53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Southeast of Shebelle
As the compartment rocked around her Schicksal covered her mouth and held her stomach, as if applying pressure might soothe what ailed it. She felt something hot and terrible rise in her throat, and a sharp throbbing in her head suddenly coincided with it. Everything in the tank seemed to slant, the crew held at an angle as the Befehlspanzer’s right track hit and subsequently climbed over something in the pond. She bent forward, her forehead coming to rest against the cold steel of the radio box before her.
“Open your hatch and be more careful!” Dreschner grunted over the radio.
Ahead of her the driver opened the front hatch, letting in a little more light into the gloomy confines. She was seated just a few centimeters higher elevated than the driver and she could see right into the driving compartment from the radio operator’s seat. Were it not for her hazy vision she would have been able to see outside through the front hatch.
Instead she saw the silhouette of the driver, his hands expertly working the sticks, maneuvering the M4 Befehlspanzer off the rocks (presumably) and back into the water (she supposed) as they advanced through what was on her map a low-lying meadow surrounded by little wooded hills. This route was chosen on the assumption it could provide some measure of cover from the hostilities in Shebelle while they made their way to the 8th Panzer Division’s new Forward Operating Base southeast of the besieged city.
However due to the storm it had become a series of broad pools each over a meter deep, hiding rocky and jagged terrain. Schicksal could not have anticipated just what the grasses and flowers of Dbagbo had grown to cover over time, and what the water now covered.
She rubbed her forehead while the tank rattled, creeping forward, treading water. Everything shook when the tank climbed over a rock or rose and fell with the terrain below the surface. With every bump she felt gas and fluid dancing violently in her body.
“General, permission to take another seltzer.” Schicksal whimpered into the radio.
Dreschner sighed into the radio. “Do whatever you need before we reach the FOB.”
Immediately, Schicksal reached into her bag and seized a small carton of water. She peeled open the hole atop the waterproof cardboard, and from her breast pocket, produced a white pill, which she forced into the container. She covered the hole with her hand, shook the carton, and desperately tipped the contents into her mouth. It was hot and nasty; the bubbles and fizz made her throat feel raw. But as it went down it offered something of a relief for her nausea. One bad sensation seemed to overpower the other.
“Siren, this is Donkey-2, we just busted a leg back here, please advice, over.”
Schicksal pressed her headphones to her ears and adjusted the microphone. Donkey was one of the trucks bringing in equipment to the FOB from Silb, following about a kilometer back from the Befelhspanzer and its own distant escort tanks. Trying not to sound too tired, she responded, “Donkey-2, this is Siren, what are you carrying, over?”
“Twenty-five heads, over.” Donkey-2’s radio operator responded quickly. “We’ve got hands on, but the weather’s not nice for this kind of work. Might take a while, over.”
Donkey-2 had blown something serious in a wheel and would need to repair their truck, which was carrying twenty-five infantrymen to help guard the FOB. This personnel was not essential. Schicksal told them to take their time and do what they could, and she did not trouble Dreschner with the details. They would catch up when they could. As long as the fuel and ammo trucks were making progress then everything was on schedule.
She breathed in deep. Her head hurt, but she was at least on the ball with her work.
“Head for that slope ahead, and get us out of this mire.” Dreschner demanded.
Acknowledging, the driver pushed his left stick forward and his right back, turning the Befehlspanzer away from the rest of the pond and toward a nearby slope onto one of the surrounding hills. Once out of the muck, the ride went surprisingly smooth. Schicksal almost nodded off as they climbed the hilltops, up and down every few minutes. But she had to coordinate their maneuvers with those of their escorts, so she kept busy relaying to the tanks at their flanks, 500 meters or so apart, where they had to be going now.
Past the hills and the ponds the Befelhspanzer and its escorts hit an old wheelbarrow path that had been subsumed by the surrounding woodland over time. Here they rejoined a convoy of ten supply trucks, and together this column advanced to the gathering of half-tracks a few kilometers ahead. Covered in or acting as support pillars to camouflage nets and tents, these vehicles represented the 8th Panzer Divison’s FOB.
“How soon will the entire division have relocated along this path?” Dreschner asked.
“We should be packed between here and Benghu before sundown.” Schicksal said.
“Good. Keep tabs on the infantry divisions in Shebelle. I’m going out.” He replied.
Overhead Dreschner pushed up and out of his commander’s cupola, briefly allowing the torrent into the vehicle. She felt him stepping over the turret and then the body of the tank as he climbed down. When the driver cut the engine, everything went eerily silent and still. One really felt the absence of the tank’s vibrations and the rattling motor.
“Need anything, Miss Schicksal?” asked the driver, pushing open his hatch.
“I’m quite alright Bose.” Schicksal wearily replied. She did not even try to smile.
“Alright. I’m steppin’ out for a smoke.” Bose said. He tipped his hat and climbed out.
Schicksal bristled a little at the mention of a smoke. She sure could use a cigarette; but not only had she smoked her whole ration already, she did not want another source of suggestive sensations when she was already drunk and feeling intermittently very sick. Mustering commendable willpower, she withdrew a pack of dry biscuit, set them on the radio mount and crunched on them bit by bit while monitoring the infantry signals.
When Dreschner returned, he banged on the cupola of the tank, which meant that Schicksal had to climb out. Leaving behind her biscuit crumbs, she climbed onto the fake gunner’s seat, over onto Dreschner’s and then up and out of the tank. To her surprise, Dreschner was shielding the aperture by holding a raincoat over it to keep her from the rain.
