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This chapter contains graphic language and mild violence.
40th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance — City of Dori Dobo, Oberkommando Suden
Dori Dobo didn’t have an airfield. Dori Dobo didn’t have a lot of things. A small, flat city on a parched patch of land a few kilometers inland from Ayvarta’s southwestern coast, Dori Dobo had always been a minor grain transport hub. Had there been anything left of the city of Bada Aso, Dori Dobo would be militarily irrelevant to the invasion.
Dreschner didn’t see much of Dori Dobo itself while he was there.
There was not much to see, he had been told.
He tried desperately not to think of the things he did see, however.
He tried not to think of the burnt-out field of crops flattened for his liaison plane to make its crude, uncomfortable landing. He tried not to think of whether the Ayvartans had burnt it or whether the OKS had burned it. He tried not to think of the reasons either party might have for the act. He tried not to think of those who would be hurt by it.
He tried not to think of the lavish Nochtish car parked in the burnt field, that had been shipped from the Fatherland to ferry him; nor of the fleet of such cars brought from the Fatherland to transport him and other powerful officers, hidden in the backseats by tinted windows so they couldn’t be seen (and in turn so they couldn’t see).
It was difficult to ignore the scene, because the car was so ostentatious.
Dreschner had expected a truck or tank, but his liaison car instead had a perfect, sleek black body, a front grille like a maw, triple headlights. This was not an army vehicle. This was a luxury car that was bought because money was promised to be spent.
Bitterly he found himself thinking. Thinking that these things had been brought here on the same ships that held his men (and women, like her,) in cramped holding compartments like animals. Parts for them, people to drive them and clean them and shine them, services, all of that was brought here expeditiously; while his men (and Schicksal) had inadequate food and medicine at the front, stuck wading through mud to fight this war.
He flew in a plane with leather seats and food service, and arrived on a trampled field of wheat in order to be driven to a villa in a luxury car brought by ship to a war zone. He tried not to think about how farcical that was, especially in light of the dreary, distant background to it all — Dori Dobo’s blocks of spread-out old clay brick and wood buildings.
And this was only the beginning of the experience. Not only was this car here; this car had been brought to this land to drive him past bread lines where downcast Ayvartan men and women lined up to receive the food that they had once been taught it was their right to have. Now under the martial law of the Oberkommando Suden, services continued “temporarily” — until work could be reestablished, until their wages could be paid so they could buy their food from the new government, whenever that appeared, whatever that was. Crowds added a lot of color to the urban desolation: purple, yellow and green robes and tunics and sari, blue overalls, brown skin–
Against his better judgment he pulled down the tinted window to see what was holding up the traffic, and he saw; a vibrant mass of humanity stretching out into street, dressed in every color, hair long and short, skin light and dark, eyes weary and irate and elated, alone, with family, with children, seeking food.
He saw the men and women and children lining up in front of a building where they had always, perhaps, lined up before to eat (maybe in the past there wasn’t even a line, maybe it was more efficient than that). Maybe a hundred or few hundred. Thankfully for the overburdened OKS and the population both, Dori Dobo’s rural throngs had somewhat thinned since the invasion. A lot of them had fled. (Perhaps a lot of them had died.) (He didn’t want to–)
He tried not think about how, as he was driven slowly past the converging masses of this humanity, he saw how the bread line was suddenly broken up by the masked 6th OKS Security Division because it had just formed, impromptu, in front of a former Civil Canteen, without anyone actually there with authority to hand out any food. Loudspeakers (and the occasional swinging truncheons) informed them of the specified locations and times where food was handed to civilians, once a day. Highest rations would be awarded to laborers, and to “cooperative” civilians (spies and sympathizers).
Dreschner closed the window of his luxury car and tried with great difficulty not to think about how he was 22 days into this war and how he was already trying not to think and see and feel, but it kept intruding upon him. Perhaps as it well should.
He shook his head and raised his hands to his pounding temples.
He told himself that these were the things politicians thought about and resolved; that right now it was his place in life just to fight. He had come here for glory, for power, for the immortality sought after by men whose names time and preoccupation had taken from him. He had come here for those stolen dreams that had become his own. Perhaps after the fact and within the system, once he had the authority he wanted, he could do better.
Before long he was out of the streets and in front of a large villa that was once the office of the Dori Dobo regional council; and long before that, the rural palace of the Dobo Thakur, from whom these lands would’ve been taken by Nochtish hands for his womanizing, drunkard, gambling ways. His people, Dreschner’s people, had been those who furnished the means for these vices and would have kept doing so, had the revolution not cut him short. That was part of the bitterness Nocht held toward Ayvarta — that lost opportunity.
The Oberkommando Suden was the new Thakur; they had very similar plans as he for these lands, under the auspice of the (very distant) Empress Mary Trueday.
Dreschner’s car stopped outside of a green park bisected by a cobblestone path through raised garden beds surrounding a large statue of a nine-headed snake. His bodyguards stared at it as they guided him to the front door. Whimsy and humor, it seemed, was all that spared this particular symbol of communism from the occupier’s demolition charges.
Beyond the statue the villa was large and colorful, with hipped ceilings and gabled balconies, all red brick, large enough to dominate the background. Dreschner followed the stones to the lobby. There was a lot of chatter coming from behind closed doors, but the halls and the reception were empty save for a pair of gendarmes from the security division, wearing their masks. A young woman was there to greet him, however, and she guided him upstairs.
“Has the Field Marshal arrived yet?” Dreschner asked her.
She barely turned her head over her shoulder to look at him.
“He is not yet available sir. Colonel General Ferdinand will greet you.”
They stopped in front of a nondescript door on the second floor, looking like any other. She opened this door, bowed her head and gestured into the room like a butler. Dreschner nodded his head and took a few steps inside. It was less an office and more a cozy tea room. There were two couches and a coffee table in the center. There was a window out to a humble field of sunflowers behind the building — and to the city surrounding the square.
On one of the couches lounged Colonel General Ferdinand, an older gentleman, long-faced, thin as a beanstalk, with a prominent nose and sideburns that connected to his beard and mustache in an extravagant old style. He looked like something out of a painting, monocle and all, outfitted in the army dress uniform with its high collar, button-down jacket with ceremonial chains, trousers tucked into boots, chest bedecked with honors. This was a man who was not letting the style of the Unification War die out.
“Brigadier Dreschner, come in and make yourself comfortable.”
Dreschner removed his cap and sat opposite the Colonel General, who remained quite comfortable with his arms spread across the couch backrest, his legs on the coffee table. He groaned a little as he sat straighter up to face Dreschner.
“You look stiff.” He said. He waved his hand dismissively as though it would magically cause Dreschner to relax. “You ought to loosen that back while you’re still young. Take at least that piece of advice from this old man. I know something about backs.”
Dreschner felt compelled to look more relaxed, but was at a loss for how to accomplish this. He put his hands on the couch. That was as much as he could for his pose.
Major General Ferdinand overlooked it. “I realize you were called here in a great hurry, but I wanted to take some time out to speak with you. We will be holding more important meetings soon; before that Dreschner, I wanted to meet with you and talk, not as one of the staff officers of the Oberkommando, but man to man.”
He clapped his hands together, and rested his chin on them, leaning out as if appraising Dreschner. As much as it irked him, the Brigadier tried not to look offput by the gesture.
“I appreciate the arrangement, Colonel General.” Dreschner said. He could have been humble or arrogant, and perhaps a younger Dreschner might have done so. He might have tried to lead him in with ‘I am but a simple Brigadier’ or remarked ‘I must assume you’ve heard of my victories.’ But he felt a touch irritated and did not want to socialize or puff himself up. He had come to work, and he wanted to return quickly to his forces, fighting without him for the first time since the start of the campaign.
This seemed an unnecessary diversion to assuage an old man’s ego. Maybe he would even tell silly war stories! A total waste of time; he felt he should spare only the most passing words for the Colonel General, hoping to leave grossvater behind soon.
