This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.
28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Shaila Dominance – South Knyskna, Outer Boroughs
Atop the M3 Hunter a squat, round protrusion easily mistaken for a headlight turned a glass eye on its surroundings. With the periscope the tank commander retained a broad field of vision obstructed only by the form of the tank around them – its height, its broadness, and any open hatches, against which a clever enemy could hide.
There was no such enemy in sight. Around Knyskna the fields were empty. Pillboxes had been abandoned. Trenches had long since been blasted out of existence. Scars cut into the ground by the artillery remained untouched. Kampfgruppe R was eerily alone, save for the smattering of their own recon men, armed escorts in half-track motorcycles.
Ayvartan cities did not have outer walls, at least insofar as the Heer or Army had seen. Ayvarta never went through a period of castling all of its major villages, like the Nochtish had in their antiquity. Ayvartan history had not been as openly barbarous.
Solstice was the one exception they knew, and its walls were prodigious.
But unlike Solstice, Knyskna rose starkly from the surrounding countryside. One step transitioned dirt to paved road, and open field to the first boroughs. There was no barrier. Knyskna was open for the taking. The panzers restarted their engines and advanced.
The M3s trundled forward from the field into the city over the sparse rubble that remained after the aerial bombardment, and past the ghostly defenses on the outskirts. A platoon of assault guns, five machines in all; they advanced in two columns of two tanks with a lead tank following in their wake. They were the first platoon of the southern salient to bite into the city. A platoon of M4s followed a thousand meters behind.
M3 Hunters were slow machines, and better armored, so they set the marching order.
Each platoon was accompanied by five half-tracked motorcycles each carrying three men, one a driver. South Knyskna had the broadest roads, supporting four wide lanes of traffic climbing almost imperceptibly uphill, and the men and tanks fit with room to spare.
Old buildings flanked the invaders on either side, most built of wafer-like brick but many of thick, hardy modern cement. While some had been bombed out and even smashed nearly flat, several blocks stood tall despite the bombing. The tight blocks were broken occasionally by tighter connecting roads and streets between buildings. Their smashed windows and doors were like black eyes, looming over the grenadiers and tankers.
Only heat and distance rendered the city’s heart hazy – the tanks would have otherwise had an unbroken sight-line across the main thoroughfare and right into the Communist base.
Engines burned and treads turned tirelessly. They advanced several careful kilometers into the city, kilometers that they had been warned would be hard-fought for.
The M3s and their motor escorts stopped almost halfway to the city center, and the M4s, having lagged to over a kilometer behind the advance also cut their engines. The platoons had achieved their afternoon objectives in record time, and there was a mood of jubilation among them. Atop the motorcycles the recon men cracked open their ration tins, and in the tanks men inadvisably lit cigarettes for one another and laughed.
The commies had given up!
The tank Sergeant of the assault gun platoon cracked a broad grin as he picked up his transmitter and radioed Lt. Reiniger, in charge of Kampfgruppe R. He gloated about the unfettered advance of his platoon, and about the craven cowardice of his foes.
“Well, shit. Keep advancing. Advance until you take the city or confront an enemy.”
Lt. Reiniger cut radio contact abruptly. His tank platoons sighed among themselves, having dreamt of a good smoke break in the ruins. They stowed their tins, stomped out their smoke-sticks, and took uncomfortable swigs of tepid beer to try to still their nerves. Once everyone was ready they started their engines and trundled forward anew.
Soon they spied the city center, almost clear through the light haze and distortions of the hot Ayvartan sun. It was still kilometers away but through the periscopes it seemed almost adjacent to them, at the end of the long, open southern thoroughfare.
Direct-fire range was 2000 meters, with a good sight-line.
They saw smoke rising in the distance – it was a train leaving the city.
“Shift gears and charge into gun range!” Radioed the tank sergeant to the platoon. “We’ve only a few kilometers to go! We will not let the enemy escape from here!”
Engines grunted under increased strain and treads turned ever faster as the tanks sped toward their optimal range. Periscopes raised, gunners already sighting, the M3s hurled themselves toward the enemy across the unbroken cement tiles of the Ayvartan roads.
The formation tightened and the half-tracked motorcycles sped ahead of the tanks, the men riding them raising their rifles to the second stories to watch for AT snipers.
Behind them the M4s hurried to cut their own distance to the vanguard.
As they moved the outer boroughs transitioned quickly to the inner city. Buildings gradually rose and broadened, taking on new faces – theaters and drug stores and goods shops and other necessities and pleasures proferred under the hydra-headed banner of the government, took the place of the old brick houses and lodges of the outer boroughs.
Around them the main road narrowed slightly but grew two pedestrian streets giving ample room to move. Sewer grates and manhole covers appeared across the slightly bulging stone tiles of the main road, under which the stone arches of the old sewer network easily supported the weight of the charging tanks.
Periscopes tightened their field of view and focused on the base ahead, zooming in across the thoroughfare. Nothing was coming their way.
Nothing impeded their advance.
Attached motorcycle troops kept their eyes peeled while traveling across the few broad intersections and past the alleys, but as a whole the buildings were more tightly packed and it seemed that opportunities for ambush had grown scarcer the further in they traveled.
“Do not slow! We can overtake them! Faster, drive right into the guts of the city!”
Heeding the tank sergeant all of the men pushed their vehicles to top gear.
Dozens of meters ahead of the tanks the two leading motorcycles buckled suddenly, tipping forward and back on a series of hereto unseen broken tiles.
They were given no chance to stabilize.
A blast from underneath consumed both the vehicles, tossing the front wheels and chains of track across the streets and scattering pieces of once whole men even farther.
Remaining motorcycles cut their engines in horror and skidded hard onto the adjacent streets, avoiding the craters beyond which more mines surely lay.
Vanguard tanks braked suddenly, stalling the advancing column amid the carnage.
Hatches went up, and the assault gun commanders peered out into the smoke and debris ahead of them with their own eyes, incredulous. They turned to the recon men left alive, shocked dumb on the streets, and shouted their commands over the sudden silence.
“Don’t just sit there, pull out a bangalore and clear the mines!”
Assault guns faced forward, guarding against targets along the road. M4 Sentinel tanks started to catch up to the vanguard and raised their barrels to cover the higher stories and the roofs. Several surviving recon soldiers linked up with the new arrivals guarding the M4s and together they began to assemble their bangalores, long tube charges that could potentially detonate the hidden minefield ahead in its entirety once installed.
Regardless of setbacks there were ten tanks and twenty men in the column, and despite the minefield, and the flesh of six soldiers splashed across the street, morale was still high. There were no side streets near them, and they had a clear view of the Communist base.
There was no enemy presence to meet them, only desperate defenses.
