The Smoke Blocked The Sinking Sun (25.2)

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This story segment contains descriptions of violence and death.

 

35th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Dbagbo Border, near Silb.

She remembered the field as it used to be. When her father told her that the field represented a division between Dbagbo and Shaila, she remembered running out to the middle of the field and rolling around in the grass and the flowers, laughing, yelling with delight. I’m in Dbagbo! I’m in Shaila! She saw it so simply, that perhaps a meter here and a meter there was the exact line of separation. In reality that was a few kilometers away, if it existed at all.

Her parents laughed and they praised her energy and imagination.

Energy and imagination was all she ever seemed to contribute to anything.

That memory was ten years vintage and it felt like whole lifetimes away.

Now she stood on the hilltops overlooking the fields between the two Dominances, and there were no children playing among golden-red sunflowers and the long green blades of grass across the meadow.

Instead several dozen tanks in broad formation advanced beneath a reddening sky as the Nocht Federation attacked. They raced toward the line of trees, steel girder tank traps, sandbag and trench redoubts and concrete pillbox gun emplacements that constituted the border defenses at the meadow’s end. Hastily assembled, the defensive line stretched to cover maybe one third of Dbagbo’s hundred kilometer border. A kilometer here, a kilometer there, undermanned, stretched thin to cover what they could.

Everyone thought — no, they knew — that it was going to be broken.

It was only a matter of where and when; and how to respond.

Silently she watched the tanks trundle over the flowers and she wept, because her people seemed no different than those flowers to the enemy. Just things to trample over without regard. All they could do was stand in the path.

Over the radio the order sounded.

“Enemy tanks within 2000 meters! Prepare to fire!”

Atop a hill some ten meters high, overlooking the field from behind the light cover of a scattered patch of thin trees skirting the meadow,  Ayvartan 45mm guns zeroed in on the enemy formations and prepared to attack.

Their position was diagonal to the enemy’s line of assault, and therefore it had perhaps the best shot at biting the enemy flank and drawing blood.

Her gunner signaled. She picked an armor-piercing shell from the box beside the gun and handed it to the loader, trying to hide her tears. She looked over the gun shield and saw the enemy frighteningly close. To the defensive line they were within 4000 meters; but for her it was more like 800!

Photos and names and model numbers started coming back to her from the briefings. She knew the tanks by silhouette and visible armaments.

Medium-size M4 Sentinel tanks led pairs of smaller, faster M5 Rangers and guarded small platoons of M3 Hunter assault guns, charging in a staggered formation of reverse spearheads, three tanks per. While the fast tanks closed the distance, the M3 assault guns would move in stops and starts, halting movement, raising their cannons, and launching a covering salvo.

A dozen long plumes of smoke blossomed across the border defense earthworks as the M3’s 75mm explosive shells rocked Ayvartan positions.

“Target the stationary assault guns! Fire!” shouted the Warrant Officer.

Her gunner pulled the firing lever. Four other gunners followed in quick succession to launch the first of many salvoes from their position.

The Hill’s 45mm light shells cut through the canopy and struck around the nearest stationary M3 assault gun platoon. She saw a hole blasted into the side of one tank, and tiny craters blasted on the floor around another. Smoke blew from within the stricken tank, and its hatches went up. Crew members started to vacate the damaged vehicle, but she could hardly see them.

She was already handling the next round again at the gunner’s insistence. Her loader pushed it into the breech, while she silently volunteered to help the gunner to traverse the gun a few degrees. The M3s started to move up.

The Hill’s next salvo was joined by fire from the defensive line. Fountains of dirt and shrapnel burst skyward throughout the Nochtish formations as 122mm divisional artillery delivered their payloads. Smaller shells from entrenched 76mm and 45mm guns zipped by the enemy. Where they struck the AT guns tore track guards and bludgeoned hatches on lead tanks.

The Panzers swerved and slowed, and the practiced formations became erratic under the salvos. Heavy artillery was their main concern. Even at a distance the fragments from a 122mm gun could damage sights and tracks and go through slits and sideplates, hampering the crew. At the very least the shock of a blast and fragments would stress out the advancing enemy.

On a direct hit, a tank could easily burst open like a tin can hit by a sledgehammer. A 122mm could pound to pieces even the modern M4.

But Silb’s defenders had limited heavy support, and maybe a dozen shells went out every minute from their single battery. Most of the volume came from smaller weapons with less destructive power. Three or four 76mm guns struggled to draw a bead on the enemy while a dozen 45mm shots bounced off the armor of medium tanks or scattered earth into the air without effect.

