The Battle of Matumaini II (13.2)

The story segment contains scenes of violence and death.

25-AG-30 Matumaini 4th, 42nd Rifles Rear Echelon

As the enemy pushed into the 3rd Battalion area, Corporal Chadgura, Gulab and the remainder of the 3rd Platoon were sent farther back, almost out to Sese Street at the edge of the central district. Nominally they were there to “refit” but it seemed that reinforcement was not forthcoming. This “refitting” took place in the middle of a main road and in two surrounding alleyways. Leaderless remnants of the 42nd Rifles’ 2nd Battalion waited.

Gulab stood with her back to a supply truck on the edge of the road, and Chadgura stood out in the middle of the car road and exchanged brief words with people going to the front. Everything around Gulab was quiet, and she was shaken by the stillness.

In that moment of stark silence that followed the chaos before, Gulab’s head felt like it housed a beating heart. Everything hurt, from her flesh, to her own thoughts.

She cast glum eyes at the Corporal, who herself cast a wan, empty look up the street.

Corporal Chadgura had saved her life; were it not for her, Gulab would be lying in the intersection with many of her comrades. And yet, the fact that Chadgura had nothing to say about that, nothing on her face, no the tiniest glint of pity in her eyes when Gulab peered into them – it unsettled her deeply. She wanted to know what would be made of her for her failure. She needed a reprimand or a dismissal, to allow her to carry on.

It seemed from Corporal Chadgura nothing was forthcoming.

There was painful silence.

Then there was a low rumbling and a labored metal clipping noise.

Gulab snapped her head up, startled by the sound of the tracks. Her head filled with images of the Nochtish assault guns that had devastated the carefully-laid defenses on the intersection, and she heard the cannons and smelled the smoke and iron. Her body shook.

Corporal Chadgura raised her hand and waved to the north. Gulab exhaled ruefully.

A column of vehicles approached them.

There were eight heavy infantry-carrier half-tracks in black and red KVW colors from the Motorized Rifle Division. Between them they carried a whole Company, 200 soldiers, 25 and a commander crammed tight in each vehicle’s bed, with two vehicles to a platoon. It was a handy contrivance, though the vehicles themselves were lightly armored and barely armed with a light machine gun at the top, shooting over the driver’s compartment.

None of the vehicles had their tarps on, so Gulab could see all the people inside the skeletal walls of their beds, all wearing the same dour expression as Corporal Chadgura.

Behind them followed a tank, though Gulab had never seen one it like before.

The Half-Tracks parked around the refitting area, in alleys and around corners.

Black and red uniformed soldiers dropped out of the half-tracks in organized ranks, carrying rifles of a different pattern than Gulab was used to. They were not bundu rifles, because they had a box magazine under them, and the wood had a black tint, and they were thicker, shorter. The KVW troops deployed with precision toward the fighting.

Two platoons strode forward, side-to-side in a rank that covered both streets, with one platoon following – a triangle formation. One platoon was in reserve, and these men and women stood silently along with the survivors of the 42nd Rifles’ 1st Battalion.

Meanwhile the Tank drove to the middle of the refit area and waited, cutting its engine.

A man clad in red and gold approached Corporal Chadgura and he saluted her.

She saluted back.

His sharp and prominent facial features, a strong nose, thick lips, a heavy brow, and narrowed eyes, conveyed a grimmer expression than seen on the other KVW soldiers, but Gulab surmised this was not his own doing. Chadgura’s own dull expression in comparison was a product of her softer features. When the man spoke tonelessly she knew him to be the same as the Corporal; his voice was no more nor less emotive than hers in any way.

“Corporal Chadgura, Command has called for the counterattack to begin.” He said.

“Yes sir. What role has been assigned to me? I wish to participate in the battle.”

The KVW Lieutenant craned his head to give the refitting area a brief look.

”I’d say you have about a platoon’s worth of good soldiers. Leave behind any who are wounded. They needn’t expose themselves to further harm. I am putting the Ogre tank at your disposal; lead it around the alleys and buildings in a surprise attack against Matumaini 3rd.” He pressed a portable short-range radio into Corporal Chadgura’s hands. “This will allow you to communicate with the tank. The crew is fresh and will need your support.”

