28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Shaila Dominance – Knyskna City
Elena North barely had time to eat her morning ration before Sgt. Bahir collected her and the other assault troops and formed them up, and marched them toward the city center.
She had left the hospital, and a sleeping Leander, at dawn to rejoin the infantry, where a mood of ambivalence was setting in. Now she traveled up a main road arm beside arm with about sixty others. Unlike the outermost blocks, the inner city had been mostly spared bombardment and its brick facades still stood tall over her flanks. The tile road under her feet was largely intact and the depleted little Company kept a brisk pace over it.
Ahead they heard the whistling and chugging of an engine departing the city.
They left behind the southern Knyskna thoroughfare and walked out onto the broad streets and the sprawling parks of the city center, and stopped in front of the rail station in time to watch the train departing, loaded with anyone and anything that could be saved.
Knyskna’s station was one long rectangular building atop a platform surrounded with loops of track and necessary equipment such as cranes and warehouses for the purpose of unloading goods. All around the station in the parks and plazas there were tents established for officers, staging areas stocked with fuel and repair stations for the few tanks and armored cars available, and scores of anti-aircraft guns ready to set ablaze the sky.
One train station was all they could count on now to ferry remaining civilians and military wounded out of the city, and it was heavily defended.
This was the heart of Knyskna’s remaining power.
Overhead the sun rose; the skies were clear. Nocht’s bombers had bombed themselves out. Still, the teeming concentration of troops around the station put Elena on edge.
“North, Eboh, Jakande and Okiro, follow me.” Sergeant Bahir shouted.
Elena nearly jumped from hearing her name. She stepped out of the formation, along with Bonde, who had been far ahead of her through the march and invisible to her save for the peak of his nearly bald, nearly pitch black head, and two others: Private Eboh, a tall woman with short, flowing hair and Private Jakande, a broad-shouldered, bespectacled boy.
Sergeant Bahir, who though quite older than them had statuesque features and a commanding presence, led the group to a conference table beside a fountain in one of the nearby plazas. There were two other sergeants there from different companies, along with a few privates from each. Everyone around her seemed so formidable.
Elena felt tiny, weak and pale, like a wet little maggot in the midst of fierce mantids.
The groups assembled near the fountain. “824th company reporting in,” Bahir said simply upon their arrival. He pronounced it as “eight-two-four” company.
Elena dimly remembered this being her assigned formation number during the Djose assault. She was part of the 8244th Lion Platoon, which meant that she was in 4th Platoon of the 4th Company, of the 2nd Regiment, of the 8th Division in Battlegroup Lion.
It was a confusing scheme at first.
The two other sergeants stepped forward to acknowledge and introduce themselves. 822 was led by Sergeant Agewa, an older woman with pale hair and a fair face that Elena recognized from the staging area on the night of the Djose assault. 821 was introduced by Sergeant Ibori, a bearded man with a reddish complexion and a broad forehead. The third company, 823, would not be joining them – it had been wiped out to the last rifle.
Together with Bahir they arranged a map of Knyskna over a table.
Elena could not see the map, but she paid close attention as everyone discussed tactics.
Though it was not a big city, Knyskna was still a lot of ground to cover for the enemy, and it could be defended, but with the number of troops they had at their disposal 82nd Regiment would never be able to hold it. Instead it was agreed that they would try to delay the enemy until the city was fully evacuated. It would take the enemy hours to move on the rail hub, which would surely be their goal.
Four main thoroughfares met at the city center, but unless they encircled the city from the outside, Nocht would have access to only three – south, southeast and west.
Those mobile forces that had not been squandered in the Tukino breakout attempts, Lion command had tasked with keeping the northern roads free of the enemy. The Nochtish line in the Djose had been painfully kept confined to the South and West directions, but even by attacking in the directions available, Nocht could still encircle the rail hub in the middle of the city, which would be enough to rout the defenders even if the Northern boroughs and outskirts of the city held out. It was a tenuous situation.
“My 822nd company is the most intact, I believe. We have 240 men and women at our disposal. I believe we should hold the larger southern thoroughfare.” Sgt. Agewa said.
There was no disagreement. Comrade Agewa and her men and women would fight for the broader southern thoroughfare, essentially the main street. It was wide open and easily accessible to enemy armor, and would likely prove the bitterest and bloodiest sector of the fight. She had a hard face, and appeared void of of discernible emotion, but Elena thought she heard a tremble in Agewa’s voice when she volunteered for the mission.
“824th has only 76 rifles.” Sgt. Bahir said. “I’ll take the tighter south-east – there are more ruins there. My comrades can use the rubble to ambush the enemy there.”
“We can arrange for some of the Orcs to stack up with you.” Sgt. Ibori said, putting a hand on Bahir’s shoulder. The Orc was a medium-size tank, decently armored and gunned, but it existed in forgettable numbers, and had proven unreliable even outside battle. “They might be slow but they have better guns than the Goblins. They’ve been collecting dust with all the running fights we’ve been doing, but speed won’t matter much here.”
