This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
25-AG-30 Ayvartan Counterattack, Matumaini 3rd
“Charge the intersection at travel speed, and do not pause to shoot.”
The Ogre hardly needed to be given the order.
Like a charging rhinoceros it punched its way through a hastily-erected sandbag wall, overturning the structure and crushing an anti-tank gun under its tracks.
Behind it the infantry of the so-called 3rd Ad-Hoc Assault Platoon, bolstered by KVW reinforcements, advanced at a brisk pace, submachine guns at their hips, firing across the intersection. Accuracy was secondary to shock and speed – this was a breach, a brutal charge, and it did not matter if the horns met flesh yet. Grenadiers fled the edge of the intersection, abandoning anti-tank guns and norgler machine guns in the tank’s way.
Gulab ducked her head, and pushed down Chadgura’s.
Assault guns in the center of the intersection opened fire on the Ogre.
Unlike the 37mm guns, the 75mm gun on these vehicles was dangerous, if not particularly to the tank then to the riders. They exploded in the Ogre’s face, and rattled the entire tank. Gulab felt heat and force and the shaking of the tank transferred right to her gut with every hit. But the short-barreled guns firing explosives could not damage the armor even at 100 meters. The caliber was potent, but the guns lacked muzzle velocity.
The Ogre withstood punishment. Small pits appeared in the front glacis, one of the track guards warped from the blasts, but still the Ogre advanced. Ahead of them the trio of assault guns opened fire, one after the other, pummeling the Ogre. It was undaunted.
Chadgura radioed her orders, and the heavy tank turned its gun on the leftmost of the assault guns, and put a round through the side of its gun mantlet, only a dozen centimeters off from the vehicle’s face. It was a tight angle, but at short distance it was easy to score. Black smoke and a lick of flames billowed from the hole, and the assault gun stopped dead.
“Corporal, look!” Gulab called out.
Priorities changed quickly; at the back of the intersection several men gathered around a trio of howitzers, likely laid down there as a fixed position battery by heavy trucks. They lowered the elevation of the guns and adjusted their angle.
All the barrels started to point directly at the Ogre.
These were 105mm artillery guns. Perhaps they would not penetrate the glacis, but would they need to? Their high explosive might knock out the crew! Chadgura got the message quickly. Ignoring the remaining assault guns, which had begun to back off and make space, she ordered the Ogre to target the howitzers at once with high explosive.
Painfully slow the heavy turret turned, inching its way to face the battery.
Crates were cracked open, and shells loaded into the field guns. Almost there!
Then an explosive shell fell in between the men.
Their guns, ammo, all went up in flames. But Gulab had not felt the booming and rumbling of her tank’s gun. Her Ogre had never managed to fire at them.
She looked to the eastern and western roads for her answer.
Her comrades were charging in.
From the perpendicular ends of the intersection, the promised second and third tanks unleashed their ire. Tank shells came quickly. One of the assault guns was easily penetrated from its exposed flank, and set ablaze. A second battery of howitzers went up in smoke.
An anti-tank shell pulverized the engine block of a heavy truck backing away to the south. The piercing round penetrated the front of the truck and exploded in the back.
Men launched from the bed like thrown stones. The husk of the truck marked the only path out of the intersection. Any imperialist still in the middle of the intersection was pinched from three directions. Many began to pull back, but those stuck in the defensive positions could afford only to hold down and fight back against fire from all sides.
Nocht had tried to build their own defense over the ashes of the Ayvartan’s 2nd Defensive Line, but the intersection was nowhere near as secure as it had been hours ago. There was hardly a line, but rather a dozen haphazard positions without a coherent defilade.
Partial trenches were dug at haphazard angles, as if the first place hit by a thrown shovel qualified for a new foxhole. Artillery guns had been set up in plain view without surrounding trenches or sandbags. Sandbag walls and canvas canopies had only been partially rebuilt, and the mortart and gun pits were as a result largely exposed to fire.
Chadgura waved her arm to the troops behind her.
She jumped off the tank, radio against her ear, and Gulab followed her to the floor.
The moment her feet touched the ground, Gulab trained her iron sights on her old anti-tank gun pit front of her. She remembered being thrown to the ground here by Chadgura. But that dirt where her life had been saved was now taken up by a norgler machine gun, emptying its belts on the front of the Ogre to no avail. Gulab leaned and opened fire.
Two quick bursts of gunfire silenced the shooters.
Her body hardly needed to process the action – raise arms, step around tank, look down sight, find gray uniform, shoot gray uniform. She adjusted her aim and searched for more targets. Unlike her comrades with their submachine guns, she could fight at range, and intended to do so. Chadgura clung behind her, both hugging the Ogre’s left track.
