This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
28th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Shaila Dominance – South Knyskna, Outer Boroughs
Atop the M3 Hunter a squat, round protrusion easily mistaken for a headlight turned a glass eye on its surroundings. With the periscope the tank commander retained a broad field of vision obstructed only by the form of the tank around them – its height, its broadness, and any open hatches, against which a clever enemy could hide.
There was no such enemy in sight. Around Knyskna the fields were empty. Pillboxes had been abandoned. Trenches had long since been blasted out of existence. Scars cut into the ground by the artillery remained untouched. Kampfgruppe R was eerily alone, save for the smattering of their own recon men, armed escorts in half-track motorcycles.
Ayvartan cities did not have outer walls, at least insofar as the Heer or Army had seen. Ayvarta never went through a period of castling all of its major villages, like the Nochtish had in their antiquity. Ayvartan history had not been as openly barbarous.
Solstice was the one exception they knew, and its walls were prodigious.
But unlike Solstice, Knyskna rose starkly from the surrounding countryside. One step transitioned dirt to paved road, and open field to the first boroughs. There was no barrier. Knyskna was open for the taking. The panzers restarted their engines and advanced.
The M3s trundled forward from the field into the city over the sparse rubble that remained after the aerial bombardment, and past the ghostly defenses on the outskirts. A platoon of assault guns, five machines in all; they advanced in two columns of two tanks with a lead tank following in their wake. They were the first platoon of the southern salient to bite into the city. A platoon of M4s followed a thousand meters behind.
M3 Hunters were slow machines, and better armored, so they set the marching order.
Each platoon was accompanied by five half-tracked motorcycles each carrying three men, one a driver. South Knyskna had the broadest roads, supporting four wide lanes of traffic climbing almost imperceptibly uphill, and the men and tanks fit with room to spare.
Old buildings flanked the invaders on either side, most built of wafer-like brick but many of thick, hardy modern cement. While some had been bombed out and even smashed nearly flat, several blocks stood tall despite the bombing. The tight blocks were broken occasionally by tighter connecting roads and streets between buildings. Their smashed windows and doors were like black eyes, looming over the grenadiers and tankers.
Only heat and distance rendered the city’s heart hazy – the tanks would have otherwise had an unbroken sight-line across the main thoroughfare and right into the Communist base.
Engines burned and treads turned tirelessly. They advanced several careful kilometers into the city, kilometers that they had been warned would be hard-fought for.
The M3s and their motor escorts stopped almost halfway to the city center, and the M4s, having lagged to over a kilometer behind the advance also cut their engines. The platoons had achieved their afternoon objectives in record time, and there was a mood of jubilation among them. Atop the motorcycles the recon men cracked open their ration tins, and in the tanks men inadvisably lit cigarettes for one another and laughed.
The commies had given up!
The tank Sergeant of the assault gun platoon cracked a broad grin as he picked up his transmitter and radioed Lt. Reiniger, in charge of Kampfgruppe R. He gloated about the unfettered advance of his platoon, and about the craven cowardice of his foes.
“Well, shit. Keep advancing. Advance until you take the city or confront an enemy.”
Lt. Reiniger cut radio contact abruptly. His tank platoons sighed among themselves, having dreamt of a good smoke break in the ruins. They stowed their tins, stomped out their smoke-sticks, and took uncomfortable swigs of tepid beer to try to still their nerves. Once everyone was ready they started their engines and trundled forward anew.
Soon they spied the city center, almost clear through the light haze and distortions of the hot Ayvartan sun. It was still kilometers away but through the periscopes it seemed almost adjacent to them, at the end of the long, open southern thoroughfare.
Direct-fire range was 2000 meters, with a good sight-line.
They saw smoke rising in the distance – it was a train leaving the city.
“Shift gears and charge into gun range!” Radioed the tank sergeant to the platoon. “We’ve only a few kilometers to go! We will not let the enemy escape from here!”
Engines grunted under increased strain and treads turned ever faster as the tanks sped toward their optimal range. Periscopes raised, gunners already sighting, the M3s hurled themselves toward the enemy across the unbroken cement tiles of the Ayvartan roads.
The formation tightened and the half-tracked motorcycles sped ahead of the tanks, the men riding them raising their rifles to the second stories to watch for AT snipers.
Behind them the M4s hurried to cut their own distance to the vanguard.
As they moved the outer boroughs transitioned quickly to the inner city. Buildings gradually rose and broadened, taking on new faces – theaters and drug stores and goods shops and other necessities and pleasures proferred under the hydra-headed banner of the government, took the place of the old brick houses and lodges of the outer boroughs.
Around them the main road narrowed slightly but grew two pedestrian streets giving ample room to move. Sewer grates and manhole covers appeared across the slightly bulging stone tiles of the main road, under which the stone arches of the old sewer network easily supported the weight of the charging tanks.
Periscopes tightened their field of view and focused on the base ahead, zooming in across the thoroughfare. Nothing was coming their way.
Nothing impeded their advance.
Attached motorcycle troops kept their eyes peeled while traveling across the few broad intersections and past the alleys, but as a whole the buildings were more tightly packed and it seemed that opportunities for ambush had grown scarcer the further in they traveled.
“Do not slow! We can overtake them! Faster, drive right into the guts of the city!”
Heeding the tank sergeant all of the men pushed their vehicles to top gear.
Dozens of meters ahead of the tanks the two leading motorcycles buckled suddenly, tipping forward and back on a series of hereto unseen broken tiles.
They were given no chance to stabilize.
A blast from underneath consumed both the vehicles, tossing the front wheels and chains of track across the streets and scattering pieces of once whole men even farther.
