Absolute Pin (21.4)

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This story segment contains scenes of graphic violence and death and psychological distress.

* * *

“Follow the tanks to victory! Forward! Forward, men! Our objective is within reach!”

Aschekind bellowed out at the top of his lungs, holding his pistol in the air. Everything was smoke and fire, Kern could barely follow along, he felt sick, he was practically hobbling. A pair of M4 tanks ahead provided cover as the third battalion and the remnants of the first and second — the entire regiment — hurried past the smoking, charred remains of Turret Hill.

A few squadrons of men divided from the column and rushed out to the lower wharf, bayoneting tarps on empty fishing boats and storming the little guard house there.

Most of the column scrambled to the north. The M4’s guns boomed, targeting wherever a muzzle flash was seen. Shells smashed into the warehouses ahead, punched right through abandoned containers and crashed into the port authority office. There was little cover between the wharf and the dirt road, so the Ayvartans fought from ditches by the sides of the road.

Third battalion had not expended its strongest men and best equipment yet. Because they did not have to struggle up Koba, they had many Norgler machine guns chopping across the ditches, tearing apart exposed Ayvartans who stood resolutely before them. They had mortars set up along the ruined houses where Kern had lost Schloss and his group, shooting ahead of the tanks and keeping the Ayvartans off the streets and the road, forcing their heads down.

All the Ayvartans had left at their disposal were platoons of inexpressive KVW troops with their various small arms. Someone should have told them of their position. Despite being outgunned their stubborn resistance forced the third battalion to pay with a corpse every few meters.

Those black uniformed soldiers scared Kern. They didn’t care when you shot them. They just stood there in the face of everything. Crouched in the ditches their light machine gunners put a steady stream of fire down the road until the tank’s machine guns or a lucky shot from a grenadier put them down. Several crouched as though dead only to throw grenades out onto the road when a squadron of landsers passed them by. Kern had seen them run out into the sight of a Norgler, discharging their rifles against the gunner with no concern for their own life. It paid off more than once — several Norgler LMGs were now crewed only by their loaders.

Several others lay discarded, waiting to be picked up by the next wave of grenadiers.

Meter by meter they cleared the way, and finally the M4 tanks cruised ahead onto the massive concrete structure of the upper wharf. They cleared a long and gently sloping ramp leading from the dirt onto the level concrete floor of the wharf, a few meters higher than the road.

Bursts of machine gun fire leveled several wooden crates arranged ahead of the ramp, and killed a handful of desperate troops using them for cover. Their turrets then turned to a nearby warehouse and cast shells deep into the structure, blasting through shutter doors.

Aschekind stood at the foot of the ramp and he ushered men up into the wharf. Kern set down his radio and put his back to the concrete. At once the entire column seemed to hurtle forward.

Men ran up the ramp and charged out onto the berths, into the warehouses, and up to the cranes. Sporadic fire from the warehouses gave them little pause. The 6th Grenadier was overrunning the port, each man running on the momentum of a dozen around him. This was it! Their final Surge objective for the day and they had claimed it before the sun went down!

“Get up. We will take a commanding position in the port authority office.” Aschekind said.

Kern nodded weakly. He had barely a thought left in his head. Looking haggard and pale, he picked up his radio by its handle and carried it up the ramp alongside Aschekind.

As they cleared the ramp, the entire left wall of the port authority office collapsed to reveal a little garage, probably for rescue or liaison vehicles. It had a closed shutter door, for a moment.

Until something walked through the shutters as though they were barely even there.

A muzzle flashed from inside the building, and a shell pierced the exposed side of an M4.

Aschekind and Kern tumbled back as the stricken tank exploded violently. They crouched, the sides of the ramp offering some protection as they watched the unidentified Ayvartan heavy tank trundle out of the remains of the port authority building. It was like an old lion, scarred by hundreds of battles to maintain its territory. One of its track guards had been blown clean off. One track looked to be on its last few spins, riddled with bullet marks. All across its front from the gun mantlet to the glacis, over a dozen cavities had been burnt into its face by weak shell impacts. On the turret overhang was a small hole, maybe from a point blank panzerbuchse shot.

And yet, it challenged them again, the tank that had killed so many. Like the black-uniformed Ayvartans it seemed to have no sense of self-preservation. As long as it could make them bleed it would fight. Kern’s whole body started to shake as it turned its turret to face the remaining tank. The M4 Sentinel opened fire directly into its glacis plate at under a hundred meters.

