This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
* * *
Kern’s mind was racing and he couldn’t think right. He felt a thrumming just under the skin of his head, and a shaking along his back and his limbs. He couldn’t concentrate and he couldn’t spare the time to think. Instead he kept himself behind the rearmost house on the block and tried his best to breathe and to focus on mechanical movements. Speaking happened in his throat, not his head; peeking out from cover and back into it was all his legs, not his mind.
At least Eagle-3 had taken care of their most pressing problem. Those tanks had been like a guillotine blade racing toward them. Absent their guns the whole street felt eerily quiet.
A team of three men gingerly climbed aboard the smoking wreck of the last enemy tank and flipped the hatches. One man peered in– red streaks exploded from his back as a burst of submachine gun fire tore through him at close range. His body collapsed into the wreck and the men behind him fell back from the hull. They stacked against the intact left track and lobbed their grenades through a gap in the chassis. Light and fire flashed momentarily through the multitude of thumb-sized holes across the hulk. Smoke blew from the engine block and hatch.
That had been Kennelmann — they had shot Kennelmann. Nobody checked if he was alive, though he almost certainly wasn’t. They left him hanging inside the tank’s cupola. Kern left him too. His mind was off Kennelmann and onto the next flash of sensory input in mere seconds.
“Clear!” shouted the men. Kern watched from a mere dozen meters away from the wreck. Then he crouched beside his radio again, and he informed Eagle-3 of the successful kills. He tried to ignore how the gun on the turret was turning toward him the whole time Eagle showered it in lead. Even a fraction less gunfire might have allowed it to shoot and vaporize him utterly.
His relief did not last very long. Automatic fire cut across the road from up the street. Joining the sounds of small arms were the buzzing engines of the archer planes, and the cry of the wind and the screeching of their guns as they swooped down from the sky and attacked. Bursts of cannon fire hit the dirt just off the tank wreck and kicked up dust almost as bad as a shellfall.
Crouched down, Kern sidled into cover behind the house and pulled his radio along with him.
A series metallic thuds alerted him; there were enemies stacking up. He snuck a glance.
There were black uniforms, dark faces, black hair, machine guns in hand. They were half-visible behind the thin smoke of the dying engine and the sloped metal body of the tank.
Kern retreated back behind the wall of the house. He heard the first gunshots traded between the Ayvartans and his own men, and then the diving of the planes. Long bursts of automatic airborne fire swept across the top of the tank and over the house, perforating the roof.
Chunks of brick and wood and tile rained down on him; Kern covered his head. “Eagle, hold your fire on the enemy infantry!” He shouted into the radio. “They’re too close to us now!”
A diving plane overhead came close to the house and the tank and tore abruptly skyward without shooting. Eagle’s formation broke apart and they started to bank away and circle.
Kern sighed with relief. His lungs were raw and his throat dry. All the water in his body seemed to have gone out through his skin. He felt clammy and cold under his uniform, and yet also a burning sensation across the fragment wounds, and also under his helmet, cooking in the sun–
There was a shadow at the edge of his vision, and he almost thought a monster was bearing down on him; Kern turned over his shoulder and found Captain Aschekind dashing toward the house. When this colossus of a man put his back to the wall Kern thought he felt it shake. He put the radio handset down and stood, saluting the Captain. Aschekind nodded to the road.
“Third company is right behind me.” The Captain intoned. “Third battalion is on its way.”
“Then the entire Regiment will be pushing down this block.” Kern muttered weakly to him.
“That is Operation Surge.” Aschekind replied. “Eyes ahead and on your men, soldier.”
Kern nodded his head. Worrying about 3000 men was the Regiment’s job after all; he could scarcely comprehend the movement of the fifty men all around him and the few hundred coming in behind him. Let alone the thousands that composed the entirety of the Regiment.
He felt a sudden sense of relief. He was not in command now. He did not have to make any decisions. All of this was not on him anymore. It was too enormous. He was glad to be rid of it.
“On my signal, we move ahead.” Aschekind shouted. There were maybe a dozen men who could have heard him. He turned to Kern. “Forget your rifle right now. Draw your pistol.”
“Yes sir.” Kern said. He felt the grip of fear, seizing upon his neck, his stomach, into his calves, as though a pump forcing ice water down his vein. He set his rifle behind his back with its strap, and drew out his semi-automatic Zwitscherer pistol, with its long, thin barrel and its characteristic broom handle and magazine forward of the trigger. He made sure it was loaded.
Periodic bursts of fire over the dirt road reminded them of the presence of their enemy.
