This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.
28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Shaila Dominance – Djose Wood, 8th PzD Headquarters Area
A gruesome ambush unfolded in Knyskna; it was all the more chaotic when witnessed only through the radio. Communication was so incoherent that Dreschner periodically ordered the lines to be cut for a moment so they could take a breather from the noise.
With the fighting dying down Karla Schicksal diligently wrote down the details – it would be up to her to pass on the losses to Oberkommando in a preliminary report via radio. Kampfgruppe K lost an entire platoon of assault guns in Knyskna, and several tanks suffered damage from a ceaseless barrage of heavy mortars that would be difficult to repair. However they managed to destroy key enemy positions in the process, and killed many of the entrenched communists, forcing the ambushers to flee from the site.
Kampfgruppe R was a disaster, having lost a platoon of assault guns, an M4, and suffered damage similar to Kampfgruppe K, broken periscopes and blasted guns that would require them to pull back to the headquarters. They suffered these loses without taking any of the enemy in turn to show for it. In addition Kampfgruppe R‘s main route of advance had been destroyed and they would be slow and vulnerable if they stuck to the plan.
Piling atop these troubles, both Kampfgruppen had seen a total and devastating loss of foot soldiers. Each would have to bury its compliment of Baumgartner’s men.
There was a bright spot.
Kampfgruppe L had also been ambushed, and lost most of its platoon of assault guns to the attack, but it had retreated diligently and inflicted terrible damage to a platoon of communist light tanks, and its compliment of recon troops survived the onslaught.
This was the extent of the good news.
They could not rely on L for their main penetration: the Western thoroughfare, through which L advanced, wound more and took longer to navigate than the south or south-east.
Despite the setbacks, she realized every Kampfgruppe had achieved its (uncontested) initial objectives, therefore the operation was still on schedule.
Could additional movement be possible in these circumstances? Clearly their final objectives would be heavily contested, and the terrain favored the enemy. Driving through the main thoroughfare would leave them open to more ambushes, and there was still the question of breaking through the rubble in a timely fashion. With their depleted manpower, the 8th Panzer Division’s kampfgruppen in Knyskna might not be able to make it.
Obvious as it seemed with the benefit of hindsight, nobody in the 8th PzD had foreseen the vicious ambushes and the prodigal coordination that had made them possible.
All of the Kampfgruppen had been allowed to advance uncontested toward the ambush points, and had all been struck at almost the same time. Anti-tank rifles at relatively close range had taken tracks and engines. Anti-tank grenades at such ranges scored deadly hits that crippled the vehicles. Their men, inside and out of vehicles, became sitting ducks.
Schicksal sighed audibly. For the most part she felt quite removed from the fighting, as though not really a part of this invading army. But in these moments she felt a sickening sort of solidarity with the poor fools who had been burnt and blasted dead.
She also felt a disgusting complicity. She facilitated their march toward death. She had been a primary medium for many deadly words: “advance!” and “attack!” and so on. While Dreschner gave the orders, so many men heard them through her voice.
Many perhaps found it soothing to do so.
That was probably a key part of her job. Schicksal had a good voice. Did these men feel more inclined to charge into ambush having heard a siren lure them to this course?
Schicksal sighed; she wondered how people reacted to her reports. Would seasoned warriors think about this situation and its participants differently? Was there a different brain in a General or Field Marshal’s skull than the one she had been born with?
She pulled down her glasses and rubbed her temples. She stared long and hard at her radio, her vision blurring in and out of focus and a tight pain flaring across her head as she pressed with her fingers. Her mind was running away with her. She reined it in.
She was just a signals girl, she had no power and no debt of blood to anyone.
Many of these men probably did not even consider her a soldier.
From overhead, Dreschner tapped her on the shoulder with his foot.
“Shicksal!” He called out authoritatively.
“Yes sir!” She replied.
“I order you to eat!” He unexpectedly replied.
Schicksal pulled down her headset and looked over her shoulder.
“Say again sir?”
“You have not eaten a thing in seven hours now. Break open your Keinne and eat.”
“Yes sir.” She said. In the back of her mind she felt he was being quite patronizing. She thought she was just fine. He hadn’t eaten either. But he must have seen her rubbing her head and sighing and staring at her radio with frustration. Obediently Schicksal pulled open a gray pouch on the floor of the tank, along the wall with her radio equipment.
Inside was a can of Fleisch, and bundles of bread and cheese wrapped in wax paper. She spread the creamy, pungent meat paste atop the dark, hard bread and ate, gnawing on the cheese between bites. Beside the bread, meat and cheese they had a large can of mixed vegetables preserved in stock, and sugar candy in the form of little amber rocks.
There was nothing to drink but water.
Schicksal was quick to finish her meal. It fell into her stomach like a stone, and it was all rather bland. Perhaps a bit of oil or mustard would have helped the taste.
She found the repetition of chewing and tasting eerily calming regardless.
While she ate, Brigadier-General Dreschner had thoroughly looked over the same photos for the fifth time, and nodded his head to them. They were all taken days ago and were in Schicksal’s mind mostly useless as a source of information on the current enemy position, but Dreschner was incredibly interested in them. From time to time Dreschner would write something with an ink pen on one of the photos and mutter to himself.
He had invested much into this plan, having received permission to push ahead on his own from the Oberkommando Suden. The High Command wanted movement at any cost, and they were willing to believe that movement could be gained with Dreschner’s limited resources. Dreschner was all too eager to believe he could take Knyskna.
It was an ambitious drive, and though they had planned for a few snags, they had not planned on the level of resistance and ingenuity they were met with. Schicksal always snatched glances of the General as he worked, wondering dimly what went through the mind of a tactician, how he saw the unfolding battle. Did he think anything like she did?
She wondered how he saw the communists too; what he failed to see; what he saw now that could correct his earlier mistakes. It seemed alien to contemplate; and ultimately there was not much of a show for her in watching the man tap and fidget and grit his teeth.
Schicksal made to put her headset back over her hair and turned her back again, but she paused when she heard the General grunt in her direction and felt him tap her on the shoulder again. Graciously, but with an inner sigh, she met his eyes anew.
“Would you like some bread as well sir?” She replied with false cheer.
“No, not that. I’ve got a new route for Kunze and Reiniger to follow.”
Karla feigned interest. “Changing the plan, sir?”
“Our enemy is different than we expected.” Dreschner said.
“Do you think we can still take the rail station before night sir?” She asked.
“Yes.” Dreschner said tersely. Karla wondered whether this was all his pride talking.
But she was just the signals girl.
She listened, and with her soothing voice, she relayed the orders.
“In addition,” Dreschner said, rubbing his chin and smiling with a sudden satisfaction, “Contact Baumgartner and ask if among his men there are any Gebirgsabteilungen soldiers. I want those men in the southeast and the west, advancing into the city, alone. I want them to climb, and I want them to put those hookshots and rifles of theirs to good use.”
Dreschner was definitely wrapping his head around the situation now.
She saw it in his eyes.
28-AG-30: Knyskna, Southeast Inner Boroughs FOB
A dismal compliment of soldiers returned to the FOB.
It was late afternoon and the sun had already begun its trek down from the sky.
Soldiers trickled up from the southeast, climbing wearily over the rock, squeezing through rubble, and ambling across the open streets, making their way into the building.
Sgt. Bahir’s headquarters staff greeted the arrivals and furnished them with some food and drink in paper cups, soupy lentils and milk flavored with fruits, a minor pick-me-up.
Staff members took quick reports from surviving officers, gathered inventory and distributed supplies, and found everyone places to sit and rest. There was a somber and eerie mood around them. Nobody wanted to admit it, but they all felt quite defeated.
Squadron III arrived with the others. Though the ambush was far behind them, in Leander’s mind, and likely the minds of his comrades, he still heard the blasts and saw his allies die fighting, and it felt stunning and bizarre to him, like he had watched it in a film.
Sergeant Bahir entered the lobby where all the soldiers were gathered, and he appeared to look over everyone at once from his position by the door of his office.
He had a semblance of a smile and a fiery gaze.
“Good work everyone.” He said. The instant he started to speak all the whispers in the room quieted. Despite only being a Sergeant, Bahir was older than everyone else in the room and more experienced. He commanded the respect of a general within this FOB, and everyone was eager for his message. It would end up being brief.
“Nocht will have to work harder to penetrate through to this FOB. All of our defensive sectors across Knyskna are holding so far. I received word from the railyard that we have only a few more trainloads before our armored train can take us all from here. Avenge your fallen comrades by living to fight another day. Victory is close, comrades!”
He raised his fist into the air, and everyone followed. This was all the speech that he would give. It was not the right time now for long speeches. He acknowledged them and praised their efforts and that was all he could do in the face of what had transpired.
Once Sergeant Bahir and his staff retreated back into their makeshift office, and everyone in the room began to idle once more, Leander felt Elena’s hand settle on his back.
He looked over his shoulder, and she tapped him in the cheek to make him look away, positioning herself behind him and sliding her hands into his jacket solemnly.
Bonde joined her, and from the glances Leander got of his face he appeared concerned.
Though Elena was as ginger to him as she could be, his wounds still stung awfully whenever she touched them. She inspected him, and shook her head several times while doing so and made disapproving sounds. She was exasperated by his condition and he did feel like a bit of a fool for his recklessness back in the thoroughfare.
“Leander, you need to go find a medic and get yourself patched up.” Elena said.
