The Gates of Hell (9.1)

21-AG-30 Early Morning

Adjar Dominance – Village of Mapele, 2da Infanteria zone.

Charging across the border the Cissean Cuerpo Azul or “blue corps” was the first Allied force to engage the Ayvartans in combat, absorbing the shrapnel from their mines and the shells spat by their cannons. Thousands of soldiers of Nocht’s client state died ingloriously to open the way into the enemy nation, starting the march to end Communism.

Supported by Nochtish armor, Azul breached the defenses, and was then relegated to silence. Both divisions in the corps, the Primera and Segunda Infanteria, had been downgraded to mobile reserve status, and were essentially given busywork and chores to do now several kilometers behind the advance as Nocht took charge of the attack.

The 1st Vorkämpfer, an elite Nochtish force of mobile Panzergrenadiers and Panzer elements, took the lead of Generalplan Suden in Adjar, claiming key cities such as Dori Dobo that the Ayvartans strangely refused to defend. Their air cover raced again and harried the Ayvartan evacuations where they could, though it was soon apparent the enemy military had largely escaped. Ayvartan rail was far more developed than they thought, and their forces counted on a large, previously unknown motor pool for support.

As the Nochtish line incrementally advanced, bombing air fields and capturing major roads, the Cisseans combed through the little villages, the backwater towns. They checked for mines, they confiscated weapons caches, inspected their new civilian subjects and claimed whatever food, tools and vehicles the fleeing Ayvartan army left behind.

Brigadier-General Gaul Von Drachen had no opinion of these maneuvers.

His soldiers found them degrading. Their morale had become quite low. They winced under the despondent, confused, wrathful gazes of the villagers and townspeople. They confessed that they felt like thieves and bandits, like lowlives; they, and Von Drachen in turn, had been relegated to the job of a security division in the rear echelon.

A picture had been painted for them of this conflict but with every brush stroke they made they failed to reproduce it. This was not their glorious battle for democracy.

Von Drachen responded to every subordinate officer the same: “You’ve come under a delusion about your role in this conflict that regrettably only you can solve.”

He did not say this with an air of malice, but a smooth, unaffected tone of voice. He did not believe he was necessarily right. Nobody was necessarily right.

Regardless of their feelings, they had orders to carry out, and they did.

Under an autumn shower, Von Drachen’s personal convoy followed a muddy road through a small village, consisting of a town hall and a few small tenements and granaries. But these were merely a backdrop for the large fields of grain, lentils and vegetables that led into the village. Everyone here worked on the farm, or supported the work of others there. Thankfully for Nocht, this small farming village had not been evacuated.

Von Drachen took in the scenery as he rode on the side-car of a motorcycle, followed by two other motor bikes mounting Norgler machine guns on their side-cars, and an Sd.Kfz B. “Squire” personnel half-track bringing up the rear, with its broad nose and long, tall armored bed, carrying over a dozen security troops and staff in its protective embrace.

This last vehicle was a prestige token: the only one of its kind among the Azul corps.

They rolled through the rural landscape, headed for the center of the town. Lined up on each side of the road were the villagers, silently watching the vehicles pass them by, while a few soldiers silently watched over them with submachine guns in hand. Von Drachen thought he would see the Ayvartans in rags, but their coats and robes, their shirts and trousers, their dresses, looked as good as anything worn in his home province of Gracia. They stood there, picturesque, soaking up rain, over a hundred sets of eyes in captivity.

Von Drachen dismounted in the middle of the village.

Dozens of his men were hard at work searching the tenements, the town hall, the granaries. Out to their trucks they carried boxes of village books for the Corps Headquarters to translate. Men with detection equipment tiptoed further uptown to check the dirt road for mines. Lightly armed gendarmes gathered any native stragglers, checked them for weapons, and sent them out to line up along the road where they could be easily watched.

Privates searched for anything that could be useful to the Corps right away, such as food for the mess company, and medicine for the hospital company.

There was one obvious problem. Though the fields had not been cleaned of all their veggies quite yet, the granaries were empty, the town hall ransacked before Azul could claim it. Garbage bins sat full to bursting with the ashes of sensitive papers.

Von Drachen walked among the men, tipping the peak of his hat to greet them.

General!” they responded in chorus. Those with their hands empty saluted physically.

Que han descubierto?” He asked them. What have you found?

An officer stepped forward. “Nada pertinente al objetivo, General.” Nothing.

