was far from the front line on the southeastern edge of the city, close enough to the green fields on the edge of the hilly Kalu to smell the wind-blown scent of Lillies. Thankfully the stench of powder and burning had been blown out by that same wind long before the Grenadiers got there.
An old restaurant building stood untouched among a block of buildings completely squashed by explosives. To the last they had been smashed down to their foundations, left as bleach-gray holes in the ground. Corps staff let their imagination run wild and thought the restaurant was a lucky spot, a standing omen. There were five ruined buildings ringing the restaurant, and across the street from it three more ruins completed the formation.
The main road parallel to the restaurant was splintered and cracked and trucks driving over it teetered and shook as their wheels rose and fell with the terrain. Supply horses, of which there many more than trucks, tottered over the ruins with a confident step, but the wheels on their wagons took a beating atop the ruined earth. More than one shattered box, its precious contents spilled, lay forgotten on the sides of the road, fallen from convoys.
But the men were driving and the horses cantering, and the war machine was slowly shifting into position. Towing anti-tank guns and artillery guns, food wagons, the few cargo trucks and the many horse-drawn wagons of the Grenadiers and the Cissean infantry were making slow but sure progress on linking their forward units to much-needed supplies.
By nightfall, Nochtish generals predicted they would have three major artillery positions, five established forward bases, numerous roads open to their panzers and personnel vehicles, all of them ready along the edges of the central district, waiting to pounce on the heart of the communist defense in the valuable city center.
They expected that by the 30th Nocht would have full control of the city.
“Perhaps if that map is meant to depict a fantasy land!” Von Drachen laughed.
He regarded all of the planning maps on the table as some kind of elaborate joke.
People accused him of having strange humor, but he thought no humor could be stranger than the thought of taking this city in a week. Everyone stared at him. Staff crowded the table, coddling General Anton Von Sturm as he explained his ambitions.
Behind them, seven women in gray skirt suits manned a communications station, spanning the length of a wall, and handled all contact with the Vorkampfer and the 6th Grenadier, along with what little radio traffic Von Drachen’s Blue Corps generated. During the silence at the table that followed Von Drachen’s remarks, the room was filled with chatter, flicking of switches, the whining and scratching as signals were adjusted.
“Von Drachen, have you anything actually productive to say?” Von Sturm asked. “You’ve sent your entire staff god knows where and instead of talking to them I’m subjected to more of you, so I ask then, have you put any modicum of thought into how to proceed? Around this table we’re trying to plan a major offensive across the week. What about you?”
Von Drachen smiled. “As a matter of fact, I have a suggestion to make! You see, I don’t believe in leaving things up to raw data. It would be prudent to ask the men themselves what they believe they most need at this pressing moment to carry out their objectives.”
He turned and tipped his hat toward a young woman standing near the radios.
She was almost as tall as he was, quite tall for a lady, but slender and graceful, with soft shoulders. She was possessed of a saccharine demeanor, always smiling, very energetic. She had a small nose and big green eyes and short brown hair. Fluffy purple pom poms dangled from her earrings, which were surely not to regulation. Her name, if Von Drachen remembered it correctly, was Helga – Chief Signals Officer Helga Fruehauf.
She smiled graciously, and flipped a few pages on a clipboard when prompted to speak. Her voice was bubbly but her pronunciations and pacing when speaking were very precise.
Von Sturm grunted. “Fruehauf, any trend in the reports you’ve collected?”
Fruehauf stuck out her chest proudly. “Over the course of the 300 radio comms that have thus far been processed, we’ve heard an overwhelming amount of calls for artillery and air support against targets along Matumaini and 3rd, the Umaiha riverside, and Penance Road. Direct fire support from Assault Guns has been committed in only limited amounts, and indirect fire support of any amount seems to be of pressing concern to our COs.”
Von Sturm rolled his eyes, elbows against the table, his fingers steepled under his chin.
“Oh great, indeed, I shall heed the sage voices of our men as they quail and holler about bombing targets they’ve already captured and killing again men they’ve beaten. This would have been useful information to know hours ago, I guess!” He sarcastically replied.
Fruehauf bowed her head a little and looked like a scolded child.
Von Drachen cleared his throat. “Well, you did tell them not to bother you, hours ago.”
Von Sturm sighed. “That’s not my point you blathering beak-nosed idiot!”
Von Drachen quirked his eyebrow and raised his hand to his nose.
“Planning over those maps appears, in my experience, to be solipsistic.” He replied. “It is my opinion our men would move faster and more confidently if they knew a good gun or a plane could be counted on. This is information that we know from having spoken to men who are actively viewing the battlefield. I’m not promising that such things would have a marked or visible impact, as it is not in my nature to promise things; but clearly, it would be doing something in the here and now, and that seems more prescient to me than the divination ritual you’ve got going with these cartographers.”
Around the table several of Von Sturm’s staff officers sneered at this characterization.
“They’ve got the assault guns! And we lost our organic air support.” Von Sturm said, rubbing his own face. “So good luck getting them a plane. I’ll release an extra platoon of assault guns, and I promise you, Von Drachen, those of us who are actually working, and actually thinking about this operation,” he eyed Fruehauf and Von Drachen pointedly for emphasis, “those of us, we are focusing on how best to deploy our artillery for its maximum effect. That is what the data you so derisively refer to has been deployed toward, and that is one of the reasons for the maps you have taken great pleasure in joking about.”
“Ah, I think it is my turn to say you’ve missed my point!” Von Drachen said amicably. “You see, this is only an example, and I believe there is a wider lesson you failed to–”
Von Sturm covered his face with his hands. “Messiah’s sake, shut up Von Drachen!”
While the bickering ricocheted from one side of the table to another, a young woman conspicuously stood from the radio table, and crept shyly across the room toward Fruehauf, whispering something into her ear. The Signals Chief, in turn, crept toward Von Sturm’s side of the table, and waited uneasily for him to stop shouting and acknowledge her. With a heavy sigh, and after about a minute of berating the room, he finally did call to her.
“What is it now, Fruehauf? I thought I said not to bother me with minor reports.”
“Sir, I’m sorry, but we are receiving erratic reports from the South-Central sector.”
Von Drachen perked up from the stony, anhedonic face he made through Von Sturm’s shouting. A strange grin stretched ear to ear across his face. “Erratic how, my dear?”
Fruehauf continued to address Von Sturm as though Von Drachen was not there. “Several units in Matumaini sent forward platoons to link up the front along all the byways stretching from the main street; those units fell out of contact, and we’re receiving many requests to reestablish contact with them. Most of them have been in vain. We believe this signals stiffening enemy resistance. Some units are even reporting tanks counterattacking.”
“You could’ve just said the last line. No need to be so dramatic.” Von Sturm replied. “Release the anti-tank gun platoons from the regiments as quickly as possible and have them directly engage. Ayvartan tanks are no match for an AT gun of any size.”
Fruehauf nodded. “I shall have my teams pass along those orders.”
The Chief Signals Officer sat on the table by her other girls, and communications were feverishly reestablished and passed along. Von Drachen watched as for the first time, Von Sturm seemed to put away his maps and develop an interest in news from the front.