This scene contains violence and death.
47th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari River Crossing
“Shit! Shit! Is that an eighty-five? Messiah defend; they’re pulling up an eighty-five!”
The arriving Ayvartan gun attacked them much sooner than anyone thought.
Several hundred meters ahead a pillar of fire rose from the back of an M4 tank, its engine compartment bursting open. Fire belched out of its open hatches, and the closed top hatch slammed up and flew into the air. Rainfall turned the flames into a cloud of grey smoke that obscured the wreck. Everyone inside was still surely cooked dead.
All of its platoon mates scattered at the sight, M4 and M5 tanks veering behind trees and rocks and into bushes. The 8th Panzer Division’s breakout was instantly blunted.
“We’ve got an eighty-five! Eighty-five, it’s almost two klicks ahead, Messiah defend!”
Ayvartan Goblin tanks could hardly scratch an M4 tank except at close ranges; but the Ayvartans were far from defenseless against tanks. Their Anti-Aircraft 85mm gun could destroy an M4 tank from the front at practically any range — and much to the misfortune of Kampfgruppe R, the Ayvartans pushing against the Sandari had brought just such a weapon to bear upon their defensive lines. Soon as it was deployed, it scored a kill.
Reiniger scowled, his own tank camouflaged inside a bush just off of the river’s edge.
“Repeat distance! Accurately this time!” Reiniger shouted into his microphone.
A second 85mm shell flew in between two positions, past the camp, and struck a thick old tree ten meters behind Reiniger’s tank. Reiniger heard the dispersion of debris against the back of his turret armor when the explosives in the AP-HE shell went off.
“Gun’s 1.7 kilometers away exactly!” one of Reiniger’s observers replied on the radio.
Reiniger grit his teeth and squeezed his hands against the hand-holds on his cupola.
The 8th Panzer Division’s beachhead across the western Sandari was barely reinforced, largely because there was nothing to reinforce it with. He had the manpower but he did not have the sandbags. He had no construction materials, in fact, and he hadn’t been able to get so much as a measly anti-tank gun across the river. His defensive line was a hundred men in groups of five or ten huddling in disordered foxhole trenches. All the artillery they had to count on were tanks hiding in bushes and behind rocks and trees.
Third shell; it went right through a bush, hit and exploded, lighting the vegetation on fire.
Moments later a tank frantically backed out of the bush, a sizable dent in its glacis plate. Judging by the fact that it was backing away, it must not have been severely damaged. A hit by an 85mm gun either killed an M4 or it didn’t, there was rarely anything between.
On the radio the commander of the miracle tank hyperventilated violently.
“Holy shit. Holy shit, Lieutenant; premature detonation; it– holy shit–”
Reiniger pressed on his microphone in a rage. “Shut up and get back you moron!”
As fast as the reverse gear allowed, the M4 sought another hiding spot. Backing away from the burning bush, veering to avoid the gun tracking, it slid sideways behind a nearby boulder. Only the top of the turret cupola was visible over the rock. In that position the M4 could not shoot back, only hide from fire. Reiniger grit his teeth.
“Not there! God damn it! Find a position you can fight from!” He shouted.
His own tank shook suddenly; fire flashed through the glass slits on his cupola.
Debris fell over Reiniger’s M4 as a shell hit a few meters in front of the bush.
Reiniger heard dozens of tiny clanks against the front of his turret.
“Mortars! We’ve got one-twenties deploying from the trucks!”
“Enemy riflemen moving up! Looks like a whole company, sir!”
All of Reiniger’s observers seemed to have bad news to report.
Reiniger dropped from his cupola, a small niche at the top of the turret where he could sit and look out of vision slits, as well as have quick access to the hatch. He took the gunner’s position, pushed the loader out of the way and looked down the gun sight. Unlike his vision slits, the gun sight had magnification. He spied the enemy position.
Kampfgruppe R’s portion of the Sandari battle meant holding on to a small strip of riverside land directly adjacent to a hidden pontoon bridge in a portion of the river about 3 meters deep and ten meters wide. Except for the edges of the river, delineated on both sides by meter-tall bumps of terrain, much of the ground was flat sandry brown intermittently covered in grass, sparse on vegetation, and dotted with boulders.