Las ordenes no han cambiado. Continúen.” Your orders haven’t changed. Continue.

Von Drachen sat on the steps to the town hall.

Azul‘s busywork continued under his wandering eyes.

For a time the rain abated, but the sky was still dark and nasty.

Over the continuing labor Von Drachen soon heard the sound of an unfamiliar convoy, a mixture of trundling noisy tracks and the thumping engines of motor bikes and cars.

He looked out to the road, and first he saw dust and exhaust smoke kicked up by the advancing column. Ahead of the vehicles was a light tank, the M5 Ranger, with a short 37mm gun that seemed like it had been wedged into the horseshoe-like turret shape, and a steep glacis. This small, quick, dull gray vehicle escorted three more Squire Half-tracks, a number of motor bikes interspersed between vehicles and a long truck, followed by a more robust M4 Sentinel medium tank far in the back. Past the villagers the convoy rolled.

Inside the village proper the half-tracks and motor bikes found places to settle, while the long truck pulled up in front of the steps. Its crew wanted to greet Von Drachen.

Panzergrenadiers from the 1st Vorkämpfer’s elite 13th Panzergrenadier Division.

A procession of men in thick greatcoats and black helmets left their transports and approached Von Drachen on the steps of the town hall. He made no move to meet them.

He barely acknowledged them at all.

At the head of the Panzergrenadiers was a blond man with a round chin and slick, shiny hair. He stretched out a hand, a large grin on his high, sharp-boned cheeks. Von Drachen casually shook with him at arm’s length, and then retracted his hand and laid it on his lap in a stiff, slow motion. The officer laughed openly at his mannerisms.

“Whatever goes on in that head of yours, Von Drachen?” He asked.

“I can’t quite explain it myself.” Von Drachen easily replied.

“I’m sure you can’t. What are you doing in this grain pit, pal?”

Von Drachen was probably ten years older than the young officer, but this hardly mattered to either of them. Von Drachen’s sharp, rigid facial features slowly contorted into a small smile, and he stood up from the steps and dusted himself off.

“We have been assigned to security and cleanup. We are picking through this village.”

Von Drachen stood at least a head over the panzergrenadier officer when face to face, but if anything the young man seemed to find this detail amusing as well. He craned his head to stare at Von Drachen with a defiant, perpetually amused affect.

“I saw the folks you had lined up outside. Mighty colorful, aren’t they?” He said.

“Pigmentation naturally shades this far south.” Von Drachen replied.

Again the officer burst into laughter. He looked at Von Drachen as though he could not believe what he was hearing, with the kind of surprise reserved for a shocking comedian. He seemed to find the entire existence of Von Drachen quite hilarious.

“So, you found anything yet? They hiding some actual weapons in this dump?”

Lieutenant-General Anton Von Sturm cast looks around the village, raising his hand over his brows as if to shield them from a nonexisting sun. He made a series of noises, ooh’s and aah’s like he found himself impressed with the Azul corps at work all around him. Von Drachen’s unyielding seriousness seemed to prompt him to act out even more.

The Cissean men looked back at him quizzically, but his own men stood in attention, humorless. Whether Von Sturm’s mockery was cruel or friendly, Von Drachen could not tell. It did not altogether matter what the intention was. It was immature and emphatic and perhaps unbecoming. But it was what it was and Von Drachen would not interfere with it.

Finally Von Sturm laughed. “Lots of effort for a bit of hide ‘n seek eh?”

“I don’t expect to find anything dramatic, but we have our orders.” Von Drachen said.

“Of course, it’s still valuable work you’re doing, very commendable.”

“Quite. I believe I have another village due after this one.” Von Drachen dryly replied.

Von Sturm covered his mouth to stifle another burst of laughter.

“A credit to the war effort. But regrettably, I’m here to pull you off this crucial task.”

From his great-coat, Von Sturm produced an official assignment letter from the Oberkommando. When they had the time or impetus to print this over the past three days, Von Drachen did not know. He read the brief assignment quite diligently.

Azul was to be part of the infantry component of a two-pronged assault on the Ayvartan city (classified in their documents as a Festung or fortress) of Bada Aso.

Attached to the orders was a small preliminary map and a summary of the operation’s primary positions. After three days of attack by the Luftlotte, the 1st Vorkämpfer and the 2nd Panzercorps along with the Azul corps and the 6th Grenadier Division would target the city primarily from the south while also attacking from the southeast toward the flank of the city via the Kalu hilltops. It was a simple plan, made simpler by their superiority in arms over the Ayvartans. Encircle the city and secure the border.

