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.