Curt words followed by silence did not seem to bother the old man. For his part, the Colonel General smiled and leaned back again, as if he was done observing Dreschner. He lounged, stretching his arms, raising his shiny boots to the table. He cracked a grin.
“Dreschner, you will soon make Major General.” He said abruptly.
Dreschner blinked. His brows drew closer. He did not want to ask the Colonel General to repeat himself. That would have been too dramatic an act. But he felt that he had heard ephemeral words, and he needed them reasserted.
“Don’t take that as formal announcement just yet,” Ferdinand carried on after a moment more of Dreschner’s stunned silence. “But I am dead set on it, my good man.”
He had heard correctly. Ferdinand wanted him promoted from Brigadier.
In any circumstance but this, a promotion might have been joyous, but Dreschner knew he had not earned such an honor. Knyskna had not been the bold excursion he had wanted. It was seen as a victory, but not a glorious one. Certainly not one that added an extra star on a General. Perhaps it was the circumstances — Von Sturm had fallen from grace, after all. Dreschner’s tried his best to retain his composure, but his mind was racing.
“Are you surprised, General?” Ferdinand asked, cocking a little grin.
“Promotions in the army are always unexpected, by design.” Dreschner replied. He let himself sound a little clever and a little more open to try to deflect his doubts, but he was still cautious. He did not yet want to say anything definitive, to accept any particular fact.
“I’ve become familiar with your work and I must say, I am impressed. I think you should be leading 600 tanks, not 200. You have the warring spark of Ziu.” Ferdinand replied.
“Thank you sir. Your confidence is inspiring.” Dreschner said. His response was simple and mechanical. Ferdinand operated in a different world than he did. Dreschner was old and experienced enough to be wary of this. He had to be careful.
In the Oberkommando, the High Command, actions and words were not mere combat strategy, but political and economic in nature. Ferdinand had aspirations beyond the next point on the Heer’s Ayvartan map. He couldn’t directly ask him what the catch was. But there was certainly a catch and he had to ferret it out somehow.
Men like Colonel General Ferdinand didn’t stake their reputations for men like Dreschner just for personal merits, but for their long-term utility to their causes.
“Our Field Marshal, Dietrich Haus won his own fame through high risk, high reward operations that demanded a willingness to sacrifice. I see in you what the masses saw in Haus, and I have come to personally support your efforts and ultimately, to oversee the formalities of your ascension in rank.”
Ferdinand spoke casually and grandly, raising his tone near the end.
“I am flattered by the comparison.” Dreschner said. “I can only hope to keep diligently leading the 8th division to victory with all the tools at my disposal.”
“Dreschner, I see the 8th Panzer Division as a potential part of a 2nd Vorkampfer.” Ferdinand continued. “Particularly now that the 1st Vorkampfer has been regrettably lost in Adjar. You certainly have the abilities of an elite. To that end, I want to give you the power to carry out the operations that you desire. Have you ever heard of the Wa Prüf 6?”
Dreschner tipped his head lightly forward to nod. What was this about?
“Panzer development.” He said. Wa Prüf 6 developed new tanks.
The Colonel General smiled and drummed his fingers against the couch.
“You are correct, Brigadier. They are a government funded project from General Auto’s Maschinefabrik; right now they are locked in a struggle with Standard Aviation and Waltrudhaven for new development contracts. It is not a struggle only for Nochtish business either — whichever model weapons become standardized in Nocht will surely be sold to its many allies as well. It has gotten bitter, and right now the humble landser stands to suffer.”
Given the current direction, a picture started to form in Dreschner’s mind. An irritating picture, foreshadowing many personal difficulties in his future. The Colonel General continued to speak while Dreschner merely listened and turned it over in his head.
“The President has always favored Standard Aviation, but I am an army man, Dreschner, and I know you are too and I know you have your own ambitions. I will not mince words here any longer. Let me lay my ambitions bare — I have significant funds and prestige invested in Wa Prüf 6. I have been searching for army tankers of considerable talent as part of this.”
When men like Ferdinand ‘laid bare their ambitions’ they merely gave men like Dreschner a small piece of the puzzle, arranged like a trick photograph to appear like the entire, completed jigsaw. He had cards held back here.
All Dreschner knew was that, with money involved, he couldn’t be quiet.
“Makes sense.” Dreschner said, though like Ferdinand, he would not lay bare his full understanding. He continued, to demonstrate shrewdness for the first time in the conversation. “So by concentrating tank talent and arming them with powerful new weapons, and consequently achieving dramatic results; you hope to improve the standing of General Auto’s military R&D.”
Ferdinand grinned to him again. “I’m glad you understand so well. But Dreschner, it is not entirely about money. This is about our very survival right now. Airplanes will never win this war. Men on the ground, making key decisions, will win this war. I wish to slap sense into the Oberkommando once and for all, and end these fantasies of an age of warplanes before more of our men die. General Auto must succeed so that our men can succeed.”
Bullshit. He put his money into tanks and he wanted more than the men who put it in planes. “I take it then that you see instead an Age of Tanks unfolding in Ayvarta?”
“Don’t you?” Ferdinand laughed. “Planes can’t take land. Wars will never be won solely in the sky. We witnessed this in Cissea. All the bombing in the world did not root out those anarchists. A blind love of Standard Aviation and the coddling of the air force has already cost our landsers dearly. We need power on the ground, Dreschner.”
He was not saying it, but this was definitely directed at President Lehner and the decision to ground the air force in Adjar after the heavy losses trying to break the Ayvartan air defense network in Bada Aso. Perhaps it was not only money; maybe politics also motivated him.
Dreschner almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity of this discussion but he had no choice in it. It would have been a laugh of much helplessness and frustration. He had been noticed by the power he craved; and now he could never escape its notice.
“I first saw a tank in the Unification War, in the Battle of Calvado. It saved my unit from being crushed by a surge of Frank troops.” Dreschner said. He was resigned now. He grinned, trying to hide his internal battle, and to delude himself a little. “Since then I have been a tank man, Colonel General. I would never turn down new and better equipment for tankers.”
“A man after my own heart. I knew I could trust you.” Ferdinand said.
“Given the confidence and initiative with which you have sought me out, then, I take it your men are already in position to support my operations?” Dreschner asked.
“Shrewd man; indeed. Wa Prüf 6 has been already deployed to Ayvarta, along with new machines in need of testing. They are on their way to Dbagbo and will be subordinated to you. I wish for you to use these tools in your upcoming operations. I understand a particular need has arisen, due to reports of new Ayvartan weapons.”
Dreschner spoke up then; for all intents and purposes, whether he wanted to or not, Colonel General Ferdinand was now his boss. Though he would have to treat every other Colonel General with respect, and soon every Major General as a peer, it was Ferdinand who would be looking out for him. Given that this state of affairs was inescapable, he had no more reason to be reserved around the man. So he emptied his mind about the subject.
“In light of our partnership I must interject with all due respect, Colonel General: those reports are largely unsubstantiated. We’ve not found any hulls in good enough condition to tell them apart from the wrecks of Goblins or Orcs or Gnolls, and only a paltry few blurry photographs of these supposedly new vehicles were disseminated by Von Sturm’s group. All of our witnesses to these mystical machines are either maimed or dead or otherwise in no condition to provide workable evidence. The Ayvartans might have deployed some of their rarer but still obsolete weapons like the Orc or the Gnoll and surprised skittish landsers and noncoms. We have no real way of knowing right now.”
Colonel General Ferdinand smiled and crossed his arms, seeming impressed with Dreschner’s analysis, and perhaps also pleased with himself for finally drawing out some more overt cooperation from the sullen Brigadier. It was this little speech that finally sealed their covenant going forward. In light of our partnership.
“Well, that would make things easier.” Ferdinand replied. “But there’s no harm in preparing for the worst. In any case, I know you have pressing business. Take heart in that all of my tanks and personnel are at your disposal now, Dreschner.”
That possessive pronoun was perhaps the most honest thing yet said. My tanks and personnel; how much independent action had Ferdinand taken within the armies? But in a way, this was unavoidable, and he certainly couldn’t refuse now. Though Dreschner had not asked for this patronage, and though it irritated him to have it thrust upon him in this way and on this day, he started to see how it could facilitate his ultimate goal.
