The Benghu Tank War I (29.1)

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Plain

Though the sun had risen over Dbagbo, early in the morning the sky was so thick with clouds that a twilight gloom remained settled over the land. At dawn the glow of the sun diffused through the clouds allowed one to see through the rain, but one could not call it day.

Nine aircraft soared high over the plains of Shebelle, carefully divided into three tight, mutually supporting groups of three planes each. Clouds raged around them as though aware of their intrusion. They saw colored lightning crackling in the distance, and a buffeting wind brought the deluge right to their cockpit wind shields. One by one the aircraft banked down and to the right, slowly descending several hundred meters only to find themselves with much more grey beneath them and the unabating rain still around them.

It seemed that much like the sun overhead, the ground below was being denied to them.

“I didn’t expect the alto clouds to be this thick. What the hell is this storm?”

“Whatever it is, we can’t see shit Captain! We’re gonna have to go lower!”

“We’re not going below 4000 meters without a target, whatever the cloud cover.”

“It’s your call Captain, but I think we’re hopeless unless we shed some altitude.”

Reluctantly, the squadron leader ordered all aircraft down to 4000 meters over Shebelle. One by one the aircraft gently descended, again down and to the right. The Warlock dive-bomber was not an agile craft, it was monstrously slow compared to the Archer fighter plane and one could feel its weight when it tilted and banked. One propeller on the nose lifted the craft’s robust frame, with its distinctive gulled, inverted wings. Large, unarmored landing gear stretched helplessly below the craft and made a nuisance of itself in flight, but it allowed them to lift off and touch down from improvised airfields — the only reason they were flying at all today. Each plane’s payload of 500 kg worth of bombs was kept in a bomb bay in the belly on the craft. A tail gunner scanned the rear for contacts.

Warlocks were easy prey for fighters in the open air, everyone knew that much.

But nobody in this squadron had ever met the Ayvartan air force in open combat. In the first few days of the war they had bombed plenty of air fields in Shaila and never saw a fighter around. Some of them were starting to believe there wasn’t an Ayvartan air force.

Instead the fear of sinking below the 4000 meter threshold, a line that should not be passed without a target firmly in sight, stemmed from their position over a city. Everyone knew of the 500 air men who lost their lives to the withering gunfire over Bada Aso. It was a story that had passed around, exaggerated, over the past two weeks, but these men believed it strongly. They didn’t get to read the reports that equivocated damages and injuries and crafts “to-be-repaired.” They got to hear 500 casualties, over and over.

The Nochtish Air Force in its modern incarnation had never seriously been challenged.

Something about the sky around them took on a mythical character, and as they descended, the ground below them slowly revealed its nature as a vast, menacing foe. Through magnified bomb sights and rain-slick windows they surveyed the terrain.

“Messiah defend, look at the size of that. Do we have surveillance pictures of this?”

Shebelle was a humble city, home to scarcely twelve thousand inhabitants in peace time, with a low lying skyline, nothing like the massive spires of Rhinea’s cities or the vast urban sprawl of Tauta. A cluttered city center two or three kilometers long and wide was surrounded on its three southern-facing sides by staggered lines of small hamlets, like a shield set before the advancing front, and wide open plains to the north.

There were scattered habitations, lone cabins and small farmland and tiny three-house “villages,” all situated haphazardly two or three kilometers from the outer hamlets and the city. Though mostly flat and wide open the terrain around Shebelle also gently rose and fell, forming sweeping dips and scattered mounds with meadows between. Vegetation was intermittent and mostly diminutive, and hard landforms simple and sparse.

From the air, the sizable preparations of the city defenders were evident. Large and broad arrowhead trenches had been cut into the earth along the city’s outskirts. There were three main defensive lines, on the south, east and west of the city, each quite long and deep and composed of several trenches and positions. Large fortifications made of wooden logs and sandbags formed the joints between the trench networks, but pillboxes and cannon lines, sniper dugouts, gun nests were scattered all along the lines. There were men and guns, barbed wire, sandbags, and likely mines, in the outlying hamlets and the center.

“What do we even hit first? We’ll need a dozen sorties to make a dent in that.”

“Then we’ll sortie a dozen times. Right now orders say to soften up south Shebelle.”

“Lotta things in the south, Captain. Gotta pick one, do we hit those forts or–”

“Captain! I see a group of tanks and vehicles going out the main road.”

There was an exasperated sigh over the radio. “Problem solved, I guess.”

“I’ll deal with that column. Split up into flights. Take the two southern forts.”

Across the squadron every man responded in turn with an ‘Aye, Aye, Sir!’

The Captain smirked. “Hustle up. Infantry’s only an hour out from this mess.”

