This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE
Adjar Dominance – Outskirts of Bada Aso, South-Center District
Gray clouds loomed overhead, but the Kalu region and Bada Aso received little of the expected rains. Under the muggy gloom, a new army advanced across the wet grassland and over the muddy old roads, tramping in shallow puddles and across broken street.
From the southern approach the city was eerily quiet. The Landsers could hear every mechanical struggle and hiccup and neigh of their long convoy of vehicles and horses. An entire Battalion rode to battle that day, comprised of over 800 men in vehicles and horse mounts, but nobody alive met them through their long drive into the city.
Even the wind was quiet, picking up little except foul smells of day-old smothered fires. Gradually they left the countryside behind and pushed into the urbanization of Bada Aso. Dirt roads turned black with sturdy pavement; clusters of buildings grew thicker around them, though few stood taller than burnt out foundation.
The 6th Grenadier Division’s 2nd Battalion crept through the ruins of the outer neighborhoods of Bada Aso, finding several kilometers worth of ghost town. It seemed like three out of every four buildings had been smashed by bombs, and the debris spilled across the streets. Near the city limits the mounds and stretches of debris that crossed the landscape were largely surmountable, either navigable enough for the convoy to run over or near a clean road by which the march could circumvent the obstacle entirely.
With every block bypassed the ruins raised new challenges. In the thicker urbanization there were larger buildings and tighter crossings. The 6th Grenadiers found themselves considerably slowed down by their mounts and vehicles. Soon the Landsers stopped entirely. They found themselves faced with a wall of rubble from a tenement collapse.
Captain Aschekind gave the dismount order.
At the head of the convoy, a single Squire half-track unloaded its compliment of ten men, who quickly surveyed the wall. Aschekind was among them. Other infantry squads mounted on horses and a few on trucks dismounted and assembled in turn. In all there were over forty of these squads, accounting for more than half the men in the battalion.
Making up the rest were support groups of Norgler machine gunners, a small cadre of snipers, and far behind them at the rear of the march, communications officers and the logistics train. Food, ammunition, medical; over a kilometer behind for safety. They would start putting down wires for field telephone, and coordinate the arrival of reinforcements and the deployment of higher-level assets. Second Battalion lacked any kind of personal heavy anti-tank guns or heavy artillery support, all of it waiting to be released piecemeal by the Divisional command that lagged outside of the city, dozens of kilometers away.
Horse-drawn carts would have to pull many of these weapons into the city, and would also be responsible for towing them between reserve zones and combat areas.
In the midst of all this, Private Kern Beckert was overwhelmed with uncertainty.
Nocht was moving. Boots hit the ground in Bada Aso.
To the east and west, the Cissean Azul corps protected their flanks. They had arrived first, and they were likely fighting even as the Nochtish men dismounted. For the 6th Grenadier Division’s 2nd Battalion the most crucial objective had been saved. They would drive down the center and secure the major thoroughfare of Bada Aso, winning operational freedom for Nocht’s motor and horse pool, and for their armored forces.
Or at least that had been the theory; given the poor terrain conditions it seemed much more complicated than that. Planting your flag on a road did not make it more navigable.
As his fellow Landsers dismounted, checked their weapons and awaited orders to march, Kern faced the rubble in front of him and the debris-choked expanse of the city around him, and even in the midst of hundreds of his fellow men, he felt remarkably small.
He knew none of the other men. He hardly spoke to them. He felt his burning in his gut when he thought of speaking to anybody. What would he tell them?
Riveting stories from the corn farms of Oberon?
He put up a tough front, because everyone else seemed to do the same.
There was idle chatter from men who had fought alongside one another before and had some familiarity. This was Kern’s first combat action. He had been assigned to 2nd Battalion just a few days ago from the boat-bound reserve forces.
What was he doing in Ayvarta?
He had thought the world smaller than it was. It was too big for a farmer’s boy.
He shouldn’t have run from home.