“I’ll take anything you can give. My company has few other guns.”
Sergeant Bahir and Ibori then went over the amount of support weapons available to them. Because the sergeants stuck close and hunched over the table to look at their maps and documents, and there were already a few eager eyes over their shoulders, Elena could not see much of their photos and files.
From their discussion, she picked out that there were few dedicated artillery batteries remaining, but many anti-air guns that could potentially be fired directly at the enemy. They had a platoon of Goblin tanks, small and fast but cripplingly under-armored and undergunned, and a platoon of Orcs, slow and unreliable but slightly more combat-capable.
“What about air support?” Sgt. Bahir asked.
“Very little. We have a few Anka available, but those biplanes are becoming relics.”
“They can still help. Tell them to get ready. They could support Agewa.”
“We should also allocate the Goblins to Agewa.” Ibori said. “She will need more support, her troops will not enjoy as much cover or as tighter roads as ours will.”
Sgt. Agewa shook her head and spoke up after minutes of listening.”No, 821st should take the Goblins. Instead, I believe I would better profit from our engineering resources.”
“Ah, so you plan to create your own cover?” Sgt. Ibori said.
“Yes, we can topple some of the larger buildings over the road with charges, and damage the main roads to slow down their tanks. But we can only prepare these measures in the inner thoroughfare areas. Nocht has the outer boroughs too thoroughly sited, so operations there would be dangerously exposed to the enemy.”
“Then we should not deploy there at all. We should let them come to the inner boroughs, and ambush them from the rubble or houses as they move past.” Sgt. Bahir said.
“I agree.” Sgt. Agewa said, but she quickly added, “However, it is a very risky plan.”
“Sister Agewa is right. I don’t feel right giving up any ground to them.” Sgt. Ibori said.
“They essentially have the ground there – they can see from their positions everything we’re doing and they can shoot at us from them. They have everything but a flag on the ground.” Sgt. Bahir said. “I suspect the attack will include significant amounts of tanks, so it is even more folly to fight in the outskirts. I say we invite them to fight in our streets.”
“Like I said, I agree with Bahir. But I’m unsure how wise that is.” Sgt. Agewa repeated.
“Doesn’t sound wise at all to me.” Sgt. Ibori crossed his arms. “But if that’s the plan–”
“It’s the plan.” Sgt. Bahir interjected. “So everyone agrees on the plan?”
All the remaining sergeants nodded.
Elena almost nodded too, thinking herself included.
It had been about thirty minutes since the companies convened in this manner.
For their final order of business the sergeants turned to their cadres and communicated the plan once again in rapid detail. It would be the duty of each cadre of privates to disseminate their orders among the platoons and share information quickly before deployment. The sergeants showed the soldiers their maps and photos and charts. Despite her previous curiosity, Elena was disappointed with the actual planning documents.
It seemed that there was little overall plan except “stop the enemy.”
There were several maps of Knyskna but they had hardly any writing on them and the Table of Organization and Equipment for the 82nd Regiment was untouched and did not reflect the true strength of the depleted regiment. On the back of the documents there were a few notes on the current strength, but they were vague and sloppily written.
Elena guessed that all the real insight into the battle, beyond the basic deployment plan, lay exclusively in the Sergeant’s heads. There was no time for grand strategy.
Luck and small unit tactics would have to carry the day.
As they were prepared to leave, Bahir called for everyone’s attention suddenly.
“I hate to ask, but what is happening politically?” Sgt. Bahir asked. “Do we know?”
There was a noticeable pallor across the mostly brown faces of the privates.
All of them had heard dire rumors from the capital – of the bicameral friction between the KVW and the Civil Council, of possible surrenders to Nocht. They were not privy to anything but rumors, but the sergeants probably knew more.
Bahir, who had been out fighting and organizing all this time, seemed to probe his fellow sergeants with his gaze as though he knew they had learned something more than him in the interim. Ibori and Agewa hesitated for a moment.
“There has been some news.” Sgt. Agewa said. “From Division and from some of our personal sources in the capital. None of it is very good news.”
“I think we would all like to know.” Sgt. Bahir said. “Before we risk our lives.”
Sgt. Agewa put a hand across her face, and Ibori grunted. “Civilian Council’s orders to the 82nd Regiment are just to hold Knyskna until evacuations complete.” Sgt. Ibori said. “81st, 85th and 88th Regiment is going to give one final shot to breaking the pocket, and we have some broken bits of 89th and 80th guarding our rear from Nocht right now. It’s bad. They’re looking for whatever kind of victory and they’re not thinking straight here.”
“We’ll never crack that pocket.” Sgt. Bahir said. He closed his fists over the table.
