This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, Southeast, Riverside
Batallon De Asalto “Drachen” advanced, overrunning the first and second lines in Umaiha. In the midst of the rain, under the rain of shells and rolling explosions, and against the ruthless advance of the Cisseans the Ayvartan lines broke down. While the Ayvartans hid behind defenses the Cisseans moved swiftly, squadrons advancing under effective covering fire, bounding across what cover could be gotten, swiftly and fearlessly charging through killing fields with smoke shells and suppressing artillery protecting them. Losses were inevitable, but the battalion exceeded Von Drachen’s expectations.
They killed and scattered hundreds.
Von Drachen even had to call in Von Sturm’s security and leave captives for them!
Cissean troops soon ran unopposed through the Umaiha riverside.
A handful kilometers more and they would be in the next district, in time for the next phase of the battle. On each leg of the march, a preparatory bombardment from 3 guns pounded each block three times, just in case. But no more Ayvartan defenses seemed to move to challenge them. It was conceivable that they might even be home free!
His men were spoiling for a fight, growing confident. After the second defensive line folded, the Drachen Battalion advanced as a continuous charge more than an orderly march. It became difficult to call in preparatory bombardments when the line moved so fast.
“Don’t get too far ahead!” Von Drachen shouted into his radio.
Riding in the back of Colonel Gutierrez’s car, soaked in the rain, he raised a pair of binoculars and squinted his eyes, but no concerted effort could really show him what was transpiring across the river from him. He saw his troops charging ahead and started losing track of them. The Umaiha’s eastern side in the city was more thickly populated with big buildings that served as offices and factories, barracks and company shops, in its previous life as a corporate district for imperial heavy industry, and then socialist industry.
There was a lot more infrastructure to stare at and weave through than in the western bank of the river. Even so the units there kept too much a lead on the units on Von Drachen’s side of the river, as though eager to win a race to the city center with their allies.
“They’re getting spirited!” Colonel Gutierrez said. He sat in the passenger’s side while his restless driver ferried them along the surging river. Von Drachen did not mind the waves, though the previous occupant of the car’s pintle mount had been killed by one.
“Spirit is good, but order would be better.” Von Drachen said ruefully.
“Ah, Raul, let them have their victory!” Colonel Gutierrez replied.
“Very well, but don’t call me that.” Von Drachen replied.
Von Drachen looked through his binoculars again.
His bombardments raised thick plumes of smoke and dust in the blocks ahead of the march, blowing across the sky from the storm winds. They were difficult to see, and so were the men headed for them. Thick rain and the cover of light posts and balustrades and decorative plants turned the formations of his men into an indistinct charging mass that had a clear beginning nearest his slowly advancing car but no visible end.
He craned his neck to stare at the slowly passing second and third stories. Many bore fresh scars from shells and mortars. Smashed windows, broken doors; chunks of roof and wall, or whole floors, collapsed under the punishment of a stray 15 cm shell.
“Estamos cerca de el proximo puente, General,” said the driver. They were close to the bridge, one of the last in the southeast. A few kilometers further the Umaiha would curve away out of the city interior and they would have a shot at the center.
“Keep moving at pace, stop only for contacts.” Von Drachen said. He put away his binoculars and procured his radio. “How are we doing on howitzer ammunition?”
He was cut off; the Umaiha stirred, and a wave crashed along the side of the car.
Von Drachen held on to the gun mount, and his radio and binoculars were both thrown from his grip. It was like a wave of cement had struck him, and not water, it felt solid as a stone punch. Pulling off of the side of the river and toward the opposite street, the car stopped near a desolate little flower shop. Von Drachen leaped off the back, nonchalantly wiped himself down under the awning, and hailed a passing radio man.
He took his backpack radio and sent him off.
Kneeling beside the pack, Von Drachen adjusted the frequency and power, and picked up the handset. On the other end his bewildered artillery crew asked if he was alright.
“I am fine, thank you for your concern. I was struck by unruly water.” He replied.
On the other end the crews expressed their hopes for his continued health and safety.
“Indeed, I am grateful. Now, I wanted to ask: howitzer ammunition, how are we–”
A violent explosion in the east cut him off; and cut several dozen men worse.
Von Drachen’s vanguard on the eastern end of the river, two dozen men riding atop and alongside one of the Escudero tanks, marched along the street passing by an innocuous two-story state pharmacy straddling the riverside, shuttered and presenting no immediate threat until its first floor violently exploded in a surge of glass, metal and concrete.