She caught a flash on the corner of her eye as a Light M5 tank charged into a 76mm shell and exploded fantastically. Ripped open front-to-back by a high-velocity 76mm; a picture made all the more savage by the combatant’s proximity. Below 1000 meters any tank gun would maul light armor.

Meanwhile the guns from the Hill claimed the tracks and drive wheels of a second M3 Hunter, again forcing the crew to depart the tank and hide as best as they could in the midst of fire. Staying inside a damaged tank was asking for death. Through a penetration hole machine gun fire or fragments could easily enter, and a downed tank with people inside it was a juicy target.

Again her gunner signaled and she turned quickly away from the meadow. She picked up the next shell, and afterward caught a peek over the gun shield.

An M4 Sentinel and its attendant M5 Rangers wandered toward the downed M3s. Crew on the ground started pointing and hailing, waving their hands at the arrivals from around the wrecks of their tanks. Hatches popped, and the men commiserated. Tanks halted; turrets turned toward the Hill with their hulls faced toward the line. They had been warned of the Hill position.

The Warrant Officer ducked behind one of the foremost guns in the battery.

“Brace for the medium tank’s attack!” He shouted, waving down the crews.

Everyone huddled to their guns and prayed to their gods if they had them.

Across the hill and trees the 37mm guns on the M5s and the 50mm gun on the M4 sounded in quick succession. Three shells smashed past the branches and leaves as easily as through air; two shells crashed on the lip of the hilltop and kicked up smoke and dirt; the 50mm shell punched through the shield on a 45mm gun and cast a cone of hot metal through the hole. Chunks of the breech, shield and the shell itself sprayed through the crew members.

A bright flash as the metal hit, sparked, melted, blew; screams; smoke and silence. Smoke, the predominant smell, mixed with a hint of blood iron.

She froze up, unable to turn her head. There were corpses left behind.

She didn’t want to see them so she focused on the combat. Shells. 45mm.

“Comrades, retaliate or we are next! All guns aim for the M4 Sentinel medium tank!” At the demands of the Warrant Officer the remaining four guns trained on the enemy medium tank and shot in haphazard intervals, crews scrambling to load and turn and join in with as much fire as possible.

In the midst of their fire the tanks loaded and traded shots with the Hill position — all three shots in the enemy volley hit the dirt just off of the front of the 45mm guns. Metal shards bounced off the shields and dirt and smoke rose before the eyes of the gunners as the 45mm guns retaliated. Two shots dug into the flank of the M4 tank with little effect, but one shell struck far enough to punch around the lowest portion of the M4’s sloping engine compartment, punching through to the engine and lighting the tank ablaze. Gasoline-powered rather than diesel-fueled, the M4 caught fire very easily.

Hatches were thrown open, and the M4’s crew joined the M3 tankers in hiding as the tank went up in flames. The remaining M5 lights, correctly judging their situation, charged ahead at full speed to escape the fire from the hill. She wiped sweat from her brow, she was safe; she seized another shell.

While this drama played out between hill and field, the main body of the tank assault had kept moving, and made it within spitting distance of the defensive line. A savage melee started playing out at a hundred meters distance between tanks and earthworks. M4 and M5 tanks stalled at a field of diagonally crossed steel beam tank traps, showering trenches with machine gun fire and the raised earthworks with shells. Sandbags flew, tents caught fire, chunks of steel girders and concrete bunkers flew everywhere.

A precious 76mm gun was an immediate casualty as its pillbox was blown to pieces by the 75mm howitzer on an M3 Hunter SPG. An M4 tank went up as several grenades from a nearby trench rolled across its turret top at landed over its vulnerable radiator block before going off. All of the forward trenches were soon pinned by the unceasing crossfire of a half-dozen tank machine guns. Heavy Artillery could do nothing to tanks so close to their own soldiers.

The 45mm guns from the defensive line fought back but even at so close a distance found it difficult to hit the enemy — when they did they hit the strong, resistant front plates. Hits were scored, but penetrations that would have sent the crew scurrying away did not matter in a pit fight. Immobilized tanks, tanks with smoking holes where the driver once was, tanks with wounded turrets, continued to fight with whatever was left, be it their machine guns, with their cannons, with the grenades and machine pistols of the crew, vehicles acting as impromptu pillboxes and emplacements.

Behind them, in twos and threes more tanks stacked up and joined the mire. The Hill could not stop them or even slow the tide. This was now a foregone conclusion with their weak AT guns. It was always a matter of time–

“Private, run out to the second line; tell them we’ve got a breach underway and that we need them to release the reserves! Run as fast as you can!”

It was an illogical order; there was no reason for her to go.

He had a radio. He could call.

But she realized that she was running nonetheless. Her body had just gone.