Soldiers laid the long bangalores down across the minefield and detonated the charges. In an instant fifteen meters length of the road ahead of them went up in feeble flames and smoke. The recon infantry carefully inspected ahead of where their bangalores had blown and found little to arouse suspicion. They waved their hands, and the engines all growled to life again. It was time to clear the final leg of their charge and engage the enemy base.
Hatches went down, cannons faced forward and treads methodically turned.
A periscope among the vanguard caught a glimpse of shock on a recon soldier’s face.
“Contact!” shouted the man, and he turned his rifle on an adjacent building.
His lips mouthed the beginnings of a new word but never spoke it.
His fellows turned but their rifles never found targets.
Not a second passed since the shout that the fizz of a charge, unheard beneath the engines, sparked a series of explosive bundles installed beneath the column.
Violent explosions ripped through the surface.
Underground, the archways toppled; the road collapsed into the sewer.
Through the smoke and fire the recon men and their motorcycles were consumed by the yawning earth, buried helplessly in the rock or blasted apart.
Vanguard tanks unlucky enough to have parked directly over an archway burst into flames, their turrets launching from their hulls from the force of the charges and flung against adjacent buildings like toys. Men trapped inside were butchered by spraying metal as their hatches blew in, their ammo cooked, and screws and instruments turned to shrapnel.
Slow M3 assault guns had no time and no possible reaction to the chaos unfolding, and when the ground beneath them ceased to be they crashed harshly atop heaps of rubble, falling over ten meters below. Treads and road wheels smashed apart and engine compartments burst open from the violence. Crews were battered dead or unconscious.
A pit thirty meters long and ten meters wide was all that remained after the carnage.
One M4 Sentinel found itself half without earth to stand on and before it could move far enough it tipped forward, falling gun-first into the pit – the remainder of its platoon were rewarded for their sluggish advance with their lives, but only for the moment.
Before the smoke could clear, anti-tank rifle shots plinked off the turret and glacis plates of the remaining tanks, alerting them to the presence of an engaging enemy. From four surrounding rooftops appeared small squadrons armed with BKV 14.5mm anti-tank rifles, shooting at the surviving tanks.
The doors to a theater up the street burst open and a crew pushed out a 45mm anti-tank gun, firing a shot over the pit that crashed into the mantlet armor of an M4 and left a sizable dent. Through their periscopes the shell-shocked tank crews watched Ayvartan men and women run out of buildings and huddle in the cover of a street corner a block ahead, with Rasha submachine guns and DNV light machine guns ready to fire on the glass of their ports and hatches. There were suddenly dozens of the enemy upon the Nocht tankers.
Overwhelmed by the events the tank crews shut themselves in their vehicles, closing every hatch, and did not hesitate to back up the street as fast as their treads could reverse.
Gunners loaded High-Explosive into the 50mm High-Velocity guns on the M4s and took running shots over the pit, smashing unoccupied sections of the street, taking out chunks of the theater facade but not the AT gun in front of it, and blasting windows and the corners of building roofs. There was little avail from their inaccurate moving fire.
Compared to the stronger 75mm guns on the lost M3s the M4’s explosive round had a limited area and a weaker punch on the surrounding buildings.
Fiercely the Communists returned every shot however they could, punching holes into the periscopes and headlights of the tanks, opening fire on the viewing ports and hatches to keep them pinned, and throwing shell after 45mm shell against the strong glacis plates of the M4s. Though they did not penetrate, each blast against the glacis that did not rebound entirely left dents and stressed the welding and rocked the tank, startling the crew; and though BKVs and DNVs could not penetrate the medium armor, they kept the tank blind.
Mere minutes trapped inside the rocking steel hulls and the crews had already become disoriented and lost, unable to count on anything but the gunnery port to track the enemy.
In a desperate measure the top hatches on several of the tanks opened once more, and commanders and radio personnel with submachine guns exposed themselves and returned fire. Shells and bullets ricocheting all around them on the tank’s armor, these impromptu gunners sprayed bullets haplessly on the rooftops and streets, hoping to suppress the enemy.
Communist troops saw bullets come flying their way. They huddled behind the edges of their roofs and the thick metal shields of their 45mm guns to avoid the automatic fire.
For a moment the inferno sputtered and gave the tanks their chance to pull away from the ambush. Frantically the surviving tank commanders of the four remaining M4s dove into their tanks and radioed Lt. Reiniger and General Dreschner, screaming that a trap had decimated the Kampfgruppe and that ground would have to be ceded to survive.
28-AG-30: Knyskna, Southeast Inner Boroughs FOB
Knyskna’s southeastern thoroughfare began out in the Djose, along a dirt road that passed through and connected the wood and the field into the city proper. Along the edge of the city the dirt road transitioned to a paved thoroughfare, and sparse blocks of buildings spread many meters apart and flanked the road. Despite this it remained tighter than the main southern road or the western road, and grew more so the deeper it extended.
Unlike both of those roads, Southeast Knyskna curved sharply in two places. First it bent starkly northwest out of the outer boroughs and into the inner city portion of the thoroughfare, and then it cut even more sharply westward to connect to the city center.
It had been a place full of homes and canteens, markets hosting the villagers that had come from out of the Djose, and artisans of similar origin. Compared to the grandiose main thoroughfare with its theaters and drug stores and its big names written in lights, the southeast was comfortable and homey and had played host to many little peoples.
One could have called it a historic place.
Yet many days ago the Luftlotte’s attack hit this little-known place hardest. Bombers avoided the heavy air defenses south of the city by looping around the Djose and closing in from the east, and the little-known markets, canteens and homes, and the little-known villagers that lived and worked there, were caught in the blaze.
Explosives disgorged brick and wood and cement in mounds over the road, and toppled whole structures over the thoroughfare. People ran screaming as the air raid sirens blared and the world collapsed around them. There was little difference now between the thoroughfare and the alleyways and streets branching from them – all of the outer borough and most of the inner borough had become a maze choked at every turn with rubble.
Tanks and motorcycle troops would find it hard to operate in the choked southeastern boroughs, at least until they made it to the cleaner westward bend into the city center.
So the plan was contingent on keeping them in the rubble as long as possible.
Forward observers had already spotted the tanks moving into the city.
Knyskna’s 824th Lion Company, under Sergeant Bahir in the absence of their deceased Lieutenant, counted on the inhospitable terrain as their chief advantage.
Facades that had been blown open by bombs revealed ruined interiors to the wandering troops. Standing doorways opened toward choked stairways and largely collapsed stories, the remaining high ground accessible by climbing the mounds of rubble in the rooms.
Many buildings that from the outside still seemed to stand were occupied only by their collapsed upper floors, each story piled directly atop the ground floor. These were useless to the Company. Most buildings sadly were: they had largely become indistinct hills of piled rock, and a few had been blasted to the point that they were nothing but stark, chalky foundation lines. The material that once stood over these lines now littered the roads, in many cases blocking off those pathways. In places it was as though whole buildings had been plucked from the earth and casually thrown over alleys and across the main street.