Corporal Chadgura saluted again. “Yes Lieutenant. I have experience with this.”

“The Motherland counts on you comrade; may you be guided to victory.”

Chadgura left the man’s side, and ambled toward the 3rd Platoon in the alley.

Gulab thought she was heading straight for her.

She had overheard all of the conversation and had it clear as day – she was coming over to tell Gulab to round up the wounded and leave. She herself had been hurt in the fighting, and Chadgura knew this. From the moment the Corporal stepped into the alleyway however Gulab was determined to fight. Her heart was racing, but she would not accept being either dead weight or an afterthought left in the refitting area.

“Permission to speak, ma’am!” She shouted immediately at the Corporal.

Corporal Chadgura blinked. “You don’t need permission to talk to me.”

“Ma’am!” Gulab saluted stiffly and raised her voice. “With all due respect, I understand that I have not acquitted myself to the standards of excellence that are expected of a socialist comrade in this most esteemed Territorial Army! I have been mildly injured and I have become distracted! But I feel a terrible fury toward the imperialists, and I understand now the stakes we face! I wish only to ask you for a second chance! I wish to impress upon you in the strongest terms that I am a capable warrior who will prove invaluable! In the mountains of the Kucha I hunted deadly Rock Bears with the men of my tribe, and though at first I did not fully understand nor respect my prey I came to learn its strength and defeated it, and proved myself to my ancestors! I wish for you to give me the same second chance that my Grandfather did, so I may amend my earlier mistakes! Thank you for listening and considering me, Corporal! I hope my words speak true to you Corporal!”

Her tone had risen almost to a shriek and tears welled up in her eyes.

She delivered her filibuster, and saluted again after a few seconds of utter silence.

Corporal Chadgura blinked again, twice.

She rubbed her eyes a little.

Everyone left in the 3rd Platoon was staring silently at Gulab. Gulab began to shake a little, but held her stiff and awkward salute. She avoided the Corporal’s blank gaze.

Her story was a touch embellished.

“It was not my intention to dismiss you. I apologize for upsetting you, Private Kajari. I should have been more open with you; but I have a latent anxiety toward communication.”

Corporal Chadgura saluted. She raised her voice. It sounded oddly hollow and forced, a poor attempt to be emphatic. “I think of you as a valuable comrade, Private Kajari!”

Everyone else in the Platoon looked confused. Now Gulab just felt like a bully.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Gulab muttered, bowing her head low.

Corporal Chadgura clapped her hands once as though she wanted to hear the sound.

“I have not forgotten that you are part of my command cadre, Private Kajari. I’d like you to help me quickly form a platoon, and to send the wounded on their way.” She said.

Gulab felt a pang of guilt.

Of course; that was why Chadgura was approaching her all along.

Feeling ashamed of her insecurities and embarrassed by the show she had put on in front of the Platoon, but putting it all temporarily aside to perform her work, Gulab helped the Corporal gather volunteers for the ad-hoc platoon. She rushed from person to person on one side of the street, explaining briefly that they were following the tank to perform a flanking attack, and as such they would not suffer the brunt of the enemy fire now.

This characterization of the mission appealed to several people, but many were still too shaken or wounded to participate. Fifteen minutes later Gulab and Chadgura had gathered about 35 enthusiastic people in three squadrons around the tank.

“Congratulations, 3rd Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon.” Chadgura said in a dreary voice.

She clapped her hands twice this time in front of her face.

A KVW staff aide in a skirt uniform helped pull a crate over to the new platoon.

They deposited their bolt-action Bundu rifles, trading them for submachine guns with drum magazines. For the squad leaders, the Corporal, and Gulab, new rifles were procured, fitting the KVW’s odd new pattern. Much to Gulab’s surprise, this new rifle was automatic. Corporal Chadgura explained the action briefly – a switch on the side for automatic or trigger-pull fire, and an option to press down to trigger the automatic fire immediately. She fired off an entire 15-round magazine into an empty window nearby to demonstrate.

“This is a Nandi carbine. Be careful not to waste ammunition. Fire in short bursts.”

Chadgura briefed the squad leaders on more than just the new rifles – with a map of the Southern district they quickly drew up the best way to sweep around the buildings. Gulab stood with the Corporal as the squad leaders took amicable command of their troops.

