This story segment contains a minor description of drug use.
28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Adjar Dominance – Kalu Hills Southeast
Visibility in a tank was tricky even in good weather.
Before the driver was a thin slit and a large hatch – opening the hatch was inviting death or inclement weather and looking through the slit with strained eyes was almost no better than being buttoned down. A few vehicles gave a periscope to the driver. This allowed a limited field of view from atop the tank. However, few vehicles had a moving periscope for the driver. On most, it was a fixed traverse with limited magnification.
Seated overhead from the driver, the commander had a periscope and a hatch as well, offering a second set of eyes, but anything the commander saw had to be relayed down to the driver, this often resulting in a game of donkey party inside a multi-ton vehicle.
Unique problems presented themselves to the tank drivers advancing under the storm in the Bada Aso and Kalu regions. Dark clouds overhead seethed with lightning, and buffeting winds and battering rains worsened conditions on the irregular terrain of the Kalu. Periscopes became wet and the view through their lenses distorted; opening the hatches and slits exposed the crew to the cold rain and the minute debris carried by the wind.
Even with good equipment, vision remained limited to under a hundred meters.
Recon informed them with confidence that there was nothing in the wilds, but the leading Panzer platoons spotted alien eyes everywhere. Shadows and wraiths danced at the edge of their vision, taking advantage of their blindness. They had heard that Ayvarta was a land of magic and myth, a place where goblins and curses and witches still hunted for unaware prey. No amount of recon would assuage those primal fears of this old world.
Who could say the storm was not the work of magic, commanding the land to attack?
Regardless of worsening conditions, the 2nd Panzer Division promptly activated for attack on the 28th. At the head of the advance were scout cars and columns of light M5 tanks with their 37mm guns and sloped horseshoe turrets and tall engine compartments, driving along the main roads through the Kalu, such as they were.
Nuye Road was the main path along east Kalu, a wide dirt road winding through the most navigable portions of the Kalu’s hills, weaving through wood, across flooding ravines, circling rough escarpments of layered earth, precious little of which had been ground into surmountable slopes. Nuye started on the plains, rose along the foot of the thick Kalu in the south and bobbed up and down along the Kalu up to the Kucha in the northeast.
After rounding thirty kilometers from the starting point, a platoon from the 2nd Panzer Division’s 12th Leichte Panzer Regiment found itself driving across a fairly flat area of the Kalu, like a platter balanced precariously a step above the chaotic earth. Before them the path grew thick with shrubbery and packed clusters of broad-trunked trees with dozens of haphazard arms covered in frizzy green. It looked daunting in the gloom.
Vier platoon, as they were known to 12th Leichte, halted its march at the treeline.
A hatch opened atop the lead tank. Covered in his dark-green rain cloak, the Platoon leader rose out of his tank and stared into the shadows before him. Below him, the tank’s crew sat sulking from the sudden downpour falling on their shoulders and backs.
Ahead the road wound into the wood. Walls of green hid his flanks; he tried to peer through the gaps between trees, tried to see through that gloom. He saw shapes, but he saw shapes everywhere in the rain. He saw knife blows playing in the air wherever a branch shook in the wind, and he figures flitting in the shadows wherever a drip of water dropped from the bent arm of a tree. The Commander could not tell his fears from reality here.
In these wilds he saw a place of fog and confusion, where a man became a beast again.
The Commander shook his head.
He told himself that he was letting the nonsense of his peers get to him.
Mastering himself, hardening against these fancies, he descended into the tank, closed the hatch, and ordered the driver, and by extension his whole platoon, to move.
Within the trees the road tightened.
His tanks used to move in a square formation, four tanks forward, and one in the rear, his tank. Now the Commander ordered his tanks into a single file column. His tank, the lead tank, drove in the middle, the third tank in either direction of the five-tank line.
They advanced at low speed, turrets turned every which way. Due to the terrain and their uncertainty the charge had slowed to a crawl. While a straight shot into eastern Bada Aso should have been only forty or fifty kilometers of driving from the starting point, it was impossible to find a surmountable, direct route through the Kalu.