“I’m fine.” Leander replied. He wanted to stand guard. An attack would be coming. It hurt, but he could deal with the pain. He hoped during battle it would fade into the background completely. It was only a dull, persistent ache at the moment.
“Your back is a mess of bloody cuts. You could get an infection. Go.” Elena insisted.
Sharna recused herself from the discussion, but Bonde was watching them intently.
“Go to the medic, Leander.” Bonde said suddenly. It sounded like an order.
He dropped his BKV and ammunition into a crate, and asked a nearby soldier where to go. With her directions he made his way to the back of the building, arriving at a rectangular sky-blue room once used as a washing and laundry space. Soldiers had pushed the cylindrical washing machines out into the alleyway behind the room’s back door, and the space was now occupied by a few tables and curtains. It was a lonesome place.
There were no wounded men or women to accompany Leander.
Anyone who might have qualified from the forward platoons had been wounded to death. Nobody had even had time to collect their bodies due to the situation.
Leander purged his mind of such morbid ideas, drank his milk and tipped the gooey lentils into his mouth. He could not even focus on the taste. Seated on the edge of a wheeled bed he waited for a medic to come tend to him. There were no medical orderlies on hand this time. Manpower of that nature was scarce; the few medics probably had other duties.
He figured that someone would be sent to him soon enough, after they completed some other chore around the FOB, and so he waited patiently for what seemed like a half hour for attention. He wondered idly what kind of doctor had stayed behind with them.
Whenever he stopped moving or fighting, he always seemed drawn to take greater notice of his condition, and all the little discomforts that were piling up. On the battlefield it was easy for him to forget the slight chafing of his breasts against the brace, the aching of the bruises across his chest and belly and shoulder whenever he bent or moved his arms.
He smelled like gunpowder and smoke, and there was a hollow ringing in his ears from the absence of explosions and screaming and gunfire. He guessed he was a soldier now, more than before. A week ago he had no training and a rifle he could barely work.
Now he had all kinds of scars, and an eerily building knowledge of battle.
Leander sighed a little. But this was the man he had chosen to be.
A man who could protect his people and his dreams in absence of any greater technical skill or ambition. Was that an ideal soldier? He didn’t know. It was just who he was.
He was starting to regret having time alone to think.
When finally he heard steps along the adjoining hall, he raised his head. So far he had given no consideration to seeing another doctor and explaining his unique status to them: but he figured it would not be a problem. Then, through the empty doorway into the room appeared a familiar face. It was Dr. Agrawal in her white coat and long skirt, her hair tied up into a bun and her face looking less rough than the day before. She was on her own and smiled when she came into the room. Leander’s own face brightened at the sight.
“Ah, Leander Gaurige! I did not expect you to be here.” She said, loudly and cheerfully. Leander flushed a little bit. “Don’t be surprised, you are still quite fresh on my mind. I thought by now you would be safe on your way to Solstice. I must admit it is bittersweet to see you again. I love familiar patients, but people only come to me with misfortune.”
“Sorry.” Leander said. “I had to stay. It’s the kind of man I am, you could say.”
“I suppose you could be a much worse kind of man than this!” Dr. Agrawal said, patting him on the shoulder. Leander cringed a little bit, and she removed her hand. “Oh, sorry, sorry. I’m such a friendly oaf sometimes. I need to regain my professional spirit.”
“It is fine. I can feel myself healing already in your care.” Leander said.
Dr. Agrawal laughed. “I’m not that good I’m afraid. Are you surprised to see me?”
Surprised was a large understatement. Leander was quite visibly exuberant.
It was almost like meeting a great friend again after a long time, even though he had only met the doctor for the first time very recently. She had been very kind to him, and as his first real doctor, outside of quacks and spirit healers, she left an impression on him.
“I never asked what you were doing, but I assumed you would leave.” Leander said.
“No, I was never planning to go. I came out of a fairly early retirement in order to do necessary medical work in this time of crisis. A doctor should follow the blood draining from the people. So I decided to rejoin the army, albeit a bit begrudgingly. After all, I’m used to the environment. I learned medicine while in the army. It has been a quite a long time since I was last active military, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Well, I for one am glad you are here, doctor. Makes me feel safe.”
She nodded. “Working with wounded soldiers these past few days was what rekindled my commitment. And I must admit you were on my mind since we last met. Let us not leave your back running red for any longer, Private Leander Gaurige.”
Leander cooperated easily and removed his shirt and loosened brace to free his breasts. He was happy for the doctor’s company in this situation. It was a real relief to see her again.
Dr. Agrawal cut the bloody bandages from his back, and stared with consternation at the red, pitted expanse across his spine, covered in shards of metal and long cuts.
He saw everything in a mirror established across the room.
It was worse than it looked when he had his clothes on.
However it was not crippling. Just a honeycomb of bright red flesh wounds.
The Doctor nodded to herself after examining him, and stepped beside the bed. From a nearby crate she gathered clean towels, tweezers, a roll of bandages and a bottle of clear liquor. She put all the things atop a little trolley and kicked it over to the bed.
Leander was puzzled by the final item and picked up the bottle.
“This is eighty-percent alcohol!” Leander said with child-like wonder.
Dr. Agrawal took the bottle from his hands, and tapped him on the head with the cap. “It would certainly make your throat feel a bit raw if you drank it. But it’s not going in there right now. Liquor has other important uses in a time of crisis you see.”
She popped the top of the bottle, shook it to give him a warning, and then poured a steady stream over Leander’s shoulder. He cringed and clung to the side of the bed with his hands, his wounds flaring up with stinging pain the instant the liquid dripped over them. He felt heat seeping through the cuts and into his flesh, and felt the sharpness of the fragments anew as the liquor flowed past them and over the gashes on the surface.
“We ran out of medical alcohol, but hard liquor is decent.” Dr. Agrawal said.
Leander grit his teeth and tried to smile a little through it, saying nothing.
Dr. Agrawal picked up her tweezers, and the towels and bandages, and she set to work, taking the tiny bits of steel and pulling them gently out of Leander’s body, setting them aside, then cleaning the wound again with another sharp drizzle of liquor. Dabbing from the towels irritated his flesh, but Leander tried to be strong and stony faced.
Between cleaning and pulling, Dr. Agrawal paused and looked up at the mirror, feigning like she was examining him with more interest.
After a few times, she finally came out and said what she was thinking.
“Bullets to the chest and explosions behind your back. I see you’re becoming a regular soldier, my boy!” She pulled another fragment as she spoke. Her ward could not help but burst out laughing through the hot discomfort of the liquor seeping into his wounds and the awkward touch of her tools across his back pulling out pieces of steel.
It was strange but wonderful to him how he could laugh in the middle of these events, in a medic’s quarters having fragments pulled from him and blood cleaned off his back.
Once all the pieces had been pulled from him, Dr. Agrawal dressed the wounds.
“Thanks.” Leander said softly. Both for the treatment and the good laugh.
“I try.” Dr. Agrawal replied. “A good attitude helps everyone. Myself included.”
“Is that how you handle being in the military?” Leander asked.
“All of the labor involved in that is invisible. It happens in the brain. What aspect of the military do you wish to harden yourself against? Fear? Loss? Grief? Everyone thinks about each of them differently.” Dr. Agrawal said. She closed her eyes and smiled contemplatively. “I used to feel a mute pain and pity for everyone around me. Gradually the group of people I mourned for grew smaller, not always by death, but simply by necessity. You’ll start with a big heart in war, but you’ll find that it will shrink.”
“I see. Being honest, I sort of want to weep for all the comrades who lost their lives.” Leander said. He smiled a little. He felt the tears in his eyes but he did not weep. He felt oddly calm. “I do not, though. Perhaps my heart is already hard.”
“It is not. If it were, you would not admit it to yourself so readily.”
“Is it alright to be calm in the middle of this? I’m sitting here awaiting an attack.”
“War is an alien thing, especially in these times. We all process it differently.”
“I suppose that’s just another part of myself I have to figure out.” Leander said.
Dr. Agrawal finished wrapping his bandages and helped him to affix his chest brace anew. She patted him gently on the shoulder with the tips of her fingers, careful to be friendly with her touch but not actually excite his wounds in any way.
“You would be a novel man indeed if you can completely decipher such a thing.”
Leander stood from the bed. He extended his hand toward the doctor and she shook it.
“It is no problem at all comrade.” She said. “This is my reason to live.”
“Will you be staying? With our company, I mean. Or our division? I don’t know.”
Dr. Agrawal chuckled. “I would usually be considered a regimental asset, but perhaps I can convince HQ about the dire need for increased medical care at all levels. But yes, unless misfortune befalls me, I intend to follow your general grouping of men and women as far as we go. I will try to be available specifically to you if that is possible.”
She withdrew a card from her pocket, with her name on it, and handed it to Leander.
“Just show anyone that card if you need care and I will see to it to personally.”
Leander beamed. “Thank you! I would feel much more comfortable that way.”
“I’m glad you appreciate the arrangement.” Dr. Agrawal beamed back. “Until we get to Solstice, I’d like to do what I can to help you. You’re a special patient. I really want you to meet Dr. Kappel. I think it will do you so much good to meet with her.”
“I will definitely make it to Solstice and meet her.” Leander said. Though a part of him wondered why she was so happy to help him, he suppressed this cynicism rapidly and easily. “And maybe you can meet Dr. Kappel yourself as well!”
“Ah, no; I have different people I must meet first if Solstice is ever on my horizon.”
She looked a touch melancholy for a moment, the light wrinkling around her mouth and eyes becoming a bit more pronounced, and a flash of an old pain in her eyes.