Once everyone was ready to move the Ogre started its engine, and with Corporal Chadgura at the head the assault platoon got on its way. Gulab marched alongside the Corporal, out of the refit area and down the street, a kilometer behind the KVW’s push back into the embattled Matumaini. They marched with two squadrons forward, the Tank and the Command Cadre in the center, and a squadron trailing behind; another triangle.

“Up ahead we will be making our first detour.” Corporal Chadgura said. She raised her radio to her ear and called the same command into it for the benefit of the tank crew.

First detour point was a long alleyway between two small tenement buildings that would lead them west. Chadgura ordered the tank ahead to start clearing the path.

Slowly and brutally the Ogre forced its way through, smashing a long wound on both walls at its sides with its armored track guards and breaking through a separator at the end with its sheer weight and strength. A simple push against the brick wall toppled it.

Smashing into a broad courtyard, the tank stopped, waiting for the rifle squadrons to catch up. Awed by the size and power of this strange tank, the platoon hurried, all the while stealing glances at the machine’s handiwork. From the courtyard, they would cross into a long alley and push their way south. They were a few hundred meters from the road.

Before they got going, the Corporal extended a hand to Gulab, gently slipping her fingers between Gulab’s own and guiding her toward the Ogre. She gestured toward it.

“We must climb aboard the tank, Private Kajari. This is called riding tank desant.”

Gulab nodded nervously. Corporal Chadgura helped boost her onto the track, and then she climbed on the back and knelt behind the turret. The Corporal followed, easily climbing the tank, first pulling herself up the tracks, then behind it, over the engine block. She stood confidently, with one hand bracing herself on the turret and another on her radio.

Gulab felt the vibrations of metal transferring to her body, a constant stirring of her flesh from the tank’s booming engine behind them and the wide, thick tracks beneath them. The Ogre pushed ahead of the platoon again, tearing down another separator wall and exposing the long alley between the tenement buildings along Matumaini’s western street.

Warm streams of smoke periodically rose from exhaust points on the back of the tank, and Gulab tried not to breathe it in. The smoke was grayish-white and a little smelly but easy enough to avoid by sticking to the center of the tank and hugging the turret.

In the relative safety of the alleyways the platoon and the tank frequently traded places in the lead, and Chadgura stood more often than she probably would in battle. Gulab stayed on her knees, peeking around the side of the tank frequently, practicing by aiming her new rifle at things. She felt anxious and tense. Every building they passed was quiet and desolate.

Gulab had never been in a big city before. To her, the alleyways were like a maze and even the broad intersection they had fought to defend was akin to a cage. In her village houses were separated by dozens of meters of green rising and falling around the dirt roads. She lived on a low peak and yet she could see the whole mountain range from her house.

Comparatively Bada Aso felt flat and tight, though it seemed to curve subtly, so the visible horizon was nearer than she thought it should be. It did not need to fog to cloud her vision, for there always seemed to be something in the way. And yet it felt even less alive than the emptiness of the open mountain. Most of the people had gone. If there was an innocent soul remaining in these tight, gloomy buildings and streets, it had her pity.

That place of her youth was not this place. Then again, she too, was not the same.

Other people might have noticed something in Gulab’s eyes, but Corporal Chadgura did not. She was absorbed with her map, and with her radio. She called in commands, pointed out walls which could be pulverized, buildings which could be driven through.

The Ogre smashed through a tenement wall, ran over an entertainment room for the tenants that had been stripped of its television but not the chairs; they smashed through a small desolate infirmary where only educational posters about the stomach and lungs remained to denote it as such; as though walking through sheets of paper the tank smashed through wall after wall. Behind it, the infantry cast glances about, as if in an alien land.

When it finally came out the other end of the rubble, the tank waited until the infantry overtook it and led the way through a side-street, and into another alleyway. Distantly they heard guns and rifles going off on Matumaini, and the booming of mortar shells, and the thundering of hundreds of stamping feet. They neared their first combat objectives.

“Everybody keep your eyes peeled!” Chadgura shouted, insofar as she even could. “We will soon turn and thrust into the belly of the enemy force. I will be calling in targets for the tank. Space your formation, and selectively target enemies threatening the tank.”