Flying in groups of three aircraft the Warlocks broke formation and descended on the southern trench grouping. Of particular interest was the column of vehicles moving south along the one main road running through Shebelle that bisected the city. The Captain claimed this as his target and led his flight toward the road. Even in the rain the enemy was easy to make out. There were fifty small tanks, likely Goblins, heading south to intercept the infantry; or perhaps to be dug-in as last-minute emplacements.

From an altitude of 4000 meters the Captain and his two wing-men lined up with the road and began their dive. Though the Warlock was clunky compared to speedy fighter planes it was a born and bred bomber with enviable features for the task. As soon as the pilot pulled back the dive lever, various assisting mechanisms came to life in the cockpit.

Red tabs protruded from the wings, signalling that the auto-pilot was properly engaged. Coolant flaps closed; soon as the pilot adjusted the throttle and threw on the brakes, the gyros kicked in and the aircraft practically dove itself, swooping down at a near-vertical angle, its speed maintained at a steady 500 kilometers per hour. From the 4000 meter starting point of the Warlock’s dive, the Captain and his men would hurtle to the 500 meter bombing point within 25 seconds. His cockpit accurately gauged everything for him.

The Captain took a deep breath, armed his weapons and stared between the cockpit front and the altimeter. When a light on the instrument blinked at the 500 meter dive point from the target, he released his bombs and instantly hit the automatic pull-out switch.

Below him one of his two bombs crashed onto the road and detonated violently among the enemy. Each 250 kg bomb was the size of a bulky man, and each blast would be a hellstorm of fire followed by a massive shockwave, strong enough to knock a tank on its side. Following in his wake, the Captain’s wingmen launched their own bombs, each capable of landing within 25 meters of the other thanks to the Warlock’s consistent diving.

As he pulled up the Captain was seeing stars from the effect of the g-forces, strong during his dive but most deadly during his renewed ascent. His Warlock plane automatically pulled up from 400 meters at a preset angle and climbed from the dive. For five or six seconds he blacked out completely from the forces exerted on his body — his aircraft climbed over 500 meters in this span of time thanks to its speed. When he regained the fullness of his senses, he was nearly 2000 meters up. He then leveled his craft and regained his breath.

“What do you see out there right now?” The Captain asked his tail gunner.

“We got them sir,” the tail gunner replied. “I can see kills. Bombs on target.”

He banked a few degrees and looked over his shoulder past the wing of his craft. Along a hundred meter stretch of the road, thick columns of black smoke rose against the rain. As he flew over the impact area he quickly appraised that perhaps twenty or thirty vehicles were wrecked by the bombs. He witnessed first-hand surviving Ayvartan troops abandoning several remaining vehicles, like ants fluttering about underfoot. Moments later, the storm gusts started to clear away the smoke and there was evidence of the chaos. Broken wrecks, smashed turrets sent flying into trees, fires and meter-deep craters on the road.

Looking up and out farther afield, he saw columns of smoke, warped by the water pattering against the cockpit glass, rising from two familiar locations along the southern lines.

Two of the large fortifications and their surroundings were burning after the attacks performed by the other Flights. Reduced to piles of shattered logs and scattered sandbags, the forts would not longer be able to hold the gaps between the trenches.

“Good kills, good kills,” said the Captain. “Looks like all bombs on target.”

He leveled his craft again and searched for his men. He found them a ways from their burning targets, their aircraft climbing and sweeping — maneuvering evasively.

Outside his cockpit he heard a snapping sound like a giant balloon bursting.

Metal shards struck his windshield, sounding like grains scattering on the floor.

“Anti-air fire from below, they’ve got us in their sights!” a wingman called out.

Bright red tracer shots ripped through the air like burning arrows, filling the sky with light and fire and smoke. Around Shebelle the ground was coming alive with the skyward fire of the anti-air guns. From as far away as eight to ten kilometers the shells came flying. Snappy automatic shots burst all around them like firecrackers, sending hot fragments bouncing off the hull and scratching the wings and leaving puffs of smoke in mid-air. Heavier and larger shells exploded just off the edge of the Captain’s vision, and he thought he felt the force of them going off, the noise generated by the distant blast, the sound of grain-like fragments scattering impossibly fast and punching tiny holes in his wings and tail on contact.

It was like flying through a mine field as all the mines went off at once. Dozens of shells flew at them from seemingly every direction. The Captain felt the engine lurch for a fragment of a second whenever the propellers munched on a burst of small fragments, and he banked hard to avoid the worst of the explosions, but the volume was building. The Warlock’s fixed landing gear and bulky frame created too much drag for any kind of skillful evasion. Every shot was chipping away at the craft; he gambled with every second of flight.

“One more pass, squad! Drop the rest of your bomb load and lets get the fuck out of here!” shouted the Captain, turning his sights again on the main road to Shebelle.

A Warlock could appear momentarily quicker while diving at a locked speed of 500 kilometers per hour. But that was with the force of gravity at its back. Cruising at the 4000 meters altitude that was necessary to start an optimal dive, the Warlock was limited to 300 kilometers per hour, less than half the speed of an Archer fighter plane. Battered by the rain and struggling against the wind the craft was forced to move even slower and it was almost agonizing to the pilots how sluggishly the Warlock cleared the skies around it.