Reaching across the table, the Colonel General took his hand. “Give your deputies the news — and start thinking about who’ll make up your elite Corps staff, Major General.”
45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, 8th PzD Rallying Area
When the rainfall resurfaced it hardly registered in anyone’s minds anymore. Outside the workshop what began as a few droplets brewed into a storm within the minute. Lightning flashed in the distance; they scarcely heard the sound. Dbagbo’s pouring was just there.
“Are you too busy raging at the world to greet your star pupil? Why, I had just come to give you thanks, and look at the cold reception I get. Woe! Such sadness is life!”
Schicksal cocked her eyebrows, watching silently as if a one-man stage drama was unfolding before her. There was certainly quite a flourish to his every little movement.
Reiniger’s eyes wandered away from the tank in the workshop and finally settled on the flighty black-uniformed visitor newly arrived at the workshop. He stared at him, at first as if he had seen something nondescript and foul. Slowly his brows rose and his teeth grit.
“When the hell did you make Hauptmann?” He shouted. He sounded almost offended. Schicksal was quite curious about the growing petulance evident in his voice.
Flashing white, an ear-to-ear grin suddenly dominated the newcomer’s fetching face. He shrugged his shoulders and held up his hands in feigned witlessness.
“Oh, this? Dunno! Guess it just naturally happens when you get good.”
Reiniger stared directly at his pins as if he still couldn’t believe it at all. He was so fixated on them that the Hauptmann‘s snark found safe passage through both his ears.
Schicksal didn’t quite care about the newcomer’s pins. She was more interested in the medal worn casually on his breast, on the left-hand side, between a few common tank-killing honors and a purple heart. It was a sunburst held aloft by eagle’s wings — the Patriot’s Crown. The start of a four-stage honor for the elite among the elite in the military.
He abruptly broke from Reiniger’ gaze, and his grin softened to a pretty smile. He gave Schicksal a v-sign with his fingers. “Hey, I don’t think we’ve met before, ma’am. My name is Noel Skonieczny. Captain.” Judging by his surname, he must have been Lachy. He had a pleasant voice. “I just got transferred, so I thought I’d drop in on my old instructor!”
Noel reached out the hand that was not signing a big V. Schicksal shook it. He had a delicate shake. He seemed overall delicately-made. Soft cheeks, a slim nose and smooth brow, round shoulders, a slender build. His skin was impeccable, his eyes vibrant and his shoulder-length hair was long and wavy, full of volume and bounce, curling slightly at the ends. Its gold sheen was absolutely brilliant: Schicksal thought it looked far better kept than her own hair. He had a very comely appearance in general. She almost wanted to ask for tips.
It was only when he made that shark-like grin that he appeared less than rosy.
“Pleasure to meet you, I’m Karla Schicksal, Chief Signals.” She replied.
Apparently noticing her lingering gaze, he winked whimsically her way.
“Pleasure’s all mine! It’s nice to see at least one friendly face.” Noel said. He pouted pathetically and hovered a meter or two from Reiniger, arms crossed, head bowed. “After I came all this way. I feel so ignored and mistreated right now, to be honest.”
“Good!” Reiniger said. “Hope you feel that way to death, you shit roach!”
“Shit roach? Well, at least you’re refraining from outright slurs.”
“You ain’t worthy of ‘em, but if you want ‘em so much you–“
Schicksal sighed. “So, you know Reiniger from before, Captain Skon–?”
Noel turned suddenly from Reiniger and raised his hands to his own chest.
“Oh no, Captain Skonieczny is a dad’s name. Call me Noel, please.”
Schicksal blinked and tipped her head a little in confusion.
“Noel; you are acting pretty familiar for someone who just–“
He interrupted cheerfully again. “Of course I know him!”
“Barely.” Reiniger interjected, turning his back again on the two.
“God, he’s so grumpy!” Noel giggled. “Mister tough guy here trained me, just about a month ago even! But it appears that now the student surpassed the master!”
Reiniger threw his hands up in the air, already fed up with Noel.
“Shut the fuck up. I barely taught you how to handle the sticks you dumbass. It was part of a fucking Panzer 101 camp. Go gloat about your stupid pins to someone else!”
Noel raised his hand to shield his eyes from a nonexistent sun, pretending to look around the room for someone. He then beamed as if taken by surprise.
“I found someone to gloat to~!” He waved at Schicksal and smiled.
Schicksal smiled awkwardly and waved back, twitching her fingers. Clearly Noel was just here to bully Reiniger, and she did not know the exact reason. Perhaps their relationship was more sour than Noel let on; but she thought at the moment Reiniger quite deserved to be put in his place, and Noel was just being silly. There was no harm done, so she played along.
“So, gloat-buddy, did you hear that I made Captain, huh?” Noel said.
He made as if to hook his arm around Schicksal’s shoulder in a friendly gesture. But he kept a considerable distance, such that he had his arm several centimeters off her in the air.
Schicksal chuckled. Noel started to egg her on to give an answer, going ‘huh? huh?’
Then a clicking pair of boots and the sound of long rivulets soaking the driveway announced a new presence. Schicksal and Noel turned their heads and found General Dreschner outside the workshop garage door. He ambled inside, just a few steps out of the rain, his uniform sopping wet, water dribbling from his cap, from his shoulders. He had his greatcoat on, and it had soaked up most of the water, hopefully protecting the dress uniform beneath.
Schicksal sought his eyes in the shade of his cap — and found a vacant look to them.
Reiniger didn’t even turn around to meet his superior. He seemed oblivious to the danger.
“Gonna lecture me too, boss?” He said absentmindedly. Schicksal cringed.
Dreschner seized him by the collar, turned him partway around and socked him.
Noel averted his eyes and covered his mouth, shaking his head.
The General’s fist connected with Reiniger’s nose with an audible crack and knocked him to the floor. Reiniger covered his face with his hands and writhed on the ground, shaken into the fetal position, kicking his legs and rocking his body while groaning in pain.
“Words fail against you, Jorg!” Dreschner shouted. “So I’ll speak in a language a complete brute like you can understand. Let this be a lesson to you. Without respect and moderation a man is less than an animal. Remember this next time you throw one of your furies in front of me and your fellows — all of whom deserve better, alive or dead.”
Dreschner stormed back out of the workshop and into the rain, as if he had come and gone with the flashes of lightning. Schicksal watched the scene play out with her hands over her mouth in shock. Over her shoulder she followed the general’s fading silhouette.
Noel took a few steps forward and offered his hand, but Reiniger slapped it away. He helped himself up by the side of the tank, and slunk away inside it, entering through the driver’s forward hatch. There he would remain for the night, locked in.
46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Morning
Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, 8th PzD Rallying Area
Though the dawn was hidden behind clouds and a cold drizzle, come mid-morning conditions were good enough for landsers to line up in front of the kitchen wagon. They found the offerings meager — they were out of fresh meat and eggs for the moment. Everyone’s energy would have to come from jerky, chicken stock, coffee, sugar cubes and bread. An aide lined up with a big tray, and soon brought the former Civil Canteen some food for Schicksal, Dreschner and Noel. She set the sparse breakfast on the war room table.
On the wall behind them hung the map. Positions had barely moved.
Noel thanked the staffer who brought them their coffee and biscuits. He took a dozen sugar packets from a nearby basket and a bag of cream and as if in his own world he meticulously fixed his coffee, ripping packets, tipping the sugar, stirring it in with the cream. He dipped a little bread square, tasted it, and smiled to himself. He nibbled on it while Dreschner and Schicksal stared sullenly past him, both looking worse for wear. Dreschner sneezed into an iron-cross emblazoned kerchief; Schicksal yawned into her gloved hand.
Even fresh out of his bed (the back of a half-track), Noel looked vibrant. Only his hair was a little noticeably messy; his uniform was pristine, he appeared full of energy and he handled his food with a certain air of grace and elegance that she rarely encountered. Schicksal wondered whether someone had misplaced a “Von” somewhere when naming him.