Fire and smoke burst through every orifice in the structure, consuming the men and the tank in heat and debris. Chunks of rubble flew across the street and over the river. For the men crossing the building death was certain; anyone within five meters was flung and burnt and battered, while out to ten and twenty meters the concrete and glass shrapnel, where not stopped by another structure, cut and grazed and injured unprotected men.
Dozens of men were killed, dozens more injured, and hundreds were given pause.
Its foundations annihilated, the top floor slid off in pieces and buried whatever was left of the tank. Only the cupola on the smashed tank turret peeked above the mound of debris. At once the columns on both sides of the river lost all of their previous spirit.
Von Drachen sighed audibly and slammed down the radio handset.
“That was a demolition charge.” He said. “Gutierrez, car!”
At once Von Drachen lifted the backpack radio into the staff car and they drove ahead, the column making way for them. They stopped across the river from the blast site. There were dead even on their end of the river – Von Drachen saw a corpse lying nearby, a towel dropped over his head, thick with blood. Bloody chunks of rubble were strewn around him.
Von Drachen seized a pair of binoculars and a hand radio from a nearby sergeant.
Only the width of the river separated the bulk of his troops. He could see them now.
They were close to the next bridge, leading to the old police station on their maps. Shells had smashed much of area. Holes had been blown through the station’s facade and roof. Two blocks down from the station, the Cissean line stopped at a row of buildings ending in the smashed pharmacy, the remains of which blocked the riverside street.
On the radio Von Drachen ordered his men to climb over the tank in groups of six, engineers in the lead, in a bounding advance. Hauling a minesweeping rod, six engineers climbed the mound, and held at the top, waiting for six more men. They descended under the cover of the new arrivals; another group of six climbed, took position, and waited for the previous six to descend. Hastily his men formed up and started tackling the mound.
“Treat the locality as hostile.” Von Drachen warned them. “Someone had to be nearby to detonate those charges. Someone is watching you. They know that we are coming and they are out there. Watch the rooftops, windows, doorways and the higher stories.”
Across the river the men raised their hands to signal their acknowledgment. They moved cautiously, with the minesweeper at the fore, and a rifle pointed in every direction. One man kept his eyes forward; the minesweeper on the ground; two men covered the path upstreet once they crossed into the intersecting road; two more men watched the windows and roofs for movement. Ten meters behind them the next group of six moved in.
Von Drachen turned to the men at his side.
“From this bank, we shall organize a crossing of the bridge toward the police station. Have a dozen men move in first – if they cross and it is not a trap we move the tank next, and then more men a dozen at a time. Have everyone else stand at the balustrades and watch the other side of the river, providing covering fire if it becomes necessary.”
There was chatter on the radio. “General, nos encontramos con una mina!”
“Take care of it, carefully.” Von Drachen called. They had found a mine. Nochtish troops were equipped with bangalores to clear minefields, but they had neglected to issue such things to their Cissean allies. “Ayvartans use old style pressure mines. You can pick it up and defuse it as long as you don’t trigger the plate atop. Wedge it out carefully.”
Peering across the river, Von Drachen watched as his men approached the mine and marked the area around it. One of his engineers used pair of thin metal tools to slowly and gently lift the mine from its position, probably made to appear as though a tile or a stone. They raised the object and eyed it suspiciously. They looked stupefied – Von Drachen saw them touching something attached to the mine and felt a growing sense of alarm.
“Que hacen?” Von Drachen asked, raising his voice desperately. What are you doing?
One man raised his radio to his mouth. “General, la mina tiene un hilo–”
Von Drachen’s engineers vanished behind a sudden flash – the mine detonated into a massive fireball and a cloud of smoke. Under the rain the fire turned quickly to gas.
A crater was left behind, and the men had been blown to pieces.
Boots and shards of equipment and flesh lay scattered around the hole. It was pure explosive; no fragments whatsoever, no finesse, just a block of explosives.
That was no mine, they had picked up another demolition charge.
Urgently he called the rest of his men. “Hurry ahead, we can’t be certain when more charges will be detonated! There is no way to be safe but to close in right away!”
His men forgot the careful bounding that characterized their previous approach, and each group of six took off running the moment they hit the ground on the other side of the mound. Some of them rushed up the connecting street to check the nearby buildings for demolitions personnel; most charged down the side of the river with abandon.