Cognizant of their difficulties, everyone was on edge.
A small voice sounded inside the tank.
“Gefreiter, permission to consume Pervitin ration for nerves.”
The Commander looked down at the radio operator with disdain. “Denied.”
“Yes sir.” There was palpable contempt in her voice, but he ignored it.
For the crew inside the tank, the stamping of the rain outside against the armor was growing almost as loud as the clanking of the treads and the chugging of the engine. This only increased the urgency with which the crew took to their periscopes and slits.
Someone shouted over the platoon radio – “I saw something!”
At once, the Commander alerted the driver. He cut the engine, as did every other tank. Frantically the periscopes swiveled, the vision slits flipped up, and the hatches burst open. Turrets turned in preparatiom, explosive shells were gathered and readied for battle.
Shadows, and the green wall at either side. Overhead, the black sky, the pouring rain. Cold and clammy in their uniforms, the tank commanders and the Platoon commanders stared dumbly about themselves. Lightning struck from overhead, and color inverted in the flash. Old figures in the shadows turned into new figures, but they were just the same made of the fog of the mind and the smoke of unrestrained fears. There was nothing around them.
Hatches shut again. A swift kick disciplined the jumpy gunner who called the contact.
In secret, the radio operator put her pervitin pill in her mouth and swallowed dry.
Platoon Vier advanced. The Platoon Commander called HQ.
“Still leading Tiger group. No contacts, false alarm. Please advice immediately if other elements of Tiger group make contact first. We will proceed to the rendezvous via the designated route. We are making 15 kilometers per hour at best here. Vier out.”
28-AG-30: Kalu Northwest – 5th Mechanized Division Rear Echelon
Unfamiliar voices in a strange language crackled through the radios.
“Löwe-gruppen, anerkennen. Vorrücken–”
Inspector General Chinedu Kimani interrupted. “Translate it for everyone.”
Signals were adjusted, the equipment fine-tuned, the voices became clearer. At the radio the operator, a polyglot, began to speak in tandem with the captured audio, and he put into familiar words the alien tongue emanating from the box. Everyone in the radio car with him and Kimani could now understand the captured radio messages.
Atop a nearby ammunition box a young woman took quick, sparse notes about each message. She drew lines and circles on a map of the Kalu, pinned to the wall near them.
“Lion group heading north through the Turh wood trail. No contacts so far.”
He put on a play by himself, taking on the roles of all the speakers. First was the man whose audio they first captured, the main speaker. Then a woman’s voice appeared as well. She was farther away, and her audio split and cracked more, but they parsed it enough to understand, and the radio operator translated it just the same. They had all the conversation.
“General Anschel wishes for you to advance on a tight front and make sure those roads are clear. You should be ready to move after advancing fifty kilometers or so.”
“Damn it, say something identifying.” Kimani grumbled.
She was frustrated, and her demeanor began to show it. She was not like her crew. Her voice had a somewhat hollow ring, but her lips could curl with anger or viciousness. She had regained some of what she had once lost. All of them did, some more quickly or slowly than others. It was never the same as it once was, except for anger.
Anger remained similar, though the frequency of it was altered.
“Please report any contacts. We do not expect much resistance.”
He did not switch voices to denote different speakers, nor did he gesticulate, or otherwise point it out. He translated everything he heard in a clear and unaffected stream.
“Acknowledged. We will report any contacts. However, under the circumstances, it is unlikely we will spot the enemy at any great distance. We will likely have to recon in force. Should we engage enemy positions immediately or wait for backup before doing so?”
“Engage, but if you cannot overtake the position, hold ground until a Three or Five can relieve you. Maintain visual as long as possible. Right now discovery is paramount.”
Kimani nodded her head. “Thank you, you fools. Given the context, this cannot be an M4 platoon. So it must be an armored scout car platoon, probably Sd.Kfz. D.”
She turned to the woman with the map. “Contact the Turh units. Let the cars pass.”
In response the woman nodded her head dutifully, and she turned from the map to a pack radio beside her. She picked it up and passed on the information through the handset.