Their conversation was cut short before Leander could venture to ask what was wrong and who she might meet instead of her colleague. A uniformed man tapped his fist on the door frame several times and leaned through. He was a little shaken up.
“All HQ staff must prepare for evac, ma’am, and the Private should go out front.”
Dr. Agrawal nodded. “Go on, Leander. And take care.”
Leander followed the beleaguered soldier out to the lobby, where everyone crowded around Sgt. Bahir and a few of his direct subordinates at the door to the FOB.
He sought out Squadron III and easily found Sharna standing about a head taller than anyone else, drumming her fingers along the body of her BKV anti-tank rifle.
Leander regrouped with his comrades and asked them to catch him up on what was happening. He saw people everywhere, and standing at the doorway, Sgt. Bahir spoke determinedly into a radio, but Leander could not hear what he was saying or listening to.
“Supposedly a runner’s coming with information.” Elena said. “Are you well?”
“I’m fine.” Leander sighed. “I was fine before, actually, but I am even better now.”
Elena frowned at him. “You were only a fine way from an infection.”
Shots rang suddenly out across the ruins.
Through the gaps in the bodies around him Leander saw a pair of people running at them from the distance, rifle bullets striking the earth around their feet with sharp cracks.
People started to disperse and he could see better what was going on outside.
It was the forward observers running toward them and under attack, desperately climbing over rubble, squeezing between broken buildings and running across stretches of wide-open street to try to make it to safety. Someone out there was gunning for them.
Men and women from the FOB suddenly leaped over the open window frames and through the door of the lobby and onto the street, their own rifles in hand, and opened fire at the buildings overlooking the thoroughfare to try to cover for the runners.
Leander, stunned, did not join the charge. As he watched things unfold, he felt almost bitterly that he should go fight, but he and his squad stayed behind instead. He felt more than a little foolish huddling in cover with Elena and Sharna and Bonde.
Outside, the situation was confused. Fire fell intermittently, deflecting off rubble or striking the ground near boots and crouched legs. Nobody could find the snipers anywhere at first, until suddenly a bullet carved a bloody hole through the neck of one of the runners, and it seemed that all at once half the company was locked to the same building a block away and firing relentlessly. A body fell from a high window and people ran out to collect it as well as the injured runner, who choked in the street, grasping the wound.
Despite this, bullets continued to fall from nearby rooftops and the battle continued both for the people outside and for the people in the FOB, as the snipers began to put their rounds through the windows and the door with increasing frequency and accuracy.
A burst of chopping gunfire that could have only come from a Norgler fell near the rifle troops outside. The HQ staff began to wave people to cover and distributed guns. Leander picked up a BKV again and aimed out the window, but couldn’t see a thing to shoot. Sharna and Elena filled the air with lead in his stead, and Bonde picked up a scope and scanned the area, but it all seemed hopeless for them from where Leander sat.
A dozen meters away the runners and the soldiers from the FOB linked up, and took cover from the snipers and from the hidden machine gun together. Sgt. Bahir watched them. Unfazed, barely hiding against the building’s door frame, he cast a smoldering look at a cluster of nearby structures. He turned a dial on his radio and called their artillery.
“Company calling for a 120mm barrage on the Dunbe apartment block, hit the rooftops. Three tubes, 15 rounds total across three buildings. Coordinates to follow–”
Minutes later the sound of machine guns and rifles coming from the rooftop was shouted down by the blasting of mortar shells, crashing down in as much of a rolling barrage as three tubes could muster across the rooftops of three adjacent buildings.
Rooftops collapsed under the heavy mortar shells, and smoke and flames belched from the upper floor apartment windows. As the shells fell and the smoke blew Sgt. Bahir waved for the people outside the FOB to run back inside, escorting the live observer and carrying the injured observer and the body of the dead Nocht soldier into safety. Inside they settled the injured observer down on a table, but it was too late. A medic pulled down her eyelids and arranged her hands over her chest. Feeling that the presence of death would upset everyone, a few soldiers were tasked with taking the body out back to be bagged up.
Meanwhile Sgt. Bahir examined the badge on the Nocht soldier.
He picked it up and raised it to his eyes, and everyone around the room could see it.
It was a flower that Leander had never seen before. It was easy to tell that this sniper was a different kind of soldier than the men they had slaughtered around the tanks. He had on a more rugged-looking uniform with a cape and hood and thicker pants, all gray with a strange pattern over them, and his rifle mounted a scope atop.
Clipped to his belt was a folding grappling hook. He was a climber.
“Gebirgsjager.” Sgt. Bahir said. “The edelweiss badge leaves no doubt.”
“Mountaineer troops?” A member of Bahir’s staff asked.
“Yes. Trained for mobility in rough terrain. Such as the ruins all around us.”
Behind them, the remaining observer caught his breath and saluted clumsily.
He was not dressed in a military uniform, but in a vest and shirt and trousers, like a civilian, but with an orange scarf around his neck. Leander wondered if he was a civilian, or just dressed like one. Their observers were dispersed all over the city, watching Nocht’s movements and reporting via radio. What kind of circumstances would force them to run back? From the look of it all, it appeared to Leander that this Gebirgsjager soldier had been hunting the observers. He gulped at the thought of it. Such a feat in such a short span of time certainly made the mountain men of Nocht a lot more frightening an enemy.
The Observer stuttered as he spoke. He looked quite shaken up.
“Sir, the imperialist forces have left the thoroughfare here in the Southeast. They didn’t even move the wrecks from the ambush spot. They’re pushing through the buildings and alleys and taking a circumspect route toward us. I lost track of them sir, I’m sorry. I was attacked and lost my radio in a panic. She and I, we were attacked by them.”
“It’s alright.” Sgt. Bahir put his hands on his shoulder. “You did well. Take a horse from out back and evacuate. Carry her body to her family as well if you can. We thank you both for your service. This should not have been your fight, comrade.”
“Thank you sir.” Still shaking, the Observer was helped out back by staff.
Sgt. Bahir turned around to face all the soldiers on guard around the windows and the doorway, rifles out and looking over the windows and rooftops nearby for more of these Gebirgsjager men. He called them all to attention and pointed them outside. “Everyone gather your equipment. I want as many BKVs in hands as we can spare. We’re abandoning the FOB. Run to the alleys, take the horses and ride to the last line.”
Around him, there was a nodding of heads and the evacuation commenced in a hurry. Squadron III formed up quickly, took their things in shoulder slings and packs, and hurried outside with the rest. Leander suddenly looked forward to meeting a horse.
28-AG-30: 8th Panzerdivisione Southeast Advance
The M4 Sentinel medium tank carefully pushed its way into the building through a broken wall, budging cement blocks and rubble. While the structure shook, it did not collapse. Easily, the tank slid itself through a back door and into a little plaza between the buildings, a recreation area where the apartment’s inhabitants could get fresh air and sit.
Treading over a bench and past a wooden fence, the tank found itself squeezing into an alleyway between two buildings that had been reduced to gray and brown mounds. In the alley, the tank commander called his subordinates over the radio, and then one other M4 and a single M3 easily followed his trackmarks through the building and into the alley.
Together they advanced through the depths of Knyskna’s ruins, knowing that any major building collapse would force them to abandon their tanks. They advanced in small groups to avoid choking the tight paths and to coordinate easier. It was nerve-wracking movement, stopping and starting and stopping again, careful not to disturb the area.
As they wandered through broken buildings and squeezed into alleys and trod over hills of rubble, through their periscopes they saw tiny groups of Gebirgsjager men in their cloaks climbing the sides of tall, sturdy buildings to establish positions and flush out scouts.
In pairs and even sometimes on their own, these hunters protected the tanks from any more communist ambushes. Already they had flushed out a few communist scouts.
These were not the only men in the ruins.
Ahead of them, a man in motorcycle approached and waved for them to advance. He led them into open spaces between ruined blocks and standing structures. Every so often the motor soldier would pause beside the lead tank, climb it, pop the hatch and address the commander. He shared what he had learned about the area, and where next they could squeeze the tank platoon into and advance unopposed. They would call it in, await confirmation from a beautiful voice. Then they would be off again.
Brigadier-General Dreschner had ordered them to make their advance directly through the ruins and up north. And so they moved through the rubble, and they called Dreschner’s little siren to keep the General appraised of their progress through the maze.
“This is Signals Officer Schicksal in contact.” She said. “Report confirmed. Continue the advance as ordered. Watch the high ground for enemy activity.”
So they moved through the ruins, high explosive loaded into their cannons and ready to shoot in case of an ambush. They knew the communists had few tanks of their own, and those that did exist could be destroyed even without penetrating rounds.
These tankers had not personally seen the ambushes. They had been briefed, and they understood there was danger. But they were relatively fresh off the staging areas and no harm had come to them as they moved, so they were just as confident as the men in the morning, advancing through a land devoid of the enemy. They had heard of the embarrassing defeat of the communists at Tukino and Dori Dobo and in the borders.
They hailed from Nocht, the capital of capitalism – they would win.
For many of them, they had to win. For their country, yes; but also for their futures. For their careers. Names and histories were being made in this ancient land, and you either flew or you fell. Nocht’s technocrats demanded perfection. Nocht was a land of opportunity, but only the very best, the hardest working, the most skilled, would earn the true riches to be reaped. It was a competition; even as they advanced together every man knew that he had to take the glory for himself first, in order to earn himself a big seat like Dreschner’s.
United without, divided within, and with gold in their eyes, the tanks advanced.
