This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
“Should we go out there?” Gulab asked.
“Not until we have our orders from higher up.” Chadgura dispassionately replied. “Remember, we were sent here on a special mission. We will await special orders.”
Gulab heard boots along the ground as people in adjacent rooms rose to the commotion and rushed down to do their part. She heard numerous people storming through the adjacent halls and down the stairs. Minutes later she heard artillery – there was a slight shaking loose of dust from the ceiling, and a pounding of shells on the ground and against the stones. Were they trading artillery blows out in the lawn? This must have been a full-fledged attack.
And yet her unit waited in place for several minutes, until specifically roused.
There was a knock on their door, and one of the Privates answered.
She stepped aside, and from the hall a small woman approached the bed, and shook hands emphatically with Chadgura. She was a Svechthan, with short teal-blue hair and a dour expression that looked a touch unfriendly. Her uniform was dark blue, nearly black, part of the Svechthan Union forces training in Ayvarta.
Gulab tried not to stare – the lady was over a head shorter than everyone and her rifle, like a standard Ayvartan bundu, looked comically oversized for her. Svechthans were proportioned well for their adult size, but to Gulab they were still an unusual sight.
“Tovarisch!” She declared, “I am Sergeant Illynichna. Orders have arrived for you.”
Gulab noticed somewhat of an accent in her voice when she started speaking Ayvartan. Nonetheless she had rather good pronunciation, and made good word choices.
“Thank you, Sergeant.” Chadgura said. “Please go ahead. We are listening.”
Sgt. Illynichna cleared her throat. “Since the 25th, the KVW with the help of my Svechthan comrades has been using radio interception equipment mounted in half-tracks to gather intelligence on enemy positions within the city. We have gathered enough unencrypted short-range communications between various units to paint a clearer picture of their overall offensive preparations. Our mission will be to scout and disrupt those preparations to buy time for the Hellfire plan. Any Questions before we continue?”
“You’re coming too?” Gulab asked. She was the only one with any questions.
“Of course I am. I’m from the Joint-Training Corps OSNAZ – special tactics.”
Gulab had no idea what that meant at all. She shrugged and looked unimpressed.
“Quit wasting my time duura!” Sgt. Illynichna said, calling her some insult she didn’t understand. The Svechthan girl produced a map of the southern district and laid it down over the bed. As a whole the squadron gathered around the bed to look at it, but Gulab found the symbols hard to discern. “Between Penance and Matumaini there were several evacuated industrial facilities. We believe Nocht will deploy their artillery and tank stations there. Their attacks along Penance and Umaiha will intensify in an attempt to pin us down away from the build-up areas. We must carefully scout Nochtish positions, then relay our findings so our artillery can bury them. A surprise saturation barrage will do the trick.”
“A sound plan. But I am remiss about using only a single squadron.” Chadgura said.
“It is necessary tovarisch!” Illynichna said. “We must take them by surprise. We will use a few tanks to hold back this assault on the Cathedral, and open up this road to the east, toward Matumaini,” she pointed out their route on the map, “but from there we must make our way quietly, like the arctic weasel. Strong head-on attacks are not feasible.”
Gulab supposed that it was easier for a Svechthan to talk about stealth since they were in general so small, but she held her thoughts on that, for fear of further upsetting Illynichna.
Chadgura nodded, and together she and Illynichna led the squadron out. Down in the nave, Gulab saw people rushing out the door, and she saw the guns outside firing against the tree line and the edge of the green turf. The 76mm guns boomed incessantly, their crews in a fever. Enemy vehicles trundled forward from the road, covering for squadrons of men in thick dark gray jackets and gloves, the panzergrenadiers. A rising tempo of anti-tank, sniper, and mortar fire slowed the enemy mechanized forces. Rifle squadrons stationed in the Cathedral rushed out to the trenches in turns, and gathered around the spires and steps.
Nocht improved their foothold on the intersection and the eastern side of Penance road, and their men assembled in the ruins and in the intact buildings. They began to open fire from across the road. This presence increased with each Half-Track allowed to park across the green. Norgler fire and mortars of their own had been deployed, and this sporadic fire punished the recrewing of the trenches. It was a slowly-building mayhem.
“It will get worse if we don’t find that artillery. Let us move.” Chadgura said.
Gulab snapped out of her reverie and nodded grimly.
She followed the two Sergeants out the back behind the Cathedral, where their half-track waited along with three Goblin light tanks. Before mounting the truck the squadron traded their rifles into a crate, and picked up short carbines with long, strangely thick barrel extensions provided by the Svechthan Sergeant. The carbines used magazines, of which they gathered many, throwing their own stripper clips into the crate with their old rifles.
“These are silenced Laska carbines, made in my home country.” Sergeant Illynichna explained. “Smaller cartridge than a regular rifle, but useful for sneaking around.”
Sgt. Chadgura lifted and toyed the small rifle, getting a feel for its weight and size.
“It is an invention of the Helvetians that we Svechthans tested to great results. They’re hard to manufacture, but worthwhile for special times. Its ammo is hard to manufacture too, so we cannot waste it.” Sergeant Illynichna added. “Hopefully it serves us well.”
“I believe it will. It is very easy to wield and aim.” Chadgura said.
