The Fallen General (40.1)

This scene contains violence and death.

45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Tambwe-Ajdar Border — Ghede River

Despite the amount of bodies pressed to either side of the river, everyone could still hear the sloshing of the water as it rushed downstream. Everyone was silent. Breaths reached farther than bullets, and faster. Ghede was a slow conquest, and an even slower defense.

Eyes peered over boulders, around sandbags, over grass-covered outcroppings upon which they lay belly-down with scopes and binoculars, peering downhill or uphill over the stream. Shadows flitted around trees, behind bushes. The opposing fronts were separated by only the width of the Ghede. In some areas the lines were as close as a hundred meters. Had it not been for the water they could have charged bayonet-first.

Despite the water, charging bayonet-first was still the choice outcome.

In several places the Ghede was only a half-dozen meters deep, and the rhythm of the battle was predicated on this fact. Men could swim across, if given the opportunity.

Lacking the mobility to cross quickly, the dueling sides fell into a war of munitions.

On the Nochtish side, mortar tubes were gathered by the dozens. Anti-tank and artillery guns of small calibers were pushed to the line of bushes at the edge of the wood, fifty meters from the river and nearly three hundred from the nearest Ayvartan position – not much, but enough to go unnoticed. Snipers climbed to the bushy canopy and adjusted their scopes. Light M5 tanks hid behind the tree line, and adjusted their guns to the same shooting tables in use by the anti-tank guns. Across a river they were merely mobile guns. There would be not armored blitzkrieg over the water of the Ghede yet.

Lines of foxholes formed a divide eerily reminiscent of the battles of the Unification War period, where two trench lines separated by a thousand meter no-man’s-land stared at one another for months, some years, before new technology entered the picture and caused a shift. Whether the abominable but ultimately slight shift caused by chemical weapons – or the dramatic, tide-turning shift caused by the entry of Nochtish tanks.

No new technology would cause a shift here in the Ghede, and the soldiers only wished they had a professional-looking trench line. Scattered foxholes and sandbag walls were broken up by the dips and rises of the uneven riverbanks, and the intermittently rocky and sandy and grassy terrain. Riflemen scraped from various divisions, agglomerated into the new 13th Panzer Division, waited sleepily for the next offensive to be declared.

There had been a few previous build-ups and failed attacks, but the lull between them felt like years’ worth of peace. Munitions built up, and men awaited commands, but on the Nochtish side of the Ghede there was a lazy, almost contented mood, like that of a holiday. There were no Generals here, no shouting orders, just distant voices, the sporadic tossing of a few shells, and half-hearted attempts to wade into the foam.

Bullets wailed and blood splashed, but after the fact everything was easily forgotten.

Until the next build-up, the next command word, the next attack.

“Noble cause.”

When the command came the landser crouched beside the field radio box could scarcely identify it as such. He raised an eyebrow at the strange call and the handset shifted against his ear with the shaking of his hand. Turning his head, he signaled to his superiors nearby that he was on the line. He then cleared his throat, and called back.

“Say again?”

“Noble cause,” came Chief of Signals Fruehauf’s voice once more.

“Noble cause?”

Fruehauf did not reply and the line went suddenly dead.

For several moments the radio man stood staring off into the distance.

He shook his head and his wits returned to him. Noble cause was the command.

That meant this build-up was now complete, and all munitions were to be released.

“We’ve been activated.” He whispered to the nearest man. “Pass it on.”

Word spread quietly across the line. Ayvartans monitored the radio traffic, or so everyone had been told; and they could see and hear across the river fairly well during quiet periods like this one. Therefore the rallying cry could not be loud or electric. Hands and tongues passed along the command, across every gun in the 10.5 cm battery, through the hatches of every M5 Ranger, behind the shields of every 37mm doorknocker gun, to every three-man Norgler machine gun team, into every foxhole and sniper nest.

“Noble cause, we’ve been activated.”

Guns of all sizes were loaded. Discarded helmets set back on vacant heads. Bayonets lugged, for no clear purpose. Men scrambled up, looking out over the river once more. Their movements were mechanical, reflexive, their minds still catching up to the events.

Once the entire river-front had been alerted, a runner was sent back to the guns.

Infantry would fire after the mortars and cannons drew the first blood.

With his upper body bowed low the man took off running.

He made it scarcely a few meters before he heard death whistle overhead.