Coordinating this effort in southeast Knyskna was Lt. Kunze. Unlike the Brigadier-General’s Befehlspanzer, Kunte’s M4 Sentinel had the standard radio equipment and a real gun. He could communicate with the FOB in Djose, but the farther he got, the worse he would sound to them. He could definitely not contact any forces farther than that, but he did not need to. Speaking to Dreschner (Schicksal, for the most part) was enough.
His tank was pitted and burnt and the left track was worse for wear – a 120mm mortar had nearly struck him, and he had endured several BKV attacks when he attempted to pursue the communists and avenge the loss of his assault gun platoon.
That had been more than enough combat for Lt. Kunze. He was anxious enough without suffering the persistent sweat and shaking of being in a fight. He hung back now, following a ways behind the advancing troops, always removed from them around a corner or hidden in an alleyway, observing and coordinating well away from the front.
From below him a boy barely out of his teens turned to face him. He was the radio operator of his tank crew, which included a gunner and loader in front of him, and a driver below as well. In a soft voice the boy said, “Schicksal is calling, sir.”
“Is this something you can’t handle? Turning a knob?” Kunze said contemptuously.
“She wants to speak with you personally.” the boy continued, his voice shaking.
Kunze pulled his headphones from around his neck and up to his ears.
“Lt. Kunze reporting.”
“Status report,” Schicksal asked, “Brigadier-General wishes to know your progress.”
“According to the Jagers, we’re only a few blocks away now. But we have to penetrate the thoroughfare from multiple alleys, or else we will have all the tanks bunched in one place and suffer the same problems.” Kunze replied.
“Correct. Therefore, you should make greater haste.” Schicksal said.
“We are advancing on schedule!” Kunze said, raising his voice suddenly.
Schicksal did not rise to the provocation.
Her own voice was smooth and clear, her lines delivered with precision and skillful timing. “Our schedule is being rewritten. Sunlight is precious right now. Brigadier-General Dreschner expresses his desire for you to personally direct the assault on the communist defenses along the southeast thoroughfare. It is, presently, the shortest and most direct route from which to attack the communist base, given the problems Reiniger is facing.”
She paused. Preempting a response, she spoke again.
“Of course, if you do not feel up to the task–”
Obviously, there was no choice. Clearing his throat and controlling his tone of voice again, Kunze replied much more affirmatively. “I am honored that the Brigadier-General chose me for this mission and I shall conduct it to the best of my ability.”
“Wonderful. Then, do make haste. All tracks are to stop at nightfall.”
Kunze grit his teeth a little reflexively. He hated it when the radio girl tried to tell him how to conduct himself. He hated it even more when she seemed like the one giving him orders, when she spoke with a voice like she had deigned to command him. What would she know about anything? How dare she talk so authoritatively to him as though she had a role of any importance in this battle? What goddamn nerve.
Of course, he knew intellectually that Schicksal was just passing along whatever it was Dreschner mumbled to himself in his radio tank as he waited for them to do the work.
But it still felt condescending and humiliating when it was she who delivered the lines and not the CO. It reminded him of the attitude she pulled in the Djose, talking when she wasn’t supposed to, sitting by Dreschner all the time like she was something special.
He envisioned Schicksal having just as much of a stick up her ass as Dreschner, all the while sitting comfortably behind the lines, and it vexed him.
He almost went as far as to say he hated Schicksal and her ilk.
But Kunze was at heart a fearful and stealthy creature.
He said nothing untoward. Schicksal had nothing to aspire to, and therefore she had nothing to be careful about, but he did, and he had to.
“Acknowledged.” He said. “We will speed up and breach soon.”
“Good. Report just before launching your attack. Schicksal out.”
Silence on the radio. Lt. Kunze and his tanks were now the premier force in Knyskna.
Kunze ripped his headphones from his head and in a sudden fit, threw them and the little box they were attached to at the radio boy, striking him behind the head with the object. Not a peep came out of the boy, and faced with Kunze’s sudden fury he just hunched closer to the small radio unit affixed to the side of the tank.
Irate, incoherent thoughts filled the Lieutenant’s head. He bit his nails. He sweated like a pig. It was all up to him now, suddenly. That snake Schicksal, he thought irascibly, her tone revealed nothing, she did not betray any of the impact of the situation in her voice, but he knew, he knew. This was his chance to either fly or fail. Dreschner was testing him.
He knew. His heart pounded.
“Vorwärts!” Kunze shouted, his voice reverberating inside the tank.
His gunner and loader steadied themselves on their makeshift seats, and his driver sped them all out of an alleyway, cutting in front of a platoon of tanks in order to advance toward the creeping front line. He would be getting even closer now to the communists than he had ever been before. In his mind Kunze still heard the shots and the blasts and felt his tank shaking. His whole body trembled with the thought and his stomach roiled, but there was no other way. Regrettably he would have to direct the advance with greater fervor.
Otherwise, he risked a higher rank on Dreschner’s shit-list, along with Reiniger.
So many of their elite 8th PzD had failed already.
Kunze couldn’t afford to fail with them. This was for Nocht, for country, for people, for freedom, for capitalism, for glory, for himself. It was better to die than to fail this.
“Listen up, and broadcast this to the crews when I’m done.” Kunze shouted, his voice strained over the noise of the tank. “Kampfgruppe K has been given the honor of taking the communist’s base of operations in Knyskna. We will be the first into the oven and the last out, as it should be. We are the real men in this fight! Our country depends on us; depends on you. I’m expecting a swift and thorough victory! Allow none of the communist scum to escape your grasp. You have the better weapons, the better training, and the spirit of progress and ingenuity! I want to hear no excuses and see no failures. There will be rewards, great rewards, to those who distinguish themselves! Vorwärts!”
Everyone in the tank cowered; the message soon shook other hearts in Kpfg. K. as well.
28-AG-30: Southeast Inner Boroughs West Bend
Abandoning the FOB the Ayvartan troops ran toward the far side of the thoroughfare and vanished into its alleyways and intersections. Groups of horses had been tied down around the thoroughfare in case emergency transportation was needed.
Headquarters’ own horses were located just behind the FOB, and they were already riding up the thoroughfare: everyone else dispersed hastily off the path.
Leander’s squad ran two blocks up from the FOB and took a corner into a tight alleyway that opened up into a small sitting plaza between two big buildings, within which a single big tree had been planted. Several horses had been left tied to this tree, with one soldier left behind to care for them. He waved to make himself known when he saw Leander’s squadron approaching, and began to untie the horses for them.
Smiling, Leander approached one of the bigger horses in the pack, its hide a uniform brown and its mane long and dark. All of the horses were Ayvartan breeds, middleweight, meant more for riding than for heavy pulling, and they were quite beautiful to behold.
Though he might have been a stranger to war and an untrained warrior, Leander knew horses. A caravan was nothing without them, after all! He made cooing noises and stroked the horse’s muzzle as he stood near it. He laughed contentedly as he petted the animal.
Obediently, the horse made no move away from him, and seemed for the most part ambivalent to his presence. Fair enough! They didn’t know each other yet. He felt oddly excited about the horse, even in the middle of this situation. They could be attacked at any moment! But a horse was such a natural and beautiful and comforting sight.
Behind him, Elena laughed and patted him cheerfully in the back.
“You two are hitting it off, I see! What do you think of it?”
“This is a good horse.” He replied. “It has a great build. Does the army have cavalry?”
“Not in the way you’re thinking.” Bonde said, grinning at Leander. “We have cavalry units that ride horses to battle, dismount and then fight on foot. I’m afraid you won’t be leading any saber charges in this era. Not with machine guns around.”
“Around the caravan I always heard war stories but they were mostly about swordsmen and cavalry charges and things like that. I guess those stories just don’t work anymore.”
Bonde shook his head with a big smile on his face. Elena chuckled again.
“I don’t want my own horse.” Sharna said suddenly.
Everyone stared at her again as though she were going mad in front of them.
“Why not?” Elena asked. “You don’t know how to ride one?”
“I know; but someone needs to be on guard with a good weapon.” Sharna replied.
“We can use our pistols from horseback can’t we?” Elena added.
“I said a good weapon.” Sharna replied, hefting up her BKV.
“You can shoot a BKV from horse-back?” Bonde said with surprise.
“I can shoot a BKV from any position.” Sharna said proudly, sticking out her chest.
Bonde looked puzzled, but he did not argue any further. He waved for Sharna to climb on Leander’s horse. Everyone seemed to correctly assume that Leander was probably the best rider, and the implication pleased him greatly. Finally, something he could do well! Leander climbed on first and took the reins, recalling when his mother had taught him how a proper woman should ride. It was all he knew growing up, so he would have do it.
Sharna sat behind him, her BKV set against her shoulder and her legs tight around the sides of the horse. She raised the barrel over Leander’s shoulder and kept her eyes locked to the sights, swaying from side to side as the horse began to move.
After receiving a good scolding from everyone, she hooked herself up to Leander with a rope, in case the recoil and tenuous position threatened to knock her off. Elena and Bonde both took their own horses, and withdrew their pistols as they rode.
Together, Squadron III trotted out of the alleyway and back onto the thoroughfare, gathering around in the middle of the road to make sure everyone was handling their horses well and fully appraised of the situation.
Behind them followed the horse handler, unarmed, riding his own horse while guiding the spare horses up as well. Soon as they were out on the street they saw a trickle of other riders leaving the alleys as well. Many rode clumsily up, and a few were trotting for lack of experience with galloping. Leander thought it was quite a shame to see.
