This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
33rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso, 3rd Line Corps Defensive Line “Home”
A dozen rifle rounds struck the gun shield and the sandbags. They could have come from no more than 200 meters away. The gun commander crouched around the edge of the semi-circular sandbag defenses and peered out to the street with his binoculars. He saw a squadron of men, huddling around the edge of an alley on the left-hand side of the street; he called the distance and location and he pointed his gunner to them. They were getting too close.
She responded quickly, turning the heavy carriage of the Khroda water-cooled machine gun to face toward the building. Her loader, crouched beside her, picked up the ammunition belt and ducked his head. She pulled the trigger, counted two seconds, depressed, and hit again.
Short bursts of 10-20 rounds flew across the road and street. She knew her gun well, and she knew that she was hitting the alley at an angle, biting into the wall and the street feeding into the alley. Targeted by the heavy machine gun, the Grenadiers ceased firing on her shield and held back from the street. Every burst chipped pieces of concrete all around them. Any stray appendage out of cover would have been torn apart; any head or shoulder the same.
Suppression was the objective, more than killing. They had to keep the enemy away.
Noise and volume, more than accuracy, kept those men pinned down in that alleyway.
The Gun Commander patted the Gunner and Loader on the shoulders and nodded his head toward the rear of the defensive line, twenty meters back, on the street running perpendicular to theirs; in the middle of this street was Madiha’s House, and along the front of it, and around its street corners, their mortar posts. His troops understood; the Gunner nodded her head back and continued to fire on the alley. The Gun Commander left them and rushed, half-crouched, to the nearest mortar team. He told them of the suppressed Grenadiers, and they adjusted fire.
Within moments, a volley of 120mm and 82mm mortar shells started to drop in front of the alley and along the street in front of it, holding up any potential movements from that area.
When the Gun Commander returned, he raised his binoculars again and found his crew new targets. They could not wait and see if those other men had been killed — they had stopped moving and stopped shooting, but there were dozens of groups of 8-10 men scrambling their way up sector Home, and whenever they picked one to attack they ignored many others.
Directly across the defensive line from this particular gun team, a second identical model Khroda gun fired down the right-hand street to cover its own approach; the third machine gun in the middle of the defensive line laid its fire directly ahead instead, ten rounds a second streaking over the middle of the road. This crucial lane of fire was relentlessly guarded. Unlike his counterparts on the flanks, the central gunner kept his trigger down through each belt.
Steam issued from the central gun’s barrel, and grew copious as the shooting went on — the loader gingerly replaced the water-cooling jacket when next he reloaded the gun.
During this delicate operation five men from a broken squadron crossed the road, bounding from one street to the next and linking up with another group for safety. They were elusive!
For minutes at a time the battle was completely gridlocked. Gunfire and artillery rolled over the invader’s path like the swiping hand of a giant, hurling back in pieces anyone exposed to its iron claws. Whenever the brunt of a volley passed them by, small groups of Nochtish men would dare to leap closer to the defensive line, gaining their side as a whole a handful of meters, sometimes a dozen, before the weight of Ayvartan fire shifted and pinned them anew.
Little by little the grenadiers climbed their way to within 150 meters of the Ayvartan line.
Then the concerted effort began; from the end of the main street toward “Home”, driving up the road as a wedge, a platoon of M3 assault guns trundled toward the defensive line. They rolled in from the street corners, assembled, and then took their first shots northward. Seconds apart, over a dozen 75mm shells crashed in front of and behind the Ayvartan lines. A shell soared over an anti-tank gun and exploded inside of a supply tent; one detonated in front of a machine gun and stunned the crew; another burst through the window of the Major’s office.
Thankfully the Major had just decided to go, and was not there to burn in the explosion.
After the first volley the defenders were shaken up and the assault guns started on their way again, facing their armor forward and rushing toward the defensive line from 800 meters.
Though the mortars and machine guns had temporarily quieted the 122mm divisional artillery was over two kilometers away and continued to sound. Explosive detonations crept across the road from the defensive line, falling in front of and around the advancing tanks. Shells dropped from above like plunging meteors, smashing the ground and bursting into columns of fire and uprooted concrete and gravel three or four meters high, like geysers rising around the tanks.