Azul would be inside the city, upgraded from reserve to first line troops.

“You’re welcome, by the way. I recommended Azul for this mission.” Von Sturm said.

“I do welcome a return to active combat.” Von Drachen said.

“I’m part of the strategic committee for this operation.” Von Sturm declared.

“So you did!” Von Drachen said. “I must admit I am surprised.”

Von Sturm raised a hand to Von Drachen’s shoulder and patted.

“Prove your commitment to the fatherland, Von Drachen. You Cisseans should stand proudly among the forces bringing democracy and progress to this place. But remember: nobody else gave you that chance but me. In return, I hope I will have your support.”

Von Drachen smiled again. This time almost as wide as Von Sturm.

His eyes narrowed, and his cheeks spread as far as they would go.

From his lips, came a sonorous, morbid laugh like a demon’s howling. Democracy and pride! Politics in the middle of war!  Oh, the boy had jokes!  Von Drachen laughed until he was hoarse, and the panzergrenadiers watched him as if he were about to leap at them.

“I admit it,” Von Drachen said through his fit, “you’ve got some good material!”

Von Sturm was no longer amused. He turned quickly around with a parting, “Just get moving.” He and his entourage returned to their characteristic half-tracks and disappeared down the road. Overhead, under the treacherously darkening sky, Von Drachen saw the planes of the Luftlotte on maneuvers, swooping over the villages spoiling for a fight.

He gave it perhaps a week until the city of Bada Aso was reduced to rubble, over which they could leisurely drive. Not because of democracy or honor or anything of the sort but simply mathematics, as Von Drachen knew them at the time. He was careful though not to be too certain nor too invested in these actions. He had a different set of goals than most of the Nochtish commanders, so he should not succumb to certainty.

21-AG-30 Morning

Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso

Over the past few days Bada Aso had seen exemplary weather, but on the 21st the clouds began to pack together across the sky and created an intermittent darkness. The Military Weather Service predicted a strong chance of rain on the 23rd and up. Parinita had heard Madiha wishing for rain to fall sooner, since any such disturbance would affect Nocht’s mobility and in particular the Luftlotte’s readiness in the air.

Despite Madiha’s wishes however, the rains had yet to visit ruin upon them.

Past the dawn the rays of the sun came and went at the whims of a gray sky, but there was still light coming into the office, and no pitter-patter yet on the glass. Parinita looked out the window to her new office, and released a long, deep, contented yawn. One shaking hand kept her pen hovering off her desk to prevent her writing unwanted lines. Her office overlooked an empty children’s playground, squeezed between two other buildings.

No children tumbled down the slides or climbed the bars.

They were either evacuated or with their families.

Parinita shook her head, trying to clear a cold fog that was settling over her mind, and she tried to regain her bearings. Table of Organization, right; she recalled that she was finishing a summary for the Major. She snatched the topmost folder from a nearby stack.

Labeled “Battlegroup Aviation,” it contained documentation about the air fields in the Adjar dominance: the planes kept there, state of readiness, and the number of trained crews and crews undergoing training, among dozens of other important facts. She flipped through the pages, yawning every once in a while, until she found where she had left off. She transcribed a number of things from the folder to series of templates on her desk.

This was her job; putting the final touches on Information Product for the Major.

Though she had another job, one self-imposed, it was much harder to explain rationally.

She returned the folder to the stack, and found another that was in need of transcribing. This one was a mess of gathered data on the Disposition of Armored and Motorized Forces. Her head began to ache as she looked through the data.

Several facts did not add up across her sources.

There was some mathematical game playing out before her eyes, where vehicles had been assigned overlapping categories like “cosmetic damage,” “extensive repair” and “needs replacement” all at once, resulting in confusion over the real disposition of many units. Though it was the duty of her staff to find ways to reconcile these kinds of problems, they had been rushed and stressed over the past few days. It was inevitable.

Sighing with frustration, Parinita reached out over the stacks of documents and folders populating her desk, and took the rotary dial phone there and pulled it up over all the mess. She rolled the numbers on the dial and pressed the handset to her face.

A young man picked up. There was a bit of commotion behind him. “Yes ma’am?”

“Bhishma, come up here and help me reconcile the auto-workers union archives with the data we collected from the engineers in Tiffils. One or the other is either wrong or trying to embellish the numbers. Put aside whatever you’re doing right now.”