Before he knew it, Captain Aschekind called for a forward Company, over 200 men; and Kern found himself moving, mimicking the eager men around him. They joined their Captain at the edge of the rubble, and began to climb the high mound. Aschekind was a monument of a man, broad-shouldered, thick-armed, and imposing in his officer’s coat. His fists seemed more frightful than his pistol. An angry red scar crossed his left cheekbone. His expression was grim and focused, betraying little of what he might have thought of the men around him. Kern felt helpless around him, and instinctually feared him.
The Captain hardly seemed to climb; instead he took determined steps up the slippery rubble, crunching with his feet on the dusty cement, brick, wood and jagged rebar debris.
Kern was just an ordinary man; a boy, some would even say, barely twenty years. Blonde and blue-eyed and clean-faced, athletic, or so he once thought. Perhaps the sort of man that a man like Aschekind once was, before war turned them into moving stone. He climbed with his hands and his feet, as though crawling up the mound. Dust and small rocks fell in the wake of faster climbers and momentarily dazed him. He felt the sharp rock and bits of metal scrape him through his gray uniform. His kit felt heavier than ever.
He had a grenade, he had his rifle and he had various accouterments like rations and rope and a battery-powered torch. He had extra ammunition for his squad’s light machine gun. He was exhausted a dozen hand-holds up the rubble, perhaps nine or ten meters from the floor. Kern struggled to catch his breath. Groaning men wedged up past him.
He cast eyes around himself at his fellow climbers.
He could hardly tell who was even in his own squad.
Atop the mound of rubble they had a commanding view of the surrounding area. It was hotter and drier up there than on the road. There was a breath-taking view from over the rubble, but he wouldn’t get to cherish it for long. Aschekind tersely ordered the men to drop to their stomachs and crawl so they would not be spotted atop the mound. Forward observers moved front, surveying with binoculars the streets ahead.
From their position they relayed that they could see the first Ayvartan defensive line, comprising various shapes of sandbag barriers around heavy machine guns and a couple of light mortars. Observers reported that the communists had based their defense in two echelons of fifty troops, including, regrettably, both men and women, and these cadres stood each across from the other on a tight, three-road intersection like a side-ways ‘T.’
Overturned buildings, mounds of rubble and shattered streets that would block the full brunt of the enemy’s attack covered half of the way to the enemy’s defenses at the intersection. Then just as starkly the ruins stopped for hundreds of meters. For significant length of the way to the intersection the assault run over pristine terrain.
Kern listened with growing trepidation.
Captain Aschekind, however, was unmoved by this obstacle.
“Establish the eight centimeter mortars here. All of the forward rifle squads here will advance undettered but with caution. We may yet surprise them.” Aschekind said.
Kern and his fellow Landsers crawled along the top of the mound and slid carefully down the other end to the ground. Immediately they took cover in whatever rubble they could find. Aschekind was right: the Ayvartans had not yet spotted them.
Methodically the rifle squads advanced toward the line.
Squad leaders moved ahead with their designated scout partners, followed by the gun group, consisting of the Company’s Norgler machine gunners. Everyone moved from cover to cover. And at first there was a king’s ransom of potential cover: a collapsed piece of the road, drenched in water from broken pipes; the overturned facade of a building, creating a mound behind which a man was invisible; husks of blown-out vehicles; and open ruins and the spaces between and around buildings, acting as cement barriers.
Squad by squad the Landsers moved forward, each treading the expert paths of the men before them. Kern found himself pressed into the middle of the column near the Gewehrsgruppe, the machine gun group responsible for volume fire to cover the Company’s advance. All of them had heavy packs, and walked in twos.
Up ahead the “headquarters” consisting of various leading officers made the first moves to new cover, and directed everyone; when to run, when to duck, when individual squads should tighten or loosen formation. Behind his place in the line followed riflemen like Kern with no special designation. It was a textbook march, and they carried it out with professional character. Over two-hundred men, moving almost in secret.
Everything was going perfectly.
Despite himself, Kern felt a strangely renewed sense of confidence when he saw everyone moving as the pamphlets showed and as they had practiced in drills. Perhaps by rote he could survive the battle ahead. Perhaps he had learned to be a soldier. No longer was he the farm boy running from responsibility; he was a Nochtish Grenadier.