Remaining motorcycles cut their engines in horror and skidded hard onto the adjacent streets, avoiding the craters beyond which more mines surely lay.
Vanguard tanks braked suddenly, stalling the advancing column amid the carnage.
Hatches went up, and the assault gun commanders peered out into the smoke and debris ahead of them with their own eyes, incredulous. They turned to the recon men left alive, shocked dumb on the streets, and shouted their commands over the sudden silence.
“Don’t just sit there, pull out a bangalore and clear the mines!”
Assault guns faced forward, guarding against targets along the road. M4 Sentinel tanks started to catch up to the vanguard and raised their barrels to cover the higher stories and the roofs. Several surviving recon soldiers linked up with the new arrivals guarding the M4s and together they began to assemble their bangalores, long tube charges that could potentially detonate the hidden minefield ahead in its entirety once installed.
Regardless of setbacks there were ten tanks and twenty men in the column, and despite the minefield, and the flesh of six soldiers splashed across the street, morale was still high. There were no side streets near them, and they had a clear view of the Communist base.
There was no enemy presence to meet them, only desperate defenses.
Soldiers laid the long bangalores down across the minefield and detonated the charges. In an instant fifteen meters length of the road ahead of them went up in feeble flames and smoke. The recon infantry carefully inspected ahead of where their bangalores had blown and found little to arouse suspicion. They waved their hands, and the engines all growled to life again. It was time to clear the final leg of their charge and engage the enemy base.
Hatches went down, cannons faced forward and treads methodically turned.
A periscope among the vanguard caught a glimpse of shock on a recon soldier’s face.
“Contact!” shouted the man, and he turned his rifle on an adjacent building.
His lips mouthed the beginnings of a new word but never spoke it.
His fellows turned but their rifles never found targets.
Not a second passed since the shout that the fizz of a charge, unheard beneath the engines, sparked a series of explosive bundles installed beneath the column.
Violent explosions ripped through the surface.
Underground, the archways toppled; the road collapsed into the sewer.
Through the smoke and fire the recon men and their motorcycles were consumed by the yawning earth, buried helplessly in the rock or blasted apart.
Vanguard tanks unlucky enough to have parked directly over an archway burst into flames, their turrets launching from their hulls from the force of the charges and flung against adjacent buildings like toys. Men trapped inside were butchered by spraying metal as their hatches blew in, their ammo cooked, and screws and instruments turned to shrapnel.
Slow M3 assault guns had no time and no possible reaction to the chaos unfolding, and when the ground beneath them ceased to be they crashed harshly atop heaps of rubble, falling over ten meters below. Treads and road wheels smashed apart and engine compartments burst open from the violence. Crews were battered dead or unconscious.
A pit thirty meters long and ten meters wide was all that remained after the carnage.
One M4 Sentinel found itself half without earth to stand on and before it could move far enough it tipped forward, falling gun-first into the pit – the remainder of its platoon were rewarded for their sluggish advance with their lives, but only for the moment.
Before the smoke could clear, anti-tank rifle shots plinked off the turret and glacis plates of the remaining tanks, alerting them to the presence of an engaging enemy. From four surrounding rooftops appeared small squadrons armed with BKV 14.5mm anti-tank rifles, shooting at the surviving tanks.
The doors to a theater up the street burst open and a crew pushed out a 45mm anti-tank gun, firing a shot over the pit that crashed into the mantlet armor of an M4 and left a sizable dent. Through their periscopes the shell-shocked tank crews watched Ayvartan men and women run out of buildings and huddle in the cover of a street corner a block ahead, with Rasha submachine guns and DNV light machine guns ready to fire on the glass of their ports and hatches. There were suddenly dozens of the enemy upon the Nocht tankers.
Overwhelmed by the events the tank crews shut themselves in their vehicles, closing every hatch, and did not hesitate to back up the street as fast as their treads could reverse.
Gunners loaded High-Explosive into the 50mm High-Velocity guns on the M4s and took running shots over the pit, smashing unoccupied sections of the street, taking out chunks of the theater facade but not the AT gun in front of it, and blasting windows and the corners of building roofs. There was little avail from their inaccurate moving fire.
Compared to the stronger 75mm guns on the lost M3s the M4’s explosive round had a limited area and a weaker punch on the surrounding buildings.
Fiercely the Communists returned every shot however they could, punching holes into the periscopes and headlights of the tanks, opening fire on the viewing ports and hatches to keep them pinned, and throwing shell after 45mm shell against the strong glacis plates of the M4s. Though they did not penetrate, each blast against the glacis that did not rebound entirely left dents and stressed the welding and rocked the tank, startling the crew; and though BKVs and DNVs could not penetrate the medium armor, they kept the tank blind.
Mere minutes trapped inside the rocking steel hulls and the crews had already become disoriented and lost, unable to count on anything but the gunnery port to track the enemy.
In a desperate measure the top hatches on several of the tanks opened once more, and commanders and radio personnel with submachine guns exposed themselves and returned fire. Shells and bullets ricocheting all around them on the tank’s armor, these impromptu gunners sprayed bullets haplessly on the rooftops and streets, hoping to suppress the enemy.
Communist troops saw bullets come flying their way. They huddled behind the edges of their roofs and the thick metal shields of their 45mm guns to avoid the automatic fire.
For a moment the inferno sputtered and gave the tanks their chance to pull away from the ambush. Frantically the surviving tank commanders of the four remaining M4s dove into their tanks and radioed Lt. Reiniger and General Dreschner, screaming that a trap had decimated the Kampfgruppe and that ground would have to be ceded to survive.