Nothing exploded, nothing engaged.
They crossed the street and huddled at next building across, just south of the bridge.
Farther ahead, on the bridge, the first group of twelve Cissean men crossed without a hitch. They made it to the ration place across the street and joined their compatriots.
They signaled the tank, and it started crossing, testing first the bridge’s reaction to its weight before committing. Tracks ponderously turning, it inched across the flat brick bridge. Water surged, causing the tank to pause momentarily with each temporary swell.
Von Drachen took this opportunity and called his howitzer crews once more. “Remain in place. I will hail soon for support. What is our ammo situation like at the moment?”
“Se nos estan acabando las cargas,“ his artillery officer responded.
We’re running out of shells.
Von Drachen rubbed his own forehead. “Well that’s a pity, but how many are left?”
On the bridge the tank was nearly across when the men shouted for it to stop. Several meters away a manhole cover budged open, and the men were quick to point their rifles.
At once the tank stopped. It pointed its cannon at the manhole and waited for orders.
A pair of leather bags then flew out from the manhole and landed at the soldier’s feet.
Von Drachen saw the events unfolding and switched channels immediately.
“Step away from them! Throw grenades down that hole!”
His men scrambled back toward the bridge, and cast their grenades into the manhole once safely away from the bags. Several bright flashes and loud bangs followed and smoke trailed up from the underground. Several minutes of stand-off followed the blasts, but the bags did not go off and nothing more was seen or heard of from the open manhole.
“Those bags are certainly a trap.” Von Drachen said. “Affix bayonets, hold your rifle as far out as you can manage, pick them up by the shoulder straps, and cast them into the river. Do not jostle them too much. Timed satchel charges would have gone off already so that can’t be it – the bags may be rigged with grenades that will prime if you open the flap.”
Swallowing hard, a pair of infantrymen did as instructed, picking up the bags gingerly by the very tips of their bayonets, holding their rifles by the stock. They could hear things moving inside the bag. They called back; Von Drachen felt he was right in his suspicions.
“Pitch the things away, and once they’re blown, I want men in that hole.”
Despite the raindrops across the lenses of his binoculars he saw the same odd glinting that his men did when they lifted the bags high enough. A wire, dripping with the rain. In an instant both bags detonated, again in a bright, hot flash of fire. Demolition charges.
But the two explosions across the river were not isolated.
Blasts rolled across the streets, buildings going off like a domino effect.
Fire and smoke erupted from buildings all along the column on the eastern side of the river, as far back as the adjacent streets where the first tank had been lost. Rubble flew everywhere as seemingly the entire street across the river from Von Drachen was burnt and flung and smashed to pieces. Behind his men the ration store exploded; beside them the buildings nearest the ration shop went up into the air as well, and fell with the rain; and before them, the center of the bridge collapsed under the tank in a prodigious fireball. What remained of the vehicle slid backwards into the river and washed away downstream.
When the fires settled, there stood less than half the initial strength of the Cissean force, many swaying on their feet, ambling without direction along the ruined riverside street, some even falling off through the shattered balustrades and into the river. Of the survivors, half of them, perhaps a quarter of the four hundred men he had deployed, seemed to have their wits about them, and began to cross the streets and reconnoiter the aftermath.
Von Drachen, covering his face with his hands, grumbled. “I hope that tank doesn’t clog anything up. Messiah defend, do these people not have access to mines or grenades?”
“Street blown, bridge blown, bags blown, buildings blown. Both their tanks are out. We have unfortunately gone through most of our heavy explosives in the process.”
Every flash of lightning seemed to scramble the audio, but they heard the voice on the other end clear enough. Sgt. Agni gave the order. “Engage the enemy from your positions.”
Submachine guns, pistols and shotguns in hand, engineers gradually emerged, from the sewer tunnels, from the police station, and from within the rubble left behind the destroyed buildings. Huddling underground, they had set off charges, and maneuvered themselves into good positions where they could engage from behind newly strewn debris.
Gunfire commenced with a slug from a breaching shotgun.
Shot from inside the remains of the ration shop, the slug traveled through a slit in the rubble and punched through the jaw of an unaware man forty meters from the ruins.
Retaliation came immediately – a Cissean saw the attack and threw a grenade through the slanted, ruined remains of the ration shop window. It soared over the engineer’s cover, and it clinked down onto the floor behind him. In a split second reaction the engineer hit the dirt, and the grenade went off, scattering fragments across the interior of the ruin.