Forward elements of 824th Company assembled deep the inner city portion of the southeast thoroughfare. The buildings there were just right for a temporary base.
Eight-Two-Four had established a Forward Operating Base in a large building just off the corner from where the thoroughfare bent westward. Most of the rooftop and third floor had collapsed, but two other floors had their walls and facade mostly intact.
There were many good and sturdy window frames to shoot out of, big rooms to hold meetings and store supplies, and many of the neighboring buildings shared a similar condition. Therefore it was an accessible, defensible position that was not immediately discernible to the enemy. Advancing forces would only see a ruin before it was too late.
Inside, a 45mm anti-tank gun laid in ambush, pointed south off the bend and ready to hit any tanks trying to make the turn unawares – hopefully in the flanks. In a pinch, it could also be elevated to fire over the rubble as long as a radio observer could sight for it.
It was poor artillery, but it was the only field gun they had at the FOB.
A gaggle of troops waited for orders. The FOB temporarily housed the defenders, their weapons and ammunition and their one good long-range radio receiver. The defenders consisted of two platoons forward, forty-eight soldiers in total. Their remaining platoon was three kilometers away preparing another defensive line, with their two Orc tanks in position and their three functioning 120mm Mortars ready to support the forward elements.
Stationed at the rear, an anti-aircraft gun of 85mm caliber was depressed as low as it could go to use as a last-resort direct fire gun for the very last line of the defense.
All the combat platoons were incomplete. Nobody had what was written on paper.
Soldiers were needed to help Bahir as a headquarters troop. In addition several soldiers huddled in alleyways along the thoroughfare, given the crucial task of caring for the horses that would quickly transport survivors between the defensive lines if a retreat was ever necessary. Trucks and tanks would have just slowed them down if used in this role.
Ambush platoons prepared for battle. They knew all too well now that their position bore the crucial task of delaying the enemy as much as possible. From crates laid down atop the uneven, rock-strewn floors of the FOB, the forward troops picked up new weapons.
Men and women lined up, trading their Rasha submachine guns and Bundu bolt-action rifles for heavier weapons: DNV-28 Light Machine Guns, long automatic rifles that loaded from ninety-round pans set across the top of the weapon; and the pipe-like BKV Anti-Tank rifles, large and somewhat unwieldy. Everyone had pouches of grenades, and even a few explosive mines. A few persons, dispersed among the squads, received backpack radios.
Leander was one of the men lining up for a new weapon. In the distance, he heard the explosions, and saw clouds of cement dust and shell smoke mingling over the far end of the outer borough. Nocht tanks were blasting their way in. A quartermaster gave him a BKV and a side-arm, a small semi-automatic pistol that fit his delicate hands well. He did not have a proper holster for a side-arm, however. He stowed it in an empty pouch.
He grouped up with his squadron in one of the rooms on the ground floor, a nursery that was empty save for a strangely macabre series of baby cribs untouched by the violence. He was quite happy that Bonde and Elena remained with him. They had both been given DNV LMGs, and both of them seemed daunted by the chances their weapons stood against a Panzerdivision. Elena also carried the additional burden of a backpack radio, while Bonde once again bore a signal flare gun, with the same purpose as before.
“Looks like we’ll be depending on Leander to help us with the tanks.” Bonde said.
Leander gulped. “I’m not sure why they decided I’d be suited for this.”
“I’m positive they just handed these out randomly.” Elena said.
“Got any advice?” Leander asked his comrades, sounding helpless.
“I learned a little bit from basic training. Aim for flat surfaces in the back of the tank, the tops of the turrets, or at the wheels between the treads. Those spots tend to be vulnerable to BKVs. Don’t shoot at the front armor – it is too thick for that gun.” Bonde said.
“Yes, that. What he said to do.” Elena shrugged. Leander smiled at her.
Reflexively, the squad replied to the traditional greeting with Hujambo! of their own. A young Arjun woman walked through the open doorway, a BKV rifle slung over her shoulder, and stood before them. She bowed a little. She had a vibrant face, with a lovely smile and a richly brown complexion and long, silky black hair down to the waist. Her build was somewhat round and plump for her size, which was actually rather tall.
Leander thought she had probably been a civilian like him.
“I’m Private Sharna Mahajan.” She said, still smiling at them all. “I was told this is where Squad Three was meeting. I’ve been assigned here as an Anti-Tank riflewoman!”
Elena and Bonde stared at her, but Leander did not find her enthusiasm strange at all. Her cheer felt contagious, and soon Leander was replying back in a gregarious tone of voice as well. “Yes, you’ve got the right place comrade! We are happy to join hands in the struggle! Did you get your rifle out of a crate purely at random as well?”
“Oh no comrade, this is my rifle. I completed my training a few years ago and took a leave until things took a turn recently. My platoon was mostly lost in the Djose assault, so I was reassigned. You will be pleased to know I am a dedicated AT riflewoman.”
Leander clapped his hands. Elena and Bonde’s jaws hung, looking stunned.
Aside from Sergeant Bahir, Private Mahajan was then perhaps the first real, fully trained soldier either of them had personally met. They quickly moved ahead of Leander and shook Sharna’s hand, and she smiled and laughed and shook hands very graciously.
Leander thought nothing of it and joined the hand shaking, until Sharna’s hands were thoroughly shaken.
“Ahh, so welcoming!” She giggled. “You all are nothing like my old squadron from the 8243rd. So stodgy. May their spirits rest in peace!” She clasped her hand together as though in prayer and quickly muttered an Arjun chant under her breath, without turning her face away from her squad mates or breaking eye contact at all. It was strange for Leander, who knew very little about Arjun traditions. They were the majority of the Ayvartan population, but Leander had never had much cause to interact deeply with them.
“We are quite glad to serve with you.” Elena said
“Might I ask who our squad leader is?” Sharna said.
Elena pointed at Bonde. “That would be this guy. Private First-Class Bonde Okiro.”
“I received the promotion this morning.” Bonde said. “It is not important.”
Sharna saluted him. “I’ll follow all orders to the best of my abilities. I can hit a field mouse from 500 meters away, and I have already destroyed a vehicle in this war!”
Leander whistled, standing in awe of the woman. “Was it a tank?” He asked.
“It was a motorcycle! My BKV shot took the front wheel off!” She declared proudly.
There was a bit of silence for a moment as Sharna puffed herself up with victory.
“Well, that is better than what any of us have personally done.” Elena said soberly.
“Does the armored car count? I feel like I did a lot to it.” Leander said.
They heard a whistle from outside the room and gathered by the door to the hostel with a variety of people from the other squadrons. Atop a small, ruined indoor fountain, Sergeant Bahir stood over the platoons. He lifted his fist into the air, extending his arm completely.