Dreschner cleared his throat. He looked solemn. “Captain Skonieczny–“
“You can shorten it to Skoniec if you desire.” Noel happily interrupted.
“Captain Skoniec,” Dreschner nonchalantly corrected, and cleared his throat again, “I must apologize to you for the disgraceful scene that you witnessed last night. I am ashamed of my conduct — as a General of this army I should not have lost restraint. Though it does not excuse my behavior, our Division is going through a difficult time. Emotions ran high; we recently held an honors ceremony for a deceased officer. We are near the front lines with limited supplies, and mired in bad weather. I assure you that the 8th Panzer Division is a professional force. Should you desire to file a report, I will fully cooperate.”
Schicksal nodded approvingly throughout the speech, trying to appear professional and supportive. She sat right at Dreschner’s side in the meeting, and nobody else was around. After days of being on her own, she felt like she was part of the process again.
“S’ok! I’m not one to get between a General and the discipline of his unit.” Noel said. “But please, please, avoid striking people’s faces in the future. It irks me.”
He pointed at his own face with that smug grin of his. “Faces are very important~”
Dreschner nodded. “Indeed. Faces are important. We’re sorry you had no proper reception as well. Everyone was busy and we were not expecting your unit so soon.”
Busy was selling the situation short. Dreschner had only just arrived back from Dori Dobo a day ago; Schicksal had hardly any time to talk to him yet. It seemed as if right out the doors of the liaison car he was already at work. Setting up Kunze’s ceremony; changing the line order of the 8th Division’s Panzer regiments; establishing contacts with the 10th and 15th PzD; reallocating their current supplies to make them last longer. He had segued sharply back into war. Schicksal followed him around with a radio backpack and tried to keep up.
But judging by the look of him, even he could not keep up with his renewed ambitions. His face was pale and the lines on his cheeks, around his mouth and under his eyesockets accented by fatigue. His hands shook a little on the table. Every so often his strong nose dripped, and the kerchief would come up to it, and almost as often catch a sneeze.
“Gesundheit.” Noel said, wishing the Brigadier General good health.
“Thank you. It appears you were transferred from the Weiss Abteilung to my command on the orders of Colonel General Ferdinand, correct?” Dreschner asked.
“Yup! Y’right! Old man Ferdinand took a liking to me, and he took me out of that dead end battalion right before it exhausted itself completely in Tukino.”
Schicksal had briefly heard of Weiss before the invasion — it was a battalion composed entirely of Lachy recruits, for tough missions. Lachy in the homeland were often seen as roguish and tough and thus capable of handling intense combat, such as pocket suppression and line penetrations. It seemed incongruous for Noel to have been assigned there.
But then, there was much that was incongruous about him. His uniform was the most obvious and visible difference. Dreschner noticed it; one couldn’t avoid the sight. It was similar to their own, but all black, from the jacket down to the trousers. His sleek black leather boots and gloves had a luxuriant sheen. There was no damage to it, not even light scuffing from day to day trials. It must have been new, maybe even right out of the bag.
“So you have spoken to the Colonel General directly?” Dreschner said.
“He gave me my awards and new mission personally.” Noel replied.
Dreschner rubbed his chin, looking over the uniform from across the table.
“I assume then that your out-of-the-ordinary garb has something to do with that. I have never seen its like before, I must admit. What does it symbolize?”
“Colonel General Ferdinand wishes for this Schwarzmantel to clothe new, stand-out units of panzer aces who have scored over fifteen confirmed tank kills.” Noel replied. He spoke as if reciting a poem, at times bringing his hand up to his breast like a singer.
Schicksal’s eyes lingered on the Captain; she found Dreschner goggling him too.
“How many men has the Colonel General gathered?” Schicksal quickly asked.
Noel made his v-sign with his index and middle fingers, and then extended his thumb. Three. “Me and my subordinate tankers, Corporals Dolph and Bartosz. We’re your first bit of reinforcements from the south. You can call us the 1. Jagdpanzerzug.”
The 1st Tank Hunter Platoon — an apt name for a trio with over 40 confirmed kills in total. Schicksal wondered whether Noel had even more than that, given his medals. He had three awards on his breast for tank kills. That must have signified more than 15 kills.
“I assume that Wa Prüf 6 is not far behind you then.” Dreschner said.
Noel replied, wagging his finger. “They should be here soon. I took the liberty of having my own tank brought in by transporter — my subordinates will drive anything but prefer M5 Rangers. By the way, I have my own driver already, and I’d prefer if it was just us inside the tank. So no crew assignments to me without my permission.”
Dreschner quirked an eyebrow, wearing a sullen, skeptical face.
Noel said this very casually, but two-man tanks were unheard of.
Dreschner relented quickly, however. “You know best, I suppose.”
Schicksal looked quietly between the two as they spoke. There appeared to be some unspoken understanding between them, one that she was not privy to.
“Well, Captain, it was swell meeting you; unless there is anything else I should know, I think you ought to meet with your men, and ready your vehicles.” Dreschner said.
Dreschner stopped from his seat and extended his hand over the table.
Noel stood and took the General’s hand with both of his own, holding the fingertips.
“I’m just the friendly, neighboring fairy.” He said with a little smile.
He gave Dreschner’s hand a few gentle, flicking shakes. Just as tenderly he let his hand go, as though setting down a little animal back on the table. He then turned with a flourish and strutted out of the building through the tarp hung over the front.
Dreschner turned toward Schicksal, and Schicksal stared back, both puzzled.
“An eccentric, I suppose.” Dreschner said. He looked at his hand.
“He likes to play tricks.” Schicksal said. She remembered the night before.
Dreschner nodded. Schicksal thought their business concluded, but the General did not follow Noel out the building. Instead he walked around the table and took Noel’s seat, directly across from where Schicksal still sat. He made himself comfortable.
“Mäuschen, let us talk.” He said. “I owe you an apology as well. Though I appointed you to assist me, I’ve been unfair and haven’t made any time to share information with you. I can’t expect you to do your job in the dark; I apologize for the inconvenience.”
Schicksal smiled and gathered a folder of papers from her lap. “I received the summaries of the strategic meeting, sir. They were sent via the encryption machine a day ago and I disseminated them to Spoor, Hedwig and Gloster’s HQs.”
“Splendid. Were you able to read and process them?”
“Yes sir. I looked over everything as keenly as I could.”
“Then have you formed any opinion on them?”
Schicksal scratched her mousy, wavy hair nervously. She looked down.
“Well, nothing informed, sir. Nothing useful.”
Dreschner crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes.
“Come now, Schicksal. You’ve had ample misgivings before. I would like to hear your opinion on our situation, from one analyst to the other.”
“All due respect sir, I’m just a radio girl.” She said, feeling suddenly bashful. She faked an air-headed little giggle to try to deflect from his examinations.
“Very well.” He replied, turning his head to the map on the wall.
She thought she heard him sigh, but perhaps she was imagining it.
When he turned his eyes back on her he resumed speaking, in a softer tone of voice. “I met with Colonel General Ferdinand in Dori Dobo; it was off the record and unexpected. He practically ambushed me on the day I was expecting to speak to the Field Marshal. That, I believe, was not in your summaries.”
“There was no mention of that meeting, so rest assured, it was off the records.” Schicksal said. This secrecy was a bit disconcerting. “Captain Skoniec mentioned the Colonel General too. Do you think he was also ‘ambushed’ as you say?”
“Those two definitely met, and I have some idea how that meeting went, judging from what the Colonel General shared with me. He has his eyes set on the 8th Panzer Division. The 10th and 15th too. He is looking to form a 2nd Vorkampfer Panzerkorps.”
Schicksal immediately saw where this was going. “So men like Noel will form the backbone of the force, a corps full of elite tankers with high kill counts.”
Dreschner snorted. “Perhaps. But right now all we have is a platoon of them. You can’t make a fighting force out of three men and their crews — but Ferdinand will expect me to make do with that until he finds more men. More men and more machines; new, untried machines that he thinks will become first-line vehicles. He is concentrating all that unproven power in my hands; banking personally on my skill to support his investment.”
