This scene containes violence and death.
Adjar Occupation Zone — Ghede Riverside
Along the central curve of the Ghede the Nochtish forces rallied on their side of the water.
Even the most inattentive private could tell this push was going to the biggest yet. Every trench, every foxhole, was crammed to capacity with men side by side, back to back. Bandoliers of ammunition were passed around the lines, and every third man had a submachine gun, or an automatic, heavy gun like a Quengler or Norgler, instead of every eighth. Most telling was the wood behind them, thick with firepower. Howitzers, anti-tank, and mortars as much as could be mustered without thinning out the flanks. They had moved at night, and gone silent in the morning, waiting for their chance.
On Haus’ orders, the line had been pushed as close to the river as it could be. Men were dug-in a scant few meters from the cliffs and sand ramps that overlooked the water. Their artillery had never been closer behind them than today. At night, false bushes and green, moss-covered nets had been planted in several spots to create an even “treeline” that was only 10 meters behind the infantry line. Here rested their guns and mortars.
During Von Sturm’s attacks, the artillery was 500 meters behind the line.
Never had the 13th Panzer Division been this close to the inscrutable face of the central Ghede. This combat area had been abandoned quickly, due to the thick, tall trees on the opposite side of the river, a veritable wall that had kept the Ayvartans well defended.
Even now nobody could see the Ayvartans in the forest opposite their own.
While they searched silently for the enemy, the radio call came through.
It was not Fruehauf’s voice that hailed the men, but another woman.
“Take your lunch; our guests will be late.” said Cathrin Habich.
Along the line, the word passed.
Holding on to their rifles and machine guns, the men hunkered down and waited.
As Haus instructed, the battle would not begin in the center.
On the flanks, the message Cathrin delivered was different.
“Embark soon, the host is already eating.”
The Center would wait, but the Flanks would launch their attack.
Tanks roared to life and opened fire on the Ayvartan line in the eastern and western Ghede. Machine guns spat long bursts of tracers over the river. Men with shotguns and submachine guns and bayonets charged down the sand ramps and waded into the river to begin the bloody assault against the other side of the Ghede, dozens of meters away.
Again the crossfire that characterized the Ghede battles whipped up a frenzied light show. Red and green tracers crossed like swarms of glowing hornets over the river. Tank rounds exploded between the trees. Mortar rounds sailed over the forest’s peak.
For fifteen minutes the Center remained quiet.
Then the artillery sounded on the flanks.
Eastern batteries shot west, and western batteries shot east.
Every tube plotted its fire against the center.
Before the men dug into the center line, the treeline across the river exploded into fire and light. They quickly realized that there were far more than their own guns attacking the forest in front of them. Every tube along the Ghede was shooting to support them. Hundreds of shells crashed between the trees, raising hot orange pillars and choking black smoke. Branches went flying, fragments sliced through the foliage. Fires started.
From a trench, Lieutenant Aschekind rose, pistol in hand.
“Attack!” He called out, his voice booming across the battlefield.
As one the infantry rose up, a line of bodies several hundred meters long.
Norgler teams dropped on the edges of cliffs and emptied their belts across the river. Submachine gunners and bayonet-chargers rushed down the sand ramps and began to wade toward the other side of the central Ghede. Bleary-eyed, full of adrenaline, the men hurried across the 75 meters of relatively shallow river that separated them from the enemy bank. They focused on the smoke and the blasts. They held their breaths.
Atop the opposing embankment, machine gun barrels emerged from the brush, their operators hiding behind metal shielding and waiting to line up a good kill-zone.
As the flanks were pinned down, the Center began to war in earnest.
One foot forward, then the other.
Kern’s insides worked themselves raw, pumping and thrashing as he waded through the almost chest-deep water. Nothing he had done in this war made him feel more powerless and helpless than moving in water. Against the onrushing blue it took all of his strength to merely stand straight, and every step was a monumental effort.
Never had he struggled so bitterly to move so slowly.
Part of him did not want to move, knowing that beyond this river there were only more people that he would be called on to brutalize. Selene’s voice echoed in his head, and made his footsteps heavier. It was as if her hand was on his shoulder, pulling him back.
He shook his head, and he struggled, and he tried to muffle that sweet voice.
One foot forward, then the other.
His water-proof bandolier weighed heavily on him, and he held his rifle over his own head as he struggled forward, meter by terrible meter, so as not to drop his rifle into the water and render it useless as a shooting weapon. One foot forward, then the other. There was a clip loaded, but he knew he would not be able to shoot until he reached dry land. He felt he would be knocked down into the water if he tried to shoot it like this.
He needed to concentrate on moving forward.
As the battle intensified his window of opportunity grew narrower.
He knew that the artillery distraction was over and the enemy was rallying.
In less than an hour, the enemy could reinforce the center to drive them back.
Over his shoulder he glanced at the lines of norgler fire tearing into the wood from the ten meter high cliffs overlooking the sand ramp, and staring at the sky he saw the tell-tale lines of smoke from falling shells. Fire from batteries in the east and west crossed just over the central Ghede before falling over the Ayvartans in the wood. Gunfire and explosions flashed from seemingly every direction, lighting up the foamy waters.
Chunks of wood and stone flew overhead and into the river, debris from the blasts.
But the covering fire was beginning to slacken. And he could not respond except by putting a foot forward, and then the other, on the soft, slippery, sandy footholds below.
At his sides were almost fifty other men. Some had gotten ahead, taking heavy, long steps and deep, ragged breaths faster than any of their peers. Many had fallen behind, gasping, dragging their boots over the sand, some clinging to other men for support.
Seventy-five meters in total, and yet even thirty of them felt like a continental journey.