Fragments ricocheted off armor, dust and smoke blew against slits and periscopes. Falling shells punched holes in the pavement and the tank tracks navigated them expertly, the unflinching vehicles encroaching with purpose. A glancing blow just off the side of the formation smashed the track off an M3 Hunter, and its crew abandoned it; the remaining four tanks pressed on through the swelling rains of hot debris. At 400 meters a second volley struck along the length of the street; behind the platoon the abandoned tank was hit and exploded.
Anti-tank guns from the 3rd Line Corps recovered from the shock of the 75mm shelling, and from two positions in front of Home they joined the artillery barrage. From their guns quick volleys of 45mm shells plunged down the road. Many of the shots flew high or wide and were corrected constantly against the advance of the tanks. 300 meters! Shots started to pound into the front armor. Armor-piercing projectiles plunged right into the tank’s strong, flat glacis plates and their sharp noses flattened out, detonating uselessly without any penetration.
Though more accurate by virtue of firing directly, the 45mm guns had too short barrels and too small projectiles to inflict much damage on the tanks. 200 meters; but the fire did not let up. Inside the tanks the crews felt the metal rattling around them and the hull growing hot. Slits and side hatches opened up temporarily to allow the crew some measure of fresher air.
As the tanks neared, an Ayvartan anti-tank commander spotted an opportunity through her binoculars and called in last-minute adjustments on a shot. Her gunner fired, and the 45mm shell went off; seconds later the M3 in the center of the formation stopped dead in its tracks, a smoking hole less than half a meter in diameter through its front viewing slit. It was likely that the driver had been killed and other crew injured; the Ayvartan gun commander turned her gunner toward different targets while she monitored the wreck for a second just to be sure.
Nothing, dead; but the remaining three tanks had rushed to within a hundred meters of the line. There they stopped in their tracks and turned their guns on the defenders. Artillery fire from the divisional guns now fell behind the tanks, crashing in the street dozens of meters away. The M3 assault guns had conquered the Ayvartan’s pre-planned firing area.
Within seconds of coming to a complete stop the M3 Hunters opened fire on the line. A Khroda machine gun exploded and blew back its own crew, struck dead-center by a 75mm shell and folding under the pressure wave. An explosive projectile punched into the lobby of the HQ building and smashed a hole into the staircase along the back of the room. One M3 shell went wide and exploded beside an anti-tank gun, its crew ducked behind their sandbags and suddenly showered in gravel; luckily the anti-personnel fragments largely missed them.
Having tasted blood, the assault guns adjusted their aim and prepared for their next shots.
Then from both ends of the road running behind the defensive line came reinforcements.
A pair of Hobgoblins appeared from around the street corners. They had been holding back in reserve and awaited just such a moment to strike — aiming their guns at the enemy farthest diagonally from them, they secured sharp angles on the vehicle’s exposed sides. Their 76mm guns roared at once, and with one shell each they ripped into the enemy tanks. Hatches blew open, smoke and fire belched from the cupolas, scrap metal flew into the air. Two M3 Hunter assault guns were immediately destroyed in this attack, leaving a single one behind.
Judging its mission failed, the final M3 retreated at full speed from the defensive line and slid its bulk backwards into a partially ruined storefront for cover, conceding over 200 meters. 45mm and 76mm shells crashed around it every step of the way. A Hobgoblin crawled out from behind the street corner and positioned itself where the Khroda HMG had been destroyed, filling out the gap in the line. Its coaxial and frontal machine guns flashed in place of the gun.
Nochtish men fell back and fell into place, growing timid at the appearance of enemy tanks.
And yet again Operation Surge was gridlocked under 200 meters from the defensive line.
Both sides used the lull as best as they could. The 3rd Line Corps cycled out its fatigued, wounded and dead and hastily shifted their reserves to the reeling defenders. Orders went around to slow down the gunfire, to make the belts and shells last. New firing lanes were discussed with the Svechthan artillery gunners stationed several kilometers behind the line, to account for the closer position of the enemy. But there would still have to be be a minimum range — 50 meters from the line, to avoid potential friendly fire. Trucks delivered ammunition and cooling jackets for the precious machine guns. These stayed around the corner where it was relatively safe; gun commanders rushed out to fetch crates to bring back to their posts.