A few people in the room joined him, Bonde one of them.
The fist was a revolutionary gesture that arose within the groups that became the KVW and overthrow the Empire; but its use declined except with the more fervent communists.
Sgt. Bahir held the fist for a full minute, his head bowed.
“It is sad to me how this gesture has been made to disappear.” He said.
Everyone in the crowd stood at attention. They stood to take in their orders, to hear the plan – but Leander knew they also, more than that, wanted to hear that they stood a chance. So far the war was something none of them could have seen coming, and every battle had ended in defeat and retreat. Leander had heard the others talk of officers killed in bombings, of tanks lost by the hundreds in the Tukino pocket. He himself was motivated enough – he wanted to see Solstice. But as a whole the troops needed reassuring.
Sgt. Bahir gestured out past a blasted window frame, to the rubble-choked thoroughfare, a maze of ghostly bombed-out buildings flanking mounds of debris and overturned structures blocking the road. “The same bombing that claimed this hostel, claimed many of our comrades. It claimed the Lieutenants who trained us and many of the people who support and supply us. It claimed much of our strength. But today, it will also claim one final victim – the enemy’s hope of thoroughly destroying us!”
Leander looked across the room. Almost everyone in attendance was fairly young. Most were older than he – Leander was barely a few months past 18 – but not older than the Sergeant. He looked to be pushing forty. The Lieutenants had all been older, or so he had heard. The Territorial army saw little conflict in many years, and its ranks remained static as its staff grew old. In one fell swoop they had been lost – and so a group of Sergeants commanded Companies in the chaos. To Leander though, Bahir was like an old General from the stories of cavalry and swordsmen that got told around the caravan. He was tall and sleek and gallant like a Lendian knight. His real rank didn’t matter to Leander.
“We are not individuals.” Sgt. Bahir continued. “Our enemies believe our camaraderie and empathy are our weakness. But an Ayvartan never fights alone. We are units! We are a community, we are a combat force, we are platoons and squads; we are comrades. And even when individuals are lost, a community survives. Our objective here is to survive and nothing more. Several trains are scheduled to come and to go throughout the day, ferrying our comrades and whatever valuable materiel remains in the city out to the Dbagbo dominance. Many of these people have not fired a shot, but they have contributed to the conditions necessary for us to fight. Our objective is to buy time for these beloved comrades: for our guardians, for our loved ones, for our friends, for people we don’t know, and even for people we might hate, to escape the enemy and continue the struggle.”
Everyone watched, some looking exhausted, others rapt, but all respectful.
“You will group up into 10 assigned squadrons. Most of you have radios. You will ambush and harass the enemy along with your comrades. We have indirect fire support from three 120mm mortars as well as the 45mm gun here in the FOB. Observers have already spotted tanks moving in – and you have already heard them moving in yourselves. I will not lie, we are not adequately equipped to destroy a Nocht Panzerdivisione. But we can and must slow them down. In coordination via radio, we will resist the advance of the imperialists. We will disperse into the rock, but we will not huddle like they intend us to. We will strike them from every direction. We will fight bitterly. But we will not die.”
Sgt. Bahir turned to face the city center with a flourish.
He raised his voice even more.
“Nobody here will become a martyr! We will survive. In the evening, an armored train will come to cover our escape and ferry us to safety. Keep this hope in mind, and fight to see it. Aim for their tracks, aim for their hatches, aim for exposed men. If you must, retreat to a defensible position. And if they take the FOB we will retreat to the second thoroughfare bend, where we have Orc tanks and a heavy 85mm gun waiting. And if they force us back then we will fight for every piece of track in that rail-yard. We will use every available tool to disrupt and maim the invaders! If they want this rubble, they will bleed for it!”
Sgt. Bahir raised his fist again. Leander raised his own fist almost without thinking – and so did every single other person in the lobby. This was perhaps the speech they needed.
The Sergeant got off from the fountain and the crowd parted as he joined his impromptu staff in his command room. Small hand-drawn maps of the thoroughfare were handed out to each squadron, marking the large clusters of rubble throughout the roads, as well as the positions of escape horses in alleyways. Relative positions for each squadron were listed on the map: Leander’s Squad III would be in the thick of it.
Leander joined Elena and Bonde and newcomer Sharna in front of the FOB and they set off, marching toward the ambush point. They walked across low-lying rubble and over a few eerie stretches of clean road. Far ahead they spotted a thick tangle of debris from a toppled building blocked their view of the road. A window frame along the side of the mass survived the collapse and seemed like the entrance to a labyrinth. It looked ominous.
Soon they reached this obstacle and stood before it in mute awe.
“Well then. I guess it’s time to dig and climb.” Elena said exasperatedly.
“I’m ready when you are, sir!” Sharna said, smiling and saluting Bonde.
“Please don’t call me sir,” Bonde said gently.
“I’m also ready to go, sir!” Leander saluted, miming Sharna.
Bonde shook his head at them. Elena laughed a little. Together they navigated through the rubble. Leander felt an inkling of trepidation, a shaking at the tips of his fingers and feet as he felt the heavy AT rifle at his back, and the shifting rubble below and around him, and heard the explosions far out into the thoroughfare, but he kept himself focused and tried to grin and bear it all. The type of man Leander wanted to be was strong and reliable and committed, and to that kind of man, this trek was no dire ordeal. He had to be brave.
Beyond this rubble, beyond those tanks, he knew Solstice awaited him.
28-AG-30: Djose Wood, 8th PzD Headquarters Area
Karla Schicksal maintained radio communication with the different Kampfgruppe, tracking their progress and reporting to Dreschner, seated above her in the Befehlspanzer with his headphones off, tapping his fingers on the iron walls of the tank.
Kampfgruppe K under the command of Lt. Kunze was advancing sluggishly toward its first objectives in the southeast; Kampfgruppe L under Lt. Lenz made decent progress in the West despite tight roads and rubble; Kampfgruppe R under Lt. Reiniger, tasked with the important main thoroughfare in the South, was not cooperating with her.
Schicksal contacted Reiniger various times, and very few times did he reply.
She did not at all intend to cover for him, but she gave him some slack, knowing him a capable enough officer and a willful sort. Reporting to Dreschner, she told him that everything was going to plan and that no engagements were reported. He was satisfied enough with this. “Tell them to give a detailed report at the first objective areas.”
“Yes sir.” She replied. This type of instruction appealed to her. Dreschner being hands-off in these situations was for the best. It meant she had to make no judgment calls.
She sent the message to each crew in turn. Though the Befehlspanzer’s radio could collect multiple frequencies worth of incoming audio in one feed that she and Dreschner could hear, it could only transmit to specific Kampfgruppe channels at a time.
Dreschner hardly ever listened in – it distracted him.