Return fire was sporadic.
Gulab’s infantry comrades overtook her. Submachine gun squadrons advanced past the tank in long rows, every man and woman firing his or her submachine gun in front in short but continuous bursts, so that the enemy was endangered any time they left cover to shoot.
The KVW squadrons were particularly fearless in comparison. They ran out in front of the tank after Gulab disabled the machine gun, and they quickly overtook the mortar pits in a bloody melee, stabbing the mortar men with their bayonets and tossing aside their tubes. From the safety of the pits they opened fire across the intersection, turning their carbines to fully-automatic mode. Their rate of fire was tremendous – it was almost like each of them was carrying a small Khroda. Against this wave of fire the enemy’s bolt action rifles could do nothing. Though inaccurate, the Ayvartan’s bullets saturated the air.
Chadgura had organized this: a moving curtain of fire, perfect for a street fight.
All the while the three Ogres fired from their positions, launching their high explosive shells into trenches and buildings, crushing rubble walls and mounds. Every artillery gun left in the intersection was a smoking wreck. Masses of men retreated in human wave that rivaled the magnitude of their advance on this very intersection earlier in the day.
Together the three assault platoons and their tanks wiped out the defenses.
It was hardly a fight – it was like demolitions work.
Gulab fired with discipline, but soon found herself without further targets.
She stopped to marvel at the scene. At once all the gunfire ceased. Men were dead by the dozens across each road to Matumaini and 3rd, and by the hundreds in the intersection and its connections, perhaps by the thousands along the Southern District as a whole. Soon the stench of blood was more common than smoke along the battlefield.
They had won, Gulab thought. They had defeated the enemy. Had they?
All three assault platoons linked up.
Gulab found that each of them was a mix of KVW troops and Territorial Army survivors. It was a pretty colorful bunch all around. Many were walking wounded, hit in the early stages of the counterattack, and hung back from their fellows during the fighting.
Others were wounded already from the defenses earlier in the day, but charged into the counterattack nonetheless. Each assault platoon was not a full compliment – casualties had been sustained. The counterattack had not been bloodless for them. However it seemed to Gulab that they had hit as hard as they had been hit, if not more. She stuck around Chadgura while she briefly discussed whether to push further with her counterparts from the other platoons. This discussion ended abruptly with the falling of a shell.
It was incongruous – a cloud of dust and a shower of debris right in front of them.
While they took notice of it, a second shell fell closer.
Comrades fell back from the blast.
A third and fourth, creeping upon them, throwing up fragments of steel from discarded weapons shredded in the blasts, casting smoke and dirt into the air. A shell hit right in front of the 3rd Platoon’s Ogre and sent the track guard flying; the tanks backed away from the intersection, and under increasing artillery fire the troops turned and ran as well.
From the far end of Matumaini and 2nd a vicious barrage from several guns fell over the intersection, smashing the pitted earth to pieces, vaporizing Nocht’s wounded and dead, setting new fires to the hulks of their broken vehicles. Nocht was covering its own retreat. Dozens of 105mm shells sailed over the Ayvartan attack and crashed down over them.
Caught in the heat, the Ayvartan troops hurried back north.
Bitterly, Gulab ran with Chadgura and the others, watching over her shoulder as the shells fell with resounding strength. For a moment she thought she had tasted victory, but alas! Alas. She had seen War’s magnitude. She should have known it was far from over.
25-AG-30 6th Grenadier Support Line, Matumaini 2nd
“Brought you something.”
“Is it pills? I could use some stimulants. Or a drink.”
“It’s not either of those.”
“Scheiße. Well. Thank you anyway.”
Voss was worse for wear.
He had tight bandages and a cloth soaking up blood on the left side of his stomach. Shell fragments from a tank gun attack had pierced both his arms, and torn a ligament. He could hardly move his right arm. It seemed only his head and face and lower body had been spared some kind of injury. When Kern stepped into the medical tent he had heard Voss joking to one of the medics that at least he still had all he needed to impress the ladies.
What a spirited soul, even in these circumstances; Kern brought him a cigar. It was still wrapped in a brown paper with a wax seal, labeled uninformatively “officer’s cigar.” He had traded one of the good rations (Breakfast #2, bratwurst, beans, and eggs) for it with another soldier after lucking out with his rations from the back of the supply truck.
Anyone would trade anything they’d chanced upon for the brat and beans.
They’d made the trade right next to the truck!
“Well, I’m not gonna be smoking that for a while.” Voss chuckled. “But thanks kid.”
Kern nodded. He was glad to see Voss alive, in any event.
