46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Morning
Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, 8th PzD Rallying Area
Though the dawn was hidden behind clouds and a cold drizzle, come mid-morning conditions were good enough for landsers to line up in front of the kitchen wagon. They found the offerings meager — they were out of fresh meat and eggs for the moment. Everyone’s energy would have to come from jerky, chicken stock, coffee, sugar cubes and bread. An aide lined up with a big tray, and soon brought the former Civil Canteen some food for Schicksal, Dreschner and Noel. She set the sparse breakfast on the war room table.
On the wall behind them hung the map. Positions had barely moved.
Noel thanked the staffer who brought them their coffee and biscuits. He took a dozen sugar packets from a nearby basket and a bag of cream and as if in his own world he meticulously fixed his coffee, ripping packets, tipping the sugar, stirring it in with the cream. He dipped a little bread square, tasted it, and smiled to himself. He nibbled on it while Dreschner and Schicksal stared sullenly past him, both looking worse for wear. Dreschner sneezed into an iron-cross emblazoned kerchief; Schicksal yawned into her gloved hand.
Even fresh out of his bed (the back of a half-track), Noel looked vibrant. Only his hair was a little noticeably messy; his uniform was pristine, he appeared full of energy and he handled his food with a certain air of grace and elegance that she rarely encountered. Schicksal wondered whether someone had misplaced a “Von” somewhere when naming him.
Dreschner cleared his throat. He looked solemn. “Captain Skonieczny–”
“You can shorten it to Skoniec if you desire.” Noel happily interrupted.
“Captain Skoniec,” Dreschner nonchalantly corrected, and cleared his throat again, “I must apologize to you for the disgraceful scene that you witnessed last night. I am ashamed of my conduct — as a General of this army I should not have lost restraint. Though it does not excuse my behavior, our Division is going through a difficult time. Emotions ran high; we recently held an honors ceremony for a deceased officer. We are near the front lines with limited supplies, and mired in bad weather. I assure you that the 8th Panzer Division is a professional force. Should you desire to file a report, I will fully cooperate.”
Schicksal nodded approvingly throughout the speech, trying to appear professional and supportive. She sat right at Dreschner’s side in the meeting, and nobody else was around. After days of being on her own, she felt like she was part of the process again.
“S’ok! I’m not one to get between a General and the discipline of his unit.” Noel said. “But please, please, avoid striking people’s faces in the future. It irks me.”
He pointed at his own face with that smug grin of his. “Faces are very important~”
Dreschner nodded. “Indeed. Faces are important. We’re sorry you had no proper reception as well. Everyone was busy and we were not expecting your unit so soon.”
Busy was selling the situation short. Dreschner had only just arrived back from Dori Dobo a day ago; Schicksal had hardly any time to talk to him yet. It seemed as if right out the doors of the liaison car he was already at work. Setting up Kunze’s ceremony; changing the line order of the 8th Division’s Panzer regiments; establishing contacts with the 10th and 15th PzD; reallocating their current supplies to make them last longer. He had segued sharply back into war. Schicksal followed him around with a radio backpack and tried to keep up.
But judging by the look of him, even he could not keep up with his renewed ambitions. His face was pale and the lines on his cheeks, around his mouth and under his eyesockets accented by fatigue. His hands shook a little on the table. Every so often his strong nose dripped, and the kerchief would come up to it, and almost as often catch a sneeze.
“Gesundheit.” Noel said, wishing the Brigadier General good health.
“Thank you. It appears you were transferred from the Weiss Abteilung to my command on the orders of Colonel General Ferdinand, correct?” Dreschner asked.
“Yup! Y’right! Old man Ferdinand took a liking to me, and he took me out of that dead end battalion right before it exhausted itself completely in Tukino.”
Schicksal had briefly heard of Weiss before the invasion — it was a battalion composed entirely of Lachy recruits, for tough missions. Lachy in the homeland were often seen as roguish and tough and thus capable of handling intense combat, such as pocket suppression and line penetrations. It seemed incongruous for Noel to have been assigned there.
But then, there was much that was incongruous about him. His uniform was the most obvious and visible difference. Dreschner noticed it; one couldn’t avoid the sight. It was similar to their own, but all black, from the jacket down to the trousers. His sleek black leather boots and gloves had a luxuriant sheen. There was no damage to it, not even light scuffing from day to day trials. It must have been new, maybe even right out of the bag.
“So you have spoken to the Colonel General directly?” Dreschner said.
“He gave me my awards and new mission personally.” Noel replied.
Dreschner rubbed his chin, looking over the uniform from across the table.