After sending her instructions and receiving replies, she would notify him of what was said instead. Late morning and early noon passed slowly this way, hearing routine reports. She liked the voices of the men (and the very few women) on the radio – the dedicated signals officers were soft spoken and had clear, interesting voices, unlike the fighting crew.
By noon the first objectives should have been seized, and enemy contact long ago reported. Kunze reported his objective and held for instructions; Lentz did the same; both reported no enemy contact. Reiniger reported nothing. Schicksal gave him the benefit of the doubt at first, but then Kunze and Lentz reported advances towards their second objectives, and Reiniger still did not call. He was far past due for a reprimand now.
Schicksal could no longer ignore Reiniger’s foolishness.
She put down her headset and turned on her seat to face General Dreschner, who noticed immediately. “Something wrong?” He asked, still drumming his fingers on the steel.
“Lt. Reiniger’s reports have been sporadic and vague, and for the past hour or so he has not reported anything at all. What’s more worrying sir, is that none of the Kampfgruppe have reported enemy contacts at all throughout the operation. Something is not right.”
“Of course, it had to be Reiniger,” Dreschner grit his teeth. “That insubordinate clod. Had he any less skill or any less trust from his men I would sack him.”
“What should I do, sir?”
“Contact the fool and put him through to me. Accept no excuses.”
Schicksal nodded and put her headset back on and indicated for Dreschner to do the same. She turned back to her radio set, turned the dial to the correct frequency, and picked up her transmitter. Flipping a switch, she spoke calmly into her transmitter.
“8th PzD HQ to Lt. Reiniger, report your progress and disposition, this is 8th PzD–”
“Progress and disposition is everything’s fucked, lady!” Lt. Reiniger shouted.
Schicksal cringed from the sudden, sharp cracking of his voice over the radio.
She heard gunfire around him and the sharp retort of his tank’s cannon firing. Despite the ambient noise it was the voices that disturbed her the most. She had never heard Reiniger sound so anxious and so loud. Dreschner was by that point listening in with his own headset. His face was contorting with anger and confusion. He tapped his headset.
“I’m here as well you thug, do not shout into the radio!” Dreschner said.
Reiniger paused at the Brigadier-Generals’ voice. They heard nothing but his breathing for an awkward moment. “Well, shit sir. I thought I could fix it myself but I’m afraid I’m gonna have to report, we have just gone and lost some tanks to the commies.”
“Explain you miserable idiot! Why have you not been reporting your advance?”
“Sir,” Reiniger began, which for him, was rare and dire a thing to say indeed, “Kampfgruppe R captured its objectives early and met no resistance. I ordered them to advance until they made contact with an enemy, and I was so focused on command–”
“You clown! Of course they were trying to lead you into an ambush!”
“I’m going to need a losses report for the Logistics crew,” Schicksal meekly interjected.
Dreschner waited with clenched teeth and fists for Reiniger to deliver the report.
“Six tanks knocked out.” Reiniger said, his voice growing more guttural and restrained, as though he felt the General’s hands choking him. “All escorts and their motorcycles too.”
“How the hell did this happen?” Dreschner shouted suddenly.
Reiniger devolved into a pronounced stutter. “They blew up the floor right from under ’em. We didn’t know there was a sewer or bombs there sir! All the assault guns collapsed or blew up, and an M4 fell in from not retreating fast enough. All the men had been clearing a minefield when the charges went off, so it took them all too. Remaining M4s are retreating back to the first objectives. But sir, I believe we’ve got a bigger problem.”
Schicksal’s head hurt, Dreschner and Reiniger’s shouting bouncing around inside her skull. Dreschner was shaking from head to toe in anger, and he spoke as though to an archenemy rather than a subordinate. “You are dangerously close to the edge Lieutenant! I should like to know what you have to report, with your record this blackened!”
There was audible gulping on the other end. “We’ve been trying to fight back with just the M4’s but their High Explosive is garbage. I’ve got reports that even the fucked-up–”
“Mind your filthy tongue when you talk to me you pig!” Dreschner shouted. Schicksal nearly cried out in pain, her hands going up to her earpieces and almost ripping them from her head. She had barely restrained herself from doing so in Dreschner’s presence.
“The M4’s guns can’t even break the ruined buildings the communists are hiding in, sir.” Reiniger said, clearly putting in the effort to affect a dialect more in kind with Dreschner and Schicksal’s speech. “Sir, we need more 75mm assault guns out here and fast if we want to break the main thoroughfares. That 50mm won’t cut it, sir, it’s too limited!”
“Your head is too limited.” Dreschner said, in a low and bitter voice that was far more comforting for Schicksal than the screaming. “You know we don’t have equal amounts of M3s and M4s. Your men will hold their position until the next wave of your Company reaches them, and those will be the last assault guns you will receive, Reiniger.”
Dreschner swiped his hand across his own neck, and Schicksal turned the dial, cutting Reiniger off. Immediately the Brigadier-General turned around and tore some photos that had been taped up from the wall of the tank. He pored over them, flipping between them rapidly, looking over the South roads as photographed days and days ago.
“Knyskna’s main thoroughfare is wide enough for a larger formation than the five-tank advances we were using.” He said, aloud but to himself, Schicksal knew. His mind was racing through possible options. “Six tanks, two rows of three, both M4 and M3.”
He looked up from the photos, and then back down, but at Schicksal instead of his own hands. “Send word to Kunze and Lentz to watch for ambush and avoid overextension. They will expand cautiously past the first objective, with an eye toward the roofs–”
Schicksal turned the dial mindlessly to execute the order, but the radio rewarded her efforts with a blast of static and noise that pummeled her senses.
She winced and stifled a cry, almost in tears now from the unprecedented abuse her ears had received in such a short span, but ever the professional she grit her teeth and got to work, adjusting the sound as best as she could with the radio’s controls. Within moments the mess of noise and static became the frantic voices of Kunze and his tank commanders and the ambient chaos around them, together flooding through the airwaves.
“They’re under attack sir!’ She said. “Kampfgruppe K was ambushed in the southeast!”
28-AG-30: Knyskna, Southeast Thoroughfare
Leander felt his heart beating hard in his chest.
He kept himself pressed against a corner of the room, his rifle in a stiff grip in his hands. As the tanks thundered closer the vibrations along the cement walls transferred to his body and sunk deep into his gut. He tried to be strong, and he endured the situation as much as he could, but the noise and smell and the shaking was turning his stomach.
Sharna lay against the wall on the opposite side of a blasted-out window frame from him. Their dilapidated hideout overlooked the road and made a prime sniping spot – Sharna herself picked it out. She raised her finger to her mouth to signal quiet, and shifted her eyes toward the window. Leander stood carefully beside the frame and peered out.