The Captain’s Flight made its way over Shebelle’s center, high above the humble university campus and the central plaza where they saw scores of guns rallying over the yellow and orange brick roads and parks. All three craft endured intense automatic fire from all around the city, almost completely exposed in spite of the rain and their altitude.

Lightning flashed overhead, a bolt crashing down onto a tree outside the city. Once grey skies were turning pitch black. Around them the rains thickened. Gunfire did not abate. As the planes swept over their enemy they seemed even more exposed under each flash of lightning as if the sky was launching its own tracers down to point the way.

Sweeping around the empty northern edge of the city, still dodging tracers from the east and west, the Captain instructed his Flight to commence a soft turn. Under worsening winds and blinding rain their maneuverability had only grown worse. Tight turns were too risky, especially for partially damaged air frames — the Flight took a very wide and sluggish turn, leaving the road and doubling back around in the city’s north-eastern boroughs, tracing a quarter circle around the edge of the city before coming out of the turn facing south.

Far ahead of them the Captain spotted the other flights in time to see two planes shot out of the sky and spinning down in flames toward the trench lines across the city from him. It was almost a casual sight — he looked up, briefly confirmed the location of his other crews, and then the red tracer shot up, like a dart lancing onto a board and burning it. He could hardly believe it at first, though it captivated his mind this way for only a few seconds before he saw the tracers directed at him and reestablished control of his craft.

Suddenly the radio filled with expletives and cries and shouting back in a tone almost as incoherently as his own men was all the Captain could do to try to restore order.

“Drop your last bombs and return to base. Calm your panic. We’re almost through.”

Everyone went silent. It was as though he had killed all the men with his words.

Visibility was growing ever poorer. Through the shower he had been able to spy on the Ayvartans below, looking like ants, and their vehicles and guns like big fat beetles crawling beneath him. Now he could discern scarcely anything of his surroundings. Rain washed down his windshield with such strength that it warped the world below utterly out of recognition. Only his bomb sight gave him a clear picture, but one limited in scope.

He could still see the bright flashes of ordnance exploding in the air around him.

As the Warlocks soared out of Shebelle due south, the Captain found the vehicle column again, roaring down the road to try to get away from the battle. There was no cover from an air attack available to the tanks and trucks — there were trees, but too sparse to hide in, and the terrain was too open otherwise. Their best bet was running on the road where their speed was relatively unhindered. But he was still several times faster.

“Prepare to dive! We’re dropping the bombs in a line along the road!”

He pulled the dive brake and flipped a switch to arm his second 250 kg bomb.

As he initiated the dive he saw a flashing red from a tracer soaring up beside him.

Overhead the monstrous shell detonated and cast hundreds of fragments down.

A chunk of metal the size of his hand burst through the top of the cockpit and embedded itself in his instrument panel. Water and glass fell over him, and he felt the force of the wind battering his face as his craft pulled down into its dive. In an instant the rest of his canopy broke off, and only his leather belts kept him anchored. He heard a tiny sound near his face and found it difficult to breathe — glass or metal had pierced his oxygen mask.

Shaking his head, he suddenly realized that he smelled smoke. At his side one of his men had a chugging propeller and was losing control. He spiraled away from the dive area and disappeared. The Captain locked his hands around his control stick.

“Stay on target!” He shouted. Sparks flew from his damaged instruments.

His altimeter failed to alert him and missed the bombing window — but he had been counting the seconds in his head. A perfect dive was always from 4000 meters down to 500 meters. A perfect dive was always at 500 kilometers per hour. He focused, through the cold and the wind intruding in his cockpit, through the dangerous sparking of his instruments, through the wild swinging of his damaged gauges. He opened the bomb bay.

Despite the instrument damage, the Warlock started the automatic pull-up on cue.

Behind him the Captain heard the bombs.

First his own, and then his first wing-mate seconds later.

There was no third bomb.

He heard a discordant, distant noise as he climbed.

“We lost Adalwein!” groaned the tail gunner as if in pain.

The Captain barely heard it, and in fact the gunner barely said it. They were climbing and the strength of the g-forces increased exponentially, and the loss of the canopy took away their only slim protection against the outside pressures. The Captain’s vision went black and he felt as if his brain was being squeezed, pressed like a grape between God’s fingers.

With his oxygen mask breached he was utterly unable to breathe.

Split-second images filtered through the black.

Over Shebelle all matter of colors raged in the clouds. It was beautiful.

He thought that words escaped his lips. He thought they were poignant and fitting.

Losing all consciousness, he suffered no more as his plane rose ever skyward, the fuselage tearing, the propeller failing, and then fell back as though cast down from the heavens.

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