“I assume then that your out-of-the-ordinary garb has something to do with that. I have never seen its like before, I must admit. What does it symbolize?”
“Colonel General Ferdinand wishes for this Schwarzmantel to clothe new, stand-out units of panzer aces who have scored over fifteen confirmed tank kills.” Noel replied. He spoke as if reciting a poem, at times bringing his hand up to his breast like a singer.
Schicksal’s eyes lingered on the Captain; she found Dreschner goggling him too.
“How many men has the Colonel General gathered?” Schicksal quickly asked.
Noel made his v-sign with his index and middle fingers, and then extended his thumb. Three. “Me and my subordinate tankers, Corporals Dolph and Bartosz. We’re your first bit of reinforcements from the south. You can call us the 1. Jagdpanzerzug.”
The 1st Tank Hunter Platoon — an apt name for a trio with over 40 confirmed kills in total. Schicksal wondered whether Noel had even more than that, given his medals. He had three awards on his breast for tank kills. That must have signified more than 15 kills.
“I assume that Wa Prüf 6 is not far behind you then.” Dreschner said.
Noel replied, wagging his finger. “They should be here soon. I took the liberty of having my own tank brought in by transporter — my subordinates will drive anything but prefer M5 Rangers. By the way, I have my own driver already, and I’d prefer if it was just us inside the tank. So no crew assignments to me without my permission.”
Dreschner quirked an eyebrow, wearing a sullen, skeptical face.
Noel said this very casually, but two-man tanks were unheard of.
Dreschner relented quickly, however. “You know best, I suppose.”
Schicksal looked quietly between the two as they spoke. There appeared to be some unspoken understanding between them, one that she was not privy to.
“Well, Captain, it was swell meeting you; unless there is anything else I should know, I think you ought to meet with your men, and ready your vehicles.” Dreschner said.
Dreschner stopped from his seat and extended his hand over the table.
Noel stood and took the General’s hand with both of his own, holding the fingertips.
“I’m just the friendly, neighboring fairy.” He said with a little smile.
He gave Dreschner’s hand a few gentle, flicking shakes. Just as tenderly he let his hand go, as though setting down a little animal back on the table. He then turned with a flourish and strutted out of the building through the tarp hung over the front.
Dreschner turned toward Schicksal, and Schicksal stared back, both puzzled.
“An eccentric, I suppose.” Dreschner said. He looked at his hand.
“He likes to play tricks.” Schicksal said. She remembered the night before.
Dreschner nodded. Schicksal thought their business concluded, but the General did not follow Noel out the building. Instead he walked around the table and took Noel’s seat, directly across from where Schicksal still sat. He made himself comfortable.
“Mäuschen, let us talk.” He said. “I owe you an apology as well. Though I appointed you to assist me, I’ve been unfair and haven’t made any time to share information with you. I can’t expect you to do your job in the dark; I apologize for the inconvenience.”
Schicksal smiled and gathered a folder of papers from her lap. “I received the summaries of the strategic meeting, sir. They were sent via the encryption machine a day ago and I disseminated them to Spoor, Hedwig and Gloster’s HQs.”
“Splendid. Were you able to read and process them?”
“Yes sir. I looked over everything as keenly as I could.”
“Then have you formed any opinion on them?”
Schicksal scratched her mousy, wavy hair nervously. She looked down.
“Well, nothing informed, sir. Nothing useful.”
Dreschner crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes.
“Come now, Schicksal. You’ve had ample misgivings before. I would like to hear your opinion on our situation, from one analyst to the other.”
“All due respect sir, I’m just a radio girl.” She said, feeling suddenly bashful. She faked an air-headed little giggle to try to deflect from his examinations.
“Very well.” He replied, turning his head to the map on the wall.
She thought she heard him sigh, but perhaps she was imagining it.
When he turned his eyes back on her he resumed speaking, in a softer tone of voice. “I met with Colonel General Ferdinand in Dori Dobo; it was off the record and unexpected. He practically ambushed me on the day I was expecting to speak to the Field Marshal. That, I believe, was not in your summaries.”
“There was no mention of that meeting, so rest assured, it was off the records.” Schicksal said. This secrecy was a bit disconcerting. “Captain Skoniec mentioned the Colonel General too. Do you think he was also ‘ambushed’ as you say?”
“Those two definitely met, and I have some idea how that meeting went, judging from what the Colonel General shared with me. He has his eyes set on the 8th Panzer Division. The 10th and 15th too. He is looking to form a 2nd Vorkampfer Panzerkorps.”