A column of five assault guns, turretless tanks, advanced in a tight formation, two wide, two deep with a fifth vehicle trailing behind. Leander had committed to memory pictures of the tanks they would be facing, and knew these to be M3 Hunters.
With their guns mounted on the right side of the tank, they would have to turn dramatically to attack Leander’s position, which menaced them from their left. Their awkward design, lack of a machine gun and their engine power meant, according to the notes he had read, that they would be quite vulnerable during such a maneuver.
He took heart in this weakness and hoped he could exploit it.
But the tanks were not completely alone.
Among the armored column traveled over fifteen men, three in a motorcycle, but most on foot – the motorcycle had to start and stop and struggle through the debris beneath and around the column. They were not outfitted for house to house fighting. They had no automatic weapons, only long bolt-action rifles like the ones Leander saw them use when fighting in the woods, and they seemed to struggle with the terrain as they moved.
In addition to the men Leander still heard noises in the distance of tanks blasting at debris, so he knew that the vanguard of the enemy probably counted on reinforcements. Their ambush had to be sprung soon before the rest of the enemy’s tanks caught up to the vulnerable M3s. Every additional tank cratered their chances of success.
Everyone waited for the signal to attack. Below them the Nochtish men kept their eyes to the road and advanced clumsily. Whenever they looked overhead they focused on roofs and balconies and cast only brief glances. They did not know that the buildings ahead and around them were taken up by men and women ready to die fighting them.
When Sgt. Agewa or Sgt. Ibori launched their attacks, it was likely that knowledge of this would be disseminated quickly across Nocht’s forces. They would become far more aware of their surroundings. It was critical to launch their ambushes as soon as possible and with some level of coordination. This was the importance of their radios.
Leander looked behind himself, across the ruined room, where a depression in the floor led to a fairly intact staircase. Elena and Bonde crouched there, waiting to ambush any troops that rushed into the building – and also listening to the backpack radio. When it was time to attack, Elena would let them know with a thumbs up from the staircase.
Leander lifted his rifle for no specific purpose. He could not yet fire, but with every movement he felt more used to its weight, better able to heft it and aim down the sights and quickly take a shot. It was not so different from a Bundu, it was only heavier.
He moved it, and pulled bolt to check the chamber, and felt that these small things could be preparation enough. It helped keep him focused through the rumbling.
“Shoot at the tanks ahead of the column. That will slow them all down.” Sharna said softly, fidgeting absentmindedly with the length of her rifle. “Try to hit the flat, depressed bed right behind the cannon housing. It is the thinnest armor, and right over the engine.”
“Alright,” Leander mouthed, nodding his head to acknowledge her.
They heard a light tapping on the floor behind them, and looked back to see Elena’s hand, raised in a thumbs-up. The time had come for the ambush.
Sharna and Leander stood fully erect against opposite sides of the window frame, their rifles in hand. In this position they were still concealed from the enemy, but could easily fire and take cover before the infantry could get them. They were ready to fight.
Nocht’s tank column was now a short ways past their building, but still well within the BKV rifle’s optimal anti-armor range of 100 to 300 meters. Leander’s five-round internal magazine was already loaded, and he only needed to shoot – the BKV was semi-automatic, a real marvel of a weapon. Leander hardly knew the advantages of this trait.
Sharna took a deep, audible breath, braced her rifle against her shoulder, raised the barrel out the hole in the window frame and took aim while standing on her feet.
In an instant she opened fire, a loud echoing boom issuing from the gun as its 14.5 mm projectile screamed out, the stock pounding against Sharna’s shoulder but hardly rocking her expert stance. She stabilized within seconds and fired again.
Leander stifled a surprised gasp at her and hastily joined the attack, aiming poorly and letting loose a hasty shot – the round ripped from the barrel with a noise like thunder, and the stock pounded his shoulder and nearly pushed him a step back. It was certain to bruise.
The projectile struck the lower left side of an M3 and did seemingly nothing to the track. In a panic the enemy footsoldiers raised their guns and opened on the window.
Leander returned immediately to cover.
From three buildings across the street came similar volleys of sustained anti-tank fire.
Sharna ignored the enemy’s rounds pounding uselessly against the concrete wall around her. She leaned out and fired twice more at Leander’s previous target in quick succession, punching two visible holes into the bed behind the cannon housing.
Her target stalled, black wisps fuming from inside the engine compartment.
Under accurate fire from a building directly overlooking it, four smoking holes quickly appeared on the bed of another leading M3, causing it to stall near its companions.
Nochtish men huddled behind rocks and near stalled tanks, shouting Hinterhalt! as the battle was joined in earnest. With their way blocked by their immobilized lead tanks the remaining three M3s in the back started the laborious process of turning, slowly shifting their glacis plates so that their guns could face toward the buildings and open fire.
“Tracks now, try to aim for the tracks!” Sharna shouted, pausing to work her bolt and load a new clip. “Aim for the farthest tank from you to get a straighter shot at it!”
Leander shifted a step out of cover, swinging the barrel of his gun out of the window and taking aim across the street from his building, where an M3 committed to a ninety degree turn to fire on them. He took aim at the tracks and fired.
His first shot struck the hull plate over the tracks. Enemy fire forced him back to cover.
Because the gun was so large he was unused to thinking of it as semi-automatic – it felt like it should naturally be bolt-action like the Bundu and so he did not rap the trigger or fire successively before going into cover at the sight of retaliatory gunfire.
He had the shoot-and-hide muscle movements from the Bundu too close in mind.
Breathing deep, he stepped out of cover to shoot, this time aiming a touch lower.
Sharna joined him, her rifle now reloaded; Leander’s shot punched through one of the road wheels, blowing it out, and Sharna took out two in quick succession. Under this violence the track split completely, stalling the tank mid-turn and helpless to respond to the ambush. From the opposite side of the street, anti-tank grenades flew toward the immobilized tanks, setting ablaze their stalled engines and smashing holes in their cannons.
Anti-tank fire fell relentlessly upon the hatches and sides of the stalled tanks. Under this onslaught three tanks were rendered useless and their hatches flew open, the crew running out to the street with pistols out and screaming audible nonsense into hand radios.
Stray rifle rounds struck the window frame, kicking up tiny wisps of plaster and cement dust. Sharna and Leander hid again. Nocht’s men were rallying in ever more vigorous support of their tanks, the shock of the ambush fading from them. They aimed for the windows with greater fervor, and though sporadic their fire endangered the snipers.
But the AT rifles were not alone: peeking over the window again with great care Leander saw automatic fire pouring out of the lower floors of the buildings, bouncing off tanks and cutting across the positions of Nocht’s riflemen. Caught in the crossfire several Noctish men fell instantly to the automatic bursts, riddled with bullets in the middle of the road. Several men rushed desperately onto the remains of the streets and charged into the buildings with their pistols out – more easily manageable in close quarters than their rifles.