In some places, the cliffs were only 20 or 30 meters apart.
But nobody could make such a jump. So they crossed 75 meters of water instead.
Kern focused on the opposing side of the river. There was another steep, sandy incline, where the rocky river-side cliffs had eroded into a ramp that would lift them to the rest of the Ayvartan continent. He focused on the riverbank, on the bushes, on the trees.
He heard her voice. “You can stop.” But he couldn’t, he just couldn’t.
But he did stop, for a long second, peering over the water, over the sand.
He saw the glinting of the metal barrel in the bushes before its muzzle flashed.
In his mind he heard the invisible fingers pulling the trigger before the shot.
His instincts responded in time with the rhythmic cracking of the gun.
“MACHINE GUN!” Kern shouted as the Ayvartan Khroda opened fire.
A line of bullets cut past him across the river.
Flying lead bit into the river foam, like skipping stones across the surface, and the ripples turned red. Automatic gunfire sliced through three men huddling together for support just meters behind Kern, and they sank into the water screaming, and were dragged away. Helpless, the remaining men trudged faster. Kern grit his teeth and tried to force his stride, to hurry forward, but his legs felt raw the instant he exerted them.
Several rifles rose at his sides, and traded gunfire with the machine gun.
Rifle cartridges soared into the bushes and clanked off something hard.
Ponderously the barrel turned on its carriage.
Gunfire swept across the river wherever the gun faced.
Deliberately, like a fiery eye peering upon the damned, the machine gun turned, faced a man, killed him, and faced another. One man, two men, a group, the gun picked them all off, pushed them into the water, never again to be seen. Men huddled lower to the water, trying to continue to wade, but every gray shirt above the water was turning red.
Kern stopped when he saw the water around him rippling with bullets.
Instinctively he dropped beneath the surface.
His feet left the earth, and he floated.
Before he started to drift, he saw the bullets breaking the surface, like droplets of steel coming down from the sky. They would crash through the river and slow down enough to be briefly seen, in their dozens, in their hundreds, trailing bubbles as they dove through flesh as easily as water. He saw blood burst slowly from limbs and torsos without heads, dyeing the water crimson, and ghost-pale men then falling through the foam and drifting past him in mute agony or thrashing death. He could not count all of the fallen.
Twenty meters, just twenty meters from the opposing shore.
All around him men were dying just for those paltry twenty meters.
Kern’s helpless tears dissolved into the water around him.
Through the falling lead he swam forward with all his strength. One arm before the other, legs kicking, thrashing, inelegant. It was the same as the wading, but beneath the foam.
Down the river, his rifle floated away.
He could hardly see underwater. His eyes stung, his vision warped. He tried to count the steps in his mind, as if still walking, tying each swimming step to a meter. One, two, three; intermittently he saw more bullets, more simultaneous fire, definitely more machine guns. Were the Ayvartans fortifying the ramp? Was he swimming to death?
Five, six, seven, eight; he pushed aside the corpse of a man whose bandolier had hooked onto a log caught on rocks at the bottom of the river, and he disappeared downstream as Kern rushed past. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve; it was so close now!
As if tearing open a door Kern thrust with his arms and his legs, surging forward with all of his strength. He hit the sand roughly, and he felt the jagged rocks embedded in the soil striking every bit of him as he beached at the foot of the sand ramp. Gasping for air, face covered in sand and mud and eyes afire with tears and dirty water, he ripped open his bandolier, withdrew the pistol hidden with his rifle ammunition, and shot up the ramp.
His pistol rounds bounced uselessly off the gun shield hidden in the bush.
Enemy riflemen peered out of the bush and took hasty aim at him.
Kern wanted to shout; he had made it across! He was the first!
He rapped the trigger of his pistol, and heard the futile click, click, click.
Two shots from the rifles. Sand kicked up in his face.
Both men worked their bolts, gritting their teeth, shouting at the trees.
He had been missed then, but would not be missed again.
Crying, gritting his teeth, Kern hit the trigger on his pistol, over and over.
Click, click, click– boom.
The blaring retort of a tank gun silenced the machine gun and the rifles.
At the top of the ramp an explosion consumed the defending Ayvartans.
In an instant Kern’s enemy went silent behind the rapidly burning bushes.
Speechless, he turned his head over his shoulder.
Back on the Nochtish side of the river, atop the sand ramp, the Sentinel Foot’s smoking gun presided over the crossing of fifty new men. At the head of this new group was Lieutenant Aschekind, charging through the river like a boar, undeterred by the slippery ground and the current. In seemingly fewer strides than anyone he made it clean across, and took a knee beside Kern, looking up at the ramp with his pistol in hand.
“Can you stand?” He asked.
Kern wanted to shout at him that he couldn’t; that he shouldn’t. That they all needed to stop, to turn back, to cease this madness. That it was hurting them, killing them; hurting and killing this continent and its people. It was senseless, it would fix nothing, it would change nothing in the world for the good. Selene’s voice cursed and spat at him.
She told him that he could stop, that he could turn back, that he could change it.
That he could save himself, save others, save their souls, save this land.
Her voice shouted with all its force, bound up in his guilt and anxiety and pain.
But he couldn’t listen to it. Not while the bullets were still flying.
Lieutenant Aschekind offered his hand. Kern took it, and he did stand.
He was the first Nochtish man across the Ghede river.
Despite the tears in his eyes and the gaping wound in his heart, he could not stop.
He could turn not back across that bloody-red river anymore.
Kern reloaded his pistol, and followed Aschekind up the ramp. They took cover behind the remains of the Ayvartan gun in the smoking bush, and waited for backup.
There were forces far greater and stronger than he hurling him into this hell.
He wanted to think he was as helpless in the face of them as Selene before God.