“Hart and Alfons didn’t make it. I paid my respects at their beds.” Kern said. “I didn’t know them at all, but I tried to say good things about them. I will try to remember them.”
Voss smiled. “I didn’t really know those two either. I heard someone say once you don’t really know people in the army until someone dies and you make up the eulogy.”
“That’s morbid.” Kern said, averting his eyes a little.
“S’how things work. We’re soldiers; our boots turn the country morbid.”
“I guess I don’t know you that well either.”
“No, you don’t. You couldn’t.” Voss grinned. “Name’s Johannes Voss.”
“Kern Beckert.” He extended his hand and Voss shook it gently.
“Well Kern. I don’t know where you’ll be ending up now. You kinda just followed me like a puppy dog, ha ha. Not that I mind. But I’ll be down for a while, and I’m guessing the Battalion’s gonna need some restructuring. I’ll put in a good word if you ever need it.”
“Thank you. You don’t mind if I try to find you again if I’m still alive in a few days?”
“Given the state of our battalion, I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting a lot of other visitors. So sure, I would enjoy the company. Bring some crazy stories though. You saw how we moved out there. I want you jumping windows and shooting commies too.”
Kern nodded, though he had his fingers crossed in spirit.
He couldn’t really promise that.
Voss laid back in his bed and drifted off to sleep. Kern left him to it. He wouldn’t go so far as to say Voss deserved sleep – he wasn’t sure what any of them deserved – but he did not want to disturb him. Outside it was dark, night having fully fallen. It was pitch black, starless. Kern had heard warnings of stormier skies coming.
Periodically the area was lit up by a quick flash from the howitzers, like lightning shooting up from the earth. Of the battalion’s six batteries, each of which boasted three guns, only three batteries now remained. While better positions for them were plotted, they remained in a group on Matumaini and 2nd, firing tirelessly against the intersection.
Single-handedly the barrages had prevented an Ayvartan penetration into their rear echelon, or so the Divisional command had boasted in a radio address. They now fired periodically round the clock, with crews taking shifts to keep them manned.
It was a panic move to buy time for reorganization and new battle plans.
Until that time, the battle for Bada Aso was temporarily postponed, it seemed.
Kern crossed a door threshold across the street, passing under rock to enter canvas. A tent had been pitched inside, where the older woman he had seen before in Aschekind’s staff, Signals Officer Hildr, looked after one of the division’s advanced radios. It had the longest range, so it was used to communicate with the Vorkampfer’s command.
Of all the people in the battalion staff Kern preferred Hildr.
She was a tall and somewhat stocky lady, with blonde hair, a soft face with a strong nose and bright blue eyes. She was fairly pleasant to be around compared to Aschekind – terse like him in speech, but lacking the kind of restrained fury that characterized the Captain. For lack of things to do he had been told to be around to help her.
“Visit your friend, Private Beckert?” She asked off-handedly.
“Captain Aschekind will be holding a meeting in a moment.”
“Should I go?”
“Might as well stay.”
Minutes later, Hildr stood in salute, and Kern clumsily mimicked her.
Through the door Captain Aschekind arrived, trailed by a shorter man with slicked blond hair and a sizeably larger amount of honors on his lapel. He was boyishly handsome, and had a contented little grin on his soft-featured face – however, a tinge of red around the edges of his eyes, a little twitch in his jaw, was noticeable even in the lamp-light, and perhaps suggested some ongoing stress. Trailing him was a man almost as large and imposing as Aschekind himself, but with a sunburnt look to him, and a thick mustache that seemed linked to his sideburns and precise red beard.
Both these men were Generals. Kern knew the red-bearded man as his highest direct superior, Brigadier-General Meist, the overall acting commander of the 6th Grenadier Division. From what he had gleaned during the lead-up to the attack on Bada Aso, the other man must have been the decorated general in charge of the forces city-wide, Von Sturm. He was head of the elite 13th Panzergrenadier Division who made their fortune in Cissea.
The Generals seated, while Aschekind, Hildr and Kern remained standing.
Von Sturm grinned a little.
“Big fella aren’t you Aschekind? Drank a lot of milk growing up?”
“It helps build strong bones.” Aschekind said. Kern wondered if it was a joke.
Von Sturm laughed. “Good, good. What’s you two’s names?”
“Signals Officer Gudrun Hildr.”
“Jeez, what a name. Your parents must’ve picked that one prematurely.”
“Private Kern Beckert.”
“Private? Really? Are you bringing drinks to her or something?”
Kern felt a thrill down his spine when the general addressed him. It was as if a monster were calling his name before gobbling him up. “Yes sir!” He replied mindlessly.
