Dust and rock exploded into the air as the mortar shell hit the small enclosure they had been using as cover from the ever-present chattering of the machine gun nests lined along the rooftops. Someone's hand was blown off and flew into another's face, making him scream in horror as he realized what had just happened. He stood up to get as far away from the offending limb as he could, but the men on the roofs were quick to notice, and his head was perforated by a dozen machine gun rounds, blowing it apart. His helmet fell to the ground, rolling away from the remaining men huddling together in the little enclosure.
The square had seemed an easy enough target, completely empty and devoid of any military equipment whatsoever, and their lieutenant had foolishly ordered the charge. The man now lay dead in front of the imposing marble building, the Justitarius, where free men went to be trialed, judged and executed. The Imperials had been waiting just for that to happen, and most of the platoon had been cut down immediately, and the small group of survivors had sprinted for the closest cover, a public urinal. Keeping up with the apparent trend of building everything out of concrete, the urinal had thick walls, thick enough to keep bullets and small grenades at bay, but if another shell hit them like that again…
Kyril shook his head to get his mind off the idea. He had men to keep alive. Despite being only a corporal, the men still trusted him to get them out of there – preferably in one piece -, and he was not going to let them down. He looked down at his rifle, which looked like a piece of melted and bent metal that was eating his arm, and reloaded it, feeding a large roll of rounds into the open maw of the chamber. He pulled back the reloading pin and heard a satisfying click. His men saw what he did and followed suit, which made him smile. He wiped the smile off again when he heard one of the wounded men screaming in pain as a medic tried to stop the bleeding stump where his leg had once been. He took a look at his soldiers and saw that of the original forty, only fifteen combat-worthy remained. The rest were either sprawled dead across the square, blown to about fifty pieces, dying or wounded. Most of the wounded were missing some kind of body part, be it an arm or a leg, and one of the men were about to lose his intestines on the ground as he struggled to keep them in.
Kyril gritted his teeth at the sight and swore personal revenge on each and every one of the Imperials on the rooftops. They were apparently trigger-happy and not hesitant to empty a whole barrel of ammunition on the tiniest movement anywhere, judging by the sound of frantic reloading and maniac laughter coming from one of the closest nests. They would go down first, he decided. Crouching and moving slowly to the very end of the concrete wall, he took off the small on his rifle that fed targeting information and visual uplink to a small screen mounted on his helmet right in front of his eye and carefully held it out a few inches from the wall.
None of the nests noticed this, apparently, and Kyril made a most likely woefully inaccurate mental map of the square and adjacent buildings that housed machine guns on their roofs. He rotated the camera until he got a view of the ones that were laughing, and grinned. He replaced the camera on the rifle and took a deep breath. He peeked out from the wall, aimed his rifle at the men in the nest, who had no time to notice they were being aimed at before Kyril opened fire, sending dozens if not hundreds of bullets in their direction. The heavy rounds, designed specifically to rip through the armour of a hover tank, which Kyril had loaded intentionally, ripped the nest – and men – apart in a shower of sparks, blood and body parts.
This caught the attention of the other nests, which began firing at Kyril's position, but it was already too late as he had pulled himself behind the wall. He could feel the vibration of the rounds tearing the wall apart. He grinned to his men and gave them a thumbs-up.
"That's how you take care of a nest," he said and laughed. The men joined him, although the sound of their mirth was unheard because of the five or six machine guns firing simultaneously. The barrage lasted for a full minute and a half before ceasing, during which Kyril once again peeked out, not being shot at this time, which proved his theory. The Imperials were more content to completely empty a barrel and completely obliterate the surrounding area and then make sure they had killed something than controlled bursts. This could work to their advantage. He counted the seconds of silence that passed before he heard the resounding click of a loading pin being pulled back on one of the large guns. He barely had time to go back behind the wall before another barrage opened up. The ammunition was completely emptied this time as well.
"Whoever's commanding them is an idiot," said one of the men, and Kyril couldn't agree more. All of the nests shot themselves dry right away, providing the rebels with a ten-second window to get away, and they weren't far from a bombed out building that would provide more than adequate shelter from the nests. Kyril realised something. No explosive shells were raining down upon them from the skies. But the mortars were shooting at something; he could hear the rhythmic thump-thump of the grenade launchers.
"Sounds like Sindermann's platoon is suffering too," said another of the men, who were close enough to hear the radio operator's backpack explode with the sound of screaming men and a firm voice that demanded backup at on the north-side of the Justitarius. Battles were raging all over the cities and the sound of them filled the night air, but it was still possible to make out the sound of chattering nests on the other side of the Justitarius.
"We need to hook up with them," said Kyril, "and the best way to do that is to go through the building." He pointed at the building, no more than twenty metres away, its entrance as inviting as a warm meal and clean water was to all of them at the time. Weeks of fighting in the city drained one's enthusiasm. "Who has got a smoke grenade?" he asked.
One of the men threw the cylinder at him, which he caught and studied in his hand. He read the printed instructions on the side, just to make sure that he was doing it right. He had never been one for the things anyway.