Tactical movement carried the Company far into the rubble, but cover grew sparser as they went. About a hundred meters from the collapsed tenement, they had only waist-high cover to count on, and just a few meters from that they would have nothing.
Captain Aschekind moved to the center of the men. Beneath the notice of the Ayvartans the men huddled in the edge of the rubble, scouting out the defensive line. Aschekind ordered for word to be passed around the Company that squad leaders and rifle groups (but not the machine gun groups) would cross the open terrain as fast as possible.
They could not count on any cover until they reached the sandbags: closing to assaulting distance was their only chance of success. Gun groups would remain behind in supporting positions. Through whispers passed around their hiding places, man to man, the entire forward company was soon appraised of the situation. Captain Aschekind ordered the assault to begin with a mortar attack on the defensive line followed by a charge.
Kern closed his eyes. He was soaked in sweat. It traveled down his nose and lips.
Captain Aschekind raised his portable radio to his mouth.
“Ordnance, fire at will. Smoke to cover us, and then high explosive on the enemy.”
Seconds after Aschekind’s command, Kern heard the chunk of deployed mortar rounds dispelling the eerie silence in the city, flying from their tubes atop the tenement rubble. Moments later they crashed back to earth, throwing up smoke to cover the advance of the Landsers and crashing across the Ayvartan’s defensive line. 2nd Battalion’s first few shells on the enemy did little more than scatter sandbags and awaken the communists.
Ayvartan machine gunners took their places and opened fire on the rubble and across the long, smooth street before them, their red tracers flying through the smoke.
Bereft of cover, it was like a killing field. Only the smoke prevented a massacre.
“Forward company, charge!” Aschekind shouted. “Over the walls, into their faces!”
From behind cover the Landsers rose and threw themselves headfirst into the fight.
As one body the Company charged ahead from their hiding places and crossed immediately into the thickening smoke over the connecting road, tackling the open stretch as fast as possible to assault their objective. No longer was theirs the movement of a methodical force, advancing efficiently in a column expertly hidden from the enemy.
Amid the fire they started a glunt stampede.
Behind them, standing atop rubble, several squads worth of machine gunners fired continuously over and around the running Landsers, directing their fire across the smoke and trying to silence the flashing muzzles of the Ayvartan defenders. Each burst of allied gunfire bought precious seconds for the desperate riflemen to run. It was all they could do.
“Vorwarts!” Roared the Captain, running with his men into the death and dark.
Into the smoke advanced this march of close to two hundred men.
Kern seemed caged in the center of the charge, anxious from the thunderous noise of so many footsteps. Whistling mortar ordnance crashed intermittently in their ranks, pulverizing men. Sparse but deadly fire seemed to pick off soldiers like a finger from the heavens, indecisively falling, tapping a man in the shoulder, the legs, or the head, and taking off whatever was touched. Every few seconds a choppy stream of red gunfire from an Ayvartan machine gun took two or three men in a visible line of blood and tracer light.
Then the enemy paused to reload their machine guns or to hide from retaliatory fire launching from the Norgler machine guns. Reloading was quick; soon their bullets soared across the road once again, sweeping blindly through the smokescreen for men to kill.
Landsers in the press fired their weapons in a desperate bid to open ground for the charge. Most riflemen stood little chance of hitting a target, but the Light Machine Gunners in each Squad, ducking near the edges of the road, could match the Ayvartan’s rate of fire for the briefest moments before having to take off running again to avoid a killing spray.
Ahead of the march a few men blindly threw grenades far out in front of them as they could, but the explosions did little good. Mortar shells from the rubble behind the Grenadiers fell intermittently and inaccurately on the communists, proving at best a momentary inconvenience to one or two of the positions fiercely defending the road.
Everything they threw at the line was only a minimal distraction that bought the Landsers small chunks of time between deaths and deafening blasts and seething tracers.
Every few seconds of Ayvartan stillness took the company a few bounding steps closer to the objective ahead, and every few seconds of Ayvartan activity claimed lives.
Kern raised his rifle and threw himself forward.
He coughed in the smoke and held his breath when he could.
