The story segment contains scenes of violence and death.
25-AG-30 South District – Matumaini 1st, 6th Grenadier
Along Goa street Kern was haunted by the snapping sounds of distant rifles, and the occasional boom of heavy artillery. On Goa itself there was no war yet, only the appearance of one on the rubble-strewn street; but it could not have been said to be peaceful.
Kilometers away to the east the Cissean 2da Infanteria attacked along the riverside, on far cleaner terrain than the 6th Grenadiers – but also facing far stiffer resistance and a dreadful river crossing. Westward, the 1era Infanteria was fighting for the old cathedral and Penance road, on terrain that was comparatively open but blocked by a veritable fortress. Kern could hear the fighting, a far-away chaos rendered in choppy noises on and off again. It was a discordant prelude to a violence that could sweep him up at any second.
It bothered him most that the noise was far enough away to draw no violent physical reaction from him. He did not scream or fall aback with surprise. Anxiety built in his chest and tension roiled under his skin, but the environment offered him no release.
Facing the war would be better than this. At least there he wouldn’t feel so foolish.
It would be immediate.
First Sergeant Zimmer was still at his side, but now with his pistol in his hand. Kern did not know what it was for – there were least thirty men between themselves and the “front,” nebulous as it was. Zimmer was fixated on every suspicious surface that came into view. But after the eighth or ninth partial roof and rubble-choked frame, the 1st-Sgt. relaxed, and put on a big grin on his face, as though he had bested his enemy.
“Private, from what part of the fatherland do you hail?” He asked suddenly.
Kern avoided his eyes. “Oberon, sir, from the farmlands.”
“Ah, the breadbasket. Ever hunt, son?”
“No sir. My families were just farmers.”
Zimmer looked at him like he was preparing to spit in his face.
“Just farmers? You’ve no pride, boy. That’s your problem.” He said brusquely.
Kern felt as though he would have been criticized for anything he said.
“My family hunted in western Rhinea. Hunted tundra drakes.”
“Tundra drakes?” Kern asked.
1st-Sgt. Zimmer extended his pistol arm, looking through the sights.
“Large things. Scaly. Big bite. Remnants of old power. Long before you and I were here, they were the kings of that ice. It is said that once upon time they controlled the ice, shaping the blizzards. It is said that they still can. That is my people’s point of pride.”
He glared again at Kern. His contempt was obvious.
“Run out front. You’re joining the next assault. I want to see you fighting.”
Kern felt an icy grip around his heart.
Short of having a literal death warrant handed to him, he felt there could have been no greater sign of his worthlessness in the eyes of the first sergeant than to be thrown ahead. Certainly he would die; certainly Zimmer was saying nothing less than “go die, boy, go find a machine gun to shred you, go become meat on the pavement.”
He felt disposed of.
Why had been so keen to take him? Had he just been trying to kiss Aschekind’s ass then? Pulling away a nuisance to earn some mild esteem from the Captain?
The Captain didn’t even seem like the type of person who responded to that!
With the 1st-Sgt.’s eyes boring holes through him, Kern ran ahead in clumsy, jelly-legged strides, feeling a nervous tingling throughout his body, and heat up to his throat, nausea, a throbbing headache, as if he bore all the maladies of life at once.
He joined a group of men near the front of the advance.
None of them spoke to him and they did not speak to each other. Kern felt that he might have seen them standing around the last intersection, staring at the corpses.
He had been wrong. He took it back. Facing the war would not have been better.
He begged silently to whatever unseen force – please, not the war.
No matter how much he begged with his mind, his body was still moving forward, a step at a time, over the rubble-strewn across Goa Street. He had joined the war to escape a stagnant existence, to make something of himself other than the ceaseless struggle of Oberon’s fields in the wake of growing debt and alienation for the “breadbasket.”
Who cared for the wheat when you could live better working in an assembly line for the bread? He thought he was escaping stubborn old family to make himself. How on Aer did he wind up doing this? Rifle in hand, grenades in his belt, his bayonet glinting, and Captain Aschekind’s useless hand radio in his bag. He walked to death now.