And yet the more he thought about it, the more relieved Kern became. Even if he hadn’t had a chance to rest, for once he felt like fighting. He did not want to look like a child in front of the Captain. Running and shooting was something he could do if Captain Aschekind was ahead of him. He was more like a tank than he was a man — Kern wondered if bullets even harmed him.
“Move quickly; try to use the smoke on the road to your advantage.” Aschekind said to him.
Aschekind produced a grenade round from under his coat and pushed it into place in his gun. The Sturmpistole split almost in half when loading, and snapped back into shape when the round was properly set. It was a 27mm gun, essentially a short cannon in the Captain’s hands.
“There are four behind the tank; three in the middle of the street; twelve around the ruins on the left; eight around the ruins on the right; ten more incoming.” Aschekind said. He raised his gun with one hand, cocked it; with the other hand he withdrew a fragmentation grenade.
Kern raised his pistol, holding it in both his hands. He steeled himself for Aschekind’s signal.
“Out!” Aschekind shouted, and in the next instant the Captain hurtled out of cover and shot his oversized pistol down the road, laying the grenade round in front of a group of submachine gunners and disorienting them. Bursts of blind gunfire passed him by as he rushed up the road. He threw the frag behind the tank, catching the Ayvartans in hiding behind the wreck. With these immediate threats suppressed, the dozen men across the street ran out to join them.
Kern, Aschekind and the landsers ran forward as a loose group. Smoke blew across the road from the rockets and the collapsed houses and from shellfalls in the dirt. Bullets cut through the cloud in short bursts and thin streaks from haphazard locations. As they ran the men traded rifle fire. Aschekind reloaded his pistol on the run and fired, launching the grenade over the ruins. Kern held his pistol out and shot, rapping the trigger every few steps he took.
From within the haze he put two bullets into the chest of a woman carrying a machine gun, and several into the legs of a pair of men on the road, dazed by Aschekind’s first grenade. Three more shots went wide into the ruin and his pistol clicked empty. He pushed a stripper clip into the integral magazine. As a whole the squadron charged to thirty meters from the enemy.
Kern paused and raised his sights to his eyes. A man exposed himself to shoot from around the corner of one of the ruined houses, and Kern hit him twice in the collarbones.
He almost celebrated the kill, but soon as the body fell a woman appeared in his place, crouched behind the rubble. Kern kept shooting, hitting the debris, forcing her down.
He saw the characteristic conical barrel extension of a Danava LMG rise over the bricks.
Kern froze up as a burst of blind gunfire enfiladed the group. He felt a round graze his leg and stepped clumsily away. Behind him three men dropped to the ground, hit several times each.
Kern retreated, shooting his pistol blindly at the debris as he stepped toward the ditch.
But the woman was not the only one shooting. A squadron of enemy riflemen cleared the slope and set their sights directly on the advancing landsers from a mere twenty meters away. Like a firing line from a war a hundred years ago the Ayvartans crouched, aimed and opened fire.
“Off the road now!” Aschekind shouted, “get onto the roadside ditch and get down!”
As a trail of rifle rounds raced by them, Aschekind and Kern dove into the ditch. On their bellies, the ditch provided much better cover than it did while they were standing. Bullets flew over them, and crashed into the dirt atop both sides of the ditch. Kern saw the little pillars of dust and dirt wherever the rounds hit, like shell impacts in miniature. Just one through his head was all it would take — and they were already falling a dozen at a time, too damn close.
They started to crawl forward, loading their weapons against the ground. Aschekind raised his heavy pistol and fired over the ditch. There was a blast, but Kern couldn’t see the effect. He raised his own hand out of cover but retracted it when he felt dirt whipping against his fingers. One good shot from those enormous Ayvartan rifles would take his whole hand!
Ayvartan fire sounded like firecrackers now, all in a row, crack-crack-crack-crack. Dozens of bullets lodged into the sides of the ditches. Dozens more flew south to cover the dirt road.
“Keep shooting!” Captain Aschekind said. “Drop your rifles and use your pistols!”
Kern swallowed hard, gathering his courage. He raised his shaking hand up and over again and rapped the trigger on his pistol. Behind him a few more broomhandles sounded as the rest of the men dropped their rifles and pulled their Zwitscherers out to fire blind over the road.
Along the ditch the smell of gunpowder grew almost intolerable. Kern felt sick. Would he die here? He hadn’t moved a centimeter in what seemed like a minute now. There was dust all around him and smoke blowing over the street. Raising his hand to shoot felt like a monumental effort. He had never felt so heavy. He held down the trigger — nothing.
He scrambled to pull a clip out from under himself and fumbled to load it into his gun.