From behind him, Leander heard the belabored thumping of the DNV light machine guns as Bonde and Elena fought back against the incoming home invaders.
Hidden along the staircase, they could fire on anyone trying to pass the building’s open doorway, as well deliver suppressing fire over the thoroughfare. Their raid on the Djose must have taken its toll on Nocht’s forces, because no grenades or other explosives were flung toward the buildings to dislodge the defenders – the sounds of battle grew decidedly one-sided as the cries and guns of Nochtish men were silenced. DNVs beat like drums from the lower floors. Joined by the booming of intermittent BKV fire this cacophony overwhelmed the mechanical chugging and snapping of Nocht’s weapons.
Leander pulled the bolt on his rifle and loaded a new clip – the bundles were large and difficult to manage, especially while standing with his back awkwardly to a wall.
“You need to shoot more before hiding, Leander,” Sharna said. She was already through two clips, loading her third; Leander was just now reloading for the first time.
Nodding, Leander maneuvered his rifle out of the window to fire once more.
Two remaining tanks had managed to complete their turns and now faced the row of buildings across the street from his position. Leander’s heart skipped a beat when he saw the guns climbing. There were more of their comrades on that side of the street, and their fire had drawn the most attention. He spotted several snipers on the targeted windows, desperately firing into the glacis and gun mantlet of the M3 to no avail.
Alone, their weapons could not stop what was coming.
“Spirits defend,” Sharna gasped, “We have to help them Leander!”
From her pouch, Sharna sought out an anti-tank stick grenade, and found a single, solitary example among a few useless fragmentation grenades. While she prepared to throw it, and at a loss for how else to help, Leander fired three shots into the engine bed of the tank closest to him in quick succession, the BKV stock pounding into his shoulder.
He struck the bed several times at a good angle, smashing through to the engine housing but with seemingly no immediate effect. Sharna took the opportunity to throw her primed grenade at the tank below, aiming to exploit the damage Leander had caused to the engine housing. Those 700 grams of explosive encased in the grenade detonated on contact and blew open a great hole into the weakened engine hatch. Flames burst up from the exposed engine compartment and spread dangerously across the back of the tank.
It was not enough – the vehicle clung on to life. Even as the fire spread they saw the assault gun adjust its cruel aim. Assuredly in its death throes, the gun still readied to fire. There was now no way for Leander and Sharna to stop what was coming.
The M3 Hunter had raised its 75mm cannon as high as the short-barreled gun would elevate. With a dying roar it launched a high-explosive shell through the window across the street, past several snipers still firing in a panic. It detonated behind them.
Leander felt the explosion like a shockwave sinking through his flesh.
Fire and smoke expanded from the windows and doors, casting out burning, dying bodies onto the street. The roof burst from the inside out and showered the thoroughfare in cement chunks, and the upper floor collapsed entirely, burning and burying the machine gunners guarding the doorways. Five meters away the fifth M3, almost entirely unharmed in the chaos, opened fire on a building further down the street, its cannon smashing open the facade and ejecting snipers from the second floor with a crash of thunder. The snipers landed unceremoniously on the streets, instantly dead from their expulsion.
Moments later the vehicle below them had become an inferno.
Leander and Sharna’s previous target had had enough, and the fires finally spread to the ammo racks. From the inside out the great, murderous assault gun burst into pieces with an explosion that forced Leander and Sharna instantly to cover despite their shock.
Whether it had roasted its crew inside it they did not know, but finally the M3 Hunter lay ripped apart along the road. In the span of a few minutes three other assault guns, numerous men, but most importantly, many of their comrades, lay dead with it.
One assault gun remained, and it was unsatisfied with the bloodshed. It once again began to turn, this time casting its murderous cannon directly at Leander’s position.
Bonde ran up to the second floor, loading a new pan magazine atop his empty DNV as he went, and with Elena trailing close behind him and standing guard by the steps. They too had sought cover from the explosion happening almost right in front of them. “We’re abandoning the building. Gather your things quickly. We’ve got time before it shoots.”
Leander and Sharna peeled themselves away from the window, and nodded in silent shock. Leander still felt as though the blast were rolling over him.
Together the crew gathered pouches of ammunition and grenades, clipping them to their belts as they rushed down the steps, Elena and Bonde leading with their machine guns. They each fired a burst out into the streets at any men who might have been cowering somewhere, injured but alive. Seeking new cover the group ran out of the ruin and put their backs to one of the smoking husks, stepping over the dead and the unconscious dying.
Behind them they heard the tank moving and cracking of its gun as it elevated. The squadron crouched near the debris and the hull of a broken M3 and they covered their heads. A 75mm high explosive shell flew into the window that had once been their sniping position and blasted the inside of the building. Chunks of hot concrete and smoke poured out over the street. They heard the tank’s tracks laboring to move once again.
“Does anyone have an AT grenade we can throw at it?” Elena asked.
“Only frags left in my pouch.” Sharna replied, and looked to her fellow anti-tank specialist. Leander silently raised his hand from his grenade pouch, holding a Faru-Kombora 28 or FKB-28 stick grenade, the communist’s AT grenade model.
It was their only one left.
“Do you think you can get close and hit the back?” Bonde said solemnly.
Leander gulped, the fire and smoke and the dead still flashing in his mind.
It was time to be brave.
He set his shoulders and forced his shaking voice.
“I can do it. I just need some covering fire or a distraction.” He said.
Elena looked grimly at him, hands gripping her machine gun as if to say it was useless.
“I think I can keep it busy.” Sharna said. “I can break its periscope and try to put something in the barrel and hatches. I can be very annoying! There are small targets all over the face of that tank I can hit, even if I can’t destroy it by doing so.”
“I guess that will have to do.” Elena said. She patted Leander on the back.
“Run out first, Sharna. Use the debris. Find a good spot.” Bonde said.
With the sling around her shoulder, Sharna confidently rested her BKV against her hip. She held the weapon with one hand on the carrying handle affixed to the barrel, and the other on the trigger guard. Leander nodded to her in the direction he intended to run out from – Sharna nodded back and took position away from it, bracing herself.
She left cover as close to the opposite side of the street as she could, running out into the open and briefly staring down the tank. From the hip she fired her BKV twice at its face – the heavy rounds blasted open the periscope and sank into the front of the leftmost track and took chunks from the treads wrapped around it. A strained noise issued from them as the track began to churn and the tank moved forward. Sharna rushed away from it and took cover behind a collapsed portion of the roof recently shattered by the M3.
Leander marveled for a moment at Sharna’s grace with the BKV – she could carry it and heave it much more competently than he could, and shoot it much more accurately. Perhaps it was her size relative to him, but more likely it was her experience.
“You’re up Leander,” Bonde said. “May the ancestors be with you!”
“Don’t do anything foolish. Throw and hide!” Elena added.