Marching quietly, perhaps sharing the same thoughts that had stricken Kern, the Landsers crossed the block along Goa Street and then, as instructed, they turned back westwards through the connection to Matumaini street. Judging by their maps of the area, they would be right around the corner from their objective. Those among them who had been designated Jagers moved forward stealthily, and crawled atop and around the rubble, climbing surreptitiously into the buildings and ruins near the corner to Matumaini, and gathering what information they could from their position without being spotted.
More elements of the 6th Grenadier began to catch up to the lead elements.
Kern heard the noise of tank tracks behind them as their platoon of M3 Hunter Assault Guns approached. An unbroken line of men moved into connection to Matumaini. Squad Machine Gunners moved with their Norglers in hand and assistant gunners carrying extra ammunition; Snipers with panzerbuchse anti-tank rifles and scoped carbines kept watch; and large groups of common grenadiers carrying rifles and grenades made up the bulk.
Captain Aschekind appeared from among them, a head taller than any of the men.
He carried a monstrously large pistol. Kern had never seen anything like it before.
Around him was a squadron of soldiers with cross-shaped medals on their jackets – the 1st Squadron, who rode on Aschekind’s Squire Half-track. Would they be leading the march? Probably not. They were too valuable. Each of them was a decorated veteran.
The Captain’s arrival did little to change the situation at first. He simply stood sentinel.
Soon the scouts returned from around the corner with a report on the enemy’s positions.
Captain Aschekind then gathered the platoon commanders.
He conveyed to them the scout’s findings in his terse and spare style of speaking.
There were four machine guns up front, and more positions behind them in a second tier with anti-tank and minor artillery support. They were well dug-in, and they had to be engaged before any movement could be made. To charge the tanks in first would have exposed them to the communist’s anti-tank guns, so officers and armor held back.
For their first wave it would be only men, ordinary grenadiers with their rifles and grenades, ordered to move as fast as possible and as far as possible to engage the defenders. Supporting elements would follow once the battle was well underway.
Assault platoons began stacking around the corner, ready to charge into the fray.
Once everyone was organized, squadron by squadron the men began penetrating enemy territory by charging around the corner, across the streets, into whatever position they could find. Soon as boots touched rubble, gunfire erupted in response.
Battle was joined.
From the connection to Goa, Matumaini Street seemed endless, stretching hundreds of meters, probably six or seven hundred meters long in all. Though Matumaini was a much wider street than Goa, rubble occupied so much of the double-wide car lanes that a sure-footed step could only be taken into a ten meter wide path along the dead center of the road.
Assault Grenadiers ran for seconds along the road before meeting lead and fire.
Machine guns blared, and streams of their gunfire covered the street. Mortar shells fell over them fifteen to twenty a minute. Plumes of smoke rose along the street like wisps and ghosts freed by fire to rise to heaven, and angry red streaks of tracer gunfire ricocheted over the rubble. Volleys of battle rifle and machine gun bullets soared through the open air, and low shots chipped at the ruined ground in the wake of the desperately running men.
Landsers rushed forward one or two squadrons at a time. Kern ran out with the very first men of Zimmer’s platoon, challenging the communist’s furious defense. Projectiles streaked the air just behind him, rounds flying past his helmet. Two men just centimeters behind him were caught by a burst of gunfire and collapsed over the uneven ground.
Kern felt the heat of a mortar shell exploding a few meters from him, launching tiny, fast pieces of metal that grazed his shoulder and back, and triggering a great fear in him.
Suddenly he ran with abandon until his muscles were hot and sore.
In a panic Kern crossed the street and threw himself into a doorway choked with rubble. He hugged the rocks for dear life – there was barely enough room to hide his body, and he was squeezed against the ruin as though he would fall from a mountain if he took a step.
All he could do was peek out in fear every few moments, desperate for an opportunity.