Von Sturm looked at Hildr for a moment. “Nothing alcoholic I hope?”
“No sir.” Hildr replied. She eyed Kern critically. He cowered a little.
“Good.” Von Sturm replied. His gaze finally turned away from the lower ranks.
He steepled his fingers. “Ok. So, what is the damage?”
“Still being tallied.” Aschekind replied.
“I wish you all would do math a little faster.” Von Sturm replied.
“Not a matter of math, sir. We have little access to the combat areas were we incurred our losses. We were pushed back kilometers. Therefore the data is still forthcoming.”
“Speaking of kilometers, how far are we from our Day 1 goals?”
“Ten kilometers.” Aschekind replied.
“Good God.” Von Sturm crossed his arms. His grin had completely vanished. “Explain to me, exactly, why we’re not having this meeting in the central district right now?”
Aschekind explained in his own quick and dour way.
“Dug-in positions; ambushes; death charges executed by fast-moving communist troops using unorthodox gear, such as wielding submachine guns primarily instead of stronger rifles; and more modern armor than anticipated. All of these factored heavily.”
“Do you have any real solutions to this based on your observations?”
“A stopgap would be to issue more automatic and heavy weapons to our own troops.”
“What, you want police maschinepistoles now? We don’t have enough. We’re having enough trouble as it is trucking guns out here. Support will continue to be committed by regulation for the foreseeable future. I don’t have time to replan the whole army.”
Aschekind gave a grim nod. “I understand, sir.”
At this point, General Meist finally intervened. He spoke gruffly through his beard and mustache. “Anton, Captain Aschekind is one of my best. We kept in contact throughout the offensive. From what I gleaned and observed, the Ayvartans have much more tenacious and fluid tactics than we anticipated. I request that we allow our own troops a greater freedom to counter their tactics – I wager our field commanders would more adequately challenge their counterparts on the communist side if we allocated more resources–”
“Request denied, for now.” Von Sturm interrupted him. “You’d create mass anarchy among the ranks. We have training and doctrine for a reason. It’s proven; it works.”
Kern thought he noticed Aschekind covertly scoffing at the notion.
“For tomorrow, I want us to make up for today. You will capture those 10 kilometers.”
Hildr and Aschekind saluted, perhaps begrudgingly, Kern observed. He saluted too.
Von Sturm stood up, and tapped his chair back into place at the table with his foot.
“Anyway, we’ve met now, so that should satisfy that lout Von Drachen, at any rate–”
A bright orange flash illuminated the room and street, drowning the General out. Kern smelled and heard fire and debris. He heard a swooping noise, a laboring propeller. Von Sturm dropped under the table; Aschekind, Hildr and Meist rushed out to the street.
Kern followed, and he saw the smoke, and the dancing lights and shadows along the road and street, in rhythm with the fires. Bombs had dropped among the artillery, finally quieting them. Norglers pointed skyward and began to fire; men rushed to tear the tarps off truck-mounted spotlights, switched them on and scanned the skies for planes. Their assailant made off with the lives of thirty crewmen and nine guns in the blink of an eye.
There were cries all around, Flak! Vorbereiten der Flak! but even so nobody could readily find an anti-aircraft gun to prepare, for they were all part of the Divisional reserve.
“Messiah protect us,” Kern whispered, half in a daze from fear. Von Sturm appeared from behind them, livid. His own staff car had caught several pieces of shrapnel.
“Am I the only one around here paying attention to the war?” He shouted in a rage.
26-AG-30, Midnight. 42nd Rifles Rear Echelon, Matumaini 4th
Night had fallen and it would soon rain.
Remnants of the 42nd Rifles were gathered in a small school building off Matumaini and 4th. Division had sent down supply trucks to feed them, and staff had come to supervise a reorganization. With 42nd Rifles Regiment nearly totally destroyed in the fighting, it was being removed from the 4th OX Rifle Division and reorganized as the 1st Assault Support Battalion under the Major’s 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division. This was an ad-hoc move meant to salvage them to some useful purpose. Perhaps it would even work.
It also meant that for the foreseeable future, Gulab would work under Chadgura.
The Corporal returned from the supply trucks with perhaps the most blank and starkly apathetic face she had made yet – although it could all be Gulab’s imagination, since she swore Chadgura’s cheeks and brow barely ever seemed to move. She brought two steaming bowls of lentil curry in one big tray, along with flatbread and fruit juice.
Gulab bowed her head to her in thanks, and started to eat.
Chadgura held off for a moment, praying and offering her food to the Spirits. When she was done praying she clapped her hands and ate briskly, in a disciplined fashion.
“Thanks for the curry.” Gulab said.