His head was spinning, and he took clumsy steps. He felt as though constantly falling, hurling headlong down the road. Around him men fell to their knees and onto their hands, cognizant of their deaths for mere seconds before uttering their final cries. Kern cowered from streams of machine gun fire and narrowly avoided mortar blasts. Fortune smiled upon him somehow; he pushed toward the edge of the cloud, and found a shadow behind the Ayvartan line that he could attack. Closing in on the enemy, he engaged.
He raised his carbine and fired a shot while running, hitting nothing, working the bolt; he saw his target, the shadow, flinch in the distance, and he fired again to no avail.
Crying out, Kern pushed himself to the brink of physical pain and finally overtook the sandbag wall, leaping over and shoving a man from behind the tripod of an empty machine gun. Over a dozen landsers overcame the defenses and bore down on the enemy with him, throwing themselves over their mortars and rushing their machine guns.
Kern thrust his rifle out in front of him, coming to blows with one of the defending communists. He swung the barrel of his rifle like a club in a frenzied melee, and around him it seemed every man was fighting with fists and elbows and knives rather than guns.
There was no bayonet on the end of Kern’s rifle, and his opponent proved stronger.
Bare forearms blocked the feeble, clubbing blows of the landser, and quick hands grasped the weapon, punishing the boy’s repeated, pathetic flailing. With a titanic pull, the communist tore the firearm from Kern’s hands, and used it to push the landser back, throwing him against the sandbag wall as though he was weightless.
He then turned the carbine around.
More men vaulted the low sandbag wall, and Captain Aschekind was one.
He leaped over Kern and charged in with his bare hands. He threw himself against Kern’s opponent like a charging bull, quickly pulling down the stolen rifle with one mighty hand to avoid a fatal shot, and with another taking the man by the throat, choking and lifting him off the ground. Kern’s stolen carbine shot into the earth and spared his life.
Aschekind squeezed the man’s windpipe and with a mighty heave he threw the man three whole meters away. Like a stone the unconscious communist struck another man to the floor, and the two of them were stabbed dead by rushing landsers using their bayonets and knives. Kern stared helplessly at the bloody brawl, fixated on the violence.
It seemed then that the company’s human wave had finally torn past the sandbag wall. With the communist’s machine guns and mortars tied up, the landsers rushed confidently ahead to threaten the intersection, stepping over the bodies of fallen friends and foes.
Aschekind did not immediately join them.
He half-turned to the sandbag wall and he threw Kern’s carbine against the boy.
“Bayonets before bravery, Landser.” He said, his voice deep and grim. “Make sure that you affix the knife point before your next charge unless you desire an early death.”
Hands shaking, Kern picked through his pockets for his bayonet, and snapped it into the lug before running ahead. He took cover inside one of the mortar rings.
Enemy fire resumed around him from the second echelon of Ayvartan defenders at the intersection. With the opposing forces poised on each side of the roads, the battle for the middle of the intersection was soon underway. Smoke cleared, and Kern could see several enemy squads with their men and women hidden behind post boxes and street lights, inside ruined buildings and even ducking behind fire hydrants. There were probably fifty or sixty more riflemen and women opposite the attacking landsers.
One ominous building stood almost intact across the intersection.
Kern saw communists run in.
From the second floor automatic fire soon rained down on the assault group.
Kern saw charging Grenadiers cut easily down.
Mid-run, several of the leading men turned tail, threw themselves down or grabbed what defenses they could. Few got lucky; butchered bodies littered the ground ahead.
“Hunker down! Fight from positions!” Aschekind shouted, leaping into the mortar pit with Kern. The Ayvartan machine gun across the intersection had a poor angle on them, and the sandbags stopped the enemy’s rounds, providing an adequate defense for the Captain and Kern. But it swept across the captured portions of the defensive line from commanding ground, pinning several riflemen behind a few scraps of cover.
At this range, their own gun groups could not support them well, and their mortars were far too inaccurate. It was the worst situation imaginable for Kern. Riflemen in a static fight without a base of automatic fire, against entrenched enemies. His fellow Landsers hid as well as they could and fired back, directed by Aschekind’s shouting.