“Relocate farther uphill while we still have some peace.” Kimani ordered. Ahead of them the driver raised her hands in acknowledgment, and then started the vehicle’s engine.
Inside a nondescript plot of woodland in the upper Kalu, the Adze scout car brimmed with life. Across the rotating machine gun mount atop its four-wheeled, long-nosed, fully enclosed, armored, sloping hull, the Adze mounted a large aerial that was constantly intercepting signals and feeding them to the unique, powerful radio equipment mounted inside. All this functionality bloated the Adze’s size, but there were plenty of places to hide in the Kalu. There was no shortage of hills, rocks, and trees to maneuver behind.
Black clouds stretched all the way across the Kalu, teeming with angry violet bolts of lightning. Rain fell thick and fast over wilderness, rolling down hills and across flats, making its way over the escarpments across the Kalu like miniature waterfalls.
The Kalu Hilltops was a region of chaotic shapes, a place of scarps and dips that began in the gentle territory south of Bada Aso, and ended in the mountainous terrain of the Kucha to the northeast, in the rocky coastline crags skirting the raised upper half of Bada Aso to the northwest, and in the flat terrain that preceded the border to Tambwe directly north.
Patches of forest dotted the short plains and irregular hills, each plot of woodland a few hundred meters in size. Man-made paths wove through most of them. Where forest did not grow, the terrain was too rocky and dense. Where ancient forces had left cuts along the hard earth little rivulets flowed, bolstered by unceasing rain over ditches and gullies.
The Adze and its crew traveled from one little patch of wood up a hill to another, and past that to a short plain atop a rocky escarpment. Its four wheel drive took well to the terrain. They settled on a high, rocky outgrowth that gave a commanding view of the rest of the Kalu. Normally this was dangerous, but nothing would be flying overhead in the storm, and nothing below would see them against the stone upon which they stood.
Kimani could sit atop the rock, collecting radio messages from the Nochtish crews.
The KVW was not just a military force, but an intelligence and security organ. Long ago, during a time of tumult, they learned to incorporate all of these disciplines into a form of revolutionary warfare that preyed on the strength and confidence of the enemy. Always overlooked, underestimated; that was by design. They were a small and unassuming force to the enemy’s naked eye, but they had all the information, fought from prepared positions, in a place filled with traps to spring, and with much of their strength cleverly hidden.
Radio was only one intelligence tool in an arsenal of many, but it was an important tool, and dedicated intercept crews such as those aboard Adze cars were always at work.
Interception was normally a tense and tedious job, where the operators waited for hours on end, finding busy radio networks, watching the traffic, slowly accumulating many guarded scraps of information, full of codes and secrets to decipher.
In Adjar this task was surprisingly expedient.
Nochtish crews enjoyed their radios and spent much time talking over them, constantly reporting and acknowledging. Busy frequencies tended to remain busy, and were not often switched across the days. Throughout the ensuing battles the Nochtish troops spoke almost conversationally, and their few code words were obvious and easy to decipher.
Whenever something important was gleaned from this exercise it could be quickly passed along to the other information crews across the battlefield, and down to field officers commanding regular troops. Interceptors were not alone in this endeavor; there were radio triangulators and range-finders, along with additional interceptor crews in their own Adze vehicles across the Kalu, forming a picture of the enemy advance.
From intercept vehicles, information that looked important and that was suspected to be composed of code words or red herrings could pass along to cipher crews, who were currently mostly unnecessary due to the simple plainness of the traffic; and to triangulators and range-finders who could find the direction of the transmissions to guide an attack.
That much was also unnecessary.
They had no way of launching an all-out counterattack.
Only small, limited, local engagements.
Unit compositions, headings and overall offensive plans were much more important to the current operation. Her troops had to know what was coming and when it was expected. This would help them decided whether to try to intercept the enemy at all.