“Everyone knows where we’re going right?” Bonde said to the huddle.
“Up the thoroughfare to the last defensive line.” Elena replied.
“Good. Everyone got that? Remember to watch your sides and watch the buildings, our enemy is apparently stealthier than we imagined.” Bonde said. “If your horse is sniped at, try to get away from it and not fall with it or it could crush you.”
“Easier said than done.” Leander said sadly. “But if someone gets hurt I will try to swing around and help you. I used to ride horses with my brothers, racing through the wood. This thoroughfare is cake compared to riding the Kasht!”
“Riding the what?” Sharna said.
No one heard her; her lips moved but her voice was lost under the booming of a gun.
Flying in from out of sight, a shell cut across the road and blasted the street.
A high explosive charge blasted the handler and the spare horses to oblivion. Responding to the blast the squadron’s horses trembled and grew anxious, they neighed and took several steps away from the source of the heat without command; that they did not jump and panic from such a close blast attested to their thorough training. A few meters closer and the shell fragments might have given the horses cause to panic and topple.
Over his shoulder Leander spotted an M4 Sentinel charging out of a building facade through a shower of concrete debris, with a second tank creeping along not far behind. Both of them turned their cruel turrets from the ruined remains of the handler and the spare horses and the street beneath them, seeking after prey.
The promised attack had come!
“Go!” Bonde cried out, and Leander stirred his horse to move.
While the tanks extricated themselves from the rubble and swung their faces to meet the riders, the squadron made haste, galloping away from the site.
From the fronts of the tanks, old Nochtish quengler .30 caliber machine guns fired away at the runners, spraying hot lead across the street and up the road.
Squadron III’s riders ducked and hugged closer to their horses to present less a target.
“Keep it steady, I can take out the gun!” Sharna shouted.
She sat up and tried to shift around on her seat to fire on the tanks behind them. However she struggled to do so while keeping steady on the horse, and made herself a target while she fumbled with her gun.
“Are you insane?”
Leander reached back and pulled Sharna down against the horse, as bursts of machine gun fire flew over head and around their horses.
Streaks of gunfire kicked up dust around them. Leander cued his horse gradually to the left and right to evade the shots, and the group followed him, trading positions, leaping over objects that might block shots. They moved fast, and thankfully the horses were well trained. Leander did not have to cue for it to go over the uneven terrain, to climb the jagged earth around shell craters, or leap over large rocks.
They kept ahead of the bullets, but this only pushed their assailants to their more natural weaponry. There was soon a thunderous noise across the thoroughfare. Two shells flew simultaneously from the barrels of their stationary pursuers; the first overflew them and several meters ahead, kicking up smoke and dust and concrete fragments, but they rode through without harm. A second shell fell painfully short of their galloping steeds and merely blew heat at their backs as they rode away.
Unfortunately the tanks reloaded quickly.
Leander felt the heat of another explosion just at his heels and saw a fourth and even a fifth shell crashing on the street sides and blasting a new hole far ahead of him.
His horse took the leap over the fresh, hot shell crater naturally.
Sharna grabbed hold of him with one hand once the horse took to the air, and shot dirty looks behind herself – she had been trying to retaliate, but could not turn around and fire the BKV comfortably at an enemy directly behind her while riding the horse.
A series of rhythmic booming noises issued from the guns as the tanks continued to shoot and the shells crashed around the road and streets, throwing hot smoke and splintered earth into the air, but none of it put a stop to the riders of Squad III. Growing increasingly behind in their pursuit, the tanks were pushed to greater action. Over the clattering of their horses’ shoes Leander heard engines roar and machines trundle forward.
While a significant gap had developed while the M4s were stationary, charging at full speed the tanks made rapid gains on the horses. Machine gun fire raked the debris and air around the riders once again creeping closer and threatening to clip them before they could escape. Leander tried to speed his horse up, but he thought he could feel the effort the animal was putting in just to gallop at the current speed – it was not a machine, and it could not sprint for much longer. He looked over his shoulder at the tanks closing in.
“We can’t keep running them like this, they’ll tire out!” Leander shouted.
“Ahead, we can lose them there!” Elena shouted.
She pointed out a large building up ahead that had toppled over onto the road: a broken doorway and window holes faced them, and they could see right through it, so there must have been similar exits on the other side. It covered most of the road and the tanks could not fit through any of the openings: they would have to stop and go around it, or they would have to punch through the facade. Shells overflew them and struck ahead, ever closer. There was no time for a debate or an alternate route. Bonde raised his hand and waved everyone toward that building, and they pushed their horses to one last sprint.
The riders aligned themselves with the orifices, and at full speed their horses leaped skillfully through the ruined doorways and over the holes of the shattered windows.
They touched down on the overturned walls and without stopping ran through the ruined interior and leaped over a broken and upturned staircase to emerge outside.
Behind them the tanks stopped dead in their tracks.
As they galloped away they heard cannon fire behind the ruin.
Squadron III maintained speed for a few blocks, until they realized the pursuit had ended. They regrouped and slowed to a trot. Leander put his head to the neck of his horse and rubbed its head. He could feel its belabored breathing and quickened pulse.
“Is everyone all right?” Bonde asked. “Anyone hurt?”
“I’m alive, somehow.” Elena said. “And very thankful for a rural upbringing.”
“I’m alright.” Sharna said. “Not a bullet or fragment grazed me.”
“I’m fine. Not sure our horses have another panic run like that in them.” Leander said.
There was another blast, but this one was not from behind them.
They looked forward across the blasted landscape of the thoroughfare, and saw glass and concrete flying, smoke blowing and licks of flame coming from buildings.
“I don’t think our pursuers were alone.” Elena said in a choked voice.
All across the thoroughfare concrete doorways and window-frames burst open onto the street and concrete alley walls blew suddenly apart. Across a half dozen blocks on the leftmost side of the thoroughfare Nochtish tanks began to extricate themselves from the ruins in groups of two and three, revealing their own ambush.
From several alleyways the whining quengler guns opened fire on the runners ahead of Leander’s squad and killed many and their horses; and once they rolled out onto stable ground their cannons blasted the road at deadly ranges, tossing horses into the air and vaporizing men and women where they rode.
In moments it seemed like half their force had been wiped out.
One squadron in sight panicked and made the grave mistake of trying to run into an alley: from the perspective of the tanks, coming from one side of the street and facing the other, all this did was give them a target practice. Guns emptied mercilessly on them, and Leander thought he had never seen so much smoke and fire.
The alleyways would not save them in this battle.
“We can’t stop now! Run past them!” Bonde shouted to his squad.
Squadron III raced forward again across the ruined terrain, their horses working themselves raw once more. Leander felt terribly for the animals but they could not afford to canter in such a situation. All of the thoroughfare seemed still ahead of them.
Terrain was their last concern; before long an M4 had thrust out of a building and down a set of steps onto the street, making to block their way and establish a killzone. It threw itself forward and then began to reverse its direction to face them with its quengler. They were closing in quickly but its machine gun would tear them to shreds at this range.
Sharna was smiling, though from what nobody knew.
Leander glanced at her with a mix of awe and horror as she sat up on the horse and raised her BKV, the barrel extended right over his head. He ducked even closer to the horse so he wouldn’t feel the gas blown out of the muzzle brake. Seemingly without careful aim she opened fire on the tank, her finger rapping the trigger and her shoulder and arms absorbing the shock as the stock pumped back into her like a piston.
A barrage of 14.5mm rounds crashed into the tank ahead of them in a tight grouping. Sharna emptied the entire clip on the M4’s face, and her shots mangled the little bulb on the tank’s hull where its quengler machine gun was mounted. Unable to fire its machine gun and too close to use its cannon the M4 was silent as Leander’s squadron ran past it.
“Sharna get down, you’re going to be killed!” Elena shouted, but Sharna was not listening. Held up on the horse only by her legs and the rope she had tied to Leander, she loaded in a new clip, worked the bolt and aimed ahead again.
Leander resisted the temptation to stare: he had to keep his eyes ahead!
They raced forward through relatively open terrain – a terrible disadvantage in this situation, since their horses could clear obstacles but tanks couldn’t.
In this open stretch they were sitting ducks.
A group of tanks facing the other street swung their turrets, but thankfully not their whole bodies, around to meet the incoming riders. And those were not the only guns closing on them. Behind them the tank with the damaged machine gun turned its turret and readied to fire. Leander and his comrades were trapped in a crossfire of three tank guns.
“What do we do?” Elena shouted. Time was running short to make a decision.
“They could hit each other if they miss, they won’t shoot! Keep going!” Sharna said.
None of the M4s seemed to hear this argument, as their turrets locked on to fire.
“Scatter! Scatter!” Leander desperately shouted. “Get out of their way!”
All three guns opened fire with their first shells.
Elena and Bonde rushed suddenly rightwards, and Leander leftwards to evade. He felt a shell just fly past him, like a fist thrown by a god, rushing by his side with such force that he thought it would split him apart without contact. From behind them another shell thrust between their horses, delivered by the tank with the broken machine gun.
Flying past each other the shells struck armor.
In front of Squadron III a large hole appeared in the turret of one of the tanks, and fire erupted from its hatches as the explosives went off. Karma caught up to the assailant instantly, as the shell that had missed Leander struck the exposed back of this traitorously reckless tank and cooked the engine, setting off a vibrant explosion that covered the way behind Squadron III in smoke. The third shell overflew them and vanished into the smoke.
Again the squadron overran an assailant; but this one was well equipped.