Several men took shots at the machine gun, but its metal shield protected the gunner perfectly within the relatively narrow window. On the ground rifle shots deflected off cover on both sides. Kern loaded his own rifle and rose quickly from cover, taking a barely-aimed shot at the building. He hit the windowsill and hid again, working the bolt on his rifle.
Whenever the Ayvartan machine gun fired it issued a continuous tapping noise that sent a chill down his spine. Angry red tracers flew like lines of fire weaving over the air.
Their own fire grew sporadic and ineffective in the face of the communist opposition.
The Ayvartans had freedom of movement under the protection of their second-floor machine gun. They attacked with confidence, having the leisure to aim for targets, and they struck many more men than they lost. The Landsers were stuck. Communists began to encroach, inching closer whenever their machine gun suppressed the Grenadier’s side of the road. Nocht’s riflemen could hardly shoot back for fear of that second floor window.
Kern himself hardly knew where to shoot.
Whenever he peeked out of the pit he saw dozens of the enemy, all of them either moving under the cover of automatic fire, or entrenched in unassailable positions. Rifle bullets bit into the sandbags whenever he even thought of shooting. Whenever he ranged a good target, Kern found that he would have to hide again to work the bolt on his carbine, losing whatever chance he had of making a second or third shot on the same man.
His Captain seemed to have taken notice of his reticence in the face of the enemy.
“Give me that.” He scowled.
Aschekind yanked the rifle roughly from Kern’s grip.
He attached an old, worn-out metal adapter from his satchel to the end of Kern’s rifle, and to it, he attached an old-model grenade – Kern had seen this kind of weapon in pictures, but not in the field. He did not believe it was a standard procurement for them.
“Stay down,” the Captain warned. Kern ducked even lower in cover.
Captain Aschekind waited for a momentary lull in the Ayvartan’s machine gun fire, and he rose half out of cover, looking through the metal sight now sticking out from the front of the gun. He pressed the trigger and the old grenade launched out of the muzzle.
Soaring across the road in an arc the olde grenade crashed through the second floor window of the building across the intersection. A fiery explosion ruptured the wooden floor, and the machine gunner and the machine gun came crashing down to the ground level.
In an instant the communists had lost their fire support.
Without the machine gun the volume of Ayvartan fire slowed to little more than a few cracks from bolt-action battle rifles every couple of seconds, striking harmlessly against the dirt and into the sandbags. All around him Kern saw the Nochtish troops taking notice of the stark change in the level of ambient noise and turning to their fellows with surprise.
The Grenadiers grew bolder and the assault reawakened.
Those men huddling in cover rose out of it and fired for the first time in minutes; and those who had been fighting most fiercely before now redoubled their efforts, shooting and working their bolts with greater speed, and moving across to new cover. Squads developed a good rhythm of shooting men, covering for reloading landsers who would then return the favor. Men stepped from cover entirely and charged forward with their rifles out. They reached the center of the intersection, and threw grenades across. Many of them fell, wounded by close-range Ayvartan fire; but their throws blasted communists out of hiding.
Kern heard the ghastly chopping of the Norglers behind him.
Streams of automatic fire crossed the intersection.
All of the Gewehrsgruppe was moving up to support them.
Now the situation was fully reversed in their favor.
Pushed back and with their heavy weapons depleted, the Ayvartans became disorderly, and as their numbers began to fall, many retreated further and further out of the intersection until they abandoned it. Grenadiers crossed the street unopposed, taking to their knees and firing at the rapidly fleeing enemy. Both echelons of defense at the intersection had been suddenly ejected, and the 6th Grenadier’s 2nd Battalion claimed its first objective.
Once again the eerie silence fell over the city.
Without the machine guns and mortars there seemed to be nothing.
Captain Aschekind removed his grenade adapter and threw Kern’s rifle back into his hands as though he were discarding trash. He did not consider the boy any more than that and hardly looked at him while returning the arm. He made to leave the sandbag pit.
“Sir!” Kern pulled himself half-up the mortar pit. “Sir, what was that weapon?”
“An obsolete piece from an old war. We should have been able to do better.”
Captain Aschekind did not turn or look at him to address him. He walked coldly away.