“I– I see, General.” Schicksal said. She looked down at the folder of meetings summaries and telegrams and communiques from the past few days that she had neatly arranged. There was not one mention of the Colonel General’s patronage recorded in her little folder. She understood why Dreschner was so zealous and sullen since he arrived. She started to feel some of the unseen pressure of the expectations placed on them — she could only imagine how much worse it must have been for the General, who bore the responsibility of realizing these fantasies. He had to adjust his ambitions to realize someone else’s own.
The 1st Vorkampfer had blasted itself apart in Bada Aso. Their Division now had to prepare to become the 2nd, knowing full well that fate could await them. The 1st Vorkampfer was meant to be the vanguard of its army, formed from veterans with real combat experience mixed with raw recruits learning from the best. Judging by what Dreschner told her, their own mandate was even more stringent, and the results desired of it more dramatic.
It was frightening. In some ways it was exciting to be forming part of that, to be on the ground floor of an elite panzerkorps, but nonetheless, it was frightening. Her skin tingled.
“I think there is no one better qualified to lead such a force than you, sir,” Schicksal said. She believe it to a point; it was only partially meant as saccharine flattery.
“Perhaps. But enough about that right now.” Dreschner stared at her, and his eyes lingered critically on her own. She almost felt like raising her hands defensively. “Mäuschen, I’ve done my end of the information sharing. Now I want your end. That is an order.”
He steepled his fingers and grinned. Schicksal smiled back nervously.
“Yes sir.” She said. She developed a very light stammer. She withdrew her papers from her folder, including a paper map of the local combat area at the Sandari, and got started. When Dreschner issued an order, one tended to forget any misgivings regarding the task.
* * *
Dbagbo was a sensual sort of land, he told himself — it was muggy and moist, and though the ground and sky were dull the surroundings were fresh and vibrant. Insects played about the green grasses, sunflowers stretched out of puddles of muck, and the trees were still verdant. Everything between the surface and the firmament was full of romance.
Though perhaps Noel Skonieczny just deeply appreciated any place where he could awaken to the sounds of the rain without finding himself on a street, sopping wet and ill. A natural thankfulness arose in his breast that set his whimsical imagination alight.
Up until the last few months such simple comforts had been ephemeral to him.
He smiled now because it was easy to smile — he’d smiled in harder times before.
Though the Ayvartans had not launched very many long-range bombing operations, there was always the fear that they could hit an HQ and send many precious supplies and vehicles up in smoke. To this end, the 8th Panzer Division HQ kept its reserve tanks and some of its precious reserve supplies past the village clearings and under the canopy. Tents were raised, mines and tripwires set beyond the supply area to prevent incursions, guards posted.
As Noel arrived at the site, he saw ten vehicles in as straight a line as could be arranged between the trees, along with dozens of crates and a few guards. None of them was his new Panzer Modell Fünf Ausf. Zwei “Strike Ranger” or M5A2 S-Ranger. He would have noticed it immediately. There was no mistaking this model for the rest.
Particularly because he painted royal purple stripes on it, and gave it a name.
Lieutenant Habsburg, one of Dreschner’s loyal men from the Panzer Regiments, was in charge of overseeing the supply dump. They had very briefly met the night before when Noel made his debut in Silb. He was big, mostly nondescript, inoffensive guy. Buzzed head, square chin, tall, pretty green eyes. Noel thought he had a nice smile, but he saw it only in passing, because it disappeared the moment he called out.
“Hey there big fella! How’s my tank doing eh?”
Lt. Habsburg turned his head over his shoulder. He hastily put down an assault helmet that he was lovingly examining back into a crate full of very similar helmets, boasting strapped goggles and gas masks, decorated with little spears atop. It was a charming little moment that was instantly obliterated. Habsburg immediately swung around, stood up painfully straight and saluted stiffly. “Captain, sir! I’m at your disposal, sir!”
“Oh no, no, don’t do that. I don’t want that. I want my tank.” Noel said.
Something about the way people behaved around rank irked him. Noel had always thought he hated pedestrian disdain above all other reactions — until he met the contrived adulation that one earned when one had a higher grade of pins.
Lt. Habsburg was not catching on, and continued to salute. He spoke in the rhythm of a boot camp trainee addressing the abusive Sergeant. Noel could practically hear the commas out loud as he paused; a few felt as long as semicolons.
“Yes, sir, Captain, sir! Your driver, sir, he took it for a warm-up, sir!”
Noel sighed. That was too many ‘sir”s in a row for his taste. This was the kind of man who didn’t get called on to do anything important very often, Noel supposed.
“How long ago did Ivan leave this place?” Noel asked.
“Good man, please stop ‘sir’ing me, it’s annoying.”
“Um, sorry.” Habsburg bowed his head. “He arrived early to tune up the engine, so he said, and left about thirty minutes ago to take it around the meadow. He got permission from Spoor’s grenadiers, he told me, so I let him come and go.”
“Thank you Habsburg.” Noel smiled and clapped his hands together. “Then I shall sit on this crate of helmets and wait for him.”
“Yes– Yes Captain.”
Noel picked the crate lid from the ground, set it back on the crate and sat on it, staring out at the road with his hands against his cheeks, rocking his legs. A damp, gentle breeze blew through the forest, stirring the canopy overhead and lightly blowing Noel’s hair. He absentmindedly arranged some behind his ear on the left side of his face, wondering how it looked. He imagined that he must have looked like one of those post cards with the cute girls in dresses sitting at the edges of bridges and piers.
His erstwhile companion stood beside him and looked on without expression.
“Lieutenant Habsburg, what’s something that you like?” Noel said airily.
Habsburg rubbed his chin. “Something that I like, s– Captain?”
“Something that you like, yes.” Noel repeated jovially.
“I like animals Captain. I had a pet drake back home.” Habsburg replied.
“Bless your soul, Habsburg.” Noel said, and avoided further conversation.
Around a half-hour later, Noel heard the distinctive whirring of the Ranger’s engine and the turning of its tracks. He saw it from afar, coming up the village roads, weaving behind a group of houses and then driving onto the brush and into the thick of the forest. It slowed, shifting to a low gear, and cruised toward the line of parked vehicles. Though the M5A2 was superficially like a standard M5, it had a more steeply sloped front plate and a broader, longer turret, along with a modified gun. Noel’s version had two purple stripes along the side and the name Königin written in sloppy hand-painted letters on the side.
As it approached, the front hatch opened, and a young man stood partially out of it and waved. Noel waved back, and Lieutenant Habsburg stood at attention.
When the M5A2 came to a full stop, Noel walked out to meet the driver, who climbed out of the front hatch and approached with his arms spread. They embraced chastely — from Habsburg’s perspective anyway. After a moment they stood apart and traded smiles.
“Sergeant! How’s she running?” Noel said, hands on his hips.
Ivan saluted. “She’s running as smoothly as her Commander!”
Noel held his hand up to his mouth and laughed a pleasant oh ho ho.
First Sergeant Ivan Tyszka was the Captain’s esteemed driver. Though around the same age, Ivan was taller than Noel by almost twenty centimeters, and he was built up a little bit more in the shoulders and chest than the softer, svelter Captain. Ivan had an endearing style to him, a bit casually unfashionable; messy black hair, an awkward smile, circular spectacles and a pockmarked complexion; arms hanging at his sides as if he didn’t know what to do with them, bad posture, slouching a little bit. He wore the regular army grey.
“Did you try the supercharger at all?” Noel asked, leaning slightly toward the driver’s hatch and checking the gauges and sticks. The interior was still a little on the crude side in terms of layout and comforts, but everything essential had been installed.
“Not yet. Sorry. I didn’t want to waste any of it in case we needed to go into combat before we had access to refills.” Ivan said. He held a hand out to Noel, holding him cautiously as though the Captain was in any danger of falling into the tank.