Turning callously from the wrecks of its companions, the surviving M4 swung hastily around to chase them and claim the kills it had fought so recklessly for.
Faced with this threat Sharna suddenly shifted her weight: she turned completely around on the horse, and Leander thought all the Arjun’s spirits must have been with her, because she somehow did not fall. She leaned her back hard on Leander’s own and opened fire. He felt all the force of her shots transferring through her body and down his spine, and grabbed tighter on to his horse from the sheer discomfort.
It was like someone kicking down on his spine each time she fired, but it was effective.
The M4’s machine gun barely fired a burst before Sharna silenced it completely. Her fire did not abate. Sharna went through her clip, reloaded with haste and was firing again much faster than Leander thought possible. Her shooting was much louder too – and suddenly the tank exploded behind them, and even Sharna let out a surprised gasp.
“I did it! I did it! I destroyed a tank from the front with a BKV!” Sharna celebrated.
“It wasn’t you!” Elena shouted. “It was the 85mm! Look!”
Ahead of them the end of the thoroughfare was finally in sight, blocked by three tiered lines of low sandbag walls that provided cover for dismounted troops, and guarded by the thick square figures of the two Orc medium tanks. Atop a gentle incline well behind the last of the sandbag walls covering the approach, a single 85mm anti-aircraft gun had been depressed as low as it could go to enable it to attack the enemy tanks directly.
It had smashed through the glacis plate and killed the tank behind Squadron III instantly, and now the gun crew reoriented it.
However, despite being closer than ever, the way to the line was still barred.
Before Squadron III could even think to rush their way to safety, a group of three tanks extricated themselves from the left-hand street. They pulverized their way past a wall in one of the alleys and made for the defensive line at all speed, opening up with their machine guns and cannons against the sandbag walls.
Those few who had made it to the defensive line rallied and prepared to fight.
In retaliation the large Orc tanks advanced out into the road and opened fire, but their low velocity 45mm explosive shells hardly seemed to matter to the incoming M4s. The Nochtish tanks were pushing aggressively, and switching their positions constantly as they advanced in an attempt to avoid the 85mm gun.
Squadron III stopped in their tracks and regrouped.
“We haven’t lost anyone, have we?” Bonde asked. “Except Sharna’s pride?”
Sharna grumbled a little while reloading her BKV again.
“Sorry.” Bonde said. “Maybe I should refrain from jokes.”
“Why are they so zealous all of a sudden?” Elena said, crossing her arms and sighing. “Why would they take those shots if they knew there was a chance they could kill their own comrades. Are our lives worth so much to take?”
“Inexperience, desperation, overconfindence?” Bonde said. “Who knows?”
“I don’t see how four people on horses could make them desperate.” Elena said.
“Oh, I’ll give them something to be desperate about alright.” Sharna said.
Everyone grinned and sighed a little in equal measure at her vehemence.
“We need to link up with the defenders.” Bonde said. “That’ll take some doing.”
A pitched battle grew between the Nochtish tanks and the defenders on the line, cutting off Squad III’s access. They could not even run past the tanks again now even if they wanted to. It was a firestorm of machine guns and cannon fire from both sides: heavy shells from the 85mm crashing around the mobile Nochtish tanks, and the Orcs’ front armor withstanding several punishing enemy blasts and returning fire with their own guns, and small arms fire filling the gap between the forces without pause.
Should they overrun the tanks, Leander was certain they would die in the ensuing enfilade fire before reaching friendly lines. He sighed heavily, exasperated, his heart pounding non-stop. Now that he had time to think about things, all the terrible condition of his body, the wear, the stress, seemed to catch up to him all at once.
“What do we do now?” He groaned. “We definitely can’t go back.”
Bonde stared at the crossfire, crossing his arms and drumming his fingers along his sleeve. Several more shells were exchanged, and a chunk of the sandbag wall went up into the air and threw a pair of riflemen several meters back.
As medical staff rushed forward to take them, Bonde was deep in thought.
He muttered something to himself, and Leander saw a gleam in his eyes.
“At the FOB, did you two replenish your AT grenades?” Bonde asked.
“I did.” Sharna said, casually lifting up a grenade for him to see.
Leander checked his pouch and produced an AT stick grenade as well.
“Alright. Leander, leave your horse and climb on Elena’s.” Bonde instructed a puzzled Leander, pointing him to Elena’s horse. “I’ll take the reins on your horse. Sharna, give me your grenade; Leander, give Elena your grenade.”
“What’s this about?” Elena asked. “What’s your plan?”
There was a sudden explosion ahead of them.
A fourth tank blasted its way out of a building closer to the defensive line’s first sandbag wall. It was immediately met by the 85mm gun. One shell was all it took, blasting through the turret and disabling the newly risen invader.
But the three other tanks took the initiative and pushed to the defensive line, and were dangerously close to the defenders. One of the Orcs attempted a brave pushback, charging forward and firing its gun, but its front armor finally had enough.
An M4’s shell punched through the glacis plate and a second shell smashed through the turret, and it would move no more, the Ayvartans inside likely cooked by the blasts.
Leander found it hard to peel away from the sight.
Soon they’d have no defensive line to run to!
The remaining Orc scrambled back behind the sandbag walls.
Thin streaks of hot gas emanated from the 85mm as its crew reoriented the gun, loaded a new shell, and fired, striking the earth in front of the line of M4s and momentarily giving them pause. Its barrel was starting to wear out from all the shooting.
Bonde waved his hands together, capturing everyone’s attention again.
“We need to hurry here, and I’ve got a plan, yes. Everyone will have to get this precise, but it’s our only option at this point. We can take two of the horses and rush behind two of the tanks: Leander and Sharna will fire their BKVs into the exposed rear of each tank, and then Elena and I will throw the grenades over the engine compartment.” Bonde said. “That should be enough trauma to disable the tanks or at least distract the crews and give us time to run past and link up with the remains of the Company. Do you think so, Sharna?”
Sharna seemed still half-stuck to watching the assault on the line.
“Sharna?” Bonde asked.
The anti-tank riflewoman blinked and shook her head clear.
“Yes, the backs of the tanks have the thinnest armor. It should work.” She said.
Bonde smiled. “I trust your judgment on tanks. Does everyone else?”
Leander and Elena nodded their heads.
“You should trust it!” Sharna smiled and stuck out her chest.
“Then let us switch horses. We don’t have a lot of time.”
Leander and Bonde dismounted, leaving Bonde’s horse to follow however it could.
Leander found the result of the switch strangely, darkly humorous in a way: he sat behind Elena with his BKV over her shoulder, a facsimile of a tank. He was the turret, the horse was the hull. Bonde and Sharna had a similar relationship, albeit Sharna made for a more menacing turret given her skill. With one hand on the reins and another on the grenade, Elena and Bonde started their horses moving, first at a trot and then working up to a canter. Leander’s gun rocked from side to side with the moving horse, he could keep it steady only with great difficulty. Sharna seemed to hold hers perfectly straight.
Elena spurred her horse apart from Bonde’s, and they charged the tanks. One M3 assault gun on the periphery had no machine gun to harass them with. Two M4s, side by side, would be the targets. Leander struggled with all of his might to keep his BKV lined up with the back of the tank. Sharna opened fire first; Leander pressed the trigger in response and felt the stock bash into him, but he pushed forward into the shots, keeping himself upright and on the horse while firing. Sharna put a hole into the back of the engine compartment. Leander’s grouping was scattered but had served its purpose, weakening the armor. Neither tank took notice of them, with the defensive line in their sights.
Elena and Bonde stopped their horses within throwing range and cast their grenades.
Bonde’s grenade was right on target, exploding right into the hole that Sharna had carved for it. The engine went up in flames and the tank almost jumped from the violence.
Elena threw too hard and the grenade struck over the engine compartment, rendering Leander’s effort moot, but the blast was enough to light a fire over the engine.
Both targets halted their fire and their hatches went up, confused crew peering out momentarily, their periscopes thwarted. One tank began to back up in panic.
Squadron III quickly took the opening: Bonde and Elena cued their horses with the reins and sprinted past the damaged tanks as fast as they could.
The horses moved easily around the retreating machines.
They avoided incoming fire from their own troops, but thankfully the friendly fire was not automatic, and the troops quickly stopped shooting past them.
They closed their eyes; Sharna prayed to her Spirits.
Bonde’s plan proved good enough. In moments they cleared the first sandbag wall and ran past the 85mm gun and into the edge of the plaza, where several surviving horses had been hidden around the corner from the fighting. Everyone dismounted, cleared the sweat and the dust from their faces, and caught their breaths. Leander almost threw his arms around Bonde, such joy and relief surging through him.
“I could kiss that shiny head of yours!” Leander said cheerfully.
“Wait until we’re on the train.” Bonde replied nervously.
Behind them the crossfire at the defensive line had died out. They rounded the corner again and peered out carefully, but the tanks they had damaged had fully retreated into nearby alleyways, and the M3 assault gun had itself vanished.
Leander saw someone waving at them from the 85mm mount, and alerted everyone.
They ran down to the gun, past the mortars, two of which were completely decrewed; and one of which had been blasted to pieces by a shell. Sergeant Bahir was waiting for them, and he extended his hand to each of them, congratulating them on making it back. Leander counted perhaps seventeen other people at the line in various places.