Kern sighed. He was indeed still a farm boy; his presence had changed nothing here.
He left the mortar pit, and looked around the intersection. He had not attacked with his squadron; he didn’t even really know what squadron he was a part of. There were dead men behind him, and littered across the approach to the intersection, dead men over the sandbag walls and in the middle of the intersection. Platoon Commanders left their hiding places. He saw them counting. Kern himself counted, and he tallied at least seventy dead men.
There were a few lightly wounded men who had been grazed or clipped in the limbs and shoulders when moving out of cover to shoot; but in this assault it seemed that the dead would naturally far, far outnumber the wounded. Soon he caught the stench of blood.
Squads regrouped, but Kern saw quite a few people like himself, in disarray, standing apart from the carnage. A few men sat on the sides of the road with no one around and Kern didn’t know whether they had been wounded, or if they were just in shock.
He figured that too was a kind of wound.
Nobody counted them.
There were more people coming in. From the road that had cost them so much blood to claim, a column of new men marched calmly to the intersection. Some began to haul the bodies of the dead away, while others rushed to the wounded to lend treatment.
A horse-drawn cart appeared from one of the connecting roads to the intersection, carrying ammunition, grenades, and towing a small anti-tank gun behind itself. The rest of 2nd Battalion moved up. They were a legion walking into Hell, unknowing of the horrors herein. Nobody seemed to cover their mouths in disgust, or flinch away from bodies.
They hadn’t seen the fighting yet. They didn’t know.
Of course, Kern had seen it. And his own horror was imperceptible, mute and stunted. He heard a whistling inside his ear, becoming more pronounced from the transition from cacophony to silence. There was noise inside his head too, however, and he could not sort out his own thoughts quite yet. Nothing was silent for him yet. Idly he crossed the intersection to stare at Captain Aschekind’s handiwork inside the old building.
Kern looked down at the machine gunner, lying beneath the fallen weapon and bleeding from a dozen shrapnel wounds. He thought that it was the body of a woman.
He had heard tell that the Ayvartans pressed their own women to their cause, but he never believed he would see a woman die among soldiers as though she was a natural ally to the fighting men. He looked at her with silent fear. What kind of people were they?
What kind of person had she been?
Back again onto the intersection, he left behind the building and the corpse.
Nobody was counting the communist corpses.
Just off the intersection inside the husk of a concrete building a command post was being hastily assembled. From the horse-drawn cart three men carried out a heavy radio and set it under a hastily pitched tent. Laborers began to raise sandbags around it, while Aschekind ducked inside. Kern stood nearby. He could hear the radio crackling. Captain Aschekind reported their victory in low, terse, grunted words.
A superior officer replied; Kern realized he had heard the man’s voice before.
“Good. Aschekind, a Panzer Platoon will meet you at the intersection, and from there you will assault Matumaini Street. Von Drachen is on the move and will guard your flank. Control of Matumaini is essential. It will give us a central jumping-off point to attack the rest of the city. Matumaini is the first step in crushing the communists. Press forward, and do not stop! The Cisseans will assure your momentum and then link up with you.”
Captain Aschekind appeared for a moment frustrated with the radio. He expressed no disdain verbally. Kern saw only a flicker of anger in his eyes, and found him stressing the radio handset’s plastic shell with his powerful grip. A crack formed on the device.
“Acknowledged, General Von Sturm.” Aschekind said.
“Good.” Von Sturm said. “I knew I could count on the Butcher of Villalba.”
Kern thought he saw another brief convulsion on the Captain’s face, but perhaps he only imagined it. Major General Von Sturm cut contact, and Captain Aschekind looked down the road ahead of them, past the intersection. He strained his eyes, turned his head.
He thrust a radio into Kern’s hands.
Kern was surprised; he did not think the Captain even knew he was there.
“Follow me. Keep that on hand, and keep close. We will press the attack soon.”
Kern nodded his head. Captain Aschekind departed down the road, and Kern followed. Men followed them; it seemed without further orders that the entire company was marching ahead again. Matumaini Street was the next target. Kern’s hands were still shaking.