Noel stuck his head back out of the hatch. “S’alright. We do need to be a little conservative. Glad you’re hear to set me straight~.” He put on a mischievous smile and affect.
Ivan’s face flushed very slightly. He chuckled and ran his hand over his hair.
“Do you know where Dolph and Bartosz went? Haven’t seen them since last night.”
“Might be out joyriding, I’m not sure. They like to get the lay of the land.”
“Hmph, how troublesome.” Noel coiled a little of his hair around his index finger. “I’d have liked to have them back by now, but there’s no taming those two.”
He turned his head over his shoulder, tilting it back a little with a grin.
“Habs~burg~!” Noel called out as if singing the syllables of his name.
Behind them they heard the sound of a helmet falling back inside a crate of helmets. Habsburg turned quickly around and saluted, standing almost as if on tiptoe.
“Yes Captain!” He said, averting his eyes nervously.
“Could you bring us some fuel? You’d know where it is better than I.”
Habsburg nodded stiffly, and marched around his crate of helmets to a crate covered by a camouflage tarp. Underneath was a metal box emblazoned with many dozens of flame symbols. While the younger men watched, he procured two pairs of jugs from inside this crate and brought them around the back of the M5A2. He stored two in side compartments for travel, then lifted the engine hatch and poured the other two inside.
Once he was done he walked back around and saluted again.
As Noel prepared to tease him once more, a loud horn sounded in the village. It was sharp and sudden enough to shake Ivan up, and it echoed through the trees.
“That an alarm, Habsburg?” Noel asked during a lull.
Habsburg nodded rapidly. “Yes Captain! You might want to check the old Ayvartan canteen where the General has set up — I think that’s the attack siren, sir!”
* * *
Schicksal quickly set up the map and pinned small red flags on two locations along the Sandari river, marking them “3rd” and “4th” Abteilungen. A third flag was pinned nearby, marked with a bridge symbol for the Pionierie. Gathered around the map also were, Dreschner, Spoor, Noel and Reiniger, sporting a patch over his nose.
“From what I understand,” Schicksal began, “last night the pontoon bridges were completed in secret and under cover of darkness by the Pionierie in areas with the smallest concentration of Ayvartan defenses. At dawn the Panzergrenadier battalions with light Panzer support managed to cross the bridges and launch attacks, taking sizable bridgeheads across the Sandari, driving Ayvartans back and establishing positions.”
She took a deep breath and continued. “All seemed to be going well, until a few hours ago. We began receiving reports of shots fired on the bridgeheads, and we wrote it off as perfunctory Ayvartan delaying actions at the time. Unfortunately, we seem to have underestimated their intentions and their capabilities, and the extent of their positions.”
Schicksal quickly pinned three larger flags across the Sandari, and one smaller flag behind the Panzergrenadier positions and on their own side of the Sandari. These flags were red — Ayvartan positions. Of which there should be none south of the Sandari. Reiniger and Spoor were puzzled. Dreschner grunted. They were coming.
“It appears the Ayvartans had hidden pontoon bridges somewhere farther northwest, though I have no idea exactly where. According to surveillance, an Ayvartan tank force crossed the Sandari to our side just off the 3rd Battalion flank thirty minutes ago and completely bypassed our positions along the river. They’re headed for Silb.”
“We have next to nothing ready to intercept.” Dreschner said.
Schicksal responded with a morose nod of the head. “There’s more, sir. Panzergrenadier recon advanced from the bridgeheads, and claim to have discovered large mobilizations of Ayvartan troops along the meadows leading to Shebelle. They say they’ve got three to five Divisions incoming. This is a major Ayvartan counteroffensive.”
“We’ll pull another Tukino then,” Reiniger said, his voice a little off due to his injury, “we’ll counter-counterattack faster and encircle ‘em with the Panzers.”
Dreschner grunted. “Unlike Tukino this is all happening on soft terrain, along a river, where we only have two pontoon bridges for movement. It won’t work.”
Reiniger frowned deeply but bit his tongue on the subject.
“We’ve been receiving calls for air patrols and interdiction.” Schicksal said. “But we don’t have any air bases in Dbagbo yet so I wasn’t sure where to forward them.”
“Pass them on to the wing near Knyskna, it’ll be fuel intensive but they’ve got the range and we will need them.” Dreschner said. He looked around the room and spoke authoritatively. “Right now everyone must hunker down until we’re sure where the hammer is falling, and if necessary be ready to give ground at the bridgeheads. But our first priority must be to intercept those Ayvartan tanks and secure those hidden bridges of theirs. We can’t organize a defense with a gaping hole in our river lines.”
Noel smiled and raised his hand. “My men and I can sortie.”
“He’ll get fucking murdered,” Reiniger scoffed. He looked to Dreschner. “I’ve got reserve guys I’ve been breaking in and some M4s, we’ll handle it.”
Dreschner shook his head and spoke at first in a scolding tone of voice.
“This is not a mutually exclusive choice, Lt. Reiniger. Captain Skoniec, your men’s tanks are lighter and faster and as far as I understand ready to go, so you can deploy right away. Reiniger will follow up and support you once his forces are ready.”
Reiniger was openly displeased but made no further remarks.
“Overjoyed that we can work together.” Noel said sweetly. He waved a v-sign with his fingers and left the room with a cheerful strut, thinking that it would definitely not be necessary for Reiniger and his rejects to follow him at all.
46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Afternoon
Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari southern bank, Silba meadows.
A column of 15 or so Goblin tanks advanced in a large, amorphous clump down the middle of a hard plain ringed by light hills to the east and the edge of the Silba wood to the west. Their small hulls with flat glacis plates, obvious, pedestal-like turret ring, slanted tracks and over-large turrets with 45mm guns and sizable rear counterweights easily gave the model away — in addition to the fact of their ubiquity in Ayvartan tank divisions. These models particular models on a collision course to Silb had a curious addition: extraneous bolted plate armor along the front and around the gun mantlet, a sloppy up-armoring scheme.
They had likely plotted this route because it avoided the soft terrain and thus the mud as much as possible, but it left their flanks seriously exposed on both sides.
This group had advanced 5 kilometers south from the Sandari, likely after crossing a hidden bridge, regrouping, and then setting off in their thick, loose formation for defense, like a herd of gnus. Every so often a tank, somewhere random in the formation, would turn its turret around, but for the most part there was seemingly no thought being given to an active defense. Despite their initiative and subversion they were vulnerable.
“See that one tank with the ring antennae atop? Commander. Hit that one first.”
Noel watched the tanks from the wide-angle periscope of his M5A2 hidden in the wood. Seated alone on the turret, in the gunner’s position just beside the commander’s cupola, he had a lot of space to himself, though this was mostly because of his build — the turret was somewhat cramped. Below and further front, Ivan sat behind the sticks, awaiting the order to charge down the gentle slope at the edge of the wood.
“Wait for my signal, and aim for the commander with APCB rounds. Then rush in and keep shooting, even if you miss. Volume beats accuracy.” He said, using his throat mic. “I’ll use my M5A2’s gyrostabilizer and snipe at anyone troublesome while on the run.”
For their size, the Ayvartan Goblin-type tanks were not very quick. Noel believed they probably managed a measly 15 or so km/h off-road — half as much as that of his M5A2, without supercharging. He watched them patiently from around a kilometer away as they neared the dead center of the plain. He had a 1.5 kg APCB round in hand, sleek and light in its bronze case, its sharp black head cap hungry for armor.
“Ready guns.” Noel said. “Ivan get that supercharger ready.”
At their speed the Goblins covered about 200 meters a minute. Within thirty seconds the formation was well within the center of the plain with ample room on all sides.
Noel was sure he could cut the distance to them in about a minute.
He pulled the lever to open the breech, loaded the round and watched as it closed and shoved the shell in by mechanical action. Then he reached his feet down to the foot pads and felt them out. One press shifted the turret about thirty degrees right or left depending on the pad. Good enough for a start. Noel then reached his hand down and used the turret control lever to make minor, granular corrections to the turret direction as the tanks continued moving. He counted the meters–
In an instant everything aligned perfectly and Noel called out, “Attack!”