Perhaps it was just a fabrication of her own mind.

Maybe she had only run because she was hurt inside and scared.

But she ran with a strange and unknown purpose.

Everything felt dream-like, nebulous, shifting; she scrambled down the hill and toward the Silb line as fast as her feet could carry her. She used the hills skirting the meadow for cover, avoiding the shells and the machine gun fire. Sweat trickled into her eyes, and her vision swam with exhaustion and stress. Dancing pillars of smoke in the distance pointed her in Silb’s direction.

For a second she saw an unnatural shadow sweep over her as she neared the dragon’s teeth at the edge of an unmolested defense perimeter.

Not just her; it swept over the battlefield. She stopped and stared at the sky and thought that some great cloud must have risen before the sun.

But it was smoke. She saw a pillar of smoke, obscuring the sun. It was like a tornado of smoke, impossibly far away, as if crossing the surface of the sun itself. That was impossible — what was she seeing? She thought the smoke was coming in from the west, from Adjar, perhaps, across the mountains. Smoke rising thick and black, enough to obscure the sun momentarily.

There was something behind the smoke, something that was not just the sun it obscured. There was a great fire. She thought she was going insane.

She tore herself from the sight and started toward a nearby pillbox.

Light suddenly started to seep in again; she heard a thrumming noise.

At the pillbox she saw men running out through the doors in the back.

They waved and pointed and shouted at her; they signaled skyward.

She looked directly up and she saw a black lance hurtling to the earth.

Her legs started shaking. She turned to run but her knees locked. Her body tensed as if constricted by an invisible snake. She fell to the ground.

Not now. Not here. She curled up, fetal, her body locking up against her will.

Overhead the black lance swept past and something whistled sharply.

A tremendous wave of heat and pressured followed — but no pain.

She felt power; a force far beyond the strength of a person, picking her from the ground and throwing her with malice. She felt her body pierced in a dozen places and felt the trajectory of the metal through her flesh.

But there was no pain involved, only a sense of floating timelessly.

 

40th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Town of Benghu, Chanda General School

Savage rains had been falling over Dbagbo for the past week, signaling the Ayvartan transition from the autumn to the winter. Winter in Dbagbo was not white, but blue and brown. Rain and wind battered the Dominance and where it abated, it left behind glistening fields of rich, dark brown mud.

Strong winds tore a branch from a nearby tree and hurled it against the window. Naya Oueddai awoke with a sudden start; she heard the noise. It reverberated around her head. It hurt — it hurt especially bad in the back.

She looked about the room with eyes drawn wide, shaking hands grasping soft white blankets and pulling them up over her body. She was dressed in a hospital patient’s white gown. She felt naked and in some ways she was.

Pain shot suddenly through the back of her head and down to her neck. She saw in her mind the red sky, and the black lance cutting through it–

That plane; more importantly, its payload. What had happened? She panned her head around in disbelief. She was in a bed, stuck into what seemed like a school counselor’s office that had been emptied of its desk but not file cabinets or the plaques on the walls. They were illegible; her vision swam.

Had she been dreaming? She quickly realized that, even if she had, she was hurt. Her head hurt! She put her hand over it, tracing her hair. She followed the unmolested tufts over the crown of her head down to her her irregular black bangs and to the blunt, layered jaw-length locks around the side. She touched the back of her neck and head. Her hair had been cut shorter there, messier; her fingers hit upon something gnarled. She felt a sting. Stitches.

Her ponytail wasn’t there anymore. She sighed a little; she would miss it. There weren’t that many Umma who had long hair. Her father used to tug on it in a friendly way to get her attention; her mother would brush it idly when they met and give her little ribbons for it. It was special, it stood out a little.

Ribbons. She looked around the room again in a sudden panic. Her vision had a hard time adjusting, she found it hard to focus on anything. There was a little table — she bent toward it. Ancestors defend, it was there! She picked up the pink and blue ribbon left at her bed-side and tied it around her wrist.

Had she lost that in the middle of battle it would’ve been worse than a bomb.

In the process she saw the other bandages. She had gauze in a few places in each arm, and a big, thick bandage on the left-hand side of her belly. She dared to lift the patch on her belly, and found under it her dark brown skin tinged a split yellow and red over the site of a particularly mean stitch. She patted the patch down again, and felt a fleeting but harsh sting as she did.

Naya sank back in her bed. She didn’t even know what day it was, or who was running the field hospital. She could even be captured by the enemy. A grey-shirt could walk in any second. She kept her eyes peeled to the door.

She saw the crowns of people’s heads passing by through the window on the door but nothing too identifiable. Very few people came and went by.

After almost half an hour of bated breath, she heard steps outside the door.

