This story segment contains scenes of violence.
46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Afternoon
Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari southern bank, Silba meadows.
A column of 15 or so Goblin tanks advanced in a large, amorphous clump down the middle of a hard plain ringed by light hills to the east and the edge of the Silba wood to the west. Their small hulls with flat glacis plates, obvious, pedestal-like turret ring, slanted tracks and over-large turrets with 45mm guns and sizable rear counterweights easily gave the model away — in addition to the fact of their ubiquity in Ayvartan tank divisions. These models particular models on a collision course to Silb had a curious addition: extraneous bolted plate armor along the front and around the gun mantlet, a sloppy up-armoring scheme.
They had likely plotted this route because it avoided the soft terrain and thus the mud as much as possible, but it left their flanks seriously exposed on both sides.
This group had advanced 5 kilometers south from the Sandari, likely after crossing a hidden bridge, regrouping, and then setting off in their thick, loose formation for defense, like a herd of gnus. Every so often a tank, somewhere random in the formation, would turn its turret around, but for the most part there was seemingly no thought being given to an active defense. Despite their initiative and subversion they were vulnerable.
“See that one tank with the ring antennae atop? Commander. Hit that one first.”
Noel watched the tanks from the wide-angle periscope of his M5A2 hidden in the wood. Seated alone on the turret, in the gunner’s position just beside the commander’s cupola, he had a lot of space to himself, though this was mostly because of his build — the turret was somewhat cramped. Below and further front, Ivan sat behind the sticks, awaiting the order to charge down the gentle slope at the edge of the wood.
“Wait for my signal, and aim for the commander with APCB rounds. Then rush in and keep shooting, even if you miss. Volume beats accuracy.” He said, using his throat mic. “I’ll use my M5A2’s gyrostabilizer and snipe at anyone troublesome while on the run.”
For their size, the Ayvartan Goblin-type tanks were not very quick. Noel believed they probably managed a measly 15 or so km/h off-road — half as much as that of his M5A2, without supercharging. He watched them patiently from around a kilometer away as they neared the dead center of the plain. He had a 1.5 kg APCB round in hand, sleek and light in its bronze case, its sharp black head cap hungry for armor.
“Ready guns.” Noel said. “Ivan get that supercharger ready.”
At their speed the Goblins covered about 200 meters a minute. Within thirty seconds the formation was well within the center of the plain with ample room on all sides.
Noel was sure he could cut the distance to them in about a minute.
He pulled the lever to open the breech, loaded the round and watched as it closed and shoved the shell in by mechanical action. Then he reached his feet down to the foot pads and felt them out. One press shifted the turret about thirty degrees right or left depending on the pad. Good enough for a start. Noel then reached his hand down and used the turret control lever to make minor, granular corrections to the turret direction as the tanks continued moving. He counted the meters–
In an instant everything aligned perfectly and Noel called out, “Attack!”
Three muzzles flashed in the wood, launching high-velocity, solid armor-piercing rounds downhill toward the Goblin formation. One shell went wide over the formation and crashed into the eastern hillsides; the remaining two, including Noel’s pierced the turret and track of a Goblin with a prominent radio antenna, leaving large holes. He had hit right through the side of the turret. There were no explosions — these shells were not explosive in nature. But no crew left the stricken tank, sitting immobile amid its allies.
It was likely that the spray of metal resulting from the penetrations had killed them.
“Ivan, we’ll rush in front of the formation! Bartosz, circle behind them and dash toward the eastern hills while Dolph rushes through the center! Keep shooting!” Noel ordered.
“Roger!” Ivan replied through the platoon intercomm. Despite the noise inside the tank, Noel heard him clearly through the radio headset on his commander’s helmet.
“Yessir!” Bartosz and Dolph replied. Noel heard a bit of whooping and cheering.
Engine whirring with life, the M5A2 charged out of the cover of the woods and down the hill at a low gear to control speed. On its flanks, ordinary M5s belonging to Dolph and Bartosz rushed toward the formation as well. Once they hit flatter ground the tanks sped up. Dolph and Bartosz broke toward their attack lanes; Ivan initiated the engine supercharge. Noel could look down and barely see the driver’s gauges from his position, the needles rising.
Noel’s M5A2 roared suddenly as the experimental engine booster solution took effect. At Ivan’s expert direction, the M5A2 bobbed and weaved toward the south to hook around the front of the column, rapidly picking up speed and cutting the distance. His driving was excellent, and Noel could concentrate on his forte, shooting and command.
Most of the enemy formation stopped dead to aim, turrets turning west toward the wood, but several others were moving in front of and around each other to get into position. There was little coordination without their commander. One at a time in belabored succession half of the Goblin formation’s 45mm guns started to answer, but the M5s swept away from the armor-piercing shots, each tank traveling down its sweeping, encircling arc. Noel briefly saw dirt and smoke rise in front and around him as shells fell short of his sprint. He saw trails in the air as shells flew aside and over him and around his men, making no contact.