Schicksal immediately saw where this was going. “So men like Noel will form the backbone of the force, a corps full of elite tankers with high kill counts.”
Dreschner snorted. “Perhaps. But right now all we have is a platoon of them. You can’t make a fighting force out of three men and their crews — but Ferdinand will expect me to make do with that until he finds more men. More men and more machines; new, untried machines that he thinks will become first-line vehicles. He is concentrating all that unproven power in my hands; banking personally on my skill to support his investment.”
“I– I see, General.” Schicksal said. She looked down at the folder of meetings summaries and telegrams and communiques from the past few days that she had neatly arranged. There was not one mention of the Colonel General’s patronage recorded in her little folder. She understood why Dreschner was so zealous and sullen since he arrived. She started to feel some of the unseen pressure of the expectations placed on them — she could only imagine how much worse it must have been for the General, who bore the responsibility of realizing these fantasies. He had to adjust his ambitions to realize someone else’s own.
The 1st Vorkampfer had blasted itself apart in Bada Aso. Their Division now had to prepare to become the 2nd, knowing full well that fate could await them. The 1st Vorkampfer was meant to be the vanguard of its army, formed from veterans with real combat experience mixed with raw recruits learning from the best. Judging by what Dreschner told her, their own mandate was even more stringent, and the results desired of it more dramatic.
It was frightening. In some ways it was exciting to be forming part of that, to be on the ground floor of an elite panzerkorps, but nonetheless, it was frightening. Her skin tingled.
“I think there is no one better qualified to lead such a force than you, sir,” Schicksal said. She believe it to a point; it was only partially meant as saccharine flattery.
“Perhaps. But enough about that right now.” Dreschner stared at her, and his eyes lingered critically on her own. She almost felt like raising her hands defensively. “Mäuschen, I’ve done my end of the information sharing. Now I want your end. That is an order.”
He steepled his fingers and grinned. Schicksal smiled back nervously.
“Yes sir.” She said. She developed a very light stammer. She withdrew her papers from her folder, including a paper map of the local combat area at the Sandari, and got started. When Dreschner issued an order, one tended to forget any misgivings regarding the task.
* * *
Dbagbo was a sensual sort of land, he told himself — it was muggy and moist, and though the ground and sky were dull the surroundings were fresh and vibrant. Insects played about the green grasses, sunflowers stretched out of puddles of muck, and the trees were still verdant. Everything between the surface and the firmament was full of romance.
Though perhaps Noel Skonieczny just deeply appreciated any place where he could awaken to the sounds of the rain without finding himself on a street, sopping wet and ill. A natural thankfulness arose in his breast that set his whimsical imagination alight.
Up until the last few months such simple comforts had been ephemeral to him.
He smiled now because it was easy to smile — he’d smiled in harder times before.
Though the Ayvartans had not launched very many long-range bombing operations, there was always the fear that they could hit an HQ and send many precious supplies and vehicles up in smoke. To this end, the 8th Panzer Division HQ kept its reserve tanks and some of its precious reserve supplies past the village clearings and under the canopy. Tents were raised, mines and tripwires set beyond the supply area to prevent incursions, guards posted.
As Noel arrived at the site, he saw ten vehicles in as straight a line as could be arranged between the trees, along with dozens of crates and a few guards. None of them was his new Panzer Modell Fünf Ausf. Zwei “Strike Ranger” or M5A2 S-Ranger. He would have noticed it immediately. There was no mistaking this model for the rest.
Particularly because he painted royal purple stripes on it, and gave it a name.
Lieutenant Habsburg, one of Dreschner’s loyal men from the Panzer Regiments, was in charge of overseeing the supply dump. They had very briefly met the night before when Noel made his debut in Silb. He was big, mostly nondescript, inoffensive guy. Buzzed head, square chin, tall, pretty green eyes. Noel thought he had a nice smile, but he saw it only in passing, because it disappeared the moment he called out.
“Hey there big fella! How’s my tank doing eh?”
Lt. Habsburg turned his head over his shoulder. He hastily put down an assault helmet that he was lovingly examining back into a crate full of very similar helmets, boasting strapped goggles and gas masks, decorated with little spears atop. It was a charming little moment that was instantly obliterated. Habsburg immediately swung around, stood up painfully straight and saluted stiffly. “Captain, sir! I’m at your disposal, sir!”
“Oh no, no, don’t do that. I don’t want that. I want my tank.” Noel said.
Something about the way people behaved around rank irked him. Noel had always thought he hated pedestrian disdain above all other reactions — until he met the contrived adulation that one earned when one had a higher grade of pins.