Three muzzles flashed in the wood, launching high-velocity, solid armor-piercing rounds downhill toward the Goblin formation. One shell went wide over the formation and crashed into the eastern hillsides; the remaining two, including Noel’s pierced the turret and track of a Goblin with a prominent radio antenna, leaving large holes. He had hit right through the side of the turret. There were no explosions — these shells were not explosive in nature. But no crew left the stricken tank, sitting immobile amid its allies.
It was likely that the spray of metal resulting from the penetrations had killed them.
“Ivan, we’ll rush in front of the formation! Bartosz, circle behind them and dash toward the eastern hills while Dolph rushes through the center! Keep shooting!” Noel ordered.
“Roger!” Ivan replied through the platoon intercomm. Despite the noise inside the tank, Noel heard him clearly through the radio headset on his commander’s helmet.
“Yessir!” Bartosz and Dolph replied. Noel heard a bit of whooping and cheering.
Engine whirring with life, the M5A2 charged out of the cover of the woods and down the hill at a low gear to control speed. On its flanks, ordinary M5s belonging to Dolph and Bartosz rushed toward the formation as well. Once they hit flatter ground the tanks sped up. Dolph and Bartosz broke toward their attack lanes; Ivan initiated the engine supercharge. Noel could look down and barely see the driver’s gauges from his position, the needles rising.
Noel’s M5A2 roared suddenly as the experimental engine booster solution took effect. At Ivan’s expert direction, the M5A2 bobbed and weaved toward the south to hook around the front of the column, rapidly picking up speed and cutting the distance. His driving was excellent, and Noel could concentrate on his forte, shooting and command.
Most of the enemy formation stopped dead to aim, turrets turning west toward the wood, but several others were moving in front of and around each other to get into position. There was little coordination without their commander. One at a time in belabored succession half of the Goblin formation’s 45mm guns started to answer, but the M5s swept away from the armor-piercing shots, each tank traveling down its sweeping, encircling arc. Noel briefly saw dirt and smoke rise in front and around him as shells fell short of his sprint. He saw trails in the air as shells flew aside and over him and around his men, making no contact.
He looked out to the battlefield, switching between his wide-angle periscope over the top of the turret and his gunnery close-in sights positioned just off the left of his 37mm gun. Thanks to the gyrostabilizers even in motion his aim down the gunnery sights was corrected for and kept reasonably steady. He watched, like an eye hovering beside his gun, as shells were traded between the sides, and left a webwork of smoke in the air.
The Goblins swung their turrets around like the heads of panicked animals trying to spot their predators; those with presence enough to fight shot wildly every which way.
Dolph and Bartosz turned their turrets to face along their tank’s sides and launched as many shots as fast as they could muster in reply. Solid shells smashed into the dirt, soared between tanks, and as the distance closed started to score hits, leaving ugly dents and scars on contact with bulging gun mantlets and rigid, slanted fronts. Much of the column had turned west. Noel’s subordinates were shooting at tough stacks of riveted plates.
As Dolph approached the center three distinct groupings of three or four tanks had formed with a few strays along the edges. All of the grouped tanks were clumping so close together that their guns fired over each other’s engine compartments and beside each other’s gun mantlets. Meanwhile the strays seemed to want to pursue their own agendas but did not fully break from the pack. Within the confused fighting, the result was that the Ayvartan column was without discernible shape and every tank was acting on its own.
Reaching into the ammo rack, Noel seized a flat-headed High-Explosive shell, 1.5 kg and packed with 40 grams of TNT. He easily loaded the shell and set his sights.
As the M5A2 skirted the Goblin formation within 500 meters, he used the lever to keep his turret trained on one of the few tanks fighting seemingly effectively.
The M5A2 finally hooked around the front, and Noel hit the cannon trigger.
A 37mm HE shell soared between two Goblins and hit one on its side in the interior of the formation. There was a sharp, smoking blast, and two vehicles were pockmarked by dozens of hot shell fragments blowing right into the engine compartment. Smoke and then fire burst among the tanks. Hatches opened, and men and women rushed out.
Even the men and women inside reasonably unharmed vehicles abandoned them.
Noel grinned. With one well-placed shell he had taken out four tanks.
While Königin circled around the formation’s lower shoulder, Dolph burst down the center and Bartosz swooped in behind them, cannons crying as they tore through vulnerable track sides and engine compartments and turret flanks, setting many of the tanks helplessly alight. Noel’s obvious attack and charge down from the western wood had caused most of the column to face west initially and few of the Goblins had corrected the facing of their glacis plates as the M5s closed in. Those front plates, packed with bolted-on armor upgrades, were no good now. The M5s had passed them by and bit them in their flanks.
When Dolph came out of the center he passed by Noel who circled around the back, meeting Bartosz as he came around — thus they had fully cleared the vulnerable column and began to circle back around to kettle the remaining tanks, like sharks around a bloodied corpse. Tank-less crews fled the scene on foot, seemingly unarmed, having left any equipment when abandoning their tanks. One of the remaining tanks regained some level of initiative and took off from the scene as fast as its tracks could go, helping shield the fleeing crews.
“Don’t shoot the fleeing crews! We can capture them or follow them and either way find those underwater bridges. We’re here to stop their attack! Keep that in mind!” Noel shouted into the radio. Their machine guns could have ripped apart the soldiers filing out as they circled, but that would’ve been nothing but pointless wasting of ammo.
Dolph and Bartosz replied in the affirmative, without question.
“Anyway, it’s over now. Let’s wrap this up.”
Noel’s Jagdpanzerzug had done its job and scattered the Ayvartan column, sending the remnants running. They had blunted the attack on Silb, despite a numerical inferiority of 5 to 1 — in the middle of battle he had hardly even considered the odds.
Together with Dolph and Bartosz, Noel regrouped atop one of the eastern hills, called in their kills and watched the retreating enemies, ready to follow them further north. In all they had taken out 9 tanks through damage, captured 5 almost intact and forced one to flee — all within the span of a few minutes since the battle began to when it ended.
Noel expected the remnants of this force would be in the bag shortly.
46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Early Evening
Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari southern bank, Silba meadows.
Warlock close-air support craft soared overhead in groups of three and vanished north. Minutes after leaving the sights of the tank commanders sitting half-out of their turrets, the planes dove and dropped their deadly payloads. In the distance the booming 250 kilograms of TNT could be heard. Sometimes the tank commanders saw the smoke trailing up against the setting sun from their cupolas. Many watched the sights as they advanced, running up and down the Sandari to support the bridgehead operations as best as they could.
Noel called for Ivan to stop the tank, and he ordered him up to the turret. It was cramped, but they were slender enough to fit side by side out of the cupola atop the turret. They watched the sunset together, smoke and all, and saw the planes coming and going. Between the bombs and the artillery shells they heard the rhythmic snapping of machine guns and autocannons, so far in the distance they felt like the sounds of the forest.
They were alone — Dolph and Bartosz had gone ahead at Noel’s behest, while the Königin waited for a physical contact from 8th PzD Headquarters.
Together they soaked up the moment, the relative peace and solitude.
“Another day, another 12 rounds of APCB for das vaterland.” Noel said with a grin.
He leaned back onto the turret, hands behind his head, looking up at the darkening sky.
Ivan leaned back beside him. Noel turned over and ran a finger down his chest.
“We were really amazing Noel. Completely incredible.” Ivan said out of the blue.
A coquettish little smile appeared on Noel’s face. “Oh ho?”
“You should’ve seen those pressure gauges going. That supercharger is amazing.” Ivan said. “We were doing over forty! And consistently, even as the pressure went up!”
Noel burst out laughing. “Not a good judge of the moment are you? I’m sitting here doing my best pinup girl impression and you’re talking about the tank.”
He smiled his fondest smile a this companion, who looked away with a shy grin.
“Well, it looks like we won’t have time to do anything funny anyway.”
Ivan stared behind their tank. Noel turned his head over his shoulder.