“And, um, thanks for today, too.”
“No problem. Thank you too.”
Gulab scratched her head. It was more than a little strange talking to the Corporal. Especially thanking her so nonchalantly about saving her life from certain, painful death. Perhaps it was time to give up normality in general in this situation.
“So, you like stamps, you said?”
“I love them.”
“Any particular reason why?”
Chadgura raised her head, and rubbed her chin.
“Hmm. I like the smell of the glue and the special paper they use. I like the colors. I like the art; it reminds me of places I have been to, but they’re not photographs, so they do not prompt me to question my imagining of a place. I feel happy sticking them. They make a unique sound when peeled from the postage booklets. They have a postage value, so you can sort them by postage value as well as color and region. It is very neat. They fit well together when you stick several across a page. Very standardized and coherent. They have limited editions for special days so you have something to look forward to all year.”
Gulab giggled. “Okay! Wow! You really do like stamps a lot.”
Chadgura nodded her head.
She dipped a piece of her flatbread into the curry sauce and ate it. For a moment, Gulab thought she had seen a glint in the Corporal’s eyes as she discussed her love of stamps. Her voice had almost begun to sound emphatic. It might have all been in Gulab’s mind, however. She blew the steam off the hot curry and began to eat herself.
“Why do you like Chess?” Chadgura asked.
“It’s something I’m a little good at, I guess.” Gulab replied.
There was another long silence.
“Why did you end up joining the army?” Gulab said. “To get stamps?”
“My reasons for joining are foolish. I’d rather not discuss them.” Chadgura replied.
How cryptic, but then again, this was just her; Gulab felt a sense of unease with herself.
“I joined the army because I wanted to go on an adventure.” Gulab said. She smiled. It was a bitter smile, full of a cruel, self-flagellating mockery. “I wanted to have an adventure like my grandfather. To leave everything and change myself. To come back as someone that the Kucha folk can’t place as simply the foolish son of my father. Someone truer to me. Someone who was really me, a me that was born outside of them.”
Chadgura extended her hand to Gulab’s shoulder. “I don’t really know, but I’d like to say that I think your grandfather would be proud of you. He should be proud of you.”
She clapped her hands three times, rapidly. It almost sounded like agitation.
“I think.” She added. Gulab could see her stirring a little. She was nervous.
The KVW could take away her fear of battle; but she was still shy and anxious.
“Maybe he shouldn’t.” Gulab said. “And maybe it shouldn’t matter.”
“Perhaps. Self-validation is important, I think.” Chadgura said.
They were quiet a moment; the conversation had gotten away from both.
Chadgura clapped her hands again and then started to speak once more.
“It rings hollow, I understand, since we have only worked a day together. But I have you to thank for this.” Chadgura opened her sidepack, and showed Gulab a little book.
Inside were pages upon pages of meticulously glued postage stamps, sorted by Dominance and Region and by major colors. It was a stamp collection album. Chadgura presented it to her proudly and continued. “I will hold you in the highest esteem for allowing me to return safe and sound to my stamps. Please, do me the honor.” She withdrew a second book, this one a common stamp book out of the Bada Aso post office. She spread open a page, and held it out to Gulab. “Pick a stamp and stick it next to the others.”
This was an incredibly corny honor to be given; Gulab felt almost as much flattered as embarrassed by it. And yet, Chadgura’s sincere words, delivered in her characteristically deadpan way, served to wring her away from her problems. She graciously picked a stamp depicting the Kucha Mountains, which she felt was very appropriate at the moment, and gingerly stuck it beside the others on one of the album pages.
She returned the album and Chadgura stared at it seriously.
“I did not think this through.” Chadgura said, leafing through the pages again. “I apologize for my confusion, but you,” she paused for a moment, and uncharacteristically repeated the word, “you, you glued it on the wrong page, Private Kajari. That stamp should have been on the other side of the page, on the purple page for Bada Aso, with the other purple stamps. I’m afraid you glued the stamp, a little recklessly, for my taste.”
Despite her hollow voice, she sounded distressed.
Graciously, Gulab took the album, peeled the stamp as gently as possible, and stuck it again on the correct page. She returned the album gingerly and with a smile.
Corporal Chadgura took it and hugged it to her chest. “Thank you, Private.”
“You’re welcome, Corporal.” Gulab said, still smiling.
What a bizarre thing, war was; near to a thousand of her comrades had died this day, but Gulab was most grateful than she and one other woman had not. Perhaps the only mourning that would do, was simply to keep fighting, to lead the life for herself that was taken from her comrades. At the time, she could only think of curry and stamps, and the time Grandfather braided her hair and told her it was her beard to try to placate her.