No more was heard from him. But there were still dozens ready to fight in his place.
Across the river rifles started to crack against the empty ration shop. Everyone took the sudden death of the rifleman as evidence of a sniper, and became distracted. While the Cisseans unloaded on the ration shop, engineers appeared further upstreet from sewers and ruin tunnels, and hurried to fighting positions closer to the enemy.
They hid inside building ruins and behind the piles of debris, waiting.
Within moments of the ration shop being cleared, they attacked.
Bullets suddenly rained on the Cisseans in the eastern side of the river, pummeling the balustrades from within a hundred meters. Engineers fired long, careless bursts, taking little time to aim. It was all fire for effect, and their aim was to draw the enemy away from the police station. Ayvartan forces concentrated on both sides of the line of buildings that sat across the street from the station. Around the demolished ration shop and its adjacent structures, submachine gunners sprayed the Cisseans by the river and near the bridge ruins.
Lashing trails of bullets easily picked off men still disoriented and dazed from the blasts. Men with any sense left in them rushed away from the open street, and the remnants of the column thus split into two – everyone farther north huddled near the bridge and in the shadow of the police station, while the remaining Cisseans were pinned near the corpse of their first lost tank. On the eastern bank of the river the air was thick with lead.
Previous demolitions insured that Cissean cars would find no opportunity to flank the Ayvartans, and to deploy their other heavy weapons the invaders would need to expose themselves. Trickles of men bounded through the ruins of the Pharmacy, looking to flank, but found themselves trapped by the length of the Ayvartan column, and easily rebuffed.
Heavy fire soon started to pick up from the more populated western side of the river. Machine guns and mortars fired desperately across the river to little avail. Ayvartan engineers kept themselves well-concealed in the rubble. They fired from around mounds of debris or between gaps in still-standing walls, and easily avoided retaliation by ducking or backing away. Light mortar shells failed to shatter their cover or to suppress them.
Automatic gunfire could not penetrate the rubble or accurately target the gaps, and in rain the Cissean rifle troops were visibly poor marksmen. All the men close enough to throw explosives had been forced into hiding. Both sides settled into a stalemate, exchanging fire and expending ammunition but hitting nothing. The Drachen Battalion’s options to terminate the impromptu strongholds in the eastern bank were growing limited.
Limited, but not entirely nonexistent, proven when the 15 cm shells began to fall.
It had been the hope of the Ayvartan engineers that pushing close to the enemy column would increase their reluctance to unleash their heavy artillery, but it had been a fleeting hope. Heavy shells started to crash around the eastern riverside in short intervals, pummeling the street, flattening the ruins and casting into the air the mounds of debris. The engineers hunkered down and waited out the bombardment. It was not the explosions that killed, but the shifting rubble. Several men and women were concussed and buried and crushed as the shells blasted rocks around and closed the gaps in the rubble piles.
But they accomplished their goal – none of the shells threatened the police station.
While the engineers dug in as best as they could in the rubble, across the bridge the Cisseans moved pair of mortars closer to the bridge and loaded an odd pair of shells into it. Suppressed by artillery the engineers barely spotted the mortars and could not figure out their unique significance until the shells crashed on the other side of the river without an explosion. Instead the shells stretched a series of steel cables across the eastern bank.
Minutes later, under waning gunfire from the suppressed engineers and safely away from their own bombardments, more Cisseans started crossing the fallen bridge.
Sergeant Agni walked in circles around the unmoving body of Major Madiha Nakar, rubbing her own lips and chin, thinking through the events. A simple engineering survey had become a sudden crisis. As she and the Major drove around the Umaiha earlier in the day, unbeknownst to them a lightning-fast and incredibly well-coordinated Cissean attack smashed past their defenses one after the other, making a distressing amount of progress.
Artillery and heavy weapons were systematically deployed to suppress and overrun every Ayvartan position. It was unlike any attack the Ayvartans had faced so far, and unlike every attack they believed the Cissean forces capable of launching.
This felt like what Nocht’s previous attacks should have been.
Carnage reigned across the front line, and in the scramble communications between forces was negligible. Laggard troops awoke far too late to effectively defend themselves, and were smashed past, and either killed, sent running, or forced to surrender in a panic.