“Let’s take some time to review the situation, and then contact ciphers and have them relay information to the KVW attaches in each unit via our codes. I don’t believe Nocht is monitoring our radio traffic, since their assets are still fluid in the theater, but it pays to be careful.” Kimani said. She nodded her head toward one of her crew. “Signals Officer Jaja.”
Beside the map, sitting on the ammunition box for the car’s machine gun, the young woman adjusted her glasses, and wiped some of her long bangs to the side of her head.
“Yes ma’am,” she replied. She cleared her throat. “For past three days we have been capturing radio chatter from what we have identified as the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions south of Bada Aso. These divisions constitute Nocht’s primary armor power in the region, and are composed of veterans from the Nochtish operations in Cissea and Mamlakha. At its base, each division is composed of Panzer Platoons of five tanks. We do not have confirmation, but we are operating under the assumption that these Platoons are formed into Companies of fifteen to twenty tanks, making up Battalions of fifty to sixty tanks and so on from there. Each Panzer Division likely has around 300 total tanks, so there are likely around 600 tanks in the Southern Kalu, compared to our strength of 400 tanks.”
“But this strength is deceptive, I’m sure.” Kimani said. “How much of it is light tanks?”
“That is one of the qualifiers I was about to address.” Officer Jaja replied, nodding her head. Like Madiha, she had served under Kimani for a few years now. She had tanned skin and bright, golden hair and green eyes, ringed by a slight red glow. She was much more Ayvartan than Lubonin, with no knowledge of tongues but their own, and without the sharp-shaped elfin ears. However, one could still visibly trace her diverse heritage.
She continued speaking promptly. “From the frequency of broadcasts, and comparing various callsigns and orders, we’ve found that over 40% of Nochtish radio traffic has been directed toward Light tank platoons composed of previously identified types – the 10-year-old M2 Ranger, now known as the M5, likely composes a significant amount of their strength. I’m willing to say as much as 250 or even 300 of those 600 tanks could be M5s. The M4 Sentinel, and the M3 Hunter assault gun, comprise the rest, along with a smaller amount of recon scout cars and support half-tracks of previously identified types.”
Kimani nodded. She started going through their own numbers in comparison.
“Of our 400 tanks, fifty are Hobgoblins from the 5th Mechanized. All of the tanks from Battlegroup Ox are Goblins, but at least they have the 45mm high-velocity gun, and many have extra armor. We have 300 of those. From the Svechthan heavy division we have twenty-five modified Goblins which they call the Yezh; and twenty-five Gori medium tanks, the capabilities of which I’m unsure of. So the situation is not as bad as it seems.”
“I’ve been told the Gori has a short gun, but is better armored and faster than an Orc.”
“Good then; it can group with and keep up with our Hobgoblins. Any chance the other, oh, 700 or so Goblins of the Battlegroup might be able to do anything for us?”
Officer Jaja shook her head. “Unfortunately not, Inspector General. Almost 500 of the Battlegroup’s Goblins are total mechanical losses. After demilitarization downsized the tank divisions, much of the stored equipment was wholly neglected, and much of it was improperly sheltered. Transporting it to where it can be fully repaired would be a waste of time for mere Goblins. Right now around 200 Goblins have been sent to Tambwe to undergo repairs, and will not be available for a long time.”
“What about the tank units operating in Bada Aso?”
“About 100 Goblins are fighting in Bada Aso, and word has it a quarter of those are already knocked out. So we cannot hope for reinforcement.” Jaja said.
Kimani crossed her arms. “To think, I’ve been dealt such a hand by destiny, that I would be grateful to have more obsolete light tanks at my disposal right now.”
She had spent almost a week out in the Kalu, organizing the mess of obsolete armor from Battlegroup Ox into a workable defense force in prepared areas around the Kalu, and reinforcing it here and there with more experienced troops from the 5th KVW Mechanized Division. Each of the Kalu’s defensive sectors she staffed with an ad-hoc “tank brigade” composed of fifty Goblins and five Hobgoblins. She had six brigades in operation. All of the Svechthan armor, along with fifteen Hobgoblins, she kept in reserve as a response force.