Riding atop the monster of a tank, Gulab wondered what even could threaten it.

She felt utterly superfluous, and yet, still endangered. What was her small strength, to the thundering blows of two gigantic armies? She had seen it in the intersection, and she felt it now, in these desolate concrete halls overseen by the gray, darkening sky. She felt she had caught a glimpse of war’s true magnitude, and it unsettled her convictions deeply.

25-AG-30 Matumaini 3rd, 6th Grenadiers Advance

Machine guns roared from a clinic building at the end of a small byway half a kilometer from Matumaini. On a prominent balcony the gun, set on an anti-aircraft swivel, easily cast lead across the streets, a steady stream covering the approaches to the building.

Soon as the shooting began the landsers of the assault platoon dispersed into nearby buildings, beating down doors for access and setting themselves up on windows, trying to pick off the shooter from safety. But the advantage of high ground against the flat buildings surrounding it, and the thick concrete balustrade of the balcony, made this little gun position a virtual stronghold at the end of the cul de sac. Its shooting continued unabated.

Now the men in buildings could not leave – they would be picked off at the doorways!

“We’ll sneak up on it.” Voss whispered to his men. “We’ll go through the back, cross the street, and break into the clinic from the alley. We’ll disable it from inside.”

“You don’t think they’ll have someone posted there?” Kern asked.

“I’ll take my chances with riflemen on a window. Better than big guns on a balcony.”

Kern had no rebuttal to that. He followed Voss and his two original companions from the struggle on Matumaini, Hart and Alfons, out the back of the building. They smashed one of the windows rounded out the back to a tight space between the building and a brick fence, running along the buildings and intended to cut the byway off from other blocks.

Kern and his new squadron crept along the back of the building, and stopped at the furthest end still covered by the building, standing out of sight at the edge of the street. They were aligned with the clinic’s own little alley, and needed only to run out to it. There were only about twenty or twenty-five meters of separation between their alley and the clinic across the street, and the gun could easily angle on them while they ran.

“I’ll go first. If the gun gets me, don’t try it. Back off and call for help.” Voss said.

Hart and Alfons nodded their heads. Kern kept quiet.

The landsers parted as much as they could between the walls and allowed Voss to the front. He knelt, and looked out to the street and over to the balcony. Bursts of machine gun fire erupted against targets out of sight. Kern saw Voss counting with his fingers.

Moments later he found whatever cue he had been waiting for, and without further hesitation Voss launched out of cover, running as fast as his legs could carry him and his gear. He crossed the distance in under fifteen seconds it seemed, and unnoticed he dashed into the alley and waved emphatically for the rest of the squad to follow. Without organization the three men waiting behind the building ran out across the street as well.

Kern got a good look at the balcony as he ran.

He saw the fierce focus and determination evident on the gunner’s face as he watched the opposite street, raining bullets down on the byway and chewing up the nearby walls.

The squad squeezed behind the clinic without incident.

Everyone laid up against the walls, catching their breaths. There were no windows on this side of the ground floor. There was no door either – it would’ve opened up to brick. It wouldn’t even have been able to open up all the way! “Where to now?” Kern asked.

Voss, breathing heavily, pointed his index finger directly overhead.

“Climb on the brick fence, then to the second floor.” He said, inhaling and exhaling.

“We’re not Gebirgs Voss, messiah’s sake.” Alfons blurted out. Hart said nothing.

“You’ve got arms don’t you? Give me a boost. I’ll get you up.” Voss replied calmly.

Hart and Alfons knelt and pushed Voss up by the soles of his shoes, lifting him until he could grab the top of the brick wall fencing off the byway. He pulled himself atop the smooth brown brick. Voss looked over the wall in every direction briefly, and then gave an all-clear – it was safe to stand on it without being spied on. Carefully he raised himself to his full height on both legs, and he leaped from the brick wall and grabbed hold of a window frame. He pulled himself up into the clinic and leaned back out.

Hart and Alfons nodded to Kern, and boosted him up next.

He climbed the fence, and with Voss’ help he too made it to the window.

Inside, Kern drew his pistol. His rifle would be too long and unwieldy to fight in the building interior. It was gloomy but enough light came in from the gray sky that he could see the layout of the room well. He was in a clinic office. There were posters hung up on the wall, of children’s anatomy, their teeth, their hair; a basket of food in another poster perhaps suggested a healthy diet. Didn’t the Ayvartans ration?

