The Benghu Tank War I (29.2)

This story segment contains a brief scene where a character vomits.


53-AG-2030 Dbagbo — Silb, 8th PzD HQ

Dreschner stared at his signals officer with a hand on his chin.

His face bore a neutral expression as if observing a scientific specimen.

“You are hungover or drunk. I am certain of this.” He said.

Schicksal looked over her shoulder at him, her headset half-falling out of her messy hair. She turned down the radio’s volume controls and rubbed her forehead with her fingers.

“I’m not hungover, I just slept wrong. I’ll be fine.” She said weakly. She yawned.

“Slept wrong?” Dreschner shook his head. “How much liquor was it?”

He sniffed the air around the radio set casually as if he could discern an answer.

All he must have caught was the scent of an Evening In Rhinea — whatever that was like — because she had profusely perfumed herself with it to hide the smell of booze. As part of her professional guise she had also donned lipstick, eyeshadow and powder from the women’s hygiene ration, all of which helped hide her pale, sick appearance that morning.

Regardless, Schicksal knew the charade was unsustainable today.

She decided instead to come as clean as possible and tell the whole truth.

“I must confess that I had a lil’ bit to drink last night, General.” She said.

Dreschner raised a gloved hand to his own forehead and squeezed.

“I don’t know whether to be concerned or relieved.” He said.

She smiled weakly and raised her hand. “Permissively ambivalent?”

“No, not that. I’m going to strip your liquor ration completely.”

Schicksal dropped against the table with her hands around her head.

“We’ve a long day ahead, Mauschen.” Dreschner said, patting her on the back.

“I know.” Schicksal moaned, her forehead feeling suddenly tight.

On the opposite side of the room, the teleprinter finally spat out the message they had been waiting for. Schicksal slowly stood up from the table, deposited her headset beside the radio and shambled toward the machine. She ripped the paper from the printer’s mouth, read it over twice, and realized that it was coded, and in fact that it had no alphanumeric characters at all but instead was a series of dotted grids. Her head throbbed sharply. She took the paper to the center of the room, Dreschner hovering nearby. On the table, pencil and code book in hand, she decoded the message and presented it in simple terms to the General.

“They’re all grounded. Air Command is cutting us off.” She replied.

“After two measly sorties.” Dreschner grunted. “What good is an air force that can’t stand to lose a few planes? They cower for ten men and ignore it when it’s a hundred of us!”

Schicksal looked out the room’s single window. She saw fresh flashes of lightning in the sky and soon heard the accompanying thunder. There was a deluge falling over the camp, such thick rain that everyone running hither and thither under it seemed to be parting a curtain with every step they took. Beneath every set of boots the ground was mud.

She felt a connection to whoever was making these decisions in the Separate Air Command of the Luftlotte. She wouldn’t have asked any man to fly in that weather.

Dreschner had it wrong, she thought, but that was part of his vindictive nature.

“Sadly we can’t afford to take a rain check ourselves, not now.” She said.

The General stared at the hastily chicken-scratched message Schicksal had written.

“Well, on the bright side, at least I know you’re functional.” He said.

“Well, radios don’t get drunk, but I’m not a radio.” Schicksal replied.

Dreschner left her side and sat down behind the table hosting the operational map, giving it one more ponderous look. He crossed his arms and segued easily into giving orders.

“Go to the medical tent and ask for soda water. Then check on Captain Skoniec. Tell him he’s due to leave in twenty minutes, and to arm himself with canister shot. Got it?”

“Yessir.”

“Come back when your head has cleared up.”

Schicksal nodded, saluted with a shaking hand, and shambled out.

Umbrellas occupied more packing space than did raincoats, thousands of which could be pressed flat into boxes at once. As such every division received little or no umbrellas and tens of thousands of thin, flat rubber raincoats. Whenever Schicksal left the headquarters in the rain she had to put on a simple, drab grey button-down cloak with a hood. It whipped about by itself, so Schicksal often took an extra step and fastened a rope over it. She donned a pair of galoshes and some gloves left by the door, and finally ventured outside.

Soon as she left the building Schicksal felt the drops of rain pounding heavily on her head and shoulders. There was such a volume of rain that it felt like a burden one had to endure to walk. Tree branches thick enough not to dance with the gusting winds instead bowed under the falling streams. Not a plot of the ground remained that was not turned to slippery mud, and Schicksal had to be careful walking. Her galoshes were perfectly smooth and had no grip on the soft, oozing floor. In places she had to walk over ankle-deep puddles.

It was about 0800 hours when she left the tent, and the sky was predominantly gray with distant streaks of ominous black. Lightning seethed to the northeast. It was under these dire conditions that everyone would labor for the remainder of the day, it seemed.