"Alright, I'll throw this grenade between here and the building. The nests will open fire and expend all their ammo, after which we will all run for it. Got it?"
Most of the men nodded, but the medic looked at him with a shocked expression. "What about the wounded?"
Kyril looked at the battered, bleeding and dismembered men lying as close to the cover of the wall as possible. He saw that at least half of them would die before they could get them to a field hospital, and the rest… He knelt down to one of them, pulled out his handgun and grasped the shaking man's fingers around the hilt. "Give 'em hell," he whispered into the man's ear. The man just nodded and gripped it tighter.
Kyril stood up and faced the medic. "Leave them. They'll be safe behind the wall and we can come back for them later." It was one of the hardest things he had ever had to say, and he hated himself for every word that left his mouth.
The medic seemed to understand, though, and nodded, asking for permission to pass out small doses of morphine syringes to the ones who were in great pain, which Kyril granted, though he wanted to conserve it in case they were ambushed again, but taking another look at the intestine-holding soldier quickly brought him about again. If anyone needed pain-relievers, it was he.
When the medic was done, he came up to Kyril and asked to stay behind with the wounded. Kyril denied, reasoning that they were probably going to need a medic further up judging by the urgency of Sindermann's screaming into the radio. If only he could get to that radio… He shook his head again. The most important thing was to get the remaining men out of there.
He made sure he had the attention of the men before pulling out the pin of the grenade.
"On my signal, run like hell for the building," he said before lobbing the smoke grenade out in the open. The nests opened fire, predictably, and kept doing so for well over a minute. Something was missing, thought Kyril, but he couldn't figure out exactly what it was. The firing ended, and he held his arm up high before pulling it down quickly, signalling the charge. He ran as fast as he could, the rest of the men hot on his tail, though he could hear them falling behind. He thought it odd since the distance was practically non-existent. He ducked inside the doorway, and by now he couldn't hear his men at all. He looked outside, staying well within cover. The men were looking something in the fog that the smoke grenade had produced. It rapidly grew out of steam, and the smoke cleared. His jaw dropped.
Unheard, three—no, four hover tanks had snuck up on them, hiding under the noise from the machine guns. The men were frozen in their steps, fearful of the large, floating battle-platforms. Their gigantic cannons slowly moved to settle on the group of still-standing soldiers, who were gaping just as much as Kyril. He could hear the rotating machine gun barrels on the tanks revving up as well as loud metallic "clonks" as the crew inside the tanks reloaded their main guns.
He tried to give the men some sort of motivator for running, but he realised it was too late by now. He spotted the medic, who turned his head to him and gave him a sad smile before turning his eyes back to his impending doom.
Kyril turned away before it happened. All he heard was the sound of explosions, machine guns and the screams of the dying.
Within thirty seconds, it was over, and Kyril looked out from the doorway again. There was nothing left that could be categorized as human remains. It was all a mashed-up pile of innards, arms, legs, heads…
He threw up right there and then, desperately trying to make himself as unseen and unheard as possible. He wiped his mouth when the heaving had stopped, and looked up. The tanks had moved and were now positioning themselves to repeat the process with the wounded. Kyril briefly wondered if he should run from cover, shouting and screaming, climb onto a tank, lob a grenade into its innards and jump before being shot to pieces by one of the others, but he decided that reporting to Sindermann that the charge was a failure was a better idea for the resistance as a whole. He couldn't help but feel something constricting his chest as he walked away while hearing thundering booms and anguished shrieks behind him. He felt something wet trail down his cheek and realised he was crying.
"I have failed them all," he kept repeating to himself as he walked around the streets, trying to get to the other side of the Justitarius. It wasn't even a strategically critical location, just a symbolic representation of the power of the Imperials, which the rebels thought would be fitting to capture in the name of the greater good for all of mankind.
Half an hour passed before he finally found some bodies of soldiers belonging to Sindermann's group. He saw that a trail had been left behind, both rebel and Imperial, as the stubborn captain kept pushing forwards. His platoon was larger than the one Kyril had been a part of, and more members were expendable, apparently. The sounds of war got louder and louder as he approached the battle zone. He spotted a large group of soldiers trading fire with a number of bunkers lining the backside of the Justitarious. He smiled, composed himself and moved towards them, keeping to cover when he could.
One of the soldiers, Sindermann himself, noticed Kyril and waved his arm downwards, shouting something that Kyril couldn't hear over the sounds of fighting. He could vaguely see his mouth, though, and Kyril could imagine it saying the words "Sniper, get down!" He realised it too late and felt a sharp pain in his left knee. He fell down, landing on the wounded knee, but staying somewhat upright. He tried to get and was on his right foot again when another round thudded into his chest. He once again tried to get up, but only got to his good knee this time, breathing becoming a very hard thing to do. He coughed up blood and looked at Sindermann, who was staring at him with sadness. The other soldiers had noticed him too, and a couple of them looked angry before firing at the bunkers again with renewed vigour, hatred fuelling their actions.
He gave the night sky a final look and closed his eyes.
He never felt the bullet that hit his forehead.