Kern was struck by how peaceful and ordinary this scene was.

Places the enemy called home; and yet communism or not, couldn’t this have been a scene in the fatherland? Though everything was written in the Ayvartans’ script, illegible to him, he felt familiar to this vacated place. There was a small set of weighing scales, old wrapped hard candies overturned from a basket, and a colorful height chart, adorned with a cartoon giraffe, topping out at 140 centimeters. This was a small neighborly clinic for young children. The young landser felt tears almost rising to his eyes.

Why did this place have to be a battlefield? What was he even doing here?

Hart and Alfons climbed inside, and everyone silently grouped together.

They organized themselves by the door to the office, with Kern and Voss on the left side, and Hart and Alfons a few steps back front of the door. They opened the door – Kern and Voss raised their pistols to cover the right and Hart and Alfons looked to the left.

A hallway leading from the door ended dead on their left and stretched right. There was a door opposite theirs. Voss stacked up on it, and Hart and Alfons opened it, but there was no one inside – just another empty clinic office with a window. They pushed on.

Kern followed the squadron as they crept across the featureless hallway, following it past a long staircase leading to the bottom floor, and to the door at the other end. There were no other doors along the hall on either side except for that one.

As they approached Kern heard the blaring of the machine gun from the other side of the door. Everyone readied themselves to breach while the enemy was still unaware.

Voss counted to three with his fingers, then they kicked open the door.

Inside was a larger room than the office they climbed into.

There was no immediate resistance, and in their rush the men saw nobody along the desk or near the walls, nobody standing, and all their eyes turned to the balcony instead.

Voss, Hart and Alfons rushed to the curtains and opened fire, emptying their ten-round magazines on automatic mode through the cloth and riddling the silhouettes of the gunner and loader before they could launch a bullet more down on their platoon in the street.

Kern caught up and threw the curtains open – they found a man, slumped dead over a box of ammunition belts, and a woman collapsed over the gun itself. Both quite dead.

Everyone stood still, breathing heavily, their pistols raised on stiff arms.

Slowly they put down their weapons. “They had support at all.” Voss said.

Kern looked over the room again.

Here the cartoon giraffe was replaced by a taller caricature, a dragon along the wall, and the scales were larger. It seemed a more professional office, a bit less homey and innocent. Perhaps for older children and teenagers, and young adults.

Then Kern found a trail of blood along the floor, as though of a body dragged.

He raised his hand to alert the others, and slowly walked around the side of the large wooden desk, pistol in hand. He found life, faint as it was.

Two people had been laid behind the desk. One was a girl, looking very little past her teens, a thick cloth patched over her uniform on her shoulder, sticky and black with spilled blood. Her brown skin was turning a sickly pale, and she was tossing in restless sleep or unconsciousness. Another was a black-skinned older man, with thick, long hair on his head and heavy wrinkling around his eyes, but perfectly shaven cheeks and chin.

He was awake.

He looked at Kern with eyes pleading for mercy. His leg and stomach had heavy, wet cloths set on them, and he breathed heavily, but did not speak. He had lost a lot of blood.

Kern lowered his pistol, but he was immediately anxious.

He stared, not knowing what to say or to do.

Voss hurried to his side, and then stood in place as well, transfixed by the wounded communists, laying so vulnerable behind the desk. They had no weapons on them, and no capability to fight anyway. Kern didn’t even know if they could survive their wounds.

“Let’s just leave them.” Voss said, patting Kern strongly on the shoulder. He started trying to pull the stricken boy away. “Let’s leave them here to whatever their fate, alright? We disabled the gun, someone else can take care of this more properly than we can.”

Hart and Alfons nodded from across the room.

They did not seem eager to draw near the desk.

“Go out and signal the men that it’s clear.” Voss ordered. “And Kern, let’s go.”

He shook Kern more roughly, and the young landser drew slowly back from the wounded communists, until they were hidden from him again by the desk. How old could that girl have been? And how old was he, was he old enough to be in the midst of this? As he pulled away Hart and Alfons walked out to the balcony, shouting loudly in Nochtish, and when they found it safe to do so they also waved and jumped and tried to catch the attention of the men huddling in the buildings and alleys across from the clinic.