Nevertheless Silb was a hive of activity. It was more crowded than ever, almost like the whole division had assembled there — though it was only one Regiment at the time.

Men (and the few women) moved to and fro under the rain, ferrying supplies to trucks to be driven behind the advance, taking last minute meals, double-checking their orders and the overall plan as given to them, and setting personal affairs straight. Staff administrators picked out small groups of underlings and gave them their orders, to be carried out at the new forward base waiting to be established outside Shebelle. Schicksal had already plucked a few radio operators in advance to send to the planned FOB around noon.

She guessed that part of their buzzing about, like her own, was out of disdain for the weather. Were the ground more amenable to it she would be running at full speed.

For a southern nation, Ayvarta could be awful cold in bad weather. Moving about was all she could do to keep warmer in the rain. Out in the open the storm wind was chilly and moist like breathing in ice melt. It disagreed strongly with her post-drunken condition, and she recalled Dreschner’s orders for soda water (a “scientific” cure for drunkenness).

But she felt then that she did not want to meet the resident first-aid medic in this state, whom she considered a disagreeable teenager with a bad taste in literature.

Instead Schicksal proceeded first to the last order given. Outside Silb over eighty tanks of the 8th Division’s 8th Panzer Regiment sat on the partially-submerged road in the middle of the meadow, waiting for the command to begin operations. They represented about a third of the Divisions’ combat power. They were divided into three companies of 25 tanks, along with Noel’s jagdpanzerzug of 3 tanks and General Dreschner’s unoccupied M4 Befehlspanzer and its bodyguard unit of 3 M4 tanks for the General.

As an older Panzer Division, the three Regiments of the 8th Panzer Division were primarily composed of Panzer kompanie with 25 to 30 tanks and traditionally little in the way of infantry or combat support of any sort. Larger Battalions, or Abteilungen served within the Regiments of other Panzer Divisions in place of standard Kompanie. In the defunct 2nd PzD that was once part of the Vorkampfer, for example, Panzer Battalions boasted motorized artillery and indigenous infantry support. Unlike them, the 8th and its Kompanies were almost entirely pure armored combat power with little support.

This was not an impediment once upon a time, but now they were running into problems, some of which were clearly evident as Schicksal looked upon the order of battle before her. Her chief concern was the number of Light tanks in the roster. She counted at least 60 M5 Ranger light tanks, with their 30mm of front armor and 37mm guns, and only 20 of the heavier M4 Sentinels with 50mm guns and 50mm armor. There were no M3 Hunter assault guns present around Silb — the paltry few they had left were committed at the front.

After Knyskna, despite repeated requests by the division’s logistical procurers for identical replacements for all the M4 Sentinels and M3 Hunters lost, instead they had received a plethora of M5 light tanks, reducing the 8th’s raw power to that of a Leichte Division.

Everything had to be shipped from overseas. And M5 tanks were smaller and lighter.

For Divisions that had been upgraded with Panzerabteilungen, they could make up for these losses to their combat power in some other way, using their infantry or artillery. For the 8th’s old Kompanies, all they had was experience and Dreschner’s envisaged genius.

And now also, she supposed, Wa Pruf and the Panzer aces, whatever that was worth.

Schicksal scanned around the meadow and found Noel’s tank farther up the road. She spotted it not only by its purple stripe and the word Konnigin written in curly letters on it, but also by the bright and cheerful so-called “fairy” standing beside it with an umbrella. As she approached he spotted her from all the way across the meadow and waved.

“Hello, hello! You are looking lovely today miss Schicksal!” Noel said.

She felt a bit of irritation looking at him. As usual he looked prim and pretty and perfect. Somehow he had even managed to scrounge up an umbrella, and he was standing beside the driver’s-side hatch where his partner– his driver was staring out into the rain. Despite the weather Noel had a glow about him. One could almost call it an afterglow– no.

Meanwhile she felt like she had swallowed a wine bottle whole and her brain pounded.

“I don’t feel lovely.” She said upon reaching his side.

“A lady ought to feel lovely, because she is!” Noel said.

“I don’t feel lovely.” Schicksal dully reiterated.

“All ladies are lovely!” Noel insisted with a smile.

“I guess you’ve been around enough to know.” Schicksal said.

Noel giggled and shot a little look at Ivan in the tank. Ivan chuckled.

“I wouldn’t put it that way.” Noel said, raising an index finger to his cheek.

Schicksal blinked. “Dreschner wants you to know–“

“Tell the good General we’re ready to go at any time!” Noel said.

“Ok. Twenty minutes. He says you need to load up on canister shot too.”

Noel’s face darkened. A little look of disgust came over him. He flashed a shark-like little grin but it looked more nervous than usual, his eyes avoiding her own suddenly.