He heard an unfamiliar sound. Tinkling metal, like the drop of a coin on the ground.
Several of Kern’s allies screamed and struggled behind him, “Throw it back! Throw it back!”
A deafening blast followed. Kern, who had been so keen on the sounds around him, his only means of detecting the enemy, now heard only a loud whistling. Dirt and grass fell over him in chunks, thrown up by the blast; along with a splash of something brown and grotesque. For several seconds he felt his body numb, and he thought he was hit. His eyes watered over.
Ahead of him, Captain Aschekind rolled on his side, and produced his own Zwitscherer pistol.
Three shadows appeared over the ditch with bayonets, knives and pistols in hand. Their mouths moved and Kern could not hear them. He could only hear that whistling, tunneling through his ears into his brain, and the movements of his jaw, and the swallowing of saliva.
Aschekind blasted through two of them, shooting them several times in the chest and knocking them onto their backs, while the third man pounced upon him with a knife in his hand.
Kern did not stop to think, even if it was too close, even if it could lead to friendly fire; he discharged his pistol into the unfolding struggle several times, trying to shoot high.
He heard nothing, he couldn’t hear his gun going off, couldn’t hear the Captain struggling. He unloaded all ten in his clip, and he couldn’t hear his gun clicking. He just felt the empty recoil.
For a second everything stopped moving. Then Aschekind kicked the dead body off of him, and reloaded his heavy pistol once again. Undeterred, he would continue fighting. Again the rifles from across the street struck all along the ditch. Nothing was over yet. Kern hadn’t won a thing.
How many had he killed so far? He was fighting, he was fighting, and yet, it didn’t end. He dropped his pistol at his side, and curled up in the ditch. He shook. He wept and shook.
It didn’t end; no one act of heroics he dared undertake would ever end this horrible war.
On his side in that bloody ditch, dirt falling over him from the rounds tearing up the turf, desperate to bite into him instead, Kern lay immobile. He couldn’t even hear himself sob.
Slowly the ringing in his ears faded. Then he was startled by the sound of gnashing metal.
And the screaming of a gun! He saw a flash from across the road and felt the heat. A heavy shell soared into the brick ruins and threw back the Ayvartans huddling behind the debris. Was he saved? He felt a burst of energy and raised his head. He watched as a pair of assault guns moved forward together, commanding the middle of the road and sheltering a squadron of men behind each. While the machines charged past the ditch, several men peeled away from the tank and lifted Captain Aschekind, and Kern, and several wounded, dragging everyone behind the machines. More and more men came running up the street behind the tanks.
This must have been the third battalion, a fresh injection of men into the western Surge attack. Overhead the Archer planes hurtled northbound to support the suddenly mobile column. The Ayvartans fell back, he could see figures cutting away from the ruins and back downhill.
Kern felt a little more lucid but his body was still spent. He could barely move even with the help of two men. Everyone manhandled him like he was a dummy, like he was an object, pulling him around like he had no force of his own. When the tank came to a full stop, the men laid him against the machine’s warm rear plate, and they left him for a medic to tend to.
Behind the M3 Hunter a combat medic stuck him and the Captain with a morphine syrette, slipped a honey and mint drop into Kern’s mouth, gave the two a quick examination. Aschekind seemed almost contemptuous of the procedure. He waved away the medic after receiving the injection and allowing him to look briefly under his shirt. Kern caught a glimpse of scars all across his thick, rippling chest — and a fresh bloody wound along his burly shoulder
“I shot you.” Kern said weakly. His hand shook. He thought he still had his gun there.
“You shot the enemy more.” Captain Aschekind replied. “I would’ve done the same.”
“Sir, I’m sorry. I can’t. I can’t keep going.” Kern said. His jaw started to slack. He was forgetting to close his mouth. He was breathing through it. His nose was running heavily, like his eyes.
Captain Aschekind turned his head from him suddenly. He looked around the tank.
His eyes drew wide, he seized Kern by the arm. “Revisit those feelings later, Private!”
Aschekind took the immobile Kern over his back like a bag, and he broke into a sprint; and behind him the earth shook. Kern felt the shaking through Aschekind’s body, through his burly arms holding the boy’s limp body in place. Kern looked behind him, and saw the brightest flash and the biggest blasts yet. Behind them the tanks were consumed in flame; Aschekind leaped into the ditch again. A wave of heat and pressure and metal fragments swept over them.
On “turret hill” a few hundred meters from them the turrets had finally come alive.