Finally there was concrete damage — the shell smashed the front hatch off the Ayvartan tank, exposing the concussed driver behind the sticks, bleeding profusely from her head. But this was not the end for the tank. In retaliation the monster, the entire rest of its crew still willing to fight, unleashed its own, larger, stronger gun, and blew open the M4’s turret from front to back. So brutal was the impact that the gun barrel went flying, the mantlet burst open, and the explosion ripped apart the back of the turret, exposing the dead gunner and commander.

The M4’s side hatch slid open and the remaining crew ran out, nursing bloody wounds.

Nobody evacuated from the Ayvartan tank. Another woman pulled the driver away and took her place. Within seconds the giant tank backed into the building, turned, and exited out onto the berths. It opened fire again, its cannon and machine guns blaring as it enfiladed the troops charging ahead. Behind Kern and Aschekind, frightened landsers started to pile up to watch the scene. Watching their comrades speared through the back, they stared helplessly.

Captain Aschekind turned to Kern. “Do you know how to throw one of these?”

Panzerwurfmines — the canvas-finned anti-tank grenade given to every few landsers as a last resort against tanks. Aschekind had one in hand, and Kern had one in his pouch. Kern’s had belonged to a man he had barely known who had died on the 25th. Kern didn’t remember his name. Kern didn’t remember very many names at the moment. He remembered little at all.

But he had seen film of men throwing the things, and he had seen men throw it in the flesh.

He found himself nodding to the Captain, and saying “Yes sir!” He felt suddenly as though watching his own body from afar. He was at once both scared witless and moving forward.

“I don’t trust anyone else to do this.” Captain Aschekind said. “Run right behind me, and throw with me at the engine block. I know that you can do this, Private Kern Beckert.”

Kern nodded again. He withdrew the Panzerwurfmine and held it by its stick handle.

Captain Aschekind leaped up the solid sides of the ramp and onto the concrete again. Kern pulled himself up, lacking the man’s monstrous athleticism. They stacked up behind the wreck of the M4, and moved around its side. A mere thirty meters away the Ayvartan tank had stopped, leisurely blasting apart every concentration of men it found in the open.

Both its machine guns and its tank guns were facing away. Its rear armor was exposed.

Without warning Aschekind ran out; but Kern ran right behind him. Ayvartan rifle fire buzzed over from the warehouses to the left. Officer and Private both stopped within fifteen meters, pulled the covers off the bottom of their grenades, reared back, and threw. In the air the canvas spins opened, and as the bombs descended they started to spin, stabilizing their trajectories.

Aschekind’s bomb landed on the beast’s track and burst right through it, sending road wheels flying and splitting the brutalized track clean in half. A small chunk of the sideplate ripped.

Kern’s panzerwurfmine blew right through the engine block and set the beast ablaze.

He would have celebrated — but then a rifle bullet hit the concrete beside him. He and the Captain ran out to the burning tank and crouched with it between them and the enemy.

“I hit it sir!” Kern said. He started to weep. Finally he had destroyed the goddamned thing!

“Yes. You did.” Aschekind replied. “I knew you would. In my time, I did it as well.”

Kern blinked, not quite recognizing what this meant. He smiled weakly, and breathed deep.

Emboldened by the destruction of the tank, the men grouping around the foot of the ramp finally ran up and charged the warehouses on the left, taking the fight to the Ayvartans and getting some heat off of Kern and the Captain. They walked out from behind the tank. Nobody inside was coming out. Kern dared not check the front hatch. He remembered Kennelman.

Captain Aschekind threw a fragmentation grenade inside and walked away. Kern did not see the blast. He was not paying attention to it. He just stood off to the side, waiting.

“You left your radio behind?” Captain Aschekind asked him.

“Yes sir. Sorry. I thought I would run faster without it.” Kern said.

“Go back and signal to the Kummetz that the port of Bada Aso is ours.”

Kern nodded. He felt a thrill through his whole body. They had won. It didn’t bring back Schloss or Kennelman or all the men whose names Kern had forgotten or never bothered to even learn but they had won. It was not for nothing. 6th Grenadier completed its objective.

He ran back out to the ramp, picked up his radio, and tried to remember the naval contact frequency. There might not even have been one — maybe he had to go through Patriarch. He wracked his brain for it. Out across the wharf he saw the Destroyer approaching.

He almost wondered if he could contact it directly, it seemed so close to them. Perhaps that was only because of its size. It was a very large ship — Kern thought he had never seen its like before, and he had traveled to Cissea in a pretty large ship. Bristling with guns, over a hundred meters long, once the ship parked in one of the berths, the port was as good as theirs. From the ground the Ayvartans would never be able to overcome the firepower of the Kummetz.

Crouched beside the radio, Kern found it had an even bigger hole in it than he remembered.