Taking a deep breath, Leander plunged out of cover in the opposite direction from Sharna, scrambling over the fallen men. While in cover he had hardly noticed them, but in motion they all seemed to reappear, staring at him from the earth, bleeding from dozens of wounds across their gray uniforms and unable to even raise their pistols to stop him.
He thought he heard the moaning of their souls in the process of leaving behind their ruined bodies as he ran around the husks they once defended.
Almost on reflexes alone he weaved between the wrecks of the other tanks, using them to conceal himself as he ran closer to the remaining enemy vehicle.
More BKV shots rang out from Sharna’s position and from far up the street, where the last remaining BKV team still lay in hiding and now found occasion again to provide their support. All the shots bounced harmlessly off the tank, but Leander heard the target’s tracks stop and the sound of its gun clanking and groaning as it adjusted elevation.
They had drawn its attention away. Now, however, it threatened his comrades as it had done before, and any one shot would be too much for them. It had to be stopped.
Keeping himself on its left to avoid the gun, Leander ran out into the open, just a few meters from the monster. He threw his anti-tank grenade overhead as best as he could.
Having no immediate and good cover, he hit the dirt and crawled near low-lying rubble.
He closed his eyes and heard the grenade explode atop the vehicle and felt a wave of heat washing suddenly over him. Only a moment later he heard tracks again, and his heart sank. Did he not manage to stop it? He stood and got a grip on his BKV, intending to shoot it anywhere he could in a desperate bid to stop the thing once and for all–
Bonde and Elena opened up on the tank with their machine guns from up the street, despite having no hope of penetrating the thing. Leander realized that it was not moving forward, but retreating carefully down the street, its damaged track rattling as it moved.
Smoke blew from atop the machine, and a hunk of shattered metal flapped against its side. He had blown open the top hatch! Its interiors were now vulnerable.
Leander was breathing again suddenly, ragged, his eyes drawn open, his mind racing to process the opportunity. As his allies’ DNV machine gun fire crashed uselessly against the face of the retreating tank, Leander reached into his pockets and drew his bundle of frag grenades. Purging his mind of dissenting thoughts Leander charged headlong again toward the vehicle, closing physically as fast as he could with the giant machine.
He instantly heard an incoherent screaming from behind him. All machine guns stopped firing lest they kill him as they had done the men lying around him.
He could hear in his head Elena’s voice distinctly asking if he had lost his mind; but he knew he had to move then, as he had in the forest. With a damaged track the vehicle’s movements had been reduced to a careful creep to avoid splitting its treads completely.
Leander ran with all his might and caught up.
He ran alongside the machine, pulling the pins on several grenades and then tossing the entire pouch through the smoking hatch. He heard the deadly metallic ringing of the grenades bouncing down off the commander’s seat and around the interior.
Still running he turned immediately and hurtled away from it as fast as he could, making for any kind of cover from what was about to transpire. He was still running when the blasts began, making his way across the street. It was an instantaneous chaos behind him. Fragments, heat and smoke blew first from the hatch, and then the ammunition stored inside the machine felt its share of the violence as the remaining grenades exploded.
From the inside-out the tank burst open as its stored shells detonated.
Hunks of steel blew from the vehicle’s punctured sides and roof, and when the engine blew the tank almost leaped. Leander heard the pieces flying off the battered machine, whizzing across the air with deadly new life, its rivets, hatches, glass, everything was now ammo. Hundreds of tiny fragments and projectiles blew over him like a cloud, stinging his back and scraping his sides, falling like metallic ashes from a mechanical volcano.
As he set foot on the adjacent street Leander threw himself with all his strength into an open doorway as the larger pieces of burning steel came crashing down around the street, sure to kill whoever they fell upon. He made it to the safety of a building’s interior.
Rolling on the ground in pain; flailing his arms as though trying to beat insects or snakes off his body; blowing out labored breaths as though they could cool the burning metal pinpricks across his back. In this brief, annihilating moment of agony Leander had hardly any time to process that he had almost single-handedly destroyed a tank.
Outside, the street was covered in smoke and fire and metal that any advancing force would have to clear. The ambush had made its indelible mark on the fighting.
No one could be under any illusions, however, that they had stopped Nocht.
As he thrashed over a mound of pulverized concrete and tried to batter down the hot pain across his back, Leander became acutely aware of new sources of noise.
Fresh explosions thundered in the distant parts of the thoroughfare, and Leander, dazed by adrenaline and still in pain, thought it had to be the ammunition in the tank still going off. However, the retorts from cannons soon became unmistakable.
Shots began to fall closer to the ambush sector.
Within minutes he saw the first shell making landfall directly outside his building, and he felt the rumbling of the blast drive right through him like an invisible knife.
Leander forced himself to his feet, grit his teeth against the pain and climbed out of a side window and into a nearby alley. He saw Sharna running up the street and he joined her without looking back, hugging the buildings as he went for what minimal concealment the awnings and collapsed facades might give him from the tanks. Bonde and Elena were not far behind, and vacated their position as Leander and Sharna ran past.
Soon every survivor from the forward platoons was running pell-mell across the ruins.
“How many are coming up?” Leander shouted over the throng.
“It’s a fresh platoon, probably five more tanks. We’ve lost more than half the forces we had here. We can’t stand and fight any longer.” Bonde replied. He seemed stricken suddenly with a thought. “I think it’s about time we called in a favor.”
He paused for a moment, and then he withdrew his flare gun.
Sharna and Elena almost skidded to a stop ahead of them, looking back to see what was keeping their comrades. Bonde raised the gun overhead on a shaking hand.
“Can those three mortars we have left even damage a tank?” Elena asked.
“If they’re 120mm then they might be able to.” Sharna said.
Leander looked back on the street as well in time to see Bonde shoot.
Briefly he saw the M4s charging in the distance, until Bonde launched the flare over the road in as far and high an arc as he could. Before the first shells were even loaded from across the thoroughfare the team began to run again, joining anew the remainder of their company’s forces also fleeing from the sector. Soon the shells began to fall around the advancing M4’s, kicking up dust, rattling the hulls and putting strain on the tracks.
The M4s fired on the retreating forces with their 50mm cannons, but once the platoons dispersed into the ruins they became impossible to directly hit with cannons. Even so, Elena would not yet get her clear answer as to whether the mortars could damage the tanks.
Nobody was looking back into the midst of the shells and the enemy cannon fire.
Under the cover of the mortars and across the rubble-strewn road, the company left behind that bloody, ruined block of houses and the road between them, dotted with bodies and the wrecks of tanks shredded by BKVs and grenades. Their next position was the FOB.
In all, the fighting around that lost block, that had claimed so many lives and tanks, had lasted only minutes, and much of the Nochtish force remained intact.
NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Battle of Knyskna, Part 2