* * *
“Eagle-3, this is Patriarch.” A calm female voice hailed the Archers over the radio. Patriarch meant the Vorkampfer HQ. This was probably Ms. Fruehauf speaking on behalf of General Von Sturm. “Our destroyer-leader Kummetz is moving on the port. It is vital that the coastal defense guns are destroyed so that it can occupy the wharf: 250 kg bombs are authorized.”
Along the ground it might have been difficult for the men to notice, but from the air, Eagle-3 got a good glimpse of the Kummetz, a long, sleek destroyer, unleashing its guns from afar on the roads leading to the harbor, cutting off the expanding Ayvartan column. Eagle-3 saw a noticeable decrease in the flow of Ayvartan troops coming to challenge Prospector’s position, and a surge of men from the south pushing up to relieve him and the Captain. So far so good.
Then the coastal guns began to turn southward. They opened fire with a resounding clamor, heard even from far overhead. Four guns targeted the M3s freshly arrived and smashed them like a mallet hitting a can; the last turret turned to the sea and opened fire on the approaching vessels. One of the torpedo boats moving along the flank of theKummetz dashed right into a shell and was crippled as it detonated. Water and foam blew into the air as the second shell exploded just off the destroyer’s bow. The Kummetz slowed and turned away from the shore; meanwhile the Nochtish infantry attack sputtered out immediately under heavy fire.
“You heard the lady,” Eagle-3 said to his men. “Get your bomb sights ready and make it count!”
He could no longer pay attention to the tussle between the infantry. There were three turrets, and he might just need all five bombs to take them out. Eagle-3 would not be performing the first attack; as the senior flyer, he would circle the strike area and watch his men first.
“Eagle-1 and Eagle-2, you’re up first. Try to drop your 250s in between the turrets. If we can get all of them like that we might be able to drop some to help out the boys.” Eagle-3 said.
Eagle-3 watched his men break off and coordinated them via radio. They flew east, turned around, and achieved the proper altitude and angle. Everything was textbook. They lined up, gathered speed, dove down, and got themselves ready to snap up and drop the bomb.
Just as they readied to attack, the aircraft met a sudden hail of anti-aircraft fire. They dropped their heavy payloads at the foot of the hillock, blasting apart dirt and concrete but little else.
Hundreds of small caliber autocannon fragmentation rounds exploded around the planes, and they banked away with smoking wings and torn fuselages. Eagle-1 went up in flames right before Eagle-3’s eyes. Eagle-2 was losing altitude, its propellers starting to spin down.
“Eagle-2, pull away south! South! Try to land behind our lines!” Eagle-3 screamed.
But the limping plane could not handle this task. Burning up, Eagle-2 crashed through a building several kilometers away nearer to the city center. Eagle-3 cursed aloud. That was Heidemann — he liked Heidemann! He’d drunk with Heidemann before. God damn it.
His mind was in a furious rage. He felt a haze. Was it the G-forces? He shook his head.
Again the seaward turret opened fire, splashing the Kummetz along its bow.
No direct hits — the ship kept moving parallel to shore. But those two shells were too close.
Mourning would have to wait. Heidemman wouldn’t have wanted them to fuck up a mission in his name. He would have wanted victory — yes, that was it. That would suffice for now.
Eagle-3 hailed the rest of the flight groups, “Eagle-8, Eagle-12; we’ve got AA around the big guns. Requesting concentration, we need the whole Flight to take these turrets out now!”
Soon as he was done speaking, he found the turrets reorganizing themselves below him — one toward the sea, one covering the road, and the middle turret pointed skyward. Two 100mm fragmentation shells burst from below and exploded in the sky. Eagle-3 banked away from the explosions and put some distance between himself and Turret Hill until the Flight could gather.
He received a pair of acknowledgments from the other leaders. Every Archer plane belonging to Eagle Flight flew away from their objectives, and then they assembled like vultures peering down at Turret Hill. Organized into their groups, they prepared to attack. Light anti-aircraft fire from impromptu positions around the hill burst around them, little clouds forming in the air wherever a shell went off. Heavy machine gun tracer fire lit up the airspace a dizzying array of colors. Eagle-3 spotted trucks, hiding behind the hillock, playing host to the AA guns.
Shells from the central turret exploded dangerously close to his plane, and again Eagle-3 banked away in a rush. The Kummetz fired its main guns from the sea, but they came up short, crashing into the road just off the hillock. Meanwhile the coastal guns continued to batter the ocean around the destroyer and lay down fire on the advancing Grenadiers.
“Everyone in position?” Eagle-8 asked over the radio.
“Ready whenever.” Eagle-3 replied. “Make this count. I lost men, I want this done.”
“Cool off, Eagle-3. We all know what’s at stake here.” Eagle-8 said.