One of the vacuum tubes was shot — he could see right through it. Whenever he turned the dial it caused a little spark in the box. He felt a sting and drew his hand away from the radio.

Sighing, he stood up and called out at the approaching men. “Anyone got a working radio?”

Nobody acknowledged him — as soon as he spoke a horrifying bellow sounded at sea.

Kern crouched and covered his head instinctively when he heard the explosions. Crawling up the ramp on his belly, he looked out onto the water and his mouth hung open.

Shelling commenced from farther out at sea; heavy bombardment turned the bridge of the Kummetz into a smoldering column of fire belching smoke into the sky. Its forward turrets turned westward and replied in kind, but Kern could not see clearly what the destroyer was attacking at first. A salvo from the destroyer’s two heavy guns flew over the water.

He produced his binoculars and struggled to keep them steady. He looked over the water.

Closing in on the wharf was a massive Ayvartan ship, larger than the Kummetz. Two smaller ships behind it were screening for what seemed like a troop transport. Two dozen aircraft in groups of four overtook the vessels and soared over the wharf, tangling with the outnumbered Nochtish aircraft. These were not the old biplanes he saw in photos and diagrams. They were sturdy-looking monoplane designs flying in tight formations. They must have come from a carrier not far from the berth-breaking group headed for the port.

Kern watched as a pair of Archer planes out at sea were overtaken by the incoming aircraft and quickly devoured by machine gun fire. Noses and wings lit up across the Ayvartan formations — each craft had multiple machine guns. Ambushed and bitten apart the Archers smoked, spun out, and crashed into the water without putting up any kind of a fight. Completely wiped out.

Shadows then swept across the terrain. Men started to retreat out of the wharf area.

On the lead Ayvartan ship a pair of enormous main guns sounded, and within seconds the deck of the Kummetz was rocked by a series of explosions. Turrets burst into clouds of shredded steel, and the bow of the destroyer started to take on water. Men leaped overboard and swam away. Across the water the rising flames and smoke rippled in nightmarish reflections.

The remaining Motor Torpedo Boat accompanying the Kummetz did not even attempt to launch its ordnance. Its crew dropped anchor close to shore and abandoned ship, the crew rushing for the beaches and up the rocky incline to Koba and the Nochtish lines.

At the edge of the pier a short concrete berth for support craft exploded violently and dropped a dozen men to sea. Across from the Port Authority building machine gun fire speared across a the front of a block of warehouses and dashed several men securing the area. Ayvartan aircraft were diving with impunity, coming down like birds of prey, their talons slashing across the open concrete. Without any kind of allotted anti-aircraft weapons and the destroyer in flames, they were helpless. At least ten Ayvartan aircraft buzzed over the port of Bada Aso, reigning over the sky. Several more aircraft overflew the port and penetrated to the central district.

Soon as the Kummetz started to visibly sink, a naval volley thundered across the wharf.

Kern looked around for Captain Aschekind, and couldn’t find him until he peered over his binoculars. The Captain and a few men retreated from the warehouses and ducked along the ramp beside Kern. There was nobody fighting anymore. They were all just targets now.

“Private Beckert, report to HQ, we are retreating!” Captain Aschekind said.

Kern started to shake. He couldn’t speak anymore. He felt like someone had plunged a knife right into his brain. All around him, as easily as they had triumphed, the 6th Grenadier had failed. Everything had swung against them in what seemed like seconds. After all that struggle, all of that death. It took less than half an hour to completely dismantle them.

All that escaped from his mouth was a stammering, “vacuum tube’s shot. Can’t speak.”

South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

Fruehauf’s hands trembled as she listened to the report from the seaside.

“The Regiment is done.” Aschekind said. “Between the three battalions we have maybe 500 men left holding scattered positions. We were too exposed out on the port and the road.”

“That’s still almost a battalion-sized force.” Fruehauf said. “You can maintain your positions until the rest of the Division can be forwarded to support you. Think of it as a bridgehead.”

“It cannot hold. Those guns out at sea are too much. The 6th Grenadier is not equipped to dislodge air and naval power of that magnitude. I am requesting permission to withdraw to Koba until more air support or naval support can be brought to bear.” Aschekind replied.

Fruehauf developed a slight stutter. She tried to conceal it, but she was under too much stress. Earlier she had listened to the final transmission from the Kummetz as it burned. Her captain had gone down with the ship — mostly because he was trapped in a burning bridge.

Now she simply did not know what to say or do. This was a defeat of a greater magnitude than the mere setbacks faced in Matumaini, Penance and Umaiha. More Ayvartan troops had come. There might even be an incoming Ayvartan offensive if the port was wrested from them. Nobody could have foreseen that the Ayvartans had been stalling for this kind of support.