A vehicle had arrived to join them — an M4 Sentinel with a fake gun.
As its headlight shone on them, they sat up on the turret sides. Noel flashed a v-sign with his fingers, rocking his legs back and forth as General Dreschner and Karla Schicksal climbed out of the turret hatch and ambled over to the Königin.
“Congratulations are in order, Captain Skoniec.” General Dreschner said.
“Thanks to you we have just secured a third bridgehead!” Schicksal said.
“Ah, so you found that pontoon bridge? Was it where I told ya?” Noel asked.
“Only a little bit off,” Schicksal replied, checking a clipboard, “in essence you had the right idea. Reiniger and Spoor managed to find it in the northwest, following your leads. The Ayvartans had a clever idea — the bridge was submerged, just under the surface. Once we found the enemy’s crossing, Reiniger and Spoor’s men fought their way across with some Warlock assistance and hunkered down on the hillsides on the other side, so we’re in a stronger position to resist the Ayvartan offensive. All thanks to you.”
“Yeah, see, sometimes it pays to scare the enemy off rather than kill ‘em.”
“Perhaps it does.” General Dreschner said. “Captain Skoniec: your men have joined Reiniger across the river to defend the new bridgehead, but I came here personally to fetch you, because I desire for you to stay back until Wa Prüf 6 arrives to perform maintenance on the M5A2 prototype. Until then, we’d like you to go over doctrine with some of our reserve tankers, in Reiniger’s stead. They are excited to learn from a Panzer ace.”
Dreschner reached out and held aloft a paper folder that ostensibly had his new orders packed in it. Perhaps crew dossiers for the new training unit or something similar.
Noel yawned, swinging his legs like a child seated at the edge of a playground tower.
“Fine with me. I will mold them into wonderful little fire flowers.”
Dreschner had no comment, while Schicksal crooked her eyebrows.
Noel reached down and snatch the folder with a flick of his wrist. He pretended to look it over while the bosses were still around, flipping pages and glancing at pictures.
“Shall we escort you back to Silb then?” Schicksal said.
Noel briefly looked over his shoulder at Ivan, who met his eyes for a moment and smiled. Smiling back, the Captain waved his hand dismissively at his superiors.
“Nah. I know the way back.” Noel said innocently.
48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, Outskirts
Calm rains fell from morning to noon and seemed poised to persist, making up for the time nature lost the previous day. Damp ground again turned muddy, and Schicksal wore a rubber raincoat with a hood over her uniform from the moment she woke. After lunch, she joined General Dreschner on the outskirts of the village. Silb’s main road wound out from between the trees and descended down a gentle slope to an ample grassy meadow, one of many shallow dips in the terrain that became long uninterrupted puddles whenever it rained. Together the General and Radio Officer tramped through mud and grass to the edge of the woods and pulled up their binoculars, watching for traffic on the submerged road.
In the distance they spotted the convoy, cordially on time, an eight-wheeled armored car and a pair of motorcycles leading several trucks, some covered, many not, carrying crates of precious, coveted food, fuel and parts — and men. Water displaced at their sides as they struggled through the knee-deep puddle. A vast column of vehicles headed north along the road, most bypassing Silb, but every so often a few split from the convoy and turned onto the grass. These struggled through water very slightly deeper than on the road and then took the muddy slope up into Silb. Panzergrenadier guards ushered them in.
“Those motorcycle troops are part of the 14th Jager. They made it all the way here. I guess Baumgartener’s doing us a favor again.” Schicksal said, putting down her binoculars.
“He ill deserved the treatment he received from me.” Dreschner solemnly said.
Several battalions of men were finally trickling up from Shaila, fully rested and reequipped to continue the fight. Among them were elements of the Grenadier divisions Spoor had his eyes on a few days ago. Though it had been spontaneous and sloppy, the new Ayvartan offensive gave the higher-ups the impetus to send whatever was ready to push out from the static bridgeheads along the Sandari. Though they did not yet have their whole Divisions available, these various battalions that now traveled up the road, in the tens and twenties of men on the backs of several-ton trucks, made up more than a Regiment.
For almost an hour under the rain they watched the string of vehicles headed north. Then they spotted the tail end of the convoy — a heavy-duty tank transporter escorted by some light tanks. The transporter was like a convoy onto itself, composed of a six-wheeled truck in front towing several connected beds in between, and followed by another truck in the back, helping push the weight. It was an arrangement known as a road train. Under the tarps covering each of the beds, Schicksal supposed that the road train carried crates of parts, covered benches full of necessary personnel, tied-up prototype hulls and weapons.
Everything was marked in big, clear letters, visible with the binoculars: Wa Prüf 6.
“Well, here they are!” Schicksal said. She felt a surge of excitement. Who knew what strange wonder-weapons they would get to field? Maybe even a ray gun like in the pulps?
Perhaps she was being simple, but the Wa Prüf 6 was a welcome injection of new complexity into the stolid routine Silb was settling on; much like its antecedent Captain Skoniec.
General Dreschner, however, was not so excited to see them swerving in.
“Let us pray we are worthy of pulling the sword from their stone.” He said.
Schicksal looked at the General in his sullen face and tried to smile.
“Are you feeling ill sir? Is the dampness getting you down again?” She said.
Dreschner shook his head. He dropped his binoculars, leaving them to hang from their leather strap, and got down to one knee, staring down the meadow with his own eyes. Schicksal knelt and drew closer to him, watching as the road grew silent again.
“I’ve been thinking about my conduct recently, Schicksal, and none too fondly. I have made mistakes and I am not sure if I have the right attitude to correct them.”
“I’m sorry to hear that sir. If it helps, I think you’ve got what it takes to fix anything.”
He smiled suddenly, and he even chuckled a little to himself at her words.
“It was you who prompted me to think this way, Mäuschen. Your way of being.”
“Me, sir?” Schicksal was taken aback. In her mind, she had always thought the General considered himself somewhat above her. Sure, he recognized her usefulness as an assistant and communications officer, and he liked to have her gather information in his stead for convenience. She knew that he liked to talk to her — he probably found it refreshing to hear easy words from someone uncomplicated and rustic like her.
“As much as I pay attention to the men, I have not been ignoring you.” He replied.
Her heart went into high gear; surely he wasn’t really evaluating her? He can’t have been looking to her in any way; he was a General! She was just a radio girl to him, she thought! She certainly didn’t have any expertise that could compliment his own. She knew how many vacuum tubes the FFA3 radio possessed but that was all rote memory from booklets. It was useless. What else did she know? She didn’t know anything but frivolities.
Dreschner let her stew in silence for a while. When next he spoke up, he looked directly at her first, and caught her glass-eyed in a fit of paralyzing self-reflection. She barely heard him at first, she was so out of it. “I value your humility; your level-headedness. You have a grounded perspective that a man in command too easily loses. When I first met you I thought you were aloof, but you are pragmatic — excuse me if I assume too much.”
It was strange for Schicksal to hear someone talking about her, from the outside-in. Someone who wasn’t her, appraising her, appreciating her. She couldn’t even tell whether she thought his words were true. She considered her own evaluations of herself suddenly unreliable. Her boss noticed her! He was talking so frankly to her!
“Thank you sir. I will try my best to keep being pragmatic for you.” She said.
Try my best to keep pragmatic? Agh, she sounded like such a crumb!
But Dreschner was staring down the meadow now, off in his own world.
“I have forgotten the humility, the curiosity, that I had as an enlisted man.”
He sighed deeply again and segued into a helpless, frustrated grunt.
“I’m sorry, it is my nerves, and probably this cold. I am rambling.”
“I’m always ready to listen to your rambling nerves, sir.” Schicksal said.
Dreschner nodded his head once. He stood from the mud and grass and extended a hand to Schicksal. She took it, and he pulled her up to her feet with a hearty tug.
“Keep learning, Mäuschen. I want to call on that learning some day.”
He doubled back to the village. It took Schicksal a few moments, rolling that statement around in her mind, before she realized she was being left behind. She rushed behind the General, wondering what he could mean by that.
* * *
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