Across from them, a new platoon of Grenadiers used the smoking wrecks for cover and waded up the street a handful of meters at a time, harassed by persistent artillery, tank fire, machine guns. Existing squadrons held their positions, exhausted, shaking from the noise and their own nerves. They dug themselves wherever there was concrete to cover them, and waited for help. From their vantage, those closest to the lines reported what they could on the Ayvartan disposition. They called in for armor, for artillery, for anything that could help them move. But further armor reinforcements were held up, until the Ayvartan fire abated — if it ever abated.
Then, inside the second floor of an office 200 meters from the line, a beleaguered Nochtish radio man, lying alone against a wall and putting pressure on a bullet wound in his arm, heard his radio come to life. It had been set to receive all missives, as the man hoped for rescue.
He heard a voice, crackling with static and noise. “Sturmvogel wing, 10 km from target, copy?”
South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ
Two hours into the operation Fruehauf and her girls received the first concrete reports from the front. Thirty minutes before that, they heard a man die on the radio; he had accidentally flipped his backpack set on, screaming in the midst of gunfire and artillery. There was a sound like a tin can rolling down a street, followed by a horrific wet choking and coughing on the air.
Shrieking, the girls ripped their headsets from over their ears and chucked them away. Reflexively they shut off their radios with a flick of a switch to kill that haunting noise.
Across the room General Von Sturm snapped his head up from the maps on his table.
“What the hell is their problem now? Fruehauf, control your banshees!” He shouted.
Marie and Erica were shaken up from the noise, weeping, sobbing aloud; Fruehauf assured them as best as she could. There, there, she cooed, like a mother whose children had scraped knees or burned elbows from play. She was four years older than the oldest girl; she had to be strong. She laid her hands gently on the girls’ shoulders; she told them they would not hear such things often and that, in time, they would become calls just like any other they took.
Hands shaking, choking back their sobs, the girls returned to their seats and slipped their headsets over their ears again. They turned down the volume and set the radios to receive.
She was not supposed to give in to conjecture. She had to wait for reports from officers and from reliable unit contacts who made it their purpose to give her their most accurate info. But from the noise and the corps-wide calls for support being traded about between the different officers, from the calls of infantrymen for artillery support, from artillery men for more rounds, for armor requesting patrols, and everyone requesting air support; she could piece together that things were not going so smoothly. Then again, they hardly ever did at first.
Avoid conjecture; she waited out those thirty biting minutes since they heard the man die.
At first they received a call to establish official contact. Erica alerted Fruehauf to this after picking it up. Fruehauf approached, overrode Erica’s radio through her headset and switched the radio set to enable it to call back. She sent out a message and gave the officer a special frequency to call. She switched the radio to receive again, tuning it to that frequency. She listened to the whole of his report, taking down pertinent notes on a pad on her clipboard.
Now she was not operating on conjecture, but the best facts available at the moment as to the disposition of the 6th Grenadier Division. Next the 13th Panzergrenadier called HQ. Finally, what remained of the Azul Corps called in, graciously speaking in Nochtish for her sake.
“Sir, I have with me a preliminary report on the capture of the first wave of Surge objectives.”
Every report opened with timestamps and short summaries of what was accomplished. On Koba, the way to the port was secured; in the east, paths leading north center. Matumaini was bypassed and forces had assembled and launched their first attacks on the main street in the Central District’s innermost sector, particularly on a long stretch connecting two u-shaped street intersections and dominated by a large school building. This sector was strongly defended — likely an enemy Forward Operating Base or FOB. It had priority for now.
That was the good news, brief as it was. Then came the preliminary casualty estimates.
Von Sturm did not care much for the infantry casualty reports; he had told her once in a mostly private setting that if fifteen landsers died fighting to cover a tank, he still had the tank. That was his philosophy, and in part it was also Nocht’s philosophy. Landsers as a whole applied pressure to an area. Machine gunners and mortar squads “got the job done,” they killed and disabled enemy infantry; tanks and planes “won wars” by attacking the enemy’s rear echelon and delivering heavy firepower. Ordinary riflemen merely put pressure on the enemy — they took ground and formed fighting positions to secure Nocht’s expanding influence in the area.