He looked out to the battlefield, switching between his wide-angle periscope over the top of the turret and his gunnery close-in sights positioned just off the left of his 37mm gun. Thanks to the gyrostabilizers even in motion his aim down the gunnery sights was corrected for and kept reasonably steady. He watched, like an eye hovering beside his gun, as shells were traded between the sides, and left a webwork of smoke in the air.
The Goblins swung their turrets around like the heads of panicked animals trying to spot their predators; those with presence enough to fight shot wildly every which way.
Dolph and Bartosz turned their turrets to face along their tank’s sides and launched as many shots as fast as they could muster in reply. Solid shells smashed into the dirt, soared between tanks, and as the distance closed started to score hits, leaving ugly dents and scars on contact with bulging gun mantlets and rigid, slanted fronts. Much of the column had turned west. Noel’s subordinates were shooting at tough stacks of riveted plates.
As Dolph approached the center three distinct groupings of three or four tanks had formed with a few strays along the edges. All of the grouped tanks were clumping so close together that their guns fired over each other’s engine compartments and beside each other’s gun mantlets. Meanwhile the strays seemed to want to pursue their own agendas but did not fully break from the pack. Within the confused fighting, the result was that the Ayvartan column was without discernible shape and every tank was acting on its own.
Reaching into the ammo rack, Noel seized a flat-headed High-Explosive shell, 1.5 kg and packed with 40 grams of TNT. He easily loaded the shell and set his sights.
As the M5A2 skirted the Goblin formation within 500 meters, he used the lever to keep his turret trained on one of the few tanks fighting seemingly effectively.
The M5A2 finally hooked around the front, and Noel hit the cannon trigger.
A 37mm HE shell soared between two Goblins and hit one on its side in the interior of the formation. There was a sharp, smoking blast, and two vehicles were pockmarked by dozens of hot shell fragments blowing right into the engine compartment. Smoke and then fire burst among the tanks. Hatches opened, and men and women rushed out.
Even the men and women inside reasonably unharmed vehicles abandoned them.
Noel grinned. With one well-placed shell he had taken out four tanks.
While Königin circled around the formation’s lower shoulder, Dolph burst down the center and Bartosz swooped in behind them, cannons crying as they tore through vulnerable track sides and engine compartments and turret flanks, setting many of the tanks helplessly alight. Noel’s obvious attack and charge down from the western wood had caused most of the column to face west initially and few of the Goblins had corrected the facing of their glacis plates as the M5s closed in. Those front plates, packed with bolted-on armor upgrades, were no good now. The M5s had passed them by and bit them in their flanks.
When Dolph came out of the center he passed by Noel who circled around the back, meeting Bartosz as he came around — thus they had fully cleared the vulnerable column and began to circle back around to kettle the remaining tanks, like sharks around a bloodied corpse. Tank-less crews fled the scene on foot, seemingly unarmed, having left any equipment when abandoning their tanks. One of the remaining tanks regained some level of initiative and took off from the scene as fast as its tracks could go, helping shield the fleeing crews.
“Don’t shoot the fleeing crews! We can capture them or follow them and either way find those underwater bridges. We’re here to stop their attack! Keep that in mind!” Noel shouted into the radio. Their machine guns could have ripped apart the soldiers filing out as they circled, but that would’ve been nothing but pointless wasting of ammo.
Dolph and Bartosz replied in the affirmative, without question.
“Anyway, it’s over now. Let’s wrap this up.”
Noel’s Jagdpanzerzug had done its job and scattered the Ayvartan column, sending the remnants running. They had blunted the attack on Silb, despite a numerical inferiority of 5 to 1 — in the middle of battle he had hardly even considered the odds.
Together with Dolph and Bartosz, Noel regrouped atop one of the eastern hills, called in their kills and watched the retreating enemies, ready to follow them further north. In all they had taken out 9 tanks through damage, captured 5 almost intact and forced one to flee — all within the span of a few minutes since the battle began to when it ended.
Noel expected the remnants of this force would be in the bag shortly.
46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Early Evening
Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari southern bank, Silba meadows.
Warlock close-air support craft soared overhead in groups of three and vanished north. Minutes after leaving the sights of the tank commanders sitting half-out of their turrets, the planes dove and dropped their deadly payloads. In the distance the booming 250 kilograms of TNT could be heard. Sometimes the tank commanders saw the smoke trailing up against the setting sun from their cupolas. Many watched the sights as they advanced, running up and down the Sandari to support the bridgehead operations as best as they could.