Lt. Habsburg was not catching on, and continued to salute. He spoke in the rhythm of a boot camp trainee addressing the abusive Sergeant. Noel could practically hear the commas out loud as he paused; a few felt as long as semicolons.
“Yes, sir, Captain, sir! Your driver, sir, he took it for a warm-up, sir!”
Noel sighed. That was too many ‘sir”s in a row for his taste. This was the kind of man who didn’t get called on to do anything important very often, Noel supposed.
“How long ago did Ivan leave this place?” Noel asked.
“Good man, please stop ‘sir’ing me, it’s annoying.”
“Um, sorry.” Habsburg bowed his head. “He arrived early to tune up the engine, so he said, and left about thirty minutes ago to take it around the meadow. He got permission from Spoor’s grenadiers, he told me, so I let him come and go.”
“Thank you Habsburg.” Noel smiled and clapped his hands together. “Then I shall sit on this crate of helmets and wait for him.”
“Yes– Yes Captain.”
Noel picked the crate lid from the ground, set it back on the crate and sat on it, staring out at the road with his hands against his cheeks, rocking his legs. A damp, gentle breeze blew through the forest, stirring the canopy overhead and lightly blowing Noel’s hair. He absentmindedly arranged some behind his ear on the left side of his face, wondering how it looked. He imagined that he must have looked like one of those post cards with the cute girls in dresses sitting at the edges of bridges and piers.
His erstwhile companion stood beside him and looked on without expression.
“Lieutenant Habsburg, what’s something that you like?” Noel said airily.
Habsburg rubbed his chin. “Something that I like, s– Captain?”
“Something that you like, yes.” Noel repeated jovially.
“I like animals Captain. I had a pet drake back home.” Habsburg replied.
“Bless your soul, Habsburg.” Noel said, and avoided further conversation.
Around a half-hour later, Noel heard the distinctive whirring of the Ranger’s engine and the turning of its tracks. He saw it from afar, coming up the village roads, weaving behind a group of houses and then driving onto the brush and into the thick of the forest. It slowed, shifting to a low gear, and cruised toward the line of parked vehicles. Though the M5A2 was superficially like a standard M5, it had a more steeply sloped front plate and a broader, longer turret, along with a modified gun. Noel’s version had two purple stripes along the side and the name Königin written in sloppy hand-painted letters on the side.
As it approached, the front hatch opened, and a young man stood partially out of it and waved. Noel waved back, and Lieutenant Habsburg stood at attention.
When the M5A2 came to a full stop, Noel walked out to meet the driver, who climbed out of the front hatch and approached with his arms spread. They embraced chastely — from Habsburg’s perspective anyway. After a moment they stood apart and traded smiles.
“Sergeant! How’s she running?” Noel said, hands on his hips.
Ivan saluted. “She’s running as smoothly as her Commander!”
Noel held his hand up to his mouth and laughed a pleasant oh ho ho.
First Sergeant Ivan Tyszka was the Captain’s esteemed driver. Though around the same age, Ivan was taller than Noel by almost twenty centimeters, and he was built up a little bit more in the shoulders and chest than the softer, svelter Captain. Ivan had an endearing style to him, a bit casually unfashionable; messy black hair, an awkward smile, circular spectacles and a pockmarked complexion; arms hanging at his sides as if he didn’t know what to do with them, bad posture, slouching a little bit. He wore the regular army grey.
“Did you try the supercharger at all?” Noel asked, leaning slightly toward the driver’s hatch and checking the gauges and sticks. The interior was still a little on the crude side in terms of layout and comforts, but everything essential had been installed.
“Not yet. Sorry. I didn’t want to waste any of it in case we needed to go into combat before we had access to refills.” Ivan said. He held a hand out to Noel, holding him cautiously as though the Captain was in any danger of falling into the tank.
Noel stuck his head back out of the hatch. “S’alright. We do need to be a little conservative. Glad you’re hear to set me straight~.” He put on a mischievous smile and affect.
Ivan’s face flushed very slightly. He chuckled and ran his hand over his hair.
“Do you know where Dolph and Bartosz went? Haven’t seen them since last night.”
“Might be out joyriding, I’m not sure. They like to get the lay of the land.”
“Hmph, how troublesome.” Noel coiled a little of his hair around his index finger. “I’d have liked to have them back by now, but there’s no taming those two.”
He turned his head over his shoulder, tilting it back a little with a grin.
“Habs~burg~!” Noel called out as if singing the syllables of his name.
Behind them they heard the sound of a helmet falling back inside a crate of helmets. Habsburg turned quickly around and saluted, standing almost as if on tiptoe.