A column of gray smoke and dirt, seething with hot metal, blossomed behind the trenches, and the runner went flying into a nearby tree, splashing blood and flesh.

They were preempted, despite careful planning.

The Ayvartans had gotten wind of the impending attack.

No sooner had the landsers noticed their dead man that munitions started falling over their line by the dozen, exploding all along the river-front. Small mortar shells came quickest, hitting the earth hundreds a minute along every kilometer of enemy positions, casting thin plumes of smoke and dirt into the air. Fragments of metal went flying over every foxhole and trench, and men huddled to their knees to escape the airborne death.

Following the mortars came the ponderous fire of much larger guns, striking farther behind the front, smashing trees, vaporizing bushes, torching holes into the thick green canopy above. Chunks of wood like flying stakes joined the shell fragments in the air. Thousands of fragments and fast-flying debris struck shields and thick trunks and the metal armor of tanks, hitting cover with such frequency it resembled automatic fire.

Amid the thunderous pounding of the enemy artillery, Landsers scrambled to their combat positions, bracing machine guns over rocks, pulling up to the edge of the riverbank on their bellies or scarcely above their holes and raising their battle rifles. As they joined battle their green tracers flew over the water, snapping branches and biting into rocks and flying into bushes. Between the rhythmic pounding of enemy ordnance the infernal noise of the norgler machine guns filled the silence, and lit the air green.

Lines of green bullets stretched over the river, and lines of red flew back the other way.

Behind the infantry line the air stirred as the 10.5 cm batteries finally retaliated.

Within the opposing tree-line the Nochtish fighters saw bright flashes as their own shells went off on the enemy, raising their own pillars of turf and metal as they struck.

There were flashes brighter still as enemy guns lobbed shells directly over their heads.

At the center of the line, a boulder was smashed to pieces as a 122mm Ayvartan gun struck it with direct fire. Chunks of hot rock struck against helmets and sandbags.

Red machine gun tracers from the Ayvartan side bounced off rocks and kicked up lines of dirt and overflew the foxholes, chopping up bushes behind them. Men scrambled to keep under the slicing red lines, unable to hear the thock-thock-thock of the Ayvartan machine gun over the cacophony of explosives landing by the dozens all around them.

Snipers perched atop the trees briefly glanced at the fire flying under their feet before returning to their scopes. They peered across the river, trying to discern the shadows from the enemy troops. The Ayvartan’s side of the river had much less space between the water and the treeline, and the entire Ayvartan line was cloaked in the vegetation.

But the difference between a rustling branch and a shooter was obvious – one flashed red and the other did not. Aiming for the muzzle flashes, snipers shot into the dark, moving from flash to flash in the hopes of scoring a maiming hit. As positions shifted and munitions discharged, however, new flashes and new targets appeared, as if a hundred shining eyes belonging to a monster, and no real effect could be discerned.

Joining the rest of the artillery, the company of M5 Rangers assisting the river offensive dug into the forest and fired blindly into the sky and through the trees, following the coordinates on the shooting tables. Theirs was the most solipsistic work within the battle. Encased in metal, the gunner and commander could hardly see around them in the wood, and the work of shooting was purely mathematical. They were shielded entirely from retaliatory fire, and only when the tank shifted positions to protect itself did the crew seem to awaken from the mechanical slumber of shooting and loading.

In theory an enemy was being hit, but the tank crews would not know it. Even the landsers at the front line, withstanding the brunt of the enemy barrages, couldn’t tell a tank shell apart from any other artillery, much less guess at whether it was accurate. It was all explosions to them, dirt flying and metal slicing through the air and fire briefly rising and abating within seconds. Whether across the river or around them.

Fire and fragments, an atmosphere thick with smoke; everyone was awakening from their dream-like haze to the violence of the Ghede. The first injured were dragged away through the tree-line, and men rushed from behind the tanks to take up vacated holes. Guns and tanks and machine gunners took the lead from the riflemen who clumsily began the battle, and the munitions war played out over every foxhole and trench.

Across days of the mind this war raged, but in the physical realm it was only minutes.

Then the final shell crashed down on the Nochtish side. Nobody was hurt.

Slowly the fire subsided, the colored lines vanishing from the air. Silence followed. Only the crackling of dust, falling to earth, could be heard. Neither side launched an attack.

Within the hectic moment of this offensive, nobody had bothered to cross the water.

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