Noel called for Ivan to stop the tank, and he ordered him up to the turret. It was cramped, but they were slender enough to fit side by side out of the cupola atop the turret. They watched the sunset together, smoke and all, and saw the planes coming and going. Between the bombs and the artillery shells they heard the rhythmic snapping of machine guns and autocannons, so far in the distance they felt like the sounds of the forest.
They were alone — Dolph and Bartosz had gone ahead at Noel’s behest, while the Königin waited for a physical contact from 8th PzD Headquarters.
Together they soaked up the moment, the relative peace and solitude.
“Another day, another 12 rounds of APCB for das vaterland.” Noel said with a grin.
He leaned back onto the turret, hands behind his head, looking up at the darkening sky.
Ivan leaned back beside him. Noel turned over and ran a finger down his chest.
“We were really amazing Noel. Completely incredible.” Ivan said out of the blue.
A coquettish little smile appeared on Noel’s face. “Oh ho?”
“You should’ve seen those pressure gauges going. That supercharger is amazing.” Ivan said. “We were doing over forty! And consistently, even as the pressure went up!”
Noel burst out laughing. “Not a good judge of the moment are you? I’m sitting here doing my best pinup girl impression and you’re talking about the tank.”
He smiled his fondest smile a this companion, who looked away with a shy grin.
“Well, it looks like we won’t have time to do anything funny anyway.”
Ivan stared behind their tank. Noel turned his head over his shoulder.
A vehicle had arrived to join them — an M4 Sentinel with a fake gun.
As its headlight shone on them, they sat up on the turret sides. Noel flashed a v-sign with his fingers, rocking his legs back and forth as General Dreschner and Karla Schicksal climbed out of the turret hatch and ambled over to the Königin.
“Congratulations are in order, Captain Skoniec.” General Dreschner said.
“Thanks to you we have just secured a third bridgehead!” Schicksal said.
“Ah, so you found that pontoon bridge? Was it where I told ya?” Noel asked.
“Only a little bit off,” Schicksal replied, checking a clipboard, “in essence you had the right idea. Reiniger and Spoor managed to find it in the northwest, following your leads. The Ayvartans had a clever idea — the bridge was submerged, just under the surface. Once we found the enemy’s crossing, Reiniger and Spoor’s men fought their way across with some Warlock assistance and hunkered down on the hillsides on the other side, so we’re in a stronger position to resist the Ayvartan offensive. All thanks to you.”
“Yeah, see, sometimes it pays to scare the enemy off rather than kill ’em.”
“Perhaps it does.” General Dreschner said. “Captain Skoniec: your men have joined Reiniger across the river to defend the new bridgehead, but I came here personally to fetch you, because I desire for you to stay back until Wa Prüf 6 arrives to perform maintenance on the M5A2 prototype. Until then, we’d like you to go over doctrine with some of our reserve tankers, in Reiniger’s stead. They are excited to learn from a Panzer ace.”
Dreschner reached out and held aloft a paper folder that ostensibly had his new orders packed in it. Perhaps crew dossiers for the new training unit or something similar.
Noel yawned, swinging his legs like a child seated at the edge of a playground tower.
“Fine with me. I will mold them into wonderful little fire flowers.”
Dreschner had no comment, while Schicksal crooked her eyebrows.
Noel reached down and snatch the folder with a flick of his wrist. He pretended to look it over while the bosses were still around, flipping pages and glancing at pictures.
“Shall we escort you back to Silb then?” Schicksal said.
Noel briefly looked over his shoulder at Ivan, who met his eyes for a moment and smiled. Smiling back, the Captain waved his hand dismissively at his superiors.
“Nah. I know the way back.” Noel said innocently.
48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, Outskirts
Calm rains fell from morning to noon and seemed poised to persist, making up for the time nature lost the previous day. Damp ground again turned muddy, and Schicksal wore a rubber raincoat with a hood over her uniform from the moment she woke. After lunch, she joined General Dreschner on the outskirts of the village. Silb’s main road wound out from between the trees and descended down a gentle slope to an ample grassy meadow, one of many shallow dips in the terrain that became long uninterrupted puddles whenever it rained. Together the General and Radio Officer tramped through mud and grass to the edge of the woods and pulled up their binoculars, watching for traffic on the submerged road.
In the distance they spotted the convoy, cordially on time, an eight-wheeled armored car and a pair of motorcycles leading several trucks, some covered, many not, carrying crates of precious, coveted food, fuel and parts — and men. Water displaced at their sides as they struggled through the knee-deep puddle. A vast column of vehicles headed north along the road, most bypassing Silb, but every so often a few split from the convoy and turned onto the grass. These struggled through water very slightly deeper than on the road and then took the muddy slope up into Silb. Panzergrenadier guards ushered them in.