“We’ve got the war room tent ready. Let us relocate there.” Dreschner said.
He draped the raincoat over her, and together they dropped down from the tank and rushed across the muddy woodland to a large green tent set between two trees.
Inside a map had been laid over a plain folding table. There was a radio set along the wall, and a stack of ration boxes in a basket in the middle of the room. Drum cans of fuel oil and boxes of spare parts rounded out the disheveled, impromptu look of the gloomy tent, which was lit only by a hanging electric lamp powered by a thick lead acid battery.
There were a few orderlies, some logistics personnel, and an engineer present in the tent, though the engineer was only searching through the spare parts at the moment.
“Alright Schicksal,” Dreschner handed her a marker pen, “what is the situation?”
He looked down at the map. Schicksal slowly approached the table. She shut her eyes hard as if it would clear the colors floating around the lamp-light and the soft blur at the edges of her vision. It didn’t. She stretched out her hand and slashed around the edge of Shebelle, three sloppy lines, not quite the right size nor quite as apart as they should be. But she wasn’t an artist. She then drew a circle around the town of Benghu.
“Alright, umm, so, as of 1300 hours,” Schicksal said. She stopped and caught a breath. “Let’s see here, ok. The 17th Grenadier Division and the 12th Jager Division, with the 16th Grenadier Division behind them, have been fiercely fighting through the defenses around Shebelle. They have penetrated the visible defensive lines stretching from the jumping-off point of the attack up to the outlying habitations of Shebelle. Their closest units at the moment can be considered to be engaged inside the city proper.”
“Considered to?” Dreschner asked, looking down at the map. An orderly gave her a few aerial photographs of Shebelle, and Schicksal pulled one closer and over the map. Her movements were very sluggish and deliberate but her words came to her quick enough.
“It’s a little complicated. Let me explain.” Schicksal paused, showing him the photo.
She collected her thoughts, and with Dreschner pulling closer, began to explain.
“Shebelle is built in three echelons of habitation. Its outskirts are small hamlets with very low population density, wide roads without streets, buildings spread apart; these hamlets lead to the concrete streets and gravel roads we would associate with a city further in, but the density is still relatively controlled; and from there Shebelle expands to a much denser urban core. Shebelle University forms much of this center. Its campus housing, school buildings, and other facilities, are arrayed around a small central plaza.”
Dreschner picked up the photographs and examined them, rubbing his chin.
“I take it the infantry is still fighting over the sheep houses at the edge of the city.”
“Worse. Apparently the Ayvartans threaded an entire additional defensive line of slit trenches and camouflaged guns all through the hamlets. Those men who have made it into a sheep house and cleared it are the lucky ones.” Schicksal said. She put down a photograph and raised her hand to her temple to nurse a deep throbbing at the site.
“How are the infantry doing on casualties? And the guns that we lent them?”
“The 17th Grenadier’s 25th Grenadier Regiment is basically gone, apart from the men who have made it past and are dug in around various points of the Ayvartan defense.”
“How many of our M3s did they take with them? Do you know?” Dreschner pressed.
“Several have been abandoned that could potentially be recovered and repaired after the fighting dies down; but right now there’s about 5 M3s operational in the battle.”
Dreschner shook his head. “That’s a far worse loss than I anticipated. We will have to beat some more discipline into the heads of these crews.” He crossed his arms, looking disgusted. “Abandoned vehicles! Take a little anti-tank fire and suddenly the world’s ending.”
Schicksal nodded wearily. Her eyes were starting to shut periodically. She felt the food and drink sitting like stones in her stomach. It made her heavy to herself, bloated and tired. She fidgeted with things, photographs, the markers, her own hair, for something to do to keep active and awake. She was surprised that she even remembered all the information that she had collected over the radio — and that she hadn’t fallen asleep back then. Before speaking she had to spend some time collecting her words, going over what to say.
“To complicate matters, our breakthroughs are not definitive. All of the parts of the Ayvartan line we have not broken through specifically are still shooting. It’s difficult for me to illustrate, but if I had to draw our penetration of the Ayvartan lines I would probably be drawing something like a radio frequency, more than a coherent front line. Some men are in the first line, some in the second, some in Shebelle. It’s gotten exceedingly messy.”
“Are any Ayvartan divisions breaking off from the city assault?” Dreschner asked.
Schicksal shook her head, more to clear it than to gesture. “Not that we’ve seen.”
Dreschner smiled and clapped his hands together once, threading his fingers together.
“Good! Then the infantry is doing its job. They have eight other Regiments to throw at the city, losing one isn’t a setback right now. Is Reiniger almost ready to break off?”
“Noel is requesting his presence in Benghu, but he has met unexpected defensive belts in seemingly random places between Shebelle and Benghu, and is being held up.”
“Impress upon him the need for haste.” Dreschner said. “He needs to break off from Shebelle and press the attack on Benghu before night, or we’ll lose initiative.”
“I will let him know sir.” Schicksal said. She was sure he knew well enough already.
“Now that Shebelle is engaged, the Ayvartans will hunker down in there to contain potential breakthroughs. They do not have the capability to handle multiple thrusts and form mobile defenses.” Dreschner said. He sounded almost triumphant now.
Schicksal would have told him not to speculate that much on any “capabilities” the Ayvartans might or might not have, but she was too tired to argue. She nodded.
“How are Noel and Spoor? Have they broken through to the train station yet?”
Dreschner seemed to jump from one thought to another very quickly. His mind must have been racing, performing whatever arcane mathematics Generals did in their heads.
Schicksal sighed audibly and rubbed her head again. “That part is complicated.”
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