Nonetheless, Von Sturm could be made to take pity on them if too many died at once. Those numbers were on him, and many thousand deaths were simply inexcusable, doctrine or no.
“In the West, along Koba, casualties so far have mounted quickly to three platoons put out of action, though with relatively few dead compared to wounded. In the East, a Company was put out of action. In the Center, heavy fighting has cost two platoons. Arrival of air support and naval support should lessen the amount of casualties going forward, however.” Fruehauf said.
“A little higher than I expected for the first wave, but we have reserves for that.” Von Sturm said. “How about armor and vehicles? They better be making good on those assault guns.”
“Reports so far indicate at least 18 vehicles out of action of various types.” Fruehauf replied.
“Various types? What do you mean? Give me some specifics here.” Von Sturm demanded.
“10 M3 Hunter SPGs, 3 M4 Sentinel tanks, 4 or 5 Squire B half-tracks.” Fruehauf said.
Von Sturm grit his teeth. That was where the losses truly stung. The 2nd and 3rd Panzer Division had lost a significant number of vehicles in the Kalu. For the rest of the Vorkampfer the Matumaini, Penance and Umaiha offensives had also proven costly. Their armored fleet was down to almost half its strength. Nevertheless, Von Sturm seemed to fight his initial instinct to sequester his armor from the operation. Instead, he smiled and nodded.
“Within acceptable losses. Good. That’s what I like to hear. Reaffirm to Aschekind and his lot that I want that port, and I want them to camp beside the sea come hell or high water. I want constant pressure on the center, and I want the flanks secured. I’m not afraid about the east, but we need that port captured and those western streets shut the hell down.” He said.
Fruehauf nodded. She bowed her head in deference. “I will pass your directives to him.”
Behind them the door to the restaurant swung open; Von Drachen swung into the room, his arm in a sling, his forehead heavily bandaged. Despite all this he still wore his cap and his full uniform. Fruehauf didn’t recall a time she had ever seen him less than fully dressed. He ambled his way to the planning table, and pulled up a chair just centimeters from Von Sturm.
Von Sturm sidled his chair away from Von Drachen and glared at the arriving Cissean.
“You’re on reserve, you don’t need to be here. You should go rest.” Von Sturm said.
Von Drachen grinned. “My good man, are you worried about my health?” He said.
Von Sturm turned his head away. “You babble enough when healthy, I can’t imagine how annoying you would become when delirious. Take your medicine and go to bed.”
“I shall be just fine. Listen, you need to press your strength into the center. I’m sure she is there and you need to kill her, or this war will be hell for you in the long run.” Von Drachen said.
“See? Look at him Fruehauf, he’s practically speaking in tongues.” Von Sturm sighed. “Look you pus-addled fool, just because a woman can best you doesn’t mean she’s leading the enemy’s operations, ok? We’ve discussed this, Ayvartans press their women into military service, that doesn’t make her special. This is just a woman who defeated you and nothing more!”
“As far as our information is concerned, Elijah Gowon is still leading Ox.” Fruehauf said.
“Oh dear, not you too? I thought you were on my side.” Von Drachen chuckled.
Fruehauf frowned. “I’m on the side of information; that is part of my job, I’m afraid.”
“Thank you!” Von Sturm said, spreading his arms toward her as if to hold her up. “Finally someone here is speaking sense. Don’t worry though, we will have the central district in our grasp shortly. Then we will take the fight to the wider-open north district, where these Ayvartan rat-hole tactics that have caused us so much grief cannot be employed.”
“I have a feeling it will be more difficult than that. But you’re right. We’ll see.”
Von Drachen sat back contentedly in his chair. Von Sturm stared at him in confusion.
Fruehauf nonchalantly left the side of the table, and returned unmolested to her fiefdom of wires and waves. She gave Erica and Marie a friendly squeeze on the shoulder, and hoped their nerves would not become a casualty of the day; that was one kind of casualty that crept up all too often and was never mentioned in the reports. So far, everything seemed to be on track. She had to tell herself that. At the time, with the information available — they were winning.