“Canister is a bit much, isn’t it?” He said.

“I don’t really know what he means by it.” Schicksal replied.

“Canister is a fragmentation style shell that explodes and mulches infantry. And not to protest too much here, but I don’t enjoy fighting infantry. Especially not with canisters.”

“That’s too bad, then. Because those are your orders from the General.”

Noel shrugged. “I guess I can load some useless canisters with my HE and AP. But the fact is, I’m part of a Panzer jagdzug. It’s a waste to make me fight infantry and pillboxes.”

“He’s right y’know. Makin’ the boss fight boots is a damned shame.”

One of Noel’s subordinates approached, wearing the same uniform as he but at a visibly lower rank. Visibly, because he was not wearing a raincoat. He was not even carrying a flowery umbrella like Noel. He was out in the rain, bearing the full brunt, soaking wet.

“Captain here, he’s the wrath that was brought down to destroy all tanks.”

Noel raised a hand to his mouth and laughed, a gentle oh ho ho.

“Dolph is imaginative.” He said. “Have you met? This is Alexei Dolph.”

Schicksal had not formally met him. Noel’s men were always off doing something or other by themselves. She had carried the fanciful thought that they were perhaps imaginary, but Dolph was here in the flesh, and there was a sizable amount of it. Dolph was tall and robust, with a shaved head a round nose, and thick hands. He seemed too big to fit inside a light tank. He was over a head taller than Noel and her and much thicker.

Around his neck he wore a wooden messianic cross, old and weathered, on a string.

Schicksal stretched out her hand, and Dolph shook it amicably and vigorously.

“Corporal, you should consider getting out of the rain.” She said.

“Nah, a little rain won’t kill me. And if it does, all the better.” He said calmly.

“Well, you might not be bothered by it, but others will be.” Schicksal said.

Dolph stroked his smooth round chin while looking down at her face.

“You’re the Siren, right? We hear you on the radio. You got a voice for choir.”

“Are you trying to recruit me to your church?” Schicksal said, amused.

“Ah, we don’t need a church. We just need a room with an echo!”

“We also need you to survive potential pneumonia.” Schicksal said.

Dolph raised his hands in defense. “So persistent! Fine, I’ll get in the tank.”

Noel watched the whole time from the sidelines, his thumb and forefinger pressed delicately over his lips, as if trying to squelch his own comments before they happened. Dolph turned and walked calmly up the line to his M5, a plain, boxy model with riveted armor, unlike Noel’s M5A2 with its sloped contours and smoothly welded plates. He climbed into the turret and closed the hatch. Noel waved goodbye, twirling his umbrella.

“He’s a joy to have around a campfire most of the time.” Noel said.

“Most of the time?”

“Sometimes he gets drunk and condemns you to hell. It’s unappealing!”

Schicksal bristled, a twinge of irritation at the very mention of drunkenness.

“You could use some soda water, I think.” Noel said.

“I’m leaving.” Schicksal said.

Before she could turn around, she heard a series of sharp taps on the side of Noel’s tank.

She heard a dull, low voice. “Me too.”

A man walked around the tank, covered in a grey raincloak. Noel waved goodbye to him as well. From what little Schicksal caught of his face, he had a sharp nose, deep-set eyes and brown sideburns, almost to his thin beard. He had his hands in his pockets and his head bowed, and he entered his own tank very soon after leaving their side.

“That’s Bartosz. He’s a bit reserved, but he always goes along with whatever you do without many conditions so he’s pretty fun to have around most of the time.” Noel said.

“I’m leaving.” Schicksal said again.

Noel grinned. “Don’t forget the soda water! You don’t want to chuck on the radios!”

She turned sharply around and trudged again across the meadow, back to Silb proper. Her feet were sinking into the puddles off the road. Every step she felt the ground giving and the water tossing. It was almost like walking along the beach. She thought she felt a current, though perhaps that was just the swaying of her fatigued legs. Behind her, she heard a few engines starting up; the tank companies began to prepare their machines for war.

Her stomach started to churn and she felt cramps with every step she took.

Schicksal hurried as much as she could up the muddy road to the village, and turned toward a big white tent with a red cross drawn across the top and the front. Inside a young red-headed girl was about to welcome her warmly; before she could, Schicksal fell to her knees in front of an empty garbage can and lost control of her stomach.

For about a minute the medic watched — she then crouched near Schicksal and gathered her hair up and out of the way while the signals officer emptied herself.

Schicksal then fell back from the garbage can, breathing heavily, limbs shaking.

Evangeline looked at her helplessly. “Um, please state the nature of your emergency.”

“I am going into battle,” Schicksal said deliriously, “and I need your strongest seltzer.”


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