Klar, klar! they shouted, and men shouted back.

Voss tried to guide him back to hallway, but Kern was fixated on the desk.

“Come on, come on Kern; don’t get jelly-brained on me now, boy.”

It was shaking.

Kern saw strewn objects atop the desk, a pen, a little candy pot, shaking.

He pried himself loose from Voss’ grip and pushed him back. “Hart, Alfons, get back!”

Beside the clinic there was a rumbling and a series of thudding noises as bricks well.

Something had gone through the wall.

Rifles cracked from both sides of the street.

Noise; a deep, gaseous sound for a split second followed by a long rolling thoom.

Alfons and Hart fell back from the balcony in a panic, and Kern dropped to the ground with surprise. Voss rushed boldly to the edge of the balcony, kneeling and with his back to the wall. Through the balustrade on the balcony the squadron watched as the building across the street, diagonal from the clinic, burst suddenly and violently open.

A high-explosive shell flew through a window and exploded in the interior, casting a wave of debris and smoke from the windows, blowing the door from the inside out, tearing through the wall like paper and toppling men standing on the street nearby. Following the blast a torrent of bullets perforated the walls and showered the streets. Half the building collapsed, the roof crushing the porous wall, and burying whoever remained inside.

A massive tank cleared the clinic’s alleyway and became visible from the balcony.

Following in its wake was a platoon full of muted green uniforms.

“Scheiße!” Voss cursed in a horrified whisper. Kern was mute from the sight.

“Hart, you’ve a panzerwurfmine, right?” Alfons asked, tugging on Hart’s satchel.

Speechless, Hart opened his pack, and withdrew the bomb, his hands shaking violently. The grenade had a round head affixed to a thin body with folding canvas fins. Kern had no idea how such a thing could even be operated, or what it would do to such a large tank.

“No, put that thing back!” Voss shouted. “No heroics. We’re leaving now.”

“Leaving where?” Alfons shouted back. “We’re surrounded! We have to fight!”

“We’ll go through the window in the office, jump the brick fence, land on the other side, and hoof it back to Matumaini. We can’t stay here! They’ll storm the building soon!”

Kern glanced over to the desk. Would the communists find their own wounded there?

“Let’s go.” Voss ordered. He stood first and quickly led the way out.

Kern followed unsteadily, his steps swaying as though he were in the middle of an earthquake, feeling his blood thrashing through his veins, his heart and lungs ragged from the effort to keep him standing. Hart and Alfon followed roughly pushing and patting and shoving Kern forward all the way to the office. Voss waved for a man to step out.

He practically shoved Hart and Alfons out the window. It was a five or six meter drop, not exactly pleasant. Kern leaped, and cleared the wall, and he hit his knees and elbows on the other side, rolling down a slight concrete decline behind an old house.

Voss dropped in last, and urged everyone to move, waving his hands down the alley.

Behind the wall they heard the tank gun blaring, and the crushing of concrete and wood.

“Wait!” Kern shouted. He couldn’t get the wounded communists out of his mind.

Back on the clinic balcony those machine gunners were taking care of their downed comrades as best as they could. And in turn, running away from the byway like this did not feel right. He was abandoning his own companions. They would be left there, forgotten, if nobody tried to fight for them. “We need to call this in. I’ve got a radio.” He withdrew it and showed it to Voss. This was the least he could do for the men dying back there.

Hart, Alfons and Voss stared at him a moment before conceding.

They huddled underneath the awning of a little house nearby, and away from windows.

Everyone was anxious, but they kept quiet as they set up for the call.

Kern pulled up the antennae on his radio and adjusted the frequency according to Voss’s officer booklet with the operation’s active channels. They quickly found the one.

He flicked the switch, and with a trembling in his voice, declared, “This is private Kern Beckert, 6th Grenadier 2nd Battalion. A massive tank is wiping us out!” He gulped and tried to control the shaking in his jaw. “Repeat, we are being overwhelmed by an Ayvartan tank. It is huge! It is nothing like those in the drawings. We need help. I repeat, 6th Division 2nd Battalion, we’re in a byway deep in Matumaini and a tank is driving us back!”

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