“Yes Captain!” He said, averting his eyes nervously.
“Could you bring us some fuel? You’d know where it is better than I.”
Habsburg nodded stiffly, and marched around his crate of helmets to a crate covered by a camouflage tarp. Underneath was a metal box emblazoned with many dozens of flame symbols. While the younger men watched, he procured two pairs of jugs from inside this crate and brought them around the back of the M5A2. He stored two in side compartments for travel, then lifted the engine hatch and poured the other two inside.
Once he was done he walked back around and saluted again.
As Noel prepared to tease him once more, a loud horn sounded in the village. It was sharp and sudden enough to shake Ivan up, and it echoed through the trees.
“That an alarm, Habsburg?” Noel asked during a lull.
Habsburg nodded rapidly. “Yes Captain! You might want to check the old Ayvartan canteen where the General has set up — I think that’s the attack siren, sir!”
* * *
Schicksal quickly set up the map and pinned small red flags on two locations along the Sandari river, marking them “3rd” and “4th” Abteilungen. A third flag was pinned nearby, marked with a bridge symbol for the Pionierie. Gathered around the map also were, Dreschner, Spoor, Noel and Reiniger, sporting a patch over his nose.
“From what I understand,” Schicksal began, “last night the pontoon bridges were completed in secret and under cover of darkness by the Pionierie in areas with the smallest concentration of Ayvartan defenses. At dawn the Panzergrenadier battalions with light Panzer support managed to cross the bridges and launch attacks, taking sizable bridgeheads across the Sandari, driving Ayvartans back and establishing positions.”
She took a deep breath and continued. “All seemed to be going well, until a few hours ago. We began receiving reports of shots fired on the bridgeheads, and we wrote it off as perfunctory Ayvartan delaying actions at the time. Unfortunately, we seem to have underestimated their intentions and their capabilities, and the extent of their positions.”
Schicksal quickly pinned three larger flags across the Sandari, and one smaller flag behind the Panzergrenadier positions and on their own side of the Sandari. These flags were red — Ayvartan positions. Of which there should be none south of the Sandari. Reiniger and Spoor were puzzled. Dreschner grunted. They were coming.
“It appears the Ayvartans had hidden pontoon bridges somewhere farther northwest, though I have no idea exactly where. According to surveillance, an Ayvartan tank force crossed the Sandari to our side just off the 3rd Battalion flank thirty minutes ago and completely bypassed our positions along the river. They’re headed for Silb.”
“We have next to nothing ready to intercept.” Dreschner said.
Schicksal responded with a morose nod of the head. “There’s more, sir. Panzergrenadier recon advanced from the bridgeheads, and claim to have discovered large mobilizations of Ayvartan troops along the meadows leading to Shebelle. They say they’ve got three to five Divisions incoming. This is a major Ayvartan counteroffensive.”
“We’ll pull another Tukino then,” Reiniger said, his voice a little off due to his injury, “we’ll counter-counterattack faster and encircle ’em with the Panzers.”
Dreschner grunted. “Unlike Tukino this is all happening on soft terrain, along a river, where we only have two pontoon bridges for movement. It won’t work.”
Reiniger frowned deeply but bit his tongue on the subject.
“We’ve been receiving calls for air patrols and interdiction.” Schicksal said. “But we don’t have any air bases in Dbagbo yet so I wasn’t sure where to forward them.”
“Pass them on to the wing near Knyskna, it’ll be fuel intensive but they’ve got the range and we will need them.” Dreschner said. He looked around the room and spoke authoritatively. “Right now everyone must hunker down until we’re sure where the hammer is falling, and if necessary be ready to give ground at the bridgeheads. But our first priority must be to intercept those Ayvartan tanks and secure those hidden bridges of theirs. We can’t organize a defense with a gaping hole in our river lines.”
Noel smiled and raised his hand. “My men and I can sortie.”
“He’ll get fucking murdered,” Reiniger scoffed. He looked to Dreschner. “I’ve got reserve guys I’ve been breaking in and some M4s, we’ll handle it.”
Dreschner shook his head and spoke at first in a scolding tone of voice.
“This is not a mutually exclusive choice, Lt. Reiniger. Captain Skoniec, your men’s tanks are lighter and faster and as far as I understand ready to go, so you can deploy right away. Reiniger will follow up and support you once his forces are ready.”
Reiniger was openly displeased but made no further remarks.
“Overjoyed that we can work together.” Noel said sweetly. He waved a v-sign with his fingers and left the room with a cheerful strut, thinking that it would definitely not be necessary for Reiniger and his boys to follow him at all.