There was acknowledgement over the line, and Parinita hung up, and waited.

As Staff Secretary, Parinita oversaw many professionals at work.

She controlled a Headquarters Company in the Army hierarchy.

Her company counted on a Signals crew who could be consulted on communication equipment and methods; Operations staff who helped to plan maneuvers (in this case the defense of the city); Administrative staff who gathered information from after-action reports and informed the staff at large of readiness and efficacy, as well as overseeing training and equipping of troops; Logistics officers of utmost importance, who tracked the flow of supply and the sustainability of operations; Intelligence specialists who compiled reports on the movements of the enemy, relying on data from scouts, and on various forms of surveillance; and even a Meteorologist who was in contact with the Weather Service and ready to advice the Army on the natural elements for or against their operations.

Bhishma worked in Administration, gathering much of the troubled vehicle data.

A few minutes after the call, Bhishma and his three aides joined her, pulling up children’s desks around Parinita’s grand wooden desk and looking over the data one more time. He was nervous at first, and shied away from eye contact; but Parinita was gregarious and easy-going and managed to diffuse the tension and get everyone working calmly.

She made sure that nobody was stuck thinking that it was their fault and dispelled any notion that punishment might ensue. Every problem had a solution, however belabored.

Working together they broke down their data back to its sources, isolated errors and made several more phone calls inside and outside the city to confirm and update their information. There was much shouting over the lines, back and forth, especially with the divisional maintenance crews that had been in charge of the materiel under Gowon, and were clearly unhappy with this level of scrutiny being brought upon them.

Thankfully, the staff was used to working over the lines.

Over the past two days they had been forced to gather data like this, talking with logistics and maintenance crews, with administration officials, with union managers, all of it over the radio, in the middle of evacuations, working out of the back of Madiha’s trucks. To do the same but in a comfortable office was child’s play in comparison.

Finally they were able to work out a much more accurate account of what Battlegroup Ox actually had to work with. Parinita wrote “793/217/490” next to Goblin tanks, for operational / undergoing repair / mechanical losses on her Table of Equipment and Organization. Similar but much smaller numbers arose for the Orc tanks. Spare parts availability for the Sharabha half-tracked truck was squared out. Fuel consumption and fuel availability for the diesel-engine tanks was determined.

In about an hour and spare change they had mostly fixed the data.

Parinita thanked Bhishma and his aides, and humbly they bowed their heads before they hurried out of the office and back to their original posts to continue their work.

Much of the morning was spent the same way.

Parinita looked over the work of her colleagues, cross-referencing sources and summarizing the information to produce Madiha’s Table of Organization and Equipment. Parinita was one woman, head of a staff, and a lot of the work on the document had been delegated. Much the same as she supported Madiha, who was just one woman and could never research and consume all of this data alone, her own staff gathered information to support her. Her logistics personnel, her administration personnel, her operational personnel; their disparate handwriting traded places across all these documents.

They worked relentlessly. She was supposed to have a staff of 70 to 100 people in war-time, including personal aides; there was no time to recruit more hands, so she made do with 30 people, and she was forced put in a lot of overtime work herself.

She started two days ago; now the table neared completion. After going through a stack of papers and figuring out a glaring discrepancy in the terms being used to refer to the formations documented therein, she put down three radar “units” each consisting, sadly, of only a single truck, into the ToOE. This detail completed the regional structure for the forces defending Bada Aso. Parinita had finished the product on time.

Parinita pulled up the papers and stared at them, half in a daze, numbers and figures still dancing in her head. This was her contribution to the war.

While her comrades prepared to die, she counted, and she wrote.

Sometimes it felt pathetic; but it was also all she could do.

And she wanted, desperately, to help.

She picked up the phone again and dialed the communications staff.

“We’ve got a Table ready to disseminate.”

“Yes ma’am, I will send someone to collect it. We’re still working on the printer.”

“No problem. Give my congratulations and thanks to everybody.”

She hung up the phone, and some childish part of her wanted to toss all of the documents, to throw them into the air like confetti, to kick down all the stacks and roll around in them like fallen leaves. But she couldn’t; this all had to go to Archives.

Instead she settled for knocking the phone off her desk with a mischievous giggle.

Promptly there was a knock on the door.

An expressionless KVW guard entered the room and saluted her.

Parinita stood up from behind the desk, feeling a cracking sensation in her back and knees as she moved. Cheerful and with a mind still bouncy and high with a sense of accomplishment, she approached him and exchanged pleasantries – a strange event when it came to dealing with the deadpan KVW, whom she had trouble reading.