“Your fighting spirit has not gone unnoticed, comrades. Squadron III has had the ancestors with them this day.” Sergeant Bahir said. “However, we are not yet out of the fire. We have to defend here. All of our fighting groups on the west and south thoroughfares are also at their final lines. We expect one more major push from Nocht before our train arrives. You have faced so much combat today, but this will be typical of the war if we must win. So I dare ask: will you fight with me on more time, comrades?”
“Of course we shall.” Bonde replied. Leander and Sharna nodded.
“Excellent! You do the Motherland proud. If I am ever in a position to do so, I will reward you for your efforts today, Squadron III. Now I must ask instead: do any of you have experience with the 120mm mortar?” Sgt. Bahir gestured behind himself, where one mortar was shot to pieces and the other two had been completely de-crewed, their occupants in a field hospital one way or another now. “My secretary and I can sight the pieces, but we need loaders. Unfortunately our crews suffered casualties.”
Elena fidgeted a little, but spoke up. “I can probably do that much.”
“Likewise.” Bonde said. “However, these two are anti-tank gunners.”
Bonde put his hands on Sharna and Leander’s shoulders. Leander looked at him critically for a moment, but then realized it was intended as a gesture of faith.
He also realized he knew not even the littlest thing about a mortar, other than it caused an explosion after some unimaginable process. Sharna, meanwhile, seemed very flattered, and crossed her arms with a cool grin on her face and posing confidently.
Sergeant Bahir nodded. “I noticed! We will need their strength on the line itself.”
Soon the sun fell in earnest, and the thoroughfare was cast into an eerie half shadow.
Streaks of orange light played across the road, while the streets were cast in a gloom. Without wind the smoke from the battle was slow to disperse. Leander could see dead horses from where he set up. There were around eleven soldiers on the line itself, counting himself and Sharna. Three others, part of Bahir’s HQ staff, crewed the 85mm gun, while Sgt. Bahir, his secretary, Elena, and Bonde, crewed the 120mm mortars behind the line. Leander guessed the remaining Orc had about three or four crew. So there were less than twenty-five people remaining to hold this line. Nobody had bothered to pick out the corpses from the destroyed Orc still burning away slowly in front of the defensive line.
Their souls now rested with the Spirits, or the Ancestors, or other forms of Gods; their bodies weren’t so important.
Sharna and he took cover behind the front line of sandbags. Standing, they reached only to the waist. Lying against them with their BKVs set up on bipod mounts, they were almost entirely hidden. Beside the footsteps of soldiers pacing and tapping anxiously, and the metal creaking of the Orc’s turret or the 85mm gun’s mount, the thoroughfare was quiet. Stretching far off in front of them it was a landscape of gently rolling smoke clouds, the smooth road pitted with shell holes and covered in dust and chunks and metal hulks.
This last stretch of the thoroughfare had once been open enough to have given them good sight lines, but with the broken tank hulls, the smoke, and collateral damage, visibility had been reduced. Everything reeked of hell, burning oil and gunpowder and smoke, concrete dust in the air. Leander’s eyes teared up from sitting near the front where it all still lingered. His body ached, and he felt like he had been pulled to his limit in a dozen directions by careless hands, his muscles loose and throbbing.
“How long do you think it will take for the train to get here?” Leander asked.
“No idea.” Sharna said. She was far more focused on the road than he.
Having properly sighted the mortars and left behind his secretary in case they had to be adjusted further, Sergeant Bahir rejoined the forces at the front of the defensive line.
From his belt he pulled a pair of binoculars and peered out into the thoroughfare for a moment. He put them down, and kneeled next to Leander and Sharna behind the sandbags.
“Comrades!” He shouted. “We are on the cusp of victory. One final time the enemy will strike us. He will come at us with everything he has. But we must hold this line. Hold this line for your comrades, for your motherland!”
Engines groaned to life in the alleyways.
Smoke canisters flew from the enemy’s positions to cover the road. A white cloud expanded across the thoroughfare and provided the enemy with cover.
Leander could hear the tracks, crunching debris as they went, and he saw distorted phantoms making vague movements out of the rubble and onto the road.
Enemy tanks advanced again from the alleyways, stacking up around the road and turning their strong faces to meet their guns and rifles. Sgt. Bahir raised his fist and the 85mm held its fire. They had limited shells, and within the smoke there was no guarantee of a successful hit. They would need the gun: it was their main defense.
Shells hurtled out of the cloud, crashing into the dead skeletons of lost tanks, falling at the edge of the sandbag wall, crashing over the line. The barrage crept closer and closer.
The defenders ducked their heads and held their positions, the shells now exploding between and around them. When a shell hit a column of fire and smoke rose for a second in its wake, covering a few meters around it. But the area set ablaze by a 50mm shell was limited, and they were spread out enough to survive the sporadic shots.
Only a direct hit from a shell would kill them, but the heat and the smoke and the flying chunks of cement were upsetting and gave the defenders pause.
Leander felt his feet shaking, as though his body was telling him to run. He swallowed hard and set his eyes down the sights of his gun. This was the kind of man he was.
Figures grew solid in the smoke as the tanks drew closer. Between the blasts Leander thought he heard concerted footsteps as the enemy’s men joined their attacking tanks. Gebirgsjager had probably combed the FOB, and now advanced with the tanks.
Sgt. Bahir raised his fist and then spread his fingers, opening his hand.
At once the Ayvartan line roared to life, with yells of “oorah!” as they opened fire.
DNV machine guns and BKVs and Bundu rifles; anything anyone had on hand they used to trade shots with the enemy. Muzzles flashed all across the defensive line.
Nocht advanced in an arrowhead formation of eight tanks around what Leander assumed was the CO’s tank, as it was clearly damaged from a previous battle and was not firing. Far behind them he could see reserve tanks hiding in the smoke.
Many of the tanks were unbuttoned, their commanders directing volleys of machine gun fire from the coaxial and frontal machine guns on every tank. Hundreds of machine gun bullets struck the sandbags and flew over the defensive line.
Several M4s unloaded their cannons as they moved, and many dozen men moved in tandem with the tanks, stopping and crouching to take aim and fire with their rifles.
Ayvartan machine guns swept across the formation, forcing the riflemen to use their tanks for cover and preventing them from threatening the shooters on the line. Sharna blasted the bulging frontal machine guns and the small holes housing turret coaxial guns, sharply reducing the volume of incoming fire. Leander aimed and waited.
“Vorwärts!” screamed the Nocht CO from the center of the formation.
“Hold the line!” Sgt. Bahir shouted. “Comrades, stand your ground!”
The 85mm gun creaked and whistled as the crew moved it, aiming for the lead tanks.
One heavy round went into the breech, and soared across the thoroughfare, smashing easily through the frontal armor of the spearhead M4 and destroying it. Like a phalanx, the tanks compensated for its loss, the back tanks moving around it and a new leader taking its place. The crew worked hard to reload the gun, but it was clear that they were long past the peak of their endurance, and the gun’s barrel was glowing red hot and smoking.
They loaded a new round and then waited, while cannonfire fell around them, creeping ever closer to taking the gun and its crew out. The Orc tank trundled forward to bar the way while the 85mm loaded. Its commander unbuttoned to keep track of the crew, to know when to move away. Acting as a shield was all the Orc could do.
Nocht’s CO screamed again, “Vorwärts!”
Sgt. Bahir replied, “Hold the line! For socialism, comrades!”
In an instant, the center tank fired its first shot of the battle, as directed by the Nocht CO. A 50mm high-explosive shell crashed directly into the sandbag wall and exploded, taking out a large chunk of the bags and tossing back two of the soldiers.
Stunned, the soldiers limped away to the second sandbag line.
All at once, the other Nochtish tanks started landing their own hits on the first sandbag wall, and the Ayvartans ran as fast as they could and jumped behind the second. This gave them only ten more meters on the quickly advancing enemy. Time was running short.
“VORWÄRTS!” the scream echoed across the thoroughfare.
Loud thunk noises issued from behind the Ayvartan line as Bonde and Elena dropped mortar rounds into the 120mm tubes and sent them flying high into the air to fall over the Nocht line. Finally Elena got to see their effects on the enemy’s tanks. Mortar rounds crashed around the advancing tanks, smearing riflemen across the road, pounding on the armor of the tanks. They were not designed to penetrate armor, but they left noticeable damage across the turrets and faces of the tanks, and each pounding shook up the crew and slowed the formation, buying just a few more precious seconds with every hit.
Facing deadly bombardment, several enemy tank commanders retreated back into their tanks, many closing their hatches just as a stray mortar round crashed atop their tanks. One good shot smashed the side of a tank and split its track in half. Hastily the formation compensated for its loss. They closed within less than 200 meters, practically face to face with the Ayvartans. Leander established himself behind the wall and aimed.
“Stand your ground for your very lives, comrades!” Sgt. Bahir shouted.
Despite the violence all around them, that center tank had never buttoned.
For a moment Leander had a clear look at the Nocht CO, a large man with a grim face, like a beast through the smoke. In the distance he appeared like a grinning, chalk-white monster, reveling as his forces devoured the terrain. He was like some kind of demon.
Leander set his sights a little above the man’s head and without thinking, pulled the trigger once, twice, thrice. He felt the punch of the gun recoiling in his hands, but he was trapped in time suddenly. He saw the rounds strike, wiping features from the man’s face.
His nose was a blur, his eyes disappeared, his mouth was sealed in red.
His face vanished, as though Leander had wiped the paint from a portrait of the man. He slumped forward, smearing blood on the pintle of the Norgler gun atop his tank, and then sliding through the hatch. There would be no more of that alien tongue screaming over the fighting. Suddenly Nocht’s formation slowed, and the cannon fire halted.