Eagle-3 honestly appreciated being told to shut up. He needed it now.
“We’re all ready here. Droppin’ 250s right? Who goes where?” Eagle-12 asked.
“How’s about you and Eight make the wings and I form the beak? We can hit ‘em from everywhere. Killing the turrets is paramount, but some dead AA is fine too.” Eagle-3 said.
“Affirmative. We’ll do our best for the guys you lost, Eagle-3.” Eagle-12 replied.
Eagle-3 formed up alongside his men in a tight three-plane arrowhead; Eagle-8 and Eagle-12 instead spread out, the ten remaining craft fanning along the east and west to swoop down from the flanks. Eagle-3 and his men would be attacking up the middle. All of the planes built up altitude and distance; one by one planes started peeling away from the circle just far enough apart to avoid each other but close enough that they would divide the air defenses or if lucky, bypass them completely. Half a dozen planes hurtled toward turret hill, snapped up, and dropped their bombs; the next half-dozen quickly followed, each attack mere seconds apart.
Heavy bombs dropped around the hillock, blowing anti-aircraft guns into the sky, blasting apart trucks, punching deep holes into the road. Wind and direction and altitude all contributed to the trajectory of the bomb. Not for lack of trying, many of the bombs landed far apart and off-target. There was heavy damage across the hill; but the air defense was tenacious and scored its own kills. One plane crashed down almost alongside its own bomb, another two were hit directly, speared through the cockpit by heavy machine gun fire and brought down. Two planes flew through the curtain of fire and came out with heavily pockmarked wings.
Eagle-3 and his group soared blindly through the curtain, snapped up, and prayed.
He wasn’t hit; Eagle-3 pulled away from the tracers and the autocannon rounds, alive.
A massive pressure wave just below him sent a spray of metal far up into the air.
He saw flaming shards rush past his plane and rolled away in fear. Was it a frag round?
“Got visual! We hit the turrets! Blew those suckers up sky high!” Eagle-8 cheered.
“Sky-high is right.” Eagle-3 said. “Holy shit. We sent the whole hill into the air.”
Turret hill had practically become a hole in the ground. A few of the bombs must have smashed through the entry hatches and the explosions must have set off the magazine for the turrets; every 100mm shell packed into the bunkers must have gone off for an effect like that. There was only a bonfire, thick pillars of black smoke over a row of steel wrecks sitting atop several impact craters. Not a single round more of anti-aircraft fire flew their way.
“Eagle, I– I lost everyone here. All four of my guys. I, um–” Eagle-12 said. “I can’t–“
“I lost a man too. We’ve only got eight planes left then, god damn.” Eagle-8 said.
“Then we all know what it feels to lose an ally today.” Eagle-3 said. He sighed into the radio, taking a hand off his instruments and nursing a knot of pain in his temple. “Twelve, you should retreat from the air space. We’ve got this covered. You can’t keep going on your own.”
“I agree. Go back to base. We’ll buy you a drink when we get back. You did good. Don’t blame yourself for what happened. We all take a risk when we lift off.” Eagle-8 added.
“Verstanden.” Eagle-12 stammered. He hung on the Ver, he was clearly very shaken.
His plane flew turned away from the rest and headed south, quickly disappearing. This left seven planes in the air space — two under Eagle-3 and three with Eagle-8.
“Three, you and your men got any ordnance left?” Eagle-8 asked.
“Nothing. Just cannon ammo. Definitely nothing that’d hurt a ship.”
“Shit. We were the air superiority squad. Eagle-12 and his men had all the remaining anti-armor rockets. I’ve got nothing but machine guns now.” Eagle-8 said.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take water duty; you keep watching the skies.” Eagle-3 said.
Free to move, the Kummetz increased its speed and headed for the upper wharf. Eagle-3 and his wingmen soared over the lower wharf and out to sea to meet them. They were maybe a kilometer off the coast. On Eagle-3’s instructions the formation broke off to cover the rear and flanks of the vessel. Eagle-3 headed out west, just a little deeper into the ocean.
He did not have to go too far to find an unforeseen problem. He could hardly believe his eyes in fact, and he called Patriarch to confirm something. “Can the Kummetz detect ships?”
Patriarch was slow to answer. After about a minute she returned. “No, currently only a few of our battleships are fitted with detection gear. A destroyer has no such equipment.”
“Ok, well, I think you better call them and tell them there’s something headed this way.”
“Something? Please confirm the number of enemies and the types.” Patriarch asked.
“Several really big ships that I can do literally nothing to stop!” Eagle-3 shouted. “Over!”