In fact as far as her information went the Ayvartan Navy should have been almost inactive.

Freuhauf opened her mouth. Her girls were watching. No words came from her lips.

Von Sturm then seized the radio from Fruehauf’s hands and started to scream into it.

“You will not move from your position Aschekind! I don’t care if the sky is falling in pieces over you! I need you to cover the central district! My 13th Panzergrenadiers have almost taken the center for good! As far as I am concerned you are pinned to that piece of my strategic map until the 13th has secured the area! Understood?” He shouted, almost becoming hoarse.

“You are issuing a death sentence!” Aschekind shouted back. His voice was so loud that Fruehauf could hear it from the handset. “We have nothing that can hold against this force! They have a cruiser, two frigates, a troopship big enough to carry a division, and there’s an aircraft carrier out at sea! We must give space for time or the 6th Division is finished!”

“You are finished! You! Not the 6th Division! If you move a meter back from that port, I am shredding your rank! You’ll be an expendable sergeant in a reserve rifle platoon!”

“With all due respect sir; it appears I am just as expendable a Captain as a Sergeant.”

Aschekind’s voice cut out. He had stopped transmitting altogether.

Von Sturm stared dumbly at the radio, as if he could not believe it worked that way.

“He’s finished! Make a note of it!” He shouted at his staff nearby. “Fruehauf!”

“Yes sir!” Fruehauf stiffened up. She had to set an example here. She had to.

“How are we doing in the northeast? Can any of them divert center?” Von Sturm asked.

“Not any more than we have already sent.” Fruehauf said. She found her words again quite quickly. When Von Sturm gave her a stare smoldering with rage she could not remain quiet. “We haven’t been able to break that Hill the Ayvartans reinforced; Nyota. They have almost a hundred guns in place there, of various calibers. Even with air and armor support, I’m afraid the attack there is at a standstill.” She averted her gaze from Von Sturm after speaking.

“What happened to our artillery? Why isn’t it shooting without pause?” Von Sturm said.

“They have not been able to fall into the rhythm of the operation, sir.” Fruehauf said gingerly. “Our self-propelled artillery like the M3 Hunters has managed to keep up for the most part. Grounded artillery has had difficulty firing into combat to support mobile forces. We have had a few friendly fire incidents; and many other guns fell behind the advance altogether.”

“And where is Meist? Call Meist and tell him to control that dog Aschekind!” Von Sturm said.

Fruehauf nodded. She looked over her shoulder at Marie and silently assigned her that task.

Von Sturm brushed his fingers through his golden hair. He looked suddenly like a teenager in an ill-fitting suit, small and afraid, growing pale, his eyes wide and staring into space.

Fruehauf tried to coax him out of his foul mood. She smiled and turned up the charm, fixing her hair a bit, hugging her clipboard against her chest and leaning in a little to make the General feel less small, the pom poms on her earrings dancing as she tipped her head.

“But sir, we can’t simply focus on the difficulties all the time; thanks to your leadership there are several hopeful sides to this. For example the attack in the center has almost broken–“

Von Sturm snapped and stomped his feet twice on the floor, silencing Fruehauf.

“This is all your fault!” He swept his arms across the room. “All of you, from day 1 you have utterly failed to carry out even my simplest commands! You disgraceful incompetents! I lay every failure here at your feet; and yet in the end it will be I who has to suffer for them all!”

His voice was cracking and he spat when he spoke. There were tears in his eyes. He cast eyes about the room as though he was waiting for the staff to fall on him like wolves. Fruehauf stepped away. He almost looked like he wanted to lunge whenever he turned someone’s way.

Von Drachen suddenly stood up from the table, and made as if to depart from the room.

“And where are you going?” Von Sturm shouted. “Nothing smart to say now, Von Drachen?”

Von Drachen looked over his shoulder. Fruehauf would have characterized his expression as simply frowning, but it seemed eerily like much more than that. Von Drachen looked hurt somehow. His eyes looked sunken and moist, and his hooked nose had a slight drip.

“I would rather remember you as the amusing, witty and collected sort of boy I knew before.”

Von Sturm stood in the middle of the room staring at him with confusion as he left. Everyone else was just as speechless. Fruehauf did not quite understand what had just transpired.

In the middle of this, Erika pulled down her headset and tugged on Fruehauf’s sleeve and said, “Ma’am, I don’t know how to process a request for retreat, please come take this call.”

Vorkampfer HQ became silent. Von Sturm sat at his table and covered his face with his hands.

* * *

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