“No. That’s 5 divisions we’ve doomed there, and a sixth that we have squandered. Not to mention what we lost along the border when they caught us with our pants down.”
“They think they might be able to negotiate with Nocht. It is out of our hands. We answer to Territorial command and they answer to the Council.” Sgt. Agewa said.
“Any chance KVW or Revolutionary Guard may become involved?” Sgt. Bahir said.
“Not a chance.” Sgt. Agewa replied. “There is too much friction right now after those inspections the KVW started conducting just before the war broke out. Last I heard they pulled their gendarme presence entirely from the big cities. They will not cooperate with the Civil Council any longer in protest for being sidelined from government.”
“This is absurd. Someone has to be able to help us here.” Sgt. Bahir said. “What about Rhino in Dbagbo? Can’t they send forces down here? Nocht’s armies aren’t that large.”
Sgt. Agewa sighed and crossed her arms. “No, I don’t think so. Even in the face of this war, we’re still sticking to the doctrine of defending each Dominance individually with self-sufficient formations. Rhino is compelled to stay in Dbagbo. At this point we’re playing attrition here in Shaila. Council eyes are already moving the goalposts to Dbagbo.”
“Not only that, the other battlegroups are also watching out for the KVW.” Sgt. Ibori added. “I hear the KVW even fomented some kind of coup in Bada Aso already. They deposed the governor and took over the garrison to call the shots – but my info’s scarce.”
“Ridiculous.” Sgt. Bahir spat. “How can we be so paranoid of our own comrades?”
“The KVW has antagonized them too much. It is what it is.” Sgt. Agewa said. “No one really knows their intentions, and Demilitarization has too much traction in the Council.”
Elena’s head was almost spinning – she knew so little about politics. Sergeant Bahir was red with frustration and the rest of the privates in each cadre had their heads down.
“Whatever happens outside this city, we have comrades in it and a duty toward them.” Sgt. Ibori said, breaking a short silence. “Right now the best we can do is buy our brothers and sisters time. Once they are safe we can give a long consideration to the rest of this.”
Sgt. Agewa nodded her head solemnly. Bahir said nothing.
After a brief and tense silence, the cadres from each Company parted ways.
Elena followed the others out of the plaza, where the Company waited on the streets and in the shadows of abandoned buildings, awaiting news or orders. Jakande and Eboh hurried out to their own platoons to share what they had learned, but Elena was not feeling quite as leaderly, and Bonde seemed to share the sentiment. They walked slowly and a little despondently back to their platoon. A group of them were goofing off around a run-down trolley in one of the southern bends of the road circling the plaza.
“I guess this is not exactly our finest moment.” Elena said, trying anything to break the silence that had fallen around them. Bonde laughed a little and shook his head.
“You win some, you lose some. How is Leander doing?” Bonde asked.
“He is probably on his way to Solstice.” Elena said. “He was going to evacuate.”
Bonde squinted his eyes. “Really? Then who is that?” He pointed to the old trolley.
In front of the trolley, several soldiers stood puzzled around one brown-skinned boy who was all too familiar. Elena gasped a little. Freshly military age, slender and lean, soft-faced, with wavy dark hair hanging just below the level of his jaw and striking green eyes.
It was Leander!
Around him a group of men and women were trying to get him out of his banged-up assault armor, which he had somehow worn again despite its terrible condition, and was on too tight. Several hands struggled against the clasps while others pulled on the gaps under the armpits. It was a ridiculous sight. With one final heave-ho three men dove one way and two women the other, hitting the ground with half of Leander’s armor apiece.
Leander apologized profusely, but the soldiers just laughed and patted him in the back.
Elena and Bonde rushed over to him as the little crowd dispersed.
“Leander! I thought you were going to evacuate!” Elena told him.
Leander smiled. “I never said I would, only that I was considering it.”
Elena felt suddenly very worried for him. He had been so exhausted and confused last night that she found it hard to believe he could be all here and ready to fight now.
Bonde looked between them as though the odd man out. “I’m beginning to think I should have volunteered at his hospital too. But I am glad you are with us, Leander.”
Elena snapped at him. “Hearing you say that, I’m glad you didn’t come.”
Bonde raised his hands defensively, with a big grin on his face.
Leander burst out laughing. “It is fine, you two. I have made my decision.”
“I hope you have a better reason to be here than we discussed.” Elena said.
“I might not have one.” Leander cheerfully admitted. “But I’m going to see this through to the end, and then I will go to Solstice on my own terms. That’s what I decided.”
Elena sighed a little, in equal parts relieved and disturbed. She did not know why she felt like being so critical to him; but nothing she said would really matter at this point. She mentally recused herself, reached out and patted Leander on the shoulder as well. “Well, I wouldn’t know what to say to that then. I’m glad you’re out and about, in any case.”