Before anyone knew what was happening, the Engineers were stuck guarding the old police station along the Umaiha Riverside. Unluckily for them, the Cissean’s 15 cm sporadic rolling barrage had, of all the things it could have hit, smashed the ceiling right over Madiha. Though Agni had managed to free much of Madiha’s upper body from the rock, her lower body was not pinned by debris, but by a solid piece of concrete roof.
She was not crushed – smaller rubble wedged under the slab kept much of the pressure and weight off Madiha, but her legs were still pinned solid under it and she could not be pulled out. Sergeant Agni ran through the options in her head, her pulse quickening.
Worsening matters, none of the radios available to her seemed able to reach Army HQ.
She had told Madiha that she would bring her back safely and she would fulfill that objective. It was not merely a matter of loyalty or strategic convenience. It was something she wanted to do. As personal as it could be for her, this was a personal errand.
She had to succeed.
Sergeant Agni was a KVW Engineer.
She had the crisis training.
Fear was not a powerful thing to her.
She felt it – everyone always felt it. It didn’t go away.
But it didn’t stop her, it didn’t hurt her like it did before. Other people allowed fear to paralyze them; Agni was never overwhelmed by fear anymore. Conditioning, special drugs, sensory deprivation, hypnotic suggestion, noise exposure: a battery of tests and therapies removed from her those feelings. She had been told, during a lecture, that shaking was a response by the body – the mind wanted the body to go fetal, to curl up and feel safe, and the shaking signified your struggle against those urges, a struggle that kept you upright.
Agni never shook; her body categorically refused to go fetal. She lacked those urges.
But her heart beat faster.
Her fingers rubbed quickly against her chin and lips, satisfying an impulse to fidget. Excess energy; it was going somewhere. She was told this was natural. Was it as natural as wanting to go fetal? More? She supposed the conditioning wasn’t perfect.
Rejecting impulse, gaining clarity, emptying the mind of terrors; those were some of her reasons to join the KVW, to take the crisis training, to lose feeling. Everyone had reasons. Nobody was brainwashed. People thought it was magic. Maybe it was.
At first it felt like it. It felt like magic to be able to focus. To be able to think clearly.
Now, however, it felt like a curse. She kept walking, kept thinking. But to no avail.
Try as she might Agni could not escape the logic that her mind was settling on. She had no compulsion to reject the most straightforward, achievable solution available. Had there been no urgency she might have tried a substandard but appeasing solution. Under pressure, however, she could think of only one course, recurring horribly in her mind.
She would have to risk blowing off Madiha’s legs to save her.
“I’m going to need a satchel charge.” She called out. “Without getting a tank or a tractor in here, the only way to remove this thing is to smash it into smaller chunks.”
Outside what was left of the lobby, an engineer standing guard brought a bag and handed it to the Sergeant. His eyes wandered across the room where the Major was trapped.
“How is the situation outside?” Sergeant Agni asked.
“Cisseans have effected a crossing. Their artillery has subsided and they have begun to push forward in numbers. Our column between the blocks is making it painful.”
“How many casualties have we incurred so far?”
“Less than them.”
“Keep the teletanks in reserve. We will need them to have a chance to escape.”
“Yes ma’am.” He eyed the satchel. “Are you sure you want to use that?”
“Yes.” Sergeant Agni answered simply.
“It may hurt the Major.”
“I know that better than anyone.” Agni said. Thanks to the lack of feeling in her voice, this statement sounded almost polite, though she meant it to sound definitive and forceful.
She opened the satchel.
Inside was a block of explosive material. Carefully she cut a smaller piece off the larger explosive block, and picked the detonating mechanisms out of the satchel, affixing them to the small piece. She laid this smaller explosive atop the slab trapping the major.
“I’m not a believer, so if you are, you should pray.” Sgt. Agni said to the guard.
She did not really know the Major and did not think she could be a friend.
How did one cross that threshold between mere person and friend?
Agni did not know, but she felt Madiha was a valued comrade, and knew that she wanted to ease that pain and vulnerability that Madiha had clumsily shared with her before and that she had clumsily responded to. All of the logic of her mind pointed to the fact that she could not possibly have left her behind to die. It would have been inhuman to do so.
It was more than just her value as a commander, but her value as a person.
Feeling had been lessened, but not totally lost to her. Faith, she hadn’t ever had before.
Filled both with feeling and a longing for faith, Agni primed the charge and took cover.