Several hundred meters ahead, Ayvartan trucks had arrived on one of the dirt roads from Shebelle. One of the trucks was a novel conversion — an anti-aircraft truck carrying an 85mm gun on its bed, mounted on a rotating plate. All of the other dozen trucks were loaded with men and women. Mortars deployed, the Ayvartans charged with rifles and bayonets, grouped in thick ranks as the shells began to fall over the Nochtish camp.
Norgler machine guns retaliated against the charging Ayvartans at first, claiming several victims at the start of the charge. Behind the infantry attack, rose the first mortar shells.
A dozen blasts pounded the foxholes, while 85mm shells ripped over them.
The Panzergrenadiers bowed their heads into their holes and the Ayvartans ran free.
Reiniger put the 85mm firmly in his cross-hairs. He held a breath; it felt like eternity.
Kunze had made this shot before. That rat bastard; he’d hit it from a world away.
That was what had made him. Other than that shot he had nothing going for him.
Reiniger could make this shot. He could make it right. Kunze had nothing but luck.
From behind him his nervous loader slid a shell into position.
“Firing HE!” Reiniger shouted, striking the gun’s footpad trigger.
His 50mm shell sailed out of the end of the cannon, hurtled toward the truck, and sailed on. Overflying the right side of the truck bed, it vanished from sight. Almost immediately the 85mm gun turned on its base. Smoke danced from the thick bushes around him; and the bright flash of his gun had given him away completely to the enemy.
At once Reiniger ordered his driver to pull back.
With a roar of the engine the M4 retreated sideways from the bush.
Turning a lever, Reiniger rotated the turret to match the tank’s movements.
He could make this shot; Kunze had made it, god damn it. He could make it too!
Beside him the loader stuck a fresh round into the breech.
There was a flash far across the way.
Reiniger smashed his face on the gun sight as the tank violently rattled.
A piece of metal from the side armor snapped; like a swarm of flying razors, screws and bits of flaked metal blew inward and up from the lower left. Reiniger heard a scream and a gurgling noise, and he felt something bite into his leg. Disoriented from hitting his head on the scope, Reiniger sat, doubled over, feeling nauseous and short of breath.
He turned his head and found his loader lying dead behind him. He had fallen from his seat and came to lie face down in front of the ammo rack. The M4 Sentinel’s turret was cramped enough, and the turret floor still intact enough, that his body had nowhere to fall. It was as if someone had just shoved him off his seat on the turret’s left side.
Most of the spall that had come flying had become embedded in him.
There were holes in the turret floor, and a deformity on the side of the turret ring.
His armor had been partially cratered from an angled 85mm impact.
The enemy shell didn’t explode as it should have — it was a dud.
Reiniger tried the turret lever. He pulled on it, heard a click and a cry.
It was stuck.
He shook his head and called out on his radio as if nothing had transpired.
“I want shells on that fucking eighty-five! Everyone shoot it now! I don’t care where–”
His engine cut.
He stopped breathing. He heard it sputter and turn quiet; felt the seat shake when the tank came to a sudden stop, its injured side still fully exposed to the enemy, stranded in the middle of the camp. Looking through his sight, his gun had been frozen just a few degrees off of a possible shot at the enemy. Meanwhile the enemy gun turned, slowly, cruelly. It was going to pick him off. None of his men seemed to heed his orders.
Reiniger crouched; through the screen on the lower turret ring he saw his driver slumped over the brake lever, a bright red splotch across the small of his back.
Breathing heavily again, he rose back to his gun and spied through the sights.
The 85mm gun settled, elevated slightly. He saw movement around it.
“All guns on the eighty-five! Right fucking now!” He shouted.
Nobody took a shot.
Reiniger’s heart seemed to stop. There was no sound in his tank.
From the sky came a loud buzzing.
Something dropped onto the Ayvartan truck and engulfed it in a column of flames.
Automatic fire flew from all sides as his tanks emerged, coaxial guns blazing.
Charging Ayvartans started dropping mid-run. Mortar fire abated completely.
Reiniger stood on the turret floor, climbed onto the flip-down seat for the Commander and stood up and out of his top hatch. Overhead a dozen Archer planes cut through sky, soaring past his sector. They were dropping bombs on targets of opportunity and swooping down with their machine guns at unseen lines of infantry several kilometers away from him. He saw smoke rising in the far-away distance, and the figures of the planes turning slowly into indistinct dots against the grey, pouring heavens overhead.
It finally happened: he got to see a plane take out the enemy. Front row seats too.
