Bare concrete ceilings arched across large but not vast spans. Cavernous halls, some with triple bunkbeds and some with boxes of stores, stretched away for several hundred meters. Naked bulbs hung on their wires, casting a harsh, uncompromising light on the bodies pressed together within. Occasionally sirens in other parts of the city would wail and the lights would go off, at these times, everyone would hush, as if the bombers flying overhead might hear their individual pleas or curses.
The atmosphere inside the building was close and subtly uncomfortable. The shelters had been built with a functioning Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning system, but it was geared for only an eighth of the people now in it and during the war, parts of it had been cannibalised for higher priority things like AFVs and Airframes. It struggled audibly and subjected the inmates to occasional wild variations in temperature and humidity; Not so bad that everyone inside felt as if they were being suffocated, but more as if there were not enough air circulating within for the number of people using it; Various groups were trying to work without being too disturbing to their neighbours, but this resulted in a constant ululating hum that added to the headache inducing atmosphere.
It was a vast improvement, nonetheless, on the chaos of the previous month. Bombarded urban areas had proved effective as temporary bunkers when immediately assaulted by the enemy, but protracted fighting amongst the smashed infrastructure meant that sub units might be sat over trapped gas pockets, an uncomfortable feeling when being mortared. Every scrape, hollow and foxhole was as likely to fill with furnace fuel oil or sewerage as it was with rainwater. And units could not effectively be supplied, controlled or extracted once the tenuous communication links were broken.
And the enemy had firepower to spare. Their apparently inexhaustible infantry (in both senses) were well supported by armour and field artillery. Their Heavy Artillery was never too far away and they appeared to enjoy complete air superiority. Deliberate assaults on defended positions might take out a tank or two and could catch their infantry in a crossfire or enfilade if preparation time allowed, but the enemy’s preparatory bombardment was always greater.
There seemed to be a constant close air patrol of fighter bombers or Vultures covering them, even when things seemed to be going well.
Eventually, hiding in the ruins of the small villages obliterated along their route of march was recognised as merely providing their medium bombers and heavy artillery with target practice. At the outset of the rainy season, defensive operations had switched to rural deployments. Shattered formations had precious little time to regroup before the enemy armoured recce and cavalry began fanning out and hunting them down.
Again, as soon as any contact was made, the invaders withdrew to a safe distance whilst their close air support engaged troops dug into hasty positions in soft earth. On rare occasions, a brave T-65 pilot would hedgehop into the forward area and pick off an enemy tank or two before the fighter bombers carelessly jettisoned their external stores in order to give chase. It was even rarer for the lone T-65 pilot to make it back. But this show of defiance was good for morale and showed that the invaders were not invulnerable.
Abandoning position after position meant that within two months the defenders had lost all of their heavy weapons, vehicles, support services and to-hand supplies. They were either living off the land or looting what was left in the shattered towns and villages. Generally speaking they were low on ammunition, their main weapon was now the booby trap or hasty minefield. Their formations and units were broken and scattered. However, the lack of cohesion meant that groups the invaders did catch were small and unable to reveal anything of use.
Eventually, the general order was given for all remaining formations to re-group for re-deployment to the Capital. As sub units met in the dark confusion reigned. The enemy was keen to disrupt any re-grouping and would drop commandos to attack the temporary camps in the dark; men would flail in the mud and loose weapons and ammunition; tents would collapse, everything sank into the mud. People close to the limits of their endurance would only move because others crashed into them.
The previous years of training of the regular cadres and the preparedness of the militia made a huge difference when it came to escaping the camps and marching, wading, through the night only to sink back into mud, sleeping wrapped in sodden tents when they were far enough away; but they had got away, even if they had lost everything. Not only weapons and ammunition, but all sorts of mundane but important equipment was lost between the urban warfare, the flight through the mud and the eventual re-deployment in Xyphonica.
Only the foresightedness of Planetary Command in pre-pacing hidden bomb proof shelters and arms caches (and other supply dumps) meant that the remaining defenders were still armed. Tired dirty men, some still with mud in their ears and noses, were re-armed before they were fed or allowed to rest.
The vast reinforced bunkers were originally intended to shelter the civilian population from air raids, but most civilians had fled the city. And besides, the enemy had amply demonstrated that this was a genocidal war – the distinction between combatant and non-combatant had long since lost any meaning.
At such strong points across the city, the defenders waited with increasing disquiet. The nightly air raids were smashing the infrastructure; water, power and heating were no longer to be taken for granted. In some places, it was only the foresight that re-laid the cities utilities as district cells that meant that those places had any services at all. After three years of war, the hospitals were all but out of drugs and other medical supplies. In some districts, there was no way through for vehicles due to collapsed buildings.
Fires, where they were, raged unchecked. Casualties were fortunate indeed to be taken to one of the non-functioning hospitals. The writing was quite obviously on the wall, if they did not get help from somewhere soon, the invaders would reduce the city and overrun the ruins.