6th Grenadier’s charge was gaining meters in fits and starts as men ducked gunfire and avoided explosions. Riflemen ran out from the cover of awkwardly jutting rock and dusty mounds of rubble sliding out from collapsed buildings, and they were gunned down in the open street, making it two or three meters perhaps from where they started.
In the wake of fresh deaths, and the attention of the enemy guns being elsewhere, more men dared to run. Many died in the attempt, but several lucky ones bounded ahead.
There was a chaos of movement on the street, and almost every squadron found it hard to keep fully together in the chaotic terrain and under the pressure of suppressing fire. Stung by shrapnel, deafened by blasts and shaken by a storm of lead, men ran to the first concealing object they could find, and when these crowded they had to find new places to hide. Meter by meter, rock by rock, they pushed the fighting closer to the communists.
Into alleyways men ran, and from them crossed the street found more cover. Several men climbed through windows into ruined husks, seizing a second’s respite in the cold gloomy ruins. Kern heard a man cry out in desperation, trapped in one such building.
Many men even lost the will to move entirely. They hid in the rock like Kern did.
Squadrons in good condition and within rifle range started to fight back.
Taking turns, each stationary squad leaned from cover and shot, half the assembled men attacking while the other half worked their bolts or reloaded to prepare for an attack. They aimed to stall for time, trying to startle the gunners or hurt auxiliaries, perhaps slow the guns enough for someone else to move. It was the start of something.
Behind them support squadrons began to commit to the fight.
Snipers fought through the smoke and fire and took aim at the communist line, threatening any centimeter of human flesh they could see. Ayvartan gunners started to drop once accurate fire flew in from across Matumaini, but this silenced the guns for only seconds. Soon another man or woman would take the weapon and death would resume.
Nochtish machine gunners tried to find heights from which to shoot down over the shields of the Ayvartan machine guns, but the footing was bad and the ruins unstable. It was on these last support units that the infantry’s tactics most strongly depended on, but the environment was uniquely hostile to them. They could find no place to brace their bipods, and many fired wildly from the hip, or with their guns laid over crumbling rock.
Sawing noises issued from the Norglers; long bursts hit sandbags and ballistic shields, forcing the communists to hide behind cover, preventing them from safely traversing their guns or spotting along the road and streets. Machine guns screamed blindly and recklessly from both ends of the street, landser and enemy taking turns hiding and shooting, and beneath the fire exchanged in their duel the riflemen continued to run and to die.
A gargantuan effort from the 6th Grenadier Division finally made it within 200 meters of the communist line – but it was only a smattering of random landsers hiding on both sides of the street that maintained this distance, their squadrons broken up and split up.
In reality much of Nocht’s power was still as far back as 400 meters from the enemy.
Close, but not close enough.
Over the course of the fighting the enemy showed several weaknesses to the grenadiers. Kern found the Ayvartan fire to be sporadic and sloppy all told: the machine guns seemed to concentrate terrifying volleys on the first flashing of movement, and more landsers managed to move from cover to cover than were killed on the street because of this.
They found that they were not fighting a wall of fire, but a whip, that cracked at the air and then retracted. Kern himself learned something of the timing, or at least, he hoped.
He took a deep breath and waited, pressed against the rubble.
When he felt the time was right Kern pushed himself off and hurtled out of cover.
Five or six other men ran with him from various positions along the road, each a few seconds off Kern’s timing. Some were running diagonal to him, others in parallel but from farther behind his position, fresh off the line. All of them ran amid brutal gunfire.
Ayvartan machine guns made a very deliberate, metallic crock-crock-crock sound during continuous fire; Norglers made a crack-thoom noise at the beginning of a volley and then a continuous, infernal sawing noise. With the Ayvartan guns Kern almost thought he could hear every bullet being fired from the gun thanks to its weary noises.
Once the volley commenced anew, Kern was in the middle of the street, and from the corner of his eyes he saw the split second flashes in the distance, and he saw the red trails of the tracers, and the sharp bursts of dust and chipped earth that followed in the wake of bullets striking earth around his feet, behind him, right in his shadow, right where he was.