Their commander was dead. Leander had killed him.
“Sharna, I think I hit someone!” Leander said, tapping his comrade on the shoulder, his mouth running before words could fully settle in his brain. Sharna looked up from her own sights in confusion at the slowing, quiet tanks.
“I think you did as well.” Sharna said in a distant, incredulous voice.
They then felt a rumbling across the ground that quieted them as much as Nocht. Sharna looked over her shoulder, and Leander followed; he saw a trail of smoke above the plaza and heard the loud whistling of a massive train.
“Stand your ground, comrades! Our ride is here! We have survived the day!”
Sgt. Bahir stood up from the ground, and raised his fist into the air suddenly.
Before them, the Nocht formation erupted into flames as a massive shell struck the two lead tanks with such force that it ripped their turrets from the hulls and scattered them in pieces. Men were sent crashing across the rocks, and those on the periphery caught fire on their cloaks and jackets as burning shrapnel flew every which way.
Nocht’s advance halted immediately, and several tanks reversed as fast as they could, bumping into each other in disarray and panic as the artillery fell on them.
As one the defenders watched in awe as a second heavy shell fell and in a massive explosion tore apart three tanks covering the flank, leaving behind hulls that looked as though crushed under the feet of a giant, and covered in thick, black, choking smoke.
“That’s a ‘Vajra’ gun!” Sharna said in awe. “203mm. Spirits defend.”
Leander peeled his eyes away from the chaos and saw Sgt. Bahir’s secretary using Elena’s backpack radio. They were likely directing the fire on the thoroughfare from the train’s gun. He could hardly believe such destruction was possible.
Nocht was completely scattered.
One final shell and Leander could not even see the enemy anymore through the smoke and fire. They had been erased from existence. What Leander did to one man’s face just happened across a whole mess of tanks and men. He felt the rumbling of the shell falls across his chest, and heard the blast booming inside his head.
In his eyes the fire was trapped. He was purely in awe.
“Retreat to the train yard, comrades!” Sgt. Bahir shouted. “We must depart!”
Stumbling over sandbags and their own rifles the dazed and astonished trickle of soldiers, maybe eight or nine survivors at most, made their way back to the railroad. Some rode their horses, but many were so confused they were simply leading them along. Leander was one of them, blinking and hardly able to think. His own power seemed so shallow and small compared to such a thing! As he neared the rail yard he saw that massive gun, mounted on its own car in the armored train, firing incessantly to cover them.
A crew of twelve swung the piece around and focused fire on the central thoroughfare this time, now that the southeast was clear of the enemy. Men and women rushed into the infantry cars, and the surviving Orc tank took a concrete ramp onto the platform, and then climbed a special loading ramp onto its own metal container. Several goblin tanks from the Western thoroughfare, all remaining horses and a few trucks carrying surviving artillery pieces and crates of munitions were quickly loaded onto the train.
He felt Bonde’s hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake again. He was at the platform. He had been walking all this time, but he was so out of it he did not notice. As he came to this realization an orderly took the horse from him and led it away.
“Get on the train. We’re going now. We lived through it!” Bonde said.
“Come on, Elena and Sharna are already inside.”
Leander shook his head to clear it. “Oh, I said I would kiss your head.”
“I would rather you didn’t.” Bonde said, raising his hands nervously.
They climbed aboard an empty train car and sat in a corner next to Sharna and Elena. Several more soldiers arrived soon from the other thoroughfares and packed in. It was only an infantry car because it had slits out from which they should shoot. In reality it was a very bare car with nowhere to really sit but the floor. Elena unfurled her bedroll against the corner so the squadron could have something soft to rest their backs. Leander breathed heavily, and wiped the sweat from his face. He had survived. He had lived through it.
“Good work taking out the commander.” Sharna said, throwing an arm around Leander’s shoulder and pulling him close to herself, grinning all the while. “I saw it, right here! This boy, he blasted Nocht’s lieutenant right off his commander’s seat.”
Elena and Bonde blinked, and then cheered and patted Leander in praise.
Everyone else in the car, the eight or nine survivors of 824 Lion Company, clapped their hands and added their own compliments. It was a bright spot to them all in the confusion and for a moment they all reveled in it, and Leander thought they might throw him around the cart in celebration. He smiled a little, but had a hard time cheering.
“I did not do much! He was going to die anyway.” Leander protested.
“That doesn’t diminish what you did! That was a real hard shot you must have taken, Leander! Without any training!” Bonde said.
“I would rather shoot a tank next time.” Leander replied, laughing a little.
The train whistled again several times. Smoke started to rise overhead. They felt the car shake a little, and move. It was time to go: they had everyone and everything that could be taken from Knyskna. Slowly their train pushed forward, took a curve around the rail station and then hurtled its way out of the city again at quickly building speeds.
They were on their way to Dbagbo now, the territory adjacent Shaila.
They were safe. They had survived the Battle of Knyskna.
Leander sat back against the corner, staring at the BKV rifle laid beside him.
This was the man he had chosen to be. Or at least, that was what he thought.
He did not think he fully understood what that entailed yet.
28-AG-30: Djose Wood, 8th PzD Headquarters
Karla Schicksal pulled her headphones from over her ears and laid them gently on the makeshift table in front of her. She turned the knob on the radio, shutting it off entirely.
Overhead, Dreschner stared grimly at his own shoes, his hat pulled over his face.
In the gloomy interior of the Befehlspanzer, under the full Ayvartan moon, they were the victors, the takers of the spoils, the marchers triumphant. Knyskna was their dominion now. They had won, by the measure that Nocht used to gauge victory.
Oberkommando had its movement.
Now they just waited to know the price. Schicksal knew.
“Casualties are in.” She said, trying to render it in as neutral a voice as possible.
“Kunze is dead, isn’t he?” Dreschner said.
“Yes.” Schicksal replied. “Lentz and Reiniger managed to retreat in time to avoid the heavy howitzer barrage on the thoroughfares. By all accounts, Kunze and his men were completely lost to it. They were hit first on the arrival of the train.”
“Yes. They were the hardest running, the first ones into the maelstrom.”
Dreschner raised his hands to his face, rubbing his forehead.
“I was not altogether fond of Kunze. He was a wretch, but he had a knack for this line of work. Then I spurred him to die. I personally gambled with his life.”
Schicksal sighed. “We underestimated the enemy.”
Dreschner raised his head, and he stared at her suddenly as though surprised.
She felt a shock across her chest, as though his glance had stabbed her in the sternum and knocked her back. Her mind raced with reprimands to herself; she should’ve kept quiet, she should have stopped speaking out of turn a long time ago. And yet his eyes were not cold. He had a soft expression, like a parent looking fondly on a child.
He leaned back on his seat, with his hands over his knees, and gave a melancholy glance at all the maps, the photos, pinned around his space, the relics of this battle.
“We didn’t, Mäuschen. I underestimated them. And from me and my orders, it passed down to you, to Kunze, to all of them. I didn’t see that my hubris would become the hubris of the 8th Panzer Division. I didn’t see that my hubris, my pride, would kill us.”
Gently he pulled the photos and the maps down, and he crumpled them up and threw them out of the hatch. He sighed and drummed his fingers on the metal.
They were both quiet then, quiet almost through the rest of the night. Schicksal wondered if perhaps, it was not the hubris of all of Nocht that was becoming their hubris, appropriated by Dreschner, by the Lieutenants, all the way down to the troops.
Had it passed down to her too?
30th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
“Radio’s fixed! We reestablished contact.”
The Major looked over her shoulder from her desk, peeling herself away from the heavily marked maps and photographs strewn across it. She looked across the room, where the Secretary stood in the doorway, her hand on her heart and a little smile on her face. The Major nodded her head and the Secretary approached and sat across her.
“So, what is the news then?”
Her Secretary smiled wanly at her.
“Knyskna fell to the enemy, but they dealt a terrible blow to Nocht. Warden Kansal thinks she might be able to do something about the Council’s poor decision-making so far. Both their eyes are turning to Dbagbo now as the next major battlefield. Nocht has not yet moved toward it, but it’s only a matter of time until they do. The Warden also commends us on our brave efforts here, and asks that we hold on a little longer.”
“So; that’s useless.” The Major replied.
“It’s politics, you know. Let us hope it’s right politics, soon.” The Secretary smiled sadly and put her hand atop the Major’s, squeezing it in a gesture of solidarity.
Both of them cast their eyes together outside their window, across the ruins, where artillery shells fell unabated, and tanks rolled across the streets of the city. The sky was choked with smoke from fires and blasts, and hundreds, thousands, of soldiers fought across the blocks they could see from their position. The Major took in this sight, in part with melancholy, anger, regret, and in part with renewed determination.
Major Madiha Nakar, current head of Battlegroup of Ox as well the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division and the 5th KVW Mechanized Division, felt the tell-tale pain in her eyes, the eerie sense that blood was rushing to them and out of them, as she put her mind to work on a solution to the deadlock she and her forces had found themselves.
She had a battle to fight, and time was growing short. Nocht was closing in.
“So, what does this mean for us then? Knyskna?” Parinita asked.
“It means we’ll have to speed things up here.” Madiha said.
She looked out to a makeshift calendar on the wall, and swiped a little line across it with a pen. Hastily drawn up and written by Parinita, this record of their days was a grid of checkboxes to mark down.
At the top it read:
Adjar Dominance – Ox FOB “Madiha’s House”
[9th] Day of the Battle of Bada Aso.
NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The World Ablaze