He lowered his gaze from the heavens, and found a hundred corpses stretched across the suddenly quiet kilometer stretch before him. Most were Ayvartans, killed in their charge. But many were his own men, blow up in their foxholes by vicious mortar fire.
On the road, a cloud of thick smoke covered the ruined Ayvartan truck and its artillery.
To think that everything could turn so dramatically in that one fiery instant.
It was too abrupt; it felt unreal, like a jerky old movie that was missing reels.
All Reiniger felt, watching this mess unfold, was frustration.
He picked his helmet off his head and threw it on the turret floor below him.
Climbing out his turret, he spotted the closest tank, charged at it, climbed again.
He threw open the hatch and seized the commander by his jacket.
“Why the fuck did you defy my orders soldier? Why was nobody shooting!”
His face was covered in sweat and rain, contorted with his rage, his eyes twitching.
Cowering, the tank commander replied, “We received no orders sir!”
Reiniger let him go — the man dropped clumsily off his seat and onto the turret floor.
That last 85mm impact must have damaged the radio system too.
He felt momentarily foolish.
“At ease.” He said half-heartedly. He dropped down from the tank and walked away.
Everything always had to be so difficult. Nothing could go as planned for him.
Nothing could be simple and correct, no matter how hard he tried.
Everything always spiraled out of his control. No matter how much he shouted, how much he thrashed and clawed and bit and fought; it always ended up going sideways. Cissea went sideways, Knyskna went sideways. Everything he tried ended in failure where others somehow found success. What was missing from him; what did they have?
Reiniger ambled around the Sandari camp as if in a stupor. He made it to one of the blasted foxholes and sat down quietly at the edge, staring down the flat horizon.
Schicksal would be mad at him for not reporting soon. Not that it mattered.
There was nothing important to report, because he had not made the shot.
Back then, back in Cissea, Kunze had made that shot. Everyone knew he had.
When you made a shot like that, you reported immediately. That was how you got ahead. There was no reason to report a kill you didn’t make. Let the airmen report that.
Kunze reported a shot, and his loader reported with him, and his tank commander backed him up. That was how he got ahead. He had something to report. Something went right.
Not because he was good; not because he had an advantage. He just somehow did it.
And it made no sense. It had never made sense. Reiniger wanted to scream for it.
Why was it Kunze, that time? Both times? Why had he been praised, given the spotlight, and elevated to lieutenant so quickly, so easily, as if by the hand of god himself; and then why had he been smashed to pieces by that very hand so shortly thereafter? Now they buried Kunze, now they remembered him. They couldn’t praise nor berate him anymore.
Reiniger had struggled, had thrashed his way from a car-driving private, a nobody, to tank loader, to tank gunner, to tank commander. To Lieutenant — to one of General Dreschner’s right-hand men. And before that: from the streets of Mutz, the cold, cracked concrete of the youth hostel, to the hard-top of the training camp as soon as he was of age, to the warm dirt, bright grass and the open sky of a Cissea at war with itself.
From the child so unwanted that he was outright abandoned at the steps; to the hated, hopeless teenager who fought with everyone on the street, because fuck them that’s why; to the boot camp fuckup, shouted at in the ears by the sergeant over and over.
Every step of the way he fought. Every step of the way he fell. His face tasted the mud and pavement, sometimes so intimately that they tasted of his blood. That was his life.
Reiniger made himself in the mud and the gore. He couldn’t ever seem to escape it.
Kunze had leaped clean over the whole process with one good shot.
He wasn’t even a reliable shot like Noel! He had never replicated the feat!
He had no fundamentals. Just one measly lucky shot, a few photo opportunities.
Why did the world pick that man over him?
How? How did that skittish slab of butter manage to rise so high?
And how did he fall so hard? How did he break upon the stone without standing again?
It confounded him; it vexed him. Because even after he vanished from the face of Aer, Reiniger still could not beat him. He would never exorcise the phantom of what Kunze was, what he represented. He still couldn’t overcome the clawing, the struggle, the bestial melee of his life. Nothing ever went right. He was not Dreschner or Noel; or Kunze.
He was the mud and the gore and the screaming and the fury. It was all he had.
There would never be a hand that would pick him up. He always had to fight for it.
It became so common now that Reiniger didn’t wait to fight. He just fought always.
He wasn’t irreverent. He was at war, with everyone, with himself. For everything.