It opened; a woman in a green uniform ambled calmly inside. She had thick curly hair coming out the back of a bandana wrapped around her head, and rich brown skin. She couldn’t be farther from a Nochtish person. Naya sighed with relief. After closing the door behind her, the woman smiled briefly at the patient before checked the room temperature and humidity.

“Alright, looks like the central air is doing its job, thank the ancestors.”

She turned from the wall-mounted dials and waved jovially toward the bed.

“Hujambo! I’m so glad to see you awake. You’ve been out a while. I’m very sorry about your hair by the way!” She bowed in apology. “I tried my best cutting it nice for you, but I was all alone and you were bleeding badly.”

Naya blinked — this woman was very energetic. She nodded her head.

“It’s fine, thank you.” She said. She then coughed. Her throat felt dry.

Her caretaker smiled and held up her hand. “I’ll get you something.”

She departed, and returned soon carrying a four-legged bed tray holding a bowl of yellow lentil dal and a metal canteen full of water. Careful not to spill anything, she sat Naya back and placed the tray on her lap such that the legs stood up, two each around each of Naya’s flat hips. She sat next to the bed and talked with Naya while urging her to eat and drink for her health.

“I’m Dr. Chukwu. Nkuyo Chukwu. Well, I say doctor, but to be honest I’m still a medical student. But we’re short-handed here.” The woman said.

Naya took a spoonful of the lentils. They were a little bit watery, but warm and filling, and she could not really complain about the food in her state. After that first spoonful she found herself hungrier than she thought she would be. Under Dr. Chukwu’s watchful eyes she ate a little more of the lentils before settling back and responding to the introduction.

“I’m Naya Oueddai. Private, 6th Rhino Anti-Tank Artillery Battery.”

Dr. Chukwu nodded her head. She lifted a clipboard from the bedside.

“Yes. We’re so short-handed that I’m afraid I have another bit of business here.” Her smile turned a little dimmer. “Your previous unit has been disbanded due to casualties. So you’re between assignments right now. I have a few options we can discuss here, some lists you can put your name in.”

Your previous unit. Unwanted images started to flash in Naya’s mind.

“Am I going to face a courts martial?” Naya asked seriously.

Dr. Chukwu’s eyes drew wide. “Not that I know of; do you expect one?”

Naya averted her eyes. Her recent memory was completely scrambled. She didn’t really know with certainty what had really happened to her the past few days or weeks. She did not even know what the current day was.

“I–” She felt her words catching in her throat. “I failed my unit.”

The Doctor reached her hand across the bed and touched Naya’s shoulder. She patted her gently, smiling and cooing. “Now, now, don’t worry, don’t worry. Our army is not in the habit of putting soldiers through courts martial for getting bombed. You did nothing wrong. Relax and recover, ok?”

Bombed? So that black lance was indeed a plane as she suspected it was.

She sighed. She couldn’t believe she survived such a thing. A darker subject soon imposed itself on her mind too — why her? Of all the people to survive a bombing run from a Nochtish plane, why did the Ancestors protect her?

“When will I be cleared to go?” She asked idly. “I’d like an assignment.”

The Doctor crossed her arms, grinning. “You’re pretty eager for someone who got blasted to sleep for nearly a week. You just woke up again today, Private Oueddai — I’d like to keep you a little bit to see how well you hold up. We’ll put your name on a few reserves lists and you’ll hvae some jobs soon.”

“How long have I been asleep for? I’ve little sense of the time.” Naya asked.

“Five days, not down to the hour, but almost. Today’s the 40th of the Gloom. Our border defenses were heavily bombed by the Nochtish air force. You suffered a good deal of fragmentation from a hundred kilogram bomb. Worst of it all was a piece of metal that lodged right into the back of your head — it failed to kill you comrade, but it certainly could have. It was a damn miracle.”

Naya looked out the window again. Outside, the rain intensified. Winds battered the few trees in the courtyard, and sheets of water fell diagonally over the muddy puddles forming around benches and dirt walkways.

“Where am I exactly? How far is Nocht from this place?” Naya asked. For all her desire to return to fight, she suddenly felt a sense of dread thinking that the enemy had five whole days to maneuver since last she saw them.

Dr. Chukwu smiled again. “You are in Chanda General School, in the town of Benghu in north-central Dbagbo. Do you know of this place, Private?”

Naya was stunned. She turned her eyes everywhere as if the walls and the windows had gained a brand new character in the last few moments.

“I’m home.” She mouthed under her breath, near totally speechless.

“And as far as the enemy is concerned,” Dr. Chukwu looked out the window and cocked her little grin again, “let’s just say we have a new ally in the fight.”

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