He caught a glimpse of the streaks of red in the air around him, splashes of blood, and spurts of red mist as flesh was perforated by bullets. He kept his arms closed and his rifle against his chest, his head and shoulders bowed, and he ran with a controlled gait.
Through the open road and the leaden cloud he crossed, and threw himself behind a mound with three other men. They patted him on the shoulder and atop his helmet, and then steeled themselves ahead again. Two men rose from cover and fired, hitting nothing.
They hid again.
Now sixty meters from the communist line, none of them were willing to move further.
Kern checked his gun, found it fully loaded, and steeled himself to fight from cover.
On the street he saw five freshly killed men.
They had the timing wrong, perhaps by a few seconds.
Kern wished he could explain how he was alive still and those men were not.
He felt a man’s hand on his shoulder and turned his head. There was a scruffy-looking blonde man with a patchy beard and mustache, with his back to the building adjacent to their rubble, and his rifle pointing at the floor. He was lean but he looked tough.
“Corporal Voss,” he introduced himself, “I think you should stick with us.”
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere.” Kern said.
Voss smirked, and loaded a new stripper clip into his rifle. “Let’s give ’em a show!”
Voss and one of his men leaned out from cover, aimed quickly, and let off a shot; they hopped back in, and a hail of gunfire pounded the front of the mound. Kern and the second man took their turn, bullets still striking in and around their area. He fired a snap shot; it was as if he was aiming for the concept of a man, trying to predict where the owner of the flashes might be, where a head might rise over a sandbag. He did not know what he hit.
Two Norglers suddenly emptied out against the communist line and bought a few seconds of silence. A few men bolted from cover and made it across the street. From behind Kern a fifth man showed up at Voss’ spot, struggling to breathe, nursing a bleeding gash along the side of his belly. Kern handed the man a cloth from his own pouch.
“Thanks,” the man struggled to say, “Grazed me. Coulda took my guts off.”
Kern nodded, and he prepared to lean out and shoot again.
Enemy guns awakened almost the instant he leaned out, and he was forced to hide.
Gunfire flew past his position. He peered back down the street.
He found himself transfixed when ten or twenty meters behind and slowly approaching he saw the ridiculous figure of Captain Aschekind, holding a chunk of concrete to cover the length of his body, shrugging off the fire of the Ayvartan’s guns. It was as though he had ripped a pillar from a building and wielded it like a shield via a piece of bent rebar.
Kern and Voss and the other men watched, bewildered, as Aschekind returned fire with his pistol – a massive round ejected from the barrel, and an explosion larger than a standard grenade smote the Ayvartan’s sandbags, instantly quieting one of the big guns.
One slightly shaking hand holding his heavy shield, Aschekind used the other to reload. He popped open his gun, a flare gun design with a longer barrel and larger chamber, and from a belt he pushed in a new grenade using his thumb. He locked the barrel back into place with his forefinger, and inching forward he fired again. His projectile overflew the machine guns and exploded behind them, quieting a second gun with the fragmentation.
Kern found himself muttering, his lips quivering. “Is that a man walking or a monster?”
“Couldn’t be anything but both, I think.” Voss replied, similarly taken back.
As if in response, the Ayvartan second tier awakened, and an explosive shell flew out, shattering Aschekind’s concrete pillar – but the man quickly rolled out of the way and into safe cover from behind the crumbled chunks of cement. He disappeared into a nearby ruin. Moments later Kern heard a crackling sound coming from his bag, and he withdrew the radio that the Captain had handed him. He turned one of the knobs to clarify the signal.
Soon he heard Captain Aschekind’s voice. Despite everything he delivered his lines with his usual force. “All units currently on the street hold positions and provide support. I repeat, hold positions and provide support. Armor and artillery are mobile.”
Far behind Kern’s position tank engines started anew, and tracks started grinding.