Every Hobgoblin was piloted by a KVW officer, and could carry out operations well owing to its firepower, armor and radio equipment. But she was overwhelmingly saddled with Goblins, all of whom had energetic but thoroughly inexperienced Ox troops instead.
Though the Ox tank crews were motivated, they simply lacked the experience to do anything. Mobile operations and any kind of offense were out of the question.
For one there were no real tank officers, only individual platoon commanders.
And many tankers were so out of practice with their equipment that they found it hard even to travel from one location to the next as complete units. There were tanks straying off target, forgetting to communicate in any way, and exposing their formations. Several tanks had their radios entirely stripped out, or never installed at all, so she ordered those Goblins to stick to the Hobgoblins like Chicks following a mother Hen.
It was maddening how ineffective her troops seemed in this time of dire need.
But she adapted, she had to.
Kimani played to their simplest strengths, and she kept them in the woods and behind the rocks, acting essentially as stationary sentry guns, waiting, watching.
Somehow, she instilled discipline enough in them to believe in that plan and follow it.
“Nocht still doesn’t know our full strength?”
“I believe not.” Officer Jaja replied. “We moved and conducted all our construction and preparations at night to prevent air recon from spotting us.”
Kimani nodded. Everything was established. Now it simply had to work.
This was all for Madiha – she had to protect Madiha, at all costs, and this was the only way that she thought she could. Right now the greatest danger to Madiha that Kimani could imagine were those Panzer divisions rushing up the Kalu to bite into her eastern flank. Such an attack would not only be decisive, it would trap the Major in the city with her troops.
Not the only danger, but the only one Kimani felt she could challenge.
She knew that Madiha needed her on other terms.
In many ways Madiha had never grown from childhood, because much of it was taken from her before she could experience it. For a long time, Kimani had considered this state of things tragic – especially as Madiha began to lose other people in her life as well.
Madiha always hid herself in the shadows of others, and she filled herself with them, and as time went on there were less shadows. Kimani allowed this because she did not know what else to do. Now she had inflicted upon Madiha a cruelty that Madiha herself had reluctantly accepted. Another shadow left her, exposing her to the harsh sun.
That was how Kimani understood things.
It was difficult, and she didn’t know if it was right.
But for now all she could offer was 400 tanks across a wide swathe of frontage.
“How are we doing infantry-wise?” Kimani asked.
It would not do to wallow in pity.
Officer Jaja didn’t even blink. She continued to speak, in a matter-of-fact kind of voice. “Major Nakar gave us two Rifle divisions to use but they’re not very well trained – therefore we’ve opted keep them back in reserve past the river to blunt a crossing or reinforce the city as necessary, and leave the infantry component in the Kalu itself to the 51st KVW Rifle Battalion in the forest. We have around a hundred infantry with each brigade.”
“Judging by our signals capture, how much does the enemy know about us?”
“I’m given to understand Nocht has no idea that any of these formations that I’ve detailed even exist yet. They do not know the extent to which the KVW is operating in Adjar, and believe Ox to still be commanded by Gowon. They believe the Kalu is clear.”
Kimani nodded. She crossed her arms and looked over the map of the Kalu.
“We can expect the Grenadier component of this attack to be small, since it must be packed into vehicles to keep up with the tanks, and those vehicles are at a premium since Nocht’s shipping capacity to Cissea and Mamlakha is limited. However, they are probably very well trained, and they are much more likely to see us coming. This would probably be an issue in good weather, but under this kind of storm they’ll be packed tight under the tarps of their armored carriers. Their training means nothing until they dismount.”
“I don’t believe their training will prepare them for this ambush.” Jaja replied.
That was the plan in essence. For Nocht to be so blind and dumb to the intentions of their forces that their carefully calculated attack became a mess, disrupted and terrorized at every turn. Everything was set. All they needed now was for Nocht to keep its schedule.
Kimani’s radio operator raised his right hand. Everyone turned to him.
“Receiving contact from KVW forces in Nuye. They have visual on the Tiger group.”
“Alright. Give them some noise for us, for as long as possible.” Kimani ordered.