“Those motorcycle troops are part of the 14th Jager. They made it all the way here. I guess Baumgartener’s doing us a favor again.” Schicksal said, putting down her binoculars.
“He ill deserved the treatment he received from me.” Dreschner solemnly said.
Several battalions of men were finally trickling up from Shaila, fully rested and reequipped to continue the fight. Among them were elements of the Grenadier divisions Spoor had his eyes on a few days ago. Though it had been spontaneous and sloppy, the new Ayvartan offensive gave the higher-ups the impetus to send whatever was ready to push out from the static bridgeheads along the Sandari. Though they did not yet have their whole Divisions available, these various battalions that now traveled up the road, in the tens and twenties of men on the backs of several-ton trucks, made up more than a Regiment.
For almost an hour under the rain they watched the string of vehicles headed north. Then they spotted the tail end of the convoy — a heavy-duty tank transporter escorted by some light tanks. The transporter was like a convoy onto itself, composed of a six-wheeled truck in front towing several connected beds in between, and followed by another truck in the back, helping push the weight. It was an arrangement known as a road train. Under the tarps covering each of the beds, Schicksal supposed that the road train carried crates of parts, covered benches full of necessary personnel, tied-up prototype hulls and weapons.
Everything was marked in big, clear letters, visible with the binoculars: Wa Prüf 6.
“Well, here they are!” Schicksal said. She felt a surge of excitement. Who knew what strange wonder-weapons they would get to field? Maybe even a ray gun like in the pulps?
Perhaps she was being simple, but the Wa Prüf 6 was a welcome injection of new complexity into the stolid routine Silb was settling on; much like its antecedent Captain Skoniec.
General Dreschner, however, was not so excited to see them swerving in.
“Let us pray we are worthy of pulling the sword from their stone.” He said.
Schicksal looked at the General in his sullen face and tried to smile.
“Are you feeling ill sir? Is the dampness getting you down again?” She said.
Dreschner shook his head. He dropped his binoculars, leaving them to hang from their leather strap, and got down to one knee, staring down the meadow with his own eyes. Schicksal knelt and drew closer to him, watching as the road grew silent again.
“I’ve been thinking about my conduct recently, Schicksal, and none too fondly. I have made mistakes and I am not sure if I have the right attitude to correct them.”
“I’m sorry to hear that sir. If it helps, I think you’ve got what it takes to fix anything.”
He smiled suddenly, and he even chuckled a little to himself at her words.
“It was you who prompted me to think this way, Mäuschen. Your way of being.”
“Me, sir?” Schicksal was taken aback. In her mind, she had always thought the General considered himself somewhat above her. Sure, he recognized her usefulness as an assistant and communications officer, and he liked to have her gather information in his stead for convenience. She knew that he liked to talk to her — he probably found it refreshing to hear easy words from someone uncomplicated and rustic like her.
“As much as I pay attention to the men, I have not been ignoring you.” He replied.
Her heart went into high gear; surely he wasn’t really evaluating her? He can’t have been looking to her in any way; he was a General! She was just a radio girl to him, she thought! She certainly didn’t have any expertise that could compliment his own. She knew how many vacuum tubes the FFA3 radio possessed but that was all rote memory from booklets. It was useless. What else did she know? She didn’t know anything but frivolities.
Dreschner let her stew in silence for a while. When next he spoke up, he looked directly at her first, and caught her glass-eyed in a fit of paralyzing self-reflection. She barely heard him at first, she was so out of it. “I value your humility; your level-headedness. You have a grounded perspective that a man in command too easily loses. When I first met you I thought you were aloof, but you are pragmatic — excuse me if I assume too much.”
It was strange for Schicksal to hear someone talking about her, from the outside-in. Someone who wasn’t her, appraising her, appreciating her. She couldn’t even tell whether she thought his words were true. She considered her own evaluations of herself suddenly unreliable. Her boss noticed her! He was talking so frankly to her!
“Thank you sir. I will try my best to keep being pragmatic for you.” She said.
Try my best to keep pragmatic? Agh, she sounded like such a crumb!
But Dreschner was staring down the meadow now, off in his own world.
“I have forgotten the humility, the curiosity, that I had as an enlisted man.”
He sighed deeply again and segued into a helpless, frustrated grunt.
“I’m sorry, it is my nerves, and probably this cold. I am rambling.”
“I’m always ready to listen to your rambling nerves, sir.” Schicksal said.
Dreschner nodded his head once. He stood from the mud and grass and extended a hand to Schicksal. She took it, and he pulled her up to her feet with a hearty tug.
“Keep learning, Mäuschen. I want to call on that learning some day.”
He doubled back to the village. It took Schicksal a few moments, rolling that statement around in her mind, before she realized she was being left behind. She rushed behind the General, wondering what he could mean by that.