Gulab looked down the sights. They felt a little small.
Still, it was a pleasant weapon to hold.
Once everyone was armed, they hopped into the back of the half-track and waited for the tanks to form up in front of them. The trio of Goblins started across the left side of the Cathedral, facing their strongest armor to the southeast, and charged toward the corner trenches. The Half-Track did not follow them. Instead it drove directly north, crossing the green out onto the road and circling around the park east. They drove with the tree line and the fences on the northern edge for cover and moved carefully to eastern-bound roads.
Above them the sky grew slowly furious.
Rainfall grew harsher, the drops larger and more frequent, the patter and tinkling of the rain working itself up to a drumming beat. Forks of light burned constantly within the heart of the blackening clouds, and distant, erratic thundering drowned out the trading of shells. Sergeant Illynichna grinned at the worsening weather overhead.
“Going out in that is good, tovarisch. Harder to be seen and heard in the driving rain.”
Around the park the battle intensified to match that black, rumbling sky.
From the back of the half-track Gulab saw the tanks engaging.
Across from the Cathedral, three Nochtish tanks had overtaken the first trench on the southeast and easily crossed it with their tracks, and the occupants were fleeing to the second trench line under fire from the tank’s hull-mounted machine guns.
One tank was at the head of the enemy advance, a third was farther behind it, and a second was practically hugging its right track. Their machine guns saturated the green in front of them, and their 37mm guns fired incessantly on the Cathedral, smashing into the spires, hitting the dome, sending shells crashing around the gun line at the steps the Cathedral. Their advance was haphazard but swift and vicious.
But their sides were fully exposed.
The Goblins were not seen until they had cleared the left wall of the Cathedral. They charged on the enemy in a staggered rank, each tank ten meters from the side of the next. The instant they left cover the three tanks braked and opened fire. Immediately they scored two hits – the tall engine compartment in the back of the lead enemy tank burst into a fireball, and its turret exploded from a second shot. These explosions sent chunks flying into a second tank to the right of the target, the shrapnel slashing deep into its turret.
Too wounded to continue, and perhaps having lost its gunner and commander, the second M5 backpedaled toward the trees and bushes for cover from further attacks.
The Panzergrenadiers halted their advance in the face of this reversal, hiding behind the smoking ruins starting to pile at the edge of the green. Ayvartan forces pressed their advantage. Small contingents climbed out of their holes to engage the enemy.
One Goblin remained in place and provided cover for rising trench troops.
Two others broke away from it, one headed directly for the road, its coaxial machine gun and cannon trained on the mechanized infantry, and the second hooking around the center of the green to chase the remaining tanks away from the Cathedral.
The KVW Half-Track stopped across the street from its connection out of Penance. They had the trees between them and the fighting. Only when the tanks had fully engaged the Panzergrenadiers and their vehicles on the road, and blocked their way farther upstreet, would it be safe for the Half-Track to cross. A Goblin tank crossed the green and drove onto the road, turning to face the enemy’s half-tracks and charging them.
The Goblin opened fire on the enemy while moving, perforating one of the half-tracks front to back with an armor-piercing shell. The shell exploded at the end of the bed, and its fuel tanks lit on fire from the violence. Panzergrenadiers on the streets hurried away, putting whatever metal they could between the Goblin’s machine guns.
Without warning a black plume erupted near the Goblin tank on the road, and the blast smashed the front wheels on its right track, paralyzing it in the middle of the road.
Subsequent blasts rolled along the road, some so close to the Nochtish line that even the Panzergrenadiers started to run, and the half-tracks to back away. Shells fell by the dozen every minute. One of the Goblins was abandoned, its crew leaping from the hatches as a fireball engulfed the machine’s exterior. The one stationary Goblin had its turret crushed by a shell, split open like a tin can, and its engine caught fire. Its slow movement back toward the Cathedral suggested people inside, still laboring in the flame.
Men and women ran right back out of the newly-reclaimed southeast trench, leaving it to be smashed by the creeping artillery. All of a sudden the Ayvartan battle line was contracting into a circle formed by the closest trenches to the Cathedral.
“Chort vozmi!” Illynichna cursed. “They’ve got their guns set up! Tell your driver to go! We must hurry and spot for our own tubes so we can counter-fire!”
Chadgura stuck her hand out the side of the bed through a hole in the tarp and signaled desperately. Up front the driver floored the pedal, and the Half-Track screamed across Penance and out to the connecting eastern road, putting several buildings between itself and the Panzergrenadiers. Gulab could not tell whether the rumbling and noise related to thunder or artillery. Both the fighting and the storm grew in intensity all at once.
Within the Cathedral a large radio set beeped and crackled, coming to life unbidden – the operator had become distracted with the battle raging outside the doors to the nave.
“All units report, urgent.”
Nobody seemed to hear or reply.
“Army HQ has lost contact with the Battlegroup Commander. We cannot confirm whether it may be related to the storm. Have any units managed to make contact with the Commander within the last hour? Repeat, Army has lost contact with Battlegroup Commander. Commander’s unit was last reported to be part of a surveying mission near Umaiha and Angba. Relay contact with the Commander back to Army signals. Repeat–”