Hujambo Gange, what’s new since I last left the comms office?” She said jokingly.

Hujambo. I am here to collect some documents.” Gange said.

His tone of voice was terse and dry though not in a rude way; KVW people had a knack for sounding both apathetic and courteous. Parinita handed him the documents, which he carried in his open arms as though he were a human library rack.

“Also: a shower-head was installed in the second floor bathroom.” Gange said.

Parinita smiled. “Ah, thanks Gange! Now I can freshen up!”

She clapped her hands happily.

Gange bowed his head deferentially, turned on his feet, and left.

Parinita was not far behind him.

She picked up the phone, tidied the desk a bit, and went on her own way.

The newly-formed Battlegroup Ox Headquarters Company had chosen to establish themselves in a four-story rectangular school building looming over a fork in the road toward the north-center of the city. The building’s forward-facing windows gave the occupiers a sight-line several kilometers to the south, east and north.

It was perfect not just for an HQ, but to defend the main street.

All of the front offices bristled with machine guns and even a few 45mm anti-tank guns painstakingly pushed up the stairs. Soldiers worked in the forward-facing rooms, piling sandbags around window frames and walls to provide additional protection against machine gun and anti-tank fire. An 82mm mortar had also been set up on the roof.

Lovingly, many of the workers referred to the place as “Madiha’s House” though the commander had not yet caught on to the nickname. Parinita had given the order to “decorate Madiha’s house to the best of their ability” last night, and it had stuck since then.

Defensive emplacements in front provided obvious targets to assaulting enemy forces, so the headquarters staff worked out of the back. Overnight, dozens of people gave up sleep in order to prepare the space for the interminable hours of work that would surely follow.

Staff members and troops relocated piles of office supplies, heavy old file cabinets, typewriters and radios to the classrooms. They combed the building for anything useful and dragged it toward the back. Parinita mostly cheered on those stronger than her.

Ultimately she had gotten about three hours of sleep in a stretcher she had pilfered from the school’s clinic, while her writing desk was taken from downstairs and pushed up.

Thankfully, Parinita had done enough work to not feel completely worthless.

Having, in her mind, earned a good shower and a little more rest, Parinita took a flight of stairs down from the third to the second floor, where she heard a bit of a racket. She found a few members of her staff struggled to push a printing press the size of a large office desk into one of the classrooms. Once used to reproduce educational materials, they could now put it to work printing military literature. They had found it in one of the front offices, and had spent the better part of the night and morning relocating it to a safe place.

Parinita congratulated them on their progress so far and left them to their devices, squeezing past them, around the corner and into the adjoining hall with the bathroom.

Outside of it she found a rather moist-looking Madiha sitting on the floor.

She was fully dressed but only half-awake.

Hujambo!” Parinita said.

Hujambo,” Madiha half-heartedly replied, “I apologize for my current state.”

“Things finally caught up to you, huh?” Parinita said. “You should’ve slept.”

Madiha breathed in deep. “I went under the hot water and now I feel terribly sleepy.”

“Tut tut. You’ve got a busy day today, Major, you can’t just sleep in.” Parinita said, gently and cheerfully ribbing Madiha. “We have to meet Kimani at the rail yard, and inspect the anti-air defenses and the port. I can’t do that alone you know!”

“As of late I have come to regret much.” Madiha said, half through a long yawn.

Parinita beamed and patted her on the shoulder. “Take a little nap, I won’t tell anyone.”

There was a sense of relief, seeing Madiha this way.

Her eyes were in good condition. Parinita could not see the flames behind her eyes. They came and they went from the Major, working in ways no one knew. Thankfully they were dull now and Parinita did not need to worry. She could leave the commander there and know that she would not soon burn in her own flame as those old legends said.

Such thoughts were alien at first; now they flowed naturally with her new, strange task.

Past her commander, Parinita entered the bathroom and found the installation of the shower had been as barbaric as she had imagined. They had battered the sink off the wall and left it in a corner, and attached an extension to the water pipe that led up to an ordinary faucet. Sighing heavily, Parinita closed the door behind herself, undressed, and stood under the rushing water for a few minutes, scrubbing herself with hard bar of soap.

She understood how Madiha felt after a while.

Hot water pounding her head and back, steam rising all around; it was soporific.

When next she opened the door, she too was half asleep and barely through dressing herself. Gently she laid next to her commander, and they nodded off together.

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